Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Execution Watch: 4/6/2016

Tomorrow night the State of Texas will murder again...

PABLO VASQUEZ was convicted of the capital murder of a 12-year old boy. The 1998 slaying stirred up talk about Satanism down along the Rio Grande. His accomplice, Andy Chapa, pled guilty and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

For more information on Mr. Vasquez and his case, click here.

RADIO SHOW PREVIEW

EXECUTION WATCH

Unless a stay is issued, Execution Watch will broadcast live:
Wednesday, April 6, 6-7 PM Central Time
KPFT-FM Houston 90.1, HD 3 or online at:

http://executionwatch.org > Listen

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Update: Disbarred attorney reinstated

When last we left Houston attorney Robert Bennett he had been disbarred after a trial on alleged ethics violations. The State Bar alleged that Mr. Bennett violated two ethics rules. What made the matter a bit odd is that the State Bar never recommended that Mr. Bennett be disbarred - that sanction came from Judge Carmen Kelsey of San Antonio.

Today the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston overturned Mr. Bennett's disbarment finding that the evidence was insufficient to support the allegation that he refused to return an advanced payment of an unearned fee to a client. The Court did, however, uphold the finding that he violated the rule against an attorney taking a position during litigation that unnecessarily increases the cost of litigation or unreasonably delays resolution of a matter.

As a result, Mr. Bennett has been reinstated to the bar.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Getting around the Fifth

On Tuesday the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that Baltimore police officer William Porter would have to testify at the trial of five other officers charged with the manslaughter and other crimes in the death of Freddie Gray last April. You may recall that Mr. Porter was the first officer tried in the matter (ironic considering he is the only black officer charged) and that his trial ended in a hung jury.

Prosecutors sought to compel Mr. Porter to testify against his fellow officers in their trial under a grant of limited immunity. Mr. Porter refused, citing his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. Prosecutors argued that since they wouldn't be able to use any of his testimony against him at his re-trial, that Mr. Porter's Fifth Amendment protection wasn't being violated.

The highest court in Maryland agreed with prosecutors and ordered Mr. Porter to testify.

I am deeply troubled by the court requiring a man who is facing criminal charges for the same incident being compelled to provide testimony at the trial of the other officers. While the words he says from the stand aren't admissible at his trial, you better believe that prosecutors will parse his testimony for anything they can use at his re-trial. That testimony will be compared to the statements he has given in the past and prosecutors will jump on any inconsistencies or contradictions.

While the Maryland Court of Appeals may be living under the fiction that prosecutors only want Mr. Porter's testimony because he is a witness to what happened to Freddie Gray last April, the truth of the matter is the prosecutors are trying to find a way around the Fifth Amendment. They couldn't call Mr. Porter to the stand at his own trial because he has a constitutional right to remain silent. This cynical end around is nothing more than a ploy to force him to testify under oath. Make no mistake. This is all about the government forcing a criminal defendant to undergo cross-examination on the witness stand.

This case is also an example of how bad facts make even worse law. Sure, the court may very well try to couch its ruling in all sorts of language that seeks to limit the scope of its holding, but they have now given prosecutors a new tool to use in compelling a criminal defendant to testify. This guiding principle of American jurisprudence is why the Fourth Amendment looks like a slice of swiss cheese. It's why we are strapping down citizens accused of a misdemeanor and jabbing a needle in their arm.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Execution Watch 3/7/2016

Tonight, that staunch defender of life, Gov. Greg Abbott will once again preside over the murder of another...

COY WESTBROOK is a former security guard who was sentenced to death for a 1997 shooting spree in which his ex-wife and four others were killed at an apartment complex in Channelview, just outside Houston. Mr. Westbrook's lawyer says he is mentally disabled and shouldn't be executed. The psychologist, Dr. George Denkowski, who declared Mr. Westbrook fit to fact a capital murder charge has since had his methods discredited.

For more information on Mr. Westbrook and his case, click here.

RADIO SHOW PREVIEW

EXECUTION WATCH
Unless a stay is issued, Execution Watch will broadcast live:
Wednesday, March 9, 6-7 PM Central Time
KPFT-FM Houston 90.1, HD 3 or online at:

http://executionwatch.org > Listen

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Execution Watch: 1/27/2016

On Wednesday the State of Texas will kill again...


JAMES FREEMAN was given the death penalty following his conviction in the 2007 slaying of a game warden in El Campo during a chase by law enforcement officials.

For more information on Mr. Freeman and his case, click here.

RADIO SHOW PREVIEW

EXECUTION WATCH
Unless a stay is issued, Execution Watch will broadcast live:
Wednesday, January 27, 6-7 PM Central Time
KPFT-FM Houston 90.1, HD 3 or online at:

http://executionwatch.org > Listen

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Execution Watch: 1/20/2016

On Wednesday the State of Texas will carry out its first murder the year despite having a self-described pro-life governor. Apparently Greg Abbott's pro-life stance only applies when attempting to prevent women from exercising their legal right to terminate a pregnancy. But then again, our wing nut political leaders can rarely be accused of consistency in their political beliefs...

RICHARD MASTERSON was condemned for the 2001 choking death of a Houston female impersonator. A federal appeals court set in motion the assignment of an execution date when it refused to grant Mr. Masterson the permission he needed to file an appeal with the US Supreme Court. His attorneys argued that his previous attorneys were deficient in representing him and that his confession to police was improper.

For more information on Mr. Masterson and his case, click here.

RADIO SHOW PREVIEW

EXECUTION WATCH
Unless a stay is issued, Execution Watch will broadcast live:
Wednesday, January 20, 6-7 PM Central Time
KPFT-FM Houston 90.1, HD 3 or online at:

http://executionwatch.org > Listen



Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Execution Watch: 11/18/2015

Tonight the State of Texas will murder...

RAPHAEL HOLIDAY, Convicted of capital murder in a Madison County fire, later determined to be arson, that resulted in the deaths of his young daughter and her two half-sisters in 2000. In 2014, The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused claims by Mr. Holiday's attorneys that testimony against him was allowed improperly at his trial in Huntsville in 2002, that his indictment was flawed and that a juror was removed improperly during jury selection.

For more information on Mr. Holiday and his case, click here.

RADIO SHOW PREVIEW

EXECUTION WATCH
Unless a stay is issued, Execution Watch will broadcast live:
Wednesday, November 18, 6-7 PM Central Time
KPFT-FM Houston 90.1, HD 3 or online at:

http://executionwatch.org > Listen

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Tonight on Reasonable Doubt

Tonight I will be a guest on HCCLA's public access show Reasonable Doubt along with Sarah Wood at 8pm on Houston Media Source TV. If you don't get that channel on your cable package (or if you've cut the cable), you can catch the live stream at hmstv.org.

Reasonable Doubt is co-hosted by Jimmy Ardoin and Damon Parrish II. Topics tonight will include the death of Sandra Bland, how to handle a police encounter and why black lives matter.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Rubbernecking

Piling on? Maybe.

I'd like to think of it as more slowing down to see the aftermath of the wreck on the other side of the freeway, though.

Of course I must be talking about Christopher Dupuy, the former county court judge in Galveston County.

His latest brush with the law is both the funniest, and most pathetic. It seems that Mr. Dupuy got upset when two lady friends decided that they no longer wanted to be friends with one of the most unqualified people to ever sit on the bench.

Instead of moving on with his life, Mr. Dupuy allegedly posted fake ads on a website stating that his ex-girlfriends would perform sex in exchange for money.

Mr. Dupuy does, however, remain the poster child for straight-ticket voting Republicans in Galveston County. With the exception of a few devoted wingnuts, Mr. Dupuy would never have sat on the bench had the carpetbaggers in the northern end of the county not voted for anyone (and anything) with an "R" after it.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Exposing religion for what it is

Some time ago I wrote in this very space that the Supreme Court had no choice but to recognize same-sex marriage across the nation. Once the first state recognized it, the Equal Protection Clause left no wiggle room.

Not ones to let something as fundamental as the law get in the way, our wingnut governor, Greg Abbott, and wingnut attorney general, Ken Paxton, have announced that they think the Supreme Court got it all wrong. According to these two paragons of ignorance, the Court's decision infringes upon the religious freedom of all the hate-spewing, right-wing, bible-thumpers who are desperately holding on to an image of America that never really existed.

And I, for one, am glad they are all trumpeting the religious freedom angle because this argument shows, once and for all, what religion is really all about.

Gov. Abbott (who sometimes makes Rick Perry look like a scholar and a statesman) sent out letters to the heads of state agencies hours after the Supremes ruled, that it's okay to withhold benefits from same-sex couples if such an arrangement offends the religious sensibilities of the agency heads. What? Has Greg Abbott never read the Fourteenth Amendment? Has he never heard of Loving v. Virginia?

Just what part of every citizen being guaranteed equal rights under the law does he not understand?

Religion has been used throughout history to justify oppression and repression. It has been used to justify the stealing of natural resources. It has been used to justify slavery and Jim Crow. Invoking it to defend discrimination in the choice of marriage partners is the latest use of the "opiate of the masses" to justify the second class treatment of a group of people. So far as I know, the only purpose of religion is to indoctrinate the masses into believing that their state of repression is willed by god and that they will get their equality once they are dead.

And to think that millions of people have fallen for that. Just think about it. When you're dead, you're fucking dead and it doesn't matter whether there's equality or not.

At some point Abbott and his minions will get slapped down and the State of Texas will be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era. Until then I can sit back and enjoy watching the curtain getting pulled back on religion and exposing it as the con that it is.

Friday, June 12, 2015

A small measure of justice

Maybe the name Charles Sebesta rings a bell. If not, maybe the name Anthony Graves will.

Mr. Sebesta was the prosecutor who withheld evidence at Mr. Graves' murder trial over 20 years ago. Mr. Graves spent 12 years on death row as a result of Mr. Sebesta's unethical and illegal conduct.

For all of the injustices our clients face, there are moments where justice does prevail. Sometimes it's a day late and a dollar short, but it prevails nonetheless. Yesterday was one of those days.

Yesterday Charles Sebesta was disbarred by the State Bar of Texas for his actions in prosecuting Anthony Graves. While Mr. Sebesta has lost his ticket to play, nothing can make up for the years Mr. Graves spent in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Nothing can make up for the years he lost and the moments he never got to experience.

But at least Mr. Sebesta is being held accountable.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Execution Watch: 6/3/2015

On Wednesday night the State of Texas will attempt to murder...


LESTER BOWER, whose recent interview with Execution Watch will air during the show. Bower may not be the longest-serving person on Texas death row, but he's close to it. Convicted in the 1984 execution-style murders of four men at an airplane hangar on a ranch north of Dallas, he had no previous criminal history and has steadfastly maintained his innocence. No fingerprints put him at the scene. No witnesses saw him there. The murder weapon never was recovered. Pointing away from him is the claim by an informant, whom police will not identify, that her ex-boyfriend and three others committed the murders in a drug deal. Courts have saved Bower from six previous execution dates.

For more information on Mr. Bower and his case, click here.

RADIO SHOW PREVIEW

EXECUTION WATCH
Unless a stay is issued, Execution Watch will broadcast live:
Wednesday, June 3, 6-7 PM Central Time
KPFT-FM Houston 90.1, HD 3 or online at:

http://executionwatch.org > Listen

Monday, May 11, 2015

Execution Watch: 5/12/2015

On Tuesday night the State of Texas will kill again...


DERRICK CHARLES, condemned in the 2002 slayings of three people at their Houston home. A Harris County jury decided he should die for the deaths of his 15-year-old girlfriend, her 44-year-old mother and the girlfriend's 77-year-old grandfather. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused Friday to stop the execution. Mr. Charles' lawyers say he is mentally incompetent for execution and that they need more time and money from the courts to pursue their claim. An appeal for him is at the U.S. Supreme Court.

RADIO SHOW PREVIEW

EXECUTION WATCH
Unless a stay is issued, Execution Watch will broadcast live:
Tuesday, May 12, 6-7 PM Central Time
KPFT-FM Houston 90.1, HD 3 or online at:

http://executionwatch.org > Listen

Since KPFT is in the midst of a fundraising drive it is highly unlikely that the program will be heard on the broadcast channel so look for the HD channel or find it online.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Execution Watch: 4/28/2015

Tonight, the State of Texas will kill again...

ROBERT PRUETT., Condemned in the 1999 slaying of a prison guard at the McConnell Unit in Beeville, Texas, Mr. Pruett had been slated for execution on May 21, 2014, but was granted a stay so he could appeal a judge's previous ruling. Mr. Pruett has steadfastly denied that he had any role in the guard's death. 

Mr. Pruett recently recorded a 20-minute interview with Execution Watch. If his execution is carried out, the interview will air unedited and in its entirety.

See also:

"Inmate set for execution seeks Supreme Court stay," Texas Tribune (April 28, 2015)

RADIO SHOW PREVIEW

EXECUTION WATCH
Unless a stay is issued, Execution Watch will broadcast live:
Tuesday, April 28, 6-7 PM Central Time
KPFT-FM Houston 90.1, HD 3 or online at:

http://executionwatch.org > Listen

Since KPFT is in the midst of a fundraising drive it is highly unlikely that the program will be heard on the broadcast channel so look for the HD channel or find it online.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Execution Watch: 4/15/15

On Wednesday night, the State of Texas is planning to kill...

MANUEL GARZA, JR., Convicted in the 2001 slaying of a San Antonio police officer after a foot chase in which the men struggled and Mr. Garza grabbed the officer's gun, then shot him, according to court documents. His trial attorneys said he acted in self defense. Appellate lawyers said his trial attorneys failed to properly question jurors about their opinions on the death penalty, didn't submit enough mitigating evidence and failed to include complaints of excessive use of force that had been filed against the officer.

For more information about Mr. Garza's case, click here.

RADIO SHOW PREVIEW

EXECUTION WATCH
Unless a stay is issued, Execution Watch will broadcast live:
Wednesday, April 15, 6-7 PM Central Time
KPFT-FM Houston 90.1, HD 3 or online at:

http://executionwatch.org > Listen

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Execution Watch: 3/11/2015

On Wednesday night, the State of Texas is planning to use one of its two remaining doses of its death drug to kill...

MANUEL VASQUEZ, the last of three men arrested in the 1998 slaying of San Antonio drug dealer Juanita Ybarra. Vasquez, now 46, was the only defendant to receive the death penalty. One co-defendant was awarded a seven-year plea deal in exchange for his testimony against Vasquez. The other is serving a 35-year term. Vasquez was originally scheduled to be executed in August, but a paperwork problem led to a delay.

RADIO SHOW PREVIEW

EXECUTION WATCH
Unless a stay is issued, Execution Watch will broadcast live:
Wednesday, March 11, 6-7 PM Central Time
KPFT-FM Houston 90.1, HD 3 or online at:

http://executionwatch.org > Listen

Monday, February 9, 2015

Food for thought

Here are a few items I picked up the last week or so that seemed particularly relevant for one reason or another...

If you represent defendants who are under the age of 25, you might want to listen to this interview Fresh Air's Terry Gross had with Dr. Frances Jensen about her new book The Teenage Brain. Dr. Jensen explains why the judgment of a young adult may be a bit impaired due to both biological and environmental conditions.

Former CIA agent John Kiriakou was released from federal prison last week after serving almost two years for disclosing the truth about the CIA's torture program. Mr. Kiriakou is the only person who has been convicted or sentenced to prison regarding the torture program launched under President George W. Bush. To date, not one person who signed the orders, supervised the torture or penned a memo justifying torture has been punished. Amy Goodman interviewed him on Democracy Now!  this morning.

Here's a piece I wrote just before Mr. Kiriakou reported to prison.

Finally, I'm not much of a college basketball fan. The games are too micro-managed by coaches and the "action" on the court can put you to sleep. This weekend, the legendary North Carolina coach, Dean Smith, died. While he was celebrated in the media for winning championships the "Carolina Way," not much has been said about the amazing things he did off the court. Mr. Smith was responsible for integrating the ACC. He was also an outspoken critic of the death penalty. This piece from The Nation's Dave Zirin gives us a little more insight into the man.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Thoughts on the death penalty

I was recently asked by a commenter what I thought was a "fair" sentence for someone convicted of killing another.

The gentleman seemed to believe that the death penalty was appropriate - at least in that particular case. I won't put words in his mouth and assume that he supports the death penalty across the board.

I don't know the answer to his question.

I do know, as I have pointed out before, that killing a murderer doesn't bring any of the victims back to life. Killing him doesn't heal the wounds his actions caused. I also don't think it does anything to bring closure to the family and friends of his victim. The wounds will always be there - they just fade in and out in various degrees as time moves on.

There are three understood purposes of punishment in our criminal (in)justice system. The first is rehabilitation. Our penitentiary system owes much of its existence to religious sects who felt the best way to treat someone convicted of criminal activity was to remove him from the bad influences in his life and teach him another way to live. That's why most of our prisons are far removed from the "evil" influence of our major cities (in much the same way that most of our large land grant colleges are far removed from urban areas).

A second purpose is to deter others from breaking the law. If you see your buddy sent off to prison for breaking the law, maybe the message will hit home that it's best to obey the law. This, of course, only works for those folks who are able to weigh the costs and benefits of particular actions before deciding what to do.

The third purpose was to banish from civil society those who were blatant in their rule-breaking and expressed no remorse for their actions. One way to look at it is the folks we choose to banish from society are those folks that we're scared of.

I think it's a fairly safe bet to assume that our prisons long ago stopped serving any rehabilitative function. They have become warehouses for the mentally ill, drug addicts and folks who refuse to conform with the rules of civil society. We could add that prisons today are used as tools of social control to keep the poor and minorities from exercising any power.

Now our politicians and supporters of the death penalty will hang their hats on deterrence as being the reason we strap inmates to a gurney and murder them in cold blood. The idea is that the public sees what happens when you kill someone (well, kill someone whose life we've determined is more valuable than someone else's) and folks make a conscious decision not to do the same.

The only problem with that logic is that most murders aren't the act of rational actors. How many times is the victim of a murder an acquaintance of the murderer? How many times is the murder the result of an argument that two friends (or two relatives) had over a pool game or a bet or a small loan? How many times do we see someone killing their spouse or lover? Then you've got drug-related killings and "robberies gone bad."

We've been killing inmates for generations and we still  have people killing people. The death penalty never has been, and never will be, a deterrent.

The death penalty is about nothing more than revenge. Always has been and always will be. As such it serves no useful purpose within a criminal justice system.

Furthermore, the death penalty is forever. Once you've killed an inmate, they aren't coming back. It doesn't matter whether they were guilty or innocent. Just think about that for a bit. Over the past decade we have witnessed an incredible number of stories of inmates who spent decades in prison being exonerated when DNA evidence revealed the jury got it wrong.

Our system is run by people. We're fallible. We all get it wrong every now and then. Michael Morton was convicted of killing his wife. The district attorney hid evidence and his successor fought like hell to keep the evidence from being tested because he knew what it would reveal.

Innocent people have been murdered by the state. As long as we continue to strap inmates down and inject poison into their veins we will run the risk of another innocent man being killed. Is that a chance you feel comfortable taking?

I have no use for religion. I think it's nothing but a tool of oppression. But I'm not arrogant enough to say that I know who should live and who should die.

Are you?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Execution Watch: 2/4/2015

On Wednesday night, the State of Texas is planning to kill...

DONALD NEWBURY. While serving a 99-year sentence for robbery, Mr. Newbury joined six fellow prisoners in escaping from the John B. Connally Unit near Kenedy, Texas on December 13, 2000. He and the other escapees were convicted of shooting an Irving police officer, Aubry Hawkins, to death as they fled after robbing a store.

For more information on the background of Mr. Ladd's case, click here.

RADIO SHOW PREVIEW

EXECUTION WATCH
Unless a stay is issued, Execution Watch will broadcast live:
Wednesday, February 4, 6-7 PM Central Time
KPFT-FM Houston 90.1, HD 3 or online at:

http://executionwatch.org > Listen

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Update: White execution stayed

Yesterday the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed tonight's scheduled murder of Garcia Glen White. Mr. White's attorney, Houston's own Pat McCann, refused to give up while the CCA continued to deny his motions to stay the execution and for leave to file writs of habeas corpus and suspension.

Finally, on Tuesday the Court granted Mr. White's fourth application for a writ of habeas corpus. The work of a capital litigator is never finished until the drugs start to flow into his client's veins. Mr. McCann kept fighting - even when it looked its bleakest - and, in the end, he won (at least a temporary) reprieve for his client.

As Bum Phillips would say, Mr. McCann knocked on that door a few times before he kicked the son of a bitch in.

If I were ever in a fight for my life, Paddy McCann is one of people I would want to be fighting with me.

Execution Watch: 1/29/2015

On Thursday night, the State of Texas is planning to kill...

ROBERT LADD. Condemned in the sexual assault and slaying of a Tyler woman during a burglary in 1996. He appealed his conviction and death sentence, saying prosecutors used illegal tactics to exclude minorities from the jury and presented insufficient evidence at trial. Mr. Ladd also challenged the judge's instruction to the jury that they had the option to convict him under the Texas law of parties.

See:

Ladd v. State, 3 SW3d 547 (Tex.Crim.App. 1999)

For more information on the background of Mr. Ladd's case, click here.

RADIO SHOW PREVIEW

EXECUTION WATCH
Unless a stay is issued, we'll broadcast live:
Thursday, January 29, 6-7 PM Central Time
KPFT-FM Houston 90.1, HD 3 or online at:

http://executionwatch.org > Listen

Since KPFT is in the middle of fund drive I believe the broadcast will only be available online or via HD radio.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Execution Watch: 1/28/2015

On Wednesday night, the State of Texas will kill...

GARCIA WHITE. Sent to death row for the 1989 slayings of 16-year-old twin sisters with whom he had an argument while smoking crack cocaine at their home. Mr. White asserted in appeals that jury selection, jury instructions, his statement to police and the judge's punishment charge were all improper. During Mr. White's trial, Houston Police crime lab analysts testified that DNA from the crime scene matched his. But retest results, made public in 2004 by the prosecutor's office indicated a private lab was unable to duplicate the results.

For more background information on Mr. Whtie's case, click here.

RADIO SHOW PREVIEW

EXECUTION WATCH
Unless a stay is issued, we'll broadcast live:
Wednesday, January 28, 6-7 PM Central Time
KPFT-FM Houston 90.1, HD 3 or online at:

http://executionwatch.org > Listen

Since KPFT is in the middle of fund drive I believe the broadcast will only be available online or via HD radio.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Execution Watch: 1/21/2015

On Wednesday night, the State of Texas will kill for the first time in 2015...

ARNOLD PRIETO. Convicted in the murder of three people, including his co-defendants' great-aunt and great-uncle, in a 1993 home robbery in San Antonio. Before Mr. Prieto's conviction, prosecutors offered him two 30-year terms in exchange for his testimony against a co-defendant. He declined.

For more background on Mr. Prieto's case, click here.

RADIO SHOW PREVIEW

EXECUTION WATCH
Unless a stay is issued, we'll broadcast live:
Wednesday, January 21, 6-7 PM Central Time
KPFT-FM Houston 90.1, HD 3 or online at:

http://executionwatch.org > Listen

Since KPFT is in the middle of fund drive I believe the broadcast will only be available online or via HD radio.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Trivializing racial injustice

Earlier this month in South Carolina, George Stinney's name was finally cleared. Mr. Stinney was fourteen years old when he was strapped into an electric chair and killed for a crime he didn't commit.

Mr. Stinney was charged with killing two little white girls in Alcolu, South Carolina in 1944. In the span of 83 days he was charged, tried and convicted. His appointed counsel, Charles Plowde, did everything he could to facilitate the legal lynching. Mr. Plowde failed to call Mr. Stinney's sister, an alibi witness, to the stand.

After a two-day hearing, Judge Carmen Mullen said that Mr. Stinney's case was a "truly unfortunate episode in our history."

No, Judge Mullen, a child dropping a fly ball is an unfortunate episode. A skinned knee from falling off a bike is an unfortunate episode. Spilling food on your best clothes is an unfortunate episode.

Murdering a fourteen year old child who had a confession beaten out of him is far more than an "unfortunate episode." Calling it such does nothing but cheapen the significance of what happened in the summer of 1944. What happened to Mr. Stinney is but another example of the ways in which our criminal (in)justice system has been used as a tool of social control and oppression.

A child was murdered at the hands of the state and no one was ever called to account for their actions. A jury of twelve white men considered what evidence was put before them and decided that the government had proven its case beyond all reasonable doubt. And once again we are confronted with the fact that our courts don't serve as a crucible of truth - they serve merely as a legal justification for the continued oppression of significant portions of our population.

Judge Mullen's decision does nothing to heal the damage caused to Mr. Stinney's family and friends. They knew he was innocent all along. It does nothing to change the facts. It also does nothing to erase the indelible image of a state that was so intent to enforcing social order that it would strap a teenager into an electric chair and burn him from the inside out.

And if you are under the illusion that there has been much change over the last 70 years, take a look at the population of most of our jails and prisons. Take a look at the disparity in drug sentencing. Take a look at the disparity in death sentences handed out. Take a look at the number of blacks and Latinos who languish in jail for weeks and months (and years) waiting for their criminal cases to be resolved because they can't afford to post bail.

Our criminal (in)justice system is still used as a tool of social control. The old order is desperately trying to hold onto to power and our courts are their last best tool.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Killing the frog one degree at a time

The other day I was leaving the Montgomery County Courthouse up in Conroe after court and noticed a state trooper behind me. As I turned onto the main drag the trooper flipped on his lights. I pulled over into a restaurant parking lot wondering why he pulled me over.

Soon I had my answer.

It turns out that the main bulb in the right taillight had burned out. I asked him if the center light was working. He said it was. He took my license and insurance and I dug through the pocket on the driver's side door for a spare bulb.

While I changed the bulb he printed out a warning and went on about his way.

I did appreciate him telling me my taillight was out - since equipment violations are an oft-used excuse to stop suspected drunk drivers. However, I was also a bit irritated since there was no equipment violation in my case. In Texas you are required to have two working taillights. Since all cars come equipped with three (one on each side and one in the middle), one can be malfunctioning and you aren't breaking the law. In other words, he had no legitimate reason to pull me over.

As I drove away my mind kept wandering back to the recent US Supreme Court case in which the Supremes upended precedent and decided that a traffic stop based on the officer's mistake of law is valid. In Heine v. North Carolina, No. 13-604 (2014), Mr. Heien was driving down the street when a law enforcement officer, Sgt. Matt Darisse of the Surrey County Sheriff's Office, stopped his car because he had a broken brake light. Of course Mr. Heien gave his consent when Sgt. Darisse asked to search the car.

Sgt. Darisse thought that Mr. Heien (who was laying down in the backseat) and Maynor Vasquez (the driver) were acting a bit suspicious so he asked to search the car after handing Mr. Vasquez a warning for the brake light. Well you don't have to be a genius to know what happened next. The search turned up a bag of cocaine. Both men were arrested.

At trial, Mr. Heien argued that the drugs should be suppressed because there was no legal basis for the traffic stop. It is (or, at least, was) well-established that a stop based on an officer's mistake of law was not reasonable, and was, therefore, illegal. Surprisingly enough the trial court didn't see it that way because, by golly, there was cocaine in the car and we must keep that shit off the streets.

On appeal the conviction was reversed because it wasn't illegal to drive a car in North Carolina with only one functioning brake light. The State Supreme Court then reversed the appellate court on the grounds that even though Sgt. Darisse was ignorant of the law, the stop was reasonable.

In an 8-1 decision, based more on looking at the outcome rather than on the process, the US Supreme Court held that a stop (or detention) based on an officer's mistake of law was, nonetheless, reasonable. So, even though we've been told for years that ignorance of the law is no defense against a criminal charge, it is, apparently, an excuse to detain someone illegally.

This decision has turned the Fourth Amendment on its side and is yet another example of how our rights are slowly being taken away from us without anyone noticing. We are the frog in the pot of water that doesn't even realize the temperature is being turned up until it's too late.