Court Clears ‘San Antonio Four’ on Sex-Assault Charges

By David Lee
November 23, 2016

AUSTIN (CN) – Texas’ highest criminal appeals court exonerated the “San Antonio Four” on Wednesday, declaring the four lesbians innocent of charges they sexually assaulted two young girls 22 years ago.

In a majority opinion, Judge David Newell of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals wrote that Kristie Mayhugh, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera and Anna Vasquez “have unquestionably established” their innocence through new evidence.

Seven of the nine judges on the court heard the case while two abstained. The judges in the majority concluded the women are actually innocent, making them eligible for compensation by the state for their time in prison.

“Those defendants have won the right to proclaim to the citizens of Texas that they did not commit a crime,” the 45-page opinion states. “That they are innocent. That they deserve to be exonerated. These women have carried that burden. They are innocent. And they are exonerated. This court grants them the relief they seek.”

Ramirez, Rivera and Mayhugh were released from prison in 2013 after their attorneys reached an agreement with Bexar County prosecutors. Vasquez was paroled in 2012.

The four women were arrested in 1994 after two of Ramirez’s nieces, ages 7 and 9 at the time, accused them of sexual assault during an alcohol and drug-fueled rampage at Ramirez’s apartment.

Considered the ringleader, Ramirez was sentenced to over 37 years in state prison in 1997, while the remaining defendants were convicted in 1998 and sentenced to 15 years each.

Their supporters have argued the women were convicted based on “junk science” and a Texas law passed in 2013 allows state judges to toss verdicts based on scientific evidence that has since been debunked.

At trial, expert witness Dr. Nancy Kellogg testified that a victim had a scar on her hymen that was a result of a tear caused by physical trauma. Kellogg later said her testimony was inaccurate and is contradicted by an American Academy of Pediatrics study in 2007 that concluded hymen injuries do not leave scars, according to court filings.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said Wednesday the evidence of the women’s guilt heard at trial was “exceedingly weak,” concluding it “paints a fairly inconsistent picture” of guilt.

The 45-page opinion says that different versions of how the abuse happened were given at the two trials. In one version, both victims were in the same room during the assaults, while in the other version, one victim left the room to go outside and play.

“None of the versions are consistent regarding when these two events allegedly occurred during the week in question,” the ruling states. “These material conflicts are so great that it is difficult to tell which version of events the jury believed. Most importantly, many of the details of these stories are simply implausible. As Dr. [Alexandria] Doyle explained at the habeas hearing, these stories simply did not make sense. Dr. Doyle could not find one piece of evidence or one statement consistent with what one would expect in a true sexual-abuse allegation.”

From Courthouse News.

Judge Puts Kibosh on Obama’s Overtime Rule

By David Lee
November 23, 2016

SHERMAN, Texas (CN) — A Texas federal judge blocked an Obama administration rule change that would double the income ceiling for overtime and make millions more workers eligible for it.

U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant issued the preliminary nationwide injunction Tuesday against a rule change by the U.S. Department of Labor that will increase the overtime exemption for white-collar employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act from $23,660 to $47,476 — from $455 per week to $913.

Ordered by the White House in May, the change was to take effect on Dec. 1.

Texas and 20 other states sued in September, claiming the rule change was not authorized by Congress and that workers would face reduced hours and lower salaries due to increased labor costs.

They claimed that many workers who would be eligible for overtime under the new rule would be disqualified anyway because they perform management duties.

Mazzant concluded that the rule change does not conform with congressional intent.

“Directly in conflict with Congress’s intent, the final rule states that ‘[w]hite collar employees subject to the salary level test earning less than $913 per week will not qualify for the [white-collar] exemption, and therefore will be eligible for overtime, irrespective of their job duties and responsibilities,’” the 20-page opinion states.

“With the Final Rule, the department exceeds its delegated authority and ignores Congress’s intent by raising the minimum salary level such that it supplants the duties test.”

Mazzant was persuaded by the states’ argument that the rule change contravenes the public interest by “increasing state budgets, causing layoffs and disrupting government functions.” He said a preliminary injunction would merely delay enforcement if the rule is determined to be valid.

“The state plaintiffs have established a prima facie case that the department’s salary level under the Final Rule and the automatic updating mechanism are without statutory authority,” Mazzant wrote. “The court concludes that the governing statute … is plain and unambiguous and no deference is owed to the department regarding its interpretation.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton applauded the ruling, scolding the Obama administration for assuming “that through force of will alone, it could order a new economic reality into existence.”

“The finalized overtime rule hurts the American worker. It limits workplace flexibility without a corresponding increase in pay and forces employers to cut their workers hours,” Paxton said in a statement. “All in all, it exchanges the advantages of negotiated benefits, personal to each worker, with a one-size-fits-all standard that only looks good in press statements.”

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said the Obama administration has tried to “pinch-hit” for Congress, but has been repeatedly swatted down by the courts in favor of the states. He said it “comes as no surprise” the judge in this case concluded the rule change is unlawful.

“This decision is a victory for state and local governments as well as businesses in Oklahoma and across the country,” Pruitt said Wednesday. “The rule would result in hours reduced, salaries slashed and and jobs lost – now, this injunction provides certainty to Oklahoma employees and stability for their families.”

Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez has said rule change would “restore the intent” of the Fair Labor Standards Act, “the crown jewel” of worker protections.

“The crown jewel has lost its luster over the years: in 1975, 62 percent of full-time salaried workers had overtime protections based on their pay; today, just 7 percent have those protections, meaning that too few people are getting the overtime that the Fair Labor Standards Act intended,” Perez said in September.

Between 1938 and 1975, the overtime salary threshold rose every five to nine years through actions by Republican presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford and Democratic presidents Truman and Kennedy.

From 1975 until 2004, the overtime threshold saw just one update: in 2004 during the George W. Bush administration, when the threshold was set at $23,660 — below the poverty level for a family of four.

From Courthouse News.

‘Johnny Football’ Near a Plea Settlement

November 18, 2016
By David Lee

DALLAS (CN) — Dallas County prosecutors and former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel are nearing an agreement to drop domestic violence charges against him, a state judge said Thursday.

State District Judge Roberto Canas quickly ended a Thursday morning hearing and gave both sides until Dec. 1 to complete the deal. Terms of settlement proposals have not been disclosed.

“Based on our discussion, it sounds like we have a process for an agreement in principal,” Canas said. “I am going to grant a two-more-week period for you to finalize the agreement and get in the paperwork.”

Manziel, 23, declined to speak to reporters after the hearing.

His attorney, Jim Darnell of El Paso, said a settlement is still in progress but that the hearing was encouraging.

Manziel, known as Johnny Football, was indicted in April after ex-girlfriend Colleen Crowley, 23, of Fort Worth, accused him of hitting her in the head for trying to escape from his car in January.

She said the assault left her unable to hear out of one ear. Crowley secured a protective order against Manziel in Tarrant County in February.

“He hit me with his open hand on my left ear for jumping out of the car,” Crowley’s affidavit stated. “I realized immediately I could not hear out of that ear, and I still cannot today.”

Crowley said she was worried Manziel was on drugs or having a “psychotic break” and he told her he was going to kill himself as he drove her back to her apartment in Fort Worth.

“I started crying even more and he told me, ‘Shut up or I’ll kill us both,’” according to the affidavit. “Then I started begging him not to kill me and he immediately responded, ‘I would never kill you. You don’t deserve that. I would only kill myself!’ He was not making sense.”

Manziel turned himself in May, then tweeted a joke about being thankful that he was wearing a shirt in his mug shot — referring to a previous shirtless mug shot taken while he was a student at Texas A&M.

A Heisman Trophy winner as a freshman, Manziel remains unsigned by any National Football League team after being released by the Cleveland Browns and by successive agents representing him.

From Courthouse News.

$16 Million in Virtual Currency Stolen in Video Game

November 18, 2016
By David Lee

DALLAS (CN) – A Texas federal jury Wednesday convicted a computer hacker of helping to steal $16 million in virtual currency from FIFA soccer video game publisher Electronic Arts.

Anthony Clark, 24, of Whittier, Calif., was convicted of conspiracy to commit wire fraud after a three-day trial before U.S. District Judge Reed C. O’Connor. He faces up to 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and restitution at his Feb. 27, 2017 sentencing.

Clark’s three co-conspirators, Nick Castellucci, 24, of New Jersey; Ricky Miller, 24, of Arlington, Texas; and Eaton Zveare, 24, of Lancaster, Va., have pleaded guilty and await sentencing.

Prosecutors said at trial that the quartet “circumvented multiple security mechanisms created by EA” to fraudulently make virtual coins in its FIFA soccer video game.

“Specifically, Clark and his co-conspirators created software that fraudulently logged thousands of FIFA Football matches within a matter of seconds, and as a result, EA computers credited Clark and his co-conspirators with improperly earned FIFA coins,” prosecutors said in a statement Thursday.

“Clark and his co-conspirators subsequently exchanged their FIFA coins on the secondary market for over $16 million.”

The coins are an in-game currency earned based on the amount of time a player spends on FIFA.

“Due to the popularity of FIFA Football, a secondary market has developed whereby FIFA coins can be exchanged for U.S. currency,” prosecutors said.

From Courthouse News.

Texas Lawmaker Wants to Stop ‘Sanctuary Cities’

November 18, 2016
By David Lee

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – Emboldened by the election of Donald Trump and Republicans’ coming control of Congress, a state senator filed a bill to end “sanctuary cities” in Texas and force compliance with Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers.

State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, filed Senate Bill 4 on Tuesday.

A similar bill he filed in the previous legislative session, two years ago, failed by one vote.

The bill requires police officers to provide notice to a judge or magistrate that an arrested person is illegally in the country if he or she cannot prove a legal right to be in the country within 48 hours.

It would allow people to file complaints with the Texas attorney general if local authorities carry out sanctuary city policies that discourage enforcement of federal immigration laws.

The attorney general would then have authority to enjoin the alleged violations in court and the local entity would be denied state grant money for the following year.

Perry cited the murder of Kate Steinle in San Francisco in 2015, accusing the city of being unwilling to comply with an immigration detainer on her alleged killer.

“Her tragic death led to a national uproar highlighting why we cannot have policies that allow for violent criminal aliens to walk our streets freely,” Perry said in a statement Thursday.

“Put simply, sanctuary city policies are any policies that prevent law enforcement from enforcing immigration laws already on the books. This can include, but is not limited to, prohibiting officers from inquiring about immigration status of suspected criminals or ignoring immigration detainers in our corrections system.”

Perry called the Nov. 8 general election “truly a referendum on the lawless Obama Administration that set aside the basic foundation of civil society – the rule of law – to advance personal agenda.”

Perry said more than 204,000 criminal aliens were in Texas jails between June 1, 2011 and Oct. 31 this year.

“Of those, 66 percent were identified as being in the U.S. illegally at the time of their last arrest,” Perry said. “These arrests include 1,101 homicide charges, 65,118 assault charges, and 5,745 sexual assault charges.”

Gov. Greg Abbott criticized Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez in October after she said she would no longer comply with immigration hold requests for people accused of minor offenses.

“Your decision to not fully honor ICE’s requests to detain criminal immigrants poses a serious danger to Texans,” Abbott told the sheriff at the time. “These detainers provide ICE with the critical notice and time it needs to take incarcerated immigrants into federal custody.”

Sanctuary cities are named for the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s, in which U.S. churches nationwide opened their doors to refugees from wars in Central America that killed half a million people, most of them civilians, in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras.

From Courthouse News.

Judge Kills Labor Department’s Pro-Union Rule

November 18, 2016
By David Lee

LUBBOCK, Texas (CN) – A federal judge has permanently enjoined the U.S. Department of Labor’s new “persuader” rule, agreeing with business groups and 10 states that requiring employers to share the identities of anti-union consultants infringes on attorney-client privilege.

U.S. District Judge Sam R. Cummings granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment Wednesday and issued a permanent injunction.

Cummings granted a preliminary injunction in June, concluding that the Labor Department’s treating “advice” and persuasive activities as mutually exclusive renders the rule “entirely superfluous.”

“Indeed, DOL improperly reads an exception into the statute’s advice exemption that is not there, treating it as exempting all advice except advice that has an object to persuade,” Cummings wrote in June. “Because DOL’s new interpretation violates basic canons of statutory interpretation, this court rejects it.”

The National Federation of Independent Business and four other business groups sued the Secretary of Labor in Federal Court on March 31, challenging the “persuader advice exemption.”

Texas and nine other states intervened two months later, claiming the change made it “more difficult and expensive” for small businesses to get legal advice.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton applauded the permanent injunction, saying the Obama administration has tried to “chisel away at the rule of law unceasingly” for eight years.

“Attorney-client privilege is a sacred part of our adversarial system and cannot be undermined merely to advance the political interests of organized labor,” Paxton said in a statement. “The Obama administration would do well to remember today’s ruling before it tries again to assert control where it doesn’t belong.”

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said the injunction protects employers’ speech rights in the workplace.

“This is another one of the many actions taken by this administration that undermined our country’s rulemaking processes by enacting regulations that were never authorized by Congress,” he said in a statement. “As the current administration’s term comes to an end, it is rewarding to see the courts continue to justify our ongoing fight to uphold the rule of law.”

From Courthouse News.

 

ExxonMobil Adds N.Y. Attorney General as Defendant

November 14, 2016
By David Lee

FORT WORTH (CN)— ExxonMobil can include New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as a defendant in its lawsuit challenging Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s subpoena of decades of documents about Exxon’s knowledge of climate change, a federal judge ruled.

U.S. District Judge Ed Kinkeade on Thursday granted ExxonMobil’s motion for leave to file a first amended complaint. ExxonMobil did so hours later, adding Schneiderman as a defendant.

ExxonMobil sued Healey in June after she, Schneiderman and other attorneys general announced they were investigating whether the company committed fraud by misrepresenting its knowledge of climate change in its marketing materials and investor communications. The investigations began after media reports claimed ExxonMobil knew about climate change as early as the 1970s.

In its amended complaint, ExxonMobil says the attorneys general agreed “to use law enforcement powers as a means of promoting a shared political agenda.” Healy and Schneiderman are Democrats.

ExxonMobil called the allegations “a weak pretext for an unlawful exercise of government power to further political objectives” and that they chill the company’s free speech rights.

Kinkeade ruled in October that Healey must show him during jurisdictional discovery that she has no political bias in demanding the records. The judge wrote that Healey’s comments before issuing the civil investigative demands are “concerning” and “may constitute bad faith,” due to U.S. Supreme Court precedent that federal courts abstain from interfering with state judicial proceedings.

Several Republican attorneys general have come to ExxonMobil’s defense in the lawsuit. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on behalf of Texas and 10 other states called Healey’s subpoena an “unconstitutional use of investigative powers,” in a September amicus brief.

In July, Schneiderman and Healey refused to open their investigatory records for House Committee on Science, Space and Technology chairman Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, a climate-change denier.

Healey criticized having to face a subpoena herself for her investigation, calling the House committee’s demands a “blatant attempt to chill” her investigation.

From Courthouse News.