Friday, August 29, 2014

New Hampshire Supreme Court rules Miller is substantive and retroactive to prior JLWOP cases

Today the New Hampshire Supreme Court in In re Petition of State of New Hampshire, No. 2013-0566 (N.H. Aug. 29, 2014) (available here), declared that the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller v. Alabama should be applied retroactively. Here is how the court's ruling begins and ends:

In this Rule 11 petition, see Sup. Ct. R. 11, the State appeals the determination of the Superior Court (Smukler, J.) that the rule announced in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), precluding the imposition of mandatory life-without-the-possibility-of-parole sentences on juvenile offenders under the age of eighteen at the time of their crimes, applies retroactively to the respondents (petitioners in the trial court), Robert Dingman, Eduardo Lopez, Jr., Michael Soto, and Robert Tulloch on collateral review.  We affirm....

We conclude that, pursuant to the Teague framework, the rule announced in Miller constitutes a new substantive rule of law that applies retroactively to cases on collateral review.  Consequently, we find that the respondents are entitled to the retroactive benefit of the Miller rule in post-conviction proceedings.  In light of our decision, we decline to address the respondents’ argument that we should “apply a broader retroactivity doctrine than the federal courts apply.”

August 29, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Based on additional 3553(a) justifications, Eighth Circuit affirms "profound downward variance to a sentence of probation" in multi-million dollar fraud

Especially in the years right after after Booker, the Eighth Circuit garnered a (seemingly well-deserved) reputation as one of the circuits most likely to reverse below-guideline sentences as too lenient.  But after a number of those reversals were thereafter reversed by the Supreme Court in cases like Gall and Pepper, it seemed the Eighth Circuit became somewhat more willing to uphold below-guideline sentences, and today in US v. Cole, No. 11-1232 (8th Cir. Aug. 29, 2014) (available here), a unanimous panel has upheld a probation sentence in a high-loss, white-collar case that in the past I would expect to see reversed based on the government's appeal.

The Cole decision from the Eighth Circuit is relatively short, and is today's must-read for any and all white-collar practitioners.   Here are snippet that help highlight why:

A jury found Abby Rae Cole guilty of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to commit tax fraud.  The district court sentenced Cole to three years probation, a downward variance from the advisory Guidelines range of 135 to 168 months imprisonment.  The government appealed the sentence as substantively unreasonable, and Cole cross-appealed her convictions.  We affirmed the convictions but declined to reach the issue of whether the sentence is substantively unreasonable, finding procedural error in the lack of an adequate explanation by the district court for the sentence and the substantial downward variance.  We remanded the case to afford the district court a chance to supply an adequate explanation....

In our previous opinion, we noted that before reaching the substantive reasonableness of a sentence “‘[w]e must first ensure that the district court committed no significant procedural error,’” such as “failing to adequately explain the chosen sentence—including an explanation for any deviation from the Guidelines range.” Id. (quoting United States v. Feemster, 572 F.3d 455, 461 (8th Cir. 2009) (en banc)). We noted that Cole and her co-conspirators’ convictions were based on the theft of approximately $33 million from Best Buy over a four-year period and the evasion of over $3 million in taxes, Cole’s sentencing Guidelines range was 135 to 168 months imprisonment, and Cole’s co-conspirators, her husband and a Best Buy employee, received sentences of 180 and 90 months respectively. Despite these facts, the district court provided scant explanation for the profound downward variance to a sentence of probation.

On remand, the district court received additional briefing from the parties, conducted a hearing in which it heard additional argument with respect to sentencing, and then announced its reasons for the downward variance and the probationary sentence in a lengthy and comprehensive analysis concluding with the observation that this is an “unusual, extraordinary case in which a sentence of three years probation was appropriate.”  In the additional analysis, the district court touched on all of the section 3553(a) factors in explaining the rationale behind the sentence it imposed upon Cole. The district court recognized the numerous restrictions Cole endured while on probation and the “lifelong restrictions” she faces as a federal felon, see 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(A)&(B); the court stressed that, with the probationary sentence, Cole would be less likely to commit further crimes as she “has a far greater likelihood of successful rehabilitation with family support and stable employment,” see 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(C). The court also explained that while “[t]his was one of the largest corporate frauds in Minnesota history and was also a significant tax fraud,” Cole served a more minor role as, in the court’s judgment, she was “mostly a passive, although legally responsible, participant.” See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(1).  The court focused on Cole’s history and characteristics, emphasizing that she had no prior contact with law enforcement and was “markedly different” than “most of the fraudsters who appear before th[e] Court” in that Cole “is not a consummate fraudster, she is not a pathological liar.” See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6). Finally, the district court explained that the probationary sentence would allow Cole to work and earn money to make restitution to the victims of the fraud.  See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(7).

The United States persists in its appeal, contending that the district court improperly based the sentence on Cole’s socioeconomic status, her restitution obligations, and her loss of criminally derived income.  However, the facts of Cole’s fall from an industrious and highly successful entrepreneur to convicted felon and the loss of the bulk of her legitimately acquired assets cannot be denied.  We find no error in the district court’s reference to these events....

While we do not minimize the seriousness of the crimes perpetrated by Cole and the staggering nature of the fraudulent scheme in which Cole was a participant, the district court here, unlike in Dautovic, has adequately explained the sentence and appropriately considered the section 3553(a) factors in varying downward to a probationary sentence, making “precisely the kind of defendant-specific determinations that are within the special competence of sentencing courts.”  Feemster, 572 F.3d at 464 (quotation omitted).  For instance, the district court noted that Cole’s role in the offense was mostly as a passive participant and Cole was not the typical white collar defendant the court had observed in similar criminal schemes.  We find no error in the weighing of the section 3553(a) factors, and thus the district court did not abuse its substantial discretion in sentencing Cole to probation.

This ruling strikes me a one-in-a-million outcome: I cannot recall another case (out of the nearly million cases that have been sentenced in the federal system since Booker) in which the defendant faced a guideline range of 11 to 14 years and received a sentence of probation.  This outcome seems all that much more remarkable given that this huge (and now declared reasonable) variance was in a a case in which the defendant did not plead guilty or provide substantial assistance to the government in any way and involved "one of the largest corporate frauds in Minnesota history and was also a significant tax fraud."

Because this Cole case seems remarkable in many ways, and because it likely will be (and should be) cited by nearly every white-collar offender facing federal sentencing in the months and years ahead, it would not shock me if the Justice Department seriously considers pursuing an appeal up to the Supreme Court. 

August 29, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

"Mass Probation: Toward a More Robust Theory of State Variation in Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper by Michelle Phelps available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Scholarship on the expansion of the criminal justice system in the U.S. has almost exclusively focused on imprisonment, investigating why some states lead the world in incarceration rates while others have restrained growth.  Yet for most states, the predominant form of punishment is probation, and many seemingly progressive states supervise massive numbers of adults on community supervision.  Drawing on Bureau of Justice Statistics data from 1980 and 2010, I analyze this expansion of mass probation and develop a typology of control regimes that theorizes both the scale and type of formal punishment states employ.  The results demonstrate that mass probation rearranges scholars’ conclusions about the causes and consequences of the penal state.

August 29, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

How should governments approach a product that research suggests reduces overdose deaths, domestic violence and Alzheimer's?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this week's research news indicating, as reported in recent posts here and here, that reform of marijuana prohibition and/or marijuana use might alleviate some of biggest social ills and public health concerns in the United States.  

In a prior post, I noted that I have been trying to avoid claiming that marijuana reform likely can and will improve many social ills and that marijuana is some kind of magical wonder drug.  But upon seeing this notable new FoxNews piece, headlined "Marijuana compound may slow, halt progression of Alzheimer's," it is now that much harder for me to resist suggesting that marijuana reform could very well end up being a real boon for public health.  

Perhaps even more importantly, as the question in the title of this post highlights, I think it is now becoming especially difficult for government officials and bureaucrats to keep saying seriously and aggressively that even considering the reform of marijuana prohibition is obviously dangerous and is sure to result in profound public health problems.  I certainly understand and appreciate and respect concerns of anti-drug advocates who, I believe in good-faith, fear the potential consequences of wide-spread repeal of marijuana prohibition.  But, especially in light of the growing research suggesting marijuana reform may do a whole lot more good than harm, I hope prohibitionist might become a bit more open-minded about array of positives that might come from smart, good-government, liberty-enhancing reforms in this arena.

August 28, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

At third federal sentencing, elderly child porn defendant gets one year in prison and lawyer pledges SCOTUS appeal

Regular readers and hard-core federal sentencing fans are familiar with the long-running dispute over the sentencing of child porn downloader Richard Bistline.  The latest chapter of this saga, but apparently not the last, unfolded in federal district court yesterday as reported in this Columbus Dispatch article, headlined "Child-porn possessor finally gets harsher sentence: 1 year in prison." Here are excerpts:

A Knox County man at the center of a fight about prison sentences for people convicted of possessing child pornography won’t be out of the spotlight anytime soon.  Richard Bistline, 71, was sentenced yesterday to a year and a day in federal prison by U.S. District Judge George C. Smith, who also ordered 10 years of supervised release.  Bistline also must register as a sex offender.

Bistline’s attorney, Jonathan T. Tyack, immediately said he will appeal the case in the hope that it eventually will be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court....

It was the third time that Bistline, of Mount Vernon, had been sentenced for his 2009 conviction on one count of possession of child pornography.  Sentencing guidelines set Bistline’s prison term at five to six years, although judges have discretion.

His case pingponged from district court to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals twice after federal Judge James Graham refused to sentence Bistline to lengthy prison time. Instead, he sentenced him in 2010 to one day in prison, 30 days of home confinement and 10 years of supervised probation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Solove appealed, arguing that prison time was needed, and the 6th Circuit ordered Graham to resentence Bistline.  In 2013, Graham ordered the same sentence with three years of home confinement. Solove appealed again, and the 6th Circuit ruled that the sentence still was not adequate.

Graham was removed from the case, paving the way for Smith’s sentence yesterday.  “The 6th Circuit has clearly spoken and is requiring me to impose a custodial sentence,” Smith said.  “I hope my colleagues and the sentencing commission continue to shed light on these very important policies.”  Smith then stayed the sentence and said Bistline could remain out on bond until his appeal is decided.

Tyack had asked Smith to sentence his client to one day in prison and 10 years of supervised probation.  “At the end of the day, the Court of Appeals is attempting to dictate to this court what sentence it should impose,” Tyack said. “It’s inappropriate.”

Tyack said he hopes the Supreme Court will arrive at that conclusion in Bistline’s case. “He’s caught up in a legal fight that will ultimately define the boundaries between the court of appeals and district court,” Tyack said.

Bistline, a former Michigan schoolteacher with no criminal record, was arrested after a task force investigating online crimes against children downloaded images of child pornography that had come from Bistline’s home computer. A search of the computer revealed 305 images and 56 videos of children posing naked or involved in sex acts with adults. Solove said Bistline sought out child pornography for more than a year for sexual gratification. She asked for a five-year prison sentence.

Tyack said in court documents in May that “a 71-year-old inmate with Mr. Bistline’s health problems is likely to suffer greater punishment than the average inmate because the Bureau of Prisons often fails to provide adequate or even necessary medical treatment.” Bistline has a pacemaker, high blood pressure and hearing loss, among other medical problems.

Graham has been outspoken about Bistline’s case and about the federal sentencing guidelines for defendants who have been charged with possession of child pornography. He wrote a lengthy law-review article about the case that was published in December, and he has spoken about the guidelines at court hearings for other defendants charged with child-porn possession.

August 28, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"Rebellion: The Courts of Appeals' Latest Anti-Booker Backlash"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new essay about federal sentencing and appellate practices by Alison Siegler available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

For over twenty-five years, federal courts of appeals have rebelled against every Supreme Court mandate that weakens the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Since the Court made the Guidelines advisory in United States v Booker, the rebellion has intensified, with the appellate courts consistently ensuring adherence to the Guidelines by over-policing sentences that fall outside the Guidelines and under-policing within-Guidelines sentences.  The courts of appeals are now staging a new revolt, creating appellate rules — carve-outs — that enable them to reject meritorious challenges to within-Guidelines sentences.

Part I describes the previous rebellions.  Part II introduces the current rebellion.  Part II.A discusses what I term the “stock carve-out,” an appellate rule that violates the sentencing statute and the Sixth Amendment by allowing sentencing judges to ignore mitigating arguments regarding defendants’ personal characteristics.  Part II.B discusses the “§ 3553(a)(6) carve-out,” a rule that similarly violates the statute and precedent by allowing sentencing judges to ignore disparity arguments.  Part III concludes.

August 27, 2014 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Based on Burrage, split Sixth Circuit panel reverses federal hate crime convictions for Amish beard-cutters

Regular readers may recall lots of coverage early last year concerning the unusual federal hate crime prosecution and sentencing of a group of Amish who assaulted others in their community in the midst of a religious dispute.  The convictions were appealed to the Sixth Circuit, and a panel this morning reversed the convictions based on the intervening Supreme Court decision in the Burrage mandatory sentencing case.  Here is how the majority opinion, per Judge Sutton, in US v. Miller et al., Nos. 13-3177 et al. (Aug. 27, 2014) (available here), gets started:

A string of assaults in several Amish communities in Ohio gave rise to this prosecution under Section 2 of The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.  The assaults were not everyday occurrences, whether one looks at the setting (several normally peaceful Amish communities), the method of attack (cutting the hair and shaving the beards of the victims), the mode of transportation to them (hired drivers), the relationship between the assailants and their victims (two of them involved children attacking their parents), or the alleged motive (religious-based hatred between members of the same faith).  A jury found that four of the five attacks amounted to hate crimes under the Act and convicted sixteen members of the Bergholz Amish community for their roles in them.

At stake in this appeal is whether their hate-crime convictions may stand.  No one questions that the assaults occurred, and only a few defendants question their participation in them.  The central issue at trial was whether the defendants committed the assaults “because of” the religion of the victims. 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(2)(A).  In instructing the jury on this point, the district court rejected the defendants’ proposed instruction (that the faith of the victims must be a “but for” cause of the assaults) and adopted the government’s proposed instruction (that the faith of the victims must be a “significant factor” in motivating the assaults).  Regrettably for all concerned, a case decided after this trial confirms that the court should have given a but-for instruction on causation in the context of this criminal trial.  Burrage v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 881, 887–89 (2014).  Because this error was not harmless, and indeed went to the central factual debate at trial, we must reverse these convictions.

Here is how the dissent, per Judge Sargus sitting by designation, gets started:

This is the first appellate case involving a religious hate crime under the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, 18 U.S.C. § 249.  While I respect the majority’s efforts to construe a deceivingly simple, but actually complex, statute, I dissent.  In my view, the majority has adopted an unduly restrictive interpretation of the statute.

Since this case was tried, the Supreme Court decided the case of Burrage v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 881 (2014).  The majority correctly holds that the “because of” phrase used in § 249(a), similar to “results from,” requires proof that one act would not have happened “but for” the other.  I disagree, however, with the majority’s conclusion that the trial court’s causation-instruction error was not harmless.  This disagreement stems not from a dispute over the standards governing a harmless error analysis, but rather is from a disagreement over statutory construction.

Related prior posts:

August 27, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

Drug addiction specialist laments that "our prison system does little more than teach addicts how to be better addicts"

I just saw this notable recent Washington Post commentary by David Sack, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist, headlined "We can’t afford to ignore drug addiction in prison." The piece merits a full read and here are excerpts:

As the addiction epidemic rages and prisons overflow, our nation seems to be backing away at last from the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mindset that has characterized the failed war on drugs.... Sure, this is inspired largely by the need to relieve the pressure on our prison system, which is straining to cope with a population that has more than quadrupled since 1980. But it’s also recognition that we can't incarcerate ourselves out of our drug problems.

As someone who helps people with addictions, I consider this good news.  But I'd be more encouraged if we also focused on improving conditions in prison.  In the long run, this will have more power to reduce our inmate population.  As it is, our prison system does little more than teach addicts how to be better addicts.

Inmates are likely to find a drug trade as active as the one outside prison walls.... Of the more than 2.3 million people in American prisons and jails, more than 65 percent meet medical criteria for substance abuse addiction.  When you combine this with those who have histories of substance abuse, were under the influence when they committed a crime, committed it to get drug money, or were incarcerated for a drug or alcohol violation, the percentage rises to 85 percent.  In other words, if an inmate is looking for encouragement to “Just say no,” odds are he won't find it from his bunkmates.

But most disturbing is the fact that inmates who do hope to kick an addiction can’t count on getting the help they need.  The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University found that only 11 percent of inmates with substance use disorders received treatment at federal and state prisons or local jails.  The best that most can hope for is occasional mutual support or peer counseling meetings.  No wonder that more than half of inmates with addiction histories relapse within a month of release.

So what is needed?  Inmate evaluations to spot addictions and underlying issues that may be fueling them....  Consistent treatment by a trained staff that includes addiction medicine specialists who understand how to use evidence-based treatments, including medication-assisted therapy.  Long-term treatment programs that follow the inmate into his community and continue to support him after his release.

It’s a substantial investment, and your first thought may be, “We can't afford to do that.” But the reality is we can’t afford not to do it.  As it stands now, only 1.9 cents of every dollar our federal and state governments spend on substance use and addiction go to pay for prevention and treatment; 95.6 percent pay for the consequences. That means we are shelling out billions of dollars to clean up the mess of addiction rather than doing what we know pays off -- helping people overcome it.

A 2010 CASA study, for example, determined that if we gave quality addiction treatment and aftercare to every inmate who needed it, we'd break even on the investment in only a year if just more than 10 percent were successful in staying employed, out of trouble and drug free.  In dollar terms, that translates to an economic benefit for the nation of more than $90,000 annually per former inmate.  Studies confirm that addicts pressured to undergo treatment by the legal system fare as well or better than those who seek treatment voluntarily....

While it’s tempting to think punishment is the answer [to drug crimes and addiction], prison alone doesn’t teach addicts how to change their thinking and behavior, doesn’t help repair damaged neural pathways and doesn't take away drug cravings or offer strategies to prevent relapse.  In most cases, prison just buys a little time before the addict relapses and re-offends, perpetuating the cycle and hurting himself along with the rest of us.

August 27, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)

"Brady's Blind Spot: Impeachment Evidence in Police Personnel Files and the Battle Splitting the Prosecution Team"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing and timely new article by Jonathan Abel. Here are excerpts:

The Supreme Court’s pronouncements in Brady v. Maryland and its progeny place a constitutional obligation on prosecutors to disclose any evidence that would be favorable and material to the defense. But in some jurisdictions, even well-intentioned prosecutors cannot carry out this obligation with respect to one critical source of impeachment material: police personnel files. Such files contain invaluable material from internal affairs investigations and disciplinary re-ports—information that can destroy an officer’s credibility and make the difference between a defendant’s acquittal and conviction. But, while some jurisdictions make these files freely accessible, others employ a welter of statutes and local policies to keep these files so confidential that not even the prosecutor can look inside them. And, even where prosecutors can access the files, police officers and unions have used litigation, legislation, and informal political pressure to prevent prosecutors from disclosing Brady information in these files. While suppression can cost defendants their lives, disclosure of this information can cost officers their livelihoods, as “Brady cops” may find themselves out of work and unemployable.

Using original interviews with prosecutors, police, and defense attorneys, as well as unpublished and published sources, this Article provides the first account of the wide state-to-state disparities in Brady’s application to police personnel files. The Article argues that the widespread suppression of material in these files results not simply from prosecutorial cheating, but from the state statutory and local institutional constraints that give society’s imprimatur to the withholding of Brady material. It further challenges the doctrinal assumption that prosecutors and police officers form a cohesive “prosecution team,” and that, in the words of the Supreme Court, “the prosecutor has the means to discharge the government’s Brady responsibility if he will” by putting in place “procedures and regulations” to bring forth any Brady material known to the police. Finally, the Article contends that the confidentiality these files currently receive is not only undeserved as a normative matter, but also incompatible with core tenets of the Brady doctrine.

August 27, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Significant Third Circuit ruling on the consequences of a defendant's appeal despite an appeal waiver

A helpful reader alerted me to a significant ruling today by the Third Circuit in US v. Erwin, No. 13-3407 (3d Cir. Aug. 26, 2014) (available here). Here is how the opinion starts:  

This case presents the novel question of what remedy is available to the Government when a criminal defendant who knowingly and voluntarily executed a waiver of right to appeal — and received valuable promises from the Government in return — violates his plea agreement by filing an appeal. Christopher Erwin pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute oxycodone, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C) and 21 U.S.C. § 846.  His agreement included a waiver of right to appeal his sentence if it was within or below the advisory Sentencing Guidelines range that results from a total advisory United States Sentencing Guidelines (“U.S.S.G.”) offense level of 39.  The Government agreed not to bring further criminal charges against Erwin in connection with the conspiracy, and it also agreed to seek a downward departure under U.S.S.G. § 5K1.1.  The Government fulfilled its part of the bargain; Erwin, who challenges his within-Guidelines sentence on appeal, did not.

For the following reasons, we conclude that Erwin’s appeal is within the scope of his appellate waiver, to which he knowingly and voluntarily agreed, and that he has failed to raise any meritorious grounds for circumventing the waiver.  We further conclude that Erwin breached the plea agreement by appealing, and that the appropriate remedy for his breach is specific performance of the agreement’s terms: that is, the Government will be excused from its obligation to move for a downward departure.  We will therefore vacate Erwin’s judgment of sentence and remand for de novo resentencing in accordance with this opinion.

Matthew Stiegler in this post at his CA3blog starts his coverage of this Erwin ruling with this astute observation:

The Third Circuit just issued what looks to me like a very significant new criminal sentencing ruling: when a defendant violates an appeal waiver, he can be re-sentenced without the deal.  Defendants who plead guilty and waive their appeals (i.e. virtually all federal defendants) can still raise miscarriage-of-justice challenges to their sentences, but the cost of losing such a challenge just went way, way up.

August 26, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

Notable federal case impacted by SCOTUS Miller ruling nearly two decades after initial sentencing

This local story out of Kansas City, headlined "Judge orders new sentencing hearing for defendant in deaths of six KC firefighters," reports on a notable new legal development in an old case as a result of the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller v. Alabama.  Here are excerpts (with my emphasis added for reasons explained below):

A man serving a life sentence for his role in the 1988 explosion deaths of six Kansas City firefighters will get a new sentencing hearing, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan signed orders Monday setting aside the life sentence given to Bryan E. Sheppard in 1997.  Gaitan ordered probation officers to prepare a new sentencing report on Sheppard and told prosecutors and Sheppard’s lawyers to write sentencing memos to be submitted to him by Sept. 26.  After that, Gaitan will review the paperwork, confer with attorneys and set a date for Sheppard to be re-sentenced, according to federal court records.

Sheppard, who was 17 at the time of the explosion, asked for a new sentencing hearing because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’”

In February, prosecutors agreed that Sheppard was covered by the Supreme Court ruling and deserved a chance to make his case for a reduced sentence before a federal judge.

Firefighters Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert D. McKarnin and Michael Oldham died before dawn Nov. 29, 1988, while fighting a fire in a construction trailer parked near the site of a U.S. 71 widening project. The trailer contained 25,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate mixed with fuel oil. It erupted in a massive explosion that ignited a second explosives trailer. The two blasts were felt for miles.

A federal jury convicted five defendants nearly nine years later. All were sentenced to life in prison.

The passage I have highlighted is noteworthy because it reveals that federal prosecutors in this case (and I am pretty sure in others) agree that the Supreme Court's Miller ruling should be applied retroactively.  As regular readers know, the issue of Miller retroactivity has split state courts and it seems only a matter of time before the SCOTUS resolves the split.

August 26, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Though guidelines recommend two years or less, feds request 10-year max for woman who bought guns for killer

An interesting and challenging federal sentencing is scheduled this week in upstate New York, and one of many reasons the case is noteworthy is because federal prosecutors are requesting a statutory maximum sentencing term of 10 years in prison when the applicable guideline recommend only 18 to 24 months for the offense.  This recent local article, headlined "U.S. asks for Nguyen to get 10 years," provides the context and details: 

Federal prosecutors want a judge to ignore sentencing guidelines and sentence Dawn Nguyen to 10 years in prison. While Nguyen likely did not know that firearms she bought for William Spengler Jr. would be used in an ambush of volunteer firefighters, she did "place two tactical military-style weapons in the capable hands of a man who she knew had already killed his own grandmother," say court papers filed Thursday by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Noto.

Nguyen is scheduled to be sentenced in U.S. District Court on Thursday for her conviction in three federal crimes: lying on a federal firearms transaction when she bought a shotgun and semiautomatic rifle in June 2010; passing those weapons onto a man — Spengler — whom she knew was a convicted felon; and possessing the guns while she was a marijuana user.

The request for a 10-year sentence sets up a rare occurrence in federal court — a decision by a judge as to whether the crimes were so extraordinary that the guidelines should be bypassed.  The guidelines, while only advisory, are designed to ensure comparable punishments for comparable crimes.  A judge has the discretion in unusual cases to sentence up to the maximum, which for Nguyen is 10 years for each crime.

To make his decision, U.S. District Judge David Larimer will have to weigh the question that has long been central to Nguyen's offenses: Should she be held responsible for the Christmas Eve 2012 violence spree during which Spengler killed his sister and two volunteer firefighters?...

Nguyen has pleaded guilty to the federal crimes. She also was convicted in state Supreme Court of lying on the firearms purchase form when she said the guns were for her. State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Moran sentenced her to 16 months to four years in state prison.

In June 2010, Nguyen and Spengler went to Gander Mountain in Henrietta where she bought the weapons for Spengler, who could not own guns because of his past crimes. On the morning of Christmas Eve 2012, Spengler fatally shot his sister, Cheryl, then started a blaze that largely destroyed his Lake Avenue home and others along the Lake Road strip. He then lay in wait for firefighters, ambushing them with the guns bought by Nguyen. He fatally shot West Webster volunteer firefighters Michael Chiapperini, 43, and Tomasz Kaczowka, 19.

The 10-year sentence "is what the victims have asked for," U.S. Attorney William Hochul Jr. said Friday of the families of the slain firefighters.  "It's absolutely critical that the judge keep in mind the chain of events started by Dawn Nguyen," Hochul said.

In a letter to the court, Nguyen, now 25, said that Spengler told her he wanted the guns for hunting, and she did not know enough about guns to find that unusual.  She wrote that she knew Spengler had been imprisoned for the death of his grandmother, but she did not know exactly what he had done.

Her attorney, Matthew Parrinello, said Friday that the request by prosecutors for a 10-year sentence is a "media grab."

"She committed a crime and she has already been punished," he said, noting Nguyen's state prison sentence. Parrinello wants Larimer to use the sentencing guidelines, and have the federal sentence run concurrent with her state sentence.

Prosecutors are asking that the federal sentence not be served until after Nguyen completes her state sentence, which would further increase the time she has to spend in prison.

The 25-page sentencing brief submitted by federal prosecutors in this notable case is available at this link and it make for an interesting read.

August 26, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Two positive reports on positive public health results from marijuana reform and use

My Google news feed with marijuana headlines was topped this morning with these two notable reports about research suggesting both legal reform and usage can have positive public health consequences:

  • From Newsweek here, "In States With Medical Marijuana, Painkiller Deaths Drop by 25%"

  • From Huffington Post here, "Marijuana Use Lowers Risk Of Domestic Violence In Married Couples, Study Finds"

I am strongly trying to resist the impulse to claim that marijuana reform can and will improve many social ills and that marijuana is some kind of magical wonder drug.  Nevertheless, it is hard not to get excited about the results of the research reported above.  Of particular note, the study concerning opiate overdoses, which is available in full here and is titled "Medical Cannabis Laws and Opioid Analgesic Overdose Mortality in the United States, 1999-2010," is published in the highly-respected JAMA Internal Medicine journal.

August 26, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Is Chicago now providing more support for the claim that more guns means less crime?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Washington Times article (hat tip: C&C), which carries the headline "Chicago crime rate drops as concealed carry applications surge; City sees fewer homicides, robberies, burglaries, car thefts as Illinois residents take arms."  Here are excerpts:

Since Illinois started granting concealed carry permits this year, the number of robberies that have led to arrests in Chicago has declined 20 percent from last year, according to police department statistics. Reports of burglary and motor vehicle theft are down 20 percent and 26 percent, respectively.  In the first quarter, the city’s homicide rate was at a 56-year low.

“It isn’t any coincidence crime rates started to go down when concealed carry was permitted. Just the idea that the criminals don’t know who’s armed and who isn’t has a deterrence effect,” said Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association.  “The police department hasn’t changed a single tactic — they haven’t announced a shift in policy or of course — and yet you have these incredible numbers.”

As of July 29 the state had 83,183 applications for concealed carry and had issued 68,549 licenses.  By the end of the year, Mr. Pearson estimates, 100,000 Illinois citizens will be packing.  When Illinois began processing requests in January, gun training and shooting classes — which are required for the application — were filling up before the rifle association was able to schedule them, Mr. Pearson said.

The Chicago Police Department has credited better police work as a reason for the lower crime rates this year. Police Superintendent Garry F. McCarthy noted the confiscation of more than 1,300 illegal guns in the first three months of the year, better police training and “intelligent policing strategies.” The Chicago Police Department didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Washington Times.

However, the impact of concealed carry can’t be dismissed.  Instead of creating more crimes, which many gun control advocates warn, increased concealed carry rates have coincided with lower rates of crime.

A July study by the Crime Prevention Research Center found that 11.1 million Americans have permits to carry concealed weapons, a 147 percent increase from 4.5 million seven years ago.  Meanwhile, homicide and other violent crime rates have dropped by 22 percent. 

“There’s a lot of academic research that’s been done on this, and if you look at the peer-reviewed studies, the bottom line is a large majority find a benefit of concealed carry on crime rates — and, at worst, there’s no cost,” said John Lott Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center based in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. “You can deter criminals with longer prison sentences and penalties, but arming people with the right to defend themselves with a gun is also a deterrence.”

I know that all the research concerning relationships between gun laws and crime are controversial, and I am certain that these recent Chicago experience will not come close to resolving these on-going debates.  Still, whatever might account for the good crime news out of Chicago, I hope everyone is inclined to celebrate the reality of greater personal liberty and less crime in the Windy City.

August 25, 2014 in Gun policy and sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

"Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America"

Mass_incarceration_finalThanks to this new posting at The Crime Report, I see the exciting news that Jonathan Simon's new book about mass incarceration and California's dysfunctional role therein has been released by The New Press.  The book's title makes up the title of this post, and here is how the publisher describes the book on its website:

For nearly forty years, the United States has been gripped by policies that have placed more than 2.5 million Americans in jails and prisons designed to hold a fraction of that number of inmates. Our prisons are not only vast and overcrowded, they are degrading — relying on racist gangs, lockdowns, and Supermax-style segregation units to maintain a tenuous order.  In short, mass incarceration has proven to be a fiscal and penological disaster.

A landmark 2011 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Plata, has opened an unexpected escape route from this trap of “tough on crime” politics and points toward values that could restore legitimate order to American prisons and ultimately lead to the dismantling of “mass incarceration.”  Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon — an internationally renowned critic of mass incarceration and the war on crime — argues that, much like the epic school segregation cases of the last century, this new case represents a major breakthrough in jurisprudence.  Along with twenty years of litigation over medical and mental health care in California prisons, the 2011 Brown decision moves us from a hollowed-out vision of civil rights to the threshold of human rights.

Exposing the priority of politics over rational penal policy — and debunking the premise that these policies are necessary for public safety — this perceptive and groundbreaking book urges us to seize the opportunity to replace mass incarceration with a system anchored in the preservation of human dignity.

August 25, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

What's the likely Ninth Circuit timeline for deciding the fate of California's death penalty in Jones v. Chappell?

As first noted in this post a few days ago, California Attorney General Kamala Harris has officially noticed an appeal to the Ninth Circuit in Jones v. Chappell, No. 2:09-cv-02158-CJC (C.D. Cal. July 16, 2014) (available here), the remarkable case in which U.S. District Judge Carney declared all of California's death penalty system unconstitutional.  Because the stakes are so high in California and for modern death penalty jurisprudence generally, I expect this Ninth Circuit capital appeal will get considerable attention in the weeks and months ahead and that lots of different death penalty advocates (both pro and con) will be filing amicus briefs with competing claims about the constitutionality of California's death penalty system.

As the question in the title of post highlights, though I am sure the Jones v. Chappell appeal will get garner lots of attention, I am not sure how quickly (or slowly) the Ninth Circuit will hear and decide this case.  As death penalty fans know, federal capital habeas appeals have a (well-earned) reputation for proceeding either (1) very slowly, in part because a death row defendant raises so many case-specific claims concerning errors in a state trial and sentencing, or (2) very quickly, in part because there is a looming serious state execution date and the state highlights that all reasonable claims of error have been considered and rejected before.  In Jones v. Chappell, however, at issue on appeal is just one basic system-wide constitutional concern which is being considered in a case in which no serious execution date is looming.  Consequently, there is little reason to expect this appeal to move especially slowly or especially quickly.

Notably, a bit of irony attends the question in the title of this post because the constitutional issue in Jones v. Chappell centers on lengthy delays in appellate review in California and the apparent arbitrariness of which cases get through reviews more quickly or slowly.  Arguably, the longer the Ninth Circuit appellate process takes in Jones v. Chappell, the stronger the capital defendant's claims become.  That  bit of irony aside, I am eager to hear from any infomed Ninth Circuit capital habeas practitioners or observers concerning what kind of timelines are likely in play now in Jones v. Chappell.  Is this case likely to be fully briefed before the end of this year?   Can/should we reasaonally expect oral argument to take place in the early part of 2015 and a ruling not long thereafter?

I ask these questions not only because I am genuinely wondering what kind of pacing we all should expect in this matter, but also because this case necessarily should impact any political plans that California death penalty supporters and opponents may have for the big looming 2016 election.  Supporters of a more efficient and effective California death penalty system are already on record expressing interest in a voter initiative to reform the state's capital appellate process, and steadfast opponents of the death penalty also seem likely to eye a 2016 capital repeal initiative.  Not just how, but also exactly when, the Ninth Circuit rules in Jones v. Chappell could greatly impact initiative planning and advocacy.

Recent related posts:

August 25, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

"Clemency and the Unitary Executive"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Rachel Barkow now available on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

President Obama’s use of enforcement discretion to achieve important domestic policy initiatives — including in the field of criminal law — have sparked a vigorous debate about where the President’s duty under the Take Care Clause ends and legitimate enforcement discretion begins.  But even with broad power to set enforcement charging policies, the President controls only the discretion of his or her agents at the front-end to achieve policy goals.  What about enforcement decisions already made, either by his or her own agents or actors in previous administrations, with which the President disagrees?  The Framers anticipated this issue in the context of criminal law and vested the President with broad and explicit back-end control through the constitutional pardon power.  But while centralized authority over enforcement discretion at the front-end has grown, the clemency power finds itself falling into desuetude.

This Article explores the fall of the clemency power and argues for its resurrection as a critical mechanism for the President to assert control over the executive branch in criminal cases.  While clemency has typically been referred to as an exercise of mercy and even analogized to religious forgiveness, it also serves a more structurally important role in the American constitutional order that has been all but overlooked.  It is a critical mechanism for the President to control the executive department.  Those in favor of a unitary executive should encourage its more robust employment.  But even critics of unitary executive theory should embrace clemency as a mechanism of control because, whatever the merits of other unitary executive claims involving military power or oversight over administrative agencies, clemency stands on different footing.  It is explicitly and unambiguously grounded in the Constitution’s text, and it comes with an established historical pedigree.  It is also a crucial checking mechanism given the landscape of criminal justice today.  The current environment of overbroad federal criminal laws and excessive charging by federal prosecutors has produced a criminal justice system of unprecedented size and scope with overcrowded and expensive federal prisons and hundreds of thousands of individuals hindered from reentering society because of a federal record.  Clemency is a key tool for addressing poor enforcement decisions and injustices in this system, as well as checking disparities in how different United States Attorneys enforce the law.

August 24, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Will third time be a charm in federal sentencing of child porn defendant Richard Bistline?

Regular readers and those who follow closely federal sentencing of child pornography offender will recall the name Richard Bistline: as detailed in posts linked below, the Bistline's sentencing created a kind of battle royale between US District Judge James Graham and the Sixth Circuit.  This coming week, as reported in this Columbus Dispatch article, Bistline is scheduled to be resentenced yet again, this time by a different district judge after Judge Graham's prior sentences were twice found to be substantively unreasonable by the Sixth Circuit.  Here are excerpts from the Dispatch article providing the backstory:

Are federal sentencing guidelines for possessing child pornography too harsh?  Calling the guidelines “draconian,” U.S. District Judge James L. Graham has become increasingly vocal in his criticism from the federal bench in Columbus.

Possessing child porn is vastly different from distributing or producing it, Graham said in an interview last week. “The purveyors or producers of these images deserve the most severe punishment we can give them.  My concern is the people who end up possessing it.”

Richard Bistline, a Knox County man, is to be in federal court on Wednesday to be sentenced for the third time for child-porn possession.  His case thrust Graham into the spotlight in 2010 after the judge sentenced Bistline, of Mount Vernon, to one day in prison, 30 days of home confinement and 10 years of probation.  The recommended sentence under federal guidelines was five to six years.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah A. Solove appealed Graham’s sentence to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the penalty did not reflect the seriousness of the offense.  The appeals court ordered Graham to resentence the defendant.  But a defiant Graham again sentenced Bistline to a single day in prison, although he increased the home confinement to three years.  Solove again appealed, and the 6th Circuit court again ruled that Graham’s sentence was too lenient.  The court removed Graham from the case.

Judge George C. Smith is to sentence Bistline on Wednesday....

Graham says the guidelines for child-porn possession are outdated.  Adding points for looking at child porn on a computer is unjustified, he said, because nearly all of it is accessed that way.  Adding points for possession of numerous images is unjustified because “current technology produces numerous images with one key stroke or mouse click,” he said....

In its second Bistline ruling, the appeals court wrote that possessing child porn “is not a crime of inadvertence, of pop-up screens and viruses that incriminate an innocent person.”  Possession becomes a crime “when a defendant knowingly acquires the images — in this case, affirmatively, deliberately and repeatedly, hundreds of times over, in a period exceeding a year."

Graham isn’t alone in his contention that the guidelines are outdated.  A 2013 U.S. Sentencing Commission report on federal child-porn guidelines noted that many of the sentencing enhancements designed to further punish the worst possessors now apply to most offenders....

Other men who have pleaded guilty to one count of child-porn possession in federal court in Columbus, as Bistline did, have received multiple-year sentences.  Among them: former special deputy sheriff Todd R. German of Union County, sentenced last year to four years; former Reynoldsburg teacher Matthew Fisher, sentenced in 2011 to three years; and former Columbus doctor Philip Nowicki, sentenced in 2011 to two years.

Graham said most of the child-porn-possession defendants he sees have no previous criminal record and “are involved in viewing these images as a result of what appears to be a form of addiction I think is becoming more and more prevalent in today’s society, affecting people of all ages.”  Just by being found guilty, he said, they face ruined lives, for both themselves and their families.  “They need to stop it,” he said. “The men who are doing this are going to get caught.”

Prior related posts:

August 24, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Detailing the high cost of an aging prison population in the Palmetto State

1dNMJN.AuSt.74This lengthy local article, headlined "Graying of SC prisons will cost state’s taxpayers," reports in a South Carolina context an issue facing nearly every American jurisdiction as the costs of past tough-on-crime policies come due. Here are excerpts:

An inmate at Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution for women keeps a wheelchair tucked away in the corner of her small, cinder-block cell.  She has a walker, too.  The wheelchair and walker are just two of the signs of the exploding population of aging inmates in South Carolina’s prisons.

Another sign? The dollar sign, as in the increasing cost that S.C. taxpayers will have to pay to care for those aging inmates.  In the past decade, the number of S.C. inmates age 55 and older has more than doubled, according to the S.C. Corrections Department. At the end of June, one in every 11 inmates was 55 or older.  The graying of the state’s prison system will continue, experts warn. Barring changes in the state’s parole system, they add that the aging prison population stands to become even more expensive for taxpayers to support....

“We’ve passed policies and laws that have dictated we want our prisons to become nursing homes,” said Jon Ozmint, the Columbia lawyer who was head of the state’s prison system under former Gov. Mark Sanford.  Those policies and laws come with a cost to taxpayers. It costs about twice as much nationally to house a prisoner over 50 as it does the average prisoner, according to a 2012 study by the American Civil Liberties Union. “Do we really want to keep them (inmates) in prison until they die?” Ozmint asked rhetorically. “It feels good.  It makes a certain segment of society feel good.  But it’s a costly proposition.”...

Today, the oldest inmate at Camille Graham Correctional Institution is 70 years old. A few of the women at the prison, located off Broad River Road, have been locked up for more than 25 years.  One inmate has been incarcerated for almost 37 years.  But, in one key way, Graham Correctional is not representative of the state’s prison population: Its inmates are women. And as the state’s prison system grays, its senior-citizen inmates overwhelmingly stand to be men.

In 2013, 10 percent of the state’s prisoners — or 2,263 inmates — were serving sentences that called on them to live out their lives in prison or be executed.  Almost all of those 2,263 inmates were men.  Less than 90 were women....

The aging prison population has been driven by the war on drugs and tough-on-crime sentences, said Ozmint, who led S.C. prisons for eight years.  “Feel-good legislation” — including truth-in-sentencing — essentially did away with parole, keeping inmates in prison until they are old, he said.  As a result, many elderly and infirm inmates are not eligible for parole.

Medical parole is an option for elderly prisoners who were convicted of a parole-eligible offense, said Pete O’Boyle, spokesman for the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.  Since 2010, however, no requests for medical parole have been granted in South Carolina.  Of 13 requests, 10 were deemed eligible for a hearing, O’Boyle said.  Of those 10, seven inmates were turned down by the parole board.  Three inmates were granted conditional parole, but two completed their sentences before they were paroled. The third was sent back to prison for another offense.

Historically, winning parole has been difficult in South Carolina in any event, says Ozmint. That is because the state’s parole board has given great weight to the understandable anger of crime victims in deciding whether to grant parole, the former prisons chief says. However, the current parole board has come a long way toward making less emotional decisions, based on objective risk factors and public safety, he added....

Ozmint expects the prison system’s elderly population will continue to grow, creating the need for more geriatric facilities, which are more expensive to operate than regular prisons.  Those rising health-care costs directly will impact taxpayers, he adds.  A solution could be found in turning to the private sector to handle elderly prisoners, Ozmint said. But that assumes for-profit prisons can operate more cheaply the state’s notoriously skinflint prisons.

Corrections Department director Bryan Stirling, who took the post heading S.C. prisons in October, says telemedicine is a more cost-effective option to provide medical services. Now, inmates sometimes are taken off-site for doctor’s visits or other health-care needs. Multiple correctional officers must travel with them, which is expensive, Stirling said. If telemedicine is used, an off-site doctor could care for an inmate via a video conference. But, problematically, that would require transferring inmates’ medical records electronically, Stirling said....

For the moment, at least, a drop in the number of state prisoners has freed up resources that could be used to offset to increased health-care costs.  The number of inmates in S.C. prisons has been decreasing steadily since sentencing reform ... was passed in 2010. As of June 30, the state had 21,904 prisoners, down from 24,883 five years earlier, according to the Corrections Department.

That reform increased sentences for violent criminals but allowed some nonviolent offenders to avoid prison.  “Any time someone is not incarcerated, it’s a savings for the state,” Stirling said.  “It’s a tremendous savings for the state.”

August 24, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Perspective on victims' perspectives on the death penalty

Today's Washington Post has this intriguing new commentary headlined "Death penalty debate isn’t simple for families of victims." Here are excerpts:

Botched executions in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona and continuing problems with lethal-injection drugs have put the death penalty back in the news.  After a brief moratorium following Oklahoma’s debacle, my state, Missouri, has resumed executing its death-row prisoners. One of the condemned men there murdered the wife of the man I would later marry....

For most people, the death penalty debate falls along ideological lines — liberals are opposed and conservatives are in favor.  But for the families of victims, the debate is not so simple and the solution is not so clear.  They cringe when they hear left-leaning commentators repeatedly describe the chilling details of a botched execution without repeating the far more chilling details of the crime the condemned man committed.  But they also cringe when they hear right-leaning commentators who promote the sanctity of life but do not question state-sanctioned death.

The killing that forever changed my husband’s life is the kind of crime that reinforces the beliefs of both sides.  Advocates of the death penalty see an unspeakably brutal murder, committed with no known motivation against a woman alone in her upscale home. Opponents see an African American male suspect convicted by a white jury and sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman, with no eyewitnesses, no DNA evidence and no confession.  They are both right.  The murder cried out for justice, but the conviction and sentencing fit a disturbing pattern of racial bias and rush to judgment....

Families of the victims, for the most part, do not weigh in on the debate.  For them, it is not a question of politics or policy.  It is personal, and whether the condemned killer dies alone in his cell or suffers an excruciating death at the hand of the state, their pain will not be erased by his.

Death penalty supporters talk of closure.  That may work as a matter of process — execution rids the state and the justice system of any further involvement — but it is much more complicated for families of victims.  Each envelope from the Department of Corrections, each anniversary when the crime is recounted in the paper, every discussion about the death penalty on TV — those are reopenings, not closings.  Our excruciatingly slow justice system has put my husband through more than 15 years of this. The killer may be getting what he deserves, but my husband will not be getting what he deserves: an end to the horrific memories that haunt him day and night.

As Missouri moves methodically through its backlog of condemned men and the killer’s last day is finally set, the crime will be back in the headlines.  Reporters will be calling my husband for comment, the condemned man’s lawyers will be interviewed, last-minute appeals on other grounds will be filed.  In the end, we can only hope that the execution drugs will be swift and effective, that the person administering them has been properly trained and that this will finally bring an end to killing in our lives.

August 23, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)