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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.

Supreme Court Hears Case on Why Juveniles Should Not Die in Jail

October 13th, 2015 | Tags: , , ,
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supcourt_buildingAs a trial lawyer and former prosecutor, I always seek justice and fairness during sentencing hearings.  When defending an individual, I argue the merits of a sentence based on the specifics that relate to that person.  Everyone is unique in what brings them before the criminal justice system and how the court should sentence them.  On Tuesday, the U. S. Supreme Court will hear  oral arguments in the case of Henry Montgomery, a Louisiana man with a low IQ of 70, who was convicted as a juvenile for killing a police officer and sentenced to the death penalty almost 50 years ago.  His death penalty sentence was overturned in 1969. And he was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole.


Montgomery’s case comes before the U.S. Supreme Court following a 2012 Supreme Court case ruling that those who were juveniles at the time  of their offense must be given a sentencing hearing to determine if life without parole is appropriate  under their specific circumstances.   They must be allowed to present mitigating circumstances to rebut a life without parole sentence and not face a mandatory sentence to die in prison.


Mr. Montgomery’s case occurred many years before the new law in 2012 took effect. His lawyers will argue to the court on behalf of Montgomery but possibly affecting perhaps 2,000 other youth lifers that the 2012 law should be applied retroactively.  If so, then Montgomery would have the opportunity to present mitigating factors  at a new sentencing hearing on why his life without parole sentence should be changed.



It is a legal debate of major proportions on whether the law should be considered retroactively. Most laws do not apply retroactively.  It depends on whether the court views the change in law as substantive or procedural.  If  the Supreme Court rules the  2012 ruling should be considered substantive, then Montgomery will be entitled to his new day in court for another sentencing hearing.



Many states prohibit minors from drinking alcohol until the age of 21.  Most states now have restrictive driving licenses until an individual reaches the age of 21.  Persons cannot vote until they reach the age of 18.  The reasons why state laws limit driving licenses and drinking alcohol is due to a realization that juveniles and teenagers are not often sufficiently able to reach sound decisions that will affect their lives.


The U. S. criminal justice system is one that is presumably  based on justice and fairness.  Many prosecutors ask for sentences that are just and fair.  While many sentences handed out by judges seem neither just or fair when it comes to mandatory sentencing, this is an opportunity for the Supreme Court to do what is just and fair.


If teenagers cannot be relied upon to drink alcohol or drive responsibility until reaching a certain age, it is difficult to see how they can be relied upon to make appropriate judgments when it comes to more gruesome issues like taking someone’s life.  That is not to suggest that in either of these situations that no punishment should be given.  The punishment for any particular crime should take into account any mitigating circumstances such as age, mental ability, IQ and any other relevant  factors.


It is never too late for the criminal justice system to be fair and just.  Justice has no time limits.  While many victims may object on the grounds of opening old wounds. I beg to disagree as that being a valid  reason for the Supreme Court to  do what is fair and just.


Those who are exonerated years later are given freedom. There is no statute of limitations on the court reversing any wrongs and doing what justice and fairness demand.  It’s never too late  for the  Supreme Court and our criminal justice system to be just and fair.



Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former prosecutor.  She often appears on air on Al Jazeera, MSNBC, CBS News, C-Span, BET, Fox 5, PBS News Hour and others.



Tamar Rice Never Stood a Chance with Police

October 12th, 2015 | Tags: , , , ,
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police-chase_mediumJustice is often elusive when it comes to blacks killed or injured by police whether 12 years old or 112. So it should come as no surprise when two reports issued over the weekend indicate the same will likely be true for 12 year old Tamir Rice. Tamir was shot and killed on November 22, 2014 by police officer Loehmann while he was playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland Park. A 911 call alerted that someone probably a “juvenile” with a “fake gun” was in the park. Tamir was holding a toy gun and killed within seconds of the officer arriving on the scene to investigate. And like so many before him, these reports indicate the officer was acting reasonably when Tamir was shot. The reports and passage of time since Tamir’s death leads one to almost conclude that once again justice will be denied without an indictment, arrest or trial.

Two reports, both commissioned by the Cleveland prosecutor’s office came to the same result—that the officer acted reasonable in shooting and killing Tamir Rice within a matter of seconds. One report was conducted by a Colorado prosecutor and another by a retired FBI expert. A decision on a whether to seek an indictment has not been announced.

I have friends and clients who ask what should they tell their teenage sons to protect them when confronted by the police. Unfortunately, there is not much that can be said. What do you tell a 12 year old—not yet a teenager old, going out to play on a playground? Do you tell him to be careful because otherwise he may be killed by the police? How would you prevent this incident from happening? Most encounters of a deadly nature or serious injury with police have little to do with sagging pants, Afrocentric hair styles, manner of speech, college degree or anything else that would make sense.


The standard on review seems to bend in favor of the police and not the innocent victim—who was otherwise doing nothing to provoke the police. The standard appears based on what the police officer  believes is reasonable fear for one’s life. And that statement alone will likely justify a 12 year old being killed playing in a park. Did Tamir look scary to the police while playing on the playground? How does a child playing instill fear in a trained police officer? Is it that all black men and boys look threatening to police?


Attorney General Loretta Lynch recently stated there was a need for local police departments to keep better tracking of killings done by police. There is no way to know the magnitude of a problem without understanding the underlying statistics and facts. And there should be federal database—not echoed by Lynch. We need to know how many Tamirs, Freddie Gray’s, Michael Browns and Walter Scotts were killed by police.   We need to know the circumstances surrounding these incident. That is the only way we can begin to recommend effective policy, protocols and procedures to change the present police culture.


It is the police who need to change. Police policies must be implemented to combat against the racial stereotypical thinking among many police—both black and white. Until the police change, more Tamir Rice’s will be singled out and die at the hands of police.



America’s compass for justice is lost anytime a 12 year old black child cannot play on a playground or in a park without being shot and killed by a police officer.  It is as if blacks once again have no rights that the police should and will respect.


Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former prosecutor. She often appears on air on Al Jazeera America, MSNBC, PBS, CBS News, C-Span, BET, Fox 5 News and others addressing legal and political issues on race, gender and class.


Kim Davis Needs to do Her Job or Resign

September 15th, 2015 | Tags: , , ,
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KimDavisClerkThere are times when our conscious or moral beliefs may interfere with our jobs. When I prosecuted crimes in Baltimore as an Assistant State’s Attorney, I was opposed to the death penalty.  I still oppose the death penalty.  At that time, there was no moratorium on the death penalty in Maryland.  And there were a few death penalty cases. Fortunately, I never had to make a decision over my conscious or my job.  If it came down to me having to choose, I would have asked to be removed from the felony unit where death penalty trials occur to another unit within the office.


However, I was not the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City—the chief prosecutor.  If I had been my boss over the entire office, I would have no choice except to try a case that warranted under the law—the death penalty or step down from my elected position.


Kim Davis, the Kentucky Rowan County court clerk who refuses to provide marriage certificates for same sex couples took an oath to do her job under the law.  The law of the land announced by the U.S. Supreme Court affords marriage equality and marriage licenses for all, including same sex couples.  And her job as the Chief Clerk of Rowan County elected by the voters demands that she do her job—despite what her religious preference, reasons or conscious dictates.


Many people have held religious, conscious or other beliefs that are counter to the law.  Acting out on those beliefs in contravention of the law is a problem—a criminal one. During the Civil Rights movement, President Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which forbid discrimination in the hiring, firing and promotion on the basis of race. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed to prohibit race discrimination in the right to vote that was afforded blacks in 1870.


After the passing of many civil rights laws, individuals still attempted to deny the rights to blacks afforded by the law.   In 1963 Alabama Governor George Wallace stood on the steps of the University of Alabama attempting to forbid two black students from entering to enter. His cry was the same as Kim Davis.  He cried segregation now and segregation forever to preclude integration affording civil rights to include African Americans.  Kim Davis cries for the same reason.  She cites her conscious in the same way that George Wallace did.  To Wallace, prohibiting blacks from entering Alabama institutions and affording them civil rights was a moral one.  He was wrong.  Kim Davis is also wrong.


When one’s morality is against the law, it demands that choices be made.  The choice for Kim Davis is to give up her Clerk of the Court position.  The choice is not for her to remove her name off of the marriage licenses of the same sex couples—as her office did at her request.  In doing so, she is trying to circumvent the law.


The case should be brought back before the federal court for clarity.  This time, the federal court should clearly advise that the Rowan County clerk’s office is in contempt for its refusal to provide the same marriage licenses afforded to all couples with the name of the Clerk of the Court who presides over the Clerk’s office.


The law does not need to change for Kim Davis.  Kim Davis in her elected position as Clerk of Rowan County needs to change for the law. The law should not bend to suit the conscious of Kim Davis.



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

Here’s Why the Freddie Gray Case will Stay in Baltimore

September 10th, 2015 | Tags: , ,
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Baltimore Circuit Court House via Flickr by Kirsch

Baltimore Circuit Court House via Flickr by Kirsch

After reading hundreds of pages filed by both sides and hearing oral arguments by the attorneys on whether to remove the trial of the 6 officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, Judge Barry Williams on September 10, 2015 declined to remove the trial to another location. The police officers argued that pretrial publicity made it virtually impossible for the officers to receive a fair trial in Baltimore.


Most of the defense arguments by attorney Ivan Bates, who argued for all 6 officers, rested on speculation on what potential jurors feel about the case from media.  Judge Williams addressed all of the issues involved including the comments made by the prosecutor in bringing charges, comments by the Mayor and former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, the riots, curfew, settlement of the civil case and leaks in the media about the case.


A fair trial is paramount to our criminal justice system.  It is also important as Judge Williams referenced that these defendants have a right to also be tried in the jurisdiction where the alleged offense occurred.  In terms of publicity, Judge Williams noted that there is no county that has not heard about the Freddie Gray case via news through print media, on air or on the Internet.  Media coverage has been worldwide.  Coincidentally one of the officers, William Porter, recently gave an interview to the Washington Post.


Two cases cited by the prosecution show that the trend of moving cases out of jurisdictions due to pretrial publicity and effect on residents is changing in the 21st century.  The Boston Bomber case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the Sniper case were tried in the jurisdiction where the offense occurred.  In the  case of John Allen Muhammad, known as the Sniper case held in Montgomery County, Maryland, most Montgomery County residents were concerned about being the target of a sniper attack while outdoors for the 22 days of the Sniper’s random killing spree.   And the city of Boston and surrounding areas were on lockdown before locating the Boston Bomber.


In determining the issues of a fair trial, the key element is not whether potential jurors know about the case from the media.  The crucial element is whether 12 fair and impartial jurors can hear and decide the cases based solely on the evidence heard in the court room.  The defense vigorously argued the settlement of the civil case for Mr. Gray’s family would ensure the potential jurors assessed fault to the officers. The fact that a civil settlement occurred had no bearing on the Charlotte, NC case involving Jonathan Ferrell who was shot 10 times by an officer, while asking for help.  The jury was unable to reach a verdict despite knowledge of the settlement. The jurors leaned towards acquittal. The defense made 4 prior requests for removal to another county before the trial started.  The same might occur in Baltimore.


Baltimore has over 600,000 residents.  It will take 12 fair and impartial jurors for each of the 6 trials. Judge Williams repeatedly stated that the citizens of Baltimore are not “monolithic”.  They can think for themselves. Most of the issues addressed on removal can be discussed with each individual potential juror by Judge Williams during jury selection to make sure a fair and impartial jury is seated.


In essence, the defense had the burden to prove that it would be impossible to find 12 fair jurors out of 600,000 Baltimore residents.  That is an insurmountable task. As prosecutor Michael Schatzow, the chief deputy of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office argued, the thought that 12 fair minded people cannot be found in Baltimore to hear the case is insulting to the citizens of the City of Baltimore.  All citizens of Baltimore do not all think alike.


At the end of the day, there is a presumption of fairness unless the defense can prove to the contrary.  Judge Williams ruled on the basis of Maryland law and the state Constitution that there is no need to pick up and go somewhere else to try the case.


The trial starts October 13.  The date may be changed.


Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former  Baltimore prosecutor.

Freddie Gray Settlement Speaks Volumes about Baltimore

September 9th, 2015 | Tags: , ,
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Credit: Murphy, Falcon and Murphy

Credit: Murphy, Falcon and Murphy

The $6.4 million settlement of the Freddie Gray civil case raises many eyebrows and questions for the City of Baltimore. Some question why the City settled the case, the amount of the settlement and the timing of the settlement—one month before the trial of six police officers accused in the death of Freddie Gray starts. Many question whether the City should have waited until the conclusion of all 6 trials of the officers before entertaining a settlement. William H. Murphy, Jr., the family’s attorney, had not filed a lawsuit. Those who argue the amount of the settlement question whether the value of Freddie Gray’s life and death warranted a high 7 figure settlement. Gray lived in the Sandtown area of West Baltimore—an area plighted with high poverty, high unemployment, high drug use and other socio-economic ailments. And some legal scholars wonder whether the timing of the settlement will affect Baltimore’s ability to keep the police officers’ trials in Baltimore. I question the settlement for other reasons.


All of the facts are not known about the Freddie Gray case. What is apparently known is that Baltimore police placed 25 year old Freddie Gray in a police van face down without any restraints. Gray was found unconscious 45 minutes later. He died one week later in a hospital from severe spinal injuries. The Baltimore Medical Examiner ruled his death a homicide.

Various factors go into reaching a settlement in a case. Former Police Officer Anthony Batts stated in April that police broke protocol by refusing to restrain Gray in the van. Past similar incidents might also have factored into the civil case. Some in Baltimore refer to a police practice of placing arrestees without restraint and taking them on a “rough ride”. The Gray’s attorney would likely file the case in federal court for civil rights violations of Freddie Gray. In federal court for civil rights violations, no limitations on the amount of damages exists against a municipality and its employees.

Undeniably the settlement may have an effect on the criminal trial of the officers. Ultimately, the decision on whether the impact of the settlement and prior publicity will affect the police officers’ rights to a fair trial rests with Judge Barry Williams. A hearing on the Defendants’ motions to change the venue will be heard in Baltimore City Circuit Court on Thursday, September  10—one day after the City officials meet to approve the settlement.

I question the millions of dollars being spent to settle police brutality cases for other reasons. The millions of dollars spent on settling police excessive force cases do not appear to have any effect on the police department. And yet, the money could go to other uses—starting with training police officers on racial bias and excessive force. However, as long as officers commit violations of the law, there will be settlements. The City of Baltimore’s readiness to settle police brutality cases rather than address the problem of police excessive force lies at the heart of the matter. The real problem lies in how to avoid another Freddie Gray being the subject of police brutality and receiving a settlement. Without police brutality and excessive force, there would be no need for large settlements.

Settlements of police brutality cases do not deter future police brutality cases. These cases do not financially hurt the police officers, the police department or its union. The monies come out of the City of Baltimore funds fueled by taxpayers.

In a city of over 600,000 residents where approximately 25% live below the poverty level, millions of dollars could go a long way towards helping the citizens, like the Freddie Grays of West Baltimore. In a city of high unemployment, high drug use and high crime, monies are needed to address the socio-economic issues facing the City.


The Department of Justice is looking into the practices of the Baltimore City Police Department to determine if a pattern and practice of excessive force and other violations exist. I urge the City of Baltimore, its Mayor, Interim Police Chief and other elected officials to move forward now on improving its police force with proper training of the officers on how to do their job without violating civil rights of their citizens. It is too late for Freddie Gray.

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former Baltimore prosecutor.

UPDATE:  On Thursday, September 10, Judge Barry Williams denied the 6 police officers’ motion to remove their trials from Baltimore due to prejudicial publicity and the civil settlement by the City of Baltimore. The cases will remain in Baltimore.


Rating the Legal Players in the Freddie Gray Case

September 3rd, 2015 | Tags: , , ,
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Baltimore Circuit Court House via Flickr by Kirsch

Baltimore Circuit Court House via Flickr by Kirsch

After watching the Freddie Gray case all day in court on September 2 as a legal eagle or legal geek, whichever you prefer, I came to my opinions about the main legal players involved. The presiding trial judge is Judge Barry Williams. A trial lawyer –defense or prosecution could not ask for a better and well qualified trial judge. All judges are not created equal. And Judge Williams ranks heads above most judges for his intelligence, judicial temperament, sometimes wit and all times no nonsense approach.

And above all, Judge Williams is fair. He ruled against consolidation of the trial with all six police officers tried in one case with their different charges ranging from assault to murder.  Judge Williams ruled it would not be in the best interest of justice. He ruled on two motions in favor of the prosecution and denied one State’s motion. And he did not mince words to the lawyers. He pointedly mentioned to the defense that some of their motions lacked a paucity of any evidence. In addressing other defense motions, he said their tone was condescending when defense implied there would be a conflict due to State’s Attorney Mosby’s marriage to Nick Mosby—a City Councilman. I can’t wait to see more of his judicial temperament and rulings. And I will get my chance on September 10, when the motion to move the cases out of Baltimore is argued.

On the prosecution side, Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow who appears and should be the lead attorney for the prosecutors is tenacious, well prepared and eloquent in his presentation of the state’s case. The prosecution’s team is lucky to have him. He argued two motions. He is a pit-bull of an attorney who unabashedly fought for his position.

On the other side of the prosecution team is Deputy State’s Attorney Janice Bledsoe who argued the motion on consolidation of the trial. Bledsoe could take some pointers and teaching from her colleague, Schatzow. While vigorously arguing her points, she showed an edge that sometimes bordered on condescending with the judge. Her comments to the judge such as “Are we good?” and “okay?” in tone implied that Judge Williams needed to catch up to her—when she was the one who was confusing at times. There is a deference that judges are accorded. At times, her tone fell below that threshold. I sat with another female trial lawyer who also commented on Bledsoe’s demeanor.

On the defense side was Catherine Flynn—a well-known and respected defense trial lawyer, Andrew Graham and others representing the 6 police officers. Flynn was eloquent in her approach and demeanor. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby was present in the court room. She did not speak on behalf of the state. Yet, her presence was felt as she walked into the court room to sit with her lawyers.

It was interesting to see in a sea of many lawyers on both sides—that only one woman trial lawyer was present on each side. More women are needed in the court room. When all the lawyers were called up to the bench, we saw the more than 12 lawyers stand up. The court room still lacks women despite more women attending law school.

Overall on the defense side, the other lawyers representing the police officers were well prepared and well-spoken in arguing their respective clients.

Motions hearings will continue on September 10. The parties will argue the motion to change the venue. Judging by the earlier rulings, it seems likely the case will remain in Baltimore—for now. And the trial is scheduled to start on October 17—for now.

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore prosecutor.



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