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.

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

| Tue Jun. 10, 2014 12:24 PM 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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Florida Governor Rick Scott to Attend Fundraiser at the Home of a Tax Cheat

| Thu Jun. 5, 2014 11:21 AM EDT

Update: Less than three hours after this story was published Thursday, Scott canceled the fundraiser.

Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) is in the midst of a tight reelection race, running neck and neck against former Republican governor Charlie Crist, who's now a Democrat. Scott has raised gobs of money to fuel his campaign—and apparently he isn't especially particular about where it comes from. On Saturday, he is scheduled to appear at a $10,000-a-person fundraiser at the Boca Raton home of James Batmasian, a powerful real estate developer and philanthropist in the state who also has done hard time for tax evasion.

In 2008, Batmasian pleaded guilty to charges that he'd failed to collect and pay about $250,000 in federal withholding taxes from employees of his Boca Raton investment company. He was sentenced to eight months in a federal prison, two years of supervised release, and fined $30,000. Batmasian, a Harvard-trained lawyer, also had his law license suspended as a result of the felony plea and is still unable to practice law in Florida. 

After his release from prison in South Carolina in 2009, he returned to Florida and his real estate empire. Since then, he's thrown some money around in Republican politics. He and his wife Marta attended the Boca Raton fundraiser for Mitt Romney in 2012, where the GOP presidential candidate made his infamous "47 percent" remarks and claimed that nearly half of Americans are mooches who don't take responsibility for their own lives. Marta has also contributed generously to GOP causes, including chipping in $50,000 to Romney's campaign.

Saturday, the Batmasians will be hosting an event for Scott, who has spent a good part of his time in office battling poll ratings that rank him as one of the most unpopular governors in the state's history. Having an ex-felon as a fundraiser probably won't hurt Scott's reputation much. Scott has his own baggage to contend with. Before getting into politics, he founded and ran a company, HCA, which committed one of the biggest health care frauds in the nation's history. In 2000—a few years after Scott had been forced out of the firm—HCA paid out a $1.7 billion-with-a-b fine after being investigated by the Justice Department for Medicare fraud. That makes Batmasian's felonious past look like small potatoes. 

If You're Born Poor, You'll Probably Stay That Way

| Tue Jun. 3, 2014 12:08 PM EDT
Inner City Baltimore

In 1997, before The Wire made him a household name, then-Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon published The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, a book about an open-air drug market at West Fayette and Monroe Streets in Baltimore. The book painted a grim portrait of the urban ghetto and the people trapped there. It was hailed as a landmark work of immersion journalism.

But Simon can't hold a candle to Karl Alexander, a Johns Hopkins sociologist who followed nearly 800 people from the neighborhoods surrounding Simon's corner since they started first grade in 1982. Alexander and his Hopkins colleagues are now publishing the final results of that 30-year study, their own version of The Corner, called The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth And the Transition to Adulthood. What they've found isn't quite as grim as what Simon described, but it's not much more encouraging.

Alexander set out to look at how family influences the trajectory of a low-income child's life. Thirty years later, he's decided that family determines almost everything, and that a child's fate is essentially fixed by how well off her parents were when she was born.

Alexander's findings conflict with the sort of Horatio Alger stories of American mythology, but not with other social science research on upward mobility. His are especially dispiriting. Of the nearly 800 school kids he's been following for 30 years, those who got a better start—because their parents were working or married—tended to stay better off, while the more disadvantaged stayed poor.

Out of the original 800 public school children he started with, 33 moved from low-income birth family to a high-income bracket by the time they neared 30. Alexander found that education, rather than giving kids a fighting chance at a better life, simply preserved privilege across generations. Only 4 percent of the low-income kids he met in 1982 had college degrees when he interviewed them at age 28, whereas 45 percent of the kids from higher-income backgrounds did.

Perhaps more striking in his findings was the role of race in upward mobility. Alexander found that among men who drop out of high school, the employment differences between white and black men was truly staggering. At age 22, 89 percent of the white subjects who'd dropped of high school were working, compared with 40 percent of the black dropouts.

These differences came despite the fact that it was the better-off white men who reported the highest rates of drug abuse and binge drinking. White men from disadvantaged families came in second in that department. White men also had high rates of encounters with the criminal justice system. At age 28, 41 percent of the white men born into low-income families had criminal convictions, compared with 49 percent of the black men from similar backgrounds, an indication that it is indeed race, not a criminal record, that's keeping a lot of black men out of the workforce.

Alexander doesn't call it white privilege, but it's basically what he describes. His data suggests that the difference in employment rates between white and black men with similar drug problems and arrest records stems from better social networks among white men, who have more friends and family members who can help them overcome many of their obvious impediments to employment.

He does find some silver linings in the data and in the interviews with people he's been talking to since they were six years old. Included in one random sample from a single, very poor public school close to Simon's corner were 22 African-American men. Alexander was able to stay in touch with 18 of them through 2005, when they were adults. Of that 18, 17 had been arrested and convicted of a crime at some time in their lives. (Seven of the interviews in 2005 were done in prisons.) But a fair number of that group had also gone on to get post-secondary education of some sort, and nine were also working full time—two making more than $50,000 a year, indications that not everyone from the 'hood was doomed to a life of poverty and crime. "These are young black men from The Corner working steadily and drawing a decent paycheck," Alexander writes.

Even so, he admits that his substantial data trove proves pretty conclusively that social status in the inner city is relatively immobile. 

“The implication is where you start in life is where you end up in life,” Alexander said in a press release. “It’s very sobering to see how this all unfolds.”

 

 

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Tue Sep. 9, 2014 6:30 AM EDT | Updated Tue Dec. 16, 2014 10:10 AM EDT