The Dark Side of Criminal Justice

     My first week as a newly minted Deputy Public Defender Steve Davidson one of the grisly old defenders who had a striking resemblance to Jack Nicholson in style and demeanor called me into his office and told me to, “sit down.” Then, he leaned forward across his desk and looking me straight in the eye he said, “Phil, there is just one thing you have to know about this business, do you know what it is?”

     Not easily intimidated even then, I thought for a moment and then recalled the standard responses I had been taught like “our job is to insure all of our clients Constitutional Rights are protected” and “whatever you do don’t socialize with the clients.”

     “No, no, no, Phil you don’t know what you’re talking about. The one thing to never forget is there are a lot of bodies on the battlefield out there, don’t be one of them!”

     I feigned appreciation to Steve for his concern and quickly got out of his office, and didn’t go back in for a long time.

     It would be many years before I understood what Steve was trying to tell me.

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Len and I had been on a roll.  It had been a very long time since we heard the clerk read the dreaded “guilty verdict handed down by one of our juries.  “Not guilty” is what we were used to hearing.

This one, People v. Ricardo “Ricky” Gonzalez, should be no different.  Ricky was looking at sixteen years for a double shotgun robbery in downtown Ventura, of a couple sitting in their car after dinner at a local restaurant.  The suspects had worn hooded sweatshirts pulled up over their heads with bandanas over every portion of their face except the eyes.  Running up to the car they immediately leveled shotguns at their victims through the open driver’s side window, demanding all of their money, phones, and credit cards.

The whole incident probably lasted less than a minute, but the trauma of having a shotgun stuck in your face was still apparent when they testified almost a year later.    The woman in the passenger seat readily admitted she could not identify anyone, all her attention was focused on the shotgun barrel.  The man, however, was a different story.  When asked to identify his assailants, immediately he pointed to Ricky and his co-defendant and said, “Yes, there’s the one who did it.”  This came as no surprise as he had identified them both in a drive by lineup the night of their arrest.

Ricky and three of his friends had pulled into the parking lot while the crime was still being investigated, and all of them fit the general description of the suspects.  Immediately detained, a quick search of their van produced just one piece of evidence, an unfired shotgun shell.  Ricky and his co-defendant were both wearing hooded sweat shirts, the other two were not.

All four were lined up on the sidewalk as a patrol car with the victims inside slowly drove by using its spotlight to illuminate the suspects.  Two officers stood behind the four men and right before the patrol car arrived they lifted the hoods of the sweatshirts on Ricky and his co-defendant.  The female victim made no comment but the man immediately picked out the two hooded suspects as his assailants.

Len was outraged by Ventura P.D.’s tactics, an obvious suggestive lineup that violated every protocol he had always followed as a robbery detective with Oxnard P.D.  Len had had enough of bad and sometimes dishonest police work and taken an early retirement.  Now he was a defense investigator relishing every opportunity that came our way to point out the error of his former colleagues’ ways.  This case was particularly exasperating for Len.  From the beginning he said, “There is no way someone can ID a suspect with a hood and a bandana on, while looking down the barrel of a shotgun.”  I wasn’t quite convinced until Len ran a little experiment past me.

He came to court with a life-size poster board picture of a man with a hood and bandana on and stuck it in front of me saying, “Do you get it now?”

     “Get what, Len, it’s a picture.”

     “Look again.”

     “Okay, alright, I guess I’m missing something, what’s your point?”

     “I knew you couldn’t tell, you don’t get it Phil, the picture is of me.”

     “Wow.”  I thought, I didn’t get it, but now I did.  I couldn’t tell even with him sitting right next to me, this was one powerful piece of evidence.  The strategy wheels of my mind churned powerfully as I contemplated how we might get this little demonstration in front of our jury.

     The case had been assigned to the The Honorable Herbert Curtis III. Herb Curtis was unique as a judge in Ventura County in that he was the only African American ever appointed to the bench. He was a former prosecutor of course, as at the time just about three-quarters of the local judges had come out of the DA’s Office. Herb Curtis had grown up in the inner city of Cleveland, Ohio. A track star in High School he won a scholarship to Cleveland State University. Upon graduating he became a teacher by day and a law student at night, having earned his law degree and passing the California Bar he took a chance on an interview for a position in Ventura County DA’s office. Personable, athletic in build, and quick with a smile he had all the ingredients for a successful trial attorney. Hired off of his first interview Herb Curtis quickly earned a reputation as a formidable trial attorney and a capable manager within the office. Not long after a short stint in administration he got appointed to the bench by Governor George Deukmejian in 1984.

     I liked Herb Curtis personally, he was much more down to earth than most of the judges. He enjoyed talking in chambers and occasionally regaling us with a story about life on the streets on the east side of Cleveland, or what fight his uncle Don King was about to promote. Don King remains a legend in the boxing world to this day, and much of it was not pretty. Having been convicted of manslaughter as a young man, doing time in prison for it, and then scaling every hurdle in boxing to become almost as famous as Muhammad Ali, whose fights he promoted, Don King was no choirboy. Herb Curtis’ relationship to the man gave me hope for my judge. Alas, it was not to be, though Herb Curtis was not a mean spirited judge, he certainly was no friend of the defense. In my experience he virtually never ruled for the defense on a point of consequence, and on one occasion I had him reversed on appeal on an issue the DA’s office refused to contest. The other thing that disturbed me about Herb Curtis was he was the only judge I knew who openly carried a gun. Strapped in a holster around his ankle was a .38 caliber revolver. When I once asked him about it he told me “I’m my own back up, if something goes down in the courtroom the first guy hit is my bailiff, I’m not going to be second.”

     So Herb Curtis wasn’t exactly the best judge to try a serious case in front of, but in those days the pickings for the defense were slim. He might never give you a ruling, but at least he wouldn’t ride you the whole way.

     David Lehr was our prosecutor. Well respected, easy to work with and certainly not afraid to try a case, David didn’t look for a way to make a deal in a tough case.  I found David a particularly difficult opponent as he suffered noticeably from muscular dystrophy and he quite effectively took advantage of his disability.  Unable to move about the courtroom without the use of a cane, David had developed a sympathetic charisma that was hard to combat straight on.  His courage was evident, though his continued success as a prosecutor had caused him to go over the top on this one, in my opinion. I hoped that David had let a little complacency slip into his game.  

     Len knew David, of course, and since he was going to testify about other evidence he had produced, pictures of the scene that night and so forth, maybe he could also mark the hooded bandana man picture like all the other photos.  I cautioned him to make sure he showed it to David first, which he did.

     I started Len’s testimony with the routine stuff, laying a foundation for all of our pictures, and then, “Mr. Newcomb, let me draw your attention to defense Exhibit “K”.  Are you familiar with this photograph?”

     “Yes, I am.”

     Trying to keep my tone and volume the same as before, I thought ‘only two questions to go.’

     “Mr. Newcomb, what does this photograph depict?”

     “Well, it’s a life-size picture of a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt, hood up, and a bandana over the lower half of his face.” Len answered matter of factly.  Now, the coup de grace was as simple and controlled as possible.  

     “And, how did you take this photograph?”

     “Well, I set up a stationary camera, on a timer, put on a hooded sweatshirt with a bandana over my face, and took a photograph of myself.” I heard a slight gasp from the jury box, and noticeable shifting within their seats, but I couldn’t resist one more question, having heard no objection. “So, this is a picture of you, Mr. Newcomb?”

     “OBJECTION!  Your Honor, I know nothing about this, counsel never told me this was a picture of Mr. Newcomb!” David at first looked embarrassed, but now he was angry, very angry.

     Having prepared for this moment, I shot back, “We gave the exhibit to Mr. Lehr before marking it, is he admitting he couldn’t tell it was Mr. Newcomb?”

     Herb Curtis was not amused by our little demonstration.  “Mr. Dunn, I will see you and Mr. Lehr in my chambers, right now!”

     The back door heading to the Judge’s chambers was a few feet behind the jury box and right next to the witness stand where a large white board with magnets held up Exhibit “K” facing the jurors.  On either side of the white board were large wooden doors that when closed covered the board.  David, seated closest to the jury, lead the way across the well of the courtroom as we headed towards the door.  When we got to the white board, he stopped, leaned on his cane, and reached over to close the doors on Exhibit “K”.  Seeing this, I hesitated but a moment, and in perhaps my best moment of courtroom theatrics, shrugged my shoulders and shook my head slightly, before going through the door.

     In chambers Judge Curtis wasn’t buying my argument.  “This is not admissible evidence, little more than a cheap trick, certainly not an admissible demonstration, even if Mr. Lehr knew about it.”  

     “Cheap trick.” Now it was my turn to be offended. “Len gave it to him, we had it marked, it’s not my fault he couldn’t tell who it was.”   Things were getting ugly now, and I could feel the pressure growing as the Judge was now considering greater sanctions than simply ruling Exhibit “K” inadmissible.  

     “You might want to consider a mistrial Mr. Lehr, because we all know that once the bell has been rung, no admonition from me is going to unring it.” Horror gripped me. I had a winner going here and now they were plotting to steal it from me.

     I changed my tone, pleading, “Come on, David you can’t want to do this one again.”  

     David hesitated, thought for a moment, then said, “No, let’s finish it, I’ll just use it against you in argument.”  

     Back in front of the jury, Judge Curtis in his sternest voice announced, “Exhibit “K” is ruled inadmissible; all of Mr. Newcomb’s testimony on Exhibit “K” is stricken from the record.  Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, what that means is that none of what I have ruled inadmissible is evidence in this case, and therefore, it is not to be considered by you in any way in your deliberations.”

     As the Judge spoke I watched my jurors intently.  Predisposed to like, or at least respect his authority, confusion now reigned over their faces.  They had always heard it was the defense that got away with suppressing evidence, but here the prosecutor’s objection was sustained and the Judge was telling them that a truth they had witnessed, in dramatic fashion, should be ignored for some unspoken reason.  For a few of the more independent jurors a certain discontent came across their faces as they chafed under the oppressive nature of the Judge’s order.

     My closing argument was based upon a false identification of two young men who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  As I delivered my summation, I could tell most of the jurors were with me.  Asking them to consider the gravity of their decision on a young man’s life, I saw my likely foreman, a Hispanic man in his mid-sixties, nod in agreement as I told him “this decision, your verdict, may be the most consequential decision you will ever make affecting another person’s life.”  The facts, as they played out in court, made it possible to argue with righteous indignation building to a final call to do justice on behalf of Ricky Gonzalez because “if you do not, none of us are safe from this kind of prosecution, do what is right, muster up within yourselves the moral courage to find Ricky Gonzalez not guilty of all of these charges.”  

     It didn’t take them long, perhaps three hours.  The reading of the verdict was as always extremely intense.  With the first “not guilty” I knew we would get to hear those beautiful words spoken into the record three more times as both defendants were acquitted of all the charges.  Each time the precious words were spoken a cheer came from the gallery as the friends and family of the accused could no longer contain their joy.

     The moment was as good as it gets.  

- - - 

     I didn’t hear a word from Ricky until almost three months later.  I ran into him in the courthouse one morning.  Seeing me he walked over to shake my hand and apologize “for not getting a hold of you, to thank you earlier.”   Ricky didn’t look good, since he had been in custody prior to, and throughout the trial, he had the pale but clean look of someone who wasn’t getting any sun, but had no access to drugs or alcohol.  That look was gone as he clearly had lost weight, and his demeanor was consistent with so many of the drug addicts I had represented over the years.  “Methamphetamine most likely,” I thought.

     Three months later Ricky walked into a liquor store in Ventura, held up the clerk, and before leaving he shot him dead on the spot.  The local paper reported that the clerk left behind a wife and three children.

     After the shooting, Ricky grabbed a rifle, put on body armor and barricaded himself in a house.  The Ventura SWAT team surrounded the house, and when given a clean shot, they shot Ricky dead.

- - - 

     Herb Curtis retired as a judge in 2007. His retirement was premature as it was well known to have been related to a drinking incident in which he allegedly told law enforcement that they better leave him alone since he was hearing one of their murder cases at the time. His personal life also appeared to be suffering as he went through at least two divorces. He did practice law to some extent as he joined a local criminal defense firm, but he chose not to ever appear in front of his former colleagues so we never saw him around the Ventura Courthouse.

     On February 6, 2017 police were called to Herb Curtis’ home, neighbors reported shots fired. When they arrived Herb Curtis barricaded himself inside his residence while his girl friend lay bleeding out from the bullet wounds he had inflicted upon her. Hostage negotiations ensued for the next couple hours as Ventura Police sought to confirm that the shooting victim was still alive. Additional shots were then heard, so the SWAT team broke into the residence just as Herb Curtis shot himself to death.

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     In war they call it collateral damage. The unintended consequences of battles fought in an endless struggle known as the criminal justice system. Those of us charged with doing justice within this adversarial system are not immune to its consequences. No, far from it, the horror of it all is not experienced in a catastrophic moment as in war, but rather it is a slower form of psychological torture administered in small doses over decades of exposure. It is its own form of Post Traumatic Stress, the result of witnessing so much suffering with little ability to alleviate it. A temporary salve is administered in the punishment of those offenders that are convicted, but such satisfaction is short lived as the consequences of mass incarceration become the cause of more crime and punishment. It is a never ending cycle of pain and retribution.

     As for me, I always feared the day I learned I had successfully defended someone who went out and did it again, or as in this case, worse. When it happened the war still raged on for me so I had little time to absorb the impact. When I do consider it, I must say if presented the same facts and circumstances again, I would change nothing. But still, it is always there, lingering somewhere in my conscience.

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Written by: Philip Remington Dunn is a practicing criminal defense attorney, social justice advocate, and author of the critically acclaimed book: When Darkness Reigns.

An American Christian in Syria

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18-19

Everyone needs a hero, mine is Dave Eubank. Over 20 years ago he started a relief organization called Free Burma Rangers. Dave had been an Army Ranger and decided that Burma was a good place to use these skills to bring relief to the minority indigenous populations in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma before a military junta seized control of the government. Burma is not a country of great geopolitical significance so the atrocities of the military junta received little international attention. It has been your typical ethnic cleansing scenario wherein any tribal or religious group not aligned with the ruling warlords have been raped, killed and driven from their land into neighboring refugee camps, predominantly in Thailand. In this case it is the Muslims along with other minority ethnic groups that have been the victims of periodic massacres carried out by government troops.

One of Dave’s sponsoring churches was Malibu Presbyterian where I attend, and so he has regularly come to Malibu to give us an update on his work. During these visits we have heard reports of his often successful efforts of warning villagers of approaching government troops, outwitting and outmaneuvering them, then hiding out with them in the jungle or making it outside the country to a refugee camp.

Over the years I have gotten to know Dave, and so when he is in town we go on walks together in a local neighborhood. Dave flatters me by expressing a real interest in my work and the criminal justice system in general. Luke 4:18-19 is the chosen scripture of his organization and thus you can see at the heart of his work is an overwhelming desire for justice on behalf of us all. It is quite an experience just walking around with Dave as I have never met someone who better exemplifies the Puritan Ethic of “never leave a place without having made it better.” Whether it is the elderly lady struggling to take out her trash who he runs over to help, or the young lady under the influence who needs a ride home, there is no good deed he won’t perform.

To be honest Dave is probably the only man I know that intimidates me. He doesn’t do it on purpose, far from it, Dave is by nature humble, but simply being around him challenges me to be a better man. I try not to resent this power he has over me, but at times I wonder just how it is that a man that has seen as much horror and tragedy as Dave can be so damn happy, so filled with joy, so willing to love everyone like himself. Its just not normal.

Due to the strength of Free Burma Rangers and the winning of some democratic freedoms in Burma, Dave has now expanded his efforts to include providing relief to refugees fleeing war torn providences of the Middle East. Be it Sudan, Iraq or Syria, Dave has been their seeking freedom for the oppressed. When Mosul was under siege he helped supply 5,000 refugee families with food and water, while his team of Burmese Karen State volunteers provided medical relief to civilians fleeing ISIS tyranny. Think of it, former refugees of one war torn country in Asia now strong enough to save lives in the Middle East.

In Syria right now with his family – yeah that’s right he often takes his wife and three children with him – they are assisting refugees with food, medical supplies and most significantly caring for the needs of the widowed and the orphaned. The reign of ISIS has been held together by brutal executions of anyone not pledging complete support to their religion of terror. Dave, his team, and his family combat this evil by spreading as much love in the region as possible. This is what I find so intimidating about Dave, he truly lives out a Christian life – in the most dangerous places in the world – on behalf of the most desperate of God’s children. Rather than worrying about what measures he should take to protect his family from whatever perceived dangers may exist all around us, Dave takes the fight to the enemy, he places the well being of his wife and children in God’s hands, and soldiers on and for Christ. It is his faith that keeps him going “…the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Surrounded daily by overwhelming displays of cruelty and suffering it is hard to understand how the men and women of Free Burma Rangers continue the fight. Their battle however is not against the soldiers of ISIS or Myanmar but rather the “powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil.” Into battle they go under the motto that we should “love one another. Unite and work for freedom, justice and peace. Forgive and don’t hate each other. Pray with faith, act with courage, and never surrender.” Yes, there is hope for us all.

For more information on Dave and the Free Burma Rangers, or to donate to their noble cause, got to the website HERE.

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Philip Remington Dunn is a practicing criminal defense attorney, social justice advocate, and author of the critically acclaimed book: When Darkness Reigns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Toast To Vladimir

“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” - Vito Corleone

Vladimir Putin is often described as a gangster in western media outlets. Corruption is a way of life in Russia, and political opponents of their President have been gunned down on the streets, poisoned in England, or perhaps even thrown off buildings in New York City. The oligarchy of billionaires that he supports continues to thrive even as the Russian economy goes through a dive similar to our Great Recession. No matter, Putin won his last election with over 63% of the vote and his popularity remains at an astounding 80% according to a recent Gallup Poll. How is this possible? Its all about respect. Once you except a world view that acknowledges all of our leaders are corrupt, you can’t help but like the fact that yours is the best at it, and their Vladimir may be the best in history.

Putin is punching way out of his weight class and lands a haymaker every time. His military is one seventh the size of the United States, but when Russia’s surrogates invade the Crimea its no problem holding onto it. The sanctions may hurt their economy, but the people are willing to buck up. This is a nation that was invaded by Napoleon, The Kaiser and Hitler, so they are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices to get back onto the world stage, and they got the guy who can do it. What we don’t understand is they take it personally when Secretary Clinton questions the legitimacy of their election, or our CIA supports a revolution in Ukraine that over throws a President sympathetic to mother Russia. We disrespected them, nothing left to do but teach us some respect. We are still being taught.

Just who’s election is illegitimate, anyway? Our current President lost by three million votes and won. Hilary Clinton lost, and President Trump is dismantling the Obama legacy. Russian operatives hacked into the the DNC and Hillary’s campaign and according to the vanquished candidate it was one of the reasons she lost. Remember its personal.

Our President picked a National Security Advisor who took money for speeches in Russia and lied about it. He had to be fired, and is seeking immunity for his testimony. The President is incensed that there are investigations into his “Russian connections,” but he invites the Russian Foreign Minister along with a known Russian spy to the White House the day after he fires the Director of the FBI, the man responsible for investigating Russian espionage in our country. Knowing it might not look good in the press, the White House staff did not allow our media access to the meeting. Allegedly the Russians agreed not to release the photographs they took, but then they burned our President by splashing their smiling faces with him on the front page of every paper on Earth. Now, it has been leaked that President Trump revealed classified information to them during the meeting. I wonder who leaked it? Who was in the room?

In an attempt to refute the alleged Russian connection our President had his tax lawyers prepare a letter telling us Mr. Trump has no financial connections in Russia but for “a few exceptions,” such as the sale of a Florida home for 96 million to a Russian “billionaire” for more than twice what he paid for it three years earlier. There were of course other “ordinary sales of goods or services” but these were “immaterial.” There also was the beauty pageant in Moscow which was responsible for a “substantial portion” of the “foreign income” he received in 2013.

Here is where Putin’s master plan seeking to weaken and destabilize the position of the United States of America on the world stage has worked beyond his wildest expectations. No matter what his operatives say about President Trump’s connections to Russia, be they financial, political or salacious they are going to be believed. It is irrelevant whether they are true or not, because so much has been admitted, proven true, or denied without proof, any quality lie will stick to him. The President of the United States is hostage to a Russian propaganda machine he helped create.

Whether we see Vladimir Putin as a worthy adversary, enemy, or just the most successful gangster in history, we have to acknowledge his diabolical genius. I can’t help but believe that in every bar and nightclub in The Russian Republic vodka toasts are being offered to Vladimir Putin and the restoration of their nation’s prominence. Most of them never really believed in democracy anyway, notions of liberty and equality were for naïve dreamers. No, it is the strong man with an iron fist in the image of Joseph Stalin that they can’t help but admire. He may have murdered 50 million people, but he won the damn war against the Nazi’s. Life on this Earth has been that cynical for them, and its based in their reality.

So here’s to Vladimir, we need to acknowledge that when it comes to the unraveling of democracies he is unsurpassed. First his own, and now he’s after ours with the help of an unwitting accomplice. He is the enemy worth staying close to, if only to never underestimate him again.

Written by: Philip Remington Dunn is a practicing criminal defense attorney, social justice advocate, and author of the critically acclaimed book: When Darkness Reigns.

A Little Humanity Can Go A Long Way

***This article originally appeared on TheBlaze under the title Funding Prison Reform Works - Read It There***

The most recent California statistics on paroled prisoner recidivism are out and its good news. From a peak of 67.5% in 2010 to 44.6% in 2016 it is clear something is working in California’s prison system. What this means is almost 23% less of California parolees reoffend within three years of their release from prison. At a cost exceeding $60,000 per year for one inmate the economic savings are obvious. What is not so obvious is the long term societal benefits of less repeat crime. Not only are there less victims of crime, there are indirect benefits as well. The formerly incarcerated work, pay taxes and most importantly are able to parent their children. There is at long last, real hope we can reverse the revolving door of re-incarceration that has plagued our state (and country) for more than thirty years.

It all started with the fear fed to us by advocates of anger policies in the 80’s and 90’s. “Career Criminal” and “Three Strikes” laws along with the “War on Drugs” led to a quadrupling of our prison population causing the system to house almost 200% of what it was designed for despite massive prison construction during the same time period. A dear friend of mine, Daniel is his name, was one of the many inmates that were sent out of state to deal with overcrowding. He was housed in Arizona and Oklahoma. Far from family and friends he rarely had visitors, which made it very difficult to hold onto relationships that might have provided a support system for him upon his release. This is not the way to treat someone you hope will never go back to prison.

It took the United States Supreme Court to put an end to this retribution binge. In Brown vs. Plata, Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority in ordering California to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of capacity. In doing so Justice Kennedy found that the overcrowding was a violation of the Eighth Amendment Cruel and Unusual Punishment clause as it was responsible for living conditions described as “wretched misery.”

When forced to act the politicians passed AB-109 which reduced some overcrowding by shifting the burden of housing nonviolent offenders to county jails – which didn’t really change the incarceration rates, it only prolonged the shell game. Real reform fell to the people in the form of criminal justice initiatives on the ballot. Propositions 36, 47 and 57 all provided sensible ways to reduce the prison population while still emphasizing public safety. Passed with substantial majorities these measures have now withstood the test of time and proven the wisdom and decency of California voters. Despite dire warnings from tough on crime advocates, state wide crime statistics remain close to historic lows, particularly for violent crimes. Still, individual cases are paraded through the media to stoke the dying flames of retribution. However, it would appear that the “Willie Horton Syndrome” has played itself out as voters are no longer easily swayed by worn out fear mongering tactics.

California has also chosen to invest new money in rehabilitation programs. During the same time period that recidivism dropped nearly 23%, funding for rehabilitation has gone from $355 million to $482 million. But the real heroes in this struggle are the men and women of goodwill that volunteer for a multitude of NGO’s providing various educational, vocational and life skill services to prisoners returning to our communities. One such program is The Urban Ministry Institute that provides a course of study that is the equivalent of a Master’s Degree in Theology. Recidivism statistics for participants in this program are an astonishing 6.2%. Another is CRI-HELP, which is a residential drug treatment center, that Daniel went to after his release. He was able to live there for 30 days before transitioning to a state sponsored sober living home for six months. In his case it turned out to be a wise investment that he greatly appreciated. Almost three years later he is a thriving independent business man, taxpayer and prominent advocate for those very programs that likely saved him from re-offending.

There is hope for even the least of us, and we all benefit from recognizing our common humanity. Treating our fellow human beings humanely, no matter who they are is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. When Daniel paroled out, he had nothing but the clothes on his back, and an opportunity given to him by the taxpayers. Today he is an inspiration to others as he continues to pay it forward. With every person we save from prison we are not only being smart on crime, we are also touching countless lives for the good of us all.

Written by: Philip Remington Dunn – a practicing criminal defense attorney, social justice advocate, and author of the critically acclaimed book: When Darkness Reigns.

Sex and Violence Schizophrenia

***This article originally appeared on TheBlaze - Read It There***

You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. Matthew 23:27

Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that Facebook would be hiring 3,000 new employees to be “content monitors” for removing acts of sexual violence, hate speech and child exploitation. Incredibly there are people who live stream actual rapes, murders, and suicides. It is immensely disturbing that our society produces individuals that not only will commit such acts, but are doing them at least in part, if not entirely, for the notoriety Facebook and other outlets make possible. What’s more disturbing is that these videos went viral. We have met the enemy and he is us.

The first symptoms of our societal schizophrenia occurred during the decades long legal debate on obscenity. The sexual exploitation of women has always been profitable, but with the advent of mass media the profits exploded. Obscenity laws were the only bump in the road for pornography without borders, but the Supreme Court ultimately concluded that virtually any act committed and filmed with “consenting adults” is protected by “Free Speech.” The “actors” may be getting paid for sex acts captured on film, but if there is no camera present, and there is a cash transfer, its prostitution. Now prostitution that’s bad, so it’s illegal. Young men and women who can’t make it as porn stars go to jail, porn stars get rich and famous.

Our media driven culture sends a constant barrage of soft core porn out, hoping to entice men, but even that’s changing, into paying for hard core porn. Since younger is better, we have pitches like “Barely Legal”, that go right up to the line, but if you cross over, its child porn and the viewer is a sexual predator. Law enforcement is out there on the web looking for these predators, using “rouses” to ferret out the offenders. When captured it’s a slam dunk felony prosecution requiring lifetime registration as a sex offender.

There is of course nothing new about glorifying violence in our culture, but for the advances in technology. Video games of modern warfare and feudal combat make it possible to realistically slaughter hundreds in a single sitting. Combine sexual conquest and blood lust in a horror film and its sure to do major box office. Is it a stretch to believe that the most prolific customers of this kind of “entertainment” are the ones most likely to act out their fantasies? Do a live stream of a random act of violence and you can be sure of achieving one’s coveted fifteen minutes of fame.

In 1996, when all of this was just really getting started, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act (COPA) designed to require that Internet providers keep “minors from receiving sexually explicit material on the Internet.” Challenged as a restriction on Free Speech the United States Supreme Court in Ashcroft vs. ACLU II in a 5-4 decision found this new law to be an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment. Four of the five justices in the majority were Republican presidential appointees, including Clarence Thomas, who is not known for agreeing with the ACLU. So who was offended by this decision? Evangelical Christian “leaders” of course, like Jerry Falwell and Dr. Dobson. That was then, and this is now. Today these same “leaders” enthusiastically supported a presidential candidate who openly bragged about committing sexual batteries on women, and getting away with it due to his star power. No matter, Jerry Falwell Jr. just let his fellow evangelicals know that they “have found their dream president.” What makes him a “dream,” his politics of course. Character is not even secondary, its nonexistent.

Whether it be implicit, or complicit, this is nothing less than misogyny. It is now manifesting itself in the proliferation of the child sex trade. Young girls are kidnapped or sold into sex slavery while the Attorney General of the United States concentrates his law enforcement efforts on punishing cities that consider themselves to be sanctuaries or states that have legalized marijuana. The hypocrisy hoisted upon us by these so called leaders is staggering. Protection of the innocent, now even our children, is less important than partisan politics and our “Right” to exploit our most prurient desires at a staggering profit. We are left to rely upon private citizens of good conscience like Mark Zuckerberg to do what they can to stem the tide. The rest of society will just have to eat a couple more Prozac so they can feel better for awhile.

Written by: Philip Remington Dunn is a practicing criminal defense attorney, social justice advocate, and author of the critically acclaimed book: When Darkness Reigns.

The Gathering Storm

“Full of fight and devotion to some inner ideal.” -A friend’s description of Che Guevara.

Back when I was doing appointed cases a gang attempted murder/robbery case was dropped on my desk. Fernando, we’ll call him, was all of eighteen years old when he and a friend decided to leave the Colonia one night and engage in a crime spree like none other. Before the night was over they had done two armed robberies, shot a drug dealer six times, and a rival gang member once. Pursued by Sherriff’s Deputies they attempted to make a run for it before flipping their van. Inside was the money from the robberies and the two firearms used in the shootings.

The DDA (Deputy District Attorney) assigned to the case was none other than Bill Haney, the Golden Boy of the office at the time. I knew Bill would not miss a shred of evidence in slam dunking this prosecution. With gang allegations and the use of firearms, my calculation was Fernando was looking at something north of eighty to life, plus life, should he be convicted of everything at trial, which on these facts was a virtual certainty.

Bill was offering Fernando a deal of thirty-two to life, which meant that if he took the deal he might someday get out of prison, if he rejected it he most certainly would receive a sentence that would cause him to die on the inside. When I met with Fernando in a holding cell to tell him his options I was greatly distressed. Fernando, an innately intelligent young man and surprisingly empathetic, recognized my distress saying to me, “Mr. Dunn, its okay, I’ll take the deal, they know us in there, I’ll be alright.” You see, Fernando was Colonia, a true gang member, and once in prison he would join the Mexican Mafia, earn his stripes by assaulting other prisoners at the direction of the “Big Homies” and someday become a made member of a ferocious prison gang.

How is it that something as malevolent as a prison gang can inspire such devotion? Fernando at the age of eighteen had already given his life to the violent anarchy of the criminal street gang culture. He had simply graduated to the next level, in a community that “respected” such deeds as young man’s right of passage.

It is estimated there are 1.4 million gang members in 33,000 gangs throughout the United States of America. It is commonly believed that this is an urban nightmare, and it is, but it is no longer isolated to the poorest neighborhoods of our inner cities. For more than thirty years we have been taking young men off the streets and putting them into advanced gangster training schools known as prisons. Prison gangs generally breakdown along racial lines and failure to associate with and “work for” the gang means you are left alone to fend for yourself in the midst of the never ending racial warfare that largely rules our prison system.

This insidious phenomenon came to fruition in the City of Los Angeles in the 70’s and exploded in the Crack Cocaine epidemic of the 80’s. Gangsters sent to prison recruited new gangsters from all over the State of California, and then through the federal system the entire country, so that upon release newly trained gangsters have started new street gangs in communities in every state in the nation. Today, Los Angeles has seen a significant drop in gang related homicides, Chicago is now the eye of the storm with over seven hundred homicides in the last year. Even including the atrocity on September 11, 2001 we have lost more young men and women to gang violence than terror attacks and two foreign wars combined. The cost of keeping us safe from this foreign threat has also cost us more than a trillion dollars.

Los Angeles is once again leading the way in gangster evolution as its most sophisticated practitioners are now leaving their neighborhoods in pursuit of bigger gains. Rather than fight amongst themselves and sell poisonous drugs to their own community, gang members are “flocking” into suburban neighborhoods and committing sophisticated high end residential burglaries. Using their ill gotten gains to purchase luxury cars and wear designer clothing they raise little suspicion as they case expensive residences. Notable celebrities and athletes including Alanis Morisette, Yasiel Puig, and Derek Fisher have been amongst the victims. Lt. Todd Hankel commander of the West Valley Station of LAPD notes that for these crimes gang members will “cross territories to group up to have enough people to commit the burglaries,” and they have even created a “common fund for bail money.” A previously unheard of level of cooperation.

In the depressed areas from whence they come these gangsters are seen as modern day Robin Hoods as they bring new revenue into the neighborhood. In a time of economic divide between rich and poor of unprecedented proportions a new consciousness is arising amongst the disenfranchised, that is a redefining of the enemy. Rather than spend their life’s energy on maiming and killing each other, the fight is being taken outside the neighborhood to places where the gains are so much greater.

The brutal anarchy of gang infested neighborhoods has created an environment ripe for revolution. As we obsessively guard against the external threats to our security we continue to turn a blind eye to the domestic carnage of street gang violence. Those that live within these communities feel more disenfranchised than ever as new governmental edicts call for longer prison sentences and deportation of their friends, neighbors, and family members.  There is still time to save ourselves from these regressive policies of retribution that have brought us to where we are today. Reform our prison systems and prioritize the future of our youth most likely to fall prey to “gangsterism.”  Provide them with positive alternatives upon which to place their hope for a better future. In so doing we might just avoid the day in which a leader “full of fight and devotion to some inner ideal” springs from their midst.

Written by: Philip Remington Dunn is a practicing criminal defense attorney, social justice advocate, and author of the critically acclaimed book: When Darkness Reigns.

My Fellow Christians We Are Being Played Like Fools

Written by Philip Remington Dunn

President Trump after much build up and fanfare has announced Justice Neil Gorsuch is his nominee for the open seat on the United States Supreme Court. It would appear that Justice Gorsuch is a social conservative and an opponent of Roe vs. Wade. Evangelical Christians of America you have just been thrown a bone from the table of the President on the only issue he believes you really care about. Justice Gorsuch’s selection will change nothing on the issue of abortion, but hey, it’s the thought that counts, right? The strategy is as simple as it is insidious; give the Evangelicals what they want in a Supreme Court nomination and they will turn a blind eye to every other anti-Christian policy the President enacts.

Those of us who truly seek to follow the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth hoped for the best with our new President. His harsh rhetoric of the campaign, his three marriages, disparaging remarks about women, mocking of the weak and disabled, self-aggrandizement, and so many other character traits antithetical to the Christian life could have been easily forgiven and forgotten if upon taking the office he left it all behind. But no, his actions to date have made it clear, he meant what he said in the campaign and as White House insiders report he is just getting started.

What are Trump’s anti-Christian policies? They are his pronouncements that do the greatest harm to the poorest and weakest of God’s children. The recent ban on travel to the United States by residents of certain “Muslim nations” is most cruelly applied to refugees fleeing tyranny in those countries. Syria is the most obvious example as certain ethnic and political opponents of the regime are being systematically slaughtered as government forces with Russian military assistance attack civilian targets with chemical weapons and barrel bombs. The same is true to one degree or another for all of the other banned nations. The ban however does not apply to certain wealthy “Muslim nations” such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia provided the terrorists in the 9-11 attack and both of these nations are strongly linked to providing support to ISIS.

Jesus told us in Matthew: 40, “The King will reply ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’.” We are to care for the hungry, the thirsty and the stranger in our land, and not turn away from them. This is the example provided in the parable of The Good Samaritan. Let us not repeat the sins of our past such as when President Roosevelt turned away over 200 Jews who came to our shores escaping Nazi Germany only to learn later that we sent them to their deaths in concentration camps. That decision had at its roots in the same fear and distrust of foreigners that fuels our anger today. It is our faith in something greater than ourselves that sets this nation apart from others, let us not become the evil we fight against.

The issue is the same with our neighbors to the south. Anyone who has been there will tell you that the poor of Mexico are a humble Christian people. As with so many of our ancestors before them, the most desperate have sought to flee their impoverished circumstances for a better life in America. Yes, we should have a legal mechanism to deal with immigration in our country, but we should not make it our first priority to humiliate and punish the weaker nation that they come from. Are they really an enemy we must subjugate?

The law as set down to the Israelites in Leviticus; 33-34 is instructive here, “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Jesus simply told us “love your neighbor as yourself.” The people of Mexico are our neighbors and they could use the help of the richest and most powerful nation in the world today. Do we as Evangelicals who describe ourselves as a Christian nation not only turn away from the poor of Mexico, but also demand that they pay for a wall to keep them separate from us? Is this not a demand that they recognize we have the power to destroy their economy should they not comply with a political edict from our President?

Dearest brothers and sisters in Christ, please do not accept the table scraps of the great master of the White House as some token of his affection. We cannot continue to be seen as supporting a man and his policies that are so contrary to our most cherished values. “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war the way the world does.” Rather, let us always strive at to be charitable and kind to those who need it the most, whomever they may be.

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Philip Remington Dunn is a practicing criminal defense attorney, social justice advocate, and author of the critically acclaimed book: When Darkness Reigns.

Hope Still Lives

Like many of us I enter the New Year with some trepidation after a bruising national election. It is apparent that our nation is deeply divided politically and that change is the only thing that is certain to occur. What that change may be is as uncertain as it gets. Uncertainty causes fear and fear leads to despair. “Without hope the people perish” a biblical truth that is creeping into our national consciousness. There is for most of us a sense that we are going backwards as a people to a darker time and place where compassion and tolerance is not honored and basic civility is dead. It is no longer possible to disagree without being disagreeable; insults and threats are accepted as a part of our national dialogue. There are no limitations on the language used to condemn someone with whom we disagree and hate speech has become a political norm.

I remember a time when progressives felt almost as disenfranchised from their government as today. The dual national tragedies of the Vietnam War and Watergate gave liberal politicians the sense that they would be in charge forever. Then came Ronald Reagan and the Reagan Revolution. His sweeping victory in 1980 caused plenty of despair amongst the liberal rank and file. His campaign rhetoric described as divisive at the time was tame in comparison to what we have just endured, but fear of harsh measures his administration would bring was just as real as it is today. Then Ronald Reagan quit being a candidate and started acting like a president. In pursuit of his agenda he was willing to compromise and better yet he did not dislike his political opponents. His anger was unleashed on our enemies abroad, not fellow Americans at home.

I recall being at the Reagan Library to hear Senator Edward Kennedy give a speech not long before his brain tumor diagnosis. He walked in arm in arm with Nancy Regan and you could tell they both relished the moment. Ted Kennedy mentioned his political opposition to Ronald Reagan’s policies but also told us he could not help but like the man personally. One example he gave was how the president invited him and house speaker Tip O’Neil to the White House every St. Patrick’s day for a beer. Reagan wanted to celebrate the fact that three Irishman had all made it that far at the same moment in our nation’s history.

It could happen again, and if not, Ronald Reagan’s example of civility should not be denied. Those of us who fear that societal justice has been dealt a severe blow must not waiver in our opposition to policies designed to scapegoat the weakest that live amongst us, but in so doing we cannot become the thing we hate the most. Anger, fear, and intolerance are just as alive in our hearts as those that we believe have fallen victim to the power of such emotions. Rather let us courageously love our political opponents as fellow citizens of a great nation, and be an example of what we aspire to become. As Senator Kennedy once told us let us always believe that “hope still lives and the dream will never die.” 

Philip Remington Dunn is a practicing criminal defense attorney, social justice advocate, and author of the critically acclaimed book: When Darkness Reigns.