Thursday, February 26, 2009

Officers Sentenced in Johnston Death Exploited Snitch System

Three former Atlanta police officers were sentenced to prison time yesterday (2/24) for the shooting death of a 92 year-old grandmother after breaking down her door during a botched drug raid.

Jason Smith, Gregg Junnier and Arthur Tesler received sentences ranging from five to 10 years on charges of conspiracy to violate civil rights resulting in death.

In November 2006, the officers -- all members of Atlanta’s narcotics squad -- gunned down Kathryn Johnston inside her home. The police claimed to be acting on information they received from a confidential informant that drugs were being sold from the house. That allegation turned out to be false.

From the beginning evidence showed the officers manipulated a highly suspect system to justify an assault on Johnston’s home.

As AlterNet first reported in April 2007, the cops began by planting evidence on a known drug dealer to solicit information about narcotics being sold out of Johnston’s home; they then used fabricated testimony from a separate confidential informant to obtain a search warrant.

A terrified Johnston fired a single shot from a gun she kept when the police entered her home on a “no-knock” warrant; she hit no one. The cops responded with nearly 40 shots, killing her instantly.

The Johnston tragedy shined a spotlight on the cavalier use of informant information to obtain arrest and search warrants. The Justice Department launched a federal probe and, nine months after the shooting the House Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on law enforcement’s use of confidential informants.

“We’ve got a serious problem here that goes beyond coughing up cases where snitches were helpful,” said committee chair Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) at the hearing. “The whole criminal justice system is being intimidated by the way this thing is being run, and, in many cases, especially at the local level, mishandled. … A lot of people have died because of misinformation.”

Back in July 2008, I reported for In These Times on an epidemic of innocent people being sent to death row based on the information of paid or otherwise compensated snitches.

What I discovered is a disturbing trend in which police are increasingly abandoning traditional investigative work in favor of insider cooperation – what experts call a “dumbing down” of police work.

“The drug war has eroded law enforcement practices,” said investigative reporter Ethan Brown, whose book, Snitch: Informants, Cooperators and the Corruption of Justice, traces the genesis of the informant culture and its effect on communities.

Today, falsified informant testimony accounts for nearly half of all wrongful convictions in capital cases nationwide, according to data from Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. Since 1973, 129 innocent people were released from death row — more than 50 of whom were sentenced to death based partly or wholly on false informant testimony.

“The government’s use of criminal informants is largely secretive, unregulated and unaccountable,” explained Alexandra Natapoff, an associate professor of law at Loyola University and one of the country’s foremost authorities on the problems with confidential informants. “This lack of oversight and quality control leads to wrongful convictions, more crime, disrespect for the law and sometimes even official corruption.”

Since the 2007 House Judiciary Committee hearing, little headway has been made in reforming the practice of using incentivized informants to send people to jail — and, worse, execution.

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), 18 states now require corroboration of an accomplice’s statements. Those that require corroboration for other forms of incentivized witnesses, however, are few and far between.

According to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s office, in addition to the federal civil rights conspiracy charge in the Johnston case, in 2007 officers Junnier and Smith pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and related state charges in Fulton County (Georgia) Superior Court. Pursuant to their plea agreements, they are scheduled to be sentenced in state court on March 5 to the same sentence imposed in federal court, with the sentences to be served concurrently.

Tesler initially declined to plead guilty and was indicted in state court on charges of violation of oath of office by a public officer, false imprisonment and false statements. He pleaded guilty to the federal charge on October 30, 2008. Each defendant was also sentenced to serve 3 years on supervised release following his prison term, and collectively to pay $8,180 in restitution for the costs of Ms. Johnston’s funeral and burial.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Jeppesen Redux

If the American Civil Liberties Union was hoping for more government openness under the Obama administration, it got a rude awakening yesterday when Justice Department officials once again evoked the “state secrets” exemption to block an ACLU sponsored lawsuit against Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen DataPlan.

“Candidate Obama ran on a platform that would reform the abuse of state secrets, but President Obama's Justice Department has disappointingly reneged on that important civil liberties issue,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, in a statement commenting on the administration’s decision.

In 2007 the ACLU sued the flight logistics company on behalf of five victims of the United States government's unlawful “extraordinary rendition” program: Bisher Al-Rawi; Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah; Ahmed Agiza; Abou Elkassim Britel; and, Binyam Mohamed. But before the case could be heard, the Bush administration intervened, claiming the case would undermine national security. A federal trial judge ruled in favor of the Bush administration last year and dismissed the suit.

Overwhelming evidence suggests Jeppesen was responsible for arranging flights for the CIA to transport suspects apprehended in the War on Terror to third countries where they were held without charge and tortured.

In my February 2008 article on the case, Extraordinary Rendition on Trial, I cite an affidavit from Al-Rawi describing the ordeal that followed his rendition from Gambia to a facility known as ‘The Dark Prison’:

“From the outset I was held in complete darkness and isolation and kept in leg shackles 24 hours a day. I was given very little water and fed only once every one or two days. Despite the extreme cold, I was not provided with adequate clothing or blankets. Strange music and loud man-made sounds were played around the clock, which in addition to the screams of other prisoners around me, made sleeping extremely difficult,” he said.

He says things got worse after U.S. officials transferred him to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

"I was kicked and dragged along the floor ... held in a squalid cell [for two months] and forced to undergo prolonged periods of isolation and sleep depravation," he testified. "I was threatened with death or transfer to another country to be tortured."

Al-Rawi was finally transferred to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo on Feb. 7, 2003, where he would spend the next four years without being charged. He was released on March 30, 2007, and was flown on a luxury Lear Jet back to the United Kingdom, where he currently resides. He has received neither an apology nor an explanation for his ordeal.

Of the other four plaintiffs in the ACLU case, three remain incarcerated.

On Feb. 9, 2009, the ACLU presented oral arguments before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, seeking a reversal of the earlier ruling dismissing the case.

Much to its dismay the Obama administration opted not to change the government position in the case, instead reasserting that the entire subject matter of the case is a state secret.

"We are shocked and deeply disappointed that the Justice Department has chosen to continue the Bush administration's practice of dodging judicial scrutiny of extraordinary rendition and torture,” said Ben Wizner, a staff attorney with the ACLU, who argued the case for the plaintiffs. “This was an opportunity for the new administration to act on its condemnation of torture and rendition, but instead it has chosen to stay the course. Now we must hope that the court will assert its independence by rejecting the government's false claims of state secrets and allowing the victims of torture and rendition their day in court.”

Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has ordered a review of all cases in which the former administration claimed state secrets were at stake.

“The attorney general has directed that senior Justice Department officials review all assertions of the state secrets privilege to ensure that it is being invoked only in legally appropriate situations,” Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller said.

But at least where the Jeppesen case is involved, it appears the final decision on what constitutes an appropriate situation will be left to the courts. The appeals court is expected to rule on the matter in several weeks.