Wednesday, March 25, 2009

WY - ACLU sues Wyoming County DA over threat of charges for sexting

View the article here


By Paula Reed Ward, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Three students in the Tunkhannock School District in Wyoming County have filed a federal lawsuit against the district attorney there, claiming that his threats to charge them with child pornography for sending pictures of themselves either topless or in bras amount to abuse of his authority.

The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, also says that District Attorney George Skumanick Jr. is engaging in retaliation against the girls and their parents, who do not want their children to enter into a probationary and re-education program for the behavior as Mr. Skumanick has requested.

The case came to light in October, when school officials seized a number of cell phones from students in the district. They examined them and found pictures of scantily clad and naked teenage girls, many who were enrolled there, the lawsuit said. Male students had been trading the photographs on their cell phones, the district said.

Mr. Skumanick said publicly that students who possess inappropriate pictures of minors could be prosecuted.

In the photos in question, two girls, Marissa Miller and Grace Kelly, are seen lying side by side in their bras. One of them is talking on a phone, while the other makes a peace sign. In the second picture, the third girl, who is not named in the lawsuit, is seen emerging from the shower, with a towel wrapped around her, below her breasts.

"The two photographs, which depict no sexual activity or display of pubic area, are not illegal under Pennsylvania's crimes code and, indeed, are images protected by the First Amendment," the lawsuit said.

Mr. Skumanick has threatened charges of child pornography against the girls -- though not against the people distributing the pictures on their cell phones, the lawsuit said.

To avoid charges, he has offered probation and a five-week, 10-hour "re-education program," that would help the girls "[g]ain an understanding of how [their] actions were wrong," "gain an understanding of what it means to be a girl in today's society," and "[i]dentify non-traditional societal and job roles."
- I hate that term "re-education!"  Hitler used that term a lot.

The lawsuit asserts that the photographs are constitutionally protected by the First Amendment, and that they are not child pornography.

If they are convicted, the plaintiffs contend, the girls would have a felony record and could be subjected to state Megan's Law provisions, which would require them to register as convicted sex offenders.

"Kids should be taught that sharing digitized images of themselves in embarrassing or compromised positions can have bad consequences, but prosecutors should not be using heavy artillery like child-pornography charges to teach them that lesson," said Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "These are just kids being irresponsible and careless; they are not criminals and they certainly haven't committed child pornography."

TX - Convicting the Innocent: Texas Justice Derailed

Courtesy of Grits for Breakfast
View or Download the full PDF document

Stories of Injustice and the Reforms That Can Prevent Them

Since 1994, Texas has exonerated thirty-nine innocent people who served over 500 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. This report contains brief overviews of these thirty-nine cases, all of which have been exposed by DNA evidence, and analyzes the systemic problems that have resulted in the wrongful convictions of the innocent. By identifying the causes of wrongful convictions and implementing practical reforms, Texas can increase the fairness, accuracy, and reliability of its criminal justice system.

Because DNA evidence is only available in a fraction of cases, the wrongful convictions described in this report are only the beginning. There are many other wrongful convictions that have been cleared without the benefit of DNA. While non-DNA exonerations are more difficult to prove, they are similar to DNA cases in that they trace back to the same flawed procedures in need of reform. As such, these thirty-nine DNA cases expose a criminal justice system that is wrought with problems that lead to wrongful convictions.

Although several of the exoneration cases involve instances of intentional misconduct, inadvertent error is by far more common. It would only compound these injustices, however, to assume that these mistakes were inevitable. Texas cannot ignore its broken criminal justice system. This report addresses the common causes that lead to wrongful convictions, as echoed in each of these cases, and presents practical reforms to prevent such errors. It is critical for Texas to take action. When Texas gets it wrong and convicts an innocent person, the true perpetrator remains free to commit more crimes.

American Violet - Official Trailer (Video in HD)

Dangerous myths about rape

View the article here

There is two other videos available at the site.


By Bert Sass - Special Projects Producer

Predators may not look and act like we expect

The most prominent images of rapists as seedy, threatening characters lurking in the dark are far from the truth in most cases. Police and safety experts say, because of these myths, many woman let down their caution at times when they need it most.

Elizabeth Houde, President and CEO of the Arizona Sexual Assault Network (ASAN), says, “When you hear the term sex offender, you'll immediately think of the middle age man who jumped out of a bush, abducted a little girl, raped her and killed her, something along that line.” She says most sex crimes are not committed by that type of person. Rather, she says, “This is someone that's in your family. This is someone that's next door to you that's committing the majority of these crimes.”

Sgt. Jim Starkey, with the Phoenix Police sex crimes unit, estimates 60 to 70 percent of the sexual assaults his detectives investigate involve an assault by someone the victim knew.

Hilary Peele’s case does not happen to fit into that category. But when she was raped in 2004, it dispelled what she believes is the biggest myth: “That it can’t happen to me.” Peele says many women feel that way because they avoid parties and risky places, and stay at home with doors and windows locked. She what she had done the night a stranger broke into her Tempe apartment and raped her.

Peele and Houde point to other myths that are common. Some people think it’s mainly young women who are attacked, but sexual assault can happen to the elderly, to juveniles and even to men. Another myth is that the victim must have done something wrong, either inviting the attack or not being careful enough. Peele says, “I still get questions about what I would have done differently” even though she took all the logical precautions.

Some information on the internet suggests that women who wear their hair a certain way or wear certain kinds of clothing are more likely to be the target of a predator, and that most rapes occur during a span of a few hours late at night. Houde, Peele and Markey agree, there are no such predictors of the risk of sexual assault.

Houde says another myth about rape ignores the violence and assumes it is simply about sex. She says that myth is wrong on both counts.

Peele agrees with Houde, that rape is not about sex. But she says this myth is one of the hardest for a rape survivor to overcome—because of what they have lost.

What goes on in the mind of a rapist? How could he be a brutal attacker in one situation, and a charming person who seems very normal at other times? Hear from a veteran sex crimes investigator and a forensic psychologist who have talked with many sex offenders in trying to answer those questions.

Watch another Mark Curtis special report “The Mind of a Rapist” Wednesday night on 12 News at 10.

MI - The Last Line of Defense


By Richard Goemann (Criminal Justice)

Tomorrow, the U.S. House of Representatives will hold a historic hearing to investigate the failure of a state to realize the Constitution’s guarantee of access to legal counsel for those accused of a crime. The hearing, which will be held by the House Judiciary Committee’s Sub-Committee on Crime, Terrorism & Homeland Security, will focus on the serious flaws in Michigan’s public defense system.

The need for federal attention could not be more urgent.

This month, we marked the 46th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the Sixth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution requires that states provide attorneys for people charged with serious crimes who could not afford to hire counsel. We should also be aware of another milestone, however. The need for public defense services has expanded so drastically that today public defenders represent defendants in more than 80 percent of criminal prosecutions nationwide. Quality public defense has become an absolute prerequisite for ensuring fair criminal justice in America. Unfortunately, in many states across the country the promise of Gideon is an empty one, with diverse groups of middle and low-income people being processed through courts as if they were identical parts on a conveyor belt.

In recent years, the complexity of criminal defense representation has increased exponentially. Forensic evidence, including DNA, has become central to criminal practice, requiring defenders to develop at least a basic understanding of a number of scientific disciplines. Sentencing schemes have become more draconian, with sentencing enhancements and “three-strikes” laws evolving to the point where a shoplifter can be sentenced to life in prison.

The end results of criminal convictions have also expanded far beyond jails and fines and probation. Clients can face punishing consequences related to their immigration status, ability to vote or own firearms or to access student loans and professional licenses, public housing eligibility, and internet-based registration requirements, the modern equivalent of the scarlet letter. Punishment for many criminal convictions now lasts a lifetime and all of these disabilities can impede a person’s ability to successfully integrate into the community. At least for now, it seems, our society has relegated concepts such as forgiveness and redemption into the past.

Public defense lawyers must either keep up with this ever-expanding web of scientific evidence, complex sentencing schemes, and life-long punishments that are often scattered throughout state law codes, or risk hurting their clients and inadvertently perpetuating injustice. But with caseloads high and resources constantly being scaled back, few public defense professionals have the time or the tools to stay properly trained.

All of this comes on the heels of hundreds of assessments and reports that have, over the past 40 years, repeatedly documented the sorry state of public defense in our country. Most public defense systems (PDF) are horribly underfunded and often lack the independence that would allow them to advocate for improvements. The most visible result is the small army of our fellow human beings who have lost decades of their lives, innocent of any crime but convicted by out-of-control criminal justices systems, while the guilty parties remain free in our communities.

Creating quality public defense is not magic. It is the result of recognizing that justice in America must be available to all, regardless of one’s ability to pay. The American Bar Association’s Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System (PDF), a short list of the basic necessities that must be present in any functioning public defense system, can show the way. With the Ten Principles as a guide, the federal government can use funding and standards to encourage states to invest in their public defense systems and can provide training and support much the way it already does for state prosecutors, exemplified by the National Advocacy Center, a joint venture of the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The House Judiciary Committee is right on target in holding a hearing to examine our country’s public defense deficiencies. At the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA), we hope that it will be only the first step. The federal government should lead the states toward the day when the Sixth Amendment lives in every courtroom in America and equal justice is a reality throughout our nation.
- Not just the sixth amendment, but all amendments!

Please contact the members of the House Judiciary Committee. Thank them for holding this hearing and ask them to support federal leadership of public defense reform.