Episode 65: Race, police and chokeholds

It was the early morning hours of Oct. 6, 1976. Adolph Lyons, a 24-year-old African-American, was driving through Los Angeles with a broken taillight.

Two LAPD officers in a squad car pulled Lyons over, and approached with their pistols drawn. Lyons got out, the cops turned him around, spread eagle, and placed his hands on the back of his head. Lyons’ keys, still in his hand, dug into his scalp and he complained. One of the police officers called that resisting arrest and grabbed Lyons from behind, putting an arm across Lyons’ neck. The cop kept Lyons in the chokehold until he passed out and dropped to the ground.

Lyons awoke to find that he had urinated and defecated on himself and was coughing up blood and dirt. The police officers who had pulled him over then issued him a citation -- a traffic ticket for the broken taillight -- and let Lyons go.

Reporter Dave Gilson of Mother Jones Magazine rediscovered this story after the death of Eric Garner last summer. Garner had been put in a chokehold by a police officer on Staten Island, N.Y.; his death was later ruled a homicide. Gilson wanted to know if the use of chokeholds by police had ever come before the federal courts -- and it had.

Adolph Lyons sued the City of Los Angeles for violating his constitutional rights: the right to due process under the Fifth Amendment, and the right to equal protection, under the Fourteenth Amendment. His case rose all the way to the Supreme Court, where, in 1982, the high court included the nation’s first African-American Justice and the grandson of slaves: Justice Thurgood Marshall. 

In this week’s DecodeDC podcast,host Andrea Seabrook and Mother Jones reporter Dave Gilson recount the case of Adolph Lyons and the legal battle over race, police and chokeholds. The case’s similarities with the case of Eric Garner are palpable and stunning. And the conclusions of Thurgood Marshall show that the issues of race, police and chokeholds struck people of conscience long before Eric Garner’s death. 

Episode 64: Should local prosecutors prosecute local cops?

There are hard, deep-seeded questions in the public’s outcry following two police killings – that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City. Race, poverty, police training, and the use of deadly force are only a few of them.

There’s a legal question, too, only a small slice of the issue, but one that could be worked on in concrete ways. It stems from this: In both Ferguson and New York City, local prosecutors took the cases before local grand juries, and in both instances the jurors declined to indict the police officers involved in the killings.

So the legal question is this: Should a criminal justice system investigate itself? Is there a conflict of interest when prosecutors, who work with cops every day putting away criminals, turn around and prosecute accused police officers?

Gina Barton, an award-winning investigative reporter at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, says it’s a question people have been asking in Wisconsin for years.

“If somebody in your own police department does something wrong, the investigators know this guy, they’ve worked with this guy, maybe he saved their life at some point or backed them up on something. And so, even if there’s not an actual conflict of interest, there’s definitely a perceived conflict of interest,” she says.

In this week’s DecodeDC podcast, host Andrea Seabrook talks to Barton about the country’s first law to address the problem. Enacted in Wisconsin earlier this year, the law came up after two earlier police-involved deaths outraged the public, those of Michael Bell in 2004, and then Derek Williams in 2012.

Barton tells these two young mens’ stories, and then recounts a third, the police killing of Dontre Hamilton earlier this year. Just days after the new law passed, a Milwaukee police officer shot Hamilton 14 times in a public park, providing a test case by which Wisconsin’s law is being judged.

Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at decodedc.com/newsletter.

Episode 63: Under the Radar

Like any parent might, one Wisconsin mom wanted to make sure her adult daughter’s new boyfriend was a decent guy. So she went online and and searched for his name, Matthew Carr. What she found was nothing -- which, in retrospect, is incredibly shocking.

A few years earlier, while serving in the Air Force, Carr had been court-martialed for posing as a doctor and luring women into “gynecological exams.” The Air Force convicted Carr of “indecent assault" of seven women and sentenced him to seven years in prison.

But none of this came up in the Wisconsin mom’s search. Carr’s name didn’t pop up in criminal background checks or appear on any sex offender registry. So by the time the mom learned the truth -- from another family member’s deeper sleuthing -- her daughter had already submitted to several of Carr’s “exams.”

This convicted military sex offender had blended back into civilian society, only to commit the same heinous crime against more women.

This week on the DecodeDC podcast, host Andrea Seabrook talks with Scripps national investigative reporter Mark Greenblatt, who led a team of Scripps journalists that conducted a nine-month reporting project into military sex offenders who drop under the radar when returning to civilian life.

“We took the names of all 1,300 military sex offenders that we believed were convicted,” Greenblatt tells Seabrook, “and we plugged them into the sex offender registry databases of all 50 states. We found that in an alarming number of cases, these names were not popping up on any available list that you or I or a mom in Wisconsin would ever have access to.”

What the team uncovered is that Matthew Carr is one of at least 242 convicted military sex offenders whose names and offenses are not on any public U.S. sex offender registries today.

Read the full investigation here and search the team's database of military sex offenders here.

Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at decodedc.com/newsletter.

Episode 62: Politics around the Turkey

Does the thought of Thanksgiving make your palms sweat?  Does your stomach hurt, BEFORE the meal?  Maybe holiday fun translates to holiday dysfunction when it comes to your family gathering? We hear you.

So just in time for your yearly gathering of the relatives, from the left, right and center, we offer this survival guide for talking turkey and politics.

On this week’s podcast, host Andrea Seabrook takes your stories of politics and holidays past and runs them by journalist Amy Dickinson , who writes the syndicated advice column Ask Amy. 

Here’s an excerpt of their conversation. 

Amy: It’s very common starting around September for people to write to me already nervous about Thanksgiving and how are they going to manage these disparate points of view. And its not like “oh how silly”, it’s a real issue. We don't spend enough time together to work things out, so it all happens around the table…I actually have a number of suggestions for families to cope with the dinner. A lot of people say pass the butter and retreat to football games. If who ever is host of the dinner can be a little more intentional they can create a different sort of atmosphere at the table. One way to do this that’s worked really well in my family is with toasting people. You sort of start the meal with toast.

Andrea: Besides a toast... another thing Amy says you can do is get everyone to write down their funniest Thanksgiving memory, and then pass the stories around to read aloud...

Amy: So you have a kid reading Uncle Harvey’s memory from 1942, you know it’s a lot of fun and it engages people more in a personal way because I think a lot of families if they are political and if they are likely to engage in political arguments the goal should be to just sort of stave that off just maybe over coffee  instead of over turkey and stuffing.

Andrea: Now what about people who WANT to talk politics around the turkey? Or worse, what if you’re seated next to one of them... That’s what happened to Jeff Pierce when his sister brought her fiance home to meet the family for the first time at Thanksgiving.

I had just won a scholarship for writing an essay on the importance of unions. Instead of not bringing it up he ask, “So what do you think of unions?” Because he knew I was the only liberal in my family. He really took advantage of my uncle who is the most conservative person in my family and together they were just jumping on me and I was just sitting there trying not to get incredibly angry.

Andrea: So he’s trapped. What do you say to him?

Amy: Okay, now everyone needs to focus- this is really important. This is when you get to use children as human shields.

Andrea: I’ve been waiting for some way that was okay.

Amy: I know they come in so handy! It sound like this person did what he could to suppress his anger and I think that’s great but sometimes you can just say this is a really loaded topic for me so I’m just going to ask Billy, “How was that soccer game?”

Andrea: The thing to remember, says Amy, is that, it’s not just dinner, it’s THANKSGIVING. And with every helping could come a new tradition, a new memory, even if they are a little goofy.

Episode 61: Exit Interview with Rep. Bill Owens

Some politicians slide into Congress after a boring, predictable, easy win as the predestined candidate. Others practically stumble — like Congressman Bill Owens, who was the last man standing in the dust of a political nuclear war back in 2009.

In this week’s podcast, host Andrea Seabrook sits down with the Democratic congressman from upstate New York as part of DecodeDC’s Exit Interview series. Owens announced his retirement in January of this year.

Congressman Owens is one of the most endangered species in Washington—the rational pragmatist.

“My view of the world is that there is a band of rational thought that we should all act in. I’m not saying that there is nothing you should be passionate about. But I think ultimately you have to go back to a thought-process that is fact-based and analytic,” Owens said.

But to understand how a lawmaker can be so rational, let’s take a look at how he got to Congress.

It was a special election in upstate New York that came at the end of President Obama’s first year in office. Republicans were in an uproar, and the tea party was on the rise.

Two candidates jumped into the race from the right. One was a moderate, and the other was a tea party-endorsed conservative.

But through all of this, no one seemed to notice the guy in the corner—the Democrat, Bill Owens, in the race for a seat that hadn’t been held by a Democrat since the Civil War.

When the dust finally settled, Owens had won. But the day after the election, the news coverage practically ignored him and instead focused on the two opponents he beat – and Owens says he was actually pretty glad not to be on the television.

“Because the narrative that they (his opponents) were putting out was in large measure inaccurate. And so it was my introduction, if you will, to the idea that people talked from a script rather from, in my perspective, what they believed,” Owens says.

Owens isn’t one for the Red Team/Blue Team fight. In fact, he was a registered Independent for much of his career.

“You can’t take a position, in my view, that says, ‘Well, I’m going to have you sacrifice but not me. ‘… We need to finds ways to, if you will, conjoin the interests of groups as opposed to splitting them apart. And we don’t focus on that in my view very often,” Owens says.

Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at decodedc.com/newsletter.