Tuesday, March 28, 2017
Ruling 5-3, SCOTUS rejects Texas effort to limit definition of intellectual disability for death penalty application
The Supreme Court this morning handed down an opinion in Moore v. Texas, No. 15-797 (S. Ct. March 28, 2017) (available here), in favor of a capital defendant. Because I am on the road, I will not be able to provide context for this ruling until later today. Short story seems to be that the more liberal Justices were not impressed by the more conservative standard Texas courts have used to apply the Atkins and Hall precedents concerning Eighth Amendment limits on executing the intellectually disabled.
UPDATE: Now with a few minutes at a desktop, I can quote Justice Ginsburg's opinion for the Court:
Bobby James Moore fatally shot a store clerk during a botched robbery. He was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. Moore challenged his death sentence on the ground that he was intellectually disabled and therefore exempt from execution. A state habeas court made detailed factfindings and determined that, under this Court’s decisions in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), and Hall v. Florida, 572 U.S. ___ (2014), Moore qualified as intellectually disabled. For that reason, the court concluded, Moore’s death sentence violated the Eighth Amendment’s proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” The habeas court therefore recommended that Moore be granted relief.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) declined to adopt the judgment recommended by the state habeas court. In the CCA’s view, the habeas court erroneously employed intellectual-disability guides currently used in the medical community rather than the 1992 guides adopted by the CCA in Ex parte Briseno, 135 S.W.3d 1 (2004). See Ex parte Moore, 470 S.W.3d 481, 486–487 (2015). The appeals court further determined that the evidentiary factors announced in Briseno “weigh[ed] heavily” against upsetting Moore’s death sentence. 470 S.W.3d at 526.
We vacate the CCA’s judgment. As we instructed in Hall, adjudications of intellectual disability should be “informed by the views of medical experts.” 572 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 19); see id., at ___ (slip op., at 7). That instruction cannot sensibly be read to give courts leave to diminish the force of the medical community’s consensus. Moreover, the several factors Briseno set out as indicators of intellectual disability are an invention of the CCA untied to any acknowledged source. Not aligned with the medical community’s information, and drawing no strength from our precedent, the Briseno factors “creat[e] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed,” 572 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 1). Accordingly, they may not be used, as the CCA used them, to restrict qualification of an individual as intellectually disabled.
Monday, March 27, 2017
Dynamic SCOTUS week for criminal law fans
I am on the road and thus going to be on-line and blogging only intermittently over the next few days. Perhaps for that reason, I am anticipating that the Supreme Court is going to be up to some interesting criminal work, given that this morning there will be an order list and Tuesday and Wednesday opinions may be released. In addition, a majority of cases up for oral argument this week involve criminal law issues. Via SCOTUSblog postings, here are links/previews for the criminal law cases the Justices will be hearing on Tuesday and Wednesday:
Lee v. United States, No. 16-327, to be argued March 28, 2017
Issue: Whether it is always irrational for a noncitizen defendant with longtime legal resident status and extended familial and business ties to the United States to reject a plea offer notwithstanding strong evidence of guilt when the plea would result in mandatory and permanent deportation.
Turner v. United States, No. 15-1503 to be argued March 29, 2017
Issue: Whether the petitioners' convictions must be set aside under Brady v. Maryland.
Honeycutt v. United States, No. 16-142 to be argued March 29, 2017
Issue: Whether 21 U.S.C. § 853(a)(1) mandates joint and several liability among co-conspirators for forfeiture of the reasonably foreseeable proceeds of a drug conspiracy.
Sunday, March 26, 2017
Notable perspectives on state and direction of modern criminal justice reform efforts
James Forman has this lengthy new commentary in the New York Times under the headlined "Justice Springs Eternal." I recommend the full piece to anyone and everyone seeking to take stock and reflect upon the current moment in the modern criminal justice reform movement. Here are some extended excerpts:
After almost 50 years of relentless prison-building in the United States, of aggressive policing and a war on drugs that goes after our most vulnerable citizens, the movement for a more merciful criminal justice system had begun to seem, if not unstoppable, at least plenty powerful.
In 2015, the number of American prisoners declined more than 2 percent, the largest decrease since 1978. By 2014, the incarceration rate for black men, while still stratospheric, had declined 23 percent from its peak in 2001. Even growing numbers of Republicans were acknowledging the moral and fiscal imperative of shrinking the prison state.
And then came President Trump, who caricatures black neighborhoods as killing fields in desperate need of more stop-and-frisk policing, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who shrugs off evidence of systemic police abuses in cities like Chicago and Ferguson, Mo., and says that marijuana is “only slightly less awful” than heroin. (In fact, nearly 13,000 Americans died from heroin overdoses in 2015, while zero died from marijuana overdoses.)
Such dangerous, ill-informed pronouncements naturally induce weariness and dread. Yet despite this bleak news from Washington, the movement to reduce the prison population and make our criminal justice system more humane is not in retreat. In fact, it is stronger than ever....
The most unexpected victories came in local races for prosecutor. For decades, district attorney candidates competed to prove they were tougher on crime than their opponents. That makes what happened last November so extraordinary: Prosecutors around the country campaigned on promises to charge fewer juveniles as adults, stop prosecuting low-level marijuana possession and seek the death penalty less often. And they did so in places with well-deserved reputations for rough justice, including Chicago, Houston and Tampa, Fla....
These state and local election results get less attention than Mr. Trump and Mr. Sessions, but they may have a bigger impact on incarceration rates. While mass incarceration is a national crisis, it was built locally. Ninety percent of American prisoners are in state, county and local jails, and around 85 percent of law enforcement officers are state and local, not federal.
Of course, the federal government exerts influence on law enforcement at all levels, both through rhetoric (the tone set in Washington filters down) and funding (Congress can encourage states to build more prisons by offering to foot part of the bill). But most crime policy is set by state and local officials: police officers, pretrial services officers, local prosecutors, defense lawyers, juries (in the rare cases that don’t end in a plea agreement), judges, state legislatures, corrections departments and state parole boards. During the tough-on-crime era that began in the 1970s, each of those entities became more punitive, and the cumulative impact of their policies and actions caused the number of people in prison or under criminal justice supervision to skyrocket.
Now, the reverse could also prove to be true. If multiple individuals across multiple systems were to become less punitive, the prison population would fall. This is why each state and local electoral victory — even those that don’t make news — is so significant. Mass incarceration will have to be dismantled the same way it was constructed: piecemeal, incrementally and, above all, locally.
The question is, what can be done to sustain such progress — especially at a time when crime is rising in some cities and the “law-and-order” mantra pioneered by Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon in the 1960s has regained currency at the federal level? The answer lies with a new breed of activism that has emerged in response to mass incarceration. Reform groups and nonprofits are tackling issues and adopting strategies that an earlier generation of reformers did not....
[N]o aspect of our criminal justice system is as overworked and underfunded as public defender services. Of the more than $200 billion that states and local governments spend on criminal justice each year, less than 2 percent goes to public defense. Yet improving indigent defense gets scant attention in the conversation about how to fix our criminal justice system.
President Barack Obama “wrote a 55-page article about criminal justice reform and didn’t mention public defenders,” said Jonathan Rapping, the founder of Gideon’s Promise, an Atlanta-based group that is building a movement of public defenders to drive justice reform. “Eighty percent of the people charged with crimes in this country can’t afford a defense attorney,” Mr. Rapping added. “That means that 80 percent of the people in court depend on their public defender to be their voice, to tell their stories and to assert their humanity in a system that routinely denies it. Until we invest in public defenders, our system cannot and will not change.”
But what about the prosecutors whom public defenders and their clients face in court? This question points to one more critical item on the criminal justice reform agenda. We must continue to recruit progressive prosecutors to run in local elections, support those who do, and hold them accountable if they win. And let me go one step further: Law students and midcareer lawyers committed to criminal justice reform should consider signing up as assistant district attorneys in offices run by the new crop of progressive prosecutors.
This last suggestion, I confess, doesn’t come naturally to me. I’ve taught law school for almost 15 years, and during that time I’ve repeatedly counseled progressive students against working as prosecutors. I had lots of reasons, but the main one was straightforward: You might go in as a reformer, but the office will change you, not the other way around.
I still believe this is true for most prosecutors’ offices. But the recent election of prosecutors who criticize racial disparities and challenge wrongful convictions has caused me to change my mind. Prosecutors committed to reform need talented staff members who share that commitment, and our best legal talent should flock to their offices.
Mr. Sessions and Mr. Trump have the largest microphones and will get the most attention. But their agenda faces a rising countermovement across the country. If we stay local and continue to learn from past defeats and recent victories, the movement for a fairer criminal justice system can outlast them and prevail.
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court rejects "categorical Internet blackout" for sex offender
As reported in this local article, headlined "N.J. Supreme Court tosses 'total' internet ban for sex offender," the top court in the Garden State issued a significant ruling yesterday concerning on-line restrictions on sex offenders. Here are the very basics from the press report:
New Jersey's highest court on Tuesday threw out a state-sanctioned ban on internet use for a convicted sex offender, finding it was an arbitrary infringement on the man's rights.
In a unanimous decision, the state Supreme Court found the state Parole Board had improperly issued a "near-total" internet ban for the man, identified only by the initials J.I., who was subject to lifetime supervision after pleading guilty to charges he sexually abused his three daughters.
Calling internet access a "basic need" of modern life, the justices ruled that state authorities could only revoke it after holding a formal hearing to determine if there was a legitimate public safety reason to do so.
The lengthy ruling in J.I. v. New Jersey State Parole Board, No. A-29-15 (N.J. March 21, 2017) (available here), gets started this way:
Today, the Internet plays an essential role in the daily lives of most people -- in how they communicate, access news, purchase goods, seek employment, perform their jobs, enjoy entertainment, and function in countless other ways.
Sex offenders on community supervision for life (CSL) may be subject to restrictive Internet conditions at the discretion of the New Jersey State Parole Board (the Parole Board), provided the conditions promote public safety and/or the rehabilitation of the offender. In this case, the first issue is whether a total Internet ban imposed on a CSL offender was unnecessarily overbroad and oppressive and whether it served any rational penological purpose. The second issue is whether the Parole Board improperly denied J.I. a hearing to challenge the Internet restrictions that he claims were arbitrarily imposed.
J.I. is a sex offender subject to community supervision for life. After his release from confinement, J.I. was allowed full access to the Internet, with one exception: he could not visit an Internet social networking site without the approval of his District Parole Supervisor.
After J.I. had served thirteen months on community supervision for life without incident, his District Parole Supervisor totally banned his access to the Internet except for employment purposes. The District Parole Supervisor justified the ban based not on J.I.’s conduct while on community supervision for life, but rather on his conduct years earlier -- the accessing of pornography sites and the possession of pornography -- that led to a violation of his parole. A Parole Board panel affirmed, apparently with no input from J.I.
Following imposition of that near-total Internet ban, J.I. accessed several benign websites, such as those of his church and therapist, after repeated warnings not to do so. As a result, the parole authorities completely banned J.I. from possessing any Internet-capable device. The Parole Board upheld that determination and denied J.I. a hearing. The Appellate Division affirmed.
We now reverse and remand to the Parole Board. Conditions imposed on CSL offenders -- like those imposed on regular parolees -- are intended to promote public safety, reduce recidivism, and foster the offender’s reintegration into society. Arbitrarily imposed Internet restrictions that are not tethered to those objectives are inconsistent with the administrative regime governing CSL offenders. We agree with the position taken by federal courts that Internet conditions attached to the supervised release of sex offenders should not be more restrictive than necessary.
The sheer breadth of the initial near-total Internet ban, after J.I.’s thirteen months of good behavior, cannot be easily justified, particularly given the availability of less restrictive options, including software monitoring devices and unannounced inspections of J.I.’s computer. After the imposition of the total ban for J.I.’s Internet violations, J.I. should have been granted a hearing before the Parole Board to allow him to challenge the categorical Internet blackout. The complete denial of access to the Internet implicates a liberty interest, which in turn triggers due process concerns.
Accordingly, we remand to the full Parole Board for a hearing consistent with this opinion. The Board must determine whether the current total computer and Internet ban imposed on J.I. serves any public-safety, rehabilitative, or other penological goal.
March 22, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
Ruling 6-2, SCOTUS holds in Manuel that Fourth Amendment claim can be brought contesting pretrial confinement
The one criminal ruling handed down by the Supreme Court this morning, Manuel v. City of Joliet, No. 14–9496 (S. Ct. March 21, 2017) (available here), has a majority opinion authored by Justice Kagan than gets started this way:
Petitioner Elijah Manuel was held in jail for some seven weeks after a judge relied on allegedly fabricated evidence to find probable cause that he had committed a crime. The primary question in this case is whether Manuel may bring a claim based on the Fourth Amendment to contest the legality of his pretrial confinement. Our answer follows from settled precedent. The Fourth Amendment, this Court has recognized, establishes “the standards and procedures” governing pretrial detention. See, e.g., Gerstein v. Pugh, 420 U. S. 103, 111 (1975). And those constitutional protections apply even after the start of “legal process” in a criminal case — here, that is, after the judge’s determination of probable cause. See Albright v. Oliver, 510 U. S. 266, 274 (1994) (plurality opinion); id., at 290 (Souter, J., concurring in judgment). Accordingly, we hold today that Manuel may challenge his pretrial detention on the ground that it violated the Fourth Amendment (while we leave all other issues, including one about that claim’s timeliness, to the court below).
Justice Alito wrote the chief dissent (which is joined by Justice Thomas), and it gets started this way:
I agree with the Court’s holding up to a point: The protection provided by the Fourth Amendment continues to apply after “the start of legal process,” ante, at 1, if legal process is understood to mean the issuance of an arrest warrant or what is called a “first appearance” under Illinois law and an “initial appearance” under federal law. Ill. Comp. Stat., ch. 725, §§5/109–1(a), (e) (West Supp. 2015); Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 5. But if the Court means more — specifically, that new Fourth Amendment claims continue to accrue as long as pretrial detention lasts — the Court stretches the concept of a seizure much too far.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the Court’s approach is that it entirely ignores the question that we agreed to decide, i.e., whether a claim of malicious prosecution may be brought under the Fourth Amendment. I would decide that question and hold that the Fourth Amendment cannot house any such claim. If a malicious prosecution claim may be brought under the Constitution, it must find some other home, presumably the Due Process Clause.
Monday, March 20, 2017
"Capital Jurors in an Era of Death Penalty Decline"
The title of this post is the title of this notable paper authored by Brandon Garrett, Daniel Krauss and Nicholas Scurich. Here is the abstract:
The state of public opinion regarding the death penalty has not experienced such flux since the late 1960s. Death sentences and executions have reached their lowest annual numbers since the early 1970s and today, the public appears fairly evenly split in its views on the death penalty. In this Essay, we explore, first, whether these changes in public opinion mean that fewer people will be qualified to serve on death penalty trials as jurors, and second, whether potential jurors are affected by changes in the practice of the death penalty.
We conducted surveys of persons reporting for jury duty at the Superior Court of Orange County, California. What we found was surprising. Surveys of jurors in decades past suggested ten to twenty percent of jury-eligible individuals would be excludable due to their substantial doubts about the death penalty. Despite Orange County’s status as a redoubt of death sentencing, we find that 35% or more of jurors reporting for jury service were excludable as having such substantial doubts about the death penalty that it would “substantially impair” their ability to perform their role as jurors. Indeed, large numbers went further: roughly a quarter said they would be reluctant to find a person guilty of capital murder knowing the death penalty was a possibility.
A final question asked whether the fact that executions have not been conducted in California for a decade impacts whether jurors would be favorable towards the death penalty. We found that, across all types of attitudes towards the death penalty, that fact made jurors less inclined to sentence a person to death. Rare punishments may seem more arbitrary, even to those who find them morally acceptable. We conclude by describing how this research can be useful for scholars, litigators, and judges concerned with selection of jurors in death penalty cases, and we discuss why, as social and legal practices change, more study of public attitudes towards punishment is needed.
Split Louisiana Supreme Court refuses to allow jury to hear about potentially applicable mandatory minimum sentence for habitual offender
I just learned today about an interesting set of opinions handed down last week by the Louisiana Supreme Court in Louisiana v. Guidry, No. 2016-KK-1412 (La. March 15, 2017) (available here). This lengthy local article about the decision, headlined "Jurors shouldn't be told possible mandatory minimums for repeat offenders, La. Supreme Court rules," provides this basic summary of the ruling and its context:
Louisiana jurors should not be told of possible mandatory minimum sentences defendants might face under the state's habitual offender law, because the knowledge could distract from their duty to determine guilt or innocence in a case, the Louisiana Supreme Court said in a split decision issued late Wednesday (March 15).
In a 5-2 ruling, the high court said the issue of possible mandatory minimums for repeat defendants "is too far attenuated from the guilt phase of trial to be discussed before a jury," and for a trial judge to allow such disclosure constitutes error. Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson and Justice John L. Weimer dissented.
The decision comes in response to the Orleans Parish case of Corei Guidry, an accused drug dealer whose trial before Criminal District Court Judge Byron C. Williams has been stayed over this issue since last July. Guidry, 29, faces 10 to 50 years if found guilty of possession with the intent to distribute heroin. Should he be convicted of what would be his fourth felony offense, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office would have the post-trial option to file a multiple-offender bill. If Guidry's prior history of three or more felony convictions can be proven at a post-conviction hearing, the judge would be required under state law to impose a mandatory minimum sentence of 50 years to life.
Here is how the majority opinion in this case begins:
The issue presented in this case is whether the trial court may allow a criminal jury to be informed of the possible mandatory minimum sentence faced by the defendant if, after a conviction on the offense being tried, he were to be sentenced under the Habitual Offender Law. For the reasons set forth below, we find the district court erred in denying the State’s motion in limine, which sought to disallow the defendant from mentioning in argument the mandatory minimum sentence the defendant could be subject to under the Habitual Offender Law should the State seek to enhance his sentence under that law and should the court find the State has proved all of the elements to warrant enhancement of the sentence. We find the issue of the possible mandatory minimum sentences that may be imposed if the defendant is convicted and the State successfully pursues enhancement of the sentence under the Habitual Offender law is too attenuated from the guilt phase of trial to be discussed before a jury, because it shifts the focus of the jury from its duty to determine guilt or innocence to issues regarding sentencing, possibly causing confusion of the issues and inviting the jury to speculate as to why a defendant may be facing such a term of imprisonment. Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s ruling.
And here is how the chief dissenting opinion starts:
I respectfully dissent and would deny the writ because the state has shown no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s denial of the state’s motion to prohibit the defense from referencing the possible life sentence that defendant will all but certainly face if convicted and adjudged a habitual offender. It has long been settled that it is within the trial judge’s discretion, in instances in which a specific punishment is not statutorily mandated, to permit or deny instruction or argument as to sentencing. The majority has accepted the invitation of the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office to establish a new per se rule which will substantially limit trial court discretion to control the information given to the jury. Under this new rule, any reference — whether by the court or in argument from the parties — to the enhanced sentence a defendant will face if he is convicted and adjudged a habitual offender, will be impermissible, unless perhaps the defendant elects to testify and subject himself to cross-examination about his prior convictions.
The trial court has the discretion to permit or prohibit references to sentencing, other than for those sentences automatically mandated by statute, because the trial judge sits in the best position to determine whether the penalty provisions at issue, including those applicable under the Habitual Offender Law, constitute “law applicable to the case,” of which the jury should be apprised under the circumstances of the particular prosecution.
I am unpersuaded that the trial court abused its discretion here by refusing to prohibit the defense from referencing the potential habitual offender sentence, especially in light of the overwhelming evidence that the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office almost reflexively (through his assistant district attorneys) institutes habitual offender proceedings upon securing the conviction at trial of a defendant with a prior felony. The prosecuting attorneys in Orleans Parish routinely wield the Habitual Offender Law, both during pre-trial plea negotiations and, in the event that tactic fails to yield a guilty plea, after obtaining a conviction at trial, to secure the harsher punishment of even non-violent offenders.
As the start of the dissenting opinion hints, there is a significant back-story to both the substantive and procedural issues surrounding this Louisiana case and the application of the state's Habitual Offender law. Because various opinions in Guidry engage in that back-story in various ways, the full opinion is definitely worth a full read.
Sunday, March 19, 2017
What crime and punishment questions might you like to see asked of SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch?
I am not really expecting any tough sentencing questions to be directed toward Judge Neil Gorsuch at his coming Supreme Court confirmation hearings, but that will not stop me from imagining what such questions might sound like or from encouraging readers to share their ideas on such questions. And though I might readily spin out a long list of such questions here, I will be content for now to rattle off just two that come to mind on a Sunday afternoon during a brief break from bracket obsession:
In light of the Apprendi, Blakely, Booker line of constitutional rulings, and especially in the wake of the late Justice Scalia's dissent from the denial of cert a few years ago in Jones v. US, do you think it is important for the Supreme Court to soon take up the issue of whether, when and how federal judges may rely on so-called acquitted conduct when calculating guideline sentencing ranges and imposing sentences?
In light of modern capital jurisprudence since Gregg and the more recent Graham, Miller, Montgomery line of constitutional rulings, which have announced various constitutional limits on only two types of punishments, do you think the Eighth Amendment has generally be interpreted too broadly or too narrowly as a limit on modern punishment practices?
A few prior related posts on Judge Gorsuch:
- Prez Trump notes Judge Gorsuch's law school work on behalf of prisoners and defendants during SCOTUS nomination
- Will a Justice Gorsuch be a strong SCOTUS voice against over-criminalization?
- Highlighting the basis for hoping Judge Gorsuch will prove to be like Justice Scalia on some criminal justice issues
- "Will Gorsuch Be Another Scalia on Criminal Justice Issues? Not Likely"
- Reviewing why a Justice Gorsuch "might be hard to pigeonhole on criminal justice issues"
"Taking Medical Judgment Seriously: Professional Consensus As a Trojan Horse for Constitutional Evolution"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Charlie Eastaugh and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In the 2015 case of Hall v. Florida, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) undertook a revolutionary approach to its ‘evolving standards’ jurisprudence in punishments clause adjudication. Hall demonstrated for the first time an earnest embrace of ‘professional consensus’ as an indicia of evolving standards — decided by the liberal-leaning wing of the Court, with Justice Kennedy as the swing.
Through an analysis of Atkins v. Virginia, a case which finally protected intellectually disabled offenders from execution in 2002, this article introduces the professionally-accepted psychiatric definitions of intellectual disability (ID) and challenges the assumptions — still visible across the nation — that intelligence is as straightforward as numerical fact. It will be shown that an accurate assessment of ID for Atkins claims has so far not been forthcoming in many cases, with Hall as a prime example.
In Moore v. Texas — for which an eight-Justice Court heard oral argument in November 2016 — SCOTUS is faced with the chance to provide further, essential clarity to this debate. The immediate ramifications of Moore are likely to see this inmate spared from execution. This paper develops the claim that the case could mean far more: The Court’s novel acceptance of professional standards in Hall has created a precedential Trojan Horse — one loaded with medical professionals and armed with epistemic knowledge, and one which provides the strongest opportunity for further Eighth Amendment evolution. Should the Court follow the Hall trajectory in Moore, such an attack is primed for undermining another fundamental portion of capital punishment deemed abhorrent by medical professionals and civil liberties organisations across the nation: long — often decade-long — stays on death row, invariably in extreme solitary confinement.
Remarkable accounting of hundreds of Arizona offenders believing they were getting life with parole after parole abolished in state
The Arizona Republic has fascinating reporting here and here on the significant number of offenders in the Grand Canyon State who were seemingly given life with parole sentences after such sentences had been legislatively abolished. This lengthy main article is headlined "Hundreds of people were sentenced to life with chance of parole. Just one problem: It doesn't exist." Here are excerpts:
Murder is ugly, and murderers are not sympathetic characters. But justice is justice, and a deal is a deal.
We expect the men and women who administer the criminal justice system — prosecutors, defense attorneys, and especially judges — to know the law and to apply it fairly. Yet, for more than 20 years they have been cutting plea deals and meting out a sentence that was abolished in 1993: Life with a chance of parole after 25 or 35 years....
Danny Valdez, for example, was part of a 1995 drug deal that went bad in Glendale. One person was killed, and no one was sure who fired the shot. Valdez took a plea deal to avoid death row, and following the terms of the agreement, the judge sentenced him to life in prison with a chance of parole after 25 years.
The only problem: Parole was abolished in Arizona in 1993. As of January 1994, it was replaced by a sentence that sounds similar, but in fact nearly eliminates the possibility of ever leaving prison alive.
Valdez should have been sentenced to “life with chance of release after 25 years.” “Parole” was something that could be granted by judgment of a parole board, based on the prisoner's behavior and rehabilitation, without the approval of a politician. But release is a long shot, because it requires the prisoner to petition the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency, which can only recommend a pardon or commutation of sentence by the governor. Parole hasn't existed in Arizona since 1994. Even if a judge's sentence includes parole, it still won't happen. Yet since then, hundreds of defendants have been sentenced to life with chance of parole.
No one — not Valdez’s attorney, not the prosecutor, not the judge — ever told Valdez that he was not legally entitled to parole or a parole hearing. He found out when he received a letter last December from The Republic. He didn’t want to believe it. "Why would they sentence me with parole if it was abolished?" he asked in a return letter. “I was sentenced in 1995 and will be eligible for parole in 2020,” he wrote. “If I would of (sic) known that I would have to go through the process of pardons and commutations, I would of (sic) went to trial.”...
Between January 1994 and January 2016, a study by The Republic found, half of Arizona murder defendants sentenced to less than natural life sentences — at least 248 current prisoners in the Arizona Department of Corrections — were given sentences of life in prison with a chance of parole after 25 or 35 years. The sentence has not existed since the law was changed in 1993. But judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys continued to crank defendants through the system, seemingly unaware of the mistake.
Duane Belcher, a former head of the state clemency board, started gathering examples early in this decade, but he was fired by former Gov. Jan Brewer before he could do anything about it. He took the issue to the Arizona Supreme Court, which oversees all state courts.
Belcher, appointed to the Arizona Board of Pardons and Paroles in 1992, remained in the office long after it became the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency under the new law. He served many years as its chairman. “I started asking the question in 1994 when the law changed,” Belcher said. “What’s going to happen when 25 years comes? Nobody seemed to have the answer.”
Belcher was only talking about how the state was going to handle those prisoners sentenced to life with a chance of release. Then he noticed that some defendants were still being sentenced to life with chance of parole. He started to collect examples, concerned about the inaccurate sentences. Belcher, a former parole officer and former supervisor at the Department of Corrections, looked at it from both sides. “People are going into an agreement with the understanding that they will be eligible for parole, and it’s not the case,” he said. But he also worried about whether it could be grounds for reversing a sentence. “We don’t want to go back to the public and say we paved the way to letting go a murderer.”...
Several prisoners contacted by The Republic were unaware they were not really eligible for parole. “When they sentenced me, they did not say that parole didn’t exist,” Juvenal Arellano said in a letter to The Republic. Arellano killed a man while stealing his car in 2004, and he, too, pleaded to life with chance of parole. “The reason why I signed the contract was for the chance to get out after 25 years, and that was in the plea I signed. … I am prepared to pay for my error, but neither should they hide something so important from me.”...
Among the components of Arizona’s Truth in Sentencing bill to make life harsher for bad guys was language to abolish parole and disband the parole board. It established the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency in its place. The sentence of “life with chance of parole after 25 years,” the third-harshest sentence possible in Arizona, was eliminated. It was replaced by “life with chance of release after 25 years,” 35 years if the murder victim was a child. The other sentence options for first-degree murderers were death or natural life, which means no possibility of parole or release, ever.
Life with chance of release, in effect, is a mitigated sentence, meaning it is imposed when there are circumstances that render the crime less horrible than a murder that calls for natural life or death. Life sentences also may be imposed for conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, sexual conduct with a child, and in certain cases where a repeat offender is deemed incorrigible.
The two sentences sound very similar. And this has become a problem, because judges and lawyers tend to conflate the two and use the shorthand phrase “25 to life” to describe either, without defining the end result. But they are substantially different. Those eligible for parole could get a guaranteed hearing before the parole board, a state-appointed panel that had the authority to release the prisoner. It was not a guaranteed release, but instead depended on the prisoner’s behavior and rehabilitation while in prison. And if denied, the prisoner could re-apply after six months to a year.
But under the new system, there is no automatic hearing. Instead, the prisoner has to petition the Board of Executive Clemency, which would likely require a lawyer. The board can then choose to hold hearings on the prisoner’s likelihood to stay out of trouble and make a recommendation to the governor. Rather than parole, the prisoner needs a pardon or a sentence commutation. Only the governor can provide those. In essence, the process ceased to be a rehabilitation matter and became a political decision. The earliest “life with chance of release” cases will reach the 25-year mark in 2019. But there is no mechanism set up to handle the cases yet, and most of the prisoners are indigent and unlikely to be able to hire attorneys to start the process.
Friday, March 17, 2017
Eleventh Circuit panel declares Alabama murderer incompetent to be executed
A panel of the Eleventh Circuit on Wednesday reached the rare conclusion that an Alabama death row prisoner was not competent to be executed. The majority opinion authored by Judge Martin in Madison v. Commissioner, No. 16-12279 (11th Cir. March 15, 2017) (available here), gets started this way:
Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of a person who is incompetent. Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 409–10, 106 S. Ct. 2595, 2602 (1986). The Court has since clarified that a person cannot be executed if he lacks a “rational understanding” of the reason for his execution. Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 954–60, 127 S. Ct. 2842, 2859–62 (2007). This standard requires the prisoner to be able to rationally understand the connection between the crime he committed and the punishment he is to receive. See Ferguson v. Sec’y, Florida Dep’t of Corr., 716 F.3d 1315, 1336 (11th Cir. 2013). The Supreme Court told us that if the prisoner does not understand this connection, “the punishment can serve no proper purpose” and cannot be carried out. Panetti, 551 U.S. at 960, 127 S. Ct. at 2862.
This habeas petitioner, Vernon Madison, is a 66-year-old man on death row for the murder of a police officer over three decades ago. In recent years, Mr. Madison has suffered strokes resulting in significant cognitive and physical decline. His lawyers argue here that he is mentally incompetent to be executed under Ford and Panetti. Finding that Mr. Madison had made a substantial threshold showing of incompetency, an Alabama trial court held a competency hearing. At the hearing, Mr. Madison presented unrebutted testimony from Dr. John Goff that his strokes caused major vascular disorder (also known as vascular dementia) and related memory impairments and that, as a result, he has no memory of committing the murder — the very act that is the reason for his execution. To the contrary, Mr. Madison does not believe he ever killed anyone. Dr. Goff testified that due to his memory impairments, Mr. Madison does not have a rational understanding of why the state is seeking to execute him. The State presented expert testimony from Dr. Karl Kirkland. Dr. Kirkland testified that Mr. Madison was able to accurately discuss his legal appeals and legal theories with his attorneys and — on pretty much this basis alone — concluded that Mr. Madison has “a rational understanding of [his] sentence.” Accepting the testimony of Dr. Kirkland, the Alabama trial court decided that Mr. Madison is competent to be executed. Mr. Madison argues that the trial court’s decision relied on an unreasonable determination of the facts and involved an unreasonable application of the law. We agree.
In so holding, we are mindful of the great deference due to state court decisions on federal habeas review, particularly when the state court is applying a general standard like the one in Panetti. See Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101, 131 S. Ct. 770, 786 (2011) (“The more general the rule, the more leeway courts have in reaching outcomes in case-by-case determinations.” (quotation omitted)). But “even a general standard may be applied in an unreasonable manner.” Panetti, 551 U.S. at 953, 127 S. Ct. at 2858. Panetti may set out a general standard for competency, but the focus of the inquiry is clear. Panetti doesn’t ask whether the prisoner can talk about the history of his case or legal theories with his attorneys. Instead, Panetti requires courts to look at whether the prisoner is able to rationally understand the connection between the crime he committed and the punishment he is to receive. See Panetti, 551 U.S. at 960, 127 S. Ct. at 2862. One of the experts testified that due to a mental disorder, Mr. Madison was not able to make this connection. The other expert never addressed this question at all. This record is therefore wholly insufficient to support the trial court’s decision. We conclude that the state court’s decision that Mr. Madison is competent to be executed rested on an unreasonable determination of the facts and involved an unreasonable application of Panetti. We therefore reverse the District Court’s denial of habeas relief.
A dissent authored by Judge Jordan gets started this way:
After reviewing the record, I believe that Vernon Madison is currently incompetent. I therefore do not think that Alabama can, consistent with the Constitution, execute him at this time for his murder of a police officer three decades ago. See generally Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 958 (2007) (explaining that a state cannot put to death a prisoner who “cannot reach a rational understanding of the reason for the execution”). But Congress has chosen to generally prohibit federal courts from adjudicating constitutional claims anew on habeas review, so Mr. Madison’s competency (or lack thereof) is not our initial call to make. Under the restrictive standards we are required to apply, see 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), and given the way we interpreted Panetti in Ferguson v. Secretary, 716 F.3d 1315 (11th Cir. 2013), I do not think Mr. Madison can obtain habeas relief.
Tuesday, March 14, 2017
Split en banc Eleventh Circuit writes at length restricting habeas authority in ACCA case
The Eleventh Circuit has a massive new en banc opinion about federal habeas law in McCarthan v. Director of Goodwill Industries-Suncoast, Inc., No. 12-14989 (11th Cir. March 14, 2017) (available here). The start of the majority opinion in McCarthan, which was authored by Judge Willaim Pryor, should provide enough context for interested readers to figure out why this McCarthan decision engendered a bunch of concurring and dissenting opinions. Here is the start of a whole set of opinions that together runs nearly 200 pages:
This appeal requires us to decide whether a change in caselaw entitles a federal prisoner to an additional round of collateral review of his sentence. Congress gives a federal prisoner like Dan McCarthan one opportunity to move to vacate his sentence unless that remedy is “inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e). When McCarthan pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), he understood that the district court would enhance his sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, id. § 924(e). He did not appeal that sentence. When McCarthan later moved to vacate his sentence, he again said nothing about the enhancement. After foregoing those opportunities to complain about the enhancement of his sentence, McCarthan petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus. McCarthan argues that his earlier motion to vacate was inadequate to test his objection to his sentence enhancement because our caselaw about the Armed Career Criminal Act has changed. But because the motion to vacate gave McCarthan an opportunity to challenge his sentence enhancement, his remedy was not inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his sentence, regardless of any later change in caselaw.
For eighteen years, our Court has maintained that a change in caselaw may trigger an additional round of collateral review, see Wofford v. Scott, 177 F.3d 1236 (11th Cir. 1999), but our precedents have ignored the text of the statute. As we struggled to apply our precedents, we employed a five-factor test and granted relief only twice. See Mackey v. Warden, FCC Coleman-Medium, 739 F.3d 657 (11th Cir. 2014); Bryant v. Warden, FCC Coleman-Medium, 738 F.3d 1253 (11th Cir. 2013). Because our precedents have failed to adhere to the text of section 2255(e), have not incurred significant reliance interests, and have proved unworkable, today we overrule them. We join the Tenth Circuit in applying the law as Congress wrote it, see Prost v. Anderson, 636 F.3d 578 (10th Cir. 2011) (Gorsuch, J.), and hold that a change in caselaw does not make a motion to vacate a prisoner’s sentence “inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention,” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e). We affirm the dismissal of McCarthan’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus.
Florida law now officially requires jury unanimity for death verdicts
Roughly fourteen months after the Supreme Court in Hurst found constitutional problems with the way Florida operationalized juries in its capital punishment scheme, and after some legislative and litigation fits and starts, the state's lawmakers have now reformed its system to require jury unanimity at sentencing. This local article, headlined "Gov. Rick Scott signs new unanimous jury standard for death penalty into law," reports on the basics:
It now takes a unanimous jury to sentence someone to death in the state of Florida. Gov. Rick Scott on Monday night signed into law a new requirement that raises the jury standard for death penalty cases from 10-2. The legal change was made necessary by a Florida Supreme Court ruling in October that found the state's sentencing laws unconstitutional.
The Legislature passed the new rules (SB 280) overwhelmingly last week. The death penalty fix is the first major law passed and signed in the 2017 session. Florida joins most other states in requiring unanimous juries.... "Our goal was that the death penalty cases proceed in an orderly manner under a law that was constitutional," Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said last week.
Scott's signature also allows prosecutors to move forward with cases in which they plan to seek the death penalty. Uncertainty around the court's order in Hurst vs. Florida put a pause on new death sentences.
In passing the death penalty fix, the Legislature opted not to address the hundreds of existing death row inmates whose cases were decided under sentencing laws thrown out by the courts. Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, a former prosecutor and the House Judiciary chairman, said he wanted to deal with this issue and left it up to the courts to handle existing death cases decided by a nonunanimous jury. Some of those inmates have already been granted a new sentencing hearing.
Just three lawmakers voted against the death penalty fix: Two House Democrats, Joseph Geller of Aventura and Robert Asencio of Miami, who oppose the death penalty on moral grounds; and Republican Rep. Blaise Ingoglia of Spring Hill. His was a protest vote, Ingoglia said. "With a unanimous jury, you need all 12," he said Friday. "You can have one activist and one vote and prevent the death penalty from kicking in."
Sunday, March 12, 2017
"Reassessing Prosecutorial Power Through the Lens of Mass Incarceration"
The title of this post is the title of this new and notable book review authored by Jeffrey Bellin. Here is the abstract:
Prosecutors have long been the Darth Vader of academic writing: mysterious, all-powerful and, for the most part, bad. This uber-prosecutor theme flows like the force through John Pfaff’s highly-anticipated new book, "Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration — and How to Achieve Real Reform." The book concludes that police, legislators, and judges are not to blame for Mass Incarceration. Instead, “the most powerful actors in the entire criminal justice system” (prosecutors) have used their “almost unfettered, unreviewable power to determine who gets sent to prison and for how long.”
Locked In’s data-driven thesis aligns neatly with the academic consensus. If prosecutors are the most powerful actor in the criminal justice system, they must be responsible for its most noteworthy product — Mass Incarceration. The only problem is that it probably isn’t right. While Pfaff’s empirical findings have been embraced by the media, the legal academy, and even former President Obama, they are grounded in questionable data. With these flaws exposed, the familiar villains of the Mass Incarceration story reemerge: judges and, above all, legislators. This reemergence provides a very different focus for reforms designed to unwind Mass Incarceration. It also says something profound about prosecutorial power.
Prosecutors possess substantial power to let people escape from an increasingly inflexible system. But decades of academic claims suggesting that prosecutors are equally powerful when acting in the opposite direction — to dictate sanctions — fold under scrutiny. When it comes to imposing incarceration, prosecutorial power is largely contingent on the actions of other, more powerful criminal justice actors.
NY Times editorial makes pitch for raising the age
This New York Times editorial, headlined "Crime and the Adolescent Brain," makes the case for moving up the age for adult court treatment. Here are excerpts:
Over the last decade, seven states — Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire and South Carolina — have passed laws that channel most young offenders into juvenile courts, where they can receive counseling and support, instead of into adult courts and adult prisons, which are not equipped to deal with adolescents.
This wise approach has bypassed New York, which is one of only two states — the other being North Carolina — that automatically try 16-year-olds as adults. While New York lawmakers fear that raising the age for adult courts would make them seem “soft on crime,” some state legislatures are now considering proposals to raise the age to 21.
Connecticut’s experience is instructive. In 2007, it raised the age of adult prosecution from 16 to 18 as part of a package of criminal justice reforms. It moved most nonviolent infractions — things like shoplifting, drug possession and disorderly conduct — out of the formal court system and invested in counseling and intervention programs that allowed teenagers to avoid criminal records.
A 2016 report by the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School found that raising the age for adult prosecution produced sharp reductions in arrests, court caseloads and incarceration costs. Sixteen-year-olds who are tried as juveniles are less likely to be rearrested than those tried as adults. And arrests for people under 18 dropped by an astonishing 68 percent while the crime rate has continued to decline....
Encouraged by these results, Gov. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut has introduced a bill that would include 18- to 20-year-olds who commit all but the most serious crimes under a new category, “young adult” offenders.... Both Massachusetts and Illinois are also considering bills that would channel most 18-, 19- and 20-year-old offenders into the juvenile system.
Setting the age for adult criminal responsibility at 16, as New York does, is inhumane. New York’s record on this is doubly shameful because state lawmakers in 1962 settled on 16 temporarily when they could not agree on a definition of adulthood. The Legislature promised to revisit the issue, but inertia set in. Generations of young offenders were damaged, some irreparably, by this decision. Surely, it’s time to correct this mistake.
You be the federal sentencing judge: how long a prison term for convicted "Bridgegate" defendants?
As I have often said in this space, I find I find high-profile, white-collar sentencing cases to be among the most interesting and dynamic because they often require a judge (and others) to balance and calibrate competing punishment theories and goals. Because most white-collar offenders are not violent and often had a successful/productive life before getting into trouble, the need for severe punishment to incapacitate or specifically deter an offender from committing future crimes is often diminished. But because potential white-collar offenders are likely influenced by the deterrent impact emerging from the punishment of others like them, and also because white-collar offenders typically have had a relatively advantaged background, one can reasonably believe that crime control and just punishment concerns justify throwing the book at any and all serious white-collar offenders.
Against that backdrop, I am eager to hear various perspective on the upcoming federal sentencing of the two defendants discussed in this local New Jersey article headlined "What's at stake this week when Bridgegate defendants are sentenced." Here are the basics:
On paper, they could face up to 20 years in prison. Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, once members of Gov. Chris Christie's inner circle who were convicted in November of conspiracy and fraud in connection with the Bridgegate scandal, are due to return to court Wednesday morning for sentencing.
While neither is expected to serve anywhere near the 20-year statutory maximum term under federal sentencing guidelines, the unusual nature of the charges in the case, including civil rights violations for interfering with the ability to travel, could have both looking at nearly four years in prison, say legal experts.
Baroni, 44, the Port Authority's former deputy executive director, and Kelly, also 44, a one-time deputy chief of staff to Gov. Chris Christie, were charged with helping orchestrate the shutdown of several local toll lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 in a scheme of political retribution targeting the mayor of Fort Lee over his refusal to endorse the governor for re-election. After a seven-week trial, the two were found guilty.
Prosecutors, however, not only charged the two with conspiracy and fraud, but with violating the civil rights of those stuck in the massive traffic jams they created--which left Fort Lee frozen in gridlock for days. Those civil rights violations are now driving what could be an unusually harsh sentence, according to legal experts.
"Civil rights violations have always been treated severely by federal courts since historically they were used by the federal government to prosecute crimes that states were either unwilling or unable to prosecute," noted Robert Mintz, former deputy chief of the Organized Crime Strike Force of the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey and a criminal defense attorney at McCarter & English.
The U.S. Attorney's office would not disclose the proposed sentencing range in Bridgegate case and attorneys for both Baroni and Kelly also declined comment, but the federal sentencing guidelines suggest both face upwards of 46 months, in large part due to the civil rights violations. U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton, who presided over the Bridgegate trial, has sole discretion to set punishment.
While crimes carry statutory maximum penalties, federal judges for the most part follow set guidelines that outline a uniform sentencing policy for those convicted in the federal courts, so that individuals convicted of similar crimes generally serve the same sentence no matter where they were tried. "The guidelines are advisory only. But a lot of judges follow them very rigidly," observed Alan Ellis, a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a San Francisco attorney who specializes in sentencing and post-conviction matters.
Yet sometimes judges agree to significant departures from those guidelines. At sentencing last Monday, David Samson, the former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey chairman, faced up to 24 months in prison for bribery in connection with a shakedown of United Airlines. Instead, he walked out of court with just a year of house arrest.... Samson's guilty plea earned him a downward adjustment from the sentencing guidelines for his "acceptance of responsibility." A negotiated plea deal with the U.S. Attorney's office further limited the maximum term he faced.
"These two people went to trial," said Ellis of Baroni and Kelly. Those who go to trial are said to "pay rent on the courtroom," because they receive no downward adjustment at sentencing if they are found guilty....
For Baroni and Kelly, who wrote the now-infamous "time for traffic problems" message that served as a smoking gun to prosecutors, the civil rights violations will represent the most serious violations to be addressed at sentencing. "In this case, the facts are so unique that it doesn't fit the typical pattern of these type of violations so it is hard to predict how the court will factor in that violation," said Mintz. "In the end, the sentence that these defendants receive will likely turn more on how the judge views the criminal conspiracy--whether the conduct was a calculated scheme that truly endangered the public or was merely a misguided act of political retribution that went horribly awry."
Whatever the sentence, defense attorneys have already said the plan to appeal the case.
Prior related post:
- "Bridgegate" now a federal sentencing story after two former New Jersey officials convicted on all federal counts after lengthy jury deliberations
- Is the likely federal sentencing guideline range for "Bridgegate" defendants convicted last week at least 3 to 4 years in federal prison?
Thursday, March 09, 2017
"The Effectiveness of Certificates of Relief as Collateral Consequence Relief Mechanisms: An Experimental Study"
The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted to SSRN authored by Peter Leasure and Tia Stevens Andersen. Here is the abstract:
Obtaining employment is difficult for ex-offenders due to the stigma of having a criminal record. In recognition of this difficulty, some state legislatures have created certificates of relief (also known as certificates of recovery), which lift occupational licensing restrictions, limit employer liability for negligent hiring claims, and aim to ensure that employment decisions about certificate holders are made on a case-by-case basis.
The current study, which examines Ohio’s program for certificates of relief, presents the results of the first empirical test of the effectiveness of such certificates. This test indicates that having a certificate of relief 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 nearly equally likely to receive an interview invitation or job offer. These promising preliminary results suggest certificates of relief may be an effective avenue for lessening the stigma of a criminal record for ex-offenders seeking employment.
Wednesday, March 08, 2017
Texas executes paid hit-man ... after Justice Breyer dissents from SCOTUS refusing to consider extended solitary death row stay
As this AP article reports, a "paid hit man was executed Tuesday night in Texas for gunning down a San Antonio woman in a life insurance scheme nearly a quarter-century ago." Here are a few more details about this latest execution:
Rolando Ruiz was given a lethal injection for fatally shooting Theresa Rodriguez, 29, outside her home in 1992 as she was getting out of a car with her husband and brother-in-law, who both orchestrated her murder. Ruiz was paid $2,000 to carry out the killing. Ruiz, strapped to the Texas death chamber gurney, looked directly at two sisters of his victim and their husbands and apologized profusely....
As the lethal dose of pentobarbital was administered, he took several deep breaths, then began snoring quietly. All movement stopped within about 30 seconds. Ruiz, 44, was pronounced dead 29 minutes later at 11:06 p.m. His execution was the third this year in Texas and the fifth nationally.
“It’s not going to bring her back, so it really doesn’t mean very much,” Susie Sanchez, whose daughter was killed in the contract murder, said Monday. Her daughters, who were among the witnesses Tuesday night, declined to comment afterward.
The execution was delayed for nearly five hours until the U.S. Supreme Court rejected three appeals attorneys had filed for Ruiz to try to stop the punishment. His lawyers argued to the high court that lower courts improperly rejected an earlier appeal that focused on whether Ruiz earlier had deficient legal help. They also contended Ruiz’s execution would be unconstitutionally cruel because he’s been on death row since 1995, had multiple execution dates and two reprieves. Attorney Lee Kovarsky blamed the long time between a San Antonio jury’s verdict and the punishment on the state’s failure to provide Ruiz with competent lawyers earlier in his appeals.
Justice Stephen Breyer said he would have stopped the execution to further examine the question of prolonged death row confinement.
Notably, as revealed here, Justice Breyer's solo dissent from the denial of a stay by SCOTUS was fairly substantive. Here is how it starts and ends:
Petitioner Rolando Ruiz has been on death row for 22 years, most of which he has spent in permanent solitary confinement. Mr. Ruiz argues that his execution “violates the Eighth Amendment” because it “follow[s] lengthy [death row] incarceration in traumatic conditions,” principally his “permanent solitary confinement.” Petition 25. I believe his claim is a strong one, and we should consider it....
Here the “human toll" that accompanies extended solitary confinement is exacerbated by the fact that execution is in the offing. Moreover, Mr. Ruiz has developed symptoms long associated with solitary confinement, namely severe anxiety and depression, suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, disorientation, memory loss, and sleep difficulty. Further, the lower courts have recognized that Mr. Ruiz has been diligent in pursuing his claims, finding the 22-year delay attributable to the State or the lower courts. Ruiz v. Quarterman, 504 F. 3d 523, 530 (CA5 2007) (quoting Ruiz v. Dretke, 2005 WL 2620193, *2 (WD Tex., Oct. 13, 2005)). Nor are Mr. Ruiz’s 20 years of solitary confinement attributable to any special penological problem or need. They arise simply from the fact that he is a prisoner awaiting execution. App. E to Petition 16.
If extended solitary confinement alone raises serious constitutional questions, then 20 years of solitary confinement, all the while under threat of execution, must raise similar questions, and to a rare degree, and with particular intensity. That is why I would grant a stay of execution, allowing the Court to examine the record more fully.
"Public Crime Registries Rarely Work, So Why Do They Continue to Grow?"
The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new Pacific Standard commentary authored by Emmanuel Felton. Here are excerpts:
[T]he idea of making information about offenders public has proven immensely popular. A 2005 Gallup poll showed that virtually all Americans — 94 percent — supported public sex offender registries and about two-thirds of those surveyed said they weren’t even somewhat concerned about how the public nature of registries affected those forced to sign up. With the Internet providing states with a cheap and easy way to get information into the hands of citizens, lawmakers soon found registries to be a relatively inexpensive solution to complex problems, says Amanda Agan, a Rutgers University professor who studies the economics of crime.
“These policies were well intentioned and they sounded like they might work. And on top of that they are relatively low cost,” Agan says. “But now we have all of this evidence that they just don’t work, but the problem is it’s very difficult to start pulling back. There would be a public outcry.”
The Murderer and Violent Offender Against Youth Registry started off as a fix for a legislature-made problem. In the mid-1990s, at the height of the tough-on-crime movement, Illinois added a host of offenses against children to their sex offender rolls, including first-degree murder, kidnapping, and child abduction, regardless of whether the crime involved a sex offense. Responding to concerns that it was unfair to include those offenders — take, for example, the case of a 13-year-old girl who stabbed her older brother with a kitchen knife after a fight over a shower cap — on the sex crime list, the state created this new violent offender registry. That created a registry for people convicted of a set of violent crimes against children. That list was later expanded to include murderers like Armstrong, whose crimes didn’t involve children, when, in 2011, state lawmakers passed Andrea’s Law, named for a college student strangled to death by her ex-boyfriend.
While Illinois lawmakers may be the most zealous employers of public registries — the state also maintains an online list of those convicted of making methamphetamine — the state is far from alone. Oklahoma also has a violent crime registry similar to Illinois’ and Kansas has a meth registry like Illinois’. Indiana, Kansas, and Montana still have combined sex and violent offender registries. Florida, on the other hand, makes folks convicted of three violent felonies sign up for a public registry. Tennessee also had a meth registry, before expanding it into a much more encompassing drug offender registry. And among the more original uses, Tennessee also has an animal abuser registry and Utah recently launched a registry for people convicted of certain white-collar crimes.
While there isn’t much research about the effectiveness of newer crime registries like those for murderers, there has been a lot of research into sex offender registries. Jill Levenson, a professor of social work at Barry University, says that research has been conclusive: those registries simply haven’t reduced sex crimes. She says that’s because they obscure the real threat to children, being abused by someone close to them, and greatly overemphasize the incredibly rare occurrences of children being abducted by people they don’t know.
“Stranger abductions of children happen just 115 times a year in this country,” says Levenson, who studies the effectiveness of policies that aim to reduce sexual violence. “While there’s no question that that’s 115 too many, there are 80 million children in this country. The problem with sex offender registries is they obscure the real threat — over 90 percent of children who are sexually abused are abused by people they know.”
St. Louis University Law School professor Molly Wilson says the concept of cognitive availability helps explain why threats like stranger danger remain so prominent in the making of our criminal codes. Cognitive availability describes a logical fallacy where decision-makers tend to overemphasize the importance of examples that quickly come to mind. That leads people to overestimate threats with really salacious details, Wilson says. “When you ask someone to estimate how serious a threat is, they search their minds,” says Wilson, who also holds a doctorate degree in psychology. “What they come to first is what is cognitively available, and that’s these really vivid examples that from an empirical standpoint are pretty rare. The human mind is designed to think of the sensory cases that imprint details — an image of the bicycle that a girl was riding sticking out of the bushes.”
Cognitive availability is a particularly compelling explanation for why many registries quickly expanded to murderers despite the fact that just 1 percent of murderers kill again. Similarly, just 6 percent of people convicted of rape or sexual assault repeated in the five-year follow-up period covered by a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report. That’s compared to a 13 percent same-crime recidivism rate for robbers and a 34 percent rate for those convicted of assault. Despite repeated attempts by researchers to link lower sex offender recidivism rates with the passage of registration laws, there’s been no conclusive evidence supporting that hypothesis. In fact, there is some evidence that these laws actually increase recidivism as they effectively act as anti-re-entry programs.
Arthur Lurigio, a clinical psychologist and a professor of criminal justice and psychology at Loyola University Chicago, says the rise of registries underscores a central failure of America’s criminal justice system: “ We are failing to recognize the possibility of human change.”...
Wayne Logan — whose 2009 book, Knowledge as Power: Criminal Registration and Community Notification Laws in America, charts the rise of crime registries over 75 years — says there has been some relaxing of registration rules for sex offenders in recent years. He points to California’s public registry, which no longer includes those caught soliciting prostitutes and so-called Romeo and Juliet offenses—those are the cases where there’s consensual sex between teenagers, one of whom is a minor. “You see some unwinding,” says Logan, a professor of law at Florida State University. “But the overall trend is expansion. It’s a very flexible technology, it can work for arsonists or meth makers or white-collar criminals. It’s social control on the cheap.”
March 8, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)
Tuesday, March 07, 2017
Detailing how common a very long wait on death row has become
Slate has this notable short piece on the long wait many condemned have before execution. The piece is headlined "40 Years Awaiting Execution: For many death row inmates, the long process leading to capital punishment is itself cruel — but not unusual." Here are excerpts:
In 1979, Arthur Lee Giles, then 19 years old, was sentenced to death in Blount County, Alabama. Nearly 40 years later, he is still waiting to be executed. His glacial march to execution exposes a conundrum at the heart of America’s death penalty. Condemned prisoners often spend decades on death row before being executed — if the execution ever happens at all — a fact that undermines any retributive value capital punishment might provide.
Approximately 40 percent of the 2,739 people currently on death row have spent at least 20 years awaiting execution, and 1 in 3 of these prisoners are older than 50. (This is according to data collected by the Fair Punishment Project and sourced from the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and state corrections departments.)
According to a Los Angeles Times investigation, roughly two dozen men on California’s death row require walkers and wheelchairs, and one is living out his days in bed wearing diapers. In North Carolina, nine death row prisoners have died of natural causes since 2006 — the same year the state last executed someone. These delays suggest that executions must be sped up significantly....
With public support for executions at historic lows, death row delays seem likely to increase. Just 20 of the nearly 3,000 prisoners on death row nationwide were executed last year.
California is a prime example. In 2014, a federal judge wrote that the state’s capital punishment system is actually a sentence of “life without parole with the remote possibility of death.” The judge calculated that “just to carry out the sentences of the 748 inmates currently on Death Row, the State would have to conduct more than one execution a week for the next 14 years.” That’s an unfathomable outcome in any state, much less in one that has not performed a single execution in more than a decade....
In an effort to combat these delays, California voters narrowly passed Proposition 66 in 2016, which promised to speed up executions by imposing more severe limitations on the death penalty appeals process. Yet Prop 66 has already faced significant constitutional challenges, and the California Supreme Court has stayed the initiative pending the outcome of a case filed by former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp and Ron Briggs, the two men who wrote the successful statewide proposition reinstating the death penalty in California 40 years ago.
"Booker Disparity and Data-Driven Sentencing"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now available via SSRN authored by Joshua Divine. Here is the abstract:
Sentencing disparity among similar offenders has increased at a disconcerting rate over the last decade. Some judges issue sentences twice as harsh as peer judges, meaning that a defendant’s sentence substantially depends on which judge is randomly assigned to a case. The old mandatory sentencing guidelines repressed disparity but only by causing unwarranted uniformity. The advisory guidelines swing the pendulum toward the opposite extreme, and this problem promises to grow worse as the lingering effect of the old regime continues to decrease.
This Article is the first to propose a system — data-driven appellate review — that curbs sentencing disparity without re-introducing unwarranted uniformity. Congress should establish a rebuttable presumption that outlier sentences among similar offenders are unreasonable. The U.S. Sentencing Commission collects data on over 70,000 criminal cases annually. This data provides the tool for defining categories of similar offenders. Culling outlier sentences through data-driven appellate review would increase judicial awareness of sentences issued by peer judges and would therefore curb the increase in inter-judge disparity without resorting to unwarranted uniformity.
March 7, 2017 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)
Reviewing the ugly backstory of SCOTUS dicta on sex offender recidivism
Today's New York Times has this intriguing new Sidebar article by SCOTUS reporter Adam Liptak under the headline "Did the Supreme Court Base a Ruling on a Myth?". Here are excerpts:
Last week at the Supreme Court, a lawyer made what seemed like an unremarkable point about registered sex offenders. “This court has recognized that they have a high rate of recidivism and are very likely to do this again,” said the lawyer, Robert C. Montgomery, who was defending a North Carolina statute that bars sex offenders from using Facebook, Twitter and other social media services.
The Supreme Court has indeed said the risk that sex offenders will commit new crimes is “frightening and high.” That phrase, in a 2003 decision upholding Alaska’s sex offender registration law, has been exceptionally influential. It has appeared in more than 100 lower-court opinions, and it has helped justify laws that effectively banish registered sex offenders from many aspects of everyday life.
But there is vanishingly little evidence for the Supreme Court’s assertion that convicted sex offenders commit new offenses at very high rates. The story behind the notion, it turns out, starts with a throwaway line in a glossy magazine.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s majority opinion in the 2003 case, Smith v. Doe, cited one of his own earlier opinions for support, and that opinion did include a startling statistic. “The rate of recidivism of untreated offenders has been estimated to be as high as 80 percent,” Justice Kennedy wrote in the earlier case, McKune v. Lile.
He cited what seemed to be a good source for the statistic: “A Practitioner’s Guide to Treating the Incarcerated Male Sex Offender,” published in 1988 by the Justice Department. The guide, a compendium of papers from outside experts, is 231 pages long, and it contains lots of statistics on sex offender recidivism rates. Many of them were in the single digits, some a little higher. Only one source claimed an 80 percent rate, and the guide itself said that number might be exaggerated.
The source of the 80 percent figure was a 1986 article in Psychology Today, a magazine written for a general audience. The article was about a counseling program run by the authors, and they made a statement that could be good for business. “Most untreated sex offenders released from prison go on to commit more offenses — indeed, as many as 80 percent do,” the article said, without evidence or elaboration.
That’s it. The basis for much of American jurisprudence and legislation about sex offenders was rooted in an offhand and unsupported statement in a mass-market magazine, not a peer-reviewed journal....
A 2014 Justice Department report found ... that sex offenders generally have low overall recidivism rates for crimes. But they are more likely to commit additional sex offenses than other criminals. In the three years after release from prison, 1.3 percent of people convicted of other kinds of crimes were arrested for sex offenses, compared to 5.3 percent of sex offenders. Those findings are broadly consistent with seven reports in various states, which found that people convicted of sex crimes committed new sex offenses at rates of 1.7 percent to 5.7 percent in time periods ranging from three to 10 years....
Lower courts generally accept what the Supreme Court says. That is true not only about the law but also about facts subject to independent verification. Last year, though, the federal appeals court in Cincinnati gently suggested that the Supreme Court had taken a wrong turn in its 2003 decision in Smith v. Doe. Judge Alice M. Batchelder, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, described “the significant doubt cast by recent empirical studies on the pronouncement in Smith that ‘the risk of recidivism posed by sex offenders is “frightening and high.’” The appeals court struck down a particularly strict Michigan sex-offender law as a violation of the Constitution’s ex post facto clause, saying it retroactively imposed punishment on people who had committed offenses before the law was enacted.
The state has asked the Supreme Court to consider the case, Does v. Snyder, No. 16-768. The first paragraph of its petition says that the risk of recidivism “remains ‘frightening and high.’” The constitutional question in the case is interesting and substantial. And hearing the case would allow the court to consider more fully its casual assertion that sex offenders are especially dangerous.
Monday, March 06, 2017
"Rationing Criminal Justice"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now available via SSRN and authored by Richard Bierschbach and Stephanos Bibas. Here is the abstract:
Of the many diagnoses of American criminal justice’s ills, few focus on externalities. Yet American criminal justice systematically overpunishes in large part because few mechanisms exist to force consideration of the full social costs of criminal justice interventions. Actors often lack good information or incentives to minimize the harms they impose. Part of the problem is structural: criminal justice is fragmented vertically among governments, horizontally among agencies, and individually among self-interested actors. Part is a matter of focus: doctrinally and pragmatically, actors overwhelmingly view each case as an isolated, short-term transaction to the exclusion of broader, long-term, and aggregate effects.
Treating punishment like other public-law problems of regulation suggests various regulatory tools as rough solutions, such as cost-benefit analysis, devolution, pricing, and caps. As these tools highlight, scarcity often works not as a bug but as a design feature. Criminal justice’s distinctive intangible values, politics, distributional concerns, and localism complicate the picture. But more direct engagement with how best to ration criminal justice could help to end the correctional free lunch at the all-you-can-eat buffet and put the bloated American carceral state on the diet it needs.
Could and will SCOTUS Pena-Rodriguez decision create new ways attack death sentences (and even other jury sentencing outcomes)?
The question in the title of this post was the first idea that jumped into my sentencing-addled mind as I was (too) quickly reviewing the Supreme Court's Sixth Amendment work today in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado (basics here, full opinion here). Critically, the Pena-Rodriguez decision concerns a jury's deliberation about guily, and the opinion keeps referencing a juror's "vote to convict." But, in some cases in some states, jurors also have a role in sentencing, and this is most common and most consequential in the context of capital cases. And there is lots of dicta in Pena-Rodriguez that surely could, and I would guess often will, be stressed by capital defendants trying to throw shade on a jury's capital sentencing decision-making. Consider, as just one example, these passages:
[R]acial bias, a familiar and recurring evil that, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice. This Court’s decisions demonstrate that racial bias implicates unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns. An effort to address the most grave and serious statements of racial bias is not an effort to perfect the jury but to ensure that our legal system remains capable of coming ever closer to the promise of equal treatment under the law that is so central to a functioning democracy....
A constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed — including, in some instances, after the verdict has been entered — is necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts, a confidence that is a central premise of the Sixth Amendment trial right.
As those who follow debates over the death penalty know well, many who advocate abolition often assert that capital punishment's administration through often seemingly disparate jury verdicts reveals a certain kind of "racial bias [as] a familiar and recurring evil" that contributes to "a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts." (Consider, for example, this page at the Death Penalty Information Center spotlighting racial patterns in death penalty administration.) In light of those views, as well as the obligation and zeal of defense attorneys to raise every non-frivolous argument to contest a death sentence, I have reason to think the capital defense bar could, should and will be making much of today's SCOTUS work in Pena-Rodriguez.
Formalism (and floodgate/functionality fears?) prevail over functional analysis in Beckles
I was involved in preparing an amicus brief in the Beckles case decided by the Supreme Court this morning (basics here, full opinion here), and that brief argued (unsuccessfully) that the advisory federal sentencing guidelines should be subject to vagueness challenges. The argument was, in its essence, a functional one highlighting the significant impact that guideline calculations still have on sentencing outcomes even though they are advisory. Justice Sotomayor's separate opinion in Beckles, though concurring on narrow grounds, wholly embraced this functional argument to make the case that the guidelines should be subject to vagueness challenges. Here are some passages from her extended decision that capture her functional perspective (with cites omitted, but key emphasis from original):
In most cases, it is the range set by the Guidelines, not the minimum or maximum term of imprisonment set by statute, that specifies the number of years a defendant will spend in prison. District courts impose a sentence within the Guidelines (or below the Guidelines based on a Government motion) over 80% of the time. And when Guidelines ranges change — because the Guidelines themselves change, or because the court is informed of an error it made in applying them — sentences change, too. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the Guidelines are, in a real sense, the basis for the sentence imposed by the district court....
As set out above, although the Guidelines do not bind a district court as a formal matter, as a functional matter they anchor both the district court’s discretion and the appellate review process....
Absent that Guideline, Beckles would have been sentenced to between 33 and 98 fewer months in prison. The District Court admitted as much, explaining that had the Guideline not applied, she “would not have imprisoned Beckles to 360 months” in prison. Years of Beckles’ life thus turned solely on whether the career-offender Guideline applied. There is no meaningful way in which the Guideline exerted less effect on Beckles’ sentence than did the statute setting his minimum and maximum terms of imprisonment; indeed, it was the Guidelines, not just the statute, that fixed Beckles’ sentence in every meaningful way. Nothing of substance, in other words, distinguishes the Guidelines from the kind of laws we held susceptible to vagueness challenges in Johnson; both law and Guideline alike operate to extend the time a person spends in prison. The Due Process Clause should apply equally to each.
Notably, as Justice Sotomayor highlights in various ways in her opinion, this kind of functional concern with the continued importance of advisory guideline calculations drove the majority opinions in prior recent cases like Peugh dealing with application of the Ex Post Facto clause and Molina-Martinez dealing with plain error review. But this time around, a more formalistic approach carried the day.
As my post title here suggests, I think the formalistic approach to application of the vagueness doctrine at sentencing prevail because a number of key Justices, particularly perhaps the Chief and Justice Kennedy, may have been especially concerned about what a "vagueness at sentencing" doctrine could end up looking like and how often it might arise. Notably, Justice Kennedy authored an intriguing little concurrence in Beckles that suggests he is concerned about arbitrary sentencing, but was here even more concerned about application of traditional vagueness doctrine to sentencing. Here is what Justice Kennedy had to say:
As sentencing laws and standards continue to evolve, cases may arise in which the formulation of a sentencing provision leads to a sentence, or a pattern of sentencing, challenged as so arbitrary that it implicates constitutional concerns. In that instance, a litigant might use the word vague in a general sense — that is to say, imprecise or unclear — in trying to establish that the sentencing decision was flawed. That something is vague as a general matter, however, does not necessarily mean that it is vague within the well-established legal meaning of that term. And it seems most unlikely that the definitional structure used to explain vagueness in the context of fair warning to a transgressor, or of preventing arbitrary enforcement, is, by automatic transference, applicable to the subject of sentencing where judicial discretion is involved as distinct from a statutory command. See Johnson v. United States, 576 U. S. ___ (2015).
The existing principles for defining vagueness cannot be transported uncritically to the realm of judicial discretion in sentencing. Some other explication of the constitutional limitations likely would be required.
Though I find intriguing the suggestion by Justice Kennedy that there could and sould be "some other explication of the constitutional limitations" on the realm of judicial discretion in sentencing, the ruling in Beckles may itself ensure that such an explication never gets developed in the context of the Due Process Clause. (Whether Justice Kennedy and others might explicate such limits in non-capital sentencing as they have in capital sentencing through the Eighth Amendment might still be ripe with possibilities.)
SCOTUS rules in Pena-Rodriguez that Sixth Amendment creates exception to jury impeachment rule when racial animus revealed
A split Supreme Court weighed in on the intersection of racial bias and jury decision-making via a notable Sixth Amendment ruling in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, No. 15–606 (S. Ct. March 6, 2017) (available here). Here is how Justice Kennedy's opinion for the Court gets started and concludes:
The jury is a central foundation of our justice system and our democracy. Whatever its imperfections in a particular case, the jury is a necessary check on governmental power. The jury, over the centuries, has been an inspired, trusted, and effective instrument for resolving factual disputes and determining ultimate questions of guilt or innocence in criminal cases. Over the long course its judgments find acceptance in the community, an acceptance essential to respect for the rule of law. The jury is a tangible implementation of the principle that the law comes from the people.
In the era of our Nation’s founding, the right to a jury trial already had existed and evolved for centuries, through and alongside the common law. The jury was considered a fundamental safeguard of individual liberty. See The Federalist No. 83, p. 451 (B. Warner ed. 1818) (A. Hamilton). The right to a jury trial in criminal cases was part of the Constitution as first drawn, and it was restated in the Sixth Amendment. Art. III, §2, cl. 3; Amdt. 6. By operation of the Fourteenth Amendment, it is applicable to the States. Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U. S. 145, 149–150 (1968).
Like all human institutions, the jury system has its flaws, yet experience shows that fair and impartial verdicts can be reached if the jury follows the court’s instructions and undertakes deliberations that are honest, candid, robust, and based on common sense. A general rule has evolved to give substantial protection to verdict finality and to assure jurors that, once their verdict has been entered, it will not later be called into question based on the comments or conclusions they expressed during deliberations. This principle, itself centuries old, is often referred to as the no-impeachment rule. The instant case presents the question whether there is an exception to the no-impeachment rule when, after the jury is discharged, a juror comes forward with compelling evidence that another juror made clear and explicit statements indicating that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in his or her vote to convict....
The Nation must continue to make strides to overcome race-based discrimination. The progress that has already been made underlies the Court’s insistence that blatant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system and must be confronted in egregious cases like this one despite the general bar of the no-impeachment rule. It is the mark of a maturing legal system that it seeks to understand and to implement the lessons of history. The Court now seeks to strengthen the broader principle that society can and must move forward by achieving the thoughtful, rational dialogue at the foundation of both the jury system and the free society that sustains our Constitution.
The start of the dissenting opinion by Justice Thomas explains his concerns and the core concerns of the other dissenters (which are expressed via an opinion by Justice Alito joined by the Chief and Justice Thomas):
The Court today holds that the Sixth Amendment requires the States to provide a criminal defendant the opportunity to impeach a jury’s guilty verdict with juror testimony about a juror’s alleged racial bias, notwithstanding a state procedural rule forbidding such testimony. I agree with JUSTICE ALITO that the Court’s decision is incompatible with the text of the Amendment it purports to interpret and with our precedents. I write separately to explain that the Court’s holding also cannot be squared with the original understanding of the Sixth or Fourteenth Amendments.
No grants, but latest SCOTUS order list still has lots of intrigue for criminal justice fans (especially those concerned with risk-assessment sentencing)
The Supreme Court this morning released this order list, and it is extended because there is a summary per curiam GVR in a Nevada capital case (available here) and a trio of extended statements concerning the denial of cert (two of which were authored by Justice Thomas and one of which comes from Justice Sotomayor). I would comment at length about these matters, but SCOTUS has provided bigger sentencing fish to fry by also deciding the Beckles vagueness case today (discussed here).
For hard-core sentencing fans, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the order list is this item:
16-6387 LOOMIS, ERIC L. V. WISCONSIN
The Acting Solicitor General is invited to file a brief in this case expressing the views of the United States.
As some may recall from some prior postings, Loomis concerns a due process challenge to the use of risk-assessment instruments at sentencing. It will be very interesting to see what the Trump Administration decides to say in this case and to see if SCOTUS ultimately takes up this timley and consequential issue.
Prior related posts on Loomis case:
- Wisconsin appeals court urges state's top court to review use of risk-assessment software at sentencing
- Looking into the Wisconsin case looking into the use of risk-assessment tools at sentencing
- Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects due process challenge to use of risk-assessment instrument at sentencing
Sunday, March 05, 2017
Five years after his SCOTUS victory, Evan Miller scheduled to be resentenced
This local article, headlined "Re-sentencing of Evan Miller ordered by US Supreme Court set for March 13," reports on the upcoming resentencing of a defendant's whose surname now represents a big part of modern "kids-are-different" Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. Here are some of the particulars from the article, which prompts some questions for me:
A sentencing hearing has been scheduled for March 13 in Lawrence County for Evan Miller, whose original sentence on a capital murder conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and led to sentencing laws being changed for juveniles nationwide.
The Supreme Court in 2012 ordered that Miller be re-sentenced because the state’s only sentencing option for a juvenile convicted of capital murder was life in prison without the chance of parole. A state law adopted last year now gives a judge the option of sentencing a juvenile convicted of capital murder to life in prison with the chance of parole after serving at least 30 years in prison.
Miller, now 28, was convicted of capital murder in 2006 for the 2003 killing of Cole C. Cannon in Cannon’s home in a Five Points mobile home park. Miller, who was 14 when the beating death occurred, is an inmate at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville.
Cannon’s daughter, Cindy Cheatham, said she thinks next month’s sentence hearing before a jury will be the the last court proceeding for the Cannon family in the case. “Even though there is anticipation, it makes me sort of edgy and emotional,” Cheatham said. “I’m ready for it to be over. But it will never really be over.”...
When Miller was sentenced in 2006, Circuit Court Judge Philip Reich, who is now retired, sentenced Miller to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The only sentences allowed by state law at the time for capital murder were the death penalty or life in prison without parole. Reich could not sentence Miller to death because the Supreme Court in 2005 declared the death penalty for defendants younger than age 18 to be unconstitutional.
The Equal Justice Initiative appealed Miller’s sentence to the Supreme Court, which voted 5-4 that the state must have another sentencing option available for juveniles in a capital case other than life without parole. The court sent the case back to Lawrence County for re-sentencing. The new state law that a juvenile can be eligible for parole after 30 years does not preclude a judge from sentencing a juvenile capital murder defendant to life in prison without parole.
My first question after reading this article concerned why it took nearly five years for Evan Miller to have a resentencing, but this local article from last year suggests that resentencing was delayed until the Alabama legislature created a "Miller fix" in its sentencing law. That "fix" now gives an Alabama judge, as detailed above and more fully in this local article, in this kind of case the discretion to impose LWOP or life with a chance at parole after 30 years.
But when remains unclear to me is why Evan Miller is apparently scheduled to appear before a jury at resentencing. I suspect this may be because technically he is being resentenced on a capital conviction, but some have suggested in this juve sentencing setting that the Supreme Court's work in Miller and the follow-up case Montgomery, combined with the Apprendi line of cases, now requires a jury finding of "irreparable corruption" to permit giving a juve an LWOP sentence. I would be grateful to hear from anyone in the know about Alabama sentencing procedures about why this article talks about Miller's upcoming sentence hearing being "before a jury."
Deep dive into litigation over Chicago “Stash House Stings”
Because the President of the United States has often expressed concerning about crime in Chicago and has tweeted about sending in the feds, I hope the Prez and his advisers find time to check out this recent lengthy Chicago Tribune article about some of the work of the feds in this city in the recent past. The article, headlined "ATF sting operation accused of using racial bias in finding targets, with majority being minorities," merits a full read, and here is an extended taste:
For four years, Mayfield had been struggling to turn his life around after more than a decade in prison. To escape the street life, he moved to Naperville with his fiancee's family and managed to find a full-time job at a suburban electronics facility that paid 12 bucks an hour. It was there that a co-worker lured him into the robbery after weeks of effort, promising a big score.
Now, inside the police vehicle, the sounds of flash-bang grenades still ringing in his ears, Mayfield started to piece it all together. There was no stash house, no cartel drugs or associates to rob. It was a crime dreamed up by federal authorities and carried out with the help of Mayfield's co-worker to reel him in when he was at his most vulnerable.
Eight years later, Mayfield, 48, and dozens of others are at the center of a brewing legal battle in Chicago's federal court over whether the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' signature sting operation used racial bias in finding its many targets.
A team of lawyers led by the University of Chicago Law School is seeking to dismiss charges against more than 40 defendants in Chicago. The undercover probes, a staple of the ATF since the mid-1990s, have ensnared hundreds of defendants across the country. A recently unsealed study by a nationally renowned expert concluded that ATF showed a clear pattern of racial bias in picking its targets for the drug stings. The disparity between minority and white defendants was so large that there was "a zero percent likelihood" it happened by chance, the study found.
The vast majority of those swept up in the stings in Chicago were minorities, and a close examination of the criminal backgrounds of some of those targeted raises questions about whether they were truly the most dangerous gun offenders whom ATF was aiming to remove from the street.
Some had trouble even coming up with guns to do the job — including one crew that after months of preparation managed to find only one World War I-era pistol with a broken handle that could barely fire a round. Others had no history of carrying out high-risk armed robberies — a key provision in the ATF playbook designed to make sure targets were legitimate, defense lawyers argued in recent court filings....
Earlier this month, federal prosecutors filed a lengthy motion vehemently disputing that minorities were unfairly targeted in the stash house cases, saying the expert report filed by the defense was "riddled with false assumptions that were designed to manufacture a racial disparity where none exists." The dispute sets up what could be an unprecedented hearing at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in the coming months involving a panel of district judges hearing the multiple criminal cases at once.
"It's almost like a criminal class action," said Alison Siegler, director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, which represents most of the defendants in the dozen cases they are seeking to be dismissed. "Judges are seeing this as a coordinated litigation. It's a very unusual situation."...
According to the ATF, stash house stings are a key part of the agency's national effort to target people who "show a propensity of doing harm to the public through violent behavior." Launched in Miami during the cocaine-war days of the early 1990s, the stings have been honed over the years and are run by experienced agents who use a tightly controlled playbook.
They typically begin when an informant provides the ATF information about a potential target who has expressed interest in taking part in a robbery. The informant then introduces the target to an undercover agent who poses as a disgruntled courier for a drug cartel and offers an opportunity to steal large quantities of drugs from a stash house guarded by men with guns.
In a series of conversations captured on undercover wire, the target is told if he is interested he must assemble an armed team to commit the robbery. The target and his crew are arrested after they show up on the day of the supposed crime. "At the time of arrest, the home invasion defendants are poised, at any moment, to invade a stash house, steal kilograms of cocaine guarded by armed cartel members, and in the process, kill or be killed," prosecutors wrote in their recent court filing.
In order to avoid arguments of entrapment in court, the stings are supposed to target only established robbery groups. ATF criteria also require that at least two of the participants have violent backgrounds and that all must be criminally active at the time the investigation is launched. Not only were the operations a boon for the ATF but the resulting prosecutions also netted eye-popping sentences — sometimes up to life in prison — in part because defendants were criminally liable for the amount of imaginary drugs they believed they were stealing. It didn't matter that the robbery was fake or that no drugs actually existed....
The lengthy sentences were just one pattern that raised red flags for the criminal defense bar. In case after case, the ATF stings seemed to be targeting only minorities. In early 2013, a handful of private attorneys and assistant federal defenders, all veterans at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, were so troubled by a stash house case they were defending that they asked the U.S. attorney's office for a complete list of all the defendants in similar cases sorted by race. Prosecutors rebuffed this admittedly unorthodox request. "ATF does not maintain statistics on the nature in question at either the local or national level," Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Fluhr wrote in response, court records show.
The defense lawyers then asked the judge overseeing the case to order prosecutors to turn over detailed information on how the stash house stings are run and the race of the defendants who had been charged so far. They included their own research showing more minorities were targeted. Prosecutors strenuously objected. But a few months later, U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo allowed the discovery to go forward. "History has shown a continuing difficult intersection between the issue of race and the enforcement of our nation's criminal laws," wrote Castillo, concluding that the defense team had "made a strong showing of potential bias."
Similar motions in other stash house cases soon followed, but the effort to prove racial bias was being made case-by-case with no coordination. Then in 2014, the University of Chicago's Federal Criminal Justice Clinic agreed to focus all its efforts on the 12 stash house cases and their 43 defendants. This allowed the defense attorneys to address the alleged racial bias in a coordinated effort, a critical undertaking given the government's massive resources, the attorneys said....
As the movement to fight the stash house cases gathered steam among defense attorneys, the judiciary also weighed in with some key decisions. In November 2014, the full 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals granted Mayfield a new trial in a rare decision that concluded Potts had "targeted Mayfield at a moment of acute financial need and against a backdrop of prolonged difficulty finding permanent, family-supporting work."
In a 2012 dissenting opinion as the case was winding through the court, appellate Judge Richard Posner had put an even finer point on it, referring to the stings as a "disreputable tactic" that used government informants to target people at a vulnerable time in their lives. Meanwhile, another ruling in July 2015 by the appellate court in Chicago resulted in the government turning over more data on the stash house stings sought by the defense. The ruling allowed the defendants to move ahead with what is believed to be the most thorough analysis of the stings anywhere in the country....
The debate is now potentially headed for a court hearing involving all defendants. The outcome could set precedent for judges in other states. "Courts tend to give law enforcement a lot of leeway," said University of California-Irvine law professor Katharine Tinto, a criminal law expert who has written extensively about the stash house stings. "… The fact that an expert is saying a federal law enforcement agency is discriminating on the basis of race is something everybody should be watching."
Thursday, March 02, 2017
Washington Supreme Court rules Eighth Amendment precludes applying mandatory minimum adult sentencing scheme to juvenile offenders
The Supreme Court of Washington issued a very significant new ruling expanding the reach of the Eighth Amendment as adumbrated by the Supreme Court in Graham and Miller. The extended ruling in Washington v. Houston-Sconiers, No. 92605-1 (Wash. March 2, 2016) (available here), gets started this way:
"[C]hildren are different." Miller v. Alabama,_ U.S. _, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2470, 183 L. Ed. 2d 407 (2012). That difference has constitutional ramifications: "An offender's age is relevant to the Eighth Amendment, and [so] criminal procedure laws that fail to take defendants' youthfulness into account at all would be flawed." Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 76, 130 S. Ct. 2011, 176 L. Ed. 2d 825 (2010); U.S. CONST. amend. VIII. The defendants in this case -- Zyion Houston-Sconiers and Treson Roberts -- are children. On Halloween night in 2012, they were 17 and 16 years old, respectively. They robbed mainly other groups of children, and they netted mainly candy.
But they faced very adult consequences. They were charged with crimes that brought them automatically into adult (rather than juvenile) court, without any opportunity for a judge to exercise discretion about the appropriateness of such transfers. They had lengthy adult sentencing ranges calculated under adult Sentencing Reform Act of 1981 (SRA), chapter 9.94A RCW, rules. And they received lengthy adult firearm sentence enhancements, with their mandatory, consecutive, flat-time consequences, without any opportunity for a judge to exercise discretion about the appropriateness of that sentence increase, either.
As a result, Houston-Sconiers faced a sentencing range of 501-543 months (41.75-45.25 years) in prison. Clerk's Papers (Houston-Sconiers) (CPHS) at 227. Of that, 3 72 months (31 years) was attributable to the firearm sentence enhancements and would be served as '"flat time,"' meaning "in total confinement" without possibility of early release. Id.; RCW 9.94A.533(3)(e). Roberts faced a sentencing range of 441-483 months (36.75-40.25 years) in prison. Clerk's Papers (Roberts) (CPR) at 154. Of that, 312 months (26 years) would be "'flat time"' attributable to the firearm sentence enhancements. Id.
To their credit, all participants in the system balked at this result. But they felt their hands were tied by our state statutes.
We now hold that the sentencing judge's hands are not tied. Because "children are different" under the Eighth Amendment and hence "criminal procedure laws" must take the defendants' youthfulness into account, sentencing courts must have absolute discretion to depart as far as they want below otherwise applicable SRA ranges and/or sentencing enhancements when sentencing juveniles in adult court, regardless of how the juvenile got there. We affirm all convictions but remand both cases for resentencing.
March 2, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (10)
"The externalities problem is acute in criminal justice for two reasons."
The title of this post is a line from this interesting new essay by Richard Bierschbach, over at online publication Regblog produced by the University of Pennsylvania Law School. This essay is actually part of a fifteen(!)-part series on "Regulating Police Use of Force," but Richard makes some sentencing-specific points in his essay. Here are excerpts, with links from the original:
The externalities problem is acute in criminal justice for two reasons. First, we think of criminal justice as individual justice. Actors thus tend to view each case as an isolated transaction to the exclusion of broader, long-term, and aggregate effects. Second, criminal justice, especially American criminal justice, is fragmented vertically among governments, horizontally among agencies, and individually among self-interested actors. No one player has the responsibility, incentives, or information to take systemic harms into account. And given the politics of criminal justice, democratic processes do little to correct this dynamic.
Police and other law enforcement systematically overuse force in part because few mechanisms require them to consider the full social costs of doing so. The costs of arrests, for instance, are substantial: arrests are frightening and humiliating, use valuable resources, and burden arrestees with lost income, arrest records, and other harms. Yet few of these costs fall on the police. So, too, for other coercive measures. Prosecutors and judges do not shoulder the full costs of pretrial detention, such as overcrowded jails, difficulties in mounting a defense, and personal and family trauma. Similarly, states pay for prisons, but local prosecutors’ decisions fill them. That “correctional free lunch” gives prosecutors little incentive to use prison judiciously, which helps explain why some counties dramatically overconsume it....
Cost-benefit analysis for sentencing and arrests. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and other agencies have long had to defend their regulations in cost-justified terms. Why not hold sentencing and arrest guidelines to the same standard? The great virtue of cost-benefit analysis is that, if done rigorously, honestly, and transparently, it can surface and force consideration of all harms and gains—short- and long-term, concentrated and diffuse, and monetary and non-monetary (such as dignitary and distributive harms)—that a given policy option implicates. It is not hard to imagine how some draconian provisions of the federal sentencing guidelines or New York City’s stop-and-frisk policies might have come out differently, and wrought less social damage, if policymakers had subjected them to methodical cost-benefit testing that was open to robust public scrutiny and debate.
Such procedures help policymakers confront tough tradeoffs and encourage them to make more welfare enhancing decisions. As experience in states like Washington and Minnesota has shown, cost-benefit and other impact assessment procedures also provide politicians with a degree of political cover when making criminal justice policies. The broad consideration of costs also acts as a proxy for values and voices that get little traction in state legislative halls, helping to make criminal justice policies more representative of the entire population they serve....
Capping (and trading?) prison beds. Related to pricing are caps, which can also bring incentives back in line. In a number of contexts, such as arrests, caps might not be appropriate. But in other contexts, like prison, they could make sense. Just as a capping scheme limits the amount of clean air a coal plant can use in generating profits, so too could it limit the number of prison beds that local prosecutors can use in generating personal, political, and social gains.
A trio of criminal justice professors, Cheryl Jonson, John Eck, and Francis Cullen, have proposed how it might work. States could set a cap on the number of people who could be sentenced to prison each year. They could then allocate prison beds to each county or locality based on some metric — population size, violent crime rates, or something else. Localities could use those beds however they pleased, but once they hit their cap, they would have to pay the state for further imprisonments. The cap could be hard-and-fast, or it could be coupled with a trading system under which counties that do not use all of their beds could sell them to other counties, sell them back to the state, or roll them over for later use. Either way, the system would enhance accountability for criminal justice dollars and encourage cautious use of prison in ways the “correctional free lunch” does not.
Now, these sketches are just that. As University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Stephanos Bibas and I discuss in a forthcoming article, serious issues would exist with each of these and related strategies. Even so, in states and localities across the country, variations on these themes — like cost-benefit analysis of sanctions in Washington, California’s Public Safety Realignment, or sentencing cost disclosures in Missouri — are increasingly appearing as policymakers confront the enormous toll of the carceral state. In this era of unprecedented openness to criminal justice experimentation, the time is ripe to move beyond our old transactional, fragmented, business-as-usual approach to criminal justice, and to see it for what it largely is: a morally laden and complex regulatory system, subject to many of the same failures and limitations that afflict other areas of regulation. That means we must think hard not only about how to do justice, but also about how to structure justice to administer it in the most socially-regarding way possible.
Wednesday, March 01, 2017
Justices seem disinclined to limit federal judicial sentencing discretion in Dean
The US Supreme Court yesterday heard oral argument in Dean v. United States. The case will resolve a circuit split over whether federal district judges, when sentencing a defendant convicted of firearms offenses under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) that carry lengthy consecutive mandatory-minimum terms, may significantly reduce the sentence for underlying predicate offenses because of the firearm mandates. The oral argument transcript, available here, is a interesting read for a bunch of reasons. And I have a little summary of the argument posted here at SCOTUSblog. Here is how that posting starts:
It has now been more than a year since Justice Antonin Scalia passed away, but his jurisprudential spirit seemed to fill the courtroom yesterday as the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Dean v. United States. At issue in Dean is whether a trial judge, when sentencing a defendant convicted of firearms offenses under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) that carry lengthy consecutive mandatory-minimum terms, may significantly reduce the sentence for underlying predicate offenses because of the severity of the mandated consecutive sentences. During the oral argument, several justices endorsed the government’s contention that allowing a judge to give a nominal sentence for the underlying predicate offenses in these circumstances would largely negate Congress’ purpose in enacting Section 924(c). But, echoing statutory interpretation principles that Scalia often championed in federal criminal cases, the justices also stressed that the text of the applicable sentencing statutes did not clearly foreclose the trial judge’s exercise of judicial sentencing discretion. This textualist point may carry the day for the defendant.
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper about the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence authored by William Berry III and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Three Eighth Amendment decisions — Harmelin v. Michigan, Pulley v. Harris, and McCleskey v. Kemp — have had enduring, and ultimately, cruel and unusual consequences on the administration of criminal justice in the United States. What links these cases is the same fundamental analytical misstep — the decision to ignore core constitutional principles and instead defer to state punishment practices. The confusion arises from the text of the Eighth Amendment where the Court has read the “cruel and unusual” punishment proscription to rest in part on majoritarian practices. This is a classical analytical mistake — while the Amendment might prohibit rare punishments, it does not make the corollary true — that all commonly used punishments must be constitutional.
This “unusual deference” to state punishment practices in light of this misconstruction of the text has opened the door to a proliferation of punishments that are disproportionate, arbitrary, and discriminatory. As such, this article argues for a restoration of the Eighth Amendment from its present impotence by reframing the concept of unusualness in terms of the Court’s stated Eighth Amendment values and unlinking it from its deferential subservience to state legislative schemes.
Part I of the article explains the genesis of the Court’s unusual deference. Part II of the article explores the manifestations of unusual deference, examining the flaws in the evolving standards of decency, differentness deference, and three most far-reaching examples of unusual deference — Harmelin, Pulley, and McCleskey. Finally, the article concludes in Part III by reimagining an Eighth Amendment free from the error of unusual deference and demonstrating how such an approach could begin to remedy the problem of mass incarceration.
February 28, 2017 in Examples of "over-punishment", Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)
Monday, February 27, 2017
SCOTUS grants cert on (yet another) AEDPA habeas procedure case
It has now been more than two decades since the passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), and that law has had lots and lots of impacts on federal habeas practice and procedure. One big impact has been lots and lots of technical habeas procedure issues needing SCOTUS attention, and another such issue is now before the Court on the merits after a certiorari grant this morning in Wilson v. Sellers. Here is the SCOTUSblog case page for Wilson v. Sellers, and here is its description of the issue now before the Justices:
Issue: Whether the court's decision in Harrington v. Richter silently abrogates the presumption set forth in Ylst v. Nunnemaker — that a federal court sitting in habeas proceedings should “look through” a summary state court ruling to review the last reasoned decision — as a slim majority of the en banc U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held in this case, despite the agreement of both parties that the Ylst presumption should continue to apply.
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Buck's notable dis of state finality interests in "flawed" capital sentence
Though there are a number of interesting procedural and substantive elements to the Supreme Court's ruling today in Buck v. Davis reversing a Texas death sentence (basics here), I am especially intrigued by the short shrift given by the Chief Justice's majority opinion to the state's claimed interest in finality. (Regular readers know I can get fixated on finality and have written at length about why I think convictions and sentences ought to be treated differently for finality purposes.) Here is all that Chief Justice Roberts writing for the Court had to say about finality (with my emphasis added):
In opposition, the State reminds us of the importance of preserving the finality of judgments. Brief for Respondent 34. But the “whole purpose” of Rule 60(b) “is to make an exception to finality.” Gonzalez, 545 U.S., at 529. And in this case, the State’s interest in finality deserves little weight. When Texas recognized that the infusion of race into proceedings similar to Saldano’s warranted confession of error, it effectively acknowledged that the people of Texas lack an interest in enforcing a capital sentence obtained on so flawed a basis. In concluding that the value of finality does not demand that we leave the District Court’s judgment in place, we do no more than acknowledge what Texas itself recognized 17 years ago.
In his dissent, Justice Thomas says the majority opinion "belittles Texas’ claimed interest in finality," and I think that is a fair characterization of the passage above. I am also inclined to turn this belittling into a broader and enduring "Buck finality principle": a state has little or no valid interest in preserving the finality of a (capital) sentence that is obviously "flawed" in some significant way. Though I do not expect this Buck dis of state finality interests to significantly impact finality jurisprudence, I do expect to cite this Buck the next time I need to respond to any claims that flawed sentences must be preserved in the name of finality.
Supreme Court, voting 6-2, reverses Texas death sentence reached after defense attorney introduced expert who linked race and violence
The Supreme Court handed down three opinion this morning, and the big one for sentencing fans is the capital case from Texas, Buck v. Davis, No. 15-8049 (Feb. 22, 2017) (available here). The Chief Justice wrote the opinion for the Court, and here is that opinion's opening and some of its substantive analysis on the case's highest-profile issue:
A Texas jury convicted petitioner Duane Buck of capital murder. Under state law, the jury could impose a death sentence only if it found that Buck was likely to commit acts of violence in the future. Buck’s attorney called a psychologist to offer his opinion on that issue. The psychologist testified that Buck probably would not engage in violent conduct. But he also stated that one of the factors pertinent in assessing a person’s propensity for violence was his race, and that Buck was statistically more likely to act violently because he is black. The jury sentenced Buck to death.
Buck contends that his attorney’s introduction of this evidence violated his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel. This claim has never been heard on the merits in any court, because the attorney who represented Buck in his first state postconviction proceeding failed to raise it....
Given that the jury had to make a finding of future dangerousness before it could impose a death sentence, Dr. Quijano’s report said, in effect, that the color of Buck’s skin made him more deserving of execution. It would be patently unconstitutional for a state to argue that a defendant is liable to be a future danger because of his race. See Zant v. Stephens, 462 U. S. 862, 885 (1983) (identifying race among factors that are “constitutionally impermissible or totally irrelevant to the sentencing process”). No competent defense attorney would introduce such evidence about his own client....
Dr. Quijano’s testimony appealed to a powerful racial stereotype—that of black men as “violence prone.” Turner v. Murray, 476 U. S. 28, 35 (1986) (plurality opinion). In combination with the substance of the jury’s inquiry, this created something of a perfect storm. Dr. Quijano’s opinion coincided precisely with a particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice, which itself coincided precisely with the central question at sentencing. The effect of this unusual confluence of factors was to provide support for making a decision on life or death on the basis of race....
[W]e cannot accept the District Court’s conclusion that “the introduction of any mention of race” during the penalty phase was “de minimis.” 2014 WL 11310152, at *5. There were only “two references to race in Dr. Quijano’s testimony”—one during direct examination, the other on cross. Ibid. But when a jury hears expert testimony that expressly makes a defendant’s race directly pertinent on the question of life or death, the impact of that evidence cannot be measured simply by how much air time it received at trial or how many pages it occupies in the record. Some toxins can be deadly in small doses.
Justice Thomas authored a dissent in Buck, joined by Justice Alito, which gets started this way:
Having settled on a desired outcome, the Court bulldozes procedural obstacles and misapplies settled law to justify it. But the majority’s focus on providing relief to petitioner in this particular case has at least one upside: Today’s decision has few ramifications, if any, beyond the highly unusual facts presented here. The majority leaves entirely undisturbed the black-letter principles of collateral review, ineffective assistance of counsel, and Rule 60(b)(6) law that govern day-to-day operations in federal courts.
Tuesday, February 21, 2017
Reversing course, Florida Supreme Court allows capital prosecutions to proceed while state legislature still working through Hurst fix
As explained in this local article, on Monday the Florida Supreme Court issued a new ruling about the administration of the death penalty, and issue which has been a big mess for the state since the Supreme Court's Hurst ruling last year. Here are the basics:
In what was described as an “about-face” after a previous ruling, the Florida Supreme Court on Monday ordered that death penalty cases can proceed, even with an unconstitutional law still on the books. The order came as the Legislature prepares to address a pair of Florida high court rulings last fall that struck down the state’s most recent death-penalty sentencing scheme as unconstitutional and effectively halted capital cases.
In a pair of October opinions, the state court ruled that a new law — passed in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case known as Hurst v. Florida — was unconstitutional because it required only 10 jurors to recommend death “as opposed to the constitutionally required unanimous, 12-member jury.” The October majority opinion in the case of Larry Darnell Perry also found that the new law “cannot be applied to pending prosecutions.”
But in a reversal of that decision Monday, the majority ruled that capital cases can move forward, even before lawmakers fix the statute. Attorney General Pam Bondi hailed the ruling, saying in a statement it “provides our courts with the clarification needed to proceed with murder cases in which the death penalty is sought.”...
The majority on Monday decided that the new law can be applied to pending prosecutions — and is constitutional — “if 12 jurors unanimously determine that a defendant should be sentenced to death.”
But in her dissent, Justice Barbara Pariente argued that what could be a “temporary” fix, until lawmakers address the issue, could lead to more litigation. “Such concerns are precisely why it is for the Legislature, not this (Supreme) Court, to enact legislation curing the act’s fatal 10-2 provisions, assuming the Legislature intends for the death penalty to continue to be imposed in Florida,” Pariente wrote in a dissent joined by Justice Peggy Quince.
But [House Judiciary Chairman Chris] Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said the decision “finally” tells lower courts they can proceed with capital cases. “That is what I think people within the criminal justice system would expect. What they did not expect is to have a paralysis created and that’s what the court had done. Today they have alleviated that paralysis by at least allowing cases to proceed,” he said.
Defense lawyers, however, took a harsher view. “As a society, we rely upon court precedent to determine how to interpret and apply the laws. The (Supreme) Court’s about-face within these opinions is confounding. They also seem incongruent with the court’s unanimous plea, in (a case known as) Steele, to the Legislature to fix what the court said it couldn’t,” 10th Judicial Circuit Assistant Public Defender Pete Mills, who also serves as chairman of the Florida Public Defenders Association Death Penalty Steering Committee, told The News Service. Mills was referring to a 2005 opinion in State vs. Steele in which the court urged the Legislature to require a unanimous jury vote, rather than the previous simple majority vote, in capital-case proceedings.
While Monday’s opinion may have resolved questions about how the courts can proceed, for now, it likely won’t slow down the Legislature’s rush to address the issue early in the session that begins March 7. “We still want to move it rapidly, get it up and out to make sure there’s no question that this is what the statute says and that we have a working death penalty scheme in the state of Florida,” Sprowls said.
Sprowls’ committee is slated to consider a measure (HB 527) Tuesday that would do away with the 10-2 jury recommendations and instead require unanimity for death sentences to be imposed. A Senate panel will give a final vetting to a similar proposal the following day. The issue deals only with the sentencing phase of death-penalty cases, after jurors unanimously find defendants guilty of crimes. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, told The News Service — before the court’s decision Monday — they wanted to send a death penalty measure requiring unanimous jury recommendations to Gov. Rick Scott by the end of the session’s first week.
“My position on it is that you have about 200 death penalty cases that are in abeyance right now, because of the Supreme Court’s ruling, and I can’t think of anything more important to the family of victims and also to a person charged with a capital felony that their cases proceed justly and with due process through the criminal justice system,” Negron said Wednesday. “To me, it’s our responsibility as legislators to make sure that the law is appropriately enforced. That would be a top priority.” The cases “in abeyance” referred to more than half of Florida’s Death Row inmates who are eligible for new sentencing hearings under a separate state court ruling addressing retroactivity of the Hurst decision, which was predicated on a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Ring v. Arizona.
The full Florida Supreme Court ruling discussed here is available at this link.
Justice Sotomayor (joined by Justice Breyer) authors lengthy dissent to denial of cert in Alabama lethal injection protocol challenge
This morning, the US Supreme Court got back to work through the issuance of this lengthy order list. The one cert grant was involves a federal criminal case, Class v. US, concerning whether a defendant who pleads guilty can still challenge the constitutionality his statute of conviction (SCOTUSblog case page here). But the part of the order list likely to get the most attention is this lengthy dissent from the denial of certiorari authored by Justice Sotomayor in a Alabama capital case concern lethal injection protocols. Here is the start, heart and end of the extended opinion (which Justice Breyer joined in full):
Nearly two years ago in Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S. ___ (2015), the Court issued a macabre challenge. In order to successfully attack a State’s method of execution as cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment, a condemned prisoner must not only prove that the State’s chosen method risks severe pain, but must also propose a “known and available” alternative method for his own execution. Id., at ___, ___ (slip op., at 13, 15).
Petitioner Thomas Arthur, a prisoner on Alabama’s death row, has met this challenge. He has amassed significant evidence that Alabama’s current lethal-injection protocol will result in intolerable and needless agony, and he has proposed an alternative — death by firing squad. The Court of Appeals, without considering any of the evidence regarding the risk posed by the current protocol, denied Arthur’s claim because Alabama law does not expressly permit execution by firing squad, and so it cannot be a “known and available” alternative under Glossip. Because this decision permits States to immunize their methods of execution — no matter how cruel or how unusual — from judicial review and thus permits state law to subvert the Federal Constitution, I would grant certiorari and reverse. I dissent from my colleagues’ decision not to do so....
The decision below permits a State, by statute, to bar a death-row inmate from vindicating a right guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment. Under this view, even if a prisoner can prove that the State plans to kill him in an intolerably cruel manner, and even if he can prove that there is a feasible alternative, all a State has to do to execute him through an unconstitutional method is to pass a statute declining to authorize any alternative method. This cannot be right....
The decision below is all the more troubling because it would put an end to an ongoing national conversation — between the legislatures and the courts — around the methods of execution the Constitution tolerates. The meaning of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments “is determined not by the standards that prevailed when the Eighth Amendment was adopted in 1791” but instead derives from “‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.’” Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U. S. 407, 419 (2008) (quoting Trop v. Dulles, 356 U. S. 86, 101 (1958) (plurality opinion)). Evolving standards have yielded a familiar cycle: States develop a method of execution, which is generally accepted for a time. Science then reveals that — unknown to the previous generation — the States’ chosen method of execution causes unconstitutional levels of suffering. A new method of execution is devised, and the dialogue continues. The Eighth Amendment requires this conversation. States should not be permitted to silence it by statute....
Twice in recent years, this Court has observed that it “has never invalidated a State’s chosen procedure for carrying out a sentence of death as the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.” Baze, 553 U. S., at 48 (plurality opinion); Glossip, 576 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 3) (same). In Glossip, the majority opinion remarked that the Court “did not retreat” from this nonintervention strategy even after Louisiana strapped a 17-year-old boy to its electric chair and, having failed to kill him the first time, argued for a second try — which this Court permitted. Id., at ___– ___ (slip op., at 3–4). We should not be proud of this history. Nor should we rely on it to excuse our current inaction.
Sunday, February 19, 2017
Front-line advocate's response to interview with former White House Counsel Neil Eggleston about Prez Obama clemency efforts
Regular readers know I am always eager to provide a forum for responses and respectful criticisms of sentencing-related activities and comments by public officials. In that vein, I am pleased to provide here the sharp commentary sent my way by Beth Curtis, a prisoner advocate who runs the website Life for Pot. Beth sent an extended commentary my way under the heading "Responding to: The Man Who Ran Obama’s Clemency Machine"; she was inspired to write by the recent Marshall Project interview with former White House Counsel Neil Eggleston about Prez Obama's clemency efforts (noted here).
Beth's full commentary is available for download below, and here is a snippet to highlight why the full piece is worthy of time and attention:
For the first five years of Obama’s presidency the federal prison population grew by 13,000 incarcerated people. In 2013, the population was 214,149, the highest incarceration rate in history.
Criminal justice organizations, prisoner advocacy groups, criminal defense attorneys, law school clinics, prisoner’s families and various other lobbying groups started the drum beat for sentencing reform and an initiative of Presidential Clemency. Finally in 2013 Eric Holder announced that there would be a clemency initiative that could mean 10,000 or more acts of mercy for incarcerated people who would not be a threat if they were released.
Those of us with incarcerated loved ones who had sentences that would assure that they would die behind bars now had a reason for hope. We felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the President and all who were involved in the decision and the process that would lead to our loved ones freedom. We could hope to have our family member in our daily lives again. The hope was an ache, but we knew this President had compassion. It was not to be.
The lack of commitment became apparent almost immediately. I have the web site Life for Pot and the nonviolent marijuana offenders that I advocate for waited patiently for their evaluation by cp-14. Surprisingly some were rejected, and others accepted to the project and were told they would be assigned an attorney. Those fortunate inmates who were assigned an attorney would sometimes just receive a notification that they were represented and hear nothing more. We urged them to submit their own and wait.
This is not just a passing interest for me. I have a 69 year old brother, John Knock, who has two life sentences for a nonviolent marijuana conspiracy. He has been incarcerated for 20 years and never had an infraction. His prison resume is impeccable. He is a first time offender. On January 18, his clemency petition was denied by President Obama.
These are the numbers that tell you about the mercy and compassion of the Clemency Initiative. The promise was 10,000 or more. 1,715 Commutations granted – we could only find 39 for nonviolent marijuana only offenders. The rest were denied or left pending.
Over 18,000 petitions for commutation were denied. Over 4,000 petitions for commutation we closed without action. Over 8,000 petitions for commutation were left pending in the Pardon Attorney’s office for the next administration.
I must reject Mr. Eggleston’s assertion that he had better information and insight than the attorneys, advocates, or families about who was a good candidate for release. He asserts that he and President Obama looked over all the applicants and rejected all but 1,715.
Apparently Mr. Eggleston and President Obama based their denials on secret information. That implies that all the nonviolent marijuana offenders that I know who were denied should remain in prison till they die because Mr. Eggleston and President Obama have special information unknown to anyone else? What are the secrets that gave them confidence to make this Sophie’s Choice? They missed the point of Clemency. It is not a legal process but a Constitutional Power given to the President to be compassionate and merciful. In this endeavor they failed miserably.
These assertions made by Mr. Eggleston have tainted the character and behavior of all they left behind. I can only believe this was done in order to in order to burnish the administrations legacy of compassion at the expense of those they left behind without hope.
There is one secret that most of us know that the White House and the Pardon Attorney did not address. That secret is that most nonviolent offenders who receive sentences of life without parole were charged with conspiracy and went to trial. A conspiracy charge does not require definitive evidence, but only the testimony of those testifying for a plea or for part of the forfeiture. If you exercise your sixth amendment right to trial you receive the trial penalty. This charge allows the Prosecutor to tell the story.
In the spring of 2016 at a White House Briefing, it was obvious to many of us that the promise of clemency was waning and The Administration was pivoting to reentry as the major emphasis for time and money.
The White House would not pay attention to any effort to expedite the clemency project by granting clemency to categories of inmates. Many individuals and groups implored them to take this approach so that they would not fail the thousands who placed their trust in their concept of mercy. The White House and Justice Department did not seem to even understand the concept as it had been used in the past. Heals were dug in, and fates were sealed.
UPDATE: For those unable to get download to work (which may be my fault, as I am working from the road), here is a link to Beth's site with her full commentary.
Prior related post:
Saturday, February 18, 2017
BYOD in Az: spotlighting Arizona's (cheeky?) drug acquisition provision in its latest execution protocol
This AP article reports on a notable an unusual provision in Arizona's new execution protocol. The article is headlined "Arizona to death-row inmates: Bring your own execution drugs," and here are details:
The recent revelation that condemned prisoners in Arizona can now provide the lethal drugs to be used in their executions has received attention around the world and raised questions about the state's rules for the death penalty.
The novel policy has drawn sneers from defense attorneys who were puzzled as to why the state would think that they would assist in killing their clients. It has inspired wisecracks about Arizona's penchant for taking on envelope-pushing criminal justice policies and left some readers on social media asking whether the bring-your-own-drugs policy was actually the product of a news parody website.
Criminal defense lawyers and death penalty experts say they have never heard of a state suggesting that condemned inmates can line up drugs to be used in their executions. However unlikely it is that any of Arizona's 119 death-row inmates will take up the offer, the change is a reflection of the difficulties that Arizona, like other states, faces in finding execution drugs now that European pharmaceutical companies have blocked the use of their products for lethal injections.
Executions in Arizona have been on hold since the 2014 death of convicted killer Joseph Rudolph Wood, who was given 15 doses of the sedative midazolam and a painkiller and who took nearly two hours to die. The state will not be able to carry out executions until the resolution of a lawsuit that alleges Arizona has abused its discretion in the methods and amounts of drugs used in past executions.
The state hasn't publicly explained its aim in taking on the new policy, which surfaced last month in the lawsuit. The Arizona Department of Corrections, which carries out executions, didn't respond to requests for comment. The Arizona Attorney General's Office, which is defending the state in the lawsuit, declined to comment.
Under the policy, the state's top prison official would be required, in one execution drug protocol, to use the barbiturate pentobarbital that's obtained by lawyers for inmates or someone acting on their behalf. The corrections director also would have the choice of picking one of two drug protocols involving the sodium pentothal if the barbiturate is obtained on behalf of a prisoner....
Dale Baich, an assistant federal public defender who represents the inmates in the lawsuit,... explained that the policy is unfeasible because the Controlled Substances Act prohibits attorneys and inmates from getting the drugs. "As a lawyer, I just can't go to local Walgreens and pick up a couple of vials of pentobarbital," Baich said.
It's the responsibility of the state, not condemned prisoners, to carry out executions, Baich added. The policy would seem to appeal to inmates who have abandoned their appeals and want to speed up their executions. But Baich said the Controlled Substances Act would still prevent those prisoners from getting lethal-injection drugs.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which has been critical of the way executions are carried out in the United States, said the policy also raises ethical concerns. Death-penalty lawyers are supposed to zealously represent their clients and have a duty not to take actions that harm them, Dunham said. "No one has done it before, and the fact that it is impossible, impractical, illegal and unethical may have something to do with that," he said.
Timothy Agan, a longtime criminal defense lawyer in Phoenix who has handled several death penalty cases, said he can't imagine condemned prisoners lining up to seek their own execution drugs and couldn't foresee a situation in which the policy would be used.
Arizona's revised executions protocol is available at this link, and on page 28 one finds this language (with my emphasis added):
The Director shall have the sole discretion as to which drug protocol will be used for the scheduled execution. This decision will be provided to the inmate and their counsel of record in writing at the time the state files a request for Warrant of Execution in the Arizona Supreme Court. If the inmate’s counsel or other third parties acting on behalf of the inmate’s counsel are able to obtain from a certified or licensed pharmacist, pharmacy, compound pharmacy, manufacturer, or supplier and provide to the Department the chemical pentobarbital in sufficient quantity and quality to successfully implement the one-drug protocol with pentobarbital set forth in Chart A, then the Director shall use the one-drug protocol with pentobarbital set forth in Chart A as the drug protocol for execution. If the inmate’s counsel or other third parties acting on behalf of the inmate’s counsel are unable to obtain such pentobarbital, but are able to obtain from a certified or licensed pharmacist, pharmacy, compound pharmacy, manufacturer, or supplier and provide to the Department the chemical sodium pentothal in sufficient quantity and quality to successfully implement the one-drug protocol with sodium pentothal set forth in Chart B or the three-drug protocol with sodium pentothal set forth in Chart C, then the Director shall have the sole discretion as to which drug protocol (Chart B or Chart C) will be used for the scheduled execution.
Friday, February 17, 2017
"The Progressive Prosecutor's Handbook"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new short piece by David Alan Sklansky now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
A growing number of chief prosecutors are winning office by pledging a more thoughtful and evenhanded approach to criminal justice — an approach more attentive to racial disparities, the risk of wrongful conviction, the problem of police violence, and the harms of mass incarceration. But there is no roadmap for progressive prosecutors, no consensus set “best practices” for elected prosecutors who want to make criminal justice not just more effective but also fairer and more humane.
This short essay starts to develop such a roadmap. It offers ten suggestions to reform-oriented chief prosecutors: decide in advance how you want to be judged, evaluate and reward your attorneys for what you care about, collect and share data, build in second looks, have a clear and generous disclosure policy, do not turn a profit, reduce case delays, investigate police shootings independently and transparently, pay attention to office culture, and diversity your staff.
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
"Emotional Judges and Unlucky Juveniles"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper on SSRN authored by two economists, Naci Mocan and Ozkan Eren. Here is the abstract:
Employing the universe of juvenile court decisions in a U.S. state between 1996 and 2012, we analyze the effects of emotional shocks associated with unexpected outcomes of football games played by a prominent college team in the state. We investigate the behavior of judges, the conduct of whom should, by law, be free of personal biases and emotions. We find that unexpected losses increase disposition (sentence) lengths assigned by judges during the week following the game. Unexpected wins, or losses that were expected to be close contests ex-ante, have no impact.
The effects of these emotional shocks are asymmetrically borne by black defendants. We present evidence that the results are not influenced by defendant or attorney behavior or by defendants’ economic background. Importantly, the results are driven by judges who have received their bachelor’s degrees from the university with which the football team is affiliated. Different falsification tests and a number of auxiliary analyses demonstrate the robustness of the findings.
These results provide evidence for the impact of emotions in one domain on a behavior in a completely unrelated domain among a uniformly highly-educated group of individuals (judges), with decisions involving high stakes (sentence lengths). They also point to the existence of a subtle and previously-unnoticed capricious application of sentencing.
Interesting Q&A about Prez Obama's clemency efforts with former White House counsel Neil Eggleston
The Marshall Project has this notable new piece that reviews Prez Obama's clemency work via an interview with former White House counsel Neil Eggleston. The piece is headlined "The Man Who Ran Obama's Clemency Machine: 'He felt strongly that this was a gift, and the gift had to be earned.'" Here are excerpts:
From one angle, former President Barack Obama was the most merciful president in U.S. history, granting commutations to more than 1,700 federal prisoners.... But his final tally was also far below earlier expectations, given that former Attorney General Eric Holder once speculated that the final number of clemency grants could reach 10,000 — one of every 19 federal prisoners. Obama also received more petitions for clemency than any recent president.
Blame has been passed around, much of it centering on the bureaucracy that emerged to handle the deluge of potential cases, as well as the role federal prosecutors played in the process. In the end, attorneys who felt they had submitted strong cases to the president often wondered why they lost. “In granting so many fewer petitions than originally projected, the administration may have done more to exacerbate the arbitrariness of the sentencing regime writ large than to remedy it,” one of those attorneys, Sean Nuttall, wrote recently at The Marshall Project.
One key figure in the process was Neil Eggleston, who served as White House counsel from April 2014 through the end of Obama’s term. We asked him to discuss the process from the inside....
How closely did President Obama look at each of the applications for clemency he received? And what did you learn about him based on how he handled them?
I would give him memos on the cases, and he would spend a long time on each one. For a significant number, he was fine with my recommendation. For others, he would say: “Why are you recommending this person to me? Look at his conduct in prison, look at his prior convictions. I’m uncomfortable that this guy is going to take advantage of a second chance.”
Or the alternative: There were times when the deputy attorney general may have recommended in favor of a commutation, and I recommended against it, and [Obama] would call me in and ask: “Why don’t you agree with this one?” Or he’d say: “Look there’s this prior conviction, I’m troubled by it, can you get me more information?”
He was really into the details. There were two parts to the way he thought. The first was he just thought a lot of these sentences from the 90’s and 2000’s were excessive. But he also felt very strongly about the idea of rehabilitation and second chances. It wasn’t enough that the person had just gotten too lengthy a sentence. He also wanted make sure these were people who would benefit from a second chance. So if someone didn’t do any programming, got into fights, had a lot of infractions, etc., I think the president was concerned they would be unlikely to do anything but go back to their life of crime when they got out. He felt strongly that this was a gift, and the gift had to be earned.
One common criticism of the process was that there were arbitrary outcomes, that two people with similar cases could be granted and denied clemency.
I think the thing the outside commentators didn’t really understand was that I had more information about these people than others did, including, frankly, their lawyers. I had records of how they performed in prison, and information about their prior crimes. And when people say there was arbitrariness it’s because they didn’t know factors that I knew. All 1,700 went through me and the small group of lawyers underneath me. And ultimately I didn’t want people in jail thinking to themselves, “How can this be?” So is there some arbitrariness? Humans making decisions will not always be perfect. But I reject the notion that there was arbitrariness....
Were you afraid that a single heinous crime by one of these released men or women would derail the whole program?
We never mentioned the words “Willie Horton.” But the answer is yes — very much so. The president wanted to make sure these were people who would take advantage of their second chances, but part of that was making sure they wouldn’t go back to jail. In the letter the president sent to released prisoners, he wrote to them that their choices “will also influence...the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future.” He was saying: “If you mess up, I may not be able to give clemency to other people.” It’s pretty explicit....
One criticism was that it was strange to have prosecutors — from the same department who got these sentences in the first place — weigh in on clemency decisions. Did you think about this?
I think that criticism was completely misguided and based on some sort of theoretical, potential problem. The fact is that Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, a 27-year Department of Justice prosecutor out of Atlanta, was a very strong supporter of this initiative. Loretta Lynch, too. The people who criticized their involvement did so on a theoretical conflict — not an actual conflict. It’s just not true.
That suggests the Department of Justice under incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions could rapidly go in another direction and oppose the use of clemency.
I know Sessions publicly opposed our initiative. I hope that I’m wrong, but I worry that given his comments, this will not be pursued by the new administration. It’s going to require them to decide this is something they want to continue. I hope they do.
Monday, February 13, 2017
Is due process violated when a plea is taken and sentence imposed on a nearly dead-drunk defendant?
I am always eager to find funny sentencing stories, but the sentencing stories that might seem funny are really never that funny. This Omaha World-Herald article, which prompts the question in the title of this post, is one of those not-really-funny stories. The article is headlined "Court accepts guilty plea from Omaha woman too drunk to stand, sparking concerns due process was violated," and here are the particulars:
Douglas County Judge Lawrence Barrett convened court on a Thursday morning in early February, 15 cases on his docket. The first: A 32-year-old Omaha woman accused of violating the probation term she had been given for reckless driving.
A month after Barrett had placed her on probation, Sarah E. Carr was arrested in Lincoln on suspicion of driving drunk. Officers said her blood-alcohol content was over .15. Hence the probation violation. Hence the Feb. 2 hearing. Barrett called out Carr’s name. Her aunt approached. “Your Honor, Sarah is here, but she’s passed out in the car.” Barrett: “She’s passed out in her car?”
After some discussion, the aunt and a court official went to the vehicle, pulled out a drunken Carr and loaded her into a wheelchair. What happened next shocked longtime legal observers. Judge Barrett allowed the woman, plopped in her wheelchair, to plead guilty to a probation violation. He then found her guilty and sentenced her to 90 days in jail. And no one protested.
After Carr received her sentence, deputies administered a breath test. Her blood-alcohol content measured .44 — 5½ times the legal limit for driving, and a level so high that it could lead to death, according to toxicology experts.
Her barely conscious plea has caused a stir in the courthouse, prompting concerns about what was done to preserve the woman’s constitutional rights to due process. Under the Fifth Amendment, a defendant must “knowingly, willingly, intelligently and voluntarily” enter a plea. Carr has since told others she has little to no memory of being in court. (Attempts to interview Carr at the jail last week were unsuccessful.)
After The World-Herald inquired about the case, Deborah Lee, a 16-year Douglas County public defender who represented Carr, resigned. Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley confirmed that Lee resigned but declined to detail reasons. Carr is far from the first defendant to show up drunk at court — especially in county courtrooms where DUIs and other drunken offenses are heard.
But courthouse veterans say this is the first case they could recall in which the typical protocol wasn’t followed when someone suspects a defendant is drunk. In other cases, judges have had deputies or probation officers administer a breath test. T ypically, a defense attorney then asks for the case to be delayed. The judge increases bail or revokes it. And the defendant sobers up in jail until his or her next court date.
Riley said someone should have put a stop to the Carr hearing. “This certainly isn’t the first person who has appeared in court under the influence,” Riley said. “It was incumbent upon someone in the courtroom — whether it was our lawyer or the prosecutor or the (judge) on their own observation — to at least make further inquiry into her condition.”
Judge Barrett, a 23-year veteran of the bench and a former assistant public defender, said he hopes the woman gets help before she further harms herself. He encouraged a World-Herald reporter to listen to a digital recording of the hearing. When the reporter asked if Carr was drunk, the judge said: “Not that I know of.” “I questioned her,” Barrett said. “She listened to everything I asked — and responded.”
Barrett’s statement that he didn’t know the woman was drunk raised eyebrows among those who observed the hearing.... An Omaha man, who was among about 30 people gathered in the courtroom, later said he was appalled at the scene, calling it a “miscarriage of justice.” An attorney in the courtroom recalled that the woman appeared “dazed and confused.”...
[Kevin] Slimp, the assistant city prosecutor, could not be reached for comment. However, Omaha City Prosecutor Matt Kuhse said Slimp has told him that he did not know Carr was drunk. In fact, Kuhse said, Slimp had little recall of anything about the case, other than the woman being in a wheelchair. Kuhse said city prosecutors often are balancing multiple cases — and often are having side conversations with defense attorneys while another case is being heard.
“When you notice that someone is just not getting what’s going on, we do have an obligation to step in,” Kuhse said. “That being said, I’m not convinced there’s enough evidence to show that the prosecutor should have stepped in in this case. We now know that it was a .44 (blood-alcohol level), but that’s the benefit of hindsight. My understanding is that she answered appropriately to the judge’s questions. It wasn’t like she blurted out ‘banana’ to a yes-no question.”...
Riley said he was “distressed” by the case. “Do I think the result would have been different? Probably not,” he said. “But there’s a right way to do things, and there’s a wrong way to do things. “Shame on us for not doing it the right way.” Riley said he assigned another public defender to visit Carr in jail last week. The new attorney explained to Carr that she probably would succeed if she attempted to withdraw her plea. One reason to try: Riley said his office could have argued for a lesser jail term. Barrett gave Carr the maximum term for that misdemeanor.
Carr was not interested — instead opting to focus on getting better, Riley said. “Mercifully, there would have been options to undo this,” Riley said. “I’m glad that this person wasn’t irreparably harmed. “But there were enough problems with all of this to share blame all around. I’m hopeful this will open people’s eyes up to how we should be doing things.”
Sunday, February 12, 2017
Is big data "reinforcing racial bias in the criminal justice system"?
The question in this post is prompted by this Washington Post commentary headlined "Big data may be reinforcing racial bias in the criminal justice system." The piece is authored by Laurel Eckhouse, a researcher with the Human Rights Data Analysis Group’s Policing Project at UC Berkeley, and here are excerpts:
Big data has expanded to the criminal justice system. In Los Angeles, police use computerized “predictive policing” to anticipate crimes and allocate officers. In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., machine-learning algorithms are used to set bond amounts. In states across the country, data-driven estimates of the risk of recidivism are being used to set jail sentences.
Advocates say these data-driven tools remove human bias from the system, making it more fair as well as more effective. But even as they have become widespread, we have little information about exactly how they work. Few of the organizations producing them have released the data and algorithms they use to determine risk.
We need to know more, because it’s clear that such systems face a fundamental problem: The data they rely on are collected by a criminal justice system in which race makes a big difference in the probability of arrest — even for people who behave identically. Inputs derived from biased policing will inevitably make black and Latino defendants look riskier than white defendants to a computer. As a result, data-driven decision-making risks exacerbating, rather than eliminating, racial bias in criminal justice....
We know that a black person and a white person are not equally likely to be stopped by police: Evidence on New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, investigatory stops, vehicle searches and drug arrests show that black and Latino civilians are more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested than whites. In 2012, a white attorney spent days trying to get himself arrested in Brooklyn for carrying graffiti stencils and spray paint, a Class B misdemeanor. Even when police saw him tagging the City Hall gateposts, they sped past him, ignoring a crime for which 3,598 people were arrested by the New York Police Department the following year.
Before adopting risk-assessment tools in the judicial decision-making process, jurisdictions should demand that any tool being implemented undergo a thorough and independent peer-review process. We need more transparency and better data to learn whether these risk assessments have disparate impacts on defendants of different races. Foundations and organizations developing risk-assessment tools should be willing to release the data used to build these tools to researchers to evaluate their techniques for internal racial bias and problems of statistical interpretation. Even better, with multiple sources of data, researchers could identify biases in data generated by the criminal justice system before the data is used to make decisions about liberty. Unfortunately, producers of risk-assessment tools — even nonprofit organizations — have not voluntarily released anonymized data and computational details to other researchers, as is now standard in quantitative social science research.
For these tools to make racially unbiased predictions, they must use racially unbiased data. We cannot trust the current risk-assessment tools to make important decisions about our neighbors’ liberty unless we believe — contrary to social science research — that data on arrests offer an accurate and unbiased representation of behavior. Rather than telling us something new, these tools risk laundering bias: using biased history to predict a biased future.
Friday, February 10, 2017
Mississippi taking steps to have firing squad, electric chair and gas chamber as execution methods again
As reported in this new Fox News piece, "Mississippi lawmakers want to bring back the firing squad, electric chair and gas chamber as execution methods, a step three other states have taken recently, but for a different reason." Here is more:
Oklahoma reintroduced the gas chamber, Utah the firing squad and Tennessee the electric chair in response to a nationwide scarcity of lethal injection drugs for death row inmates.
Mississippi legislator Andy Gipson said he introduced House Bill 638 in response to lawsuits filed by “liberal, left-wing radicals” challenging the use of lethal injection drugs as cruel and unusual punishment. "I have a constituent whose daughter was raped and killed by a serial killer over 25 years ago, and that person's still waiting for the death penalty. The family is still waiting for justice," Gipson told the Associated Press.
Gipson’s bill passed the House Wednesday, 74-43, and moves to the Senate for more debate.
Mississippi hasn't been able to acquire the execution drugs it once used, and it last carried out an execution in 2012. The state has 47 people on death row, and some have been there for decades.
The 33 states with the death penalty all have lethal injection as the primary method of execution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center and its executive director, Robert Dunham. The center says only Oklahoma and Utah have firing squads as an option; eight states have electrocution, five have the gas chamber, and three have hanging.
The firing squad became an option in Utah in 2015. That same year, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation to use nitrogen gas as an option. Tennessee enacted a law bringing back the electric chair in 2014.
“It’s interesting that what we anticipated would happen is happening,” Dunham told FoxNews.com Friday. “As states are having difficulty obtaining drugs for lethal injections, they’re looking at different options.” He expects legal challenges in states that reintroduce old execution methods. “What you will see is when states change their method of execution, there are invariably legal challenges that arise,” Dunham said.
Jim Craig, an attorney who is suing Mississippi over lethal injection drugs, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that each of the proposed new methods of executions would be challenged in court. "Every single one, in essence, just injects a whole new series of issues in the existing case," said Craig, who is with the New Orleans-based Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center. He said with the firing squad, for example, the state would have to set protocols and procedures to reduce the risk of torture, and he doubts the Department of Corrections has prepared to do that....
Oklahoma officials told Fox 25 in November they haven’t established protocols to use nitrogen gas as a backup execution method but have heard from a company offering pain-free and mistake-free gas chamber executions. The company sent a letter to Oklahoma Department of Corrections guaranteeing the “demise of any mammalian life within four minutes,” according to the station.
Third Circuit finds death row inmates granted resentencing stuck in solitary confinement have protected liberty interests
A unanimous panel ruling by the Third Circuit yesterday in Williams v. Secretary of PA Dep't of Corrections, No. 14-1469 (3d Cir. Feb. 9, 2017) (available here) spotlights an interesting connection between death row and solitary confinement. Here is the start of the opinion and a key paragraph from its heart:
We are asked to decide whether there is a constitutionally protected liberty interest that prohibits the State from continuing to house inmates in solitary confinement on death row after they have been granted resentencing hearings, without meaningful review of the continuing placement. For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that there is and that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment therefore limits the State’s ability to subject an inmate to the deprivations of death row once the death sentence initially relied upon to justify such extreme restrictions is no longer operative. However, we also hold that, because this principle was not clearly established before today, the prison officials (“Defendants”) in this consolidated appeal are entitled to qualified immunity.
Accordingly, we will affirm the district courts’ grants of summary judgment in favor of Defendants based on qualified immunity. In reaching this conclusion, we stress that this liberty interest, as explained more fully below, is now clearly established....
In our ruling today, we now explicitly add our jurisprudential voice to this growing chorus [of concerns about the use of solitary confinement]. In doing so, we rely, in part, upon the scientific consensus and the recent precedent involving non-death row solitary confinement. Those decisions advance our inquiry into the unique, yet analogous, scenario presented here. Inmates in solitary confinement on death row without active death sentences face the perils of extreme isolation and are at risk of erroneous deprivation of their liberty. Accordingly, they have a clearly established due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment to avoid unnecessary and unexamined solitary confinement on death row. The State must therefore afford these inmates procedural protections that ensure that continuing this level of deprivation is required for penological purposes, and is not reflexively imposed without individualized justification.
Tuesday, February 07, 2017
Prez Trump in sheriffs meeting expresses support for broad civil forfeiture police powers
This Washington Post report details the notable joke Prez Trump made regarding a state legislator who apparently wants to limit police civil forfeiture powers, and highlights the broader issues raised by the surrounding discussion. Here are the details:
At a meeting on Tuesday with sheriffs from across the country, President Trump joked about destroying the career of an unnamed Texas state senator who supported curtailing a controversial police practice for seizing people's property....
Sheriff Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County, Tex., brought up the issue of civil asset forfeiture, which allows authorities to seize cash and property from people suspected, but in some cases never convicted or even charged, with a crime. Eavenson told Trump of a “state senator in Texas that was talking about legislation to require conviction before we could receive that forfeiture money.”
“Can you believe that?” Trump interjected. “And,” Eavenson went on, “I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed.”
“Who's the state senator?” Trump asked. “Do you want to give his name? We'll destroy his career,” he joked, to laughter from the law enforcement officials in the room....
While many people are unfamiliar with the practice, asset forfeiture is widespread. In 2014, federal authorities alone seized over $5 billion from suspected criminals, more than the total losses to burglary that year. That number doesn't even count seizures conducted by state and local law enforcement. Critics of asset forfeiture policies say the broad leeway afforded to law enforcement officers in most states creates a system ripe for abuse....
A 2015 ACLU investigation found that Philadelphia police routinely seized what amounted to “pocket change” from some of the city's poorest residents. A 2014 Washington Post investigation found that police seized $2.5 billion in cash from motorists not charged with crimes as part of a federal program.
When told of the practice, a large majority of Americans are opposed to it. A December 2016 survey by YouGov and the libertarian Cato Institute found that 84 percent of Americans oppose taking “a person’s money or property that is suspected to have been involved in a drug crime before the person is convicted of a crime.”...
But law enforcement groups have been resolute in their support for the practice. They say seizing money from people not charged with crimes is sometimes necessary to protect public safety, particularly in cases where it may be hard to obtain a criminal conviction against a suspect.
Law enforcement groups often cast asset forfeiture as a tool for fighting drug kingpins and foreign drug cartels, as Sheriff Eavenson implied at the White House meeting. But reports of asset forfeiture abuse suffered by American citizens have become more common. Nonetheless, police have had great success in convincing state and federal lawmakers to uphold the practice.
President Trump has not spoken much about the practice, and the White House did not immediately return a request for comment. But Trump's nominee to lead the Justice Department, Sen. Jeff Sessions, has been an enthusiastic proponent of civil asset forfeiture. In a 2015 Senate hearing, Sessions said that “95 percent” of forfeitures involve suspects who have “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.”
February 7, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)
Florida legislature finally moving toward really fixing its capital procedures after Hurst
As reported in this AP article, "with death penalty cases grinding to a halt across the state, the Florida Legislature is finally taking its first — and probably only steps — to fix the law so prosecutors can resume cases once again." Here is more:
Legislators are moving ahead with a measure that would require a unanimous jury verdict in cases where the death penalty is being sought. Just a year ago legislators rejected the idea, but the state Supreme Court last October struck down a 2016 law that said the death penalty could be imposed after a 10-2 jury vote.
A Senate panel on Monday approved a bill requiring a unanimous jury verdict and a similar measure is being considered in the state House. The legislation could be among the first bills passed and sent to Gov. Rick Scott when the session officially kicks off in March.
"It is important that we have an orderly system of justice in place for both families of victims and individuals charged with serious crimes," said Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Ocoee Democrat who sponsored the bill. "This legislation removes ambiguity from our death penalty statute, which will help reduce delays in due process for all parties involved in death penalty cases."
Bracy's bill, however, doesn't address other questions raised by recent court decisions, including whether or not the state's nearly 400 current death row inmates deserve a new sentencing hearing if a jury did not unanimously recommend the death penalty. Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Joe Negron, said he wants to keep the legislation narrow to get it passed quickly....
Bracy wanted to amend his bill so all current death row inmates would be treated the same but said he didn't have the votes to get the proposal adopted. Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat, complained that legislators should be taking a comprehensive look at the death penalty to avoid having to deal with the issue year after year. But he said that some legislators are concerned they would look "weak" on the death penalty.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee reported that there are more than 300 death penalty cases pending across the state, including 66 that are now ready for trial. Prosecutors have put some of these trials on hold while they wait for the Legislature to act.
Monday, February 06, 2017
Idaho judge includes celibacy for teen sex offender on intensive probation
As reported in this local article, after "sentencing a 19-year-old Twin Falls man to a year-long therapeutic prison program on a rape charge last week, a judge added an unusual caveat should the teen successfully complete the program and be placed on probation." Specifically:
“If you’re ever on probation with this court, a condition of that will be you will not have sexual relations with anyone except who you’re married to, if you’re married,” 5th District Judge Randy Stoker said.
The judge’s unusual proclamation was made during the sentencing of Cody Duane Scott Herrera, who pleaded guilty to the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl in March 2015. Now, legal scholars are questioning whether the judge could hold Herrara to his warning.
Stoker said the condition would be put in place in part because Herrera told presentence investigators he’s had 34 sexual partners. “I have never seen that level of sexual activity by a 19-year-old,” Stoker said. Prosecutors also revealed Herrera, who could face more sex-related charges involving an underage girl, has had fantasies about a 13-year-old girl and watches pornography depicting rape.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare “did not designate Mr. Herrera as a sexual predator,” Stoker said during his sentencing, “though there seems to be an argument that could be made for that.”
The victim’s mother, making a victim-impact statement, certainly believed Herrera was a predator. “It was his intent from the beginning to take what he wanted from my 14-year-old child — her virginity,” the victim’s mother told the court. “And he stayed around until he got it from her. Cody will never understand what he has done to our family. Cody robbed her of her innocence. He destroyed the child left in her. This can never be returned.”
Stoker sentenced Herrera to an underlying prison sentence of five to 15 years, but suspended the sentence in favor of the year-long rider program. If Herrera successfully completes the program, he’ll be released to probation, and, according to Stoker, a life of celibacy unless he weds.
But that probation condition might be illegal or unenforceable, according to Shaakirrah R. Sanders, an associate professor at the University of Idaho College of Law. “I would suspect (a judge can’t do that),” Sanders said. “I think it infringes on his constitutional rights.” While judges “have quite a bit of discretion” in creating special probation terms, Sanders said, they can’t violate the federal or state constitution. “I think if he appealed, he would win,” Sanders said.
Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs said he did think Stoker would be able to impose the probation condition. “The judge has the ability to tell people to do or not do all sorts of things that are (otherwise) legal and constitutional,” Loebs said, pointing out that abstaining from alcohol is a condition of most probations.
“A judge’s purpose is to keep them from committing another offense,” Loebs said. “A judge has right to order things to keep him from doing that … I don’t think this goes beyond what a judge is allowed to do.”
I have personally always viewed probationary conditions that prohibit alcohol more than a bit suspect, but I know that they are regularly imposed and have often been upheld when sufficiently linked to the offense of conviction. With that background, I think the prosecutor here has a reasonable basis for arguing that this celibacy condition could be upheld if challenged. Then again, even though sex and alcohol often are linked, some significant distinctions might be made in this context were there to be legal appeals by the defendant here.
February 6, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)