TIME justice

Blackwater Guards Found Guilty in Iraq Shootings

Former Blackwater Worldwide guard Nicholas Slatten leaves federal court in Washington on June 11, 2014.
Former Blackwater Worldwide guard Nicholas Slatten leaves federal court in Washington on June 11, 2014. Cliff Owen—AP

(WASHINGTON) — Four former Blackwater security guards were found guilty Wednesday in the 2007 shootings of more than 30 Iraqis in Baghdad, and a federal judge ordered them immediately to jail.

In an overwhelming victory for prosecutors, a jury found Nicholas Slatten guilty of first-degree murder. The three other three guards — Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard — were found guilty of multiple counts of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and gun charges.

The four men had been charged with a combined 33 counts in the shootings and the jury was able to reach a verdict on all of them, with the exception of three charges against Heard. The prosecution agreed to drop those charges.

The outcome after a summerlong trial and weeks of jury deliberation stunned the defense.

David Schertler, a lawyer for Heard, said “the verdict is wrong, it’s incomprehensible. We’re devastated. We’re going to fight it every step of the way. We still think we’re going to win.”

The shootings on Sept. 16, 2007, caused an international uproar over the role of defense contractors in urban warfare.

The State Department hired Blackwater to protect American diplomats in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, and elsewhere in the country. Blackwater convoys of four heavily armored vehicles operated in risky environments where car bombs and attacks by insurgents were common.

Slatten was charged with first-degree murder; the others were charged with voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and gun charges.

The case was mired in legal battles for years, making it uncertain whether the defendants would ever be tried.

The trial focused on the killings of 14 Iraqis and the wounding of 17 others. During an 11-week trial, prosecutors summoned 72 witnesses, including Iraqi victims, their families and former colleagues of the defendant Blackwater guards.

There was sharp disagreement over the facts in the case.

The defendants’ lawyers said there was strong evidence the guards were targeted with gunfire from insurgents and Iraqi police, leading the guards to shoot back in self-defense. Federal prosecutors said there was no incoming gunfire and that the shootings by the guards were unprovoked.

The prosecution focused on the defendants’ intent, contending that some of the Blackwater guards harbored a low regard and deep hostility toward Iraqi civilians.

The guards, the prosecution said, held “a grave indifference” to the death and injury that their actions probably would cause Iraqis. Several former Blackwater guards testified that they had been generally distrustful of Iraqis, based on experience the guards said they had had in being led into ambushes.

Prosecutors said that from a vantage point inside his convoy’s command vehicle, Slatten aimed his SR-25 sniper rifle through a gun portal, killing the driver of a stopped white Kia sedan, Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia’y.

At the trial, two Iraqi traffic officers and one of the shooting victims testified the car was stopped at the time the shots were fired. The assertion that the car was stopped supported the prosecution argument that the shots were unwarranted.

Defense lawyers pressed their argument that other Blackwater guards — not Slatten — fired the first shots at the Kia sedan and that they did so only after the vehicle moved slowly toward the convoy, posing what appeared to be a threat to the Blackwater guards’ safety.

Once the shooting started, hundreds of Iraqi citizens ran for their lives.

It was “gunfire coming from the left, gunfire coming from the right,” prosecutor Anthony Asuncion told the jury in closing arguments.

One of the government witnesses in the case, Blackwater guard Jeremy Ridgeway, pleaded guilty to killing the driver’s mother, who died in the passenger seat of the white Kia next to her son.

The maximum sentence for conviction of first-degree murder is life imprisonment. The gun charges carry mandatory minimum prison terms of 30 years. The maximum prison term for involuntary manslaughter is eight years; for attempted manslaughter it is seven years.

TIME justice

Examiner: Michael Brown Had Close-Range Hand Wound

News Report Offers New Details Of Encounter Between Michael Brown And Ferguson Cop
Neighborhood residents light candles at a memorial for 18-year-old Michael Brown on Canfield Street on October 20, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Scott Olson—Getty Images

Two experts said the slain teenager's autopsy supports the claim that Brown struggled with the officer who shot him

Michael Brown was shot in the hand at close range, according to an analysis of the slain teenager’s autopsy by two experts not involved in the case. That revelation sheds a small amount of light on Brown’s death, which triggered months of sometimes violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, but still leaves unanswered questions about the sequence of events that led to police officer Darren Wilson shooting and killing the unarmed Brown on Aug. 9.

Wilson has told investigators that Brown struggled for Wilson’s pistol inside a police SUV and that Wilson fired the gun twice, hitting Brown once in the hand, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. Wilson later shot and killed Brown, igniting violent protests and national outrage. St. Louis medical examiner Dr. Michael Graham said Tuesday that the autopsy “does support that there was a significant altercation at the car.”

Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist in San Francisco, said the autopsy shows Brown was facing Wilson when Brown took a shot to the forehead, two shots to the chest and a shot to the upper right arm. Melinek said that contradicts witnesses who claim Brown was shot while running away from Wilson or while his hands were up.

Neither Melinek nor Graham are involved in the investigation.

[St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

TIME Crime

Missouri Governor Forms Ferguson Commission to Address Inequality

Missouri Gov. Nixon Announces Creation Of Independent Commission On Ferguson
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announces a plan to create a commission to address issues raised by recent events in Ferguson, Missouri on October 21, 2014 in St Louis, Missouri. Scott Olson—Getty Images

“If we want peace in our streets, we must work together to create a more just and equal society"

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced Tuesday the formation of a regional commission to address inequality in Ferguson, Mo., the site of ongoing protests after an unarmed black teen was shot and killed in August by a white police officer.

The “Ferguson Commission” will include leaders in business, public safety, education as well as “ordinary citizens” who will investigate issues of poverty, law enforcement and education in the St. Louis suburb and provide policy recommendations, Nixon said in a press conference.

“Legitimate issues have been raised by thoughtful voices on all sides,” Nixon said. “Shouting past one another will not move us to where we need to go.”

The commission, which is not tasked with examining Brown’s death, will be appointed by early November, Nixon’s spokesman Scott Holste told the Wall Street Journal. The governor expects the group to provide recommendations by early spring.

Nixon’s announcement follows months of protests, some violent, over the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, whose case is currently under review by a grand jury. The commission’s announcement also comes on the heels of a Monday arrest of a Missouri state senator who was arrested in Ferguson after reportedly refusing to comply with police orders during a demonstration there.

“If we want peace in our streets, we must work together to create a more just and equal society,” Nixon said. “This is a defining moment that will determine whether this place will be known as a region marred by racial division and unrest, or a region that pulled together to rise above and heal.”

[Wall Street Journal]

TIME South Africa

Oscar Pistorius Gets 5 Years for the Culpable Homicide of Reeva Steenkamp

South African Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius attends his sentencing at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria
South African Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius attends his sentencing at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria Oct. 21, 2014 Herman Verwey—Reuters

The Paralympic gold medalist was acquitted of murder last month

Athlete Oscar Pistorius was sentenced Tuesday to five years imprisonment for the Valentine’s Day killing of his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

The 27-year-old double-amputee was found guilty of culpable homicide after shooting Steenkamp through the toilet door of his home in Pretoria on Feb. 14, 2013.

The “Blade Runner,” as Pistorius is known due to his trademark prosthetic limbs, claims he thought an intruder lurked inside, but the state maintained that he shot four times with the intention of killing Steenkamp after the couple had argued.

The South African was acquitted of murder by Judge Thokozile Masipa last month after a high-profile trial that was televised around the world.

In sentencing Pistorius, Masipa said she weighed, “The personal circumstances of the accused and interests of society.”

She added: “A non-custodial sentence would send the wrong message to the community, but a long sentence would also not be appropriate.”

Pistorius made history as the first Paralympian to compete against able-bodied athletes at the 2012 London Olympics. He has apparently been suffering from depression since Steenkamp’s death.

A separate firearms charge received three years imprisonment, suspended for five years.

Read next: Heated Reaction in South Africa to Pistorius Sentence

TIME justice

Supreme Court Allows Texas Voter ID Law to Stand Ahead of Midterms

Voter ID Test
A voter shows his photo identification to an election official at an early voting polling site, in Austin, Texas on Feb. 26, 2014. Eric Gay—AP

Three justices issued a dissent calling the law "purposefully discriminatory"

The Supreme Court decided Saturday that Texas can enforce its controversial voter identification law in November’s midterm elections, despite recently blocking several similar laws in other states.

The law, which requires Texas voters to show photo identification like a driver’s or gun license, a military ID or a passport, is championed by some who argue that it reduces voter fraud. However, critics say it’s a means of disenfranchising voters, particularly minority groups and the poor, who can be less likely to have the government-issued identification required by the law.

While the Court left its decision over the law unexplained, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a dissent criticizing the voter ID rules, calling them “a purposefully discriminatory law” that undermines “public confidence in elections.” Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Ginsburg’s dissent, the New York Times reports.

A report released this month by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office showed that voter ID laws similar to those in Texas contributed to lower voter turnouts in two states in 2012—between about 2.2 and 3.2 percentage points in Tennessee and 2 percentage points in Kansas. Those declines were greater among younger and black voters.

Critics of the Texas law say it would disenfranchise 600,000 registered voters in Texas, disproportionately affecting blacks and Hispanic or Latino voters. Texas officials have countered by saying that estimates of the number of people who could be deterred from voting by the law are unfounded.

After many months of legal wrangling, the Texas law, first passed in 2011, was blocked earlier this month by Texas Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of the Federal District Court in Corpus Christi. The Supreme Court’s decision overturns Gonzales’ injunction against the law, allowing it to be applied.

In the absence of an official explanation of the Court’s decision, some observers are speculating the justices allowed the law to stand to prevent confusion so close to the November’s elections. Those observers feel that reluctance to disturb the status quo as voting looms near has been the single common thread tying together several of the Court’s seemingly discordant decisions regarding voter ID laws in recent weeks.

[New York Times]

TIME justice

Conservative, Liberal Groups Try—and Fail—to Make Peace on Voting Laws

“I’m still waiting for the focus on how we get people to vote," said Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund

What would it take to find common ground between the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is fighting restrictive voting laws in many states, and the Heritage Foundation, which supports the same laws?

At the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, representatives of the two groups discussed the battles over voting rights that they and others are fighting in courts and legislatures nationwide ahead of this fall’s midterm elections. But any hope of agreement on the issue faded quickly.

“I would be willing to partner if there were some ideas about how we open up the process, not how we restrict the process,” said LDF head, Sherrilyn Ifill, “I’m still waiting for the focus on how we get people to vote.”

Hans von Spakovsky, who heads the election law reform initiative at Heritage, said he is very concerned about what keeps people away from the polls, but argues they stay away for different reasons than voting rights advocates would have people believe. “What keeps people away is not procedural issues,” Spakovsky said. “If we want to increase turnout that is a cultural issue.”

The debate so far has produced mixed results. In North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Texas courts have both upheld and blocked voting laws ahead of the midterm election.

 

 

TIME justice

Obama Nominates Vanita Gupta to Be Civil Rights Chief

Vanita Gupta.
Vanita Gupta. AP

Gupta has been praised for her ability to bring opposing parties together in matters of criminal justice and civil rights.

President Obama has tapped the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Vanita Gupta, to head the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Wednesday. In a statement, Holder praised Gupta’s “trailblazing work” as a civil rights lawyer, and said she “has spent her entire career working to ensure that our nation lives up to its promise of equal justice for all.”

Strongly supported by the left, Gupta has also won unexpected praise from conservatives normally critical of the Obama administration and Holder’s leadership of the Justice Department. Conservatives including Grover Norquist and former president of the National Rifle Association David Keene are among her supporters.

“We come from a different side of spectrum than ACLU,” says Marc Levin, policy director for the conservative criminal justice reform organization Right on Crime which has an informal relationship with the ACLU. “But, I’ve found her interested in identifying areas where we can work together.”

Gupta started her career at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), where she won a challenge to reverse the convictions of a group of black men who were wrongfully convicted of selling drugs in Texas. In 2003, Gov. Rick Perry pardoned the defendants. At the ACLU she led a lawsuit against a Texas immigration detention facility that led to widespread detention policy reform.

As outrage has erupted in Ferguson, Mo. over the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer, Gupta and the ACLU have been among the loudest voices calling for accountability and transparency from the police department. Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of LDF, said Wednesday that Gupta has “expertise in bringing law enforcement and communities of color to the same table, in pursuit of common goals of fairness and accountability.

Former U.S. Pardon Attorney Margaret Love says Gupta’s appointment is a “happy confirmation of the Obama Administration’s appreciation of the relationship between civil rights and the criminal justice system.”

Gupta may prove a less divisive choice than Obama’s prior nominee for the civil rights post, Debo Adegbile. His nomination was blocked in Congress because he once represented death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer. The Obama administration stood by their nomination of Adegbile, but he later withdrew and returned to private practice.

Gupta has her own legal history, however. She made her name in part by fighting to reform the nation’s drug laws, including embracing broad decriminalization of some drugs. In an opinion piece for the New York Times last September, she called for the elimination of the mandatory minimum sentences that have left many first-time offenders locked up for life. She supports of decriminalizing marijuana, the criminalization of which she has said has contributed to our nation’s overcrowded prison system.

“Those who seek a fairer criminal justice system, unclouded by racial bias, must at a minimum demand that the government eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, which tie judges’ hands; rescind three-strikes laws, which often make no distinction between, say, armed assault and auto theft; amend ‘truth in sentencing’ statutes, which prohibit early release for good behavior; and recalibrate drug policies, starting with decriminalization of marijuana possession and investment in substance-abuse prevention and treatment,” Gupta wrote in the New York Times.

TIME justice

John Grisham Says Sentences Often Too Harsh for Child-Porn Watchers

John Grisham speaks during a television interview in New York in 2012.
John Grisham speaks during a television interview in New York in 2012. Scott Eells—Bloomberg/Getty Images

“These are people who haven’t hurt anybody. They deserve some type of punishment, whatever, but 10 years in prison?”

Best-selling author John Grisham blasted the harsh punishment that people who watch child pornography face upon conviction, saying the prison system has “gone nuts.”

“We have prisons now filled with guys my age — 60-year-old white men in prison who’ve never harmed anybody,” Grisham said in a recent interview. Grisham said there are men in prison who “got online one night” who “probably had too much to drink” and ended up on child-pornography websites, a crime he said a friend had committed.

The writer of legal thrillers The Pelican Brief, The Firm and A Time to Kill took the controversial stance in a recent interview with Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, in which he spoke at length about issues he believes face the American criminal-justice system today. During the interview, Grisham shared the story of a friend from law school who served time in prison for downloading child pornography.

“These are people who haven’t hurt anybody. They deserve some type of punishment, whatever, but 10 years in prison?” Grisham queried.

There is wide consensus in the U.S. that the distribution and possession of child pornography is a federal offense that should be punished, but there is controversy surrounding the one-size-fits-all approach to punishment, particularly at a time when sexting and online porn are so prevalent. Over the past 15 years, according to the advocacy organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the length of federal sentences for child pornography have increased 500%.

In 2013, the U.S. Sentencing Commission began reviewing the sentencing policy surrounding child pornography, given the complexity of the issue in the Internet age. “Because of changes in the use of Internet-based technologies, the existing penalty structure is in need of revision. Child-pornography offenders engage in a variety of behaviors reflecting different degrees of culpability and sexual dangerousness that are not currently accounted for in the guidelines,” the commission’s chair Judge Patti Saris said in 2013.

Grisham stopped short of defending all convicted sex offenders, adding that he has “no sympathy” for pedophiles. “God, please lock those people up,” he said. “But so many of these guys do not deserve harsh prison sentences, but that’s what they get.”

[Telegraph]

Read next: John Grisham Apologizes for Child Porn Remarks

TIME justice

Supreme Court Halts Some Texas Abortion Restrictions

A group from Texas display their flags during a rally on the Mall for the March for Life anti-abortion demonstration on Jan. 22, 2014.
A group from Texas display their flags during a rally on the Mall for the March for Life anti-abortion demonstration on Jan. 22, 2014. Tom Williams—Roll Call/Getty Images

Justices suspended key parts of a law that has closed all but eight facilities providing abortions in the Lone Star state

The Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked key parts of a 2013 law in Texas that had closed all but eight facilities providing abortions in America’s second most-populous state.

In an unsigned order, the justices sided with abortion rights advocates and health care providers in suspending an Oct. 2 ruling by a panel of the New Orleans-based U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that Texas could immediately apply a rule making abortion clinics statewide spend millions of dollars on hospital-level upgrades.

The court also put on hold a separate provision of the law only as it applies to clinics in McAllen and El Paso that requires doctors at the facilities to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. The admitting privileges remains in effect elsewhere in Texas.

Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said they would have ruled against the clinics in all respects.

The 5th Circuit is still considering the overall constitutionality of the sweeping measure overwhelmingly passed by the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry last year.

But even as it weighs the merits of the law, the appeals court said that it can be enforced in the meantime — opening the door for the emergency appeal to the Supreme Court.

The 5th Circuit decision had blocked an August ruling by Austin-based U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel, who had found that requiring hospital-style upgrades was less about safety than making access to abortion difficult. Yeakel’s ruling temporarily suspended the upgrade rules before they could go into effect Sept. 1 — and the order from the Supreme Court means they are on hold again.

Allowing the rules on hospital-level upgrades to be enforced — including mandatory operating rooms and air filtration systems — shuttered more than a dozen clinics across Texas.

Until the nation’s highest court intervened, only abortion facilities in the Houston, Austin, San Antonio and the Dallas-Fort Worth areas remained open. And none was left along the Texas-Mexico border or outside any of the state’s largest urban areas.

Some other clinics, meanwhile, had closed even earlier amid enforcement of the rule on admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. That portion has already been upheld twice by the appeals court.

The fight over the Texas law is the latest over tough new abortion restrictions that have been enacted across the country. The office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican who is the favorite in next month’s governor’s race, is leading the defense of the law.

Critics call the measure a backdoor effort to outlaw abortions.

Attorneys for the state have denied that Texas women would be burdened by fewer abortion facilities, saying nearly 9 in 10 would still live within 150 miles of a provider. The law’s opponents, however, note that still leaves nearly a million Texas women embarking on drives longer than three hours to get an abortion.

Democrat Wendy Davis launched her campaign for governor behind the celebrity she achieved through a nearly 13-hour filibuster last summer that temporarily blocked the law in the state Senate.Justices stop parts of Texas abortion law

TIME justice

Obama to Wait Until After Election to Nominate Next Attorney General

Senate Democrats feared a confirmation vote right before Election Day

President Barack Obama will wait until after the midterm elections to nominate his next Attorney General, a White House official confirmed Tuesday.

Obama has been weighing whether to nominate a replacement for departing Attorney General Eric Holder before November’s election, after the White House announced last month that Obama’s longtime confidant decided to step down. But nominating a candidate before the midterm elections would have complicated the reelection campaigns of vulnerable Senate Democrats who are trying to separate themselves from the unpopular president, with lawmakers being called to state their support for or opposition to Obama’s selection before voters determine the balance of control in the Senate.

Obama is expected to unveil his selection shortly after the election. Among those up for consideration for the post, according to Democrats, are White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez.

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