Western-based media’s problematic framing of terrorism

Although Frontline’s “How ISIS Came to Be: Four Docs to Watch” offered some important information about the U.S. conflict with Daesh, the special is rife with misleading news frames. The films touch on all of Robert Entman’s conceptualizations of news media framing, which include: define problems, diagnose causes, make moral judgements and suggest remedies.

More than 16 years after September 11, 2001, the mainstream media still packages news via a “one-sided” vantage, perpetuating “a broad consensus about how terrorist events should be interpreted within any particular community” (Norris). But acts of terrorism are political in nature and “terrorism is ‘a method, a modus operandi, not an ideology or worldview’” (Morin).

Granted, the special points to the failures in U.S. intelligence under two former presidents and their lack of clear, justifiable foreign policy. Within this analysis, we can hope the current U.S. administration will capitalize on the mistakes of the past by refusing to err in the same fashion. Conversely, President Donald Trump’s “travel ban” as well as his rhetoric about Daesh operatives being “evil” suggest America is destine to make the same mistakes in the Middle East.

The most egregious display of framing news as a moral judgement occurred in “Confronting ISIS.” Martin Smith speaks with Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, and asks whether Wahhabi Islamic teachings are the cause for extremism. Smith casually links Daesh to Wahhabism, stating this is the religion “from which ISIS springs.” Then he talks with Farah Pandith, former U.S. rep. to Muslim peoples, who says Wahhabism can be blamed for Daesh’s brutality and thirst for global domination. Wahhabism is ultra-conservative, oppressive to women and the antithesis of secular. But bloodlust and oppression via extreme violence is nothing new. Wahhabism is based on the teachings of an 18th Century Saudi Arabian preacher. Breaking news: brutality, power mongering and religious extremism are ideas that were founded centuries before Wahhabism. Moreover, if Daesh were lacking a practical framework for terrorism, they could study the Crusades.

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‘Hezbollah poses greatest threat to Israel,’ says IDF chief of staff

A ‘State Within a State’ Exploits the Arab Spring

Ten Syrian school children were arrested and tortured in the first week of March 2011. “Down with the regime,” was the graffiti slogan they scrawled on a wall in the town of Daraa. Their families attempted to free them, protesting in the streets when their efforts proved nil. Syrian security forces took aim at the group, killing multiple parents. One day later, twenty thousand protesters swarmed the funeral procession. Multiple demonstrations erupted across Syria that day. Banias, Latakia and then Duma; later, the suburbs of Damascus and Aleppo (1). Just as neoliberal economic policies, nepotism, and disillusioned youth successfully toppled the leaders in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt—a general disgust with autocratic rule was stoking flames of discontent in Syria.

During a national address held on March 30, 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad blundered his opportunity to quell the uprising. His forces continued to violently crackdown on demonstrators; by the summer of 2011, the Free Syrian Army was founded, as was the blueprint for civil war.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, this savage civil conflict has killed approximately 465,000 people since it began seven years ago (2). The Syrian Civil War morphed into a international proxy war, which has only deepened the toll on civilian life. The war created a catastrophic refugee crisis, scattering 5.2 million Syrians into neighboring lands and abroad. Approximately 6.3 million Syrians are internally displaced and more than 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance (3).

Wars are void of winners. One side simply hobbles away more gracefully. Conversely, Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shi’ite militia turned political force, may exit the Syrian Civil War relatively unscathed and hardened for battle. More important, its regional stature may continue to rise since it took up arms alongside al-Assad’s regime in neighboring Syria.

This investigation will examine: the origins of Hezbollah, and its roots in Lebanon’s splintered and complicated history; the ideological factors that justify its military activities; Israel’s response to Hezbollah today; and U.S. policy objectives in Lebanon.

Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, is one the oldest cities in the world, and was first inhabited more than 5,000 years ago. (Photo: Marviikad, July 27, 2015)

From Clandestine Militia to Political Party

Hezbollah, or the “Party of God,” began as a Shi’ite Islamist militia that opposed the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon. The Lebanese Civil War—a 15-year battle that lasted from 1975 to 1990, and claimed the lives of 150,000 people—acted as one of the many factors that contributed to the formation of Hezbollah. Israel invaded Southern Lebanon in both 1978 and 1982, in order to fight back the Palestine Liberation Organization, and create a buffer zone between the two nations.

In the early 1980s, Hezbollah worked as a clandestine resistance force against Israel. Until 1985, when the group released its founding manifesto in the form of an “Open Letter,” which outlined its militant, religiously conservative and anti-imperialist objectives.

The document stated its enemies included Israel, the United States, France and the Phalange (the right-wing Maronite party in Lebanon founded in 1936). It also echoed the ideology of Iranian Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (4), and Tehran remains an invaluable ally for this Lebanese faction. But tracing the roots of Hezbollah means mapping Lebanon’s splintered national history.

France was responsible for drawing Lebanon’s respective borders following World War I. At the time, Lebanon consisted of three religious groups: Maronite Christians, and Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. Each of the three sectarian religious groups held a relatively equal portion of the country. Lebanese leaders adopted a confessional form of governance, which aims to evenly distribute power among varying religious communities, and was based on the nation’s last official census conducted in 1932.

Lebanon gained its independence from France in 1943, and its confessional system would be lead by President Bechara El Khoury, who was a Maronite Christian. Sectarian divisions and a Christian hegemony created tense social divisions, until Lebanon’s majority was faced with two growing challenges: the influx of Sunni Muslims, namely Palestinian refugees fleeing their home following the founding of Israel; and its marginalized and newly mobilized Shi’ite community. The tensions reached its peak in 1975, hurling Lebanon into a civil conflict that would draw in multiple nations including the United States, France, Israel, Syria and a supervisory force established by the United Nations Security Council.

Since its founding, Hezbollah has carried out multiple military offensives and have remained an armed presence in Lebanon’s Southern region. Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon in 2000—Hezbollah credited its covert and overt actions against the foreign occupier as reason for the eventual retreat.

In 1992, Hezbollah entered Lebanon’s political arena, winning eight seats in the parliamentary elections. Its political party secured 10 seats in Lebanon’s confessional government in 2009, “and it has achieved a modest, variable, yet generally steady degree of electoral success” (5).

In 2006, the Hezbollah-Israel War broke out after the Lebanese force kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. The 34-day battle killed 1,190 Lebanese citizens, and Hezbollah’s rockets took the lives of 163 Israelis.

Although this border region remains tense, military skirmishes between Hezbollah and Israel has remained quieted. Since Hezbollah delved into the political system, the organization has limited its military operations. Its continued to build Shi’ite support at home, bolstering social services for Lebanon’s Southern region.

With the eruption of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Hezbollah has expanded its military force and moved towards evolving into a legitimized regional powerbroker.

Syrians protest against China, Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and the al-Assad regime in Idlib, Syria on March 7, 2012. (Photo: Freedom House)

Identity Politics and Justifiable Conflicts

Hezbollah leverages its different identities to justify participating in armed conflicts, according to Zafer Kizilkaya. This practice has been an ideological cornerstone since its founding in the 1980s, said Kizilkaya, in his article, “Identity, War, and Just Cause for War: Hezbollah and Its Use of Force,” published by the Mediterranean Quarterly on June 1.

Thus, Hezbollah shifted its ideological paradigm in order to justify fighting alongside the al-Assad regime.

Although the paramilitary group mainly relies on support from Lebanese Shi’ite Muslims, they are also claiming to fight for five identity-based causes: Lebanese nationalism, Islamic ideology, a Shi’ite Muslim belief system, Arabism and as a resistance movement (6). This resistance identity is the only one built from scratch, following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon both in 1978 and 1982 (7).

The group began by painting Israel, the United States and the West as the oppressors in the Syrian conflict, claiming this coalition, “wanted to fragment Syria, redesign the Middle East, and subjugate the people of Syria and the region as a whole” (8). This particular justification pitted Hezbollah against the Syrian rebels fighting al-Assad, as well as any foreign nation who aided the rebels or were invested in regime change. However, Hezbollah’s reasoning is deemed illegitimate in most the Muslim world. While battling Israel under the guise of resistance was easy to support, its participation in the Syrian Civil War appears to be motivated by the group’s sectarian identity.

“Like its resistance identity, the prominence of Hezbollah’s Islamic identity has also been in decline because of the group’s decision to intervene in Syria, advancing its Shi’ite identity as the most salient one in the circumstances of a sectarian conflict (9).”

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, balked at the accusation, stating its operations in Syria were aimed at fringe groups, terrorists and “ex-communicators,” namely Daesh, a group regarded as following an improper Islamic doctrine. “Similarly, the group rejected charges that it was acting on a sectarian basis by highlighting its sending of fighters to Bosnia in the 1990s to defend the Sunni Muslims there (10).”

Kizilkaya further stated although Hezbollah maintained a secular tone publicly, its internal messages that were designed to boost baseline support purported their mission in Syria was “a Shi’ite jihad for self-defense.”

Hezbollah’s defense of Shi’ite Muslims in Syria was proven in two ways, according to Kizilkaya: its protecting of Shi’ite holy sites, and its battles with Daesh, whose strict interpretation of Islam sees Shi’ites as apostates.

The adherence to identity politics is what makes the actions of Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces starkly different. In 2006, the LAF didn’t engage in the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. Since the onset of the Syrian Civil War, the LAF has simply defended its own border, fighting back Sunni militants, namely Daesh and Ha’ia Tahrir al Sham (the al Qaeda-linked group formerly known as the al-Nusra Front).

Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah—a well respected Shi’ite marjas, or “spiritual reference” who influenced Hezbollah’s ideology—drafted a framework for justifiable conditions for taking up arms. Fadlallah claimed, “deterrence and the prevention of hegemonic plans that preclude the self-determination and development of Muslim people” was a valid reason to use force (11). This call for preemption became a primary justification for Hezbollah entering the Syrian war.

Looking forward, Kizilkaya also argues that Hezbollah’s marriage of its various identities/causes to justifications for participating in armed conflicts, both inside and out of Lebanon, could prove to be its most valuable asset.

Israel Defense Forces soldiers prepare for expected ‘Naqsa Day’ riots near the Quneitra Crossing on the Israeli-Syrian border on May 15, 2011. (Photo: Cpl. Gal Ashuach, IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Israel’s greatest threat is Hezbollah’

Iran is conducting a war against Israel by proxy, the foremost being Hezbollah, which constitutes the gravest threat to the State of Israel, said Gadi Eisenkot, chief of staff for the Israel Defense Forces. Eisenkot’s article—published by the Institute for National Security Studies, a policy-oriented research organization engaged in Israel’s security issues, based out of Tel Aviv University—extensively discussed the Iranian push for hegemony in the region, Hezbollah’s growing strength, especially after its involvement in the Syrian Civil War.

“Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that has been equipped, funded, trained, and even led by the Iranians since 2006,” Eisenkot added. “So far, the Iranians have transferred between $800 million and $1 billion dollars per year to Hezbollah.”

Since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, the border landscape in the Golan Heights (a plot of Syrian territory that was captured, and annexed by Israel after the Six Day War in 1967)  has changed significantly, Eisenkot explains. This particular border region shared among Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon is littered with deployments from Daesh, the Syrian military and Hezbollah, he said, adding the situation is ever changing and highly complex.

In an effort to curb Hezbollah’s presence in the Golan, Israel has been supplying Syrian rebels with cash, food, fuel and medical assistance, according to a Wall Street Journal article published on June 18 (12).

“The Israeli army is in regular communication with rebel groups and its assistance includes undisclosed payments to commanders that help pay salaries of fighters and buy ammunition and weapons, according to interviews with about half a dozen Syrian fighters.”

According to the WSJ, Israel has established a military unit that oversees the support in Syria—a country that it has been in a state of war with for decades—and set aside a specific budget for the aid.

Although Hezbollah’s primary goal is to achieve a Shi’ite hegemony in Lebanon, its tactical threat to Israel is only increasing (13). The group has 240 strongholds in villages and cities throughout Southern Lebanon, and is growing its precision-rocket capability.

The size of Hezbollah’s arsenal is unknown, but is estimated at 100,000 rockets. The issue is highly politicized by Israel and used to justify its missile defense programs: “Iron Dome” and “David’s Sling” (14). The cost of constructing rudimentary munitions is relatively inexpensive, and Hezbollah has improved the quality of its arsenal when it obtained guidance systems. Moreover, a new threshold was reached when Hezbollah started acquiring ballistic missiles (15), a capability believed to be supplied by the Syrian regime.

These short-range ballistic missiles can carry a 1100-pound warhead and has a range of 210 kilometers—roughly the distance between Beirut and Tel Aviv. As al-Assad rose to power in Syria, he developed a warm relationship with Hezbollah, securing an arms route and cementing an anti-imperialist coalition comprised of Iran, Syria and the Lebanese party.

“If Hezbollah’s current missile strike force constitutes a credible tool of deterrence to the Jewish state, it is largely thanks to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime (16).”

Eisenkot also said the “Party of God” has cut it teeth militarily on the battlefields of Syria, gaining experience in larger operations than it had in the past (17). He said although 1,300 Hezbollah soldiers have been killed in Syria, with another 5,000 wounded, this force now has 20,000 troops and another 25,000 reservists.

The sub-conventional and sub-state threats of Hezbollah will continue to grow, said Eisenkot, and the IDF is bolstering its military capabilities accordingly.

“We must continue to maintain deterrence in the northern arena vis-à-vis the global jihad movement, the Islamic State, the Iranian forces that operate Shi’ite militias from there, and Hezbollah,” he said (18). “In addition to deterrence, we must also uphold the IDF’s justifiable image and its capability as an unpredictable adversary that is able to provide a harsh response.”

President Donald J. Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk during a conference in Tel Aviv in May. (Photo courtesy of American Embassy in Tel Aviv)

U.S. Strikes Balance Among Security, Aid and Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

United States aid to Lebanon has sought to counterbalance the intrastate influence of Syria and Iran on this religiously divided nation. Congress is currently reviewing the best way to achieve its policy objectives in Lebanon, which include: weakening Hezbollah; bolstering the capabilities of the Lebanese Armed Forces; helping defend Lebanon’s borders by providing military hardware and training; assisting the influx of Syrian refugees since the onset of the civil conflict; and strengthening governmental services and infrastructure (19).

“At the same time, Iranian influence in Lebanon via its ties to Hezbollah, the potential for renewed armed conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, and Lebanon’s internal political dynamics complicate the provision of U.S. assistance (20).”

In July, Lebanon’s then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri led an official delegation to Washington asking for additional aid, “arguing that it was more cost-effective for the international community to assist refugees in Lebanon than it would be to cover the costs of refugees once they reached Europe (21).”

The U.S. has urged Lebanon to keep its borders open to refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict; thus, the State Department has provided more than $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid to Lebanon since FY2012.

In 2016, Lebanon ranked as the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign military financing in the world, said Elizabeth Richard, U.S. ambassador to Lebanon. She also said that the United States had provided $221 million in equipment and training to the LAF last year alone (22).

In pursuing U.S. interests in Lebanon, Congress enacted a sanctions bill targeting parties that facilitate financial transactions for Hezbollah’s benefit in December 2015. This legislation, known as the Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act, prohibits the maintenance of any U.S.-based account that provides monetary support to Lebanon’s contentious political and militant group.

Conversely, the U.S. is tasked with walking a delicate balance between curbing Hezbollah’s strength while avoiding sparking an internal conflict in Lebanon. The militia is often deemed more effective than the LAF, and both organizations have fought alongside one another to ward off groups like Daesh. More important, because of Lebanon’s dilapidated institutions Hezbollah (like many other sectarian political factions) operates, “a vast network of schools, clinics, youth programs, private business and local security” within the country (23).

President Donald Trump’s administration appears to have further complicated its own dealings with Hezbollah. On Oct. 10, the State Department offered $12 million in rewards for information that leads to the capture and conviction of two senior Hezbollah officials: Talal Hamiyah and Fu’ad Shukr.

“Until Hezbollah stops using terrorism and violence to achieve its goals, the United States and our allies will aggressively target its terrorism infrastructure and financial support networks,” said Nathan Sales, State Department Counterterrorism coordinator.

Regardless, the U.S. continues to fight alongside Hezbollah while battling Daesh in Syria, furthering the “Global War on Terrorism.” The battlefield experience Hezbollah has gained by justifying its involvement in the Syrian Civil War is a cause for concern for the State Department, its respective allies, most notably Israel, and the international community overall.

“As Hezbollah claims victory in the Syrian conflict and regional players such as Saudi Arabia assert a more active stance against Iranian influence, some observers question whether the resolution of conflict in Syria would lead to an increase in tensions within Lebanon (24).”

A New Powerbroker

Hezbollah basically reconstructed Southern Lebanon after its last war with Israel. When the Syrian Civil War ends, many believe Hezbollah is destine to help restore al-Assad’s ravaged nation. The “Party of God” also devised successful battle strategies in Syria, reclaiming Aleppo from Daesh warring alongside Russian and Syrian forces. Nurturing its social cache, Hezbollah established a Syrian branch of its Imam al-Mahdi Scouts, a youth movement that mirrors the Boy Scouts of America. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, international sanctions imposed on Iran have been successfully lifted, freeing the financial backbone of Hezbollah’s operations. In November 2016, Hezbollah held a celebratory parade in al-Qusayr, flaunting its military prowess in a Syrian town they unofficially control. The only thing Hezbollah can’t seem to do is slow its regional power grab.

“To host a military parade commending yourselves in another country is as bold as you can get,” said a former State Department official (25). “It’s telling your masters ‘We’re here now.’”

High tension at sexual assault case involving minor

Pima County Prosecutor Tracy Miller grilled the defendant in a sexual assault case involving a 15-year-old girl, during his testimony at Superior Court on Thursday.

Orestes Roberto Ybarra, 35, was charged with two counts of sexual assault, and one count of sexual abuse and indecent exposure on May 30, 2015.

At the time of his arrest, Ybarra was a clinical assistant at Ideal Physical Therapy, now ATI Physical Therapy, a national rehabilitation center that owns 600 clinics operating in 24 states.

According to court documents, during a deep tissue massage Ybarra allegedly rubbed the victim’s vulva, and penetrated her buttocks with his finger and penis. She resisted, attempted to flee and Ybarra blocked the door, according to her original interview with a sexual assault specialist.

Ybarra scheduled the physical therapy session on Saturday, a day the clinic is normally closed, and for work he was not authorized to do. Although he received clinical training in-house, he understood a licensed physical therapist must be working at the time of treatment.

During his original interview with Tucson Police Department, Ybarra admitted he had broken multiple company protocols the day of the incident.

“I was concerned,” he said. “I thought I opened the door for a lawsuit.”

But Ybarra said he realized the implications were far more serious when he was contacted by TPD Detective Gerardo Diaz, and throughout his interview with police.

Ybarra told the court his direct supervisor was getting married the week of the incident, and he was under a lot of pressure to keep the clinic busy.

He denied assaulting the girl in any way, but he admitted during the massage treatment the pair was arguing about her boyfriend.

Earlier in the day, the state called TPD Criminalist Cheryl Langdon to testify against Ybarra. Langdon processed the DNA evidence used in the case, explaining the typical procedures for criminal investigations and later fielding questions from the grand jury.

One juror asked why it took until September for law enforcement to process DNA evidence for the case. After an initial objection from the defense to allow Langdon to speculate, Judge Casey McGinley asked based on her experience is this type of delay abnormal.

“Based on the urgency of the sample, some DNA requests are shelved, while others are collected with urgency,” Langdon said. One factor that contributes to expediting DNA analysis is whether the suspect poses a public threat, she added.

Can DNA evidence deteriorate over time, another juror asked? As long as the evidence is stored properly, DNA samples can last indefinitely, she said, and the evidence for this case met that threshold.

Diane Kerrihard, a forensic nurse at Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center, conducted the initial interview with the teen. Kerrihard was certified as a sexual assault forensic nurse in the 1990s, she explained, and earned her credentials for youth cases more than three years ago.

Kerrihard has testified in at least 40 sexual assault cases throughout her career, but she is always more concerned with the wellbeing of her patients. The crux of the initial testing determines what type of treatment a victim may need and collecting evidence is secondary, she said.

“I personally don’t care about evidence, it’s more for their safety,” Kerrihard said.

Parents can be present during the process and an advocate also observes the procedure, she said, and at any time the child can stop the examination.

Kerrihard told the prosecution she did not find any bruises on the girl, but that doesn’t rule out sexual assault. She further said she wasn’t expecting to find any bruising, because less than 5 percent of children who are victims of sexual assault show signs of battery.

“People don’t want to leave evidence,” she said. “And if it’s been a while, the victim could have healed.” And physical penetration does not necessarily leave marks of any kind, she added.

Ybarra looked dazed after prosecutor Miller fired questions at him during the cross examination: why didn’t you contact the parents about a minor storming out of an off-hours session; why didn’t you contact your supervisors; why did you lie to your supervisor when he contacted you after talking to police?

A juror asked Ybarra why he wasn’t wearing underwear during the incident, or at the time of his arrest. “Typically, I don’t wear underwear,” he said.

He prefaced his testimony by saying he was nervous, especially as a father of two children — a daughter, 12, and a son, 9. As he answered the last two juror questions, Ybarra began to ramble and was lead back to his point by Judge McGinley.

Bail was set at $100,000, and he failed to make bond until his parents placed a lien on their home, which was valued at $120,525. He was released on bond in December 2015.

The modest courtroom was packed, forcing a handful of law enforcement officers and county employees to stand aback the room. During Ybarra’s cross examination, a note was passed from the audience to prosecutor Miller, who handed the communication to the bailiff. The quieted disruption was addressed by Judge McGinley after the jury left for the day. He praised the county staff and family members in attendance, and urged them to continue to care, but reminded them acting rather than reacting is the cornerstone of legal proceedings. He ended with a pointed quip, lightening the heavy mood of the day.

Final arguments and sentencing will proceed on Friday at 10:30 a.m.

Conviction, mistrial verdicts in child molestation case

Rubbing a child’s genitals is an inexplicable act and obviously motivated by sexual gratification, said Pima County Prosecutor Virginia Dawn Aspacher, during closing arguments at Superior Court on Wednesday.

It was incredibly difficult for a young child to testify against her father, Aspacher said, but she knows what happened to her, just as her sister knows what happened to them — and now so does this courtroom full of strangers.

John William Inman, 32, was charged with two counts of child molestation during a four-month period starting Nov. 1, 2015. Inman was found guilty of molesting his 7-year-old daughter on Thursday. The second allegation of sexual misconduct with Inman’s youngest daughter, who turned 3 this year, was ruled a mistrial.

He was arrested on April 14, 2016. Bail was set at $50,000 and Inman’s father posted $25,000 bond on June 9, 2016.

As the child watched TV, Inman joined her on the couch rubbing her vagina with his fingers, Aspacher said, recalling the young girl’s testimony that day. His daughter further said she saw Inman molest his 3-year-old, while saying “I love you,” according to Aspacher.

Ultimately, the jury decides the credibility of witnesses who testify, she said, but every element of this evidence has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Defense Attorney Chelsea Padilla-Frankel said Inman’s daughter had trouble remembering being fondled during her testimony, because it never happened.

The defense argued that Inman’s youngest daughters were initially asked about the alleged molestation with misleading questions, in a “yes-or-no fashion,” by his teenage daughter. And the child was simply repeating a story her sister fabricated, Padilla-Frankel said.

But Aspacher refuted the claim reminding the jury that Francisca Serrano, a bilingual forensics interviewer at Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center, said the initial interview of Inman’s youngest children was not misleading.

The defense insisted Inman’s children were asked a biased line of questioning, noting that Pima County Sheriff Deputy Jesus Rodriguez didn’t interview the pair, because he wasn’t qualified to do so.

Padilla-Frankel told the jury a day, month or year from now they should never wonder what the truth is about this case, and if they aren’t completely convinced acquittal is the only choice.

“Frankly, there is a lot of reasonable doubt in this case,” she said.

Judge Howard J. Fell told the jury this case presents a unique set of circumstances, whereas the state has not submitted any evidence. And the sole evidence is contained in the witness testimony, he said.

If the jurors had any clarifying questions, they would communicate with him via the bailiff, and Fell would respond in writing. He gave the group until 4:45 p.m. on Wednesday to reach a verdict, but urged them not to rush and said they would reconvene the following morning if need be.

Inman was facing 20-48 years in prison if convicted on all counts, according to prosecutor Aspacher.

A warrant was issued for Inman’s arrest on Thursday, and a sentencing date will be set when he is apprehended.

City Council mulls retirement incentive package for safety officers

Tucson City Council further discussed an early retirement incentive program for public safety officers, which could save the city more than $2.4 million next fiscal year.

The city anticipates about 12 officers from both the Tucson Police and Tucson Fire departments will take advantage of the retirement package.

The retirement incentive will offer a full payout of the officer’s sick leave, a one-time $50,000 cash payment and a three-year Medical benefit supplement. The temporary insurance package will pay about $28,800 annually, but the retiree will not receive government health coverage after the three-year mark.

City Manager Michael Ortega began by saying he wanted some direction from Mayor & Council before finalizing the retirement incentive offer. He further said the language regarding commissioned officer positions would be converted to civilian positions was misleading, and will be corrected when the proposal is complete.

Council Member Karin Uhlich, a Democrat representing Ward 3, confirmed the point of this initiative was to allow Tucson’s safety departments the opportunity to shape its supervising staff according to the community demand. For example, if a fire inspector is more valuable at a particular station, that change can be made because of the potential vacancy left by a retired officer, Uhlich said.

That is absolutely correct, Ortega said. “This gives us the best ability to really look at, and to really say, every vacancy is an opportunity. So how we approach that, and filling those positions is the key to that conversation.”

In order to minimize costs, the benefit package will be offered during a 45-day window, and local officers must declare their intent to retire by July 1, according to city documents. And officers will be granted a weeklong grace period if they change their minds.

For Tucson firefighters, this retirement incentive will only be offered to the rank of captain, or battalion, deputy and assistant chief. The amount of firefighters who can accept this offer is limited to 10 captains and two chief officers.

Similarly, the city’s offer will only be extended to officers who hold the rank of police sergeant, lieutenant, captain and assistant chief.  And the amount of peace officers allowed to take up the proposal is capped at 10 sergeants and 13 commanders.

Creating vacancies in the police department’s upper management could potentially place more law officers in the field, said Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. And based on precinct needs, the opportunity for promoting police officers also opens up, Rothschild said.

Ortega said this initiative is simply speeding up the natural process of attrition for ranking officers while keeping in mind the importance of public safety.

“Vacancies give us an opportunity, from a management perspective, to look at how we do business,” Ortega said.

“What I’ve challenged both police and fire to do is really look hard at the basis for us providing services,” he said. “Whatever those services are, and because of some of the constraints that we’ve had, we obviously can’t afford to do exactly what we’ve always done.”

Council Member Shirley C. Scott, a Democrat of Ward 4, asked the language regarding replacing sanctioned officers be changed in writing before the council approves the final draft of the initiative.

What if the number of ranking public safety officers willing to retire exceeded the city’s estimates, asked Steve Kozachik, council member and Democrat of Ward 6?

That would be troubling, said Ortega. The burden of replacing the maximum amount of ranking officers could prove difficult, but he’s confident with the current estimates. He said although facing that challenge wouldn’t be easy, the financial and reframing flexibility could be an asset.

“That’s a discussion, on a macro scale, that would be a nice problem to have,” he said.

City Council gets progress report on inmate reduction program

Tucson City Council discussed the progress of multiple initiatives recommended by a statewide task force that are designed to decrease the population of local jails.

The “Justice for All” report, compiled by the Arizona Supreme Court’s Task Force on Fair Justice for All: Court-Ordered Fines, Penalties, Fees, and Pretrial Policies, was released on Sept. 1, 2016.

The report recommended alternative options for non-violent offenders awaiting pretrial services including:

  • Statutory changes for setting and collecting court-ordered payments, as well as potential waiving of fines
  • Offer payment options for people who cannot afford to pay court fines, and allow more community service based repayment
  • Recommend the best practices for releasing non-violent civil offenders, while maintaining public safety
  • Review and consider alternatives to the current driver’s license suspension policy
  • Recommend educational programs for judicial officers, judges and court staff responsible for the pretrial decision-making process
  • Identify and enhance technological notification services for defendants, which can reduce the amount of those who fail to appear in court and possibly encourage defendants to appear

Christopher Hale, court administrator at Tucson City Court, said the city could quickly implement 17 of the 65 recommendations made by the task force’s report, according to city documents. Eight of the improvements were put into effect immediately, while others are still being worked on.

Amelia Cramer, Chief Deputy at the Pima County Attorney’s office, presented an update on the initiatives aimed at quelling overcrowding in the Pima County jail.

Pima County recently received a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, a national endowment designed to help reduce over-incarceration by providing support for local jurisdictions to create fairer judicial practices, which helped finance some the county’s new programs.

The county was awarded $1.5 million for the next two years from the MacArthur Foundation grant, the option to extend the financial award for a third year has yet to be determined.

Cramer came across two cases that epitomized the need for Pima County to take part in this program about two years ago, she said.

The first case concerned a severely mentally ill woman who spent 45 days in jail, because a bench warrant had been issued for her arrest for failure to appear in court. The woman was originally charged with a misdemeanor for stealing a candy bar, she said.

During that same week, a man from Northwest Tucson shot rounds through his front door at Tucson Police Department officers, she said, and was released the next day on a $150,000 cash bond. This defendant was wealthy enough to post bail, Cramer said.

“We need more safety, in terms of those who are violent and dangerous predators in our community, to make sure they are in custody,” Cramer said. “And we need more justice for those who are poor, and can’t afford to post bail.”

In 2014, Pima County jail was housing almost 2,300 inmates, Cramer said, and the overall capacity of the facility is 2,377. According to county projections, Pima County jail will see an 18 percent increase of inmates by 2020, which would place the number of county inmates at about 2,800, she said.

“And you all, Mayor and Council, are well familiar with the costs of the current jail, can you imagine how much greater those costs would be if the county had to build yet another jail,” she said. “So the county began looking for ways in which to reduce the jail population in a manner that would be safe, and also ensure justice.”

The county recently determined that more than 80 percent of inmates housed in Pima County jail have not been sentenced, Cramer said. Although inmates in jail and prison are often erroneously lumped together, the two populations are quite different, she added.

When the county began implementing their automated reminder system, there was a 24 percent decrease in defendants failing to appear in court. The city is planning in rolling out its own Interactive Voice Response system, which will offer reminders in both English or Spanish via a mobile alert.

Council Member Richard Fimbres, a Democrat of Ward 5, asked Cramer what is being done to combat recidivism.

Council Member Regina Romero, a Democrat of Ward 1, further asked Cramer whether the MacArthur provides bias training for law enforcement and judges, which can prevent cultural discrimination for peace officers in the field and presiding judges.

Cramer said there are efforts being made, at the city and county level, to recognize and reduce implicit bias for law enforcement and within the criminal justice system.

Hale, court administrator at Tucson City Court, said city court is an innovator and leader regarding limited jurisdiction courts, which is why they were able to immediately implement some of the improvements recommended by the statewide task force.

For example, Tucson City Court hasn’t issued a failure to pay warrant in at least 10 years, Hale said. “We’ve just been ahead of the curve for a long time, and I just wanted to make that clear.”

After two years, armed robbery and kidnapping trial winds down

Michael J. Thurman testified against his former friend and co-defendant Quentin L. Evans, on Thursday, during the tail end of an armed robbery and kidnapping trial at Pima County Superior Court.

According to court records, at about midnight on March 5, 2015, Javier Figueroa, Moises Enriquez, Travis Vertrees and Omar Estrada-Vasquez were robbed at gunpoint by three men, while arriving at Figueroa’s home.

Thurman said Figueroa was considered a thief amongst his friends, and the robbery was supposed to teach him a lesson, but until the night of incident talking about the robbery was just a joke.

Rebecca Mueller, deputy Pima County attorney, asked Thurman how their discussion went from being to a joke to something serious.

“Alcohol and drugs will do a lot of things to your thinking, but I can’t really answer that,” Thurman said.

Mueller said at some point it was no longer a joke, which Thurman confirmed.

Thurman, 19, was 17 at the time of his arrest, and was on probation services for a previous felony conviction.

Defense attorney Stephanie K. Bond evoked a range of emotions from Thurman during the cross examination. At one point, Judge Sean E. Brearcliffe directed Thurman to simply answer Bond’s questions.

As Bond went through his prior interviews, she methodically identified the inconsistencies with his testimony. Thurman said he was being medicated at the time.

Evans and Thurman were charged with five counts of armed robbery, kidnapping, aggravated robbery and aggravated assault. In exchange for his testimony, Thurman is being charged with one count of attempted armed robbery, and will serve between two and nine years in prison.

Mueller walked Thurman through the night of crime, also pointing out where his testimony and prior interviews with police were inconsistent.

Thurman said he restrained one of the victims with makeshift handcuffs, and held all three outside, while Evans and another suspect entered the Figueroa residence in search of marijuana and money.

During an interview with law enforcement in July 2015, Thurman said Evans bragged about pistol whipping one victim during the home invasion — a claim he denied during his testimony.

Figueroa told the Tucson Police Department that he recognized the defendants, because they used their street names during the crime.

TPD obtained a search warrant for Evans’ residence, and found a semiautomatic handgun, a revolver, a black mask and identification cards belonging to the victims as well as Estrada’s watch and wallet.

Thurman and Evans were inseparable at the time of their arrest, he said. The two friends moved into Evans’ new apartment one day prior to the incident.

Thurman’s step-mother died in December 2014, of an alleged drug overdose, according to a letter written by his biological mother, Michele Keller.

Keller gave birth to her son while in prison, and Thurman remained under his stepmother’s care until her death. Keller served multiple sentences in prison for drug offenses, but has remained clean and sober for more than 10 years.

The defendant’s bond was originally set at $50,000. Thurman’s bail was reduced to $10,000, but he has remained in jail since his arrest. Keller pleaded with the court to release Thurman in her custody, although she could not afford bail.

Judge Brearcliffe told the jury that they are ahead of schedule, but some witnesses cannot testify early. The trial is set to end on Friday, March 31.

Amphi School Board gifts brightest students

The Amphitheater School Board approved two measures that will bolster programming for its gifted students on Tuesday.

The board agreed to improve Amphi’s Realizing Excellence through Academic and Creative Help program by: hiring at least three new full-time elementary school teachers and increasing the time allocated for instruction; and expand instruction in English high school classes for advanced students.

Spending an estimated $117,660 for supplementary textbooks and technology for the district’s elementary and middle schools will be explored at a later date.

Patrick Nelson, superintendent for Amphi, said the initial report that earmarked ways the district can improve its REACH curriculum would be too costly, so school operations identified the three most pressing issues.

“Implementation of the entire report would be, at this point in time, prohibitively expensive and probably not doable — unless the governor and the legislature come through with quite a bit of additional funding,” Nelson said.

Monica Nelson, associate superintendent for Amphi, said this discussion would only address the first steps towards revamping the REACH program, which were identified by meeting with parents and teachers involved in the curriculum.

“And we felt like we couldn’t do everything, that’s why we called these, very carefully, ‘first steps,’” she said.

Deanna M. Day, vice president of Amphi’s Governing Board, asked for clarification about why there’s a difference between the cluster model — a technique that groups gifted students together — in elementary school compared to high school.

Donna Shreve, a department chair at REACH, said the cluster model of instruction at the elementary school level is mandated, whereas high school students can choose whether they want to attend a seminar-style cluster class.

Shreve further said expanding the push-in technique — where gifted instructors would visit a student’s regular English class, teaching joint curriculum throughout the year — would make the advanced programming more efficient at the 9th and 10th grade level. “So by having the REACH teacher push-in to that classroom, then they’ll get those services.”

One of the biggest concerns is the inconsistency in Amphi’s gifted program, said Melanie Derksen, a department chair at REACH. Students in middle school receive daily advanced instruction, but once they reach high school the program diminishes, she said.

“We need to figure out what we can do, in 9th and 10th grade, for our REACH teachers to service these children,” Derksen said.

Jo Grant, president of Amphi’s Governing Board, asked how the REACH committee and Amphi school operations choose the three items being considered that evening.

Shreve said the glaring shortfall of the REACH program was in outreach to the youngest gifted students at Amphi schools, which is also the greatest concern for parents.

At the high school level, the REACH chairs, as well as Associate Superintendent Nelson, said if they had to choose between implementing a boost in programming for freshman and sophomores, or continuing to fund the gifted internship program, they would choose the former.

Reducing, or removing, the junior- and senior-level internship opportunities in order to supplement the costs of enhancing outreach for younger high school students would be a detriment to Amphi students and the community overall, said Scott A. Leska, an Amphi Governing Board member.

“I think that’s a disservice to those students who are looking forward to it,” he said.

The original framework for assessing, and improving, Amphi’s advanced curriculum was not a matter of choosing between slashing one part of the program to fund another, said Cymry DeBoucher, an honors internship coordinator at Canyon del Oro High School.

Moreover, the honors work DeBoucher is involved with is much more than a once a week seminar class for Amphi’s brightest pupils, she said. Honors counselors often spend up to 15 hours each week, scheduling job interviews for students looking for advanced-level internships, and molding the direction of these pupils beyond graduate school.

“We also see academic competitions as an important part of what should be provided to gifted students,” she said. “And that may or may not be part of the gifted process, but it certainly has been at my high school for 20 years.”

Tucson City Council considers pilot program to quell homelessness

Fred Fisher said one way to stay sane when you are homeless is to accept the harsh reality.

Fisher came to Tucson via a two-year contracted position that required him to travel. He chose to stay in town, and when his savings ran out he wound up homeless. That was nine years ago come July.

He applied for public housing through the City of Tucson’s Housing and Community Development Department program, and was placed on a waiting list about three years ago.

The Tucson City Council discussed the Permitted Overnight Sleeping Pilot Program, on Wednesday, Feb. 22, an initiative that will provide temporary housing at designated safe spaces for people facing homelessness. The city unanimously voted to revisit a properly vetted proposal within 120 days.

In its current draft, the program will authorize 10 overnight sleeping areas throughout Tucson. Local ministries, non-profit organizations and businesses will be allowed to house up to four vehicles or micro-housing structures on their property.

Michele Ream, director at Community Supported Shelters Tucson, said part of Tucson’s homeless problem is the extensive wait for affordable housing, so providing temporary safe spaces can make all the difference.

Ream is working with a local architect to develop a prototype for the city’s proposal, which will be housed on her property. The model will be easy to assemble, and upon completion Ream plans on inviting Tucson’s Mayor and Council to stay overnight.

Homeless people simply don’t have a legal right to be anywhere, Ream explained. And the concept is to provide a temporary space for people facing homelessness. From there, they can apply for housing, local programs and stabilize in general, she said.

“The idea behind the hut is that it’s going to provide basic shelter … security, that you can lock your stuff when you leave during the day, and you can lock the door so no one’s going to come in and beat your head in when you’re sleeping,” she said. “And then just the stability that’s going to come from having a place that you’re allowed to be.”

The proposal recommends these sites be located within 1,200 feet of other rehabilitation centers or homeless shelters. The sites will also provide services such as restrooms and garbage collection, and participants will not be charged any fees.

Site rules may prohibit alcohol use or possession, designate a set time for participants to vacate the location and ask them to perform some type of community service, according to city documents.

Local leaders will also require that service providers notify their neighbors before allowing participants to utilize the sites. Furthermore, the city of Tucson will not provide any funding towards the project, and the city must be exempt from any type of legal recourse, according to the first draft of the proposal.

The local initiative is based on a few successful programs launched in Eugene, Oregon including: SquareOne Villages, formerly known as Opportunity Village Eugene, which is a 30-unit compact housing property for the homeless; and the Overnight Parking Program, which provides a legal camping space, garbage pickup and restrooms for people or families living in their cars.

‘Homeless by a Wall’ (Garry Knight / Creative Commons)

About 77 percent of Arizona’s homeless population live in either Pima or Maricopa counties, according to data collected by the Department of Economic Security in 2015. The report stated, the density of Pima County’s homeless population remains the highest in Arizona, and although the amount of homeless people has decreased it’s still larger than the national average. In FY 2014, about 1 in every 180 people were facing homelessness in Pima County, according to DES’s report on homelessness in Arizona in 2015.

Ream said the DES’s estimate is conservative at best.

Council Member Regina Romero, a Democrat representing Ward 1, said finding solutions to Tucson’s homeless problem is an ongoing discussion. The city’s collaborative efforts with faith-based groups and nonprofit organizations to combat homelessness is certainly moving forward, she said, and fine tuning this pilot project is worth the effort.

“And if Eugene, Oregon has piloted a program like this, I don’t see why the city of Tucson should not follow suit,” Romero said.

Council Member Richard Fimbres, a Democrat of Ward 5, said this would be a valuable addition to the city’s efforts.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild was concerned about naming an arbitrary amount of sites before the city is approached by organizations that are interested in participating in the program. He also said providing security at the locations is a key talking point.

And a major player in this program needs to be the city’s planning and development staff, Rothschild said.

Council Member Karin Uhlich, a Democrat representing Ward 3, said this project is designed to alleviate the pressure for people living on the street, as well as help local homeowners who are forced to deal with the liabilities of homelessness.

“And the goal of this program is to help people to join back into the community,” she said. “I think if people are hosted by a known congregation, by a known entity and have a better, formalized structure — their chances will be much better at succeeding.”

Brianda Torres-Traylor, a council aide for Ward 3, said this initiative can act as an essential transitional program for people dealing with chronic homelessness.

Assuring the participants, sites and surrounding communities remain safe is of utmost importance, Torres-Traylor said. This pilot program could serve as a flexible, community-based response to providing housing for those in need, a model that Council Member Uhlich is interested in exploring, she added.

“This could be one way to address the fact that folks aren’t getting into traditional programs,” Torres-Traylor said.

Attending a city council meeting was a first for Fisher, and he hopes local leaders can draw a conclusion about the pilot program soon than later. As Fisher waits for affordable housing to become available, he lives in a shed on Ream’s property, a luxury he’s enjoyed for the last three years.

“And when I’m out looking for work, I don’t have a backpack with my life on my shoulder, I have clean clothes and I can put two words together — I hope,” he said, with a laugh.

Local leaders settle best use of potential tax hike

The Tucson City Council discussed the best way to spend the revenue from a half-cent sales tax increase that voters will decide on during a special election on May 16.

The five-year proposal will fund repair projects for city roads, and the purchase of new equipment for the Tucson Police and Tucson Fire departments.

The temporary tax hike will generate about $50 million each year, with the average Tucsonan paying an additional $3 dollars a month in sales tax, according to the city’s estimate.

Council Member Steve Kozachik, a Democrat representing Ward 6, said he wanted to assure voters that the potential citywide road improvements weren’t arbitrary, noting some of the roads were recently repaired.

Kozachik also said asking taxpayers to approve this measure again, when infrastructure money is always necessary, is exactly why he didn’t want to limit the time frame for this increase in revenue. “These costs aren’t going away,” he added.

The council decided that 60 percent of the revenue will fund public-safety investments, and 40 percent will go toward various road improvements. The public-safety money will be split evenly between Tucson’s police and fire departments, while 60 percent of road improvements will focus on major streets and 40 percent will repair residential streets.

Daryl Cole, director at Tucson Department of Transportation, said although some local roads were in good condition, maintaining those streets will save the city money in the long run.

City Manager Michael Ortega added maintaining roads in good condition will save Tucson money, and in five years, the council can decide whether the sunset tax increase should be revisited.

Council Member Paul Cunningham, a Democrat of Ward 2, said this initiative can keep the city budget on track and allow Tucson to catch up on its necessary road projects.

“This is the package that maximizes as many roads as we can to be at 90 percent functionality, and that’s why I appreciate the package that’s been put together,” Cunningham said. “And hopefully, this will right the ship, if not once and for all, and get us to the point where we have a sustainable road system in the city.”

The city also plans on purchasing 257 marked patrol cars for TPD with the additional revenue. According to city documents, 63 percent of TPD’s marked fleet have passed their “recommended useful service life.” The city also wants to purchase 1,050 ballistic vests for TPD officers. Even though new officers are provided with this essential protective gear, TPD has struggled to replace ballistic vests for local law enforcement at the recommended five-year mark.

More than $31 million will be spent on new vehicles for Tucson Fire, which includes 19 primary firefighting units, three basic ladder trucks and 90 general purpose vans and staff cars.

The city will invest more than $27 million to remodel TPD’s Operations Division South, 4410 S. Park Avenue, known as the Santa Cruz Substation, by adding a community meeting hall, a basketball court for local youth and extra space to house the growing precinct. Tucson’s Fire Station 10 will be relocated to the site in order to provide efficient emergency services to the city’s Southside.

Shirley C. Scott, a Democrat of Ward 4, said Tucson’s public safety departments did an outstanding job at identifying the investments that are essential, and further said this initiative is a good start.

“There should be more, there’s so many more things that we could add,” Scott said. “But we have to go in a measured pace and address the most important things.”