Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Guest Shot: Duke lacrosse team exoneration catalyst for change

by Mary Mitchell, Chicago Sun Times
[originally published at]

Despite the divisive nature of the Duke lacrosse rape case, some good can come of it.

The flawed case exposed the worst elements of the criminal justice system and showed how easily an innocent person can be railroaded into jail.

Most often, it is African Americans and other people of color who find themselves in this predicament. That has made it too easy for some of us to dismiss their complaints of being railroaded.

But the Duke defendants were young, white males from affluent families, battling a system that sometimes runs like a car without brakes.

"This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world of injustice I never knew existed," Reade Seligmann said at a news conference last week.

In denouncing the rape prosecution as a "rush to judgment," the attorney general in North Carolina dropped all charges against Seligmann, David Evans and Collin Finnerty.

"If police officers and a district attorney can systematically railroad us with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, I can't imagine what they'd do to people who do not have the resources to defend themselves," Seligmann said.

"So rather than relying on disparaging stereotypes and creating political and racial conflicts, all of us need to take a step back from this case and learn from it."

Why no DNA evidence? Still, the Duke defendants were luckier than most defendants who face similar situations.

Five years ago, I raised questions about the charges leveled against Carl Chatman, a homeless man accused of raping a woman in the Daley Center.

Why was there no DNA evidence to link Chatman to the crime? How did Chatman manage to slip into the Daley Center and sleep under a bench all night? Why did a traffic cop pick the indigent Chatman out on the street and take him back to the scene of the crime? And why would Chatman, who is mentally ill, dictate a detailed confession to a detective?

But two years later, a jury took a half hour to convict Chatman of raping the clerk in her office. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

"It was the fact that the victim was detailed in her description of what happened, and the defendant had a written, signed, nine-page statement with all the details," a juror told reporters after the conviction.

The woman and her husband have filed civil suits against Cook County, the Public Building Commission, Aargus Security Systems, the Cook County sheriff, ANR Janitorial Service, MB Beitler Management Corp. and Carl Chatman.

Apparently, those suits have led lawyers to do a little more digging.

Filed civil suits then, tooIt turns out that in 1979, the Daley Center victim was also raped early in the morning (7 a.m.) at another downtown office building -- allegedly in a washroom by a janitor.

The victim identified a Polish immigrant from a photograph as the man who raped her. Because the suspect spoke very little English, he was given an interpreter and was subsequently arrested.

The accused fled the country before going to trial. But he left a letter behind with his sister, telling her he had no idea what the charges were all about but that the accusation had ruined his life.

The Daley Center victim filed civil suits in that case as well, naming the owners of the office building, the maintenance service, security company and the alleged rapist.

As incredible as it may sound, the information about the first rape and resulting lawsuits was not brought up during Chatman's trial.

Lawyers representing Chatman are now attempting to get him a new trial based on ineffective representation.

"The evidence will show the injustice of this case," said Russell Ainsworth of Lovey & Lovey, lawyers who are representing Chatman in the civil case.

"You have a 50-year-old veteran who is homeless with mental illness who is taken advantage of by this alleged victim solely to make a dime off the taxpayers of Cook County," he said.

Because rape victims are given a shield of protection, I am not identifying the woman. But I did attempt to contact her attorney, Joe Powers.

Maybe it is just a tragic coincidence that this woman was raped twice under similar circumstances. But I'm concerned that Chatman was simply another example of a "rush to judgment" who did not have the means to defend himself.

Hopefully, the Duke lacrosse case has made more of us sensitive to the plight of people like Chatman.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Guest Shot: Georgia Thompson: Now comes the reckoning

by Bill Lueders, News Editor, the Isthmus, Madison, WI
April 6, 2007

As legal developments go, this one was a stunner, a moment worthy of "Perry Mason" -- you know, where the legendary TV lawyer would deftly get a witness on the stand to confess to the crime, vindicating the defendant.

After just 26 minutes of oral arguments, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the conviction of Georgia Thompson, the former state Department of Administration official, on charges of fraud. Thompson, who steadfastly maintained her innocence, had been prosecuted by U.S. Attorney Steve Biskupic in a case seized on by his fellow Republicans to taint Gov. Jim Doyle. She had served four months of an 18-month sentence when the appeals court set her free.

That's right. It set her free. On the spot. No weeks of deliberation. No order that she merely be granted a new trial. The court deemed the evidence against Thompson so lacking -- "beyond thin," one member of the three-judge panel put it -- that it overturned her conviction and ordered her release.

The case against Thompson always seemed weak to the point of being suspicious. She was accused of steering a state contract toward a Doyle contributor. But there was no evidence she was pressured to do so, nor any suggestion that she benefitted personally from this act. And if she did in fact show favoritism toward the winning bidder, it may have been because it was a Wisconsin firm.

After the verdict, two jurors proclaimed their belief that higher-ranking state officials were involved -- an assertion for which there was never a shred of evidence.

These people were just aching for a chance to take a stand against corruption of the sort politicians are forever alleging that their opponents engage in. When Biskupic gave them that chance, they leapt at it.

As a result, Thompson's attorney, Steve Hurley, said in a statement, she lost her job, her life savings, her home, her liberty and her good name. At her sentencing, the government argued that Thompson deserved a stricter sentence because she did not accept responsibility.

"Today," said Hurley, "the government ought to accept responsibility for the consequences of its acts."

Good idea. There does indeed need to be a reckoning. At least two areas merit further review.

The first area is whether the charges against Thompson should have ever been filed. Obviously, the appeals court judges -- two of three of whom were appointed by Republican presidents -- felt the evidence did not support it.

Biskupic has been asked whether he intends to appeal. The more urgent question is whether the decision to prosecute Thompson was political from the start. This was always a valid question, given the zeal which Doyle rival Mark Green and his Republican allies sought to turn the case to their advantage.

But now this question has fresh impetus, given what we now know about the Bush administration's politicalization of U.S. attorneys. At least one of Biskupic's counterparts was pressured to engage in partisan prosecutions on timelines that suited electoral contests -- and fired when he declined. The integrity of Biskupic's prosecution ought to be called into serious question.

The second area that merits review concerns Gov. Doyle's shockingly self-serving and hypocritical comments in the wake of the appeals court's ruling. He angrily lashed out at the media for sensationalizing the case. He called Thompson's conviction "a terrible injustice," proclaiming her "an innocent woman who was imprisoned for more than four months just for doing her job." He said she had been used as "a political football."

Does Doyle really expect people to forget that, when it mattered, he was more than willing to throw Thompson to the wolves, rather than expend an ounce of political capital on her behalf? Indeed, he did everything in his power to distance himself from her.

"It is clear that Georgia Thompson acted on her own, and that no other state employee was involved," Doyle said following her conviction. "As I have stated before, I have zero tolerance for ethical lapses in government. When public servants abuse the public's trust, they forfeit their rights to continue in the state's employ."

That was Doyle when it mattered. He was completely comfortable letting a person he now deems obviously innocent go down in flames rather than lift a finger to help her.

Rest assured, if Doyle had said, back when it mattered, that he believed Thompson was being wrongfully prosecuted and had broken no laws, reporters would have found time in their busy schedules to report his views.

Doyle's effort to score political points from the court's ruling is nothing more than the latest attempt to use Georgia Thompson as a political football. And it's no less unseemly when the governor himself is doing the kicking.

Reposted from