National Roundup

Court tosses challenge to state’s habitual drunkard’ law

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Thursday rejected a challenge to a Virginia law that allows police to arrest people designated as “habitual drunkards” if they are caught with alcohol, finding that the state has a “legitimate interest” in discouraging alcohol abuse.

The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a lower court judge who dismissed the lawsuit last year. But one of the judges sharply criticized the law, saying it “criminalizes the otherwise legal behavior of individuals suffering from a serious illness.”

The Legal Aid Justice Center argued in its lawsuit that the law criminalizes addiction, punishes homeless alcoholics who have nowhere else to drink but in public and violates the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

But the court said the law “does not single out homeless alcoholics for different treatment.”

“We emphasize what we hope would be obvious: it would be unlawful for the state to simply round up “undesirable” persons based on their perceived status as addicts or drunkards. ... It is inimical to personal liberty to bring criminal charges on the basis of who someone is,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote for the panel.

“But Virginia has been ... careful to observe that line. It has prohibited individuals deemed at a higher risk of alcohol abuse from possessing or consuming alcohol. This includes not only habitual drunkards, but also people who have been convicted of drunk driving and those under twenty-one,” he added.

Judge Diana Gribbon Motz said she voted with the other judges to uphold the law, citing binding court precedent, but did so “with reluctance and regret.” Motz said the law “targets a group of vulnerable, sick people for special punishment based on otherwise legal behavior (drinking alcohol) that is an involuntary manifestation of their illness.”

The law, which dates back to the 1930s, makes it a crime for people designated as habitual drunkards to possess, consume or purchase alcohol, or even attempt to do so. In addition to up to a year in jail, violators face fines of up to $2,500.

State high court stays officer’s murder trial

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama Supreme Court on Wednesday stayed the trial of a Montgomery police officer facing murder charges related to the fatal shooting of an unarmed man in 2016.

Justices delayed the trial that was scheduled to begin Monday to consider defense appeals, including that the officer should be immune from prosecution because he was acting in self-defense. They are also arguing that the trial judge tainted the jury pool with his comments saying the officer’s pretrial testimony about the shooting wasn’t “credible.”

Police officer Aaron Cody Smith faces murder charges for the 2016 shooting of 58-year-old Greg Gunn. Smith shot Gunn multiple times during a confrontation that began after Smith stopped Gunn as Gunn was walking through his own neighborhood late at night.

Smith’s attorneys are appealing Montgomery Circuit Judge Greg Griffin’s decision denying Smith immunity from prosecution. Defense lawyers argue Smith should be immune under the state’s “stand your ground” law from prosecution because he was acting in self-defense.

Smith testified during an immunity hearing last month that he was “absolutely” in fear of his life when he shot Gunn. He said Gunn had resisted a frisk, ran from him and was “arming himself” with a six-foot (1.8-meter) painter’s pole from a front porch. Gunn said he first tried a stun gun and baton on Gunn before pulling his weapon.

Griffin, in denying the immunity request, said that he didn’t find Smith’s testimony about the shooting to be “credible.”

Defense attorneys have also asked for a new trial judge, saying Griffin’s comments tainted the jury pool in the case.

“We believe that these public comments greatly damage our chances to get a fair trial,” defense lawyer Mickey McDermott said Wednesday.

The Supreme Court told prosecutors to file their response to the defense appeals within two weeks.

The defense has previously tried unsuccessfully to get the trial moved from Montgomery, saying it would be impossible for Smith to receive a fair trial in the Deep South city where emotionally charged protests took place in the wake of the shooting of a black man by a white police officer.

Smith testified that he stopped Gunn that night because of a recent rash of burglaries in the district. Gunn was walking home from his weekly card game to the house he shared with his mother, his friends said.

Teen to serve 5 life terms for killing family

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — A 19-year-old Oklahoma man convicted of stabbing his parents and three siblings to death was sentenced Thursday to five life terms in prison to run consecutively, meaning that even with the possibility of parole he likely won’t ever be released.

Michael Bever was 16 years old in 2015 when prosecutors say he and his older brother, Robert Bever, killed their mother, father, two younger brothers and 5-year-old sister at their suburban Tulsa home. Two other sisters survived the attack.

Robert Bever, who was 18 at the time of the killings, pleaded guilty in 2016 and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Michael Bever was convicted in May of five counts of first-degree murder.

The jury also convicted Michael Bever of one count of assault and battery with intent to kill for wounding his then-13-year-old sister, who survived the attack. A 2-year-old sister was unharmed. On Thursday, Bever was sentenced to 28 years in prison for the assault on his 13-year-old sister, in addition to the five life sentences.

Defense attorneys argued that Michael Bever was led astray by his older brother, and Robert Bever testified that he wanted to take responsibility for all of the killings.

Prosecutors, who urged the judge to award a no-parole sentence, argued that Michael Bever was a willing participant in the gruesome killings of his family and that he should be locked up for the rest of his life. The sentencing Thursday effectively achieves that.

Life sentences are considered 45 years for parole purposes in Oklahoma, and inmates must serve 85 percent of each sentence before technically being eligible for parole. Calculated consecutively, Bever’s sentences total 253 years and he must serve 85 percent, or 215 years, before he reaches parole eligibility.

Bever’s defense attorneys said they plan to appeal his sentences.