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Archive for January, 2015

Super Bowl XLIX and Aaron Hernandez Trial

Saturday, January 31st, 2015
Aaron Hernandez Creative Commons

Aaron Hernandez Creative Commons

The trial of Aaron Hernandez, former New England Patriots player before he was charged with the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd, has a link to the Super Bowl.   Judge Susan Garsh has ruled that the jury may watch the Super Bowl. And some may think that whether jurors should be able to watch the Super Bowl seems irrelevant to the Hernandez trial. The trial began on Thursday in Boston. While it appears the Super Bowl would have no relationship with the trial, the jurors in any trial are always advised to refrain from watching TV accounts of the trial as well as looking on social media. And Hernandez played in Super Bowl XLVI for the Patriots as a key player. So it is perhaps likely that the mention of his name and the trial may occur during the Super Bowl on Sunday. The judge has further advised jurors that if they hear Hernandez’s name mentioned that they must either leave the room or refrain from watching any mention of him. Yes—the law has its funnier moments at times. But on Monday, following the Super Bowl, jurors will be asked if there were any references to Hernandez—however irrelevant those references may appear.

 

The murder case against Hernandez is a circumstantial one.   The prosecution alleges that Hernandez, once worth $40 million while playing with the Patriots, drove the victim to a an area and shot him six times. Evidence left at the scene such as a marijuana butt and on a .45 caliber shell casing tested positive for DNA of Hernandez.  The prosecution also alleges foot prints at the site of the murder match shoes belonging to Hernandez.   And although motive is never an element in any criminal case, the prosecution does not have a motive for why Hernandez would kill Lloyd who was an acquaintance or friend. Hernandez has pled not guilty and earlier told Patriots owner Bob Kraft and also coach Bill Belichick that he was not involved. The prosecution was dealt a blow to their case when Judge Garsh denied the use of a text from the victim which stated shortly before his death that he was with “nfl”—implying Hernandez.   The prosecution contends that Hernandez sent a text message to Lloyd before the murder. The DNA evidence is what jurors hear from TV shows but TV shows always strongly tie in the circumstantial evidence to the defendant.

 

The prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. And any circumstantial case is always fraught with problems for the prosecution. And a celebrity defendant presents further problems for the prosecution. But Boston area juries are thought to be more conservative than most might think.   But deciding on whether a NFL player worth and making millions would commit murder will be in the minds of the jurors hearing the case. NFL players have been involved in serious cases involving domestic violence, sexual assault, assaults, child abuse and obstruction of justice charges stemming from a murder. And of course, former NFL player O.J. Simpson, now serving time on robbery charges, was tried and acquitted in the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson. Simpson’s case in the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson was also a circumstantial case. It is one thing having a gut feeling that someone committed a crime and another to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.   And in the case of Hernandez, the prosecution has an uphill battle without indirectly giving the jurors a reasonable motive—other than Hernandez appeared angry when he left a night club where Lloyd was present and evidence found at the scene. The most damaging for the defense is Hernandez’s prints on the .45 shell casing found near the victim. The murder location is one mile from Hernandez’s home. Whether that and other circumstantial evidence will be enough to convict Hernandez is the real issue.

The trial is expected to last two months.

States Seek to Strengthen Rape Reporting on College Campuses

Friday, January 30th, 2015

supcourt_buildingLaws to strengthen reporting of sexual assaults on college campuses are being considered in several states.  So far, Virginia, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have introduced bills which would require in some instances that police be notified of campus rapes and sexual assaults. Virginia’s bill HB 1343 would require that once a victim reports a sexual assault to campus or local law enforcement that the local Commonwealth’s Attorney be notified in 48 hours of the incident.  The bill, according to those in support of it, has everything to do with ensuring tighter collaboration between sexual assault victims on colleges, college security, police and prosecutors.

 

On many college campuses in Virginia and elsewhere in the U.S., often times, sexual assaults are not reported to the police by the victim or campus police. A report by the Department of Justice found that  of  college rape and sexual assault  cases only 20% of students  report rapes and sexual assaults to the police.  Without police intervention, these cases are not properly investigated. More importantly, victims do not often receive the support that a victim /witness unit in the prosecutor’s office can offer with options about going forward with the case, counseling and education about the process.

 

Morgan Harrington’s parents, founders of Help Save the Next Girl, wrote to the Virginia legislature in support of HB 1343.  Their daughter, Morgan Harrington, a 2009 Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, went to a concert and never came home.  Her remains were found over 3 months later.  VA Chairman Albo has said that this “bill ensures that allegations of sexual assaults on college campuses will receive the same level of attention by police and prosecutors that off campus sexual assaults receive. This bill strengthens our justice system and encourages collaboration between victims, college staff, police and prosecutors.”

 

In New York, the bill proposes that victims be told by campus police that they have the right to report to police.  But campus police will not be required to report the cases to the police.  Rhode Island’s bill  is like Virginia,  and contemplates  that the local police are better equipped to handle a rape or sexual assault case than campus police. Rhode Island’s bill proposes that any reports of sexual assaults on campus be referred to local police. New Jersey’s law also requires that colleges report to law enforcement.

 

And like everything in the law, there is a double edged sword or two sided coin. Some victims are saying that the police are not equipped to handle campus sexual assaults.   The other side of the coin is that oftentimes the prosecutors with police investigation do not take rape or sexual assault cases.  And many students may  not want to report a sexual assault knowing that the local police will be involved. Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, a Columbia University senior with the sexual assault activist group No Red Tape,  stated:

“If a survivor comes forward and says, ‘Hey I need help, I want to get this guy out of my classes,’ that’s very different from saying, ‘I want to involve myself in a lengthy arduous legal process'”

Many survivor groups do not want to see police being responsible for handing all campus rapes and sexual assault cases.  And college victims should have a say over whether they want police involved.   The laws  may in reality cause less victims on college campuses to report sexual assaults and rapes—knowing that they might be subjected to the rigors of the criminal justice system.   Those in support of the full reporting bills say that rape is rape regardless of where it takes place.  And rape is a crime that should be prosecuted. If only, it were as easy as it sounds.   While there is no distinction between a rape on college campuses and other locations, the goals should be about how best to help the victim.  And perhaps college victims should be the ones to decide if they want to involve local law enforcement instead of being forced to have their cases reported to police.  Hopefully these states looking to change reporting on college campuses will hear from victims and victim rights groups to weigh both sides of the coin.

Another “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” Black Man Killed by Police

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

GunAnother “Hands up, Don’t Shoot” case of an unarmed  black man killed by police occurred this time in New Jersey with two police officers- one white and one black doing the shooting. A newly released video of a December 30   encounter in   Bridgeton, New Jersey between two police officers and Jerame Reid,   shows what starts out as a routine police car stop  for running a stop sign and then turns into what appears as a cold blooded killing of the driver, Reid,  by the police officers.   The gruesome and appalling video shown on the police dash cam shows the incident as it unfolds.  The driver who is identified as  Jerame Reid says, “I’m not reaching for nothing. I ain’t got no reason to reach for nothing.  I’m getting out and getting on the ground.”  As he attempts to exit of the car with hands up, he is shot with at least 6 bullets by both officers.

 

Videos don’t lie.   There is no resistance by Reid.  Reid is by all accounts obeying the police officers.   While one officer finds a gun in the glove compartment, no attempt is made by Reid  to reach for the gun.  And in the case of Reid, the police officers could possibly have a motive for killing Reid as they recognize  and call him by his first name, “Jerame”, even though no identification was provided.  Perhaps, the officers recognized Reid who had served  thirteen years in  prison for killing another officer–a state trooper.

 

 

While videos don’t lie, they don’t usually get arrests, charges or convictions against police officers when it comes to the killing black men in America.  Eric Garner’s death was videotaped as he shouted “I can’t breathe” while being held in a chokehold. No charges were brought or an arrest of the police officer who choked him to death while he was yelling those words.   No state or federal charges were brought against the Ferguson, MO police officer, Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown while many witnesses saw Brown with his hands up while being shot by Wilson.  And many African Americans wonder where is the justice in these instances.

 

These three cases have different persons, different facts, different scenarios but the same outcome.  They involve a part of a growing trend in America of police killing unarmed blacks without any provocation or justification—in many  person’s eyes.  And yet the judicial system says otherwise-at least in the cases of Brown and Garner.   Neither state or federal charges were brought against Darren Wilson for Michael Brown’s death. And before   many persons could digest that reality, another brutal police killing occurs of an unarmed black man with “hands up”.  The killing of blacks by law enforcement is nothing new.  Killing unarmed blacks under color of the law has been going on since slavery, the early twentieth century, the Civil Rights Movement and now in the 21st century.  The blatant public manner of doing it and then getting away with it reinforces for many in the black community that black lives don’t matter to law enforcement, Grand Jurors and prosecutors that fail to indict or bring charges.

 

 

And if the prosecution exonerates these New Jersey police officers without charges, many will question as Dr. King once stated in another context if America has lost its moral compass.   Both officers should be arrested immediately and charged.   Just like as seen in the dash cam video, there is no justification for the killing and shooting of Reid, except that apparently the police officers wanted to do it.  And that reason doesn’t justify murder.  A special prosecutor should be brought in to investigate and proceed with charges.  There is little to investigate when everything is caught on tape, except that a black man’s life in America doesn’t always receive justice.   And once again the world is watching us.

 

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor who addresses issues of race and gender in the law.  She is frequently seen in the media on Al Jazeera America, Arise TV,   BET, C-Span, Fox 5 News, RT- America,  Sky News, TV One, among others.

Why MLK Day Should be Everyday

Monday, January 19th, 2015

MLKMonumentMartin Luther King, Jr.’s holiday, celebrated on the third Monday in January, is the federal holiday that is set aside to honor Dr. King’s birthday, life and legacy. The principles of justice and equality that he fought and died for should be a part of our daily life and not just once a year. Over the years, we have looked back on his life, celebrated his legacy in ways such as a day of service to honor him. And when the day ends, many persons forget about community service or Dr. King’s legacy and what he stood for until the next January. For some persons, Dr. King’s holiday is a day off from work. For others, Dr. King has been reduced to one day of service, one great “I Have a Dream” speech and one great monument on the mall. Many persons do not know what Dr. King really fought for or stood for.

First, for many persons who did not live through the Civil Rights era, study it in school or fail to understand the impact of Dr. King on our country today, we need to educate those individuals about Dr. King. The film Selma about the Civil Rights Movement has been highlighting new interest for many young persons who do not fully know or understand the impact that Dr. King had on this country and continues to impact today far beyond his death. That’s why I’m excited that individual efforts spearheaded by black business leaders, called Selma for Students in many cities including Baltimore, Washington, DC, New York and 21 others nationwide raised over 2.1 million for over 285,000 free tickets to ensure that students can see Selma and learn about Dr. King’s life. Educating about the life of Dr. King is important to raise the consciousness level of those who are unaware of his accomplishments and to see beyond Dr. King’s holiday as a onetime yearly event. And many adults could also benefit from such awareness.

Dr. King’s work is not done. In many ways, the laws of our country still systemically discriminate against persons of color. The numerous criminal justice issues surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, Oscar Grant in San Francisco and many others is but one area that needs to be addressed and changed. While blacks are no longer beaten to death or killed by whites while trying to register to vote, many killings of blacks by police go without any prosecution.   And registering to vote, which Dr. King fought for the rights of African Americans, has become onerous and oppressive in many states with  Voter Photo ID laws enacted since 2006. The death penalty is legal in most states in this country. And yet, the vast majority of persons on death row are African American men despite the fact that they make up only roughly 6% of the population. And death penalty laws still exist despite arguments that the death penalty does not work, is racially disproportionate, is not a deterrent to crime and many persons on death row have later been exonerated .   Dr. King died while fighting for a living wage for sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968. That fight continues today. Today, we are still fighting for a living wage for many persons of all colors to be able to live and financially support themselves without strong opposition from many lawmakers and corporations.

 

For everyone who cares about justice and equality which Dr. King fought and died for, everyday should be a day to honor Dr. Martin Luther King. We do not need to do it in the way that Dr. King did. In our own way, we can honor his legacy year round and fight for justice and equality.

Dr. King was a drum major for justice. And in ways, big and small, we can fight for justice too. In Dr. King’s words, “the time is always right to do what is right.”

 

Metro Accident Set to Cost Millions

Thursday, January 15th, 2015
 Creative Commons Attributes


Creative Commons Attributes

Metro’s accident on Monday which injured dozens of persons and took the life of Alexandria, VA resident Carol Inman Glover, a mother, grandmother and named 2014 Employee of the Year by her communications firm, may soon be a court battle that could cost Metro millions of dollars for its lack of safety precautions. Metro could be held accountable for the actual fire occurring on the track, if it was avoidable and due to their negligence. Metro, exclusively, is responsible for maintenance and upkeep on the tracks. And every weekend, they perform track maintenance. And Metro’s further legal potential negligence surrounds the enormous length of time, it took for fire crew and first responders to arrive on the tracks to assist passengers.

 

Some Metro riders who took recordings with their cell phones are able to verify the alleged 45 minutes to over 1 hour. Imagine if a fire truck took that long in responding to a fire. Or if EMT personnel took 45 minutes to respond to a 911 call for distress due to an accident. While there may be issues in responders arriving on the tracks, it  appears that the length of time for the first response was far beyond anything that could be possibly construed as reasonable by any reasonable standards.

The train by news accounts was only 800 yards from the L’Enfant Plaza station platform when the fire was noticed. It was not very deep in the tunnel. Some accounts say there was an issue with getting all of the first responders in communication with each other. And since this is not the first accident involving Metro, one would think there would have been track safety precautions and procedures in place for getting to passengers in a more timely and perhaps life -saving time. It is tragic anytime someone dies in what may be perceived due to a negligent manner. It is even more tragic when it occurs on a rail system that should have resolved accident safety, evacuation procedures and communication issues due to past issues. The first Metro accident resulting in death occurred 33 years ago.

I heard some news accounts state that passengers should be aware of their surroundings while on the Metro train and look for the evacuation signs and procedures on the train. Following the accident, on Tuesday, I rode on Metro and read the emergency instructions that are posted in the train cars. First, it does give instructions on what to do if one has to evacuate a train and how to accomplish it. But first and foremost, the instructions say to follow the instructions of the Metro operator. In Monday’s accident, the train operator told passengers it was not a fire inside the train and to remain in the train. So the passengers followed the appropriate safety instructions that were given to them. In fact, if an unauthorized evacuation occurred before the electric third rail was deactivated, passengers could have been electrocuted if they evacuated the train, against the safety orders of the train operator. So, there is no “contributory negligence” on the part of any of the passengers. They did exactly what they were told to do.

 

Now for the possible negligence of WMATA.   WMATA may be found negligent for the accident on several theories. First, negligence may occur if Metro knew or should have reasonably known of the potential for a fire accident occurring in this manner and failed to provide and take reasonable safety measures and precautions. Again, it is too soon to know if the actual fire was the result of any negligence on the part of Metro. The National Transportation Safety Board will be investigating the cause of the accident.  Negligence may result from the delay in responding. It took 45 minutes to over an hour for Metro to get its act together to assist first responders to the tracks must have seemed like an eternity for all those aboard the train. Some passengers spoke about fearing they would die in a dark Metro train filled with smoke and the inability to breathe easily. Unfortunately Ms. Glover did die.

A cause of action is possible for every one of the Metro passengers who experienced emotional, physical injury or both. It’s difficult to imagine that all passengers were not affected emotionally and somewhat physically by the events. At least 86 passengers were treated at the hospital following the accident. This number does not include ones who may have gone the next day or later to the hospital the same day on their own with episodes of breathing or emotional issues, such as panic attacks or anxiety.

 

It will take months before the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) concludes its investigation and makes its findings. That will not stop the onslaught of personal injury law suits likely to occur. Each potential litigant has by law 6 months from the date of the accident to file a claim against WMATA. This informal claim is not the same as filing a lawsuit in court where there is a three year statute of limitations in which to file. While many issues evolve around Metro, there are still unanswered questions about whether first responders bear any responsibility for the delayed response.

More to follow as the NTSB investigation continues.

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor. She frequently appears as a legal analyst on Arise TV, Al Jazeera America, BET, Fox 5 News, Sky News, RT America and TV One, among others.

Top Priorities for “WIN” Presented to DC Mayor Bowser

Sunday, January 11th, 2015
Debbie Hines at the Capitol

Debbie Hines at the Capitol

On Thursday, January 8, one of the coldest days of 2015, the Washington Interfaith Network (“WIN”) with over 900 persons, packed St. Augustine Church in Washington, DC to speak to Mayor Muriel Bowser about their priorities and concerns for the city.  Their agenda was simple:  Work for residents at a living wage; Eliminating unsafe guns in the city;  Affordable housing for all incomes; and Ending Homelessness.

 

Local residents told their stories to the mayor and packed crowd of how a decent pay wage and building job skills is at the heart of eradicating homelessness.  And building affordable housing for all stages of life and all incomes is necessary.  Gun control is not new to the District, having fought several court battles over gun ownership in the city.  Rev. David Brawley spoke on behalf of the Metro Industrial Area Foundation and asked the City to join with 69 other jurisdictions to address unsafe guns at the manufacturing level and demand that guns be made safe, noting that cities are the major buyers of guns.  Tony Fleet, a District resident and formerly incarcerated spoke proudly about his training, acquiring skills and becoming a member of Laborers Local 657.  He works with the DC Water Clean Rivers Project.

 

The District of Columbia is fast becoming a city that is too expensive for many of its long standing residents to continue living here.  Rents and housing are extremely high even for those who work full time jobs. The most moving moment of the evening was not in hearing from Mayor Bowser but hearing from a Metro Access Bus operator, Karen Reed, member ATU Local 689. Ms. Reed drives one of the Metro Access buses that provide transportation for physically and mentally impaired District residents.   Her words resonated with all who heard them about the city’s lack of a living wage and affordable housing.   Ms. Reed spoke about how she often works 6 days a week, 13-14 hours a day and yet only makes $26,000 a year.  With one child, she constantly lives on the verge of homelessness and was homeless for three months in 2014.  She never missed a day of working.  Despite her hard work, she still qualifies for Food Stamps and Medicaid.  And Ms. Reed made only one request—to pay her a living wage without having to provide her public benefits.

 

Residents housed at the DC General Family Shelter, formerly DC General Hospital, spoke anonymously via a video.  Many were afraid for their faces to appear due to possible retaliation by employees working there.  But they spoke of unsafe conditions, unhealthy conditions, rat infested conditions and lack of appropriate facilities for children.

 

Mayor Bowser spoke to the crowd and says she hears the voices of those persons who spoke on Thursday and those that they represent. She introduced key members of her new Administration-Lindsay Parker,  Deputy Chief of Staff, Polly Donaldson, Director of Housing and Community Development, Jenny Reed, Deputy Budget Director and Brenda Donald, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services.  And these women will be the ones to work with the mayor on the budget, housing and homelessness.  The question still remains what a Bowser administration will do to accomplish the goals and agenda set forth by WIN. And WIN will be actively monitoring the Mayor’s commitments.

 

WIN will not stop with their inaugural meeting with Mayor Bowser.   On January 22, WIN will meet to evaluate the meeting with the Mayor.  And without a doubt, there will be further meetings with Mayor Bowser to engage her on the issues that matters most to them—helping people with jobs that pay a living wage, affordable housing, ending homelessness and gun violence.

 

 

 

Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor who addresses issues on race and gender in the law.