Of Counsel

Legal Notes on Georgia and The South

Archive for the ‘The South’ Category

Southern News Roundup

Posted by Maggie on March 7, 2008

Ex-DA in Alabama sentenced to 42 months for fondling young men after ordering strip searches during drug tests.

Also in Alabama, crazy contraband news at the St. Clair Correctional Facility. An inmate appears to have smuggled in gasoline and matches, managed to douse two other inmates, and set them on fire. This didn’t happen in the yard, it appears the inmate got out of his own cell and into the cell of the other two. Possibly one of the crazier contraband stories I’ve ever heard. The same day, a guard was arrested for having multiple bags of marijuana and cell phones he was trying to smuggle in. If you think there’s no drugs in prison, think again.

Two single mothers in South Carolina are going to trial after they were evicted from public housing. The reason for their eviction was the criminal activities of their children. Six juveniles were arrested for armed robberies and five mothers evicted as a result. They claim they didn’t encourage or condone the behavior of their children.

Georgia’s not the only one with a public defense crisis. Florida appears to have narrowly avoided a 79 day furlough for it’s PD’s after the Senate found it a little extra cash. Still, there’s been a substantial budget cut and it looks like they’re avoiding a real fix creating another budget crisis looming already for next year. Sound familiar?

In Tennessee, a march promoting snitching. Dosnitch.com is sponsoring the event, trying to change community views on crime, especially for juveniles.

In New Orleans, Lloyd Burns was involved in the shooting death of Andrew Holmes along with his friend Jamaal LaCaze. LaCaze had argued with Holmes and was charged in his death, but Burns admitted to the killing himself, claiming self-defense. LaCaze was acquitted at trial, in part due to Burns’s testimony. Then Burns was charged and changed his story, saying he’d lied to save his friend. He’s acquitted, too. So looks like DA’s are 0 for 2, showing just how complicated co-defendants can be.

Capital Defense Weekly has been regularly updating the scary situation in Mississippi with junk science. One of the targets is coroner Steven Hayne, whose testimony has been shown to be incorrect in several cases and has led to false convictions. A mother in Mississippi charged with manslaughter in the death of her toddler has sued the state asking to review the autopsy findings. So far they’ve refused to do so. Wanna guess who the coroner was? What’s really scary is how little the Clarion Ledger seems to care. The story isn’t any kind of attack on Haynes, instead they say, “Hayne’s work has come under scrutiny lately in some cases where DNA evidence appears to clear convicted individuals of crimes.” That’s it. Oh, except where they say that he still has the support of coroners across the state. Three cheers for investigative journalism, huh?

Posted in General, The South | Leave a Comment »

Bad Day to Be a DA

Posted by Maggie on March 5, 2008

A few months ago I posted about the DA in the Piedmont Circuit near Athens accused of fraud. Yesterday he pled guilty to two counts of felony theft, violation of oath of office, four counts of making false statements, and one count of conspiracy. Two others, including the DA’s wife, in the DA’s office that have also been charged have pled not guilty. Former DA Tim Madison (who was in office for almost 25 years) admitted to having a scheme with an ADA to get a $50,000 salary from the county even though the ADA already received a full state salary. The two split the funds. Madison was also charged with falsifying time cards with his wife.

Madison got 6 years to serve and 6 on probation, along with $40,000 in restitution to the county. At the sentencing hearing, many testified that Madison had struggled with alcoholism and gambling. (It’s not clear whether anyone in his office was aware of these problems. If they were, it’s certainly troubling.) The article linked above includes links to Madison’s charges, sentence, and arguments in the case.

Things have been going pretty crazy in Clayton County, just outside Atlanta. Along with a huge scandal with their school board, there’s now an investigation of the DA. In January 2006 a former county employee allegedly stole a flag from a police memorial. DA Jewel Scott charged the man, Donnie Hood, with felony theft since it was government property. Recently, Scott filed notice that she would seize Hood’s retirement benefits if he was convicted. A few days later, Hood killed himself. Hood was a 20-year employee who worked with the Building and Maintenance Department, serving as its head for 8 years. The Board of Commissioners thinks Scott went too far. They’ve requested that the Attorney General investigate Scott’s actions in the case. An article from last week notes that it’s alleged Hood actually replaced the cloth flag with a nylon one and that the DA was prepared to allege that Hood stole additional property. Being on the outside, it’s hard to make a judgment call on this one, but I can’t imagine why a case like this wouldn’t be dismissed or at least allow some kind of pretrial intervention to keep it from going forward. Then again, I’ve had my own experience with DA’s getting particularly vindictive in theft of government property cases.

In the final bit of noteworthy news today, not a DA but a Pendergrass police officer is now under investigation for an illegal arrest. Details are fuzzy, but a tape of a stop made by Officer Bill Garner has been sent on to GBI. The stop involved an arrest for DUI of a driver, and it appears the false arrest is regarding the passenger, who was also arrested for Open Container, though it appears there was no container in the car.

Posted in AJC, General, The South | Leave a Comment »

What’s Going On in the Alapaha Circuit?

Posted by Maggie on March 5, 2008

The occasional article on the craziness in the Alapaha Circuit (a five-county region near Valdosta) has trickled in now and then. But it looks like things are heating up down there and it’s starting to look like no one will get through unscathed.

The Circuit’s Chief Judge has been under investigation by the FBI, including wiretaps. Judge Blitch is already under investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission . (Imposing illegal fees, using his influence in criminal cases against his son and others, and reducing sentences without authority.)

This came out in a motion last week where JQC and Judge Blitch wanted to compel the DA to testify about her role in the FBI’s investigation. She’d objected in an earlier deposition and refused to answer certain questions. (The article includes a link to the motion which includes the transcript of the deposition. Despite my issues with the Daily Report, I love that they include stuff like this on their webpage.) The hearing resolved the motion (the DA must testify about anything within her personal knowledge, but not about anything she may have heard on tapes recorded by the FBI) and it doesn’t appear that the FBI has filed any formal charges.

Despite all the hubbub, the Judge is still on the bench. The DA and her subordinates are still appearing before him on a near-daily basis. It’s one of these very small worlds, in fact, the DA’s husband represented Judge Blitch early on in the case. Glad I’m not practicing there right now.

Posted in General, The South | Leave a Comment »

MS Legislature Considers Cutting Time

Posted by Maggie on February 25, 2008

In Mississippi, the legislature is considering a bill that could cut back on time served for nonviolent offenders.

House Bill 729 would provide an opportunity for early parole for offenders whose crimes did not include an attempt to cause bodily harm. They would have to serve 25 percent of their sentences before the state Parole Board could consider their requests. Currently, they must serve 85 percent.

About 9,000 prisoners would be affected by the legislation, House Corrections Committee Chairman Bennett Malone said. The bill would alleviate prison crowding and save taxpayers millions of dollars, he added.

“Right now, we’ve got young people in prison for smoking marijuana,” Malone, D-Carthage, said. “I know people who have been locked up who are not criminals. We can do something different to punish them for crimes that are nonviolent.”

Alternatives could include expanding house arrest or mandating that offenders serve one year of their sentences along with probation, he said.

Posted in General, The South | Leave a Comment »

Big News for Small Violations in AL

Posted by Maggie on February 25, 2008

The Birmingham News reports today on the settlement of a federal lawsuit against the City of Birmingham’s Municipal Court. The Court was charging high fines for minor traffic violations and misdemeanors and jailing any defendant who couldn’t pay. It basically meant a walk for the well-off and jail for the poor.

The conditions of the settlement require the City to keep a defense attorney available to any indigent persons in Municipal Court. All defendants will be advised of their rights. And before any fine is converted to jail time, the Court must consider the defendant’s ability to pay.

As a PD I saw a lot of frustration and injustice with severe cases. In private practice I’ve been to a number of small local courts for traffic violations for long-time clients. What I’ve seen in these courts is often just as frustrating, especially since the people charged don’t realize that they’ve got more to deal with than they expected. I once saw a huge man completely break down in sobs when he was told he’d be going to jail. No judge, no prosecutor, no defense attorney, just a government staffer telling the man he had to pay or serve time. It’s a good step forward for Birmingham, and I hope other cities follow.

Posted in General, Public Defenders, The South | Leave a Comment »

Solicitor Drama in South Carolina

Posted by Maggie on February 19, 2008

Apparently there’s more than one election going on in the country this year. Today my attention was brought to the race for GOP candidate for 9th Circuit Solicitor General in South Carolina. And it’s a juicy one. I love making the rounds and stumbling across a story like this.

So the Solicitor passed away. The new one, Scarlett Wilson, a former AUSA, was appointed to take over the office. After taking office, Wilson gave an ultimatum to Blair Jennings, a Deputy Solicitor: quit or you’re fired. While these sorts of political dealings are always murky, it appears that Jennings was planning to run for the office Wilson was currently holding. Whether Wilson’s actions were appropriate is debatable. Everyone agrees Jennings wasn’t fired because of any deficiency in his work, but maybe you don’t want rivals as co-workers. Maybe it’s best for the office. Who knows. But things get more complicated.

Jennings was ousted in September, 2007. Last week, a murder case that was previously handled by Jennings, now in the hands of his successor, went to trial. It was a two-defendant case where a cab driver had been killed. The call for the cab was made from the home of defendant Oliver Hicks. Both Hicks and Reginald Hamilton were arrested. At trial, Hicks testified against Hamilton, claiming he’d been the triggerman. Hicks hasn’t yet pled guilty, but a deal was in the works contingent on testimony.

Hamilton was acquitted. The jury was out for less than 25 minutes. (!!!) And now the two candidates are pointing fingers. Wilson claims the case had already been mis-managed by Jennings, that he ran off potential witnesses, and that he made a deal with the wrong defendant. Jennings says he didn’t make a deal with either defendant and that the office that tried the case is the office responsible.

Local blog Cedar Posts and Barbwire Fences has a pretty extensive post detailing the multitude of problems in the Solicitor’s office since Wilson took over. (Besides the acquittal, an assistant solicitor was arrested for pointing a firearm at a person in an incident being labeled as “road rage.”) (Cedar Posts gives no identifying information. A commenter at the Charleston News Ledger accused him of being candidate Blair Jennings, though he insists he isn’t affiliated with either candidate.)

As for me, I have a few questions. Like which witnesses could have made a difference in the murder trial. It seems like the jury really didn’t believe the co-defendant’s testimony and I doubt other witnesses really could have bolstered it. Deals can be made and deals can be broken, so unless a plea had already taken place I don’t know why the prosecutors were committed to Hicks as the testifying defendant. And ultimately, the one running the office is the one who decides what goes to trial. Sounds like Wilson is frantically trying to make Jennings a scapegoat.

Posted in The South | Leave a Comment »

Mississippi Newspapers Push For Open Records

Posted by Maggie on February 11, 2008

While browsing the Southern papers today, I noticed this note on a state-wide effort to put open-records issues in the public eye in newspapers across the state of Mississippi. Many of the pieces below were published in multiple newspapers. Here’s some of the highlights:

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger looks at several citizens fighting for information but not getting it(this story also ran in Hattiesburg and other MS papers), takes a swipe at the Jackson Mayor for refusing to provide information to reporters in violation of his office’s policy, and urges change.

The Sun-Herald in Biloxi focuses on the expense of enforcing a request, noting there’s no recourse except to hire a lawyer.

An article today in Hattiesburg discusses the exemptions to the current open records laws and their use and abuse.

Props to Mississippi journalists for challenging the government on an important issue. I’ll check in to see additional articles later in the week.

Posted in General, The South | Leave a Comment »

New Arrest in Mississippi Exonerations

Posted by Maggie on February 8, 2008

Back in September, I wrote about a horrific case in Mississippi where a man was exonerated by DNA evidence (back in 2001!) but the prosecutor insisted he would be re-tried and kept him in prison.

The case involved the rape and murder of a young girl, the daughter of Kennedy Brewer’s girlfriend. Brewer was sleeping in the same room as the girl and her mother the night she disappeared. He was convicted based on bite-mark evidence (which, as you may have heard, is a complete crock) though they now believe the bites were made by animals after the girl’s death. Besides the DNA which didn’t end up matching, there was another major element in favor of Brewer’s innocence. There was a nearly identical crime two years before, where the mother’s boyfriend was again convicted based on bite-mark evidence.

Now a new suspect has been arrested for both crimes. Justin Johnson was a suspect in both cases and even submitted hair and blood samples. He lived close to both girls and was excluded by the bite-mark “expert.” What’s unfortunate is that all this took so long. Levon Brooks, the first one convicted, still hasn’t been released. And Brewer wasn’t granted bond until fall of 2007, his charges still haven’t been dismissed.

Even in the face of innocence, it seems the wheels of justice don’t move quite fast enough. Brewer has been confined for 6 years since his innocence was proven. Just goes to show the power of a prosecutor. (Note, the prosecutor who insisted he be held has since recused himself from the case.)

Posted in General, The South | Leave a Comment »

Under the Bridge

Posted by Maggie on February 6, 2008

If you keep up with sex-offender news, you have probably heard about the group of sex offenders living under a bridge in Florida because they have nowhere else to go. They’re a classic situation showing what the problem is with residency restrictions. If the offenders are a danger, then having them under a bridge isn’t making anyone safer. And if they’re not, it’s beyond cruel.

Now Florida is trying to get them to move. A spokesperson claims that if they want to “push them” to find a better home. This comment confuses me. Do they think these people want to live under a bridge? Do they think anything but necessity drove them there?

The thing that really gets me is that the State seems to be making no efforts to assist these men in finding housing. I would imagine that if they want them housed they would make efforts to do so, but they seem to expect them to do it on their on. Which I’m sure is terribly easy when no one will hire you for a job with a sex offense on your record.

A few offenders have already left, but already there’s one whose whereabouts are unknown. Worse, when similar efforts were made to get offenders out from a bridge in Fort Lauderdale, it’s reported some of the men ended up camping in the Everglades instead. Doesn’t look like they’re really getting the job done.

Posted in General, The South | Leave a Comment »

News of the South

Posted by Maggie on February 5, 2008

I’m starting to feel like the blog is all-Nichols-all-the-time, so I’m mixing it up a bit today by making the rounds through some major Southern newspapers for news of note.

There have been a rash of shootings during carnival parades in New Orleans. With all the talk of Super Tuesday, have we forgotten about Mardi Gras? Here is nola.com’s complete coverage of the carnival.

Heard about that proposed legislation in Mississippi that would prohibit restaurants from serving the obese? It’s not going to make it to the floor. The Public Health Committee chairman has promised a pocket veto.

An attorney for the Alabama Department of Human Resources sent an angry letter to a woman she claimed was revealing confidential information about a closed-court case. In the letter she revealed confidential information about the children involved in the case. And then she cc’d it to media outlets and lawmakers. Pot, meet kettle.

Athens, Georgia is still having that jail overcrowding crisis. A task force has been created to address the problem as well as alternatives to incarceration. Yesterday local judges encouraged work-release and other programs to help assist offenders and reduce recidivism.

Two Texas death-row inmates committed suicide this week. One was at the psychiatric Jester unit, the other at the Polunsky unit, which holds most death row inmates until the days before execution.

Posted in General, The South | Leave a Comment »