Saturday, May 28, 2016
"To Save Our Justice System, End Racial Bias in Jury Selection"
The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times op-ed authored by one of my favorite former bosses, US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Judge Jon O. Newman. Like all writing by Judge Newman, this piece is astute and sensible, and it provides a sound and simple recommendation forimproving the operation of our modern criminal justice system. Here are excerpts:
The Supreme Court ruled correctly on Monday when it found that Georgia prosecutors in Foster v. Chatman had illegally barred African-Americans from serving as jurors in a death penalty trial. But the decision does not end racial discrimination in jury selection. The best way to do that is to limit the number of jurors that lawyers can strike for no reason at all to just one or two per side.
Both prosecutors and defense lawyers can exclude any number of prospective jurors for legitimate reasons — if a juror knows the defendant, has formed an opinion about the case or is unlikely to be impartial. But lawyers can also dismiss several more potential jurors simply because they do not want them — without explaining why. In federal felony trials, the prosecutor has six peremptory challenges and the defense usually has 10. In federal death penalty cases, each side has 20. State numbers vary.
In the Foster case, which dates from the 1980s, the prosecutors eliminated people simply because of race. Timothy Foster, a black man, stood accused of killing an elderly white woman when he was a teenager. The prosecutors worked conscientiously to exclude the potential black jurors; they marked their names with a “B” and highlighted each black juror’s name in green on four different copies of the juror list. Those jurors were ranked against one another in case, one member of the prosecutorial team said, “it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors.” The plan worked, and an all-white jury sentenced Mr. Foster to death.
This was an egregious case, but not a unique one. Far too often in criminal or death penalty cases that involve a black defendant, prosecutors try to exclude black jurors because they believe it will increase the chances of a conviction. In Houston County, Ala., prosecutors struck 80 percent of qualified black jurors from death penalty cases from 2005 to 2009....
The Advisory Committee on Rules of Criminal Procedure, which is part of the Judicial Conference, the federal court system’s principal policy-making body, should propose sharply reducing the number of jury strikes allowed in federal trials. Several Supreme Court justices have suggested as much. Justice Thurgood Marshall endorsed such a reform in his concurring opinion in the 1986 case Batson v. Kentucky: “The decision today will not end the racial discrimination that peremptories inject into the jury-selection process. That goal can be accomplished only by eliminating peremptory challenges entirely.” In 2005, Justice Stephen G. Breyer also urged reconsideration of the peremptory challenge system.
Total abolition of peremptory challenges would most likely face vigorous opposition from prosecutors and some defense attorneys. And it’s unlikely to be achieved, either for federal or state criminal trials. But reducing the number will do significant good. In 1879, the Supreme Court declared that to single out African-Americans for removal from jury service “is practically a brand upon them affixed by the law, an assertion of their inferiority, and a stimulant to that race prejudice which is an impediment to securing individuals of the race that equal justice which the law aims to secure all others.” All-white juries will continue to be a blight on the American system of criminal justice until federal and state rule makers significantly reduce the number of peremptory challenges.
Prior recent related posts:
- SCOTUS has "firm conviction" strikes in Georgia capital case were "motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent"
- Dynamic commentary on SCOTUS work in Foster and related Monday news
Two notable new article examing capital prosecutions of intellectually disabled defendants
Michael Perlin, whose interesting scholarship on mental health criminal always includes an extra-fun Bob Dylan reference in the title, has these two notable new articles on capital prosecutions now available via SSRN:
At the risk of being caught up in an idiot wind, I may wait until after the long weekend to read these pieces in order to avoid getting tangled up in blue.
Friday, May 27, 2016
Split Iowa Supreme Court decides any and every "sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile offender violates article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution"
As noted in prior posts here and here, yesterday brought notable post-Miller juve sentencing decisions from state supreme courts in California and Florida. But today the Iowa Supreme Court has one-upped its colleagues via its post-Miller ruling in Iowa v. Sweet, No. 14–0455 (Iowa May 27, 2016) (available here). The lengthy majority opinon in Sweet wraps up this way:
In sum, we conclude that sentencing courts should not be required to make speculative up-front decisions on juvenile offenders’ prospects for rehabilitation because they lack adequate predictive information supporting such a decision. The parole board will be better able to discern whether the offender is irreparably corrupt after time has passed, after opportunities for maturation and rehabilitation have been provided, and after a record of success or failure in the rehabilitative process is available. See Seats, 865 N.W.2d at 557 (“Even if the judge sentences the juvenile to life in prison with parole, it does not mean the parole board will release the juvenile from prison.”); see also State v. Andrews, 329 S.W.3d 369, 379 (Mo. 2010) (Wolff, J., dissenting) (noting an offender sentenced to life with parole may nonetheless “spend the rest of his life in prison if the parole board does not determine that he is suitable for parole release”). Steinberg has poignantly made this very point:
It’s not only adolescents’ immature judgment that demands that we treat them differently when they break the law. If the plasticity of the adolescent brain makes juveniles more amenable to rehabilitation, this argues against mandatory life sentences that don’t allow courts to consider whether an impulsive or impressionable teenager might grow into a law-abiding adult who can control his impulses and stand up to peer pressure. Of course, a teenager who kills another person deliberately should be punished — no one is arguing otherwise. But should he be incarcerated for the rest of his life, with no chance to prove that he has matured?
Steinberg at 188. Thus, juvenile offenders’ prospects for rehabilitation augur forcefully against speculative, up-front determinations of opportunities for parole and leads inexorably to the categorical elimination of life-without-the-possibility-of-parole sentences for juvenile offenders.
For the above reasons, we adopt a categorical rule that juvenile offenders may not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. As a result, the sentence of the district court in this case is vacated and the matter remanded to the district court for resentencing.
Nothing in this opinion, of course, suggests that a juvenile offender is entitled to parole. The State is not required to make such a guarantee, and those who over time show irredeemable corruption will no doubt spend their lives in prison. The determination of irredeemable corruption, however, must be made when the information is available to make that determination and not at a time when the juvenile character is a work in progress.
A lengthy dissent authored by Justice Mansfield gets started this way:
Recognizing that our legislature and our trial courts have the primary role in determining criminal sentences, I would affirm the life-without-parole (LWOP) sentence for this seventeen year old who murdered his grandparents who had raised him.
Today, the court breaks new ground in finding that the Iowa Constitution categorically forbids such sentences. As I will explain below, I believe the justification offered by the majority for its ruling is insufficient. More is needed before we strike down a legislatively authorized sentence — especially one the general assembly reauthorized by large majorities in both houses just last year.
"The Story of Federal Probation"
The title of the post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Brent Newton now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Critics of the modern federal sentencing system regularly assert that the sentencing guidelines promulgated by the United States Sentencing Commission (“the Commission”), pursuant to the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (“SRA”), have resulted in unnecessarily harsh prison sentences and overcrowded federal prisons. As a central part of their critique, they specifically claim that the Commission’s policy choices, as reflected in the guidelines, have been responsible for the steep decline in the rate of federal probationary sentences (and other non-incarceration sentences, such as a fine only) imposed during the past three decades. That rate has fallen from around half of all federal sentences in the decades before the guidelines went into effect in late 1987, to slightly less than a quarter of federal sentences shortly after the guidelines were first implemented nationwide in the early 1990s, and to one in ten federal sentences today.
This Article assesses those critics’ claims about federal probation sentences and, in the process, tells the story of federal probation — beginning with a short history of federal probation from its creation in 1925, leading up to when the SRA created the Commission, and continuing through the ensuing three decades to the present time. This Article discusses how the original Commission followed Congress’s directive to increase the overall rate of federal prison sentences (and thus reduce the rate of probation), but also analyzes how several factors unrelated to the guidelines are as much — or even more — responsible for the substantial decrease in the rate of federal probationary sentences since the guidelines went into effect on November 1, 1987.
In particular, the current low rate of federal probationary sentences is in large part explained by: (1) significant changes in the types of federal offenses prosecuted during the past three decades (with two-thirds of federal cases today involving substantial drug-trafficking offenses, firearms offenses, or immigration offenses, which typically do not involve realistic candidates for probation); (2) a significant increase in the average federal defendant’s criminal history during the past three decades; (3) the enactment of several federal penal statutes either requiring a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment or otherwise prohibiting probation as a sentence; (4) the implementation of the Bail Reform Act of 1984, which today results in the pre-sentencing detention of three-quarters of federal offenders (and creates a strong incentive for detained defendants not to ask for probation); and (5) a significant increase in the percentage of non-citizen offenders in the federal criminal justice system (who are not eligible for probation as a practical matter).
May 27, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)
Thursday, May 26, 2016
California Supreme Court says juve killers sentenced before Miller get benefits of new post-Miller state parole statute
Today seems to be a specical day for big states to have their Supreme Court's issue big rulings concerning the sentencing of juve murderers after Miller. I noted in this prior post a ruling from the Florida Supreme Court in this arena, and now I have seen that the California Supreme Court also did some work in this space via California v. Franklin, No. S217699 (Cal. May 26, 2016) (available here). Here is the start of the majority opinion in Franklin:
Defendant Tyris Lamar Franklin was 16 years old at the time he shot and killed another teenager. A jury convicted Franklin of first degree murder and found true a personal firearm-discharge enhancement. The trial court was obligated by statute to impose two consecutive 25-year-to-life sentences, so Franklin‘s total sentence was life in state prison with the possibility of parole after 50 years.
After Franklin was sentenced, the United States Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment to the federal Constitution prohibits a mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentence for a juvenile offender who commits homicide. (Miller v. Alabama (2012) 567 U.S. __, __ [132 S.Ct. 2455, 2460] (Miller).) Shortly thereafter, we held in People v. Caballero (2012) 55 Cal.4th 262 (Caballero) that the prohibition on life without parole sentences for all juvenile nonhomicide offenders established in Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. 48 (Graham) applied to sentences that were the "functional equivalent of a life without parole sentence," including Caballero‘s term of 110 years to life. (Caballero, at p. 268.) Franklin challenges the constitutionality of his 50-year-to-life sentence under these authorities.
We granted review to answer two questions: Does Penal Code section 3051 moot Franklin‘s constitutional challenge to his sentence by requiring that he receive a parole hearing during his 25th year of incarceration? If not, then does the state‘s sentencing scheme, which required the trial court to sentence Franklin to 50 years to life in prison for his crimes, violate Miller‘s prohibition against mandatory LWOP sentences for juveniles?
We answer the first question in the affirmative: Penal Code sections 3051 and 4801 — recently enacted by the Legislature to bring juvenile sentencing in conformity with Miller, Graham, and Caballero — moot Franklin‘s constitutional claim. Consistent with constitutional dictates, those statutes provide Franklin with the possibility of release after 25 years of imprisonment (Pen. Code, § 3051, subd. (b)(3)) and require the Board of Parole Hearings (Board) to "give great weight to the diminished culpability of juveniles as compared to adults, the hallmark features of youth, and any subsequent growth and increased maturity" (id., § 4801, subd. (c)). In light of this holding, we need not decide whether a life sentence with parole eligibility after 50 years of incarceration is the functional equivalent of an LWOP sentence and, if so, whether it is unconstitutional in Franklin‘s case.
Split Florida Supreme Court finds technical eligibility for parole insufficient to comply with Miller Eighth Amendment requirements
The Florida Supreme Court today handed down a notable new opinion applying Miller in a case involving a juvenile offender who got a life sentence for a murder back in 1990. Here is how the opinion in Atwell v. Florida, No. SC14-193 (Fla. May 26, 2016) (available here), gets started:
Angelo Atwell was sixteen years old when, in August 1990, he committed armed robbery and first-degree murder. Under the statute then in effect, Atwell was sentenced for the first-degree murder to a mandatory term of life imprisonment, with the possibility of parole after twenty-five years, and was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the armed robbery.
As mandated by the existing statutory scheme, Florida’s parole process requires “primary weight” to be given to the “seriousness of the offender’s present offense and the offender’s past criminal record.” See § 947.002, Fla. Stat. (2015). Under this statutory scheme, twenty-five years after Atwell was sentenced, the Commission on Offender Review conducted a parole hearing and set Atwell’s presumptive parole release date, which is the earliest date he may be released from prison as determined by objective parole guidelines, for the year 2130—one hundred and forty years after the crime and far exceeding Atwell’s life expectancy. Thus, while technically Atwell is parole-eligible, it is a virtual certainty that Atwell will spend the rest of his life in prison.
The issue we consider is whether Atwell’s sentence for first-degree murder is constitutional, in light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2469 (2012), which held that the Eighth Amendment “forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.” We conclude that Florida’s existing parole system, as set forth by statute, does not provide for individualized consideration of Atwell’s juvenile status at the time of the murder, as required by Miller, and that his sentence, which is virtually indistinguishable from a sentence of life without parole, is therefore unconstitutional.
"Creating Meaningful Opportunities for Release: Graham, Miller and California's Youth Offender Parole Hearings"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Beth Caldwell now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This article presents findings from a study on the implementation of California’s new Youth Offender Parole Hearing law, which aims to provide juvenile offenders with meaningful opportunities to obtain release from adult prison. It contributes to the debate surrounding how to apply the “meaningful opportunity to obtain release” standard that the Supreme Court deliberately left open to interpretation in Graham v. Florida and, to some extent, in Miller v. Alabama. The Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Montgomery v. Louisiana reinforces the idea that juveniles who demonstrate that they are capable of change are entitled to release.
The data contained in this Article was obtained by reviewing the transcripts of the first 107 Youth Offender Parole Hearings; this sample represents all but two of the Youth Offender Parole Hearings that took place between January 2014 and June 2014. In the first six months of the law’s implementation, juvenile offenders were found suitable for parole at younger ages than the general population. Further, youth offenders appeared to have a more realistic chance of being released under the new law. This reform is, at the very least, an important step towards offering juvenile offenders more meaningful opportunities to earn their release from prison. At the same time, it does not go far enough. After discussing some limitations of the law, this Article concludes by recommending guidelines that would provide youth offenders more meaningful opportunities for release in parole hearings.
May 26, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Making my way to DC for U.S. Chamber/NACDL Symposium: "The Enforcement Maze: Over-Criminalizing American Enterprise"
Highlighting the many ironies of modern travel, this morning I got to the airport extra early for a flight to DCA because of all the talk about TSA under-staffing and long security lines. But after breezing through securing in a matter of minutes, I am now stuck in the CMH terminal delayed hours awaiting a working plane to ferry me to our nation's capital to participate in a symposium on overcriminalization. I am bummed about the delay because I was looking forward to hearing the morning panels at this inside-the-Beltway event to which I am heading: The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) Law & Policy Symposium on "The Enforcement Maze: Over-Criminalizing American Enterprise."
Undaunted, I remain upbeat because I am cautiously optimistic I will still make it to DC in time to hear fellow lawprof Lucian Dervan present a "TED Talk-inspired" presentation on "The Symbiotic Relationship Between Overcriminalization and Plea Bargaining." I am also looking forward to an afternoon of highlights at this event that include a luncheon keynote by David Ogden, former Deputy Attorney General of the United States, as well as closing remarks by Senator Orrin Hatch.
For those revved up by these topics, here is the description of my afternoon panel:
The Public Policy Consequences and the Road to Recovery: This panel will address the erosion of respect for criminal law, costs incurred by taxpayers, over-incarceration, and the squashing of business ingenuity and growth, and will explore solutions to these problems.
I expect to talk briefly about the importance of mens rea considerations at the sentencing of persons convicted of business-related crimes (and I may do a future post or two on this topic). But, in light of the panel's description, I would welcome reader comments on what I should make sure gets covered my someone on my panel.
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
Federal judge justifies below-guideline sentence of probation for drug importer because of "statutory and regulatory collateral consequences she will face as a convicted felon"
As reported in this new New York Times piece, a "federal judge in Brooklyn, in an extraordinary opinion that calls for courts to pay closer attention to the impact of felony convictions on people’s lives, sentenced a young woman in a drug case to probation rather than prison, saying on Wednesday that the collateral consequences she would face as a felon were punishment enough." Here is more about the opinon:
The judge, Frederic Block of Federal District Court, said that the broad range of such collateral consequences served no “useful function other than to further punish criminal defendants after they have completed their court-imposed sentences.” The judge noted that there were nearly 50,000 federal and state statutes and regulations that impose penalties, disabilities or disadvantages on convicted felons.
Such consequences — the denial of government benefits, ineligibility for public housing, suspension of student loans, revocation or suspension of driver’s licenses — can have devastating effects, he wrote, adding that they may also be “particularly disruptive to an ex-convict’s efforts at rehabilitation and reintegration into society.”
The issue of collateral consequences and sentencing has been considered by other courts, but Judge Block’s 42-page opinion appears to be one of the most detailed examinations yet, combined with his call for reform. He noted that the inability to obtain housing and employment stemming from a conviction often results in “further disastrous consequences, such as losing child custody or going homeless,” and leads to many ex-convicts “becoming recidivists and restarting the criminal cycle.”
The judge’s ruling does not create a binding legal precedent for other courts, but is likely to further contribute to the national debate about the criminal justice system. Gabriel J. Chin, a professor at the University of California Davis School of Law, called the opinion “groundbreaking.”
“This is by some distance the most careful and thorough judicial examination” of collateral consequences in sentencing, said Professor Chin, who has written extensively on the subject and whose work the judge cited in the opinion. “It’s going to generate debate on a critical issue in the criminal justice system — the ability of people convicted of crimes to get on with their lives,” he said.
The sentencing opinion was issued in the case of Chevelle Nesbeth, who was arrested last year at Kennedy International Airport after a search of her luggage turned up 600 grams of cocaine, court records show. A jury, rejecting her claim that she had been given the suitcases by friends and was unaware that they contained drugs, convicted her of importation of cocaine and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, the judge wrote. She faced a sentence within 33 to 41 months under the federal advisory guidelines.
But in a hearing on Tuesday, Judge Block sentenced Ms. Nesbeth to one year of probation, six months of home confinement and 100 hours of community service.
Judge Block's full 42-page opinion in US v. Nesbeth, No. 15-cr-18 (E.D.N.Y May 24, 2016), can be downloaded below. Here are a few passages from its introduction:
Chevelle Nesbeth was convicted by a jury of importation of cocaine and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Her advisory guidelines sentencing range was 33-41 months. Nonetheless, I rendered a non-incarceratory sentence today in part because of a number of statutory and regulatory collateral consequences she will face as a convicted felon. I have incorporated those consequences in the balancing of the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors in imposing a one-year probationary sentence.
I am writing this opinion because from my research and ex:erience over two decades as a district judge, sufficient attention has not been paid at sentencing by me and lawyers - both prosecutors and defense counsel - as well as by the Probation Department in rendering its pre-sentence reports, to the collateral consequences facing a convicted defendant.' And I believe that judges should consider such consequences in rendering a lawful sentence.
There is a broad range of collateral consequences that serve no useful function other than to further punish criminal defendants after they have completed their court-imposed sentences. Many - under both federal and state law - attach automatically...
Because of the significance which I attach to the need of the criminal justice system to embrace collateral consequences as a sentencing issue, I write extensively, addressing in tum: (I) The History of Collateral Consequences; (II) The Depth and Breadth of Post-Conviction Statutory and Regulatory Collateral Consequences; (III) The Governing Caselaw; (IV) Ms. Nesbeth's Collateral Consequences and the Balancing of all§ 3553(a) Factors; (V) The Shaping of the Sentence; and (VI) The Responsibilities of Counsel and the Probation Department.
Making a friendly pitch for SCOTUS to consider constitutional limits on extreme judicial sentencing increase based on uncharged homicide
Regular readers know that I have long been troubled by significant sentence increases by judges based on so-called acquitted conduct, and that I have filed a number of federal appellate briefs articulating my concerns. Building on some of that prior work, I recently had a chance to work on an amicus brief in support of certiorari in Hebert v. US, a case out of the Fifth Circuit involving an extreme sentence increase based on uncharged conduct. The full amicus (which the fine folks at the Jones Day in DC made so fine) can be downloaded below, and here are excerpts from its start providing context and key arguments:
It is difficult to imagine a starker violation of the Sixth Amendment and due process than what transpired below. Mr. Hebert pleaded guilty to a $16,000 fraud that carried a guidelines range topping out at 5 years. After persuading Mr. Hebert to admit responsibility for his fraud and accept punishment for that crime, the Government ambushed him at sentencing by asserting that he had committed an intentional murder along with the fraud to which he had confessed. The Government then asked the district court to find it was more likely than not that Mr. Hebert committed this un-charged, non-admitted, never-convicted, non-federal crime. Then, on the basis of that judicial determination, the district court gave Mr. Hebert a 92-year sentence — a sentence the Government has conceded and the Fifth Circuit recognized “would have been substantively unreasonable under the post-Booker sentencing regime absent a judicial finding of murder,” Pet.App.22a — again, a crime with which Mr. Hebert has never even been charged.
Because Mr. Hebert has never been charged with — much less convicted of — murder, he remains entirely innocent of that crime. If the Government wishes to convict Mr. Hebert of murder, it is welcome to try. But what it cannot do is use Mr. Hebert’s confession to lesser crimes as the springboard for de facto convicting him of a far more serious crime in a judicial proceeding with no jury, the civil standard of proof, and none of the criminal justice system’s fundamental rules and procedures....
There are at least two constitutional provisions that, under this Court’s well-established jurisprudence, forbid this inverted regime. First, this Court has made clear that a criminal defendant has a Sixth Amendment “right to have a jury find the facts behind his punishment.” Hurst v. Florida, 136 S. Ct. 616, 621 (2016). That right reflects the vital role of the jury as the “circuitbreaker in the State’s machinery of justice” — a role that cannot be “relegated to making a determination that the defendant at some point did something wrong [as] a mere preliminary to a judicial inquisition into the facts of the crime the State actually seeks to punish.” Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 306–07 (2004). The Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial is a constitutional protection of “surpassing importance,” Apprendi, 530 U.S. at 476, yet the decision below makes a mockery of it....
Second, this Court has long recognized that due process forbids grossly unfair procedures when a person’s liberty is at stake. Specifically, this Court has indicated that (1) judges are sometimes limited from imposing distinct new punishments based on “a new finding of fact that was not an ingredient of the offense charged,” Specht v. Patterson, 386 U.S. 605, 608 (1967) (citation omitted); (2) the “safeguards of due process” in criminal cases are “concerned with substance rather than [any] kind of formalism,” Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 698–99 (1975); and (3) constitutional concerns are raised whenever sentencing findings become “a tail which wags the dog of the substantive offense,” or when the government restructures criminal prosecutions “to ‘evade’ the commands” of the Constitution. McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 477 U.S. 79, 88–89 (1986).
The simple principle that unifies these decisions is fatal to the legal rule embraced below: Due process forbids prosecutors from manipulating the criminal justice system to evade its core protections. Applied here, that principle barred prosecutors from waylaying Mr. Hebert at sentencing with allegations of a far more serious crime for which he has never been indicted or convicted — allegations that depend, moreover, on evidence which the prosecutors were apparently unwilling to subject to the crucible of a criminal trial or test against the burden of proof they must carry there. Due process demands more.
May 25, 2016 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)
Tuesday, May 24, 2016
Federal prosecutors (FINALLY!) decide to pursue death penalty for Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof
Almost a year after Dylann Roof committed one of the worst mass murder hate crimes in modern US history, federal prosecutors have offically decided to make his federal prosecution a capital one. Here are excerpts from this CNN report about this (too-long-in-development) decision:
Federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty for Dylann Roof, who is accused of killing nine people at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, in July 2015.
Roof, who is white, is charged with 33 federal offenses, including hate crime charges for allegedly targeting his victims on the basis of their race and religion. A judge entered a not guilty plea on his behalf in July 2015. "The nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said.
Roof, 22, is accused of shooting participants of a Bible study class at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, known as Mother Emanuel, in downtown Charleston on June 17, 2015. Among the victims was the church's pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who also was a state senator.
South Carolina has charged Roof with murder. Charleston County Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said last year that she will seek the death penalty in the state's case, which is scheduled to go to trial in January.
There is no date yet for his federal trial. Attempts to reach Roof's attorneys for comment were not immediately successful.
Roof, a high school dropout not known for violence, was captured in North Carolina the day after the shootings. He confessed in interviews with the Charleston police and FBI, two law enforcement officials told CNN. He also told investigators he wanted to start a race war, one of those officials said.
Three federal inmates have been executed in the United States since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988 after a 16-year moratorium. They were Timothy McVeigh, Juan Raul Garza and Louis Jones. Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is one of the most recent people to be sentenced to death by a federal judge. There are about 60 people on federal death row.
I fully share the Attorney General's view that the "nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision," and that is why I have been critical in prior posts about it taking so long to make this decision. A well-functioning criminal justice system surely ought to be able to prosecute and sentence a mass murderer in the span of a year in a case like this one in which there is no doubt about guilt. But, remarkably, it seems it now takes a year just to decide whether the death penalty should be even sought. Sigh.
A few prior related posts:
- Should it be the state or feds (or both!?!) that capitally prosecute racist mass murderer Dylann Storm Roof?
- Thanks to death penalty, one of worst racist mass murderers gets one of best defense lawyers
- South Carolina prosecutors begin pursuit of death penalty again Charleston church mass murderer
- Attorney for Dylann Roof, Charleston church mass murderer, suggests plea to avoid death sentence
- Just why is DOJ still uncertain about seeking death penalty against Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof?
- "Why Dylann Roof is a Terrorist Under Federal Law, and Why it Matters"
Reviewing the state and future of lethal injection as execution method
Lincoln Caplan has this New Yorker piece headlined "The End Of The Open Market For Lethal-Injection Drugs," which provides a useful primer on where matters stand regarding lethal injection as a means carrying out death sentences on condemned murderers. Here are excerpts from the start, middle and end of the lengty piece:
Last week, the global drug company Pfizer announced sweeping new restrictions on the distribution of seven of its products, preventing them from being used to carry out the death penalty. Pfizer came into possession of those products, which include sedatives, paralytics, a pain medication, and a drug used to prevent or treat low levels of potassium in the blood, when it acquired the pharmaceutical company Hospira, in September. Its decision is an enormously significant one for the death penalty in the United States, and ends a long and chaotic chapter in which governments, drug companies, and activists worldwide have gradually closed the open market for the federally approved drugs that have been used for lethal injections.
Twenty of the thirty-one states with the death penalty on the books now have a formal or informal moratorium on executions, in almost all cases because they have been unable to obtain approved drugs to use in lethal injections. In 2015, there were twenty-eight executions in the U.S., the lowest number since 1994. This year, there have been fourteen executions so far — six in Texas, five in Georgia, and one each in Alabama, Florida, and Missouri. Prisons in those states can’t buy drugs for lethal injections from American manufacturers. They can’t import drugs from foreign manufacturers — which, in any case, will not supply them. In short, their options are severely restricted, which will almost certainly lead to more botched executions.
Texas, Georgia, and Missouri are among the small number of states that have carried out executions using drugs made by compounding pharmacies, which combine, mix, or alter drugs, typically to meet the need of an individual patient — say, by removing an ingredient to which a patient is allergic. These pharmacies are not required to register with the F.D.A., and the F.D.A. does not approve their products. They must be licensed by the pharmacy board in the state where they operate, but state oversight has often been scandalously lax. In February, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said he wants the state to open its own compounding pharmacy, in order to guarantee a supply of the drugs that the state needs for lethal injections. (This despite the fact that no department of corrections could meet a basic requirement for obtaining a drug made by a compounding pharmacy: a medical prescription for an individual patient.)
Oklahoma’s turn toward compounding pharmacies is part of the fallout from Glossip v. Gross, one of the most important death-penalty cases decided by the Supreme Court in the past generation....
The campaign to halt lethal injections as a mode of capital punishment by restricting access to the lethal drugs has not yet ended the death penalty. But it may very well have accelerated the end game that Breyer invoked in his Glossip dissent. In the five years between Hospira’s decision to stop making sodium thiopental and Pfizer’s decision to stop supplying drugs for executions, the unsuccessful effort, by one state after another, to carry out lethal injections in a manner that meets standards of fairness and reliability has made it increasingly clear that states cannot constitutionally perform these types of executions. If they can’t do that, how can the Supreme Court continue to permit capital punishment under the Constitution? The Court is unlikely to take on an issue this fundamental when it is at the mercy of a polarized Senate and self-important Republican leaders who refuse to confirm the President’s nominee for the Court’s ninth Justice. But the churn that the campaign has quickened will inevitably give rise to a legal controversy that will force the Justices to face just such a question.
Interestingly, I have since Glossip was decided that the case would prove to be "one of the most important death-penalty cases decided by the Supreme Court in the past generation" only if states viewed the ruling as presenting a unique and new opportunity to move away from lethal injection as an execution method in light of all the drug shortages. Significantly, the Supreme Court has never formally declared any particular execution method unconstitutional, and I thought the Glossip ruling might prompt a number of jurisdictions to see a chance to seriously move forward with a return to firing squads or experimentations with nitrogen gas. But absent any such developments (and absent Justice Breyer finding thre more Justices to join his effort to judicially abolish capital punishment in the US), I have a hard time seeing Glossip as nearly as big practical deal as other recent SCOTUS cases placing limits on capital sentences and procedures like Kennedy and Hurst.
Dynamic commentary on SCOTUS work in Foster and related Monday news
A number of bright folks have already had some dynamic takes the Supreme Court's rulings yesterday in the Georgia capital case, Foster v. Chapman. Organized alphabetically by location of the commentary, here are a few early takes that caught my eye:
At The Atlantic here by Garrett Epps, "The Passive-Aggressive U.S. Supreme Court: Even in the face of clear precedent, some justices just don’t like it when a convicted petitioner is right on the law."
At Bloomberg View here by Noah Feldman, "How Clarence Thomas Broke My Heart"
At Crime & Consequences here by Kent Scheidegger, "Reversal in an Ugly Batson Case"
At Crime & Consequences here by Bill Otis, "Reversal in an Ugly Batson Case"
At Slate here by Dahlia Lithwick, "Peremptory Prejudice: Racism still infects jury challenges, even if most aren’t as blatant as these awful Georgia prosecutors."
The pieces by Epps and Otis are extra-notable because they link into their discussions the SCOTUS Miller remands and the not guilty verdict in a Freddy Gray prosecution, respectively.
UPDATE: Scott Greenfield made via Twitter the excellent point that the list above included only "commentaries on Foster from people who don't pick juries & nothing from anyone who does." So, with Scott's help, I am here rounding out my round-up of Foster takes:
At Gamso, For the Defense here by Jeff Gamso, "Cognitive Dissonance - Or Maybe He Just Lied"
At Mimesis Law here by Andrew Fleischman, "Foster v. Chatman: When Prosecutors Strike"
At Simple Justice here by Scott Greenfield, "Race Neutral Reasons When Nothing Is Race Neutral"
Virginia Republicans go directly to state Supreme Court to try to undo Gov's clemency order restoring vote to former felons
As first reported in this post last month, Gov Terry McAuliffe of Virginia used his executive clemency powers to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 former felons who had been permanently disenfranchised under Virginia's state election laws. Now, as reported in this Washington Post piece, political opponents are going to court to try to undo this effort to allow more people to participate in democracy. Here are the details:
Leaders of Virginia’s House and Senate went to the state’s highest court Monday in a bid to reverse Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s sweeping order to restore voting rights to 206,000 felons. Skipping lower courts, they filed a complaint with the Supreme Court of Virginia, contending that McAuliffe (D) exceeded his authority in April when he restored voting rights to felons en masse instead of individually.
The lawsuit — bankrolled by private donors — presents a complex constitutional question with the urgency of presidential election-year politics. Republicans are seeking an expedited review so that reinstated ex-cons who have registered to vote can be stripped from the rolls before November.
Virginia governors have restored felons’ voting rights, but none with anything close to McAuliffe’s scale and speed. “From Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson to Tim Kaine and Bob McDonnell, every Governor of Virginia has understood the clemency power to authorize the Governor to grant clemency on an individualized basis only,” said the lawsuit, filed on behalf of House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) and four other Virginia voters....
The governor says that his move helps former convicts to fully reenter society. Republicans call it a favor to Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, McAuliffe’s close friend and political ally, who could benefit from higher numbers of minority voters in the crucial swing state.
McAuliffe blasted the lawsuit, suggesting that Republicans were trying to hold onto a remnant of the Jim Crow era, since African Americans have been disproportionately affected by felon disenfranchisement. One in four African Americans in Virginia had been banned from voting because of laws restricting the rights of those with convictions.
“Today Republicans filed a lawsuit to preserve a policy of disenfranchisement that has been used intentionally to suppress the voices of qualified voters, particularly African Americans, for more than a century,” McAuliffe said in a written statement. “These individuals have served their time and are now living, raising families and paying taxes in our communities — this suit is an effort to continue to treat them as second-class citizens.”...
The lawsuit, filed by Charles J. Cooper, who ran the Office of Legal Counsel under President Ronald Reagan, pushed back against the claim that felon disenfranchisement was rooted in racism. “Governor McAuliffe has falsely suggested that Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement provision was first introduced into the Constitution after the Civil War for the purpose of disenfranchising African-Americans,” the lawsuit says. “But Virginia has prohibited felons from voting since at least 1830 — decades before African-Americans could vote.”...
McAuliffe’s predecessor, Republican Robert F. McDonnell, simplified and sped up the application process for nonviolent offenders. When he was governor, Democrat Timothy M. Kaine, now a U.S. senator, considered a broader action but opted against it on the advice of his senior counsel, Mark Rubin. “A blanket order restoring the voting rights of everyone would be a rewrite of the law rather than a contemplated use of the executive clemency powers,” Rubin wrote in 2010. “And, the notion that the Constitution of the Commonwealth could be rewritten via executive order is troubling.”
McAuliffe’s order also allows ex-felons to serve on juries, run for public office and apply for restoration of their gun rights. It applies to all ex-felons, including those guilty of violent offenses such as murder and rape — a point emphasized by Republicans. The lawsuit notes that attorneys for a man accused of killing a state police trooper in Dinwiddie County are seeking to have felons whose civil rights were restored added to the pool of eligible jurors for his trial.
The McAuliffe administration notes that felons would still need a judge’s approval before winning back their gun rights and would still be vetted by the jury selection process before being added to such a panel. McAuliffe said that nearly 80 percent of those affected by his order were convicted of nonviolent offenses. Still, Republicans say, that means McAuliffe restored rights to 40,000 violent felons.
Prior related posts:
- Virginia Governor, bolding using his executive clemency authority, restores voting rights to over 200,000 former felons!!
- Virginia Gov explains his big decision to use his clemency power to restore franchise
- Lots of discussion of felon disenfrachisement after Virginia Gov boldly restores voting rights
Monday, May 23, 2016
"An Experimental Study of the Effectiveness of Certificates of Recovery as Collateral Consequence Relief Mechanisms"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available via SSRN authored by Peter Leasure and Tia Stevens Andersen. Here is the abstract:
Securing stable, quality employment is one of the most robust predictors of desistance from offending. Yet, obtaining gainful employment is difficult for ex-offenders due to the stigma of a criminal record. In recognition of employment-related barriers to re-entry, some state legislatures have created certificates of recovery/relief, which lift occupational licensing restrictions, limit employer liability for negligent hiring claims, and aim to ensure employment decisions about certificate-holders are made on a case-by-case basis.
The present study presents the results of the first empirical test of the effectiveness of such certificates. Using an experimental correspondence design, fictitious applicants applied to entry-level jobs advertised in the Columbus metropolitan area using fabricated resumes with identical names, educational backgrounds, employment experience, and skills. Because the only differences between the resumes were the type of criminal record and the presence of a Certificate of Qualification for Employment (CQE), the results isolate the specific impacts of criminal records and certificates on employment opportunities. Results indicate that, for job seekers with a one-year-old felony drug conviction, having a certificate of recovery increases the likelihood of receiving an interview invitation or job offer more than threefold. Importantly, certificate-holders and their counterparts with clean criminal backgrounds were equally likely to receive an interview invitation or job offer. These promising preliminary results suggest certificates of recovery/relief may be an effective avenue for lessening the stigma of a criminal record for ex-offenders seeking employment.
SCOTUS has "firm conviction" strikes in Georgia capital case were "motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent"
The Supreme Court's one criminal justice ruling today comes in Foster v. Chatman, 14-8349 (S. Ct. May 23, 2016) (available here), a capital case out of Georgia involving a Batson claim. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion for the Court, which garnered six votes, and its ruling is reasonably summarized via these passages:
As we explained in Miller-El v. Dretke, “[i]f a prosecutor’s proffered reason for striking a black panelist applies just as well to an otherwise-similar nonblack [panelist] who is permitted to serve, that is evidence tending to prove purposeful discrimination.” 545 U. S. 231, 241 (2005). With respect to both Garrett and Hood, such evidence is compelling. But that is not all. There are also the shifting explanations, the misrepresentations of the record, and the persistent focus on race in the prosecution’s file. Considering all of the circumstantial evidence that “bear[s] upon the issue of racial animosity,” we are left with the firm conviction that the strikes of Garrett and Hood were “motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.” Snyder, 552 U. S., at 478, 485....
The contents of the prosecution’s file, however, plainly belie the State’s claim that it exercised its strikes in a “color-blind” manner. App. 41, 60 (pretrial hearing). The sheer number of references to race in that file is arresting....
The State’s new argument today does not dissuade us from the conclusion that its prosecutors were motivated in substantial part by race when they struck Garrett and Hood from the jury 30 years ago. Two peremptory strikes on the basis of race are two more than the Constitution allows.
Justice Alito has an interesting corcurrence about procedures that I will likely discuss in another post. Justice Thomas, in notable contrast, dissents on the merits, and his dissent starts this way:
Thirty years ago, Timothy Foster confessed to murdering Queen Madge White after sexually assaulting her with a bottle of salad dressing. In the decades since, Foster has sought to vacate his conviction and death sentence on the ground that prosecutors violated Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79 (1986), when they struck all black prospective jurors before his trial. Time and again, the state courts have rejected that claim. The trial court twice rejected it, and the Supreme Court of Georgia unequivocally rejected it when Foster directly appealed his conviction and sentence. Foster v. State, 258 Ga. 736, 736, n. 1, 738–739, 374 S. E. 2d 188, 190, n. 1, 192 (1988), cert. denied, 490 U. S. 1085 (1989). A state habeas court rejected it in 2013. App. 175–176, 192–196. And most recently, the Supreme Court of Georgia again rejected it as lacking “arguable merit,” Ga. Sup. Ct. Rule 36 (2001). See App. 246.
Yet, today — nearly three decades removed from voir dire — the Court rules in Foster’s favor. It does so without adequately grappling with the possibility that we lack jurisdiction. Moreover, the Court’s ruling on the merits, based, in part, on new evidence that Foster procured decades after his conviction, distorts the deferential Batson inquiry. I respectfully dissent.
SCOTUS concurrences explore what Montgomery GVRs might mean for juve murderers originally sentenced to death
Continuing its recent trend, the short-staffed Supreem Court opted in this new order list not to grant certiorari review in any new cases. But the list still has some intrigue for sentencing fans thanks to dueling concurrences in a set of cases vacated and remanded for further consideration in light of Montgomery v. Louisiana. The start of Justice Alito's corcurrence in Adams v. Alabama sets up what makes these cases potentially different from other post-Montgomery GVRs:
The present case differs from most of those in which the Court grants, vacates, and remands for reconsideration in light of Montgomery. The petitioner in this case — as with a few others now before the Court — was sentenced to death prior to our decision in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U. S. 551 (2005), which held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a death sentence for a minor. During that pre-Roper period, juries in capital cases were required at the penalty phase to consider “all relevant mitigating evidence,” including “the chronological age of a minor” and a youthful defendant’s “mental and emotional development.” Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U. S. 104, 116–117 (1982); see also Roper v. Simmons, supra, at 603 (O’Connor, J., dissenting) (“A defendant’s youth or immaturity is, of course, a paradigmatic example” of the type of mitigating evidence to which a “sentencer in a capital case must be permitted to give full effect”). After Roper, death sentences imposed on prisoners convicted of murders committed as minors were reduced to lesser sentences.
Justice Alito goes on to explain his view that this case history might be of constitutional consequence now:
In cases like this, it can be argued that the original sentencing jury fulfilled the individualized sentencing requirement that Miller subsequently imposed. In these cases, the sentencer necessarily rejected the argument that the defendant’s youth and immaturity called for the lesser sentence of life imprisonment without parole. It can therefore be argued that such a sentencer would surely have felt that the defendant’s youth and immaturity did not warrant an even lighter sentence that would have allowed the petitioner to be loosed on society at some time in the future. In short, it can be argued that the jury that sentenced petitioner to death already engaged in the very process mandated by Miller and concluded that petitioner was not a mere “‘child’” whose crimes reflected “‘unfortunate yet transient immaturity,’” post, at 2 (SOTOMAYOR, J., concurring in decision to grant, vacate, and remand), but was instead one of the rare minors who deserves life without parole.
Justice Stotmayor is not so sure that Justice Alito's view on this matter should carry the day on remand, and she explains why in her concurrence:
Miller v. Alabama, 567 U. S. ___ (2012), did not merely impose an “individualized sentencing requirement”; it imposed a substantive rule that life without parole is only an appropriate punishment for “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” Montgomery, 577 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 17) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Even if a court considers a child’s age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates the Eighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity.” Id., at ___–___ (slip op., at 16–17) (same). There is no indication that, when the factfinders in these cases considered petitioners’ youth, they even asked the question Miller required them not only to answer, but to answer correctly: whether petitioners’ crimes reflected “transient immaturity” or “irreparable corruption.” 577 U.S., at ___–___ (slip op., at 16–17).
The last factfinders to consider petitioners’ youth did so more than 10 — and in most cases more than 20 — years ago. (Petitioners’ post-Roper resentencings were generally automatic.) Those factfinders did not have the benefit of this Court’s guidance regarding the “diminished culpability of juveniles” and the ways that “penological justifications” apply to juveniles with “lesser force than to adults.” Roper, 543 U.S., at 571. As importantly, they did not have the benefit of this Court’s repeated exhortation that the gruesomeness of a crime is not sufficient to demonstrate that a juvenile offender is beyond redemption: “The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character.” Id., at 570; see also id., at 573; Miller, 567 U. S., at __ (slip op., at 17).
ProPublica takes deep dive to idenitfy statistical biases in risk assessment software
The fine folks at ProPublica have this new important piece of investigative journalism about risk assessment tools. The piece is headlined "Machine Bias: There’s software used across the country to predict future criminals. And it’s biased against blacks." Here is an extended excerpt, with links from the original:
[R]isk assessments are increasingly common in courtrooms across the nation. They are used to inform decisions about who can be set free at every stage of the criminal justice system, from assigning bond amounts ... to even more fundamental decisions about defendants’ freedom. In Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, the results of such assessments are given to judges during criminal sentencing.
Rating a defendant’s risk of future crime is often done in conjunction with an evaluation of a defendant’s rehabilitation needs. The Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections now encourages the use of such combined assessments at every stage of the criminal justice process. And a landmark sentencing reform bill currently pending in Congress would mandate the use of such assessments in federal prisons.
In 2014, then U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder warned that the risk scores might be injecting bias into the courts. He called for the U.S. Sentencing Commission to study their use. “Although these measures were crafted with the best of intentions, I am concerned that they inadvertently undermine our efforts to ensure individualized and equal justice,” he said, adding, “they may exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities that are already far too common in our criminal justice system and in our society.”
The sentencing commission did not, however, launch a study of risk scores. So ProPublica did, as part of a larger examination of the powerful, largely hidden effect of algorithms in American life.
We obtained the risk scores assigned to more than 7,000 people arrested in Broward County, Florida, in 2013 and 2014 and checked to see how many were charged with new crimes over the next two years, the same benchmark used by the creators of the algorithm. The score proved remarkably unreliable in forecasting violent crime: Only 20 percent of the people predicted to commit violent crimes actually went on to do so.
When a full range of crimes were taken into account — including misdemeanors such as driving with an expired license — the algorithm was somewhat more accurate than a coin flip. Of those deemed likely to re-offend, 61 percent were arrested for any subsequent crimes within two years.
We also turned up significant racial disparities, just as Holder feared. In forecasting who would re-offend, the algorithm made mistakes with black and white defendants at roughly the same rate but in very different ways.
- The formula was particularly likely to falsely flag black defendants as future criminals, wrongly labeling them this way at almost twice the rate as white defendants.
- White defendants were mislabeled as low risk more often than black defendants.
Could this disparity be explained by defendants’ prior crimes or the type of crimes they were arrested for? No. We ran a statistical test that isolated the effect of race from criminal history and recidivism, as well as from defendants’ age and gender. Black defendants were still 77 percent more likely to be pegged as at higher risk of committing a future violent crime and 45 percent more likely to be predicted to commit a future crime of any kind. (Read our analysis.)
The algorithm used to create the Florida risk scores is a product of a for-profit company, Northpointe. The company disputes our analysis. In a letter, it criticized ProPublica’s methodology and defended the accuracy of its test: “Northpointe does not agree that the results of your analysis, or the claims being made based upon that analysis, are correct or that they accurately reflect the outcomes from the application of the model.”
Northpointe’s software is among the most widely used assessment tools in the country. The company does not publicly disclose the calculations used to arrive at defendants’ risk scores, so it is not possible for either defendants or the public to see what might be driving the disparity. (On Sunday, Northpointe gave ProPublica the basics of its future-crime formula — which includes factors such as education levels, and whether a defendant has a job. It did not share the specific calculations, which it said are proprietary.)
May 23, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sunday, May 22, 2016
"Clearly, there seems to be a lack of knowledge about or adherence to the duties of professional responsibility in the halls of the Justice Department."
The sentence that serves as the title of this post comes from this remarkable 28-page "Memorandum Opinion and Order" entered late last week by US District Judge Andrew Hanen as part of the litigation brought by Texas and others states to challenge President Obama's DAPA and DACA immigration directives. Though I have not followed this "civil" litigation closely, this order certainly heightens my concerns that in federal criminal cases some DOJ lawyers embrace an "ends-justify-the-means" approach to litigation on behalf of the federal government. Then again, the (sure-to-be-appealed) requirements that Judge Hanen has for DOJ appearing at the end of this remarkable opinion perhaps should make me more hopeful concerning the future work of DOJ lawyers in all settings:
Therefore, this Court, in an effort to ensure that all Justice Department attorneys who appear in the courts of the Plaintiff States that have been harmed by this misconduct are aware of and comply with their ethical duties, hereby orders that any attorney employed at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. who appears, or seeks to appear, in a court (state or federal) in any of the 26 Plaintiff States annually attend a legal ethics course. It shall be taught by at least one recognized ethics expert who is unaffiliated with the Justice Department. At a minimum, this course (or courses) shall total at least three hours of ethics training per year. The subject matter shall include a discussion of the ethical codes of conduct (which will include candor to the court and truthfulness to third parties) applicable in that jurisdiction. The format of this continuing education shall be left to the independent expert lecturer. Self-study or online study will not comply with this Order, but attendance at a recognized, independently sponsored program shall suffice....
The Attorney General of the United States shall appoint a person within the Department to ensure compliance with this Order. That person shall annually file one report with this Court including a list of the Justice Department attorneys stationed in Washington, D.C. who have appeared in any court in the Plaintiff States with a certification (including the name of the lawyer, the court in which the individual appeared, the date of the appearance and the time and location of the ethics program attended) that each has attended the above-ordered ethical training course. That certification shall be filed in this cause during the last two weeks of each calendar year it covers. The initial report shall be filed no later than December 31, 2016. This Order shall remain in force for a period of five years (the last report being due December 31, 2021). The decision of the lawyers who apparently determined that these three-year renewals under the 2014 DHS Directive were not covered by the Plaintiff States’ pleadings was clearly unreasonable. The conduct of the lawyers who then covered up this decision was even worse. Therefore, the Attorney General is hereby ordered to report to this Court in sixty (60) days with a comprehensive plan to prevent this unethical conduct from ever occurring again. Specifically, this report should include what steps the Attorney General is taking to ensure that the lawyers of the Justice Department will not, despite what court documents may portend or what a court may order, unilaterally decide what is “material” and “relevant” in a lawsuit and then misrepresent that decision to a Court. Stated differently, the Attorney General is also hereby ordered to report what steps she is taking to ensure that, if Justice Department lawyers make such an internal decision without approval from the applicable court, the Justice Department trial lawyers tell the truth—the entire truth—about those decisions to the court and opposing counsel.
Finally, whatever it is that the Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility has been doing, it has not been effective. The Office of Professional Responsibility purports to have as its mission, according to the Department of Justice’s website, the duty to ensure that Department of Justice attorneys “perform their duties in accordance with the high professional standards expected of the Nation’s principal law enforcement agency.” Office of Professional Responsibility, DEP’T OF JUSTICE, https://www.justice.gov/opr (last visited May 17, 2016). Its lawyers in this case did not meet the most basic expectations. [FN 18] The Attorney General is hereby ordered to inform this Court within sixty (60) days of what steps she is taking to ensure that the Office of Professional Responsibility effectively polices the conduct of the Justice Department lawyers and appropriately disciplines those whose actions fall below the standards that the American people rightfully expect from their Department of Justice.
[FN 18] Other courts have noticed these problems as well. Just in the last six months, both the Fifth Circuit and the Sixth Circuit have questioned the conduct of those employed by the Department of Justice. United States v. Bowen, 799 F.3d 336 (5th Cir. 2015); In re United States, No. 15-3793, 2016 WL 1105077 (6th Cir. Mar. 22, 2016). The Fifth Circuit went further and suggested that not only was there misleading conduct, but the conduct was followed by an inadequate investigation and a cover-up. These are just two of an ever-growing number of opinions that demonstrate the lack of ethical awareness and/or compliance by some at the Department of Justice.
Saturday, May 21, 2016
"Trespass, Not Fraud: The Need for New Sentencing Guidelines in CFAA Cases"
The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Orin Kerr now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This article argues that the existing regime for sentencing violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is based on a conceptual error that often leads to improper sentencing recommendations. The Federal Sentencing Guidelines treat CFAA violations as economic crimes. Most CFAA crimes are rooted in trespass, however, not economic loss such as fraud crimes. The difference is significant. The economic crimes framework now in place leads guidelines calculations to focus too much on economic loss and not enough on the circumstances of the crime. The article concludes by sketching out a new and better way to calculate sentencing recommendations in CFAA cases.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
Can anyone forcefully assert that a major sentence enhancement based on acquitted conduct (or even uncharged conduct) is "fundamentally fair"?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by a few notable sentences at the very end of the (otherwise not-especially-notable) majority opinion from the Supreme Court today in Betterman v. Montana, No. 14-1457 (S. Ct. May 19, 2016) (available here). Specifically, after holding that the Sixth Amendment's Speedy Trial Clause does not apply to sentencing, the Court in Betterman has this to say about the possible role of the "more pliable standard" that relates to due process rights: "After conviction, a defendant’s due process right to liberty, while diminished, is still present. He retains an interest in a sentencing proceeding that is fundamentally fair."
As regular readers know, in the wake of Apprendi and Blakely and Booker (and even in light of the advisory Booker remedy), I believe that the Sixth Amendment's jury trial right must create a constitutional limit of some sort on judicially-imposed major sentence enhancements that are based on so-called acquitted conduct. (My views here have most recently be articulated in full via this (unsuccessful) SCOTUS amicus brief in support of cert from a few years ago). But, as Betterman helps to highlight, even if and when a defendant cannot prevail on a Sixth Amendment claim at sentencing, he can always fall back on a Fifth/Fourteenth Amendment Due Process claim. And, of particular linguistic importance, if Betterman suggests that a significant majority of current SCOTUS Justices are serious about a possible due process right (or "interest") "in a sentencing proceeding that is fundamentally fair," perhaps it will be possible to get them to take up on due process grounds a challenge to a major judge-imposed sentence enhancement based on acquitted conduct or even uncharged conduct.
I know this post may be just wishful thinking that the last phrase about due process quoted above might be given some real constitutional bite by SCOTUS or lower courts in days and months ahead. But hey, what fun is life without at least a little wishful thinking.
Two interesting intricate criminal justice rulings from SCOTUS (including a first-ever casebook cite in Betterman!)
The Supreme Court release three opinions this morning, two of which are criminal justice cases. Here are the most essential basics with links via How Appealing:
1. Justice Elena Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court in Luna Torres v. Lynch, No. 14-1096. Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer joined. You can access the oral argument via this link.
2. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court in Betterman v. Montana, No. 14-1457. Justice Thomas issued a concurring opinion, in which Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. joined. And Justice Sotomayor also issued a concurring opinion. You can access the oral argument via this link.
Statutory interpretation fans will be most interested in the ruling, but sentencing fans will be focused on the Betterman ruling. It gets started this way:
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury . . . .” Does the Sixth Amendment’s speedy trial guarantee apply to the sentencing phase of a criminal prosecution? That is the sole question this case presents. We hold that the guarantee protects the accused from arrest or indictment through trial, but does not apply once a defendant has been found guilty at trial or has pleaded guilty to criminal charges. For inordinate delay in sentencing, although the Speedy Trial Clause does not govern, a defendant may have other recourse, including, in appropriate circumstances, tailored relief under the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Petitioner Brandon Betterman, however, advanced in this Court only a Sixth Amendment speedy trial claim. He did not preserve a due process challenge. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 19. We, therefore, confine this opinion to his Sixth Amendment challenge.
Because I would like to see the Due Process Clause play bigger role in regulating sentencing matters, I am inclined to like the Betterman ruling. And, as the title of this post highlights, I definitely linked this passage from the majority opinion for an obvious personal reason:
[A] central feature of contemporary sentencing in both federal and state courts is preparation by the probation office, and review by the parties and the court, of a presentence investigation report. See 18 U. S. C. §3552; Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 32(c)–(g); 6 W. LaFave, J. Israel, N. King, & O. Kerr, Criminal Procedure §26.5(b), pp. 1048–1049 (4th ed. 2015) (noting reliance on presentence reports in federal and state courts). This aspect of the system requires some amount of wholly reasonable presentencing delay.8 Indeed, many — if not most— disputes are resolved, not at the hearing itself, but rather through the presentence-report process. See N. Demleitner, D. Berman, M. Miller, & R. Wright, Sentencing Law and Policy 443 (3d ed. 2013) (“Criminal justice is far more commonly negotiated than adjudicated; defendants and their attorneys often need to be more concerned about the charging and plea bargaining practices of prosecutors and the presentence investigations of probation offices than . . . about the sentencing procedures of judges or juries.”); cf. Bierschbach & Bibas, Notice-and-Comment Sentencing, 97 Minn. L. Rev. 1, 15 (2012) (“[T]oday’s sentencing hearings . . . rubber-stamp plea-bargained sentences.”).
Implementing Graham and Miller: just what qualifies as a "meaningful opportunity to obtain release"?
This new Marshall Project piece effectively details the enduring challenges that states necessarily face in honoring both the letter and spirit of the Supreme Court's modern Eighth Amendment work limiting LWOP sentences for juveniles. The piece's full headline highlights its themes: "When Parole Boards Trump the Supreme Court: The high court has said most kids shouldn't be sentenced to life without parole, but some prisoners' fate are in the hands of politics." Here is how the piece started (with links from the original):
Almost everyone serving life in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles deserves a shot at going home. That’s the thrust of a series of Supreme Court rulings, the fourth and most recent of which was decided this year. Taken together, the high court’s message in these cases is that children are different than adults when it comes to crime and punishment — less culpable for their actions and more amenable to change. As such, court rulings have determined all but the rarest of juvenile lifers are entitled to “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
The court left it up to states how to handle this year's new ruling but suggested parole boards were a good choice. “Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in January, gives states a way to identify “juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity—and who have since matured.” Most states have taken this option, changing juvenile lifers’ sentences en masse from life without to lifewith the possibility of parole.
But prisoner’s rights advocates and attorneys have begun to argue whether parole boards, as they usually operate, may not be capable of providing a meaningful opportunity for release. A handful of courts have agreed.
Last month, a New York state appeals court judge ruled that the state’s parole board had not “met its constitutional obligation” when it denied parole to a man who had killed his girlfriend when he was 16. Dempsey Hawkins is now 54 and has been denied parole nine times in hearings that, the court said, did not adequately weigh what role his youth and immaturity had played in his crime.
Also last month, a group of juvenile lifers in Maryland filed suit, arguing that not a single juvenile lifer had received parole in that state in the last 20 years. “Rather than affording youth a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release…grants of release are exceptionally rare, are governed by no substantive, enforceable standards, and are masked from view by blanket assertions of executive privilege,” the lawsuit says.
“There are just two relevant kinds of sentences: those that provide a meaningful opportunity for release and those that don’t,” says Sarah French Russell, a Quinnipiac University law professor who studies juvenile justice. “Sentences that are not technically labeled life without parole can deny a meaningful opportunity for release because of the procedures or criteria used by the parole board.”
A few of many prior related posts:
- Noting that Henry Montgomery (and many other juve LWOPers) are still awaiting impact from Montgomery
- "Montgomery's Messy Trifecta"
- What should we expect after Montgomery from states that had resisted Miller retroactivity?
- Acknowledging and reflecting on the costs, both economic and emotional, that flow from proper implementation of Miller retroactively
May 19, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
"Are Prosecutors the Key to Justice Reform?: Given their autonomy — only if they want to be."
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Atlantic article which effectively highlights how little we know about the work of prosecutors and how critical they are to the operation and impact of criminal justice systems. I recommend the are piece in full, and here are snippets:
A consensus is building around the need to seriously rethink the role of the prosecutor in the administration of justice. Power dynamics are unbalanced, sentencing guidelines are outdated, and old-fashioned human biases persist. And prosecutors — singularly independent agents in a justice system roiling in turmoil — have been facing growing criticism and public distrust for some time, and that disapproval is about to hit a tipping point. It’s time to curtail the power long held by these officers of the court as they promote justice, ensure fairness, and enhance public safety....
John Jay College of Criminal Justice recently announced its new Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, headed by former prosecutor Meg Reiss. A joint project from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the college, the New York City-based institute will “develop programs designed to support innovation in the role of prosecutors in the American justice system.” Reiss, a jurist with two decades of experience, has great faith in what her former colleagues can accomplish. She also owns up to the negative perceptions typically tied to the role. “There’s a lot of mystery about what actually goes on in a prosecutor’s office, so people have never been able to really evaluate it and see exactly what it is they’re doing,” she said....
Reiss said part of the solution is giving prosecutors better tools with which to do their jobs — with “a lot more discretion and creativity.” She said some crimes should fall into categories like “alternatives to prosecution” and “diversion programs.” “Of course, you address violent crime appropriately, and no one’s saying that you shouldn’t,” Reiss said. “But I think everything needs to be carefully evaluated and understood. There isn’t a broad stroke that you use for every type of crime or every type of person.” She cites the intelligence-driven prosecution model out of the Manhattan district attorney’s office as a good place to start: “DA Cyrus Vance is holding a symposium, one of many they’ve done already, on a crime-strategies unit that he has set up in his office, teaching other officers around the country how to do the same.”
It might take that kind of colleague-to-colleague approach to change the prosecutorial culture in the United States. “The bottom line is people came to be prosecutors because they really wanted to ensure fairness and increase public safety,” Reiss said. “They have a real moment at this time to step up and make a big change, to really lead in this effort, to be really innovative and forthright in their intentions, to reduce mass incarceration, to address racial disparity in the system, to look for alternatives to oppressive sanctions. We missed so many things and now is the moment.”
California voters in November to have "mend it or end it" death penalty initiative options
As reported in this new AP article, headlined "Showdown Set Over Future of California's Death Penalty," two competing ballot initiative appear poised to be before voters on the Left Coast this fall. Here are the details:
Death penalty supporters are setting the stage on Thursday for a November showdown over whether to speed up executions in California or do away with them entirely. Crime victims, prosecutors and other supporters plan to submit about 585,000 signatures for a ballot measure to streamline what both sides call a broken system.
No one has been executed in California in a decade because of ongoing legal challenges. Nearly 750 convicted killers are on the nation's largest death row, but only 13 have been executed since 1978. Far more condemned inmates have died of natural causes or suicide.
Supporters plan 10 news conferences statewide to promote an initiative they say would save taxpayers millions of dollars annually, retain due process protections and bring justice to murder victims and their families. The measure would speed what is currently a lengthy appeals process by expanding the pool of appellate attorneys and appointing lawyers to the death cases at the time of sentencing.
Currently there is about a five-year wait just for condemned inmates to be assigned a lawyer. By contrast, the ballot measure would require that the entire state appeals process be completed within five years except under extraordinary circumstances. To meet that timeline, appeals would have to be filed more quickly and there would be limits on how many appeals could be filed in each case.... Additional provisions would allow condemned inmates to be housed at any prison, not just on San Quentin's death row, and they would have to work and pay victim restitution while they wait to be executed....
Opponents say their measure, too, would save money by doing away with the death penalty and keeping currently condemned inmates imprisoned for life with no chance of parole. They submitted about 601,000 signatures on April 28 with much less fanfare, said deputy campaign manager Quintin Mecke. Each side needs nearly 366,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. "It's unfortunate that the DAs (district attorneys) want to double down on a fundamentally broken death penalty system that simply can't be fixed," Mecke said. "You can't streamline or reform a failed policy."
A similar attempt to abolish the death penalty failed by 4 percentage points in 2012. Besides the latest initiative put forward by opponents, that failed effort spurred this year's counter-move by law enforcement and crime victims.
Wednesday, May 18, 2016
"Jurisdiction and Resentencing: How Prosecutorial Waiver Can Offer Remedies Congress Has Denied"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new and timely scholarship authored by Leah Litman and Luke Beasley. Here are excerpts from the start of the piece which highlights its themes and timeliness:
This Essay is about what prosecutors can do to ensure that prisoners with meritorious legal claims have a remedy. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) imposes draconian conditions on when prisoners may file successive petitions for post-conviction review (that is, more than one petition for post-conviction review). AEDPA’s restrictions on post-conviction review are so severe that they routinely prevent prisoners with meritorious claims from vindicating those claims.
Take, for example, the recent litigation about whether prisoners with “Johnson” claims may be resentenced. Johnson v. United States held that the “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is unconstitutionally vague. ACCA imposed a mandatory fifteen-year term of imprisonment on prisoners; but without ACCA, the statutory maximum term of imprisonment for these prisoners is ten years. Johnson therefore means these prisoners could lawfully be sentenced to no more than ten years in prison. Prisoners whose ACCA sentences depended on the residual clause are now seeking to have their 15-year sentences reduced to the lawful 10 years. But three courts of appeal held that AEDPA bars prisoners with Johnson claims from obtaining relief if they have already filed one petition for post-conviction review, because the prisoners do not satisfy AEDPA’s conditions for filing a successive petition for postconviction review....
Part I describes AEDPA’s restrictions on post-conviction petitions that are preventing prisoners with meritorious claims from obtaining relief, and how the United States is attempting to bypass those restrictions by waiving the argument that AEDPA’s restrictions are not satisfied. Part II argues that AEDPA’s restrictions on filing successive petitions for post-conviction review are not jurisdictional, and that courts may therefore accept the government’s waiver and allow prisoners to obtain relief on their claims even if prisoners do not satisfy AEDPA’s preconditions for filing successive petitions for post-conviction review.
"Sentencing phase: did heredity play part in serial killer’s crimes?"
It is often said that the sins of the father should not befall the son, but an on-going capital case in Ohio suggests that at least one defendant is hoping the sins of his father and grandfather and great-grandfather might help keep him off death row. The title of this post is the headline of this local story which provides these details:
Was heredity to blame for the violent crimes of convicted serial killer, Michael Madison? A Cuyahoga County jury was presented with that possibility in the courtroom of Judge Nancy McDonnell on Tuesday.
Dr. Mark Cunningham, a clinical and forensic psychologist from the state of Washington, testified heredity was an aspect of sexual offending. "There is patterning within these family systems,” he said, “They found that having a brother or father who had been convicted of a sexual offense increased the odds of being convicted of a sexual offense four to five fold.”
Cunningham prepared a diagram showing the history of Madison’s family dating back to his great-grandfather. The chart illustrated how the serial killer’s relatives preyed on each other physically and sexually, including their own children. Social Service records and interviews with Madison’s family revealed he was abused for years by his mother and her boyfriends.
"The way that he was treated is the template of how he then goes about interacting with others throughout his life,” said Cunningham, “It's a core principle that the FBI's behavioral science unit identified as they looked at the histories of sexual homicide offenders and observed that the quality of attachments to parents and other members of the family during childhood is central to how the child will relate to and value other members of society.”
The 37-year-old was convicted of raping and murdering Angela Deskins, Shetisha Sheeley and Shirellda Terry, all of East Cleveland. Their bodies were found near his East Cleveland apartment in July of 2013.
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Two notable new Colorado Supreme Court rulings concerning sex offender treatment and Fifth Amendment protections
A helpful reader alerted me to two new ruling from the Colorado Supreme Court concerning sex offender supervision and the Fifth Amendment. Here are links to the opinions and the summary that appears at the start:
People v. Ruch, No. 13SC587, 2016 CO 35 (May 16, 2016) (available here):
This case requires the supreme court to determine whether the trial court properly revoked the defendant’s probation for, among other things, refusing to enroll or participate in sex offender treatment based on his concern that in the course of such treatment, he would have been compelled to incriminate himself in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
The supreme court perceives no Fifth Amendment violation here, where the trial court revoked the defendant’s probation based on his total refusal to attend treatment. In these circumstances, the defendant’s purported invocation of his Fifth Amendment rights was premature and amounted to a prohibited blanket assertion of the privilege. Accordingly, the court holds that the trial court properly revoked Ruch’s probation based on his refusal to attend treatment.
People v. Roberson, No. 13SA268, 2016 CO 36 (May 16, 2016) (available here):
The supreme court concludes that on the facts presented here, the defendant’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination precluded the district court from revoking the defendant’s sex offender intensive supervision probation based on his refusal to answer a polygraph examiner’s question regarding his use or viewing of child pornography while he was on probation. On the record before the court, however, the court is unable to determine whether the defendant’s privilege against self-incrimination precluded the district court from revoking the defendant’s probation based on his refusal to answer questions concerning any post-trial sexual fantasies involving minors that he might have had within the six months immediately preceding the polygraph examination. Accordingly, the supreme court makes its rule to show cause absolute and remands this case to the district court with directions that the court conduct further proceedings as more fully set forth in this opinion.
Monday, May 16, 2016
SCOTUS back to work with no new cert grants, punting, and a per curiam AEDPA summary reversal
The Supreme Court this morning issued orders and a number of opinions after returning from a few weeks off, and the lead story seems to be primarily what the Justices did not do: the Court did not grant certiorari on any new cases, did not conclusively resolve (but essentially punted issues back to lower courts) a couple high-profile argued cases, and did not split 4-4 (or even 5-3) on any merits opinions.
The one thing the Court did do that might interest criminal justice fans involves a per curiam ruling in a federal habeas case coming from the Ninth Circuit. The ruling in Kernan v. Hinojosa, No. 15-833 (S. Ct. May 16, 2016) (available here), gets started this way:
The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) requires a state prisoner seeking federal habeas relief first to “exhaus[t] the remedies available in the courts of the State.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(b)(1)(A). If the state courts adjudicate the prisoner’s federal claim “on the merits,” §2254(d), then AEDPA mandates deferential, rather than de novo, review, prohibiting federal courts from granting habeas relief unless the state-court decision “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law,” §2254(d)(1), or “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts,” §2254(d)(2). The Ninth Circuit in this case decided that the Supreme Court of California’s summary denial of a habeas petition was not “on the merits,” and therefore AEDPA’s deferential-review provisions did not apply. We summarily reverse.
Notably, Justice Sotomayor issued a dissenting opinion, which Justice Ginsburg joined, to explain why she thought the Ninth Circuit was in the right when refusing to apply AEDPA’s deferential-review provisions in this case.
Noting that Henry Montgomery (and many other juve LWOPers) are still awaiting impact from Montgomery
At Jost on Justice, Ken Jost has this notable new piece, headlined "For Juvenile Lifers, Wheels of Justice Grind Slow," about the application of the Supreme Court's ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana in state systems. Here are excerpts:
Henry Montgomery has lived behind prison walls for 53 years now, but even so he is a “little bit antsy” according to his lawyer while waiting to learn when he will get a chance at freedom under a new Supreme Court decision.
Montgomery is one of 300 or so Louisiana inmates serving time under life-without-parole sentences imposed for murders they committed as juveniles — sentences ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court four years ago. The court followed with a 6-3 ruling in January that the earlier decision applies retroactively to prisoners even if their regular appeals had already ended....
The hang-up in Louisiana and in several other states stems not only from the customarily slow pace of judicial proceedings but from uncertainty about how to comply with the high court’s ruling. The 6-3 decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana appeared to prescribe parole hearings as the remedy rather than court resentencings for inmates now seeking release.
The court’s earlier decision, Miller v. Alabama (2012), prohibited states from automatically sentencing juvenile murderers to life-without-parole but left open the possibility of such sentences in some murder cases. In the new opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that prisoners “who have shown an inability to reform will continue to serve life sentences.” Citing Montgomery’s record as a model prisoner, however, Kennedy said that inmates like him “must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption.”
Kennedy appeared to be letting states off easy by negating any need to resentence the juvenile lifers in court, much less to review their convictions. But leaders of a juvenile justice advocacy group working to abolish life-without-parole sentences view courts as a more receptive forum than state parole boards for inmates to gain their freedom. Heather Renwick, legal counsel for the Washington-based Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, says courts are a more favorable forum than politically appointed parole boards....
Nationwide, there are an estimated 1,300 prisoners serving life-without-parole sentences for offenses committed as juveniles. Louisiana and two other states, Michigan and Pennsylvania, account for the lion’s share. In Louisiana, Montgomery’s lawyer is impatient for the state’s high court to act. “It’s in limbo right now,” says Mark Plaisance, a private lawyer representing Montgomery on contract with the East Baton Rouge Parish public defender’s office.
Montgomery, who turns 70 in November, was sentenced for killing a school truancy officer in 1963 when he was 17. Plaisance says Montgomery shares his impatience with the delayed follow-up. “Not only him but several of the defendants are antsy about how quick can we get back into court,” Plaisance says.
For its part, the juvenile sentencing group acknowledges the slow pace but takes encouragement from recent moves by Utah and South Dakota to become the 15th and 16th states to abolish life-without-parole for juvenile offenders altogether. “There is broad bipartisan support for alternatives to death-in-prison sentences for children,” says Jody Kent Levy, the group’s director and national coordinator. “Still, there is work to be done to ensure reforms are implemented meaningfully.”
Prior related post with my scholarly take on Montgomery:
Sunday, May 15, 2016
Is it fair for me to worry that drug war distractions contribute to "a revolving door for violent offenders" in DC?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new Washington Post article headlined "How an accused rapist kept getting second chances from the D.C. justice system," which is the "first installment in a series that will examine issues related to repeat violent offenders in the District of Columbia." I am pleased to see the Post giving attention to how repeat violent offenders manage to avoid serious punishments, but I hope that the series will get around to exploring my enduring concern that repeat violent offenders can too often and too readily exploit cracks within any justice system overworked and overloaded from treating drug problems as primarily criminal justice concerns. These enduring concerns aside, here are excerpts from the Post's story that serve as an introduction to the troubling tale that follows:
The 40-year-old woman, described in court papers as 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, suffered fractures in her eye socket and cheekbone. The alleged perpetrator, 21-year-old Antwon Durrell Pitt, had an extensive criminal history, including eight arrests in four years and a robbery conviction. Three times, he was sentenced under laws designed to promote leniency and second chances for inexperienced adult offenders. In two of those cases, he was sentenced under the District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act, a 1980s-era law aimed at “deserving” offenders under the age of 22.
Pitt’s case shows that such laws, combined with lax enforcement by key federal agencies, can give many chances to violent offenders despite repeated criminal behavior and the failure to abide by terms of release, according to a Washington Post review of court records, transcripts and probation reports.
The D.C. criminal justice system relies on a mix of federal agencies and D.C. judges to swiftly intervene and communicate vital information to protect the public from violent offenders. In the crucial weeks before the rape, a D.C. Superior Court magistrate judge and two federal agencies — the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) and the U.S. Parole Commission — failed to work together to take Pitt off the streets.
Pitt’s behavior raised many red flags, indicating escalating risk. Just out of prison last summer after serving a robbery sentence, Pitt did not report for some of his court-ordered drug testing and anger management sessions. He did not keep in contact with his supervision officer. And in a final act of defiance, Pitt cut off the GPS monitoring bracelet affixed to his ankle and let the battery run dead. He was completely off the grid.
CSOSA, the federal agency charged with watching D.C. offenders released from prison, did not request a warrant for Pitt’s arrest for 15 days after losing contact with him. The Parole Commission waited a week after getting that request before forwarding it to law enforcement. And the magistrate judge denied a prosecutor’s request to keep Pitt behind bars, despite a troubling report from the Pretrial Services Agency. “No conditions or combination of conditions can reasonably assure the defendant’s appearance or safety to the community,” said the report that was given to magistrate William Nooter.
The District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act was passed in 1985 to give youthful adult offenders a chance to have their records wiped clean from public view if they successfully complete their sentences, even those who commit violent crimes, with the exception of murder and a second crime of violence while armed....
At a time when the Obama administration and Congress are working to ease “mandatory minimum” sentencing guidelines for non-violent offenses, in part because of concerns that such laws have unjustly imprisoned large numbers of African Americans, D.C. law enforcement officials are increasingly concerned about the number of repeat violent offenders on the streets. The District, for example, has seen a near doubling in the percentage of homicide suspects with prior gun-related arrests. “Sometimes, we just scratch our heads,” D.C. police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said. “We feel like there’s a revolving door for violent offenders. It’s very frustrating for us because we see the victim, and we see the impact on the victim.”
Thursday, May 12, 2016
Can and should Missouri, after completing its last execution for a while, send any extra execution drugs to other needy states?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this AP article about the first and likely last execution in Missouri this year. The piece is headlined "Missouri man put to death for killing deputy, 2 others; could be last execution for some time," and here are the basics:
A man who killed two people in a drug dispute and a sheriff’s deputy in a subsequent shootout was put to death Wednesday in what could be Missouri’s last execution for some time.
Earl Forrest, 66, went to the home of Harriett Smith in December 2002 and demanded that she fulfill her promise to buy a lawn mower and mobile home for him in exchange for introducing her to a source for methamphetamine. During an argument, Forrest shot Smith and Michael Wells, who was visiting Smith’s home. Forrest later fatally shot Dent County Sheriff’s Deputy Joann Barnes after she arrived at Forrest’s home.
Missouri has executed 19 men since November 2013. But the remaining 25 death row inmates either have appeals still pending or other reasons they will not face imminent execution. Forrest’s fate was sealed hours before his punishment when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to halt the execution and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, turned down a clemency request.
According to court documents, Forrest had been drinking when he went to Smith’s home in the southern Missouri town of Salem. Wells was visiting Smith at the time. An argument ensued, and Forrest shot Wells in the face. He shot Smith six times and took a lockbox full of meth valued at $25,000. When police converged on Forrest’s home, he fatally shot Barnes and injured Dent County Sheriff Bob Wofford, according to court documents. Forrest was also injured in the exchange of gunfire, along with his girlfriend, Angela Gamblin.
Missouri has been one of the most prolific states for executions in recent years, second only to Texas. The state has executed 19 prisoners since November 2013, including six last year. Forrest’s execution was the first in 2016.
Missouri’s death row population is dwindling. Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, said juries today are less likely to opt for capital punishment, in part because of greater awareness of how mental illness sometimes factors in violent crime. Just 49 people were sentenced to death nationally last year, the fewest since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty as a possible punishment in 1976. No one was sentenced to death in Missouri in 2014 or 2015, Dunham said. “As these executions take place, fewer and fewer people are being sentenced to death, so the death penalty is withering on the other end,” Dunham said.
None of the 25 other men remaining on Missouri’s death row face imminent execution. Sixteen have yet to exhaust court appeals and aren’t likely to do so soon. Execution is on hold for nine others. Two were declared mentally unfit for execution. Two were granted stays because of medical conditions that could cause painful deaths from injections. Two had sentences set aside by the courts due to trial attorney errors. One inmate was granted a stay while his innocence claim is reviewed. One case was sent back to a lower court to consider an appeal.
And in one unusual case, inmate William Boliek was granted a stay by Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan in 1997. The case wasn’t resolved before Carnahan died in a 2000 plane crash, and a court determined that only Carnahan could overturn the stay. Nixon’s office has said Boliek will not be executed.
As regular readers may recall and as Ohio capital lawyers know well, while Missouri has had the lethal injection drugs needed to carry out nearly 20 executions in the last few years, the Buckeye state has more than two dozen execution scheduled that have been persistently delayed because the state cannot seem to get its hands on any lethal injection drugs. I do not know where Mizzou gets its lethal injection drugs or whether it has some additional drugs on hand now without any executions scheduled for the foreseeable future. But I do know that a functioning legal system with large percentages of voters and elected officials supporting a functioning death penalty ought to be able to figure out some way for nearby states to help each other out in this arena.
I bring this up because I have long believed in the aphorism "where there's a will, there's a way." And thus, I have also come to believe that the main reason Ohio has not been able to figure out how to secure needed execution drugs (while many other states seem to have these drugs) is because there just is not the political will to fix the state's enduring capital punishment administrative problems.
Wednesday, May 11, 2016
"Detaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the folks at the Prison Policy Initiative. Here are some excerpts from the start of the report:
In addition to the 1.6 million people incarcerated in federal and state prisons, there are 646,000 people locked up in more than 3,000 local jails throughout the U.S. Seventy percent of these people in local jails are being held pretrial — meaning they have not yet been convicted of a crime and are legally presumed innocent. One reason that the unconvicted population in the U.S. is so large is because our country largely has a system of money bail, in which the constitutional principle of innocent until proven guilty only really applies to the well off. With money bail, a defendant is required to pay a certain amount of money as a pledged guarantee he will attend future court hearings. If he is unable to come up with the money either personally or through a commercial bail bondsman, he can be incarcerated from his arrest until his case is resolved or dismissed in court.
While the jail population in the U.S. has grown substantially since the 1980s, the number of convicted people in jails has been flat for the last 15 years. Detention of the legally innocent has been consistently driving jail growth, and the criminal justice reform discussion must include a discussion of local jails and the need for pretrial detention reform. This report will focus on one driver of pretrial detention: the inability to pay what is typically $10,000 in money bail. Building off our July 2015 report on the pre-incarceration incomes of people in prison, this report provides the pre-incarceration incomes of people in local jails who were unable to post a bail bond. This report aims to give the public and policymakers the foundation for a more informed discussion about whether requiring thousands of dollars in bail bonds makes sense given the widespread poverty of the people held in the criminal justice system and the high fiscal and social costs of incarceration.
We find that most people who are unable to meet bail fall within the poorest third of society. Using Bureau of Justice Statistics data, we find that, in 2015 dollars, people in jail had a median annual income of $15,109 prior to their incarceration, which is less than half (48%) of the median for non-incarcerated people of similar ages. People in jail are even poorer than people in prison and are drastically poorer than their non-incarcerated counterparts....
Because a system of money bail allows income to be the determining factor in whether someone can be released pretrial, our nation’s local jails are incarcerating too many people who are likely to show up for their court date and unlikely to be arrested for new criminal activity. Although, on paper, it is illegal to detain people for their poverty, such detention is the reality in too many of our local jails. Our country now has a two-track system of justice in which the cost of pretrial liberty is far higher for poor people than for the well off.
Sixth Circuit panel sends Miller litigation about Michigan juve LWOPers needs review anew after Montgomery
A Sixth Circuit panel today issues an interesting (non)opinion about the state and fate of federal litigation over the fate and future of Michigan juveniles serving LWOP sentences that are unconstitutional because imposed under a mandatory sentencing system. Here is how the opinion in Hill v. Snyder, No. 13-2661 (6th Cir. May 11, 2012) (available here), gets started:
This long-running case returns us to the difficult topic of juvenile crime and punishment. Our return, however, is to a new legal landscape, one defined by the Supreme Court’s developing jurisprudence recognizing that the unique characteristics of youth matter in determining the propriety of their punishment. This case began when Michigan charged and tried the named plaintiffs as adults for acts they committed while under the age of 18. Each received a conviction for first-degree murder and a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Michigan laws in place at the time rendered anyone convicted of firstdegree murder ineligible for parole, meaning that the plaintiffs in this case effectively received mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for acts they committed as children.
Plaintiffs filed suit in federal district court in 2010 challenging, among other things, the constitutionality of the Michigan statutory scheme that barred them from parole eligibility. Since that time, at least three important legal events have come to pass. First, the Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (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.’” Id. at 2460. Second, Michigan amended its juvenile offender laws in light of Miller, but made some of those changes contingent upon either the Michigan Supreme Court or the United States Supreme Court announcing that Miller’s holding applied retroactively. See Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. §§ 769.25, 769.25a (2014). And, third, the United States Supreme Court recently held in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), that Miller’s prohibition on mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders is indeed retroactive.
The district court wisely (and presciently) reached the conclusion that Miller should apply retroactively when it ruled on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment in 2013. That conclusion also drove the district court’s issuance of an injunctive order against defendants requiring compliance with Miller. In light of the legal changes described above, however, and for the reasons that follow, we VACATE the challenged district court orders and REMAND for the district court to address these issues under the legal landscape established by Montgomery v. Louisiana, Miller v. Alabama, and this opinion.
How many death sentences nationwide would get overturned if juror unanimity were constitutionally required for death sentences?
The question in the title of this post came to my mind after seeing this Los Angeles Times opinion piece headlined "Florida's death penalty should require unanimous jury votes." Here are excerpts from piece:
In a criminal jury trial, a conviction requires a unanimous verdict of guilt, whether the crime is a low-level drug possession charge or capital murder. But in Florida, after all 12 members of a jury have found the accused guilty, only 10 of them have to agree that the defendant should die for the crime. It’s absurd to require a lower level of agreement to send someone to death than is required to find the person guilty in the first place.
Florida Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch reached the same conclusion in a decision Monday that declared Florida’s latest death penalty law in violation of the state’s constitution. That decision followed arguments a few days earlier before the state’s Supreme Court over whether the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hurst v. Florida, which found the state’s sentencing-decision process unconstitutional, meant that all 390 people on Florida’s death row should have their sentences converted to life. Yes, it does. If the sentencing process is unconstitutional, then the sentences are, too....
In the Hurst case, the Supreme Court affirmed that only a jury can make a finding of fact. Florida, in an effort to save its death penalty, rewrote its law to say the jury must decide whether the death penalty was appropriate. But the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t say how many jurors must make that call, and the revised state law raised the threshold to 10 of the 12 jurors.
Hirsch’s decision on Monday said that no, under the state’s constitution, a super-majority is not enough. His logic is a bit attenuated, but sound. Florida’s constitution guarantees trial by jury but doesn’t specify that a unanimous verdict must be reached. However, decades of practice, and common law, set unanimity as the standard threshold for a verdict. And since the revised law calls the jury’s finding for the death penalty a verdict, then it must be unanimous....
The least Florida can do is require unanimity by a jury before deciding to kill someone. And it should either grant fresh sentencing trials for those on death row or — and this is the preferred, more humane solution — commute the death sentences to life sentences.
Notably, two of the four states in the US with the largest death rows (Florida and Alabama) have sentenced a significant number of murderers to death without a unamimous jury recommendation to that effect. Though it is not clear that roughly all 600 persons on those states' death rows would be sure to get relief from a constitutional rule requiring jury unanimity for death recommendations, a suspect a significant number would. And even if only half of those condemned would get relief, that could cut the size of the US death row population down by more than 10 percent.
The Supreme Court's ruling in Hurst studiously avoided weighing in on this jury unaniminty issue, but I am not sure it is point to be able to avoid it for too much longer in light of what is going on in Florida and perhaps other places in the post-Hurst world.
A few prior related post:
- Prominent Floridians call for state Supreme Court to reverse all past Florida death sentences
- An astute accounting of one view on how the post-Hurst hydra in Florida ought to be slayed
- Florida state judge declares unconstitutional state's post-Hurst revised death penalty procedures
Tuesday, May 10, 2016
Tenth Circuit finds Fifth Amendment problems in sex offender treatment program requirement as part of conditions of supervised release
A helpful reader alerted me to think interesting new Tenth Circuit panel ruling in US v. Von Behren, No. 15-1033 (1th Cir. May 10, 2016) (available here), which gets started this way:
Brian Von Behren is serving a three-year term of supervised release stemming from a 2005 conviction for distribution of child pornography. One of the conditions of his supervised release was modified to require that he successfully complete a sex offender treatment program, including a sexual history polygraph requiring him to answer four questions regarding whether he had committed sexual crimes for which he was never charged. The treatment program required him to sign an agreement instructing the treatment provider to report any discovered sexual crimes to appropriate authorities. Mr. Von Behren contended that the polygraph condition violates his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The district court disagreed and held that the polygraph exam questions do not pose a danger of incrimination in the constitutional sense. Mr. Von Behren refused to answer the sexual history questions, thereby requiring the treatment provider to expel him from the program and subjecting him to potential revocation of his supervised release for violating the condition of supervision. The district court denied Mr. Von Behren’s request to stay further proceedings pending appeal, but this court granted a stay. We reverse on the Fifth Amendment issue.
"Litigating from the Prison of the Mind: A Cognitive Right to Post-Conviction Counsel"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Ken Strutin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This article attempts to draw a picture of the incarcerated without counsel, who are separated from justice by the inhumanity of their imprisonment, the poverty of their information resources and the detriments of their cognitive life.
Part I sets the stage by describing the conditions of confinement, the confined, and the state of pro se personhood. Part II addresses the reality of petition or perish created by Bounds and Casey. Part III concentrates on the necessity of a right to counsel borne from the conditions of confinement and the technological, physical and psychological barriers that burden the incarcerated. Among the most significant barriers to be considered are: (1) legal illiteracy and inferior research media; (2) impaired learning and thinking due to stress of confinement; and (3) cognitive disadvantage engendered by the gap between print and electronic research.
Monday, May 09, 2016
Florida state judge declares unconstitutional state's post-Hurst revised death penalty procedures
As reported in this new local article, a "Miami-Dade judge has ruled that Florida’s death penalty is unconstitutional because jurors are not required to agree unanimously on execution." Here is more:
Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch on Monday issued the ruling in the case of Karon Gaiter, who is awaiting trial for first-degree murder. Hirsch wrote that Florida’s recently enacted “super majority” system – 10 of 12 juror votes are needed to impose execution as punishment for murder – goes against the long-time sanctity of unanimous verdicts in the U.S. justice system.
“A decedent cannot be more or less dead. An expectant mother cannot be more or less pregnant,” he wrote. “And a jury cannot be more or less unanimous. Every verdict in every criminal case in Florida requires the concurrence, not of some, not of most, but of all jurors – every single one of them.”...
In January, in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the state’s death sentencing system unconstitutional because it gave too little power to juries. For decades, jurors only issued majority recommendations, with judges ultimately imposing the death penalty. The high court, however, did not rule on the unanimity question. Except for Alabama and Florida, all other states that have the death penalty require a unanimous jury verdict to impose the death sentence....
After the Hurst case was decided in January, Florida lawmakers were forced to fix the death-penalty sentencing scheme. Florida’s new law requires juries to unanimously vote for every reason, known as aggravating factors, that a defendant might merit a death sentence. Whether to actually impose the death sentence requires 10 of 12 jurors. “All of these changes inure to the benefit of the defendant,” Assistant State Attorney Penny Brill wrote in a motion in the Gaiter case earlier this year. “These requirements render Florida’s system constitutional under the United States Supreme Court’s precedents.”
Judge Hirsch, in his order, said the fixes don’t matter. “Arithmetically the difference between twelve and ten is slight,” Hirsch wrote. “But the question before me is not a question of arithmetic. It is a question of constitutional law. It is a question of justice.”
The full 18-page order referenced here is available at this link, and a quick scan of opinion reviews that it includes quotes from William Shakespeare, William Blackstone, Winston Churchill, Glanville Williams, the prophet Elijah, and lots of other notable sources.
Sunday, May 08, 2016
Some critical reflections on Prez Obama's clemency efforts and some ideas about what could have been
Late last week, the Washington Post had this lengthy article reviewing the various problems encoutered during President Obama's clemency push over the last few years. The piece is headlined "Lack of resources, bureaucratic tangles have bogged down Obama’s clemency efforts," and it effectively summarized many of the difficulties previously reported on this blog. Here are excerpts:
In the waning months of his presidency, Obama has made commutations for nonviolent drug offenders a centerpiece of his effort to reform the country’s criminal-justice system. But behind the scenes, the administration’s highly touted clemency initiative has been mired in conflict and held up by a bureaucratic process that has been slow to move prisoner petitions to the president’s desk.
Obama has granted 306 commutations to federal prisoners — more than the past six presidents combined. But as of Friday, 9,115 commutation petitions were pending with little time left to review them. Of these, fewer than 2,000 appear to be eligible for the president’s clemency program, according to a Justice Department official. Thousands more are still being reviewed by outside lawyers.
From the beginning, the program was beset by problems, including a lack of resources and a cumbersome, multilevel review system. The U.S. pardon attorney at the Justice Department makes recommendations that move to the deputy attorney general, who reviews the cases and sends them to the White House counsel, who considers them again before choosing which ones go to Obama.
The pardon attorney became so frustrated that she quit earlier this year and wrote a scathing resignation letter to Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates. Deborah Leff said that despite her “intense efforts” to do her job, the Justice Department had “not fulfilled its commitment to provide the resources necessary for my office to make timely and thoughtful recommendations on clemency to the president.”...
On Thursday, Obama commuted the sentences of 58 prisoners, his second round of clemencies in three months as the program has picked up steam. Administration officials say that they are addressing obstacles that have plagued the clemency initiative. The Justice Department has added lawyers to the pardon office. And White House Counsel Neil Eggleston has promised that many more petitions will be granted in the president’s final eight months.
“The President is deeply committed to the clemency initiative. That is evident not only by the historic number of commutations he’s granted to date, but by his wholesale approach to revamping the way the government approaches commutations,” White House spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine said in a statement. “That change helped spark a long overdue conversation about reforming our criminal justice system, which we hope will result in Congressional action so that many more deserving individuals can benefit from a second chance.”...
An attorney who worked in the pardon office at the same time as Leff said that with petitions flooding in, it was extremely difficult with so few lawyers to sort out complicated drug cases and figure out whether they met the department’s strict criteria. To get more help, Cole reached out to the private bar to set up another layer of lawyers to read applications.
Outside lawyers formed an organization called Clemency Project 2014, which includes Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. An army of about 4,000 volunteer lawyers from across the country signed up to help in what has become one of the largest pro bono efforts in the history of the American legal profession. Seventy large law firms, more than 500 small firms and solo practitioners, and 30 law schools are involved, according to Cynthia W. Roseberry, the project’s manager. But it took nearly a year for the group to get organized and recruit and train lawyers, many of whom had no experience in criminal law.
An overwhelming 36,000 inmates — about 17 percent of the federal prison population — filled out surveys asking for help from the Clemency Project. Even though the Justice Department had its own backlog, officials there privately complained that the outside Clemency Project lawyers, with their multiple levels of review, were taking too long to send more petitions. That in turn frustrated the Clemency Project attorneys, who said they were working carefully to locate old legal documents, contact prosecutors and judges, look at prison behavior records and try to get pre-sentencing reports and sentencing transcripts. At the same time, they have been weighing risks to public safety....
Some critics say the White House could have avoided many of these headaches by modeling the process after the way President Gerald Ford handled clemencies for Americans who had deserted the Army or failed to show up for the draft during the Vietnam War. With 600 people working on a special commission to review the cases, Ford granted 14,000 clemencies in one year. Law professor Mark Osler, co-founder of New York University’s Clemency Resource Center, said the initiative also might have gone more smoothly if Obama had moved the pardon attorney’s office into the White House rather than keeping it under career prosecutors who may find it difficult to reverse other prosecutors’ decisions.
This recent Fusion piece, headlined "The bold step President Obama could take to let thousands of federal inmates go free," provides a thorough discussion of the special clemency commission that President Ford had set up to deal with a massive number of Veitnam draft dodgers and desserters and which was able to process tens of thousands of clemency cases in just a year. Here is how it concludes:
If Obama had appointed a Ford-style clemency board, he could have cut down the bureaucracy to three or four steps: a review by the board’s staff, a review by the board, a review by the White House counsel, a review by the president.
In the last few months, Obama’s advisers have been making the argument that he’s granted “more [clemencies] than the previous six Presidents combined.” But that calculation is false, as it incorrectly ignores the clemencies granted through Ford’s commission. (A White House spokesperson noted that Department of Justice statistics only count the 22 non-Vietnam related clemencies that Ford granted.)
For many recent presidents, clemency has been treated more like an afterthought. Until recently, Obama announced them at the end of each year, before he jets off to Hawaii with his family — a last-minute Christmas gift to a tiny handful of prisoners.
With fewer than 10 months left in office, even if Obama had a change of heart and decided to create a clemency board today, it would almost surely be too late. But [clemency advocates Nkechi] Taifa and Osler say it’s an idea that should be picked up by the next president. “This should not end with the Obama administration,” Taifa said.
“I do not want to delay another day in resolving the dilemmas of the past, so that we may all get going on the pressing problems of the present,” Ford said when he announced his clemency board. If President Obama—or the next president—wants to resolve the past failings of our criminal justice system, then they should also take lessons from one of its rare success stories.
"Designing Plea Bargaining from the Ground Up: Accuracy and Fairness Without Trials as Backstops"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Stephanos Bibas now available via SSRN. here is the abstract:
American criminal procedure developed on the assumption that grand juries and petit jury trials were the ultimate safeguards of fair procedures and accurate outcomes. But now that plea bargaining has all but supplanted juries, we need to think through what safeguards our plea-bargaining system should be built around.
This Symposium Article sketches out principles for redesigning our plea-bargaining system from the ground up around safeguards. Part I explores the causes of factual, moral, and legal inaccuracies in guilty pleas. To prevent and remedy these inaccuracies, it proposes a combination of quasi-inquisitorial safeguards, more vigorous criminal defense, and better normative evaluation of charges, pleas, and sentences. Part II then diagnoses unfair repercussions caused by defendants’ lack of information and understanding, laymen’s lack of voice, and the public’s lack of information and participation. To prevent and fix these sources of unfairness, it proposes ways to better inform pleas and to make plea procedures more procedurally just.
Saturday, May 07, 2016
An astute accounting of one view on how the post-Hurst hydra in Florida ought to be slayed
Regular readers know that, after the US Supreme Court in Hurst declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe the multi-headed, snake-like capital litigation sure to develop as judges tried to make sense of what Hurst must mean for past, present and future cases. Of particular significance in Florida, which has second largest death row in the nation and holds roughly one of every seven condemed murderers in the US, is what will become of all those sentenced to death before Hurst.
As noted in this post a few days ago, the Florida Supreme Court took up this question this past week, and some prominent Floridians argued that all those previously sentenced to death should have their sentences changed to life without parole. But, with this is sure to be a popular view among death penalty abolitionists, death penalty supporters are not likely to readily embrace this solution. And, very helpfully, Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences has this lengthy and thorough post providing an astute review of what existing Supreme Court retroactivity jurisprudence should mean. The post is titled "What Happens to the Florida Death Row Cases After Hurst?", and here is how it starts and ends:
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Hurst v. Florida that the Florida capital sentencing system did not comply with a series of cases beginning with Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000). Yesterday, the Florida Supreme Court heard oral argument on remand in the Hurst case. Several people have asked me what should/will happen to the cases of the murderers presently on death row in Florida. "Should" is easier to answer than "will":
1. Cases final on direct appeal (i.e., those where the Florida Supreme Court has affirmed the judgment in the initial appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court has denied the petition to take the case up or the defendant did not file one) should not be affected by Hurst.
2. Cases already tried and pending on appeal should be affirmed under the "harmless error" rule if it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury would have unanimously found at least one aggravating circumstance if they had been asked to do so. For example, if the jury convicted the defendant of robbery and murder and there is no question in the case that the murder was committed in the course of the robbery (an aggravating circumstance), that would be harmless error.
3. Cases where there is a Hurst error that does not meet the standard for harmless error should be retried as to penalty under the new statutory procedure....
The Florida Legislature acted swiftly after Hurst to enact a new procedure meeting the newly minted constitutional requirements. Why? Because it considers enforcement of the death penalty important. Why, then, would the legislature want a whole class of sentences wiped out? It would not. Attributing such an intended result makes no sense given the purpose of the law.
Finally, there is the matter of arbitrariness. Arbitrariness necessarily works both ways. Just as people should not arbitrarily be sentenced to punishment, neither should they arbitrarily be spared a punishment they deserve. Arbitrary sparing of some is necessarily arbitrary infliction on those not spared.
The whole point of our complex jurisprudence of capital sentencing is to make the sentence fit what the murderer deserves. Commuting a wide swath of sentences based on an accident of timing without any regard for just deserts is arbitrary. Absent strong evidence the legislature intended this result, it should not be attributed to them.
The new act should apply to any cases remanded for resentencing.
Friday, May 06, 2016
"Gutting Habeas Corpus: The Inside Story of How Bill Clinton Sacrificed Prisoners’ Rights for Political Gain"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Intercept piece, which gets started this way:
On the eve of the New York state primary last month, as Hillary Clinton came closer to the Democratic nomination, Vice President Joe Biden went on TV and defended her husband’s 1994 crime bill. Asked in an interview if he felt shame for his role passing a law that has been the subject of so much recent criticism, Biden answered, “Not at all,” and boasted of its successes — among them putting “100,000 cops on the street.” His remarks sparked a new round of debate over the legacy of the crime bill, which has haunted Clinton ever since she hit the campaign trail with a vow to “end the era of mass incarceration.”
A few days later, on April 24, a lesser-known crime law quietly turned 20. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 — or AEDPA — was signed by Bill Clinton in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. While it has been mostly absent from the recent debates over the crime policies of the ’90s, its impact has been no less profound, particularly when it comes to a bedrock constitutional principle: habeas corpus, or the right of people in prison to challenge their detention. For 20 years, AEDPA has shut the courthouse door on prisoners trying to prove they were wrongfully convicted. Americans are mostly unaware of this legacy, even as we know more than ever about wrongful convictions. Barry Scheck, co-founder and head of the Innocence Project, calls AEDPA “a disaster” and “a major roadblock since its passage.” Many would like to see it repealed.
If the Clintons have not been forced to defend AEDPA, it’s partly because neither the law nor its shared history with the crime bill is well understood. AEDPA’s dizzying provisions — from harsh immigration policies to toughened federal sentencing — were certainly a hasty response to terrorism. But the law was also the product of an administration that long before the Oklahoma attack had abandoned its party’s core principles on criminal justice, deciding instead to wield crime policy as political weapon. After the Republicans seized control of Congress in the historic 1994 midterm elections, the Clinton White House sought to double down on its law-and-order image in advance of the 1996 presidential race. In the short term, it was a winning political strategy for Clinton. In the long term, it would help pave the way to one of the worst laws of his presidency.
More evidence of a failed drug war: foot soldier always high while fighting
This recent AP article, headlined "Reports: Chemist Who Worked on Drug Cases Was Usually High," provides yet another reason why I see the so-called war on drugs to be an abject failure. Here are the details:
Investigators say a former chemist who tested drugs for Massachusetts police departments was high almost every day she went to work for eight years, potentially putting thousands of criminal convictions in jeopardy.
Sonja Farak, who worked for an Amherst lab that tested drug samples for police, was high on methamphetamines, ketamine, cocaine, LSD and other drugs during most of her time there, even when she testified in court, according to a state investigative report released Tuesday. Farak worked at the lab between 2005 and 2013.
Cyndi Roy Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey, said the information gathered about Farak "will no doubt have implications for many cases," but it is unclear just how many. She said it will be up to prosecutors, defense attorneys and the courts to determine the full scope of cases affected by Farak's misconduct. "We are deeply concerned whenever the integrity of the justice system is called into question or compromised," she said.
One defense attorney told the Boston Herald that Farak handled about 30,000 cases during her career. "This is a statewide scandal, and I think it's going to take an enormous toll on the system," attorney Luke Ryan said.
Farak's case is unrelated to the case of Annie Dookhan, who worked at a state drug lab in Boston. Dookhan was sentenced in November 2013 to at least three years in prison after pleading guilty to faking test results in criminal cases that jeopardized thousands of convictions.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts said the number of criminal cases affected by Farak's misconduct could rival the approximately 40,000 cases thrown into question by Dookhan's actions. "It's now beyond doubt that the drug war in Massachusetts during the Dookhan-Farak era was built on a foundation of falsified evidence," said Matthew Segal, the ACLU's legal director.
Segal said he doesn't have an estimate of how many cases could be challenged, but said prosecutors who got convictions using drug samples she tested "have an obligation to identify and notify everyone who might have been denied due process" as a result of Farak's actions. Segal said that because Farak admitted ingesting lab "standards" — drug samples used as benchmarks to test against substances submitted by police for testing — all cases that went through the lab should be re-examined.
Last year, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ordered an investigation into the timing and scope of Farak's misconduct. Healey's office conducted the investigation. Many of the shocking details came from Farak's own grand jury testimony, including that she once smoked crack before a 2012 state police accreditation inspection of the now-closed lab. Farak also testified that she manufactured crack cocaine for her personal use in the lab.
Farak, 37, of Northampton, pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence, stealing cocaine from the lab and unlawful possession in January 2014 and was sentenced to 18 months behind bars and five years of probation. She served her sentence and has been released from prison....
Gov. Charlie Baker said the state will likely have to allocate more money to deal with the Farak scandal. In the Dookhan case, the state Legislature authorized up to $30 million to cover costs incurred by the court system, prosecutors, public defenders and other state agencies. "We certainly believe we are going to have a big responsibility to work with the courts and with others to make sure that people who are affected by this have the appropriate opportunity to engage in that conversation," Baker said. "And we fully expect we will be doing that for the next several months."
Wednesday, May 04, 2016
Extended commentary assails prosecutorial power enabled by federal mandatory minimums
Amos Irwin, who serves as Chief of Staff at the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (CJPF), has this lengthy new Huffington Post commentary headlined "The Laws that Betrayed Their Makers: Why Mandatory Minimums Still Exist." Here are excerpts that highlight some of its main themes:
[R]ather than serving Congress’s purpose, federal mandatory minimum drug laws actually function as a prosecutor’s tool of interrogation. Since the same prosecutors who select the charges are also trying to extract information, they threaten defendants with wildly disproportionate mandatory minimums in order to force them to cooperate. They are open about this practice. The President of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys protested in July that if Congress reduces mandatory minimums, “prosecutors would lose a tool to extract information.”
They omit the fact that mandatory minimums are primarily useful for extracting information from the low-level offenders.... There are two problems with threatening long sentences to extract cooperation from low-level drug offenders. First, this strategy is ineffective in impacting the drug trade. Second, it inflicts immense collateral damage on innocent people and low-level offenders, while letting the guiltiest offenders off more easily — the opposite of what Congress intended...
Federal appeals courts have explicitly approved of prosecutors threatening defendants’ wives with charges that are rarely prosecuted, solely to force the defendants to cooperate. Federal appeals courts have explicitly approved of prosecutors threatening defendants’ wives with charges that are rarely prosecuted, solely to force the defendants to cooperate. Why would federal prosecutors threaten family members, knowing that they might have to follow through on those threats? Prosecutors see that the War on Drugs is not working, and many conclude that they need to fight the enemy more aggressively.
Ninth Circuit explains why disappearing does not get one out of a plea agreement or a mandatory minimum sentence
A little criminal decision handed down by the Ninth Circuit today brought to my mind the Woody Allen quote that half of life is just showing up. Specifically, US v. Ornelas, No. 14-50533 (9th Cir. May 4, 2016) (available here), reveals that if you do not show up after signing a plea agreement, you still will get sentenced and be stuck with 100% of the terms of agreement. Here is how the opinion for gets started:
Federal law gives defendants the right to be present at their trials and sentencings unless they voluntarily waive this right. In this case, after signing a plea agreement admitting to drug distribution, but before sentencing, Israel Ornelas disappeared and lost contact with his lawyer. The district court proceeded with sentencing in absentia and imposed a prison term of 120 months — the mandatory minimum for the charged crimes.
Ornelas was subsequently arrested and now claims the district court’s sentencing without his presence violated both the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and the Due Process Clause to the Constitution. Because we find the district court did not abuse its discretion or violate Ornelas’s constitutional rights by sentencing him in absentia, we enforce the appeal waiver and DISMISS this appeal.
"Should His PTSD Keep Him From Death Row?"
The question in the title of this post is from the second part of the headline of this Mother Jones article. The first part of the headline explains "An Ex-Marine Killed Two People in Cold Blood," and here is how the piece starts:
At 12:44 p.m. on March 6, 2009, John Thuesen called 911. "120 Walcourt Loop," he told the dispatcher, breathing hard. "Gunshot victims." The dispatcher in College Station, Texas, asked what had happened. "I got mad at my girlfriend and I shot her," he said. "She has sucking chest wounds…"
He'd not only shot Rachel Joiner, 21, but also her older brother Travis. Thuesen had broken into the house after midnight, not sure what he'd do but wanting to see his estranged girlfriend. She was out with her ex-boyfriend, but when she returned later that morning, things "got out of hand." Thuesen, a 25-year-old former Marine reservist, called 911 and almost immediately expressed remorse. When he was arrested, he repeatedly asked the police about the victims and tried to explain why he'd kept shooting Rachel and her brother: "I felt like I was in like a mode…like training or a game or something."
The prosecution in the case gave its opening statement on May 10, 2010. With DNA evidence and no other suspects, it only took prosecutors three days to make their case. Over the next week, the defense team touched on the facts that Thuesen suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his service in Iraq, but pleaded for leniency in his sentence. None of that swayed the jury: On May 28, 2010, he was sentenced to death.
While on death row, Thuesen was given new lawyers, death penalty experts from the state's Office of Capital and Forensic Writs. In Texas, there are often two trials, one to determine guilt or innocence and the second to determine sentencing. Lawyers argued in their 2012 petition to have both the death penalty and the conviction vacated, and for a new sentencing trial, arguing that if his lawyers had served him adequately, "John Thuesen would not be on death row today, awaiting an execution date." In July 2015, Judge Travis Bryan III — the same judge who had presided over the criminal trial — agreed, and ruled that Thuesen's lawyers hadn't adequately explained the significance of his PTSD to jurors, and how it had factored into his actions on the day of the murders. Bryan also ruled that Thuesen's PTSD wasn't properly treated by the Veterans Health Administration. He recommended that Thuesen be granted a new punishment-phase trial. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals could rule on Bryan's recommendation at any time.
The ruling on his case has implications for a question that has concerned the military, veterans' groups, and death penalty experts: Should service-related PTSD exclude veterans from the death penalty? An answer to this question could affect some of the estimated 300 veterans who now sit on death rows across the country, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. But it's unclear how many of them suffer from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, given how uneven the screening for these disorders has been.
Experts are divided about whether veterans with PTSD who commit capital crimes deserve what is known as a "categorical exemption" or "exclusion." Juveniles receive such treatment, as do those with mental disabilities. In 2009, Anthony Giardino, a lawyer and Iraq War veteran, argued in favor of this in the Fordham Law Review, writing that courts "should consider the more fundamental question of whether the government should be in the business of putting to death the volunteers they have trained, sent to war, and broken in the process" who likely would not be in that position "but for their military service." In a 2015 Veterans Day USA Today op-ed, three retired military officials argued that in criminal cases, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges often don't consider veterans' PTSD with proper due diligence. "Veterans with PTSD…deserve a complete investigation and presentation of their mental state by the best experts in the field," they wrote.
That idea is utterly unacceptable to Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a California-based victims-of-crime advocacy group, who contends a process already exists for veterans' defense attorneys to present mitigating evidence. To him, a categorical exclusion would be an "extreme step" that would mean "one factor — always, in every case — necessarily outweighs the aggravating factors of the case, no matter how cold, premeditated, sadistic, or just plain evil the defendant's actions may have been."
May 4, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)
Tuesday, May 03, 2016
Prominent Floridians call for state Supreme Court to reverse all past Florida death sentences
As reported in this AP piece, now with "the fate of hundreds of Florida death row inmates in limbo, a group of former top judges and legal officials called on the state Supreme Court to impose life sentences on nearly 400 people now awaiting execution." Here is more about a notable amicus filing:
The group, which includes three former state Supreme Court justices and two former presidents of the American Bar Association, filed a legal brief Tuesday in a case that could determine the fate of Florida's death penalty.
After the U.S. Supreme Court declared Florida's death sentencing law unconstitutional in January, the state's high court halted two executions and state legislators overhauled the way convicted killers can be sentenced to death. But the Florida Supreme Court still hasn't decided what should happen to the 389 people on death row under the previous sentencing scheme. The court is taking the highly unusual step of this week of holding a second hearing before issuing a ruling — a sign that the seven-member court could be deeply divided.
The court said it wanted to hear from attorneys representing death row inmate Timothy Lee Hurst and the state on what affect the new sentencing law will have on his case.... In March, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a new sentencing process for those convicted of murder. The new law requires at least 10 out of 12 jurors recommend execution for it to be carried out. Florida previously required that a majority of jurors recommend the death sentence. It remains one of only a handful of states that does not require a unanimous jury decision. The new law also requires prosecutors to spell out, before a murder trial begins, the reasons why a death sentence should be imposed, and requires the jury to decide unanimously if there is at least one reason, or aggravating factor, that justifies it.
The decision to hold a second hearing in Hurst's case prompted three former state justices — Harry Lee Anstead, Gerald Kogan and former U.S. District Judge Rosemary Barkett — to join with two former heads of the bar association and an organization representing defense attorneys to argue that an existing state law requires those now on death row to have their sentences reduced to life in prison.
The state has objected and argued the U.S. Supreme Court ruling is not retroactive.
The full amicus brief referenced in this piece is available at this link, and here is its key heading:
Because the United States Supreme Court held Florida’s death penalty unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida, section 775.082(2) of the Florida statutes requires that all persons previously sentenced to death for a capital felony be resentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Eighth Circuit panel (sort of) finds severe erroneous career-offender sentence substantively unreasonable
A helpful reader alerted me to a notable Eighth Circuit panel ruling today in US v. Martinez, No 15-1004 (8th Cir. May 3, 2016) (available here). Here is how the majority opinion gets started and a few notable substantive statements:
Fernando Martinez pled guilty to possession of fifty grams or more of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute. The district court found Martinez to be a career offender based in part on the residual clause of § 4B1.2(a)(2) of the United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.) and sentenced him to 262 months' imprisonment. It indicated, alternatively, it would sentence Martinez as a career offender even if he was not a career offender. Martinez appeals, arguing he is not a career offender and his sentence is substantively unreasonable.
The government concedes Martinez is no longer a career offender under the guidelines following the United States Supreme Court's decision in Johnson v. United States, __ U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 2551, 2557 (2015), but asserts no remand is necessary because the district court imposed a reasonable alternative sentence that renders any error harmless. Because we conclude otherwise — that the district court's alternative sentence is substantively unreasonable — we reverse and remand for resentencing....
We infer from [a sentencing] statement that the district court believed the escape conviction was a crime of violence — and Martinez was a career offender — whether the guidelines classified it as a crime of violence or not. In other words, the district court sentenced Martinez to an additional nine years because, as a nineteen-year-old, Martinez threw an elbow at a police officer without striking the officer and ran from police for a short distance. This severe variance is unreasonable.
The district court's other justifications do not support the degree of the upward variance either. First, Martinez's convictions do not warrant such a severe upward variance. Martinez's two convictions undoubtedly demonstrate serious, violent behavior, but the guideline range already accounted for these prior convictions, each of which received three criminal history points....
Second, the evidence the government presented relating to Martinez's gang ties does not justify a nine-year upward variance either. The government presented evidence Martinez appeared in music videos along with other members of the East Side Locos prior to his incarceration. He also appeared with other East Side Locos gang members in photographs. While these photos and videosshow Martinez's gang ties, they do not depict Martinez actively engaging in any violent behavior. And, more importantly, they do not depict such egregious, violent behavior that they warrant the substantial upward variance the district court imposed.
Former New York Assembly speaker gets lengthy (way-below guideline) federal sentence for corruption
This Wall Street Journal article reports on today's notable sentencing of a notable crooked New York politician under the headline "Sheldon Silver Sentenced to 12 Years: The former New York state Assembly Speaker also was ordered to pay a $1.75 million fine." Here are the details on this sentencing (and related others to come):
Sheldon Silver was sentenced to 12 years in prison on Tuesday, making the former New York Assembly speaker one of the most powerful politicians in the state to be given time behind bars. U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni, who also ordered Mr. Silver to pay a fine of $1.75 million and forfeit about $5.3 million he reaped from the criminal schemes of which he was convicted, said she hoped the punishment would serve as a deterrent.
“I hope the sentence I impose on you will make other politicians think twice, until their better angels take over,” said Judge Caproni. “Or, if there are no better angels, perhaps the fear of living out ones golden years in an orange jumpsuit will keep them on the straight and narrow.”
In a brief statement before the sentence was announced, Mr. Silver, 72 years old, said he had let down his family, colleagues and constituents. “I’m truly, truly sorry for that,” said Mr. Silver, who was found guilty in November of honest-services fraud, extortion, and money laundering.
Prosecutors had asked Judge Caproni for a sentence greater than any previously imposed on a New York legislator convicted of public corruption, a term that court filings suggest was 14 years. Federal sentencing guidelines suggested a range from about 22 to 27 years. Judge Caproni said Tuesday that imposing such a sentence in this case would be “draconian and unjust” given Mr. Silver’s age.
Prosecutors said Mr. Silver used his public position and power to obtain millions of dollars in kickbacks and bribes. Mr. Silver’s schemes were “multifaceted and nefarious,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Cohen said before the sentence was announced Tuesday. Ms. Cohen said Mr. Silver needed a significant prison term that reflects the public toll of his crimes and the need to deter similar conduct in Albany. “His conviction caused unparalleled damage: to our political systems, to the public’s belief in our state government,” she said.
Attorneys for Mr. Silver questioned the benefit of sending him to prison, and described their client as a committed public servant who already had suffered an extraordinary fall from grace. “He is already crushed,” attorney Joel Cohen said Tuesday. “He’s been devastated by everything that occurred over the last year and a half.”...
The conviction of Mr. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat who served as speaker for more than two decades, was a significant victory for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has aggressively pursued public-corruption cases. “His crimes struck at the core of democratic governance — a man with unparalleled power over the affairs of New York State was secretly on the take, abusing all that power to enrich himself and prevent anyone from learning about his corrupt schemes,” prosecutors from Mr. Bharara’s office wrote in sentencing documents. “Today’s stiff sentence is a just and fitting end to Sheldon Silver’s long career of corruption,” Mr. Bharara said in a statement.
Two of Mr. Silver’s former Albany colleagues are expected to be sentenced later this month. Former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who in December was found guilty of public-corruption charges including conspiracy, bribery and extortion, is scheduled to be sentenced on May 12. Former state Sen. John Sampson, who was found guilty in July of obstruction of justice and making false statements to investigators, is scheduled to be sentenced in Brooklyn federal court on May 19.
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Some Dostoevsky-inspired insights on the death penalty delay canard
It is sometimes hard to find an academic eager to lambast death penalty abolitionists for even their weaker arguments, so I was somewhat surprised to see this new commentary by Noah Feldman titled "Delaying Execution Isn't Cruel and Unusual." Here are excerpts:
Following a view he has held since the 1990s, [Justice] Breyer argued that the death penalty is unconstitutional because it takes too long for condemned inmates to be put to death. The claim that death delayed is worse than death itself is a particularly shocking one because it's the converse of arguing that taking a human life before its natural endpoint is fundamentally immoral. Instead, the view asserts that death must be administered quickly after sentencing to avoid the convicted person living on many years in prison -- even if that person wants to live as long as possible.
Make no mistake: in every case where an inmate has been on death row for many years, it’s by choice. In the case considered Monday, the defendant had been on death row for 32 years. That’s the result of numerous appeals by his lawyers, and numerous delays in hearing those appeals by state and federal courts. A defendant who wants to die can skip the appeals, like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, who waived his appeals and was executed expeditiously.
The judges who hear capital appeals understand all this perfectly well. They could put death penalty cases on the top of the docket. But they don’t, at least in part because they know that every day of delay is another day of life for the defendant. It’s one of the persistent facts about the death penalty that almost every person who is sentenced to die chooses to fight the sentence.
In theory, it's easy to say you’d rather be executed than spend your life in prison. That sentiment is a stock line in television and film. And I confess that I share it – or at least I think I do. But no matter how powerful the thought, the empirical evidence suggests that, when push comes to shove, the human instinct to live another day is overwhelming. That’s why so-called “volunteers” such as McVeigh are vanishingly rare in our legal system....
So in what sense could it be cruel and unusual not to execute someone over a long period of time while his appeals are pending? The answer has to be that the long-term prospect of death is itself a kind of torture, worse than the experience of contemplating your own execution in the immediate future.
That insight seems to follow from our imagined scene of the prisoner in his cell awaiting execution, like a character out of Dostoevsky. The trauma and psychological pain of contemplating one’s imminent mortality seem bad enough. Imagine if that same trauma and pain were repeated for 32 years. In these terms, the delay could be seen as an unconscionable form of quasi-permanent torture.
But the reality must surely be otherwise. A prisoner on death row doesn’t actually expect to be executed every day that he is there. Yes, courts often set execution dates. But they do so in the full knowledge that those dates will probably be deferred.
From the perspective of the prisoner, the mere setting of the date is no doubt terribly upsetting. But over time, even the most sensitive prisoner would surely get used to the repetitive structure of sentencing date followed by delay. To cite Dostoevsky again, if imprecisely: “Man can get used to anything -- the brute!”
It emerges, I think, that the so-called Lackey claim to which Breyer is still devoted is psychologically unconvincing. To live every day in the knowledge that eventually one will die is in fact the universal human condition. Many of us will die in the next 32 years. And none of us knows exactly on what day that will occur.
Those who oppose the death penalty on moral grounds have plenty of strong arguments on their side. They don’t need this one, which in fact undercuts their claims about the inherent value of every day of human life. The remedy for death delayed, after all, can only be death itself.
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