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A daily report on important news nationwide from Ted Gest of Criminal Justice Journalists, plus commentary and research highlights.

 UK Court Allows Assange's Extradition for WikiLeaks Case

A British appellate court opened the door Friday for Julian Assange to be extradited to the U.S. by overturning a lower court’s decision that the WikiLeaks founder’s mental health was too fragile to withstand the criminal justice system, the Associated Press reports. Assange, 50, is being held at London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison. In January, a lower court judge refused the U.S. request to extradite Assange to face spying charges over WikiLeaks’ publication of secret military documents a decade ago. Judge Vanessa Baraitser denied extradition on health grounds, saying the Australian citizen was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions.

The U.S. has indicted Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison, although U.S. government lawyer James Lewis said the longest sentence ever imposed for this offense is 63 months. U.S. authorities have told British judges that if Assange is extradited for prosecution, he would be eligible to serve any U.S. prison sentence in his native Australia. The authorities said he wouldn’t be held at the supermax penitentiary in Florence, Co., the highest-security prison in the United States. Prosecutors say Assange unlawfully helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal classified diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks later published, putting lives at risk. Lawyers for Assange say he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment freedom of speech protections for publishing documents that exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 53 Migrants Dead, Dozens Injured in Mexico Truck Crash

Rescue workers found a horrific scene after a freight truck jammed with as many as 200 migrants tipped over and crashed into the base of a steel pedestrian bridge in southern Mexico, the Associated Press reports. By late Thursday, the death toll stood at 53, and authorities said at least 54 people had been injured. It was one of the worst single-day death tolls for migrants in Mexico since the 2010 massacre of 72 migrants by the Zetas drug cartel in the state of Tamaulipas. On Thursday, the most severely injured, many bloodied, were carried to plastic sheets set on the road. Those who could walk were led to the sheets, stunned and uncomprehending. Ambulances, cars and pickup trucks were pressed into service, ferrying the injured to hospitals. About 200 migrants may have been packed into the truck, said Guatemala’s top human rights official, Jordán Rodas. While shocking, that number is not unusual for migrant smuggling operations in Mexico, and the weight of the load — combined with speed and a nearby curve — may have been enough to throw the truck off balance.

Those who spoke to survivors said the migrants told of boarding the truck in Mexico, near the border with Guatemala, and of paying between $2,500 and $3,500 to be taken to Mexico’s central state of Puebla. Once there, they would have contracted with another set of smugglers to take them to the U.S. border. While the Mexican government is trying to appease the U.S. by stopping caravans of walking migrants and allowing the reinstatement of the “Remain in Mexico” policy, it hasn’t stopped the flood of migrants stuffed hundreds at a time into freight trucks operated by smugglers who charge thousands of dollars to take them to the U.S. border — trips that often lead them only to their deaths. 

 ATF Data Suggest Link Between Pandemic Gun Sales, Violence Spikes

In March 2020, as the first COVID-19 outbreaks hit the U.S., Americans flocked to gun stores. Civilians purchased some 19 million firearms over the next nine months — shattering every annual sales record. At the same time, shootings soared, with dozens of cities setting grim records for homicides, The Trace reports. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives data show that in 2020, police recovered almost twice as many guns with a short “time-to-crime,” in this case, guns recovered within a year of their purchase, than in 2019. Law enforcement officials generally view a short time-to-crime as an indicator that a firearm was purchased with criminal intent, because a gun with a narrow window between sale and recovery is less likely to have changed hands. More than 87,000 such guns were recovered in 2020, almost double the previous high. Thousands of guns purchased in 2020 were almost immediately used in crimes, some as soon as a day after their sale. 

“Overall, I think we can say that the gun sale surge may have contributed to a surge in crime,” said Julia Schleimer of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California Davis, after reviewing the ATF’s data. Schleimer suggested that better use of gun tracing technology by police departments could lead to more short time-to-crime traces, even if the number of guns recovered by law enforcement or sold to the public did not change. The data show that while the share of short time-to-crime guns recovered and traced relative to total guns sold did increase, the size of the increase was not abnormal. In fact, it continues a trend dating back to 2013.

 Axon, Motorola Fight for Control Of Police Body Cam Market

Earning more than $680 million in revenue last year, Axon dominates the domestic body camera market. Its main competitor is Motorola, which claims to sell more affordable cameras that fit more securely to uniforms and can upload video automatically to systems that manage police evidence, The Intercept reports. The companies are angling for control of the lucrative police-worn body camera market, which has nearly doubled in five years and is projected to keep growing. The cameras are a favorite tool of legislators who want to respond to police violence but don’t support proposals to reduce police presence. Their enthusiasm helped the global industry hit $1.2 billion in 2020, with projected growth to $7 billion by 2026. While some recent studies have shown that body cameras can help decrease incidents of police use of force, others say they have little to no impact.

Some police agencies have mandatory recording or reporting policies, but others don’t. Those factors make it difficult to quantify how effective the technology is overall. Seth Stoughton of the University of South Carolina School of Law, who studies the effectiveness of body cameras, says, “It was always unrealistic to expect a piece of equipment to change, fundamentally, police culture.” Many city councils approved additional police funding for body cameras last year, as happened after the police killing of a teen in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. Increased investment in police technologies can provide a boon not only for body camera companies like Axon and Motorola, but also for software, artificial intelligence, and other companies that provide technologies like cloud storage and facial recognition.

 Experts Urge Steps to Reduce Gun Suicides

Fourteen experts drawn from an array of ideologies and sectors — public health, gun reform and gun rights advocacy, suicide prevention advocacy, the gun industry, academics, and public policy — met over a year to hammer out prevention steps that could address the crisis of gun suicides, which account for approximately 60 percent of all gun deaths, The Trace reports. "We believe it's important that this group states loudly and clearly: suicide deaths by firearm are not inevitable," they write. 

Among recommendations: The nation needs new education campaigns around lethal means and suicide, including a diverse mix of credible messengers and buy-in from gun makers; public and private organizations must fund deeper research into suicide prevention strategies; organizations that focus on gun suicide prevention should take center stage, and funders should support both their work and research into its effectiveness, and groups from many sectors and on opposite sides of the gun debate should keep meeting to talk through and pursue effective solutions. "Our group sought not to stigmatize or blame but to build understanding among gun owners and non-gun owners, recognizing the individuals who comprise these groups include a wide range of cultural identifications and are hardly of one geography, gender, income group, race, sexual orientation, or identity," the report says. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 or text 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.

 FBI Nears 60% Police Participation in Use-of-Force Database

In an attempt to create a database on how often police officers use force on citizens, the FBI launched the National Use-of-Force Data Collection program in 2019, asking police departments to submit details on every incident, not just fatal shootings. The failure of police and federal agencies to send data to the FBI puts the program in jeopardy of being shut down next year without releasing a single statistic, the Government Accountability Office says. The program was required to obtain data representing 60 percent of law enforcement officers, to meet a standard of quality set by the Office of Management and Budget, the Washington Post reports. In 2019, the data covered 44 percent of local, state, federal and tribal officers, and last year the total increased to 55 percent. So far this year, the data represents 57 percent of all officers.

For a second year, most U.S. police departments declined to share information on their use of force. The Justice Department said "the FBI believes the agreed upon thresholds will be met to allow the data collection to continue, and is taking steps to increase participation in data collection efforts." The response by Assistant Attorney General Lee J. Lofthus also said that Justice "sent a letter to federal law enforcement agencies encouraging their participation." "I'd be surprised if they didn't make 60 percent," said Bill Brooks, chief of the Norwood, Ma., police and a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police board of directors.

 Trump Allies Plan to Plead the Fifth

Three witnesses with ties to former President Trump have signaled they intend to invoke their constitutional right against self-incrimination, Politico reports. They include John Eastman, who helped lead a campaign pressuring Mike Pence to block Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory; Jeffrey Clark, the Justice Department lawyer whom Trump considered naming as acting attorney general to support his effort to subvert the election; and Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant. Their assertions are the latest test for the House's Jan. 6 committee as it seeks to penetrate the former president’s inner circle and piece together his actions during the chaotic closing weeks of his term. Experts say the committee has few options once a witness pleads the Fifth, and the choices they have are risky or impractical.

The Fifth Amendment is intended to protect witnesses who have a genuine fear they could be prosecuted for testimony they offer. Courts have emphasized that pleading the Fifth is meant to shield innocent people as well as the guilty, so long as they have a legitimate basis to believe they could face prosecution. In matters connected to the Jan. 6 committee, some experts say the reason for that fear is obvious: Eastman, Clark and Stone have been publicly accused of crimes by elected officials. All three have maintained their innocence. The Jan. 6 panel has three options: offering a form of immunity that would prevent a witness’ testimony from being used by prosecutors in any future criminal proceeding, filing a civil contempt lawsuit to seek a judge’s review of the witness’ claim, or the concept of “inherent contempt,” a process by which Congress bypasses the Justice Department and simply arrests or fines any recalcitrant witness.

 Jury Deliberates Smollett Hate Crime Case

A prosecutor told jurors there is “overwhelming evidence” that former "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett lied to Chicago police about being the victim of an anti-gay, racist hate crime. A defense attorney called the case a “house of cards” built on testimony from two liars. The jury deliberated for about two hours Wednesday and is expected to resume deliberations Thursday, reports the Associated Press. Special prosecutor Dan Webb said Smollett caused police to spend enormous resources investigating an alleged crime that they now believe is fake. Smollett, who is Black and gay, told police someone put a noose around his neck and yelled racist and homophobic slurs in a January 2019 attack near his home.

“Besides being against the law, it is just plain wrong to outright denigrate something as serious as a real hate crime and then make sure it involved words and symbols that have such historical significance in our country,” Webb said. Defense attorney Nenye Uche said in his closing argument that two brothers who testified that Smollett orchestrated the attack and paid them to carry it out are “sophisticated liars” out for money. “The entire prosecution’s case ... is built like a house of cards,” Uche said. The brothers testified that Smollett recruited and paid them for the hoax, telling them to put a noose around his neck, yell racist and homophobic slurs and rough him up in view of a surveillance camera. Smollett testified that he was the victim of a real hate crime, telling jurors "there was no hoax." He called the brothers “liars” and said the $3,500 check he wrote them was for meal and workout plans. 

 DOJ Invests $17.5M in Project Safe Neighborhoods

The Department of Justice has awarded more than $17.5 million to support the Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) Program. Funding will support efforts to address violent crime, including the gun violence that is often at its core. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance will administer the 88 grant awards, which support local PSN projects that work in partnership with U.S. Attorneys’ offices. “This latest Project Safe Neighborhoods grant is critical to addressing the violent crime threatening cities and towns all across our country,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Lisa Solomon said, "Investing in our communities, supporting victims and building a justice system that both keeps people safe and earns their trust – these are mutually reinforcing goals that stand at the heart of Project Safe Neighborhoods.” 

In May, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a new effort to reduce violent crime, including the gun violence that is often at its core. The plan included reinvigoration of PSN, a two-decade old, evidence-based and community-oriented program focused on reducing violent crime. DOJ said its updated PSN approach, outlined in the Comprehensive Strategy for Reducing Violent Crime is guided by four key principles: fostering trust and legitimacy in our communities, supporting community-based organizations that help prevent violence, setting focused and strategic enforcement priorities and measuring the results. The goal is to reduce violent crime, not simply to increase the number of arrests or prosecutions.

 How the Gun Rights Debate Affects Women

Pro-gun messaging aimed at women has ebbed and flowed for years. Gun manufacturers, sellers and advocacy groups have used themes of empowerment to demonstrate how guns can help women protect themselves from dangers, The 19th reports. Its persistent narrative is a talking point in the mainstream gun-rights movement, which cites research that lax gun policies leave women disproportionately vulnerable. The New York case pending at the Supreme Court, which will determine how strictly states can regulate concealed carry licenses, does not directly center on concerns about women’s safety; however, groups have come forward to argue that restricting concealed carry licenses either will better protect women from gun violence or put them in greater danger. If the high court decides to scale back New York’s restrictions, it could have a ripple effect, exacerbating existing problems with stalking and harassment of women and hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people, said Hannah Shearer of the Giffords Law Center.

The center submitted a brief that argues unrestricted concealed carry endangers First Amendment rights for women and people of color. “Experience confirms that declaring unbounded rights to carry firearms in public will chill rights of speech, assembly, and prayer (especially for groups including women and racial minorities),” the brief says. “In this tense, polarized moment, that would be deeply unwise. Now more than ever, we need democratic discourse – not vigilante violence – to uphold civil order and pursue our constitutional ideals.” On the opposing side, the Independent Women’s Law Center filed a brief touting a popular conservative refrain: “Women are often at a self defense disadvantage. Having firearms allows them to be able to protect themselves from situations in which they might be in danger,” said Erin Morrow Hawley of the Independent Women’s Law Center.

 Can the School Be Charged in Michigan Killings?

After last week's deadly shooting at a Michigan high school, prosecutors took the rare step of bringing criminal charges against the alleged gunman's parents and haven’t ruled out making a case against the school itself, NPR reports. The prospect of legal action against Oxford High School comes with details of a meeting between guidance counselors, the suspect and his parents on the morning of the attack, after which the alleged shooter was allowed to return to class. Questions have arisen about whether school officials could have taken additional steps to prevent the shooting, and whether the school or its employees could be facing civil or even criminal liability. "We should all be looking at the events that led up to that horrific event, and as a community, as a school, as a nation, talk about what we could have done different so that didn't happen. And in this case, a lot could have been done different," Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said. Experts said that criminal liability for school employees in school shooting cases is unheard of. 

Oxford High School staff had twice raised concerns about the suspect — once the day before the shooting, then again that morning. The day before the shooting, a teacher found Ethan Crumbley "viewing images of bullets" on his cell phone during class and sent him to see a guidance counselor. Crumbley told counselors that shooting sports were a family hobby. The next day, a teacher discovered a disturbing drawing described by police as depicting a gun, a bullet and a bleeding person, along with a handful of concerning phrases, among them: "The thoughts won't stop, help me." Counselors found the drawing alarming enough to ask Crumbley's parents to seek counseling for their son within 48 hours, or else the school would contact Child Protective Services. Crumbley told counselors that the drawing was "part of a video game he was designing," then asked to work on homework while counselors waited for his parents to arrive. Two lawsuits seeking $100 million each were filed against the Oxford school district, its superintendent, principal and others over the fatal shootings. Attorney Geoffrey Fieger said they were filed on behalf of a student who was shot in the neck and wounded and her sister, who was next to her, The Guardian reports.

 Threat Assessment Teams Urged to Prevent School Shootings

A Virginia public school student suggested he might carry out an ethnic cleansing at his school. Police found an unsecured loaded semiautomatic pistol in a search of his home. An investigation revealed online messages with a friend in another state considering a similar act, acts that police thwarted, says Dewey Cornell, a scholar who tracks such incidents. Counselors and teachers face the dilemma of how to know which students are poised to commit a horrid act of violence and which ones just need help, reports the Washington Post. Removing every student who shows disturbing behaviors would be a huge overreaction. Missing just one true killer could be a tragic underreaction. "It boils down to a judgment call," said Melissa Reeves, former president of the National Association of School Psychologists. "We don't have a cookbook that says if this situation happens, do this."

Increasingly, school officials rely on sophisticated threat detection systems designed to head off horrific mass shootings like the one in Oxford, Mi. When officials encounter concerns, they might look at social media posts, search a student's locker or desk and examine academic and disciplinary records. Many academics, school officials and law enforcement agencies suggest decisions like this be made by a much larger, multidisciplinary team including administrators, school-based police officers and mental health professionals such as school counselors, psychologists and social workers. The U.S. Secret Service has long wrestled with this problem as it has sought to evaluate people who might attack the president. In 2018, the Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center published a 32-page guide that recommended multidisciplinary threat assessment teams, with a set of criteria for intervention. The FBI also sees threat assessment as a valuable tool in trying to prevent mass school shootings. "You can't catch someone falling from a building if you're the only one holding the net," said Katherine Schweit, a former FBI agent and author of the book, "Stop the Killing: How to End the Mass Shooting Crisis." After the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, in which 32 people were killed, Virginia became the first state to mandate threat assessment teams. Now at least 11 states require schools to put these teams in place. 

 Scott Peterson Gets Life Without Parole; New Trial Possible

Scott Peterson, who was convicted in the 2002 killing of his wife, Laci, and their unborn child, was resentenced to life in prison without parole Wednesday after spending more than a decade on death row. Peterson's resentencing came after California's Supreme Court overturned his death sentence for the improper screening of jurors for bias and later said a lower court should determine whether he gets a new trial. The court did not overturn his conviction and said considerable circumstantial evidence incriminated Peterson, USA Today reports. Defense attorney Pat Harris said Peterson wanted to speak at the hearing, but Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo did not allow it.

Peterson was convicted of first-degree murder in Laci Peterson's death and second-degree murder in the death of their unborn son. The case gripped the nation as prosecutors said Peterson dumped the bodies off a boat on Christmas Eve 2002. The remains washed ashore in April 2003 from the San Francisco Bay. At the sentencing hearing, Laci Peterson's mother and siblings spoke about the grief they had felt without her over the past 19 years and never getting to see her son born and grow up. Massullo plans a hearing next year to consider whether juror misconduct prejudiced Peterson and if there should be a new trial. Harris argued Wednesday that mitigating factors supported Peterson's innocence.

 CA Father and Son Arrested for Starting Caldor Fire

David Scott Smith, 66, and his son, Travis Shane Smith, 32, were arrested for reckless arson Wednesday in connection with the start of California's Caldor Fire, which burned for more than two months in El Dorado County and threatened the Lake Tahoe area, the Reno Gazette-Journal reports. The pair were arrested on a Ramey warrant — one issued by a judge before a prosecutor has filed formal charges — after an investigation by the U.S. Forest Service and the El Dorado County District Attorney's Office. 

The Smiths' attorney, Sacramento-based Mark Reichel, said Travis Smith repeatedly called 911 after spotting the flames. "They are 100% innocent of the charges," said Reichel. Reichel said he is unaware of what evidence investigators believe links his clients to the start of the fire, maintaining that they "definitely were not intentionally setting a fire." The Caldor Fire started Aug. 14 near Pollock Pines, midway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. It burned more than 221,000 acres as it traveled more than 40 miles toward Tahoe. It forced roughly 50,000 people to evacuate along the Highway 50 corridor and in the Lake Tahoe Basin, including the entire city of South Lake Tahoe.

 DOJ Failed to Publish Police Excessive Force Data

A Government Accountability Office report says the Department of Justice failed to publish an annual summary of police excessive force data from 2016 to 2020, as required by law. The data are crucial for the DOJ to monitor excessive force cases, and used to investigate law enforcement agencies with patterns of abuse, Axios reports. DOJ can pivot off it to pursue court action to force reforms. GAO said that from 2016 to 2020, DOJ didn't publish an annual summary of data about excessive force for any of those fiscal years because officials didn't assign roles and responsibilities for doing so. The FBI started a new data collection effort in 2016 but the agency has seen insufficient participation by the nation's 18,000 law enforcement agencies.

The report comes after the Biden administration announced that it would reverse a Trump-era policy limiting the use of consent decrees to force changes at police departments accused of misconduct. GAO made 11 recommendations to the Justice Department to improve its data collection on excessive force cases. The report recommended the FBI director look into potential alternative data collection strategies for the National Use of Force Data Collection. The report also recommended the attorney general assign responsibility for collecting and annually publishing data on the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers.


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