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Ryan Ferguson Is a Total Savage When It Comes To Schooling Us About Wrongful Convictions on MTV

Photo Courtesy MTV

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No matter how hard of a boner you have for police — or how bitter the taste in your mouth is following recent headline-making actions by authorities — the story of Ryan Ferguson will likely open your eyes to the harsh reality of a flawed justice system in America. Over the past ten years, one person every hour went to prison for a crime they didn’t commit.

In 2004, Ferguson was a college student in Missouri when he was arrested for the 2001 murder of a newspaper’s sports editor named Kent Heiholt. He was eventually sentenced to 40 years in prison, missing holidays with his loved ones and opportunities to hug his mom for more than two seconds without getting reprimanded by an abrasive security guard.

He eventually proved his innocence and was released in 2013, after nearly a decade locked in a cage.

Now, the 31-year old is spreading awareness of the crooked steps often taken when convicting a murderer by exploring cases of people who claim to be wrongfully convicted, along with Exoneration Project investigator Eva Nagao, on the new MTV show, “Unlocking the Truth.”

Better than the Weekend had the chance to speak with both of them, as well as the show’s executive producer, Adam Kassen, before the August 17 premiere, where we discovered some terrifying truths.

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Photo Courtesy MTV

Better than the Weekend: After spending nearly a decade fighting behind bars for your freedom, why would you want to involve yourself with the legal system again by doing this show?

Ryan Ferguson: It’s not what I want to do, it’s what I have to do. The fact is, I lost ten years of my life for no reason at all. I learned that this is happening to a lot of people. This can happen to anyone, at any time, for no reason whatsoever. Unless I can use my voice to help bring about awareness and stop this from happening to other people, those ten years of my life will have happened for nothing. I can’t accept that.

Eva, what inspired you to investigate wrongful convictions?

Eva Nagao: My grandparents were Japanese immigrants. They met in internment camp in Manzanar during World War II, so I think their has been this common thread of awareness of incarceration in my family that’s changed how we view the world. That really lead me to the legal profession, in particular wrongful convictions.

Why are so many people wrongfully convicted of crimes they didn’t commit?

Ferguson: The job of law enforcement — police and prosecutors — is not to determine guilt or innocence. Their job is to build a case and let a jury decide that. That means hiding evidence, creating evidence, manipulating evidence to build a case and get convictions. They can do that and not have the fear of getting in trouble for that. That’s wrong. That’s leading to people losing their lives. That is leading to a victim not getting their justice.

Nagao: We have a country that is disproportionally incarcerating, convicting, investigating and charging black men and women, and then we also have a system where people are able to turn a blind eye. There’s so much prosecutory power. A prosecutor can charge you with a crime excessively. They can give you a huge sentence. What’s a reasonable person going to do? Even an innocent person is going to take a deal and plead guilty based with a choice like that. They’re going to want to see their family again one day. For that reason, there are actually so many more wrongful convictions we will never, never hear about.

How can the justice system be improved?

Ferguson: Awareness. If a prosector manipulates evidence, if they get people to lie, if they know someone is perjuring themselves, they should get in trouble. Once we’re aware of it, we can stand up and make a difference by demanding accountability. We’re well on our way, but it’s still going to be a long fight.

Ryan Ferguson Eva Nagao

Photo Courtesy MTV

It takes a lot of faith in humanity to believe someone convicted of a crime is innocent. Do you struggle with the thought of someone not being innocent?

Nagao: Absolutely. You develop a real bond with someone when you’re struggling in the trenches with people who are fighting for their life. The thought that they are being disingenuous with you is heartbreaking. But I think on the other side of that, you understand that people are doing what they can to survive. The important thing to me is showing the path to people being wrongfully convicted. Guilty people can be wrongfully convicted. No person who is wrongfully convicted should be in prison.

That’s a bold statement.

Nagao: If we want the legal system to work, in order to give us and our community justice, then we have to hold it to its highest standard. That means if people cheat and people lie and if the evidence is wrong — even if that person is guilty — it still means that they don’t belong in prison.

“Unlocking the Truth” is coming out during a time when people are divided about trusting law enforcement. Ryan, after your experience, do you trust law enforcement or do you live in fear that they can arrest you again for a crime you didn’t commit? 

Ferguson: We should all be afraid of the police. They have far too much power and no accountability and that’s a frightening thing. There are great authorities out there, but I don’t think anyone should believe the authorities will properly handle their case. In an interrogation, their goal is to get a confession, not to find the truth.

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Photo Courtesy MTV

Adam, has producing this show affected your view on law enforcement?

Adam Kassen: This is not a show at all about bashing cops or bashing prosecutors, but it is trying to take a hard look at some real problems we have in our justice system, and we have a great example with Ryan. Really, if it can happen to Ryan, it can happen to any one. There’s a lot of conversation and anger on both sides about police abuse and the way police are being treated. This show will give a thoughtful conversation on why people get convicted and what are the things we can do to prevent that, like accountability for the prosecutors and training.

How will the show look at these alleged wrongful conviction cases differently than the first time they were under investigation?

Kassen: This project really highlights that when you’re accusing someone of committing a serious, violent crime that is going to take away that person’s life, you really need to look at all the facts. If the people watching see the facts as Ryan and Eva explored, hopefully this will be some kind of call to action.

Ferguson: We don’t go in trying to build a case of innocence, we try to determine the facts of the case and see if we come up with a different conclusion. We’re doing what he hope the authorities would have done.

“Unlocking the Truth” airs Wednesday nights at 11 p.m. from August 17 through September 28. 

 

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Scranton’s mayor drops out of debate, dismisses millennial population

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Scranton’s mayor, Bill Courtright, dropped out of a debate with candidates Jim Mulligan and Gary St. Fleur at the eleventh hour. A campaign spokesperson cited “scheduling conflicts” Tuesday in an email, despite committing 8 days earlier.

The debate is the first opportunity for the candidates to take questions together directly from the voters. It is also the first-ever time Scranton’s candidates for mayor will unite to address concerns made by the youngest voters — millennials. The League of Women Voters of Lackawanna County hosted a debate last week, but refused to allow live-streaming, making the debate less accessible to young people.

Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor with 30 years of experience as a political media consultant, says it’s not uncommon for an incumbent mayor to avoid a debate.

“There’s really two reasons a candidate would not want to appear,” said Berkovitz in a phone call to Better than the Weekend. “One. He or she knows they are way ahead. They’re most likely to win the election, so they don’t have a lot to gain and they have a lot to lose. Why give a platform to your opponents and allow them a chance to score some points? Number two. There’s some kind of scandal or problem that he or she doesn’t want to bring to the forefront.”

Both are possible reasons Courtright dropped out of the upcoming debate. In 2013, Courtright, a Democrat, defeated Jim Mulligan, the same Republican nominee he’s running against this time around. He’s likely confident his supporters will turn out to hand him another victory. In terms of a scandal, a Lackawanna County judge recently ruled Scranton overtaxed residents and is in violation of state law. Jesse Chobey, a millennial Scranton voter, is convinced Courtright doesn’t want to put himself in another position to answer to a crime crippling his constituents.

“Courtight’s whole term as mayor of Scranton was spent stealing money off the tax payers and now he’s a coward and can’t face up to what he did. Bottom line,” said Chobey.

Dropping out “is not good democracy, but it’s good political strategy,” said Berkovitz.

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Mike Milani feels Courtright’s sudden scheduling conflict is irresponsible and sends a message affirming millennials have no future in Scranton.

“Let’s just give the guy the benefit of the doubt and say there is a scheduling conflict,” said Milani. “You mean to tell me it took days for his campaign to realize he can’t attend? That just shows how sloppy local government is under his scrambled leadership.”

After moving to Scranton from Baltimore, Maryland to attend Lackawanna College in 2011, Milani said he struggled for six years to succeed in the area before making the decision to move to Dallas, Texas this year.

“There was no opportunity for me unless I married into one of the monarch families of NEPA,” said Milani. “There’s too much nepotism for outsiders to come here and succeed. I knew someone who got arrested by a cop, was legally represented by his brother, and the judge was the father. That’s seriously fucked up and sounds like something that would happen in a farm town in Kentucky, not a city with more than 70,000 people living there. The only good jobs are local government jobs. Small businesses can’t thrive in the area. Money isn’t spent on attracting educated entrepreneurs. People should look at the budget. Too much money is spent on a failing criminal system with a recidivism rate through the roof. It’s crazy.” While Pennsylvania recidivism rates are dropping to a historic low, Lackawanna County is jailing people at twice the national average.

Milani said he’s not surprised the mayor dropped out of a debate targeting millennial issues because he doesn’t believe Courtright would know what to say to young people calling out the city’s lack of opportunity.

“The young people in Scranton should pack their bags and run now if they want a chance at any kind of future,” he said.

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Republican candidate Jim Mulligan and Gary St. Fleur, running on a write-in campaign, feel differently about the fate of the Electric City. They see the potential in Scranton with new leadership and will be addressing concerns when millennials take charge at Thursday’s town hall.

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Any millennial voter (born in or after 1981) in Scranton can attend the debate by sending an RSVP to justin@betterthantheweekend.com with their name, contact information and question to the candidates. For those who can’t attend, questions can still be submitted by email and on Facebook.com/betterthantheweekend by commenting on the post announcing the event.

The debate will be hosted by Better than the Weekend at the Hilton Scranton & Conference Center and will be live-streamed at 7:30 p.m. on Facebook.com/betterthantheweekend.

Better than the Weekend hopes Courtright will once again change his mind and prove he is willing to prioritize concerns of millennials by participating in the debate but is still looking forward to hearing from anyone running for mayor willing to talk about the future of the city with the future of the city.

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Scranton’s candidates for mayor to face off in millennial town hall

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Millennials will have a chance to address their concerns for the future of Scranton, Pennsylvania in a first-ever town town hall debate solely catering to the youngest voters in the Electric City. Better than the Weekend is hosting the event Thursday, November 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hilton Scranton & Conference Center. All three candidates who participated in the first mayoral debate on Oct. 25 — Democratic nominee Bill Courtright, Republican nominee Jim Mulligan, and write-in candidate Gary St. Fleur — have agreed to participate and look forward to validating the concerns of young voters.

Despite how divided the United States is when it comes to political issues, America remains the highest hope for all who cherish free speech and open debate. When the League of Women Voters of Lackawanna County last week refused to allow Better than the Weekend to live-stream the mayoral debate between the candidates in Scranton, I felt like I was in North Korea. Or some alternate universe in Rick and Morty.

While the LWV of Lackawanna County says they’re open to live streaming in the future, that doesn’t help the voting public now. Only 20 percent of registered voters in Scranton voted for a mayoral candidate in the primaries. Something needs to happen to stimulate a higher voter turnout. Restricting a debate’s accessibility is not only reckless — it builds a wall between the candidates and the citizens they wish to lead.

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While past elections have shown young people are less likely to vote, the all throat and no vote reputation is expiring. Millennials are fed up with the broken social contract around college, which no longer functions as an automatic elevator to indulging middle-class comfort. Young people are crippled by the fall in wage growth. More connected than any other generation in history, millennials put social unrest on blast and spark conversations with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of instant allies. We’re woke and we’re not backing down.

Seemingly out of touch with the way our country is moving forward and the modern means to live up to their core principles and democratic responsibility of engaging the public with local government, the LWV of Lackawanna County inspired Better than the Weekend to step up and host a town hall where millennials could take the lead.

The first 40 millennials to RSVP by sending an email to justin@betterthantheweekend.com will be welcomed to attend the town hall. The RSVP email must include their full name, age, cell phone number, name as appears on Facebook, Instagram name and question directed at all candidates. Facebook and Instagram information will be used to screen participants and assure they’re millennials from Scranton.

Even those who can’t attend are encouraged to email a question or post it on Facebook.com/betterthantheweekend by leaving a comment on the post featuring this article. For those who can’t attend, the debate will be live-streamed on Facebook.com/betterthantheweekend. The video will still be up on the page after it is filmed. Not all questions will be guaranteed to be addressed. Better than the Weekend and the candidates will try to get as many concerns addressed as possible.

A special millennial town hall happy hour will take place at PJ’s Pub inside the Hilton from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. leading up to the debate.

Further questions about the event are encouraged and can be sent to justin@betterthantheweekend.com.

For now, spread the word and be heard.

 

 

 

 

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Father to daughter: An open letter to Lindsay Lohan from her dad

Michael Lohan

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My Dearest Lindsay,

Well the The Parent Trap is over. You’re 12 years old now, yet while you have an old soul, your life has only begun. I’ve been around the block a few times, Linds, and I’ve lived your life twice over. I write this thinking of the days gone by, how you got here today and what the future holds for you. I’m trying to find the words. Words with meaning and deep rooted truth that will stay with you forever. Words that will guide you and express my feelings toward you. Words like love, forgiveness, sacrifice, strength, hope and faith. Words like gifted, a blessing and the natural beauty you are. Words that are kind, thoughtful, generous and touch the heart in wonderful ways. But beware, my darlin’, because there will be times when people come at you because of all the wonderful things you are, and they will use words in ways that aren’t so kind.

When a father has a daughter like you, who has accomplished so much at such an early age, it’s scary, but he also realizes she’s just as strong as he is. A force to be reckoned with. A soul on fire, just like your hair, with the same strength and passions as any man I’ve ever met.

Like you sweetheart, words do have strength of their own, and maybe, just maybe, my words as a father will be louder and resinate more than the words of the world. Maybe my words can deliver to you a deep, unshakeable sense of your own worthiness and beauty.

Your gifts are a blessing, honey, and you have a great responsibility to use them in the best of ways. As I told you, God says, “Where there is much given, there’s much required,” and if not used the right way, “What God gives you, He will take away.” I hope those words find a place deeply tucked in your heart. Your talent is a force to be reckoned with. So when options come your way that can distract your work, always choose your talent. Your talent will inspire people. It will force people to feel things like laughter, joy and the feeling of not being alone. But if you don’t keep your talent on top of the list of priorities, it will be taken away. After all, you know how often that has happened to me.

Also realize that there will be bumps in the road because of life and no one is perfect. God knows, I’ve been there as well. The important part is that when a rough patch comes and if you fall off the horse, that you get back on so the horse doesn’t run too far away. Use your strength to get up, dust it off and continue in the right direction. You have the reins in your hands, honey, but let God be your driving force in the pursuit of your dreams.And when it comes to your dreams, choose them wisely, and not from a department store shelf, a book or someone else’s thoughts of what you should do or where you should go. Live your life like your heart tells you with the wholehearted consideration of what God whispers in your ear. That whisper, honey, is your conscience, and it will guide you. Find the still-quiet place within you and never lose it. A real dream has been planted there.

May your strength be in your heart, may you discern in your heart who you are, and then may you boldly, but carefully, live it out in the world to the best of your ability. Be the kind, loving and ageless soul that you are and make a difference in wonderful ways.

From my heart to yours,

Daddy

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