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March 11, 2012

What if everyone refused plea deals and went to trial?

Go to Trial - Crash the Justice System - NYTimes.com
AFTER years as a civil rights lawyer, I rarely find myself speechless. But some questions a woman I know posed during a phone conversation one recent evening gave me pause: “What would happen if we organized thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people charged with crimes to refuse to play the game, to refuse to plea out? What if they all insisted on their Sixth Amendment right to trial? Couldn’t we bring the whole system to a halt just like that?” The woman was Susan Burton, who knows a lot about being processed through the criminal justice system. Her odyssey began when a Los Angeles police cruiser ran over and killed her 5-year-old son. Consumed with grief and without access to therapy or antidepressant medications, Susan became addicted to crack cocaine. She lived in an impoverished black community under siege in the “war on drugs,” and it was but a matter of time before she was arrested and offered the first of many plea deals that left her behind bars for a series of drug-related offenses. Every time she was released, she found herself trapped in an under-caste, subject to legal discrimination in employment and housing. Fifteen years after her first arrest, Susan was finally admitted to a private drug treatment facility and given a job. After she was clean she dedicated her life to making sure no other woman would suffer what she had been through. Susan now runs five safe homes for formerly incarcerated women in Los Angeles. Her organization, A New Way of Life, supplies a lifeline for women released from prison. But it does much more: it is also helping to start a movement. With groups like All of Us or None, it is organizing formerly incarcerated people and encouraging them to demand restoration of their basic civil and human rights. I was stunned by Susan’s question about plea bargains because she — of all people — knows the risks involved in forcing prosecutors to make cases against people who have been charged with crimes. Could she be serious about organizing people, on a large scale, to refuse to plea-bargain when charged with a crime?

March 07, 2012

The Siege of September 13: The Kabul Embassy Attack

Today's long read. Inside the September 13 Kabul US Embassy Attack: Newsmakers: GQ
Around an hour earlier, while Howell was at lunch, four miles to the east, on the outskirts of Kabul, a gray Toyota Town Ace van had threaded its way through the backstreets of Utkhel, a rough neighborhood, infamous for its thieves and petty criminals. American forces sometimes raid the area, searching for insurgents. The van's driver joined the flow of rusting taxis, cargo trucks, and shiny SUVs that were moving westward on the Jalalabad road toward the center of town. Next to the driver was a young male passenger, bearded and in local dress. In the back of the van were four passengers, at least three of whom were clad in powder blue burkas, the head-to-toe cloaks worn in public by traditional Afghan women. One of the burka-clad figures lay between the seats, as if ill or in labor. The van's driver seemed to know his route well. As he headed west, approaching the diplomatic quarter, he deftly avoided the big intersections guarded by Afghan police checkpoints, cutting through the side streets of Microrayon, a neighborhood of apartment blocks built by the Soviet Union during its ill-fated engagement in the country. There were a couple of checkpoints that couldn't be avoided, but at each of them, the policemen, after a perfunctory glance at the passengers in back, waved the van through. In Afghanistan's conservative culture, it would be a serious breach of social norms for a man to inspect too closely a woman who wasn't his relative, particularly a woman who'd modestly covered herself up with a burka. Women in burkas could therefore glide through checkpoints unseen. If on some premonition a police officer had commanded any one of the van's burka-clad passengers to lift up the veil, he would have gotten a nasty shock: All of them were bearded men. Underneath their burkas, they were dressed in shalwar kameez, the traditional local garb of baggy trousers and knee-length tunics. In the van with them, they had olive green rucksacks stuffed with ammunition, grenades, juice packs, bandages, and energy bars. They carried Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, and belt-fed machine guns. Beneath the figure who lay between the seats was the massive tube of an eighty-two-millimeter recoilless rifle, a portable antitank weapon that could fire armor-piercing rounds at targets over a quarter mile away. The van itself was packed with explosives and rigged to a remote-controlled detonator.