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Archive for April, 2012

Missing Teen Phylicia Barnes’ Suspected Killer Arrested

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

The Baltimore Police Department homicide detectives assigned to find the killer of 16 year old Phylicia Barnes who went missing and found later dead, while visiting family in Baltimore during Christmas, 2010, arrested a suspect last week.  Michael Johnson, a former boyfriend of Barnes’ older half -sister has been arrested for her death.

It is a bitter sweet ending to a case that failed to garner national attention of 16 year old Barnes, a bright African American teenager, headed for college.   She was likely thought to have been abducted according to Baltimore police but later found dead in the Susquehanna River.  Phylicia was a straight A student from North Carolina who was visiting relatives in Baltimore over the Christmas holiday in 2010 when she went missing on December 28, 2010.  She was planning on attending college in Baltimore, having graduated a year early.

Baltimore detectives pitched the media to cover her missing story. There was some coverage on Nancy Grace show, ABC news and a few other outlets.  But, that limited coverage occurred when Baltimore police pleaded with the media to run her story.  By all accounts, if Phylicia were a white teen age girl, her story would have appeared nationally, just like Elizabeth Smart, Natalie Holloway, Casey Anthony, Robin Gardner or Chandra Levy.  The media was obsessed with both the Aruba cases of  two missing women Holloway and Gardner and of course, the Chandra Levy cases.  The media stayed on the Elizabeth Smart abduction from Salt Lake City, UT until she was located, months later. But, when it came to a similar black teen age girl, she was almost invisible to the media. Baltimore police spokesperson described her case as “Baltimore’s missing Natalie Holloway.”

The main stream media seriously lacks diversity when it comes to African American women appearing in the media and news stories about them. Often times, the faces of black women and girls are almost invisible from the media.  That includes black women commentators and news about black women or girls gone missing in the media. In the case of missing Phylicia Barnes, the lack of media coverage may have cost her life. If there is a silver lining, it is that the Baltimore Police Department did not give up on fighting in finding Barnes’ suspected killer.  The father of Barnes says the police were in almost weekly contact with him. The police stood by and fought until they could bring some closure to the family of Phylicia Barnes. May she rest in peace.  Johnson has been indicted for first degree murder in the death of Phylicia Barnes.

Debbie Hines is a lawyer, former prosecutor and legal /political commentator appearing in national and local media including  the Michael Eric Dyson Show, NBC, ABC and CBS affiliates,  RT TV, CBC- Canadian TV, NPR, XM Sirius radio, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, Black Enterprise among others.  She founded LegalSpeaks, a progressive blog on women and race in law and politics.  She also writes for the Huffington Post

Connecticut Abolishes the Death Penalty, California Up Next

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

The execution of Troy Davis  was a galvanizing moment raising the profile of the death penalty in America as a civil rights issue.  The Governor of Connecticut signed a bill repealing  the state’s death penalty into law.   “This afternoon I signed legislation that will, effective today, replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of release as the highest form of legal punishment in Connecticut,” Malloy said in a statement released on April 25, 2012 after he signed the bill behind closed doors. Ironically it will not affect the 11 persons already on death row. Governor Malloy, a former prosecutor, said he has seen the imperfections in our criminal justice system.  Today he did something about it.

The execution of Troy Davis did have a real impact on Connecticut’s action.  Connecticut now becomes the 5th state in 5 years to abolish capital punishment adding to the nationwide trend toward repeal.  In all, 17 states have abolished the death penalty. The national NAACP played a critical role in this happening.  NAACP president Ben Jealous visited Connecticut three times to lobby for repeal as well as the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund came.  Davis’ sister Kimberly even visited Connecticut for news conferences and forums to press for repeal.

Next on the road to end the death penalty is California where voters will go to the polls in the fall to vote to end the death penalty.  The tide is slowly turning against the death penalty with hard work by Amnesty International, NAACP and other civil rights groups fighting for a more just society.

Nationwide, the death penalty disproportionately affects blacks and Hispanics more than whites. The Department of Justice looked at data between  1995 – 2000 and found that of 682 defendants charged with death eligible crimes, 48% were black despite blacks making up only 11% of US population.  Whites make up only 20% of those cases. Racial inequality is one factor to abolishing the death penalty.  The other factor is the death penalty does nothing to deter crime. The most important factor is the moral cost of the death penalty where for every 8.7 Americans sent to the death penalty, one innocent person has been exonerated.

It’s time to end the death penalty now.

Debbie Hines is a lawyer, former prosecutor and legal /political commentator appearing in national and local media including  the Michael Eric Dyson Show, NBC, ABC and CBS affiliates,  RT TV, CBC- Canadian News TV, NPR, XM Sirius radio, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, Black Enterprise among others.  She founded LegalSpeaks, a progressive blog on women and race in law and politics.  She also writes for the Huffington Post.

This Week’s Hot Button Legal Cases Across the Country

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Credit: APTN

This week is a busy week in hot button legal cases across the country.

Trayvon Martin Case- George Zimmerman was able to make the $150,000.00 bail set for him by raising only $15,000 to pay a bail bondsman to post his bond.  He was released in the early morning hours of Monday, April 23, 2012.  He is allowed to leave the state but authorities released him with an ankle bracelet.  Authorities will be able to monitor his whereabouts as he prepares for trial.  His arraignment date is May 29.

Reverse Trayvon Martin Case-   Today in Baltimore, a case known now as the reverse Trayvon Martin case goes on trial with 2 Jewish men charged with beating a 15 year old black teen in a Jewish neighborhood of Baltimore in November, 2010. They spotted the teen in their neighborhood while they were in a car, exited and allegedly chanted “you don’t belong here” as they beat him, according to court and other documents.  One brother was a neighborhood watch or patrol person.

The two white men were originally charged with felony assault charges.  But newly elected Baltimore City State’s Attorney, Greg Bernstein, dropped the charges to misdemeanor assault as his first major decision upon taking office in January, 2011.  He had won election  in November, 2010 against former  long term black State’s Attorney, Patricia  Jessamy, upon vows to aggressively fight crime. The victim’s father says the charges should have remained felony assault for the jury to render a decision.  The victim sustained a broken wrist and head injuries. The 2 brothers claim self- defense. Jury selections are under way today.  And a jury is expected to be majority African American. The maximum sentence, if convicted is 13 years for all misdemeanor charges.

Jennifer Hudson’s Family Murder Trial- The former brother in law of Jennifer Hudson goes on trial today for the killing 4 years ago of Hudson’s mother, brother and nephew in Chicago.  If convicted, he will spend the rest of his life in jail.  The circumstantial case will not be an easy one for prosecutors as there are no eyewitness or DNA. The prosecution has gunshot residue found on the defendant’s car steering wheel.

Jennifer Hudson was the first witness to testify after opening statements. She broke down in tears as she described her sister’s volatile relationship with the defendant.  It was a smart and stunning move by the prosecution to start with Hudson’s testimony who now will be able to sit through the entire trial, with eyes of the jury on her, remembering her pain and loss.

John Edwards Trial– In a federal court room in Greensboro, North Carolina , in a case of sex, money and lies, prosecutors and defense attorneys are set to begin opening arguments in the trial of John Edwards for alleged violations of campaign finance laws to divert $925,000 in campaign funds to his mistress Rielle Hunter.  Edwards, a former Democratic presidential candidate, and trial lawyer denies any wrong doing and wants his day in court.

Edwards had been offered a plea deal of minimum jail time and keeping his law license. He declined the offer.  We will see soon if Edwards made a good deal or bad deal in declining the offer.   Rolling the dice is what Edwards did for a living as a trial attorney.  As a trial lawyer, Edwards had faith in jurors. The only difference now is he is the one who stands to go to jail and not his client, if convicted.  He is no longer the attorney arguing to the jury. It is not known  yet if Edwards will testify in his own behalf.   Edwards, if convicted, faces up to 30 years in jail plus monetary fines. The trial is expected to last 6 weeks.

Roger Clemens Trial-  Roger Clemens goes on trial again in federal court in Washington, DC after a judge granted a mistrial after 2 days of the last trial due to prosecutorial mistakes that tainted the trial.   Clemens is charged with lying under oath to Congress about taking steroids.  “One of the hurdles the government has to overcome is answering, ‘Why the heck are we involved in this type of investigation?’ ” U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said last week, out of earshot of the potential jurors. The prosecution has 5  prosecutors trying  the case–up from 2 from his previous trial. It sounds like an uphill battle for the federal prosecutors who have spent millions to obtain a conviction.

For those who say the legal process doesn’t work, many should take the time to attend some parts of an actual trial to become familiar with and understand how the judicial system works.

Debbie Hines is a lawyer, former prosecutor and legal /political commentator appearing in national and local media including  the Michael Eric Dyson Show, NBC, ABC and CBS affiliates,  RT TV, CBC- Canadian TV, NPR, XM Sirius radio, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, Black Enterprise among others.  She founded LegalSpeaks, a progressive blog on women and race in law and politics.  She also writes for the Huffington Post.

 

 

 

 

Zimmerman Bail Hearing is an Abnormality in an Abnormal Case

Saturday, April 21st, 2012

There has been nothing routine about the Trayvon Martin case from beginning up to the bond hearing.  Day 54, known as the Zimmerman bond hearing,  proved to be no different.  Usually a bond hearing is a brief hearing to see if the defendant should receive a bond and under what conditions. A bail hearing ordinarily has none or very few witnesses.  And almost never does the defendant testify under oath about the case, except in the Trayvon Martin case.  George Zimmerman’s bail hearing was one more unusual abnormality in the Trayvon Martin case.

The purpose of bail being set is to ensure the defendant’s court’s appearances and to protect the community against danger by the defendant. The prosecutor asked for a $1 million bail. The court ultimately set $150,000 bail for George Zimmerman.  Putting the $150,000 bail in perspective, there are cases where no death, assault or violence occurred and no prior criminal record and the  defendant is  held on $100,000 bail. And 2nd degree murder charges involving a gun, even with no prior criminal record, often come with a high bail or no bail.  And high is not a $150,000 bail.  Yet, Conrad Murray charged with and convicted of manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson, was out on $75,000.00 pre-trial bail and allowed to freely travel throughout the country.  So the amount of bail varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, case to case and judge to judge. In Seminole County, Florida, the prosecutor’s assessment of bail was probably closer to the mark than the $150,000 that was set.

The factors that are reviewed in the Florida  law are the criminal charge, the strength of the state’s evidence, the danger to the community, the criminal defendant’s past criminal record, ties to the community and any previous flight to avoid prosecution.  If released on bail, a defendant has pre-trial conditions to adhere and abide by, to remain free pending trial.  They vary from pre-trial drug testing, checking in with the pre-trial probation officer, stay away from the victim, remain in state and other conditions related to a particular case. Requests to stay in an undisclosed of “safe” location are rarely heard.  Zimmerman must wear an electronic tracking device, have no contact with the victim’s family, abide by a 7 pm to 6 am curfew, surrender his passport and check in with authorities every three days. He cannot be in possession of a firearm and cannot consume alcohol or illegal drugs.

The Zimmerman bail hearing tell us much about the case and the defense strategy so far. The testimony of the defendant was a crucial piece of the strategy.  Even though there were inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s testimony from his audio 911 tape, the defense attorney, Mark O’Mara, is focused primarily on Florida’s  Stand Your Ground  defense. The defense strategy  is to somehow prove that once Zimmerman believed his life was in danger, he had every right to stand his ground and shoot and kill Trayvon Martin, despite profiling and pursuing him.

This brings us to the point that this case is as much about guns and the right to bear arms as it is as about the unfortunate death of 17 year old Trayvon Martin, perhaps even more so.

 

Debbie Hines is a lawyer, former prosecutor and legal /political commentator appearing in national and local media including  the Michael Eric Dyson Show, NBC, ABC and CBS affiliates,  RT TV, CBC- Canadian TV, NPR, XM Sirius radio, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, Black Enterprise among others.  She founded LegalSpeaks, a progressive blog on women and race in law and politics.  She also writes for the Huffington Post.

 

Why Trayvon Martin’s Killer Should Remain in Jail Pending Trial

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

In a surprise move, Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, is expected back in court on the morning of Friday, April 20, 2012 to request bail.  This is much earlier that his May 29, 2012 arraignment date, where bail had been expected to be raised. It is highly unlikely that he will be able to post a bond, even if the court were to set one.  Special Prosecutor, Angela Corey, says that based on the evidence, the charge of 2nd degree is appropriate and one that can be proven.  Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara, a former prosecutor himself, wants his client out of jail to work with him on preparing his case.   Judge Kenneth Lester, an experienced judge since 1996 and known for listening to both sides will decide the issue.

Considerations of bail include the nature of the crime, amount of evidence, defendant’s family ties to the community, employment, criminal record and danger to the community and any previous flight risk.  The strongest arguments against Zimmerman receiving a bail are the crime of 2nd degree murder, the evidence the prosecutor says is available against him and his flight issues.  Remember Zimmerman had been at an undisclosed location for 44 days. And in the days leading up to his arrest, his two prior attorneys had lost contact with him and had no idea of his whereabouts.  Ironically, his prior attorneys’ press conference may prove very damaging to Zimmerman’s chances of release on bail.  They also leaked that he had lost his job.  With a murder charge, substantial evidence according to the prosecutor, danger to the community based on the murder charge, risk of flight issues and lack of job, Zimmerman faces an uphill battle.

On the defense side,  attorney Mark O’Mara, has stated that he needs his client out on bail in order to work with him. That is hardly a reason for bail.  An attorney has no limitations on working with a client in jail.  O’Mara will no doubt argue about his client’s prior criminal record or lack of one, family ties and community ties. O’Mara will argue for bail conditions such as a monitor, home detention, no travel outside of Florida and no firearms in his possession. He will argue that his client will not be a risk.  O’Mara runs a fine line between asking for bail to be set and asking for special privileges for his client’s pre-trial release. With all the issues in obtaining  an arrest in this case,  Zimmerman cannot be given what is perceived as special privileges for his release.  He should be treated no differently than any other defendant charged with 2nd degree murder.

Judge Lester will listen to both sides, the defense’s plea for lenient bail conditions and the prosecutor’s tough stance against it. Angela B. Corey is known as an aggressive prosecutor and sometimes unpopular for some of her views.  As a tough prosecutor, she will be prepared to argue that Zimmerman stay in jail pending his trial. O’Mara has stated that he will be able to locate a safe place for Zimmerman in the state. In the end, the safest place for Zimmerman might be jail in protective custody.  And that is where he will probably remain until a trial date.  Zimmerman faces 25 years to life, if convicted for the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Debbie Hines is a lawyer, former prosecutor and legal /political commentator appearing in national and local media including  the Michael Eric Dyson Show, NBC, ABC and CBS affiliates,  RT TV, CBC- Canadian News TV, NPR, XM Sirius radio, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, Black Enterprise among others.  She founded LegalSpeaks, a progressive blog on women and race in law and politics.  She also writes for the Huffington Post.

 


Racial Profiling and Targeting Blacks from Slavery to Trayvon Martin

Monday, April 16th, 2012

 

It was 150 years ago that Blacks in the District of Columbia were freed by President Abraham Lincoln, on April 16, 1862, eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet, blacks are still not free from the bondage of racial profiling and targeting that has existed from slavery to today.  Before slavery ended, freed black persons needed to carry papers to prove their freedom or risk being placed into slavery. While blacks no longer need papers to prove their freedom, they are subject to racial profiling and targeting based solely on their race.

Racial profiling is a form of discrimination by which persons, usually law enforcement, use a person’s race or cultural background as the primary reason to suspect that the individual has broken the law. The term “driving while black” arose from the practice, as many police officers frequently pull over African Americans for no reason other than their race and the stereotypes linked to it.

In the Trayvon Martin case, George Zimmerman has been charged with 2nd degree murder. The criminal information affidavit  alleges that Zimmerman profiled Trayvon Martin as a criminal suspect, on his way home, because he did not believe Trayvon belonged in the gated community.  Zimmerman allegedly followed him suspecting criminal activity due to racial stereotypes and Martin’s skin color.

The worse form of targeting of blacks throughout US history has been lynching. From 1920 until 1938, the NAACP flew a sign from the window of its New York Fifth Avenue offices, with the words, “a man was lynched today”, to chronicle the lynching of blacks in America. Many were never brought to justice and tried for lynching.

During the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma riots, an entire section of town of the wealthiest African Americans in the country burned to the ground due to racial targeting.  A whole section of town was destroyed due to targeting of blacks by their white neighbors. It started as alleged retaliation for whites believing a black man had attacked a white woman in an elevator. When it ended, many lives were lost. The recent killings on April 6, 2012 of three African Americans killed in Tulsa for alleged retaliation of a white man’s relative having been killed by a black man two years earlier, is the most recent Tulsa racial case of blacks targeted by whites, reminding some of the 1921 Tulsa riots.

14 year old Emmett Till was brutally beaten to death and drowned by at least two white men for allegedly looking, talking inappropriately or whistling at a white woman in Jim Crow Mississippi in 1955. Two men were tried but not convicted. Trayvon Martin has often been called this generation’s Emmett Till.

James Byrd, Jr., a black man, was walking on his way home in 1998  in Jasper, Texas when he was picked up by three white men in a pick up truck. They tied him to  a chain to the back of the truck and dragged him three miles to his death as a result of a hate crime.  Two of his three killers received the death penalty.   And on April 16, 2012,  a federal jury convicted three white men of  a federal hate crime named after James Byrd, Jr., known as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.  In August, 2011, the three white men attacked a black man while waiting for a bus,  calling him racial slurs while beating him.  A Justice Department spokesman said today  that hate crimes are far too common in this country.

When many African Americans see Trayvon Martin, they think of countless innocent blacks who have lost their lives at the hands of whites for simply being born black.  The killing of Trayvon Martin by Zimmerman, the son of a white father and Hispanic mother, reminds many blacks of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, Emmett Till, James Byrd, Jr.,  the Tulsa, Oklahoma burnings, the 2012 Good Friday Tulsa killings and many other atrocities committed against blacks.  African Americans have been fighting for justice and an end to racial profiling and targeting since slavery.  And today the fight continues with Trayvon Martin.

Debbie Hines is a lawyer, former prosecutor and legal /political commentator appearing in national and local media including CNN, the Michael Eric Dyson Show, XM Sirius radio, NBC, ABC and CBS affiliates,  RT TV, CBC- Canadian News TV, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, Black Enterprise among others.  She founded LegalSpeaks, a progressive blog on women and race in law and politics.  She also writes for the Huffington Post.