Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Erik Tornblom


Death penalty case puts racism on trial in North Carolina

In North Carolina, the Racial Justice Act seeks to remedy years of inequity on death row. But can racism be regulated? 

In 1991, 18-year-old Marcus Reymond Robinson and a friend convinced Erik Tornblom, 17, to give them a ride home from a gas station.

Robinson and his friend then pulled a gun on Tornblom, forced him to drive to a field, took his car and his money and shot him in the head.

A jury later convicted Robinson, who is black, of pulling the trigger on Tornblom, who was white. The prosecution presented evidence that Robinson said he wanted to kill a "whitey".

He was sentenced to death and scheduled to be executed in 2007. But like many death row convicts, he has survived past that date, and continues to appeal his sentence.

Last week, he appeared in a North Carolina courtroom as the first death row inmate to present evidence under North Carolina's Racial Justice Act (RJA), a controversial law designed to compensate for bias in the judicial system.

He and his legal team are hoping the new law will offer him relief in the form of life in prison without parole.

In the process, they're putting racism itself on trial.

'Wild disparities'
Critics of the death penalty have long argued that it is applied in an uneven and unjust fashion.
"Currently, only about 1% of the people who are accused of intentional murder are receiving the death penalty. There are wild disparities," says Malcolm Hunter, one of Robinson's lawyers and executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

"I could show you the summaries of 50 cases any year in North Carolina and say 'I want to pick out the two or three that get the death penalty', and you'd never be able to do it."

A series of studies over the past 30 years show that race is often a significant factor in who gets the death penalty: that black convicts are more likely to receive the death penalty than white ones, that white victims are more likely to result in a death sentence than black ones.

For Shirley Burns, the mother of Robinson, the idea of sentencing bias isn't just an academic exercise. Her other son, Curtis, was killed in 2006.

His killer wasn't eligible for the death penalty but could have served life in prison. Thanks to a plea bargain, he is currently serving a 22-year sentence.

"Punishment for a crime is not wrong, but the way that it is dealt to different people is wrong," says Ms Burns.

Though it is currently unconstitutional to seek the death penalty for racially biased reasons, defendants must prove intentional bigotry to make their case.

That's a difficult order, says Frank Baumgartner, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina.

"You would have to get someone to say I did this on purpose, and I did this for the reason of racial bigotry," he says. "It's almost never done."

But by looking at several cases over time, broader patterns of systemic bias emerge.

Excerpts from Racial Justice Act:

The defendant has the burden of proving that race was a significant factor in decisions to seek or impose the sentence of death in the county, the prosecutorial district, the judicial division, or the State at the time the death sentence was sought or imposed. The State may offer evidence in rebuttal of the claims or evidence of the defendant, including statistical evidence.
In the 1987 Supreme Court case McClesky v Kemp, justices weighed whether these statistical patterns could be used to prove bias in a death penalty appeal. 

In a 5-4 decision, the justices decided against the use of this data, noting that the matter was one "best presented to the legislative bodies" who could choose to pass specific laws addressing this concern.
In 2009, the legislature in North Carolina did just that.

Data defence
The Racial Justice Act (RJA) allows death penalty prisoners to use statistical patterns of injustice, not just the facts of an individual case, to prove bias.

A similar but weaker law exists in Kentucky, and has yet to be put to use.

Under North Carolina's RJA, Defendants are eligible for a life sentence without parole if they can show that they were more likely to receive the death penalty because of their race or the race of their victims.

They can also, as in the case of Marcus Robinson, try to prove racial bias in how the state used their "peremptory challenges" during jury selection.

These challenges allow lawyers for both the prosecution and the defence to strike a certain amount of potential jurors without cause, as long as in doing so they adhere to federal laws against discrimination.

Barbara O'Brien, a law professor from Michigan State University, studied the role of race in peremptory jury strikes in North Carolina from 1990 to 2010.

At Robinson's RJA hearing, she testified that, on average, North Carolina prosecutors in death penalty cases excluded qualified black jurors at more than twice the rate of qualified non-black jurors.

For Marcus Robinson's jury pool, qualified blacks were rejected 3.5 times more.

"Being black does predict whether or not the state will strike the potential juror, even when controlling for these other variables," she said.

The final jury seated in Robinson's case had nine white members, two black, and one Native American. The rate of black members on the jury, 18%, was not much different to that of North Carolina's black population, about 21%.

But under the RJA, the final makeup of the jury is not at issue. Instead, it's what role the state played to get to that point.

"Absent of other things, naturally the prosecution will want less blacks, defence will want more. The question is whether we should allow the prosecution to bleach juries," says Mr Baumgartner.

"Should the state, on our behalf, engage in a racially discriminatory pattern of behaviour?"

Colour blind justice?
For the family of Erik Tornblom questions about systemic bias and judicial fairness seem far removed from the death of their son. He is not a statistic, they say, and neither is his killer.

Racial Justice Act timeline

  • 1987 Supreme Court decision McCleskey v Kemp says that under current law statistics cannot be used to prove bias in individual cases
  • 2006 Legal challenges temporarily halt executions in North Carolina
  • 2009 The North Carolina Senate passes the Racial Justice Act. Opponents include district attorneys and conservative lawmakers.
  • 2011 Amid continued opposition to the RJA, the Senate passes a new version of the bill, which eliminates the use of statistics. It's later vetoed by the governor
  • 2012 As of January, all but a handful of North Carolina's 158 death row inmates have filed a claim under the RJA
"What do people in Michigan have to do with us in North Carolina?" Patricia Tornblom, Erik's stepmother, asked after the first day in court. The family wore buttons that read "Justice is color blind". 

To them, the only racial bias that matters should be the one that Robinson displayed when seeking out a white victim.

The prosecution cannot make this argument. They cannot provide details of the murder and argue that the death penalty was well deserved. They can only present their own statistics expert, as well as evidence from the judge and prosecutor in Robinson's original trial.

Both men maintain that race was not a factor in the state's jury selection process. More judges are expected to testify to similar effect.

But the Racial Justice Act fundamentally redefines the way the judicial system views racism. For years, the courts only saw racism as a deliberate act, done with malice.

The RJA says that racism has more to do with subtle shifts and built-in prejudices that permeate what should be a fair process.

"People can be motivated by race without even realising it," said defence attorney James Ferguson in his opening arguments. Later, he presented expert witnesses testifying to that same claim.

The hearing is expected to wrap up within the week, after which Judge Greg Weeks will make a ruling.

His decision as to whether or not Robinson qualifies for a new sentence will help shape the way that the law is interpreted in the future, and will reveal how far-reaching the consequences of the RJA could be for death row inmates, state prosecutors and the people of North Carolina.

Either way, his decision is expected to face appeals, and to serve as a historic moment in the ongoing debate over how American courts deal with race, justice and death.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Rachel Manning


Man, 40, charged with golf club murder of teenager Rachel Manning 11 years ago (after fiancé served six years in jail before being cleared)

  • Appeared before magistrates in Milton Keynes
  • Shop worker's half-naked body found dumped on exclusive golf course
  • Investigation into her death re-opened after her fiance was cleared of her murder after serving six years in jail
  • Barri White in public gallery for today's hearing

A middle-aged man appeared in court today charged with the murder of a teenager whose half-naked body was found dumped in the grounds of one of Britain's most exclusive golf courses 11 years ago.

Shahidul Ahmed, 40, from Bletchley, appeared at Milton Keynes Magistrates' Court and was remanded in custody. He will next appear at Luton Crown Court on December 14.

The investigation into the death of Rachel Manning, 19, was re-opened after her fiance Barri White was cleared of her murder after serving six years in jail.

He was in the public gallery for today's hearing.

Rachel had been strangled before her killer battered her face with a car crook lock. She was found in the grounds of Woburn Golf Club, in Milton Keynes, Bucks, on December 12, 2000.

Mr White, now aged 30, was jailed for life in 2002 for her murder, only to be freed after being acquitted of killing her at a retrial.

Rachel had been on her way home from her future mother-in-law's 40th birthday party in Milton Keynes when she disappeared.

She had left Chicago’s nightclub in Milton Keynes, dressed in a Seventies-style outfit of white, knee-length boots with platform heels, short black skirt, white blouse and blue wig.

The event, on December 9, 2000, was a late party to mark future mother-in-law Sharon Shaheed’s 40th birthday.

Rachel, Barri and other friends went on to another club, going their separate ways around 2.15am.

Her body was then found by a man walking his dog on the morning of December 12, in undergrowth at Woburn Golf Club, with the stoplock discovered 1,600ft away.
It was in 2002, at Aylesbury Crown Court, Bucks., that Mr White was convicted of her murder and jailed for life. Mr Hyatt was convicted of moving her body and disfiguring her and was subsequently jailed for five years.

A large campaign then began to have the men freed and the convictions quashed, with Dr Peter Bull, ‘the father of geo-science forensics in the 1990s’, who worked on an investigation for BBC’s Rough Justice programme, labelling the evidence 'totally implausible'.

That programme was aired in March 2005, three years before Mr White finally walked free.

Detective Superintendent Rob Mason, leading the investigation said yesterday: 'The man [Shahidul Ahmed] was arrested at his home address at 7am this morning.

'He was due to answer police bail on December 12 but was re-arrested after new forensic evidence came to light.

'Due to the fact this is a live investigation and we have someone in custody, I am unable to give any further details at this time.

'Rachel’s family have been informed.'

Holly Staker

DNA and a confession were the focus of opening statements Wednesday by attorneys in the trial of Juan Rivera, who is accused in the 1992 rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker in Waukegan.

Rivera is on trial for the third time in the case. Since 1993, when he was first convicted, Rivera won a second trial, and was convicted again, then won a third trial when advances in DNA showed the semen found on the victim did not belong to him.

Lake County Assistant State's Atty. Michael Mermel told jurors the DNA was contaminated by sloppy lab work. Mermel instead focused on the statements Rivera, now 36, gave police, describing them as containing details "only the killer would know" about Staker's murder.

Defense attorney Thomas P. Sullivan said during his opening statement that the DNA excludes Rivera, and scientists will testify that it was not contaminated.

Sullivan also countered Mermel's claims about Rivera's confession, saying a team of investigators knew the details police say Rivera gave them. He also hinted to jurors that more evidence disputing the confession is on the way.

Sullivan said the jury will be able to look at both writing by Rivera, who has an IQ of 79, and the confession police say he gave, which has language Sullivan described as "college level." Sullivan said some may find the comparison "comical."

Witnesses called to testify Wednesday included officers who took photographs and video after discovering Staker's killing. She had been baby-sitting two children when attacked in a second-floor apartment and stabbed more than two dozen times. The DNA found on her body has been entered into state and federal databases, with no match found.

Rivera was convicted the first time largely on the basis of his disputed confession. That conviction was set aside in 1996 by the Illinois Appellate Court, which ruled Judge Christopher Starck made a series of errors as he presided over the case.


Police in Waukegan have reopened the investigation into the 1992 stabbing death of an 11-year-old girl. 

Police Chief Dan Greathouse says his department has to start again now that the man convicted of the crime has been set free. Juan Rivera was sentenced to life in prison in Holly Staker's death, but he was released after more than 19 years in prison last week because of an appellate court ruling.

Staker was found stabbed 27 times and raped in the Waukegan apartment where she was babysitting two young children.

Greathouse tells The News-Sun that authorities are reviewing the past investigation to determine how many detectives will be assigned to the Staker case and whether the Lake County Major Crime Task Force will be involved.

David Pettis


Friends, Family Mourn Murdered Victim

LAS VEGAS - Loved ones of 20-year-old David Pettis lit candles and stood side by side Friday night. They held hands, shed tears, shared their sorrow and mourned their painful loss.

Ron Pettis never thought he'd have to bury his son.

"David did not deserve to die the way he died and to be dumped out in the desert," he said. "David was a very good kid. Everybody loved David."

David Pettis' body was found Thursday morning near Nellis Boulevard and Carey Avenue. The body was wrapped in plastic and dumped by a construction equipment storage yard.

"I'm missing my son very much. He got caught up in some stuff, and he asked for help and couldn't seem to get the help that he needed," Ron Pettis said.

While Pettis had some struggles, friends say he was always as good as gold.

"Definitely the best person in the world, he had the biggest heart, willing to do anything," friend Mike Williams said.

"He was always smiling, and he always had the best interest at heart for everybody around him," friend Logan Huskie said.

Loved ones cherish the good times, Pettis' smile and his zest for life.

"There was never a bad time when we were around Pettis, and he loved everybody like they were blood," friend Jered Sterns said.

Ron Pettis hopes some good can come from his son's tragic passing.

"If there's anything for us to learn out of this, (it) is for these kids to go to church, know what their morals are, and use them," he said. "Our children are dying everyday, and nobody can get a handle on it."

Pettis' body was found at approximately 10:05 a.m. December 8 near 5400 Reflex Drive.


Cayce Vice

For the second time in just over a month, an Aiken police officer has been killed.

Master Cpl. Sandy Rogers, 48 and a 27-year veteran of the force, was shot while investigating a suspicious vehicle in an Aiken park about 7:30 a.m. Saturday, said Aiken Department of Public Safety Director Charles Barranco. She later died at an area hospital, he said.

State Law Enforcement Division spokeswoman Kathryn Richardson said Joshua Tremaine Jones, 26, was arrested in connection with the shooting about 11:30 a.m. Saturday in a Batesburg-Leesville home. Jones will be charged with murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. SLED has taken over investigation of the shooting.

he Aiken Standard newspaper reports that Jones, of North Augusta, was linked Saturday afternoon to another killing. According to Georgia officials, he is a suspect in the killing of his pregnant 21-year-old girlfriend, Cayce Vice. She was found dead at her apartment about 10:30 a.m. Saturday by officers doing a welfare check because Vice had not shown up for her job. It wasn’t clear Saturday night how long she had been dead or how she was killed.

Jones has been convicted of gun violations in Aiken County and was sentenced to 108 days in prison, according to Aiken County public records. A full criminal record was unavailable Saturday.

Barranco said Rogers had an associate’s degree in business from Aiken Techinical College and was a field training officer. She had received the force’s distinguished service and life saving awards. At a press conference Saturday night, Barranco said he appreciated the public’s support as his department mourns the loss of another officer.

“I’d like to thank this community for standing next to us again,” he said.

This is the third shooting involving an Aiken Public Safety officer in just over a month. Officer Scotty Richardson was shot and killed in a traffic stop at an apartment complex Dec. 20. Scotty Richardson lived in Lexington County, had a wife and three children and was a 12-year veteran of the force.

Another officer was shot in that incident as well, but survived. Stephon Carter, 19, was charged with murder and attempted murder in the incident.

For Scotty Richardson’s friends, Saturday’s shooting was especially troubling. Redina Nettles and Angie Holdorff were selling magnetic car ribbons to raise money for the fallen officer’s wife, Amelyn, Saturday at an Aiken community center. Nettles said the shooting put a damper on the day.

“Everybody is in shock,” she said. “It’s the second officer in a month’s time, and I am just at a loss for words.”

Gerry Owens was at the fundraiser as well. He said the news stirs up emotions from just a month ago.
 “This opens up a fresh wound once again, and our thoughts and prayers are with the officer who was shot this morning,” he said. “It’s just senseless and unfortunate.”


Josselyn Bishop


Williams-Tillman sentenced to life with possibility of parole

 MANKATO — As a sheet was pulled back to reveal her daughter’s battered body, Cara Bishop could see how hard Josselyn had fought to stay alive.

Her feet were worn from running barefoot down a sidewalk, trying desperately to escape the murderous anger of an ex-boyfriend. Broken fingernails and scratched hands told the story of a 19-year-old woman who knew she was too young to die. Holes in Josselyn’s body revealed how her life was stolen anyway by a jealous man and his knife.

Damone Christopher Williams-Tillman had just admitted to murdering Bishop, pleading guilty Tuesday to one count of first-degree murder during an act of domestic violence. He used his orange jumpsuit to wipe his eyes as his attorney, Barry Voss, helped him describe what happened in broad daylight on North Victory Drive the afternoon of July 8.

After a nine-month relationship turned very bad, including incidents where Williams-Tillman slashed the tires on Bishop’s car and threw her cell phone into Hiniker Pond, she had agreed to meet him again, he said. He drove her around town for awhile before they both started yelling. That’s when he stopped the car and pulled out a knife.

She got out of the car and ran after he stabbed her once in the stomach, Williams-Tillman said. Sobs from a courtroom full of Bishop’s friends and family grew longer and louder as he struggled to admit that he chased her down, caught her and stabbed her repeatedly until she was lying lifeless on a grassy median.

“Christopher Tillman ripped happiness right out from under us — happiness he had witnessed first-hand as we graciously invited him into our home,” Cara Bishop said in a victim impact statement that was read in court before Williams-Tillman was sentenced.

“It’s not fair. My family has endured a nightmare.”

An emergency medical technician, who was called to the scene immediately after a passing truck driver found Bishop, told Cara Bishop that her daughter was still breathing when she was found. The EMT, also a mother, prayed with Josselyn as her life slipped away. She told Cara she would want another mother to be with her daughter, if she couldn’t be, during her last moments.

Matt DuRose, a Mankato detective who is usually stoical in public while dealing with police business, attempted to keep his emotions in check as he read what Matt Bishop said about his daughter’s untimely death. Matt Bishop sat behind DuRose and listened to his own description about the 1,000 people who turned out for his daughter’s funeral.

His daughter called him “Fabio” and often greeted him with an embrace. They invented a handshake that became more complicated each time they did it, eventually spanning 30 seconds of maneuvers no one else could imitate. When they parted, peace signs were exchanged.

DuRose’s voice cracked as he read how Matt Bishop “will always remember her smiling face with those two fingers turned my way.”

Assistant Blue Earth County Attorney Pat McDermott said it was shortly after Christmas, after a discussion with Bishop’s family, that he first made a plea offer to Williams-Tillman. The deal allowed Williams-Tillman the chance of being released on parole after serving a minimum of 30 years in prison.

Williams-Tillman was arrested shortly after the murder. A grand jury later handed down an idictment including charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping and assault. Three of the charges in the indictment could have resulted in sentences of life in prison without the chance of parole, McDermott said.

Before the plea, Voss asked Williams-Tillman if he understood that some of the evidence gathered by investigators could have been challenged before it was heard by a jury. Constitutional questions could be raised about the arrest, a search of his father’s house in Golden Valley and statements made to police, Voss said.

Williams-Tillman said he understood that none of that would be possible after he pleaded guilty.

Voss also verified that they had discussed the plea deal extensively during a meeting in jail Sunday, and that Williams-Tillman had time to discuss his options with his parents. Damone Tillman Sr. also was in the courtroom, losing his composure several times during the 90-minute hearing.

In another victim impact statement that was read Tuesday, Josselyn Bishop’s 8-year-old brother, Gage, did something young people are known to do. He confronted Williams-Tillman with brutal honesty.

A simple act could have kept one life from being lost and another from being ruined, he said.

“Chris, you didn’t have to do this,” the statement said. “You could have walked away.”

After issuing his sentence, District Court Judge Bradley Walker said that option was now gone because he couldn’t turn back the clock.

“I wish you could,” Damone Tillman Sr. whispered as he buried his head in his hands.

Then he sat up and watched as his shackled son was taken back to jail.