This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable

Five ‘Stand Your Ground’ cases you should know about

The Stand Your Ground law is most widely associated with the Feb. 26 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old killed in Florida by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain who claimed he was acting in self-defense.

But as a recent Tampa Bay Times investigation indicates, the Martin incident is far from the only example of the law’s reach in Florida. The paper identified nearly 200 instances since 2005 where the state’s Stand Your Ground law has played a factor in prosecutors’ decisions, jury acquittals or a judge’s call to throw out the charges. (Not all the cases involved killings. Some involved assaults where the person didn’t die.)

The law removes a person’s duty to retreat before using deadly force against another in any place he has the legal right to be — so long as he reasonably believed he or someone else faced imminent death or great bodily harm. Among the Stand Your Ground cases identified by the paper, defendants went free nearly 70 percent of the time.
Read All »

The politics of punishment: Q&A with prison-reform advocate Marc Mauer

This week, we look at Texas and the bipartisan efforts that have spurred widely admired prison reforms. I spoke to Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project and one of the country’s leading prison-reform advocates, to get his take on the impact of prison growth and reform in the U.S.

Tamy Cozier: During the 1990s, the nation’s crime rate dipped by 30 percent to its lowest levels in 35 years. During that tine, we also saw growing police forces, stricter drug laws and harsher sentencing. Don’t the numbers prove that a tough-on-crime approach works?

Marc Mauer

Marc Mauer: No. There were many developments that came around the 1990s that collectively contributed to reduction in crime. Part of that was the waning of the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and the violence that was associated with that.

Some of that [decline in crime] was due to more strategic policing, a better economy in the 1990s and better job opportunities for people who might have otherwise gotten involved in crime. And yes, some of that had to do with more people in prison, although research on that suggests that only about something in the range of 10 to 25 percent of the decline in crime was due to more incarceration. But, to the extent that prison had some impact on crime, that doesn’t tell us that [increased incarceration] is the most cost effective, let alone humane, way to address the problem.
Read All »

New task force to investigate mortgage-backed securities

Back in April of last year, we reported on the case of Charlie Engle, a professional ultra-marathoner who had been convicted and sentenced to prison time for lying on mortgage applications. It was a story originally reported on by New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, who questioned why the government had gone to such great lengths to prosecute Engle, while the lenders and banks responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis had not faced criminal punishment.

Could we finally see some of those prosecutions that Nocera and other critics have been calling for since the housing crisis?

During the State of the Union address earlier last week, President Obama announced the creation of a new “special unit of federal prosecutors and leading state attorneys general” to expand “investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis.” The new effort, which has been formally dubbed the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force’s New Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group, is being co-chaired by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Watch Big Fish Little Fish on PBS. See more from Need to Know.

Partially fueled by his original refusal to sign on to the nationwide settlement with banks in the wake of the robosigning scandal, Schneiderman has been heralded by some liberal groups as a great progressive hope. Writing in Politico last November with Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, Schneiderman described the need for “a more comprehensive investigation before the financial institutions at the heart of the crisis are granted broad releases from liability,” a call echoed by many critics who saw the potential deal between banks and the State Attorneys General as not being punitive enough.
Read All »

Renewed push to curb insider trading in Congress after ’60 Minutes’ exposé

With public approval of Congress at an all-time low this year, a recent “60 Minutes” report shining a light on insider trading among members of Congress elicited outrage among an already disillusioned public. But the report has also spurred a renewed focus on banning the practice among members of Congress, which has been gaining momentum in recent weeks.

The “60 Minutes” investigation (which originally aired on November 13), based on the recent book “Throw Them All Out” by conservative-leaning author Peter Schweizer, alleged that several members of Congress in both parties had benefited from lucrative stock trades based on non-public information obtained on Capitol Hill. In the report, Schweizer alleged that members of Congress had been involved in several trades that posed serious conflicts of interest, including trades in health-care stocks during the 2009 health care debate and shorting stocks in the days preceding the 2008 global financial crisis.

Read All »

Troy Davis, the death penalty and the toll executions take

Photo: AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Regardless of how one feels about the death penalty, or about the particular case of Troy Davis, there’s something worth remembering amid a frenzy such as this: There are real people involved, not least of all the man who was put to death amid doubts about his guilt.

About once a year or so, a case comes along that jars us from our complacency, reminds us that, as a society, we put people to death. Without making judgments about the efficacy of the death penalty as a deterrent against crime, or about its moral legitimacy as a form of justice, its worth noting that putting someone to death is a weighty thing, and it inevitably takes a profound toll on those involved.

The Troy Davis case was no different. As new evidence emerged over the years that cast doubt on the veracity of the witnesses’ claims — and as seven of the nine witnesses ultimately recanted their testimonies implicating Davis in the 1989 shooting of Officer Mark MacPhail — the jurors who had convicted Davis began to express their regrets.

Read All »

Internet activist charged with hacking into MIT network

Aaron Swartz at the Boston Wiki Meetup in 2009. Photo: Sage Ross/Flickr

On Tuesday, Aaron Swartz, a 24-year-old Internet activist and co-developer of RSS and a company purchased by Reddit, was charged with breaking into MIT’s restricted networks and stealing more than four million articles from the JSTOR academic database. According to the indictment, which reads like a crime thriller involving a secret wire closet, data mining programs and the odd bicycle helmet mask, the means by which he accessed and downloaded those articles constituted high cybercrimes worthy of federal prosecution. Yet many of Swartz’s supporters, who share his passion for free access to data and open government à la WikiLeaks, see the charges as being overblown.

Swartz reached an agreement with the nonprofit company JSTOR in early 2011 and returned the 4.8 million academic articles to the company, so there is no dispute about whether he downloaded the data from more than 1,000 scholarly journals that covered a wide range of subjects. JSTOR acknowledged that Swartz’s actions did violate its terms and conditions, but said they did not jeopardize the company’s relationships with publishers from whom it licenses. Rather, when a jury convenes for the trial, slated to begin September 9, what they will be deliberating is whether Swartz’s actions constituted federal cybercrimes that warrant a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines, as the statutes define.

Swartz faces six charges in the indictment, filed by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston, including wire and computer fraud, and charges related to breaking into a protected computer. The case falls under federal jurisdiction because the alleged crimes were committed via the Internet and JSTOR’s servers were located in another state. The wire fraud charge alone, which is based on the assertion that Swartz misrepresented himself in “wire communications in interstate commerce writings” over the Internet, carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The FBI previously investigated Swartz for allegedly downloading and posting almost 20 million court documents from the government-run PACER system in September 2008, but did not file charges.

Given Swartz’s involvement with open information advocacy sites Change Congress and Demand Progress, his perceived motives could make a big difference in the trial. Based on statements from Demand Progress and writings in Swartz’s own blog, his actions may be positioned as a Robin Hood effort meant to make important information accessible to the public. It’s not clear if he intended to share the JSTOR data with the wider public or if he simply wanted it for the research that he was conducting as a Harvard University research fellow. It will be up to a jury to decide how much that matters.
Read All »

Anti-LGBT violence rose last year, report says

With same-sex marriage now legal in six states and policies like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on their way out, it would seem that the tides have finally begun to turn in favor of LGBT rights. But a report released last week (pdf) reveals that anti-LGBT hate crimes rose sharply last year – drawing a grim picture for LGBT rights that stands in stark contrast to the legal gains that have been made in recent years.

The report, released by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, states that anti-LGBT hate crimes rose by 13 percent from 2009 to 2010, with murders rising by 23 percent. In total, 27 murders were reported in 2010 – the second-highest number in the past ten years.
Read All »

Massey Energy cooked the books says government investigators

Scene at Massey Energy. Photo: Flickr/TV19 - DD Meighen

In late June, federal investigators from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) held a public briefing to deliver updates on their ongoing 15-month probe into the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster which killed 29 miners last year.

MSHA officials stressed that the explosion at the mine, owned by Massey Energy and operated until the time of the blast by its subsidiary Performance Coal Company, was avoidable. The report read: “This explosion could and should have been prevented by the mine operator.”

Investigators said that the company failed to disclose hazards at the mine in reports provided to government inspectors. “We found there to be two sets of books,” said Kevin Stricklin, the coal administrator for MSHA.

According to MSHA, Massey’s subsidiary Performance Coal kept two sets of records at their mine. The “official” book was shown to government inspectors while the production book, which detailed production and safety concerns, was not. According to the report, “hazards recorded in production and maintenance reports” were “not listed in required examination books.”

Stricklin said that testimony from some of the 266 witnesses MSHA interviewed “indicated that management pressured examiners to not record hazards in the books.”

In June, Massey Energy was sold to rival coal company, Alpha Natural Resources.

New York’s top prosecutor treats corrupt politicians like drug kingpins

State Senator Carl Kruger of Brooklyn, enters FBI headquarters to surrender to federal authorities in New York Thursday. Photo: AP/ Louis Lanzano

Yet another New York politician has been indicted on corruption charges.

On Thursday, two members of the state legislature — Carl Kruger, a state senator, and William Boyland, a member of the Assembly — were charged with trading official actions for bribes. Also ensnared in the scandal were several longtime lobbyists and a Brooklyn real estate developer.

Kruger is just the latest New York politician to be implicated in Albany’s fetid ethical culture. As the U.S. attorney, Preet Bharara, said in announcing the charges: “Every single time we arrest a state senator or assemblyman, it should be a jarring wake-up call. Instead, it seems that no matter how many times the alarm goes off, Albany just hits the snooze button.”

Bharara, then, has taken on the de facto role of Albany’s ethics cop. As the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York — perhaps the most influential federal prosecutor in the country — Bharara has invested considerable resources in the office’s public corruption unit. Traditionally, the U.S. attorney’s office has focused more on terrorism and financial crimes.

Read All »