Category Archives: Criminal Justice

Police Brutality Killed Oscar Grant: Johannes Mehserle Should Have Been Guilty of Murder

By Kieran K. Meadows

Credit: Wikimedia Commons (via Flickr: NeitherFanboy)

Americans anxiously awaited a decision Thursday involving a young African American man. Some thought an entire community would erupt in riots based on the outcome. You might think I’m referring to star basketball player LeBron James choosing to “take his talents” to South Beach. I’m not.

While TV media hyped “The Decision” for hours and millions seemed more concerned about a rich guy’s job situation than they did about their own, another decision came down in a Los Angeles courtroom with far more serious implications.

I heard about the verdict and shook my head in disgust. A jury found an Oakland transit officer, Johannes Mehserle, guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the New Year’s Day 2009 shooting death of an unarmed black man, Oscar Grant III. I was relieved Mehserle was convicted at all, which is rare in fatal police shootings. In the cases of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell, remember, officers were acquitted of all charges.

However, Mehserle was acquitted of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. His sentence could see him serving less jail time than a non-violent drug offender.

How could Grant’s death not be murder? Videos show Mehserle shooting Grant in the back as he lay subdued and facedown on the ground. Mehserle claimed he meant to reach for his Taser and instead grabbed his gun. As an astute reader on MotherJones.com commented: The “argument boiled down to: ‘I was attempting to abuse a suspect already in safe custody but I was too incompetent to even do that right and killed him by accident.’ ”

If the jury believed Mehserle’s testimony, then a key follow-up was ignored: Was Mehserle justified in using his Taser, let alone any weapon? The Taser has been implicated in playing a role in suspects’ deaths. And there have been cases in which a gun wasn’t even involved—see Anthony Baez. Therefore the issue is not the gun; it’s police brutality. The choice to use excessive force murdered Oscar Grant. Johannes Mehserle made that choice.

So was Mehserle justified in using a Taser? Police had been investigating reports of fighting on the train and had gathered a handful of young men thought to be involved. Accounts differ on Grant’s actions: the police say he was resisting arrest; witnesses say he was attempting to diffuse the fight. What’s obvious is just before the shooting, Grant lay prone on the platform with another officer pinning him down.

Afterwards, the usual story played out: the authorities’ “official” account characterized the suspects as thugs. But in the YouTube era, almost everyone in that BART station had a cell phone camera. Multiple videos immediately surfaced. For me, the loud pop is the most chilling moment—out of proportion to what we’re seeing. After all, officers were responding to reports of a fistfight.

If Mehserle decided to use his Taser only because he saw Grant as a threat, simply because he was young and black, then on a different night in a different place, the victim could have been LeBron James, or any black male, or anyone, period. Until we confront police brutality—by punishing officers who murder unarmed citizens—we will continue to see the same pattern of abuse, no accountability, and tragic loss of life.

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The governor’s power to grant clemency

Under the New York State Constitution, the governor has the power to grant clemency to prisoners “upon such conditions and with such limitation, as he may think proper” (excluding for crimes of treason or impeachment). Most states in the U.S. give the extraordinary power of clemency to governors (or at least in some hybrid arrangement with a parole board). The issue is currently in the news because of the recent shooting deaths of four police officers in Washington State, allegedly by Maurice Clemmons, whose prison sentence in Arkansas was commuted in 2000 by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee. The speculation is that the willingness of Huckabee, who ran an upstart presidential campaign in 2008, to grant clemency may hurt his presidential ambitions in 2012. It is in this context that I noticed an excellent post on The New York Times’ City Room blog on this very issue. It begins:

This month Gov. David A. Paterson will be mulling the fate of roughly 150 inmates in New York prisons who have formally applied for clemency in the hope of having their prison sentences shortened or their criminal convictions forgiven.

It is a traditional — if increasingly rare — holiday gesture of mercy. Over three and a half decades the number of inmates who have had their sentences commuted or convictions pardoned has steadily dropped.

The post’s author, A.G. Sulzberger, goes on to say that unfortunately, many governors now weigh the political consequences of granting clemency, particularly if they are to soon to go before the electorate. Prison advocates like Robert Gangi, director of the Correctional Association of New York, fear that this year, Gov. Paterson, facing low poll numbers and the upcoming election, will grant clemency to few, if any, inmates.

Similarly, in 2006, when then-Gov. George E. Pataki was mulling over a 2008 presidential run, he declined to grant clemency to any inmates.

One wonders then, whether he would have been willing to commute the prison sentence of Elaine Bartlett in 2000 if he had faced an upcoming election (his next was in 2002) or considered vying for a spot on the Republican presidential ticket that year. I recently finished the book,“Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett,” which tells Bartlett’s story of serving a 20-to-life sentence for a first-time drug offense under the Rockefeller Drug Laws until Pataki commuted her sentence after 16 years. It was tough enough for Bartlett to receive clemency when Pataki did not face the circumstances described above, so I can only imagine if he had. She probably would have served at least another four years, when in truth, she should have been granted clemency after ten (half of the minimum of the sentence). But in 1995, Pataki had just been elected in the mold of a “law-and-order” Republican — surely not someone who was going to be granting clemency.

But after watching this clip of Pataki last week — considered a dark-horse for the 2012 Republican presidential nod — drawing a contrast between his record and that of Huckabee, I get the feeling that Elaine Bartlett was lucky to have received a commutation at all.

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NY high court rejects prison phone rate refund lawsuit

teljus_logo The New York State Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit last week brought by prisoners’ families seeking refunds for the exorbitant phone rates it cost them to speak to their loved ones behind bars. The class action suit, Walton v. NYSDOCS, was filed in 2004 by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of prisoners’ families and friends, who for years had paid inflated rates for collect calls due to the state’s monopoly contract with MCI/Verizon.

Lawyers for the families said that the excessively high rates amounted to an unfair and “unlawful tax” that resulted in millions of dollars being paid over a number of years. The prison telephone service contract stipulated that MCI pay the state 57.5 percent of the fees received from prisoners’ collect calls. Then MCI would be allowed to charge well over the market rate: a $3 connection surcharge and between 16 and 36 cents per minute. The rate of a collect call from a federal prison is 7 cents per minute. Most of New York’s calls are from prisons upstate to loved ones in New York City.

Mostly due to the long struggle waged by the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice, upon arrival to office in 2007, Gov. Eliot Spitzer halted the arrangement. Rates then fell to about half of what they had been. In June 2007, the state Legislature made Gov. Spitzer’s decision into a law, the Family Connections bill.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said that families were paying up to $300 or $400 per month to speak to their loved ones who were incarcerated. Since 1996, they said, the state had collected about $200 million in profits from kickbacks outlined in the phone service arrangement with MCI. The lawyers maintain that families are owed compensation for this unnecessary burden.

The high court’s 5-1 decision affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the families had failed to assert a legitimate claim under the the state Constitution. The court said the the policy was bad, but not unconstitutional.

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Inmates To Work For Nonprofits With Details To Be Worked Out In Assembly

By Kieran K. Meadows

State and local inmates will soon be able to work for nonprofit agencies again—and this time it will be legal.

New York voters approved a ballot proposition in the recent general election that allows prisoners to perform volunteer work for nonprofit organizations. The result now enables the state Assembly to begin drafting a law outlining guidelines on how the work would be done. The prisoner advocacy community is planning to make a concerted effort to influence the bill’s content.

Prisoners in New York have long worked on municipal jobs, such as being part of a crew that cleans up a state-run site like a park. The ballot measure’s passing, by 68 to 32 percent, clears up a legal question that had halted sheriff-sponsored programs that had brought inmates to work at charities, fairgrounds, cemeteries, churches, and other nonprofits.

“This just makes it possible once again,” said John Caher, spokesman for the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

The practice had been considered illegal due to a provision in the state Constitution that says no prisoner “shall be farmed out, contracted, given or sold to any person, firm, association or corporation.” The Constitution, however, does permit prisoners to work for public purposes on state projects.

According to Caher, the state Commission of Correction four years ago advised sheriffs to discontinue the practice of allowing inmates to work for nonprofits. Since then, the New York State Sheriffs’ Association has lobbied the Legislature to change correction law to allow the practice. However, because it was prohibited by the Constitution, passing a statute is insufficient—an amendment is required to make it legal.

In order to pass an amendment in New York, voters must approve a ballot proposition. To get on the ballot, the question must first pass the Assembly and Senate in two successive sessions—this question has overwhelmingly passed both houses twice.

The ballot measure’s passing now authorizes the state Legislature to write a law to amend the state Constitution.

“Now that this is legal we will defer to the Legislature and governor to determine whether such an initiative advances the public interest,” Caher.

Some in the prisoner advocacy community are looking to find out what the proposition’s approval will actually mean in practice for inmates.

“This thing caught us a little off guard,” said Dr. Divine Pryor, the director of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, the first and only policy and academic research center developed and staffed by formerly incarcerated individuals. “There are many incarceration issues and due to our limited capacity here, we were probably focusing on another priority.”

Now, Pryor said, “the Center is committed to providing legislators the most current and precise information on issues that affect urban communities like the proposition does.”

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NYCLU files lawsuit seeking access to info about police shootings

The New York Civil Liberties Union sued the NYPD last week to obtain more information and facts about police shootings. The organization is seeking access to two internal police reports: one prepared immediately after a shooting of a civilian, and the other, a more detailed report completed within a few months of the incident.

The NYCLU has filed multiple Freedom of Information Law requests over the last three years—since police shot and killed an unarmed Sean Bell in Queens in November 2006—seeking annual statistical reports about shootings since 1996, as well as data on the race of the victim. The police department produced the reports, but stopped releasing information about race after the 1998 report, at about the time officers shot and killed an unarmed Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in February 1999. Nearly nine out of ten shooting victims in 1996 and 1997 were black or Latino.

Also last week, The New York Times reported that the NYPD released a report showing police officers fired their guns about 16 percent less last year than the previous year. The police report also said that 97 percent of the shooting victims in 2008 were black or Latino.

Despite the year-to-year drop in police gunfire, over the weekend, three officers fatally shot a teenager in Queens 11 times. Police said they spotted 18-year-old Dashawn Vasconcellos and two others leave a city park after hours and a chase ensued. The officers fired 14 rounds after they said Vasconcellos pointed a 9mm semiautomatic pistol at them.

Meanwhile, the NYCLU also says that the NYPD is on track to stop a record number of New Yorkers this year, according to new stop-and-frisk data. The organization says if the current pace continues, 535,000 innocent New Yorkers will have been stopped and interrogated by police by the year’s end.

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Documentary film about lawyer William Kunstler opens in New York

KUNSTLER_Emily_Sarah_2008_Disturbingtheuniverse_0_posterThis weekend, the documentary film, “Disturbing the Universe,” about self-described radical lawyer William Kunstler, has its New York City premiere at Cinema Village. The film, directed and produced by two of his daughters, Emily and Sarah, for their production company, Off Center Media (which produces documentaries exposing injustice in the criminal justice system), takes a personal look at a man who was known for representing often controversial defendants from the Civil Rights era until his death in 1995. The film was an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’ve seen some excerpts in an interview with Emily and Sarah Kunstler on Democracy Now!. One of the defendants that Bill Kunstler represented was one of the alleged teenage suspects in the Central Park Jogger case from 1989. Yusef Salaam (who is interviewed in the film) was convicted and spent more than five years in prison for a crime he did not commit (he was exonerated in 2002 when the actual attacker confessed and matched a DNA sample).

The Central Park Jogger case was infamous in 1989 and shock and outrage followed the arrests of the teens. Headlines referred to them as a “wolfpack.” As the teens were convicted in the court of public opinion, Kunstler decided to take the case, as he had taken many others in the past. Unfortunately, he passed away before he could see Salaam be exonerated.

Yesterday, news came from the Justice Department that a number of the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, will be brought to New York to face trial in a civilian court. This news has caused the same, if not more, hyperbolic reaction that the Central Park Jogger case did 20 years ago. So I wonder if Bill Kunstler, if he were still alive today, would have represented Mohammed, the self-proclaimed terrorist and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. I think, considering he represented the so-called Blind Sheikh for his role in the 1993 bombings of the World Trade Center, that Kunstler would. But maybe not. Speaking in 1970 on why he didn’t represent right-wing groups, he said, “I only defend those whose goals I share. I’m not a lawyer for hire. I only defend those I love.” It is true though, that in later years, he would take on cases when he felt a defendant was convicted before the case reached the courtroom. Clearly then, he was a principled advocate who believed in the rule of law, the legal justice system, and the rights of all, no matter how controversial, despised or hated.

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Police panel to look through lawsuits for bad apples in blue

The New York City Police Department has put together a review panel to look through civil lawsuits that allege police misconduct in order to find out if cops are committing perjury, or are involved in corruption or other wrongdoing. This, all according to the Daily News.

According to the report, in fiscal year 2008, the city paid out $103 million to settle lawsuits against the NYPD. This figure includes $35 million to settle lawsuits that specifically alleged misconduct.

Apparently this panel will increase accountability among the ranks; under the old system, if an individual sued for false arrest, and it comes out in the lawsuit that the officer had lied under oath, the police department might never find out. The city’s Law Department handles settling suits — which sometimes saves the city money by not going to trial — and the NYPD is not involved. Now, with the creation of this police panel, that will change.

But some civil liberties advocates say that this move doesn’t go far enough. In the article, Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the NYCLU, says that the panel will not being looking at “nuisance” cases — those suits that are settled for small amounts, usually $10,000 or $20,000 — and that this will undermine the whole effort by the department to root out the bad apples in blue.

It’s interesting that this news is becoming public just days after the re-election of Mayor Mike Bloomberg to the third term. The police union endorsed Bloomberg this year — and the kind of review committee talked about here is not something the union would likely favor.

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