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“On Trial, In Absentia”: No Presumption Of Innocence For Michael Brown

It’s not clear how effective the instinctive effort to put Michael Brown posthumously on trial for being an African-American teenager who was “no angel” will turn out to be. It was begun, of course, by the Ferguson police as soon as was humanly possible; their “investigation” of the shooting was from the get-go aimed at justifying it as an act of self-defense, much like George Zimmerman’s, by a man being forced to use his deadly force in an encounter with a demonically powerful (if unarmed) black adolescent.

As one might expect, Ta-Nehisi Coates has said pretty much everything that needs saying about the assumption that Michael Brown deserved to die for his sins:

A large number of American teenagers live exactly like Michael Brown. Very few of them are shot in the head and left to bake on the pavement.

But this isn’t just about how the court of public opinion deals with this case. At some point, unless Darren Wilson just skates, it will be litigated in a court of law, presumably before a jury, in which he will formally enjoy the presumption of innocence so many people would apparently deny Brown.

Something about a parallel case from the distant past kept nagging the back of my mind, and sure enough, I found a 1979 Texas Monthly account account by Gary Cartrwright of the acquittal of two Houston cops for killing a black man, thanks to the skill of their attorney, Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, in putting the victim on trial:

[The] two Houston cops…were accused of kicking a black man to death after arresting him for attempting to “steal” his own car. The cops had already been acquitted by a district court in Houston — now they were being tried in federal court on charges that they had violated the man’s civil rights. For starters, Haynes got the trial moved from Houston to the conservative German American town of New Braunfels. “I knew we had that case won when we seated the last bigot on the jury,” Racehorse remarked later. As the trial progressed, Haynes developed these scenarios: (1) that the prisoner suffered severe internal injuries while trying to escape; (2) that he actually died of an overdose of morphine; (3) that the deep laceration in the victim’s liver was the result of a sloppy autopsy.

Sound familiar? Give a sympathetic jury an alternative theory they can seize on, however implausible, and they just might take it–particularly if the defendant is an officer of the law and the victim–who will be described as a victim of his own excesses–fits the jury’s idea of the people cops are hired to keep under control.

Maybe we’ve made some progress since 1979. But I’m not so sure.


By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, August 26, 2014

August 27, 2014 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, Law Enforcement, Michael Brown | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Shoot First, Then Cry Self-Defense”: Welcome To Florida, Where The NRA Rules And We Proudly Stand Our Ground

Don’t hold your breath waiting for the state legislature to fix Florida’s cockeyed Stand Your Ground law. The National Rifle Association owns too many of the Republican lawmakers who could end the madness.

Nothing will get done in Tallahassee as long as black kids are the ones getting shot by white guys claiming they acted in self-defense. What might eventually pressure politicians to change the law is when white guys start getting shot.

The jaw-dropping verdict in the Michael Dunn case in Jacksonville brought not a peep of outrage from GOP leaders in the House or Senate. The outcome shamefully underscored the lunacy of Stand Your Ground, and once again put Florida in the national spotlight as a gun-nut mecca.

Dunn, who is white, got into an argument over loud music with some black teenagers who were parked beside him at a gas-station convenience store. He pulled a handgun and fired into the teens’ SUV, then crouched and continued shooting as it sped away.

In all, Dunn fired 10 times. Jordan Davis, age 17, was killed.

Oddly, Dunn didn’t call the police. He checked into a motel with his girlfriend and ordered pizza. The next day he was arrested in Brevard County, where he lives.

At the trial, Dunn said he saw a shotgun being pointed at him from the SUV, and that he fired in self-defense. He also said Davis got out of the vehicle and threatened him.

No weapon was found in the SUV. Dunn’s own girlfriend testified that, contrary to his account, he never once mentioned to her that he’d seen a shotgun. Moreover, a medical examiner said Davis’ wounds indicated he’d been seated inside the vehicle, leaning back, when he was fatally struck by Dunn’s bullets.

The jury voted unanimously to convict Dunn on three counts of attempted second-degree murder for continuing to blast away at the SUV as it raced off.

However, the panel deadlocked 10-2 on the first-degree murder charge, the majority favoring conviction. Then it was 9-3.

The sticking point was Florida’s spongy self-defense law that essentially allows the use of lethal force if a person feels threatened.

True or not, practically anybody who shoots another person can say they feared for their lives, whether it’s a barroom fight, a domestic brawl or a traffic altercation. Self-defense claims in homicides have skyrocketed since 2005, when Stand Your Ground was passed.

Gang members, in particular, are big fans of the law.

No verdict was reached on the killing of Jordan Davis, so Michael Dunn is going to prison for attempting to murder the three other occupants of the car. Try to figure that one out, especially if you’re the parents of that dead teenager.

Coming less than a year after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, another unarmed black youth, the Dunn case should have shamed legislators into action.

It hasn’t, although there’s another one looming that should bring more heat. This time the victim was white, a Navy veteran and the father of a young child.

Chad Oulson was shot to death in a Wesley Chapel movie theater by 71-year-old Curtis Reeves Jr., who’d become aggravated because Oulson was texting during previews.

The two men argued. Oulson stood up and turned around. Police said he threw popcorn at Reeves, who pulled a gun and shot Oulson in the chest. The bullet nicked the hand of Oulson’s wife.

Reeves, a retired Tampa cop, has been charged with second-degree murder. He told police was he was scared “s—less” by Oulson, whom Reeves said had struck him with a fist or some other object.

No punches are visible on surveillance video from the movie theater, and even Reeves’ wife said she didn’t see Oulson hit her husband. Reeves’ attorney said the video shows a small shiny object striking Reeves and falling to the floor.

After the popcorn was flung at him, he whipped out a .380 semiautomatic and fired point-blank. Then he sat back in his chair while Oulson died.

Oulson’s wife said Reeves had taunted her husband about using his phone even after he’d put it away. She said Chad had been texting the family babysitter to check on their daughter, who wasn’t feeling well.

This is life in Florida — guns everywhere, and laws that favor the trigger-happy. Shoot first, then cry self-defense.

Kids playing rap music too loud? Lock and load.

Some guy texting at the movies? Teach him some manners.

Don’t walk away from an argument when you can end it with a bullet. Stand your ground and hope you get the right jury.

Welcome to Planet NRA.


By: Carl Hiaasen, The National Memo, February 25, 2014

February 26, 2014 Posted by | Gun Violence, Stand Your Ground Laws | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Unreasonable Absolutist Death Penalties”: The ‘Stand Your Ground’ Mindset Is Flawed

Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law was not invoked by the defense at either the trial of George Zimmerman or, more recently, Michael Dunn. But the mindset was present in both cases, and raises some troubling questions about what constitutes self-defense.

In the Zimmerman case, the defendant was acquitted of shooting an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, in the chest, arguing that Martin had attacked him. Zimmerman was acquitted.

In the Dunn case, the defendant’s behavior was even more sketchy. He had pulled into a gas station, and – annoyed by what he called the “rap crap” emanating from another car there – asked the four teenagers inside to turn it down. Dunn said 17-year-old Jordan Davis then threatened him and had a shotgun, and Dunn then shot into the car. Prosecutors said there was no threat (there was, in fact, no gun in the boys’ SUV) and merely shot 10 bullets into the car because he didn’t like the loud music.

Davis was killed, and Dunn was convicted of attempted murder of the three surviving teens. The jury deadlocked over whether Dunn was guilty of fist-degree murder of Davis. From a practical standpoint, it may not matter as much – Zimmerman is free, and has spent the time doing such bizarrely inappropriate activities as posing for a photo with a gun manufacturer and getting into a fight with his girlfriend, while Dunn already faces up to 60 years in prison for the attempted murder convictions. But the mindset, that “threat” is in the eye of the shooter, endures.

Florida law says someone does not have an obligation to retreat if he or she “reasonably” believes his or her life is at stake, even if there is no actual threat. (The “Stand Your Ground” law was not specifically invoked at either trial, but the Florida self-defense statute, complete with that language, was read to the jury.) How far does one take that? State of mind is indeed a reasonable factor to consider. But putting the onus on the prosecution to prove that the defendant was not reasonably in fear for his or her life merely enables racism, xenophobia and any other kind of fear-based in bias.

Would a middle-aged white man be more “reasonable” in believing that four black teenagers were a threat, than if the ages and races were reversed? That’s not stated in the law, of course, but juries, which insert their own experiences and fears into their judgments, might think so. A woman has a far greater chance of being raped than any man of any race has of being murdered. Would that make it OK for a woman walking alone to attack or shoot a man walking past her – especially if the man were of the same race, since most rapes are intra-racial?

The problem with the standard of “reasonable” is that it isn’t reasonable at all. It puts law behind emotion and human bias.

In Virginia, current law allows farmers to shoot dogs which run after their chickens, and officers are actually required to kill a dog caught going after someone’s poultry. The state legislature recently cleared a bill that would soften that law, giving urban areas (where more people, it seems, are raising chickens) the right to ease such absolutist death penalties. If Virginia can do more to protect dogs, perhaps Florida could do more to protect people.


By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, February 19, 2014

February 22, 2014 Posted by | Gun Violence, Stand Your Ground Laws | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Affluenza”: The Latest Criminal Defense For The Spoiled Rich

There’s a tired and persistent canard that criminals end up going without punishment for their violations because they convince lawyers and judges that they were so victimized as children by poverty or abuse that they can’t possibly be held accountable for their own behavior. This is hardly the case; in fact, the opposite is true. Indigent defendants have little recourse if they are assigned substandard public representation, and juries hardly identify with a poor kid or a black kid thought to be up to no good. That was represented pretty clearly in the acquittal of George Zimmerman (“George,” one juror referred to the defendant after that trial, as though he were a pal and neighbor). Zimmerman had shot and killed an unarmed African-American teenager, but the jury appeared to identify with the shooter more.

And one look at the appalling result of mandatory-minimum laws shows that drug offenders, in particular, are being subject to absurdly long prison sentences. A first-time offender found with 5 grams of crack can be subject to a minimum five-year sentence; add on some trumped up “conspiracy” as part of the continuum of drug sales, and the incarceration could jump to a mandatory minimum of 20 years. Jack Carpenter sold medical marijuana to dispensaries in California (where it is legal), but was still sentenced to 10 years behind bars by a federal judge.

Forget about avoiding prison because you had it tough as a kid. And don’t even try the “Twinkie defense,” the contention that you were so amped up on sugar you couldn’t control yourself. A Texas teen has taken miscarriage of justice one further, avoiding punishment for killing four people because of what his lawyer called “affluenza.” In other words, the 16-year-old Ethan Couch is such a spoiled brat because his rich parents never bothered to put any limits on him. Therefore, it was argued, even though his blood alcohol was three times the legal limit when he drove his truck 70 mph in a 40-mph zone – killing four people and seriously injuring two more – how could we possibly expect him to have done otherwise? He was never properly parented by his wealthy family, and so how could he be expected to know right from wrong?

The argument sounds like something out of a TV legal drama, added in to display the occasional absurdities of the legal system, especially in cases where the defense attorney is desperate and has absolutely nothing else to argue. But horrifyingly, in this case, it worked.

Couch was sentenced to probation. So much for a 24-year old woman whose car had broken down on the side of the road, along with the mother and daughter who came to help. And so much, too, for the pastor who also stopped to help the stranded motorist. They’re all dead. And two of Couch’s passengers are seriously injured; one of them, also a teen, is now paralyzed. Couch earlier this month pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury.

Before sentencing, a defense-provided psychologist, G. Dick Miller, said Couch would not benefit from jail, but rather from therapy. “This kid has been in a system that’s sick. If he goes to jail, that’s just another sick system.”

There’s a sickness to the system here. And it won’t be solved by the $450,000-a-year rehab center Couch will be attending, courtesy of his parents. And he’s learned his lesson anyway – that the rich don’t live like you and me. They aren’t held to the same standards of personal accountability, either.


By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, December 16, 2013

December 17, 2013 Posted by | Criminal Justice System | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Double Standard For Gun Use”: The Culprit In Florida Is A Set Of Gun Laws That Are Far Too Murky

Two Floridians accused of misbehaving with a gun are out on bond. The similarities end there.

George Zimmerman, who famously shot and killed an unarmed teenager in a racially-charged case, was acquitted of the killing because jurors determined he acted in self-defense. No one can know exactly what transpired when Zimmerman and young Trayvon Martin tussled on the street in the twilight, but we do know that Zimmerman got out of his car to follow or confront Martin before the shooting.

And if Zimmerman (whose previous aggressive behavior was not disclosed to the jury) was trying to convince the world he is simply a gentle, law-abiding person who felt threatened and shot a dangerous teenager, he’s blown that strategy. Since the acquittal, Zimmerman has posed for pictures at a gun manufacturer, been arrested for speeding (seeming stunned when the officer didn’t recognize him) and gotten into a domestic dispute with his estranged wife. And recently, Zimmerman was at it again, charged with pointing a gun at his girlfriend, breaking a glass table, forcing her out of her home and barricading himself in the house. Perhaps more telling, Zimmerman then called 911 himself – even though police were already on the way – to, as he said, tell his side of the story. He called his girlfriend “crazy.”

That she may be, colloquially speaking, given her decision to get involved with someone with a violent past. But the event certainly indicates a pattern, one in which Zimmerman uses guns to get his way. He’s out on $9,000 bond as he awaits the adjudication of the domestic abuse case (and has asked for police to return his phones, flashlight and knife).

Another Floridian, Marissa Alexander, has not had it so easy.

Alexander, too, is now out on bond in a case involving alleged domestic violence. But she’d been in jail since last year waiting for it.

Alexander says she, too, was feeling threatened by her husband when she fired what she said was a “warning shot” to fend him off. The bullet hit a wall and no one was hurt, but Alexander was nonetheless sentenced to a mandatory 20 years behind bars for her behavior. The judge rejected her assertion of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, saying that Alexander could have simply run off instead of going to fetch her gun.

That sounds reasonable – except this: Why is it that Zimmerman, after calling police to report the allegedly suspect Martin, nonetheless got out of his car to follow the teenager? Zimmerman isn’t a police officer (though it’s clear he wanted to be one). He could have not just run away, but actually driven away, to avoid a confrontation. Nor was there any indication Martin had ever threatened Zimmerman before that time.

So why would Alexander get 20 years in prison while Zimmerman was let free to point his gun, again, at another person? Certainly, juries react differently to different people and circumstances (and race and gender, too). But in this case, the culprit is not the peculiarity of the juries. It’s a set of gun laws that are far too murky for anyone – be it the carrier of the gun or the jury judging him or her – to determine when it’s OK to defend yourself with a gun and when it is not.

Alexander was released on bond last week as she awaits a new trial on the gun charge. She’ll be under house arrest and electronic monitoring. Zimmerman, meanwhile, is readying for another episode of the Zimmerman Show – a storyline that is getting alarmingly predictable.


By: Susan Milligan, Washington Whispers, U. S. News and World Report, December 2, 2013

December 3, 2013 Posted by | Domestic Violence, Gun Violence | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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