L.A. Times Has Substantially Misleading Story on the Patriot Act and Unruly Airline Passengers
At a tremendous blog that I just learned about today, a former federal prosecutor named Ken absolutely rips apart an overwrought L.A. Times story about the Patriot Act as applied to unruly airline passengers.
I want you to go there and read the whole thing, because the post is admirably well written and documented. It’s a post that I would have been very proud to write, and I don’t say that sort of thing often. The author knows what he’s talking about, and just jams the evidence down the newspaper’s throat.
The post discusses a case described by The Times as follows:
Tamera Jo Freeman was on a Frontier Airlines flight to Denver in 2007 when her two children began to quarrel over the window shade and then spilled a Bloody Mary into her lap.
She spanked each of them on the thigh with three swats. It was a small incident, but one that in the heightened anxiety after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks would eventually have enormous ramifications for Freeman and her children.
A flight attendant confronted Freeman, who responded by hurling a few profanities and throwing what remained of a can of tomato juice on the floor.
We’re told how her life has been ruined by the hysteria following September 11.
As Ken painstakingly documents with specific references to court documents that he accessed (and that Times reporters seem to have ignored), the woman was seen by numerous passengers engaged in violent behavior towards the children over an extended period of time. Ken extensively quotes from the affidavit in support of the complaint, which says things like this:
Tamera Freeman appeared intoxicated and violent towards her children before she boarded the flight in San Francisco;
. . . .
When denied further alcohol, Freeman threw a drink on the ground at FA Fleming. At one point, Freeman followed FA Fleming into a common area and began yelling and pointing her finger at FA Fleming.
. . . .
In the San Francisco airport prior to the departure of the flight, [passenger] Katie Shanahan observed Freeman drop her son on his back and head on the ground when he did not want to go to the bathroom with her. Freeman left her son on the ground crying for several minutes;
Another passenger describes Freeman hitting her children “over and over”; another says he “heard Freeman hitting her children ‘the entire flight’, to the point where the children were trying to hide in a comer and on the floor;” and another passenger says he saw her “hit her children with a closed fist during the flight.” It goes on and on like that.
At the end of the post, Ken says he had not yet pulled documents on another case described by The Times.
Don’t bother, Ken. I got your back.
Later in the article, we are told about a man who was not arrested even though he tried to open an emergency exit in mid-flight. The article then says:
Such was not the case with Carl Persing and Dawn Sewell, a Lakewood couple who never left their seats during the 2006 incident aboard a Southwest flight to Raleigh, N.C., that led to their arrests and four days in jail.
FBI and local investigators in Raleigh alleged that the couple engaged in a variety of sexual activities during the flight. At one point, according to an FBI affidavit, Persing was “observed with his face pressed against Sewell’s vaginal area. During these actions, Sewell was observed smiling.”
A flight attendant twice asked them to stop, according to the affidavit, and Persing responded, “Get out of my face,” and later, “You and I are going to have a serious confrontation when we get off this plane.”
But he denied making a threat. He said he did not feel well because of a chemotherapy drug and had put his head in Sewell’s lap. “We were kind of confused why he was waking us up, why he wouldn’t let me sleep,” he said in a recent interview.
Charges were dropped against Sewell, but Persing, who had never been arrested before, was sentenced to 12 months’ probation.
The paper makes it sound as though Persing’s innocent explanation might be credible. This suggestion omits a few facts, which (like Ken) I learned through the simple expedient of conducting a search of the court file, which is freely available to the general public on the Internet through the PACER system — and could have been accessed by the reporters who wrote this story.
In telling us that Persing was just napping on his girlfriend’s lap, the paper fails to mention that there was a jury trial in this matter. Twelve members of the community found Persing guilty of interfering with the flight attendant’s duties — an unlikely result if he was truly just napping. Evidently, the innocent explanation offered to The Times by Persing was rejected by a unanimous jury beyond a reasonable doubt.
But there’s more. According to the affidavit quoted by the paper, the couple was kissing and making out immediately preceding the alleged “head in the lap” incident — and this happened more than once:
While on the ground in Phoenix, PERSING and SEWELL were observed by Flight Attendant 1 (FA-1), Flight Attendant 2 (FA-2) and other passengers, embracing, kissing and acting in a manner that made other passengers uncomfortable. PERSING was observed nuzzling or kissing SEWELL on the neck, and around the collarbone in the vicinity of her breast. PERSING was also observed with his face pressed against SEWELL’s vaginal area. During these actions, SEWELL was observed smiling.
(6) Upon witnessing this activity, FA-1, while PERSING had his face pressed against SEWELL’s vaginal area, instructed PERSING and SEWELL to end this activity. SEWELL nodded to FA-1 and the two complied.
(7) While in flight to RDU, PERSING and SEWELL re-initiated the previously described actions that made other passengers uncomfortable. FA-1 again approached PERSING and SEWELL and instructed them to end this behavior.
This is where Persing’s threatening behavior began:
Observed by a passenger in a nearby seat, PERSING pointed and shook his finger at FA-1 and said: “I’m going to give you one warning to get out of my face!” PERSING repeated this statement to FA-1. FA-1 informed PERSING and SEWELL that he would be reporting their behavior to the Captain.
This statement — already repeated for emphasis — was not the only threat, according to the affidavit. The document goes on to describe how, during the complimentary beverage service, Persing and Sewell were refused alcoholic beverages because of their earlier behavior. According to the affidavit, Persing responded by saying, “there is going to be a serious confrontation between you and me.” According to the affidavit, Sewell also demanded alcohol and was refused. Then, the affidavit alleges, Persing said: “I’m 44 years old and you’re just a punk.”
An order written by the trial judge after the trial tells us:
Throughout the flight, Defendant made obscene gestures toward McCabe (FA-1 from the affidavit) and called him names. McCabe testified that Defendant appeared intoxicated, as he was glassy eyed, slouched, and his speech was slurred.
McCabe called Captain James Kniese, who was located in the cockpit, several times during the flight to report Defendant’s behavior. In response to McCabe’s initial phone calls, Captain Kniese discussed the possibility of diverting the plane with his co-pilot.
Here is more from the affidavit. As you read, marvel at the article’s claim that the couple “never left their seats”:
Later in the flight, SEWELL approached FA-1 in the galley area and wanted to know if anyone would be waiting for them when they arrived at RDU. FA-1 informed SEWELL that SWA and law enforcement officials would be waiting. SEWELL told FA-1, that if law enforcement was waiting, PERSING “would not go quietly.”
. . . .
After being denied alcohol by FA-1, SEWELL went to the rear of the aircraft to complain and sought service of alcohol from FA-2 and Flight Attendant 3 (FA-3). During one of these contacts, SEWELL stated that she worked for an attorney and it was law that the flight crew had to serve them alcohol if requested. FA-3 informed her that SWA reserved the right to deny service of alcohol to anyone they deemed appropriate. SEWELL appeared not [to] accept this information and continued to request to be served alcohol. Neither FA-2 nor FA-3 provided alcohol to SEWELL.
. . . .
Due to the concerns of the flight crew, the Captain decided to activate the fasten seat belt sign in order to keep PERSING and SEWELL in their seats and prevent any further confrontation. During the de[s]cent into RDU, while the fasten seat belt sign was activated, SEWELL approached FA-1 in the galley and asked for a piece of paper. FA-1 instructed SEWELL to immediately return to her seat as the fasten seat belt sign was activated. Ignoring the instructions of the flight crew member, she bypassed her seat and went directly to the rear of the aircraft.
Never left their seats?
The affidavit says that towards the end of the flight, the threats were repeated yet again:
As FA-1 was passing PERSING and SEWELL’s seat, PERSING stated: “you and I are gonna have some serious confrontation when we get off this plane.” FA-1 asked PERSING to repeat his comment and he again stated, “you and I are gonna have some serious confrontation when we get off this plane.”
That marks the fifth time Persing uttered a threat to the flight attendant.
From the judge’s order, we learn that the flight attendant spent much of the flight looking over his shoulder, worried that Persing was going to carry out his threats. When the plane landed, the need for law enforcement interviews delayed the next flight.
The Fourth Circuit, in an unpublished opinion, tells us:
Our review of the record leads us to conclude that Persing’s comments to the flight attendant amounted to true threats, which are not protected by the First Amendment.
This is hardly the innocent misunderstanding reported by the paper.
As Ken said regarding the initial case described by the paper, “this account cost me pennies and took me a few minutes to find and download.” The statement that the couple never left their seats is pure hokum. The idea that Persing was simply resting his head ignores the observations of numerous people who said that the couple was engaged in sexual activity and kissing more than once, and acting in a drunken and hostile manner when asked to stop.
The article has a story line, and the reporters and editors are apparently bound and determined to stick with it — and to hell with the facts revealed in court documents.
I’m finding it harder and harder to feel sympathy for this newspaper as it continues to descend into financial ruin and irrelevance. Good riddance.
P.S. If you’ve read this far and still haven’t read Ken’s post, read it now. And bookmark his blog, Popehat. It looks like a good one.