June 28, 2012
By ED WHITE | Associated Press
DETROIT (AP) — The Supreme Court ruling that banned states from imposing mandatory life sentences on juveniles offers an unexpected chance at freedom to more than 2,000 inmates who had almost no hope they would ever get out.
In more than two dozen states, lawyers can now ask for new sentences. And judges will have discretion to look beyond the crime at other factors such as a prisoner’s age at the time of the offense, the person’s background and perhaps evidence that an inmate has changed while incarcerated.
“The sentence may still be the same,” said Lawrence Wojcik, a Chicago lawyer who co-chairs the juvenile justice committee of the American Bar Association. “But even a sentence with a chance for parole gives hope.”
Virtually all of the sentences in question are for murder. When Henry Hill was an illiterate 16-year-old, he was linked to a killing at a park in Saginaw County and convicted of aiding and abetting murder.
Hill had a gun, but he was never accused of firing the fatal shot. Nonetheless, the sentence was automatic: life without parole. He’s spent the last 32 years in Michigan prisons.
“I was a 16-year-old with a mentality of a 9-year-old. I didn’t understand what life without parole even meant,” Hill, now 48, said Tuesday in a phone interview.
He heard about the Supreme Court decision while watching TV news in his cell.
“I got up hollering and rejoicing and praising God,” said Hill, who would like to renovate homes and be a mentor to children if he’s released. “The last three or four years, they always put young guys in with me.”
The ruling also alarmed families of crime victims. Jessica Cooper, prosecutor in Oakland County, Mich., said her office has been taking calls from “distressed” relatives.
“Now they’re going to start all over,” Cooper said. “It’s going to take years.”
The Michigan Corrections Department said 364 inmates are serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed before turning 18. The prisoners now range in age from 16 to 67.
In Monday’s 5-4 decision, the high court said life without parole for juveniles violates the Constitution’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment. More than 2,000 people are in U.S. prisons under such a sentence, according to facts agreed on by attorneys for both sides of the case.
It’s possible that some inmates will win immediate release. Judges could also impose new sentences carrying a specific number of years and a parole review. Some inmates could still be kept locked up for life.
“Judges have options,” said Deborah LaBelle, a lawyer in Ann Arbor, Mich. “The Supreme Court said to look at juveniles individually: their age, family background, peer pressures, home environments.”
LaBelle said she took a phone call from 34-year-old inmate Kevin Boyd, who was 16 when his mother killed his father. Boyd had given her the keys to his father’s apartment, was aware of her threats and was convicted of murder.
After hearing of the court’s decision, Boyd told LaBelle that he slept “with hope on my pillow for the first time in 15 years.”
Back in 1996, Saulo Montalvo was a 16-year-old getaway driver in a fatal store robbery in Grand Rapids. He never stepped into the store but was convicted of murder and sent away for life.
“My mom and dad had gotten divorced, and I thought I had something to do with it,” he said of his teen years. “I placed this burden on myself and began to act out. I gravitated toward people who were into minor crimes, drinking and smoking marijuana, and sought their acceptance. ... I was so broken by what I had done.”
He said the victim’s family has long forgiven him. And if released, Montalvo said, he could “be a benefit to the society I left behind.”
The judge who sentenced him, Dennis Kolenda, didn’t like the punishment but had to follow the law.
“A community that’s got a soul has to recognize children are different, and we need to treat them as different,” said Kolenda, who is now retired. “Some are incredibly dangerous, but we never know with kids how they're going to develop.”
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who supported the state’s life without parole law for juveniles, said crime victims won’t be forgotten during the next round of court hearings.
“Every case has its unique set of facts,” Schuette said. “We’re going to make sure the truth is accurate.”
June 28, 2012
By TOM RAUM |
WASHINGTON (AP) — Contempt of Congress? Subpoenas? Stonewalling?
Maybe there’s a smoking gun in the Republican-led investigations of the Obama administration — and President Barack Obama’s pushback. But a large part of them could be what always goes on during a presidential campaign: political gamesmanship.
It ranges from House GOP contempt threats against Attorney General Eric Holder to Obama's waving a to-do list in the face of lawmakers.
Within two weeks, Obama fired a new pair of volleys across the bow of the congressional GOP leadership.
The first was his decree — bypassing Congress — that theU.S.will not, in most cases, deport illegal immigrants who were brought to theU.S.as children. The other was his assertion of executive privilege to shield certain internal Justice Department documents from a House subpoena.
Both actions drew expressions of GOP outrage in Washington and on the campaign trail.
The documents involved a botched U.S. gun-trafficking operation that was designed to track firearms headed into Mexico but which led to the disappearance of thousands of weapons and the 2010 shooting death of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
House Speaker John Boehner said Terry’s family deserved answers about the guns that killed him and went so far as to suggest a White House cover-up. Others specifically likened the actions of Obama and Holder to the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974.
That may seem like a bit of a stretch, but in an election year outsized charges and countercharges tend to swirl.
Executive privilege has been claimed by presidents going back to George Washington to hide the inner workings of their administrations from congressional eyes.
As a senator, Obama sharply criticized President George W. Bush's invocation of executive privilege — a blast from the past Republicans were quick to exploit.
Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s team leaped into the fray. “President Obama’s pledge to run the most open and transparent administration in history has turned out to be just another broken promise,” Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said.
Holder insisted he and his aides have spent countless hours cooperating with Congress and already have provided nearly 8,000 documents on the ill-fated operation.
Escalating tensions on Capitol Hill are likely to intensify as the Supreme Court rules later this week on Obama’s health care law and lawmakers face June 30 deadlines on a crucial transportation reauthorization bill and a scheduled rise in student loan interest rates.
The pattern of investigations by Republican-led House panels recalls the many congressional probes during President Bill Clinton’s administration.
They ranged from the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, which led to an impeachment vote by the House, to probes of the suicide of White House aide Vince Foster, the Clinton's Whitewater property dealings in Arkansas, Hillary Rodham Clinton's investment gains, the workings of her health care task force and the mass firing of the White House travel office.
“There were 80 different investigations roughly between 1995 and 2001, and that doesn’t include the later investigations of Clinton’s 11th-hour pardons and gifts,” said Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University. He noted that some of the same committees that relentlessly investigated Clinton are now pursuing Obama.
Light called the gun-trafficking probe and the contempt of Congress threat against Holder “a highly partisan effort to create a big issue for the 2012 election to undermine Obama's credibility through this particularly flawed operation.” But he also suggested that Obama’s use of executive privilege “makes him look like he might be hiding something.”
In any event, Light said such politically charged probes can “tarnish both the president and Congress.”
It isn’t only Republicans who investigate. When Bush sat in the Oval Office, congressional Democrats launched high-profile probes of the secret deliberations of Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force and the Justice Department’s 2006 midterm firing of nine U.S. attorneys.
The myriad investigations of the Clintons, however, transpired against a far different backdrop than now.
“In Clinton’s time, the economy was relatively good and getting better. In Obama’s time, it’s relatively bad and getting worse,” said Doug Schoen, who served as Clinton’s pollster and who has criticized Obama’s economic performance.
“The picture of intransigence coming out of Washington is not helpful to the president,” Schoen said. And, borrowing a Watergate-era term, he added: “Stonewalling can’t help Obama. I’m not sure it will hurt him, but it certainly can’t help him.”
The strictly party-line contempt recommendation came last week from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, even though its chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., later acknowledged that Congress has no evidence of a White House cover-up such as alleged by Boehner and several other GOP lawmakers.
Boehner said Wednesday the House will move forward with the contempt of Congress vote against Holder on Thursday, after last-minute talks with the White House failed to resolve the impasse.
White House press secretary Jay Carney, quoting Issa, on Monday told reporters, “The chairman said over the weekend that there was no evidence — let me repeat — no evidence of White House involvement in any cover-up or attempt to cover up this issue.”
Holding an attorney general in contempt of Congress would be unprecedented. It also would probably be unenforceable since it is the Justice Department itself — headed by the attorney general — that must act on such recommendations.
“It’s clear that this is nothing more than a political witch hunt to distract from the fact that Republicans in Congress have no interest in focusing on what we need to focus on, which is jobs and the economy,” said Democratic Party chief Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.
The gun-trafficking probe joins ongoing ones into theCaliforniasolar-panel company Solyndra, which received a $528 million federal loan from the Obama administration before filing for bankruptcy protection and laying off 1,100 workers.
June 21, 2012
By MIKE SCHNEIDER | Associated Press
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A judge will formally read the charges against the 11 Florida A&M band members facing felony charges in the hazing death of a drum major.
They're being arraigned Thursday in an Orlando courtroom, seven months after 26-year-old Robert Champion died following a hazing ritual aboard a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel.
Most of the defendants have waived their arraignments and won't appear in court.
Two defendants who haven't hired attorneys may be assigned public defenders.
Champion died in November following what authorities have said was a hazing incident after FAMU's football game in Orlando. His autopsy report listed his cause of death as a homicide as the result of repeated blows to his body.
June 21, 2012
By TOBY STERLING | Associated Press
AMSTERDAM (AP) — The International Criminal Court installed Gambian war crimes lawyer Fatou Bensouda as its new prosecutor for a nine-year term on Friday.
Bensounda replaces Luis Moreno-Ocampo in a job that has become one of the most prominent in international law over the past decade. She will be tasked with trying to bring to justice alleged war criminals, including Uganda’s Joseph Kony, Libya’s Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
In an address to the court, Bensouda said she was “humbled” by her appointment and promised to continue pursuing all cases that fall under the court's jurisdiction.
“As I speak, massive crimes continue to be committed in Darfur (Sudan); Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army’s acts of violence continue unabated in central Africa,”she said.
“Nothing short of arresting all those against whom warrants have been issued will ensure that justice is done for millions of victims of the crimes committed by these fugitives.”
Court President Sang-Hyun Song oversaw Bensouda’s acceptance of the prosecutor’s duties in a courtroom in a suburb of the Hague, Netherlands.
The International Criminal Court was founded in 2002 as the permanent successor to numerous ad-hoc war crimes tribunals set up over the past two decades such as the U.N. Yugoslav tribunal and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
Bensouda has served as deputy prosecutor at the ICC since 2004.
In her address, she said that Moreno-Ocampo set up the prosecutor's office in 2003 with “two staff members ... six empty floors and no cases ongoing.”
“I inherit a well-respected and sound functioning office, with almost 300 staff from 80 countries, seven situations under investigation, 14 cases before the chambers, seven preliminary examinations and one verdict.”
In March, trial judges handed down the court's first conviction, that of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, for conscripting child soldiers. He awaits sentencing.
In an interview earlier this month, Bensouda responded to several criticisms frequently put forward against the prosecutor and the court, including that it is used as a political tool by Western powers and that all its current cases involve Africa.
“First of all, let me say that yes, I am an African and I am very proud of that,” she said.
“But I am a prosecutor for 121 states parties,” she said, referring to all the countries that endorse the court.
She said she would investigate any grave crime in any territory that falls under her jurisdiction, and the international court is bound to be criticized both when it intervenes in a conflict and when it doesn’t.
When the court intervenes, as it did in indicting Sudan’s al-Bashir and Ivory Coast’s former President Laurence Gbagbo, it is accused of selective enforcement. But she said prosecutors must act on the basis of the evidence they have.
“Laurence Gbagbo is our first case” in Ivory Coast, she said. “There will be others.”
She said the court is also blamed for failing to intervene, as in the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and in Syria — areas where it has no jurisdiction.
“Syria is a case in point,” she said. “It’s not a member of the ICC; we do not have jurisdiction over Syria unless the U.N. Security Council were to refer Syria to us.”
Asked whether she would lobby for countries that don’t endorse the court, such as the U.S., to join it, she said that would be outside the scope of her job.
She said she was frustrated by the failure to capture Kony, who was indicted in 2005 . His case became broadly known in the U.S. earlier this year after the “Kony2012” video campaign by a human rights group became an Internet sensation.
But “Joseph Kony, even though we have not been able to arrest him all this while, I think the intervention of the ICC has contributed immensely to bringing peace to Northern Uganda,” she said.
She said that countries that support the court have a duty to help it carry out arrests.
“The ICC doesn’t have an intervention force,” she said. “But the police of 121 member states are the police of the ICC. The armies of these countries are the armies of the ICC.”
Moreno-Ocampo, who was present Friday for Bensouda’s swearing-in, is expected to take a job with FIFA, the international football (soccer) governing body, investigating corruption in the sport.