The More Things Change . . .

Thirty years ago this month, the murder of a young cancer researcher sparked outrage in Atlanta.  Dr. Mark Tetalman, a nuclear medicine specialist from Ohio, was attending a conference at the downtown Hilton Hotel when armed robbers shot him to death in front of his wife near the corner of Piedmont and Ponce de Leon Avenues.

The business community accused Mayor Maynard Jackson and Police Chief George Napper of dismissing public concerns about crime.  Atlanta had the highest murder rate and the highest overall crime rate of any city, and the numbers were rapidly climbing higher, with a 69% increase in homicides between 1978 and 1979 alone.

The police force was demoralized and severely understaffed – far down from the 2,000 budgeted positions, which had never, in reality, translated into anywhere near 2,000 cops on the force.  The size of the force had dwindled by 25% between 1975 and 1979.

A month later, the bodies of fourteen-year old Edward Hope Smith and thirteen-year old Alfred Evans were found on Nisky Lake Road in southwest Atlanta.  The Atlanta child murders (or at least the officially recognized ones) had begun.

It is not inspirational to realize that these headlines could be from 1979 or 2009: “Police Demoralized, Underpaid, Understaffed.”  “Mayor Accused of Not Caring About Public Safety.” “Youths Found Murdered.”  “Cancer Researcher Killed in Robbery.”

How could so little have changed?

One thing changed.  In 1979, the metro area’s population was 2,233,000.  Thirty years later, it stands at 5,626,000.  The population increase in Atlanta itself is much smaller —  (approximately) 425,000 in 1979 and 519,000 today.  Nearly 3.5 million more people in the region; nearly 100,000 more people in the city itself – and Atlanta still can’t seem to achieve those 2,000 cops.

I will be travelling to Atlanta today.  Blogs will resume in a few days.  Look for my blog postings and an op-ed on the Police Benefits scandal in Sunday Paper.

Five Ugly Pieces, Part 1: The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council Blows Millions on Brian Nichols, Cries Poor

I’m gonna pull the chain on you, pal. And you wanna know why?  Cause you’re f****** up my city.  Cause you’re walking all over people like you own them.  And you wanna know the worst part?  You’re from out of state. — Tom Sharky, Sharky’s Machine (1981)

Wonder why our courts are falling apart? Remember this headline, from February, 2008?

Tab climbs to nearly $216k quest for Nichols jurors

Fulton County taxpayers have spent nearly $216,000 to pick a jury to hear the death penalty case of courthouse rampage suspect Brian Nichols. Yet after more than a year, not a single juror has been chosen.

And it’s possible many, if not all, of those expenses will have to be paid again if a new jury pool is needed because so much time has passed since the current group of 1,000 potential jurors took their oaths in January 2007, some legal experts say.

“I would imagine you’re not going to be able to recoup that money,” said veteran death penalty defense attorney Jimmy Berry. “Almost everything that’s been allocated is gone.”

A couple of million dollars later, Nichols was convicted, though not sentenced to death.  At every stage of the trial, however, his attorneys gamed the system to run up bills, and the actions of some jurors and judges drove costs even higher.  Judge Hilton Fuller sent the case into a deep tailspin after he granted an interview to attorney and author Jeffrey Toobin, who quoted the judge chatting about Nichols’ obvious guilt, thus providing Nichols’ lawyers with even more opportunities to derail the system.

Nichols carried out his murders in front of witnesses and confessed to the crimes; nonetheless, were you among the many who breathed a sigh of relief only after he was actually convicted?  Such is the twisted state of our trial system, where expensive game-playing by defense attorneys has taken the place of sanity, the people’s interests, or reasonable efforts to arrive at the truth.

The Gideon decision required American taxpayers to foot the bill for defendants who said they were too poor to pay for a lawyer. Since then, the defense bar has often used Gideon as a weapon in their ongoing efforts to undermine laws they oppose — particularly the death penalty. In essence, they are forcing you to pay for their activism under the cover of providing counsel for poor defendants. Such efforts get ramped up wherever there are state-funded “Defenders Councils” mixing advocacy with representing clients, all on the taxpayers’ dime. Why should we be paying for the infrastructure of what has become an activist organization?

And why, precisely, was Brian Nichols given such stretch-limousine legal representation at the expense of every other “indigent” defendant in the state of Georgia?  Because the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council said that nothing less would do.  From the New York Times:

ATLANTA, March 21 [2007] — A high-profile multiple-murder case has drained the budget of Georgia’s public defender system and brought all but a handful of its 72 capital cases to a standstill.

The case involves a rape suspect, Brian Nichols, who is accused of escaping from a courthouse here in 2005 after overpowering a guard, taking her gun and then killing a judge, a court reporter and two other people before he was recaptured.

Prosecutors say the evidence against Mr. Nichols, including a videotaped confession, is overwhelming. But the case has cost the public defender system $1.4 million, and, on Wednesday, the judge in the case postponed jury selection until Sept. 10. . . .

The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, which manages the public defender system, has run out of money. That means it can no longer pay the three private lawyers on Mr. Nichols’s defense team. . . .

The case “is testing the will of the state of Georgia with regard to whether or not the death penalty is worth the amount it costs,” said Mike Mears, director of the standards council.

I thought the case was supposed to determine Brian Nichols’ guilt, not test the taxpayers’ will.  What an astonishing display of hubris.  Usually when people misuse public monies, they have the decency to not brag about it in the New York Times.

What’s even worse than legislating from the bench? Legislating from the defendant’s table.  What’s worse than that?  Using the bench to legislate from the defendant’s table.  It’s hard not to conclude that Brian Nichols’ obvious guilt actually enabled the Standards Council to exploit the case for political gain:

Judge Fuller, a Superior Court judge in neighboring DeKalb County who was brought out of retirement for the Nichols trial, has been put in the unusual position of approving all spending for Mr. Nichols’s defense, a responsibility that would ordinarily fall to the Public Defender Standards Council, which oversees the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender.

But in 2005, the Office of the Capital Defender was disqualified from managing Mr. Nichols’s defense after Judge Fuller learned that one of the first four public defenders assigned to represent him was not qualified to practice law in Georgia.

Judge Fuller then appointed four new lawyers to defend Mr. Nichols, and the judge agreed to pay Henderson Hill, a noted defense lawyer from North Carolina, $175 an hour, about half what Mr. Hill customarily bills his private clients. Two of Mr. Nichols’s other lawyers are being paid $125 and $95 per hour, and the fourth is a state employee.

Hmmm, we need a Capital Defender’s Council because we need highly trained, specialized lawyers to take on all the vagaries of capital defense, but this crack team of lawyers conveniently forgot the extremely basic rule that one must be licensed to practice law in Georgia in order to practice law in Georgia?

Or was this just another expense-producing delay tactic?  Funny how, either way, the defense wins.

Real, actual, elected legislators should not yield to these tactics. An excellent way to free up money for indigent defense is to simply stop funding the defense council, which has proven itself untrustworthy with the taxpayers’ money.

Sure, they’ll threaten even more endless appeals for inadequate representation, especially in cases with truly heinous offenders, the bread-and-butter of such advocacy (theory being that standing up for the truly indefensible is a badge of real courage, while standing up for a small-potatoes felon is both boring and hard to publicize).

But they’ll file endless appeals in every high profile case anyway.  So why keep giving in to their demands?

This past year, the Georgia Legislature proposed stripping the Council of its funding oversight authority. The bill died in the House, but it’s worth reconsidering. Why should the rest of us, and the justice system itself, be held hostage by an advocacy group? Why should indigent defense allocations be determined by people whose real, admitted goal is to shut down the system?

Once again, Georgia State Senator Preston Smith (R – Rome) served as a voice of reason on both the Nichols case and the Defender Standards Council.  Georgia is lucky to have Mr. Smith in office.  In the New York Times:

In Georgia, State Senator Preston W. Smith, a Republican and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he thought the high price of Mr. Nichols’s defense was by design rather than necessity.

“You’re building in an incentive to destroy the death penalty by building in a financial nuclear weapon,” Mr. Smith said. “There’s one cynical view that says this isn’t at all by accident.”

The Standards Council knew precisely what it was doing when they created a giant cash sinkhole out of the Brian Nichols case. Heck, they bragged about it. And now they’re complaining that they simply cannot provide lawyers for poor people because all the money’s spent.  A must-read article on this, from last week’s Atlanta Journal Constitution:

In Georgia, Lawyers Abandoning [the] Poor

Across Georgia, poor people accused of crimes are being abandoned by their lawyers because there is no money to pay their legal fees.

There are also 10 death-penalty cases proceeding to trial with $1.1 million in expected billings. But there is no money to pay for those cases, either.

And another must-read article: also from the AJC last week:

880 Fulton Inmates Still Await Trial a Year Later: Court System, State Funding, other factors blamed in backlog

Jonathon Robinson is charged with raping three women, but he has sat in the Fulton County jail for four years without a trial at an estimated cost to local taxpayers of more than $100,000.

Robinson may be one of the worst cases of justice delayed but it is far from an isolated one. The Fulton county jail currently has a backlog of about 880 prisoners who have been awaiting trial — most for felonies like murder, rape or armed robbery — for more than a year, according to county figures. . . .

There are a number of contributing factors: The case backlog is blamed on various reasons: a fragmented and largely unaccountable court system, lack of state funding for enough judges, wily defense lawyers, mandatory sentencing that makes it difficult to plea bargain and the failure of Superior Court judges to manage their dockets and set cases for trial.

Robinson’s case touches on most of those factors. Last May, Robinson asked the Georgia Court of Appeals to void his indictments on the grounds his constitutional rights have been violated for lack of a speedy trial. No ruling has yet been handed down.

“He has been failed by the court system, the prosecutors and his defense lawyers,” said his former lawyer Scott Dawkins. “He was in front of a judge … who didn’t move cases very well. He kept getting bounced from attorney to attorney and the prosecutors kept switching.”

The Superior Court has been taking steps to address the backlog to eliminate jail overcrowding and develop a more efficient court system. It’s a tall order in a system in which the 19 judges are independently elected with little accountability, answerable only to voters. They generally run unopposed.

I’ve been critical of the AJC for its criminal justice reporting in the past.  But I’ve been nothing but impressed by their coverage of the last several months of funding crises and other crises in the state justice system.

Meanwhile, it’s time for the state to stop handing blank checks to the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council. Take the state checkbook away from the activists, and put somebody neutral and accountable in charge of allocating funds for indigent defense.

The “Benjy Brigade,” Part 2: After the DNA

(this is part 2)

On March 23, 2003, DNA specialist Edward Blake announced that the semen taken from the victim’s public hair was, indeed, Benjamin LaGuer’s. The victim had not been lying, and she was not a racist monster. The things that had been written about her and spoken about her in the halls of Harvard Law and judge’s chambers throughout the city were false. Benjamin LaGuer was the racist, and a sadistic rapist and attempted murderer, as well. After the shock subsided, Boston’s elite went into mourning. Several journalists wrote weepy paeans to their own good intentions. “I put the covers over my head, and for the next six hours, I just couldn’t get out of bed,” said reporter John Strahinich, whose thoughts under the covers apparently did not stray to retracting the bile he had directed at the frail victim of his jailhouse pal.

The Boston media had finally found a victim they could believe in: themselves.

Yet even the very public unraveling of their unprofessional alliance with LaGuer failed to move them to go back and correct the record. Most simply abandoned the story, retreating into a cowardly silence, refusing to comment further on a case they had obsessively scribbled on for years. Only Dianne Williamson of the Worchester Telegram & Gazette actually apologized to the victim in print.

This behavior, however, was hardly the worst exhibited in the wake of the DNA results. Boston University president John Silber came out and reiterated his belief that “Benjy” should be released, even though he was guilty, even though he still refused to take responsibility for the crime, and even though he had recently managed to harass the victim on her deathbed by posing as a priest on the phone from prison (with his lawyer’s help? with a journalist’s help?) and then “absolving” her when he was tapped through to her hospital room, making his voice one of the last voices she heard and re-traumatizing her family.

“I think he’s a fine person,” Silber told the press.

What could possibly underlie this degree of cognitive disconnection, short of poisonous hatred for the victim of the crime? Only by despising her could you look at the violation of her body, the twenty-year public excoriation of her, and the violation of her deathbed, and see in her tormentor “a fine person.”

This was Boston: a city ironically weaned on literary tales of the danger of scapegoating “witches” had created, and destroyed, another one.

As journalists mourned in uncharacteristic silence, politically savvy supporters of LaGuer scrambled for cover. Intent on winning the governor’s mansion, Deval Patrick attempted to play down his long association with LaGuer, getting caught in serious lies in the process.

But John Silber, Noam Chomsky, and William Styron continued to support LaGuer’s release. Silber told the press that he believed LaGuer had come to believe his own lies about not having committed the crime, so — technically — LaGuer was not lying when he continued to claim his innocence. “I think he can be quite sincere in saying he didn’t do it,” Silber said, “I still think that’s a psychological misconception on his part . . . I think he’s a perfectly good example of a screwed-up kid who was on drugs and making every mistake you can imagine.”

Silber went on to explain that, for Benjy, having to admit guilt in order to be freed when he did not actually believe he was guilty because he had convinced himself he was not was a “Catch-22.” Consequently, LaGuer should be freed even though he was both guilty and refused to admit guilt, Silber explained at a parole hearing a year after the DNA results confirmed LaGuer’s guilt.

Here is a picture of John Silber’s book:

As I watched John Silber and all the judges and professors and lawyers and writers rally around Benjamin LaGuer, I wondered what it must have felt like to be a rape victim attending Boston University or Harvard or Harvard Law School at that time, knowing that the president of B.U. and other authority figures on those campuses were doing their utmost to smear the reputation of another victim of rape and free her assailant. What would it be like to get up in the morning and go to class and actually work for your degree (not to mention pay for it), while Benjamin LaGuer got showered with literary awards and honorary degrees — because, let’s be blunt here, he was a rapist who cried racism?

What would it be like to walk into a classroom knowing that your professor was spending his free time preening for the cameras on behalf of a man who bound a frail, elderly woman, beat her senseless, sexually violated her, broke her cheekbones, tried to kill her, and then cajoled others to treat her like a monster?

I don’t think I could have taken it. I think I would have left that place.

I wonder if there were victims who did leave, knowing full well that to speak out on behalf of the victim would be to be labeled by extremely powerful people — labeled a racist, a hate-monger, and a woman who lies about rape.

Update on Jamal (Shamal) Thompson: Is the Law of Georgia Being Enforced in the Courts of Georgia by Judges in Georgia?

WSB-Channel 2 Atlanta Reporter Tom Jones has been following the Jamal Thompson case more closely than anyone, and he confirmed last week that DeKalb County Judge Cynthia Becker, relying on Thompson’s lies about his past, inappropriately granted him first offender status when he had already received that status in a different county in a prior case.

The murder of cancer researcher Eugenia Calle by a recidivist who should have been behind bars raises several questions about the actions of judges and the enforcement of Georgia’s recidivism statutes.  Legislators should move to investigate the application of these laws, to make certain the law of Georgia is being enforced in the courts of Georgia by judges in Georgia.  I suspect any investigation of sentencing outcomes would uncover many instances of first-time offender rules being abused and recidivism statues being ignored in some jurisdictions.

Are there consequences for judges who fail to abide by sentencing laws?

Also, why should every convicted criminal get a second bite of the apple, as it were, with first-time offender status?

Also, there are loopholes in our recidivist code that need to be reformed.

It’s never too early to start thinking about the next legislative session . . .

“Cops Matter. Police Count”

Crime is down in Los Angeles, despite the economy:

Police Chief William J. Bratton sounded his familiar refrain when asked to explain why crime has not increased. “Cops matter. Police count,” he said.
Bratton has long clashed with prominent criminologists who argue that police cannot counter larger societal forces — such as the economy and drug epidemics — that they contend drive crime rates.
Criminologists like to point to 1990 – 1991, when a recession coincided with the highest crime rates seen in decades, to justify predictions that economic hardship causes people to commit more crime.  But does it? The types of crime that peaked in the early 90’s were largely fueled by inner-city drug-and-gang behavior related to crack cocaine and inter-generational poverty.  The crime wave preceded the financial crisis and persisted after the recession faded.  Crime rates really began to drop when sentencing laws were toughened, starting in 1993 (now those laws are being rolled back).
The stock market doesn’t cause or prevent crime (except white-collar crime).  More cops, and tougher sentencing laws prevent crime; fewer cops and lenient sentencing increases crime.  L.A. is experiencing a terrible unemployment picture, but crime is down, thanks (virtually everyone agrees) to Bratton’s policing.  In other part of the country, the economy is not so bad, but crime is still up.  It’s simple, really: nobody in this country has to steal bread to feed their children.  Trust the cop, not the criminologists.