For the third time in six months, a North Carolina inmate was exonerated by DNA evidence and freed after spending decades in prison for a wrongful murder conviction, the Associated Press reports. Joseph Sledge, 70, was freed Friday after a three-judge panel found him innocent of killing a mother and daughter in 1976. The hearing was called after an investigation by the state's one-of-a kind investigative panel on innocence. The lawyer who took his case in 2004, Christine Mumma, had been on the verge of closing it in 2012 when court clerks discovered a misplaced envelope containing hair from the crime scene while cleaning out an evidence vault. The envelope contained hair, found on the victim and believed to be the attacker's, that became a key piece of evidence needed to do DNA testing, which wasn't available when Sledge went on trial in 1978.
"I understand those shelves were very high, but there was a ladder in that room," said Mumma, a lawyer for the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence. In 2013, the case was referred to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, the only state-run investigative agency of its kind. Sledge is the eighth person exonerated after an investigation by the commission, which started operating in 2007. It has reviewed and closed about 1,500 cases. Nationwide, The Innocence Project said there have been 325 post-conviction DNA exonerations.
The federal graft charges against New York state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver rest on a shifting and uncertain application of anticorruption statutes, experts tell the Wall Street Journal. Silver is accused of receiving $700,000 in kickbacks after steering two real-estate developers to a law firm run by his former Assembly counsel. At least one of the developers successfully lobbied Silver to craft legislation favorable to the industry, charges the complaint. In a second purported scheme, Silver received more than $3 million in referral fees from a personal-injury law firm after encouraging a doctor to refer patients suffering from asbestos-related cancer to the firm. Silver directed $500,000 in state funds toward the doctor’s research, prosecutors said.
Silver denied wrongdoing, Defense attorneys and former prosecutors described the complaint as a sound application of the Hobbs Act, a federal statute for extortion committed by public officials, and the so-called honest services statute, one of several federal laws used to prosecute corruption on the state level. Dan Gelber, a defense lawyer in Miami and a former federal prosecutor, said the allegations are “within the heartland of what the honest-services statute is now intended to be used for.” Still, the alleged quid pro quo arrangements in Silver’s case are murky in places, and defense lawyers successfully have challenged “honest services” charges in recent cases.
The Supreme Court will review the drug protocol increasingly used in executions to determine whether the procedure violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the Washington Post reports. It is the court’s first examination of lethal injection since 2008. Last week, a majority of the court, over the objection of its four more liberal members, voted to allow the the execution of Charles Warner in Oklahoma. It takes only four of the nine Justices to accept a case. They will consider this spring a petition from three other inmates on Oklahoma’s death row and issue a decision in June.
As the number of executions in the U.S. lags, the death penalty takes up an outsize portion of the Supreme Court’s time. Capital punishment raises complicated and highly divisive questions about how to execute humanely the perpetrators of some of the most gruesome crimes. If the challengers prevail in the latest case, states that use lethal injection would have to find a different protocol. The court rejected a challenge to lethal injections in 2008. “Simply because an execution method may result in pain, either by accident or as an inescapable consequence of death, does not establish the sort of ‘objectively intolerable risk of harm’ that qualifies as cruel and unusual,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts.
Citing the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old boy before Christmas, the Orange County, Ca., District Attorney’s office is seeking an emergency court ruling to enforce a gang injunction against ten people who are fighting their inclusion in the action targeting the Townsend Street gang, reports the Voice of OC. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas says the injunction was in response to “decades of violent crimes committed by this gang and numerous residents pleading with law enforcement to eliminate the gang presence so that they no longer have to live in fear.” Attorneys for those contesting the injunction say the DA's office is exploiting the boy's death to win its case and that prosecutors have no direct evidence that the incident was gang related.
The injunction restricts the otherwise legal activities of gang members in a .39-square-mile area dubbed a “safety zone.” Those enjoined are prohibited, for example, from associating with gang members in public spaces in the safety zone, with the exception of spaces such as schools or churches. Rackauckas says “gang injunctions work to reduce crime,” noting that violent crime in county injunction zones "fell by up to 65 percent after the injunctions were put in place." University of California Berkeley criminologist Barry Krisberg said research has found gang injunctions have no impact on violent crime. Only a few studies found an impact on property crimes such as car thefts or burglaries, he said. “Generally speaking they have very limited and almost no real impact on a crime problem," said Krisberg.
U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch of Brooklyn, whose nomination as Attorney General goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, had a formative experience as a legal advisor to the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda that gave her a global perspective that sets her apart from most who have held the top U.S. law enforcement job, the Los Angeles Times reports. Lynch traveled repeatedly to Africa over six years, helping to train inexperienced lawyers serving at the United Nations-established court who were given the task of prosecuting those responsible for the 1994 genocide.
With a security guard in tow, she drove through lush, terraced mountainsides to interview survivors about the horrors they endured and investigate gruesome atrocities that convulsed Rwanda and left 800,000 people dead. Lynch's overseas contacts and experience with international law could prove helpful in a job that has been transformed since Sept. 11 into one of the key national security portfolios in Washington. In a powerful speech four years ago, Lynch spoke movingly about how the Africa job shaped her as a person and as a prosecutor. "My work there was defining for me in many ways," she said.
“In order to restore trust between police and the communities they serve, our nation’s police must collectively apologize,” says the Rev. David Couper of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in North Lake, Wi., himself a former police chief. “It is what we need today to begin to heal the relationships between blacks and police. It is the only way to move past events of Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and the residual effects we all have inherited from slavery, Jim Crow, and pernicious and residual racial discrimination.” The New York Times says Couper has battled rank-and-file officers to instill a less adversarial and confrontational form of policing.
His book on the subject, “Arrested Development,” was self-published by default. “What David is trying to say is this,” said Mike Masterson, a protégé of Couper and the police chief of Boise, Idaho. “If I were running a large corporation and part of the society is having a huge problem with one of our products and that backlash can hurt my company, then I’d do everything in my power to make amends for that." Couper, 77, was police chief of Madison, Wi., from 1972 to 1993.
A record 2,212 firearms -- 80 percent of them loaded — were discovered in travelers' carry-on bags at U.S. airports last year, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Transportation Security Administration officers found an average of six firearms per day in passengers' carry-on bags or on their bodies. The top excuse given by passengers going through airport checkpoints with guns was that they forget they had the firearms with them.
Travelers with licensed guns are allowed to pack their unloaded firearms into checked bags only. The top five airports for firearms discoveries in 2014 were Dallas/Fort Worth, Atlanta, Phoenix, Houston and Denver. An additional 1,400 dangerous objects — including stun guns, knives, razors and firearm components — were discovered. Among the more unusual finds, a hand grenade was discovered in a carry-on bag in Los Angeles. Customs and Border Protection officers also seized more than 23,000 counterfeit goods with a retail value of more than $1.2 billion last year.
In at least 50 cities with more than 100,000 people, the percentage of black police officers is less than half of what blacks represent in the population, reports USA Today. And Hispanic police representation lags even further, with less than half of their share of the population in at least 100 cities. The paper reviewed Census estimates from 2000 to 2010 to cull data about the racial and ethnic makeup of specific occupations in cities and counties.
The USA TODAY analysis found that minority officers are concentrated in a few metropolises. More than one-third of 111,000 black officers worked in just 10 cities. One of every four of 107,000 Hispanic police worked in seven cities. The cities with the widest gaps in black officers included Dayton, Ohio, Buffalo, Detroit and Cincinnati. In all but a few of the cities with the widest disparities for blacks and Hispanics, most saw the gap remain about the same or widen from 2000 to 2010.
An assistant warden fired last week from a women's prison in Florida apparently was intimate with numerous inmates, according to the Miami Herald. A 58-page report said female inmates at Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala referred to the warden, Marty Martinez, as “Daddy.’’ Many visited his office each day, asking for favors like special bunk assignments, chocolates or time to liaison with their female partners. A Department of Corrections spokesman said Martinez “failed to conduct himself in a professional manner and acted inappropriately toward staff and inmates.’’
Lowell corrections officers told the department’s investigators that they were overruled, punished — and, in one case, even threatened — when they tried to discipline any of Martinez’s favorites. Martinez is among 44 prison staffers who have been dismissed since new DOC Secretary Julie Jones took the helm of the embattled agency on Jan. 5. “Nobody ever caught him in the act, but we all saw him locked in there with them,’’ a corrections officer, who gave a sworn statement to DOC investigators, told the paper. It would be a crime for a prison staffer to engage in sex with inmates.
In a fact-check story, the Washington Post says that President Obama's reference to declines in crime and incarceration rates in his State of the Union speech this week was lacking important context. Obama said, “For the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together.” FBI data shows that the violent crime rate decreased by 15 percent since Obama took office in 2009. And the overall rate for federal and state prison incarceration also decreased since '09.
It was the first time both rates decreased since the early 1970s, records show, so Obama’s figures on crime and overall incarceration rates were accurate. But what he didn’t say is just as important. For example, the actual 2013 prison population increased for the first time since 2009, despite the rate decrease. While both rates decreased nationally, 40 percent of states did not experience the simultaneous change in 2008-2013. The Post gave the president One Pinocchio for missing context.