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TN court rules that prosecutor unconstitutionally excluded a black woman from jury

District Attorney General Robert Carter

TN court rules that prosecutor unconstitutionally excluded a black woman from jury

The Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee ruled recently that District Attorney General Robert Carter’s office improperly use a peremptory challenge during jury selection to prevent a black woman from serving on a jury. As a result, the court threw out Collins’ conviction and sentence.

In 2013, a Drug Task Force in Tennessee’s 17th Judicial District arrested Tommy Lee Collins, Jr. Collins was charged with unlawful firearm possession, evading arrest, reckless endangerment, and possession of marijuana with intent to sell.

During jury selection, the prosecution used one of its peremptory strikes to dismiss “Juror S.” — the only African-American member of the entire jury venire. In response, defense counsel raised a Batson challenge, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision that holds that the Equal Protection Clause prohibits the prosecution from excluding potential jurors based solely upon race. The prosecution sought to justify its decision by claiming its decision was “race-neutral” in that Juror S. said she had “a family problem with drugs. That could be people that have used drugs; that could be people in the distribution of drugs.” Over the defense lawyer’s objection, which included the fact that the prosecutor had not similarly removed any other prospective juror — all of whom were white — who also had a “relative or somebody that has had a drug problem,” the trial judge accepted the prosecution’s assertion.

Collins, who is black, was ultimately convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to eight years in prison.

On direct appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee reversed Collins’ conviction. Rejecting the prosecutor’s explanation, the court wrote: “In any event, the record reflects that the prosecutor excused the only prospective African-American juror, that the trial court asked for a race-neutral explanation, and that the prosecutor did not dispute the allegation that he did not challenge other jurors for the reason he challenged Juror S. The prosecutor’s explanation for challenging Juror S. was not consistent with his treatment of other similarly situated jurors.”

Because improperly excluding a single juror is grounds for reversal, Collins’ case now returns to Bedford County Circuit Court, where he faces a potential retrial.

Particularly notable about the court’s ruling is that it is believed to be the first criminal case reversed by a Tennessee appellate court because of racial discrimination in jury selection.

Why is the Bronx District Attorney holding Pedro Hernandez at Rikers Island?

Why is the Bronx District Attorney holding Pedro Hernandez at Rikers Island?

Pedro Hernandez, an 18-year-old man man from the Bronx, has been locked up on Rikers Island waiting for trial for almost two years. He has no prior criminal convictions and is fighting two cases, a 2015 shooting and an unrelated robbery, both of which appear to rest on flimsy evidence. Because his family has not been able to pay the $250,000 bail, Hernandez has been forced to wait for trial at the notorious jail facility. His mother, Jessica Perez, has set-up a crowd-funding account in hopes of raising the money he will need for bail. She has raised $87,000 so far.

The case is an important test for Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, who has mostly avoided the spotlight since controversially taking office in 2016. Clark became District Attorney after her predecessor took a judgeship too late to hold a primary in 2015. The Bronx Democratic Party selected her as a candidate, and she has yet to face a full election by her constituents. So far Clark’s role in the case has largely flown under the radar. Hernandez has turned down plea offers from Clark’s office that would allow him to go home with no further jail or prison time because he remains adamant about proving his innocence.

“Pedro has chosen to stay locked up in order to demonstrate his innocence. He understands that ‘every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggles.” Perez says.

There are direct similarities between Hernandez’s case and Kalief Browder’s, a teenager who spent three years at Rikers Island, two of them in solitary confinement, who turned out to be innocent. Within months of his release, Browder committed suicide. Clark, who was then a trial court judge, presidedover a handful of Kalief’s court dates.

Manuel Gomez, a private investigator who has been working on the case on behalf of the family, says he has video of Hernandez in the hallway of his mother’s house at the time of the shooting. Several eye-witnesses, including the shooting victim, have said that Hernandez was not involved. What’s more, Gomez says he has spent the past seven months trying to get additional evidence to Clark, but her office has yet to return her call.

“There was no robbery and we have eight witnesses who say he wasn’t there at the shooting, including the victim. But no matter how much evidence I have, [Clark] won’t give me the time of day,” Gomez said.

Instead, Gomez suggests that the District Attorney’s office is continuing to prosecute Hernandez, despite overwhelming evidence of innocence, because they are backing up a crooked cop. Both cases involve the same NYPD police officers from the 42nd precinct in the Bronx, and the same Assistant District Attorney, David Slott, who works under Clark.

The officer, Detective David Terrell, has become notorious for harassing and brutalizing teenagers in the Bronx, and recently lost his gun and badge after being suspended for domestic violence. He has been accused of false arrest in twelve different lawsuits. At least one of the witnesses in Hernandez’s case told reporters that he was beaten by Terrell.

Hernandez has been arrested six other times by Terrell and his colleagues from the 42nd precinct. Each of those cases have been dismissed, Gomez said, but he has paid a price. In one of those cases, he was detained in a court-ordered juvenile facility, where he was beaten by counselors.

The District Attorney has an obligation to ensure that innocent people aren’t dragged through the system. And every arrest brought in by an officer like Terrell should be highly scrutinized, or even automatically dismissed. With eight eye-witnesses, including the victim, backing Hernandez’s innocence, this case, so far, seems to at least suggest reasonable doubt. Having already offered a non-jail plea deal months ago, Clark could have argued to the judge for his release or at least to have the bail reduced to $0. What is the purpose of keeping him in jail any longer at that point except leverage?

At this point, Clark’s office should have stepped up to address this injustice. And while Clark, as the head of the office, can’t be expected to look at every single case, this one is high profile enough that it would make sense that she’s been briefed. Yet, so far, her office has done nothing. Calls to the District Attorney’s office were not returned.

Even if Hernandez is acquitted at trial, significant damage has been done. His mother recently told NBC that he has been “mentally devastated” by the whole process. Should the District Attorney’s office be held accountable for the devastation that it brings to individuals and families who get caught up in the system? What does the public owe Hernandez? What does justice demand?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

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Gaston County D.A. accused of withholding evidence in murder case

Gaston County D.A. accused of withholding evidence in murder case

Defense lawyers are asking a judge in North Carolina to hold Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell in contempt over allegations that he has failed to release files relevant to the investigation and prosecution of Mark Carver.

Carver was convicted of strangling University of North Carolina student Irina Yarmolenko in 2011 and sentenced to life without parole. A six-part series in April 2017 by The Charlotte Observer surfaced significant questions about Carver’s guilt.

Attorneys for Carver maintain that he is innocent. Bell’s office steadfastly disagrees.

Chris Mumma of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, who represents Carver, claims Bell has ignored a court order directing his office to turn over law enforcement and prosecutorial files.

After complaints were made by Carver’s team during an April 2017 hearing, Superior Court Judge David Lee ordered both sides in May to share their files with one another. In her recent motion to have Bell held in contempt, Mumma claims Bell failed to do so. Bell told the Gaston Gazette that all the documents were sitting in his office and that Mumma simply had to come and pick them up. The motion for contempt remains pending.

Yarmolenko was found dead next to her car in May 2008. Carver and his cousin, Neal Cassada, Jr, had been fishing on the day that Yarmolenko’s body was found near the Catawba River.

Carver has repeatedly denied having anything to do with Yarmolenko’s death. Cassada was also charged with murder but died the day before his trial was scheduled to start.

Mumma claims that Carver’s trial attorneys were incompetent in their defense of him, and law enforcement and the state crime lab mishandled and misrepresented evidence. Mumma also claims that the key piece of evidence — “touch DNA” discovered in cells found on three places around Yarmolenko’s car — is most likely tainted and would not withstand more advanced testing.

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