Saturday, May 28, 2016

Neenah (Wisconsin) Police Department violates trust

The following editorial by the (Appleton, WI) Post-Crescent editorial board was published on May 6, 2016.

We watched more than 90 videos related to officers shooting a hostage outside Eagle Nation Cycles on Dec. 5, and have come to one conclusion: We have no confidence the leadership of the Neenah Police Department can run a force that protects its citizens.

The videos released by the Department of Justice are appalling in several ways.

  • Neenah police officers look ill-prepared as they storm Eagle Nation Cycles and their retreat appears disorganized.
  • Neenah police officer Craig Hoffer was shot in the helmet. Yet he went back on the scene after specifically being told not to by a police sergeant. He ended up shooting Michael L. Funk, a hostage who had escaped the motorcycle shop. 
  • Neenah police officers fired without warning. Officers did not order Funk to drop his handgun before shooting him. Rather, they yelled, "Show me your hands!" after they shot him and he hit the pavement. It would have taken literally less than a second to say "drop the gun" and an innocent man could still be alive. 
  • Most of all, we are outraged about the fact that a police officer gunned down a man and laughed about it.


This is indefensible.

There is not one person who can see video of a police officer laughing about killing a man and think that person should ever be employed as a cop with the power to kill.

Something is broken in the Neenah Police Department. The department is dysfunctional. The leadership is absent.

If the department's leadership team says its officers followed the department's policy — which was backed up by the Wisconsin Department of Justice and a consultant's report — then why is an innocent man dead?

And why are police laughing about it?

Neenah can't afford another innocent man gunned down by police and left to die.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Pa. prosecutors' concern over wrongful convictions is long overdue: Andy Hoover

The following op-ed by Andy Hoover was published by PennLive on May 11, 2016.

Last month, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association released its new guidelines on witness interviews and photo lineups to prevent wrongful convictions.

With simultaneous press conferences in various areas of the state, the PDAA suggested it is serious about reforms to be sure that they are getting the right person during investigations.

It was not a difficult trail for the DAs to walk. This path was blazed nearly a decade ago by advocates, academics, lawyers, and other politicians.

In 2006, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf,  R-Montgomery, proposed a novel idea when he introduced a resolution to create an advisory committee to study why innocent people are sometimes convicted of crimes and what are best practices for diminishing the likelihood of wrongful convictions.

At the time, the reality of innocent people in America's prisons had penetrated the national conscience.

Seven years earlier, Illinois halted its death penalty after it was revealed that the state had freed more innocent people from its death row than it had executed.

Several years after that, Greenleaf led an effort to loosen Pennsylvania law to give inmates with legitimate innocence claims greater access to DNA testing. That law led to the exoneration of several people who had served years in prison, including one man who had spent over 20 years on death row.

Studying root causes of wrongful convictions and fixing the criminal justice system to decrease the chances of it happening seemed non-controversial.

But when the committee started its work in 2007, the District Attorneys' association tried to undermine its legitimacy before it could even get started. At a press conference with then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham of Philadelphia, prosecutors complained about the make-up of the committee.

Never mind that the committee included Abraham and four other sitting district attorneys, including Ed Marsico of Dauphin County; Frank Fina of the Attorney General's office; two former attorneys general; Victim Advocate Carol Lavery and two other victims' rights activists; two chiefs of police; a retired FBI agent; and several former prosecutors.

The committee's work took four long years but, in 2011, it released its report, a 316-page tome that thoroughly analyzed the causes of wrongful convictions and offered a series of recommendations to fix the problem.

The committee's recommendations included greater preservation of biological evidence, changes in witness interviews and photo lineups, state-based funding for indigent defense services, video and audio recording of interrogations, and compensation for people who are wrongly convicted.

Unfortunately, law enforcement, led by the District Attorneys' association, released its own minority report.

That report diminished the committee's recommendations and refused to even acknowledge the reality of innocent people in prison.

Signers of the report included Marsico, Fina, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who had been elected to replace Abraham in the interim.

Perhaps most appalling of all, the minority report called the idea of compensating wrongly convicted people "preposterous." Compensation for innocent people who are convicted of crimes is probably not preposterous to Han Tak Lee.

Lee spent 24 years in state prison for a cabin fire in Monroe County that killed his daughter. His conviction was based on junk arson science.

Released in 2014 and now 81, Lee lost years of his life and now lives on public assistance and generous donations from a support group. A New York Times profile on Lee in March highlighted the negative impact of his incarceration on his mental health.

Lee isn't the only person who would benefit from a law to compensate the wrongly convicted. Through dogged investigative journalism, the late Pete Shellem of The Patriot News freed several Pennsylvanians who were serving life sentences.

After the committee released its report, legislation was introduced to implement many of its recommendations. The legislation went nowhere, largely as a result of the minority report from law enforcement.

Since then, the legislative effort to provide greater protections to stop wrongful convictions has had its starts and stops.

Bills to lengthen deadlines for introducing new evidence after conviction, to appropriate state funding to train public defenders, and to allow police to record interrogations without legal entanglements have stalled in the face of opposition from law enforcement.

There is every reason to believe that the commonwealth's district attorneys want to prevent the conviction of innocent people.

When that happens, an innocent person sits in prison while a guilty person continues to walk the streets. But to take District Attorneys' association newfound effort to implement best practices seriously, it has to be a more serious partner on reform.
It's nice that the district attorneys got religion on wrongful convictions. Many of us are left with a simple question: What took you so long?

Andy Hoover is the legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.