Brady Violations Result in Habeas Relief for Pennsylvania Death Row Prisoner

By David Reutter / Prison Legal News

To correct a “grave miscarriage of justice,” Pennsylvania U.S. District Court Judge Anita Brody granted a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner and vacated his conviction and death sentence for a murder that “in all probability he did not commit.” The court found violations under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) due to the state’s withholding of evidence.

James A. Dennis was convicted in Philadelphia for the October 22, 1991 killing of high school student Chedell Williams. Williams, 17, and a friend, Zahra Howard, were approached by two men who demanded they give up their earrings. The girls fled; Howard hid behind a fruit stand while Williams ran into the street.

The men chased Williams. One of them held a gun to her neck and shot her; they then jumped into a car and sped away. Williams was pronounced dead shortly after her arrival at a hospital.

Dennis’ conviction was “based on scant evidence at best,” the district court wrote in an August 21, 2013 ruling. “It was based solely on shaky eyewitness identifications from three witnesses, the testimony of another man who said he saw Dennis with a gun the night of the murder, and a description of clothing seized from the house of Dennis’ father that the police subsequently lost before police photographed or catalogued it.”

The police never recovered a weapon, never found the car used by the assailants and never found two accomplices described by witnesses. Judge Brody said confidence in Dennis’ conviction was significantly diminished by flaws with the investigation and prosecution of the case, and noted “There was virtually no physical evidence presented at trial.”

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Vipassana Meditation Courses For Correction Facilities

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, Bessemer, Alabama has a harsh atmosphere and reputation for housing some of the most dangerous criminals in the country. Death row inmates, some with life sentences without the possibility of parole and others with a chance to be released and lead a new life are part of the W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility (WEDCF) community, but, if one is to live a gratifying life, whether it is behind bars or outside prison walls, a serious attitude change needs to occur.

January 14 - 25, 2002 is the first day of a 10-day project at a U.S. state prison and the first time a U.S. maximum-security facility has the possibility of transforming every participant in the process. Twenty inmates with a variety of offenses ranging from robbery to drug-trafficking shuffle down the hallway to the gymnasium that is going to be a makeshift for a meditation retreat. Bed rolls in hand the inmates enter the gymnasium with apprehension about spending the next 10-days sitting on the floor and being silent. How could this possibly make a difference?

Prisoners don’t realize the luxury of being in a unique position that provides them an opportunity to escape reality for ten-days. Many people of the outside world would be ecstatic to trade their routine work week, traffic, and paying bills for a time-out vacation in a sea of stillness.

Vipassana meditation is a tool prisoners and anyone interested in reaching a mindful diligence that surpasses a hostile consciousness can use to cope with everyday life. The word Vipassana means “to see clearly.”

The meditation program taught by S.N. Goenka has been internationally adopted by prisons and has been successfully offered over the last 25 years within prisons located in India, Israel, Mongolia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Thailand, U.K., and Myanmar. Vipassana was introduced to the U.S. penal system in 1997, but has only been accepted by three facilities; King County North Rehabilitation Facility, Seattle, Washington, San Francisco Jail Course, Jail #7, San Bruno, California, and W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, Bessemer, Alabama. The first Vipassana course in a North American correctional facility was conducted at the North Rehabilitation Facility (NRF) in Seattle, Washington in 1997.

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Decline in Arrests of Los Angeles County Probation Officers

By Prison Legal News

The Los Angeles County Probation Office has cited tougher self-policing and stricter hiring standards for a dramatic decrease in the number of employees arrested for driving under the influence and various other crimes, but the union representing probation officers complained the changes have led to understaffing.

Probation Office Chief Jerry Powers said the number of probation employees arrested for crimes both on and off the job fell from a high of 74 in 2011 to just 32 in 2013. Nearly half the arrests last year – 15 – were for DUI offenses. Most of the remaining charges were theft and assault.

“We’ve come light years from where we were to where we are today,” Powers said at a news conference.

But the president of AFSCME Local 685, the union representing the county’s probation officers, disputed Powers’ claim that the drop in the number of arrests was the result of hiring standards and self-policing.

“It’s like crime statistics, they go up and down all the time,” union president Ralph Miller said. “Taking credit for those numbers going down is like taking credit for the sun rising and setting.”

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Jury’s Tasteless Gag Gifts to Judge and Bailiff Fail to Demonstrate Unfair Trial

By Prison Legal News

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the denial of a death row prisoner’s habeas corpus petition that contended he was denied a fair trial by an impartial judge and jury because the jurors gave inappropriate gag gifts to the judge and one of the bailiffs.

The habeas proceeding involved Georgia death row prisoner Marcus A. Wellons, who was convicted of the murder and rape of a fourteen-year-old girl in 1989. During his trial, Wellons did not dispute that he had killed and raped the victim; rather, he claimed he was either not guilty by reason of insanity or guilty but mentally ill. After finding him guilty, the jury recommended a sentence of death for the murder and life for the rape.

Defense counsel learned during post-trial interviews that some jurors gave gag gifts to the judge and a bailiff either near the end of or immediately following the penalty phase of the trial. The judge received chocolate candy in the shape of a penis while the bailiff received chocolate in the shape of female breasts. Wellons’ counsel also learned that when the sequestered jurors dined at a local restaurant, the judge had spoken to them.

Motions for a new trial and for recusal of the judge were denied, Wellons’ convictions were affirmed on appeal and the Supreme Court denied review. Likewise, a state habeas petition was denied. After the federal district court denied Wellons’ habeas petition, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. This time, however, the Supreme Court granted certiorari and the matter was subsequently remanded for an evidentiary hearing on the “disturbing facts of this case.” The district court again denied relief and Wellons again appealed.

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Unknowns to Watch

By Anthony Tinsman

For those who have broken the law, and the ethics of a 'social-contract' (*see G.R. Grice, The Grounds Of Moral Judgment Cambridge, The University Press, 1967) imprisonment is in the best interest of justice and the defense of public safety. And in theory it allows for rehabilitation of the offender. Officials have created policies which are meant to support and motivate varying forms of rehabilitative activities. For example, the Bureau Of Prisons (BOP) Program statement P5350.23 (7/22/99) 'Inmate Manuscripts' supports the activity of authoring manuscripts and sending them through regular mail for publication: so long as an inmate’s (a) manuscript accumulation does not present a fire hazard, and (b) does not disrupt the security of the institution. It's a 'contract' that may help some gravitate towards a new direction. Imprisoned writers and artists simply have to cultivate the drive to pursue this opportunity. Some who have taken the challenge are off to a great start.

Dave Braken (publishing under the pen-name David Lee), a former computer programmer sentenced to double digits for fraud, entered prison in 2012. He decided to draw cards and decorate envelopes for other prisoners' families; it helped him make a little extra money. This service evolved into portraits, and then sequential art. "People always saw my work and said I should draw comic books. I've always wanted to create one, and now I have the time. So..." Dave says. In 2013 his first comic book was published on prisonsfoundation.org.  Titled Fleeb & Grak have a bad day. As Dave continues to refine his skills, he has also made an appearance in the Corcoran Sun, Freebird Publishers monthly prisoner newsletter. His comic strip "That's Not Funny" ran for the first time in the October/November issue. "Now I'm just thinking of what to send for Christmas." Dave’s smile, of course, says more than that. Publication is an endorsement, and you can't expect someone to change without encouragement. Dave says he plans on making a second Fleeb & Grak in 2015. "I'm hoping someone will make me a deal." He says.

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