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Steven Hsieh

Steven Hsieh

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Study: Most of the Innocent People Sentenced to Death Have Not Been Exonerated

Ohio Execution chamber

The death chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio (AP Images/Kiichiro Sato, File)

A new study finds that about one in twenty-five people sentenced to death in the United States has likely been convicted erroneously, meaning it is “all but certain” that American corrections departments have executed “several” innocent defendants since 1973.

“The rate of erroneous conviction of innocent criminal defendants is often described as not merely unknown but unknowable,” writes lead author and University of Michigan Law professor Samuel Gross. “We use survival analysis to model this effect, and estimate that if all death-sentenced defendants remained under sentence of death indefinitely at least 4.1 percent would be exonerated.”

The landmark study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that more than 200 innocent people have been sentenced to death since 1973. It concludes that most of the nation’s innocent death-sentenced prisoners have not been exonerated and that “many—including the great majority of those who have been resentenced to life in prison—probably never will be.”

Researchers based their estimate on thirty-one years worth of death penalty data, collected from three separate sources. Between 1973 and 2004, judges handed out 7,482 death sentences. Of those, 1,320 defendants were eventually executed, while 117 were exonerated, according to the study. A higher rate of death row prisoners, about 36 percent, were removed from death row and resentenced to life imprisonment. If the current trends persist, more than two-thirds of death row inmates will be granted reduced sentences.

The high overturn rate for death sentences is key to the authors’ claim that “the great majority of innocent defendants who are convicted of capital murder in the United States are neither executed nor exonerated.” Defendants taken off death row had an exoneration rate of about one-eighth of those still under threat of execution. Gross says that’s because fewer resources are devoted to exonerating capital defendants once execution is taken out of the equation.

The study refutes much lower false conviction rates cited by judges and lawyers in the past. Perhaps most notably, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia suggested in 2007 that the wrongful conviction rate is “.027 percent—or, to put it another way, a success rate of 99.973 percent.”

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“This would be comforting, if true. In fact, the claim is silly,” Gross writes. “Scalia’s ratio is derived by taking the number of known exonerations at the time, which were limited almost entirely to a small subset of murder and rape cases, using it as a measure of all false convictions (known and unknown), and dividing it by the number of all felony convictions for all crimes, from drug possession and burglary to car theft and income tax evasion.”

Read the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, here.


Read Next: Did political pressure push Oklahoma’s Supreme Court to lift a stay of execution?

Did Political Pressure Push Oklahoma’s Supreme Court to Lift a Stay of Execution?

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

Amid mounting political pressure from lawmakers and state executives, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that two death row inmates are not entitled to know the source of lethal injection drugs that will be used to execute them.

In a ruling, the state’s high court also lifted a stay of execution for Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner that it had issued just two days prior. The two men are scheduled to die by lethal injection on April 29.

State supreme courts typically take weeks or months to rule on constitutional challenges. Yesterday’s decision took a little over forty-eight hours. The timing of the opinion has raised suspicions that the court was motivated by political pressures.

“I can only conclude that the Supreme Court caved in the face of unconstitutional and uncalled for attacks by the legislature and the governor,” said Madeline Cohen, an attorney representing Mr. Warner.

Governor Mary Fallin issued an executive order Tuesday contesting the Court’s “constitutional authority” to issue a stay of execution, even though the Supreme Court only acted after Oklahoma’s top criminal court denied jurisdiction over the matter. And just hours before the Supreme Court issued its opinion, Republican state Representative Mike Christian introduced a resolution to impeach the five justices who voted in favor of delaying the executions, accusing them of “willful neglect of duty.”

While courts in Missouri and Texas have struck down challenges to execution secrecy statutes, a trial court ruled Oklahoma’s to be unconstitutional, under grounds that the law denied inmates access to the courts. Advocates say transparency over the source lethal drugs is critical to knowing whether they could inflict unnecessary pain, amounting to cruel and unusual punishment. Since European lawmakers stopped selling their drugs for capital punishment purposes, Oklahoma and death penalty states have turned to poorly-regulated compounding pharmacies to procure execution drugs.

There’s a Constitutional Showdown in Oklahoma Over 2 Planned Executions (UPDATED)

Oklahoma death chamber

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

UPDATE (4/23/2014, 8:39 pm): The Associated Press reports that the Oklahoma Supreme Court has lifted a stay of execution for Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner, rejecting their claim that they are entitled to know the source of the lethal injection drugs being used to execute them before they’re put to death.

* * *

Oklahoma is playing host to a constitutional showdown over the planned executions of two men, pitting the state’s Supreme Court against its Republican governor.

Underlying the debate is whether convicted murderers Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner should be informed of what drugs will be used to kill them before their executions are carried out. Their attorneys argue that shielding the identities of lethal injection drug suppliers violates inmates’ due process rights and drugs procured from unregulated compounding pharmacies could subject them to cruel and unusual punishment. Last month, a district court agreed, declaring the state’s execution secrecy statute unconstitutional.

Oklahoma’s Supreme Court issued indefinite stays of executions for Lockett and Warner on Monday, pending state appeals to the district court’s ruling. The next day, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin asserted that the high court had stepped outside its “constitutional authority” in weighing in on the death penalty case.

She issued an executive order delaying Lockett’s execution by one week; it was originally planned for later that day. As it looks right now, Lockett, and presumably Warner, are both scheduled to die on April 29.

Here’s where things get confusing: the state Supreme Court stayed the exections only after weeks of tussling with the Court of Criminal Appeals over which legal body had constitutional jurisdiction over the case. In Oklahoma’s unique judicial system, the state Supreme Court handles civil cases. The Court of Criminal Appeals, which has refused to address the two death row inmates’ stay requests, traditionally serves as the high court on criminal cases.

“Here, the Court of Criminal Appeals’ refused to exercise its rightfully placed jurisdiction, and left this Court in an awkward position,” the majority justices wrote in their opinion. “As uncomfortable as this matter makes us, we refuse to violate our oaths of office and to leave the appellants with no access to the courts.”

Legal experts argue that Fallin does not have the constitutional or legal authority to invalidate, much less overturn, the Supreme Court. On those grounds, attorneys for Lockett and Warner filed a motion today to quash the governor’s orders.

“The order is a flagrant arrogation of this Court’s authority to say what the law is, and a patent violation of the constitutional separation of powers,” their motion reads.

Eric M. Freedman, a constitutional law professor and death penalty expert at Hofstra University, said the ongoing judicial battle distracts from the underlying issue: the question of constitutionality over Oklahoma’s secrecy statute, one of several laws in the country granting anonymoity to lethal injection drug providers.

“It highlights the desperation of a state trying to justify something unjustifiable,” Freedman told The Nation. “The bottom line is the state is heading for a day of reckoning in the Oklahoma Supreme Court as to whether it can defend this attempt to insulate its own actions by hiding them from judicial scrutiny.”

People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change

Midwest Generation's Fisk Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Sixty-eight percent of African-Americans live within thirty miles of a coal-fired power plant, the zone of maximum exposure to pollutants that cause an array of ailments, from heart disease to birth defects. Communities of color breathe in nearly 40 percent more polluted air than whites. African-American children are three times as likely to suffer an asthma attack.

The NAACP launched its Climate Justice Initiative address the stark numbers head on. Working in conjunction with Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and Indigenous Environmental Network, the Initiative published “Coal-Blooded: Putting Profits Before People” in 2012, which evaluated the impact of 378 coal-fired power plants on communities along racial and economic lines. “Just Energy Policies: Reducing Pollution and Creating Jobs,” released in December, looked at the energy policies of all fifty states through a civil rights lens.

We spoke with Jacqueline Patterson, executive director of the NAACP’s Climate Justice Initiative, about her organization’s work. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Why did the NAACP launch the Climate Justice Initiative?

The NAACP launched the CJI because of a recognition of the impact both of climate change itself and how it disproportionately impacts marginalized communities, low-income communities and communities of color. We looked at how climate change violates the civil rights of those communities, whether it’s because of pre-existing vulnerabilities in the impact of disasters or whether its the redevelopment process and how lots of time and resource allocation is cut along political lines and folks are already disenfranchised. The actual drivers of climate change, whether its roadway pollution or traffic vehicles or if its polluted facilities like coal plants, are disproportionately affecting communities of color and low-income communities.

As your organization reports, 68 percent of African-Americans live within thirty miles of a coal-fired power plant. That’s pretty stark. How did we get here?

There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation here. In some cases, the facilities were already there before the communities. The communities are-low income or low-wealth, and they moved into an area where property values are on average 15 percent lower because that’s what they can afford. That’s one dynamic. You also have companies choosing to build facilities where property values are lower and property values are lower in low-income communities, so we’ll see disproportionate placement in those communities. They’ll also choose communities where they won’t get political push back. You’ll see that kind of pattern everywhere. It’s tied to voter disenfranchisement and the lack of political power that communities of color have.

Civil rights isn’t usually one of the first things that come up in discussions about climate change. Why is that?

Clearly, traditional environmental analysis and messaging around climate change has dominated the airwaves. There are more resources for the Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation, not to mention folks like Al Gore. With those groups, their focus is on glaciers, flora, fauna and wildlife. That has been the focus of climate change, historically.

When you’re marginalized in one way, you’re marginalized in many ways. The voices of frontline communities, the ones that are most impacted, usually don’t make it to the airwaves. That’s starting to change. Showtime is doing that series, Years of Living Dangerously. When I watch the news, all these different folks were talking about climate change and they were talking about it from a human impact angle. Whether it’s the polar vortex or these storms or wildfires or droughts or flooding or the landslide, all these events are impacting real people, so we’re seeing real dialogue around it.

What has been the significance of environmental disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, in elevating the climate justice angle?

What’s significant about disasters like Hurricane Katrina or even the flooding and tornadoes in Alabama and Mississippi a couple years ago is you start to see the differential impact and the differential response on communities of color. With Hurricane Katrina, it was more a story about the differential response, not as much of a story about climate change. It was before the wave of recognizing where we are in terms of the increase in extreme weather events. As these disasters become more frequent, we’ll see start to see more of an analysis around the differential impact through the lens of climate change.

Your research deals a lot with how climate policy impacts the health of communities of color. Want to talk a little about that?

I will say that the lack of climate policy is affecting health in communities of color. We are making some progress with the rules that are going to be introduced in June for existing coal-fired power plants and the carbon rules that were introduced last year for proposed coal-fired power plants. Just lessening the carbon in the atmosphere will save lives and prevent people from being harmed or sickened by the various impacts of climate change. There’s also the mercury and air toxics rule, which came out years ago, but is just now coming into enforcement. It’s a rule that addresses co-pollutants that come from these facilities, not just carbon dioxide. The same facilities that are driving climate change are also sickening communities with mercury, arsenic, lead and other things being emitted. So, policies that are comprehensive that look at all the ways these facilities are harming communities are important as well.

What we need to be looking at now is being much more aggressive around our emissions targets. We need to face the fact that climate change is here now and we need to pour public money into strengthening community resilience to the impact of climate change. There needs to be more funding for FEMA to do advanced forecasting and planning. Resources need to go to frontline communities so they’re in control of designing and implementing their own resilience plans. We need to think seriously, not just about disasters, which tend to get the most visibility, but also sea level rise and how we’re going to make sure communities are prepared for the waters that are going to overtaking land in parts of Louisiana, Alaska and places in between. But also, before that water overtakes the land and forces people to move, we need to deal with the fact that even right now, as we saw with Superstorm Sandy, storm surges resulting from sea-level rise is making any regular storm seem more intense. We need to be taking all of this into account in our local planning and our resources need to follow that.

We need to make sure that we are building a political system that is more inclusive. Currently, whether its Congress or the courts or the zoning board or the rural electric co-ops or the public utilities commissions, there is underrepresentation for communities that are most impacted by the decisions all of these decision-making bodies make. From litigation to adaptation, we need to make sure we have inclusive bodies that represent the voices of the people as these decisions are being made.

Your work explores the importance of making sure benefits from clean energy are equitable and reach communities of color. Could you talk a little bit about that?

We talked earlier about how 68 percent of African-Americans live within thirty miles of a coal-fired power plant and other frontline communities, such as indigenous Native American communities and Latino communities, are also right in the smog zones of these facilities. Just transitioning to a more energy-efficient economy and clean energy economy would benefit those communities in terms of having clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and clean land to live on. In addition to that, we also want to make sure that those communities are in decision-making spaces as we develop this economy, as well as revenue-generating positions. African-Americans spent $41 million on energy in 2009, but only 1 percent of African-Americans were in energy jobs and less than 1 percent of revenue in the energy sector was earned by African-Americans. Whatever room there is for estimation on either side of those statistics, they’re still fairly stark in saying not only are we being negatively impacted by the current fossil-fuel dominated portfolio, we’re also not even benefiting from the revenue or jobs in that sector, nor are we in positions of being able to have input in how those sectors advance and roll out.

As we transition to a new-energy economy, we need frontline communities, not just communities of color but also low-income communities, to be working in decision-making and revenue-generating positions within the industry.

Obviously your organization is part of this, but how do we get people of color excited and engaged in discussions about climate change?

Communities across the country are already organizing themselves to talk about this—whether its the Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council in Detroit or the Asia Pacific Environmental Network in the Bay Area—they’re really coming together to talk about, not just the direct impact of climate change but how we need a holistic approach to how we organize our communities and political and economic systems. So we are having, at a local level, conversations about what we want for our communities and how this connects to a bigger picture. We’re talking about how we can be agents of change for our communities and how to connect to the greater landscape.

For example, when we talk about climate change, solutions to climate change, we are talking about green schools, which are more energy efficient, but also make people feel valued through education, retrofitting their school and making it the type of environment they want to work and learn in. We talk about local food movements, which both mitigate climate change, because we’re growing our own food and aren’t relying on trucks for transport, and provide education about climate change. We’re looking at comprehensive, holistic ways of both mitigating climate change and adapting to climate change that helps provide economic, social and cultural benefits to our communities.

Read more of The Nation’s special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I’m Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels

Take Action: Stop Cove Point

Obama Plans to Grant Clemency to ‘Hundreds, Perhaps Thousands,’ of Nonviolent Drug Offenders

(Julie Tuason/Flickr CC2.0)

The Obama administration is planning to grant clemency to “hundreds, perhaps thousands,” of nonviolent drug offenders before the president leaves office, Yahoo News reports.

The effort represents a big shift for Obama, who has used his pardon powers less frequently than any modern US president. Of more than 10,000 clemency applications during his two terms, Obama has granted just fifty-two pardons and two sentence commutations. The most recent commutation reduced the sentence of Ceasar Huerta Cantu, who was set to serve an extra three and a half years in prison over an administrative typo.

According to Yahoo, the Obama administration also plans to reform the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney to prepare for the clemency push, which could include significant personnel changes. US pardon attorney Ronald Rodgers, who has been criticized for a stingy approach towards clemency, will likely step down as part of the effort.

“We’re thrilled that the administration is contemplating a very robust overhaul of the clemency process and also contemplating opening the process for many more deserving prisoners than its been available to in the past,” said Mary Price, general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). “But mercy is not a substitute for reform.”

About half of all federal prisoners, disproportionately African-American, are locked up for nonviolent drug crimes, according to FAMM. A 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that more than 2,500 of those offenders are serving life sentences.

The clemency overhaul is part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to scale back on harsh and disproportionate sentencing, dubbed the “Smart on Crime” initiative. In August, Attorney General Eric Holder directed prosecutors to stop seeking mandatory minimum sentences for some low-level drug offenders. The administration also endorses a bipartisan plan in Congress to reduce some mandatory minimums and grant prosecutors more discretion in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders.

2 Homeless People Needlessly Died During DC’s Cold Snap

Homeless shelter

The “Come Unto Me” sign on a former homeless shelter remains, even as it is being gutted to be redeveloped as retail and upscale living space, in Washington March 1, 2014. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

The bodies of two homeless men were found Wednesday morning in Washington, DC, just a short drive away from the heart of the nation’s government.

City police said the likely cause of death was hypothermia, although a medical examiner has yet to determine an official cause. The bodies were discovered in a makeshift encampment about fifty feet from each other. After days of warm weather, DC was hit with a cold front Tuesday night, bringing snowfall and causing the city to issue a hypothermia alert.

“These deaths were entirely preventable, as are deaths by exposure and hypothermia that have been happening across the country,” said Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s what happens when you don’t spend money on affordable housing and you have people living outdoors with the elements. This is the cost of not spending money on basic necessities.”

Yesterday’s tragedy comes off the heels of a “catastrophic” homeless crisis during this year’s brutal winter. A record number of DC families sought emergency shelter this year, maxing out the city’s available spots and forcing officials to place people in hotels and even recreation centers outfitted with cots. Advocates for the homeless say the surge of homeless families points to the need for longer-term solutions, such as rent subsidies and more affordable housing options.

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“It’s twenty-eight years to get a one bedroom apartment in DC. There are no subsidized units available for most families and the rental market is pricing people out pretty rapidly,” Jones told The Nation.

DC, along with New York and Los Angeles, saw rising homelessness in recent years, bucking a national trend. The homeless population in DC rose more than 1,000 over the last six years, a 29 percent increase, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. New York saw a 23 percent increase during the same time frame.


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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.”


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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.

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