Monday, April 24, 2017
Capital procedure day at SCOTUS .... perhaps from early morning until late at night thanks to Arkansas
The Supreme Court this morning is hearing oral argument in two capital cases. Here are the basics and previews via SCOTUSblog:
Issue: Whether, when this court held in Ake v. Oklahoma that an indigent defendant is entitled to meaningful expert assistance for the “evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense,” it clearly established that the expert should be independent of the prosecution.
Issue: Issue: Whether the rule established in Martinez v. Ryan and Trevino v. Thaler, that ineffective state habeas counsel can be seen as cause to overcome the procedural default of a substantial ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim, also applies to procedurally defaulted, but substantial, ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claims.
Meanwhile, as detailed in this AP report, two condemned inmates scheduled to be executed tonight in Arkansas have been pressing unsuccessfully a variety of claims in an effort to halt their executions. Here are the basics on two cases now all but certain to be before the Justices of the Supreme Court in some posture before the night is over:
Two Arkansas inmates scheduled to be put to death Monday in what could be the nation's first double execution in more than 16 years asked an appeals court on Sunday to halt their lethal injections because of poor health that could cause complications. Lawyers for Jack Jones and Marcel Williams asked the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals on Sunday to grant them stays of execution.
Jones' lawyers say he suffers from diabetes and is on insulin, has high blood pressure, neuropathy and had one leg amputated below the knee. He is on heavy doses of methadone and gabapentin. They say he may be resistant to the lethal injection drug midazolam because of the drugs he is taking for his maladies and could suffer a "tortuous death." Lawyers for Williams say he weighs 400 pounds and it will be difficult to find a vein for lethal injunction, so the drugs are unlikely to work as intended.
The state said the appeals are just delaying tactics and should be denied. It was not clear when the appeals court will rule....
Also on Sunday, two lower court federal judges ruled against inmates in separate cases. Judge Kristine Baker denied a request from several inmates, including Jones and Williams, that the rules for witnesses to view the executions be changed. Judge J. Leon Holmes denied a stay of execution for Williams saying that the matter should be dealt with by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, because the inmate had already been appealed to the higher court.
Jones and Marcel Williams are scheduled to die on Monday and another inmate, Kenneth Williams, is set for execution Thursday. Both Jones and Williams have admitted they are guilty. Williams was sent to death row in 1994 for the rape and murder of Stacy Errickson. Jones was given the death penalty for the 1995 rape and murder of Mary Phillips.
Interesting final phrase in Justice Breyer's latest pitch for SCOTUS to consider whether whether capital punishment is now unconstitutional
Via a dissent in Glossip v. Gross back in 2015, Justice Breyer explained at great length why he thought "it is now time to reopen the question" of "whether the death penalty violates the Constitution." Since that time, Justice Breyer has made a fairly regular habit of dissenting or commenting on the denial of certiorari in capital cases with administrative problems along the lines he stressed in his Glossip dissent. Today's SCOTUS order list includes another such statement by Justice Breyer in Smith v. Ryan, a case that involves a prisoner who has been on death row in Arizona for more than 40 years. Here is a paragraph from the heart of Justice Breyer's statement that captures the essence of many of his capital statements since Glossip:
What legitimate purpose does it serve to hold any human being in solitary confinement for 40 years awaiting execution? What does this case tell us about a capital punishment system that, in my view, works in random, virtually arbitrary ways? I have previously explored these matters more systematically, coming to the conclusion that this Court should hear argument as to whether capital punishment as currently practiced is consistent with the Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.” Amdt. 8. See Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (BREYER, J., dissenting). The facts and circumstances of Smith’s case reinforce that conclusion.
Because statements by Justice Breyer like this one have become fairly common, I would not have blogged about this latest effort save for one little phrase in Justice Breyer's final sentence that struck me as new and unusual. Here is the final sentence with my emphasis added on the phrase that caught my attention:
Smith’s confinement reinforces the need for this Court, or other courts, to consider in an appropriate case the underlying constitutional question.
I took a quick look at some other capital case statements from this Term by Justice Breyer and did not see this "other courts" phrase anywhere in his prior calls for the Supreme Court to take up the constitutionality of capital punishment. I suspect that Justice Breyer has now come fully to realize, perhaps due in part to the new addition of Justice Gorsuch, that he is not going to be able to cajole his colleagues into taking up the constitutionality of capital punishment on their own and now the issue will likely get before SCOTUS only if a lower court takes up the issue in a bold, high-profile way.
I suspect I am reading way too much into three words in a little single Justice statement concerning the denial of cert. Still, especially with talk of a new SCOTUS vacancy this summer, I do not think I am wrong to view the next few months and years as a potential turning point in the history of capital punishment in the US. Justice Breyer has demonstrated his interest in playing a central role in defining the future of the death penalty, and this latest little statement perhaps reflects a realization that his window of opportunity to do so may be closing.
Sunday, April 23, 2017
Six months after voting to speed executions, is California really getting any closer to carrying out death sentences?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP article headlined "California moves — slowly — toward resuming executions." Here are excerpts:
California has long been what one expert calls a “symbolic death penalty state,” one of 12 that has capital punishment on the books but has not executed anyone in more than a decade.
Prodded by voters and lawsuits, the nation’s most populous state may now be easing back toward allowing executions, though observers are split on how quickly they will resume, if at all.
Corrections officials expect to meet a Wednesday deadline to submit revised lethal injection rules to state regulators, trying again with technical changes after the first attempt was rejected in December.
The California Supreme Court, meanwhile, is expected to rule by August on challenges to a ballot initiative narrowly approved by voters in November that would speed up executions by reducing the time allowed for appeals....
California could come close to resuming executions in the next year, said law professor Robert Weisberg, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, though others say too many variables and challenges remain to make a prediction.... The state’s proposed lethal injection regulations are patterned after a single-drug process that already passed muster with the U.S. Supreme Court, Weisberg said.
Corrections officials submitted the regulations only after they were forced to act by a judge’s ruling on behalf of crime victims angered at the state’s three-year delay. But the regulations replacing California’s old three-drug method are likely to be approved at some point, Weisberg said.
Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham University School of Law and an expert on lethal injections, was among those who said recent revisions to the state’s proposed regulations still don’t cure underlying problems that can lead to botched executions....
California voters have eased penalties for many crimes in recent years but have repeatedly rejected efforts to end the death penalty. They did so again in November, when 51 percent approved Proposition 66, designed to speed up death penalty cases. Fifty-three percent of voters defeated a competing measure that would have abolished the death penalty. The state Supreme Court quickly blocked Proposition 66 while it considers challenges.
Appellate lawyer Kirk Jenkins, who studies the court, expects the justices will reject the proposition’s five-year deadline for deciding death row appeals because it violates the separation of powers. Death penalty appeals average at least a decade from the time a condemned inmate is assigned a post-trial lawyer to a final decision by the state’s high court, he said, and the justices already have a backlog of about 300 capital cases. “There is no possible way that the court could meet the deadlines in Prop. 66” without putting aside virtually all other decisions, Jenkins said.
The initiative also makes it easier for corrections officials to adopt new lethal injection procedures. But even a complete rejection of Proposition 66 would not derail the executions of inmates whose appeals are exhausted, Weisberg said. Those executions could proceed once the state has an approved lethal injection process.
Experts said the delays may give opponents time to mount another campaign next year asking voters again if they want to abolish the death penalty. “In California, it’s become a symbolic death penalty state,” Denno said. “Whether that is going to change or not is unpredictable.”
Friday, April 21, 2017
Heading out to speak at 2017 World Medical Cannabis Conference & Expo
Blogging in this space will be light over the next few days because I am about to travel to Pittsburgh to attend and participate in the 2017 World Medical Cannabis Conference & Expo. As this schedule details, I am speaking tomorrow afternoon (Saturday) on a panel titled "Higher Education & Its Role in the Industry." Here is how the panel is previewed:
The cannabis industry is set to create more jobs than established industries like manufacturing by 2020. However, there is still no clear path to getting involved in the industry or clear educational path. Students need more courses and curriculum that teaches the fundamentals of the industry. These include all areas of the industry including business, agriculture, research, etc. This panel will talk about what courses are currently available for students and what still needs to be offered as well as how higher education can translate their findings into commercial services and products the industry can use to advance itself.
This preview post for this even proves a useful and timely excuse to highlight some recent posts from my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog. Here is just a sample of some April postings from that space:
Arkansas finally navigates litigation to complete one execution
As reported in this new Washington Post piece, "Arkansas late Thursday night carried out the state’s first execution in more than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court, in a last-minute series of orders, rejected requests by a death-row inmate to stay his lethal injection." Here is more:
The execution followed a wave of criticism and tumult in Arkansas, which had set an unprecedented scheduled of executions, plans that were imperiled by a series of court orders halting at least some of the eight lethal injections originally set for April.
As part of its aggressive scheduling, which the state attributed to expiring lethal-injection drugs, Arkansas had planned to carry out back-to-back executions on Thursday night at a state prison southeast of Little Rock. But that was abandoned when a state court blocked one of those lethal injections, and officials instead focused solely on plans to execute Ledell Lee, 51, by lethal injection.
Lee was sentenced to death in 1995 for the killing of Debra Reese, who was beaten to death in her home two years earlier. According to court petitions and his attorneys, Lee has long denied involvement in Reese’s death, and he was seeking DNA testing to try and prove his innocence.
Lee’s execution was confirmed by state officials. His time of death was 11:56 p.m. local time, according to the Associated Press, which had a reporter serve as a media witness. He is the seventh person executed in the United States so far this year....
Appeals filed ... for Lee hoping to delay his execution were rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit after that court briefly stayed the lethal injection. Lee’s attorneys also petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, not long after justices on Thursday night denied other stay requests filed by several Arkansas death-row inmates. The attorneys filed a volley of appeals at the high court seeking a stay of execution, saying that technology exists now that could verify his innocence and arguing that he has an intellectual disability that should prevent his execution.
The Supreme Court ultimately denied his stay requests in orders released by the court just before 11:30 p.m. at the Arkansas prison, following an hours-long delay imposed by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. so the high court could review the inmate’s appeals. Alito, who is assigned cases from the federal circuit covering Arkansas, then issued an order delaying Lee’s lethal injection “pending further order of the undersigned or of the Court.” He vacated his order after the justices declined all of the requests.
According to the orders, Alito referred the stay requests to the court, which denied them all without explanation. No justices logged dissents, though some had earlier Thursday said they would have granted stay requests from Lee and other inmates. Lee was pronounced dead about 30 minutes later....
Several death-row inmates in Arkansas, including Lee, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the executions, but the justices earlier Thursday night released orders denying these requests. This marked the first time Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who joined the court earlier this month, voted to create a conservative majority. In one of the orders, the court was split 5-4, with Gorsuch joining the majority in denying the stay and the court’s four liberal members saying they would have granted it.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who has previously questioned the “arbitrary” nature of the death penalty’s implementation, authored a critical dissent of Arkansas’ stated desire to carry out executions before its drugs expire. “I have previously noted the arbitrariness with which executions are carried out in this country,” he wrote. “And I have pointed out how the arbitrary nature of the death penalty system, as presently administered, runs contrary to the very purpose of a ‘rule of law.’ The cases now before us reinforce that point.”
Thursday, April 20, 2017
Virginia Gov commutes death sentence of defendant who has claimed innocence in murder-for-hire crime
As reported in this new Washington Post piece, "Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz, a 38-year-old man who was set to be executed Tuesday in the murder-for-hire of his former girlfriend." Here is more:
Teleguz has maintained his innocence in the 2001 slaying of 20-year-old Stephanie Yvonne Sipe in Harrisonburg. His lawyers have argued that two key witnesses have recanted their testimony, calling his guilt into question. Multiple courts have deemed those recantations unreliable, and the man who killed Sipe has never wavered in saying that Teleguz paid him to commit the murder.
McAuliffe said Thursday that while he believes Teleguz is guilty, the sentencing phase of his trial was “terribly flawed and unfair.” Teleguz will now serve life in prison without a chance of parole.
In their clemency petition, attorneys for Teleguz stressed that jurors were falsely told that Teleguz also was involved in a Pennsylvania murder — but that purported killing never occurred. Prosecutors pointed to testimony of that supposed crime as evidence that Teleguz “solves problems” with murder. “The jury acted on false information,” McAuliffe said.
In making his decision, McAuliffe said he reviewed over 6,000 pages of documents, including letters from Sipe’s family. He called her relatives before his news conference Thursday afternoon. “My heart aches for the family of Stephanie Sipe,” he said, “but the Virginia Constitution and our sacred values of due process under law require me to act.”
McAuliffe personally opposes the death penalty, citing his Catholic faith. But this marks the first time he has commuted a death sentence. As governor, he has presided over three executions, and at the behest of correctional officials he has pushed for more secrecy in the lethal injection process....
Teleguz’s plea for a commutation attracted high-profile support, including from billionaire Richard Branson and former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr.
Investigators and Sipe’s family, however, are confident of Teleguz’s guilt. “There's no doubt in my mind that he hired these people to kill my sister,” Sipe's sister, Jennifer Tilley, told the Harrisonburg television station WHSV last week. “And it blows my mind, it really does, that he is still trying to fight and plead for his life.”...
The last time a Virginia governor commuted a death sentence was in 2008, when then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) stopped the execution of triple murderer Percy L. Walton. Kaine commuted Walton’s sentence to life in prison without parole, saying that Walton was mentally incompetent and that putting him to death would be unconstitutional.
Prior related post:
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new article authored by Russell Gold now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Class counsel and prosecutors have a lot more in common than scholars realize. Because these lawyers have to make decisions on their client’s behalf that clients would make in other contexts, they prompt substantial concerns about lawyers’ accountability to their clients. Accordingly, there is a lot that each context can learn from the other about how to hold these lawyers accountable. This article considers what criminal law can learn from class action law. Its central insights are first that diffuse entities comprised largely of apathetic individuals cannot be expected to hold their lawyers accountable. And second, to combat that accountability deficit, just as judges play an important role in holding class counsel accountable, so too should judges play an important role holding prosecutors accountable — both to their public-clients and their constitutional obligations.
In more concrete terms, this article contends that once a plea agreement has been reached, courts should substantively review the sentence that the parties recommend with an eye to the process that yielded the agreement, much as courts review class action settlements. As with class members in class actions, courts should afford opportunities to be heard to those who wish to contest the deal to inform the court’s review. If courts are hamstrung at sentencing by prosecutors’ charging decisions that they think inappropriate, judges should articulate their concerns and ask prosecutors to justify those decisions on the record in open court to facilitate accountability by the electorate and within prosecutor offices.
Brennan Center releases report on "Criminal Justice in President Trump's First 100 Days"
In his Inaugural Address, President Donald Trump pledged to address the rising specter of “American carnage” — “the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.” The last time a president addressed rising crime in his inaugural address was 1997. Then, with crime near historic peaks (at 4,891 offenses per 100,000 people), President Bill Clinton spoke of the need to “help reclaim our streets from drugs and gangs and crime” so that “our streets will echo again with the laughter of our children, because no one will try to shoot them or sell them drugs anymore.”
Trump’s dark portrait of America, however, comes at a time when the national crime rate is near historic lows — 42 percent below what it was in 1997. As his first 100 days near an end, what has the president done to address crime and criminal justice? And what can the country expect in the weeks and months ahead?
So far, many of the administration’s actions are symbolic. But they evidence a clear return to the discredited “tough on crime” rhetoric of the 1990s, and suggest a significant departure from the Obama administration’s approach to criminal justice. Trump’s turn also directly contradicts the emerging consensus among conservatives, progressives, law enforcement, and researchers that the country’s incarceration rate is too high, and that our over-reliance on prison is not the best way to address crime. As crime remains near historic lows — despite local, isolated increases — these proposed changes are, ultimately, solutions in search of a problem. Taken to an extreme, they would set back the national trans-partisan movement to end mass incarceration.
This analysis documents the following key shifts in federal policy since January 20th:
Misguided Fears of a New Crime Wave....
A New War on Drugs?...
Increased Immigration Enforcement and Detention....
Decreased Oversight of Local Police....
Increased Use of Private Prisons....
Possible Federal Sentencing or Reentry Legislation....
Wednesday, April 19, 2017
After Monday stays, Arkansas officials seemingly on path to complete next pair of scheduled executions... OR NOT, as updated below....
As reported in this new AP piece, "two Arkansas inmates set to die this week in a double execution filed more legal challenges Wednesday, but so far the pair is hitting roadblocks as a judge weighs a new attempt to prevent the state from using one of its lethal injection drugs in what would be the state's first executions in nearly a dozen years." Here is more about the continuing litigation as the next set of execution dates approach:
Unless a court steps in, Ledell Lee and Stacey Johnson are set for execution Thursday night, and state prison officials have already moved them from death row to the nearby prison that houses the death chamber. It's the second time this week that Arkansas has moved forward with what originally had been a plan to execute eight men before April 30, when its supply of the drug midazolam expires.
On Monday, the Arkansas Supreme Court blocked the executions of two men set to die that night. A third man has received a stay from a federal judge over issues with his clemency schedule. Five inmates still face execution over the next two weeks, and they've filed a series of court challenges in hopes of stopping that.
The latest request, filed Wednesday, asks the U.S. Supreme Court to take the inmates' case that challenges the use of midazolam, a sedative used in flawed executions in other states. It's one of three drugs Arkansas plans to use in its executions. In 2015, justices upheld Oklahoma's execution protocol that used the same drug. "As pharmaceutical companies become increasingly resistant to allowing their products to be used in executions, states are likely to continue experimenting with new drugs and drug combinations, and death-row prisoners may challenge these new protocols as violating their constitutional rights," the filing before the U.S. Supreme Court said.
The Arkansas attorney general's office countered in a court filing Wednesday that the inmates' request was a last-minute effort to "manipulate the judicial process."...
Another case that could trip up Arkansas' plan was filed Tuesday by the medical supplier McKesson Corp., which says it sold the drug vecuronium bromide to the Arkansas Department of Correction for inmate medical care, not executions. The company sued to stop Arkansas from using the drug in the planned lethal injections, and a hearing over that issue was underway in Little Rock on Wednesday afternoon.
A state prison official testified that he deliberately ordered the drug last year in a way that there wouldn't be a paper trail, relying on phone calls and text messages. Arkansas Department of Correction Deputy Director Rory Griffin said he didn't keep records of the texts, but McKesson salesman Tim Jenkins did. In text messages from Jenkins' phone, which came up at Wednesday's court hearing, there is no mention that the drug would be used in executions.
Lee and Johnson both faced setbacks Tuesday in their quest to get more DNA tests on evidence in hopes of proving their innocence. Lee claims tests of blood and hair evidence that could prove he didn't beat 26-year-old Debra Reese to death during a 1993 robbery in Jacksonville. Johnson claims that advanced DNA techniques could show that he didn't kill Carol Heath, a 25-year-old mother of two, in 1993 at her southwest Arkansas apartment....
"It is understandable that the inmates are taking every step possible to avoid the sentence of the jury; however, it is the court's responsibility to administer justice and bring conclusion to litigation," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday in an emailed statement. "It is that process that we are seeing played out day by day, and we expect it to continue."
UPDATE: This new Washington Post article, headlined "Arkansas courts stay execution, block state from using lethal injection drug," reports on why I reported too soon on the latest execution plans in Arkansas. Here are the latest details:
Arkansas courts on Wednesday dealt another pair of blows to the state’s plans to resume executions Thursday night, the latest in a series of legal rulings imperiling the scheduled flurry of lethal injections.
In one case, a state court halted an execution scheduled for Thursday night, while a state judge separately barred the use of a lethal injection drug, potentially blocking all of the planned executions.
The rulings come as Arkansas, seeking to carry out its first executions since 2005, has become the epicenter of capital punishment in the United States because of its frantic schedule. Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) originally scheduled eight executions in 11 days, an unprecedented pace, which drew national scrutiny and criticism....
After the first planned executions were halted, Arkansas officials pointed to legal victories they won the same day and vowed to press on with them, beginning with two scheduled for Thursday night. “There are five scheduled executions remaining with nothing preventing them from occurring, but I will continue to respond to any and all legal challenges brought by the prisoners,” Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R) said in a statement after the U.S. Supreme Court denied her request to allow one execution to proceed Monday. “The families have waited far too long to see justice, and I will continue to make that a priority.”
Challenges to the executions are not only being brought by the inmates. McKesson, the country’s largest drug distributor, said a court on Wednesday granted its request for a temporary restraining order keeping Arkansas from using a drug the company says was obtained under false pretenses. The judge issued a verbal order from the bench, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette; no injunction was filed in court records by early Wednesday night. A spokesman for Rutledge did not immediately have a comment on this order, but it is expected that she would appeal to the state Supreme Court....
The Arkansas Supreme Court also stopped one specific execution set for Thursday, saying just over 24 hours before it was scheduled to occur that it was staying it without explanation. In its order, the state Supreme Court narrowly blocked the execution of Stacey E. Johnson, 47, who has been on death row since 1994. The court said Johnson should be allowed to press on with his motion for post-conviction DNA testing. Johnson was sentenced to death for the murder of Carol Jean Heath, a woman brutally killed in her home.
Three justices dissented from the decision, with all three joining in a dissent saying the stay in this case “gives uncertainty to any case ever truly being final in the Arkansas Supreme Court.”...
Johnson is one of two inmates facing execution Thursday night. The other, Ledell Lee, has appealed his execution, arguing that he has an intellectual disability and seeking to prove his innocence. Both men are also among a group of death-row inmates who have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the executions, one of several legal battles being waged between the state and the inmates.
Is it really a big deal and a big problem that there are for now so many DOJ vacancies?
Because I have never worked in the Justice Department, I am really unsure whether much should be made of the facts highlighted in this recent Washington Post article about the slow pace of filling all the transition vacancies at DOJ. The article is headlined "A month after dismissing federal prosecutors, Justice Department does not have any U.S. attorneys in place," and here are excerpts:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is making aggressive law enforcement a top priority, directing his federal prosecutors across the country to crack down on illegal immigrants and “use every tool” they have to go after violent criminals and drug traffickers.
But the attorney general does not have a single U.S. attorney in place to lead his tough-on-crime efforts across the country. Last month, Sessions abruptly told the dozens of remaining Obama administration U.S. attorneys to submit their resignations immediately — and none of them, or the 47 who had already left, have been replaced.
“We really need to work hard at that,” Sessions said when asked Tuesday about the vacancies as he opened a meeting with federal law enforcement officials. The 93 unfilled U.S. attorney positions are among the hundreds of critical Trump administration jobs that remain open.
Sessions is also without the heads of his top units, including the civil rights, criminal and national security divisions, as he tries to reshape the Justice Department.... Sessions said that until he has his replacements, career acting U.S. attorneys “respond pretty well to presidential leadership.”
But former Justice Department officials say that acting U.S. attorneys do not operate with the same authority when interacting with police chiefs and other law enforcement executives. “It’s like trying to win a baseball game without your first-string players on the field,” said former assistant attorney general Ronald Weich, who ran the Justice Department’s legislative affairs division during Obama’s first term.
“There are human beings occupying each of those seats,” Weich, now dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law, said of the interim officials. “But that’s not the same as having appointed and confirmed officials who represent the priorities of the administration. And the administration is clearly way behind in achieving that goal.”
Filling the vacancies has also been complicated by Sessions not having his second-highest-ranking official in place. Rod J. Rosenstein, nominated for deputy attorney general — the person who runs the Justice Department day-to-day — is still not on board, although he is expected to be confirmed by the Senate this month. Traditionally, the deputy attorney general helps to select the U.S. attorneys.... Rachel Brand has been nominated for the department’s third-highest position as associate attorney general. She has also not been confirmed.
This week, the attorney general flies to Texas and California to meet with law enforcement officials about his priorities. But, until he gets his U.S. attorneys on board, Sessions will be hampered in moving forward with new policies, former Justice Department officials say. “An acting U.S. attorney doesn’t speak with the same authority to a police chief or to a local prosecutor as a Senate-confirmed U.S. attorney does,” said Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman in the Obama administration. “If you’re a Democrat, you’re probably happy to have these positions filled by career officials because they’re less likely to pursue some of the policies that Jeff Sessions supports. But if you’re a supporter of the president, you probably want them to move on those positions.”
I am inclined to look at this article as largely "much ado about nothing," but perhaps folks with DOJ experience will help me better understand if and how DOJ vacancies may actually be a big deal and a big problem.
Is Justice Kennedy or Justice Thomas really likely to retire this summer?
The question in the title of this post is promoted by this new article in The Hill headlined "Grassley: Another Supreme Court vacancy likely this summer." Here are the basic details:
Sen. Chuck Grassley is predicting that President Trump will get to nominate a second justice to the Supreme Court as early as this summer.
The Iowa Republican, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said there is a "rumored" upcoming retirement but declined to say which justice he expects to step down. "I would expect a resignation this summer," Grassley said during a Q&A with the Muscatine Journal in Iowa.
Grassley added that the president's next Supreme Court nominee would likely come off the list of roughly two dozen names Trump announced before taking over the White House....
Grassley isn't the first Republican to signal that he thinks a second justice will retire in the near future. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is also on the Judiciary Committee, has repeatedly predicted that he thinks Trump will get to make another nomination as soon as this summer.
"I think we're likely to see another vacancy potentially as soon as this summer. I think we'll see another vacancy either this summer or next summer," Cruz told the Chris Saucedo Show last week.
I am inclined to guess that Justice Thomas is the most likely current justice to be eager to get out of DC and give Prez Trump another quick opportunity to shape the direction of the Court, and I also think he is the justice most likely to be, perhaps indirectly, "leaking" his plans to important Senators like Cruz and Grassley. But maybe, after completing his 30th Term on the Court, Justice Kennedy is ready to move on. Time will tell, and a lot of sentencing jurisprudence could be impacted either way.
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper authored by Josh Bowers now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The practical disappearance of the jury trial ranks among the most widely examined topics in American criminal justice. But, by focusing on trial scarcity, scholars have managed to tell only part of the story. The unexplored first-order question is whether juries even do their work well. And the answer to that question turns on the kinds of work jury members are typically required to do. Once upon a time, trials turned upon practical reasoning and general moral blameworthiness. Modern trials have come to focus upon legal reasoning and technical guilt accuracy. In turn, the jury has evolved from a flexible body to a rule-bound institution. But, of course, even as trials have changed, laypeople’s capacities have stayed largely the same. Laypeople remain more skilled at the art of equitable evaluation than the science of legal analysis.
It does not follow, however, that the criminal justice system should revert to equitable trial practices. The modern trial is professional and legalistic for good reason. The rule of law commands that criminal convictions be products of precisely drawn criminal codes and formal processes. Nevertheless, there are other procedural stages — arrest, charge, bail, bargain, and sentence — where equitable discretion is more appropriate. These are the stages at which criminal justice should concentrate lay efforts.
In this conference essay, I describe the historical and constitutional trends that have entrenched popular participation in all the wrong places. And I propose redirecting jury practice from criminal trials to other adjudicatory sites. Finally, I make the case that my reforms are consistent with (and perhaps even integral to) the legality principle, properly considered.
SCOTUS rules against federal defendant on appeal procedures in Manrique
The Supreme Court this morning handed down an opinion on federal appellate procedure this morning in Manrique v. US, No. 15-7250 (S. Ct. April 19, 2017) (available here). Here is how the opinion for the Court by Justice Thomas gets started:
Sentencing courts are required to impose restitution as part of the sentence for specified crimes. But the amount to be imposed is not always known at the time of sentencing. When that is the case, the court may enter an initial judgment imposing certain aspects of a defendant’s sentence, such as a term of imprisonment, while deferring a determination of the amount of restitution until entry of a later, amended judgment.
We must decide whether a single notice of appeal, filed between the initial judgment and the amended judgment, is sufficient to invoke appellate review of the later determined restitution amount. We hold that it is not, at least where, as here, the Government objects to the defendant’s failure to file a notice of appeal following the amended judgment.
Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, dissents in a brief opinion that is focused on the case facts and asserts that "even assuming, arguendo, that separate appeal notices are ordinarily required, I would hold that Manrique is not barred from appealing the restitution order in the circumstances of this case."
SCOTUS rules 7-1 that due process precludes requiring defendant to prove innocence by clear and convincing evidence to recover assessments after invalidated conviction
The Supreme Court this morning handed down a notable due process decision in Nelson v. Colorado, No. 15–1256 (S. Ct. April 19, 2017) (available here). Here is how Justice Ginsburg's opinion for the Court gets started and concludes:
When a criminal conviction is invalidated by a reviewing court and no retrial will occur, is the State obliged to refund fees, court costs, and restitution exacted from the defendant upon, and as a consequence of, the conviction? Our answer is yes. Absent conviction of a crime, one is presumed innocent. Under the Colorado law before us in these cases, however, the State retains conviction-related assessments unless and until the prevailing defendant institutes a discrete civil proceeding and proves her innocence by clear and convincing evidence. This scheme, we hold, offends the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process....Colorado’s scheme fails due process measurement because defendants’ interest in regaining their funds is high, the risk of erroneous deprivation of those funds under the Exoneration Act is unacceptable, and the State has shown no countervailing interests in retaining the amounts in question. To comport with due process, a State may not impose anything more than minimal procedures on the refund of exactions dependent upon a conviction subsequently invalidated.
Justice Alito concurs separately, because in his view "Medina’s historical inquiry, not Mathews [the modern due process balancing test applied by the majority], provides the proper framework for use in these cases." Justice Alito's extended opinion provides a distinct account of the problem with Colorado's procedures.
Justice Thomas dissents in an opinion that is founded on the view that "petitioners have not demonstrated that defendants whose convictions have been reversed possess a substantive entitlement, under either state law or the Constitution, to recover money they paid to the State pursuant to their convictions. "
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
"Cops and Pleas: Police Officers' Influence on Plea Bargaining"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new essay authored by Jonathan Abel appearing in the April issue of the Yale Law Journal. Here is its abstract:
Police officers play an important, though little-understood, role in plea bargaining. This Essay examines the many ways in which prosecutors and police officers consult, collaborate, and clash with each other over plea bargaining. Using original interviews with criminal justice officials from around the country, this Essay explores the mechanisms of police involvement in plea negotiations and the implications of this involvement for both plea bargaining and policing. Ultimately, police influence in the arena of plea bargaining — long thought the exclusive domain of prosecutors — calls into question basic assumptions about who controls the prosecution team.
"Courts Are Using AI to Sentence Criminals. That Must Stop Now."
The title of this post is the headline of this new WIRED commentary authored by Jason Tashea. Here are excerpts:
Currently, courts and corrections departments around the US use algorithms to determine a defendant’s “risk”, which ranges from the probability that an individual will commit another crime to the likelihood a defendant will appear for his or her court date. These algorithmic outputs inform decisions about bail, sentencing, and parole. Each tool aspires to improve on the accuracy of human decision-making that allows for a better allocation of finite resources.
Typically, government agencies do not write their own algorithms; they buy them from private businesses. This often means the algorithm is proprietary or “black boxed”, meaning only the owners, and to a limited degree the purchaser, can see how the software makes decisions. Currently, there is no federal law that sets standards or requires the inspection of these tools, the way the FDA does with new drugs.
This lack of transparency has real consequences. In the case of Wisconsin v. Loomis, defendant Eric Loomis was found guilty for his role in a drive-by shooting. During intake, Loomis answered a series of questions that were then entered into Compas, a risk-assessment tool developed by a privately held company and used by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. The trial judge gave Loomis a long sentence partially because of the “high risk” score the defendant received from this black box risk-assessment tool. Loomis challenged his sentence, because he was not allowed to assess the algorithm. Last summer, the state supreme court ruled against Loomis, reasoning that knowledge of the algorithm’s output was a sufficient level of transparency.
By keeping the algorithm hidden, Loomis leaves these tools unchecked. This is a worrisome precedent as risk assessments evolve from algorithms that are possible to assess, like Compas, to opaque neural networks. Neural networks, a deep learning algorithm meant to act like the human brain, cannot be transparent because of their very nature. Rather than being explicitly programmed, a neural network creates connections on its own. This process is hidden and always changing, which runs the risk of limiting a judge’s ability to render a fully informed decision and defense counsel’s ability to zealously defend their clients....
[H]ow does a judge weigh the validity of a risk-assessment tool if she cannot understand its decision-making process? How could an appeals court know if the tool decided that socioeconomic factors, a constitutionally dubious input, determined a defendant’s risk to society? Following the reasoning in Loomis, the court would have no choice but to abdicate a part of its responsibility to a hidden decision-making process.
Already, basic machine-learning techniques are being used in the justice system. The not-far-off role of AI in our courts creates two potential paths for the criminal justice and legal communities: Either blindly allow the march of technology to go forward, or create a moratorium on the use of opaque AI in criminal justice risk assessment until there are processes and procedures in place that allow for a meaningful examination of these tools. The legal community has never fully discussed the implications of algorithmic risk assessments. Now, attorneys and judges are grappling with the lack of oversight and impact of these tools after their proliferation.
To hit pause and create a preventative moratorium would allow courts time to create rules governing how AI risk assessments should be examined during trial. It will give policy makers the window to create standards and a mechanism for oversight. Finally, it will allow educational and advocacy organizations time to teach attorneys how to handle these novel tools in court. These steps can reinforce the rule of law and protect individual rights.
As noted in this prior post, the Loomis case is right now pending before the US Supreme Court with a pending SCOTUS request for a brief from the Acting Solicitor General concerning a possible cert grant. And here are some prior related posts on Loomis case:
- Wisconsin appeals court urges state's top court to review use of risk-assessment software at sentencing
- Looking into the Wisconsin case looking into the use of risk-assessment tools at sentencing
- Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects due process challenge to use of risk-assessment instrument at sentencing
- No grants, but latest SCOTUS order list still has lots of intrigue for criminal justice fans (especially those concerned with risk-assessment sentencing)
US Sentencing Commission conducting public hearing with testimony on alternatives to incarceration and synthetic drugs
As detailed on this USSC webpage, the United States Sentencing Commission in now conducting a public hearing through early this afternoon. As the page details, "the purpose of the public hearing is for the Commission to receive testimony on alternatives to incarceration programs in the federal court system. The Commission will also receive testimony from experts on synthetic drugs, including their chemical structure, pharmacological effects, trafficking patterns, and community impact." The hearing is being streamed live here.
This webpage with the USSC hearing agenda has links to written testimony from all the scheduled witnesses, and this testimony provide a wealth of information and research about alternatives to incarceration and synthetic drugs.
Monday, April 17, 2017
Lots of litigation leading to lots of uncertainty as Arkansas execution dates arrive
This CNN article, headlined "Arkansas inmate has last meal as courts decide fate," reports on some of the still-in-development litigation in the Natural State as it tries to get its machinery of death operational. Here are the highlights:
After the Arkansas Supreme Court stayed the execution of two inmates, the state's attorney general asked the US Supreme Court to overturn the ruling so the execution of one could proceed.
While Bruce Ward has one other stay in place, Don Davis -- who had his last meal -- could be the first executed over the next 10 days if Attorney General Leslie Rutledge prevails with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Amid the flurry, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a Saturday ruling by a federal judge that temporarily halted all eight executions.
That U.S. District Court judge had ruled that the prisoners will likely succeed in demonstrating the state's proposed method of lethal injection is unconstitutional. But the appeals court said the use of the method of execution, which includes the drug, midazolam, did not create undue severe pain.
The executions were set for this month because Arkansas' supply of midazolam expires on May 1.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued a statement Monday evening that said, in part, "We have asked the US Supreme Court and hope to get a decision later tonight."
The attorney for Davis and Ward requested stays of execution until the US Supreme Court rules on an upcoming case concerning inmate access to independent mental health experts. The justices are set to hold oral arguments on April 24....
Late Monday, the Arkansas Supreme Court also overturned a temporary restraining order, issued by a state judge, that prevented Arkansas from using vecuronium bromide it had purchased from McKesson Medical-Surgical in executions. The company had argued the medication was not meant to be used in capital punishment.
The Arkansas Supreme Court had already blocked Ward's execution due to questions about his mental competency. As of Monday evening, that stay remained.
As officials awaited further court action, Davis had his "last meal" at the Cummins Unit, where the execution chamber is located. According to the Arkansas Department of Correction, Davis chose fried chicken, rolls, great northern beans, mashed potatoes and strawberry cake.
Davis' current execution warrant expires at 1 a.m. ET (midnight CT).
UPDATE: This New York Times article provides a more fulsome accounting of all of Monday's litigation that ended up with two scheduled executions being stay. And the lengthy article ends with a preview of what the rest of this week holds:
A spokesman for the state prison system, Solomon Graves, said the Arkansas authorities would be prepared to carry out the other executions that Mr. Hutchinson set.
“The Department of Correction’s attention now shifts to the executions that are scheduled for Thursday,” Mr. Graves said. “We are under the impression, and under the assumption, that those executions will be carried out as scheduled.”
They are scheduled for 7 p.m. on Thursday.
Sunday, April 16, 2017
Reviewing the realities of a new sheriff in charge at the US Department of Justice
The Hill has this lengthy new article, headlined "Sweeping change at DOJ under Sessions," reviewing various ways in which the new Attorney General has set forth new policies and set a new tone for the work of the Department of Justice. Regular readers will find everything in the article familiar, but some of the commentary about DOJ changes are still new and notable. Here are excerpts:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has brought sweeping change to the Department of Justice. In just two months as the nation’s top cop, Sessions has moved quickly to overhaul the policies and priorities set by the Obama administration....
Alex Whiting, faculty co-director of the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School, said it appears Sessions is resurrecting the tough on crime policies last seen during the George W. Bush administration. “Obama moved away from that approach, and I think in the criminal justice world there seemed to be a consensus between the right and left that those policies, those rigid policies of the war on drugs and trying to get the highest sentence all the time, had failed,” he said. “I don’t know if he is really going to be able to persuade the department to follow his lead on this.”
In March, Sessions asked the remaining U.S. attorneys appointed by former President Obama to resign. While previous administrations took the same step, Whiting questioned whether Sessions would be able find 94 prosecutors who will back the DOJ’s new approach. “He can order and it will have an effect, but how far this gets implemented and with what kind of energy I think is really an open question, and if they will be able to persuade the rank and file to return in a full-fledge way to those policies,” he said.
In a statement to The Hill, DOJ spokesman Ian Prior said Sessions and the Justice Department are focused on fighting violent crime and protecting the public. “When it comes to sanctuary cities, all we are requiring is that they, just like every other individual in the United States, follow Congress’ duly enacted laws,” he said. “If requiring individuals and entities to follow the law and combating violent crime are seen as dramatic reversals, then we fully support such a sea change.”
While the attorney general has acknowledged that overall crimes rates are at historic lows, he has warned that trend is about to reverse. Even if that’s true, Inimai Chettiar director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice argued that arresting and incarcerating people is not the solution. “Mass incarceration is not contributing to mass crime declines, but it doesn’t appear Jeff Sessions knows that,” she said.
Advocates of scaling back mandatory minimums for prison sentences are expecting to see a major shift in the way crimes are prosecuted. “To the extent the Obama administration was saying, let’s be a little more judicious in the use of mandatory minimums, I think Sessions plans to put his foot on the gas and apply them anywhere and everywhere,” said Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner raised eyebrows late last month when he took a meeting with Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R- Utah), the lead sponsors on the criminal justice reform bill that stalled in the last session of Congress. While Sessions has never been a fan of efforts to reduce mandatory minimums, Chettiar called the meeting encouraging. “Kushner is supportive of criminal justice reform. … I think it’s possible there’s a strong advocate there,” she said.
Ring, however, isn’t holding his breath. “One day he’s on the Hill talking sentencing reform then next day he’s visiting the Middle East,” Ring said of Kushner. “He’s got two easy gigs — passing sentencing reform and bringing peace to the Middle East. Good luck with that.
Law enforcement groups that support Sessions, meanwhile, say the new attorney general is focused on the right things. “I think Sessions has brought a new focus to the core mission of the department, which is to make sure the nation is safe and secure in its law and make sure law enforcement operations are focused on the thing that matters most, preventing crime,” said Jonathan Thompson, executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association.
Thompson said Sessions is taking a more holistic approach in preventing crime. “I think there’s a tendency to look at people who are incarcerated and say I really wish they weren’t there, but unfortunately they make personal choices,” he said. “The attorney general is saying you have to look at that end. You have a crime problem that could be growing and how do we respond to it? Obviously something worked.”
UPDATE: Over at Crime & Consequences, Bill Otis has this lengthy new post discussing at length everything that he thinks is wrong about the comments by Alex Whiting reprinted above near the start of the excerpt. Everyone interested in the work of DOJ should check out Bill's post, and here is how it concludes:
Finally, I don't know who Prof. Whiting talks to at DOJ, but the career people I talk to are thrilled with Jeff Sessions' priorities, and are chomping at the bit -- not reluctant -- "to follow his lead on this."
If the sentencing "reform" people had a good case on the merits, why do they need to resort to this amount of deceit?
Saturday, April 15, 2017
Utah judge under fire for calling former bishop "good man" in course of his rape sentencing
As reported in this local article, "complaints are mounting against a Utah County judge who earlier this week praised a former Mormon bishop before sending him to prison for sexually abusing two women." Here are the details:
Fourth District Judge Thomas Low on Wednesday became emotional as he handed down a prison sentence to Keith Robert Vallejo, whom a jury convicted of 10 counts of second-degree felony forcible sexual abuse and one of count of object rape, a first-degree felony. "The court has no doubt that Mr. Vallejo is an extraordinary, good man. But great men," the judge said Wednesday before taking a long pause, "sometimes do bad things."
Two women testified at the trial that Vallejo had inappropriately touched them during separate stays at his Provo home in 2013 and 2014.
Julia Kirby — who was 19 when Vallejo, her brother-in-law, abused her — told The Tribune after the sentencing that she was shocked by the judge's words to her abuser. Now, she plans to file a judicial complaint against him. And she's not the only one.
Restore Our Humanity, a Utah civil rights group that has launched an initiative to help sexual assault victims, will also file a complaint against Low. Director Mark Lawrence said Saturday that Low's comments showed "absolute disregard" for Kirby, who was sitting in the courtroom that day. "He completely disregarded her," Lawrence said. "He did something that we see happening over and over from position in authority dealing with these kind of cases: Making the perpetrator into the victim, showing sympathy and praise for the perpetrator and trying to make him into the victim. It's completely inappropriate."
Lawrence said he expects to file the complaint after reviewing transcripts of Low's comments this next week. He said the goal of the complaint is not to disbar Low, but to have him sanctioned and perhaps go through training to better understand sexual assault victims. "There are some people who would think that we're making a big issue out of this," Lawrence said. "But this isn't a simple misdemeanor or victimless crime. Sexual assault cannot be taken lightly, and everyone must stand up for these victims and survivors."
Criticism of Low initially began in March, after The Tribune published a story about Low's decision to allow Vallejo to remain free on bail pending sentencing and return home to his wife and eight children — even after the jury handed down the guilty verdicts at the February trial. Kirby said last month that she felt the decision indicated that Low did not believe that she and the other woman had been abused. Low reversed that decision during a March 30 hearing, and Vallejo had been at the Utah County jail until his Wednesday sentencing.
Jennifer Yim, the executive director of the Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, told the Associated Press that the commission has received roughly 40 emails, six voicemails and some Facebook messages about Low's handling of this case since late March.
Ryan McBride, the prosecutor on the case, said Low's comments were inappropriate and said it may have come in response to more than 50 character letters about Vallejo, most of them detailing the good things he has done. The defendant's brother spoke at the hearing and compared Vallejo to Jesus in making the argument that he was wrongly convicted, McBride noted. "I don't think it's wrong to acknowledge the good things that someone has done in their lives," the prosecutor told The Associated Press. "But I think whenever you do that in a case like this, you've also got to say, 'But it doesn't excuse what you've done.' "
Low on Wednesday sentenced Vallejo to concurrent sentences of one-to-15 years in prison for each of the second-degree felonies, and a five-years-to-life term for the object rape charge.
The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Melissa Hamilton available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This Article is concerned with disparities in penalty outcomes. More specifically, the study investigates upward departures in the federal guidelines-based sentencing system. No other research to date has explored upward departures in detail, despite their unique consequences to individuals and their effects on the system. Upward departures obviously lead to lengthier sentences and symbolically represent a dispute with the guidelines advice. Upward departures are discretionary to district judges and thus may lead to disparities in sentencing and exacerbate the problem of mass incarceration in this country.
The Article contextualizes the legal, policy, and practical reasons that render upward departures uniquely important decisions. Two theoretical perspectives suggest why judges may assess that an individual deserves an upward departure (the focal concerns perspective) and why upward departures may be more prevalent in some courts (courtroom communities’ perspective).
The study capitalizes on a more sophisticated methodology than utilized in most criminal justice empirical research. The study presents a multilevel mixed model to test the effects of a host of legal and extralegal explanatory factors on the issuance of upward departures at the case level (called fixed effects) and whether those same factors are significant at the group level — i.e., district courts — to determine the extent of variation across districts (called random effects). The results indicate that many of the legal and extralegal factors are relevant in individual cases (i.e., individual disparities) and indicate significant variations across district courts exist (i.e., regional disparities).
Friday, April 14, 2017
Is Arkansas really going to carry out seven (uneventful?) executions over the next two weeks?
The question in the title of this post is a slight variation on a question a student posed to me yesterday, and I really did not have a confident prediction. But these two new pieces discussing Arkansas's plans highlight that others are feeling somewhat more confident about what lies ahead in the Natural State:
From the Arkansas News, "Arkansas governor confident executions will go smoothly"
Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Thursday said he is confident the state Department of Correction can successfully carry out seven executions over an 11-day span starting Monday and defended his decision to set the unprecedented schedule.
In a news conference at the Governor’s Mansion, Hutchinson also expressed confidence in the ability of the sedative midazolam to render the inmates unconscious and said he retains the option to halt any of the executions but does not expect to do so.
The governor told reporters he paid a visit Wednesday to the Department of Correction’s execution chamber in Lincoln County and was satisfied the staff can carry out the plan successfully. Arkansas last executed an inmate in 2005. “I’m not going to go into which staff is doing what at the Department of Correction, but as I was there yesterday, they are experienced, they work on it, they practice it, they don’t take it lightly,” he said. “They know what they’re doing.”
The plan has drawn international attention and has been criticized by groups and individuals who have called it an “assembly line” and a “train wreck.”
From the Washington Post, "Arkansas plans to execute 7 men in 11 days. They’re likely to botch one."
On April 17, Arkansas is scheduled to execute seven men over a period of 11 days. If carried out, that will be the most executions performed in such a short time since the modern death-penalty era began in 1976.
The reason: Arkansas’ supply of the controversial drug it is using for executions, midazolam, is set to expire April 30. Midazolam is medically used as an anti-anxiety sedative, not an anesthetic. Experts have concerns about the drug’s ability to render a person fully unconscious, heightening the risk of an unconstitutionally cruel punishment. The lawyers defending the men scheduled for death are arguing that the short time will limit their ability to provide effective counsel and that the execution team will be so stressed that they will probably make mistakes.
UPDATE: There have been consequential legal developments in Arkansas since I authored this post roughly 24 hours ago. This local article provides the highlights in its opening paragraphs:
A federal judge issued an injunction early Saturday to halt the executions of several condemned Arkansas inmates, creating another barrier to the state's plan to put them to death over an 11-day period starting Monday.
The Arkansas Attorney General's office called the decision "unfortunate" and filed a notice of appeal with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The ruling came a day after the Arkansas Supreme Court first issued an emergency stay blocking Bruce Ward's execution. That order didn't affect the other 6 condemned men, but Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen ruled a short time later that a separate complaint filed by a medical supplier was cause to issue a temporary restraining order blocking all the executions. The state Attorney General, though, on Saturday asked the state Supreme Court to reverse Griffen and to remove him from the case.
U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker's ruling, issued shortly after 6 a.m., applies to all of the scheduled executions. Click here to read the full order 📄.
Baker wrote that "there is a significant possibility that plaintiffs will succeed on the merits of their Eighth Amendment challenge to Arkansas’s lethal injection protocol."
Over-burdened New Orleans public defenders talk of challenges to 60 Minutes
As previewed here, this Sunday night's broadcast of 60 Minutes will have a notable segment on the New Orleans justice system with notable commentary from attorneys who have work in the New Orleans Public Defenders Office. Here is how the segment is previewed:
New Orleans public defenders tell Anderson Cooper that innocent people have gone to jail because they've lacked the resources and time to defend them properly
Past and current attorneys of the New Orleans Public Defenders Office tell Anderson Cooper they believe innocent clients have gone to jail because they lacked the time and resources to defend them properly. The system is so overburdened that in 2016 New Orleans Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton began ordering his staff to refuse to take on clients facing the most serious felonies. Cooper’s report on the New Orleans justice system will be broadcast on 60 Minutes Sunday, April 16 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
All nine of the attorneys agreed when asked by Cooper if they believed an innocent client went to jail because they didn’t have enough time to spend on their case. When 52 attorneys are responsible for 20,000 criminal cases a year, as in New Orleans, they do their best says Bunton. But often, indigent defendants will not get the quality defense they are entitled to. “You can’t provide the kind of representation that the Constitution, our code of ethics and professional standards would have you provide,” says Bunton. Asked if it’s not better to have a busy lawyer than no lawyer, Bunton does not hesitate, “No. A lawyer poorly resourced can cause irreparable harm to a client.”
Cooper follows one case of a man arrested in New Orleans who sat in jail for more than a year before an attorney presented evidence to the court showing he did not even match the suspect’s description. He also speaks to the man’s original public defender who got so fed up with not having the time to provide quality defense, she quit.
At the time, Lindsay Samuel represented nearly a hundred clients facing a life in prison. She felt she was “Always coming up short. The first thousand clients you feel terrible. The second thousand clients, you feel awful,” she recalls. “Every day my clients are going away for a decade and I just move along to the next client,” says Samuel.
Bunton shows Cooper a warehouse full of the nearly half million cases handled by his office in the past decade. He says 90 to 95 percent of the defendants in those cases pled guilty, many because they lacked confidence in an overburdened public defender being able to provide them with an adequate defense. The justice system in New Orleans has become a criminal processing system says Bunton, “A conveyor belt that starts when you are arrested and then there’s hands that touch you on your way to prison,” he tells Cooper. “It’s not about figuring out...your innocence...and that’s what we are fighting to change,” says Bunton.
Thursday, April 13, 2017
"Three Reasons Why Virginia May Execute an Innocent Man"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary authored by LawProf Cara Drinan. Here are excerpts:
In 2006, a jury convicted Ivan Teleguz of hiring someone to kill Stephanie Sipe, his ex-girlfriend and the mother of his child. Now, more than a decade later, Virginia is scheduled to execute Teleguz on April 25, 2017, and there is substantial evidence suggesting that Teleguz is innocent.
How is that possible in the United States – the land of the free, where a poor person is entitled to legal counsel and a criminal defendant has numerous chances to be heard in court? Actually, it happens with some ease, and in part, it happens because of conscious choices we have made about our legal system. There are at least three reasons for this counter-intuitive reality.
1. Prosecutors, Not Judges or Juries, Resolve Most Criminal Cases in America ...
Teleguz’s case demonstrates this phenomenon well. There was no physical evidence connecting him to the murder of Ms. Sipe; the prosecution’s case was based on the testimony of three witnesses. Since his trial, two of those witnesses have recanted their testimony and have admitted that they lied when they implicated Teleguz in exchange for favorable treatment from the government. The Commonwealth repeatedly told the third witness, Ms. Sipe’s actual killer, that he would face the death penalty unless he “cooperated” with them by agreeing to testify against Teleguz in Ms. Sipe’s murder and sticking to that story. Not surprisingly, he did just that and he is serving out a life sentence while Teleguz faces imminent death.
2. The Myth of the Right to Counsel ...
Teleguz suffered at the hands of a broken system. Counsel in death penalty cases are held to a heightened standard of performance, and as part of that standard, they are expected to conduct extensive, careful investigation to prepare for the sentencing phase of the trial. Teleguz’s trial counsel was far from diligent, and as a result, the jury heard evidence that Teleguz was involved in another arranged murder. This evidence persuaded the jury to vote for the death penalty. Here’s the wrinkle: not only was Teleguz not involved in such a crime, the crime never happened. Years after his trial, that fact came to light, and the government has now acknowledged that the alleged prior murder did not happen. But the jury verdict stands.
3. Not So Appealing Appeals Process ...
Surely, the multi-layered appellate process would ferret out an error of this magnitude and provide a remedy? Not necessarily. In 1996, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) and in the process “gutted the federal writ of habeas corpus, which a federal court can use to order the release of someone wrongly imprisoned.” Today, the American appellate process is an intricate web of procedural rules, and, in fact, "we have purposefully designed our system of appellate review to examine almost everything but factual guilt or innocence."
That might be defensible if we could be confident in the accuracy of our criminal justice system, but we can’t be. Since 1989, there have been more than 2,000 exonerations in the United States. In 2015 alone, 58 people were exonerated of homicide convictions. Like many of those individuals, Teleguz has consistently maintained his innocence. Today there is new evidence to support that claim that no court has fully examined.
In the next few days, Governor Terry McAuliffe can’t do much about prosecutorial overreach, problems with indigent defense, and the complex appellate process. But he can recognize that, because of these systemic failures, there is substantial doubt about Teleguz’s guilt. Governor McAuliffe should grant clemency and stop Teleguz’s execution.
This recent AP article, headlined "Conservatives urge Virginia governor to spare inmate's life," highlights that it is not only a law professor urging Gov McAuliffe to act in this capital case.
UPDATE: A commentor has usefully noted that the Fourth Circuit opinion in this case, which is available here, provides a different perspective on this case and Teleguz's claims of innocence.
Wednesday, April 12, 2017
Effective coverage of the considerable challenges of sentencing reform in Louisiana
Over the last month, The Advocate has done a fine job covering debates over sentencing reforms in Louisiana, and the most recent of the article (listed last below) prompted me to collect come of this reporting in this space:
Might Dylann Roof have claimed ineffective assistance of counsel if he didn't get sentenced to death?
Most murderers who get sentenced to death at some point claim their lawyers were constitutionally ineffective. But this new local article, headlined "Dylann Roof calls his lawyers 'sneakiest people I ever met,' says mental health defense was 'a lie'," suggests one high-profile condemned mass murderer might have claimed his lawyer was ineffective if he wasn't sentenced to death. The full article is fascinating, and here is how it gets started:
Calling his attorneys "the sneakiest group of people I have ever met,” Dylann Roof reached out to federal prosecutors on the eve of his hate crimes trial in an effort to scuttle a planned mental health defense aimed at sparing him the death penalty.
Roof blistered his legal team in a three-page jailhouse letter, accusing them of tricking him into undergoing tests to challenge his competency to stand trial for killing nine black worshippers at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church in June 2015. Roof told prosecutors he wanted no part of this strategy, which he labeled "a lie."
"Because I have no real defense, my lawyers have been forced to grasp at straws and present a pathetic, fraudulent excuse for a defense in my name," he wrote in early November. "They have regularly told me in an aggressive manner that I have no say in my own defense, that my input doesn't matter, and that there is nothing I can do about it."
Roof's letter was among more than 70 filings that U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel unsealed Tuesday – one day after the 23-year-old white supremacist pleaded guilty to nine counts of murder in state court. Though Roof’s federal trial ended in January with a death sentence, Gergel had been reluctant to release records about his mental status while the state case was pending.
The newly unsealed documents show procedural disagreements over how Roof’s mental health would be evaluated and growing discord between the killer and his top-flight legal team of capital defense specialists. Roof railed at their “slick” tactics, and they in turn expressed frustration with a “delusional” client who seemed preoccupied with fantasies that white supremacists would break him out of prison and make him governor of South Carolina, the documents show.
In the handwritten November letter to “Prosecution,” Roof alleged that his legal team had told him he was being tested to determine if a thyroid condition had affected his brain when they were really compiling evidence to challenge his competency. He said he wanted the people trying to convict him to know that “what my lawyers plan to say in my defense is a lie and will be said without my consent or permission.”
“My lawyers have purposely kept me in the dark about my defense until the last minute in order to prevent me from being able to do anything about it, which is why I have been forced to write to you,” he stated. “Throughout my case they have used scare tactics, threats, manipulation, and outright lies to further their own, not my, agenda.” He warned prosecutors not to let his legal team “fool you or the court like they’ve fooled me.”
Prosecutors notified Roof's lawyers after receiving the letter, and lead defense attorney David Bruck agreed that Gergel, the trial judge, needed to see the missive, according to a chain of emails. After a closed-door meeting on Nov. 7, Roof's lawyers pleaded with the judge to delay planned jury selection in the case so Roof could undergo an extensive mental competency review. They repeatedly described Roof as delusional, and noted his "depression, extreme anxiety and autism spectrum disorder."
They stated that their tenuous working relationship with him had suffered "a severe rupture" when he "openly attempted to sabotage his own case" by reaching out to prosecutors. "(W)e are now faced with a client who would rather die than be labeled mentally ill or neuro-developmentally impaired, and who would rather communicate and ally himself with those who propose to execute him than us," his attorneys wrote.
The attorneys stated that Roof believed "the very white nationalists whom he considers his allies" would turn on him and persecute him for his "perceived infirmities" if he were to be labeled incompetent. They stated that Roof had "an irrational belief that being labeled mentally impaired will affect the defendant's standing with some hypothetical white nationalists whom the defendant has never met or communicated with — and cannot even name — but whom he believes may appoint him to a high government position some day."
They attached notes indicating that Roof had been so distracted by his delusional ideas that he was unable to respond to the basic needs of his defense. Among his odd notions was a fantasy that white supremacists would stage a prison break to rescue him from captivity, they said. "His single-minded focus on being rescued and made governor of South Carolina makes salient to him things that are irrational and he cannot rationally assist counsel as a result," they stated.
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
AG Sesssions issues memo to federal prosecutors that "mandates the prioritization of criminal immigration enforcement"
As reported in this press release from the US Justice Department, "Attorney General Jeff Sessions today spoke to Customs and Border Protection personnel at the United States-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona," and in his remarks the AG "announced that he has issued [this] attached memo to United States Attorneys that mandates the prioritization of criminal immigration enforcement." Here is more from the press release and the speech it references:
The memo directs federal prosecutors to focus on particular offenses that, if aggressively charged and prosecuted, can help prevent and deter illegal immigration. Additionally, the Attorney General revealed that the Department of Justice will add 50 more immigration judges to the bench this year and 75 next year. He also highlighted the Department's plan to streamline its hiring of judges, reflecting the dire need to reduce the backlogs in our immigration courts....
[From the AG's speech:]
[T]oday, I am pleased to stand here with you and announce new guidance regarding our commitment to criminal immigration enforcement. As we speak, I am issuing a document to all federal prosecutors that mandates the prioritization of such enforcement.
Starting today, federal prosecutors are now required to consider for prosecution all of the following offenses:
The transportation or harboring of aliens. As you know too well, this is a booming business down here. No more. We are going to shut down and jail those who have been profiting off this lawlessness — people smuggling gang members across the border, helping convicted criminals re-enter this country and preying on those who don’t know how dangerous the journey can be.
Further, where an alien has unlawfully entered the country, which is a misdemeanor, that alien will now be charged with a felony if they unlawfully enter or attempt enter a second time and certain aggravating circumstances are present.
Also, aliens that illegally re-enter the country after prior removal will be referred for felony prosecution — and a priority will be given to such offenses, especially where indicators of gang affiliation, a risk to public safety or criminal history are present.
Fourth: where possible, prosecutors are directed to charge criminal aliens with document fraud and aggravated identity theft — the latter carrying a two-year mandatory minimum sentence.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly: I have directed that all 94 U.S. Attorneys Offices make the prosecution of assault on a federal law enforcement officer — that’s all of you — a top priority. If someone dares to assault one of our folks in the line of duty, they will do federal time for it.
To ensure that these priorities are implemented, starting today, each U.S. Attorney’s Office, whether on the border or interior, will designate an Assistant United States Attorney as the Border Security Coordinator for their District. It will be this experienced prosecutor’s job to coordinate the criminal immigration enforcement response for their respective offices.
For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned: This is a new era. This is the Trump era. The lawlessness, the abdication of the duty to enforce our immigration laws and the catch and release practices of old are over.
Monday, April 10, 2017
AG Sessions opting not to renew National Commission on Forensic Science
As reported in this extended Washington Post piece, headlined "Sessions orders Justice Dept. to end forensic science commission, suspend review policy," the new Attorney General is taking a new approach to old debates over forensic science. Though the decision here is not quite a sentencing story, it provides another example of how the new head of DOJ is taking a much different approach to serving justice than did his immediate predecessors. I recommend the Post piece in full for those seeking full context here, and here is how the piece starts:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions will end a Justice Department partnership with independent scientists to raise forensic science standards and has suspended an expanded review of FBI testimony across several techniques that have come under question, saying a new strategy will be set by an in-house team of law enforcement advisers.
In a statement Monday, Sessions said he would not renew the National Commission on Forensic Science, a roughly 30-member advisory panel of scientists, judges, crime lab leaders, prosecutors and defense lawyers chartered by the Obama administration in 2013.
A path to meet needs of overburdened crime labs will be set by a yet-to-be named senior forensic adviser and an internal department crime task force, Sessions’s statement said.
The announcement came as the commission began its last, two-day meeting before its term ends April 23, and as some of its most far-reaching final recommendations remained hanging before the department.
Sunday, April 09, 2017
Poll suggests Arkansans generally support state plans for multiple executions in coming weeks
This new local article, headlined "Poll: Arkansans’ support for death penalty unfazed by upcoming execution schedule," reports on a new local poll showing support for the notable execution plans in the works in the Natural State. Here are excerpts from part of the poll and some analysis provided in the article:
Arkansas voters remain firmly committed to the death penalty despite an upcoming quick execution schedule, advances made in DNA testing, and a national trend towards ending the practice. A new Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College survey suggests more than 2-to-1 support for the death penalty versus life without parole....
Arkansans are also unfazed by the upcoming rapid execution schedule which involves seven executions over an 11-day period. At the time the poll was conducted, eight inmates were scheduled for execution in the 11-day time span....
As Arkansas’s move to carry out eight (and, following a federal court ruling in recent days, seven) executions via lethal injection moves toward reality at the end of the month, Arkansas is gaining increasing national and international attention as state officials race to beat the expiration deadline for a drug used in the state’s lethal injection formula.
We asked a series of questions about Arkansans’ opinions regarding the death penalty, generally, and this historic number of executions in particular. Arkansans’ unshakeable commitment to the death penalty is shown by the survey results. Most generally, Arkansans solidly support the application of the death penalty with over six in ten respondents favoring the death penalty while fewer than three in ten support life without parole for those convicted of capital offenses....
Finally, we focused on the extraordinary number of executions planned by the state of Arkansas at the end of the April. At the time of our survey, eight executions were planned. At the time of this writing, seven of those executions remain on track (the eighth has been delayed by federal District Judge Price Marshall because of a favorable clemency recommendation by the State Parole Board).
Just at one in four Arkansans are troubled by this aggressive stance while a strong majority of Arkansans either favor this move by the state to ensure the executions are carried out before the drug expiration (51%) or say it makes no difference (17%). While slight majorities of African-Americans and Democrats oppose the mass executions, the most noticeable variance across social groups is shown between men and women. A nearly 20 point gender gap (61% for men versus 42% for women) is shown on support for the late-April series of executions.
All told, this pattern of survey responses on the death penalty shows the breadth and depth of Arkansans support for death as an appropriate punishment in capital cases. While national survey research shows some erosion of support for the death penalty, all signs are that the death penalty will remain in favor in Arkansas for the foreseeable future.
Some prior related posts:
- Arkansas Gov signs proclamations that could lead to eight executions in less than two weeks in next month
- Arkansas trial judge finds it "more than shameful" that state Supreme Court ruling required dismissal of condemned inmates suit over lethal injection
- New report spotlights concerns with disabilities and bad lawyering for eight Arkansas condemned scheduled for execution next month
- Arkansas Parole Board recommends clemency for one of eight condemned scheduled for execution later this month
Reviewing the "tough-and-tougher" sentencing perspectives of those now leading the Justice Department
The Washington Post has this extended new article reviewing a lot of the old tough-on-crime comments by AG Jeff Sessions and his new right-hand man, Steve Cook. The article is headlined "How Jeff Sessions wants to bring back the war on drugs," and here is how it gets started (with one important phrase emphasized at the end):
When the Obama administration launched a sweeping policy to reduce harsh prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, rave reviews came from across the political spectrum. Civil rights groups and the Koch brothers praised Obama for his efforts, saying he was making the criminal justice system more humane.
But there was one person who watched these developments with some horror. Steven H. Cook, a former street cop who became a federal prosecutor based in Knoxville, Tenn., saw nothing wrong with how the system worked — not the life sentences for drug charges, not the huge growth of the prison population. And he went everywhere — Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News, congressional hearings, public panels — to spread a different gospel. “The federal criminal justice system simply is not broken. In fact, it’s working exactly as designed,” Cook said at a criminal justice panel at The Washington Post last year.
The Obama administration largely ignored Cook, who was then president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. But he won’t be overlooked anymore. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has brought Cook into his inner circle at the Justice Department, appointing him to be one of his top lieutenants to help undo the criminal justice policies of Obama and former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. As Sessions has traveled to different cities to preach his tough-on-crime philosophy, Cook has been at his side.
Sessions has yet to announce specific policy changes, but Cook’s new perch speaks volumes about where the Justice Department is headed. Law enforcement officials say that Sessions and Cook are preparing a plan to prosecute more drug and gun cases and pursue mandatory minimum sentences. The two men are eager to bring back the national crime strategy of the 1980s and ’90s from the peak of the drug war, an approach that had fallen out of favor in recent years as minority communities grappled with the effects of mass incarceration.
Crime is near historic lows in the United States, but Sessions says that the spike in homicides in several cities, including Chicago, is a harbinger of a “dangerous new trend” in America that requires a tough response. “Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs is bad,” Sessions said to law enforcement officials in a speech in Richmond last month. “It will destroy your life.”
Advocates of criminal justice reform argue that Sessions and Cook are going in the wrong direction — back to a strategy that tore apart families and sent low-level drug offenders, disproportionately minority citizens, to prison for long sentences. “They are throwing decades of improved techniques and technologies out the window in favor of a failed approach,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).
But Cook, whose views are supported by other federal prosecutors, sees himself as a dedicated assistant U.S. attorney who for years has tried to protect neighborhoods ravaged by crime. He has called FAMM and organizations like it “anti-law enforcement groups.”
The records of Cook and Sessions show that while others have grown eager in recent years to rework the criminal justice system, they have repeatedly fought to keep its toughest edges, including winning a battle in Congress last year to defeat a reform bill. “If hard-line means that my focus is on protecting communities from violent felons and drug traffickers, then I’m guilty,” Cook said in a recent interview with The Post. “I don’t think that’s hard-line. I think that’s exactly what the American people expect of their Department of Justice.”
The phrase I have stressed above is the phrase that ultimately matters most for the foreseeable future of the federal criminal justice system. Though the Attorney General and others senior DOJ officials can and will define and shape the basic policies for federal charging and sentencing, it is local federal prosecutors around the nation who really determine how these policies get implemented and who, collectively, have the greatest impact on prosecutorial and punishment practices. And I surmise that a whole lot of federal prosecutors — not all, but many and perhaps most — embrace the "tough-on-crime" philosophy that AG Sessions espouses more than the "smart-on-crime" mantra that former AG Holder eventually espoused.
Saturday, April 08, 2017
"Cruel Techniques, Unusual Secrets"
The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by William Berry and Meghan Ryan now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In the recent case of Glossip v. Gross, the Supreme Court denied a death row petitioner’s challenge to Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol. An important part of Justice Alito’s majority opinion highlighted the existence of a relationship between the constitutionality of a punishment and the requirement of a constitutional technique available to administer the punishment.
Far from foreclosing future challenges, this principle ironically highlights the failure of the Court to describe the relationship under the Eighth Amendment between three distinct categories of punishment: (1) the type of punishment imposed by the court — i.e., death penalty, life without parole, life with parole, (2) the method of punishment — the tool by which the state administers the punishment, and (3) the technique of punishment — the manner in which the state administers the punishment. Because, as Justice Alito insists, a constitutional method and technique must exist for a constitutionally approved punishment, there is a constitutional relationship between these categories.
As such, this Article articulates a holistic model for applying the Eighth Amendment on three levels — the punishment type, method, and technique. This Article develops this taxonomy, making explicit the concepts implicit in a number of Eighth Amendment cases. To be sure, the Court has assessed types of punishments, punishment methods, and punishment techniques individually, but it has never offered a holistic framework by which to understand these related constitutional inquiries. This Article develops such an approach.
In light of the applicable framework, the Article then explores the Court’s application of the Eighth Amendment with respect to the three categories, demonstrating how the Court deviates from its doctrine when considering punishment techniques. It next describes use of secrecy in the context of lethal injection, uncovering the manner in which this secrecy frustrates the application of the Eighth Amendment framework. Further, the Article argues that the state-instigated secrecy does more than create a doctrinal smokescreen — it raises serious constitutional and legitimacy questions concerning lethal injection protocols. Finally, the Article concludes by exploring what transparency in execution methods might mean both in terms of restoring dignity to death row prisoners and for the future of capital punishment in America.
Friday, April 07, 2017
Now that we have Justice Neil Gorsuch, what will be his first notable sentencing vote or opinion?
As reported here by the Washington Post, this morning, the "U.S. Senate confirmed Neil M. Gorsuch to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, capping more than a year of bitter partisan bickering over the ideological balance of the nation’s highest court." Here is more about what comes next:
Gorsuch is expected to be sworn-in in the coming days, allowing him to join the high court for the final weeks of its term, which ends in June. It’s likely he will want to be sworn-in quickly — even if a ceremonial event is held later — so that he can get to work. The court is scheduled to meet Thursday for a private session to decide whether to accept or reject a long list of cases that would be heard next term. And the last round of oral arguments for this term is scheduled to begin in just 10 days, on April 17.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. is the most recent justice to have been confirmed during a Supreme Court term. He was sworn-in the same day as his confirmation, and a ceremonial event with President George W. Bush was held the next day.
I do not believe there are any sentencing cases on the SCOTUS docket for its last round of arguments later this month, but there are a few notable criminal procedures case including a couple involving ineffective assistance of counsel issues. It will be interesting to see how Justice Gorsuch approaches oral argument and decision-making in these early cases.
"Who are the Punishers?"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper authored by Raff Donelson now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The Eighth Amendment is a list of deeds not to be done, but it does not say who is not to do them. This Article specifically examines whom the Eighth Amendment bars from inflicting cruel and unusual punishments. The Supreme Court has thus far applied the Eighth Amendment to a narrow class of parties, consisting of just legislatures, criminal courts, and those who execute punishment such as prison officials. Under the framework presented in this Article, the class of potential punishers should be much wider. Those who work in jails and other detention centers, public and private school officials, and even parents of juveniles should be considered potential punishers for Eighth Amendment purposes.
Thursday, April 06, 2017
Split Sixth Circuit panel uphold injunction blocking Ohio lethal injection protocol
A split Sixth Circuit panel today In re: Ohio Execution Protocol, No. 17-3076 (6th Cir. April 6, 2017) (available here), upheld a preliminary injunction blocking Ohio from moving forward with a number of scheduled executions. Here is how the majority opinion authored by Judge Moore gets started:
Ohio’s current execution protocol allows for execution by lethal injection using a three-drug combination of (1) midazolam; (2) either vecuronium bromide, pancuronium bromide, or rocuronium bromide, which are paralytics; and (3) potassium chloride, which stops the heart. R. 667-1 (Ohio DRC Execution Protocol, 01- COM-11 at 2) (Page ID #19813). The purpose of the first drug is to ensure that the person being executed is insensate to the pain that the second two drugs cause. It is undisputed that if the first drug does not “render the prisoner unconscious,” then “there is a substantial, constitutionally unacceptable risk of suffocation . . . and pain” from the second two drugs. Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 53 (2008) (plurality op.). The ultimate question in this case is whether use of midazolam as the first drug in this three-drug protocol “entails a substantial risk of severe pain” as compared to “a known and available alternative.” Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726, 2731 (2015). The question before us at this preliminary stage, however, is much narrower. We ask only whether the district court abused its discretion by granting a preliminary injunction to allow for further litigation regarding midazolam’s efficacy before Ohio executes Ronald Phillips, Raymond Tibbetts, and Gary Otte. For the reasons discussed below, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court granting the preliminary injunction.
Here is how the dissenting opinion by Judge Kethledge gets started:
Roughly two decades have passed since the plaintiffs in this case murdered their victims. Ronald Phillips raped a three-year-old girl and beat her so badly that her internal organs ruptured. For two days she suffered intense abdominal pain and vomiting, until her heart collapsed. See State v. Phillips, 656 N.E.2d 643, 650-52 (Ohio 1995). Gary Otte entered the home of an Ohio man, robbed him, and then shot him in the head. Two nights later, Otte pushed his way into a woman’s home and did the same things to her. After each murder Otte went out partying. See State v. Otte, 660 N.E.2d 711, 715-16 (Ohio 1996). Raymond Tibbetts killed an elderly man and his caretaker. Police found the man slumped in his chair with butcher knives protruding from his chest and back. His caretaker lay on the floor in a pool of blood with her skull cracked open and its contents scattered nearby. See State v. Tibbetts, 749 N.E.2d 226, 237–39 (Ohio 2001).
Phillips, Tibbetts, and Otte now claim that Ohio’s Execution Protocol would cause them to suffer severe pain in violation of the Eighth Amendment. In a sense the claim is unprecedented: the Supreme Court “has never invalidated a State’s chosen procedure for carrying out a sentence of death as the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.” Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726, 2732 (2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). The State’s chosen procedure here is the same procedure (so far as the combination of drugs is concerned) that the Supreme Court refused to invalidate in Glossip. Yet the district court thought we should likely invalidate that procedure, and today the majority agrees. I respectfully disagree and would reverse the district court’s grant of a preliminary injunction.
A lengthy faculty meeting and a coming class mean I will not have a chance to read this extended opinion until late tonight, but I can already confidently predict that the State of Ohio will seek en banc review of this ruling and perhaps even Supreme Court review, if necessary.
Arkansas Parole Board recommends clemency for one of eight condemned scheduled for execution later this month
As reported in this AP piece, the "Arkansas Parole Board on Wednesday recommended that Gov. Asa Hutchinson alter the state's unprecedented execution schedule and grant mercy to a death row inmate who directed the torture and murder of a teenager more than two decades ago." Here is more:
Jason McGehee, 40, is one of eight inmates scheduled to die in four double executions this month. Hutchinson, who is not bound by the board's finding that McGehee should have his sentence cut to life without parole, can intervene at any time before the execution begins on April 27. The Republican governor not said when he will make a decision.
Until Wednesday, the state Parole Board had rejected every death row clemency request presented to it since 1990.
With a key lethal injection drug expiring at the end of the month, the Arkansas Department of Correction hopes to execute eight men in a 10-day period beginning April 17. Only Texas has executed that many inmates in a month, doing it twice in 1997. Seven executions in a month would still be a record for Arkansas.
Prosecutors say McGehee, who had just turned 20, directed the fatal assault of Johnny Melbourne Jr., a 15-year-old who had told police about a northern Arkansas theft ring. In voting 6-1 in favor of McGehee's clemency request, the Parole Board considered letters and testimony from the judge from McGehee's trial, a former Correction Department chief, members of McGehee's family and the victim's father.
"The death of John Melbourne, Jr. was the tragic result of a group-dynamic gone wrong," retired Circuit Judge Robert McCorkindale wrote, according to documents released by the state Parole Board. McGehee was one of several people who participated in the attack, but was the only defendant sentenced to death, and the retired judge called it "an excessive punishment."
Former Department of Correction Director Ray Hobbs told the panel at a 40-minute hearing Friday that McGehee had become a model prisoner. "He still has value that can be given to others if his life is spared," Hobbs said.
Linda Christensen, the inmate's aunt, said in an affidavit filed with the board that McGehee suffered psychological abuse as a teenager, such as when his stepfather killed the boy's dog after the dog fought with another dog for food. The stepfather "got up and kicked Dusty in the side with his cowboy boots as hard as he could," Christensen wrote. "He lay and suffered and the kids had to watch him die slowly. ... Jason was never the same after that."
Melbourne's father had asked the board to reject McGehee's clemency request. "John didn't have this. Even though he was begging for his life and was hurting. He didn't have this and he begged for his life too. He didn't have y'all," the elder Melbourne said.
Board Chairman John Felts voted against clemency. He said McGehee's death sentence wasn't excessive considering the inmate had orchestrated the Aug. 19, 1996, attack. The boy was beaten and tortured at a house in Harrison, then bound and driven to an abandoned farmhouse outside Omaha, a town in northern Arkansas. He was later strangled while his hands were tied with an electrical cord.
Wednesday, April 05, 2017
En banc Ninth Circuit concludes application of guidelines should generally be reviewed for abuse of discretion
The Ninth Circuit today issues a relatively short en banc ruling that should be of particular interest to hard-core appellate review sentencing aficionados. The start of the opinion in US v. Gasca-Ruiz, No. 14-50342 (9th Cir. April 5, 2017) (available here), covers the basics:
We took this case en banc to resolve an intra-circuit conflict over the standard of review that applies when we review a district court’s application of the United States Sentencing Guidelines to the facts of a given case. We conclude that as a general rule such decisions should be reviewed for abuse of discretion.
If you still hanker for more, here is a paragraph from the heart of the court's analysis:
District courts make far more guideline-application decisions of all sorts, see Koon v. United States, 518 U.S. 81, 98 (1996), and thus are likely to be more familiar with the nuances that go into applying Guidelines provisions across the board. Guideline-application decisions, as we have defined them, almost always “depen[d] heavily upon an understanding of the significance of case-specific details,” Buford, 532 U.S. at 65, because once the district court has identified the correct legal standard and properly found the relevant historical facts, all that remains is the fact-bound judgment as to whether a specific set of facts satisfies the governing legal standard. In the Sentencing Guidelines context in particular, that is a judgment district courts are uniquely qualified to make. Each guideline-application decision is ultimately geared toward assessing whether the defendant before the court should be viewed as more or less culpable than other offenders in a given class. In light of their experience sentencing defendants on a day-in-and-day-out basis, district courts possess an institutional advantage over appellate courts in making such culpability assessments. See Koon, 518 U.S. at 98.
AG Sessions provides update (with timelines) about the work of DOJ's Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety
As reported in this short press release, "Attorney General Jeff Sessions today issued [a] memo to 94 U.S. Attorney’s Offices and Department of Justice component heads providing an update on the Department’s Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety." As the press release further explains, in this update, "the Attorney General announced the creation of Task Force subcommittees that will focus on a variety of issues including developing violent crime reduction strategies, supporting prevention and re-entry efforts, updating charging and sentencing policies, reviewing asset forfeiture guidance, reducing illegal immigration and human trafficking, combatting hate crimes, and evaluating marijuana enforcement policy."
The full three-page AG memo is available at this link, and it does not cover much of significant substance. But the memo does state that the AG "directed the Task Force to hold a National Summit on Crime Reduction and Public Safety within 120 days," and it also states that the AG has asked for Task Force subcommittees to provide initial recommendations no later than July 27th. Thus I expect we will see some hot talk about changes to DOJ charging and sentencing policies (and perhaps also marijuana policies) as the weather heats up in the coming months.
Alabama poised to ban judicial override of jury life recommendations in capital cases
As reported in this local article, the "law in Alabama is about to change so that juries will have the final say on whether to impose the death penalty or life in prison in capital murder cases." Here is more on this notable capital development:
The House of Representatives this afternoon passed a bill that would end the authority of judges to override jury recommendations in capital cases. Alabama is the only state that allows a judge to override a jury's recommendation when sentencing capital murder cases.
The bill, by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, passed the House on a vote of 78-19 and is now headed to Gov. Robert Bentley, who said he plans to sign it into law after it undergoes a standard legal review.
Rep. Chris England, who had a similar bill in the House, substituted Brewbaker's bill for his on the House floor today, allowing it to get final passage....
According to the Equal Justice Initiative. Alabama judges have overridden jury recommendations 112 times. In 101 of those cases, the judges gave a death sentence. "Having judicial override almost undermines the constitutional right to trial by a jury of your peers," England said.
England's bill, as introduced, would also have required the consent of all 12 jurors to give a death sentence. Current law requires at least 10 jurors. Brewbaker's bill leaves the threshold to impose the death penalty at 10 jurors.
England said there was not enough support to pass the bill with the requirement for a unanimous jury to impose the death penalty. He said ending judicial override was the main objective this year but he might propose the unanimous jury requirement again in the future. He said he still thinks the change is needed. "Why would it take a unanimous jury to convict but less than a unanimous jury to send someone to death?" England said....
England said the fact that Alabama had become the last state to allow judicial override helped build support for the bill this year. England also said there was some question about whether Alabama's death penalty law could be found unconstitutional in the future.
Ebony Howard, associate legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, issued a statement applauding the bill's passage. "Alabama should do everything it can to ensure that an innocent person is never executed," Howard said. "The bipartisan effort to pass a bill that would keep a judge from overriding a jury's vote in capital cases is a step in the right direction. As of today, Alabama is one step closer to joining every other state in our nation in prohibiting judicial override in the sentencing phase of death penalty cases."
The Supreme Court's decision in Hurst last year striking down, as violative of the Sixth Amendment, Florida's quirky approach to jury involvement in death sentencing surely paved the way for this notable change in Alabama procedure. Notably, in Florida, Hurst was ultimately interpreted to also preclude death sentencing based on only a 10-juror recommendation. Apparently legislators in Alabama feel more confident that capital cases can roll that way in the Yellowhammer State.
Tuesday, April 04, 2017
How many prior sentenced federal prisoners might now have "Dean claims" (assuming Dean is retroactive)?
As reported in this post from yesterday, and as explained a bit more via this write-up I provided to the fine folks at SCOTUSblog, the Supreme Court yesterday in Dean v. United States, No. 15-9260 (April 3, 2017) (available here) ruled that the Eighth Circuit had been wrong to hold that, "in calculating the sentence for [a] predicate offense, a judge must ignore the fact that the defendant will serve the mandatory minimums imposed under §924(c)." According to the government's briefing in Dean, most of the circuits had also ruled like the Eighth Circuit (incorrectly) on this statutory sentencing issue — though I suspect that, in practice, a number of district courts did not consistently ignore 924(c) mandates when sentencing predicate offenses.
Given this background, I was surprised I did not think of the question in the title of this post until former AUSA Steven Sanders sent me an email with this query: "Any thoughts on whether Dean applies retroactively on 2255, on the (Montgomery) theory that the decision opens up the range of punishment and thus is substantive for Teague purposes?" Regular readers familiar with my views about finality rules and sentencing errors (basics here, law review article here) should expect me to have plenty of thoughts about Dean retroactivity, most of which center around the view that Dean qualifies as retroactive. Put simply, Dean seems to me to be a substantive ruling that applies retroactively.
Assuming Dean is retroactive, this recent "Quick Facts" publication from the US Sentencing Commission suggests there could be thousands (perhaps even tens of thousands) of federal prisoners with plausible Dean claims. Specifically, that publication indicates that, in Fiscal Year 2015, over 1100 federal defendants were convicted under both section 924(c) and another predicate offense not carrying a mandatory minimum, and that the average sentence for this group was over 11 years in prison. Assuming 2015 was a fairly representative year — and the USSC publication actually suggests a larger number of defendants getting longer sentences in prior years — it is possible that well over 10,000 defendants (and maybe many more) could be in federal prison serving sentences that were imposed based on an understanding of applicable sentencing principles that Dean has now disrupted.
For various procedural and practical reasons, I doubt we will see thousands of "Dean resentencings" in the federal courts in the coming months even if thousands of prisoners got sentenced based on the wrong understanding of the applicable laws here. But I do expect that there will be many more than just a handful or "Dean resentencing" efforts.
Could Proposition 66 turn the California Supreme Court into a specialty death penalty appeals court?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent lengthy Los Angeles Times article headlined "Trying to speed up executions could deal 'mortal blow' to California Supreme Court." Here are excerpts:
If a November ballot measure to speed up executions goes into effect, the California Supreme Court will have to decide hundreds of death penalty appeals in rapid succession. That mandate would turn the state’s highest court into what analysts say would be “a death penalty court,” forced for years to devote about 90% of its time to capital appeals.
Proposition 66, sponsored by prosecutors and passed by 51% of voters, gave judicial leaders 1½ years to make new legal rules and then five years to decide a crushing backlog of appeals. “Prop. 66 would require the California Supreme Court to decide virtually nothing but death penalty appeals for at least the next five years — almost no civil cases at all and no criminal cases other than capital murder,” said Jon Eisenberg, president of the California Academy of Appellate Lawyers.
Legal analysts and four bar associations say the measure would inundate all the courts with extra work but hit the top court’s seven justices hardest. In a friend-of-the-court brief, 11 law professors and a nonprofit legal center contended Proposition 66 would “grind the wheels of justice to a halt” in California.
Death penalty advocates acknowledge the measure would mean extra work for the courts, but say that it is necessary to fix a system that has produced the largest death row in the country and no executions in more than a decade. They contend the workload will be tolerable, and that the courts will have some flexibility in meeting the deadlines.
The California Supreme Court is considering whether the measure can go into effect. Two opponents of the measure sued in November, contending it illegally usurped the powers of the judicial branch and violated a constitutional rule that says ballot measures must deal with one subject only. The California Supreme Court put the measure on hold until the justices resolve the case, probably within the next few months.
The appellate lawyers’ academy takes no position on the death penalty but opposed the initiative on the grounds that it would disrupt the courts and prevent litigants in civil matters from having their cases decided in a timely manner. It joined the bar associations of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and San Francisco in a January letter written to the state Supreme Court saying that Proposition 66 “threatens to deal a mortal blow” to California’s courts....
Given a backlog of more than 300 death penalty appeals already at the court, the justices would have to decide at least 66 of them each year for the next several years just to catch up, Eisenberg said. Calculations based on the court’s typical annual production indicate the justices would be spending 90% of their time on capital cases, Eisenberg said. Civil case rulings would decline from about 50 a year to just a handful, he said. “That leaves virtually no time for anything other than death penalty cases,” Eisenberg said....
UC Berkeley's David A. Carrillo, director of a center that studies the California Constitution, described the initiative as a new unfunded mandate. "There is no way the courts can get through the existing backlog in five years with their current resources," Carrillo said.
Law enforcement groups have filed several friend-of-the-court briefs in favor of the initiative, arguing that voters have made their will clear. “California voters have elected to retain the death penalty every time the issue has been placed before them,” the leaders of several county prosecutor groups reminded the court in one brief.... “Despite the abiding and long-standing will of the voters, death penalty opponents have used the legal process as a mechanism to frustrate imposition of the death penalty,” the prosecutors argued in their brief.
Kent Scheidegger, who helped write Proposition 66, said the portrait of court chaos predicted by the bar associations and some analysts was overblown. Although the measure would require the California Supreme Court to move quickly to dispatch the backlog of capital appeals, the initiative would also shift initial responsibility for habeas challenges from the high court to trial judges, he noted. That provision, Scheidegger argued, would save the court time.
Rulings by Superior Court judges on those cases would likely be appealed to intermediate appellate courts and up to the state Supreme Court, but Scheidegger said the trial judges would do the heavy lifting. “I know that all judges hate time limits, but I do think that moving the habeas cases is a reform that most of the justices probably would agree with,” said Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates for the death penalty.
Even if the Supreme Court were to strike down the measure’s deadlines, other requirements of the initiative would still speed up executions, he said. He cited a provision that would limit public review of the state’s lethal injection method. Legal challenges involving the method have kept the execution chamber empty since 2006. Eighteen inmates who have exhausted their appeals could be executed immediately once that part of the initiative took effect, he said.
Former El Dorado County Supervisor Ron Briggs and the late former Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, who filed the lawsuit, argued that the entire measure should be tossed because it violated the rule limiting initiatives to a single subject. In addition to setting new deadlines and easing approval of an execution protocol, Proposition 66 would require death-row inmates to work to pay compensation to victims’ families and bar medical associations from disciplining doctors who participate in executions. It also would place a state agency assigned to represent death row inmates under California Supreme Court control and permit the corrections department to distribute condemned inmates among the general prison population.
I find so many interesting elements to this story, ranging from the telling reality that it has already taken five months to move along litigation about the status of an initiative designed to move along litigation to the interesting conflict created by state Supreme Court judges having to decide a case that will determine whether and how they have to decide a lot more cases a lot more quickly. In the end, though, this story confirms my long-standing belief that unless and until a lot of elected officials in California start having a very strong interest in moving forward with a large number of executions, the death penalty will exist in the state more as a sentence on paper than as a sentence that actually gets carried out for any significant number of condemned murderers.
Monday, April 03, 2017
"Race, Plea, and Charge Reduction: An Assessment of Racial Disparities in the Plea Process"
With the growing recognition of the salience of prosecutorial discretion, attention to biases in the earlier phases of case processing is increasing. Still, few studies have considered the influence of defendant race and race/sex within the plea process. The present study uses a sample of felony cases to assess the influence of race and race/sex on the mode of disposition, similarities and differences in the factors that predict the likelihood of a plea across race, and potential racial disparities in the plea value received pertaining to a charge reduction.
The findings suggest that blacks, and black males in particular, are less likely to plea, and are expected to receive a lower value for their plea. Also, the factors that predict the likelihood of a plea are substantively different across race. Conditioning effects of race and sex are found in the likelihood of a plea and probabilities of a charge reduction.
Supreme Court unanimously rules for defendant and district court sentencing discretion in Dean
I am intrigued and surprised and ultimately pleased that a unanimous Supreme Court this morning emphasized the significance of federal district court sentencing discretion through its ruling in Dean v. United States, No. 15-9260 (April 3, 2017) (available here). The Chief Justice authored a relatively brief opinion for the Court in Dean that was obviously convincing enough to get even the most pro-prosecution Justices comfortable with ruling against the prosecution. Here are some key parts of the opinion, starting with the first paragraph that signals where the rest is headed:
Congress has made it a separate offense to use or possess a firearm in connection with a violent or drug trafficking crime. 18 U. S. C. §924(c). That separate firearm offense carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for the first conviction and 25 years for a second. Those sentences must be in addition to and consecutive to the sentence for the underlying predicate offense. The question presented is whether, in calculating the sentence for the predicate offense, a judge must ignore the fact that the defendant will serve the mandatory minimums imposed under §924(c)....
The §3553(a) factors are used to set both the length of separate prison terms and an aggregate prison term comprising separate sentences for multiple counts of conviction. Under §3582 a court, “in determining whether to impose a term of imprisonment, and, if a term of imprisonment is to be imposed, in determining the length of the term, shall consider the factors set forth in section 3553(a).”...
As a general matter, the foregoing provisions permit a court imposing a sentence on one count of conviction to consider sentences imposed on other counts....
The Government speaks of Congress’s intent to prevent district courts from bottoming out sentences for predicate §924(c) offenses whenever they think a mandatory minimum under §924(c) is already punishment enough. But no such intent finds expression in the language of §924(c). That language simply requires any mandatory minimum under §924(c) to be imposed “in addition to” the sentence for the predicate offense, and to run consecutively to that sentence. Nothing in those requirements prevents a sentencing court from considering a mandatory minimum under §924(c) when calculating an appropriate sentence for the predicate offense.
Latest SCOTUS order list includes one complicated capital case grant
The Supreme Court via this order list granted cert in two cases, including a capital case out of Texas, Ayestas v. Davis. SCOTUSblog has this case page for Ayestas, where one can find this cert petition, where one can find the complicated question on which cert was granted:
2. Whether the Fifth Circuit erred in holding that 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f) withholds “reasonably necessary” resources to investigate and develop an IAC claim that state habeas counsel forfeited, where the claimant’s existing evidence does not meet the ultimate burden of proof at the time the § 3599(f) motion is made.
Charleston Church shooter Dylann Roof slated to plead guilty to state charges to avoid second capital trial
As reported in this local article, "mass killer Dylann Roof will plead guilty to state murder charges on April 10, sparing his nine victims' loved ones a second grueling death penalty trial and ensuring he spends the rest of his life in prison." Here is more:
Roof, 22, was convicted in January of 33 federal charges, including hate crimes, and sentenced to death for killing nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church. However, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson also was pursuing the death penalty for nine state murder charges, proceedings that had been on hold since the end of Roof's federal trial.
She let families of Roof's victims know early Friday she is accepting a guilty plea instead. "I write with great news that the state’s case is ready to wrap up. As I told you towards the end of trial and in other updates, at this point our goal is to provide an insurance policy to the federal conviction and sentence. The most effective way to do that is to secure a guilty plea for a life sentence and get the defendant into federal custody," Wilson wrote in a letter obtained by The Post and Courier.
Reached Friday, Wilson said the move will take the death penalty off the table in the state case and assist with moving the white supremacist along to federal prison. "The goal is to get him into federal custody so their sentence can be imposed," she said. She had no further comment on the decision, saying her letter speaks for itself.
After his April 10 plea, Roof likely will be moved from the Charleston County detention center to a federal Bureau of Prisons facility. Male prisoners sentenced to death usually are housed at a prison in Terre Haute, Ind., site of the federal execution chamber.
Loved ones of those killed have waited since the gut-wrenching federal trial's close to find out Wilson's plans. Many don't support the death penalty on religious grounds and several said they didn't want to go through a second trial.
The Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother died in the shooting, was among them. Wilson called to tell her the news. "I totally appreciated that," Risher said. "I'm feeling glad we don't have to endure another trial. I believe in my heart that this is the right thing to do. He won't ever be able to step outside again. He won't ever feel the sun on his skin again."
Sunday, April 02, 2017
"Briefing the Supreme Court: Promoting Science or Myth?"
The title of this post is the title of this new timely essay authored by Melissa Hamilton now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The United States Supreme Court is considering Packingham v. North Carolina, a case testing the constitutionality of a ban on the use of social networking sites by registered sex offenders. An issue that has arisen in the case is the state’s justification for the ban. North Carolina and thirteen other states represented in a friend of the court brief make three claims concerning the risk of registered sex offenders: (1) sex offenders have a notoriously high rate of sexual recidivism; (2) sex offenders are typically crossover offenders in having both adult and child victims; and (3) sexual predators commonly use social networking sites to lure children for sexual exploitation purposes. The collective states contend that these three claims are supported by scientific evidence and common sense. This Essay explores the reliability of the scientific studies cited in the briefings considering the heteregenous group of registered sex offenders to whom the social networking ban is targeted.
April 2, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Science, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)
Saturday, April 01, 2017
"Civilizing Criminal Settlements"
The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article authored by Russell Gold, Carissa Byrne Hessick and F. Andrew Hessick now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Most cases in the American legal system — civil and criminal — are resolved by settlement. Although settlements are the norm in both systems, the two systems facilitate settlements in very different ways. The criminal system promotes settlements by empowering prosecutors to make the price of going to trial and risking conviction intolerably high for defendants. This leverage enables prosecutors to force defendants to enter into plea bargains under terms largely dictated by the prosecutor. By contrast, instead of providing one party with disparate leverage, the civil system facilitates settlement through procedure. Some civil procedures directly encourage settlement, such as rules requiring alternative dispute resolution. Other procedures, such as summary judgment, promote settlement indirectly by requiring information exchanges, providing opportunities for neutral arbiters to express their views of the case, and focusing the parties’ attention on the material issues simultaneously. Consequently, the civil system seeks to push only the “right” cases to settle and produces more informed, fair settlements.
This Article argues that the criminal justice system should more closely resemble the civil system in the way that it encourages settlements. It identifies several procedures that should be imported into the criminal system to make settlements less the product of coercion and more the result of informed, voluntary bargaining between the parties. In particular, it contends that the criminal system should heighten pleading standards, take seriously motions to dismiss, adopt more liberal discovery, create motions for summary judgment, and allow judicial involvement in plea negotiation. Adopting these procedures would tend not only to produce more informed and more fair plea bargains, but also to reduce the prosecutor’s leverage in plea negotiations. The Article also suggests preventing prosecutors from exercising their remaining leverage to demand that defendants waive these procedures by adopting some form of fee-shifting, also borrowed from civil practice.
"Conservatives Are Leading the Way as States Enact Criminal Justice Reform"
The title of this post is the headline of this extended Slate commentary (which is not an April Fool's Day joke). The piece is authored by LawProf Brandon Garrett, and it carries this subheadline: "Can their enthusiasm stop Donald Trump from pushing his backward 'tough on crime' agenda?". Here are excerpts:
The United States incarcerates its citizens at a higher rate than any other country in the world, but over the past few years, there’s finally been some progress. Rates of incarceration have finally begun to decline, mostly due to sweeping changes made in progressive states like California, New Jersey, and New York. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, adult incarceration has declined 13 percent since its peak in 2007, from 1 in 100 to 1 in 115. Of course, this progress is threatened by Donald Trump and his administration: The president has not only promised to reinstate a long-outdated approach to criminal justice, he’s also made Jeff Sessions, who holds similarly antiquated views, his attorney general. The two of them are preparing a task force to study violent crime — despite the fact that it’s already at historic lows — and are aiming to focus resources on drug cartels and drug use. They seem determined to return the federal government to the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and 1990s, the height of the war on drugs.
But criminal justice reform is still marching forward—and the momentum is largely coming from conservatives, working in their state governments. The conservative case for reform is obvious: Spending billions of dollars on prison expansion and lengthy sentences is outdated and ineffective. And the state level is where reform will be the most effective — the majority of people are incarcerated in state systems. Reducing that number helps states balance their budgets, said Lenore Anderson, president of Alliance for Safety and Justice, a criminal justice reform organization that centers on crime victims. “Continued budget problems mean that regardless of who’s in the White House, [criminal justice] is going to continue to be a ripe issue for reform.”...
Texas is one of several red states, along with Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, that has adopted a range of progressive initiatives in the past decade. Texas’ reputation as a gung-ho death penalty state may make its reform efforts a surprise, but in the past decade, fiscal conservatives joined forces with civil libertarians and reduced the state’s incarceration rate by 14 percent. Part of that was thanks to forensic science and eyewitness identifications reforms that ended up putting fewer people behind bars. And rather than spend a half-billion dollars on building three new prisons, Texas instead invested in rehabilitation and re-entry, which has allowed it to close three prisons and saved billions. Crime has fallen to the lowest levels seen in Texas since 1968.
More than 30 other states have passed justice reinvestment legislation similar to Texas’. These laws divert low-level offenders from prison, use evidence-based risk methods to determine who really needs to be behind bars, reduce penalties for crimes, and aim to make it easier to get work after leaving prison. The cost savings from these reforms is then invested in rehabilitation and mental health and drug treatment, reducing crime even further....
But even with all this progress, a 10 percent to 20 percent drop in people going in won’t change the fact that our prisons are still vastly overstuffed — incarceration has risen 500 percent since the 1970s. Currently, more than half of the state prisoners in the country are serving time for violent crimes. Reducing prison populations to a manageable size must also include a closer look at how we legally define, prosecute, and punish violent crimes....
With Trump in charge, it’s possible that [some] will feel more empowered to push back against the progress that was starting to seem inevitable. The states that go back to this approach will likely see higher incarceration rates, and the costs — both human and fiscal — will fall on the public. But most lawmakers (not to mention the public) seem to have learned that these “tough” approaches failed in every way. We wasted billions to become the world’s leading incarceration nation. Such policies are simply an expensive and self-defeating type of posturing by politicians who value their own self-image over the well-being of the constituents. We already know what type of leader Trump is — let’s hope the state resistance is enough to fight him.
Though I support the sentiments of much of this commentary, I am disappointed that it fails to directly confront the tangible increase in violent crime over the last few years and the various ways in which this increase provides critical fodder for those eager to resist a move away from past "tough and tougher" approaches to crime and punishment. I surmise that AG Sessions and many of those around him sincerely believe crime remains low today only because of the laws, policies and practices of the "tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and 1990s," and these folks can and do now readily suggest that recent reforms to these laws, policies and practices may account in large part for recent crime increases. Past crime declines and now recent crime increases will likely lead these folks to persistently resist even the suggestion that a commitment to tough-and-tougher approaches is "self-defeating" in any way. In turn, they will contend that academics and other reformers are far too eager to put the interests of criminals ahead of victims.
Friday, March 31, 2017
New report spotlights concerns with disabilities and bad lawyering for eight Arkansas condemned scheduled for execution next month
In this post last year, I noted the initiative emerging from Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP). And, as regular readers now know, FPP is now regularly producing notable reports and research on the administration of various sentencing systems in various parts of the nation. The latest timely report from FPP is titled "Prisoners on Arkansas’s Execution List Defined By Mental Illness, Intellectual Disability, and Bad Lawyering," and here is how it gets started:
Since the Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in 1976, Arkansas has executed just 27 people. It has not sent an inmate to the death chamber since 2005. But beginning on April 17, Arkansas intends to execute an unprecedented eight men in just ten days.
This report examines the cases of those condemned men, and what we found is devastating. At least five of the eight cases involve a person who appears to suffer from a serious mental illness or intellectual impairment. One of these men was twenty at the time of the crime, suffered a serious head injury, and has a 70 IQ score. Another man suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and believes that he is on a mission from God. He sees both his deceased father and reincarnated dogs around the prison. A sixth condemned inmate endured shocking sexual and physical abuse–he was burned, beaten, stabbed, and raped, and his mother pimped him out to various adults throughout his preteen and teen years. In the two remaining cases, there is no evidence to suggest that the attorneys ever conducted even a minimally adequate mitigation investigation to determine if their clients had any illnesses or disabilities.
Across the eight cases, the quality of lawyering that we detected falls short of any reasonable standard of effectiveness–one lawyer was drunk in court, while another struggled with mental illness. Several of the lawyers missed deadlines, failed to visit their clients, and continued on a case despite the appearance of a conflict of interest. Taken together, these cases present a foundational challenge to the legitimacy and integrity of the death penalty in Arkansas. The Governor should declare a moratorium on executions so these legal deficiencies can be given a closer look, or else the Courts must intervene to stop these executions in order to preserve public confidence in the rule of law.
Perspectives on some changing prosecutorial perspectives
This New York Times article, headlined "Lock ’Em Up? Prosecutors Who Say ‘Not So Fast’ Face a Backlash," discusses the debate over a new local Florida prosecutor's announcement that she will not pursue capital cases together with the broader dynamic that more local prosecutors are running and winning on a criminal justice reform platform. (The companion piece briefly profiles "5 Prosecutors With a Fresh Approach.") Here are excerpts:
In Tampa, the top prosecutor says too many children are charged as adults. In Houston, the district attorney will no longer press charges in low-level marijuana cases. And in Chicago, prosecutors will no longer oppose the release of many nonviolent offenders who cannot afford to post bond. Two more newly elected prosecutors, in Denver and Orlando, have vowed not to seek the death penalty, even for the most egregious killers.
They are part of a new vanguard that has jettisoned the traditional lock-’em-up approach, instead winning over voters by embracing alternatives to harsh punishment. But in their eagerness to enact changes, some are facing a backlash from law enforcement groups and more conservative politicians.
In Texas, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, warned that failing to punish drug crimes would make Houston akin to a “sanctuary city” for illegal enterprise. In Chicago, a suburban police chief warned that a move to classify more shoplifting cases as misdemeanors was “a slippery slope.”
But nowhere has there been more vitriol than in Florida, where a battle over the death penalty shows just how volatile an issue capital punishment remains, especially when the death of a police officer is involved....
The new breed of prosecutors was helped into office by voters skeptical of wrongful convictions, mass incarceration and evidence of racial bias in law enforcement. As candidates, many received help from the liberal billionaire George Soros, who spent millions on campaigns in states including Arizona, Mississippi and Missouri. Of the 15 candidates supported by his political action committees (including one for sheriff), 12 were victors.
But some change-minded prosecutors won without Soros money, showing that attitudes across the country are changing regardless of outsize political contributions, said David A. Sklansky, a professor at Stanford Law School who closely follows the issue. “It’s now possible in at least some places for district attorneys to campaign successfully and win office on a platform that’s not just harsher, harsher, more, more punishment,” he said. “That was unheard-of 10 years ago.”
Bob Ferguson, the attorney general of Washington State, said, “I think our public’s view of our criminal justice system has evolved.” Speaking out against the death penalty, he added, “is not the third rail people think it is.”
Thursday, March 30, 2017
White House adviser Jared Kushner and Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley meet on federal criminal justice reform
This new AP article reports that "Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley met with White House adviser Jared Kushner about criminal justice reform Thursday, giving supporters a small sign of encouragement that the issue could be revived under President Donald Trump." Here is more context (but not much of substance) about the meeting:
[A reform] bill died in the Senate last year over conservative opposition, and its future has seemed unclear under Trump. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then a senator from Alabama, was a fierce opponent. Former President Barack Obama was an enthusiastic backer of the effort, and supporters were skeptical that Trump would be as well, since he had dubbed himself "law-and-order candidate" and talked about a country in crisis, with terrorism in big cities and attacks on police.
Grassley, R-Iowa, confirmed the meeting with Kushner, Trump's adviser and son-in-law, which was first reported by BuzzFeed News, but would not comment on its substance. The White House did not have immediate comment. On whether the bill could be revived, Grassley said, "We're trying to reach some accommodation, if there needs to be any adjustment to the bill we had last year."
An unusual coalition — including the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative Koch Industries — says the system is broken and supports changes. Grassley and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, were sponsors of the bill. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has also been a strong supporter of the effort.
Advocates were encouraged by the meeting. Holly Harris of the Justice Action Network said she is hopeful that lawmakers in Congress are paying attention to several successful state efforts to make similar changes. And given the bipartisan support, she said, it's legislation that has a real chance of passing. "Congress needs to prove it can accomplish something, and this is the perfect issue," she said.
I am disinclined to call this one meeting a sign that federal statutory sentencing reform is in the works again, but it is an encouraging developments nonetheless for those eager to see Congress do some more reform work in this space.