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Published: Wed, 24 May 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Wed, 24 May 2017 00:34:22 -0400


HBO Ignores Madoff's Victims in Favor of Family Drama

Fri, 19 May 2017 15:00:00 -0400

The Wizard of Lies. HBO. Saturday, May 20, 8 p.m. Sorry, guys. Showtime has decided not to offer advance screenings of its reboot of the milestone of television weirdness, Twin Peaks, which premieres this weekend. This is either a canny make-'em-beg marketing strategy or a desperate effort to conceal an epic bomb. So instead of an incisive analysis of boogalooing and backwards-talking midgets, I can offer only the observation that every criminal breeds his own cult. Just as there are women who want to marry Charles Manson, there are people anxious to buy Bernie Madoff's underwear. And Madoffian salirophiliacs compose much of the audience for The Wizard of Lies, HBO's windy new docudrama on the decline and fall of the all-time Ponzi champ. The $65 billion collapse of Madoff's smoke-and-mirrors trading empire in 2008 would seem to offer great dramatic potential. Unlike the largely faceless, institutional banking collapse around the same time that triggered the Great Recession, the Madoff scandal had an easily identifiable villain driven by evil intention rather than carelessness. And his betrayal was breathtakingly personal; the thousands of victims included most of his friends and even his in-laws. There was even a potential hero: Harry Markopolis, an investment officer at a rival firm who for a decade fruitlessly warned that Madoff's returns were too good to be true. All these elements are present in Wizard, not to mention a marquee cast headed by Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, with frequent Oscar nominee Barry Levinson producing and directing. Yet it all comes together with much more fizzle than sizzle. Much of what's wrong with Wizard can be traced to Levinson's decision to go with a script by three relatively inexperienced writers (including his son Sam) that begins relatively late in the story—the day before Madoff's chicanery was exposed—and concentrates mainly on the damage he did to his own family. That precludes any real examination of any of the characters on their way to the top; all we see is their precipitous fall. Madoff's fraud is believed to have begun in the 1970s. His sons Mark and Andrew were both traders for the company, and his wife Ruth its bookkeeper in the early days. But they all denied any knowledge of his scheming, a claim grudgingly accepted by investigators (who never charged any of the three with anything), if not the public. Wizard follows Mark (Alessandro Nivola, American Hustle) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow, House of Cards) as they're bullied to the line of sanity and ultimately beyond it, alternately by their parents for disloyalty—the boys were the ones who revealed the fraud to federal authorities, then refused to help raise bail money for their father—and by friends who were wiped out. More fascinating, in a bug-under-the-magnifying-glass sort of way, is the case of Ruth (crisply played by Pfeiffer), cagey enough to give away a small fortune in jewelry before the cops can seize it, but utterly oblivious to the cracks in her cocoon of wealth and social standing until the mounting rage of her friends-turned-victims gets her kicked out of her regular beauty salon. Despite the mounting toll, she can't break away from her husband of more than five decades. As they lie in bed, awaiting for the effects of what will turn out to be a botched mutual attempt at a suicidal overdose of sleeping pills to take effect, Bernie murmurs a poignant goodbye: "We had a wonderful life." Without even a glance, she replies: "Yeah ... until you ruined it." This is all well and good, and might have made a good episode of Showtime's barbarous Wall Street drama Billions. But, having expressed every cogent thought in its head in the first 50 minutes, Wizard drags along for another tortuously repetitive hour and half, a long day's journey into utter banality. De Niro's strangely mannered turn as Madoff does not help. Long stretches of phlegmatic resignation punctuated by seemingly random bursts of sociopathic rage ("They didn't want to look too hard," he snaps of his victims at one point, "they're accomp[...]

Police Investigate a Cult Killing; It Turns Out to Be a Rock Video

Fri, 12 May 2017 12:01:00 -0400

(image) "It all began one peaceful Michigan morning," narrator Rafael Abramovitz explains, "when a farmer named Robert Reed woke up to check on his corn field. Farmer Reed looked up towards the sun that morning and saw something strange floating across the sky. It wasn't the usual flock of Canadian Geese. It looked more like a UFO, if you ask him."

So begins the tale of the time the FBI investigated the death of a man who was in fact still alive, as told by the tabloid show Hard Copy. It was 1989. The UFO turned out to be some weather balloons with a Super 8 camera attached. After they landed on his farm, Reed turned his find over to the police, thinking it might be a surveillance camera searching for marijuana. When the cops developed the film, they discovered what they took to be a cult murder or some similarly grisly crime.

A yearlong investigation followed, and in the course of it the FBI was called in. Eventually, the police figured out the truth: The supposed snuff film was actually lost footage from a Nine Inch Nails video. The crew had attached the camera to the balloons to get some low-tech aerial shots, and their helium cinematographers then blew away. The "murder victim" was Trent Reznor, and he was very much alive. Indeed, he was somewhat famous.

In the Hard Copy report, Reznor is amused by the whole thing. The cop they spoke with also seems a little amused. The one person trying very hard not to seem amused by the mistake is Abramovitz, the reporter, who's intent on making Reznor the villain of the piece, blaming him for a "wasted year of police work that could have gone into solving some real crimes." And if Abramovitz had anything to do with the tongue-in-cheek "reenactments" that accompany his narration, I suspect that deep down he was chuckling about it too.

The report aired in 1991, complete with some closing comments about the alleged dangers of rock videos. It is a work of art:

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(Via Dangerous Minds. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

Brickbat: What a Trip

Fri, 28 Apr 2017 04:00:00 -0400

(image) Police in Pennsylvania have charged Mt. Lebanon High School teacher Christian Stein with stealing almost $5,000 from students who were planning a trip to Germany. Stein, who has been suspended from his job, said he did it because he was having financial problems.

Baylor’s Corrupt Athletics Program Takes Center Court in Disgraced

Fri, 31 Mar 2017 14:15:00 -0400

Disgraced. Showtime. Friday, March 31, 9 p.m. Last month, Baylor women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey, having just won her 500th game, felt secure enough to let everybody know how she really felt about the rape scandal that has swept through the school's athletic department like a tidal wave for the past 18 months. "I'm just tired of hearing about it," Mulkey told an arena full of fans, then added her remedy: "If somebody [is] around you and they ever say, 'I will never send my daughter to Baylor,' you knock them right in the face." As the fans roared, Mulkey triumphantly dropped the microphone. Presumably the targets Mulkey would like to punch out include the 17 women whose reports of rapes or assaults by Baylor athletes that school officials have admitted covering up since 2011. (Astonishingly, those may turn out to be low-ball numbers; a lawsuit filed in federal court by one victim says there were at least 52 rapes by 31 football players.) Mulkey seemed surprised that, outside the arena, not everybody was cheering. In the uproar that followed, she had to apologize, sort of. ("Knock them right in the face," she explained, was just a metaphor, though she didn't say for what.) But, if the history of Baylor intercollegiate athletics offers us any lesson, there was no need. When it comes to vicious, criminal behavior, the memory of the school's administration, coaching staff and fans can be measured in nanoseconds. Nobody, for instance, remembers Queso, the friendly alley cat who became a sort of informal mascot of Taco Cabana, a little Mexican-food joint just off the Baylor campus that was the hangout of a lot of the school's athletes. In 2011, two Baylor baseball players shot Queso with a pellet gun, beat him with a golf club and finally decapitated and skinned him. Penalty: suspension from the team for a little less than a month. Two years after that, one Baylor basketball player murdered another, a crime that triggered a deluge of revelations about cars, cash, and other goodies provided to the school's athletes by their coaches, under the table and massively in violation of NCAA rules. In an attempt to contain the damage, Baylor's then-basketball coach Dave Bliss tried to frame the murdered player as a drug dealer whose sideline explained his lush lifestyle. When one of the assistant coaches took exception to the frame-up, Bliss threatened to fire him, which turned out to be a catastrophic misstep: The assistant began wearing a wire, and the resulting tapes sank not just Bliss but the entire basketball program. The basketball scandal, too, has been little-mentioned in connection with the rape cover-up, though the parallels—an athletic department that considers itself above not only NCAA rules and state laws but even the standards of human decency—are obvious. That, however, may be about to change with Showtime's airing of Disgraced, a superb documentary that recounts the implosion of Baylor's basketball program in damning detail. At heart, the crisp and intense Disgraced is a true-crime documentary set against a backdrop of big-time college basketball. Better known as a bastion of Southern Baptist morality—dancing was banned on campus until 1996, and homosexuality was on its list of sexual misconduct as late as 2015—than as an athletic factory, Baylor decided in the late 1990s to end decades of basketball ineptitude. In 1999, ignoring hints that he'd flouted NCAA rules while coaching at nearby SMU, Baylor hired Bliss, who in a quarter of a century had amassed more than 450 wins in major-college basketball. Casting his nets far outside the sleepy boundaries of sleepy Waco, Bliss had startling success as a recruiter. And after three mediocre seasons, it looked as if his 2003-04 team might have a breakthrough year. But then, the summer before the season started, two of his players disappeared. (Their absence was first detected by an assistant coach whose tasks for the team included going around to the classrooms of players enrolled in[...]

Enough Stranger Danger! Children Rarely Abducted by Those They Don't Know

Fri, 31 Mar 2017 12:30:00 -0400

Missing and abducted children have been a big news topic lately, spurred by a host of high-profile conspiracy-theories and falsehoods that began slithering their way through social media. A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking we're in the midst of a child-abduction epidemic. But the truth is that American children today are no more likely to be kidnapped than they were decades ago, and much more likely to be returned safely when they are. According to an estimate from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), there were just 105 "stereotypical kidnappings" in America between late 2010 and late 2011, the last period for which we have data. (For reference, there were about 73.9 million children in America that year.) Just 65 of these kidnappings were committed by strangers. Less than half involved the abduction of a child under age 12. Only 14 percent of cases were still open after one week, and 92 percent of victims were recovered or returned alive. In the previous OJJDP survey, from the late 1990s, there had been an estimated 115 stereotypical kidnappings and just 60 percent of victims made it home. The Department of Justice (DOJ) defines stereotypical kidnappings as those in which 1) the victim is under 18-years-old, 2) the kidnapper is either a stranger or a "slight acquaintance," 3) the abduction involves moving the victim at least 20 feet or detaining them for at least one hour, and 4) the victim is either held for ransom, transported at least 50 miles, detained overnight, held with an intent to keep permanently, or killed. In other words, these are "the most serious" sorts of child abductions, as DOJ puts it. However, not all of the 105 cases in this category are quite as stereotypical or serious as the others. DOJ defines slight acquaintance as someone the child or their family have known for less than six months, someone they've known for longer than six months but see less than once per month, or someone who might be recognizable to a child or their parents but not known by name. In one "stereotypical kidnapping" case DOJ highlights, a 16-year-old girl ran away to live with an adult boyfriend, who is defined as a "slight acquaintance" because she had only been seeing him a few months. So the number of stereotypical kidnappings that the general public would consider stereotypical is actually lower than the feds' estimate. Both the 2011 and the 1997 data come from the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART). By surveying law-enforcement agencies in a representative sample of U.S. counties, OJJDP came up with estimates for the prevalence and characteristics of stereotypical kidnapping overall during the study periods. The latest NISMART survey covers incidents that occurred between October 1, 2010, and September 20, 2011. The previous survey covers incidents that occured in 1997. Here's an overview of what the federal surveys found. Number of "stereotypical kidnappings" in America, October 2010 - September 2011: 105 perpetrated by strangers: 65 perpetrated by slight acquaintances: 40 Are stereotypical kidnappings up or down? Down, maybe—there were 115 incidents defined as stereotypical kidnappings in the '90s NISMART survey, compared to 105 in more recent research. But because these estimates are based in part on weighted data, the DOJ considers the two numbers "statistically equivalent." However, 2010-2011 victims were much more likely to make it home safely than their 1990s counterparts. In the 90s survey, only 60 percent of stereotypical kidnapping cases ended with the child being recovered alive. In the 2010-2011 survey, it was 92 percent. Ages of victims: More than half of stereotypical kidnapping victims in 2010-2011 were ages 12 or above. In total, an estimated 61 victims were between 12- and 17-years-old. An estimated 19 victims were between 6- and 11-years-old, with 11 victims between ages three and [...]

Brickbat: Coming and Going

Tue, 28 Mar 2017 04:00:00 -0400

(image) The Carlsbad, California, city council has voted to use license plate cameras to record every vehicle that enters the city. Council members said the move might deter criminals from breaking the law in Carlsbad.

Chicago Bleeds Population for Second Year in a Row

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 12:30:00 -0400

For a second year in a row, the metropolitan Chicago area lost more residents than it gained. Not only that, the losses are increasing. Those are the latest figures released from the U.S. Census. The greater Chicago area (not just the city, to be clear) lost 19,570 in 2016. The area saw a net loss of 11,324 people the previous year. Chicago is the only metropolis among the top 10 cities in America to lose population. Given the massive dysfunction of the operations of the City of Chicago, it's easy to find something to blame or explain the losses that fits your pre-existing political attitudes and be absolutely correct. It's got serious violent crime problems and serious police abuse issues. Chicago and the state of Illinois force massive tax burdens onto its citizens and then direct that money both to powerful union and private sector crony interests. All of these various reasons have been blamed by citizens heading elsewhere. The Chicago Tribune has been asking them: By most estimates, the Chicago area's population will continue to decline in the coming years. Over the past year, the Tribune surveyed dozens of former residents who've packed up in recent years and they cited a variety of reasons: high taxes, the state budget stalemate, crime, the unemployment rate and weather. Census data released Thursday suggests the root of the problem is in the city of Chicago and Cook County: The county in 2016 had the largest loss of any county nationwide, losing 21,324 residents. Experts say the pattern goes beyond just the Chicago region. For the third consecutive year, Illinois lost more residents than any other state in 2016, losing 37,508 people, according to U.S. census data released in December. Last year, a specialized study on the migration habits of wealthy people worldwide noted that Chicago was a massive outlier among American cities in that it was losing rich people. The report predicted that a notable outward migration of millionaires is a canary-in-a-coal-mine warning that others will soon follow suit. That seems to be the case now. The new report indicates that close to half of the people who left Cook County last year—more than 9,000 of them—were African American. Of course, some of those African-American folks are probably wealthy, too, but it's also very clear that these are people looking for economic opportunities that they aren't able to find in Cook County. Another interesting detail gleaned from the report: Immigration to America declined, even in major cities, over the last decade. But most of these cities continued to grow due to population increases among native residents. That didn't happen to Chicago. Reason has written extensively about Chicago's many problems, from its inability to rein in police misconduct, its inability to manage its public employee pensions in an economically sound fashion, its inability to stand up to teachers' unions demands even as they bankrupt the school system, even its tendency to cheat its citizens with corrupt, crony-driven red-light camera systems and revenue-driven plastic bag taxes. We have a special tag for stories about Chicago's municipal operations, and it's not to highlight how great they are. Read more Chicago-based Reason writing here.[...]

Is That GIF You’re About to Post on Twitter a ‘Deadly Weapon’?

Wed, 22 Mar 2017 13:30:00 -0400

If a person can come to actual, physical harm by looking at a particular image, and you deliberately present such an image to that person knowing this could happen, can you be held criminally responsible? We're about to find out if animated images can be classified as "deadly weapons." Combative journalist Kurt Eichenwald, a loud critic of President Donald Trump and his supporters, went toe-to-toe with Tucker Carlson on Fox News back in December. As is normal in the state of social media these days, he found himself the focus of angry tweets from those who disagreed with him. But Eichenwald is also very open and has written about the fact that he is epileptic and susceptible to seizures. After the December appearance, Eichenwald claimed somebody tweeted to him a flashy animated GIF designed for the purpose of provoking a seizure. (It literally had the text "You deserve a seizure for your posts" on it). Furthermore, Eichenwald claimed that the GIF succeeded. The flashing colors prompted a seizure. After he recovered, he filed a criminal complaint in Texas in the hopes of tracking down the culprit. It looks like authorities have succeeded. A grand jury in Texas has indicted a Maryland man named John Rayne Rivello of "aggravated assault with a deadly weapon" for tweeting the offending GIF. And an FBI agent has filed a complaint accusing Rivello of violating federal cyberstalking laws. Let's, at least for the purposes of analyzing the underlying concerns with this case, set aside the politics and personalities involved. We need to do that because Eichenwald's behavior in the interview that prompted the "attack" was notably absurd—revolving around an unsubstantiated claim that Trump had been institutionalized in the 1990s. Whether Eichenwald is a person to be treated seriously shouldn't be the issue here. Is Rivello legally responsible if an image that never even physically comes into contact with Eichenwald triggers a harmful reaction? Even if Rivello was actually hoping a seizure would happen (and the evidence presented by the Justice Department, if true, suggests Rivello had actually investigated how to trigger an epileptic seizure)? NBC talked to a defense lawyer who hadn't heard of a similar case in the past: "I'm unaware of anybody being criminally prosecuted for this," defense attorney Tor Ekeland, who represents clients accused of federal cyber crimes, told NBC News. "If it's not the first time, it's one of the first times this has happened." Ekeland, who is not involved in the case, noted that Rivello is being charged with a federal cyberstalking law that is frequently the subject of criticism from First Amendment advocates. The law criminalizes using electronic communication "with the intent to kill, injure, harass, [or] intimidate" a victim, but it's typically used in relation to images (like revenge porn) or speech (like emailed death threats). What's likely unprecedented about this case is that Rivello's tweeted GIF is considered an assault weapon. "Here they're saying you used the internet as a weapon that causes physical harm," said Ekeland. "You're in different territory, because that's at least something you can have concrete testimony and evidence of, rather than squishy emotions and 'Gee, I felt bad.'" But there's still the matter than when you come at somebody with a knife, it's easy for prosecutors to make the case that you were obviously attempting to cause physical harm. The slippery slope here is that Rivello is potentially being held responsible for an unusual reaction to a stimulus that would normally be classified as speech, and only due to Eichenwald's particular medical condition. The prosecutors here want to make the easiest argument—that Rivello clearly intended to cause harm to Eichenwald, even if he didn't physically lay hands on him. But note Ekeland's comments about how cyberstalking laws, written[...]

First ICE Report on Police Who Won’t Detain Immigrants Shows How Small the Problem Is

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 11:50:00 -0400

As President Donald Trump ordered in the earliest days of his leadership, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has released its first weekly list of law enforcement agencies that refuse to cooperate with orders to detain immigrants in the United States illegally. ICE's first report covers people released by law enforcement agencies between January 28 and February 3, but the actual detainer requests can go back much longer, even several years. But of the 3,083 requests by ICE to detain immigrants and hand them over to the feds, only 206 requests were declined. And the majority of the refusals were concentrated in a handful of communities, particularly Travis County, Texas, home of Austin. Furthermore, of those declined requests, slightly more than half the immigrants on the list are people who have only been charged with crimes and not yet convicted. And while some of the charged crimes are very serious and violent (there's a person charged with homicide in Philadelphia), ICE is also trying to detain and possibly deport people charged with much lesser crimes like prostitution and drug possession. They're even trying to get their hands on a Venezuelan in Florida convicted of a traffic violation. It's also not clear how accurately we should treat the report. A section of the report lists all the law enforcement agencies in the country who have limits or restrictions on how much they cooperate with ICE on detaining and handing over immigrants. The New York Times notes that Nassau County in New York is listed among these agencies, but in fact the county's sheriff's office assures they're very, very cooperative with ICE. In Texas, Williamson County's sheriff said the same thing. He says the four people ICE claims they refuse to detain for them were actually moved to other jurisdictions that subsequently refused to cooperate. It's the first report of its kind, so perhaps some kinks are to be expected. The numbers may also end up increasing, though it's not clear of the degree. The report introduction notes that law enforcement agencies don't often inform ICE that they're refusing the detainer request, so the report is based on what ICE employees are able to figure out for themselves. This could explain the Williamson County mistake. The report also notes that ICE had previously stopped sending detainer requests to law enforcement agencies with a history of non-cooperation. Under Trump's orders, ICE is going to start sending them requests again. The report notes, "As a result, the number of issued detainers will increase over the next several reporting periods." So the number of refusals may increase, but that doesn't mean that there's a dramatic increase in crime caused by immigrants here illegally. Keep that in mind (and the fact that many people on the list have merely been charged) when examining future trend coverage of these reports. Evidence shows that immigrants are not major sources of criminal activity. Read through the report yourself here. Note that a lot of the agencies listed as not cooperating aren't simply flat-out refusing to detain immigrants on ICE's demand. Many require a warrant or a court order of some sort.[...]

Elected Florida Prosecutor Tries to Stop Using the Death Penalty, but Governor Won’t Have It

Fri, 17 Mar 2017 14:10:00 -0400

Aramis Ayala wasn't kidding when she ran and won a position as a prosecutor in Florida on a platform of criminal justice reform. And now she's making national news for refusing to ask for the death penalty in the case of a man charged with murdering his pregnant ex-girlfriend and subsequently an Orlando police officer. Ayala represented a small number of new prosecutors representing a trend in 2016 of voters turning to candidates that offered a less harsh justice system and dumping some incumbents. Florida Gov. Rick Scott is not impressed with Ayala's decision, and even though the citizens of Osceola and Orange counties elected her, Scott is using his authority to move the case to another district and put it before another prosecutor. This came after she ignored his fully absurd demand that she recuse herself for not having the same position on the applicability of the death penalty as Scott's. The story has inevitably crystalized around the fact that Ayala will not call for the death penalty for a man who killed a police officer above anything else. From CNN: "[Ayala] has made it clear that she will not fight for justice and that is why I am using my executive authority to immediately reassign the case to State Attorney Brad King," Scott said. "These families deserve a state attorney who will aggressively prosecute Markeith Loyd to the fullest extent of the law and justice must be served." Earlier Thursday, Ayala said capital punishment in Florida had led to "chaos, uncertainty, and turmoil." She argued that evidence showed the death penalty was overly expensive, slow, inhumane and did not increase public safety. Ayala said after "extensive and painstaking thought and consideration," she determined that pursing the death penalty "is not in the best interest of this community or the best interest of justice." "Some victims will support and some will surely oppose my decision," she said. "But I have learned that the death penalty traps many victims, families in a decades-long cycle of uncertainty, court hearings, appeals and waiting." To be very clear, because some of the coverage is a little ambiguous: Ayala is going to refuse to pursue the death penalty for any murder handled by her office. It's remarkable among prosecutors both for the political risk it opens up for Ayala but also for the fact that this isn't even a case where there's a lot of ambiguity that causes folks to question the application of the death penalty. This is the kind of case where people who are ambivalent about the death penalty are nevertheless likely to support Loyd's execution (assuming he's found guilty). Shooting a pregnant ex-girlfriend? Killing a cop execution-style and having it captured on video? The politically expedient thing for Ayala to do here would be to declare her personal opposition to the death penalty but ultimately allow the jury to decide. Though leaders and representatives of law enforcement are furious, Ayala is getting support from groups like Amnesty International and the NAACP. The political maneuvering from the governor's office, though, shows the challenge when prosecutors attempt to step back even just a slight bit in high-profile cases. Based on the facts of the case, it seems unlikely Loyd is ever going to see the outside of a prison again, ever. But just the prospect that Florida might not execute him as well is apparently too much for some people to countenance, even though the state's own death penalty has been temporarily suspended over constitutional issues.[...]

America 'Not the World's Lawgiver,' Justice Thomas Protests in 'Dracula' Sex-Trafficking Case

Tue, 07 Mar 2017 13:45:00 -0500

(image) America is "not the world's lawgiver" and can't punish non-citizens for activity committed abroad, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas opined Monday. Thomas was the only Justice who wanted to consider an appeal from a Jamaican man convicted in U.S. federal court of sex trafficking and ordered to pay restitution to an Australian woman for crimes that occurred in Australia.

The man, Damion Baston, was found guilty in 2014 of multiple federal counts of sex trafficking and money laundering. The case earned a lot of attention due to Baton's unusual persona: gold-plated fangs, eerie contact lenses, and a nickname—"Drac"—to match. Baston was accused of using intimidation and physical and psychological abuse to coerce women into prostitution in Florida and overseas, including in Australia and United Arab emirates, and ultimately sentenced to serve 27 years in federal prison and pay restitution totaling around $99,000 to three of the victims. He appealed.

In March 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld the lower court's ruling in part. But it found that "the district court erred when it refused to award restitution to a victim of Baston's sex trafficking in Australia" because the activity too place outside the U.S. Thus, Baston was ordered by the 11th Circuit to pay $400,000 to the Australian woman, Katie Lang, who had accused Baston of forcing her into prostitution in her home country after the pair became romantically involved.

Baston then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the appeal, lawyers for Baston—a Jamaican national who had been deported from the U.S. once before and was traveling under a stolen identity—argued that American courts cannot compel non-citizens to pay restitution to other non-citizens for activity that occurred outside U.S. boundaries.

On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear Baston's appeal. Justice Thomas' was the sole dissenter who thought the Court should take the case. "I am confident," wrote Thomas, that "whatever the correct interpretation of the foreign commerce power may be, it does not confer upon Congress a virtually plenary power over global economic activity."

While Baston might not be a "sympathetic" figure, the "principle involved" in his case is "fundamental," and thus worthy of reconsideration, wrote Thomas. "Taken to the limits of its logic, the consequences of the Court of Appeals' reasoning are startling. The Foreign Commerce Clause would permit Congress to regulate any economic activity anywhere in the world, so long as Congress had a rational basis to conclude that the activity has a substantial effect on commerce between this Nation and any other. Congress would be able not only to criminalize prostitution in Australia, but also to regulate working conditions in factories in China, pollution from powerplants in India, or agricultural methods on farms in France."

Decades of Exoneration Stats Show Blacks More Likely to Be Wrongfully Convicted

Tue, 07 Mar 2017 11:45:00 -0500

America saw another record year for the number of prisoners being exonerated, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society, University of Michigan Law School, and Michigan State University College of Law. For 2016, 166 people were exonerated of crimes and released from prison, 52 of them for murder. Of all the exonerations, 70 cases involved official misconduct of some sort, and in 74 of the cases, convictions came from guilty pleas. And in 94 cases (also a record) it turned out that no actual crime occurred at all. These were mostly drug cases but also some child sex abuse cases. Most famously, the San Antonio Four, four women convicted in 1998 in a fabricated satanic child sex abuse ring scandal, were released in 2016 after it finally became clear the crimes never occurred. This year researchers decided to go back over its entire history of reporting exonerations dating back to 1989 to examine the role of race in wrongful convictions. It turns out it's a big role. Try to contain your surprise. The analysis focused on the three types of crimes that have, over time, produced the greatest number of exonerations in the registry: murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes. Here's some of their calculations from 27 years of data pulled from the study's executive summary: African Americans are only 13 percent of the American population but a majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated. They constitute 47 percent of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations. Innocent black people are about seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people. A major cause of the high number of black murder exonerations is the high homicide rate in the black community, the report notes, but obviously the innocent people are not responsible or contributors to the rate. Black prisoners who are convicted of murder are about 50 percent more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers. African Americans imprisoned for murder are more likely to be innocent if they were convicted of killing white victims. Only about 15 percent of murders by African Americans have white victims, but 31 percent of innocent African-American murder exonerees were convicted of killing white people. The convictions that led to murder exonerations with black defendants were 22 percent more likely to include misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants. Based on exonerations, a black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white sexual assault convict. The major factor for the disparity appears to be mistaken eyewitness identification by white victims. Assaults on white women by African-American men are a small minority of all sexual assaults in the United States, but they constitute half of sexual assaults with eyewitness misidentifications that led to exoneration. African-American sexual assault exonerees received much longer prison sentences than white sexual assault exonerees, and they spent on average almost four-and-a-half years longer in prison before exoneration. It appears that innocent black sexual assault defendants receive harsher sentences than whites if they are convicted, and then face greater resistance to exoneration even in cases in which they are ultimately released. African Americans are about five times as likely to go to prison for drug possession as whites—and judging from exonerations, innocent black people are about 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people. Reminder: Despite what some people believe, stats show that blacks and whites use drugs at about [...]

Arkansas Set to Execute Eight Inmates in 10 Days

Mon, 06 Mar 2017 11:11:00 -0500

(image) Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that eight death row inmates would be executed by lethal injection in a span of 10 days starting April 17, according to a report by CNN. The man are Bruce Earl Ward, Don William Davis, Ledelle Lee, Stacey Eugene Johnson, Jack Harold Jones, Marcel W. Williams, Kenneth D. Williams, and Jason F. Mcgehee. They will mark the first executions for the state, which was caught up in legal challenges, since 2005.

Attorneys for the eight inmates had previously asked a Pulaski County court to rule the state's lethal injection law unconstitutional, in part because it allows the names of the drug suppliers to be kept secret. The court initially ruled in their favor and stayed their executions, according to the Arkansas News, but the Arkansas Supreme Court later overturned that decision in a 4–3 vote.

The state's Attorney General, Leslie Rutledge, recently requested that the high court clarify whether or not a stay on the executions was still in place. In a 5–2 order, the justices confirmed that it was no longer in effect, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the state court's ruling, per the CNN report. The state is now able to move forward with the executions.

The upcoming execution schedule is unprecedented, notes Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "No state has ever conducted eight executions over a 10 day period," he told CNN.

The Associated Press speculates that they were scheduled for such a short window because the state's supply of one of the lethal injection drugs, Midazolam, expires at the end of April. Arkansas has already run out of potassium chloride, which causes cardiac arrest upon injection, and has yet to acquire a new supply. Hutchinson has expressed confidence that a new supplier for the substance will be found in time.

Midazolam, used to render the inmate unconscious before the lethal injections are administered, has been at the center of recent controversy. The drug was used in the botched executions of Dennis McGuire in Ohio and Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, as documented in a December CNN exposé . In both instances, the inmates were not rendered fully unconscious and their deaths were not quick.

Critics of the Arkansas governor's plan argue that expediting the executions increases the risks that they will be botched as well. "To attempt eight executions with Midazolam -- including four multiple executions -- is unheard of and reckless," Dunham said to CNN.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, 1,446 people have been put to death in the U.S. as of January 31, 2017, according to a database compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Under Georgia Bill, Minors Could Be Tried As Adults for Assaulting Cops

Thu, 02 Mar 2017 15:45:00 -0500

Lawmakers in states across the country are pushing for "Blue Lives Matter" legislation. In that spirit, Georgia could soon make it much easier for juveniles who get into altercations with police to be tried and punished as adults. The state has recently seen several House and Senate bills introduced that would extend protections for law enforcement. The Back the Badge Act of 2017 rolls several such proposals into a single package; one of those is House Bill 116, which would allow district attorneys to try minors as adults if they're accused of aggravated assault with a firearm or aggravated battery against a public safety officer, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. Georgia law currently says eight different charges can justify moving a juvenile up. The house bill, which was introduced by state Rep. Bert Reeves (R–Marietta), would increase that number. The bill was inspired by the shooting of Georgia police officer Scott Davis by a 15-year-old gang member, according to the AJC. The case started in juvenile court, and the judge denied the prosecutor's motion to try the teenage suspect as an adult. "Nobody understands how she came to this conclusion," Reeves told the newspaper. A spokesperson for the county district attorney's office said the judge felt that the minor was "amenable to juvenile treatment." Reeves apparently disagrees. "If you pull a gun on a cop or shoot at a cop, you've sailed beyond juvenile treatment," he said, per the AJC report. H.B. 116 passed the state House on Monday 130–36. It will move to the Senate despite objections from various criminal justice advocacy groups, including the Georgia Justice Project. The nonprofit organization argues that trying minors as adults is counterproductive, as it increases their chances of re-offending, according to a U.S. Department of Justice National Institute of Corrections report. "The weight of the research reviewing the public safety impact of sending youth to the adult corrections system has found that youth tried as adults are more likely to re-offend, even when controlling for offense background and other characteristics, than comparable youth retained in the juvenile system," the report reads. "Youth who are transferred from the juvenile court system to the adult criminal system are approximately 34 percent more likely than youth retained in the juvenile court system to be re-arrested for a violent or other crimes." The report says upward of 250,000 juveniles end up in adult criminal court every year. Every single state has some version of a transfer law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.[...]

Trump's Mythical Crackdown on Sex Trafficking

Mon, 27 Feb 2017 11:56:00 -0500

At, sex-crime victims' advocate and author Liz Crokin accuses the mainstream media of "ignoring Trump's sex trafficking busts." In Crokin's reality, "authorities have arrested an unprecedented number of sexual predators involved in child sex trafficking rings in the United States" since Donald Trump took office on January 20. "There have been a staggering 1,500-plus arrests in one short month; compare that to less than 400 sex trafficking-related arrests in 2014 according to the FBI," Crokin writes. This is, as Trump would put it, "fake news." Every part of it. For starters, the 2014 data she links to is far from a complete account of U.S. sex-trafficking arrests that year. It reflects incomplete state-level arrest numbers from just 26 U.S. states, Guam, and the Virgin Islands. It does not include all state sex-trafficking arrests, by far, nor does it include any sex trafficking arrests by federal agencies such as the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which make thousands of sex trafficking arrests annually (though far fewer trafficking indictments and convictions). The idea that there have been "an unprecedented number" of sex traffickers arrested since Trump took office has similarly little basis in reality, and there's zero truth to the claim of law-enforcement busting up child sex-trafficking rings. Meanwhile, many of the arrests Crokin includes in her tally—arrests that include mostly women selling sex and men trying to engage in consensual adult prostitution—are part of annual sting operations, were the result of investigations n the works long before Trump took office, and/or had absolutely nothing to do with federal law-enforcement directives or activities. (That is, when we can check Crokin's sources; two of the pages she links to as evidence can't be found.) Here are the arrests that Croklin credits as Donald Trump-brokered busts of pedophile trafficking rings: 478 people arrested in a statewide California sting that included zero sex-trafficking arrests, according to a press release from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. One-hundred and forty-two men were arrested for attempting to pay consenting adult women for sexual activity. Thirty-six men were arrested for pimping. The rest of those arrested—300 in total—were women taken in on prostitution charges or people in trouble for charges unrelated to commercial sexual activity. 178 men arrested in Texas for soliciting prostitution from an undercover cop posing as a consenting adult sex worker. The stings were part of a nationwide "Johns Suppression Initiative" organized annually by Cook County, Illinois, Sheriff Tom Dart. Four "pimps" and 12 people arrested on unspecified charges during a month-long Detroit operation concluded two days after Trump took office. 11 people arrested as part of a "five-month cyber-sting operation led by the Spotsylvania Sheriff's Office Child Exploitation Unit in partnership with the Northern Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force." The sting—a To Catch a Predator-style operation involving police posing online as a 13-year-old into older men—began in October 2016 and ended in early February. As evidence of these arrests that Crokin doesn't think are being covered in the mainstream media, she links to news reports on ABC, NBC, and CBS news affiliates, describing events also covered widely by other media in their respective states or regions. The California sting was also reported by mainstream print and broadcast media across the country, as was the broader National Johns Suppression Initiative that resulted in the Texas arrests.[...]