Archive for August, 2010

Taser Trainer Testifies in Transit Trial

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

A former transit police officer with California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system is standing trial, accused of having shot and killed an unarmed rider last year.

Johannes Mehserle, 28, says that he shot Oscar Grant III by mistake, having grabbed his pistol instead of his Taser electric stun gun. Grant, 26, was part of a group of riders who were detained after a January 1, 2009 fight on a BART train. He was lying down, being restrained by officers, when he was shot in the back by Mehserle.

Tasers are hand-held, gun-shaped devices that fire electrodes which cause muscle spasms in their targets. They are used by law enforcement officers to temporarily disable a suspect for purposes of restraint.

During the trial, which is taking place in Los Angeles because of pre-trial publicity in the Bay Area, a witness testified that then-Officer Mehserle received the minimum amount of training in use of the Taser. Officer Stewart Lehman, who conducted the Taser training for the BART police, told the jury that Mehserle took the state-mandated six hours of training, and that he also had a couple of hours of hands-on experience.

Because cartridges for the Taser are costly, however, the department restricted the number of times the device could be discharged during training exercises, and that not every officer in the BART force was able to use a Taser in training.

Lehman also testified that Mehserle was shown four positions on his belt and leg that were approved for carrying the Taser specifically to avoid confusion with his gun. Mehserle used the method of placing his Taser on the left side of his belt, so he could use a cross-over draw when he needed to access it.

Prosectuors asked Lehman, who had been called by the defense, to demonstrate that drawing a Taser is different from drawing a handgun. He also said under oath that when using the device, an officer is required to alert colleagues by saying “Taser, Taser, Taser.”

Additionally, Mehserle’s partner, Jon Woffinden, testified that the defendant never mentioned to him that he had shot Grant accidentally.

Man Sues Mining Company, Others For Loss of Leg and Genitalia

Monday, August 16th, 2010

A West Virginia couple are bringing a lawsuit against the husband’s employer, Speed Mining, seeking damages for the loss of his leg and genitalia during a coal mine accident at the underground American Eagle Mine.

Jason D. O’Neal, who worked as an electrician for Speed Mining, claims that he experienced “catastrophic injuries” when a coal shuttle ran over his torso on June 20, 2009. He lost one leg and a significant portion of his torso, including his genitalia, the suit states. This has resulted in lost wages; lost earning capacity; lost enjoyment of life; pain; suffering; mental anguish; disfigurement; and incurred medical costs.

Andrea O’Neal and the couple’s three young children have additional lost their husband and father’s affection, care, income, services and duties.

The O’Neals say that Speed Mining was negligent in creating an unsafe working condition; knew that the work environment was hazardous and unsafe; violated federal and state laws; and intentionally exposed Jason O’Neal to unsafe working conditions. Also named in the suit are Patriot Coal Corporation, The Baughan Group, Coal Age Incorporated and Joy Technologies. According to the lawsuit, Patriot Coal negligently failed to exercise reasonable care; the other defendants are accused of having provided a defective shuttle car.

The Baughn Group denies the allegations against it and says that Jason O’Neal caused the accident himself through misconduct. Speed Mining and Patriot Coal also gainsay responsibility for the incident, claiming that no unsafe conditions existed, and that the fault lies with O’Neal.

The defendants removed the suit to U.S. District Court, because a diversity of citizenship exists between the defendants and the plaintiffs, and because the plaintiffs seek more than $75,000—although the amount the O’Neals are seeking remains unspecified.

The couple, who originally filed the suit in Wyoming Circuit Court, would like to see the case remanded to that jurisdiction, saying that the defendant Coal Age Incorporated based its citizenship on that of its parent company, the North-Carolina based Baughn Group. Their motion to remand says that the defendant’s parent company cannot be used to establish diversity for a federal jurisdiction.

CAI has countered with the assertion that most of its company’s business decisions are conducted in North Carolina, where its president lives, and it can therefore be considered a North Carolina corporation—thereby making the case eligible for a federal district court trial. Lawyers for CAI cite a precedent in Hertz Corp. v Friend, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the principal place of business should be deemed to the state where top officers make decisions, not the one in which the bulk of that company’s practices take place.

The O’Neals are also seeking punitive damages, loss of consortium and other relief.

Officer On Leave After Arresting Man Who Was Rushing Wife to ER

Friday, August 13th, 2010

A Chattanooga, Tennessee police officer who arrested and allegedly threatened a man who was speeding en route to the hospital has been placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation.

Officer James Daves will remain on leave until the conclusion of an internal affairs study of the incident, in which Daves followed newlyweds Eric “Jessie” Wright and his wife Aline to the Erlanger Medical Center after pursuing them through the city.

The Wrights were rushing to the emergency room at Erlanger, where they both were employed, because Aline was experiencing stroke-like symptoms, including numbness in her arms and drooping facial muscles. She was at an elevated risk for having a stroke because of chemotherapy drugs; Aline had already lost a leg to cancer.

Jessie Wright, who is a trained emergency medic, had taken his wife’s vital signs and made the decision to transport her to the medical center by car, since transport by ambulance would have taken an extra 20 or 30 minutes, he said. After carrying Aline to their vehicle, he called the hospital to let them know they were coming. He drove with emergency blinkers on, sounded his horn and was “cautious” in running three red lights.

Daves, driving a Chattanooga Police Department vehicle, fell in behind Wright at an intersection and turned on his lights and siren. Wright did not stop, however, because he was so close to the hospital. When he arrived there, he carried his wife into the emergency room.

According to Wright, Daves then confronted him, using obscenities, threatening felony charges against him, and saying that he was “going to send me to jail.”

In an affadavit, Daves wrote that the “defendant stopped in the ER entrance and jumped out and ran. Police made contact with Defendant at the passenger side of the vehicle and I grabbed the defendant’s arm and he pushed me away scraping my arm with his fingernail. Defendant yelled and said it was an emergency.”

“Defendant pushed through the crowd and carried a female back into the emergency room and placed her in a room with no permission of the hospital staff,” wrote Daves, adding that Wright’s registration was expired.

Wright was eventually taken into custody and booked into Hamilton County jail, where he spent several hours before being released on $7,500 bail. He is charged with seven felonies. His wife, Aline, was released from the hospital. Although she had experienced stroke-like symptoms, she was not diagnosed with having had an actual stroke.

Wright says that Daves “was trumping up charges to get back at me,” and that his actions had endangered Aline’s life. Until the internal investigation concludes, Daves remains on paid administrative leave from the Chattanooga Police Department.

Alleged Cannibal Charged With Killing Cellmate, Eating His Lung

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

A French inmate who is charged with murder and acts of barbarism after stabbing, suffocating and cannibalizing a fellow prisoner has gone on trial in the city of Rouen, France.

Thierry Baudry was found on January 3, 2007 by a prison guard. The 41-year-old had been brutally beaten and mutilated, with two of his chest muscles and part of his left lung missing. Accused of the grisly crime is his cellmate, Nicolas Cocaign, 39, who according to defense attorneys had repeatedly requested psychiatric help in the weeks leading up to the killing.

Instead, a fight between the two over a matter of personal hygeine led him to punching Baudry in the stomach and face, as well as stabbing him with a pair of scissors. He then suffocated him with a garbage bag before cutting open his chest, breaking his rib, and removing what he thought was the dead man’s heart. He ate a piece of the organ—which turned out to be his left lung—raw, then fried another piece on a portable camping stove, adding salt, pepper, olive oil and onions.

Asked about his motive, Cocaign initially said that the “inner workings of Baudry’s personality” fascinated him, and that he “wanted to take his soul.” Later, however, he admitted that he was “curious to see what he taste[d] like.”

After the charges were read against him, Cocaign took responsibility for the slaying but claimed diminished responsibility because of his mental state. He has been hospitalized three times between 1997 and 2007 for psychiatric conditions, after having forced his wife to take part in sadomasochistic sex against her will.

Defense attorney Fabien Picchiottino, said during the trial that Cocaign suffered from “severe psychological problems” and should be in a “psychiatric institute and not a prison.” He also added that his client had been abandoned by his mother at a very young age and had experienced numerous run-ins with the law during both his youth and adulthood. Cocaign himself said in court that he is now getting treatment, and that he feels “stable.”

Cocaign was in the Rouen prison for armed attempted rape. His victim was serving time on charges of sexual assault.

A third inmate, David Lagrue, was present in the cell at the time and witnessed the killing. Initially suspected of complicity but later cleared, Lagrue was so disturbed by the incident that he committed suicide in another correctional facility in November 2009.

Prolonged, Racially Divided Legal Battle Ends In Sixth Conviction, Third Death Sentence

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

After 13 years in the legal system, and six separate trials, Curtis Flowers has again been convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection for the 1996 deaths of four furniture-store employees in rural, racially divided Winona, Mississippi.

It took only half an hour for the jury—composed of seven women and five men, only one of whom was black—to return the guilty verdict on four counts of murder, one each for victims Bertha Tardy, 59; Carmen Rigby, 45; Robert Golden, 42; and Derrick “Bobo” Stewart, 16. The verdict was returned on Friday; the sentence came after an hour and a half of deliberation on Saturday.

Flowers, who is black, has been on trial five times before. The first two trials’ convictions were reversed because of prosecutorial misconduct; a conviction in the third was reversed because of racial discrimination during jury selection. The fourth trial resulted in a hung jury, with jurors divived 5-7 along racial lines. The fifth trial ended in a mistrial, after one juror refused to convict Flowers. Twice before, Flowers has received the death penalty for the shootings, but each time that, too, was overturned.

Some residents of Winona, most supporters of the defendant, have claimed that race factored heavily into the case from the beginning, saying that if the jury selection more accurately reflected the racial makeup of the area—Montgomery County is approximately 45 percent black—Flowers would have had fairer trials. During jury selection for the most recent trial, some blacks in the jury pool were dismissed because they had personal ties to Flowers or his family, or because they did not want to consider the death penalty.

A recent study conducted by the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit based in Montgomery, Alabama, found that “all-white juries tend to spend less time deliberating, make more errors, and consider fewer perspectives” than racially mixed juries. Additionally, the Initiative says, peremptory strikes and support of the death penalty also fall along racial lines.

Families of the victims, however, disagree that race played a role in either the shootings or the prosecution of them, especially since one of the victims, Robert Golden, was himself black.

Several witnesses for the prosecution claim to have seen Flowers the morning of July 16, 1996. One woman said that she saw him in a factory parking lot near his uncle’s car; the uncle, Doyle Simpson, also testified that a pistol had been stolen from the car that morning. Neither Simpon’s .380-caliber pistol nor the murder weapon were ever recovered. Another woman testified that she saw the defendant running from the store around the time of the killings, a testimony that was rebutted by that of her sister, who claimed the woman was visiting her that morning.

Other circumstantial evidence, including a bloody shoe print, tied Flowers to the crime, although the shoes that made that print were never found. Prosecutors also said that Flowers held a grudge against the owners of Tardy’s Furniture Store, from which he had been fired for damaging merchandise earlier that summer.

Under Mississippi law, the death sentence will trigger an automatic appeal.

Erie County Reaches Accord with Justice Department In Inmate Suicide Case

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Authorities with the Department of Justice have reached an agreement with Erie County over improvements to be made at the Buffalo, New York Holding Center, where several inmates have committed suicide over the past several years.

The deal stems from a court case, United States v. Erie County, which alleges that the county has failed to protect inmate rights. The agreement must first be approved by U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny, who is overseeing the case, before it will have the force of a court order.

Five inmates in Erie County have killed themselves since 2008, and a sixth remains hospitalized after a recent suicide attempt. A report issued by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care in 2008 found that the cells in the Holding Center offered “multiple ways to facilitate committing suicide, including using the steel beds, wall plates that are lifted from the wall, handicapped bars, bars on windows, etc.”

As a result of the agreement, cells will undergo several modifications, including retrofitting of bunk bed platforms; installation of plexiglass in front of window bars; and replacing air vents with grates. The air vents were identified as facilitating suicide attempts as far back as 2004.

The county will also ensure training of corrections staff and more thorough suicide screening and prevention programs, and will hire a contractor to monitor compliance with the settlement. The modifications have already begun, and they are expected to be complete by June 1, 2011.

Called the “Stipulated Settlement Agreement and Order,” the pact does not completely settle the legal case, but does address the charges that the county has failed to protect its inmates from self-harm. The Justice Department is also alleging that the Erie County criminal justice system allows staff members to use excessive force and to ignore or incite fights; provides poor medical and mental health care; and tolerates unsanitary conditions.

Inmates have a higher likelihood than the general population to attempt suicide. Three of the men who recently took their own lives in Erie County were suffering withdrawal from narcotics, which has led to the implementation of a dormitory-style detoxification unit. Under the settlement, addiction and detoxification training would also be given to staff, and nurses would carefully monitor the condition of any inmate coming down off dangerous drugs.

One of the terms of the agreement was that the county not be obliged to admit constitutional violations, due to officials’ concern that if they were to admit such violations, Erie County would open itself up to a rash of inmate lawsuits.

Convicted Killer of Four Admits to Also Killing Foster Son

Monday, August 9th, 2010

An elderly convict who was responsible for the decades-old deaths of two couples, one in Ohio and one in Wisconsin, has now said that he also shot to death a young man that he considered a foster son.

Edward W. Edwards, 77, was arrested in July 2009 in connection with the killings of William Lavaco, 21, of Doylestown, OH, and Judith Straub, 18, of Sterling Ohio. Both were killed in 1977. He also pleaded guilty to the1980 murders of Tim Hack and Kelly Drew, both 19, in Wisconsin.

Edwards will be sentenced next week for the death of Hack and Drew; he faces two terms of life imprisonment, as Wisconsin does not have the death penalty. An Ohio jury has already sentenced Edwards to two life terms. Although Ohio currently supports the death penalty in certain homicide cases, Edwards is not eligible because the state’s death penalty statues were invalidated by a Supreme Court ruling in the years between 1974 and 1978.

Now, saying that he would rather be executed than live out his life in prison, Edwards has confessed to the murder of 24-year-old Dannie Boy Edwards, who legally changed his name from Dannie Law Gloeckner after being taken in by Edwards and his wife, Kay Edwards, in the mid-1990s. Shortly thereafter, according to Edwards, Dannie Boy began stealing credit cards and other valuables from the family. Additionally, Edwards had taken out a life insurance policy on Dannie Boy, worth approximately $183,000.

In a recent interview, Edwards described how he lured the young man to an Ohio cemetary, and shot him twice in the chest with a 20-gauge shotgun. He then buried the body in a shallow grave. Dannie Boy’s body was found in 1997, but no one has ever been charged in connection with his murder. Investigators are still trying to corroborate Edwards’ story.

Edwards has a long history of lawbreaking, including stealing cars, robbing banks and gas stations, and conning women as he traveled across the country. After landing on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list in 1961, he was captured by federal agents and sent to federal prisons in Leavenworth, Kansas and Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. He also wrote an autobiography entitled “Metamorphosis of a Criminal,” in which he detailed his life of crime.

Even if he is convicted of killing Dannie Boy, Edwards may not receive the death penalty. Ohio juries must find suspects guilty of a secondary offense such as arson, rape or aggravated robbery, on top of aggravated murder, in order to recommend the death penalty. Although judges have the final say in sentencing, it’s rare that they override a jury’s recommendation.

Review of Racy Text Messages Was Not Unreasonable, Rules High Court

Friday, August 6th, 2010

The United States Supreme Court has ruled in the case of a California police officer who was disciplined for sending sexually explicit text messages on his government-issued text pager—and it has ruled in favor of the police department that searched those messages.

Ontario, California police Sgt. Jeff Quon had claimed that his privacy was violated when the chief of police ordered a review of pager transcripts after he grew tired of officers exceeded the texting limits. Quon and his colleagues paid for the overages out of their own pockets, but the officials said they ordered the review “to determine whether the city’s monthly character limit was insufficient to cover business-related messages.”

What they found was that Quon had been using the two-way wireless device to send personal messages to his wife, his fellow officer and his girlfriend—some of which were sexual in nature. In one month, the sergeant sent and received 456 messages while on duty, only 50 or so of which were deemed work-related. Quon then sued, claiming that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy when using the device, despite the fact that it was issued by his employer. His attorneys cited the Fourth Amendment, which guards against “unreasonable search and seizure,” a tenet that has previously been upheld by courts in cases regarding private communications that are transmitted through public channels.

The Supreme Court, however, said that the search was justified by its business-related nature, combined with the fact that the pagers were government property, and therefore “did not violate Quon’s Fourth Amendment rights.”

“Because the search was motivated by a legitimate work-related purpose, and because it was not excessive in scope, the search was reasonable,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy. The decision of the justices was unanimous.

Quon and his fellow officers had signed a statement acknowledging their understanding of the police department’s “Computer Usage, Internet and E-mail Policy,” which stated that using electronic methods of communication in a personal context was a violation of city policy. Yet city employees have argued that the reality was more lax, allowing them to use the texting devices as they liked, as long as they paid for their overage charges

Quon’s lawsuit alleging invasion of privacy will most likely be dismissed by lower courts; additionally, he is expected to face disciplinary action from the department.

“The court also concludes that the search would be regarded as reasonable and normal in the private-employer context,” added Kennedy.

Cornell Grad Student Sentenced for Wife’s Slaying

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

A Cornell University graduate student who was convicted in April of killing his wife—just months after their wedding—has been sentenced to up to life in prison.

Blazej Kot, 25, a doctoral candidate studying information science at the Ivy League school, had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to the murder of his wife, Carolyn Coffee. A jury had convicted Kot of second-degree murder, arson and tampering with evidence after a three-week trial.

According to his attorney, Kot had suffered from depression, paranoia, and other acute symptoms, all related to a syndrome called Capgras delusion. Classified as a misidentification syndrome that is common in patients who are diagnosed with schizophrenia, but that also occurs as a result of brain injury and dementia, Capgras delusion is a disorder in which the person believes that a friend or relative has been replaced by an identical imposter.

Kot, who was born to Polish parents but who was a New Zealand resident in the U.S. on a student visa, had taken a leave of absence from his doctoral program in order to work at a business startup, claimed that 60- to 80-hour work weeks combined with financial stress contributed to his mental illness. The delusion that Coffey had been replaced by an imposter led him to slash her throat on a recreational trail located a few hundred yards from their Ithaca, New York apartment in June 2009. According to authorities, Kot later set fire to the apartment in an attempt to cover up the crime. He also led law enforcement on a high-speed chase after a state park officer noticed Kot sitting in a car with blood on his arms. During the five-mile pursuit, Kot attempted to slash his own throat, but was airlifted to a hospital.

Kot and Coffee had met at Cornell University, where Coffey was a postdoctoral researcher, and the pair married in October 2008.

At the sentencing hearing before Thompkins County Court Judge John Rowley, Michael Coffey placed an urn containing his daughter’s ashes on a table and asked that Kot receive the maximum penalty for his crime. The judge sentenced the 25-year-old to up to life in prison on the murder charge, as well as a year in prison for each of the lesser charges.

Kot apologized to the victim’s family during the hearing, telling them that he loved her and that he hoped to recover from mental illness with treatment.

Jailed Mobster Says He Can Prove That Knox Is Innocent

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

An Italian mobster who is currently serving 17 years in prison says he can provide the evidence to exonerate American student Amanda Knox in the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher.

Luciano Aviello, 41, who is incarcerated because of his connection with the Camorra crime family, claims that it was his brother, not Knox, who killed the 21-year-old Kercher and left her semi-naked in the Perugia, Italy house the girls shared. Kercher, who was British, was found with her throat slashed, multiple knife wounds to her neck and hands and multiple bruises. A coroner’s report also indicated that she had been sexually assaulted.

Knox and her former boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, 25, are both serving sentences—of 26 and 25 years, respectively—for the murder of Kercher, which prosecutors said was the result of a sex game gone awry. Both Knox and Sollecito, who had only been dating for about two weeks at the time of the murder, have steadfastly maintained their innocence, although Knox was criticized for what many deemed inappropriate behavior after the murder, including turning cartwheels, cracking jokes and laughing. .

A third person, Ivory Coast native Rudy Guede, pleaded guilty to the murder and is serving 16 years in prison.

Aviello, who was not in prison in the fall of 2007 when Kercher was killed, attests that his brother came to his house, wearing a bloodstained jacket and carrying a knife, and told him that he had killed “the poor English girl” during a failed robbery attempt. He also said that he buried the knife and a set of keys under a wall behind his house, and could use that evidence to clear Knox’s name.

During the course of Knox’s trial, which concluded in December 2009 with her conviction, Allevio sent three letters to the court, attempting to refute the involvement of Knox, Sollecito and Guede. Italian prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, however, says that Aviello’s claims are invalid, and that the court has already determined that the mobster isn’t credible.

Nevertheless, an investigation is ongoing. Aviello contacted Knox’s lawyers last March, who visited him in prison and videotaped interviews with him. One of those lawyers, Carlo Dalla Vedova, says that he hopes Aviello will be allowed to testify at an appeal hearing which will be held for the American woman next fall. While filing the appeal, Dalla Vedova cited the fact that Aviello’s letters were not presented during Knox’s trial as grounds for reopening the case.

Aviello did not reveal his brother’s name or whereabouts.