Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Fascinating account of post-Miller realities for juve killers with new chance for eventual freedom

At Slate, Beth Schwartzapfel has this terrific new essay about what might be called "life after Miller" for juvenile murderers who now have a possible chance for release from a life prison sentence as a result of the Supreme Court's modern Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. The piece merits a full read, and it carries the headline, "'Where Do You Think That Rage Came From?' To get parole, people sentenced to life as juveniles must reckon with their pasts." Here is how the piece gets started:

Last week, the Massachusetts Parole Board announced that Frederick Christian might go home.  He would be one of the first people to be released based on the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling, in Miller v. Alabama, finding mandatory life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional.

Christian was 17 when he was involved in a drug robbery that ended with the shooting deaths of two men.  Now he is 37.  In prison, he got his GED, enrolled in violence prevention programs, and converted to Islam.  The five-times-a-day prayers, he said, “taught me discipline.”  He has maintained a steady job cleaning the prison, gone regularly to Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and helped to grow vegetables for the homeless.

Across the country, some 2,500 people are serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles.  Some have already served 30 years or more.  Yet it’s likely few of them will get out.  Before he can be paroled, Christian still has to complete a behavior modification program and live for a year in a minimum security prison. And his hearing is one of only a handful like it around the country since Miller.  The Supreme Court said that the young people’s capacity to mature and change entitle them to a second chance.  But lower courts, legislatures, and parole boards have more incentive to maintain the status quo than to show mercy — to follow the letter of Miller but not its spirit.

That’s because letting more prisoners like Christian go free requires a return to an idea that the country largely abandoned a generation ago: that criminals can be rehabilitated, and there is a limit to just retribution.  As costs rise for the growing prison population, legislators from every corner of the political map are now calling for a softening of sentencing laws.  But legislation about the future is one thing.  Giving a second chance to people who have already been sentenced for doing terrible things is another.

June 11, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Eleventh Circuit holds USSC report criticizing CP guideline does not make within-guideline CP sentences unreasonable

Though not especially surprising or really ground-breaking, the Evelenth Circuit's ruling today in US v. Cubero, No. 12-16337 (11th Cir. June 11, 2014) (available here), rejecting an attack on a lengthy within-guideline child porn sentence still seems noteworthy and blog-worthy.

As detailed in the lengthy Cubero opinion, the defendant not only made much of mitigating personal factors, but also stressed in support of a below guideline sentence the US Sentencing Commission's recent report to Congress detailing problems with its own guidelines and a letter from a DOJ official criticizing the current child porn guidelines.  But the district judge opted to impose a within-guideline sentence of 12.5 years, and the Eleventh Circuit panel saw this decision as a permissible exercise of the district court's sentencing discretion.

 Here is the heart of some of the panel's discussion of the limited impact and import of the USSC's criticism of its own guidelines (with cites mostly removed):

[The Sentencing Commission's Child Porn to Congress] (1) does not alter the district court’s duties to calculate the advisory guidelines range and to impose a sentence after considering the § 3553(a) factors, (2) does not limit the district court’s discretion to determine what weight to give to each § 3553(a) factor, and (3) does not require the district court to vary from the § 2G2.2-based guidelines range. See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)–(b).  The district court was empowered with discretion to consider Cubero’s downward-variance arguments, many of which are now captured by and reflected in the 2013 [USSC CP] report, but the court was not compelled to vary downward....

Contrary to Cubero’s arguments, the 2013 report does not heighten the district court’s statutory duty to state the reasons for imposing a particular sentence. See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c). And, the 2013 report does not alter the U.S. Supreme Court’s or this Circuit’s precedent regarding the district court’s obligations under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c); namely, that a district court’s decision to apply the guidelines to a particular case does “not necessarily require lengthy explanation.”  Rita v. United States, 551 U.S. 338, 356, 127 S. Ct. 2456, 2468 (2007).

Based on current reasonableness jurisprudence, this Eleventh Circuit ruling is not out of the mainstream. If circuits were inclined, as I think they should be, to conduct reasonableness review in a more substantive and rigorous manner, then perhaps defendants might have a chance to prevail with claims that the 2013 USSC report assailing the existing child porn guidelines renders within-guideline CP sentences inherently suspect. But because reasonableness review has tended to be so very deferential, even when all agree that certain guidelines are so very flawed, I was not too surprised by this ruling.

June 11, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Some new posts highlighting the "tough-on-crime" take on federal drugs sentencing reform

Long-time readers know that we used to be able to get Bill Otis's tough-on-crime perspective on sentencing reform via the comments to posts here, but now we all need to head over to Crime & Consequences to see his take on current sentencing events.  Not surprisingly, the discussion by US Sentencing Commission about whether to make its new lower drug guidelines retroactive has Bill going strong, and here are a sampling of him recent post from C&C:

The titles of all these posts provide a flavor of their contents, but I urge all folks following closely the debates over recent federal sentencing reform to click through and read all Bill has to say on these topics.  Notably, the first post listed above highlights how perspectives on broader reform debates will necessarily inform views on particular positions taken on smaller issues.  Bill assails DOJ for advocating for "large scale retroactivity" when it decided to yesterday to "support limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment."  In notable contrast, I have received a number of e-mails from advocates of federal sentencing reform today (some of which I hope to soon reprint in this space) that assail DOJ for not advocating for complete retroactivity.

June 11, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

DOJ advocates for "limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment"

As detailed in this prior post, today the US Sentencing Commission is conducting a public hearing to gather testimony from invited witnesses concerning whether the Commission should designate as retroactive its new proposed guideline that reduces most drug sentences across the board.  And though that hearing is on-going, the hearing agenda available here now has links to most of the witnesses' submitted written testimony, including the position advocated by the Department of Justice.  

As detailed in this official DOJ press release and this written testimony via US Attorney Sally Yates, the Justice Department is urging the Commission to make the new reduced drug guidelines retroactive for some, but not all, prisoners now serving sentences under the old drug guidelines.  Here are the basics of the compromise advocated by DOJ via its submitted testimony:

After extensive discussions and consideration of the various policy interests at stake in this matter – including public safety, individual justice for offenders, and public trust and confidence in the federal criminal justice system – we support limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment. As I will discuss further, we think such an approach strikes the right balance of policy interests and can be rigorously and effectively implemented across the federal criminal justice system within existing resource constraints....

Assessing whether the amendment should be applied retroactively requires balancing several factors.  The primary factor driving our position to support retroactive application of the amendment, albeit limited retroactivity, is that the federal drug sentencing structure in place before the amendment resulted in unnecessarily long sentences for some offenders.  While we believe finality in sentencing should remain the general rule, and with public safety our foremost goal, we also recognize that the sentences imposed for some drug defendants under the current sentencing guidelines are longer than necessary, and this creates a negative impact upon both the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system and our prison resources....

Because of public safety concerns that arise from the release of dangerous drug offenders and from the diversion of resources necessary to process over 50,000 inmates, we believe retroactivity of the drug amendment should be limited to lower level, nonviolent drug offenders without significant criminal histories. Limited retroactivity will ensure that release decisions for eligible offenders are fully considered on a case-by-case basis as required, that sufficient supervision and monitoring of released offenders will be accomplished by probation officers, and that the public safety risks to the community are minimized. Release dates should not be pushed up for those offenders who pose a significant danger to the community; indeed, we believe certain dangerous offenders should be categorically prohibited from receiving the benefits of retroactivity....

Balancing all of these factors, the Department supports limited retroactive application of the 2014 drug guideline amendment. We urge the Commission to act consistently with public safety and limit the reach of retroactive application of the amendment only to those offenders who do not pose a significant public safety risk. The Commission has the authority to direct limited retroactivity under both 18 U.S.C. § 994(u) and Dillon, which provide authority to the Commission to prescribe the “circumstances” under which an amended guideline is applied retroactively. We believe the Commission should limit retroactive application to offenders in Criminal History Categories I and II who did not receive: (1) a mandatory minimum sentence for a firearms offense pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 924(c); (2) an enhancement for possession of a dangerous weapon pursuant to §2D1.1(b)(1); (3) an enhancement for using, threatening, or directing the use of violence pursuant to §2D1.1(b)(2); (4) an enhancement for playing an aggravating role in the offense pursuant to §3B1.1; or (5) an enhancement for obstruction of justice or attempted obstruction of justice pursuant to §3C1.1.

With these limitations, all of which should have been determined in prior court action and should be documented in the court file in most cases, courts will be able to determine eligibility for retroactivity based solely on the existing record and without the need for transporting a defendant to court or holding any extensive fact finding. Retroactivity would be available to a class of non-violent offenders who have limited criminal history, did not possess or use a weapon, and thus will apply only to the category of drug offender who warrants a less severe sentence and who also poses the least risk of reoffending. While the factors we suggest are not a perfect proxy for dangerousness, they are a reasonable proxy based on the Commission’s own research, and identifying them will not require new hearings.

Though I suspect the intriguing middle-ground position embraced here by DOJ will disappoint the usual suspects advocating fully against or fully for retroactivity, I view this DOJ proposal to be both politically and practically astute. In part because SO very many current federal prisoners may be eligible for a sentence reduction based on the new guidelines, I think it make sense (and is consistent with congressional policies and goals) for any retroactivity rule to seek to bring some equities into the application of the new law in an effort to ensure the most deserving of previously sentenced defendants get the benefit of the new guidelines. The DOJ position here seems thoughtfully designed to try to achieve that balance.

Some recent related posts:

June 10, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Intriguing new report on "Compensating Victims of Crime"

Victim Compensation infographic_for rotator2_0The folks at Justice Fellowship have just released an interesting new report titled simply "Compensating Victims of Crime" as part of its advocacy for restorative justice programming. This report's Executive Summary includes these passages: 

Restorative Justice recognizes that crime harms people. Though most people affected by crime are never able to fully reclaim what was taken, victim compensation funds are a tool used within our criminal justice system to advance the much needed value of assisting victims and survivors of crime. Unfortunately, very little of the billions of dollars placed within these funds goes directly to victims and survivors of crime.  This report is an extensive overview of victim compensation funds and highlights some concerns and provides some suggestions for reform.

Victim compensation funds are funded by criminal fines and taxpayer dollars and offer monetary assistance to victims and survivors of violent crime.  Though similar in concept to restitution, they differ in eligibility requirements, funding sources, and distribution. Currently, victim compensation funds only provide monetary assistance to a small number of victims and survivors of violent crime. Of the approximately 7 million victims of violent crime per year, only 200,000 receive assistance from a compensation fund. Even more disturbing is the ratio of money spent on compensation compared to that which is spent on corrections. In 2012, federal, state, and local governments spent approximately $85 billion on corrections. In the same year, victim compensation funds paid out approximately $500 million dollars—less than 1% of what was spent on corrections.

This disparity cannot be blamed on a lack of funds.  The Crime Victims Fund — a hybrid system funded jointly by federal and state dollars, but administered at the state level —currently retains a balance of almost $11 billion, while some states have additional balances that approach $10 million. Congress, however, has capped the total annual Crime Victims Fund spending at $745 million dollars despite the large pool of victims who are eligible to receive funds.  Further, the average maximum amount that victims and survivors can receive from a victim compensation fund is $26,000.

Because victim compensation funds are administered on the state level, states differ in the eligibility requirements. All states compensate for medical expenses, mental health counseling, lost wages, funeral costs, and travel.  Many states compensate for crime scene cleanup, attorney fees, rehabilitation, replacement services, and relocation services. Few states compensate for things like pain and suffering, property loss, stolen cash, transportation, return of an abducted child, guide dog expenses, domestic services, home healthcare, and forensic exams in sexual assaults.

Unfortunately, many victims do not receive any compensation. This often occurs simply due to a lack of knowledge about the compensation fund. However, there are numerous other reasons, including the fact that there are fairly stringent requirements that one must satisfy to receive funds.  Half of all states require victims or survivors to report the crime to law enforcement within 72 hours.  12 states require a police report to be filed within 5 to 10 days. A majority of the states require victims and survivors to file a compensation claim within one to two years, and several states restrict compensation to victims who have a prior felony conviction in the last 10 years. While these requirements may not seem stringent at first glance, consider that many crimes are not ever reported for fear of retribution, continued victimization, or the stigma that comes with being a victim. Forty-two percent of victims do not report serious violent crimes to law enforcement officials.  As a result, they are denied access to compensation funds....

The system currently in place can be vastly improved. The federal cap on the dispensing of funds should be raised to $1 billion.  Awareness of these funds must be increased through additional community infrastructure and advocacy.  Overly restrictive requirements must be relaxed so that people have a chance to qualify for compensation once they know it is available. Finally, stringent oversight and transparency of state funds for victims is necessary to ensure that the money is being used properly. Increasing awareness, access, and availability of compensation funds will prioritize victims and survivors in the criminal justice system and advance the values of restorative justice.

The full text of Compensating Victims of Crime is available here.

June 10, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Noting SCOTUS continues to dodge (inevitable?) ruling on Miller retroactivity

This Philadelphia Inquirer article, headlined "U.S. Supreme Court won't hear case of Pa. juveniles serving life," reports on the only significant sentencing news that has come from the Supreme Court so far this week. Here are the details (with original paragraphs re-ordered a bit for exposition):

Pennsylvania has more inmates convicted as juveniles for murder and sentenced to life without parole than any other place in the world.  Pennsylvania has more than 500 people convicted as juveniles and given mandatory life sentences — 300 of them from Philadelphia, advocates say.  The United States is the only country that doles out mandatory life sentences to juveniles. And Pennsylvania has 25 percent of such offenders, advocates say - more than any other state or nation....

Monday [the] U.S. Supreme Court ... declined to hear an appeal by juvenile-justice advocates to revisit the sentences of those prisoners.  "We are obviously disappointed," said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center, a national, nonprofit, public-interest law firm for children, based in Center City. The center had brought the appeal to the high court....

In June 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that children under 18 convicted of homicide could no longer receive mandatory sentences of life without parole.  Such automatic sentences, the court found, are unconstitutional, violating the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.  Life sentences for juveniles committing murder are allowable; they just cannot be mandatory....

The ruling caused confusion, however.  While it said that juveniles committing murder could not receive mandatory sentences of life without parole in 2012 and beyond, it did not address inmates already serving such sentences.

In October 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stepped into the void. It found that the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling could not be applied retroactively. Anyone given a mandatory sentence of life without parole who had exhausted all appeals by 2012 would not fall under the federal ruling, the state court said.

Advocates were troubled by the notion that the year a person was sentenced would determine whether he or she would face life without parole.  "The vagaries of timing should not determine if a juvenile should spend the rest of his or her life in prison with no possibility of parole," according to a Juvenile Law Center statement last year.

The center, along with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, appealed the Pennsylvania decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Monday's nondecision was the result. "This is a surprise, and not a very good one," said Bradley Bridge, an assistant defender with the association. "It's puzzling."  Bridge said Pennsylvania had become the third state to say the U.S. Supreme Court ruling is not retroactive.  Six states have gone the other way.

Such a split cannot stand for long, said Emily Keller of the Law Center.  Bridge agreed, saying it was "intolerable for a citizen of Pennsylvania to be denied relief, while a citizen of Texas [one of the six states that allows the ruling to be retroactive] gets relief.  That is not a just result." At some point, Keller and Bridge said, the U.S. Supreme Court will have to make a ruling that will stand for every state.

Hugh Burns, chief of the appeals unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, agreed that "it's not fair" that "those who take a life after a certain date get a break others do not." But, he added, "law is all about line drawing."

More important, Burns said, he takes issue with the U.S. Supreme Court's saying that a juvenile's young brain can't determine right from wrong.  "The idea that a person's brain isn't developed to understand that murdering someone is wrong and subject to serious penalty is to me very odd," he said.

As the title of this post is meant to suggest, I think it is probably only a matter of time before the Supreme Court takes up the issue of whether its 2012 Miller ruling is to be applied retroactively.  But I am not too surprised that the Justices have decided to continue to dodge this issue for the time being, especially in the context of a direct appeal from a state Supreme Court ruling as in Pennsylvania.  I expect the Justices will eventually take up this issue via a traditional habeas appeal from a federal circuit court, but only if and when a significant circuit split develops on this issue in the federal courts.

June 10, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

New ACLU report assails private prison industry involved in federal immigration detention

As detailed in this press release, this week "the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Texas released the report Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison Industry, [which examines] the secretive 'Criminal Alien Requirement' or 'CAR' prisons for immigrants."  Here is more about the report from the ACLU press release:

 In a four-year investigation of five CAR prisons in Texas, our researchers found pervasive and disturbing patterns of neglect and abuse of the prisoners–all non-citizens, most of whom have been convicted only of immigration offenses (such as unlawfully reentering the country).

"At the CAR prisons we investigated, the prisoners lived day to day not knowing if their basic human needs would be met, whether they would get medical attention if they were hurt or ill," said Carl Takei, Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project.  "The Bureau of Prisons creates perverse incentives for the for-profit prison companies to endanger human health and lives."

In total, the 13 CAR prisons across the country hold more than 25,000 immigrants....  The report details the relationship between each of the three companies that run them–CCA, GEO Group, and MTC–and the federal Bureau of Prisons, including the ways that the Bureau and the companies work together to cover up the prisons’ conditions....

In Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison Industry, the ACLU and the ACLU of Texas tell the stories of prisoners who have been torn from their families by the extreme distances (often 1,000 miles or more) between a CAR prison and a prisoner’s hometown and by the high phone rates the private prison companies charge for phone calls.

Among its recommendations to the federal government, the report calls on the Bureau of Prisons to strengthen oversight of CAR prisons, end the use of contractually binding occupancy quotas for CAR prisons, and stop spending taxpayer money to shield basic information about private prisons from public disclosure.  It also urges the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice to return immigration enforcement to civil immigration authorities.

The full report is available at this link.

June 10, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, June 09, 2014

"Retuning Gideon's Trumpet: Retelling the Story in the Context of Today's Criminal Justice Crisis"

The title of this post is the title of this notable essay by Jonathan Rapping that I just came across on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Gideon Court recognized a truism: until we ensure that poor people have access to the same quality of counsel that people with means can pay for, we cannot have equal justice. But fifty years later, the promise of equal justice has not materialized. In so many ways, our criminal justice system is less fair; less equal; less humane.  Since Gideon was decided, the U.S. imprisonment rate has nearly quadrupled, and the percentage of people charged with crimes who are poor has roughly doubled.  As compared to 1963, poor people today are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and sentenced to lengthier prison terms than their wealthier counterparts.

Given these depressing developments, some have questioned whether the right to counsel has made much of a difference for indigent defendants and whether it is even worth defending as a force to end the injustices of the system.  This Essay takes a different view of the problem and argues that a strong public defender system is necessary to achieve systemic reform.  This is so both because of the role the public defender plays in interrupting a process that is increasingly designed to convict and punish poor people en masse, and because of the potential of a strong community of public defenders to galvanize the movement needed to push for important policy reform.

June 9, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"What Is Federal Habeas Worth?"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new piece on SSRN authored by Samuel Wiseman. Here is the abstract:

Federal habeas review of state non-capital cases under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) is widely regarded as deeply flawed, producing a huge volume of costly litigation and very little relief.  Many scholars have called for AEDPA’s repeal and a return to more robust federal review, but recently, several prominent commentators have suggested more dramatic change — radically limiting federal habeas in exchange for more fruitful reform efforts. In an era of limited criminal justice budgets and an increasing focus on efficiency, these proposals are likely to proliferate.  This article lays out a needed empirical and theoretical foundation for the debate over habeas’s future.  To date, no one has estimated how much federal habeas actually costs (and thus the potential savings from eliminating it), a figure necessary for assessing the feasibility and desirability of any radical reform scheme.  This article fills that gap, using available budget data, public records requests, and correspondence with state officials to estimate that figure at roughly $260 million per year.

This sum, a tiny fraction of criminal justice spending and barely a blip in state and federal budgets, places recent reform proposals in a new light: it is possible that these proposals have failed to gain more traction because they would not free up sufficient funds to please either habeas proponents or opponents.  The federal habeas system is one of the only mechanisms through which federal courts may reveal state violations of defendants’ constitutional rights, and it retains both instrumental and symbolic value.  Further, getting rid of the watered-down version of individual review that remains under AEDPA would likely be difficult to reverse, making a more robust system harder to realize in the future. Any proposals to curtail this system in exchange for state reforms therefore have a high barrier to overcome with habeas proponents.  For federal habeas opponents, the current federal system is not particularly costly, either financially or otherwise, since so few petitioners obtain relief.  Given the small cost of the current system, and thus the financial savings available, radical form is probably unlikely, regardless of the desirability of any individual proposal.  The article therefore proposes more modest reforms to make the current system more functional.  One such step is ensuring that federal habeas under AEDPA, despite statutory silence, is not blind to the quality of state postconviction processes.

June 9, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 08, 2014

"The Failure of Mitigation?"

The title of this post is this notable new paper by Robert J. Smith, Sophie Cull and Zoe Robinson now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

A vast literature details the crimes that condemned inmates commit, but very little is known about the social histories of these capital offenders.  For example, how many offenders possessed mitigating characteristics that demonstrate intellectual or psychological deficits comparable to those shared by classes of offenders categorically excluded from capital punishment? Did these executed offenders suffer from intellectual disability, youthfulness, mental illness, or childhood trauma?  The problem with this state of affairs is that the personal characteristics of the defendant can render the death penalty an excessive punishment regardless of the characteristics of the crime.

This Article begins to fill the mitigation knowledge gap by describing the social histories of the last hundred offenders executed in America.  Scouring state and federal court records, this Article documents the presence of significant mitigation evidence for eighty-seven percent of executed offenders.  Though only a first step, our findings suggest the failure of the Supreme Court’s mitigation project to ensure the only offenders subjected to a death sentence are those with “a consciousness materially more depraved” than that of the typical murderer.  Indeed, the inverse appears to be true: the vast majority of executed offenders possess significant functional deficits that rival — and perhaps outpace — those associated with intellectual impairment and juvenile status; defendants that the Court has categorically excluded from death eligibility. 

June 8, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, June 06, 2014

More critical analysis of NRC mass incarceration analysis from John Pfaff

As I highlighted in this post late last week, through a series of astute posts at PrawfBlawg, Professor John Pfaff has started to pick apart a number of notable flaws and omissions in the National Research Council's analysis of mass incarceration.  John's first five posts in that series are linked here, and now below I have linked his latest in this important series:

June 6, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 05, 2014

"Strict Liability Offenses, Incarceration, and the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Paul Larkin now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The Supreme Court long ago rejected due process challenges to the government’s use of strict liability offenses, but the Court has never considered the issue of whether imprisonment for such crimes violates the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause.  Being unable to persuade the Court to forbid strict liability crimes altogether, defendants incarcerated for those crimes are likely to argue that their punishment is cruel and unusual.  It therefore may not be long before the courts, including the Supreme Court, must finally address the issue.  When that day arrives, the Court should limit the penalties that can be imposed for strict liability crimes by forbidding any period of incarceration altogether or, at least, by outlawing imprisonment.  The Constitution should not allow a person to be imprisoned for committing a strict liability offense.

June 5, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Defendant's appeal gets his sentence increased(!) from 30+ years to LWOP

The First Circuit handed down a remarkable ruling in US v. Sevilla-Oyola, No. 12-1264 (1st Cir. June 3, 2014) (available here).  As the start and end of the 30+ page majority opinion highlights, this case provides a remarkable reminder to becareful what you ask for when pursuing an appeal:  

Sometimes it's better to quit while you're ahead. The district judge twice conducted plea colloquies and thrice imposed sentences for Carlos Sevilla-Oyola ("Sevilla"), each one shorter than the last.  Still dissatisfied, Sevilla asks us for another bite at the sentencing apple before a different district judge.  To support his claim before this court, Sevilla says the district judge lacked authority for actions taken after entry of the first sentence, and flaws in the initial plea colloquy warrant vacation of the first judgment.  Alternatively, he says that even if the judge's later actions were authorized, they were plagued by additional errors.

We agree that the district judge lacked statutory authority to act after he entered the original sentence and that the initial plea colloquy was flawed.  But we cannot say that the imperfections Sevilla cites justify setting aside the first judgment.  Nor can we say, based on the arguments Sevilla puts forth before us, that the first sentence was unreasonable. Accordingly, the first and most severe sentence imposed by the district judge — 327 months plus a consecutive term of life imprisonment — stands.  And Sevilla — who until today was facing a total sentence of 405 months — will likely find himself wishing he had left well enough alone....

We acknowledge that our result may seem harsh.  Where Sevilla once faced 405 months' imprisonment, now he must grapple with a life sentence.  But Sevilla chose to proceed with this appeal knowing he risked a higher sentence.

At oral argument, we explicitly asked Sevilla's counsel if Sevilla understood that this appeal could subject him to a sentence based on consideration of his alleged involvement in the Pitufo murder and longer than the 405-month term ultimately imposed by the district judge. We sought confirmation that Sevilla wished to appeal anyway.  On the spot, counsel asserted that Sevilla understood these risks, but he agreed to call Sevilla to confirm.

A few days later, counsel filed an unresponsive motion that did not address whether Sevilla understood the risks he faced by seeking vacation of the third and most favorable 405-month sentence. We then entered a written order again instructing counsel to inquire whether Sevilla wished to pursue the appeal even though "re-sentencing in this matter presented the risk to [Sevilla] of receiving a sentence greater than his current sentence of 405 months and up to life imprisonment, particularly if the district court were to consider either [Sevilla's] alleged involvement in the 'Pitufo' murder or calculate a base sentencing level and make appropriate upward departures." (Emphasis in original.) Counsel filed a second motion saying he had explained those risks to Sevilla and Sevilla still wished to proceed.

While our order focused on the risk of a life sentence upon re-sentencing before the district court, the propriety of a life sentence was clearly before us in this appeal. And because we expressly warned Sevilla that a life sentence remained on the table, though the outcome we reach is not what Sevilla hoped for, at least it should come as no surprise.

Judge Torruella authored a lengthy dissent to the majority ruling, which gets started and ends this way:

Carlos Sevilla-Oyola ("Sevilla") was sentenced by the district court to 405 months in prison. On appeal, he brings to our court's attention numerous errors. The majority, finding several of these claims meritorious, has granted a most unusual form of "relief" — life in prison. From that irrational result, I respectfully dissent....

Sevilla's sentencing was fraught with mistakes, misstatements, and omissions on the part of the sentencing judge.  The unique posture of this case, arising from a sentencing replete with errors of the court's own making, and concerning an error that no party seeks to defend, is well fit for a simple resolution: remand for a correction of the Rule 11 error and imposition of a new sentence.  Instead, the majority now sua sponte chooses to summarily impose the first sentence, which the district court judge himself determined to be erroneous and improper, and which no party has sought to defend on appeal.  In so doing, the majority — from a cold appellate record, and in contravention of the intent and discretion of the sentencing judge — has increased Sevilla's sentence from just under thirty-four years to life in prison.  This life sentence is based in no small part upon uncharged conduct which the district court, in its discretion, ultimately deemed improper to consider in this case.

In attempting to defend this resolution, the majority states that Sevilla was put on notice of the fact that, upon remand and resentencing, his ultimate sentence might be greater than the 405 months on appeal.  That notice, however, never so much as hinted at the idea that our court might short-circuit the accepted practice of remand, which would have provided Sevilla with a chance to be heard at a new sentencing hearing, and instead simply impose a sentence significantly higher than that from which he appealed.[FN 36]

From this result, a pyrrhic victory if there ever was one, I respectfully dissent.

[FN 36] I know of no other case — and the majority cites to none — in which an appellate court undertook to put in place a higher sentence than that from which the defendant's appeal was taken.  The unusualness of this situation is surely cold comfort to Sevilla, who (as the majority suggests) will undoubtedly "wish[] he had left well enough alone."  I hope, however, that it might mitigate the chilling effect of this result, such that future defendants are not made fearful of bringing even meritorious claims on appeal. While the majority seems to chide Sevilla for not "quit[ting] while [he was] ahead," I see no humor or harm in a defendant attempting to bring to our court's attention a heavily flawed sentencing process.  If Sevilla is seeking "another bite at the sentencing apple," our court would do well to recognize that this is because his first was so thoroughly rotten.

I presume and expect that this defendant will not pursue en banc review and/or Supreme Court review. I wonder if he should worry that such further appellate efforts might risk earning him a death sentence.

June 4, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Constitutional challenge to California's solitary confinement practices to proceed as class action

As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Judge grants class action status to inmates' solitary confinement case," a notable procedural ruling in a notable prisoner suit was handed down earlier this week. here are the basics:

A federal judge in Oakland has granted inmates in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison class action status in their claims of unconstitutional treatment. The inmates allege physical and psychological abuse when California puts inmates in Pelican Bay's windowless isolation cells. The prisoners are confined 22 hours a day and, in some cases, have been in solitary for years and decades at a time....

The Pelican Bay inmates, in their federal lawsuit, also challenged the administrative process California uses to determine who to send to the super-maximum security cells for an indefinite stay....

In courtroom proceedings, lawyers for the state have argued that isolation is necessary to keep the peace within prisons, and to hinder gang activity inside and outside prison walls. They said that by creating a so-called "step-down" program last year that allows some prisoners to eventually earn their way out of isolation, the state had made sufficient improvements.

In her ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken narrowed the class action case to just those Pelican Bay inmates who have not been accepted into the state's step-down program. Civil rights lawyers litigating the case say they hope a victory will set a national precedent on the use of extended isolation in prisons across the United States....

The class action motion was filed by 10 Pelican Bay inmates in solitary confinement, but California has since moved five of them to other quarters. Wilken's order allows the remaining five prisoners to represent the larger class of some 500 Pelican Bay prisoners who have spent more than a decade in isolation, and some 1,100 put into solitary because of alleged gang associations....

Wilken refused to allow the state prison guard union to intervene in the lawsuit. The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. had argued that it had an interest in protecting the safety of its members by preventing prisoners from leaving solitary confinement.

June 4, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

After botching the first attempt, should Ohio be allowed a second chance to execute Romell Broom?

The old saying goes, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."  But, as reported in this new AP article, the Ohio Supreme Court is going to considerwhether, after the state was unable to suceed in executing Romell Brown back in 2009, it will be permitted to try again.  The AP article is headlined "Ohio Court to Weigh Repeat Execution Attempt," and here are excerpts:

Ohio's top court has agreed to hear arguments that the country's only survivor of a botched lethal injection would face cruel and unusual punishment and double jeopardy if the state again attempts to put him to death.

Romell Broom, 57, was sentenced to die for the 1984 rape and slaying of 14-year-old Tryna Middleton after abducting her in Cleveland as she walked home from a Friday night football game with two friends.

His 2009 execution was stopped by then-Gov. Ted Strickland after an execution team tried for two hours to find a suitable vein.  Broom has said he was stuck with needles at least 18 times, with pain so intense that he cried and screamed.  An hour into the execution, the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction recruited a part-time prison doctor with no experience or training with executions to try — again, unsuccessfully — to find a vein.

Broom's appeals in federal court are on hold while the state court hears the constitutional arguments.  Broom has been back on death row since.  No new execution date has been set.

In 1947, Louisiana electrocuted 18-year-old Willie Francis by electric chair a year after an improperly prepared electric chair failed to work.  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to allow the second execution to proceed, rejecting double jeopardy arguments.  A state's administration of its criminal law isn't affected by due process rights, when "an accident, with no suggestion of malevolence, prevents the consummation of a sentence," the court ruled at the time.

Broom suffered more than inmates during "a normal execution," meaning a second attempt would punish him twice for the same offense, defense attorneys Tim Sweeney and Adele Shank told the state Supreme Court in a May 2012 filing....  The state argues that Broom never underwent the execution process since the procedure was called off before the drugs could be introduced into his veins. 

For a number of reasons, the precedental force of the split SCOTUS ruling on this issue way back in 1947 is somewhat shaky.  In addition, the Ohio Supreme Court might rely on state constitutional law to block giving Ohio officials another shot at completing Broom's death sentence.   But I suspect the state will argue forcefully that it still can and should be allowed to carry out Broom's imposed sentence.  Stay tuned.

June 3, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Michigan Supreme Court holds that Gov cannot revoke a valid sentence commutation

Today in Makowski v Governor, No. 146867 (Mich. June 3, 2014) (available here), the Michigan Supreme Court declared unanimously that "the Michigan Constitution does not grant the Governor the power to revoke a valid commutation."  Here is an excerpt from the start of the syllabus to the decision which provides context for and summarizes the context of the ruling:

Matthew Makowski filed an action in the Court of Claims against the Governor and the Secretary of State, seeking a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief to reverse then Governor Jennifer Granholm’s decision to revoke her commutation of plaintiff’s nonparolable life sentence that had been imposed for his first-degree murder and armed robbery convictions.  The Governor had signed the commutation on December 22, 2010, after which it was signed by the Secretary of State and affixed with the Great Seal; however, four days later, the Governor decided to revoke the commutation order, and all copies of the commutation certificate were destroyed.  Plaintiff alleged that the commutation was final when it was signed, sealed, and delivered to the Department of Corrections, and argued that the Governor lacked the authority to revoke a completed commutation.  The court, Richard D. Ball, J., granted defendants’ motion for summary disposition, concluding that it lacked jurisdiction to review the governor’s exercise of discretion over commutation decisions.  Plaintiff appealed.  The Court of Appeals, O’CONNELL, P.J., and CAVANAGH and DONOFRIO, JJ., affirmed, holding that the Governor’s exercise of the commutation power presented a nonjusticiable political question.  299 Mich App 166 (2012).  The Supreme Court granted plaintiff’s application for leave to appeal. 494 Mich 876 (2013).

In an opinion by Justice CAVANAGH, joined by Chief Justice YOUNG and Justices MARKMAN, KELLY, AND VIVIANO, the Supreme Court held:

The interpretation and exercise of the Governor’s powers under Const 1963, art 5, § 14 were justiciable questions properly before this Court.  The Constitution did not give the Governor the power to revoke a validly granted commutation.  A commutation is complete when it is signed by the Governor and the Secretary of State and affixed with the Great Seal. Because the Governor signed plaintiff’s commutation and delivered it to the Secretary of State, where it was signed and affixed with the Great Seal, plaintiff was granted an irrevocable commutation of his sentence.

June 3, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, June 02, 2014

Tenth Circuit explains what's the matter with Kansas prior convictions as enhancers

Download (1)Thanks to a helpful reader, I learned that today the Tenth Circuit handed down a significant opinion concerning the use of prior Kansas offenses in career offender guideline calculations in US v. Brooks, No. 13-3166 (10th Cir. June 2, 2014) (available here).  Here is how the opinion in Books starts and ends:

Did Defendant Damian L. Brooks commit enough prior qualifying felonies to be considered a “career offender” under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?  The district court below said yes, relying on United States v. Hill, 539 F.3d 1213 (10th Cir. 2008), to classify a prior Kansas conviction of Defendant as a felony because it was punishable by more than one year in prison. On appeal, Defendant admits Hill mandates this classification. He argues, however, that Hill was abrogated by the Supreme Court in Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder, 560 U.S. 563 (2010).  We agree.  As such, exercising jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and 18 U.S.C. § 3742, we reverse and remand for resentencing....

In conclusion, Hill — which looked to the hypothetical worst possible offender to determine whether a state offense was punishable by more than a year in prison — cannot stand in light of Carachuri-Rosendo.  We now hold, in line with our pre-Hill precedent, that in determining whether a state offense was punishable by a certain amount of imprisonment, the maximum amount of prison time a particular defendant could have received controls, rather than the amount of time the worst imaginable recidivist could have received.  As such, Defendant’s prior Kansas conviction for eluding police is not a felony for purposes of U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1(a).  The district court’s imposition of a career offender enhancement was therefore in error and is REVERSED. This case is REMANDED for resentencing.

The helpful reader who alerted me to this opinion noted that "for those of us who deal with Kansas state convictions, it is (as Ron Burgundy would say), kind of a big deal."  Here is part of this reader's explanation for why:

Previous 10th Circuit authority held that a conviction for a Kansas on grid "felony" was punishable by more than one year if a sentence more than one year could be imposed on any hypothetical defendant.  That is, the analysis was not limited by a defendant's actual criminal history category on the state guidelines grid.  If more than one year could be imposed for any criminal history category, the conviction = felony for purposes of federal law, even though a particular defendant may have only been exposed to a sentence less one year or less....

This ruling will impact multiple areas of federal prosecution and sentencing.  For instance, if the high end of a defendant's KS gridbox is 12 months, then the conviction is not a disabling conviction for purposes of 18 USC 922(g)(1).  Likewise, such a conviction would not be a predicate conviction for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act or the Career Offender guidelines enhancement.

A more limited effect will be that a few drug-grid convictions will not be a "prior drug felony" that can enhance a controlled substance offense under 21 USC 851....  Certain attempts/conspiracies/solicitations to commit drug crimes would also not be a federal felony for enhancement purposes.

Because I do not know how many federal sentencing cases are significantly impacted by how certain prior Kansas offenses are assessed, I cannot readily guess just how loudly this Brooks ruling might echo in other settings.  But I do know that a similar type of ruling from the Fourth Circuit a few years ago concerning how North Carolina priors were to be treated has tied up a lot of federal courts in a lot of jurisprudential knots as they try to unwind the impact of "mis-assessed prior offenses." Consequently, I would advise court officials and federal practitioners in Kansas and perhaps throughout the Tenth Circuit to start reviewing and giving thought to what Brooks says and what it could mean for prior cases as well as future ones.

June 2, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

House votes to preclude funding for clemency efforts as well as for pot prosecutions

I was amazed and pleased upon learning that a majority of members of the US House of Representative voted for an appropriations measure that would preclude the Justice Department from using funds to prevent states from implementing their medical marijuana laws (basics here and here).  But I was also amazed and peturbed upon learning that a majority of members of the US House of Representative also voted for an appropriations measure that would preclude the Justice Department from using funds to have more DOJ attorneys screen clemency petitions in conjunction with efforts to bring old excessive sentences in line with current laws and norms. This MSNBC article, headlined "House Republicans vote to block Obama’s new pardon attorneys," explains:

The U.S. House voted Thursday to block the Obama administration’s plan to add staff to the Pardon Attorney’s office, a potential barrier to the Justice Department’s efforts to scale back some lengthy prison sentences handed down in the war on drugs. The measure, sponsored by Republican North Carolina Rep. George Holding, bans any funding for staff who would conduct the administration’s planned review of applications from inmates seeking early release.

The measure is attached to a new Justice Department funding bill that passed on a party-line vote of 219-189. A Justice Department official told msnbc that Attorney General Eric Holder considers the new funding restriction “absurd.”

The department in April launched a new effort to review more clemency applications and expand the criteria for releasing inmates, particularly those still imprisoned under harsh sentencing laws that have since been reformed. Holding said he pushed the funding ban because he believes Obama is intent on using his presidential pardon power “solely on behalf of drug offenders.”

Speaking on the House floor, Holding also accused the administration of bulking up the Pardon Attorney’s office as a “political ploy” in order to “bypass Congress” and drug laws that are still on the books.

House Democrats objected, saying the funding ban would hamper the research and expertise of the Pardon Office. “If there were a resignation in the office and if you needed to have a temporary detailee, it would be prohibited from this amendment,” Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Chakah Fattah said. “The last thing we would want is the President using such extraordinary power without the benefit of proper staff and due diligence,” he added.

Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, said that while “no one denies the constitutional power of the president to grant clemency,” the Justice Department’s encouragement of “thousands” of clemency appeals is an improper use of the clemency power.  “Congress should not fund that office for that purpose,” Goodlatte said.

To date, President Obama has granted ten clemency petitions out of 11,218 clemency petitions received.

I am inclined to use the word asinine rather than absurd to describe this funding restriction and vote. Congress ought to pass a resolution if it is eager to provide advice or express concerns about how Prez Obama (or any other president for that matter) may be planning to use the constitutional clemency authority. But to prevent DOJ from having adequate resources to better screen the huge number of petitions coming from a huge number of federal prisoners serving now reformed sentences seems more likely to encourage misuse rather than better use of the clemency power.  Sigh.

June 2, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 01, 2014

"Death penalty in Kansas: Will the state ever execute another prisoner?"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy article in the Lawrence Journal World. And though focused on the modern story of capital administration in the Sunflower State, there are likely at least a dozen other states which still have the death penalty on the books and a number of prisoners on death row (ranging from California to Pennsylvania, from North Carolina to Washington) for which the same question could be reasonably asked given the lack of execution in these states for more than half a decade.  Here are excerpts abut the modern capital story in Kansas that is similar (though with distinct facets) to what happen in a number of states :  

Moments before he was hung to death, George York expressed contrition for his sins....

The state of Kansas had not forgiven York, convicting him of one of several murders he had confessed to as part of a cross-country killing spree with fellow Army deserter James Latham. So on June 22, 1965, York was led up the 13 steps of the gallows at the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing. A prison chaplain read from the 23rd Psalm as the noose was placed around York's neck. At 12:53 a.m., the trap door dropped. The 22-year-old was pronounced dead 19 minutes later.

York was the last person executed by the state of Kansas. In recent years, several states have banned capital punishment. It is on hiatus in some states because of problems obtaining the drugs used in lethal injections, which has led to botched executions, mostly recently in Oklahoma.  But in Kansas, the death penalty is in a sort of legal limbo: still on the books, just not being carried out.

There have been no executions in the 20 years since the death penalty was reinstated in Kansas, due, observers say, to an exhaustive appeals process, a cautious state Supreme Court dealing with a fairly new and restrictive law, and the state's relatively low murder rate. Nine men are currently on death row in Kansas.

Only two other states besides Kansas — Nebraska and California — have a lethal injection chamber that has never been used. The only death penalty state that has gone longer without an execution is New Hampshire, which last killed a prisoner in 1939 and has only one person on death row. Kansas doesn't even have lethal injection drugs in stock because a possible execution is so far in the future....

Earlier this year, the Kansas legislature debated a bill that proponents said would speed up the appeals process in capital cases.  The legislation didn't pass. One of its supporters, state Sen. Greg Smith, R-Olathe, was asked why there have been no executions in Kansas in recent years. "Four words: the Kansas Supreme Court," he said.  "It's not that we don't use the death penalty in Kansas.  It's that the Kansas Supreme Court refuses to apply the law and allow a lawful sentence to be carried out."

Smith, whose daughter was murdered in Missouri in 2007, refuses to name death row inmates, instead invoking the names of victims when discussing cases.  "What we tend to forget is the people who do this had zero mercy for the people they killed," he said. "The people who are murdered go through hell.  After they're murdered, we forget about the victim. People say, let's not be inhumane, but what about the people they killed?" He said the drawn-out appeals process puts families of victims "right back into that emotional mess they were in when they loved ones were killed."

The state's top prosecutor, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, also supported the changes, saying the Supreme Court should review only the sentencing rather than the whole case and that defendants' ability to file successive, unnecessary motions clogs up the appellate system. "Attorney General Schmidt has a long record of supporting Kansas’ narrowly tailored death penalty," said his spokesman, Clint Baes.  "In addition, our office this year supported a legislative proposal which would have held the courts accountable to their own procedural rules.  A lack of adherence to these rules by our appellate courts has led to the long delays in death penalty appeals."

The state Supreme Court not only declared Kansas' death penalty statute unconstitutional in 2004 (a decision later reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court), it has overturned the death sentences in all five of the modern capital cases it has issued opinions on....

Some legal experts say the Supreme Court takes so much time reviewing death penalty cases because the law in its current form has only existed for 20 years....

Jeffrey Jackson, a Lawrence attorney and law professor at Washburn University, said he believes that the death penalty statute has a deterrent effect.  The state's murder rate has declined since capital punishment was reinstated, from 170 in 1994 to 84 in 2012, though that mirrors a similar drop in homicides across the country.

He also noted that as the state Supreme Court continues to work through the issues surrounding Kansas' death penalty statute, the appeals process will likely quicken.  "Unless the Legislature repeals the death penalty, I think there will eventually be an execution," he said. (A recent bill to abolish capital punishment in Kansas would not have applied to the nine men already on death row). "The more cases you have, the better the judges get at figuring out how to do these things.  They're still going to take a lot of time, but it's not going to increase. It's almost assured that we will have an execution as long as the statute is in place."

That execution, if it comes, probably won't be happening in the near future. Even if the Kansas' high court affirms a death sentence, it will then have make its way through the federal appeals system.  "The death penalty is by far the most complex set of laws there could be in criminal law," said Ron Wurtz, the former chief of the state's Death Penalty Defense Unit, who doesn't see a Kansas inmate being put to death anytime soon. "It's not even close right now. I'd say it's probably 10 more years out, at the very least."

June 1, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Could video kill the sentencing brief?

220px-Video_Killed_the_Radio_Star_single_coverThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable Wall Street Journal article headlined "Leniency Videos Make a Showing at Criminal Sentencings: Some Lawyers Supplement Letters of Support With Mini-Documentaries; Effectiveness Is Debated." Here are excerpts:

Randy Ray Rivera, formerly of Springfield, Mass., and now a resident of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, is the subject of a documentary film that was made for a very limited audience: the federal district judge who held Mr. Rivera's fate in his hands.

It tells the story of a young man who began dealing drugs as a teenager to support his siblings and his heroin-addict mother, who died of AIDS in 2004. The 26-minute video includes emotional interviews with Mr. Rivera's brothers and sisters, daughters and son, current and ex-girlfriends and a social worker, as well as with Mr. Rivera himself, in white-and-gray prison garb.

Such films, while rare, have caught on in some federal public defenders' offices. Now, some private lawyers and investigators are attempting to unlock the potential of video in the sentencing phase of criminal cases, supplementing the memorandum and letters of support that are typically used to plead for leniency.

"The sentences are almost always better than they would otherwise be," said Doug Passon, a veteran assistant federal public defender in Arizona who is considered by his peers to be a pioneer of so-called sentencing-mitigation videos. For the past five years, he has held a sentencing film festival at an annual training conference for federal public defenders....

Judge William Sessions III, who sits on the federal district court in Vermont, gave Mr. Rivera 12 years in prison, after viewing the video Mr. Rivera's legal team put together. It captures the rundown buildings in Springfield that Mr. Rivera's family occupied, sometimes as squatters. At one point, Mr. Rivera's teenage daughter, through tears, calls him "one of the best dads ever."

Judge Sessions, speaking generally about sentencing videos, said, "When you have a video of either a defendant's life or a victim's life, it provides context for that life." But he said videos weren't a substitute for a good legal argument in a sentencing memorandum. "They are supplementary," he said....

Proponents say the videos fall within the scope of a federal rule that allows people convicted of a crime to "speak or present any information to mitigate the sentence" to the courts. But some courts have rejected sentencing videos, after prosecutors protested they weren't given an opportunity to question the witnesses who appeared in the videos, investigators said.

While investigators and lawyers say such videos are used in a small fraction of the tens of thousands of federal cases that end in a criminal sentence each year, the word appears to be slowly spreading. Susan Randall, a former documentary filmmaker who now works as a private investigator in Vermont, said she has created more than 20 sentencing videos for a range of white-collar and drug defendants, including Mr. Rivera....

Katrina Daniel, a former television news reporter who covered crime, started her own production company in 2012 and has made about 10 sentencing videos, charging anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000.Some are simply interviews with the defendants, while others draw on family, friends, co-workers and others. Ms. Daniel said she tries to convey the defendant's remorse and acceptance of responsibility.

Mr. Passon said he got the idea for sentencing videos from an attorney he clerked for in 1995, while he was law student at Washington University in St. Louis. They were representing a man charged with a drug crime whose wife was dying of lupus, and the defendant was her sole caretaker. "We were trying to show how desperately he was needed at home," Mr. Passon said. They went to the client's home with a clunky, tape-fed video camera and recorded the man as he cared for his wife. "It was very, very powerful," said Mr. Passon.

Pop culture fans will know that the title of this post is a bit of an homage to the very first video ever played on MTV and a song which may be my all-time favorite one-hit wonder. And long-time readers will know I cannot resist this excuse for a mini-song parody based on the start of the lyrics to Video Killed the Radio Star:

I heard you sold some drugs back in '92
Bad criminal intent will keep haunting you
Your criminal history points keep coming through

oh-a-oh

You now get credit for singing like a symphony
And will be helped by machine on new technology
And now I understand the post-Booker scene

oh-a-oh

We met your children

oh-a-oh

What will we show them?
Video killed the sentencing brief
Video killed the sentencing brief
Pictures came and eclipse my words,
We can't mitigate down too far

Whoa!

June 1, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack