Saturday, January 24, 2015
Another remarkable exoneration thanks only to NC Innocence Inquiry Commission
On this blog, I typically do not extensively cover or frequently discuss exonerations and criminal appeals based on actual innocence claims because, as some may know, I fear guilt/innocence concerns can at times distort sentencing procedures and policy debates focused only on indisputably guilty persons. But this new amazing story out of North Carolina, headlined "After 36 years, Joseph Sledge's unfamiliar feeling: normal," seemed especially blogworthy for various reasons.
Most significantly, I think, is that this remarkable NC story highlights the unique benefits resulting if (and perhaps only when) a jurisdiction has a special institution and special procedures for dealing specifically with innocence claims. Here are the basic of one remarkable story that is embedded in the broader realities of North Carolina's unique approach to innocence concerns:
Joseph Sledge looked out across Lake Waccamaw on Friday afternoon, shivering against a cold January rain and trying to embrace an unfamiliar feeling: normal. Sledge walked out of jail Friday for the first time in 36 years without the burden of handcuffs and shackles.
He is finally free. The state had been wrong about him in 1978, and in all the years since; he is no killer. At 70, he will begin again. “I’m full up on freedom,” Sledge said shyly, leaning over a menu at Dale’s Seafood, a lakeside restaurant in rural Columbus County.
Sledge is the eighth man freed through a unique process that forces the state to deal with prisoners’ claims of innocence. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, created in 2006, examined Sledge’s innocence claim over the last 18 months, and in December, it voted that his case merited a possible exoneration.
On Friday afternoon, a trio of judges did just that. Jon David, the Columbus County district attorney, made their decision swift and easy; David told judges he had become convinced that Sledge was innocent.
As Superior Court Judge Tom Lock announced Sledge’s exoneration, a dozen photographers and reporters rushed toward Sledge and his attorneys. Sledge smiled slightly as his attorneys, Christine Mumma and Cheryl Sullivan of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, pulled him close. Applause erupted....
Sledge ... stole some T-shirts from a department store in the early 1970s. A judge sentenced him to four years in a prison camp in rural Eastern North Carolina. In 1976, with just a year left in his sentence, he escaped from the White Lake Prison Camp one night after a beef with another inmate.
That very night, not 5 miles away, someone brutally murdered Josephine and Ailene Davis, a mother and daughter, who lived together in rural Bladen County. That horrible coincidence set the course for Sledge’s life.
Sledge’s exoneration is bittersweet. It comes after dozens of mistakes and casual dismissals of his pleas for help. David, the district attorney, ticked through the justice system’s blind spots in Sledge’s case. The system wasn’t what it is now, he said. No DNA testing was available. The best it had – microscopic hair comparison – could only determine that Sledge’s pubic hair was consistent with pieces left on one victim’s exposed torso. Sledge’s escape and the wild testimony of two jailhouse informants made it all seem too obvious during the 1978 trial, which had been moved to Columbus County.
David said Friday that he regretted the system’s weaknesses and any part that court officials played in it. “There’s nothing we regret more to our values as prosecutors than to believe an innocent person is in prison,” David said. He offered Sledge an apology.
Mumma, who first encountered Sledge’s case a decade ago, has had a hard time swallowing all of the ways the criminal justice system failed Sledge – and the amount of time it took to make it right. Clues that should have sent investigators to other suspects were disregarded. None of the nearly 100 fingerprints taken from the crime scene matched Sledge’s. Investigators also collected head hairs from the victims’ bodies, but Sledge had always shaved his bare.
During two decades, Sledge sent dozens of letters to judges, police officials and prosecutors asking that they find and test evidence from his case for DNA. Yet it took nearly 20 years for a clerk to find hairs that would prove his innocence. By happenstance, a Columbus County clerk climbed a ladder in late 2012 while cleaning the evidence vault; she found an envelope flat on the top shelf with the missing hairs. The clerks had been ordered to search for that evidence as far back as 2003.
Without the state’s new apparatus for testing innocence claims, Sledge might have remained in prison. The Center on Actual Innocence and the Innocence Inquiry Commission interviewed dozens of people, testing memories that had faded over decades. Commission staff discovered crime scene evidence and investigators’ notes that local sheriff’s deputies had said for years had been lost or destroyed. The commission spent $60,000 on forensic testing.
January 24, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack
Friday, January 23, 2015
Seven years after Baze, Supreme Court takes up another lethal injection challenge
As reported in this new USA Today piece, taking up a "case that could have broad implications for hundreds of death row inmates, the Supreme Court will consider whether a drug protocol used in recent lethal injections violates the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment." Here is more:
The justices agreed Friday to consider a case originally brought by four death-row inmates in Oklahoma -- one of whom was put to death last week, after the court refused to block his execution with a combination of three drugs that has caused some prisoners to writhe in pain.
Because the court's four liberal justices dissented from the decision to let that execution go forward, it presumably was their votes in private conference Friday that will give the issue a full hearing in open court. Only four votes are needed from the nine-member court to accept a case. It will likely be heard in April, though it could be held over until the next term begins in October.
Lawyers for Charles Warner and three other convicts set for execution in Oklahoma over the next six weeks sought the Supreme Court's intervention after two lower federal courts refused their pleas. While the court's conservatives refused to stop Warner's execution, the request for a full court hearing had been held for further consideration.
The lawyers claim that the sedative midazolam, the first drug used in the three-drug protocol, is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a general anesthetic and is being used in state executions virtually on an experimental basis. They say inmates may not be rendered unconscious and could suffer painfully as the other drugs in the protocol are administered.... "States now experiment with various drug formulations that have resulted in multiple malfunctioning executions — indeed, spectacles — over the past year," the challengers' brief says....
The court's four liberal justices -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan -- voiced deep concern about the three-drug protocol in their eight-page dissent last week. They also dissented last September when the court rejected a stay application from a Missouri inmate executed with the same drug.
I presume this cert grant will halt all scheduled executions in Oklahoma until the Supreme Court rules. Left unclear, however, is whether other states will be able to move forward with executions while this case is pending. This DPIC page with scheduled executions suggest that at least a half-dozen states have more than a dozen serious execution dates scheduled before the Supreme Court is likely to resolve this new case from Oklahoma.
I am sure that these states will try to move forward with executions, especially if their protocols are dissimilar to what Oklahoma does in executions. But I am also sure that death row defendants and their lawyers will urge states to postpone all execution until the Supreme Court rules in this new case (as happened when the Supreme Court first took up this issue eight years ago in Baze v. Kentucky). In short, here we go again!
Recent related posts:
- Oklahoma geared up to restart its machinery of death nine months after ugly execution
- Over dissent of four Justices, SCOTUS lets Oklahoma execution go forward (... and Florida executes around the same time)
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Speculating about how new California Supreme Court will now handle capital cases
This new Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Brown appointees to Supreme Court renew hopes in death penalty cases," reviews reasons why some think that new California Justices might mean a new type of California capital justice. Here are excerpts from the piece:
In the long run, the new composition [of the California Supreme Court] could affect an array of cases, including medical malpractice and medical marijuana, but probably will be most felt in the criminal arena. The court, long dominated by former prosecutors, has affirmed about 90% of the death sentences it has reviewed. Criminal defendants rarely win.
"Brown certainly seems to have reshaped this court in a fairly dramatic way," said Jan Stiglitz, a co-founder of the California Innocence Project, which is representing a client in a case before the newly constituted court. Instead of appointing former prosecutors, Stiglitz said, "Brown has brought in not just people from the outside but people who don't have this background that sort of predisposes them to be cynical in criminal cases."
But little experience in criminal law also can be a handicap, critics said. Former prosecutors have "stared evil in the face and know what it looks like," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty. None of the Brown appointees have had prior judicial experience. "The academic view of criminal law is what produces bad decisions," Scheidegger said.
[Mariano-Florentino] Cuellar, the court's only Latino, is a former Stanford law professor. [Leondra] Kruger, the only African American justice, has worked primarily in Washington, where she represented the federal government in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Goodwin Liu, Brown's first appointee last term, was a law professor at UC Berkeley....
Legal analysts expect the Brown justices may form a new majority with Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, a moderate to liberal Republican appointee. Unlike the other Republican appointees, she was never a prosecutor. She worked for the federal government on civil rights matters and as staff attorney on appellate courts.
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
SCOTUS rules in favor of prisoner's RLUIPA claim and capital defendant's AEDPA contention
The Supreme Court handed down a few opinions this morning, and two of them involve notable victories for criminal defendants (and notable reversals of the Eighth Circuit).
Via a unanimous ruling in Holt v. Hobbs, No. 13- 6827 (S. Ct. Jan 20, 2015) (available here), the Court explains why a rigid prison beard policy wrongfully infringes religious rights. Here is how the opinion, per Justice Alito, gets started:
Petitioner Gregory Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, is an Arkansas inmate and a devout Muslim who wishes to grow a 1⁄2-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. Petitioner’s objection to shaving his beard clashes with the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy, which prohibits inmates from growing beards unless they have a particular dermatological condition. We hold that the Department’s policy, as applied in this case, violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 114 Stat. 803, 42 U. S. C. §2000cc et seq., which prohibits a state or local government from taking any action that substantially burdens the religious exercise of an institutionalized person unless the government demonstrates that the action constitutes the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.
We conclude in this case that the Department’s policy substantially burdens petitioner’s religious exercise. Although we do not question the importance of the Department’s interests in stopping the flow of contraband and facilitating prisoner identification, we do doubt whether the prohibition against petitioner’s beard furthers its compelling interest about contraband. And we conclude that the Department has failed to show that its policy is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests. We thus reverse the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
Via a summary reversal in Christeson v. Roper, No. 14-6873 (S. Ct. Jan 20, 2015) (available here), the Court explains why lower federal courts were too quick to preclude a capital defendant from arguing a habeas deadline ought to be tolled. Here is how the Court's per curiam decision gets started:
Petitioner Mark Christeson’s first federal habeas petition was dismissed as untimely. Because his appointed attorneys — who had missed the filing deadline — could not be expected to argue that Christeson was entitled to the equitable tolling of the statute of limitations, Christeson requested substitute counsel who would not be laboring under a conflict of interest. The District Court denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit summarily affirmed. In so doing, these courts contravened our decision in Martel v. Clair, 565 U. S. ___ (2012). Christeson’s petition for certiorari is therefore granted, the judgment of the Eighth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.
Notably, in Holt, Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor concurred in a little separate opinion to provide a bit of their own spin on RLUIPA. And in Christeson, Justices Alito and Thomas dissent from the summary reversal because they would have preferred full briefing concerning a "question of great importance" regarding "the availability of equitable tolling in cases governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)."
Sunday, January 18, 2015
Highlighting that most prisoners in Wisconsin now sent there for parole or probation violations
This lengthy Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel article highlights the interesting reality of just who gets sent to prison in the Badger State and how. The piece carries this headline and subheading: "No new conviction, but sent back to prison; Re-incarceration for rule, parole violations costs taxpayers millions." Here is how the article starts:
More than half of the nearly 8,000 people sent to Wisconsin's prisons in 2013 were locked up without a trial — and they weren't found guilty of new crimes. Some were punished for violating probation or parole by doing things such as accepting a job without permission, using a cellphone or computer without authorization, or leaving their home county. Some were suspected of criminal activity, but not charged.
Re-incarcerating people for breaking the rules costs Wisconsin taxpayers more than $100 million every year. The process that forces violators back behind bars relies largely on the judgment of individual parole agents, which can vary widely. Once accused of violations, people on parole can be sent back to prison for years without proof beyond a reasonable doubt — and they are left with little chance of a successful appeal.
Hector Cubero's agent, for example, recommended he be returned to prison on his original sentence of life with the possibility of parole after he inked a tattoo on the shoulder of a 15-year-old boy. The tattoo featured a cross and a quote from peace activist Marianne Williamson: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."
Cubero maintains the teen lied about his age. Had Cubero been found guilty of tattooing a minor, a city ordinance violation, he would have been ticketed and fined $200. If he had been convicted of tattooing without a license, a misdemeanor, he could have been fined $500 and faced a maximum of 30 days in jail. But because he was on parole at the time, Cubero, 52, has served more than two years — with no guarantee he will ever go home.
Cubero already had spent more than 27 years behind bars for being a party to the crimes of first-degree murder and armed robbery. Court records show Cubero, 18 at the time of the offense, did not plan the robbery or fire the shots that killed the victim, a Milwaukee dentist.
Until the parents of the 15-year-old complained about the tattoo, Cubero had never violated parole, according to Corrections Department records. During the four years he'd been free, he passed all his drug tests, paid his restitution and court costs and worked fairly steadily. Nonetheless, Cubero's parole agent recommended he be sent back to prison. The agent, with cooperation from a prison social worker, also blocked his fiancée, Charlotte Mertins of Delafield, and her three children, all in their 20s, from visiting him.
Saturday, January 17, 2015
SCOTUS takes up a few small criminal justice case along with big marriage questions
As highlighted by this Lyle Denniston post at SCOTUSblog, yesterday's big Supreme Court news was its decision to finally grant cert to consider the legal and constitutional status of same sex marriage. But this same post also notes that SCOTUS also granted review on four other cases, three of which have criminal justice elements:
In addition to the same-sex marriage cases, the Court agreed on Friday to hear four other new cases, all of which are also expected to be argued in April. Here, in summary, are the issues in those other cases:
In Mata v. Holder, the Court will be ruling on the authority of federal appeals courts to delay a deadline for a non-citizen to seek reopening of a deportation case with a claim that his lawyer was ineffective.
In Horne v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Court agreed to decide whether an unconstitutional seizure of part of a California raisin crop occurs when the federal government requires the private grower to take it off the market to help keep raisin prices up....
In McFadden v. United States, the issue is whether federal prosecutors must prove that an individual accused of distributing a substance actually knew that the material was a substitute for (an “analogue” of) an illegal narcotic drug.
In Kingsley v. Hendrickson, the Court will clarify when the police use of force against an individual who is being held awaiting a criminal trial is unconstitutionally excessive.
Thursday, January 15, 2015
"Are Pardons Becoming More Politically Acceptable?"
The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new Governing article. The piece has the subheadline, "Gubernatorial pardons have been in decline since the 1980s, but that appears to be changing as views evolve on rehabilitation and drug offenses." And here are excerpts:
Last Friday, on his last full business day in office, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn pardoned 232 ex-offenders. That same day, in neighboring Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence issued three pardons -- the first during his two years in office.
Which governor’s actions were standard? Until recently, it would have been easy to pick Pence. For decades now, governors have been sparing with pardons, not wanting to be perceived as lenient and worrying about the political risks that can come with pardoning people who go on to commit further crimes.
But gubernatorial pardons may be about ready to start making a comeback. As part of the broader rethinking of criminal justice strategies, in which concerns about rehabilitation, exonerations and expungement of records have become part of the mix, more governors seem willing to embrace their historic role of offering clemency to those who have earned it.
Quinn offered 43 additional offenders clemency during his last minutes in office on Monday, bringing his career total well above 1,000. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued nearly 50 pardons during his first year in office, while California’s Jerry Brown gave out more than 100 on Christmas Eve.
Those sorts of numbers still stand out. The number of gubernatorial pardons has dropped dramatically in recent decades, according to legal experts. Plenty of governors these days only offer a few pardons a year, if that many. But governors offering a regular flow of pardons are no longer the outliers that they would have been just a few years ago. "I do have a sense that people like Quinn represent the future," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist at Rock Valley College in Illinois and editor of the Power Pardon blog. "There is kind of a different mindset."
One telltale sign of that, Ruckman points out, is that some new governors, including Larry Hogan of Maryland and Bruce Rauner of Illinois, talked during the campaign last year about the importance of taking the pardon power seriously in office. "That wouldn’t have happened in the 1980s,” Ruckman said....
States that have either independent pardoning boards or entities whose recommendations are necessary for a governor to issue a pardon, such as Connecticut and Georgia, have been more active on the clemency front than governors acting alone. A number of those states routinely grant upwards of 200 pardons per year.
Still, governors from both parties, such as Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York and Republican Scott Walker of Wisconsin have offered either few or no pardons. There’s still a “political fear quotient” involved in pardoning someone who might go on to commit a heinous crime, noted former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich. "Unfortunately, we only talk about pardon policy when something goes wrong," said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.
That’s why governors need to be careful, Ehrlich said, putting regular review processes in place and not bunching up all their decisions at holidays or as they leave office. That's the approach outgoing Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe has taken, reviewing applications on a monthly basis throughout his tenure. Ehrlich has made pardons something of a personal cause, speaking frequently about the responsibility governors have regarding clemency. He runs a program to delineate best practices at Catholic University and offers advice to incoming governors....
“One thing that will be interesting to watch is that President Obama” -- who has issued the fewest pardons of any president since Dwight Eisenhower -- “has a clemency project that may or may not result in hundreds of sentences being commuted,” said Osler. “Maybe that will embolden some of these more liberal governors as well.”
Fifth Circuit reverses computer filter lifetime supervised release condition for sex offender
A Fifth Circuit panel yesterday handed down an intriguing little ruling in US v. Fernandez, No. 14-30151 (5th Cir. Jan. 14, 2015) (available here), reversing a notable condition of supervised release. Here is how the ruling starts and ends:
In 2013, Fernando Fernandez was convicted, pursuant to his guilty plea, of failing to register as a sex offender, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2250(a). He challenges a life-term special condition of supervised release, requiring him to “install [computer] filtering software . . . block[ing]/monitor[ing] access to sexually oriented websites” for “any computer he possesses or uses”. At issue is whether the court abused its discretion by imposing the software-installation special condition in the light of, inter alia, Fernandez’ neither using a computer nor the Internet in committing either his current offense (failing to register as a sex offender) or his underlying sex offense (sexual assault of a child)....
In the light of the facts at hand, the district court abused its discretion in imposing the software-installation special condition provision at issue, when, inter alia, neither his failure-to-register offense nor his criminal history has any connection to computer use or the Internet. Similar to Tang, the special condition imposed in this instance is related neither to the nature and circumstances of Fernandez’ offense (failing to register as a sex offender) nor his criminal history and characteristics.
Along that line, the district court’s reason for justifying the special condition is not sufficiently tied to the facts. As noted, for justifying its imposition, the court stated: “‘Failure to register’ means he’s a sex offender in the past. Ease of access through the Internet”. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the court’s general concerns about recidivism or that Fernandez would use a computer to perpetrate future sex-crimes are insufficient to justify the imposition of an otherwise unrelated software-installation special condition.
January 15, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
With interesting 6-3 split, SCOTUS gives habeas petitioner a little win on appeal
The Supreme Court this morning handed down a notable habeas procedure opinion today in Jennings v. Stevens, No. 13-7211 (S. Ct. Jan. 14, 2015) (available here). Here is the start and conclusion of the majority opinion by Justice Scalia:
Petitioner Robert Mitchell Jennings was sentenced to death for capital murder. He applied for federal habeas corpus relief on three theories of ineffective assistance of counsel, prevailing on two. The State appealed, and Jennings defended his writ on all three theories. We consider whether Jennings was permitted to pursue the theory that the District Court had rejected without taking a crossappeal or obtaining a certificate of appealability....
Because Jennings’ Spisak theory would neither have enlarged his rights nor diminished the State’s rights under the District Court’s judgment, he was required neither to take a cross-appeal nor to obtain a certificate of appealability. We reverse the judgment of the Fifth Circuit and remand the case for consideration of Jennings’ Spisak claim.
Justice Thomas, joined by Justices Kennedy and Alito, authored a dissenting opinion that starts this way:
The Court holds today that a prisoner who obtains an order for his release unless the State grants him a new sentencing proceeding may, as an appellee, raise any alternative argument rejected below that could have resulted in a similar order. In doing so, the majority mistakenly equates a judgment granting a conditional-release order with an ordinary civil judgment. I respectfully dissent.
Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another recent criminal case with this particular combination of Justices in the majority and in the dissent. Except for those involved in complicated habeas proceedings, the line up of the Justices is arguably the most notable aspect of this ruling.
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
"Georgia executes Vietnam veteran who killed a sheriff's deputy"
The title of this post is the headline of this extended CNN report on the first execution in the United States in 2015. Here are the details:
Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam War veteran convicted of murdering a 22-year-old sheriff's deputy in 1998, was executed Tuesday, said Gwendolyn Hogan, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Corrections. Earlier in the day, the Georgia Supreme Court joined the state's parole board in declining to stop the execution....
Hogan said the court ordered execution was carried out at 8:33 pm ET. She said a final statement was given, expressing remorse to the family of the slain deputy.
The state's high court had also denied Brannan's request for an appeal on the basis that it is unconstitutional to execute a person with his medical conditions and combat history.... Attorneys for the 66-year-old Brannan had hoped his sentence would be found unconstitutional.
His defense attorneys claim Brannan, who served in Vietnam in the early 1970s, was suffering from post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorder at the time of the shooting and was off his medication. In a petition filed Monday with Butts County Superior Court, Brannan's attorneys requested his life be spared because "executing American combat veterans whose service-related mental impairments played a role in subsequent violent conduct violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and analogous provisions of the Georgia Constitution."...
The killing of Laurens County Deputy Kyle Dinkheller was captured on the deputy's dash camera just outside Dublin, Georgia.... Brannan is seen in the video confronting Dinkheller after being pulled over for driving almost 100 mph in his pickup.
Brannan appears to be confrontational from the start, acting irrational as the deputy tells him to keep his hands out of his pocket. He then mocks the deputy and at one point seems to dance around yelling, "Shoot me," at Dinkheller. Brannan then yells that he is a Vietnam veteran. He lunges at the deputy before he runs back to his truck, grabs a rifle and begins to shoot.
The video goes on to show a heated gunbattle as both men hide behind their vehicles for cover. Bullets appear to pierce the windshield of the deputy's car. Brannan's car door window shatters above his head. In the video, Dinkheller and Brannan are shot and wounded in the battle. Brannan advances on the deputy, and off camera, you hear the deputy scream before Brannan repeatedly shoots him and then flees the scene. Dinkheller died, leaving behind a wife and child....
During the trial, attorney Kammer says the defense presented evidence that Brannan suffered from PTSD but claims that crucial testimony from a Veterans Affairs doctor treating him was never heard. His sentence was appealed, and a judge ordered a new sentencing trial, but that was later overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court.
Dinkheller's father, Kirk Dinkheller, posted on his Facebook page this month that "January 12, 2015 it will be 17 years since my son Kyle was murdered in the line of duty and on January 13, 2015 his killer will finally be held accountable. Nothing will ever bring my son back, but finally some justice for the one who took him from his children and his family."
Some related posts:
- Should prior military service reduce a sentence?
- Prior military service as a sentencing mitigator gets a big boost from SCOTUS
- Should there be a death penalty exemption for combat veterans with PTSD?
- "Military Veterans, Culpability, and Blame"
- Should honoring vets and PTSD call for commuting a death sentence?
Senator Grassley queries DOJ concerning its work with Clemency Project 2014
Josh Gerstein has this notable new piece up at Politico headlined "Grassley questions Obama commutation drive," about a notable new inquiry directed to Attorney General Holder concerning the Obama Administration's (quirky?) efforts to ramp up its clemency activities. Here are excerpts:
New Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley is questioning the arrangements surrounding President Barack Obama's drive to shorten the sentences of some drug convicts.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder, the Iowa Republican asks for information about the relationship between the Justice Department and "Clemency Project 2014" — a consortium of outside groups formed in response to calls from administration officials to help federal prisoners prepare applications for the clemency effort.
"I am unaware of any time in history in which the Department of Justice has delegated any of these core attributes of presidential power to private parties beholden to no one, and who have their own agendas that may not coincide with the President's," Grassley wrote in the letter (posted here). "When private parties are wrongly given the ability to exercise any role in that public trust, then both the fairness of the pardon process and the appearance of its fairness are jeopardized."
Grassley's letter draws in large part on a POLITICO story last week which said that the new effort is struggling with more than 25,000 requests from inmates and that lawyers involved in the project have suggested applicants which route their clemency petitions through the project will stand a better or faster chance of favorable action than those who submit applications independently. The project—run by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers— is also screening applications and weeding out those it considers unmeritorious under criteria the Justice Department set forth last April.
"Please tell me what formal arrangements exist between the Department and the Clemency Project 2014 to coordinate the processing of pardon applications, including what direction Clemency Project lawyers are given, what actions they take for the Department, and, how, if at all, Department of Justice lawyers consider the work product provided by these organizations or follow their recommendations," Grassley wrote. The senator also asks if anyone in the Justice Department is aware of statements suggesting those who submit applications through the project will have "superior access to the Department's pardon process."...
Grassley's letter refers to "pardon applicants," but the petitions prisoners are submitting are actually requests for commutations — a form of executive clemency that serves to shorten a prisoner's sentence.
The president can grant a commutation to anyone for virtually any reason. However, such applications are traditionally routed through the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney, which prepares recommendations and sends them to the department's No. 2 official, who forwards them to the White House.
The new commutation drive the Justice Department announced last year is aimed largely at paring back the sentences of convicts sent to prison for long terms relating to trafficking in crack cocaine. Those prisoners tend to be disproportionately minority as compared to those convicted of handling powdered cocaine. A law Obama signed in 2010 reduced that disparity for defendants sentenced after that time, but it was not retroactive.
The full Grassley letter is quite interesting, and not just because it gives some grief to Obama Administration about how it appears to be approaching its latest clemency push. The letter asked a host of hard questions about what exactly DOJ and Clemency Project 2014 are up to, while also asserting in a final paragraph that "[j]ustice in the award of presidential pardons requires a transparent, fair process." And, unsurprisingly, the letter does not mention the sad reality that presidential clemency actions of the last two presidents have involved nothing resembling a "transparent, fair process."
Among other notable aspects of this letter, Senator Grassley's obvious interest in these matter suggests that clemency issues are likely to be raised in some way during the upcoming confirmation hearings for AG Holder's replacement.
January 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
SCOTUS unanimously rejects defense effort to limit reach of sentence enhancement in federal robbery statute
The US Supreme Court this morning handed down an impressively short unanimous opinion in Whitfield v. US, No. 13-9026 (S. Ct. Jan. 13, 2015) (available here), which swiftly rejects a bank robber's attempt to limit the reach of a provision of the statute with which he was convicted. Here is the start of the opinion by Justice Scalia for the Court, as well as a few passages that my most interest sentencing fans:
Federal law establishes enhanced penalties for anyone who “forces any person to accompany him” in the course of committing or fleeing from a bank robbery. 18 U. S. C. §2113(e). We consider whether this provision applies when a bank robber forces someone to move with him over a short distance....
In an attempt to support his position that “accompany” should be read to mean “accompany over a substantial distance,” Whitfield observes that a forced-accompaniment conviction carries severe penalties: a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. In 1934, a forced-accompaniment conviction could even be punished with death. Act of May 18, 1934, ch. 304, §3, 48 Stat. 783. The severity of these sentences, Whitfield says, militates against interpreting subsection (e) to capture forced accompaniment occurring over a small distance.
But it does not seem to us that the danger of a forced accompaniment varies with the distance traversed. Consider, for example, a hostage-taker’s movement of one of his victims a short distance to a window, where she would be exposed to police fire; or his use of the victim as a human shield as he approaches the door. And even if we thought otherwise, we would have no authority to add a limitation the statute plainly does not contain. The Congress that wrote this provision may well have had most prominently in mind John Dillinger’s driving off with hostages, but it enacted a provision which goes well beyond that. It is simply not in accord with English usage to give “accompany” a meaning that covers only large distances.
Saturday, January 10, 2015
Should honoring vets and PTSD call for commuting a death sentence?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Reuters story headlined "Vietnam veteran in Georgia pleads to be spared the death penalty." Here are excerpts:
Lawyers for a decorated Vietnam War veteran due to be executed in Georgia next week say his life should be spared because he was suffering from a combat-related mental disorder when he killed a sheriff’s deputy in 1998.
Andrew Brannan's guilt is not disputed. He shot Laurens County Deputy Sheriff Kyle Dinkheller, 22, nine times during a traffic stop, a scene caught on tape by the deputy's patrol car camera.
Defense attorneys argue Brannan, 66, should not be put to death for behavior they say is linked to post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by his combat service. On Monday, they will ask the state Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Brannan's sentence to life in prison without parole. “Commuting his sentence would honor his very meritorious service to this country,” said Brian Kammer, one of Brannan’s lawyers. “We should not be executing those we sent into harm’s way and who were deeply wounded, physically and mentally.”...
Brannan received Army commendations and a Bronze Star for his service as an officer, Kammer said. He was on full Army disability for PTSD and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before killing Dinkheller, the lawyer said.
Brannan, who had no prior criminal record, was driving 98 miles per hour on a Georgia highway when Dinkheller pulled him over in January 1998, according to court records. The video recording showed Brannan stepping out of his truck, cursing and telling the deputy to shoot him....
Brannan pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity at his trial. Some experts testified that during the shooting he suffered a flashback from combat, but a court-appointed psychiatrist said Brannan was sane and may have killed the deputy because he believed the officer was being disrespectful.
Brannan's execution is scheduled for Tuesday. He would be the first person put the death in the United States this year.
I am inclined to assert that this offender's decorated service on behalf of our nation as well as his undisputed mental problems indisputably means that Brannan is not one of the "worst of the worst" killers. For that reason, I would be inclined to support this defendant's commutation request.
Do others agree?
Some older related posts:
- Should prior military service reduce a sentence?
- Prior military service as a sentencing mitigator gets a big boost from SCOTUS
- "Judge suggests more sentencing options for war veterans"
- "Judges Consider New Factor at Sentencing: Military Service"
- Kansas legislature considering bill for PTSD-based sentence reductions for veterans
- Ohio bill to require consideration of military service at sentencing
- "Neuroscience, PTSD, and Sentencing Mitigation"
- "Military Veterans, Culpability, and Blame"
- Should there be a death penalty exemption for combat veterans with PTSD?
SCOTUS orders new briefing and argument on ACCA's constitutionality in Johnson!?!?!
The US Supreme Court on Friday afternoon added a remarkable twist to what had been a small sentencing case, a case which had its (first) SCOTUS oral argument earlier this Term, via this new order:
13-7120 JOHNSON, SAMUEL V. UNITED STATES
This case is restored to the calendar for reargument. The parties are directed to file supplemental briefs addressing the following question: "Whether the residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, 18 U. S. C. §924(e)(2)(B)(ii), is unconstitutionally vague." The supplemental brief of petitioner is due on or before Wednesday, February 18, 2015. The supplemental brief of the United States is due on or before Friday, March 20, 2015. The reply brief, if any, is due on or before Friday, April 10, 2015. The time to file amicus curiae briefs is as provided for by Rule 37.3(a). The word limits and cover colors for the briefs should correspond to the provisions of Rule 33.1(g) pertaining to briefs on the merits rather than to the provision pertaining to supplemental briefs. The case will be set for oral argument during the April 2015 argument session.
As some readers likely know, and as Will Baude effectively explains in this new post at The Volokh Conspiracy, "Justice Scalia has been arguing with increasing force that the Act is vague, and the reargument order suggests that there’s a good chance he may finally have convinced his colleagues that he’s right."
This strikes me as huge news, especially because I think any ruling that part of ACCA is unconstitutionally vague would be a substantive constitutional judgment that should get applied retroactively to hundreds (and potentially thousands) of federal prisoners serving mandatory minimum terms of 15 years or more. US Sentencing Commission data suggests that perhaps 5000 or more federal defendants have been sentenced under ACCA over the last decade, though I would guess the majority of these cases did not hinge on the ACCA subprovision that SCOTUS might now find unconstitutional.
Thursday, January 08, 2015
Is California prepared to revoke parole for any sex offender with an iffy lie-detector test?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP story with the headline "California making sex offenders take lie-detector tests." Here are the basics:
For the first time, California is making paroled sex offenders take periodic lie-detector tests in response to several high-profile cases involving parolees who raped and killed.
State officials said this week that the stepped-up effort to prevent new sex crimes will help them better gauge which offenders are most dangerous and in need of increased supervision. All sex offender parolees also are required to participate in specially-designed treatment programs. Previously, only high-risk offenders had to undergo treatment.
California is not the first state to adopt the new policies. But with more than 6,000 sex offenders on parole, officials say it is by far the largest.
I have never closely followed the debates of the reliability of lie detector tests, but it appears that California has decided that they are reliable enough to become a mandatory part of parole requirements for sex offenders. That said, I wonder if these lie-detector test will be considered reliable enough (by parole officials? by courts?) to alone provide a sufficient basis for revoking a sex offender's parole if he sometimes fails to "pass the test with flying colors"?
Wednesday, January 07, 2015
Intriguing Sixth Circuit procedural sentencing reversal of upward variance
A helpful reader alerted me to a thoughtful Sixth Circuit panel ruling in US v. Coppenger, No. 13-3863 (6th Cir. Jan. 7, 2015) (available here), which covers effectively a (little?) procedural problem at sentencing. Here is how it starts:
Defendant Jack Coppenger, Jr., pled guilty to conspiracy to commit mortgage fraud. Pursuant to the parties’ plea agreement, the government agreed not to recommend a sentence in excess of the applicable advisory Guidelines range, which was 78 to 97 months’ imprisonment. Nonetheless, the district court used information in presentence reports prepared for Coppenger’s co-conspirators to vary upward and sentenced Coppenger to 120 months in prison. Coppenger contends the sentence is substantively and procedurally unreasonable. He asserts two claims of error: the district court impermissibly treated coconspirators as victims; and the district court failed to provide him with notice and opportunity to respond to its intent to vary upward based on information contained in co-conspirators’ presentence reports. Because the district court abused its discretion when it failed to provide Coppenger meaningful opportunity to respond to information used to vary upward, we vacate and remand for resentencing.
"How to reduce poverty and improve race relations by rethinking our justice system"
The title of this post is the subheadline of this notable Politico commentary authored by Charles Koch and Mark Holden. Here are excerpts:
As Americans, we like to believe the rule of law in our country is respected and fairly applied, and that only those who commit crimes of fraud or violence are punished and imprisoned. But the reality is often different. It is surprisingly easy for otherwise law-abiding citizens to run afoul of the overwhelming number of federal and state criminal laws. This proliferation is sometimes referred to as “overcriminalization,” which affects us all, but most profoundly harms our disadvantaged citizens.
Overcriminalization has led to the mass incarceration of those ensnared by our criminal justice system, even though such imprisonment does not always enhance public safety. Indeed, more than half of federal inmates are nonviolent drug offenders. Enforcing so many victimless crimes inevitably leads to conflict between our citizens and law enforcement. As we have seen all too often, it can place our police officers in harm’s way, leading to tragic consequences for all involved.
How did we get in this situation? It began with well-intentioned lawmakers who went overboard trying to solve perceived or actual problems. Congress creates, on average, more than 50 new criminal laws each year. Over time, this has translated into more than 4,500 federal criminal laws spread across 27,000 pages of the United States federal code. (This number does not include the thousands of criminal penalties in federal regulations.) As a result, the United States is the world’s largest jailer — first in the world for total number imprisoned and first among industrialized nations in the rate of incarceration....
We have paid a heavy price for mass incarceration and could benefit by reversing this trend. It has been estimated that at least 53 percent of those entering prison were living at or below the U.S. poverty line when their sentence began. Incarceration leads to a 40 percent decrease in annual earnings, reduced job tenure and higher unemployment. A Pew Charitable Trust study revealed that two-thirds of former inmates with earnings in the bottom fifth upon release in 1986, remained at or below that level 20 years later. A Villanova University study concluded that “had mass incarceration not occurred, poverty would have decreased by more than 20 percent, or about 2.8 percentage points” and “several million fewer people would have been in poverty in recent years.” African-Americans, who make up around 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for almost 40 percent of the inmates, are significantly affected by these issues.
According to Harvard sociologist Bruce Western: “Prison has become the new poverty trap. It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”...
Fixing our criminal system could reduce the overall poverty rate as much as 30 percent, dramatically improving the quality of life throughout society — especially for the disadvantaged.
Some prior related posts on Koch family efforts in support of criminal justice reform:
- Big talk from Charles Koch about big (money) criminal justice reform efforts
- Koch Industries give "major grant" to NACDL to help with indigent defense
- Highlighting that George Soros and the Koch Brothers agree on the need for criminal justice reform
- Another sign of the modern sentencing times: notable sponsor for "How the Criminal Justice System Impacts Well-Being"
- ACLU to devote $50 million to political efforts to attack mass incerceration
Victim rights' back-story at heart of new Cassell-Dershowitz blood feud
Lots of criminal justice folks are buzzing about the extraordinary spitting match that has broken out between notable criminal law professors Paul Cassell and Alan Dershowitz. Helpfully, Jacob Gershman has this effective Wall Street Journal posting which explains the interesting criminal justice issues that got this heavyweight fight started. The piece is headlined "Behind Epstein Suit, a Tussle Over Due Process and Victims’ Rights," and here are excerpts:
The salacious allegations against Prince Andrew and Alan Dershowitz that surfaced in a federal lawsuit involving convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein have generated international attention. Drawing less coverage is the lawsuit itself — a case with the potential to expand the rights of crime victims during federal investigations.
The lawsuit centers on a 2007 agreement the federal government made with Mr. Epstein, a Florida financier suspected of sexually abusing multiple underage girls. Under its agreement with Mr. Epstein, who had been the target of an FBI probe, federal prosecutors promised not to bring charges against him in Florida if, among other conditions, he pleaded guilty to a state felony charge of soliciting an underage prostitute. Mr. Epstein pleaded guilty to the state charge in 2008 and served about 13 months behind bars.
Two of Mr. Epstein’s alleged victims then filed suit against the U.S. government in 2008, claiming federal authorities violated their rights under a 2004 law by keeping them in the dark about the non-prosecution deal. They want a federal court to invalidate the agreement, a position fiercely contested by the government. The law in question is the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, a statutory bill of rights for victims of federal crimes. Among other things, the law grants victims a “reasonable right to confer with the attorney for the Government in the case.”
The case exposes tensions between the due-process rights of the accused and the rights of victims. Attorneys representing the plaintiffs, former federal judge Paul Cassell and Florida lawyer Bradley Edwards, say at stake “is whether a federal statute protecting crime victims rights can be ignored with impunity or, as we argue, whether instead real remedies exist for its violation.”
U.S. prosecutors say the government had no obligation to confer with the alleged victims. Since they never charged Mr. Epstein with a crime, they argue, the plaintiffs don’t qualify as victims under that 2004 law. And even if that right existed, the government argues, the Constitution’s due-process guarantees bar prosecutors from reneging on their agreement with Mr. Epstein.
In making their argument, prosecutors have cited a Dec. 2010 opinion issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice to the president and executive-branch agencies. The opinion states that the “rights provided by the CVRA are guaranteed” only after “criminal proceedings are initiated through a complaint, information, or indictment.”
In a 2011 ruling, the federal judge presiding over the case, Kenneth A. Marra, sided with the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the law, writing that the CVRA “clearly contemplates pre-charge proceedings.” And in a 2013 order, rejecting a motion by the government to dismiss the case, the judge wrote that a non-prosecution arrangement may be “re-opened” if it were reached in “violation of a prosecutor’s conferral obligations under the statute.”
The plaintiffs’ lawyers allege that the government failed to meet those obligations. In court documents, they accuse the U.S. attorney’s office of concealing the agreement “to avoid a firestorm of public controversy that would have erupted if the sweetheart plea deal with a politically-connected billionaire had been revealed.”
Monday, January 05, 2015
Extraordinary review of messiness of Prez Obama's clemency push
Josh Gerstein has this extraordinary Politico piece which provides a terrific (and disconcerting) review of the Obama Administration's recent clemency activities. The lengthy piece is a must-read for lots of reasons. It is headlined "Obama's drug-sentencing quagmire: Justice Department turns to ACLU, others to prepare thousands of commutation requests," and here is how it starts:
President Barack Obama’s sweeping plan to commute the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders who were caught up in the disparities in laws governing crack and powder cocaine is lagging, burdened by vague guidelines, lack of Justice Department resources and the unusual decision to invite advocacy groups like the ACLU to help screen applications, according to lawyers close to the process.
In the year since the Justice Department encouraged inmates to apply to cut short their sentences, more than 25,000 prisoners have come forward. But when Obama announced his annual commutations last month, only eight were given. That reflects deeper problems in the government’s process for reviewing sentences and determining which ones are, indeed, overly long because of the crack-powder distinction, according to those familiar with the system.
The piece includes lots of interesting and notable comments by various unnamed lawyers discussing how the President, the Justice Department, and the Clemency Project 2014 are handling matters. Here are excerpts with some of these quotes:
With so many thousands of petitions pending, the tiny number of commutations announced during the Christmas season prompted a new round of skepticism about the administration’s capacity to ease onerous drug sentencing.
“This is paltry,” said one lawyer familiar with the process. “It is very disappointing.”
“I’d be shocked if it skyrockets to 100 before [Obama] leaves office,” another added....
[DOJ] officials encouraged the groups forming the Clemency Project to recruit and train private attorneys to prepare applications. The organizations have instituted their own screening effort to try to determine if prisoners meet the criteria and to make sure the private lawyers spend time on meritorious cases....
Some liberal-leaning lawyers and clemency advocates ... say the private consortium has taken on an outsize, quasi-official role in the process and has an inherent conflict of interest: Project organizers want to get the strongest possible applications to the Justice Department, which may mean abandoning prisoners whose cases fall into a gray area.
“It bothers me that you have a group of private citizens who have an under-the-table deal with the deputy attorney general to help him do his job and the promise is, ‘We’re going to put your guys at the front of the list,’” one lawyer involved said. “Instead of dealing with a process that’s already opaque and bureaucratic and too slow, they’ve added this additional layer that’s even more opaque and bureaucratic and too slow.”...
One benefit to the administration of its current approach of working with outside groups is that it could mute criticism from advocates wrapped up in the effort — at least as long as there seems to be a prospect of a meaningful wave of commutations. “They’ve co-opted all the people who would usually be critics,” said one lawyer close to the project. “You have that dynamic in play, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”
The Clemency Project groups insist their involvement hasn’t silenced them.
Though I am not too concerned about clemency critics being co-opted through the Clemency Project, I am concerned about what will be a poor allocation of pro bono lawyering efforts if 1,500 lawyers spend months and years working on clemency applications for thousands of offenders if Prez Obama ends up granting commutations to only a few hundred prisoners. I genuinely believe that an army of 1,500 lawyers working on aggressive for months and years on federal sentencing litigation — perhaps in marijuana cases or attacking some extreme mandatory minimums through habeas actions or other means — could produce jurisprudential development that could end up helping many more than a few hundred defendants.
Sunday, January 04, 2015
Despite recent reforms, Indiana and Ohio still struggling greatly with prison crowding and costs
This weekend brought two similar stories from two heartland states struggling with similar persistent prison problems. Here are links to the stories with their headlines and highlights:
From Indiana here, "Despite code changes, state's prisons will grow":
Amid other demands the Legislature will be juggling starting this month is a request from the Indiana Department of Correction for money to build and operate new prison cells. Without those cell units, department officials told legislators recently, the state will run out of beds for male inmates in about two years....
One reason is that the criminal code revisions, in addition to sending more prisoners back to the county, tightened the credit-for-time-served formula for other types of prisoners, keeping them in state prisons longer. It's not yet clear exactly how much more pressure that will put on the prison system, but DOC officials believe they would have had to increase capacity soon anyway. Indiana's prison population numbered 6,281 in 1980. At the end of 2013, it was 29,377. That's more than 4½ times as many prisoners.
From Ohio here, "Emergency early release of prisoners is considered":
As Ohio’s inmate population once again approaches record levels, with no money available for bricks and mortar, prisons chief Gary Mohr is looking at something never used here before — emergency early release of prisoners.
In his budget overview for 2015-16, Mohr said, the department will “request strengthened language on emergency release of inmates contained in Ohio Revised Code 2967.18.” The changes Mohr will ask the General Assembly to make weren’t specified. JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, emphasized that emergency release will be an option only if overcrowding persists and money is unavailable for additional prison beds....
As of Dec. 29, Ohio prisons held 50,641 inmates, 31 percent above design capacity and about 1,000 more than two years ago at this time.
The section of state law Mohr referenced, ORC 2967.18, specifies the chain of events for declaring an “overcrowding emergency,” resulting in the release of some nonviolent prisoners 30, 60 or 90 days early. Enacted in 1997, the early-release provision has never been used.
Mohr’s budget letter said the state is at a “significant decision point for criminal justice policy. Do we invest in people or in bricks and mortar? To build and operate one prison for two decades would cost Ohioans one billion dollars.”
New projections have the population hitting 50,794 by July 1, and rising to 52,844 by 2023. Ohio’s all-time high was 51,273 on Nov. 10, 2008. The prison population is increasing despite an overall drop in the crime rate and the fact that Franklin and the other five largest counties are sending fewer people to state prisons. The other 82 counties are making up for it....
State lawmakers have in recent years passed a host of laws adding offenses or increasing prison time for existing ones. Reform efforts to rein in the growth have helped, but the slow creep in prison population continues.
As outlined in law, Mohr would submit a declaration of an overcrowding emergency to the Ohio Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, a legislative watchdog agency, which would forward a recommendation to Gov. John Kasich. The governor could then declare an official emergency, clearing the way for early release of qualifying nonviolent offenders. That would exclude inmates serving sentences for murder, voluntary manslaughter, felonious assault, kidnapping, rape, aggravated arson and aggravated robbery.