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Federal Judges Show Human Side: A Tale of Two Judges

Thursday, August 9th, 2018

Court watchers and other interested persons are getting a close look inside a Virginia federal court room on how judges act.  Judge T. S. Ellis, III presiding over the Paul Manafort trial has a style all his own. He has been testy with the prosecution lawyers since day one. Real court drama is often stranger than fiction.  Judges are human—as Judge Ellis stated on Thursday “this robe doesn’t make me anything other than human.”  Although, it appears as if the prosecution team and Judge Ellis are in a constant dog fight.  Across the river in Washington, D.C. federal district Judge Emmet Sullivan is trying a different type of case.

Judges’ personalities, quirks, demeanors, tempers, court room styles vary from as many ways as there are judges. Judge Ellis appears to currently focus his harsh attention and comments on the prosecution lawyers.  He accused the prosecution team of crying or at least having water in their eyes, frowning, looking down (presumably at notes) and taking too long with their case presentation.  At times, it appears as if Judge Ellis is against the prosecution.  Most of the criticism has occurred out of the presence of the jury.  With the jury, the judge has appeared jovial making jokes about lunch and other court room matters.

On Wednesday, the judge rebuked the prosecution in front of the jury for allowing an IRS expert witness to remain in the court room for the entire length of the trial.  Usually witnesses and potential witnesses are sequestered which means they must remain outside of the court room until called or excused.   By Thursday, the prosecutors had filed a complaint against the judge for his failure to recall that he granted prior permission for the IRS witness to remain. And in a fashion unlikely of many judges, Judge Ellis admitted to the jury that he made a mistake—stating he is human.  No one knows what effect this mistake may have on the jury. Once impressions are made of attorneys, it may be difficult for a juror to totally disregard what caused the impression—even if asked to do so. In other words, once the cat is out of the bag, it’s hard to put it back in.


In another federal court room today in Washington, D.C. another federal judge is presiding over a government case.  In an immigration asylum case presided over by Judge Emmet Sullivan, some bold statements were also made against the government. Upon learning that the government had violated an agreement, Judge Sullivan made one of the boldest orders that I ever recall a judge making.   Enraged over the government’s failure to follow an earlier commitment to refrain from deporting the plaintiffs in the case –at least before the hearing, Judge Sullivan demanded that a government airplane return a mother and child seeking asylum back to the U.S.  At the time of the court hearing, the plane was already in the air headed to El Salvador—in direct defiance of the government’s agreement to the court. The judge almost found Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt of court –saying “this is pretty outrageous.”  Judge Sullivan further demanded that the government refrain from removing any plaintiffs in the case who are seeking asylum from gang and domestic violence.  Judge Sullivan shows judges are human and bold too.

In the cases of Judge Ellis and Judge Sullivan, the comments and actions made by both are indicative of the vastly different styles of judges.  As a trial lawyer, I prefer that judges allow me to try my clients’ cases without snide remarks and what I perceive as unfair rulings.  Most trial lawyers will agree that we prefer a judge who lets us try our case without much interruption, unless ruling on motions or objections.  From trying hundreds of cases, it is still often difficult to read a judge’s mind or motives.

I understand that judges are only human. Whatever style they exhibit, I always prefer a judge who is fair and just– no matter what must be done to achieve justice.

Washington, D.C. based Debbie Hines is a former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney. She is often seen in various media outlets as a legal analyst.

No Slam Dunk for Mueller in Manafort Trial

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018

All political eyes and ears are on the start of Paul Manafort’s criminal trial for tax evasion, money laundering and an assortment of other money crimes. Paul Manafort is the former chairman for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  Jury selection is underway today.

If this were a card game, special prosecutor Robert Mueller has held his playing cards closely to his chest to prevent tipping his hand.  Until the start of the trial, we do not know what the evidence will show.  The indictment spells out what the prosecution intends to prove.  Once witnesses take the stand and documents are presented, we will know the hand that Manafort and Mueller have been dealt.

As for timing, the actual start of the trial with opening statements may not take place on the first day.  There is never a magical formula to predict the time that it will take to pick a jury.  Having tried many complex trials lasting weeks and months, it is never an easy guess. And this case is further complicated by the fact that everything is political in nature.  While Manafort’s trial does not focus on Russia and any Russian collusion, it is there streaming in the background. And prospective jurors may already have taken sides in this political climate.

Jurors will be asked a ton of questions to ensure that they can be fair and impartial.  However, most jurors will likely already know something about the case. Some may have already come to conclusions—without ever hearing any evidence.  Those prospective jurors who cannot set aside their preconceived notions and judge the case solely on the evidence presented will likely be excluded.   However, in today’s political climate, it is conceivable that a juror who is strongly for or against one side, might end up sitting on the jury.

The stakes are high for Robert Mueller and his special prosecution team.  If the prosecution wins, then it will send a clear signal that the other upcoming cases are on the right path. If he loses or a jury is unable to render a verdict, a roar of “no collusion”, “witch- hunt “will be heard around the world by Donald Trump and his followers.  If Mueller does not succeed with a guilty verdict on all or most counts, the GOP and Trump will likely call for an end to the special prosecutor.  Although Manafort’s charges and trial are not about Russia, it’s really all about Russia.

Manafort is charged in an indictment with various money crimes consisting of  lying to banks to get money, avoiding paying taxes, money laundering and hiding money in offshore accounts to avoid declaring it as income.  These cases are tried mostly with documents to prove the elements of the crime.  Under most ordinary circumstances, these cases are usually easy to win. Witnesses will testify such as Rick Gates who worked for Manafort.  Gates has cut a deal with prosecutors.  A witness who has skin in the game and has cut a deal with prosecutors is sometimes viewed with doubt or suspicion.  If the documentary evidence is overwhelming, Gates and the witnesses are only icing on the cake.

Most financial crime cases are easy to win for the prosecutor.  Yet, no case is ever a slam dunk for prosecutors.  Despite having a strong case, a case can still be lost.  One never knows what a jury of 12 persons will do when they go to deliberate behind closed doors.  All 12 jurors must agree to render a verdict.  If less than twelve agree on charges, a mistrial will be declared.

The biggest problem for Mueller is predicting how twelve persons will decide this case.  Anything less than guilty verdicts on all 12 counts will be seen as a partial loss.  There is no slam dunk trial in law.  Any case can be won or lost. Manafort’s case is seen as a must win for Robert Mueller.

UPDATE:  In the late afternoon,  a jury of six men and six women were seated to hear the trial. Opening statements and prosecution witness testimony began.  The prosecution intends to paint Manafort as someone who believes he is above the law.  The defense intends to play “pin the tail on the donkey” and blame everything on Rick Gates who received a plea deal.  But Rick Gates was not the one who received $60 million in  unreported income.  A three judge panel denied Manafort’s request for release from jail pending trial.  Manafort must remain in jail pending his second trial in September.

More updates and analysis to follow as the trial progresses.

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a former Baltimore prosecutor and criminal defense trial attorney.  She is often seen in various media outlets as a legal analyst.



Stephon Clark’s Killing and a Demand for Justice

Monday, April 2nd, 2018

GunOn March 18, 2018 Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old Black man, father of two children from Sacramento, California was one of the more than 230 persons shot and killed by police in 2018. Mr. Clark was unarmed when he was shot and killed in his grandmother’s back yard. Mr. Clark’s family attorney, Benjamin Crump, arranged for an independent autopsy. The autopsy conducted revealed that Clark was shot 8 times in the back. A total of 20 rounds were fired at Mr. Clark. These autopsy results contrast with the statements of the officers who claim they feared for their lives. Mr. Clark was not armed but only possessed a cell phone.

Every year on average, there are 1000 persons killed by police in the U.S. Clark’s shooting death has once again caused outrage over the killings of unarmed Black men to be shot and killed by police in the U.S. Blacks are shot and killed by police at a rate of almost 3 times that of whites. Since 2005, there have only been roughly 80 arrests or charges of police officers. There have been even fewer convictions. Only 13 officers have been convicted of killing unarmed persons from the period of 2005- 2017. Even with convictions, the sentences on average are relatively light from probation to a few years. The exception was the Walter Scott case where the former officer received a sentence of 20 years for shooting unarmed Scott in the back multiple times as he ran away.

Following Mr. Clark’s death, I appeared on Al Jazeera to discuss the silence of the Trump administration, Clark’s case and the disparity of Blacks systemically killed by police in the U.S.

Debbie Hines on Stephon Clark shooting from Debbie Hines on Vimeo.

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is an attorney and former prosecutor.

Missouri Governor Meets #MeToo and Ferguson Movements

Monday, February 26th, 2018
Creative Commons

Creative Commons

In an interesting twist of the #MeToo and Ferguson movements, Missouri Governor Eric Greitens  was indicted last week by a St. Louis grand jury on one felony charge of invasion of privacy  stemming from  a 2015  consensual extramarital affair but allegedly nonconsensual taking of nude photos for transmittal.

Newly sworn in St. Louis City chief prosecutor Kimberly Gardner, the first Black to hold the position, expressed that St. Louis must have confidence in their political leaders.  Kimberly Gardner was elected in 2017, in the aftermath of the Ferguson uprising of 2014 following the killing of Michael Brown. Upon being sworn in, Gardner stated that since the uprising of Ferguson, the public has a new expectation for the role of prosecutor.

While the main focus of the #MeToo movement has been on sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in the workplace, Greitens’ case fits within the larger picture of how powerful men sexually exploit women.  If allegations are proven true, Governor Greitens intended to use the explicit photograph of the partially nude woman to prevent any derailment to his career.

And like many other incidents involving other men, Governor Greitens’ past sexual misconduct was kept secret.  Greitens’ 2015 affair was apparently known to many politicians, presumably male politicians.  As with many powerful men, Greitens was allowed to advance politically without so much as a whisper in public of any sexual wrongdoings.  Greitens ran in 2016 on a platform of morality as  a family man, proud father  and husband.  Since Harvey Weinstein and a host of other powerful men, who used their positions of power to sexually demean women in various ways, we are just being made aware of their past actions.  And the public has a right to know about alleged sexual misconduct and wrongdoings, particularly of any politicians.


With the #MeToo movement and the sheer extraordinary numbers of women running for office this year, we may be seeing more charges brought against men in positions of power who abuse their power.  In the past, a male prosecutor may have declined to present the Greitens case before the grand jury.  Having chief women prosecutors at the helm helps to ensure that cases involving criminal sexual transgressions, particularly against women will not be overlooked.  And Gardner, as with other women in similar positions, will not be reluctant to pursue controversial cases.  As a former Baltimore prosecutor, I know that women prosecutors review cases with a different eye than that of their male counterparts.


While Greitens admits to the affair, he denies any other wrongdoing such as  blackmailing the woman to stay quiet. His attorneys state the charge does not apply to consensual sexual activity.  In Missouri, the charge is a 4th degree felony and Greitens faces a maximum of 4 years in jail.  While an indictment is the initial step in a felony criminal case, it is a start in the road towards justice. Greitens is due back in court on March 16.

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, frequent legal/political commentator and former Baltimore prosecutor.  She is a contributor to the Women’s Media Center.


Why Tamir Rice $6 Million Settlement is not Justice

Monday, April 25th, 2016

supcourt_buildingTamir Rice’s family received a $6 million settlement as did the families of Freddie Gray and Eric Garner for wrongs committed by the police resulting in their loved ones’ deaths.  Money does not equal justice. In America, where a twelve year old African American child is gunned down for playing in a park near his home and no one is held accountable, indicted, charged or arrested, there is no justice.  When a 26 year old African American man is taken into police custody in a police van and receives a spinal cord injury and dies, justice remains elusive as 6 Baltimore police remain free awaiting trials. And when an African American man is arrested by police on the streets of New York City who then yells “I can’t breathe” and dies in a police choke hold with no charges against the police officers, there is no justice.

The word “justice” is often used but rarely defined in our culture.   The legal symbol of justice is the statue of the blind folded woman holding the equally balanced scales of justice.  The scales of justice indicate that justice doesn’t see the color of one’s skin and is equally balanced.  But is justice really color blind and balanced?

Inscribed on the Department of Justice Building in Washington, DC are the words “Liberty is maintained in the security of justice.”   The Department of Justice building is within minutes of the Supreme Court – where the highest court  building’s façade bears two mottos:  “Equal Justice  Under the Law”;  And on another side, the inscription reads “Justice the guardian of liberty.  Said another way, justice is the guardian or protector of freedom.

And yet justice evades many African Americans and other minorities in the criminal justice system, particularly in the area of police involved killings. When the Democratic convention is held in Philadelphia in July, 2016,  a platform on criminal justice may be discussed.  Proponents of a just criminal justice system should demand that mandatory statistics be kept on the number and information of people killed by police.  Presently, no formal database exists in every state. Individual scholars and a few journalists attempt to provide information on police shootings which result in death.  Even FBI Director James Coomey supports a national database of police shootings and calls the lack of one “embarrassing”.   Most of the information collected and widely disseminated for 2015 is from the Washington Post.  And yet Attorney General Loretta Lynch states the police should not be required to maintain an accounting of those whom the police killed.  She does not support a federal mandate requiring accountability of those police shooting and killing people.

I believe there should be mandatory accounting for all 50 states and the District of Columbia to maintain a database—regardless of the cost of doing it.  The cost of taking a life far exceeds and outweighs any cost of keeping track of the problem. We cannot truly fix a problem until we fully understand the gravity of the problem.  Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray are just a few victims killed by police whose names and circumstances we know.

Monetary settlements will not fix the problem of police wrongfully killing people—only justice in a criminal court will suffice.

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore prosecutor. She is seen on Al Jazeera, CBS News, BET, C-Span, Fox 5 DC, MSNBC and PBS among others. Her Op Ed articles appear in the Washington Post, Huffington Post and Baltimore Sun.

UPDATED: This post was updated on May 10, 2016.

Justice League NYC at Justice Department Seeks Answers

Monday, August 3rd, 2015
Justice League Rally Courtesy Debbie Hines

Justice League Rally
Courtesy Debbie Hines

Justice League NYC activists traveled on Monday to the Department of Justice to rally and bring awareness to the lives of women  of color killed while in police custody with no clear answers from the Department of Justice or local police officials.  The small but diverse group demanded answers in the Sandra Bland case and a host of others, including Raynette Turner, Kindra Chapman, Joyce Curnell, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Ralkina Jones and other unnamed and unknown women of color.  Speakers spoke about a national emergency and rejected the idea that these women dying while in police custody are individual incidents.


Sandra Bland at 28 years old died in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas on July 13 after a traffic stop for failing to signal she was changing lanes.  Her death while ruled a suicide leaves more questions than answers.  While jail guards state that Bland may have had a prior attempt suicide, jail guards made no attempt to keep her safe.


Native American Sarah Lee Circle Bear, a 24 year old mother of two children ages 1 and 2, arrested on a bond violation in South Dakota complained of excruciating pain to her jailers.  Instead of protecting and helping her, her jailers stated, “quit faking” and “knock it off”.  She died July 6 after being found unconscious in her cell and later taken to a hospital.


The death of 18 year old Kindra Chapman of Alabama,  also like Bland’s ruled a suicide by hanging,  came after she was arrested  and jailed for allegedly stealing a cell phone from another person. Chapman died July 14.


Joyce Curnell, 50  was found dead on July 23 at a Charleston County facility after being arrested for shoplifting.  Cleveland Police arrested Ralkina Jones, 37 following a domestic dispute with her ex-husband on July 24. Two days later, she lay dead in her Cleveland Heights jail cell


Raynette Turner, mother of 8 and wife of Herman Turner for 23 years, landed in a Mount Vernon, NY jail after being arrested for allegedly shoplifting from a grocery store on July 25. Her arraignment was scheduled  two days later on July 27.  She never made it. She was dead by that afternoon in a holding cell awaiting her arraignment.  Her husband waited all afternoon for her to be arraigned.



And these are a few of the women of color known to have died while in police custody—in July.   Although the name of Sandra Bland  and her video police encounter is widely known, these other women of color who lost their lives in July barely received any media mention. And the Twitter hashtag was started with #SayHerName to recognize that women of color have died while at the hands of police.  It is not solely black men who die while in the custody of police.  These women’s names and lives matter.


The investigations into these women’s death varies.  The  questions still outweigh the answers.  And justice eludes these cases.  Keeping attention on these  women and  saying their names will help propel answers and hopefully justice.


Rally speakers represented on Monday were from the Justice League NYC, Black Women’s Roundtable, Avis Jones-Deweever, Tamika D. Mallory, Rev. Willie Wilson, Rev. Jamal Bryant and a host of others.  While commending Loretta Lynch as the first black woman to be confirmed as U.S. Attorney, Rev. Jamal Bryant stated to her this is a code red situation.  Bryant sought answers of what would be the outcry if 6 Caucasian women died under police custody. Speakers demanded to know how many resources and lawyers are being allocated to address this crisis. Bryant engaged the crowd to lift up their voices as one collective group of conscious effort until justice is reached.  Justice League NYC also had representatives from the hip hop artist community in support of the cause.


The event is a preamble of many more similar events to come in various cities throughout the U.S.  Another similar event will be held in Baltimore on August 15.


Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former Baltimore prosecutor.  She also contributes to the Women’s Media Center.