Friday, May 22, 2015
"Federal Sentencing Error as Loss of Chance"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new piece available via SSRN authored by Kate Huddleston. Here is the abstract:
Federal courts have taken the wrong approach to discussing sentencing error. Circuit court opinions in career offender cases have framed the debate over collateral review of federal sentencing error as a conflict between finality and fairness. This Comment contends that disagreement over the cognizability of such claims is actually a dispute about the nature of the harm in sentencing error. What federal courts are actually asking, in effect, is whether the lost probability of a lower sentence is itself a cognizable injury.
The Comment draws on an analogy to tort law to argue that sentencing debates are, at their core, about loss of chance. Part I highlights the role that probability plays in recent sentencing opinions. It argues that, as an empirical matter, loss of chance is an accurate way to describe sentencing error given the anchoring effect of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines on sentencing practices. Part II makes the structural case for conceptualizing Guidelines sentencing error as a problem of probability, arguing that failure to recognize the probability dispute has obscured an underlying debate about the continued vitality of the Guidelines system. After United States v. Booker, the Sentencing Guidelines are advisory in principle and influential in practice. Part II argues that treating Guidelines error as loss of chance — and a loss that may constitute a fundamental miscarriage of justice — is necessary in order to enforce a Guidelines regime that is neither too rigid nor wholly indeterminate.
Two notable voices from the (far?) right calling again for drug war and sentencing reform
The two recent stories about recent comments by notable advocates reinforce my sense that more and more traditional (and not-so-traditional) conservative voices are feeling more and more confortable vocally criticizing the federal drug war and severe drug sentencing:
Money Quotes: If you told me a year ago that I [Grover Norquist] would be speaking out in favor of one of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's top priorities, I would have said you were crazy. The governor is a tax-and-spend liberal and I have spent my entire career fighting high taxes and wasteful government spending. Yet, just as a broken clock gets it right once in a while, Gov. Malloy is right about the need to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
Contrary to their original intent, mandatory minimum laws have done little to reduce crime. They have, however, been significant drivers of prison overcrowding and skyrocketing corrections budgets. That's why conservatives and liberals in Washington, D.C., and in statehouses all across the country are coming together to repeal and reform these one-size-fits-all laws. Oklahoma, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Florida are just a handful of the states where conservatives have not simply supported, but led, the efforts to scale back mandatory minimum sentences.
Conservatives in Connecticut should support the governor's mandatory minimum proposals for two reasons. First, the reforms are very modest — addressing only drug possession. In some states, such as Connecticut's neighbor, Rhode Island, and Delaware, lawmakers have repealed mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenses. Still more states have enacted significant reform to their drug mandatory minimum laws so that judges have discretion to impose individualized sentences that fit the crime. In all of these states, crime rates have dropped.
Conservatives in Connecticut also should embrace sentencing reform because of the state's awful budget mess. For too long, fiscal hawks have turned a blind eye to wasteful law enforcement spending. Not wanting to appear "soft on crime," they have supported every program and policy to increase the prison population without subjecting those ideas to cost-benefit analysis.
Those days are over. After watching state spending on prisons skyrocket more than 300 percent over the last two decades, state leaders across the country seem to understand that they can no longer afford to warehouse nonviolent offenders in prison.
Money Quotes: Today on Glenn Beck's radio (and TV) show, I [Jacob Sullum] debated marijuana prohibition with Robert White, co-author (with Bill Bennett) of Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America. The conversation turned to the war on drugs in general and also touched on federalism, the Commerce Clause, the nature of addiction, and the moral justification for paternalistic interference with individual freedom. Reading from my recent Forbes column, Beck said he is strongly attracted to the Millian principle that "the individual is sovereign" over "his own body and mind," which rules out government intervention aimed at protecting people from their own bad decisions. "I'm a libertarian in transit," he said. "I'm moving deeper into the libertarian realm.... Inconsistencies bother me." By the end of the show, Beck was declaring that the federal government should call off its war on drugs and let states decide how to deal with marijuana and other psychoactive substances.
Addendum: Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell notes that Beck indicated he favored marijuana legalization back in 2009, saying, "I think it's about time we legalize marijuana... We either put people who are smoking marijuana behind bars or we legalize it, but this little game we are playing in the middle is not helping us, it is not helping Mexico and it is causing massive violence on our southern border... Fifty percent of the money going to these cartels is coming just from marijuana coming across our border." As far as I know, however, this is the first time Beck has explicitly called for an end to federal prohibition of all the other currently banned drugs.
Thursday, May 21, 2015
Examining what qualifies as an LWOP sentence for purposes of Graham and Miller
This new piece at The Marshall Project, headlined "Life Expectancy: How many years make a life sentence for a teenager?," spotlights an Eighth Amendment issue that has been engaging lower courts in the five years since SCOTUS in Graham began putting limits of LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders. Eventually the Supreme Court will have to resolve the issue of just what qualifies as an LWOP sentence, and here is an account of issue (with some links to notable rulings):
James Comer was 17 when he, an older cousin, and their friend made a series of violent and irreversible decisions: One night in April 2000, they robbed four people at gunpoint. They followed one of their victims for miles as she drove home from her night shift as a postal worker, then pointed a gun at her head outside her house. Comer’s friend, 17-year-old Ibn Ali Adams, killed their second victim when he discovered the man had no money.
Comer’s youth, his lawyers argue, was at least partly responsible for his poor judgment and impulsive behavior. And it is his youth that may save him from dying in prison. Earlier this month, an Essex County, New Jersey, judge ordered a new sentencing hearing for Comer in light of Miller v. Alabama. ...
But Comer isn’t serving life without parole, at least not technically. For felony murder and multiple counts of armed robbery, he was sentenced to 75 years. He will be eligible for parole, but not until his 86th birthday — more than 20 years past his life expectancy, according to actuarial data his lawyers cited. This sentence “amounts to de facto life without parole and should be characterized as such,” the judge wrote.
Miller v. Alabama was the third in what’s come to be known as the “Roper/Graham/Miller trilogy” of cases in which the Supreme Court ruled, essentially, that kids are different. Teenagers’ still-developing brains make them more impulsive, more susceptible to peer pressure, and less able to understand the consequences of their actions. This makes them less culpable than adults and more amenable to rehabilitation as they mature, the court said.
With Roper, the court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. With Graham, it struck down life-without-parole sentences for non-homicide crimes. With Miller, the justices forbid mandatory life-without-parole sentences, even for murder. Life sentences for juveniles are allowed only if the judge first has the chance to consider how youth and immaturity may have contributed to the crime....
Now a growing number of courts are interpreting the trilogy even more broadly, applying their principles to cases, like Comer’s, that aren’t explicitly covered by the court’s rulings.
“When read in light of Roper and Graham,” Miller v. Alabama “reaches beyond its core holding,” the Connecticut Supreme Court held last month in State v. Riley. In that case, 17-year-old Ackeem Riley was sentenced to 100 years in prison after he shot into a crowd in a gang-related incident, killing one teenager and wounding two children. The court ordered a new sentencing hearing, finding that the sentencing judge had not adequately considered Riley’s youth. Though Miller specifically targeted mandatory life without parole sentences — technically, Riley’s sentence was neither mandatory nor life without parole — the Supreme Court’s reasoning “counsels against viewing these cases through an unduly myopic lens,” the Connecticut court said.
In Brown v. Indiana, the state supreme court ordered a new sentencing hearing for Martez Brown, who was 16 when he and two friends killed a couple in a botched robbery. Quoting Miller, the court ruled that “similar to a life without parole sentence, Brown’s 150 year sentence ‘forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal.’” Although Brown’s sentence was not formally a life-without-parole sentence, they wrote, “we focus on the forest — the aggregate sentence — rather than the trees — consecutive or concurrent, number of counts, or length of the sentence on any individual count.”
May 21, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
After Boston bomber's condemnation in liberal Massachusetts, is the death penalty really "withering away"?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new commentary by George Will carrying the headline "Capital punishment’s slow death." Here is the full commentary, which claims to be making a "conservative case against capital punishment":
Without a definitive judicial ruling or other galvanizing event, a perennial American argument is ending. Capital punishment is withering away.
It is difficult to imagine moral reasoning that would support the conclusion that an injustice will be done when, years hence, the death penalty finally is administered to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon terrorist who placed a bomb in a crowd and then strolled to safety. Sentencing to death those who commit heinous crimes satisfies a sense of moral proportionality. This is, however, purchased with disproportionate social costs, as Nebraska seems to be concluding.
Nebraska is not a nest of liberals. Yet on Wednesday its 49-member unicameral legislature passed a bill abolishing the death penalty 32 to 15. Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, vows to veto it.
This comes at a time when, nationwide, exonerations of condemned prisoners and botched executions are dismayingly frequent. Nebraska’s death penalty opponents, including a majority of Nebraskans, say it is expensive without demonstrably enhancing public safety or being a solace to families of murder victims. Some Nebraska families have testified that the extended legal processes surrounding the death penalty prolong their suffering. That sentiment is shared by Bill and Denise Richard, whose 8-year-old son was killed by Tsarnaev.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments about whether one component of a three-drug mixture used in lethal injection executions — and recently used in some grotesquely protracted ones — is unreliable in preventing suffering that violates the Eighth Amendment proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” States use the drug in question because more effective drugs are hard to acquire, partly because death penalty opponents are pressuring drug companies not to supply them.
For this, Justice Antonin Scalia blamed a death penalty “abolitionist movement.” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked, “Is it appropriate for the judiciary to countenance what amounts to a guerrilla war against the death penalty, which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the states to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment with little, if any, pain?” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wondered, “What bearing, if any, should be put on the fact that there is a method, but that it’s not available because of opposition to the death penalty? What relevance does that have?”
The answers are: Public agitation against capital punishment is not relevant to judicial reasoning. And it is not the judiciary’s business to worry that a ruling might seem to “countenance” this or that social advocacy.
The conservative case against capital punishment, which 32 states have, is threefold. First, the power to inflict death cloaks government with a majesty and pretense of infallibility discordant with conservatism. Second, when capital punishment is inflicted, it cannot later be corrected because of new evidence, so a capital punishment regime must be administered with extraordinary competence. It is, however, a government program. Since 1973, more than 140 people sentenced to death have been acquitted of their crimes (sometimes by DNA evidence), had the charges against them dismissed by prosecutors or have been pardoned based on evidence of innocence. For an unsparing immersion in the workings of the governmental machinery of death, read “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.
Third, administration of death sentences is so sporadic and protracted that their power to deter is attenuated. And the expensive, because labyrinthine, legal protocols with which the judiciary has enveloped capital punishment are here to stay. Granted, capital punishment could deter: If overdue library books were punishable by death, none would be overdue. But many crimes for which death is reserved, including Tsarnaev’s crime of ideological premeditation, are especially difficult to deter.
Those who favor capital punishment because of its supposed deterrent effect do not favor strengthening that effect by restoring the practice of public executions. There has not been one in America since 1937 (a hanging in Galena, Mo.) because society has decided that state-inflicted deaths, far from being wholesomely didactic spectacles, are coarsening and revolting.
Revulsion is not an argument, but it is evidence of what former chief justice Earl Warren called society’s “evolving standards of decency.” In the essay “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Albert Camus wrote, “The man who enjoys his coffee while reading that justice has been done would spit it out at the least detail.” Capital punishment, say proponents, serves social catharsis. But administering it behind prison walls indicates a healthy squeamishness that should herald abolition.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Nebraska legislature votes by large margin to repeal state's death penalty
As reported in this new AP article, " Nebraska lawmakers gave final approval on Wednesday to a bill abolishing the death penalty with enough votes to override a promised veto from Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts." Here is more:
The vote was 32 to 15 in Nebraska's unicameral Legislature. If that vote holds in a veto override, Nebraska would become the first conservative state to repeal the death penalty since North Dakota in 1973. The Nebraska vote is notable in the national debate over capital punishment because it was bolstered by conservatives who oppose the death penalty for religious reasons and say it is a waste of taxpayer money.
Nebraska hasn't executed a prisoner since 1997, and some lawmakers have argued that constant legal challenges will prevent the state from doing so again.
Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, a death penalty supporter, has vowed to veto the bill. Ricketts announced last week that the state has bought new lethal injection drugs to resume executions. Ricketts, who is serving his first year in office, argued in his weekly column Tuesday that the state's inability to carry out executions was a "management problem" that he is committed to fixing.
Maryland was the last state to end capital punishment, in 2013. Three other moderate to liberal states have done so in recent years: New Mexico in 2009, Illinois in 2011, Connecticut in 2012. The death penalty is legal in 32 states, including Nebraska.
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Notable sentencing and clemency comments from newly-confirmed Deputy Attorney General
I just came across this recent Washington Post profile of Sally Quillian Yates, the new number two at the Department of Justice. The piece is headlined "New deputy attorney general: ‘We’re not the Department of Prosecutions’," and here are some notable excerpts:
The odds were stacked against lawyer Sally Quillian in her first trial in rural Barrow County, Ga. Before an all-white jury, she was representing the county’s first African American landowning family against a developer over a disputed title to six acres of land. The family was so distrustful of the court system back in the 1930s that they hadn’t recorded their deed. Instead, the family’s matriarch kept the deed, written on cloth, folded inside her dress every day while she worked the fields. Now, a developer was trying to take their property, and Quillian was arguing the case using an arcane legal theory.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Quillian — now Sally Quillian Yates — recalled. “I had never tried a case before.” But the jury came back with a verdict in favor of her client. “These 12 white jurors, who knew and went to church with and socialized with everybody on the other side, did the right thing,” said Yates, who was then at a private firm. “This court system that my client’s family had mistrusted so much that they wouldn’t even file their deed had worked for them as it’s supposed to and had given them back the property that had been so important to their family all of these years.”
That case some 30 years ago had a deep impact on Yates, who went on to become a prosecutor in Atlanta for 20 years. In 2010, President Obama nominated Yates to be the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. Last week, she was confirmed to be deputy attorney general , the second-highest-ranking position at the Justice Department. A bottle of champagne still sits in her fourth-floor corner office, which overlooks Constitution Avenue and where senior officials celebrated her 84-to-12 Senate vote....
One of Yates’s priorities will be to follow through with the criminal justice reform efforts begun by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., including the push to give clemency to “nonviolent drug offenders” who meet certain criteria set out by the department last year, she said in her first interview since taking the job.
Yates and other prosecutors enforced the harsh sentencing policies from the 1980s and ’90s. “Those policies were enacted at a time of an exploding violent-crime rate and serious crack problems,” Yates said. “They were based on the environment we were in. But things have changed now, and violent crime rates have dropped dramatically.”
More than 35,000 inmates are seeking clemency, but a complicated review process has slowed the Obama administration’s initiative. In February, Obama commuted the sentences of 22 drug offenders, the largest batch of prisoners to be granted early release under his administration and the first group of inmates who applied after the new criteria were set.
“Certainly, there’s some growing pains at the beginning,” Yates said. “There’s start-up time involved in this. I think all of us are frustrated that it’s taken longer than we would like for this to be operating as efficiently as possible. But I think we are headed down that road now. There are going to be more recommendations from the department, and I would expect more commutations that the president will be issuing.”...
Yates commutes every other weekend to Atlanta to be with her husband, who is the director of a school for children with learning disabilities, and to plan the wedding of her 24-year-old daughter, the older of two children. She said the back-and-forth is worth the opportunity to influence criminal justice issues, including civil rights and sentencing reform, at the highest level.
She plans to urge lawmakers on Capitol Hill to pass legislation to change sentencing policies. “Certainly, I don’t think I can ever be accused of being soft on crime,” Yates said. “But we need to be using the limited resources we have to ensure that we are truly doing justice and that the sentences we’re meting out are just and proportional to the crimes that we’re charging.”
“We’re not the Department of Prosecutions or even the Department of Public Safety,” Yates said. “We are the Department of Justice.”
Is a former lobbyist and former federal prisoner likely to be a uniquely good sentencing reform advocate?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new CQ Roll Call article headlined "Out of Prison, Ex-Lobbyist Pushes Sentencing Overhaul." Here are excerpts:
Kevin Ring helped write a bill in the 1990s that toughened penalties for methamphetamine charges. Now, recently out of prison, the former Team Abramoff lobbyist says he wants Congress to overhaul the nation’s justice system and to undo mandatory minimum requirements altogether.
His own effort comes at a pivotal time for the issue on Capitol Hill, where bipartisan measures (S 502, HR 920) to reduce stiff sentencing requirements for drug charges appear to be gaining some traction.
Ring, a former Hill aide, is wrapping up his 20-month sentence for an honest services fraud conviction by serving home confinement that allows him to work in downtown Washington, D.C. He is drawing on his K Street and criminal justice experiences at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group devoted to peeling back the same sort of laws he helped push through while serving as a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer.
“We wanted to look tough on meth,” said Ring, a Republican, who recently started working full-time as FAMM’s new director of strategic initiatives. “The Hill is run by too many 20-year-olds with a lot of opinions and not enough experience, and I was part of that. I didn’t have enough experience to write criminal statutes. What did I know?”
Ring is a former colleague of ex-K Street power player Jack Abramoff, and like Abramoff he went to the federal prison camp in Cumberland, Md. Ring started working with FAMM part-time five years ago, doing grant writing. He’d already lost two jobs at K Street firms amid the unraveling Abramoff scandal, and he needed work. He had to terminate all outside employment during his prison term.
“When he first interviewed with us, he was incredibly humble, hat in hand, and said, ‘I’m about to be indicted,’” recalled Julie Stewart, FAMM’s president and founder and a self-described libertarian. “I immediately realized what an incredible gem we had in Kevin because of his conservative background. It was very clear to me that Kevin could do so much good for FAMM and for our issue and promoting it in a voice that could really be heard by the people we were trying to influence on the Hill.” FAMM, she noted, is a rare organization that gets funding from conservative David Koch and liberal George Soros.
Ring, 44, said he doesn’t expect he will meet the legal definition of a lobbyist at FAMM, but he intends to write op-eds, congressional testimony and advocacy letters. In short, he plans to influence the process largely from the background. It's not likely to be an easy sell.
Even as the White House and Republicans on the Hill, including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho, are championing sentencing overhaul legislation, such proposals are far from a fait accompli. Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa has pushed back on criticism that he is blocking sentencing legislation, but he’s made clear his support would come with a price....
Grassley, in a recent speech at the Press Club, said white-collar criminals such as Ring receive "paltry sentences." He has suggested such criminals ought to be subject to mandatory minimums in exchange for reduced minimums for nonviolent drug offenders. "The last thing we need is to take away a tool that law enforcement and prosecutors use to get the bad guys," Grassley said.
His spokeswoman, Beth Levine, said Grassley’s staff and aides to the lawmakers pushing for sentencing legislation “have been sitting down to work something out.”
FAMM, as well as Ring, opposes new mandatory minimum requirements for white-collar crimes. “It’s an awful, awful idea,” Ring said during an interview last week in FAMM’s offices near Metro Center. “Even without mandatory minimums, prosecutors can threaten you with such a long sentence that you want to plead guilty.”
He said the mandatory minimums have inflated sentencing guidelines across crimes, even those not subject to mandatory sentences. In Ring’s case, prosecutors asked the judge to sentence him to at least 20 years in prison. He said even his current home confinement, which includes a GPS ankle tracker to monitor his location 24 hours a day, is surprisingly restrictive and ought to be used more for nonviolent offenders — keeping them out of the prison system and allowing them to continue to work, pay taxes and care for their children.
It’s a message that resonates with budget-conscious Republicans, especially those with a libertarian stance. Stewart, who started FAMM 24 years ago, when her brother went to federal prison for growing marijuana in Washington state, said the current conversation on Capitol Hill and across the country is unprecedented. “My one fear is that talk is cheap,” she said. “It’s going to be a push.”
And Ring will be right in the middle of it. “I believed it before, and now I just feel like I’m better informed for having had the experience,” Ring said. “You know I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone, but now that I have it, I feel compelled to say what I saw. So that goes to not only how prosecutions work, how sentencing works, but then also how prisons work or don’t work.”
Monday, May 18, 2015
DC Circuit on child porn and sentencing manipulation and nonfrivolous arguments (aka departures and variances and Booker, oh my!)
I sometime consider Washington DC to be a land like Oz where weird, and sometimes magical, sometimes scary, sometimes bizarre, events can transpire. Thus, when reading the DC Circuit's recent opinion in US v. Bigley, No. 12-3022 (DC Cir. May 15, 2015) (available here), I kept hearing Dorothy's voice as the opinion twisted and turned through a variety of notable sentencing issues in the dark Booker forest. Here is how the per curiam opinion gets started:
Before United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), rendered the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines advisory, we forbade district courts from relying on sentencing manipulation as a basis for mitigation. See United States v. Walls, 70 F.3d 1323, 1329–30 (D.C. Cir. 1995). But Booker and its offspring fundamentally changed the sentencing calculus, requiring courts to now consider any mitigation argument related to the sentencing factors contained in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) when imposing a sentence within the statutory range of punishment. See Pepper v. United States, 131 S. Ct. 1229, 1241–48 (2011); Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U.S. 85, 101–02 (2007); Rita v. United States, 551 U.S. 338, 357 (2007). A sentencing court, post-Booker, must consider nonfrivolous arguments for mitigation, even if those arguments were previously prohibited under the mandatory guidelines regime. Because the district court failed to consider a nonfrivolous claim of sentencing manipulation when it pronounced its sentence, we vacate the sentence and remand.
Notably, the full opinion for the DC Circuit panel here does not quite say that a district court always has an obligation to address expressly a nonfrivolous argument raised by the defendant. Judge Rogers concurs separately to advocate such a holding by the circuit:
“Sentencing is a responsibility heavy enough without our adding formulaic or ritualized burdens.” United States v. Cavera, 550 F.3d 180, 193 (2d Cir. 2008). I am not indifferent to concerns about saddling busy district courts with more procedural loads and I appreciate this court’s reluctance. But the burden of providing a brief explanation is small and the advantages great. “Most obviously, [an explanation] requirement helps to ensure that district courts actually consider the statutory factors and reach reasoned decisions.” Id. at 193; see also In re Sealed Case, 527 F.3d 188, 192 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (“The requirements that a sentencing judge provide a specific reason for a departure and that he commit that reason to writing work together to ensure a sentence is well-considered.”). It also promotes the “perception of fair sentencing,” Gall, 552 U.S. at 50, and “helps the sentencing process evolve by informing the ongoing work of the Sentencing Commission,” Cavera, 550 F.3d at 193. When a sentencing court responds to a defendant’s arguments, it “communicates a message of respect for defendants, strengthening what social psychologists call ‘procedural justice effects,’ thereby advancing fundamental purposes of the Sentencing Reform Act.” See Michael M. O’Hear, Explaining Sentences, 36 FLA. ST. U. L. REV. 459, 472 (2009). The requirement also assures an adequate record with which we can conduct “meaningful appellate review.” Gall, 552 U.S. at 50. I would join the majority of circuits in holding district courts should address a defendant’s nonfrivolous argument for a variance from the Guideline range.
Though the formal ruling and the discussion of sentencing procedural are surely the most consequential aspects of this Bigbey ruling, I cannot overlook or fail to comment on the case facts and on how the remarkable severity of the federal child porn guidelines shaped the entire sentencing dynamic of this case. Here is the sad and remarkable (guideline) tale: The defendant in this case was charged and pled guilty to "one count of interstate travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a minor" after he drove to DC to hook up with a (fictional) 12-year-old daughter of a friend of an (undercover) agent chatting on-line. At the suggestion of the agent, the defendant bought a digital camera with him on his trip to DC for taking pictures of the girl, which had this impact in the calculation of the guideline range:
When the probation office calculated his advisory sentencing guideline range, it employed the Section 2G1.3(c)(1) cross-reference guideline provision, which requires the application of Section 2G2.1 when an offense involves “causing, transporting, permitting, or offering . . . a minor to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct.” U.S.S.G. § 2G1.3(c)(1). By applying Section 2G2.1, Bigley’s base offense level increased from 24 to 32, which, when the other guideline calculations were made, boosted his sentence guideline range from 46 to 57 months to 135 to 168 months of imprisonment.
In other words, because (and only because) the defendant was talked into bringing a digital camera on his illegal child booty-call trip, his recommended guideline sentence shot up from 4-5 years to 12-14 years. I have heard of some severe gun-possession sentencing enhancements, but I have never seen such a severe camera-possession sentencing enhancement. Perhaps the NRA (the Nikon Rights Association) should consider filing an amicus brief at the resentencing.
May 18, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack
NY Times editorial astutely praises "Justice Reform in the Deep South"
Throughout too much of America's history, the term "Southern Justice" would invoke shudders and fear. (Indeed, as discussed here, Norman Rockwell used this term as the title for his historic painting depicting the deaths of three civil rights workers killed for seeking to register African American voters.) But, as effectively highlighted by this new New York Times editorial, lawmakers in the deep south are lately doing a lot to remake the image of southern justice:
It has been getting easier by the day for politicians to talk about fixing the nation’s broken criminal justice system. But when states in the Deep South, which have long had some of the country’s harshest penal systems, make significant sentencing and prison reforms, you know something has changed.
Almost all of these deep-red states have made changes to their justice systems in the last few years, and in doing so they have run laps around Congress, which continues to dither on the passage of any meaningful reform. Lawmakers in Alabama, for example, voted nearly unanimously early this month to approve a criminal justice bill. Alabama prisons are stuffed to nearly double capacity, endangering the health and lives of the inmates, and the cost of mass imprisonment is crippling the state budget at no discernible benefit to public safety.
The bill would cut the state’s prison population of nearly 25,000 by about 4,500 people over the next five years. Sentences for certain nonviolent crimes would be shortened, and more parole supervisors would be hired to help ensure that people coming out of prison don’t return. Gov. Robert Bentley is expected to sign the measure as soon as Tuesday.
Before Alabama, South Carolina passed its own package of reforms in 2010. In February, it closed its second minimum-security prison in a year. Georgia got on board with significant reforms to its adult and juvenile prison systems in 2012 and 2013, including giving judges more leeway to sentence below mandatory minimums and increasing oversight of prisons. In 2014, Mississippi passed its own systemic fixes, like providing more alternatives to prison for lowlevel drug offenders.
Of course, all these states had abysmal conditions to start with. Mississippi imprisons more of its citizens per capita than China and Russia combined. That’s worse than any state except Louisiana, which has not yet managed reforms as broad as its neighbors. Alabama was facing the threat of federal intervention to alleviate its crushingly overcrowded prisons if it didn’t act. And many of these state reforms are far more modest than they should be....
Nonetheless, these initiatives show important progress. Less than a decade ago, it was difficult to find any governor anywhere, of either party, who would go near this issue. Now, a Republican governor like Nathan Deal of Georgia is pointing with pride to two major reform packages, as well as the state’s “ban the box” law, which prohibits the state from asking potential employees about their criminal history until later in the hiring process.
Still, justice reform is a fragile proposition, and can be easily thwarted by more powerful political forces. As the 2016 presidential election approaches, most of the major candidates agree that criminaljustice reform is a priority, but there remains a good deal of ambivalence on how to move forward. There needn’t be. The reforms in the southern states, though limited, are already paying off. The presidential candidates — not to mention Congress — should be paying close attention.
Sunday, May 17, 2015
"Does Michigan's sex offender registry keep us safer?"
The question in the title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new Detroit Free Press article. The piece carries this subheadline: "Experts say such registries can be counterproductive; courts question constitutional fairness." Here are excerpts of a must-read piece for any and everyone concerned about the efficacy of sex offender regulations:
It has been 10 years since Shaun Webb, a married father and caretaker at an Oakland County Catholic church, was convicted of groping a teenage girl over her sweater, a claim Webb vehemently denies. Webb, then-37 with a clean criminal record, was convicted of misdemeanor sexual assault and sent to jail for seven months.
Though a misdemeanor, state law demanded Webb be listed on the same public sex offender registry as hard-core rapists, pedophiles and other felons. It has meant a decade of poverty, unemployment, harassment and depression for him. Under current state law, he'll be on the list until 2031. "It's destroyed my life," Webb said from his rural home in Arenac County, where he now lives alone with his dog, Cody.
Webb is one of 43,000 convicted sex offenders in Michigan, most of which appear on the state online sex offender registry managed by the State Police. Each state has a digital registry that can be searched on the Internet with a total of about 800,000 names. The registries are widely monitored by parents, potential employers and cautious neighbors.
To be sure, registries in Michigan and across the nation help track violent sexual offenders and pedophiles who prey on children, and they're also politically popular and get lots of traffic online. But Michigan's law — and some others across the nation — have come under fire lately as overly broad, vague and potentially unconstitutional. For example, Michigan has the fourth-highest per capita number of people on its registry and is one of only 13 states that counts public urination as a sex crime.
Research also suggests registries do little to protect communities and often create ongoing misery for some who served their sentences and are unlikely to re-offend....
Even some early advocates have changed their minds about registries, including Patty Wetterling, the mother of Jacob Wetterling, who went missing when he was 11 and was never found. Police suspect Jacob was abducted by a convicted pedophile who was living nearby unbeknownst to neighbors. No one was charged.
At the time, Wetterling lobbied passionately for a federal law authorizing registries and was at the White House in 1994 when President Bill Clinton signed legislation into law. But she now advocates revisiting the laws, saying some juveniles and others who made mistakes are unnecessarily tarred for decades or life. "Should they never be given a chance to turn their lives around?" she said in a published 2013 interview. "Instead, we let our anger drive us."
But some legislators and law enforcement officials say registries are useful because they help keep track of potentially dangerous people. The supporters also dismiss the research, saying it's impossible to determine who might re-offend. They caution against narrowing the definition in Michigan's law of who should be listed and are against adopting a new recommendation by some that defendants should be judged case by case by who is most likely to re-offend.
"The problem I have is should we go back and say only pedophiles have to register?" said state Sen. Rick Jones, a former sheriff who helped draft some of Michigan's sex offender registry laws. "Do we want violent sex offenders on the school grounds? Do we want public masturbators on the school grounds? I'm not prepared to change the way the list operates."
Many parents say the registries makes them feel safer. Lori Petty, a legal secretary, has been logging on regularly over the years as she raised her two sons in Commerce Township. "If they were going over to a friend's house to visit, I would look to see who lived nearby, if there was a high concentration," she said. "Not that there was anything I could do, but it helps to know." Her sons are now 18 and 25, and she monitors the site less frequently, using it to see who may have moved close by, she said. "I want to know who is living in my neighborhood."
Sex offender registry laws were first passed in the 1990s following a string of horrific child murders. The registries were originally accessible only by police, allowing them to track the most dangerous offenders. But lawmakers in Michigan and other states expanded the laws over the years — they are now public record and include teenagers who had consensual sex, people arrested for public urination, people who had convictions expunged at the request of their victims, and people like Webb who have no felony convictions.
Earlier this month, a Florida couple was convicted of lewd behavior after having consensual sex on a public beach. They will have to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives. In Michigan, most of those convicted of sex offenses are listed online and show up with just a few key strokes on a website managed by the Michigan State Police....
Convicted sex offenders don't generate much public sympathy, but research in the last two decades shows they might not be very effective. And higher courts recently called registries harsh and unconstitutional, including a ruling last month that says parts of Michigan's law are vague and unconstitutional, making it impossible in some instances for offenders to know whether they are following the law. For many, there is also a question of fundamental fairness when, for example, a 19-year-old is convicted of having sex with his underage girlfriend or somebody convicted of public urination is grouped on the same list as a serial rapist.
Despite the court rulings and the research, it's doubtful public sex offender registries are going away, although it seems apparent Michigan and other states might be pushed into making some changes. A big question, though, is whether Michigan's expansive definition of who should be on the sex offender registry is fair to people like Webb....
Nationally, there are about 800,000 people registered as sex offenders across the 50 states. Michigan is particularly aggressive, ranking fourth in the nation with the number of offenders on the registry, following only California, Texas and Florida. It also ranks fourth per capita, with 417 registrants per 100,000 citizens. It is one of only 13 states that count public urination as a sex crime, although two convictions are required before registration. And Michigan continues to require registration for consensual sex among teenagers if the age difference is greater than four years....
Michigan legislators are reviewing [the recent federal court] ruling and considering reforming the laws to make them compliant. Some, though, think tougher laws are in order. And they dismiss critics who say the registries cause unnecessary misery to those who have already served their sentences. "I say if you do the horrible rape, or if you have sex with a child, you deserve the consequences," said state Sen. Rick Jones, who helped draft some of Michigan's sex offender registry laws.
Jones questions the research that shows sex offenders are much less likely to re-offend and that the majority of those on the registry pose no threat. "I have 31 years of experience in police work, and as a retired sheriff in Eaton County I formed some very strong opinions that the science is still not clear for pedophiles. I believe it is society's duty to keep pedophiles from children so that the temptation isn't there. So I say you need to stay a thousand feet from schools."
A 2010 study by the American Journal of Public Health, examining sex offender laws nationwide and the best way to reduce recidivism, noted: "Research to date indicates that after 15 years the laws have had little impact on recidivism rates and the incidence of sexually based crimes. " Instead, the study found, "The most significant impact of these laws seems only to be numerous collateral consequences for communities, registered sex offenders — including a potential increased risk for recidivism — and their family members."
J.J. Prescott, a law professor at the University of Michigan and a nationally recognized expert on sex offender registry laws, agrees. He has done statistical analysis of the impact the laws have on crime rates. "I believe that if a sex offender really wants to commit a crime, these laws are not going to be particularly effective at stopping him," he said, noting that there is no evidence that residency restrictions or "school safety zones" have had any positive impact on the rate of sexual assault on children, according to studies nationwide....
While his research also shows that the mere threat of having to publicly register may deter some potential offenders from committing their first crime, this effect is more than offset in states with large registries by higher levels of recidivism among those who have been convicted.
May 17, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack
After reversal of most serious charges, elderly nun and fellow peace activists released from federal prison
As reported in this AP article, headlined "3 anti-nuclear activists released from federal prison," a notable federal civil disobedience case has taken some notable new turns this month. Here are the details:
An 85-year-old nun and two fellow Catholic peace activists who vandalized a uranium storage bunker were released from prison on Saturday, their lawyer said. Attorney Marc Shapiro says Sister Megan Rice was released just hours after 66-year-old Michael Walli and 59-year-old Greg Boertje-Obed also were let out of prison.
The trio was ordered released by a federal appeals court on Friday. The order came after the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati last week overturned their 2013 sabotage convictions and ordered resentencing on their remaining conviction for injuring government property at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge.
The activists have spent two years in prison. The court said they likely already have served more time than they will receive for the lesser charge.
On Thursday, their attorneys petitioned the court for an emergency release, saying that resentencing would take weeks if normal court procedures were followed. Prosecutors responded that they would not oppose the release, if certain conditions were met. "They are undoubtedly relieved to be returning to family and friends," said Shapiro, who represented the activists in their appeal.
Rice, Walli and Boertje-Obed are part of a loose network of activists opposed to the spread of nuclear weapons. To further their cause, in July 2012, they cut through several fences to reach the most secure area of the Y-12 complex. Before they were arrested, they spent two hours outside a bunker that stores much of the nation's bomb-grade uranium, hanging banners, praying and spray-painting slogans....
Rice was originally sentenced to nearly three years and Walli and Boertje-Obed were each sentenced to just over five years. In overturning the sabotage conviction, the Appeals Court ruled that their actions did not injure national security.
Boertje-Obed's wife, Michele Naar-Obed, said in a phone interview from her home in Duluth, Minnesota, she hoped her husband would be released from prison by Monday, which will be his 60th birthday. Naar-Obed previously served three years in prison herself for anti-nuclear protests. She said that if their protests open people's minds to the possibility of life without nuclear weapons, then "yeah, it was worth it."
Prior related posts:
- You be the judge: should guidelines be followed in federal sentencing of elderly nun and two other peace activists?
- Sentencing round two for elderly nun and two other peace activists for breaking into a federal defense facility
- After she asked for life sentence, Sister Megan Rice gets 35 months' imprisonment and her co-defendants get 62 for sabotage
May 17, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice call for absolute capital abolition
As reported in this Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, headlined "Former justice calls for end to death penalty," reports on a notable speech given by a notable former jurist. Here are the details:
A former chief justice of Georgia’s highest court on Tuesday strongly renounced the death penalty and called for its abolition. Norman Fletcher, who served 15 years on the Georgia Supreme Court, said the death penalty is “morally indefensible,” “makes no business sense” and is not applied fairly and consistently.
“Capital punishment must be permanently halted, without exception,” Fletcher said. “It will not be easy, but it can and will be accomplished.”
Fletcher, now a Rome lawyer, retired from the state Supreme Court in 2005. Although considered one of the court’s more liberal members, he cast numerous votes upholding death sentences. In more recent years, he has signed on to legal briefs urging courts to halt the executions of a number of condemned inmates.
Fletcher made his remarks Tuesday evening at the Summerour Studio near Atlantic Station, where he received the Southern Center for Human Rights’ Gideon’s Promise Award for his role in helping create a statewide public defender system. In his acceptance speech, Fletcher said he was about to “shock” those attending the ceremony.
Lawyers who once criticized his decisions upholding death sentences were justified, he said. “With wisdom gained over the past 10 years, I am now convinced there is absolutely no justification for continuing to impose the sentence of death in this country,” Fletcher said....
Fletcher added, “There can be no doubt that actually innocent persons have been executed in this country.” Too often, Fletcher contended, budgetary issues, race and politics factor into the decision-making of whether to seek the death penalty.
Fletcher cited the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who once said he could “no longer tinker with the machinery of death.” Blackmun made this declaration before he retired from the high court in 1994. “It is time for us to quit the tinkering and totally abolish this barbaric system,” Fletcher said.
Senator Cornyn highlights his plan to "ensure that prisons don’t become nursing homes behind bars"
This recent post spotlighted the Washington Post's extended front-page story about the graying of America's prison populations. Notably, Senator John Cornyn has now penned this letter to the editor to explain what he is trying to do to deal with this issue:
A bipartisan proposal working its way through Congress would offer a path home for some nonviolent, elderly prisoners.
The Corrections Act, which I have introduced with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), includes a provision that would make prisoners age 60 and older eligible for early release after serving two-thirds of their sentences. This reform builds on an expired pilot program from a bipartisan prison reform law known as the Second Chance Act of 2007. That program showed good results before it was canceled last year, and our proposal would save taxpayer money by treating seriously ill and dying individuals with compassion.
It is becoming increasingly clear that we must make bipartisan efforts to reform our criminal justice system. Many of the issues involved are complex, but reforming the system to ensure that prisons don’t become nursing homes behind bars doesn’t need to be one of them.
Thursday, May 07, 2015
Electrifying Tennessee fight over electric chair as back up execution method
BuzzFeed has this interesting new article about an interesting legal fight unfolding in Tennessee. This extensive headline provides the basics: "Tennessee Officials Fight Inmates’ Attempt To Challenge Electric Chair Plans: The electric chair is Tennessee’s plan B if the state can’t get ahold of lethal drugs. The inmates argue it’s unconstitutional, but the state argues that they can’t challenge it yet." Here are some details from the start of the article:
Can death-row inmates challenge the constitutionality of electrocution? The Tennessee Supreme Court will soon decide.
Death penalty states once phased out the electric chair in favor of drugs — for humane reasons. Now that drugs have become hard to obtain, states like Tennessee have turned to older execution methods like the chair as a backup.
On Wednesday, the state court will weigh whether death-row inmates can challenge the method’s constitutionality. Thirty-four inmates allege electrocution is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment — that the electric chair disfigures the body and is an affront to evolving standards of decency.
But Tennessee has pushed to have the lawsuit dismissed, arguing that the inmates can’t challenge the method because none of them are actually scheduled to face electrocution.
Tennessee’s preferred method is lethal injection, using pentobarbital made from a secret compounding pharmacy. Lawmakers passed a law last year that makes electrocution the contingency plan if either drug makers or the courts make lethal injection impossible.
“The[y] are asking the court in this case to… consider hypothetical situations involving uncertain or contingent future events that may or may not occur as anticipated or, indeed, may not occur at all,” Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s office wrote.
Saturday, May 02, 2015
Seventh Circuit, in 6-5 en banc ruling, allows new federal 2241 review of Atkins claim based on new evidence
If you love to spend a spring weekend thinking through the statutes and policies that govern federal collateral review of federal death sentences — and really, who doesn't? — then the en banc Seventh Circuit has a great ruling for you. Dividing 6-to-5, the Seventh Circuit in Webster v. Daniels, No. 14-1049 (7th Cir. May 1, 2015) (available here), decided that a federal death row inmate was "not barred as a matter of law from seeking relief under section 2241" to continue to pursue based on new evidence his claim that he was "so intellectually disabled that he is categorically ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins and Hall."
This following paragraph from the dissent authored by Judge Easterbrook highlights why this ruling took the majority many pages to reach and is controversial:
Whether Webster is “retarded” was the principal issue at his trial and sentencing. He raised his mental shortcomings as a mitigating factor, and four jurors found that they mitigate his culpability, but the jury still voted unanimously for capital punishment. The sentencing hearing spanned 29 days, with abundant evidence. The district judge found that Webster is not retarded within the meaning of §3596(c) and sentenced him to death. The Fifth Circuit affirmed on the merits and later affirmed a district court’s decision denying a petition under §2255 addressed to retardation. If Webster is retarded, he is ineligible for the death penalty. Whether he is retarded has been determined after a hearing, collateral review under §2255, and multiple appeals. What Webster now wants is still another opportunity to litigate that question. The majority gives Webster that opportunity in a new district court and a new circuit, setting up a conflict among federal judges. Section 2255 is designed to prevent that, and prudential considerations also militate against one circuit’s disagreeing with another in the same case.
Friday, May 01, 2015
Judicial second-thoughts leads to greatly reduced prison sentences for cheating Atlanta school administrators
As reported here a few weeks ago, the judge presiding over the sentencing of 10 former Atlanta public school educators convicted of participating in a widespread conspiracy to cheat on state tests ordered three of the defendants to serve seven years in state prison. But, as this CNN article reports, now that same judge has reduced their sentences to three years in prison. Here is why:
"I'm not comfortable with it," Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter said of the sentences he handed down to the three defendants April 14. "When a judge goes home and he keeps thinking over and over that something's wrong, something is usually wrong."
Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis-Williams and Michael Pitts also were ordered Thursday to serve seven years on probation, pay $10,000 fines and work 2,000 hours in community service.
Baxter had come under fire from some community leaders for giving prison sentences to eight teachers and administrators who stood trial and were convicted of racketeering. They'd been accused of taking part in an effort to raise tests scores at struggling schools by erasing wrong answers and putting in correct answers.
Outside of court, Benjamin Davis, the lawyer for Cotman, questioned the judge's rationale in handing down heavy sentences a few weeks ago. "I had never seen a judge conduct himself in that way," he said. "What was going on with Judge Baxter?"
Davis-Williams said she was pleased judge Baxter changed his mind. Her attorney, Teresa Mann, added, "We are happy. We are elated that judge Baxter took the opportunity to reflect." Cotman, Davis-Williams and Pitts, all school reform team executive directors, got the harshest sentences during an April 14 hearing: Seven years in prison, 13 years of probation and $25,000 fines.
Baxter said of his change of mind: "I'm going to put myself out to pasture in the not-too-distant future and I want to be out in the pasture without any regrets."
During the earlier sentencing hearing, Baxter was frustrated when defendants didn't admit their guilt. "Everybody knew cheating was going on and your client promoted it," Baxter said to an attorney representing Davis-Williams. At one point he said, "These stories are incredible. These kids can't read."
At a press conference held April 17, most of the convicted educators insisted they were innocent. "I didn't cheat. I'm not a racketeer," said Diane Buckner-Webb, a former elementary teacher.
All defendants sentenced to prison have appealed and are out on bond. The lower prison sentences given to other defendants -- ranging from one to two years -- have not been reduced....
Of 35 Atlanta educators indicted in 2013, more than 20 took a plea deal. Twelve educators went on trial six months ago, with 11 convicted and one acquitted on April 1. Of the 11 convicted, two took a deal in which they admitted guilt, waived their right to appeal and received much lighter sentences. One defendant was giving birth during the sentencing phase not been sentenced.
On Thursday, Baxter urged the defendants to engage in community service while they're appealing. He said that might lighten the punishment if the convictions are upheld. The judge said he was tired of dealing with the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, which he referred to as "this mess."
"I'm ready to move on. So, anyway, adios," Baxter said, and ended the hearing.
Notably, under federal law, a judge is not legally permitted to change a sentence based only on subsequent second thoughts about the appropriateness of the sentence. I have long understood (though not always thought wise) that a federal judge gets only one bite at the sentencing apple, and I would love to hear from commentors whether they this is it just and appropriate to let sentencing judges adjust sentences in the way and for the reasons done in this state case.
Prior related post:
Thursday, April 30, 2015
Ninth Circuit finds procedural error in teen's 30-month federal sentence for laser beam prank
A Ninth Circuit panel today handed down a notable sentencing opinion in US v Gardenhire, No. 13-50125 (9th Cir. April 30, 2015) (available here). This unofficial summary of the ruling provided by court staff highlights why federal sentencing fans will want to check out the full ruling:
The panel vacated a sentence imposed for knowingly aiming the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 39A, and remanded for resentencing, in a case in which the district court applied an enhancement for reckless endangerment under U.S.S.G. § 2A5.2(a)(2)(A).
The panel held that the district court erred in concluding that the defendant acted recklessly when he aimed his laser beam at the aircraft, where the record is devoid of evidence, let alone clear and convincing evidence, that the defendant was aware of the risk created by his conduct.
The panel could not say that the error was harmless, and instructed that the matter be assigned to a different district judge on remand. The panel observed that the district court’s statements show its commitment to the idea that, regardless of the evidence presented, the defendant’s conduct was reckless, and that it would likely impose the same sentence on remand, regardless of this court’s rulings.
In light of the extremely steep sentencing regime dictated by the recklessness enhancement for wide-ranging conduct covered by § 2A5.2, the panel wrote that it is particularly important that the government is held to its burden of proof and that the enhancements are supported by clear and convincing evidence.
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Intriguing reports on Supreme Court oral argument about Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol
Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog has this report on the oral argument today in the Supreme Court case concerning Oklahoma's lethal injection protocols. It starts this way:
For months, the Supreme Court has given no explanation as it refused to give inmates awaiting execution any chance to learn about the methods by which they would be put to death, and has said nothing as it allowed states to experiment with new lethal-drug combinations even after some of those executions were seriously botched. It allowed one inmate to be put to death even before it decided whether to hear his case. In other words, the regime of capital punishment went forward without any new constitutional assessment of it by the Justices; they have not done so on lethal-drug executions for seven years.
On Wednesday, the nation may have gotten the beginnings of an explanation. What appears to be a clear majority of the Court has grown frustrated with the repeated constitutional assaults on the death penalty, especially since that penalty is still constitutionally permitted. That frustration almost boiled over as the Court heard the case of Glossip v. Gross.
That case, at its core, is only about whether the first drug Oklahoma uses in its three-drug lethal combination is capable of making the inmate sufficiently unconscious that he feels little or no pain as the next two, highly toxic drugs paralyze and then kill him. The grim possibility of that particular protocol was described alarmingly by Justice Elena Kagan as “burning alive, from the inside.”
And Wednesday’s argument started out as if it would proceed through a detailed examination of the properties of that first drug — midazalom — and how two lower courts had analyzed its effect in the execution chamber. There was much discussion about judicial fact-finding and what was open to the Supreme Court to second-guess about that.
But the tone and the substance of the argument changed abruptly, when Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., moved aggressively into an exchange with the Oklahoma death-row inmates’ lawyer, Robin C. Konrad. “Let’s be honest about what’s going on here,” Alito began. He mentioned how controversial the death penalty is, and said its opponents would be free to continue to try to get it abolished. But, he said, until that happens, “is it appropriate for the judiciary to countenance what amounts to a guerilla war against the death penalty which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the states to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment with little, if any, pain?”
This Reuters article about today's arguments, headlined "Lethal injection case exposes U.S. top court's death penalty divide," develops similar themes in its review of the arguments. It starts this way:
Tensions on the Supreme Court over America's use of the death penalty boiled over on Wednesday as the justices appeared badly split in a case challenging Oklahoma's lethal injection method as a breach of the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The nine-member court's five conservatives seemed likely to side with Oklahoma in the case brought by three death row inmates, while its four liberals expressed doubt about the propriety of using the drug at the center of the dispute. Conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often casts deciding votes in close cases, said nothing to suggest he would side with the liberals.
The full oral argument transcript is available at this link.
Recent related posts:
- Just what will SCOTUS focus on when reviewing Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol?
- "The Supreme Court Is About to Decide the Future of Lethal Injections"
"The Supreme Court Is About to Decide the Future of Lethal Injections"
The more I think about the Glossip lethal injection case being considered by the Supreme Court today (basics previewed here), the more I think the Justices will be inclined to issue a very narrow ruling that only clearly impacts the lethal injection protocol in Oklahoma and perhaps a few other states. However, this National Journal article which carries the headline I used in the title of this post, seems to think it will be a huge deal whatever SCOTUS does in the case. Here is how the piece starts:
How much pain is constitutionally acceptable for a prisoner sentenced to death to feel during his or her execution? What, exactly, is cruel and unusual punishment?
Though not the precise question presented before the justices, the Supreme Court will be forced to wrestle with those nagging Eighth Amendment concerns Wednesday as it hears arguments in a case challenging the application of a combination of lethal drugs that have been linked to a string of grisly botched executions over the past year.
In Glossip v. Gross, the Court is being asked to determine whether the use of of a sedative known as midazolam by Oklahoma and a number of other states is reliable and effective enough to use as part of three-drug lethal cocktail to execute prisoners on death row.
Midazolam has been subject to rising scrutiny since it was first used by Florida in 2013 as a replacement for another drug that became difficult for states to acquire, amid boycotts from European drug manufacturers opposed to capital punishment.
Even a narrow ruling striking against the use of midazolam could reverberate much more widely and further disrupt states' ability to carry out death sentences—a penalty that has grown increasingly rare in recent years as only a handful of states continue the practice. States scrambling to find suitable lethal cocktails are finding the task increasingly difficult, as fewer and fewer options remain available.
Recent related post:
Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Just what will SCOTUS focus on when reviewing Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol?
The Supreme Court concludes its oral arguments with a capital bang on Wednesday by hearing the case of Glossip v. Gross. Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog has this effective argument preview which starts this way:
In an era when botched executions of death-row inmates happen more often, raising new questions about capital punishment, the Supreme Court continues to rely upon a set of legal principles about lethal-drug protocols that have not been reexamined in seven years. The Justices have given themselves the opportunity to do so next week when they hear an Oklahoma case, but just how far they are prepared to go to reopen those principles probably will only be clear as the oral argument unfolds.
In one sense, the case of Glossip v. Gross is focused on the use of a single drug in a three-drug execution “cocktail” — a sedative, the first dose, that is supposed to put the inmate in a sufficiently deep state of unconsciousness that there will be no pain, or at least only tolerable pain, from injections of the other two drugs, which paralyze and then kill. But in another sense, the entire constitutional structure surrounding execution by lethal drugs could be at stake.
This extended US News and World Report article about the case, headlined "At the Supreme Court, a Lethal Injection Drug on Trial," starts by providing this helpful background:
The Supreme Court on Wednesday will consider the methods states use to execute criminals — an issue attracting increasing attention, but one the high court has avoided for the better part of a decade. The case — Glossip v. Gross — will focus on one specific drug, Midazolam, that some states are using to render inmates unconscious in capital punishment procedures. Yet it reflects the larger challenges correctional departments are having in obtaining lethal injection drugs in light of a global boycott and increasing public scrutiny.
Prompted by four apparently botched executions that made national headlines last year, the lawsuit the justices will consider was brought by three inmates on Oklahoma's death row. Their lawyers say Midazolam — the drug used to render inmates unconscious before administering drugs to paralyze and kill them — does not put inmates in a deep enough coma to shield them from pain and thus violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In executions using the drug in Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona, prisoners reportedly gasped for air, groaned, writhed, grimaced and even said they were experiencing burning pain.
Three other states currently include Midazolam in their lethal injection protocols. But more are considering it, the plaintiffs' lawyers says, and a Supreme Court decision that affirms its constitutionality will likely increase its use. Conversely, a ruling finding use of the drug unconstitutional could lead to further declines in what has been the predominate method of execution for decades, even as capital punishment overall dropped last year to a 20-year low and the number of death sentences issued hit its lowest mark since 1976. The death penalty is currently legal in 32 states, but only about a dozen states still regularly execute prisoners.
Some states are considering abandoning lethal injection altogether. Utah lawmakers recently approved allowing firing squads if death penalty drugs are not available, while Oklahoma has made nitrogen gas chambers a back-up for its executions.