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Sirens & Gavels

Posts tagged: U.S. Supreme Court

Thompson appeals Zehm verdict to U.S. Supreme Court

Former Spokane Police officer and current federal prison inmate Karl Thompson earlier this month filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of his excessive force conviction in the March 2006 death of Otto Zehm.

The appeal, filed with the nation's highest court Oct. 22, raises a different legal issue than the argument Thompson's attorney, Carl Oreskovich, made earlier this year before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In the most recent filing, Thompson says the U.S. District Court improperly allowed evidence in the 2012 trial showing Zehm was innocent of the reported crime that prompted the contact in a Spokane convenience store March 18, 2006.

Store video showed Thompson approaching Zehm and quickly begin striking him with a baton. The filing with the Supreme Court gives Thompson's version of the events. The former officer said multiple commands for Zehm to put down a two-liter Pepsi bottle were made before the blows began, a claim the federal jury who heard the case rejected.

In arguments earlier this year that were later rejected by an appellate court panel, Thompson said his legal team was not provided expert witness statements analyzing the baton strikes in the video that may have changed trial strategy. A trio of appellate judges shot down that claim in June, then the entire panel of justices on the court declined to hear the case en banc later that month.

Thompson's claim this month is known in legal parlance as a “writ of certiorari,” or a formal request for the nine-member Supreme Court panel to review the rulings of a lower court. The Supreme Court receives 10,000 such requests annually and hears between 75 and 80 cases, according to its website.

Zehm, who died two days after the incident with Thompson, would have turned 45 today (Oct. 31, 2014).

Supreme Court decision prompts more restitution from Greg Jeffreys

A recently filed U.S. Supreme Court opinion has federal prosecutors asking for about $2 million more in restitution from jailed Spokane developer Greg Jeffreys, who pleaded guilty last year to wire fraud in a series of real estate schemes.

Sentencing documents filed ahead of a scheduled hearing in June had originally asked Jeffreys - who admitted in November to duping individual investors and banks on projects including condominiums, units in the downtown Ridpath Tower and a military facility off Highway 2 - to pay back $10.3 million. But a decision rendered in Washington, D.C., earlier this month in the case of a convicted mortgage fraudster out of Wisconsin prompted prosecutors to revise that amount closer to $12 million.

The unanimous decision in Robers v. United States, decided in a lightning-fast (for the court) 10 weeks after oral argument, overturned restitution guidelines set forth by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, according to prosecutors. While the Wisconsin court ruled Benjamin Robers, a man who bought two houses using fraudulent loan applications, must pay the difference between the amount the bank lent and how much the properties sold for after foreclosure, the Ninth Circuit had calculated restitution based on the value of forfeited properties at the time they were seized. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in February 2013 to settle the dispute in the way the two courts calculated restitution.

The decision affirming the Wisconsin court's practice increases the amount Jeffreys owes banks and investors on three properties that were foreclosed upon, prosecutors say in documents filed last week. This includes units in the downtown Ridpath tower.

Jeffreys' ex-wife, Kimberly Jeffreys, also pleaded guilty in February to a charge of fraud in dealings surrounding the military facility. She is tentatively scheduled to be sentenced in July for her role in the scheme, facing a potential six-month sentence and restitution of close to $160,000.

Shannon Stiltner, a woman who lived with Greg Jeffreys in Las Vegas and pleaded guilty in November to deliberately ignoring signs her boyfriend was swindling investors, is serving her seven-month sentence at a federal detention center in Seattle. Stiltner has been ordered to pay $58,000 in restitution and is scheduled for release in August.

Prosecutors have not filed requests to change Kimberly Jeffreys' or Shannon Stiltner's restitution amounts.

Warrants already required in Wash. for GPS

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring law enforcement obtain search warrants before attaching GPS devices to vehicles will have little effect in Washington state.

State and local agencies in Washington have for several years been required to get a judge's approval before using GPS devices in investigations.

“The decision doesn't affect us on our state cases,” said Washington State Patrol Lt. Mark Brogan. The requirement stems from case law.

Members of local agencies assigned to federal task forces may have used GPS devices without obtaining warrants because they were operating under federal law.

But that must change after the nation's high court ruled 9-0 Monday that it was unconstitutional for the police to attach a small GPS device to a drug-dealing suspect's bumper and track his car for a month

Frank Harrill, agent in in charge of the Spokane office of the FBI, said the agency is “immediately adapting.”

“But in terms of particular steps, I'm not able to make a detailed comment,” he said.

High court hears Priest Lake EPA fight

Chantell and Mike Sackett talk about their battle with the Environmental Protection Agency over their right to build a home on a lot near Priest Lake on Oct. 19.(SRPhoto/Kathy Plonka) Read Becky Kramer's story here.

By Sean Cockerham,scockerham@mcclatchydc.com

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court appeared sympathetic Monday to an Idaho couple’s fight to build their dream home over the objections of the Environmental Protection Agency, in a case that could have far broader implications and limit the EPA’s ability to regulate developers, energy companies and others.

Justice Samuel Alito said homeowners could relate to the situation of Idahoans Michael and Chantell Sackett.

“Don’t you think most ordinary homeowners would say this kind of thing can’t happen in the United States?” Alito asked the lawyer arguing for the government during oral arguments in the case Monday.

Alito called the EPA’s conduct “outrageous.” Justice Antonin Scalia spoke of the agency’s “high-handedness.”

The broad issue is whether landowners hit by EPA compliance orders should be allowed to immediately sue to overturn those orders, rather than waiting for the EPA to go to court to force compliance.

The case could have far-reaching implications, with environmental groups saying a Sackett victory could allow big corporate polluters to tie up the EPA in court instead of dealing with the problem.

The Sackett case has become a conservative rallying cry, with anti-EPA talk from radio hosts, lawmakers and business groups touting it as an example of an agency run amok. Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo said, “This is what happens when an overzealous federal agency would rather force compliance than give any consideration to private property rights, individual rights, basic decency or common sense.”

The legal storm began after the Sacketts filled in dirt and rock on their property for a home they were building on about a half-acre near scenic Priest Lake in North Idaho.

Officials from the EPA appeared and asked the Sacketts whether they had a permit to fill in wetlands under the Clean Water Act. The EPA subsequently told the Sacketts to “remove all unauthorized fill material” and plant trees and bushes, saying the couple faced potential fines of up to $37,500 a day if they didn’t fully comply with the directive.

The Sacketts dispute the assertion that the land, which is in a subdivision, is really wetlands, and they challenged the EPA’s authority. The conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, which signed on to represent the Sacketts for free, argues landowners should get to challenge EPA compliance orders in court because otherwise they’re just at the mercy of the threat of big fines.

GE, the American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Home Builders and 10 states filed court briefs in support of the Sacketts, underscoring the potential broad implications of the Idaho couple’s case.

The EPA says directives such as the one the Sacketts received are essentially just warnings with the goal of negotiating a solution. The government says a court challenge shouldn’t be allowed until the EPA actually goes to a judge in an attempt to seek enforcement of the order.

“It is phrased as an order. But the only thing that EPA is authorized to do … is to order people to do what they were already legally required to do. That is, order them to comply with their legal obligations,” Justice Department attorney Malcolm Stewart argued Monday.

A Boise-based trial judge, appointed by President George H.W. Bush, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the EPA’s position in the case. So have the nation’s other four appellate circuits in similar cases.

It’s unusual for the Supreme Court to take up an issue when there has been such unanimous agreement among all the lower courts, leading to speculation that the high court’s conservative majority decided to hear the Idaho couple’s case because it is intent on striking a blow to the powers of the EPA.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in the case might not come until June, but it was clear at Monday’s hearing that justices were skeptical of the EPA’s position. Justice Stephen Breyer said he read the order and that it didn’t seem to him like a warning, but a government demand.

The EPA says the Sacketts should have sought a permit and that the couple did not consult with the agency or the Army Corps of Engineers before filling the land.

The Sacketts say they had no reason to suspect their land would be considered wetlands. An environmental group produced documents under the Freedom of Information Act, though, showing the couple disregarded the opinion of a wetlands expert.

Michael Sackett said Monday after the arguments that the man took just a cursory look at the property, spending less than half an hour and never shoveling down into the ground.

Sackett, who called it a “David versus Goliath” case, said he can’t see how his property, 500 feet from Priest Lake in an existing subdivision with a sewer hookup, can be considered wetlands that demand protection.

High court asked to halt Texas execution

By MICHAEL GRACZYK,Associated Press
HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — Attorneys for a black man set to die Thursday evening for a double slaying in Houston 16 years ago appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and Texas Gov. Rick Perry to block the execution because a question about race was asked during the punishment phase of his capital murder trial.

 Duane Buck, 48, (pictured right) faces lethal injection for fatally shooting his ex-girlfriend and a man in her apartment. In an appeal to the Supreme Court on Thursday and a letter to Perry, Buck's lawyers said a psychologist testified that black people were more likely to commit violence.

 “The State of Texas should not condone any form of racial discrimination in the courtroom,” attorney Katherine Black wrote Perry, urging the governor to use his authority to issue a one-time 30-day reprieve for Buck. “The use of race in sentencing poisons the legal process, undermines the reliability and fairness of the sentence, and breeds cynicism in the community toward the very institution entrusted with protecting the rights of all persons equally.”

Buck's case is one of six convictions that then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn — a political ally of Perry who is now a Republican U.S. senator — reviewed in 2000 and said needed to be reopened because of the racial reference.

In the other five cases, new punishment hearings were held and each convict again was sentenced to die. State attorneys contend Buck's case was different from the others and that the racial reference was a small part of larger testimony about prison populations.

Perry (pictured left) is a capital punishment supporter and as frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination his actions now are coming under closer scrutiny. During his 11 years in office, 235 convicted killers in Texas have been put to death. His office said he has chosen to halt just four executions, including one for a woman who later was executed.

Buck, 48, was convicted of gunning down ex-girlfriend Debra Gardner, 32, and Kenneth Butler, 33, outside Houston on July, 30, 1995, a week after Buck and Gardner broke up. Buck's guilt is not being questioned, but his lawyers say the jury was unfairly influenced and that he should receive a new sentencing hearing.

A third person, Buck's stepsister, Phyllis Taylor, also was wounded, though she has since forgiven Buck and sought for his death sentence to be commuted to life in prison.

Gardner's 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son were among those who witnessed the shootings. Officers testified that Buck was laughing during and after his arrest, saying Gardner deserved what she got.

The psychologist, Walter Quijano, was a defense witness and the testimony at issue came in response to a question from a prosecutor. Jurors in Texas must decide on the future danger of an offender when they are considering a death sentence.

Buck's attorneys went to the Supreme Court after losing appeals in lower courts. A clemency request to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, all of whom are Perry appointees, also failed.

Assistant Attorney General Edward Marshall told the Supreme Court Buck's appeals were attempts to relitigate claims that every court, including the Supreme Court, already rejected.

“The record in Buck's case reveals that no constitutional violation occurred during his sentencing trial,” he told the justices.

If courts continue to reject Buck's appeals, only Perry could delay the lethal injection by invoking his authority to issue a one-time 30-day reprieve for further review.

Perry was not in the state Thursday, meaning any final order to delay would technically come from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. However, Perry's office frequently points out that he remains the governor and in contact with Austin while traveling.

Mike Walz, communications director for Dewhurst, said Thursday he would not comment “while any legal actions are still pending.” Perry generally has adhered to the same policy.

The lead prosecutor who tried the case, Joan Huffman, now a Republican state senator, said this week she had no concern about asking Quijano the question about race. She noted her question came in reference to a report he prepared for the defense and the issue was raised just once.

The execution would be the second this week and the 11th this year in Texas. Two more Texas prisoners are set to die next week.

Man executed despite White House pleas

By MICHAEL GRACZYK,Associated Press
HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — Texas executed a Mexican citizen Thursday for the rape-slaying of a teenager after he and the White House pleaded in vain for a Supreme Court stay, saying he was denied help from his home country that could have helped him avoid the death penalty.

 In his last minutes, Humberto Leal (pictured) repeatedly said he was sorry and accepted responsibility.

“I have hurt a lot of people. … I take full blame for everything. I am sorry for what I did,” he said in the death chamber.

“One more thing,” he said as the drugs began taking effect. Then he shouted twice, “Viva Mexico!”

“Ready warden,” he said. “Let's get this show on the road.”

He grunted, snored several times and appeared to go to sleep, then stopped all breathing movement. The 38-year-old mechanic was pronounced dead at 6:21 p.m., 10 minutes after the lethal drugs began flowing into his arms.

After his execution, relatives of Leal who had gathered in Guadalupe, Mexico, burned a T-shirt with an image of the American flag in protest. Leal's uncle Alberto Leal criticized the U.S. justice system and the Mexican government and said, “There is a God who makes us all pay.”

Leal was sentenced to death for the 1994 murder of 16-year-old Adria Sauceda, whose brutalized nude body was found hours after he left a San Antonio street party with her. She was bludgeoned with a 30- to 40-pound chunk of asphalt.

Leal was just a toddler when he and his family moved to the U.S. from Monterrey, Mexico, but his citizenship became a key element of his attorneys' efforts to win a stay. They said police never told him following his arrest that he could seek legal assistance from the Mexican government under an international treaty.

Read the rest of the AP story by clicking the link below.

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