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LegalSpeaks is a progressive blog on legal-political issues with an impact on race and gender. Whether covering politics, court trials, Supreme Court arguments or the latest laws and bills affecting minorities and women, LegalSpeaks blog articulates unique and thought provoking opinions. The blog is not meant to be construed as legal advice.


Why I Don’t Trust Baltimore Prosecutors with Freddie Gray Case

April 22nd, 2015 | Tags: , , ,
Posted in Legal | No Comments »
Credit: Murphy, Falcon and Murphy

Credit: Murphy, Falcon and Murphy

The case of Freddie Gray personally hit me very hard. I was born and grew up in Baltimore. As a former Baltimore City prosecutor, I prosecuted major crimes there for 5 years.  I know the area known as Western District where Freddie Gray was arrested.  I also know that over the years and for decades, Baltimore Police have engaged in police brutality and excessive force resulting in settlements and judgments. A. Dwight Pettit, a Baltimore attorney, has successfully represented many victims of police brutality for as long as I can remember, in the pre-social media days and even today.  Now with video and social media, what was once hidden for many years is now coming to light in Baltimore.

 

 

There must be an independent investigation by the Maryland State Prosecutor, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office or the Maryland State Police.  The Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has initiated an independent investigation to determine if Gray’s civil rights were violated.   Baltimore Police state their investigation will conclude by May 1.    Baltimore City State’s Attorney, Marilyn Mosby, stated her office will conduct an independent investigation to determine if criminal charges are warranted. Her office does not function on an independent basis. The State Attorney’s office works in tandem, in most instances, with the Baltimore police.

 

In September 2012, Anthony Anderson’s spleen was ruptured during a drug arrest as he was thrown to the ground by police.  Anderson died a short time later.  The state medical examiner’s office said the death was a homicide caused by blunt force trauma. But former Baltimore State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein declined to bring charges, ruling that the officers did not use excessive force and followed police guidelines.

 

And in the Freddie Gray case, there are ways the Baltimore prosecutors could yet again avoid prosecuting the police for excessive force. The New York Times spoke to physician, Ben A.  Barres at Stanford School of Medicine who says it doesn’t take that much force to sever a spleen.  “It doesn’t necessarily take huge force to fracture or dislocate a vertebra, and have a traumatic compression of the spinal cord,” said Ben A. Barres, professor of neurobiology at the Stanford School of Medicine. “It gets worse very rapidly if it’s not treated.” And, he said, “moving the person, like lifting him into a van, or even the ride in the van, could make the injury much worse.”   That is the likely police defense to a case of excessive force.  And the Medical Examiner’s has not yet ruled Gray’s death a homicide.

 

As a former Baltimore City State’s attorney, I know that police and prosecutors work together on a daily basis.  I believe it’s quite difficult, although not impossible, for a Baltimore prosecutor to see police excessive force cases through an objective lens.  Their lens are cloudy from working with police on a daily basis and often forging strong friendships and personal relationships with them.  While the State’s Attorney’s office is separate from the police department, in many aspects, they are intertwined together.  Separate but close is one way to describe the interaction between the two.   It is a symbiotic relationship between the two.  Prosecutors rely on the police to obtain convictions for their statistics.  And whether consciously or subconsciously, prosecutors are more inclined to see police excessive force events through the eyes of the police rather than more objectively.

 

And then there is Code of Blue silence. It is not likely that any one of the six officers will speak against any officer who may have injured Gray.  And as long as they stick together, knowledge of what exactly happened is less likely to be known.  There was no video inside the police van.  Even with video in the Eric Garner choking case, a Grand Jury still declined to pursue charges against the officers.  And without credible eyewitness accounts, the code of blue could prevail.  And what the investigation will likely be left with is a circumstantial case of what happened, who did it and how did it occur.   Some eyewitnesses may live close by or in the area where Gray was arrested.  And their criminal backgrounds or credibility will undoubtedly  become an issue.

 

 

Twenty-five year old Freddie Gray was someone’s son, friend and neighbor. And he did not deserve to die for the non-crime of running while black.  Saying change is needed in the Baltimore Police Department is an understatement. I don’t have the answers as to what will bring systemic change to excessive force used against African Americans by police.  A start would be to criminally charge the perpetrators when these crimes occur.  Whether Baltimore prosecutors will take the necessary initial action for justice remains to be seen.   With three African Americans in charge,  Mayor Rawlings-Blake, Police Commissioner Batts and State’s Attorney Mosby, one would like to hope that the investigation and story ending will be different for Freddie Gray than Eric Garner.  Knowing the symbiotic relationship of the local prosecutors and police, I don’t necessarily expect a different ending.   And that’s why independent state and federal investigations must take place.

 

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore City prosecutor.  She is frequently seen on Al Jazeera America, BET, C-Span, Fox 5, RT America, Sky News, and TV One, among others. 


Final Score: Guilty Verdict for Aaron Hernandez

April 15th, 2015 | Tags: , , , ,
Posted in Legal | No Comments »
Aaron Hernandez Creative Commons

Aaron Hernandez Creative Commons

The trial of Aaron Hernandez, former New England Patriots player has reached the final score.  After seven days of jury deliberations, former NFL New England Patriots Aaron Hernandez was convicted on Wednesday of first degree murder and gun charges. The verdict could mean a sentence of  life without parole.  And although appeals may be down the road, it brings an end to one legal battle for Hernandez. He still faces a second murder trial involving the murder of two people in 2012, set to start later this year.  After over 40 days, 400 plus exhibits and 135 witnesses, the jury delivered its verdict of guilty on all charges in the circumstantial murder case.

 

The murder case against Hernandez was an entirely circumstantial one.  There was no gun found and no eyewitnesses. The prosecution alleged that Hernandez, once worth $40 million for playing with the  New England Patriots, drove the victim, Lloyd, to  an area and shot him six times. Prosecutors contended that evidence left at the scene such as Hernandez’s DNA  on a marijuana butt and .45 caliber shell casings found at the crime scene supported their theory. The casings found at the scene and found in the rented car of Hernandez were allegedly shot from the same gun.   The defense disputed the prosecution’s gun theory.  The defense also called very few witnesses.   That strategy may have backfired against them.  The defense also seemed to change gears during closing arguments.  At closing, the defense admitted that Hernandez was at the scene of the killing alleged to be committed by two others.  The Patriots owner Robert Kraft testified  earlier that Hernandez  said he was at a club at the time of the killing. The prosecution’s case proved that statement to be false by way of cell phone records. And apparently, the jury worked beyond the motive issue.  Although motive is never an element in any criminal case, the prosecution did not have a motive for why Hernandez would kill Lloyd who was an acquaintance or friend.  And Hernandez  and the jury may never  know why he wasted a NFL career, $40 million in contract to kill his friend Odin Lloyd.

 

In the final analysis, the jury found the circumstantial case proved the guilt of Aaron Hernandez in the murder of Odin Lloyd.  And the  first degree murder charge carries a mandatory life in prison without parole.  Unlike other cases  and jurisdictions where the courts schedule a sentencing date for several months later, the sentencing for Aaron Hernandez will occur without any delay. He could be sentenced on Wednesday.

 

The video of the verdict can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Why the 2nd Officer in the Walter Scott Case Must Be Charged

April 13th, 2015 | Tags: , , , , ,
Posted in Legal | No Comments »

GunOfficer Clarence Harbersham is the black officer hovering over Walter Scott’s body in the viral video taken by  Feidin Santana.  In the video, it clearly shows that Officer Habersham never administered CPR or aid to Walter Scott, despite his report statements.   Habersham’s police reports and subsequent statements also never mentioned that now former officer Michael Slager dropped what appears to be the Taser gun next to the body of Walter Scott.  It’s probably fair to state the reasons for his omission about the Taser or black object being dropped is obvious—to support the cover up of his fellow officer Slager.  Some African Americans in North Charleston, South Carolina refer to the action as “Code Blue”, a code of conduct to protect police bad conduct.  Habersham’s statement of giving aid to Mr. Scott which turned out to be false is grounds for charges on obstruction of justice, filing a false report and other similar charges.  The question remains as to why Officer Habersham has not been charged.

 

Whenever a non-police witness provides a statement that is materially false and intended to obstruct a police investigation, they are usually charged.  Police should not be any different in these instances.  All that Office Habersham was likely  trying to do was stand with Officer Slager in his false statement.  There must be consequences for police giving false statements once discovered.  It should not be a case of “no harm no foul” now that Officer Slager has been charged with murder.  Without the video of Mr. Santana, it is doubtful if the police would have  charged Officer Slager as there were two officers who presented their  version of events.  The video was crucial in seeing that Officer Slager was charged for murder. And it should be crucial for seeing that Clarence Habersham is also charged for obstruction of justice, filing a false report and any other similar charges available under South Carolina law.

 

The National Bar Association, the largest African American association of lawyers, has called for Officer Habersham to be terminated and indicted.  He should not be allowed to continue as an officer under the circumstances.  We are not talking about a non-essential statement in a routine car stop.  This is a case of enormous magnitude of a murder investigation.  Police Officers are required to report truthful facts in their investigations.  And there must be consequences for their failure to report the truth. If no consequences exist, then this type of behavior will continue.

 

Beyond the use of body cameras, the known false statements of a police officer to impede a criminal investigation must be treated in the same fashion as with any other witnesses.   In reality, the false statements of police officers should be held to a higher standard.  Their job is to protect and serve. And a police officer cannot protect and serve persons when he or she is providing false and materially misleading information in a murder investigation.  Officer Clarence Habersham needs to be suspended without pay or terminated and  also charged for the appropriate criminal offenses he committed.  North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers stated the Scott video “sickened” him.  It should move him to suspend without pay or terminate Officer Clarence Habersham.  It’s the right thing to do to ensure that all parties are held accountable in the case of Walter Scott.

 

Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor.  She is featured regularly on Al Jazeera America, BET, C-Span, Fox 5 News, RT America and TV One, among other outlets.


Why the Boston Bomber May Avoid the Death Penalty

April 12th, 2015 | Tags: , ,
Posted in Legal | No Comments »

BostonSuspect2With the first phase of the trial over for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicting him on all counts, one would think the second death penalty phase is a no brainer.  Multiple reasons suggest that Tsarnaev may likely receive life without the possibility of parole.  Unlike the first phase, jurors will now get to hear evidence that will show the aggravating factors which warrant the death penalty.   His case is likely the most heinous crime committed in Massachusetts with four persons killed by a bomb, used as a weapon of mass destruction, including an eight year old  and injuring 264 others with life permanent injuries both physical and emotional. Family members of the four deceased victims, including one police officer and many of the other many victims whose lives have been forever altered will likely testify on behalf of the prosecution. The prosecution will also likely portray his callousness in going to a Whole Foods store and the gym following the bombing.

 

In his defense for life without parole, the defense will prevent evidence of mitigating circumstances.  Those mitigating circumstances are instances to show that the life of Tsarnaev should be spared.  The defense has already indicated in the first phase the control that his older bbrother held over him.  The defense attorney, Judy Clarke is Tsarnaev’s best defense.  Clarke is an experienced death penalty attorney, who with her expertise, has spared the death penalty for many of her clients.  She represented Zacharias Moussaoui (known as the 20th Hijacker), Eric Rudolph, (the Atlanta Olympic Park Bomber), Ted Kaczynski (“the Unabomber”) and Jared Loughner ( the Tucson Arizona shooter).   Kaczyski’s letter bombs over 20 years killed three persons. Rudolph’s bomb killed two persons and injured over 100.  And Loughner’s shooting killed 6 persons and injured 13 others, including former Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford. Each case is different. However, Clarke’s track record in avoiding the death penalty for these infamous defendants speaks volumes. Tsarnaev had a life before that infamous day. And Clarke will attempt to show the mitigating factors that may spare his life.  She may actually have a little help from the jurors who are deciding Tsarnaev’s fate.

 

Massachusetts has no death penalty.  The case is a federal case under which the federal statutes allow for the death penalty in his case. Seventeen of his convictions allow for the death penalty.  However, Massachusetts  held its last execution almost 70 years ago.  And many residents, and likely jurors, may have strong unconscious feelings about giving the death penalty.  During voir dire, jurors were questioned on their ability  to give the death penalty , if the evidence warrants it.   Most jurors will not know what their true feelings are until faced with the decision.

 

All jurors must agree on the death penalty for Tsarnaev to receive the death penalty. If the decision is not unanimous, then Tsarnaev will automatically receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. And for the defendant that accepts death as the ultimate reward, a death sentence may not be the best penalty for him.  That thought will not be lost on the jurors.  In giving Tsarnaev the sentence of life without parole may be the best penalty for him.  Sitting and living out the rest of his life in an American jail may be the best reward for him, instead of his sought after death sentence to join his brother.

 

The death penalty phase will commence on April 21.  Updates will be provided.

 

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor.  She founded LegalSpeaks in 2009. She often appears in the media on Al Jazeera America,  Arise TV, BET, C-Span, Fox 5 News, RT America and TV One, among others.


Aaron Hernandez Trial: Awaiting Final Score

April 10th, 2015 | Tags: , , , ,
Posted in Legal | No Comments »
Aaron Hernandez Creative Commons

Aaron Hernandez Creative Commons

The trial of Aaron Hernandez, former New England Patriots player has reached the time for the final score. The jury is deliberating for four days. The twelve jurors who are deciding his fate have requested the 400 plus exhibits and asked 6 questions since their deliberations began. Hernandez is on trial for the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd, a friend or acquaintance and weapons charges.   After over 40 days, 400 plus exhibits and 135 witnesses, the mostly circumstantial murder case is finally in the hands of the jury to deliver a verdict.

 

The murder case against Hernandez is an entirely circumstantial one.   The prosecution alleges that Hernandez, once worth $40 million for playing with the Patriots, drove the victim, Lloyd, to a an area and shot him six times. Prosecutors contend that evidence left at the scene such as Hernandez’s DNA left on a marijuana butt and .45 caliber shell casings found at the crime scene support their theory. The casings found at the scene and found in the rented car of Hernandez were allegedly shot from the same gun.   The defense disputes the prosecution’s gun theory. 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 denies any involvement. After the killing, he told Patriots owner Bob Kraft and 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 he was with Hernandez.   The prosecution contends that Hernandez sent a text message to Lloyd before the murder. DNA evidence is what jurors see on TV shows but TV shows always strongly tie in the circumstantial evidence to the defendant. In reality, circumstantial cases and particularly circumstantial murder cases are difficult for a prosecutor to win. And they are even more difficult with a celebrity defendant such as Aaron Hernandez. When a jury is left with too many unanswered questions from a circumstantial case, it often proves fatal to the prosecution.

 

The prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. And any circumstantial case is always fraught with many 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 of his friend will be in the minds of the jurors deciding 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 murder case and another to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.   And in the case of Hernandez, the prosecution has an uphill battle with a guilty verdict without indirectly giving the jurors a reasonable motive—other than Hernandez appeared angry when he left a night club where Lloyd was present.

Whether completely circumstantial evidence will be enough to convict Hernandez is the real issue. All twelve jurors must agree on a verdict. If they are unable to reach an unanimous verdict, the case will be a mistrial. And that’s what might happen and what the defense is hoping for. No matter what happens in this case, Hernandez still faces a double murder trial for a Boston area killing of two men in 2012. That trial will start later this year.

 

Debbie Hines is trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor who has tried circumstantial murder cases. She is frequently featured on Al Jazeera America, BET, C-Span, Fox 5 News, RT American and TV One, among other outlets.

 

 

 

 


Walter Scott is the Latest Casualty in the Police War on Blacks

April 9th, 2015 | Tags: , , , ,
Posted in Legal | No Comments »

police-chase_mediumA war is raging against blacks in America by persons dressed in police uniforms who have taken an oath to protect and serve the community.   And Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina is the latest casualty in the war.  Walter Scott was stopped for a minor routine traffic stop for a broken tail light on Saturday morning on April 4. It ended with him being shot in the back eight times by North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, all caught on a bystander’s video tape.  The video shows the callous manner in which the officer disregarded the life of Scott. It shows an officer running after Scott with Scott’s back to the officer and then the officer pulling a gun and firing eight times.  It doesn’t stop there.  The officer then goes over to handcuff Scott, as if he were still alive.  And then he discards the Taser gun in an attempt to perhaps support a false report of Scott taking the Taser from the officer.

 

The complete graphic video can be found here.

 

We are in the 21st century.  The images seen in the Scott video conjures up images of runaway slaves during slavery times.  In the 18th and 19th century, slave owners and bounty hunters would hunt down, capture and then kill slaves who ran away. Walter Scott was not a slave. And this is not the 19th century.  Scott’s mother said seeing her son flee and being shot reminded her of the officer shooting an animal.  Walter Scott was 50 years old; he had a loving family; he was engaged to be married. And even if he was none of the above, he did not deserve to die in the callous and cold blooded manner depicted in the video.

 

One person on Twitter tweeted to me that this is a form of genocide against blacks.  I won’t go that far.   I will say, as a former prosecutor that the callous manner in which Scott was killed does not justify use of deadly force by Slager. The officer was not in fear of serious bodily injury, harm or death from Scott.  It amounts to a callous and total reckless disregard for human life.  The war against blacks in the U.S. by police has been going on for a long time.  With video images being taped, everyone is now able to see the war and the captured incidents on tape.  The war did not start with Oscar Grant in Los Angeles, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland or Eric Garner in New York. Sadly, it will not end with Walter Scott in North Charleston.

 

In a society where police officers become the criminals in taking black lives, we have a serious problem in America. Recognizing the problem is the first step towards doing something about the problem.    And I am pleasantly surprised and quite frankly astonished that South Carolina authorities wasted no time in charging the officer and setting no bail.  That message must be sent more often in these cases, even without video.

 

In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, the Department of Justice found wide ranging civil rights violations of minorities.  Since 1994, twenty-five cities have entered into settlements with the Justice Department and include Pittsburgh (1999), New Orleans (2012), Los Angeles, Detroit and Oakland to name a few. In 1994, the Department of Justice was empowered by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act to investigate police departments for systemic violations of constitutional rights. In the case of the city of Los Angeles, a 12 year process ensued to make changes.

 

Beyond protests and a conversation on #BlackLivesMatter, we need an overhaul of law enforcement departments in the U.S. on hiring, training, re-training and retention practices.  The incidents occurring in Los Angeles, Ferguson, New York,  Cleveland, North Charleston, to name a few recent ones,  are not an aberration but more systemic.  And we should not wait for the next black person to be callously shot in the back or choked to death by the very persons who are called to protect and serve them.  North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey determined that police cameras will be ordered for his police officers.  That is a start.

 

The Department of Justice should establish a task force to review the policies and practices of police killings in the U.S. and then make appropriate recommendations and take action when data shows violations of constitutional and civil rights.  We can no longer sit idly by and wait for the next person to be killed by police without taking action now.

 

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst, former prosecutor and founder of LegalSpeaks.com. She has been featured on Al Jazeera America, BET, C-Span, Fox 5, RT America, TV One, among others. She is also a contributor to the Huffington Post and the Women’s Media Center.


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