Brandon P. Fleming is founder of the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project, nationally recognized for its success in introducing minority students to the Ivy League institution’s debate team. He should not be where he is today.
In his recently published memoir Miseducated, Fleming shares all the reasons for his unlikely success, beginning with an abusive upbringing laid out in all its painful detail. But Fleming overcame the odds by surviving the awful childhood, drugs and stupid mistakes that could have landed him behind bars, the missed dream of an athletic scholarship, and an intimate dance with death following a suicide attempt.
“I want him out of this school.” Fleming heard the words of the middle principal fed up with the 13-year-old menace. He walked a thin line between academic eligibility to play basketball and his side hustle of selling drugs.
For all the teachers and adults who failed him, there were a handful of others who stepped up to the challenge of a rowdy Black child and saw the potential overlooked by everyone else, most notably Fleming himself.
An injury ended his career as a Division 1 college athlete and forced him to leave Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. A gift from his mother, a veteran with newly acquired GI Bill benefits, put Fleming back into the classroom where he discovered the concept of renaissance. He studied every renaissance he could find and reflected on what the great philosophers had to offer a poor Black student who admitted to his teacher he had never read a book.
And he developed a love of debate.
Along the way, he learned about education and the school system that had failed him and many of his peers. When the door to the world opened, things began to make sense:
“I realized that my approach to debate was wrong. My approach to education in general was wrong. I had been debating with facts and information that I could regurgitate but did not understand. Like a child trying to walk before he crawls, I was trying to argue before I learned how to question….I realized that traditional education focuses mainly on the status quo, on the surface of the soil-which allows the seeds of injustice to lie quiescent, until they sprout into weeds of social and political inequality. The aphorism attributed to Socrates started to make sense: weak minds discuss people; average minds discuss events; but strong minds discuss ideas.”
Armed with new mental strength, Fleming gathered students around Lynchburg who needed a mentor, someone to care about them, and peel back the layers of their potential. The climb was sometimes steep and difficult, but Fleming’s scholars absorbed the lessons of the Harlem Renaissance with the same enthusiasm that had altered the course of his life.
In the current debate over what students should learn about the history of race in our country, the narratives of Black students like Fleming provide the best lessons. Miseducated takes us to dark places no child should endure on the way to a future few can imagine. His memoir is an inspiration for parents, educators and students who think they know how much a child can achieve.
It was a long three weeks of trial and an even longer three days waiting for a jury to return its decision in the People of Wisconsin v Kyle Rittenhouse. On Friday afternoon, the waiting was over.
The panel unanimously agreed that the 18-year-old is not guilty of murder in the shooting deaths of two men and serious injury of a third victim during protests last year in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Looking at Kyle Rittenhouse, with his baby-faced cheeks, dressed in his Sunday best in court every day, it would be easy to imagine him in his first semester of community college. Maybe the captain of the baseball team.
It’s an open question, whether Rittenhouse will ever live such a life, or if it’s been lost in the shadows of the favorable verdict so generously awarded by jurors who swore to listen to the evidence and follow the law. Theirs was unenviable job.
The divisive nature of our country’s debate over gun laws will not be lessened by the lack of consequences this young man will face as a result of his decision to pull the trigger on the deadliest of deadly weapons.
Those who believe his actions were justified will point to his acquittal as proof that it is legally permissible to walk the streets with assault-style weapons draped across their bodies and fire if a serious threat arises. People worried that allowing Rittenhouse to go free will make the streets more dangerous are more worried tonight.
For the families of the victims, the courtroom battle and acquittal does not look or feel like justice. Surely the taking of human life–death by the crack of close- range gunfire caught on video–begs for recompense, the families must believe. Is serious reflection on how this tragedy occurred and the next one may be avoided too much to hope for?
And what lies ahead for Kyle Rittenhouse?
During the second day of jury deliberations, Congressman Matt Gaetz extended an invitation for an internship to the defendant. While the congressman faces accusations that Rittenhouse would be advised to avoid, the offer illustrates how people in certain political camps would like to use the teenager for their own gain.
Rittenhouse’s lawyers may have convinced a jury of his innocence according to standards set by Wisconsin law, but the country will judge him on how he conducts himself tomorrow and the days that follow his exit from the courtroom. The teenager who took two lives may best prove his innocence and intentions by laying down the weapons and becoming a man he can be proud of when he looks into the mirror.
Bart McNeil was in prison a dozen years when a newspaper clipping that renewed hope for his exoneration arrived in the mail.
With decades yet to go on his 100-year sentence in the murder of his 3-year-old daughter Christina, hope was a dim light at the end of a dark tunnel.
From the day he found his daughter’s lifeless body in her bed in 1998, McNeil pleaded with Bloomington police to investigate his former girlfriend Misook Nowlin’s possible involvement in the child’s death. Authorities instead charged McNeil with smothering his daughter. The motive: alleged sexual abuse of the child by her father, an accusation he has denied.
In 2011, Nowlin was charged with killing her-in-law. For McNeil, the charges against Nowlin opened the door to new scrutiny of his case by a team of lawyers with the Illinois Innocence Project. A petition filed earlier this year is a road map to the complex web of circumstances that potentially links Nowlin to the child’s death and the new evidence that challenges assumptions made about by police.
And speaking of webs, spiders also play a supporting role in this story. Did Nowlin disturb their web when she allegedly accessed the girl’s bedroom through a window? That’s just one of the questions raised by the defense team.
Nowlin’s case has been a topic for several true crime shows over the years. But for the first time, a production team has examined the possible connection between the McNeil and Nowlin cases. The Sept.25 two-hour season premier of Snapped on the Oxygen Network features interviews with McNeil and Nowlin and a detailed look at McNeil’s innocence claim.
McNeil’s family has arranged for the show to be aired at the Normal Theatre in Normal on Oct. 5. The 7 p.m. event includes a panel discussion afterwards with journalists who have covered the story (Scott Reeder and myself), forensic analysts and Chris Ross, McNeil’s cousin. Admission is free but seating is limited so early arrival is advised.
McNeil’s post-conviction process is in its early stages. His lawyers point to Misook as a viable suspect ignored by police. It is not necessary for the defense to prove Misook was involved in Christina’s death; they succeed if they persuade the judge that enough doubt and new evidence exists to justify a new trial.
With millions of true crime enthusiasts now aware of the questions surrounding McNeil’s conviction, the case has moved to the court of public opinion where the smallest details often matter most in the big picture.
Here’s a link to my story on WGLT on what’s happening with the McNeil case:
There are some developments in criminal cases that leave you shaking your head. Things that fall under the You Can’t Make This Stuff Up category.
This week, a judge ordered the state to turn over about 8,000 pages of police reports to lawyers for Jamie Snow, who has been challenging his murder conviction since he went to prison 21 years ago. All the players are new to this case: the judge, the prosecutor and Snow’s legal team were not involved in Snow’s trial or the years of post-conviction efforts.
What puts the recent developments in the category of the bizarre is the circumstance leading to the thousands of pages of records. Snow’s original legal team included a lawyer who later went to prison on criminal charges and a second attorney who died, leaving Snow’s attorneys with The Exoneration Project with no access to the records that may or may not have been turned over during the discovery process. No one knows for sure.
Five years ago, a judge approved a subpoena to the Illinois State Police and Bloomington police for records related to fingerprint evidence the defense wanted for its motion for DNA testing. In response, Bloomington police dumped thousands of pages of reports that far exceeded the information requested by the police. Snow’s new lawyers said some of the material was new to them and could be considered exculpatory.
Previous efforts by the defense to obtain records from police through the Freedom of Information Act were met with black pages of heavily redacted information.
But for the mountain of information inadvertently released by Bloomington police, the defense would not have had access to materials that may impact Snow’s future post-conviction petitions.
The state balked at turning over the materials. A prosecutor told the judge Snow’s lawyers are only entitled to the materials that fit the narrow scope of the original subpoena. The judge disagreed and ordered the documents released to the defense.
It is common for the most uncommon circumstances to be the game changer in post-conviction cases. You can’t make these things up but when they occur, they can open new doors for people with innocence claims.
Here’s a link to a story I authored for WGLT on Snow’s recent hearing:
Soon Alan Beaman will mark 30 years since he was wrongly accused of killing his girlfriend.
The Illinois Supreme Court reversed his murder conviction in 2008 and later he was pardoned by the governor. The state awarded him a certificate of innocence. But Beaman has never had his day in court to ask a jury if they believe the Normal police and the prosecutors handling the case at the time deliberately ignored other suspects and evidence pointing to his innocence. The Illinois Supreme Court cleared the way this week for just such a trial.
The court ruled that Beaman is entitled to a trial on his claims that three former Normal police offices conspired with prosecutors to frame him for the murder of Jennifer Lockmiller.
In its 42-page decision, the court ruled 4 to 2 to reverse a Fourth District appellate Court decision that let stand a lower court ruling dismissing Beaman’s lawsuit against the town of Normal and now-retired officers Frank Zayas, Tim Freesmeyer and Dave Warner. The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in January.
Beaman was convicted in 1994 of strangling his former girlfriend, Jennifer Lockmiller, whose body was found in her apartment near the ISU campus. He served 13 years of a 50-year sentence before the state Supreme Court reversed his conviction. The state dropped the murder charges and Beaman was later granted a certificate of innocence and a pardon from the state.
The detectives, working with former McLean County State’s Attorney Charles Reynard and former prosecutor James Souk, ignored viable suspects and focused on Beaman during the early stages of their investigation, Beaman argued in his lawsuit. To support his claim, Beaman points to the history of drug use and domestic violence by another man who also had a sexual relationship with Lockmiller.
The lower courts erred when they determined that Beaman failed to prove that authorities lacked probable cause to prosecute him for the murder, said the Supreme Court ruling.
“That determination must – and can only—be resolved by a trier of fact, and the lower courts erred in finding otherwise,” the court ruled.
In the 2008 Supreme Court decision that Beaman’s jury trial had been tainted by the state’s withholding of evidence, the court found that Beaman’s lawyers were not told of another potential suspect’s failure to complete a polygraph test, his drug use and violence against his girlfriend.
“The fact that four separate pieces of evidence, acquired by the detectives at different times during the investigation, were admittedly withheld from Beaman could support a finding of incompetence, mistake or malice,” the court said in its recent ruling.
The court expressed skepticism about the state’s theory that Beaman killed Lockmiller weeks after the two had ended their relationship and he had moved back home to Rockford. The NPD timeline of the killing required Beaman to drive his older vehicle a steady 75 miles per hour from Rockford to Normal, strangle and stab Lockmiller within a 15-minute timeframe, and return home, again driving the high rate of speed.
Beaman also points to time trials performed by Freesmeyer that supported Beaman’s alibi that he was in Rockford at the time Lockmiller was killed, which were not turned over to the defense during the murder trial.
Former NPD Detective Tony Daniels voiced concerns about charging Beaman but was rebuffed by Reynard and Souk, who said at the time, “I think we’ve got our guy. We went as far as we can with this case,” the justices noted.
Comments by Souk about Freesmeyer’s work on the case support Beaman’s contention that the officers influenced prosecutors’ decision to charge Beaman, according to the ruling. In a letter to the NPD chief after Beaman’s conviction, Souk said the officer’s effort was “all the more remarkable considering his youth and inexperience. Beyond any question in my mind, this case would not have been won without Tim Freesmeyer.”
Souk’s letter is one element of Beaman’s argument that NPD engaged in a bad-faith investigation.
“As to Freesmeyer in particular, Beaman asserts that a juror could determine that he was motivated by a desire to advance his career,” said the Supreme court ruling.
Souk and Reynard went on to serve as circuit judges. Both are retired.
In their review of the dismissal of the lawsuit, the Supreme Court concluded that “when the reasonable inferences are drawn in favor Beaman, as they must be when reviewing a grant of summary judgement, a rational juror could find that defendants intentionally ignored, shaped, interpreted, or created evidence to support their conclusion that Beaman was guilty.”
Justice Michael J. Burke filed a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justice Rita Garman.
Burke opined that Beaman failed to prove police lacked probable cause to charged him with murder. Such a failure is a defense against allegations of malicious prosecution, said Burke.
Beaman’s lawsuit now goes back to the Sixth Judicial Court and Judge Richard L. Broch who was appointed to hear the case because of judicial conflicts in the 11th Circuit were the case originated.
Beaman now lives in Rockford with his wife and two children.
Should children who commit serious crimes, including murder and sexual assaults, be sent to prison for life without the chance of future parole? State courts have struggled with this issue for decades, with each jurisdiction crafting a set of guidelines that reflect the views of the local community and current state law.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a ruling on a case involving a Mississippi man who was just 15 when he stabbed is grandfather. As with most cases, each side offered a different version of the crime. The defense cited a long history of child abuse, while the state portrayed the offender, now in his 30’s, as a cold-blooded killer who should never be set free.
Writing for the court’s new conservative majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh opined that a judge is not required to make a finding that the defendant is permanently “incorrigible.” The fact that Mississippi affords judges the option of life in prison or a lesser sentence satisfies the need to protect a person’s Eighth Amendment rights, the court ruled.
Advocates for juvenile justice worry that defense lawyers will have a much harder time convincing judges that a defendant’s rehabilitation is relevant, based on the new ruling.
Illinois is ahead of many states when it comes to juvenile justice reform. Legislators codified the rules laid out in a Supreme Court decision requiring judges to consider “the hallmark attributes of youth” that set children and adults apart when it comes to the decision-making process. Judges who are reviewing the life sentences must decide if the person who committed the crime as a minor has shown significant rehabilitation during their time in prison.
I recently talked with Elizabeth Clarke, founder of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, and other lawyers about the impact the new ruling could have on Illinois cases.
Defense lawyer Curtis Lovelace has a special bond with his clients during the nerve-racking moments that precede the delivery of a verdict.
“I’ve been in that seat and I’ve been in that jail. I know what it’s like to sit and wait for a verdict,” Lovelace told me recently in a phone call on his way to meet a client at the McLean County jail.
Lovelace was thrown into the arena of the criminal justice system when he was charged with murder eight years after the death of his wife, Cory. Lovelace found her dead in the family home in Quincy in 2006.
News of the charges gained greater oxygen because Lovelace, the father of four, was lead prosecutor for Adams County at the time. The first trial ended in a hung jury and a second trial in 2017 brought an acquittal. With assistance from the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project, Lovelace was able to prove that his wife’s death was due to natural causes.
Love and his new wife, Christine, opened the Lovelace Center for Criminal Defense in Urbana after his acquittal. The couple moved the practice to Chicago last year after spending much of their time traveling Illinois highways defending some of the toughest cases.
On Saturday, Lovelace’s client James K. Day was found not guilty of murder by a Woodford County jury in the death of his mother. Unable to post bail, Day waited in jail for four years for his trial date. Day’s case was a difficult one, Lovelace acknowledged, because of the scientific evidence involved in showing Day did not set fire to the home he shared with his mother after allegedly killing her.
But Lovelace is attracted to difficult cases.
“We take cases where people insist they’re innocent and not interested in a plea deal,” he said.
As the trial date inched closer, Day’s family reached out to Lovelace in hopes he would take the case. The lawyer was impressed with Day’s claim of innocence.
“I believed him,” Lovelace told me. The commitment to serve as Day’s lawyer came before Lovelace had seen any of the evidence the state intended to use at trial.
People waiting months and sometimes years for their cases to be resolved often become impatient and despondent. Having spent two years in jail during his wrongful prosecution, Lovelace knows what it feels like to wait behind bars.
“My experience gives me a level of empathy I wouldn’t have without going through what I went through,” he said. As a lawyer, he understands that delays are often a necessary part of trial preparation.
Day, however, “was unbelievably patient for a person who ended up spending four years in a county jail,” said Lovelace.
In a year of COVID-19 when trials were few and far between in most counties, Lovelace handled four jury trials. Two of those cases were in Adams County where he won one case and lost another. Being back in the courthouse where he once served as chief prosecutor was difficult, he admitted. “There’s a lot of memories there, not good memories.”
More needs to be done to raise awareness of wrongful prosecutions and convictions, said Lovelace. Innocence projects in Springfield and Chicago comprise a small circle of dedicated lawyers who handle the most difficult cases, including those that require an unraveling of mistakes made decades earlier by police and prosecutors.
“We do need more people involved because there’s a lot of people in our prisons whose cases need review. It’s one thing to get people out but it’s another to identify the issues that led to the wrongful conviction,” said Lovelace.
During my years as a newspaper reporter, I wrote countless stories about crime and the people accused of committing those offenses.
While some misdeeds were severe and ended with a senseless death, others involved a brief lapse in judgement. People accepted their punishment and moved on. But the internet has changed how stories are circulated, leaving ex-offenders with a virtual criminal record that reflects little or nothing of their efforts to correct a mistake.
An initiative undertaken by The Boston Globe takes a serious look at how crime is reported and the consequences of putting every defendant in the same spotlight. The “Fresh Start” program gives people the chance to ask the newspaper to update the story or anonymize past coverage online. Each case will be reviewed individually for potential removal from Google search results or anonymizing names in the past stories.
It was not uncommon for an ex-offender to contact me and other reporters about stories with a shelf life so long it disrupted a job search or another opportunity in a person’s life. An easy solution did not exist at the time of those requests.
The arguments made by The Boston Globe that newspapers need to revisit their standards for crime coverage are worthy of serious consideration by the media. The thorny issues of who is most impacted by crime reporting are part of the Boston debate. I think “The Fresh Start” initiative is worthy of a conversation in newsrooms across the globe.
Here’s a link to a story reported on NPR’s “Here and Now” about The Boston Globe program:
The list of first responders who are literally the first in line to help others during this pandemic includes medical personnel, police, paramedics and caregivers at all levels of every facility.
On another branch of the first responder tree are the chaplains who walk the hallways of hospitals and nursing homes, giving their time and compassion to the sick and dying and the medical workers who are all running a race against a devastating disease that knows no limits. On Sunday, David Proeber, photo editor of The Pantagraph, shared his wife’s story of courageous and selfless service. Rev. Jan Prober is an on-call chaplain for Carle BroMenn Medical Center in Normal.
This week, Jan received the COVID-19 vaccination. David and Jan view the vaccination as the most special Christmas gift. I agree, and thank Jan for her willingness to comfort those in need, despite the risk to her own health.
As a 20-year-old foreign exchange student living in Italy, Amanda Knox was unfamiliar with the plight of people wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit.
The 2007 brutal rape and murder of her roommate, combined with a botched police investigation and prosecution, changed Knox’s life forever. Knox spent a year in prison before charges were filed and almost four years behind bars before an Italian court acquitted her of murder.
Knox, now 33, and living in Seattle with her husband, recounted her story on Thursday in an interview with Lauren Kaeseberg, legal director of the Illinois Innocence Project.
The conversation was shared in a virtual fundraising event for the IIP.
“At one point in my life, I knew nothing, and because I knew nothing I didn’t care,” said Knox.
An aggressive media spread misinformation about 21-year-old Meredith Kercher’s death. Local politicians felt pressured to solve the salacious crime that was highlighted in media reports across the globe with headlines blaming “Foxy Knoxy” for the death.
“I never ever thought something like this was remotely possible,” Knox said of her experience. “It was a perfect storm of things that went wrong.”
Unable to speak Italian fluently, Knox struggled to understand authorities during more than 50 hours of interrogation. She was separated from her boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, who also was charged and later acquitted of murder.
The legal process in Italy allowed Knox’s case to move through three levels of review in about three years – far faster than the decades similar cases take in the U.S., noted Kaeseberg.
Knox returned to the U.S. in 2011 after an acquittal by the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation.
Without the protections against double jeopardy afforded defendants in the U.S., Knox was convicted again in 2014. The new charge created fear and uncertainty about a possible extradition.
“I was living like a hunted animal, trying to find out if I was going to get my life back,” said Knox.
Relief came in 2015 with acquittals for Know and her former boyfriend. Rudy Guede was convicted of murder after DNA linked him to the crime. He was recently allowed to complete his sentence with community service, a decision that has outraged Knox.
During her years in prison, Knox drew strength from her family and supporters in the U.S.
Her parents took turns traveling to Italy for the eight hours of visitation allowed inmates monthly in the prison.
“My family never missed a visitation the entire time,” said Knox.
The impact of incarceration on families is one thread in the fabric of loss experienced by innocent people waiting to be exonerated, said Knox. The limitations in place during the pandemic have made a bad situation worse for detainees, she said.
“It is deeply troubling to me. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be prison right now,” said Knox.
Knox, author of Waiting To Be Heard, actively supports innocence organizations, a movement that did not exist in Italy at the time she was charged. Her work on behalf of innocent people “is a way to make the best of a bad situation.”
In 2020, The Illinois Innocence Project was successful in securing the release of five wrongfully convicted individuals. The list of 17 exonerations secured so far by IIP represents 350 years of life lost behind bars.
This year will long be remembered as the year of the pandemic, a time when the entire world struggled to fight off a killer virus that left hundreds of thousands of deaths in its wake.
The stories from past plagues that have ravaged our planet were captured in newspaper accounts and family histories, passed along by generations of survivors. Many details of the destructive virus were left untold.
The history of COVID-19 has been recorded far more completely.
The visual and electronic storytelling techniques have allowed us to save photographs and recordings of the firsthand experiences that break our hearts every time they are shared. Soon we will all know people who have overcome or succumbed to the virus.
A conversation with a friend recently made me think about how the youngest among us will carry their memories of the pandemic.
A mother of three young children, my friend told me how she has taken photos of life during the pandemic. Photos of her masked offspring, instructional signs in public places and the mostly deserted landscape are a few of the images she has captured and saved for her children.
I wonder what type of scrapbook – virtual or otherwise – children will put together as they grow older and the pandemic of 2020 grows dimmer in their minds. They will surely have their own vivid recollections of the months when life stood still. The day school ended in a building and shifted to the dining room table. Halloween parties at home and Thanksgiving without grandparents.
I have a photograph of my grand daughter on her special First Communion day. Her beautiful white lace dress and veil are obscured by the mask shielding her face. Her twinkling eyes peering from behind the face covering clearly show she was still smiling broadly.
Those of us who have survived the virus so far will have stories to tell not only of the killer pandemic but a political war that raged simultaneously in our country. That battle has been laboriously chronicled for future generations, too.
Children are resilient and will recover their lives with friends, relatives and the activities that kept them occupied before the door to our world slammed shut. But the scrapbooks they compile for their children and grandchildren will provide the full measure of what the pandemic of 2020 really meant to them. And how they survived.
Christine Roush will be behind bars for 40 years for killing her mother, Teresa Poehlman in July 2017 in a violent encounter that played out in the wooden area around Funks Grove just south of Bloomington, Illinois. Her friend Matt Isbell is doing a 12-year sentence for his role in the murder.
Christine was 22 when she was convicted. Matt was 24.
The Poehlman murder was featured in a recent episode of Snapped, a series produced for the Oxygen Network. I was interviewed about the case that leaves behind lingering questions for those closet to Christine and the victim, who was her biological mother. The McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage and his department’s investigative team, along with Christine’s friends, also shared their recollections.
Snapped producers were in McLean County several years ago to talk with me and others about another murder case involving Misook Nowlin. In that case, the victim was the perpetrator’s mother-in-law, Linda Tyda. As the show’s name implies, these are stories of people who “snapped” after a dispute reached the breaking point.
Here’s a link to the November 8 broadcast on the Roush case:
The day after the final ballots are cast, Americans will wake up to a changed nation.
If predictions and polls prove to be accurate, we will elect a new president on Nov. 3 and the four-year anomaly of a Donald Trump presidency will come to an end. The next few hours will be a time of closing arguments from Joe Biden and Trump to audiences who are largely decided on their verdicts.
The contentious nature of the 2020 election season will go down in history for the stunning level of aggression and ill will exchanged between people. Families divided over political sentiments. Facebook connections were broken as people hit the Unfriend button with no intention of rekindling the friendship in Real Life.
But what will Wednesday look like?
Will the political placards now sinking in a layer of wet, fall leaves, be pulled up from the yard? Will the bruised feelings between friends and relatives heal before the Thanksgiving turkey is set on the table?
If Americans are looking for an incentive to set aside their differences, they need look no further than the COVID-19 death toll announced each morning after hospitals across the country tally the dismal score. The enemy virus still threatens the lives of young and old alike, and containment remains elusive.
It takes strength and energy to bicker with neighbors and loved ones. Everything from face coverings to mail-in ballots are worthy topics for snipes and screaming matches. But at the end of the day, the voting booth is the place voters’ opinions matters most.
As the bumper stickers fade and the flags are taken down by those hoping for a second term, Washington will slowly gather its post-election wits and begin planning for the future. Allegiances to a lame duck leader always weaken as his or her time in office grows short.
So it will be with Trump and his entourage.
With Wednesday’s dawn comes the opportunity to turn away from partisan politics and focus on the business of fighting a pandemic. It’s going to take a united nation to win this battle.
Substantial progress has been made in the five years since McLean County began an overhaul of community mental health, but some of the toughest work lies ahead, according to two McLean County Board members who served as architects for the ambitious Mental Health Action Plan.
A National Institute of Corrections study requested by former county sheriff Mike Emery of the mental health care at the jail proved a tipping point for more detailed scrutiny of not only the care inmates received but how mental health care was delivered outside the detention center.
Board chairman John McIntyre worked with member Susan Schafer to form two committees in 2014 comprised of stakeholders who spent months looking at mental health needs and best practices to deliver them.
The 92-page plan released in May 2015 laid out five priorities for improving mental health care: collaboration between providers, medication and medical management, juvenile services, housing and crisis services. As part of mental health reform, the county board moved forward with a $39 million jail expansion, which includes a mental health unit staffed with counselors.
But treatment within the justice system “goes for naught, as detainees return to unstructured and untreated environments,” the plan concluded. The board- sponsored report noted that without a better coordinated effort outside the jail to manage crisis calls and divert people from expensive emergency room visits and jail, no progress would be made.
The situation at the jail where inmates cycled in and out of the criminal justice system for lack of care in the community needed to be addressed on a larger scale, said Schafer. “The system wasn’t working. Something had to be done and no one was doing it. I thought, “let’s do it. Let’s get it done.”
The NIC report was an eyeopener for many people, said Schafer. “This was an outside group saying, ‘you’ve got a problem here.’”
Seventy-two people were invited to the first meeting to discuss the research needed for the mental health plan.
For McIntyre, his post-retirement work counseling and coaching high school students provided insight into the struggles families often face with confronted with mental illness.
“It’s a helpless feeling sometimes, if you can’t do much for people,” said McIntyre.
A chairman’s roundtable started by McIntyre brought stakeholders together to talk about gaps in services and solutions to fill them.
“When you get people to the same table, they learn more about each other and what they’re doing. We brought the social service agencies, first responders and hospitals together and others for those important discussions,” said McIntyre.
Crisis services were expanded as local providers improved their collaboration with each other and law enforcement. A new crisis stabilization center for short-term residential mental health needs opened at Chestnut Health Systems in Bloomington.
The McLean County Board of Health also made major changes to its funding process to better monitor how taxpayer money was spent for community mental health programs. New funding was allocated to boost counseling programs in schools and address youth suicides in the county.
In March, the county opened the McLean County Triage Center in downtown Bloomington for people experiencing a mental health crisis. Although only about 20 people have visited the center during the months of the pandemic, the county is confident those numbers will increase in the coming months.
Still to be tackled is the issue of mental health services for children, a challenge facing many communities.
“Services for kids is a high priority item,” said McIntyre.
The county recently had no applicants for funding for an intensive outpatient program for children. But Schafer and McIntyre said they intend to continue efforts to start a program designed to keep children out of the hospital and help transition them back into school after a hospitalization.
A shortage of psychiatrists for children and adults is also a challenge McLean County shares with many communities.
The mental health reforms in McLean County, like improvements to most community-based services, requires money. A sales tax increase approved by voters in 2016 provides about $4 million annually that is directed towards mental health programs, including the triage center. About $1.73 million has been budgeted this year for mental health work,
The tax funding has also helped provide housing for five people through the FUSE (Frequent User System Engagement) program. A stable residence is a key factor in helping people reduce hospital visits but convincing some homeless people to accept housing can be challenging.
The benefit of housing for mental ill people goes beyond their well-being, said McIntyre.
“For every person you help, you save $350,000 in services,” said the board chairman. Those savings, he said, can be channeled into community programs.
Hospitals remain a source of help for people facing mental health challenges.
“I think the coronavirus has presented a challenge for us as a society and has impacted mental health in a negative way,” said Chandler Brooks, nursing supervisor of OSF St. Joseph Medical Center’s emergency department.
The hospital has seen an uptick in behavioral and mental health visits during the pandemic. The increase includes adolescents who are coming to the emergency room, said Brooks.
Carle BroMenn Medical Center started the year with a seven percent increase in mental health-related visits to the emergency room, said hospital spokeswoman Lynn Hutley, then saw a significant decrease during April and May.
The numbers have gone up since June but remain below 2019, said Hutley.
The inpatient mental health unit at Carle BroMenn “has stayed at near capacity even when most all other hospital services experienced decreases,” said Hutley.
Carle BroMenn will boost its inpatient capacity in the coming weeks when the facility opens its renovated behavioral health services area. Inpatient capacity will move from 13 to 19.
Here’s a link to Short-changed: Unjailing the mentally ill, a documentary I helped produce in 2014 with Pantagraph photo editor David Proeber. We documented the crisis in McLean County’s mental health services and the work to make things better :
The abolition of the death penalty in Illinois was a long, arduous process spanning more than a decade. Former Illinois governor George Ryan took the first and difficult step in 2ooo to halt all executions until a thorough review of every death row case could be conducted. I recently talked with Ryan and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maurice Possley about their new book, Until I could be sure: How I stopped the death penalty in Illinois. Anyone who believes they know the full story of how and why Ryan emptied out death row in 2003 with commutations of all death sentences, should read Ryan’s book.
Here’s a link to my story and the interview broadcast on WGLT:
People forced to stay home during the months-long grip of COVID-19 are facing a second health challenge as anxiety, depression and stress take their toll.
A Bloomington counseling center which serves those with little or no health insurance has expanded its services to include children and minority residents – two groups that often have difficulties finding mental health services.
INtegRIty Counseling has seen its list of active clients increase from 85 before the pandemic hit in March, to more 170 in September. Like most health care providers, INtegRIty was forced to change its plans for 2020 after the spread of COVID-19 forced the center to close its door to in-person visits.
The goal of expanding to 3,000 appointments in 2020 and reaching out to black and Hispanic residents seemed derailed by the pandemic, according to the center’s founder Luella Mahannah.
The volunteer counselors who staff INtegRIty continued to meet with clients through a new telehealth program. But in June after an electronic records program was put in place, the center opened its doors to those who wanted to meet in person.
“We are still doing telehealth visits but many clients and counselors prefer to meet in person. For some people, it’s more appropriate for them to come in,” said Mahannah, who manages the center with support from her husband, Don.
Despite the limitations of the pandemic, the ambitious goal to expand services moved forward.
The center’s base of 30 volunteers now includes a Spanish-speaking counselor, a translator and four bi-lingual helpers who will work as translators and front desk support.
Cultural sensitivity training will help volunteers understand the needs of minority clients, said Don Mahannah. A higher number of minority clients have sought help in recent weeks, he said.
“We’re seeing people who went on thinking they would be ok. What we’ve seen across the country is that people’s worlds are getting smaller and they often have relationship problems. The phones started ringing in June and by July, it just exploded,” said Don.
For Luella, the ability to hire a part-time counselor to work with children, is a major accomplishment as the center marks its sixth anniversary. Stephanie Hueramo also has a private practice, Trust Without Borders Counseling.
Children with unmet mental health needs have “a double access problem,” said Don.
“There aren’t resources available and they couldn’t afford them if they were available,” he said.
The shortage of counseling and residential mental health care for youth was cited in the McLean County Board’s Mental Health Action Plan, released in 2015. The lack of affordable, accessible care for children was one of four priorities outlined in the county plan.
Having a licensed counselor for youth has made a difference for families waiting for help, said Don.
“We’ve had calls from parents and grandparents the last few weeks saying they’ve been on waiting lists since March to get services for their children. We can get them in the next week,” he said.
A parent support group, “How do we teach our kids” is led by parent educator Christie Velella. The group meets through secure video conferencing to help parents with a variety of issues from behavioral issues to the return to school this year.
INtegRIty is seeking financial support from the community to continue the expansion of its services.
The center “is working to raise an additional $25,000 in ongoing support in 2020 to support the expansion,” said Luella.
More information on INtegrITy Counseling is available at the center’s website integrityhelps.org.
In his recent interview on the Legal Talk Network podcast, Senator Dick Durbin’s recalled his time as a private attorney and his work defending claims against law enforcement agencies.
One of those claims was filed against former DeWitt County Sheriff Keith Long whose office was the subject of a series of investigative stories published jointly by the Chicago Daily News and The DeWitt County Observer in 1977. A county grand jury indicted Long on more than 30 counts of alleged misconduct but a special prosecutor assigned to the case failed to convince local jurors of any wrongdoing.
I was one of the Observer’s reporters who worked with the Daily News team of Rob Warden and Larry Green, both award-winning journalists. Our collaboration was featured in Time magazine. Numerous awards followed.
In his interview, Durbin noted his work as the lawyer for an insurance company handling the claim by a former inmate against the sheriff.
The last time I saw Durbin at an event in Springfield, we talked about his connection to the “I am the law” sheriff, a reference to Long’s comment to reporters during an interview for the investigative series.
Durbin’s recent mention of his career defending law enforcement-related claims came during his conversation with podcast co-hosts Jonathan Amarillio and Chastidy Burns about the proposed Justice in Policing Act. The measure approved in the House would establish a national database for use-of-force reports involving police officers. The bill also addresses the qualified immunity provision that keeps most civil claims against officers from moving forward in the courts.
The bill has not been called for a vote in the Senate.
Sad news spread across central Illinois recently with the identification of Todd Ledbetter as the latest homicide victim in Champaign County.
Todd also was the latest homeless person to be killed in Illinois.
I met Todd several years ago when he was living on the streets of Bloomington. I was not aware he had moved on to Champaign. His behavior attracted media attention when someone covered his favorite bench in downtown Bloomington with a sticky, tar-like substance. Todd rightly surmised the meanness of the act was directed towards him and other homeless people who frequented the area. The incident generated a community dialogue between downtown business owners and residents who live with the consequences of homelessness and people living on the street.
Anyone who knew Todd will admit he could be argumentative at times, a trait that made him more welcome in some places than others. He spent time at Abundant Life in Christ Church where Pastor Charles Ahrends extends his generosity and open doors to everyone.
Todd was beaten and robbed by individuals who stole more than money. After his death, Todd’s friends held a memorial service to make sure he was not forgotten. He would have enjoyed the media coverage of their tribute. May he rest in peace.
A fire ripped through the Clinton Assembly of God Church this week, leaving behind decades of special memories in the rubble. Lines of cars, moving like a funeral procession showing respect for a friend, drove slowly past the fire scene as the ash smoldered for hours. The church was once home to a daycare that helped many working parents stay employed. People recalled the activities they attended there as young church members.
And there were weddings and funerals.
In September 2003, the Assembly of God Church wrapped its arms around the community and the families of three children who lost their lives in a drowning incident at Clinton Lake. No one who saw the three small, white caskets carrying Christopher Hamm, Austin Brown and Kyleigh Hamm will ever forget their funeral and the large crowd that gathered to escort them to the cemetery.
Churches open their doors in times of great joy and sorrow. During that awful week in the fall of 2003 and countless other times, the Assembly of God Church has been there for the community and grieving families.
A huge part of the church may have been swallowed by the flames, but the love the church has extended, and the affection held by its members, cannot be extinguished.
Before a McLean County jury acquitted Kirk Zimmerman of murder charges in 2019, residents of the Bloomington-Normal area were captivated by the case against the State Farm staffer accused of killing his ex-wife, Pam Zimmerman.
The case caught the attention of producers with NBC’s Dateline program. The June 2019 episode on the Bloomington case will be rebroadcast on Friday, May 29, on local NBC affiliates at 9 p.m.
The show included portions of a lengthy interview with the couple’s twin daughters and son — all teens at the time their mother was killed in her east side Bloomington office. Pam Zimmerman’s neighbor and the office manager who were the first to locate her body riddled with multiple gunshot wounds described what they saw for the national audience.
I also was interviewed by Dateline host Keith Morrison for the program known for its focus on true crime. What struck me most about Dateline’s work on the Zimmerman story was the time they invested in learning about the case and the people involved. Courtroom footage from Zimmerman’s trial was available because a Dateline team was at the trial shooting video and taking exhaustive notes.
The interview process differed from the in-and-out style of most journalists. I was in front of the cameras for most of the afternoon as Morrison, followed by producer Cassandra Marshall, quizzed me about the case. Most of those questions were based on their extensive knowledge of the case rather than written notes.
The second broadcast of the Bloomington case will also be reminder of all that was lost with the death of Pam Zimmerman, a dedicated mother and talented businesswoman who was loved and admired by those who knew her best. The questions surrounding her death — why someone would want her dead and the likelihood of holding someone accountable for her death– remain unanswered.
If you missed the first run of the Dateline segment on the death of Pam Zimmerman and the long legal process against her former husband, it’s worth tuning in Friday night.
State prisons are among the places the coronavirus is spreading in our country. With testing happening on a limited basis and the obvious inability to social distance between inmates and staff, the novel virus has a strong foothold in penal institutions. Lawyers for inmates have filed lawsuits challenging the continued incarceration of medically vulnerable, elderly and low-level offenders.
Lawyers for inmates who have pending innocence claims have added a basis for requesting release of their clients: the possibility that an innocent person could die during the pandemic before their claim was resolved.
Here’s a link to the story I recently authored for WGLT on this issue:
The list of persons wrongfully convicted in the U.S. continues to grow. Our criminal justice system is among the best in the world but it is not perfect. Any system run by humans has its share of errors and the justice system is no exception. The ability of the internet to share information has allowed defendants to bring their stories to the world. A judicial process that mostly takes places before a nearly empty courtroom is now detailed online — complete with supporting documents and testimony. Podcasts, websites and audio recordings from defendants arguing their cases from behind bars all tell the story of those with innocence claims. Criminal justice researchers consider the internet a game changer for many defendants.
I recently wrote a piece for WGLT on how the internet has impacted post-conviction cases. Here’s a link to the story. As always, feedback is welcome.
Over the past two months, coverage of most news has taken a backseat to what’s going on with COVID-19, the novel virus that has claimed thousands of lives across the globe. News outlets are struggling to keep up with the work of sharing the most updated news with an anxious public. I recently posted my thoughts on Facebook. Here’s a link to why support of journalism is so important:
The names and faces behind the nearly one million women, men and children on the nation’s sex offender registry represent untold stories of shattered lives left behind by the harm suffered by victims and their families as well as those whose crimes are posted for public display.
Women Against Registry is a St. Louis-area group of advocates who have taken on the task of supporting registrants — an unlikely cause in the minds of many people. Last week I accompanied three members of the group to the Bloomington Police Department as they supported Charles Henderson, an 18-year registrant on the list, in his dispute with police. His story illustrates the challenges of registrants as they navigate a world of assumptions by people who do not know their story. To be clear, victims of sex crimes deserve justice and understanding. But the devastation of such crimes often goes beyond the consequences to victims and their families.
The Bloomington-Normal area reported more than 50 incidents of gunfire in 2019.
Teens and young adults were involved in many of those cases. I recently interviewed local youth minister Andrew Held and McLean County Public Defender Carla Barnes about their work in assessing what’s gone wrong in the lives of these young people. Both are involved in efforts to move would-be offenders of gun laws to a path away from the criminal justice system.
The challenges facing women when they return home from jail and prison are complex and long lasting. An event sponsored recently by the Women’s Justice Initiative explored the reasons women find themselves behind bars and what can be done to help them start over. Much is known about the differences between incarcerated men and women — nearly all women have suffered some form of sexual or physical abuse –but what can be done to deflect them from the pathway to prison is an ongoing challenge. Work by Deanne Benos and Alyssa Benedict, co-founders of the WJI, has educated players in the criminal justice system, women at risk of going to jail and the public about the root causes of the criminal activity that divides families and cripples a woman’s chance to succeed. Here’s a link to a story I authored for WGLT on the meeting:
The story surrounding 8-year old Rica Rountree’s death continued this week wit the arrest of her father Richard Rountree. He is charged with child endangerment to failing to protect her from the ongoing abuse he knew was being perpetrated on the child by his girlfriend Cindy Baker. The arrest followed an emotional rally last week organized by Rica’s mother Ann Rountree, who clutched an urn holding Rica’s ashes as she spoke to supporters. Here’s a link to the story on Richard Rountree’s arrest authored by WGLT Content Editor Ryan Denham:
Even the most seasoned crime reporters cannot escape the recurring memories of certain autopsy photos and the story that comes along with them. When the images depict a child — abused and tortured to the point of death– the time between viewing and a lessening impact on the memory can be longer than usual.
Such was the recent case I covered for WGLT involving the January 2019 death of Rica Rountree. A jury convicted Cindy Baker, the girlfriend of the 8-year-old victim’s father, of murder, aggravated battery of a child and child endangerment. A decision is expected shortly on potential charges against the father, Richard Rountree, who is shown on cell phone videos forcing the child to stand on her head as part of the couple’s bizarre and ongoing corporal punishment.
Before the trial, I collaborated with WGLT’s digital content editor Ryan Denham on an investigative piece on how Rica came to be in such a bad and dangerous place that eventually turned deadly. Here are links to the initial story and some of the trial coverage. Comments welcome.
after my June 2019 retirement from full-time journalism. Through my work as a correspondent with WGLT in Normal I have the opportunity to delve into those stories that make people think about how the system works and in some cases, fails. The public’s knowledge of the courts and criminal justice system is often limited to what they know about a specific case, perhaps their own. But beyond the day to day rulings and sentencings is a complex machine which never stops grinding and sifting the intricacies of the legal process. Even the smallest tweak affects all layers of the legal system from how many people are arrested, who stays in jail and for how long to the size of the nation’s incarceration rate, still at a staggering two million inmates.
On October 23, Dr. David Olson presented a program to the Illinois Probation and Court Services Association on why data is an important tool in the work of probation officers.
Olsen’s news that arrests, crimes rates and the prison population are all down in Illinois seemed to surprise some probation officers in the room. Olson’s point? When it comes to crime, the public’s perception is that things are getting worse, not better. He included elected officials among those with that mistaken idea. Here’s a story I wrote for WGLT on the conference and Olson’s insightful research on what’s happening in the criminal justice arena in Illinois: