Record Number of People Exonerated in 2015 for Crimes They Didn’t Commit

Darrell CannonDarrell Cannon says police tortured him in 1983 and forced him to confess to a murder he didn’t commit. He spent more than 20 years in prison, but after a hearing on his tortured confession, prosecutors dismissed his case in 2004. He was released three years later.

The Netfilx hit true-crime series “Making a Murderer” leaves many people wondering: Just how common is the story of a wrongful conviction in America’s criminal justice system? Too common, according a new report that tracks exonerations.

Researchers found that 149 people were cleared in 2015 for crimes they didn’t commit — more than any other year in history, according to a report published Wednesday by the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School. By comparison, 139 people were exonerated in 2014. The number has risen most years since 2005, when 61 people were cleared of crimes they didn’t commit.

“Historically, this is a very large number for a type of event that we’d like to think almost never happens or just doesn’t happen,” Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan law professor who helped write the report, told The Huffington Post.

The men and women who were cleared last year had, on average, served 14.5 years in prison. Some had been on death row. Others were younger than 18 when they were convicted or had intellectual disabilities. All had been swept into a justice system that’s supposed to be based on the presumption of innocence, but failed.

The high number of exonerations shows widespread problems with the system and likely “points to a much larger number of false convictions” that haven’t been reversed, the report said.

“That there is an impetus at all to address the underlying problems that create false convictions is of course good news,” Gross said. “But the other side is equally important, probably more so: When you see this many exonerations, that means there is a steady underlying problem. We now know that this happens on a regular basis.”

Here are some patterns the organization found in 2015 exonerations:

Official Misconduct

About 40 percent of the 2015 exonerations involved official misconduct, a record. About 75 percent of the homicide exonerations involved misconduct.

The wrongful conviction of Debra Milke, detailed in the report, was among them. Authorities accused Milke of conspiring with two men who shot her son in the back of the head to keep him from her ex-husband and to cash in on an insurance policy. Milke’s conviction was built largely on the testimony of now-retired Phoenix police Detective Armando Saldate Jr., who said Milke offered him sex during questioning and confessed to the murder. The interrogation wasn’t recorded, and Milke’s defense argued Saldate had a long history of misconduct that the state had concealed. In multiple other cases, the defense lawyers said, judges had tossed out confessions or indictments because Saldate had lied or violated defendants’ rights.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Milke’s attorneys and overturned her conviction. Milke had always maintained her innocence. She spent 26 years in prison — 22 on death row — before she was exonerated.

Debra Milke 2
Debra Milke, who spent more than two decades on death row for the alleged killing of her 4-year old son(Reuters)

False Confessions

Almost 20 percent of exonerations in 2015 were for convictions based on false confessions — a record. Those cases overwhelmingly were homicides involving defendants who were under 18, intellectually disabled, or both.

Bobby Johnson, of New Haven, Connecticut, was 16 years old with an IQ of 69 — just below the threshold for intellectual disability — without a parent or guardian present when he confessed to two detectives that he murdered 70-year-old Herbert Fields.

Johnson received a 38-year sentence in 2007. But in 2015, a new defense attorney argued that Johnson’s confession was coerced by the detectives, who lied that they had evidence linking him to the murder that would subject him to the death penalty. The lawyer also argued police ignored evidence that the murder was linked to two other killings committed by others. Nine years after his conviction, Johnson was exonerated and set free.

In a separate analysis of hundreds of cases since 1989, false confessions were found to be a leading cause of wrongful convictions, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit dedicated to correcting wrongful convictions. Overall, about 31 percent of wrongful conviction cases included a false confession. For homicides, that number balloons to 63 percent.

Bobby JohnsonSurrounded by his family, Bobby Johnson addresses the media outside of Superior Court in New Haven, Friday, Sept. 4, 2015. Johnson spent nine years in prison for a 2006 killing his lawyer says he didn’t commit. Prosecutors filed a motion asking a judge to set aside Johnson’s conviction “in the interest of justice and fair play.” (Arnold Gold / New Haven Register via AP)

Guilty Pleas

An innocent person pleading guilty to a crime they didn’t commit may seem unfathomable. But the National Registry of Exonerations said the number of false guilty pleas has been increasing for seven years, and has risen sharply in the past two years.

More than 40 percent of people exonerated in 2015 were convicted based on guilty pleas made by an innocent defendant, a record. The majority of these cases involved drugs. Some were homicide cases.

“Many people, including judges, take comfort in knowing that an overwhelming number of criminal cases are resolved by guilty plea rather than trial,” Judge Alex Kozinski, of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote last year in a paper critiquing the criminal justice system. But Kozinski said this attitude fails to account for issues surrounding plea deals that include the trend of bringing multiple counts for a single crime, the “creativity” of prosecutors in “hatching up criminal cases where no crime exits” and the general “overcriminalization of virtually every aspect of American life.”

Plea bargains can be an efficient way to resolve cases without draining taxpayer resources. They aren’t always bad. But a 2013 Human Rights Watch study found the U.S. system often creates situations where a federal prosecutor will “strong-arm” a defendant into a plea deal. And the deep fear of a harsh sentence — one “so excessively severe, they take your breath away,” in the words of Judge John Gleeson of the Eastern District of New York — can lead a defendant to plead guilty in order to obtain a shorter prison term, even if they’re accused wrongfully.

One example of plea deal complexities is the case of Shawn Whirl, who pleaded guilty to the first-degree murder of Chicago cab driver Billy Williams in 1991, according to the report.

Whirl’s defense argued he was being chased by an assailant the day he wound up in the back of Williams’ cab. The same assailant later killed Williams in retaliation for rescuing Whirl, the lawyers said. Whirl confessed to the crime, but said it was because he was tortured by a Chicago cop. When prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty, Whirl agreed to plead guilty to murder and armed robbery to save his life — even though he said in court on the day he received a 60-year sentence that he was innocent.

It wasn’t until 2012 that the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, formed to investigate claims of torture against Chicago police, found that Whirl had indeed been tortured by a subordinate of Jon Burge — an ex-Chicago cop who led a police torture ring that used electrical shock, burnings and beatings on more than 200 black men.

Whirl was cleared of all charges on Oct. 13 and freed.

In May 2015, the Chicago City Council approved a $5.5 million reparations fund for victims of police torture. More than 200 people, most of them African-American, were tortured under the reign of Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge from 1972 to 1991. Tactics included electric shocks and suffocation.

No Crime Was Actually Committed

In about half of the exonerations in 2015, no crime was actually ever committed by the people put behind bars — a record, according to the report. Most of these cases involved drugs. Some included homicide or arson.

The report details the 1981 conviction of Raymond Mora, William Vasquez and Amaury Villalobo on six counts of murder for starting a fire in a Brooklyn, New York, building that killed a mother and her five children. The convictions were based on the building owner’s account that she saw the men leaving shortly before the fire, and a fire marshal’s testimony that the blaze had multiple origin points and was started with accelerants — signs of arson.

Each of the men’s wives gave alibi testimony that the men weren’t near the building when the fire started. All three men were convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life.

Mora died in prison in 1989. Vasquez lost his eyesight due to untreated glaucoma, according to the report. In 2012, Vasquez and Villalobos were released on parole, and Villalobos sought the help of a legal clinic. Records from the case were reexamined and, using modern science, John Lentini, an arson expert, concluded that the original fire marshal’s interpretation of the evidence was mistaken, based on science that has since been disproven. This kind of expert testimony has likely resulted in “numerous” wrongful convictions, Lentini said.

Moreover, the building owner, just before she died, admitted lying about seeing the three men leaving the building at the time of the fire. She also hid an insurance settlement.

After this new evidence was presented, the convictions of all three men were vacated in December.

ellerin-bernhard-villalobosNew York Law School graduate Marissa Ellerin, left, and New York Law School professor Adele Bernhard with Amaury Villalobos, center, who was exonerated. (New York Law Journal)

Flawed Forensic Evidence

Many of last year’s exonerations involved flawed or invalid forensic evidence. According to the Innocence Project, improper forensic science is a leading cause of wrongful conviction.

Too often, the group says, forensic experts speculate when they testify, asserting conclusions that stretch the science. Further, some forensic techniques aren’t backed by research, but are nevertheless presented to juries as fact. And there are honest mistakes. The FBI has admitted that from 1972 to 1999, almost every examiner in the bureau’s elite forensics unit gave flawed testimony in nearly every trial in which they presented evidence.

Forensic fields like ballistics, bloodstain pattern identification and footprint and tire print analysis, have been “long accepted by the courts as largely infallible,” Kozinski said in his paper, arguing that the techniques should be viewed with skepticism.

Faulty Eyewitness Identification

False identifications of innocent people happened in several cases the exoneration registry report outlined.

The Innocence Project says eyewitness misidentification of a suspect plays a role in more than 70 percent of convictions that are later overturned through DNA evidence. Hundreds of studies have shown that eyewitness identification is frequently inaccurate and that human memories are not reliable, especially with traditional identification procedures. While simple reforms have been proposed, only about 14 U.S. states have implemented them, according to Innocence Project.

Kozinski called for states to adopt rigorous procedures for witness identification.

How Many More Wrongful Convictions?


There’s no clear data on how many innocent people have been wrongfully convicted. The Innocence Project, citing multiple studies, estimates from 2 percent to 5 percent of prisoners are actually innocent. The U.S., which leads the world in incarceration of its citizens, has approximately 2 million people behind bars. That means a wrongful conviction rate of 1 percent would translate to 20,000 people punished for crimes they didn’t commit. On death row, 1 in 25 are likely innocent, according to a recent study.

“Because these things happen regularly, we should be more open-minded about reconsidering the guilt of convicted defendants when substantial new evidence emerges after conviction,” Gross said. “The impulse to say: ‘It’s over, I don’t want to think about it anymore’ is very strong. However, there are cracks in that position.”

Reprint: A Record Number Of People Were Exonerated In 2015 For Crimes They Didn’t Commit -By Matt Ferner | Huffington Post

Florida Teen Beaten, Mutilated & Raped In Prison Initiation Ritual

A minor at the Sumter Correctional Institution in Florida was brutally beaten and raped as part of a prison initiation ritual that was ignored by a guard, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Florida Institutional Legal Services Project of Florida Legal Services.

Jail Cell

The minor, R.W., endured a beating by more than six other youths as part of an initiation rite known as a “test of heart,” while a prison guard failed to come to his aid. R.W. was cut multiple times with sharpened barbed wire, choked until unconscious and raped with a broomstick.

“R.W. suffered a nightmare at Sumter,” said Miriam Haskell, SPLC attorney. “Unfortunately, his experience is not unique. A culture of brutality persists within the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC), and what R.W. endured is just another example of why children do not belong in the adult prison system.”

Bruce A. Kiser Jr., the officer on duty at the time and defendant in the lawsuit, was stationed immediately in front of the area where the attack occurred for the very purpose of supervising the youths involved, according to the suit. Yet he did nothing to stop the beating, and never reported the attack. An investigation by the FDOC’s Office of the Inspector General noted Kiser’s inaction and recommended the matter be reviewed for possible administrative action. Despite that recommendation – and FDOC Secretary Julie Jones’ commitment to a “new accountability” – Kiser remains employed.

Numerous complaints related to violence and tests of heart have been brought to the attention of the FDOC, yet this culture of brutality continues. Last month, the department agreed to pay $700,000 to settle a lawsuit by a youth who was permanently injured in a test of heart at Lancaster Correctional Institution. In 2014, a youth died from injuries reportedly sustained in a similar attack.

Children as young as 14 are incarcerated in Florida’s youthful offender prisons, which are part of the adult prison system and among the most brutal facilities in the state. On any given day there are approximately 140 minors incarcerated in Florida prisons. The state incarcerates more children in adult prisons than any other state in the country, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Most were tried as adults as a result of “direct file,” a procedure in which prosecutors transfer a child’s juvenile charges to adult criminal court without any judicial oversight.

Advocates around the state are calling on the Florida Legislature to keep more children out of adult prison by requiring that a judge – not just a prosecutor – determine whether a case should be tried in adult court.

The filing of R.W.’s lawsuit coincides with Children’s Week at the Florida Legislature. During this week, children and youth advocates from around the state gather in Tallahassee to raise critical issues affecting Florida’s children, including education, health, safety and abuse prevention.

“We need more accountability at all levels,” said Karen Garcia whose son, Bryce, was released last year from a youthful offender prison. “My son told me stories about inhumane treatment, getting hit by guards, mental abuse and guards opening closets to let kids fight. Whenever I raised these concerns, I got the runaround, from classification officers up to the warden.”

In October, the SPLC and other advocates sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice calling on the federal government to investigate horrific conditions in Florida prisons, including for incarcerated youth.

Reprint: SPLC Suit: Florida Teen Raped, Beaten in Prison Initiation Ritual

Health & Human Rights: Toxic Water in Flint, Michigan

Flint Water

Flint resident Tony Palladino Jr.’s sign reads “Synder’s dirty little secret” atop a crossed out city of Flint on the map on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016 outside of the Capitol in Lansing, Mich., in protest against Gov. Rick Snyder, asking for his resignation and arrest in relation to Flint’s water crisis. (Photo: Jake May/The Flint via AP)

The city of Flint, Mich., is in the midst of a water crisis several years in the making. The city opted out of Detroit’s water supply and began drawing water from the Flint River in April 2014, part of a cost-saving move. Eighteen months later, in the fall of 2015, researchers discovered that the proportion of children with above-average lead levels in their blood had doubled.

The city reconnected to Detroit’s water system in October, but the damage was done. Water from the Flint River was found to be highly corrosive to the lead pipes still used in some parts of the city. Even though Flint River water no longer flows through the city’s pipes, it’s unclear how long those pipes will continue to leach unsafe levels of lead into the tap water supply. Experts currently say the water is safe for bathing, but not drinking.

A group of Virginia Tech researchers who sampled the water in 271 Flint homes last summer found some contained lead levels high enough to meet the EPA’s definition of “toxic waste.”

The researchers posted their test results online, which are represented graphically below with other visuals to help understand just how high above normal Flint’s lead levels really were.

Lead in water is measured in terms of parts per billion (ppb). If a test comes back with lead levels higher than 15 ppb, the EPA recommends that homeowners and municipalities take steps to reduce that level, like updating pipes and putting anti-corrosive elements in the water when appropriate.

But 15 ppb is a regulatory measure, not a public health one. Researchers stress that there is no 100 percent “safe” level of lead in drinking water, only acceptable levels. Even levels as low as 5 ppb can be a cause for concern, according to the group studying Flint’s water.

So let’s start with Flint’s neighboring cities. At the city level, public health officials are most concerned with the 90th percentile level of lead exposure in homes they test — that is, 90 percent of homes will have a lead level below this threshold, while 10 percent will register above it.

Forty-five minutes away from Flint in Troy, Mich., the 90th percentile level for lead in 2013 was 1.1 parts per billion. Not too shabby at all. In the graphics that follow, each splotch represents 1 part per billion. The splotches aren’t proportionally scaled to the cups — 1 part per billion is way too small to be visualized at this level. But all of the following graphics are scaled proportionally to each other, to give an impression of relative lead levels.

Toxic 1

In Detroit, the water supply Flint had previously been connected to, the 90th percentile reading was 2.3 parts per billion — still highly acceptable.

Toxic 2

Here’s an illustration of water at the 5 parts per billion level. This is below the borderline for EPA acceptability, but the team of researchers studying Flint’s water say that levels this high can be a cause for concern, particularly for young children.

Toxic 3

Now things get interesting. Here’s a glass illustrating the 90th percentile reading among the 271 Flint homes tested by researchers last summer:

Toxic 4

At 27 parts per billion, it’s five times as high as the level of concern, and nearly twice as high as the EPA’s already-generous guidelines. According to the researchers who ran these tests, the health effects of lead levels this high “can include high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems, kidney damage and memory and neurological problems.”

Recall, though, that 10 percent of the homes in the sample had lead levels even higher than this. Here’s the highest lead reading in that sample, from a home in the city’s 8th Ward:

Toxic 5

That’s more than 10 times the EPA limit. It’s 30 times higher than the 5 ppb reading that can indicate unsafe lead amounts.

But that 158 ppb reading is far from the worst one that turned up in Flint, unfortunately. In the spring of 2015, city officials tested water in the home of LeeAnne Walters, a stay-at-home mother of four and a Navy wife. They got a reading of 397 ppb, an alarmingly high number.

But it was even worse than that. Virginia Tech’s team went to Walters’ house to verify those numbers later in the year. They were concerned that the city tested water in a way that was almost guaranteed to minimize lead readings: They flushed the water for several minutes before taking a sample, which often washes away a percentage of lead contaminants. They also made residents collect water at a very low flow rate, which they knew also tended to be associated with lower readings.

So the Virginia Tech researchers took 30 different readings at various flow levels. What they found shocked them: The lowest reading they obtained was around 200 ppb, already ridiculously high. But more than half of the readings came in at more than 1,000 ppb. Some came in above 5,000 — the level at which EPA considers the water to be “toxic waste.”

The highest reading registered at 13,000 ppb.

Toxic 6

The professor who conducted the sampling, Dr. Marc Edwards, was in “disbelief.”

“We had never seen such sustained high levels of lead in 25 years of work,” he said.

According to Edwards, the team retested the water with extra quality controls and assurance checks, and obtained the exact same results.

You can check out their description of the testing at the website they set up for their water study. It includes unsettling photos of LeeAnne Walters’ tap water containing rust and metal particles large enough to be seen with the naked eye.

The Walters family had stopped drinking the water a long time ago, according to the Virginia Tech team. But still, the lead levels were too high. One of Walters’ 4-year-old sons was diagnosed with lead poisoning.

It appears that the city of Flint and state of Michigan have finally started to take the water problem seriously. Again, they reconnected the city to Detroit’s supply back in October, but the water remains unsafe to drink.

In recent days the National Guard was activated to help distribute drinking water to the city’s residents. And in yet another unsettling wrinkle in Flint’s saga, 87 cases of Legionnaire’s Disease, 10 fatal, have been diagnosed in the city since June. It’s not yet clear whether that outbreak is linked to the water.

Reprint: This Is How Toxic Flint’s Water Really Is By Christopher Ingraham | Washington Post

Recommended: Who Poisoned Flint, Michigan -By Stephen Rodrick | The Rollingstone

Michael Moore: Flint Poisoning Is a ‘Racial Crime’ -By Michael Moore | TIME

Corrosive Impact: Leaded Water and One Flint Family’s Toxic Nightmare -By Curt Guyette | ACLU Michigan Democracy Watch Blog

A Timeline of the Flint Water Crisis

Flint Water
Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards shows the difference in water quality between Detroit and Flint after testing, giving evidence after more than 270 samples were sent in from Flint that show high levels of lead during a news conference on Sept. 15, 2015 outside of City Hall in downtown Flint, Mich. (Photo: Jake May—The Flint

The Flint water crisis is an ongoing drinking water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, in the United States.

After the change in source from treated Lake Huron water (via Detroit) to the Flint River, the city’s drinking water had a series of problems that culminated with lead contamination, creating a serious public health danger. The corrosive Flint River water caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply, causing extremely elevated levels of lead. As a result, between 6,000 and 12,000 residents had severely high levels of lead in the blood and experienced a range of serious health problems. The water change is also a possible cause of an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the county that has killed 10 people and affected another 77.

On November 13, 2015, four families filed a federal class action lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Detroit against Governor Rick Snyder and thirteen other city and state officials, and three separate people filed a similar suit in state court two months later, and three more lawsuits were filed after that. Separately, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan and the Michigan Attorney General’s office opened investigations. On January 5, 2016, the city was declared to be in a state of emergency by the Governor of Michigan, before President Obama declared the crisis as a federal state of emergency, authorizing additional help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security less than two weeks later.

Four government officials—one from the City of Flint, two from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and one from the Environmental Protection Agency—resigned over the mishandling of the crisis, and Snyder issued an apology to citizens, while promising money to Flint for medical care and infrastructure upgrades.

Here is a timeline of key events — a road map of poor decisions, missed opportunities and broken promises — from the 2013 decision to switch water sources to Gov. Rick Snyder admitting this week that the mess could turn out to be his Hurricane Katrina.


April 16: Flint, newly under the control of an emergency manager who answers to the governor, inks an agreement to stop buying water from Detroit and join a new water authority that will get water from Lake Huron, a deal that is expected to save millions. Although it will be three years before the new water source is available, Detroit says it will stop selling water to Flint in a year.


April 25: The city begins using water from the Flint River as a stopgap until the pipeline from Lake Huron can be completed. As officials raise glasses of water in celebration, Mayor Dayne Walling hails it as a “historic moment.” He says “the water quality speaks for itself,” and the state Department of Environmental Quality says residents shouldn’t notice any difference.

May: Complaints about the new water start coming in. “It’s just weird,” resident Bethany Hazard tells the Flint Journal, referring to the murky, foamy quality of the H2O coming from her taps. The state DEQ says analysis of the water shows it meets state standards.

June 12: City officials reveal they are treating the water with lime in response to complaints, but the mayor pooh-poohs concerns about safety. “I think people are wasting their precious money buying bottled water,” he tells the Flint Journal.

Aug. 15: A boil advisory for part of the city is issued after water tests positive for e.coli bacteria. A second advisory will be issued just weeks later.

Oct. 13: After the General Motors plant in Flint refuses to use the river water because it’s rusting car parts, the city arranges for the company to tap into a different water line. The residents of Flint still have to drink the river water.


Jan. 4: The city announces that Flint’s water contains such a high level of trihalomethanes — a disinfectant byproduct — that it’s in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Officials say residents with normal immune systems have nothing to worry about. “Is water from the Flint River safe to drink? Yes,” a city website declares.

Jan. 13: Protesters rally outside City Hall to demand a return to Detroit’s supply and lower bills. Hundreds turn out at a forum, some complaining of rashes on children. Detroit offered to let Flint switch back, but the city’s emergency manager says it would cost too much.

Jan. 20: Environmental activist Erin Brockovich weighs in, slamming officials on Facebook for making “excuses” for the bad water.

Feb. 18: A consultant hired by the city for $40,000 to investigate the water quality says it contains sediment and is discolored but is safe to drink.

Feb. 26: A manager at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tells Michigan officials that the chemistry of the river water means contaminants from pipes, including lead, are leaching into the water system.

April 2: As the city is forced to tell customers that it has flunked the Safe Drinking Water Act again because of the disinfectants, Mayor Walling posts a tweet: “(My) family and I drink and use the Flint water everyday, at home, work, and schools.”

June 5: Activists file suit in attempt to stop the city from using river water. The city gets it moved to federal court, where a judge denies a preliminary injunction.

June 24: EPA water expert Miguel del Toral sends internal memo to his bosses flagging Flint’s failure to use chemicals to control corrosion, which can cause lead to leach from pipes into drinking water. The warning was not made public until the ACLU leaked a copy of the memo weeks later.

July 22: Gov. Rick Snyder’s chief of staff says in an email to the state Health Department that he believes the Flint residents are “concerned and rightfully so” about lead in the water. “These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight),” he says. The agency says the data shows no increase in lead poisoning.

July 28: An epidemiologist for the state health department identifies a three-month spike in lead levels in Flint during the previous summer, after the switch to river water. She recommends further investigation in an email to her bosses, but they decide it was a seasonal anomaly.

Aug. 31: Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards, who is leading students in testing Flint water, reports that 42 percent of 120 samples had elevated lead levels, and 20 percent had levels that require water systems to take action. Edwards explains that the water from the river is “very corrosive” and is leaching lead from plumbing in the city’s homes.

Sept. 24: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Hurley Children’s Hospital, says a comparison a blood samples she undertook shows a jump in lead poisoning in Flint’s children. State officials told the Detroit Free Press their own samples don’t show the same increase.

Oct. 1: State officials announce that a new analysis of their data shows Hanna-Attisha is correct: more children have lead in their blood since the water switch.

Oct. 2: Gov. Snyder announces the state will buy water filters and test lead in schools. Within a week, he will recommend that Flint start using water from Detroit, and $6 million to help the city switch back is eventually approved.

Oct. 16: Flint switches back to Detroit water.

Nov. 3: Karen Weaver, who ran for mayor on a promise of solving the water crisis, is elected over Walling.


Tap water in Flint’s hospital on October 16 (Photo:Joyca Zhu/Flint Water Study)


Jan. 5: Snyder declares a state of emergency in Flint. The Department of Justice opens an investigation into the debacle.

Jan. 12: Under increasing fire, Snyder calls out the National Guard to distribute bottled water and filters in Flint.

Jan. 13: The crisis expands to include Legionnaires’ disease as officials reveal a spike in cases, including 10 deaths, after the city started using river water.

Jan. 15: The Michigan attorney general opens an investigation to see if any laws were broken in the handling of the crisis. A state legislator points out that he asked the AG to launch a probe three months earlier and was rebuffed.

Jan. 16: President Barack Obama signs an emergency declaration and orders federal aid for Flint, two days after a request from Snyder.

Jan. 17: Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders focus on Flint and criticize Snyder during a televised debate.

Jan. 18: Snyder admits in an interview with the National Journal that Flint could be his Hurricane Katrina. “It’s a disaster,” he concedes.



Bad Decisions, Broken Promises: A Timeline of the Flint Water Crisis by Hannah Rappleye, Lisa Riordan Seville, and Tracy Connor | NBC News

❋ Events That Led to Flint’s Water Crisis by Jeremy C.F. Lin, Jean Rutter, and Haeyoun Park | New York Times

 The Flint Water Crisis, Explained in 3 Minutes | VOX

❋ Undrinkable: The Flint Water Emergency | DTV News


Digital DNA – Bloodlines and the Family of Mankind | Toni Scott

DNA Toni Scott
Toni Scott: DNA – BLOODLINES AND THE FAMILY OF MANKIND, Dame Jillian Sackler International Artists Exhibition Program at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology at Peking University in Beijing, China (Photo: Lintao Zhang / Getty Images)

The exhibition “DNA, Bloodlines and the Family of Mankind” by U.S.-based contemporary artist Toni Scott is her first major solo exhibition in China.

Scott hopes that her works will play a role in bridging communication and exchanges, and promoting harmonious relationships between different peoples and countries. The installation works at the exhibit come from her recent “Bloodlines” series, and indulge audiences in an atmosphere of dark shadows, back-lit portraits, and monumental sculptures.

What began as a personal odyssey 12 years ago, an autobiography of sorts based on DNA findings, handed-down family anecdotes, and memorabilia exhibited in multiple venues (including a three-year solo at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles), has become more epic in scope over time. Expanded here into an overview of the history of African Americans and Native Americans and their relationship to the peoples of Asia and Africa, Scott explores how far-flung, disparate cultures are both joined and severed. In prehistory, mankind moved from Africa to Asia and finally to America, resulting in the same DNA legacy on all three continents.

Scott herself is mixed-race, and partly descended from the Muscogee Native American people, who have a population of 70,000.

The heart of the exhibition is an approximately 7.3-metre (24-foot) long, illuminated slave ship suspended from the gallery ceiling, just above the heads of the viewers, constructed from 500 translucent images of both family members and faces taken from the Library of Congress‘ archival collections, blue-tinted as if they had been stained by ocean waves. The portraits are an attempt to restore the individuality of the countless, all too often anonymous souls who were forcibly uprooted from their homes, transformed into chattel sentenced to hard labour in the Americas.

Another highlight is the to-scale tipi erected in the courtyard (there is a smaller one in the entrance space), a contested icon that Scott installed to represent the Native American side of her heritage (she is a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation), the exterior emblazoned with traditional designs and symbolic colours, the interior inscribed with the names of all the tribes that existed in North America, officially designated as 527 as of this July by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The structures of both the tents are made with bamboos produced in China, indicating an integration of Chinese and Native Americans cultures.

Additionally, there are enormous banners with figures (often of the artist) emblematic of significant historical moments, written text on two walls that is a lament for an abducted child, genealogical charts tracing Scott’s maternal and paternal lineage, and documentation and images that compare Asians, Africans and Native Americans in a blend of the personal, the ethnographic and sociological, the historical and the poetic, proceeding from the specific to the general. Ultimately, Bloodlines celebrates not only the will to survive but also the “human spirit”, as Scott said, in all its magnificent diversity.  As well, it celebrates our surprising homogeneity, in which only a few degrees of separation stand between us all.

Sources: Women of China & Vimeo

Toni Scott graduated in from University of Southern California, and took training at the famed Otis College of Art and Design. She is known for creating works by integrating different art forms, including painting, sculpture, photography, and multimedia.

Her “Bloodlines” installation art exhibition on the history of American slavery and her ancestors toured the U.S., and her solo exhibition at the California African American Museum ran for three years. Her works have been collected by organizations and individuals across the world. Scott’s diverse lineage motivated her to focus on the history and culture of difference races as well as her own family history.

Upcoming Exhibition
Changzhou, Museum
Changzhou, Jiangsu Sheng, China
January 29 to March 29, 2016

Immediate Past Exhibition:

Arthur M Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology
Dame Jillian Sackler International Artists Exhibition Program
Peking University
4 July – 27 September 2015

Dreading 18: Girls on Death Row in Iran

Mahsa is 17. She fell in love with a boy and intended to marry him, but her father was against the marriage. One day she had an argument with her father, got angry, and killed him with a kitchen knife. Mahsa’s brothers are requesting the death penalty for her (Image credit: Sadegh Souri)

According to Iranian law, the age when girls are held accountable for criminal punishment is nine years old, while international conventions have banned the death penalty for persons under 18. In Iran, the death penalty for children is used for crimes such as murder, drug trafficking, and armed robbery.

Pursuant to the passing of new laws in recent years, the Iranian Judiciary System detains children in Juvenile Delinquents Correction Centers after their death sentence verdict, and a large number of them are hanged upon reaching age 18.

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Sadegh Souri, a documentary winner at the 2015 Lens Culture Visual Storytelling Awards, has photographed girls in the harsh conditions of juvenile detention – many of whom are marking time until they turn 18, when their executions will be carried out.

Recommended: Growing Up on Death Row: The Death Penalty and Juvenile Offenders in Iran | Amnesty International (Report)

Sadegh Souri was born in 1985 in Nahavand City, Hamedan Province in Iran. He has a BA in Photography and Cinematography from the University of Applied Science and Technology. He started his art activity in 2005 and then achieved four solo exhibitions in 2009, 2011, 2012.

He is a member of:
✤ Iranian Youth Cinema Society, Zahedan Branch
✤ National Iranian Photographers’ Society
✤ Iranian Photojournalists Association
✤ Fédération Internationale de l’Art Photographique

16 Human Rights Causes to Support in 2016

Happy New Year!

May 2016 bring you health, happiness, prosperity and a renewed sense of purpose.

Today’s post continues a tradition I started two years ago, whereby I dedicate the first post of the new year to noteworthy organizations, causes, and individuals committed to the advancement of human rights or the protection of Mother Earth. The criteria for this year’s list is the same as it was last year. Keep in mind that the numbers are intended only as placeholders and counters. I do not rank or otherwise organize the list because I think they’re all great!

Of course, the list below could be twice as long and each additional entry would be completely justified and equally deserving of recognition. But don’t fret, in about 365 days I’ll pay tribute to 17 more organizations. Feel free to leave a comment if you work for or know about an organization or person that deserves recognition. Now, and without further ado…

My 16 for 2016
Yazda1. Yazda, an International Yazidi Organization, is a US-based, 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization, established to support the Yazidi ethno-religious minority group in the United States and the Yazidi homeland in northern Iraq and northeastern Syria. Yazda’s mission is to support the Yazidi community in the aftermath of the August 2014 genocide, committed by the so-called “Islamic State”, that resulted in the death of three to five thousand civilians; abduction of five to seven thousand, mostly women and children; and the displacement of 400,000 people from the Yazidi homelands in Sinjar, the Nineveh plain, and Syria.


Better Shelter2. Better Shelter is a social enterprise that develops and provides innovative housing solutions for persons displaced by armed conflicts and natural disasters. It is the result of a unique collaboration between the IKEA Foundation and the UNHCR, which placed an order for 10,000 units. Better Shelter was developed by the Housing for All Foundation, a non-profit foundation established by the IKEA Foundation. With a safe and functional temporary shelter delivered in flat packs, Better Shelter together with the UNHCR and the IKEA Foundation wants to bring dignity and safety to the millions of refugees fleeing violence, armed conflict, persecution and natural disasters. This unique partnership has introduced an innovative approach to designing for refugees and putting their needs at the heart of the development process.


Access Now 23. Access Now is an international non-profit, human rights, public policy, and advocacy group dedicated to an open and free Internet. It defends and extends the digital rights of users at risk around the world by combining innovative policy, user engagement, and direct technical support. They fight for open and secure communications for all. The nonprofit focuses on five areas of concerns: (1) Business & Human Rights (urges companies to make their practices more transparent, accountable, and rights-respecting), (2) Digital Security (work to ensure that your online activities are private, safe, and secure), (3) Freedom of Expression (fight for your right to speak freely, which is critical for demonstrating dissent, guaranteeing a free press, and defending human rights), (4) Net Discrimination (fight for a free and open internet, advocating for the Net Neutrality principle that internet access should be offered to everyone on a nondiscriminatory basis, without favoring certain websites, applications, or services), and (5) Privacy (defend your right to privacy, the cornerstone for human rights in the digital age).


Lucky Iron Fish

4. The Lucky Iron Fish Project was created in 2008 by Canadian health workers in Cambodia to provide dietary supplementation of iron to individuals living in poverty affected by iron-deficiency anaemia. The fish-shaped cast iron ingots are placed in a pot of boiling water to leach elemental iron into the water and food. The project became a company in 2012 to develop the iron fish on a larger scale, promote them among rural areas, and distribute them to non-governmental organization partners. It is a carefully formulated health innovation that has been shown to substantially reduce instances of iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia. As a certified B-Corp, Lucky Fish Iron is committed to doing business in a socially responsible way.


Pencils of Promise5. Pencils of Promise, also known as PoP for short, is a nonprofit organization that builds schools and increases educational opportunities in the developing world. Pencils of Promise was founded by Adam Braun in October 2008. It is a 501(c)(3) organization with education programs in Laos, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Ghana. The name comes from an incident in India when Braun was visiting the country. He asked a poor street child what he wished to have most of all. The boy answered: “a pencil”, so Braun gave him his pen, hence the name of the charity. Realizing how important education was in many developing countries, Braun visited more than 50 countries distributing pencils to children wherever he went. In October 2008, he established the charity with the aim of providing quality education to children in some of the most underserved countries around the world. As of January 2015, the charity has served over 31,000 students, built 266 schools and has provided 24.3 million education hours. PoP believes every child should have access to quality education. They create schools, programs and global communities around the common goal of education for all. 100% of online donations go to PoP programs.


No Kid Hungry6. The No Kid Hungry campaign connects kids in need with nutritious food and teaches their families how to cook healthy, affordable meals. The campaign also engages the public to make ending child hunger a national priority. How do they do it? By connecting kids to effective nutrition programs like school breakfast and summer meals using a network made up of private citizens, government officials, business leaders, and others providing innovative hunger solutions in their communities. These partners work together, implementing solutions that break down the barriers that keep kids from healthy food.

Through its Cooking Matters program, the No Kid Hungry campaign educates and empowers low-income families to stretch their food budgets so their kids get healthy meals at home. Cooking Matters participants learn to shop strategically, use nutrition information to make healthier food choices, and cook delicious, affordable meals.

The No Kid Hungry campaign works to shine a national spotlight on the crisis of child hunger in America, creating a powerful movement of individuals committed to bold action.


Jobs with Justice7. Jobs with Justice (JWJ) believes that all workers should have collective bargaining rights, employment security, and a decent standard of living within an economy that works for everyone. It brings together labor, community, student, and faith voices at the national and local levels to win improvements in people’s lives and shape the public discourse on workers’ rights and the economy. JWJ are leading the fight for workers’ rights and an economy that benefits everyone. It is the only nonprofit of our kind, leading strategic campaigns and shaping the public discourse on every front to build power for working people. Jobs With Justice is committed to working nationally and locally, on the ground and online. They win real change for workers by combining innovative communications strategies and solid research and policy advocacy with grassroots action and mobilization.


Meathead Movers8. Meathead Movers is California-based moving company that partners with local women’s shelters programs to make sure victims of domestic violence relocate in safety and receive the support they need beyond moving day. Since the launch of this partnership, Meathead Movers has built relationships with six more domestic violence shelters to offer free moving services to victims around central and southern California. The partnering shelters will screen victims who request a move, protect victims’ private information and collaborate with law enforcement when additional safety measures are needed.

“The moving services that Meathead Movers is providing these women and children – both fleeing from an abusive situation and helping them move out on their own for the first time since being abused – is extremely valuable,” Genelle Taylor Kumpe, Executive Director of partner organization Marjaree Mason Center.


WITNESS9. WITNESS is an international organization that trains and supports people using video in their fight for human rights. The majority of the world’s population now has a camera in their pocket. People everywhere are turning to video to document and tell stories of abuse. But all too often, they are not filming safely or effectively, and their videos don’t make a difference. WITNESS helps citizen activists around the world use video safely, ethically, and effectively to expose human rights abuse and fight for human rights change. WITNESS develops award-winning tools and apps to keep people safer; advocates to technology companies to create change at the systems level; and curates and help draw attention to citizen footage of under-reported stories.


HCZ10. Harlem Children’s Zone®, also known as HCZ, is a New York charity that aims to provide comprehensive, critical support to children and families by reweaving the very fabric of community life. The HCZ Project began as a one-block pilot in the 1990s. Building on the success of the first initiative, HCZ launched a 10-year strategic plan in 2000, steadily and systematically expanding the depth and breadth of our programming to encompass 24 blocks, then 60 blocks, and ultimately 97 blocks. Today, the Children’s Zone serves more than 11,000 youth and over 8,000 adults. The organization as a whole serves over 13,000 youth and 13,800 adults.

With 70% of children in the Zone engaged in their pipeline of programs each year and thousands of youth well on their way to achieving the ultimate goal of college graduation, HCZ has not only reached the tipping point, but also have become a national model and thought leader in the fields of education, youth and community development, and the fight against poverty. It has earned several accolades, including from President Obama, and helped land 93 percent of its students in college in 2015.


Project 562a11. Project 562 is the brainchild of Native American photographer Matika Wilbur, who sold all of her worldly possession in 2012 and set out on the road with one goal in mind: photograph citizens of each federally recognized tribe in the United States (there are now 566). Project 562 creatively addresses and remedies historical inaccuracies, stereotypical representations, and the absence of Native American images and voices in mass media and national conversation. Wilbur’s aim is to humanize the otherwise “vanishing race” and share stories that her people want to be told. Conversations about tribal sovereignty, self-determination, wellness, recovery from historical trauma, and revitalization of culture accompany her photos in caption, video, and audio recordings.  Wilbur’s says it best: “The time of sharing, building cultural bridges, abolishing racism, and honoring the legacy that this country is built on is among us. Project 562 is that platform.”

Matika Wilbur is a member of the Tulalip and Swinomish Tribes in Washington State. She graduated from La Conner high school, studied photography at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography in Montana, and received her bachelor’s degree from Brooks Institute of Photography in California. She has exhibited extensively, including venues such as the Royal British Columbia Museum of Fine Arts, the Nantes Museum of Fine Arts in France, the Seattle Art Museum, the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, and the Kittredge Gallery at the University of Puget Sound.


The Advocates for Human Rights12. Advocates for Human Rights is an independent, nonpartisan nonprofit organization founded in 1983. The organization creates and maintains lasting, comprehensive, and holistic change on a local, national, and global scale. Volunteers, partners, supporters, board members, and staff implement international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. For more than 30 years, the Advocate’s innovative programming has changed the lives of refugees and immigrants, women, ethnic and religious minorities, children, and other marginalized communities. The organization investigate and expose human rights violations, represent immigrants and refugees seeking asylum, train and assist groups that protect human rights, engage the public, policy-makers, and children; and push for legal reform and advocates for sound policy.


OWAAT13. OWAAT (One Woman At A Time) – Cyprus is a community-court collaboration in the Republic of Cyprus which creates positive social change toward “Zero Tolerance of Abuse Against Women” through human rights education, pooling resources and volunteer services provided by local leaders, community schools, churches, NGOs, and conducting communications with legislators and courts to ensure and secure human rights protection through new laws and court rules. OWAAT Complaint Centers aims at empowering all abused women to know their human rights and obtain free one-on-one and online guidance how to self-help as self-represented litigants who can place the law in their hands, gain access to court and obtain emergency civil no contact protection orders against their abuser. OWAAT outreach endeavors to provide human rights information for predominantly poor women in isolated Island villages who cannot afford to hire attorneys or wait for police and legal aid to get emergency civil protections necessary to prevent the likelihood of harm from abuse. For more information, please visit OWAAT or Thee Art of Law (blog). Contact U.S. Fulbright Scholar Patricia M. Martin, Esq. via OWAAT (Contact Form) or LinkedIn to learn how you can contribute or otherwise support this unique organization.


Grameen Foundation14. The Grameen Foundation helps the world’s poorest people reach their full potential, connecting their determination and skills with the resources they need. It provides access to essential financial services and information on agriculture and health, assistance that can have wide-scale impact by addressing the specific needs of poor households and communities. Rather than directly administering microfinance programs, Grameen Foundation provides funds and technical assistance to local and regional microfinance institutions (MFIs) and other poverty-focused organizations.

The Foundation was founded in 1997 to facilitate the expansion of banks modeled after the Grameen Bank beyond the borders of Bangladesh and increase the access of poor people to microfinance by millions worldwide. Muhammad Yunus, the founder and managing director of Grameen Bank, sat on the Board of Directors for 12 years and is now a director emeritus. Alex Counts is a founder and the current President & CEO.


HRIC 215. Human Rights in China (HRIC) is a Chinese non-governmental organization (NGO) founded in March 1989 by overseas Chinese students and scientists. HRIC is actively engaged in case and policy advocacy, media and press work, and capacity building. Through its original publications and extensive translation work, HRIC provides bridges and uncensored platforms for diverse Chinese voices.  The organization’s activities promote fundamental rights and freedoms and provide solidarity for rights defenders and their families by supporting citizens’ efforts to effectively communicate, as well as organize and participate in rights defense activities. HRIC raises international awareness of and support for the diverse and expanding civil society activism in China via its media and advocacy work. It has an international office in New York and a China office in Hong Kong. Given China’s unprecedented crackdown on civil lawyers, HRIC’s work may be important than ever.


ICRC16. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is the largest humanitarian network in the world with 97 million volunteers, members and staff worldwide. Its mission is to alleviate human suffering, protect life and health, and uphold human dignity especially during armed conflicts and other emergencies. It is present in every country and supported by millions of volunteers. The “Movement” is made up of the following components: the International Committee of the Red Cross, the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Previous Years:
✤ 2015
✤ 2014

Yezidi Woman Testifies About Her Nine Days Under ISIS Caliphate Captivity

When Islamic State fighters conquered the border region between Iraq and Syria, the Yazidi village of Kocho also fell into their hands. Twenty-year-old Nadia was among dozens of young women who were abducted and abused. This is the story of her capture and escape. 

YAZIDINadia Murad Basee Taha, a young Iraqi Yezidi who was abducted into slavery by members of ISIS, is photographed in the U.S. (Image: Kirsten Luce/TIME).

Twenty-one-year-old Nadia Murad Basee Taha traveled to New York City to testify in front of the U.N. Security Council on December 16, about the plight of the Yezidi ethnic and religious minority under ISIS.

“I cannot imagine how painful it must be every time you are asked to recount your experience,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power said to Nadia after her testimony on Wednesday. “And your being here and speaking so bravely to all of us is a testament to your resilience and your dignity — and it’s of course the most powerful rejection of what ISIL stands for.”

Nadia was in New York City to ask the U.N. Security Council to rescue the enslaved Yezidis and help them liberate their land from the militants. She was also there to tell her story, with the help of Yazda, a U.S.-based nonprofit dedicated to supporting survivors of Yezidi genocide and women who have escaped from ISIS.

Nadia was born and raised in the Kurdish region of Syria by her mother Shama and father Murad. Her hometown of Kocho, which once boasted a population of 1,700, lies near the Sinjar Mountains not far from the border between Iraq and Syria. Their home is located not far from the Iraqi Kurdish city of Dohuk, on the “safe” side of the front.

Nadia’s life in Kocho village with her mother, brothers, and sisters was a simple one. She was a student, and history was her favorite subject. She dreamed of going to college someday, perhaps even becoming a teacher and buying an apartment of her own, with shelves filled with books.

Her family was not rich, but they were able to make ends meet. They had around 50 sheep, two dozen chickens and a few goats. Nadia’s older brothers worked as day laborers while her mother sold milk, yogurt, eggs and cheese. Sometimes even Muslims from the neighboring towns came to make purchases.

Some households in the village, including hers, had a TV and Nadia’s favorite broadcasts were music shows and horror movies, as long as the good guys won in the end. She even saw a World Cup soccer match, Germany versus Brazil. But she “did not know anything,” she says of her generally peaceful childhood. “I did not know anything about what ISIS was or what it was going to do.”

But soon she began to see images on TV, “horrific images,” she says. And one day in August, she was walking with her sister and saw fighters in her village. “I recognized, I said, ‘This is the same group that we have seen committing the crimes on the TV.’” She didn’t know she would meet them so soon.

In the summer of 2014, Kurdish fighters in the border region of northern Syria and northern Iraq retreated before the rapid advance of IS troops. The fighters of the “caliphate,” superbly armed and well-organized, seized control of large areas. More than 1.8 million people have fled the region, according to a United Nations report. From January to the end of September, approximately 17,386 civilians were wounded and 9,347 killed. In addition, Kurdish military officials estimate that thousands of young women were abducted.

ISIS has targeted the Yezidi population of approximately 230,000 people in the area, considered “kafir” or “nonbelievers” because they do not practice Islam, in what is widely considered to be a genocide. Over 5,200 Yezidis were abducted in 2014 and at least 3,400 are still in ISIS captivity, according to community leaders, and most, if not all, of the captives are women (male captives are indoctrinated and forced to fight, or risk execution). Thousands more have been slaughtered, and over 400,000 Yezidis have been forced from their homes.

Even worse, ISIS has revived the institutional practice of slavery within its so-called caliphate, condoning the systematic rape and sexual enslavement of non-Muslim women. This practice is not only allowed inside ISIS, it is actively encouraged, and some survivors have reported that ISIS fighters believe that if a woman is raped by 10 Muslims, she will become converted. There is even a market for enslaved women within the caliphate, and girls are bought, sold, and traded among the fighters as commodities or rewards.

Amid all this turmoil, Nadia’s town was suddenly left unprotected.


Islamic State fighters came to Nadia’s town several times July 2014, always at intervals of one or two days. They took great pains to demonstrate their military strength, roaring into town and announcing that they were the new lords of the land. The men wore mirrored sunglasses, kept their faces masked with black scarves, and carried pistols and daggers in their belts, recalls Nadia.

At first, they led the townspeople to believe that they were safe, as long as they handed over their weapons, mostly old hunting rifles and kitchen knives. They told the men of Kocho that disarmament was the price to pay they had to pay to avoid being killed by Islamic State fighters.

Then, on Aug. 15, 2014, after all the weapons were collected and piled up on the back of a pickup truck, the fighters told everyone to walk to the school on the outskirts of town. It was lunchtime. On their way, Nadia and her family saw ISIS fighters “everywhere,” she remembers, “on the houses, on the streets, there were a lot of them.” Some of them were masked, others were not. They all spoke different languages.

The fighters separated the men from the women, and put Nadia and some other women on the second floor of the building. At the last moment, her mother slipped a gold ring from her finger and gave it to Nadia: “In case you need it,” she whispered. This is Nadia’s last memory of her mother.

ISIS fighters murdered 312 men in one hour, according to a U.N. spokesman, including six of Nadia’s brothers and stepbrothers. Nadia witnessed it all.

When they retook the area from ISIS, Kurdish forces also uncovered a mass grave of about 80 elderly women who had presumably been executed because they were too old and undesirable to be sold into slavery.

Those who remained, the women like Nadia who were considered young and attractive, were taken to the occupied Iraqi city of Mosul, where they stayed for three days before they were “distributed” among the fighters to be enslaved. “They gave us to them,” Nadia says.

Every morning in Mosul, the women would be required to wash. Nadia recalls some women mussing up their hair to look less appealing to the fighters, in hopes they would be spared. Others smeared battery acid on their faces. “It did not help because in the mornings they would ask us again to wash our face and look pretty.”

Then, Nadia says, they would be taken to the Shari‘a court, where they would be photographed. The photographs would be posted on a wall in the court, along with the phone number of whichever militant or commander currently owned each woman, so that fighters could swap women among themselves.

Nadia’s niece, who was also kidnapped, witnessed a woman cutting her wrists. They heard stories of women jumping from bridges. And in one house in Mosul where Nadia was kept, an upstairs room was smeared with evidence of suffering. “There was blood and there were fingerprints of hands with the blood on the walls,” she says. Two women had killed themselves there.

Nadia says the women debated whether they could attack one of the men and kill him. But there was a constant coming and going, with new men arriving all the time, carrying weapons and clad in black or khaki fantasy uniforms, and then the fighters would withdraw for long discussions. “They always came in groups of three or four. And they were always armed. At one point we broke a window pane, and each of us women hid a shard of glass up our sleeves, so we could kill ourselves if we couldn’t take it anymore.”

Nadia never considered ending her own life, but she said she wished the militants would do it for her. “I did not want to kill myself — but I wanted them to kill me.”

One of them tore her mother’s gold ring from her finger and slipped it onto his own hand. Nadia swore: I will find this man one day, and I will cut off his finger, and I will take back my ring.

This man was probably a local, says Nadia, who notes that he spoke no Arabic, but rather the Kurdish dialect that is commonly used in her region. She says that there were two groups of IS fighters: men who appeared to be highly devout, who were leaders of a sort, and who spoke Arabic — and men who spoke a mixture of Arabic and Kurdish, whose devotion seemed rather feigned, and whose accent divulged that they came from the border region. These were apparently fighters who had joined the presumed victors to gain access to money and women.

Nine days can be longer than an entire lifetime, says Nadia, and she can remember every second of those nine days.

ISIS frequently moved the women from one house to another. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason for the frequent moves; they were apparently dependent on the whims of their captors. The first house, Nadia recalls, belonged to a judge named Ghasi Hussein, who had fled the area, one of their captors told the young women. But in the future, as the man said, it will belong to them, in honor of Allah. Photos of the judge and his wife still hung on the walls, and he had had teacups printed with their likeness. The men and their prisoners stayed there for three days before they moved to a second, a third, a fourth and a fifth house.

Sometimes they were given nothing to eat, other times just a putrid egg for six young women. For two long days, they received no water. It was extremely hot and their captors had given them a single glass of tea. They passed around the glass — two tiny sips for each woman. If you convert to Islam, the men said, you’ll be given as much fresh water as you want.

“We remained steadfast,” says Nadia.

On another occasion, they were deprived of drinking water once again, only this time their captors put down a bucket of used bathwater. It tasted like soap and reeked of urine, but they had nothing else.

Their captors beat them, sometimes several times in a single day, for no apparent reason. There was a man with a beard who used an electric cable, while two others preferred wooden switches. Sometimes they were also punched and kicked, and they were repeatedly sexually abused.

One day, it was her turn. She was sitting in a room with all the other women, looking down. She was wearing a pink jacket. A fighter came in. “He told me, ‘The woman in the pink jacket, stand up for me,’” Nadia says. “When I raised my head I looked at him, this huge man, and I shouted and screamed.” He was very big, she says, with long hair and a long beard. She was sitting with her three nieces, they all held on to each other as the big man tried to drag her from the group. “They were beating us with sticks while we were holding one another,” she says. “He took me by force to the ground floor, and they were writing the names of those they were taking.”

As she was struggling with the big man, she saw a pair of small feet. It was another ISIS fighter, also there to get a Yezidi slave. Nadia, desperate, wanted to go with him because he had a smaller build than the first man. “I basically jumped on his feet, and I told him, I begged him, ‘Free me from this huge person, take me for yourself and I will do whatever you want,’” she says. “Then he took me for himself.”

Nadia’s new captor was tall and thin, with long hair but a trimmed beard, and an “ugly mouth” with “teeth coming out of his lips.” This new man kept Nadia in a room with two doors. He prayed five times a day. He had a wife and a daughter named Sara, but Nadia never met them. One day he took her to his parents’ house in Mosul. “Then he one day forced me to dress for him and put make-up, I did, and in that black night, he did it,” she testified.

She told the hushed room that she tried to escape the rape and torture, but was captured. “That night, he beat me up, forced to undress, and put me in a room with six militants,” she said in her testimony.
Nadia doesn’t give a literal account of these rapes. It is virtually impossible for her to talk about them, and it contravenes the conventions of her culture.

She merely says: “They continued to commit crimes to my body until I became unconscious.” Then she lowers her head, in silence, awash with shame.

“What else could we do?” she says after a while, now speaking very quietly.

She says the men were merciless. Some women threw themselves at their tormentors’ feet, kissed their knees and hands, and — her eyes filled with tears — pleaded for mercy. It was no use. The men remained unmoved and did not exhibit an ounce of regret for their behavior. When one ISIS fighter was asked whether she was his wife, he announced, “‘This is not my wife, she is my sabia, she is my slave,’” Nadia recalls. “And then he fired shots in the sky, as a sign of happiness.”

Back on the first day, the men who kidnapped Nadia and the other young women as hostages and sex slaves had away taken their shoes. Escaping barefoot was out of the question. As the women could see from the windows, the surrounding terrain was rough and rocky, and they would end up with bleeding cuts and gashes all over their feet. But Nadia found found a pair of pink tennis shoes under some rags in one of the houses she stayed. Though they were a few sizes too small for her, she thought they might do.

Six men — her captors, rapists and tormentors — stood guard from day one. But on the ninth night, Nadia noticed that four of the men were apparently absent, perhaps sleeping elsewhere. Whatever the case, only two of the Islamic State fighters were sitting in the kitchen that night — and they were distracted. It looked as though they were arguing.

The men had shut up Nadia alone that night and she didn’t know where the other young women were. The lock on her door was defective and she was able to open it. She pulled out the tennis shoes that she had kept hidden, crammed her feet into them, slipped out of the room and was able to push open a terrace door. She scurried out of the house and rushed through the garden, filled with rustling dry bushes and trees. She was afraid that a dog would start barking, but she was lucky.

She came to a wall, a high wall, so it seemed — reaching beyond her outstretched arms. “Now I had to climb over the wall,” she says, “and I didn’t have much time.”

Nadia landed safely and started running, quietly, but as quickly as she could. “Don’t even think of running away!” the men yelled at her. They said she would be recaptured within an hour, saying they had announced a reward for $5,000 (€3,950) for fugitives. The punishment for attempted escape, the men added, was death.

It was pitch black on the other side of the wall. Far in the distance, she recalls, she could make out the dim, yellowish lights of a city. She was afraid to jump. But she did so anyway.

Nadia escaped her captivity in November 2014.

After she jumped over the wall, Nadia ran toward the lights and managed to reach downtown Mosul, once a burgeoning metropolis of almost 2 million people, and the second largest city in Iraq after Baghdad. But as she walked through the streets, Mosul seemed empty and deserted.

From time to time, she ducked into building entrances and behind bushes, to keep an eye out for possible pursuers. Although she knew she was in Mosul, she was unfamiliar with the city. Finally she came to a residential area and, suffering from severe exhaustion, picked a door at random.

After she knocked persistently, a sleepy-eyed man opened the door and shined his mobile phone light in her face. Nadia cried as she told him who she was and what had happened to her. The man pulled Nadia into the house and fetched his wife. The two of them hid Nadia behind a pile of odds and ends in a room, gave her a mattress, a blanket and water. Nadia took off her shoes and discovered that her toes were bleeding.

She was subsequently transported to a refugee camp (she is purposely vague about how she got from captivity to the camp, perhaps to protect anyone who helped her), where she was selected for a program that takes refugees to Germany.

Now she’s living near Stuttgart, but she does not feel at home there. “I left everyone, all the family members who are still in the camps, I left them,” she says. “But it’s better than the poverty and suffering that people endure in the camps.” She’s been brought to the U.S. to raise awareness about the plight of Yezidi girls still in captivity.

Nadia does not celebrate Christmas, but she has learned about the holiday since she’s been living in Germany. And she has a message for anyone celebrating Christmas this year: “If they’re celebrating and they want to help the poor, then they should help us.”

Reprints & Sources: This blog post uses multiple sources to compose a more complete narrative of Nadia’s testimony, but the three primary sources are listed below.

Nine Days in the Caliphate: A Yazidi Woman’s Ordeal as an Islamic State Captive -By Ralf Hoppe | Der Spiegel (The original article appeared in German in Issue 42/2014, October 13, 2014.)

A Yezidi Woman Who Escaped ISIS Slavery Tells Her Story -By Charlotte Alter | TIME

Nadia Murad Basee Taha (ISIL victim) on Trafficking of Persons in Situations of Conflict | U.N. Security Council, 7585th Meeting (Official UN Testimony)

The Death of Laquan McDonald – A Bullet for Almost Every Year He Was Alive

A police officer who fatally shot a black teenager last year was charged with first-degree murder on Tuesday as graphic video of the killing, just released, sparked unrest.

The full length video shows 17-year old Laquan McDonald walking down the middle of the 4100 block of South Pulaski Road toward the flashing blue lights of the police cruisers trying to stop him. With a tug of his pants and a quickened step, the teen veers away from them.

The first two officers on the scene trailed McDonald for nearly a half-mile, from a trucking yard where he had been breaking into vehicles through a Burger King parking lot and onto busy Pulaski Road. As officers awaited backup units armed with Tasers, they tried to corral McDonald to keep him away from passers-by. At one point, McDonald used the knife to slash the front tire of a squad car trying to block his path.

Officer Jason Van Dyke and his partner arrived 10 minutes after the first call. Their weapons were drawn as they stepped from the Chevrolet Tahoe. McDonald keeps moving, apparently trying to pass the officers who are several feet to his left. McDonald, holding something in his right hand, swings his right arm in the split second before an officer opens fire.

There is no sound on the controversial dash-cam video released late Tuesday afternoon by the city, only startling images that show a white Chicago police officer unloading 16 rounds on an African-American teen.

Within six seconds of exiting the police car, Van Dyke opened fire. Fifteen seconds later, he had emptied his 16-round handgun, authorities said. The force of the bullets spins McDonald around. His legs stiffen as he falls backward to the pavement. Two clouds of smoke-like debris silently puff upward immediately after McDonald falls.

The teen rolls onto his right side in the middle of the roadway. His head appears to lift, his arm moves. Then more bullets. Another cloud of white debris kicks up from behind his head. And then it is over. The video captures 15 seconds of shooting. For 13 seconds of it, McDonald is lying on the street.

His partner asked him to hold his fire as Van Dyke reloaded, authorities said. Van Dyke’s partner then walked to McDonald’s body and kicked a knife with a 3-inch blade out of his hand.

The teen lies on the road for nearly a minute alone. The teen was alive when paramedics arrived but died on the way to the hospital, authorities said.

L McDonald

Officer Jason Van Dyke, 37, is now charged with first-degree murder in the October 2014 slaying of Laquan McDonald, who suffered multiple gunshot wounds to his chest, scalp, neck, back, arms and right hand and leg.

He has been ordered held without bail until at least his next court appearance Monday. In outlining the charges, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said the officers first on the scene said they felt no need to use force on the teen.

Autopsy of Laquan McDonald

An autopsy report noting the gunshot wounds to Laquan McDonald, 17, who was fatally shot in October 2014. According to the Cook County medical examiner’s office, he was shot 16 times. (Credit: Cook County Medical Examiner).

The charges and the release of the video came amid a national debate over race, police shootings and a growing number of violent encounters with the police captured on video. Chicago’s police force has its own sometimes painful history, which by some estimates includes more than $500 million in settlements and other costs over the last decade tied to police misconduct as well as reparations for black residents who said a group of officers abused and tortured them in the 1970s and ’80s.

In April, the city agreed to pay $5 million to the McDonald family, even before a suit had been filed in the case.

Police said McDonald, who had PCP in his system when he died, was behaving erratically and refusing police commands to drop the folding knife. At the time of the shooting, the police union maintained that the officer fired in fear for his life because the teen lunged at him and his partner with the knife.

Van Dyke’s attorney, Daniel Herbert, has said the footage from the dash cam captures only one aspect of the shooting. In court Tuesday, he told Judge Donald Panarese Jr. there was a “valid defense” in the case. And after court, Herbert, who has previously said Van Dyke feared for his life, questioned the filing of a first-degree murder charge over the shooting.

Van Dyke, who is married and has two children, was born in Hinsdale and attended grade school in Burr Ridge and graduated from Hinsdale South High School in Darien in 1996, according to his personnel file obtained by the Chicago Tribune through an open records request.

Before joining the Chicago Police Department, Van Dyke applied to work as a officer with the state prison system but was rejected because he did not have a college degree. He went on to earn both a two-year and four-year degree in criminal justice. He earned his bachelor’s at St. Xavier University, where he was a straight-A student, according to his personnel file and a spokesman for St. Xavier.

Department records show that over the years, Van Dyke has been accused by residents of a number of abuses, from hurling racial epithets to manhandling suspects and, in one complaint, pointing his gun at an arrestee without justification. But he was never disciplined for any of the 15 complaints that have been resolved.

Van Dyke worked in mostly high-crime districts over his career, including Englewood and Chicago Lawn, where he was most recently assigned. He was a member of the targeted response unit, which aggressively went into neighborhoods experiencing spikes in violent crimes before McCarthy abandoned that strategy several years ago.

Early Tuesday, Van Dyke’s wife described her husband as a “highly decorated and respected officer” on a GoFundMe page seeking online donations for his bond. The page, which has since been taken down, described him as a 15-year veteran officer “fighting for freedom and justice.”

Sources: A Moment-by-Moment Account of What the Laquan McDonald Video Shows -By Annie Sweeney and Jason Meisner | Chicago Tribune

Chicago Protests Mostly Peaceful After Video of Police Shooting Is Released -By Monica Davey & Mitch Smith | New York Times


A Timeline of Terror: Coordinated Attacks in Paris Leave 129 Dead, Over 350 Injured

A victim under a sheet lies dead outside the Bataclan concert hall on November 13, 2015. (Jerome Delay / AP)

It was truly a horrifying Friday the 13th when coordinated terrorist attacks across Paris, France killed at least 129 people and injured more than 350 others — all in a matter of minutes. The assaults unfolded at various locations throughout the French capital and its suburbs, among them restaurants, a popular nightclub, and a soccer stadium. Seven suspects are dead, six from blowing themselves up, authorities said, and one shot by police. Their attacks all began around 9:30 p.m. local time, or 3:30 p.m. EST.

Below is a timeline of the chaos, as recounted by Paris prosecutor François Molins at a news conference Saturday:


Paris Timeline

9:20 p.m.
First Suicide Bombing Near Stadium
A suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt near Gate D of the Stade de France, the country’s national stadium in the northern Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, as the French and German national teams square off. The blast by a suicide bomber using an explosive belt packed with bolts kills the bomber and another person. A Syrian passport of a person born in 1990 would be found near the bomber’s body. French President François Hollande, who is among the spectators at the match, is evacuated from the stadium after the blast, but the game continues. France wins.

9:25 p.m.
Restaurant Shootings
In the 10th arrondissement of Paris — a neighborhood that’s home to many bars, restaurants and cafes on the banks surrounding the Canal St. Martin — gunmen in a black vehicle wielding Kalashnikovs open fire on patrons at the Le Carillon bar and at Le Petit Cambodge, a Cambodian and Vietnamese restaurant. Fifteen people are killed and 10 suffered critical injuries, Molins said. Investigators would later find around 100 spent casings of different calibers at the scene.

9:30 p.m.
Second Suicide Bombing Near Stadium
A suicide bomber detonates an explosive vest near Gate H of the stadium, but only the bomber is killed. An explosive waistcoat, packed with bolts in order to maximize the damage, is identical to the one used in the earlier stadium attack.

9:32 p.m. 
Restaurant Shooting
Gunmen in a black vehicle opened fire at the Cafe Bonne Bière on Rue de la Fontaine au Roi in the 11th arrondissement, killing 5 people and seriously wounding 8 others. Again, witnesses report that the shooters were in a black vehicle.

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9:36 p.m.
Restaurant Shooting
At the Belle Equipe, a popular bar in the 11th arrondissement, shooters in a black vehicle gun down 19 people using assault weapons. Nine people are wounded. A woman who hears gunshots and looked out her window said she “saw people on the ground, some motionless and [others] curled who were scared to move.” One of the gunmen was on foot and another was in the car during the attack, she said. Around 100 spent casings of different calibers were later found. Like in the previous shootings, the they included 7.62 mm, the kind used in Kalashnikovs.

9:40 p.m.
Suicide Bombing at Restaurant
A suicide bomber detonated an explosives device identical to those of the first two suicide bombers inside the Comptoir Voltaire restaurant in the 11th arrondissement, seriously wounding one person.

9:40 p.m.
Shooting at Concert Hall
Three gunmen emerge from a black car parked in front of the Bataclan concert hall,”carrying weapons of war,” Molins said. They storm the nightclub, where American band Eagles of Death Metal are playing before a packed crowd, firing bursts as they enter and taking the audience hostage. Then they turn their weapons on the crowd. Concertgoers dropped to the floor, some playing dead. The gunmen fired randomly, pausing to reload several times. “They tried to kill as many people as possible, and they were very calm. They reloaded many times,” Julien Pearce, a French radio reporter who managed to escape, told a news reporter. Eighty-nine were killed. Witnesses reported the attackers cried “Allahu Akbar

width="695"This combination of four still images made from a smartphone video by Le Monde French Journalist Daniel Psenny shows spectators fleeing the Bataclan concert hall from the backdoor and windows on November 13, 2015 during a terrorist attack in and around Paris which left at least 128 people dead. Daniel Psenny was later injured as he was trying to help wounded victims of the attack. (Daniel Psenny/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

9:53 p.m.
Third Suicide Bombing Near Stadium
A third explosion occurred about 437 yards from the stadium, and the body of a suicide bomber was found.

November 14 at 12:20 a.m.
Police Raid Concert Hall
Security forces launch an assault at the Bataclan. Three of the attackers are killed: one is shot and the explosive he was carrying detonates. The other two kill themselves using explosive belts as the police assault takes place.

Timeline of Terror: How the Horror Unfolded in Paris -By Elizabeth Chuck | NBC News

Three Hours of Terror in Paris, Moment by Moment | The New York Times