The Trouble With Today


cereals-100263_1920Katie Aguilera

Veterans Day is hard for me.  I am not a veteran.  I’m not close with very many veterans.  And, I don’t believe we should be fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all the other places around the world where we have troops active.  But, I care very much for all the lives affected by war.  So, the trouble with today is how to express that care without celebrating or glorifying war and militarism?

A simple “thank you for your service” feels hollow, it doesn’t feel genuine.  Because, I don’t feel thankful for what my country is doing around the world with its military.  I do, however, feel immense gratitude for people who are willing to serve their communities and countries, in large and small ways.

Some say that opposing the war on terror somehow suggests that those who have died fighting died for nothing.  I myself have felt this, a heart-breaking sadness that young men and women have died senseless deaths for no good reason.  I don’t believe that anymore, though the sadness is no less heart-breaking.  I don’t believe soldiers have died fighting over there to protect my freedoms.  I do believe that soldiers die, not for nothing, but rather for each other.

I don’t know how to make peace with all the lives lost to those caught in the middle.  I don’t know how to make peace with the fact that our Congress refuses to do anything to bring this war on terror to an end.  I don’t know how to make peace with the apathy of the American public, who largely seems to forget we are still at war.  But, I make peace with Veterans Day by reflecting back to the original intent of creating a holiday on November 11th.

The cessation of hostilities of World War I officially ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.  A year later, November 11th was declared Armistice Day in commemoration of that.  The war to end all wars was over, and the world celebrated peace.  President Woodrow Wilson stated, “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…”

On May 13, 1938, Armistice Day became an official holiday, “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace.”  In 1954, the name of the holiday was changed to Veterans Day to honor those who served in World War II and the war in Korea as well World War I.

Veterans For Peace states,

“Almost a hundred years ago the world celebrated peace as a universal principal. The first World War had just ended and nations mourning their dead collectively called for an end to all wars. Armistice Day was born and was designated as “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated.”

After World War II, the U.S. Congress decided to rebrand November 11 as Veterans Day. Honoring the warrior quickly morphed into honoring the military and glorifying war. Armistice Day was flipped from a day for peace into a day for displays of militarism.”

In today’s world of never-ending conflict, it’s hard to imagine celebrating genuine world peace.  But today, Veterans Day, to all who have served and are serving in the military, I pray you have a day of peace.  For the world, I pray we find the courage to put a stop to the fighting.


Image courtesy of


Bill introduced in the Senate to ban assault weapons


A bill to ban the sale, transfer, manufacture and importation of 205 military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines was introduced today by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) and a number of other senators.

The announcement states, “We’re introducing an updated Assault Weapons Ban for one reason:  so that after every mass shooting with a military-style assault weapon, the American people will know that a tool to reduce these massacres is sitting in the Senate, ready for debate and a vote.”

It goes on to assert that the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 should have been extended in 2004, that it was, “just starting to show an effect when the NRA stymied its reauthorization.”

The bill “includes a grandfather clause that exempts all weapons lawfully possessed at the date of enactment.”

The bill would ban “any assault weapon that accepts a detachable ammunition magazine, and has one or more military characteristics including a pistol grip, a forward grip, a barrel shroud, a threaded barrel, or a folding or telescoping stock.”  Also included in the ban, “magazines and other ammunition feeding devices that hold more than 10 rounds without needing to reload,” and “bump-fire stocks and other devices that allow semi automatic weapons to fire at fully automatic rates.”

Also, the bill would “require a background check on any future sale, trade, or gifting of an assault weapon covered by the bill,” and that “grandfathered assault weapons are stored using a secure gun storage or safety device like a trigger lock.”  The transfer of high-capacity magazines would also be prohibited.

Feinstein’s announcement states, “to my colleagues in Congress, I say do your job.”  (Just not this one).


When You Don’t Make the Cult

Why I No Longer Support Newsbud

Katie Aguilera

Two years ago, I was involved in the early stages of the development of Newsbud, an online news and media platform with the stated goals of being 100% people funded, unbiased, and non-partisan.  My involvement, like that of many others, was short lived.  Recently, I publicly made some comments about my change of heart regarding Newsbud, and I have also decided to remove nearly all content from this blog that promoted the organization*.  As a result, I feel that I should explain why I no longer support Newsbud.

I have been hesitant to discuss my experience with Newsbud, and have told few people the details behind my decision to leave the team.  It is not my intention now to pen a vindictive, personal attack on Newsbud or its founder, Sibel Edmonds.  I know that I have readers who support Newsbud, and I’m not writing this with the goal of changing anyone’s mind based solely on what I have to say.  People need to come to their own conclusions.  I am writing this to explain why I no longer endorse the site, why it has lost credibility in my view, and why I feel guilty for promoting it and supporting it in its early stages.

The Beginning

Several years ago, the research I was doing for the novel I am writing led me to a series of interviews posted on YouTube with James Corbett and Sibel Edmonds.  That was how I first discovered Boiling Frogs Post, or BFP, and Sibel’s work.  Her story in her book, Classified Woman, aligned really well with the sort of things happening in the plot of my novel, and I began to follow the work at BFP.

When Sibel announced the idea for Newsbud, I contacted her and offered to help any way that I could with the project.  I explained that I didn’t have much to offer, I had no related experience, and wasn’t sure what I could do, but I wanted to help if I could.  I knew that I can write, but at that point I had yet to even start my own blog.  I don’t consider myself an expert of any sort, and I had never published anything.

I was surprised by the offer to be a regular contributor to Newsbud, and I jumped at the chance.  First and foremost because I genuinely believed in the idea of what Newsbud was supposed to be, based on how it was presented.  Also, because I was excited to get to know and work with Sibel Edmonds, who I had come to respect and admire greatly.  And, of course, it was an opportunity to get published and earn some extra money.

Newsbud launched a series of Kickstarter fundraising campaigns, the first one on February 14, 2016.  The goal of the campaign was nearly one million dollars, and ultimately it was unsuccessful.  It was during this campaign that I experienced my first hint of doubt about the direction Newsbud was going.

First Doubt

It started with this article in which Sibel makes some startling claims.  I was asked to do some research and fact checking on the suspicious letters discussed in the article after it was published.  I researched, I made phone calls, I spoke by phone with an FBI spokesperson about the matter, I attempted to contact Sheriff Glenn Palmer.  He never returned my phone call.  I found a phone number for the person who sent the suspicious letters, and I passed the information on to Newsbud.  I thought the logical next step would be to contact the letter sender but I was unwilling to do that from my private phone.

In the end, my research led me to the conclusion that there really was no more to the story than what had been reported in the local news, and with no comment from Sheriff Palmer, I couldn’t confirm his reported version of the event.  I was unable to find any evidence that would prove his claims, or that there had been any sort of substance in any of the letters.  I was also unable to find evidence that the letter sender was targeting Palmer specifically.

Pretty quickly I was informed that my conclusion wasn’t satisfactory and to stop researching the story.  Shortly thereafter, this video of an interview with Dr. Fred Whitehurst was released.  When that video aired, initially I felt that what I had reported to Sibel about my conversation with the FBI spokesperson was misrepresented.  Much later, when I watched it again, I also felt as though Dr. Whitehurst was manipulated in the interview because he wasn’t given all the information.  I didn’t understand why they did not mention any attempt to contact the letter sender, or Sheriff Palmer.  So, I messaged my concerns to Spiro Skouras of Newsbud, and asked why they had pursued the story the way they did.  I got no response from him that night.

Not long after, I received a request via email from Sibel to schedule a Skype conference call with her and Spiro.  I don’t remember all of the ways in which I was informed that I had failed during that call, but I do remember the main point, that I had missed the big piece of the story.  Sibel explained her reasons for that, and shared some links, and she was right, I hadn’t found what she had found online.  Upon reflection, I didn’t see it as proof of her claims, though I didn’t say so.

Perhaps I did miss a smoking gun, perhaps Sibel knew much more than she had published in her article and video.  However, what continued to bother me was that there was never any follow up, they never published any further evidence to support her startling claims.  They never informed me, or publicly stated, that they ever tried to contact the letter sender.  While attempts other than my own may have been made to contact Sheriff Palmer, there was no public mention of it from Newsbud.

After what felt to me like sensational claims that begged for further proof, that was basically the end of it.  That left me feeling as though the purpose of the story was to draw clicks, to capitalize on the related media furor occurring at that time over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, and Sheriff Palmer himself.  This would become a pattern I have since noticed repeatedly with stories discussed at Newsbud.

Staying In

Unfortunately, I ignored my instincts.  I still believed in Newsbud, and I didn’t want to admit that my faith in Sibel’s credibility had just taken a significant hit.  I convinced myself that, with my lack of experience, I had screwed up, and I moved on.  Newsbud launched a second Kickstarter campaign for a significantly lower goal, and with a very different team, because many on the original team had already left for reasons I didn’t fully learn until later.  This time it was successful.  This is when I began receiving payment from Newsbud, and I published an article a week for about two months.

Around this time, the attempted coup in Turkey took place, and Newsbud launched its “Confront NBC” campaign.  I was supportive and helped to promote this because I felt (and still do) that it is really important for news outlets and journalists to retract erroneous reporting.  I also agreed that the timing of the false information was suspicious with regards to the coup attempt.  (Not to mention this very real problem.)  But, the entire thing began to feel like a publicity stunt.  Looking back, it felt like a publicity stunt that went too far, and felt uncomfortably too pro-Erdogan.  And, it led to this attack on

I was asked to email FAIR, and follow up with a phone call, requesting comment from them on the Confront NBC story, and also information about their sources of funding (something I would like to see more transparency on from Newsbud).  I truly did not want to do this.  I have a lot of respect for and other organizations that work to hold news outlets and journalists accountable.  I was embarrassed to be involved in an attack on them.  However, I made the call, and I’m sure I sounded like a complete idiot to the man at FAIR that I spoke with.

A Way Out

This was the point that I finally began to lose, or let go of, some of my belief in Newsbud.  I realized I no longer wanted to tell anyone that I wrote for Newsbud.  I increasingly felt that, in order to fit the mold, I had to find some sort of “conspiratorial angle” to everything I wrote for Newsbud, and even here on my blog.  I was going along with things I didn’t always agree with, in order to stay with Newsbud.  It felt dishonest, like I was putting on an act.  I wasn’t being honest with myself.  I wasn’t being honest to all the people I was promoting Newsbud to.  I wasn’t being honest with Newsbud or Sibel either, because I didn’t address these concerns with them.

The final straw (or straws) came after I published this story here on my blog.  I submitted a shorter version of the story to Newsbud, and initially was told it would be published.  Later, I was told that it wouldn’t be published for several reasons.  I was disappointed, but I understood that Sibel didn’t like the story and she had the ultimate say on what was published on Newsbud.  I moved on.  However, shortly after that, I received an email that finally ended my willingness to remain on the team.

In that email, Sibel questioned my recent sharing of a GoFundMe campaign by someone that she didn’t like, and she informed me that I shouldn’t be following a certain journalist on social media.  Basically, what it came down to was that my behavior was reflecting negatively on Newsbud, and I was damaging Newsbud’s credibility.

I replied that I had no desire to cause Newsbud any harm, and if she didn’t want me on the team that was fine.  It was a way out, and I took it with relief.  I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t hurt by the things Sibel said to me, but I did not, and do not, have any desire to argue with her, or defend myself to her.  It wasn’t worth it to me to be told who I could or could not follow, who I could or could not share support for, who or what I could write about.  I had already watched other team members leave, even just disappear from the team, with no explanation.  What Newsbud had become was absolutely not what I supported in the beginning.

Ironically, after I responded that I didn’t want to harm Newsbud, I was told my behavior not only reflected negatively on Newsbud, but on myself, that it would hurt my credibility.  That was indeed true, but not about the behavior Sibel was referring to.  What would reflect negatively on me would be to continue to support what I no longer believed in.  Continuing to work with and promote Newsbud would hurt my credibility.

It is my opinion that Newsbud has gone the way of another well-known alternative media (infotainment) site that thrives on click bait, unsupported sensational claims, and false information.  I know Newsbud has deleted negative and oppositional comments from their site in what looks like attempts to shield their supporters from anything contradictory.  I know they asked numerous dissenting commenters to unsubscribe.  I see no integrity in this.  There are other things I could point to, but that and skepticism born out of my own brief experience working with Sibel, are the most important reasons why I no longer support Newsbud.

Coming Clean

It has taken me a long time to decide to write about all of this.  It took some time to admit to myself that the entire experience felt very cultish, and even longer to feel ready to admit it publicly.  I held a cult-like faith in Sibel, and that affected my judgement.  I don’t blame Sibel or Newsbud, I blame myself.  At the time, as I was still trying to make sense of the overwhelming information I was searching through online, I was especially susceptible.  But, I know that I have learned a lot from this experience.  In the chaos of today’s news cycle, the fake news, the social media trolling and bot manipulation, and endless sites spreading misinformation for profit, my experience at Newsbud, even though I regret it, does have value for me.

The following, from an International Cultic Studies Association article titled, Characteristics of Cults and Cultic Groups, describes how I feel about my experience with Newsbud perfectly:

“…the group claims to pursue lofty goals (e.g., salvation, bringing enlightenment to the world for the sake of peace, or solutions to specific world problems and injustices), …but a close look at the group’s accomplishments will invariably show that these publicly proclaimed goals are not reached, or that they mask less noble goals, such as massing monetary wealth, gaining power and control over the followers, and feeding the leader’s need for adulation.”

So, when I saw this tweet which reads, “they’ve been throwing fits due to not making the cut when it comes to Newsbud,” I laughed.  I knew immediately that I had the perfect title for this story.  I didn’t make the cult, and for that, I am so thankful.


*This decision was made because I can’t in good conscience keep content posted that promotes Newsbud.  If that bothers you and you want to know what those posts contain, just ask me.  I’ve kept copies of them all.  Also, I recently noticed that all of my work has been removed from Newsbud’s site, for which I am grateful.  I have reposted most of the articles here on Seeking Redress.

Mueller’s Delivery of Uranium Sample to Russia

Katie Aguilera

As the Uranium One story trickles out in the mainstream news, alternative news sites and social media are jumping all over it, with all sorts of speculations and claims.  One specific claim keeps popping up, ever since this July, 29, 2017 tweet from Wikileaks.  This claim is that former FBI Director Robert Mueller hand delivered a sample of highly enriched uranium, or HEU, to Russian law enforcement.  According to a leaked cable published by Wikileaks, this is indeed true.  However, many in the alt media seem to be suggesting that this sample of HEU given to the Russians is somehow related to the Uranium One deal, which is untrue.

Many alt media sites insert the fact that Mueller gave the HEU sample to Russia while discussing the possible scandals surrounding the Uranium One deal without giving the full story, as if to imply that this sample is somehow related to that deal.  And, of course, people on social media are spreading the rumor far and wide.  But, they aren’t giving the back story, apparently relying on the fact that their audience won’t read the leaked cable themselves.  The following is from the leaked cable:

“Background: Over two years ago Russia requested a ten-gram sample of highly enriched uranium (HEU) seized in early 2006 in Georgia during a nuclear smuggling sting operation involving one Russian national and several Georgian accomplices. The seized HEU was transferred to U.S. custody and is being held at a secure DOE facility. In response to the Russian request, the Georgian Government authorized the United States to share a sample of the material with the Russians for forensic analysis.”

But here is what Wikileaks highlighted in the tweet linked above:

  1. “(S/Rel Russia) Action request: Embassy Moscow is requested to alert at the highest appropriate level the Russian Federation that FBI Director Mueller plans to deliver the HEU sample once he arrives to Moscow on September 21. Post is requested to convey information in paragraph 5 with regard to chain of custody, and to request details on Russian Federation’s plan for picking up the material. Embassy is also requested to reconfirm the April 16 understanding from the FSB verbally that we will have no problem with the Russian Ministry of Aviation concerning Mueller’s September 21 flight clearance.”

The leaked cable makes it clear that the sample of HEU that Mueller gave to Russia was from uranium suspected of being stolen from a Russian facility, and Russia wanted the sample in order to confirm the origin of that uranium.  The cable does not say anywhere that the sample came from any uranium mined in US mines owned by Uranium One.  The cable does not claim that the sample has any relation whatsoever to the Uranium One deal.  But that hasn’t stopped the claims that it does.

Is there reason to question and investigate the Uranium One deal?  Yes.  But spreading false information about the story, whether by directly lying or by omitting important facts, only serves to misdirect attention from the true facts as we learn them.  It also calls into question the credibility and integrity of any alternative news outlet that uses this tactic.

The Obama Administration’s Deadly Playbook Released

Author’s Note:  this article was originally published on over a year ago and may contain outdated information.  I am posting it here now because it is no longer available on that website (more about that here).  I will be posting a couple additional articles that I wrote for Newsbud that are also no longer available there.

Katie Aguilera

America’s Lethal Drone Strike Policies and the Normalization of Killing with Robots

On August 6, 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, announced the long sought release of a redacted version of the Presidential Policy Guide, or PPG, for drone strikes outside of areas of “actual hostilities” as a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the ACLU.  The ACLU published the document, which has been referred to as “the Playbook,” on their website along with three other related documents that were released.

ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer was quoted in the announcement as saying, “the PPG provides crucial information about policies that have resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, including hundreds of non-combatants, and about the bureaucracy that the Obama administration has constructed to oversee and implement those policies.  The PPG should have been released three years ago, but its release now will inform an ongoing debate about the lawfulness and wisdom of the government’s counterterrorism policies.  The release of the PPG and related documents is also a timely reminder of the breadth of powers that will soon be in the hands of another president.”

The PPG itself states that it “establishes the standard operating procedures for when the United States takes direct action, which refers to lethal and non-lethal uses of force, including capture operations, against terrorist targets outside the United States and areas of active hostilities.”  It goes on to say that the primary goal is to capture, not kill, any targeted individuals, that “lethal action should be taken in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks against U.S. persons only when capture of an individual is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to effectively address the threat.”  The PPG adds that lethal action should not be punitive or a “substitute for prosecuting a terrorist suspect.”

The truth is, the PPG has a lot of vague language that allows for an awful lot of leeway that the administration has already demonstrated a willingness to take in the use of drones to target individuals.  It talks of “near certainty that the individual being targeted is in fact the lawful target and located at the place where the action will occur,” and that there is “near certainty” that no non-combatants will be harmed in the attacks.

Considering what we already know from The Drone Papers and numerous whistleblowers about how targets are identified, located, and attacked, the pronouncement of any near certainty involved in drone strikes would be laughable if the consequences weren’t so deadly and horrible.  Just as the administration’s definition of an “imminent threat” is rather loose, with the Pentagon and CIA having 60 days to strike a target after approval, the definition of near certainty appears to be wide open.

Andrew Walker points out another disturbing truth in his August 10, 2016 article about the PPG when he writes, “if anyone other than the targeted individual is ultimately engaged with kinetic action (which happens all the time) than the procedures are meaningless.  Where is the interagency and legal review for those individuals, even if they are classified as combatants?  It doesn’t exist.  Consequently, by authorizing kinetic action against certain individuals, the Obama Administration almost guarantees that people that have not been reviewed will end up dead—and many of them turn out to be innocent civilians.”

I wrote several months ago that “it is not a question of whether the entire program of targeted killing through drone strikes is moral, humane, effective, or even truly supported by national and international law.  It is a question of whether the laws can be explained in such a way as to make drone strikes legal.  To make state-sponsored assassination legal, at least as long as it is called ‘targeted killing’ and is not utilized by enemies of the west.

After all, it is clear that the US and UK have no qualms about violating international law by inventing justifications to invade a sovereign nation. Neither did the US hesitate to create documentation that justified its use of torture.”

The policies are crafted simply to justify and normalize counterterrorism strategies that have already been utilized and embraced by the administration and the military for years.  The media announces the release of the policies, giving the administration a pat on the back for transparency.  But little time is spent discussing the reality behind these policies, the devastating effects these strategies have on the lives of countless people around the world.  Additionally, it moves us further down the road of desensitization to the idea of drone strikes on US soil.

In spite of the PPG’s statement that it sets procedures for strikes outside of the US, CNN casually slid this comment into their August 6, 2016 article about the PPG release:  “if the target is a US citizen or someone living in the US…it will be submitted to the President for a decision.” [Emphasis added].  As if to inject the idea of drone strikes on US soil into the national conscience, to make the idea as easily accepted as the idea of US police killing a man with a robot-mounted bomb.

In a July 23, 2016 blog post, Laurie Calhoun, author of the book We Kill Because We Can, writes the following about the Dallas Police Department’s use of a robot with a bomb mounted on it to kill Micah Johnson.  “US citizens have grown accustomed to their government killing people abroad, but the decision to kill by remote control in the homeland was extraordinary in that no attempt was made to incapacitate the suspect instead.”  She goes on to state, “the precedent set by this action would seem to be yet another step down an ever-more lethal continuum rendered considerably more so by the current US president, Barack Obama, whose policy it is to kill rather than capture suspected terrorists located abroad.”

It seems only a matter of time, with the increasingly alarmist rhetoric about domestic terrorists and self-radicalized lone-wolves, that drone strikes will come home to US soil.  Americans have largely ignored the growing reliance on targeted killing with drones in countries far away (along with all the death and destruction caused by them), and we barely blinked when an American was blown up by a robot-delivered bomb in Dallas.  Will we remain so apathetic and silent when drone strikes happen here?  Will we just accept that it is all part of “the most important policy objective” of protecting American lives, as stated in the PPG?  When we see the death firsthand, will we allow these policies, crafted solely by those who seek to justify their illegal strategies, to stand as humane and ethical operating procedure?


Jury Nullification in Defense of Justice

Author’s Note:  this article was originally published on over a year ago and may contain outdated information.  I am posting it here now because it is no longer available on that website (more about that here).  I will be posting a couple additional articles that I wrote for Newsbud that are also no longer available there.

Katie Aguilera

In 1794, US Supreme Court Justice John Jay stated in his opinion in the case Georgia v. Brailsford “…on questions of fact, it is the province of the jury, on questions of law, it is the province of the court to decide.  But it must be observed that by the same law, which recognizes this reasonable distribution of jurisdiction, you have nevertheless a right to take upon yourselves to judge of both, and to determine the law as the fact in controversy…it is presumed, that juries are the best judges of facts; it is, on the other hand, presumable, that the court are the best judges of the law.  But still both objects are lawfully, within your power of decision.”

This opinion is considered by many to have set the precedent for a little spoken of right of jurors in US criminal cases known as jury nullification that has roots dating back to at least the Magna Carta. It is defined here as “a sanctioned doctrine of trial proceedings wherein members of a jury disregard either the evidence presented or the instructions of the judge in order to reach a verdict based upon their own consciences.  It espouses the concept that jurors should be the judges of both law and fact.”

This means that every US juror in any criminal case has the right to acquit the defendant even when the evidence presented proves the defendant’s guilt.  At first glance, that might seem odd, why acquit someone proven guilty?  But consider that this nation has had no shortage of unconstitutional and tyrannical laws, and excessive punishments, on the books throughout its history. Jury nullification serves as a last defense for people prosecuted under such laws.

In this August 2, 2016 article, Nathan Tschepik writes, “jury nullification is the constitutionally guaranteed right of every juror and jury to vote and issue any verdict they see fit without fear of punishment.  This freedom from penalty frees the jurors to vote according to their conscience and not be bound to unjust or extraneous laws and punishments.  The jury, therefore, has the right not only to judge the facts in a trial, but the very law itself—a right that undergirds the efficacy and basis of the jury system as a check on government power.”

On February 9, 2016, Kirsten Tynan wrote in an article for the Fully Informed Jury Association that the only US Supreme Court justice to preside over a jury trial has also spoken in support of the right jurors have to acquit defendants with nullification.  Tynan writes, “current Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor is now on record: she says the prevailing Second Circuit view of jury nullification is too harsh and that juries could benefit from being aware of their option of jury nullification.”  Tynan cites a talk given at New York University’s School of Law by Justice Sotomayor discussing a 1997 case in the Second Circuit “that savaged jury nullification as lawlessness.”

Historically, jury nullification has been practiced by US juries that acquitted defendants charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, juries who would not convict workers who were charged with illegally striking, and juries that refused to convict defendants charged under alcohol prohibition laws.  In a case that is heralded as a hallmark for freedom of the press in the US, the jury in John Peter Zenger’s 1733 libel trial voted to acquit in spite of the judge’s order to the jury to find Zenger guilty if the evidence proved Zenger had printed material critical of the government.  Even after it was proven that Zenger had printed the material, the jury voted to acquit him because they believed the law itself was wrong.

Of course, jury nullification has been misused in history as well, most notably in juries that acquitted defendants charged in violent crimes against minorities and civil-rights activists in spite of proof of guilt.  Paul Butler writes in this December 20, 2011 New York Times Op-ed however, that “nullification is like any other democratic power; some people may try to misuse it, but that does not mean it should be taken away from everyone else.”

Unfortunately, the average juror in the US today is likely unaware that they have the right to acquit a defendant, no matter the facts in a case, but rather based on the legitimacy of the law, the appropriateness of the punishment, or simply on their conscience.  In 1895 in a split decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that courts, the judges and the lawyers, no longer were required to inform jurors of this right.  According to this history of jury nullification, the Supreme Court made this ruling “under pressure from large corporations,” after the “giant corporations had lost numerous trials against labor leaders trying to organize unions” who were often acquitted at trial as a result of nullification.  Ever since that ruling it has become largely accepted that not only are judges and lawyers not required to inform juries of this right, but that they should not inform juries of this right.

Jurors must now learn of this right by means outside of the court they serve in, perhaps through fictional courtroom dramas in film or books, or more likely, through community outreach programs that seek to educate Americans about this critically important bit of knowledge.  This is often accomplished by handing out informative fliers on the street that explain jury nullification, most often outside of courthouses.  Unfortunately, the legality of this activity is often questioned as activists are accused of tampering with juries.

In a comprehensive article published in 1996 entitled “Jury Nullification:  the Top Secret Constitutional Right,” James Joseph Duane describes the fight to keep jury nullification out of the realm of public knowledge.  He writes about Yvonne Regas who “almost landed in prison for her efforts to help spread the word to jurors.  When her son went on trial for charges in federal court, [she] and a friend papered the windshields of nearby parked cars, hoping to let the jurors learn the completely unexpected fact that her son faced 450 years in prison for a single drug transaction nine years earlier.  Federal authorities charged her with jury tampering and obstruction of justice, but eventually dropped the charges.”

More recently, in March of this year, felony charges were dismissed in the case of a former pastor, Keith Wood, who was charged for “distributing pamphlets on jury nullification outside a Michigan courthouse.”  Wood still faces a misdemeanor charge for his attempts to educate the public, but his attorney, David Kallman, expressed confidence his client would prevail against the charge.  Kallman stated, “this is such a clear violation of the First Amendment.”

In 2011, Julian Heicklen, was indicted for jury tampering after he had spent several years handing out fliers with information on jury nullification.  He “stood outside courthouse entrances…and handed out pamphlets encouraging jurors to ignore the law if they disagree with it, and to render verdicts based on conscience.”  According to this November 27, 2011 New York Times article by Benjamin Weiser, the prosecutors in the case explained the indictments by “arguing in a brief that his ‘advocacy of jury nullification, directed as it is to jurors, would be both criminal and without Constitutional protections no matter where it occurred.”  The prosecutors also wrote, “his speech is not protected by the First Amendment.”

In the Weiser article, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Christopher Dunn, is quoted as saying, “the government is dangerously wrong in claiming it can criminalize sidewalk advocacy supporting jury nullification.  Other than the extremely limited situations in which someone seeks to influence a known juror in a case, jury nullification advocacy is squarely protected by the First Amendment.”

John Richards, in this March 3, 2011 article, argues that “if jurors learned about, and formed their opinions on, jury nullification through the ordinary course of their lives, it’s obvious that there would be no problem with this [passing out jury nullification pamphlets near courthouses].  I don’t see why it should be any different if a juror happens to find out about jury nullification right before serving on a jury.  After all, courts have repeatedly held that jurors are allowed to engage in jury nullification without any repercussions, so it probably shouldn’t matter if they learned about the concept of nullification a month or an hour before serving on a jury.”

In the end, the charge against Julian Heicklen was dismissed.  One would hope that had the charge not been dropped and Heicklen had gone to trial, the jury of his peers would’ve acquitted him regardless of the proof the prosecution presented against him.

In today’s highly charged climate of political activism against war, police brutality, etcetera, combined with the prevalence of mandatory minimum sentences and increasingly over-reaching laws, the importance of knowing and understanding the right of US jurors to practice jury nullification cannot be understated.  It is critical that US citizens remember that the United States was founded on the principle of government that serves the people. A jury of peers, fully apprised of their rights and responsibilities as jurors, is one of the greatest protections of that principle.

How Sentence Enhancements Increase Plea Deals And Reduce Transparency in America’s Justice System

Author’s Note:  this article was originally published on over a year ago and may contain outdated information.  I am posting it here now because it is no longer available on that website (more about that here).  I will be posting a couple additional articles that I wrote for Newsbud that are also no longer available there.

Katie Aguilera

Most Americans today are aware of mandatory-minimum sentences in federal and state criminal sentencing guidelines and the often excessive punishments they place on offenders. What is perhaps less well known is the existence of sentence enhancements in the US judicial system. These are defined as “facts and circumstances that, if present in your case, allow the sentencing judge to increase or ‘enhance’ the sentence that normally applies to the crime.”

This means a sentence determined by sentencing guidelines or mandatory-minimum requirements can be increased, or enhanced, for reasons such as the use of a weapon while committing the crime, repeat offenses, or the age of the victim. The increase in sentence length is then decided upon solely by the judge in the case.

When offenders find themselves facing such large sentences, and their defense attorney is, from the start, likely to be far behind the prosecutors in knowing what the facts of the case are, it becomes all too easy for prosecutors to push for and achieve a plea deal. A deal that allows for a much shorter sentence is a powerful enticement to encourage a defendant to admit guilt, regardless of whether genuinely guilty or not.

Consider this from a 2015 Texas A&M Law Review report: “our criminal justice system…suffers from practices related to sentencing enhancements and the resulting wave of wrongful convictions by guilty plea.”

An astounding 97% of federal criminal cases are resolved in plea bargains, as of 2013, according to this article by Jed S. Rakoff, published in November 2014. He adds that this is mirrored in state felony cases, with most states showing an average of around 95% of cases ending with plea bargains. Rakoff writes, “in both the state and federal systems, the power to determine the terms of the plea bargain is, as a practical matter, lodged largely in the prosecutor, with the defense counsel having little to say, and the judge even less.”

The Sixth Amendment guarantees Americans the right to a public trial with an impartial jury. But, as Rakoff writes, “our criminal justice system is almost exclusively a system of plea bargaining, negotiated behind closed doors and with no judicial oversight.” No jury of peers to hear both sides of the story and weigh the arguments and evidence, or to decide on an appropriate sentence in the case of a guilty verdict.

One enhancement that carries significant weight and is quietly being used is the terrorism enhancement. This enhancement elevates a defendant’s criminal record to the highest level, therefore allowing a large increase in the recommended sentencing range. According to Shane Harris in this July 13, 2007 article, “the application of the terrorism enhancement has largely been overlooked by the media, legal scholars, Congress, and terrorism analysts.”

Harris writes in this article published the same day, “just figuring out how many times the government had sought the enhancement proved impossible–the U.S. Attorneys Office doesn’t track that figure. But I was able to determine that judges have applied the enhancement at least 57 times in the past eight years. I studied more than half those cases–35–and learned that prosecutors sought the enhancement more often against domestic defendants, as opposed to members of international terrorist groups.”

He adds that this enhancement most commonly targets offenders who weren’t religiously motivated and often “consciously avoided human casualties” in their attacks; that most were motivated by “political outrage, and specifically targeted government facilities.” His article highlights the case of Daniel McGowan who was arrested and charged on counts of arson and conspiracy in Oregon after starting a fire at a lumber mill in protest of logging operations. A terrorism enhancement was added in his case, and facing a life sentence, McGowan accepted a non-cooperation plea agreement and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

In fact, Harris points out, the terrorism enhancement can be applied simply because the judge in a case is convinced by the government that “the crime in question was aimed at the government and that it ‘involved, or was intended to promote’ a specific act of terrorism—even one that was never carried out.”

Consider the case of Ahmed Abassi, a student from Tunisia who, upon arriving in the US, was immediately caught up in an ongoing sting operation when he moved into an apartment wired with recording devices, hosted by an FBI undercover agent. Abassi was not one to hold back when talking about his dislike for the US. He was caught on tape discussing “the principle that America should be wiped off the face of the earth” and suggesting “putting bacteria in the air or water supply.”

However, when pushed to action, Abassi refused repeatedly. As Wendy Gillis points out in this March 12, 2015 article, the US federal prosecutor in the case, Michael Ferrera wrote in a court submission, “to be clear, there is no dispute that Abassi repeatedly and emphatically refused to participate in terrorist and violent plots.”

Abassi was arrested in the sting operation, and faced a terrorism enhancement in his case. He spent months in jail, and his attorney, US federal defender Sabrina Shroff said “it was apparent to her that Abassi had not provided the evidence the FBI needed to make its case, that he had not stepped over the line into active participation…Prosecutors told Shroff they would drop the terrorism enhancements if Abassi agreed to plead guilty to the charges that included putting false information on an application for a green card…”

According to Gillis, Abassi “plead guilty to two minor immigration offenses and was deported to Tunisia last fall.” Even though the terrorism enhancement was dropped, Abassi states, “I am still, in the eyes of the world, a terrorist.”

Plea deals are often sought to alleviate pressure on an already over-booked judicial system by keeping cases out of court, or to protect sources such as confidential informants, undercover officers, and cooperative witnesses. But the use of sentence enhancements in cases such as McGowan’s and Abassi’s raises the possibility of prosecution that is the result of a particular agenda. One possibility is that plea deals might be sought in conspiracy cases in order to put pressure on the other defendants allegedly involved in the crime. Another agenda might be making the case for increased measures to prevent acts of domestic terrorism. If the number of defendants charged with terrorism increase, raising fear within the American public, justification can be made for even greater loss of freedoms.

Achieving a plea deal to keep a case out of trial also allows for suppression of the evidence that would enter the public domain during a trial. Plea deals are negotiated out of the public’s view, with no scrutiny of evidence used against the defendant. This can allow questionable investigations, illegal evidence gathering, and an unknown number of innocent people being imprisoned without trial. Ultimately, a plea deal is an assured conviction as it eliminates the risk of a jury finding a reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt.

This fact certainly benefits the private prison industry since convictions usually come with a prison sentence. According to Nicole Goodkind in this article published August 6, 2013, “private prisons bring in about $3 billion in revenue annually.” Even though sentences are generally shortened by plea deals, the rising number of convictions due to these deals over the past decades still ensures a viable supply of prisoners to fill private prisons.

The value of this growing market isn’t lost on the prison industrial complex, and companies invested in this industry have taken steps to ensure it continues to grow. Two of the largest private prison owners, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO, have become influential lobbyists, spending large sums of money to effect policy that benefits the growing business of incarcerating people. Michael Cohen wrote in Washington Post on April 28, 2015, that Corrections Corporation of America stated in it’s 2014 annual report:

The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction of parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.”

As long as the federal government and large corporations continue to benefit from mandatory minimum sentencing and sentence enhancements, it seems unlikely that such policies will be changed. More laws will undoubtedly arise, creating even more crime, and America will continue to house the second largest prison population of countries with the most prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants.