February 20, 2014
By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – If America is ever to end the revolving door of prison recidivism, it needs to ease the re-entry of former offenders back into society by allowing them to vote, Attorney General Eric Holder believes.
Holder announced his position during a recent conference on criminal justice reform at Georgetown University Law Center at Washington, D.C. He called on state officials, state leaders and other elected officials to reform or repeal laws that block ex-felons from voting, more than two million of them Black.
Holder said that some of the laws dating back to the Reconstruction Era were specifically crafted to target Blacks and weaken their voting power, especially in Southern states where most Blacks live.
According to The Sentencing Project, 1 of every 13 African Americans can’t cast a ballot, due to felony disenfranchisement. In Florida, Kentucky and Virginia more than 20 percent of the Blacks are barred from voting.
Last summer Holder announced the Justice Department’s “Smart on Crime” initiative that includes provisions to reform sentencing guidelines, eliminate unfair disparities and reduce overcrowding in prisons by seeking alternatives to prison time for low-level non-violent crimes.
Holder said that felony disenfranchisement laws often undermine the reentry process and defy the principles – of accountability and rehabilitation – that guide our criminal justice policies.
“And however well-intentioned current advocates of felony disenfranchisement may be – the reality is that these measures are, at best, profoundly outdated,” said Holder. “At worst, these laws, with their disparate impact on minority communities, echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America’s past – a time of post-Civil War repression. And they have their roots in centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear.”
Civil rights leaders and criminal justice advocates applauded Holder’s call to lift the ban on voting rights for ex-felons.
“The attorney general’s strong leadership in calling for the repeal of felony disenfranchisement laws across the country is an extraordinary signal to states and the American people,” said Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under the Law. “This is the latest in a series of instances in the past year in which the administration has taken great leadership on criminal justice issues. From the statements of Attorney General Holder to the American Bar Association in August, to the implementation of their policies, it shows that they have heard the cries for reforms within the nation’s over-racialized criminal justice system.”
Tanya Clay House, the public policy director at Arnwine’s organization, said that passing the Democracy Restoration Act, a bill co-sponsored by Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) in 2009, would restore the voting rights in federal elections to those disenfranchised because of criminal convictions.
“The Lawyers’ Committee advocates for legislative efforts that restore equality to both the criminal justice system and voting rights,” said House. “Congress can answer the attorney general’s call to action, and lead the nation by example, by reintroducing the Democracy Restoration Act. This bill would restore the voting rights in federal elections to those disenfranchised because of criminal convictions.”
During the same conference, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) repeated his support for repealing felony voting restrictions in his state. Alabama Republican Gov. Robert Bentley also expressed support for restoring voting rights for felons who completed their sentences. In 2003, state officials in Alabama passed legislation streamlining the process to restore voting rights for most ex-felons. Nearly 15 percent of Blacks are disenfranchised in the state.
Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said, there is undeniable bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform that would update inhumane sentencing laws and return people to society with dignity.
“America is the world’s greatest democracy, yet felon disenfranchisement laws deny almost six million Americans the right to vote,” said Henderson. “These laws serve no purpose but to make it harder for returning citizens to reintegrate into their communities – to work, seek an education, and participate in our democracy. Successful reintegration and smarter sentencing are the keys to ensuring that our criminal justice system is more fair, more humane, and more fiscally responsible.”
In prepared remarks, Holder also addressed states that continue to “restrict voting rights, to varying degrees, even after a person has served his or her prison sentence and is no longer on probation or parole.”
In Florida, the state with the highest population of disenfranchised residents, almost 1 in 4 Blacks is disenfranchised and in Mississippi almost 14 percent of the Black population can’t vote because of a prior felony conviction. Iowa’s Republican governor reversed an automatic restoration order in 2011, placing an additional hurdle in the way of returning citizens. Two years later, Holder said less than 12 people out of 8,000 that have completed their sentences during the current governor’s tenure can vote in the next election.
“That’s moving backwards – not forward. It is unwise, it is unjust, and it is not in keeping with our democratic values,” said Holder. “These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed.”
February 20, 2014
LAWT Wire Services
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The FBI says a black civil rights activist was killed during the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, and it suspects militant members of the American Indian Movement are responsible, according to recently released documents.
The hundreds of pages of reports provided to Buffalo, N.Y., attorney Michael Kuzma and shared with The Associated Press Wednesday shed new light on the 40-year-old case of Ray Robinson, an activist and follower of Martin Luther King Jr. But the documents fall short of pinpointing where Robinson was buried and do little to fulfill his family’s wish to have the remains brought home to Detroit.
Desiree Marks, who’s held out hope for 40 years that she’d see her father again, said she was crushed by the FBI’s confirmation of his death.
“I’ve always thought that might not be the case. He may come home. He may be alive. He may, he may, he may,” Marks told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “And yesterday, when I was reading the documents it was very difficult. It made it real final.”
AIM co-founder Clyde Bellecourt said Wednesday that he was only in Wounded Knee for 51 days and knew nothing of Robinson.
“I don’t know who he is,” Bellecourt said. “I never met him. I don’t know what he looks like.”
Robinson, a father of three from Bogue Chitto, Ala., traveled to South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in April 1973 to stand alongside Native Americans in their fight against social injustice. The 71-day standoff between AIM members and federal agents at Wounded Knee left at least two tribal members dead and a federal agent seriously wounded. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation occupation is credited with raising awareness about Native American struggles.
The documents were released in response to Kuzma’s June lawsuit against the U.S. Justice Department to help Robinson's widow, Cheryl Buswell-Robinson, and their children get some closure.
Buswell-Robinson, of Detroit, said her husband’s nonviolent approach conflicted with the violent situation at Wounded Knee and that it’s possible AIM members suspected he was a federal informant. The personable, 6-foot-2 black man with a deep baritone voice would have stood out on a Midwest American Indian reservation, she said.
Robinson’s family just wants to bring his remains home for a proper burial.
“I’d just like to have my dad. I’d like to have a place where I can sit down and talk to him and know he’s there,” said Marks, who also lives in Detroit.
The Robinson case, which has been opened, closed and reopened over the years, was most recently closed again in July, said Greg Boosalis, an FBI spokesman in Minneapolis.
“If new information comes forward that is substantial, we will reopen it,” Boosalis said.
According to the FBI documents, an unidentified cooperating witness told agents that “Robinson had been tortured and murdered within the AIM occupation perimeter, and then his remains were buried ‘in the hills.’”
Any search or excavation attempts would likely be complicated by the reservation’s sovereign status. Buswell-Robinson and her two daughters traveled to Wounded Knee in 2004 to walk areas that Robinson likely walked, but they came back without answers.
Another witness told agents that Robinson was in Wounded Knee for about a week and had difficulty adjusting to the lack of food, the chaos of the scene and the unilateral AIM command. That witness said Robinson immediately wanted to open discussion in the bunker about AIM’s strategies but no one listened or took him seriously.
The witness said Robinson got into a heated exchange with another person and was taken to a house by a security team. When Robinson grabbed a knife from a table, he was circled by AIM security guards, according to the witness. A shot rang out, and Robinson’s eyes “rolled up as he went down.”
Buswell-Robinson, 69, questions that account and believes Robinson was in the Wounded Knee occupation area for hours, not weeks. She said the most likely account of her husband’s death is one passed on to her by Barbara Deming, a writer and political activist who was asked by Buswell-Robinson in the mid-1970s to look into the killing. She relayed the story to Buswell-Robinson in letters years after the disappearance.
According to Deming’s account, Robinson was eating oatmeal one day but hadn’t yet checked in with an AIM leader. He was ordered to report to the leader immediately but said the check-in had to wait until he was finished eating. He was then shot, according to the story.
“Ray did not respond well to that authoritative direction,” Buswell-Robinson said.
The wounded Robinson was taken to a clinic, but the FBI hasn’t pinned down what happened next.
For decades, AIM leaders have denied knowledge of Robinson’s death. One witness told agents that AIM leader Vernon Bellecourt, who died in 2007, knew Robinson had been killed and “made a statement to the effect that AIM had ‘really managed to keep a tight lid on that one' over the years.’”
AIM leader Dennis Banks did not return a message left by The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Clyde Bellecourt questioned why the FBI wasn’t spending its time investigating the many unsolved Native American deaths during Wounded Knee.
“There’s never been a grand jury hearing on any of them,” he said.
February 13, 2014
NEW ORLEANS — Former News Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, best remembered for his impassioned pleas for help after the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina, was convicted Wednesday of accepting bribes in exchange for helping businessmen secure millions of dollars in city work, including after the devastating storm.
The federal jury found Nagin guilty of 20 of 21 counts against him, involving a string of crimes before and after the storm. He sat quietly at the defense table after the verdict was read and his wife, Seletha, was being consoled in the front row.
Before the verdict, the 57-year-old Ray Nagin said outside the New Orleans courtroom: “I’ve been at peace with this for a long time. I’m good.”
Sentencing was set for June 11. Nagin left the courthouse more than an hour after the verdict was read, and after U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan ordered that his bond be modified to provide for “additional conditions of electronic monitoring and home confinement.”
The Democrat, who left office in 2010 after eight years, was indicted in January 2013 on charges he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes — money, free vacation trips and truckloads of free granite for his family business — from businessmen who wanted work from the city or Nagin’s support for various projects.
The granite and some of the money came from developer Frank Fradella. More money came from another contractor, Rodney Williams, for Nagin’s help in securing city contracts. Convicted former city vendor Mark St. Pierre, who got a no-bid contract with the city in Nagin’s first term, provided trips to Jamaica and Hawaii.
A movie theater owner seeking tax breaks provided a trip to New York, prosecutors said. In a conspiracy count, prosecutors also said Nagin sought and got granite work for his business from a major retailer, identified in court as The Home Depot, while helping the retailer work out details related to the opening of a new store in post-Katrina new Orleans. The company was not accused of any wrongdoing.
Nagin had vehemently denied it all during several hours of testimony that spanned two days of trial. But the jury didn’t believe him. The only not-guilty verdict came on one count of bribery involving a portion of the money from Williams.
Nagin had testified that key witnesses lied and prosecutors misinterpreted evidence including emails, checks and pages from his appointment calendar linking him to businessmen who said they bribed him.
As Nagin and defense attorney Robert Jenkins left the courthouse Wednesday, walking with a throng of media, photographers and video cameras, Nagin could be heard saying: “I maintain my innocence.”
The defense repeatedly said prosecutors overstated Nagin’s authority to approve contracts. His lawyer said there is no proof money and material given to the granite business owned by Nagin and his sons, Stone Age LLC, was tied to city business.
The charges against Nagin included one overarching conspiracy count along with six counts of bribery, nine counts of wire fraud, one count of money laundering conspiracy and four counts of filing false tax returns.
The charges carry a variety of maximum sentences ranging from three to 20 years, but how long he would serve was unclear and will depend on a pre-sentence investigation and various sentencing guidelines.
Jenkins said Nagin’s testimony didn’t hurt the case and that an appeal would be filed after sentencing.
The conviction wasn’t a surprise to Rainelle Smith, 64, of New Orleans, who said she voted for Nagin.
“I don’t believe he served the city as well as he should have,” she said. “He was supposed to come in and prevent the corruption the city was known for. We, in my family, thought of him as the ‘cleanup man.’ Instead he gets in office and he soiled it more.”
The charges resulted from a City Hall corruption investigation that had resulted in several convictions or guilty pleas by former Nagin associates by the time trial started on Jan. 27.
Fradella and Williams, both awaiting sentencing for their roles in separate bribery schemes alleged in the case, each testified that they bribed Nagin.
Nagin’s former technology chief, Greg Meffert, who also is awaiting sentencing after a plea deal, told jurors he helped St. Pierre, bribe Nagin with lavish vacation trips. St. Pierre did not testify. He was convicted in the case in 2011.
Associated Press writers Janet McConnaughey and Chevel Johnson contributed to this report.
February 13, 2014
LAWT News Service
A 21-year-old man was convicted February 11, of four counts of attempted murder for a shooting that wounded four people outside a Halloween party on the USC campus, prompting the defendant to flip over a chair in anger and beg deputies to shoot him. The nine-woman, three-man panel took less than three hours to reach its verdict against Brandon Spencer. Prosecutors told jurors that the October 2012 shooting was the result of a longstanding feud between Spencer and a rival gang member.
The defense maintained it was a case of mistaken identity, with Spencer's father contending his son was prosecuted in a rush to judgment to satisfy the University of Southern California and its donors. After Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Edmund Clarke Jr. thanked the jurors for their service and they filed out of the courtroom, Spencer reacted in anger and frustration, yelling expletives about a life in prison.
Then he yelled, ``Shoot me, I don't give a (expletive),'' as three deputies pushed furniture out of way and tried to restrain him.
``I love you dad,'' he hollered, before again asking the armed deputies to kill him. He struggled as court officers held him down, calling him by his first name and urging him to ``calm down'' as they got him handcuffed. He broke loose once more and three deputies pinned him to the ground as family members cried and called out to Spencer.
Clarke cleared the courtroom shortly afterward. Outside in the hallway, Spencer's father leveled charges of racism, telling reporters that his son was not a gang member and that prosecutors were driven by pressure from USC.
``(They) want to keep all these black men off the USC campus,'' James Spencer charged. ``This is just to satisfy USC.”
The elder Spencer said jurors were not allowed to hear that his son was a licensed security guard, and said his son had enrolled at UCLA to begin studying to be an emergency medical technician. Deputy District Attorney Antonella Nistorescu told jurors during her closing argument that the defendant was a ``documented, well-known'' gang member who had been shot in the stomach in August 2011 by an unidentified rival gang member. She said Spencer was seeking vengeance when he fired at reputed gang member Geno Hall outside the party at USC. Hall, a former Crenshaw High School football standout, testified that he had just been talking to his girlfriend when he was shot and didn't know who did it or why.
``Gang members don't snitch, they don't talk to the police ... even rivals,'' Nistorescu told the jury.
Three other witnesses testified that it was Spencer who shot Hall and three others: Mysson Downs, Thomas Richie and Davonte Smith. The prosecution used tweets that had been sent on Spencer's phone as evidence of his gang links, while defense attorney John Blanchard countered that ``the younger generation likes to trash talk.'' The prosecutor pointed to the fact that Spencer pulled off his shirt in the wake of the shooting as evidence of his guilt. But Blanchard said his client pulled off his red shirt to avoid sporting gang colors.
``When he heard gunshots, deja vu, nightmare relived, he's going to run,'' Blanchard said.
The shirt was tied to Spencer via DNA, but there were no fingerprints on the gun found by police and DNA evidence was inconclusive. The gunfire broke out near a party sponsored by the Black Student Assembly and attended by about 400 people. Neither Spencer nor any of the four victims were USC students.
Blanchard said he would file an appeal, citing what he said were contradicting statements by the three eyewitnesses. Blanchard told jurors during his closing argument, ``When you consider all the evidence, the huge inconsistencies and holes ... it's called reasonable doubt, ladies and gentlemen.''
However, Nistorescu countered that the three agreed that Spencer was the shooter, telling jurors they should expect disagreements on smaller details of the shooting. Spencer, who is being held without bail, is due back in court on Feb. 21 for sentencing. He is facing a possible life sentence, as jurors also found true gang and gun allegations.
``He's destroyed,'' his father said.