Category Archives: Editorials/Opinion

Mississippi Supreme Court Overturns Conviction Involving Steven Hayne, Shaken Baby Syndrome

We’ve posted previously about Dr. Steven Hayne here.  Hayne was the now-discredited, long-time medical examiner for the state of Mississippi; notorious for his questionable forensic testimony.

Dr. Hayne’s cases keep unraveling; however, this case does not center specifically on Hayne’s credibility, but rather on the defendant’s being denied the ability to hire an expert to challenge Hayne’s credibility in court.

See the story by Radley Balko of the Washington Post here.

A Word About Conviction Integrity Units

There has been a reasonable amount of fanfare recently about the establishment of “conviction integrity units.”  See Mark Godsey’s December 11 WCB post, “Center for Prosecutor Integrity Surveys Rise of Conviction Integrity Units”, here.

We can do nothing but applaud these efforts, but there is one aspect of these units that troubles me.  They are all totally contained within the prosecutor’s office.  Does anyone else think this presents an inherent conflict of interest?  My suspicion is that, because of increasing publicity about wrongful convictions, prosecutors are establishing these things to politically bolster their public image. Call me cynical – and we should welcome every step toward true justice – but I tend to see a fox guarding the hen house and a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  Is there any requirement that all proceedings of these units be public record?

My belief is that the model for how these units should be set up is the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, which has been in operation since 2007.  What I think is notable here is the composition of the commission: the members include a Superior Court Judge, a Prosecuting Attorney, a Defense Attorney, a Victim Advocate, a Member of the Public, a Sheriff, and two Discretionary members.  This shows a reasoned effort to endow the commission with objectivity.

In a very recent development, the Innocence Project of New Orleans has announced that it is partnering with the Orleans district attorney’s office to establish a joint “conviction review project.” See the IPNO announcement here. This is a big deal, and will bear watching.

Texas Will Execute Scott Panetti Tomorrow

Unless the courts intervene, Texas tomorrow will execute a severely mentally ill man, Scott Panetti. If that happens, Execution Watch will broadcast coverage and analysis of the state killing, which has drawn international condemnation.

RADIO SHOW:  Execution Watch, Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014, 6-7 PM Central. Unless a stay is issued, we’ll broadcast live on:  KPFT FM, Houston 90.1, and Online, http://executionwatch.org > Listen

 TEXAS PLANS TO EXECUTE SCOTT PANETTI, brother of Execution Watch theme-song composer and performer Victoria Panetti. He was convicted in the slaying of his in-laws in Fredericksburg, Texas. Panetti, who suffers from schizophrenia, told police his alter ego, Sarge, committed the slayings. A previous execution date was put off by the U.S. Supreme Court, though the justices refused last month to hear his latest appeal. Panetti was allowed to represent himself at trial, wearing a purple cowboy outfit and calling witnesses including John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ.

You may want to read the CNN story by Ron Powers, The Atrocity of Texas Killing a Mentally Ill Man, here.

You can also read the TIME article by Josh Sanburn here.

And the HuffPost story by Amanda Terkel here.

Plea Bargaining – An Effective Tool for Prosecutorial Abuse of Power

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                                                                                                        (Graphic:  The Veritas Initiative)

 

“97 percent of federal convictions and 94 percent of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas.” (USSC, Missouri vs. Frye, 2012)

Think about that for a minute — 19 out of 20 criminal cases never-go-to-trial.

These cases are disposed of through a guilty plea that resulted from a plea agreement.  The defendant never gets a trial, and goes directly to jail.

It’s called “plea bargaining,” but there is little-to-no actual bargaining that takes place.  A plea offer can be made even before the case goes to a grand jury, and the defendant has no idea how strong, or weak, the prosecutor’s case might be. The prosecutor has a very, very long list of often-overlapping charges to pick from that can be “stacked” to build a breathtakingly long anticipated sentence, which he can use to “bargain” (read threaten) with the defendant.  And the ability to “stack” is further augmented for charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences.  It’s pretty much a “take it or leave it” deal.  The ONLY bargaining power the defendant has is to refuse the plea offer, forcing the prosecutor to take the case to trial.  This is the genesis of the so-called “trial penalty,” which has been well covered on this blog here and here.  The defendant can take whatever the prosecutor offers, or expose himself to an exceedingly long sentence at trial.

In accepting a plea agreement, the defendant obviously gives up his constitutional right to a jury trial, but he may also have to give up his right to appeal, or to file civil suit, or to even talk about the case.  And then once convicted of a felony, there is a whole list of other collateral consequences as well.

Amelia Whaley is a JD candidate at the Duke University School of Law.  While working as an intern for the Center for Prosecutor Integrity, she wrote a paper summarizing the practice of plea bargaining as it exists today in the US.  I think it is just excellent, and is the best overall synopsis of plea bargaining I have seen. If you want to understand what plea bargaining is all about, and how it really works, please read Ms. Whaley’s paper here:  Plea Agreements – Whaley.

If you’re interested in a little further reading, this article by Timothy Lynch at the Cato Institute, Cato – Plea Bargains, covers the 1978 US Supreme Court case (Bordenkircher v. Hayes) that established the precedent for plea bargaining – a case in which a man wound up in prison for life – for passing a bad $88 check.

Is Texas Going to Execute Another Innocent Person?

If you have been paying attention at all, you know that the Texas death penalty machine has been operating at full tilt – 508 executions since 1982, with 16 in just 2013.  This includes the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, and it had become abundantly clear, even before his execution, that Willingham was actually innocent.

Texas is now getting ready to execute Rodney Reed for a murder that it is likely somebody else committed.  This could be confirmed by simple DNA testing of items from the crime scene, and has been requested by his attorney and The Innocence Project.  But the state of Texas has steadfastly refused to do the testing, and in a hearing held just last Tuesday, a Texas judge has ruled that no further DNA testing is warranted.  See the report on that hearing by The Intercept here.

CNN has posted a story by Dan Simon about the case, and you can read that story here.

This from the CNN story:

“Why on earth, one wonders, would Texas battle fiercely against conducting the testing? Would it be naive to propose the state should welcome it?

The answer cannot be the meager costs of running the tests or the negligible time they would take to run. Nor could the state claim to be acting out of respect for the victim’s loved ones — a dubious justification from the outset — given that numerous members of her (the victim’s) family are campaigning publicly on Reed’s behalf.

The best explanation for the state’s aversion to the testing may be the dread of learning the truth. The prospect of finding that Reed is innocent would deliver a resounding condemnation of the state’s criminal justice process — its detectives, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, jurors and appellate courts.”

There is significant case detail in the original story by The Intercept, which you can read here.

The Marshall Project – Journalism for Justice

It’s been my belief that the media have done a “pretty good” job of making us aware of some of the flaws in the justice system   Just as an example, I believe their coverage of exonerations has been quite good.  But I also believe that one of the major obstacles to justice system reform is that the typical John and Jane Q. Public (aka: the electorate) are of the opinion that the justice system is just fine the way it is. Now there is a new group, with a new website, that is dedicated to seeing that journalism is perhaps even more active in addressing the issues with the justice system. This is The Marshall Project.

The Marshall Project’s mission statement speaks for itself, and appears below. (The bolding emphasis is mine.)

Mission Statement

The Marshall Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization founded on two simple ideas:

1) There is a pressing national need for high-quality journalism about the American criminal justice system. The U.S. incarcerates more people than any country in the world. Spiraling costs, inhumane prison conditions, controversial drug laws, and concerns about systemic racial bias have contributed to a growing bipartisan consensus that our criminal justice system is in desperate need of reform.  The recent disruption in traditional media means that fewer institutions have the resources to take on complex issues such as criminal justice. The Marshall Project stands out against this landscape by investing in journalism on all aspects of our justice system. Our work will be shaped by accuracy, fairness, independence, and impartiality, with an emphasis on stories that have been underreported or misunderstood. We will partner with a broad array of media organizations to magnify our message, and our innovative website will serve as a dynamic hub for the most significant news and comment from the world of criminal justice.

2) With the growing awareness of the system’s failings, now is an opportune moment to amplify the national conversation about criminal justice. We believe that storytelling can be a powerful agent of social change. Our mission is to raise public awareness around issues of criminal justice and the possibility for reform. But while we are nonpartisan, we are not neutral. Our hope is that by bringing transparency to the systemic problems that plague our courts and prisons, we can help stimulate a national conversation about how best to reform our system of crime and punishment.

We certainly welcome their contribution, and I look forward to following them.

 

Ohio and California: Convictions Overturned after Record-Long Wrongful Incarcerations

It has been a remarkable week for Innocence work, and this is only Wednesday.

Yesterday, November 18, Ricky Jackson’s murder conviction was vacated in Ohio after Jackson had spent 39 years in prison. Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty acknowledged the case against Jackson had disintegrated when the key witness, who was 12 years old at the time of the crime, recanted. The district attorney does not expect to retry Jackson, 57, who broke into sobs as it became clear that the charges against him were being dropped. He is expected to walk free on Friday. Continue reading