Jury Acquits Oliver of Murder, Deadlocks on Neglect Offense

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Journal Gazette and Times Courier, February 1, 2013.

CHARLESTON — After hearing different stories about whether Christopher P. Oliver took part in the attack that killed Dustin Higgins, including one from Oliver himself, a jury decided he wasn’t guilty of murder.

But whether Oliver did enough as an employee of the group home where Higgins lived to keep him from being attacked and injured was a decision the jury couldn’t make.

After about 4½ hours of deliberation that ended late Friday, the jury acquitted Oliver of a first-degree murder charge. It deadlocked on a charge of criminal neglect of a disabled person, and whether Oliver will be retried on that charge could be known by next month.

Oliver, 29, was accused of a role in the death of Higgins, which came eight days after he was beaten on Aug. 24, 2008, at the Graywood Enterprises group home that was located at 1511 B. St., Charleston.

Some of the testimony the jury heard during the four-day trial came from Daniel Clark, who also worked at the home, and Robert Gardner and Edward Flexter, two of the home’s residents.

All were accused and convicted of roles in the attack and said they witnessed Oliver take part. However, each version differed in how the attack began and exactly what Oliver did.

Clark said the attack escalated from “horse play” involving Oliver and Higgins; Gardner said the beating was punishment for Higgins stealing food; and Flexter said it was because Higgins stole another resident’s money.

Oliver gave his account during his own testimony on Friday, saying he did see Higgins beaten, first by Gardner, but he didn’t think Higgins was seriously injured. He said he left the home but came back after Clark called and asked him to return, and he found Higgins in a far worse condition.

He and the others also all said a third Graywood employee, James Wynn, took part in the attack and, in earlier statements, Gardner and Flexter said he instigated it. Wynn wasn’t charged with a role in Higgins’ death but did admit lying to investigating police when he said he was away from the home with some of its residents at the time of the attack.

Also during his testimony Friday, Oliver said he followed Graywood procedure by calling a supervisor instead of immediately calling 911 for an ambulance.

“I don’t think there can be any dispute that there were two attacks on Dustin Higgins that night,” defense attorney Len Goodman said during his closing arguments to the jury. “There was another attack after Chris left.”

Prosecution team member Ed Parkinson said there was nothing to show Oliver’s claims of a second attack “except his own words.” Gardner’s and Flexter’s accounts did differ but, when they testified, both maintained that Oliver took part in the attack, he said.

“Do they have trouble remembering? Sure,” Parkinson said. “Just because they’re mentally challenged, you should not discount them and say they’re liars.”

Oliver also told the jury that, when he returned, he tried to revive Higgins, who was unresponsive.

He said he first notified the supervisor instead of calling an ambulance because he’d gotten in trouble for taking an injured resident to the hospital without authorization before. Parkinson attacked him on that point during his cross examination.

“You didn’t take him to the hospital because you thought you might get in trouble for not following those stupid rules?” Parkinson asked.

“I’m following my orders,” Oliver replied. He added that he regretted the decision and said he “never would have left if Dustin Higgins was not OK” after the earlier fight he said he witnessed.

After the jury’s decisions, Circuit Judge James Glenn scheduled a hearing for March 15 to check the status of the remaining neglect charge. State’s Attorney Brian Bower, who didn’t take part in the trial but was in the courtroom when it concluded, said his office will decide before the hearing whether to retry Oliver on the neglect charge.

Had Oliver been convicted of the murder charge, a prison sentence of at least 20 years would have been required. The prosecution also alleged that the attack on Higgins came to “exceptionally brutal or heinous behavior,” which would have meant that Oliver could have received more than the normal 60-year maximum.

Allegations in the neglect offense that Higgins’ death resulted meant that offense could bring a three- to 14-year prison term, though prison time wouldn’t be required.

Higgins’ death was followed by that of another Graywood client at different one of the company’s Charleston facilities in January 2011. Two employees were convicted of crimes in connection with that death, and it led to Graywood closing its facilities for the developmentally disabled.

For a link to the article, please click here.

Goodman Law Update: Jury Acquits on First Degree Murder, Hung on Criminal Neglect

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Our client, Chris Oliver, was a college student at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, IL, working part-time as a staff person at a group home for young men with severe mental illness, earning $8 an hour. Some of the residents of this home had long histories of violent and antisocial behavior. Chris had worked at the home for 2 years and the trial testimony established that he actually cared about the residents and was patient and professional in dealing with their behaviors.

On August 24, 2008, a resident of the home was severely beaten after Chris had clocked out for the day. The other staff members, who allowed the beating to take place, called Chris on his cell phone and asked him to come back and deal with the gravely wounded young resident. The Charleston, IL police department showed up 2 hours after the 911 call. The lead detective looked at Chris, who is 6-5 and black, and decided he was guilty. The detective then pressured these mentally ill young men to say they saw Chris beating and stomping the victim. Recorded interrogations show that every time the residents strayed from the story that Chris did it, they were firmly brought back around. It came out at trial that following the initial police interviews with the residents, the former lead detective told the executive director for the Graywood foundation, the company that ran the group home, that “we will not be able to put the boys on the stand because I was able to manipulate their statements 3 different ways last night.”

A critical piece of evidence was the surveillance footage from the corner store which showed that a staff member gave a false alibi and also would have confirmed Chris’s account of the time he got back to the house. The assistant state’s attorney elicited false testimony from the detective that the store did not have the equipment to preserve that surveillance tape and thus it is unavailable. We later called the store manager who testified that absolutely, they could have preserved the surveillance tape if the request had come within 35 days. Just pop in a disk, put in the dates, hit record.

The Coles County States Attorney pushed the case against Chris to the limit, charging him with a “brutal and heinous” murder, which would have given him a life sentence, and with a separate charge of criminal neglect of a disabled person.

At the trial which began January 29, the State relied on the testimony of 2 of the mentally ill residents of the group home and one of the on-shift staff members. All 3 of these witnesses were given plea deals which required them to testify against Chris. Prior to trial, both of the mentally ill residents gave statements on videotape admitting that Chris was not involved. But the detective immediately re-interviewed them, reminded them of their obligation to help the prosecution and of their earlier statement that they saw Chris beating the victim, and got them to flip back. One of these men shook the prosecutor’s hand as he got off the stand. The other young man named, who was off his meds, admitted he would lie for anyone.

Chris was acquitted on the murder charge. The jury hung on the second charge which was criminal neglect of a disabled person. But we are praying that the state’s attorney’s office will do the right thing and dismiss that charge. The basis for this neglect charge is that Chris followed company policy which was to call his supervisor and the nurse before calling “911.” The evidence showed that while Chris was trying his best to care for the injured victim, another staff person named, who was on shift (unlike Chris), was playing basketball. The evidence also revealed that this staff member originally gave the police a false alibi. Yet, this staff member was never charged in connection with the beating death of the resident in his charge. He was charged with misdemeanor obstruction of justice for lying to the police. He received a sentence of supervision.

Jury Acquits Oliver of Murder, Deadlocks on Neglect Offense. February 1, 2013. Journal Gazette and Times Courier.

Chicago Police Corruption; 2013 Report Released

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Chicago police corruption has started to make headlines once again, and not just locally. CBS aired the department’s dirty laundry on its nationally televised program, 60 Minutes, in December 2012. Chicago: The false confession capital. The numbers are staggering: 300 Chicago police officers have been convicted of crimes since 1960, one-third of those convictions occurred after 2000.

A recent report released by researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago highlights the corruption and provides sometimes frightening insight into the ongoing battle to cleanse our city of police misconduct. The corruption puts the wellbeing of Chicago’s citizens in jeopardy, along with the integrity of our political and judicial systems. The Chicago Police also have taxpayers paying dearly for their misconduct…to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

Check out “Crime, Corruption and Cover-ups in the Chicago Police Department.”

Who Would You Believe: the Criminal in the Orange Jumpsuit or the Well-Groomed Police Officers Who Just Swore To God To Tell The Truth?

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On Sunday, February 2, the New York Times published an article written by Michelle Alexander entitled, “Why Police Lie Under Oath”.

Alexander highlights the incentives police officers have to lie, namely in drug cases. Drug cases are especially susceptible to police misconduct because many of them rely so heavily on the legality of the initial stop and arrest. In order to legally stop, search, and arrest a suspect, police officers must have probable cause and in some cases, a “reasonable suspicion” may be enough. Without a warrant providing the officer with firm authority to seize or search an individual (or their residence, car, etc), police rely on their own perceptions and suspicions.

More often than not, it is a police officer’s word against a defendant’s when it comes down to pre-trial hearings and trials. This is not only true in drug cases but is also common in many types of criminal cases and investigations. Police officers have an incentive to find the perpetrator…and fast. In the past, this mentality has led to a number of men and women being falsely accused of crimes they did not commit, often spending years of their lives in prison. (For more information on the Chicago Police Department’s history of abuses and lies, see the report recently released by 60 minutes). Why? Because who would you believe? The criminal in the orange jumpsuit or the nice-looking officers swearing to tell the whole truth, and nothing but?

As criminal defense attorneys, we must be prepared to defend against false testimony by police officers. To do so, we believe it is imperative to conduct a full investigation of the police and investigative work done on each case brought to our office. Defense investigations done properly often reveal important facts and/or clues not listed in the police reports or investigation narratives as originally provided. These missing facts may help in proving a client’s innocence or in some cases, the motives behind an officer’s lies.

Michelle Alexander is the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

Felony Offender Program Gives First Time Offenders Opportunity to Avoid Conviction

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A new Illinois law, effective January 1, 2013, gives first time felony offenders a chance to defer prosecution and avoid conviction. Eligible felonies include theft, retail theft, forgery, possession of a stolen motor vehicle, burglary, and possession of burglary tools. Eligible felony drug charges include possession (not delivery) of marijuana, controlled substances, and methamphetamine. Defendants charged with a violent offense are not eligible.

The prosecution must agree to waive prosecution and allow the offender admission to the program. Felony offenders chosen for the program will complete an intensive, alternative prosecution program that lasts 12 months. The conditions of the program are as follows:

– Defendant cannot violate any criminal statute;
– cannot possess a firearm or dangerous weapon;
– must make full restitution to victim or property owner;
– obtain employment or perform not less than 30 hours of eligible community service; and
– attend educational courses designed to prepare the defendant for obtaining a high school diploma, work toward passing the high school level test of General Educational Development (G.E.D.), or to work toward completing a vocational education program.

The statute can be found at 720 ILCS 5/5-6-3.3.

This new law is an important step in granting defendants an opportunity to start over with a clean record. For questions regarding eligibility, contact our office.

Lawyer defends giving suspect phone in interrogation room

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November 28, 2012|By Jason Meisner | Tribune reporter

A lawyer on trial on charges she let a suspect in the slaying of a Chicago police officer use her cell phone in an interrogation room testified today she had no intention of obstructing the investigation and didn’t know it was against the law to bring the phone with her.

Taking the stand in her own defense, Sladjana Vuckovic, who at the time was volunteering for a 24-hour free legal service for indigent suspects, said she had made at least 100 client visits at police stations and had never been told cell phones were prohibited.

Vuckovic, who is on trial on a felony count of bringing contraband into a penal institution, faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted and would likely be disbarred from practicing law.

Vuckovic, 44, testified she was vaguely aware of a state law prohibiting bringing contraband into a penal institution but thought it prohibited “knives, guns, drugs.”

Vuckovic told jurors she went to the Calumet Area headquarters in November 2010 to meet with Timothy Herring after a relative of his had contacted the legal hotline about his arrest. Herring was undergoing questioning by detectives in the slayings of Officer Michael Flisk and another man.

Vuckovic said she was there to provide a crucial service to Herring – to make sure he understood he had a constitutional right to have an attorney present during questioning and to refuse to cooperate with investigators if he so chose.

Vuckovic said that while she was alone in the locked interrogation room with Herring, she allowed him to use her phone to talk to relatives but warned him it “was not the time” to discuss anything about the investigation.

“I told him, ‘Call your family and friends, let them know you’re OK, but do not talk about the case,’” Vuckovic testified. “’We have to just sit tight for 48 hours and see if they charge you or let you go.’”

Prosecutors alleged that a total of 26 calls were made from or received by Vuckovic’s cellphone during two meetings with Herring, including incoming calls from a number that was blocked.

On Tuesday, a police lieutenant in charge of the investigation testified he would never have allowed Herring to make unmonitored calls because “he could compromise the entire investigation.”

Vuckovic’s attorney, Leonard Goodman, told jurors no signs were posted at the headquarters prohibiting cellphones in the interrogation room.

The charges sparked controversy among criminal-defense lawyers who said they routinely bring their cellphones into police interview rooms and sometimes let clients make calls. Some veteran attorneys said they could not remember a similar case ever being pursued by police.

The general orders of the Chicago Police Department allow a suspect to make “a reasonable amount” of phone calls to family and an attorney while they are under arrest. When Vuckovic was asked if Chicago police followed those orders, she answered “No, they don’t comply,” as prosecutors loudly objected.

Later, Vuckovic testified it was her understanding that Herring “would not get to make a phone call until after he was charged.”

 

 

Quick acquittal for lawyer accused of letting suspect use cellphone

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November 30, 2012|By Jason Meisner | Tribune reporter

After a controversial trial that sparked interest in the legal community, a Chicago attorney has been  acquitted of charges she improperly let a suspect in the slaying of a Chicago police officer use her cellphone in an interrogation room.

A Cook County jury deliberated a little less than three hours Thursday evening before clearing Sladjana Vuckovic on two counts of bringing contraband into a penal institution.

As the verdict was announced at about 7 p.m., Vuckovic, 44, broke into a wide grin, and several of her supporters gave a smattering of applause before being shushed by sheriff’s deputies. Later, as Vuckovic spotted jurors on their way out of the Leighton Criminal Court Building, she yelled, “Thank you,” and ran outside to shake their hands.

One juror, Deirdre Head, 33, said the consensus on the panel was that prosecutors failed to prove Vuckovic knew she was not allowed to bring a cellphone into the police interrogation room with her.

“We were pretty much on the same page” from the beginning of deliberations, Head said.

Family members of slain Officer Michael Flisk got up and left the courtroom as soon as the verdict was read.

Vuckovic, who could have faced up to 15 years in prison and disbarment if convicted, said she could sympathize with what Flisk’s family was going through because her own father was murdered in 1998 in their ancestral village in the former Yugoslavia. She said she was only trying to help her client understand his constitutional rights and never would have done anything to jeopardize the investigation.

“My heart goes out to that family, but my case had nothing to do with that officer’s awful murder,” Vuckovic said.

Vuckovic was volunteering for First Defense Legal Aid, a free legal service for indigent suspects, when she twice went to the Calumet Area headquarters in November 2010 to meet with Timothy Herring after a relative of his had contacted the legal hotline after his arrest. Herring was undergoing questioning by detectives in the slayings of Flisk and Steven Peters, once a Chicago Housing Authority police officer. Herring has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in the double slaying.

Vuckovic acknowledged on the witness stand that she had handed the phone to Herring on both visits and allowed him to make calls, but she said she had never been told that cellphones were prohibited. She said she was vaguely aware of a state law prohibiting bringing contraband into a penal institution but thought it barred “knives, guns, drugs.” She also said that unlike a police lockup where suspects are behind bars, she didn’t consider an interrogation room to be a penal institution.

Prosecutors alleged that 26 calls were made from or received by Vuckovic’s cellphone during two meetings with Herring, including incoming calls from a number that was blocked.

Vuckovic testified that most of the calls in the interrogation room were either dropped or didn’t go through. The only conversations she could remember were with Herring’s half brother, Leonard, and those did not delve into any details of the investigation, she said.

The charges against Vuckovic sparked a controversy among criminal-defense lawyers who said they routinely bring their cellphones into police interview rooms and sometimes let clients make calls. The consensus of many defense lawyers was that Vuckovic would not have faced criminal charges if it wasn’t for the highly charged atmosphere surrounding an investigation into a police officer’s slaying.

Judge Evelyn Clay’s courtroom was standing room only for closing arguments Thursday afternoon as attorneys from both sides acknowledged the unusual nature of the case.

Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Golden told jurors that “anyone with common sense” should have known not to let a slaying suspect in custody use a personal cellphone.

“You shouldn’t expect that attorneys across the country would be charged with such abysmal behavior,” Golden said.

Vuckovic’s attorney, Leonard Goodman, countered that common sense should tell jurors that Vuckovic wasn’t trying to obstruct the police investigation or “help some suspect cook up an alibi or destroy evidence.”

Goodman said that if any of the jurors ever had a son or daughter picked up by the police and put into an interrogation room, they would be “glad that there are people like Miss Vuckovic.”

“There are not many lawyers willing to spend their weekends at a police station on 111th Street, representing poor teenage boys for no pay,” he said.

 

 

The Failed War on Drugs

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With our government running trillion dollar deficits, people might like to know how their tax dollars are being spent fighting the war on drugs, currently in its twenty-fifth year. I represent indigent defendants in federal drug “conspiracy” cases. In a typical case, federal authorities round up 10-20 young men and women, typically residents of a housing project, always black or Hispanic, and charge them together in a single drug “conspiracy” indictment, a charge which typically carries a mandatory murder-length sentence.

In my current case, I represent a 30-year-old man from Cabrini Green, one of 15 Cabrini residents charged with drug “conspiracy” and related charges. All but one of the fifteen are too poor to hire their own lawyer and thus has court-appointed counsel, whose fees are paid by taxpayers.

Prior to the indictment, a dozen federal ATF agents (supervised by federal prosecutors) spent more than two years investigating these young men, most of whom were selling $5 bags of crack and heroin in the stairwells of one of the remaining Cabrini buildings, located near Halsted and Division. The agents used cooperating informants to make controlled buys. They set up video and audio surveillance in an apartment frequently used by the defendants. They recorded thousands of hours of telephone calls from seven wiretapped phones.

My client, Brian, like many young black men from the projects, has a prior drug felony which doubles his mandatory sentence. The government need only prove to a jury that the conspiracy involved at least 50 grams of crack cocaine (about the weight of a golf ball), and Brian must be sentenced to at least twenty years. There is no parole in the federal system and inmates must serve a minimum of 85% of their sentences. Only the federal prosecutor (not the judge) has discretion to allow a sentence below twenty years. Brian would have pled guilty but the prosecutors refused to withdraw the twenty-year enhancement, thus forcing him to trial. Why did the prosecutors refuse to plea bargain? Because they did not want the judge, who is known to be compassionate, to have any discretion at sentencing.

The trial of Brian and four of his co-defendants lasted five weeks, during which the prosecution called dozens of witnesses – cooperating informants, federal agents, police officers, and chemists – and played hours and hours of video and audio surveillance tapes. Of course, the taxpayers pay for it all: three federal prosecutors, a small army of law enforcement officers, five court-appointed defense lawyers, a federal judge and her staff. We each spent five solid weeks trying this case plus hundreds of hours in trial prep. Now that the trial is over, taxpayers will also pay to incarcerate the defendants – four of five of whom were convicted and face the twenty year minimum sentences. The cost of imprisonment has been put at around $40,000 per year per inmate.

By the way, until his conviction last week, Brain was out on bond, working in a barber shop, taking care of his children and attending his court-ordered drug counseling three days a week. Unless his conviction is overturned, his kids will be in their twenties or thirties by the time their father is released. And it is statistically likely that taxpayers will also pay some day to incarcerate these kids who will grow up poor and fatherless.

There is another way. Many European countries have found that treating their societal drug problems as primarily a criminal matter is not only ineffective but can actually aggravate the problem by increasing the profitability of drug trafficking and the violence associated with black markets. These countries have found that a taxpayer dollar spent on treatment and education is far more effective than a dollar spent on drug cops, drug prosecutors and jail cells.

The United States should have learned its lesson from its failed experiment with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. We also might have learned from the past twenty-five years of the “war on drugs” during which illegal drugs have become more available, the violence associated with black markets has claimed countless innocent lives (both in the United States and in our neighbors to the south who supply most of heroin and cocaine), and the temptation to grab large amounts of untraceable cash has corrupted countless numbers of drug cops.

Why do we continue to pursue such a costly and ineffective policy? The short answer is that many politicians have found it useful to position themselves as tough on drugs while many law enforcement agencies depend on the “drug war” to justify their bloated budgets.

The end of prohibition was brought about by a government study. In 1931, President Hoover assembled a panel of experts (called the Wickersham Commission) to see how prohibition could be saved. The resultant catalogue of failure set the stage for repeal.

President Obama should commission a panel of experts to study the effectiveness of our current drug law policies and to suggest alternatives. The publication of such a report would pressure politicians to abandon the failed and costly policies of the past.

Prosecution Witness Caught Lying at Federal Conspiracy Trial

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At my recently completed drug conspiracy trial, the government’s star witness who was offered a fifteen-year sentence reduction in exchange for his trial testimony, was caught in a series of lies about my client. See our motion to dismiss, currently pending before the federal Judge.

Shawali Khan – Held Without Evidence at Guantanamo

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In early 2008, I took on the representation of a shopkeeper from Kandahar, Afghanistan named Shawali Khan who has been held seven years, without any charges or evidence, at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. Our habeas corpus petition demanding his release is pending in the federal courts in Washington, D.C. Khan is detainee #899. I have made made two trips to Guantanamo to interview Mr. Khan.

Shawali Khan is a poor man who sold kerosene and petrol in Kandahar. He is not Al Qaeda or Taliban and was not against the Americans. In late 2002, Khan was riding his motorcycle to the market when he was captured by some Afghani men who robbed him of his money and his motorcycle. Later that day, he was turned over to American soldiers, apparently in exchange for a bounty (at this time, the United States was offering large cash rewards for the capture of any person connected with  Al Qaeda or Taliban.) A couple of months later, Khan was sent to Guantanamo where he has been held ever since. He is alleged to be associated with a terrorist group but has not been charged with any crime, shown any evidence, or given any chance to prove his innocence.

I have filed a writ of habeas corpus demanding Khan’s release. It is currently pending before Judge Bates who has indicated that he will consider our claim in an expedited manner that the United States possesses no evidence to justify Khan’s continued detention.

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