Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer

Reporter

Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent several years hanging out with angry white people who occasionally don tricorne hats and come to lunch meetings heavily armed.

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Stephanie covers legal affairs and domestic policy in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She is the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. A contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, a former investigative reporter at the Washington Post, and a senior writer at the Washington City Paper, she was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2004 for a Washington Monthly article about myths surrounding the medical malpractice system. In 2000, she won the Harry Chapin Media award for reporting on poverty and hunger, and her 2010 story in Mother Jones of the collapse of the welfare system in Georgia and elsewhere won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

Is Montana More Corrupt Than Miami?

| Wed Jul. 9, 2014 11:44 AM EDT

For such a sparsely populated state, Montana has managed to generate some outsize headlines lately. There's the GOP Senate candidate who made news by suggesting that creationism should be taught in public schools. Then there's Missoula's reputation as the "rape capital" of the world, thanks to, among other things, serious allegations of sexual assault committed by University of Montana football players. And continuing that theme, there's also the Justice Department's investigation of the Missoula County Attorney's office alleging that prosecutors had been systematically discriminating against female sexual-abuse victims.

Now comes new data showing that Montana is leading the country in public corruption prosecutions, suggesting that the state's reputation for graft (dating back to the days of the Copper Kings) hasn't changed much. Clocking in with 18 active cases, the federal judicial district of Montana has had more public corruption prosecutions in 2014 than those in South Florida, Southern California, and even New Jersey, according to data crunched by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

How is it that such a small state has so many prosecutions? "Why prosecutors do what they do is a mystery," says TRAC's David Burnham. But the prosecutors in Montana have a good explanation: They've recently organized a major crackdown on corruption on American Indian reservations, of which the state has seven. 

A recent AP investigation concluded that, nationally, tribal governments are five times more likely to have "material weaknesses" in their administration that make corruption possible, and reporters for years have been sounding alarms that federal prosecutors have largely turned a blind eye to these problems. Montana decided to change that trend, at a time when millions in additional federal dollars have flowed into tribal governments thanks to the federal stimulus package enacted after the financial collapse in 2008.

In 2011, the US Attorney's office launched a task force, dubbed the Guardians Project, with the FBI, the IRS, and inspectors general of various federal agencies, to target corruption on American Indian reservations. The results have been telling: In 2012, Montana had only one official corruption prosecution, but by August of last year, the Guardians Project had netted 25 indictments against people who'd allegedly done all sorts of devious things to keep federal money from reaching those it was supposed to help.

Prosecutors promised there would be more to come, and there have been. Just last month, four members of the Blackfeet tribe were sentenced to prison for involvement in a scheme to steal federal mental-health and substance abuse treatment funds from a $9 million contract. More than $225,000 intended for the program ended up being spent on travel and gambling, among other things.

Six people have pleaded guilty to embezzling federal dollars from a $361 million pipeline project designed to bring freshwater to the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation. Another seven people from the Crow reservation were indicted for stealing at least a half-million dollars from the tribe in a double-billing scheme operated out of the tribe's historic preservation office. One of the people convicted in the scheme allowed a coal company to take a backhoe to a 2,000-year-old sacred bison burial site. The corruption investigations have already ensnared a former state representative and Chippewa Cree tribe official, Tony Belcourt, who in April pleaded guilty to bribery, theft, and tax-evasion charges related to the water project, as well as construction of a multimillion-dollar clinic.

Overall, though, Montana itself probably isn't more scandal-plagued than New Jersey or Miami. Montana's US attorney has just taken a harder line on prosecuting the abuses on its reservations, and all those cases have added up to boost Montana to the top of the rankings in terms of public corruption prosecutions. "These figures from Syracuse reflect only a portion of our effort," US Attorney Mike Cotter said in a statement Tuesday. "Many of the public corruption indictments brought in Montana were initiated before last October. Relatively speaking, Montana is a small office; a David among Goliaths. But the Guardians have done truly remarkable work. Their efforts have unearthed widespread criminal activity and flagrant abuses of trust with regard to federal programs and grants designed to provide for the common good of our Indian communities."

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Autopsy Shows Just How Royally Oklahoma Screwed Up Clayton Lockett's Execution

| Fri Jun. 13, 2014 2:26 PM EDT
Oklahoma's death chamber.

In April, when Oklahoma tried to execute Clayton Lockett, everything went wrong. The execution team spent more than an hour trying to find a useable vein. And after officials administered drugs that should have rendered him unconscious, he raised his head, writhed on the gurney and mumbled, appearing to be in pain. The proceeding was eventually halted, but Lockett reportedly died of a heart attack a few minutes later. Corrections officials insisted at the time that Lockett's vein had "blown" or ruptured, causing the drugs to leak into surrounding tissue rather than into his blood stream. Now preliminary findings from an independent autopsy of Lockett suggest an unsettling explanation of what really happened: The people charged with carrying out the execution had absolutely no clue what they were doing.

Oklahoma officials initially claimed that Lockett's executioners had been forced to insert an IV line into the inmate's femoral vein—a painful place for the insertion and also a risky one that requires serious medical expertise—after running into difficulty finding another suitable vein. They also suggested that dehydration or another medical condition might have led to Lockett's botched execution.

Lockett's lawyers retained a medical examiner, who performed an autopsy on the prisoner. Dr. Joseph Cohen's findings, which were released today, raise serious questions about the official account. The autopsy indicates that Lockett's vein never blew—because the IV was never inserted there in the first place. Instead, the needle punctured the vein. Cohen also determined that there was nothing wrong with the veins in Lockett's arms that would have justified using a femoral vein, nor was he dehydrated. Yet he found "skin punctures on the extremities and right and left femoral areas," and proof that the execution team had tried to set lines in both of Lockett's arms and both sides of his groin. Cohen also found more evidence of inept handiwork in hemorrhages around the places the team had tried to access a vein, as well as other injuries related to "failed vascular catheter access."

As with other botched lethal injection executions, the autopsy provides compelling evidence that the people handling what is supposed to be a medical procedure, albeit a gruesome one, have little or no medical training. Oklahoma corrections officials, as well as the governor, said athat a phlebotomist had inserted Lockett's IV. Phlebotomists are fairly low-level health care workers whose primary training and work involves drawing blood for testing. Leaving aside the fact that, in Oklahoma, phlebotomists aren't licensed, regulated, or trained in inserting catheters or IVs, the state's own protocols require a paramedic or EMT to inert an IV. After the Tulsa World started asking about this discrepancy, the state changed its position and claimed that the work had been done by an EMT. State law makes this almost impossible to verify, shrouding the identities of execution team members in secrecy.

Executioner jobs don't necessarily attract the best and brightest. The oath doctors take to "first do no harm" renders them ethically prohibited from participating in executions, so often the people who carry out lethal injections are just ordinary prison officials or, in some cases, employees with checkered pasts. In Arizona, for instance, where execution team members are supposed to receive background checks, one of the primary execution team members had a criminal record, including arrests for drunk driving and drinking in public. Even when doctors participate, they're not always at the top of their profession. In Missouri, dyslexic surgeon Dr. Alan Doerhoff, who admitted to improvising drug mixtures, oversaw 54 executions before a judge banned him from performing any more. Doerhoff was the subject of more than 20 malpractice lawsuits during his career, and he was disciplined by the state medical board for concealing lawsuits from a hospital where he worked. Two Missouri hospitals banned him from practicing in their facilities.

Cohen is still seeking more information from Oklahoma about its procedures, test results from the coroner's office, and other details about the day Lockett died. Corrections officials tasered Lockett in the process of removing him from his cell to take him to the death chamber, and Cohen is seeking more information about that, too, due to other injuries he found on Lockett's body.

In a statement, Dr. Mark Heath, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at Columbia University and an expert in lethal injection executions who has been aiding defense lawyers challenging state protocols, explained, "Dr. Cohen has begun a critically important inquiry into the botched execution of Clayton Lockett. However, to complete this inquiry, Dr. Cohen will need the state to provide extensive additional information beyond what the body itself revealed. I hope that Oklahoma provides everything he asks for so that we can all understand what went so terribly wrong in Mr. Lockett’s execution."

A Missouri Juror Tries To Save Man She Helped Send to Death Row

| Tue Jun. 10, 2014 11:24 AM EDT

Americans are generally supportive of the death penalty, although slightly less now than 20 years ago. But capital juries are especially partial to the death penalty, largely by design: only people who support capital punishment are allowed to serve on them. So Kimberly Turner is an unusual defector. In 1998, the 30-year-old single mom served on a Missouri jury that sentenced John Winfield to death for murdering two women who were friends of his former girlfriend. Winfield is scheduled to be executed on June 18, the seventh execution in the state since November.

Turner, though, doesn't think Winfield should die. She has told his lawyers that while serving on the jury, court officials pressured the jury to continue deliberating, even though at least two jurors wanted to vote for life without parole. According to Turner, the jury was already a bit of a pressure cooker. They had been sequestered for several days, and by Friday night, the jurors wanted to go home. Turner also had been struggling to find care for her daughter while she performed her civic duty. So in the end, she and another juror who'd wanted to spare Winfield's life caved and voted for death. But 16 years later, she still regrets that vote and has been helping Winfield challenge his conviction.

She's not giving media interviews, but Turner gave Winfield's lawyers a written declaration describing her recollections of the jury proceedings. It's a poignant document describing her regrets, but it also provides an unusual window into a process that forces ordinary citizens to decide whether or not a person should be killed.

Turner outlines her concern about the way the case played out, such as the bad defense lawyers who failed to call many witnesses who might have humanized their clients. She faults the prosecutor for playing up racial biases, for instance, writing:

The jury was predominantly white, including me, and Mr. Winfield is black. The prosecutor made me think that Mr. Winfield was a thug. She played up that he drove around St. Louis in a Cadillac with tinted windows. I could not identify with the picture that the prosecutor painted. When we were deliberating as a jury, a lot of people described Mr. Winfield as a thug and that influenced the way that people voted. Ultimately, we deadlocked in deliberations. Another juror and I had voted for life without the possibility of parole. That was my vote. In my heart, that has always been my vote. Despite the fact that Mr. Winfield's defense had not given me a picture of who he was as a person, I still had compassion for the man in front me at the trial. I knew he was someone's son, and I did not want him to be killed.

Turner describes how difficult it can be for jurors to vote their conscience in a capital trial, calling out the role she saw of court officials in trying to pressure the jury towards a unanimous verdict for death. She writes:

We alerted the Court to the fact that we were deadlocked and could not come to a decision. We were then directed to keep deliberating. Even though I had voted for life without parole, when an officer of the Court told me to keep deliberating, I thought that I had to. It was Friday afternoon and the other jurors were tired of being sequestered and wanted to go home. They were pressuring me and the other life vote to change our votes to death. One juror even exclaimed that we should fry him and go home. That comment upset me, it did not seem to take seriously our decision and the life in front of us. I saw that juror years later, and I would not even speak to him because I was still so upset over his comment.

As the afternoon went on, the other jurors wore me down. I had not wanted to keep deliberating, but after the order to continue, I did not know how long I was supposed to keep defending my vote for life. I was worried about my daughter and did not know when I would be able to get home to her. So I changed my vote to death. It is a decision that has haunted me.

Turner has followed the case ever since, and in 2007, came forward with another juror to help Winfield's lawyers by arguing that a bailiff had given the jury an illegal instruction to keep deliberating even though their votes were split—an outcome that would have resulted in a sentence of life without parole, not a mistrial.  She explains her decision in the declaration:

When I discovered that Mr. Winfield had been given an execution date, I was sick to my stomach. This has been very emotional for me. I have always tried to do the right thing. It was hard on me to be a juror as a single mom, but I did my civic duty. I was called to fulfill this duty. I did not ask to be a part of deciding whether a man should live or die. It bothers me that I was not presented with all of the information available about who Mr. Winfield is as a person to aid me in my decision. Nevertheless, I voted for life. I defended my vote for life and was then instructed by the Court to keep deliberating after I had made my decision. Now, I feel that this is my fault. I feel responsible for Mr. Winfield's fate. I struggle with that. If Mr. Winfield is executed, I will have to deal with that forever. I ask that Mr. Winfield's sentence be commuted to life without the possibility of parole.

Unfortunately for Winfield, Turner's testimony and declaration didn't persuade the Missouri Supreme Court, which rejected Winfield's challenge to the jury treatment a few years ago. But Turner is apparently still trying to help him win clemency, or at least clear her conscience the best she can. Her written declaration was signed May 28 of this year, not long after Winfield's most recent execution date was set. In a state that's recently won notoriety for executing several people even though they still had appeals pending in the courts, Turner is likely tilting at windmills. But her activism ought to remind court officials that jurors could be victims in a death penalty case, too.

 

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