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Alaska man charged with sex trafficking
Court Feed News | 2006/12/22 18:56

WASHINGTON – An Anchorage, Alaska, man has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of allegedly forcing underage and adult women to have sex with men in exchange for money, Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher of the Criminal Division and U.S. Attorney Nelson P. Cohen for the District of Alaska announced today.

The 28-count superseding indicted returned by a federal grand jury in Alaska on Dec. 15, 2006, charges Don Arthur Webster Jr., aka “Jerry Starr,” 49, with four counts of sex trafficking of a child using force, fraud or coercion, two counts of attempted sex trafficking of a minor using force, fraud or coercion, and five counts of sex trafficking of an adult using force, fraud or coercion. The superseding indictment was unsealed following a hearing in Anchorage today.

In addition, Webster was charged with various drug-related offenses, including three counts of distribution of cocaine base – commonly known as “crack” cocaine – to a pregnant woman, four counts of distribution of cocaine base to a child, and five counts of distribution of cocaine base. The charges are in addition to charges in the original indictment returned Nov. 14, 2006 – one count each of manufacturing, possessing with intent to distribute and maintaining a place to manufacture, distribute and use cocaine. The indictment includes two forfeiture counts, involving property located at 3411 Oregon Drive in Anchorage – one count based on property derived from proceeds of the crimes charged in the sex trafficking counts of the indictment and one count based on the drug trafficking charges.

“This indictment alleges a shocking pattern of sexual exploitation, threats of violence and drug trafficking by the defendant, all for his own financial gain,” said Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher of the Criminal Division. “The Department of Justice is deeply committed to the vigorous prosecution of predators who force young women into lives of prostitution and despair.”

According to the indictment, Webster operated a number of businesses named Foxy Roxies, Sunshine Girls, American Beauties, Kotton Kandy, Tiffani’s, Tickle Your Fancy, and Lickety Split in Anchorage. While these businesses purport to be “escort services” in which an individual would pay for another person’s “time and company,” the indictment charges that they were in fact fronts for Webster’s illegal prostitution business.

Webster allegedly provided adult women and underage girls to engage in sex acts in exchange for money with men who called the escort service phone lines. The indictment describes Webster’s prostitution business as operating on an “out call” basis, meaning that the females would meet the caller at his residence or at a hotel paid for by the caller. According to the indictment, the caller would pay a fixed hourly rate plus a transportation fee to have sex with the female who would meet him. Certain regular callers could request that the female meeting him provide him with illegal drugs, known as an “issue,” for an additional fee. The female allegedly obtained the illegal drugs to give to the caller from Webster or someone acting at his direction.

As described in the indictment, when a female met a caller for sex, it was called “going on a date.” The females allegedly were not allowed to keep any part of the money they collected in payment for the sex acts. Webster required them to turn over all of the money to him or to a designated representative, who would give him the money. After a female turned over her money, he or a designated representative allegedly would distribute an “issue” to the female, typically a gram of “crack” cocaine.

Webster is also accused of being physically violent with the females working for him, and allegedly would threaten them with harm if they disobeyed him or attempted to leave. The indictment further alleges that he would take possession of a female’s personal property and identification when she moved into one of his residences.

If convicted, the defendant faces a maximum sentence of up to life in prison.

This case is being investigated by Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Anchorage Police Department. The prosecution is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Audrey J. Renschen of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Alaska and Trial Attorney Alexandra Gelber of the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.

California Court to Rule on Same Sex Marriage Dispute
Court Feed News | 2006/12/21 17:51

The California Supreme Court unanimously voted Wednesday to reexamine the constitutionality of the state's ban on same-sex marriage, projecting that the case could be heard in court as early as next summer. All seven justices of the court signed an order, filed in San Francisco, agreeing to review an October appeals court decision that upheld state laws requiring marriage to be between a man and a woman. Briefs in the case are due by this spring.

The court will consider a total of six consolidated cases: four filed by the city of San Francisco and 19 same-sex couples seeking the right to marry, and two filed by traditional values groups opposing such a right. Although the court grants review of only a small percentage of the cases appealed to it, its decision to take up the marriage cases was not a surprise. The review was sought not only by same-sex marriage supporters, but also, in an unusual move, by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who won the lower court decision. Lockyer, who has defended the state marriage laws, filed a brief earlier this month urging that a decision by the state's highest court was needed to provide "finality and certainty for the citizens of California.''

Lockyer spokesman Tom Dresslar said yesterday, "Californians need and deserve clarity on this issue as soon as possible. People of this state have rightly expected all along that clarity would be provided by the state Supreme Court.'' Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said, "We are delighted that the court ruled so quickly and unanimously to grant review. "We are very hopeful the court will stand up for basic fairness and bring an end to the current ban on marriage for an entire group of Californians,'' Minter said. The attorney represents 11 gay and lesbian couples who filed one of the lawsuits before the court. San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said, "Marriage equality is the major civil rights issue of our time, and the state's highest court clearly recognizes it should have the final word on the issue in California.'' But Glen Lavy, a lawyer for a group opposing same-sex marriage, said, "We hope the court will recognize that it is valid to define marriage as between a man and a woman. That is what marriage has always meant in California.''

Same-sex marriage supporters contend the California constitution's guarantees of equal protection, due process and privacy provide a right to marriage. In opposition, Lockyer has argued it is reasonable for the state to limit marriage to heterosexual couples while giving same-sex couples the same rights and protections through domestic partnerships. The Proposition 22 group and the Campaign for California Families take the opposing arguments a step farther and say that marriage between a man and a woman is better for children. The six cases stem from the legal battle over San Francisco's short-lived stint of granting same-sex marriage licenses in 2004.

The city issued about 4,000 licenses between Feb. 12 and March 11, 2004, when the state Supreme Court halted the practice on grounds of an administrative law issue. But the high court said at the same time that the broader constitutional question could be raised in Superior Court lawsuits, which were then filed by the city of San Francisco and gay and lesbian couples. In March 2005, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer ruled that there is a state constitutional right to same-sex marriage. But a Court of Appeal panel in San Francisco overturned that decision on Oct. 5 by a 2-1 vote.

The court majority said the Legislature and voters had a rational basis for restricting marriage to heterosexual couples while at the same time giving same-sex couples equal benefits through the state's domestic partnership system. Justice William McGuinness wrote in that ruling, "Courts simply do not have the authority to create new rights, especially when doing so involves changing the definition of so fundamental an institution as marriage.''

Georgia Schools Remove Anti-Evolution Stickers
Court Feed News | 2006/12/20 18:09

ATLANTA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia announced today that it has reached an agreement with the Cobb County School Board to keep controversial “Evolution Disclaimer” stickers out of biology textbooks in public schools, ending a legal challenge that began in 2002.

The anti-evolution stickers singled out the theory of evolution from all other scientific theories included in the textbooks. In 2005, the district court sided with the ACLU, stating that “the sticker sends a message to those who oppose evolution for religious reasons that they are favored members of the political community, while the sticker sends a message to those who believe in evolution that they are political outsiders.” 

ACLU of Georgia Executive Director Debbie Seagraves welcomed the settlement.

“I commend the brave parents in Cobb County who have fought for more than four years to ensure that their children receive proper science education in their public schools,” said Seagraves. “We are proud that we were able to represent them in their courageous struggle.”

In the agreement, Cobb County school officials state that they will not order the placement of “any stickers, labels, stamps, inscriptions, or other warnings or disclaimers bearing language substantially similar to that used on the sticker that is the subject of this action.” School officials also agreed not to take other actions that would undermine the teaching of evolution in biology classes.

After the Cobb County School Board passed the sticker policy in 2002, school district parents, represented by the ACLU of Georgia and attorney Michael Manely, sued the school board, arguing that the policy promoted a particular religious belief in science classrooms and therefore violated the religious freedom of students. In early 2005, U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper agreed and ordered the school district to remove the stickers from its 35,000 biology textbooks.

The controversial stickers read, "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."

After Judge Cooper’s decision, school officials removed the stickers, but asked the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to reverse the ruling. In late spring, the appeals court sent the case back to Judge Cooper requesting more information about the situation before ruling on the constitutionality of the sticker policy.

Jeffrey Selman, the Cobb County parent who led the charge against the anti-evolution disclaimer, said today’s settlement puts to rest a contentious struggle in the community.

“The settlement brings to an end a long battle to keep our science classes free of political or religious agendas,” Selman said. “I am very pleased that the Cobb school board has dropped its defense of the anti-evolution policy. The board should be commended for taking this action.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Atlanta law firm Bondurant, Mixon & Elmore, and Pepper Hamilton, a Philadelphia law firm, joined the ACLU of Georgia in handling the case on remand to the district court.

In a landmark case last year, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, along with Americans United and Pepper Hamilton, successfully argued against promoting the non-scientific ideology of “intelligent design” in public school science courses. On December 20, 2005, a federal judge ruled that intelligent design is not science and that the Dover Area School Board’s policy violated the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom.

Today’s case is Selman v. Cobb County School District.

Former officer gets 19 years for robbing drug dealers
Court Feed News | 2006/12/16 18:47

A former reserve officer with the Memphis Police Department, Andrew Hunt, was sentenced today to 19 years in prison and 3 years of supervised release for his part in plotting and taking part in robbery and kidnapping while on duty, the Justice Department announced.

In addition, Hunt will pay $300 in special assessments for his involvement in a conspiracy to deprive citizens of their civil rights, for extortion affecting interstate commerce, and for using a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence or a drug trafficking crime. Hunt pleaded guilty in Sept. 2006.

“It is profoundly sad when one individual abuses a position of power and public trust,” said Wan J. Kim, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “The Civil Rights Division is committed to prosecuting all cases of official misconduct and to bringing these individuals to justice.”

As part of his guilty plea, the defendant acknowledged that a co-conspirator arranged to purchase a kilogram of cocaine from an individual known as "J.J." Officer Hunt, while in uniform, on duty, and using a marked squad car, made a traffic stop of “J.J.” prior to the transaction and robbed him of $1,000 in cash, a $15,000 watch, and a cellular telephone. Hunt told “J.J.” he would return the kilogram of cocaine if J.J. produced $15,000 in cash. The next day, “J.J.” produced $9,500, but Hunt took the money and kept the cocaine.

The defendant further acknowledged that on Sept. 12, 2005, a co-conspirator arranged the purchase of four kilograms of cocaine from Pedro Moreno and Victor Saucedo. While in uniform, armed, and driving a marked squad car, Hunt and his co-conspirators robbed the men of the cocaine and kidnapped them. When the men could not produce the ransom demanded by Hunt, he arrested them for possession of 189.5 grams of cocaine and split the remainder of the four kilograms of cocaine with his co-conspirators.

In related matters, former Memphis police officers Arthur Sease, Antoine Owens, and Alexander Johnson were charged in September in a 50-count indictment charging conspiracy to violate civil rights, conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, violation of civil rights, extortion, possession of controlled substances with intent to distribute, and use of a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence or a drug trafficking crime.

The Civil Rights Division is committed to the vigorous enforcement of every federal criminal civil rights statute, such as those laws that prohibit the willful use of excessive force or other acts of misconduct by law enforcement officials.  In fiscal year 2006, nearly 50 percent of the cases brought by the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division involved such prosecutions. Since fiscal year 2001, the Division has convicted 50 percent more defendants for excessive force and official misconduct than in the preceding six years. 

Assistant United States Attorney Steve Parker of the Western District of Tennessee and Trial Attorney Jonathan Skrmetti from the Civil Rights Division are prosecuting the case.

Federal judge rules California lethal injection protocol
Court Feed News | 2006/12/16 13:43

A federal judge issued a memorandum of intended decision Friday, concluding that California's lethal injection procedure creates "an undue and unnecessary risk" of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution. The memorandum came in the case of condemned killer Michael Morales, who argued that it was not certain that the chemical cocktail to be used in his lethal injection would not prevent him from experiencing extreme pain during the process.

Morales' execution was postponed indefinitely in February after a court ruling that medical professionals must monitor executions by lethal injection to be sure that the inmate feels no pain. The ruling imposed a virtual moratorium on executions in California as anesthesiologists refused to take part in the execution.

In his memorandum Friday, US District Judge Jeremy Fogel wrote that:

At the present time, ... Defendants' implementation of California's lethal-injection protocol lacks both reliability and transparency. In light of the substantial questions raised by the records of previous executions, Defendants' actions and failures to act have resulted in an undue and unnecessary risk of an Eighth Amendment violation. This is intolerable under the Constitution.

Fogel set a 30-day deadline for the state to determine whether the lethal injection protocol would be modified.

Merck Wins Federal VIOXX Product Liability Case
Court Feed News | 2006/12/15 17:18

A federal jury in New Orleans returned a verdict in favor of pharmaceutical giant Merck Wednesday, concluding that the company did not fail to adequately warn a Tennessee man's doctors about risks associated with the painkiller Vioxx. Anthony Dedrick suffered a heart attack after taking Vioxx, and his lawyers argued that Merck failed to sufficiently warn his doctors about the risks of taking the drug and that the lack of a warning caused the heart attacks. Both claims were rejected by the jury.

"The jury determined that Merck acted appropriately in the development and marketing of VIOXX and that VIOXX did not substantially contribute to Mr. Dedrick's heart attack," said Phil Beck, of the law firm of Bartlit Beck, Merck's lead trial lawyer in the case, Dedrick v. Merck.

"He had multiple risk factors for a heart attack including a family history of cardiac problems, heavy smoking for many years and he had high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes," Mr. Beck said. "In addition, he had significant atherosclerosis before he began taking VIOXX. Unfortunately, Mr. Dedrick would have suffered a heart attack whether he was taking VIOXX or not."

U.S. District Court Judge Eldon E. Fallon of the Eastern District of Louisiana, who is overseeing all of the federal court litigation, presided over the trial.

Merck faces thousands of lawsuits over the drug, which was pulled from the market in September 2004 after a study showed that it could double the risk of heart attack or stroke if taken for more than 18 months. This is the fifth federal trial to reach a verdict; Merck has won four of those cases, with the fifth decided in favor of the plaintiff. A federal judge, however, threw out the $50 million jury verdict in the Merck loss as "grossly excessive" and ordered a new trial to determine damages.

Merck won the first case, Plunkett v. Merck, in February. The damages portion of the verdict in favor of the plaintiff in the second federal case, Barnett v. Merck, was overturned by Judge Fallon. Merck won the third case, Smith v. Merck, in September and the fourth case, Mason v. Merck, in November. Last month, US District Judge Eldon Fallon, who is responsible for co-ordinating pre-trial procedures in the federal cases, rejected a bid to have all federal lawsuits against Merck brought in connection with Vioxx consolidated in a single national class action against the company.

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