July 12, 2012
By DAVID MERCER |
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — A Chicago man who spent more than 30 years behind bars before DNA evidence helped overturn his conviction in the rape and killing of a 3-year-old girl was released from prison late Friday, just hours after prosecutors dropped the case against him.
An Illinois appeals court in March had ordered a new trial for 50-year-old Andre Davis after tests found that DNA taken from the scene of the 1980 killing of Brianna Stickle wasn’t his. The girl was attacked in Rantoul, about 20 miles north of Champaign.
Davis was released from the super-maximum security prison in Tamms in far southern Illinois around 7:30 p.m., said Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Kayce Ataiyero. Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz had decided earlier in the day not to pursue charges against him.
Judy Royal of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, which represented Davis, said he was the longest-serving of the 42 people exonerated by DNA evidence in Illinois.
“Mr. Davis served 32 years in prison for a rape and murder he didn't commit,” Royal said. “Tamms is a difficult place to do time. He's hoping to rebuild his life, with the support of his family.”
It wasn’t immediately known if Davis’ family was at the prison when he walked out. Davis’ father was traveling to Tamms on Friday afternoon and couldn't be reached for comment.
Reitz said that while she didn't doubt the results of the DNA tests, she decided not to retry Davis because of the difficulty in taking a 32-year-old case to trial — not because of those tests.
“After 30 years, witnesses are either deceased, missing or no longer credible to testify,” said Rietz, who has been state’s attorney in Champaign County since 2004. “Based on the age of the case and the current state of the evidence, we elected to dismiss.”
She noted that Davis was twice convicted by juries. His first conviction was overturned because of a mistake made by a bailiff during jury deliberations.
Rietz said any further steps in the investigation of Briana’s death will be up to police. Rantoul Police Chief Paul Farber did not return a call regarding the status of the investigation.
Davis was arrested shortly after Briana was found on Aug. 8, 1980, in a house on the street where she lived with her mother and stepfather in Rantoul.
According to trial testimony, Davis — who was 19 at the time — was visiting his father in Rantoul. He spent the day the girl died drinking at the home where she was eventually found with the two brothers who lived there. At some point the brothers left, leaving Davis there alone.
Briana’s stepfather, Rand Spragg, said he left the girl playing in the family’s front yard and last saw her sitting under a tree.
The family later searched for her. She was found in the brothers’ home, naked and under bed clothes in a utility room. She died that night at a local hospital.
An acquaintance of Davis told police that Davis said he’d killed “a woman” at the home.
DNA testing wasn’t available in 1980. But in 2004, Davis requested that evidence gathered at the scene of Briana’s death be DNA tested.
According to the tests, blood and semen found at the scene weren’t from Davis. That led to the March appellate court decision.
Friday’s planned release caught Davis’ attorneys off guard. Most were on vacation, expecting that he might be released next week.
Royal, who works closely with Davis’ lead attorney, Jane Raley, didn’t represent him. She wasn’t sure what plans Davis had, but she said that after so many years he was fortunate that family members were still alive to greet him and help him acclimate to life outside prison.
“A lot of times when people are incarcerated for lengthy periods of time, family members die,” Royal said. “That is one good thing, that he will have their support.”
“I think it’s difficult for him to know exactly what to do,” she added, noting that the Center on Wrongful Convictions works with the people it helps free to aid in their adjustment. “I know that he’s very intelligent and he has been assisting in the preparation of his appeal for years and giving some good suggestions in that regard.”
Attempts to reach members of Briana’s family were not successful.
July 12, 2012
By GARY FINEOUT | Associated Press
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The president of Florida A&M University submitted his resignation Wednesday, the same day the university was sued by parents of a drum major who died during a hazing. It was unclear if the two events were related.
James Ammons announced the resignation, which takes effect Oct. 11, in a letter to the chairman of the university’s governing board. He said his decision came after “considerable thought, introspection and conversations with my family.”
Ammons' departure is the latest in a series of blows to the university that has seen its image badly bruised by Champion’s death, the suspension of the band until 2013 and the springtime resignation of its veteran director.
Eleven FAMU band members face felony hazing charges, while two others face misdemeanor counts for alleged roles in Champion’s hazing. They have pleaded not guilty. Their trial is scheduled to begin the same month as Ammons’ resignation, in October.
Dreams of playing in the band drew students to apply to the university as much if not more than the school’s academic program, and the same professional performances that led it to play at Super Bowls and presidential inaugurations were a huge attendance draw at football games.
An alumnus and former top administrator of the school, the president was first hired to help steady FAMU in the wake of financial woes and threats to its accreditation.
But Champion’s death put a spotlight on a hazing culture that he and other top FAMU officials have been unable to eradicate.
The school’s trustees gave Ammons a vote of no-confidence in June, after questioning his leadership in several areas, including what some saw as his lax attitude toward hazing and management of the band prior to Robert Champion’s death in November.
At the time, Ammons said he would stay on the job, and he immediately recommended stringent new eligibility requirements for membership in The Marching 100 band, which has played at Super Bowls and inauguration ceremonies.
Champion died in November after being beaten by fellow band members during a hazing ritual aboard a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel following a football game against the school’s archrival.
Champion’s death put a spotlight on hazing at the school and led to the suspension of the band until at least next year. In the meantime, the FAMU athletic department was already grappling with a multimillion-dollar deficit.
The lawsuit brought by Champion’s parents claims Florida A&M University officials did not take action to stop hazing even though a school dean proposed suspending the band because of hazing concerns three days before their son died. School officials also allowed nonstudents to play in the band, fell short in enforcing anti-hazing policies and did not keep a close eye on band members to prevent hazing, the lawsuit said.
School officials “failed to properly supervise, train, discipline and control the FAMU Band,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit seeks damages greater than $15,000, but does not give a specific amount.
Champion’s parents, Robert and Pamela, have already sued the bus company, claiming the driver stood guard outside while the hazing took place. The company said the driver was helping band members with their equipment.
Florida A&M University trustees were added as defendants to the lawsuit, which was to be refiled later Wednesday. Under state law, Champions parents had to wait six months before they could include the university in the lawsuit since it’s a state entity.
July 05, 2012
NEW YORK (AP) — The nation’s new poet laureate will be telling her own story, in prose.
Natasha Trethewey is working on a memoir, currently untitled, that has been acquired by Ecco. The publisher, an imprint of HarperCollins, announced Monday that the book is scheduled to come out in 2014.
The 46-year-old Trethewey is the daughter of a white father and black mother. The memoir will tell of her childhood in the American South in the 1970s and ’80s.
Trethewey won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for her collection “Native Guard.” This fall, she begins a one-year term as U.S. poet laureate.
uly 05, 2012
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United Nations has endorsed an African Union force to capture warlord Joseph Kony and neutralize his Lord’s Resistance Army.
The 15-member Security Council approved the “United Nations Regional Strategy to Address the Threat and Impact of the Activities of the LRA” in a presidential statement Friday.
The plan provisions a new force of 5,000 AU soldiers and bolsters humanitarian efforts.
The LRA, carried out its worst atrocities in northern Ugandan in the 1990s, but had by 2004 largely been driven out of the area. Remnants, however, continued to attack civilians in Uganda and three neighboring countries. The group is notorious for carrying out massacres, mutilating victims and abducting boys for use as child soldiers.
Kony and the LRA gained notoriety following a YouTube video, “Kony 2012,” that went viral.
July 05, 2012
By LARRY MARGASAK and PETE YOST | Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department declared Friday that Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to withhold information about a bungled gun-tracking operation from Congress does not constitute a crime and he won’t be prosecuted for contempt of Congress.
The House voted Thursday afternoon to find Holder in criminal and civil contempt for refusing to turn over the documents. President Barack Obama invoked his executive privilege authority and ordered Holder not to turn over materials about executive branch deliberations and internal recommendations.
In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, the department said that it will not bring the congressional contempt citation against Holder to a federal grand jury and that it will take no other action to prosecute the attorney general. Dated Thursday, the letter was released Friday.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the decision is in line with long-standing Justice Department practice across administrations of both political parties.
“We will not prosecute an executive branch official under the contempt of Congress statute for withholding subpoenaed documents pursuant to a presidential assertion of executive privilege,” Cole wrote.
In its letter, the department relied in large part on a Justice Department legal opinion crafted during Republican Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Frederick Hill, the spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, said it is regrettable that “the political leadership of the Justice Department” is taking that position. Issa, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman, is leading the effort to get the material related to Operation Fast and Furious.
Although the House voted Thursday to find Holder in criminal and civil contempt, Republicans probably are still a long way from obtaining documents they want for their inquiry into Operation Fast and Furious, a flawed gun-tracking investigation focused on Phoenix-area gun shops by Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The criminal path is now closed and the civil route through the courts would not be resolved anytime soon.
“This is pure politics,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“Remarkably the chairman of the committee involved here has asserted that he has no evidence that the attorney general knew of Operation Fast and Furious or did anything but take the right action when he learned of it.
“No evidence, so if you have no evidence as he has stated now about the White House and the attorney general, what else could this be but politics?”
More than 100 Democrats walked out of the House chamber to boycott the first of two contempt votes, saying Republicans were more interested in shameful election-year politics than documents.
Republicans demanded the documents for an ongoing investigation, but their arguments focused more on the need for closure for the family of slain Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. Two guns identified by the Fast and Furious tracking operation were found near his body after a shootout in Arizona.
Democrats promised closure as well, but said a less-partisan Republican investigation was the only way to get it.
Adding to the emotion of the day, the family of the slain agent issued a statement backing the Republicans.
“The Terry family takes no pleasure in the contempt vote against Attorney General Eric Holder. Such a vote should not have been necessary. The Justice Department should have released the documents related to Fast and Furious months ago,” the statement said.
The contempt votes happened on the day that Obama’s health care law survived in the Supreme Court, prompting some Democrats to speculate that the votes were scheduled to be overwhelmed by news stories about the ruling.
About five hours after the court ruled, with news sites flooded with information about the health care ruling, the House voted 255-67 to declare Holder in criminal contempt.
A second vote of 258-95 held Holder in civil contempt and authorized the House to file a lawsuit.
In past cases, courts have been reluctant to settle disputes between the executive and legislative branches of government.
The issue became more complicated when Obama invoked a broad form of executive privilege, a legal doctrine designed to keep private certain communications of executive branch agencies.
Issa’s committee will consult with the House counsel’s office about a court challenge to the administration’s decision not to cooperate, spokesman Frederick Hill said.
The documents were written after Fast and Furious was shut down. The subpoena covered a 10-month period from February 2011, as the Justice Department expressed growing concern that the Fast and Furious operation had employed a risky investigative tactic known as “gun-walking.” In early December 2011, the department finally acknowledged that the initial denial of gun-walking was in error.
Republicans said the contempt citations were necessary because Holder refused to hand over documents that could explain why the Obama administration took 10 months to acknowledge the gun-walking.
In Fast and Furious, ATF agents abandoned the agency’s usual practice of intercepting all weapons they believed to be illicitly purchased, often as soon as they were taken out of gun shops. Instead, the goal of the tactic known as “gun-walking” was to track such weapons to high-level arms traffickers, who had long eluded prosecution, and to dismantle their networks.
Gun-walking long has been barred by Justice Department policy, but federal agents in Arizona experimented with it in at least two investigations during the George W. Bush administration before Operation Fast and Furious. These experiments came as the department was under widespread criticism that the old policy of arresting every suspected low-level “straw purchaser” was failing to stop tens of thousands of guns from reaching Mexico, more than 68,000 in the last five years. A straw purchaser conceals that he is buying guns for others.
Fast and Furious identified more than 2,000 weapons suspected of being illicitly purchased. But agents lost track of many of the guns. Some 1,400 of them have yet to be recovered.