Category Archives: Reforming/Improving the system

New Attorney General Jeff Sessions “Tough on Crime”

The newly anointed US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, in his first major address has proclaimed a policy of “tough on crime” – particularly violent crime.

Here we go again – the “war on drugs” redux. How many prosecutors have been elected running on a “tough on crime” platform? I would say most, if not all.

So how do prosecutors “deliver” on their campaign promise of “tough on crime?” They arrest a lot of people, obtain a lot of indictments, secure a lot of convictions, and send a lot of people to prison. The only problem? A lot of these people may be actually innocent. But they’ve been scooped up into the frenzy of proving that law enforcement is “tough on crime.” People get convicted through intimidating and coercive plea bargains, phony evidence and false testimony, bad forensics, and police and prosecutor misconduct.

Criminal prosecution MUST rest upon the foundations of truth, logic, real evidence, and prosecutorial ethics – not upon hysteria hyped by politicians and the media.

You and see the CNN coverage of Mr. Sessions address here.

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Columbus Will Pay Ohio Innocence Project For Witholding Public Records

Click to read the original article and listen to the WOSU interview

The city of Columbus and a group that works to free wrongly convicted people ended a years-long fight this week.

The city will pay $19,000 dollars for legal expenses incurred by the Ohio Innocence Project, which is based out of the University of Cincinnati school of law. Columbus will also pay the Ohio Innocence Project $1,000 in damages for illegally withholding public records.

Attorney Donald Caster, a clinical professor of law at the University of Cincinnati who works for the Project, explained in an interview with WOSU how the case unfolded and what it means for transparency in the state.

The below is an automated transcript. Please excuse minor typos and errors.

Sam Hendren: When did the Ohio Innocence Project first encounter resistance from the city of Columbus to public records requests?

Donald Caster: We’ve been encountering resistance from Columbus for several years. Sometimes we could work around the resistance with the Franklin County prosecuting attorney and sometimes we couldn’t. We noticed that it wasn’t just Columbus, it was other areas in Ohio as well. So at some point we decided that we needed to challenge the law enforcement agencies who were telling us that we weren’t entitled to get public records to investigate claims of innocence.

Sam Hendren: So the Ohio Supreme Court then did what?

Donald Caster: The first thing that happens is the filing of a complaint. The city of Columbus then filed an answer and a motion to dismiss the complaint and said, “Look, even if everything the Ohio Innocence Project is saying is true, they’re still not entitled to relief.” The Ohio Supreme Court turned down that motion in order and ordered us to submit full briefs on the case. We did that.

The Ohio Supreme Court then heard oral arguments, they heard from the attorneys for the city of Columbus, they heard from attorneys for me and the Ohio Innocence Project, in this case Fred Gittes and Jeff Vardaro of the Gittes law firm. And then they eventually issued a decision just after Christmas.

Sam Hendren: And that decision says what?

Donald Caster: That decision says that a case that law enforcement agencies had been relying on, a case called “Steckman,” which suggested in some ways that public records pertaining to criminal cases would never be accessible until a particular defendant or inmate were released from prison, is no longer good law. And it’s no longer good law because some of the rules that control pretrial discovery between the state and the defendant had changed.

So the Ohio Supreme Court said it didn’t need that rule any more. Now as soon as a criminal case is done, as soon as the trial is over, the public can go ahead and seek those records out from law enforcement agencies.

Sam Hendren: Because in one or perhaps many more cases, the city of Columbus for example was withholding records from the Ohio Innocence Project for decades.

Donald Caster: And what Columbus was saying was that they were going to withhold the records for decades. In this particular instance they said you won’t be entitled to these records until the defendant in the case your researching is done serving his entire sentence. In this case, it’s a life sentence, so it would have been upon the defendant’s death.

Sam Hendren: Now we’re talking about Adam Saleh, who was imprisoned or who is imprisoned for killing a woman named Julie Popovich.

Donald Caster: That’s correct.

Sam Hendren: Right. Why is it important to have timely access to documents that the police department was refusing to hand over?

Donald Caster: For a couple of reasons. First of all, from a general standpoint, in Ohio we value the transparency of our public servants and that means being able to access the documents that they generate and that they rely upon in making our decision. From the standpoint of post-conviction work, of helping free people who have been wrongfully convicted, oftentimes the only way that we can prove that something went wrong at trial is to access the public records about that case.

Sam Hendren: And what has been the track record of the Innocence Project? Have innocent people been freed?

Donald Caster: That’s correct. We’ve been around since 2003, and since 2003, 23 people have been released on grounds of innocence as a result of our work

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A Case for Justice Reform in 2017

The year 2016 will go down as a good one for Freddie Peacock. But because it was so long in coming, it surely must be bittersweet. His story illustrates the slow pace and enormous hurdles in correcting criminal justice miscarriages post-conviction. It also calls on our individual and national conscience to make 2017 the year responsible citizens send the message loud and clear to all public and criminal justice professionals that this nation must replace the mantra of “tough on crime” with “smart on crime.” In the Peacock case we learn many lessons about wrongful conviction rarely delivered so clearly by a federal judge.

In August 2016 U.S. District Judge Michael Telesca awarded Freddie Peacock nearly $6.2 million long after Peacock’s conviction of and imprisonment for a 1976 Rochester (NY) rape he didn’t commit. Peacock had sued the city of Rochester and Rochester police. Judge Telesca’s decisions in May (here) enabling Peacock to pursue civil damages and in August (here) determining his damages are instructional for those who believe wrongful convictions are the inevitable rare result of innocent human error. Continue reading

Prosecutorial Misconduct is Now a Felony in California

One of, if not the most, frequent occurrences of prosecutorial misconduct is withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense; which prosecutors are required by both law and ethics to share. The state of California has taken this “bull by the horns,” and made withholding evidence by prosecutors a criminal felony.

Under the new law, prosecutors who alter or intentionally withhold evidence from defense counsels can face up to three years in prison.

EVERY one of the remaining 49 states needs to follow this example. This is a major step in establishing the kind of accountability prosecutors MUST face if we are to ever achieve the necessary level of ethical conduct on the part of prosecutors.

See the reason.com story here.

 

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Courtney Bisbee – Released . . . But Not Free.

We have reported extensively on the Courtney Bisbee case here on the blog.

Please see: HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE .

In my 8 1/2 years of doing this work, this is one of the worst travesties of justice I have encountered. And it all took place in that snake pit cesspool of a justice system called Maricopa County, AZ.

Courtney served her full sentence (11 years), and was released from prison on November 17. But she is NOT free. One would think that once you’ve served your full sentence and were released, that would be it; and you should be able to start rebuilding your shattered life, albeit with a prison record, but NO.

Courtney has been fitted with a GPS ankle bracelet, and registered as a sex offender – a life sentence. And get this – she is not even on probation; she’s on parole (“community supervision”) with harsh conditions, just like she’s still considered a prisoner. And indeed, she is still under the custody of the Department of Corrections, which limits her ability to take any kind of legal action. AND THIS IS ALL FOR A “CRIME” THAT NEVER HAPPENED.

Courtney’s habeas petition is still pending before federal court, as it has been since 2012. We can only hope that true justice will ultimately be done.

We’re thrilled that at least Courtney is out of prison, and is being allowed to live with her parents as she works mightily to start putting the pieces back together.

How Janet Reno bolstered the innocence movement

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was remembered for many things after her death this week. But one of her most important accomplishments was  greatly overlooked — how she fostered the innocence movement. Defense attorney James M. Doyle explains how in a column here.

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