Criminal Justice

  • February 29, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Jarrett Adams, J.D., exoneree, advocate, and co-founder of Life After Justice. Follow him on Twitter (@JarrettFocused) and Facebook.

    *This post is part of ACSBlog's Symposium Recognizing Black History Month.

    Prosecutors hold the key to equitable charges against criminal defendants. They decide when to bring a case and when to drop charges, how and whether to prosecute, and what level of charges and sentences to pursue. And, in our current system of criminal injustice, they should be scrutinized for their choices.

    As Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Adam Foss described in a recent TED Talk, we rarely talk about the prosecutor when we talk about criminal justice reform. Rather, we complain about police, sentencing laws, and prison. But, as Foss further explains, prosecutorial power is “virtually boundless.” And for years this discretion of prosecutorial power has resulted in a disgusting amount of poor black and brown men, and increasingly women, going to prison with unconscionable prison sentences.

    For example, in 1998, I was 17 years old when I–along with two other black teenagers from Chicago, Dimitri Henley and Rovaughn Hill–was falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman after attending a college party. Unfortunately, this case was no different than the cases that often arise on college campuses. The only difference, which was the biggest difference, was the race of the accused and the accuser. A month after this party, the prosecutor decided to bring sexual assault charges based solely off an inconsistent and unbelievable accusation. This allegation was not only false, it was supported by nothing and completely undermined by statements from alibi witnesses that both the police and the prosecutor were aware of from the very beginning.

    Henley and I were unable to afford an attorney, so the court appointed us one while Hill’s family put up their house to secure a paid attorney. The case was ultimately severed, and Henley and I were convicted at trial after two ill-prepared court appointed attorneys failed to investigate the case or call any witnesses. Meanwhile, Hill’s attorney hired an investigator and prepared for trial by locating a crucial alibi witness whom the police had initially interviewed but failed to turn over his full statement.

    After the discovery of this witness’s statement, the prosecutor correctly used his discretion and filed a motion dismissing all charges against Hill. At the time the charges were dismissed against Hill, Henley and I had been incarcerated for close to a year and fully expected for the prosecutor to file a motion to dismiss our case or at the least join in a motion for a new trial to present the evidence that supported our innocence. After all, this was the same case, same false accusation, and ultimately the same alibi witness that would free both Henley and I almost a decade later.

  • February 25, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Bruce A. Green, Louis Stein Chair, Fordham Law School; director of the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics

    Whatever the merits of his statement that a judge does no more than “call balls and strikes,” Chief Justice John Roberts' famous confirmation-hearing declaration spoke to a fundamental truth about the need for impartiality in our justice system. And just as no baseball player, or fan of America’s national pastime, would consider it fair for the opposing manager to come off the bench in the middle of the game to become the home-plate umpire, no criminal defendant, or member of the public, would believe that the man who initiated and managed a prosecution could later be a fair judge in the very same case.

    Fairness and impartiality are longstanding, bedrock principles of our courts. A judge who is prejudiced or biased cannot fulfill his or her responsibilities, or the expectations of the public, without violating these principles. Even the appearance that the judge is biased erodes the public’s confidence that court proceedings are fair.

    On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments about judicial bias in Williams v. Pennsylvania. The question is whether the chief prosecutor in a death penalty case may later serve in the same case as the chief judge of the court responsible for deciding an appeal in the case and, in the process, reviewing the conduct of the lawyers whom he previously supervised.

    In this case, while serving as the elected Philadelphia District Attorney, Ronald Castille authorized his office to seek the death penalty against Terrance Williams and oversaw the assistant prosecutor who tried the case. Following his conviction, Mr. Williams argued that the trial had been tainted by the prosecutor’s serious misconduct. A lower court judge, herself a former a prosecutor, agreed. She found that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office hid evidence that would have been crucial to the jurors’ life or death decision. (In a nutshell, the hidden evidence was that the murder victim had sexually abused Mr. Williams as a minor.)

    By the time the case arrived at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Ronald Castille had left the prosecutors’ office to become the state’s Chief Justice. The state’s high court, over which he now presided, was asked to review the fairness of the very death penalty prosecution that he had authorized and overseen. In particular, the Court was asked to decide whether, as the lower court judge found, District Attorney Castille’s assistant had engaged in serious prosecutorial wrongdoing on his watch.

  • February 24, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Brianne J. Gorod, chief counsel, Constitutional Accountability Center. Find her on Twitter @BrianneGorod.

    The Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court voted to reverse a lower court decision that gave relief to a criminal defendant whom the lower court concluded was the victim of prosecutorial misconduct. The Chief Justice even wrote separately to make clear just how wrong he thought the lower court decision was. At first glance this might seem like nothing unusual, but the conduct the Chief Justice was reviewing was that of lawyers he had supervised as a District Attorney.

    Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing oral argument in Williams v. Pennsylvania, in which the Court has been asked to decide whether the Pennsylvania Chief Justice’s decision to participate in that case was lawful. In a Term with a huge number of blockbuster cases (not to mention a new Supreme Court vacancy), Williams hasn’t been getting a great deal of attention. But it should. It’s a case that will test the Supreme Court’s commitment to the fundamental principle, recognized by James Madison at the nation’s founding, that “[n]o man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause.” And it’s a case that will determine whether the American people can feel confident that they will get what the Supreme Court has said the Constitution’s Due Process Clause requires: “[a] fair trial in a fair tribunal.”

    The facts in Williams are truly stunning. In 1986, Terrance Williams was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Pennsylvania state court. At the time of his trial and sentencing, Ronald Castille was the elected District Attorney of Philadelphia. Castille not only headed the office that prosecuted Williams, he personally approved the pursuit of a death sentence in the case. Decades later (and after Williams’s initial appeals were unsuccessful), a post-conviction court found that the prosecutors in Williams’s case had engaged in “gamesmanship” and “plainly ‘suppressed’” evidence that Williams had been the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of the man he killed. Based on this finding, the post-conviction court granted Williams a new penalty hearing.

    By the time the state appealed that decision, Castille was no longer District Attorney. He had been elected Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the court that was now being asked to decide whether attorneys in his office had engaged in misconduct while prosecuting Williams. Because of this obvious conflict of interest, Williams asked that Castille recuse himself, or at the very least, refer his request to the full court for decision. Castille refused to do either. Instead, he joined the court’s opinion reversing the grant of relief and wrote a separate concurrence in which he excoriated both the attorneys who had helped Williams seek that relief and the post-conviction court itself. By deciding to judge the conduct of his own office in a case in which he was personally involved, Castille created a judicial conflict so obvious and so extreme that it violated the Due Process Clause’s guarantee of an impartial justice system.

  • February 12, 2016

    by Nanya Springer 

    The IRS awarded Karl Rove’s “social welfare” group, Crossroads GPS, tax-exempt status Tuesday, reports Justin Miller at The American Prospect. Groups like Rove’s exploit “the lack of enforcement from the IRS and the Federal Election Commission to give cover to high-dollar donors who want to remain anonymous,” he says.

    Also in The American Prospect, Eliza Newlin Carney investigates the pitfalls of giving political parties the same freedom to raise unrestricted, high-dollar contributions that super PACs and other outside groups currently enjoy.

    In The Atlantic, J. Weston Phippen reports that Officer Peter Liang has been found guilty of manslaughter and official misconduct by a New York jury for the shooting death of Akai Gurley.

    Sara Sternberg Greene at The Marshall Project discusses her forthcoming study that examines why low-income individuals–and low-income African Americans in particular‒mistrust the civil justice system, and the consequences of that mistrust.

    Laura McKenna examines Ill. Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposal for a state takeover of Chicago’s struggling public school system in The Atlantic.

  • February 8, 2016
    BookTalk
    Vagrant Nation
    Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s
    By: 
    Risa L. Goluboff

    by Risa L. Goluboff, John Allan Love Professor of Law and Professor of History, University of Virginia School of Law

    Long before I finished writing Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s, my new book about the rapid downfall of age-old vagrancy laws in the 1960s, I began talking about it with colleagues, lawyers, and friends. Each time I did, they pointed out connections to the present.

    The present each had in mind was very different, however. To poverty lawyers and scholars, my tale of the downfall of vagrancy laws—originally passed and long used to criminalize the status of being idle and poor—naturally led to questions about homeless policies today. To political activists who learned from my book that vagrancy laws had long been used against unpopular speakers—everyone from the Industrial Workers of the World to Communists to civil rights leaders and Vietnam War protestors—Occupy Wall Street seemed the natural endpoint. Scholars and activists focused on race and policing saw how stop-and-frisk in many respects had replaced the vagrancy arrests of those who seemed suspicious to the police. More generally, they reflected that the arbitrary and discriminatory policing I describe in the book is still (or once again) the subject of considerable controversy and social movement organizing today. Those interested in criminal law identified analogues to the vagrancy laws in the criminalization of certain people for their status—though now the most obvious examples are convicted sex offenders and undocumented immigrants rather than gay men, prostitutes, or poor people.

    My colleagues were all right. Much of the social, criminal, and political regulation that exists today has roots, analogues, echoes, or precursors in the single category of criminal law that made vagrancy illegal in every state in the nation for hundreds of years. Vagrancy laws that outlawed not only being idle and poor but also being immoral or dissolute, or wandering about with no apparent purpose, were eminently flexible. They could do, and did do, just about anything law enforcement authorities—or the powerful people in their communities—wanted them to do.