Category: writing

The struggle with life in Philly, after serving time in prison

April 27th, 2014 – 6:55pm

By Emily Babay

Leroy “Beyah” Edney was 11 the first time he got locked up.

Edney was at a Philadelphia rec center when an argument with another kid turned violent. It didn’t turn out so well for the other kid. Edney spent six months at a juvenile detention center as a result. A few years later, he began stealing cash from supermarkets. He worked his way up to robbing banks and stores at gunpoint.

“My appetite got bigger and bigger,” Edney says.

Edney, now 56, has served half his life in prison – 28 years to be exact. He’s determined not to go back and works seasonally now as an artist at that same rec center in Overbrook. Edney has no employer benefits but recently obtained health insurance.

Edney was released for the last time in 2008, making him one of the more than 85,000 inmates released from Pennsylvania state prisons between that year and 2012, the most recent data available.

That number is growing: More than 19,000 Pennsylvania inmates were released in 2012 alone — nearly twice the number from a decade earlier. In Pennsylvania, New Jersey and across the country, the number of people incarcerated has been leveling off in recent years, after decades of steep increases. And the number of federal inmates could soon fall further, under new plans to ease sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Thousands of former prisoners are back on the streets in cities like Philadelphia. They are trying to readjust, find jobs, and just stay out of trouble. For many, it hasn’t proved easy.

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Read more: enterprise,, writing

Rampant overtime spikes city employees’ pensions in Philadelphia

April 7th, 2014 – 6:48pm

By Brian X. McCrone and Emily Babay

The City of Philadelphia has spent nearly $900 million in overtime during the past five years, partly as a strategy to keep costs down by hiring fewer full-time workers. But a analysis shows the strategy is driving up pension payments to thousands of employees.

Overtime has allowed unionized municipal employees to boost their yearly pay and to inflate, or “spike,” their pensions at a time when the city pension fund is less than half funded, according to the examination of 167,000 payroll records from the calendar years 2009 through 2013. The records were obtained from the city through a request using Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law.

Through overtime pay, a single employee can bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional retirement income. Pensions are based on an employee’s three highest years of pay, excluding workers in the police and fire departments.

Many city employees are logging almost superhuman amounts of hours, year after year, the analysis found. City officials say they look at departments’ overall overtime spending, though there appears to be little or no study of its short- or long-term effects on municipal finances.

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Read more: enterprise,, writing

5 years later, still no ‘dots’ to connect in Eric Birnbaum’s slaying

February 10th, 2014 – 6:43pm

By Emily Babay

Eric Birnbaum stayed late at his Bucks County office on Feb. 10, 2009. As usual, he was one of the last out the door, leaving with law partner Terry Goldberg about 8:30 p.m. The two childhood friends were used to working late into the night together.

Divorced with college-age daughters, Birnbaum walked into the dark on the mild winter night, climbed into his car and drove five miles to the Northeast Philadelphia home he shared with his long-haired dachshund, Oscar. He planned to walk and feed Oscar, then eat his own dinner, his normal evening routine.

In short, it was a typical night for Eric Birnbaum. And it was the last night of his life. Continue reading »

Read more: crime, enterprise,, writing

Philadelphia casino hearings

January 29th, 2014 – 7:45pm


I covered several days of suitability hearings for the applicants bidding for Philadelphia’s second casino license, live-tweeting the proceedings and filing multiple stories. Below are links to the stories I wrote and my tweets from the hearings (tweets for each presentation are in chronological order).

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Read more: breaking news, multimedia and social media,, Uncategorized, writing

Camden native’s journey from rough neighborhood to NFL workouts

April 8th, 2013 – 6:35pm

By Emily Babay

Matt Marshall faced tough odds when he stepped on the field at the NovaCare Center in South Philadelphia to workout for the Philadelphia Eagles.

But regardless of what the coaches thought of him, the Camden native has already achieved his goal to “not to be a statistic.”

The University of Arkansas graduate grew up in the waning days of Camden’s crack epidemic near The Alley, an infamous, open-air drug bazaar that was razed in 2004. A drug dealer was shot dead on his home’s doorstep. Close friends have faced the ends of gun barrels.

So when Marshall left the field, he felt he was already on his way.

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Read more: features,, writing

‘Endless’ sentencing hearings in Maryland take toll on victims, families

April 28th, 2012 – 6:32pm

The Washington Examiner

By Emily Babay

In January, Carolyn Hoover sat in a packed Montgomery County courtroom to watch a judge sentence the young man who drunkenly crashed his car into a telephone pole and trees, killing her son and two others.

Less than four months later, her family was back in court for another sentencing hearing, and a three-judge panel cut 21-year-old Kevin Coffay’s prison term from 20 years to eight.

“I felt sick inside,” said Hoover, whose 20-year-old son, John, was killed. All involved in the crash attended Magruder High School or were recent graduates. “Every time we have to go to another hearing, it sets us back months.”

The case has raised questions about an unusual and little-known Maryland law that lets defendants ask for a new sentence from a three-judge panel, even if there was nothing illegal about their original punishment. The result can be an agonizing process for victims and their families, who are often taken by surprise and must endure numerous court dates yet never feel like a case has reached its end.

“There’s almost no finality in a criminal case,” said Russell Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center. “Victims want justice, and you want justice to be final.”

It’s difficult to tell how often panels review sentences and reduce them.

David Soule, executive director of the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy, said the commission does not keep data on sentencing review panels. A Maryland courts spokeswoman and local state’s attorney’s offices also could not provide that data.

In addition to the panels, defendants can also ask their sentencing judge to reconsider a sentence.

It’s routine for defendants to request a new sentence through at least one of those avenues, said Seth Zucker, spokesman for the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Most requests for sentencing panels are denied without a hearing and the sentences remain unchanged, said Byron Warnken, a Maryland lawyer who specializes in post-conviction work. But when a hearing is granted, the sentence is reduced about three-quarters of the time, he estimated.

The three-judge panels are most likely to reduce lengthy sentences, Warnken said.

“They can throw you a bone without letting you walk away from prison,” he said.

Several other recent high-profile cases that appeared to have been closed are still ongoing, as the defendants have asked review panels to take up their cases.

Brittany Norwood, serving life in prison without parole for the brutal killing of a co-worker at a Bethesda yoga store, and Keith Little, sentenced to the same punishment for stabbing his boss to death at Suburban Hospital, have both asked panels to review their sentences. Both are waiting to learn whether hearings will be granted.

Deontra Gray, one of four teenagers who pleaded guilty in the slaying of D.C. school principal Brian Betts in Silver Spring, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He requested a sentence review panel, and a hearing is scheduled for September.

Combined with parole and other appeals, prosecutors and victims advocates say, there’s often no end in sight.

“Our concern here is the virtually endless review process for even legal sentences,” Zucker said.

Hoover said the process has made it nearly impossible to move forward after her son’s death.

“I would rather have had a lighter sentence to begin with and not go through what we had to go through,” she said.


Sidebar: Panels created to quell controversy

The sentencing review panels now under fire in Maryland due to a recent drunken-driving case in Montgomery County were created in hopes of quelling controversy over sentences.

A law creating the three-judge panels was enacted after a 1965 report on criminal sentences in the state found “alarmingly disparate” penalties, according to Maryland Court of Appeals opinions that address the act and its history.

It’s rare to have a separate review process — like the three-judge panels — solely for sentences, said Douglas Berman, a sentencing law expert at Ohio State University. Local officials said a handful of other states have some form of sentencing reviews, but no other state appears to have a system directly comparable to Maryland’s, according to the National Center for State Courts.

Sentencing review panels might be an effective way to correct for extreme sentences, Berman said.

“There’s some value in having a panel double-check whether that’s not just permissible, but a good judgment,” Berman said.

In recent years, 70 percent to 80 percent of sentences in Maryland are within guidelines, according to the State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy.

Read more: courts, Washington Examiner, writing

Five Fairfax gang members accused of prostituting girls

March 29th, 2012 – 8:27pm

The Washington Examiner

By Emily Babay

A 17-year-old girl who responded to a Facebook message saying she was pretty and could make money told police that she ended up being forced to give oral sex at knifepoint and coerced into having sex with 14 men in one night.

The person named “Rain Smith” who sent that Facebook message was actually 26-year-old Justin Strom, the leader of the Underground Gangster Crips — a Fairfax County-based division of the Crips gang — and had sent more than 800 similar solicitation messages to other girls, according to authorities and a criminal complaint unsealed Thursday.

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Read more: courts, crime, Washington Examiner, writing

Supreme Court weighs warrantless GPS surveillance in D.C. case

November 8th, 2011 – 5:40pm

The Washington Examiner

By Emily Babay

The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday about police use of GPS tracking without a warrant, appearing deeply disturbed by unlimited use of the technology but uneasy about whether and how to regulate it.

The justices likened their concerns to George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” in oral arguments in the case of Antoine Jones, a District nightclub owner was arrested in 2005 on cocaine-distribution charges after police placed a GPS device on his vehicle without a valid warrant and tracked the car for a month.

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Read more: courts, Washington Examiner, writing

Suspect ‘lost it’ and killed yoga store victim, defense admits

October 26th, 2011 – 5:36pm

The Washington Examiner

By Emily Babay

Jayna Murray died in a “horrific” argument with her co-worker at a Bethesda yoga store — but the killing was not a premeditated murder, an attorney for the woman charged in Murray’s death says.

Brittany Norwood “lost it” and “unfortunately and stupidly” killed Murray at the Lululemon Athletica where the pair worked, Douglas Wood, an attorney for Norwood, said in his opening statement at her trial.

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Read more: breaking news, courts, Washington Examiner, writing

Grandma admitted ‘terrible thing’ in killing 2-year-old

September 27th, 2011 – 5:29pm

The Washington Examiner

By Emily Babay

Carmela Dela Rosa told detectives she “did a terrible thing” when she flung her 2-year-old granddaughter to her death off a six-story walkway at Tysons Corner Center, according to a taped interrogation played in court Tuesday.

Dela Rosa, 50, is charged with murder in the November 2010 killing of Angelyn Ogdoc. Her attorneys are presenting an insanity defense at her trial, which began Monday in Fairfax County Circuit Court.

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Read more: courts, Washington Examiner, writing

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