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May 18, 2024

"The Sense of an Ending"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay authored by Susan Bandes available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

One of the delights of shows like HBO's Succession is the virtual communal watch party they create, replete with competing interpretations and passionate predictions about plot development.  These conversations reveal some enduring truths about the power of narrative expectations, one of which is the tremendous importance we place on the delivery of a satisfying ending.  As the influential literary scholar Frank Kermode argued, “we cannot be denied an end, but it must be the right kind of ending.”  One of the fascinating aspects of Succession was the uncertainty about what kind of ending would be satisfying.  This uncertainty seems closely tied to the difficulty in pinning down the genre to which Succession belonged.

This Essay will first examine the notion of a satisfying ending as it applies to Succession.  It will argue that although Succession’s ending was, in some ways, letter-perfect, it was not — and could not be — emotionally satisfying. The emotionally impoverished ending was fitting, but dispiriting, and probably unavoidable given the particular generic traditions upon which Succession drew.  The Essay will then pose the question: What lessons can the notion of narrative closure — the need for a satisfying ending — convey about legal proceedings? We have grown accustomed to thinking about law as storytelling, but what insights can narrative theory impart about how law stories ought to end? In legal terms, to determine what constitutes a legally satisfying end point, we first must determine what the proceeding is meant to accomplish.  Legal finality may not track literary closure or psychological “closure;” and it is important to distinguish the dictates of the legal system from the impulses that drive finality and closure in other contexts.  I will illustrate this point with examples from death penalty jurisprudence, in which the question of an ending is unavoidable and takes several forms: finality of judgment, the notion of “closure” for bereaved family members, and the loss of life.

May 18, 2024 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

May 17, 2024

World's greatest (golf) driver gets (over?) charged for reckless driving on way to PGA Championship

I have been looking forward to spending my weekend mostly ignoring work while watching the PGA Championship to see if World No. 1 golfer Scottie Scheffler could secure the second leg of the Grand Slam after his impressive Masters victory last month.  But an unfortunate incident, as detailed in this Fox News story, now has me thinking about work in conjunction with Scheffler as I trying to figure out Kentucky criminal procedure and sentencing law.  Here are some particulars in a story that I still find stunning:

Scottie Scheffler ended Thursday within striking distance of the lead in hopes of winning the first PGA Championship of his career, but Friday got off to a rough start. Scheffler was arrested and charged after he allegedly failed to follow police orders as he was about to enter Valhalla Golf Course in Louisville, Kentucky, for the second round of the tournament. He released a statement before he teed off in the second round.

"This morning, I was proceeding as directed by police officers. It was a very chaotic situation, understandably so considering the tragic accident that had occurred earlier, and there was a big misunderstanding of what I thought I was being asked to do," he said. "I never intended to disregard any of the instructions. I’m hopeful to put this to the side and focus on golf today...."

ESPN reported that Scheffler drove past a police officer in his SUV with markings on the door indicating it was a PGA Championship vehicle. The officer screamed at him to stop and then attached himself to the car until Scheffler stopped his vehicle about 10 yards later. ESPN reporter Jeff Darlington characterized it as a "misunderstanding with traffic flow" as authorities were investigating a traffic fatality earlier in the morning.

"Scheffler was then walked over to the police car, placed in the back, in handcuffs, very stunned about what was happening, looked toward me as he was in those handcuffs and said, ‘Please help me,’" Darlington said on ESPN’s "SportsCenter." "He very clearly did not know what was happening in the situation. It moved very quickly, very rapidly, very aggressively."

Scheffler was booked into the Louisville Department of Corrections later Friday.  He was charged with second-degree assault of a police officer (a felony), criminal mischief, reckless driving and disregarding signals from an officer directing traffic. 

A police report said a detective was knocked down after Scheffler refused "to comply and accelerated forward." The detective was allegedly dragged to the ground and he suffered injuries to his wrist and knee." 

Scheffler’s attorney, Steve Romines, released a statement on the incident. "In the early hours of the morning in advance of his tee time Scottie was going to the course to begin his pre round preparation," he said, via Sports Illustrated. "Due to the combination of event traffic and a traffic fatality in the area it was a very chaotic situation He was proceeding as directed by another traffic officer and driving a marked player’s vehicle with credentials visible. In the confusion, Scottie is alleged to have disregarded a different officer’s traffic signals resulting in these charges. Multiple eyewitnesses have confirmed that he did not do anything wrong but was simply proceeding as directed. He stopped immediately upon being directed to and never at any point assaulted any officer with his vehicle. We will litigate this matter as needed and he will be completely exonerated."

Scheffler was coming off of four victories in the last five tournaments, including a second Masters title.  He was home in Dallas the last three weeks waiting for the birth of his first child, which occurred on May 8.  

I have already seen various conflicting reports about how Scheffler was driving, but even the worst version of the story leaves me puzzled by a felony second-degree assault charge which in Kentucky carries a prison term of five to ten years and requires intentionally or wantonly causing injury.  The other lesser charges seem potentially a bit more fitting, though this still sounds a lot more like an unfortunate misunderstanding than a criminal episode calling for multiple charges including a very serious felony count.  Given that a police officer was injured in this unfortunate incident, I can understand why it is being treated seriously.  But I would like to think a lot of matters can be treated seriously without the filing of multiple and serious criminal charges.

Even without knowing anything about criminal Kentucky criminal procedure and sentencing law, I am fairly confident that Scheffler and his lawyer(s) will get this matter straightened out relatively quickly.  (And, notably, as I write this post, Schefller is under par through his first five holes, so he seems to be coping well.)  But one always wonders about an array of collateral consequences from criminal justice involvement.  For example, this new article in its headline highlighted that Scheffler may have to worry about a unique kind of collateral consequence: "Paris Olympics: Will Scottie Scheffler be Denied Entry After Arrest Scandal?"

May 17, 2024 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sports, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (54)

May 16, 2024

"Trial Ambivalence"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Thea Johnson available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Much of the rhetoric about criminal justice reform posits that trials are good and pleas are bad.  Trials provide full, public adversarial process, while plea bargaining is secretive, coercive, and unfair.  As such, a thread of reform has emerged calling for more trials and fewer pleas.  As this Article argues, underlying these reform efforts is an unspoken ambivalence about trials among the very reformers who clamor for more of them.  This ambivalence stems from the often unacknowledged reality that many of the common harms associated with plea bargaining are frequently benefits when viewed through the lens of trial avoidance.

This ambivalence is not new.  Indeed, in its plea bargaining jurisprudence the Supreme Court has long demonstrated its own ambivalence about the American trial system, even while romanticizing the trial.  Modern-day criminal justice reformers often wax poetically about trials, while simultaneously resisting efforts to actually require more trials. The ambivalence unearthed here demonstrates how little legal stakeholders — lawyers, judges and reformers — trust the American jury process to produce just results.  As long as the romantic narrative of trials persists in tandem with this ambivalence, reform efforts may actually more deeply entrench plea bargaining.

May 16, 2024 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Texas Gov fulfils pledge to pardon man convicted of murdering BLM marcher and sentenced to 25 years

The Govenor of Texas issued a notable (and previously promised) clemency, as detailed in this local article.  Here are excerpts:

Daniel Perry, a former Army sergeant convicted of killing a Black Lives Matter protester in downtown Austin in 2020, was freed from prison Thursday within an hour of Gov. Greg Abbott signing a pardon proclamation in a case that triggered a political and legal firestorm.

In a series of rapid-fire developments in a less than two-hour span, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended that Perry be pardoned on the murder conviction.  Abbott then granted the full pardon to Perry, leading to his release from the Mac Stringfellow Unit in Rosharon, about 20 miles south of downtown Houston. Perry, 36 at the time of his April 2023 conviction, may also be able to apply to have his record expunged, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The board announced its recommendation to pardon Perry and restore his firearm rights in a statement posted on its website Thursday.  Its decision came after a "meticulous review of pertinent documents, from police reports to court records, witness statements, and interviews with individuals linked to the case," the statement said.

In July 2020, Perry shot and killed Garrett Foster after Perry drove into a racial justice protest on Congress Avenue. Perry claimed that he shot Foster, who was carrying an AK-47 rifle, in self-defense. During Perry’s trial last year, prosecutors argued that Perry had sought out confrontation.

"Texas has one of the strongest ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws of self-defense that cannot be nullified by a jury or a progressive District Attorney," Abbott said in a statement Thursday.  "I thank the Board for its thorough investigation, and I approve their pardon recommendation.” In a proclamation Thursday, Abbott took aim at Travis County District Attorney José Garza, writing that Garza "demonstrated unethical and biased misuse of his office in prosecuting Daniel Scott Perry."

Less than 24 hours after a jury in April 2023 found Perry guilty of murder, Abbott said on social media that he would approve a pardon if one were recommended by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. The announcement came after prominent conservative figures called on him to undo Perry's conviction. Shortly after Abbott’s announcement, a state district judge unsealed court records that contained Perry’s previously unreleased messages and social media posts, which contained racist rhetoric.

"Daniel Perry was imprisoned for 372 days and lost the military career that he loved," Doug O'Connell, an attorney who represents Perry, said in a statement. "The action by Governor Abbott and the Pardon Board corrects the courtroom travesty which occurred over a year ago and represents justice in this case. "I spoke to Daniel Perry this afternoon. He is thrilled and elated to be free. Daniel is also optimistic for his future."

Garza condemned the actions of the parole board and Abbott, writing in a statement that they have "put their politics over justice and made a mockery of our legal system."

Gov Abbott's proclamation is available at this link and his statement is at this link; the pardon board's statement is available at this link.

Prior related posts:

May 16, 2024 in Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (18)

Notable (below-guideline) sentence for key anti-abortion activist after trial conviction

As reported in this Washington Post article, a "30-year-old antiabortion activist who kept fetuses in a Capitol Hill home was sentenced Tuesday to nearly five years in prison for illegally blockading and breaking into a reproductive health clinic in D.C." Here is more about a number of sentencings in this case:

Lauren Handy, of Alexandria, Va., received a 57-month term and became the first person to be sentenced for the combination of conspiring to violate reproductive health rights under a federal civil rights law and violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, a 1994 law that prohibits threats to and obstruction of a person seeking reproductive health services or providers....

Handy, convicted by a jury last year, was charged along with nine others after the group launched an antiabortion blockade at the Washington Surgi-Clinic in 2020.  Handy’s was the first of four clinic-access cases pending trial or sentencing around the country in which the Justice Department under the Biden administration has charged defendants with obstructing clinic access in combination with a conspiracy against rights — a civil rights law passed after the Civil War that makes it punishable by up to 10 years in prison to “conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person” exercising a constitutional or legal right. Violations of the 1994 clinic access law alone are punishable by up to a one-year prison term.

Handy gained additional notoriety when, on the same day a federal indictment was announced against the defendants, D.C. police discovered five fetuses in a Capitol Hill rowhouse basement where she had been staying. The criminal trial, however, had nothing to do with the fetuses that antiabortion activists say they collected from outside the same D.C. abortion clinic, and authorities have not charged anyone in that matter.

Handy and co-conspirators live-streamed a preplanned “lock-and-block” blockade that used force and physical obstructions to shut down the D.C. clinic on Oct. 22, 2020, Kollar-Kotelly said in summarizing trial evidence. Prosecutors said Handy was the leader of the group that orchestrated the blockade and recruited participants, arranged lodging and used a fake name to book an appointment. A nurse was injured and patients were traumatized in the incursion, including two women who begged to enter for treatment and one who suffered a medical emergency, the judge said.

“It was not peaceful, and it was not contemplated to be peaceful,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sanjay Patel argued in a 90-minute sentencing hearing. The government sought a sentence at the high end of a 63- to 78-month range recommended by federal guidelines — up to 6½ years — based on Handy’s leadership role, obstructive conduct, the violence and victims in the case.

Prosecutors called her “an active antiabortion extremist” who has organized clinic blockades around the country, resulting in four convictions for which she was sentenced up to 45 days in jail, with all terms suspended or pending appeal. Patel also cited the need for deterrence, saying that without a stiffer punishment “the purpose of sentencing may be lost on this defendant.”

Also sentenced Tuesday with Handy were John Hinshaw, 69, of Levittown, N.Y., who received 21 months of incarceration; and William Goodman, 54, of the Bronx, who was sentenced to 27 months....

Defense attorney Martin A. Cannon cited more than nine letters of support for Handy and likened her actions to those of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, saying she “did not act out of self-interest, but … at her own peril,” in good faith and out of conscience.  Cannon said Handy was a peaceful, kindhearted person with a history of philanthropic work in Haiti and on behalf of homeless people who was “trying to save babies from being killed.”  He continued, “Lauren did nothing on her own that was violent or forceful.  She did not, I submit, anticipate any of the force that resulted.”

Kollar-Kotelly said that to the contrary, the evidence showed that Handy and her co-plotters planned to push their way into the clinic, and fretted beforehand over possible use of violence.  She said the case was “not a referendum on abortion, but violation of civil rights” of patients and medical practitioners.

The judge concluded that while Handy and her co-conspirators were entitled to have “very strong views about abortion,” she found it disheartening that they “showed no compassion or empathy to women patients who were human beings in pain and seeking medical care.”

Handy and seven co-defendants, including Idoni and Geraghty, were found guilty on all counts in two federal jury trials in August and September.  Another was convicted at a bench trial before a judge in November, and one pleaded guilty. The man who pleaded guilty, Jay Smith, 32, of Freeport, N.Y., received 10 months last year after pushing a nurse who fell and suffered an ankle injury in the blockade.  The remaining six will be sentenced later this month.

Kollar-Kotelly noted that other civil rights conspiracy cases involving the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act are pending in Tennessee, Michigan and Florida. Because no one else has been sentenced under the laws in combination, she said she relied on federal sentencing guidelines for the alleged and convicted conduct.

I have not followed these cases closely, so I may not have the facts right, but this certainly seems to be another situation involving a trial penalty.  Handy, who seemngly did not directly commit any violence, gets almost 5 years in prison after exercising her tiral rights; Smith, who injured a nurse, is sentenced to only 10 months after pleading guilty.  Handy does seem to have some aggravating history and a leadership role, so the differential here may be the result of various other factors.  But still, based on the facts reported here, I am not sure other facts really full account for Handy getting a sentence nearly six times longer.

May 16, 2024 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (21)

May 15, 2024

"Victims as Fact-Finders"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Emily Spottswood now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This article critiques the common practice of excluding crime victims from serving as jurors in criminal cases.  Although systematic data on the voir dire process are hard to come by, both case research and empirical evidence suggest that judges routinely permit questioning of potential jurors regarding their victimization status, and that high percentages of both judges and attorneys consider victimization status a proper basis for exclusion.

The practice of victim-exclusion causes serious harms.  Excluding victims undermines the jury’s legitimacy as an institution and sends corrosive social messages regarding the status of victims in our society.  Nor are these harms offset by any increase in accuracy we might obtain by avoiding supposedly biased jurors.  Rather, victims’ unfortunate experiences can sharpen their ability to delineate true from false accusations.  Finally, there is no sound justification for assuming that victims’ degree of empathy for other victims is improper, relative to people who have not been victimized. Instead, victims’ participation should offset the troubling reluctance of people without such experiences to credit victims’ testimony and hold abusers to account.

May 15, 2024 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sentencing Project releases new report on "The Second Look Movement"

The Sentencing Project today released this new report fully titled "The Second Look Movement: A Review of the Nation’s Sentence Review Laws."  Here is the start of its executive summary:

Today, there are nearly two million people in American prisons and jails -- a 500% increase over the last 50 years. In 2020, over 200,000 people in U.S. prisons were serving life sentences -- more people than were in prison with any sentence in 1970.  Nearly one-third of people serving life sentences are 55 or older, amounting to over 60,000 people. People of color, particularly Black Americans, are represented at a higher rate among those serving lengthy and extreme sentences than among the total prison population.

Harsh sentencing policies, such as lengthy mandatory minimum sentences, have produced an aging prison population in the United States.  But research has established that lengthy sentences do not have a significant deterrent effect on crime and divert resources from effective public safety programs. Most criminal careers are under 10 years, and as people age, they usually desist from crime.  Existing parole systems are ineffective at curtailing excessive sentences in most states, due to their highly discretionary nature, lack of due process and oversight, and lack of objective consideration standards.  Consequently, legislators and the courts are looking to judicial review as a more effective means to reconsider an incarcerated person’s sentence in order to assess their fitness to reenter society.  A judicial review mechanism also provides the opportunity to evaluate whether sentences imposed decades ago remain just under current sentencing policies and public sentiment.

Legislation authorizing judges to review sentences after a person has served a lengthy period of time has been referred to as a second-look law and more colloquially as “sentence review.”

This report presents the evolution of the second look movement, which started with ensuring compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Graham v. Florida (2010) and Miller v. Alabama (2012) on the constitutionality of juvenile life without parole (“JLWOP”) sentences. This reform has more recently expanded to other types of sentences and populations, such as other excessive sentences imposed on youth, and emerging adults sentenced to life without parole (“LWOP”).  Currently, legislatures in 12 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government have enacted a second look judicial review beyond opportunities provided to those with JLWOP sentences, and courts in at least 15 states determined that other lengthy sentences such as LWOP or term-of-years sentences were unconstitutional under Graham or Miller.

May 15, 2024 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

"Crimes of Violence and Violent Crime"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Erin Blondel available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Why can’t federal law define crimes of violence? Major federal statutes turn on whether someone was convicted of a violent crime.  But judges and scholars widely agree that the law defining violence is “chaos.”  This Article treats the problem as one of statutory design and construction.  What’s a violent crime is a context-specific judgment call — the kind the law usually adjudicates factually, through criminal prosecutions.  In other words, it’s a standard.  But the Supreme Court has increasingly treated violence as a rule, stripping factual information and interpretive flexibility that might help federal judges judge crimes.

Predicate statutes like the violence definitions are hardly unusual, however, and most have operated smoothly, without mass confusion.  They differ from federal violence law by using simpler, rule-friendly criteria.  They typically list qualifying crimes, and courts interpret criteria more flexibly, leaving some room for facts and interpretation.  That experience shows that federal law is fixable.  Congress should return to listing violent crimes, as it did before the 1980s.  And the Supreme Court should scrap its rigid interpretive rules and give federal judges more flexibility to judge violence sensibly.

The federal experience defining violence offers a case study in the classic rules-versus-standards debate and the problem with treating standards as rules.  And it contradicts a favored proposal among leading criminal law scholars and some jurists to make crime definitions more precise — more rule-like — to constrain prosecutorial discretion. Crimes are standards, and discretion is necessary to interpret them across thousands of unpredictable fact patterns. Prosecutorial discretion, in other words, is not just enforcement discretion but interpretive discretion.  Criminal procedure constrains that discretion by distributing it across many interpreters — law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants, judges, and juries — within a broader network of laws, procedures, policies, and norms.  Longstanding debates in rules versus standards largely ignores this sort of “distributed distraction,” but it helps make discretionary judgments like violence — and crime — make sense.

May 15, 2024 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

May 14, 2024

Tennessee now second state to allow death penalty for child rape since SCOTUS prohibition

I noted last month in this post that the Tennessee legislature has passed a bill authorizing the death penalty for those convicted of rape of a child.  This new AP piece reports that this bill is now law:

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has approved legislation allowing the death penalty in child rape convictions, a change the Republican-controlled Statehouse championed amid concerns that the U.S. Supreme Court has banned capital punishment in such cases. Lee, a Republican, quietly signed off on the legislation last week without issuing a statement.

The new Tennessee law, which goes into effect July 1, authorizes the state to pursue capital punishment when an adult is convicted of aggravated rape of a child.  Those convicted could be sentenced to death, imprisonment for life without possibility of parole, or imprisonment for life.

Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis enacted a similar bill nearly a year ago....  Meanwhile, Idaho’s GOP-controlled House approved similar legislation earlier this year, but the proposal eventually stalled in the similarly Republican-dominated Senate.

While many supporters of Tennessee’s version have conceded that even though the Volunteer State previously allowed convicted child rapists to face the death penalty, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately nullified that law with its 2008 decision deeming it unconstitutional to use capital punishment in child sexual battery cases.

However, they hope the conservative-controlled Supreme Court will reverse that ruling — pointing to the decades long effort that it took to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that legalized abortion nationwide but was eventually overruled in 2022.  “Maybe the atmosphere is different on the Supreme Court,” said Republican Sen. Janice Bowling last month while debating in favor of the law. “We’re simply challenging a ruling.”

Lee told reporters Tuesday that he didn’t sign the bill hoping it would be “tested” in court.  Instead, he said crimes against children are “some of the most heinous that there are.”...

Currently, all executions in Tennessee are on hold as state officials review changes to its lethal injection process.

Prior related posts:

May 14, 2024 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (19)

New Death Penalty Information Center report presents racialized view of Ohio's capital punishment history

The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) today published this new report on Ohio capital punishment history titled "Broken Promises: How a History of Racial Violence and Bias Shaped Ohio’s Death Penalty." In this press release about the report, DPIC asserts that it "does not take a position on the death penalty itself," but all of its work clearly draws from an anti-capital punishment perspective.  This report is quite critical of Ohio's capital punishment history and current state as reflected in this description of the report from portions of the press release:

As Ohio legislators debate expanding or repealing the death penalty, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) today released a report that documents how racial bias and violence affected the past use of the death penalty in Ohio and how that history continues to influence the current administration of capital punishment in the state.  None of the reforms recommended by a bipartisan task force 10 years ago to reduce racial disparities in capital cases have been adopted.

The report, “Broken Promises: How A History of Racial Violence and Bias Shaped Ohio’s Death Penalty” and “Five Facts You Should Know About Ohio’s Death Penalty” are available at this link....

As the report documents, racial discrimination is the throughline that runs from the state’s founding to its application of capital punishment today.  For example, from the early 19th century, Ohio’s Black Laws imposed legal restrictions on the rights and status of Black people in the state, including barring Black people from jury service.  In 1807, Ohio adopted a “Negro Evidence Law” which prohibited Black people from testifying against white people, establishing a legal double standard.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, lynch mobs tortured and killed Black men after accusing them of raping white women without evidence.  Even when photos were taken in broad daylight of lynch mob participants, they rarely faced legal consequences for these extrajudicial murders.

As the report reveals, race, especially the race of the victim, continues to play an outsized role in Ohio’s death penalty system.  For example, homicides involving white female victims are six times more likely to result in execution compared to those involving Black male victims, despite the majority of murder victims in the state being Black. Similarly, a study of aggravated murder charges in Hamilton County shows that prosecutors are four and a half times more likely to seek the death penalty if there is at least one white victim, compared to similar cases without white victims....

“Broken Promises” builds upon DPIC’s 2020 report, “Enduring Injustice: The Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty.” It is the fourth in a series of reports detailing how individual state histories of racial injustice affect the current use of capital punishment. In 2023, DPIC released “Doomed to Repeat: The Legacy of Race in Tennessee’s Contemporary Death Penalty” and “Compromised Justice: How A Legacy of Racial Violence Informs Missouri’s Death Penalty Today.” In 2022, DPIC released “Deeply Rooted: How Racial History Informs Oklahoma’s Death Penalty.

May 14, 2024 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (26)

A (timely?) round up of some commentary on Culley v Marshall

Last Thursday, as noted in this post, the US Supreme Court in Culley v. Marshall rejected certain challenges to Alabama's civil forfeiture proceedings, holding that the "Constitution requires a timely forfeiture hearing; the Constitution does not also require a separate preliminary hearing."  Though a notable concurrence by Justice Gorsuch (joined by Justice Thomas) and a notable dissent by Justice Sotomayor (joined by Justices Kagan and Jackson) raised a bunch of notable policy concerns with civil forfeiture practices, I find the Court's opinon generally sound.  And I figured I would roung up a few commentaries on the Court's work with a range of views:

From Adam's Legal Newsletter, "In praise of robotic judging: The Supreme Court mindlessly and correctly decides Culley v. Marshall"

From Crime and Consequences, "Forfeitures: Govt. Win in SCOTUS with a Warning"

From The Federalist Society, "An Observation About Culley v. Marshall"

From Law Dork, "Civil asset forfeiture is on notice — but came out unscathed at SCOTUS for now"

From the Volokh Conspiracy, "Supreme Court Issues Flawed Ruling in Asset Forfeiture Case"

As some of these commentaries note, the separate opinions in Culley seem to signal there are at least five Justices prepared to take up other cases, in the words of Justice Gorsuch, to explore whether "contemporary civil forfeiture practices can be squared with the Constitution’s promise of due process."  But I was struck that the fact of the cases from Alabama before SCOTUS this time included what seemed to be significant procedural failings from the petitioners; as the Court's opinion stressed, "Culley and Sutton do not challenge the timeliness of their forfeiture hearings."   When persons do not make good use of the state processes provided, it is always going to be hard to thereafter prevail on claims that these processes were not "due."

May 14, 2024 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

May 13, 2024

Calling once more for papers: Federal Sentencing Reporter issue on "Booker at 20"

M_fsr.2024.36.4.coverIn this prior post, I set out the full call for papers for a forthcoming issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter in which we plans to note (and celebrate? criticize?) the federal sentencing system's 20 years of functioning under the rules created by the Supreme Court's ruling in Booker.  I previously threatened to repost this call every few weeks until the deadline tard the near end of May, so a mid-May re-post on a Monday seems like good timing.  I will forego all the background about Booker in this reminder call and be content with these shortened specifics:

Nearly 20 years have passed since Booker, and the editors of the Federal Sentencing Reporter are eager to invite judges, lawyers, other sentencing practitioners, legal academics, and sentencing researchers, to share thoughts on “Booker at 20” for publication in an early 2025 FSR issue.  FSR commentaries for this issue could tackle foundational issues (such as the Court’s ruling in Booker and follow-up cases), discrete application issues (such as why certain advisory guidelines are more likely to be followed or ignored), institutional concerns (such as how Congress and the Commission and the Justice Department have responded to Booker), or any other topic of interest or concern to modern federal sentencing policy and practice.  FSR welcomes commentaries from all perspectives, including insights from sentencing experiences (with or without guidelines) in the states and other countries.  Everyone with an informed interest in sentencing law and practice is encouraged to submit a commentary.

FSR articles are typically brief — 2000 to 5000 words, though they can run longer — with relatively light use of citations.  The pieces are designed to be read by busy stakeholders, including lawyers, judges, scholars, and legislators (as well as, of course, members and staff of the US Sentencing Commission).  Priority will be given to drafts submitted by May 28, 2024, and later submissions will be considered as space permits.  Submissions should be sent electronically to [email protected] with a clear indication of the author and the author’s professional affiliation.

May 13, 2024 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits | Permalink | Comments (0)

Might Justice Alito be a frequent vote for certain criminal defendants on the Supreme Court this term?

GNYo66-WgAA9ul7The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new NBC News article headlined "Trump, gun owners and Jan. 6 rioters: Tough-on-crime Justice Alito displays empathy for some criminal defendants."   In a post here last year about articles discussing Justice Alito's jurisprudence, I flagged this 2017 empirical article noting Justice Alito had not once voted in favor a Fourth Amendment litigant in a divided case and explained I could not think of any criminal justice arena in which Justice Alito could be expected to vote for a criminal defendant.  But, as the NBC News article highlights, it seems that the current SCOTUS Term has brought criminal defendants to the Court that seem to be more to Justice Alito's liking.  Here are excerpts from a piece that should be read in full:

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito, a former U.S. attorney with a long history of voting in favor of prosecutors, has shown signs of empathy for defendants in recent cases involving gun owners, Jan 6. rioters and former President Donald Trump.

Alito, appointed in 2006 by Republican President George W. Bush, has a reputation for being the justice on the court most hostile to criminal defendants. Earlier in his career, he was a U.S. attorney in New Jersey and held several other positions in the Justice Department.

He sides with defendants less frequently than any of his eight colleagues, according to numbers crunched by Lee Epstein, a political scientist at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.

But in several recent oral arguments in some of the most contentious cases currently before the court, Alito has notably raised questions about the Justice Department’s decisions to prosecute certain cases, expressed sympathy for Trump’s argument that former presidents should be immune from prosecution, and aired concerns about gun owners being charged. Rulings in all the cases are due by the end of June....

Alito was among several justices who questioned the Justice Department’s use of an obstruction statute to prosecute people involved in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. He suggested that if the court allows it to apply to Jan. 6 defendants, prosecutors could also seek to use it against people involved in peaceful demonstrations, such as those that take place in the courtroom from time to time.

In another case on a federal ban on gun accessories called “bump stocks” that allow a semiautomatic rifle to file more quickly, Alito said it would be “disturbing” for people to be prosecuted for owning them when lower courts have questioned the ban’s lawfulness, even if the Supreme Court ultimately upholds it.

Alito also appeared concerned in a separate gun case about the due process rights of gun owners who face having to give up their firearms, and risk prosecution if they don’t, when accused of domestic violence.... At one point, he even cited a friend-of-the-court brief filed by lawyers in California who represent criminal defendants.

The fascinating (and unurprising) graph of voting patterns in criminal cases reprinted here comes the NBC News piece and is based on Epstein's data. Though quite interesting and justifying a focus Justice Alito's apparent affinity for certain criminal defendants this term, I also expect we will see a number of the Justices who are generally much more likley to vote for criminal defendants to be much more pro-prosecution in particular cases this term.  Put simply, certain types of cases and defendants change the political valence of certain criminal justice issues, and we really should not be all that surprised when they also change the views and votes of at least some judges and Justices.

May 13, 2024 in Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (47)

Notable dissent from denial of cert in Texas capital case concerning jury selection process

The Supreme Court this morning issued yet another order list which did not grant review in any cases.  But the list is conclude with a notable six-page dissent from the denial of cert authored by Justice Jackson and joined by Justice Sotomayor in a capital case, Sandoval v. Texas.  Here is how the dissent gets started:

Criminal defendants have a “fundamental righ[t]” “to personal presence at all critical stages of the trial.”  Rushen v. Spain, 464 U.S. 114, 117 (1983) (per curiam).  We have long held that voir dire — the moment that “represents jurors’ first introduction” to the facts of a case — is one such stage.  Gomez v. United States, 490 U.S. 858, 873–874 (1989).  In this capital case, however, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) determined that a defendant had no due process right to attend “special venire” proceedings held prior to voir dire, during which a judge preevaluated potential jurors who were summonsed specifically for that case and given information about the defendant and the allegations against him.  The TCCA’s ruling raises a significant and certworthy question about whether criminal defendants have a due process right to be present in such circumstances.  In my view, the answer is yes, and this Court should have granted the petition for certiorari to furnish that important holding.

May 13, 2024 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (20)

May 12, 2024

New US Sentencing Commission data on retroactive application of criminal history amendments

Last year, US Sentencing Commission voted for (delayed) retroactive application of its Guideline amendments relating to criminal history.  There were two major parts to these amendment that reduced the sentencing range for certain defendants with "status" points (Part A) and for other defendants who would now be deemed "zero-point" offenders (Part B).   And last week, the Commission release some new data on how retroactivity is playing out in district courts.  Here are links to the USSC's data reports:

NEW Retroactivity Data on Part A

NEW Retroactivity Data on Part B

There are lots of interesting little stories in these data runs, but I figured I might  here highlight the top-line numbers. Specifically, for the Part A "status point" amendment, a total of 2,988 defendants have received sentence reductions averaging 10 months.  For the Part B "zero point" amendment, a total of 2,143 defendants have receive sentence reductions averaging 13 months.

Adding this up, we get at total of 57,738 months of reduced federal prison time (which is a little over 4800 years of imprisonment for those not great at dividing by 12).  Given that the average annual cost of federal incarceration is over $42,000, we might reasonably calculate a savings of over $200 million to US taxpayers resulting from the Commission's decision to make its new criminal history guidelines retoractive.

I presume future retroactivity data runs will report in some more defendants getting reductions under the new guidelines, and I also expect other data will also show a significant number of newly sentenced defendants also benefiting from these new criminal history guidelines.  And especially since there were built on the USSC's copious revidivism data, I am hopeful that there reduction do not come at any real public safety costs. 

May 12, 2024 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)