Friday, August 23, 2019

Texas executes man for 1998 rape and murder of college student

The 12th Execution of 2019
Larry Ray Swearingen was executed at 6:47 p.m. on August 21, 2019  in Texas for the death of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter, reported CNN.
"Lord forgive them. They don't know what they are doing," he said in his last words.
Swearingen was sentenced to death in July 2000 for Trotter's abduction, rape and murder.
The Montgomery College student was last seen alive on December 8, 1998. Her body was found in the Sam Houston National Forest on January 2, 1999, with a torn pair of pantyhose tied around her neck.
Swearingen repeatedly challenged his conviction and sentence over the years, and his execution was postponed five times. Over the years, he argued that the case against him was built on circumstantial evidence and questionable forensics.
Prosecutors contended that Swearingen killed Trotter after she rejected his sexual advances. Witnesses testified they saw Trotter leave campus with Swearingen on December 8, according to court documents. The state also pointed to the fact that Swearingen's wife found a lighter and a pack of cigarettes matching Trotter's preferred brand in the couple's trailer, although they did not smoke, and a detective found a pair of pantyhose in the trash outside the trailer with one leg missing.
In a prepared statement his lawyer released after his death, Swearingen said he had proved his "innocence beyond any shadow of doubt," although it was not enough to stop his execution.
"Today the State of Texas murdered an innocent man. Sadly, so many people have suffered from all this. Melissa's family and friends were denied the opportunity for closure. My family was torn apart," the statement said.
"I want everyone to know I'm not angry about my execution. Sure I would've liked to live and go free. But I feel certain that my death can be a catalyst to change the insane legal system of Texas which could allow this to happen. I am now one of God's sacrificial lambs, and hopefully people will use my example to help keep others from experiencing this dreadful and wrongful persecution."
The week before his execution, Swearingen requested another stay based on two claims, according to court documents.
He argued that the state allowed "false and misleading" trial testimony regarding blood flecks found under Trotter's fingernails. He also claimed the state knew that a criminologist had "manufactured" evidence that the torn pantyhose used to strangle Trotter matched pantyhose found at Swearingen's house.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals denied his request on August 16, saying the evidence he presented to support his claims was not strong enough to have made a difference to the outcome of his trial.
On Wednesday night, the Supreme Court turned down Swearingen's final appeal.
Swearingen nevertheless continued to maintain his innocence in an interview with the Houston Chronicle published Wednesday, and questioned if his scheduled execution would come to pass.
But the slain teen's mother told the Chronicle she is still convinced of his guilt.
"The overwhelming evidence is not just a coincidence," Sandy Trotter said. "There was a trial; he was found guilty, and they agreed on a sentence."
To read more CLICK HERE

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Stevenson: Slavery gave America a fear of black people

An essay by Bryan Stevenson for the 1619 Project, New York Times Magazine:
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration of any nation on Earth: We represent 4 percent of the planet’s population but 22 percent of its imprisoned. In the early 1970s, our prisons held fewer than 300,000 people; since then, that number has grown to more than 2.2 million, with 4.5 million more on probation or parole. Because of mandatory sentencing and “three strikes” laws, I’ve found myself representing clients sentenced to life without parole for stealing a bicycle or for simple possession of marijuana. And central to understanding this practice of mass incarceration and excessive punishment is the legacy of slavery.
It took only a few decades after the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia before white settlers demanded a new world defined by racial caste. The 1664 General Assembly of Maryland decreed that all Negroes within the province “shall serve durante vita,” hard labor for life. This enslavement would be sustained by the threat of brutal punishment. By 1729, Maryland law authorized punishments of enslaved people including “to have the right hand cut off ... the head severed from the body, the body divided into four quarters, and head and quarters set up in the most public places of the county.”
Soon American slavery matured into a perverse regime that denied the humanity of black people while still criminalizing their actions. As the Supreme Court of Alabama explained in 1861, enslaved black people were “capable of committing crimes,” and in that capacity were “regarded as persons” — but in most every other sense they were “incapable of performing civil acts” and considered “things, not persons.”
The 13th Amendment is credited with ending slavery, but it stopped short of that: It made an exception for those convicted of crimes. After emancipation, black people, once seen as less than fully human “slaves,” were seen as less than fully human “criminals.” The provisional governor of South Carolina declared in 1865 that they had to be “restrained from theft, idleness, vagrancy and crime.” Laws governing slavery were replaced with Black Codes governing free black people — making the criminal-justice system central to new strategies of racial control.
These strategies intensified whenever black people asserted their independence or achieved any measure of success. During Reconstruction, the emergence of black elected officials and entrepreneurs was countered by convict leasing, a scheme in which white policymakers invented offenses used to target black people: vagrancy, loitering, being a group of black people out after dark, seeking employment without a note from a former enslaver. The imprisoned were then “leased” to businesses and farms, where they labored under brutal conditions. An 1887 report in Mississippi found that six months after 204 prisoners were leased to a white man named McDonald, dozens were dead or dying, the prison hospital filled with men whose bodies bore “marks of the most inhuman and brutal treatment ... so poor and emaciated that their bones almost come through the skin.”
Anything that challenged the racial hierarchy could be seen as a crime, punished either by the law or by the lynchings that stretched from Mississippi to Minnesota. In 1916, Anthony Crawford was lynched in South Carolina for being successful enough to refuse a low price for his cotton. In 1933, Elizabeth Lawrence was lynched near Birmingham for daring to chastise white children who were throwing rocks at her.
It’s not just that this history fostered a view of black people as presumptively criminal. It also cultivated a tolerance for employing any level of brutality in response. In 1904, in Mississippi, a black man was accused of shooting a white landowner who had attacked him. A white mob captured him and the woman with him, cut off their ears and fingers, drilled corkscrews into their flesh and then burned them alive — while hundreds of white spectators enjoyed deviled eggs and lemonade. The landowner’s brother, Woods Eastland, presided over the violence; he was later elected district attorney of Scott County, Miss., a position that allowed his son James Eastland, an avowed white supremacist, to serve six terms as a United States senator, becoming president pro tempore from 1972 to 1978.
To read more CLICK HERE


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Democrat senators go after SCOTUS in amicus brief

It is rare that an amicus brief filed in a Supreme Court case is characterized as both a brassy reality check and unprecedented political bullying, reports the Washington Post
But such is the controversy that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and four other Democratic senators have ignited with a filing that instructs the Supreme Court to either drop a New York gun case it has accepted for the coming term or face a public reckoning.
 “The Supreme Court is not well. And the people know it,” writes Whitehouse, who is listed as the attorney of record on the friend-of-the-court brief. “Perhaps the Court can heal itself before the public demands it be ‘restructured in order to reduce the influence of politics.’ ” The phrase is from a poll question with which a majority of Americans agreed.
Democratic Sens. Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) joined the incendiary brief, which questions whether the court’s conservative majority — nominated by three Republican presidents — is motivated by partisan intent and is in the pocket of the National Rifle Association and the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.
“Out in the real world, Americans are murdered each day with firearms in classrooms or movie theaters or churches or city streets, and a generation of preschoolers is being trained in active-shooter survival drills,” Whitehouse writes. “In the cloistered confines of this Court, and notwithstanding the public imperatives of these massacres, the NRA and its allies brashly presume, in word and deed, that they have a friendly audience for their ‘project.’ ”
The brief has lit up the right. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) called it an extraordinary threat from one branch of government to another and tweeted: “Packing the Supreme Court . . . Bad idea. Liberal dream. Trump’s 3rd term is looking better and better.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial board dubbed it the opposite of an amicus filing — an “enemy-of-the-court brief” — and the National Review’s David French called it “astonishing.”
“It is easily the most malicious Supreme Court brief I’ve ever seen,” he wrote. “And it comes not from an angry or unhinged private citizen, but from five Democratic members of the United States Senate.”
In an interview, Whitehouse was unapologetic, saying he was cautioning the court, not threatening it.
“In the same way that you might warn somebody walking out on thin ice — ‘Hey, the ice is thin out there, you want to be careful, maybe you want to come in’ — I think that was the motivation for filing this brief,” said the former U.S. attorney and state attorney general.
“To warn the court that it already has its reputation in some degree of trouble . . . it’s getting to the danger that they might fall through the ice.”
The Supreme Court in January said it would hear New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. City of New York, a case involving some unique-to-New-York restrictions on how gun owners with permits may transport their weapons. The rules were so strict that they forbade taking an unloaded weapon to a firing range outside the city or to a permit-holder’s second home within the state.
It is the first Second Amendment case the court has accepted in a decade, and it came after the NRA-endorsed Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh replaced the more moderate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy on the closely divided court. Gun-control advocates worried that the case would provide a chance for the new majority to establish a right to carry a weapon outside the home, or impose heightened judicial scrutiny on gun control laws.
To read more CLICK HERE

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Trump softens on gun regulations after meeting with gun advocates


Days after a pair of deadly mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, President Trump said he was prepared to endorse what he described as “very meaningful background checks” that would be possible because of his “greater influence now over the Senate and over the House.”
But after discussions with gun rights advocates during his two-week working vacation in Bedminster, N.J. — including talks with Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive of the National Rifle Association — Mr. Trump’s resolve appears to have substantially softened, and he has reverted to reiterating the conservative positions on the gun issue he has espoused since the 2016 campaign, reports the New York Times.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday as he departed from New Jersey and returned to Washington, Mr. Trump said he was “very, very concerned with the Second Amendment, more so than most presidents would be,” and added that “people don’t realize we have very strong background checks right now.”
He also echoed the standard response to mass shootings delivered by the N.R.A., which since 1966 has pushed the government to focus on the mental problems of the gunmen rather than how they were able to obtain their guns. “I don’t want people to forget that this is a mental health problem,” Mr. Trump said. “I don’t want them to forget that, because it is. It’s a mental health problem.”
To read more CLICK HERE

Monday, August 19, 2019

Police in the U.S. make 10.5 million arrests a year

Police around the U.S. arrest people 10.5 million times each year, and many of those are unnecessary, contends a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice, reported by The Crime Report.
Because most arrests are not for serious crimes but for offenses like drug possession, public drunkenness, and disorderly conduct, many cases could be handled effectively by other means and thus not contribute to the nation’s mass incarceration, Vera suggested.
“To chart a new course in American policing, police should use arrest sparingly,
intentionally, and transparently,” declared the report.
The effect of arrests on incarceration is particularly noticeable in local jails, which held 745,200 inmates as of mid-2017, only a small number lower than the total in 2005.
Citing data from the FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Vera said that for every 100 arrests the nation’s 18,000 police departments made in 2016, there were 99 admissions to jail.
This compares with a much lower ratio 25 years ago, when there were 70 jail admissions for every 100 arrests.
Rates of reported crime have dropped sharply during that period, indicating that police these days are more likely to make an arrest in a typical case.
As the report puts it, “Police enforcement has become an expressway to jail.”
The high arrest totals have an especially severe impact on minorities. In
2016, black people were arrested at more than twice the rate of whites, approximately 5,313 and 2,444 per 100,000, respectively.
That disparity has been consistent for 15 years.
To read more CLICK HERE


Sunday, August 18, 2019

GateHouse: The ‘right’ to counsel may depend on where you live

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
August 16, 2019
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that ”(i)n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall have the right ... to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” What exactly does the Sixth Amendment guarantee?
The U.S. Supreme Court settled the issue more than 50 years ago in the landmark decision of Gideon v. Wainwright. In Gideon, the Court made it clear that the Sixth Amendment “requires appointment of counsel in ‘all criminal prosecutions’” - even when an indigent defendant cannot afford a lawyer.
The decision is recognized as one of the most important of the 20th century, but did it really alter the legal landscape? More importantly, did the decision finish the job?
In 1932, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Powell v. Alabama. The court ruled that the U.S. Constitution requires defendants in capital cases be given access to counsel upon request.
Ten years later in Betts v. Brady, the court refused to extend the right to counsel to criminal charges other than capital murder. In Betts, it was held that a refusal to appoint counsel for an indigent defendant charged with a felony did not violate the U.S. Constitution.
Then came Clarence Earl Gideon, a 51-year-old drifter and petty-thief. He was charged with breaking and entering in Florida. The charge was a felony and when Gideon first appeared before the court he was without funds, without counsel and he asked the court to appoint him a lawyer.
The judge apologized to Gideon and said that Florida law only provides for counsel in capital cases. Gideon replied, “The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by counsel.”
Gideon represented himself, was convicted and appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. His appeal was denied and his case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court appointed a very capable attorney, Abe Fortas, to represent Gideon. Fortas would one day take a seat on the Supreme Court.
Fortas’ argument before the court was deliberate, learned and convincing. Fortas told the court that the federal government already recognized that the Sixth Amendment required the appointment of counsel for indigent defendants facing felony charges.
He also pointed out that 37 states provided for the appointment of counsel by statute, administrative rule or court decision. Eight states provided counsel as a matter of practice. In an unprecedented act of support for the rights of those accused of a crime, 22 state attorneys general joined Gideon in urging the court to establish an absolute constitutional right to counsel in criminal cases. Only five states - Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina - did not provide counsel for indigent defendants.
Justice George Sutherland wrote in Powell some 30 years before Gideon, “Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law.” Fortas argued in Gideon, “You cannot have a fair trial without counsel.”
Hugo Black wrote in Gideon, “The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries,” wrote the Court, “but it is in ours.”
As a result, the Gideon decision reaffirmed what all but a handful of states were already doing. What the decision didn’t answer was how is indigent counsel selected and managed - more importantly who pays the legal fees when the accused cannot?
According Criminal Legal News, depending on which of the 3,033 counties an accused resides, counsel is provided by contract attorneys, appointed attorneys or organized public defender offices. And depending on the state, the money to pay for these services is provided by the local government, the state or some combination of both.
The inconsistent method of providing and paying for indigent counsel inevitably leads to the inconsistent level of competence and experience of indigent defense.
Unfortunately, for many, the “right” to counsel in a criminal matter depends on where you live.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
To visit the column CLICK HERE


Saturday, August 17, 2019

Tennessee uses electric chair to execute Stephen West on death row for 32 years

The 11th Execution of 2019
Tennessee executed its third inmate in the electric chair since November on August 14, 2019 for stabbing a mother and her 15-year-old daughter to death in 1986, reported the Associated Press.
State officials pronounced 56-year-old Stephen West dead at 7:27 p.m. at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville.
This week, West decided he preferred to die in the electric chair after previously voicing no preference, which would have defaulted him to lethal injection. His attorney in a court filing wrote that the electric chair is “also unconstitutional, yet still less painful” compared with the state’s preference of a three-drug lethal injection.
Attorneys for inmates David Miller and Edmund Zagorski made the same arguments before they chose to die by the electric chair in 2018. Both unsuccessfully argued to courts that Tennessee’s procedure, which uses the drug midazolam, results in a prolonged and torturous death.
Tennessee has put three inmates to death by lethal injection since August 2018.
In Tennessee, condemned inmates whose crimes occurred before 1999 can opt for the electric chair.
West’s attorney has argued that some “feasible and readily implemented alternative methods of execution exist that significantly reduce the substantial risk of severe pain and suffering” compared with the state’s three-drug protocol or electrocution: a single bullet to the back of the head, a firing squad, a “euthanasia oral cocktail” or one-drug pentobarbital, according to a February court filing.
West was one of four death row inmates who sued last year, asking a federal court’s permission to use a firing squad as an execution method. Currently, just three states — Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah — continue to allow the use of firing squads. However, the last time that method was used was in 2010.
The last state other than Tennessee to carry out an execution by electrocution was Virginia in 2013, according to Death Penalty Information Center data.
West was found guilty of the kidnapping and stabbing deaths of 51-year-old Wanda Romines and her 15-year-old daughter, Sheila Romines. He also was convicted of the teenager’s rape.
In a clemency plea to Gov. Bill Lee, attorneys for West wrote that his then-17-year-old accomplice Ronnie Martin actually killed both Union County victims. West was 23 at the time. Their cases were separated, and while West was sentenced to death, Martin pleaded guilty as a juvenile and received a life sentence with the possibility of parole in 2030.
In a court filing, the state said West brutally stabbed the victims to death. An expert at West’s trial concluded two people were involved in stabbing the teen.
Regardless of the arguments about who killed the women, Tennessee is one of 27 states that allow executions of “non-triggermen” convicted of involvement in a felony resulting in a victim’s death, even if they didn’t kill anyone themselves, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
West’s clemency filing says the jury never heard a jail recording from Martin saying he carried out the killings, not West. But a 1989 state Supreme Court opinion rejected the recording as uncorroborated hearsay that wouldn’t have exonerated West.
West’s attorney opted against playing the tape at sentencing because the judge would have allowed other recordings in which Martin incriminated West, court records show.
The governor denied West’s clemency application, which also said West had been taking powerful medication in prison to treat mental illness.
West’s attorneys also said the jury didn’t hear about his abusive upbringing because his parents paid for his lead lawyer. They wrote that the abuse created conditions that made West freeze in response to traumatic events.
Another Tennessee execution is scheduled in December.
Charles Walton Wright had been scheduled to be put to death in October, but died in prison in May.
To read more CLICK HERE

Friday, August 16, 2019

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Gov. Wolf signs executive order on gun violence

On Wednesday, a man in a North Philadelphia neighborhood opened fire on police attempting to serve a warrant, WHYY and Billy Penn report. Six officers were shot; all have been released from local hospitals, reported the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. 
The incident provided a grim backdrop to the announcement that Gov. Tom Wolf will sign a "sweeping" executive order "to better target the public health crisis of gun violence."
“We simply are not doing enough to stop people from dying and to give communities the peace of mind that they deserve," Wolf said in a statement. "This order will make sure the executive branch is doing more and focusing on gun violence as both a public safety problem and public health crisis."
In a release, Wolf's office said the initiatives and reforms will include: 
  • New oversight and data sharing
  • Reducing community gun violence
  • Combating mass shootings 
  • Addressing the rising number of gun-related domestic incidents and self-inflicted shootings, including suicides by gun      
Wolf also renewed his call for the Legislature to pass universal background checks and a red flag law that would allow courts to temporarily seize firearms from a person deemed a risk to himself or others.
Democratic lawmakers from Philadelphia reacted to the shooting with calls for action.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Head of Immigration Services says Statue of Liberty only welcomes people from Europe

Ken Cuccinelli, the Trump administration’s acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, reinforced his controversial interpretation of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty ― this time giving it a racist twist, reported the Huffington Post. 
CNN journalist Erin Burnett was asking Cuccinelli about his earlier interview with NPR, in which he
Ken Cuccinelli, the Trump administration’s acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, reinforced his controversial interpretation of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty ― this time giving it a racist twist. 
CNN journalist Erin Burnett was asking Cuccinelli about his earlier interview with NPR, in which he reworded the Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus,” saying: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.” 
 “‘Wretched,’ ‘poor,’ refuse’ - right? That’s what the poem says America is supposed to stand for. So what do you think America stands for?” Burnett asked Cuccinelli.
“Well, of course, that poem was referring back to people coming from Europe,” Cucinelli answered, “where they had class-based societies, where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class ... And it was written one year after the first federal public charge rule was written.” 
It is unclear why Cucinelli felt the need to specify the group of immigrants Lazarus was referring to. The poem itself describes the Statue of Liberty by saying, “From her beacon-hand/ Glows world-wide welcome.” USCIS did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. 
To read more CLICK HERE

Monday, August 12, 2019

Joe Biden: Ban military-style firearms

Joe Biden writing in the New York Times:
We have a huge problem with guns. Assault weapons — military-style firearms designed to fire rapidly — are a threat to our national security, and we should treat them as such. Anyone who pretends there’s nothing we can do is lying — and holding that view should be disqualifying for anyone seeking to lead our country.
I know, because with Senator Dianne Feinstein I led the effort to enact the 1994 law that banned assault weapons and high-capacity magazines for 10 years. Those gun safety reforms made our nation demonstrably more secure.
They were also, sadly, the last meaningful gun legislation we were able get signed into law before the N.R.A. and the gun manufacturers put the Republican Party in a headlock.
I fought hard to extend the assault weapons and high-capacity magazines bans in 2004. The Republicans who allowed these laws to expire asserted that they were ineffective. But, almost 15 years after the bans expired, with the unfortunate benefit of hindsight, we now know that they did make a difference.
Many police departments have reported an increase in criminals using assault weapons since 2004. And multiple analyses of the data around mass shootings provide evidence that, from 1994 to 2004, the years when assault weapons and high-capacity magazines were banned, there were fewer mass shootings — fewer deaths, fewer families needlessly destroyed.
There’s overwhelming data that shootings committed with assault weapons kill more people than shootings with other types of guns. And that’s the point.
Shooters looking to inflict mass carnage choose assault weapons with high-capacity magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds. They choose them because they want to kill as many people as possible without having to stop and reload.
In Dayton, where the police responded immediately and neutralized the shooter within about 30 seconds, he was still able to massacre nine people and injure more than two dozen others because he carried an AR-style weapon with a magazine capable of holding 100 rounds.
We have to get these weapons of war off our streets.
Nearly 70 percent of the American public support a ban on assault weapons — including 54 percent of Republicans.
When you have that kind of broad public support for legislation that will make everyone safer, and it still can’t get through the Senate — the problem is with weak-willed leaders who care more about their campaign coffers than children in coffins.
The 1994 assault weapons and high-capacity magazines bans worked.
And if I am elected president, we’re going to pass them again — and this time, we’ll make them even stronger. We’re going to stop gun manufacturers from circumventing the law by making minor modifications to their products — modifications that leave them just as deadly. And this time, we’re going to pair it with a buyback program to get as many assault weapons off our streets as possible as quickly as possible.
To read more CLICK HERE


Saturday, August 10, 2019

GateHouse: How can lawmakers ignore the impact of guns?

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
August 9, 2019
In the wake of America’s horrific weekend of mass shootings, President Donald Trump blamed video games and mental illness for this uniquely American tragedy. As everyone knows, the president is always quick with some well vetted research or scientific basis for his opinions, usually limited to 280 characters.
So the president got me thinking, is America the only country with video games and mental illness? Of course not. Video games are no more the cause of mass shootings than John Wayne is the cause of shootouts. Mental illness plays a role in some mass shootings, but consider the death toll if a mentally ill man attacked a crowd with a hammer or ball bat or even a knife instead of an assault rifle?
Canada has mental illness and violent video games and its rate of gun violence is far lower than the United States.
What’s the difference? According to Darryl McManus of the Los Angeles Times, “Like every other developed country, Canada has stricter gun regulation and fewer guns per person than we (the United States) do.”
Sure, mass shootings get our attention, but not nearly as much as they did in the 20 years since Columbine. One might ask how many more mass shootings will it take for Congress or the president to stand up and say “enough is enough?”
Unfortunately, mass shootings are only the tip of the iceberg. More people died from firearm injuries in the United States in 2017 (the most recent statistics) than in any other year since at least 1968, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to the New York Times, there were 39,773 gun deaths in 2017, up by more than 1,000 from the year before. Nearly two-thirds were suicide, and suicide in the United States is on the rise - increasing by about 30% since 2000. The number of firearm deaths was the largest yearly total on record and reflects the carnage on the streets and in the homes across this country.
How can lawmakers continue to ignore the impact of guns? While the president talks about mental illness and video games, the United States is the world’s leader in firearms ownership. It is not a narrow margin. For instance, the U.S. has 121 firearms per 100 people. Canada has about 35 per 100.
The government’s unwillingness to act appears to be contrary to public opinion on the issue of guns. President Trump claimed, after the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio that there’s “no political appetite” for gun restrictions. A Morning Consult Poll this week found that nearly 70% of all voters would back some restrictions. Support for an assault-weapons ban was higher, at 86%, among Democrats, and 55% of Republicans.
The demand for action is not just the result of the most recent massacres. In a March 2019 Quinnipiac University Poll, 86% of U.S. voters - including 80% of Republicans and 76% of gun owners - said they support a House-approved bill requiring background checks for all gun purchases including gun shows and online.
In fact, polling conducted in 2016, when Trump campaigned on his strong support for the Second Amendment, 55% of GOP voters were comfortable with banning assault-weapons. The carnage over the last three years is horrifying: 58 dead at a Las Vegas concert; 49 dead in an Orlando nightclub; 26 dead in a Texas church; and now 31 dead in El Paso and Dayton.
Yet, as the online magazine Politico pointed out, the National Rifle Association spent $30 million dollars helping Trump get elected and action on common sense gun regulation has slowed to a halt.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
To visit the column CLICK HERE


Friday, August 9, 2019

Voters to state lawmakers, 'do something' on guns

Many Republican state lawmakers don’t seem to have an appetite for taking up new gun control legislation despite last weekend’s mass shootings, reported the Pew Charitable Trust.
Hundreds of legislators from across the country gathered in Nashville, Tennessee, for the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures this week to talk about state policy matters. Most of the more than one dozen GOP lawmakers interviewed by Stateline maintained their firm opposition to new gun legislation in their states. These mass shootings, while tragic, are not reason enough to abandon their principles and pass gun control measures they think violate constitutional rights and a proud gun tradition, they said.
Arizona state Rep. John Kavanagh said he’s not going to follow what he called a “kneejerk” and “absurd” call to ban assault weapons.
“A dramatic shooting does bring attention, but so much is false information,” Kavanagh said. “Everyone is demonizing the semiautomatic weapon that has some mean-looking stuff on it. There’s too much emotion and not enough fact-based reason.”
Kavanagh’s Republican colleague in the Arizona state Senate, David Gowan, added that while “it’s horrific what occurred,” his fellow lawmakers will not change the state’s loose gun laws, such as one that allows people to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
“It’s hard to take somebody else’s freedom away because some people try to abuse it,” Gowan said.
Gun control advocates and some Democrats have taken up the slogan “do something,” after a crowd chanted it Sunday night at Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine during his speech at a vigil for the nine people killed hours earlier.
To read more CLICK HERE

Thursday, August 8, 2019

White supremacists no different than foreign terrorists

According to former FBI agent Ali H. Soufan writing in the New York Times, white supremacists, like their Islamist counterparts, explicitly seek to use violence to create a climate of fear and chaos that can then be exploited to reshape society in their own image. Their recruitment videos share an emphasis on the lifestyle they purport to offer recruits — one of “purity,” militancy and physical fitness. While jihadis share beheading videos, right-wing extremists glory in the live streaming of the deadly attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. While Islamic State supporters communicate through an online platform called Telegram, white supremacists tend to do so through another platform, 8chan.
One group for neo-Nazis, founded by a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has taken the analogy to its logical conclusion, calling itself “The Base” — a direct translation of the meaning of the word Al Qaeda. The organization also uses similar black flag imagery. The Base maintains an online library of terrorist manuals; the Al Qaeda publication Inspire taught the Boston bombers how to build pressure-cooker explosives.
Perhaps most disturbing of all, both groups have real-world war zones in which to learn combat. Jihadis had Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Balkans in the 1990s and Syria today. White supremacists have the war in eastern Ukraine, in which they are fighting on both sides. Dr. Kacper Rekawek, a scholar who has studied the matter, estimates that 17,000 people from 50 countries, including the United States and many of its allies, have traveled to fight in Ukraine. Those with ties to far-right militias in Ukraine include at least one of four Americans indicted on a charge of promoting the deadly violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. The New Zealand mosque attacker claimed in his manifesto that he had traveled to Ukraine. What we know for sure is that during his attack he wore a flak jacket bearing a symbol of one of the country’s main ultranationalist groups.
Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising to see the white-supremacist threat growing inside the United States. A study by the Anti-Defamation League found that, in 2018, right-wing extremists were responsible for three times as many deaths in the United States as were Islamists. The same study showed that 2018 was the deadliest year of right-wing extremist violence since 1995 — when the Oklahoma City bombing took place. Because of massacres like the one on Saturday in El Paso, the year 2019 may yet prove worse.
Our intelligence and law-enforcement agencies are not blind to the threat. In May, a senior F.B.I. official testified to Congress that the bureau is pursuing about 850 domestic terrorism investigations. But our current counterterrorism framework was set up, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, to deal exclusively with foreign terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. For example, the law allows for the monitoring of communications between people connected with foreign terrorist groups — even if they are United States citizens operating on American soil — and the sharing of the resulting intelligence among American agencies and with our allies. But those monitoring and intelligence-sharing tools cannot be used against those connected with terrorist groups based in the United States — no matter how dangerous — because domestic terror supporters are protected by free speech laws in ways that jihadis (including those who are United States citizens) are not.
Since 2001, a long list of people have been indicted on a charge of providing material support to designated foreign terrorist entities like Al Qaeda. But for domestic terrorist organizations, material support charges are impossible because there is no mechanism for designating domestic terrorist groups as such. Moreover, domestic terror charges are harder to prove and carry penalties inadequate to the gravity of the offense. Even the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, the worst domestic terrorist in the nation’s history, was not charged with any terrorism offense for precisely this reason.
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Wednesday, August 7, 2019

President's immigration rhetoric legitimizes white supremacist violence

Adrian Carrasquillo writes in The New Republic how closely the language used by the El Paso, Texas mass murderer echoes the Trump administration messaging. Trump called immigration along the southern border an “invasion” six times in seven months: once in November and December each, and twice in January and again in June, all before telling four congresswomen of color to go back to where they came from. At a rally in May, Trump asked, “How do you stop these people?” A follower in the crowd responded, “shoot them.” Trump laughed and pointed.

This rhetoric is tied to actions and consequences of Trump’s abuse-prone zero-tolerance immigration policy, which have included U.S. citizens detained for weekssix migrant children dead since September, and increased denaturalization investigations by Homeland Security. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials allowed reporters to photograph caged immigrants in desperate conditions under a bridge in El Paso in March, a spectacle one reporter in attendance told me seemed to be an effort by the Trump administration to push the narrative that the national emergency declaration of the previous month was warranted, by depicting El Paso negatively.

It’s no surprise, then, that Latino elected officials, activists, and leaders grappling with what happened in El Paso say it was a natural progression of the rhetoric and actions of the administration and exposed the staggering scale of racism the Latino and immigrant community has been facing all along.

 “If you look at the shooter’s language and the president’s language they were very similar, and the president has inspired hate and violence, especially against immigrants and Hispanic Americans,” Representative Joaquin Castro, chair of the Hispanic Caucus, told me. “My fear is what the shooter says in his manifesto is true—that this is just the beginning because of the president’s rhetoric that he engages in regularly.”

The League of United Latin American Citizens released an unambiguous statement, declaring “President Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric and policies inspired the killing of innocent women, children, and men.”

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Who was the most consequential Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court?

Who's the most consequential chief justice of them all? According to Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal’s Supreme Court Brief, an unscientific survey of 377 judges concluded that Earl Warren, who wrote the unanimous landmark opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, was the most consequential.

The National Judicial College sends out a monthly, U.S. history-themed question to alumni who have attended its courses for new and experienced judges. For the chief justice question, judges were allowed to vote for three of the 17 chief justices.

Warren edged out the chief justice whom many legal historians considered to have had the most impact: John Marshall, the fourth and longest-serving chief justice and author of the seminal Marbury v. Madison. Marshall garnered 263 votes to Warren's 271.

In third place, with 81 votes, was Warren Burger, who succeeded Warren as chief justice and served from 1969 until 1986. The Burger court delivered such landmark rulings as Roe v. Wade, Furman v. Georgia, and United States v. Nixon.

Other chief justices who received votes were: William Rehnquist (75), John Jay (49), John Roberts (25), Roger Taney (22), William H. Taft (19), Charles E. Hughes (14), Harlan F. Stone (8), Salmon P. Chase (6), Frederick M. Vinson (3) and John Rutledge (2). Oliver Ellsworth, Morrison R. Waite, and Edward D. White received one vote each.

Only one of the 17 chiefs, Melville Fuller, who led the court from 1888 to 1910, received no votes. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

White Nationalists, Neo-Nazis hit the mainstream

Conservative and even mainstream media outlets have also played a role in mainstreaming white nationalist ideas, reports The Guardian. Beirich, of the SPLC, said that the concept of demographic replacement is “definitely cropping up in conservative media”, pointing to the Fox News anchors Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham as having broadcast programs which “may not use the same language” but which convey the same basic narrative of “replacement”.
Although white nationalism is far from a new ideology, today’s racist activists have been adept at using social networks to expand their reach and radicalize a new generation of young white men and women. They have worked under a veil of irony and trolling explicitly designed to create uncertainty in the mainstream public about how serious they are. That effort has been extremely successful.
Facebook and Instagram only banned content advocating white nationalism, like “The US should be a white-only nation,” four months ago. Previously, the company suggested in a post announcing the ban, it had considered white nationalism or white separatism valid political viewpoints, and had believed in the arguments, rejected by experts, that “white nationalism” was not necessarily racist.
“There is so much material on the web – treatises, tracts, and manifestos – that would have been extraordinarily difficult to get hold of 25 years ago,” said Brian Levin, the director for the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
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Monday, August 5, 2019

Trump stirs the stew of racism and white supremacy

James Comey, former FBI Director, writing in the New York Times:
With each racist assault — on a judge, an athlete, a country, a member of Congress, or a city — and with each kind word for “very fine people on both sides,” our president allows the stew to boil and radiate more dangerously.
You can feel the effect: in the F.B.I.’s burgeoning caseload of hate crimes and white supremacist investigations, and in a stadium full of Americans who, even knowing they are on television, chant in unison, “Send her back.” That burst of negative energy was met, not by efforts to control it, but by 13 seconds of presidential silence, the same silence that his fellow Republicans have adopted.
Our president thinks he is doing something clever. He lifts the control rods for a calculated and deeply cynical purpose: to harness the political energy unleashed. It will heat his re-election bid, he likely thinks. But unconstrained, it will damage the nation, in all directions. Only fools believe they can ride the gamma rays of hate.
According to a “manifesto” widely attributed to him, the Texas terrorist who killed at least 20 people in El Paso on Saturday wasn’t directly motivated by Donald Trump. But he is a horrific example of what can happen when the control rods are lifted.
Every American president, knowing what lies deep within our country, bears a unique responsibility to say loudly and consistently that white supremacy is illegitimate, that encouraging a politics of racial resentment can spawn violence, and that violence aimed at people by virtue of their skin color is terrorism.
Mr. President, because of what you have done, you owe us more than condolences sent via Twitter. You must stop trying to unleash and exploit the radioactive energy of racism.
You hold the biggest control rod of all. You must push it back into place, for all our sakes. The vast majority of Americans believe the core ideals of our founding documents and we expect our culture to reflect those ideals. Show us you believe in them, too.
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Sunday, August 4, 2019

Two mass shootings: One common theme-assault rifles

El Paso, Texas:

lden Hall told CBSN he was in the El Paso Walmart when he saw the shooter wearing a black T-shirt, black glasses and "military-grade" ear protection. Hall, who served in the military, said he thinks the gunman had an AK-47.

Dayton, Ohio:

Deb Decker, Montgomery County (Ohio) Emergency Services public information officer, told CNN a gunman dressed in body armor and carrying an "assault weapon" began shooting near a pub called Blind Bob's. She said he was making his way toward a nearby tavern, Ned Peppers, when someone grabbed the barrel of the gun.

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Saturday, August 3, 2019

GateHouse: Risk assessment under scrutiny in criminal justice system

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
August 2, 2019
Over the past two decades as crime rates fell and incarceration rates rose some have argued, according to University of Virginia Professor Brandon Garrett, “that one way to begin dialing down ‘mass incarceration’ without simultaneously jeopardizing the historically low crime rate is to put risk assessment back into sentencing.”
According to Garrett, risk assessment in sentencing is not a new phenomenon. In California, more than a century ago, lawmakers introduced indeterminate sentencing - whereby an offender is given a minimum sentence and maximum sentence and is only released from prison after the minimum, and prior to the maximum, upon demonstrating that he or she is a low risk for reoffending.
It has recently been estimated that at least 20 states have begun to incorporate risk assessment into the sentencing process “in some or all cases.”
However, this week, 27 leading criminal justice researchers signed a letter denouncing the use of sentencing risk algorithms in courtrooms across the country. They report the tools’ reliance on distorted data does little to reduce jail populations and unfairly penalizes minority defendants, reported the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.
The letter suggested that current risk assessment instruments are unable to distinguish one person’s risk of violence from another. In statistics, predictions are made within a range of likelihood, rather than as a single point estimate.
Some predictive algorithms appear to make estimates of recidivism accuracy at between 5 and 15%, where studies have demonstrated that predictive models can only make reliable predictions about risk for violence within ranges of 20 to 60%.
The letter continues, “As a result, virtually everyone’s range of likelihood overlaps. When everyone is similar, it becomes impossible to differentiate people with low and high risks of violence. At present, there is no statistical remedy to this challenge.”
As far back as 2014, then U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder warned that risk assessments might be injecting bias into the courts. At the time, he called for the U.S. Sentencing Commission to study their use. “Although these measures were crafted with the best of intentions, I am concerned that they inadvertently undermine our efforts to ensure individualized and equal justice,” he said, adding, “they may exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities that are already far too common in our criminal justice system and in our society.”
According to a recent report by the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence, “using risk assessment tools to make fair decisions about human liberty would require solving deep ethical, technical, and statistical challenges.” The report found that tools currently available and under consideration by jurisdictions across the country fail to adequately address those concerns.
In Pennsylvania, the Board of Probation and Parole, the agency charged with making parole decisions, uses various assessments including risk, sex offending, mental health and drug and alcohol. Risk assessments tools coupled with parole guidelines are thought to provide uniformity to the board’s decision making process.
Just this past April, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf said, “Pennsylvania can lead the nation with bold bipartisan reforms to probation and parole.”
Within three months, according to WHYY-FM, parolees from Pennsylvania prisons committed six murders.
The first, on May 23, a parolee allegedly strangled his girlfriend’s mother, then set her home in Hershey on fire to cover it up.
On June 29, police say another parolee murdered his girlfriend’s two-year-old daughter in Baltimore, Maryland. About a week later, a parolee from New Castle, just north of Pittsburgh, allegedly murdered his girlfriend’s eight-year-old son.
On July 14, 2019 an off-duty Pittsburgh police officer was shot and killed, allegedly by a parolee. Just four days later, another parolee allegedly stabbed his sister and niece in Lancaster.
Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel told WHYY-FM, “Listen, I think in every way we need to use data, measure it, infer what we can from the actual data, learn what we can from individual cases, and not knee-jerk.”
Predicting human behavior is a tricky business. While it may have a place in the criminal justice system, blind adherence to predictive tools can have deadly consequences.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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Friday, August 2, 2019

Prison health care declines as aging prisoners' health needs increase

Prison is no place to get sick. The nation’s incarcerated population is aging rapidly, with nearly four times as many inmates 55 or over as there were at the start of this century, reported Governing. That’s led to increased rates of diabetes and heart disease, among many other problems. Younger offenders are hardly the picture of health, given their high rates of addiction. Altogether, prisoners make up 1 percent of the population, yet they account for 35 percent of the nation’s total cases of hepatitis C. “They are the most expensive segment of the population,” says Marc Stern, a public health professor at the University of Washington, “and they are the sickest.”
States often pay private health care providers on a per-inmate, per-day basis. That creates an incentive to cut costs. The market forces that discipline private providers on the outside, however, don’t apply in prison. There is no consumer choice. An inmate who doesn’t think medical treatment is up to par can’t switch to another prison, let alone a different hospital. And if the state, not the prisoner, is the customer, state officials don’t always know what they’re getting. Record-keeping is notoriously poor, and in some states, the department of corrections doesn’t even receive annual reports from its vendors.
When prison health care was first privatized in a major way, there was little reliable actuarial data, so it wasn’t clear what a reasonable price structure would look like. Over time, governments figured that information out and started writing better contracts, but that led to shrinking profit margins for vendors.
There have been other stresses on the business model. What was a growth area a decade ago is now stagnant. The state systems and large jails that are likely to privatize have already done so. With few new contracts out for bidding, providers low-ball one another in order to get business. That leaves yet less money available for care.
Some argue that prison health would improve if it were treated as part of the local community health safety net system. Communities are not immune to what happens inside their prisons, whether it’s opioid addiction or infectious disease. But most taxpayers on the outside don’t see prison health problems affecting their own well-being. The reality may be that treatment for those people society wants to punish will never become a top priority.
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Thursday, August 1, 2019

Use of risk assessment in sentence guidelines denounced

This week, 27 leading criminal justice researchers signed a letter denouncing the use of sentencing risk algorithms in courtrooms across the country. They say the tools’ reliance on distorted data does little to reduce jail populations and unfairly penalizes minority defendants, reported the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.
Ten years ago state lawmakers ordered the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing to create a mathematical equation to calculate a defendant’s risk for violence. 
Sentencing algorithms like the one being developed in Pennsylvania use an array of data — including age, gender, and criminal history — to predict a defendant’s likelihood of recidivism, or committing another crime.
Pennsylvania judges were supposed to use tool to dole out fairer sentences. But a growing body of evidence suggests such tools are deeply flawed.
Some tools are designed for use in pre-trial sentencing — the stage at which a judge decides whether or not a defendant should be released on bail while they await trial. 
But criminal justice experts say that pre-trial violence is so rare that it’s hard to statistically predict it with any accuracy.
They also say that risk assessments of all types perpetuate bias, in part because black and hispanic defendants are more heavily policed, and therefore more likely to have criminal records. 
“Risk assessments that incorporate this distorted data will produce distorted results,” the letter reads. “These problems cannot be resolved with technical fixes. We strongly recommend turning to other reforms.”
The researchers sent the letter to letter sent to lawmakers in California and Missouri statehouses and Los Angeles County — three jurisdictions currently considering the use of pre-trial sentencing algorithms.
A draft algorithm they released in 2018 drew near-unanimous criticism from criminal justice reform advocates at public comment sessions in Philadelphia, according to WHYY.
Legislation that Street introduced this year would repeal the 2010 mandate once and for all. In a memo seeking his colleagues’ support for the bill, Rep. Sharif Street said that creating an unbiased, reliable sentencing tool may be an impossible task.
“Since the passage of the [2010] mandate, the Commission has worked hard to create an automated tool that is statistically predictive of risk and does not show bias against any protected class,” Street wrote in a memo seeking his colleagues’ support for the bill. “After reviewing more than eight years of thorough research and development conducted by the Commission, many, including members of the Commission itself, have serious concerns that such an automated tool is possible.”
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