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“The Scene Of The Crime”: Autopsy Results Aren’t Going To Answer The Essential Question: Why Did Michael Brown Have To Die?

In his account to investigators, Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson said Michael Brown charged him. Specifically, Wilson said Brown struggled for his gun during a scuffle in his police SUV and almost reached the trigger. After blocking his grab for the gun, Wilson fired two shots—hitting Brown in the hand—and fired again when, he says, Brown stopped running, turned around, and took another lunge.

On Wednesday, a new analysis of the official autopsy report—released by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—seemed to support this account. The newspaper asked two independent experts who aren’t involved in the investigation to review the evidence. The first, St. Louis County Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Graham, says that the report “does support that there was a significant altercation at the car.” And while the report notes the lack of short-range gunpowder burns or stipple around Brown’s hands, Graham says, “Sometimes, when it’s really close, such as within an inch or so, there is no stipple, just smoke.”

One of the experts—Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist in San Francisco—was even more certain on the autopsy’s implications. It “supports the fact that this guy is reaching for the gun, if he has gunpowder particulate material in the wound,” she said. “If he had his hand near the gun when it goes off, he’s going for the officer’s gun.” What’s more, she said that the autopsy didn’t support witnesses who claimed Brown was running away. “The wound to the top of Brown’s head would indicate he was falling forward or in a lunging position toward the shooter,” writes the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a summary of her remarks.

But there’s a problem here. Melinek says she was misconstrued. “I’m not saying that Brown going for the gun is the only explanation. I’m saying the officer said he was going for the gun, and the right thumb wound supports that,” she later told MSNBC. “I have limited information. It could also be consistent with other scenarios. That’s the important thing. That’s why the witnesses need to speak to the grand jury and the grand jury needs to hear all the unbiased testimony and compare those statements to the physical evidence.”

That the autopsy is consistent with Wilson’s account is a godsend for the police officer. And to that end, there’s speculation that the autopsy was leaked as a prelude to news that Wilson would escape an indictment from the grand jury.

At the same time, it’s important to note the extent to which this autopsy agrees with one conducted in August by Dr. Michael Baden, former chief medical examiner for New York City. According to his autopsy, Brown was shot six times, including twice in the head. “This one here looks like his head was bent downward,” he said, referring to the wound at the top of Brown’s head. “It can be because he’s giving up, or because he’s charging forward at the officer.”

And both autopsies fit the opposing accounts from other witnesses. “[Wilson] reached out the window and tried to choke my friend. We were trying to get away, and he tried to pull my friend into the car,” said Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown, saw the whole encounter, and never claimed there wasn’t a fight at the police vehicle. The question, rather, is what precisely happened. Later, we learned of two witnesses who saw the shooting and filmed their near-instant reaction. “He had his f-ckin’ hands up,” said one of the men, echoing other reports.

The Justice Department is conducting its own autopsy, and it’s likely to fit the results of the previous ones. (It has also condemned this leak, calling it “irresponsible and highly troubling.”) Which is to say that—barring new evidence—we’re stuck with the facts we’ve had since August, none of which gives a conclusive answer to the key question in the case: Who started it? And even if it did—and even if Brown was at fault for the whole encounter—we’re still left with the other important question: Why did Wilson keep firing after Brown moved away?

At this point, any answer is tied tightly to your sympathies. Side with Michael Brown and the Ferguson protesters, and you’re likely to think Wilson overreacted or—at worst—actively abused his power. And if you support Darren Wilson, you’re just as likely to see an honest cop just defending himself from a dangerous aggressor.

Put another way, Ferguson is still thick with tension from Brown’s shooting, and if Wilson isn’t indicted, it could explode into a new round of protests. Indeed, it’s possible this is why Gov. Jay Nixon—who received low marks for his initial response—has announced a Ferguson Commission devoted to studying the social and economic conditions that led to the initial August protests. “The commission will be empowered to call on experts to address topics ranging from governance, poverty, education, and law enforcement,” said Nixon. “The commission will also recommend changes to make the region a ‘fairer place for everyone to live.’ ”

It’s a fine goal. But given the anger on the ground, it’s hard to believe that any commission—however well-meaning—could bring normalcy to Ferguson. For that, the people of Ferguson need accountability from the police, and on that score, all signs point to disappointment.

 

By: Jamelle Bouie, Slate, October 23, 2014

October 27, 2014 Posted by | Darren Wilson, Ferguson Missouri, Michael Brown | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Part Of A Very Big Problem”: Jim Crow Persists; How Ferguson Case Leaks Revive A Shameful Tradition

On those rare occasions when it makes a real effort to grapple with the raw brutality of Jim Crow, the American mainstream media usually returns to a particular set of images that, by their very nature, are jarring and extraordinary: the burning cross, the hangman’s knot, the Klansman on horseback. This isn’t a bad thing; you can’t understand Jim Crow without understanding the significance of the Klan, for example. But it’s not an entirely good one, either.

The problem with focusing so much on these potent symbols is that it can lead us to a mistaken conclusion: namely, that the only evil of Jim Crow (and U.S. white supremacy in general) was manifested in these menacing, otherworldly forms, rather than in the system’s more humdrum and everyday modes of dehumanization. The problem with the former is easily solved. Today, the burning cross, the noose and the Klansman are all enemies of polite society. But those subtler manifestations of apartheid — the interlocking social networks and political institutions that together worked to disempower black citizens and deny them their rightful place as full members of the community — have proven more difficult to shake.

The proof is all around us, but if you want a more tangible example, the news out of Ferguson, Missouri, is happy to oblige.

After briefly turning the small, hard-luck suburb into the center of the world, the media has as of late been paying much less attention to the story of Michael Brown’s killing, mostly because people on both sides of the controversy have been stuck in an anxious holding pattern, waiting to see if a county grand jury will bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson. Many observers, and seemingly most pro-Brown Ferguson protestors, expect it will not; and many are already positioning themselves to win the war for public opinion that will ensue the moment the charges (or lack thereof) come down.

That’s the tense atmosphere into which the New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently dropped two bombs, both of which cited unnamed government sources saying evidence suggests Wilson’s claim to have shot Brown only after the youth tried to nab his gun — and to have killed Brown only after the wounded and unarmed teenager decided to charge him head-on — is indeed the case, in spite of what multiple eyewitnesses have said. As more than a few people noticed, the leaks all seemed to go in a certain direction (Wilson’s). Rather unnecessarily, the Brown family’s lawyer assured the media that the leaks weren’t coming from them. More necessarily, a forensic pathologist quoted extensively in the Post-Dispatch story said her remarks were taken out of context.

At this point in the story, anyone familiar with the dynamics of American race politics would suspect that like countless racially stratified and unharmonious small-town authorities before it, the establishment in Ferguson was doing its damnedest to quash an embarrassing investigation and protect one of its own. Perhaps aware of the likely widespread nature of that view, former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch was swiftly thereafter quoted speculating that the leaks weren’t coming from Ferguson authorities, but rather were the result of the Department of Justice’s machinations. Because the feds recognize that it’s “probably very unlikely” that Wilson will be charged, Fitch said, the DOJ was selectively leaking evidence in order to “let people down slowly” before the announcement of no charges being filed came.

If that sounds a bit odd to you — Fitch’s contention that Attorney General Eric Holder had previously decided to “take over the Ferguson Police Department” is a warning sign — you’ve got some prestigious company. Barely more than a day after Fitch made news, the DOJ was quoted in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere expressing serious unhappiness over the leaks, saying they were “irresponsible and highly troubling” and describing them as “an inappropriate effort to influence public opinion about this case.” Needless to say, Ed Magee, the spokesperson for the county prosecutor’s office, has denied responsibility entirely. “There’s really nothing to investigate,” Magee told the Times. “All we can control is people in our office and the grand jury, and it’s not coming from us or the grand jury.”

As you can probably tell, I’m highly skeptical of the idea that Eric Holder’s DOJ has all along been playing a secret shell game, pretending to enter into the Ferguson maelstrom in order to sideline local authorities it deemed biased and/or incompetent while, behind the scenes, doing everything it could to protect Wilson and discredit Brown. But even if we end up discovering that the Department of Justice was playing both sides, it would make no difference to the bigger, lingering problem Ferguson revealed — the way the legal and political institutions in much of America still treat black American citizens as if they were separate from the rest of the community, a force to be contained, coerced, managed. (In fact, if Fitch is correct, and the DOJ is trying to “let people down slowly,” it would actually strengthen the point.)

More important than these specific leaks, however, is the way that the behavior of officials throughout the power structure of Ferguson have responded to the protestors as if they were a dangerous, alien presence rather than American citizens who have full and equal rights just like the rest. Instead of trying to reach an accord with Michael Brown’s supporters, the Ferguson establishment is trying to preemptively position itself as a victim, hoping it can win the war for public opinion if and when the chaos of this summer reignites. This isn’t because the overwhelmingly white men and women in positions of authority in Ferguson are especially villainous, but rather because Ferguson, like so much of contemporary America, remains very much the town that racist social engineering built, one in which the unspoken assumption is that black people can never be equal members of their own community.

So, to return to my earlier argument about the visuals of Jim Crow, let’s indeed celebrate that the most extravagant symbols of that terrible era — the burning cross, the noose, the Klansman’s hood — are now widely considered to be ugly and taboo. For a country in which, not so long ago, the lynching of black men was considered a source of public entertainment, that’s no small thing. But let’s also keep in mind that in so far as it was a social and political system that fundamentally denied black people membership in the larger community, Jim Crow still persists.

 

By: Elias Isquith, Salon, October 25, 2014

October 26, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Ferguson Missouri, Jim Crow | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Clever Assaults On The Right To Vote”: Restrictive Voting Laws Deserve Justice Department Scrutiny

In certain circles, it has become fashionable to believe that the Voting Rights Act is an outdated vestige of a crueler time, an unnecessary bit of bureaucracy that imposes its own injustices. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed that view when it threw out one of the act’s more powerful provisions.

Those who believe that the Voting Rights Act is an artifact of a bygone era eagerly point out that the nation has elected its first black president — proof, they say, that racism is dead. In that view, the right to vote is guaranteed and each person is equally represented in the political system of this great democracy.

Eric Holder, the outgoing attorney general, knew better. He understood that the right to vote is under assault, and he did what he could to protect it, starting with a rehabilitation of the Civil Rights Division, which had fallen into dysfunction in the administration of George W. Bush. That may be Holder’s defining accomplishment.

During the Bush era, conservative partisans launched the most insidious onslaught against minority voting rights since the 1960s: the voter ID movement. Claiming, falsely, that the ballot needs more protection against fraud, they promoted restrictive voting laws in state legislatures around the country. Those partisans had their own agents within the Civil Rights Division, where they worked to ensure that dubious voter ID laws would not undergo any scrutiny.

Their mischief making has largely succeeded, not only in disenfranchising legitimate voters, but also in fooling the public about their intent. Polls show overwhelming support for laws that supposedly protect against fraud.

But make no mistake about it: Voter ID laws have next to nothing to do with protecting the ballot box. Instead, they are a relatively clever assault on the right to vote. As the nation has become browner, the GOP has found that neither its politicians nor its policies are popular among voters of color. So, rather than adopt a more inclusive brand of politics, the party has decided that denying the franchise to even a few hundred Democratic-leaning voters can be useful.

How do they accomplish that? Most of the state legislatures that have enacted such laws — and most of those are dominated by Republicans — have insisted that voters use a driver’s license as proof of identity. Research has shown that poor black and Latino voters, who usually vote for Democrats, are less likely to have automobiles than white voters.

Some elderly voters don’t even have birth certificates because they were born at home in an era when such documents were not required for daily life. In Texas, for example, voting rights groups say some rural residents would have to travel 100 miles to get proper documents.

But isn’t this necessary to prevent voter fraud? In fact, research has also shown that in-person fraud of the sort that voter ID laws are designed to prevent is virtually nonexistent. No matter what you’ve heard about voter fraud, you’ve probably not heard of a case of voter impersonation. In other words, no one shows up at the polls claiming to be John Boehner except John Boehner.

With that in mind, Holder entered the fray, sending Justice Department lawyers to challenge onerous voting requirements, including provisions in some states that sought to roll back conveniences such as early voting. They mounted successful challenges in Texas, South Carolina and Florida.

Even after the Supreme Court gutted the VRA, the Justice Department has kept up the good fight. It has filed suit against a restrictive law in North Carolina and joined lawsuits in Ohio and Wisconsin. Ultimately, some of those cases will likely end up before the nation’s highest court — and many civil rights lawyers are predicting the worst. A Supreme Court that doesn’t mind showing its partisan stripes could effectively abolish the Voting Rights Act.

But that will only make the work of the Civil Rights Division more important, not less. Here’s hoping that Holder’s successor is up to the job.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, October 4, 2014

October 5, 2014 Posted by | Voter ID, Voter Suppression, Voting Rights Act | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Ted Cruz’s A.G. Fight Already Misguided”: More So Than Usual, Cruz Has No Idea Of What He’s Talking About

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) does not believe in wasting time. Less than 24 hours have passed since Attorney General Eric Holder announced he’s stepping down, and at this point, no one seems to have any idea when the White House will announce a successor or who he or she will be.

But for Cruz, that just means now is a good time to start drawing battle lines.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) issued a political call to arms for conservatives, saying that outgoing senators should not vote on the nominee during the post-election lame-duck session. “Allowing Democratic senators, many of whom will likely have just been defeated at the polls, to confirm Holder’s successor would be an abuse of power that should not be countenanced,” Cruz said in a statement.

Perhaps more so than usual, Cruz has no idea what he’s talking about.

As Kevin Drum noted in response, “Unless Cruz is suggesting that they should be banned completely, then of course business should be conducted during lame duck sessions. What else is Congress supposed to do during those few weeks?”

Right. Members of the Senate are elected to serve six-year terms. The Constitution, which Cruz usually loves to talk about, is quite explicit on this point. Article I does not say senators’ terms end after 5 years and 10 months, with the final two months designated as goof-off time.

Indeed, if Cruz is still confused, he can look to very recent history to understand that nominating and confirming cabinet officials during a lame-duck session is the exact opposite of “an abuse of power.”

In November 2006, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced he was stepping down at the Pentagon. Almost immediately thereafter, then-President George W. Bush nominated Robert Gates as Rumsfeld’s successor, and during the lame-duck session, the Senate held confirmation hearings, a committee vote, and a confirmation vote on the Senate floor.

Gates was confirmed, 95 to 2, and he was sworn in the week before Christmas 2006. Some of the senators who voted in support of the nominee, to use Cruz’s language, had “just been defeated at the polls,” but it didn’t make a bit of difference.

Why not? Because they were still senators who had a job to do. Indeed, 2006 was an especially important year: the Republican majority in the Senate had just been voted out in a Democratic wave election, in large part because of the Bush administration’s national-security policy. And yet, the Senate still moved quickly and efficiently to consider and confirm a new Pentagon chief.

This wasn’t an “abuse of power.” It was just the American political process working as it’s designed to work.

The same is true now, whether Cruz understands that or not.

Of course, there’s another scenario the far-right Texan may also want to keep in mind: the longer Cruz and his cohorts delay the process, the longer Eric Holder will remain the Attorney General. Indeed, Holder made it quite clear yesterday that he intends to stay on until his successor is ready to step into the office.

Under the circumstances, and given the right’s uncontrollable hatred for the current A.G., shouldn’t Cruz want the Senate to vote on Holder’s replacement during the lame-duck session? Has he really thought his current posturing through?

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 27, 2014

September 28, 2014 Posted by | Eric Holder, Senate, Ted Cruz | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Meaningful Change”: Eric Holder Transformed The Attorney General Into An Advocate For The Poor

On September 25, Attorney General Eric Holder announced his resignation. He made history as the nation’s first African American attorney general and will most likely be remembered for his vigorous enforcement of the nation’s civil rights laws. He deserves equal accolades for his leadership in working to reform the nation’s broken criminal justice system. Since his appointment as attorney general, he has consistently criticized the draconian federal sentencing laws that require lengthy mandatory minimum sentences in nonviolent drug cases and has decried the unwarranted racial disparities in the criminal justice system, calling the phenomenon “a civil rights issue … that I’m determined to confront as long as I’m attorney general.” And he certainly kept that promise.

Before becoming the nation’s top law enforcement officer, there was no indication that Eric Holder would ultimately become an advocate for poor people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails. After all, Eric Holder spent most of his professional career as a criminal prosecutor. He started out as a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section where for 12 years he worked to put away corrupt public officials. During his five years as a judge in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, he earned a reputation as a tough sentencer, locking up countless young African American men for long periods of time.

Eric Holder left the bench to become the first African American United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. When Holder was appointed to be D.C.’s chief prosecutor, I was the city’s chief defender. As Director of the Public Defender for the District of Columbia, my interactions with Holder’s predecessors were very adversarial. Holder was determined to change that. Soon after his appointment, he visited my office and promised a change in policies and practices. Although he instituted a number of programs in his office, he did not make efforts to reduce the prison population or address racial disparities. He was more polite than his predecessors, but there was absolutely no indication that he would ultimately lead the charge to reverse the nation’s shameful record of incarcerating more of its citizens than any western nation in the world.

In 1997, Holder continued his career as a prosecutor when he became the nation’s first African American deputy attorney general under Janet Reno during the Clinton administration. As second in charge at the Justice Department, Holder supported and championed Reno’s positions on criminal justice issues. At that time, sentencing laws required judges to sentence those in possession of five grams of crack cocaine to a mandatory minimum of five years in prison while that harsh sentence could only be imposed in cases involving powder cocaine when the amount was 500 grams. The enforcement of these laws resulted in much harsher sentences for African Americans. Although Reno was in favor of narrowing the disparity, she strongly opposed eliminating it, and, as her deputy, so did Holder.

At the end of Clinton’s second term, Holder went into private practice before returning to lead the Justice Department that he’d worked in for most of his career. From the beginning of his term as attorney general in 2009, Eric Holder began to champion vigorous reform of the criminal justice system. The vast majority of criminal cases are prosecuted in state courts, and the Attorney General has no supervisory power over state and local cases. However, Holder consistently used his bully pulpit to advocate for criminal justice reform and took direct action to order reforms in the federal system throughout his tenure as attorney general.

As early as June 2009, Holder spoke at a symposium on reforming federal sentencing policy sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus. In his remarks, Holder announced that he had ordered a review of the department’s charging and sentencing policies, consideration of alternatives to incarceration, and an examination of other unwarranted disparities in federal sentencing. He stated that “the disparity between crack and powder cocaine must be eliminated and must be addressed by this congress this year.”

The following year, Holder gave remarks at the Justice Department’s National Symposium on Indigent Defense, where he spoke passionately about how the Sixth Amendment right to counsel was not being fulfilled for poor people charged with crimes. He pledged his commitment to improving indigent defense, stating that he had “asked the entire Department of Justice … to focus on indigent defense issues with a sense of urgency and a commitment to developing and implementing the solutions we need.” And he fulfilled that pledge. In October 2013, the Justice Department awarded a total of $6.7 million to state and local criminal and civil legal services organizations that provide defense serves for the poor. Most recently, Holder filed a statement of interest expressing his support for a lawsuit against the state of New York that challenges the deficiencies in New York’s public defender system.

Holder’s most comprehensive criminal justice reform efforts were announced in a speech he gave at the American Bar Association’s Annual meeting in 2013. In these remarks, Holder said, “Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law-enforcement reason.” He also decried the unwarranted racial disparities, stating that “people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers. … [b]lack male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. This isn’t just unacceptableit is shameful.” Holder then went on to announce sweeping reforms, including ordering federal prosecutors to refrain from charging low level nonviolent drug offenders with offenses that impose harsh mandatory minimum sentences; a compassionate release program to consider the release of nonviolent, elderly, and/or ill prisoners; the increased use of alternatives to incarceration; and the review and reconsideration of statutes and regulations that impose harsh collateral consequences (such as loss of housing and employment) on people with criminal convictions.

We have yet to witness the positive effects of Holder’s criminal justice legacy, and some may suggest that he didn’t go far enough. But few will disagree that his efforts surpass those of any previous attorney general. Did Holder’s views on criminal justice evolve over time? Or did he always believe that the system was broken and in need of reform? Perhaps both statements are true. What matters is that at the end of the day, when he was in a position to effect meaningful change in our criminal justice system, this former prosecutor became a champion of liberty. And for that, this former public defender will forever be grateful.

 

By: Angela Davis, Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law; The New Republic, September 27, 2014

September 28, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Eric Holder, Poor and Low Income | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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