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One Dollar at a Time: How Well-Connected Activists Are Destroying the American Justice System

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According to a new report by the American Bar Association, both civil and criminal courts are unable to enforce justice due to budget cuts and inadequate funding.

The courts of our country are in crisis. The failure of state and local legislatures to provide adequate funding is effectively — at times quite literally — closing the doors of our justice system. At the same time, Congress has reduced its support for both the federal courts and other programs that directly and indirectly support our justice system at the state, county and municipal levels. . . Our courts, already short-staffed, have thus been forced to lay off judges, clerks and other personnel just as they are being inundated with hundreds of thousands of new foreclosures, personal and small business bankruptcies, credit card and other collection matters, domestic fractures, and the many other lawsuits resulting from the Recession. . .

To cite but one state’s experience, the courts in Georgia have seen their funding shrink 25% over the last two years, such that their budget (which must also pay for prosecutors) now constitutes a mere 0.89% of the state’s overall budget.

These are real problems that affect not just the poor but also anyone seeking recourse for civil cases or business matters.  Middle-class and business people are finding themselves at the end of a very long and slow line when they need access to a courtroom.

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Of course, it’s still money-burning time at agencies like the Department of Justice, where they are spending more than ever “coalitioning” on pet projects with the A.C.L.U., the Open Society Foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, and the Center for Constitutional Rights (click on each link to see just one program subsidized by your tax dollars, at their behest).  Such elite members of the prisoner’s-rights-only lobby can go directly to Eric Holder when they want to intervene between the great unwashed public and the criminals they vigilantly defend.

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Meanwhile, the prisoner’s rights lobby has succeeded in nearly pricing the death penalty out of existence.  Every frivolous appeal means that some other citizen is being denied access to courtrooms they — not the activists — subsidize.  From Oregon:

Convicted killer Robert J. Acremant, judged delusional, was moved off of Oregon’s death row two months ago, spared by a deal that got him a life sentence instead. . . Acremant admitted killing a Medford lesbian couple, binding them and shooting them in the back of the head in 1995. His publicly paid lawyers have been contesting the case since a jury in 1997 sentenced him to die. . . One avenue of appeal alone cost taxpayers $317,000.

$317,000 for just one appeal; fourteen years of appeals and counting, until the state gave up and commuted his sentence.

Robert Acremant

Acremant admitted killing a man and two women.  What was there to reconsider?  Well, thanks to the death penalty activists, every last thing.  And by creating this system of mandatory, endless appeals (with help from journalists and academics who have deceived the American public into believing that death rows are filled with innocent men), they have succeeded in defunded criminal justice to a point where we prosecute fewer people who belong behind bars.

The goalposts for these activists is to abolish the death penalty, then abolish life-without-parole, and eventually whittle down sentencing to the good old days of the 1970′s, when even aggravated murder wasn’t hard time.  It’s unconscionable and anti-democratic to do this by placing fiscal pressure on the courts, and thus the American taxpayers, but “unconscionable” isn’t a label that seems to bother.  Instead, now that their tactics are working, they are even pretending that their motive is to save money:

Defense attorneys say changing how murderers are prosecuted could get the public the same result most often seen now — life sentences — at less cost.

But the moment the death penalty’s off the table, don’t expect a single activist to declare victory and retire from the fray: they’ll just get up the next morning and start making life sentences as expensive to litigate as death sentences once were, as prosecutors in Oregon point out:

Prosecutors are pushing back, saying defendants would be far less likely to take plea deals if the death penalty weren’t hanging over them. The savings that reformers promise would be swallowed by new and expensive criminal trials, they say. . . “We have many people who are aggravated murder defendants who plead guilty to aggravated murder and either take a true life sentence or an extremely long mandatory minimum who would never do that if there was not a death penalty involved in the equation,” [Multnomah County chief deputy district attorney Norm] Frink said.

Here is one of Robert Acremant’s many appeals.  Take the time to read it, to see the sort of litigious junk that really gets murderers off death row — not “innocence.”  Here is a raw jailhouse interview with Acremant, in which he describes the pleasure of killing three people, just for the hell of it (the interview starts at 5:57).

And think about this, as you watch a killer laugh: everything these activist groups want, they can achieve, while making us foot the bill and simultaneously de-funding our courts . . . as we’re forced to live alongside criminals who certainly don’t move into George Soros’ neighborhood, nor Chuck Feeney’s,  when they’re sprung loose.

Serial Killer Bobby Joe Long: Why Florida Courts (And Those In Other States) Are Really Out Of Money

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This is Bobbie Joe Long:

Serial Killer Bobbie Joe Long

Bobby Joe Long raped scores of women in the Tampa Bay area and murdered as many as 11 and possibly more.  He confessed to multiple murders and there are mountains of evidence, including a victim who escaped and left personal items in his bedroom to prove she had been there.  Bobby Joe Long has been behind bars since 1984.  27 years later, we’re still paying for his legal games.  How many millions of dollars has he cost us in all that time?

He is the real reason why the entire Florida Court system is in danger of shutting down for lack of money.

Sure, there are other reasons.  There’s these guys . . .

Hon. Paul Hawkes, FL Rep. Marti Coley(R), Hon. Brad Thomas

Appellate Judges Paul Hawkes and Brad Thomas, who went on a wild spending spree with 48 million taxpayer dollars to build what is being dubbed the Taj Mahal of courthouses, complete with mahagony-lined private suites for . . . Paul Hawkes and Brad Thomas.  Yes, they are wearing cunning hardhats with their names engraved on them.

Florida’s “Taj Mahal” Appeals Court

There’s also cash flow problems due to another real estate boondoggle, the foreclosure crisis.  The State Bar says they will run out of operating funds very, very, very soon.  And what happens then?

“The courts are running out of money, and if we run out of money, we cannot keep our doors open,” said 10th Circuit Judge John Laurent, chair of the Trial Courts Budget Commission.  “It’s important we keep the doors open. One reason is access to justice, and one is public safety. I don’t think we could go for several months without a court system. No, that’s not an experiment we want to participate in.”

Access to justice and public safety: good things.

But the real problem with funding our justice system is the limitless resources and vast latitude given to any criminal who ever gets convicted of anything.  If they get convicted, that is.  According to a group of researchers who put together a list of every time Bobbie Joe Long skinned his knee or bumped his nose, his first rape charge came in 1971, when he was only 18 (a juvenile record might be sealed).  Before that he shot his dog to death through her vagina, but, whatever.  The girl wasn’t believed.  Nor apparently was his wife, a few years later.  Nor was the next rape victim who dared to put herself through reporting him in 1981, only to see him receive probation for lesser charges, then demand a retrial, receive one from some compassionate judge, and walk free, acquitted that time.  Then there was the twelve-year old girl he tried to abuse while in police custody (he got two days for that crime).  There was the hospital job where he was fired for sexual abuse of the patients, but nothing else was done.  He was hired by several other hospitals after that. Then in 1984, a gunpoint abduction charge that was reduced, astonishingly, to a fine to pay for the damage to the woman’s vehicle (which she had crashed in order to escape him).

When you read through a record like this, it’s hard to see the criminal justice system as anything other than a sort of playground for inhuman psychopaths, with defense attorneys and judges standing on the sidelines virtually encouraging the Bobbie Joe Longs of the world to go out and kill again.  I find it very hard to believe that, with the exception of the police, any of the public servants who came into contact with Long in all those years felt the least bit motivated to get him off the streets.  He did everything short of walking into a police station and confessing to raping and murdering women, and then he finally even did that, and then the location of the game changed slightly, but the courts kept playing with him and encouraging him, and they continue to do so today.

Meanwhile, what percentage of his victims received so much as one day in court to address the vicious rape and attempted murder they barely survived, or the murder of someone they loved?  How many serious violent crimes, even murders, attributed to Long were carelessly shelved without a second thought?

The reality of our criminal justice system is this:  we could spend ten times as much as we do today and 75% of crime victims still wouldn’t see their cases addressed by the system.  Liberals care only about criminals, and, increasingly, conservatives care only about cutting costs.  And liberals control the judiciary, and conservatives control the purse strings, especially in Florida.  The math isn’t hard to do.

In 1970, when Bobbie Joe Long was just beginning his violent career, Milton Eisenhower, one of the most respected criminologists in the United States, complained that of the 10 million serious crimes committed annually in the United States, only one-and-a-half percent resulted in even temporary incarceration of anyone.  Those numbers are probably better today.  But the people we trust to keep us safe have grown worse: they’re no Milton S. Eisenhower, who actually believed the justice system should protect the innocent and punish the guilty.  Bobbie Joe Long will have many more taxpayer-subsidized days in court, probably in the Taj Mahal, which is essentially a playground for him and his peers.

Burglary is Not a Non-Violent Crime: In Oakland, It Isn’t Even a Crime

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Well, OK, that’s not exactly true. But in July, Oakland police announced that, due to budget problems, police will no longer respond to a long list of crimes, including residential burglary where the home invaders are unknown.

I’m sure it didn’t help that the city had to spend so much money responding to the recent liberation of sports shoes and consumer electronics in the name of Oscar Grant.

Shoe Locker Looter Wearing an Oscar Grant Mask

That’s a lot of money that could be spent on doing things like protecting people’s property, going instead to prevent protesters from destroying even more Mom and Pop franchises and delis and phone kiosks and other symbols of oppression.

Maybe there should be an enhanced penalty for premeditated rioting.

Meanwhile, want to train to become a burglar?  Move to Oakland.  Though I don’t recommend living there, because home insurance rates are about to shoot up.  For everyone, of course, not just burglars and looters.  Funny how that works.

I spent way too much time yesterday fruitlessly searching for a comment I’d seen on a police blog, one that perfectly sums up the dangers of lowering the bar on criminal behavior this way.  The commenter, a cop himself, was writing about the war on cops.  He pointed out that virtually every cop killer has repeatedly cycled through the court system, learning along the way that he could get away with practically anything.

Even more troubling, the widespread belief that so-called non-violent crimes like drug trafficking and residential burglary don’t merit prison terms is creating a generation of criminals who not only have no fear of consequences but actually feel entitled to commit crimes.  Whenever they find naive people to support them in their belief in these “rights,” they also feel more entitled to direct their resentment and rage at symbols of law enforcement, namely cops.

We should not underestimate the perniciousness of reinforcing the notion that it is “unjust” to punish people for things like breaking into other people’s houses.

Oakland has actually codified that mindset.

These trends are especially dangerous for women. Back when Georgia was implementing its DNA database by collecting DNA from all felons, not just sex offenders, something really shocking showed up in the first few hundred “hits” (where a felon’s sample matched previously unsolved crimes).  Many men who only had prior records for burglary or drugs or aggravated assault were identified as rapists in stranger rapes that had gone unsolved.

That begs a few questions, questions which, sadly, law professors and criminologists are utterly disinterested in asking.  Too bad, because they’re extremely relevant in the ongoing debate about prosecuting or not prosecuting certain crimes and how we choose to spend our shrinking justice budgets.

For example, how many of these men were previously caught committing rapes but were granted non-sex offense pleas by money-conscious prosecutors who didn’t think they could get rape charges to stick?  In one of his several trips to prison, my own rapist got more time for resisting arrest and B&E than for sexually assaulting another victim — more time for breaking into a window than a woman’s body — thanks to one such money-saving plea.  I’ve got a file cabinet stuffed with other examples of serial rapists — and serial killers — given multiple chances to rape and kill, thanks to routine, money-saving courtroom shortcuts.

They don’t call them “bargains” for nothing.  These types of offenders also now have enhanced abilities to do pre-assault dry runs in Oakland and other places that are ratcheting back law enforcement.

Now, with less enforcement of these lesser crimes, more serious offenders stand to get away with even higher quantities of violent crime.  A sex offender operating in Oakland can rest confident knowing that the police won’t be showing up to investigate his fishing expeditions.  Does anybody believe the that the tiny fraction of burglars who end up in a courtroom in Oakland won’t benefit from the downgrading of this crime?

And what is happening in Oakland is the future for everyone, the logical consequence of decades of pricing justice out of reach — for us non-offenders, that is.  We spend so much on largely useless “rehabilitation” and frivolous appeals that there is no money left to actually enforce the law.  This is how violent recidivists are made, and how cops get killed, and why the rest of us are forced to spend more and more of our money insuring our lives and looking over our shoulders.

In the 1990′s, elected officials were able to turn New York City around by doing precisely the opposite of what Oakland is doing today.  Expect opposite results, as well.

Is Solitary Confinement The Really Expensive Part?

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Ah yes, the silly season. Reporter claiming to be writing about solitary confinement jumps right into equating solitary confinement with “hard-line criminal justice polic[y]” instead.  According to this view, solitary confinement is not, as one might think, a rational response to the dangers created by extremely violent offenders.  Nor is it a way to protect prisoners who might be vulnerable to harm because of their appearance, orientation, or gang status.  Nor even a response (one that ought to be appreciated) to the endless lawsuits filed against corrections facilities demanding protections for prisoners — protection from themselves, or others.

Nope, in the eyes of the media, every issue relating to incarceration and crime is just another opportunity to lash out at allegedly “draconian” sentencing policies.  In this view, using less solitary confinement to address budget constraints isn’t a sign that prisons are having to deal with the financial downturn like everyone else.  Using less solitary confinement is:

a dramatic acknowledgement, analysts say, that states can no longer sustain the costs of hard-line criminal justice policies.

Hmmm, which analysts?  And what’s so “hard-line” about using solitary?  Don’t prisoner activists want maximum safety for inmates?  If corrections officers didn’t care about prisoner safety, they wouldn’t bother spending more of their budgets to separate prisoners from each other, right?

What’s really being protested (I mean reported) here is incarceration itself.  What the activists want is nobody going to prison, ever.  Thus, this even more incoherent comment on the use of solitary confinement, dialed in to fill the article’s next slot:

“The whole philosophy of being just tough — locking people up and throwing away the key — has not solved the problem,” said Texas state Sen. John Whitmire, Democratic chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

Well, luckily, nobody does that key thing.  And “solved” which “problem”?  The problem of crime?  According to Sen. Whitmire, incarceration doesn’t solve the problem of crime.  So . . . what does this have to do with solitary confinement?  Are we supposed to stop putting criminals in solitary confinement or stop putting them in prison?  Or are we just supposed to sit here listening to meaningless claptrap, nodding our heads?

Unsurprisingly, unlike Whitmire, corrections spokespeople aren’t in the mood to play politics with what is, for them, a life-or-death issue:

Decisions to return dangerous inmates to the general prison population anger some prison officials, who say the changes could threaten the safety of corrections officers and other inmates.  “The departments of correction are rolling the dice with public safety. … This is going to blow up,” said Brian Dawe of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network, an association of officers.

Elsewhere, here’s the guy whose picture appears in the yellow pages under “Solitary Confinement: Arguments For”

Robert Gleason

For seven days, Robert Gleason Jr. begged correctional officers and counselors at Wallens Ridge State Prison to move his new cellmate. The constant singing, screaming and obnoxious behavior were too much, and Gleason knew he was ready to snap.  On the eighth day — May 8, 2009 — correctional officers found 63-year-old Harvey Gray Watson Jr. bound, gagged, beaten and strangled. His death went unnoticed for 15 hours because correctional officers had not followed proper procedure for inmate head counts at the high-security prison in southwestern Virginia.  Now, Gleason says he’ll kill again if he isn’t put to death for killing Watson, who had a history of mental illness. And he says his next victim won’t be an inmate.  “I murdered that man cold-bloodedly. I planned it, and I’m gonna do it again,” the 40-year-old Gleason told The Associated Press. “Someone needs to stop it. The only way to stop me is put me on death row.”

This is a much more direct discussion of solitary confinement.

Gleason already is serving a life sentence for killing another man. He fired his lawyers last month — they were trying to work out a deal to keep him from getting the death penalty — so he could plead guilty to capital murder. He’s vowed not to appeal his sentence if the judge sentences him to death Aug. 31.  “I did this. I deserve it,” he said. “That man, he didn’t deserve to die.”

There are no innocents here.  The victim had a pretty ugly record, too:

Watson was serving a 100-year sentence for killing a man and wounding two others in 1983 when he shot into his neighbor’s house in Lynchburg with a 10-gauge shotgun. According to prison records, Watson suffered from “mild” mental impairment and was frequently cited for his disruptive and combative behavior.  Watson was sent to Wallens Ridge on April 23, 2009, a day after he set fire to his cell at Sussex II State Prison. Gleason and Watson became cellmates on May 1, 2009.

This is the reality of prison — scores of violent men locked up for our safety, and their safety, while activists circle outside, trying to come up with any reason whatsoever to get them free again, as we foot the bill.

In the days the two spent locked in an 8-by-10-foot cell, Watson would talk about how he had “drowned” two television sets because they “had voodoo in them,” Gleason said.  He would also belt out “I wish I was in the land of cotton” from the song “Dixie” and other songs at all hours, scream profanities and masturbate. In the chow hall and in the recreation yard, Watson would get inmates to give him cigarettes for drinking his urine and clabbered milk.  “You can’t be upset with someone like that,” Gleason said. “He needed help.”  Gleason said his requests to separate the two were met with mockery and indifference by correctional officers and prison counselors. He said he knew what he’d do once officials refused to put Watson in protective custody.  “That day I knew I was going to kill him,” he said. “Wallens Ridge [prison] forced my hand.”  It was after midnight when Gleason used slivers of bed sheets to tie Watson’s hands and arms to his body and fashioned a gag out of two socks. He later removed the gag and gave Watson a cigarette, telling him it would be his last. Gleason said Watson spit in his face when he went to take the cigarette out of Watson’s mouth, so he jumped on his cellmate’s back and beat and strangled the man.

Interestingly, the D.A. immediately offered Robert Gleason a plea deal in Watson’s murder.  Gleason demanded death row instead:

[Attorney Ron] Elkins had offered to let Gleason plead to second-degree murder. He also offered to drop the capital murder charges and come back with a charge that didn’t carry a death sentence. Elkins wouldn’t say why he made those offers.  However, capital murder cases are typically lengthy and expensive, especially as appeals wind through the courts. Even though Gleason confessed, Elkins said he proceeded cautiously to ensure the case couldn’t be overturned on appeal.

Here is the real financial crisis in the justice system: a defense bar that has undermined our ability to afford prosecutions to such an extreme degree that prosecutors actually have second thoughts about trying a murder case . . . when they’re not busy being worried about affording the endless, frivolous appeals that will inevitably follow.

Just think about how many thousands of lesser crimes get dismissed every day because it “costs too much” to try them.

Think about how many prosecutions never go forward because of the high price of endlessly re-trying every conviction.

But that — that’s not the type of thing you read about in the paper.

No Answers Yet in Mr. X Case. Lots of Questions.

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The print news coverage of the Michael Harvey trial continues to skirt important questions:

  • Why did the Fulton County (Atlanta) D.A.’s office fail to act for at least three years once DNA evidence linked Harvey to the brutal 1994 murder of Valerie Payton? According to news reports, they identified Harvey’s DNA in 2005 and arrested him in 2008.
  • And why didn’t the G.B.I. make the link between the Harvey’s DNA and Valerie Payton’s rape kit back in 2002 or 2003, at the latest, when they were supposed to have entered his sample into the state database for which they’re responsible?

Meanwhile the AJC’s coverage is even more confusing today than it was a few days ago:

Harvey was released from the Georgia prison system in 2007 after serving two years on an aggravated assault conviction. He also was imprisoned four other times since 1980 for crimes such as aggravated assault with intent to rape, burglary and car theft.  Police arrested him in 2008 in connection with Payton’s death.  His DNA was linked to the crime in 2005, the Fulton District Attorney’s Office said Monday.

OK, don’t ask the D.A. to explain himself about the three-year gap between the DNA match and the murder charges.

But do explain this: how could Harvey have been in the “Georgia prison system” in 2007 when that isn’t recorded in the Georgia Bureau of Corrections database?  The database reports a different record, and they, at least, unlike Fulton County, keep coherent records and behave as if the people who are paying their salaries have a right to know what they are doing:

STATE OF GEORGIA – INCARCERATION HISTORY
INCARCERATION BEGIN INCARCERATION END
02/04/2003 06/14/2003
05/12/1998 09/16/1999
02/04/1985 11/01/1985
10/23/1980 11/02/1984

Maybe Harvey was in the county jail.  But that is Fulton County jail, not the “Georgia prison system.”  The paper seems to be saying (without saying too clearly) that there are these other aggravated assault charges for which he was imprisoned in 2007 (for how long is also unclear).  But he never got sent up to the state system for them.  So, at most, that must have been a sentence of a year or less, which would have placed Harvey in a courtroom in Fulton County after his DNA was linked to a heinous murder, and the D.A. should have known about the match.  Yet that evidence wasn’t, apparently, even brought up in court, or else (one must hope) he wouldn’t have been released in 2007, right?

Also, wouldn’t recidivism sentencing have kicked in by then, murder charges (so bizarrely) notwithstanding?  We do have laws about getting popped for several violent offenses in a row, and they should have applied to Harvey, with his prior kidnapping conviction (His attempted rape conviction presents an interesting quandary: rape counts, but does attempted rape?  It should: why reward failure to complete the crime?).  So in addition to all the other apparently squandered chances to do something about Harvey’s ties to a murder, was the 2007 aggravated assault yet another situation in which some Fulton County Judge didn’t bother to enforce Georgia’s laws? Is it another situation in which Fulton County’s D.A. utterly failed to bother to investigate the criminal history of the defendant and ask the judge for appropriate sentencing?

Why did yet another person with a long history of serious violent and felony property crime (not to mention a DNA link in a bloody murder) stroll into court some time between 2003 and 2007 for another violent crime and get sentenced, apparently, to some brief stint in county jail, if that is indeed what happened?  Where is the curiosity about any of this?  It’s pretty clear it happens every day.

And I still wonder whether Harvey’s multiple aggravated assault charges aren’t actually pled-down sex crimes.

How overwhelmed is Fulton’s criminal justice system? Who is responsible for taking three years to get around to charging Michael Harvey with murder after the belated DNA match, for this?

Payton had over 50 carvings on her body when she was found, and a photo of her 8-year-old son was placed on her stomach, Ross said during opening arguments. Handwritten on the back of the photo were the words, “I’M BACK ATLANTA, MR. X,” written in a block style with all capital letters, Ross said.

There seems to be an insinuation (again, not a very clear one) either in the AJC coverage or coming from the D.A. himself that the reason all of this unfolded so slowly is because Michael Harvey isn’t suspected in any of the other unsolved murders of prostitutes that were so thick on the ground in the 1990′s.

You know, that he was merely the suspect in one heinous murder.

Is the D.A.’s office so swamped (or distracted) that murders are taking decades to process while the murderers are left on the streets to commit more crimes?  For, in reality, Harvey’s DNA should have been taken and compared to outstanding rape-and-murder kits back in 1996, when he was convicted for rape, or in 1999, before he was released, or right away in 2002, when he was re-incarcerated.  There were the beginnings of a good DNA database before 1999, and the first people who were entered into it were people with sex offense convictions, like Harvey.  By 1999, when he was released, that database should have been functional enough to check at least the outstanding rape/murder cases in the state, like Valerie Payton’s death, against the DNA of convicted sex criminals, if it mattered enough to anyone.

Which, apparently, it didn’t.

Or was Payton’s rape kit one of the many left stockpiled on a shelf somewhere in the Atlanta Police Department while Bill Campbell mouthpiece and Chief of Police Beverley Harvard, no friend of rape victims, jetted around the country picking up awards and running political interference for her boss, the soon-to-be convicted mayor?

Harvard presided distractedly over some of the most bloody years on Atlanta’s streets.  Thanks to such official neglect, multiple opportunities to get sexual predators off the streets were simply squandered.  Was the Valerie Payton murder another one?  Was another raped and murdered mother just not important enough?

Or was it the GBI that screwed up? Were they the ones sitting on Valerie Payton’s rape kit?  Michael Harvey’s DNA sample?  You have to really wonder what’s going on, when the spokesperson for the agency is busy telling the public not to worry about all the sex offenders they’ve lost track of but can’t be bothered to explain whether or not his agency is responsible for delays in processing these DNA samples during the time that a murder suspect with a long record of violent crime was still in state custody.

If GBI spokesman John Bankhead or Fulton County D.A. Paul Howard ever came forward and said, Look, we just don’t have enough resources to even pay appropriate attention to murder cases, they would receive resounding support from the public.  But instead, it seems that both men are refusing to explain what went wrong in this investigation.  And they are enabled in flying under the radar by many things, including a Clerk of Court system that behaves as if the public is not entitled to know what’s going on in their courts.

A clever ninth grader could create a database system for sharing court outcomes with the public, using nothing more than his lunch money for implementation, but, sadly, there are no clever ninth graders working at the Clerk of Court’s office.  So long as an uninformed public continues re-electing political cronies to the head offices of the Clerk (and the print media remains silent on that and other well-known, substandard practices), that situation will not change for Atlanta.

Why is there no political push for sunshine in the courts? Neighborhood advocates have worked to great effect with the police to make streets safer, but those efforts are ultimately wasted if similar scrutiny is not applied to the court system, which is directly responsible for repeatedly releasing both violent and property offenders.

This is why full disclosure and frank discussion of the criminal history of offenders like Michael Harvey is so important, and why it is so unsettling that the D.A. is not being forthcoming with that information.  Here is a known alleged killer, and it seems that nobody acted with appropriate speed to restrain him.  Two, or five, or eight years ago, it would have been far easier to try Harvey for this murder.  Fourteen years ago, when he was tried for another rape and should have had his DNA tested, it would have been easier still.

Now, it seems like an afterthought.  And everybody involved seems to be covering each others’ mistakes.  This is justice on the cheap.  We’ve all been accepting utter neglect of most criminal behavior for so long that it doesn’t even seem noteworthy that an accused killer has been walking the streets all this time, in plain view.

Criminal Appeals: Why Was Serial Rapist Ali Reza Nejad Out on Bond?

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The good news: U.S. Marshals in Houston caught violent serial rapist Ali Reza Nejad after he slipped off his ankle monitor and fled Georgia upon hearing that the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously reaffirmed his conviction and 35-year sentence last week.

Nejad, Before and After Dye Job

The bad news? Violent serial rapist Ali Reza Nejad was allowed to stroll out of prison after being convicted of two rapes, while his case worked its way through the ridiculous and expensive appeals process in Georgia’s horribly overburdened courts.

More bad news? We all paid for Nejad to play Georgia’s horribly overburdened court system from the comfort of his own home.  Then we paid to track him down again after he fled.  Why on earth didn’t anybody in a position of authority bother to think through the potential effect of the Supreme Court’s negative ruling on this crazy serial rapists’ state of mind and go pick him up, or at least put him under constant surveillance, before he found out that he was heading back to prison for the rest of his adult life?

And why was he allowed out of prison to await appeal on frivolous grounds, anyway?  All rapists are dangerous criminals, but this guy qualifies as central-casting-woman-loathing-sexual-sadist-armed-with-a-gun-escalating-and-stalking-prostitutes-dangerous.

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Criminal Appeals

Nejad appealed his conviction on two grounds: the perennial ineffectual counsel claim, and his lawyer’s insistence that there is some gray area in defining a gun as a deadly weapon.  None of this was about whether Nejad did, indeed, pull guns on women and rape them: it’s just meaningless technicalities piled one on top of another until the courts can’t function or somebody slips up and lets a serial rapist like this back onto the streets.

(I can’t link directly to the pdf files for the Georgia Appeals Court decision that led to Najad being wrongfully released or the Georgia Supreme Court decision that reversed the overturning of his trial verdict and sent him back to prison, but you can access the pdf files by typing Najad v. State.)

As to the first claim, famous-defense-attorney-type Brian Steel, who has been practicing criminal law in the courts and on front pages in Georgia for a very long time, insisted that he had both completely and repeatedly lost the capacity to function as even an ordinary lawyer, let alone a really famous one, throughout the entire trial.

An Appeals Court judge devastatingly called Steel out on this fiction and expressed concern that what the lawyer might be trying to do was perpetrate fraud.  It’s worth reading this and pondering the court’s suggestion that defense attorneys are knowingly front-loading their representation of clients with errors in order to get them off later, when there’s no other expectation of acquittal.  Ugly stuff:

SMITH, Presiding Judge, concurring specially.
I concur fully in the majority opinion, but write separately to point out an area
of increasing concern in claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. Trial counsel’s
testimony in this case demonstrates a worrisome trend with serious implications for
the bar
and the administration of justice.
Taking the record on appeal at face value, we are presented with several
possible and equally questionable explanations for trial counsel’s testimony at the
hearing on the motion for new trial. Trial counsel may, despite his many years of
experience, simply have been unaware of the well-established rule of law governing
a defendant’s right to testify. Or he may have in fact so instructed his client in order
to provide a ready-made reversible error on appeal in the event of a conviction. Or
he may have testified untruthfully at the hearing on the motion for new trial in order
to provide his former client with a basis for reversal of his conviction.
None of these possibilities, which are by no means exhaustive, reflects well
upon trial counsel. Whether he is so incompetent as to call into question his ability to continue in this area of practice, or whether he has conducted himself in such a manner as to perpetrate a fraud upon the court, is not for us to say.
But we view any of these possibilities with alarm. The trial court was similarly concerned, asking trial counsel, “Don’t you think you have some responsibility to the system?”  Typically, trial counsel in such situations testify primarily to the factual details of their conduct and decisions, and admit errors only with reluctance and with due regard for their professionalism and pride in their work. The developing trend of emphatically and even eagerly testifying to one’s own incompetence or misconduct is dangerous to the administration of justice, particularly if it is allowed to continue without any consequences for the testifying trial counsel.

There are no consequences, no matter what the defense bar does, or lies about doing.  That’s why we have so many rapists and murderers walking the streets.  Beginning, middle, and end.  We’re all at their mercy, in a system they have been jerry-rigging for half a century.

The Georgia Supreme Court, in an unanimous decision, reversed the appeals court on the determination of incompetent counsel.  They observed that nobody has a positive duty to continually inform a defendant that he may, in fact, testify.

They also reversed the appeals court’s ruling that the jury should have been asked to decide whether holding a pellet gun to someone’s head is assault with a deadly weapon.  It’s extremely settled law that wielding a gun, even a pellet gun, that way is assault per se with a deadly weapon.  I’m surprised that appeals court agreed with Nejad’s lawyer on this matter.  Here is the Supreme Court:

During the jury instructions concerning the two counts charging Nejad
with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, the trial court informed the jury
that the crime is committed when the accused, with a deadly weapon, places
another person in reasonable apprehension of immediately receiving a violent
injury.
The trial court then told the jury that “A pellet gun in the shape of an
automatic weapon is per se a deadly weapon.” The Court of Appeals ruled it
was error to give the “per se” charge, reasoning that a pellet gun is not a per se
deadly weapon and it was for the jury to resolve whether the manner and means
by which it was used made it a deadly weapon. Nejad v. State, supra, 296 Ga.
App. 163 (2).  A firearm is a deadly weapon as a matter of law. Wyman v. State, 278 Ga.
339 (4) (602 SE2d 619) (2004). A firearm pointed at a victim and reasonably
appearing to the assault victim to be loaded is a deadly weapon as a matter of
law, regardless of whether it is loaded and, under such a circumstance, the trial
court does not err when it takes the issue of “deadliness” from the jury.

So there you have it. Ali Nejad picks up prostitutes, rapes them at gunpoint, and does the same to so many women that word gets around on the streets.  The police catch him, being excruciatingly cautious to protect his rights in the process; the courts try him, being excruciatingly cautious to protect his rights in the process; the case is decided by jurors being excruciatingly cautious to protect his rights in the process — and then the moment he is convicted, the free-for-all game-playing begins.

From the moment jurors return a guilty verdict, everything’s perpetually up for grabs, at our expense.  As the manipulations by the defense bar grow more and more extreme, judges and prosecutors can only protest impotently.  We’ve designed a system in which defense attorneys can say anything, do anything, cost the rest of us anything, intentionally throw a trial, intentionally bankrupt the courts — but they cannot be held responsible for this conduct.

I predict that the only people who will be blamed for the Nejad debacle are the people who would have kept him in prison in the first place: the officers tasked with monitoring him after a judge let him go free to await the outcome of the appeals process.  They don’t deserve any blame.  They caught Nejad, twice now.  It’s the rest of the system that has failed to keep the public safe.


Killer Craig Wall Given $1000 Bail, Kills Again: When Prosecutors Act Like Defense Attorneys

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Craig Wall

This guy, Craig Wall, a violent convicted recidivist felon, is a suspect in the murder of his five-week old son earlier this month.  The baby’s mother then received a restraining order on Wall, and when he violated it last week, he was arrested.  The investigation into the baby’s death — the fact that he was a murder suspect — should have been presented in court after his arrest.  But the prosecutor simply didn’t mention it.  Instead he offered Wall a plea deal, a small fine in exchange for pleading guilty.  Wall even rejected the plea (hey, why take halfsies if it’s clear that nobody is going to bother to hold you responsible for anything, anyway?).  He was granted bond instead — for $1,000 — also with the prosecutor’s blessing.

Then Wall walked out of the courtroom and killed his baby’s mother.

Who’s responsible?

~~~

The better question might be, who isn’t responsible? The prosecutor’s boss, Pinellas County State Attorney Bernie McCabe, said he was “dumbfounded” by his employee’s actions.

Bernie McCabe, state attorney for Pinellas and Pasco counties, said his staff needs to be reminded of fundamental principles that were not followed in this case.  His chief assistant, Bruce Bartlett, plans to meet today with prosecutors who handle misdemeanor hearings.  “They are being paid to be advocates and not just stand there with their hands in their pockets,” Bartlett said.

Good for McCabe for acknowledging that something is horribly wrong.  The question remains whether this is an isolated incident or the status quo in the offices McCabe oversees.

Wall is accused of stabbing to death Laura Taft, 29, early Wednesday . . . Two days earlier, Wall was released from the Pinellas County Jail on a $1,000 bond after a bail hearing. No one at the hearing mentioned that Wall was a suspect in the death of his 5-week-old son this month, even though police had noted that fact in the arrest affidavit.

So information about a murder charge is not even mentioned in a court hearing to determine whether a defendant who has violated a restraining order is too dangerous to be released on bond?  What, then, does get mentioned?

Was the prosecutor just not doing his job?  Or is he one of many prosecutors who are using their office to train to become defense attorneys — the more lucrative, and in many powerful circles, more culturally admired job?  Was the prosecutor simply overwhelmed by work and forced to try to settle this case — any case — with minimum effort?  This is how we starve the courts.

And what of the judge?  What does he have to say?

~~~

Here is a related murder case in Orlando, with some interesting statistics.

Courts in Crisis? Thank a Defense Attorney.

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So suddenly the Fulton County Courts cannot function, thanks to a huge planned budget cut.  But how were they functioning before, with violent felons and repeat offenders getting a free stroll out the door for a variety of reasons?  This is a scene playing out across the country:

Georgia’s biggest court system warned Wednesday that a 2010 Fulton County proposal that cuts $53 million from the judicial budget could force them to shut down the courthouse, jeopardize death penalty cases and slash as many as 1,000 jobs.

Fulton County’s judicial leaders declared an “economic state of emergency” and warned that the cuts, which amount to about a fourth of Fulton County’s judicial budget, would lead to drastic changes at the Fulton County Jail, the sheriff’s office along with prosecutors, judges and public defenders.

“This is not something you can adjust to,” said Doris Downs, the county’s chief superior court judge. “This is going to dismantle the justice system.”

The proposed cuts, which were released last week, are part of a spending plan that would slash the county’s funding by $148.2 million in 2010. Downs and other judicial leaders said the cuts came as a surprise to them and urged commissioners to rethink the spending plan before it plunges the legal system into a “crisis.” . . .

Among the possible aftershocks, said Downs, is a more aggressive early release program to lower jail expenses.

Not so fast.

If judges feel they must circumvent justice for even more victims, they had better allow the public to see precisely how many victims are being denied justice already, through failures to prosecute offenders or sentence them properly, and then let the public decide where resources should be cut.  It’s their money.  And their safety.

If the courts want the public to support their efforts to prevent these budget cuts, they must start having a conversation with the public.

The sanctimonious anti-incarceration activists who call themselves journalists are howling that the real emergency is that we must find more more money to spend on death penalty defendants.  Or else the most horrible thing will happen: murderers won’t get phalanxes of silk stocking lawyers jetted in, all expenses paid, to bloviate about nothing for months on end while making a mockery of the notion of truth in justice.

This is a crisis manufactured by the defense bar.  This is about defense lawyers taking away the public’s right to decide whether or not to try people for death by spending all their money on the defense of one man, then crying poor, stomping their feet, and demanding that all defendants get as many lawyers as the last defendant.

They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this anymore.  Where does it say that defendants deserve teams of expensive private lawyers, rather than public defenders?  The public gets public prosecutors on a shoestring: why do certain criminals fly first class on our dime?  None of this has anything to do with “fair trials” or “the right to a defense”: it is the defense bar pillaging the system to force legislation by other means — the destruction of death penalty trials.

And no matter what you think of the death penalty, don’t think they’ll stop there: life without parole is the next thing in their sights, once death penalty trials are priced out of existence.

Why have we permitted jury selection to bloat into weeks-long parades of experts?  Why has the right to an attorney morphed into the right to six private activist lawyers jetted in to game the system with frivolous inanities as earnest journalists fancying themselves “speaking truth to power” lovingly cover the spectacle?

And, meanwhile, how many cases end up not being prosecuted at all because of such charades?

Before the courts simply inform the public that they will have to accept more violent criminals walking because the defense bar went on a bender, they must speak up about the real costs and pressures on the system.  They must open their books.  And they must finally stand up to the dysfunction they know is ruling the Clerk of Court’s Office and other parts of the system.

Everybody knows which things waste money and which people have no business representing the justice system.  If the public is going to be asked to take yet another hit, they at least deserve an honest conversation in the process.

Contretempestuousness or Tempestucontretemps in Marvin Arrington’s Courtroom

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Pardon the brief hiatus from journalistic ethics week, which I’ll just roll over into journalist ethics fortnight, Jane Austen style.

Everybody was behaving so ethically out there, I just lost steam.  Nobody ran headlines falsely accusing the families of the D.C. sniper victims of being “vengeful” for saying things like: “It helped to see the completion.  It helped to a degree,” upon witnessing John Muhammad’s execution.  Nobody made utterly false allegations of prosecutorial malfeasance, claiming, “[t]here are several documented cases where DNA testing showed that innocent people were put to death by the government,” then refused to correct the record when it was brought to his attention that there are actually no documented cases where DNA testing showed that innocent people were put to death by the government (and that’s according to death penalty opponents).

~~~

Nope, everybody in the fourth estate is just behaving so well, there’s no point in blogging about such things, especially when another outburst of crazy in the Fulton County Superior Court is raising troubling questions, again:

A disagreement between a judge and a senior assistant prosecutor last month erupted on Thursday into a heated confrontation in a back hallway of the Fulton County Courthouse between the judge and the district attorney. . . The fracas is rooted in an Oct. 6 murder trial of Randy Murray, charged with killing a man in a dispute in order to steal some marijuana.

In a nutshell (you can read the details here), Judge Marvin Arrington lashed out at a Senior ADA during a murder trial and ordered her to pay a fine for “trying to be smart” with him.  District Attorney Paul Howard told his ADA not to pay the fine, and Arrington subsequently had the attorney taken into police custody when she showed up in court on a different case.  Howard and Arrington then had a “ruckus in the back hallway,” as Arrington put it, in his inimitable legalese; Arrington filed a contempt order against Howard and his ADA; the Georgia Supreme Court issued a temporary stay of the order, and now everyone’s waiting to see what happens when the second shoe drops, joining a growing pile of other second shoes littering the hallways of the Fulton County Superior Court.

Paul Howard denies behaving threateningly to Arrington.  Here is what he had to say (Arrington, in contrast, had his say by throwing an lawyer into jail for allegedly dissing him, remember):

Howard issued a statement on Thursday saying, “The Contempt Order issued by Judge Arrington in this case is just plain wrong. It sullies the reputation of one of the finest, most honorable and ethical lawyers in this country.

“The transcript of the October 6th case shows clearly that [Senior ADA Linda] Dunikoski was courteous and professional at all times while standing up for her right to cross-examine a defendant charged with murder. Judge Arrington, for some unknown reason, did not allow her to complete her cross-examination after only 45-minutes of questioning.”

He continued, “As is my right as District Attorney, I orally objected to the wrongful and illegal incarceration of Ms. Dunikoski. Her incarceration was demeaning, inappropriate and injudicious. My office disagrees with Judge Arrington’s characterization of my actions and welcomes further examination of this matter.”

I’ve had my own strange run-in with Arrington, which I’ll detail next week.  So have many others.  Arrington is a lightning rod, but there are more important issues that, I hope, won’t be subsumed by the Sturm und Drang of personality conflict and fist-cuffies:

  • Was Arrington wrong to shut down ADA Dunikowski’s cross-examination of a defendant in a murder case?  Did his attitude, or judgment (or judicial philosophy) stand in the way of doing his job, which is to ensure that jurors receive all appropriate information about a defendant in order to make an informed decision about his guilt?
  • If so, is anybody going to actually do something about it?  When is the state going to acknowledge that it can’t run a judicial oversight board on the pocket change collected from redeeming soda cans in each courthouse?  Or is everyone going to keep behaving as if judges are simply above scrutiny, no matter the consequences of their carelessness, inattention, or sheer violation of the Georgia Code?
  • Likewise, are there going to be any consequences for Arrington’s rash act of interrupting another court proceeding to have an ADA arrested?  Is anybody in the media going to ask him, point-blank, whether he thinks he did the right thing in interrupting the people’s business and using the power of the bench that way?  Or is this headline just going to fade away, like all the rest?

I wish the media would be more forthcoming and inquisitive about the operations of the courts.  The public is denied access to virtually every important aspect of the functioning of our court system, and they can only gain partial access to what is going on if enough of them actually skip work to go sit in every courtroom, every day, observing all the proceedings, because the powers-that-be in the justice system deem their own actions above public scrutiny.  Spend a week or two reading this blog from the Orlando courts, and you’ll get an idea of what you’re missing.

When things erupt in soap opera fashion, it’s all good fun, or not (until somebody loses an eye, of course), but we need to be more than entertained (or horrified).

It is unacceptable that the judiciary chooses to keep their actions cloaked in darkness, rather than making the effort to make every case disposition available to the public (not to mention their dockets, so we can see who is getting what done, or not).  It is a disgrace that we cannot log onto the internet and see the outcome of every criminal case.  These records are, of course, being recorded electronically behind closed doors.  It would take about two lunch breaks for some Georgia Tech student to install a system to share this data with the public, along with court transcripts detailing the real goings-on in our courtrooms.

I had several people ask me questions about the judges up for election this time, and I couldn’t offer any information.  The fact that there is no way to evaluate the performance of any individual sitting judge is a situation that desperately needs to change before the next election.  If somebody decided to run for Judge (and let’s not forget Clerk of Court, still firmly in the grip of the machine-politics-patronage-cabal) on a platform of bringing total transparency to his or her courtroom, imagine the difference that simple, ethical, democratic gesture would make.

Redding Trial Update; Expose on Georgia’s Judicial Qualifications Commission

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From reader Chris Murphy, who attended the Jonathan Redding hearing to determine if Redding will be required to provide information to a Grand Jury about his partners in the murder of John Henderson:  

I was at that last hearing. The judge, Kimberly Esmond Adams, was looking for any excuse to allow his attorney into the grand jury, which goes against the rules. She delayed the decision, and it never was publicized what she ruled. That’s the kind of s**t that passes for justice: make a ruling, but do it when no one is around, if possible.

Does anybody know what happened?  Will Redding be required to appear before the Grand Jury?  The trial has already been delayed by a motion by Redding’s defense attorney in which she argued that her client didn’t understand the fact that he was being charged with murder.

~~~

Such are the criminal courts these days. They are our courts, but judges pretend as if the public has no right to know what they are doing.

And in Georgia, judges are abetted in secrecy by a judicial performance review system that is the weakest, most toothless, in the nation.  The Atlanta Journal Constitution published a good article on the subject — I would only disagree with their description of the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission as “one of the slimmest in the nation.”  I think it’s probably the weakest.  The state spends more money every year on a hundred utterly unnecessary things.  Yet, curiously, nobody in the legal community makes a peep.

So what can be done?  It will require legislation to grow the commission to a reasonable size and legislation to require these people to behave as if they are operating in America, not some Soviet-style, untouchable, secret bureau.

It’s your money, and it’s your court, folks.  You’re not going to be able to get the Bar Association, or any other legal group to do this: lawyers know better than to challenge judges.  And judges are shamefully silent on even the worst abuses and incompetence perpetrated by their peers.

Legislators didn’t “accidentally” forget to fund the Commission tasked with overseeing judges’ actions, you see.  Look at the names in this usual-suspects list, and you begin to see how lawyers and politicians are the same animal in this state — an animal that feels really comfortable telling you to butt out if you have concerns about the way things are being run in the courts.

No, this is a good old-fashioned conspiracy, and it starts at the Capitol, and it involves both parties — Democrats and Republicans may not agree on much, but they agree that they don’t want nosy non-lawyers demanding accountability from them and the friends they put on the bench.

There are people sitting on those benches all over the state who have utterly no business being in a courtroom.  Somebody outside the system is going to have to demand change and wrest some power away from the cozy cabal that protects judges — from the legislative hearing rooms at the State Capitol to the powerless Commission.

(How do you prevent real reform?  Create a powerless reform board and declare victory.)

It is a disgrace that Mike Bowers had to step in to take on the investigation of Kenneth E. Fowler, but the bigger disgrace lies in all the other incompetent judges who don’t have anybody taking a stand against them.  So I would ask: why isn’t Bowers, not to mention other well-connected lawyers, doing more to change the state’s absence of a real Judicial Qualifications Commission?  Where is the ever-so-principled Roy Barnes, who sees a white suit in every mirror he passes?  The ersatz-populist Sonny Perdue, our own chubby Jacksonian?  Has anybody even seen Thurbert Baker recently?  Did he move?

(Well, but, it’s their friends on the bench.)

Why isn’t the A.C.L.U. screaming bloody murder about the secrecy of these reviews?

(Answer: they love incompetent judges.  Incompetent judges often cover their tracks by grandstanding on behalf of “poor victimized defendants” and other claptrap that plays well in the press.  And the defense bar sticks some of the worst judges on the bench in the first place: when it’s pro-defendant judges doing wrong, especially letting offenders off in violation of state law, don’t expect the A.C.L.U. to complain.)

But the prosecutors don’t show much backbone, either.

Until people start demanding that their elected officials actually fund the Commission and demanding disclosure of their activities, judges in Georgia will remain firmly above the law.