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Kalief Browder’s death by suicide this weekend is an American tragedy

Kalief Browder, 22, hanged himself with an electrical cord this weekend. He was 22. He had been suffering from extreme depression after spending three years in custody at Rikers Island awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit. He spent two of those years in solitary confinement during which he was beaten several times by guards. He was finally released after the charges against him were dismissed. His death is an indictment of the broken criminal justice system for juveniles in New York City.

Browder and a friend were arrested by police on May 15, 2010, as they were walking home from a party. They were accused of assaulting a man and stealing his backpack despite an absence of any evidence to support the charges. The man who reported the crime returned to Mexico without leaving a forwarding address sometime while the case was pending. The prosecutor who eventually moved to dismiss the case told the court that they could not proceed to trial without the victim. At this time, it is unclear how long the prosecution knew the witness could not be located. We do know, however, that the prosecutor agreed to reduce the two felony charges to misdemeanors and recommend a sentence to time served, Browder would plead guilty. Browder, who had consistently claimed innocence, rejected the offer. Several weeks later, the case was dismissed.

This case is awful.

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Frederick Leatherman

Frederick Leatherman

I am a former law professor and felony criminal defense lawyer who practiced in state and federal courts for 30 years specializing in death penalty cases, forensics, and drug cases.

I taught criminal law, criminal procedure, law and forensics, and trial advocacy for three years after retiring from my law practice.

I also co-founded Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW) at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle and recruited 40 lawyers who agreed to work pro bono, assisted by law students, representing 17 innocent men and women wrongfully convicted of sexually abusing their children in the notorious Wenatchee Sex Ring witch-hunt prosecutions during the mid 90s. All 17 were freed from imprisonment.

  • dubinsky

    truly awful.

    perhaps, Fred, you could explain to the readers how it is that the kid was held for all that time without his case ever going to trial………..and the obligations of a defense attorney to demand a trial when faced with foundationless charges against his client.

    until then, here is the 2014 New Yorker story about the kid’s nightmarish experiences.

    Before the Law

    A boy was accused of taking a backpack. The courts took the next three years of his life.

    BY JENNIFER GONNERMAN

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/06/before-the-law

  • JamesJoyce

    It was reported the bail was set $3,000. This was pre-trial confinement, correct? The bail could not be made, for a pre trial release. Solitary before a conviction?

    “We do know, however, that the prosecutor agreed to reduce the two felony charges to misdemeanors and recommend a sentence to time served, Browder would plead guilty. Browder, who had consistently claimed innocence, rejected the offer. Several weeks later, the case was dismissed.”

    Sounds more like Nazi Germany……

  • JamesJoyce

    Should have won a Pulitzer. Can’t have that! Might draw to much attention.

    Let us give this story attention…
    It demands attention…..

  • http://www.maketempeh.org/ Tempster

    Amy Goodman ended her show today talking about this tragedy and interviewed the New Yorker author. I wept for him and his family and all the kids that have gone through this horrible process which is charging someone before a trial. I thought a person had a right to a trial and was presumed innocent until such time???????

  • dubinsky

    sorry, JJ, but I’m awfully satisfied with the Pulitzer winners for 2014.

    http://www.democracynow.org/special/nsa_reports_lead_2014_pulitzer_prizewinners

    and it ain’t just because it’s a family member among them…it’s because they had a hugely more important story.

  • dubinsky

    if bail was $3000, then a bond for that amount could have been had for $300.

    this doesn’t really sound like Nazi Germany. you’re a bit silly to write such a thing.

    this is an entirely different mess

  • Frederick Leatherman

    Yes, bail was originally set at $3,000 but the family could not afford it. However, even if they could have paid it, he would have remained in jail because his probation officer lodged a no-bail detainer against him that would have prevented his release.

    He was on probation for his participation.in a joyriding incident involving a delivery truck that ended badly when the delivery truck crashed into a parked car. Despite pleading guilty to that offense, he claimed that he was an innocent bystander who witnessed the event. He said he pled guilty to get out of jail because he was in custody unable to make bail and would have spent more time in jail waiting to go to trial than he would have been sentenced to serve after pleading guilty.

    That practical strategy to get out of jail as soon as possible is common in jurisdictions like New York that lack an effective speedy trial rule. The potential downside to pleading guilty to something you did not do manifests when you are on probation after sentencing and get charged with a new felony offense, which also constitutes a violation of the conditions of probation. That triggers a no-bail detainer, which is an order directing the jail to detain the person on probation until further order of the court.

    As an aside, I recall representing several clients who, like Browder, could not make bail and wanted to plead guilty to a crime they did not commit in order to get out of jail sooner than they would if they remained in jail waiting to go to trial. That’s an awkward situation for the lawyer because you never want to advise a client to plead guilty to something they did not do.

    I warned them about the potential downside, which happened to Browder, and reminded them that there are no guarantees that a jury will find them not guilty on the pending charge. Like so many things in life, there are no easy answers.

  • Frederick Leatherman

    Yes, I read her excellent piece in the New Yorker.

    She’s right. New York has a 60 day readiness speedy trial rule. That means the case must be set within 60 days of the date when both sides state they are ready to go to trial.

    The 60 day deadline is somewhat illusory because the clock stops running when a motion is filed and it does not start running again until the court decides the motion. I don’t see any indication that the 60 day period expired. There appear to be an unusual number of extensions of the trial date unchallenged by the defense that totaled an unreasonable length of time, particularly given Browder’s placement in solitary and his suicide attempt(s).

    I get the sense that the prosecution was giving bogus reasons for extensions hoping Browder would cave and plead guilty. I suspect they knew their witness left the country and would not be available at trial, so they were dragging it out to get a plea.

    Whatever may have been going on, I do not see any sign of an effort by defense counsel to object to the extensions or to challenge Browder’s conditions of confinement. Both are major fails.

  • dubinsky

    thx

  • Frederick Leatherman

    A person must be charged with a crime supported by probable cause before they can be held to answer for it by going to trial. Browder could not afford the $3,000 bail and, even if he could have, the jail would not have released him because of the probation detainer. For more information, check out my explanation above in my response to James Joyce.

    The presumption of innocence is a legal presumption that applies during the trial, It does not apply to decisions about pretrial release.

  • JamesJoyce

    You are silly…. This is about indefinite detention, without trial.
    That is what Nazi Germany was and what a King did! This is not silly. It is patently fascist.

    I do understand that you will never get it…..

  • JamesJoyce

    Do not both stories deal with the gutting of constitutional protections ???

    Answer: Yes

    Both stories are important.

    There is a common thread here….

    I wonder if a Wall Streeter, who actually pilfered, could come up with bail money opposed to an assertion or charge, resulting from arrest resulting in illegal incarceration, under the color of law.

    This was torture, no matter how you cut it…

    Equal protection is illusory, if you got no money today, as being black afforded no “equal protection,” from exploitation prior to and after 1857.

    So what does the NSA/CIA protect, Corporate Fascism?
    Sure looks that way!

  • dubinsky

    this isn’t about “indefinite detention”.

    this is about a particular case. the kid was confined because he was guilty of an earlier crime.