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Women’s Equality Day and Still More Work to Do

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014
The headquarters of Colored Women Voters, located in Georgia, an early 20th-century suffragist organization

The headquarters of Colored Women Voters, located in Georgia, an early 20th-century suffragist organization

Today marks Women’s Equality Day—the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote. Women have come a long way since the early days of women’s suffrage which ultimately led to the passage of the 19th amendment- granting women the right to vote on August 26, 1920. As we celebrate Women’s Equality Day on August 26, marking the day women received the right to vote in 1920, a move has been affront for the past several years to disenfranchise women. Whether indirectly or directly, the result of many new voter ID laws may be the same. Voter ID laws enacted now in over half the states, requiring voters to present some form of identification as a requirement to vote place unreasonable burdens on many women when casting their vote.

States requiring voters to register with proof of citizenship is more problematic for women than for men. A survey by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU law school shows that only 66 percent of voting-age women with ready access to any proof of citizenship have a document with their current legal name. Women who have recently married or divorced and have changed their names—and whose passport, naturalization papers or birth certificate are in their former names—will then be required to obtain a certified court document showing the divorce decree or marriage certificate. These documents vary in cost from state to state but can cost upwards of $25 plus any time off work to obtain them. The certified court documents may not even be in the state where you now reside, further delaying and complicating matters.

For those women who are already registered to vote, the same problem will hold true. The photo ID must be in the same name that is registered with the Election Board. Hence, any recent changes in name from divorce or marriage will require certified proof of the name change along with the new photo ID. Of course, most men need not endure such onerous paper trail requirements. But U.S. women change their names in 90 percent of marriages. Karen Celestino-Horseman, an attorney for the League of Women Voters, says “women in particular are going to be impacted,” by requirements that they produce documents authenticating every name change in cases of marriage and divorce.

Women hold the keys to the 2014 midterm election. Since the 1980’s women have been voting more than men. In 2008 10 million more women showed up at the polls than men. And in battleground states where women outvote men in the hundreds of thousands, women’s votes are crucial. In 2012 Presidential election, women represented over 50% of the vote. And in every election since 1996, women were more likely to vote than men. And equal access to the polls is paramount for all. Women and particularly women of color who fought so hard for suffrage and became the last to get that right must continue to fight oppressive voter ID laws.

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, former prosecutor and founder of LegalSpeaks. As a legal and political commentator she has appeared in national and local media including the Michael Eric Dyson Show, NBC, ABC and CBS affiliates, C-Span, BET, Sky News, CBC-Canada among others. She also writes for the Huffington Post and the Women’s Media Center.

An Unlikely Grand Jury Outcome for Mike Brown

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

FergusonMOThe St. Louis prosecutor, Robert McCullough, has started the Grand Jury process involving the shooting death of Michael Brown. It could take as long as two months before it is concluded as the grand jury only meets once a week. Time will tell but based on the makeup of the St. Louis Grand Jury which is 75% white, there is little reason, in my opinion, to believe that a majority white Grand Jury will indict Officer Darren Wilson. White people have not had the experiences with police officers that young black men encounter on a daily basis all across America. And the grand jurors’ decision will likely fall among racial lines. This is despite the fact that most whites don’t see what happened to Michael Brown as racially motivated.

PEW research conducted during the period of August 14 – 17 shows the racial divide on Ferguson. When asked if the shooting was a racial issue, 80% of African Americans who were polled responded “yes” while only 43% of whites feel the shooting of Michael Brown was a race issue. And while 65% of African Americans believe the police have gone too far in Ferguson, only 33% of whites in the poll believe the police have gone too far. Very few African Americans have confidence in the investigation into the shooting death of Mike Brown. Over half of white Americans have confidence in the investigation versus only 18% of African Americans.

 

Another reason of the unlikeness of an indictment is how the Ferguson police handled the case. The Ferguson police killed Mike Brown and then the Ferguson Police Chief assassinated his character by showing a robbery video to the public. Meanwhile, the St. Louis prosecutor has said he intends to keep witness statements out of the public. And they tried to keep the identity of the officer hidden until they were forced to reveal his name. And no incident report has surfaced to date. Yet , the police chose to show Mike Brown on videotape in the convenience store with a purported robbery.   Can anyone spell double standard? As a young black man, Michael Brown’s life is already devalued by many in America. Many non-minorities never see the humanity of black men. Instead they only see thugs, killers, robbers, drug users and always someone “up to no good”.   “Up to no good” has become the standard defense in cases involving a killing of a black man. The victim was probably “up to no good” as if to say he or she got what they deserved.

And perhaps the main reason for the lack of confidence in an indictment against Officer Darren Wilson stems from Robert McCullough, the County Prosecutor who is presenting the case to the Grand Jury. McCullough comes from a family of police officers and wanted to become a police officer. His father was an officer and was killed when McCullough was 12. McCullough’s dream of becoming a police officer was abandoned when he lost a leg to cancer. Yet, with all the appearances of his inability to be objective, McCullough refused to allow a special prosecutor to be appointed. He decides what evidence to bring before the Grand Jury.

McCullough says all witnesses will be taken before the Grand Jury.   The Grand Jury indictment standard is well below the one of reasonable doubt in trials. In theory, the standard in which to indict is a much lower standard. And unlike a criminal trial, the decision of the grand jurors does not have to be unanimous for an indictment to issue—only 9 in favor are required. And so as the Grand Jury process begins, I hope for an indictment but do not expect an indictment against Darren Wilson for the death of Mike Brown. The deck was stacked against Mike Brown long before August 9. And even after death, the deck is still stacked against him. He was, after all, a black man in America.

 

Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor. She frequently appears in the media addressing issues of race, class and gender in the law.

Ferguson, MO is Everywhere In America for African Americans

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

 

FergusonMOThe shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer has set off another moment of racial injustice in America for African Americans. By the involved yet still unknown police officer’s account, Michael Brown was shot 35 feet away from the police officer’s car where he is alleged to have reached for the officer’s gun after some type of altercation at the officer’s vehicle. Being shot 35 feet away from the vehicle, while unarmed and running from the officer, hardly suggests that the officer was in fear of his life. In fact, it suggests that the shooting was unjustified. It hardly suggests a reason for the officer’s name to be kept secret. But this is what occurs when you are black in America. Ferguson, Missouri is like any other city or town in America where African Americans reside.

Every African American has those pivotal moments when they realize justice for African Americans often differs from what justice looks like for white Americans. There are Michael Browns, Oscar Grants, Trayvon Martins, Jonathan Ferrells and Eric Garners in every state of the U.S. They are college students, high school students, college graduates, workers, fathers and sons. And they represent African Americans who are denied justice in America.

In America, Michael Vick served 21 months for running an illegal dog fighting ring which injured and caused the death of dogs. But the white police officer who shot and killed unarmed Oscar Grant served less time. Former Bart police officer, Johannes Mehserle, ultimately served only one year in jail for Oscar Grant’s death. In America, George Zimmerman gets to “stand his ground” and is acquitted for the death of Trayvon Martin. Meanwhile, Marissa Alexander who fired a warning shot, standing her ground at her abusive husband, is denied the use of the same defense and faces a maximum of 60 years in jail. She originally received a 20 year sentence before her first trial was successfully appealed. In America, Michael Dunn’s trial ended with a hung jury for killing 16 year old Jordan Davis while he was playing his music too loud for Dunn. And in America, many African Americans hold their breath on a retrial for Dunn in September. And today in America, the police officer who shot and killed 18 year old Michael Brown remains unnamed for his protection, according to the Ferguson police. And now according to ABC News, the Ferguson police department states that it will not release the name of the involved officer without a court order. There was no such protection for Michael Brown.

While Ferguson is being highlighted this month and Sanford, Florida was highlighted last year in the Trayvon Martin killing, they are one and the same. And every African American who is concerned about the situation in Ferguson is fearful that Ferguson will meet the same result as in Sanford, Florida. That’s assuming, the police officer is even charged. And that’s the biggest fear among many of those in African American communities. That the police officer will not be charged or will later be found not guilty in a trial, if charged.

The American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”), the National Bar Association, the oldest organization of African American lawyers and numerous media outlets have requested the complete and unredacted copy of the police incident report. The Ferguson Police Department’s failure to release the name of the officer or the incident report to those requesting it sends another signal to many African Americans. It sends the police’s message of the shroud of secrecy to protect their own. It also sends the message of cover up. The police’s duty is “to protect and serve”. But where was the protection for Michael Brown? And where is the justice for Michael Brown? That’s the question in the minds of many people.

President Obama gave his statement on Wednesday, August 14. “We are a part of one American family” says President Obama. But African Americans are not treated like they are in the same American family when faced with justice for African Americans. In America, every African American is Michael Brown. And every town and city in America is Ferguson, Missouri.

Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor. She is frequently seen in the media addressing legal issues on race and gender.

Update: 8/15/14  The police department has now named the police officer involved in the shooting death of Michael Brown. But Ferguson Police department  now asserts that Michael Brown was a part of a prior robbery of a convenience store of a box of cigars.  Even if  the allegations prove true, it remains that an officer who shot an unarmed man with his hands up who was not a threat should be charged with 1st degree murder.

Will Government Prosecute John Hinckley Again?

Monday, August 11th, 2014

DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

As if the Justice Department and D.C. police don’t have other business to attend to, the ruling this past weekend that James Brady’s death was ruled a homicide sent shocks in the media.  The bottom line is the 33 year old case in which Hinckley was found to be not guilty by reason of insanity would be an uphill if not insurmountable legal hurdle.   I discussed the reasons why on Fox 5 News on Monday.  Please feel to view and tell me what you think.

McDonnell Defense has an Uphill Battle for Acquittal

Sunday, August 10th, 2014
Governor McDonnell at CPAC; Attribution Gage Skidmore

Governor McDonnell at CPAC; Attribution Gage Skidmore

The corruption trial of former VA Governor Robert McDonnell and wife Maureen McDonald concluded 2 weeks of testimony with no smoking gun but plenty of evidence to suggest that both McDonnells will have an uphill battle to secure an acquittal. The defense mainly consists of several strategies.  They started in opening with the unexpected bombshell revelation that Maureen McDonnell was infatuated with Jonnie Williams and the McDonnell marriage was on the rocks and barely on speaking terms.  The other defenses consist of the assertion that Jonnie Williams was a personal friend and nothing “official” was offered  or given to Williams.

 

Most  of the defense assertions have been picked apart by the prosecution which has put on a methodical case of witnesses who worked for the former Governor, family, family friends and of course, businessman Jonnie R. Williams and Star Scientific’s Chairman of the Board.  A witness testified this week that the McDonnells appeared to be very much in love. One said  Bob McDonnell kissed  his wife on the cheek regularly in public.  One witness testified that Bob McDonnell worshipped  the ground his wife walked on.  The defense assertion that there was a romantic relationship or infatuation between Mrs. McDonnell and Williams was further blasted away by the 1200 texts and Emails which never mentioned anything remotely romantic between the two of them.  Bob McDonnell’s team in “throwing his wife under the bus” in an attempt to win an acquittal, may have made a tactical mistake.   They used it to diffuse the conspiracy charge.

 

 

Witnesses who knew the McDonnells for years testified that they never heard either Bob McDonnell or Maureen refer to Williams as a family friend—until the investigation started. The assertion that Jonnie Williams was a personal friend is turning out to also sound like a sham.  And the testimony showed that when the Governor knew there might be an investigation, he requested a definition of “personal friend” from a staffer.  There is no legal definition. He was told a good starting point would be people who knew him before he became Virginia Attorney General.

 

 

 

One other McDonnell defense is that nothing was done for Jonnie Williams in exchange for any of the gifts.  It was political business as usual.  McDonnell was merely  trying to get business for the Commonwealth.  However, timing is everything. And 2 months after Williams paid $15,000 for the McDonnell daughter’s wedding, after meeting her for 10 minutes, the 2011 launch of his company and dietary product occurred at the Governor’s mansion.  And in 2012 immediately after the former Governor requested a loan from Williams, Jonnie Williams and many of his guests were added to the guest list for a health care meeting at the Governor’s mansion.

 

Then the former Governor and his wife attempted to hide certain gifts. An attempt to hide the gifts may show they probably thought something was improper  or illegal about them.    Loans from Williams were disguised and indicated on the former Governor’s public disclosure form as  loan for  someone for “medical services” and for “health care”.  And Mrs. McDonnell sold shares of stock of Star Scientific on the last day of 2011 to avoid having to report it.  But she requested that her stock broker re-purchase the stock immediately in 2012.

 

The assertion that Jonnie Williams was a personal friend is turning out to also sound like a sham.  Witnesses who knew the couple for a long time never heard them refer to Williams as a friend.  And the testimony showed that when the Governor knew there might be an investigation, he requested a definition of “personal friend” from a staffer.  There is no legal definition. He was told a good starting point would be people who knew him before he became Virginia Attorney General.

 

 

The trial is expected to last several more weeks. And the defense has said it will call Bob McDonnell to testify.  He will need to give the performance of a lifetime to overcome all  of the evidence that has been presented by the prosecution.

 

Virginia jurors are known for being very conservative.  The trial which is playing out like a soap opera or made for TV movie and making a mockery of VA is not likely sitting well the jurors.   The trial is showing that the entire McDonnell family appeared to have a sense of entitlement to money and gifts.  Even Jon  Stewart weighed in using Virginia’s slogan—saying “Virginia is for lovers—of money.”

 

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a practicing trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor. As a former prosecutor, she tried murders, narcotics, sex offense and economic crimes.  She founded LegalSpeaks blog in 2009. She also contributes articles to the Huffington Post and the  Women’s Media Center.

 

 

 

Why Theodore Wafer was Found Guilty in McBride’s Murder

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

renishamcbrideTheodore Wafer was found guilty of 2nd degree murder, manslaughter and discharging a firearm in the commission of a felony on August 7 for the murder of 19 year old Renisha McBride. The verdict, just one day after closing arguments, sends a loud message that the jury did not struggle with reaching their verdict.

While the defense said in closing argument that the case was not about race, it was everything about race and gender. Wafer, a middle aged white man, used every conceivable racial coding language during his testimony. He testified that he feared for his life as several persons might be breaking into his home, in his now changing suburban neighborhood. He testified about how he was scared hearing the thunderous pounding of his front, side and back doors with metal hitting the door and his floors vibrating. Testifying that multiple persons were attempting to break in his house, he didn’t want to cower or be a victim in his own home.  And he claims he shot in self- defense.  And prior to the start of this trial, defense attorney Cheryl Carpenter used the same words used by the George Zimmerman defense, “up to no good” in referring to Renisha McBride and the possibility of her attempting a break in of Wafer’s suburban home. Judge Dana Hathaway rejected that argument. And because the case was about race, it was important that four of the twelve jurors were African American, two of whom were women.

The jury had to decide on the credibility of the defendant and which version to believe—whether to believe the one taken on the morning of the McBride’s killing, the one who testified in court when he was on trial for his life or neither one. And in weighing the two Theodore Wafer versions, they undoubtedly decided that one or both were untruthful. A key jury instruction was the one on false exculpatory statements. This means the jury could find that Wafer’s conflicting statements at trial were falsely made to claim his innocence.

And this jury likely used their common sense to understand that in a securely locked home, you first look for your phone to call the police instead of getting your gun to shoot an unarmed stranger. Wafer made a conscious decision to shoot first and then call the police later. He made a conscious decision to get a gun before he got his cell phone. He says on his November, 2013 videotaped statement to the police, “I should have probably called you guys first” meaning the police. And that sums it up in terms of what the jury’s verdict meant, by his own words.

A sobbing Theodore Wafer said at trial that Renisha McBride had her whole life ahead of her. And now, Wafer has his whole life ahead of him to truly be remorseful about the young innocent life he took. His sentencing is August 21. He faces life in prison on the 2nd degree murder, 15 years on the manslaughter and 2 years on the firearm charge. He was immediately taken into custody following today’s verdict despite his attorneys’ pleas to remain in his home pending sentencing.

Following court today, the parents of Renisha McBride thanked the prosecutors. And while nothing will bring their daughter back, hopefully this verdict might give them some measure of peace.

Debbie Hines is a practicing trial attorney and former prosecutor who has tried homicides, burglaries, narcotics and sex offense crimes. She founded LegalSpeaks blog in 2009 which focuses on gender and race issues in the law. She also contributes to the Huffington Post and the Women’s Media Center.