Sarah Christensen Attorney At Law, P.C. Blog

Experienced defense on your side

Prevent unnecessary consequences

Get expert legal advice today

Protect your reputation

More about our excellent services


Sarah Christensen Attorney At Law, P.C. - Attorney Colorado Springs

Colorado Springs, CO

"Justitia Omnibus"

(Justice For All)

"There is one way in this country in which all men are created equal -- there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court." - Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird

Law cases

Welcome to my blog


Here you can add some text to explain what your blog is about and a bit about you.

By sarahchrist77708548, Apr 11 2016 04:38PM

Despite a decline in the number of U.S. executions, America is one of the top five death-penalty purveyors in the world — behind China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, a new report says.

Amnesty International, which campaigns against capital punishment, tallied the number of people put to death for crimes across the globe last year and found it reached a 25-year high, even as more nations abolished executions.

"2015 was a year of extremes," Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International, said in the report.

The human-rights group was able to confirm 1,634 executions worldwide, but that doesn't include China, which it says has a higher number than any other country but shrouds the stats as a state secret.

Nearly 90 percent of the confirmed deaths were in three countries:

Iran, which had 977 executions and where drug-traffickers are most commonly sent to the gallows

Pakistan, which notched 320 after ending a seven-year moratorium as part of a terrorism crackdown

Saudi Arabia, which executed 158 people, many with beheading, and is on pace to break that record in 2016

The concentration helps to explain how the United States — which had 28 executions last year, a fraction of countries ranked higher — made it into the top five.

But even though fewer American states are carrying out the death penalty and the pace has slowed in those that are, the U.S. still killed more prisoners last year than either Egypt at 22 or Somalia at 25.

"As long as the U.S. continues to have executions, it's going to be part of those few countries," said James Clark, a senior death penalty campaigner for Amnesty International USA.

Executions are dropping in the U.S. largely because of legal and logistical challenges.

Many states can't buy the drugs needed for lethal injections because pharmaceutical companies have stopped selling them to prisons, often under pressure from abolitionists, and new protocols have been held up by litigation and bungles.

Nebraska repealed its death penalty statute last year, and the governors of Oregon, Colorado and Washington have imposed moratoriums in recent years.

Globally, four countries — Madagascar, Fiji, Republic of Congo and Suriname — got rid of capital punishment in 2015. That means, for the first time, a majority of countries are abolitionist.

On the other hand, executions were up significantly in Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The activist group Reprieve said the kingdom is on pace to kill even more prisoners in 2016 and it wants Britain and the U.S. to pressure Saudi leaders to release several inmates who were sentenced to death for crimes committed as juveniles.

"Now more than ever, the U.S. and European countries must speak out about these grave abuses being committed by our allies — including mass trials, torture, and death sentences handed down to political protesters and juveniles," said Maya Foa, head of the death penalty team at Reprieve.

In January, Saudi Arabia executed 47 prisoners in a single day, including a prominent Shiite cleric responsible for anti-government protests. The execution, based on terrorism charges, which stoked long-running tensions with Iran, a Shiite theocracy.

By sarahchrist77708548, Apr 11 2016 04:33PM

Each of the seven defendants has been charged with a serious crime — including murder, rape, armed robbery or assault with a firearm.

Now a Louisiana judge is threatening to set them free before their cases have a chance to go to trial.

In an effort to pressure state lawmakers to provide more reliable funding for public defenders, Orleans Parish Judge Arthur Hunter Jr. on Friday ordered that all of the men be released on the grounds that the state is violating their right to a competent defense.

The judge immediately stayed his own ruling pending an appeal by the district attorney’s office, meaning the men will remain jailed while attorneys continue to battle each other in court over an issue that has plagued Louisiana for years.

The defendants have been jailed for months without legal representation.

“These defendants are currently being deprived attorneys to the extent that raises serious concerns whether they will ultimately receive effective assistance of counsel,” Hunter wrote in his order. “This is especially true for defendants in jail, who are virtually powerless to obtain a lawyer on their own or to begin working on their own defense.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that criminal defendants have a right to a competent attorney, and so across the United States, the poorest defendants are represented by government-funded defense attorneys.

Those attorneys often say they are underfunded and overwhelmed by massive caseloads, raising the question of whether their clients’ rights are being met.

The issue has been particularly acute in Louisiana. In contrast to the situation in most other states, its public defenders’ offices are funded by fines and traffic tickets from their local parishes. Critics say that arrangement has created an unstable funding system, leading to a crisis around the state.

In December, the Orleans Parish public defender’s office — which handled more than 20,000 cases in 2015 with just a few dozen attorneys — announced that it would stop accepting some cases as the office struggled under devastating budget cuts, unpaid furloughs and heavier caseloads.

The office has refused 110 cases since January, said Lindsey Hortenstine, a spokeswoman there. The office now has 42 defense attorneys, with about 10 who are capable of handling serious crimes.

“We started refusing the most serious cases — the ones facing life without parole — murders, rapes, your most serious felonies,” Hortenstine said. “That’s where we have the least capacity in the office to handle.”

In response, private attorneys have been appointed to handle those cases.

Those attorneys have not gotten funding for the cases. One defendant, Darrian Franklin, who is charged with second-degree murder, has gone without representation for 138 days.

“We are now faced with a fundamental question, not only in New Orleans, but across Louisiana: What kind of criminal justice system do we want?” Judge Hunter wrote. “One based on fairness or injustice, equality or prejudice, efficiency or chaos, right or wrong?”

The prosecutor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Pamela Metzger, a Tulane University law school professor who was one of the attorneys appointed to represent the men, called the judge’s ruling “an act of judicial and moral courage.”

“I went into court and said, ‘If there’s no money and no date when there’s going to be money, you have to release these people,’” she said. “You can’t hold them in jail with no lawyer and no date when they can get lawyer.”

The problem has been decades in the making and won’t be resolved until legislators uncouple funding for public defenders from police fines and traffic tickets, Metzger said, because using fines and tickets to fund them “is completely disconnected to need, it’s entirely unstable, and it’s dependent on other people’s behavior that the public defender doesn’t control.”

“This is the systemic, persistent, catastrophic failure of the Legislature to provide indigent defense with a stable, predictable, reliable source of funding,” she said.

By sarahchrist77708548, Apr 4 2016 04:18PM

The 55 year old crack addict counted his change outside a Harlem liquor store. HE had just over a dollar leavinghim 35 cents short of the cheapest mini bottle.

The 21 year old heroin addict sat in a McDonald's on the lower east side, wondering when his grandmother would next wire him money. He was homeless, had 84 cents in his pocket and was living out of two canvas bags.

Each was approached by someone who asked the addict for help buying drugs. Using the stranger’s money, each addict went to see a nearby dealer, returned with drugs, handed them over and was promptly arrested on felony drug-dealing charges. The people who had asked for drugs were undercover narcotics officers with the New York Police Department.

A review of the trials in those cases and two others illuminates what appears to be a tactic for small-scale drug prosecutions: An undercover officer, supplying the cash for the deal, asks an addict to go and buy $20 or $40 worth of crack or heroin. When the addict — perhaps hoping for a chance to smoke or inject a pinch — does so, he is arrested.

In the case of the 21-year-old at the McDonald’s, the undercover officer was an unkempt woman who gave the impression she was about to experience withdrawal, the 21-year-old testified. In one of the other cases, an officer allowed an addict to use his cellphone to call a dealer.

It is impossible to determine how widespread this law enforcement tactic is, but the four recent cases reviewed by The New York Times raise troubling questions about the fairness and effectiveness of the way the Police Department uses undercover officers. Officers neither arrested nor pursued the dealers who sold the drugs to the addicts. Instead, the undercover officers waited around the corner or down the block for the addict to return with the drugs before other officers swooped in.

The department’s tactics and prosecutors’ pursuit of such cases have drawn criticism from defense lawyers and juries. In interviews — and, in one instance, in a letter to prosecutors — jurors have questioned why the police and prosecutors would so aggressively pursue troubled addicts. The 21-year-old man and the 55-year-old man were both acquitted of the felony charges.

Continue reading the main story

The tactic would seem at odds with the public positions of some of the city’s top politicians and law enforcement figures, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, and the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., who have expressed support for reducing prison and jail populations by finding ways to treat mental health problems and addiction.

“We all talk a lot in this city about the public health crisis of drug addiction, and yet we take a very regressive approach to locking people up,” said Tina Luongo, who heads the Legal Aid Society’s criminal practice.

The McDonald’s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where Brian L. said an unkempt-looking woman, who was an undercover officer, asked him to buy drugs for her. Credit Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Last year, nearly 5,000 people were charged in New York City with dealing small quantities of heroin or cocaine, and in 2014, just over 6,000 people faced such charges. But the number of those that involved buy-and-bust cases against addicts is unknown. A vast majority of drug-dealing charges end in plea deals, so there are few trials during which such distinctions might emerge.

The 55-year-old crack addict, Reginald J., agreed to speak to a reporter on the condition that only the first letter of his surname be used when identifying him. In an interview, he articulated one of the issues with these sting operations: It is tough for addicts to say no.

“For him to put the money in my hands, as an addict, let me tell you what happens,” he said. “I like to think I could resist it, but I’m way beyond that. My experience has shown me that 1,000 times out of 1,000 times, I will be defeated.”

At one trial in January, a defendant testified that he had shown an undercover officer track marks on his arm. At another trial, in December, the defendant testified that he had even told an undercover officer about his desire to get clean. “You know what? We got to stop getting high,” the man, Mitchell Coward, testified. “That’s what I told him.”

Joan Vollero, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which prosecuted three of the four cases reviewed by The Times, declined to say whether the office considered such sting operations to be appropriate. But she did say that in some cases, addicts who pleaded guilty to felony drug-dealing charges were steered toward treatment instead of prison.

Law enforcement officials said that undercover stings remained a necessary and sensible response to neighborhood complaints about drug dealing and narcotics use.

“They are going to a location where there are prior incidents,” Brian McCarthy, an assistant chief who commands the narcotics division, said in an interview. “And at the same locations, where there are community complaints,” he added.

He acknowledged that the line between users and dealers was not always fixed. “It is common that the people we arrest are also using the narcotics they are selling,” Chief McCarthy said, but he added that his team was after the dealers. “I believe that we attempt to do our jobs in a planned manner with the utmost integrity where we do get people who are selling narcotics.”

Jurors and a judge expressed skepticism in the four cases. One juror, Seth Silverman, wrote a letter to prosecutors after the trial of Mr. Coward in December, saying he felt it was “approaching absurd that you would use the awesome power of your office to represent the people of New York County, along with it and the court’s limited resources, on such a marginal case.”

Since December, juries and judges in Manhattan have acquitted men of the main charge in three of the cases and deadlocked in the trial of a fourth. In each episode, an undercover investigator had approached men, largely at random, at locations where the police believed drug dealing was occurring.

Reginald J., a 55-year-old crack addict, said it was difficult for drug users to reject offers like the one made to him by an undercover officer. “My experience has shown me that 1,000 times out of 1,000 times, I will be defeated,” he said. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times

The 21-year-old heroin addict at the McDonald’s, Brian L., also agreed to be interviewed on the condition that only the first letter of his surname be used. He described how an anxious, unkempt-looking woman approached the table where he and a friend were chatting. The woman, an undercover officer, would later testify that she approached the table at random.

Brian L. “was telling me how he was homeless and he didn’t have a place to stay, small talk,” the officer, identified only as No. 279, testified in January.

Brian L. said that the undercover officer told him she was staying with her grandmother in Brooklyn and was worried she would soon go into withdrawal.

“I said I would help her,” he testified. They walked from the McDonald’s, at Delancey and Essex Streets, toward East Sixth Street, where Brian L. said he often bought heroin. About a block away, he told the woman and his friend to wait, at the steps of an elementary school. The undercover officer handed him $20. He returned with two bags, which he gave the officer. Minutes later, he was arrested.

He had less than a dollar in change with him and no drugs, a police officer later testified. After the arrest, officers logged the dozens of possessions, including toothpaste, winter hats and stuffed animals, that Brian L. carried in his two canvas bags.

His lawyer, Sam Roberts of the Legal Aid Society, asked Detective David Guevara, an investigator working on the case, whether any officers of the nine-member field team on the case followed Brian L. to see where he bought the drugs. The answer was no.

That was a common theme in the three other trials. In one, the addict, who owned no phone himself, had to use an undercover detective’s cellphone to call his drug dealer. But after the addict was arrested, the undercover officer testified he could not remember whether he ever followed up and called the drug dealer’s number, which was logged in his phone, to try to track the dealer down.

The jury took less than an hour to acquit Brian L. of felony charges of dealing narcotics near a school. Most jurors then remained behind to chat with him after the trial.

One juror said that what troubled the jury the most was that a nine-person narcotics squad — which included two undercover officers, several investigators and supporting officers — would bring a case against a single addict.

“The big underlying question is why a nine-person buy-and-bust team did not follow him to the dealer where he got it from,” the juror, Scott Link, said in an interview. “Everyone was scratching their heads, wondering what the heck is wrong with our system.”

Brian L. said that even his acquittal had come at a cost. He said he had lost his job at a consignment clothing shop because of the six days he needed to be in court during his trial.

By sarahchrist77708548, Apr 4 2016 04:05PM

On a recent sticky morning in a trailer park in Biloxi, Mississippi, Mary Jo Barnett switched on her 8-inch Samsung Galaxy tablet to speak with her 20-year-old daughter, Amber, who suffers from bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Amber is currently locked up 490 miles away in the Marion County Jail in Ocala, Florida, and these video visits are her only lifeline to her family and the outside world.

Without communication, Mary Jo says she fears her daughter may suffer a mental breakdown or start a fight, which could lengthen her jail sentence. “Just getting to talk to her and interacting with her can make the difference in her mindset,” Mary Jo says.

Communication, however, is enormously expensive for Mary Jo, a 52-year-old grandmother who lives on $733 monthly disability checks. The video visitations cost $10 per 30-minute visit, or $19.99 per month. Phone calls, meanwhile, cost $3.98 for every 15 minutes, plus a $9.95 fee to load money into an account. Part of the reason the calls are so expensive is because a private company, Securus Technologies, has an exclusive contract to operate the phone and video visitation system in the jail. But an even larger reason the phone calls are so expensive is because the local sheriff’s office takes a large cut of the money, called a “commission.” Last year, Marion County received $549,804.52 in commissions from Securus, according to contracts and financial documents obtained by International Business Times through a records request.

Studies have consistently shown that communication with family members lowers the rates of inmate recidivism. But calls are often too expensive for lower-income people, which make up the vast majority of those who are incarcerated.

Mary Jo, who recently had to borrow money from Amber’s older sister to load money into her account, says she’s thankful she can even speak to her daughter at all. She has a tablet computer, which means she can sign up for the video visitations for $19.99 per month. But she says other inmates in the jail have it much worse. In fact, she says that her daughter will relay messages from inmates whose families can’t afford the calls at all.

“It’s mainly hard on her children. They can’t speak to their mother. Because I can’t afford it. I can only do like $20 per month. That’s all I can afford. That’s only three phone calls.”

Pretty much all of the messages, she says, are pleas from inmates to family members to place more money on the inmate’s commissary and phone accounts. But often, she says, the family member will just say they can’t afford it. “Some of them just say, ‘Hi, I love you,’” she says.

In this way, Mary Jo has met Omarah Zemorah, a 42-year-old resident of Ocala, Florida, and the mother of a 24-year-old inmate, Estrella King, who is pregnant with her fourth child. Zemorah, who makes $8 an hour as a cashier, says her daughter, who is locked up because she violated her parole, will sell her food to other inmates in order to get them to relay messages to her and her children. “I can’t afford to talk to her,” Zemorah says. “My daughter sells her trays [of food] inside the county to be able to call me... It’s mainly hard on her children. They can’t speak to their mother. Because I can’t afford it. I can only do like $20 per month. That’s all I can afford. That’s only three phone calls.”


Mary Jo Barnett and her daughter, Amber Barnett.


Zemorah, who scrapes by on food stamps and by taking extra shifts at the Dollar General store in Ocala, has custody of five children — two of her own and three grandchildren — and will soon have custody of a sixth when her daughter gives birth. Zemorah says that her grandchildren, especially the older boy, are suffering without being able to speak with their mom.

Her grandson, she says, “was an honor roll student, and he never got in trouble.” But now, “he went down to Fs and [has] bad behavior ever since [his mom] went back to jail.”

Because she works so often, in-person visitations are impossible. So Zemorah waits for the calls from Mary Jo. Mary Jo, in turn, waits for the calls from Amber. Amber, meanwhile, says the high cost of communication is literally driving people behind the jail walls insane.

“There’s so much stress,” Amber told me recently. “People are heartbroken. People miss their kids. They can’t talk to them. People go crazy inside.”

In October, the Federal Communications Commission voted to cap the rates and fees companies were allowed to charge families and friends of inmates. Mignon Clyburn, an FCC commissioner who led the charge for reform, has called the prison phone industry the “most egregious case of market failure” she has seen in her career.

Theoretically, the new rules would make it more affordable for families to connect. However, there have been setbacks.

While new rules that would lower the cap on call rates were scheduled to become effective March 17, regulators have encountered pushback. Late last year, Securus and Global Tel*Link, another prison telecommunications provider, filed a lawsuit against the FCC to block the regulation. A stay was granted, delaying the implementation of the new rate cap. Then, several states led by Oklahoma, joined the companies and filed a joint lawsuit that challenged the FCC’s statutory authority. Oklahoma also claims that lower phone rates will cost its budget $3 million in commission payments.

Commissions, however, are part of the reason rates are so high. The FCC does not have plans to ban the practice. However, in court filings the regulatory body notes that it “strongly discourages” their use. Regardless of where the money goes, family members just want a more affordable way to keep in touch.

By sarahchrist77708548, Apr 4 2016 03:56PM

The Innocence Project released a report Tuesday alleging that prosecutors across the country are almost never punished when they withhold evidence or commit other forms of misconduct that land innocent people in prison.

The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal group that represents people seeking exonerations, examined records in Arizona, California, Texas, New York and Pennsylvania, and interviewed a wide assortment of defense lawyers, prosecutors and legal experts.

In each state, researchers examined court rulings from 2004 through 2008 in which judges found that prosecutors had committed violations such as mischaracterizing evidence or suborning perjury. All told, the researchers discovered 660 findings of prosecutorial error or misconduct. In the overwhelming majority of cases, 527, judges upheld the convictions, finding that the prosecutorial lapse did not impact the fairness of the defendant’s original trial. In 133 cases, convictions were thrown out.

Only one prosecutor was disciplined by any oversight authorities, the report asserts.

The report was issued on the anniversary of a controversial Supreme Court ruling for those trying to achieve justice in the wake of wrongful convictions. In a 5–4 decision in the case known as Connick v. Thompson, the court tossed out a $14-million dollar award by a Louisiana jury to John Thompson, a New Orleans man who served 18 years in prison for a murder and robbery he did not commit.

The majority ruled that while the trial prosecutors had withheld critical evidence of Thompson’s likely innocence – blood samples from the crime scene – the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office could not be found civilly liable for what the justices essentially determined was the mistake of a handful of employees. The decision hinged on a critical finding: that the District Attorney’s office, and the legal profession in general, provides sufficient training and oversight for all prosecutors.

The Innocence Project study echoes a 2013 ProPublica examination focused on New York City prosecutors. In 2013, ProPublica used a similar methodology to analyze more than a decade’s worth of state and federal court rulings. We found more than two dozen instances in which judges explicitly concluded that city prosecutors had committed harmful misconduct.

Several of the wrongfully convicted people in these cases successfully sued New York City. In recent years, New York City and state have doled out tens of million dollars in settlements stemming from such lawsuits. Former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes was voted out of office, in part because of wrongful convictions gained through misconduct on the part of his prosecutors or police detectives working with them.

But only one New York City prosecutor, ProPublica’s analysis found, was formally disciplined: Claude Stuart, a former low-level Queens Assistant District Attorney, lost his license. He was involved in three separate conviction reversals.

Just as we found in New York, the Innocence Project’s report found that appellate judges and others almost never report findings of misconduct to state panels and bar associations that are authorized to investigate them.

“In the handful of situations where an investigation is launched,” the report found, “The committees generally failed to properly discipline the prosecutor who committed the misconduct.”

The report concludes with several recommendations on how to improve accountability for prosecutors. It suggests, among other things, that judges ought to mandatorily report all findings of misconduct or error and that state legislatures pass laws requiring prosecutors to turn over all law enforcement material well before trial.

But perhaps most powerful is the report’s introduction, a 2011 letter to then-Attorney General Eric Holder and two national prosecutor associations. It was written in response to the Connick ruling and signed by 19 people whose wrongful convictions were secured in part by prosecutorial misconduct.

“We, the undersigned and our families, have suffered profound harm at the hands of careless, overzealous and unethical prosecutors,” the letter said. “Now that the wrongfully convicted have virtually no meaningful access to the courts to hold prosecutors liable for their misdeeds, we demand to know what you intend to do to put a check on the otherwise unchecked and enormous power that prosecutors wield over the justice system.”

According to the Innocence Project, the Justice Department never responded to the letter.

RSS Feed

Web feed

Sarah Christensen