Thursday, April 24, 2014

false accusation up-ends life for Mankato coach, even after exoneration

In 2012, a Minnesota University-Mankato coach was arrested on suspicion of producing and possessing child pornography. About three months later, the charges were dropped. End of story? Not quite.

Twenty days after the charges were dropped, the coach was suspended for viewing pornography on a university computer and for letting his wife use his work computer. After the suspension, he was reassigned to an administrative position and ultimately fired.

Months later after the coach found another job, an arbitrator held that the firing was not justified. More than one person used the computer so they couldn't know who downloaded porn. The arbitrator also said that the wife probably shouldn't have used the computer but no one should be fired because she did.

The facts of the story are simple. The effect of the original charges on the coach's life are complicated.
John Harrington, a longtime Mankato resident and Minnesota State-Mankato booster, told USA TODAY Sports at the time: "The damage is done. His reputation is tainted. On the tip of everybody's tongue is 'Sandusky.' "
After the charges were dropped, the coach was seen as tainted. He was wrongly accused and then exonerated but still seen as a possible child molester.
[The coach] says he and his wife ... are grateful for the support from the community. Dennis Hood, a longtime Minnesota State-Mankato booster and former president of the Touchdown Club, which serves as the fund-raising arm for the football program, was one of those. He says as people began to learn more about the charges, the reaction from many was, 'Golly, is this all there is?'" 
But Hood also says, "Right up until a couple of weeks ago (when the arbitrator ruled in Hoffner's favor), people were saying, 'There's got to be something. There's got to be something.' But there really wasn't."
This is what the current sex offender hysteria has wrought: unthinking emotional responses that have a facile power to ruin lives.

The laws that mandate reporting of illegal images and the hysteria around sex offenders have encouraged people to think of children in sexual terms. Instead of seeing videos of naked children playing (images found on the coach's phone), the technician who found and reported the videos thought of children and sex.

Do not think I am blaming the technician alone. Law enforcement looked at the videos. The prosecutor looked at the videos. Presumably, a grand jury also looked at the videos. 

At any one of those points, someone should have questioned if there was proof that this was child pornography instead of running with the case because, well, it could be.

At any one of those points, someone should have said, "Golly, is this all there is?"

Fortunately, the judge recognized kids' antics as kids' antics and dismissed the charges.

The coach spent a great deal of money defending himself and uprooted his family for another job. After the arbitrator found the firing unjustified, the coach has returned to his position at Minnesota University-Mankato. 

I have said it before, writing about another man cleared of his charges where the story ended horrifically: 
This is what comes of instilling a fear of sex offenders and pretending that all sex offenders are dangerous.
I will add that this is what comes of thinking that all pictures of naked children are pornographic. There was no need--at all--to put this coach and his family through the wringer for silly family videos.

Too bad for him, the laws make it all too easy to do just that.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"Jury Nullification Can Veto Prison Profiteering"

Fuly Informed Jury Association writes about for-profit prison corporations lobbying against laws that would relieve prison overcrowding.

FIJA quotes from an article in Republic Report:
In recent months, a broad, cross-ideological coalition has pressed forward to reform mandatory minimum prison sentencing. In some cases mandatory minimum sentencing can lead to a lifetime in jail for nonviolent offenders. But a strange group has appeared on lobby disclosure forms reviewed by Republic Report. Prison labor companies are attempting to influence the bill, and they refuse to reveal what they’re doing and why. 
The group is called the Correctional Vendors Association, an organization that represents companies that use prison labor to produce everything from furniture to clothing goods. CVA has spent $240,000 on lobbying over the past year, and forms show the organization is interested in shaping the outcome of the Justice Safety Valve Act, or S.619, a bill proposed Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) to allow judges to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum in many cases, including drug-related sentences.
Correctional Vendors Association lobbies against a bill that would give them a smaller captive workforce. Congressmen dislike voting against any bill that can be construed as tough on crime. That combination is hard to beat.

FIJA reminds us that we have a way to fight back: jury nullification.
Remember that even a single conviction on just one of many charges—even a seemingly minor one—can trigger excessively harsh penalties due to mandatory minimum sentencing schemes, three strikes laws, 10-20-life rules, sentence enhancements for acquitted conduct, and so on. And harsh penalties mean a ready supply of forced labor who are often paid less than 50 cents [an] hour for work that would command several dollars an hour in the free market. 
Inside the courtroom, of course, we will often be misinstructed by judges that we “must” convict if the prosecution proves its case beyond a reasonable doubt. But this is simply not true. Judges cannot require jurors to deliver a Guilty verdict, and jurors cannot be punished for voting their consciences. Jury nullification is not only your right, but your duty if it is necessary to deliver a just verdict.
Jury nullification can be a powerful tool in the cause of justice and FIJA does a fine job reminding us of that.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

the effect of violence on children and the need to do something about it

In an opinion piece in the Omaha World-Herald, Nebraska US Attorney Deborah Gilg talks about the need to recognize how violence affects children. She writes:
More than half of America’s children and teens are in some way exposed to violence in their homes, schools and neighborhoods every year, according to a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice study. Many are victims of violence themselves, but many more will witness violent crimes or share the trauma when their families, school friends or neighborhoods are targets of violence and abuse. Unfortunately, many of these young people will experience violence from multiple sources, compounding the trauma and its effects. 
The consequences of this kind of exposure can be difficult to measure, but the harm is real.
We know that children and teens exposed to violence are more likely to experience anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress. They are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They are also more likely to fail at school, be absent from school and experience learning difficulties. These children are also more likely to enter into, and stay in, abusive relationships. They are also at higher risk of going on to commit crimes themselves.
It comes as a surprise to find that I agree so strongly with a US Attorney. Witnessing violence or being in the middle of it can have long-lasting effects on children. We should do more to protect children from violence.
A good place to start for all of us is by listening to young people and being engaged in their lives. 
Well, now...that seems a tepid approach to the problem she describes. Wait, though. She has more:
If you’re interested in learning more about the effects of violence on children, the U.S. Department of Justice has produced a video series Through Our Eyes: Children, Violence, and Trauma, available at The DOJ also has launched the Defending Childhood initiative to address the exposure of America’s children to violence as victims and as witnesses.
A video? I would have preferred a more robust response but she is a busy woman. Maybe she doesn't have time to think of more effective ways to lessen the violence that surrounds children. If it isn't too presumptuous of me to think that I can help, I came up with a few ideas. Maybe she can use her powerful voice as US Attorney to promote ideas that would have a more immediate impact on reducing violence than, say, a video.

Stop shooting the family dog. When I was small, I witnessed a neighbor drive over and kill one of our dogs. It was an unfortunate accident but it was a terrible thing for a small child to see. Imagine how terrifying it must be for children to see a law enforcement officer--someone who is supposed to protect and serve--shoot their family dog. 

Stop sending SWAT teams into homes where children are present when that level of force is not necessary. People, including the children, have been hurt and killed in those raids. Watch this video of a SWAT raid in Columbia MO and try to imagine being a child in that home. Radley Balko estimates law enforcement agencies carry out over 100 SWAT raids every day across the country. How many children are affected by violence in their homes perpetrated by law enforcement?

Stop putting so many people in prison. The United States has 2.2 million prison inmates. According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (, one in 28 children have a parent in prison. This doesn't count the kids who have a sibling or other family member in prison. How does that affect children? 

Stop relying on mandatory minimum sentences to push a defendant into taking a plea agreement and start proving your cases in court. Introducing mandatory minimum sentences has increased sentence length even for crimes that do not carry a mandatory minimum. Tearing families apart is traumatic for all family members. Tearing them apart for longer than necessary is cruel. 

Children in homes with a drastically reduced income, children with a parent struggling to be everything to everyone--prison spouse, mother and father--in the midst of his or her own grief, children grieving for the family member in prison, children unable to visit the prison because distance and expense are too great...these children suffer a violence that the US Attorney does not address. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

deserving a chance for a pardon

A 25-year-old registered sex offender has been granted a hearing before the Nebraska Board of Pardons. This is excellent news for this young man because if he is pardoned, he will regain his civil rights and he will no longer be on the sex offender registry. 

According to the Omaha World-Herald article, it is unusual for a sex offender to be granted a hearing because
[t]he Pardons Board rarely considers the applications of sex offenders. But board members said they are willing to listen to this one because Weich has lived an exemplary life except for one crime committed as a 14-year-old.
An exemplary life should be rewarded. 
He didn't rape, fondle or even touch anyone. In 2003 he and two other teenage boys made a secret video of two or three female classmates using a shower at his mother's house in Pierce, Neb. The incident involved a game of truth-or-dare and the camera also caught one of the girls using the toilet, according to documents in his Pardons Board application.
A non-contact crime committed as a 14-year-old, not repeated. He was charged as an adult because the crime was not discovered until he was 18.

This man has gained some powerful allies. A state trooper for one and Nebraska's Attorney General, Jon Bruning, for another.
Other factors in [this man's] favor include pre-sentence psychological evaluations that found he is not a sexual predator and showed he was a minimal risk to reoffend. He completed all of his probation requirements, which included more than 20 sessions with Dr. Kevin Piske, a Norfolk psychologist who specialized in treating sex offenders.
Not a sexual predator, unlikely to reoffend, got through probation with no trouble. Saw a psychologist for awhile. This man is a success story.
The psychologist was one of 93 people who submitted letters in support of [the man], which likely represents a record number, said Sonya Fauver, the board's administrator.
Ninety-three letters of support! Many friends in his corner. 
[His] status forced him to give up on his dream of playing football for a major college program. He had been invited to walk on at Kansas State University, but he was told the school couldn't take a chance on a sex offender. He also had to leave the dorms. 
Although it was difficult, he found off-campus housing and finished his second semester at Kansas State.
Later, he was offered a football scholarship and began playing at Wayne State College in Nebraska. Again, he wasn't allowed to live on campus. He got his degree in business management in 2012.
The registry still haunts [him], especially when it comes to finding employment and housing. He said he has held some temporary jobs but hasn't been able to get an offer related to his major when employers learn he is a registered sex offender.
Recently, he had the opportunity to show the National Football League his punting skills. One of his college coaches called him "the best punter he has seen in his 30 years as a coach" so it seems this young man may have a chance at a position in the NFL.
“How many people do you know in the world who would even have a chance to make it in the NFL?” [one of his supporters] asked. “But he can't because of this. It just doesn't seem fair.”
No, it doesn't seem fair to have lived an exemplary life and yet be held back because he is a registered sex offender. 

Among the 93 letters is a letter from 
...retired District Judge Patrick Rogers, who presided over [the man's] trial. 
“I commend him for all of his accomplishments since 2007, even while carrying the burden of his offense,” Rogers wrote. “He could have easily given up, as I believe so many others do.”
But do so many others give up? 

Statistics show that, like this man, very few registered sex offenders commit another sex crime. 

Like this man, most registered sex offender are first-time offenders.

Like this man, most are deemed at low risk to reoffend.

Like this man, most are not considered sexual predators.

Those are not signs of people who gave up. Those are signs of people who are very much like this Nebraska man.

Like him, they have trouble finding employment. Like him, they have trouble finding a place to live. 

Like him, they have hopes and dreams for the future that have been stymied by their status as a sex offender.

This young man who lives an exemplary life deserves every chance at his hopes and dreams, just as other law abiding citizens do. 

Just as every other law abiding sex offender does.

This young man is not the exception. He is the rule.

UPDATE: Good news.