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History > 2013 > USA > States > Justice (I)





President Obama Speaks on Trayvon Martin

President Obama makes a statement about Trayvon Martin

and the verdict of the court trial that followed the Florida teenager's death


Published on Jul 19, 2013

YouTube > White House















Family’s Tenacity and Wealth

Put Skakel at Cusp of Freedom


November 19, 2013
The New York Times


STAMFORD, Conn. — Since Michael C. Skakel’s conviction in 2002 in the 1975 murder of his Greenwich neighbor Martha Moxley when they were both 15, Mr. Skakel and his family have spared no expense in their efforts to clear his name.

They hired expensive lawyers, private investigators and expert witnesses, one at $250 an hour. They fired Mickey Sherman, the defense lawyer who failed to win his case in 2002, and hired Hubert J. Santos, a prominent Hartford lawyer. They brought in Theodore B. Olson, a solicitor general of the United States under President George W. Bush, to petition the Supreme Court. They tracked down witnesses in Tampa, Fla., and Spain. They hired lawyers to mount an offensive on news organizations that broadcast misinformation about Mr. Skakel and sued the celebrity news personality Nancy Grace for libel.

The family’s perseverance and deep pockets — Mr. Skakel’s grandfather was an industrial magnate — have brought Mr. Skakel to a pivotal moment: Last month, a judge in Superior Court in Rockville, Conn., overturned the 11-year-old verdict. On Thursday, when Mr. Skakel appears in a Stamford courtroom for a bail hearing, he could walk free while he awaits a new trial.

The campaign to free Mr. Skakel is one that very few criminal defendants can hope to marshal. The price is impossible to calculate but has run well into the millions of dollars. Now, some of his supporters say, this round in court may be the last chance he will have, because the case has drained the family fortune.

“You know the father died broke,” said Anna Mae Skakel, his 76-year-old stepmother, the widow of his father, Rushton. “The trusts are all gone. Everything’s gone.”

Mr. Skakel’s cousin Robert F. Kennedy Jr. confirmed that resources were running low and that Mr. Skakel had had to sell his small house in the Catskills, near the home of his son. “He couldn’t hold onto it,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Throughout the original trial and the 11 years of the 20-years-to-life sentence he has served, Mr. Skakel has insisted that he did not kill Ms. Moxley, who was bludgeoned to death with a golf club outside her family’s home. But in the habeas corpus court in Rockville, Connecticut’s forum of last resort for prisoners, his case is unlike just about any other. In many of the 600 or so cases the court handles each year, many petitioners cannot afford to have a lawyer representing them. Often their submissions are in longhand and only a few pages.

Mr. Skakel, though, was an heir to the family fortune, and he is also connected to the Kennedys: His father’s sister, Ethel Skakel, married Robert F. Kennedy. His life of privilege included shaking hands with Fidel Castro in Cuba and securing an introduction to Mother Teresa, who helped him get a job at a shelter in the Bronx.

Mr. Skakel and his supporters spent more than $2 million on his defense in the first trial, according to court records. After his conviction, the money and the resources kept coming.

Since his conviction, his new lawyers have quarterbacked half a dozen appeals in Connecticut’s appellate courts and before its parole board. None succeeded until last month, when Judge Thomas A. Bishop rolled back Mr. Skakel’s conviction on the grounds that Mr. Sherman had deprived his client of his constitutional right to effective counsel by fumbling crucial elements of the defense, and cleared the way for a new trial. Prosecutors say they will appeal that ruling, but Mr. Santos will be in court on Thursday arguing that Mr. Skakel should be freed on bail.

Asked about the cost of the long-running effort, Mr. Santos and several members of the Skakel family have politely demurred. But wills, billing records and correspondence in court files help fill in the picture.

Among the influential people Mr. Skakel and his family have enlisted is Stephan E. Seeger, who has focused on suing news organizations for libel. The point, he said, was to reduce the risk that Mr. Skakel, in a new trial, would face jurors who have been affected by spurious reports. The actions he has pursued include the one against Ms. Grace and the producers of her show, which had incorrectly broadcast that Mr. Skakel’s DNA was found at the murder scene. The team also brought in an expert on forced confessions, Richard J. Ofshe, at $250 an hour, to help rebut claims that Mr. Skakel had made damaging admissions while attending the Elan School in Poland, Me., where he was sent in 1978 after a drunken-driving arrest near the family vacation home in Windham, N.Y.

And then there are the private investigators — at least five, court records show — brought in to revisit aspects of the state’s case during the first trial.

One of them, Keith A. Weeks, spent “a solid month” in 2005 trying to locate a John Simpson for the defense, according to testimony. Mr. Simpson’s name had been dropped at the first trial by the state’s star witness, Gregory Coleman, as one of three students at Elan who, he claimed, had heard Mr. Skakel make incriminating remarks. Mr. Weeks picked his way through a dozen or so former classmates at Elan, one of whom finally recalled an old girlfriend who knew Mr. Simpson had graduated from Pennsylvania State University. Of the four John Simpsons who had graduated, Mr. Weeks found the one he was looking for in Tampa and elicited testimony that undercut the prosecution’s witness.

A second name from Elan, “Cliff Rubin,” turned out to be Cliff Grubin, whom Mr. Weeks tracked down on the island of Ibiza, off the coast of Spain.

Mr. Santos used his findings in Stamford Superior Court in 2007, arguing that Mr. Skakel was entitled to a new trial that would incorporate the new witnesses. While the presiding judge did not find that the witnesses met the test for “newly surfaced” evidence necessary to grant a new trial, Judge Bishop of the habeas court disagreed. Had their accounts been heard earlier, he wrote, there was a “reasonable likelihood” that the government’s star witness would have been “discredited” and the outcome different.

This expensive legal maneuvering makes many of those following the Moxley murder grumble that they are seeing rich man’s justice at work.

There have been costs to the state as well, but those are also not totaled. “We don’t assign costs to specific cases,” said Mark Dupuis, a spokesman for the chief state’s attorney’s office.

The Skakel fortune goes back to Michael’s paternal grandparents, George and Ann Skakel, who died in 1957 in a plane crash, after George had built the Great Lakes Carbon Corporation into a main supplier of chemical coke for blast furnaces. The grandparents created trusts for each of their seven children and directed that leftover assets be distributed to each child’s offspring once that beneficiary died.

The youngest of the three sons, Rushton, took the helm of Great Lakes when his parents died and was put in charge of all 14 trusts except the two that were for his own benefit, in accordance with the wills.

“He was the most responsible,” Anna Mae Skakel said.

Rushton Skakel’s own estate planning, however, captured in the will he drafted in May 1995, indicated that he had some concerns about how the younger generation would handle responsibility. A certain amount was to go to his wife. The remainder would then be divided equally among his seven children — Rushton Jr., Julia, Thomas A., John, Michael, David and Stephen — with the condition that Michael and Thomas would inherit only if they agreed to have their trusts managed by Rushton Skakel’s trustees for the lifetime benefit of each son. Rushton Skakel died in Florida in 2003, mere months after Michael was convicted of murder.

The millions spent on the first trial were not just from Rushton and Anna Mae’s own pockets. At one point, Ms. Skakel recalled in an interview, she flew to Ireland to ask for a check from Rushton’s sister Patricia Cuffe and came home with $250,000 for the legal defense fund. Thomas A. Reynolds Jr., Michael’s maternal uncle in Chicago, also provided $250,000, Ms. Skakel said.

Court records show that, to pay legal bills, Rushton Skakel used $150,000 of the money that his first wife, Anne Reynolds Skakel, had left in a trust for the children when she died in 1973. That payment, however, ended up being successfully challenged in 2004 once Rushton died, by a court-appointed guardian who noted that it would have violated the mother’s wishes to help one child at the exclusion of the other six.

“When I brought the action in Florida, I was told that the funds that would be used would come out of Anna Mae’s share,” Richard J. Slagle, the court-appointed guardian, said on Monday.

Restitution was made as ordered, so that Michael and his siblings each got $20,000 payment from their mother’s trust. And Michael had received the same $383,000 that his siblings received in final distributions from the grandparents’ trusts by the time they wound down in 2007.

From their father’s estate in Florida, though, the children got nothing. “You can’t keep writing checks for $50,000, for $25,000,” Ms. Skakel said. “It just adds up.”

Kristin Hussey contributed reporting from Greenwich, Conn., and Nick Madigan from Stuart, Fla. Susan C. Beachy and Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

    Family’s Tenacity and Wealth Put Skakel at Cusp of Freedom, NYT, 19.11.2013,






Serving Life for This?


November 13, 2013
The New York Times


So you’re a judge, and Sharanda P. Jones comes before you for sentencing for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.

She’s a 32-year-old mom with a 9-year-old daughter and no prior arrests, but she has been caught up in a drug sweep that has led to 105 arrests in her Texas town. Everyone arrested is black.

There are no drugs found on Jones, but her supposed co-conspirators testify against her in exchange for reduced sentences. The whole case is dubious, but she has been convicted. What’s your sentence?

You have little choice. Given the presumptions of the case, she gets a mandatory minimum sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Jump to today and already Jones has spent 14 years in prison and is expected to die behind bars — for a first offense.

At a time when America has been slashing preschool programs, we have also been spending vast sums to incarcerate thousands of nonviolent offenders in life sentences without any possibility of parole. These cases underscore that our mass incarceration experiment has resulted in monstrous injustice and waste — a waste of tax dollars and of human lives.

Judges and prison officials are rebelling at the injustice of our justice system. Here’s what Judge James R. Spencer, a federal district judge, said when sentencing a former F.B.I. informant to life without parole for selling crack cocaine to support his own addiction: “A life sentence for what you have done in this case is ridiculous; it is a travesty.”

But federal law on mandatory minimums left Judge Spencer no leeway. He added: “I don’t agree with it, either. And I want the world and the record to be clear on that. This is just silly.”

Here are some other nonviolent offenders serving life sentences without the possibility of parole:

• Ricky Minor, a meth addict and father of three, was found with 1.2 grams of meth in his home, along with over-the-counter decongestants that can be used to manufacture meth. He was initially charged under Florida law and says he faced a two-and-a-half-year sentence. Later indicted under federal law, he pleaded guilty because his public defender said that otherwise the prosecutors would also pursue his wife, leaving no one to raise their children. Minor had several prior nonviolent offenses, for which he had never served time, and these required Judge Clyde Roger Vinson to sentence him to life without parole. Judge Vinson said that the sentence “far exceeds whatever punishment would be appropriate.”

• Dicky Joe Jackson was a trucker whose 2-year-old son, Cole, needed a bone-marrow transplant to save his life. The family raised $50,000 through community fund-raisers, not nearly enough for the transplant, and Jackson tried to earn the difference by carrying meth in his truck. He has now been in prison for the last 17 years; when he lost his last appeal, he divorced his wife of 19 years so that she could start over in her life. The federal prosecutor in the case acknowledged: “I saw no indication that Mr. Jackson was violent, that he was any sort of large-scale narcotics trafficker, or that he committed his crimes for any reason other than to get money to care for his gravely ill child.”

• Danielle Metz became pregnant at 17 and later married an abusive man who was also a drug dealer. To placate him, she says, she sometimes helped him by fetching cocaine or collecting money from Western Union. After one clash in which he punched her in the face, she took the kids and left him. Two months later, she was indicted. She says that she was prosecuted primarily to induce her to testify against her husband, but that she wasn’t knowledgeable enough to have useful information to trade for a reduced sentence. She has now spent more than 20 years in prison.

Those examples come from a devastating new report, “A Living Death,” by the American Civil Liberties Union. It identified more than 3,200 such nonviolent offenders sentenced to die behind bars.

Four out of five are black or Hispanic. Virtually all are poor. Many had dismal legal counsel. Some were convicted of crimes committed when they were juveniles or very young adults.

These people are victims of America’s disastrous experiment in mass incarceration. From the 1930s through the early 1970s, we incarcerated people at a steady rate. Since then, incarceration rates have roughly quintupled. America now imprisons people at more than five times the rates of most Western countries.

I write often about human rights abuses abroad. But when we take young, nonviolent offenders — some of them never arrested before — and sentence them to die in prison, it’s time for Americans who care about injustice to gaze in the mirror.

    Serving Life for This?, NYT, 13.11.2013,






Sentenced to a Slow Death


The New York Times
November 16, 2013


If this were happening in any other country, Americans would be aghast. A sentence of life in prison, without the possibility of parole, for trying to sell $10 of marijuana to an undercover officer? For sharing LSD at a Grateful Dead concert? For siphoning gas from a truck? The punishment is so extreme, so irrational, so wildly disproportionate to the crime that it defies explanation.

And yet this is happening every day in federal and state courts across the United States. Judges, bound by mandatory sentencing laws that they openly denounce, are sending people away for the rest of their lives for committing nonviolent drug and property crimes. In nearly 20 percent of cases, it was the person’s first offense.

As of 2012, there were 3,278 prisoners serving sentences of life without parole for such crimes, according to an extensive and astonishing report issued Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union. And that number is conservative. It doesn’t include inmates serving sentences of, say, 350 years for a series of nonviolent drug sales. Nor does it include those in prison for crimes legally classified as “violent” even though they did not involve actual violence, like failing to report to a halfway house or trying to steal an unoccupied car.

The report relies on data from the federal prison system and nine states. Four out of five prisoners were sentenced for drug crimes like possessing a crack pipe or acting as a go-between in a street drug sale. Most of the rest were sentenced for property crimes like trying to cash a stolen check or shoplifting. In more than 83 percent of the cases, the judge had no choice: federal or state law mandated a sentence of life without parole, usually under a mandatory-minimum or habitual offender statute.

Over the past four decades, those laws have helped push the American prison population to more than two million people, and to the highest incarceration rate in the world. As in the rest of the penal system, the racial disparity is vast: in the federal courts, blacks are 20 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent crimes.

The report estimates that the cost of imprisoning just these 3,278 people for life instead of a more proportionate length of time is $1.78 billion.

It is difficult to find anyone who defends such sentencing. Even Burl Cain, the longtime warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which holds the most nonviolent lifers in the country, calls these sentences “ridiculous.” “Everybody forgets what corrections means. It means to correct deviant behavior,” Mr. Cain told the A.C.L.U. “If this person can go back and be a productive citizen and not commit crimes again,” he asked, why spend the money to keep him in prison? “I need to keep predators in these big old prisons, not dying old men.”

Several states are reforming sentencing laws to curb the mass incarceration binge. And Congress is considering at least two bipartisan bills that would partly restore to judges the power to issue appropriate sentences, unbound by mandatory minimums. These are positive steps, but they do not go far enough. As the report recommends, federal and state legislators should ban sentences of life without parole for nonviolent crimes, both for those already serving these sentences and in future cases. President Obama and state governors should also use executive clemency to commute existing sentences.

Just one-fifth of all countries allow a sentence of life without parole, and most of those reserve it for murder or repeated violent crimes. If the United States is to call itself a civilized nation, it must end this cruel and ineffective practice.

    Sentenced to a Slow Death, NYT, 16.11.2013,






Kidnapper in Cleveland

Is Sentenced by Judge

and Condemned by Victim


August 1, 2013
The New York Times


CLEVELAND — Three months after her rescue from a quiet house where she had been held captive for a decade along with two other women, Michelle Knight, 31, confronted her abductor, Ariel Castro, 53, in a courtroom here on Thursday, offering an emotional last act to a traumatizing story.

“I cried every night, I was so alone,” said Ms. Knight, who was 21 when Mr. Castro enticed her into his home in 2002 with the offer of a puppy for her young son. “Days never got shorter. Days turned into nights, nights turned into days. The years turned into eternity.”

Ms. Knight, who was held longer than the other women and was the only one who offered a statement at Mr. Castro’s sentencing, told him: “You took 11 years of my life away. I spent 11 years in hell. Now your hell is just beginning.”

A tiny woman with auburn hair, Ms. Knight let tears run freely while speaking of how her bonds with the other kidnapped women, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, gave her a sliver of hope. “We said we would someday make it out alive, and we did,” Ms. Knight said.

Mr. Castro, an unemployed bus driver, looked on without expression. Judge Michael J. Russo of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court sentenced him to life in prison without possibility of parole, and 1,000 years. The punishment was the result of a plea deal between Mr. Castro and prosecutors that allowed him to avoid a possible death sentence.

In a rambling statement of his own, Mr. Castro denied that he was violent or had ever raped or beaten Ms. Knight or the other women. “People are trying to portray me as a monster and I’m not a monster, I’m just sick,” he said.

The Cuyahoga County prosecutor, Timothy J. McGinty, told the court that experts had found no indication that Mr. Castro was mentally ill, adding that his effort to blame others, including the victims, was evidence of a lack of remorse that merited the maximum prison sentence.

New details of how the women were abducted, imprisoned and managed to endure emerged in a sentencing memo, and at the four-hour hearing on Thursday, which was shown live by cable television, reflecting the worldwide attention the case has drawn.

All three victims were acquaintances of Mr. Castro’s children. He attended vigils on the anniversaries of the women’s disappearances, brought home a “missing” poster as a trophy and showed the women television coverage of their grieving families.

He kidnapped Ms. Knight when he overheard her asking for directions at a Family Dollar store and offered her a ride, which she said she accepted because she knew his daughter. Once inside his home on Seymour Avenue on Cleveland’s West Side, he tied her with an extension cord and dragged her to the basement, where he forced a motorcycle helmet over her head before raping her, said Detective Andy Harasimchuk of the Cleveland police’s sex crimes unit.

Eight months later, in April 2003, Mr. Castro abducted Ms. Berry, then 16. He offered her a ride to his house with the promise of meeting his daughter, whom she knew. He chained her to a pole in the basement.

Ms. DeJesus, his third victim, was 14 when Mr. Castro enticed her into his car in 2004 by asking for her help in finding his daughter, who was a friend of Ms. DeJesus’.

Sheriff’s deputies displayed a model of Mr. Castro’s home that from one angle looked as innocent as a doll house. But turned around, it was used to illustrate a chamber of horrors. Mr. Castro sealed windows with closet doors and heavy drapes. The women were locked in two rooms on the second floor, sometimes restrained by chains. Mr. Castro fed them a single meal a day and forced them to use plastic toilets in their rooms, according to the sentencing report.

He kept them “in a state of powerlessness,” prosecutors said, “through a program of prolonged physical, sexual and psychological violence.” As punishment he would confine them in the cold basement or the sweltering attic.

A psychiatrist, Dr. Frank Ochberg, testified that the women suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, “the kind of trauma that you don’t escape for years and sometimes for a lifetime.”

Ms. DeJesus and Ms. Berry, who did not appear in court, were represented by family members who read statements on their behalf. Ms. Berry’s sister, Beth Serrano, asked for privacy so that the 6-year-old daughter Ms. Berry delivered in captivity, fathered by Mr. Castro, would not learn of the circumstances of her birth in the news media.

“Amanda could not control a lot of things for a long time,” Ms. Serrano said. “Please let her control this.”

Craig Weintraub, one of Mr. Castro’s lawyers, said that his client had lived a “double life” for 10 years and had accepted responsibility for his crimes. Mr. Weintraub also said that Mr. Castro has a mental illness, although that condition had not interfered with Mr. Castro’s ability to understand the plea agreement he signed.

For years, Mr. Castro was able to present to friends and family an outward appearance of normalcy. He insisted that he was neither evil nor violent but that he had been a victim of childhood sexual abuse and had become addicted to pornography.

“Most of the sex that went on in the house, and probably all of it, was consensual,” he claimed.

Twice he said, “There was harmony in our home.”

But Judge Russo offered a sharp rebuke: “I’m not sure there’s anyone in America who will agree with you.”

Ms. Knight, whose disappearance was not publicized because she was partly estranged from her family, said Mr. Castro tormented her by telling her no one cared she was missing. “After 11 years, I am finally being heard and it’s liberating,” she said.

She told him she wanted him to endure a life sentence in prison rather than face the death penalty. “I will live on,” she said. “You will die a little every day.”


Timothy Williams and Emma G. Fitzsimmons

contributed reporting from New York.

    Kidnapper in Cleveland Is Sentenced by Judge and Condemned by Victim,
    NYT, 1.8.2013,






Slain Youth’s Mother

Criticizes Defense Law


July 26, 2013
The New York Times


PHILADELPHIA — The mother of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teenager whose fatal shooting by a neighborhood watch volunteer has provoked a national debate over racial profiling and gun laws, appealed to a crowd of African-American advocates here Friday to “use my broken heart” to prevent a repeat of what happened to her son.

“My message to you is, please use my story, please use my tragedy, please use my broken heart to say to yourself, ‘We cannot let this happen to anybody else’s child,’ ” Sybrina Fulton said during a brief but emotional luncheon talk to a gathering of the National Urban League. She received a standing ovation.

Her appearance came on the heels of comments by a juror in the case who said Thursday that she believed Mr. Zimmerman “got away with murder.” Though the comment, in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America,” has been the subject of much conversation at the conference, Ms. Fulton did not address it in her remarks Friday. (On Thursday night, Ms. Fulton issued a statement saying it had been “devastating for my family” to hear what “we already knew in our hearts to be true.”)

On Friday, she spoke passionately, and deeply personally, about the faith that she said has carried her through since February 2012, when Mr. Zimmerman killed her 17-year-old son as he was walking home after buying snacks.

“I speak to you as Trayvon’s mother,” she said. “I speak to you as a parent, and the absolutely worst telephone call you can receive as a parent is to know that your son — your son — you will never kiss again. I’m just asking you to wrap your mind around that, wrap your mind around: No prom for Trayvon. No high school graduation for Trayvon. No college for Trayvon. No grandkids coming from Trayvon, all because of a law, a law that has prevented the person who shot and killed my son to be held accountable and to pay for his awful crime.”

In the weeks since Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted, Ms. Fulton and Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, have taken a higher profile, drawing praise from President Obama for handling a difficult situation with grace. Amid protests over the verdict, they have spoken out on national television; Ms. Fulton addressed a vigil in Manhattan last Saturday. Mr. Martin addressed the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington on Wednesday.

Together, they are pressing the federal government to consider federal civil rights charges against Mr. Zimmerman, and they are waging a campaign to amend expanded self-defense statutes like the one in Florida, known as Stand Your Ground laws, that extend beyond the home the right to use force in a dangerous situation. They are also seeking support for the nonprofit group they established in their son’s name.

About 6,000 people are here for the Urban League meeting, which comes against the backdrop of plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary next month of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Earlier Friday, the audience heard from civil rights leaders like the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Representative John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat, as well as the Martin family lawyer, Benjamin Crump.

The August celebration has taken on a new sense of urgency, many here said, in light of the Martin case and also the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn a key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Marc Morial, the former New Orleans mayor and president of the National Urban League, urged attendees on Friday to return to Washington next month.

“Everything has a different sense because of what’s happened in the last 30 days,” Mr. Morial said in an interview.

    Slain Youth’s Mother Criticizes Defense Law, NYT, 26.7.2013,






Demonstrations Across the Country

Commemorate Trayvon Martin


July 20, 2013
The New York Times


Thousands of demonstrators gathered in dozens of cities on Saturday to commemorate Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager shot to death in a confrontation with a neighborhood watch volunteer early last year, and to add their voices to a debate on race that his death has set off.

The demonstrations began around noon at federal buildings across the country. They came a week after the volunteer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted by a court in Florida in Mr. Martin’s killing; days after angry protests erupted in the wake of that verdict; and hours after President Obama said, in a heartfelt address, that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”

The events were largely peaceful, though those attending in many cities faced sweltering heat — with temperatures in some areas reaching into the 80s and 90s. In Dallas, news reports said about 25 demonstrators had been treated by medical personnel for heat-related problems. In Atlanta, storms also bedeviled protesters, leading to the cancellation of an evening rally in a suburb.

Mr. Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, addressing dozens of people outside the federal courthouse in Miami, said, “I vowed to Trayvon when he was laying in his casket that I would use every ounce of energy in my body to seek justice for him.”

“I will continue to fight for Trayvon until the day I die,” he added. “Not only will I be fighting for Trayvon, I will be fighting for your child as well.”

Isabel Eugene, 16, who also attended the rally in Miami, said: “Before Trayvon Martin, we took precautions, but now it’s worse. It could have been my brother.”

At a rally in New York, many people held umbrellas to shield themselves from the overpowering heat. As the crowd of thousands shouted, “We’re all Trayvon Martin,” the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the organizers of the gatherings, spoke, saying Mr. Martin’s death should prompt a larger movement.

Mr. Sharpton then announced a plan to hold a protest in the capital in August to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Mr. Sharpton said he wanted to ensure an aggressive federal investigation of Mr. Zimmerman and fight against Florida’s broad self-defense laws. “Last Saturday we cried,” he said, “but this Saturday we march.”

“We’re going to keep the focus on the Justice Department because Trayvon Martin had the civil right to go home that day,” he added. “We cannot have a society where any one of our children can be taken based on someone feeling they had the right to stand their ground. Well, what about Trayvon’s right to stand his ground? And what about our right to stand our ground?”

He also reiterated a point that President Obama had made in his speech the previous day. “You don’t know the humiliation of walking in a department store and you’re assumed to be a suspect rather than a customer,” Mr. Sharpton said. “You don’t know the humiliation of being guilty till proven innocent. You don’t know the humiliation of how people judge you based on what your skin color is.”

Mr. Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, who also attended the New York rally, stepped up to speak next, choking on her words as she faced the swelling crowd.

“Trayvon was a child, and I think sometimes it gets lost in the shuffle, because as I sat in the courtroom, it made me think that they were talking about another man,” Ms. Fulton said. “And it wasn’t. It was a child.”

She later added: “Of course we’re hurting. Of course we’re shocked and disappointed, but that just means that we have to roll up our sleeves and continue to fight.”

In Atlanta, the site of repeated protests since the verdict, several thousand demonstrators withstood torrential rains at a rally that focused on demanding action from the Justice Department in the wake of Mr. Obama’s comments on Friday. “I need new federal charges along with that feel-good speech,” Marcus Coleman, 39, told a crowd that roared its approval.

The protest, on the steps of the city’s federal building, drew two of Dr. King’s children, who invoked their father’s legacy and words while urging the demonstrators to press forward ahead of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington next month.

In an interview before his appearance, Martin Luther King III said he believed the verdict had led to an unusually introspective and widespread national conversation about race and the criminal justice system.

“This is a tone-setting time that at least sets up a framework for dialogue that has not existed in a long time,” Mr. King said. “People are not as frustrated about the verdict. It’s about consistent, systemic kinds of things that don’t get reported and happen every day in courtrooms across America.”

Charlotte Wilson, 70, a retiree from Atlanta, was among those who stood in the front row of the protest and said she believed the next challenge for the demonstrators would be maintaining their intensity.

“This is powerful, but we have to continue,” Ms. Wilson said. “We have to stick together.”

But the Rev. Markel Hutchins, one of the event’s organizers, said he was not anxious that the momentum would fade.

“There’s a new level of energy,” Mr. Hutchins said. “There’s a new level of enthusiasm that I personally have not seen since the days of the civil rights movement. Perhaps Trayvon Martin’s death — and perhaps even the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial — has inspired and ignited a movement of people who, frankly, needed to be moved.”

Several hundred also marched through downtown Los Angeles. Some carried placards that read, “Open season on the black man” and “Federal charges for Zimmerman.”

Cindy Holdorff, 46, who is white, attended the march with her 9-year-old adopted son, Sam, who is black. Ms. Holdorff said she had brought Sam to prepare him for the realities of racial prejudice.

“He’s been learning about slavery in the classroom, so I said to him, ‘Slavery is over, but unfortunately people still judge people by their color,’ ” she said, adding that that is what she believed happened to Trayvon Martin. “We’re going to go fight because we don’t want this to happen again.”

At similar rallies in Washington and other cities large and small, crowds of hundreds held up signs reading, “I am not a suspect” and “Trayvon Martin has civil rights.”

On the previous Saturday, after three weeks of testimony, a six-woman jury rejected the prosecution argument that Mr. Zimmerman had deliberately pursued Mr. Martin because he presumed the hoodie-clad 17-year-old was a criminal and instigated the fight that led to the killing.

Mr. Zimmerman said he shot Mr. Martin on Feb. 26, 2012, in self-defense after the teenager knocked him to the ground, punched him and slammed his head repeatedly against a sidewalk. In finding him not guilty of murder or manslaughter, the jury agreed that Mr. Zimmerman could have been justified in shooting Mr. Martin because he feared great bodily harm or death.

The Justice Department restarted an investigation into the case after the acquittal to determine whether the evidence “reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes,” it said in a statement.

To win a conviction, the government would have to prove that Mr. Zimmerman acted willfully to violate Mr. Martin’s civil rights, those familiar with such cases have said.


Channing Joseph and Ravi Somaiya reported from New York.

Reporting was contributed by Emily Schmall from Miami,

Alan Blinder from Atlanta, Mona El-Naggar from New York

and Ana Facio-Krajcer from Los Angeles.

    Demonstrations Across the Country Commemorate Trayvon Martin,
    NYT, 20.7.2013,






Juror Says Zimmerman

‘Got Away With Murder’


July 25, 2013
The New York Times


MIAMI — A juror who said she initially wanted to convict George Zimmerman told ABC News on Thursday that he “got away with murder” in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.

But faced with Florida’s self-defense laws, the juror, the second one on the six-member panel to speak out, said she felt compelled to acquit Mr. Zimmerman, 29, a volunteer neighborhood watch coordinator.

“George Zimmerman got away with murder,” said the juror, who allowed ABC to show her face and use her first name, Maddy. “But you can’t get away from God. And, at the end of the day, he’s going to have a lot of questions and answers he has to deal with. The law couldn’t prove it but, you know, you know, the world goes in circles.”

Freeing Mr. Zimmerman had been heartbreaking for her, she said, adding that she owes the Martin family an apology.

“It’s hard for me to sleep, it’s hard for me to eat, because I feel I was forcibly included in Trayvon Martin’s death,” Maddy, the only minority on the all-female jury, told Robin Roberts, the anchor of “Good Morning America.” “As I carry him on my back, I’m hurting as much as Trayvon Martin’s mom because there is no way that any mother should feel that pain.”

Calling herself the “juror that was going to give him the hung jury,” Maddy said she “fought to the end.”

She said she voted to convict Mr. Zimmerman of second-degree murder right after she first entered the jury room for deliberations. But in the second day of deliberations, she realized that the law would thwart her, she said.

“A lot of us wanted to find something bad, something we could connect to the laws,” said Maddy, who had recently moved to Sanford, Fla., from Chicago. “But as the law was read to me, if you have no proof he killed him intentionally, you can’t say he’s guilty,” she added.

Maddy, a Puerto Rican mother of eight, known as juror B29, provided a different perspective from the first juror who spoke out. That juror, B37, who spoke to Anderson Cooper of CNN last week, said that Mr. Zimmerman was justified in shooting Mr. Martin in self-defense. She had voted to acquit him at the start of deliberations.

Four other jurors — but not Maddy — signed a letter distancing themselves from B37 after the CNN interview.

In a portion of the ABC interview that is to be broadcast on Friday, Maddy said she did not think the case should have gone to trial.

“I felt this was a publicity stunt,” she said.

    Juror Says Zimmerman ‘Got Away With Murder’, NYT, 25.7.2013,






Barack and Trayvon


July 19, 2013
The New York Times


On Friday President Obama picked at America’s racial wound, and it bled a bit.

Despite persistent attempts by some to divest the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman tragedy of its racial resonance, the president refused to allow it.

During a press briefing, Mr. Obama spoke of the case, soberly and deliberately, in an achingly personal tone, saying: “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”

With that statement, an exalted black man found kinship with a buried black boy, the two inextricably linked by inescapable biases, one expressing the pains and peril of living behind the veil of his brown skin while the other no longer could.

With his statements, the president dispensed with the pedantic and made the tragedy personal.

He spoke of his own experiences with subtle biases, hinting at the psychological violence it does to the spirit — being followed around in stores when shopping, hearing the locking of car doors when you approach, noticing the clutching of purses as you enter an elevator.

It is in these subtleties that black folks are forever forced to box with shadows, forever forced to recognize their otherness and their inability to simply blend.

In “The Souls of Black Folk,” W. E. B. Du Bois described this phenomenon thusly:

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Surely, much has changed in America since Du Bois wrote those lines more than a century ago — namely, bias tends to be expressed structurally rather than on an individual level — but the “two-ness” remains. The reality of being marked, denied and diminished for being America’s darker sons persists, even for a man who rose to become one of America’s brightest lights.

And while words are not actions or solutions, giving voice to a people’s pain from The People’s house has power.

On Friday the president reached past one man and one boy and one case in one small Florida town, across centuries of slavery and oppression and discrimination and self-destructive behavior, and sought to place this charged case in a cultural context.

It can be too easy when speaking of race, bias, stereotypes and inequality to arrive at simplistic explanations. There is often a tendency to separate legacy traumas and cultural conditioning from personal responsibility, but it cannot be done. The truth is that racial realities are complicated, weaving all these factors into a single fabric.

There is no denying that an enormous amount of violence — both physical and psychological — is aimed at black men. That violence is both interracial and intraracial. Too many black men inflict that violence on one another, feeding a self-destructive cycle of victimization until hope is crushed to the ground and opportunity seems beyond the sky.

All of this must be considered when we speak of race, and those conversations cannot be a communion of the aggrieved. All parties must acknowledge and accept their role in the problems for us to solve them. Only when the burden of bias is shared — only when we can empathize with the feelings of “the other” — can we move beyond injury to healing.

Yes, we should encourage young black men to value themselves and make better choices that reflect that value.

But we must also acknowledge that poverty is sticky and despair, dogged. The legacy effects of American oppression — which destroyed families, ingrained cultural violence, and denied generations of African-Americans the luxury of accruing and transferring intergenerational wealth — cannot simply be written off.

Most blacks don’t believe that racial prejudice is the whole of black people’s problems today, or is even chief among them. According to a Gallup poll released Friday, only 37 percent of blacks believe that the fact that they, on average, have worse jobs, income and housing is “mostly” because of discrimination.

But it would be hard to argue that bias plays no role, even if it’s immeasurable.

That’s why there was value in the president of the United States acknowledging his “two-ness” on Friday and connecting with Trayvon Martin — because we can never lose sight of the fact that biases and stereotypes and violence are part of a black man’s burden in America, no matter that man’s station.

We could all have been Trayvon.

    Barack and Trayvon, NYT, 19.7.2013,






President Obama’s Anguish


July 19, 2013
The New York Times


President Obama did something Friday that he hardly ever does — and no other president could ever have done. He addressed the racial fault lines in the country by laying bare his personal anguish and experience in an effort to help white Americans understand why African-Americans reacted with frustration and anger to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

Mr. Obama’s comments during a surprise appearance at the White House press briefing crystallized the dissonance around this case. In the narrow confines of the trial, all talk of race was excluded, and the “stand your ground” element in Florida’s self-defense law was not invoked by Mr. Zimmerman’s lawyers. But in the broader, more profound and more troubling context of Mr. Martin’s death, race and Florida’s lax gun laws are inextricably interwoven.

On the first, Mr. Obama said: “The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments.” The jurors, he added, “were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict.”

But on the broader context, Mr. Obama eloquently rebutted those — like Representative Andy Harris, a Republican, with his dismissive “get over it” remark on Tuesday — who said that the verdict should have ended discussion of the case, especially talk about race and gun laws.

“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Mr. Obama said, adding that “it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”

He said there are “very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store” or “the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.”

“That,” he said, “includes me.”

Mr. Obama said African-Americans are also acutely aware that “there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.”

He said it would be naïve not to recognize that young African-American men are “disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.” But using those statistics “to then see sons treated differently causes pain,” he said.

Mr. Obama called on the Justice Department to work with local and state law enforcement to reduce mistrust in the policing system, including ending racial profiling. He also called for an examination of state and local laws to see whether they “are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case.”

Mr. Obama raised questions about the message that “stand your ground” laws send, telling a citizen that he “potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation.”

Mr. Obama noted that Mr. Zimmerman did not invoke that defense. But he said it was still relevant. In one of the most powerful parts of his remarks, he said: “I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?”

If the answer is “at least ambiguous,” Mr. Obama said, “we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”

Mr. Obama said Americans needed to give African-American boys “the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them.”

He said he was not talking about “some grand, new federal program” or even a national “conversation on race,” which he said often ends up being “stilted and politicized” and reaffirms pre-existing positions.

In a way, Mr. Obama began that conversation with these remarks, while speaking directly to African-Americans who have longed to hear him identify with their frustrations and their anger.

It is a great thing for this country to have a president who could do what Mr. Obama did on Friday. It is sad that we still need him to do it.

    President Obama’s Anguish, NYT, 19.7.2013,






President Offers

a Personal Take on Race in U.S.


July 19, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — After days of angry protests and mounting public pressure, President Obama summoned five of his closest advisers to the Oval Office on Thursday evening. It was time, he told them, for him to speak to the nation about the Trayvon Martin verdict, and he had a pretty good idea what he wanted to say.

For the next 15 minutes, according to a senior aide, Mr. Obama spoke without interruption, laying out his message of why the not-guilty ruling had caused such pain among African-Americans, particularly young black men accustomed to arousing the kind of suspicion that led to the shooting death of Mr. Martin in a gated Florida neighborhood.

On Friday, reading an unusually personal, handwritten statement, Mr. Obama summed up his views with a single line: “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”

That moment punctuated a turbulent week marked by dozens of phone calls to the White House from black leaders, angry protests that lit up the Internet and streets from Baltimore to Los Angeles, and anguished soul-searching by Mr. Obama. Aides say the president closely monitored the public reaction and talked repeatedly about the case with friends and family.

Several people who have had conversations with Mr. Obama’s top aides said a president who has rarely spoken about America’s racial tensions from the White House was particularly torn about appearing to force the hand of Eric H. Holder Jr., the attorney general, when it comes to any investigations in the case.

The White House’s original plan — for Mr. Obama to address the verdict in brief interviews on Tuesday with four Spanish-language television networks — was foiled when none of them asked about it.

Instead, he appeared in the White House briefing room with no advance warning and little of the orchestration that usually accompanies presidential speeches. Mr. Obama spoke for 18 minutes, offering his own reflections and implicitly criticizing gun laws and racial profiling methods — both of which, critics say, played a role in Mr. Martin’s death.

Mr. Obama continued to avoid criticizing either the conduct of the trial or the verdict, in which a jury found a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., George Zimmerman, not guilty of all charges in the killing of Mr. Martin in February 2012.

But in the most expansive remarks he has made about race since becoming president, Mr. Obama offered three examples of the humiliations borne by young black men in America: being followed while shopping in a department store, hearing the click of car doors locking as they cross a street, or watching as women clutch their purses nervously when they step onto an elevator. The first two experiences, he said, had happened to him.

“Those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida,” Mr. Obama said. “And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”

For black leaders who had beseeched the president to speak out — inundating White House officials with phone calls — his remarks were greeted with a mixture of relief and satisfaction.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said Mr. Obama had no choice but to confront mounting concern among African-Americans about the Martin case and recent Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action and voting rights.

“At some point, the volcano erupts,” Mr. Jackson said.

From the moment the verdict was announced on Saturday night, black activists had called on Mr. Obama to express the anger and frustration of their community. The pressure only increased after he issued a carefully worded statement urging respect for the jury’s decision.

“We needed this president to use his bully pulpit,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist and host on MSNBC, who urged Mr. Obama’s advisers to have him speak out.

The parents of Mr. Martin, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, said they were “deeply honored and moved” by Mr. Obama’s comments. “President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him,” they said in a statement on Friday. “This is a beautiful tribute to our boy.”

For some black activists, however, Mr. Obama’s remarks were too little, too late. Tavis Smiley, a radio host who has long been a critic of the president, said the president has chosen to “lead from behind” on race issues.

The president’s advisers selected the White House briefing room as the location for Mr. Obama’s remarks during the Thursday meeting, calculating that it would be less formal than a full-dress speech — but would shield him from the questions he would likely face in a longer interview about why he had waited days after the verdict to speak.

The advisers said Mr. Obama was anxious to confront the issue of race in a way that he has not since he ran for president in 2008. In a landmark speech to defuse the political storm over his Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Mr. Obama spoke about what he called “the complexities of race” in America.

As president, Mr. Obama has only periodically returned to the subject. And on the few occasions that he has, it has often been in reaction to an event — a black Harvard professor’s arrest, or Mr. Martin’s death. A month after Mr. Martin was killed, Mr. Obama said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

The president’s remarks on Friday were different: more expansive, more personal and more reflective of the concerns of fellow blacks. His comments mirror public opinion among African-Americans, according to polls.

A telephone poll conducted June 13 to July 5 by Gallup found that blacks were “significantly less likely now than they were 20 years ago to cite discrimination as the main reason blacks on average have worse jobs, income, and housing than whites.” It found that 37 percent of blacks today blame discrimination. In 1993, 44 percent said the same.

Mr. Obama has also shown more willingness to speak in personal terms. At Morehouse College in Atlanta in May, he told graduates, “Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down.”

His remarks Friday were also reminiscent of the tone in his speeches during his trip to Africa earlier this month. After standing in the cell that Nelson Mandela occupied for 18 years, Mr. Obama told a South African audience, “You’ve shown us how a prisoner can become a president.”

On Friday, Mr. Obama brought that message home, urging Americans to be honest with themselves about how far this country has come in confronting its own racial history.

“Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?” he asked. “Am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.”


Jodi Kantor contributed reporting from Truro, Mass.

    President Offers a Personal Take on Race in U.S., NYT, 19.7.2013,







Obama Speaks of Verdict

Through the Prism

of African-American Experience


July 19, 2013
The New York Times


Following is a transcript of President Obama’s remarks

on race in America in the White House briefing room.

(Transcript courtesy of Federal News Service.)


PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I — I wanted to come out here first of all to tell you that Jay is prepared for all your questions and is — is very much looking forward to the session.

Second thing is I want to let you know that over the next couple of weeks there are going to obviously be a whole range of issues — immigration, economics, et cetera — we’ll try to arrange a fuller press conference to address your questions.

The reason I actually wanted to come out today is not to take questions, but to speak to an issue that obviously has gotten a lot of attention over the course of the last week, the issue of the Trayvon Martin ruling. I gave an — a preliminary statement right after the ruling on Sunday, but watching the debate over the course of the last week I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit.

First of all, you know, I — I want to make sure that, once again, I send my thoughts and prayers, as well as Michelle’s, to the family of Trayvon Martin, and to remark on the incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation. I can only imagine what they’re going through, and it’s — it’s remarkable how they’ve handled it.

The second thing I want to say is to reiterate what I said on Sunday, which is there are going to be a lot of arguments about the legal — legal issues in the case. I’ll let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those issues.

The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a — in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.

But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling. You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away.

There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.

And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

And you know, I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.

The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is naïve about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.

We understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.

And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.

I think the African-American community is also not naïve in understanding that statistically somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.

So — so folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys, but they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it or — and that context is being denied. And — and that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.

Now, the question for me at least, and I think, for a lot of folks is, where do we take this? How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction? You know, I think it’s understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through as long as it remains nonviolent. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family.

But beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do? I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here. Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government — the criminal code. And law enforcement has traditionally done it at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.

That doesn’t mean, though, that as a nation, we can’t do some things that I think would be productive. So let me just give a couple of specifics that I’m still bouncing around with my staff so we’re not rolling out some five-point plan, but some areas where I think all of us could potentially focus.

Number one, precisely because law enforcement is often determined at the state and local level, I think it’d be productive for the Justice Department — governors, mayors to work with law enforcement about training at the state and local levels in order to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists.

You know, when I was in Illinois I passed racial profiling legislation. And it actually did just two simple things. One, it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped. But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize what they were doing.

And initially, the police departments across the state were resistant, but actually they came to recognize that if it was done in a fair, straightforward way, that it would allow them to do their jobs better and communities would have more confidence in them and in turn be more helpful in applying the law. And obviously law enforcement’s got a very tough job.

So that’s one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear if state and local governments are receptive. And I think a lot of them would be. And — and let’s figure out other ways for us to push out that kind of training.

Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it — if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than defuse potential altercations.

I know that there’s been commentary about the fact that the Stand Your Ground laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case.

On the other hand, if we’re sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see?

And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these Stand Your Ground laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?

And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

Number three — and this is a long-term project: We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys? And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?

You know, I’m not naïve about the prospects of some brand-new federal program.

I’m not sure that that’s what we’re talking about here. But I do recognize that as president, I’ve got some convening power.

And there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that — and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed — you know, I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation. And we’re going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.

And then finally, I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. You know, there have been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.

On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s a possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.

And let me just leave you with — with a final thought, that as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. I doesn’t mean that we’re in a postracial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.

And so, you know, we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues, and those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days I think have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long, difficult journey, you know, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.

All right? Thank you, guys.



Copyright © 2013 by Federal News Service, LLC, 1120 G Street NW, Suite 990, Washington, DC 20005-3801 USA. Federal News Service is a private firm not affiliated with the federal government. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold or retransmitted without the written authority of Federal News Service, LLC. Copyright is not claimed as to any part of the original work prepared by a United States government officer or employee as a part of that person’s official duties. For information on subscribing to the FNS Transcripts Database or any other FNS product, please email info@fednews.com or call 1-202-347-1400.

    Transcript: Obama Speaks of Verdict
    Through the Prism of African-American Experience, NYT, 19.7.2013,






Tense Over Looming Zimmerman Verdict,

City Eases in Its Aftermath


July 15, 2013
The New York Times


SANFORD, Fla. — Monday dawned as quietly as Sunday did in this sleepy small Central Florida city. The streets of Goldsboro, the historic black community, were all but empty. Downtown was tumbleweed still. A few miles from the county courthouse, in Mel’s Family Diner, waitresses served up signature dishes — sissy burgers and biker omelets — and voiced tentative relief.

After all the preparations for violent outbursts and repeated entreaties from pastors for calm, people here did not riot — and barely protested — in these days after the acquittal late Saturday of George Zimmerman, the man whose deadly encounter with an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, brought the city infamy almost a year and a half ago.

Having been swamped by tens of thousands of protesters last year demanding Mr. Zimmerman’s arrest, the city tensed as the verdict approached. Extra police officers went on patrol. Grocery stores hired more security guards. Convenience store clerks asked to be allowed to leave early when a verdict was near. One of the waitresses at Mel’s, who is white and did not want to be identified, only half-jokingly asked black friends if she could hide in their attic “if anything happens.”

The verdict came Saturday night: jurors accepted Mr. Zimmerman’s claim that he shot Mr. Martin in self-defense. The teenager’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, were “heartbroken and devastated,” their lead lawyer said. Mr. Zimmerman’s whereabouts remain unknown to the public, and as of late Monday, according to his defense team, he had not collected the gun used in the episode, which the court had ordered released.

As protests over the verdict unfolded across the country, it became clear in Sanford that the widely forecast unrest was unlikely to come to pass.

“We might be angry about the verdict,” said Larry Williams, 55, as he sat in the air-conditioned chill of his friend’s barbershop in Goldsboro on Monday. “But why go out and do anything you would not want to do?”

So, on Monday, people carried on, some with heavier hearts than others. Shauna Rollf, 24, who works at the Taste of Thyme Cafe, said business was lighter than normal because Sanford residents were avoiding all the reporters and camera crews prowling through downtown. Like others, she was awaiting the day the news media swarm left. “I think everybody’s kind of exhausted,” she said.

A few blocks away, a dozen pastors, city officials and perhaps a hundred residents, black and white, filed into the New Life Word Center Church for a noontime prayer service. They prayed for peace and racial reconciliation, and they prayed for the Zimmerman and Martin families. “God, we realize there is no winner in this situation,” one pastor said, as those gathered raised their hands heavenward, crying out, “That’s right.”

The new police chief, Cecil E. Smith, also spoke from the altar, praising the town. “Everybody wants us to go out and act up,” he said. “We are peaceful in the middle of an issue that has divided our country.”

Mr. Smith, along with Sanford’s mayor, Jeff Triplett, and other community leaders, is seeking to repair longstanding wounds laid bare by Mr. Martin’s shooting — namely the distrust that many black residents harbor toward the city’s police. “People are saying, ‘I guess you want to go back to normal living.’ No we don’t,” said another pastor, John Murphy. “We want to go forward. We have to repent for all the things that stood in the way before of unity.”

Not everyone appreciated the stillness. A day after the verdict, Isaac Jones, 56, spent part of his morning on a bench near a memorial for Mr. Martin in Goldsboro, and sadly took in the neighborhood’s quiet. “Everybody’s taking this way too calm,” he said. “Something has to be done. It’s going to happen again.”

Other residents said that though Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted, his life would forever be haunted. “He is going to be on the run for the rest of his life,” said Mack Cotton, 51. “And he’s going to see that kid for the rest of his life. He ain’t going to be able to run from it.”

If some people in Sanford wanted to move onward, others on Monday said parts of the city were caught too tightly in more intractable grips — poverty, and what many here see as unfair administration of the law. “There is no normal. Every day is a struggle,” said Mr. Williams, who lives on disability checks. “There are so many laws down here that were not built for us in the black community.”

But a few doors down, at the Goldsboro Westside Community Museum, home to photos of civil rights leaders and relics from the town’s segregationist past, the curator, Francis Oliver, said the verdict had brought some peace.

“We wanted George Zimmerman arrested; we got it. We wanted him to have his day in court; we got it. We wanted a new police chief; we got it,” she said. “We have said before what we wanted out of the whole thing.”


Lizette Alvarez contributed reporting.

    Tense Over Looming Zimmerman Verdict, City Eases in Its Aftermath,
    NYT, 15.7.2013,






The Truth About Trayvon


July 15, 2013
The New York Times


THE Trayvon Martin verdict is frustrating, fracturing, angering and predictable. More than anything, for many of us, it is exhausting. Exhausting because nothing could bring back our lost child, exhausting because the verdict, which should have felt shocking, arrived with the inevitability that black Americans know too well when criminal law announces that they are worth less than other Americans.

Lawyers on both sides argued repeatedly that this case was never about race, but only whether prosecutors proved beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman was not simply defending himself when he shot Mr. Martin. And, indeed, race was only whispered in the incomplete invocation that Mr. Zimmerman had “profiled” Mr. Martin. But what this case reveals in its overall shape is precisely what the law is unable to see in its narrow focus on the details.

The anger felt by so many African-Americans speaks to the simplest of truths: that race and law cannot be cleanly separated. We are tired of hearing that race is a conversation for another day. We are tired of pretending that “reasonable doubt” is not, in every sense of the word, colored.

Every step Mr. Martin took toward the end of his too-short life was defined by his race. I do not have to believe that Mr. Zimmerman is a hate-filled racist to recognize that he would probably not even have noticed Mr. Martin if he had been a casually dressed white teenager.

But because Mr. Martin was one of those “punks” who “always get away,” as Mr. Zimmerman characterized him in a call to the police, Mr. Zimmerman felt he was justified in following him. After all, a young black man matched the criminal descriptions, not just in local police reports, but in those most firmly lodged in Mr. Zimmerman’s imagination.

Whether the law judges Trayvon Martin’s behavior to be reasonable is also deeply colored by race. Imagine that a militant black man, with a history of race-based suspicion and a loaded gun, followed an unarmed white teenager around his neighborhood. The young man is scared, and runs through the streets trying to get away. Unable to elude his black stalker and, perhaps, feeling cornered, he finally holds his ground — only to be shot at point-blank range after a confrontation.

Would we throw up our hands, unable to conclude what really happened? Would we struggle to find a reasonable doubt about whether the shooter acted in self-defense? A young, white Trayvon Martin would unquestionably be said to have behaved reasonably, while it is unimaginable that a militant, black George Zimmerman would not be viewed as the legal aggressor, and thus guilty of at least manslaughter.

This is about more than one case. Our reasons for presuming, profiling and acting are always deeply racialized, and the Zimmerman trial, in ignoring that, left those reasons unexplored and unrefuted.

What is reasonable to do, especially in the dark of night, is defined by preconceived social roles that paint young black men as potential criminals and predators. Black men, the narrative dictates, are dangerous, to be watched and put down at the first false move. This pain is one all black men know; putting away the tie you wear to the office means peeling off the assumption that you are owed equal respect. Mr. Martin’s hoodie struck the deepest chord because we know that daring to wear jeans and a hooded sweatshirt too often means that the police or other citizens are judged to be reasonable in fearing you.

We know this, yet every time a case like this offers a chance for the country to tackle the evil of racial discrimination in our criminal law, courts have deliberately silenced our ability to expose it. The Supreme Court has held that even if your race is what makes your actions suspicious to the police, their suspicions are reasonable so long as an officer can later construct a race-neutral narrative.

Likewise, our death penalty cases have long presaged the Zimmerman verdict, exposing how racial disparities, which make a white life more valuable, do not undermine the constitutionality of the death sentence. And even the most casual observer recognizes the painful racial disparities in our prison population — the new Jim Crow, in the account of the legal scholar Michelle Alexander. Our prisons are full of young, black men for whom guilty beyond a reasonable doubt was easy enough to reach.

There is no quick answer for the historical use of our criminal law to reinforce and then punish social stereotypes. But pretending that reasonable doubt is a value-free clinical term, as so many people did so readily in the Zimmerman case, only insulates injustice in plain sight.

Without an honest jurisprudence that is brave enough to tackle the way race infuses our criminal law, Trayvon Martin’s voice will be silenced again.

What would such a jurisprudence look like? The Supreme Court could hold, for example, that the unjustified use of race by the police in determining “reasonable suspicion” constituted an unreasonable stop, tainting captured evidence. Likewise, in the same way we have started to attack racial disparities in other areas of criminal law, we could consider it a violation of someone’s constitutional rights if, controlling for all else, his race was what determined whether the state executed him.

I can imagine a jurisprudence that at least begins to use racial disparities as a tool to question the constitutionality of criminal punishment. And above all, I can imagine a jurisprudence that does not pretend, as lawyers for both sides (but no one else) did in the Zimmerman case, that doubts have no color.


Ekow N. Yankah is a professor

at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law

at Yeshiva University.

    The Truth About Trayvon, NYT, 15.7.2013,






Zimmerman Prosecutors

Duck the Race Issue


July 15, 2013
The New York Times


Driving to Target on his Sunday grocery run on Feb. 26, 2012, George Zimmerman looked out the window of his S.U.V. and saw a stranger who he instantly concluded was “a real suspicious guy.”

“Punks,” he said, adding an expletive. “They always get away.” There were unsolved burglaries in his community, and as he said in a call he made to the police, “this guy looks like he’s up to no good.” Mr. Zimmerman’s recorded profanity-laden police call became a focal point at his murder trial, but not because of its obvious significance: that Mr. Zimmerman jumped to insulting conclusions about Trayvon Martin primarily on account of Mr. Martin’s race.

What began as a local crime story gained national attention after African-American journalists and civil rights leaders immediately grasped the racial implications of the confrontation between Mr. Zimmerman and Mr. Martin, and ended with Mr. Martin’s death. Mr. Zimmerman’s acquittal on Saturday sparked nationwide civil demonstrations against racial profiling and hate crimes. But in the courtroom, race was a topic carefully controlled by the judge and handled awkwardly by the prosecution team.

In an odd ruling, Judge Debra Nelson decided that the word “profiling” — but not the phrase “racial profiling” — could be used in opening statements. But what other kind of profiling could possibly have been involved here? Could jurors — and the public — seriously imagine that Mr. Zimmerman considered Mr. Martin a criminal solely because he was walking slowly in the rain as he chatted on the phone? Lawyers were free to use the profanity involved in the case over and over again, but initially the “r” word was off limits.

Shortly thereafter, it seemed the prosecution was building its case, at least partly, around Mr. Zimmerman’s obvious racial profiling, which was the run-up for the altercation and shooting that followed. The state fought hard outside the jury’s presence to enter into evidence police calls Mr. Zimmerman had made in the months before the shooting; 100 percent of the calls about suspicious persons involved African-Americans.

Though the judge ultimately granted the state’s request and admitted tapes of these calls into evidence, the prosecution did not use the evidence and remained strangely silent on Mr. Zimmerman’s pattern of racial profiling during its two closing arguments.

To those who followed the trial closely, as I did, it seemed a decision was made midstream to abandon the strategy that included calling attention to Mr. Zimmerman’s pattern. Prosecutors apparently trusted jurors to dispassionately evaluate photos of a dead teenager’s remains and of the bullet hole through his heart as well as photos of blood dripping from George Zimmerman’s head. But the state was too squeamish to put the touchy issue of race squarely before the six-woman jury.

The defense was far more comfortable with the disturbing racial aspects of the case, and as one of its final witnesses called a young white mother who had been robbed in the neighborhood months before the shooting. The witness, Olivia Bertalan, testified that she had cowered in her closet, baby in her arms, as two African-American males burglarized her home.

What did that have to do with Trayvon Martin? The prosecution never asked. Was Mr. Martin inherently suspicious because he was of the same race as the burglars — the clear import of this story? To attribute the wrongs of two African-American men to all African-Americans is the definition of racism. But the prosecutor never said so in court or called the jury’s attention to this fact.

In his closing argument, Mark O’Mara, one of Mr. Zimmerman’s lawyers, drove home the idea that Mr. Zimmerman’s profane police call was reasonable, arguing that Mr. Zimmerman’s descriptions of Mr. Martin and the burglars “did match the description, unfortunately, and that’s just maybe happenstance.”

But other than race and youth, no other description of the burglars was admitted into evidence. Race and youth were the sole basis of what defense lawyers deemed “a match.”

The state did not question any of this, much less point out that racial profiling was not happenstance but a way to filter out all other, nonracial, identifying factors.

How tall were the Bertalan burglars? Did they have any noticeable tattoos, facial features, haircuts, manner of speaking, gait, clothing? Had they been seen walking slowly in the rain, talking on the phone? The burglars’ and Mr. Martin’s mutual blackness obscured all else.

By the defense logic, all young African-American males in the neighborhood would warrant a call to the police for walking while black — this in a racially diverse, middle-class community that is 20 percent African-American.

The most discordant note in the entire three-week trial came in the prosecution’s rebuttal closing argument, its last chance to drive its points home with the jury. John Guy, a prosecutor in the case, insisted forcefully that the case was not about race; relying on a strategy reminiscent of John Grisham’s book “A Time to Kill,” Mr. Guy asked the jury to consider a role reversal: would Martin be convicted if he had followed and then shot George Zimmerman? After this obvious, if implicit, reference to race, Mr. Guy finished up by reminding the jury that the case was not about race.


Mr. Martin’s family, too, wavered on the subject. Mr. Guy’s remarks mirrored those made by Benjamin Crump, the Martin family lawyer, who said in September that the case “shouldn’t be about race,” though if the roles of the two young men were reversed, an arrest would have occurred quickly. (Mr. Crump had concluded with “that’s why race is involved in this case.”)

And after Mr. Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel testified to the only racial epithet uttered in the courtroom — Mr. Martin’s characterization of Mr. Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker” — another family attorney stood alongside Mr. Martin’s parents at a news conference and said, “To this family, race is not a part of this process. Anybody who tries to inject race into it is wrong.”

Yet Mr. Martin’s parents had traveled to Washington to attend a Congressional forum on racial profiling and hate crimes, which resulted in the Congressional Black Caucus’s describing the killing as one of “racial bias.” And in March 2012 Tracy Martin had said, “For the Sanford Police Department to feel as though they were going to sweep another young black minority death under the rug, it’s an atrocity.”

Many disturbing factors were present in the Zimmerman trial: his legal right to drive to the grocery store with a loaded concealed weapon, bullet chambered; Florida’s overly permissive self-defense laws; subpar crime-scene evidence-collection techniques; the oddly arrogant medical examiner who had little interest in answering the questions posed to him by counsel; the prosecutors’ apparent failure to adequately prepare their key witness, Ms. Jeantel; prosecutors’ failure to emphasize how Mr. Zimmerman’s gun, holstered behind him and inside his waistband, could not have been seen and reached for by Mr. Martin in the scenario Mr. Zimmerman described, where he was pinned on his back with Mr. Martin assaulting him; prosecutors’ failure to drive home the fact that Mr. Zimmerman’s claim that Mr. Martin pounded his head on concrete in his final moments did not fit the crime scene, since Mr. Martin’s body was found on the grass a substantial distance from any concrete.

The prosecution’s most glaring trial failure was its absence of a theory about what happened on the night of the shooting that would counter the defense’s frightening story about Mr. Martin’s pinning Mr. Zimmerman to the ground, straddling him and banging his head against the concrete and then reaching for Mr. Zimmerman’s gun. The defense seized upon the prosecution’s unusual practice throughout the trial, and especially in closing, of simply raising questions of what might have happened, rather than proving its own case or presenting its own theory about the facts. When both sides seemed to advocate for reasonable doubt, an acquittal was the only possible outcome.

It cannot reasonably be disputed that the incident that left Mr. Martin dead began with ugly racial profiling. But the prosecution seemed afraid to say so at any point in the trial. Instead, the state appeared to want to tread lightly on the jurors’ presumed delicate sensibilities on the dicey subject of race and, leaving the race question aside, simply pointed out that Mr. Zimmerman must have made “assumptions.” The state’s refusal to take an aggressive, clear position on Mr. Zimmerman’s racial profiling was, like many of its strategic decisions, a clear fumble.

One of the final photos the defense showed to the jury was a 7-Eleven surveillance camera image of Trayvon Martin an hour before his death, the kind of blurry photo one sees on the local news when the police are searching for a holdup suspect. This was the person George Zimmerman encountered, counsel insisted.

By the following night, Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted. Afterward, smiling broadly after her team had just lost the case, Angela B. Corey, the special prosecutor, said: “This case has never been about race.”


Lisa Bloom is a lawyer, author and NBC News legal analyst.

    Zimmerman Prosecutors Duck the Race Issue, NYT, 15.7.2013,






The Whole System Failed


July 15, 2013
The New York Times


In a way, the not-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for his killing of Trayvon Martin was more powerful than a guilty verdict could ever have been. It was the perfect wrenching coda to a story that illustrates just how utterly and completely our system of justice — both moral and legal — failed Martin and his family.

This is not to dispute the jury’s finding — one can intellectually rationalize the decision — as much as it is to howl at the moon, to yearn for a brighter reality for the politics around dark bodies, to raise a voice and say, this case is a rallying call, not a death dirge.

The system began to fail Martin long before that night.

The system failed him when Florida’s self-defense laws were written, allowing an aggressor to claim self-defense in the middle of an altercation — and to use deadly force in that defense — with no culpability for his role in the events that led to that point.

The system failed him because of the disproportionate force that he and the neighborhood watchman could legally bring to the altercation — Zimmerman could legally carry a concealed firearm, while Martin, who was only 17, could not.

The system failed him when the neighborhood watchman grafted on stereotypes the moment he saw him, ascribing motive and behavior and intent and criminal history to a boy who was just walking home.

The system failed him when the bullet ripped though his chest, and the man who shot him said he mounted him and stretched his arms out wide, preventing him from even clutching the spot that hurt.

The system failed him in those moments just after he was shot when he was surely aware that he was about to die, but before life’s light fully passed from his body — and no one came to comfort him or try to save him.

The system failed him when the slapdash Sanford police did a horrible job of collecting and preserving evidence.

The system failed him when those officers apparently didn’t even value his dead body enough to adequately canvass the complex to make sure that no one was missing a teen.

The system failed him when he was labeled a John Doe and his lifeless body spent the night alone and unclaimed.

The system failed him when the man who the police found standing over the body of a dead teenager, a man who admitted to shooting him and still had the weapon, was taken in for questioning and then allowed to walk out of the precinct without an arrest or even a charge, to go home after taking a life and take to his bed.

The system failed him when it took more than 40 days and an outpouring of national outrage to get an arrest.

The system failed him when a strangely homogenous jury — who may well have been Zimmerman’s peers but were certainly not the peers of the teenager, who was in effect being tried in absentia — was seated.

The system failed him when the prosecution put on a case for the Martin family that many court-watchers found wanting.

The system failed him when the discussion about bias became so reductive as to be either-or rather than about situational fluidity and the possibility of varying responses to varying levels of perceived threat.

The system failed him when everyone in the courtroom raised racial bias in roundabout ways, but almost never directly — for example, when the defense held up a picture of a shirtless Martin and told the jurors that this was the person Zimmerman encountered the night he shot him. But in fact it was not the way Zimmerman had seen Martin. Consciously or subconsciously, the defense played on an old racial trope: asking the all-female jury — mostly white — to fear the image of the glistening black buck, as Zimmerman had.

This case is not about an extraordinary death of an extraordinary person. Unfortunately, in America, people are lost to gun violence every day. Many of them look like Martin and have parents who presumably grieve for them. This case is about extraordinary inequality in the presumption of innocence and the application of justice: why was Martin deemed suspicious and why was his killer allowed to go home?

Sometimes people just need a focal point. Sometimes that focal point becomes a breaking point.

The idea of universal suspicion without individual evidence is what Americans find abhorrent and what black men in America must constantly fight. It is pervasive in policing policies — like stop-and-frisk, and in this case neighborhood watch — regardless of the collateral damage done to the majority of innocents. It’s like burning down a house to rid it of mice.

As a parent, particularly a parent of black teenage boys, I am left with the question, “Now, what do I tell my boys?”

We used to say not to run in public because that might be seen as suspicious, like they’d stolen something. But according to Zimmerman, Martin drew his suspicion at least in part because he was walking too slowly.

So what do I tell my boys now? At what precise pace should a black man walk to avoid suspicion?

And can they ever stop walking away, or running away, and simply stand their ground? Can they become righteously indignant without being fatally wounded?

Is there anyplace safe enough, or any cargo innocent enough, for a black man in this country? Martin was where he was supposed to be — in a gated community — carrying candy and a canned drink.

The whole system failed Martin. What prevents it from failing my children, or yours?

I feel that I must tell my boys that, but I can’t. It’s stuck in my throat. It’s an impossibly heartbreaking conversation to have. So, I sit and watch in silence, and occasionally mouth the word, “breathe,” because I keep forgetting to.

    The Whole System Failed, NYT, 15.7.2013,






Zimmerman Juror Discusses

How Verdict Was Reached


July 15, 2013
The New York Times


MIAMI — George Zimmerman was guilty of nothing more than “bad judgment,” one of six jurors to find the neighborhood watchman not guilty said Monday night.

The juror, the first to share her story publicly, spoke anonymously, telling Anderson Cooper of CNN that she believed Mr. Zimmerman’s account that Trayvon Martin attacked him. Fearing for his life, Mr. Zimmerman had no choice but to shoot the teenager, the juror said. Mr. Martin was unarmed.

“I think his heart was in the right place,” the juror said of Mr. Zimmerman’s eagerness to try to protect the neighborhood. “It just went terribly wrong.”

She said later, “It pretty much happened the way George said it happened.”

Juror B37, the number she was assigned for the trial, also said that when the six jurors first began to deliberate, they were evenly divided between guilt and innocence. One voted for second-degree murder and two voted for manslaughter. B37 said she was one of three who initially voted “not guilty.”

“There was a couple of them in there that wanted to find him guilty of something,” the juror said.

But after sorting through the evidence and Mr. Zimmerman’s account, the three jurors changed their minds. Second-degree murder was discarded first. Then, after much confusion over the jury instructions, manslaughter was also set aside, she said.

The jurors, who gave their verdict Saturday, concluded that Mr. Zimmerman acted in self-defense, she said. “I have no doubt George feared for his life,” she said.

Unlike the swirl of anger and passion over the role of race outside the courtroom, race did not come up during 16 hours and 20 minutes of deliberations, she said. No juror, she said, viewed the case through the prism of race.

The fact that Mr. Martin was black did not drive Mr. Zimmerman to suspect and follow him, she said. It was the overall situation — he was cutting through the back, the townhouse complex had been hit by a rash of burglaries, and Mr. Martin appeared to be walking aimlessly in the rain, looking in houses, she said.

“I think he just profiled him because he was the neighborhood watch and he profiled anybody who came in and saw them acting strange,” she said, regardless of race.

The juror also said that she and most of the other jurors believed Mr. Zimmerman was the one screaming for help during the recording of a resident’s 911 call because he was the one being beaten. An “important” piece of evidence, she called it.

“It was a long cry and scream for help — whoever was crying for help was in fear for their life,” she said.

For whatever reason, Mr. Martin, she said, decided to confront Mr. Zimmerman and threw the first punch.

“Trayvon got mad and attacked him,” she said.

The juror also said that Rachel Jeantel, Mr. Martin’s friend who spoke to him on the phone moments before he was killed, was “not a good witness.” The juror said Ms. Jeantel “clearly didn’t want to be there.”

Clearly sympathetic to Mr. Zimmerman, the juror, who is married to a lawyer and has two grown children, referred to him as George. The juror, who has signed with a literary agent with the intent of writing a book, said she felt sorry for Mr. Zimmerman and for Mr. Martin, calling the situation a “tragedy.” The six women became very emotional, she said, immediately after they handed their verdict to the bailiff.

“It’s just sad that we all had to come together and figure out what is going to happen to this man’s life afterwards,” she said. “You find him not guilty, but you are responsible for that not guilty, and all the people who want him guilty aren’t going to have any closure.”

    Zimmerman Juror Discusses How Verdict Was Reached, NYT, 15.7.2013,






Trayvon Martin’s Legacy


July 14, 2013
The New York Times


It may not be possible to consider the case of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted Saturday of all charges in the killing of Trayvon Martin, as anything but a sad commentary on the state of race relations and the battle over gun rights in America today.

Certainly it is about race — ask any black man, up to and including President Obama, and he will tell you at least a few stories that sound eerily like what happened that rainy winter night in Sanford, Fla.

While Mr. Zimmerman’s conviction might have provided an emotional catharsis, we would still be a country plagued by racism, which persists in ever more insidious forms despite the Supreme Court’s sanguine assessment that “things have changed dramatically,” as it said in last month’s ruling striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act. (The Justice Department is right to continue its investigation into whether Mr. Zimmerman may still be prosecuted under federal civil rights laws.)

The jury reached its verdict after having been asked to consider Mr. Zimmerman’s actions in light of Florida’s now-notorious Stand Your Ground statute. Under that law, versions of which are on the books in two dozen states, a person may use deadly force if he or she “reasonably believes” it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm — a low bar that the prosecutors in this case fought in vain to overcome.

These laws sound intuitive: who would argue that you may not protect yourself against great harm? But of course, the concept of “reasonable belief” is transformed into something deadly dangerous when firearms are involved. And when the Stand Your Ground laws intersect with lax concealed-carry laws, it works essentially to self-deputize anyone with a Kel-Tec 9 millimeter and a grudge.

It has been a bad year so far for gun control. But if anything, cases like this should be as troubling as the mass killings that always prompt a national outcry and promises of legislative remedy. We were heartened that President Obama, in his statement after the verdict was issued, took the opportunity to denounce once again “the tide of gun violence” sweeping the country.

In the end, what is most frightening is that there are so many people with guns who are like George Zimmerman. Fear and racism may never be fully eliminated by legislative or judicial order, but neither should our laws allow and even facilitate their most deadly expression. Trayvon Martin was an unarmed boy walking home from the convenience store. If only Florida could give him back his life as easily as it is giving back George Zimmerman’s gun.

    Trayvon Martin’s Legacy, NYT, 14.7.2013,






In Zimmerman Case,

Self-Defense Was Hard to Topple


July 14, 2013
The New York Times


SANFORD, Fla. — From the moment George Zimmerman held up his arms and told the police that he had shot Trayvon Martin, one fact was undisputed: an unarmed black teenager lay dead.

But as one top Florida defense lawyer, Michael Band, said on Sunday, “Trials, for better or worse, are not morality plays.”

From the start, prosecutors faced a difficult case — weak on evidence and long on outrage. Mr. Zimmerman had the power of self-defense laws on his side, and was helped by a spotty police investigation and prosecutorial missteps. The initial investigation foundered when the local prosecutor balked at bringing charges, convinced that overcoming the self-defense claims would prove impossible.

But six weeks after the killing, his replacement, Angela B. Corey, from the Jacksonville area, charged Mr. Zimmerman with second-degree murder, a tall order.

At the trial, the fight between Mr. Martin and Mr. Zimmerman that preceded the shooting produced a muddle of testimony — and grist for reasonable doubt. It remained unclear who had thrown the first punch and at what point Mr. Zimmerman drew his gun. There were no witnesses to the shooting and no definitive determination of which man could be heard yelling for help in the background of a 911 call.

The only version of events came from Mr. Zimmerman, who did not take the stand, denying prosecutors a chance to cross-examine him. His statements to the police spoke for him at the trial. Defense lawyers also had a powerful piece of evidence in photographs of Mr. Zimmerman’s injuries: a bloody nose and cuts and lumps on the back of his head.

Mr. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, claimed that he shot Mr. Martin only after the teenager knocked him to the ground, punched him, straddled him and slammed his head into the concrete — “a weapon,” as his lawyer, Mark O’Mara, called it. The murder charge required a showing that Mr. Zimmerman was full of ill will, hatred, spite or evil intent when he shot Mr. Martin. But prosecutors had little evidence to back up that claim, legal experts said. They could point only to Mr. Zimmerman’s words during his call to the police dispatcher the night he spotted Mr. Martin walking in the rain with his sweatshirt’s hood up and grew suspicious.

“Punks,” he said, adding a profanity. “They always get away,” he said, using another profanity.

But Mr. Zimmerman appeared calm during the call and did not describe Mr. Martin’s race until he was asked. And defense lawyers brought in witnesses to say that Mr. Zimmerman, on the whole, was a courteous, kind and caring neighbor.

“That was a fatal flaw right from the start in the case,” said Jeff Weiner, a well-known Miami criminal defense lawyer.

Toward the end of the trial, prosecutors asked the judge to include the lesser charge of manslaughter, but the jury rejected that as well.

Legal experts pointed to what they said were errors by the prosecution. Several prosecution witnesses struggled on the stand and appeared not to have been prepared, including Rachel Jeantel, the young friend of Mr. Martin’s who said he had told her on the phone that he was being followed and was scared.

Prosecutors interviewed Ms. Jeantel for the first time in the house of Sybrina Fulton, Mr. Martin’s mother, while Ms. Fulton sat next to her. Shaken up by Ms. Fulton’s presence, Ms. Jeantel softened her account of the phone call to protect Ms. Fulton, she testified.

Prosecutors also were hurt by the testimony of Officer Chris Serino of the Sanford Police Department, the chief investigator on the case. He told the jury he believed Mr. Zimmerman’s account was truthful.

Yet another trouble spot was the testimony of Dr. Shiping Bao, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Mr. Martin. On the stand, legal experts said, he came across as befuddled, shuffling through his notes because he could remember so little.

“It was horrific,” said Richard Sharpstein, a prominent Miami criminal defense lawyer. “It was the deadly blow to this case because the case depended on forensic evidence to contradict or disprove George Zimmerman’s story.”

The performance was the opposite of that by Dr. Vincent Di Maio, a nationally recognized forensic pathologist, who took the stand for the defense. Polished and concise, Dr. Di Maio said the evidence and injuries to Mr. Zimmerman were consistent with the defense’s account: that Mr. Martin was leaning over the defendant when he was shot.

“When Bao completely imploded, that was check,” Mr. Sharpstein said. “When Di Maio testified, it was checkmate.”

The evidence of Mr. Zimmerman’s injuries may have helped his case, but it was not legally necessary. He needed to show only that he feared great bodily harm or death when he pulled out his gun, which he was carrying legally, and shot Mr. Martin.

“Classic self-defense,” Mr. O’Mara said.

Soon after Mr. Zimmerman was arrested, there appeared to be a chance that the defense would invoke a provision of Florida self-defense law known as Stand Your Ground. Ultimately it was not part of Mr. O’Mara’s courtroom strategy, though it did play a pivotal role immediately after the shooting.

The provision, enacted by the Florida Legislature in 2005 and since adopted by more than 20 other states, allows people who fear great harm or death not to retreat, even if they can safely do so. If an attacker is retreating, people are still permitted to use deadly force.

The provision also allows a defendant claiming self-defense to seek civil and criminal immunity at a pretrial hearing.

Mr. O’Mara said he did not rely on Stand Your Ground as a defense because Mr. Zimmerman had no option to retreat. A pretrial immunity hearing, which prosecutors said they had been expecting, would only have divulged his case. So Mr. O’Mara gambled on a jury trial.

“That was a brilliant strategic move,” Mr. Sharpstein said. “It precluded the state from previewing the defense.”

But Stand Your Ground did play a role when the police were contemplating whether to charge Mr. Zimmerman, said Tamara Lave, an associate professor of law at the University of Miami.

Under the law, if the police believe there is probable cause that someone acted in self-defense, as Mr. Zimmerman said he had, they are not allowed to make an arrest, she said. The self-defense claim also may have affected how thoroughly the police interviewed witnesses, preserved the crime scene and screened Mr. Zimmerman.

Eventually, the police arrested Mr. Zimmerman, but only after Gov. Rick Scott of Florida had appointed Ms. Corey as prosecutor.

At a news conference after the verdict, Ms. Corey said prosecutors had been hindered by the fact they inherited the case well into the investigation. Still, she forged ahead.

“What we promised to do was get this case in front of a jury,” she said, “and give Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman their day in court.”

    In Zimmerman Case, Self-Defense Was Hard to Topple, NYT, 14.7.2013,






Prayer, Anger and Protests

Greet Verdict in Florida Case


July 14, 2013
The New York Times


The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin reverberated from church pulpits to street protests across the country on Sunday in a renewed debate about race, crime and how the American justice system handled a racially polarizing killing of a young black man walking in a quiet neighborhood in Florida.

Lawmakers, members of the clergy and demonstrators who assembled in parks and squares on a hot July day described the verdict by the six-person jury as evidence of a persistent racism that afflicts the nation five years after it elected its first African-American president.

“Trayvon Benjamin Martin is dead because he and other black boys and men like him are seen not as a person but a problem,” the Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, told a congregation once led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Warnock noted that the verdict came less than a month after the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to void a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “The last few weeks have been pivotal to the consciousness of black America,” he said in an interview after services. “Black men have been stigmatized.”

Mr. Zimmerman, 29, a neighborhood watch volunteer, had faced charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter — and the prospect of decades in jail, if convicted — stemming from his fatal shooting of Mr. Martin, 17, on the night of Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, a modest Central Florida city. Late Saturday, he was acquitted of all charges by the jurors, all of them women and none black, who had deliberated more than 16 hours over two days.

President Obama, calling Mr. Martin’s death a tragedy, urged Americans on Sunday to respect the rule of law, and the Justice Department said it would review the case to determine if it should consider a federal prosecution.

As dusk fell in New York, a modest rally that had begun hours earlier in Union Square grew to a crowd of thousands that snaked through Midtown Manhattan toward Times Square in an unplanned parade. Onlookers used cellphones to snap pictures of the chanting protesters and their escort by dozens of police cars and scores of officers on foot. Hundreds of bystanders left the sidewalks to join the peaceful demonstration, which brought traffic to a standstill.

In Sanford, the Rev. Valarie J. Houston drew shouts of support and outrage at Allen Chapel A.M.E. as she denounced “the racism and the injustice that pollute the air in America.”

“Lord, I thank you for sending Trayvon to reveal the injustices, God, that live in Sanford,” she said.

Mr. Zimmerman and his supporters dismissed race as a factor in the death of Mr. Martin. The defense team argued that Mr. Zimmerman had acted in self-defense as the 17-year-old slammed Mr. Zimmerman’s head on a sidewalk. Florida law explicitly gives civilians the power to take extraordinary steps to defend themselves when they feel that their lives are in danger.

Mr. Zimmerman’s brother, Robert, told National Public Radio that race was not a factor in the case, adding: “I never have a moment where I think that my brother may have been wrong to shoot. He used the sidewalk against my brother’s head.”

Mr. Obama, who had said shortly after Mr. Martin was killed that if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon,” urged the nation to accept the verdict.

“The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. ”Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.”

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, one of the country’s leading advocates of gun control, said the death of Mr. Martin would continue to drive his efforts. “Sadly, all the facts in this tragic case will probably never be known,” he said. “But one fact has long been crystal clear: ‘Shoot first’ laws like those in Florida can inspire dangerous vigilantism and protect those who act recklessly with guns.”

The reactions to the verdict suggested that racial relations remained polarized in many parts of this country, particularly regarding the American justice system and the police.

“I pretty well knew that Mr. Zimmerman was going to be let free, because if justice was blind of colors, why wasn’t there any minorities on the jury?” said Willie Pettus, 57, of Richmond, Va.

Maxine McCrey, attending services at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, said the verdict was a reminder of the failure of the justice system. “There’s no justice for black people,” she said. “Profiling and targeting our black men has not stopped.”

Ms. McCrey dabbed at her eyes as she recalled the moment she learned of the verdict. “I cried,” she said. “And I am still crying.”

Many blacks, and some whites, questioned whether Mr. Zimmerman, who is part Hispanic, would have been acquitted if he were black and Mr. Martin were white.

“He would have been in jail already,” Leona Ellzy, 18, said as she visited a monument to Mr. Martin in Sanford. “The black man would have been in prison for killing a white child.”

Jeff Fard, a community organizer in a black neighborhood in Denver, said Mr. Martin would be alive today if he were not black. “If the roles were reversed, Trayvon would have been instantly arrested and, by now, convicted,” he said. “Those are realities that we have to accept.”

But even race’s role in the case became a matter of a debate. One of Mr. Zimmerman’s lawyers, Mark O’Mara, said he also thought the outcome would have been different if his client were black — but for reasons entirely different from those suggested by people like Mr. Fard.

“He never would have been charged with a crime,” Mr. O’Mara said.

“This became a focus for a civil rights event, which again is a wonderful event to have,” he said. “But they decided that George Zimmerman would be the person who they were to blame and sort of use as the creation of a civil rights violation, none of which was borne out by the facts. The facts that night were not borne out that he acted in a racial way.”

In Atlanta, Tommy Keith, 62, a white retired Cadillac salesman, rejected any contention that this was anything more than a failed murder case presented by the state. “The state’s got to prove their case, O.K.?” he said. “They didn’t. Stand Your Ground law is acceptable with me, and these protests are more racial than anything else. In my opinion, it’s not a racial thing.”

Within moments of the announcement of the verdict Saturday night and continuing through Sunday, demonstrations, some planned and some impromptu, arose in neighborhoods in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, New York and Atlanta. There were no reports of serious violence or arrests as the day went on, a contrast with the riots that swept Los Angeles after the verdict in another race-tinged case, the 1992 acquittal of white Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King, a black construction worker.

In downtown Oakland, dozens of protesters filled the streets to denounce the verdict shortly after it was announced. Some of the protesters set fire to trash cans, broke the windows of businesses and damaged police patrol cars.

About 40 people in Atlanta, carrying sodas and Skittles to underscore the errand to a store that Mr. Martin was completing when he was shot, marched to Woodruff Park on Saturday night. In Washington, about 250 marchers protested the verdict late Saturday and early Sunday as police cruisers trailed them.

A few hundred protesters gathered at a rally in downtown Chicago on Sunday, some wearing signs showing Mr. Martin wearing a hoodie.

“I’m heartbroken, but it didn’t surprise me,” said Velma Henderson, 65, a retired state employee who lives in a southern suburb of Chicago. “The system is screwed. It’s a racist system, and it’s not designed for African-Americans.”

A similar sense of resignation flowed through St. Sabina, a Catholic church on the South Side of Chicago, where many parishioners are black. They gathered in the sanctuary holding signs that read, “Trayvon Martin murdered again by INjustice system.”

“Like many of you, I’m angered, I’m disappointed, I’m disgusted,” said the Rev. Michael Pfleger, who is white, told his congregation at St. Sabina. “And yet like many of you, I’m not shocked. ’Cause unfortunately, this is the America that we know all too well. Yesterday, we watched the justice system fail miserably again.”

As blacks and whites struggled with the racial implications of the debate, many called for prayer and peace and urged that there be no escalation of violence.

“My heart is heavy,” said Milton Felton, a cousin of Mr. Martin’s, outside Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Miami Gardens, Fla., where members of the family had gathered. “But that’s our justice system. Let’s be peaceful about it.”

At Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, parishioners seemed stricken by what many described as a reminder of how far the nation still needed to go to resolve its racial differences. “I felt he was going to get off,” said Helen Corley, attending services there. “He knew he could do it and get away with it.”

“It crushed my spirit,” she said.


Reporting was contributed by Michael Schwirtz, Michaelle Bond and Whitney Richardson from New York; Cara Buckley from Sanford, Fla.; Kim Severson and Alan Blinder from Atlanta; Monica Davey and Steven Yaccino from Chicago; Jack Healy from Denver; Ian Lovett from Los Angeles; Nick Madigan from Miami; Jon Hurdle from Philadelphia; John Eligon from Kansas City, Mo.; Norimitsu Onishi from San Francisco; and Trip Gabriel from Washington.



This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 14, 2013

An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of a pastor in Sanford, Fla. She is Valarie J. Houston, not Valerie. It also misstated the city where Jeff Fard is a community organizer. It is Denver, not Detroit.

    Prayer, Anger and Protests Greet Verdict in Florida Case, NYT, 14.7.2013,






Zimmerman Is Acquitted

in Trayvon Martin Killing


July 13, 2013
The New York Times


SANFORD, Fla. — George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, igniting a national debate on racial profiling and civil rights, was found not guilty late Saturday night of second-degree murder. He was also acquitted of manslaughter, a lesser charge.

After three weeks of testimony, the six-woman jury rejected the prosecution’s contention that Mr. Zimmerman had deliberately pursued Mr. Martin because he assumed the hoodie-clad teenager was a criminal and instigated the fight that led to his death.

Mr. Zimmerman said he shot Mr. Martin on Feb. 26, 2012, in self-defense after the teenager knocked him to the ground, punched him and slammed his head repeatedly against the sidewalk. In finding him not guilty of murder or manslaughter, the jury agreed that Mr. Zimmerman could have been justified in shooting Mr. Martin because he feared great bodily harm or death.

The jury, which had been sequestered since June 24, deliberated 16 hours and 20 minutes over two days. The six female jurors entered the quiet, tense courtroom, several looking exhausted, their faces drawn and grim. After the verdict was read, each assented, one by one, and quietly, their agreement with the verdict.

The case began in the small city of Sanford as a routine homicide but soon evolved into a civil rights cause examining racial profiling and its consequences — an issue barred from the courtroom — and setting off a broad discussion of race relations in America. Mr. Martin, with his gray hooded sweatshirt and his Skittles — the candy he was carrying — became its catalyst.

Even President Obama weighed in a month after the shooting, expressing sympathy for Mr. Martin’s family and urging a thorough investigation. “If I had a son,” Mr. Obama said, “he’d look like Trayvon.”

Saturday night when the verdict was read, Mr. Zimmerman, 29, smiled slightly. His wife, Shellie, and several of his friends wept, and his parents kissed and embraced.

Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, who lost their son a few weeks after his 17th birthday, were not in the courtroom.

After the verdict, Judge Debra S. Nelson of Seminole County Court, told Mr. Zimmerman, who has been in hiding and wears a bulletproof vest outside, that his bond was revoked and his GPS monitor would be cut off. “You have no further business with the court,” she said.

Outside the courthouse, perhaps a hundred protesters who had been gathering through the night, their numbers building as the hours passed, began pumping their fists in the air, waving placards and chanting “No justice, no peace!” Sheriff’s deputies lined up inside the courthouse, watching the crowd, who were chanting peacefully, but intently.

By 11:20, more than an hour after the verdict had been read, the crowd outside the courtroom had begun to dwindle; fists were no longer aloft, placards had come down.

Among the last of the protesters to leave the courthouse lawn was Mattie Aikens, 33, of Sanford. She had been standing outside since noon, holding a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona watermelon drink, which Mr. Martin was carrying the night he was shot. More than an hour after the verdict, she was still shocked. “He should have went to prison,” she said. “He should have just got guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty.”

Mark O’Mara, one of Mr. Zimmerman’s lawyers, said, “George Zimmerman was never guilty of anything except firing the gun in self-defense.”

In a news conference following the verdict, Angela B. Corey, the state attorney who brought the charges, rebuffed the suggestion that her office overcharged Mr. Zimmerman.

“We charged what we had based on the facts of the case,” she said. “We truly believe the mind-set of George Zimmerman and the reason he was doing what he did fit the bill for second-degree murder.”

Calling it a “very trying time,” Benjamin Crump, a Martin family lawyer, said he had urged Mr. Martin’s parents to stay out of the courtroom for the verdict. They were home and planning to attend church on Sunday. The parents, he said, were grateful for all the support.

Mr. Crump asked the family’s supporters keep the peace and read a Twitter post by Dr. Bernice King, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter.

“Whatever the Zimmerman verdict is,” Mr. Crump read, “in the words of my father, we must conduct ourselves on the higher plane of dignity and discipline.”

Sanford’s new police chief, Cecil E. Smith, was in the courtroom for the verdict, and said afterward that while many calls were coming in from worried residents, the downtown was open and neighborhoods were calm.

Still, there was anger over the verdict. “We are outraged and heartbroken over today’s verdict,” said Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the N.A.A.C.P. “We stand with Trayvon’s family and we are called to act. We will pursue civil rights charges with the Department of Justice, we will continue to fight for the removal of Stand Your Ground laws in every state, and we will not rest until racial profiling in all its forms is outlawed.”

Mr. O’Mara disputed the notion that Mr. Zimmerman engaged in racial profiling. “His history was not as a racist,” he said.

He added that if Mr. Zimmerman was black, he likely would never have been charged. “This became a focus for a civil rights event, which is wonderful event to have,” he said, “but they decided George Zimmerman was to blame and to use as a civil rights violation.”

And while defense lawyers were elated with the verdict, they also expressed anger that Mr. Zimmerman spent 16 months filled with fear and trauma when all he was doing was defending himself.

“The prosecution of George Zimmerman was a disgrace,” said Don West, one of Mr. Zimmerman’s lawyers. “I am thrilled that this jury kept this tragedy from become a travesty.”

The shooting brought attention to Florida’s expansive self-defense laws. The laws allow someone with a reasonable fear of great bodily harm or death to use lethal force, even if retreating from danger is an option. In court, the gunman is given the benefit of the doubt.

The outcry began after the police initially decided not to arrest Mr. Zimmerman, who is half-Peruvian, as they investigated the shooting. Mr. Martin, 17, had no criminal record and was on a snack run, returning to the house where he was staying as a guest.

Six weeks later, Mr. Zimmerman was arrested, but only after civil rights leaders championed the case and demonstrators, many wearing hoodies, marched in Sanford, Miami and elsewhere to demand action.

“Justice for Trayvon!” they shouted.

The pressure prompted Gov. Rick Scott of Florida to remove local prosecutors from the case and appoint Ms. Corey, from Jacksonville. She ultimately charged Mr. Zimmerman with second-degree murder. The tumult also led to the firing of the Sanford police chief.

Through it all, Mr. Martin’s parents said they sought one thing: That Mr. Zimmerman have his day in court.

That day arrived on Saturday.

From the start, prosecutors faced a difficult task in proving second-degree murder. That charge required Mr. Zimmerman to have evinced a “depraved mind,” brimming with ill will, hatred, spite or evil intent, when he shot Mr. Martin.

Manslaughter, which under Florida law is typically added as a lesser charge if either side requests it, was a lower bar. Jurors needed to decide only that Mr. Zimmerman put himself in a situation that culminated in Mr. Martin’s death.

But because of Florida’s laws, prosecutors had to persuade jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Zimmerman did not act in self-defense. A shortage of evidence in the case made that a high hurdle, legal experts said.

Even after three weeks of testimony, the fight between Mr. Martin and Mr. Zimmerman on that rainy night was a muddle, fodder for reasonable doubt. It remained unclear who had started it, who screamed for help, who threw the first punch and at what point Mr. Zimmerman drew his gun. There were no witnesses to the shooting.

The state presented a case that was strong on guesswork and emotion but weak on evidence and proof, Mr. O’Mara said.

“Don’t connect those dots unless they are connected for you, beyond a reasonable doubt, by the state,” he urged the jury.

In the end, prosecutors were left with Mr. Zimmerman’s version of events.

The defense also had one piece of irrefutable evidence, photographs of Mr. Zimmerman’s injuries — a bloody nose along with lumps and two cuts on his head. It indicated that there had been a fight and that Mr. Zimmerman had been harmed, and the defense showed them to the jury at every opportunity.

Prosecutors built their case around Mr. Zimmerman’s persona — a “wannabe cop” — his wrong assumptions and his words.

Mr. Zimmerman, they said, was so concerned about burglaries in his townhouse complex that when he spotted Mr. Martin, an unfamiliar face in the rain, he immediately “profiled” him as a criminal. He picked up his phone and reported him to the police.

Then he made the first in a string of bad choices, they said. He got out of the car with a gun on his waist; he disregarded a police dispatcher’s advice not to follow Mr. Martin and he chased the teenage, engaged in a fight and shot him in the heart.

To stave off an arrest, he lied to the police, prosecutors said, embellishing his story to try to flesh out his self-defense claim.

“Punks,” Mr. Zimmerman said to the police dispatcher after he spotted Mr. Martin, adding a profanity. “They always get away,” he said at another point in the conversation, a reference to would-be burglars.

On these words, prosecutors hung their case of ill will, hatred and spite toward Mr. Martin.

“This defendant was sick and tired of it,” Bernie de la Rionda, the chief prosecutor, said in his closing statement. “He was going to be what he wanted to be — a police officer.”

But no one saw the shooting; witnesses saw and heard only parts of the struggle, and provided conflicting accounts.

And there was not a “shred of evidence” that Mr. Zimmerman was not returning to his car when Mr. Martin “pounced,” defense lawyers said.

The prosecution’s witnesses did not always help their case. Rachel Jeantel, the 19-year-old who was talking with Mr. Martin on his cellphone shortly before he was shot, proved problematic. Her testimony was critical for the prosecution because she said that Mr. Martin was being followed by Mr. Zimmerman — a “creepy-ass cracker,” he called him — and that he was scared.

But Ms. Jeantel might have damaged her credibility by acknowledging she had lied about her age and why she did not attend Mr. Martin’s wake. She also testified that she softened her initial account of her chat with Mr. Martin for fear of upsetting Ms. Fulton, who sat next to her, weeping, during Ms. Jeantel’s first interview with prosecutors.

Prosecutors also were not helped by the police and crime scene technicians, who made some mistakes in the case. Mr. Martin’s sweatshirt, for example, was improperly bagged, which might have degraded DNA evidence.

Typically, police testimony boosts the state’s case. Here, the chief police investigator, Chris Serino, told jurors that he believed Mr. Zimmerman, despite contradictions in his statements.

Still, prosecutors had emotion on their side — the heart-wrenching narrative of a teenager “minding his own business” who was gunned down as he walked home with a pocketful of Skittles and a fruit drink.

“That child had every right to do what he was doing, walking home,” said John Guy, a prosecutor in the case. “That child had every right to be afraid of a strange man following him, first in his car and then on foot. And did that child not have the right to defend himself from that strange man?”

Through it all, though, the defense chipped away at the prosecution’s case. The resident with the best vantage point of the fight described a “ground and pound” fight, with a person in red or a light color on the bottom. Mr. Zimmerman wore a reddish jacket.

And a prominent forensic pathologist who is an expert in gunshot wounds testified that the trajectory of the bullet was consistent with Mr. Martin leaning over Mr. Zimmerman when the gun was fired.

“Let him go back,” Mr. O’Mara said to the jury, referring to Mr. Zimmerman, “and get back to his life.”

On Saturday, the jury did just that.

Cara Buckley contributed reporting.

    Zimmerman Is Acquitted in Trayvon Martin Killing, NYT, 13.7.2013,






Judge to Hear Accusations

Against Police by an Inmate


July 5, 2013
The New York Times


A Brooklyn man who has been in prison for 25 years for two murders he says he did not commit has been granted a hearing by a judge to review new evidence and to determine whether a detective had manufactured a confession.

Shabaka Shakur, 48, is serving two consecutive 20-years-to-life sentences for the January 1988 killings of two men with whom he had argued over car payments. Among the evidence used against him was an incriminating statement he was said to have given to a former Brooklyn North homicide detective, Louis Scarcella. Mr. Shakur has always denied making any such statement.

Mr. Shakur was featured in an article in The New York Times in May that documented troubling patterns in Mr. Scarcella’s work.

In his ruling, Justice Desmond Green of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn cited the article, noting that Mr. Shakur was quoted as saying that the detective had fabricated his confession and “ignored the evidence that shows I wasn’t the guy.”

Justice Green, who issued his ruling in June, expanded the scope of the hearing to include not just new witnesses, but also broader claims against Mr. Scarcella, a move Mr. Shakur’s defense lawyer called “extraordinary.” The judge will allow Mr. Shakur to readdress the issue of the confession he said was fabricated.

“You don’t get many of these,” the lawyer, Ronald L. Kuby, said. “Usually, standard practice is for the prosecutors to oppose the hearing and for judges to rubber-stamp that on technical grounds.”

The Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, ordered a review of convictions that resulted from Mr. Scarcella’s work after The Times revealed that the now-retired detective used the same crack-addicted prostitute as a witness in several murder cases.

Mr. Scarcella has denied the allegations and has said that anyone accusing him of misconduct “has no honor.”

A 12-member panel that includes several of Mr. Hynes’s friends will make recommendations on whether his office should seek to dismiss any convictions.

Mr. Shakur’s hearing is significant because it will force Mr. Hynes to conduct a public review of a conviction that the district attorney’s office has defended for more than 20 years, but which is now under review by the agency’s Conviction Integrity Unit. Hearings to determine whether an inmate should get a new trial generally include testimony by the investigating detective, something prosecutors would probably try to avoid now that Mr. Scarcella’s record has been called into question.

Mr. Kuby said he requested a hearing for September, which would give prosecutors two months to either move to dismiss Mr. Shakur’s conviction or face him in court. Mr. Kuby plans to introduce one witness who has said that Mr. Shakur was not the gunman in the killings.

The prosecutor’s office, which had consented to a hearing to explore whether a new witness could prove Mr. Shakur innocent, played down the significance of the judge’s decision. “We consented to the hearing and will continue our ongoing investigation into the matter,” Amy Feinstein, a chief assistant to Mr. Hynes, said in a statement.

The Times’s review of Mr. Scarcella’s cases began in March, after prosecutors asked a judge to dismiss charges against David Ranta, who had spent 23 years in prison for killing a rabbi in a botched robbery.

In that case, investigators found that Mr. Scarcella told a witness whom to select in a lineup and allowed jailhouse informers to go out on field trips to smoke crack and visit their girlfriends. As in Mr. Shakur’s case, the detective had no notes to back up the confession that Mr. Scarcella said Mr. Ranta had provided and that he submitted to the court.

In a telephone interview from the Auburn Correctional Facility, Mr. Shakur said he would prefer that a judge examine his case, rather than leaving it in the hands of prosecutors.

“They should put Scarcella on the stand; he’s going to have to answer a lot of questions,” Mr. Shakur said. “I want a hearing, so everyone can come and see how long it takes to be heard.”

Mr. Shakur said he had filed at least a dozen appeals, many of which made the same accusations that will now be taken up.

    Judge to Hear Accusations Against Police by an Inmate, NYT, 5.7.2013,






State’s Witnesses in Zimmerman Trial

Put the Prosecution on the Defensive


July 2, 2013
The New York Times


SANFORD, Fla. — Prosecutors in the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman scrambled Tuesday to undo damage to their case by one of their leading witnesses, a Sanford police officer who interviewed the defendant hours after he fatally shot Trayvon Martin.

The witness, Officer Chris Serino of the Sanford police, had testified under cross-examination on Monday afternoon that Mr. Zimmerman seemed to be telling the truth when he said he had fired his gun in self-defense. The officer’s remarks made for a dramatic moment in the trial — and clearly benefited the defense — but drew no immediate objection from the prosecutors. The court then recessed for the day.

But early on Tuesday, citing case law, the prosecution successfully argued that Officer Serino’s comments about Mr. Zimmerman’s truthfulness should be disregarded by the jury. The judge then instructed the jurors, who are being sequestered during the trial, to ignore the officer’s statement — nearly 17 hours after he made it.

Officer Serino’s testimony, in the second week of the trial in Seminole County Court, was the latest setback for prosecutors, whose witnesses have repeatedly helped bolster the defense’s case. Mr. Zimmerman has said he shot Mr. Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, in self-defense after he was attacked on a drizzly night in February 2012. Prosecutors say that Mr. Zimmerman, who identifies as Hispanic, racially profiled Mr. Martin, who was black, and followed the teenager through the town house complex where Mr. Zimmerman lived and Mr. Martin, of Miami, was visiting.

On Monday, jurors watched and listened to audio and visual recordings of a calm and willing Mr. Zimmerman being interviewed by the police shortly after the shooting. One officer testified that Mr. Zimmerman had shown no trace of malice or ill intent. After prosecutors probed inconsistencies in Mr. Zimmerman’s story — he said that Mr. Martin had jumped out of the bushes, although no bushes were found at the place he indicated — two police officers who took the stand said that the discrepancies were slight and that the broad narrative of self-defense offered by Mr. Zimmerman remained largely unchanged.

Mark Osterman, a federal air marshal who described Mr. Zimmerman as “the best friend I’ve ever had,” and who wrote a book about the shooting, recounted on Tuesday what Mr. Zimmerman told him about the events of Feb. 26, 2012, the day of the killing.

Mr. Osterman’s account largely matched what Mr. Zimmerman — who was photographed bleeding after the killing — told the police. There was one exception: Mr. Osterman’s contention that, according to Mr. Zimmerman, Mr. Martin had grabbed his gun but that he managed to get it back. That contradicted Mr. Zimmerman’s account to the police, in which he said Mr. Martin seemed to be reaching for his gun.

Other pieces of testimony may also have reflected poorly on Mr. Zimmerman. Officer Serino, who took the stand again on Tuesday, said the expletives that Mr. Zimmerman used as he was pursuing Mr. Martin connoted ill will — a necessary component in a second-degree murder conviction. The police officers were also clearly disturbed that Mr. Zimmerman, a community watch volunteer, seemed to have pursued Mr. Martin on foot after a police operator had told him he need not do so. Last week, a young woman who had been on the phone with Mr. Martin that night testified that he told her he was being followed by a “creepy” man, and that she later heard her friend crying, “Get off, get off.”

One of the clearest witness accounts of the fight that proved damaging to the prosecution came from John Good, a neighbor of Mr. Zimmerman’s. He testified last week that he saw a person in dark clothes on top of and repeatedly striking someone light skinned who was lying on the ground and wearing red or white. Mr. Zimmerman was wearing a red jacket that night.

Jurors also heard Tuesday from Dr. Valerie Rao, a medical examiner in Jacksonville, Fla., who concluded after studying photos that Mr. Zimmerman’s injuries were “very insignificant” and “not life threatening,” and that scrapes on the back of his head could have come from just one strike against the sidewalk. Her testimony cast doubt on Mr. Zimmerman’s claim that Mr. Martin struck him repeatedly, banging his head on the pavement, causing him to fear for his life. But under cross-examination by Mark O’Mara, one of Mr. Zimmerman’s lawyers, Dr. Rao conceded that Mr. Zimmerman’s injuries could have come from multiple blows.

Mr. O’Mara also noted that Angela Corey, the special prosecutor in the case, had recommended that Dr. Rao be appointed, although she insisted that had no bearing on her testimony. The state also presented a television interview from 2012 with Mr. Zimmerman by Sean Hannity, the Fox News host, in which Mr. Zimmerman recounted his version of events before adding, “I feel that it was all God’s plan,” as Mr. O’Mara squirmed by his side.

The Sanford police did not charge Mr. Zimmerman in the killing, citing insufficient evidence and Florida’s expansive “stand your ground” law, but that decision provoked national protests. Six weeks later, after Ms. Corey was assigned to the case, Mr. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder.

But many legal experts said this week that the state had overreached and that it should have filed manslaughter charges. The jury can still find Mr. Zimmerman guilty of manslaughter, but it would fall to the prosecutors to argue for that result without appearing to concede a weakness in their case.


This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 2, 2013

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article

identified Mark O’Mara as one of Trayvon Martin’s lawyers.

He is one of George Zimmerman’s lawyers.

    State’s Witnesses in Zimmerman Trial Put the Prosecution on the Defensive,
    NYT, 2.7.2013,






The Zimmerman Trial


June 28, 2013
The New York Times


This first week of testimony in the George Zimmerman trial has proved to be nothing short of fascinating.

On one level, the case is simple: if Zimmerman had not pursued — some say stalked — Trayvon Martin that dark, rainy night, Martin would still be alive.

That’s the logical argument. The legal one is more complex. The case, it seems to me, spins on some crucial questions, some of which we may never completely know the answers to.

What was it about Martin in particular that Zimmerman found “suspicious” in the first place? So far, there has been no testimony that Martin was doing anything other than walking slowly and talking on a phone to a girl, as teenage boys are wont to do. Did Zimmerman consider every person walking thusly in the neighborhood to be suspicious? If not, what made Martin different? Was some sort of bias at play, whether an explicit one or an implicit one?

Why did Zimmerman leave his car, armed with his gun, and follow Martin? When the dispatcher realized that Zimmerman was in pursuit and told him, “We don’t need you to do that,” did Zimmerman stop?

Did Martin know that he was being followed, as his friend Rachel Jeantel testified, and did he feel threatened by the stranger following him?

In fact, the threat levels are a larger, more complex issue altogether. Who felt threatened, the teenager with the candy and the soda or the man pursuing him with a gun and a live round in the chamber? The answer on the surface would seem obvious, but it’s possible that both felt some level of threat. It’s also possible that threat responses washed back and forth between them like water in a tub, neither of them knowing about the other what we know now — that Zimmerman was armed and Martin was not.

If Martin was running away, as Zimmerman has said and Jeantel has testified, did he at some point stop fleeing, turn and approach Zimmerman?

There has been testimony establishing that there was some sort of verbal interaction between Zimmerman and Martin before a physical one. Who struck the first blow and why? If Martin struck the first blow, as the defense contends, could that be considered an act of self-defense?

Regardless of who struck the first blow, some testimony suggests that Martin was getting the best of Zimmerman. In that scenario, could the right to self-defense switch personage? Florida law seems to suggest it can. The law states that the use of force is not justified when a person “initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant.”

Even assuming that Martin was winning a physical fight with Zimmerman, did Zimmerman “reasonably” believe that he was in “imminent danger of death or great bodily harm”? Zimmerman was injured, but how do you evaluate the degree of those injuries? Independent assessments may or may not deem Zimmerman’s injuries severe, but did Zimmerman, in the middle of the fight, believe them to be? Had Zimmerman “exhausted every reasonable means to escape”?

Who was yelling for help? Keep in mind that it is possible to be both winning a fight and simultaneously yelling for help.

During opening arguments, John Guy, a prosecutor, stated that investigators found none of Zimmerman’s blood on Martin’s hands or on the cuffs of his sweatshirt. How will the defense explain that?

The bar may be high for the prosecution, but the logic is basic: there has been no suggestion or testimony that Trayvon Martin was doing anything wrong the night that George Zimmerman caught sight of him and grew wary of him, pursued him and came into contact with him.

Zimmerman set that night’s events in motion and rendered them still with the ring of a gunshot. Now, as Zimmerman sits in a Florida courtroom, Martin sleeps in a Florida grave. We will never hear Martin’s side of the story, about the level of his fear or the feel of the bullet ripping through his body.

Morally, Zimmerman is by no means without guilt. Legally, it remains to be seen whether he will be found guilty of second-degree murder.

    The Zimmerman Trial, NYT, 28.2.2013,






Doctor Avoids Death Penalty

in Murders at His Clinic


May 14, 2013
The New York Times


Kermit Gosnell, the doctor convicted of murdering babies after failed abortions in his Philadelphia clinic, avoided the death penalty on Tuesday by agreeing to a sentence of life in prison without parole.

Dr. Gosnell, 72, waived his right to appeal three first-degree murder convictions handed down Monday, and he was immediately sentenced in two of the cases, known as Baby C and Baby D, the Philadelphia district attorney, R. Seth Williams, announced.

Dr. Gosnell, who did not testify during his five-week trial, will be sentenced Wednesday on the remaining convictions, including a third murder case, that of Baby A, and manslaughter in the death of a 41-year-old patient who received a fatal dose of anesthesia.

Prosecutors had said from the start of the trial that they would seek the death penalty because of the “aggravated” circumstances of the crimes Dr. Gosnell was charged with: murder of more than one person and the young age of the victims.

But the district attorney’s willingness to compromise on a life-without-parole sentence seemed a calculation about the difficulty of persuading the same 12 jurors to agree on capital punishment after they spent 10 days sifting evidence and acquitted Dr. Gosnell on one first-degree murder charge. Before deliberations began, the judge dismissed charges in three other pregnancy terminations.

The trial included graphic testimony that galvanized debate over abortion far beyond the downtown Philadelphia courthouse.

Dr. Gosnell’s lawyer, Jack McMahon, argued that in each case, the fetus was dead before delivery. But jurors heard testimony from clinic workers who described babies moving after botched abortions and told how Dr. Gosnell and, in some cases, the workers themselves, cut the babies’ necks with scissors.

The case drew wide attention from anti-abortion activists, for whom it illustrated the need for much tighter regulation of clinics and, more important, what they consider the immorality of all abortion.

Abortion rights groups were equally adamant in condemning Dr. Gosnell. But they drew an opposite conclusion: abortion must be safe and available, they said, or desperate women will be driven to other “back-alley” practitioners like Dr. Gosnell.

    Doctor Avoids Death Penalty in Murders at His Clinic, NYT, 14.5.2013,






Both Sides Rest

in Trial of a Philadelphia Abortion Doctor

Charged With Murder


April 29, 2013
The New York Times


PHILADELPHIA — They are known as Baby Boy A, Baby C, Baby D and Baby E, all of whom prosecutors call murdered children and the defense calls aborted fetuses — the very difference in language encapsulating why anti-abortion advocates are so passionate about drawing attention to the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, which wrapped up here on Monday with summations by both sides.

In five weeks of testimony, jurors were told that Dr. Gosnell, 72, had performed late-term abortions by injecting a drug to stop the heart of the fetus, but that when one jerked an arm, cried or drew breath outside the womb, its spinal cord was cut with surgical scissors.

To anti-abortion leaders, the accounts have the power to break through decades of hardened positions in the abortion wars, not just because of the graphic details but because they raise the philosophical issue of why an abortion procedure performed in utero is legal, but a similar act a few minutes later, outside the womb, is considered homicide.

The distinction “is maybe a 15-minute or half-hour time frame and 10 inches of physical space,” said Michael Geer, the president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, an anti-abortion group. “I think it’s going to resurrect a debate about the humanity of the unborn child.”

Abortion rights groups have a very different view. They say that Dr. Gosnell was a rogue practitioner, and that if abortion is further restricted, more women will be driven to clinics like his, which prosecutors called a “house of horrors.”

Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal organization in Washington, said, “This case in the end is going to be viewed as monumental, no matter what the verdict is.”

Last week, Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart of the Court of Common Pleas threw out three of seven first-degree murder charges against Dr. Gosnell. The doctor’s defense lawyer, Jack J. McMahon, argued Monday that none of the remaining four cases had resulted in live births.

Because the women were given injections of the drug digoxin, which causes “fetal demise,” Mr. McMahon argued, any postdelivery movements were involuntary spasms.

“Every single piece of scientific evidence in this case has shown stillbirth,” he said.

But Edward Cameron, an assistant district attorney, countered that testimony showed Dr. Gosnell did not always use digoxin and that it did not always work as intended. He quoted a former clinic worker with medical school training but no doctor’s license who testified that the drug “wasn’t giving the desired effect, the heart was always beating.”

The prosecutor cited Pennsylvania law stating that if a baby delivered during an abortion “shows any sign of life, it’s considered alive — a heartbeat, breathing, a cry, movement.”

The jury will now make that determination in the cases, including that of Baby Boy A, whom clinic workers testified Dr. Gosnell joked was big enough “to walk me home.”

Baby D, a clinic worker testified, was delivered into a toilet by a woman waiting for Dr. Gosnell and it appeared to make swimming motions before one of the doctor’s assistants pulled it out and cut its neck.

Two workers said they heard Baby E crying before Dr. Gosnell cut its spine with scissors. The prosecutor quoted a worker: “It made noises, a whine like my baby.”

Mr. McMahon also cited the trial testimony, in which the clinic worker acknowledged she did not know for sure if Baby E was born alive. Eight workers from the clinic, the Women’s Medical Society in West Philadelphia, have pleaded guilty to lesser charges in the case, including Dr. Gosnell’s wife, Pearl, a cosmetologist who helped perform abortions.

If convicted, Dr. Gosnell could face the death penalty.

The case became a cause célèbre when anti-abortion activists complained that the mainstream news media were ignoring it for ideological reasons. It has since been widely covered, and every seat in the courtroom was taken on Monday.

Anti-abortion campaigners have seized on the trial because it highlights late-term abortions performed after fetal viability. The same public opinion polls that for decades have shown that a majority of Americans support abortion also show that most of them want it banned in certain cases.

Abortion opponents have leveraged these mixed feelings in recent years to lobby at the state level to restrict the procedure. Nine states have banned most abortions beyond 20 weeks of pregnancy. Last month, two states went further: Arkansas banned abortion after 12 weeks and North Dakota beyond about 6 weeks, when a fetal heartbeat is “detectable.” Abortion rights groups said both limits would be found unconstitutional in federal court.

Though late-term abortions are central to the Gosnell case, they are extremely rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 92 percent of abortions are performed before 14 weeks, with 1.3 percent beyond 20 weeks.

“No woman carries their child to six, seven, eight months and then one day decides they don’t want to become a parent,” said Ilyse Hogue, the president of Naral Pro-Choice America. “These are terrible, tragic situations where families have to make difficult choices with their doctors. I think most Americans believe that’s where they belong.”

To abortion rights groups, if abortion is further restricted, desperate women will be forced to seek providers like Dr. Gosnell, who is also accused of performing 24 abortions beyond 24 weeks of pregnancy, the limit in Pennsylvania.

“Restrictions really work to hinder access to safe abortion,” said Dayle Steinberg, the president of Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania. “It only increases the number of economically disadvantaged women who find themselves in extreme circumstances and they turn to unsafe options for care.”

Dr. Gosnell is also accused of third-degree murder in the death of a 41-year-old patient from Virginia, who visited his clinic after being turned away by three clinics closer to her home, according to testimony by a daughter of the woman.

Mr. McMahon said Dr. Gosnell’s staff members who pleaded guilty did so out of fear of the district attorney’s office, which he accused of creating “a tsunami of hype” in a grand jury report and in the news media about Dr. Gosnell’s practices. To counter that, he showed slides of a waiting room, hallway and procedure rooms at the defunct clinic that looked scrubbed and clean.

The prosecution, for its turn, rolled in a filthy procedure table and broken equipment removed from the clinic. Mr. Cameron, the assistant district attorney, brandished a stained ultrasound probe with unconcealed disgust.

The jury was expected to begin deliberations on Tuesday.

    Both Sides Rest in Trial of a Philadelphia Abortion Doctor Charged With Murder,
    NYT, 29.4.2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/30/us/trial-abortion-doctor-kermit-gosnell.html






Charges Set in Killings of Officials in Texas


April 18, 2013
The New York Times


KAUFMAN, Tex. — A former justice of the peace who had been convicted of theft was charged Thursday with the revenge killings of the prosecutors who handled his case, closing a chapter in one of the more chilling cases of assault on American law enforcement officers.

Eric Lyle Williams, 46, was charged with capital murder, as his wife, Kim Lene Williams, also 46, had been on Wednesday. The charge can carry the death penalty. Two days earlier, Ms. Williams had implicated her husband as the killer and confessed her part in the plot. Mr. Williams is being held on $23 million bail, and his wife $10 million.

In January, Mark Hasse, 57, a Kaufman County prosecutor, was shot at close range multiple times in a parking lot near the courthouse. Last month, Michael McLelland, 63, the county’s district attorney, and his wife, Cynthia, 65, were shot and killed at their home near Forney, Tex., in an early morning attack.

At the time, theories among law enforcement about who might have carried out the killings focused on a white supremacist prison group and Mexican drug cartels. Prosecutors across the country expressed concern for their own safety.

At a news conference here on Thursday, Sheriff David Byrnes of Kaufman County said all three killings were a “collaborative effort” between Mr. and Ms. Williams. Mr. Byrnes said that Ms. Williams accompanied her husband in his car, acting as the driver in at least one of the attacks, and that Mr. Williams killed Mr. Hasse and the McLellands. The sheriff said Mr. Williams’s motive was from his “past legal problems” and added that any threat the county felt over the past months was done.

Mr. Williams had been a central suspect in the killings. But according to an affidavit by a sergeant from the Kaufman County Sheriff’s Department, the crucial break in the case came on Saturday, when a friend who had served with Mr. Williams in the Texas National Guard told the authorities that he had rented a storage unit on behalf of Mr. Williams late last year.

When the authorities, armed with a search warrant, arrived at the unit on Saturday afternoon, they found dozens of the same types of firearms and ammunition that were used in the shootings. Traces showed that Mr. Williams had bought those weapons and ammunition. The tapes from the storage unit’s security cameras also showed a car belonging to Mr. Williams entering and leaving around the times of the killings. The car that was used during the shootings, a 2004 white Ford Crown Victoria, was kept there, according to the affidavit.

The second breakthrough in the case occurred when Ms. Williams was questioned on Tuesday. According to the sheriff’s affidavit, “During this interview Kim Williams confessed to investigators that she drove with her husband Eric Williams to both the Mark Hasse murder scene and also the scene of the McLelland murders. She further admitted that her husband, Eric Williams, shot and killed Mr. Hasse and the McLellands.”

The sheriff said that Ms. Williams confessed shortly after investigators spoke with her. Authorities are continuing to question her. For his part, Mr. Williams was not talking to the authorities, the sheriff said.

The affidavit listed other evidence, including detailed Internet searches related to the victims from Mr. Williams’s computer and I.P. address, as well as e-mails from his computer that confessed to the killings and threatened more acts of violence against county officials. A search of the Williams home yielded night-vision goggles, tactical boots, a balaclava-type mask and multiple cellphones.

Just over two years ago, Mr. Williams was a newly elected justice of the peace and a member of the Chamber of Commerce when he was accused of stealing three computer monitors from a county building. Mr. McLelland and Mr. Hasse prosecuted the case, and a jury found Mr. Williams guilty in March of last year.

Mr. Williams was removed from office, and his law license was suspended. He said then that he had been falsely convicted and accused Mr. McLelland of pursuing a political grudge. Both prosecutors feared he might seek revenge and regularly carried handguns after the trial.

After the charges were announced Thursday, friends and family of the victims expressed relief and gratitude.

Mr. and Mrs. McLelland’s son, J.R., 39, said in a text message, “It’s a relief to know the ones who are responsible for this are now behind bars.” He added, however, that “it only brings a small amount of closure” because “it’s just the beginning of a long process before there will be a conviction in this case. But we are ready to see it through.”


Lauren D’Avolio reported from Kaufman, Tex.;

Serge F. Kovaleski from Boston;

and Ethan Bronner from New York.

    Charges Set in Killings of Officials in Texas, NYT, 18.4.2013,






Advances in Science of Fire

Free a Convict After 42 Years


April 2, 2013
The New York Times


TUCSON — Prosecutors who seek a conviction on a charge of arson must first prove that a fire was intentionally set, and then that the defendant was the one who set it.

Louis C. Taylor was facing arson charges 42 years ago, and he left court convicted on multiple felony murder counts for sparking a hotel fire that claimed 29 lives. He has always professed his innocence, and on Tuesday, advances in the science of fire investigations finally set him free.

He was serving 28 life sentences for starting the deadliest fire in Arizona history.

Mr. Taylor’s release offered him only a small measure of redemption. Under an agreement with prosecutors in Pima County, he entered a no-contest plea during an hourlong court hearing, which set aside his original conviction and gave him credit for the time he had spent behind bars. The arrangement means that he did not admit guilt, but because he did not contest the charges, he is effectively barred from suing anyone who had a role in his conviction.

As the hearing came to a close, Judge Richard S. Fields of Pima County Superior Court said, “Welcome back, Mr. Taylor.”

Four hours later, Mr. Taylor, wearing a light blue shirt, emerged from a state prison here to cheers from his lawyers, who had been waiting to greet him.

“It’s two tragedies,” he said during a brief stop by the prison’s gates. “The Pioneer Hotel fire, and me being convicted.”

Mr. Taylor, 58, who did not even know how to drive when he went to prison at the age of 16, is facing a bleak future in an entirely unfamiliar world. His case is among several in recent years to call into question some of the scientific principles that once guided fire investigations — including the idea that multiple and independent points of a fire’s origin were proof of arson, a decisive element of Mr. Taylor’s prosecution.

Last year, a committee in Texas began a review of arson convictions after a report revealed that a man executed in 2004 for setting a blaze that killed his three children may not have been guilty. The committee concluded that evidence that the fire was intentionally set had been based on faulty science.

Just last week, Texas’s highest criminal court ordered a new trial for another man convicted of starting the fire that killed his stepsons, over similar doubts.

“What we’re going after, more than anything else, is a pervasive prosecuting practice, not some isolated mistake that happened in the past,” said Jeff Blackburn, founder and chief counsel to the Innocence Project of Texas, the legal advocacy organization that is helping forensic scientists and the Texas fire marshal’s office carry out the review.

Debunking junk science in arson and other criminal convictions, Mr. Blackburn said, “is really the next wave of innocence work.”

A few years ago, the National Academy of Sciences turned its attention to the misuse of science in courtrooms, saying that pseudoscientific theories had been used to convict people of crimes they may not have committed. By then, a small group of fire engineers had already begun to discredit many of the assumptions employed in fire investigations, like the practice of using the amount of heat radiated by a fire to assess if an accelerant had been used.

Unlike DNA evidence, which can exonerate one person and sometimes incriminate another, the evidence collected in some arson investigations does not yield precise results. Often much of the evidence has been lost or destroyed. In the case of the hotel fire here, all that is left are photographs, reports and chemical analysis, all of them assembled to prove arson.

As a result, “we can’t definitely say what really caused the fire,” said John J. Lentini, a veteran fire investigator who wrote a report on Mr. Taylor’s case. “But what we can do is discredit the evidence” used to support the charge.

Race and questionable investigative practices may have also played a role in Mr. Taylor’s conviction. He was a black man convicted by an all-white jury at a time of racial strife in Tucson; four years later, a lawsuit would force the city to confront segregation in the largest of its school districts.

After Mr. Taylor’s arrest, Cyrillis W. Holmes Jr., a fire investigator hired by the state, offered a profile suggesting that the arsonist was a young black man. (Mr. Holmes reaffirmed his theory during a deposition five months ago, saying that “blacks, at that point, their background was the use of fire for beneficial purposes.”)

During the trial, another investigator testified that an accelerant had been used to ignite the flames, a finding not backed by laboratory tests on debris from the hotel, which Mr. Taylor’s lawyers did not know existed.

The fire at the downtown hotel, the Pioneer International, broke out just after midnight on Dec. 20, 1970, as an aircraft company was holding a holiday party for 350 people. Rooms were full of guests, many of them Mexican tourists visiting Tucson to do Christmas shopping.

By his admission, Mr. Taylor went to the Pioneer to try to get free drinks. After the fire began, he was found knocking on doors, rousing guests, escorting them outside and helping the injured onto stretchers.

On the upper floors, some people fashioned ropes out of bedsheets, while others jumped out of windows in a desperate bid to escape. Firefighters’ ladders were too short to reach them.

In court on Tuesday, Paul D’Hedouville II choked up as he described losing his father in the fire when he was 4. Still, he told Mr. Taylor, “I harbor no feeling of ill-will or vengeance for you.”

“Do as you choose, Mr. Taylor, but choose wisely,” Mr. D’Hedouville said. “Do not waste your new beginning on life.”

Prosecutors, in filings and at Tuesday’s hearing, said they still believed Mr. Taylor was guilty, but chose to accept the agreement because they would not have been able to pursue a new trial. The evidence is too old and scarce, and there are not enough living witnesses, they said.

Mr. Taylor was represented by the Arizona Justice Project, which helps inmates believed to have been wrongfully accused. In court, Edward F. Novak, who led the legal team, told Judge Fields, “Mr. Taylor does maintain his innocence, and the no-contest plea allows him to do that.”

    Advances in Science of Fire Free a Convict After 42 Years, NYT, 2.4.2013,






Jailed for 2 Decades in Rabbi’s Death,

Unjustly, Prosecutors Say


March 20, 2013
The New York Times


In the wintry darkness 23 years ago on a back street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a jewelry thief fleeing a botched robbery panicked and shot a Hasidic rabbi in the head.

Four days later, the rabbi, Chaskel Werzberger, an Auschwitz survivor, died of his wounds. Even in the New York City of 1990, as homicides crested at 2,245, the murder stirred grief and outrage. The “Slain Rabbi” was front-page tabloid news. Mayor David N. Dinkins traveled to Williamsburg’s Satmar enclave to sit in mourning and to offer a $10,000 reward.

The new Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, stood shoulder to shoulder with fur-hat-wearing Satmars, watching as they rocked back and forth and wailed as the pinewood coffin was carried out. He vowed to bring the killer to justice.

Forty detectives worked the case, soon led by the swaggering, cigar-chewing Detective Louis Scarcella. Working closely with an influential Satmar rabbi, Detective Scarcella arrested a drug-addicted, unemployed printer named David Ranta. Hasidic Jews surrounded the car that carried the accused man to jail, slapping the roof and chanting, “Death penalty!”

Mr. Ranta was convicted in May 1991 and sentenced to 37.5 years in maximum-security prison, where he remains to this day.

He is almost certainly not guilty.

This week Mr. Hynes, after a long investigation by a unit that he created to look into questionable convictions, plans to ask a state judge to release the prisoner. Mr. Ranta’s lawyer, Pierre Sussman, who conducted his own inquiry, said his client has been instructed to pack up his cell.

Mr. Ranta could walk free as early as Thursday. In the decades since a jury convicted him of murder, nearly every piece of evidence in this case has fallen away. A key witness told The New York Times that a detective instructed him to select Mr. Ranta in the lineup. A convicted rapist told the district attorney that he falsely implicated Mr. Ranta in hopes of cutting a deal for himself. A woman has signed an affidavit saying she too lied about Mr. Ranta’s involvement.

Detective Scarcella and his partner, Stephen Chmil, according to investigators and legal documents, broke rule after rule. They kept few written records, coached a witness and took Mr. Ranta’s confession under what a judge described as highly dubious circumstances. They allowed two dangerous criminals, an investigator said, to leave jail, smoke crack cocaine and visit with prostitutes in exchange for incriminating Mr. Ranta.

At trial, prosecutors acknowledged the detectives had misbehaved but depicted them as likable scamps. Reached in retirement on Tuesday, Mr. Scarcella defended his work. “I never framed anyone in my life,” he said.

No physical evidence ever connected Mr. Ranta to the murder.

He now sits in a cell at a maximum-security prison outside Buffalo. He is a touch shy; his gray hair is fast thinning. His voice still carries the slantwise intonations of working-class south Brooklyn. Asked how he survived, he said he was not sure he had.

“I’d lie there in the cell at night and I think: I’m the only one in the world who knows I’m innocent,” he said. “I came in here as a 30-something with kids, a mother who was alive. This case killed my whole life.”


A Guilty Verdict

It began with a fumbled robbery on Feb. 8, 1990.

Chaim Weinberger, a courier for Pan American Diamond Corporation, left his apartment in a public housing tower in Williamsburg, pulling a 50-pound suitcase filled with diamonds and precious gems. He had to catch a 7 a.m. flight to the Dominican Republic, where his cargo would be cut into jewelry.

His trips were predictable and easily timed; he worried about robbery. In the lobby, he saw a tall, blond, strikingly handsome guy, “like a lifeguard on the beach,” Mr. Weinberger said. They stared at each other.

The blond man walked downstairs.

As Mr. Weinberger hurried beneath towering sycamores to the street, he saw the man trailing him. He tossed the suitcase into the trunk and started his engine. The blond man strode quickly now, covering his face with a handkerchief and pulling out a silver gun.

Mr. Weinberger put the car into reverse and knocked the gunman into a trash heap. He sped away, his door flapping open. He did not stop until he got to the airport, he recalled in an interview.

Tragedy unfolded behind him. The robber, unnerved, spotted Rabbi Werzberger warming up his blue 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme before driving to a synagogue. He ran over, fired a shot, pulled out the mortally wounded rabbi and drove off in his car.

This murder tore at the heart of the then-25,000-strong Satmar community. Rabbi Werzberger was their shamas and adviser to the grand rebbe. The Satmar, the intensely devout, politically powerful ultra-Orthodox sect, demanded that the police find his killer. Rabbi Leib Glantz became their point man.

Rabbi Glantz rounded up witnesses, brought them to the precinct and translated from Yiddish as detectives conducted interviews.

Detectives worked furiously, calling in paroled felons and miscreants of many varieties for questioning. An anonymous caller suggested that the police talk to Joseph Astin, an experienced holdup man who was tall and blond, with rugged good looks. But on April 2, Mr. Astin crashed his car in a police chase and died.

In late April, Detective Scarcella went to jail and visited Dmitry Drikman, a mustachioed bull of a man with a perpetual glower. Mr. Drikman was being held for several robberies, and had in the past been convicted of a horrific rape.

Mr. Drikman, in hopes of obtaining a shorter sentence, proved talkative. He gave Detective Scarcella the name of his friend, Alan Bloom.

Mr. Bloom, a crack-cocaine addict, had been convicted of dozens of robberies and faced a potential century in prison. He decided to start talking.

The detectives placed Mr. Bloom and Mr. Drikman in the same section of the jail, so they could continue their conversation. Soon they had their story: Mr. Bloom had had a hand in the robbery, but an acquaintance, David Ranta, a small-time thief and drug user, was the gunman. And Mr. Drikman’s girlfriend told detectives she had seen Mr. Ranta and Mr. Bloom planning to cover up the crime.

District Attorney Hynes shook hands with Mr. Bloom shortly before prosecutors gave him immunity from prosecution in the murder case and greatly reduced his sentence for other crimes.

On Aug. 13, Detectives Scarcella and Chmil found Mr. Ranta on 73rd Street in Bensonhurst. They handcuffed him and drove to the 90th Precinct in Williamsburg.

Detective Scarcella testified at Mr. Ranta’s trial that, 26 hours later, he sat on a bench in a crowded office and listened as Mr. Ranta, with little or no sleep, gave a long, rambling confession.

The detective said he did not have to ask Mr. Ranta a single question. “He flowed, and I took it all down, verbatim,” the detective testified.

Asked why he did not question the suspect, Detective Scarcella was nonchalant.

“That’s not my style,” he replied.

The case was laden with inconsistencies. Mr. Weinberger had stared the gunman in the face and testified during the trial that Mr. Ranta was “100 percent not” that person. In fact, four of the five witnesses in the first lineup did not identify Mr. Ranta.

In the end, however, the jury pronounced Mr. Ranta guilty.

Before his sentencing, Mr. Ranta addressed the court. He spoke of corrupt police officers and those who testified against him.

“Now you people do what you got to do because I feel this is all a total frame setup,” he told the court. “When I come down on my appeal, I hope to God he brings out the truth because a lot of people are going to be ashamed of themselves.”


Behind the Scenes

During the trial, Detective Scarcella proved to be an entertaining witness. A son of Bensonhurst, a professed old-school detective, he talked about how to make a suspect talk and where to buy the best pizza (New Haven, he advised). But his description of his investigation angered the judge, Francis X. Egitto.

Asked why he took prisoners out of jail to eat at restaurants and visit felonious friends, Detective Scarcella replied, “I do what I want to do with my prisoners.”

“They’re not your prisoners,” Justice Egitto responded.

The detective testified that while interviewing Mr. Bloom and Mr. Drikman, he never wrote a single note, as required by police procedure. Nor did he show witnesses photographs of Mr. Drikman or Mr. Bloom, although they were murder suspects.

The judge in particular questioned how Detective Scarcella obtained Mr. Ranta’s confession, asking why a veteran detective did not take Mr. Ranta to an interview room, where he could have tape-recorded it. Detective Scarcella said he transcribed the 658-word confession by hand.

Mr. Ranta has insisted he confessed to nothing. He passed a polygraph test in which he was asked if he shot the rabbi.

Midway through the trial, the judge spoke to the lawyers of his mistrust of these detectives. They are playing games, he said. They have “taken it upon themselves to be judge, jury and partial executioner.”

Yet, when he instructed the jury on what to consider during deliberation, he mentioned none of his concerns.

Four years later, new doubts arose. In 1996, Theresa Astin testified that her husband, Mr. Astin, who had died in that car wreck in April 1990, had murdered the rabbi. She knew details of the killing that only someone close to it would. Mr. Ranta’s defense lawyer, Michael Baum, filed a court motion.

Ms. Astin turned out to be a complicated witness.

In the early 1980s, she was the girlfriend of Joe Sullivan, a freelance hit-man known as Mad Dog who killed at least 11 men.

Afterward, she married and settled down in the Gravesend neighborhood with Mr. Astin, a mechanic with a cocaine problem and a tendency to pull armed robberies.

Snarled though her personal life was, Ms. Astin told a compelling tale: Her husband had planned a robbery, and he came home shaking and nearly in tears on the day the rabbi was shot. Later she found him in the bathroom, dismantling a pistol.

“He said, ‘I hurt someone, something happened,’ ” Ms. Astin testified. “He was crying, he was scared.”

“ ‘You’re in trouble, Joe. It’s like you killed a priest in our religion,’ ” she warned him. Justice Egitto handled the court hearing. Again he wrote of troubling facts — and refused to toss the verdict.

Mr. Ranta feared he had exhausted every option for appeal. “I figured I was going to die in prison,” he recalled.


Case Falls Apart

Every Christmas, Mr. Baum received a Christmas card from Mr. Ranta. “I never had any doubt in my mind he was innocent,” Mr. Baum said in an interview. “I sleep with it every night.”

Sixteen months ago, the district attorney, promoting his newly established Conviction Integrity Unit, gave a talk to the public defenders. Does anyone, he asked, know of cases that should be re-examined?

Mr. Baum raised his hand.

In the Bronx, Pierre Sussman, a defense lawyer hunting for evidence of police misconduct, noticed that Detective Scarcella’s name showed up in several troubled cases. He did a computer search, discovered Mr. Ranta’s name and visited him in prison, where he agreed to take on his case.

Soon the last vestiges of evidence fell away. A man who was 13 at the time of the murder, Menachem Lieberman, testified back then that he had seen Mr. Ranta sitting in a car near the murder site.

Now, reached at his home in Montreal, Mr. Lieberman said the case had nagged at him for years. “Before I entered the” lineup room, he told investigators, “a police detective told me to ‘pick the guy with big nose.’ ”

He picked Mr. Ranta, he said, “because he had the biggest nose.”

And Mr. Drikman’s girlfriend, Elizabeth Cruz, also abandoned her story and apologized. “I made up everything,” she said in an affidavit, in hopes of gaining a deal for her boyfriend.

Mr. Drikman also stated that he fabricated his account, and that detectives and Mr. Bloom “framed” Mr. Ranta.

The case against Mr. Ranta had come undone.

“What’s important to me is that this fellow should not be in prison one day longer,” Mr. Hynes said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

All that remains is for Mr. Ranta, now 58, to feel the shackles taken off his hands and legs and stand before a State Supreme Court judge.

“I’ve lived years in a cage, stripped down, humiliated,” he said. “I’ll be able to touch people again, to make decisions.”

He took a great gulp of air. “To be honest, what’s ahead scares me.”

    Jailed for 2 Decades in Rabbi’s Death, Unjustly, Prosecutors Say,
    NYT, 20.3.2013,






Joseph Kelner, 98, Dies;

Led Kent State Lawsuit


March 7, 2013
The New York Times


Joseph Kelner, a lawyer who took on the sitting governor of Ohio, a former university president and the National Guard in a suit on behalf of the student victims of the Kent State shootings in 1970, died on Monday in Manhasset, N.Y. He was 98.

The death was confirmed by his son Robert.

Mr. Kelner, who was president of both the New York State Trial Lawyers Association and the American Trial Lawyers Association, was a trial specialist who concentrated on personal injury and medical malpractice cases.

Mr. Kelner took on a number of notable clients, including, for a time, Bernhard H. Goetz, the so-called subway vigilante, who became a lightning rod in a national debate about crime, race and guns in December 1984 when he, a white man, shot four black teenagers who he claimed had tried to rob him in a subway car.

But even more significant was the Kent State case. On May 4, 1970, after a weekend of student rallies against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia — an R.O.T.C. building was set afire during the protests — National Guardsmen called to the campus by Gov. James A. Rhodes shot into a crowd of demonstrators, killing four students and wounding nine others.

An investigating commission found the shootings “unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable,” but public sentiment was with the Guard, and with Governor Rhodes, who, the night before the shootings, declared: “We are going to eradicate the problem. These people just move from one campus to another and terrorize the community. They are worse than the brownshirts and Communist element.”

Mr. Kelner was hired by the mother of Jeffrey Miller, a slain student who appeared in a widely reproduced photograph lying face down on the pavement with an anguished young woman kneeling over him. Mr. Kelner became chief counsel for the victims and their families in a civil suit that went to trial in 1975.

In federal court, a jury exonerated Governor Rhodes; Robert I. White, who had been president of Kent State at the time; and 27 National Guardsmen.

Mr. Kelner, who had accused the judge, Don J. Young, of suppression of evidence and other errors, said afterward, “This is a sad day in American justice.”

The verdict was reversed on appeal, and Ohio officials offered a settlement of $675,000, which was accepted by the plaintiffs against Mr. Kelner’s advice. He remained outraged by the shootings and the outcome of the case.

In 1980, Mr. Kelner was the co-author, with James Munves, of the book “The Kent State Coverup,” in which he alleged that “one governmental agency after another had managed to suppress evidence and shield those responsible for the shootings in a monumental cover-up.” He added, “The same process continued in the Cleveland courtroom.”

Joseph Kelner was born on June 12, 1914, in Des Moines. He grew up mostly in Detroit, where his father, Samuel, who died when Joseph was 10, and his mother, Rose, ran a dry goods store. His family moved to New York, and he earned bachelor’s and law degrees at New York University. He served in the Army Counter Intelligence Corps in World War II.

In the 1950s Mr. Kelner started his own firm, which became Kelner & Kelner in the 1970s when his son Robert joined it.

Mr. Kelner represented Mr. Goetz as his chief lawyer in a civil suit brought by the four victims in the subway shooting. (Mr. Goetz was convicted of illegal gun possession in the criminal case.) But Mr. Kelner eventually dropped him as a client because, he said, Mr. Goetz was uncooperative and had not paid him.

Mr. Kelner’s other notable clients included two professional umpires, Al Salerno and Bill Valentine, who were fired in 1968 by Joe Cronin, then the American League president, on grounds of incompetence. But Mr. Cronin’s probable motivation, it was widely believed, was that the umpires were involved in organizing the league umpires into a union.

Mr. Salerno and Mr. Valentine hired Mr. Kelner and sued the American League and Major League Baseball. In a proposed settlement in 1970, they were offered their jobs back with back pay — the union that had been formed without them had negotiated raises — but Mr. Salerno rejected a stipulation that he and Mr. Valentine first had to polish their skills in the minor leagues. The deal fell through, and the two never umpired in the major leagues again.

Mr. Kelner also represented people whose homes had been mistakenly broken into by the police in drug raids. He won a six-figure verdict for the family of a girl whose brain injuries had been caused by hospital negligence. He won a $280,000 verdict for a boy who had been shot in the head by another boy; the award included punitive damages against the parents of the boy who fired the gun for not exerting proper parental control.

Mr. Kelner was the author of “Successful Litigation Techniques,” a series of guides for trial lawyers and students, and the co-author, with his son Robert, of “Trial Practices.” He also wrote a column for The New York Law Journal.

Mr. Kelner’s wife, the former Elizabeth Schneier, died in 2004. In addition to his son Robert, he is survived by another son, Kenneth, and two grandsons.

In 1970, after the Kent State shootings, The New York Times published a letter written by a Mississippi doctor to his college student son in which he defended the National Guardsmen and said the demonstrators had gotten what they deserved. The letter ran as an Op-Ed page article.

Mr. Kelner responded with fervor in an article on the Op-Ed page under the headline “An Answer to the Mississippi Doctor.”

“We, the older generation, have much to answer for,” he wrote. “We have allowed our country to decay and deteriorate. We were too permissive of our own government. We stood by passively while our elected officials inched us into the bottomless pit of Vietnam. While our land, water and air were polluted and fouled for decades by profit-hungry industry, we were reticent and compliant, each of us devoting our energies to the pursuit of happiness and material gain in the Horatio Alger tradition. The college kids simply cannot see us spending hundreds of billions on Vietnams and ABMs while our cities rot and people are hungry. They see our priorities aborted and our principles perverted to favor a military-industrial complex.

“So they protest.”

    Joseph Kelner, 98, Dies; Led Kent State Lawsuit, NYT, 7.3.2013,






Showing Officer’s Family No Remorse,

Killer Is Sent to Prison


February 28, 2013
The New York Times


First, the slain officer’s mother told the court how it felt to know she would never get a kiss from her son again. Then came the officer’s ex-wife. Finally, his four daughters, ages 15 to 21, filling the whole prosecution table, delivered a tearful, four-part elegy of loss and extinguished dreams.

“A tough act to follow,” the judge declared. But the law said that the defendant, Lamont Pride, must have a chance to speak before being sentenced on Thursday afternoon for the murder of Officer Peter J. Figoski on a cold night in Brooklyn in 2011.

And so Mr. Pride stood up in his orange prisoner’s jumpsuit to express remorse.

“I just want to apologize to my family for putting them through this,” he said. He paused for a moment.

“And I want to let my two brothers know, as long as I got you in my corner till the end, we’re going to stand tall.”

Then he sat back down, without a word or a glance for the family of the veteran 47-year-old New York City police officer whose life he took as he fled the basement of a house where he had gone to rob a drug dealer.

Justice Alan D. Marrus did not seem much inclined toward mercy after that, though by the tenor of his remarks he had pretty well made up his mind before he put on his robe that day. He handed Mr. Pride, a 28-year-old ex-convict who had served time for robbery, the maximum prison term available under the law: 45 years to life — emphasis on life.

“I want to make crystal clear,” Justice Marrus said, “that it is my intention that the defendant serve his sentence and never get out of prison.”

The remarks by Officer Figoski’s family at the sentencing provided an alternative narrative to the one in the official reports.

On Dec. 11, 2011, said the oldest, Christine, 21, the four Figoski sisters, who lived with him in West Babylon, on Long Island, got their customary “I love you” text from their devoted father, who worked the midnight shift in one of the city’s most violent precincts, the 75th, in East New York, Brooklyn, where he had spent his 22-year career.

They went to bed, she said, “with the worries of your average teenage girl.” They were awakened by a call from their mother who told them their father had been in an accident.

Prosecutors said it was no accident. Officer Figoski and his partner had been dispatched to 25 Pine Street in Cypress Hills around 2:15 a.m. on Dec. 12 on a report of a robbery in progress. In the basement apartment, Mr. Pride had pistol-whipped a tenant and stolen $770 from him, Mr. Pride later told detectives. Officer Figoski headed into the building as Mr. Pride and an accomplice tried to flee. In a brief confrontation, Mr. Pride fired his gun once into Officer Figoski’s face.

“Peter was an obstacle to him,” Officer Figoski’s mother, Mary Ann Figoski, told the court on Thursday, “so he eliminated him and fled into the night.” Officer Figoski’s partner sprinted after Mr. Pride and caught him several blocks away.

At the hospital, said Paulette Figoski, Officer Figoski’s ex-wife, “he had blood dripping from the back of his head and he was lifeless, and my children had to witness this unbearable sight.”

Christine Figoski told the court, “Nothing at that moment felt real, and up to this day it still doesn’t.”

Officer Figoski’s youngest daughter, Corinne, 15, told the judge, “Our dad was our world, our everything.”

“He made everything better, and Lamont Pride stole that from us,” said Caitlyn Figoski, 19, picking up the thread. “Our father will never be able to walk us down the aisle at our weddings, something that every father and every daughter dream of.”

Mr. Pride’s lawyers argued at trial that Mr. Pride, who has a prior felony robbery conviction in North Carolina and two misdemeanor convictions, pulled the trigger by accident. He was convicted of second-degree murder, burglary and manslaughter but acquitted of first-degree murder, which in these circumstances would have carried a mandatory life sentence.

Outside the courtroom, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Patrick J. Lynch, backed by dozens of uniformed police officers, said that while Mr. Pride might have stolen from the Figoski family’s future, there was a future nonetheless.

“This family, as they grow, as their children grow, the next generation of Figoskis will be at the victim impact statement” to make sure that Mr. Pride does not receive parole. “The battle is not over,” he said.

Then Officer Figoski’s family filed out of the courthouse, tight-faced and silent, as a hallway full of officers applauded.

    Showing Officer’s Family No Remorse, Killer Is Sent to Prison, NYT, 28.2.2013,






Ex-Technician Denies Faulty DNA Work


January 11, 2013
The New York Times


A former New York City laboratory technician whose work on rape cases is now being scrutinized for serious mistakes said on Friday that she had been unaware there were problems in her work and, disputing an earlier report, denied she had resigned under pressure.

The former lab technician, Serrita Mitchell, said any problems must have been someone else’s.

“My work?” Ms. Mitchell said. “No, no, no, not my work.”

Earlier, the city medical examiner’s office, where Ms. Mitchell said she was employed from 2000 to 2011, said it was reviewing 843 rape cases handled by a lab technician who might have missed critical evidence.

So far, it has finished looking over about half the cases, and found 26 in which the technician had missed biological evidence and 19 in which evidence was commingled with evidence from other cases. In seven cases where evidence was missed, the medical examiner’s office was able to extract a DNA profile, raising the possibility that detectives could have caught some suspects sooner.

The office declined to identify the technician. Documents said she quit in November 2011 after the office moved to fire her, once supervisors had begun to discover deficiencies in her work. A city official who declined to be identified said Ms. Mitchell was the technician.

However, Ms. Mitchell, reached at her home in the Bronx on Friday, said she had never been told there were problems. “It couldn’t be me because your work gets checked,” she said. “You have supervisors.”

She also said that she had resigned because of a rotator cuff injury that impeded her movement. “I loved the job so much that I stayed a little longer,” she said, explaining that she had not expected to stay with the medical examiner’s office so long. “Then it was time to leave.”

Also on Friday, the Legal Aid Society, which provides criminal defense lawyers for most of the city’s poor defendants, said it was demanding that the city turn over information about the cases under review.

If needed, Legal Aid will sue the city to gain access to identifying information about the cases, its chief lawyer, Steven Banks, said, noting that New York was one of only 14 states that did not require routine disclosure of criminal evidence before trial.

Disclosure of the faulty examination of the evidence is prompting questions about outside review of the medical examiner’s office. The City Council on Friday announced plans for an emergency oversight committee, and its members spoke with outrage about the likelihood that missed semen stains and “false negatives” might have enabled rapists to go unpunished.

“The mishandling of rape cases is making double victims of women who have already suffered an indescribably horrific event,” said Christine C. Quinn, the Council speaker.

A few more details emerged Friday about a 2001 case involving the rape of a minor in Brooklyn, in which the technician missed biological evidence, the review found. The victim accused an 18-year-old acquaintance of forcing himself on her, and he was questioned by the police but not charged, according to a law enforcement official.

Unrelated to the rape, he pleaded guilty in 2005 to third-degree robbery and served two years in prison. The DNA sample he gave in the robbery case was matched with the one belatedly developed from evidence the technician had overlooked in the 2001 rape, law enforcement officials said. He was recently indicted in the 2001 rape.

Especially alarming to defense lawyers was the possibility that DNA samples were cross-contaminated and led to false convictions, or could do so in the future.

“Up to this point,” Mr. Banks said, “they have not made information available to us, as the primary defender in New York City, to determine whether there’s an injustice that’s been done in past cases, pending cases, or allowing us to be on the lookout in future cases.” He added, “If it could happen with one analyst, how does anyone know that it stops there?”

The medical examiner’s office has said that the risk of cross-contamination was extremely low and that it does not appear that anyone was wrongly convicted in the cases that have been reviewed so far. And officials in at least two of the city’s district attorneys’ offices — for Brooklyn and Manhattan — said they had not found any erroneous convictions.

But Mr. Banks said the authorities needed to do more, and that their statements thus far were the equivalent of “trust us.”

“Given what’s happened,” he said, “that’s cold comfort.”

    Ex-Technician Denies Faulty DNA Work, NYT, 11.1.2013,






Questions Left for Mississippi

Over Doctor’s Autopsies


January 7, 2013
The New York Times


JACKSON, Miss. — For a long time, if a body turned up in Mississippi it had a four-in-five chance of ending up in front of Dr. Steven T. Hayne.

Between the late 1980s and the late 2000s, Dr. Hayne had the field of forensic pathology in Mississippi almost to himself, performing thousands of autopsies and delivering his findings around the state as an expert witness in civil and criminal cases. For most of that time, Dr. Hayne performed about 1,700 autopsies annually, more than four for every day of the year and nearly seven times the maximum caseload recommended by the National Association of Medical Examiners.

During the past several months, in courthouses around Mississippi, four new petitions have been quietly submitted on behalf of people in prison arguing that they were wrongfully convicted on the basis of Dr. Hayne’s testimony. Around 10 more are expected in the coming weeks, including three by inmates on death row.

The filings, based on new information obtained as part of a lawsuit settled last spring, charge that Dr. Hayne made “numerous misrepresentations” about his qualifications as a forensic pathologist. They say that he proposed theories in his testimony that lie far outside standard forensic science. And they suggest that Mississippi officials ignored these problems, instead supporting Dr. Hayne’s prolific business.

For many around the state, the Hayne era is considered to be over and any problems fixed. In 2008, amid growing controversy, the state severed ties with Dr. Hayne, who to this day insists that he was treated unfairly. Mississippi officials have since shown almost no inclination to review his past cases.

The recent lawsuits suggest that in only a limited number of cases did a verdict most likely hinge on Dr. Hayne’s testimony. But without any systematic review, it remains a question as to what that number may be.

“There are hundreds of cases that have to be reconsidered,” said Dr. James Lauridson, a former state medical examiner in Alabama, who provided an affidavit in one of the recently filed cases. Dr. Lauridson said Dr. Hayne was an extreme example of a familiar problem: a forensic analyst with inadequate training who was given far too much deference in the courts.

“After you do that long enough, your initially shaky opinions become way out of the mainstream,” Dr. Lauridson said. “That is what happened to him.”

Dr. Hayne was sidelined by state officials after his analyses — and those of one of his close collaborators — led to several murder convictions that were later overturned or thrown out. But he insists that his work has been intentionally distorted by critics.

“I don’t think I was treated fairly,” he said last month at his house in a gated community overlooking the Ross Barnett Reservoir. “Is that the way you treat people after 20 years of working like a dog?”

A physician and pathologist, Dr. Hayne, now 71, began performing autopsies in Mississippi in the late 1980s. He served briefly as interim state medical examiner though he was not, as state law required, board certified in forensic pathology. From 1989, when he left the interim post, to 2010, the office of medical examiner was unfilled for all but five years. Dr. Hayne, working as a private contractor, almost single-handedly picked up the slack.

By his own count, he performed as many as 1,700 autopsies some years, in addition to having his own pathology practice. Dr. David Fowler, the chief medical examiner in Maryland and a former chairman of the standards committee for the National Association of Medical Examiners, called the number “beyond defensible.”

Dr. Hayne said that state-appointed medical examiners simply did not have his motivation as a fee-based contractor, nor his work ethic. “How many autopsies could they do?” he said. “They could do one or 500, they get paid the same amount. Is there any incentive to do a heavy load?”

That incentive is at the heart of the challenges filed on behalf of prisoners in recent weeks, most of them by the Mississippi Innocence Project. The cases in those filings are not clear cut, and in all of them there is circumstantial evidence suggesting guilt and innocence. But Dr. Hayne’s testimony was key.

In one case, Dr. Hayne performed an autopsy of a young boy and concluded he had been suffocated. Some weeks after the boy was buried, his 3-year-old brother told the police that he had been killed by his mother’s boyfriend. Officials exhumed the body, and Dr. Hayne had a cast made of the boy’s face. By comparing his initial notes of face wounds with the cast, Dr. Hayne testified, he found it probable that the boy had been suffocated by a large male hand. The boyfriend was convicted.

“I saw a very similar case like that on ‘Law & Order: SVU,’ ” said Dr. Andrew M. Baker, the president of the medical examiners’ association and chief medical examiner for Hennepin County, Minn. “I’ve never heard of it in real life.” Dr. Baker said not only was the technique unheard of but so was the ability to speculate from those sorts of wounds about hand size or gender.

Dr. Hayne suggested he was just being innovative. “Maybe we should have published,” he said upon being reminded of the case.

The Innocence Project has been trying to examine past cases in which Dr. Hayne’s testimony was pivotal, as state officials have shown no inclination to order a formal review. (Radley Balko, currently a reporter for The Huffington Post, has also investigated numerous cases.)

In 2009, Dr. Hayne sued the Innocence Project for defamation, and last spring the group paid him a $100,000 settlement. Innocence Project officials cited insurance reasons, though Dr. Hayne’s lawyer hailed it as a vindication.

But in preparing to combat the suit, lawyers for the Innocence Project said they uncovered new information. They said they found details about Dr. Hayne’s academic record and qualifications that significantly contradicted his own accounts, often given under oath.

They also found a 1992 proposal concerning Dr. Hayne drafted by a senior state official. Dr. Hayne was performing 80 percent of the state’s autopsies, the memo said, and would most likely continue to do so even if a new medical examiner were appointed. The state could save on salaries and office costs by giving Dr. Hayne the title, but letting him continue to charge $500 per autopsy as a private contractor.

Though the plan was shelved, and the office remained unfilled for most of the next 15 years, Dr. Hayne maintained his high-volume business and was eventually allowed to use the title of chief state pathologist.

Tucker Carrington, the director of the Mississippi Innocence Project and a professor at the University of Mississippi Law School, said this arrangement explained why Dr. Hayne was allowed to dominate the field for so long.

“What Hayne did was act as anyone would have predicted, which is not as an objective pathologist but someone who is in the marketplace,” Mr. Carrington said. “The state gave him this opportunity and gave him his blessing.”

That blessing was revoked in 2008, when, despite some opposition, Mississippi’s public safety commissioner removed Dr. Hayne from a list of approved forensic pathologists. The state hired a chief medical examiner in 2010.

But many coroners and district attorneys remain staunch defenders of Dr. Hayne and his work; for years, some point out, he was the only pathologist available.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of people that don’t like Hayne, but from a prosecutor’s standpoint I don’t know anybody who didn’t like him,” said John T. Kitchens, a former district attorney and circuit court judge. “He was always so helpful and useful to law enforcement. And he worked all the time.”

In a conversation that ranged from the fall of the Roman republic to the folly of the Vietnam War, Dr. Hayne remained unbowed. He said that his analyses never strayed outside the acceptable norms of science, that he testified without an agenda and that his findings were either being deliberately misinterpreted or unfairly conflated with the erroneous work of others.

“I think they were thorough, complete and withstood the test of time,” Dr. Hayne said of his reports.

Dr. Lloyd White, who was Mississippi’s state medical examiner from 1989 to 1992, said the problems concerning Dr. Hayne, while extreme, were rooted in the nature of the system in which he worked. Such problems, he said, are not unique to Mississippi, and are able to persist because scientific testimony is too often viewed with uncritical reverence and because the people affected by its misuse usually have little support or sympathy.

“I had a prosecutor one time tell me, ‘These guys may not have done it but they’re bad guys and they have to go to prison,’ ” Dr. White said. “The whole thing kind of rolls downhill from there. And in the interim you can’t help but wonder how many people ended up in prison who didn’t get a fair trial.”

    Questions Left for Mississippi Over Doctor’s Autopsies, NYT, 7.1.2013,





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