Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Senate Judiciary Committee subpoenas billionaire benefactors of Justices Thomas and Alito

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee announced plans to vote to subpoena a pair of billionaires who reportedly gave lavish gifts to Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, reported Axios.

Why it matters: It's a major escalation of the panel's investigation into Supreme Court ethics as Democratic senators push legislation to strengthen disclosure requirements and create a judicial code of conduct.

Driving the news: Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said in a statement that they plan to subpoena billionaires Harlan Crow and Robin Arkley, as well as conservative judicial activist Leonard Leo.

"[I]t is imperative that we understand the full extent of how people with interests before the Court are able to use undisclosed gifts to gain private access to the justices," the senators said.

Reports this year from nonprofit news organization ProPublica revealed years worth of luxury trips and other gifts Crow provided to Thomas. The outlet also reported that Arkley partially funded Alito's attendance on a luxury fishing trip organized by Leo.

The backdrop: The committee asked Crow in May for itemized lists of gifts, travel and lodging he provided to Thomas, but Crow's lawyers responded that they "do not believe the Committee has the authority to investigate Mr. Crow's personal friendship with Justice Thomas."

After months of back and forth, Crow's team proposed providing some of the information from the last five years, but Senate Democrats rejected the offer as an inadequate compromise.

The panel sent similar letters to Arkley, Leo and billionaire Paul Singer, who reportedly flew Alito to the 2008 fishing trip.

Leo responded with a letter saying the committee "is not entitled to the personal information it seeks" and declining to cooperate.

The other side: Crow's office, in a statement, blasted his subpoena as "unnecessary, partisan, and politically motivated" despite "Mr. Crow's good faith efforts at a reasonable compromise that respects both sides."

"Mr. Crow, a private citizen, won't be bullied by threats from politicians. However, as previously conveyed to the Committee, we remain committed to respectful cooperation and a fair resolution."

Leo said in a statement: "I will not bow to the vile and disgusting liberal McCarthyism that seeks to destroy the Supreme Court simply because it follows the Constitution rather than their political agenda."

Between the lines: The subpoenas are aimed in part on building pressure on Chief Justice John Roberts to institute a binding code of conduct, which he has so far refused to do.

"The Chief Justice could fix this problem today and adopt a binding code of conduct.  As long as he refuses to act, the Judiciary Committee will," Durbin and Whitehouse said.

What's next: The vote could come as soon as Nov. 9, a committee aide told Axios.

Democrats hold a majority on the panel and could authorize the subpoenas unilaterally.

To read more CLICK HERE

Monday, October 30, 2023

Mangino discusses Trump's pending trials in Georgia and in Federal Court on WFMJ-TV21Weekend Today

Watch my interview on WFMJ-TV21 Weekend Today discussing former president Trump's prosecutions by the special counsel in federal court and state charges in Georgia.

To watch the interview  CLICK HERE

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Mangino discusses latest on the Kohberger trial out of Idaho

Watch my interview with Lindsay McCoy of WFMJ-TV21discussing the latest developments in the Bryan Kohberger murder case in Idaho.

To watch the interview CLICK HERE

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Murder of a police officer or stand your ground

Nine years after the shooting death of Killeen police detective Chuck Dinwiddie, the man accused of his murder is finally set to begin trial on Oct. 30, 2023. according to KCEN-TV in Texas. The trial pits capital murder against the stand your ground doctrine.

Marvin Guy is charged with Capital Murder for the death of Dinwiddie on May 9, 2014. Guy is accused of shooting Dinwiddie when police conducted a no-knock raid at his home.

Guy has been in county jail for nine years. During this time, he has been represented by 11 different attorneys, causing multiple delays for the trial. 

Most recently on April 12, 2023, a judge granted a motion from yet another defense team to withdraw from Guy's counsel.

Today, a motion by the prosecution to request a visiting judge was denied and Guy is now set to begin trial at the end of October. 

To read more CLICK HERE

Friday, October 27, 2023

Qualified Immunity shields government officials from accountability

Christian Lansinger writes in The Bulwark: 

In the post-George Floyd era, police departments have faced intense public scrutiny, leading to slogans like “defund the police” and “ACAB.” Conservatives recoiled and in turn engineered their own “back the blue” sloganeering. But lost in the shuffle is qualified immunity—a judge-made doctrine that shields all government officials from accountability when they violate one’s constitutional rights. AFPI and others have adopted qualified immunity as their poster child in defending the police and ensuring public safety.

But AFPI’s report leaves out a crucial detail: Qualified immunity does not actually keep Americans safe. Invented by the Supreme Court in 1982 through what conservatives would normally call “judicial activism,” qualified immunity is found nowhere in the Constitution or in federal statutes—judges just made it up. Nonetheless, this powerful doctrine protects government officials when they engage in unreasonable or even malicious acts that violate the Constitution (unless the victim can show their constitutional rights were “clearly established” by an earlier decision involving materially identical facts—a nearly insurmountable legal hurdle). This misconduct can come from anyone in government: a mayor and city attorney who jail a 72-year-old retiree for criticizing the city manager, a child protective services agent who launches a junk investigation against parents after they accuse the county’s employee of sexually abusing their child, or a county road engineer who plays traffic cop and detains a driver for hours. And this misconduct can relate to any constitutional right: the First Amendment right to free speech, the Second Amendment right to bear arms, or the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

Good police officers already have other protections under the Constitution—specifically, the Fourth Amendment, which already protects officers who make reasonable mistakes, including in high-stakes situations like arrests or uses of force. As the Supreme Court has recognized, an officer’s mistakes are more likely reasonable when they face “split second decisions—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.” That is, while the Constitution immunizes good-apple officers from liability, qualified immunity protects the bad apples—the government officials who commit egregious wrongs against American citizens and violate their oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution.

In short, protecting qualified immunity is not necessary to “back the blue,” and AFPI’s own approach reflects this. Earlier this year, AFPI released another report, also written by Erickson, with recommendations for supporting police recruiting and retention. Codifying qualified immunity into federal law was not one of them. Instead, AFPI suggested political and community leaders “reaffirm their commitment to the law enforcement community,” provide “officers with realistic expectations about the job,” and “creat[e] meaningful pathways to career development.” These solutions would help communities retain a proactive police force without needlessly providing an escape hatch to dishonorable government bureaucrats.

Strong, accountable police forces keep Americans safe. But an unchecked, unaccountable government does not. Rather than codify qualified immunity into law, state legislators should pass the “Protecting Everyone’s Constitutional Rights Act”—model legislation from the Institute for Justice (where I work), which Erickson himself cites at the end of his new report. This bill would provide a cause of action against governments—not individual officials—for victims of government abuse. It would allow victims to hold their government accountable for disregarding the Constitution without holding individual officials personally liable. This legislation puts Americans—not government workers—first.

To read more CLICK HERE

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Crime and politics: Public views of crime are not shaped by personal experience

 Paul Krugman writing in The New York Times:

In 2022, according to F.B.I. numbers, there were 370 violent crimes reported for every 100,000 Americans. Even allowing for some underreporting, this likely means there was less than one violent crime for every 200 people. So the great majority of Americans haven’t been victims lately, or probably ever.

What this implies is that public views about crime needn’t have much to do with personal experience. They may instead be shaped by impressions people pick up from media, both news and social, and from politicians.

In other words, perceptions about crime are like perceptions about the economy — perhaps more so: They don’t necessarily bear much relationship to reality. 

Now, sometimes popular impressions are more or less right. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when Hollywood was producing vigilante thrillers like “Death Wish” and dystopian sagas like “Escape From New York,” violent crime really was surging:

However, violent crime began falling rapidly in the early 1990s, for reasons that remain unclear. Whatever the source of the good news, there were two remarkable things about this decline. First, it was truly epic; as someone who has lived in New York since 2015 but visited it many times over previous decades, I can attest that the city feels infinitely safer than it did in the bad old days. Second, most Americans didn’t notice.

Donald Trump devoted his 2017 inaugural address to the theme of “American carnage” — a supposed wave of violence sweeping our cities. At the time, actual urban violence was near a generational low point. But his rhetoric nonetheless resonated with many Americans. After all, throughout the epic decline in crime, voters kept telling pollsters that crime was rising nationally (although they were more sanguine about crime in their own areas, about which they may have had more personal knowledge).

And like views about the economy, perceptions about crime have a strong partisan element, with Republicans generally more likely to say that crime is rising, especially when a Democrat is president.

In 2020 and 2021, it briefly looked as if Trump’s dark vision might retroactively be coming true. There was in fact a surge in crime beginning in 2020, especially in murders.

Unlike the somewhat mysterious decline in crime in previous decades, this crime wave wasn’t too hard to explain. The Covid-19 pandemic led to a lot of isolation and disruption, plus a lot of psychological stress, making it plausible that some Americans became disconnected from the social bonds that usually keep most of us law-abiding.

The big question was whether the post-Covid surge in crime would, like the post-Covid surge in inflation, prove transitory. Would crime keep rising, or would it subside back to relatively low levels?

Well, the answer appears to be in, and it’s encouraging. Murders dropped significantly in 2022, and so far seem to be falling even faster this year. Take the example of New York City, which had 319 murders in 2019 — down from 2,262 in 1990! — but saw that total rise to 488 in 2021. If trends this year continue, the number of murders in 2023 will probably be under 400, much of the way back to the low crime rates of the 2010s.

I should acknowledge that while violent crime is clearly on the downswing, some forms of property crime are still running high. Many pharmacies in New York and other cities, concerned about theft, now keep their products locked behind glass, which isn’t scary but is annoying. Still, America is clearly getting safer again, and is much safer than it was two decades ago.

But if history is any guide, most voters won’t believe it. Politicians will run campaigns promising to defend Americans against a terrifying crime wave, even as crime is receding nationwide.

Wait, there’s more. In addition to having false beliefs about trends in crime over time, many Americans have false beliefs about the geography of crime. In particular, Republicans often treat it as an established fact that blue states, and especially cities run by Democrats, have higher crime rates than red states and cities, with New York singled out for special opprobrium. Back in April, the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee held a “field hearing” on “victims of violent crime in Manhattan.”

But the reality is that red states have consistently higher homicide rates than blue states. Most big cities are run by Democrats, but those run by Republicans don’t have significantly lower crime. And New York City happens to have remarkably low crime, with a murder rate around half that of Republican-run cities like Miami and Fort Worth. (My guess is that part of the reason for low crime in New York is the city’s large immigrant population — because contrary to another myth, immigrants are relatively law-abiding.)

Again, however, it’s doubtful whether data, or even the lived experiences of those of us who reside in places many Americans believe to be hellscapes, will change many minds.

So what’s the moral of this story? The good news is that while many feared that America was about to experience a sustained resurgence of crime, at this point we seem to be heading back to the prepandemic normal of fairly low crime. The bad news is that the politics of fear can work, even if there isn’t much basis for those fears.

To read more CLICK HERE


Wednesday, October 25, 2023

'Oath Keepers' thriving in Chicago Police Department

There are at least 27 current and former Chicago police officials whose names appeared in leaked rosters for the Oath Keepers, an anti-government group that played a central role in the 2021 U.S. Capitol riot and counts many cops, servicemen and first responders as members.

An investigation by WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project found some have troubling backgrounds that include allegations of excessive force, improper searches and racist comments on the job.

At least nine of them remain on the police force, even after newly elected Mayor Brandon Johnson vowed to rid the department of extremists.

The Chicago Police Department has resisted taking action against officers for their ties with the Oath Keepers — once again placing a spotlight on a troubled disciplinary system as police leaders struggle to make sweeping, court-ordered changes to policies and practices.

Investigators closed a probe into officers’ ties to the Oath Keepers last year without finding any wrongdoing or investigating most of the police officials who appeared in the leak. The inaction drew a sharp rebuke from the city’s top watchdog, who says just joining an extremist group violates the police department’s rules of conduct.

To read more CLICK HERE

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

DC mayor backs off criminal justice reform as violence soars

 D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser plans to propose anti-crime measures  that would loosen some reforms enacted after the police killing of George Floyd, reported Axios.

Why it matters: In the heat of a crime wave, it would mark a U-turn for the Democratic city on policing reform, likely pitting Bowser against progressive council members.

Driving the news: Bowser's forthcoming bill would empower police to declare "drug-free zones" across the city for five-day spans, according to a preview of the legislation obtained by Axios. The measure is an effort to outlaw congregating in public spaces for the "purchase, sale, or use of illegal drugs."

Retail theft would carry stiffer penalties, via a new crime for "directing organized retail theft."

Wearing a mask while committing a crime would be outlawed again.

The legislation also revises the definition of a police chokehold. It would clarify the "distinction between a serious use of force and incidental contact with the neck," according to the preview text.

Bowser's office declined to comment on the new legislation ahead of the announcement.

Context: D.C. repealed its anti-mask law — which bans wearing a mask to commit a crime, intimidate, or threaten people, or cause fear — in the post-George Floyd reforms.

Meanwhile, President Biden earlier this year vetoed an attempt by congressional Republicans to ease the city's chokehold ban. (Police chokeholds were made illegal in D.C. in 1985, but the D.C. Council in recent years broadened the definition to make it more strict.)

The big picture: The tough-on-crime proposal comes while crime is up in D.C. — unlike other big cities where violence has declined.

To read more CLICK HERE

Monday, October 23, 2023

By 2030 people over 55 will make up one-third of all prison inmates

Between 1993 and 2013, the number of people 55 or older in state prisons increased by 400 percent, reported The New York Times. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that by 2030, people over 55 will constitute a third of the country’s prison population.

Research shows that most people age out of criminal conduct. Moreover, the Department of Justice asserts that the risk of elderly people reoffending after release is minimal. Yet decades of tough-on-crime sentencing and increasingly rigid release policies have left many to grow old in a system that was not designed to accommodate them. The cost is high, for both the residents and the public at large.

Older residents who are released should be provided with support. And they should be given the opportunity to use their experiences to drive change in their communities. Advocacy groups have already demonstrated the power of restorative justice programs led by the formerly incarcerated, both inside and outside prisons, allowing for healing and growth for all parties affected by violence — victims, offenders and families.

Reforms have ignited hope among residents who expected to die in prison. In California, the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 provides a process for nonviolent offenders to be considered for parole if their release poses no unreasonable risk to the community. Also in California, the Elderly Parole Program lays out a path for some residents who are over 50 and who have served at least 20 years. The state has also established compassionate release programs for terminally ill or medically incapacitated residents.

Efforts to reduce the aging prison population are driven not solely by compassion but also by the tremendous cost of incarcerating older people. Residents do not qualify for Medicaid, leaving the state responsible for all care expenses. Older residents are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses like diabetes, dementia and cancer and to struggle with depression and anxiety.

Yet the rules and policies around parole decisions are often obstacles to releasing elderly residents, especially if they committed violent offenses in their youth. These secretive and subjective policies should be changed to focus on risk assessment and rehabilitation rather than the initial crime. 

To read more CLICK HERE

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Is there a crime wave in America?

 Is there a crime wave in America?

Judd Legum, Tesnim Zekeria and Rebecca Crosby at Popular Information write:

Without a doubt, people believe that crime continues to surge. A Gallup poll found that 78% of Americans believe that there was more crime in 2022 than in 2021. (Only 13% believed it declined.) 

Comprehensive data for 2022, recently released by the FBI, tells a very different story. And preliminary data suggests that 2023 could feature one of the most dramatic declines in violent crime in modern history. 

In 2022, homicides were down 6.1%, according to FBI data. The nation’s murder rate, the data shows, was 6.3 per 100,000 people. This figure is below 2020 levels, but slightly higher than 2019. Still, since 1991, the rate of murder has dropped 36%. 

Nationwide, the FBI reports that the violent crime rate, including homicide, dropped “an estimated 1.7%” in 2022 compared to the year before. The rate of violent crime is the lowest it has been since 2014, and is nearly half of what it was in 1991 and 1992. 

This downward trend, experts say, is expected to continue in 2023. According to crime data from the first half of the year, there is “strong evidence of a sharp and broad decline in the nation’s murder rate,” crime analyst Jeff Asher reports. Asher finds that preliminary data indicates that the nation is witnessing the “largest annual percent changes in murder ever recorded.” Murder, for example, was “down about 12 percent year-to-date in more than 90 cities that have released data for 2023, compared with data as of the same date in 2022.” While Asher acknowledges that these trends could change somewhat, this number is still “astonishing.” 

To read more CLICK HERE

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Mangino discusses van der Sloot guilty plea and confession on WFMJ-TV21

Watch my interview on WFMJ-TV21 with Lindsay McCoy discussing the guilty plea Joran van der Sloot in the murder of Natalee Holloway.

To watch the interview CLICK HERE

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

According to the FBI murder fell 6.1 percent in 2022

 Jeff Asher of Jeff-analytics writes:

The FBI released its annual report on crime providing the most comprehensive accounting of reported crime nationally last year. This year’s report comes on the heels of last year’s troublesome report which was made using complete data from around 60 percent of law enforcement agencies nationwide.

This year’s report is far improved because the FBI allowed non-NIBRS agencies to report basic crime statistics to inform the national estimates. 

Murders fell 6.1 percent in 2022 after rising considerably in 2020 and 2021. This isn’t news for Jeff-alytics followers who may remember my writing on this a few times (like here and here). Still, now we can put a formal figure on the change in murder last year. The decline in murder in 2022 puts the nation’s murder rate below where it stood in 2020 (down about -3 percent), about 20 percent above where it was in 2019, and 35 percent below where it was in 1991. This year’s decline was the largest one-year percent decline since 2009 and the largest one-year decline in total murders since 1999. (UPDATE: I hadn’t initially noticed that the FBI increased 2020’s murder tally in this year’s report. The graphs have been updated to reflect that increase).

To read more CLICK HERE

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Montana judge blocks restrictions on public drag performances

Chief District Judge Brian Morris issued a preliminary injunction that blocked the state of Montana from instituting and enforcing its restrictions on drag performances in public venues, reported Jurist. The case is in the US District Court for the District of Montana Butte Division.

Morris found that the plaintiffs in the case were likely to succeed on the merits of their claims that House Bill 359 is unconstitutional because it violates the First and Fifth Amendments to the US Constitution.

On the First Amendment claim, Morris noted that 359 imposes both content-based restrictions and viewpoint-based regulation, which leads to a strict scrutiny analysis. To pass strict scrutiny, the legislature must have passed the law to further a compelling governmental interest and narrowly tailored the law to achieve that interest. Morris also noted that 359’s legislative history provided “substantial evidence” that an “impermissible purpose” was behind 359’s enactment. This impermissible purpose was to “target the speech and expression of LGBTQ+ community members, particularly trans, Two-Spirit, and gender non-conforming people.” Morris then concluded that 359 was not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest because “[f]orcing protected expression to take place under a cover of darkness, rather than banning it outright, does not save H.B. 359 from constitutional infirmity.” Thus, Morris concluded that the plaintiffs would likely succeed on their First Amendment challenge. 

For the Fifth Amendment challenge, Morris found that 359 is likely unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. Morris noted that the law “fails to define the conduct it criminalizes ‘with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited.'” Morris also noted that there was “no evidence” submitted that minors face any harm from drag-related events.

House Bill 359 prohibits minors from attending “sexually oriented shows.” Additionally, the law bans drag story hour in public schools and libraries and bans “sexually oriented performances” in public schools, public libraries and public property where minors are present.

This is not the only litigation revolving around state bans on drag performances. Last month, a US federal judge in Texas ruled that the state’s ban on drag performances was unconstitutional and blocked it from going into effect.

To read more CLICK HERE

Monday, October 16, 2023

DOJ targets antiabortion protestors who interfere with clinics

In February, the Justice Department announced a federal indictment in a case that could send abortion protesters to prison, reported the Washington Post.

They were charged under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, a 1994 law that Attorney General Merrick Garland has called a key tool in the Biden administration’s efforts to protect reproductive rights in the face of tightening legal restrictions for women seeking abortions.

Some conservative groups, Republican lawmakers and defense attorneys have rebuked Garland, accusing the department of going too far in aggressively pursuing members of antiabortion groups who have not necessarily been dangerous. They say authorities are ignoring similar threats and vandalism at Catholic churches and reproductive health centers that counsel women against abortion.

But federal authorities and abortion rights groups said harassment, stalking and intimidation at abortion clinics have escalated since the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs case in June 2022 overturned Roe v. Wade — the court’s 1973 decision recognizing the federal right to an abortion. That behavior, they argue, has made the Justice Department’s push for federal charges that come with harsh prison penalties more urgent.

Even as he and his aides have touted the prosecutions as a response to the Dobbs decision, Garland has defended the agency’s approach, saying the Justice Department and FBI are investigating disruptive acts on both sides.

“We prosecute without respect to ideology,” he said at a Senate hearing in the spring, “but we do focus on the most violent acts, the most dangerous actors and the cases most likely to lead to danger to most Americans.”

Federal authorities are prosecuting several allegations of extremely dangerous behavior at abortion clinics that go well beyond being disruptive. Among the examples are cases involving charges that a man threatened to burn down an Ohio abortion clinic last year, that a man set fire to an Illinois clinic in January and that three men conspired to firebomb a California clinic in March.

The indictments do not link the men in those cases to organized antiabortion groups. The defendant in the Illinois case, Tyler W. Massengill, pleaded guilty and was sentenced in August to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay $1.45 million in restitution to the clinic.

Since President Biden took office in 2021, the Justice Department has brought 2o criminal prosecutions and one civil case under the FACE Act against a total of 46 defendants, according to federal officials, with all but one of the cases involving charges for disruptions at abortion clinics. That one exception is a criminal case against four abortion rights activists accused of spray-painting threatening messages last year at three Florida reproductive health centers that counsel patients against abortion.

Decrying what they view as an imbalance, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced legislation in September to repeal the law. Roy accused the Justice Department of having “brazenly weaponized the FACE Act against normal, everyday Americans across the political spectrum, simply because they are pro-life.”

“I certainly believe the undercurrent to all of this was a pushback on Dobbs,” said Bradley Friedman, an attorney for Chester Gallagher, 74, one of eight people charged in the Michigan case involving the antiabortion protesters who refused to move. “All this is, is criminal trespass. If the owner of a business does not want someone on their property, they can ask them to leave.”

Prosecutors said the protesters in Michigan blocked a patient, an employee and the clinic’s owner from accessing the building. Two of the eight defendants are facing an additional count of allegedly obstructing another Michigan abortion facility in April 2021.

Obstructions at clinics across the United States rose from 45 in 2021 to 287 last year, while stalking incidents rose from eight to 81, according to the National Abortion Federation’s annual survey. There were also increases in bomb threats, burglaries and assaults.

To read more CLICK HERE

Sunday, October 15, 2023

The intersection of the death penalty and mental illness

 Mia Armstong Lopez writing for Slate:

André Thomas has no eyes. One he gouged out in 2004, in jail, days after he murdered his estranged wife, Laura Boren, their son, and her daughter. The second he pulled out and ate in 2008, while on death row in Texas.

There’s no one who hears Thomas’ story and doesn’t respond with a “sharp intake of breath,” Robin Maher, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told me. Thomas’ lawyers have called him one of the “most mentally ill prisoners in Texas history,” a distinction that seems to unite observers too. The details of death penalty cases are always devastating, as capital punishment is, in theory, supposed to be reserved for the most severe of murders. But Thomas’ case feels uniquely raw and excruciating.

In the 18 years since he was sentenced to death, the story of what got Thomas there has been paraded out repeatedly in courts and in the media: how he cut out the children’s hearts and a part of his wife’s lung; how he pocketed the organs and walked home from Boren’s apartment after trying, unsuccessfully, to take his own life; how, the day before the crime, he sought help at a hospital after stabbing himself. A doctor found that he was paranoid, hallucinating, and suicidal, according to court records. Thomas left the hospital while the doctor was applying for an emergency detention order, which was never carried out. Thomas, who is Black, was convicted by an all-white jury that included three members who openly disapproved of interracial marriage. (Boren was white.)

Thomas has long-standing diagnoses of schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, and the delusions that characterize his illness are religious in nature and extend across decades. Following the murders, Thomas reportedly told police that he killed Boren and her two children, who he believed were connected to the devil, because God told him to do so. Now Thomas has said he believes that the state is trying to kill him because of “how important” he is to God.

Thomas was scheduled to die in April. But these delusions were concerning enough that a Texas court decided that his lawyers could have the opportunity to seek to demonstrate he is “incompetent to be executed”—that is, that he is not in a mental state to understand the reason for his execution. Earlier this month, a judge appointed the two experts—a psychiatrist, recommended by Thomas’ team, and a psychologist, recommended by the state—who will evaluate Thomas, and whose evaluations will inform the judge’s ultimate decision, in the coming months, as to whether the state of Texas can kill him.

After years of appeals, these sorts of competency proceedings often represent a last-ditch effort to avert the death penalty for prisoners with serious mental illness. With few exceptions, “success” comes only in the form of delaying an execution date (not, for example, resentencing to a different punishment). But competency proceedings serve as a microcosm for how the criminal legal system perceives mental illness, weighs responsibility, and defines justice. To understand what Thomas is up against is to understand just how far a state may push a person in pursuit of killing them.

In the U.S., it is illegal to execute someone who is “insane.” In its 1986 ruling to that effect, in the case ​​Ford v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court cited English common law from the 1600s, which judged the execution of a “mad man” to be a “miserable spectacle” of “extre[me] inhumanity and cruelty.” Ford, who was convicted of murder in 1974 and sentenced to death in Florida, developed severe delusions about vast conspiracies against him, exhibiting symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. He later went through Florida’s process for determining competency, which involved a 30-minute evaluation by three psychiatrists appointed by the governor. They each issued reports that determined, in broad strokes, that although Ford was suffering from psychosis, he understood the penalty to be imposed on him. The Supreme Court determined that the procedures for adjudicating Ford’s competence were inadequate, and his case was sent back down to the lower courts. Ford died on death row five years later, before the question of his own competence to be executed—and thus, according to the Supreme Court case in his name, eligibility for the death penalty—could be settled with any finality.

But what, exactly, qualifies someone as legally “insane”? Ford didn’t provide a clear answer. Twenty years later, in Panetti v. Quarterman, the court inched closer to one. Panetti, who was convicted in Texas of murdering his in-laws, also has diagnoses of schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, and believes that his execution is a conspiracy, part of his long-standing “spiritual warfare with Satan” (as his lawyer put it last year). For execution in cases like Panetti’s to be constitutional, the Supreme Court ruled, the prisoner needs a “rational understanding” of the state’s reason for execution ahead of that execution being carried out. Such an understanding is required for “retributive bang for the buck,” as law professor Christopher Slobogin told me. But “rational understanding,” the court itself acknowledged, is also “difficult to define”: The justices left that work up to the states, and the patchwork of different judges within them.

Ford and Panetti establish that going forward with the execution of someone with serious mental illness can be unconstitutional. But for years, advocates have hoped that the Supreme Court would also exclude defendants with serious mental illness from ever being sentenced to death in the first place. The Supreme Court has prohibited the death sentence for other defendants: In 2002 it ruled that people with developmental disabilities were ineligible for the death penalty, and in 2005, it excluded juvenile offenders from capital punishment. But given the makeup of the court, adding severe mental illness to that list is now highly unlikely.

In the meantime, some states have taken action: Both Ohio and Kentucky have prohibited the death penalty for people with severe mental illness. (The details vary by state, but generally speaking, illnesses include schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, and delusional disorder, and the illness or associated symptoms must play a role in the crime.) Similar bills are sitting in other state legislatures, including in Arizona and Texas, but they are difficult to pass because of the polarization that surrounds the death penalty generally.

In many states, the answer to “Who can ethically receive the death penalty?” is “no one”: Twenty-three states have outlawed capital punishment, and the governors of five others have suspended executions. In the states that do enforce it, the death penalty is often carried out in a highly politized, procedurally precarious manner. An analysis by the Death Penalty Information Center found that between 1972 and 2020, “prosecutions in just 2 percent of U.S. counties accounted for half of all U.S. executions”; the top three counties were in Texas. In these counties, lawyers and advocates fight for their clients’ lives with extremely limited tools.

In theory, the line between sanity and insanity, knowledge of the consequences of one’s choices and incomprehension of the line between cause and effect, could be grounds for a rich and nuanced philosophical discussion. But the death penalty itself is a blunt, extreme punishment, and there are familiar patterns in many of the proceedings that decide whether someone is mentally eligible to suffer it. Prosecutors claim that the prisoner is “malingering”—faking their illness to avoid punishment. Mental health experts hired by the defendant’s team opine that the individual in question has a long, documented history of mental illness, including severe delusions, often religious or conspiratorial. Judges find that, sure, the prisoner is mentally ill, but not mentally ill enough. Court filings often reveal a “sliding door” moment that occurred shortly before the original crime: some interaction the individual had with law enforcement or the health care system where things could have gone totally differently, where they could have gotten help, where the future crime could have, possibly, been averted—but was not.

Put together, these patterns reveal a brutal truth: If the state wants to kill someone with mental illness, it can often find a way to do so. A 2022 article, for example, identified nine Fifth Circuit cases since the 2007 Panetti decision in which the prisoner’s competency was in question—in not a single one did the appeals court find the prisoner incompetent to be executed.

Panetti himself may be an exception—for now. Since his landmark Supreme Court case, he has remained on death row, cycling through competency proceedings. It is typical for prisoners to be stuck on death row for decades, caught in a snare of proceedings and appeals. On Sept. 27, after almost a year of deliberation following a hearing, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman determined that Panetti was incompetent. “The Eighth Amendment,” Pitman wrote, “demands more than a single thread of arguably rational thought in a sea of otherwise disorganized thoughts and delusions to establish that a person rationally understands the reasons for his execution.”

The ruling is a victory for Panetti. But it has no sense of finality; the state can appeal Pitman’s decision. Texas could also argue, in the future, that Panetti has regained competence, and set another execution date—restarting the entire process.

For death row lawyers, any foothold against execution is still better than none. In preparing for his competency evaluation, Thomas’ legal team pursued a risky strategy in hopes of ultimately getting their client more humane treatment. In court filings, they argued that Thomas should stop taking all antipsychotic medications prior to being evaluated by experts so that they could assess his rationality at a baseline, unmedicated state. This was a desperate effort to ensure that Thomas has the best chance of being deemed incompetent by the experts, and later the judge, but it also illustrates a clear dilemma: Would it be safe for Thomas to be taken off medication? Could we trust the Texas prison system to keep someone experiencing an episode of psychosis and self-harm safe?

It’s an example of what Maher called the “perverse choices” tied up in the death penalty. For lawyers, doctors, and others who walk through the capital process, this is a hard truth: Attempting to avert someone’s death can have excruciating consequences for their lives.

In the absence of more robust state laws or guidance from the Supreme Court, we are left in a sort of purgatory where people spend decades cycling through court procedures that broadcast the intimate details of their mental health crises to varying levels of decisionmakers, while their lawyers are often forced to weigh what would be best for them medically against what’s most strategic legally. Victims’ families, too, are brought before courts again and again, their pain stretched out over years with little resolution. Tax dollars disappear in a black hole of expert fees and attorney hours. Usually, the outcome is the same. In Ford, the Supreme Court decided that executing a person who is extremely mentally ill would be a “miserable spectacle,” saying we owe them a process. But we have, decades later, not managed to move beyond spectacle.

Thomas will soon be evaluated by the two court-appointed experts tasked with determining whether he understands that “he is to be executed and that the execution is imminent,” and the reason for the execution. Some argue that these standards, established by Texas state law, are more simplistic than the standard laid out by the Supreme Court in Panetti. But Thomas’ fate will ultimately depend on the court’s understanding of what he understands. It is a shaky series of questions on which to stake someone’s life.

In setting the conditions for Thomas’ evaluation, the judge ignored the request for him to be unmedicated. As it stands now, he will stay on his treatment.

According to court records submitted by his attorney in July, when asked what would happen if the state did execute him, Thomas said, “They can’t kill me, that’s the thing. They can’t.” He reportedly posited he would end up with brain damage but wouldn’t die. “I’d be locked,” he continued, “inside a room inside my mind.”

To read more CLICK HERE

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Conservative Wisconsin legislators back-off impeaching newly elected supreme court justice

Wisconsin Republicans signaled on that they were retreating from their threats to impeach a recently seated liberal State Supreme Court justice, Janet Protasiewicz, before the newly left-leaning court could throw out the gerrymandered legislative maps that have cemented the G.O.P.’s hold on power in the state, reported The New York Times.

Robin Vos, the powerful Republican speaker of the State Assembly, said at a news conference in Madison that he would not seek to remove Justice Protasiewicz based on the argument he and fellow Republicans had been making for two months — that statements she made calling the maps “rigged” during her campaign for office this year compelled impeachment if she refused to recuse herself from a case challenging them.

Now, Mr. Vos said, the focus would be on what Justice Protasiewicz does “in office.” He said that if the court ruled against the Republican-drawn maps and other conservative causes, he would appeal its decisions to the U.S. Supreme Court. Impeachment, he said, remained “on the table” but was not something Republicans would pursue now.

“If they decide to inject their own political bias inside the process and not follow the law, we have the ability to go to the Supreme Court and we also have the ability to hold her accountable to the voters of Wisconsin,” Mr. Vos said.

To read more CLICK HERE

Friday, October 13, 2023

NJ Senator Menendez charged with being an agent for Egypt

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey has now been charged  with conspiring for years to act as an agent of the Egyptian government while he held a powerful role in shaping U.S. foreign policy, putting the Democrat in deeper legal trouble as he continues to reject calls to resign, reported The Associated Press.

The superseding indictment in Manhattan federal court accuses Menendez of violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires people to register with the U.S. government if they act as “an agent of a foreign principal.” As a member of Congress, Menendez was prohibited from being an agent of a foreign government.

The new charge comes weeks after Menendez and his wife were accused of accepting bribes of cash, gold bars and a luxury car from three New Jersey businessmen who wanted the senator’s help and influence over foreign affairs.

The new indictment says a conspiracy occurred from January 2018 to June 2022, alleging that Menendez “promised to take and took a series of acts on behalf of Egypt, including on behalf of Egyptian military and intelligence officials.” It said he conspired to do so with his wife, Nadine, and a business associate and fellow defendant, Wael Hana.

According to the indictment, Hana and Nadine Menendez also communicated requests and directives from Egyptian officials to Menendez.

Hours after the latest charge was revealed, Menendez issued a statement, saying it “flies in the face of my long record of standing up for human rights and democracy in Egypt and in challenging leaders of that country, including President (Fattah) El-Sisi on these issues.”

“I have been, throughout my life, loyal to only one country — the United States of America, the land my family chose to live in democracy and freedom,” he added. ”Piling new charge upon new charge does not make the allegations true. ... I again ask people who know me and my record to give me the chance to present my defense and show my innocence.”

To read more CLICK HERE

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Texas executes man for killing elderly woman 23 years ago

The 20th Execution of 2023 

A Texas man, Jedidiah Murphy, who unsuccessfully challenged the safety of the state’s lethal injection drugs and raised questions about evidence used to persuade a jury to sentence him to death for killing an elderly woman decades ago was executed on October 10, 2023, reported The Associated Press.

Murphy, 48, was pronounced dead after an injection at the state penitentiary in Huntsville for the October 2000 fatal shooting of 80-year-old Bertie Lee Cunningham of the Dallas suburb of Garland. Cunningham was killed during a carjacking.

“To the family of the victim, I sincerely apologize for all of it,” Murphy said while strapped to a gurney in the Texas death chamber and after a Christian pastor, his right hand on Murphy’s chest, prayed for the victim’s family, Murphy’s family and friends and the inmate.

“I hope this helps, if possible, give you closure,” Murphy said.

He then began a lengthy recitation of Psalm 34, ending with: “The Lord redeems the soul of his servants, and none of those who trust in him shall be condemned.”

After telling the warden he was ready, Murphy turned his head toward a friend watching through a window a few feet from him, telling her, “God bless all of y’all. It’s OK. Tell my babies I love them.”

Then he shouted out: “Bella is my wife!”

As the lethal dose of pentobarbital took effect, he took two barely audible breaths and appeared to go to sleep, The pastor stood over him, his left hand over Murphy’s heart, until a physician entered the room about 20 minutes later to examine Murphy and pronounce him dead at 10:15 p.m., 25 minutes after the drug began.

The execution took place hours after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned an order that had delayed the death sentence from being carried out. The high court late Tuesday also turned down another request to stay Murphy’s execution over claims the drugs he was injected with were exposed to extreme heat and smoke during a recent fire, making them unsafe and leaving him at risk of pain and suffering.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday had upheld a federal judge’s order from last week delaying the execution after Murphy’s lawyers filed a lawsuit seeking DNA testing of evidence presented at his 2001 trial.

But the state attorney general’s office appealed the 5th Circuit’s decision, with the Supreme Court ruling in Texas’ favor.

In their filings, Murphy’s attorneys had questioned evidence of two robberies and a kidnapping used by prosecutors to persuade jurors during the penalty phase of his trial that Murphy would be a future danger — a legal finding needed to secure a death sentence in Texas.

Murphy admitted he killed Cunningham but had long denied he committed the robberies or kidnapping. His attorneys argued these crimes were the strongest evidence prosecutors had to show Murphy would pose an ongoing threat, but that the evidence linking him to the crimes was problematic, including a questionable identification of Murphy by one of the victims.

Prosecutors had argued against the DNA testing, saying state law only allows for post-conviction testing of evidence related to guilt or innocence and not to a defendant’s sentence. They also called Murphy’s request for a stay “manipulative” and say it should have been filed years ago.

“A capital inmate who waits until the eleventh hour to raise long-available claims should not get to complain that he needs more time to litigate them,” the attorney general’s office wrote in its petition to the high court.

Prosecutors said the state presented “significant other evidence” to show Murphy was a future danger.

In upholding the execution stay, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had said another case before it that was brought by a different Texas death row inmate raised similar issues and it was best to wait for a ruling in that case.

Murphy had long expressed remorse for killing Cunningham.

To read more CLICK HERE

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Western PA prosecutor responsible for 25% of the state's pending death penalty cases

 In February 2021, two men wearing masks entered a convenience store in Donora, Pennsylvania, and shot the clerk, Nicholas Tarpley, six times. Months later, police arrested Sidney McLean and Devell Christian, and charged them with murder. Washington County District Attorney Jason Walsh announced that he would seek the death penalty against them should they be convicted, reported Bolt. 

Then that December, police arrested a third suspect, Jah Sutton. Video did not show her at the scene of the crime but investigators connected her to the killing by claiming she was dating McLean and saying they discovered her DNA on a bullet casing found at the store. Walsh announced that he would prosecute Sutton for capital murder and also seek the death penalty against her.

In a preliminary hearing, a state trooper admitted there was no additional evidence against Sutton, testifying that he had not found anything on her cell phone tying her to the killing of Tarpley. Sutton’s lawyer, Timothy Dawson, has insisted there was no connection, pointing out that Sutton was not in fact McLean’s girlfriend; she had previously admitted to an investigator that she knew him by a different name and that police had only seen her with him because she was a sex worker. “The location of DNA on a shell casing does not establish anything other than at some unknown point in time, this Defendant handled or touched that casing. Nothing more,” Dawson wrote in a court filing. 

In an interview, Dawson said that he thought Walsh had overstepped, telling Bolts, “There’s not sufficient evidence to even prosecute a murder charge against her, let alone a capital case.” 

Ryan James, a lawyer for Christian, Sutton’s co-defendant, filed a motion in May arguing that Walsh should be disqualified from prosecuting the case because “there is more than just suspicion that the death penalty is being sought by this [DA] for political gain.” In his motion, James alleged that Walsh chose to seek the death penalty against Sutton to pressure her into giving information about her co-defendants. “[M]onths before being charged, Ms. Sutton was detained, badgered, and threatened by law enforcement,” James wrote, claiming police told her that if she didn’t cooperate she would lose custody of her child and go to jail, where she’d be brutally killed by a drug gang.

Since taking office in 2021, Walsh has made a name for himself because of how frequently he decides to pursue the death penalty. In his first year, he sought the death penalty in five out of nine of the county’s murder cases. To date, his office is responsible for 12 capital cases that have yet to go to trial, making up approximately a quarter of the total pending death penalty cases in Pennsylvania. Washington County only makes up approximately two percent of Pennsylvania’s population. 

Walsh, a Republican who is seeking a full term on Nov. 7, has defended how often he seeks the death penalty, including in the case against Sutton. Last year he told KDKA News, “I’m very consistent and will seek the highest form of punishment for the most heinous crimes.” Walsh did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, but this week his office filed a motion for a gag order to bar lawyers on the Christian case from speaking about it as well as another motion seeking to punish them with sanctions over their attempt to remove him from the case. His motions also cite the inquiries he received from Bolts.

At the same time, Pennsylvania has been moving away from the death penalty over concerns about the cost of capital cases, racial biases, and its overall ineffectiveness in reducing crime. There’s been a moratorium on executions in the state since 2015, meaning that anyone sent to death row won’t be executed until it’s lifted. Earlier this year, Governor Josh Shapiro called on the Pennsylvania legislature to abolish the death penalty. 

Marc Bookman, executive director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, an organization that works on death penalty issues, said that Walsh is “abusing his discretion by seeking the death penalty in every case he can,” and his use of the death penalty is straining Washington County’s resources. “Washington County doesn’t have qualified lawyers for these capital cases, and it’s terribly expensive to taxpayers,” he said.

The death penalty has emerged as a key issue in the local DA race this year as Walsh faces Christina DeMarco-Breeden, a prosecutor in nearby Somerset County who is from Washington County. DeMarco-Breeden says the death penalty should be used for the worst crimes and criticized Walsh for overusing the punishment for his own political gain while depleting taxpayer dollars to fund prosecutions. “It is my position that he’s politicizing the death penalty,” she told Bolts. 

Walsh took over as Washington County’s DA in 2021 after the death of his predecessor, Eugene Vittone. During Vittone’s nine years in office, he sought the death penalty just five times. Prior to Walsh’s role in the DA’s office, Walsh worked in private practice representing clients in criminal cases, DUIs, and white collar crime.

Walsh’s capital cases are primarily focused on infants who died under a variety of circumstances, with seven people facing the death penalty for such charges. In December 2022, he said he would pursue the death penalty against a couple after their baby died from fentanyl ingestion; one of their lawyers said that the poisoning was accidental, which would have disqualified them for the death penalty because the punishment requires the killing to be intentional. Another of Walsh’s death penalty cases involves a couple who were found to have hidden their baby in a wall after he died; they say he died naturally and hid him because they could not afford to bury him. Walsh is also prosecuting a man who said his baby died after he fell on top of him; child welfare investigators said that was likely not the case and that his injuries denoted physical abuse. 

As deputy DA in Somerset County, DeMarco-Breeden is currently seeking the death penalty against one defendant, Paul Kendrick, who is accused of killing a prison guard. DeMarco-Breeden said that she thinks the case warrants the death penalty because there’s strong evidence of the brutal killing. “I believe it’s the first degree case, it’s actually on, it’s on surveillance video. I think the jury is going to have a really hard time watching it,” she said. 

If elected Washington County DA, DeMarco-Breeden said she would review each capital case to see if the evidence is sufficient for a death sentence. “Ethically, I have to,” she said. “I think you know, as prosecutors we are bound by the law, we are bound by only proceeding on charges that we believe we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Washington County is located on Pennsylvania’s western border and is home to roughly 209,000 people, about one fifth the size of Allegheny County, which is home to Pittsburgh. Yet Walsh has sought the death penalty much more aggressively than his counterpart there; Allegheny County has just five pending death penalty cases, despite having a higher murder rate.

Critics have said that Walsh’s decisions to seek the death penalty will be costly to Washington County taxpayers. It costs much more to prosecute death penalty cases than other murder cases that are non-capital. Researchers haven’t studied how much death penalty prosecutions in Pennsylvania are but in Kansas, for example, it costs an average of $395,800 to take a death penalty case to trial and appeal, as opposed to $99,000 for non-death penalty cases. Indiana death penalty trials cost an average of $789,000, while the average cost of a life without parole case is $185,000, according to researchers. 

Compounding the problem, Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that doesn’t provide state funding for indigent defense. Instead, each county is responsible for budgeting for public defenders, and because the majority of capital defendants are indigent, or too poor to afford their own attorney, they rely on public defenders to represent them. There are 12 pending capital cases but only 10 lawyers in Washington County who are qualified to work on death penalty cases, a database tracking qualifications shows. 

Historically, Pennsylvania death sentences haven’t held up in appeals. More than half of the 408 people sentenced to death since the beginning of the modern death penalty era in 1976 have had their sentences reduced on appeal and six people have been exonerated.

New death sentences have declined over the years. Since 2015, just nine people have been sentenced to death. Of the 100 people currently on Pennsylvania’s death row, just one is from  Washington County. 

Bookman with the Atlantic Center says Walsh’s use of the death penalty will spark long and costly litigation. “It’s likely these cases will end up being reversed and retried years from now, opening up old wounds for the victims and costing even more money to the taxpayers.”

To read more CLICK HERE