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“It Makes You Wonder”: George Zimmerman, Darren Wilson And The Kickstarted Defense; You Call This Justice?

I learned a lot of shocking things reporting “Zimmerman Family Values” for the new issue of GQ. But one really creeped up on me. From nearly the second the Florida neighborhood watchman shot to death 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, George and his family absolutely believed that a superstar attorney was his only chance to not wind up in prison forever. So it was inevitable that when Zimmerman was arrested and charged with murder, he had only one thing on his mind: how to pay for a private criminal defense lawyer. Knowing that his phone calls were being recorded while he was in jail pending bond (for a grand total of seven weeks) Zimmerman and his family spoke in code. They were all very grateful for the “support from SH”.

You didn’t need a crypto-analyst to figure out that “SH” was Sean Hannity. In July 2012, the Miami Herald reported that the anchor was believed to be financially backing Zimmerman’s defense.

It was kind of true. But Hannity, himself, did not shell out. He got a bunch of other people to pony up. On his nightly TV show, the Fox News man would furrow his brow and rant about what would become of America if we lost the right to shoot and kill people who scare us. Then Hannity would, helpfully, mention TheRealGeorge Zimmerman.com, a website that the real George Zimmerman had set up after he shot Trayvon Martin to death. The site, helpfully, accepted PayPal.

Nearly half a million dollars double-clicked right in.

It makes you wonder: does seeming less guilty on TV make a killer seem less guilty in court? Does an expensive attorney help get him off, too?

The answer appears to be yes and yes.

A 2012 study showed that if a case before the US supreme court is covered by the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, the court’s decision is twice as likely to mimic public opinion than if it is not reported on by those newspapers.

In 2011, a review by the US justice department showed that defendants represented by court-appointed lawyers are more likely to be convicted and/or receive longer prison sentences than those represented by private attorneys.

The reasons for this slaying of the US constitution’s sixth and 14th amendments (right to legal counsel and right to due process) is rather obvious. In the last 50 years (since the supreme court unanimously reaffirmed defendant rights), the US incarceration rate has exploded more than 700%, while public defender budgets have plummeted about 600%. Today, the average amount of time a public defender spends with a client is 59 minutes in Atlanta, 32 minutes in Detroit and seven minutes in New Orleans. No surprise it’s often a “meet ’em and plead ’em” process. More than 90% of criminal defense cases are now plea-bargained. Those that go to trial – well, no promises. In the last 25 years, at least 2,000 people have been wrongly convicted and collectively served more than 10,000 years in prison.

So what’s an accused bad guy supposed to do? Follow George Zimmerman’s lead!

Of course, not every accused felon can get Sean Hannity as his personal cheerleader/rainmaker. But anyone accused of anything can crowd-source and, uh, raise public awareness. Right now there are more than 4,000 legal defense projects seeking your money on GoFundMe.com. MaryJane, in Lansing, Michigan, is apparently fighting criminal cannabis growing charges. She says she needs weed because she has Lupus. She posts a photo of herself out-and-proud wearing a marijuana leaf necklace. She has raised $1,450. Gordon Smith, of Delmar, Delaware says that he has been falsely accused of domestic violence 24 times. He offers a video – “False Allegation Awareness: The Gordon Smith Story” – and he has raised $290. Darren Wilson, of St Charles, Missouri, has done a lot better. He has raised $433,000 … because maybe some day he’ll be charged with something.

Wilson, of course, is the police officer who shot to death 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr, whose own family’s GoFundMe site has raised $339,000. As officer Wilson’s (currently inactive) fundraising sites promised: “All proceeds will be sent directly to Darren Wilson and his family for any financial needs they may have including legal fees.”

If he ever has legal fees. Right now, all Darren Wilson has is a lot of money because he killed someone.

What did George Zimmerman spend his crowd-sourced payday on? A bail bond was $95,000, living expenses took $62,000, security ate up $56,000, and GPS monitoring (he had to wear an ankle bracelet pending trial) along with pizza for interns gobbled up $3,200. Zimmerman’s attorneys did get $76,000.

Zimmerman still owes his lawyers another $2m. And he got acquitted in a state that convicts accused people nearly 90% of the time.

Do he and Wilson really deserve a million-dollar defense team any more than MaryJane and Gordon need whatever legal representation a grand total of $1,740 can buy?

Or is crowd-sourced funding just the real public defender in a time of recession, social media and criminal justice without much justice?

If you’re accused of a crime, it clearly pays to do get a lot of attention committing it.

 

By: Amanda Robb, The Guardian, October 1, 2014

October 7, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Darren Wilson, George Zimmerman | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Boehner’s Constitution Of Convenience”: Sermonizing Politicians Cannot Meet Even Their Most Rudimentary Responsibilities

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Especially when your glass house is the House of Representatives. Speaker of the House John Boehner made headlines last month, when he launched a misguided lawsuit against President Obama for ostensibly violating “his constitutional authority.” Yet if anybody is treading on the Constitution, it is Boehner himself. Speaker Boehner and his conservative caucus have shown a blatant disregard for the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment, which guarantees criminal defendants “the assistance of counsel.” In the process, they have failed to meet their basic constitutional responsibilities.

Boehner is cynically using the very process he refuses to fund for others less fortunate. In announcing his decision to sue the President, Boehner made the anodyne observation that “the legislative branch has an obligation to defend the rights and responsibilities of the American people.” These rights include those contained in the Sixth Amendment, which specifies the procedures of criminal prosecution. Notably, the Amendment protects the fundamental rights of criminal defendants to a speedy trial and to be represented by legal counsel.

Congressional Republicans’ extreme budget cuts threaten the core of the Sixth Amendment. Since 2010, Congress slashed hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal judiciary and federal public defense programs. Simultaneously, Congressional Republicans allowed states to enact draconian cuts to public defense. From Michigan to Mississippi, state legislators balanced their budgets on the backs of poor Americans who rely on public defenders. States rights are all well and good, but states do not have the right to violate the Constitution. Despite efforts by Democrats in Congress to stop the damage, Congressional Republicans refused to increase appropriations and provide reasonable levels of funding.

The results have been catastrophic. And the victims are some of the most vulnerable people in our society: low-income Americans trapped in a biased justice system. As noted by the ACLU and other advocacy organizations, the “deep cuts to the federal public defenders’ budget” resulted in “significant layoffs, 15-20 day furloughs, and the complete elimination of defender training.” Continuing on this dangerous path, according to the advocacy coalition, would “decimate the federal defender system.” On the state level, the consequences have been equally devastating. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, many state public defenders spend as little as six minutes per case because of paltry funding. The Brennan Center also found that public defenders often juggle “more than 300 cases at one time.”

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) and Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972) are unequivocal: the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution entitles criminal defendants to effective legal representation. Congress has the responsibility to secure this right with appropriate funding. And it is not doing so. Low-income Americans are paying a very real price for this constitutional abdication.

Tea Party Republicans frequently pontificate about the Constitution. The 112th Congress, in which John Boehner was elevated to Speaker, began with a ceremonial reading of the document “for the first time ever.” The House Republican Caucus introduced a rule in 2011 that requires all legislation to “cite its specific constitutional authority.” Republicans routinely allege that President Obama’s actions menace the Constitution. To quote Republicans in Congress, America faces a “constitutional crisis” because “King Obama” has “rewritten the Constitution for himself.” But when it is time to actually stand up for the Constitution, these sermonizing politicians cannot meet even their most rudimentary responsibilities. America doesn’t need politicians who lecture about the Constitution; we need politicians who follow it.

Conservative Republicans don’t stop at undermining public defense. They also embrace extreme cuts to civil legal assistance. While not protected by the Sixth Amendment, civil legal aid is a vital component of the safety net. Every year, it helps 1.8 million low income Americans facing everything from domestic violence to foreclosure. Like criminal legal aid, it is also egregiously underfunded. Almost every House Republican supported a 2011 plan to chop nearly 20% from the annual appropriation of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the nation’s primary provider of civil legal aid. For some Republicans, these severe cut to LSC did not go far enough. 170 Republicans, or 70% of the Congressional Republican Caucus, subsequently voted to eliminate all funding for the LSC.

Fortunately, the Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats have successfully blocked the most radical reductions in public defense. Attorney General Holder and Solicitor General Verrilli have been tireless advocate for reversing the cuts and establishing an equitable judicial system.

Ironically, Speaker Boehner resorted to the American justice system to sue President Obama, the very system he has worked relentlessly to underfund for indigents. Instead of suing Obama, he should start fixing the system he and his colleagues broke.

 

By: Duncan Hosie, The Huffington Post Blog, August 26, 2014

September 2, 2014 Posted by | Constitution, House Republicans, John Boehner | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Gideon’s’ Promise Still Unfulfilled”: It Turns Out Poor People’s Justice Is To Justice As Monkey Business Is To Business

“Make me wanna holler, way they do my life.” — Marvin Gaye, “Inner City Blues”

Karen Houppert has written a book of nightmares.

Houppert, a veteran reporter for, among others, The Washington Post and The New York Times, is the author of Chasing Gideon: the Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice, which comes out this week coincident with the anniversary of a legal milestone. It was 50 years ago Monday that the case of Gideon v. Wainwright was decided.

Clarence Earl Gideon, 51, was arrested in Panama City, FL, in 1961 for burglary. When his case came to trial, Gideon, who was indigent, asked the court to provide him an attorney. The court refused and Gideon, a four-time loser and eighth-grade dropout, had to represent himself. He was found guilty and given five years.

But though he was no scholar, Gideon knew something was wrong with this picture. He wrote a letter — in pencil and with a dropout’s creative spelling and grammar — to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case and appointed counsel to represent him. The decision it handed down affirmed the Sixth Amendment promise that every criminal defendant — even an indigent one — shall have “the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”

It is a right we take for granted now, part of the boilerplate every TV cop rattles off to every suspect. “If you desire and cannot afford an attorney…” and etcetera. It is hard to imagine that such was not always the case. Perhaps you’re grateful to live in a country where even the humble poor are ensured of quality representation when they stand before the bar of justice.

Except that you don’t. Hence, the nightmare.

It turns out there is a gulf between the 1963 promise and the 2013 reality. It turns out one lawyer can be expected to try 400, 500, 600 cases a year. It turns out public defenders are so underfunded and overwhelmed it is not uncommon for a defendant to meet his attorney for the first time in court. It turns out the situation is so dire that in at least one jurisdiction a judge pressed tax attorneys and property lawyers into service in criminal court. It turns out poor people’s justice is to justice as monkey business is to business.

Ask Clarence Jones, who spent over a year in prison just waiting for an attorney — and was still there as the book went to press — on a charge of burglary.

Ask Carol Dee Huneke, a novice lawyer with no experience in criminal law who was hired as a public defender on a Thursday and assigned a case that began Monday. She had never even seen a trial before.

And ask Greg Bright, who spent 27 years in prison on a murder charge he might have easily beaten, writes Houppert, had his court-appointed attorney done even minimal investigation on his behalf. As a later attorney discovered, the single witness the state’s case hinged upon was a mentally-ill heroin addict with a history of hallucinations who physically could not have seen what she claimed she did.

Twenty-seven years. “Make me wanna holler,” indeed.

What is reflected here is not simply incompetence, but disdain; contempt for the rights, lives and humanity of the less fortunate. And perhaps your instinct is to look away, secure in the naive delusion that no one gets arrested unless they’ve “done something.” Truth is, it happens every day.

Taken alongside the failed War on Drugs that has devastated African America, this treatment of indigent defendants depicts a “justice” system that too often produces the exact opposite of what its name suggests, particularly for its most vulnerable constituents. That’s a sad state of affairs 50 years after what was once considered a milestone triumph for the poor.

And it should — we should — send a clear and unambiguous message to lawmakers. The system is broken. Fix it.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., The National Memo, March 18, 2013

March 19, 2013 Posted by | Civil Rights, Constitution | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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