Sunday, August 30, 2009

A sad day for the ACLU-PA

Words can't express how much we miss our dear friend and colleague Larry Frankel, who passed away unexpectedly late last week. We will always remember his wit, his charm, his brilliance, and his dedication to civil liberties.

ACLU Mourns Passing of Larry Frankel, Former ACLU-PA Legislative and Executive Director


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Texas closer to admitting it executed an innocent man

Antonin Scalia, no friend of justice, once said that if an innocent person had been executed in the United States, death penalty abolitionists would shout it from the rooftops. We've tried, and we've had some success. Innocence, above all other issues, has led Americans to increasingly doubt capital punishment since the Illinois moratorium in 2000. But we still have plenty of work to do.

I've long felt that the more zealous prosecutors and legislators get about pursuing death sentences, the more the public is turned off by the idea of the death penalty. The most zealous state, Texas, is on the verge of admitting that it executed an innocent man.

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed by the state of Texas in 2004 for a house fire in 1991 that killed his three children. Now The Chicago Tribune has learned that a nationally known fire expert has reported to the Texas Forensic Science Commission that not only is there no evidence that Willingham set the fire but there's also no evidence that the fire was even arson.
Among Beyler's key findings: that investigators failed to examine all of the electrical outlets and appliances in the Willinghams' house in the small Texas town of Corsicana, did not consider other potential causes for the fire, came to conclusions that contradicted witnesses at the scene, and wrongly concluded Willingham's injuries could not have been caused as he said they were.

We have at least one similar case here in PA- the case of Dan Dougherty, which has been featured on CNN and ABC News. Dougherty sits on PA's death row today for a house blaze that fire experts believe was probably not even arson.

I first heard about Dougherty's case two years ago. This afternoon, after hearing the Willingham news, I contacted a lawyer friend from the office that is handling Dougherty's appeal. While sparing you the gritty details, Dougherty is years away from any relief as he and his lawyers weave their way through the appeals maze.

People can reasonably disagree over the idea of the death penalty. But there can be no doubt that executing an innocent person is our government's worst nightmare. It's past time to end the debacle of the death penalty.

(h/t JR at Daily Kos, here and here)

Andy in Harrisburg

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Queremos due process y fair treatment

That's my Spanglish in the headline. Of course, I relied on Google Language Tools for "queremos" ("we want"), which I thought was "quieremos". Ay, dios mios.

Working in immigration, we learn to take the good with the bad. Over the last week, there's been some good and some bad.

On Monday, as the result of a Freedom Of Information Act lawsuit by the ACLU, the Department of Homeland Security released new information on the deaths of people who were in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). DHS revealed additional deaths that had not previously been reported, including the death of Felix Franklin Rodriguez-Torres, bringing the total number of deaths of people in ICE custody to 104 since 2003. Felix died of testicular cancer in 2007 after the staff at a privately-run detention center gave him minimal treatment, and his story is chronicled in today's New York Times.

And these are the people that the Pennsylvania State Police and the city of Philadelphia think they can work with. A few weeks ago, the city began its participation in ICE's Secure Communities program, which the state will implement in all 67 counties over the next four years. PPD will send the fingerprints of arrestees to PSP, who will then send them along to ICE to check their status. Supposedly, only prints from those charged with serious crimes will be sent through the pipeline. But we're suspicious since that's what ICE's 287(g) program was also supposed to do but instead has been deporting people picked up on minor crimes or even no crimes.
In January, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a scathing report on a different ICE initiative, the 287(g) program, which has trained over 60 state and local police departments to enforce immigration laws within their jurisdictions. The report concludes that this program lacks "internal control standards."Rather than targeting immigrants suspected of serious criminal behavior, as is its mission, 287(g) has largely netted immigrants caught committing minor offenses like traffic violations. (It is perhaps not a coincidence that many local police departments enrolled in 287(g) are facing accusations of and lawsuits about racial profiling.) Some might believe this is a desirable outcome. But it's not what the program aspires to do, and it has lead to a glut of deportation proceedings that are clogging and bankrupting prisons.

Regan Cooper, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration & Citizenship Coalition (PICC), believes the same thing will happen with the program Philly has enrolled in. "The stated goal of 287(g) is to screen people with serious offenses throughout the system," she says. "Everyone likes that. But the stated goal is different from what actually happens. We're worried that the same will be true of Secure Communities."

As a result, immigrants don't trust their local police, and victims and witnesses will not cooperate with investigations.

Finally, our legislative department, which is me, had to get into the action and released a statement on Monday on several recent reports on immigration. The Cato Institute- not exactly a liberal commune- released a study (pdf) on August 13 showing that an enforcement-only policy toward persons without papers would actually decrease Americans' household income.

I had to get this out there, along with a report (pdf) from late-July by the Immigration Policy Center, because at the end of July FAIR, an anti-immigrant group with connections to hate groups, put out a report claiming that persons without papers cost PA taxpayers blah-blah-blah millions of dollars.

One problem: unFAIR didn't consider the economic impact that these folks put back into the economy of Pennsylvania. And unFAIR failed to mention that 91 percent of the costs of this particular group of immigrants comes from the education of children, 73 percent of whom are US citizens. All of this was pointed out brilliantly by IPC.

This had to get out there because state legislators throw unFAIR's numbers around, and the media, including some in the capitol press corps, uncritically report them.

FAIR's numbers are bogus. We can have a reasonable discussion about immigration and even disagree at times. But legislators fail our democracy when they poison the debate with fraudulent facts.

Andy in Harrisburg

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