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April 8, 2017

"Cruel Techniques, Unusual Secrets"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by William Berry and Meghan Ryan now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In the recent case of Glossip v. Gross, the Supreme Court denied a death row petitioner’s challenge to Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol.  An important part of Justice Alito’s majority opinion highlighted the existence of a relationship between the constitutionality of a punishment and the requirement of a constitutional technique available to administer the punishment.

Far from foreclosing future challenges, this principle ironically highlights the failure of the Court to describe the relationship under the Eighth Amendment between three distinct categories of punishment: (1) the type of punishment imposed by the court — i.e., death penalty, life without parole, life with parole, (2) the method of punishment — the tool by which the state administers the punishment, and (3) the technique of punishment — the manner in which the state administers the punishment.  Because, as Justice Alito insists, a constitutional method and technique must exist for a constitutionally approved punishment, there is a constitutional relationship between these categories.

As such, this Article articulates a holistic model for applying the Eighth Amendment on three levels — the punishment type, method, and technique.  This Article develops this taxonomy, making explicit the concepts implicit in a number of Eighth Amendment cases.  To be sure, the Court has assessed types of punishments, punishment methods, and punishment techniques individually, but it has never offered a holistic framework by which to understand these related constitutional inquiries.  This Article develops such an approach.

In light of the applicable framework, the Article then explores the Court’s application of the Eighth Amendment with respect to the three categories, demonstrating how the Court deviates from its doctrine when considering punishment techniques.  It next describes use of secrecy in the context of lethal injection, uncovering the manner in which this secrecy frustrates the application of the Eighth Amendment framework.  Further, the Article argues that the state-instigated secrecy does more than create a doctrinal smokescreen — it raises serious constitutional and legitimacy questions concerning lethal injection protocols.  Finally, the Article concludes by exploring what transparency in execution methods might mean both in terms of restoring dignity to death row prisoners and for the future of capital punishment in America.

April 8, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

April 7, 2017

Now that we have Justice Neil Gorsuch, what will be his first notable sentencing vote or opinion?

As reported here by the Washington Post, this morning, the "U.S. Senate confirmed Neil M. Gorsuch to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, capping more than a year of bitter partisan bickering over the ideological balance of the nation’s highest court." Here is more about what comes next:

Gorsuch is expected to be sworn-in in the coming days, allowing him to join the high court for the final weeks of its term, which ends in June. It’s likely he will want to be sworn-in quickly — even if a ceremonial event is held later — so that he can get to work.  The court is scheduled to meet Thursday for a private session to decide whether to accept or reject a long list of cases that would be heard next term. And the last round of oral arguments for this term is scheduled to begin in just 10 days, on April 17.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. is the most recent justice to have been confirmed during a Supreme Court term. He was sworn-in the same day as his confirmation, and a ceremonial event with President George W. Bush was held the next day.

I do not believe there are any sentencing cases on the SCOTUS docket for its last round of arguments later this month, but there are a few notable criminal procedures case including a couple involving ineffective assistance of counsel issues.  It will be interesting to see how Justice Gorsuch approaches oral argument and decision-making in these early cases.

April 7, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

"Who are the Punishers?"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper authored by Raff Donelson now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Eighth Amendment is a list of deeds not to be done, but it does not say who is not to do them.  This Article specifically examines whom the Eighth Amendment bars from inflicting cruel and unusual punishments.  The Supreme Court has thus far applied the Eighth Amendment to a narrow class of parties, consisting of just legislatures, criminal courts, and those who execute punishment such as prison officials.  Under the framework presented in this Article, the class of potential punishers should be much wider.  Those who work in jails and other detention centers, public and private school officials, and even parents of juveniles should be considered potential punishers for Eighth Amendment purposes.

April 7, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

April 6, 2017

Federal district judge declares unconstitutional Arizona law requiring defendant to prove lack of sexual intent for contact with child

A helpful reader alerted me to this new Slate article, headlined "Federal Judge Rules Arizona’s Diaper Changing Child Molestation Law Is Unconstitutional," reporting on a notable new federal district court ruling concerning a remarkable Arizona criminal law. The start of the Slate article provides the background and links to relevant rulings:

Last September, the Arizona Supreme Court issued a stunning decision interpreting the state’s child molestation law to criminalize any contact between an adult and a child’s genitals. In a 3–2 decision, the court found that the law encompassed entirely innocent conduct, such as changing or bathing a baby.  Arizona, the court held, could convict an adult for touching an infant’s genitals — which carries a prison sentence of five years — without proving sexual intent.  Instead, under the law, the accused had the burden of proving that he had no sexual intent to a jury and by a preponderance of the evidence.  As the dissenters noted, the ruling turned “parents and other caregivers” in the state into “child molesters or sex abusers under Arizona law.”

Reason, however, has now prevailed. Last week, a federal judge ruled that the Arizona statute, as interpreted by the state Supreme Court, is unconstitutional. In a lengthy decision, U.S. District Judge Neil V. Wake cogently explained why the law violates the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, vindicating the two justices who dissented on those grounds in September.  He also reminded Arizona that parents have a constitutional right to care for their children — a right the state may not interfere with by criminalizing hygienic care.

The basic flaw in the Arizona law is pretty conspicuous. According to the statute, an individual is guilty of child molestation if he “intentionally or knowingly … touch[es] … any part of the genitals, anus or female breast” of a child “under fifteen years of age.”  Notice something strange there?  Despite calling itself a child molestation statute, the law does not require the “touching” to be sexual. Thus, a caregiver who “intentionally or knowingly” touches an infant’s genitals while changing his diaper is clearly guilty of violating the law. No other state save Hawaii does not require sexual intent for a child molestation offense.

Arizona defended its statute by noting that the defendant could still assert “lack of sexual motivation” as an “affirmative defense” at trial — requiring him to prove his benign intent “by a preponderance of the evidence.”  The Arizona Supreme Court was satisfied with this loophole, holding that it rendered the law constitutional.  Wake was not so easily fooled. Under the Due Process Clause, Wake noted, the government carries the burden of proving each element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.  Yet the Arizona law shifts the burden onto the defendant, forcing him to disprove “the very thing that makes child molestation child molestation.”

That requirement, Wake explained, “violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of due process and of proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”  Due process does not permit Arizona “to remove the essential wrongfulness in child molestation and place the burden of disproving it upon people engaged in a wide range of acts, the vast majority of which no one could believe the state meant to punish.”  Indeed, Arizona cannot lawfully punish “the vast majority” of conduct swept up by the statute.  The U.S. Supreme Court has found that the Due Process Clause “protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children.”  Therefore, Wake concluded, Arizona may not criminalize “constitutionally protected … innocent conduct” such as “diapering and bathing infants.”

April 6, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13)

Split Sixth Circuit panel uphold injunction blocking Ohio lethal injection protocol

A split Sixth Circuit panel today In re: Ohio Execution Protocol, No. 17-3076 (6th Cir. April 6, 2017) (available here), upheld a preliminary injunction blocking Ohio from moving forward with a number of scheduled executions. Here is how the majority opinion authored by Judge Moore gets started:

Ohio’s current execution protocol allows for execution by lethal injection using a three-drug combination of (1) midazolam; (2) either vecuronium bromide, pancuronium bromide, or rocuronium bromide, which are paralytics; and (3) potassium chloride, which stops the heart.  R. 667-1 (Ohio DRC Execution Protocol, 01- COM-11 at 2) (Page ID #19813).  The purpose of the first drug is to ensure that the person being executed is insensate to the pain that the second two drugs cause. It is undisputed that if the first drug does not “render the prisoner unconscious,” then “there is a substantial, constitutionally unacceptable risk of suffocation . . . and pain” from the second two drugs. Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 53 (2008) (plurality op.).  The ultimate question in this case is whether use of midazolam as the first drug in this three-drug protocol “entails a substantial risk of severe pain” as compared to “a known and available alternative.”  Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726, 2731 (2015). The question before us at this preliminary stage, however, is much narrower.  We ask only whether the district court abused its discretion by granting a preliminary injunction to allow for further litigation regarding midazolam’s efficacy before Ohio executes Ronald Phillips, Raymond Tibbetts, and Gary Otte.  For the reasons discussed below, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court granting the preliminary injunction.

Here is how the dissenting opinion by Judge Kethledge gets started:

Roughly two decades have passed since the plaintiffs in this case murdered their victims. Ronald Phillips raped a three-year-old girl and beat her so badly that her internal organs ruptured. For two days she suffered intense abdominal pain and vomiting, until her heart collapsed.  See State v. Phillips, 656 N.E.2d 643, 650-52 (Ohio 1995). Gary Otte entered the home of an Ohio man, robbed him, and then shot him in the head. Two nights later, Otte pushed his way into a woman’s home and did the same things to her.  After each murder Otte went out partying.  See State v. Otte, 660 N.E.2d 711, 715-16 (Ohio 1996).  Raymond Tibbetts killed an elderly man and his caretaker. Police found the man slumped in his chair with butcher knives protruding from his chest and back.  His caretaker lay on the floor in a pool of blood with her skull cracked open and its contents scattered nearby.  See State v. Tibbetts, 749 N.E.2d 226, 237–39 (Ohio 2001).

Phillips, Tibbetts, and Otte now claim that Ohio’s Execution Protocol would cause them to suffer severe pain in violation of the Eighth Amendment.  In a sense the claim is unprecedented: the Supreme Court “has never invalidated a State’s chosen procedure for carrying out a sentence of death as the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.” Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726, 2732 (2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).  The State’s chosen procedure here is the same procedure (so far as the combination of drugs is concerned) that the Supreme Court refused to invalidate in Glossip.  Yet the district court thought we should likely invalidate that procedure, and today the majority agrees.  I respectfully disagree and would reverse the district court’s grant of a preliminary injunction.

A lengthy faculty meeting and a coming class mean I will not have a chance to read this extended opinion until late tonight, but I can already confidently predict that the State of Ohio will seek en banc review of this ruling and perhaps even Supreme Court review, if necessary.

April 6, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Arkansas Parole Board recommends clemency for one of eight condemned scheduled for execution later this month

As reported in this AP piece, the "Arkansas Parole Board on Wednesday recommended that Gov. Asa Hutchinson alter the state's unprecedented execution schedule and grant mercy to a death row inmate who directed the torture and murder of a teenager more than two decades ago." Here is more:

Jason McGehee, 40, is one of eight inmates scheduled to die in four double executions this month. Hutchinson, who is not bound by the board's finding that McGehee should have his sentence cut to life without parole, can intervene at any time before the execution begins on April 27. The Republican governor not said when he will make a decision.

Until Wednesday, the state Parole Board had rejected every death row clemency request presented to it since 1990.

With a key lethal injection drug expiring at the end of the month, the Arkansas Department of Correction hopes to execute eight men in a 10-day period beginning April 17. Only Texas has executed that many inmates in a month, doing it twice in 1997. Seven executions in a month would still be a record for Arkansas.

Prosecutors say McGehee, who had just turned 20, directed the fatal assault of Johnny Melbourne Jr., a 15-year-old who had told police about a northern Arkansas theft ring. In voting 6-1 in favor of McGehee's clemency request, the Parole Board considered letters and testimony from the judge from McGehee's trial, a former Correction Department chief, members of McGehee's family and the victim's father.

"The death of John Melbourne, Jr. was the tragic result of a group-dynamic gone wrong," retired Circuit Judge Robert McCorkindale wrote, according to documents released by the state Parole Board. McGehee was one of several people who participated in the attack, but was the only defendant sentenced to death, and the retired judge called it "an excessive punishment."

Former Department of Correction Director Ray Hobbs told the panel at a 40-minute hearing Friday that McGehee had become a model prisoner. "He still has value that can be given to others if his life is spared," Hobbs said.

Linda Christensen, the inmate's aunt, said in an affidavit filed with the board that McGehee suffered psychological abuse as a teenager, such as when his stepfather killed the boy's dog after the dog fought with another dog for food. The stepfather "got up and kicked Dusty in the side with his cowboy boots as hard as he could," Christensen wrote. "He lay and suffered and the kids had to watch him die slowly. ... Jason was never the same after that."

Melbourne's father had asked the board to reject McGehee's clemency request. "John didn't have this. Even though he was begging for his life and was hurting. He didn't have this and he begged for his life too. He didn't have y'all," the elder Melbourne said.

Board Chairman John Felts voted against clemency. He said McGehee's death sentence wasn't excessive considering the inmate had orchestrated the Aug. 19, 1996, attack. The boy was beaten and tortured at a house in Harrison, then bound and driven to an abandoned farmhouse outside Omaha, a town in northern Arkansas. He was later strangled while his hands were tied with an electrical cord.

April 6, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

April 5, 2017

En banc Ninth Circuit concludes application of guidelines should generally be reviewed for abuse of discretion

The Ninth Circuit today issues a relatively short en banc ruling that should be of particular interest to hard-core appellate review sentencing aficionados. The start of the opinion in US v. Gasca-Ruiz, No. 14-50342 (9th Cir. April 5, 2017) (available here), covers the basics:

We took this case en banc to resolve an intra-circuit conflict over the standard of review that applies when we review a district court’s application of the United States Sentencing Guidelines to the facts of a given case. We conclude that as a general rule such decisions should be reviewed for abuse of discretion.

If you still hanker for more, here is a paragraph from the heart of the court's analysis:

District courts make far more guideline-application decisions of all sorts, see Koon v. United States, 518 U.S. 81, 98 (1996), and thus are likely to be more familiar with the nuances that go into applying Guidelines provisions across the board. Guideline-application decisions, as we have defined them, almost always “depen[d] heavily upon an understanding of the significance of case-specific details,” Buford, 532 U.S. at 65, because once the district court has identified the correct legal standard and properly found the relevant historical facts, all that remains is the fact-bound judgment as to whether a specific set of facts satisfies the governing legal standard.  In the Sentencing Guidelines context in particular, that is a judgment district courts are uniquely qualified to make.  Each guideline-application decision is ultimately geared toward assessing whether the defendant before the court should be viewed as more or less culpable than other offenders in a given class.  In light of their experience sentencing defendants on a day-in-and-day-out basis, district courts possess an institutional advantage over appellate courts in making such culpability assessments. See Koon, 518 U.S. at 98.

April 5, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

AG Sessions provides update (with timelines) about the work of DOJ's Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety

As reported in this short press release, "Attorney General Jeff Sessions today issued [a] memo to 94 U.S. Attorney’s Offices and Department of Justice component heads providing an update on the Department’s Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety." As the press release further explains, in this update, "the Attorney General announced the creation of Task Force subcommittees that will focus on a variety of issues including developing violent crime reduction strategies, supporting prevention and re-entry efforts, updating charging and sentencing policies, reviewing asset forfeiture guidance, reducing illegal immigration and human trafficking, combatting hate crimes, and evaluating marijuana enforcement policy."

The full three-page AG memo is available at this link, and it does not cover much of significant substance.  But the memo does state that the AG "directed the Task Force to hold a National Summit on Crime Reduction and Public Safety within 120 days," and it also states that the AG has asked for Task Force subcommittees to provide initial recommendations no later than July 27th.  Thus I expect we will see some hot talk about changes to DOJ charging and sentencing policies (and perhaps also marijuana policies) as the weather heats up in the coming months. 

April 5, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Criminological Perspective on Juvenile Sex Offender Policy"

The title of this post is the title of this short new article authored by Franklin Zimring available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Persons under 18 are in the very early years of sexual maturity and lack both experience and perspective.  When juveniles commit sexual offenses, the behavior is typically not violent and most often involves conduct only referred to authorities because of an age difference between the offender and the victim.  Rates of future sexual offending in later years are quite low for most juvenile sex offenders and on current data the presence or absence of a juvenile sex offense is not a significant predictor of sexual offending in young adulthood.  Under these circumstances, requiring registration and public notification of juvenile sex offenders is very poor crime control policy as well as gross injustice to the juvenile offender.

April 5, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Alabama poised to ban judicial override of jury life recommendations in capital cases

As reported in this local article, the "law in Alabama is about to change so that juries will have the final say on whether to impose the death penalty or life in prison in capital murder cases." Here is more on this notable capital development:

The House of Representatives this afternoon passed a bill that would end the authority of judges to override jury recommendations in capital cases. Alabama is the only state that allows a judge to override a jury's recommendation when sentencing capital murder cases.

The bill, by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, passed the House on a vote of 78-19 and is now headed to Gov. Robert Bentley, who said he plans to sign it into law after it undergoes a standard legal review.

Rep. Chris England, who had a similar bill in the House, substituted Brewbaker's bill for his on the House floor today, allowing it to get final passage....

According to the Equal Justice Initiative. Alabama judges have overridden jury recommendations 112 times. In 101 of those cases, the judges gave a death sentence. "Having judicial override almost undermines the constitutional right to trial by a jury of your peers," England said.

England's bill, as introduced, would also have required the consent of all 12 jurors to give a death sentence. Current law requires at least 10 jurors. Brewbaker's bill leaves the threshold to impose the death penalty at 10 jurors.

England said there was not enough support to pass the bill with the requirement for a unanimous jury to impose the death penalty. He said ending judicial override was the main objective this year but he might propose the unanimous jury requirement again in the future. He said he still thinks the change is needed. "Why would it take a unanimous jury to convict but less than a unanimous jury to send someone to death?" England said....

England said the fact that Alabama had become the last state to allow judicial override helped build support for the bill this year. England also said there was some question about whether Alabama's death penalty law could be found unconstitutional in the future.

Ebony Howard, associate legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, issued a statement applauding the bill's passage. "Alabama should do everything it can to ensure that an innocent person is never executed," Howard said. "The bipartisan effort to pass a bill that would keep a judge from overriding a jury's vote in capital cases is a step in the right direction. As of today, Alabama is one step closer to joining every other state in our nation in prohibiting judicial override in the sentencing phase of death penalty cases."

The Supreme Court's decision in Hurst last year striking down, as violative of the Sixth Amendment, Florida's quirky approach to jury involvement in death sentencing surely paved the way for this notable change in Alabama procedure. Notably, in Florida, Hurst was ultimately interpreted to also preclude death sentencing based on only a 10-juror recommendation. Apparently legislators in Alabama feel more confident that capital cases can roll that way in the Yellowhammer State.

April 5, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

April 4, 2017

How many prior sentenced federal prisoners might now have "Dean claims" (assuming Dean is retroactive)?

As reported in this post from yesterday, and as explained a bit more via this write-up I provided to the fine folks at SCOTUSblog, the Supreme Court yesterday in Dean v. United States, No. 15-9260 (April 3, 2017) (available here) ruled that the Eighth Circuit had been wrong to hold that, "in calculating the sentence for [a] predicate offense, a judge must ignore the fact that the defendant will serve the mandatory minimums imposed under §924(c)."  According to the government's briefing in Dean, most of the circuits had also ruled like the Eighth Circuit (incorrectly) on this statutory sentencing issue — though I suspect that, in practice, a number of district courts did not consistently ignore 924(c) mandates when sentencing predicate offenses.

Given this background, I was surprised I did not think of the question in the title of this post until former AUSA Steven Sanders sent me an email with this query: "Any thoughts on whether Dean applies retroactively on 2255, on the (Montgomery) theory that the decision opens up the range of punishment and thus is substantive for Teague purposes?"   Regular readers familiar with my views about finality rules and sentencing errors (basics here, law review article here) should expect me to have plenty of thoughts about Dean retroactivity, most of which center around the view that Dean qualifies as retroactive.  Put simply, Dean seems to me to be a substantive ruling that applies retroactively.

Assuming Dean is retroactive, this recent "Quick Facts" publication from the US Sentencing Commission suggests there could be thousands (perhaps even tens of thousands) of federal prisoners with plausible Dean claims.  Specifically, that publication indicates that, in Fiscal Year 2015, over 1100 federal defendants were convicted under both section 924(c) and another predicate offense not carrying a mandatory minimum, and that the average sentence for this group was over 11 years in prison. Assuming 2015 was a fairly representative year — and the USSC publication actually suggests a larger number of defendants getting longer sentences in prior years — it is possible that well over 10,000 defendants (and maybe many more) could be in federal prison serving sentences that were imposed based on an understanding of applicable sentencing principles that Dean has now disrupted.

For various procedural and practical reasons, I doubt we will see thousands of "Dean resentencings" in the federal courts in the coming months even if thousands of prisoners got sentenced based on the wrong understanding of the applicable laws here.  But I do expect that there will be many more than just a handful or "Dean resentencing" efforts.

April 4, 2017 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Criminal Employment Law"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Benjamin Levin available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This Article diagnoses a phenomenon, “criminal employment law,” which exists at the nexus of employment law and the criminal justice system. Courts and legislatures discourage employers from hiring workers with criminal records and encourage employers to discipline workers for non-work-related criminal misconduct. In analyzing this phenomenon, my goals are threefold: (1) to examine how criminal employment law works; (2) to hypothesize why criminal employment law has proliferated; and (3) to assess what is wrong with criminal employment law.

This Article examines the ways in which the laws that govern the workplace create incentives for employers not to hire individuals with criminal records and to discharge employees based on non-workplace criminal misconduct. In this way, private employers effectively operate as a branch of the criminal justice system.  But private employers act without constitutional or significant structural checks.  Therefore, I argue that the criminal justice system has altered the nature of employment, while employment law doctrines have altered the nature of criminal punishment.  Employment law scholars should be concerned about the role of criminal records in restricting entry into the formal labor market.  And criminal law scholars should be concerned about how employment restrictions extend criminal punishment, shifting punitive authority and decision-making power to unaccountable private employers.

April 4, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (5)

Could Proposition 66 turn the California Supreme Court into a specialty death penalty appeals court?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent lengthy Los Angeles Times article headlined "Trying to speed up executions could deal 'mortal blow' to California Supreme Court." Here are excerpts:

If a November ballot measure to speed up executions goes into effect, the California Supreme Court will have to decide hundreds of death penalty appeals in rapid succession. That mandate would turn the state’s highest court into what analysts say would be “a death penalty court,” forced for years to devote about 90% of its time to capital appeals.

Proposition 66, sponsored by prosecutors and passed by 51% of voters, gave judicial leaders 1½ years to make new legal rules and then five years to decide a crushing backlog of appeals. “Prop. 66 would require the California Supreme Court to decide virtually nothing but death penalty appeals for at least the next five years — almost no civil cases at all and no criminal cases other than capital murder,” said Jon Eisenberg, president of the California Academy of Appellate Lawyers.

Legal analysts and four bar associations say the measure would inundate all the courts with extra work but hit the top court’s seven justices hardest.  In a friend-of-the-court brief, 11 law professors and a nonprofit legal center contended Proposition 66 would “grind the wheels of justice to a halt” in California.

Death penalty advocates acknowledge the measure would mean extra work for the courts, but say that it is necessary to fix a system that has produced the largest death row in the country and no executions in more than a decade.  They contend the workload will be tolerable, and that the courts will have some flexibility in meeting the deadlines.

The California Supreme Court is considering whether the measure can go into effect. Two opponents of the measure sued in November, contending it illegally usurped the powers of the judicial branch and violated a constitutional rule that says ballot measures must deal with one subject only. The California Supreme Court put the measure on hold until the justices resolve the case, probably within the next few months.

The appellate lawyers’ academy takes no position on the death penalty but opposed the initiative on the grounds that it would disrupt the courts and prevent litigants in civil matters from having their cases decided in a timely manner. It joined the bar associations of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and San Francisco in a January letter written to the state Supreme Court saying that Proposition 66 “threatens to deal a mortal blow” to California’s courts....

Given a backlog of more than 300 death penalty appeals already at the court, the justices would have to decide at least 66 of them each year for the next several years just to catch up, Eisenberg said. Calculations based on the court’s typical annual production indicate the justices would be spending 90% of their time on capital cases, Eisenberg said. Civil case rulings would decline from about 50 a year to just a handful, he said. “That leaves virtually no time for anything other than death penalty cases,” Eisenberg said....

UC Berkeley's David A. Carrillo, director of a center that studies the California Constitution, described the initiative as a new unfunded mandate. "There is no way the courts can get through the existing backlog in five years with their current resources," Carrillo said.

Law enforcement groups have filed several friend-of-the-court briefs in favor of the initiative, arguing that voters have made their will clear. “California voters have elected to retain the death penalty every time the issue has been placed before them,” the leaders of several county prosecutor groups reminded the court in one brief.... “Despite the abiding and long-standing will of the voters, death penalty opponents have used the legal process as a mechanism to frustrate imposition of the death penalty,” the prosecutors argued in their brief.

Kent Scheidegger, who helped write Proposition 66, said the portrait of court chaos predicted by the bar associations and some analysts was overblown. Although the measure would require the California Supreme Court to move quickly to dispatch the backlog of capital appeals, the initiative would also shift initial responsibility for habeas challenges from the high court to trial judges, he noted. That provision, Scheidegger argued, would save the court time.

Rulings by Superior Court judges on those cases would likely be appealed to intermediate appellate courts and up to the state Supreme Court, but Scheidegger said the trial judges would do the heavy lifting. “I know that all judges hate time limits, but I do think that moving the habeas cases is a reform that most of the justices probably would agree with,” said Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates for the death penalty.

Even if the Supreme Court were to strike down the measure’s deadlines, other requirements of the initiative would still speed up executions, he said. He cited a provision that would limit public review of the state’s lethal injection method. Legal challenges involving the method have kept the execution chamber empty since 2006. Eighteen inmates who have exhausted their appeals could be executed immediately once that part of the initiative took effect, he said.

Former El Dorado County Supervisor Ron Briggs and the late former Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, who filed the lawsuit, argued that the entire measure should be tossed because it violated the rule limiting initiatives to a single subject. In addition to setting new deadlines and easing approval of an execution protocol, Proposition 66 would require death-row inmates to work to pay compensation to victims’ families and bar medical associations from disciplining doctors who participate in executions. It also would place a state agency assigned to represent death row inmates under California Supreme Court control and permit the corrections department to distribute condemned inmates among the general prison population.

I find so many interesting elements to this story, ranging from the telling reality that it has already taken five months to move along litigation about the status of an initiative designed to move along litigation to the interesting conflict created by state Supreme Court judges having to decide a case that will determine whether and how they have to decide a lot more cases a lot more quickly.  In the end, though, this story confirms my long-standing belief that unless and until a lot of elected officials in California start having a very strong interest in moving forward with a large number of executions, the death penalty will exist in the state more as a sentence on paper than as a sentence that actually gets carried out for any significant number of condemned murderers.

April 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Spotlighting new research and realities at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center

As regular readers know, I have made a habit of noting here some posts from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center because the topics covered there are so interesting and get so little attention in the mainstream media (or many other places in the blogosphere).  In addition, I have noted lately an uptick of important empirical research and scholarly analysis of issues related to collateral consequences, and CCRC is effectively covering this important and encouraging new trend.  Against that backdrop, here is a sampling of some recent posts of note from CCRC:

April 4, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Data on sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

April 3, 2017

"Race, Plea, and Charge Reduction: An Assessment of Racial Disparities in the Plea Process"

The title of this post is the title of this notable article just published in Justice Quarterly authored by Christi Metcalfe and Ted Chiricos.  Here is its abstract:

With the growing recognition of the salience of prosecutorial discretion, attention to biases in the earlier phases of case processing is increasing.  Still, few studies have considered the influence of defendant race and race/sex within the plea process.  The present study uses a sample of felony cases to assess the influence of race and race/sex on the mode of disposition, similarities and differences in the factors that predict the likelihood of a plea across race, and potential racial disparities in the plea value received pertaining to a charge reduction.

The findings suggest that blacks, and black males in particular, are less likely to plea, and are expected to receive a lower value for their plea.  Also, the factors that predict the likelihood of a plea are substantively different across race. Conditioning effects of race and sex are found in the likelihood of a plea and probabilities of a charge reduction.

April 3, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Supreme Court unanimously rules for defendant and district court sentencing discretion in Dean

I am intrigued and surprised and ultimately pleased that a unanimous Supreme Court this morning emphasized the significance of federal district court sentencing discretion through its ruling in Dean v. United States, No. 15-9260 (April 3, 2017) (available here). The Chief Justice authored a relatively brief opinion for the Court in Dean that was obviously convincing enough to get even the most pro-prosecution Justices comfortable with ruling against the prosecution.  Here are some key parts of the opinion, starting with the first paragraph that signals where the rest is headed:

Congress has made it a separate offense to use or possess a firearm in connection with a violent or drug trafficking crime. 18 U. S. C. §924(c). That separate firearm offense carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for the first conviction and 25 years for a second. Those sentences must be in addition to and consecutive to the sentence for the underlying predicate offense. The question presented is whether, in calculating the sentence for the predicate offense, a judge must ignore the fact that the defendant will serve the mandatory minimums imposed under §924(c)....

The §3553(a) factors are used to set both the length of separate prison terms and an aggregate prison term comprising separate sentences for multiple counts of conviction. Under §3582 a court, “in determining whether to impose a term of imprisonment, and, if a term of imprisonment is to be imposed, in determining the length of the term, shall consider the factors set forth in section 3553(a).”...

As a general matter, the foregoing provisions permit a court imposing a sentence on one count of conviction to consider sentences imposed on other counts....

The Government speaks of Congress’s intent to prevent district courts from bottoming out sentences for predicate §924(c) offenses whenever they think a mandatory minimum under §924(c) is already punishment enough.  But no such intent finds expression in the language of §924(c).  That language simply requires any mandatory minimum under §924(c) to be imposed “in addition to” the sentence for the predicate offense, and to run consecutively to that sentence.  Nothing in those requirements prevents a sentencing court from considering a mandatory minimum under §924(c) when calculating an appropriate sentence for the predicate offense.

April 3, 2017 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Latest SCOTUS order list includes one complicated capital case grant

The Supreme Court via this order list granted cert in two cases, including a capital case out of Texas, Ayestas v. Davis. SCOTUSblog has this case page for Ayestas, where one can find this cert petition, where one can find the complicated question on which cert was granted:

2. Whether the Fifth Circuit erred in holding that 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f) withholds “reasonably necessary” resources to investigate and develop an IAC claim that state habeas counsel forfeited, where the claimant’s existing evidence does not meet the ultimate burden of proof at the time the § 3599(f) motion is made.

April 3, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Charleston Church shooter Dylann Roof slated to plead guilty to state charges to avoid second capital trial

As reported in this local article, "mass killer Dylann Roof will plead guilty to state murder charges on April 10, sparing his nine victims' loved ones a second grueling death penalty trial and ensuring he spends the rest of his life in prison."   Here is more:

Roof, 22, was convicted in January of 33 federal charges, including hate crimes, and sentenced to death for killing nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church. However, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson also was pursuing the death penalty for nine state murder charges, proceedings that had been on hold since the end of Roof's federal trial.

She let families of Roof's victims know early Friday she is accepting a guilty plea instead. "I write with great news that the state’s case is ready to wrap up. As I told you towards the end of trial and in other updates, at this point our goal is to provide an insurance policy to the federal conviction and sentence. The most effective way to do that is to secure a guilty plea for a life sentence and get the defendant into federal custody," Wilson wrote in a letter obtained by The Post and Courier.

Reached Friday, Wilson said the move will take the death penalty off the table in the state case and assist with moving the white supremacist along to federal prison. "The goal is to get him into federal custody so their sentence can be imposed," she said. She had no further comment on the decision, saying her letter speaks for itself.

After his April 10 plea, Roof likely will be moved from the Charleston County detention center to a federal Bureau of Prisons facility. Male prisoners sentenced to death usually are housed at a prison in Terre Haute, Ind., site of the federal execution chamber.

Loved ones of those killed have waited since the gut-wrenching federal trial's close to find out Wilson's plans. Many don't support the death penalty on religious grounds and several said they didn't want to go through a second trial.

The Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother died in the shooting, was among them. Wilson called to tell her the news. "I totally appreciated that," Risher said. "I'm feeling glad we don't have to endure another trial. I believe in my heart that this is the right thing to do. He won't ever be able to step outside again. He won't ever feel the sun on his skin again."

April 3, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

April 2, 2017

"Briefing the Supreme Court: Promoting Science or Myth?"

The title of this post is the title of this new timely essay authored by Melissa Hamilton now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The United States Supreme Court is considering Packingham v. North Carolina, a case testing the constitutionality of a ban on the use of social networking sites by registered sex offenders.  An issue that has arisen in the case is the state’s justification for the ban.  North Carolina and thirteen other states represented in a friend of the court brief make three claims concerning the risk of registered sex offenders: (1) sex offenders have a notoriously high rate of sexual recidivism; (2) sex offenders are typically crossover offenders in having both adult and child victims; and (3) sexual predators commonly use social networking sites to lure children for sexual exploitation purposes.  The collective states contend that these three claims are supported by scientific evidence and common sense.  This Essay explores the reliability of the scientific studies cited in the briefings considering the heteregenous group of registered sex offenders to whom the social networking ban is targeted.

April 2, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Science, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Encouraging new crime data from two big US cities

As the first quarter of 2017 comes to a close, it is encouraging to see reports from two major cities about declines in violent crimes.  Here are links and the basics of the stories:

Homicide rate in 2017 trending downward to historic low, NYPD says

With the first quarter of 2017 about to end, New York City is seeing a significant decrease in homicides and is on track to record around 300 by the end of the year, a level not seen in the modern era of police record keeping, according to NYPD officials and the latest department crime data. Through March 29, the city had recorded 60 homicides, compared with 68 in 2016, a drop of almost 12 percent, according to the data. As of late Thursday, the city hadn’t recorded any additional killings.

The drop in homicides comes at a time when the city is experiencing an overall 5-percent drop in all serious crimes, which include rape, robbery, and felony assault among others. It has also led to surprise among Police Commissioner James O’Neill’s staff even as they have become used to Compstat data showing a consistent downward trend in serious crime.

Chicago sees drop in violence so far in 2017, but numbers still high

As the first quarter of 2017 draws to a close, Chicago police are encouraged by a slight drop in violence, particularly in recent weeks in the city's traditionally most violent pockets of the South and West sides long plagued by poverty, gang activity and drug-dealing.  While the numbers are down from a disastrous 2016 when in excess of 4,300 people were shot, more than 760 of them fatally, the first three months of 2017 still rank as one of the deadliest starts to a year in nearly two decades.

Through Wednesday, with two days still left in the first quarter, 124 people were slain in Chicago, 9.5 percent down from 137 a year earlier, according to the Police Department's official statistics.  Over the same period, 685 people were shot, almost 13 percent down from 786 a year earlier, the department said.  A spate of shootings Thursday emphasized, however, just how volatile those numbers can be.  Within four hours, five people were found fatally shot in the South Shore neighborhood, and four others were injured in shootings across the city by early evening.

Needless to say, the data story out of New York is far more encouraging that the data story in Chicago. But any and every crime decline is one to be celebrated, especially by those advocating for an array of modern criminal justice reforms. As I noted in this post yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others are often inclined to point to any uptick in crime to resist any calls for reform of what I call "tough and tougher" sentencing policies, and both Prez Trump and AG Sessions have been eager to stress recent increases in homicides in Chicago and elsewhere. Having crime levels stabilize or decline can further fuel the momentum of criminal justice reform advocates.

April 2, 2017 in National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (0)