Thursday, June 30, 2016


After four months of waiting, Serial fans around the world are celebrating the news that Judge Welch has ruled that Adnan Syed will recieve a new trial.  Welch vacated Syed's conviction for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee on the grounds that Syed's lawyer, Christina Gutierrez rendered ineffective assistance of counsel in not cross-examining the State's cell tower expert on the unreliability of the cell tower location evidence.  This cell evidence was the linchpin of the State's case in proving that Syed was in Linkin Park at the time they allege he buried Hae Min Lee's body, which was found a month later by a local maintenance man.

Judge Welch denied the other two ineffective assistance claims, the testimony of alibi witness Asia McClain-Chapman, an the allegation of prosecutorial misconduct against the Baltimore DA's office for witholding crucial discovery evidence.  But one win is all Adnan and his legal team needed to free him, they have that win and this is a momentous day for wrongful conviction activists around the world!

Judge Welch's PCR decision
Baltimore Sun article on Judge Welch's ruling

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Phone Scams: It CAN happen to you!!

I was lying in bed reading the other night when my Facebook messenger app dinged at me.  It turned out to be a message from a friend, who had a story to tell me, a story of how a perfectly normal, intelligent person can be taken in by a sophisticated phone scam.

My friend's partner had received a phone call from someone claiming to be from the Inland Revenue Department (for you non-Kiwis, that's New Zealand's tax department).  This person used a combination of pop-psychology and an escalating series of threats to scam three thousand dollars in gifted iTune vouchers.

As my friend put it "It sounds like a silly thing to do," but if you think you couldn't be fooled by these people, think again. My friend's partner is intelligent, educated, not gullible or a "sucker." The tactics these scammers use are clever and sophisticated, they break people down and manipulate their responses. You CAN be fooled, you CAN be sucked in by these scams! The best way to avoid this happening to you is to be fully informed about the way these scams are run, and the ways in which you can protect yourself and identify possible scammers before they put you out of pocket.

Phone scammers will often have a number of personal details, which makes their calls seem more legitimate. Don't be fooled! This is the internet age and sadly, personal details aren't that difficult to come by if you know how to find that kind of information.

You may be given a phone number to call with either a Wellington prefix (04) or an Auckland prefix (09). Don't be fooled! If the caller is claiming to be from a government department, remember that most government departments have free 0800 numbers which you can call. Hang up the phone, look up the correct number for the department the caller is claiming to represent and call it to verify what they are telling you.

These scammers are very aggressive, and may make threats in an attempt to keep you on the line, or call back with various threats if you hang up on them. DON'T fall for these tactics!! The kinds of threats these scammers commonly use include threats of deportation for foreign nationals, and threats of police involvement and possible prison time. While they have you on the phone, feeling stressed and anxious about your situation, it's easy to force you to take the next step and pay out in an effort to avoid further legal action. But if you remain calm and think logically, the threats really don't hold up to close scrutiny.

Lets look at two of the most common threats being used in this latest phone scam; deportation and tax evasion charges.

Deportation is a threat that's used by scammers against foreign nationals living and working here in New Zealand, and this latest scam has targeted a number of Indian nationals. But deportation isn't something that just happens out of the blue for people who are here on legitimate visas and are not overstayers. NZ Immigration assess each individual situation, which takes time, and potential deportees have rights, including the right to appeal any decision made by NZ Immigration.

If someone calls you claiming to be from NZ Immigration and threatening you with deportation unless you pay a sum of money immediately, THIS IS A SCAM! Hang up immediately and call the police.

What about the threat of criminal charges for unpaid tax? I copied this directly from Inland Revenue's website...

"We will only take legal action when all other efforts to secure payment of the overdue tax have failed."

There are three stages which Inland Revenue goes through to collect overdue taxes.  The first is to contact you by letter, notifying you that you have unpaid taxes, and giving details of the amount, any penalties and interest that has accrued, and with a payment slip included.  This letter will also give you the phone number to call to discuss your debts and explore payment options.

Stage two is making repayment applications to your employer, bank or a third party debt collection agency, such as Baycorp.  These applications may result in payments being deducted directly from your wages, and again, you will be notified of any deductions by your bank or your employer as well as by IRD.  If the debt is sent to a third party, such as a collection agency, they will contact you to discuss payment options and will be able to provide you with proper paperwork from Inland Revenue, proving that they are an authorised collection agency, acting on IRD's behalf.  

If you are contacted by a debt collector who cannot or will not provide this proof, DO NOT pay them any money!  Contact IRD immediately and verify that the debt collector is a legitimate debt recovery agent acting on IRD's behalf.  

Only after both of these stages have fully being utilised will IRD engage in legal action, and even then, this is extremely unlikely to result in any kind of prison sentence.  The most common outcome of legal action from Inland Revenue is bankruptcy and liquidation of any assets to recover debt, not a criminal conviction or sentence.  Unless you're engaging in thousands, or even millions, of dollars worth of white collar fraud, then you're screwed and phone scams are probably the least of your problems.  LOL.

As I've mentioned previously, this particular scam is just the latest incarnation of something that's been happening since not long after Alexander Graham Bell first invented the phone. I don't have the time or bandwidth to go through every single scam you may be targeted by, but you can continue to educate yourself by using the Scamwatch website to learn about the latest scams and how you may be targeted. And follow this simple rule...

DO NOT make any kind of payment based on threatening or coercive phonecalls, texts or emails, and DO NOT give out your passwords or banking details!

If you have been victimised by a phone scam (or any other kind of scam), call the police immediately and report it. Call your bank as well and see what they can do to reverse any payments. Finally, report the scam to Scamwatch and use the "Been Scammed" section to explore your options..

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Lone Juror: How Awareness of Wrongful Convictions is (finally) Making a Difference

Etan Patz 1979 Missing Poster

In 1979, bus stops, telephone poles and shop windows of Soho, New York were plastered with posters about a blond, blue-eyed little boy with a cheeky grin and a love of matchbox cars.  Etan Patz, was the first missing child to be featured on milk cartons.  His parents helped to spearhead a movement that changed the way that law enforcement and the public approached missing child cases.  The day of Etan's disappearance, May 25, 1979, was designated National Missing Children's Day in the United States in 1983, and in 2001, that tribute spread worldwide.   Sadly, despite all the monumental changes that came about because of him, 6-year-old Etan was never found.

But in 2012, NYPD announced an arrest in the cold case, a 51 year old resident of New Jersey named Pedro Hernandez, who was picked up after his estranged brother called in a tip, saying that Hernandez had "done something bad."  

Pedro Hernandez had been just 18-years-old in 1979.  He was working at a bodega in the neighbourhood where Etan and his parents lived (for the Kiwi readers, a bodega is basically a corner dairy).  May 25th was a Friday, and a very special day for Etan because, for the very first time, he was going to walk to the bus stop to catch the school bus all by himself.  Etan's parents had given him a dollar note and he'd told his mother that he planned to stop and buy a soda to have with his school lunch at the bodega, which was on the way to the bus stop.

Pedro Hernandez told detectives that Etan had entered the bodega that morning and that he, Hernandez, had strangled Etan and dumped his body in the garbage at the back of the store.
For the NYPD it was case closed, they had a confession and they were headed for trial.  But for one of the jurors, what came out during the course of that trial made him very alarmed about the strength of the State's case.

There was no physical evidence tying Hernandez to the case, which is not surprising since Etan's remains have never been found, and no crime scene has ever been identified.  That bodega where Hernandez worked in 1979 is long gone, bulldozed to make way for upmarket Soho apartments.  But a lack of physical evidence doesn't necessarily mean that a case can't be made. Circumstantial cases are common, we've just seen a perfect example of this in the New Zealand courts, in the case of Ashburton WINZ shooter, Russell John Tully.  The Crown's case against him was solid, but also largely comprised of circumstantial evidence.

But in the case against Hernandez, the circumstantial evidence was very problematic, and seemed to consist largely of rumour and hearsay.  There were claims that Hernandez had confessed to his church congregation in the 1980s, yet not one member of that congregation ever came forward until after Hernandez was arrested in 2012.  His siblings claimed that it was an "open secret" in the family, that Hernandez had murdered someone, yet they never came forward with this information until 33 years after Etan's disappearance.  

As for that confession....Hernandez confessed after seven hours of interrogation, most of which was not video taped despite the fact that it is mandatory practice for NYPD to tape all interviews.  Oh, and one more thing, Pedro Hernandez has a long history of mental illness, has been diagnosed with Schizotypal Personality Disorder, and has an I.Q of 70, which is borderline intellectually disabled.

Sound familiar? *cough*BrendanDassey*cough*

But, thankfully, there is a hero in this version of the #MakingAMurderer story, and that hero is Adam C. Sirois, the lone juror who refused to find Hernandez guilty, despite the fact that 11 fellow jurors all voted to convict, forcing a mistrial .  In subsequent interviews, Sirois has stated that he could not, in good consistence, find Hernandez guilty based on the State's evidence, and that the confession, to him, had all the earmarks of a false confession similar to that of Brendan Dassey.  Sirois make's no secret of the fact that watching Making a Murderer influenced his decision to deadlock the jury and I believe he did the right thing.

I don't know if Pedro Hernandez killed Etan Patz, I'm inclined to think he probably didn't but I don't know that for certain.  What I do know is interrogating a severely mentally challenged, mentally ill man for seven hours is unethical and reprehensible on the part of the officers involved!

After Making a Murderer, Serial, Undisclosed and the Adnan Syed case, and the flood of wrongful conviction horror stories, especially those based on false confessions, there is NO excuse for any law enforcement officer to engage in this kind of conduct.  This isn't just about a fair trial for defendants either, this is about the victims and their families, who are owed a thorough, above-board investigation and prosecution of the person or persons who victimised them.  

If Pedro Hernandez really did kill Etan Patz, NYPD owed it to Etan and to his parents to do the right thing, instead of engaging in blatant misconduct, the result of which was a mistrial.  If Pedro Hernandez really did kill Etan Patz and he gets away with it, that's on you NYPD, that is on you.

I called hold-out Juror, Adam Sirois, a hero.  The reason I call him that isn't because he freed Pedro Hernandez, a possible child murderer, because as I said, I don't know if Hernandez is guilty or innocent.  I called him a hero because he saw flaws in the State's case, and questionable conduct from police and he stood his ground, after enduring four months of trial testimony and 18 days of intense pressure from 11 people who all wanted to vote guilty and get the hell out of there.  Pressure from fellow jurors has led to convictions before, and to aquittals - including in the high-profile and highly controversial aquittal of four LAPD officers in the Rodney King beating.  

This man stood his ground, and in doing so, gave the State a do-over.  The mistrial means that they can re-investigate, find more evidence and retry the case, if they choose to.  The mistrial means that if Hernandez really is guilty, justice can still be done for Etan Patz.  

Jury Coercion and Peer Pressure - NYTimes

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