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)

Special Report: In Louisiana jail, deaths mount as mental health pleas unheeded

The outside of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison is seen in Baton Rouge, Louisiana March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Melissa Fares and Charles Levinson

EAST BATON ROUGE, La. (Reuters) – The East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, a squat brick building with low-slung ceilings and walls sometimes smeared with feces, is the face of a paradigm shift: penitentiaries as mental health care providers. Across the United States thousands of jails are sheltering a wave of inmates accused of crimes and serving time while suffering from illnesses ranging from depression to schizophrenia.

The shift is a byproduct of the plunging numbers housed in psychiatric inpatient treatment centers, a total that fell from 471,000 in 1970 to 170,000 by 2014. In Louisiana, the fallout exacerbated after a former governor shuttered or privatized a network of public hospitals that provided medical and psychiatric care to the accused.

East Baton Rouge Parish Prison is where Louis Jonathan Fano, afflicted with bipolar disorder and haunted by demons, found himself on Halloween Eve 2016 after fleeing a Greyhound Bus and wandering city streets naked and crazed.

Booked into the jail on six misdemeanor charges, Fano, 27, slit his wrists hours later. Then he was sent to solitary confinement, where he spent 92 of his 94 days imprisoned with his thoughts.

Midway through his jail ordeal, the parish handed responsibility for inmate medical care to a for-profit firm that decided Fano was “exaggerating his condition.” On January 18, 2017, it ordered him taken off his antipsychotic medication.

Two weeks later, the onetime veterinary student, who crafted letters to his mother in longhand, hanged himself.

His family rushed from California to find him unconscious in a hospital intensive care unit, where he lay until his death.

“We touched his cold hands. I talked to him but he had no life – it was just machines,” said his mother, Maria Olga Zavala. “Even with all that, they had him there handcuffed with a guard.”

Replaying that image inside her Southern California home, she asked: “Why wasn’t that guard in the jail, looking after my son before he took his own life?”

It’s a question asked often of the parish jail, where 25 inmates died from 2012-2016, at least five of whom were diagnosed with a serious mental illness or showed signs of one, jail and court records show. Fano became the sixth inmate since 2012 to die amid a mental health crisis; none had been convicted of the charges that jailed them.

From 2012 to 2016, the jail’s rate of death was 2.5 times above the national prison average, a Reuters analysis found. The East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, blamed most deaths on drug use, “poor health and pre-existing conditions,” and noted Louisiana has long ranked low on public health metrics.

A private consultant hired to assess treatment found the jail was substantially understaffed, with 61 percent of the psychiatric staff hours found in comparable jails. Isolation units, transformed into de facto inpatient mental health wards, were “woefully inadequate physical environments for the most unstable mentally ill.”

Men on suicide watch were given paper gowns and no sheets or blankets, but the unit was kept so cold some inmates risked hypothermia. One sought warmth by squeezing himself inside the plastic covering of his mattress.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Prison is a vivid example of how local jails struggle to treat the masses of mentally ill filling their dank cells.

MENTALLY ILL AND INCARCERATED

Had a naked and hallucinating Fano stumbled off the Greyhound Bus a few years earlier, he likely would have received treatment at Baton Rouge’s Earl K. Long charity hospital. In the two years before its closure in April 2013, police brought 1,800 mentally disturbed detainees there for treatment, said Jan Kasofsky, Baton Rouge’s top mental health official.

Earl K. Long was part of Louisiana’s network of 10 public charity hospitals that provided medical and psychiatric care to the poor and the imprisoned. It cost the state $76 million a year to treat prisoners in these hospitals. In the spring of 2013, former Governor Bobby Jindal began privatizing or closing nine of the 10 and that $76 million cost has since been cut by two-thirds, said Raman Singh, until recently the corrections department’s medical director.

Jindal declined interview requests. Timmy Teepell, chief of staff during much of the Republican’s first term, said the system was closed for good reason.

“It was outdated, underfunded, and produced the nation’s worst healthcare results,” Teepell said. “I am surprised it lasted as long as it did into the 21st Century.”

But the shutting of the hospitals left local governments struggling to provide medical care behind bars. Cat Roule, who spent 12 years as a nurse supervisor at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, told Reuters, “Once Earl K. Long shut down, everything got much worse. There were people piling up in the intake unit. It was just madness.”

Dennis Grimes, the current warden, acknowledged the jail can’t properly treat those in need in a facility where some 800-900 of 1,500 inmates are currently on mental health medication.

“The prison is equipped to deal with disciplinary behavior, not mental health patients. It doesn’t have the things that it really needs in order to function for those who have a mental health problem.”

Medical staff, he said, “burn out, they don’t know what to do, they need some relief – and there are no mental health hospitals out there.”

FIVE MEN IN CRISIS WHO DIED IN JAIL

On February 13, 2013, as operations at Earl K. Long wound down, David O’Quin, a 41-year-old paranoid schizophrenic, was picked up by police after his father reported he was off his medications and behaving erratically. He was booked into East Baton Rouge jail on charges of disturbing the peace. Per jail policy for the mentally ill, he was placed in isolation, where inmates have little access to visitors and spend 23½ hours a day, court records show.

When O’Quin disobeyed orders, guards strapped him to a chair by his ankles and wrists and left him caked in feces and urine, the family alleged in a lawsuit. A jail nurse noted he suffered “serious psychosis” and needed to see a doctor. He didn’t see one for six days, the family said. Guards found him nude in his cell, ignoring orders and spitting, and stormed the cell with shields and mace, records say.

A day later, the jail’s psychiatrist diagnosed him suffering from serious psychosis. O’Quin spent much of the next seven days restrained to a chair in isolation. He died in that chair February 26.

An autopsy found he had died from a pulmonary embolism from a blood clot that developed in his lower legs, likely due to the prolonged period of restraint, as well as from bacterial infection likely from contact between his open wounds and feces. O’Quin’s family has reached an undisclosed lawsuit settlement with the sheriff’s office.

After his death, the sheriff’s office reviewed policies and procedures, said Casey Hicks, a spokeswoman for the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office. Among the changes: new guidelines for using the restraint chair. “It is still used when necessary, though it now requires approval directly from the Warden or designee,” she wrote.

Howell Andrews, a Senior Special Assistant to the Parish Attorney of East Baton Rouge, which was responsible for jail medical care at the time, pointed to a review panel’s findings: “The personnel of the Prison Medical Services acted within the standard of care within the regulations and restrictions in place in this environment.”

In July 2014, Antwoin Harden, 28, was picked up by police for trespassing on the grounds of the Drury Inn, telling officers he was homeless and would rather be in jail than on the streets. In jail, Harden refused to take his medication for bipolar disorder and sickle cell anemia, said his mother, Angelo Moses. He died that month from a blood clot in his lung, related to not taking his medications, she said.

Citing confidentiality restrictions, Andrews said he could not discuss Harden’s case. But he noted: “We are unable to forcibly medicate the individuals.”

Months later, on September 19, 2014, 72-year-old Paul Cleveland was arrested after verbally threatening a court clerk and booked into the jail. On his intake forms, the nurse noted he was bipolar and on antipsychotic medications, and suffered maladies including diabetes, heart pain and rheumatoid arthritis.

Once inside, Cleveland was unable to stand in the hours-long line for patient medications due to his arthritis. His doctor sent a note to the jail saying Cleveland needed a wheelchair, and his family brought one to the front gates. But jailers never let it inside, according to court filings in a family lawsuit against the city, jail and sheriff.

Cleveland filed eight emergency medical request forms, complaining of chest pain, trouble walking to get medication, and suicidal thoughts. When he felt the requests went unheeded, he filed three formal grievances.

Once, a doctor refused to see him because he was behaving belligerently, his medical records show. Other pleas were dismissed as the ranting of a madman. “Banging on window,” said a nurse, who assigned him to a lockdown cell “for his own safety.”

Cleveland’s prescribed daily medications included the antipsychotic Seroquel, Metformin for diabetes, and Cardura for blood pressure. When he was unable to rise and walk to receive them, a jail nurse told him to “stop playing and come get your medication,” a guard testified as part of the family’s ongoing lawsuit.

“Look, they killin’ me,” Cleveland told his family, in his last jailhouse call. “I can’t hardly stand no more.”

At 2:32 the morning of November 12, deputies found Cleveland naked on the floor of his cell, covered in feces. He said he was too weak to shower. A nurse told guards Cleveland was faking “because he wants to get back to the infirmary,” a guard testified in a deposition. Two hours later, at 4:05 a.m., he was found dead in his cell. An autopsy found extensive gastrointestinal bleeding likely caused by cardiovascular disease.

“If he had been transported to the emergency room and received a very simple blood transfusion, he would have survived,” said his lawyer, Amy Newsom.

Hicks said the sheriff’s office took “appropriate action” in dealing with each of Cleveland’s medical requests.

East Baton Rouge city attorneys dispute the family’s allegations, saying Cleveland was treated by medical personnel between 15-17 times during his 50-day stay. His wheelchair was denied because there was no necessary medical approval, said the city, which disputed allegations he was too weak to take his medication.

On May 25, 2015, Lamar Johnson, 27, was pulled over by police because the windows of his Honda Accord were illegally tinted. It was a minor infraction, but Johnson had an outstanding warrant in a neighboring parish, a four-year-old charge for passing a bad $900 check.

He was booked into East Baton Rouge. When guards refused his request for a blanket, he cursed them, according to deposition testimony by two inmates in the family’s lawsuit against the city, parish, warden, sheriff and others. The guards beat Johnson, handcuffed him and pepper-sprayed him, the inmates testified.

Johnson had never been previously diagnosed with a mental illness, his family said. But in jail, his mental health took a turn. Eyewitnesses described him pacing and paranoid, muttering, “I don’t want to live.” The guards moved him to the jail’s isolation wing. “The further back you go, the worse it is, with the smell and the noise,” another inmate testified.

At 10:22 a.m. on May 30, Johnson was found hanging from cell bars. He died days later.

When his father, Karl Franks, sought answers, he said Warden Grimes had little to say. “Well, Mr. Franks, it is what it is,” Franks recounted.

The sheriff disputes allegations in the family’s lawsuit, Hicks said, finding “no evidence” Johnson expressed suicidal thoughts or had been beaten by guards.

Prison Medical Services, the city-run entity responsible for jail health care, said it was “never notified of his presence prior to being called to respond to his suicide,” Andrews said. An inmate log form, he said, showed Johnson’s name had been struck through and marked as “released.”

‘A TICKING TIME BOMB’

Johnson’s death was the fourth involving a mentally disturbed inmate since the closure of East Baton Rouge’s charity hospital. Political pressure was mounting. In August, jail medical personnel testified before council members at a public hearing.

A jail nurse, Sharon Allen, told the council the jail was filling up with mentally ill inmates and described how a nurse had to leave early because an inmate foisted feces at her. “These are mentally unstable people and there’s not enough nurses,” she said.

“We do have a ticking time bomb,” said Dr. Rani Whitfield, a top medical official at the jail.

In response, the council hired Chicago-based consultants Health Management Associates to conduct a $95,000 study of the jail’s medical services.

Before the consulting firm could finish its study, the death toll rose. This time, it was 17-year-old Tyrin Colbert, arrested in November 2015 at his high school for an alleged sexual assault of two younger boys. The waifish teen – standing 5’11” and weighing 129 pounds – reported feeling suicidal soon after he was booked.

Placed in isolation, Colbert said he was hearing voices and told medical staff he needed help, court records show. Dr. Robert Blanche, a psychiatrist contracted to work part time at the jail, assessed Colbert through the bars of his cell. “He is not suicidal; not depressed; he was manipulating,” Blanche noted in the jail’s electronic record-keeping system. He ordered the suicide watch discontinued.

Blanche did not respond to requests for comment. He, Sheriff Sid J. Gautreaux III and Warden Grimes are among defendants in the family’s lawsuit.

Four days later, another deputy said he found Colbert rocking back and forth and talking to a wall. Colbert said he had an imaginary friend named Jimmy. This time, Blanche concluded Colbert “may be psychotic (or he is malingering),” he wrote.

Hicks said Colbert requested to be taken off suicide watch. He returned to the general population and into a cell with another inmate, also 17, who choked him to death with a blanket on February 17, 2016. “Colbert did not report any threats or complaints concerning his cellmate,” said Hicks.

The private consulting firm’s findings, submitted to the Metro Council four months after this latest death, were damning.

Warden Dennis Grimes opens the doors to holding cells of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison in Baton Rouge, Louisiana March 5, 2018. Picture taken March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Warden Dennis Grimes opens the doors to holding cells of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison in Baton Rouge, Louisiana March 5, 2018. Picture taken March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

PRIVATE FOR-PROFIT PRISON CARE

The jail had just 36 percent of the physician staff hours found in comparable facilities. Jail staff failed to distribute prescribed medications nearly 20 percent of the time. A powerful anti-psychotic was being used widely to treat routine insomnia and keep inmates docile.

HMA concluded East Baton Rouge would need to double its $5 million annual budget to meet the minimal standard of inmate medical and psychiatric care.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, on January 1, 2017, the city hired CorrectHealth LLC, a private for-profit firm specializing in prison health care. The Atlanta-based firm promised to bring the jail’s medical care up to standard for $5.2 million a year, half of what the consultant cited.

CorrectHealth is among at least a dozen U.S. firms specializing in for-profit medical care behind bars. Today, it holds contracts to provide inmate healthcare at more than 40 facilities in the southeast, a spokesman said.

When it took over medical care in East Baton Rouge, Fano had been there two months.

Jonathan Fano, who committed suicide while in custody at East Baton Rouge Parish Prison is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters May 15, 2018. Vanessa Fano/Handout via REUTERS

Jonathan Fano, who committed suicide while in custody at East Baton Rouge Parish Prison is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters May 15, 2018. Vanessa Fano/Handout via REUTERS

His jail journey began as the Greyhound Bus idled at the Baton Rouge depot, amid a cross country journey from Miami to his California home. Sitting on the bus, he grew deeply paranoid.

“He said that all the people on the bus knew what he was thinking, that they were judging him, and that he felt sick,” recalled his mother. Fano, showing signs of schizophrenia, sometimes cleared his mind by walking the streets so long his bare feet blistered.

“‘Just focus your mind on coming home, don’t look at anyone, stay calm,’” Zavala told her son.

He fled the bus. Hours later, Baton Rouge police found him wandering the streets “naked and running around … hollering and cussing at imaginary people” and tearing down mailboxes, an arresting officer wrote.

Locked up, he begged for help. He filled out a medical request form November 25, 2016, complaining of anxiety and saying his antipsychotic meds weren’t working. “Feels as if the walls are closing in,” he wrote in December. Soon, a guard noted in all-caps that Fano “NEEDS TO SEE PSYCH.”

CorrectHealth took over New Year’s Day 2017. On January 11, an employee wrote Fano was “faking bad or exaggerating his condition.” Psychiatrist Blanche assessed Fano through the bars of his cell, concluding he “doubts serious mental illness, will begin tapering meds.” He ordered Fano’s anti-psychotic medicine reduced to 5mg and then discontinued after a week.

On February 2, Fano was found hanging from a torn mattress cover knotted to the bars of his cell. Under jail policy, the warden said, guards are supposed to check on inmates on suicide watch every 15 minutes and document what they see. But such checks didn’t come for Fano in the 11 hours before he hanged himself, video reviewed by Reuters shows. The reason: The warden said medical staff had months earlier taken Fano off suicide watch.

He died three days later. His mother now visits his grave every week.

John Ritter, a spokesman for CorrectHealth, said the company could not comment on pending litigation. He said company-run facilities “have been successfully audited against national correctional healthcare standards on numerous occasions.”

Warden Grimes defended the jail’s policy of placing inmates in isolation. But he said he had no easy answers to the jail’s challenges.

“The only way you’re going to stop someone from killing themselves is if there’s an officer there monitoring them 24/7,” the warden said. “And that’s just not possible.”

REFORM THAT LIVES AND DIES WITH POLITICS

As the deaths mounted, some city leaders began to feel pressure. O’Quin, whose last breaths came in a restraint chair, was from a prominent philanthropic Baton Rouge family. His father, Bill O’Quin, former president of a financial services publishing firm, mobilized business interests who joined the city’s first African-American mayor, Kip Holden, to push for a solution.

They drafted a plan to build a new mental health treatment center that would take in mentally ill people picked up by police. The center was modeled after one in Bexar County, Texas, where the sheriff said the facility saved the county $50 million over five years thanks in part to a sharp drop in incarceration rates of the mentally ill.

In Baton Rouge, winning approval for a tax to fund the center required support of the 12-member East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council. To muster support in the district, backers sought the endorsement of one of the parish’s most powerful forces: Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, who runs the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. “If he didn’t support it, then our prospects were zero,” said William Daniel, former chief of staff to then-Mayor Holden.

Gautreaux is a tough-talking career lawman who had long pushed the city to bankroll a new jail. “The plan was, let’s give the sheriff a new jail, and we’ll get our mental health center,” said John Davies, CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, a philanthropic development fund that was among the driving forces for the mental health center.

Negotiations took place in Gautreaux’s office, adorned with taxidermied hunting trophies, animal skin rugs, and crossed rifles inmates had carved from wood, said those present.

The sheriff wanted the largest parish jail in Louisiana, a 3,500 bed facility, more than double the current size, attendees said. Mental health center supporters pushed back. Crime had been on the decline in Baton Rouge, they argued. Plus, the mental health center would divert many inmates from jail, citing the Texas example.

In Louisiana, sometimes dubbed the “world’s prison capital,” filling jailhouse beds means big money for sheriff’s offices. Any Louisiana sheriff with capacity to spare can house state prisoners and receive a fee of about $24 a day per inmate. Over 50 percent of Louisiana state prisoners are held in local jails, far more than in other states. Sheriffs boost their budgets by hiring out inmates as cafeteria workers at the statehouse, for instance.

“In Louisiana, anytime you want to pass a law moderating the drive to imprison people, you have this almost insurmountable opposition from the sheriffs,” said Jon Wool, with the Vera Institute for Justice, a nonprofit opposing mass incarceration.

Hicks said Gautreaux backed the mental health center from the start, and that the new jail size was determined by outside consultants. “The sheriff did not demand any particular size of the jail,” she said.

In the end, the package that went to the 12-member council for a vote in January 2015 included a 2,500-bed jail and package of new criminal justice facilities.

Advocates thought they had wrangled just enough support from the council’s tax-wary Republicans to endorse a $330 million bond measure. But at the last minute came defections from key Democrats. “This was just difficult to swallow with such a large prison component,” said council member Tara Wicker.

A mental health center was put again to a standalone citywide vote in 2016. It narrowly lost.

(Additional reporting by Ned Parker, Linda So and Grant Smith. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Wolves to lambs: Finding God behind bars in El Salvador

Members of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) evangelical church participate in a religious service at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. Former members of the Barrio 18 gang abandoned their gang and decided to form two churches in order to leave their violent past. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

By Jose Cabezas and Nelson Renteria

SAN FRANCISCO GOTERA, El Salvador (Reuters) – Pastor Manuel Rivera’s voice echoes through the crowded courtyard in the notorious San Francisco Gotera prison in El Salvador, as hardened criminals weep and bow their heads in prayer.

Brutal ‘mara’ street gangs and chronic poverty have made El Salvador one of the most murderous countries on the planet, but the growth of evangelical Christianity behind bars is giving gangsters a way to break the spiral of violence.

Rivera, an ex-hitman from the powerful Barrio 18 gang, speaks to rows of men with spidery black tattoos on their arms, necks and faces, delivering a message of salvation: God had rescued them from violence. Returning to gang life would mean death.

“We used to say that the gang was our family, but God took the blindfold off our eyes,” says Rivera, 36, dressed like the other inmates in a white t-shirt, shorts and plastic sandals.

Some weep silently while he reads from a black bible. Others sing hymns, clapping and waving arms enthusiastically. They chorus: “Amen.”

Former members of the Barrio 18 gang participate in a religious service of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) church inside the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Former members of the Barrio 18 gang participate in a religious service of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) church inside the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

By embracing religion, these men can leave their gangs without retaliation, Rivera says. But if they do not show real devotion, their former gang-mates may kill them, fearing they will join other gangs and become enemies.

Convicted murderer Rivera’s own transformation came behind bars, when, battered by years of running from police and enemy gangs, unable to see his son, he turned to prayer.

When God appeared in a dream, prophesying Rivera would have his own flock, he became a pastor, he says. He is now half-way through an eight-year sentence for criminal association.

Evangelical Christianity has grown rapidly in Central America in the past decade, coloring local politics. Dozens of lawmakers embrace it, defending hardline positions against gay rights and abortion.

The fervor has spilled into jails, where it is welcomed by officials who sense its potential for reforming ex-gangsters.

President Salvador Sanchez Ceren’s government plans to use Gotera as a model of religious rehabilitation it hopes can be replicated.

Two years ago the prison, located about 100 miles (166 km) east of capital San Salvador, was almost entirely home to active gang members. Now, the majority of its approximately 1,500 inmates want to find redemption, says prison director Oscar Benavides.

The conversions “show the country that it is possible to rehabilitate those in the Mara Salvatrucha or other gangs,” says Security Minister Mauricio Ramirez, dismissing criticisms that the government should do more.

The Mara Salvatrucha, a notorious cross-border crime group also known as MS-13, was founded by Salvadorans in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

President Donald Trump has blamed MS-13 and illegal immigration from Central America as a major source of violence in the United States.

Outside the relative tranquility of the prison, danger permeates the streets of El Salvador.

Crime has fallen from a record high in 2015, but at 60 per 100,000 inhabitants last year, the murder rate is still one of the highest worldwide.

Inside Gotera, where some inmates are serving 100-year sentences for accumulated crimes, colorful drawings of angels and prophets decorate the walls alongside biblical quotations.

Inmates wearing shirts emblazoned with “Soldier of Christ” and “Jesus Saved My Life” study prayer books, weave hammocks and tend to a garden.

Rodolfo Cornejo, 34, with intricate black tattoos circling his neck, started praying and growing cucumbers when he entered the prison on a 12-year sentence for carrying firearms, wanting to leave the rough life that had isolated him from his kids.

“People on the outside don’t trust us very much: they think we can’t change. But yes, we can show them.”

Click on https://reut.rs/2HJg8kN to see a related photo essay.

(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Rosalba O’Brien)