Posted 12/6/09

AN ILLUSION OF CONTROL

Can dangerous out-of-State parolees be adequately supervised?

    Where once stood a young (16) year old misguided fool, who's (sic) own life he was unable to rule. Now stands a 27 year old man, who has learned through 'the school of hard knocks' to appreciate and respect the rights of others. And who has in the midst of the harsh reality of prison life developed the necessary skills to stand along (sic) and not follow a multitude to do evil, as I did as a 16 year old child.

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Maurice Clemmons was eleven years into a ninety-five year sentence for armed robbery, burglary and other crimes when his words stirred former Arkansas Governor and one-time Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to grant him clemency.  Convicted when only seventeen, Clemmons was paroled against the advice of prosecutors who feared that the explosively violent youth was still dangerous.  “Mr. Huckabee made him parole-eligible twenty-one years before he would have been,” Larry Jegley, the current D.A. said in a recent interview.  “Otherwise, he'd [still] be cooling his heels in the Department of Corrections.”  Clemmons certainly wouldn’t have been in position to murder four Lakewood (Wash.) police officers last week.  But he was, and he did.

     It took less than a year for Clemmons to break his promise to the Governor.  In July 2001 the supposedly reformed man landed back in prison for robbery.  He wound up doing three years for  parole violation, while the robbery charge was dismissed because of an administrative blunder.  Clemmons was released in 2004 and his supervision was transferred to the State of Washington.

    Shortly before relocating Clemmons reportedly robbed a man at gunpoint but wasn’t charged because the victim stopped cooperating with police.  His criminal ways continued.  In 2005 the Feds linked Clemmons, then living in Tacoma, to an interstate drug trafficking ring.  He then apparently took up armed robbery; a composite drawing bearing an uncanny resemblance makes him a prime suspect in a string of holdups between April 2008 and April 2009.  But in May 2009 his luck ran out.  Arrested on a variety of charges ranging from punching a Sheriff’s deputy to raping a 12-year old relative, he faced a third strike.  Arkansas promptly issued a no-bail warrant.  It seemed that the incorrigible offender’s get-out-of-jail-free card was finally revoked.

     Clemmons was detained for a mental evaluation.  Despite outbursts, threats to kill jail workers and self-reported hallucinatory episodes about “people drinking blood and people eating babies, and lawless on the streets, like people were cannibals” a judge ultimately declared him competent to stand trial and set bail at $190,000.  On November 24, 2009 Clemmons and his friends forked over a tidy ten percent to a bail agent and he was let go.  He would kill the officers five days later.

     What about the parole warrant?  Despite Washington’s protests, Arkansas dropped the no-bail provision.  They later explained their decision (which saved them having to pay for their ward’s return) as being motivated, in part, by the fact that Washington seemed so blasť about Clemmons that it had him on unsupervised status before his arrest.


     To find another parole transfer that went horribly wrong we need look no further than Phillip Garrido.  In 1977 Garrido drew a 50-year Federal term for kidnapping and a concurrent five years to life in Nevada for rape.  Twenty-two years later, after serving eleven years in Federal and Nevada prisons and another eleven on Federal parole, his supervision was transferred to Nevada.  A few months later, in June 1999, it was transferred to California.

     What authorities didn’t know was that Garrido had kidnapped an eleven-year old girl eight years earlier and, helped by his wife, was holding the teen and the two daughters he fathered with her as captives.  And that’s where things were in August 2009 when a suspicious cop who saw Garrido with the children ran his name and discovered he was a registered sex offender.  Parole agents detained Garrido, then released him with instructions to return the next day.  Amazingly he did so, bringing along his wife, the kidnap victim and the two kids.  Both women lied their heads off – the kidnap victim said she was an abused wife on the run – and had it not been for the intercession of a local officer who got Garrido to admit the truth the fiend would still likely be free.

Click here for the complete collection of crime & punishment essays

     How is it that a registered sex offender who kept a young woman and two children penned up in a shack could avoid being caught for a decade?  A recent State investigative report suggests that California had little interest in the man.  Only five months after his arrival agents began trying to get Nevada to release him from supervision.  Ignoring the many red flags in his thick Federal parole file, they inexplicably construed Garrido’s most serious offense (kidnapping) as “non-sexual.”  Categorized as a low-risk offender, Garrido was only visited once to three times per year, a clear violation of even the most permissive rules.  Even in 2008, when Garrido’s status was upgraded and he was fitted with a GPS, a lack of concern persisted, and alerts about his unauthorized wanderings and the device being repeatedly turned off were ignored.

     Disinterest in Garrido was evident on the few occasions when agents actually visited.  Not only did they miss the utility wires that ran to the shed where the kidnapped teen and the children lived, but when they encountered one of the kids in the house they took Garrido’s word that she was his brother’s daughter.  Had agents checked with neighbors they would have learned that one had spoken with the kidnap victim through the fence.  Had they bothered to compare notes with local police they would have discovered that an officer was called to the residence in 2006 by a neighbor who said that Garrido was a sex addict and had children living in tents in his backyard.

     But they didn’t.


     It’s impossible to draw conclusions from a sample of two.  Still, considering how poorly these indisputably serious offenders were “supervised” one can’t help but be skeptical of parole oversight in general and of out-of-State offenders in particular.  A 1998 study of the compact governing interstate parole faulted receiving and sending States, the former for being slow to report misconduct and the latter for their reluctance in retaking violators.  One frustrated manager complained that savvy offenders took advantage of the situation, “[making] supervision a waste of time and a mockery to the criminal justice system as a whole.”  Serious problems were reported for high-risk parolees and particularly sex offenders, for whom special transfer policies and controls did not exist.

     To address these and other issues a new Interstate Compact was put into place in 2000.  Did things change for the better?  A 2008 “compliance issues survey” lists “failure to retake an offender” as agents’ third most frequent complaint.

     For lovers distance might make the heart grow fonder, but in the criminal justice system it mostly breeds contempt.  Parole agencies are primarily concerned with their own clients, who after all constitute their funding base.  Legal differences between jurisdictions and uncooperative judges can make it difficult to keep problematic out-of-State parolees locked up long enough to sort out the means of their return.  Even agents who want to do the right thing are hampered by information gaps and the pressures of everyday business.  Really, in times of diminishing resources transferring supervision of dangerous offenders to distant jurisdictions with different laws, procedures and priorities flies in the face of reason.  It’s just another recipe for disaster.

Did you enjoy this post?  Be sure to explore the homepage and topical index!

Home   Top   Permalink     Print/Save     Feedback     


RELATED ARTICLES AND REPORTS

Jaycee Dugard memoir, “A Stolen Life”     Seattle Times series

RELATED POSTS

Hidden in Plain Sight     Missed Signals     Doing Nothing, Redux


Posted 10/18/09

THE NEW NORMAL

In the industrial belt, poverty and violence are no joke

    The Mayor of Newark, New Jersey wants to set up a citywide program to improve residents’ health.  The health care program would consist of a bus ticket out of Newark.”

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  NBC Tonight Show host Conan O’Brien’s little joke brought on a You-Tube scolding by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who banned the talk show host from the Newark airport.  His move precipitated a series of back-and-forths that culminated in the mayor’s October 16 appearance on O’Brien’s show.  More on that later.

     Booker, then 37, was elected in 2006 over an obscure rival after the boss of the local Democratic machine, mayor Sharpe James announced his departure from politics.  (One year later James stood convicted of corruption.)  Their earlier match-up in 2002, which Booker lost by a hair, was depicted in “Street Fight”, an acclaimed documentary about the youngish Stanford grad’s passionate though unsuccessful campaign.

     Quickly moving to improve city services, Booker brought in a new police director to rejuvenate what many considered a moribund department.  A renewed emphasis on fighting crime and reducing the city’s appalling murder rate have earned plaudits from residents and business owners.

     Yet not everything is well.  Historical declines in manufacturing and now, the recession have devastated the old cities of the Northeast, with unemployment reaching 14.7 percent in Newark, an eye-popping 17 percent in Camden and 11.1 percent in Baltimore.

     Does unemployment breed violent crime?  Judging by these communities one might think so.  According to the Uniform Crime Reports Newark, pop. 279,788, had 67 homicides in 2008, yielding a rate of 23.9, nearly four times New York City’s (pop. 8,345,075, 523 homicides, rate 6.3).  Camden, pop. 76,182, had a startling 54 homicides.  Its rate, 70.9, was three times Newark’s and more than eleven times New York City’s.  Baltimore’s homicide rate, 36.9, was one and one-half times Newark’s and an appalling six times New York City’s.

     Differences in how localities count aggravated assault, robbery and rape make those figures less comparable.  Keeping that limitation in mind, in 2008  Newark’s violent rate of 950.7 (an amalgam of homicide plus the other three) was sixty-four percent greater than New York City’s 580.3, while Camden’s 2332.6 was four times its size.  Baltimore fell in the middle of the pack; at 1588.5 its rate was two and three-quarters larger than the Big Apple’s.

     Back to Newark.  As Mayor Booker likes to claim, crime has dropped during his tenure.  Now it’s merely terrible.  And there are disturbing signs that violence may be on the upswing.  According to statistics just posted on the Newark PD website three of four violent crime categories are up from 2008: robbery, by thirteen percent; homicide, eleven percent; and rape, two percent.  Aggravated assaults are down five percent.

Click here for the complete collection of crime & punishment essays

     Newark (and Camden, and Baltimore) have suffered for a  long time.  But no matter how bad their problems are, we -- meaning those of us who don’t live there -- accept them with hardly a shrug.  Conditions that should sicken and move us to act become “the new normal,” to be set aside until they’re dragged out as comedic fodder, to be laughed about and forgotten about all over again..

     Your blogger originally intended to write some really nasty things about rich white guys with no social conscience.  Then the redoubtable Bob Herbert came to the rescue.  In an excellent column he set out all the right reasons why we should care about places like Newark.  He even held out hope that by bringing the situation to everyone’s attention Conan the Jokester’s nasty little quip might actually prove beneficial.

     That’s not quite the end of the story.  As we mentioned earlier Mayor Booker appeared as a guest on the Tonight Show.  By all accounts O’Brien behaved well.  He even set himself up to take one on the chin:

    “Many jokes are made about Newark by comedians.  You honed in on me like a cruise missile.  Why me, Mayor Booker?”

    “When there’s a herd going after you, you have to sort of look at the weakest gazelle.”

     O’Brien then did what comes natural to a rich guy caught with his jammies down: he paid his way out, in this case by pledging $100,000 to a Newark charity.  Hmm, let’s see.  One-hundred G’s is about seven-tenths of one percent of O’Brien’s yearly $14 million hosting salary.  Actually, if Conan itemizes his deductions, as one assumes he must, he’s out chump change: $65,000, or one-half of one percent of his annual take for smirking on TV.  By way of comparison, it’s also twice Newark’s median 2007 household income of $34,452, and four times its per capita income of $16,782.

     That, if you didn’t realize, was the punch line.

Did you enjoy this post?  Be sure to explore the homepage and topical index!

Home   Top   Permalink     Print/Save     Feedback     


RELATED POSTS

Is Trump Right?     Words Matter     Getting Out of Dodge     Intended or Not, a Very Rough Ride

A Tale of Three Cities     A Very Dubious Achievement


Posted 6/28/09

WHAT REALLY WENT ON AT NEVERLAND?

Distrustful of the State’s witnesses, jurors could only wonder:
was Michael Jackson’s home a pedophile’s lair?

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  In 2004, one year after appearing in the documentary, the 13-year old who snuggled with Michael Jackson was testifying before the Santa Barbara County (Calif.) grand jury:

    Q.  All right.  Tell the ladies and gentlemen of the Grand Jury the conversation?  Lean into the microphone and tell them about it.
    A.  We were laying on the bed and he told -- he told me that men have to masturbate -- well, males have to masturbate or else they won’t be able to like -- like be normal....
    Q.  All right, what happened after that?
    A.  He told me if I knew how.
    Q.  And what did you say?
    A.  I said no.
    Q.  All right.  What happened next?
    A.  He told me that he wanted to teach me.
    Q.  Say that again?
    A.  He told me that he wanted to teach me.
    Q.  All right.  Tell us what happened.
    A.  So we were laying in the bed, and then he started rubbing me.
    Q.  Rubbing you how?
    A.  He put his hands down my pants and he started rubbing me.
    Q.  What part of your body was he touching?
    A.  My private area.

     More than a decade earlier, in 1993, another 13-year old boy had told a similar story:

    “Physical contact between Michael Jackson and myself increased gradually.  The first step was simply Michael Jackson hugging me.  The next step was for him to give me a brief kiss on the cheek.  He then started kissing me on the lips, first briefly and then for a longer period of time.  He would kiss me while we were in bed together....”

     This excerpt (it turns very graphic) isn’t from a criminal case.  It’s from an affidavit in a civil lawsuit accusing Jackson of having sex with the victim at Neverland and a string of motels.  Jackson quickly settled the matter for a cool $15 million.  Criminal charges were never filed, supposedly because the victim wouldn’t cooperate with police.

     In 2003, beset by heavy debt and litigation, with his career stalled, Michael Jackson agreed to be in a documentary.  Released in 2003, Martin Bashir’s “Living With Michael Jackson” didn’t have the effect that the singer intended.  Depicted enjoying the high life in Neverland, his rococo Santa Barbara estate, and in Las Vegas and Berlin, where he dangled his surrogate newborn out a window, the troubled pop star came across as a profligate spender, hopeless narcissist and questionable parent.  Questions about his upbringing unleashed a torrent of self-pity, replete with chilling tales of ghastly physical and emotional abuse by a brutal, domineering father.  Seen in that light, Jackson’s peccadilloes, including his preference for the company of children, made a certain sense. And that’s where things would have ended had the filmmaker not decided, at the last moment, to confront Jackson about certain nasty rumors.

     Michael Jackson was not the iconic figure that reactions to his passing now suggest.  His eccentricities had alienated many fans.  Carried on prime-time TV, the accounts of sleep-overs and his hand-holding intimacy with the boy caused a scandal, forcing authorities to investigate.  Jackson fought back with a rebuttal video in which the boy and his family gave glowing accounts of the performer’s character and good works.  It was during this time that the molestations allegedly occurred.  (His mother, Janet Arvizo, testified that Jackson was so determined to keep the family away from police that he forced them to remain in Neverland, warned that “killers” were on their trail and even offered to relocate everyone to Brazil.)

     Jackson was charged in a ten-count indictment.  Count one accused him and unnamed staff members with child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.  There were also four counts of committing lewd acts on a child under the age of fourteen; one count of attempting to have the victim commit a lewd act on Jackson; and four counts of administering liquor to facilitate the commission of these crimes.  His conviction seemed a foregone conclusion.

     Yet the State’s case was shaky from the start.  Defense lawyers gathered receipts proving that instead of being held incommunicado, as she claimed, Mrs. Arvizo was shopping up a storm using Neverland credit cards.  Defense investigators dredged up evidence that injuries she supposedly sustained years earlier, when a son was caught shoplifting, weren’t caused by brutal store detectives but by her former husband.  (J.C. Penney’s gave her a large cash settlement and dropped charges.)  She was also facing allegations (later, charges) of welfare fraud, which in a memorable moment led her to take the Fifth.  Jay Leno even took the stand to say he had turned her away from The Tonight Show when it seemed that she was obsessed with money.

Click here for the complete collection of crime & punishment essays

     Prosecutors were allowed to buttress their case with evidence that Jackson had molested other children.  Unfortunately the victim/millionaire whose affidavit is quoted above slipped off to Europe, where he remained for the trial’s duration.  But another man, the son of a former maid, gave compelling testimony of being molested by Jackson when he was ten.  His family, though, had also benefited from a civil settlement, to the reported tune of $2 million.  One of Jackson’s former security guards testified that funny things went on between his boss and several kids, including Macaulay Culkin.  But when Culkin took the stand he only had good things to say about Jackson: the sleepovers, he insisted, were perfectly innocent.

     The victim’s testimony had mixed results.  He did say that Jackson masturbated him twice.  But he conceded telling his friends and teachers, out of shame, that nothing happened.  His testimony that only his mother seemed troubled about living in Neverland badly weakened the prosecution’s “abduction” theory.  More curiously, he also said that his grandmother told him that men need to masturbate, the same comment he earlier attributed to Jackson.

     After four months and 140 witnesses the case went to the jury.  A week later they returned their verdict: innocent on all counts.  Jurors were of two minds.  First and foremost, they loathed Ms. Arvizo.  “What mother in her right mind would allow that to happen?” asked a female juror, referring to the sleepovers.  They also thought the evidence thin.  “We expected better evidence, something that was a little more convincing.  It just wasn't there.”  Yet there was no appetite for simply declaring Jackson innocent.  Indeed, one juror, Raymond Hultman, went so far as to suggest the opposite.  “I think that Michael Jackson probably has molested boys.  But that doesn't make him guilty of the charges in this case.”

     Blowback was severe.  Pundits and mainstream media ridiculed the verdicts and questioned the jury’s competency.  In a stinging rebuke, the Los Angeles Times huffed about Jackson’s “weirdness” and “unpalatable taste for the tawdry.”  (It later compared his acquittal to those of O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake, attributing them to the vagaries of juror personalities. In 2013, while reporting on the trial of a lawsuit by Jackson’s heirs, the L.A. Times recapped Jackson’s “lurid tales of power, perversion”.)  In the midst of the furor two jurors went public, suggesting they were now of a mind to convict Jackson.  One was Juror Hultman.

     Fast-forward four years.  Heavily indebted, with his beloved Neverland on the chopping block, Michael Jackson was yesterday’s news.  But then he did something really outrageous: he died.  A media frenzy broke out, the likes of which we haven’t experienced since a skinny black guy with a nice smile became Prez.  Here’s what Los Angeles Times media columnist Timothy Rutten is trying to figure out:

    ...Yet on cable TV and on newspaper websites, it was all Michael, all the time. So, how did a pop singer heavily in debt and desperately hoping for a comeback, one who hadn't really sold any music for years, one who was best known for his bizarre life, obsession with cosmetic surgery and for the allegations of pedophilia against him, become in death the most beloved media figure since JFK?

     Beats me.

Did you enjoy this post?  Be sure to explore the homepage and topical index!

Home   Top   Permalink     Print/Save     Feedback     


RELATED POSTS

Physician, Heal Thyself     They Did Their Jobs


Posted 6/7/09

WITH SOME MISTAKES THERE’S NO GOING BACK

In capital cases finality of the process must take a back seat

    The majority of the affidavits support the defense’s theory that, after Coles raced to the police station to implicate Davis, the police directed all of their energy towards building a case against Davis, failing to investigate the possibility that Coles himself was the actual murderer. For example, none of the photospreads shown to eyewitnesses even included a picture of Coles. Additionally, three affiants now state that Coles confessed to the killing. To execute Davis, in the face of a significant amount of proffered evidence that may establish his actual innocence, is unconscionable and unconstitutional.

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  These aren’t the words of a crusading reporter or ACLU lawyer.  They’re from the minority opinion in a recent decision by the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejecting a petition by Troy Davis to file a Writ of Habeas Corpus.

     Roll back twenty years.  During the early morning hours of August 19, 1989 Davis, Coles and a juvenile named Collins asked a homeless man for some of his beer.  When the man refused he was struck in the head with a gun butt.  Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail chased Davis and Coles.  During the encounter he was shot and killed.  Later that morning Coles went to police and fingered Davis.

     The case was tried two years later.  The facts seemed compelling.  Four eyewitnesses, including Coles, testified that Davis was the shooter.  Two others said that Davis confessed.  The homeless man identified Davis as his assailant.  What’s more, ballistics matched the fatal rounds to bullets from a shooting that took place hours earlier (that victim survived.)  Davis, the State suggested, was responsible for not one shooting but two.

     There was no physical evidence other than bullets.  Davis was convicted of the officer’s murder and sentenced to death.

     In time Davis’ new defense team poked holes in the case.  Two of the four eyewitnesses said  they never got a good look at the shooter but were pressed by police to identify Davis.  Both witnesses who said that Davis confessed took it back.  Defense investigators also dredged up three new witnesses, each of whom gave affidavits swearing that Coles admitted killing the officer.

     Coles and an eyewitness named Steve Sanders held firm.  Only problem is, Sanders originally told police that he couldn’t ID the killer, so he was never shown the photospread and only picked out Davis at the trial.  By then, of course, the defendant was well known.

     In March 2008 the Georgia Supreme Court refused to grant Davis an evidentiary hearing.  Justices were badly split, with four against and three in favor.  Those who prevailed felt that on balance the trial testimony was more credible, particularly as the recanters didn’t actually say that Davis was innocent.  The losing side’s views were summarized by Chief Justice Lea Ward Sears:

    While the majority wisely decides to look beyond bare legal principles and seeks to consider the strength of Davis’s new evidence, I believe that it has weighed that evidence too lightly. In this case, nearly every witness who identified Davis as the shooter at trial has now disclaimed his or her ability to do so reliably. Three persons have stated that Sylvester Coles confessed to being the shooter...Perhaps these witnesses’ testimony would prove incredible if a hearing were held...But the collective effect of all of Davis’s new testimony, if it were to be found credible by the trial court in a hearing, would show the probability that a new jury would find reasonable doubt of Davis’s guilt or at least sufficient residual doubt to decline to impose the death penalty.

     Once there’s a conviction the burden of proof shifts to the defendant.  To justify a post-conviction evidentiary hearing Georgia law requires that “the new evidence [must] be so material that it would probably produce a different verdict.”  By the slimmest of margins, the judges thought not.  Davis appealed their decision to the US Supreme Court (it agreed to review the matter only two hours before his scheduled execution.)  Having done so, it too declined to intervene.  Davis then applied to the Eleventh Circuit for leave to file a Writ of Habeas Corpus.  In a 2-1 decision against Davis the prevailing justices disparaged the merits of his case:

Click here for the complete collection of crime & punishment essays

    All told, the testimony by [eyewitnesses] Murray and Sanders remains; the two other eyewitnesses do not now implicate anyone, much less Coles; Coles continues to implicate Davis; and the testimony of Larry Young [homeless man] and Valerie Coles [Coles’ sister] still collides with Davis’s. When we view all of this evidence as a whole, we cannot honestly say that Davis can establish by clear and convincing evidence that a jury would not have found him guilty of Officer MacPhail’s murder...As the record shows, both the state trial court and the Supreme Court of Georgia have painstakingly reviewed, and rejected, Davis’s claim of innocence.  Likewise, Georgia’s State Board of Pardons and Paroles thoroughly reviewed, and rejected, his claim, even conducting further research and bringing in witnesses to hear their recantations in person....

     As a last ditch effort, on May 19, 2009 Davis filed for a Writ of Habeas Corpus with the US Supreme Court.  And that’s where his case stands.

     State and Federal courts have ruled that Davis isn’t entitled to an evidentiary hearing because his new evidence would not, in their opinions, have affected his trial’s outcome.  Yet it’s precisely in capital cases where referring to long-past judgments by admittedly fallible juries is morally unsatisfying.  Actually, many prosecutors would probably agree.  Only problem is, when physical evidence is lacking the passage of time can seriously erode the State’s ability to present a compelling case, let alone counter new claims.  It’s not an idle concern.  Based on the public record and his own experiences, the blogger thinks it more likely than not that Davis is guilty.  He also believes that Davis stands an excellent chance of being acquitted if retried.

     On the other hand, maybe Davis really is innocent.  Yet on retrial he could be convicted anew.  Georgia’s Chief Justice, who clearly thinks him innocent, suggested that a new jury might at least spare his execution, if not grant an outright acquittal.  It’s a nice thought, but not something on which a genuinely innocent person would want to rest their hopes.

     If the death penalty is to be retained, how can we help assure that it’s justly applied?

  • There were plenty of witnesses against Davis but no DNA.  A rule might forbid imposition of the death penalty in the absence of compelling physical evidence.
     
  • Evidentiary hearings could be required before death sentences are carried out.  Depending on the strength of the defendant’s arguments, judges could remand cases for a new trial or reduce the penalty to life without parole.

     We depend on police, prosecutors and the courts to protect the innocent, deter potential violators and provide a sense of closure to victims and families.  Yet the law has become an impossibly complex insider’s game that can obscure if not displace the greater moral values it’s meant to uphold.  Fears that the legal process rather than facts are driving Davis’s execution explain why his pleadings have, rightly or not, drawn such extraordinary international support.  It’s something that America, which offers itself as a model of enlightened justice, can’t afford to ignore.

Did you enjoy this post?  Be sure to explore the homepage and topical index!

Home   Top   Permalink     Print/Save     Feedback     


RELATED POSTS

Did Georgia Execute an Innocent Man?  Part I II  III     DOJ: Texas Executed an Innocent Man

Tinkering With the Machinery of Death


Posted 5/10/09

WHAT’S THE GUVERNATOR BEEN SMOKING?

Legalizing marijuana shouldn’t just rest on economics

    ...Well, I think it’s not time for [legalizing pot] but I think it’s time for a debate. I think all of those ideas of creating extra revenues, I’m always for an open debate on it...

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Governor Schwarzenegger isn’t alone.  Fifty-six percent of California voters surveyed in the April 2009 Field Poll said they favored legalizing and taxing pot.  Truth be told, the Golden State always had a soft spot for marijuana.  Its Compassionate Use Act was the first, in 1996, to allow physicians to prescribe pot for treating a wide range of maladies including “cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief (emphasis added)”.  Twelve more States from Hawaii to Rhode Island have since followed suit.

     It’s not just about medical use.  Support for complete decriminalization has been on the rise throughout the U.S.  Four decades ago the split was twelve percent for and eighty-four percent against.  By late 2005 the gap had narrowed to thirty-four yes versus sixty no, with younger men mostly in favor and women and older men largely opposed.  As might be expected, attitudes vary by region.  There’s far more support for pot on the East and West coasts than in the more conservative South and Midwest.

     In 2008 the World Health Organization surveyed alcohol and drug use around the globe.  Its findings were a bit surprising.  The Netherlands only placed third.  Despite their permissive drug laws, just twenty percent of the Dutch said they had ever used cannabis.  Second place went to New Zealand, with a far higher 41.9 percent.  Taking the crown was the good old U.S.A., where 42.4 percent admitted inhaling at least once.  (Incidentally, we were also number one for ever using tobacco, 73.6 percent, and cocaine, 16.2 percent).

     Surveys by the National Institute of Drug Abuse confirm that marijuana is the most popular illicit drug in the U.S.   Parents won’t like it but in 2008 nearly one-fourth of 10th-graders and one-third of 12th-graders admitted smoking pot at least once during the preceding twelve months.

     Marijuana’s proponents claim that it’s a harmless mood elevator, no worse than alcohol or tobacco.  Many scientists disagree.  Smoking pot is believed to pose a host of significant health risks, including cancer and  diseases of the lungs and respiratory tract.  Because they tend to inhale deeply and hold smoke for a prolonged period, pot smokers are likely worse off than those who only use tobacco.  And it doesn’t stop there.  There is good reason why popular culture pokes fun at potheads.  Marijuana’s active ingredient, THC (tetra-hydro-cannabinol) affects key brain functions including memory and learning.  Pot has been linked with poor performance at school and work, and even low dosages can seriously impair judgment and motor skills, making it dangerous to use machinery and drive a car.

Click here for the complete collection of crime & punishment essays

     THC does have therapeutic qualities.  It’s in anti-nausea medications used by chemotherapy patients.  Marijuana, a powerful appetite stimulant, is of value for those suffering from AIDS and other wasting illnesses.  Of course, it’s these benefits (and not pot’s recreational potential) that justified medical use laws in the first place.

     Yet, as well intentioned as the compassionate use statutes may be, their application leaves something to be desired.  California’s permissive approach (physicians need only give verbal approval) lets unscrupulous clinics sell pot under the flakiest of pretenses.  About the best that can be said of these profitable centers of stoner culture is that they don’t sell to children.  Calling the situation “Looney Tunes,” LAPD Chief Bratton strongly criticized the lack of oversight:  “They pass a law, then they have no regulations as to how to enforce the darn thing and, as a result, we have hundreds of these locations selling drugs to every Tom, Dick and Harry.”

     The good Chief hasn’t seen anything yet.  Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) has introduced California State Assembly bill 390, which legalizes pot for everyone 21 and over.  Although the measure includes detailed provisions for licensing producers and retailers, growing marijuana and making reefers is ridiculously simple, so combating illicit manufacture, collecting taxes, preventing sales to minors and controlling purity and potency could easily drain away a good chunk of the $1.3 billion a year that the law would reportedly generate.  (Naturally, it’s all contingent on the Feds allowing it.  But that’s a story for another day.)

     There’s little doubt that letting buyers get weed from medical marijuana clinics instead of slimy street dealers has expanded sales.  Whatever the gain, it’s nothing compared to the staggering forty percent increase in consumption that State tax authorities estimate Assemblyman Ammiano’s bill would yield.  So is that what we really want?  Given what’s known and suspected about pot’s effects on health, does it make sense to encourage young people to take on a habit that can cause cognitive disorders and life-threatening medical conditions?  That’s to say nothing, of course, of having even more Toms, Dicks and Harrys driving around in a drug-induced haze.

     After all the jawboning about obesity, unhealthy food in the schools and the evils of alcohol and tobacco, it’s now proposed that we do an attitudinal U-turn and embrace a mind-altering drug, and all for the sake of a buck.

     Heck, it could make one want to light up!

Did you enjoy this post?  Be sure to explore the homepage and topical index!

Home   Top   Permalink     Print/Save     Feedback     


RELATED POSTS

Sanctuary Cities, Sanctuary States (II)     Is the Pot Debate Coming to a Head?

Physician, Heal Thyself     (Merrily) Slippin’ Down the Slope


Posted 4/5/09

LOOKING BEYOND THE GUN BARREL

Trying to draw lessons from a wave of senseless shootings

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Only yesterday Pittsburgh (Penn.) police officers responded to a 911 call of a domestic disturbance.  Richard Poplawski, 22, was lying in wait, armed with a rifle and handgun and wearing an armor vest.  As soon as police entered he opened up with a barrage of fire, killing three officers and wounding a fourth.  During the ensuing standoff Poplawski, a gun enthusiast, called a friend and told him that his rights were being infringed on by “the Obama gun ban that's on the way.”  Hostage negotiators eventually talked Poplawski into surrendering.  That’s when his frightened grandmother (she’s the one who called police) came out of the basement.

     One day earlier, in the quiet enclave of Binghamton (NY), Jiverly Wong, 41, donned his own set of body armor, grabbed two pistols and a rucksack stuffed with ammunition and drove to an immigrant service center.  Blocking the rear exit with his car, he barged in, guns blazing.  Within moments fourteen lay dead, including himself.  Acquaintances said that the middle-aged Vietnamese man, who was taking English lessons at the center, was angry about losing his job and despaired of his language skills.

     What causes such tragedies?  What can be done to protect officers and citizens from armed madmen?  Searching this website’s news archive for similar incidents we found eleven multiple-victim shootings since January 2008 that lacked a traditional criminal motive.  We just mentioned two.  Here are the rest:

  • In March 2009 Robert Stewart, 45, walked into the North Carolina nursing home where his estranged wife worked.  Drawing two pistols, he killed seven elderly patients and a nurse and wounded three others, including a police officer.  Stewart’s wife escaped injury.  Stewart was shot by police and arrested.
     
  • Two weeks earlier Michael McLendon, 28, an unemployed Alabama man with a “life-long fascination with guns” armed himself with two assault rifles, a handgun and shotgun.  Before the day was done he had killed his mother, seven relatives and two bystanders, wounded six others, including two officers, and committed suicide.  Survivalist gear and armored vests were found in his residence.  McLendon, who had quit a job for no apparent reason, was estranged from his family.  He once wanted to be a cop but flunked out during his first day in the academy.
     
  • In September 2008 Isaac Zamora, a seriously mentally ill 28-year old Washington State parolee with an extensive criminal record went on an armed rampage.  He killed six, including a deputy sheriff, before he was arrested.  His motive?  “I kill for God.”  Zamorra’s been declared incompetent.  Neighbors knew that he had rifles and pistols but apparently told no one.
     
  • In July 2008 Jim Adkisson, 58, walked into a Kingston Pike (Tenn.) church service and blasted away with a sawed-off shotgun, killing two parishioners and wounding six before he was wrestled to the floor.  An unemployed mechanic, he had written a manifesto railing against the “liberalism that’s destroying America” and vowing to kill Democrats “til the cops kill me.”
     
  • In June 2008, soon after an argument with his supervisor got him booted from a Kentucky plastics factory, Wesley Higdon, 25, called his girlfriend and said he was going to kill himself.  But first he returned to the plant with a .45 cal. pistol and shot and killed his boss and four coworkers.  Then he committed suicide.
     
  • In March 2008 Virginia Beach (VA) apartment dweller William Smith, 52, opened fire with two assault rifles, killing a 32-year old woman and an elderly man and wounding three others, one critically.  He then killed himself.  Smith was upset that he was being evicted for acting weird and banging on the walls.  One of the residents had thought to call police about Smith’s increasingly aberrant behavior but never did.
     
  • Also in March a Palm Beach (Fla.) handyman opened fire in a Wendy’s restaurant with a 9mm. pistol, killing a paramedic and wounding four other patrons before turning the gun on himself.  Detectives learned that the shooter, Alburn Blake, 60, was ill and had been behaving oddly.  Why the restaurant?  It’s where he and his estranged wife used to dine and argue.
     
  • In February 2008 Charles Thornton, 52, walked up to a police officer guarding a meeting of the Kirkwood (Mo.) city council, pulled a large-caliber revolver and shot him dead.  Taking the officer’s weapon, Thornton killed a second policeman, a councilwoman and two officials, and seriously wounded the Mayor and another person.  Responding officers then shot him dead.  Thornton, a local businessman, had been embroiled in disputes with local officials.  He reportedly told his brother that he was “going to war.”
     
  • Also in February a veteran LAPD SWAT officer was killed and another was wounded by a mentally ill man armed with a handgun and shotgun.  Officers entered the home after Edwin Rivera, 20, called 911 to report, as it turns out correctly, that he had killed his father and two brothers.  Rivera was shot dead by a police sniper.

     Reducing these episodes to numbers, here’s what we learned:

     A total of sixty-six persons died of gunshot wounds, including five shooters who committed suicide and two who were shot by police.  Fifty-nine innocents also lost their lives. Among them were seven police officers, eleven family members, five coworkers and 36 outsiders (persons unconnected with the shooter.)  The number of dead per episode ranged from three (all police officers) to fourteen (thirteen outsiders plus the shooter.)

     Five incidents started out or were influenced by family disputes.  Five shooters professed political or social agendas.

Click here for the complete collection of crime & punishment essays

     There was a pronounced split in shooter age.  Six were over 40, with four over 50.  The other five were all in their twenties.

     The shooters led uniformly bleak lives.  As far as is known, none was living with a spouse.   Seven, perhaps eight were unmarried; three were divorced or estranged.  Not counting the one who came back to kill after being fired, only two were gainfully employed.  Four had documented mental problems; two had mental problems plus serious criminal records (each wound up killing a police officer.)

     Nine shooters were armed with handguns, four had rifles, three had shotguns, and three a combination.  Three wore body armor.  One, Jiverly Wong, whom a criminologist aptly described as a “pseudo-commando,” was responsible for the largest toll, killing thirteen.  Another, McLendon, a gun enthusiast, was the second most prolific killer, killing ten and wounding six, including two officers.  The third, Poplawski, also a gun enthusiast, murdered three officers.

     Can such tragedies be prevented?  It’s unlikely.  Families and friends described the shooters as angry men, displeased with their personal circumstances and mad at a system that they thought had failed them.  That generalization is probably applicable to many fans of talk radio.  Given just how much nuttiness there is, to say nothing of the ready availability of firearms, keeping lunatics from acting out their deranged fantasies seems hopeless.

     Well, there is something that might prove useful.  We left out the recent murder of four Oakland officers from the list because that shooter had what he considered a “rational” reason: he didn’t want to go back to prison.  Cornered in an apartment after shooting two officers at a traffic stop, he fired again when police stormed in.  Two more officers fell dead.  SWAT said they didn’t wait because they couldn’t readily evacuate the building where the shooter took refuge.  It’s a decision that will surely be under the microscope for a long, long time.

     After the Columbine high-school massacre police across the country resolved to move in quickly to keep citizens from being harmed.  Academies now train patrol officers to form impromptu entry teams.  Taking immediate action seems reasonable when facing expressive shooters like Wong, McLendon and Poplawski, whose commitment to redress real and imagined grievances poses a grave risk to anyone they might come across.  But for criminals less concerned with making a statement the traditional “surround and call out” strategy may be more appropriate.  It’s something to consider before the next time police face the unthinkable.

Did you enjoy this post?  Be sure to explore the homepage and topical index!

Home   Top   Permalink     Print/Save     Feedback     


RELATED POSTS

All in the Family     Coming Clean in Santa Barbara     Bigger Guns Aren’t Enough


Posted 1/25/09

CARONA FIVE, FEDS ONE (BUT THE FEDS WON)

Convicted of corruption, Orange County’s ex-Sheriff breathes a sigh of relief

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Getting convicted of a felony is hardly a reason to rejoice.  But after being tried for one count of conspiracy, three counts of mail fraud by depriving the public of the honest services of a public official, and two counts of witness tampering, charges that could have landed him in prison for decades, it’s easy to see why his acquittal nine days ago of everything but a single count of witness tampering left ex-Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona feeling “beyond vindicated.”

     Carona was originally elected in 1998, then re-elected in 2002 and 2006.  His travails date back to his first term, when he appointed two friends to top positions in the Sheriff’s Department.  George Jaramillo, a lawyer and ex-Garden Grove cop (he left the department over a bitter personnel dispute) was installed as chief of operations, while Don Haidl, a wealthy businessman with no law enforcement background took charge of the reserves.

     Jaramillo and Haidl would stumble badly.  In 2004 Jaramillo was charged in State court for misusing deputies, patrol cars and a helicopter to promote a vehicle immobilizing device for a private firm.  Incensed at Carona’s lack of support (the Sheriff promptly fired him) Jaramillo eventually pled no contest to felony conflict of interest and served six months.  That same year Haidl’s son was charged in a gang rape.  Carona again proved of little help.  The boy was convicted and imprisoned and an embittered Haidl resigned.

     The Feds seized on the opening.  In March 2007 Haidl and Jaramillo were secretly indicted on tax charges, Haidl for not declaring business funds he spent on his son’s defense, and Jaramillo for failing to disclose cash and other gifts he got from Haidl.  Seeking leniency, and perhaps revenge, they ratted on Carona, accusing him of selling his office by accepting cash and gifts from Haidl and doling out badges and gun permits to contributors.  In October 2007 a Federal Grand Jury returned a multi-count indictment against Carona, his wife Deborah Carona and his mistress Debra Hoffman.

     Carona’s trial took place first.  It was extensively reported by the Orange County Register so we won’t go into all the details.  Here what we’re most interested in is why it fizzled out.  The single conviction, for witness tampering, stemmed from a meeting between Carona and Haidl, who was wired up and working as an FBI stoolie.  Although Carona knew that the Feds were sniffing around, he still felt close to his former confidant, and when Haidl displayed a fictitious Grand Jury subpoena and asked what to do Carona suggested being evasive.  But try as he might, Haidl couldn’t get Carona to admit he accepted cash or did favors for money.  As far as the Sheriff was concerned, whatever gifts he received, including the mechanically-challenged boat he got from Haidl were tokens of friendship.  Unable to confirm that Carona acted corruptly -- the reason for the investigation in the first place -- Haidl got so frustrated that once they parted he muttered “it's like f***ing pulling teeth.”  And yes, the hidden microphone was still on.

     Interviewed after the trial, the jury foreman said that most jurors disbelieved Haidl because of his cooperation agreement with the Feds.  Aside from Haidl’s uncorroborated statements there was no evidence that Carona sold his office, hence citizens weren’t “cheated” of anything.  Things might have gone differently had Jaramillo testified about the cash bribes, most of which supposedly passed through him.  As it was, Jaramillo was never called to testify, an absence that one juror said cost the Government dearly:  “It would have been different if Jaramillo was there, and that was the consensus of the group.”

     Not everything went smoothly in the jury room.  Before the ink on the verdict form was dry two jurors were already complaining that they were browbeaten into voting for acquittals on the more serious counts.  One said that it was only through his persistence that Carona was convicted at all. “I’m the one who did that one [charge].  I think it was a miracle.  It was the only one that had an absolutely good, unadulterated tape where nobody could say something contrary.”  But the transcript has no smoking gun.  Carona never flat-out told Haidl to lie.  What he did say, though, was so crudely put (among other things, he boasted about his affairs and sexual prowess) that Federal prosecutors probably charged him with obstruction just for the sake of bringing the tape into court.

Click here for the complete collection of crime & punishment essays

     Carona is liable to a ten-year penalty.  If the conviction holds -- there’s concern that it might not, as there was no proceeding to “obstruct” --  it’s likely that the judge will make him serve at least a token term behind bars.  As a convicted felon, Carona will also lose many of his civil rights.  He himself admits that his reputation is toast.  Yet while there’s relief that a man with such a weak moral compass is no longer Sheriff, his trial ended with a whimper.  Sure, Carona’s election, and re-elections, were probably tainted with campaign-law violations (due to the five-year statute of limitations, much of the evidence was inadmissible.)  And like Sheriffs elsewhere -- Los Angeles County, for example -- he gave a bunch of wealthy, unqualified civilians badges and gun permits.  But jurors didn’t equate these shenanigans with being a crooked cop.  As one juror half-seriously suggested, “they should have given us a list of all the women he didn’t sleep with, it would have been shorter.  But that doesn’t matter. Having an affair isn’t illegal.”

     If nothing else, Carona’s trial illustrated the foibles of American jurisprudence.  Here are four lessons to carry away:

  • Good lawyers are everything.  Carona is by no means wealthy, yet he enjoyed the services of two top-notch, big-bucks lawyers, both partners in the renowned firm of Jones Day.  Not only that, but they worked for free!  What might his chances have otherwise been?  Hmm, can you spell p-l-e-a?
     
  • Throw enough dirt and something will stick.  Propping up a thin case with muck (and with a character like Carona, there was plenty of that to go around) is a time-tested lawyer’s trick.  But when the Government tries to get a target to incriminate themselves after the fact by sending in a secretly indicted good buddy with a fake Federal subpoena, desperation begins to show.  Not even your loyal blogger, who worked undercover on and off for years, ever did anything that slimy (or would fess up to it if he did.)  Which brings up the question of how far the good guys should go.  Prosecutors have a greater obligation than to convict.  Should they be bound to no higher an ethical standard than the defense?
     
  • Jurors may only be finders of fact, but they tend to view their roles more broadly, as their community’s moral agents.  Extraneous factors such as a defendant’s character are always in play.  Prosecutors knew that Carona’s dalliance with at least three women other than his wife would be looked on poorly.  At the same time, the Government’s greasy investigative techniques probably did its own cause harm.  Balancing the defendant’s nauseating conduct against the FBI’s, jurors might have settled on guilty to a single, lesser count as a compromise.  It’s the kind of decision-making that one sees time and again.  And it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
     
  • Electing Sheriffs is a terrible idea.  Politicians who supported Carona for election and re-election now argue that they didn’t know the man behind the badge.  (Well, they did know that Carona lacked any law enforcement experience other than as County Marshal, where he oversaw security and process service for the courts.)  That, as this blog has pointed out, is why Sheriffs should be selected like police chiefs, competitively and only after extensive vetting.

     Since Carona resigned while in office the Board of Supervisors had to select someone to complete his term.  After a nationwide search, detailed background checks and multiple interviews they chose Sandra Hutchens, formerly a division chief with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.  While the outcome didn’t please CCW permit holders (she promptly revoked dozens of concealed-carry licenses that Carona issued) the process assured citizens that the County’s new top cop would be a well-regarded law enforcement professional.  Of course, she will soon have to run for office, once again injecting a political spin into a process that, as events conclusively proved, should be completely removed from politics.

UPDATE (5/18/15): Carona was released from prison (a Federal medical center) after serving 55 months.

UPDATE (4/28/09): A Federal judge sentenced Carona to 66 months imprisonment for witness tampering.

Did you enjoy this post?  Be sure to explore the homepage and topical index!

Home   Top   Permalink     Print/Save     Feedback     


RELATED POSTS

Orange is the New Brown     Ex-Commish Leaves Carona in the Dust

Accountability?  Not if You’re a Sheriff

RELATED ARTICLES

L.A. Times series on Mike Carona

 


  Home            About          Index           Links          Educators         Contact        Class site       Novel