Update on Police, Tasers & Teenagers

Taser photo II

In August, 2013, a Miami Beach police officer caught Israel Hernandez-Llach spray-painting a shuttered McDonald’s on North Beach.  After a brief foot chase, Miami Beach Officer Jorge Mercado shot Herandez-Llach with his department-issued Taser.  The teen later died at Mount Sinai Medical Center.  After a six-month-long medical examination, medical examiners stated Hernandez-Llach died of heart failure from the “energy device discharge.”  This finding is unusual because the device has never been cited in an official cause of a death report in Florida.  Instead, most of the local Taser-related deaths have been ruled as cases of “excited delirium,” a rare brain malfunction often caused by cocaine or mental illness that said to transform victims into violent, feverish attackers.

Medical investigators conducted extensive toxicology exams and tests at the University of Miami’s Brain Bank to explore whether Hernandez-Llach had experienced excited delirium.  The teen’s body temperature was over 102 degrees more than an hour after he was pronounced dead, which can be a sign of delirium.  However, Hernandez-Llach was not enraged during the brief foot pursuit with police and his toxicology report did not find any drugs other than marijuana.

Medical examiners rarely list a stun gun as contributing to a death because Arizona-based Taser International has been aggressive in suing medical examiners that do cite the brand.  In 2008, Taser successfully removed the stun gun as a cause of death in three cases.  In Hernandez-Llach’s case, Miami-Dade’s medical examiner did not specifically cite the Taser brand, and instead referred to a “conducted electronic device discharge.”

Taser has previously suggested officers avoid shooting suspects in the chest because of the risk of cardiac arrest in some people.  Further, in 2012, a small study in an American Heart Association publication found that the weapon can cause heart failure in some healthy people.  Unfortunately for Hernandez-Llach, this suggestion was not heeded.  Additionally, since February 5th, three more Miami-Dade men have died after being tasered by police.

Read more here:  http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/03/06/3978777/teen-shot-by-miami-beach-police.html

Police, Tasers & Teenagers

Policeman with taser

Police use Tasers as a non-lethal alternative to firearms.  However, Tasers used against teenagers often result in permanent injury or death.  In 2012, the human rights advocacy group Amnesty International reported that Taser devices used by U.S. law enforcement has killed at least 500 people.  In November 2013, a Texas high school student suffered a severe brain injury after a Texas sheriff’s deputy tasered him while the teen was trying to break up a fight in a school hallway.  After being tasered, Noe Nino de Rivera struck his head on the floor as he fell and suffered a sever brain hemorrhage.  The unconscious teen was immediately handcuffed, but it is alleged the police delayed in calling for medical assistance.  Eventually, the teen was airlifted to a hospital and put into a medically induced coma.  The teenager’s mother, Maria Acosta, has sued the Bastrop County, its police department, and its school district after the tragic accident.  Acosta is seeking medical expenses and damages for use of excessive force, failure to train and discipline, and civil rights and education code violations.

Similarly, Andre Little, an African-American teenager, is suing the city of Richmond, CA after a police officer allegedly tasered him in the testicles.  According to Little, he was waiting for a train when Officer Kristopher Tong moved toward him and asked if he was involved with a group of teens that had been previously detained for questioning.  After denying any association with the group, Officer Tong told Little to move to another section of the platform.  After Little refused to move, Tong and another officer allegedly pulled him to the ground, tasered Little in the scrotum, and then placed him on his stomach and tasered his back.  U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley ruled that Little did not sufficiently prove that Tong singled the teen out or was motivated by race; however, Little will be offered an opportunity to amend his suit.

Likewise, an 18-year-old graffiti artist, Israel Hernandez-Llach, died after being tasered by a Miami Beach police officer on August 10, 2013 in Miami Beach, Florida.  Hernandez-Llach, who had other artworks on display in Miami art galleries, was spray-painting a McDonald’s restaurant when the police ordered him to stop.  A brief foot pursuit ensued, ending in the police tasering Hernandez-Llach after he refused to stop running.  Sadly, the young man died shortly after being tasered.  Further, according to the family’s attorney, Jason Kreiss, Hernandez-Llach would have likely only faced a few hours of community service for the offense of spray-painting, further demonstrating the disparity between the offense and the result of using a Taser against a teenager.

Lastly, during “Career day” at Tularosa New Mexico Intermediate School in 2012, a police officer used his Taser gun on a 10-year-old boy to show him what cops do to people who don’t follow orders.  Allegedly, Officer Chris Webb of the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, asked a group of boys if they would like to clean his patrol unit.  A number of boys said that they would; however, R.D. jokingly responded that he did not want to clean the patrol unit.  Officer Webb then allegedly pointed his Taser at R.D. and said, “Let me show you what happens to people who do not listen to the police.”  Next, the officer fired two barbs from the Taser at R.D.’s chest.  Then, instead of calling emergency medical services, Officer Webb pulled out the barbs and took the boy to the school principal’s office.  Due to the incident, R.D. has scars and has been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  Rachel Higgins, R.D.’s guardian ad litem, has sued the New Mexico Department of Public Safety and Officer Webb and is seeking punitive damages for the boy for battery, failure to render emergency medical care, excessive force, unreasonable seizure, and negligent hiring, training, supervision and retention.

These are only a few of the numerous instances when Taser use has gone horribly wrong.  This leads to several questions:

  • Are Tasers inappropriate to use against juveniles?
  • Should school police be banned from using Tasers against juveniles?
  • Is it appropriate to use Tasers when results from their use are unpredictable?

Photo:  A policeman with the Taser X26 model.  (AFP Photo / Jean-Pierre Muller)

Not all children will see the light of day outside of the prison walls

http://libguides.umhb.edu/content.php?pid=149001&sid=2708708

From Erik Eckholm at the New York Times:

In decisions widely hailed as milestones, the United States Supreme Court in 2010 and 2012 acted to curtail the use of mandatory life sentences for juveniles, accepting the argument that children, even those who are convicted of murder, are less culpable than adults and usually deserve a chance at redemption.

But most states have taken half measures, at best, to carry out the rulings, which could affect more than 2,000 current inmates and countless more in years to come, according to many youth advocates and legal experts.

“States are going through the motions of compliance,” said Cara H. Drinan, an associate professor of law at the Catholic University of America, “but in an anemic or hyper-technical way that flouts the spirit of the decisions.”

Lawsuits now before Florida’s highest court are among many across the country that demand more robust changes in juvenile justice. One of the Florida suits accuses the state of skirting the ban on life without parole in nonhomicide cases by meting out sentences so staggering that they amount to the same thing.

Other suits, such as one argued last week before the Illinois Supreme Court, ask for new sentencing hearings, at least, for inmates who received automatic life terms for murder before 2012 — a retroactive application that several states have resisted.

The plaintiff in one of the Florida lawsuits, Shimeek Gridine, was 14 when he and a 12-year-old partner made a clumsy attempt to rob a man in 2009 here in Jacksonville. As the disbelieving victim turned away, Shimeek fired a shotgun, pelting the side of the man’s head and shoulder.

The man was not seriously wounded, but Shimeek was prosecuted as an adult. He pleaded guilty to attempted murder and robbery, hoping for leniency as a young offender with no record of violence. The judge called his conduct “heinous” and sentenced him to 70 years without parole.

Under Florida law, he cannot be released until he turns 77, at least, several years beyond the life expectancy for a black man his age, noted his public defender, who called the sentence “de facto life without parole” in an appeal to Florida’s high court.

“They sentenced him to death, that’s how I see it,” Shimeek’s grandmother Wonona Graham said.

The Supreme Court decisions built on a 2005 ruling that banned the death penalty for juvenile offenders as cruel and unusual punishment, stating that offenders younger than 18 must be treated differently from adults.

The 2010 decision, Graham v. Florida, forbade sentences of life without parole for juveniles not convicted of murder and said offenders must be offered a “meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” The ruling applied to those who had been previously sentenced.

Cases like Shimeek’s aim to show that sentences of 70 years, 90 years or more violate that decision. Florida’s defense was that Shimeek’s sentence was not literally “life without parole” and that the life span of a young inmate could not be predicted.

Probably no more than 200 prisoners were affected nationally by the 2010 decision, and they were concentrated in Florida. So far, of 115 inmates in the state who had been sentenced to life for nonhomicide convictions, 75 have had new hearings, according to the Youth Defense Institute at the Barry University School of Law in Orlando. In 30 cases, the new sentences have been for 50 years or more. One inmate who had been convicted of gun robbery and rape has received consecutive sentences totaling 170 years.

In its 2012 decision, Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court declared that juveniles convicted of murder may not automatically be given life sentences. Life terms remain a possibility, but judges and juries must tailor the punishment to individual circumstances and consider mitigating factors.

The Supreme Court did not make it clear whether the 2012 ruling applied retroactively, and state courts have been divided, suggesting that this issue, as well as the question of de facto life sentences, may eventually return to the Supreme Court.

Advocates for victims have argued strongly against revisiting pre-2012 murder sentences or holding parole hearings for the convicts, saying it would inflict new suffering on the victims’ families.

Pennsylvania has the most inmates serving automatic life sentences for murders committed when they were juveniles: more than 450, according to the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. In October, the State Supreme Court found that the Miller ruling did not apply to these prior murder convictions, creating what the law center, a private advocacy group, called an “appallingly unjust situation” with radically different punishments depending on the timing of the trial.

Likewise, courts in Louisiana, with about 230 inmates serving mandatory life sentences for juvenile murders, refused to make the law retroactive. In Florida, with 198 such inmates, the issue is under consideration by the State Supreme Court, and on Wednesday it was argued before the top court of Illinois, where 100 inmates could be affected.

Misgivings about the federal Supreme Court decisions and efforts to restrict their application have come from some victim groups and legal scholars around the country.

“The Supreme Court has seriously overgeneralized about under-18 offenders,” said Kent S. Scheidegger, the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a conservative group in Sacramento, Calif. “There are some under 18 who are thoroughly incorrigible criminals.”

Some legal experts who are otherwise sympathetic have suggested that the Supreme Court overreached, with decisions that “represent a dramatic judicial challenge to legislative authority,” according to a new article in the Missouri Law Review by Frank O. Bowman III of the University of Missouri School of Law.

Among the handful of states with large numbers of juvenile offenders serving life terms, California is singled out by advocates for acting in the spirit of the Supreme Court rules.

“California has led the way in scaling back some of the extreme sentencing policies it imposed on children,” said Jody Kent Lavy, the director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which has campaigned against juvenile life sentences and called on states to reconsider mandatory terms dispensed before the Miller ruling. Too many states, she said, are “reacting with knee-jerk, narrow efforts at compliance.”

California is allowing juvenile offenders who were condemned to life without parole to seek a resentencing hearing. The State Supreme Court also addressed the issue of de facto life sentences, voiding a 110-year sentence that had been imposed for attempted murder.

Whether they alter past sentences or not, some states have adapted by imposing minimum mandatory terms for juvenile murderers of 25 or 35 years before parole can even be considered — far more flexible than mandatory life, but an approach that some experts say still fails to consider individual circumstances.

As Ms. Drinan of Catholic University wrote in a coming article in the Washington University Law Review, largely ignored is the mandate to offer young inmates a chance to “demonstrate growth and maturity,” raising their chances of eventual release.

To give young offenders a real chance to mature and prepare for life outside prison, Ms. Drinan said, “states must overhaul juvenile incarceration altogether,” rather than letting them languish for decades in adult prisons.

Shimeek Gridine, meanwhile, is pursuing a high school equivalency diploma in prison while awaiting a decision by the Florida Supreme Court that could alter his bleak prospects.

He has a supportive family: A dozen relatives, including his mother and grandparents and several aunts and uncles, testified at his sentencing in 2010, urging clemency for a child who played Pop Warner football and talked of becoming a merchant seaman, like his grandfather.

But the judge said the fact that Shimeek had a good family, and decent grades, only underscored that the boy knew right from wrong, and he issued a sentence 30 years longer than even the prosecution had asked for.

Now Florida’s top court is pondering whether his sentence violates the federal Constitution.

“A 70-year sentence imposed upon a 14-year-old is just as cruel and unusual as a sentence of life without parole,” Shimeek’s public defender, Gail Anderson, argued before the Florida court in September. “Mr. Gridine will most likely die in prison.”

The recent cases about juvenile law handed down by the United States Supreme Court were meant to help convicted juveniles. While those cases certainly have, they have not helped all convicted juveniles. The decisions mandating that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole were not deemed retroactive. In fact, the states are split on this issue. This means that not all convicted juveniles will see the light of day outside prison walls again. What was the intent of the Supreme Court? Will all convicted juveniles be treated equally under those cases? These questions and many more are what we are left with and are what the lower courts must decide. It is our hope that when they do make these decisions, they keep in mind that children are different.