South Carolina Isn’t Only State To Have Struggled With Confederate Flag Displays

South Carolina Isn’t Only State To Have Struggled With Confederate Flag Displays

By James Queally, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Days after an attack on a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in which police say Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people because of the color of their skin, activists and politicians nationwide turned their anger toward the Confederate flag that flies on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse in Columbia.

The flag, emblematic of slavery to most but a symbol of states’ rights and Southern pride to others, has become something of a political football in the wake of the shootings. President Barack Obama and several candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 called for the “stars and bars” to be taken down.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley joined that chorus Monday, when she called on the state’s Legislature to vote for the flag to be taken down as soon as possible. While frustration with the battle flag has been palpable since last Wednesday’s shootings, South Carolina isn’t the only state that has flown a flag adorned with the secession-era relic in recent years.

The Confederate battle flag has hung in the upper left-hand corner of Mississippi’s state flag since 1894. In 2001, the NAACP, Netscape’s chief executive and actor Morgan Freeman led a campaign to change that, pushing an initiative onto the state’s ballot that year that could have removed the Confederate emblem from the state flag.

They lost, badly. Two-thirds of Mississippi voters backed the old flag, leaving it the only state in the United States to have the Confederate symbol as part of its official state flag. While South Carolina flies the “Dixie” flag on the statehouse grounds, it is not the official state banner.

A petition to change Mississippi’s state flag has gained more than 3,500 signatures on

Jennifer Gunter, a Mississippi native who now lives in Columbia, started the petition two days after the shootings at Emanuel AME church in Charleston. She was involved in campaigns to change her home state’s flag in 2001 and hopes the renewed national attention will lead Mississippi’s lawmakers and voters to reconsider the issue.

“I hope to see Mississippi change our flag and move into the present as a unified group who can feel proud to display our state flag,” she said.

After making some last-minute deals with Republican legislators, including promising to hang a picture of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the state Capitol, former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes was able to sign legislation that greatly reduced the prominence of the Confederate battle emblem on the state’s flag.

For 45 years, the state flag was dominated by an image of the Confederate cross. But the state Senate passed a 2001 resolution that called for a new design, composed largely of Georgia’s state seal across a field of royal blue. A banner running along the bottom boasts several historical flag designs, including the most recent version that included the cross.

The debate sparked a dramatic standoff between Atlanta-area Democrats and rural Republican senators on the statehouse floor, but the bill eventually passed by a vote of 34-22.

In 1994, former Alabama Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. had the Confederate flag removed from the state Capitol, where it flew as then-Gov. George C. Wallace sent state troopers to clash with Martin Luther King Jr. on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965.

But Alabama’s state flag itself is still sometimes cause for controversy, as the design is generally thought to be a representation of the Confederate cross, according to the state’s Department of Archives and History.

Dr. Thomas Owen, the former department director, concluded in 1915 that the flag design was meant to “preserve in permanent form some of the more distinctive features of the Confederate battle flag, particularly the St. Andrew’s cross.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Controversial Texas Abortion Law Upheld By Federal Appeals Court

Controversial Texas Abortion Law Upheld By Federal Appeals Court

By James Queally, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

A federal appeals panel has decided to uphold nearly all of the provisions of a Texas law that will force the closure of most of the state’s abortion clinics, according to an opinion published on Tuesday.

The ruling, which effectively affirmed the 2013 passage of House Bill 2, will force the closure of all but eight of the state’s clinics, advocates say.

“It’s a travesty that a state the size of Texas will only have eight safe, legal abortion clinics. The 5th Circuit has once again put their political ideology above the law,” Heather Busby, executive director of Pro-Choice Texas, said in a statement.

The measure, which first cleared the Texas Legislature nearly two years ago, was part of a wide-ranging bill that limited access to abortions and put restrictions on when they could be conducted.

The bill banned nearly all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases of rape or incest with a minor. It also required that abortion-inducing drugs be administered in the presence of a doctor, which required most patients to visit clinics on three separate occasions.

The bill also required the doctors who performed abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic, and required clinics to have the same equipment and building requirements as ambulatory surgery centers, even if those facilities only administered oral anti-abortion drugs.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel struck down the surgical center requirements statewide and the admitting privileges requirement for two facilities last summer, but Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who now serves as the state’s governor, filed an immediate appeal.

In its Tuesday ruling, the 5th Circuit overturned Yeakel’s ruling, but made an exception for a facility in McAllen, Texas, on the grounds that is the only abortion facility in the area.

Abortion rights advocates have already announced plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Once again, women across the state of Texas face elimination of safe and legal options for ending a pregnancy, and the denial of their constitutional rights,” said Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, in a statement. “The Supreme Court’s prior rulings do not allow for this kind of broadside legislative assault on women’s rights and health care. We now look to the justices to stop the sham laws that are shutting clinics down and placing countless women at risk of serious harm.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who championed the bill while he was a member of the state House of Representatives, praised the decision as a victory for women’s rights and safety.

“Abortion practitioners should have no right to operate their businesses from substandard facilities and with doctors who lack admitting privileges at a hospital,” Paxton said in a statement on Tuesday. “This ruling will help protect the health and well-being of Texas women.”

(Staff writer Maria L. La Ganga contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

File Photo: Protest in Texas state capitol, 2013. (Ann Harkness via Flickr)

Experts Doubt Oklahoma Deputy’s Claim He Confused Pistol With Stun Gun

Experts Doubt Oklahoma Deputy’s Claim He Confused Pistol With Stun Gun

By James Queally, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The Tulsa, Okla., volunteer deputy involved in the shooting death of an unarmed man earlier this month demonstrated how he confused his pistol with a stun gun during an interview on the “Today” show Friday morning, but law enforcement experts are skeptical about his explanation.

Robert Charles Bates, a 73-year-old insurance executive, showed NBC’s Matt Lauer during the interview where he normally carried his stun gun and handgun.

Asked to recreate his fatal clash with Eric Courtney Harris, 44, Bates said he kept his handgun in a hip holster, far away from the stun gun, which was normally kept closer to his chest.

On April 2, Tulsa County sheriff’s deputies were chasing Harris, who had run away from officers trying to arrest him on suspicion of gun charges. Body camera video of the incident shows another deputy tackle Harris to the ground as Bates, who is standing offscreen, shouts “Taser!”

Instead of the stun gun, Bates produced his sidearm and fired one shot, mortally wounding Harris.

“I shot him; I’m sorry,” Bates can be heard saying on the video, which showed that he then dropped his gun on the ground.

Bates has been charged with manslaughter by local prosecutors, who say his negligence led to Harris’ death. He faces up to four years in prison if convicted.

During the Friday interview, Bates apologized to Harris’ family, calling the shooting “the second worst thing that ever happened” to him next to having cancer, before saying it was the No. 1 worst thing. But he also contended that he is one of several law enforcement officials to make the tragic mistake of firing a deadly weapon when they meant to choose a nonlethal option.

“Well, let me say, this has happened a number of times around the country. I have read about it in the past. I thought to myself after reading several cases, I don’t understand how this can happen,” Bates said. “You must believe me, it can happen to anyone.”

Law enforcement experts, however, told the Los Angeles Times they were skeptical of Bates’ argument, especially since the 73-year-old said his stun gun is normally holstered far from his sidearm.

“It’s a muscle memory issue. Is it possible? Yeah, but only because it’s not impossible,” said Sid Heal, a retired commander with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and chairman of strategy development for the National Tactical Officers Association. “It’s not very plausible.”

While similar incidents, typically referred to as “cross-contamination” because of the confusion of lethal and nonlethal options, are not unheard of, Heal said they usually involve officers who carry both their firearm and stun gun at the hip.

Officers carrying both weapons normally keep their lethal weapons holstered beneath their dominant hand, while the stun gun hangs to the opposite side of their body. The anxiety and panic of a life-or-death situation can sometimes cause a deadly mix-up.

“When you’re scared, or you’re not thinking clearly, you will go to your muscle memory, so they pull the wrong gun,” he said.

Bates, however, knew the stun gun was not at his side.

The case is similar to a high-profile 2009 case in Oakland, Calif., in which unarmed 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was fatally shot by a transit officer who said he accidentally grabbed his gun instead of his Taser.

The officer in that case, Johannes Mehserle, faced a second-degree murder charge but was ultimately convicted of a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter after a jury found the shooting was unintentional. He was sentenced to two years in prison. Grant’s killing was the basis of the 2013 film “Fruitvale Station.”

Wayne Fisher, a professor of police policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said discussion of Bates’ purported mistake is masking the more serious issue at play in Harris’ death, which happened during a sting operation: Why did the sheriff’s office allow an elderly, inexperienced volunteer to be involved in such an operation, especially if the target was a known felon, as Harris was?

“Police work is not a hobby to be engaged in during people’s free time or weekend hours,” Fisher said. “It doesn’t just have to do with the training. It has to do with the experience of being in the profession full time, day in and day out, year after year.”

Fisher said there are plenty of tasks suited for reserve and auxiliary officers, but he described an operation like Harris’ arrest as “the very activity that they should not be involved in.”

Concern over officers’ confusing lethal and nonlethal weapons was stoked earlier this year, when the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department said it would consider employing “The Alternative,” a device developed by a San Diego entrepreneur to lessen the lethality of a bullet.

The device, an attachment that captures a bullet inside a “less lethal” metal sphere but still carries the force of the projectile, was panned by experts because it can only be fired once.

If an officer shoots twice during a lethal force situation, as they are commonly trained to do, the second shot would release a live round.

(Times staff writer Matt Pearce contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Image: screenshot of raw footage from the foot chase that ended with the shooting, via YouTube. Center: Eric Courtney Harris.

Senator Robert Menendez Pleads Not Guilty To Corruption And Bribery Charges

Senator Robert Menendez Pleads Not Guilty To Corruption And Bribery Charges

By James Queally, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) pleaded not guilty to corruption and bribery charges in Newark, N.J., on Thursday, once again dismissing the long-expected accusations as little more than political gamesmanship.

Menendez and Salomon Melgen, 61, entered not guilty pleas one day after they were indicted on charges of conspiracy, bribery, and fraud. The longtime New Jersey senator’s relationship with Melgen, a wealthy Florida ophthalmologist, has been under scrutiny for years.

In a 95-page indictment unsealed Wednesday, federal prosecutors claimed Menendez accepted nearly one million dollar in gifts, expensive vacations, and campaign contributions from Melgen, and in return, used his political influence to advance the doctor’s business interests and help his girlfriends attain travel visas.

Speaking briefly outside a federal courthouse in downtown Newark, Menendez once again vowed to fight the charges.

“For nearly three years, the Justice Department has pursued allegations based on spears launched by political opponents trying to silence me,” the Democrat told reporters Thursday afternoon. “Now they have laid out their case, we will finally have an opportunity to respond on the record, in court, with the facts.”

Menendez was ordered to surrender his personal passport over objections, and was released on his own recognizance, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman. He was not ordered to turn over his Senate passport.

Melgen posted $1.5 million bond and was released after also agreeing to ground his personal plane, the spokeswoman said.

A status conference hearing was scheduled for April 22, and the trial will begin in Newark on July 13.

In addition to his brief statement in Newark, Menendez also touted his achievements and previous role as a witness in a federal corruption case in New Jersey in a two-minute video released Thursday morning.

“It saddens me that our system of justice has already failed at its most basic level, by leaking information and peddling rumors,” he said, referring to the allegations in the indictment as “completely false.”

Menendez will not relinquish his Senate seat, but said Wednesday he would temporarily step down as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Photo: via Flickr

Utah Lawmakers Pass Bill Allowing For Execution By Firing Squad

Utah Lawmakers Pass Bill Allowing For Execution By Firing Squad

By James Queally, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Utah will be able to use a firing squad to execute death row inmates when lethal-injection drugs are unavailable, as long as the governor signs a bill that cleared the state Senate on Tuesday.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Paul Ray, passed by a vote of 18 to 10. Ray introduced the legislation in December, but he said he began drafting it last March, long before a slew of executions in Oklahoma, Arizona and Ohio saw inmates gasping for air and cringing.

If Gov. Gary Herbert signs it, the bill will allow the Utah Department of Corrections to execute inmates by firing squad if the state does not have access to the drugs necessary to conduct a lethal injection. Ray said that Utah uses a three-drug cocktail to perform lethal injections, but that it no longer has access to pentobarbital, a necessary barbiturate for the procedure.

Utah and Oklahoma are the only states in the country where execution by firing squad is technically still legal. Death row inmates condemned in Utah before 2004 had the option to choose to die by firing squad.

“Any form of death is obviously a serious subject, so the two reasons I chose it were, obviously, No. 1, that’s what we’ve done in the past, and secondly, out of all the other options, it is the most humane,” Ray told the Los Angeles Times.

Utah has not executed a prisoner since 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner chose to die by firing squad, Ray said. Utah adopted lethal injection as its preferred method of execution in 2004, but inmates such as Gardner, who were sentenced before the law changed, had the option to die by firing squad.

The state is not scheduled to execute another prisoner until at least 2017, according to Ray, so it would be at least two years before a firing squad might be used in an execution.

Herbert has not said whether he will sign the bill, and a spokeswoman for Herbert told the Los Angeles Times that it was not clear when he would review Ray’s legislation.

In a statement, Herbert made clear that lethal injection is the preferred method of execution in the state, but he acknowledged that Utah officials had struggled to obtain pentobarbital.

“We are dedicated to pursuing all reasonable and legal options to obtain those substances to make sure that, when required, we are in a position to carry out this very serious sentence by lethal injection,” he said in the statement.

Since 1976, there have been only three executions by firing squad in the U.S., according to the Death Penalty Information Center, based in Washington, D.C.

In Oklahoma, death by firing squad remains legal only as a fail-safe, to be used in the event that death by lethal injection were ever ruled unconstitutional.

The use of lethal injection has been subject to scrutiny in the last year, as many defense attorneys and civil rights advocates have sued various states to obtain information about the drugs used in their execution cocktails.

Many states have turned to new chemical cocktails to carry out lethal injections, as foreign pharmaceutical companies that used to sell pentobarbital and phenobarbital in the U.S. have publicly opposed the drugs’ use in executions in recent years.

The use of new drugs has led to a series of seemingly painful, mishandled executions. Oklahoma officials chose to use a sedative known asmidazolam for the first time as part of the lethal cocktail used to execute Clayton Lockett in April, and it took 43 minutes for the convicted murderer to die.

Similar incidents were reported during executions in Arizona and Ohio last year, and Ohio chose to suspend all executions for one year after deciding to discontinue a lethal-injection cocktail that included midazolam.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

This November 30, 2009 photo shows the execution chamber of the “death house” at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. Photo: Caroline Groussain via AFP

After Controversial Killings, Police Departments Seek ‘Less-Lethal’ Weapons

After Controversial Killings, Police Departments Seek ‘Less-Lethal’ Weapons

By James Queally, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

POWAY, Calif. — Knees bent and elbows locked, Christian Ellis stood in a swirl of gun smoke, clutching the base of a 9 mm Glock 17.

It’s the same firearm carried by police officers across the country, but seconds before firing, Ellis pulled out an orange slide and snapped it onto the weapon. A metal sphere now hung in front of the muzzle.

When he fired, the bullet buried itself into the sphere, sending it hurtling toward a target down range.

“It knocks the person down. It’s going to break some ribs,” said Ellis, chief executive of Alternative Ballistics, the maker of the device. “It’s going to feel like a professional baseball player swung a hammer and hit you in the chest.”

But it’s unlikely to kill.

After a year of controversial police killings that have inflamed cities across the country, police departments have embarked on an urgent search for new tools that can spare lives while protecting their own.

Manufacturers say these “less-lethal” weapons are designed to fill a critical gap between stun guns and live rounds, allowing officers to strike with enough force to knock down an attacker from farther away than they could using a Taser.

Instead of viewing these weapons as niche items, officials are considering whether they can be widely deployed — even as standard patrol weapons — to reduce fatal police shootings.

The Ferguson Police Department in Missouri — the epicenter of recent anti-police demonstrations — has tested Ellis’ sphere and is considering deploying the weapon on its fractured streets, officials have said.

“It’s hard to believe in an era where we have drone technology, where we could get a bomb through somebody’s window and you could hit them at a dinner table 3,000 miles away with precision, we’re still using 1800s technology for policing,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer and assistant district attorney who now serves a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

But the push to adopt less-lethal weapons also has sparked concern among police officers, who say they complicate an already chaotic decision of when to use force.

To use these devices, experts say, police officers would have to ignore basic academy training when facing life-or-death situations.

For example, Ellis’ device can only be fired once. Most officers are trained to fire multiple times during a lethal force situation.

“I applaud anyone who tries to come up with something,” said Steve Ijames, acting chief of the Republic, Mo., Police Department and a nationally recognized expert on the use of less-lethal force. “But when you balance all of the issues, the potential benefit with the potential risk and what we are asking officers to do in situations, it simply defies logic.”

The Ferguson Police Department, Ellis said, contacted Alternative Ballistics in Poway just a few weeks after Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man.

The Aug. 9 shooting touched off months of angry, at times violent, demonstrations in Ferguson.

The demonstrations spread across the country, turning the St. Louis suburb into a flash point for a national discussion on police, race and deadly force.

After other controversial police killings were met with similar fury in New York City, Cleveland and Los Angeles, vendors said many police departments began looking at alternative weapons.

“There are situations where lethal force may be justified, but does a bullet really need to be utilized to solve that situation?” Ellis asked.

The challenge in designing less-lethal weapons is balancing officer safety, stopping power, speed, range and flexibility.

Police departments already have nonlethal alternatives, such as stun guns, batons and shotgun beanbag rounds. But they all have limitations in range, convenience and stopping power.

The latest movement is designing compact weapons that can be used by an officer in most situations, with the option of firing either lethal or nonlethal rounds.

Ellis said the sphere, which is made from a metal alloy, is designed to carry a bullet’s force, allowing it to function similarly to other so-called impact rounds, such as beanbags or rubber bullets. He said the device is best used when an attacker is more than 20 feet away from an officer.

Unlike beanbag rounds, the sphere can be fired from a pistol and, if the projectile fails to stop an attacker, the officer can immediately follow up with a live round.

To make nonlethal weapons more acceptable, companies are designing more flexible weapons. Bruzer Less Lethal International in Indiana is selling a pistol that can fire a variety of rounds including beanbags, rubber bullets, gas pellets, and soft shells that expand on contact, called “pancake rounds.”

Tommy Teach, co-founder of the company, said the two-shot device can be carried at the hip like a regular service weapon. An officer could switch to a standard handgun if the launcher failed to stop an assailant.

But the idea of mixing lethal and nonlethal force has been met with skepticism from officers and police officials.

Sid Heal, a retired commander with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and chairman of strategy development for the National Tactical Officers Association, said mixing technologies creates too many variables in a situation when an officer’s life could be in jeopardy.

“I think it’s more dangerous to the suspect than the officer, for the simple fact that the human mind is not going to be able to process both the threat and the changing situation fast enough to tell the brain to stop pulling the trigger,” he said. “It really turns the whole safety prioritization concept on its head.”

Rick Wyant, a forensic scientist who has testified in more than 100 use-of-force cases, said even if police leaders could train officers to fire just once in a dangerous situation, it is unlikely that those devices would be able to stop an advancing attacker in one or two shots, meaning officers might have to follow up with a lethal round anyway.

“More often than not when you get this focused, targeted aggressor, you’re not going to get compliance within one shot,” Wyant said.

Still, officers say they’re willing to try new technology if it can lower fatalities.

“I remember a lot of instances where it could have been used,” said Vicente Calderon, a retired California Highway Patrol officer, referring to Ellis’ sphere. “It’s an excellent tool because it gives the officers another option.”

O’Donnell, the former New York City police officer, said he believed devices like those being tested by Ferguson and other places are pushing departments to consider new ways of confronting threats on the streets.

Just as the advent of stun guns and chemical sprays decades ago changed the way officers deal with close-range threats, the new nonlethal weapons could allow police to handle more distant attackers without killing them.

“This is a decades-old conversation, so that’s why it’s all the more remarkable,” he said. “We know what needs to happen here. Deliver into the hands of the cops, a nonlethal weapon.”

Photo: Christian Ellis, CEO of “The Alternative” company, puts a bullet capture sphere and jig on the barrel of a pistol on Feb 10, 2015 in Poway, Calif.(Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Ferguson Police One Of Many Law Enforcement Agencies Facing Federal Reforms

Ferguson Police One Of Many Law Enforcement Agencies Facing Federal Reforms

By James Queally, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The Ferguson Police Department in Missouri is one of about two dozen law enforcement agencies under investigation by the Justice Department.

Police departments in Cleveland, Albuquerque and Newark, N.J., were the subject of scathing federal investigations last year. The government has increased its scrutiny of law enforcement agencies since the controversial police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

The number of departments under investigation by the Justice Department has increased under the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

Nineteen departments have been placed under some form of federal monitoring since 2000, according to a 2013 report by the Police Executive Research Forum.

In 2012 alone, five major city police departments were placed under some form of federal monitoring, the report said.

Ferguson officials will now probably enter negotiations with the federal government to determine what reforms and monitoring will be put in place.

The Justice Department can sue the city to force reform if the two sides fail to come to an agreement, according to Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska.

Walker said Ferguson police would probably receive some kind of court-appointed watchdog.

“A monitor is essential and has been included in all the other Justice Department settlements,” he said. “You’ve got to have someone independent who reports to the judge, and those reports are public…. It provides a picture of what progress they are making.”

Here is a look at some of the other federal investigations:

Cleveland Police Department, December 2014

Months after the Cleveland Police Department became embroiled in a national controversy over the shooting death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy armed with a toy gun, federal investigators found the department routinely used excessive force.

The investigation, launched in 2011 in response to an inquiry by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, found officers regularly fired their service weapons and deployed stun guns and chemical sprays in situations where that level of force was unjustified.

The Justice Department said the issue was highlighted by a 2012 car chase that lasted nearly 30 minutes and involved more than 100 officers, about 37 percent of the department’s on-duty force. The incident ended in the death of two suspects.

Cleveland police and city officials have signed an agreement with federal investigators that will lead to “court-enforceable” reforms, and an independent monitor will oversee the department’s actions.

Albuquerque Police Department, October 2014

Federal officials and Albuquerque police leaders announced a settlement that would revise the department’s use-of-force policy and disband a problematic SWAT unit.

From 2010 to 2014, Albuquerque police shot 37 people, 27 of them fatally, according to the federal report. The department was also ordered to drastically change the way it handled confrontations with the mentally ill, after the fatal shooting of a homeless man sparked a string of protests in the city.

The agreement between the Justice Department and Albuquerque officials calls for a federal monitor to oversee the reforms. The monitor will remain in place until the department can show it has sustained compliance with federal recommendations for at least two years.

Newark, New Jersey, Police Department, July 2014

A three-year investigation into New Jersey’s largest police department found Newark police unfairly targeted black citizens and repeatedly used excessive force during street stops, according to findings made public in July.

Though 54 percent of the city’s 281,000 residents are black, federal investigators found that 79 percent of those arrested and 85 percent of those stopped by officers were black.

Separate internal affairs records reviewed by the Los Angeles Times showed the department received 989 excessive-force complaints from 2000 to 2009. Only 21 of those cases, or 2 percent, resulted in disciplinary action or criminal charges.

The city and the Justice Department have agreed to implement a consent decree that will result in the appointment of a federal monitor.

Portland, Oregon, Police Bureau, September 2012

A years-long review of the Portland Police Bureau’s use-of-force tactics found the department’s officers regularly abused mentally ill suspects, repeatedly using their fists or stun guns against mentally ill suspects who “posed little or no threat and who could not, as a result of their mental illness, comply with officers’ commands,” according to investigative findings released in 2012.

The review pointed to an August 2010 incident where officers repeatedly shocked a mentally ill man with an electronic control weapon even though he was unarmed, naked and suffering from a “diabetic emergency.”

The city and the federal government reached a settlement calling for court-appointed reforms.

Seattle Police Department, July 2012
A federal review of Seattle’s police practices in 2012 found officers regularly escalated minor incidents into confrontations that resulted in injury or death by using batons, flashlights and other blunt instruments.

The Justice Department reviewed a host of incidents where officers used their batons and found they were used improperly in about 60 percent of those clashes. The city’s agreement with the federal government called for an overhaul of the department’s use-of-force policy, including more detailed reporting by officers when they used any type of force during an interaction with a civilian.

In many of the incidents where suspects were injured, the investigation found that police were beating people who were either mentally ill or under the influence.

The department has remained under a federal monitor.

According to a report issued by the monitor in December 2014, Police Chief Katherine O’Toole has made significant progress in implementing the mandated reforms.

As of January, all officers had received hours of in-class and field training regarding accurate and detailed reporting of use-of-force incidents.

New Orleans Police Department, March 2011

Federal investigators found New Orleans police officers routinely engaged in illegal searches, repeatedly used excessive force during arrests, and discriminated against gay, transgender and minority citizens.

The findings, released in 2011, found police repeatedly used deadly force when it was not warranted, despite the fact that the city’s internal affairs unit had not found an officer-involved shooting to be contrary to department policy in nearly six years.

The Justice Department ordered police to immediately cease the use of canines to arrest suspects.

The federal report also found officers were arresting African-Americans at a higher rater than they were arresting whites, nearly 16 to 1.

The city and the federal government entered into a settlement calling for court-ordered reforms.

Photo: Lynn Friedman via Flickr

South Dakota’s Same-Sex Marriage Ban Ruled Unconstitutional

South Dakota’s Same-Sex Marriage Ban Ruled Unconstitutional

By James Queally, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

A federal judge on Monday found South Dakota’s voter-approved same-sex marriage ban to be unconstitutional, the latest in a string of marriage bans to fall nationwide.

U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier stayed her ruling until an undisclosed date, probably waiting for an inevitable appeals process to play out, but found South Dakota had unfairly deprived six same-sex couples of their rights. The couples had sought to marry within the state or have their marriages from other states recognized at home.

“Plaintiffs have a fundamental right to marry,” Schreier wrote in a 28-page ruling. “South Dakota law deprives them of that right solely because they are same-sex couples and without sufficient justification.”

The suit was filed by attorneys from the National Center for Lesbian Rights in 2014, according to a statement from Freedom to Marry, one of the country’s largest advocacy groups for same-sex couples.

The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to hear a same-sex marriage case after striking down portions of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, but that ruling opened the door for legal challenges to state bans on same-sex marriages.

A call to the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office for comment on a possible appeal was not immediately returned.

It is now legal for same-sex couples to marry in more than 30 states and the District of Columbia.

Photo: James Bilbrey via Flickr

New York Issues Fracking Moratorium After Health Department Report

New York Issues Fracking Moratorium After Health Department Report

By James Queally, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

New York state officials announced on Wednesday a moratorium on fracking, the controversial method of mining for gas and oil, after releasing the results of a yearlong study.

The 173-page report, issued by the state Department of Health, found that previous studies on the topic have raised too many questions about the possible effect fracking could have on New York’s ground water, climate and air quality.

“Many of the published reports investigating both environmental impacts that could result in human exposures and health implications of (fracking) activities are preliminary or exploratory in nature,” the report reads. “However, the existing studies also raise substantial questions about whether the risks of (fracking) activities are sufficiently understood so that they can be adequately managed.”

Fracking, a method of harvesting gas and oil, involves injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand, gravel and chemicals into a well to crack open rock formations. Environmental groups have contended that the practice taints drinking water supplies and can increase the likelihood of earthquakes in certain areas.

The New York report cited issues raised at fracking sites in several other states, including uncontrolled methane leakage in Pennsylvania and Texas and the possibility that fracking sites in Ohio and Oklahoma increased the region’s vulnerability to earthquakes.

In November, voters approved bans on fracking in parts of California, Ohio and Texas. The Los Angeles City Council also voted last month to begin drafting rules that would ban fracking there in February.

The report also suggests evidence has been presented that connects birth defects, including low birth weight and congenital defects, with the proximity of a mother’s residence to a fracking site.

“I think it would be reckless to proceed in New York until more authoritative research is done,” said Dr. Howard Zucker, acting commissioner of the N.Y. Department of Health. “I asked myself, ‘would I let my family live in a community with fracking?’ The answer is no. I therefore cannot recommend anyone else’s family to live in such a community either.”

Photo: Joshua Doubek via Wikimedia Commons

Nationwide Protests Take Place As Ferguson Grapples With Second Night Of Demonstrations

Nationwide Protests Take Place As Ferguson Grapples With Second Night Of Demonstrations

By James Queally and Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

FERGUSON, Mo. — Protests unfolded in major cities across the nation Tuesday night as more than 2,000 National Guard troops and hundreds of police officers converged in the St. Louis area to guard against the vandalism, arson and looting that erupted in suburban Ferguson a day earlier.

Elsewhere, the demonstrations responding to a grand jury’s refusal to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, were largely peaceful. But as night wore on in Ferguson, the mood turned ugly.

A crowd of about 200 had gathered outside the Ferguson Police Department headquarters, where some chanted, “No justice, no peace.” At times they moved into the street and blocked traffic, only to be pushed back by police and National Guardsmen holding riot shields.

Shortly before 10 p.m., protesters marched to nearby city hall, where two men banged on the front door, screaming, “We want answers!”

People started throwing bricks through the windows. They surrounded an empty police car parked in front, rocking it back and forth, smashing all its windows and setting it afire. Gunfire sounded; several Red Cross officials nearby said the ammunition in the car was igniting.

An angry man stormed out of a neighboring apartment house and began to shout at the crowd. “This isn’t a goddamn gas station or a pizza shop,” he said. “This is my house!”

Police fired tear gas, and protesters started choking, screaming, crying and trying to find their friends.

St. Louis County police arrived in armored vehicles and ordered people to the sidewalk, threatening to arrest anyone in the street. A teenage girl knelt in front of an armored vehicle, and officers picked her up. The situation remained tense.

In New York, Los Angeles, Washington and Boston, however, scores of people marched through the streets in coordinated and largely peaceful demonstrations.

New York protesters carved a path through Midtown and into Times Square, jamming traffic.

In Washington, about 400 people made their way to the White House, where they stood outside the fence chanting, “Whose house? Our house.”

Dallas protesters briefly closed I-35; it reopened about 10 p.m.

About 1,500 Boston protesters tried to block a major highway, but were stopped by line of police. Marchers stopped in front of the South Bay House of Correction and began chanting, “Black lives matter,” as inmates pounded on their windows, according to local media reports. Three people were arrested for disorderly conduct.

In Ferguson, many residents appeared shocked by the destruction wrought late Monday. Pleas for peace from local officials, President Obama and Brown’s family had failed to prevent hours of violence that led to least 14 injuries and 61 arrests — 32 on felony charges related to looting and 29 on misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly.

Fire damaged or destroyed 21 buildings, and 10 police cars were destroyed. A body was recovered in front of the police station in Ferguson, but police said they didn’t know whether it was connected to the unrest.

“Criminals intent on lawlessness and destruction terrorized this community — burning buildings, firing gunshots, vandalizing storefronts and looting family businesses — many for the second time,” Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said Tuesday. “I am deeply saddened for the people of Ferguson who woke up this morning to see parts of their community in ruins.

“What they’ve gone through is unacceptable,” the governor said. “No one should have to live like this. No one deserves this. We must do better and we will.”

The decision to deploy 2,000 more guards came after Ferguson officials complained that the governor did not move quickly or forcefully enough Monday.

“The National Guard was not deployed in enough time to protect all of our citizens,” said Ferguson Mayor James Knowles. “We are asking the governor to deploy the Guard to protect our people.”

The Ferguson officer who killed Brown on Aug. 9 remains on paid administrative leave. The county grand jury decided not to indict Wilson on any of the possible five charges ranging from murder to involuntary manslaughter.

St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s decision to wait until nightfall to announce the grand jury’s decision has been criticized by law enforcement experts and Ferguson activists, who said the move put police at a major tactical disadvantage and offered agitators the cover of darkness.

“Of all the events and all that happened, the single event I am most hard-pressed to explain is why in the world it was announced at the time it was,” said Wayne Fisher, a professor with the Police Institute at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., and a former assistant New Jersey attorney general. “Announcing it in daylight would have given a tactical advantage to law enforcement officers.”

Lawyers for the Brown family also criticized the timing of the announcement, and the grand jury process.

“This process is broken,” lawyer Benjamin Crump told reporters. “The process should be indicted.”

Brown’s parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., had been expected to speak at the news conference but did not because they were overcome by emotion, Crump said. In the moments after Monday night’s announcement, the family condemned the grand jury’s decision not to charge Wilson.

Brown’s stepfather, Louis Head, came under fire after a video showed him appearing to urge violence Monday night.

“Burn this (expletive) down,” Head is heard shouting at protesters outside the Ferguson police headquarters as he consoled McSpadden. “Burn this [expletive] down.”

On Tuesday, family attorneys said Head had been overcome by his emotions.

“We took a blow last night, and some people think it was a fixed fight,” Crump said. “This process was supposed to create clarity, but didn’t it raise more questions?”

Activists especially objected to the handling of Wilson’s testimony, which lasted about four hours.

“A first-year law student would have done a better job of cross-examining” the police officer, said Crump, noting that he had looked through the grand jury record. “When was (Wilson’s) credibility ever challenged?”

“The grand jury is a reflection of the prosecutor,” said Gray. “If prosecutors presented evidence to indict, they indict.”

The lawyers’ complaints were part of a day when all involved tried to catch a breath while waiting for nightfall.

Mary Anne Johnson, 62, of Florissant, Mo, who had just gotten off her overnight shift as a mail handler at the post office, asked why the police had not prevented the looting and the arson. She wanted to know how many of the 61 arrested in Ferguson were from the city — just nine — and questioned whether the grand jury decision gave them the “opportunity to do mischief and bad stuff.”

“I don’t think it’s going to be the end,” Johnson said. “This generation doesn’t care about killing police.”

A woman, who identified herself only as Sherrill, interjected: “It’s not that this generation doesn’t care about killing police, it’s that these police don’t care about killing people.”

Sherrill, a sixtysomething resident of a Ferguson apartment complex near West Florissant Avenue, the scene of much of Monday’s violence, added, addressing those who caused the damage, “I understand your emotion, but don’t tear up where you live at…. At the end of the day, we’re all a victim. This is sad.”
(Queally reported from Ferguson, Muskal from Los Angeles. Staff writer Kurtis Lee contributed to this report.)

Photo: Protestors turn over a police vehicle in front of Ferguson City Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014, in the wake of the grand jury decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Ferguson, Mo., teen Michael Brown. (Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

West Virginia To Stop Challenging Same-Sex Marriage

West Virginia To Stop Challenging Same-Sex Marriage

By James Queally, Los Angeles Times

West Virginia’s attorney general said Thursday he will seek to end all litigation surrounding the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, effectively clearing a path for gay and lesbian couples to get married there.

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said in a statement that he will “respect” the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this week not to hear appeals on lower-court decisions that overturned same-sex marriage bans in other states — including one from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in a Virginia case but whose jurisdiction includes West Virginia.

“By refusing to consider the appeal, the Supreme Court has caused the Appeals Court’s decision to become final and binding on West Virginia,” Morrisey said. “While we disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision to allow the 4th Circuit’s opinion to stand and believe it improperly displaces state and local decision-making, we will respect it.”

West Virginia, which passed a law banning same-sex marriage in 2000, is one of nine states with laws on the books that allow for gay marriage bans.

“In the upcoming days, we will now seek to bring to a close the pending litigation over West Virginia’s marriage laws, consistent with the 4th Circuit’s now-binding decision,” Morrisey said.

The decision by the Supreme Court to decline to rule on same-sex marriages has caused a flurry of action in courts throughout the nation. On Wednesday, a Kansas judge ordered the offices of county clerks to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and a South Carolina clerk began accepting applications for licenses from gay and lesbian couples despite that state’s ban.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson called on the state Supreme Court to halt the issuance of licenses to same-sex couples late Wednesday night, and the court obliged Thursday, according to published reports.

While the uncertainty caused by the Supreme Court’s move has caused headaches for couples in some states, LGBT advocates praised Morrisey’s decision Thursday.

“The American people clearly want equality to prevail, and the attorney general is making sure that’s what happens,” Gabriel Blau, executive director for the Family Equality Council, told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s ensuring that more Americans have access to the protections that marriage provides. It’s a win for the state and a win for the citizens.”

AFP Photo/George Frey

Senator Wants To Strip NFL Of Tax-Exempt Status In Light Of Abuse Cases

Senator Wants To Strip NFL Of Tax-Exempt Status In Light Of Abuse Cases

By James Queally, Los Angeles Times

As the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson controversies continue to consume NFL news, a U.S. senator has introduced legislation that would remove the league’s tax-exempt status and redirect that money to benefit victims of domestic violence.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said Tuesday he wants to remove the status enjoyed by 10 professional sports leagues, including the NHL, NFL, and PGA Tour, that allows them to avoid paying taxes on dues collected from participants.

“This legislation will help ensure that victims of domestic violence have the resources they need to break away from abusers and begin rebuilding their lives,” he said in a statement.

The legislation would take effect in 2015 and redirect the taxed funds as an appropriation for the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, according to a copy of the bill. Booker is up for re-election in November and has a double-digit lead in polls over his Republican opponent.

It was unclear what support, if any, the bill had, and it marked the second time Tuesday that a sitting legislator threatened to take away the NFL’s tax-exempt status.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), also claimed she wanted to attack the NFL’s bottom line over its refusal to force the Washington Redskins to change the team’s nickname, which many find offensive to Native Americans, according to a report in The Washington Post.

Booker’s announcement came hours before the Minnesota Vikings decided to bar Peterson from all team activities, reversing course from the one-game suspension they handed down after his indictment on child abuse charges in Texas.

The team had initially decided to deactivate him for just one game but was met with a wave of corporate backlash including the loss of several sponsorships on Tuesday.

Peterson has been accused of striking his 4-year-old son with a switch or tree branch, causing deep cuts and bruises. He faces up to two years in prison if convicted.

Photo: TechCrunch via Flickr

Interested in U.s. politics? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

$41 Million Settlement In ‘Central Park Five’ Case Gets Final Approval

$41 Million Settlement In ‘Central Park Five’ Case Gets Final Approval

Los Angeles Times — A federal judge approved a $41 million settlement Friday for five black and Latino men who were wrongly accused in the brutal rape and beating of a Central Park jogger in 1989.
While admitting no wrongdoing, the city will make the payouts to Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana Jr., Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise, each of whom served between six and 13 years in prison after the vicious attack captivated the media during a time when New York City was rife with crime and violence.
Eventually, admitted serial rapist Matias Reyes told police he committed the assault, and DNA evidence confirmed the claim.
McCray, Richardson, Santana Jr., and Salaam will each receive $7,125,000, according to court records, and Wise will be paid $12,250,000. Each defendant was to be paid roughly $1 million for each year they were wrongly imprisoned, according to the terms of the settlement.
The five filed a federal lawsuit in 2003, a year after their convictions were overturned, claiming police coerced their confessions. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration fought the legal challenge for years, but freshman Mayor Bill de Blasio has championed the men’s case.
“This settlement is an act of justice for those five men that is long overdue. The city had a moral obligation to right this injustice which is why, from Day One, I vowed to settle this case,” de Blasio said in a statement.
Calls to plaintiffs’ attorney Jonathan Moore were not immediately returned Friday, but he previously said the sizable settlement serves as an acknowledgment of wrongdoing on behalf of the city.
“It’s an amount that is significant enough that it represents an admission the city did something wrong,” Moore told the Los Angeles Times last month.

Times staff writer Tina Susman in New York contributed to this report

Photo via Flickr

Interested in more U.S. news? Sign up for our newsletter!

NYPD Officers To Begin Wearing Body Cameras As Part Of Settlement

NYPD Officers To Begin Wearing Body Cameras As Part Of Settlement

By James Queally, Los Angeles Times

Sixty New York City police officers will wear body cameras as part of a pilot program in the wake of a federal lawsuit challenging the department’s controversial stop-and-frisk tactics and the recent death of Eric Garner during an arrest, city officials said.

Police Commissioner William Bratton announced the program Thursday, saying officers in at least one precinct in each of New York City’s five boroughs will begin wearing the surveillance devices.

Implementing the program was part of a settlement reached last year after a federal judge put a stop to the New York Police Department’s controversial stop-and-frisk tactics, which many said unfairly targeted black men while doing little to reduce crime.

“The NYPD is committed to embracing new and emerging technology in order to continue to keep New York City safe,” Bratton said. “Having patrol officers wear body cameras during this pilot demonstrates our commitment to transparency while it will also allow us to review its effectiveness with the intention of expanding the program.”

The department will use two camera models: the Axon Flex developed by stun-gun magnate TASER, and the LE3 made by Vievu. Bratton said the department chose the models after meetings with police officials in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Oakland, California.

Bratton said officers will begin wearing the devices in the fall.

“This pilot program will provide transparency, accountability, and protection for both the police officers and those they serve, while reducing financial losses for the city,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “New York City will do everything it takes to stay the safest big city in the nation. This means testing new methods and staying ahead of the curve on emerging technologies like body cameras.”

Six command areas, those with the highest number of stop-and-frisk encounters in 2012, were chosen for the pilot program.

Those commands include the 120th precinct on Staten Island, which patrols the neighborhood where Garner died on July 17 after he was placed in a chokehold by officers trying to arrest him in the sale of untaxed cigarettes.

Garner’s death, which led to a citywide backlash and fiery criticism of the department’s tactics, was later ruled a homicide. Two police officers remain under an internal investigation, and the Richmond County district attorney has convened a grand jury to weigh criminal charges in the matter.

In the aftermath of Garner’s death, Bratton sent a contingent of city officers to Los Angeles for additional training.

The Los Angeles Police Department launched a similar body camera pilot program earlier this year, with 30 officers who patrol the city’s downtown area. The department expects to buy 600 of the devices for more widespread use.

Cmdr. Andy Smith, chief spokesman for the LAPD, said NYPD officials reviewed both camera models currently being field tested by LAPD officers during their meetings in Los Angeles.

Patrick Lynch, president of New York City’s largest police union, seemed to cautiously embrace the program in a statement issued late Thursday.

“A body camera pilot program is part of our challenge to Judge (Shira) Scheindlin’s decision on stop, question, and frisk,” he said. “Police officers have nothing to hide, but there are many unanswered questions as to how this will work practically. We await the answers.”

A series of recent questionable deaths after clashes between police officers and suspects have raised the national discussion on police accountability measures. Police in Ferguson, Missouri, began wearing body cameras in recent days, a little over a month after the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man, sparked weeks of unrest in the St. Louis suburb.

Earlier Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a federal civil rights investigation into the Ferguson Police Department’s practices.

AFP Photo/John Moore

Interested in national news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Louisiana’s Ban On Same-Sex Marriage Upheld By Federal Judge

Louisiana’s Ban On Same-Sex Marriage Upheld By Federal Judge

By James Queally, Los Angeles Times

A federal judge in Louisiana upheld the state’s ban on same-sex marriages Wednesday, marking the first time a federal court upheld a ban since the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act last year, according to court filings.

U.S. District Court Judge Martin Feldman ruled the state’s ban passed constitutional muster, rejecting arguments from six same-sex couples who were asking Louisiana to recognize their marriages from other states.

In the 32-page decision, Feldman ruled that Louisiana’s ban does not violate the First Amendment rights of same-sex couples. The couples were suing to overturn the state ban and have their marriages from other states recognized.

Feldman’s decision comes after dozens of state and federal judges have struck down same-sex marriage bans throughout the country, which came after a Supreme Court ruling that the federal definition of marriage between a man and a woman was unconstitutional.

Evan Wolfson, founder and president of the advocacy group Freedom To Marry, told the Los Angeles Times that Feldman’s ruling flies in the face of the more than 40 court decisions that have found similar bans unconstitutional.

“His is the first federal court to get it wrong,” Wolfson said. “He treats what these couples are seeking as some new and different thing rather than the same freedom to marry and the same equal protection under the law that the Constitution guarantees to all of us.”

With several similar cases stuck in the appeals process throughout the country, Wolfson also said the Louisiana ruling was only further evidence that the U.S. Supreme Court needs to take up a same-sex marriage case and give a definitive ruling.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes petitioned the Supreme Court to hear a same-sex marriage case earlier this year after his state’s ban was overturned.

Photo: Jason Paris via Flickr

American Doctor Being Treated For Ebola Says His Condition Is Improving

American Doctor Being Treated For Ebola Says His Condition Is Improving

By James Queally, Los Angeles Times

The American doctor who contracted Ebola while helping treat victims of a deadly outbreak that has claimed more than 1,000 lives in West Africa says his condition is improving, according to a statement issued Friday.

Kent Brantly, who contracted the virus last month while treating patients in Liberia as part of an aid mission with the charity Samaritan’s Purse, has been recovering steadily after he was flown to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta for treatment.

“I thank God for the healthcare team here who is giving me compassionate, world-class care. I am more grateful every day to the Lord for sparing my life and continuing to heal my body,” Brantly said in a statement released by the charity. “There are still a few hurdles to clear before I can be discharged, but I hold on to the hope of a sweet reunion with my wife, children, and family in the near future.”

Brantly and fellow volunteer Nancy Writebol are being treated at Emory after they contracted the virus in Monrovia. They are the first Ebola patients to be treated on American soil.

The patients are being treated in a special isolation unit, one of only a handful in the country.

Writebol’s condition has also been steadily improving, according to a statement issued by Service in Mission, the charity Writebol was working with.

There is no known cure for Ebola, but both patients have been treated with an experimental serum that medical professionals hope will combat the virus’ effects. The serum, Zmapp, was developed in San Diego and had not previously been tested on humans.

AFP Photo/Inaki Gomez

Interested in world news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Virginia Same-Sex Couples Can Marry Next Week, Court Rules

Virginia Same-Sex Couples Can Marry Next Week, Court Rules

By James Queally, Los Angeles Times

A federal appeals court denied a request to block same-sex marriages from being performed in Virginia, and unless the Supreme Court intervenes, couples can begin to wed as early as next week, according to court filings and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a ruling handed down Wednesday, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a request for a stay of its 2-1 decision last month to overturn Virginia’s voter-approved ban on gay marriage.

Officials in Prince William County had asked for the stay, and may still petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, the ACLU said in a statement. Otherwise couples can begin to wed Aug. 20.

“We hope that the Supreme Court will leave this ruling in place, so that same-sex couples may begin marrying right away,” Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the ACLU, said in a statement. “Our clients have already waited far too long to exercise their constitutional right to marry, or to have their marriages from other states recognized.”

Calls to the Prince William County clerk’s office seeking comment were not returned.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit legal organization that represented the county clerk, said it intends to petition the nation’s highest court to hear the case.

“The people of Virginia and every other state should continue to be free to preserve marriage as the union of one man and one woman in their laws if they choose to do so,” Executive Director Byron Babione said in a statement. “Because the 4th Circuit chose not to place a hold on its decision as other courts — including the U.S. Supreme Court — have done in nearly identical cases, we intend to ask the high court to do so in this case before the 4th Circuit’s mandate goes into effect.”

Same-sex marriage is now legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia, and every remaining state ban faces a court challenge.

The battle in Virginia, along with one in Utah, sets the stage for a possible Supreme Court ruling on the matter. Newly elected Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has repeatedly refused to defend the voter-approved ban in court, calling it unconstitutional, and he previously appealed to the high court to strike down the state ban.

The case could also end up in the high court if the Prince William County clerk files a petition. Earlier this month, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes filed a similar petition after a marriage in his state was overturned, saying he would welcome the finality of a Supreme Court ruling.

Photo: Gary Cope via Flickr