May 16, 2013
By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – When a Baltimore grocery store employee fingered 26-year-old Michael Austin for the murder of a security guard in the spring of 1974, Austin didn’t even match the police sketch. The wanted suspect was less 6 feet tall and Austin was the size of a small forward in the NBA. The only other evidence linking him to the crime was a business card with the name of an alleged accomplice, a man who was never found.
The store owner, who was positive Austin wasn’t the shooter, was never called to testify during the original trial and Austin’s defense attorney never called a single witness to back up Austin’s alibi that he was at work across town when the crimes were committed. A year later, Austin was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery and sentenced to life in prison on the eyewitness account of the grocery store employee, a college student, according to the prosecution, and a drug addict and high school dropout.
Austin spent half of his life behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, only gaining freedom through a New Jersey-based lawyers’ group that works to free the wrongfully convicted. The grocery store employee died of an overdose in 1997, but not before he told family members that he lied about what he saw during the murder and sent an innocent man to prison. In December 2001, Austin was granted his freedom. Three years later, Austin won a $1.4 million settlement from the state of Maryland.
Michael Austin’s story was chronicled in The National Registry of Exonerations, a collaborative effort between the University of Michigan law school at Ann Arbor and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the School of Law at Northwestern University in Chicago. An updated registry of features stories of the wrongfully convicted and was recently released.
According to the report, Blacks account for nearly half (47 percent) of all known exonerees in 1989, and Whites made up nearly 39 percent of all known exonerees. When the updated exoneration report was released in April, 57 percent of the known cases that occurred in 2012 involved Blacks.
Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the editor of The National Registry of Exonerations said the 10 percent increase for Blacks was striking, but it’s too early to draw any firm conclusions. Gross said that he continues to learn about new cases that occurred in 2012. In last year’s report released in June 2012, the registry found that 50 percent of the all known exonerees were Black.
“It’s striking and if it stands up and it repeats in another year or two it will be an important trend,” said Gross.
According to the registry report, 52 percent of the wrongful conviction cases involved perjury or false accusation, 43 percent involved official misconduct and 41 percent involved mistaken eyewitness identification.
The majority (57 percent) of all known exonerations were in homicide cases and 47 percent of those cases involved Black defendants and 37 percent involved Whites. Blacks accounted for 63 percent and Whites 18 percent of those wrongfully convicted of committed robberies.
“Homicide and robbery, sadly to say, are crimes that African Americans are heavily overrepresented in the prison population,” said Gross.
The report found that “African Americans constitute 25% of prisoners incarcerated for rape, but 62% of those exonerated for such crimes.”
Faulty eyewitness identification continues to drive the high rate of Blacks involved in adult sexual assault exoneration cases. Gross said that this is likely because of problems associated with cross-racial identification.
“White people don’t have the type of experience living with and distinguishing members of other races as minorities do,” said Gross. “There is also a long terrible history of racial discrimination in the prosecution of African Americans for rape when they are accused of raping White women and that may be a factor here, too.”
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a majority of the cases (52 percent) involve witness making a false accusation or committing perjury. Forty-one percent of the cases involve faulty eyewitness identification.
“As a group, the defendants had spent nearly 11,000 years in prison for crimes for which they should not have been convicted – an average of more than 10 years each,” stated a report by The National Registry of Exonerations released in April.
These are often the most productive years of a person’s life and the reason why many criminal justice advocates say that seeking compensation for wrongful convictions is the only chance that exonerees have in regaining a foothold in a world that is often much different than how they left it.
“Unfortunately, many of our clients have been in jail for decades and often these were the best years of their life; the years where you can go to school and get an education, years where you can build a career and learn how to do a job,” said Paul Cates, communications director for the Innocence Project. “When they get out after 15 or 20 or 25 years, it’s very difficult to enter the job market without an education and without any marginal skills.”
Cates said that, when the government confines someone for those lengths of time, they definitely deserve to be compensated. Cates added: “It’s particularly true when you consider that they have no way of making a living once they’ve been released.”
Despite the proliferation of crime shows depicting the use of DNA in solving murders and proving innocence or guilt of a suspect, DNA testing is becoming less of a factor in wrongful conviction cases, because it is often initiated before cases go to trial.
“DNA evidence can be very persuasive to courts and to judges and to prosecutors, because it’s a very definitive proof of innocence,” said Cates. “But in all these other cases where this evidence is not available, it’s really hard to prove when someone has been wrongfully convicted and the court system doesn’t make that easy.”
That could be changing. According to the registry report, for the first time, law enforcement officials cooperated in the majority of the known cases that freed the wrongfully convicted in 2012.
Revisions to state policies involving post-conviction DNA testing, greater oversight of convictions in prosecutorial offices, and the evolution of law enforcement practices could have contributed to the increase, according to the study.
“It’s pretty clear that we make mistakes as you would expect from any human system and we should acknowledge that and that’s becoming more widely understood and accepted,” said Gross. “The more realistic we are in understanding that we do mistakes the better we’ll be at identifying them and preventing them.”
May 16, 2013
By MARYCLAIRE DALE
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Dr. Kermit Gosnell proved a serene but solitary figure in the courtroom during his long murder trial, in contrast to the chaotic life he built as an inner-city doctor, abortion provider and father of six.
Jurors who convicted him this week of killing three babies born alive at his run-down West Philadelphia clinic thought he began his career with good intentions, but then lost his way.
“He started out as a good, practicing doctor. But eventually, it just became a money-generating machine,” juror Joseph Carroll said Wednesday, after Gosnell was sentenced to life in prison without parole. “Most of us felt it probably came down to a greed factor.”
Gosnell, 72, had been the rare black student from his working-class neighborhood to go to medical school. He became an early proponent of therapeutic abortions in the 1960s and ’70s, and returned from a stint in New York City to open up a clinic in the impoverished Mantua neighborhood, near where he had grown up as the only child of a gas station operator and government clerk.
His Women’s Medical Center treated the poor, immigrants and teens, offering free basic medical care to elderly people, many of whom were seen in recent years by unlicensed doctor Eileen O’Neill.
But Gosnell made millions performing abortions, charging up to $2,500 or more in cash if women were in their second or third trimester. District Attorney R. Seth Williams said Wednesday that Gosnell put women through labor, then killed their babies, “because it’s cheaper to do that.”
“We had no evidence that these patients were told that ... after the baby is born, and the baby’s alive and squirming and kicking and crying, I’m going to sever its spinal cord.”
Former staffers testified that Gosnell once performed mostly first-term procedures, perhaps 20 a night, along with a few later-term procedures. But that ratio reversed itself from 2000 to 2010, as Gosnell increasingly attracted desperate women who were further along.
According to prosecutors, he routinely performed abortions after the 20-week limit in Delaware, where he also worked, and the 24-week limit in Pennsylvania. And he did the late-term surgical procedures in his clinic, while they were more typically done in hospitals.
Gosnell by then was also attracting lawsuits from women who said they were injured during botched abortions at his clinic. One woman said he left fetal remains inside her, another sued over a perforated uterus, and a trial witness said she spent two weeks in a hospital with sepsis after an abortion at age 17 that allegedly took place when she was nearly 30 weeks, or more than seven months, pregnant. Stunned clinic workers took cellphone photos of that baby boy, photos that provided key evidence in the murder charge over “Baby A.”
Workers testified that the West Philadelphia clinic deteriorated over the decade they worked there, as Gosnell cut costs by reusing disposable medical equipment that spread venereal disease, and relied on unlicensed doctors and untrained staff to perform skilled medical care. The jury found that contributed to the overdose death of a 41-year-old patient who was sedated repeatedly by medical assistants.
“This is Philadelphia in the year 2013. This isn’t some third-world country,” Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore said in opening statements in March.
But defense lawyer Jack McMahon countered: “Every time a doctor loses a patient, it isn’t murder.”
Meanwhile, lines of unsavory patients were lining up to get prescriptions from Gosnell for OxyContin and other frequently abused painkillers. That side of Gosnell’s practice led to the 2010 clinic raid, when the FBI stumbled on abortion practices that would come to be termed “a house of horrors” in a 2011 grand jury report.
McMahon blanched at that description, saying prosecutors and the press have “lynched” his client by exaggerating the facts.
“To call him a monster, maybe it’s convenient for the press, but that is not accurate,” McMahon said Wednesday. “He never intended to kill a live baby.”
Gosnell has been married three times, the third time to a cosmetician who grew up in foster care and came to work at the clinic. Pearl Gosnell has pleaded guilty to helping perform third-term abortions but is living at their home near the clinic, with the couple’s teenage daughter, Gosnell’s youngest child, while awaiting sentencing. Gosnell’s adult children include an actor and college professor. No relatives or friends have come to court for him.
“That was intentional,” said McMahon, who said Gosnell wanted to spare his children the notoriety of the case. “He talked to them numerous times on the telephone and had their support all the way, but just (not) ... in the courtroom because of the obvious.”
The FBI found $250,000 cash stashed in the teenager’s bedroom at Gosnell's home, one of several properties he acquired during his 40-year career. He also owned rental properties and a beach house in Brigantine, N.J., the latter of which was sold to pay his legal bills.
“He always led me to believe he was a poor, struggling urban physician and surgeon. I thought he was hurting financially,” testified former clinic worker Stephen Massof, an unlicensed doctor who pleaded guilty to two counts of third-degree murder for cutting babies after they were born alive.
With his fate sealed, Gosnell plans to plead guilty to federal drug charges related to his high-volume pain medicine practice, McMahon said. And his client hopes people will someday understand his motives. McMahon has noted that his client didn't pluck women off the street and force them to have abortions.
“He knew that he wanted to air out certain things, and he had a shot at it and he got a good shot at it,” McMahon said. “Five of the verdicts were not guilty. That's a victory that is kind of hollow, but nonetheless that’s a victory in his mind.”
May 16, 2013
By STEPHEN OHLEMACHER
WASHINGTON (AP) — The FBI is investigating potential civil rights violations at the Internal Revenue Service after the agency acknowledged the agency had singled out conservative groups for extra scrutiny, Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday.
Other potential crimes include making false statements to authorities and violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in some partisan political activities, Holder said.
“I can assure you and the American people that we will take a dispassionate view of this,” Holder told the House Judiciary Committee at a hearing Wednesday. “This will not be about parties, this will not be about ideological persuasions. Anybody who has broken the law will be held accountable.”
But, Holder said, it will take time to determine if there was criminal wrongdoing.
Holder announced a day earlier that the Justice department had opened a criminal investigation, joining three committees in Congress that are looking into the matter. As the investigation widened, House Speaker John Boehner told reporters he had this question: “Who’s going to jail over this scandal?”
“There are laws in place to prevent this type of abuse. Someone made a conscious decision to harass and to hold up these requests for tax exempt status,” Boehner said. “I think we need to know who they are and whether they violated the law. Clearly someone violated the law.”
Legal experts, however, said it could be difficult to prove that IRS officials or employees knowingly violated the civil rights of conservative groups. If there is a violation, the experts said, investigators can sometimes prove more easily that officials made false statements or obstructed justice in some other way.
“I think it’s doubtful that any of these knuckleheads who engaged in the conduct that gave rise to this controversy knowingly believed that they were violating the law,” said David H. Laufman, a former Justice Department lawyer. “But that remains to be seen. That’s what investigations are for.”
“It’s more likely than not that,” he said, “the conduct at issue here may constitute violations of IRS rules or standards or protocols or procedures but may fall short of what is necessary to constitute a criminal offense.”
Even if IRS agents broke criminal laws in targeting conservative groups, investigators may have to prove they knowingly did it, a high standard, said Brian Galle, a former Justice Department lawyer who teaches law at Boston College.
“If the reason they were pursuing them was in order to punish them for their political activity, there might be a First Amendment concern there,” Galle said. “On the other hand, if the reason that they were looking for tea party groups is because there had been press reports about this new group, the tea party, who was aimed primarily at getting more conservative people elected to office, then they were just responding to the evidence. It really depends on what their motives were.”
Wednesday’s hearing was the first of several in Congress that will focus on the issue.
The House Oversight Committee announced Wednesday that it would hold a hearing May 22, featuring Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS division that oversees tax exempt organizations, and former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, whose five-year term ended in November.
The Senate Finance Committee announced a hearing for next Tuesday.
The House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing Friday, featuring the acting IRS commissioner, Steven Miller, and the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, J. Russell George.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said Lerner misled him and his staff when they asked her about complaints from conservative groups that they were being harassed by the IRS.
“I know for a fact, Lois Lerner lied to me, she lied to our personal staff, she lied to committee staff, she lied in correspondence,” Jordan said.
Lerner learned about the targeting on June 29, 2011, according to a report Tuesday by the inspector general.
The report said ineffective management at the IRS allowed agents to improperly target tea party and other conservative groups for more than 18 months.
The report said that while their applications for tax exempt status languished, tea party groups were asked a host of inappropriate questions, including: Who are your donors? What are the political affiliations of officers? What issues are important to the organization, and what are your positions on those issues? Will any officers in the group run for public office? Where do you work?
The IRS started targeting groups with “Tea Party,” “Patriots” or “9/12 Project” in their applications for tax exempt status in March 2010, the inspector general’s report said. By August 2010, it was part of the written criteria used to flag groups for additional scrutiny.
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said Wednesday that no union employees had been disciplined, as far as she knew. She noted that the IG's report said agents were not motivated by political bias.
Kelley told The Associated Press that low-level workers could not have specifically targeted conservative groups for long without the approval of supervisors. However, she noted, there are many levels of supervisors at the IRS.
“No processes or procedures or anything like that would ever be done just by front-line employees without any management involvement,” Kelley said. “That’s just not how it operates.”
Also Wednesday, the IRS released a list of 179 advocacy groups that had been approved for tax-exempt status as of May 9. The list includes both seemingly conservative and progressive groups, including the Nevada County Tea Party Patriots and Progress Texas. A total of 34 included the words “tea party” in their names.
“Progress Texas and the tea party strongly disagree on the role of government,” said a statement from Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas. “Yet, when we applied for tax-exempt status, Progress Texas received the same type of additional scrutiny that tea party groups are complaining about.”
The IRS also pushed back against one aspect of the inspector general’s report. The report said the chief counsel was briefed about conservative groups being targeted on Aug. 4, 2011.
The IRS, however, said in a statement that the meeting involved staff attorneys “several layers below” chief counsel William Wilkins.
“Wilkins did not learn about specific groups being singled out by name until earlier this year,” the IRS statement said.
May 16, 2013
By MICHELLE RINDELS
LAS VEGAS (AP) — A self-described pimp accused of killing three people in a shooting and fiery crash on the Las Vegas Strip pleaded not guilty to 11 counts against him Monday, after initially telling the judge he wanted to plead guilty.
Ammar Asim Faruq Harris, 27, was arraigned in Clark County District Court on murder, attempted murder and shooting charges filed after the Feb. 21 crash.
After Harris indicated he wanted to plead guilty and dismiss his lawyer, the attorney said that would be a mistake and suggested Harris didn't understand the gravity of that decision. After a break, Harris returned to court and entered not guilty pleas.
Harris’ lawyer, Special Public Defender David Schieck, wouldn't elaborate on what might have changed Harris’ mind but said there were defenses for some of the allegations.
Harris is accused of shooting from a black Range Rover into a Maserati sports car that then slammed into a taxi that burst into flames.
Taxi driver Michael Boldon, 62, of Las Vegas, and passenger Sandra Sutton-Wasmund, 48, of Maple Valley, Wash., were killed. The Maserati driver, Kenneth Cherry Jr., 27, died at a hospital.
Another man in the Maserati suffered gunshot wounds and survived. Five other people in several other vehicles suffered less serious injuries.
Police said Harris and Cherry had exchanged angry words at a casino valet stand before speeding up the Strip. Investigators found no gun in the Maserati and no evidence that Cherry returned fire before crashing.
Harris was arrested a week later in Los Angeles.
A trial is set to begin Sept. 9. Prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty — something that Boldon's brother supports.
“My brother is dead, and I don’t think this man deserves to breathe,” Tehran Boldon said after Harris appeared.
Harris also pleaded not guilty Monday to felony robbery and sex assault charges in a 2010 rape case that had been dismissed. A July court date is set in that case, which could increase the severity of his sentence in the murder case.
May 16, 2013
By Bert Wilkinson
Special to the NNPA from the New York Amsterdam News
This week, Guyana’s main opposition party blasted the South African government for withdrawing a post-Apartheid award to a former Guyana president, saying the Caribbean nation did more than any in the hemisphere to fight white racism, including allowing Cuban planes with heavily armed troops to refuel there in the dead of night on their way to southern Africa.
Former Vice President Robert Corbin, an executive member of the People’s National Congress (PNC), which governed the country for 28 years until losing in 1992, called last week’s decision by the government in Pretoria to “indefinitely postpone” awarding the Order of the Companion of O.R Tambo to late Guyana President Forbes Burnham an insult, saying it should have been given to him decades ago.
“We did not beg for it. The fact that he is only now being recognized for all that he did for the liberation struggle in Southern Africa is in itself an insult, [and it’s insulting to] say it is being withdrawn,” said Corbin, who is the immediate past leader of the PNC.
Corbin said that Burnham’s Canada-based daughter and son-in-law were preparing to travel to Pretoria later this month to receive the award after being invited by authorities when they were told about its postponement because of his alleged involvement with the death of Guyanese academic Walter Rodney in 1980.
Rodney, who had taught in Africa and had authored the respected “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” was killed in a bomb blast in Guyana. Government critics back then had blamed the PNC—charges it has persistently denied.
A clearly angry attorney at law, Corbin argued that “no other leader in the Caribbean or hemisphere would have risked allowing Cuban planes with troops to fight Apartheid to land and refuel in Guyana during the Cold War era. Such was his commitment to the liberation struggle, but he did it and we can release that fact to the world now.”
He said that Burnham had also given Guyana passports and local addresses to hundreds of liberation fighters to allow them to travel undetected internationally and pointed out how the country donated $50,000 a year to the struggle to liberate Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and South Africa). Regardless, the award has been withdrawn.
“His contribution was outstanding and beyond match in the region and hemisphere, but frankly, it is an insult to even offer him the award after all these years,” said Corbin. “I would not have accepted it personally.”