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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.


Implications of Baltimore Police Officer’s Acquittal

May 24th, 2016 | Tags: , , , , ,
Posted in Legal | No Comments »
Credit: Murphy, Falcon and Murphy

Credit: Murphy, Falcon and Murphy

On  Monday, May 23, Baltimore police officer Edward Nero was found not guilty of all charges by Judge Barry Williams in the case involving the death of Freddie Gray.  Before a packed court room, Judge Williams methodically read his opinion lasting almost 25 minutes detailing how he came to his conclusions. I was present in the court room as he read his reasoning for the decision. Williams, himself, a former Baltimore City prosecutor and litigator in the Department of Justice on police misconduct cases was well versed on the law–vis a vis the involvement of Edward Nero. The entire opinion is linked here.

Many question whether the acquittal of Nero will have an effect on the remaining five officers whose trials are set between June and September.  Some question if any of the other officers are likely to take a bench trial, now that they see how it turned out for Nero.   On Monday, I appeared on PBS News Hour to discuss the implications of Nero’s case as it pertains to the remaining cases.  Hari Sreenivasin asked me many pointed questions concerning the cases and what’s next for the Baltimore prosecutors as they face the third trial. Officer William Porter’s case ended in mistrial. And now, the only verdict is an acquittal.

Below is the TV clip:

 

 


How Donald Trump Could Affect Minorities Attending Schools

May 18th, 2016 | Tags: , , , , ,
Posted in Legal | 1 Comment »

supcourt_buildingIn the same week that the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education marked its 62nd anniversary declaring that “separate but equal” schools are unconstitutional, a Mississippi town was found to be in violation of Brown and Donald Trump lists his possible eleven Supreme Court picks for vetting. It’s almost surreal and one could not script the three together. But the three are intertwined together in ways that could affect minorities and attendance at schools.

Brown v. Board of Education’s decision on May 17, 1954 marked the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision which found that barring blacks from attending white segregated schools on the theory that all schools were separate but equal was unconstitutional. The premise of “separate but equal” had held true as the law in the U.S. since 1868. And following Brown v. Board of Education, many African American and other minority children were bused to schools in white areas or otherwise allowed to attend previously all white schools, as a result of the decision. The decision affected schools everywhere—in northern and southern states.

Fast forward to May 17 , 2016, some sixty-two years later. A federal court ruled on a case involving Cleveland, Mississippi that has been fighting against the principles in Brown v. Board of Education for decades. Some say justice delayed is justice denied. And in the recent case of Cleveland, Mississippi, the saying is true.

For over 50 years, the small town of Cleveland, Mississippi battled with desegregating its schools. And now, a federal court has ruled the town must combine its mostly all black and other minorities attending middle school and high school with whites into one school. And the town is weighing its options to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. And so, for now, the issues decided in Brown v. Board of Education are still in dispute—in the minds of those living in Cleveland, Mississippi.

Generations of black children in the small town have been denied a right to an equal education as declared by Brown. And if the town has its way, there may be years before the issue is finally resolved, if appealed to the highest court.

And here’s where Donald Trump’s list of possible Supreme Court justices announced in the same week, if he is elected, enters the picture.   If Donald Trump becomes President Trump, the education case involving Cleveland, Mississippi would go before the Supreme Court with a Trump Supreme Court pick. And while however far-fetched it may seem at the present moment in time, a reversal of Brown v. Board of Education’s ruling could occur. A few months ago, it seem far fetched that Donald Trump would become the Republican nominee.  But even without a Trump pick to the Supreme Court, the high court has slowly taken away affirmative action rights for minorities in education cases occurring over the years.

And while the Democrats continue to fight during the primary process, for minorities, it is particularly imperative that Donald Trump never enters the White House—as President of the United States.

 

 

2171_48010694635_9179_n[1]Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar. Her Op Ed articles appear in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and Huffington Post.


Judge to Deliver Verdict in Baltimore Police Officer Trial

May 17th, 2016 | Tags: , , , , , ,
Posted in Legal | No Comments »
Credit: Murphy, Falcon and Murphy

Credit: Murphy, Falcon and Murphy

The first verdict of the 6 Baltimore police officers cases involving the death of Freddie Gray will come on Monday, May 23.  And despite the concerns of some in the police community that Judge Williams might be swayed by emotions, that is a non-issue. Officer Edward Nero chose a bench trial before Judge Barry Williams instead of a jury trial. And his fate will be sealed by Judge Williams’ decision based on sound legal principle and judgment.  And the verdict may surprise many who have followed the trial.

All judges are not created equal. And Judge Williams ranks heads above most judges for his intelligence, judicial temperament, sometimes wit and at all times no nonsense approach. And above all, Judge Williams is fair to wall sides as his previous rulings in the cases of William Porter and Edward Nero will support. That may be the real reason, the defense chose a bench trial—for his fairness and legal intellect.

I suspect as a former Baltimore prosecutor that Judge Williams will aptly apply the law to the facts or evidence presented in a well -reasoned and well researched lengthy legal opinion which he will read from the bench on Monday. Above all, he will hold the state to their high burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt- one that they may have failed to meet in some of these charges.

As a legal observer, the Nero trial has some nuances that are rare in a criminal case and particularly in a police officer case charged with assault. And the state is pushing the legal limit on the assault charge, like driving slightly above 60 miles per hour in a 60 mile per hour zone. If successful with a guilty verdict, new legal ground may be advanced by their theory. The assault theory is based on the fact that Freddie Gray’s arrest lacked probable cause—an argument normally reserved for the defense charged with a crime. But in the Nero case, everything is flipped on its head. The verdict will have an impact on the other two bicycle police officers Miller and Rice whose cases and state’s legal theory are similar to Nero.

And on the charge of reckless endangerment, the state argues use of seat belt police protocol is for the safety of the arrestees. And yet the defense argues the use of the seat belt was unsafe for police officers. The main issue is whether Nero had sufficient contact with Freddie Gray to support a reckless endangerment conviction. Nero’s contact with Gray was minimized by the defense. And although the defense placed blame on the van driver, Caesar Goodson, there may be more than one officer found guilty for the same charge.

 

I suspect the misconduct in office charge is where the state might be close to getting a guilty verdict. The assault and reckless endangerment charges are a long shot–at the very least.  On the misconduct in office charge, if Nero had the opportunity to restrain Gray, should have known about the recent police order requiring it, but did not follow basic police protocols, including use of a seat belt on Gray, he could be found guilty for misconduct in office. Whether he will be convicted depends on the legal sufficiency of the state’s evidence. The facts must always line up with the law.  And that’s the problem with the state’s case and the charges in Nero’s case. If the facts don’t fit the law, the judge must acquit Edward Nero.

 

Judge Williams’ verdict in the Nero case will likely set the tone for the next 5 police officers’ trials. Above all else, Judge Barry Williams’ verdict will be fair, well researched  and based on sound legal principle.

 

UPDATE:  The article was revised to include Monday, May 23  as the day for the verdict.  There was a joint stipulation entered after the original posting of the article. The stipulation entered into by both sides states that the area was a high crime area may cause an even more uphill climb for any guilty verdict on the assault charge.  Closing arguments are on Thursday, May 19.  A follow up article  after attending the closing arguments will be posted.

 

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Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore City prosecutor. She frequently appears on Al Jazeera, BET, CBS, CCTV, Fox 5 DC, MSNBC, PBS, Sky News, among others. Her Op Ed articles on criminal justice appear in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and Huffington Post.


Former Prosecutor’s Recap of Baltimore Officer Nero’s Trial

May 16th, 2016 | Tags: , , , , , ,
Posted in Legal | No Comments »
Credit: Murphy, Falcon and Murphy

Credit: Murphy, Falcon and Murphy

My former office, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney Office, concluded the prosecution side of the case against Edward Nero, one of the six police officers charged in the case of Freddie Gray.  At this point, the state’s case has some holes that weren’t plugged.

Although the defense began its case, the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt remains with the prosecution.  It’s a high burden and appears like an uphill Mt. Everest climb in Nero’s case.  Judge Williams will decide if an “unfortunate accident” occurred as the defense alleges or whether a crime was committed.

 

 

Officer Nero was one of the three police officers on bicycle patrol who allegedly arrested Freddie Gray on April 12, 2015.  Nero is charged with committing three crimes: assault on Freddie Gray due to a lack of probable cause to arrest Gray, reckless endangerment due to lack of a seat belt to restrain Gray and misconduct in office allegedly for violating police protocol.

 

At the center of the arrest charge is whether the police officer had the probable cause to arrest Gray. In essence, if Gray’s arrest was not legal, prosecutors allege an assault occurred as police would have no authority to touch Gray in the first place.  An assault is an unwanted touching of a person. Prosecutors do not allege that Nero physically struck Gray. Ironically, defense attorneys usually argue that an arrest lacked probable cause—not the prosecution.  By all accounts, to say the least, it is an interesting theory on assault.  Evidently, the state alleges Gray was arrested before he was patted down which later revealed a knife on Gray.

 

The charge of reckless endangerment stems from the lack of a seat belt used to restrain Freddie Gray while in police van.  Gray was found unconscious in the van after being driven for approximately 45 minutes. He died a week later due to spinal cord injuries allegedly sustained in the van.

 

Police protocol changed just prior to Gray’s arrest to ensure that officers restrained arrestees with seat belts. The defense issue raised is whether Nero read the email which made the change. However, co-defendant Officer Garrett Miller who testified for the prosecution’s side noted that it was the van driver’s responsibility to ensure that Freddie Gray was seat belted.  A defense witness, William Longo, Chief of Police in Charlottesville, Virginia also testified and placed blame on the van driver. And in William Porter’s trial, he too placed the blame on the van driver, Caesar Goodson.  Goodson’s day in court begins June 6.

 

The prosecution’s charge of reckless endangerment ties in with Gray’s spinal cord injury. The state attempts to show that the lack of a seat belt caused the injuries resulting in Gray’s death.  Yet, when state witness Dr. Joseph McGowan, a biochemist testified, he did not know whether Gray’s injuries could be caused by a lack of a seat belt. Instead, he testified that Gray’s injuries were likely caused by sudden deceleration of the van.  Whether the biochemist testimony will become a fatal flaw to the state’s case remains to be seen.

 

At this juncture, the prosecution’s case on reckless endangerment appears a long stretch.  The assault theory is a novel one too. It could go either way. The case outcome on the assault will have likely repercussions on police if a guilty verdict is rendered, as it places criminal assault charges versus civil liability on an officer if an illegal arrest occurs. The more likely guilty verdict, if any, may be misconduct in office—assuming Judge Williams finds that Nero should have known about the email requiring seatbelts.  Although the officers shift blame for lack of seat belt to the van driver, the police protocol did not limit responsibility.

 

As a former Baltimore prosecutor, it appears that the state should have pursued charges against Caesar Goodson, the van driver, William Porter, whose trial ended in mistrial and Sgt. Alicia White.  These three officers appear to be the most culpable in Freddie Gray’s case and for the injuries which resulted in his death.

 

A verdict in Nero’s case is expected midweek.

UPDATE:  Judge Williams will render a verdict on Monday, May 23.  Closing arguments will occur on Thursday, May 19.

 

debbie-hines-reel-2015Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore City prosecutor.  She is frequently seen on air on Al Jazeera, CBS, MSNBC, PBS, BET, Fox 5 DC, among others.


George Zimmerman is Like a Bad Dream that Won’t End

May 13th, 2016 | Tags: , , , ,
Posted in Legal | No Comments »

GeorgeZimmermanCourtPicJust as Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, was getting past her 5th Mother’s Day without her son, Trayvon, George Zimmerman was getting ready to sell the gun he used to shoot and kill her son. Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012. Earlier this week, it was reported that Zimmerman was set to auction the gun with Gun Broker.com. They later withdrew the gun as an auction item.  But there’s always someone willing to do gun business, and another company, United Gun Group, listed the gun for auction on the same day that the other company withdrew it.

 

Zimmerman once again shows he has no remorse for taking the life of Trayvon Martin.  Zimmerman’s position appears to be that the gun is his property and he can choose to sell it if he desires.   And while Zimmerman may have the legal right to sell his property, he should seriously ponder if he should morally be selling the gun he used to take the life of an innocent teenager. Trayvon Martin was merely walking home from a store with iced tea and a bag of Skittles candy when Zimmerman encountered him.

 

A moral compass clearly does not exist within George Zimmerman.  And it shows a lot about our society that someone would want to auction Zimmerman’s gun and someone may want to buy the gun used to take a teenager’s innocent life as a collector item. Although Zimmerman was found not guilty on July 13, 2013, it doesn’t change the fact that the gun was used to take the life of a teenager whom Zimmerman felt did not belong in his Sanford, Florida neighborhood.

 

For me as an African American, selling the gun used to kill Trayvon Martin is akin to selling a noose used to hang around a black man’s neck by a white man who escaped justice.  Historically, Zimmerman’s act is similar to what occurred following some lynchings of African Americans in the Jim Crow south.  History records show that some whites who witnessed the hangings of blacks as a public activity later sold items such as photographs of the lynching and the body parts of the victim.  Or perhaps imagine if today an accused rapist who was later found not guilty decides to sell personal items of the victim worn during the alleged sexual assault.  Yes, it’s sickening and repulsive. And Zimmerman’s act is also sickening and repulsive.

 

George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin because he had no regard for human life.  And by attempting to sell the gun used to kill Martin, Zimmerman continues to show he has no regard for humanity.  He only has a desire to continue to be seen in the public spotlight, regardless of his reprehensible acts.   And it’s likely that we haven’t seen the last of George Zimmerman.

 

George Zimmerman is like a bad dream that won’t end. My heartfelt thoughts of support go out to the family of Trayvon Martin who must continue to grieve the loss of their son amidst the shenanigans of George Zimmerman—one bad dream after another.

 

UPDATE: Zimmerman’s gun used to kill an innocent teen was sold for over $120,000 according to accounts from TMZ.  And beforehand, Zimmerman verbally attacks the parents of Trayvon Martin for not properly raising their son.

 

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor. She covered the George Zimmerman trial on multiple media outlets.

 

 

 

 


5 Progressive Picks for Vice President

May 4th, 2016 | Tags: , , , ,
Posted in Legal | No Comments »

KamalaHarris_NARALThe Democratic Party needs a vice presidential candidate who is likeable and trustworthy, can ignite passion within the Party, energize the Sanders base and minorities and out trump Donald Trump’s rhetoric. There are five good progressive choices who would meet these needs.  Four of the five hold law degrees. Their backgrounds vary from a son of a Mexican immigrant, son of former sharecroppers, an African American woman and a  former comedic actor and political activist. The five are not in any particular order.

 

Congressman Xavier Becerra (D.CA), a Latino and former  California Deputy Attorney General, has served in Congress since 1993. He is currently Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. His leadership in the Democratic Caucus and as the first Latino on the Ways and Means Committee helps to advance legislation on issues affecting working class families, women, minorities, seniors and the working poor. Rep. Becerra stands in sharp contrast to the derogatory comments made by Donald Trump about Mexicans and building a wall. Becerra’s mother immigrated from Mexico.  And Rep. Becerra would help to make a strong showing among Hispanic voters.

 

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D. MA) is the person whom many progressives urged to run for president. Senator Warren, after hearing that Donald Trump is the likely GOP nominee, says she will fight her heart out to make sure Trump never reaches the White House. One way to likely ensure Trump from reaching his goal is to place Senator Warren on the Democratic ticket.  Senator Warren, known for her fierce stance to hold Wall Street and big banks accountable and fighting for working families, would energize the Democratic base in ways that Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders cannot do.

Minnesota Senator Al Franken, serving since 2009 and a Hillary Clinton surrogate, would be poised to do combat with Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump in ways that Hillary Clinton’s personality would not allow. Sen. Franken, a former comedic actor on Saturday Night Live for many years and a progressive political activist, would be able to combat Trump with an entertaining style  and strongly hit him on progressive issues–a two-fer.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris is the first woman, first African American and first South Asian American to become her state’s attorney general. Although she is running for retiring Senator Barbara Boxer’s seat, currently she is a non-Washington politician, a plus for those opposed to Washington politicians.  In 2012, African American women were the highest voting block  of any other group in the U.S. and overwhelming voted Democratic.  And in 2016, African American women will need to vote at the same rate to help ensure a Democratic win.  Having Harris on the Democratic ticket as vice president may help to get more African Americans and minority women voters to the polls.

Congressman Elijah Cummings (D. MD), a twenty year lawmaker rounds out the list. With full disclosure as a Baltimore native, I have known Congressman Cummings for many years. Rep. Cummings, a son of sharecroppers, served as the highest ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Benghazi  where he unleashed an attack on Republicans for wasting taxpayer money on a witch hunt of Hillary Clinton. Rep. Cummings is the ranking member on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He knows and understands firsthand the issues of income and wealth inequality, gun violence, police violence as well as the inner workings of Washington politics. Rep. Cummings would make a fitting vice president candidate who could voice unbridled attacks on Trump.

I urge the Democratic Party to nominate a progressive as its vice presidential candidate. With Donald Trump’s racist, sexist and xenophobic rants, the stakes are too high to play it safe this year.  The Democratic Party cannot play by old rules and expect to win in 2016.

 

UPDATE:  An earlier version appears in the Huffington Post and listed Minnesota  Rep. Keith Ellison instead of Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and read:

Congressman Keith Ellison (D. MN), the first Muslim elected to serve in Congress would also make a good choice. Rep. Ellison serves on the House Financial Services Committee which oversees Wall Street, banking and housing. Congressman Ellison, Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a lawyer and former community activist has long fought for consumer justice, civil and human rights and prosperity for working families. If Ellison became the nominee, the Democratic Party would make a strong statement against the platform of GOP Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric on exclusion of Muslims.

2171_48010694635_9179_n[1]

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal/political analyst and former prosecutor. Her Op Ed articles appear in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and Huffington Post.

 

 


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