Truth Squad calls flagrant foul on terrorism charge in court campaign
Who: Michigan Republican Party, Judicial Crisis Network
What: TV/Internet ads
Truth Squad call: Flagrant foul
Although nominally nonpartisan, the Michigan Supreme Court races can be as nasty as any other, as these three ads place Democratic-nominated candidates Shelia Johnson and Bridget Mary McCormack square in the crosshairs.
Two of these three ads take aim at University of Michigan law professor McCormack in the context of murder and terrorism.
Questionable statement: "My son Joe was taken from me, killed when his unit was attacked by terrorists in Afghanistan. My son selflessly gave his life for this country, so when I heard Bridget McCormack volunteered to represent and help free suspected terrorists, I couldn’t believe it. My son’s a hero and fought to protect us. Bridget McCormack volunteered to help free a terrorist."
Teri Johnson is the mother of Spc. Joseph D. Johnson, 24, who died in June 2010, when his unit was attacked with an improvised explosive device in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Her claim that McCormack "volunteered to help free a terrorist" is based on McCormack’s work with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a "nonprofit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change," according to its website. It was through that group that McCormack came to represent Wahldof Abdul Mokit, a Tajikistan native released from the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center in 2007.
Or at least, she represented him in some fashion. According to the Michigan Daily, McCormack never actually met with her client in Cuba, because the security clearance process took nearly a year, and he was freed by the Bush administration before it was finished. He was repatriated to Tajikistan, where he was sentenced to 17 years in prison for belonging to the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
The U.S. Department of State does list the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as a foreign terrorist group.
Given that Mokit wasn’t even tried by the U.S. government calls into question whether he can automatically be called a terrorist.
The second ad brings up the case of Thomas Cress, who was convicted in the 1983 murder and rape of 17-year-old Patricia Rosansky in Battle Creek.
Questionable statement: "Thomas Cress was sentenced to life in prison for her murder, until Democrat Supreme Court candidate Bridget McCormack successfully fought for the release of this convicted killer. While Patty’s family continues to grieve, Bridget McCormack was ‘elated’ and ‘thrilled’ that the man convicted of her murder walked free."
Cress’ case was one accepted by the U of M Innocence Clinic, in which students and professors work on behalf of prisoners where new evidence suggests wrongful conviction. Co-founded by McCormack and her colleague David Moran, the project differs from similar organizations in that it concentrates on cases where there is no biologic evidence exonerating the prisoner.
Cress’ case qualified on those grounds -- after his conviction, potentially exonerating physical evidence was destroyed, and appealing lawyers had to rely on testimony from investigators and others. A Detroit Free Press story from 2010 lays out the case and its problems: With no physical evidence, the case was made on claims by others that they heard Cress, who has diminished mental capacity, admitting to the crime. And some years later, a Michigan man being held for a similar rape/murder in Arkansas was confessing to killing Rosansky.
The Calhoun County prosecutor, as well as Rosansky’s family, continues to believe in Cress’ guilt, and opposed all efforts to free him.
Years of court battles left Cress’ appeals in legal limbo. A Parole and Commutation Board hearing in 2010 ended with a recommendation that Gov. Jennifer Granholm commute Cress' sentence to time served, according to an Associated Press story. She did so in the final days of her term, releasing him from prison but not issuing a pardon. (A commuted sentence doesn’t change the status of a convict’s legal case, only changes the sentence.)
It is difficult to find sources for one-word quotes, but a spokeswoman for McCormack said the "elated" and "thrilled" comments were most likely in reaction to the sentence commutation. Because Cress’ conviction was never overturned, he is still a convicted killer. However, the ad doesn’t acknowledge the significant doubt on his guilt raised by, among others, two former officers who investigated the case, nor the parole board’s recommendation that his sentence be commuted.
Questionable statements: "When a five-time boxing champion unleashed his fury on his 13-year-old son, Shelia Johnson gave him a slap on the wrist. Johnson refused to give the boxer a single day in jail for the assault. In spite of the boy’s injuries, the Democrat Supreme Court candidate released the celebrity on probation so he could fight again."
Johnson was a judge in Oakland County when one of its more notable residents appeared in her court in January 2006 – boxer Thomas Hearns, charged with misdemeanor assault of his 13-year-old son in a domestic argument earlier in the month. According to an AP account of the sentencing, Hearns pleaded no contest to the charge. Police said they were called to his home on New Year’s Day by Hearns’ wife, and further said that Hearns told them he had pushed the boy and struck him with "an open-handed slap," giving him a small cut and bruise on his face. Hearns was arrested without incident, and moved out of the home after he was ordered to have no contact with his son.
Johnson elected to give Hearns – who had no criminal record – nine months probation, $515 in fees and fines, two days of community service, and ordered him to undergo parenting and anger management classes, as well as family counseling. There are no sentencing guidelines for this offense, and under state law, Johnson had the discretion to give Hearns probation, jail time or a combination of the two, according to Paul Walton, chief assistant prosecutor in Oakland County. The defense asked for probation under a plea agreement that attached conditions, which if Hearns had not met them, would have led to his incarceration.
Walton said the victim's mother did not object to the agreement, and it was approved by David Gorcyka, the county prosecutor at the time.
Johnson elected to give Hearns – who had no criminal record – nine months of probation, $515 in fees and fines, two days of community service, and ordered him to undergo parenting and anger management classes, as well as family counseling.
Hearns did indeed "fight again" – a few days later, when, at age 47, he battled Shannon Landberg to a TKO at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
Overall impression: All three ads are designed to make voters suspect that Johnson and McCormack will not protect law-abiding citizens as members of the state’s highest court. As is typical in court elections, the nuances of the U.S. legal process are quickly lost in short TV ads. The terrorism ad, in particular, is a cynical manipulation of individually correct facts to create the most unflattering image of a candidate.
Foul or no foul: Flagrant foul.The terrorism ad highlights a basic tension between America’s political and legal systems. In our legal system, innocence is presumed until guilt is established. Yet, to many voters, an arrest or accusation seems to suffice to apply a label and a conclusion. And exactly how does this relate to any part of the job of a Supreme Court justice? The tone of the ad says far more about the people who funded and crafted it than it does about the candidate it tries to attack.
The murder ad accurately describes Cress’ legal circumstance.
The boxer ad implies that Johnson acted to assist Hearns’ boxing career, without providing evidence. Hearns did receive probation, but these types of plea agreements are common, Oakland County's Walton said.
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