Monday Quick Clicks…

Dog Scent Arson Detection – and Charging

pointerWe’ve posted before about “dog scent lineups.”  See those posts here and  here.  They’ve been called “the worst of the junk sciences.”

I can do naught but shake my head.  I thought we had seen the last of it, but this stuff is still going on. In Maricopa County, AZ, not one, but two, people were charged with setting their own houses on fire, based upon bogus dog scent evidence which was solely the result of unethical conduct by the Phoenix Fire Department investigators involved. An independent, professional fire investigator confirmed without question that the fires were NOT arson.  The charges against both were eventually dismissed, but not before one of them spent 16 months in jail.

See the Inside Edition story here … it should make you angry.

And here’s the kicker.  Despite the recommendation of six felony charges, the prosecutor declined to bring any charges against the dishonest fire department employees, and they are both still employed by the department.

Looks like the “good ol’ boy” network is alive and well in Maricopa County.

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

Why a Wrongful Conviction is Like a Plane Crash – or Should Be

The civil aviation system and the justice system are two ubiquitous systems on which we absolutely depend daily; even with our lives.  When either of these systems fails, the consequences are invariably tragic, impacting families and lives.

When a plane crash occurs, the NTSB (National Traffic Safety Board) and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), along with local police, fire, and medical examiners, literally swoop in, and investigate the crash down to the minutest detail.  Sometimes, even the FBI gets involved. See the article “Inside the Aircraft Accident Investigation Process” here. As a result of the investigation, there can be changes made to the air traffic control system, and orders can go out to aircraft manufacturers and airlines requiring design changes or inspections of aircraft, and whole fleets of airplanes can be grounded until changes or fixes are implemented.  New training requirements can be established. All this is the absolutely proper and necessary thing to do.  When a system that we all depend on fails, we need to understand what happened, understand why it failed, and make changes so it never happens again.

If this is true for the air travel system, and I cannot believe anyone would disagree with that, why should the same not be true for the justice system? It’s a system on which we all depend.  When it fails, lives are shattered, children are taken from parents, families are separated, innocent people are put in prison, and innocent people are even executed.

When a failure of the justice system occurs, what happens? Based upon my years of working in this, absolutely nothing. A wrongful conviction may be overturned, but nothing changes in the system as a result of it, and indeed, there is not even an investigation by an authoritative body to determine what went wrong, and how to fix it. My experience tells me that when the justice system fails, the response from the system is, “Oh well, too bad. Now on with business as usual.” And the same failures keep happening over and over and over.

Why can’t there be an “NTSB” for the justice system? — a body with the authority and responsibility to examine justice system failures, and to take the necessary actions to ensure they don’t happen again. This could absolutely be done on the state level. I find the logic of this inescapable. You cannot possibly build a credible, supportable argument against it. But knowing what I know about politics, legislatures, and human nature, I’m not optimistic. But how can you possibly argue that this wouldn’t be the right thing to do?

A Major Cause of Wrongful Convictions …….. POLITICS !?

[Editor’s note: this piece has been very difficult to write.  I’ve been working on it for months, and have deliberated about publishing it at all; I think because the objective it advocates is so daunting.  But I do think it goes to the heart of so much that is wrong with the justice system. I do not have hard data to support my position, and I doubt such data will ever exist, but I do have decades of study and careful observation.  I only report what I observe. Please read it, and just think about it.]

This article will be both editorial and somewhat philosophical, at least to the extent that it expresses conclusions on my part, so please bear with me. But it does address an issue that I believe is one of the key flaws in the justice system – and one that seems to be universally overlooked, not recognized, or dismissed. My hypothesis is that having “prosecutor” be an elected political position has a very deleterious influence on their performance of that job, and that this circumstance is not merely a contributor, but a root cause contributor, to wrongful conviction.                                                        (Note:  We are not considering federal prosecutors here, because they are not elected, and they need to be a whole separate subject.)

First, some personal background.  I grew up in an intensely political family.  I’ve seen politics at work “up close and personal.” My father was an elected official for over 30 years, until he retired.  My mother was very active in both state and local politics, and had seriously considered running for Congress.  We even used to have the Congressional Record delivered to our home.  I have very clear memories of, as a youngster, being down in the basement stuffing “sample ballots” into envelopes for delivery to voters.  My mother once told me about how intoxicating and addicting politics can be, and how easy it was to get caught up in it.  And (in my opinion) this is not driven by an overwhelming and compelling desire to serve the public – it is driven by an overwhelming and compelling desire for power and personal gain. No politician would ever admit this – probably not even to themselves; but you just can’t convince me otherwise. My apologies to the politicians out there, but that’s how I see it.  There may be some virtuous motives to start, but once you’re in it, you’re hooked. So what’s the point of all this?  It’s that I have observed and learned throughout my life that political positions, by their very nature, create a set of pernicious personal motivations for the office holder that can be, and usually are, contrary to the intent and spirit of the office.

Continue reading

Weekend Quick Clicks…

Citing Wrongful Convictions, Pennsylvania Governor Put Halt on Executions…

From Governor’s web site

Governor Tom Wolf Announces a Moratorium on the Death Penalty in

Harrisburg, PA – Today, Governor Tom Wolf announced a moratorium on the
death penalty in Pennsylvania that will remain in effect until the governor
has received and reviewed the forthcoming report of the Pennsylvania Task
Force and Advisory Commission on Capital Punishment, established under
Senate Resolution 6 of 2011, and there is an opportunity to address all
concerns satisfactorily.

“Today’s action comes after significant consideration and reflection,” said
Governor Wolf. “This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for
the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing
heinous crimes. This decision is based on a flawed system that has been
proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective,
unjust, and expensive. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 150
people have been exonerated from death row nationwide, including six men in
Pennsylvania. Recognizing the seriousness of these concerns, the Senate
established the bipartisan Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission
to conduct a study of the effectiveness of capital punishment in
Pennsylvania. Today’s moratorium will remain in effect until this
commission has produced its recommendation and all concerns are addressed

This morning, Gov. Wolf took the first step in placing a moratorium on the
death penalty by granting a temporary reprieve to inmate Terrance Williams,
who was scheduled to be executed on March 4, 2015. Governor Wolf will grant
a reprieve – not a commutation – in each future instance in which an
execution for a death row inmate is scheduled, establishing an effective
moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania. For death row inmates, the
conditions and confinement will not change.