Former Philadelphia prosecutor campaigning for DA accused of lying about role in wrongful conviction case

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Former Philadelphia prosecutor Carlos Vega was co-counsel in the 2016 retrial of Anthony Wright, who was tried again despite DNA evidence linking another man to the murder for which he had been imprisoned.

  • Carlos Vega has denied playing much of a role in the 2016 retrial of Anthony Wright.
  • But Wright’s legal team said Vega was jointly responsible for the case.
  • Wright, who was accused of rape and murder, was acquitted after serving 25 years in prison.
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A former prosecutor campaigning to be Philadelphia’s next district attorney has downplayed his role in a murder case against a man who was exonerated by DNA evidence after spending some 25 years in prison.

But according to that man’s legal team, Democrat Carlos Vega – who is seeking to unseat the liberal incumbent – played a far bigger role than he now claims.

In an interview this week with The Philadelphia Enquirer, Vega described the allegation that he played a key role in the case of Anthony Wright as a “bald-faced lie.”

“I was brought in at the eleventh hour, two weeks before trial, just to question three witnesses,” he told the paper.

“My only participation in that case was calling civilian witnesses and I think the crime scene personnel,” he said in an interview with The Intercept earlier this year. “With respect to the rest of the case, I was not involved at all. It was not my case.”

But that’s not true, according to the Innocence Project, which represented Wright at his 2016 retrial. The group said in a statement on Wednesday that Vega was in fact one of two prosecutors assigned to “jointly handle” the case, noting her served as co-counsel for the full three weeks of the trial. And while he did question three witnesses, he also questioned Wright himself “at great length,” challenging the exonerated defendant’s “integrity, veracity, and his claims of innocence.”

Vega’s statements suggesting otherwise, the group said, “are false.”

“Mr. Vega has not apologized to Mr. Wright for the role he played in seeking his return to prison on a second life sentence, nor publicly acknowledged Mr. Wright’s innocence,” the Innocence Project added.

Vega did not immediately respond to a message from Insider requesting comment.

Anthony Wright’s wrongful imprisonment

Wright, then 20 years old, was arrested in the fall of 1991 and charged with raping and murdering a 77-year-old woman in North Philadelphia. He was convicted two years later after a jury was convinced by a confession that Wright said was coerced by police threats of abuse, the testimony of purported acquaintances who said he’d told them of the crime, and blood-stained clothing that law enforcement said he had been wearing the night of the incident.

The case, detailed by The National Registry of Exonerations, began to fall apart in 2013. That year, DNA testing revealed a rape kit linked the crime to a since-deceased dealer of crack cocaine, not Wright. Testing also showed that the clothing presented at Wright’s trial had been worn by the victim, not him, as police claimed.

Previous state witnesses also recanted their testimony, saying they had been pressured by detectives.

But instead of releasing him, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office took Wright to trial again and presented a new theory: that he had been an accomplice. Jurors were not only unconvinced, but angered by the evidence they were presented with – “The city should never have brought this case,” the jury forewoman said afterward – taking less than an hour to acquit him.

Wright went on to sue the city, settling for just under $10 million.

Political implications

Vega was fired in 2018, along with the other prosecutor in the Wright case, by a new Philadelphia DA, Larry Krasner, a former defense attorney who took office promising an end to business as usual in the criminal justice system. But Krasner, one of the country’s foremost “progressive prosecutors,” has been battered by claims his light touch has allowed criminals dodge consequences for serious crimes.

There is no question violence has gotten worse, in Philadelphia as elsewhere during the pandemic.

In 2020, just under 500 people were killed in Philadelphia, the highest death toll in 30 years. And 2021 is not looking any better, with the city already suffering 142 homicides, up from 107 by this time last year.

Critics have pointed to a decline in the conviction rate for people accused of illegal gun possession. Krasner, in turn, has argued that police are presenting his office with weaker cases (arrests have tripled, but only 49% of those charged have been convicted during his tenure, down from 63% under the previous DA).

Vega has campaigned on putting a stop to a surge in violence, attributing it to the incumbent rather than a deadly virus and a national trend.

“He promised us justice that would make us safer,” Vega said in a press release last month. “But there is nothing just about turning a blind eye to illegal guns, and it certainly isn’t making us safer.”

Still, while promising more law and order, Vega – endorsed by Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police – has also sought to emphasize his working-class roots while promising to address “unfairness in our criminal justice system” in this overwhelmingly Democratic city.

But Vega’s role in what the city now concedes was a wrongful imprisonment – a “tragic case,” in the words of Mayor Jim Kenney – will make it more difficult for the former prosecutor, ahead of Philadelphia’s May 18 primary election, to pitch himself as equally committed to security and reform.

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

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Portland police officers used force more than 6,000 times against protesters last year

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A demonstrator is pepper sprayed shortly before being arrested during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Portland, Ore.

  • Portland police used force 6,000 times against protesters last year, according to DOJ attorneys.
  • These incidents at times violated department policies and top brass didn’t question it, they said.
  • Portland became a flashpoint for protest activity and police response after George Floyd’s death.
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In late May, after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Portland, Oregon, erupted as a hotbed for protest activity, with demonstrators taking to the streets for more than 100 consecutive days.

It also became a flashpoint for clashes between police and protesters. Demonstrators were at many times peaceful but in some instances engaged in violence and vandalism, while federal and local law enforcement repeatedly used aggressive tactics in response to the protests.

But legal documents filed by attorneys for the Department of Justice last month have started to paint a picture of just how frequently officers turned to force.

Portland Police Bureau officers used force “more than 6,000 times” during “crowd-control events” between May 29 and November 15 – an average of 35 times per day – the attorneys said, summarizing the DOJ’s review of PPB officers’ conduct as part of a previous settlement agreement.

“PPB has failed to maintain substantial compliance with the Agreement’s force-policy requirements,” they said.

PPB did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment on this story.

“Some of this force deviated from force policy, and supervisors frequently validated individual uses of force with little or no discussion of reasonableness of the force used,” the DOJ attorneys said. “Many [after-action reviews] did not include any witness interviews or officer interviews. Many [reviews] contained similar or identical, i.e., cut-and-paste, language.”

The DOJ’s review also found that commands from top brass often didn’t translate effectively to front-line officers, leading to the agency to conclude that in some cases, those officers’ “movements were chaotic and could have been executed better.”

The review also determined that PPB improperly justified its use of force by claiming all members of a protest were engaged in “active aggression” simply by being part of a crowd where some people were being aggressive. In one example, according to the document, an officer justified firing a “less-lethal impact munition” at an individual because they “engaged in ‘furtive conversation’ and ran away.”

The DOJ did acknowledge, however, that officers in Portland faced “substantial challenges” stemming from the wave of protests, which it said often included a “criminal element,” as well as a rise in violent crime across the city and budget cuts that hindered training.

Portland faced a particularly complex blend of protest activity last year, some of which has continued into 2021.

Many of the demonstrators, particularly in the early months, protested police brutality and systemic racism, and drew from a diverse crowd ranging from BLM activists to suburban moms, veterans, and doctors. But Portland’s Black police chief also called out a small subset of violent protesters, and there is an emerging schism between the city’s progressive groups – with some continuing to engage in vandalism.

Portland has also seen a surge in far-right activity, with Proud Boys and other white supremacist militia groups clashing with protesters, anti-lockdown protesters violently storming the state capitol, and election conspiracy theorists rallying at the capitol in January.

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Prisoners in Tennessee were placed in the last group eligible for vaccines after an advisory panel said prioritizing them would be a PR ‘nightmare’

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vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine are prepared to be administered to front-line health care workers under an emergency use authorization at a drive up vaccination site from Renown Health in Reno, Nevada on December 17, 2020.

Prisoners in the state of Tennessee were placed last on the list of eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine after an advisory council feared a “public relations nightmare” should they be given priority access, the Associated Press reported.

According to the report, published Saturday, the Pandemic Vaccine Planning Stakeholder group, the council tasked with forming recommendations for the state’s vaccine rollout, noted that incarcerated people would “be a vector of general population transmission” if left “untreated.” 

The advisory council first met in September 2020 and consists of 40 public health agencies, healthcare coalitions, public officials, emergency management, and other organizations, according to the Associated Press report.

Some corrections staff have been vaccinated, according to the report, but the exact number in the state of Tennessee is not publicly available. No prisoners have yet been vaccinated, according to the report. 

The Tennessee Department of Health did not immediately return Insider’s request for comment Saturday.

The Tennessee vaccination plan includes incarcerated people in Phase 3 of its vaccination plan, behind healthcare workers, first responders, teachers, people with high-risk conditions, and corrections facility staff. Inmates who currently qualify to receive the vaccine due to their age have not yet been vaccinated, according to the AP report Saturday.

Documents obtained by the Associated Press showed that the advisory council concluded there would be “lots of media inquiries” had it opted to prioritize immunizations for incarcerated people, even though it contended that inmates were “part of the community,” according to the report.

Throughout the pandemic, incarcerated people in the US have been at a heightened risk of contracting the novel coronavirus, while advocates have complained about conditions at jails and prisons that have put inmates at the heightened risk.

In July 2020, the Journal of the American Medical Association found that prisoners were infected by COVID-19 at a rate over five times higher than the general population. In December, a report from The Marshall Project and the AP found that 1 in 5 prisoners in the US had contracted COVID-19, compared to about 1 in 20 people in the general population. More than 1,700 inmates have died of the virus, also as of December. 

In Tennessee, one in three prisoners has tested positive for COVID-19, according to data from the AP and from the Marshall Project. 

The Associated Press report Saturday emphasizes the longstanding debate about the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in the US, and in particular the rollout of vaccines in incarcerated populations. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued general guidance, states ultimately control vaccine eligibility. 

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In a rare show of solidarity, Republicans and Democrats are working together to pass sweeping criminal justice reform in Michigan as the state’s jail population grows

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Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist opens a session at the state Capitol

  • Michigan lawmakers will have advanced more than two dozen criminal justice reform bills when they close the current session this week.
  • Governor Whitmer created a bipartisan commission in 2019 to look at jails across the state to better understand the problem. Much of the reform effort is modeled on its recommendations.
  • The overhaul aim to reduce the state’s jail population, which has tripled over the past 3 decades even as crime rates have fallen to a 50-year low. 
  • Supporters spanned grassroots racial justice organizations to Amway co-chairman Doug DeVos, the brother-in-law of education secretary Betsy DeVos and a major conservative force in Michigan.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

For years, Michigan courts have been taking away peoples’ drivers licenses for reasons that have nothing to do with their behavior behind the wheel.

Instead, suspending the right to drive has been used as a cudgel to get people to pay traffic tickets, court fines, or child support. But because people need to work in order to afford to pay these fees, thousands thousands of them have been driving on suspended licenses in order to get to work. And if they got caught, they wind up in jail. 

Today, driving on a suspended license is one of the leading reasons Michiganders wind up in jail, and the system often appears more designed to squeeze money out of the state’s poorest citizens rather than as a tool to ensure public safety. It’s part of the reason the state’s jail population has tripled over the past 30 years even as crime rates have fallen to a 50-year low.

No one knew how seriously out of whack the jail system had become until earlier this year, when a first-of-its-kind commission took a look at who was going to jail and why. And now, when Michigan has become emblematic of just how broken our political system has become – with right-wing terrorists plotting to kidnap the state’s Democratic governor and some Republicans working to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the state – lawmakers who are often at each others’ throats are determined to make big change before they adjourn for the year. By the time the state legislature wraps up this week, it will have advanced more than two dozen criminal justice reform bills.

“Right now, America is kind of at a reckoning,” said Pastor Kevin Harris, who served 14 years in prison for drug-related offenses and is now a community organizer who chairs the board of the group Michigan Liberation. “Even the most corrupt system has to recognize that we went overboard.” 

Detroit BLM
Detroit Activists March, Nov. 7th, 2020.

This session, Michigan lawmakers have already enacted legislation that automatically wipes people’s criminal records clean of most misdemeanors – and some felonies – after several years. It is the most progressive law of its kind in the US. They’ve also passed legislation that makes it easier for those with a criminal record to get an occupational license to work as a barber, roofer, or cosmetologist. 

This week, lawmakers are scrambling to pass a package of 20 more reform bills before their session ends, including one that will stop courts from suspending people’s licenses for reasons unrelated to their driving records. That alone could lift the risk of arrest from over the heads of hundreds of thousands – more than 350,000 people had their licenses suspended because they failed to appear in court for other reasons or because they had unpaid fees or fines in 2018 alone, according to a recent audit. That’s equal to around 1 in 20 drivers in the state.

House Judiciary Chair Graham Filler, a Republican from just north of Lansing whose website describes him as “pro-law enforcement” and “not politically correct,” coordinated the effort in the House. 

Even if lawmakers “start at different places, [we] end at the same place,” Filler told Insider. “Can we have a justice system that is proportional and fair and at the same time does not impact public safety?”

NOT A “PARTISAN ISSUE”

In a month where some Republican politicians attempted to overturn Biden’s election victory in the state, criminal justice is one of the only issues where both parties have been able to work together. The coalition that has advanced criminal justice reform in Michigan spanned the progressive ACLU to the right-wing, Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity. A similar alliance of strange bedfellows was also instrumental in passing national legislation signed by President Donald Trump in 2018, which overhauled mandatory minimum sentencing laws and made other changes to the federal prison system.

“We need to reject the idea that this is a partisan issue,” Democratic Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist, who co-chaired a bipartisan commission on criminal justice reform, said in an interview. 

Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist with Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, right, April 17, 2019.

In Michigan, supporters of this legislation spanned grassroots racial justice organizations to Amway co-chairman Doug DeVos, the brother-in-law of education secretary Betsy DeVos and a major conservative force in Michigan. The politics are good for both the right and left: Progressive ss can tout the reforms package as a win for racial justice, while conservatives can say they managed to shrink the reach of government and bring savings for tax-payers. The state jails cost Michigan’s counties around half a billion dollars each year, eating up around one-quarter of their public safety budgets.

The system “is not actually promoting public safety,” Gilchrist said. “It’s just disrupting people’s lives in dangerous ways.”

Donald Talley knows this cycle first hand. Talley, a 65-year-old who lives west of Detroit in the city of Inkster, first lost his license in 1985 because he had unpaid traffic tickets and child support. He was homeless at the time, earning some money here and there as a mechanic, so he had little choice but to keep driving. 

He was arrested repeatedly over the next 20 years as his fees continued to mount. The arrests became so predictable he even figured out how to use them to his advantage: getting put away in the winter meant he could have a warm place to sleep. Then, through a chance encounter at a soup kitchen, Talley connected with pro bono attorneys who helped him get his fees set aside. By that time, Talley said, he owed well over $180,000 in child support, traffic tickets, and other fees and fines.

Getting out from under the threat of arrest turned his life around, Talley said, and he hoped this legislation would do the same for thousands of others.

“Once you get a smell of victory, you can see the light as far as your life getting better,” Talley said. 

Whitmer jail task force
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, left, announces the creation of the bipartisan task force, April 17, 2019.

No one had really conducted a comprehensive study of who was in jail and why until February 2019, when Governor Whitmer created a bipartisan commission to look at jails across the state co-chaired by Lieutenant Governor Gilchrist and Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack. This week, lawmakers are working on a package of 20 bills modeled on the report recommendations, including the one that reins in drivers license suspensions. If passed, Chief Justice McCormack told Insider, “it would really make Michigan a national leader.”

The commission took aim at the state’s jails. On average, Michigan’s jails hold more than 16,000 people, usually for stays of less than one week. Jails are often described as the “front door” of the criminal justice system, since people go there to await trial or to serve short sentences. But far more people spend time in jails than go to prison – nationwide, seventeen times more people cycle through jails than prison.  Even a short stay in jail can mean lost jobs, lost custody of children, and fees that can prove hard to escape.

The commission’s work was supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which provided a team of technical advisors who have staffed lawmakers as they turned the panel’s recommendations into legislation.

“There are not [other] states, as far as we know, that have tried to understand statewide what’s driving jail populations and what’s contributing to jail growth. This is new and pretty exciting,” said Pew’s Terry Schuster. “With increasing partisanship, criminal justice issues remain one of the few areas where we see continued bipartisan consensus.”

A “KUMBAYA MOMENT”

It took a lot of work to get to this point, especially on the right, said Joe Haveman, a Republican from the Western Michigan city of Holland who tried to advance criminal justice reforms while serving as a state representative between 2009 and 2014. Haveman said his efforts to reform the state’s criminal justice system ran into “brick walls” from “old-school Republicans” during the administration of the Republican Governor Rick Snyder. 

But Michigan has strict term limits, sweeping in a younger crop of lawmakers who look at criminal justice reform through a more libertarian lens. And the opioid epidemic, which hit rural and white communities hard, have also changed attitudes about the role of law enforcement in Republican areas. 

“When I was growing up, I wouldn’t have known anybody who had a problem with the law – I think that was true for a lot of Americans,” Haveman said. “When the opioid epidemic exploded it became somebody we knew… It’s not just a ‘bad person’ – that stereotype that I may see on TV, somebody from a big city.”

Several lawmakers also credited the evangelical community for building support for criminal justice reform among Republicans. Judiciary Committee Chairman Filler said this was an issue of special importance to Speaker Lee Chatfield, son of an evangelical minister who was involved in a prison ministry. (Chatfield declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Lawmakers don’t plan to stop working on criminal justice reform after this session ends. The commission co-chaired by Gilchrist and McCormack made recommendations that the legislature did not act on this year, including provisions to divert people with mental illness away from jail. Lawmakers from rural areas also want to make it easier to wipe arrests for driving under the influence, a common offense outside major cities, from criminal records.

“You’ve had this left-and-right Kumbaya moment on criminal justice reform for the past couple years,” said David Guenthner with the conservative think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “The objective should be to use prison for those we are scared of, not those we are mad at. And when someone’s coming out of prison, they should have sufficient training and opportunity to earn a living and be a success.”

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