Court Digest

Grandmother wants caseworkers deemed ‘reckless’

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The grandmother of a 2-year-old girl who was beaten and starved to death wants to file a wrongful death lawsuit against three caseworkers who oversaw the girl’s care, and has taken her case to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Glenara Bates weighed under 14 pounds — almost half the recommended weight for a 2-year-old girl—when she died in March 2015, and Hamilton County authorities said she was beaten by her parents, with visible belt and bite marks among other injuries.

Her father, Glen Bates, was sentenced to death the following year, but his conviction and sentence were later overturned after the state high court said a juror who made racially biased comments on a jury questionnaire should not have been seated in the trial of Bates, who is Black. A new trial is scheduled for January.

The girl’s mother was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

After Glenara’s death, the girl’s maternal grandmother, Desena Bradley, sued three Hamilton County caseworkers, saying they missed obvious signs of abuse. Three weeks after caseworkers declared the girl “happy and healthy” during a March 2015 visit, she was dead, according to Desena Bradley’s complaint in the Ohio Supreme Court.

“According to the coroner, Glenara had been brutalized for months on end before her death,” Rachel Bloomekatz, an attorney representing the grandmother, said in a November court filing. “But somehow, Glenara’s bruises, scars, bite marks, whip marks, and gaunt, under-fed body completely eluded the caseworkers.”

State law provides case workers immunity from such lawsuits unless they were found to have acted “in a wanton or reckless manner.” Lower courts rejected the grandmother’s claims, saying she hadn’t provided enough evidence that the immunity should be lifted.

Desena Bradley appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which scheduled oral arguments for Wednesday. A decision isn’t expected for months. It’s unclear from court records whether Desena Bradley stepped in on behalf of her granddaughter when she was alive.

Hamilton County officials wants the high court to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing the girl was killed by her parents and not by county workers. There’s no evidence the caseworkers acted maliciously or in bad faith, county attorneys said.

“Instead, a 20/20 hindsight analysis is employed, which is based on mere speculation that these caseworkers were aware that Glenara was being physically abused and with improper intent failed to intervene,” Hamilton County assistant prosecutors argued in a December court filing.

If such lawsuits are successful, caseworkers in the future would protect themselves by downplaying parental rights and removing children from their homes every time an abuse allegation was investigated, Hamilton County officials argued.

New Mexico
Justice who authored end to execution to retire

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil is retiring from the New Mexico Supreme Court at the end of June after more than eight years at the high court.

Vigil wrote the lead majority opinion in 2019 that set aside the death penalty for the final two inmates awaiting execution a decade after the state repealed capital punishment. She also authored recent opinions on utility regulation amid the state’s transition away from coal-fired power plants.

With Vigil on the bench, the Democrat-dominated court has largely turned away challenges to the governor’s emergency powers to restrict public gatherings and business operations during the coronavirus pandemic.

Announcing her departure, Vigil gave thanks to advocates involved in reforming and modernizing the judiciary.

“Equally rewarding has been the opportunity to work with countless professionals and volunteers to bring forth initiatives designed to improve our system of justice,” said Vigil, who joined the court in 2012 with an election victory of Justice Paul Kennedy, a Republican appointed by then-Gov. Susana Martinez.

Court administrators noted Vigil’s recent work in providing alternatives to juvenile detention and lobbying at the Legislature to improve legal representation for children and parents in abuse and neglect cases.

Vigil was high school valedictorian at St. Catherine’s Indian School in Santa Fe and is a graduate of the University of New Mexico law school. She owned and operated her own law office for years before becoming a district court judge in 2000.

Serving in the Santa Fe-based First Judicial District, she presided over 16,000 cases ranging from civil litigation to child abuse cases and administrative appeals.

The retirement triggers a vetting process for replacement candidates by a bipartisan nominating commission. Nominations are delivered to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to make an appointment.

Vigil’s successor must stand for partisan election in 2022. The winner of that election will confront a retention vote in 2024.

Court says ‘ghost gun’ plans can be posted online

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Plans for 3D-printed, self-assembled “ghost guns” can be posted online without U.S. State Department approval, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

A divided panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco reinstated a Trump administration order that permitted removal of the guns from the State Department’s Munitions List.

Listed weapons need State Department approval for export.

In 2015, federal courts applied the requirement to weapons posted online and intended for production on 3D printers, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

However, three years later the State Department under then-President Donald Trump settled a lawsuit by a 3D gun company and ordered their removal.

California, 21 other states and the District of Columbia sued and a federal judge in Seattle issued an injunction last year, saying that posting the designs without restrictions could put unregistered weapons into the hands of terrorists.

In overturning the injunction, the appellate panel found 2-1 that a 1989 federal law prohibits courts from overruling the State Department’s decision to add or remove a weapon from the Munitions List, the Chronicle reported.

Judge Robert Whaley, who cast the dissenting vote, argued that the potential increase in accessibility of ghost guns presents “a serious threat to public safety” and noted that the weapons have been linked to several mass shootings.

The latest occurred last Thursday in San Diego, where police said a man armed with a home-assembled, unregistered gun killed one person and wounded four others in unprovoked attacks.

Ghost gun parts can be purchased online or 3D printed from blueprints and the weapons put together at home.

Federal figures showed that nearly a third of guns seized in California in 2019 were ghost guns.

Such weapons generally lack serial numbers, which are used to trace them. California has a law requiring anyone building a homemade gun to get a serial number or identification mark from the state Department of Justice but there are concerns that the law isn’t being widely followed.

Man convicted of killing girl could be free in 4 years

SANT A CRUZ, Calif. (AP) — A 21-year-old California man who pleaded guilty to the murder of a neighbor girl in 2015 was sentenced as a juvenile Tuesday and could be released in as early as four years.

Adrian Gonzalez entered the plea on April 13 in Santa Cruz as soon as the case was transferred to juvenile court, the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported.

Gonzalez was 15 at the time 8-year-old Madyson “Maddy” Middleton was killed.

Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge John Salazar said he had no choice but to remove the case from the adult court system because of juvenile justice reforms, the Sentinel reported.

In adult court, Gonzalez could have faced two consecutive life prison sentences for murder, kidnapping, sexual penetration, two counts of lewd and lascivious behavior and intercourse with a minor, plus misdemeanor destruction of evidence.

In the juvenile system, Gonzalez will be eligible for release at age 25.

In 2017, Salazar found Gonzalez — then 18 — fit to be tried as an adult.

Then, state lawmakers in 2018 passed Senate Bill 1391, amending Prop 57 to bar courts from allowing minors younger than the age of 16 to be tried as adults. After subsequent legal challenges, the State Supreme Court upheld SB 1391’s constitutionality in a February ruling, clearing the way for Gonzalez’s case to proceed this month.

The state plans to stop admissions to youth facilities before July as it moves to end the program by 2023, the Sentinel reported.

New Mexico
State settles child care lawsuit, promises subsidies

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s early childhood department has settled a lawsuit with anti-poverty groups, cementing access to child care subsidies for low-income residents.

Under the agreement announced between the Early Childhood Education and Care Department last Thursday, households can qualify if they earn up to 200% more than the poverty line, which is income less than $52,400 for a family of four.

The lawsuit was initially filed in 2018 against the Children Youth and Families Department and former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, alleging that eligibility for child care subsidies was reduced without following the proper rulemaking process.

Three years later, the advocacy group OLÉ and the legal group New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty have settled with the administration of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who transferred child care authority to a new, cabinet-level department.

The groups say the newly created Early Childhood Education and Care Department even went beyond the demands of the lawsuit in making child care more accessible and affordable.

One requirement of the settlement is to give clearer notice to parents about program eligibility.

“ECECD is committed to ensuring that every eligible family in New Mexico can receive child care assistance in a fair, equitable, and transparent manner,” said ECECD Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky. “In the nine months since our department officially launched, we have worked to change regulations to make it easier for families to apply for assistance, waived all parent co-pays until July 2022, and continue to seek ways to expand eligibility for child care assistance for families in our state.”

Groginsky fought to keep child care centers open during the pandemic, even as unemployment often exceeded wages of the average worker. Child care facility owners credited her for keeping communication open by hosting a weekly phone call and offsetting low wages with direct cash bonuses to workers.

Resolution of the lawsuit is win for the nascent department in a challenging year that saw child care capacity fall due to distancing restrictions and demand spike because of school closures that persisted even as parents returned to their jobs.

Groginsky also expanded eligibility to parents who are graduate students.

“The department has sought out and listened carefully to parents, and the improvements to the program reflect that collaboration and the reality of working families,” said Tim Davis, an attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “The department has made changes that are truly groundbreaking and acknowledge that quality affordable child care is a bridge to opportunity for families and their children.”

Lawsuit: Deputy allowed homicide by not arresting armed man

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — The wife of a Spokane County man killed by his neighbor is suing Spokane County, alleging a sheriff’s deputy’s negligence allowed the killing to happen.

The lawsuit filed in March in Spokane County Superior Court says David Cholewinski, Benjamin Grosser’s neighbor, pointed a gun at several of Grosser’s employees following a road rage incident in May 2019, The Spokesman-Review reported.

A sheriff’s deputy, having probable cause to arrest Cholewinski for assault, left after enraging him further by warning that his guns could be taken away, according to the lawsuit.

Cholewinski then shot and killed 29-year-old Grosser, walked to his property and killed himself, deputies said.

The lawsuit’s narrative differs from initial descriptions from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. The county will not comment on pending litigation, said Mark Gregory, spokesperson for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.

In May 2019, Gregory said a deputy responded to the property and Cholewinksi was cited for unlawful display of a firearm, a gross misdemeanor. Gregory described Cholewinski and Grosser as being involved in an ongoing feud.

Meaghan Driscoll, an attorney representing Benjamin’s widow, Makayla Grosser, said the description of Cholewinski having a gun out but not pointed at people is, “directly contrary to witness statements taken by Spokane county sheriff’s office after the shooting.”