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June 4, 2012

Significant disparities in application of self-defense law in Florida

Expressions of concern about judges creating disparities in sentencing outcomes always prompt me to wonder about other kinds disparities created by other criminal justice participants. This lengthy new local article, headlined "Florida 'stand your ground' law yields some shocking outcomes depending on how law is applied," confirms my sense that the injustices potentially caused by sentencing disparities may pale in comparison to other kinds of criminal justice disparities.  Here is the start of a fascinating article that merits a full read:

Florida's "stand your ground" law has allowed drug dealers to avoid murder charges and gang members to walk free.  It has stymied prosecutors and confused judges.  It has also served its intended purpose, exonerating dozens of people who were deemed to be legitimately acting in self-defense. Among them: a woman who was choked and beaten by an irate tenant and a man who was threatened in his driveway by a felon.

Seven years since it was passed, Florida's "stand your ground" law is being invoked with unexpected frequency, in ways no one imagined, to free killers and violent attackers whose self-defense claims seem questionable at best.

Cases with similar facts show surprising — sometimes shocking — differences in outcomes.  If you claim "stand your ground" as the reason you shot someone, what happens to you can depend less on the merits of the case than on who you are, whom you kill and where your case is decided....

In the most comprehensive effort of its kind, the Tampa Bay Times has identified nearly 200 "stand your ground'' cases and their outcomes.  The Times identified cases through media reports, court records and dozens of interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys across the state.

Among the findings:

• Those who invoke "stand your ground" to avoid prosecution have been extremely successful. Nearly 70 percent have gone free.

• Defendants claiming "stand your ground" are more likely to prevail if the victim is black. Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white.

• The number of cases is increasing, largely because defense attorneys are using "stand your ground" in ways state legislators never envisioned. The defense has been invoked in dozens of cases with minor or no injuries.  It has also been used by a self-described "vampire" in Pinellas County, a Miami man arrested with a single marijuana cigarette, a Fort Myers homeowner who shot a bear and a West Palm Beach jogger who beat a Jack Russell terrier.

• People often go free under "stand your ground" in cases that seem to make a mockery of what lawmakers intended.  One man killed two unarmed people and walked out of jail. Another shot a man as he lay on the ground.  Others went free after shooting their victims in the back.  In nearly a third of the cases the Times analyzed, defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued their victim — and still went free.

• Similar cases can have opposite outcomes.  Depending on who decided their cases, some drug dealers claiming self-defense have gone to prison while others have been set free. The same holds true for killers who left a fight, only to arm themselves and return.  Shoot someone from your doorway?  Fire on a fleeing burglar?  Your case can swing on different interpretations of the law by prosecutors, judge or jury.

• A comprehensive analysis of "stand your ground" decisions is all but impossible.  When police and prosecutors decide not to press charges, they don't always keep records showing how they reached their decisions. And no one keeps track of how many "stand your ground" motions have been filed or their outcomes.

Claiming "stand your ground,'' people have used force to meet force outside an ice cream parlor, on a racquetball court and at a school bus stop.  Two-thirds of the defendants used guns, though weapons have included an ice pick, shovel and chair leg.  The oldest defendant was an 81-year-old man; the youngest, a 14-year-old Miami youth who shot someone trying to steal his Jet Ski.

Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, describes "stand your ground" as a "malleable" law being stretched to new limits daily.  "It's arising now in the oddest of places,'' he said.

That's unlikely to change any time soon, according to prosecutors and defense attorneys, who say the number and types of cases are sure to rise.   "If you're a defense counsel, you'd be crazy not to use it in any case where it could apply,'' said Zachary Weaver, a West Palm Beach lawyer.  "With the more publicity the law gets, the more individuals will get off.''

June 4, 2012 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

June 3, 2012

NY Times editorial supports jury findings for mandatory minimums

A few weeks ago, I noted and promoted in this post the remarkable opinion by US District Judge William Young in US v. Gurley, No. 10-10310 (D. Mass. May 17, 2012). I am consequently pleased to see that this past weekend the New York Times had this editorial about the case, headlined "A Jury Draws a Line." Here are excerpts:

Rodney Gurley faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison for possession of 28 or more grams of crack cocaine with an intent to distribute it because he had previously been convicted of a felony.

The police found 32 grams in the apartment where he was arrested, but a federal jury in Boston found that the amount of crack “properly attributable” to Mr. Gurley did not exceed 28 grams. Relying on the jury for guidance, Federal District Judge William Young sensibly imposed a sentence of 30 months.  That riled the Justice Department, which insisted it was entitled to have the judge, not the jury, decide factors in sentencing and that Mr. Gurley should have gotten the 10-year minimum.  The government has appealed the sentence to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit....

Since federal mandatory minimum sentences were enacted in 1986 and prosecutors began to “run our federal criminal justice system,” as the judge said, much of the debate has focused on the reduction of judges’ power in sentencing.  The Booker case and others have restored some of it, but there remain excessive mandatory minimums, which Congress should rescind.

But Judge Young, like other judges and scholars, has campaigned to restore the jury’s constitutional role in sentencing to ensure that criminal laws are applied fairly.  The federal sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums have substantially diminished that role.  In this case, Judge Young properly used it in imposing a sentence based on the jury’s finding about a critical fact.

June 3, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma: An Innovative Empirical Study of Plea Bargaining’s Innocence Problem"

The title of this post the title of this new paper available via SSRN authored by Lucian Dervan and Vanessa Edkins. Here is the abstract:

In 1989, Ada JoAnn Taylor was accused of murder and presented with stark options.  If she pleaded guilty, she would be rewarded with a sentence of ten to forty years in prison.  If, however, she proceeded to trial and was convicted, she would likely spend the rest of her life behind bars.  Over a thousand miles away in Florida and more than twenty years later, a college student was accused of cheating and presented with her own incentives to admit wrongdoing and save the university the time and expense of proceeding before a disciplinary review board.  Both women decided the incentives were enticing and pleaded guilty.

That Taylor and the college student both pleaded guilty is not the only similarity between the cases.  Both were also innocent of the offenses for which they had been accused.  After serving nineteen years in prison, Taylor was exonerated after DNA testing proved that neither she nor any of the other five defendants who pleaded guilty in her case were involved in the murder.  As for the college student, her innocence is assured by the fact that, unbeknownst to her, she was actually part of an innovative new study into plea bargaining and innocence.  The study, conducted by the authors, involving dozens of college students, and taking place over several months, not only recreated the innocent defendant’s dilemma experienced by Taylor, but revealed that plea bargaining’s innocence problem is not isolated to an obscure and rare set of cases.

Strikingly, the authors’ study found that over half of the participants were willing to falsely admit guilt in return for a perceived benefit.  This finding not only brings finality to the long-standing debate regarding the possible extent of plea bargaining’s innocence problem, but also ignites a fundamental constitutional question regarding an institution the Supreme Court reluctantly approved of in 1970 in return for an assurance it would not be used to induce innocent defendants to falsely admit guilt.

June 3, 2012 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (37) | TrackBack

Taiwan struggling with death penalty administration

A helpful reader alerted me to this intriguing new BBC article concerning controversies over the operation of the death penalty in Taiwan.  The article is headlined "Death penalty dilemma dividing Taiwan," and here are excerpts:

In 1997 a Taiwanese soldier was executed for murder, despite there being no evidence against him.  The authorities last year admitted he was innocent and compensated his family, but legal experts warn a similar tragedy could happen again under the current judicial system.

Chiang Kuo-ching was convicted of raping and killing a five-year-old girl.  He was one of two soldiers who worked in the same building as the girl's mother, and had failed a lie detector test because he was scared.  He insisted he was innocent, but was executed at the age of 21.

After a long campaign by his parents, investigators reopened the case in 2010 and indicted a man with a history of sexual offences last year.  The government admitted Mr Chiang was tortured into confessing and late last year apologised to his family.

Despite this alarming case, Taiwan's judges continue to sentence defendants to death with no material evidence, such as fingerprints or DNA, experts say.  Instead, they rely mainly on confessions or co-defendants' statements, and routinely accept as evidence police interrogations that are not recorded or videotaped, even though the law requires recordings to prevent police torture, lawyers and others say.

"The problem is even though on paper judges are supposed to follow the principle of innocent until proven guilty, in practice many don't," said Lin Feng-cheng, head of Taiwan's Judicial Reform Foundation.  "They and the society want to quickly solve a case and bring justice to the victims' families," he said....

From 2006 to 2009, no executions were carried out, as the government tried to bring Taiwan closer to the international trend of abolishing the death penalty.   But the moratorium ended in 2010 after former Justice Minister Wang Ching-feng inadvertently drew attention to it, by publicly stating that she would not sign off on any executions.

Facing public pressure, President Ma Ying-jeou replaced Ms Wang with Tseng Yung-fu, who promptly ordered four people be executed, and another five last year.  Taiwan's judges — most of whom favour the death penalty — meanwhile sentenced 15 people to death at the Supreme Court level last year, the highest number in the past decade....

Taiwan's government says it wants to eventually abolish the death penalty, but not until it can convince the public.  Surveys show that more than 70% of the population favours it. "At present, the majority of the people in Taiwan are still opposed to the abolition of the death penalty and therefore we think it is inappropriate for the government to do away with the death penalty right now," said Chen Wen-chi, an adviser and spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice....

There are 57 inmates currently on death row.  At least one of them, and four others sentenced to death but still undergoing appeals, were convicted with no material evidence, Lin Feng-cheng said.  "The mistakes made in Chiang Kuo-ching's case are typical of mistakes still made in Taiwan," said Mr Lin.  "We believe if we continue the death penalty, the risks are very high."

June 3, 2012 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack