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Experts to Examine a Controversial Forensic Test That Has Helped Convict Women of Murder

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Legal experts from two universities will convene a group to study a dubious forensic test that has helped send some women to prison for murder though the women insisted they had stillbirths.

Last month, ProPublica reported on what’s known as the lung float test, which some medical examiners use to help determine whether a child was stillborn or was born alive and took a breath.

In response to the investigation, Aziza Ahmed, a professor at Boston University School of Law, and Daniel Medwed, professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University, announced they will lead the Floating Lung Test Research Study Group. The group, which will consist of lawyers and medical professionals, will be sponsored by the Boston University Program on Reproductive Justice and the Center for Public Interest Advocacy and Collaboration at Northeastern University School of Law.

“This is entirely due to the ProPublica report,” Ahmed said last week. “We realized it was time to take action.”

The aim of the group is to study the medical underpinnings of the lung float test, also referred to as the floating lung test, and determine whether it should be used in court. ProPublica’s reporting found that although several medical examiners said the test is unreliable, it had been used in at least 11 cases since 2013 in which women were charged criminally, and it has helped to put nine of those women behind bars. Some later had their charges dropped and were released.

The test, which has been around for centuries and remains essentially unchanged in spite of medical advances, is typically used in cases when births occurred outside of a hospital. Critics have likened the test to witch trials, when women were deemed to be witches based on whether they floated or sank.

When told about the study group, Dr. Joyce deJong, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, said the organization “supports initiatives that aim to enhance forensic tests’ scientific rigor and reliability.” It doesn’t have an official stance on the test, but deJong said a primary role is to “promote best practices and standards in forensic pathology and death investigation.”

If the study group asks for board-certified forensic pathologists to participate, the organization could share the request with its members, deJong said.

The group leaders plan to spend the next several weeks assembling a team and hope to have their first meeting early next year.

“The process will be robust and comprehensive,” Medwed said. “We will explore and interrogate any argument, pro and con.”

Many medical experts say that air can enter the lungs of a stillborn child even without breathing. Air can enter when the baby’s chest compresses as it squeezes through the birth canal, through CPR or during the ordinary handling of the body. If the body is decomposed, gases may cause the lungs to float.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the constitutional right to abortion, experts fear the test may play a larger role in cases when police and prosecutors raise questions about the circumstances of a birth.

“There’s a concern that more women would be vulnerable to prosecution, especially if they tried to self-induce later in pregnancy,” Ahmed said. “In this environment, the floating lung test is something that prosecutors would rely on.”

Medical and legal experts have pointed to wide variations in how the test is conducted, including the fact that some medical examiners use a whole lung while others use pieces. Experts have said the lack of standardization required by other forensic disciplines, such as DNA testing, has led to the lung float test producing inaccurate results.

Medwed, who also is a founding member of the board of directors of the Innocence Network, a coalition of organizations dedicated to fighting wrongful convictions, said that nearly 25% of wrongful conviction cases since 1989 involved some type of flawed science.

Because the lung float test is conducted by medical examiners, Medwed said, he worries the “mystique of the white coat” leads judges and jurors alike to overvalue the test. Similar concerns have been raised about shaken baby syndrome, which has faced increased scrutiny in recent years. There’s a natural deference to the expert, he said, and specifically the expert best at persuading a jury.

“The downstream consequence,” he said, “could be a wrongful conviction.”

Even supporters of the test acknowledge its drawbacks, conceding there are many ways to perform it and that they shouldn’t rely solely on the test when investigating a death. Despite those shortcomings, judges have allowed prosecutors to use it as evidence in court.

ProPublica wrote about the case of Moira Akers, a Maryland mother who insisted she had a stillbirth but last year was sentenced to 30 years in prison after a jury found her guilty of child abuse and murder. The medical examiner in the case relied on the lung float test. The state’s attorney’s office declined to comment while the case was on appeal.

The Appellate Court of Maryland is set to hear Akers’ appeal in early January.

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200 days ago
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Crab Meltaways, Juliana “Jukie” Todd

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Open just about any Maryland community cookbook from the 1980s, and you’re likely to find a recipe for Crab Meltaways. They’re easy, tasty, and great for company.

Most recipes call for “Kraft Old English Cheese Spread,” a product that, as far as I can tell, debuted in the 1930s. It is likely that the recipe for Crab Meltaways (also known as “Crabbies”) was developed by Kraft in the 1960s, but there are other variations without the product. John Shields included a recipe from Susan Corsaro in his 1992 “Chesapeake Bay Crab Cookbook,” using cheddar cheese, fresh garlic, and parsley.

1932

The ingredients are gently mixed, piled atop split English muffins (often cut into wedges), and frozen. From the frozen state, they broil into a bubbly melted pile of deliciousness.

One of my recipes suggests canned crabmeat because these don’t really necessitate the good stuff.

Jukie Todd from Crisfield didn’t have that concern. A lifetime employee of her family’s MeTompkin Bay Oyster Company, she surely had plenty of crab to work with. Her recipe was included in the Women’s Ministries Faith Fellowship Church’s 1989 cookbook, unfortunately named “Plantation Favorites.” Todd had died in 1986, so the recipe must have been shared by friend or family.

Ira Thomas Todd founded the MeTompkin Bay Oyster Company shortly after returning home from WWII.

Juliana “Jukie” Todd was born in 1924. Her father, Clinton Sterling, also worked in the seafood business. Her husband, Willis “Wiggie” Todd, was the son of Ira Thomas Todd’s brother George. Jukie was secretary for the MeTompkin Bay Oyster Company for 30 years.

“Unloading oysters by mule from Todd family dredge boats in 1920.” – metompkinseafood.com

MeTompkin Bay Oyster Company is still in operation, dealing in crabmeat from Asia as well as Maryland crab. I used Asian crabmeat from Phillips for this recipe, as the Old English Cheese and spices dominate anyway. No point in investing in the more-flavorful Maryland crab, unless your family also owns a seafood packing company.

Instead of cutting them into quarters, I kept the English muffin-halves intact and ate these as a dinner with vegetable sides. I still have a few left-over. At some point, I’ll get peckish for a snack and get really excited when I remember that I have them.

Recipe:

  • 1 package (6) English Muffins, split (cut into fourths if desired)
  • 1 stick softened butter
  • 1 5 oz jar Kraft Old English cheese
  • 2 Tablespoons mayonnaise
  • .5 Teaspoon seasoning salt
  • .5 Teaspoon garlic salt
  • .5 Lb crab meat

Mix well all ingredients and add crabmeat last. Spread mixture on muffins that have been cut. Freeze until frozen (must be frozen first). Broil until bubbly and slightly browned; serve hot. May be kept frozen for a month.

Recipe from Plantation Favorites, Women’s Ministries Faith Fellowship Church, 1989.

The post Crab Meltaways, Juliana “Jukie” Todd appeared first on OLD LINE PLATE.

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265 days ago
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Mississippi Courts Won’t Say How They Provide Lawyers for Poor Clients

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This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal and The Marshall Project. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

In 2017, the Mississippi Supreme Court’s then-Chief Justice William Waller Jr. helped mandate that judges throughout the state explain in writing how they deliver on their duty to provide poor criminal defendants with a lawyer.

He hoped the rule would spur improvements in Mississippi’s patched-together public defense system, regarded by many legal experts as among the worst in the country.

Now, six years after the rule went into effect, only one of the 23 circuit court districts in the state has responded. The 22nd Circuit Court in southwest Mississippi became the first to comply this summer, according to the Supreme Court’s docket.

The requirement was part of a push to move “toward a statewide system,” said Waller, who retired a couple of years after it went into effect. He said he’s partly responsible for not enforcing it. “We should have started going court by court and asking them to show us their plans.”

Public defense systems across the country are overburdened and underfunded, but Mississippi stands out. Nationally, it ranks last in how much money it spends per capita on public defense, according to the Sixth Amendment Center, a nonprofit that advocates for a robust defense for the indigent — those who can’t afford their own lawyer. Mississippi is one of only eight states that rely on local officials to fund and deliver almost all public defense for people facing trial, according to the center.

Mississippi has long failed to monitor or evaluate local courts to see whether they’re delivering that defense, which is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Without such oversight, no one knows whether all the state’s courts, especially smaller ones in the vast rural stretches of the state, are doing the job that’s required of them.

The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, ProPublica and The Marshall Project have identified courts that aren’t following the state Supreme Court’s rules on public defense, including judges who fail to appoint lawyers as early as required, or who deny counsel to defendants for inappropriate reasons. Even once appointed, some lawyers say they do little for defendants and that local judges know this.

Such problems show why it’s important for courts to explain how they provide public defense, said André de Gruy, who runs Mississippi’s Office of State Public Defender and has written a model plan for local courts that they could adapt to meet their needs. Without these plans, he said, “we can’t say whether we are in compliance with the Constitution.”

André de Gruy, head of Mississippi’s Office of State Public Defender, says that unless judges file indigent defense plans with the state, it’s hard to know whether courts are meeting constitutional standards. (Imani Khayyam for ProPublica) “Not Much Lawyering Going On”

In the last three decades, there have been repeated efforts to overhaul Mississippi’s public defense system, including four state committees or commissions, two major reports by outside legal experts and numerous pieces of legislation. They’ve been largely unsuccessful.

There’s widespread agreement about the systemic problems: Defendants can sit in jail for months at a time without a lawyer. The way that many lawyers are paid gives them an incentive to cut corners. There are few full-time public defenders in the state.

“There is not much lawyering going on. I get them through the system and get them out of here,” an unidentified, part-time public defender bluntly told consultants for the Mississippi Bar Association as part of a state government effort to reform the public defense system in the 1990s.

Shortcomings in Mississippi’s Public Defense Persist Over 20 Years
  • 1995: “There is no statewide oversight of indigent defense in Mississippi, which leads to a hodge podge, county-by-county approach to providing defense services,” wrote the Spangenberg Group, a consulting firm hired by several legal groups to evaluate the state’s public defense system.

  • 2003: The right to counsel is “functionally meaningless in Mississippi, a state which provides almost no regulation, oversight, or funding for indigent defense,” said the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

  • 2018: “The state of Mississippi has no method to ensure that its local governments are fulfilling the state’s constitutional obligation to provide effective assistance of counsel to the indigent accused in felony cases in its trial courts,” according to the Sixth Amendment Center.

In a 2003 study, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund reported that a lawyer on the Gulf Coast said that he never tried to locate or interview witnesses because by the time he’s been appointed, nine months to a year have typically passed since the crime.

“By then,” researchers wrote, recounting what the lawyer told them, “crime scenes have changed, witnesses have moved, and memories have faded.”

That study highlighted the case of a man arrested in the northeast Mississippi city of Tupelo for possession of crack cocaine. The court appointed three different lawyers in succession. The first two never spoke with the defendant and did not respond to his phone calls or letters. On the day before the trial, the third lawyer told the court that he had not prepared for his client’s case. The evidence against the man was so weak that he was acquitted by a jury after less than 15 minutes of deliberation. He’d spent eight months in jail.

From 2000 to 2011, several task forces successfully pressed for a series of reforms, including the creation of a state office to handle death penalty defense and indigent criminal appeals. That’s the office de Gruy now runs.

But reforms to public defense in local courtrooms remained out of reach. “I remember being very frustrated,” said Waller, who was part of those efforts after joining the state Supreme Court in 1998.

The sheer number of courts across the state, and the lack of coordination among them, is a factor in why it’s so hard to reform the system.

“In other states, any discussion of policy change takes place at one or two systems,” said David Carroll, director of the Sixth Amendment Center. “There are nearly 500 indigent defense systems in Mississippi.”

New Rules for Public Defense

In 2009, Waller became chief justice and went on to play a key role in an ambitious effort to create rules of criminal procedure that would be shared by all courts in the state.

Eight years later, those statewide rules went into effect. For the first time, judges were required to write down exactly how they delivered on their obligation to provide lawyers for defendants who couldn’t afford one. The courts were then required to send those plans to the Mississippi Supreme Court for approval.

“The intent of the rule was, as much as possible, to have consistency across the state,” Waller said. “A lawyer would be able to look at the rules and know what the practice is, and it would be fairly consistent, and he wouldn’t be memorizing the Magna Carta every time he went into a new court.”

Former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice William Waller Jr. said he’s partly responsible for not ensuring that courts around the state followed through on a requirement to develop public defense plans. (Bruce Newman for Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal)

Waller knew it was a limited effort. But in the absence of legislation to create a statewide system for public defense or a movement by counties to hire full-time lawyers, the Supreme Court could at least encourage uniformity among courts and reject inadequate plans.

In combination with other new rules, including measures to make bonds less onerous and give defendants more opportunities to argue their case before a judge, he hoped counties would move to create full-time public defender offices.

That didn’t happen. To date, just seven counties have full-time public defender offices, and only the 22nd Circuit Court has filed the required paperwork laying out its indigent defense system. The Mississippi Supreme Court approved the plan last month.

The plan is not lengthy, but it shows that the 22nd Circuit’s lone judge knows what’s required by the Sixth Amendment and that she has developed a process for how she fulfills that duty. It says when appointed counsel should be provided to poor defendants, it directs judges to monitor attorneys’ performance, and it outlines a procedure to ensure that defendants don’t lose representation as their case moves from one court to another.

The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, The Marshall Project and ProPublica asked the court administrators in all 23 circuit court districts, as well as the county-level clerks in all 82 counties, if they have a written plan for indigent defense. Many would not comment, but clerks in nearly 20 counties said they don’t.

Waller called on the current justices to remedy the failure to enforce the public defense rule. Chief Justice Michael Randolph and Justice Jim Kitchens, who heads the court’s criminal rules committee, declined to comment.

“I’m Not Too Quick to Pull the Trigger on a Public Defender”

At least a few judges aren’t only ignoring the requirement to write down how they provide lawyers for poor criminal defendants. They’re not following state rules on providing those lawyers in the first place.

The Daily Journal, ProPublica and The Marshall Project identified two courts that aren’t properly appointing lawyers for indigent defendants, according to Waller, legal experts and the rules of criminal procedure.

A lawyer who acts as a part-time judge in the small northeast Mississippi city of Guntown told a reporter that he usually handles defendants’ first appearances over the phone and doesn’t ask if they can afford a lawyer. This contravenes Mississippi’s criminal rules, which require that during a defendant’s initial court appearance, a judge should find out if that defendant can afford a lawyer and appoint one if not.

“They hear their charges and get a bond if they deserve one,”said Harry Sumner, the part-time judge. “I do not appoint a public defender at the initial [appearance] at that time.”

Told that this practice doesn’t meet the state standard for an initial appearance, Sumner said he believes that defendants waive those requirements when they agree to appear before a judge by phone. If someone wants a lawyer, he said, one could be appointed at a preliminary hearing, although he acknowledged that those hearings are rarely requested.

The state’s rules, however, are clear that while defendants held in jail may agree to appear before a judge by audiovisual means, the requirements of an initial appearance still apply.

In nearby Yalobusha County, a judge said he doesn’t move quickly to appoint a lawyer if a defendant posts bond and is released from jail.

“If they’re arrested on a felony and they’ve made bond, I’m not too quick to pull the trigger on a public defender, particularly if they’ve made a high bond,” said Yalobusha Justice Court Judge Trent Howell.

The rules, however, instruct judges not to base their decision about whether to appoint a lawyer on the ability of defendants or their friends or family to pay money to get them out of jail. Pressed on why he doesn’t abide by that instruction, Howell defended his approach. “It’s just human nature” to consider whether someone has been able to raise money for a bond, he said.

Even as courts have ignored the requirement to file their public defense plans, the Mississippi Supreme Court recently issued another rule to improve public defense. It’s supposed to eliminate what critics call the “dead zone” — the practice of withdrawing legal counsel from poor defendants after their initial appearance, leaving them without a lawyer as they wait to be indicted.

The Daily Journal, The Marshall Project and ProPublica found that many courts are not prepared to implement that rule either. That suggests that poor defendants will remain deprived of meaningful legal assistance as they wait months or years, often in jail, for prosecutors to decide whether to pursue felony charges.

De Gruy said the recent mandate to eliminate the dead zone offers courts an opportunity to grapple with much larger problems with public defense in Mississippi. “I was hoping,” he said, “this would be a reminder to the courts that they’ve got unfinished business.”

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272 days ago
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The Sterile World of Infinite Choice

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There’s a story my friends and I like to tell about when we were in college. We didn’t have Facebook. We didn’t have digital cameras. We didn’t have cell phones. If you wanted to hang out with someone, you made plans and kept them. And if you wanted to find them…..you walked around.

Walked through the halls of your dorm to see if they’d left a note with their whereabouts on the whiteboard mounted to their door. Walked through the library and asked if anyone had seen them. Walked through the basements of the frat houses and did the same. Sometimes you figured it out quickly, other times it turned into a sort of college night picaresque, with distractions (shitty nachos) and diversions (someone with good gossip, a random dance party) on your way to finally finding that one, elusive friend.

The lack of precise data about where people were and what they were doing — and the lack of documentation of where they were and what they doing and whether or not it was “worth” it to go find them — meant that you might have a plan for what the night would be….and then there was what the night actually became. There was just so much less control, so much less ability to curate what your night would look like.

That lack of control and curation shaped how we hung out, but it also extended to how we consumed media. My college years overlapped with pretty seismic technological shifts, but their effects were slow-moving. We were the first class to have ethernet hardwired into the dorms, which meant we were also the first to be able to store massive catalogs of shareable music online. That was the beginning of what would become our all-access understanding of entertainment, but most of us, at least at that time, were pretty bad at downloading anything. You could burn a CD on a lot of our desktop computers, but few people really knew how to make it work. We all had Winamp playlists. But most of the time, there were actual CDs in actual boomboxes, controlled by the person in the room with the massive CD wallet.

We watched rented or passed-around DVDs on those same desktops or not at all. Entire seasons of television came and went without us. Sometimes your roommate would pick the music and you just dealt with it. I don’t have a single memory of wearing headphones the entire time I lived on campus. If I wanted to have a private phone conversation, I could go sit in the hallway on our portable phone…but the range was only about ten feet.

There was no Wi-Fi. There was no texting. We had AIM, but because so few of us had grown up with it, we used it sporadically and poorly. We took 24 photos on cheap point and shoot cameras (maybe there was a zoom) and dropped the film at the grocery store to get developed. The wait — two days, three — felt interminable. The payoff was tremendous.

I’ve spent a lot of time interrogating my nostalgia for this period in my life. Some of it is related to being young and hungry for the world, but a lot of it is a yearning for limited options. There were worlds that were unknowable and whole swaths of life that were uncapturable. You could grasp at a moment, capture it in a snapshot or by writing it down. But there were certain things that were so solidly out of your control and outside your sphere of knowing — like when the radio station would next play Sophie B. Hawkins’ “As I Lay Me Down” or what people actually did when they were hanging out without you.

There was freedom in the picked-over selection at the local video store, in a single photo as evidence that a night happened, in missing an episode of a tv show and maybe just missing it forever. Incompletism wasn’t a failure; it was a way of life.

There were pitfalls, of course. No time period lacks them. The currents of mainstream culture followed the status quo, and the status quo is limiting in ways that are often invisible when you’re included within it. I often think about how my high school experience would’ve been different if I’d had access to Sassy, let alone Tumblr. But I can also see the ways I forged a unique sense of self against and through the texts that surrounded me. I couldn’t try every sort of music, but I could find one and set up camp and live there for a week, a month, a year, and allow it to imprint in lasting ways on the way I saw the world. There’s a reason music never felt overwhelming to me the way it does now. It felt like a treasure hunt. It felt like a gift.

Then I think about how these limitations worked in college, too: and yes, sometimes your roommate would be like “I’m going to watch Supertroopers with this guy I have a crush on” and your own response was either “I guess I’m watching Supertroopers too” or “I’m going to be library, see you later.” If you found yourself in a sketchy situation, there was no furtively texting a friend to get them to come rescue you. You had to rely on yourself or others and yourself and others weren’t always reliable.

But cell phones haven’t stopped rape culture and the harassment, degradation, and misogyny that stream from it — if anything, they’ve expanded their possibilities. They create an aura of protection that makes it easier to not address the larger culture of harm. And always being able to watch what you want in your bed by yourself hasn’t made us more interested or creatively satisfied or happy. What have we traded — in privacy, in time, in freedom, in surveillance — in the name of theoretical safety and ultimate choice?


If you’re willing to tolerate a monthly subscription fee or recurrent ads, you can access nearly all recorded music and a significant amount of television (at least so long as the music rights have been cleared, but that’s another conversation). What you can’t find on streaming services, you can find bootlegged on YouTube or floating in the bittorrent universe. Headphones allow us to be cocooned in our own soundtrack at all times. My watch tells me how I’m feeling, my phone allows me to track my friends’ locations, my workout starts when I press play, my television only shows me exactly what I want to watch when I want to watch it.

My surroundings are always in my control — which also means that I am always doing the work of controlling them.

My friends lightly razz me for listening to the radio when I drive into town, usually jumping between Top 40 and a pretty decent Vancouver-area country station. “The commercials are so bad,” they’ll say, or “how can you deal with this much Ed Sheeran.” But so much of my life is trying to make sure I’m always up to date on podcasts and good television and the right books and articles on the internet and influencers to follow, a constant curation of entertainment for myself and then a secondary curation of myself for others’ entertainment, that having no control over the amount of Ed Sheeran feels amazing.

It’s all very paradoxical: that the ability to constantly communicate has made us bad communicators, that instant access to all forms of entertainment would leave us with so few touchstones, that surveilling kids doesn’t necessarily make them safer, that the absence of limitations also often means the absence of creativity — and that the particular form of abundance we’ve fetishized can feel so sad, so unspeakably sterile.

Our defense against this feeling of overwhelm has been curation and optimization. We attempt to replicate someone else’s “perfect trip” and find it unsatisfying; we come to rely on a single website to help us navigate the sheer number of consumer goods and wake up and realize we all have the same shitty coffeemaker. We want every option available but also want those options sorted to meet our taste — and, generally speaking, we don’t want to pay for it.

Algorithms do the work for cheap, but when they reflect our taste back at us, it feels misshapen and insulting, a crude and unfair representation. When everything is available, all knowledge, all information, all entertainment ….nothing is perceived as valuable. Not the labor that creates the thing, not the person behind it, not the thing itself. The only valuable thing is our time, and if we spend it on something that isn’t amazing, isn’t exquisitely for us, we understand it as time wasted, instead of time gloriously wandering. That understanding extends to time traveling or with friends or even trying to make new ones. Within this paradigm, the entire experience of finding new things, new people, new places and experiences — all of it feels broken and unsatisfying and bad.

I’m not arguing against mass production, just as I’m not arguing against different types and modes of art that challenge and reshape our understanding of the world. I am, however, wondering how we can recultivate a norm of deep, luscious, mind-exploding engagement with less. Fewer clothes. Fewer emails. Fewer books but more reread ones. Less documentation. Less planning.

Less things but more time with them — time spent. That’s love, and that’s investment. In the person or people on the other side of the art, the relationship, the activity — of course. But also in ourselves. ●




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272 days ago
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Frederick County Sheriff and shooting range owner indicted for scheme to illegally acquire machine guns

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Frederick County’s top law enforcement officer has been indicted by a federal grand jury in Baltimore with conspiracy and making false statements to acquire machine guns.

Sheriff Charles “Chuck” Jenkins (R) faces six counts, along with Robert Justin Krop, a 36-year-old Frederick man.

Krop is the owner and co-founder of The Machine Gun Nest, an indoor shooting range just outside the Frederick city limits.

According to federal prosecutors, Krop used the business’s federal firearms licenses, which allowed him to possesses and deal in machine guns under certain circumstances, to unlawfully purchase machine guns.

Krop and Jenkins falsified multiple documents on the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office letterhead requesting machine guns for evaluation and demonstration to the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, according to the indictment.

Krop allegedly drafted the documents for Jenkins’ signature.

According to the indictment, Jenkins and Krop knew that there would not be a demonstration of the machine guns to the sheriff’s office and that the machine guns were intended for rental to Krop’s customers.

The six-count indictment alleges that the scheme between the men took place between August 2015 and May 2022.

The indictment was announced Wednesday afternoon by U.S. Attorney Erek L. Barron and Special Agent in Charge Toni M. Crosby of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Baltimore Field Division.

If convicted, Jenkins and Krop face a maximum sentence of five years in federal prison for the conspiracy, for false statements in records maintained by a federal firearms licensee and for false statements to federal law enforcement.

Krop is also charged with illegal possession of machine guns. He faces up to 10 years in federal prison for that charge.

The indictment also alleges that Krop’s business, which has hosted several Republican meetups and fundraisers in the county, offered political support to Jenkins in recognition of his support for the business.

Jenkins has a national profile for his hard-line stance on immigration and other conservative issues.

A Republican, he has held office since 2006.

This story will be updated. 

The post Frederick County Sheriff and shooting range owner indicted for scheme to illegally acquire machine guns appeared first on Maryland Matters.

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His Overdose Death in a Halfway House Bathroom Illustrates a System Lacking Accountability

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ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week.

The last time Iris Román Prieto saw her son, he was leaving their family Christmas Eve party to report back at the Colorado Springs halfway house where he was completing a two-year sentence for burglary.

After arriving at the facility, Robert Román Prieto called to let his mom know that he was safe.

And he then dialed his fiancée, Jasmin Black, who had dropped him off. After 15 minutes, at around 11 p.m., Black heard through the phone a grunt, a thud and then silence.

Alarmed, she called the facility, which is run by ComCor Inc., and pleaded with a staff member to check on Román Prieto, according to a police report.

He was in his bed asleep, the staffer assured her before hanging up.

The lifeless body of Román Prieto, 30, was found around 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 25, 2021, facedown on the bathroom floor, still holding his phone, according to the police report. Nearly five hours had passed since Black’s call asking staff to check on him. Staff told police that the last head count had occurred at midnight, and Román Prieto was not accounted for.

Law enforcement found half a blue pill, later identified as fentanyl, in Román Prieto’s wallet. Security footage showed he had purchased the potent synthetic opioid from two facility residents in the parking lot after exiting Black’s car.

Had ComCor staff followed state standards and the company’s own policies, they would have monitored security cameras trained on the parking lot, searched Román Prieto for contraband, and conducted a head count every two hours, which includes a visual check of each resident.

“If that person had checked on Robert when they said that they would, if that would have been taken care of right away, he would still be alive,” said his mother.

Román Prieto’s overdose death was the third fatality involving substance use at the facility in the span of eight months, according to coroner reports obtained by ProPublica.

His family believes he was seeking the pain reliever oxycodone, which illicit fentanyl is often made to look like. The day before, he had strained his back moving bags of concrete at the family’s new restaurant, according to his family.

Joselymar Román shows a hat she had custom made to memorialize her brother Román Prieto, who often wore a Boston Red Sox snapback.

Mark Wester, the executive director of ComCor, said in a written statement that staff followed all protocols and that an investigation three months later by county employees found no deficiencies in the facility's response. Wester denied ProPublica’s request to review the county investigation. A public records request to El Paso County found no documentation of such an investigation.

State auditors in 2017 noted that the facility wasn’t following procedures, writing that the cameras were “unviewed,” that staff wasn’t verifying clients’ physical presence, and that “pat searches” to control contraband when entering the building did not meet state standards. Two years later, auditors reiterated the need for staff to confirm the presence of each client during head counts, particularly when “the client is sleeping or in the bathroom.” A plan was implemented in 2019 that addressed the auditors’ concerns, according to Wester.

For years, ComCor and many other halfway house operators in Colorado’s community corrections system have been cited by the state Office of Community Corrections for failing to comply with security standards, which can lead to dangerous consequences. Audits, staff incident reports and internal documents reviewed by ProPublica revealed that the facilities have been host to sexual assaults, frequent escapes, recurring drug use and overdose deaths.

Yet regulators rarely use their authority or financial leverage to force facilities to improve their safety practices.

The problems persist, in part, because although the Office of Community Corrections oversees the system, 22 local community corrections boards also regulate what happens inside individual facilities. ProPublica found that most of the local boards — which are staffed by elected officials, parole officers, law enforcement, prosecutors and judges — work in tandem with halfway house operators, often looking past violations and failing to follow up when audits identify problems. Many boards haven’t audited the facilities they oversee in five years, or ever, meaning operators make millions of dollars from state contracts with minimal oversight.

Two days after Román Prieto’s death, when the El Paso County community corrections administrator reported it to the state, the administrator didn’t mention that ComCor had failed to monitor its facility and residents and instead characterized the facility’s response as “very good,” according to an email obtained by ProPublica. Román Prieto had received three doses of Narcan, a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses, the administrator, Angel Medina, said.

A toxicology screen ordered by the El Paso County coroner and obtained by ProPublica found no naloxone, the medication in Narcan, in Román Prieto’s system.

ComCor Inc.’s halfway house in Colorado Springs

El Paso County referred ProPublica to ComCor for comment, saying the company is responsible for “all day-to-day operations.”

Medina, who left his position in April, declined an interview request and wouldn’t comment on the case, but said in a written statement that the board's first commitment is to public safety. “The staff and Community Corrections Board strive to ensure the providers work toward the highest standards set by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. This is accomplished by a genuine and sincere commitment to transparency and accountability,” he said in the statement.

The lack of oversight and accountability in Colorado’s halfway houses contributes to a system in which people who pass through the facilities — whether they’re transitioning out of prison or sentenced directly to community corrections by a judge — are more likely to end up incarcerated than rehabilitated. Of those who enroll in a Colorado halfway house, only 35% will successfully complete a program and stay out of the criminal justice system for at least two years, according to state data.

ProPublica reported earlier this year that overly punitive policies, a scarcity of employment training, a lack of effective drug treatment programs, financial costs that sink residents into debt, and a system void of transparency and oversight also contribute to the system’s failures.

“Of all of the stages in the criminal law system … I think this is probably one of the most opaque,” said Wendy Sawyer, research director for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan criminal justice think tank based in Massachusetts. “There’s just a sort of [a] black hole.”

Inadequate Audits

Colorado’s halfway house system was established in 1974 to address prison overcrowding and provide addiction treatment, job training and other services to those leaving prison or avoiding incarceration through alternative sentencing programs. But the state has rarely evaluated whether it’s working.

It’s been more than 20 years since the halfway house system was independently audited. A 2001 review by the Office of the State Auditor, an independent agency within the Colorado legislative branch, found many problems, including “low levels of compliance” with state standards among halfway house operators and little enforcement of standards by state or local regulators. Out-of-compliance facilities still received contracts over and over, according to the assessment.

Auditors also found that it was impossible to determine how the 22 local community corrections boards, which contract with halfway house providers using state money, spend their administrative funds. “Few boards actually provide any type of systematic program oversight,” they wrote.

A photograph of Román Prieto and an urn containing his ashes, at right, are displayed on the mantel with other items memorializing him above two of his daughters, Naddia Román, 7, and Mariela Román, 8.

Steve Allen, who worked for 17 years as a legislative budget analyst, said he tried for years but failed to get more information about facilities from the state’s Office of Community Corrections. “I never had a clear picture” of how facilities were using state funding, he said. “I did the best I could, but things really never changed.”

The auditors recommended that the local boards should no longer be involved in routine administrative functions such as billing and administering contracts, and that reporting requirements be established.

In response, the state agreed to require “measurable performance expectations” in contracts. But 20 years passed before the metrics to do that were established, in 2021. Facilities now get additional funding if enough people graduate from a halfway house program and if recidivism rates are kept low enough, but they aren’t penalized if they don’t hit those marks.

In 2023, community corrections facilities will be eligible for even more state funding as part of a “pay-for-success” model that state regulators hope will improve the abysmally low success rates. Every three years, each facility will receive two new assessments: the PACE — which measures program quality, including whether rehabilitation programs are backed by research — and the CORE, which looks at facilities’ security practices.

These new audits, however, will evaluate fewer than half of the nearly 100 state standards for the facilities and rely on the same state and local oversight practices that have consistently failed to hold accountable poorly performing halfway house providers.

The OCC conducted the new assessments at every facility between 2017 and 2021, but it didn’t identify plans for improvement, something it says it will start doing next year.

Greg Fugate, director of communications and quality assurance for the Colorado Office of the State Auditor, said the state hasn’t conducted another independent audit of the system because the law doesn’t require it and the office hasn’t received a request to do so. But the governor or any lawmaker could request one, and the state auditor could initiate one at the office’s discretion.

The Office of Community Corrections is required to review facilities’ compliance with state standards every five years, but the law doesn’t specify how extensive the inspections need to be or what happens when problems are found. The office also conducts some audits for specific treatment programs and monitors certain standards through its billing system, including background checks and fingerprinting requirements for new hires, according to Katie Ruske, manager of Colorado’s Office of Community Corrections, which is part of the Division of Criminal Justice. But since 2017 the office has conducted only “limited” audits of eight halfway houses focusing only on security practices. Colorado has 27 state-funded halfway houses.

ProPublica obtained audits conducted by the OCC since 2017 through public records requests. They show many facilities frequently do not comply with state standards for security and program quality, and the homes rarely face serious consequences for those failures.

A 2017 Office of Community Corrections audit of ComCor found that security was “inadequate to effectively monitor the facility, client movement and general activities.” (OCC audit obtained and annotated by ProPublica) The audit describes inadequate head-count practices to verify residents’ presence in the halfway house. (OCC audit obtained and annotated by ProPublica) “Significant issues” were found with pat searches, “leading to insufficient contraband control.” (OCC audit obtained and annotated by ProPublica)

Some facilities lacked documentation for disciplinary actions and resident escapes, and sometimes didn’t report sexual assault allegations. Facilities failed to adequately train staff, monitor clients and prevent drugs from entering the halfway house, auditors wrote.

Where state auditing falls short, local community corrections boards are supposed to fill the gaps, according to Ruske. “They need to do their own auditing so that there is more time inside of those programs and facilities, more oversight than just what our office can provide,” said Ruske.

“The statutes and our contracts still make it very clear that we can hold subcontractors accountable if we need to,” she said. “And we have done that in our history … to the point of program closure. That hasn't been during my tenure, but that has happened in the past.”

In 2016, Colorado lawmakers provided additional funding to improve employee training, retention and recruitment at halfway houses — $134,000 for smaller facilities and $269,000 for larger facilities. But they are not required to report how that money is used and the state doesn’t audit whether it goes to the intended purpose.

Christopher Bonham, who worked in security at ComCor, said he received two days of training when he was hired in 2016. It didn’t prepare him for dealing with residents who struggled with substance abuse, he said.

Bonham said more staffing and better training might have prevented an overdose death he witnessed in 2016. It was the night shift, and he had been dealing with an “onslaught of guys needing pat-downs, Breathalyzers, everything.” A few hours had passed since he last patrolled the facility, he said.

“When you’ve got 120, 130 guys walking around and there’s only two of you on shift, it’s like a human tsunami,” said Bonham, who worked for the organization on and off for five years. “That’s what it’s like at a lot of these places. They try to go with the absolute minimum staffing.”

A minimum of two staff members work the night shift in each security office, according to Wester, ComCor’s executive director. The company has two facilities with a total of three security offices.

The other staff member on duty yelled for Bonham to go to Room 7, he said, where a 26-year-old resident enrolled in the treatment program for serious addictions was unconscious. Bonham and his colleague tried to resuscitate the man before paramedics arrived, Bonham said. The next day, Bonham said, the hospital told him the man had been taken off life support. A coroner’s report indicates he died of an overdose of methamphetamine and heroin.

Christopher Bonham, who worked security at ComCor, at a park in Colorado Springs

Bonham and others brought concerns about staffing levels and training to management many times, he said. The response was always the same: They’d look into it. The facility began stocking Narcan, he said. But little else changed.

After two more overdose deaths and more pleas to upper management to improve training and staffing that went unheeded, according to Bonham, he left the organization in November 2021. Román Prieto’s overdose death occurred a month later.

Wester said in response to a 2021 state audit that the facility has been “redeveloping” its new employee orientation to include a week of classroom training and time shadowing more-experienced employees.

But he acknowledged to ProPublica there have been times when that wasn’t the case. “A year ago, we were down 25 staff,” he said in June. “So we were trying to do rapid hiring and so for a time, we did shorten the orientation. It wasn’t the best circumstance.”

Preparing to Be Audited

Some who’ve worked in the system say auditing doesn’t provide a true reflection of what happens inside the facilities.

When auditors arrived at ComCor Inc. in July 2021 to conduct a PACE audit of its rehabilitation programs, Broderick Rimes, a security manager, felt like a student who had all the answers to the exam he was about to take. The auditors from Colorado’s Office of Community Corrections had provided an outline of what to expect and given the facility two months to prepare.

Rimes, a former investigator for the military, said his bosses gave him funds to “beautify” the rundown motel-turned-correctional-facility. He instructed residents to plant flowers and build new outdoor staff seating, and he rewarded their free labor with a barbecue. He had new fans installed, which hushed residents’ complaints about the heat.

Weeks earlier, the facility had been understaffed, according to Rimes.

Audits in 2017 and 2019 noted an “alarming rate of employee turnover,” along with other staff-related problems, such as disciplinary practices that did not follow fairness and due process requirements and a failure to control contraband entering the facility.

The day of the 2021 audit, Rimes’ “best and brightest” staffers were working. Many had received pay increases so they’d have “happy faces” for the visitors, according to Rimes.

Under the direction of his supervisors, Rimes had recruited residents to join a new “mentorship program,” which would be showcased during the audit. Those who agreed to participate received perks: bigger rooms, air conditioners, extra attention from staff and the promise of new gym equipment. This ensured the clients had positive things to say about the program, Rimes said.

Auditors gave ComCor one of the highest scores in the state.

According to Wester, the facility received similarly high marks from local regulators, including Medina, the El Paso County community corrections administrator.

“Mr. Medina was able to only see what we allowed him to see,” Rimes said.

Broderick Rimes, a former security manager at ComCor, at his home

Rimes said he felt like he was deceiving the auditors, but believed that the potential boost in state funding from a good audit would improve conditions at the facility.

But as soon as the auditors left, things went back to the way they were before, he said.

Upper management halted the mentorship program, saying it was never formally approved. The mentors were moved out of their improved rooms. The AC units and fans were returned on the grounds that they were “violating fire code.” Rimes said he was scolded for letting residents perform maintenance tasks such as installing fans and outdoor seating without being paid.

Rimes said it was clear that he’d been manipulated too.

He had to tell residents that they weren’t getting the promised gym equipment.

“I couldn’t look those clients in the face,” said Rimes. “What am I going to tell them? That we lied to them?”

ComCor’s Wester told ProPublica that the facility had ample time to prepare for the audit because it had been delayed due to the pandemic. The audit was originally scheduled for March 2020.

He also stressed that the purpose was not to catch facilities by surprise. The requirements “are not a secret,” said Wester, who is also the chairperson of the Colorado Community Corrections Coalition, a trade group that lobbies on behalf of halfway house operators. “We are always improving our environment, our management and our services.”

Wester called Rimes’ mentorship program “fledgling” and said it was replaced by a more robust one. The pay increases staff received were not related to the state evaluation, he said. Wester said he was aware of the other changes Rimes made but they weren’t done for the audit and were instead part of a broader effort to improve the facility.

A month later, Rimes resigned.

“It sucks because I live in this community, so it’s not like I don’t see these clients,” he said in June. “I know the bad stuff that I participated in.”

Local Boards Rarely Step In

Colorado’s halfway house system was designed like many other state programs — giving local governments as much control as possible. That led to the creation of community corrections boards in each of Colorado’s 22 judicial districts. The boards operate independently, and state statutes are silent on who can sit on those boards and for how long.

The boards are directed to ensure that facilities are complying with state standards, but many have never audited the facilities they oversee. Twelve boards are required by the OCC to conduct their own audits, according to their annual reports, but only six have consistently done so since 2017, according to audits obtained by ProPublica.

The boards vary drastically in their makeup, protocols and oversight.

They distribute state money and have the authority to accept or deny people’s enrollment in halfway house programs, essentially operating as an unofficial court overwhelmingly staffed by law enforcement and other members of the criminal justice system.

Across the road from the ComCor halfway house. State standards and the company’s own policies call for security cameras trained on the parking lot to be monitored.

Allen, the former legislative budget analyst, attended a handful of their meetings. He recalled a man who took a plea deal from a district attorney so he could go to community corrections instead of prison. The board denied the man’s application.

“Who voted against it? The representative from the DA’s office,” he said. “I’m sorry, there is something wrong with that system.”

Advocates say transparency is necessary because boards could cherry-pick applicants who would improve their facility’s success rate, a metric now used to financially reward facilities.

A 2018 law requires each board to use an evidence-based decision-making tool to avoid discrimination in such decisions. But boards are allowed to design their own tools without state input. Some refuse people who receive alternative sentences for violent crimes, people from other judicial districts who have been convicted of a sex crime, and people who have been arrested for selling drugs.

Despite funding these boards, the Office of Community Corrections gathers little information about their activities apart from an annual report, leaving state lawmakers who approve their funding in the dark about halfway houses’ operations. Facilities are required to report how many people escape each year –– there have been 936 so far this year, according to state data –– and how much rent each facility collects from residents. During the 2020 fiscal year, facilities collected approximately $15 million in rent, according to the Office of Community Corrections’ annual report.

The community board for Alamosa County does not publish information online about when or where it meets or who its board members are. Colorado’s open meetings law requires that meeting notices be posted “in a formally designated public place at least 24 hours before a meeting.”

“We don’t post our information because there’s some privacy issues. We never have,” said Patrick Stanford, who has been the community corrections coordinator for Alamosa County for more than 20 years.

Through public records requests, ProPublica obtained information on the board’s membership, which consists of four current and former district and county judges; one court executive; two parole and probation officers; a public defender; the district attorney; a sheriff; a police chief; two former or current county commissioners; the mayor; and a local mental health provider.

In response to a follow-up question from ProPublica, Stanford said that he has sent the meeting information to be posted in the Alamosa County Courthouse but he could not verify that it was posted.

Steve Zansberg, a Denver-based lawyer and president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said that while posting in the courthouse would technically be in compliance with the law, “it is certainly not in compliance with its spirit.”

The local board for Alamosa or the county government has not conducted its own audit of the halfway house it oversees since at least 2017, despite being directed to do so by the OCC, according to public records.

A 2019 state audit of Advantage Treatment Center in Alamosa detailed practices that did not comply with state law, according to the report, including how often residents were monitored when they left the facility, processes for substance use testing, how client medications were handled, how escapes were documented and the levels of staffing that were maintained.

The report found that the facility was in full compliance with only two state standards. But neither the state, the local board nor the facility operator required corrective action, according to Stanford.

Joshua Mayhugh, the vice president for Advantage Treatment Centers, said in a written statement that steps were taken internally to correct the noncompliance, including “technical training,” but did not provide details.

It wasn’t the first time the state had taken issue with Alamosa County’s halfway house. The previous operator, San Luis Valley Behavioral Health Group, is among the few to ever have a contract canceled by the state for egregious violations of state standards, including falsifying documents and failing to hire qualified treatment staff, according to Ruske and public records. Less than a year later, the provider decided to close the facility, according to Kylee Sowards, San Luis Valley’s marketing and communications specialist. She said in an email that no one employed at the time of the closure currently works for the company.

Following the 2019 audit, Stanford said he met with the local board and the facility to discuss the audit, but he couldn’t point to anything that had been done to address the concerns beyond installing more security cameras. There has not been a follow-up audit.

“We have a pretty good track record, and I’m not just saying that. I think if you look around the state, Advantage Treatment Center has a good track record,” he said. “Not perfect, no one’s perfect.”

“I think most of the board members … feel pretty good about how things are going,” Stanford added.

“If They Had Searched Him, He’d Be Alive Today”

Román shows a necklace charm given to her by her brother Román Prieto. “He wanted to be better, and they took away that opportunity,” she said.

Román Prieto’s family was never notified of his death by ComCor.

Black learned of her fiancé’s death from his roommate, who called her that Christmas morning. She then called Román Prieto’s sister, who was wrapping presents when the phone rang.

“He was so full of life,” Naddia Román said. “He was doing really, really good. He was more around his kids, more around his family. He wanted to be better, and they took away that opportunity.”

Román Prieto’s stepfather, Ivan Rios, emailed the facility in late December asking for more information and security footage. He never got a response.

“If they had searched him, he’d be alive today,” Rios said. “He was a victim of ComCor.”

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