Russia jails former U.S. Marine for nine years on police assault charge

By Tom Balmforth and Gennady Novik

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian court sentenced a former U.S. Marine to nine years in jail on Thursday after convicting him of endangering the lives of two police officers in a trial the United States criticised as “theater of the absurd” and lacking serious evidence.

Trevor Reed, a student at the University of North Texas, said he could not remember the events of last summer because he was drunk when he was detained after leaving a party in Moscow.

But he denied the charge in court after hearing what he said was the flimsy evidence presented during the trial and the investigation’s failure to obtain video evidence that could prove his innocence.

“It’s clearly political,” he told reporters in court.

The conviction is likely to spur media speculation that Reed could become part of a possible prisoner swap reportedly being negotiated by Moscow and Washington. Neither side has confirmed such talks are taking place.

Russia convicted U.S. citizen Paul Whelan, also a former Marine, last month of espionage and sentenced him to 16 years in jail. Whelan denied wrongdoing. U.S. investor Michael Calvey is being held under house arrest on fraud charges he denies.

Whelan’s lawyer has said he believes Moscow wants to exchange Whelan for an arms dealer, Viktor Bout, and another Russian held in U.S. prisons.

Prosecutors accused Reed of grabbing a police officer who was behind the wheel of a car after the American was detained on Aug. 15. That, they said, caused the vehicle to swerve dangerously. He was also accused of elbowing a second officer.

Reed said he travelled to Moscow in May last year to learn Russian and see his Russian girlfriend. She burst into tears in court and was escorted outside after swearing loudly during the verdict.

“This conviction, and a sentence of nine years, for an alleged crime that so obviously did not occur, is ridiculous,” said John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow. “This was theater of the absurd.”

Reed’s father, Joey, said he planned to appeal publicly to President Vladimir Putin to intervene in the case.

“We believe (this case) happened for one reason – he stumbled him into police custody because he was intoxicated, and once they saw they had a former U.S. Marine they said ‘We’re gonna keep this guy’,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Maxim Rodionov and Dmitriy Turlyun; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn and Timothy Heritage)

Russia seeks 18-year jail term for ex-U.S. Marine accused of spying

(Reuters) – Russian prosecutors asked a court on Monday to sentence former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who is on trial accused of spying for the United States, to 18 years in a maximum-security prison, his lawyer said.

Whelan, a U.S. national who also holds British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained in December 2018. He says he was set up in a sting and has pleaded not guilty to the charge.

His trial, which began on March 23, has been closed to the public as its content broaches classified information.

The court will announce its verdict on June 15, Whelan’s lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov said after Monday’s hearing.

U.S. authorities have called the charges against Whelan spurious have called on Russia to release him, describing the case as a “significant obstacle” to improving bilateral ties.

Whelan, who turned 50 in custody this year, has used his appearances at hearings to allege he has been ill-treated by prison guards and been denied medical attention.

Russian authorities have accused him of faking health problems to draw attention to his case.

(Reporting by Polina Ivanova; Writing by Alexander Marrow and Tom Balmforth; editing by John Stonestreet)

U.S. Supreme Court wrestles over ‘D.C. Sniper’ life sentence appeal

U.S. Supreme Court wrestles over ‘D.C. Sniper’ life sentence appeal
By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court justices on Wednesday questioned whether a lower court sufficiently considered that a man convicted in the deadly 2002 “D.C. Sniper” shooting spree in the Washington area was a minor at the time of the crimes when he was sentenced to life in prison.

The nine justices heard arguments in an appeal by the state of Virginia objecting to the lower court’s decision ordering that Lee Boyd Malvo’s sentence of life in prison without parole be thrown out.

Malvo, now 34, was 17 during the shootings in which 10 people were killed. He participated with an older accomplice, John Allen Muhammad, who was given the death penalty.

If Malvo prevails, he and other prison inmates in similar cases involving certain crimes committed by minors could receive new sentencing hearings to allow judges to consider whether their youth at the time of the offense merits leniency.

Malvo’s best chance of victory appears to be an alliance of the court’s four liberal justices and at least one conservative justice. The most likely contender based on questions he asked during the argument would be Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The shootings occurred over three weeks in Washington, Maryland and Virginia, causing panic in the U.S. capital region. Muhammad also was convicted and was executed in 2009 at age 48 in a Virginia state prison.

Virginia appealed after the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that Malvo should be resentenced. The 4th Circuit cited Supreme Court decisions issued since the shooting spree finding that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional, and that this rule applied retroactively.

Malvo received four life sentences in Virginia, where he was convicted of two murders and later entered a separate guilty plea to avoid the death penalty. He also received a sentence of life in prison without parole in Maryland.

Virginia’s appeal concerns the scope of a 2012 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that mandatory life sentences without parole in homicide cases involving juvenile killers violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In 2016, the court decided that the 2012 ruling applied retroactively, enabling people imprisoned years ago to argue for their release.

Liberal Justice Elena Kagan appeared convinced that the 2012 ruling, which she authored, dictates the outcome.

“It can be summarized in two words, which is that youth matters,” Kagan said.

Fellow liberal Justice Stephen Breyer said the “odds are greater than 50-50” that the judge did not consider Malvo’s youth during sentencing.

Kavanaugh questioned whether the Virginia sentencing process gave judges leeway not to impose sentences of life without parole, a finding that would favor Malvo. Kavanaugh described that question as the “tough part of the case.”

President Donald Trump’s administration backed Virginia in the case. Among those backing Malvo’s claim in the case are Paul LaRuffa, who was shot and injured outside the restaurant he ran in Clinton, Maryland during the 2002 spree, and two relatives of people killed in shootings.

Malvo’s Maryland sentence would not be directly affected by the outcome in the Virginia dispute.

A ruling is due by the end of June.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Actress Felicity Huffman gets 14 days behind bars in U.S. college scandal

By Valerie Vande Panne

BOSTON (Reuters) – Actress Felicity Huffman, the first parent sentenced in a wide-ranging U.S. college admissions cheating scandal, was given a 14-day prison term and apologized for her actions on Friday after pleading guilty to paying to rig her daughter’s entrance exam.

U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani sentenced Huffman, the 56-year-old former star of the popular television series “Desperate Housewives” and one-time Academy Award nominee, in federal court in Boston. The judge also ordered Huffman to pay a $30,000 fine and complete 250 hours of community service.

“My first apology is to you,” Huffman told the judge immediately before the sentence was issued.

“I realize now as a mother that love and truth must go hand in hand, and love at the expense of truth is not real love,” the actress said. “I will deserve whatever punishment you give me,” she added.

Huffman was released from court after the judge ordered her to report to prison on Oct. 25.

Prosecutors had recommended a sentence of one month behind bars after Huffman tearfully entered a guilty plea in May to conspiracy related to her payment of $15,000 to have someone secretly correct her daughter’s answers on the SAT standardized test used for college admissions.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling had also recommended a $20,000 fine and one year of probation.

Huffman’s attorneys, calling the actress “remorseful” and “deeply ashamed,” had urged the judge to allow her to remain free on one year’s probation, complete 250 hours of community service and pay a $20,000 fine.

Huffman and her husband, actor William H. Macy, looked somber when they arrived at the federal courthouse, holding hands, ahead of the sentencing.

Huffman is among 51 people charged in a vast scheme in which wealthy parents were accused of conspiring to use bribery and other forms of fraud to secure for their children admission to prominent U.S. universities. These schools included Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, the University of Southern California, the University of Texas and Wake Forest.

More than 30 parents were charged in the investigation dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, also including actress Lori Loughlin, who starred in the TV series “Full House,” and her designer husband Mossimo Giannulli, as well as a host of corporate executives, financiers and lawyers. Unlike Huffman, Loughlin and Giannulli pleaded not guilty.

The scandal cast a spotlight on the advantages of wealth in college admissions and the lengths to which some rich Americans have gone to get their children into top universities at the expense of other applicants.

Prosecutors said the accused parents acted with the help of William “Rick” Singer, a California college admissions consultant who pleaded guilty in March to helping bribe university sports coaches to present clients’ children as fake athletic recruits. Singer’s sentencing is set for later this month.

‘MY OWN INTEGRITY’

Huffman, who won an Emmy award for “Desperate Housewives” and was nominated for an Oscar as best actress for her role in the 2005 film “Transamerica,” said the cheating scheme was proposed by Singer.

Huffman said her daughter Sophia was unaware of the scheme until the actress was arrested on March 12. The actress said her daughter was 4 years old when Huffman first started trying to help her deal with learning disabilities.

“I find Motherhood bewildering,” Huffman said in a letter to the judge before sentencing.

“My daughter looked at me and asked with tears streaming down her face, ‘Why didn’t you believe in me? Why didn’t you think I could do it on my own?’ … I have compromised my daughter’s future, the wholeness of my family and my own integrity,” Huffman said in her letter.

Macy, 69, said their daughter “certainly paid the dearest price” when her desired school – which remained unnamed in court documents – rescinded its acceptance of her after Huffman’s arrest. Macy was not charged.

“She had been accepted into a few schools but her heart was set on one in particular which, ironically, doesn’t require SAT scores,” Macy said in a letter to the judge.

“She started as one of several thousand applicants and after making it through many auditions, she flew to the school two days after her mom’s arrest for the final selections. When she landed, the school emailed her withdrawing their invitation to audition,” Macy said.

Prosecutors had told the judge it was important that the sentence include time behind bars.

“Incarceration … would provide just punishment for the offense, make it clear that this was a real crime, causing real harm, and reinforce the vital principle that all are equally subject to the law regardless of wealth or position,” Lelling said in pre-sentencing documents.

(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Will Dunham)

Russia jails Dane for six years in Jehovah’s Witnesses purge

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian court on Wednesday found a Danish adherent of the Jehovah’s Witnesses guilty of organizing a banned extremist group and jailed him for six years in a case critics condemn as crushing religious freedom.

Armed police detained Dennis Christensen, a 46-year-old builder, in May 2017 at a prayer meeting in Oryol, some 200 miles (320 km) south of Moscow after a court in the region outlawed the local Jehovah’s Witnesses a year earlier.

Russia’s Supreme Court later ruled the group was “extremist” and ordered it to disband nationwide. Christiansen’s detention, Russia’s first extremism-related arrest of a Jehovah’s Witness, foreshadowed dozens more.

The court in the city of Oryol on Wednesday found Christiansen guilty after a long trial, his lawyer, his wife and a representative for the Jehovah’s Witnesses told Reuters.

Christiansen had pleaded innocent, saying he was exercising freedom of religion guaranteed in Russia’s constitution.

Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen called on Moscow to respect religious freedom and criticized it for classifying Jehovah’s Witnesses on a par with terrorist groups.

The U.S.-headquartered Jehovah’s Witnesses have been under pressure for years in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin. Orthodox scholars have cast them as a dangerous foreign sect that erodes state institutions and traditional values, allegations they reject.

DOZENS MORE CAUGHT IN CRACKDOWN

But Russia’s latest falling-out with the West, triggered by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, spurred a more determined drive to push out “the enemy within”.

With about 170,000 followers in Russia and 8 million worldwide, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, and rejection of military service and blood transfusions.

They believe the end of the world as we know it is imminent, an event “the obedient” will survive to inhabit the Kingdom of God they believe will follow.

Christiansen moved to Murmansk in northern Russia in 2000 where the Jehovah’s Witnesses were already well established and met his wife Irina there. The couple later moved to Oryol because the climate is milder and housing cheaper.

He speaks Russian and says he is a fan of Russian culture.

Anton Bogdanov, Christiansen’s lawyer, said he planned to appeal Wednesday’s verdict, which he termed illegal and feared would set a dangerous precedent.

More than 100 criminal cases have been opened against Jehovah’s Witnesses, with another 24 people in prison awaiting or on trial and a similar number under house arrest. Some of their publications are on a list of banned literature.

Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, said the verdict evoked the atheist Soviet period when Moscow persecuted the group.

“In essence we have returned to Soviet times,” said Sivulsky, whose own father Pavel was jailed for seven years in 1959 for printing bible literature. “It’s sad that in the 21st century people are being jailed for holding what the authorities believe to be the wrong beliefs.”

Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said there were clearly reasons for Christiansen’s arrest but he was unaware of details.

Irina, Christiansen’s wife, said she and her husband were calm despite what they saw as an injustice. Before the verdict, she said state TV had nurtured existing widespread prejudice in Russian society against Jehovah’s Witnesses, a strategy she said helped distract people from low living standards.

(Additonal reporting by Tom Balmforth in Moscow and by Andreas Mortensen and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Copenhagen; Editing by Christian Lowe)

‘El Chapo’ paid former Mexican president $100 million bribe: trial witness

Defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman (L) cross examines Alex Cifuentes (C), a close associate of the accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman (R) in this courtroom sketch in Brooklyn federal court in New York, U.S., January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) – Accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman once paid a $100 million bribe to former Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, a former associate testified on Tuesday that he previously told U.S. authorities.

Alex Cifuentes, who has described himself as Guzman’s onetime right-hand man, discussed the alleged bribe under cross-examination by one of Guzman’s lawyers in Brooklyn federal court. Asked if he told authorities in 2016 that Guzman arranged the bribe, he answered, “That’s right.”

Cifuentes testified that he had told U.S. prosecutors Pena Nieto reached out to Guzman first, asking for $250 million. Cifuentes told the prosecutors that the bribe was paid in October 2012, when Pena Nieto was president-elect, he testified.

Cifuentes said he told prosecutors at a later meeting, last year, that he was no longer sure of the exact amounts of the bribes, but did not elaborate.

Cifuentes also said testified that Guzman once told him that he had received a message from Pena Nieto saying that he did not have to live in hiding anymore.

Pena Nieto has previously denied taking bribes from drug traffickers.

Reuters could not immediately reach Pena Nieto for comment. His former spokesman and other former officials did not immediately respond to messages requesting comment.

Pena Nieto was president of Mexico from December 2012 until November 2018. He previously served as governor of the State of Mexico.

Guzman, 61, has been on trial since November. He was extradited to the United States in 2017 to face charges of trafficking cocaine, heroin and other drugs into the country as leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Captured by Pena Nieto’s government in February 2014, Guzman broke out of prison for a second time some 17 months later, escaping through a mile-long tunnel dug right into in his cell.

The jailbreak humiliated the government and battered the president’s already damaged credibility, though Pena Nieto personally announced news of the kingpin’s third capture when he was again arrested in northwestern Mexico in January 2016.

Colombian-born Cifuentes is one of about a dozen witnesses who have so far testified against Guzman after striking deals with U.S. prosecutors, in a trial that has provided a window into the secretive world of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the world’s most powerful drug trafficking organization.

Other witnesses at the trial have also made accusations of high-level corruption.

Jesus Zambada, another cartel member, testified in November he paid a multimillion dollar bribe to an aide of current Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in 2005. The aide was not named but later Gabriel Regino, an official in Mexico City when Lopez Obrador was mayor, wrote on Twitter that an accusation of bribery had emerged against him in the trial but was false.

Cifuentes earlier on Tuesday had also testified that Guzman asked an associate to pay a $10 million bribe to a general. The witness said the bribe was never paid and Guzman subsequently ordered the associate killed, though the hit was never carried out.

(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York and David Graham in Mexico City; Editing by Tom Brown and Lisa Shumaker)

Trump-backed criminal justice bill heads for votes in Senate

FILE PHOTO: Jail cells are seen in the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit at the Rikers Island Correctional facility in New York March 12, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Monday prepared to vote this week on bipartisan criminal justice legislation supported by President Donald Trump, although critics were forcing debate on a series of changes before allowing a decision on passage.

The “First Step Act” would ease the way for certain prison inmates to win early release to halfway houses or home confinement. It also would create programs to reduce recidivism and protect first-time non-violent offenders from harsh mandatory minimum sentences.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell noted that a “number” of senators still had problems with the bill.

But in a procedural move on Monday evening, the Senate overwhelmingly voted to advance the measure, clearing the way for debate on amendments before a possible vote on passage later in the week.

Even with Senate passage, the House of Representatives would still have to act in the waning days of this Congress before it could be sent to Trump for signing into law.

Conservative senators already have won some changes to the bill, paring back the discretion judges would have to sentence felons with criminal histories beneath mandatory minimums.

At the end of 2016, according to U.S. Justice Department figures, nearly 2.2 million people were incarcerated in prisons or local jails.

That makes the United States the world leader in prison population, according to private estimates.

Republican senators Tom Cotton and John Kennedy were pushing for approval of three amendments that would further tighten requirements.

They address excluding child molesters and other violent felons from early release, notifying victims before offenders are let out early and a measure to track the effectiveness of anti-recidivism programs, according to Senate aides.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Elizabeth Smart says prison release of her captor poses danger

FILE PHOTO: Elizabeth Smart talks to the media outside the Federal Courthouse after addressing her kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell, during his sentencing in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., May 25, 2011. REUTERS/Michael Brandy/File Photo

(Reuters) – Elizabeth Smart, the Utah woman whose kidnapping as a 14-year-old drew national attention to the issue of crimes against children, said in an interview that the release of one of her kidnappers on Wednesday poses a danger to the public.

Smart was taken at knifepoint in 2002 from the bed she shared with her sister. A passerby spotted her nine months later when she was walking down the street with her two captors, a homeless street preacher and his wife, and called the police.

One of Smart’s captors, Brian David Mitchell, was sentenced to life imprisonment. But his 72-year-old wife, Wanda Barzee, was scheduled for release on Wednesday after serving a 15-year prison sentence for kidnapping and unlawfully transporting a minor.

FILE PHOTO: Wanda Barzee appears in court to face charges in the kidnapping of teenager Elizabeth Smart in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., April 22, 2003. Douglas C. Pizac/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Wanda Barzee appears in court to face charges in the kidnapping of teenager Elizabeth Smart in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., April 22, 2003. Douglas C. Pizac/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

“I do believe she’s still a danger,” Smart, now 30, said in an interview with “CBS This Morning” that aired on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“I am very concerned for the community, for the public, as much as I am for myself,” Smart added.

In the interview, Smart described Barzee, who she said would encourage Mitchell to rape Smart, as “evil and twisted.” Smart characterized an apology letter Barzee, which the woman wrote to her as part of her plea deal, as insincere.

Barzee was released at 8 a.m. MDT (1400 GMT), according to news media reports. She will be supervised by U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services for five years, said Greg Johnson, administrative coordinator for the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole.

An attorney for Barzee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Barzee was initially scheduled to be in prison until January 2024, but after prison officials determined they had miscalculated the length of her sentence, her release date was moved up.

Despite her concerns, Smart said she had forgiven her captor and moved on. She is married with two children and expecting a third, and has become an advocate for preventing the sexual abuse and exploitation of children.

(Reporting by Makini Brice in Washington; editing by Joseph Ax and Jonathan Oatis)

California deals with dementia among aging inmates

An inmate sits in the yard of a cellblock which mainly houses prisoners with cognitive decline, Alzheimer's, and dementia, at the California Health Care Facility in Stockton, California, U.S., May 24, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Sharon Bernstein

STOCKTON, Calif. (Reuters) – California prison inmate Richard Arriola does not remember the digestion problems that drove him to the doctor on a recent morning, or details of the conviction for child molestation that sent him to prison at age 88.

Arriola is one of about 18,400 inmates over the age of 55 in California prisons, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

It is a swelling population that has led authorities to take the first steps toward creating a dementia unit at the state’s main prison medical facility in the San Joaquin Valley city of Stockton, Reuters has learned.

“We have identified a specific need for a specialized unit for our dementia population and are in the very early phases of concept development,” said Elizabeth Gransee, spokeswoman for California Correctional Health Care Services.

The wing would mark a shift from California’s earlier efforts to treat prisoners with cognitive decline, relying on inmate volunteers and a modest staff to help them rather than a more expensive medical unit.

Reuters visited two California prisons recently to look at the challenges states face, as improved medical care, long sentences from tougher crime laws, and a steady increase of older adults entering prison has contributed to an extraordinary rise of elderly inmates.

In California, seven percent of the state’s 130,000 prisoners were over the age of 60 in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, compared to just 1 percent 20 years earlier, according to a report by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“We and all of the jails and prisons around the country need to be able to do a better job with individuals who have cognitive impairment,” said Dr. Joseph Bick, chief medical executive at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville.

Throughout the United States, states are grappling with similar challenges as prisoners age. Inmate medical costs amount to about $3 billion per year nationwide, according to a recent report by the state of Georgia, where medical care for inmates over the age of 65 costs $8,500 per year, compared to $950 for those who are younger, the report showed.

Nationwide, 44 percent of inmates over the age of 50 have disabilities, compared to 27 percent of prisoners overall, a 2015 report by the Department of Justice shows. About 20 percent have cognitive disabilities, the report showed.

ROUND-THE-CLOCK CARE

Prisoners with cognitive decline can require round-the-clock care and help with dressing themselves, brushing teeth and going to the restroom. Because prison life – and for many, life on the streets before prison – is so difficult, inmates are considered geriatric after the age of 55 in California and many other states.

Arriola, who is housed with about 2,600 prisoners with chronic conditions at the California Health Care Facility in Stockton, came on a Thursday morning in May for a follow-up visit with a gastroenterologist. But he talked distractedly to the doctor, and said he did not recall having stomach problems.

It is not an uncommon situation at the Stockton facility, where physicians and nurses are trained to work with an increasing number of patients experiencing cognitive decline, said Dr. Anise Adams, the chief medical officer.

About 500 prisoners are being treated for dementia or Parkinson’s Disease in California prisons, including 200 at Stockton, officials said.

“It’s hard for them to explain to the nurses what they want or how they feel,” said inmate Scottie Glenn, 47, who participates in a program in which able-bodied inmates help those who are ill.

On a recent May morning, Glenn, who is serving 25 years to life for murder, was assisting a wheelchair-bound inmate who needed to see a doctor. Sometimes, he writes letters for inmates, or helps them to communicate.

HOSPICE CARE

Older inmates’ needs have led the state to build a large dialysis center, stock hundreds of wheelchairs and offer assistance with hearing and declining vision. Stockton’s medical facility has a physical therapy center, and a palliative care unit is set to open in the next few weeks.

The California Medical Facility in Vacaville set up a hospice decades ago during the AIDS crisis, which now houses more inmates dying of old age diseases, officials said. The state expects to spend about $26,000 per inmate on health care next year.

Once a dementia unit is set up, California would follow New York, which opened one for its much smaller prison population in 2006. New York spends about $2.7 million annually to care for 29 patients in the unit, the state corrections department said.

California officials say it is too soon to know how much the unit they hope to create will cost, but it would not be difficult to re-purpose an existing ward for use by dementia patients.

Such patients wake up in the middle of the night not knowing where they are, requiring trained staff to comfort them. Others behave in ways that normally get an inmate in trouble, such as batting away a doctor’s hand during an injection.

In a normal prison ward, that is considered assault, said Captain Paul Vasquez, whose job includes reviewing behavioral issues at the Stockton facility.

Inmates can be handcuffed, lose privileges and even be sent to the Security Housing Unit, where prisoners are kept in near-isolation, he said.

“We need to learn to respond to them a different way – and not in a regular mainline type of prison,” Vasquez said.

 

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Additional reporting by Jane Ross; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Diane Craft)

Voters remove California judge criticized over rape sentencing

FILE PHOTO: Brock Turner, the former Stanford swimmer convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, leaves the Santa Clara County Jail in San Jose, California, U.S. September 2, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Californians voted in a special election to unseat a state judge who drew worldwide condemnation for giving a six-month jail sentence to a Stanford University swimmer convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, a former prosecutor appointed to the bench in 2003 by then-Governor Gray Davis next month will become the first sitting judge recalled in more than 80 years in the state.

In Tuesday’s election, 60 percent of the more than 176,058 voters who cast ballots approved a petition to recall Persky, according to unofficial results posted online by the county registrar. The registrar is expected to certify the results on July 5, spokesman Steven Spivak said.

“There is no such thing as an elected official who (is)independent of the electorate. That is not a thing,” Michele Dauber, a Stanford law professor who organized the recall petition, wrote in a Twitter message on Wednesday.

Persky came under fire in June 2016 for sentencing Brock Turner, then 20, to six months in the county jail and three years probation for three counts of sexual assault, a penalty widely denounced as too lenient.

Uproar over the sentencing was fueled in part by an open letter from the victim, who remains anonymous, recounting her ordeal in graphic terms. The letter was posted online and went viral, resonating with people around the world.

Turner’s sentence, which predated the #MeToo movement of women speaking out publicly against sexual harassment and abuse, was held up as a symbol of how the U.S. justice system fails to take sex crimes seriously enough.

The recall vote sparked came at a time that has seen hundreds of women publicly accusing powerful men in business, government and entertainment of sexual misconduct and harassment.

Persky is not planning to issue a statement about the election, according to LaDoris Cordell, a retired female judge who served with Persky on the Santa Clara County Superior Court and who led much of the opposition to the recall.

Persky had won re-election since his appointment, and his current six-year term would have expired in January 2023.

Persky, himself a former lacrosse player at Stanford in Palo Alto, California, said at a news conference last month that sentencing guidelines and probation department recommendations had limited his options in sentencing the former student. He has asserted that his recall would undermine the independence of the judiciary.

Under California law, voters can petition for elections to remove state officials from office for any reason.

“We ask judges to follow the rule of law and not the rule of public opinion,” Persky told the news conference.

Two women ran to succeed him in a separate, nonpartisan race. Under state law, Persky would leave office when the winner, Cindy Seeley Hendrickson, takes the oath of office. That must occur within 10 days of the July 5 vote certification, a Santa Clara County Superior Court spokesman Benjamin Rada said.

Prosecutors had asked that Turner be given six years in prison. He had faced up to 14 years behind bars, and under normal sentencing guidelines would have been likely to receive at least two years in prison.

Turner was released for good behavior in September 2016 after serving just three months of his six-month term and has since appealed his conviction. He returned to his parents’ home near Dayton, Ohio, where he was required to register as a sex offender, the Dayton Daily News reported at the time.

California’s judicial oversight commission received thousands of complaints about the sentencing but concluded in its report that Persky was unbiased and acted in accordance with a probation report recommending the lighter sentence in the county jail, rather than a state prison.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Peter Szekely in New York; editing by Paul Tait, Peter Graff and Jonathan Oatis)