Monday, October 26, 2015

Interesting takes on California developments since passage of Prop 47

Download (1)I have long asserted that California has long been among the most interesting states to watch closely when it comes to crime and punishments.  The latest round of developments involve the state's passage of an initiative, Proposition 47, reducing the severity of many offenses and subsequent reactions thereto.  This new Los Angeles Times op-ed, authored by Robert Greene and headlined "California's Prop. 47 revolution: Were the voters duped?," provides a notable take on all this and a preview of more to commentary come.  Here are exerpts:

Police and prosecutors have lately attempted to link increases in crime to last year's Proposition 47. Based on their overwrought statements, it would be understandable for Californians to start wondering whether they had been duped into completely decriminalizing drug possession and petty theft....

As is the case with all large bureaucracies, it is difficult for courts and for city and county agencies — police departments, sheriff's departments, district attorneys, probation officers, county supervisors — to understand and constructively respond to changed circumstances. And Proposition 47 no doubt brought change, by converting six felonies to misdemeanors and allowing many people serving sentences for those crimes, and those who served their time long ago, to be resentenced and have their rap sheets adjusted....

Crime in Los Angeles and some other communities throughout the state has increased this year after many years of decline. But is that because of Proposition 47? Other American cities, where Proposition 47 has no effect, have seen similar increases.

If the ballot measure is connected to rising crime, that's probably because public officials have been too slow to recognize the options that the measure gives them. And it's likely that their decisions — a deputy's decision not to arrest, for example, or the sheriff's not to make room in the jail for a recidivist offender pending trial, or county supervisors' not to use any of the hundreds of millions of dollars currently available for non-jail alternatives — are based on suppositions about how the other links in the public safety chain will react....

The gist of the reaction against Proposition 47 is that we as a society simply have no choice but to make possession of drugs and petty theft into felonies punishable by more than a year in prison if we want to control more serious crime. Similar warnings were issued about the consequences of modifying the three-strikes law, yet recidivism among strikers released from prison after voters adopted Proposition 36 is astonishingly low. And similar arguments were made against redirecting some felons from state prison and state parole to county jail and county probation, yet crime rates after realignment continued to fall.

In the coming week, The Times' Opinion section — the Opinion L.A. blog, the editorial board and the Op-Ed page — will explore the repercussions of Proposition 47, and compare this episode in criminal justice history with similar recent changes that also produced periods of adjustment. The goal is not to defend the voters' decision but rather to seek some honest talk, some accountability and some effective action on the part of public officials who are responsible for providing public safety, justice and wise and effective spending.  

These follow-up opinion pieces provide, as their headlines suggest, pro and con views of the pros and cons of Prop 47:

California's Prop. 47 revolution: Voters were sold a bill of goods

California's Prop. 47 revolution: Give reform a chance to work

October 26, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Justice Anthony Kennedy condemns extreme US punishments as "ongoing injustice of great proportions"

This new piece in the Harvard Gazette, headlined "Kennedy assails prison shortcomings," highlights that an especially notable Supreme Court justice is saying some especially notable things about the US criminal justice system. Here is how the piece gets started:

Without mincing words, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy disparaged the American criminal justice system on Thursday for the three prison scourges of long sentences, solitary confinement, and overcrowding.

“It’s an ongoing injustice of great proportions,” said Kennedy during a conversation with Harvard Law School (HLS) Dean Martha Minow at Wasserstein Hall, in a room packed mostly with students.

Kennedy criticized long prison sentences for the high costs associated with them. (In California, where Kennedy comes from, the cost per prisoner is $35,000 per year, he said.) He also said long sentences have appalling effects on people’s lives.

Solitary confinement, he said, “drives men mad.” He called mandatory minimum sentences “terrible” and in need of reform. Sentences in the United States, he said, are eight times longer than sentences in some European countries for equivalent crimes. With more than 1.5 million prisoners in federal, state, and local jails, the United States has the world’s largest prison population.

The worst of the matter, he said, is that nobody pays attention to this wrong, not even lawyers. “It’s everybody job to look into it,” he said.

Kennedy, LL.B. ’61, whose views on the court reflect a preoccupation with liberty and dignity, has often been described as the high court’s swing vote on major issues. But during his talk with Minow, he said he hated to be depicted that way. “Cases swing. I don’t,” he quipped, as the room erupted in laughter.

October 24, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (43)

Friday, October 23, 2015

"Utah latest red state grappling with death penalty"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable local article reporting on a notable new discussion about the death penalty in the Beehive State.  Here are the basics:

For the first time in years, Utah lawmakers are debating the merits of the death penalty, with some conservative Republican legislators questioning whether the cost and risk of executing innocent people argued for doing away with executions in the state.

"I'd pull the switch if I knew the person was guilty, and I have no problem with an eye for an eye," said Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs. "But it is not a conservative value to have blind, slavish faith in government and to assume that they'll always get it right just because they have a badge or work in the prosecutor's office and we've invested them with a lot of authority."

Members of the Legislature's Judiciary Interim Committee heard from a pair of legislators in Nebraska about why that state recently abolished capital punishment, and critics of the death penalty who said the cost is exorbitant and the risk of executing innocent people is very real.

Madsen, the committee chairman, described his own evolution on the issue, to the point where he would support following the lead of legislatures in other states and do away with the death penalty. Other states are already moving in that direction.

Last week, Ohio Gov. John Kasich granted a reprieve to inmates scheduled for execution in 2016, since the state has been unable to obtain the drugs used in lethal injections. The attorney general in Oklahoma announced a one-year moratorium on executions after it was found the state used the wrong drug in its most recent case. Earlier this month, a judge in Montana blocked executions in that state for the same reason.

And the Nebraska Legislature repealed the death penalty earlier this year, but a petition drive seeking to reverse the move has blocked the repeal from taking effect until after the 2016 election.

Nebraska Republican Sen. Brett Lindstrom told the committee by phone that he supported the death penalty a year ago, but botched executions in other states and concerns about the cost and false convictions led him to a change of heart. "It just wasn't something that was working all that well in the state of Nebraska," he said....

The prospects for such a major shift among Utah's conservative Legislature are unclear, and neither Madsen nor any other Utah lawmaker is currently sponsoring a bill to end the death penalty. "I don't think Utahns think that much about the death penalty because it hardly ever happens in our state, but when it does, it's a horrific thing," said Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton. But he acknowledged polls continue to show public support for the practice. "I don't see — and I'm going to say, unfortunately — too much of an appetite to ban the death penalty."

Handy cited figures he had prepared by legislative analysts in 2012 that showed executing a hypothetical 25-year-old convict would cost the state $1.6 million more than it would cost to incarcerate the same inmate for the rest of his or her life. And the state, at that time, spent $1.75 million a year handling death-row appeals.

More compelling to several lawmakers, was the risk of wrongly executing an inmate. Jensie Anderson from the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project said there are estimates that 4 percent of those on death row in the United States are innocent. Since 1973, there have been 156 death-row convicts who have been exonerated — one exoneration for every nine inmates put to death. "The problem is the system gets it wrong," she said....

But some, like Rep. Dixon Pitcher, R-Ogden, has no problem with continuing the current course. He and Handy knew Carol Naisbitt and her son Cortney, who were shot in the back of the head during the Ogden Hi-Fi murders in 1974. Carol was killed and Cortney lived with debilitating injuries until he died in 2002. Their killers, Pierre Dale Selby and William Andrews, were executed in 1987 and 1992, respectively.

Pitcher said he trusts the checks in place in the justice system to get it right and would be "opposed to taking [the death penalty] off the table."...

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said the process of going through an execution itself is detrimental to society. "It's not the high road that I think we as a state and we as a country should be on, and the existence of the death penalty for me is a very coarsening thing," King said.

October 23, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Arkansas Supreme Court stays execution to allow lethal injection litigation

As reported in this AP article, a partial ruling in favor of the state today by the top court in Arkansas was insufficient to allow the state to move forward with a number of scheduled executions. Here are the details:

The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a lower-court judge overstepped his jurisdiction by halting the executions of eight death row inmates. But the high court immediately granted its own stay to give the inmates time to challenge a new state law that bars Arkansas from disclosing its execution-drug supplier.

The justices sided with the state in agreeing to toss this month's order by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen. Still, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she was disappointed that the executions, the first of which was scheduled for this week, remained on hold. "While the Supreme Court's decision is not about the merits of the case, it is unfortunate that this further delays justice for the victims. I will continue to defend Arkansas's lethal injection statute and fight for the victims and their grieving families," Rutledge wrote in a statement Tuesday.

The high court also refused to order Griffen to schedule an earlier hearing in the case. He set the next hearing for March, just months before one of the state's execution drugs is set to expire. The attorney general's office had asked for a faster timetable, arguing that defense attorneys were trying to delay the case until the drug was no longer usable.

The prisoners are challenging the constitutionality of the state's new secrecy law, saying they need information about where and how the state's execution drugs were made to determine whether they will lead to cruel and unusual punishment. They also argue that the law violates a settlement in an earlier lawsuit that guaranteed inmates would be given the information, but the state has said the agreement was not a binding contract.

The inmates also are challenging Arkansas' three-drug execution protocol, focusing on the use of the drug midazolam. The sedative was implicated after inmates gasped and groaned during longer-than-expected executions in Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona. "We realize there is a lot of litigation yet lying in front of us. But we feel the decision of the Supreme Court was the appropriate decision in this case," said Jeff Rosenzweig, an attorney for the inmates. "The state made a binding commitment to provide us with this information and we are entitled to this information."

October 20, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, October 19, 2015

New York Times editorial rightly frames debate over federal judges' expungement power

Regular readers may recall this recent post highlighting the interesting (and hip?) legal issue arising in federal court lately concerning the inherent power of federal judges to expunge a federal conviction.  This effective New York Times editorial, headlined "How to Get Around a Criminal Record," spotlights some of the unfortunate reasons this legal issue is now coming up for debate.  Here are excerpts: 

In May, a federal judge in Brooklyn took the extraordinary step of expunging the conviction of a woman he had sentenced to five years of probation more than a decade earlier for her involvement in an insurance fraud scheme that netted her $2,500.... The move was significant because there is no federal law that allows for expungement — the permanent sealing of a criminal record to the general public....

Some 70 million to 100 million people in the United States — more than a quarter of all adults — have a criminal record, and as a result they are subject to tens of thousands of federal and state laws and rules that restrict or prohibit their access to the most basic rights and privileges — from voting, employment and housing to business licensing and parental rights.  Some of these collateral consequences make sense — like preventing people convicted of molesting children from working in schools.  But many have no relation at all to the original offense.

The woman whose record Judge Gleeson expunged was hired repeatedly for social-work or health-care jobs, and then fired after employers ran a background check.  As the judge wrote, it is “random and senseless” that her “ancient and minor offense should disqualify her from work as a home health aide.”

The federal government lags far behind in reducing the burdens of a conviction. About half the states allow some convictions to be expunged; almost all allow expungement for arrest records and other non-conviction records.  Some expungements are automatic, while others require a petition to the court.  Of course, expungement is not a cure-all. The vast majority of employers now run background checks, many using error-strewn databases that often fail to delete sealed records.

A better, increasingly popular approach is a “certificate of rehabilitation,” which state judges issue as a way of removing certain restrictions and encouraging employers and others to take a chance on someone despite his or her record.

Another solution is the executive pardon, which restores rights lost after a conviction. Pardons were once a common method of relief from injustice, and some state governors still use it vigorously.  Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware has issued almost 1,600 pardons in six years.  But President Obama, like his recent predecessors, has almost entirely abandoned the practice.

Mr. Obama’s former attorney general, Eric Holder, understood the importance of giving people with criminal records a better chance at finding jobs and regaining their foothold in society. And yet the Justice Department is reflexively fighting Judge Gleeson’s expungement order, calling it “judicial editing of history.”

If the White House or Congress made a real effort to alleviate the crippling consequences of criminal records — by increasing pardons, or passing laws to give courts more options to lessen or remove those burdens — there would be no need for judges to play the role of editors.

Some prior related posts:

October 19, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"13 Words That Could Mean Freedom for Many: The debate over the federal ‘residual clause’"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective Marshall Project piece discussing some of the sentencing guideline fall out of the Supreme Court's Johnson ACCA vagueness ruling.  I recommend the full piece, which starts this way (links from original):

Erskine Smith was 24 when he pleaded guilty to selling cocaine in Pittsburgh. Before the plea, a letter from the government estimated his sentence at 108 months to 135 months, or about nine to 11 years.  But once he pleaded guilty, Smith received a presentence report that floored him: the report set the sentence at a mandatory 292 months to 365 months, or about 24 to 30 years.  A judge sentenced him in 1993 to 30 years in prison.

The primary reason for the extra years: Two prior “crimes of violence” that the court agreed made Smith a career offender.  Smith had punched a man at age 18 and assaulted another in his hotel room at 20.  Each conviction was for simple assault, a Pennsylvania misdemeanor, for which he served no jail time.  But the federal government classified the crimes as violent felonies, a designation that meant Smith would be sentenced under the career offender guideline of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which boosts sentences for people who have previously been convicted of two violent or drug felonies.

Each year, about 2,000 people are sentenced under the career offender guideline. For about three-quarters of them, the most recent crime is drug-related.  Though the sentencing guidelines have been advisory since 2005, experts say judges still tend to rely on them.  Federal non-career drug offenders get an average of nearly 69 months, while career drug offenders get an average of nearly 169 months, according to data from 2005 to 2014 analyzed by the Federal Defenders.

But a June Supreme Court ruling may get some of them, including Smith, a new sentence. In Johnson v. United States, the Court struck down the the less-than-sexily named “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act, deciding it was unconstitutionally vague.  Because of the decision, many people sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act will get at least five years knocked off their sentence.

The same clause appears in the career offender guideline, and defense lawyers are hoping it will meet the same fate.  They are now asking federal appellate courts to apply Johnson to the career offender guideline and resentence long-serving prisoners who have not benefited from recent, more publicized, reforms.

Some prior related posts:

October 19, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Referendum on legislative death penalty appeal now officially on Nebraska ballot for 2016

Images (2)As reported in this local article, headlined "Death penalty supporters put repeal on hold till 2016 vote," Nebraska is going to be the locus and focus for a lot of death penalty debate over the next year. Here is why:

A pro-death penalty group has submitted enough valid signatures to postpone the repeal of capital punishment and place a referendum on the issue on the November 2016 ballot, it was confirmed Friday.

Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale said Friday that he has sent letters certifying the success of the petition drive mounted by Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, a group backed by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

The group launched a signature drive in June shortly after the Nebraska Legislature overrode a veto by Ricketts to abolish the death penalty in the state.

Gale said the petition drive had not only submitted enough signatures to force a vote on the issue during the 2016 general election, but also to postpone the repeal until that vote is taken. “More than 143,000 signatures were verified to our office from counties where signatures were collected, which was more than enough to meet each of those thresholds,” Gale said in a press release.

Chris Peterson, a spokesman for the pro-capital-punishment group, said in a press release that the campaign to retain the death penalty has begun. “Our message is simple: the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for the most heinous of murders, it protects public safety officers from criminals who otherwise have nothing to lose by murdering a corrections officer, and is a worthwhile deterrent if it saves even a single life,” Peterson said.

Dan Parsons, a spokesman for the anti-death-penalty coalition Nebraskans for Public Safety also issued a statement. “Nebraska voters will have the same opportunity the Legislature did to have a thoughtful discussion on whether to bring back a failed system that hasn’t been used in nearly two decades, is not a deterrent, and is a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Parsons said.

As a result of Friday’s announcement, the death penalty remains on the books, according to Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, who also issued a press release. But the state still lacks the necessary drugs to carry out a lethal injection execution. Even if the state could obtain the drugs, legal scholars have expressed doubt that the Nebraska Supreme Court would approve a death warrant pending the Nov. 8, 2016, vote....

Ricketts issued a statement Friday after the verification: “Nebraskans continue to tell me that the death penalty is an important public safety tool. Today’s announcement takes us one step closer to giving the voters a say in retaining the death penalty.”

One thing that could prevent a vote on the issue would be a court order, and death penalty opponents have filed two lawsuits in an attempt to do that. One of the lawsuits claims that Ricketts should have been listed as an official sponsor of the petition drive because he was a major financier of the effort, contributing $200,000.... The second lawsuit maintains that the ballot language approved by the Nebraska Attorney General’s office was misleading and slanted.

October 18, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, October 16, 2015

"Should judges who sit on the Sentencing Commission rule on the legality of sentencing guidelines?"

The question in the title of this post is the title of this great new posting authored by Andy Hessick at Notice & Comment – A Blog from the Yale Journal on Regulation.  I urge readers to check out the whole commentary, and here is a taste:

Judge Pryor is hardly the first judge to hear a case involving the Sentencing Guidelines while serving as a member of the Commission. But the practice raises some questions. Our system is suspicious of judges hearing cases in which they have an interest. As James Madison said in Federalist 44, “[n]o man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause; because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.” Judge Pryor does not have a personal interest at stake in the case, but he does have an interest in his capacity as a member of the Commission.  Holding that the vagueness doctrine does not apply to sentencing guidelines protects his work on the Commission from future challenges of that sort.

His participation in the decision also raises separation of powers concerns.  The sentencing guidelines are legislative in nature.  A judge who both sits on the Commission and rules on the Commission’s guidelines acts as both judge and legislator.  Of course, judges sit on committees that create all sorts of rules―evidence, civil procedure, etc.  But those committees prescribe rules for the administration of the courts. Sentencing guidelines are different.  They prescribe terms of imprisonment.  Anxiety about deprivations of liberty at the hands of the government is a major reason the Constitution separates powers.

October 16, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, October 15, 2015

New amicus brief to Eleventh Circuit seeking reconsideration of Johnson vagueness challenge to career-offender guideline

In this post just a few days after the US Supreme Court ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws" in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) (available here), I flagged the question of how Johnson would impact application of the career offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines.  Notably, the Justice Department has consistently conceded Johnson-based constitutional problems with the existing career offender guideline because the key phrase found vague in Johnson is part of the guideline definition of a career offender.  And a few appellate rulings have assumed without deciding that Johnson creates problems for existing career offender guideline sentencing.

But, as noted in this post a few weeks ago, an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Matchett, No. 14-10396 (11th Cir. Sept. 21, 2015) (available here), squarely addressed this issue and ruled that Johnson and its vagueness problem just do not apply to advisory sentencing guidelines.  I considered this ruling suspect, and thanks to Carissa Hessick and David Markus, I have now been able to play a role in explaining to the full Eleventh Circuit just why.  Specifically, Carissa primarily drafted and I primarily tweaked an amicus brief that David helped finalize and file today urging en banc review in Matchett.  The full brief can be downloaded via SSRN, and here is how it gets started:

The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines dramatically increase a defendant’s sentencing range if she has at least two prior convictions for a “crime of violence,” which U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2) defines to include crimes that “involve[] conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”  As the panel in this case acknowledged, that definition is identical to the definition in 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B), which the Supreme Court in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), found to be unconstitutionally vague in violation of the Due Process Clause.

Nevertheless, the panel in this case held that § 4B1.2(a)(2) is not unconstitutionally vague, reasoning that the vagueness doctrine does not apply to the now-advisory Sentencing Guidelines.  That conclusion is inconsistent with Supreme Court decisions on the vagueness doctrine and the Sentencing Guidelines.  The panel’s decision also upsets the careful balance that the Supreme Court has struck between uniformity and discretion in federal sentencing after United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005).  Finally, the panel decision fails to appreciate that it faced a unique situation in which a Guideline contains language identical to a federal statute declared void for vagueness by the Supreme Court.  Both the narrow basis for that decision, as well as ordinary Commission practice of reviewing and revising the Sentencing Guidelines, ensure that few Guidelines will become susceptible to serious vagueness challenges.  This Court accordingly should grant en banc review.

October 15, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Lots of talk about all the talk about jurisdiction during SCOTUS oral argument in Montgomery

Given that the Supreme Court added on its own question about its jurisdiction to review a state habeas application of Teague when granting cert in Montgomery v. Louisiana, I was not all that surprised that a number of Justice were quite eager to debate the issue with the advocates during oral argument on Tuesday.  And, there are now helpful reviews of the Montgomery oral argument and the jurisdiction issue from Lyle Denniston here at SCOTUSblog and from Kent Scheidegger here at Crime & Consequences and from Chris Geidner here at BuzzFeed.

In addition, my terrific research assintant this afternoon sent me his summary take concerning the argument for sharing here:

In today’s oral argument for Montgomery v. Louisiana, a majority of the time was spent discussing whether or not the Court had jurisdiction to address the merits.  While the merits were discussed, neither the Justices nor the advocates addressed them at length or with much vigor.

Justices Scalia and Alito led the charge against the Court’s jurisdiction.  They were deeply concerned by the Louisiana Supreme Court’s deliberate voluntariness in adopting Teague’s retroactivity standards.  In their view, if the Court ruled that it had jurisdiction and then decided the merits in a way the Louisiana Supreme Court found unfavorable, the Louisiana Supreme Court could simply elect to abandon Teague effectively overruling the Court’s decision in this case.  I think it is safe to say, based on the oral arguments, that Justices Scalia and Alito are voting that the Court lacks jurisdiction to address the merits here. Given that, I would say Justice Thomas will also vote that the Court lacks jurisdiction.

Nonetheless, Justices Kagan, Breyer, and Sotomayor made it quite clear that they will be voting in favor of the Court’s jurisdiction.  Justices Kennedy and Ginsburg made similar manifestations.

On the merits, Justices Kagan, Breyer, and Sotomayor suggested that they would find Miller’s rule retroactive.  Justices Kennedy and Ginsburg were markedly silent on this point.  Justices Scalia and Alito were the only vocal opponents of petitioner’s arguments on the merits, but assuming both they and Justice Thomas vote against the Court’s having jurisdiction, such manifestations are moot.

The most perplexing figure in today’s arguments was the Chief Justice.  He spoke infrequently and did not tip his hand in any overt way.  However, he did make one pretty incredible point regarding the merits.  He suggested that simply “provid[ing] parole” to individuals given mandatory LWOP sentences for homicides they committed as juveniles would be a remedy to this problem.  To be fair, he made this suggestion, but did not necessarily endorse it as the right move or the proper disposition of the case.  Still, it is a bold proposition coming from the Chief Justice.

October 13, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21)

Lots of tea leaves (readings may vary) from SCOTUS arguments in Montgomery and Hurst

I have now had just enough time to skim the SCOTUS oral argument transcripts in Montgomery v. Louisiana (which is here) and in Hurst v. Florida (which is here).  Both transcripts showcase, albeit in somewhat different ways, all the complicated and intersecting jurisprudential issues in play in both cases. 

At this stage, and based perhaps more on my pre-argument beliefs than on what I surmised from my first review of the transcripts, I would predict narrow wins for the defendants in both cases.  And by narrow, I mean holdings that are fairly fact-based, case-specific and that also produce somewhat split rulings.  But maybe others read the tea leaves in these transcripts differently, and will share their insights in the comments.    

October 13, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

Lots of media previews of today's two big SCOTUS sentencing cases

The Supreme Court returns from a long weekend with two cases that should remake, or at least will refine, retroactivity jurisprudence and capital sentencing procedures. I have previewed Montgomery v. Louisiana and Hurst v. Florida in a bunch of prior posts, and here I will provide links to a handful of mainstream media coverage of the cases:

Montgomery

Hurst

October 13, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 12, 2015

Montgomery wards: noticing the lack of originalism analysis of sentencing finality

As noted in this prior post, I have been doing a series of posts in preparation for the US Supreme Court hearing oral argument in Montgomery v. Louisiana, and today's post is of the "dog that didn't bark" variety.  Specifically, upon quickly reviewing the 20+ briefs that have been submitted in Montgomery (all of which can be found via this SCOTUSblog page), I noticed that there was essentially no discussion of what an originalist constitutional interpretation would have to say about finality/retroactivity doctrines like Teague and their application to Eighth Amendment doctrines or sentencing outcomes more generally.  (Notably and tellingly, a number of briefs discussing the jurisdictional issue flagged by SCOTUS in Montgomery do provide some originalism analysis of that issue.  But these briefs, nor any of those just focused on the finality/retroactivity issue, had anything to say about how an originalist perspective might inform the Court's work in this case.)

For those who are not big fans of originalist constitutional interpretation, perhaps the absence of any discussion or debate in the Montgomery briefing about what the Framers would have thought about Eighth Amendment retroactivity is a welcome development.  But as I sought to spotlight in this recent law review article and this blog post last year, I think it would be interesting and potentially quite useful to examine at some lengthy whether and how the Framing generation considered finality/retroactivity issues.  Of particular note, as I explain in my article, the text of the Constitution itself reveals, at least indirectly, that the Framers likely did not have an especially strong commitment to criminal justice finality interests:

The Constitution’s text can be read to suggest the Framers were decidedly eager to provide or preserve opportunities for defendants to seek review and reconsideration of their treatment by government authorities.  Article I, Section 9 instructs Congress that the “Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended,” Article II, Section 2 provides that the President “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States,” and Article III, Section 2 provides that the Supreme Court “shall have appellate Jurisdiction.”  These provisions codify in our nation’s charter all the traditional mechanisms long used by individuals to challenge or seek modification of the exercise of government power through criminal justice systems.  These provisions alone may not support a strong originalist claim that the Framers disfavored treating criminal judgments as final.  Nevertheless, by precluding Congress from suspending habeas review, by empowering the President to grant clemency, and by authorizing the Supreme Court to hear appeals, the Constitution ensured that criminal defendants in a new America would have various means to seek review and reconsideration of the application of governmental power even after an initial criminal conviction and sentencing.

In part because I am neither a historian nor especially enthralled by originalism, I did not pursue these ideas in this SCOTUS amicus brief that I helped submit in the Montgomery case. But I was hoping that maybe someone or some group drawn to originalism would discuss what an originalist constitutional interpretation might have to say about finality/retroactivity doctrines like Teague and their application to Eighth Amendment doctrines or sentencing outcomes more generally. One Justice who often seems drawn to Eighth Amendment originalism, Justice Thomas, almost never asks questions, and thus I am not expecting him to bring up the issue during oral argument. But maybe I can dream, at least for the next few hours, that Justice Scalia might enjoy puzzling the advocates by asking a question on this front during argument.

Prior posts in this series and concerning finality matters:

October 12, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (7)

Does the Sixth or Eighth Amendment matter more for jury's role in capital punishment?

The question in the title of this post is the primary uncertainty likely to impact Supreme Court debate over Florida's capital punishment system during tomorrow's scheduled oral argument in Hurst v. Florida.  Helpfully, Lyle Denniston has this lengthy preview post at SCOTUSblog titled "Defining the jury's role on death penalty," and here are excerpts:

For years, the Supreme Court has been engaged in an energetic effort to enhance the role of the jury in criminal courts. No part of that has been more actively pursued than deepening the jury’s involvement in sentencing — a part of the process long dominated by trial judges. A new case from Florida, set for argument at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, provides a new test.

Florida is the last state to hold out against a common requirement that jurors must be unanimous in both specifying why a convicted individual is eligible for a death sentence and recommending a sentence. Juries in Florida death penalty cases have only an advisory role to begin with, and even that influence on the judge is potentially lessened by the lack of unanimity and by the judge’s authority to make the key decisions anyway.

The Court is examining the case of a brutal slaying at a Popeye’s fast-food restaurant in Pensacola, Fla. (Hurst v. Florida), to determine how far a state may go to assign the important decisions on death sentencing to the judge. The Justices attempted to curb that role, and give more of it to the jury, in a 2002 decision but the Florida Supreme Court has essentially exempted the state’s capital punishment process from that ruling.

In Ring v. Arizona thirteen years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that a judge may not make the factual findings about “aggravating factors” — the seriousness of the crime that can make an individual eligible to be sentenced to death — because that role under the Sixth Amendment belongs to the jury. The Court has said repeatedly that, if a potential sentence is to be made more severe, the enhancement must be based upon the jury’s findings.

The Court, however, has never ruled that juries must be used in the sentencing phases of a case in which a death sentence is a possibility, and it has never ruled that a jury recommendation of a death sentence must be by a unanimous vote. It has allowed guilty verdicts by less than unanimous votes in cases involving lesser crimes. The case set for a hearing next Tuesday could provide new interpretations on both of those issues....

Florida law splits up the roles on death sentencing between the jury and the judge. The jury’s advisory role is to ultimately recommend a sentence to the judge. To do that, the jury weighs aggravating and mitigating factors and decides whether to recommend a death sentence. It can make that final recommendation on a split vote — it must be at least seven to five, as it was in Hurst’s case. But there is no need for even a majority of jurors to agree on even one of the aggravating factors the jurors as a group had apparently indicated did exist.

The sentencing duty then shifts to the judge, who does the same weighing process of the two kinds of factors; in doing so, the judge is not bound by what the jury concluded. The judge then decides for or against a death sentence, again with no duty to follow the jury’s recommendation.

The Florida Supreme Court, upholding that process as used in Hurst’s case, found no constitutional problem with the role of either the jury or the judge. The state court divided four to three, with the dissenting justices arguing that the Florida approach violates both the Sixth and Eighth Amendments and deviates from the Supreme Court’s ruling in Ring v. Arizona.

Hurst’s lawyers took the case on to the Supreme Court, raising two multi-faceted questions, with most of them focusing on the split role of judge and jury. The Court granted review in March, rephrasing the issue to be whether the Florida scheme violates either the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment “in light of this Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona.” The order did not specify whether it would consider Hurst’s argument that he also had a claim of mishandling in his trial of a mental disability claim, but the Court did not appear to have accepted that for review and it has dropped out of the case.

Hurst’s brief on the merits largely separates the arguments between the Sixth Amendment, claiming that provision is violated by the jury’s limited role in finding whether Hurst was eligible for a death sentence, and the Eighth Amendment, claiming that provision is violated by allowing the judge to impose the sentence after a split verdict by the jury. However, he also levels a separate Sixth Amendment challenge to the judge’s role in imposing a death penalty....

Florida’s brief on the merits noted that the Supreme Court has examined its capital punishment scheme at least four times before and has not found it to be flawed under the Constitution. The state also insisted that Hurst’s lawyers had exaggerated what is required under Ring v. Arizona. That decision, it contended, only mandates a role for the jury in the death-eligibility analysis, and does not insist that it have a role in the actual selection of the sentence to be imposed.

As fans of Ring v. Arizona should recall, a few of the Justices still on the Court now considered these issues to be primarily of Sixth Amendment concern (Justices Scalia, Thomas and Ginsburg), whereas some other of the Justices still on the Court viewed these issues primarily from an Eighth Amendment perspective (Justices Kennedy and Breyer). And, notably, the four newer Justices have had a lot of distinct (and differing) things to say about both the Sixth and Eighth Amendments in recent years. How all this will add up to a majority ruling in Hurst remains to be seen, but I will suggest that anyone sentenced to death in Florida after a non-unanimous jury recommendation already ought to be getting ready to file a new habeas petition as soon as we get a ruling in Hurst.

October 12, 2015 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"The Future of Parole Release: A Ten-Point Reform Plan"

The title of this post is the title of this timely and intriguing new paper authored by Edward Rhine, Joan Petersilia and Kevin Reitz now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article lays out a 10-point program for the improvement of discretionary parole release systems in America.  Taken together, our recommendations coalesce into an ambitious model that has never before existed in the US.  Even if adopted separately, our recommendations would work substantial incremental improvements in the current practices of all paroling systems.

The article is written by three authors who have taken sharply different views on the fundamental question of whether contemporary determinate or indeterminate sentencing systems have been the more successful systems across American states.  Likewise, the authors have given different advice to jurisdictions on whether parole release should be retained, abolished, or reinstituted (Rhine 2012; Petersilia 2003; Reitz 2004).  Nonetheless, the authors agree that discretionary parole-release is an important feature of U.S. sentencing and corrections that will not disappear in the foreseeable future — and all three share a common interest in improving those systems as much as possible.  Indeed, regardless of one’s views on the “determinacy/indeterminacy” debate, it would be irresponsible not to give assistance to the majority of states that continue to vest meaningful authority over prison sentence length in paroling agencies.

October 11, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Federal judicial power to expunge old convictions getting lots of (hip?) attention in EDNY

It is perhaps fitting that in the Eastern District of New York, home to hipster haven Brooklyn, has become the central location for an important new discussion and debate over important (and hip?) questions concerning the legal authority of federal judges to expunge old convictions.  The always great Collateral Consequences Resource Center has highlights of some of the goings on via these two new posts:

The first of these above-referenced posts discusses this fascinating amicus brief filed this past week in one of two federal expungement cases before US Distrct Judge John Gleeson, a brief which the judge requested and which merits it own separate future post.

The second of the posts from CCRC spotlights that, perhaps unsurprisingly, now that Judge Gleeson has suggested federal judges might have some authority to expunge old convictions, other judges are being asked to consider doing the same.

In my view, these matters are (and should continue to be) hot and hip not only for persons interested in criminal justice reform issues, but also for those interested more general in federal court powers and what a judiciary can and should do given gaps in statutory answers to importance criminal justice questions.

October 11, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, October 09, 2015

"The Supreme Court’s Johnson v. United States Ruling: A Vagueness Doctrine Revolution?"

The title of this post is the title of this helpful "Legal Backgrounder" coming from the Washington Legal Foundation and authored by David Debold and Rachel Mondl. Here are a couple of paragraphs from the start and end of the reader-friendly piece:

Apart from the direct effect of Johnson on ACCA sentences, the decision marks an important step in the Court’s vagueness jurisprudence.  Also not to be overlooked is Justice Thomas’s concurrence, which likened the vagueness doctrine to the much-maligned concept of substantive due process, thus raising questions about the legitimacy of a vagueness doctrine in the first place.  In the end, though, the debate over the legitimacy of substantive-due-process rights should have no bearing on the Court’s void-for-vagueness precedents, because vague laws offend traditional notions of procedural due process — that is, the process by which the government may deprive a person of life, liberty, or property....

More than an opinion on mandatory-minimum sentences, Johnson provides a welcome clarification of the law on unconstitutional vagueness.  Yet it remains to be seen how far-reaching the decision will be.  The majority opinion widens the opportunities for challenges to laws where previous challenges would not have been possible under a vague-in-all-applications regime.  Time will tell whether more of those challenges will succeed, or, instead, whether Johnson is relegated to “unique” status, its result ordained by the profound and repeated inability of the Supreme Court and courts of appeals to craft a principled, workable standard for applying a peculiar type ofstatute.  One thing is certain: Johnson will not be the last word on the vagueness doctrine.

October 9, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Previewing Kansas capital case day for SCOTUS argument

The Supreme Court will be spending the morning today talking a lot about how Kansas administers its death penalty.  (The official nickname for Kansas is the Sunflower State, but perhaps the Justices will be thinking of the state's unofficial nickname of Bleeding Kansas.) Helpfully, SCOTUSblog and Crime & Consequences provides previews. Here are links and leads from their efforts:

Argument preview: Justices to tackle Eighth Amendment — again:

The Justices closed out last Term with a high-profile death penalty case, holding that Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedures do not violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  The decision in that case may be best known for Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in which he suggested that the death penalty itself is unconstitutional.  The Eighth Amendment is back before the Court again tomorrow, albeit with lower stakes, this time in a set of challenges to the procedures used to sentence three Kansas inmates to death.  The oral arguments and the Court’s eventual decision may tell us more about whether some of the Justices’ discomfort with the death penalty will translate into additional protections for defendants in capital cases or whether the Justices will instead remain — as they were in the Oklahoma case —  sharply divided. 

SCOTUS Considers the Wichita Massacre:

Even among people who deal with violent crime all the time, there are some crimes of such revolting depravity, such pure evil, that they knock us back in our chairs just reading about them.  The United States Supreme Court considers such a case tomorrow.  It is the notorious case of brothers Jonathan and Reginald Carr, whose crime spree culminated in a case called the Wichita Massacre.

UPDATEThis short post-argument Reuters piece reports that the "U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared poised to rule against two brothers challenging their death sentences for a 2000 crime spree in Kansas that included the execution-style murders of four people on a snowy soccer field."

Folks can surmise the basis for this media view by checking out the transcripts in Kansas v. Gleason, Kansas v. Carr, and Kansas v. Carr now available here and here.

October 7, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Early prisoner release following reduced drug guideline retroactivity about to be reality

It seems like a real long time ago that the US Sentencing Commission suggested it might reduced the severity of its drug sentencing guidelines across the board. (In fact, it was way back in early January 2014, as reported in this post.)  That USSC proposal a few month later became a formal guideline amendment known as drugs -2 (as reported here in April 2014); some months after that, the USSC formally voted to make this reduced guideline fully retroactive to those already serving long federal drug prison sentences (as reported here in July 2014).  

But when making its reduced drug guidelines retroactive, the USSC also provided that no federal drug prisoner should be released until fall 2015 in order to give courts and prisons time to process all thousands of folks who would not be eligible to seek early release.  Now, as this new Washington Post piece reports, all this USSC reform is finally going to mean thousands of prisoners actually securing early releases:

The Justice Department is set to release about 6,000 inmates early from prison — the largest one-time release of federal prisoners — in an effort to reduce overcrowding and provide relief to drug offenders who received harsh sentences over the past three decades.

The inmates from federal prisons nationwide will be set free by the department’s Bureau of Prisons between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2. Most of them will go to halfway houses and home confinement before being put on supervised release.

The early release follows action by the U.S. Sentencing Commission — an independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal crimes — which reduced the potential punishment for future drug offenders last year and then made that change retroactive....

The panel estimated that its change in sentencing guidelines eventually could result in 46,000 of the nation’s approximately 100,000 drug offenders in federal prison qualifying for early release. The 6,000 figure, which has not been reported previously, is the first tranche in that process.

“The number of people who will be affected is quite exceptional,” said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that supports sentencing reform. The Sentencing Commission estimated that an additional 8,550 inmates would be eligible for release between this Nov. 1 and Nov. 1, 2016....

The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously for the reduction last year after holding two public hearings in which members heard testimony from former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., federal judges, federal public defenders, state and local law enforcement officials, and sentencing advocates. The panel also received more than 80,000 public comment letters, with the overwhelming majority favoring the change.

Congress did not act to disapprove the change to the sentencing guidelines, so it became effective on Nov. 1, 2014. The commission then gave the Justice Department a year to prepare for the huge release of inmates.

The policy change is referred to as “Drugs Minus Two.” Federal sentencing guidelines rely on a numeric system based on different factors, including the defendant’s criminal history, the type of crime, whether a gun was involved and whether the defendant was a leader in a drug group. The sentencing panel’s change decreased the value attached to most drug-trafficking offenses by two levels, regardless of the type of drug or the amount.

An average of about two years is being shaved off eligible prisoners’ sentences under the change. Although some of the inmates who will be released have served decades, on average they will have served 8 1/2 years instead of 10 1/2 , according to a Justice Department official.

“Even with the Sentencing Commission’s reductions, drug offenders will have served substantial prison sentences,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said. “Moreover, these reductions are not automatic. Under the commission’s directive, federal judges are required to carefully consider public safety in deciding whether to reduce an inmate’s sentence.”

In each case, inmates must petition a judge, who decides whether to grant the sentencing reduction. Judges nationwide are granting about 70 sentence reductions per week, Justice officials said. Some of the inmates already have been sent to halfway houses.

In some cases, federal judges have denied inmates’ requests for early release. For example, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth recently denied requests from two top associates of Rayful Edmond III, one of the District’s most notorious drug kingpins. Federal prosecutors did not oppose a request by defense lawyers to have the associates, Melvin D. Butler and James Antonio Jones, released early in November.  But last month Lamberth denied the request, which would have cut about two years from each man’s projected 28 1/2 -year sentence....

Critics, including some federal prosecutors, judges and police officials, have raised concerns that allowing so many inmates to be released at the same time could cause crime to increase.

But Justice officials said that about one-third of the inmates who will be released in a few weeks are foreign citizens who will be quickly deported.  They also pointed to a study last year that found that the recidivism rate for offenders who were released early after changes in crack-cocaine sentencing guidelines in 2007 was not significantly different from the rate for offenders who completed their sentences.

October 6, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 05, 2015

Previewing the early criminal law cases on the SCOTUS docket

In this post at the Federalist Society blog, Kent Scheidegger provide an effective preview of the handful of Supreme Court cases dealing with criminal law issues that are to be heard by the Supreme Court in the first few weeks of its new Term. As regular readers know and as Kent notes, a number of the early cases involve the death penalty, and this recent Wall Street Journal article highlights the capital case concentration in an article headlined "Supreme Court Docket Loaded With Death-Penalty Cases."

But before the capital case kvetching gets started in earnest, the first criminal justice case to be heard by the Justices comes on Tuesday with Ocasio v. United States.  At SCOTUSblog here, Rory Little has this lengthy preview of Ocasio, which gets started this way:

The Court’s first criminal case of the Term presents a real brain teaser: may a defendant be convicted of conspiracy to commit an offense, when he has the intent necessary to commit the offense but his co-conspirator does not?  The case arises in the specific context of the unusual federal Hobbs Act extortion statute, and getting to the specific question initially requires some complex explanation.  But unless I misunderstand it, the general question is as old as the common law.

October 5, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Via summary reversal, SCOTUS rejects state court determination of ineffective defense

At the end of this long SCOTUS order list (which kind of marks the official start of a new Supreme Court term, OT15) is a short per curiam opinion in Maryland v. Kulbicki, No. 14-848 (S. Ct. Oct. 5, 2015). The opinion provides a notable win for prosecuors, starting and ending this way:

A criminal defendant “shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” U. S. Const., Amdt. 6.  We have held that this right requires effective counsel in both state and federal prosecutions, even if the defendant is unable to afford counsel. Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U. S. 335, 344 (1963).  Counsel is unconstitutionally ineffective if his performance is both deficient, meaning his errors are “so serious” that he no longer functions as “counsel,” and prejudicial, meaning his errors deprive the defendant of a fair trial.  Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984).  Applying this standard in name only, the Court of Appeals of Maryland held that James Kulbicki’s defense attorneys were unconstitutionally ineffective. We summarily reverse....

Given the uncontroversial nature of [Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis] CBLA at the time of Kulbicki’s trial, the effect of the judgment below is to demand that lawyers go “looking for a needle in a haystack,” even when they have “reason to doubt there is any needle there.”  Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374, 389 (2005).  The Court of Appeals demanded something close to “perfect advocacy” — far more than the “reasonable, or CBLA competence” the right to counsel guarantees.  Yarborough v. Gentry, 540 U.S. 1, 8 (2003) (per curiam).  

Kulbicki’s trial counsel did not provide deficient performance when they failed to uncover the 1991 report and to use the report’s so-called methodological flaw against Peele on cross-examination.  (We need not, and so do not, decide whether the supposed error prejudiced Kulbicki.)  The petition for writ of certiorari is granted, and the judgment of the Court of Appeals for Maryland is reversed.

October 5, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Saturday, October 03, 2015

"Why Don’t Courts Dismiss Indictments? A Simple Suggestion for Making Federal Criminal Law a Little Less Lawless"

The title of this post is the title of this notable Green Bag article authored by James Burnham. Here are excerpts from the article's introduction:

Many lawyers are familiar with the problem of overbroad, vague federal criminal laws that ensnare unwary defendants and perplex the lawyers who defend them. It is a recurring theme in academic literature and it featured prominently in Justice Kagan’s recent dissent in Yates v. United States, where she described “the real issue” in the case as being “overcriminalization and excessive punishment in the U.S. Code.”...  [Many commentators] often jump directly to the Constitution as the solution to this problem, specifically the Due Process Clause and an emphasis on fair notice as a way to narrow vaguely worded statutes.

That is a good idea, but it overlooks a tool for combating overcriminalization that is, perhaps, simpler and more readily available than the heavy artillery of constitutional law–making it easier for criminal defendants to secure a legal ruling before trial on whether their alleged conduct actually constitutes a federal crime. Implementing this basic reform would require nothing more than applying the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which already contain provisions for dismissing indictments that are materially identical to the familiar 12(b)(6) standard and the rules for dismissing civil complaints. Yet the same federal judges who routinely dismiss complaints for failure to state a claim virtually never dismiss indictments for failure to state an offense. The judiciary’s collective failure to apply the dismissal standard in criminal proceedings that is a staple of civil practice plays a central role in the ever-expanding, vague nature of federal criminal law because it largely eliminates the possibility of purely legal judicial opinions construing criminal statutes in the context of a discrete set of assumed facts, and because it leaves appellate courts to articulate the boundaries of criminal law in post-trial appeals where rejecting the government’s legal theory means overturning a jury verdict and erasing weeks or months of judicial effort.

Courts should eliminate this anomalous difference between criminal and civil procedure. There is no good reason why federal prosecutors cannot abide by the same pleading standards as civil plaintiffs. That is what the rules already provide. And holding prosecutors to that reasonable standard would go a long way toward making federal criminal law a little less lawless.

October 3, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, October 02, 2015

Top Oklahoma court puts all executions on hold upon state request after drug snafu

As reported in this AP piece, "Oklahoma's highest criminal court unanimously agreed Friday to halt all of the state's scheduled executions after the state's prison system received the wrong drug for a lethal injection this week." Here is more:

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals granted the state's request and issued indefinite stays of execution for Richard Glossip, Benjamin Cole and John Grant. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt requested the stays to give his office time to investigate why the Oklahoma Department of Corrections received the wrong drug just hours before Glossip was scheduled to be executed Wednesday.

Just hours before Glossip was set to die, prison officials opened a box of lethal drugs and realized they received potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride, the third drug utilized in Oklahoma's lethal injection formula. The court ordered the state for status reports every 30 days, "including any proposed adjustments to the execution protocol."

Oklahoma's execution protocols were overhauled after last year's botched execution of Clayton Lockett, who writhed on a gurney and struggled against his restraints before being declared dead more than 40 minutes after the procedure began.

On Thursday, Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton insisted that those new protocols were properly followed. But the attorney general expressed concerns about the department's ability to properly carry out an execution. "Until my office knows more about these circumstances and gains confidence that DOC can carry out executions in accordance with the execution protocol, I am asking the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to issue an indefinite stay of all scheduled executions," Pruitt said in a statement after requesting the stays.

October 2, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, October 01, 2015

SCOTUS grants review in 13 new cases, including capital and federal sentencing appeal issues

As reported here by Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog, the Justices of the US Supreme Court today officially added a baker's dozen of new cases to its merits docket via this order list.  One of the grants is a capital case from Pennsylvania that is already garnering media attention, and these excerpts from the SCOTUSblog posting suggests there is a lot of interesting new matters for criminal justice fans to consider:

The judicial disqualification case the Court will hear (Williams v. Pennsylvania) will give the Court a chance to clarify when the rights of an individual are violated when a member of a state supreme court joins in ruling on a case in which that judge has been accused of bias because of a former role in the case.

Four years ago, in its decision in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., the Court ruled that it violates constitutional due process when a member of the West Virginia Supreme Court cast the deciding vote in a case in which the judge had accepted large campaign donations from the mining company involved in the case.

One of the issues that the Court agreed to consider in the new Pennsylvania case is whether that precedent on judicial qualification also applies when the challenged judge did not cast a deciding vote. The judge involved — then Pennsylvania’s chief justice, Ronald D. Castille (who has since retired) — joined in a unanimous ruling by the state supreme court that reinstated a death sentence for a Philadelphia man, Terrance Williams.

Williams, then eighteen years old, was convicted in 1986 of murder, robbery, and criminal conspiracy in the killing of Amos Norwood and was sentenced to death. Williams contended that Norwood was a sexual predator who had preyed on underage boys, including Williams at the age of thirteen.

Later, when Williams case went before the state supreme court, his lawyers sought to have Chief Justice Castille disqualified, arguing that he had as a Philadelphia prosecutor authorized the decision to seek a death sentence for Williams, voiced strong support for the death penalty when running for a seat on the state supreme court and cited Williams’s case as an example of his “tough on crime” record. The case before the state’s highest court involved a claim that prosecutors had withheld evidence that would have aided in Williams’s defense. The state court rejected that challenge. The chief justice denied the recusal motion without explanation, and refused Williams’s request to refer it to the full court.

The commonwealth government of Puerto Rico gained Court review Monday of its claim that, since Congress gave it self-governing powers in 1950, it has the power to pass its own laws as a sovereign government, like any state in the Union. Thus, it argued, its legislature has full authority to pass criminal laws. And, as is important in this case, it has the independent right to prosecute someone for a crime even if the federal government has already prosecuted that same crime.

That argument was rejected by Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court, which concluded that Puerto Rico and the federal government were part of the same sovereignty — that of the United States. Puerto Rico, it decided, gets its power to legislate from Congress. Because the two governments are not separate sovereigns, the court declared, it would violate the Constitution’s ban on double jeopardy for a person to be tried by both Puerto Rico and federal prosecutors.

The case (Puerto Rico v. Valle), although focused on the double jeopardy issue, will apparently required the Court to decide just what constitutional significance to assign to the 1950 law on which Puerto Rico based its claim of sovereign powers....

In the other nine cases that the Court accepted for review, the questions are summarized as follows:

Utah v. Strieff — if police learn about an outstanding arrest warrant during a street or traffic stop that turns out to have been illegal, does the Fourth Amendment bar the use of any evidence obtained as a result of a search at the time of the arrest....

Duncan v. Owens — does it violate federal habeas law for a judge during a criminal trial to state a position on the accused person’s motive, based on evidence not introduced at the trial.

Taylor v. United States — must the government in a case under the Hobbs Act prove that robbery of a drug dealer does actually affect interstate commerce.

Molina-Martinez v. United States — what effect should a federal appeals court give to a district court’s ruling applying the wrong Sentencing Guideline range to a convicted individual.

October 1, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Basic elements of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015

As I write this, I am watching (at this link) the tail end of speeches being given by a series of US Senators discussing their pleasure and thanks concerning the bipartisan agreement to propose the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (which I will start calling SRCA 2015).  Here are links to two documents provided by the Senate Judiciary Committee summarizing what appears in this bill:

Here ais the full text of the summary document:

WOWSA!!  And the more detailed section-by-section analysis suggests that lots and lots of badly over-sentenced federal offenders subject to extreme mandatory minimum sentencing provisions in not-so-extreme cases (including folks I have represented or filed amicus briefs on behalf of like Weldon Angelos and Edward Young) might be able to get retroactive relief if this legislation becomes law!!  Thus, to summarize, just the introduction of SRCA 2015 is a huge development, and I strongly believe its provisions can will significantly reshape the federal sentencing and prison system if (and I hope when) it becomes law.

Though I will still need to see the precise text before I will be in a position to really assess all that appears in this bill, these summary documents confirm my hope that this bill was likely to be among the biggest and most ambitious federal sentencing reform efforts we have seen since the enactment of the Sentencing Reform Act more than three decades ago.  Mega-kudos to all involved, Senators and staffers and advocates of all stripes, and now let's see if all the good mojo that this SRCA 2015 represents might get this bill through the Congress in the coming weeks!!

UPDATE The full text of the SRCA runs 141 pages, and the folks at FAMM have it available at this link.

October 1, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24)

Montgomery wards: might SCOTUS decide it lacks jurisdiction to resolve juve LWOP retroactivity case?

As noted in this prior post, I am doing a series of posts in preparation for the US Supreme Court hearing oral argument in Montgomery v. Louisiana in large part because I find the substantive issues that surround Eighth Amendment retroactivity so dynamic and interesting.  But, critically, the Justices ordered briefing on a preliminary question for consideration in the Montgomery case: "Do we have jurisdiction to decide whether the Supreme Court of Louisiana correctly refused to give retroactive effect in this case to our decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ____ (2012)?"  

I have a terrific research assistant drafting summaries of various amicus briefs submitted in Montgomery (all of which can be found via this SCOTUSblog page).  Here is how he summarized and assessed this amicus filing which was requested by the court to make the argument against jurisdiction: 

The United States Supreme Court appointed Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP (“WFG”) to file an amicus brief arguing that the Court lacks jurisdiction to address the merits of whether or not Miller applies retroactively in state collateral proceedings.  That is, the Court has charged WFG with the task of arguing that the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision that Miller does not apply retroactively cannot be reviewed by the Court.

WFG’s amicus brief argues against the Court’s jurisdiction in two steps.  First, WFG argues that whether or not Miller is retroactive in the state collateral review context can only present a federally reviewable issue if Teague is binding in such proceedings.  Second, WFG argues that Teague is not binding in state collateral review proceedings because its holding was predicated upon a federal statute and nothing more.  Consequently, Montgomery presents no question of federal law and so any opinion on the merits of the Miller retroactivity issue would be only advisory (or so goes WFG’s argument).  Thus, the Court lacks jurisdiction to address the Miller retroactivity issue in Montgomery, at least in the case’s present procedural posture.

WFG’s argument turns entirely on the way in which the Louisiana Supreme Court adopted Teague some 23 years ago in a case called Taylor v. Whitley, 606 So. 2d 1292 (La. 1992). In that case, the Louisiana Supreme Court, in addressing the retroactive application of new constitutional rules, stated:

[W]e have yet to consider the issue of retroactivity on collateral review in light of Teague.  We now do so and adopt the Teague standards for all cases on collateral review in our state courts.  In doing so, we recognize that we are not bound to adopt the Teague standards. [. . .] [W]e now adopt Justice Harlan’s views on retroactivity, as modified by Teague and subsequent decisions, for all cases on collateral review in our state courts.  Taylor, 606 So. 2d at 1296–97.

WFG argues that since the Louisiana Supreme Court expressly held that it was “not bound to adopt the Teague [retroactivity] standards,” its subsequent retroactivity decisions, while based entirely on Teague and its progeny, do not “fairly appear[] to rest primarily on federal law or be interwoven with federal law” such that the presumption of federal jurisdiction articulated in Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 1044 (1983), applies.

While this is surely one reading of Taylor, it is a narrow one.  The argument can be made (and was made by both parties in this case, see Brief of Court-Appointed Amicus, Montgomery v. Louisiana, (No. 14-280), at 10) that the Court does have jurisdiction under the Long presumption.

Taylor supports this argument.  The Taylor court states throughout its opinion that it is closely following and examining the federal case law on retroactivity.  See Taylor, 606 So. 2d at 1293 (“In order to address the issue of retroactivity, we begin by tracing the evolution of the United States Supreme Court’s decisions in this area.”).  Further, while the Taylor court stated that it did not feel compelled to adopt the Teague standards, it definitively held that it was adopting those standards and was doing so “as modified by ... subsequent decisions” for all cases in Louisiana under collateral review.  Id. at 1297.  In this way, Taylor supports the notion that Louisiana state law does not just “rest primarily on federal law” and is not just “interwoven with federal law,” but evolves with federal law in a expressly lock-step manner.

As a consequence, Louisiana law vis-à-vis retroactivity in state collateral review proceedings is (arguably) federal law vis-à-vis retroactivity in federal collateral review proceedings as expressed by Teague and “subsequent decisions.”  Accordingly, if ever the presumption of jurisdiction embodied in Long applied in a case, this would be the case.  To be fair, WFG’s argument is unsurprising given its task. Nonetheless, it will in all likelihood be a minor opening act to the main event during oral argument.

I share my RA's sentiment that it is very unlikely a majority of the Supreme Court will decides it lacks jurisdiction in Montgomery, and I suspect relatively little of the oral argument will be focused on this issues. But I suspect the Chief Justice (and perhaps a few other Justices) may be eager to use Montgomery to contend that state courts are never obligated to apply any part of the Teague doctrines that now control federal court retroactivity decisions. Consequently, this issue may get more attention in the argument and in the ultimate opinion than some may want.

Prior posts in series:

UPDATE: A helpful reader reminded me it might be useful in this context to remind readers of this prior post which includes this link to a prior article by Steve Sanders on this jurisdictional topic.

October 1, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Missouri Supreme Court considering constitutional challenge to lifetime sex offender registration for 14-year-old offender

As reported in this local article, headlined "Missouri’s juvenile sex offender registry challenged as unconstitutional," the top court in the Show Me state heard argument today on a notable constitutional question involve a juve sex offender.  Here are the details:

A 14-year-old Missouri boy’s vicious sexual assault on his adult sister landed him in the juvenile justice system. But should it land him on the Missouri sex offender registry for the rest of his life?

That’s the question the Missouri Supreme Court is being asked to answer by attorneys for the St. Louis boy, identified in court documents as S.C.. The court heard oral arguments on the case Wednesday morning and took the matter under advisement.

Attorneys for S.C. argue that subjecting a juvenile to the same registration requirement imposed on adult sex offenders is cruel and unusual punishment, and it contradicts the goal of the juvenile justice system to “rehabilitate and reintegrate.” They say several studies show that juvenile sex offenders are no more likely to commit sex offenses as adults than other juveniles.

“Lifetime sex offender registration has no relationship to the goal of protecting society from re-offenders and yet imposes severe hardship on juvenile offenders by impairing their ability to rehabilitate and function as productive members of society,” according to documents filed by S.C.’s lawyers.

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office argues that S.C.’s appeal should be dismissed. They say that Missouri is following federal law in requiring certain juveniles to register as offenders, and federal appeals courts have upheld the constitutionality of similar laws in other states.

“The risk posed by someone who, like S.C., has attempted to forcibly rape another, creates a sufficient basis...to mandate actions that will protect the public against the likelihood of similar future offenses,” the state says in its written answer to the appeal.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri has filed a brief supporting the boy’s case. “When children are treated and punished as adults, we see constitutional difficulties,” said Gillian Wilcox, an ACLU staff attorney in Kansas City....

Under Missouri law, most juveniles placed on the registry are removed when they turn 21. But those, like S.C., who were 14 or older when they committed certain serious crimes, have to register as adults when they turn 21.

Statewide, more than 300 people are now on the registry for crimes committed while juveniles.... Once on the adult registry, placement is for life, and the law does not allow for a way to petition for removal....

In its arguments in support of S.C., the ACLU of Missouri cites research by social scientists that shows that requiring lifelong sex offender registration for juveniles can actually increase their chances of recidivism because offenders “find themselves isolated from important social, educational and family networks.”

“No opportunity exists for children or their counsel to present evidence demonstrating they should not be required to register publicly for the rest of their lives,” the ACLU argues.

Attorneys for the state, however, argue that appeals courts have found that sex offender registry laws are not criminal punishments, but are civil in nature and are designed with the “rational basis” of giving the public information about individuals who pose “a significant risk.”

September 30, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8)

Georgia finally completes execution of female murderer

As reported in this NBC News article, headlined "Georgia Woman Kelly Gissendaner Sings 'Amazing Grace' During Execution," a flurry of last-minute appeals did not prevent the Peach State from finally carrying out a high-profile execution. Here are the basics:

A Georgia woman who was executed despite a plea for mercy from Pope Francis sang "Amazing Grace" until she was given a lethal injection, witnesses said. Kelly Renee Gissendaner, who graduated from a theology program in prison, was put to death at 12:21 a.m. Wednesday after a flurry of last-minute appeals failed.

Gissendaner, who was sentenced to death for the 1997 stabbing murder of her husband at the hands of her lover, sobbed as she called the victim an "amazing man who died because of me." She was the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years and one of a handful of death-row inmates who were executed even though they did not physically partake in a murder.

The mother of three was nearly executed in February, but the lethal injection was abruptly called off because the chemicals appeared cloudy. After a new execution date was set, Gissendaner, 47, convinced the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to reconsider her application for clemency.

In an extraordinary turn, Pope Francis — who called for a global ban on the death penalty during his U.S. visit last week — urged the board to spare her life. "While not wishing to minimize the gravity of the crime for which Ms. Gissendander has been convicted, and while sympathizing with the victims, I nonetheless implore you, in consideration of the reasons that have been expressed to your board, to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy," Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano wrote on the pontiff's behalf.

Shortly thereafter, the board announced that it would not stop the execution.

The victim's family was split on whether Gissendaner should live or die: Her children appeared before the parole board to ask that their mom be spared the death chamber, but her husband's relatives said she did not deserve clemency. "Kelly planned and executed Doug's murder. She targeted him and his death was intentional," Douglas Gissendaner's loved ones said in a written statement.

"In the last 18 years, our mission has been to seek justice for Doug's murder and to keep his memory alive. We have faith in our legal system and do believe that Kelly has been afforded every right that our legal system affords. As the murderer, she's been given more rights and opportunity over the last 18 years than she ever afforded to Doug who, again, is the victim here. She had no mercy, gave him no rights, no choices, nor the opportunity to live his life. His life was not hers to take."

In the hours before her death, Gissendaner pressed a number of appeals, arguing that it was not fair she got death while the lover who killed her husband got a life sentence. She also said the execution drugs might be defective, and that she had turned her life around and found religion while in prison....

Jeff Hullinger, a journalist with NBC station WXIA who witnessed the execution, later told reporters that Gissendaner appeared "very, very emotional, I was struck by that." He added: "She was crying and then she was sobbing and then broke into song as well as into a number of apologies ... When she was not singing, she was praying."

September 30, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

#BESTEA: "Will the Supreme Court 'peck away at' capital punishment?"

The title of this post is has my silly new SCOTUS hashtag along with the headline of this new ABA Journal article previewing the death penalty cases that the Supreme Court will hear in the next few weeks as it starts #BESTEA.  (This silly hashtag is explained in this prior post.)  Here is an excerpt:

On Oct. 7, the court will hear arguments in cases from Kansas that raise procedural questions. The key question is whether the Eighth Amendment requires that a jury considering a death sentence be given explicit instructions pointing out that mitigating circumstances do not have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Kansas Supreme Court concluded that such an instruction was required, and the state asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review Kansas v. Gleason and Kansas v. Carr.

On Oct. 13, the justices are scheduled to hear arguments in Hurst v. Florida, another case that addresses death penalty sentencing procedures. In Florida, a defendant may not be sentenced to death without a factual finding of at least one aggravating factor.  The jury weighs aggravating and mitigating factors, and it makes a recommendation to the trial judge about whether death should be imposed.  The jury’s recommendation need not be unanimous.  But Florida law also requires the judge to independently weigh aggravating and mitigating factors.  The judge must give the jury’s recommendation “great weight” under state precedents, but he or she can override the recommendation in extraordinary circumstances.

September 29, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, September 28, 2015

A busy (and diverse) week for execution plans and capital concerns

Over the next three days, three condemned murderers are scheduled to be executed in three different states, and in each case a different pitch is being made to try to halt the execution.  Here are the basics: 

Tuesday, September 29Georgia is scheduled to execute Kelly Gissendaner, who would be the first woman executed by the state in 70 years. She was convicted in February 1997 of conspiring with her lover to kill her husband. (The lover, who took a plea deal and testified against Gissendaner, is serving a life sentence and he will be eligible for parole in 2022.)  The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles announced today it would consider additional pleas for clemency at a hearing the morning of the scheduled executions.

Wednesday, September 30Oklahoma is scheduled to execute Richard Glossip, who was the lead litigant in the challenge to Oklahoma's execution protocol which a divided Supreme Court rejected in Glossip v. Gross.  He was convicted (again) a 2004 retrial of conspiring with a co-worker to kill their boss.  (The co-worker, who took a plea deal and testified against Glossip, is serving an LWOP sentence.)  The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, in a split vote today, declined to halt Glossip's execution after having delayed it earlier this month based principally on renewed claims of Glossip's innocence.

Thursday, Oct 1Virginia is scheduled to execution Alfredo Prieto, who is a foreign national and whose guilt in a number of killings seems to be uncontested. He was first sent to California's death row for the rape/murder of a teenage girl before being transferred and sentenced to death in Virginia five years ago for the 1988 killing of two college students. His lawyers assert he is intellectually disabled and apparently want him sent back to California to have his disability claim considered on the other coast.

For the sake of assessing my ability to prognosticate in the capital arena, I will on Monday predict that at least one, perhaps two, but not all three of these executions will be completed this week. Anyone else care to make predictions about any or all of these cases on the eve of what will surely be a mid-week full of capital conversations and litigation.

September 28, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (8)

Are we about to start the #Best Ever SCOTUS Term for Eighth Amendment?

The silly question in the title of this post is my effort to coin a silly hashtag (#BESTEA = Best Ever SCOTUS Term for Eighth Amendment) for the start of a new Supreme Court Term in which a number of notable Eighth Amendment cases/issues are set to occupy the Justices.  Over at SCOTUSblog, Rory Little provides this effective preview of what #BESTEA is all about in this lengthy post titled "As the 2015 Term opens: The Court’s unusual Eighth Amendment focus."  I recommend reading Rory's post in full, and here is just a taste (with links from original):

Last June, the Supreme Court’s Term ended not with the same-sex marriage opinions (announced three days earlier), but rather with Justice Stephen Breyer’s surprising and comprehensive opinion (joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) in Glossip v. Gross, which announced that both Justices now “believe it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.”  Justice Antonin Scalia responded that if the Court were to grant merits review on that question, then he correspondingly “would ask that counsel also brief whether” longstanding Eighth Amendment precedents, “beginning with Trop [v. Dulles (1958)], should be overruled.”  Meanwhile, in the Glossip argument, Justice Samuel Alito had candidly described the many aspects of capital litigation as “guerilla war against the death penalty,” while Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan had remarked that the Court was being asked to approve an execution method akin to “being burned alive.”   Needless to say, the Justices are deeply divided about the meaning and application of the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishment” clause.

 Which makes it all the more interesting that in the Term that will open on October 5, five of the thirty-four cases in which the Court has granted review involve Eighth Amendment issues, four of them the death penalty.   All five cases will be argued in the first three argument weeks of the Term (four in October, and the fifth on November 2).  One can expect that the smoldering embers of the Glossip debate will be quickly reignited.  This Term may be the biggest Eighth Amendment term in forty years (since Gregg v. Georgia in 1976).

Here is a quick rundown of what is coming up:

1. Gleason and Carr — October 7...

2. Kansas v. Carr and Carr (Question 2) — October 7...

3. Montgomery v. Louisiana  — October 13...

4. Hurst v. Florida  — October 13...

5. Foster v. Chatman (Warden)  — November 2... 

After the Justices’ “long Conference” on September 28, at which they will address hundreds of cert petitions that have piled up since the summer recess began, the Court will announce review in a number of new cases of great import.  Some may well divert attention from what appears to be an unusual focus on Eighth Amendment cases and questions.  But the granting and argument of five Eighth Amendment cases to open the Supreme Court’s 2015 Term signals, I think, the deep cultural (as well as economic and federalism) concerns that Americans in general seem to have regarding capital punishment.  In at least some of these cases — with that of the Carr brothers being the best example — there seems to be no doubt about guilt.  The horrific character of multiple rapes and murders is undeniable.  Yet in Carr, while affirming the defendants’ guilt, the Kansas Supreme Court nonetheless found reason to vacate their death sentences.  Such cases thus starkly showcase the divergent views on the Eighth Amendment — and a nine-Justice Court is not different in this regard from much of America.  So stay tuned for what may be the most dramatic Supreme Court discussion of Eighth Amendment values since its re-affirmation of capital punishment statutes long before the Justices’ law clerks were born.

In part because I want a short-hand way to describe all these cases, and in part because I am a sill fool, I am likely to turn #BESTEA into an on-going meme in this bloggy space as the Supreme Court Term kicks off. If readers like the idea, I hope folks will tell me so in the comments and perhaps join me in using this short-hand. And if you hate the idea, perhaps I will grow to as well.

September 28, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, September 24, 2015

First Circuit panel reverses stat max drug sentence based on co-defendant disparity

A panel of the First Circuit handed down a lengthy and significant sentncing opinion yesterday in US v. Reyes-Santiago, No. 12-2372 (1st Cir. Sept. 23, 2015) (available here). Here is how the majority opinion begins:

Appellant Jorge Reyes-Santiago ("Reyes") was among 110 defendants charged in a two-count indictment with drug and firearms offenses arising from a massive drug ring operating in public housing projects in Bayamón, Puerto Rico.  Most of the high-level members of the conspiracy, Reyes among them, pled guilty pursuant to plea agreements. Other than for Reyes, the sentences imposed on Count One, the drug count, ranged from 78 months to 324 months, the latter imposed on the chieftain of the enterprise.  Reyes received the stiffest Count One sentence: 360 months. In this appeal, he seeks resentencing on Count One on three grounds: the government's alleged breach of his plea agreement, the sentencing court's alleged inappropriate conduct in demanding witness testimony, and the disparity between his sentence and those of similarly situated co-defendants.  Reyes also claims the district court erred in ordering a 24-month consecutive sentence for his violation of supervised release conditions imposed in an earlier case.

We find merit in the disparity argument.  Ultimately, in sentencing the lead conspirators, the district court refused to accept stipulated drug amounts only for Reyes, listed as Defendant #9 in the indictment, and for the conspiracy's kingpin, Defendant #1.  Although sentencing courts have the discretion to reject recommendations made in plea agreements, and need not uniformly accept or reject such stipulations for co-defendants, they nonetheless must impose sentences along a spectrum that makes sense, given the co-defendants' criminal conduct and other individual circumstances.  In this case, after reviewing Presentence Investigation Reports ("PSRs") and sentencing transcripts for the leaders in the conspiracy, we conclude that the rationale offered by the district court for the substantial disparity between Reyes's sentence and the sentences of others above him in the conspiracy's hierarchy is unsupported by the record.  We therefore must remand this case to the district court for reconsideration of Reyes's sentence.

September 24, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Is Justice Scalia saying four (and maybe five) colleagues are now ready to judicially abolish death penalty?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by press reports on Justice Antonin Scalia's speech given at Rhodes College on Tuesday. This BuzzFeed story's extended headlined provides the basics: "Justice Scalia Says He 'Wouldn’t Be Surprised' If Supreme Court Ended Death Penalty: In a speech Tuesday at Rhodes College, the conservative Supreme Court justice said that four of his colleagues think that the penalty is unconstitutional, The Commercial Appeal reported."  Here is the full context:

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told attendees of a speech given Tuesday that four of his colleagues believe the death penalty is unconstitutional and that “he wouldn’t be surprised” if the court ends the penalty, according to reports from the event.

Speaking at Rhodes College, the conservative justice bristled at the concept, believing the penalty to be constitutional and telling attendees that death penalty opponents should go to the states if they want to end it, Jennifer Pignolet of The Commercial Appeal tweeted.

According to Pignolet’s report, Scalia said that “he ‘wouldn’t be surprised’ if his court ruled it unconstitutional, despite his belief that the Constitution allows for it with the establishment of protections like a fair trial.”  Specifically, Scalia said that “he now has 4 colleagues who believe it’s unconstitutional,” Pignolet tweeted.

The statements provide new insight into the court’s internal discussions — or at least Scalia’s take on his colleagues — as his comments go further than Scalia’s colleagues have gone themselves.

After the Glossip ruling in June, I was somewhat dismissive of claims by abolitionists that Justice Breyer's dissent suggested that it might only be a matter of time before there could be a majority of Justices ready to decalre the death penalty categorically unconstitutional. But Justice Scalia's comments now suggest that hopes for coming judicial abolition of capital punishment throughout the United States may not be just wishful thinking.

Prior related posts:

September 24, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

"Johnson v. United States and the Future of the Void-for-Vagueness Doctrine"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Carissa Byrne Hessick now available on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Last Term, in Johnson v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Armed Career Criminal Act as unconstitutionally vague.  The Johnson opinion is certain to have a large impact on federal criminal defendants charged with unlawfully possessing a firearm. But it is also likely to have other important consequences.  The language deemed vague in Johnson is similar or identical to language in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines and other statutes.  What is more, the Johnson opinion elaborates on the void-for-vagueness doctrine in important ways.  Those elaborations ought to make vagueness challenges easier to win in the future.

This Commentary examines the implications of Johnson.  It also briefly discusses Justice Thomas’s concurrence.  Justice Thomas refused to join the majority opinion, instead opting to decide the case in Johnson’s favor on statutory construction grounds. In addition to his statutory construction analysis, Justice Thomas questioned the constitutional basis of the void-for-vagueness doctrine.  Justice Thomas’s approach to the vagueness doctrine, if adopted by other members of the Court, could eviscerate the notice function of the doctrine.

September 24, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Wisconsin appeals court declares unconstitutional criminalization of sex offenders photographing kids in public

As reported in this local article, a "Wisconsin law prohibiting registered sex offenders from photographing children in public violates their right to free speech, the state Court of Appeals held Tuesday." Here is more about this notable ruling concerning a notable sex offender restriction:

The decision by the Wausau-based District 3 court reversed the conviction of a 44-year-old Green Bay man who had been sentenced to 12 years in prison for the non-pornographic photos. It also found the law unconstitutional on its face, not salvageable by a narrowed interpretation or severing part of the statute.

Because of a 2002 child sexual assault conviction, Christopher J. Oatman was on probation in February 2011, when his agent searched his apartment and found a camera and cellphone. On them, authorities found photos Oatman had taken the previous fall of children outside his residence doing things like riding skateboards, jumping rope and dropping stones in a soda bottle. None involved nudity or obscenity.

He was charged with 16 counts of intentionally photographing children without their parents' consent, and later pleaded no contest to eight so he could appeal on the constitutional issue. The judge sentenced Oatman last year to consecutive 18-month prison terms, the maximum, on each count.

In an opinion written by Reserve Judge Thomas Cane, and joined by judges Lisa Stark and Thomas Hruz, the court found that even sex offenders have free speech rights to take non-obscene, non-pornographic photographs of children in public places. Any law that aims to restrict speech based on its content must be narrowly drawn to protect a compelling state interest. The court found the law at issue failed both tests.

While protecting children is such an interest, the court said, the law doesn't accomplish that. In fact, it could actually encourage offenders to make personal contact with children, in order to ask who their parents are so the offender might ask permission to take the photos. "Further, children are not harmed by non-obscene, non-pornographic photographs taken in public places," the court said....

The court said it does not like the idea that some people might gain sexual gratification from ordinary photos of children, but that laws can't ban protected speech just because it might lead to crime. "First Amendment freedoms are most in danger when the government seeks to control thought or to justify its laws for that impermissible end," the decision reads, quoting a U.S. Supreme Court case. "The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought."

The full ruling in Wisconsin v. Oatman is available at this link, and the nature of the final ruling meant that the appeals court had no reason to consider or comment on the specific sentence that had been imposed on the defendant under this law. That said, I cannot help but wonder if the judges considering the appeal were influenced by the remarkable fact that the defendant had been sentence to more than a decade in prision(!) for simply taking pictures (presumably from inside his own home) of children playing outside in public.

September 23, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5)

Investigating how elected judiciary may impact capital punishment's administration

USA-DEATHPENALTYReuters has this new investigative report exploring the relationship between an elected judiciary and a jurisdiction's administration of the death penalty.  The full headline and subheading provide a summary of the themes of the report: "Uneven Justice: In states with elected high court judges, a harder line on capital punishment. Justices chosen by voters reverse death penalties at less than half the rate of those who are appointed, a Reuters analysis finds, suggesting that politics play a part in appeals. Now, the U.S. Supreme Court is about to decide whether to take up the issue in the case of a Ohio cop killer." Here are passages from the report:

Ohio is one of the states where high court judges are directly elected – and that, a Reuters analysis found, makes a big difference in death penalty appeals.

A review of 2,102 state supreme court rulings on death penalty appeals from the 37 states that heard such cases over the past 15 years found a strong correlation between the results in those cases and the way each state chooses its justices. In the 15 states where high court judges are directly elected, justices rejected the death sentence in 11 percent of appeals, less than half the 26 percent reversal rate in the seven states where justices are appointed.

Justices who are initially appointed but then must appear on the ballot in “retention” elections fell in the middle, reversing 15 percent of death penalty decisions in those 15 states, according to opinions retrieved from online legal research service Westlaw, a unit of Thomson Reuters.

Some academic studies over the past 20 years have mirrored the Reuters analysis, showing a relationship between the result in death penalty appeals and how state supreme courts are selected. The U.S. Supreme Court has not addressed these findings in its rulings.

Now, however, at least three current justices are sympathetic to the idea that political pressure on judges is a factor that leads to arbitrary, and perhaps unconstitutional, application of the death penalty. The findings, several legal experts said, support the argument that the death penalty is arbitrary and unconstitutional because politics – in addition to the facts – influence the outcome of an appeal.

Courts have a responsibility to protect a defendant’s constitutional rights without political pressure, especially when the person’s life is at stake, said Stephen Bright, a Yale Law School lecturer who has worked on hundreds of death defenses. “It’s the difference between the rule of law and the rule of the mob,” Bright said....

State supreme courts automatically review every death penalty verdict. Apart from examining whether any legal errors were made, judges must also weigh different factors to decide whether the death sentence is an appropriate punishment. Was it the defendant’s first offense or do they have a history of violent behavior? When a death sentence is reversed, the offender usually gets life in prison instead.

But as the Reuters analysis suggests, external factors may come into play. The election effect was a far stronger variable in determining outcomes of death penalty cases than state politics and even race. Justices in states that supported Democratic President Barack Obama in the 2012 election reversed death sentences at roughly the same rate as those that went for Republican candidate Mitt Romney, at around 14 percent.

African-American defendants had lower reversal rates in both elected and appointed states. Nationally, death sentences were reversed 15 percent of the time for whites, compared with 12 percent for African-Americans, according to the Reuters findings.

Reuters did not analyze the possible impact of the race of the victim on death penalty appeals. The analysis also excluded a category of death penalty appeals known as habeas challenges, because state supreme courts are not required to hear them and overwhelmingly refuse to do so....

In 2013, Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited a study showing that Alabama judges are more likely to impose the death penalty in election years, part of a failed effort to persuade her colleagues to review an Alabama capital case.

Last June, in Glossip vs. Gross, the high court voted 5-4 that the method of execution in Oklahoma is constitutional. In dissent, Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited studies showing capital punishment is arbitrary because of racial bias, as well as political pressure, “including pressures on judges who must stand for election."

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who has said he believes the death penalty to be unconstitutional, said in an interview that the Reuters findings “definitely lend support” to his side of the debate because they show how arbitrary capital punishment can be.

September 23, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"No Hope: Re-Examining Lifetime Sentences for Juvenile Offenders"

Social2The title of this post is the title of this notable new research report released today by Phillips Black, a nonprofit, public interest law office. The report, authored by John Mills, Anna Dorn, and Amelia Hritz, is timely with the Supreme Court due in three weeks to hear oral argument in Montgomery v. Louisiana concerning the retroactivity of its 2012 Miller juve LWOP ruling.  In addition, I think this report (and related material assembled here) merits extra attention because it gives extra attention to racial realities that surround juve LWOP sentencing. Here is the report's executive summary:

In a handful of U.S. counties, teenagers are still being sentenced to a lifetime in prison with no chance of release. This harsh and increasingly isolated practice falls disproportionately on black and Hispanic youth and is a remnant of an earlier period of punitiveness based on an unfounded prediction of a new class of superpredators that never actually materialized.

While the use of this sentence has dramatically declined in recent years, it continues to be practiced in a relatively small number of jurisdictions. The Supreme Court now has the opportunity to declare juvenile life without parole a cruel and unusual punishment, far outside our standards of decency in the twenty-first century.

In Miller v. Alabama, the Court took the first step by forbidding mandatory sentences of life without parole for homicide offenses committed by juveniles ( JLWOP). The opinion, however, left open the question of whether the Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of life without parole upon juveniles entirely.

That question, the constitutionality of life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders, is being presented to the Court in two cases. In one case to be argued in October, the Court will consider whether its earlier rulings on this subject apply to past cases and not just cases going forward. A brief offered by the Charles Hamilton Institute for Race and Justice urges the Court to tackle the constitutional question of whether the punishment should stand at all. In another case, an inmate serving a JLWOP sentence has directly presented the question: “Does the Eighth Amendment prohibit sentencing a child to life without possibility of parole?”

This report examines the key evidence for answering the question of whether there is now a national consensus against juvenile life without parole. To make this assessment, the Court generally examines legislative enactments and actual sentencing practices. This report catalogs the rapid abandonment of JLWOP, both legislatively and in terms of actual use.

Although JLWOP dramatically expanded between 1992 and 1999—an era of hysteria over juvenile superpredators—since Miller states have rapidly abandoned JLWOP in law and practice.

Nine states have abolished JLWOP after Miller, bringing the current number of jurisdictions completely banning the sentence to fifteen. California and Florida, two of the most frequent users of the sentence, have dramatically limited the reach of JLWOP by restricting its application to a narrow set of circumstances. Moreover, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Washington have abolished JLWOP for a category of offenders. This pace of abolition far outstrips those that occurred in the years prior to the high Court’s rulings that the executions of juveniles and the intellectually disabled are unconstitutional. This report provides an in-depth analysis of state and county JLWOP sentencing practices. At the state level, just nine states account for over eighty percent of all JLWOP sentences. A single county, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, is responsible for nearly ten percent of all JLWOP sentences nationwide. Orleans Parish, Louisiana, has tenfold the number of JLWOP sentences as its population would suggest. Five counties account for more than one fifth of all JLWOP sentences. JLWOP, in practice, is isolated in a handful of outlier jurisdictions.

Finally, state sentencing practices also show marked racial disparities in JLWOP’s administration. Starting in 1992, the beginning of the superpredator era, a black juvenile offender would be twice as likely to receive a JLWOP sentence as his white counterpart. The disproportionate application of the punishment on juveniles of color is stark. All of Texas’s JLWOP sentences were imposed on persons of color. Pennsylvania has imposed it eighty percent of the time on persons of color.

There is now a growing consensus against JLWOP, calling into question its constitutionality. The policy’s suspect origins and disparate implementation require rigorous examination to determine whether it serves any legitimate penological purpose.

September 22, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Prez Candidate Bernie Sanders announces plan to restore federal parole and eliminate private prisons

Images (1)As reported in this new USA Today piece, headlined "Sanders seeks to ban private prisons," a US Senator on the presidential campaign trail has come out with a distinctive and ambitious criminal justice reform proposal. Here are the basics:

Sen. Bernie Sanders said he hopes to end the “private, for-profit prison racket” with the introduction Thursday of bills to ban private prisons, reinstate the federal parole system and eliminate quotas for the number of immigrants held in detention.

The Vermont independent, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, introduced the “Justice is not for Sale Act” with Democratic Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona, Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Bobby L. Rush of Illinois. It would bar the federal government from contracting with private incarceration companies starting two years after passage.

“The profit motivation of private companies running prisons works at cross purposes with the goals of criminal justice,” Sanders said. “Criminal justice and public safety are without a doubt the responsibility of the citizens of our country, not private corporations. They should be carried out by those who answer to voters, not those who answer to investors.”...

Ellison said the private-prison industry spends millions each year lobbying for harsher sentencing laws and immigration policies that serve its bottom line. “Incarceration should be about rehabilitation and public safety, not profit,” he said.

The legislation would reinstate the federal parole system, abolished in 1984, and increase oversight of companies that provide banking and telephone services for inmates. It also would end the requirement that Immigration and Customs Enforcement maintain 34,000 detention beds.

Sanders said the bill represents only a piece of the major criminal justice reforms he believes are needed, but he’s convinced the issue can find bipartisan support. “Making sure that corporations are not profiteering from the incarceration of fellow Americans is an important step forward.”

The full text of the Justice is Not for Sale Act of 2015 can be accessed at this link, and it is a very interesting read. Perhaps not surprisingly, the media is so far focused on the provisions of the bill seeking to eliminate use of private prisons. But I think the provisions in the bill that are the most important and could be, by far, the most consequential are those that would reintroduce parole in the federal system.

September 17, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

"The Meaning of 'Meaningful Appellate Review' in Capital Cases: Lessons from California"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Steven Shatz now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court's seminal death penalty case, the Court held that the death penalty, as then administered, violated the Eighth Amendment because the penalty decision was so unguided and the imposition of the death penalty was so infrequent as to create an unconstitutional risk of arbitrariness.  The Court's remedy, developed in subsequent decisions, was to require the state legislatures to "genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty" and the state courts to provide "meaningful appellate review" of death sentences.  In recent years, a number of scholars have addressed the genuine narrowing requirement with empirical research on particular state schemes.

Less attention has been paid to the appellate review requirement and, in particular to Pulley v. Harris, the Court's key case on the issue.  In Pulley, the Court held that comparative proportionality review of death sentences was not constitutionally required in a state's death penalty scheme unless that scheme was "so lacking in other checks on arbitrariness" that it could not otherwise pass constitutional muster.  The Court acknowledged, however, that some form of meaningful appellate review was required. Using California as an object lesson, this article examines both aspects of the Court's opinion: what would make a state scheme so lacking in checks on arbitrariness as to require comparative proportionality review; and what would constitute meaningful appellate review by a court which eschews comparative proportionality review.

The article argues that the California death penalty scheme is that scheme imagined in Pulley — a scheme with virtually no checks on arbitrariness, producing arbitrary sentences and arbitrary executions, and, therefore, a scheme where comparative proportionality should be required.  The article also argues that, in California, there is no meaningful review of death sentences at all — not once in 593 direct appeals in death penalty cases has the California Supreme Court set aside a death sentence on the ground that it was disproportionate, excessive or otherwise aberrant.  Although California is, in this respect, is a distinct outlier, it is not alone among the states in ignoring the Furman requirements. The lesson from California is that the Supreme Court's "meaningful review" of state schemes is long overdue.

September 17, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Oklahoma's top criminal court stays execution of Richard Glossip for two weeks

As reported in local news pieces here and here, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin late yesterday refused to delay today's scheduled execution of Richard Glossip amid concerns about his factual guilt.  But today the Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals issued a stay of execution for death row inmate Richard Glossip. Here are the basics:

Just before 12 p.m. Wednesday, a stay has been granted for him until September 30. Late Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Mary Fallin said she will not grant Glossip a stay of execution. Just before 5 p.m. Tuesday, Glossip’s attorneys filed the appeal with the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. It's their last avenue to stop the execution.

Court documents released on Wednesday stated that, "Due to Glossip's last minute filing, and in order for this court to give fair consideration to the materials included with his subsequent application for post-conviction relief, we hereby grant an emergency stay of execution for two weeks. The execution of Richard Eugene Glossip shall be reset, without further order, for September 30, 2015."

During a news conference on Wednesday, the Director of Oklahoma Department of Corrections said he does not know the reasons behind the stay, and that at this time, they are shutting down all procedures.

Prior related post:

September 16, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Split en banc Third Circuit struggles through how to review and assess Alleyne error

A decade ago, way back in the early Blakely and Booker days, this blog covered lots of cases dealing with lots of Sixth Amendment sentencing problems and circuit court efforts to sort through all the problems. Anyone with a continued fondness for the legal challenges and debates of that era will want to be sure to find the time to read today's work by the full Third Circuit in US v. Lewis, No. 10-2931 (3d Cir. Sept. 16, 2015) (available here). I will provide the highlights via the first paragraph from each of the three opinions.

Here is the start of the plurality opinion in Lewis:

Jermel Lewis was sentenced for a crime with a seven-year mandatory minimum — brandishing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence — notwithstanding the fact that a jury had not convicted him of that crime.  Instead, he had been convicted of the crime of using or carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, which has a five-year mandatory minimum. Lewis was never even indicted for the crime of brandishing.  In Alleyne v. United States, the Supreme Court held that this scenario, i.e., sentencing a defendant for an aggravated crime when he was indicted and tried only for a lesser crime, violates a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.  133 S. Ct. 2151, 2163-64 (2013).  Even though that constitutional issue is settled, we still must address the issue of whether the error that transpired in this case was harmless. We conclude that the error was not harmless because it contributed to the sentence Lewis received.  Accordingly, we will vacate Lewis’s sentence and remand for resentencing.

Here is the start of the concurring opinion in Lewis:

Jermel Lewis was charged with and convicted of using or carrying a firearm, but was eventually sentenced on the basis of a different, aggravated crime.  Conviction of the aggravated crime would have required proof of an element unnecessary to a using or carrying offense: that Lewis had brandished a firearm.  Lewis’s indictment did not charge him with brandishing, nor did the jury find that he had committed that crime beyond a reasonable doubt.  Yet Lewis was subjected to the enhanced mandatory minimum sentence required for brandishing.  I agree with the majority that this error demands resentencing; the new sentence should be based solely on the crime with which Lewis was actually charged and for which he was convicted.  But I would hold that this error was structural and therefore reversible if properly preserved.  Structural errors do not require a court to inquire into whether the error was harmless.

Here is the start of the dissenting opinion in Lewis:

The plurality finds that Jermel Lewis’s substantial rights were affected when he was sentenced to a seven-year mandatory minimum sentence for brandishing a weapon during a crime of violence, despite undisputed and overwhelming testimony that he pointed a gun at many people during a robbery.  Though what occurred below was error, in my view, for the reasons explained in Judge Smith’s concurring opinion, the error occurred both at trial and at sentencing.  So, upon a review of the uncontroverted evidence presented to the grand and petit juries, I would hold that the error was harmless.

September 16, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recuenco and review of Blakely error, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Does Glossip case reveal Oklahoma's prosecutors as immoral and its judges lacking in moral fiber?

The qustion in the title of this post is prompted by this provocative Slate commentary authored by Robert J. Smith and G. Ben Cohen which is headlined "Groundhog Day Nightmare: Oklahoma is about to execute a man who is probably innocent." Here are excerpts from the piece, including sections with the forceful rhetoric parroted in the title of this post:

Oklahoma is set to execute Richard Glossip, despite grave doubts about his guilt. A chorus of people that includes Republican former Sen. Tom Coburn; Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson; and Barry Switzer, the beloved former Oklahoma Sooners football coach, has called for Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin to grant a stay of execution. If she does not, and if the Supreme Court does not step in, Glossip will be put to death Wednesday....

In 1997, Justin Sneed killed Barry Van Treese, a motel owner for whom both Sneed and Glossip worked. The police found Sneed’s fingerprints all over the bloody crime scene and in the victim’s vehicle. Sneed later confessed to the killing. The prosecution’s theory at Glossip’s trial was that Glossip pressured Sneed into murdering Van Treese. What evidence supported the state’s theory? Not much....

The prosecution gave him a sweetheart deal: In exchange for his testimony against Glossip, the state waived the death penalty. The problem is that the substance of Sneed’s testimony at trial was invented by the state....

It is bad enough that Sneed received a deal in exchange for his testimony. It is worse that the detective “educated” Sneed about Glossip being the mastermind. But what’s not only unforgivable, but downright immoral, is that the prosecution put forward the Glossip-as-mastermind theory in a capital case, with a man’s life on the line, when Sneed couldn’t even keep his story straight....

If Oklahoma proceeds with this execution, Glossip will not, unfortunately, be the only plausibly innocent man put to death....

Did Georgia execute an innocent man when it killed Troy Anthony Davis? Did Texas execute innocent men when it put Cameron Todd Willingham and Lester Bower to death? Will Oklahoma add to this tragic list if neither Gov. Fallin nor the Supreme Court stops the execution of Richard Glossip? We honestly do not know. And that’s the problem. How do we preserve the integrity of our justice system and our courts if we send condemned inmates to the lethal injection chamber with no more certainty of their guilt than a coin flip?

Given all that is known today about wrongful convictions, the fallibility of our criminal justice institutions, and their fallibility in identifying these potentially fatal errors, the question should not be Is this person innocent? but rather: Is this a case of uncertain guilt? Whatever principles the state seeks to uphold, whether it is the finality of its judgments or deference to juries or state courts, nothing trumps the risk of executing a person where there is some serious doubt as to his or her guilt.

In Richard Glossip’s case, there is more than “some” doubt.  There is lots of it. No physical evidence ties him to the crime.  There is no motive that withstands scrutiny. The detectives in the case engaged in tactics known to increase the likelihood of witnesses providing false statements.  And the state’s chief witness, Justin Sneed, was unreliable at best, with clear motives for lying. Few of us would buy a used car from Justin Sneed.  Are we prepared to stake the moral fiber of our justice system on his word?  If our answer is no, we must stop the execution of Richard Glossip. His life depends upon it, and so does the soul of our nation’s justice system.

I was a bit dismissive in this prior post of eleventh-hour innocence claims here given that Glossip was twice convicted and sentenced to death (his first conviction was reversed for procedural error). But I cannot help but wonder if my eagerness to question claims of innocence here is a result of my own desire to believe that Oklahoma prosecutors would not be immorally eager to condemn to death (twice) a man based on very weak evidence and that Oklahoma and federal courts would have had the moral fiber to intervene if there was real substance to the innocence claims.

That all said, absent "smoking gun" evidence to provide some more confidence in Glossip's guilt, I can understand why the abolitionist crowd has now garnered broad support for their claim that the Glossip execution should not go forward.  Still, I continue to be deeply troubled that a case which produced two jury convictions well over a decade ago, and which has been at the center of the national death penalty debate for nearly all of 2015, is  only now struggling at the very minute with what is the most fundamental and basic question in any and every criminal case.

Prior related post:

September 16, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

"Here’s why Obama should pardon hundreds more women"

The title of this post is part of the headline of this recent Fusion commentary authored by Amy Ralston Povah. Here are excerpts:

After the fifth year in prison, each additional year begins to eat into the layers of your soul.  Parents pass away, friends drift off, spouses find someone else.  Children grow up, graduate, get married, have children of their own; holidays come and go, and when that 7th, 15th or 22nd year rolls around, you feel like your heart is being crushed.

I shared those emotions with the women I served time with at FCI Dublin, a correctional facility in northern California.  I was serving 24 years on a drug conspiracy charge, arrested for collecting bail money for my husband, who manufactured MDMA.  He was the kingpin, but he only received three years probation because he cooperated with the prosecutors.  I refused a plea bargain, and I got stuck in jail.

So when President Clinton commuted my sentence on July 7, 2000 — after I’d served 9 years and 3 months — I felt like I had won the lottery.  The prison compound erupted into cheers and marched me across the yard to the gate on the day I left.  And yet, it was a bittersweet victory.  While I was elated for myself, it was hard to walk away, knowing I would not see these women the next day, or possibly ever again.

I felt that mix of bittersweet emotions again this summer when President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, more than any sitting president in the last 50 years.  It was the result of Clemency Project 2014, a federal initiative that encouraged over 35,000 prisoners to apply for clemency.  On one day, 42 men and four women were the lucky lottery winners chosen from a massive number of candidates....

Having served time with over a thousand women, I believe they are the hardest hit victims in the war on drugs.  Many women are indicted because they are merely a girlfriend or wife of a drug dealer, yet are not part of the inner circle and have limited information to plea bargain with.  Mandatory minimums are reserved for those who do not cut a deal with prosecutors.

Women are being overlooked by the Department of Justice as candidates worthy of a seat on that coveted commutation list.  Over the last 30 years, the female prison population has grown by over 800% while the male prison population grew 416% during the same timeframe.  More than half of the mothers in prison were the primary financial supporters of their children before they were incarcerated.  And the vast majority of women in federal prison were put there due to conspiracy laws that hold them equally culpable for the criminal actions of other co-defendants, often a spouse or boyfriend. In other words, many women are guilty by association.

There are hundreds of women sitting in federal prison on drug conspiracy charges who deserve clemency — most of them first offenders serving life without parole.  Alice Johnson is an accomplished playwright who has served 18 years on a life sentence for cocaine conspiracy and has the support of three members of Congress.  Josephine Ledezma has already served over 23 years and is still waiting to have her petition filed.  Sharanda Jones has served 15 years; filed for clemency in 2013 and has over 270,000 supporters on change.org.  Michelle West has served 22 years of a double life sentence, plus fifty years, in a case where the key witness was given immunity and never served a day for a murder he admitted to.

Some days, sitting in prison, you think life can’t get any worse.  And then another blow comes when 46 people receive clemency and your name is not on that list.  Many of the same women I said goodbye to in 2000 are still in prison, serving 30 years to life, even though, like myself, they were minor participants in a nonviolent drug conspiracy case.... But with a stroke of his pen, President Obama can help right the wrongs of the past and give these deserving women a second chance at life.  He should get started right away.

September 15, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, September 14, 2015

Montgomery wards: gearing up for SCOTUS juve LWOP retroactivity case

In four weeks, the US Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Montgomery v. Louisiana.  Here, via this SCOTUSblog posting and this official SCOTUS page, are the questions that the Justices will be considering in Montgomery:

Do we have jurisdiction to decide whether the Supreme Court of Louisiana correctly refused to give retroactive effect in this case to our decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ____ (2012)?

Whether Miller v. Alabama adopts a new substantive rule that applies retroactively on collateral review to people condemned as juveniles to die in prison.

Because both of these questions engage many interesting, important and dynamic issues, I am planning to do a (lengthy?) series of posts about this case and the various arguments that have been presented to the Justices via amicus briefs (including one I filed thanks to the efforts of good folks at the Columbus offices of Jones Day).  As the title of this post reveals, I have decided to use "Montgomery wards" as the cheeky title for this coming series of posts.

Notably, as this new SCOTUSblog posting highlights, it would now appear that the Justices share my sense that the Montgomery case raises many interesting, important and dynamic issues because they have now scheduled additional argument time for the case.  Here are the basics via Lyle Denniston's SCOTUSblog report:

The Supreme Court on Monday added fifteen minutes to the argument schedule for its hearing October 13 on Montgomery v. Louisiana, a case that could decide which juveniles convicted of murder can take advantage of a 2012 decision limiting sentences of life without parole for minors.  The added time will allow a Court-appointed attorney to argue a question about the Court’s authority to actually rule on the legal issue in the case.

In March, the Justices agreed to hear the appeal of Henry Montgomery of Baton Rouge, who is seeking retroactive application of the Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, which had all but eliminated states’ power to sentence youths to life without parole, as punishment for committing a murder when they were under the age of eighteen.  In taking on the case, however, the Court also added the question whether it has jurisdiction to review and rule on the Louisiana Supreme Court decision refusing to apply the Miller precedent to cases that had become final before June 25, 2012, when Miller was decided.   Louisiana had raised that issue in a filing in an earlier case on the juvenile sentencing question. 

Instead of the usual one hour of argument time, the Court in the Montgomery case will hear seventy-five minutes.  The time will be divided this way: the Court-appointed attorney, Richard Bernstein of Washington, D.C., will have fifteen minutes to argue against the Court’s jurisdiction, Montgomery’s attorney will have fifteen minutes to argue both points, an attorney from the office of the U.S. Solicitor General will have fifteen minutes to argue both issues, and a lawyer for the state of Louisiana will have thirty minutes of time to argue both questions.  The order also said that Bernstein and Montgomery’s lawyer will be allowed to save time for rebuttal.

The federal government, in a brief filed by the Solicitor General, supported Montgomery’s plea to apply Miller retroactively and argued that the Court does have jurisdiction to decide that question.  The brief noted that there are twenty-seven inmates in federal prisons whose sentences could be affected by the retroactivity issue.

September 14, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Is a capital case the right kind of vehicle for SCOTUS to consider solitary confinement?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new New York Times piece by Adam Liptak headlined "Virginia Has Solitary Confinement Case, if Justices Want It." Here are excerpts:

The Supreme Court seems eager to hear a case on the constitutionality of a distinctively American form of punishment: prolonged solitary confinement. “Years on end of near total isolation exact a terrible price,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a concurrence in a case in June. Justice Stephen G. Breyer echoed the point in a dissent in a case later that month.

An appeal from Virginia materialized almost immediately. Now the justices must weigh whether it has the right features — whether it is, in legal jargon, a good vehicle — to serve as the basis for a major decision on extended solitary confinement, which much of the world considers torture.

On the plus side, the case asks the sort of focused and incremental question that the justices often find attractive: May states automatically put all death row inmates in solitary confinement?

Last week, Mark R. Herring, Virginia’s attorney general, filed a brief urging the court to turn down the appeal. It is, he said, the wrong vehicle to address “the broader concerns recently voiced by Justices Kennedy and Breyer.” For starters, Mr. Herring wrote, “the case is likely to become moot before it can be decided.” That is because the state intends to execute the inmate who brought the challenge, Alfredo R. Prieto, on Oct. 1.

More generally, Mr. Herring wrote, Virginia is the wrong state in which to examine the issue of prolonged solitary confinement on death row because its capital justice system is exceptionally efficient. Inmates in other states can spend decades in solitary confinement, he wrote, but Virginia generally executes condemned inmates seven to 10 years after their convictions.

Mr. Prieto has been on death row for about seven years. But that was enough isolation, he told the justices, to have caused him mental agony. In a 2013 deposition, the warden of the prison where Mr. Prieto is serving his sentence seemed to concede the inhumanity of solitary confinement. “There is real importance to getting out and being with other people, I agree, and not being 24/7 in a cell,” said the warden, Keith Davis. “We, as humans, we don’t survive very well that way with lack of human contact.”

Later that year, a federal trial judge ruled in Mr. Prieto’s favor. “He must spend almost all of his time alone,” deprived of contact even with fellow prisoners, the judge, Leonie M. Brinkema, wrote. In theory, family members could visit on weekends in a room with a glass partition. “In actuality,” she said, “no one ever comes.”

Mr. Prieto, she said, “has not engaged in any of the behaviors that would normally support placement in segregated confinement,” and was “by all accounts a model prisoner.” On the other hand, he has a chilling criminal record. Mr. Prieto was on California’s death row for the 1990 rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl when, in 2005, DNA evidence linked him to a 1988 rape and double murder in Virginia. He was extradited to Virginia and found guilty....

In March, a divided three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Virginia reversed Judge Brinkema’s ruling, though even the majority said the state’s approach was harsh. “Of course,” Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the majority, “the Supreme Court could prescribe more rigorous judicial review.”

Last week, Mr. Herring, the state’s attorney general, urged the Supreme Court to defer to prison officials in the case, Prieto v. Clarke, No. 15-31. “Death row offenders are sui generis,” he wrote. “States are entitled to make the judgment that death-sentenced offenders, as a class, should be confined in maximum-security conditions.”...

In June, Justice Kennedy lamented that “the condition in which prisoners are kept simply has not been a matter of sufficient public inquiry or interest.” That seemed to change over the summer. In July, President Obama ordered the Justice Department to review the use of solitary confinement in federal facilities....

This month, California settled a lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights by agreeing to cut back sharply on solitary confinement. The next day, a group representing the nation’s corrections officials called for “efforts to limit or end extended isolation.”

Things are changing even in Virginia, perhaps as a consequence of Mr. Pietro’s lawsuit. In a sworn statement filed last month in a different case, Mr. Clarke, the corrections official, said death row inmates can now watch television and play games like chess or checkers with up to three other condemned prisoners for an hour a day. They can also have weekly “contact visits” with family members. These can include “one brief kiss, a handshake and/or an embrace.”

Plans are afoot, Mr. Clarke added, for an outdoor recreation yard that will allow small groups of death row inmates to play basketball and exercise together. It should be completed by the end of October, not long after Mr. Prieto’s scheduled execution.

Regular readers likely know that I believe and often lament that capital cases often get too much attention from the Supreme Court (and others) relative to other cases involving much less serious crimes and much more sympathetic offenders. Nevertheless, as this piece notes, Virginia's blanket policy of putting all death-row defendants in solitary might make this case an appropriate (and certainly interesting) setting for a foray into what the Eighth Amendment might say these days about extreme forms of imprisonment.

September 14, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"How Obama can use his clemency power to help reverse racism"

The title of this post is the headline of this provocative new MSNBC commentary authored Mark Osler and Nkechi Taifa. Here are excerpts:

In the remaining months of his second term, President Barack Obama has the chance to deliver justice for thousands of people given overly-harsh sentences for drug crimes.  The White House is probably now contemplating the next batch of clemency grants, which is expected in October.

It is likely that the vast majority of those whose sentences would be shortened will be African American. That is as it should be given that past laws and policies, as well as prosecutors and presidents, have tilted the criminal justice system disproportionately against them.

On average, blacks face unequal treatment at each stage of the criminal justice system. They are stopped and arrested more frequently than others; they are less likely to receive favorable terms on bail; and they are more likely to be victims of prosecutorial misconduct. Blacks are more likely to accept unfair plea bargains and be sentenced to rigid, lengthy mandatory minimums, or even death.  Race mattered when blacks were disproportionately targeted, imprisoned, and sentenced beyond the bounds of reason.  Race should also matter in providing relief via clemency today.

Despite the facially neutral nature of current laws that do not intentionally discriminate, disparate treatment is nevertheless sewn into the structural fabric of institutions, allowing bias to occur without direct action by a specific person.

Today’s racism is subtle and structurally embedded in many police departments, prosecutor offices, and courtrooms.  It is found in laws that look fair, but nevertheless have a racially discriminatory impact.  For example, from 1986 through 2010, the federal sentencing guidelines and the primary federal narcotics statute mandated the same sentence for five grams of crack as they did for 500 grams of powder cocaine....

Moreover, we know that even now prosecutors use the law unfairly to punish black defendants.  Writing in the Daily Beast, Jay Michaelson reports that 95% of elected prosecutors are white, and that those prosecutors disproportionately use mandatory minimum sentences to incarcerate black defendants for longer periods of time than similarly situated whites.  Again, there is seldom a “smoking gun” tying white prosecutors to specific acts of racism.  But there is a growing consensus that the system is flawed and structurally biased against blacks.

The number of African-Americans jailed under these laws and policies soared in the past few decades.  Yet previous presidents predominantly used their power to pardon to benefit high profile white men, including Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, and Clinton donor and financier Marc Rich.  Indeed, President George W. Bush used the pardon power 200 times, but fewer than 16 of those were granted to black petitioners who have traditionally been unconnected to money, power and influence....

As the president’s clemency program accelerates over the 16 months remaining in his second and final term, we hope that he will look at the impact race has played in meting out unjust sentences.  We hope that he will broadly consider those who are worthy of a shortened sentence and a lengthened term of freedom and responsibility.  And we hope that among this group will be multitudes of eligible black men and women who will be able to be reunited with families and communities.  This does not reflect a racial bias.  It simply reflects the gut-wrenching reality of those disproportionately over-sentenced in the first place.

September 14, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Alabama Chief Justice laments mandatory LWOP drug sentence for 76-year-old offender

As reported in this AP article, "Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore says the case of a 76-year-man sentenced to life without parole for a drug offense shows the need to change sentencing laws."  Here is more about the notable separate opinion authored by the top jurist of the the Cotton State:

Moore issued a special writing Friday as the Supreme Court refused to overturn the case of Lee Carroll Brooker. "I believe Brooker's sentence is excessive and unjustified," Moore wrote.

Brooker lived with his son in Houston County, and court documents show police found a marijuana-growing operation there during a search in 2013. The elderly man was convicted of drug trafficking last year, and a judge sentenced him to life without parole because of past robbery convictions in Florida. His son was also convicted. Moore writes that the life-without-parole sentence for a non-violent drug offense shows "grave flaws" in Alabama's sentencing system.

"A trial court should have the discretion to impose a less severe sentence than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole," Moore added. "I urge the legislature to revisit that statutory sentencing scheme to determine whether it serves an appropriate purpose."

The full opinion by Chief Justice Moore is available at this link.

September 13, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

New gossip about claim of innocence in Glossip

As reported in this New York Times article, the condemned murderer whose name was atop the case in which the Supreme Court recently upheld Oklahoma's approach to lethal injection now has supporters raising questions anew about his factual guilt.  The piece is headlined "Oklahoma Inmate the Focus of Renewed Attention as Execution Date Nears," and here are excerpts:

Richard E. Glossip was at the center of a major Supreme Court case this year, arguing along with two other men on Oklahoma’s death row that the state’s choice of lethal injection drugs could cause unconstitutional suffering. The court rejected that claim in a 5­4 decision in June, clearing the way for Oklahoma to resume executions. Mr. Glossip’s is the first; he is scheduled to die on Wednesday.

Now Mr. Glossip, 52, is again a focus of attention, this time over whether he is guilty of the arranged murder in 1997 of the owner of a run­down motel he was managing. Mr. Glossip’s supporters call his case a striking example of a repeating pattern in American capital punishment, in which a defendant receives inadequate legal representation early on and then, many years later, only as execution nears, higher­powered lawyers and civil rights groups become involved, raising important new issues at the 11th hour, when it may be too late.

Mr. Glossip has won the fervent backing of Sister Helen Prejean, the antideath­penalty campaigner; the actress Susan Sarandon, who played Sister Helen in the film “Dead Man Walking”; and a new legal team, working pro bono, which says his conviction was marred by poor lawyering and unreliable, police-­coached testimony.

In a drumbeat of media appearances, Mr. Glossip’s supporters are calling on Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma to delay his execution for 60 days while they explore what they say is important new evidence that they released on Friday and will discuss in a news conference in Oklahoma City on Monday.

The victim, Barry Van Treese, was beaten to death with a baseball bat in a room at the Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City, a motel that he owned and Mr. Glossip managed. Justin Sneed, a 19-­year-­old drifter with an eighth­grade education whom Mr. Glossip allowed to stay at the motel in return for maintenance work, admitted to the murder and is serving life without parole.

Mr. Sneed testified that Mr. Glossip had told him to kill Mr. Van Treese in return for thousands of dollars in motel receipts. Prosecutors said Mr. Glossip was a cunning figure who feared he was about to be fired for mismanagement and stealing motel revenues, and persuaded Mr. Sneed to commit the crime....

Mr. Glossip’s appeals to the state and federal Supreme Court have been exhausted. His last hope is for Governor Fallin, a Republican, to stay his execution while his lawyers work to persuade a judge, or the state board of pardon and parole, that significant new evidence warrants a new hearing or clemency. “We are seriously racing against time, as you can imagine,” said one of those lawyers, Donald R. Knight, from Colorado. “We’re trying to do work that should have been done by trial lawyers a long time ago.”

But Governor Fallin has rejected calls to intervene. “His actions directly led to the brutal murder of a husband and a father of seven children,” she said last month in a statement about Mr. Glossip, stressing that he had been convicted in two jury trials and lost multiple appeals. “The state of Oklahoma is prepared to hold him accountable for his crimes and move forward with his scheduled execution.”

Barry C. Scheck, co­director of the Innocence Project in New York, said there were serious “residual doubts” about Mr. Glossip’s guilt. A number of cases in which those sentenced to death were later exonerated, he said, had similarly relied on witnesses who benefited from testimony.

Mr. Glossip was first found guilty and sentenced to death in 1998, but a state appeals court ordered a retrial because his defense lawyers had failed to cross­-examine or investigate witnesses effectively. He was again convicted and condemned in 2004, and the courts did not find evidence of deficiencies that would require a new appeal. But Mr. Knight said the new team had identified weaknesses with that second defense as well. By all accounts, Mr. Glossip’s behavior on the day after the murder hurt his case....

The Glossip case reflects a common problem in capital punishment, Mr. Scheck said: a poor defense in the initial trial, which then limits the legal options in later appeals. “What frequently happens in these capital cases is that the really good lawyers only get involved at the end, when it’s too late,” Mr. Scheck said.

Mr. Van Treese’s family is convinced of Mr. Glossip’s guilt and has thanked the governor for standing firm. “Execution of Richard Glossip will not bring Barry back or lessen the empty hole left in the lives of those who loved Barry,” family members said in a statement this week to The Tulsa World. “What it does provide is a sense that justice has been served.”

I use the term gossip in the title of this post in part because I find less than compelling the development of new contentions about innocence a full two decades after the crime was committed given that the defendant was convicted and sentenced to death twice by two different juries. I certainly recognize that juries can get guilt/innocence determinations wrong, but I am ever hopeful it is highly unlikely that a two different juries would both get this critical determination unanimously wrong.

In addition, Mr. Glossip's supporters had to reasonably expect he would have a serious execution date in 2015, and he has not had his death sentence carried out already only because of Oklahoma's difficulties with its lethal injection plans. And, based on the tenor of the the Supreme Court oral argument in Glossip back in April, it should have been especially obvious that Oklahoma would likely have its machinery of death up and running again pretty soon. I find it troublesome that, despite all this extra time to conduct whatever additional investigation might now unearth new concerns about guilt, defense attorneys now assert they need another 60 days to make a more forceful showing of innocence.

September 13, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (8)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Federal judge finds unconstitutional Missouri's operation of its sex-offender civil commitment program

As reported in this local piece, headlined "U.S. judge rules handling of state's sexual predator program is unconstitutional," a federal judge issued late friday a significant ruling concerning Missouri's sex offender laws.  Here are the details:

In an awaited ruling from the federal bench, U.S. District Judge Audrey G. Fleissig ruled late Friday afternoon that Missouri’s sexually violent predator law is constitutional, but not how it’s applied.  The judge wrote that there is a “pervasive sense of hopelessness” at the Department of Mental Health’s Sex Offender Rehabilitation and Treatment Services, or SORTS program, because patients aren’t being properly released.

With help from the state attorney general’s office, SORTS is indefinitely committing about 200 people to treatment in the belief that they might reoffend.  The program has been praised and criticized since it began in 1999.  Before the trial started in April, nobody had completed treatment and been allowed to live outside of secure SORTS facilities in Fulton or Farmington.  They entered the program after completing prison sentences for sex crimes.

“The overwhelming evidence at trial — much of which came from Defendants’ own experts — did establish that the SORTS civil commitment program suffers from systemic failures regarding risk assessment and release that have resulted in the continued confinement of individuals who no longer meet the criteria for commitment, in violation of the Due Process Clause,” Fleissig wrote in her ruling.

“The Constitution,” the judge added, “does not allow (Missouri officials) to impose lifetime detention on individuals who have completed their prison sentences and who no longer pose a danger to the public, no matter how heinous their past conduct.”  Those issues will be addressed soon in the remedy portion of the trial.  A hearing will be held Sept. 29.

“I can’t believe it, man,” said John Van Orden, 55, who lived in the Springfield, Mo., area before being committed to SORTS in 2005.  “It’s hard to describe after all that we have been through here.  Finally, we get some light at the end of the tunnel.”  The class-action lawsuit began in 2009.

Eric Selig, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said Friday: “We hope to work with the attorney general’s office and the Department of Mental Health to fix the program and start releasing the people who have successfully completed treatment, which is what the statute is all about.”...

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has supported the program as a needed public safety tool.  He has said judges weigh annual reports to determine when patients deserve to be released. And the Legislature, now Republican-controlled, adds a layer of oversight, scrutinizing the program’s budget.  Plaintiffs’ attorneys attempted to punch holes in these positions and others during the eight-day federal bench trial that ended here April 30.

The judge agreed. In her ruling, she said the state of Missouri has not:

  • Performed annual reviews in accordance with the Sexually Violent Predator Act.
  • Properly implemented any program to ensure the least restrictive environment.
  • Implemented release procedures, including director authorization for releases, in the manner required by the law.

At the center of the case in Missouri — and other states struggling with similar laws — was the question of whether SORTS facilities genuinely rehabilitate sex offenders, or are merely an extra layer of punishment outside of the prison system.  In June, a federal judge in Minnesota ruled that indefinitely committing sex offenders is unconstitutional.

While the Missouri Attorney General’s Office argued at trial that progress is being made in treatment, plaintiffs’ attorneys harped on the fact that no patient had been released back into society.  They used the state’s own witness to point out a sense of hopelessness among staff and patients, who already have completed prison sentences before being detained indefinitely for treatment.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys sifted through hundreds of thousands of pages of the program’s documents, including a memo from the former chief of operations who wrote in 2009 that 16 patients could be moved to the St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center, a less restrictive facility at 5300 Arsenal Street. In the memo, Alan Blake wrote that the top five of those 16 patients could be moved “today” and “easily” pass a test that shows they can live close to neighbors without harm.  “The rest may need greater support/treatment, but don’t represent a risk to the community in terms of compliance and appreciation of their situation,” Blake added.  “The setting would likely enhance their treatment and provide motivation.”  The memo went on to say that a few of the patients would even make good employees or peer counselors at the St. Louis rehab center.

Testimony in the federal case showed that those details — ones that seemed to show favorable patient progress — weren’t included in the annual reports to courts that make the ultimate decision about release.  With the addition of 20 SORTS patients a year and nobody being released, plaintiffs’ attorneys pressed the issue of reforming the program and developing a fast track to a nursing home for elderly and infirm patients. At least 17 patients have died in the program, including one who was well into his 80s.

The full 60-page trial court ruling in this matter can be accessed at this link.

September 12, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Friday, September 11, 2015

Is Arkansas about to jump back seriously into execution business?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent local article from the Natural State, headlined "Dates to die set for 8 inmates: State resuming executions; first two scheduled for Oct. 21." Here are the details:

After nearly a decade since an Arkansas inmate was put to death, Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday announced the execution dates for eight. Barring intervention from a court, the state will first mete out capital punishment, by lethal injection, to convicted murderers Bruce Ward and Don Davis. They have the earliest of the execution dates, Oct. 21.

Hutchinson said he expects the execution dates to be challenged in court, but he thinks the eight offenders have gotten "finality" in their cases and have exhausted all of their standard appeals.

Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said the governor is "fulfilling" a duty of his office by setting the dates. "It's not something he takes lightly at all," J.R. Davis said. "But these crimes were heinous, and they were sentenced to death because of these crimes. He will carry those out."

Jeff Rosenzweig, an attorney for the eight men, said he will seek a court injunction to delay the executions. He noted that a lawsuit filed in June seeking disclosure of the source of the drugs used in executions is still pending. Act 1096, which was passed during this year's legislative session, prohibits the Arkansas Department of Correction from disclosing the source of the execution drugs, but Rosenzweig said his clients have a right to know who made the drugs. "There are some very serious issues, starting with the fact that the state wants to hide what drugs they're using or where they got them from. They want to hide that," Rosenzweig said. Divulging that information "tells us if it's a legitimate supplier or some fly-by-night operation. If it's a fly-by-night operation, it's torture."...

A combination of legal challenges and a lack of availability of lethal-injection drugs has halted executions in Arkansas for nearly a decade. The state's last execution was that of Eric Nance in November 2005. Nance was convicted of the 1993 murder of 18-year-old Julie Heath of Malvern. He was put to death using a three-drug cocktail of phenobarbital, potassium chloride and a paralytic agent.

As of Wednesday, a Department of Correction spokesman said, there were 26 other inmates on death row.

The eight executions will occur in pairs, J.R. Davis said, because "it's more efficient to do two on one date." He and Judd Deere, a spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said all eight have exhausted their appeals....

The eight men whose execution dates are now set are challenging in Pulaski County Circuit Court the legitimacy of the state's death-penalty laws.

In 2013, then-Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel's office reached a settlement with the men, promising to disclose the source of the drugs that would be used in their executions. Act 1096 barred the release of that information, so Rosenzweig and other attorneys sued.

Rosenzweig conceded that several similar challenges have failed in federal courts across the country but said none of those challenges involved a pre-existing agreement between the prisoners and the state to share that information. Rosenzweig argues that his clients have a right to make sure the execution drugs come from a reputable source so that the risk of pain during the executions can be minimized.  "We have a situation that the other states didn't have ... it's very different from us wandering into the court and saying 'Tell me this!' We're dealing with a commitment, a contract, an agreement made by the state," Rosenzweig said. "This has ramifications far beyond executions."

Until recently, state officials had difficulties obtaining lethal-injection drugs. In 2011, the state handed over its supply of the execution drug sodium thiopental to federal drug agents after the state's prison department got the drug from a wholesaler operating out of a driving school in London. In June, the state obtained potassium chloride, vecuronium bromide and midazolam at a cost of $24,226.40.

Midazolam's effectiveness as a sedative in executions has been questioned after some botched executions, including that of Clayton Lockett, who struggled and convulsed for 43 minutes during his April 2014 execution in Oklahoma. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court, rejected claims that Oklahoma's use of midazolam violated death-row inmates' Eighth Amendment rights, and ruled that midazolam could continue to be used in executions.

On Aug. 6, the Arkansas Department of Correction formalized its policies and procedures for carrying out executions. On Sept. 1, Rutledge asked that the governor schedule the executions.

September 11, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)