Courts

Friday, January 16, 2015

Death-row inmate Warren Hill scheduled to die on January 27

Posted By on Fri, Jan 16, 2015 at 3:58 PM

Death-row inmate Warren Lee Hill will once again face the execution chamber despite continuous attempts to spare his life for much of the last three decades.

Earlier this afternoon, a Lee County judge ordered the Georgia Department of Corrections to execute Hill, who has an IQ of 70, sometime between Jan. 27 and Feb. 3. Hill was initially found guilty in 1986 for murdering his then-girlfriend Myra Wright. He landed on death row four years later after being convicted of killing inmate Joseph Handspike, who was asleep in his prison cell, with a nail-studded two-by-six board.

Hill's lawyers haven't contested his guilt. But they have filed continuous legal appeals over the years in hopes of sparing his life. Across the nation, an IQ of 70 or below is typically considered to be the standard for proving intellectual disability. But Georgia, which has the nation's toughest burden of proof when it comes to determining someone's mental capacity, hasn't ruled in Hill's favor.

Yet Hill has managed to stay alive through multiple stays of execution. The most recent stay came from a Fulton County judge during a legal challenge over the Georgia's controversial lethal injection secrecy law. The state ultimately won that courtroom fight. But it bought Hill enough time to potentially benefit from the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision, Hall v. Florida, last May that increased protections for death row inmates trying to avoid execution due to intellectual disability.

Back in October, Towaliga Judicial Circuit Judge Thomas Wilson tossed out Hill's legal request to claim intellectual disability, a designation that would make him immune from execution, following the Hall v. Florida ruling. But Wilson urged the Georgia Supreme Court to review the case in light of the decision made by the nation's highest court. Hill's attorney, Brian Kammer, then filed a request for an appeal with the Georgia Supreme Court.

At that October hearing, Kammer says, the state's lawyers assured Wilson that the Georgia Supreme Court would take a serious look at the issue. That assurance led Wilson to dismiss Hill's request, Kammer says.

"What's really galling about this execution warrant is they're...seeking out an execution order before the Georgia Supreme Court reviews the case," Kammer tells CL.

Kammer today responded by filing another motion for a stay of execution with the Georgia Supreme Court. The motion is currently pending. Georgia Supreme Court spokeswoman Jane Hansen tells CL a ruling is expected "any day" on Kammer's initial request for an appeal. But she did not comment regarding a potential decision for the stay of execution.

Hill's latest execution order comes at a time when state officials have recently accelerated its execution rate. If killed, Hill would be the third death-row inmate in the last two months to be killed in Georgia. The recent uptick comes on the heels of a year when the lowest number of executions occurred in 20 years. In 2014, corrections officials executed 35 people in seven states, in part due to high-profile botched executions in Arizona, Ohio, and Oklahoma.

"It's extremely troubling that as the rest of the country dramatically slows down the pace of executions, here in Georgia we seem to be moving faster," Southern Center for Human Rights Executive Director Sara Totonchi tells CL. "...Sometimes I think when we see the end of something coming, we tend to hold on even tighter. The death penalty has been a part of our culture and politics in Georgia. As the nation moves away from it, we seem to be steeped in this draconian tradition."

According to Totonochi, Georgia officials are currently killing death-row inmates faster that any other point in the last decade. She says that's likely happened given that, for the first time in years, state officials can hold executions without major legal challenges obstructing the process.

"I'm sure the state sees the writing on the wall that the death penalty is on its way out," she says.

Lauren Kane, spokeswoman for Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, says in a statement that Hill "has concluded his direct appeal proceedings and his state and federal habeas corpus proceedings." The statement also says that his execution date is set for Jan. 27 — the very first day of the seven-day execution window.

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Court: Georgia's private probation companies can keep supervising people on misdemeanor probation

Posted By on Mon, Nov 24, 2014 at 3:17 PM

The Georgia Supreme Court has upheld a controversial state law allowing private companies to supervise men and women placed on misdemeanor probations in city and county courts.

Georgia lawmakers passed a law in 2000 that made counties responsible for overseeing tens of thousands of people on misdemeanor probation. Some counties decided to outsource the duty to private companies. In some cases, those private companies have made large profits off of fees that low-income residents can't always afford.

In late 2012, 13 people filed a class-action lawsuit against Sentinel Offender Services LLC., the largest private probation company in Georgia, over fees it collected in Columbia and Richmond counties. The claimed that the company unconstitutionally collected fees beyond the length of probation sentences and imposed an additional fee for electronic monitoring.

In its unanimous ruling issued today, the court said that Sentinel had broken some parts of the current law and that county courts need better oversight over how some private probation companies operate. But Sentinel's actions alone did not provide enough grounds to toss out Georgia's private probation law, the court said.

“While the supervision of probation is a function historically performed by state probation officers, the mere act of privatizing these services does not violate due process,” the court's opinion said.

Though its ruling upheld the private probation law, which will continue to let courts work with for-profit probation companies, the justices struck down a provision letting courts extend the length of the original sentence.

They also declared that judges could order electronic monitoring on men and women sentenced to misdemeanor probation provided that the "conditions of probation it imposes be reasonable,” the court's opinion said.

However, the justices ruled that Sentinel's contract in Columbia Country was invalid, a decision that could lead to a trial court ordering them to return collected fees.

Sarah Geraghty, senior attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which isn't involved in the lawsuit but lobbies for private probation reforms, tells CL the court's ruling sends a "strong message" to state lawmakers for possible reforms.

"The misdemeanor probation system in Georgia is in a state of crisis," Geraghty says. "It's broken. Public confidence in our county and municipal misdemeanor probation system is at a low. The state legislature [needs to take] action to restore some integrity back into the misdemeanor probation system."

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Judge sides with city in pension reform lawsuit; firefighters consider possible appeal

Posted By on Mon, Nov 17, 2014 at 1:25 PM

Atlanta Professional Firefighters union president Stephen Borders (right) is mulling over a possible appeal to the latest pension lawsuit ruling.
  • Dustin Chambers/CL File
  • Atlanta Professional Firefighters union president Stephen Borders (right) is mulling over a possible appeal to the latest pension lawsuit ruling.
A lawsuit against the City of Atlanta over Mayor Kasim Reed’s 2011 overhaul of its employee pension program was overturned by the Fulton County Superior Court in a unanimous vote. The city has called it a “historic” victory for the city, but the firefighter’s union who filed the case considers the decision to be a tragedy.

Mayor Kasim Reed expressed his satisfaction with the proceedings at a press conference last Wednesday. He appeared along with city attorney Cathy Hampton and the rest of her legal team — affectionately called “the pension posse” — who worked on the case since its filing last November.

The city’s pension reform, which was first enacted three years ago, is a “defined contribution” plan. The reforms increased employees’ financial contribution to pensions and, in effect, reduced the city’s financial obligation. The controversial plan followed a “defined contribution” pension model that Reed said required the city to pay $144 million per year in pensions costs — a liability that city officials claimed hindered the city’s economic sustainability.

According to Reed, the city has already saved over $36 million with increased employee contributions and could save more than $160 million in total over the next three decades.

To Reed, pension reform is not only a benefit to the city finances, but a blessing for workers. “We are keeping our promise to our retirees by asking our current employees to contribute a bit more,” he said.

“This is truly a victory for the pensioners and for the plaintiffs because what this means is that they can [be sure that] the promised income will be there when they retire.” said Hampton. “So let’s not lose sight of who really wins today.”

But Stephen Borders, president of the Atlanta Professional Firefighters union and the principal filer of the lawsuit, does not see the city’s firefighters as victors. The outcome of the case solidifies his concern that the city will continue to manipulate pension terms in the future and silence the collective voice of public safety workers.

Borders says the city’s current control over the pension plan essentially “prices [workers] out of pensions until [they] can’t afford to stay.” That reality is already affecting veteran firefighters.

“How does the city plan to keep these veteran workers now that they don’t have the security that they thought they had last week in their pension?,” Borders said. “What kind of programs and compensation are you going to offer to keep these people [who are] actively looking for other jobs now?”

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Monday, October 6, 2014

Pink Pony's case against Brookhaven dismissed by Georgia Supreme Court; city can ban adult businesses that sell booze

Posted By on Mon, Oct 6, 2014 at 3:19 PM

What happens to the longtime Buford Highway strip club now?
The Georgia Supreme Court today delivered bad news to the Pink Pony and countless wide-eyed conventioneers today by siding with a lower court in the strip club's legal battle against Brookhaven.

The state's high court unanimously upheld a DeKalb County's court decision to dismiss the Pink Pony's lawsuit against the city, thereby giving Brookhaven the right to ban adult businesses that sell alcohol.

Shortly after incorporating in December 2012, Brookhaven proposed an ordinance that sought to ban adult businesses that sell alcohol inside its city limits. Brookhaven officials called in the expertise of a Tennessee lawyer who's built his career crafting ordinances to help such cities in their quest.

Several months later, the Pink Pony, which has operated along Buford Highway for more than 22 years, and its owner Trop Inc., fought back with a lawsuit. They claimed the new ordinance was unconstitutional, and launched a PR campaign and even asked the city to de-annex them.

The club's lawyers argued that Brookhaven's ordinance conflicted with a deal the Pink Pony and other nearby strip clubs inked with DeKalb County officials first struck in 2001 and amended six years later. In exchange for the right to keep showing skin and serving alcohol, adult entertainment businesses serving booze would pay $100,000 per year. The figure would increase each year. That deal, the club argued, exempted it from Brookhaven's ordinance.

The DeKalb trial court ruled in Brookhaven's favor, calling the strip club's deal with DeKalb illegal and the new city's ordinance constitutional. In addition, the ruling said that the Pink Pony lacked any right to challenge the city's alcohol code regulations. The Pink Pony appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, arguing that the trial court made errors.

That brings us today. The justices rejected the club's arguments and said that Brookhaven's ordinance did not infringe on free speech.

“First, it furthers the important government interests of ‘attempting to preserve the quality of urban life,’ and ‘reducing criminal activity and preventing the deterioration of neighborhoods,” the opinion says, according to an opinion summary issued by the court. “These goals, in turn, are not related to any desire to suppress speech... [A]ny incidental restriction of speech caused by the ordinance is no greater than essential to further these important governmental interests.”

But the Pink Pony's fight is not over. Alan Begner, the strip club's attorney, tells CL that he will ask the court to reconsider. He's got 10 days to do so. A request for comment to a Pink Pony executive was not immediately returned. A Brookhaven spokesman said the city is preparing a statement.

UPDATE, 3:21 p.m.: Brookhaven spokesman Michael Lee passes along the following from the city:

“Today, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed that the City of Brookhaven is not bound by Pink Pony’s agreement with DeKalb County, and that Brookhaven’s sexually oriented business ordinance is constitutional as a matter of law. The City will continue to defend all of its ordinances. The Council’s adoption of legally-valid regulations - like those in place in DeKalb County and in cities across Georgia - has never been about one business, but about having sound ordinances that protect the long-term interests of the City and its residents.”

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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Judge dismisses Warren Hill appeal - and prods Georgia Supreme Court to review death penalty case

Posted By on Thu, Oct 2, 2014 at 11:04 AM

Georgia death row inmate Warren Hill has lost a court battle to be ruled “intellectually disabled” - and thus immune from execution - despite medical experts saying he is.

But Hill also gained an ally in the judge, Thomas Wilson of the Towaliga Judicial Circuit, whose Oct. 1 dismissal order included an unusual prodding for the Georgia Supreme Court to review the case.

Pointing to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Wilson expressed worry that Georgia law preventing the execution of people with intellectual disabilities is now unclear.

“The Court voices its concern as to whether there has been a change in the laws as they relate to the material issue involved in the case,” Wilson wrote. “There is no public outcry calling for change, but there exists the knowledge that this case involves the ultimate punishment and that the defendant is at the end of his legal avenues of appeal.”

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Judge to rule soon on Peachtree-Pine shelter

Posted By on Fri, Sep 12, 2014 at 2:21 PM

The Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, the operators of the mammoth homeless shelter at Peachtree and Pine streets in Downtown, will soon learn if a judge thinks they need to pay toward a $900,000 promissory note while the nonprofit battles its landlord in court.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Craig Schwall, who's overseen the Task Force's long-running legal battle with building owner Premium Funding Solutions, yesterday said he needs time to reconcile what attorneys for each side have argued in the light of a state Supreme Court pronouncement.

"There is already a lawsuit that is pending over who owns the property and whether or not we have to pay," said Steven Hall, representing the Task Force, which has operated the city's largest shelter since the mid-1990s.

The state Supreme Court order, says Hall, bars an award for payment while the other case runs.

"In Georgia, you can only pursue a claim in one case," he said, and the lenders are pursuing those payments in the other case.

Attorneys for the owners of the note say that despite ongoing litigation, a point has been passed at which Peachtree-Pine tenants have to pay up.

"This is not about eviction, this is not about possession, conspiracies or even the Task Force," said Josh Belinfante, attorney for Premium Funding Solutions, on behalf of the lenders. It's instead about what the law requires, he argued.

The payment he wants the judge to order is indeed not a typical mortgage payment, but payment into a special court-protected account that's designed to hold disputed money.

"I haven't decided what I'm going to do … I've read the Supreme Court opinion over and over again and I've looked at the docket. Just give me until next Friday to do something," Schwall said Thursday afternoon after about a half-hour of arguments.

He asked both sides to return to court on Sept. 19 to hear his ruling. If the Task Force is ordered to pay, Hall has pledged to appeal.

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Friday, August 15, 2014

Luke O'Donovan receives 10-year sentence - and 'banishment' - for NYE altercation

Posted By on Fri, Aug 15, 2014 at 6:36 PM

Supporters of a man who says he was defending himself during an alleged homophobic attack at a New Year's Eve party are asking a judge to revisit the terms of a 10-year prison sentence he agreed to as part of a plea deal he struck with prosecutors on Tuesday.

According to an Atlanta Police report, sometime after revelers rang in 2013, Luke O'Donovan was involved in an altercation at a Reynoldstown party with five to 12 people over "sexuality." Supporters say the Georgia Gwinnett College student defended himself with a pocketknife after he was called homophobic slurs and attacked. According to the APD report, witnesses claimed that people who were later cut or stabbed by O’Donovan tried to "stop" him. O'Donovan then left the party to receive medical treatment at Atlanta Medical Center for stab wounds sustained during the attack, his supporters say. He was charged several hours later with five counts of felony aggravated assault and later charged with attempted murder.

The Luke O'Donovan Support Committee, which claims it includes O'Donovan's friends, family, roommates, and others, is categorizing what happened to the 21 year old as a hate crime.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Occupy Our Homes Atlanta activists walk free - for now - after mistrial

Posted By on Tue, Aug 12, 2014 at 6:10 PM

Mark Harris has fought for more than a year against Fannie Mae.
Four Occupy Our Homes Atlanta members arrested for civil disobedience - and who each faced at least one year in prison - walked free last week after a DeKalb County jury could not reach a verdict.

The surprise announcement came after two days of testimony in the trial revolved around Mark Harris, a Gulf War veteran who's spent the last year battling Fannie Mae over the foreclosure on his Avondale Estates home.

Harris, Mariam Asad, Daniel Hanley, and Tim Franzen were arrested and charged with criminal trespass last August after they refused to leave Harris' home. The group was protesting what Harris and supporters considered an unfair eviction and foreclosure by Fannie Mae.

In 2012 Fannie Mae initiated foreclosure proceedings against Harris, putting him on the street. For more than a year, Harris and OOHA tried to prod the lender to negotiate. Thus began a protest campaign outside Fannie Mae's regional offices and Washington, D.C. headquarters. Then came the August arrests (Fannie Mae was not immediately available for comment).

The defendants each faced up to one year in prison for each trespassing charge. Asad, a Georgia Tech Ph.D. student studying how grassroots activists use technology, returned to Georgia from San Francisco, where she's interning over the summer at a tech company, to stand trial.

The defendants rejected a plea deal that would have required them to serve 12 months of probation and work 40 hours of community service.

"I didn't stand in the yard that day to plead guilty," says Franzen, who also helped organize Georgia's Moral Monday protests. "I believe in my innocence and all of our innocence. I believe the guilty party is Fannie Mae."

The defendants' pro bono legal team had hoped to detail the events leading up to the signing of Harris' mortgage to help the jury understand his and protesters' motivations. But Mawuli "Mel" Davis, one of the defendants' attorneys, said DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Dax Lopez denied the request. The judge also denied testimony of Lynn Szymoniak, a Florida attorney who helped blow the whistle on some lenders' practice of falsely signing mortgage documents.

After an hour and a half of deliberations on Aug. 7, the jury told Lopez that they needed more time and were debating whether they were deadlocked. The judge told them to return the next morning. After additional discussions, the jury could not budge. Lopez declared a mistrial.

"I'm definitely relieved we're able to walk free today," Asad says, adding that she hopes the group's ordeal encourages others to "come together and resist injustices." And Franzen considers the hung jury a "victory."

But a mistrial isn't the same as a not-guilty verdict. A spokeswoman for DeKalb County Solicitor General Sherry Boston said the office has not decided whether it will seek another trial.

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Report: Fulton jail finally installs new locks on cell doors

Posted By on Mon, Jul 14, 2014 at 12:54 PM

The Fulton County Jail remains understaffed, but the cell locks are up-to-date and working now, 10 years after a lawsuit first drew a federal court's attention to conditions in the northwest Atlanta facility.

The jail's cell doors are now equipped “with functioning locks which can be opened remotely from the tower” and which haven't proved liable to lock-picking as of June 21, according to the latest quarterly report to U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Thrash from an independent monitor appointed by the federal court in Atlanta.

Last month, Fulton County told the court that the lock retrofit and upgrade cost $4.8 million. During the repair process, inmates outnumbered available beds in the Rice Street joint. As a result, some prisoners were shipped out to jails in Union City and Alpharetta, plus additional facilities in DeKalb, Douglas, and Cobb counties.

Fulton officials say they will continue housing women inmates in Union City until 2016, according to the report. Fulton leaders have also extended ongoing deals to access beds in Douglas, DeKalb and Cobb jails as needed.

Those actions puts Fulton in compliance with an order to cap Rice Street at 2,500 people. But the report also warns that the jail could become overcrowded again if funding needed to ship overflow inmates to other jails gets slashed.

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Friday, May 30, 2014

Pink Pony, Brookhaven battle heads to Supreme Court

Posted By on Fri, May 30, 2014 at 9:13 AM

The courtroom is no place for these kinds of antics!
The Pink Pony's ongoing legal fight to keep the booze a-flowing and exotic dancing a-happening in its Brookhaven location will land in Georgia Supreme Court on Monday. It's a slightly complicated story involving the Balkanization of DeKalb County and local government's war against adult entertainment. But in a nutshell, the strip club claims the new city's controversial ordinance banning the sale of alcohol and nude dancing is unconstitutional.

Jane Hansen, the court's public information officer, writes in the case summary:

FACTS: Brookhaven is a new Georgia city that became incorporated Dec. 17, 2012. The Pink Pony strip club has been in business for 22 years, serving food and alcohol, along with nude dancing, since licensed to do so by DeKalb County in November 1990. Trop, Inc. operates the club, which has always been on Corporate Boulevard and is now located in the southernmost area of newly incorporated Brookhaven.

From 1991 to 2001, the Pink Pony and other adult entertainment businesses filed several lawsuits against DeKalb County for enacting ordinances like Brookhaven's that prohibit total nudity and liquor in adult businesses. Eventually, a number of the establishments entered into a Settlement and Release Agreement with DeKalb County in which the businesses agreed to dismiss pending damages actions in exchange for the right to continue operations. The agreement was extended in 2007 for a minimum of 15 years. The establishments also agreed to pay the County an increased, graduated licensing fee, which for Pink Pony in recent years amounted to $100,000 a year.

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