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Record-level of Criminal Exonerations

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By Freddie Allen
NNPA Senior Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Black criminal defendants accounted for roughly 46 percent of the 125 known exonerations in 2014, the highest annual number of exonerations recorded since 1989, according to a national registry that tracks wrongful convictions.

According to a recent report by The National Registry of Exonerations, the next highest total for exonerations was 88 recorded in 2012 and 87 in 2013. Researchers said that prosecutors have increasingly taken a harder look at flawed cases, which contributed to jump in exonerations.

The powerful role that prosecutors play in the criminal justice system has increasingly drawn sharp public criticism following grand jury proceedings involving the highly publicized deaths of unarmed Black men at the hands of White police officers.

In the chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. and shooting deaths of John Crawford in Beavercreek, Ohio and the teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., grand juries chose not to indict police officers.

Attorney General Eric Holder has called for reform in sentencing practices and urged federal prosecutors to exercise greater discretion in non-violent drug cases.

Researchers with the exonerations registry reported 716 exonerations of Black criminal defendants, compared to 624 Whites through February 6, 2015. That includes 330 exonerations for homicides, 167 for sexual assaults and another 179 for other crimes including drug crimes.

Blacks accounted for roughly 46 percent of the known exonerations in 2014. The number of Black criminal defendants exonerated in 2013 accounted for 47 percent of known cases, compared to 40 percent for Whites.

In a press release about the report, Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan and the editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, said that the big story is that more prosecutors are working hard to identify and investigate claims of innocence.

The report credited the rise of conviction integrity units (CIU), “long-term operations that work to prevent, to identify and to remedy false convictions” for contributing to an increase in criminal exonerations.

“There were 49 CIU exonerations in 2014, including 10 murder exonerations in Brooklyn, and 29 of the 33 Harris County (Texas) drug-crime exonerations,” stated the report.

Gross said that many more innocent defendants were exonerated after pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit.

The report said that 47 of the 125 defendants (38 percent) who were exonerated in 2014 were cleared of criminal convictions to which they had pled guilty, also a record. In fact, in 58 of the 125 known exonerations from last year, no crime occurred, according to the report, and that number is likely to grow.

“The states with the most exonerations in 2014 are Texas (39), New York (17), Illinois (7), Michigan (7), Ohio (6), North Carolina (4), Louisiana (3), Maryland (3), Oregon (3), Pennsylvania (3), and Tennessee (3),” stated the report. “The states with the most recorded exonerations are not necessarily those where most false convictions have occurred.”

In Harris County, Texas defendants often pled guilty to drug crimes before evidenced was tested. When lab tests revealed that the evidence was not an illegal substance, the convictions were overturned. More than 90 percent of the drug-crime exonerations in 2014 were no-crime cases, including all 33 drug-crime exonerations in Harris County, the report said.

“Judging from known exonerations in 2014,” said Gross. “The legal system is increasingly willing to act on innocence claims that have often been ignored.”

Civil Rights Leaders Upset Over Non-Voting Rights Act Hearing

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By James Wright
Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, he sparked controversy on Jan. 14 saying that, “The Voting Rights Amendment Act” – which would restore the pre-clearance requirement by the Justice Department for states mainly in the South – “is not necessary.” He has decided not to hold a hearing on the bill that would restore key elements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and this has outraged African-American and civil rights leaders.

Goodlatte said the watered down Voting Rights Act (VRA) that is presently in effect protects voters from discrimination but Rep. George Butterfield (D-N.C.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, disagrees. “I am deeply troubled that Goodlatte doesn’t think it is necessary to restore the Voting Rights Act,” Butterfield said. “We began this Congress very hopeful to build upon the bipartisan work of Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.). If this is indeed the position of the entire Republican Conference, then they have clearly drawn a line in the sand – one in which they are on the wrong side of.”

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat. It has been renewed with amendments by Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush – all Republicans. However, the Supreme Court gutted Section 4B and 5 of the VRA that required states and local jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to approve election law and practices with the Justice Department.

The court’s conservative majority said the VRA was outdated and that Congress should update it to reflect the changes that have taken place.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, also disagrees with Goodlatte’s decision. “Chairman Goodlatte has paid no attention to the rampant voting discrimination still happening throughout the country, most recently in the 2014 midterm elections,” Henderson said. “The now-weakened [VRA] lacks the ability to protect voters from discrimination before they are denied the right to vote. The remedies that the chairman says still exist are costly and time consuming to pursue through the courts and decisions in these cases often come long after voters have been excluded from elections that they have every right to participate in.”

Hilary Shelton, Washington NAACP bureau chief, said his group met with Goodlatte last year to discuss legislation to restore the VRA to its original form. “We made it clear that we supported hearings on the VRA and we have bipartisan support on this,” Shelton said. Shelton said that representatives of the Virginia NAACP, including those who live in Roanoke, a major city in Goodlatte’s district, met with him, too.

One of the arguments anti-VRA advocates make is the election and re-election of President Obama in 2008 and 2012, respectively. They say that minorities cannot be considered disenfranchised when the country, still majority White, elected an African-American to its top political position.

However, Kathleen Collier-Gonzalez, senior attorney and director of the voter protection for the Advancement Project, counters that view. “The measure of success is not the re-election of an African-American president,” she said. “You still have very serious problems in terms of people who don’t having ‘acceptable’ voting identification, and states reducing the early voting period and eliminating Sunday voting. As a matter of fact, I think there is a backlash because of our first African-American president.”

Shelton said it was because of the VRA that Obama became president and it should be preserved as a tool to help people become more involved in politics.

Collier-Gonzalez said government identification as the only acceptable form for citizens to be able to vote is similar to the poll taxes that some Southern states in the pre-Civil Rights era levied against its citizens with the subtle purpose of disenfranchising Blacks. She notes that many young people, seniors, and low-income citizens don’t have government identifications that are acceptable to voter registrars.

Butterfield is urging the House Republican leadership to override Goodlatte’s decision.

“I call on Speaker [John] Boehner, Majority Leader [Kevin] McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise to reverse this decision and make restoring the VRA a priority,” the representative said. “The weakening of the VRA left millions of Americans vulnerable to discriminatory state laws. To do nothing sends a terrible message, not only to minorities, but to anyone who believes the right to vote is essential to our democracy and way of life.”

Fallout from Police Shooting of Black Man in NJ Continues

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By Cyril Josh Barker
Special to the NNPA from the New York Amsterdam News

Black citizens in the southern New Jersey city of Bridgeton continue to demand answers for the police shooting of a Black man who clearly had his hands up, as seen on a dash cam video.

Reports indicate that demonstrators marched to City Hall in Bridgeton over the Dec. 30, 2014, police shooting of 34-year-old Jerame Reid. Protesters planned to disrupt a City Council meeting.

However, because of having to go through metal detectors at City Hall and being held up, few were allowed to speak during the public session of the meeting. Council President Jack Surrency announced that a public meeting will be held on the topic at a later date.

Tensions have been running in the city after a video went viral of Reid putting his hands up before officer Braheme Days, who is Black, fatally shot Reid. Days claimed he saw a gun in the glove compartment of the vehicle Reid was riding in.

Protesters say that while they were on their way to the City Council meeting, they were detained by police and given summonses. One woman said hers was scheduled for the same day as the next City Council meeting. Another woman, Felicta Cox, said during the public session that there is a fear of police in the community among Black men.

“Look around the room,” Cox said, according to reports. “Our young Black men are afraid to come out and speak because they’re afraid they’re going to get locked up.”

Another woman called what happened to those protesting who wanted to speak “harassment,” with others saying their constitutional rights were violated.

Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly vowed that he will meet with anyone who has concerns about violence in the city.

Meanwhile, more is being learned about Reid’s relationship with law enforcement. Reports indicate that he had a lawsuit against Cumberland County involving assault allegations. At the time of his death, Reid was seeking $100,000 from the Cumberland County Department of Corrections over allegations that in 2009, he was punched, kicked and pepper sprayed and had a bucket of cold water poured on him while in a county jail cell.

Reid said that because of fears of retaliation, he told a nurse that he was beaten by other inmates. He suffered broken ribs, a fractured left orbital bone and nerve damage to his face.

Political Uproar in Trinidad and Tobago, Scandal Takes a Heavy Toll

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By Tony Best
Special to the NNPA from the New York Carib News

It was reminiscent of the “night of the long knives” and when it was all over, political blood was spilled all over the place in Trinidad and Tobago when Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar wielded her cabinet axe.

Gone from the cabinet are Attorney-General, Anand Ramlogan, and Minister of National Security Garry Griffith, both of whom were fired by the country’s leader in a 20-minute national broadcast as she attempted to stem the fall-out from a mushrooming scandal triggered by allegations that the Attorney-General might have been involved in an attempt to pervert the course of justice in the twin-island republic.

But the country’s embattled first female Prime Minister didn’t stop there with her bloodletting .She: Demanded the resignation of David West, Chairman of the Complains Authority for his role in the witness tampering investigation ordered by acting Police Commissioner, Stephen Williams. Sacked the President of the Senate, Timothy Hamel Smith and Justice Minister, Emmanuel George. Ousted the Minister in the National Security Ministry, Embau Moheni.

Lifted the responsibilities of the Sports Ministry from Rupert Griffith.

Switched Stacy Roopnarine from being Minister in the Ministry of the Infrastructure to the Ministry of Gender, Youth and Child Development.

Placed Prakash Ramadhar as head of the Ministry of legal Affairs; made Christine Nawal Hosein the new Minister of Social Development; appointed Brent Sancho, soca warrior footballer as the Minister of Sport.

Made Garvin Nicholas, a former High Commissioner (Ambassador) in London as the new Attorney-General and chose Carl Alfonso as the National Security Minister.

Interestingly, the Prime Minister disclosed that while she had asked for and received the resignation of Ramlogan, she fired Griffith when he didn’t hand in his resignation.

“I cannot and will not sit idly by while the office of the Attorney-General and that of the Minister of National Security and the head of the Police Complaints Authority are being compromised and brought into disrepute by such allegation that have warranted a police inquiry,” the Prime Minister told the nation.

Persad-Bissessar then called for a wide-spread independent probe into the affair which has shaken the government to the core. It was the fourth cabinet reshuffle since she became the country’s leader and with a general election expected to be held in a few months, the political temperate is rising as Opposition Leader as Dr. Keith Rowley insists the scandal and other events should be enough to force the Prime Minister to call the election sooner than most people thought she would.

“It should now be crystal clear to the citizenry of Trinidad and Tobago that the crime and criminality which have been plaguing our nation have now identified themselves at the cabinet door,” charged Rowley.

“This reshuffle for the nth time is a poor attempt to create a distraction, a diversionary tactic aimed at turning the population away from the real issue, the real scandalous issue which is the extended reach of allegations of criminal conduct within the cabinet and outward to others who are now scampering to find criminal defense lawyers, much as they did when the email-gate matter was exposed for investigation,” Dr. Rowley said.

Bombs Fly as Nigerians Prepare to Vote

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Special to the NNPA from the Global Information Network

Feb. 2 (GIN)—As if things could hardly be worse, a bomb was detonated this week within a hair of striking President Goodluck Jonathan, who had just appeared at a campaign rally in northern Nigeria.

The northern region is the unofficial territory of Boko Haram, the insurgent group that got its start in 2009, seeking isolation from corruption. The assassination by police of their leader sparked a turn to militancy and, finally, to terrorism, with the kidnapping of high school students, setting off of bombs and, most recently, using a 12-year-old girl as a suicide bomber.

Fighting between Boko Haram militants and the Nigerian army went into overdrive over the weekend. At least 500 Boko Haram fighters were killed Sunday and many civilians also lost their lives, a reporter for Voice of America stated.

Neighboring Chad also had operatives in the country, under the Africa Union agreement for member states to help Nigeria. The AU has agreed to send 7,500 troops against the well-armed group.

The fighting has intensified with just weeks before the Feb. 14 presidential elections and the Feb. 28 polls for governors and state assembly seats.

In an interview with Voice of America, Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade pledged to keep the northern region safe from terrorists. “The mission is on,” he said. “There is no allowing terrorists anywhere. As many times as they come, it will only give us the opportunity to decimate them.”

Because of the nation’s still-unsuccessful effort against Boko Haram, more than a million people have been displaced from their homes, and some 10,000 people were killed in the past year alone, according to the N.Y.-based Council on Foreign Relations. With thousands of Nigerians displaced by fighting, some have called for postponement or cancellation of the polls.

A former governor of Kaduna State, Balarabe Musa, urged the Independent National Electoral Commission to postpone the voting exercise on grounds of insecurity and the inability of a large number of Nigerians to collect their permanent voter cards.

“The manner with which the two principal parties are going about their campaigns is giving bad signals,” he said, “[causing doubt] that elections will be peaceful, free and fair.”

But “Babatunde,” writing on the website of the Nigerian ChannelsTV, disagreed. “When will Mr. Musa want the election held? Or we should never again conduct election because we are afraid there will be violence? Maybe we should just consult the oracle of violence when he is going on vacation before we can hold any election in Nigeria.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, after a meeting in Nigeria, also gave his blessing to the Feb. 14 poll. “Given the stakes, it’s absolutely critical that these elections are conducted peacefully,” Kerry told reporters in the commercial capital, Lagos, after meeting Jonathan and main opposition rival, Muhammadu Buhari, of the All Progressives Congress.

In the last election in 2011, when Buhari lost to Jonathan, three days of rioting killed more than 800 people and displaced 65,000.

“Nobody gains by violence, nobody gains by turning a political disagreement into a killing spree,” Kerry said. “The proof will be in the actions that are taken in the course of the election and afterwards.”

A court will hear a petition Feb. 9 to disqualify Buhari for, among other reasons, failing to provide evidence of his birth certificate and educational qualifications as required.

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BVN National News Wire