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February 16, 2010

Pope joins rabbis in urging Florida Governor to commute murderer's death sentence

As detailed in this new local article, which is headlined "Pope calls for mercy for killer Martin Grossman as execution nears," an array of religious voices are now urging Florida Governr Charlie Crist to give condemned murderer Martin Grossman a sentencing break.  Here are the details of the latest plea for mercy and about the fascinating state criminal case now generating papal attention:

The Vatican is calling for mercy for a man scheduled to be executed Tuesday evening for killing a young Florida wildlife officer 25 years ago. But even the pope doesn't argue that Martin Edward Grossman is innocent.

Grossman, 45, who shot and killed Margaret "Peggy" Park, 26, on Dec. 13, 1984, "has repented and is now a changed person, having become a man of faith," wrote Archbishop Fernando Filoni on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI. He asked for "whatever steps may be possible to save the life of Mr. Grossman."

Filoni wrote the letter at the behest of the chief rabbi of Israel, Shear-Yashuv Cohen....

Activists against the death penalty took up Grossman's case, including several Jewish organizations that pleaded for clemency, asking Gov. Charlie Crist to commute his sentence to life in prison.  Amnesty International said it had "serious questions about the quality of his legal representation and compelling mental health evidence that was never presented to a jury."

More than 26,000 people signed an online petition asking that Grossman's life be spared. Nobel prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel also weighed in on his behalf.

Rabbis from groups including the Rabbinical Council of America, the Aleph Institute and the National Council of Young Israel wrote to Crist on Feb. 9 asking him to spare Grossman's life because he "has shown profound remorse and regret" for the officer's murder.  "He acted under the influence of drugs and alcohol. His fatal shooting of Ms. Parks was not an act of premeditation but of panic," the letter said.  "He has transformed himself from a deeply troubled teenager into a gentle and simple man, a proud practitioner of his faith and a humble servant of God."

A spokesman for the governor said that by Friday night the office had received more than 9,443 e-mails and more than 7,849 phone calls about the Grossman case.  "Signing a death warrant is a responsibility that Governor Crist takes very seriously," spokesman Sterling Ivey wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times, "and the warrant for Martin Grossman was signed after a careful review."

Grossman would be the first inmate Florida has put to death for killing a law enforcement officer since the September 2006 execution of Clarence Hill.... Grossman, of Pasco County, was 19 when he killed Park as she tried to arrest him and 17-year-old Thayne Nathan Taylor in what is now the Brooker Creek Preserve in Tarpon Springs.

Grossman has spent the latter half of his life in prison for the murder. He is scheduled to die at 6 p.m., the first Florida execution of 2010 and the 69th since the death penalty was restored in 1976....

Park, a Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission officer, found a stolen Luger pistol in the van Grossman and Taylor were in and tried to report it. But Grossman, fearing that the offense would violate his probation and land him back in prison, attacked the officer with her own flashlight as she used her radio. "I'm hit," Park yelled over the radio....

Grossman, 6 feet 4 and 225 pounds, overpowered the 5-foot-5, 115-pound officer. He broke her fingers wrenching [a gun] away from Park and shot her in the back of the head. The two men escaped but were arrested 11 days later. Grossman was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death a year to the day of the murder. Taylor was convicted of third-degree murder and served two years of his seven-year sentence....

Park's brother, sister and mother, Peggy, 79, planned to attend the execution.  The mother came from Ohio despite a cardiologist's order not to travel.

Some related recent posts on the Grossman case and on religion and the death penalty:

February 16, 2010 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

New York Times again a little off editorializing on "Justice Kennedy on Prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this editorial appearing in today's New York Times.  Here are excerpts:

Justice Anthony Kennedy spoke out against excessive prison sentences this month in California, criticizing the state’s deeply misguided three-strikes law. It was a welcome message, delivered with unusual force.  Much of the blame for the law, however, lies with the Supreme Court, which upheld it in a decision on which Justice Kennedy cast the deciding vote....

Sentences in the United States are eight times longer than those handed out in Europe, Justice Kennedy said. California has 185,000 people in prison at a cost of $32,500 each per year, he said. He urged voters and elected officials to compare taxpayer spending on prisons with spending on elementary education.  Justice Kennedy took special aim at the three-strikes law, which puts people behind bars for 25 years to life if they commit a third felony, even a nonviolent one.  The law’s sponsor, he said, is the correctional officers’ union, “and that is sick.”

The criticism was on the mark.  The state’s prison population has soared as a result of harsh sentencing laws and parole rules.  California has been ordered by the courts to bring down the population of its prison system, which is badly overcrowded and unable to provide inmates with adequate medical care....

Justice Kennedy is right that elected officials and voters should pay more attention to overincarceration.  But courts also need to do their part by enforcing constitutional prohibitions on excessive punishment in cases involving people, as well as corporations.

As with many New York Times editorials, this piece raises important issues in an imperfect way.  Specifically, though I share the editorial's concern for the Supreme Court's tepid approach to the Eighth Amendment in non-capital cases, I find inane and pernicious the assertion that "[m]uch of the blame" for California's three-strikes law "lies with the Supreme Court."

Though one can (and I think should) fault the Supreme Court for problematic interpretations of various constitutional provisions, the Court does not merit any blame (let alone "much of the blame") for state decisions to pass stupid or harmful criminal laws and punishment.  Unless and until we collectively decide to give the Justices constitutional authority to be a super-legislature, they cannot and should not be legitimately "blamed" for failing to invalidate stupid or harmful criminal laws and punishments that states decided to adopt. 

Moreover, even if the Supreme Court had struck down one application of California's three-strikes law in the Ewing case, probably only a few hundred of the many tens of thousands incarcerated under this law would have gotten some form of legal relief.  In sharp contrast, the recent rulings by a special Ninth Circuit panel ordering a reduction in California's total prison population, has effectively forced elected officials and voters in California to "pay more attention to overincarceration."  Indeed, the Supreme Court has been asked by California to undo these ordered prison population reductions, and I suspect Justice Kennedy has played a key role in keeping the Justices from interfering with those important orders.

February 16, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Lots worth reading in the latest issue of "Justice Research and Policy"

Via e-mail, I receive notice of the publication of the latest issue of the journal Justice Research and Policy. Here is the summary I received via e-mail of some of the articles that sentencing fans might be eager to check out:

This issue of JRP includes articles on: 1) predictors of recidivism among registered sex offenders; 2) situational aspects of sexual offending and their implications for residence restriction laws; 3) organizational approaches to drug law enforcement by local police departments: specialized drug units or multi-agency task forces; 4) racial integration in California men's prisons; 5) the impact of citizen oversight of policing on the incidence of lethal force.

February 16, 2010 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 15, 2010

Any Presidents' Day advice for Prez Obama on likely upcoming SCOTUS nominations?

As detailed in this National Law Journal article from Tony Mauro, which is Talk Grows of 2 Openings at High Court: White House reportedly preparing for more Supreme Court exits," the buzz surrounding possible SCOTUS openning(s) continues to grow.  Here is the start of Tony's interesting and effective piece:

If two U.S. Supreme Court vacancies materialize this spring, they may have the same impact on the nation's capital that two heavy snowfalls have had this month: gridlock, paralysis and frayed tempers.

Stories raising the possibility that justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg may leave at roughly the same time have suddenly become part of the Washington conversation, already fueling nightmare scenarios of dragged-out battles between a weakened President Barack Obama and a fiercely contentious Senate over possible replacements.

"Republicans are out for blood, and Democrats are out for a fight," said Steve Wermiel, professor at American University Washington College of Law. "We're close to a peak of partisan wrangling in Washington."

Speculation about potential nominees has already begun, with Solicitor General Elena Kagan and Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit winning the most mentions at this early stage. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also the subject of growing speculation as a possible nominee.

In a number of prior posts (some of which are linked below), I have urged readers to provide advice (or predictions) about whom President Obama should nominate for any open SCOTUS seat.  In this post, I would be eager to hear reader advice to President Obama concerning how he should try to respond to one or two open SCOTUS seats.

Specifically, do readers think Prez Obama should try to name a replacement for John Paul Stevens and/or Ruth Bader Ginsburg extra quickly after an announced retirement, or should he take a lot of time to try to build speculation and support around a particular short-lister?  Should Prez Obama actively reach out to Senators for suggestions (as I recall President Bush did before nominating Harriet Miers)?  Should Prez Obama be drawn to a more moderate nominee (as defined by reputation and work history) or toward a more exteme nominee?

Here's my two cents of advice:  I urge Prez Obama pick more "first" types of nominees, which could involve any varied combination of gender, racial, ethnic and/or professional and personal backgrounds.  I also urge him to nominate whichever "first" he thinks will make the best Justice, and to name this person as quickly as possible after a sitting Justice announces she or he is stepping down, and to urge hearings and a vote on this nominee ASAP.  I believe that following this script will, for all practical purposes, prevent a filibuster no matter what the perceived politics of the nominee.

Some related new and old posts:

February 15, 2010 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Six-month sentence for importing the wrong kind of comic books from Japan

Thanks to this post at How Appealing, I saw this interesting item on a Wired.com blog, which is titled "'Obscene' U.S. Manga Collector Jailed 6 Months."  Here are the particulars:

A U.S. comic book collector is being sentenced to six months in prison after pleading guilty to importing and possessing Japanese manga books depicting illustrations of child sex and bestiality. Christopher Handley was sentenced in Iowa on Thursday, almost a year after pleading guilty to charges of possessing “obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children.”

The 40-year-old was charged under the 2003 Protect Act, which outlaws cartoons, drawings, sculptures or paintings depicting minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct, and which lack “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” 

Handley was the nation’s first to be convicted under that law for possessing cartoon art, without any evidence that he also collected or viewed genuine child pornography.  Without a plea deal with federal authorities, he faced a maximum 15-year sentence.

Comic fans were outraged, saying jailing someone over manga does not protect children from sexual abuse. “I’d say the anime community’s reaction to this, since day one, has been almost exclusively one of support for Handley and disgust with the U.S. courts and legal system,” Christopher MacDonald, editor of Anime News Network, said in an e-mail....

The case began in 2006, when customs officials intercepted and opened a package from Japan addressed to Handley.  Seven books of manga inside contained cartoon drawings of minors engaged in sexually explicit acts and bestiality.

Additional information about this prosecution and sentencing can be found in this report from the Anime News Network, which is headlined "Christopher Handley Sentenced to 6 Months for 'Obscene' Manga."

Because I am not a First Amendment guru, I have no strong sense of whether Christopher Handley's prosecution and conviction for importing the wrong kind of comic books from Japan should be considered constitutionally problematic.  But, as a sentencing guru, I do have a strong sense that the threat of a much longer (guideline recommended?) sentence after any trial likely prompted Handley to plead guilty and to apparently forego whatever constitutional defenses he might have had available.

February 15, 2010 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

"Suspect plays ‘Dating Game’ video in murder trial"

The title of this post is the headline of this new AP article that seems to be a fitting macabre the day after Valentine's Day. Here is how the piece starts:

A convicted rapist who could face the death penalty in five alleged serial killings from the 1970s presented "The Dating Game" defense Tuesday during a surreal court session in which he questioned himself on the witness stand.

Rodney James Alcala, 66, who is acting as his own lawyer, played a clip from an episode of the game show that he won in September 1978 in an attempt to prove his innocence in one of the killings.

Alcala told jurors they could see a flash of two gold ball earrings in his double-pierced left ear as he gives the game show's signoff salute.  Prosecutors believe a pair of gold ball earrings found in a red pouch in a Seattle storage locker rented by Alcala belonged to the youngest of the alleged victims, 12-year-old Robin Samsoe of Huntington Beach, in Orange County.

But Alcala told jurors the clip proves he owned the earrings almost a year before Samsoe's disappearance on June 20, 1979.  In the segment, he can be seen dancing to the closing music while wearing a black bell-bottom pantsuit and open-necked white shirt....

Alcala, a photographer and UCLA undergraduate with a purported IQ between 160 and 170, made the highly unusual decision to represent himself in the potential death penalty trial and took the stand in his own defense.  During an often bizarre day of testimony, the defendant referred to himself as Mr. Alcala as he posed questions and then responded with long and sometimes rambling answers.  Prosecutors will begin their cross-examination Wednesday.

February 15, 2010 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 14, 2010

"Oldest US death row inmate dead at 94 in Arizona"

The title of this post is the headline of this new AP article.  Here are a few of the particulars:

Deaf, nearly blind, confined to a wheelchair and suffering from dementia and mental illness, the oldest death row inmate in the United States has died of natural causes at age 94. Viva Leroy Nash died late Friday at the state's prison complex in Florence, said an Arizona Department of Corrections spokesman....

Nash had been imprisoned almost continuously since he was 15, said one of his appellate attorneys, Thomas Phalen....  "He was born in 1915 and he was sent to prison in 1930," Phalen said. "Think about it — he had 15 years of life in southern Utah, at a time when Utah and Arizona was the wild, wild West — and he went to prison in 1930, and he remained in prison for the next 80 years, more or less."...  Phalen said his research shows that Nash grew up in southern Utah and was sent to the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., in 1930 for an armed robbery.

He spent 25 years in prison for shooting a Connecticut police officer in 1947.  In 1977, Nash was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for a robbery and murder in Salt Lake City but escaped from a prison work crew in October 1982.

Three weeks later, on Nov. 3, 1982, Nash went into a coin shop in Phoenix and demanded money from employee Greggory West.  Nash shot West three times, killing him.  Another employee was in the line of fire but was not hit, according to the corrections department.  As Nash ran away, a nearby shop owner pointed a gun at him and told him to stop. Nash grabbed the weapon and the two men struggled over it until police arrived and arrested him.

He was convicted of first-degree murder, armed robbery, aggravated assault and theft, and sentenced to death in 1983.  The Arizona Supreme Court upheld the conviction in 1985 and Nash then filed a series of unsuccessful appeals in both state and federal court.

His most recent appeal was rejected by a U.S. District Court judge in 2006, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September that he was entitled to a hearing to determine if he was competent to assist in his defense. Doctors who had examined him told the court he suffered from a delusional disorder and memory problems and was incompetent.

Is it inappropriate to suggest that the Ninth Circuit's most recent effort to keep Nash alive seems to now have been reversed by the ultimate higher authority?

February 14, 2010 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Fascinating account of how new US Attorney got her job

The Detroit Free Press has this really interesting article about a new Michigan US Attorney. The piece is headlined "McQuade's plan for revamping office won her the U.S. attorney post," and here are excerpts: B

Barbara McQuade remembers the day she made up her mind to become the next U.S. attorney in Detroit. “It was the day I didn’t get the criminal chief job” in 2008, McQuade told the Free Press.

Disappointed that she hadn’t landed one of the office’s top leadership posts — yet confident that she had the skills to run the federal government’s 108-member law firm in Detroit — McQuade, then 43, spent the next two years canvassing judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and community leaders to assess the performance of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

She got an earful from critics who said the office files too few criminal cases, takes too long to bring them to trial and loses too many high-profile cases. McQuade said she used the critiques to create a detailed plan to overhaul the office. And her persistence paid off.

In November, President Barack Obama nominated her for the $155,500-a-year position. The Senate confirmed her on Christmas Eve. And she was sworn in Jan. 4 — the first woman to hold the job in the 34-county eastern half of lower Michigan....

More than two dozen lawyers applied to become the U.S. attorney in eastern Michigan.  But McQuade clinched the job because she wrote a detailed action plan to revamp the office. Then she gave it to screening committee members so they could ask sharper questions at her interview.

"What she did was virtually unheard of," one panelist said. The committee member, who didn't want to be identified because he wasn't authorized to talk publicly about the process, said McQuade was the only candidate to show up with a written blueprint for reform.

Now comes the hard part -- putting the plan in motion so the office can bring more cases faster. It remains to be seen how her staff will greet change....

During an interview last month, McQuade told Free Press editors and writers that she plans to create smaller working groups so the prosecutors will be more accountable for their time. She wants to prosecute more gun and violent crime cases that would relieve the load on county prosecutors and give her prosecutors more courtroom time to hone their trial skills.

She said the new groups likely will be headed by supervisors who shouldn't think about their positions as lifetime appointments.  "We've sort of promoted people for life and then they sort of sit there; and although they have a lot to offer, we haven't tried new ideas because people have been occupying the same places for a long time," she said.

February 14, 2010 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Intriguing (not quite) criminal past for mass killer at University of Alabama

This New York Times article, which is headlined "A Previous Shooting Death at the Hand of Alabama Suspect," discusses the notable history with the criminal law of the killer who went on a shooting spree at the University of Alabama.  Here is how the article begins:

The neurobiologist accused of killing three colleagues at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, on Friday fatally shot her brother in 1986 in suburban Boston, and the police there are now questioning whether their department mishandled that case when it let her go without filing charges.

Early Saturday, the police in Huntsville charged the neurobiologist, Amy Bishop, who they said was 45, with capital murder in the shootings Friday that also left three people wounded during a faculty meeting.  Dr. Bishop, who appeared to have had a promising future in the biotechnology business, had recently been told she would not be granted tenure, university officials said.

On Saturday afternoon, the police in Braintree, Mass., announced that 24 years ago, Dr. Bishop had fatally wounded her brother, Seth Bishop, in an argument at their home, which The Boston Globefirst reported on its Web site.  The police were considering reopening the case, in which she was not charged and the report by the officer on duty at the time was no longer available, said Paul Frazier, the Braintree police chief.

“The release of Ms. Bishop did not sit well with the police officers,” Chief Frazier said in a statement, “and I can assure you that this would not happen in this day and age.”  He said at a news conference on Saturday that the original account describing the shooting as an accident had been inaccurate and, The Globe said, that while he was reluctant to use the word “cover-up,” it did not “look good” that the detailed records of the case have been missing since 1988.

What's really interesting to consider in this case is what likely would have happened if criminal charges had been filed in 1986 after Bishop fatally shot her brother.  It seems likely she would have been able to plead, and also would have pleaded, guilty to some form of lesser homicide charge due to uncertainty about her criminal intent.  As a result, Bishop certainly would not have served more than a few years in prison, at most.  Thus, no one can sensibly assert that a tougher approach to her prior shooting would have prevented her from being free to commit another killing a quarter-century later.

And yet, had Bishop's earlier case been handed differently, it is really unlikely she would have had the professional and personal life that led her to become the "grant-winning scientist and a mother of four" who walked into a faculty meeting guns a-blazing.  Thus, one can sensibly assert that a tougher approach to her prior shooting would have changed the course of her life in ways that likely would not have brought her to the spot where she was driven to go on this particular Alabama shooting spree a quarter-century later.

Adding a final twist to this discussion of Bishop's criminal past is how this history should or will affect her criminal future.  When an Alabama prosecutor considers taking a plea to these capital charges or an Alabama jury considers a capital sentence, should Bishop's prior killing make them more eager to ensure she now gets the ultimate punishment?

UPDATE:  Still more intrigue has emerged surrounding Bishop, as detailed in this new Boston Globe report, which begins this way: "The professor who is accused of killing three colleagues at the University of Alabama on Friday was a suspect in the attempted mail bombing of a Harvard Medical School professor in 1993, a law enforcement official said today."

February 14, 2010 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Explaining the virtues of focused prisoner commutations in Michigan

Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm's legal counsel has this notable new commentary in the Detroit Free Press, which is headlined "Prisoner commutations have been rare and safe for public."  Here is how it starts and ends:

Last week, the Detroit Free Press reported on the clemency process and Gov. Jennifer Granholm's track record in exercising her constitutional authority to commute prison sentences ("Inmates released at record rate," Feb. 7).  The governor has exercised this authority sparingly. N inety-eight percent of commutation requests have been denied.

Over the past seven years, out of more than 6,200 requests for commutations, the governor granted 124.  Many of the inmates granted commutations suffered from debilitating medical conditions, were terminally ill or medically frail, or were deportable to another country. Twenty-four have since died.  None of those released was a serial murderer or rapist. Following release, none has committed a violent crime....

While the Free Press reported that the attorney general often expresses opposition, the record reveals that his office opposed commutation in less than half of the 124 cases where a commutation was granted.  For sentences issued in Wayne County, only 8 of 34 commutations granted were opposed by the county prosecutor.

The commutation process is extremely thorough and an important element in our system of constitutional checks and balances.  Before Gov. Granholm signs a commutation certificate, she and her legal advisers painstakingly endeavor to ensure that the person is safe to release -- and that commutation is simply the right thing to do.

February 14, 2010 in Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack