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Human Rights

Civil Rights Advocates Call for Removal of Judge Mike Pitts

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He Defended the Confederate Flag and Insulted Immigrants. Now He’s a Judge.

SOUTH CAROLINA (ProPublica) — When South Carolina lawmakers confirmed a batch of new magistrates this year, one nominee stood out from the pack: Mike Pitts.

The former state House member had made a name for himself in Columbia as a staunch defender of the Confederate flag, and on Facebook he has penned anti-immigration screeds and used racially charged language.

In May, for example, he posted a photo of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, an African American Democrat running for president. His caption: “Cory Booker alway [sic] looks like he just hit crack real hard.”

None of this, however, prompted any discussion in June, when the state Senate confirmed Pitts along with 33 other nominees for the lower courts.

Unlike South Carolina’s felony and appellate court judges, magistrates are not subjected to legislative hearings before lawmakers sign off on their appointments. In fact, there’s rarely any public debate at all. Nominations typically sail through the upper chamber with a single voice vote.

Although magistrates oversee mostly misdemeanor matters, their authority is substantial; each year, they decide hundreds of thousands of cases, including criminal ones that can send someone to prison for months or saddle them with thousands of dollars in fines.

But the confirmation process allows new recruits to escape public scrutiny and sitting magistrates to remain on the bench even after they’ve been disciplined for misconduct, an investigation by The Post and Courier and ProPublica found.

Some appointees have gone on to make racist and sexist comments from the bench.

Magistrate Willie Bethune in Clarendon County, for example, said a defendant was attractive and asked her to show off her bellybutton. He was later accused of pressuring that woman into giving him sexual favors. While he denied the charges, he resigned amid an investigation by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which polices judges and lawyers in the state.

Charleston Magistrate James Gosnell, who is white, used a racial slur during a bond hearing for an African American defendant and was reprimanded by the disciplinary office; he described it as an ill-considered attempt to get the man to change his path in life. The judge remains on the bench today, reappointed in May.

Beaufort County Magistrate Peter Lamb called crack cocaine “a black man’s disease” and later resigned. As part of an agreement with the state Supreme Court, he acknowledged misconduct in that instance — and in others — and promised to never seek judicial office again, without permission.

The Post and Courier and ProPublica found Pitts’ Facebook page while researching the backgrounds of all 319 magistrates in South Carolina. Like many magistrates, he doesn’t have a law license; to qualify for nomination to the lower courts, applicants need only to earn an undergraduate degree and pass a basic competency exam.

Pitts served as a police officer in South Carolina for a decade before retiring in 1987. Several of his posts appear at odds with key tenets of the state’s judicial code of conduct, which stresses impartiality and strict avoidance of words or actions that demonstrate bias or prejudice.

In a November 2017 post, he complained about people “from the Middle East” in Walmart and wrote, “after being subject to this incident I now support shutting down all immigration until we stop the demise of our culture.” And he has been recently photographed wearing a shirt reading, “Welcome to America Learn the Damn Language!”

In another post, Pitts criticized transgender people, saying “they aren’t sure what the hell they are.”

Pitts, a Republican who recently took the bench, didn’t respond to messages left by phone and email.

Civil rights advocates condemned Pitts’ remarks and called for his removal.

“A person with such racist and xenophobic views should not be placed in a position that will inevitably impact the lives of citizens in a diverse community,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Magistrate Pitts should be removed from his post in order to maintain the objectivity and impartiality of the South Carolina judicial system.”

Brenda Murphy, president of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP, said her group is “totally against” the idea of Pitts donning the robe. “We would not want someone who has made those comments appointed as a magistrate in a local community,” she said.

Some state lawmakers also questioned Pitts’ fitness for the bench.

Republican state Rep. Gary Clary, a former state circuit judge, said the posts could be “grounds for recusal” in cases where people of color or transgender people appear before Pitts.

“That’s the reason judges don’t normally have Facebook and Twitter accounts,” Clary said. “You are supposed to be fair and impartial.”

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a Democrat, went further.“None of us were aware of these posts, or his ethnic and racially insensitive comments, which I think disqualify him as a fair or impartial judge,” Harpootlian, a longtime trial lawyer, said after The Post and Courier described Pitts’ posts.

“If I was Muslim or of Middle Eastern descent, I would be fearful of appearing in front of him.”

A spokesman for Gov. Henry McMaster said no one brought the posts to his attention before McMaster, a Republican, signed off on Pitts’ appointment this year. The governor declined to expand on the issue. ​

Chief Justice Donald Beatty of the South Carolina Supreme Court, who oversees all of the state’s court officials, also declined to comment.

A Republican who served 13 years in the legislature, Pitts has long stoked controversy. When state leaders pressed to remove the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds in 2015 after the mass shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, Pitts was a chief opponent.

This article was produced in partnership with The Post and Courier, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.

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Health

Advocates Urge Compassionate Release of Geriatric Prisoners to Avoid Virus

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Photo: Adobe Stock

by Diane Bernard, Public News Service

Hand sanitizer is considered contraband in prisons, making it harder to prevent the spread of the coronavirus if it strikes. Prisons can be incubators for spreading contagions, and advocates say officials need to take more measures to prevent the coronavirus from spreading behind bars.

Federal and most state prisons, including those in Maryland, have banned visits to keep inmates safe. But Tyrone Walker, a formerly incarcerated associate with the Justice Policy Institute, said that’s not enough. He said officials need to end overcrowding and give parole to the elderly to keep incarcerated people safe.

“People who are currently incarcerated are housed on top of each other. And they’re asking us about the coronavirus to get, you know, to have some space,” Walker said. “Well, that’s not allowed while you’re incarcerated.”

The majority of America’s incarcerated population are held in state facilities. The Maryland correctional department said no coronavirus cases have been reported in its jails and prisons. But no inmates have as yet been tested.

Of the more than 2 million people incarcerated in the U.S., about 165,000 are 55 or older. Those older people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

People in jail and prison also are more likely to report having a chronic condition or infectious disease, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Walker said prisons should consider releasing older incarcerated people with other high-risk factors.

“One of the things that the prisons can do is release those who are considered geriatric within their population,” he said. “They’re no risk to public safety, and they can be safely released back into the communities.”

Maryland imprisons 3,000 people age 50 and older, and nearly 1,000 who are 60 or older. As of Sunday, no states have reported coronavirus outbreaks in any prison in the United States.

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Health

LA Public Defender Leads $1.2 Million Grant to Help Mentally Ill

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LOS ANGELES — The LA County Public Defender’s Office is the lead agency for a $1.2 million grant to divert people suffering from mental illness out of jail and into treatment.

LA County has been awarded the two-year grant from the MacArthur Foundation to directly address the over-incarceration of the mentally ill.

Los Angeles County operates the world’s largest jail system and its jails remain critically overcrowded. One of the main drivers of the local jail population is the incarceration of the mentally ill.

The grant will allow the Public Defender’s Office, working with other County and City agencies, to expand pre-plea diversion for those in custody as a result of a mental disorder. The effort will work toward breaking the cycle from medical and mental health facilities to custody, with a focus on the homeless population.

“Mentally ill people do not belong in jails,” LA County Public Defender Ricardo D. García said. “The startup funding provided by the MacArthur Foundation represents a substantial opportunity to mitigate the counterproductive use of criminal courts and jails as holding centers for the mentally ill men, women and children of Los Angeles County.”

This new initiative will include embedding mental health professionals in high volume courtrooms, same-day assessments of defendants who appear to suffer from a mental health disorder, and the pre-plea release and diversion of qualifying individuals into mental health treatment programs.

To help guide the launch of this program, the initiative will utilize provisions of AB 1810, a state law enacted in 2018 that allows pre-plea diversion for some defendants with mental health needs.

Partner agencies in this endeavor include the Los Angeles County Alternate Public Defender; Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office; Department of Mental Health; Sheriff’s Department; Department of Probation; Department of Public Health; Health Agency Departments; County Counsel’s Bail Reform Team; Project 180, with support from the Superior Court.

The $1.2 million MacArthur grant will go toward diverting people suffering from mental illness out of jails and into treatment.

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Human Rights

Border Patrol Officials Dodged Congress’ Questions About Migrant Children’s Deaths

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Border Patrol Officials Dodged Congress’ Questions About Migrant Children’s Deaths

by Robert Moore for ProPublica

WASHINGTON D.C. — The Trump administration sought to “conceal information” about the death of a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy in Border Patrol custody, a House subcommittee chairwoman said at a hearing Tuesday.

Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., said the Department of Homeland Security has “consistently failed to maintain transparency by stymieing congressional inquiries. This raises concerns that they are hiding serious issues with management, in addition to the leadership vacancies at the top of the department. One example of this is the department’s decision to conceal information on the death of Carlos Hernandez Vasquez.”

Rice chairs the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation and Operations, which had a Tuesday hearing to examine DHS efforts to prevent child deaths in custody. Six migrant children died in government custody between September 2018 and May 2019, the first such deaths in a decade.

Much of the hearing focused on Carlos, who died on May 20 in a Border Patrol cell in Weslaco, Texas. A ProPublica investigation in December, which included video of Carlos’ last hours and death, raised questions about his treatment by Border Patrol agents and contracted medical workers as his condition deteriorated.

“Despite information requests by this committee, it was not until a ProPublica report was released seven months later that Congress and the public learned more about what happened to Carlos, that his death may have been caused by the failure to provide urgently needed medical care and the failure to follow the most basic procedures to simply check on a sick child,” Rice said in her opening statement.

Two high-ranking Homeland Security officials testified at the hearing, but neither responded to Rice’s criticism. The two officials — Border Patrol Chief of Law Enforcement Operations Brian Hastings and DHS Senior Medical Officer Dr. Alex Eastman — used their opening statements to stress the unprecedented nature of the surge of families and unaccompanied children at the border last year.

They said DHS quickly scaled up medical care for migrants at the border following the deaths of two children in December 2018, using medical professionals from the Coast Guard, Public Health Service and private contractors. Eastman said the surge of migrant families and children was “an unconventional problem that required an unconventional solution.”

Under questioning from Rice, Hastings said the video of Carlos’ death revealed by ProPublica was “troubling” but sidestepped questions about his death because of an ongoing investigation by the DHS Office of Inspector General.

Hastings described one change in “welfare checks” made in the wake of Carlos’ death. Records obtained by ProPublica showed that a Border Patrol agent logged three welfare checks on Carlos in the four hours he was lying on the floor of his cell, dying or dead. The medical examiner who performed an autopsy on Carlos told ProPublica that the agent looked through a window but didn’t enter the cell.

In July, then-Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner John Sanders ordered that “any subject in our custody” receive welfare checks every 15 minutes and be documented in the system, Hastings said.

Hastings’ word choice drew a sharp rebuke from Rice.

“You mean person, not subject, in your custody. Because that’s what they are. They’re people, not subjects,” Rice said.

“Person, yes ma’am,” Hastings said.

Inside the Cell Where a Sick 16-Year-Old Boy Died in Border Patrol Care

Rice and other Democrats criticized reports released last month by the DHS inspector general into the deaths of two Guatemalan children in Border Patrol custody in December 2018. The reports found no wrongdoing by agents in the deaths of Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, and Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8.

“Publicly available summaries of these investigations are extraordinarily narrow in scope. They focus only on whether DHS personnel committed malfeasance and not whether the department’s policies and resources could properly protect the children in its care,” Rice said. She criticized the inspector general for declining an invitation to testify before the subcommittee.

Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., also criticized the inspector general for taking a year to complete investigations of the two deaths. Jakelin and Felipe were both held by Border Patrol agents in her district.

“Even more concerning, the OIG limited its investigation scope to only determine whether there was malfeasance by personnel and did not consider whether CBP’s policies and procedures are adequate to prevent migrant child deaths,” Torres Small said. “As I’ve said from the beginning, the reason for these investigations is not to punish people, it’s to keep this from happening again. It’s to make sure that we have the protocols in place in case we’re faced with this challenge again.”

The DHS Office of Inspector General did not immediately respond to requests from ProPublica a hearing about the scope of the investigation or the reason for not testifying at Tuesday’s hearing.


ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. We dig deep into important issues, shining a light on abuses of power and betrayals of public trust. Follow on Twitter at @ProPublica 



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