What Is True/Slant?
275+ knowledgeable contributors.
Reporting and insight on news of the moment.
Follow them and join the news conversation.

Jun. 3 2010 — 8:31 am | 135 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Felony murder: An unaddressed issue in the Supreme Court’s juvenile lifer decision

In this week’s Philadelphia City Paper:

In a statement following the Supreme Court ruling, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said the decision “will have little to no impact here in Philadelphia. The decision involves juveniles under the age of 18 serving a sentence of life imprisonment without parole for a crime other than murder. In Philadelphia we believe there are no such cases.”

But the reality isn’t so clear-cut: Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion states that “defendants who do not kill, intend to kill, or foresee that life will be taken are categorically less deserving of [life without the possibility of parole] than are murderers.”

In Pennsylvania, the felony — or second-degree — murder rule imposes a mandatory life sentence without parole for any crime involving a homicide, whether or not that homicide was intended. And because the commonwealth allows juveniles to be tried as adults in murder cases, there are many cases in Pennsylvania involving juveniles sentenced to life without parole for crimes in which they did not kill, intend to kill or foresee that a life would be taken.

Most of the coverage following the Supreme Court’s decision two weeks ago emphasized that relatively few kids incarcerated for life would find their sentences affected by the new legislation. But states where the felony murder rule is law may find that number significantly higher in upcoming months.

Apr. 7 2010 — 11:36 am | 159 views | 1 recommendations | 2 comments

Denied: Judge says police didn’t know ‘reckless investigation’ was unconstitutional

Drew Whitley was convicted of a Pittsburgh murder back in 1989, and was then released from prison in 2006 after DNA tests proved he did not commit the crime. Since serving 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, he has filed an appeal with Allegheny County, where he was prosecuted, to get some sort of compensation for all those years he served unnecessarily. That appeal was recently denied. The following is from the denial:

The parties did not identify any decisions issued prior to 1989 concerning whether a reckless investigation violated an accused [person's] right to a fair trial. A reasonable officer in 1989 would not have fair warning that conducting a reckless investigation was unconstitutional.”

Meanwhile, Whitley is pretty much penniless, having given up the best years of his life to an unwarranted prison term. His son grew up without him, his family aged thinking he was a murderer.

Though Pennsylvania has no standard for compensating wrongfully convicted men and women, the Innocence Project in New York recommends that states:

  • Compensate exonerated people immediately after release with a fixed sum or a range of recovery for each year of wrongful incarceration. Congress and President Bush have recommended that this amount be set at $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration.
  • Provide immediate re-entry funds and access to job training, educational, health and legal services after an innocent person’s release.

Mar. 29 2010 — 1:54 pm | 123 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

11-year-old to be tried as an adult in Pa. murder

Next time someone tells you Texas has some unusually strict laws, remember that Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers of any state in the country and that Lawrence County Common Pleas Judge Dominick Motto decided today that he’s ok with trying an 11-year old as an adult for murder. From the Tribune-Review:

A 12-year-old charged with two counts of homicide will stand trial as an adult, a Lawrence County judge ruled this morning.

Jordan Brown is charged in the February 2009 shooting deaths of his father’s pregnant fiancee, Kenzie Marie Houk, and her unborn son, Christopher.

Police say Brown placed a shotgun to the back of Houk’s head as she lay in bed in the family’s New Galilee home, shot her and left the house to get on the school bus. He was 11 at the time of the killings last February.

His attorneys asked Common Pleas Judge Dominick Motto to move the case to juvenile court. In a hearing that ended March 12, defense attorneys David Acker and Dennis Elisco argued that Brown is amenable to treatment, and that the brain of someone that young is not fully developed.

Senior Deputy Attorney General Anthony J. Krastek, the lead prosecutor, said the “horrific” nature of the crime required trying Brown as an adult.

If Brown is convicted of first- or second-degree murder as an adult, he faces life in prison without parole. Legal experts say he could be the youngest person in U.S. history to receive a life sentence.

“I am shocked,” Elisco said this morning. “This is certainly the lowest point of my 29-year career. We’re just devastated.”

Comments welcome.

Mar. 21 2010 — 10:56 pm | 597 views | 1 recommendations | 8 comments

Man caught with 150 guns documented previous ‘nightmare’ of gun hoarding, involuntary commitment

Interesting enough story from three separate Pittsburgh news outlets this morning (including Trib Total Media, where I’m a staff writer) about a guy named Russell Laing, 52, who was found with 150 guns in his suburban Pittsburgh apartment after local officers “got a call from someone requesting an ambulance.”

From the Trib:

[Laing] faces several felony charges, including four counts of terroristic threats, two counts of aggravated assault and two counts of reckless endangerment, McCandless police Chief Gary Anderson said.

Anderson said police got a call from someone requesting an ambulance to come the Presidential Arms apartment complex, 9815 Presidential Drive, about 1 a.m. yesterday. When officers arrived, they found the door to the third-floor unit slightly ajar.

Officers called out the name of the man inside, got no answer and went in. Inside, they found a man seated on a couch with an assault rifle in his hands.

“He cocked it in front of the officers,” Anderson said. “At that moment, their safety was at risk.”

The officers left the apartment and dispatched Allegheny County police for help. A SWAT team came to the scene to try to convince the man to come out.

Authorities removed the man from the apartment just after 5 a.m.

But despite loaded sentences like, “Police say they were familiar with Laing, but would not elaborate on how,” apparently either 1) no one thought to Google the guy’s name or look him up on the local UJS portal of magisterial docket sheets, or 2) my standards for investigation are low and bloggy. Regardless, it turns out the guy has a bit of a past. Behold “The Russel [sic] Laing Story” from the Gun Owners Alliance:

Today my gun collection still sits, I suppose, in the garage of the WDPD where they placed it after stealing it from my home. They refused to answer a certified letter sent in October 1997 to provide a lawfully required listing of the property they had taken from my home. During the course of my petition to vacate/expunge my 302 record, they filed a cleverly worded statement with the court implying that they could not open the gun safe that they dragged out of my home (how did they know it had/has guns in it?)…even though I personally  unlocked it for them after they threatened to destroy it.  But my story is not about the illegal and outrageous actions of a few local police officers who deviated from the honorable and trustworthy profession of law enforcement. My story is about legislation which was passed unanimously by Pennsylvania legislators which actually writes into law provisions that deliberately circumvent the PA and United State’s constitutionally provided right to due process under the law…so that just about anyone can “cry-witch” against any lawful abiding gun owner, as was done to me, and take their right to own firearms, their lawfully owned valuable property, their personalliberty, and their reputation with less due process than would be need to assess a parking fine!

The gist here is that according to Laing himself, this exact same “Officers Find Ridiculous Amount Of Guns Inside Apartment” situation happened in April 1996. Despite having been involuntarily committed to a mental institution (that’s a “302” here in Allegheny County), Laing was later allowed to become a legal gun owner.

Some interesting unanswered questions remain: Who made the call “requesting an ambulance” in this recent gun hoarding scenario? And why? And what sort of event was Laing experiencing when he decided to open his front door “slightly” and “cock” his assault rifle in front of police officers?

If previous literature is any indication, I’m guessing this is not the last we’ll hear from Russell Laing (who also has some other interesting drug and prostitution related charges that have been withdrawn from his record (PDF)).

Mar. 5 2010 — 5:34 am | 348 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

Colorado jail bans all newspapers and magazines — except USA Today

It’s an Associated Press blurb from Colorado Springs, but the implications are vast:

A county jail in Colorado doesn’t allow inmates to read newspapers — except for USA Today.  The Garfield County Jail bans newspapers because the commander says they make inmates unsafe. The commander tells the Aspen Daily News that inmates can be targeted for violence if other inmates learn in the newspaper what others have been convicted of. Jail commander Steve Hopple says that USA Today is the only paper allowed because it carries “well-rounded national news.” The newspaper ban has been in effect about a year, but jail officials just this week confirmed the ban to the Aspen newspaper. In 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prisons could ban newspapers and magazines.”

This “we’re keeping the prisoners safe” logic seems asinine to me. Not only does this Colorado jail deprive its inmates of a connection with local news (replacing that local news with already-digested national news summaries), it also hinders the Colorado justice system’s access to perhaps its strongest — though most dubious — form of prosecutorial ammunition: snitches.

Though not all snitches come forward with testimony against fellow inmates after they’ve seen a crime reported in a newspaper, some do. And even the “well-rounded” USA Today reports on it every now and then.

Main point is: the idea that any human being, incarcerated or free, crackhead or not, should be denied access to topical reading material (potentially relevant to their life or case) makes me ill. Not ill to the extent that I would want “to grab the nearest taser, jam it down my throat, pull the trigger, and hope that my bodily fluids would conduct the 10,000 volts of electricity to instantly fry my brain,” but still — ill. Colorado should rethink this.

Hattip: DSC, Michael Hastings

My T/S Activity Feed


    About Me

    The Prison Dilemma is a collection of links and other stuff I stumble across while writing and reporting for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University -- an organization that investigates claims of wrongful conviction in Pennsylvania's State Correctional Institutions. If you have tips, thoughts, ideas, requests -- or if you know someone with a wrongful conviction claim -- contact me here:

    Twitter: twitter.com/ssttrroouudd

    Facebook: facebook.com/matt.stroud1

    E-mail: matt [dot] stroud [at] yahoo [dot] com

    See my profile »
    Followers: 32
    Contributor Since: June 2009
    Location:Pittsburgh, PA

    What I'm Up To

    About The Prison Dilemma

    The Prison Dilemma is about incarceration, justice, prisons, and prison reform. If you’re interested in any of these things, and your thirst for information isn’t fundamentally and in all ways quenched by the information you find here, I recommend that you explore volunteer opportunities with your local Innocence Project. If you’re like me and you live within 100 miles of Pittsburgh, PA, the Innocence Institute of Point Park University is your best option. That’s where I work.

    I also work as a staff writer with Trib Total Media.