Category Archives: Access to Justice

Why the federal government isn’t prosecuting the officer who choked Eric Garner

Editorial note by Randall Hill: 

Systems, including the legal system, are created to protect the wealth, power, and self-interest of those who create them.

White slave owners created our legal and other systems still in use today. Eric Garner, Mike Brown and more were casualties of rigged systems.

Can you name a single system that does not fail black people in general? Education, banking, political, and just about every other system you can think of has extraordinary obstacles or traps targeted against us. We are de facto slaves because of our misguided trust in or lack of understanding about the systems that govern us. 

Unless we are prepared to make monumental sacrifices nothing will change. Tomorrow we will learn about another unarmed black person killed by police, get upset and frustrated, possibly march or protest but nothing will change. We will also hear about another black person being gunned down not by the police but by another black person. The police chief and mayor will talk about plans to reduce crime, community leaders will offer prayers and vigils, "We must stop killed each other" signs may go up, but nothing will change because the systems that caused the problems in the first place will not change. 

When we become successful, our success does not look like white success. For the most part, they own and we go to work for them. Two years ago, one in seven white families were millionaires and according to Credit Suisse, there are over 17 million millionaires in the U.S.

White people, for the most part, don't have entire systems designed to work against them, therefore as a group, they have better access to education, employment, housing, capital, and every other meaningful institution and system. Until we figure out a way to disrupt their systems the status quo will remain. What are you prepared to do? If the answer is nothing, nothing will change.

"Give me liberty or give me death"

Most Americans are familiar with the famous freedom quote articulated so eloquently by Patrick Henry, a man who owned 67 slaves at the time of his death. Many have never heard the full speech, a video reenactment is below.

As a slave owner, Patrick Henry knew he did not want to become a slave himself. He understood probably better than most that freedom isn't given, it must be taken. 


Article by Caren Morrison, Associate Professor of Law, Georgia State University

The Justice Department won’t file federal charges against the New York City police officer who put Eric Garner into the chokehold that led to his death. With the statute of limitations having run out, the case, legally, is closed.

Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother, says the federal government should have filed charges. 

The decision, announced almost exactly five years after Garner was pronounced dead following a confrontation with police officers in Staten Island on July 17, 2014, has sparked renewed objections from his relatives, activists and politicians.

Every officer involved has remained on the force, and no criminal charges have been filed. Daniel Pantaleo, the officer caught on video with his arm around Garner’s neck, was assigned to desk duty, but has stayed on the department’s payroll and even received an increase in his overtime pay.

Garner’s death was brutal, but as a former federal prosecutor and a criminal procedure professor who studies how prosecutors handle police violence cases, the lack of federal charges doesn’t surprise me.

According to criminal justice professor Philip Stinson, local prosecutors are often reluctant to prosecute the officers they work with to investigate cases. Reporting by the Marshall Project suggests they may not want to anger the police unions they often count on for political support. And existing law gives the police the benefit of the doubt in most situations. Based on my research, it seems that this is just how the justice system works.

New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo allegedly used a banned chokehold in the July 2014 death of Eric Garner.

Obstacles to prosecution

The case’s basic details are not contested. Pantaleo, who is white, was among a group of officers who approached Eric Garner, who was black, during a routine arrest for selling untaxed, loose cigarettes.

The encounter, which a bystander shot using his phone and the city’s medical examiner ruled a homicide, soon turned contentious. It culminated with Pantaleo taking Garner down to the pavement with his arm wrapped around his neck. Pantaleo is seen shortly afterward on the video pressing down on Garner’s head as other officers crowded around him.

A few months after Garner’s death, the Staten Island district attorney announced that he had presented the case to the grand jury, but did not obtain an indictment.

A public outcry ensued. Garner’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry at #BlackLivesMatter protests.

But the fact is that it is extremely difficult to bring charges against on-duty cops for excessive force.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that in police use-of-force cases, allowance must be made “for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments – in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving – about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”

Ever since, few juries have found police officers guilty of using excessive force. Since 2005, only 35 officers have been found guilty of charges related to killing civilians.

A sign and plaque near where Eric Garner had a deadly encounter with the police in the Staten Island borough of New York City.

Federal civil rights

Because of the Constitution’s protection against double jeopardy, which prevents anyone from being charged twice for the same crime, people aren’t usually prosecuted more than once for a single incident. But because U.S. law considers the states and the federal government to be legally independent jurisdictions, the Justice Department can indict an officer who has previously been charged under state law, even if he was acquitted.

When excessive force prosecutions against police officers don’t result in a conviction at the state level, the local U.S. attorney’s office may indict the officers for violating a person’s civil rights. This happened most notably in 1991 in the case of Rodney King, the black motorist who was beaten by Los Angeles police officers, and recently after the South Carolina mistrial of police officer Michael Slager, for shooting Walter Scott, another unarmed black man, in the back.

But the type of proof needed to bring a federal civil rights case is much more demanding than for a state criminal case. While there are numerous state charges that might be brought against an officer who causes the death of a civilian, from murder to manslaughter to reckless endangerment to assault, there is only one route for a civil rights case.

In those cases, prosecutors must prove that officers used excessive force against a person, generally defined as force that was clearly unreasonable in the circumstances. In addition, they have to prove that the officer’s actions were “willful.”

And willfulness is “the highest standard of intent imposed by law,” as the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, Richard P. Donoghue, said in his public statement about Pantaleo. “An officer’s mistake, fear, misperception or even poor judgment does not constitute willful conduct under federal criminal civil rights law.”

A narrow path

Many news outlets reported that the decision to close the Garner case happened once U.S. Attorney General William Barr ordered the case dropped, overruling the Civil Rights Division in his own department.

Activists have questioned Barr’s civil rights record, noting that while serving as President George H.W. Bush’s attorney general, Barr released a report titled “The Case for More Incarceration.” Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, quashed the Justice Department’s attempts to reform policing.

Still, I’m not sure the outcome would have been different with someone else in the White House.

In fact, disagreements on whether the case could be successfully prosecuted in federal court also snarled proceedings during the Obama administration. And there was only ever a narrow path to prosecution.

When Donoghue gave a detailed explanation for his decision, he took an unusual step. Most of the time, when officers don’t get charged, the reasons are shrouded in secrecy. Instead, Donoghue gave a painstaking explanation of the ambiguities in the video, the conflicting medical expert reports, and the reasons he believed the high standard of intent could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

I once served in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, which Donoghue now runs. I hate the fact that many people will never feel that justice was done in Eric Garner’s tragic and avoidable death.

Yet I’m not sure that I could have reached a different conclusion myself.The Conversation


How Eric Garner's Death Changed New York And The NYPD

The sad reality is, that unless your oppression negatively impacts your oppressor, they have no incentive to change.  Even New York Police Commissioner, James P. O'Neill, whose comments begin at 2:26 in the timeline, acknowledges how the protest over no indictments being issued in Eric Garner's death, culminated in the death of two police officers, which was the moment the police department realized they needed to make a change.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation. The editorial note preceding the article and the video and comments at the end were not part of the original.

A Lawsuit Over Ferguson’s “Debtors Prison” Drags On

The federal class-action claims thousands of people in Missouri were jailed because they couldn’t pay off fines. Four years after the suit was filed, the plaintiffs are still waiting, and wondering if the deck is stacked against them.

By Topher Sanders

In January 2014, Tonya DeBerry was driving through an unincorporated area of St. Louis County, Missouri, when a police officer pulled her over for having expired license plates.

Allison Nelson in Jennings, Missouri. Her mother, Tonya DeBerry, was jailed over outstanding traffic tickets from three jurisdictions. After paying St. Louis County, she was handed over to Ferguson and Jennings, and in each, she was told she’d be released only after paying a portion of the fines.

After discovering that DeBerry, 51, had several outstanding traffic tickets from three jurisdictions, the officer handcuffed her and took her to jail.

To be released, she was told, she would have to pay hundreds of dollars in fines she owed the county, according to her account in a federal lawsuit. But after her family came up with the money, DeBerry wasn’t released from custody. Instead, she was handed over to the municipalities of Ferguson and Jennings, and in each city, she was told she would be released only after she paid a portion of the fines she owed them, according to the lawsuit.

It was as if she were being held for “ransom,” her lawyer would later say.

The Supreme Court ruled almost 50 years ago that a person can’t be jailed for not being able to pay a fine. But like so many people in Missouri, DeBerry had ended up cycling through a succession of jails for that very reason, caught up in what critics have called modern-day “debtors prisons,” used by towns to keep fines flowing into municipal coffers.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” said her daughter, Allison Nelson, who has also spent time in jail for not being able to pay traffic fines.

If DeBerry and her family were exasperated by the heavy-handed collection efforts, they would learn how hard it would be to hold the authorities accountable, especially in Ferguson, even after the killing of Michael Brown later that year drew national attention to the city’s troubled criminal justice system.

The city slowly stopped jailing people for not being able to pay fines as the news media showed the victims were primarily black and the Justice Department made clear that what Ferguson had been doing was wrong. But four years after a federal class-action suit was filed against the city on behalf of thousands of people who claimed they were jailed for their inability to pay fines, the plaintiffs are still waiting for redress.

The city has sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, filing a succession of motions, arguing among other reasons that instead of suing the city, the plaintiffs should be suing the municipal division of the state court. All three of the motions have been denied by the judge, Audrey G. Fleissig, of the U.S. District Court in St. Louis, though one of the rulings was appealed and that took about a year to resolve.

Nelson flips through photocopies of traffic tickets and legal filings.

One issue has proved to be particularly frustrating to the plaintiffs: whether the city of Ferguson is even insured for a class action.

In March 2016, the lawyer representing Ferguson sent an email to a representative of the city’s insurer, saying that the scope of the lawsuit had expanded, and that concern about the case “grew” after a similar suit was settled for what was believed to be a “substantial amount of money.”

The five-sentence email concluded with the lawyer, Peter Dunne, of the St. Louis firm Pitzer Snodgrass, saying that legal action may be necessary to resolve the question of whether the city was covered for a class action.

“We believe a DJ [declaratory judgment] suit to determine coverage may be necessary,” Dunne wrote.

Three months later, the insurance trust filed a declaratory judgment suit against Ferguson in St. Louis County Circuit Court, asking a judge to find that the city did not have insurance coverage for class actions.

Dunne’s role was not publicly known until September when St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger reported Ferguson’s allegation that Dunne had violated his duty to the city. The email documenting Dunne’s discussion of a lawsuit with the insurer was first obtained by ProPublica. Dunne, one of the firm’s principals, did not respond to requests for comment. The other principals did not respond to emails or to a call to the firm’s office.

Suggesting legal action involving his own client was a breach of legal ethics, some experts said, and the revelation has only deepened the sense among the plaintiffs and their supporters that the deck is stacked.

“No matter where the citizens of Ferguson go in the legal system, justice is really hard for them to obtain,” said Vincent Southerland, executive director of New York University School of Law’s Center on Race, Inequality and the Law. “It’s another example that we have a legal system that was not built to protect and vindicate the rights of the most vulnerable among us.”

The killing of Brown by a police officer in August 2014 and the unrest that followed thrust Ferguson into the middle of a growing national debate over race and law enforcement. But for black people in Ferguson and the surrounding North County region, racial discrimination had long defined their relationship with the local police and courts.

Even as the rest of the country moved on from Ferguson, the people seeking a judgment against the city found themselves mired in the machinations of an insular legal system and an overburdened insurance carrier.

Ferguson, a city of about 21,000 people, was insured through a cooperative of 25 municipalities called the St. Louis Area Insurance Trust, commonly referred to as SLAIT.

The trust has operated largely out of the public eye. It took the persistence of Messenger, who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his columns on “debtors prisons” in rural Missouri, to make the trust comply with open government laws.

Messenger said the rural courts ensnared whites, while in Ferguson and elsewhere in North County, it was blacks who were victimized. “But it’s the same concept,” he said. “It’s policing on the poor, it’s jurisdictions that don’t have a tax base anymore looking to the judicial system as a fundraising tool and judges allowing themselves to be tax collectors rather than purveyors of justice.”

Four years after a federal class-action suit was filed against Ferguson on behalf of thousands who claimed they were jailed for their inability to pay fines, the plaintiffs are still waiting for redress.

The trust hired Dunne to provide Ferguson’s defense of the class-action lawsuit. But his firm, Pitzer Snodgrass, was also providing the trust with legal advice on insurance coverage issues, according to a court filing by Ferguson. That set up what Ferguson said in the filing was a conflict that the city had not been made aware of.

Even if city officials wanted to settle the case, the trust claims in court filings there isn’t coverage and it won’t pay out. The insurance trust’s lawsuit will determine whether there is coverage.

Michael Downey, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert on legal ethics, said that unless Dunne had Ferguson’s permission, Dunne should not have talked to the insurer about the possibility of a lawsuit over coverage.

“A breach of the duty of confidentiality basically to encourage a party to take action against your client is a pretty serious violation of the rules,” Downey said.

Even if Dunne thought he was conveying something that the insurer already knew, the exchange was still concerning, Downey said.

The trust, through its lawyer, declined to comment.

Michael Frisch, Georgetown University Law Center’s ethics counsel, said that, were the bar to pursue an investigation, any punishment would not be severe. A reprimand — at most, he said.

“It’s the kind of a thing that would not draw that much of a response from the bar,” Frisch said. “Lawyers tend not to get suspended for things like this.”

New York University law professor Stephen Gillers, who specializes in legal ethics, said that regardless of any punishment, Dunn’s actions are significant.

“It’s a big deal, because clients are entitled to loyalty,” he said. “If you can’t be equally loyal to both clients, then you have a conflict and you have to withdraw entirely or from one or the other client.”

For lawyers hired by insurance companies to represent policyholders, the question of who is the client was for many years unsettled ethical terrain, experts say.

Lawyers can feel a sense of obligation to the insurance companies that hire them — and that can provide a steady stream of business — said William Barker, co-author of “Professional Responsibilities of Insurance Defense Counsel.”

Barker, a Chicago lawyer with the firm Dentons, said that until the 1970s, lawyers hired by insurance companies to represent a policyholder typically thought of the company as their chief client. But a series of court decisions since then established that the lawyer owes undivided loyalty to the policyholder, and that is why the lawyer’s actions in the Ferguson case appear to be troubling, Barker said. “That’s something that the defense lawyer ought not to be doing,” he said. “The lawyer who is handling the defense ought not to be involved, certainly in advising the insurance company on coverage issues.”

Michael-John Voss, a lawyer for the ArchCity Defenders, the civil rights group that brought the lawsuit against Ferguson, expects to case to drag into 2020.

“The relief and the remedy has been a long time coming, and there’s no clear end in sight,” he said. “And it reemphasized to me the way that these larger structures are put in place to avoid accountability and to perpetuate a system of social control.”

ProPublica asked the insurance trust if it had instructed Dunne to act as he did, but the trust’s lawyer said the organization would not answer any of ProPublica’s questions because of the ongoing lawsuits.

The insurance cooperative was created in the 1980s to help small St. Louis-area municipalities share the cost of liability insurance and health care. The arrangement worked for the occasional slip-and-fall claim and other routine municipal litigation. But it has not held up well in the face of payouts to cops injured on duty and for actions by the police and the courts.

Most notably, the trust paid $1.5 million to Brown’s family in 2017 to settle a wrongful death claim against Ferguson. But that was hardly the only big hit in recent years. In 2016, a jury awarded $3 million to the family of Jason Moore, an unarmed 31-year-old man, who died after a Ferguson police officer delivered several shots from a Taser.

A state audit released in February showed the organization’s fund balance dropped to $3.8 million in 2018 from $12.2 million in 2016. Like many insurers, the trust also has its own coverage, known as reinsurance, and it turned to those carriers to help with the Moore verdict. But the companies have told the trust that they won’t cover the judgment in the Moore case because the companies allege the trust improperly notified them of the claim. The trust is suing the companies.

Dunne and his firm are no longer working on the Ferguson case. The firm was disqualified by the judge after it hired a lawyer from the ArchCity Defenders who represented one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs in court.

De’carlon Seewood, who stepped down in March after three and a half years as Ferguson’s city manager, said resolving the lawsuit will help the community move beyond the abuses and the notoriety that came with them.

“It is important to kind of move forward and show that new face, that better face,” Seewood said this year, before he left Ferguson to become the city manager in Fairburn, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. Jeffrey Blume, Ferguson’s interim city manager, directed questions to the city’s attorney, who declined to answer.

Seewood said the city had hoped the insurance trust would take care of the settlement the way the insurer for the city of Jennings had. But Jennings was in a very different position. Its insurer was Travelers, the country’s sixth-largest property and casualty insurer. By contrast, the insurance trust is a small cooperative with dwindling funds.

“The insurance [trust] looked at the enormity of what’s being asked and they said that’s it’s outside their [coverage] of the city, and so the city finds itself fighting with its insurance company about [coverage],” Seewood said.

According to a memo written by the trust’s claims administrator, the plaintiffs originally asked for $27.5 million but during mediation in April 2016 reduced the demand to $9.5 million. That amount is what the plaintiffs believe, based on the policies, is the total coverage limit of Ferguson’s insurance.

Alexandra Lahav, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law and an expert in civil litigation, said a case like this typically would be resolved in about two years and said the insurance dispute was slowing the process.

“This really shouldn’t be a very complicated class action,” Lahav said.

Lisa Soronen, executive director for the State and Local Legal Center, a Washington organization that supports states and local governments in legal disputes that rise to the U.S. Supreme Court, said the dispute between the trust and Ferguson didn’t leave the city with many sound options other than fighting the case mightily.

“As a practical matter, Ferguson’s a really small city that has no money,” she said. “If there’s no insurance coverage and there’s a huge judgment, I don’t know how it would pay.”

John Rappaport, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School who has studied the impact insurance can have on police practices and policies, said insurance trusts have a reputation for being less likely than commercial insurers to settle cases involving police officers.

“The risk pools or the trusts, they see themselves as extensions of the cities themselves,” he said. “Their reluctance to settle litigation against the police would seem [to be] a kind of loyalty to their members — their cities.”

Rappaport said commercial insurers often see the issues as purely a matter of dollars and cents.

“Whereas if the city either is in a risk pool or the city represents itself, they see it as more of like a moral issue, like we have to stand up for our officers,” he said.

Even after the Ferguson suit is resolved, litigation in Missouri over “debtors prison” practices won’t be. ArchCity Defenders has lawsuits pending in six other cities, with more in the pipeline stretching beyond North County.

DeBerry, the Ferguson woman who was a named plaintiff in the Ferguson class action, was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit against neighboring Jennings, which settled for $4.8 million less than a year and a half after the suit was filed.

But the suit in Ferguson has dragged on longer than DeBerry could wait.

She died in April 2018.

“And now she will never even get a piece of this justice because she’s no longer here,” said Nelson, her daughter. “That’s sad, that’s really sad. It’s actually pathetic because it should have never come to that. It hurts.”

DeBerry died in April 2018. “And now she will never even get a piece of this justice because she’s no longer here,” Nelson said.

Republished with permission under license from ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.

African Hair Braiders Win! U.S. Supreme Court voids ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday vacated an appeals court ruling that supported a lengthy licensing process for hair-braiders in Missouri and ordered a judge in St. Louis to dismiss the case. The Supreme Court voided the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion that upheld the previous cosmetology license requirements, because a new law, which is discussed in the background section, had already addressed it.

The Supreme Court didn't write a separate opinion, it simply reversed the 8th Circuit opinion. Therefore, the question of whether Missouri and other states within the 8th Circuit can require a cosmetology licensing for African hair braiders remains unanswered. However, the lawsuit which called the law into question in the first place is most likely the only reason the law was changed.

This case demonstrates why it is so important to understand and be able to use the law for your benefit. As we have said before, just because a law exists, doesn't mean it legitimate. You have a right and an obligation to question unfair and questionable laws!

Cases such as this is one of the reason Court.rchp.com exist; so people, especially those who have traditionally been oppressed can be empowered. Discover the hidden secrets of our legal and justice system with the information contained within Court.rchp.com.

Case Background

African hair braiders sue over Missouri law

Ndioba Niang and Tameka Stigers are professional African-style hair braiders in Missouri, but are not licensed as cosmetologists or barbers. The Missouri Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners required hair braiders to be licensed as cosmetologists or barbers even though African-style hair braiding is not included in the cosmetology or barbering school curriculum, and the licensing tests barely test on subjects related to the practice.

In order to obtain a Missouri cosmetology license, one must pass a background check, undergo substantial training, and pass an exam. Before sitting for the exam, an individual must have: (1) graduated from a licensed cosmetology school with at least 1,500 hours of training; or (2) completed an apprenticeship of at least 3,000 hours; or (3) completed similar training in another state. Alternatively, obtaining a barbering license requires at least 1,000 hours of training at a licensed barber school or completion of an apprenticeship of at least 2,000 hours. Completing the necessary requirements for a license would have forced Ms. Niang and Ms. Stigers to incur significant costs for irrelevant training. 

Four years ago, Ms. Niang and Ms. Stigers filed the federal lawsuit; they sued to vindicate their constitutional right to earn a living free of unreasonable government interference, and after losing in lower courts asked the Supreme Court to take their case. The original lawsuit, filed in 2014, complained that African-style hair-braiders were required to obtain a cosmetology license, which can cost thousands of dollars but doesn’t include any hair-braiding training.

When the lower courts considered the braiders’ challenge, they essentially ignored the evidence provided by the braiders that showed the licensing requirements were overly burdensome and did not sufficiently relate to the government’s asserted interests in public health and safety. In so doing, the lower courts applied a version of the rational basis test that is no more than a rubber-stamp of approval of government regulation. But that is not the proper application of the rational basis test.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Tameka Stigers, of Locs of Glory in St. Louis, and Ndioba “Joba” Niang, who runs Joba Hair Braiding in Florissant. Both have performed the hourslong braiding process for years without licenses and say they fear prosecution. 

one Tameka Stigers

Joba Hair Braiding owner Ndioba Niang, a native of Senegal who later lived in France, said she completed 1,000 of the required 3,000 hours of cosmetology training at a cost of thousands of dollars before dropping out.

Ndioba Niang

In 2016, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Bodenhausen upheld the requirements, and the 8th U.S. Court of Appeals agreed in January. A petition for writ of certiorari was filed on April 11, 2018 with the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the Missouri Legislature passed House Bill 1500 which eased the rules on hair- braiding, although those new rules have yet to take effect.

The Institute for Justice, which has filed suits across the country against regulation of various occupations, said the appeals court decision in the Missouri case was in conflict with other federal courts and the Supreme Court. Both the group and the Missouri attorney general asked the court to dismiss the case because of the change in the law, they said.

In May, the Missouri legislature passed a law easing requirements on hair-braiding that made the four-year lawsuit moot. Braiders are now exempted from the cosmetology license and a new specialty braiding license only requires that braiders pay a fee of $20, watch a four- to six-hour instructional video and submit to board inspections. Attendance at a licensed cosmetology school in Missouri can cost more than $16,000.

The Fourteenth Amendment states that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Passed during Reconstruction, these provisions held the promise that freedman would finally be granted the same rights and protections as their white brethren. Yet less than five years after this amendment was enacted, the Supreme Court eviscerated the Privileges or Immunities Clause in what became known as the Slaughter-House Cases (1873).

Slaughter-House eventually led to the development of modern “substantive” due process doctrine as a makeshift bandage over the hole in the Fourteenth Amendment left by the unprotected privileges and immunities. While allowing the Court to protect some rights, the “incorporation” of certain rights through the Due Process Clause relegated other, often “economic” rights to second-class status. Instead of judges’ taking a hard look at the actual reasons a law was passed and asking whether the government has overstepped its constitutional bounds, infringements of the right to earn a living or the freedom of contract barely receive a passing glance. They are upheld unless nobody—not even the judge hearing the case!—could possibly imagine a legitimate rationale for the law. Suffice it to say, hardly any laws are struck down under this so-called rational-basis test.

Enter Ndioba Niang and Tameka Stigers, both of whom are traditional African-style hair braiders attempting to support themselves by offering their services to willing customers. The Missouri Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners, however, demands that they first pay thousands of dollars to receive completely irrelevant training that has virtually nothing to do with hair-braiding. Applying the usual government-can-do-whatever-it-wants-regarding-economic-regulations level of judicial scrutiny, both the federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld the licensing scheme.

You Shouldn’t Need a License to Braid Hair

This approach is wrong: ethically, historically, and legally. There is a long and well-documented history recognizing the right to earn an honest living as being at the center of the Anglo-American legal tradition and indispensable to the maintenance of a free and open society. Industry insiders often lobby for licensing laws and regulations—and then populate the boards or agencies tasked with enforcing the new rules as a means of limiting their competition. By contrast, those harmed are often politically powerless groups with limited means to fight back. But as long as the government says the magic words of “safety,” “health,” or “consumer protection” in asserting its restrictions, courts are content to turn a blind eye.

Because the right to earn a living is one of the basic rights that our Constitution was formed to protect, Cato has filed an amicus brief supporting the hair-braiders’ petition to the Supreme Court. We ask that the Court take Niang v. Tomblinson and establish that courts must meaningfully examine government incursions against this essential liberty, regardless where in the Fourteenth Amendment it finds the relevant right.


The background section was reprinted with permission under license from Cato at Liberty, with additional edits from other sources. 

White Cop found Guilty of Murder for Killing Black Teen

A Texas jury found a white former police officer who shot and killed Jordan Edwards, an unarmed black teenager last year guilty of murder. 

Roy Oliver fired three rifle rounds into a car full of teenagers, which included Edward's sixteen year old brother who was driving and another brother, as they were leaving a party in the Dallas suburb of Balch Springs in April 2017. Fifteen-year-old Jordan Edwards, who was unarmed and sitting in the passenger seat, was struck and killed. Edwards was a first-year student at Mesquite High School where he played football. 

The Texas high school football team that Jordan Edwards had been a part of prior to his untimely death

Edwards' brother was held in police custody overnight for the purpose of questioning him as a witness. Police originally claimed there was alcohol present, during the trial, the jury learned there was no alcohol present at the party, despite what police had initially said. 

"It's been a hard year … I'm just really happy," Edwards's father, Odell, told reporters at the court after the verdict on Tuesday. 

Jordan Edwards with his father, Odell, in a family photo.

At the time of the shooting, Oliver claimed the vehicle was trying to run over his partner, but several witness accounts and body-cam footage showed the car was moving away from the officer. A vigil was held at Edwards's school on the evening of May 1, 2017. A lawyer for Edwards' family demanded the arrest of Oliver.

Oliver was placed on administrative leave following the shooting and fired from the Balch Springs police force on May 2, 2017 after police admitted the video of the shooting contradicted Oliver's initial statement. 

Police originally stated there was an "unknown altercation with a vehicle backing down the street towards the officers in an aggressive manner". After reviewing body cam footage, Police Chief Jonathan Haber later admitted that the vehicle was not moving toward the officers, but rather away from them.

Local reporters, who were present in the courtroom on Tuesday as the verdict was read, reported that there were hugs, claps and cheers from the family of Edwards. 

Oliver faces between five and 99 years in prison for the murder. His sentencing hearing began immediately after the trial. The former police officer was acquitted of manslaughter and aggravated assault. 

Daryl Washington, Edwards's lawyer, said the verdict is not just about justice for the young teenager's family but for the families of all unarmed black people killed by police. 

"This case is not just about Jordan," Washington told reporters, adding that "it's about Tamir Rice, it's about Walter Scott, it's about Alton Sterling, it's about every unarmed African American who has been killed and who has not got justice". 

According to the Washington Post Fatal Force database, more than 980 people were killed by police in 2017. 

The Guardian identified more than 1,090 police killings the previous year.

Nearly a quarter of those killed by police in 2016 were African Americans, although the group accounted for roughly 12 percent of the total US population.

According to watchdog group The Sentencing Project, African American men are six times more likely to be arrested than white men.

These disparities, particularly the killing of African Americans by police, has prompted the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, a popular civil rights movement aimed at ending police violence and dismantling structural racism.


For additional information and details, see: "Flashback: Jordan Edwards' stepbrother recounts harrowing night, hearing cop's fatal shots," from the Dallas Moring News which includes links to 38 other articles related to Jordan Edwards.

The long history of separating families in the US and how the trauma lingers

There are two ways to enter the United States, legally or illegally. Entering the country illegally is a crime. If I commit an illegal act, no matter how well intentioned my actions are, I will be subject to arrest. If I am arrested with small children, I would have no reasonable expectation of not being separated from my my children.

Yes, many laws are unfair. Black people in the U.S. have been subject to walking and driving while black, and other while black actions have been criminalized including most recently, barbecuing and StarBucking while black. It is almost universally recognized that when you are arrested, even if you're arrested unfairly, your children will be separated from you while under arrest.

The worst example of forced child separation occurs within our criminal justice system. Just as the forced removal of Indian children became illegal in the late '70s, the United States began an accelerated process of mass incarceration that quintupled the number of U.S. prisoners. 

Many people spend weeks, months and even years locked up while they await trial, half a million of the 2.3 million people behind bars are simply there because they are too poor to pay bail  (even though we know that money bail only marginally impacts court attendance). Many of these mostly nonviolent people end up losing their jobs, homes or custody of their children before they’ve even had a chance to plead their case in court. 


By Jessica Pryce, Florida State University

During the last few weeks, hundreds of families have been separated, following the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy towards illegal immigrants. Even though the separations have reportedly stopped, it is not clear when the families will be unified. There are also reports of children being possibly put in foster homes and at least one teenager missing, after walking out of a shelter.

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Immigrant children play inside the Catholic Charities RGV in Texas. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

This is not the first time that children have been separated. Exclusion and separation has impacted African-Americans during slavery, Native Americans during the Trail of Tears, and Japanese-Americans during internment, to name a few.

As a scholar who is actively engaged in child protection research and who examines the unnecessary removals of children from their parents, I am all too aware that the repercussions of such policies often take a lifetime to undo.

History of separating families

During the years of slavery, there was daily buying and selling of children from their enslaved parents. No legal restraints existed on slave owners, who chose to dispose of their property as they saw fit.

Another period of state-sanctioned separations was in the 1800s, after President Andrew Jackson authorized the Indian Removal Act. Native Americans, mostly youth, were forcibly taken out of their homes and communities and asked to walk for miles to a specially designated “Indian territory.” Thousands died on that journey. It has since been named the “Trail of Tears.”

The government, nonetheless went ahead with its policies and mandated that Native American children be educated apart from their families in boarding schools. This was a method of creating a distance between children and their Native American parents so that they would slowly let go of their native values – what scholars today describe as forced assimilation.

This practice went on until the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 when Native American parents were given the legal right to refuse boarding school education.

The internment of Japanese-Americans was also a time of enactment of exclusionary policies by the American government. President Roosevelt ordered that Japanese, many of them United States citizens, be forcibly removed and held in camps. Children, even infants, were placed in these camps with their parents, and sometimes without.

As is being done today, these separations were staunchly defended and rationalized, without much consideration of the negative and long-lasting trauma.

The long-term impact

Recent research on the impact of family separation during slavery focuses on the trauma that has been passed down over the years.

Scholar Joy DeGruy, in her seminal book “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” describes the impact of that history on black families today.

It is “common sense,” adds DeGruy, who has spent many years researching the multigenerational trauma, that hundreds of people who endured slavery would continue to pass on behaviors, such as anger, violence and shame, down to contemporary generations.

Scholars have also researched the impact of American Indian boarding schools. Their findings included reports of abuse in boarding school and how that manifested in their later years. As children, they were found to have high levels of depression. Research has also linked the adverse childhood experience of boarding school with difficulty in managing stress as adults.

Within the foster care system, scholars have long researched the harm in multiple placements, meaning moving children from one foster care placement to another. Children who experience such unstable placement experience, after being separated from their families, suffer from profound distress and a loss of belonging.

The trauma of separation leaves deep physical and psychological impact that carries into adulthood. This essentially means the healthy development of a child is disrupted in many ways.

Separation of families in 2018

The consequences of adverse childhood experiences can be minimized if a child is in a loving and nurturing environment where they feel safe and are able to acquire appropriate ways to cope.

The ConversationThese past comparisons bring us to what is occurring today. President Trump’s executive order has stopped any additional separations, but it does not undo the damage that has already been set in motion.


Re-published with permission under license from The Conversation

Jessica Pryce, Executive Director, The Florida Institute for Child Welfare, Florida State University

Going to Court Without a Lawyer? Prepare Yourself!

Court.rchp.com exist to help people gain legal information so they can help themselves. After losing our jobs and having several legal actions filed against us, my wife and I performed legal research and won the majority of our cases. Unfortunately, we didn't observe anyone else win even though the court room was filled with people. We understand the fear and uncertainty that exist when you get that court summons and don't know what to do. However, turn that fear into action and that uncertainty into knowledge. Begin learning what you must do in order to increase your chances of winning.


Every year, millions try to navigate US courts without a lawyer

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Going to court? You’re on your own. tlegend/shutterstock.com

Judge Richard A. Posner, a legendary judicial figure, retired abruptly last month to make a point: People without lawyers are mistreated in the American legal system.

In one of his final opinions as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, he expressed frustration at the dismissal of one self-represented litigant’s lawsuit, writing that the prisoner, Michael Davis, “needs help – needs it bad – needs a lawyer desperately.”

Unfortunately, Davis’s circumstances are far from unique. Many lower-income people have no lawyer to help them navigate the legal system, either in civil or criminal cases.

Eighty percent of state criminal defendants cannot afford to pay for a lawyer, and only those who are actually incarcerated are constitutionally entitled to appointed counsel. Many people facing misdemeanor charges can, if convicted, be subjected to significant fines and fees, or face the loss of benefits (including housing) or deportation. Yet, they have no right to an attorney, and those who cannot afford a lawyer will go without one.

Unlike in the criminal context, there’s no federal constitutional right to counsel in civil cases. Civil cases can involve a range of critical issues, including housing, public benefits, child custody and domestic violence. And while some civil litigants may be entitled to counsel in certain jurisdictions, in most of these cases, people who cannot afford a lawyer will be forced to go it alone. Doing so may mean that they fail to make it through the process, have their case dismissed or lose what otherwise would have been a winning case.

As directors of the Center for Access to Justice at Georgia State University College of Law, we agree with Judge Posner. People like Michael Davis desperately need help. Without legal assistance, their issues will likely be unresolved or, worse, wrongly resolved against them.

Unrepresented

In some states, as many as 80 to 90 percent of litigants are unrepresented, even though their opponent has a lawyer. The number of these “pro se litigants” has risen substantially in the last decade, due in part to the economic downturn and the relationship between poor economic conditions and issues like housing and domestic relations.

The Legal Services Corporation, the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the nation, reported in June that 86 percent of low-income Americans receive inadequate or no professional legal help for the civil legal problems they face. Here in Georgia, state courts heard more than 800,000 cases involving self-represented litigants in 2016 alone.

In some types of cases, not having counsel can make a dramatic difference. Take the example of low-income tenants facing eviction. Across the county, roughly 90 percent of landlords are represented by counsel, while 90 percent of tenants are not. Simply having a lawyer increases the odds of being able to stay in one’s home. When tenants represent themselves in New York City, they are evicted in nearly 50 percent of cases. With a lawyer, they win 90 percent of the time.

Navigating the system

Why is having a lawyer so important? The reality is that even the most mundane legal matters can require dozens of steps and complex maneuvering.

In one study, researchers identified almost 200 discrete tasks that self-represented litigants must perform in civil cases – from finding the right court to interpreting the law, filing motions, compiling evidence and negotiating a settlement. Some of these tasks require specialized knowledge of the law and of the court system. Almost all require time away from work and caring for children. Many also require the ability to get to the courthouse, to read and to speak English or access a translator.

The Access to Justice Lab at Harvard Law School has also tracked how labyrinthine the justice system can be. Just starting a routine process – like establishing a legal guardian for a minor – can take many steps, and even these can vary in unexpected ways, given the natural variation among judges and the particulars of a specific case.

Regardless of the type of case, missing just one step could mean you have to start the process all over again or even cause the case to be dismissed, sometimes without the option to refile.

People often quip that there are far too many lawyers. Yet the reality is that, while there are a lot of lawyers in certain geographic areas and certain specialties, in many rural areas – sometimes referred to as “legal deserts” – there are actually far too few lawyers.

Our center recently published a map of Georgia’s legal deserts. In our state, there are five counties without any lawyers at all and another 59 with 10 lawyers or fewer.

To make matters worse, in many of those counties, public transportation and internet access are sparse, and a significant percentage of the population doesn’t even have access to a vehicle.

The Self-Represented Litigation Network, a nonprofit focused on reforming the system to help those representing themselves, has also used mapping tools to depict how access to the justice system can vary across the country and sometimes even within the same state.

Changing the statistics

So, what do we do about the fact that the legal system is, for many people without a lawyer, nearly impossible to navigate? We believe that it will take a variety of different approaches to solve this issue.

Some experts, like John Pollock with the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, have focused on expanding the right to counsel in civil cases implicating basic human needs. Others have advocated for expansion of the right to counsel in lower-level criminal cases where the consequences – including obstacles to housing or employment, or deportation – can still be incredibly high.

In Washington, nonlawyers can be trained and licensed to offer legal support to those unable to afford the services of an attorney.

Still others, like Self-Represented Litigation Network founder Richard Zorza, emphasize simplification of legal processes, including changing or eliminating the procedural and evidentiary rules that make the process so difficult. For example, the Tennessee Supreme Court has approved plain-language forms and instructions, written at a fifth- to eighth-grade reading level, for use in uncontested divorces between parties with minor children.

Maybe it’s a matter of increasing available self-help resources or placing the onus on the courts and requiring judges to play a more active role in solving the problem.

Which approach is best? It may depend on the case – and an effective solution will include a combination of the above. Some cases will require nothing less than full-service representation by a lawyer, while in other contexts, streamlined procedures and simpler forms may be sufficient for pro se litigants to get a fair shake.

The ConversationWhatever the solution, the problem is clear: Self-represented litigants’ grievances are real and, for too many, justice is out of reach.

Lauren Sudeall Lucas, Associate Professor of Law; Faculty Director, Center for Access to Justice, Georgia State University and Darcy Meals, Assistant Director, Center for Access to Justice, Georgia State University


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation

The Freedom Plea: How Prosecutors Deny Exonerations by Dangling the Prison Keys

New evidence pointed to innocence in the cases of these four Baltimore men, yet prosecutors would only let them go if they agreed to controversial plea deals.

by Megan Rose

Despite new evidence undermining the convictions of at least eight men for violent crimes in both Baltimore City and County over the last two decades, none were exonerated. Instead, they left prison only after agreeing to plea deals with state prosecutors. In each case, the men took either Alford pleas, in which defendants can maintain their innocence for the record, or were given time-served arrangements. With these deals, the defendants were granted their freedom, but gave up the right to clear their names. (Two additional men took similar deals but years later were fully exonerated after more exculpatory evidence was found in the police files.)

ProPublica’s examination of these cases reveals a troubling pattern — one that legal experts say plays out across the country. Persuasive innocence claims were met with refusals by the state’s attorney’s office to reexamine the cases, sometimes despite — or perhaps because of — discoveries of official misconduct. Prosecutors often fought for years to prevent the consideration of any new evidence or the testing of old evidence for DNA. Or they accommodated contrary new facts by stretching their theories of crimes. If the DNA in a rape case, for example, didn’t match the defendant, prosecutors would assert that another unknown assailant was involved, too. When judges ordered new trials or granted writs of innocence, prosecutors started bargaining for plea deals that would maintain the convictions.

Over time, prosecutors have defended their decision to seek deals, claiming in each case that they still believed in the defendants’ guilt. They also argued that given the amount of time passed, the cases would be difficult to retry.

But Michele Nethercott, the head of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said with these cases, “often, the truth doesn’t seem to matter much.”


George Seward

  • Convicted: 1985
  • Released: 2016
  • Type of Deal: Alford plea
  • Crime: Rape
George Seward with his mother on the day of he got out of prison after 32 years. A judge had granted him a writ of innocence, but prosecutors vowed to retry him. He took an Alford plea to guarantee his immediate release.

The Original Case

The white victim identified him 10 weeks after the crime. The victim’s ID of Seward, an 18-year-old black man who had a moustache and goatee at the time of the murder, conflicted with her contemporaneous description after the attack of a clean-shaven assailant. Neither the fingerprints nor biological evidence from the crime matched Seward.

New Evidence Later Discovered

Seward’s employment records as a part-time dog washer, which were discovered 12 years after the trial, showed he’d been at work the day of the shooting. His boss also testified she kept the shop locked and it would have been “impossible” for him to have left.

Prosecution Reaction

Fought for the next 19 years, arguing, in turn, that the records weren’t admissible as new evidence and shouldn’t be given any consideration; that they didn’t provide an alibi because no hours were specified; and that they bolstered the case against Seward because the shop was near the victim’s house. One of the prosecutors on the case, John Cox, also told ProPublica that the records’ discovery so long after the trial meant they couldn’t be trusted.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said recently that because the victim saw her attacker up close, he wasn’t concerned that the case rested on a cross-racial identification. (That type of ID has been shown to be less reliable because people are generally bad at distinguishing facial features of people who aren’t their own race. Of the 351 people exonerated by DNA evidence since 1989, the national Innocence Project found that 41 percent had been convicted on mistaken cross-racial identification.)

How the Deal Happened

Judge said the employment records “thoroughly exculpate[d]” Seward and granted a writ of innocence. The state appealed and eventually lost. “The state’s immediate reaction was to offer a plea,” said Shawn Armbrust, of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and one of Seward’s lawyers.

Shellenberger said that he’d been confident about the case and wanted to go to trial, but the victim didn’t want to testify again. “Keeping something on the record was extremely important to us.”

Why Defendant Agreed to Deal

Seward first turned prosecutors down, but then, as he awaited a new trial, a close friend was stabbed in prison. Seward had nine months before the trial began, so he reconsidered.


Jesse Barnes

  • Convicted: 1972
  • Released: 2011
  • Type of Deal: Time served
  • Crime: Murder
Barnes was convicted of murder when he was 17 based off of nothing more than his uncorroborated confession, which also described a violent rape.

The Original Case

Based solely on Barnes’ confession made after 31 hours in custody. A largely illiterate 17-year-old with a low IQ and no prior record, Barnes’ police-typed statement conflicted with the evidence in the case in major ways, such as how and where the 15-year-old female victim was killed. And he had an alibi for the time of the murder. (Barnes’ confession also incriminated two others, but no one else was charged.)

New Evidence Later Discovered

In 2009, 37 years after Barnes’ conviction, DNA evidence collected from the victim’s body was tested and excluded him from any sexual assault, further undermining his confession, which had described a violent gang rape that included Barnes and another man ejaculating. The DNA, which only came from one male, also excluded one of the other teenagers implicated in Barnes’ statement.

Prosecution Reaction

Prosecutor Sharon Holback said at the time that the state “vehemently and firmly believes that [Barnes] was fairly and properly convicted.” She argued that his confession was sound and that the third person implicated in it must have been the source for the DNA. That man couldn’t be found for comparison testing. (Holback was also the prosecutor who handled the post-conviction hearings in the case of James Thompson, whose rape and murder conviction was undermined by DNA testing, but was offered an Alford plea.)

How the Deal Happened

Judge Yvette Bryant went many months without issuing a ruling on the case, so Barnes’ lawyer took the innocence claims directly to Gregg Bernstein, who recently had been elected as Baltimore City state’s attorney on a reform agenda and had started a conviction integrity unit. The fighting over Barnes’ post-conviction motions had happened under Bernstein’s predecessor, so he had not publicly committed to any position. He was also free of one common concern prosecutors face when dealing with potentially wrong convictions: angry relatives of the victim who don’t want the case to unravel. With Barnes, the victim’s family so believed in his innocence that they had hired a lawyer to defend him.

Bernstein, who said recently that he didn’t recall the case, would concede only that Barnes didn’t deserve to be in prison anymore, seizing on a mistake in sentencing. The judge who had sentenced Barnes had thought wrongly that his only option was life.

Why Defendant Agreed to Deal

Barnes was 57 years old, had been in prison for more than 40 years and was in failing health. “I had to say to him ‘I’m confident in the end we will vindicate you, but it might be 1, 2 years or even 4 to 5 years, and there’s no guarantee,’” said Barnes’ pro bono lawyer, Michael Imbroscio, noting it was “the most difficult conversation I’ve ever had in my 22-year legal career.”


Wendell Griffin

  • Convicted: 1982
  • Released: 2012
  • Type of Deal: Time served
  • Crime: Murder
Wendell Griffin walked out the back door of a Baltimore courtroom on May 23, 2012, free for the first time in nearly 31 years. Griffin, who’d been convicted of murder, was let out on a time-served deal after evidence pointing to his innocence was discovered buried in a police file. 

The Original Case

A neighbor testified that she saw Griffin before and after the murder with a gun, and a second neighbor, who was 150 feet away, said she heard Griffin make threatening remarks the night of the murder. A set of keys found about 90 feet from the crime scene was connected to Griffin, who lived in the neighborhood.

New Evidence Later Discovered

In 2011, significant evidence was found in the police’s files that had never been given to the defense: three photo lineups in which eyewitnesses failed to identify Griffin and eight witness statements that either incriminated another suspect or contradicted the testimony used to prosecute Griffin.

One eyewitness pointed to Griffin’s picture in the lineup and said that he looked like the suspect, “but it’s not him.” Griffin’s picture was nine years old, so detectives went back to that witness and showed her another array with a current picture. She still did not identify him. Nonetheless, detectives used her description of the suspect to get a search warrant for Griffin’s home — never mentioning that she’d twice failed to pick him out of a photo array. The warrant also cited a neighbor who saw a man with a gun, but left out that he said the man wasn’t Griffin.

“There was pretty powerful evidence of innocence that was buried by the state,” Steve Mercer, Griffin’s attorney, said.

Prosecution Reaction

Baltimore City prosecutor Michael Leedy denied that the evidence represented a Constitutional violation. (In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the state must turn over all favorable information to the defense in order for a trial to be fair, which has come to be known as the “Brady” requirement.) Leedy wouldn’t agree to a new trial.

How the Deal Happened

When a judge, who called the evidence “earth shattering,” indicated she’d be ordering a new trial, Leedy shifted, saying that although he didn’t believe “there were, in fact, any Brady violations” the allegations were “plausible enough” that he’d “concede to a resentencing on this matter.” This was the “best course,” Leedy said, to “ensure that Mr. Griffin will for the rest of his life remain convicted for the murder of James Wise.”

Leedy also wanted it on record that by accepting the deal Griffin gave up the right to an actual innocence ruling.

Why Defendant Agreed to Deal

Griffin was 61, knew his best years were gone and he might “die in here.” Having spent nearly 31 years in prison, he didn’t have it in him, he said recently, to wait another year-and-a-half for a new trial. But he is now trying to withdraw his deal, so he can clear his name and sue over the Brady violations. Marilyn Mosby, the current state’s attorney who ran in part on a platform of police accountability, is fighting his motion. (Her spokeswoman didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.) A hearing is set for November.


Antoine Pettiford

  • Convicted: 1995
  • Released: 1998
  • Type of Deal: Alford plea (exonerated in 2000)
  • Crime: Murder
Antoine Pettiford was convicted of murder in 1995, but was let out on an Alford plea three years later when a court ruled that the detectives and prosecutors deliberately withheld evidence from the defense. He was fully exonerated in 2000 after more evidence came to light. Pettiford was killed in 2015.

Original Case

Pettiford, 23 and with a record, was identified as one of two shooters by two eyewitnesses and was tied to the murder weapon by a suspect in a related crime. But at trial, the witnesses said they’d been mistaken and the suspect said he’d lied about the weapon. Late in the trial, prosecutors produced a new witness who identified Pettiford. Pettiford had an alibi and no motive.

According to The Baltimore Sun, before the judge sentenced Pettiford to life plus 20 years, he said: “I don't care if every witness that appeared in the trial — including the detectives — come back here and say it was all a farce and it was all false and it was all wrong. I think justice was done.”

New Evidence Later Discovered

A year later, a separate federal drug investigation led to a different suspect in the murder, who pleaded guilty in federal court and told investigators that Pettiford had nothing to do with the crime.

There was also evidence that had never been given to the defense: a three-page statement from a friend of the victim that said he was the intended target and pointed to the same suspect prosecuted by the feds; a police bulletin that named that same suspect in connection to the murder; a statement from an eyewitness who identified the second shooter as someone the federal prosecutors thought was involved; and a police report naming that second person as a suspect.

Prosecution Reaction

Baltimore City prosecutor Nancy Pollack, who had handled the trial, didn’t act on the information federal prosecutors gave her suggesting Pettiford was innocent. Michelle Martz, Pettiford’s lawyer, said she went repeatedly “to beg and plead for [prosecutors at the time] to do something. I was floored the state wouldn’t be more concerned that they might have the wrong guy.”

How the Deal Happened

At the end of a post-conviction hearing, at which a detective revealed the existence of the three-page statement implicating someone else, the judge ordered Pollack to turn over everything in her files. Pollack agreed to a new trial and offered the plea.

Why Defendant Agreed to Deal

Pettiford, scared of what the prosecutors might do during a second round, had only one question: “Do I have to go back to prison if I take it?” He accepted the Alford plea, walked down the courthouse steps and into his family’s waiting car.

How He Was Later Exonerated

A year after the Alford plea, The Baltimore Sun newspaper exposed that the state had suppressed even more evidence and that a detective had misled the defense. In response, the judge vacated the Alford plea, saying it had been “a miscarriage of justice,” and the state declined to prosecute again. Pollack, who declined to comment, had already resigned, but the Baltimore Police Department found that the detective did nothing wrong. That detective was also named in a lawsuit filed by Sabein Burgess, who was wrongfully convicted in 1995 and exonerated in 2014.


See Related Story

What Does an Innocent Man Have to Do to Go Free? Plead Guilty.

A case in Baltimore — in which two men were convicted of the same murder and cleared by DNA 20 years later — shows how far prosecutors will go to preserve a conviction.

Republished with permission under license from ProPublica

What Does an Innocent Man Have to Do to Go Free? Plead Guilty.

A case in Baltimore — in which two men were convicted of the same murder and cleared by DNA 20 years later — shows how far prosecutors will go to preserve a conviction.

by Megan Rose

James Owens, now 52, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 1988 for a murder he didn’t commit.

On Oct. 15, 2008, James Owens shuffled, head high despite his shackles, into a Baltimore courtroom, eager for his new trial to begin. Two decades into a life sentence, he would finally have his chance to prove what he’d been saying all along: The state had the wrong man.

Owens had been convicted of murdering a 24-year-old college student, who was found raped and stabbed in her home. Then he’d been shunted off to state prison until DNA testing — the scientific marvel that he’d watched for years free other men — finally caught up with his case in 2006. The semen that had been found inside the victim wasn’t his. A Maryland court tossed his conviction and granted Owens a rare do-over trial.

State prosecutors balked, insisting they still had enough evidence to keep Owens locked away and vowed to retry him. But they had also offered him an unusual deal. He could guarantee his immediate release from prison with no retrial and no danger of a new conviction — if he’d agree to plead guilty. The deal, known as an Alford plea, came with what seemed like an additional carrot: Despite pleading guilty, the Alford plea would allow Owens to say on the record that he was innocent. The Alford plea was an enticing chance for Owens, by then 43, to move on as a free man. But he’d give up a chance at exoneration. To the world, and legally, he’d still be a killer.

Owens refused the deal. He told his lawyer he wanted to clear his name, and he was willing to take his chances in court and wait in prison however long it took for a new trial to begin. It was a startling choice for an incarcerated defendant — even those with persuasive stories of innocence typically don’t trust the system enough to roll the dice again with 12 jurors or an appellate court. Most defendants, lawyers say, instinctively and rationally, grab any deal they can to win their freedom back.

The decision cost Owens 16 more months behind bars. Then, on that fall day in 2008, when the trial was set to begin, the prosecutor stood and, without a glance at Owens, told the judge, “The state declines to prosecute.”

In a legal gamble in which the prosecution typically holds the winning cards, Owens had called the state’s bluff. He walked out that day exonerated — and with the right to sue the state for the 21 years he spent wrongly imprisoned.

It seemed the ultimate victory in a city like Baltimore, with its deeply rooted and often justified mistrust of police and prosecutors. But Owens wasn’t the only man convicted of murdering that 24-year-old college student. Another white Baltimore man, James Thompson, had also been put away for life. Tests showed that his DNA didn’t match the semen either, but the state’s attorney’s office refused to drop the charges. Instead, as it had with Owens, it offered Thompson an Alford plea. Thompson grabbed the deal and walked out of prison a convicted murderer.

Same crime. Same evidence. Very different endings.


Ever since DNA ushered in a new era in criminal justice, even the toughest law-and-order advocates have come to acknowledge a hard truth: Sometimes innocent people are locked away for crimes they didn’t commit. Less widely understood is just how reluctant the system is to righting those wrongs.

Courts only assess guilt or innocence before a conviction. After that, appellate courts focus solely on fairness. Did everyone follow the rules and live up to their duties? Getting a re-hearing of the facts is a monumental, often decades-long quest through a legal thicket. Most defendants never get to start the process, let alone win. Even newly discovered evidence is not enough in many cases to prompt a review. And, for the tiny percentage of defendants who get one, the prosecutors still have the advantage: They have final discretion about whether to press charges and how severe they’ll be. Powerful influence over the pace of a case, the sentence and bail. And, compared with an incarcerated defendant, vast resources.

No one tracks how often the wrongly convicted are pressured to accept plea deals in lieu of exonerations. But in Baltimore City and County alone — two separate jurisdictions with their own state’s attorneys — ProPublica identified at least 10 cases in the last 19 years in which defendants with viable innocence claims ended up signing Alford pleas or time-served deals. In each case, exculpatory evidence was uncovered, persuasive enough to garner new trials, evidentiary hearings or writs of actual innocence. Prosecutors defend the original convictions, arguing, then and now, that the deals were made for valid reasons — such as the death of a key witness or a victim’s unwillingness to weather a retrial. The current state’s attorney in Baltimore County, Scott Schellenberger, said that “prosecutors take their oath to get it right very seriously” and wouldn’t stand in the way of exoneration if the facts called for it.

The menace of such deals, though, is clear: At worst, innocent people are stigmatized and unable to sue the state for false imprisonment, prosecutors keep unearned wins on their case records and those of the department, and no one re-investigates the crime — the real suspect is never brought to justice.

The plea deals ProPublica examined in Baltimore City involved two prior state’s attorneys. A spokeswoman for Marilyn Mosby, the current chief, didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment or for interviews with prosecutors in those cases.

The pleas in two of these Baltimore cases were later overturned after misconduct was uncovered in the original convictions, and the men won full exonerations. One, Walter Lomax, a black man convicted by an all-white jury shortly after the 1968 race riots in the city, served 38 years of a life sentence before taking a time-served deal in 2006. The state didn’t concede he was innocent until 2014.

Wrongful convictions are bad enough, Lomax said, but they’re even more “horrible when it becomes obvious the person is innocent and the state won’t at the very least acknowledge that.”

Some legal and cognitive science experts suggest that once detectives and prosecutors commit to a suspect and a theory of the crime, it changes how they evaluate evidence, and then the system itself exacerbates that focus at every step. Prosecutors are rewarded for proving and defending their theories, leaving little incentive to acknowledge weaknesses in cases, particularly in high-stakes crimes such as rape and murder. This mind-set is bolstered by one of the great positives of the system, one which legal experts, even those dedicated to exposing wrongful convictions, acknowledge: Prosecutors generally get it right.

Psychologists have a myriad of terms for the powerful, largely subconscious biases at play, but most people would call the collective phenomenon “tunnel vision.”

Wrongful convictions involving violent crimes typically involve poor, often minority defendants, sometimes with limited education or IQs, who are convicted on scant evidence or flawed forensics. The cases are fueled by an early theory of the crime that relentlessly drives the investigation and prosecution — even, in some cases, to official misconduct.

“At some point psychologically, you go from figuring out what happened to figuring out how to prove it happened the way you said it did,” Barbara O’Brien, a law professor involved with the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan, said. “It’s very difficult to take a step back from that.”

Marty Stroud, a former Louisiana prosecutor, made national headlines in 2015 when he penned a rare public apology for putting an innocent man on death row for 31 years. He told me recently that the system comes down hardest on those without the means to defend themselves. “It’s easy to prosecute those people and put them away and not think twice about it because no one is speaking for them,” he said.

The certitude of detectives and prosecutors hardens when their theory is validated by a judge or jury, and later, by an appellate court. Time, instead of allowing for fresh eyes, often makes biases worse. When a defendant like Owens gets a new hearing, the district or state’s attorney’s office — long committed to his guilt — has to re-justify that decision.

If they admit they got it wrong, prosecutors have to accept that a person was robbed of years of his life, the real perpetrator was never found, the victim’s family was let down, and, to top it off, they now have a cold case that’s unlikely to be solved. With the Alford plea, not only is the real perpetrator not caught but the case is officially closed on the books. It also dings their won-loss record on typically high-profile cases. The idea of a wrongful conviction, Stroud said, assaults a prosecutor’s sense of identity that “we’re the good guys. We have the white hats and are putting the bad guys in jail.”

Exonerations are also like a Pandora’s box in two important and unsettling ways. First, looking closely at why wrongful convictions happen — even in cases when everyone worked in good faith — could force a reckoning about deeply held beliefs on what is required to solve and punish crimes. False confessions, for example, often are a result of time-honored, and perfectly legal, tactics to soften up a suspect, such as lying or conducting questioning in the dead of night, said Steven Drizin, the former director of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. When wrongful convictions are a result of misconduct, there could be a string of other bad convictions connected to that prosecutor or detective.

It’s no coincidence, many defense lawyers across the country say, that when misconduct comes up, prosecutors are quicker to propose an Alford plea or similar deal, effectively quashing any further inquiry into the behavior. One ACLU attorney told me about a galling Alabama case in which prosecutors insisted they would re-seek the death penalty, and it was “only because we were continuing to expose prosecutorial misconduct that they finally agreed to settle the case.”

After James Thompson brought police a knife that he claimed to have picked up near a murder victim’s home, a Baltimore police officer posed with the weapon. A local TV news station filmed police taking the photo and erroneously reported that the police had found it. “There’s a real danger in staging things like this,” said Stephen Mercer, a Maryland public defender. (Baltimore Police Department file, courtesy of Stephen Mercer)

On a muggy August evening in 1987, police officers swarmed a block of squat brick rowhouses in a mostly white, working-class neighborhood in southeast Baltimore. A young woman had been raped, strangled with a sock and stabbed to death in her second-floor bedroom. Detective Thomas Pellegrini, who’d been assigned to homicide only the year before and, who, by his own admission, was green enough not to sweat the details, caught the case as lead detective. He was assisted by Detective Gary Dunnigan and the squad’s boss, Sgt. Jay Landsman. The trio would become famous a few years later when David Simon heralded them in his book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” and on the subsequent prime-time TV show it inspired.

The next morning, the neighborhood reverberated with the choppy drone of police helicopters circling overhead. Thompson, a gas station attendant who’d suffered a brain injury in childhood, lived down the street with his wife and their two young boys. He’d heard detectives were looking for a knife and offering a $1,000 reward. It seemed a prime opportunity for a quick buck. The short, stocky 27-year-old wandered over to the yellow police tape and handed Pellegrini a large switchblade. Thompson said he’d found the bloody weapon in the grass the night before, pocketed it, and cleaned it at home — somehow unaware of the massive overnight police presence. At Pellegrini’s urging, he fetched a pair of cut-off jeans he said he’d been wearing at the time, which had a small bloodstain on the back right pocket.

Forensics showed a possible presence of blood or other unknown substance on a small area of the knife and no evidence to suggest it was used in a violent struggle, such as a broken tip from hitting bone. The detectives moved forward on the assumption it was the murder weapon.

Two days later, rather than being thanked and handed the reward money, Thompson found himself under suspicion. In a panic, he fingered Owens. The two had been casual friends, but they’d had a falling out over accusations of theft when they’d briefly worked together at the gas station. In a thoughtless burst of vengeance, Thompson gave an official statement at the police station; he said the knife was actually his but claimed Owens had stolen it and then told him where to find it the day after the murder. Thompson noticed the detectives ate up everything and realized they had nothing else to go on. At the time, there seemed to be no risk in just making it up as he went along. After he retrieved the knife, Thompson told detectives, Owens washed it in the kitchen sink. Thompson didn’t give the police any details about the murder, but he said Owens had told him he’d had sex with the victim.

Owens, 22 at the time, was arrested and charged with burglary, rape and first-degree murder. In just 72 hours, the detectives had closed the case. There was no forensic evidence, motive or eyewitnesses linking Owens to the crime. Landsman and Pellegrini would later say they had believed at the time that without Thompson, Owens would walk. Even the prosecutor, Marvin “Sam” Brave, said he viewed Thompson’s story as “implausible” and didn’t think he had the truth, but he nevertheless pressed charges.

Brave recently told me that “if you think you’ve got the right guy, but not that you can necessarily prove it beyond reasonable doubt, it doesn’t mean you don’t go forward.”

A Baltimore Police Department photo of James Owens from August 5, 1987, the day Owens, 22, was arrested for murder.

When Owens’ trial began in February 1988, Thompson was the star witness. He’d considered coming clean several times but was afraid he’d be sent to jail. He’d lied to the cops during a previous encounter and had been arrested for making a false police report. Despite that history, the detectives in this case had made him feel like a hero. Pellegrini didn’t think Thompson was “the sharpest pencil in the box,” but at that point in his career, he said in a recent deposition, he thought only suspects would lie to him. Brave also was unconcerned. “If the part that you think he is telling the truth [about] contributes to your case, you use it,” he said. “He doesn’t have to be telling the truth about everything.” The rest of the case relied mainly on minor scratches Owens, a factory worker, had on his arm and a spot of possible blood that had been swabbed from his hand. Two jailhouse snitches who’d been Owens’ cellmates while he awaited trial claimed he had separately confessed to them, though the story Owens purportedly told them contradicted the version Thompson had given police.

In his opening statement, Brave told the jury that any notion that police had “bungled the investigation” and the defendant was innocent was from the fantastical realm of television. But Brave was concerned enough about Thompson’s story that he took him aside the morning of his testimony and warned he was going to “look silly” and it was time he “told us the truth about how that knife really got back into his possession,” according to testimony Brave later gave about the conversation. He even assured Thompson he wouldn’t be prosecuted for making a false statement.

When Thompson took the stand, he told the jury he’d had a “heart to heart” with the prosecutor and was “ready to tell the truth.” In this new version of events — which Brave described later as “sellable” to a jury — Thompson said that around 8 a.m. the morning after the murder, Owens had come by his house and given him the bloody knife. Except this story, too, was a lie. As one of the detectives noted to Brave afterward, Owens’ boss had told police he’d been at work by that point in the morning. “The more I tried to fix things to go in my favor, the bigger hole I dug for myself,” Thompson told me recently.

That Friday Brave went home “really worried about the case,” and stewed over the weekend that he was on “a sinking ship.” Late Sunday evening, he met with Pellegrini and told him to take blood and hair samples from Thompson for testing to exclude him as a suspect and bolster his credibility as a witness. Brave already knew the pubic hairs found on the victim didn’t match Owens. Neither did saliva on a cigarette found at the scene.

During a lunch break at trial the next day, Brave and the three detectives met with the city’s forensics expert who, they said, told them the hair was a match to Thompson. Detectives brought Thompson in, read him his rights, and told him “he was in a lot of trouble” and might be charged. His hair, Landsman told him, had been found in the victim’s house. Thompson later contended he knew this couldn’t possibly be true — he hadn’t been there at all. But at the time, he said, he was scared and thought if he just said what pleased the detectives and got Owens convicted, he’d be alright.

In 1988, Baltimore's forensic examiner wrote on the back of a picture of Thompson's hair that his hair matched one found at the crime scene. In 2010, the same examiner said pictures of the hair showed that they didn't match, moreover that type of hair analysis was no longer considered valid. (Baltimore Police Department file, courtesy of Stephen Mercer)

Like an actor doing take after take to accommodate the wishes of a director, Thompson went through several more versions about what supposedly happened, adjusting his story to reflect additional pieces of evidence the detectives told him about. Thompson first said he broke into the house but didn’t go upstairs. After the detectives told him his hair had been found on the second floor, Thompson then said he did go upstairs but hid in the bathroom while Owens attacked the victim after she unexpectedly came home. Detectives then told him his pubic hair had been found on the victim’s buttocks, suggesting his pants must have been down. After several hours of this back and forth, Landsman went to the courtroom and handed Brave a note, saying Thompson had admitted to burglarizing the house with Owens.

Thompson was taken directly from the interrogation room to the witness stand to testify a second time. Now, speaking so softly at first that the judge twice had to tell him to raise his voice, Thompson said he and Owens had broken into the apartment to steal jewelry, and Owens attacked the victim when she came home unexpectedly. Then, while Owens raped her, Thompson testified that he masturbated over her back — his newly concocted explanation for how the pubic hair the state claimed was his had ended up on the victim. Owens, Thompson said, then stabbed her and threw the knife on the ground, which Thompson picked up on the way out.

This was, unbeknownst to Owens or his lawyer, Thompson’s eighth version of events — the one that satisfied the officers that they had enough “to get James Owens,” as one detective later put it.

Even on the stand implicating himself in the crime, with both Brave and Owens’ lawyer stressing charges he might face, Thompson said the full ramifications of his lies didn’t dawn on him. He thought he’d be fine once the trial was over.

“I never hurt anyone. I never touched that young lady,” Thompson said again and again on the stand, adding at one point that he’d take a polygraph to “prove my innocence on that particular behalf.”

Owens was convicted of the burglary and the murder but found not guilty of the rape. Thompson’s changing stories had cast enough doubt that Brave acknowledged in his closing argument that either man could have committed the rape. Thompson, who had been arrested right after testifying and immediately recanted his confession, was later convicted of burglary, rape and murder. Thompson’s multiple different stories of the crime had been accepted as truth, but his multiple attempts to protest his innocence were taken as lies.

Both men were sentenced to life without parole. Owens was the first in Maryland to receive such a punishment.

Owens never resigned himself to his fate. A few years into his sentence, he read about DNA in a magazine and implored everyone he could think of to test the evidence in his case. He eagerly conferred over coffee with Kirk Bloodsworth, the inmate across the hall, then cheered Bloodsworth’s exoneration by DNA in 1993, the first of its kind in the nation involving a death sentence. Shaking Bloodsworth’s hand when he left prison, Owens thought, “Man, one day I’ll be out there.” Then the O.J. Simpson trial introduced him to Barry Scheck, the founder of the Innocence Project, and Owens sent his office a letter. Shunned by his family and cut off from the way most convicts got cash, he traded chicken sandwiches from his kitchen job for stamps to mail it. Still, no one took up the cause. The semen found in the victim and the blood on Thompson’s shorts sat undisturbed in the Baltimore medical examiner’s office for 19 years.

Finally, after a special division within the Maryland public defender’s office became interested, he got a new lawyer and a hearing. A judge ordered DNA testing in 2006 — over the objections of prosecutors — and the results dismantled the state’s theory of the crime. At both trials, the state had argued that the break-in, the rape and the murder were inextricably linked. At Owens’s trial, the prosecutor told the jury Owens had leered at the victim as she sunbathed and “decided that he wanted her.” He broke into her house, laid in wait for her to return, raped her, strangled her and “for good measure … mutilate[d] her with multiple stab wounds.” The prosecution doubled down on this narrative at Thompson’s trial, telling the jury he and Owens “had to humiliate [the victim] by taking turns raping her.” And the blood on the back pocket of Thompson’s shorts, the prosecutor said, was definitively the victim’s.

DNA proved most of those arguments false. The semen found in the victim didn’t come from Owens or Thompson, and the blood on the shorts wasn’t even from a woman. It was Thompson’s own. When Owens heard the news at Jessup Correctional Institution, just southwest of Baltimore, he sat on the floor of his cell and cried.

The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office was unmoved. Prosecutors fought both Thompson and Owens as the two separately sought to have their convictions overturned.

Owens’ case moved faster through the courts. His new attorney was Stephen Mercer, a Maryland defense attorney with an earnestness that had survived more than 20 years in the trenches. Mercer knew the state, with its evidence decimated, was going to push for a deal. He fumed that prosecutors were using psychological warfare to do it — opposing bail and slowing the case, so Owens would spend more time on the inside thinking about being on the outside. Owens’ evidentiary hearing was moved from January to March to May. Only then, nine months after the DNA showed Owens wasn’t the rapist, did the state agree to a new trial while insisting that Owens was still guilty of murder.

The state’s attorney’s office, run at the time by Patricia Jessamy, argued that the rape was immaterial to the murder, and, a spokeswoman said, the DNA evidence was “trivial.” Mark Cohen, the new prosecutor, told Mercer that other evidence in the case, including Thompson’s confession and the testimony of jailhouse informants, was still persuasive. (Jessamy didn’t respond to several phone messages requesting comment and Cohen has since died.)

Mercer said the prosecutor’s stance was “very cynical. It really seemed that the desire to keep the conviction was for reasons that had nothing to do with the evidence.” The state’s guiding star, Mercer knew, was a rigid belief that what was long ago decided by a jury, and upheld by an appellate court, shouldn’t be continually second-guessed.

Stephen Mercer, chief of the forensics division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, dug up exculpatory evidence for three defendants — James Owens, James Thompson and Wendell Griffin — who had been sentenced to life and secured their release from prison.

In Owens’ case, it wasn’t just the semen and the blood that didn’t hold up 20 years later. The type of hair analysis done on the pubic hair had subsequently been dismissed as junk science. The hair, along with the knife, had been destroyed. But the state’s own expert, who’d inspected the hair at the time of the original trials, said at a hearing that the scientific community no longer does a visual hair comparison to “draw the conclusions we drew back in 1988 with a microscope.” Now analysts use DNA analysis.

Not long after Owens was granted a new trial in May 2007, Cohen proposed a deal. It wasn’t surprising. The plea bargain is the lifeblood of the overburdened criminal-justice system. About 95 percent of cases never go before a jury. Instead, most defendants agree to plead guilty in exchange for lesser sentences. In cases like Owens’, in which new evidence undermines old, legal advocates question whether incarcerated defendants should even be offered a plea. In every case, prosecutors “need to really inspect their own motivations,” Thiru Vignarajah, a former federal and Baltimore City prosecutor who later served as deputy attorney general of Maryland, said. “Are they offering a plea or time served because that’s in the best interest of the case, or are they allowing some institutional interest of preserving the conviction to trump a prosecutor’s duty to seek justice?”

A year before Owens’ retrial, Jessamy’s office had convinced another defendant to take an Alford plea. Locked up for 20 years, that defendant had at first refused a deal after he, too, was granted a new trial because of DNA evidence. As the trial was set to begin, the prosecution requested a postponement. When the state again delayed the subsequent trial date, the defendant broke down. He accepted the plea.

Afterward, Jessamy’s spokeswoman scoffed at the defendant in a news story, saying it was “inconceivable” that after 20 years the defendant couldn’t wait a little longer, and “if he truly believes he is innocent, he should have gone to trial to see that justice is served.”

As Owens’ trial got closer, Cohen kept sweetening the deal, knocking down the charge and requiring less probation. Finally, they offered Owens an Alford plea for second-degree murder, time served and no probation. Mercer lost sleep over whether Owens should take it. A trial was risky and a chance at guaranteed freedom was rare for any defendant. Owens repeatedly asked himself: “Why are they doing this to me? Why should I have to plead guilty to something I didn’t do?” Now mostly bald and with a moustache, he’d grown up in the foster care system. He’d been viciously attacked while in prison. He didn’t have much to hold onto except his resolute insistence from day one that he was innocent. He wasn’t about to “admit there was sufficient evidence to convict him while playing this wink-and-nod game that he was claiming his innocence,” Mercer said. So the Alford plea, like all the others Mercer had passed to Owens through the Plexiglass, was flatly rejected: “Mr. Mercer, there is no way. I am going to trial.”

Cohen, suspicious that the deal hadn’t been properly relayed, had Owens and Mercer join him for a bench conference, so that the Alford plea could be offered in front of the judge. I’m not taking nothing, dude,” Owens recalled saying. “I will die in the penitentiary if I have to.”

In October 2008, Owens was vindicated. Cohen was forced to tell the court he didn’t have the goods for a retrial. Owens stepped out of prison free for the first time in 21 years, telling gathered reporters, “You can’t give me that time back.”

es Thompson, 57, has been out of prison for less than six months and is trying to get his life back on track. After DNA cleared him of the rape, he took an Alford plea to be released from prison. “Did I want to take that? Absolutely not. But I wanted to go home.”

Thompson, meanwhile, was fighting the same battles while incarcerated about 75 miles away at Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, Maryland. But in his case, prosecutors were employing a perplexing logic. They’d agreed that the DNA evidence from the semen warranted a new trial for Owens, who had not been convicted of rape, but they refused a new trial for Thompson, who had been.

Thompson, by now gray-haired and hard of hearing, was dismayed. He’d saved the newspaper clipping about the DNA findings, and when he read that Owens had gone free, he was certain he’d be next. He couldn’t understand why the DNA could clear Owens of all charges while it did nothing for him, even though the DNA excluded him as well. But Mercer, who’d picked up Thompson’s case after freeing Owens, did. Thompson had confessed, and that was prosecutorial gold. In Simon’s book about the Baltimore detectives who’d secured Thompson’s confession, he detailed the interrogation tactics they had commonly employed. To get confessions, he wrote, the detective became a “huckster … thieving and silver-tongued,” and without the “chance for a detective to manipulate a suspect’s mind, a lot of bad people would simply go free.”

Poorly understood at the time is that such manipulation can also compel innocent people to agree to whatever the police want. As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in 2009, “a frighteningly high percentage of people … confess to crimes they never committed.” According to the Innocence Project, 28 percent of defendants later exonerated by DNA had falsely confessed.

During the initial trials in 1988, prosecutors had argued that the pubic hair and the blood on the jeans proved Thompson was telling the truth, but in 2009 the Maryland Court of Appeals wrote that the DNA finding “usurps the State’s arguments all together.” In essence this meant none of Thompson’s statements to police or prosecutors throughout the case were corroborated by evidence.

Despite the statistics, convincing a jury that someone would falsely confess to a crime — particularly to something as heinous as a murder or a rape — is incredibly hard. Juries want to believe that people are rational actors, like themselves, with an almost primal instinct toward self-protection. It wouldn’t matter that the state no longer had the evidence to prove it, Mercer knew, a jury would most likely myopically focus on the confession.

Thompson told me he’d been happy for Owens when he was released — he’d always wished he could apologize to him for what he did — but that feeling had faded into self-pity as the calendar went from 2008 to 2009 to 2010 and his case stalled in the courts. Now he was mostly anxious. He just wanted relief, whatever it might be, so when Sharon Holback, the new prosecutor on the case, eventually offered him an Alford plea — 23 years after he’d first fatefully approached police — his excitement overwhelmed his sense of injustice.

Mercer worked to make it the best deal he could. If Thompson took the plea, it meant the state would let him go, but the deal had some risky strings attached. Any charge that carried a life sentence had to come off the table, because in Maryland, a probation violation — even something as relatively minor as a DUI — sends the defendant back to prison to serve the remainder of his sentence. The two sides agreed to second-degree murder, which carries a maximum of 30 years. That way if Thompson violated probation, he’d only have seven and a half years over his head, since he had served more than 22.

Gregg Bernstein, Baltimore City state’s attorney from 2011 to 2015, oversaw at least two similar deals. He couldn’t remember the details but said he’d thought a lot about whether it was okay for an innocent man to take an Alford plea. In the end, he said, most cases lack black-and-white certainty, regardless of evidence suggesting innocence. “It’s not that simple to say yay or nay,” he said. “Pleas are a way to resolve them.”

Former prosecutor Vignarajah, though, told me he wonders if that kind of resolution only looks like a win for everyone on paper. “In reality everyone lost,” he said. “The victim sees no justice. The defendant is walking away with a conviction. And the prosecution didn’t get anyone to take responsibility [for the crime].”

On July 29, 2010, when Thompson left prison under the Alford plea, Holback got the last word: Thompson “is in no way exonerated.”


Since their releases, Thompson and Owens have led dramatically different lives.

Thompson thought he could go back to the person he was almost 23 years earlier, before the murder rap, but society didn’t look at him that way. When he applied for a job, he put a question mark where the form asked if he’d been convicted of a felony.

“I tried to explain I was wrongfully convicted, but people don’t want to hear that,” Thompson said. “There’s no reasoning with somebody. ‘Innocent people do not go to prison’ is just the motto.”

Thompson held onto his freedom for only a little over a year. In October 2011 he was arrested after his ex-girlfriend claimed that he had molested her young daughter. Thompson, who’d recently kicked the girlfriend out of his apartment, denied the charge, saying he’d spanked the girl’s bare butt to discipline her. The state reduced the charges to a misdemeanor for touching the girl’s buttocks and gave him time served for the five months he’d been in jail.

It didn’t end there, though. Because the misdemeanor violated his probation attached to his Alford plea, Thompson went from a local jail to a state prison to serve the remaining seven and a half years.

Mercer said he believes the Alford plea made it very difficult for Thompson to defend himself. “It was a question of credibility,” Mercer said. “Who’s going to believe him? He was stuck having to do damage control.”

Thompson set into motion the prosecution of Owens, and eventually himself, when he lied about finding the murder weapon to get a $1,000 police reward. He then falsely testified that he saw Owens commit the rape and murder. “I’m really ashamed,” he said. “Why I did what I did, I can’t explain it.”

Owens has fared better. He has been embraced by what little family he had. He has moved into a cousin’s house and has begun working with him cleaning gutters and doing landscaping. And he has grown close to his nieces and nephews, a bittersweet feeling for someone who’d had no chance to build a family of his own. Owens told me he has tried not to let the anger sink him, but he struggles. His exoneration came without compensation or even an apology. “What’s striking in these cases is a total lack of accountability,” said Michele Nethercott, of the Innocence Project in Baltimore. “Nothing ever really happens” to the police and prosecutors whose actions led to wrongful convictions.

Owens wonders today if his prosecution became all about keeping the win. “Instead of focusing on me and getting me to take a deal for something I didn’t do, they need to focus on the victim. Her murder has never been solved,” he said. “I think they should go back and look and do something for this girl.”

In 2011, Owens found a lawyer, Charles Curlett, to sue Baltimore. Curlett determined that there were several issues of misconduct involved in Owens’ conviction. First, his lawyer had been told nothing of the changing stories Thompson gave the detectives. The information could have been used to undermine Thompson’s credibility and failing to share it was likely a violation of Owens’ due-process rights. Such failures are known as Brady violations, after a 1963 Supreme Court case in which the justices determined that withholding favorable information from the defense is unconstitutional. Also, one of the jailhouse snitches who testified that Owens had confessed had been a police informant for years and said he recruited the other snitch. This, too, wasn’t revealed to the defense, nor were the informant’s letters asking for favors in exchange for his testimony.

Brady violations had become so prevalent in Baltimore’s courts that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently admonished the city’s prosecutors to remember their legal obligations: “Only this practice ensures the fair trial that our justice system aspires to provide” and makes it so “no one has to worry after the fact whether the jury convicted the wrong person.”

The city furiously fought Owens. Dodging such suits, many defense lawyers contend, is part of what drives these plea offers. “If not expressly that, it’s implicit in a lot of decisions made in this setting,” said Michael Imbroscio, an attorney who had a client in Baltimore City take a time-served deal. The city won dismissal of Owens’ suit against the state’s attorney’s office and Brave, who the court ruled had immunity, and the Baltimore Police Department. But the case is going to trial in federal court, likely early next year, against detectives Pellegrini, Landsman and Dunnigan as individuals. There’s millions in compensation at stake for Owens and a public airing of misdeeds for the city.

Civil litigation is “so important,” Mercer said. “Often, that’s the only time there’s scrutiny into what wrongs were done.”

Owens will go to court early next year in his lawsuit against the detectives who investigated him. He alleges the detectives violated his constitutional right to a fair trial by withholding key material from his lawyer.

The type of misconduct alleged in Owens’ case is echoed in nine more of the 14 exonerations out of Baltimore City and County since 2002, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The 2014 exoneration of Sabein Burgess, for example, came after it emerged that Baltimore detectives never revealed a key detail to the defense: that a young witness had told them he saw the murder suspect and it wasn’t Burgess. The detectives even submitted a report falsely stating that the witness had been asleep during the crime. Like Owens, Burgess is suing, claiming that detectives “cut corners and rushed to judgment.” His trial is set for this fall and names a different group of detectives.

Misconduct can also be found in the cases of some of the remaining exonerated defendants who, like Thompson, aren’t officially considered exonerated at all but who were released under Alford pleas or time-served deals after questions were raised about their initial convictions. Curlett is representing one such man, Wendell Griffin, who was convicted of murder in Baltimore in 1982. Decades later, it came to light that three detectives — two also featured in Simon’s book and a third who is Landsman’s brother — had buried photo lineups and witness statements pointing to Griffin’s innocence. He was let out on a time-served deal in 2012.

The detectives named in the Owens and Burgess lawsuits have denied allegations of misconduct. Michael Marshall, who represents the detectives in Owens’ and Griffin’s suits, declined to comment, referring questions to the chief of legal affairs for the Baltimore City Police Department, who didn’t return several calls.

Thompson, whose parents died while he was in prison, has been abandoned by the rest of his family. He was released early for good behavior in February after serving a little more than five of his remaining seven and a half years, and as much as he blames himself for his mistakes, he now thinks his plea was a “bum deal.” He wishes there was a way to prove to his loved ones that “although I served 30 years … I didn’t commit the crime.”

The strain of the Alford plea proved too much for one of Baltimore’s wrongly convicted. Chris Conover left prison under the plea in 2003 after DNA called into question his murder conviction in Baltimore County. On the outside, he suffered from severe panic attacks and depression, but his wife told the local newspaper that he couldn’t face in-patient treatment, which meant being back behind locked doors. His petition for a pardon from Maryland’s governor was turned down in 2012. Three years later, Conover killed himself.

“Having been convicted really defines who you are — it becomes itself a prison,” Mercer said. “Once out, with a conviction still on your shoulders, having maintained your innocence in a Alford plea is of little comfort and of very little practical benefit.


See Related Story

The Freedom Plea: How Prosecutors Deny Exonerations by Dangling the Prison Keys

New evidence pointed to innocence in the cases of these four Baltimore men, yet prosecutors would only let them go if they agreed to controversial plea deals.

Republished with permission under license from ProPublica

Proposed Law Seeks to Reform System That Jails People Just for Being Poor

'In our country,' said bill co-sponsor Sen. Kamala Harris, 'whether you stay in jail or not is wholly determined by whether you're wealthy or not – and that's wrong.'

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during a hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee June 21, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Civil liberties and criminal justice reform groups are celebrating the introduction of a new bill in the U.S. Senate on Thursday that would overhaul the nation's money bail system which critics have long decried for incarcerating people regardless of guilt or innocence but simply because of their inability to pay.

Introduced by Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act of 2017 is being applauded for addressing at least a portion of the pervasive inequality found throughout the U.S. justice system.

"Too many people in this country must spend weeks, months, or even years in jail waiting for trial only because they can't afford bail," said Kanya Bennett, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, which has endorsed the bill. "Even though these people are innocent in the eyes of the law, they’re punished, deprived of their freedom with disastrous consequences for their families and their lives."

The bill, which can be read in full here, would provide funding and federal guidelines to incentivize state and local governments to either scrap their money bail systems or greatly reform them.

"Our justice system was designed with a promise: to treat all people equally," Sen. Harris said in a statement. "Yet more than 450,000 Americans sit in jail today awaiting trial and many of them cannot afford 'money bail.' In our country, whether you stay in jail or not is wholly determined by whether you're wealthy or not – and that's wrong. We must come together to reform a bail system that is discriminatory, wasteful, and fails to keep our communities safe."

By specifying that any conditions placed on a defendant's release "should be based on the least restrictive, non-financial conditions that a judicial officer determines is necessary," the bill could potentially limit the negative impact on individuals and families—while also providing local governments huge savings. Ames Grawert, a criminal justice researcher with the Brennan Center for Justice, told the Guardian the proposal could go a long way in reversing some of the policies that have driven up incarceration rates in the last decades.

"We know that the 1984 [tough-on] crime bill did have an effect on states, did convince states to adopt tougher sentencing laws, did convince them to build more prisons – so the idea is that basically, if you flip those incentives on their head, maybe you could incentivize a different kind of behavior," said Grawert.

While the bill is far from perfect, said the ACLU's Bennet, "its reforms would be progress towards fixing the systematic problems that have led to mass incarceration."


Republished with permission under license from CommonDreams.

33 Movies for Black History

We've included 21 full-length movies you can watch now on your computer or device and 12 additional movie trailer recommendations to watch during black history month and beyond. Unfortunately, we cannot possibly list every good move related to black history and there are plenty of excellent movies not included on this list. However, we hope you discover something new and enjoy watching.

Full Movies Which Were Available on the Date of Publication

The Vernon Johns Story (1994 Full Movie)

Vernon Johns (April 22, 1892 – June 11, 1965) was an American minister at several black churches in the South. He is best known as the pastor 1947-52 of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama. He was succeeded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

The video has been deleted, trailer now shown below.

King (1978 Full Movie)

King was a television miniseries based on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. It aired for three consecutive nights on NBC from February 12 through 14, 1978. 

The Rosa Parks Story 2002

Something the Lord Made (2004 Full Movie)

Based on the true story of Vivien Thomas, a carpenter that wanted to be a doctor, unable to attend college he works for a real doctor as a janitor. Realizing what this young man is capable of the doctor gives him real tasks and as a team, they go to conquer what other people thought impossible. Based on a true story. Vivien Thomas became a black cardiac pioneer and his complex and volatile partnership with white surgeon Alfred Blalock, the world famous "Blue Baby doctor" who pioneered modern heart surgery.

Keep the Faith, Baby – Adam Clayton Powell Movie 2002

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (November 29, 1908 – April 4, 1972) was a Baptist pastor and an American politician, who represented Harlem, New York City, in the United States House of Representatives (1945–71). He was the first person of African-American descent to be elected from New York to Congress. Oscar Stanton De Priest of Illinois was the first black person to be elected to Congress in the 20th century; Powell was the fourth. Re-elected for nearly three decades, Powell became a powerful national politician of the Democratic Party and served as a national spokesman on civil rights and social issues. 

Deacons for Defense 2003

The Deacons for Defense and Justice was an armed self-defense group of African-Americans that protected civil rights organizations in the U.S. Southern states during the 1960s.

The Tuskegee Airmen 1995

The Tuskegee Airmen was a group of the first African-American military aviators (fighter and bomber) in the United States Armed Forces who fought in World War II. Officially, they formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces. All black World War II military pilots who trained in the United States trained at Moton Field, the Tuskegee Army Air Field, and were educated at Tuskegee University, located near Tuskegee, Alabama.

Ghost of Mississippi 1996

A Mississippi district attorney and the widow of Medgar Evers struggle to finally bring a white racist to justice for the 1963 murder of the civil rights leader. Medgar Wiley Evers (July 2, 1925 – June 12, 1963) was a black civil rights activist from Mississippi who worked to overturn segregation at the University of Mississippi and to enact social justice and voting rights. He was killed by a white segregationist.

Panther 1995

In October of 1966, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was created in response to challenge police brutality in Oakland.

The Marva Collins Story 1981

Marva Delores Collins (August 31, 1936 – June 24, 2015) was an American educator who started the highly successful Westside Preparatory School in the impoverished Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago in 1975.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge 1999

Dorothy Jean Dandridge (November 9, 1922 – September 8, 1965) was an American film and theater actress, singer and dancer. She is perhaps best known for being the first African-American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the 1954 film Carmen Jones

The Josephine Baker Story 1991

Josephine Baker, born in St. Louis, MO, was a singer and entertainer who skyrocketed to international fame as a performer in Paris. Baker renounced her U.S. citizenship because of racism and became a French national and war hero during WWII.

The Jacksons: An American Dream (1992)

Based upon the history of the Jackson family, one of the most successful musical families in show business, and the early and successful years of the popular Motown group The Jackson 5.

The Temptations 1998

Biography of the singers who formed the hit Motown musical act, The Temptations.

Miss Evers Boys

The true story of the U.S. Government's 1932 Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which members of a group of black test subjects were allowed to die, despite a cure having been developed.

The Jackie Robinson Story 1950

Biography of Jackie Robinson, the first black major league baseball player in the 20th century. Traces his career in the Negro Leagues and the major leagues.

The Spook Who Sat By the Door 1973

A black man plays Uncle Tom in order to gain access to CIA training, then uses that knowledge to provide tactical training to street gang members to plot a Black American Revolution.

Sounder 1972

About a loving and strong family of black sharecroppers in Louisiana in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, facing a serious family crisis when the husband and father, is convicted of a petty crime and sent to a prison camp.

A Woman Called Moses 1978

Based on the life of Harriet Tubman, the escaped African American slave who helped to organize the Underground Railroad, and who led dozens of African Americans from enslavement in the Southern United States to freedom in the Northern states and Canada.

Ray 2004

The story of the life and career of the legendary rhythm and blues musician Ray Charles.

Hoodlum 1997

A fictionalized account of the gang war between the Italian/Jewish mafia alliance and the Black gangsters of Harlem that took place in the late 1920s and early 1930s based on real events and characters. The film concentrated on Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Laurence Fishburne), Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth), and Lucky Luciano. 

The video has been deleted, trailer now shown below.

12 Black Movie Trailers to Stream or Rent

Rosewood 1997

Based on historic events of the 1923 Rosewood massacre in Florida, when a racist white lynch mob killed blacks and destroyed their black community.

Amistad 1997

Based on the true story of the 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship La Amistad, during which Mende tribesmen abducted for the slave trade managed to gain control of their captors' ship off the coast of Cuba, and the international legal battle that followed their capture by a U.S. revenue cutter. The case was ultimately resolved by the United States Supreme Court in 1841.

Roots 1977

Roots was an American television miniseries based on Alex Haley's 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family; the series first aired on ABC-TV in January 1977. (Goodbye Uncle Tom is another 70s Slave Movie which was virtually banned from the U.S.)

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Hidden Figures 2016

Hidden Figures is a 2016 American biographical drama film about female African-American mathematicians at NASA.

Malcolm X 1992

Malcolm X is a biographical drama about key events in Malcolm X's life: defining childhood incidents, his criminal career, his incarceration, his conversion to Islam, his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam and his later falling out with the organization, his marriage, his pilgrimage to Mecca, and his assassination on February 21, 1965. 

American Violet 2008

A single mother struggles to clear her name after being wrongly accused and arrested for dealing drugs in an impoverished town in Texas.

Belle 2013

Based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral is raised by her aristocratic great-uncle in 18th century England.

A Soldier's Story 1984

Not a true story, but an excellent look at the what was at stake for black people through the lens of the perceived humanity of our black soldiers.

Glory 1989

The film is about one of the first military units of the Union Army during the American Civil War to be made up entirely of African-American men (except for its officers), as told from the point of view of Colonel Shaw, its white commanding officer. 

The Cotton Club 1984

The Cotton Club was a famous night club in Harlem. The story follows the people that visited the club, those that ran it, and is peppered with the Jazz music that made it so famous. The Cotton Club was whites only but featured all black entertainment during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance.

Mississippi Burning 1988

Two FBI agents with wildly different styles arrive in Mississippi to investigate the disappearance of some civil rights activists.

The Retrieval 2013

A fatherless 13-year-old black boy, who survives by working with a white bounty hunter gang who sends him to earn the trust of runaway slaves and wanted black men.


Part of the Court.rchp.com 2017 Black History Month Series