U.S. BRIEFS | Criminal defendants in Oregon go free for lack of attorneys
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Public defenders are in such short supply that criminal defendants are going free. In Multnomah County, where Portland is located, judges have dismissed charges for nearly 300 defendants so far this year because they did not have access to legal representation. On Nov. 21, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt announced his office would start releasing weekly lists of cases dismissed to highlight the problem. “Every day that this crisis persists presents an urgent and continuing threat to public safety,” said Schmidt, a progressive prosecutor elected in 2020 on a criminal justice reform platform. On Nov. 23, the Oregon Judicial Department confirmed the state had 763 low-income defendants who lacked access to legal representation. Oregon suffered a shortage of public defenders for years but the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem by creating a backlog. A working group in the Oregon Legislature has been studying the issue and will make recommendations for reform in 2023. —Emma Freire
Elon Musk is still cleaning house. The new owner of San Francisco–based Twitter released documents showing how the tech giant coordinated with Biden administration officials to squelch the Hunter Biden laptop story in 2020. Musk handed his findings to journalist Matt Taibbi, who revealed the bombshell in tweet form on Dec. 2. Taibbi shared screen shots of private emails listing links and tweets Twitter blocked—per Biden team requests. In one case, Twitter blocked users from sharing New York Post reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop in the final weeks of the 2020 presidential election. Messages show Twitter’s former chief legal officer, Vijaya Gadde, played a key role in suppressing the laptop story. —Sharon Dierberger
Officials in Lucas County approved canceling $1.6 million in medical debt for eligible residents using federal COVID-19 economic relief funds. The city and county governments will partner with the nonprofit RIP Medical Debt, which buys unpaid debt in bundles from hospitals at lower amounts and offers debtors a clean slate. Residents are eligible if they make 400 percent of the poverty level or less, or their medical debt totals at least 5 percent of their overall income. The program is modeled after a similar one in Cook County, Ill., where officials committed $12 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to wipe out medical debt. At least six other local governments have asked about implementing the program. —Mary Jackson
The historic Memorial Presbyterian Church of St. Louis voted in November to exit the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA). It cited “continued attacks” from within the denomination since 2018, when it hosted the first Revoice conference. Revoice promotes homosexual orientation as an identity congruent with Christian faith but upholds sexual behavior as reserved for a married man and woman. Memorial’s pastor and Revoice speaker Greg Johnson, who says he is same-sex attracted and celibate, survived a recent investigation from PCA members and presbyteries on his status as a teaching elder. But a recent PCA amendment, if ratified by the denomination’s regional presbyteries, would disqualify him from ministry. On Nov. 18, 92 percent of Memorial’s congregation voted to leave the PCA. Johnson indicated he would leave the denomination, too. In an Oct. 18 letter to congregants, church leaders said they faced new challenges from the denomination, including one involving the church’s arts ministry, which in 2020 hosted a transgender theater festival. —Mary Jackson
On Nov. 29, Baltimore police announced they had arrested suspects in a string of robberies involving ride-share apps Uber and Lyft. In one incident, a Lyft driver picked up four passengers, one of whom pulled out a gun. The passengers robbed the driver and forced him into the trunk of his car. The thieves then used the app on his phone to pick up more passengers and rob them. “We encourage riders and drivers to cancel trips if they don’t feel safe and remind riders to always double check the details of their ride—car make and model, driver name and photo, and license plate—before getting in,” Uber said in a statement. The ride-share incidents are part of a wider crime wave plaguing Baltimore. The city has reported over 300 homicides this year. Police understaffing has compounded the problem: The police department has about 800 fewer officers than in the early 2000s. —Emma Freire
Administrators with Loudoun County Public Schools mishandled two sexual assaults committed by the same transgender high school student in May and October 2021, according to a special grand jury. The 14-year-old male student, who was wearing a skirt, sexually assaulted a female student in a girls’ bathroom at Stone Bridge High School. Superintendent Scott Ziegler denied the assault in a June 21 board meeting, despite an email to the school board that showed he knew about the incident. Police arrested the victim’s father during that board meeting after he and other parents shouted at school officials during public comment. The male student transferred to Broad Run High School, where he abducted and sexually assaulted another female student. He has since been convicted in juvenile court. The grand jury found Loudoun County school officials “[bear] the brunt of the blame” for failing to provide proper transparency and communication to parents and law enforcement. —Elizabeth Russell
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