Thursday, October 23, 2014

Blackwater contractors guilty in 2007 Iraq shooting deaths

The New York Times reported yesterday that four defendants who were employed by Blackwater Worldwide Security were convicted of crimes related to the 2007 shooting in Iraq's Nissour Square. Defendant Nicholas Slatten was convicted of murder, while defendants Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty and Paul Slough were convicted of voluntary manslaughter and using a machine gun to carry out a violent crime. Blackwater was a private security firm that contracted with the U.S. government to provide services in Iraq, such as loading bombs onto Predator drones and serving as security guards to diplomats. These contractors were providing security for State Department employees.

The case originated in Nissour Square in Iraq on September 16, 2007, when, according to the Wall Street Journal, a car bomb exploded nearby and Blackwater contractors opened fire, killing Iraqi civilians. The case was marked by conflicting accounts of what happened on that day. The contractors claimed that insurgents fired on them and, according to their lawyers, the civilian deaths that occurred when they returned fire were a "tragic and unavoidable consequence of urban warfare." Iraqi witnesses who traveled to Washington to testify described a scenario of violence and brutality perpetrated by the contractors. A former Blackwater contractor who was in the convoy testified that the defendants were "firing recklessly on innocent people," according to the Times.

Because there was little physical evidence available the case consisted mostly of testimony by witnesses. The Times reports that there were allegations that the State Department gathered shell casings in an attempt to protect the contractors. Additionally, the State Department gave the contractors limited immunity after the incident, making it more difficult for the Justice Department to build a case. A federal judge initially threw out all charges, citing concerns of tainted evidence, according to the Wall Street Journal, but an appeals court ultimately permitted the case to proceed.

The jury deliberated for 28 days before delivering the guilty verdict, which will likely face multiple appeals in the coming months. The Times reports that a key issue may be whether the Justice Department had the jurisdiction to bring the case, as federal law gives the U.S. government jurisdiction over defense contractors and those working on behalf of the Pentagon, while the Blackwater defendants were working for the State Department.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Trial court loses jurisdiction to enforce plea agreements after sentencing, rules Ohio Supreme Court

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a trial court cannot rescind a sentence ordered under a plea agreement when the defendant fails to comply with that agreement after the defendant has already been sentenced. As reported by Court News Ohio, the case before the court, State v. Gilbert, involves a defendant who entered into a plea agreement where he would plead to a number of counts of manslaughter, weapons charges and intimidation of a witness, while other counts were reduced or dismissed, in exchange for testifying against his father in a murder case. The defendant, Kareem Gilbert accepted the deal and was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

After beginning his prison term Gilbert refused to testify against his father, and the State accused him of breaching his plea agreement. He was brought back to court and the original plea deal was thrown out. Gilbert then entered another plea and was resentenced, this time for 18 years to life. He appealed to the First District, who reversed the lower court, finding that it did not have the authority to revisit the final judgment after sentencing the defendant, irrespective of whether the plea agreement had been breached.

The Supreme Court of Ohio upheld the decision of the First District, finding "Once the final judgment was entered and Gilbert was sentenced to prison, the trial court lost jurisdiction to vacate its judgment of conviction and to resentence Gilbert. There must be finality to a court’s judgment. There is no authority for a court to revisit a sentence that has already been imposed based on a defendant’s failure to fulfill his obligations under a plea agreement."

In a decision penned by Justice O'Neill, the court acknowledged that while contract rules do generally apply to plea agreements, the trial court loses jurisdiction to enforce them after sentencing occurs. The Court stressed that if the trial court wishes to keep jurisdiction of the case, it should postpone sentencing until after the terms of the agreement are completed, stating "As every teacher knows, you reward the student after the desired behavior occurs, not before. Much like teaching, plea negotiations are driven by the fact that the incentive to do the act in question disappears once the reward has been given."

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor and Justices Lanzinger, Pfeifer and French joined in the majority decision. Justice O'Donnell drafted a dissent which was joined by Justice Kennedy.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Voter ID laws stand in Texas as Supreme Court declines to intervene

SCOTUS Blog reports that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene Saturday morning in a Texas case challenging restrictive voter identification laws, which are in place in the state for the first time in a federal election. This effectively upholds a ruling by the 5th Circuit permitting the laws to remain in place for the upcoming November election, despite findings by the district court that the measures violate civil rights.

A federal district judge in Corpus Christi granted a permanent injunction of the voter ID laws, holding that they violated the Voting Rights Act because they had a racially discriminatory purpose and would yield discriminatory results. The judge also found the laws to be an unconstitutional poll tax because of the costs associated with obtaining the specific forms of ID required by the laws. The 5th Circuit granted a stay of the district court's injunction, citing concerns that the election was imminent, and effectively allowing the restrictive measures to remain in place. Because the Supreme Court chose not to intervene, this ruling will stand until further order of the 5th Circuit, which still has to hear a full appeal of the case. The laws, passed in 2011, have been in effect since 2013, but never during a federal election.

Neither the 5th Circuit or the Supreme Court has ruled on the constitutionality of the laws at this point, and SCOTUS Blog reports that it is likely that the case will return to the Supreme Court after the 5th Circuit hears the full appeal. The Supreme Court's decision in this case was entered without explanation, although there is a lengthy dissent penned by Justice Ginsburg and joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, in which Justice Ginsburg states, "the greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters."

This case is one in a number of cases regarding voting and electoral issues that have been brought to the Supreme Court in recent weeks. In September the Court granted a stay in Ohio, eliminating some additional early voting time ordered by a federal district court. In early October the Court blocked restrictive voter identification measures in Wisconsin, but upheld some restrictive measures in North Carolina.