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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.

Plot Thickens in Missing UVA Student Case

October 21st, 2014 | Tags: , ,
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A whirlwind of events happened recently in the missing University Of Virginia student Hannah Graham case following Jesse Matthew’s arrest on charges of abduction and intent to defile in Charlottesville.  Unfortunately those events include finding skeletal human remains which may be those of Hannah Graham.  The State Medical Examiner’s office in Richmond, VA has the remains and will determine the cause of death and the identity of the remains.  Jesse Matthew now faces a new indictment handed down on Monday, October 20 in a 2005 attempted murder, abduction and sexual assault case for a then 26 year old woman in Fairfax County.   And there still remains an unsolved 2009 case of Morgan Harrington who went missing and was found dead in 2010.  Police have confirmed the forensics in the Harrington case match those of the 2005 and Hannah Graham case. No indictment has been issued in the Harrington case.


Forensic evidence has now linked Jesse Matthew to three cases, Hannah Graham, Morgan Harrington and the 2005 sexual assault abduction.  Once Jesse Matthew’s DNA was in the criminal justice system’s crime database,  the police were able to link his DNA obtained in the Hannah Graham investigation to Morgan Harrington’s murder and the 2005 case identified only as “RG” due to the sexual assault nature of the case and the victim.  And now, the police may be looking to see if Matthew’s DNA is involved in cases when he was a juvenile.   The earlier charges of rape and sex assault while he attended two separate colleges were not pursued in the criminal justice system.   He has been ruled out as a suspect in two 2003 Newport News cases.


The next stage in the Matthew’s matter will be an arrest warrant or bench warrant to bring Matthew from Charlottesville in Albermarle County to Fairfax County to face the charges there and enter an attorney’s appearance.  It is too early yet to determine which jurisdiction will be the first to prosecute him at a trial.  Matthew’s next court appearance in Charlottesville will be on December 4.   On Thursday, October 22, the bench warrant will be issued to bring him to Fairfax county to face charges there.


On Tuesday, October 21, 2014, I provided legal analysis on the case as seen on Fox 5 News.  More updates will be provided as the cases  and investigation continues.

Is Domestic Violence the Cost of Doing Business for the NFL

October 18th, 2014 | Tags: , ,
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Ray Rice @ Wikipedia

Ray Rice @ Wikipedia

Almost midway through the NFL football season following the Ray Rice domestic violence, the   incident seems to have had no effect on fans viewing games which means the bottom line of the NFL is quite secure.  Reports  obtained by Reuters from Nielson shows that fan viewership in the first month of the season increased this year on ESPN, CBS and NBC.  And like many major corporations, the NFL may believe  that if their bottom line is intact, it can weather the storm and carry on with business as usual.


In cases involving major corporations, the economic hit to the bottom line is what matters in most cases, more than people.  It’s what is called putting profits over people. Whether it’s a major car manufacturer as with Toyota’s Prius and Camry unintended acceleration and brake malfunctions allegedly causing injury and death and massive recalls which resulted in so far over 1 billion dollar in payouts to car owners.  Toyota’s image or sales have not been tarnished.   And in the case of major drug manufacturer, Merck, agreed to pay over $4 billion to settle almost 30,000 claims of those who took Vioxx   and were injured or died as a result.  Erik Gordon, a pharmaceutical analyst says it’s just the cost of doing business. As long as the bottom line stays intact, many corporations are satisfied with doing little to make changes going forward.  In this regard, the NFL appears no different than a Merck or Toyota.


During his press release in September, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says he intends to make changes to the NFL’s domestic violence policy or lack thereof by the date of the Super Bowl. By the time Commissioner Goodell decides to issue protocols in February, 2015, it will have been 1 year since the Ray Rice incident and the football season will have concluded.  Unless some new major development is discovered in the Rice incident, or new allegations of domestic violence arise in other cases or someone dies as a result of domestic violence, it will be easy for the NFL to treat the Rice incident as the cost of doing business.


Despite denials from some within the NFL, Jerry Angelo, a former Chicago Bears general manager spoke out about hundreds of domestic violence complaints during his 30 years in the league that went unpunished.  Being able to acknowledge that a past history exists of wrongdoings, is one way to move towards changing the future.  How can the NFL move forward if it will not admit to its past wrongdoings beyond the Ray Rice incident? It did not only get the Ray Rice incident wrong, there is a pattern and practice of wrongdoing in the NFL that spans decades.  Going back to famed NFL player Jim Brown who in 1968 faced his first of many domestic violence charges, an assault with intent to murder, with other  domestic violence charges following in 1985, 1986 and 1999.   One of the most egregious domestic violence cases was former Carolina Panthers player, Rae Carruth, who was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder on his pregnant girlfriend in 1999.   A USA Today database that tracks NFL player arrests since 2000 found there were 87 domestic violence arrests among 80 players. And these numbers only deal with arrests and not  actual complaints that did not result in an arrest.


In order to prevent the NFL from lapsing back into its status of business as usual, it will  first take the efforts of   many advocates against domestic violence, many women’s organizations and the general public to muster a moral pulse for the NFL.    Future discussions will be held with the NFL and representatives of the Women’s Black Roundtable following their October 2, 2014 meeting with NFL representatives.  The NFL has named an anti-violence policy group that will meet regularly to assist in designing a league protocol on handling domestic violence. However, there must be more action taken on the domestic violence issue in the NFL to prevent future incidents from occurring or to prevent someone’s life from being taken by a NFL player.


The issue of domestic violence is a complex issue in the NFL.  And it must have a comprehensive approach in dealing with the issue. No matter what the approach, it can no longer just be business as usual for the NFL.



Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former prosecutor who has represented  many victims of domestic violence.

Judge Drops the Hammer on Michael Dunn at Sentencing

October 17th, 2014 | Tags: , , ,
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DebbieDunnTrialTwo years and two trials later after Jordan Davis was murdered by Michael Dunn while sitting in a car with 3 of his teen age friends, Leland Brunson, Tommie Stornes and Tevin Thompson playing music, Michael Dunn was sentenced today.   And justice was finally served.  As some say using slang, the judge dropped the hammer on Michael Dunn.  Judge Russell Healey sentenced Dunn to a maximum of 30 years, (20 years minimum)   each   for the attempted murders on Jordan’s three friends which equates to a minimum 60 years and maximum 90 years ,  15 years concurrently for the use of a firearm and then  life without eligibility of parole  after serving those sentences for Jordan’s murder. While often the criminal justice system does not equally dispense justice when it comes to black victims or black defendants versus whites, this time justice was fairly dispensed.   Justice is not always fair for African Americans. In the Dunn trial, justice was fair today. He justly got what he deserved.


In a society where African Americans  cannot sit in a car playing music, walk in a gated community with candy and iced tea or seek help from strangers at night, without being shot to death,  there is something terribly wrong with our society. Mr. Dunn went from his son’s wedding, a joyous occasion to taking another person’s life on November 23, 2012. And Judge Healey addressed it, saying the Dunn case shows how society has lost its way and its “moral compass”.   Judge Healey in delivering the sentence tells Dunn, “Mr. Dunn your life is effectively over”.  And Judge Healey also addressed Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws upon which these types of defendants rely on to justify their killings.  Healey indicated that Stand Your Ground does not mean those like Mr. Dunn have a right to shoot and kill in these situations without a duty to retreat. The Florida law has been widely misinterpreted and used to justify unlawful killings.


Despite the harsh sentence given, for the family of Jordan Davis, nothing will ever be the same.  Victims of the family are allowed to address the court through victim impact statements or by testimony before the court.  The statements by the Davis family were heart wrenching for all those in court, including 5 jurors who came to the sentencing.  Ron Davis, Jordan’s father said his life as he knew it was shattered on November 23, 2012. His mother, Lucia McBath, stated that Jordan was named after the river Jordan in the Bible and prayed many prayers over his life that Jordan would be able to navigate a world with danger.  And yet, through it all, Jordan Davis’ mother states she chooses to forgive Dunn for taking her son’s life.


Michael Dunn has 30 days to appeal.   It’s a safe bet to say he will appeal.  He has nothing to lose. There were two trials since the first trial resulted in guilty verdicts of the three attempted murders and a hung jury or mistrial in the murder of Jordan Dunn.  On appeal, even if one appeal is unlikely successful, Dunn will likely remain in jail as the sentences run consecutively and not together.  And an appeal is not based on the fact that he is dissatisfied with his sentence handed down by the judge. It must be based on a legal error committed by the trial judge which affected the jury’s verdict and outcome of the trial.  The sentences are effectively a death sentence in jail for 47 year old Michael Dunn. The State’s Attorney stated the case did not meet the criteria for the death penalty. Even if it did, the family of Jordan Davis, a religious family, did not want the death penalty on religious reasons.


And so for this time, justice was served for the murder and attempted murders of African American teenagers just acting as teenagers in America.  And this time “Lady Justice” got it right.


Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former felony prosecutor who has tried murder cases. She often is seen in the media speaking on law, race and gender issues on BET, C-Span, Fox 5, NBC and CBS affiliates and TV One with Roland Martin.

Oscar Pistorius Asserts White Privilege During Sentencing

October 15th, 2014 | Tags: , ,
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Photo courte256px-Oscar_Pistorius_2_Daegu_2011sy Erik van Leeuwen


In many ways, the Oscar Pistorius trial has had very little parallels to the American justice system except in the sentencing phase, where Pistorius is asserting white privilege to avoid jail time. Pistorius was found guilty  of culpable homicide a parallel to manslaughter in America. He could receive up to 15 years in jail or as little as house arrest or community service.  Unlike in America, there is no jury system so the case instead was tried before Judge Thokozile Masipaone, one of the few  black judges in South Africa.  During the trial, Pistorius cried, sobbed and told how he loved Reeva Steenkamp and would not have killed her.   And now during the sentencing phase, entering into day three, the Pistorius  defense is asserting what he probably believes to  be his  rights as a white South African to avoid jail.


Prior to the killing of Reeva Steenkamp, Oscar Pistorius, known as the Blade Runner, for his running ability on artificial prosthetics,  fought for the right to be treated as an equal.  Prior to the killing of Reeva, Pistorius proclaimed that he did not want special preferential  treatment and earned the right to run competitively with nondisabled runners.  Ever since the death of Steenkamp, he has been singing a different tune.  During the trial, he practically blamed his disability as the reason for his overwhelming fear of intruders into his house on the February night that Steenkamp was killed.  He used his lack of lower limbs as the reason he felt vulnerable suspecting burglars in his home.  And now that he has been found guilty of a crime which carries a jail sentence, he has been relying on his disability as a way to keep him out of jail.  Pistorius never wanted to be treated differently due to his disability until now.  And none of the excuses that he has proffered through his defense team should be enough to keep him out of jail.


Since the sentencing hearing, Pistorius’ team and the probation officer hired by the defense has concocted a series of white privilege defenses.  A defense witness testified that he would be “broken as a person” if he were sent to jail. The probation officer who testified said he would be subject to violence and highly stressful conditions.  A jail is likely a highly stressful condition for anyone.  And in most jails, unfortunately there is often violence.  As for his disability, jails may not be fully handicap accessible for the blind, hearing impaired or physically disabled, yet that is not a reason to excuse a crime.   Jails are not just for the able bodied.  Jails and incarceration are for those who have committed a crime which justifies incarceration. Killing a person fits into that category.  As his defense team asserts that jail would have no beneficial effect on Pistorius, jails usually do not have a beneficial effect on most of those who are incarcerated.


The prosecution is seeking a lengthy sentence for the killing of Reeva Steenkamp.  It is not known how Pistorius’ white privilege defense will work.   In South Africa and America, the white wealthy or famous privilege defense seems to work in some cases.   In December, 2013, Ethan Couch,  a wealthy 16 year old teenager avoided jail for killing 4 people and severely injuring two others, as a result of drunk driving when he asserted what was being called the “affluenza” defense by his psychologist.  One man lost both his wife and daughter in the Couch  drunk driving collision.  Couch received probation after pleading guilty to manslaughter.  And  Alabama Judge Mark Fuller admitted to domestic violence of his wife by hitting her with a closed fist. He like NFL player Ray Rice received diversion. He will not have to admit guilt and his record will remain clean.


In the U.S. the prison population is over 50% African American and Hispanic males despite the fact that African American men make up roughly 6% of the overall population.  And the fact of the high concentration of minorities is not due to more crime being committed. It is due to the inherent prejudicial bias in the criminal justice system.  And in South Africa, the overwhelming prisoners in jail are black.  And one report states in relationship to whites and jail time, “Owing to the relatively greater incomes of the white and Indian populations and their greater levels of education… it might well be the case that they enjoyed a superior standard of legal representation than did the other two population groups, and could thus avoid jail.”  And that speaks volumes for Oscar Pistorius and his chances of getting no jail time for killing Reeva Steenkamp.




Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer in Washington, DC and former felony prosecutor.

Is the Suspect in Missing U VA Student Case a Serial Abductor?

September 30th, 2014 | Tags: ,
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The case of Hannah Graham, the missing University of VA student, who went missing over two weeks ago, is now becoming like something straight out of a TV series, either Criminal Minds, Cold Case or 48 Hours or all combined. In some other ways, it is eerily similar to the case of Charles Severance, the man now charged in the three Alexandria, VA murders of Ruthanne Lodato, Ron Kirby and of realtor Nancy Dunning from over a decade ago. Police were looking into the murder of Ruthanne Lodato from a composite sketch made by a witness when forensics evidence from Severance’s home linked him to the two earlier murders. And now in the case of suspect Jesse Matthew, police leaked information that forensics evidence found at either his car or house may link him to another student who went missing over 2 years ago. And a composite sketch of a suspect wanted for another rape in 2005 appears in his likeness. But what does all of this mean in the case of Hannah Graham?

Up to now, the police have been very closed mouthed about what evidence links Jesse Matthew to Hannah Graham’s alleged abduction. Yet, information has been leaked about a 2002 rape allegation against Matthew by a Liberty University student who did not pursue any charges, a possible link to a date drug where Matthew works as an operating room tech and now the missing student from 2 years ago.

Meanwhile Matthew has been described by friends and family as a “gentle giant”. Yet, if the police leaks turn out to point to Matthew, he may be more like a serial abductor than a” gentle giant”. Matthews has no record to speak of. And there are cases where no prior criminal record exists, yet the perpetrator committed heinous acts. That is not unlikely in sexual abuse cases. Sexual abuse cases occur with teachers, police officers and other unlikely highly respected individuals without a record and with a solid background.

But the Commonwealth of Virginia must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. And as Matthew’s court date nears on Thursday for his initial appearance, he will soon receive thereafter a preliminary hearing date . At a preliminary hearing, the prosecution must put its cards on the table and show them. This means they must show that their evidence matches the charges. A judge did issue and sign an arrest warrant for Matthew. The judge prior to signing an arrest warrant would have been aware of the statements of the police linking Jesse Mathew to Hannah Graham’s alleged abduction. And signing and issuing the warrant means the police have probable cause to arrest Matthew. And probable cause means the police have enough evidence to convince a reasonable person of the charges. Whether the prosecution has enough evidence to convict Jesse Matthew remains to be seen. Probable cause is a low standard and doesn’t weigh the evidence or its credibility. And Matthew isn’t talking now on the advice of his counsel.

The prosecution will need to prove its case without a statement from Matthew. The prosecution will shortly need to show what evidence links Jesse Matthew to Hannah Graham and stop the guessing game that everyone in the media is doing.

The link below shows a legal analysis by Debbie Hines of the Jesse Matthew case on Fox 5 News on September 29, 2014. His arraignment is set for Thursday, October 2.

UPDATE: Matthew’s hearing set for Thurs. has now been moved to December, according to his attorney.

Eric Holder’s Resignation Will Leave a Void

September 26th, 2014 | Tags: ,
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It is with sadness and a heavy heart that I heard the news of Attorney General Eric Holder resigning as U.S. Attorney General.  Yet, I know that everything that has a beginning has an ending.   Attorney General Holder is the fourth longest serving Attorney General.


As the first African American Attorney General, Eric Holder has been one of the best Attorney General’s that has served at the Department of Justice. I have felt that he  has carried the true meaning of the Justice Department and the Constitution in fighting  for “liberty and justice for all”.  Those words have not been realized for everyone in our imperfect union.  And with the fights against equal access to the voting ballot, the basis and backbone of our democracy, I find that Eric Holder has fought the hardest battles.  His strong support for reducing the disproportionate sentencing guidelines of African Americans in certain drug cases showed strength and power to do the right thing.  His fights  and firm stance against the GOP who sanctioned him  and found him in contempt of Congress for doing his job showed grace under fire.  Every time that I have had an opportunity to hear him speak in person, I have taken the opportunity.


And  Mr. Holder’s  most recent stance in coming to Ferguson, MO, to show support for the community as the highest ranking justice official, gave calm to a volatile situation.  He has recently spoke about police power should be exhibited fairly and just in reviewing the case of Michael Brown and other similar cases across the country.  Attorney General Holder has never strayed  from speaking his mind on race issues.  That’s why he called the U.S. a nation of cowards for our failure to do the work of justice and address the issues of racism in this country.


It is my hope that his work will continue with his successor.  His work must continue and the dream must   move towards reality.  In his words, Attorney General Holder said:


“Work remains to be done – but our list of accomplishments is real.  Over the last six years, our Administration has made historic gains in realizing the principles of the founding documents, and fought to protect the most sacred of American rights: the right to vote.  We have begun to realize the promise of equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters and their families.  We have begun to significantly reform our criminal justice system and reconnect those who bravely serve in law enforcement with the communities they protect.  We have kept faith with our belief in the power of the greatest judicial system the world has ever known to fairly and effectively adjudicate any cases that are brought before it, including those that involve the security of the nation we both love so dearly.  We have taken steps to protect the environment and make more fair the rules by which our commercial enterprises operate.  And we have held accountable those who would harm the American people either through violent means or the misuse of economic or political power.”


Thank you Mr. Holder for all that you have done to advance the dream of liberty and justice for all.


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