Oklahoma Jail Guards Charged with Murder – Homicide

July 22, 2009

Two guards from the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s staff were indicted a few months back.  They are accused of violating the civil rights of Christopher Beckman, age 36, by beating him to death, more specifically of using excessive force on him.

Detention office Justin Mark Isch and deputy sheriff Gavin Douglas Littlejohn are facing a possible death penalty under this indictment in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City.  Unless the Attorney General decides to seek the death penalty, the defendants will face life imprisonment or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

An autopsy of Beckman’s body showed he died from blunt force head trauma severe enough to cause brain swelling.  The medical examiner reported, “After extensive investigation, no consistent reasonable explanation for the decedent’s injuries has been proposed….The manner of death is considered homicide.”  Beckman died two days after his struggle with the two now-indicted jailers.

The indictment claims Isch used Beckman’s heat to open a steel door and Littlejohn repeatedly struck Beckman about the head and face.  The Oklahoma County Sheriff fired both men when the indictment was unsealed.  The Sheriff’s office issued a statement that read, “The OCSO is disappointed that these two former employees have found themselves in this situation.”

Notice how that statement puts a distance between the Sheriff and these two employees now as “former employees?”  They were certainly employees at the time of the death.  And notice the use of the passive voice about the men “finding themselves in this situation?   No mention of any wrongdoing, alleged or otherwise.  No mention of regretting the death, much less the alleged act of murder.  No mention that still another person has had his life taken while in the custody of the Oklahoma County Sheriff, this one making it more than 40 in number since January 2000.  No wonder the federal government moved all its prisoners out of that jail.

For whom should a criminal defense lawyer identify here?  Ordinarily, but not necessarily, the criminal defense lawyer can identify with the person accused by the authorities.  But here, the criminal defense lawyer is observing the accused who are former jailers, accused of killing an accused who was awaiting trial.

Christopher Beckman died May 28, 2007, at St. Anthony’s Hospital.  The state medical examiner’s office reported the death as a homicide in June, 2008, and the indictment followed eight months later. Defendants Isch and Littlejohn have not yet come to trial on the indictment.

At the time of the death, sheriff’s spokesman Mark Myers claimed Beckman suffered his injuries during a seizure while being transferred from his cell to a medical wing. Myers said he was being taken from the second floor to the first “when he fell face first to the floor and began convulsing.”  Then, Myers claimed, Beckman became “combative with officers at that point and suffered several cuts to his face.”  Myers said there was a video recording of the incident and said “at no time is there any evidence that any detention officers struck the victim.”

Obviously the Sheriff’s complete denial at the time of death was not enough to overcome the medical examiner’s report that concluded there was no possible way the victim could have died from anything but a homicide.  Obviously, the United States Attorney believed the medical examiner rather than the Sheriff.

Beckman was taken at the time to the medical wing of the jail, where he stopped breathing.  A doctor at St. Anthony’s Hospital wrote in this report that Beckman arrived at the nearby hospital, having been in cardiac arrest for 20 minutes according to the paramedics.  Beckman was in jail facing charges of Driving Under the Influence, Possession of Controlled Dangerous Substances, Driving Under Suspension, and Failure to Show Insurance.

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Being “Tough on Crime” Causing States to Go Broke

April 15, 2008

The Associated Press reports at least eight states are considering freeing prison inmates or sending some of them to rehabilitation programs instead of prison. The Associated Press analyzed legislative proposals of several states to find this trend.

Officials in these states acknowledge this idea carries risks, but they believe they have no choice because of the huge gaps in their state budgets resulting from the slow down in the economy. If these programs are adopted, the early release programs could save an estimated $450 million in California and Kentucky alone.

A Rhode Island proposal would allow inmates to deduct up to 12 days from their sentence for every month they follow rules and work in prison. Even some violent offenders would be eligible but not those serving life sentences.

A Mississippi plan would offer early parole for people convicted of selling marijuana or prescription drugs. New Jersey, South Carolina and Vermont are considering sending drug-addicted offenders into treatment, which is cheaper than prison.

Victim safety is a concern for those focusing on violent crimes, and safety of the community is always stated as a high priority in the stated goals of any proposal. But the legislatures must cut costs somewhere, and prisons are “one of the most expensive parts of the criminal justice system,” said Alsion Lawrence, who studies corrections policy for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “That is where they look to first to cut down some of those costs.”

Rhode Island Corrections Director A.T. Wall was not sure how many prisoners could be freed early. The savings might not even be $1,000,000 for the first year, but that figure would likely increase over time.

In California where everything is bigger, the legislature is trying to cut a $16 billion deficit in half by this summer. Governor Schwarzenegger proposed saving $400 million by releasing more than 22,000 inmates who had less than 20 months remaining on their sentences. Violent and sex offenders would not be eligible. Eliminating prison guard positions and making it more difficult to re-imprison parole violators would contribute to some of these savings.

Of course, California’s proposal has its critics, predictably from law enforcement and conservative lawmakers. Particularly they criticize the impact of the proposal on sentences for car thieves, drunk drivers, forgers and some drug dealers because the typical sentence for these is less than 20 months. The result on those typically convicted for these crimes in California would be zero time behind bars, and the critics say this would take away the deterrence for such crimes.

The Kentucky legislature approved on April 2nd a proposal which would save nearly $50 million toward its $1.3 billion budget deficit. This plan would grant early release to perhaps 2,000 inmates, violent and sexual offenders exempt, once again. The Governor of Kentucky noted it had to do something after a 12% inmate population increase in 2007, the largest in the nation. Kentucky spends $18,600 per year to house one inmate.

Mississippi faces an inmate population which has tripled since the state enacted stricter sentencing policies in 1994. Its legislature is now considering making 7,000 drug offenders eligible for early parole. Currently they are required to serve 85% of their sentences. Under the new proposal they would only have to serve about a quarter of their sentences.


The US is The Number 1 Jailer in the World

March 24, 2008

We’re Number One! The United States incarcerates more bodies than any other nation on the planet earth-even Russia, even India, even than China. This premier spot is not only in terms of percentages of prisoners per total population, but also in terms of raw numbers.

The United States has 2,319,258 of its people locked away in jails, while China has only 1.5 million prisoners in spite of its 1.3 billion population and our population of 230 million. Our per capita percentages are 750 per 100,000 people, compared to Russia’s 625 per 100,000. In the United States, there are 1,596,127 prisoners in state and federal prisons and 723,131 prisoners in local jails.

The Pew Center on the States also tells us that all 50 US states combined spent $49 billion on corrections in the year 2007, up from $11 billion twenty years earlier. Our rate of increase in corrections costs was six times greater than for the increase on spending on higher education. The inmate population increased in 2007 in 36 states and in the federal system.

This growing inmate population is taking money from state budgets that cannot afford the extra money, yet is having no apparent impact on recidivism or overall crime, the report said. States are trying to be creative to cut costs without appearing to be “soft on crime.” Kansas and Texas have acted decisively to slow the growth of inmate population, making more use of community supervision for low-risk offenders and using penalties other than reimprisonment for those who technically violate their rules for probation or parole.

The largest percentage increase was in Kentucky (12%), where the state’s governor pointed out that crime has increased only 3 % over the past 30 years, while the state’s inmate population has increased 60%.  The annual cost per prisoner averaged in the US at $23,876, from Rhode Island’s $44,860 to Louisiana’s $13,009 per prisoner. California spent $8.8 billion for corrections in 2007 (with a $16 billion shortage in their budget), while Texas spent $3.3 billion for corrections.

State budgets average 6.8 % of their general funds on corrections, from Oregon’s 10.9 % to Alabama’s 2.6% of general funds. Vermont, Michigan, Oregon, and Connecticut now spend more on corrections than on higher education.

The breakdown of men behind bars is one in 30 men between the ages between 20 and 34, but for black males in that age group, it is one in 9 of the national population.

This is one instance, where I believe, being number one is not a good thing. It is time to look at our overall system and other alternatives to locking up people and throwing away the keys…. Alternatives like faith and character based voluntary programs in prison. Those programs (which could be a whole other topic of discussion at another time) have had a higher rate of success and I believe they should be offered on a widespread basis.

Perhaps these shocking statistics will cause our correctional system do some serious “remodeling” to fix it’s broken system.


Aging Prisoner Problems

October 18, 2007

Among other problems that are developing from our bursting prisons is the problem of the aging prison population. Exceeding the growth of prison population is the growth of the elderly population in prison. Tough sentencing laws from the 1980’s and 1990’s have succeeded. Inmates locked up then are still locked up. But barbed wire fences don’t look so necessary when the inmates cannot get out their wheel chairs.

Department of Justice statistics show nationally that the number of inmates aged 55 years and older has increased 33 % from 2000 to 2005. For the same period, the growth in the number of inmates of all ages has grown 9%. This increase is greater in the Southern states, where estimates are that the increase in elderly inmates in 16 southern states is 145% since 1997.

Inmates are not eligible for coverage under Medicare nor Medicaid, so, instead of the state sharing these medical costs with the federal government, the state alone must pay for them. National costs estimates are $18,000 to $31,000 cost per year to house an inmate. The increased cost to care for an elderly inmate is uncertain, but certainly more than younger inmates. And prison inmates typically have led less healthy lives than the population at large, so more health problems are to be expected from aging inmates.

The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that inmates have a Constitutional right to health care, so the federal courts have and will continue to be involved in monitoring the states’ performance in providing this health care for its prisoners.

Unfortunately, the fact that our state is “tough on crime” may not only provide overly punitive sentences to those found guilty of a crime but also may be costly to the rest of us because of the rising costs of housing and caring for our aging prisoners. I believe it’s time for our state to look at other options for sentencing and rehabilitation.

However, the best thing someone charged with a crime can do is to make sure they have the best defense possible in order to have a chance for freedom, or at least a reduced sentence from what the prosecution would attempt to achieve.