Criminal Justice System
An attorney representing 20-year-old George Spain had gone through an exhaustive final argument: Spain was up for murder one in courtroom 707 of the Criminal Justice Center on Monday afternoon. The sentence could land him in prison for the rest of his life and his attorney, Dennis Cogan, had explained the case in clear and uncertain terms:
Reginald James, Jr., 19, was shot and killed around 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 18, 2009 as he fled two assailants near a dark street corner in Germantown. Later than night, James girlfriend identified Spain and another man to police. They were taken into custody. The other man was released, however and two new suspects came under scrutiny after Spain supposedly told police what had really happened.
According to Cogan, Spain said two men -- Tyreese Copper and his father, Gregory Anderson (known as Little Ty and Big Ty) -- had targeted James Jr. because he had stolen a lockbox from them.
The Commonwealth wanted the jury to believe, Cogan said, that Spain had known about the planned murder, conspired to execute it, and then snitched to police to avoid implicating himself. This would make Spain liable for murder as an accomplice.
Cogan dismissed these notions outright and a host of others in just over an hour: Without Spain, Cogan said, the police had no case. He sets it right! Cogan said.
After the defense rested, it was John Doyles turn. Representing the District Attorneys office, he said Spain had been blowing up Little Tys cell phone in the minutes leading up to the murder. Spain knew the plan, he worked with Big Ty and Little Ty to corner James Jr., and Spain should be sent to prison for life.
Doyle rested and then Judge Stephen R. Geroff outlined the jurys options: convicting Spain of murder one would land the 20-year-old in prison for life. Murder three would earn him a maximum of 40 years in prison. And if the jury found Spain not guilty, well, he would be sent home. Its now up to the jury.
After less than two hours, the courts clerk announces that the jury has come to a verdict. Family members here to support both Spain and the deceased James Jr. fill the courtroom. Eight officers from the sheriffs department enter to keep things as calm as possible, standing on the courtrooms edge with their revolvers tucked away, their walkie-talkies off and their hands folded stalwartly in front of their belt buckles. The room is quiet; theres almost no sound but for occasional whispering and rustling clothes. The judge enters. The clerk asks that no one react to the verdict once its read. There are bated breaths and pregnant sighs. The jury enters one at a time and they sit. Another pause. The clerk reads the first count:
On murder in the first degree, how do you find the defendant, George Spain?
The jury foreman looks at the courtroom and demurs.
Not guilty your honor, he says. The courtroom stirs.
Murder in the third degree?
Not guilty your honor.
And on the conspiracy charge?
Not guilty your honor.
The room does, in fact, react. There are cries of joy and sadness from both sides of the room. Police officers, who testified for the prosecution and are now sitting in plainclothes in the front row of the court gallery, sit with arms crossed, visibly angry. They refuse to comment. A woman related to James Jr., who asks not to be identified, says the verdict just aint fair before breaking into tears.
And on the other side of the room where Spains family now begins to exit there are tears of jubilation. Donald Smith, Spains uncle, has tears rolling down his face when he says, justice has finally been done today.
But has it?
The unfortunate thing about all this is that someone is dead, says attorney Gary Silver, who worked with Cogans team on this case. And not only are the guys who committed this murder still out there, but you had Spain sitting behind bars for two years waiting for trial.
It feels like everyone loses, he says.
UPDATE: Tyreese Copper is, in fact, in lock up and is being prosecuted for murder; his trial is set for September (see this PDF of his docket sheet). His father, however, has not yet been arrested for this crime.
'Cash for kids' case back in court; key witness says Luzerne judge agreed to be paid for wrongfully sending kids into lockup
Not exactly Philly-centric, but definitely a big deal: A Luzerne County judge who allegedly agreed to take kickbacks from the builder of a juvenile detention center in exchange for sending kids into lockup is on trial today.
The case initially involved two judges -- Mark. A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael Conahan -- whoÂ pleaded guilty to illegally accepting millions in cash in exchange wrongfully sentencing potentially thousands of kids to serve time in lockup between 2003 and 2008. The Pa. Supreme Court -- working from a petition brought forward by Philadelphia's Juvenile Law Center -- expunged some 6,000 sentences handed down by the judges. The Luzerne County juvenile justice system, in other words, collapsed.
Both judges initially pled guilty to the kickback scheme. Conahan has stuck with that plea and could face 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine but Ciavarella instead decided to stand trial. Those proceedings began Tuesday in Scranton's Federal courthouse.
Citizen's Voice in Wilkes-Barre is providing coverage by the hour and the Associated Press reports today (via the Atlanta Journal Constitution) that the juvenile detention center's builder testified to the judge's involvement:
Robert Mericle testified Wednesday at the trial of former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella (shiv-uh-REL'-uh). Prosecutors say Ciavarella was part of a $2.8 million "kids for cash" scheme in which he locked up juvenile offenders at detention facilities Mericle built.
Mericle told the court that he visited Ciavarella in his courthouse office and said he wouldn't have had the opportunity to build the facilities without Ciavarella. Mericle testified that Ciavarella agreed he should be paid as a result.
Meanwhile, the Standard Speaker in Hazelton, Pa. reports that court employees who worked for Ciavarella Jr. and Conahan are now being implicated as well.
The New York Times addsÂ interesting coverage as well as audio interviews with some of the wrongfully sentenced kids. The Wall Street Journal's "Law Blog" has a summary of the case with a few useful links.
Not included in those links, however, is the link to the report by the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice -- which in based on Market Street in Center City Philadelphia and was formed by the Pa. General Assembly with the sole purpose of finding out what happened in this case and how it can be avoided in the future. That report is here in PDF form. Among its conclusions:
The collapse of the juvenile justice system in Luzerne County carries with it sad lessons. Most important, the experienceÂ demonstrates what happens when judicial power is divorced from the constraints of law, when slogans such as âzero toleranceâÂ masquerade as thoughtful philosophy, and when judicial courage and compassion are replaced with aÂ self-serving cunning.
A judge this morning sentenced Catherine and Herbert Schaible to 10 years probation in the accidental death of their two year old son.
The couple, who are lifelong members of the First Century Gospel Church in northeast Philadelphia, have seven other children. The Schaibles were convicted of involuntary manslaughter andÂ endangering the welfare of a child in December after prosecutors say they failed to take their infant son to a doctor when he showed signs of the flu. Instead they prayed and their son, Kent, soon died of pneumonia.
Several undated sermons on the First Century Gospel Church's website speak directly about the church's opposition to doctors and medicine.
"Our life must be committed to God without compromise, and our will is to be His will in everything," according to one sermon. "That commitment to God means we are to trust God alone for physical healing without the use of medicine, drugs, prescriptions, human remedies, or a doctor."
Senior Common Pleas JudgeÂ Carolyn EngelÂ Temin said "it's obvious a prison sentence is not called for" and that "everything I've heard about you is complimentary with the exception of this incident." She stressed, however, that "religious freedom is trumped by the safety and well-being of the child."
The terms of their probation require the couple to schedule regular in-person meetings with probation officers for two years, followed by three years of regular phone meetings and then five years of non-reporting probation. Part of this sentence requires that the Schaibles schedule regular medical appointments for all their children and release their children's medical records to probation officers.
"I need to give a sentence that's long enough to ensure the kids have adequate healthcare until they turn 18," judge EngelÂ Temin said.
Some Internet thing labels North 13th Street the sixth most dangerous hood in America. Suck it, Badlands.
For the second year in a row, using exclusive data developed by Dr. Andrew Schiller's team at NeighborhoodScout.com, and based on FBI data from all 17,000 local law enforcement agencies, WalletPop reveals the top 25 most dangerous neighborhoods with the highest predicted rates of violent crime in America.
No. 1 is a hood in Chicago. No. 2, Cleveland. Nos. 3 and 4 (and 8), Las Vegas (who knew?). No. 5, the ATL.
And then there's No. 6: North 13th Street, or more specifically, the area bounded by Green Street to the south, Poplar to the north, Broad Street to the west, and 10th Street to the east. According to NeighborhoodScout, this 'hood has a median home value of $101, 973; according to WallePop, you have a 1 in 9 shot (pun unintentional) of being a victim of violent crime here in a year. (That's compared to a 1 in 19 shot citywide, which, let's be honest, is still a bit frightening.) Other thing worth noting: 92 percent of the nation's school districts are rated as being better than ours.
Missing? The Badlands, which has either cleaned up its act (relatively speaking) and is now less dangerous than No. 25, a neighborhood in my old home of Orlando called Parramore (which is, unsurprisingly if you're familiar with how these things are done in the south, a mostly black neighborhood named after a Confederate general) or WalletPop just overlooked it.
The Juvenile Lifer debate hit City Hall Wednesday morning, and you're not missing much if all you've read on the subject is our reports over the past year. Yesterday's House Judiciary Committee public hearing, held in City Hall's chamber room, broached as advocates and lawyers and crime victims and, most recently, the Supreme Court have broached for decades the propriety of sentencing a minor to life without parole.
(For the purposes of the argument, a âminorâ is âsomeone who commits a crime while under the age of 18.â The phrase âjuvenile life without paroleâ is too clunky and therefore regularly shortened to âJLWOP,â pronounced âjail-wop.â)
Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than any other state in the country about 400 and that stat gets repeated ad nauseum when you attend these kinds of meetings.
The hearing yesterday came in response to the House Bill 1999, introduced by Rep. Kenyatta Johnson, D-Phila., which would abolish JLWOP and give all juvenile offenders, even murderers, a shot at parole after 15 years. Under current state law, there are only two sentencing options for minors convicted of homicides: sentencing as a juvenile (rare) and given freedom at 21, or sentenced as an adult, and given freedom never. Johnson's bill would give some wiggle room to judges and prosecutors: If someone turned out to be a Satan incarnate (hello, Charles Manson), parole boards could turn them down, and they'd stay in prison for the rest of their lives. But at least they'd have a chance to redeem themselves.
Yesterday's meeting was covered sufficiently enough by the Daily News and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Both reporters focused as daily newspaper reporters are wont to do on both sides of the JLWOP argument:
1) âKids are different,â as Bradley Bridge wrote in his appeal for the longest-serving inmate in Pennsylvania's correctional system, Joseph Ligon, now 73. This side implies that minors are not mature enough emotionally or psychologically to be held accountable for adult prison sentences.
2) âSo what?â Victims of violent crimes and the families of crime victims are still victims whether the person who committed the violent crime was a kid or not.
Those sides don't get at the complexity of the JLWOP issue in Pennsylvania, obviously. For one thing, Pennsylvania subscribes to the âfelony murder rule,â meaning that if someone is killed in the commission of a felony, everyone involved in the felony is eligible for a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole whether or not the homicide was intended, and whether or not a person or group of people pulled the trigger or not. (Party to a drug deal gone bad? Life for you, mister.)
That's just one aspect. In fact, I'm not even scratching the surface. It's probably worthwhile to look over some of the testimonies given to the House Judiciary Committee, posted below. They give some incredible depth of perspective: from victims who have incurred heartbreaking sadness at the hands of violent kids, to advocates who work with men who are growing into middle age in prison because they made stupid decisions while they were in junior high or high school.
Worth a look:
From the Office of the Victim Advocate (against HB 1999)
From the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (for HB 1999)
From the Pennsylvania District Attorney's Association (against):
From Don Romig (against):
From Cully Stimson (against):
From Bradley Bridge (who did not testify, but is for HB1999):
From Anita Colon (for )
From Alyce C. Thompson
From Carol Lavery (against)
From Juandalynn Taylor (for)
From The Sentencing Project (for)
From the Juvenile Law Center (for)
From the Pennsylvania Prison Society (for)
From the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers (against)
From Dottie Moquin (HB1999)
Don't know if you saw this little thingamajigger on Phawker, (which itself links to this thing from Washington City Paper), but our Police Commissioner may have a truthiness problem from his days down in DC. From the WashCP:
An affidavit filed today in U.S. District Court raises questions as to whether former D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey may have committed perjury in his sworn testimony about the Pershing Park fiasco. Ramsey had repeatedly stated in depositions that he had not ordered the mass arrest of approximately 400 people during the Sept. 27, 2002, World Bank/IMF protests.
Yet the affidavit, by Det. Paul Hustler, a 22-year D.C. Police veteran, maintains that Ramsey indeed ordered the arrests.
Hustler's affidavit, taken Nov. 16, [PDF] is just the latest shock in a pair of Pershing Park class-action civil suits in U.S. District Court. In recent months, the case has been dogged by allegations of massive discovery violations. Judge Emmet Sullivan has called for an outside investigation into how basic evidence in the cases had gone missing.
We took a quick read through Hustlerâs testimony, and indeed, if heâs telling the truth, it might not bode well for Chief Ramsey. So, being the judicious reporters that we are, we (technically, an intern) placed a call to Ramseyâs public affairs office, to ask if he had any thoughts on Hustlerâs statement. Here's what the lady who answered the phone told us, in whole:
"We're not willing to comment, and neither is he!â Click.
So, um, there you go.
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