JACKSONVILLE, Florida — (DMN) – George Zimmerman has surrendered to law enforcement authorities in Florida and has been charged with second degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Police say Zimmerman fatally shot Martin, a 17-year-old African-American, on February 26 in Sanford, Florida, after Martin began walking home from a convenience store. Zimmerman, who is Hispanic and was a neighborhood watch volunteer, had called 911 to complain about a suspicious person in the neighborhood. He was released without charges after claiming self-defense, but the case was referred to a special prosecutor as thousands converged on Sanford to join in protests calling for Zimmerman’s arrest.
State Attorney Angela Corey is holding a news conference now at the state attorney’s office in Jacksonville, Florida related to the Martin investigation. The Martin family and their attorney, Ben Crump, renewed their pleas for calm as the hour approached. “We don’t need anybody taking these matters into their own hands,” Crump said. Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, tells The Associated Press that right now she and Martin’s father “can’t get past our son being murdered and no one being arrested.” His father, Tracy Martin, says it will be very important to also get a conviction. Their comments follow news that charges will be filed against Zimmerman.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has released a statement ahead of the special prosecutor’s news conference: “We are fortunate in our state that most Floridians and local civic leaders are law-abiding, responsible citizens who all want justice to prevail. No matter what State Attorney (Angela) Corey determines following her investigation of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, I trust in the goodness of all Florida citizens to allow our justice system to reach an appropriate conclusion in this case.”
The parents of Trayvon Martin plan to hold a news conference after the special prosecutor makes her announcement. Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, will be accompanied by their attorneys and the Rev. Al Sharpton in Washington, D.C., where the parents have been visiting a conference held by Sharpton’s National Action Network. Many people in Sanford, Florida and around the world have been captivated by the Trayvon Martin case and have lent their support to Martin’s family. Upon hearing the news that special prosecutor Angela Corey was holding a press conference today to update the media, Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton tweeted that the case was in God’s hands now.
Charles Manson’s fate has likely been sealed by a California Parole Board that denied parole for the mass murderer and set his next parole hearing in 15 years. The 77-year-old head of the deadly Manson Family and mastermind of the famous Manson Murders in Los Angeles in 1969 did not show up in person to his hearing. The Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) issued their ruling today at a parole suitability hearing at California State Prison-Corcoran in Kings County.
Manson will remain in prison on a life sentence for seven counts of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder for the August, 1969, deaths of Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Steven Parent, Sharon Tate Polanski who was eight months pregnant, Thomas Sebring, Leno LaBianca and Rosemary LaBianca. Manson is also serving life for the first-degree murder of Gary Hinman.
CORCORAN STATE PRISON, California — (DMN) – A 12th and likely final parole hearing for mass murderer Charles Manson is underway at the Corcoran State Prison in Central California today. Manson did not attend the hearing. Manson informed prison officials last week that he would not attend the hearing. In the past, he’s dismissed the event, saying he’s a “political prisoner.” The last time he attended a parole hearing was 1997. The board was supposed to begin its work in the next hour or so, reviewing psychological reports, statements of victims and other materials. A decision is expected by late Wednesday afternoon.
Attorney DeJon R. Lewis said he would like to see Manson transferred to Atascadero State Hospital from the state prison near Corcoran. “Charles Manson does not need incarceration at this point in his life,” Lewis told CNN. “He needs hospitalization.” Debra Tate hopes that Wednesday is the last time she has to walk into a prison and argue to parole officials that Charles Manson should not be freed. For four decades, the sister of murdered actress Sharon Tate has traveled to whatever rural California prison has held the notorious cult leader and his band of murderous followers for hearings she says are too numerous to count. “I’ve tried to take this thing that I do, that has become my lot in life, and make it have purpose,” says the 59-year-old Tate, who was 17 in August 1969, when Manson sent his minions across Los Angeles on two nights of terror. “I’ve been doing it for Sharon and the other victims of him for the last 40 years.”
Today’s hearing could be Manson’s last chance for parole. Under current law, inmates can be denied the chance to reapply for parole for up to 15 years. Another rejection could make Manson 92 before he would get another opportunity to make his case. “At his age, I think he doesn’t care,” said Deputy District Attorney Patrick Sequeira, who will argue Wednesday against Manson’s release. “He would be lost if he got out. He’s completely institutionalized.” Manson has said he would not attend the hearing and has not appeared since 1997. His most recent hearing was in 2007.
Tate told The Associated Press she had hoped to look Manson in the eye while she reminds the two-member parole panel of the tortuous deaths suffered by Tate, who was 8 1/2 months pregnant, and four others visiting her Benedict Canyon home. “I want to lock eyes with him and walk them through everything done to each and every one of my friends, blow by blow,” she said. If Manson had attended, it would be his first time meeting his state-appointed attorney, DeJon Ramone Lewis. Manson declined a meeting a month ago when Lewis went to Corcoran State Prison to prepare for the hearing.
Manson, however, is anything but a recluse. He has a steady stream of visitors who submit requests to see him, including college students writing papers about him, said Theresa Cisneros, spokeswoman for Corcoran State Prison. Manson must approve all requests. “He has a large interested public,” she said, adding that Manson receives more mail than most prisoners. Manson has been cited twice for having smuggled cellphones. Authorities found he had been talking with people in California, New Jersey, Florida, British Columbia, Arkansas, Massachusetts and Indiana. The phone numbers were traced, but Department of Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton said she could not disclose who received the calls. Manson also was cited in October for having a homemade weapon in his cell.
Manson’s notoriety stems from one of the most gruesome mass murders in American history, the 1969 slayings of actress Sharon Tate and six others. Manson’s trial with three women acolytes was a spectacle that drew international attention. Manson was depicted as the evil master of murder, commanding a small army of young followers. He and the three women were sentenced to death. But their lives were spared when the California Supreme Court briefly outlawed the death penalty in 1972. One of them, Susan Atkins, died in prison. Two others, Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel, remain incarcerated. Manson also was convicted of two unrelated murders. An assortment of his followers are being held in California prisons.
Corrections officials released a recent picture of Manson in advance of his hearing. It shows the gray-haired old man with a swastika on his forehead, a reminder of his dark past. He carved the symbol during his trial. The photo was a dramatic change from his previous picture, when his head was shaved. Manson’s appearance has changed many times over the years but most memorable was the first image the world saw of the shaggy haired, wild-eyed cult leader staring from the covers of magazines in 1969. Debra Tate says she doubts the parole panel will vote to free Manson, but she does wish that his posture as a messiah out to save the world was perceived by everyone as being a sham. “I would hope he would get the moxie to come to terms with the reality of his situation and not the myth. They were a bunch of renegade sociopaths that banded together and had one hot flame for a short period of time,” she said. “It’s important to me that I try to diminish and tarnish their status as urban legends. It’s wrong, it’s just plain wrong.”
DNA and Non-DNA exonerations in Texas are coming faster and faster it seems. Faulty eyewitness testimony seems to be at the center of a lot of wrongful convictions but in the cases on Kerry Max Cook, Anthony Graves and Michael Morton prosecutorial misconduct is the key. Cook was railroaded to Texas Death Row multiple times by Smith County District Attorney Jack Skeen who was hell bent on executing an innocent man. DNA has cleared Cook in the rape and murder of Linda Edwards.
Although courts have confirmed that prosecutorial misconduct occurred in 91 Texas criminal cases between 2004 and 2008, not a single prosecutor among those has ever been disciplined for their misbehavior, according to new data compiled by the Innocence Project. (Allegations of prosecutor misconduct were raised in another 124 cases, but those issues were not ruled on by any court.) This is likely just the tip of the iceberg, said Emily West, IP research director, during a public dialogue on prosecutorial oversight last week at the University of Texas School of Law. Indeed, because 98% of Texas criminal cases are resolved through plea bargain, it is unlikely that we’ll ever know the true extent of the problem – which includes withholding exculpatory or other evidence possibly favorable to a defendant. Of the 91 cases in which the courts agreed there was misconduct, 36 involved “improper” arguments during trial, 35 involved improper questioning of a witness, and eight involved a failure to disclose favorable materials, known as a Brady violation. That’s exactly what Michael Morton says happened to him.
Exonerated last year, Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison for the bludgeoning death of his wife before DNA evidence linked another man to the crime instead. Morton’s conviction could have been avoided, he argues, had Williamson County prosecutors – chief among them former District Attorney Ken Anderson, who is now a district judge – had turned over evidence they had back in 1986 that suggested strongly that Morton was innocent of the crime. Anderson is now facing a rare “court of inquiry” (slated to begin Sept. 11), in which a court will determine if his actions (or inactions) violated criminal statutes. (If so, perhaps the IP will have to add a single hash mark to the “disciplined prosecutor” column.)
Morton spoke to an audience of students, legislative aides, judges, and lawyers last week, asking for the system to focus intently on curing the problem of misconduct. “I do not crave fame and fortune; I do not want to be recognized on the street. I’m here because I am you,” he said. People think this sort of thing happens to someone else – people with criminal records or who live “on the wrong side of town,” he said. But he demonstrates that misconduct knows no real boundaries: He lived in a nice suburban neighborhood in a brick house on a corner lot; his family was happy. And then his wife was dead, and he was in prison. “Remember, you can be me, because I am you.” John Thompson, who spent 18 years in prison in Louisiana – including 14 on death row – and was also part of the panel discussion, noted that misconduct isn’t the sole problem; ineffective assistance of counsel, often by poorly trained and unprepared defense attorneys, is equally problematic. Indeed, prosecutorial misconduct combined with ineffective assistance can be a one-two punch – one party is withholding evidence, and the other isn’t keeping a lookout.
Also on the panel were retired Travis County District Judge Bob Perkins and venerable Austin criminal defense attorney Betty Blackwell, who noted that part of the problem of discipline may be a state law that includes a four-year statute of limitations on prosecutorial misconduct, from the date of the actual misconduct. In most of these cases, she says, that’s simply not enough time. “Very rarely is any of this discovered within four years,” she said. Figuring out how to curb misconduct, of course, is the issue that remains. Robert Schuwerk, a law professor at the University of Houston, suggested that a cultural change within prosecutors’ offices is part of the solution: While prosecutors by and large are well-meaning and moral people out to seek justice, “what needs to happen … is they need to have a different conception of what [justice] is,” he said. “What they don’t see are the stories that have been told to us today [by Morton and Thompson]. … They have not been made to feel the injustice of that.”
If you had assumed that you had heard the last from Charles Sebesta about the Anthony Graves case, you were wrong. Sebesta, as you may recall, was the longtime district attorney of Burleson and Washington counties who won a conviction, and a death sentence, against Graves in 1994. All charges against Graves were dropped in October 2010, after special prosecutor Kelly Siegler, who had been hired to retry him, and then-D.A. Bill Parham declared that their re-investigation of the case cleared Graves. After eighteen years behind bars, twelve of them on death row, Graves walked out of jail a free man. He was subsequently awarded $1.4 million by the State of Texas for his wrongful imprisonment.
Siegler—who as a Harris County assistant D.A. has sent nineteen men to death row—made no bones about who was to blame for Graves’s wrongful conviction. “Charles Sebesta handled this case in a way that would best be described as a criminal justice system’s nightmare,” she announced at a 2010 press conference. “It’s a prosecutor’s responsibility to never fabricate evidence or manipulate witnesses or take advantage of victims. And unfortunately, what happened in this case is all of those things.” Sitting beside her at the press conference was ex-Texas Ranger Otto Hanak, whose reinvestigation of the case had laid bare the errors that had led to Graves’s conviction. Graves’s trial, Siegler said, was “a travesty.”
Sebesta, who has staked his legacy on the Graves case, has nevertheless continued to assert that Graves is guilty. Yesterday, in the pages of the Brenham Banner-Press, Sebesta took aim at Hanak, who is running for Washington County sheriff. A longtime lawman, Hanak has an impressive résumé and a number of endorsements from high-level members of law enforcement. But in the Banner-Press, Sebesta attempted to cast him as a traitor for daring to question the original investigators in the Graves case—even though it was their flawed work that led to Graves’s wrongful conviction.
Under the headline, “Which Team is the District Attorney’s Investigator, Otto Hanak on?” Sebesta states in the paid political ad that “an officer who uses a news conference for his own self-gratification and in the process destroys the credibility and reputation of other peace officers doesn’t belong in law enforcement. The latter is exactly what occurred after the Washington County District Attorney moved to dismiss the Capital Murder charges against Anthony Graves.”
Sebesta’s screed against Hanak is replete with spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and most importantly, tortured logic, as in this passage (which is reproduced here, uncorrected):
If we played by Hanak’s ‘so -called’ rules, we’d have very few criminal trials, because prosecutors would be extremely ‘gun-shy’ if they had to personally vouch for the credibility of every witness they called. Any law enforcement officer “worth his salt” knows that It’s the jury’s responsibility to determine the jury’s responsibility to detremine the credibility of both the witnesses and all physical evidence introduced during the trial. That ‘s what a jury is for and Otto Hanak should know that!
It’s worth noting that Sebesta—who appears to be making the argument here that prosecutors do not need to answer for the credibility of their witnesses—was rebuked by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006 for his conduct in the Graves case. The federal court found that Sebesta had elicited perjured testimony from two witnesses, one a member of law enforcement, during Graves’s capital murder trial.
Graves, who is moving on with his life, is currently touring the country, speaking at law schools and universities about prosecutorial misconduct and the importance of criminal justice reform. When I asked him if he wanted to respond to Sebesta’s critique of Hanak, he replied with the following statement:
We the voters give whoever we choose as county sheriff an awesome amount of both responsibility and power. We need to be sure that whoever that person is, he or she will seek justice and not abuse our trust. I was sentenced to death and spent eighteen years of my life in prison for a crime I did not commit. Otto Hanak had the courage to stand up for what was right in my case. He stands for justice, not cronyism or corruption or abuse of power. I support the side that Otto Hanak supports—the right side.
Craig Watkins and Pat Lykos are District Attorney’s in two of Texas largest counties. Both have established post conviction relief units specifically to deal with the possibility that innocent people are in prison or worse on death row for crimes they did not commit. Kelly Siegler was a put bull of a District Attorney. When people of this stature have a problem with the system…we all need to pay attention. Texas prosecutors have gotten away with murder because of a system that has been weighted heavily in favor of police and prosecutors. There is no check and balance to prevent prosecutors from going rogue as we have seem time and time again.
My confidence in the Texas Criminal Justice system is shattered and it shouldn’t be. There are a lot of credible people operating within this system to insure justice is done but there is enough reasonable doubt, especially in places like Smith County and Williamson County and other places in between that make a serious review of our system something that should take on major importance.
Texas Monthly contributed to this report.
PYONGYANG, North Korea — (DMN/CNN) – North Korea has started fueling a long-range rocket it plans to launch in the coming days, a senior national space official said Wednesday. Fueling of the rocket, which North Korea says will put a satellite in orbit, is under way and will be completed at the “appropriate time,” said Paek Chang Ho, head of the North Korean General Satellite Control and Command Center. He declined to be more specific. The announcement last month of the satellite launch — which countries like the United States and South Korea see as a cover for a ballistic missile test — ratcheted up tensions in the region and prompted Washington to suspend a recent deal to supply food aid to the North. The launch of the rocket is scheduled to take place between Thursday and Monday, and countries in the region are on edge.
Japan has deployed missile defenses and says it will shoot down any part of the rocket that comes near its territory. South Korea has described the move as a “grave provocation” and says it will respond with “appropriate countermeasures.” “This launch will give credence to the view that North Korean leaders see improved relations with the outside world as a threat to the existence of their system,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a speech Tuesday. “And recent history strongly suggests that additional provocations may follow.”
A recent report from South Korean intelligence officials claimed that North Korea is planning a new nuclear test in the area where it staged previous atomic blasts. The South Korean intelligence report noted that the two previous rocket launches that Pyongyang said were intended to put satellites into orbit were followed a few weeks or months later by nuclear tests. International leaders have urged North Korea to cancel the imminent rocket launch, but Pyongyang has refused to back down, insisting that the operation is for peaceful purposes.
The last time Pyongyang carried out what it described as a satellite launch, in April 2009, the U.N. Security Council condemned the action and demanded that it not be repeated. The announcement of the fueling of the rocket was made on the same day as a conference of the North Korean ruling Workers’ Party that is expected to cement the position of the secretive state’s new leader. The meeting of party delegates and the controversial launch come as the nation prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea who ruled the Communist state for more than four decades. His birthday on April 15, known as the “Day of the Sun,” is a key public holiday in the North Korean calendar.
At the conference, the late former leader Kim Jong Il was given an everlasting title. He is now eternal general secretary of the Workers’ Party of North Korea, Current leader Kim Jong Un was named the first secretary of the Workers’ Party of North Korea. Kim Jong Un is already described as the supreme leader of the party, state and army. It is still unclear how directly the young Kim, thought to be in his late 20s, is involved in policy decisions.
JAKARTA, Indonesia — (DMN) – A tsunami warning is in effect in the Indian Ocean following powerful earthquakes off the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh province, prompting evacuations from coastal regions and alarm in areas struck by a devastating wave in 2004. Wednesday’s first quake was measured at a magnitude of 8.6, according to the US Geological Survey, which revised down an earlier 8.9 estimate. US seismologists reduced the area under watch for a possible tsunami. The US Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii said a tsunami watch now is in effect for Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and the British Indian Ocean Territory of Diego Garcia, removing several other countries from tidal wave risk.
A few thousand people were evacuated to higher ground from parts of India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands. “There could be high waves of 1.5 metres at Port Blair and 3.9 metres at Campbell Bay,” said Prabhakar Rao, the official in charge of the disaster control room at Port Blair, the main town on the islands. Small waves about half-a-metre high and within normal tide limits had already washed into the Campbell Bay area on the Great Nicobar island, the official said. At least three tsunamis of up to 80cm hit Indonesia’s coast, Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency said.
A small tsunami measuring 10cm also reached Thailand’s Andaman Coast. Phillip Charlesworth, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies delegation in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, told Al Jazeera that the first quake lasted for about three minutes. “The shaking was quite violent, from conversations with our staff,” he said. “There appears to be no apparent damage. We certainly don’t know what the humanitarian impact is as yet. There are no reports of any tsunamis coming ashore, although local authorities are taking precaution of evacuating coastal communities.”
There were several strong aftershocks, including one at a 8.2 magnitude and the depth of 10km. “The aftershock continued for four minutes, and it was strong,” an AFP news agency correspondent in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, said. “People are panicking and running outside their home and from buildings.” Al Jazeera’s Aela Callan said the tremors were also felt in Bangkok, where buildings swayed, but there were no reports of damage. The initial quake had struck at a depth of 33km, 495km from Banda Aceh.
The tsunami watch was in effect across the whole Indian Ocean, including Australia, Pakistan, Somalia, Madagascar, and many other countries. “Earthquakes of this size have the potential to generate a widespread destructive tsunami that can affect coastlines across the entire Indian Ocean basin,” the US Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said. People in Banda Aceh jumped into cars and the backs of motorcycles, clogging streets as they fled to high ground. Al Jazeera’s Syarina Hasibuan in Jakarta said people panicked across the island of Sumatra, running out of buildings and gathering in the streets. “The earthquake was felt all the way to Padang, which is west Sumatra, and people ran out of buildings and there is really a lot of panic there.”
People on Twitter said tremors were felt in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and India. High-rise apartments and offices on Malaysia’s west coast shook for at least a minute. In Sri Lanka, residents on the coast were ordered to move inland to avoid being hit by any large waves. A government statement said waves could hit the island’s eastern port district of Trincomalee by about 10:40 GMT. “There is a strong possibility of a tsunami hitting the island after the earthquake in Indonesia,” meteorological department deputy director M D Dayananda said. He said the quake in Indonesia was felt in Sri Lanka, which is 1,340km northwest from the location of the quake.
People near the coast in six Thai provinces were ordered to move to higher places and stay as far away as possible from the sea. The Phuket airport, right on the coastline, was closed. Al Jazeera’s Callan said phone lines were jammed as people were checking on their loved ones right after the tsunami alert was issued. She said warning signals had been heard in southern provinces. “Thailand is quite prepared for this. They hold drills regularly to be able to get tourists and residents to evacuate to higher areas.” Indonesia straddles a series of fault lines that makes the vast island nation prone to volcanic and seismic activity.
A 9.1-magnitude quake off the country on December 26, 2004, triggered a tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed 230,000 people, nearly three quarter of them in Aceh. Al Jazeera’s meteorologist Kevin Corriveau explained the difference between Wednesday’s quake and that of 2004: “They were the same depth but the 2004 quake was a subduction earthquake – meaning one plate went underneath the other plate – which then pushed a lot of the water up and out from the epicentre,” he said. “This [in Aceh] is a horizontal plate. The difference is that the two plates are slipping side by side, and not as much water is going to be displaced. “Now that we are processing the data we know that it is a different kind of plate slippage, which is a little less damaging hopefully than the previous one.”
Al-Jazeera and the BBC contributed to this report.