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Feds to Create Wrongful Convictions Unit

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By Jazelle Hunt
Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – U.S. Attorneys across the nation are professional prosecutors, making sure criminals are locked up for their crimes. Beginning this fall,

the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia will take on a new and very different role as it turns its attention to those convicted of crimes they did not commit.

It will be the first time any of the nation’s 93 presidentially-appointed federal prosecutors has taken up this cause.

The Convictions Integrity Unit will re-evaluate violent felony cases in which defendants can supply sufficient, new evidence that warrants a reconsideration of the conviction, especially DNA or biological evidence that can prove innocence.

The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project between the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, compiles information on all known exonerations since 1989, with convictions beginning in the late 1950s.

Florida, California, Illinois, New York, and Texas have the highest rates of wrongful convictions, and according to the registry, 1,467 people – 46 percent of them Black –    have been exonerated since 1989. This year alone, 81 people have been cleared; (49 of them are African American).

On average, these men and women are imprisoned for at least a decade before their convictions are overturned and their records expunged.

“There’s nothing to suggest that the rate of false convictions is slowing down, at all,” says Samuel Gross, law professor at the University of Michigan, and editor and co-founder of the National Registry of Exonerations.

Together, murder and sexual assault convictions account for 60 percent of the registry’s exonerations. The high rate of homicide in Black communities is reflected in both conviction and exoneration rates; but in the case of the Black men who have been wrongfully convicted of sexual assault, a discrepancy emerges.

“Of the approximately 250 people exonerated for adult sexual assault, a majority are African American, over 60 percent. That’s way higher than their rate of imprisonment [for sexual assault],” Gross says. “Among those exonerated, the African Americans are primarily Black men convicted of raping White victims. And their exonerations are based on misidentifications…because cross-racial identification is notoriously more difficult. This is especially true of White people.”

For 80 percent of Black men wrongfully convicted of sexual assault, mistaken witness identification was one the factors that led to exoneration. And these cases take longer to review and overturn.

In the last decade, several conviction integrity units have sprung up in state and district attorneys’ offices across the country, beginning with Dallas County in 2007. There are also several universities and organizations dedicated to assisting the wrongly convicted through DNA testing, such as the National Innocence Project or The Exoneration Initiative in New York.

But this unit in Washington is unique.

Most crime is tried at the state level, unless it overlaps with federal law and the U.S. Attorney in that jurisdiction decides to prosecute on behalf of the United States. Because Washington has no state-level justice system, both its local and federal crimes are tried in federally run courts. This unit expects to handle primarily local cases, but possibly some federal cases as well. Thus, it may be the first institution within the federal government to examine federal felony cases in search of the innocent.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C. handles local crime in D.C. as well as federal crimes. In other places, all sorts of things can be in local court but almost none of these are federal crimes, except in D.C.,” Gross says. “Also, because it’s a federal office, there are more resources they have command of…so they’re capable of doing a more thorough job. [This Office] has more influence than U.S. Attorney’s Offices anywhere else.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Washington first turned its attention to possible wrongful convictions following the discovery of faulty testing and mismanagement within an FBI forensic lab that occurred during the 1980s and 1990s. Over four years, the Office sifted through thousands of FBI case files, reviewing Washington cases involving hair or fiber evidence processed by the FBI between 1980 and 2000.

Five men were exonerated as a result of this initial investigation. Each had already served approximately 30 years in prison.

Following the last of these exonerations, the Attorney’s Office announced the creation of a permanent Convictions Integrity Unit for the District of Columbia. The unit is part of the Special Proceedings Division, which already handles all post-conviction matters for Washington. A Conviction Integrity Committee of internal prosecutors and vetted defense attorneys will choose and review eligible cases, and will create prosecutor training recommendations to prevent future wrongful convictions.

The creation of a Convictions Integrity Unit in the District of Columbia could have widespread legal implications, but it is still unclear what these implications might be.

“Although wrongful convictions remain a rare phenomenon, their consequences are tragic—for the defendants involved, for the victims of the crimes that remain unsolved, and for the community we work every day to protect,” said U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. in a statement. “As prosecutors, our goal is not to win convictions, but to do justice.”

Black Pollster: 'Democrats Got their [Butt] Whipped'

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By Freddie Allen
NNPA Senior Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Even with overwhelming support from Black voters, Democrats still lost control of the United States Senate in the midterm elections and President Barack Obama will have to compromise with the GOP-controlled Congress in order to get anything done in his last two years.

“First let’s put it in context, and this is not an excuse, the Democrats got their a—- whipped, but it was predictable,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic strategist, pollster and president of Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies, a polling firm that works with the Democratic National Committee.

Belcher, an African American, said that Republicans had both history and geography on their side. Many of the key races were run in the heart of Republican territory, through the heart of the South. Belcher added that the midterm electorate also tends to be older and less diverse, voters that tend not to be very favorable towards Democrats.

“There was a lot of conversation going into this election about how wildly unpopular the president is and that was the narrative that the Republicans ran with and the media actually helped them run with it,” said Belcher.

On Election Day, roughly 40 percent of Americans approved of the job the president was doing, according to a recent Gallup poll. In Iowa, Kansas and Arkansas, where Democratic candidates were soundly defeated, the president’s approval rating was below 40 percent.

“If the president’s job approval was 51, 52, 53 percent, that would mean absolutely nothing in Kentucky or a lot of these solidly red states where you’re not going to see a lot of enthusiasm for a Democratic candidate,” said Belcher.

Belcher suggested that the Democrats have a White voter problem.

“Democrats haven’t won White voters since [President Lyndon Johnson] signed the civil rights legislation, said Belcher. “You would think that because we’re post-racial now, we’d been winning more White voters, but the truth of the matter is we’re winning less.”

Minority voting, as a proportion of the electorate, actually increased during the 2014 midterm elections compared to 2010 midterms, Belcher said. Those gains were driven largely by Black voter turnout.

According to the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project, a group that provides public opinion surveys on Latino views on social economic and cultural issues, Hispanics accounted for 8 percent of midterm voters, the same share they garnered in 2006 and 2010. The share of Black voters has increased steadily from 10 percent in 2006 to 11 percent in 2010 and 12 percent in 2014.

Meanwhile the share of White voters in the electorate continues to decline, down from 79 percent in 2006 to 75 percent in 2014.

The Pew Research Center found that 89 percent of Black voters supported Democratic candidates. Meanwhile, Whites voted for Republican candidates 60 percent of the time.

“Democrats really pushed women’s equity issues, but [President Obama] is scary and when you tell me you’re a ‘Clinton Democrat’ and you’re parsing it up like that, we Southerners know what that means,” said Belcher. “As much as they tried to run from it, that’s what they couldn’t escape.”

Many Democratic candidates chose to run from President Obama’s record on economic recovery, positive labor market growth, and the Affordable Care Act that has provided millions of Americans with health insurance who were previously not covered. President Obama also kept his promise to bring American troops home and end decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Should Democrats have let President Obama out on the campaign trail more? Absolutely, they should have,” said Belcher. “He had something to run on.”

Dianne Pinderhughes, a political science professor at the University Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., said that there’s still some portion of the population still has a great deal of difficulty dealing with the fact that there is an African American president.

“It adds stigma to any action that he takes,” said Pinderhughes. “People can’t accept the fact that anything that he’s done has anything good associated with it.”

They can’t process information, added Pinderhughes, because race blinds them.

“The blame for what happened during the midterms cannot be laid at the feet of minority voters,” said Belcher.

Andra Gillespie agreed.

Gillespie, the interim chair of the Department of African American Studies at Emory University, Atlanta, Ga., and co-author of a report on Black voter turnout for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonpartisan think tank focused on racial equity, said that there were a few places where the Black voter turnout as a share of the overall electorate either declined or stayed the same.

“But in many places,” Gillespie said, “the Black share of the electorate increased and the White share of the electorate decreased. Democrats still lost and they didn’t lose because Blacks didn’t turn out and vote for them.”

Gillespie added: “It’s just that, numerically speaking, it takes more than Black votes for Democrats to be able to win.”

Lorenzo Morris, a political science professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., said that the midterm elections ushered in a dramatic change in the distribution of power on Capitol Hill.

“But it’s not a dramatic change of what they will do on Capitol Hill, which is probably very little,” said Morris.

Gillespie said that President Obama would have to compromise now, because bills that once passed the House of Representatives and stalled in the Senate will get through Congress.

Pinderhughes said that the president is going to have to do a lot of strategic planning in order to figure out how to get things through Congress. That includes his nomination of

United States Attorney Loretta Lynch of the Eastern District of New York. Lynch to replace Attorney General Eric Holder. If confirmed, she would become the first Black woman to lead the Justice Department.

Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is the presumptive majority leader of the Senate in the next term, said that Lynch’s nomination hearings should begin in 2015 with the new Congress.

As the Democrats gear up for the 2016 elections, Mary Frances Berry, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission under President Bill Clinton, said that the voter suppression efforts are not enough to persuade Blacks and other minorities to turn out and vote for Democratic candidates anymore.

“It’s not going to be enough for Hillary run and say, ‘All the Black people should vote for me, because I’m a Democrat and because Obama’s not on the ticket now, so you should vote for me,” said Berry. “I don’t think it’s going to be enough.”

Berry said that the Democrats need to act earlier and more aggressively to gain the support of young Black voters, possibly targeting the group with a jobs program. The Labor Department can set up model programs using discretionary funds and start pilot programs in certain areas targeting high unemployment areas, Berry explained.

“Then [President Obama] could ask Congress for an expanded program and people would be able to talk about what the party is doing,” said Berry.

Wade Henderson, chairman and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 civil and human rights groups, said that the interests that Blacks espouse are not partisan interests, they are national interests.

“We want better schools and opportunities that education provides, we want an economy that is responsive to interests and needs of our people and we want opportunities for growth and development that can only occur, if we are fully enrolled in the economy of the day,” said Henderson.

He added: “We’ve got to do our best to make sure that, whoever is in power, that we are signaling that we are here to deal. And that’s just the way it is.”

Detroit Bankruptcy Exit Approved; 'City Has Reasonably and Properly Concluded' Its Plan

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By Roz Edward
Special to the NNPA from The Michigan Chronicle

Rosen added that the controversial Grand Bargain plan was the cornerstone of the bankruptcy exit decision. Michigan’s recently re-elected governor, Rick Snyder, signed a set of bills earlier this year, commonly known as the Grand Bargain,which authorized hundreds of millions of dollars in state help for  Detroit’s debt repayment.

Rosen added that another key condition of the Chapter 9 bankruptcy was that 816 million dollars would be paid to the city’s pension plan over the next 20 years.

“It’s a vast understatement to say that the city repayment plan is reasonable it is miraculous,said Rosen in his statement to the court approving the pension settlement.

The DIA will also pay art to be held in perpetual charitable trust over the next 20 years until the 120 million dollar settlement is paid. The DIA also prevailed in its bankruptcy argument that the DIA’s art works were not subject to creditor claims. The pressures and dynamics of federal municipal bankruptcy put the famed artworks at risk, in that they could have been a source of debt repayment. Comerica bank also donated 1 million dollars towards the Grand bargain to protect DIA art.

“The July 2013 bankruptcy filing was the city’s only avenue for addressing its fiscal woes, which included a big public pension burden,” said Bruce Bennett, an attorney at law firm Jones Day who presented Detroit’s closing arguments. “About 150 court-ordered mediation sessions helped bridge differences with creditors,” he added.

“This plan is very broadly consensual at this point and the city has settled with all the objectors and all the major economic players in the city of Detroit,” Bennett said.

Judge Rosen also read in a statement to the court that parties had argued that raising taxes is not a viable strategy. He said Mike Duggan said it was a remote possibility that Detroiters would vote to raise taxes and Kevyn Orr said in arguments to the court that the city was at tax saturation and could not withstand any additional tax burden.

“The city has worked honestly, diligently and tirelessly to accomplish exactly what was required in the bankruptcy plan,” concluded Rosen, adding that the City of Detroit and emergency financial manager Kevyn Orr had done a remarkable, extraordinary and  brilliant job of devising the bankruptcy plan and acted with extreme integrity in accomplishing the objectives of the bankruptcy plan.

Ebola Numbers Spike Overseas

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By Barrington Salmon
Special to the NNPA from The Washington Informer

For months, World Health Organization officials warned that the numbers of Ebola victims and casualties might be understated because of unreported cases in rural areas of the affected countries and families hiding the sick.

Late last week, WHO adjusted the figures to reflect current number, saying that of 13,567 reported cases, 4,951 people had died from Ebola. Officials also noted that some cases were not Ebola. At the same time, according to published reports, WHO Assistant Director-General Dr. Bruce Aylward told the media in Geneva the rate of new Ebola infections seems to be pointing down in Liberia, but cautioned that Ebola isn’t close to being brought under control.

“It appears that the trend is real in Liberia, and there may indeed be a slowing of the epidemic there,” he said. “(But) I’m terrified that the information will be misinterpreted and people will start to think, ‘Oh great, this is under control,”’ Aylward said. “That’s like saying your pet tiger is under control. …”

The majority of deaths are in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, and almost 300 physicians and health care personnel are among the casualties.

International health officials say the virus’s outbreak began in Guinea in West Africa. Patient Zero is identified as a 2-year-old boy in the village of Meliandou.

Georgetown University Epidemiologist Dr. Jesse Goodman said concern marked his initial reaction to the outbreak.

“I think initially, like many people in the public health area, I found it upsetting and worrying about another outbreak,” said Goodman, a professor of medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center and an infectious disease physician for more than 30 years. “These are areas without experience and experiencing social, economic and political stress.

“They have weak public health infrastructures; some have had wars and other problems.”

What’s needed to combat the Ebola outbreak, Goodman said, is a strong public health structure that people trust. In a perfect world, he said, health officials would communicate clearly with members of the community, identify who’s been exposed, isolate patients quickly and effectively and treat them.

“I don’t think these countries were prepared to do that,” he added.

A confluence of factors have aided the spread of the disease, including fragile health care systems, a lopsided ratio of doctors to patients, and the shortage of hospital beds, protective gear and other needed equipment and supplies. There’s also deep distrust in some communities of the government and international aid workers. These challenges have left government officials and health workers overwhelmed and the disease free to rampage through a vulnerable population.

Deeply held traditions and customs such as reverence for the bodies of dead relatives, washing the bodies and close contact with corpses are drivers of the disease.

WHO spokesman Daniel Epstein said in a recent interview organization officials say they need $978 million to adequately fight the worst Ebola outbreak in history.

“We have pledges for 37 percent,” he said. “We need a lot more cash to pay local health workers. We need $3 million for protective equipment. People on the ground use seven a day. Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations Children’s Fund are also shipping equipment and supplies. The money will buy medicines, saline solution, and bed linen and provide money to pay for local health workers who make $6 a day. They asked for a bonus, and they deserve it.

Africa.com CEO Clarke Named to Obama Council on U.S.-Africa Biz Relations

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Special to the NNPA from The Washington Informer

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker announced Thursday that Africa.com CEO Teresa Clarke is among the 15 private sector leaders who have been appointed to President Obama’s newly established Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa (PAC-DBIA).

Members of the council – representing the private sector from a variety of industry sectors – were hand-picked to advise the president and the secretary of commerce on strengthening commercial engagement between the United States and Africa.

“I am grateful to be able to serve the president and the secretary of sommerce on a topic about which I have so much passion,” Clarke said. “Africa.com has opened the eyes of American business to opportunity in Africa for years through multi-media including our film, Africa Straight Up, and our weekly business newsletters, the Africa.com Top 10.”

Clarke was appointed to the board based on her twenty years of experience doing business in Africa, her vast business career which includes being the first African-American woman managing director in the investment banking division of Goldman Sachs, and her founding of Africa.com which was the only Africa-focused media company selected to be a part of the White House Traveling Press Corps on Obama’s historic trip to Africa in 2013.

“Economic growth on the Continent will continue to drive demand for U.S. exports, which will ultimately help create jobs at home and provide valuable investment opportunities for U.S. businesses,” Pritzker said. “With Africa being home to six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world, the President’s Advisory Council will provide expert counsel on strengthening our partnerships with African countries to leverage opportunities for U.S. companies committed for the long term.”

The appointments were announced at Discover Global Markets, a Commerce-led business development forum held in Atlanta that focuses on export opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa, including Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, South Africa and Mozambique, among others.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Commerce and Bloomberg Philanthropies co-hosted the first-ever U.S.-Africa Business Forum. As part of his commitment to deepen engagement between the United States and Africa, Obama signed an executive order at the forum to promote broad-based economic growth in the United States and Africa by encouraging U.S. companies to trade with and invest in Africa.

The executive order directed the secretary of commerce to establish the PAC-DBIA. The group’s work will focus on advancing the president’s DBIA campaign as described in the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa of June 14, 2012.

The PAC will provide information, analysis, and recommendations on U.S.-Africa trade and investment priorities, including U.S. and Africa job creation; developing and strengthening commercial partnerships to increase U.S. public and private sector financing in Africa; and analyzing the effect of policies in the United States and Africa on U.S. trade and investment interests in Africa.

The appointees of the President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa (in alphabetical order):

Walé Adeosun – Founder and Chief Investment Officer, Kuramo Capital Management

Dominic Barton – Global Managing Director, McKinsey & Company

J.P. Bilbrey – President and CEO, The Hershey Company

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