August 13, 2014

In praise of the heroic holdout juror

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 9:59 pm

Last week a mistrial was declared in the case of Dr. Joseph Zolot and nurse Lisa Pliner, who were facing federal criminal charges for prescribing opiates. They were charged with conspiracy to violate federal drug laws and eight counts of drug distribution. 11 of the 12 jurors wanted to convict them. And according to this article in the Boston Globe, the sole holdout juror wrote a letter to the judge in which she described her experiences and how she was bullied during deliberations. For standing her ground and sticking to her principles in the face of peer pressure, this juror is, in my opinion, nothing short of heroic.

Here are some excerpts from the juror’s letter:

“One of the jurors started yelling at me . . . and I left the courthouse thinking that I would rather break a toe than spend another day stuck in a room with the other jurors. Whenever anyone gets irritated it does seem like I have become the scapegoat…. Only four people bothered to read what I wrote and the rest seemed to just dismiss my ideas. Some, but not all of the jurors have started to accuse me of not being as thorough as they are. I do not agree with this. I believe this is just because they are frustrated with me and have stopped respecting my ideas… Deliberations may be edging towards misconduct (as I interpret the situation).”

The juror added that other jurors proposed trading votes, that and some switched their votes from the minority view to the majority, with one explaining that “she had to.”

It’s tragic that 6 people died from overdosing on painkillers prescribed by Zolot and Pliner. But as harsh as it may sound, these people made the choice to take drugs, with full knowledge of the danger involved. Doctors are not responsible for the decisions that their patients make. It’s wrong that medical professionals can face criminal charges merely for not being strict enough in denying their patients access to medications.

So for giving these two individuals, who in my opinion should never have been charged, another shot at justice, the holdout juror did the right thing. I don’t know if I would be able to stick to my convictions while outnumbered 11 to one.

The judge, Judge Patti Saris, called the juror’s note “improper,” but I couldn’t disagree more. The bullying experienced by the holdout juror shines a light on the problems inherent in our jury system. Any system that requires people to be unanimous is unfair to those who hold unpopular views. With a hung jury considered an extremely undesirable outcome, and judges customarily urging deadlocked juries to resume deliberations until they reach a verdict, it can be nearly impossible for a minority juror to stick to his or her beliefs. Unless all of the jurors happen to genuinely share the same opinion, this system leads inevitably to jurors being pressured into voting against their conscience. Perhaps a better system would be one in which jurors simply vote, either anonymously or not, and either immediately after closing arguments or after a period of group discussion of pre-determined length. In any case, the holdout juror’s actions took a lot of courage and made me think. For that, I salute her.

August 9, 2014

Neutral, unbiased language is not racist (my thoughts on #APHeadlines)

Filed under: culture & social issues,law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 5:19 pm

You are probably wondering why anyone would even need to write a blog post explaining the above. But reactions to the verdict in the Renisha McBride case demonstrate that apparently, this seemingly obvious truth is not obvious to everyone.

On Thursday, suburban Detroit homeowner Theodore Wafer was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Renisha McBride, who had arrived on his porch drunk and banged repeatedly on the door. She had just been in a car crash and was looking for help from people living nearby. He claimed self defense. When the verdict was announced, the Associated Press had the audacity to tweet: “Suburban Detroit homeowner convicted of second-degree murder for killing woman who showed up drunk on porch.”

Derrick Clifton at Mic.com characterized this as a “particularly galling tweet” which “dehumanized the victim, invoking a long history of ignorance and victim-blaming endured by the African-American community.” In a column on BET.com, Keith Boykin called the tweet “sensationalistic” and “victim-shaming” and wrote that the AP “robbed Renisha McBride of her dignity in death.” Goldie Taylor, someone who was interviewed in Boykin’s column, said that the AP used “code words” that “seemed to be casting a moral judgment on the victim” and reflected a “cultural bias” in favor of Wafer. Rashad Robinson, also interviewed in Boykin’s column, said the AP “stoked the flames of fear and racial tension to sell a story.” Numerous people took to Twitter to ridicule the AP, using the hashtag, #APHeadlines.

I have read this tweet over and over again in my head. For the life of me, I cannot find anything even remotely offensive or objectionable about it. I see nothing “galling,” “ignorant,” or “dehumanizing” about summarizing, without comment or opinion, the basic facts of a case. Clifton criticizes the AP for “reducing the situation to a ‘Detroit homeowner’ who ‘fatally shot a drunk woman’ on his porch.” Well, yes. That is precisely what happened.

The fact that anyone would be even remotely offended by this tweet, let alone so offended that they would expend time and effort ridiculing the AP, boggles my mind.

Boykin contrasts the AP’s headline with that of the Detroit Free Press, which tweeted, “Theodore Wafer convicted of second-degree murder, manslaughter and felony firearm in the fatal shooting of Renisha McBride.” Either of these headlines is acceptable. If anything, one could argue that the Free Press’s headline is biased against Wafer for listing all the crimes he was convicted of when second-degree murder is by far the most significant one. Additionally, Boykin suggested that it would be more appropriate to describe McBride as “unarmed” than “drunk.” I also think that this, if anything, would be a less neutral choice and would arguably create an impression of bias against Wafer.

And then there is the accusation of “victim-blaming.” No one is “victim-blaming” here. There is no debate about whether or not a victim should be blamed. The debate is about whether McBride or Wafer is the true victim. I think there are legitimate arguments on both sides. It is not right to imply, as Clifton and Boykin do, that McBride is obviously a victim of murder and Wafer obviously a murderer. Those who believe Wafer acted in self-defense are not “victim-blaming;” they simply have a different opinion about who the victim is. But regardless of whom you believe was the victim and whom you believe was the aggressor, the AP’s tweet did not take a side on this matter. The AP most certainly is not “victim-blaming” by reporting neutrally and factually (which is exactly what a news outlet is supposed to do).

We’ve now reached a state of affairs in which neutral, unbiased language is considered “galling,” and where anything other than being biased against white people is considered racist. All those who ridiculed the AP for the apparently grave sin of not being sufficiently biased and inaccurate should be ashamed of themselves.

Perhaps the most ironic tweet was the following:

First of all, the whole idea of “black Twitter” involves grouping people together by race, and is therefore racist. Second of all, why the pompous gloating about how the AP was “taken down a notch”? That implies that the AP did something wrong, or that there was something righteous or honorable about the hostile reactions of “black Twitter” (whatever the heck that is). Neither of these is the case. Third of all, the AP “put this on itself”? Really? A news organization brought completely unjustified ridicule from hordes of logic-challenged bullies on itself by tweeting a neutral, unbiased headline? Now that is victim-blaming.

July 24, 2014

Drama-filled verdict in Probation Department trial

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 11:41 pm

probation-badge

After seven days of deliberations, a jury finally returned a verdict in the corruption trial of former Massachusetts Commissioner of Probation John J. O’Brien and his deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke. Both O’Brien and Tavares were convicted of racketeering and four counts of mail fraud. They had been charged with eight counts of mail fraud each. Burke was convicted only of conspiracy to commit racketeering. Although the jury did not find that the defendants actually bribed legislators, they found them guilty of providing “improper gratuities” by hiring legislators’ friends and relatives in an attempt to curry favor.

The jury reached their verdict at about 2:15 this afternoon, causing Courtroom 18 to rapidly fill with people. Shortly before 2:30, the jury filed in, Judge William G. Young looked over the verdict slip, and his clerk began reading the verdicts on each of the charges. Because there were 109 different counts and sub-counts, this took quite a while. The defendants’ family members, who filled at least two rows of benches, became very emotional, loudly sobbing and at least one person shouting, “The government is corrupt!” O’Brien’s wife even fainted, and someone called for a medic. The courthouse nurse arrived with a wheelchair. Eventually an ambulance pulled up outside the courthouse with sirens blaring, and O’Brien’s wife was taken away on a stretcher. Surprisingly, as all this was going on, the clerk did not pause in her reading of the verdicts, which made it difficult to hear the specifics.

Continue reading…

July 16, 2014

Probation Department trial: closing arguments

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 12:01 am

probation-badge

Closing arguments took place today in the trial of former Massachusetts Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien and his top deputies, William Burke and Elizabeth Tavares. They are charged with mail fraud, racketeering, and bribery for carrying out and covering up a patronage scheme that involved hiring candidates recommended by state legislators, allegedly without regard for their qualifications, in exchange for budget increases.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Karin Bell delivered the government’s closing. She called the Probation Department’s hiring process “a complete scam” and “fraud.” O’Brien, she said, made hiring decisions before any resumes were reviewed or interviews took place, and sometimes before job openings were even posted. He then passed the names of the legislator-endorsed candidates to the interview panel, telling them that they had to make it through to the second-round interview, which was conducted by O’Brien and his deputies. Then, O’Brien told his deputies ahead of time the order in which they must rank the candidates in the second-round interviews.

“The politically connected candidates are moved on at the expense of other candidates who are probably more qualified,” Bell explained. “They had to break the rules, and they had to cover it up.” Bell argued that in addition to Chief Justice of Administration and Management Robert Mulligan, the trial court itself was a victim because it was cheated out of getting the most qualified probation officers, and unsuccessful applicants were victims because they were cheated out of jobs.

Continue reading…

July 14, 2014

Probation Department trial heading to the jury

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 11:54 pm

probation-badge

The corruption trial of former Massachusetts Commissioner of Probation John J. O’Brien, as well as two of his deputies, William Burke and Elizabeth Tavares, will be in the jury’s hands tomorrow.

Today, lawyers for the prosecution and defense met in court for a charge conference and hearing on the defendants’ Rule 29 motions for acquittal. Judge William G. Young denied all three defendants’ motions for acquittal. If these had been granted, the case (either in its entirety or just some of the charges) would have simply been thrown out without ever going to the jury. Judge Young also announced his planned jury instructions. The following are among the things he plans to tell the jury:

  • The burden of proof is with the prosecution and never shifts to the defense.
  • Verdicts on each count must be unanimous.
  • Special scrutiny should be given to witnesses who were part of the alleged conspiracy or received immunity.
  • Participating in the political process is encouraged, and campaign contributions are protected by the First Amendment.
  • Neither the indictment, nor the behavior of the attorneys or judge, is evidence.
  • There is “nothing criminal” about government officials from any of the three branches of government recommending candidates for jobs, or about hiring authorities keeping track of these recommendations.
  • The jury should not sit as “some giant personnel board” to make decisions about which applicants were the most qualified, but merely to determine if hiring was done with complete disregard to the procedures outlined in the Trial Court Manual.

Judge Young also complimented all of the lawyers. “I think this case has been very well-tried, and I will say that [to the jury]. You’ve been doing a great job for your respective clients.”

Somewhat controversially, he called it “improper,” but not criminal, for hiring authorities to pass names of preferred candidates to those in charge of interviewing or rating candidates. “The passage of such names from a superior to a subordinate is highly improper, whether a judge does it or whether anybody else does it,” he added. However, he assured the lawyers, “standing alone, that’s not criminal.” What is criminal, and what O’Brien and his co-defendants are accused of doing, is “material misrepresentation of the fact that the procedures manual is being followed.” Defense Attorney Brad Bailey, who represents Tavares, expressed his concerns with the description of the defendants’ conduct as “improper,” but Judge Young was not swayed. Defense Attorney Stellio Sinnis, who represents O’Brien, did succeed in getting Judge Young to emphasize to the jury that “a violation of the Trial Court Manual is not criminal.”

The defendants face 8 counts of mail fraud. For them to be found guilty of these charges, it must be proven that they falsely certified through the U.S. mail that they had chosen the most qualified applicants for probation officer jobs, and that they succeeded in deceiving the Chief Justice of Administration and Management, Robert Mulligan. They are also charged with racketeering and bribery. For these charges to stick, either there must have been a concerted effort by O’Brien and Speaker Robert DeLeo to bribe specific legislators to increase the Probation Department’s funding in exchange for their relatives and friends receiving jobs, or O’Brien’s actions must have been done corruptly in hopes of receiving a benefit from legislators.

During the charge conference, Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Wyshak pointed out that Judge Mulligan is not the only alleged victim in this case. “We think that unsuccessful applicants who relied on a fair hiring system, we think that the trial court as an institution is a victim,” he told Judge Young.

Closing arguments, as well as jury instructions, will take place tomorrow.

July 13, 2014

Azamat Tazhayakov trial: recap of the first week

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 10:51 pm

 

Azamat Tazhayakov

Two high-profile trials will be wrapping up next week at Boston’s John Joseph Moakley Federal Courthouse. The Probation Department corruption trial, which began on May 4th, will have opening statements on Monday. Additionally, the trial of Azamat Tazhayakov, charged with obstruction of justice in the Boston Marathon bombing, will be going to the jury by Wednesday, with the prosecution expected to rest their case on Monday. Unlike the Probation trial, the Tazhayakov trial has been moving forward quickly and efficiently. I have been able to watch an hour or so of testimony each day during my lunch break at work. Below is a recap of what I witnessed during the last three days of the trial. (My post about the first two days can be found here.) I decided to only include the witnesses that I personally saw, as details about the others are available from numerous media outlets and reporters’ twitter accounts.

Continue reading…

July 8, 2014

Azamat Tazhayakov trial: notes from opening statements and the first few witnesses

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 9:52 pm

Azamat Tazhayakov

The trial began this week for Azamat Tazhayakov, a friend of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who is accused of obstructing the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing.

Opening statements took place yesterday. The most interesting piece of information to come out during opening statements was that Tsarnaev told his friend during dinner a month before the bombing that he knew how to make a bomb using gunpowder, and that it was good to be a martyr because “you die with a smile on your face and go straight to heaven.” Just 90 minutes after the bombing, Tsarnaev texted Tazhayakov, “Don’t go thinking it’s me, you cooked bastard.”

So far, the court has heard testimony from at least six witnesses.

Continue reading…

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