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October 31, 2013

"Rape acquittals spur calls for law change: Nelson Bernard Clifford has been cleared by four juries since 2011"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable Baltimore Sun article which gets to the heart of some of the issues we have been reviewing this week.  Here are excerpts:

A string of acquittals for a man accused of raping several Baltimore women has renewed a debate over whether the law should be changed to help prosecutors secure sex offense convictions.

Nelson Bernard Clifford, 35, has been cleared in four trials in Baltimore City Circuit Court since 2011. Each time his accusers have testified, but Clifford has said in court that all his encounters were consensual.

Prosecutors have attempted in various ways to show juries a pattern, but have been stymied by city judges, who have rejected attempts by prosecutors to join separate cases together, or to call witnesses to testify about assaults other than the one being tried. State law protects defendants from having to face evidence about their character or any previous crimes in which they were implicated.

Congress changed the federal rules for rape cases two decades ago in an attempt to make it easier to secure convictions. Several states have followed suit. Maryland is not among them.

Marilyn Mosby, who plans to challenge Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein in next year's Democratic primary, has raised the Clifford cases as an issue. She said Tuesday morning that there is a "glaring need" for the General Assembly to change the rules. "Once a jury is blocked from hearing about somebody like Clifford's past convictions, people like him are free to claim that the sexual assault was consensual, which significantly diminishes the prosecutorial impact of DNA evidence," Mosby said.

A spokesman for the state's attorney said Bernstein would support a change in the law. Spokesman Mark Cheshire pointed out that in the most recent case against Clifford, prosecutors sought to tell jurors about other allegations against him. Prosecutors attempted to discuss eight other incidents in which they say Clifford broke into a home and sexually assaulted a woman, according to court filings. They wrote that the evidence would show Clifford had a plan that he executed repeatedly. "Under the existing evidentiary rules other criminal evidence is admissible in certain circumstances," Cheshire said. "We believe other crime evidence was admissible in the Clifford case but we were ultimately denied."...

Russell A. Neverdon Sr., a private defense attorney who also has said he plans to run against Bernstein, said the existing rules, which allow other allegations to be raised under limited circumstances, are sufficient. "As a prosecutor you have an arsenal that's already there," Neverdon said. "You've just got to make sure it's a solid argument."

But Lisae C. Jordan, the executive director of Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said Maryland's judges err on the side of protecting defendants. She said they do not give rape victims a fair chance at winning justice in the courts. "It's all a question of balance, and unfortunately, right now we don't have balance at all," Jordan said. "We completely favor the defendant."

Congress rewrote the federal rules on evidence in rape cases in 1994, over the objections of judges and defense attorneys. The General Assembly has considered several bills that would make it easier to introduce evidence of other attacks in sexual abuse cases, but only those in which the victim was a child. None have passed.

State Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, the vice chairwoman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said that the legislature should not make changes to the rules on the basis of a single "bad case." The Baltimore Democrat, who is a defense attorney, warned that such changes could spill over into other types of offenses and undermine defendants' rights. "I don't like messing around with the rules of evidence," Gladden said. "If you can't get a conviction, fix your case."

October 31, 2013 in Class reflections, Course materials and schedule, Notable real cases | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 30, 2013

Could Matthew Cordle and his video have actually saved lots of lives in Ohio?

The question in the title of this post was my class-specific reaction to this report in today's Columbus Dispatch headlined "Ohio traffic deaths could hit record low." The article begins this way:

With some luck, Ohio could dip below 1,000 traffic fatalities this year for the first time since the state began keeping records.  The State Highway Patrol says there were 823 traffic deaths through Monday, the lowest number since 2011, when the year-end toll was 1,016.

October 30, 2013 in Class reflections, Crime data | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 28, 2013

Rape role-play plans (and a link to an extra reading about the MPC need for reform)

I am very pleased to see and report that we already have two legislative sub-committees formed to start working on needed revisions to Oliwood rape law.  I have given silly names/labels to the groups for ease of reference:

Mid-Back Oliwood Rape Reform Drafting Subcommittee (MORR) is comprised of Katherine U., Alia S., Kristen M. and Elizabeth Y.

Front-Side Oliwood Rape Reform Drafting Subcommittee (FORR) is comprised of Kristin V., Melanie L., Kayla E. and Tresha P. (and now also Alaina P.)

Though not essential, it would be valuable to have at least one more group working on draft legislation along with the MORR and FORR Subcommittees. That way there can be three (distinct?) proposed new rape statutes for the full Oliwood Criminal Justice Reform Committee (which is our class) to consider and vote on for moving forward with further review and revision in the process of bringing a working reform bill to the floor of the full Oliwood legislature.

On Friday, each subcommittee will have about 10 minutes to present their proposed reformed rape statute (and, ideally, these proposed statutes can be sent my way for posting at least a few hours before our Friday class session).

In the meantime, every member of the Oliwood legislature can and should benefit from reviewing this short (and very informative) 2003 article published in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law authored by Professor Deborah W. Denno titled "Why the Model Penal Code’s Sexual Offense Provisions Should Be Pulled and Replaced."

UPDATE:  The comments to this post reveal the emergence of two more legislative sub-committees,  which I have given a few more silly names/labels ease of reference:

Boy-Based Oliwood Rape Reform Drafting Subcommittee (BORR) is comprised of Chris S., T. Elliot G. and Matt R.

Co-ed Oliwood Rape Reform Drafting Subcommittee (CORR) is comprised of Ben W., Kelly F. and Morgan C.

Because I think that having more than four drafts could get unwieldy, I hope that anyone else eager to be involved in the drafting experience join one of the existing subcommittee.  And, absent any special requests by any subcommittee, I will plan to have the subcommittees present their proposals in alphabetical order.

October 28, 2013 in Course materials and schedule, Recommended scholarship | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Plans for big transitions and activities in days and weeks ahead

In part because it seem there are few remaining burning questions about homicide issues (at least few noted in response to this post) and in part because we have lots of exciting topics to get to ASAP, I am expecting and hoping everyone is rested and ready to roll on our next set of topics.  And, of critical importance for those who have not yet been involved in a role-play, we are due to have one exciting legislative experience this Friday and another one (or maybe even two, if needed) tentatively slated for just before Thanksgiving.

Here are a few (tentative) basics about the coming schedule and role-plays so you can plan accordingly and effectively, both to ensure you are keeping up with the reading and being involved in at least one role-play (which is a requirement to complete the course successfully):

Week of 10/28:  Broad discussion of past, present, future of modern rape law, ending with legislative role-play on Friday (11/1). 

Weeks of 11/4 and 11/11: Focused discussion of defenses, with special attention on self-defense and contrasts between MPC and Ohio approaches to defenses.  This unit ends with lawyering role-play involving representation of modern-day Tom Dudley.

Weeks of 11/18 and beyondAttempt and complicity materials, including a lawyering role-play (if needed) involving representation of persons accused of being accomplices in a rape.

October 28, 2013 in Course materials and schedule, Preparing for the final | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

October 24, 2013

If you were an Ohio prosecutor ... would you have accepted a plea deal to involuntary manslaught for Ali Salim?

The question in the title of this post is my effort to suggest that you consider whether, were you an Ohio prosecutor, you would have signed off on the plea deal discussed in this Columbus Dispatch article under the headlined "Doctor takes plea deal, avoids trial in pregnant woman’s death."  Here are the details:

The Columbus doctor accused of killing and raping a pregnant Pataskala mother took a plea deal with prosecutors this morning, pleading guilty to reduced charges of involuntary manslaughter.

Ali Salim, 44, of the North East Side, had been charged with two counts of murder for the deaths of 23-year-old Deanna Ballman and her unborn daughter. Salim was also charged with kidnapping, drugging and raping Ballman before he killed her, with abusing her corpse and with tampering with evidence.

Under the plea agreement reached with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and with abusing Ballman's corpse. He entered an Alford plea to the charge that he raped Ballman. An Alford plea means that Salim maintains his innocence, but concedes that the prosecution has enough evidence to convict him.

Sentencing is set for Dec. 20.  Salim faces up to 37 years in prison. His trial was set to begin on Tuesday.

As Salim acknowledged his guilty pleas to each charge, Ballman's mother sat in the courtroom and brushed tears from her eyes.

Ballman’s body was found in the backseat of her car in August 2012, a day after she told her mother she was answering a Craigslist ad to clean a house.  Ballman left her two young children, then 1 and 3, with her mother.  She was nine months pregnant when she died.

Investigators say Salim injected heroin into Ballman’s leg, then raped her. An autopsy showed she died of a heroin overdose. Salim’s medical license has been suspended, but until his arrest, he was an emergency-department psychiatrist at Knox Community Hospital in Mount Vernon.  He had been on house arrest at his home near New Albany and was being monitored by a GPS tracking device.

In addition to encouraging folks to consider whether they would have taken this deal if they were prosecutors, think also about why the real prosecutors here did take this deal. Think also, of course, about what sentence might be recommended by the parties come sentencing in a few months.  (This AP article about the case provides some more details you might want also to review/consider.)

October 24, 2013 in Notable real cases | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

October 23, 2013

Any lingering/burning questions about homicide (e.g., how would Joe Shooter be prosecuted)?

Especially because lots of additional doctrines and ideas are going to come at you fast over the next few weeks, right now would be an especially good time to review the doctrines and lessons of the homicide unit that has occupied our energies over the last few weeks.  Folks with any burning questions or concerns can bring them up in the comments to this post (or, of course, contact me in person).

Among the ways students might very usefully review this until would be to go back to the Joe Shooter facts and imagine how they would respond to those facts on an exam if I were to ask what possible charges might be brought against Shooter by an Ohio and/or Oliwood prosecutor and what challenges would such a prosecutor face in making various charges "stick."

October 23, 2013 in Class reflections, Preparing for the final | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Matthew Cordle to learn his Ohio sentencing fate today ... and student research provides nationwide perspectives

This new AP article, headlined "Victim's daughter to speak at sentencing for Ohio man who confessed in video after fatal crash," reports on some of what can be expected in today's high-profile state sentencing case:

The daughter of a man killed by a drunken driver who later confessed his crime in an online video was expected to offer her first in-depth comments about the impact of the accident on her and her family. Angela Canzani was scheduled to appear Wednesday in Franklin County Court at the sentencing for Matthew Cordle. In a brief TV interview last month, she said Cordle's YouTube confession, viewed more than 2.2 million times, has taken the focus off her father, 61-year-old Vincent Canzani.

Cordle, 22, faces eight years in prison, a $15,000 fine and loss of driving privileges for life. He pleaded guilty last month to aggravated vehicular homicide and driving a vehicle under the influence of alcohol. His blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit of 0.08.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien is pushing for the maximum, saying Cordle drove that night despite knowing he had a history of blackouts after heavy drinking. O'Brien also says the average sentence for similar crimes in the central Ohio county is about eight years. O'Brien also cites Cordle's refusal to submit to a blood-alcohol test after the accident as justifying the maximum. Prosecutors had to obtain a court order to do the test.

Cordle's attorneys have asked Judge David Fais for a sentence well below the maximum. They say that would send a message about the importance of taking responsibility for a tragedy.... As prosecutors waited for lab results for alcohol and drugs, Cordle decided to forego the usual court process and plead guilty as soon as he was charged. His attorneys agreed with his plan, but against their advice, he also made an online video confessing to the accident.

Meanwhile, as everyone prepares for this real sentencing, nearly 20 students completed research on how they believe the Cordle case could and would be handled in a variety of states around the country.  Three students focused specifically on Ohio, while lots of other states got covered in submissions, too.  I have combined all the submissions in one big (24-page!) Word document for downloading here: 

Download Updated Cordle Multi-State Compilation for Class Blog

UPDATE:  As I think I had roughly predicted, at sentencing today Matthew Cordle got neither the maximum nor the minimum sentence provided by law, but he still got a stiff state prison term closer to the max than the min.  Here is a CBS News report:

Matthew Cordle, the Ohio man who videotaped himself confessing to killing a man while he was driving drunk has been sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison and a lifetime loss of driving privileges.

Cordle, 22, had pleaded guilty to killing Vincent Canzani of suburban Columbus in a wrong-way crash on June 22. In his video, which has drawn more than 2 million hits on YouTube, Cordle says that although he may have been able to "get off" or "get a reduced sentence," he didn't want to "dishonor Vincent's memory by lying about what happened."...

However, last week Cordle's attorneys asked Judge Davie Fais to sentence Cordle to less than the eight-and-a-half year maximum allowable for the crime. Fais sentenced Cordle to six months for driving under the influence of alcohol and six years for aggravated vehicular homicide. The judge revoked his driving privileges for life, which the Associates Press reports is required by state law.

At the sentencing, the judge read from letters he received from people whose lives were affected by drunk driving and at one point said he would like to see Matthew's face on a billboard about the dangers of drunk driving. One of Cordle's attorneys asked the judge to consider that "a lot of people could learn a lesson from the message Matthew has sent," and that his video's message of responsibility would have wide-ranging positive effect on others.

Angela Canzani, the victim's daughter, spoke at the sentencing, saying she hoped Cordle got the maximum amount of time in prison for killing her father. "My father got a death sentence and did nothing wrong," said Canzani. "After eight and half years, Matthew Cordle will still have his whole life ahead of him, my father is never coming back." She also said that she did not want the court to send the message that you can "hit and kill someone," then apologize and "get leniency."...

Matthew Cordle was the last person to speak before the judge pronounced his sentence. He read his statement from a yellow piece of paper that had been folded into a pocket on his khaki prison uniform shirt. "The true punishment is simpy living, living with the knowledge that I took an innocent life," said Cordle. "That pain and weight will never go away."

ANOTHER UPDATE: Elizabeth has been having a hard time getting her comments to post, and she sent me this comment that I thought should be placed up here:

After reading all the student contributions here are the *rough* recommendations/predictions coming from the states:

• Arizona: Manslaughter 3-10 years

• California: Gross Vehicular Manslaughter

• Guam: No Consensus

• Indiana: Vehicular Homicide

• Kansas: Second-Degree Murder

• Kentucky: Second-Degree Murder

• Michigan: More severe than Ohio

• Nevada: DUI Causing Injury or Death, 2-20 years

• New York: More severe than Ohio

• North Carolina: Felony Death by Vehicle, Less than 64 months

• Oliwood: Murder/Manslaughter, Manslaughter, 10 years

• South Carolina: Felony DUI - 6-10 Years

• Texas: Intoxication Manslaughter, 2-20 years

• Wisconsin: Homicide by intoxicated Use of a Vehicle, Class D Felony

An interesting note was repeated throughout discussion of whether the act of drunk driving actually constitutes extreme indifference to the value of human life, replicated throughout many state statutes, including Kansas, Kentucky and Arizona, in order to brand Cordle a murderer. From the viewpoint of the victim and the prosecution, it seems far easier to say yes. From the viewpoint of a perpetrator, I highly doubt they would admit, to themselves or otherwise, that that "indifference" is what consciously went through their mind. This caveat could be open to endless debate, and the ability to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury being highly dependent on the "likeability" of the perpetrator.

October 23, 2013 in Class reflections, Course materials and schedule, Notable real cases | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

October 22, 2013

Comments seem to be working again, so let's start felony murder (repeal?) discussion

I am pleased to report that, at least on my laptop, the comment function appears to be operational for this blog again.  Inspired by that great reality, I thought it would be useful to begin here a discussion of the always controversial topic of felony murder (and its JV version, misdemeanor manslaugher). 

Specifically, drawing on an amusing little editorial complaining about an Illinois decision about the doctrine from a few years ago, I wonder if I could build support among students to seek to abolish both felony murder and misdemeanor manslaugher doctrines in Ohio.  To begin, I urge everyone to read this commentary, headlined "It's a Bird, it's a Plane, it's Felony Murder." Then, based on the points made therein, I wonder if anyone would support a proposal to repeal Ohio Revised Code Subsection 2903.02(B) and all of Ohio Revised Code Section 2903.04.

October 22, 2013 in Class reflections, Course materials and schedule, Reflections on class readings | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

October 17, 2013

"Public sex act sparks online debate, criminal investigation"

Though we are not going to start discuss sex offenses until next week (at the earliest), I wanted stil to post ASAP this new Columbus Dispatch article reporting on a high-profile Ohio case that might hit close to home (especially for any OU grads).  This article has the headline in the title of this post, and here are the basics:

Athens police haven’t yet figured out whether public sex between a man and a female Ohio University student along one of the city’s main streets early Saturday was a rape.   But that hasn’t slowed down a firestorm of comment and worldwide media attention.

The 20-year-old woman filed a police report on Sunday, saying that the oral sex the man performed on her sometime between 1 and 6 a.m. as she leaned against a Court Street bank building was not consensual.  She filed the report after photos and video of the incident by passers-by were widely shared on social media such as Instagram and Twitter. The posts sparked a flood of online reactions, some slamming onlookers for watching and recording but not intervening.

OU Police Chief Andrew Powers was quoted in the student newspaper, The Post, as criticizing the gawkers for watching the sex “instead of getting involved and trying to help the victim.”

By yesterday morning, the story had been picked up by newspapers as far away as the Daily Mail of London and the New York Daily News.  The major media focus has been on the social-media aspect of the case and the fact that the sex took place a short distance from the city police station in full view of a small crowd of people who were out for OU’s homecoming weekend celebration.

Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle said yesterday that his agency has obtained images of the sexual encounter and has spoken with both the woman and the man, both of whom are cooperating with the investigation.  He said he did not know whether the man also is an OU student or whether he and the woman were acquainted.  The main objective at the moment, he said, is to determine whether the woman gave consent or was in a condition to do so.  If she was excessively intoxicated, she might have been legally unable to consent.

October 17, 2013 in Course materials and schedule, Notable real cases | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 16, 2013

Legal highlights (via Wikipedia) after The Station nightclub fire, a variation on the Cocoanut Grove fire

Wikipedia has this decent entry on the fire that led to Welasky's trial and conviction, although real historians can and should take the time to do more research on the story if so interested.  And I mention the most recent modern variation on these sad facts, which happened in Rhode Island in 2003 at The Station nightclub.  Here are the basic facts of that case and the legal aftermath (drawn from this Wikipedia entry):

The Station Nightclub fire was the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history, killing 100 people. The fire began at 11:07 PM EST, on Thursday, February 20, 2003, at The Station, a glam metal and rock and roll themed nightclub located at 211 Cowesett Avenue in West Warwick, Rhode Island.

The fire was caused by pyrotechnics set off by the tour manager of the evening's headlining band, Jack Russell's Great White, which ignited flammable sound insulation foam in the walls and ceilings surrounding the stage. A fast-moving fire engulfed the club in 5½ minutes. In addition to the 100 fatalities, some 230 people were injured and another 132 escaped uninjured....

In the days after the fire, there were considerable efforts to assign and avoid blame on the part of the band, the nightclub owners, the manufacturers and distributors of the foam material and pyrotechnics, and the concert promoters. Through attorneys, club owners said they did not give permission to the band to use pyrotechnics. Band members claimed they had permission....

On December 9, 2003, brothers Jeffrey A. and Michael A. Derderian, the two owners of The Station nightclub, and Daniel M. Biechele, Great White's former road manager, were charged with 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter — two per death, because they were indicted under two separate theories of the crime: criminal-negligence manslaughter (resulting from a legal act in which the accused ignores the risks to others and someone is killed) and misdemeanor manslaughter (resulting from a petty crime that causes a death)....

The first criminal trial was against Great White's tour manager at the time, Daniel Michel Biechele, 29, from Orlando, Florida. This trial was scheduled to start May 1, 2006, but Biechele, against his lawyers' advice, pled guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter on February 7, 2006, in what he said was an effort to "bring peace, I want this to be over with."... Superior Court Judge Francis J. Darigan sentenced Biechele to 15 years in prison, with four to serve and 11 years suspended, plus three years' probation, for his role in the fire....

Superior Court Judge Francis J. Darigan sentenced Biechele to 15 years in prison, with four to serve and 11 years suspended, plus three years' probation, for his role in the fire....

Following Biechele's trial, the Station's owners, Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, were scheduled to receive separate trials. However, on September 21, 2006, Superior Court Judge Francis J. Darigan announced that the brothers had changed their pleas from "not guilty" to "no contest," thereby avoiding a trial. Michael Derderian received 15 years in prison, with four to serve and 11 years suspended, plus three years' probation — the same sentence as Biechele. Jeffrey Derderian received a 10-year suspended sentence, three years' probation, and 500 hours of community service.

In a letter to the victims' families, Judge Darigan said that a trial "would only serve to further traumatize and victimize not only the loved ones of the deceased and the survivors of this fire, but the general public as well." He added that the difference in the brothers' sentences reflected their respective involvement with the purchase and installation of the flammable foam.

Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch objected strenuously to the plea bargain, saying that both brothers should have received jail time and that Michael Derderian should have received more time than Biechele.

October 16, 2013 in Class reflections, Notable real cases, Reflections on class readings | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

As we consider unintentional homicides, consider how different jurisdictions could handle Matthew Cordle differently

In class we are about to transition from intentional to unintentional homicides, and there is a very high-profile unintentional homicide case soon to reach sentencing in Ohio.  This new Columbus Dispatch article, headlined "Sentencing for Matthew Cordle delayed a week," reviews the basics:

Matthew Cordle must wait another week to learn whether his video confession to killing a Gahanna man in a drunken-driving crash carries any weight with a judge. Cordle, 22, of Powell, was to learn his fate today, but his sentencing has been delayed a week, to next Wednesday, the Franklin County prosecutor’s office announced yesterday.

Cordle faces a prison sentence of as few as two years and as many as 8.5 for aggravated vehicular homicide and driving while intoxicated when he is sentenced by Franklin County Common Pleas Judge David Fais.

A pre-sentence investigation was completed Friday. But both prosecutors and Cordle’s attorneys are submitting additional information to Fais, who needs time to review the material, the prosecutor’s office said.

Cordle pleaded guilty on Sept. 18 to killing Vincent Canzani, 61, of Gahanna, while driving drunk the wrong way on westbound I-670 near 3rd Street on June 22. Cordle’s video was posted online on Sept. 3 and quickly went viral, receiving millions of views. He confessed to killing Canzani, vowed to accept responsibility and pleaded with viewers to not drink and drive.

Prosecutor Ron O’Brien is pushing for the maximum sentence. Cordle’s attorneys have suggested that the maximum would be excessive for a man with no felony record and no previous drunken-driving arrests.

We readily could (and I think students on their own should) have a robust debate about how different theories of punishment might suggest toward a particular sentence in the Ohio statutory range of 2 to 8.5 years. But that would entail a review of materials from the first week of classes, and I am now eager to use the case to provide a basis for considering how different jurisdictions (including Oliwood) have different homicide laws that could be used in different ways to sentence a defendant like Cordle.

If you were a prosecutor in Oliwood or California (or any other jurisdiction of interest to you), what homicide charges could you potentially bring in a case like this? What charges would you want to bring? If you represented a defendant like Cordle in some other jurisdiction, what charge(s) would you be urging your client to be willing to plead guilty to?

(If folks find this case/topic of special interest, I will consider creating/offering a "formal extra credit" opportunity for anyone who completes a short blog-worthy memo about any of these topics before next week's scheduled sentencing.)

October 16, 2013 in Course materials and schedule, Notable real cases, Research assignment | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

October 15, 2013

Arrests in Florida cyberbullying suicide case (but not on homicide charges)

Following up this prior post about a high-profile case of cyberbullying in Florida, everyone should now check out this latest news via the Orlando Sentinel under the headline "Suspect in cyberbullying suicide: Yes, I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself; Two girls are charged with felony aggravated stalking in connection with Rebecca's suicide." Here is how this piece gets started:

For more than a year, Rebecca Ann Sedwick was tormented by bullies who called her ugly and urged to her drink bleach.

Her parents did everything they could, even moving the 12-year-old Lakeland girl to a different middle school in Polk County.  But the abuse continued online, eventually prompting Rebecca to jump to her death from a silo at an old concrete factory on Sept. 10, family members and investigators say.

On Tuesday, two girls, ages 12 and 14, were identified as Rebecca's main tormentors. They were both arrested Monday and charged with aggravated stalking in connection to Rebecca's suicide, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said Tuesday. Pictures: New York Comic Con

Detectives solidified their cases after the 14-year-old posted this message on social media Saturday: "Yes ik [I know] I bullied Rebecca nd she killed her self but IDGAF [I don't give a (expletive)] That message ended with a heart symbol.

"That post was the tipping point," Judd said during a Tuesday news conference in Winter Haven. "She forced this arrest."  The 14-year-old instigated the bullying after she started dating Rebecca's ex-boyfriend, Judd said.

The 12-year-old girl was once Rebecca's friend — but the 14-year-old girl turned her against Rebecca. The girls "repeatedly and maliciously" harassed Rebecca while all three attended Crystal Lake Middle School in Lakeland, investigators said.

"Several students corroborated stories of both girls bullying Sedwick on different occasions, through name-calling, intimidation, threats to beat her up, and at least one actual physical fight,'' a Sheriff's Office report said.

Judd said neither family cooperated with investigators, so the girls were placed under arrest Monday, charged with the third-degree felony, detained for a few hours and released to their parents. After their arrests, Judd said, the girls admitted to the abuse. They remain on house arrest and the Orlando Sentinel is not naming them because of their ages.

Under Florida law, a range of options are available to punish juveniles convicted of felony aggravated stalking. "Five years of probation would be the realistic sentence," said Orlando criminal-defense attorney Richard Hornsby, who is not connected to the case. "I think it would be unlikely that they would be sent to the Department of Juvenile Justice."

October 15, 2013 in Notable real cases | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

October 14, 2013

"Hamilton County witness intimidation is increasing: Justice in jeopardy as prosecutors struggle for testimony from eye witnesses"

Especially because our conversation in class today focused on some of the proof and procedure realities that necessarily attend real-world efforts to prove up the key facts in real-world cases, I thought it useful to highlight this recent Cincinnati Enquirer article with the same headline as the title of this post. Here are excerpts:

Dante Williams shot and killed Adrian Battle in 2006, a crime that went unsolved for seven years because witnesses were terrified of being shot themselves.

In 2011, Joe Harris was convicted of murder – but only after Hamilton County prosecutors jailed a star witness to ensure the frightened man would testify.

In another case, a witness was so scared of being perceived as cooperative that he told prosecutors he would testify only if he was handcuffed and brought to the courthouse in a police cruiser so it would look like he wasn’t cooperating.

These cases are symptomatic of a problem Hamilton County prosecutors say is growing: the number of witnesses too frightened to testify. That, they say, makes it harder for prosecutors to win convictions and easier for some violent crimes to go unpunished – and possibly jeopardizes justice....

The killing of Battle and resulting murder case against Williams ended in June. Instead of a murder conviction and sentence of life in prison, Williams pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and received the minimum sentence possible – three years in prison for killing Battle and one for using a gun. The four-year prison sentence was a victory for Prem because Williams was ultimately punished in a case in which an uncooperative witness meant a very weak case for prosecutors. “Had more people been available as witnesses, we may have been able to convict him of more serious crimes,” Prem said. “If we don’t have witnesses, we can’t prove cases.”...

The issue in prosecuting Williams was the star witness, a pregnant woman who saw the shooting, who was too afraid to testify. She and other witnesses in that case were so scared, Prem said, that he believed the best he could do was offer a plea bargain with the minimum prison sentence or face losing the case. “If you read in the paper that someone charged with murder gets (four) years, there’s a good reason for it,” Prem said. Prem, a veteran prosecutor who has tried scores of murder cases, often warns jurors of the common adage of the street: “Snitches get stitches and wind up in ditches.”

October 14, 2013 in Notable real cases, Reflections on class readings | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 13, 2013

Ohio capital trial revealing “underbelly of America” along with Agg Murder prosecution realities... UPDATED with news of a conviction

As promised/threatened, I will be showcasing in this space over the next few weeks some past and present homicide cases that provide everyone with added opportunities to see how real cases get prosecuted and how the homicide doctrines we are reviewing become matters for consideration by judges and jurors.  I will neither demand nor expect students to be familiar with these materials in class, but time spent reviewing what I post here should help inform and deepen your understanding of the doctrines and policies we discuss in class over the next few weeks.

This local report on a now-in-court Ohio capital case, headlined "Trial underway in 2012 death of beaten, burned woman," provides an effective kick-off to this series as we wrap up our discussions of how homicide laws seek to distinguish different types of intentional killing.  Here are introductory excerpts:

[Lafonse] Dixon has pleaded not guilty to murder, kidnapping and arson in the killing of 29-year-old Celeste Fronsman of Canton, who was found Aug. 26, 2012, in the middle of Ohio 208 near the Tri-Valley Recreation Area.  She was burned, beaten and died two days later from her injuries.

Opening statements began just after 9 a.m. Tuesday.  The defense attempted to lay the groundwork to show Katrina Culberson, who has already pleaded guilty in connection with the case, was at fault, not Dixon.  Isabella Dixon, one of Dixon’s court-appointed attorneys, spoke in a soothing tone and told the jury they would be witnessing the “underbelly of America,” a world driven by violence, prostitution and drugs — an area that Culberson “ruled with an iron fist.”

Throughout the opening remarks, the defense urged jurors to listen closely to the evidence. “It was K.C. (Culberson) who poured the gas,” attorney Isabella Dixon said. “It was K.C. who lit the match, who knew about the area.” The defense also stated Culberson had written Dixon letters while in jail, including the line: "I lied. ... You'll be out soon.”

Dixon is the last of the three suspects in Fronsman’s death.  Monica J. Washington and Katrina Culberson have pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, kidnapping and arson.  As part of the plea deals, the Muskingum County Prosecutor’s Office will recommend life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years for Washington and life in prison with no parole for Culberson.  Dixon, however, is facing the death penalty in his case.

During the prosecution’s opening statements, the emphasis was placed on the relationship between the three suspects and Fronsman....  Prosecution also noted that Dixon’s DNA was found on a roll of masking tape allegedly used to bind Fronsman’s hands during the killing, but could not link Dixon to either the can of gasoline or tow strap submitted as evidence.  Culberson’s DNA was found on all three pieces of evidence....

Each member of the jury had to be qualified to return a death sentence, meaning they must not have any personal or religious beliefs that restrict them from issuing the law. Jury members also can be dismissed if they do not consider life imprisonment as an alternative penalty for capital murder. 

Dixon spoke to the Times Recorder in 2012 in an exclusive interview in which he denied involvement in the crime and said he was with relatives and friends outside Muskingum County at the time.

For additional insights on how this case is now unfolding in an Ohio courtroom, be sure to read in full this subsequent article about the trial, headlined "Witness: Dixon took part in murder," which discusses the trial testimony of Monica Washington. Here are excerpts:

Washington, after one year and 44 days of sobriety, said she now fully realizes the horrific nature of what she and the others did. Fronsman, 29, was burned over about 70 percent of her body before dying two days later in a hospital. “I'm willing to accept the punishment that’s given to me, because I was wrong,” she said. “I let people do something to another human being, and I didn't do nothing to stop it.”...

Co-defendants Washington, 25, and Katrina “KC” Culberson, 22, both have pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated murder, aggravated arson and kidnapping. Dixon faces the same charges and could be sentenced to death if convicted.

As part of Washington’s plea deal, the state will recommend serve a life term with the possibility of parole after 25 years. Culberson’s agreement allows her to avoid the death penalty.  Both await sentencing....

In past interviews with police, Washington said, she minimized her own involvement. Even in court Friday, Washington said that Dixon and Culberson played a larger part in Fronsman’s murder.

Washington said she and Dixon carried Fronsman from the vehicle across the road. Then Dixon alone dragged Fronsman — whose hands were tied — into the tall grass and brush, according to Washington, who, like Culberson and Fronsman, worked the streets of Canton as a prostitute and smoked crack regularly.

Culberson soaked Fronsman with gasoline, then set her ablaze, Washington testified. “Her body just went poof in flames,” Washington said. “... You can hear her begging for help ... moaning (and) crying.”

Earlier that morning, Washington had joined some of the beatings and helped to strangle the victim with a strap.  “I pulled one end and LaFonse pulled the other,” Washington said. “And we choked her with the strap until she was purple in the face.”

Isabella Dixon hammered away at the falsehoods Washington admitted telling during police interviews as well as in her plea agreement.  Many times, the attorney emphasized the word, “lie,” drawing it out.  She highlighted how, in two police interviews, Washington failed to mention Dixon.

Particular importance was placed on the agreement reached with the state. The plea deal is “based on lies?” the attorney asked. “Yes, ma’am,” Washington replied.

“And they accepted it anyway? Isabella Dixon asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” the witness said.

“Because they didn't know if you were lying or not?” the attorney said, raising her voice.

“Yes, ma’am.”

UPDATE: On Thursday morning (10/17), the Columbus Dispatch set around this update on this case headlined "Dixon guilty of woman's brutal burning death."

October 13, 2013 in Notable real cases | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 12, 2013

Any mid-term complaints, concerns, questions, comments before we launch into homicide hysteria?

As you all likely realized, I have not been posting much in this space as the mid-term exam approached.  I figured folks were sensibly re-reading and re-re-reading materials in preparation for the exam, and I did not want to burden anyone with any additional matters via this blog.

But now, juyfully, the mid-term exam is now is your rear-view mirror, and the mini-break should ensure everyone is refreshed and ready to get deeply into all the ups and downs of homicide doctrines and policies.  Indeed, because there are lots of interesting past and on-going homicide cases (in Ohio and throughout the nation) that provide lots of interesting real-world perspectives on what we will be reviewing in class, students should be making a habit of checking this space every day expecting to see at least two or three new posts every week.  (And, as you all should recall, the easiest way to be sure you have earned lots of participation credit when grading time comes along is by regularly commenting intelligently in response to substantive blog posts.)

In addition to warning everyone to expect to see more action in this blog space in the weeks ahead, I also wanted to provide a space for students to set out any complaints or concerns or questions or comments about the mid-term you all took.  I will only briefly mention the exam (and my grading/feedback plans) in class.  But I will, upon request, devote lots more time to the exam via the blog and in other out-of-class settings, especially if folks in the comments here express a strong interest in lots of substantive or procedural feedback concerning the mid-term experience.

October 12, 2013 in Course materials and schedule | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack