Judge allows courtroom cameras for trial of R. Kelly
By DON BABWIN
Friday, March 15
CHICAGO (AP) — Cameras will be allowed in the courtroom during the trial and pretrial hearings in R. Kelly’s sexual abuse case, but the R&B singer’s accusers can’t be photographed or filmed without their consent, a judge ruled Friday.
The Grammy-winning singer didn’t attend the brief hearing in Cook County Circuit Court, but his lawyer did.
Associate Judge Lawrence Flood said cameras will be allowed going forward, beginning with the next hearing on March 22. He also said two accusers have already said they don’t want to be photographed or filmed in court.
Kelly, 52, has pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse pertaining to four women, including three who were minors at the time the abuse allegedly occurred. The abuse in question is alleged to have occurred over roughly a decade, starting in the late 1990s.
Kelly has been trailed for decades by allegations that he victimized women and girls, though he was acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008 related to a tape that prosecutors said showed him having sex with a girl as young as 13.
He and his attorneys have repeatedly denied allegations of sexual misconduct, and he has pleaded not guilty to the charges. In a recent TV interview, Kelly pleaded with viewers to believe that he never had sex with anyone under age 17 and never held anyone against their will.
Cook County, which includes Chicago, has started allowing cameras in its courtrooms in recent years.
Another judge in the same courthouse has yet to decide if he’ll allow cameras in the courtroom for the trial of “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett, who is accused of lying to police about being the victim of a racist and homophobic attack.
Cameras were allowed in court during the trial of Jason Van Dyke, a white former Chicago police officer who was convicted of murder in the shooting death of a black teenager, Laquan McDonald.
Check out the AP’s complete coverage of the investigations into R. Kelly.
Opinion: Smollett Case Depressingly Normal in One Respect — Overcharging a Defendant
By Lars Trautman
Sensational and extraordinary. These two words aptly describe the Jussie Smollett case, from its origins as a dramatic, politically tinged hate crime with a celebrity victim to its metamorphosis into an even more bizarre tale involving staged assaults, false police reports and contract disputes. Yet the latest twist, a 16 count indictment, fits squarely within a much more mundane narrative: the routine overcharging of criminal defendants.
How did two allegedly duplicitous interviews with the police about a single incident manifest in 16 counts of felony disorderly conduct? Through a form of charging wizardry that is all too familiar to those involved in the criminal justice system. By treating each misrepresented fact at each interview as the basis of its own charge, authorities could sustain all 16 counts and turn the potential sentence Smollett is facing from a handful of years to a veritable life sentence.
Of course, the odds that a judge would max out and stack these sentences in order to send Smollett to prison for decades are slim to none. But the open secret about the nature of Smollett’s charges highlights that instead of ensuring justice, these kinds of voluminous indictments are designed to maximize prosecutorial leverage.
Extensive criminal codes and little regulation of charging decisions grant prosecutors an almost unfettered ability to set the terms of debate in criminal cases. As in Smollett’s case, prosecutors can splinter a single set of facts into multiple charges. Likewise, each particular transgression may lend itself to charges of varying severity; a vicious attack like the one Smollett alleged could well be categorized as an assault or even an attempted murder.
Aggressively using either of these strategies allows prosecutors to tilt the case to their advantage. Low-probability, high-pain outcomes give defendants a powerful incentive to accept relatively light yet still life-altering plea deals. Similarly, while a defendant may believe that he could beat a single charge at trial, running the table to overcome a series of them may seem like a long shot. In either instance, the safe and smart move for defendants of all stripes is often to take the plea deal.
Incentivizing more convictions more quickly may seem like a boon to public safety, but that misses a fundamental aspect of the justice system. The presumption of innocence exists for a reason, and not all who find themselves in court are guilty. When unnecessary charges pressure guilty pleas from the guilty and the innocent alike, unjust convictions ruin lives and endanger public safety as culpable parties walk free.
Nor are convictions necessary for those who find themselves ensnared in the system to feel the heavy hand of charging policies. Bail amounts reflect the nature of the charges facing a defendant; increase the number and severity of charges, and bail will respond in kind. A high enough bail is a de facto pretrial detention order, and awaiting trial in jail can itself pressure defendants to plead guilty in order to earn back their freedom.
The fact that these charges are legally supportable does little to address the underlying issue, which is one of fairness. We empower our prosecutors with an incredible amount of discretion. Charging a person with additional crimes simply because it is legally possible is a failure to appropriately exercise that discretion. Justice must be impartial, but we should expect more from our prosecutors than such a cold and mechanical distribution of it.
Thankfully, while overcharging may be commonplace, it is far from universal. In fact, a handful of leading prosecutors are taking public stands against it. In Philadelphia, district attorney Larry Krasner has declared that “the era of trying to get away with the highest charge regardless of the facts is over,” and his early actions suggest that this is more than just rhetoric for him. Wesley Bell has staked out a similar position for the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney’s office.
If enough prosecutors follow this lead and adopt more parsimonious charging policies, overcharging could be relegated to as much of an outlier as the rest of the Smollett case. This might mean a little less coercion and a bit more justice. Now that would be sensational and extraordinary.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Lars Trautman is a senior fellow of Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties policy at the R Street Institute and a former prosecutor. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.
High profile arrest led Alabama police to genealogy testing
By KIM CHANDLER
Tuesday, March 19
OZARK, Ala. (AP) — A truck-driving preacher accused of killing two teenage girls from Alabama nearly 20 years ago was found with the same genealogy database techniques used to apprehend the suspected “Golden State Killer” last year.
Law enforcement interest in using genetic genealogy to crack cold cases has ballooned since the high-profile arrest of a suspect in the California serial killings, who was found by running crime scene DNA through a genealogy database, said CeCe Moore, chief genetic genealogist with Parabon NanoLabs. The same company did the searches in the Alabama case.
Tracie Hawlett and J.B. Beasley, both 17, disappeared after setting off for a party in southeastern Alabama on July 31, 1999. Their bodies were found the next day in the trunk of Beasley’s black Mazda along a road in Ozark, a city of 19,000 people about 90 miles (145 kilometers) southeast of Montgomery. Each had been shot in the head.
The case sat unsolved for nearly two decades, until the Golden State killer arrest .
Ozark Police Chief Marlos Walker, who said he always believed the case could be solved, said “let’s try that.”
Police arrested Coley McCraney, 45, of Dothan, on Friday after the Alabama crime scene sample was analyzed and uploaded to GEDMatch, a public genetic database repository where more than a million people have uploaded profiles from at-home ancestry kits.
“We are looking for second, third, fourth cousins and then we reverse engineer the family tree based on the people who are sharing DNA with that crime scene sample,” Moore said.
The police chief said the genetic genealogy work identified a family — which means at least one of McCraney’s relatives had uploaded information — and kinship testing narrowed the potential suspects to a single person. The police chief said they obtained DNA from McCraney — he did not say how — and the state crime lab matched it to the DNA from the 1999 crime scene.
Moore said the company is now fielding calls for help in decades-old cases as interest grows in this technique. Since May, the company has helped provide law enforcement with identifications in 43 cases, she said.
She said genetic genealogy can help provide answers for families who have seen their loved one’ murders go unsolved for years. “The fact that we can finally provide those is just incredibly important,” Moore said.
While investigators seeking new leads in cold cases are intrigued, others see red flags.
“There are huge privacy concerns,” said Jennifer Friedman, a public defender in Los Angeles who has been involved in cases involving DNA since the late 1980s. She said there are multiple problems with tying people to crimes using family genetic information, including the fact that most people probably wouldn’t want a relative arrested based on their DNA sample.
Moore said she only uses a database where people have uploaded their information and are told it can be used this way. She said only a small fraction of the estimated 23 million people who have taken a consumer DNA ancestry test are in GEDMatch.
David Harrison, McCraney’s lawyer, said he’s an outstanding member of the community and a married man with children and grandchildren. He’s been a truck driver and had his own church where he preached as recently as three weeks ago, Harrison said.
At the press conference announcing the arrest, Carol Roberts wore a brooch over her heart with a photograph of her daughter Tracie Hawlett, showing her youthful smile frozen forever in time. She had grown to doubt the case would ever be solved as the years slipped by.
“We’ve been through pure hell the last 20 years,” said Mike Roberts, Hawlett’s stepfather. “DNA don’t lie,” he said.
Tracie had planned since she was a little girl to become a doctor, her mother said. She would have turned 37 this month.
In their last conversation, the night she disappeared, Tracie asked if her friend could sleep over and go to church the next day.
“Last words out of her lips were, ‘Mama, I love you.’ Last words out of my mouth to her were, ‘I love you.’”
Associated Press writers Jeff Martin in Atlanta and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama, contributed to this report.
Consumer rights are worthless without enforcement
March 15, 2019
Author: Anne Fleming, Associate Professor of Law, Georgetown University
Disclosure statement: Anne Fleming does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
57 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made an impassioned pitch for stronger consumer rights.
“If consumers are offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant, if drugs are unsafe or worthless, if the consumer is unable to choose on an informed basis, then his dollar is wasted, his health and safety may be threatened, and the national interest suffers.”
Kennedy offered these words of warning on March 15, 1962, a date now celebrated as World Consumer Rights Day. He then called on Congress to enact legislation to protect four fundamental consumer rights: the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose and the right to be heard.
The address has become known as the “consumer bill of rights.” But Kennedy also discussed an equally important issue: how such rights would be enforced. After all, without enforcement, consumer rights are just empty promises.
Consumer rights flourish
The idea of consumer rights was nothing new in 1962.
As I describe in my research on the history of consumer credit regulation, the states took an early interest in protecting ordinary Americans against abuse by lenders and debt collectors, beginning in the earliest days of the republic. Most adopted usury laws limiting the price of credit in the colonial period, exemption laws shielding property from seizure by creditors in the 19th century and more tailored consumer credit regulations in the early and middle 20th century.
What was noteworthy about Kennedy’s address was not his push for more consumer rights, but rather his call for the federal government – “the highest spokesman for all the people” – to act on behalf of consumers instead of ceding the role of consumer protector to the states.
Congress heeded Kennedy’s call and passed a flurry of consumer legislation.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, it required lenders to clearly disclose loan terms through the Truth in Lending Act, mandated fair credit reporting and debt collection practices, created safety standards for cars and other consumer products, and banned discrimination in housing and consumer lending. More recently, in 2010, Congress created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and tasked the agency with guarding consumers against unfair, deceptive or abusive acts and practices in financial services.
The states also reinforced their decades-old consumer laws in the 1960s and ’70s by banning unfair and deceptive acts and practices under state “UDAP” laws.
Accordingly, consumer rights today are far more robust than they were when JFK gave his speech. To be sure, new business practices regularly require that existing laws be updated to address unanticipated threats.
But the biggest challenge today is not the need for new consumer rights. Rather, it is ensuring that existing rights are enforced.
Legal fee recovery and class actions
There are basically two ways to enforce a consumer right: privately with a lawsuit or publicly via regulators.
The biggest barrier to effective private enforcement is financial. First of all, the harm to an individual consumer from a rights violation is often small, reducing the economic incentive to sue. Secondly, to sue in court, a consumer generally requires the assistance of an attorney, who must be paid. Finally, even if the individual goes to court and wins, the damage award is frequently too insignificant to deter the violator from engaging in profitable but illegal practices in the future.
Fortunately, two legal innovations have helped consumers overcome some of these hurdles.
One, rules allowing prevailing plaintiffs to recover attorneys’ fees, expanded with the raft of consumer rights legislation of the late 1960s. These provisions gave consumers the right to recover the costs of their legal representation along with any actual damages for some rights violations.
The other was the birth of the modern class action lawsuit in 1966, which allowed consumers who suffer similar monetary harms to aggregate their claims into a single large lawsuit, leading to multimillion dollar settlements.
The other way to give consumer rights teeth is through public enforcement. And besides the potential for monetary awards, this method opens the door to other types of remedies for consumers.
For example, the New Jersey attorney general recently sued two auto dealerships, alleging that they sold damaged vehicles at unaffordable prices to “financially vulnerable” customers who were then left stranded when the dealers repossessed the cars without advance warning. The complaint seeks to ban the violators from selling car in the future, in addition to monetary relief.
Similarly, in 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice brought criminal charges against the perpetrators of a multimillion dollar scheme to defraud elderly and vulnerable consumers with the false promise of cash prizes. The violators could be subject to both fines and imprisonment.
In 2017 alone, the Federal Trade Commission directly returned almost $320 million to consumers through enforcement actions, not to mention its work overseeing the return by FTC defendants of over $6 billion to consumers.
Recent developments, however, raise concerns about the future of consumer rights enforcement through both public and private channels.
The strength of public enforcement is subject to the whims of state and federal officials, who may reduce enforcement resources or refuse to bring enforcement actions.
A prime example is the weakening of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which from 2011 through 2017 helped millions of consumers receive nearly $12 billion back from misbehaving financial institutions. A recent study found that CFPB enforcement activity has declined significantly since the end of 2017, when Richard Cordray, its first director, stepped down.
His temporary replacement, Mick Mulvaney, froze all new enforcement actions. He subsequently dropped one ongoing lawsuit against a group of payday lenders and declined to file charges against another lender that had previously donated to Mulvaney’s political campaign. The head of its student loan office resigned last August, alleging that the current CFPB leadership had “abandoned its duty to fairly and robustly enforce the law.”
In a similar vein, Kathy Kraninger, recently appointed as CFPB director, has proposed reducing her own agency’s budget by about 4 percent in 2019 and 9 percent in 2020.
As for private enforcement, the ability of consumers to aggregate their claims has been endangered by the spread of mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements. These contract terms, found in a variety of consumer agreements, prevent consumers from pursuing class relief in court.
Each injured party must either bring an individual action, which may be economically unfeasible, or be left without a remedy. The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent arbitration decisions offer little hope that judges alone will keep the courthouse door open to consumer class actions.
Furthermore, Congress narrowly voted in 2017 to repeal a CFPB rule that would have prevented financial service providers from requiring consumers to waive their class action rights.
Compared with 1962, when President Kennedy put consumer concerns on the national agenda, ordinary Americans now have far more robust rights to safety, to information, to choice and to a fair hearing.
But consumer rights do not enforce themselves. Public enforcement requires funding and willing leaders. Private enforcement requires legal devices that allow consumers to pay attorneys for their work.
Without an ongoing commitment to enforcement, consumer rights may become paper tigers, offering the appearance of protection without any teeth.
Erdogan airs mosque gunman video ahead visit by NZ minister
Thursday, March 21
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s president has again screened clips of a video taken by the Christchurch mosque gunman, a day before the foreign minister of New Zealand, which is trying to stop its use, is due to visit Turkey.
Erdogan broadcast the video at an election rally Thursday in Eskisehir, central Turkey, to criticize the Turkish opposition, which he claimed “did not see the big picture” and threats against Turkey.
Erdogan has sparked outrage abroad by showing the videos at election rallies. He also triggered tensions with Australia for comments suggesting that Australians and New Zealanders with anti-Muslim views could return home in coffins.
Australia said Thursday that progress had been made on mending ties after a spokesman for Erdogan said the president’s words earlier this week were “taken out of context.”
Arrest order issued for ex-President Michel Temer in Brazil
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A judge in Rio de Janeiro has issued an arrest warrant for ex-President Michel Temer, who is being investigated in several corruption cases.
A spokeswoman for the Prosecutors Office in Rio de Janeiro told The Associated Press Thursday that Judge Marcelo Breitas had issued the order. Per agency protocol, the spokeswoman asked her name not be used.
Breitas is a Rio judge overseeing part of a sprawling corruption probe involving kickbacks to politicians and public officials. Since launching in March 2014, the so-called Car Wash investigation has led to the jailing of top businessmen and politicians, including ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Temer lives in Sao Paulo, but his whereabouts were not immediately known.