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How bad would a GOP Senate takeover be for LGBT people?

Republicans need to pick up six seats to claim majority

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Mitch McConnell, Kentucky, Republican Party, United States Senate, U.S. Congress, CPAC, Conservative Political Action Conference, gay news, Washington Blade
Mitch McConnell, Kentucky, Republican Party, United States Senate, U.S. Congress, CPAC, Conservative Political Action Conference, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would likely become majority leader if Republicans win a majority in the Senate.  (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The congressional mid-term elections are more than six months away, but political observers are already warning Democrats they could lose control of the U.S. Senate — an outcome that has tongues wagging over its potential impact on LGBT issues.

While analysts agree that Republicans could claim at least six seats to win control of the chamber — such as by knocking off pro-LGBT senators in New Hampshire and Colorado — the general sense is draconian anti-gay measures like the Federal Marriage Amendment won’t emerge even with GOP control of the Senate.

Dan Pinello, a political scientist at City University of New York, noted seven incumbent Democrats are seeking re-election in states Mitt Romney won in 2012 and conservatives like the Koch brothers and Karl Rove are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars through “Super PACs” to affect those races.

“So I think the prospect of a Republican takeover is very close — a virtual tossup right now,” Pinello said. “Everything will depend on the degree to which Democratic voters turn out at the polls in crucial states.”

Republicans are optimistic about their prospects on Election Day 2014 — and virtually no one is suggesting that Democrats can retake control of the House. In an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” anti-gay GOP strategist Karl Rove predicted GOP victory in the Senate.

“With 14 seats in play on the Democratic side and a couple of seats in play potentially on the Republican side, I think it’s highly likely that Republicans pick up the majority,” Rove said.

On the same day on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer defied the predictions by saying he believes “we will keep the Senate.” But his former colleague in the White House, Robert Gibbs — who landed in hot water in 2010 by saying Republicans could take control of the House — expressed a contrary view, saying the Senate is “definitely” in danger in 2014.

“So as a consultant, I can say all these things now,” Gibbs said. “They’ve got to pick up six seats, which is not a small number. But what gives them a huge advantage, obviously, is the states that they’re in…Louisiana and in North Carolina, in Montana, places that the president didn’t do well.”

The heads of both political parties are both bullish about their prospects in 2014. On Tuesday, Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus predicted at a National Press Club breakfast a “tsunami” and said it’s “going to be a very big win, especially at the U.S. Senate level.” Meanwhile, Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said that Democrats are running “aggressive bottom-up campaigns” and she’s confident her party will hold the Senate.

But political analysts have forecasts more favorable to Republicans. As of Monday, Cook Political Report forecast that Republicans will pick up somewhere between four and six seats, but expected the ultimate gains will be “at the higher end of – and may exceed – that range.”

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said it’s too early to provide a firm prediction on the extent of Republican gains, but said Republicans would net at least four to six seats.

“It’s easy to see how they could get six or even more if President Obama stays in the low 40s and the economy continues to be balky,” Sabato said. “This year, in the sixth-year of President Obama’s administration, you’d much rather be in the GOP’s electoral position than the Democrats’.”

Pro-LGBT Democrats face challenging re-election bids

Democrats elected to the Senate at the start of the Obama administration and who built a reputation for  supporting LGBT rights are among those facing uphill re-election bids.

Among them is Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) who has championed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and the flow of spousal benefits to veterans in same-sex marriages as chief sponsor of the Charlie Morgan Act. A potential challenger for her is former U.S. senator from Massachusetts Scott Brown. Although he voted for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal during his tenure in the Senate, Brown penned an op-ed for Bay Windows suggesting the pursuit of LGBT rights was a “pet project.”

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) also faces a tough re-election bid now that Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) has announced he will run for the Senate. Udall has championed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, an end to the Defense of Marriage Act and has written at least two letters to the Obama administration to ensure gay veterans can receive spousal benefits in whichever state they live. Gardner hasn’t articulated a position on same-sex marriage, but voted in favor of an LGBT-inclusive version of the Violence Against Women Act.

The Democrat who’ll likely face the most challenging re-election campaign is Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). An early supporter of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, she voted for a repeal amendment in the Senate Armed Services Committee even before the Pentagon report on open service. Hagan came out in favor of same-sex marriage last year on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on California’s Proposition 8. She could face any one of a number of Republicans vying for the nomination in the state’s primary.

Also of note is the re-election bid of Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who as chief sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act oversaw a bipartisan vote in favor of the bill in the Senate late last year. Merkley has also been the leading voice in the Senate calling on President Obama to sign an executive order barring LGBT employment discrimination among federal contractors. A number of Republican candidates have lined up to challenge Merkley, although he’s expected to win re-election in the heavily “blue” state.

The only Republican who’s expected to face a tough re-election challenge is the one who’s likely to handle the floor schedule in the Senate if the GOP ekes out a win: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). In addition to facing a Tea Party challenge, McConnell faces a stiff challenge in the general election from Democratic Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Would anti-LGBT legislation move forward?

If the Republicans win control of the Senate, it would create a Congress in which the GOP leads both chambers at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to deliver a nationwide ruling on marriage equality.

Speaking to the Washington Blade after her event at the National Press Club, Wasserman Schultz initially responded to an inquiry about what a GOP takeover of the Senate would mean for LGBT people by saying, “Oh, God.”

Wasserman Schultz predicted Republicans would curtail the expansion of rights she said are “deserved” by LGBT people in addition to engaging in an “aggressive attempt” to roll them back. But the DNC chair emphasized that won’t happen because Democrats are on track to maintain control of the Senate.

Asked by the Blade whether she thinks Republicans would want to push through a Federal Marriage Amendment, Wasserman Schultz said that “wouldn’t surprise me” because the Republicans endorsed the amendment as part of the 2012 party platform.

But political observers say even with Republicans in control of both chambers, the trend in favor of same-sex marriage — which a recent poll pegged at 59 percent support — would deter Congress from passing a measure that already failed twice under the Bush administration when Republicans had large majorities.

Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said he doesn’t foresee a situation in which Republicans would push forward in either chamber with a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

“Considering the move for a Federal Marriage Amendment in the House following the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision last year went absolutely nowhere tells me that there is little appetite among Republicans to engage in culture wars either in the House or the Senate — in this election cycle and in 2016,” Angelo said.

But there are other pieces of anti-gay legislation that could be seen as an alternative to the Federal Marriage Amendment. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) have introduced legislation known as the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, which would prohibit the federal government from discriminating against organizations that exercise “religious conscience” against same-sex marriage.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Texas) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have introduced the State Marriage Defense Act, which would prohibit the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage in states where it’s not allowed. The bill may be moot in the event of a Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality.

Sabato nonetheless said he doesn’t see much of an opportunity for anti-LGBT legislation of any kind to make it through the Senate – given the growing support for LGBT rights among Republican senators.

“I think it is very unlikely Susan Collins or Rob Portman would support any stand-alone, anti-LGBT legislation,” Sabato said. “I could see other Republicans joining them, such as Lisa Murkowski. I can’t see a single Senate Democrat voting for such legislation. So I doubt the Senate would pass it.”

In the event that an anti-gay bill was approved by both chambers of Congress, Sabato said the legislation would never become law because President Obama would veto it once it reached his desk.

But Republican control over the Senate could mean an end to progress on pro-LGBT legislation. Under Democratic control, the Senate just barely invoked cloture on ENDA by a vote of 61-30 before approving it on final passage. Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House has yet to take up ENDA months after the Senate voted to approve it as House Speaker John Boehner threw cold water on it during a meeting with the LGBT Equality Caucus.

Pinello said the danger for the LGBT community in the aftermath of a Republican takeover of the Senate lies in the nomination and confirmation of federal judges — perhaps on the Supreme Court in the event of a vacancy before the final ruling on marriage equality.

“The federal bench is now the most hopeful source of remedy for the denial of marriage equality nationwide, and a Senate controlled by the Republican Party might diminish those prospects,” Pinello said. “Thus, there is very good reason for LGBT voters to turn out for Democratic candidates next November.”

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Stephen Clark

    March 19, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    Why would you even bother asking Wasserman-Schultz, the Democratic Party's top hack? Of course she will feign shrieking hysteria about a marriage amendment that even Ralph Reed says is dead. It's all about pathetic scare tactics to shake as much money out of the gAyTM as possible. Meanwhile, she is aggressively working to sabotage the ENDA executive order behind our backs. Begone with her!

  2. Stephen Clark

    March 19, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    Why would you even bother asking Wasserman-Schultz, the Democratic Party's top hack? Of course she will feign shrieking hysteria about a marriage amendment that even Ralph Reed says is dead. It's all about pathetic scare tactics to shake as much money out of the gAyTM as possible. Meanwhile, she is aggressively working to sabotage the ENDA executive order behind our backs. Begone with her!

  3. Jeff Gonzalez

    March 20, 2014 at 2:03 am

    Voting for the Democrat half of the failed 2-party system is like settling for domestic partnerships instead of going for marriage equality. Dems helped vote in Alito and Roberts to the Supreme Court. It's a 1-party charade of endless war, poverty, pollution, and erosion of human rights. Gay Inc is beholden to Goldman Sachs and the like to they're in lockstep with the corporatism tyranny agenda – as we saw with the AT&T GLAAD / EQCA scandal a few years back.

  4. Anonymous

    March 20, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    What we need to do all the more is to seek out GOP candidates for offices who are willing to admit they do not understand LGBT issues. This is what I have been doing, with a PowerPoint presentation available for them and their staff. Love us or hate us, at least take time to understand us. That is all I ask. The truth will do the rest sooner or later. So far I have had some success. LGBT rights should be a bipartisan issue, not just an issue for Democrats.

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World

Chile marriage equality bill receives final approval

South American country legalized civil unions in 2015

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Chile, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A bill that will extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in Chile received final approval on Tuesday.

The Chilean Senate and the Chilean House of Representatives approved the marriage equality bill that passed in the lower house of the country’s Congress on Nov. 23. That vote took place two days after the first round of the country’s presidential election took place.

A final vote on the bill was expected to have taken place last week, but senators unexpectedly opposed it.

A commission with members of both houses of the Chilean congress approved the bill on Monday.

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National

Does a potential overturn of Roe imperil LGBTQ rights?

Some fear that Obergefell marriage decision could fall

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Protests outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 1. (Photo by Cathy Renna)

The oral arguments before the justices of the United States Supreme Court had barely ended in the case brought by the state of Mississippi defending its law banning abortion after 15 weeks, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, when alarms were set off in legal circles as some argued that Obergefell v. Hodges — the same-sex marriage decision — would be in danger should the high court rule to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Florida State University law professor Mary Ziegler, appearing on NPR’s ‘Heard on All Things Considered,’ told host Mary Louise Kelly that there was a basis for concern over whether the court would actually overrule its precedents in other cases based on the questions and statements raised during the hearing by the conservative members of the court.

Asked by Kelly if she saw a legal door opening Ziegler affirmed that she did. Kelly then asked her, “Them taking up cases to do with that. What about same-sex marriage?”

Ziegler answered, “Yeah, same-sex marriage is definitely a candidate. Justices Alito and Thomas have in passing mentioned in dicta that they think it might be worth revisiting Obergefell v. Hodges – the same-sex marriage decision.

“And I think it’s fair to say that in the sort of panoply of culture war issues, that rights for same-sex couples and sexual orientation are still among the most contested, even though certainly same-sex marriage is more subtle than it was and than abortion was.

“I think that certainly the sort of balance between LGBTIQ rights and religious liberty writ large is a very much alive issue, and I think some states may try to test the boundaries with Obergefell, particularly knowing that they have a few justices potentially willing to go there with them.”

As almost if to underscore the point raised by Ziegler during the hearing, Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor pointed out that the high court has taken and “discerned” certain rights in cases from the Constitution.

Along with abortion, the court has “recognized them in terms of the religion parents will teach their children. We’ve recognized it in their ability to educate at home if they choose,” Sotomayor said. “We have recognized that sense of privacy in people’s choices about whether to use contraception or not. We’ve recognized it in their right to choose who they’re going to marry.”

In following up the cases cited by Justice Sotomayor, Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart, who was defending the state’s abortion law, whether a decision in his favor would affect the legal precedents in those cases cited by Justice Sotomayor.

In his answer to Justice Barrett, the state’s Solicitor General said cases involving contraception, same-sex marriage and sodomy wouldn’t be called into question because they involve “clear rules that have engendered strong reliance interests and that have not produced negative consequences or all the many other negative stare decisis considerations we pointed out.”

However, Lambda Legal Chief Strategy Officer and Legal Director, Sharon McGowan had a different take and interpreted remarks by Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to mean that the decisions in Lawrence v. Texas, which decriminalized private sexual intimacy between same-sex couples, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which struck down remaining bans on the freedom of same-sex couples to marry, would actually justify overturning Roe v. Wade.

In a publicly released media statement McGowan noted: “During today’s argument, Justice Kavanaugh suggested that two key Supreme Court decisions protecting LGBTQ civil rights—Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell v. Hodges—support overruling Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

‘To that we say, NOT IN OUR NAME. LGBTQ people need abortions. Just as important, those landmark LGBTQ decisions EXPANDED individual liberty, not the opposite. They reflected the growing societal understanding of our common humanity and equality under law.

“Just as the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education rejected the lie of ‘separate but equal,’ the Supreme Court’s decisions in Lawrence and Obergefell appropriately overruled precedent where it was clear that, as was true with regard to race, our ancestors failed properly to acknowledge that gender and sexual orientation must not be barriers to our ability to live, love, and thrive free of governmental oppression. … 

“These landmark LGBTQ cases, which Lambda Legal litigated and won, and on which we rely today to protect our community’s civil rights, were built directly on the foundation of Casey and Roe. Our interests in equal dignity, autonomy, and liberty are shared, intertwined, and fundamental.” 

On Sunday, the Blade spoke with Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a national LGBTQ+ legal organization that represented three same-sex couples from Tennessee, whose case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court along with Obergefell and two other cases.

Minter is urging caution in how people interpret the court arguments and remarks made by the justices.

“We should be cautious about taking the bait from anti-LGBTQ groups who falsely argue that if the Supreme Court reverses or undermines Roe v. Wade, they are likely to reverse or undermine Obergefell or Lawrence. In fact, that is highly unlikely, as the argument in Dobbs itself showed,” he said.

“The only reason Justice Kavanaugh mentioned Obergefell and Lawrence, along with Brown v. Board of Education, was to cite them as examples of cases in which the Supreme Court clearly did the right thing. All of those decisions rely at least as strongly on equal protection as on fundamental rights, and even this extremely conservative Supreme Court has not questioned the foundational role of equal protection in our nation’s constitutional law,” Minter stressed.

During an interview with Bloomberg magazine, David Cortman, of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based anti-LGBTQ legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which has been listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an extremist hate group, said “two things in particular distinguish abortion from those other privacy rights: the right to life and the states’ interest in protecting a child.”

Cortman, whose group urged the justices to allow states to ban same-sex marriages, said those other rights may be just as wrong as the right to an abortion. “But the fundamental interest in life that’s at issue in abortion means those other rights are probably not in any real danger of being overturned.”

But Cortman is of the opinion that there is little impetus among the court’s conservatives to take up challenges to those cases.

However, the fact that the six to three makeup of the high court with a conservative majority has progressives clamoring for the public to pay closer attention and be more proactively engaged.

Kierra Johnson, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, in an emailed statement to the Blade underscored those concerns:

“Reports and analysis coming out of Wednesday’s Supreme Court hearing on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization are extremely disturbing and represent a threat to our individual constitutional rights to privacy and autonomy. There is no ‘middle ground’ on what the Constitution guarantees and what was decided decades ago with the Roe v Wade decision. 

“This is about liberty, equality, and the rule of law, not the political or partisan views of those sitting on the bench. The unprecedented decision to remove a constitutional right recognized by the Supreme Court 50 years ago would set back civil rights by decades. ….

“Abortion access is essential, and a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution. Bans on abortion are deeply racist and profoundly sexist – the harshest impacts fall on Black and Brown women and pregnant people and on our families and communities.

“If you think this decision will not affect you, think again: a wrong decision by the Supreme Court means you, too, will lose your bodily autonomy, your ability to own your own personal and community power. This is not just about abortion; it is about controlling bodies based on someone else determining your worthiness. This is a racial justice issue. This is a women’s issue. It is an LGBTQ issue. It is a civil rights issue. These are our fundamental rights that are at stake.”

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Local

In plea deal, D.C. trans woman’s killers could be free in 3 years

Two in 2016 killing of Dee Dee Dodds guilty of voluntary manslaughter

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Deeniquia Dodds, gay news, Washington Blade
Deeniquia ‘Dee Dee’ Dodds was killed on July 4, 2016. (Photo via Facebook)

A D.C. LGBTQ anti-violence group will be submitting a community impact statement for a D.C. Superior Court judge scheduled to sentence two men on Dec. 10 for the July 4, 2016, shooting death of transgender woman Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds in a case D.C. police listed as a hate crime.

Stephania Mahdi, chair of the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community’s Anti-Violence Project, told the Washington Blade the project has been in contact with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C., which is prosecuting the case against the two defendants set to be sentenced this week, to arrange for the submission of a statement on the impact the murder of Dodds has had on the community.

The impact statement would also apply to the sentencing of two other men charged in the Dodds murder case who are scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 20.

The Dec. 10 sentencing for Jolonta Little, 30, and Monte T. Johnson, 25, was set to take place a little over two months after Little and Johnson pleaded guilty on Sept. 30 to a single count of voluntary manslaughter as part of a plea bargain deal offered by prosecutors.

In exchange for the guilty plea for voluntary manslaughter, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed to drop the charge of first-degree murder while armed originally brought against the two men. The plea agreement also called for dropping additional charges against them in connection with the Dodds murder, including robbery while armed, possession of a firearm during a crime of violence, and unlawful possession of a firearm.

In addition, the plea agreement includes a promise by prosecutors to ask D.C. Superior Court Judge Milton C. Lee, who is presiding over the case, to issue a sentence of eight years in prison for both men. Under the D.C. criminal code, a conviction on a voluntary manslaughter charge carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

Johnson has been held without bond for five years and three months since his arrest in the Dodds case in September 2016. Little has been held without bond since his arrest for the Dodds murder in February 2017. Courthouse observers say that judges almost always give defendants credit for time served prior to their sentencing, a development that would likely result in the two men being released in about three years.

The plea deal for the two men came two and a half years after a D.C. Superior Court jury became deadlocked and could not reach a verdict on the first-degree murder charges against Johnson and Little following a month-long trial, prompting Judge Lee to declare a mistrial on March 6, 2019.

The two other men charged in Dodds’ murder, Shareem Hall, 27, and his brother, Cyheme Hall, 25, accepted a separate plea bargain offer by prosecutors shortly before the start of the 2019 trial in which they pled guilty to second-degree murder. Both testified at Johnson and Little’s the trial as government witnesses.

In dramatic testimony, Cyheme Hall told the jury that it was Johnson who fatally shot Dodds in the neck at point blank range after he said she grabbed the barrel of Johnson’s handgun as Johnson and Hall attempted to rob her on Division Ave., N.E., near where she lived. Hall testified that the plan among the four men to rob Dodds did not include the intent to kill her.

In his testimony, Hall said that on the day of Dodd’s murder, he and the other three men made plans to commit armed robberies for cash in areas of D.C. where trans women, some of whom were sex workers, congregated. He testified that the four men got into a car driven by Little and searched the streets for victims they didn’t expect to offer resistance.

D.C. police and the U.S. Attorney’s office initially designated the murder charge against Little and Johnson as an anti-trans hate crime offense based on findings by homicide detectives that the men were targeting trans women for armed robberies. But during Johnson and Little’s trial, Judge Lee dismissed the hate crime designation at the request of defense attorneys on grounds that there was insufficient evidence to support a hate crime designation.

At the request of prosecutors, Judge Lee scheduled a second trial for Johnson and Little on the murder charge for Feb. 25, 2020. But court records show the trial date was postponed to June 22, 2020, and postponed several more times – to Jan 11, 2021, and later to Feb. 17, 2022, due to COVID-related restrictions before the plea bargain offer was agreed to in September of this year.  The public court records do not show why the trial was postponed the first few times prior to the start of COVID restrictions on court proceedings.

Legal observers have said long delays in trials, especially murder trials, often make it more difficult for prosecutors to obtain a conviction because memories of key witnesses sometimes become faulty several years after a crime was committed.

“The D.C. Anti-Violence Project is disappointed to hear about the unfortunate proceedings in the case to bring justice for Dee Dee Dodds,” Mahdi, the Anti-Violence Project’s chair, told the Blade in a statement.

“A plea bargain from first-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter as well as a reduction of years in sentencing from 30 to 8 communicates not only a miscarriage of justice, but a message of penalization for victims who attempt to protect themselves during a violent assault,” Mahdi said. “The continual impact of reducing the culpability of perpetrators who target members of specifically identified communities sends a malicious message to criminals that certain groups of people are easier targets with lenient consequences,” she said.

“As a result of this pattern, the D.C. community has failed to defend the life and civil rights of Dee Dee Dodds and leaves criminally targeted LGBTQ+ community and other cultural identity communities critically undervalued by stewards of justice in the nation’s capital,” Mahdi concluded.  

William Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, has declined to disclose the reason why prosecutors decided to offer Johnson and Little the plea bargain deal rather than petition the court for a second trial for the two men on the first-degree murder charge.

Attorneys familiar with cases like this, where a jury becomes deadlocked, have said prosecutors sometimes decide to offer a plea deal rather than go to trial again out of concern that another jury could find a defendant not guilty on all charges.

During the trial, defense attorneys told the jury that the Hall brothers were habitual liars and there were inconsistencies in their testimony. They argued that the Halls’ motives were aimed strictly at saying what prosecutors wanted them to say so they could get off with a lighter sentence.

The two prosecutors participating in the trial disputed those claims, arguing that government witnesses provided strong evidence that Johnson and Little should be found guilty of first-degree murder and other related charges.

Before the jury announced it was irreconcilably deadlocked on the murder charges, the jury announced it found Little not guilty of seven separate counts of possession of a firearm during a crime of violence and found Johnson not guilty of five counts of possession of a firearm during a crime of violence.

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