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.”
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.”
By TOM HAYS
NEW YORK (AP) — A judge on Wednesday threw out manslaughter charges against a New York Police Department officer accused of killing an unarmed man at his home as his grandmother stood nearby in a ruling that prompted a courtroom outburst by the victim’s mother and a vow by prosecutors to still pursue the case.
Constance Malcolm cursed and screamed, “They killed my child!” as it became clear that the judge was about to rule in favor of Officer Richard Haste. Court officers immediately removed her.
When order was restored, Judge Steven Barrett told spectators, “I regret that there are people who are hurt by this,” but he insisted that a flawed grand jury presentation by prosecutors left him no choice.
As Haste left the courtroom, protesters yelled, “Murderer!” The officer did not speak to reporters.
Haste had been charged in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Ramarley Graham during a police operation targeting street corner drug dealing in the Bronx. He and other officers chased Graham into his family’s apartment, where the teen was shot at close range.
The victim was struck in the upper chest and collapsed inside a bathroom as his grandmother and younger brother stood nearby. No gun was recovered.
The judge ruled Wednesday that prosecutors, in giving instructions to grand jurors, had improperly left the impression the jury shouldn’t consider testimony by other officers that they radioed Haste in advance to warn him that they thought Graham had a pistol.
Haste testified in the grand jury that the radio transmissions convinced him Graham was armed and dangerous when he shot him in the chest. Jurors also heard evidence that Haste yelled, “Gun! Gun!” as a warning to other officers before opening fire.
“In effect, the grand jury was told communications of other officers were not relevant,” the judge said. “With no great pleasure, I’m obliged in this case to dismiss the charges.”
The judge stressed that he didn’t believe prosecutors deliberately misled the grand jury and he wouldn’t bar them from seeking another indictment.
Prosecutors said in a statement that they would appeal the decision or present the case again to the grand jury.
“It cannot be said more forcefully that we disagree with the court,” the statement said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has worked with Graham’s family, called the judge’s decision “an outrageous miscarriage of justice and an insult to the family and supporters of Ramarley Graham.” Graham’s parents called for street protests.
But Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said the judge’s ruling was the right one.
“We believe the judge made a difficult but correct decision,” Lynch said.
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.
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