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Steven Hsieh

Steven Hsieh

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North Carolina Supreme Court to Decide the Fate of 4 Inmates Whose Lives Were Spared by the Racial Justice Act

NC Supreme Court

North Carolina Supreme Court building in Raleigh (CC, 3.0)

North Carolina’s Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in the cases of four capital defendants who had their sentences commuted to life in prison under the state’s since-repealed Racial Justice Act (RJA). If the inmates lose, they could be sent back to death row.

The Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009, allowed death row inmates to challenge their sentences if they believed racial biases played a significant role before or during their trials. The state legislature narrowed the law in 2012 before Republican Governor Pat McCrory signed a repeal of RJA last year.

The state Supreme Court will review two separate cases involving three African-American men and one Lumbee Indian woman who all successfully argued in a lower court that racial biases affected prosecutors’ jury selection for their trials. The first case involves Marcus Robinson, who was the first prisoner to have his sentenced reduced under RJA, before it was amended to narrow the scope of permitted evidence proving racial discrimination. The second case involves Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters and Quintel Augustine.

Attorneys representing the inmates cited a Michigan State University study finding that prosecutors struck qualified blacks from serving as jurors in capital cases at nearly twice the rate of other races from 1990 to 2010. About 53 percent of North Carolina’s death row inmates are black, despite only making up 22 percent of the state’s population.

Representing Tilmon Golphin, Quientel Augustine and Christina Walters, Attorney Jay Ferfuson presented handwritten jury selection notes from a prosecutor that suggested he viewed white and black jurors “through a different lens.” He described one potential juror as a “blk wino,” (sic) while another black juror from a “respectable” family was “ok.” Another prosecutor, when asked to explain why she struck some black jurors, read straight from a “cheat sheet” of defenses to accusations of discriminatory strikes.

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The high court’s decisions could have far-reaching consequences for the more than 150 death row inmates in North Carolina who have filed for relief under RJA. The state has not executed anyone since 2006.

In a 2012 court order reducing the sentences of three of the defendants, Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks explained the necessity of the Racial Justice Act.

“Our system of justice is still healing from the lingering effects of slavery and Jim Crow,” Weeks wrote. “In emerging from this painful history, it is more comfortable to rest on the status quo and to be satisfied with the progress already made. RJA calls upon the justice system to do more.”

Read Next: The “real racists” have always worn suits.

DOJ Blasts Albuquerque Police Department’s ‘Culture of Unjustifiable Aggression’

Albuquerque Police

This screenshot shows the scene at Albuquerque foothills, just moments before officers fatally shot James Boyd, a homeless veteran.

Albuquerque police officers have engaged in a pattern of excessive force, too often using firearms and tasers against people who pose little to no danger, many of whom are mentally ill, according to a scathing review by the US Justice Department released Thursday.

On top of the troubling rate of excessive force incidents, the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) officers involved rarely face any sort of accountability for their actions, the report finds.

A review of deadly use of force incidents found that the majority of the twenty fatal shootings involving officers from 2009 to 2012 were unconstitutional. APD officers have shot thirty-seven people since 2010, a higher rate than NYPD officers, who cover a city sixteen times larger.

Albuquerque police officers also often use less-lethal force, such as tasers and takedown procedures, in ways that are unconstitutional. The review highlights a 2009 case where officers tased a man after he had poured gasoline on himself, setting him on fire.

The report blames “systemic deficiencies” for the high rate of excessive force incidents, chiefly the Albuquerque Police Department’s “failure to implement an objective and rigorous internal accountability system.”

In reviewing 200 police reports, federal investigators found that about one-third of the reports involved unreasonable uses of force. In contrast, APD only identified one percent from the same sample as unreasonable uses of force.

Inadequate training, poor leadership and a “culture of unjustifiable aggression” also contributed to the department’s excessive force problems, the report’s authors write.

“We are very concerned by the results of our investigation and look forward to working with the city of Albuquerque to develop a set of robust and durable reforms,” said Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, in a statement. “Public trust has been broken in Albuquerque, but it can be repaired through this process.”

The report comes amid mounting frustration over the Albuquerque Police Department’s aggressive tactics, erupting last month in heated protests in the city streets. Demonstrators were reacting to a video showing APD officers fatally shooting a mentally ill, homeless man who had his back turned to the officers when shots were fired.

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“The city breathes a sigh of relief this morning that the DOJ review justified a lot of community concerns,” said Patrick Davis, a former police officer who serves as executive director of ProgressNow New Mexico. “The community needs assurance that officers are trained and experienced and can demonstrate an appropriate use of force.”

Other city police departments, including those in Detroit and Seattle, have been subjected to federal oversight after Justice Department reviews. Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry has already asked the city for $1 million to comply with any potential reforms resulting from the federal investigation.

 

Read Next: How a receipt helped free a wrongfully convicted man after more than twenty-four years in prison.

How a Receipt Helped Free a Wrongfully Convicted Man After More Than 24 Years in Prison

Jonathan Fleming

Jonathan Fleming, center, exits the courthouse with his mother Patricia Fleming, left, and his ex-wife Valerie Brown in New York, Tuesday, April 8, 2014. (AP Images/Seth Wenig)

Jonathan Fleming walked out of a New York courthouse a free man Tuesday after serving more than twenty-four years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

“I feel wonderful,” Fleming told reporters. “I’m going to have dinner with my mother and my family and I’m going to live the rest of my life.”

Mr. Fleming, 51, has always maintained his innocence in the 1989 murder of Darryl Rush, claiming he was vacationing with his family at Disney World when the Brooklyn shooting occurred. After more than two decades of fighting Fleming’s appeals, the district attorney’s office finally believes his story.

Over the last year, investigators with the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit uncovered key evidence corroborating Fleming’s Disney World alibi. They found a phone bill placing Fleming at an Orlando hotel four hours before Rush was fatally shot hundreds of miles away. And a local police report contains statements by hotel employees confirming Fleming’s stay.

Authorities did not turn over either document to Fleming’s trial attorneys when his case was tried in 1990.

“Where the hell was this evidence all these years, and why wasn’t it turned over until 25 years later?” attorney Taylor Koss said in an interview with The Huffington Post.

During his trial, attorneys presented family photos and videos of Fleming in Florida. Several family members who were on the trip also testified in court. But prosecutors argued that he could’ve flown to Brooklyn, shot Rush and then caught a flight back to Orlando. Jurors believed that version of events and convicted Fleming in July 1990.

Prosecutors also produced a key witness who told police she saw Fleming commit the murder. Shortly after Fleming’s sentencing, the witness recanted her statement, saying she lied to police to get cleared on unrelated charges. But a judge did not believe her statement, and Fleming remained in prison.

Fleming’s attorneys, Taylor Koss and Anthony Mayol, say they have evidence pointing to another man as the shooter.

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Former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes created the Conviction Integrity Unit after several questionable convictions resurfaced in recent years. But some attorneys said Hynes acted too slowly and defensively. Now, many are looking to Hynes’ successor, Kenneth Thompson, who campaigned on fighting false convictions, to take on the problem head-on.

Meanwhile, Fleming looks to adjusting to life outside of prison, after spending the past quarter century there.

“The day is finally here. I’ve dreamt about it many nights,” Jonathan Fleming said as he walked out of court. “I’m finally a free man.”

 

Read Next: Why is California penalizing women for wanting to be parents?

After Lawsuit, ICE Releases Hunger Strikers From Solitary Confinement

ICE protest

Activists rally outside the ICE Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, on March 11, 2014. (Reuters/Jason Redmond)

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials removed immigrant hunger strikers from solitary confinement Thursday, according to attorneys representing three of the detainees.

The move comes shortly after the American Civil Liberties Union Washington and Columbia Legal Services (CLS) filed a lawsuit claiming ICE officials placed the detainess in isolation cells in retaliation against their protest activities. The lawsuit argued that punishing inmates for staging a hunger strike violates their free speech rights.

“We’re very pleased that ICE has stopped retaliating against detainees engaged in peaceful protest. Punishing hunger strikers by putting them in isolation cells was an unlawful attempt to chill free speech rights,” said ACLU Washington Legal Director Sarah Dunne.

ICE officials denied that they acted in retaliation, claiming that the detainees placed in solitary had intimidated other inmates into joining the strike. “While ICE fully respects the rights of all people to express their opinion without interference, when these expressions infringe on the civil rights of others, ICE has an obligation to act,” the agency said in an email to the Associated Press.

More than twenty immigrant detainees were punished at Northwest Detainment Center in Tacoma for participating in the strike, said Melissa Lee, an attorney with CLS, who is representing three detainees.

Attorneys say prison officials called a March 27 meeting with hunger strikers, purportedly to discuss their protest demands. When about twenty detainees volunteered to attend, they were placed in handcuffs and moved to isolation cells, where they’ve been held for twenty-three hours a day since.

At least 750 detainees participated in the hunger strike, initiated March 7, to protest poor conditions at Northwest Detention Center, which is privately owned by GEO Group. Some detainees renewed the protest on March 24, demanding better food and an increased wage for prison jobs, currently set at one dollar a day.

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“Basically this facility is run by the detainees. If we everybody stopped working, we could negotiate the pay raise because right now everyone’s working for a dollar,” said Hassall Moses, an Army veteran and detainee who is being held in solitary confinement, in a recorded interview. “We could talk about the quality of the food, the living conditions, and put into practice having detainees who come in with petty offenses be eligible to be released on their own personal recognizance or conditional parole or humanitarian parole to be with their families and to be working so they can afford their own attorneys.”

For more information on the hunger strike and conditions at Northwest Detention Center, see Rose Arrieta’s report for In These Times.

Read Next: How UK law ties immigrant domestic workers to their abusive employers.

‘You Know You’re Getting a Quality Product When the Slogan Is Don’t Tell Anyone Where You Got This’

On his show last night, Stephen Colbert dedicated a whole segment to the death penalty, skewering the cloak of secrecy shrouding many states’ execution protocols.

“Americans support the death penalty, but don’t want to know how the sausage is made,” the Comedy Central host said.

Colbert focused on Tennessee, where death row inmates sued to uncover who is supplying the drugs that will be used to carry out their executions. Tennessee is one of several states, including Georgia, Missouri and South Dakota, with laws granting anonymity to lethal injection drug suppliers.

Watch the full segment:

 

Rick Perry Says Texas Won’t Comply With Federal Standards to Curb Prison Rape

Rick Perry

Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks during a discussion on "Criminal Justice Reform" at the CPAC Conference in Maryland, March 7, 2014. (AP Photo)

Texas Governor Rick Perry said in a letter that his state will not comply with some federal requirements intended to curb prison rape, the Associated Press reported.

In a March 28 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Perry wrote that Texas will not be able to meet standards under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), calling the law “a counterproductive and unnecessarily cumbersome and costly regulatory mess for the states.”

“The governor seems to be surrendering on issues of preventing sexual abuse in his state,” Chris Daley, Deputy Executive Director of Just Detention International, told The Nation. “It’s particularly alarming, given that Texas regularly shows up as one of the states with the worst rates of sexaul abuse in its prisons.”

Five of the ten US prisons with the highest rates of inmate-reported rapes are in Texas, according to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In two Texas prisons—Hughes Unit and Allred Unit—more than 7.6 percent of inmates reported being raped by another inmate, compared with 2.1 percent nationally.

President George W. Bush signed PREA in 2003, a landmark law that established a National Prison Rape Reduction Commission to conduct studies and put forth rules to eliminate prison rape. The commission’s rules, finalized in 2012, require prisons separate adult and juvenile inmates, stop cross-gender pat-downs of juveniles and restrict staff from viewing inmates of the opposite sex shower, change clothes or use the restroom.

Governor Perry claimed the cross-gender viewing provision would be impossible to implement, since women make up forty percent of Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDJC) correctional officers at all-male units. Perry also invoked states rights in objecting to a provision forcing prisons to stop treating seventeen-year-olds as adults, saying it would cost Texas too much.

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Daley objects to Perry’s claim that the PREA rules were “created in a vacuum with little regard for input from those who daily operate state prisons and local jails.” In fact, Daley notes, the PREA commission held several hearings and public comment sessions with corrections officials as it developed its guidelines. TDCJ officials provided comments and letters of input throughout the process.

Lance Lowry, president of a local corrections officers union in Huntsville, told the AP that refusing to adopt PREA standards could open up TDJC and its staff to lawsuits, calling Perry’s letter “short-sighted.” Amy Fettig, Senior Staff Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Texas is willfully refusing to take measures that would certainly protect some prisoners from rape.

“If they refuse to implement PREA, what they’re essentially saying is ‘We don’t take protecting people from sexual abuse seriously,’” Fettig told The Nation. “This is opening up Texas to a huge liability. You can bet we’re going to watch it.”

 

Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on the roots of the school-to-prison pipeline

Mississippi Grants Death Row Inmate Michelle Byrom a New Trial

Byrom

Michelle Byrom (AP Photo/Mississippi Department of Corrections)

The Mississippi Supreme Court ordered a new trial for death row inmate Michelle Byrom Monday, just days after the high court denied the state’s request for an execution date last week.

In the two-page order, Justice Josiah Coleman called the reversal “extraordinary and extremely rare in the petition for leave to pursue post conviction relief.”

The court’s decision reverses Byrom’s 2000 capital murder conviction for conspiring to kill her husband. Prosecutors accused Byrom of hiring Joey Gillis to kill her husband Edward Byrom Sr. in 1999. Circuit Judge Thomas Gardner sentenced Byrom to death for the murder-for-hire.

In an appeal, Ms. Byrom noted that her son Edward Byrom Jr. admitted to murdering his abusive father—in two jailhouse letters and an interview with a court-appointed psychologist—but jurors never saw or heard any of these confessions. The Jackson Free Press published excerpts from Byrom Jr’s letters last week, drawing the attention of national media.

The Supreme Court ordered the state assign a different judge in Byrom’s new trial.

Doctors at an Oklahoma Hospital Were Just Told They Can’t Prescribe Birth Control Anymore

Birth Control Pills

(Flikr user Nate Griggs, CC 2.0)

Catholic hospital administrators ordered doctors practicing in a small Oklahoma city to stop prescribing contraceptives for birth control purposes, according to a report by the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise.

The directive would affect all doctors affiliated with Jane Phillips Medical Center, leaving just one OB-GYN who can prescribe birth control in a city with more than 18,500 women.

A spokesperson for St. John Health System, which owns Jane Phillips, says St. John denies giving such an order. 

“I was told that my physician has been instructed that they can no longer write prescriptions for birth control as birth control. This effects me because I take birth control as birth control. There are other ways to receive birth control, for example headaches, cramps, excessive bleeding — but I have none of those symptoms,” a local woman, who requested anonymity, told the Examiner-Enterprise.

Doctors were instructed to stop prescribing contraceptive for birth control during a closed-door meeting on Wednesday, according to the Examiner-Enterprise.  St. John spokesperson Joy McGill would not comment on the alleged meeting.

Jane Phillips, like most Catholic hospitals, operates under the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Services, guidelines from the Church that bar doctors from “promoting or condoning” contraceptive practices. The Directives do not prohibit contraceptive prescriptions outright.

“While our physicians agree to abide by the Directives, they also have the ability to prescribe medications, including hormonal medications, in accordance with their independent professional medical judgment,” a St. John representative said in a statement.

The order to restrict contraceptives reportedly came from Ascension Health, a non-profit Catholic health services company that acquired St. John Health System in 2013. Women’s health advocates warn that the growing influence of Catholic health systems nationally bodes poorly for reproductive services, as seen in Bartlesville. According to a joint report by the American Civil Liberties Union and the MergerWatch Project, ten of the twenty-five largest hospital systems in 2011 were Catholic-sponsored.

Sheila Reynerston, Advocacy Coordinator for the MergerWatch Project, told The Nation that Ascension’s directive to Bartlesville doctors represents “an unacceptable intrusion into local health care, denying women the health care they need and handcuffing physicians who want to practice medicine appropriately.”

A Facebook page protesting the alleged directive garnered more than 700 “likes” in less than three days. “We believe that everyone has a right to healthcare that is free from religious agenda,” reads the page’s description.

No one from Ascension Health could be reached for comment.

UPDATE (03/31/2014, 9:10 PM): This post has been updated to include further comment from St. John Medical System.

Judges: Texas and Oklahoma Must Lift Veil of Secrecy on Execution Drug Suppliers

Oklahoma execution chamber

The gurney in the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary (AP Photo, File)

Judges in Oklahoma and Texas ruled this week that prison officials must disclose the identities of lethal injection drug suppliers, two victories for transparency advocates in the growing legal battle contesting the veil of secrecy over execution procedures.

A Texas judge ordered on Thursday the state Department of Criminal Justice reveal the supplier of a new batch of lethal injection drugs, which are planned to be used to execute two inmates next month.

Just a day before, Oklahoma County District Judge Patricia Parrish ruled that a statute protecting execution drug suppliers' anonymity is unconstitutional. Parrish said the secrecy statute violates inmates' due process rights.

Judge Parrish’s ruling could further delay the executions of two Oklahoma inmates, Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner, both currently scheduled to die next month. The state already pushed back their execution dates once, after officials were unable to procure the necessary lethal injection drugs.

Since European pharmaceutical firms stopped selling drugs to prisons, citing objections to the death penalty, states have turned to shadier options to meet their capital punishment needs, including poorly-regulated compounding pharmacies. Attorneys for death row inmates say secrecy statutes make it impossible to know whether drugs procured from these suppliers meet standards commensurate with the constitution—that they won’t force inmates to endure cruel and unusual punishment.

The news from Oklahoma and Texas comes amid a recent wave of legal challenges related to anonymous execution drug suppliers. Earlier this month, a federal judge ordered Louisiana officials disclose the manufacturer and supplier of the state’s lethal injection drugs. And Georgia’s Supreme Court is considering a challenge to the state’s secrecy statute.

Is Mississippi About to Execute an Innocent Woman? (Update)

Michelle Byrom

Michelle Byrom (AP Photo/Mississippi Department of Corrections)

UPDATE (3/28/2014): Michelle Byrom was not executed on March 27. The Mississippi Supreme Court, which has the final word on executions, did not sign off on Attorney General Jim Hood's request for yesterday's execution date. “That means that the court is not going to set a date at this time,” said court spokesperson Beverly Kraft." The court is also reviewing a post-conviction motion, filed by Byrom's attorneys, to review new evidence in her case.

***

Mississippi could execute a mentally ill woman by lethal injection tomorrow, despite objections from legal experts and advocates saying she did not receive a fair trial, as well as evidence, unseen by the jury during trial, that places her guilt in doubt.

Michelle Byrom, 53, was sentenced to death in 2000 for plotting to murder her abusive husband, Edward Sr. Prosecutors said Michelle masterminded a plan with her son, Edward Jr., and his friend, Joey Gillis, to kill Edward Sr. and collect on his life insurance plan. According to this version of events, the one presented to a jury, Gillis fatally shot Edward Sr. as he slept in his bed on June 4, 1999. Edward Jr. found his dead father and called 911. Questioned by police, he copped to taking part of a conspiracy, orchestrated by his mother Michelle, to murder his father.

As several media outlets—including The Atlantic and the Jackson Free Press—have documented, there are serious holes in that story. The problem is jurors never saw key pieces of evidence casting doubt on Michelle’s guilt, including letters penned by her son confessing to the crime. On top of that, Michelle’s attorneys made several errors throughout her trial that had detrimental consequences on her fate.

Here’s a rundown of the most troubling aspects of Michelle’s case:

Michelle’s son Edward Byrom Jr. confessed multiple times to killing his father. The jury did not hear any of these confessions.

On four different occasions, Edward Jr. confessed that he, not Gillis, pulled the trigger on his father. Three of these confessions came by way of jailhouse letters, smuggled to his mother as she sat on death row. In one letter, Edward Jr. writes that he shot Edward Sr. in a fit of rage after his father hurled insults at him:

I sit in my room for a good 1 1/2-2 hours, and dad comes in my room, and goes off on me, calling me bastard, nogood, mistake, and telling me I'm inconciderate [sic] and just care about my self, and he slaps me, then goes back to his room.

As I sat on my bed, tears of rage flowing, remembering my childhood my anger kept building and building, and I went to my car, got the 9mm, and walked to his room, peeked in, and he was asleep. I walked about 2 steps in the door, and screamed, and shut my eyes, when I heard him move, I started firing. When I opened my eyes again, I freaked! I grabbed what casings I saw, and threw them into the bushes, grabbed the gun, and went to town.

Edward Jr. also admitted to killing his father in a statement given to a court-appointed psychologist. Trial judge Thomas Gardner, who sentenced Michelle to death, was made aware of this statement, according to the Jackson Free Press. But Gardner did not disclose the statement to jurors and also did not permit the confessional letters to be entered into evidence.

Edward Byrom Jr. also admitted to fabricating the alleged murder plot.

One of the key pieces of evidence presented at trial was a statement from Edward Jr. to police. In that statement, Edward Jr. laid out a conspiracy to kill his father, supposedly orchestrated by his mother Michelle and executed by his friend Gillis. But in a letter, Edward Jr. says he completely made up that story:

I was so scared, confused, and high, I just started spitting the first thought out, which turned into this big conspiracy thing, for money, which was all BS, that's why I had so many different stories.

This letter was not presented to jurors as evidence.

Michelle Byrom’s attorneys withheld evidence about her history with domestic abuse and mental illness.

Michelle Byrom had a long history of enduring sexual and domestic abuse. Her stepfather sexually abused her as a child and forced her to work as a prostitute. She entered her relationship with Edward Byrom when she was fifteen years old. He was thirty-one. According to court affidavits, Edward Sr. physically abused his wife and forced her to have sex with other men while he videotaped.

Dr. Keith A. Caruso, a psychiatrist who evaluated Michelle, linked her history of abuse to a long list of mental disorders that caused selfdestructive behavior. Caruso diagnosed her with depression, alcohol dependence, Borderline Personality Disorder and Münchausen syndrome. He wrote in a post-trial affidavit:

If I had been called to testify at the penalty phase of Michelle Byrom's trial, I would have offered the opinion that…she was inclined to harm herself and act in a self-defeating manner, so that she was psychologically unable to leave the abusive relationship with her husband.

Byrom’s attorneys mentioned her history with abuse and mental illness in their opening statement, but never called on Caruso to testify, believing his testimony would be more effective during an appeal.

Michelle Byrom’s attorneys gave her detrimental legal advice.

Michelle’s legal team, trying their first capital murder case, advised her to waive her right to a jury sentencing, erroneously assuming that it could be unconstitutional. That left her fate up to Judge Gardner, who sentenced her to death.  

Michelle appealed to the state Supreme Court in 2006, on grounds that her attorneys were incompetent. The court rejected her appeal five to three. Dissenting Justice Jess Dickinson wrote, “I have attempted to conjure up in my imagination a more egregious case of ineffective assistance of counsel during the sentencing phase of a capital case," wrote in his dissent. "I cannot.”

***

Though Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood requested Michelle’s execution take place tomorrow, the Supreme Court still needs to give its stamp of approval to proceed.

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It's unclear whether that will happen. What's clear is Michelle's advocates have laid out a compelling case that her trial was not carried out fairly. On top of that, key evidence suggests she could be innocent. An editorial, published in the Jackson Free Press last week, made clear what's at stake: “To execute Michelle Byrom for a crime that she did not commit would be one of the worst miscarriages of justices in modern Mississippi history."

 

Read Next: Why did Oklahoma inject drugs into the corpses of death row convicts?

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