Rare federal case may put defendant on death row in Michigan

Paul Egan / The Detroit News

Detroit — Jury selection begins this morning for a type of trial rarely seen in Michigan — one in which the defendant could face the death penalty.
Timothy Dennis O’Reilly, 36, is charged with murdering Norman “Anthony” Stephens during a Dec. 14, 2001, holdup of an armored truck at the Dearborn Federal Credit Union.

Michigan was the first state in the union to ban capital punishment, in 1847, but death can still be imposed in Michigan for federal capital crimes such as murder during a bank robbery.

Tony Chebatoris of Hamtramck, the last person executed in Michigan, was hanged at Milan in 1938. His crime was similar to the one O’Reilly is charged with. Chebatoris shot and killed 50-year-old truck driver Henry Porter while escaping a bank robbery in Midland in 1937.

Nobody’s been executed in the state since, though Marvin Gabrion has sat on death row at a prison in Indiana since 2002, when a federal jury in Grand Rapids sentenced him to death for the brutal murder of Rachel Timmerman. Her handcuffed and chained body, weighted with cinder blocks, was found in a lake in a national forest, making Gabrion eligible for the death penalty. Gabrion’s case is being appealed.

Now, O’Reilly is the first of three defendants in the Dearborn robbery to go to trial in front of a jury and U.S. District Judge Victoria A. Roberts. The case wasn’t charged until 2005 and complications related to capital cases resulted in it taking longer than normal to get to trial. Since a jury must be picked on which everyone is open to the idea of capital punishment, jury selection could take close to a month — also much longer than normal. The entire trial could take three months.

Two co-defendants, Norman Herbert Duncan and Kevin C. Watson, also face possible death sentences when they go to trial.

Another defendant, Earl L. Johnson, was sentenced to life in prison after a jury convicted him of conspiracy, bank robbery, and aiding and abetting a murder.
The 2001 Dearborn robbery, which netted more than $200,000 in cash and remained unsolved for years, was the first of three similar armored truck robberies. The other two happened at a Comerica on West Chicago in Detroit in June 2003 and February 2004.

At the last robbery the guard fired back, killing robber Eddie Cromer. The other man fled, but Detroit police arrested Duncan near the scene.

About six months later, the FBI received a letter from an inmate at Ryan Correctional Facility, saying O’Reilly, an inmate there, was bragging that he, Duncan, Watson and others had committed the Dearborn robbery.

According to documents filed in the case, O’Reilly later made taped admissions after the FBI helped the inmate conceal a tape recorder inside a radio in the prison yard.

O’Reilly and Duncan had worked for Guardian Armored Security Services, the company targeted in the 2003 and 2004 robberies.
Stephens, the victim in the Dearborn case, left a wife and young children and 12 brothers and sisters.

“They didn’t give him a chance,” his sister Mary Scott said in a 2007 interview. “I just can’t explain it to you, the hurt of the whole family.”

From The Detroit News: http://www.detnews.com/article/20100608/METRO/6080311/Murder-suspect-faces-death-penalty-in-rare-Michigan-case#ixzz0qHoEzzgi

Buried in the Bureau of Prisons

David C. Fathi 

Director, ACLU National Prison Project

Posted: June 4, 2010 04:31 PM 

Imagine a country in which prisoners can be denied visits, and even telephone calls, with family members for years at a time. Imagine a country in which government officials can prevent prisoners from telling news reporters about mistreatment or abuse. Imagine a country in which prisoners who are foreign citizens can be denied their right, guaranteed by international treaty, to meet with consular officials from their nation of origin. Unfortunately, that country is not some totalitarian state in the 1950s, but the United States in 2010.
Since 2006, the federal Bureau of Prisons has quietly operated a “Communications Management Unit” (CMU) at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. A second CMU was opened in Marion, Illinois, in 2008. Prisoners in these units face strict limits on visiting and telephone contact with the outside world.

The government has so far been operating these units without regulatory authority, but in April of this year, it belatedly published proposed rules that would authorize their operation. These rules make clear just what the government has in mind: a regime even more draconian than currently exists in the CMUs. Prisoners would be allowed only one 15-minute telephone call per month, with “immediate family members only” (defined to include only parents, spouses, children and siblings); one one-hour noncontact visit per month, with immediate family members; and one letter per week, limited to three pieces of paper, to and from a single recipient, “at the discretion of the Warden.”

When the CMUs were first established, the government justified them as necessary to monitor the communications of convicted or suspected terrorists. But in a classic case of mission creep, the new regulations provide that a prisoner can be transferred to a CMU if there is “any … evidence of a potential threat to the safe, secure, and orderly operation of prison facilities, or protection of the public, as a result of the inmate’s communication with persons in the community.” Given that most people in BOP custody are already accused or convicted of criminal activity, this standard imposes no meaningful limits; virtually any of the more than 200,000 federal prisoners could be sent to a CMU. In fact the CMUs have already been used to house prisoners who have not been convicted, or even accused, of terrorist activity. And because the CMU transfer decision is made solely by the Bureau of Prisons, with no external review or oversight, prisoners lack a meaningful way to challenge their placement.


These proposed rules represent an unprecedented attack on First Amendment rights, both of prisoners and of those on the outside — family, friends, journalists, clergy, and others — who want to communicate with them. A CMU prisoner who was raised by his aunt or grandmother will not be allowed to receive visits from her, or even talk to her by telephone. A reporter who wants to interview a prisoner alleging mistreatment or abuse won’t be allowed to do so. Never in modern U.S. history have prison officials been given the power to create a class of prisoners who are denied virtually all communication with the outside world.
The proposed rules also violate U.S. treaty obligations. Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (PDF), ratified by the United States in 1969, consular officers have the right to visit their nationals who are in prison or detention in a foreign country, for the purpose of arranging legal representation or providing other assistance. Although more than one-quarter of the bureau’s prisoners are foreign nationals, the proposed rules make no provision for the consular visits required by the treaty. Past U.S. violations of the Vienna Convention have resulted in judgments against the United States by the International Court of Justice; the proposed rules make it all but certain that more treaty violations will occur in the future.

The government predictably defends the CMUs as necessary for security. But prison officials already have the authority to control and limit prisoners’ correspondence, telephone calls, and visits, and to monitor those communications to detect and prevent criminal activity. For example, prison staff must approve a prisoner’s visitor lists; they may conduct background checks for that purpose, and may disapprove any visitor. Visiting areas may be monitored. Prison officials may deny placement of a given telephone number on a prisoner’s telephone list if they determine that there is a threat to security. Telephone calls are also monitored. Prison officials have the authority to open and read all non-legal prisoner mail. The proposed CMU rules don’t explain why these existing security measures are insufficient. And they certainly don’t explain how security is meaningfully advanced by preventing a prisoner from calling his grandmother.

The Bureau of Prisons is accepting public comments on the proposed rules through June 7. On Tuesday, the ACLU submitted comments calling for the immediate closure of CMUs. See the instructions for filing comments, and submit your own here.