California judge dismisses murder charges against Chelsea Becker
Yesterday, a judge in California dismissed murder charges against Chelsea Becker, for having a stillborn baby.
Prosecutors had argued the baby died because Becker, who struggles with addiction, caused the stillbirth by ingesting meth during her pregnancy, but Kings County Superior Court Judge Robert Shane Burns ruled that they hadn't presented any evidence that Becker knew when she took the drugs that doing so could kill her baby.
The outcome is right. Pregnancy should not be criminalized.
But, unfortunately, this is not the end of the bigger fight.
In September 2019, Chelsea Becker, then 26 and nearly 9 months pregnant, delivered a stillborn son. After she gave birth to Zachariah Joseph Campos, at Adventist Health hospital in Hanford, California (near Fresno), hospital workers who thought she might have used drugs while she was pregnant alerted the Kings County Coroner's office.
Two months later, prosecutors charged Becker with murder, citing an autopsy report that Zachariah had "toxic levels of methamphetamine in his system." The court set her bail at $5 million.
Becker sat in jail for more than a year before eventually being transferred to a drug treatment center earlier this year. (After the ruling, Becker's lawyers said she would be staying at the treatment facility for now.)
Rather, this is an attempt to "polic[e] pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes in general." Paltrow celebrated the dismissal but noted that Judge Burns had left the door open for future prosecutions of pregnant women.
"This is such an important victory," Lynn Paltrow ... said Thursday. "We are so grateful that Chelsea Becker was willing to fight this egregious charge to try to ensure that no one else has to face a murder charge for experiencing a stillbirth."
Still, she said, the outcome was slightly bittersweet.
"This prosecution based on a misinterpretation of state law resulted in somebody being deprived of her liberty and exposed to the real danger of COVID for 16 months of her life," she said. "This cost taxpayers innumerable dollars in terms of the incarceration as well as all of the time to pay for the prosecution in this case, money that could have been used to improve access to healthcare in their community."
So why the fuck is this happening?
In 1970, the California Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Robert Harrison Keeler. Keeler had been found guilty of murder after he badly beat his ex-wife, trying and succeeding at killing the baby she was having with another man.
In response the California legislature added fetuses to its murder law, with the intention of being able to charge people who attack pregnant people. The law included an exception for abortion, saying it does not apply to acts "solicited, aided, abetted, or consented to by the mother of the fetus[.]"
That language would seem to preclude prosecutions against women like Chelsea Becker. Unfortunately, however, the California Supreme Court has never explicitly ruled that you can't prosecute someone for losing a baby.
So initially Judge Burns sided with the DA, allowing the case to proceed. And when he dismissed the case against Becker, Judge Burns also made it clear that the case was being dismissed because of a lack of evidence, not because the law was being improperly applied.
Becker's nightmare isn't over yet. The prosecution can still appeal the ruling or request a new preliminary hearing. According to executive assistant district attorney Phil Esbenshade, Kings County District Attorney Keith Fagundes, the asshole who chose to prosecute her in the first place, "will review the record and the transcript of Thursday's proceedings before deciding how to move forward."
Fagundes also said he disagreed with the court's ruling.
"It is the opinion of our office that sufficient evidence was presented at the preliminary hearing to hold Ms. Becker to answer for trial," he wrote in an email. "The judge who presided over that preliminary examination, upon hearing that evidence and considering arguments from both sides, did find such sufficient evidence existed. Judge Burns, the judge who dismissed the case this morning, apparently disagrees with that finding."
So it's very possible that Fagundes will keep trying to throw Becker in prison.
For their parts, both former California Attorney General and current HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and current AG Rob Bonta have both strongly opposed Becker's prosecution. Like Becerra wrote in an amicus in Becker's case, prosecutions like this "subject all women who suffer a pregnancy loss to the threat of criminal investigation and possible prosecution for murder."
Stop criminalizing pregnancy
Robert Burns. Phil Esbenshade. Keith Fagundes. Xavier Becerra. Rob Bonta.
That sure is a lot of men making decisions about people with ovaries.
Sadly, Chelsea Becker isn't the only person being prosecuted for losing a child. She wasn't even the only woman in California behind bars for it.
"We are seeing an increasing number of women who are arrested for experiencing miscarriages and stillbirths," said Lynn M. Paltrow, founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
Between 1972 and 2005, Paltrow's organization documented 413 cases in 44 states and the District of Columbia in which women were arrested or detained for reasons related to pregnancy, she said. About 84% of them involved drug use. In the 14 years since, she estimates there have been about 900 additional cases.
Like Chelsea Becker, Adora Perez also delivered a stillborn baby at Adventist Health hospital in Hanford, where staff again called the coroner to report suspected drug use after delivering a stillborn baby.
The same prosecutor, Keith Fagundes, charged Perez with murder. The same judge, Robert Burns, allowed the case to proceed.
It's not exactly shocking that these cases involve all of the same players. Things like this happen when you have religious hospitals and shitty local politicians who are all too happy to work together to persecute women and pregnant people.
A hospital ready and willing to accuse its patients of murder. An obliging coroner, district attorney, and local judge.
Apparently, those are all the things you need to criminalize pregnancy. Even in California. In 2021.
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Here's one for your "Gosh who could have seen this coming, oh right, anyone" file! Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs sent a letter Thursday to Maricopa County officials to let them know that the fake "audit" of the 2020 election probably ruined hundreds of voting machines the county sent for "testing" under a subpoena from the state Senate. Since there's no knowing whether Cyber Ninjas, the QAnon enthusiasts running the audit, had messed up the machines, they can't safely be used again in future elections.
Once the machines were no longer under Maricopa County's control, Hobbs explained, the "chain of custody" was broken, leaving her with "grave concerns regarding the the security and integrity of these machines," she wrote. Hobbs said that she had consulted with election security experts at the federal Department of Homeland Security, who advised her that there was no way to tell whether the machines were still safe to use. The best thing to do with the things, she advised Maricopa County, would be to throw them out and buy new ones.
Hooray for the "voting integrity" wackaloons! They made good and sure those voting machines, which they assumed were corrupt in the first place, won't be used again. And it'll only cost millions of dollars to replace them.
In the letter, Hobbs warns that the loss of custody "constitutes a cyber incident to critical infrastructure—an event that could jeopardize the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of digital information or information systems." So her office got in touch with DHS's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, where the tech boffins
unanimously advised that once election officials lose custody and control over voting systems and components, those devices should not be reused in future elections. Rather, decommissioning and replacing those devices is the safest option as no methods exist to adequately ensure those machines are safe to use in future elections. As such, my Office is urging the County not to re-deploy any of the subpoenaed machines that it turned over to the Senate in any future elections. Instead, the County should acquire new machines to ensure secure and accurate elections in Maricopa County going forward.
The letter then details the Arizona election procedures required to certify that voting machines haven't been tampered with, and notes that it is "unclear what, if any, procedures were in place or followed to ensure physical security and proper chain of custody." Worse, she notes that her observers, and even news reports, saw clear "security lapses."
Hobbs then delivers the bad news: Nope, there's just no trusting these machines, because,
no comprehensive methods exist to fully rehabilitate the compromised equipment or provide adequate assurance that they remain safe to use. While the machines could be put through an intensive and costly forensic examination by an accredited, national forensics laboratory, even after such forensic examination, machines are generally not recommissioned given that the forensic analysis cannot be guaranteed to locate all potential problems.
If Maricopa County were to try to reuse the machines, she warns, her office might have little choice but to decertify them, meaning that Maricopa County really can't use them legally for any more elections.
The Arizona Republic points out that Maricopa County supervisors had "warned months ago, when they were fighting the Senate's subpoenas in court," that something like this might happen, you dopes.
In a December lawsuit against the audit, the county's attorneys argued that if the machines were fiddled around with by any "auditor" not certified by the US Election Assistance Commission — which the Cyberdickweeds most definitely are not — that could "void the certification and could cause the secretary of state to de-certify the equipment."
We suppose the Maricopa County supervisors may now at least have the grim satisfaction of muttering "Told you so."
How much equipment will have to be replaced? Rather a lot!
In response to the subpoenas, the county gave the Senate nine large high-speed ballot-counting machines that process ballots at the tabulation center (known as central count tabulators), 385 ballot-counting machines used at vote centers (known as precinct-based tabulators), along with the servers and equipment used to support those devices.
The contractors have returned much of this, but still have the precinct-based tabulators.
Fortunately — for Maricopa County, at least — the county signed an indemnification agreement with the state Senate making very clear that the county would not have to pay for any costs if the voting machines ended up being
damaged, altered or otherwise compromised while in the Senate's custody and control, including without limitation expenses associated with procuring new equipment, certifying any such new equipment for use for elections in Arizona, and re-certifying its current equipment
So hooray, the taxpayers of the entire state will be on the hook for the cost of replacing all that voting equipment. Or at least the state — and/or the Cyber Assholes — should have to pay up for trashing Maricopa County's machines, once every entity involved has finished the costly lawsuits that are sure to erupt from this fuck-tussle.
And just think, Trumpers want this to happen in even more states, to make America great and stuff. After all, Arizona's secretary of state now admits that voting machines are so tainted that they can't be trusted, doesn't she?
Funeral services for American Democracy have not yet been scheduled yet, but we'll keep you updated.
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NOT SHINY, NOT NORMAL: Chevron Allowed To Literally Prosecute Lawyer For Winning Judgment Against It
US vs. Donzinger? THIS WHOLE CASE IS OUT OF ORDER.
Yesterday, the final day of his criminal trial, was Steven Donziger's 650th day under house arrest.
Donziger's crime? Pissing off Big Oil.
For decades, the oil giant had destroyed the local ecosystem, dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste, leaving pits of oily waste water the size of football fields.
In 2011, an Ecuadorian court awarded Donziger's clients $19.5 billion in damages.
Rather than finally pay for some of the damage it had done, Chevron — which has some $260 billion in assets — quickly sold all of its holdings in Ecuador and got to work doing everything it could to get out of paying the people it harmed.
And, in addition to fighting the judgment, Chevron had a new goal: Ruin Steven Donziger's life.
Let's start at the beginning
As you can probably already tell, this is a long and complicated story. So let's start at the beginning.
From 1964 to 1992, Texaco dumped some 19 billion gallons of toxic waste into the area around the Lago Agrio oil field. The pollution and contamination have caused all of the problems you would expect. High cancer rates. Birth defects. Miscarriages. Unsafe drinking and bathing water. Lots of death. In 2000, Chevron bought Texaco, assuming its liabilities.
The case that would eventually be won in Ecuador was originally filed in the United States. It was Chevron that argued the case should be tried in Ecuador. Once the case got to Ecuador, Chevron tried to argue the case shouldn't be brought there, either. Because they would really just prefer it if no courts had jurisdiction over them.
The trial court in Ecuador ruled in favor of Donziger's clients and awarded them $19 billion. The judgment was upheld by Ecuadorian courts, though the country's highest court cut the damages down to $9.5 billion.
To this day, Chevron has not paid a dime for the damage it inflicted on the people of Ecuador. Instead, it quickly sold off its Ecuadorian assets, making it impossible for the plaintiffs to collect on their judgment.
Chevron v. Donziger
Soon after the verdict in Ecuador, Chevron and Donziger were back in court in the US — this time with Chevron accusing Donziger of committing a RICO fraud and bribery.
Chevron v. Donziger, filed in the Southern District of New York, drew Judge Lewis Kaplan to oversee the case. Judge Kaplan, a Clinton appointee, was a career corporate defense attorney before taking the bench. While in private practice, he represented Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. and was part of "the inner sanctum of top tobacco lawyers that mapped the companies' joint legal and political strategies."
Originally, Chevron had sued Donziger for some $60 billion in damages. On the eve of trial, Chevron dropped its damages claims, leaving Judge Kaplan to deny Donziger a jury of his peers.
After a bench trial, Judge Kaplan ruled in favor of Chevron, finding in a 500-page opinion that Donziger had fraudulently procured the Ecuadorian verdict. Judge Kaplan's decision was based in large part on the testimony of Chevron's star witness, former Ecuadorian judge Alberto Guerra, whom the judge deemed to be credible.
Chevron paid more than $2 million to move Guerra to the US, pay for his immigration attorneys, and pay him a monthly salary.
Guerra has since admitted that he lied under oath at the 2013 trial. During proceedings in front of the International Arbitration Tribunal, Guerra also described how Chevron employees paid him huge amounts of money, saying things like "Money talks, gold screams."
"One of [Chevron's employees] took me by the arm and said, 'Look, look, look what's down there. We have $20,000 there,'" Guerra explained in his testimony before the tribunal. "Specifically, one of them was the one that led me to take a look at it. It was inside a safe."
In testimony before the tribunal, Guerra admitted that at this point he tried to get more money from Chevron. "At some point, I said, well, why don't you add some zeroes to that amount, and then later on I said, 'I think it could be 50,000.'"
In the order, Judge Kaplan went out of his way to say that Donziger was guilty of criminal activity, despite the fact that Donziger had never been charged with, tried for, or found guilty of any crimes. This order would also be the basis for Donziger's disbarment.
Despite the fact that Chevron dropped its monetary damages claim against Donziger to avoid a jury trial, Judge Kaplan ordered Donziger to pay Chevron $800,000 for doing the RICO.
And by now, Judge Kaplan has ordered Donziger to pay around $10 million in fines, fees, costs, and attorneys fees to Chevron and its lawyers at Gibson Dunn.
US v. Donziger
Because Donziger has only been charged with misdemeanor contempt, he can't be sentenced to more than six months in jail. Meanwhile, he has spent nearly two years under house arrest.
This criminal case is an offshoot of Chevron's civil suit. Because Donziger — who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in New York with his wife and kid and is not, in fact, a billionaire like Chevron — now owes Chevron and its lawyers a lot of money that he doesn't have.
As part of its attempt to collect, Chevron requested access to all of Donziger's electronics — and Judge Kaplan obliged. Donziger, who was worried about his legal and ethical obligations to his clients, objected and appealed the order. While the order was still on appeal, Judge Kaplan ordered Donziger to show cause why he shouldn't be held in criminal contempt.
And just wait, it still gets worse!
Kaplan referred his criminal contempt charge against Donziger to the US Attorney's office. The US Attorney for the Southern District of New York declined to prosecute the case. AND JUDGE KAPLAN JUST CHARGED DONZIGER ANYWAY!
The judge also hand-picked Seward & Kissel, a corporate defense law firm that represented Chevron as recently as 2018, to go after Donziger on behalf of the United States. (Seward & Kissel didn't disclose its attorney-client relationship with Chevron until it had already been prosecuting Donziger for seven months.) Do judges often farm out prosecutions to private counsel? NO! NONE OF THIS IS NORMAL.
Ignoring the standard procedures for case reassignment, Judge Kaplan also chose to assign the case to George H.W. Bush appointee Judge Loretta Preska. Another career corporate defense attorney, Judge Preska took senior status in 2017 so that Donald Trump could appoint another judge to the Southern District of New York. She also tried to kill the CFPB but was overturned by the Second Circuit. Judge Preska is also still active with the Federalist Society, which, as we all know, only likes people who are corporations. Unsurprisingly, the Federalist Society also gets a whole bunch of money from — you guessed it! — Chevron.
Judge Preska denied Donziger's attempts to disqualify both herself and Seward & Kissel from his case.
Seward & Kissel has been paid more than half a million dollars to prosecute Donziger — more than 150 times what a court-appointed criminal defense attorney is allowed to bill for defending indigent clients against a misdemeanor.
Even Donziger's criminal case wasn't heard by a jury. The Supreme Court has decided that criminal defendants with contempt charges are only entitled to a jury trial if the potential sentence is longer than six months, so Judge Loretta Preska was like, "I got this one."
The trial ended on Monday, with Donziger declining to call any witnesses in his defense. Donziger and his lawyers made it clear they did not believe they were getting a fair trial and were preparing to appeal the inevitable guilty verdict.
Martin Garbus, a well-known criminal defense and civil rights lawyer who was name-dropped in The Big Lebowski, told Judge Preska, "No justice will be done here. We know you won't return a verdict of not guilty."
"We spent a lot time preparing for Steven to testify at trial," Kuby said. "But we've also been paying attention to what the court has deemed to be relevant, and nothing that Steven would have to say would be deemed relevant by this court.
"His good-faith efforts to comply with the orders: irrelevant! The Second Circuit's ruling that his belief was completely reasonable: irrelevant," Kuby said. "His attempt to act as a lawyer fighting a case from his kitchen table when he had no legal representation and was facing lawyers who were billing over $3 million: irrelevant.
"So given the fact that the judge has so cabined the case to what the judge believes to be the only issues, he simply has nothing to say in that courtroom, and it's unfortunate but that courtroom is not the last word."
Judge Preska asked the parties to submit briefs in two weeks with their proposed findings of fact and findings of law. She did not give any indication of how quickly she intended to rule. Garbus said he expects Judge Preska to find Donziger guilty in about 30 days.
So that's fucked up
If, at this point, you're wondering whether any of this is normal, the answer is no. It's entirely unprecedented.
Six prominent members of Congress — Jamie Raskin, Cori Bush, Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, AOC, and Jim McGovern — have asked Attorney General Merrick Garland to review the case, which is still technically being pursued on behalf of the United States government. Retired federal judges, 68 Nobel laureates, 475 lawyers and legal organizations, 200 law students from 55 law schools, and human rights organizations like Amnesty International have all spoken up in Donziger's defense.
After the trial, Donziger said it was clear he "was never able to get a fair trial before Judge Preska."
He's almost certainly right.
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Much less like them.
Billionaire creepazoid/visionary/cult figure Elon Musk announced yesterday that his car company, Tesla Motors, will no longer accept Bitcoin as payment for cars, because of concerns about the astonishing amount of energy used in making Bitcoin happen. As with many times when Elon Musk Says A Thing, the announcement set off a bit of a panic, with the value of Bitcoin plunging and cryptocurrency markets losing something like $385 billion in value yesterday.
In the announcement, Musk said he was "concerned about rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for bitcoin mining and transactions, and especially coal, which has the worst emissions of any fuel," and while Tesla won't be selling off any of its Bitcoin holdings — about $2.5 billion, which seems like rather a lot — it will hold off any further Bitcoin trading until the cryptocurrency "transitions to more sustainable energy."
Now, before we go any further, let us reassure you that this is an energy and environment story, not a cryptocurrency story. You don't have to understand anything about no "blockchain" or "public ledgers" or anything, beyond knowing that in order to add a version of the scarcity that makes money "money," Bitcoin can only be mined with dedicated computers that must solve incredibly complex math problems in order to be able to trade the imaginary currency. (If you do want to understand Bitcoin more, then what is wrong with you, and you can find a good introduction in this Chris Hayes podcast, which is remarkably non sleep-inducing).
All that computing power eats up a lot of energy, as CNBC explains:
Critics of bitcoin have long been wary of its impact on the environment. The cryptocurrency uses more energy than entire countries such as Sweden and Malaysia, according to the Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index. [...]
So-called miners run purpose-built computers to solve complex math puzzles in order to make a transaction go through. This is the only way to mint new bitcoins.
Miners do not run this operation for free. They have to shell out huge sums on specialized equipment. A key incentive of bitcoin's model, known as "proof of work," is the promise of being rewarded in some bitcoin if you manage to solve its complex hashing algorithm.
University of Sussex business professor Carol Alexander points out that the "difficulty" of the computing tasks necessary to make new baby Bitcoins has been increasing in recent years, resulting in higher energy usage. Miners have an incentive to locate their big damn computing facilities where they can get cheap electricity. In some cases, that's near hydroelectric plants, so good for them, but it also means a lot of operations in China, where cheap coal is more the norm.
Now, there's also some debate about how bad for climate Bitcoin actually is, because it's complicated. There's the massive amount of coal energy being used in China, but some Chinese regions, like Inner Mongolia, have actually announced they'll shut down crypto operations to reduce energy consumption.
Some proponents of Bitcoin insist that Bitcoin uses only a tenth of the energy of the conventional banking system, which sounds really nice until you consider that Bitcoin accounted for just .4 percent of the world's money supply in 2020, which means it's using a hell of a lot of energy for the amount of economic activity it represents.
Bitcoin fans also like to argue that cryptocurrency miners go where electricity is cheapest, and that means that as green power reaches parity with electricity generated by fossil fuel plants, then crypto production will use the green stuff. Already, CNBC reports, "In China, the province of Sichuan is known to attract miners due to its cheap electricity and rich hydropower resources."
But even that could represent a less than ideal scenario for the climate emergency, as Quartz explains:
The electrical grid will become less carbon-intensive over time, but that green energy could be absorbed by bitcoin, said Alex de Vries, a digital currency economist who authored Mar. 10 article in the journal Joule about bitcoin energy consumption. "Renewable energy that we could have used to clean up the grid will go to bitcoin mining instead," he said.
Ultimately, Musk's move may have more to do with public relations than anything else. The growing perception that cryptocurrency is bad for global warming may not be great for a guy who wants to sell electric cars as part of the solution, and shareholders may simply be far happier if they don't have to fend off accusations of climate hypocrisy.
It's also worth pointing out that Musk has been talking up a competing cryptocurrency, Dogecoin, which like Bitcoin relies on similar high-energy-use computing. But he's not selling Teslas in exchange for that one, at least not yet. On Tuesday, he asked his bejillions of Twitter followers if they'd like the option, and then he turned right around and said Wednesday that he was ending Bitcoin purchases of his cars out of concern for the environment.
Gosh, what a mercurial genius. Fuck him and fuck crypto. Let's just focus on getting green infrastructure built, please.
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