Saturday morning musings

I’m technically on vacation but felt moved to post with a few things in the news. Plus, I just miss my good friends at Speaking Freely, like anonymous, anonymous, and anonymous.

  • With emergency contraception now available over the counter, sales for 2007 will likely be twice what they were in 2006. And this has groups like the Family Research Council aghast. “This is very concerning,” said Charmaine Yoest of the Family Research Council, which is among several groups suing the FDA to reverse the decision. “We think this is putting women’s health at risk.” Right. The FRC would rather these women get pregnant and have an abortion than prevent the pregnancy in the first place. That makes no sense.
  • On Thursday night, more than 150 people attended a public hearing on prisoner abuse at Dauphin County Prison, which was sponsored by the Harrisburg branch of the NAACP. All participants who gave testimony took an oath to tell the truth, and the stories were compelling. At times, you could hear a pin drop. One woman witnessed another woman being held over a railing on one of the upper tiers of the prison. Several men told of being attacked while handcuffed and laying on the ground face first. Based on the evening’s testimony, common practices at DCP include banging an inmate’s head against the wall, walking on an inmate’s achilles heels, legs, and back, and punching and macing an inmate while he/she is incapacitated in some way, e.g. handcuffed, shackled, strapped to a chair. The Breaking News Blog of The Patriot News is usually pretty quiet, but it has attracted an outpouring of comments on this issue, here and here.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Charges dropped in infamous Hazleton murder

Although they were flawed in some ways (see: slavery, voting rights), our Framers were brilliant in a lot of ways. They were particularly visionary in the area of the judiciary. They believed that defendants deserved due process, a trial by a jury of their peers, the opportunity to see the evidence and hear the witnesses against them, and a presumption of innocence.

Sadly, our ability to carry out these ideals in practice has been mixed, at best. And that brings us to Friday’s news that the Luzerne County District Attorney has dropped all charges against Joan Romero and Pedro Cabrera in the murder of Derek Kichline in Hazleton last year. The DA had shaky eyewitnesses and little physical evidence and deserves credit for doing what the law requires in not going forward with this case.

For more than a year now, we’ve been hearing from Hazleton Mayor Louis Barletta that Kichline’s murder was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” and pushed him and city council into passing the Illegal Immigration Relief Act. As if the ordinance- well, ordinances since there are eight (or is it nine?) different versions- didn’t already show Barletta’s disdain for the Constitution, he has been trying these two men in public for more than a year, before they ever saw the inside of a courtroom, saw the evidence against them, or had the opportunity to confront the witnesses against them. Barletta has made it clear that he is hostile to the American way of justice, and it is public officials like him who feed on Americans’ fear of crime that debase the ideals our Founders put forth.

ACLU-PA’s Vic Walczak responded to the latest development in the case:

“This dismissal of charges adds to the long list of discredited claims Barletta has made in the course of demonizing undocumented immigrants for allegedly destroying Hazleton,” said attorney Witold “Vic” Walczak, of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups suing the city.

The city’s own stats don’t back up Barletta’s claims that crime by illegal immigrants is destroying Hazleton, and now the anecdote that he has used over and over and over is gone.

Barletta responded:

Barletta called Walczak’s statement repulsive.

“Derek Kichline’s family and friends will never see justice for his death,” Barletta said. “The fact that the ACLU celebrates this and turns it into a public relations spectacle is disgusting, and Mr. Walczak should be ashamed of himself.”

To paraphrase Carl Weathers in Happy Gilmore, now that’s spoken like a true demagogue. That is, a demagogue who is watching the very issue that rocketed him to fame fall apart right before his very eyes.

Andy in Harrisburg

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What is going on in Pennsylvania’s prisons and jails?

Something is rotten in the state of corrections. In the last three days, the following news story have hit the streets:

Pittsburgh Post Gazette: Study: Drugs, sex in Beaver County jail

A private investigation firm says the Beaver County Jail is tainted by sex, drugs and violence and that guards are involved in all three.

The findings range from a female guard having sex with a male inmate inside the jail, to a guard providing OxyContin to an accused killer, to an inmate being doused with water and left out in the cold for 45 minutes.

The Patriot News: Jury finds inmate not guilty of assault

Somehow, an inmate was acquitted in a case in which he allegedly assaulted a guard, which caught a lot of us by surprise. Then again, the crime “victim” strapped the “perpetrator” into a chair and maced him while four of his buddies stood nearby. That’s not exactly a sympathetic victim.

This follows on the heels of an increase in allegations of abuse of inmates by guards at Dauphin County Prison. The ACLU of PA has joined a coalition called County Prison Watch to address these issues.

AP: Judge lets prison rape suit advance

“Plaintiff paints a disturbing picture,” U.S. District Judge Sean McLaughlin found. “She alleges during the time period at issue, SCI-Cambridge Springs was a virtual haven of sexual activity between Department of Corrections employees and inmates.”

McLaughlin found enough credible evidence in depositions and documents collected to order June 25 that the prison case should continue and be heard by a jury.

Many people will respond that lawbreakers deserve what they get in prison. That lack of vision fails to see that an overwhelming majority of inmates will one day be back in our communities. What kind of people do we want re-entering society? Do we want them to be prepared for life on the outside? Or do we want people who have been further exposed to the cycle of violence and degradation, which makes it all the more likely that the cycle will continue spinning downward and land them back in jail?

Corrections is one of the Commonwealth’s biggest budget items. What other services are neglected because of our leaders’ lack of vision in dealing with our prisons and jails?

Andy in Harrisburg

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Innocent man headed to Georgia’s death chamber?

In this business, it’s hard to stay on top of individual death penalty cases. There’s too much going on in struggling against the institution of capital punishment to keep much focus on individuals, especially when the cases are in other states, not to mention all of the other issues the ACLU works on.

So it took awhile for Troy Davis in Georgia to get my attention. But it finally has. People I trust and whom we’ve worked with are saying that Davis is likely innocent. Last week SCOTUS refused to hear Davis’s claims of new evidence, and Georgia has now set an execution time frame for the seven day period beginning July 17.

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has blogged about the case here, here, here, here, and here and has issued an action alert here. Amnesty International USA has also blogged about the case and issued a press release last week.

In 1992, Justice Harry Blackmun accused the high court of coming “perilously close to murder” in the Herrera v. Collins decision when it refused to hear new evidence of possible innocence. Supposedly, the House decision last year righted that wrong (a lawyer could explain it better), but now it appears that, unless the GA parole board grants clemency, Georgia will walk down that same road in executing an innocent man, with the SCOTUS driving the getaway car.

Andy in Harrisburg

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A broken promise for victims

Murder victims’ families are told by prosecutors that the execution of their loved one’s killer will bring them healing. And then the families are sent on a torturous path through the legal system. On Sunday, the Philadelphia Inquirer featured a front page story on the ongoing failure of Pennsylvania’s death penalty system, illustrated by the ongoing overturning of death sentences.

Death row is all too real, countered Jules Epstein, a Widener University law professor who represents inmates appealing their cases. “There clearly is a death penalty in Pennsylvania,” he said. “People get sentenced to death. People sit on death row. And the real reason people haven’t been executed yet is because of tremendous problems within the system.”

Last week the Pennsylvania Moratorium Coalition, of which ACLU-PA is a part, saw the occasion of the 200th overturned death sentence in PA since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1978 as a reminder of the need for passage of PA Senate Bill 850. SB 850 would create a study commission on capital punishment, accompanied by a two year suspension of executions.

The Pennsylvania Moratorium Coalition (PMC) noted that the long list of vacated death sentences is indicative of a broken system. The Reverend Walter Everett of Murder Victims Families for Human Rights, a member of PMC, spoke to the impact on the families of homicide victims.

“They are promised ‘closure’ once the offender is executed, and they wait for years and even decades for that ‘closure,’ only to discover that the promise was a hollow one,” said Rev. Everett, whose 24-year-old son, Scott, was murdered in 1987. “The death penalty is effectively a sentence to legal limbo for victims’ family members.

“Families never forget, but they are entitled to begin to discover life again rather than to face a 15-20 year sentence of their own.”

In May, Vicki Schieber took part in a press conference introducing PMC and SB 850. Vicki’s daughter, Shannon, was killed in Philadelphia while attending Penn, and Vicki and her husband, Sylvester, opposed the death penalty for Shannon’s killer, who is now serving a life term.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Spoken word for the ACLU

This is fresh. National ACLU has been working with spoken word artists Steve Connell and Sekou (tha misfit) to produce a new collection of poetry on some of our most urgent issues. Listen to Steve and Sekou’s piece on habeas corpus. Here’s the page dedicated to their work, which also includes poems on abstinence-only education and free speech.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Duke lacrosse players get it

When the North Carolina Attorney General announced several months back that all charges would be dropped against the Duke lacrosse players, I heard one radio report that quoted one of the players saying that he knew that he only managed to find justice because his family had the money and that he recognized that there are many people who are done wrong by the criminal justice system because they cannot afford an attorney. I was very impressed by this but didn’t hear it again in any of the media coverage.

In a column on June 22, Connie Shultz of the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted that the three players- Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty, and Reade Seligmann- attended a fundraiser for the Innocence Project on April 24:

They didn’t want to talk to reporters, (Eric) Ferrero (of the Innocence Project) said. “We had about 20 exonerees at the dinner, and they [the former Duke students] kept saying the focus should be on those men. They kept mentioning how they would have gone to prison if they hadn’t had the money to fight. We were all impressed that they could acknowledge that.”

These guys get it. Too often, people don’t get it until it affects them personally, but that’s why we’re out there doing the work we do. And we’re grateful for people like Senator Stewart Greenleaf, who created the advisory committee on wrongful convictions; Pete Shellem of The Patriot News, who has freed four innocent people through his investigative journalism; and death row exoneree Ray Krone of York County, who is out there constantly talking with the public and the powers-that-be about how innocent people are convicted of crimes.

Andy in Harrisburg

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