Criminal Justice

  • July 1, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Brandon L. Garrett, Professor of Law at the University of Virginia, and Lee KovarskyProfessor of Law at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law.

    *This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

    Monday, the Supreme Court Justices delivered their oral opinion summaries in the Term's high-profile death penalty decision, Glossip v. Gross. Rather than reading from his concurring opinion or from a prepared statement, Justice Antonin Scalia -- still frazzled from release of the same-sex marriage cases -- appeared to be improvising. He accused Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of expressing personal "policy preferences," and added that the "two justices are willing to kill the death penalty outright rather than just pecking it to death." Why the defensiveness and outrage?

    Glossip was a 5-4 victory for death penalty states, which retained leeway to use new and untested lethal-injection "cocktails." Scalia was part of the majority but he sounded strangely like he was uttering last words. Justice Samuel Alito's presentation of the majority opinion was also unusually defensive and hostile to the dissenters. Justice Alito insists it is "settled that the death penalty is constitutional." In a career-defining dissent, Justice Breyer showed just how unsettled the American death penalty remains.

    The precise legal question in Glossip was whether states could use midazolam as the anesthetic in a three-drug legal-injection cocktail. For years, states used sodium thiopental, until suppliers stopped selling it for use in executions. Many states turned to pentobarbital, which also became difficult to obtain. Oklahoma turned to midazolam, considered more of an anti-anxiety medication than an anesthetic. After several "botched" executions, the Supreme Court agreed to hear whether improvements to Oklahoma's cocktail -- including a 400 percent increase the midazolam dosage -- satisfied the Eighth Amendment. Holding that it did, the Court seemed to announce a rule that an execution could not be Cruel and Unusual under the Eighth Amendment unless there is a "known and available alternative method of execution that entails a lesser risk of pain." Justice Sotomayor dissented, calling this a "surreal" endorsement of inhumane "human experimentation."

    Justice Breyer did more. Joined by Justice Ginsburg, he wrote a dissent arguing that the death penalty is flat out unconstitutional, and he characteristically loaded his opinion with empirical data. In doing so, Breyer and Ginsburg joined the ranks of predecessors such as John Paul Stevens and Harry Blackmun who, in their later years on the Court, declared they no longer believed that there exists a constitutional way to administer capital sentences. In 1994, an 85 year-old Blackmun penned a memorable single-Justice dissent swearing off his participation in capital process: "From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death." For Justices Breyer and Ginsburg, the death penalty cannot escape a dilemma's horns -- the procedural protections necessary to make the penalty reliable mean that the process takes so long that it no longer serves its retributive or deterrent purposes.

  • June 23, 2015
    Video Interview

    by Nanya Springer

    As Stephen Bright provided closing remarks at the 2015 ACS National Convention, he extoled the virtue of representing unpopular clients ‒ particularly criminal defendants, who are usually poor and often people of color.  He listed the names of inmates who have been wrongfully convicted and recently released from prison, all unwitting members of a far-too-large society of American exonerees:  Willie Manning in Mississippi, Anthony Ray Hinton in Alabama, Alfred Brown in Texas, and Glenn Ford in Louisiana.  But Bright also delighted the crowd by introducing a special guest: exoneree and recent law school graduate Jarrett Adams.

    Adams served almost 10 years of a 28-year prison sentence for a crime that he did not commit.  After being exonerated with the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, he obtained a degree in criminal justice and then attended law school at Loyola University Chicago.  He has worked at the Federal Defender’s Office in Chicago and at the public interest law firm Loevy & Loevy, and soon he will begin a dual fellowship with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ‒ the very court that overturned his conviction and set him free.

    At the convention, Adams sat down with ACS to explain why it’s so important for law students to develop professional networks.  He said, “There are only so many big firms, and if you don’t . . . get a 4.0 or know someone . . . you don’t have the opportunity to summer with them and to get into the door.  ACS offers you the opportunity to network with the big law firms at events like this.”  He added, “You never know when you’re going to be in a networking event and meet someone that’s going to help you become someone.”

    Arguably, Adams – who hopes to practice civil rights law and continue leading the nonprofit organization he co-founded, Life After Justice – is already “someone.”  But, as he would probably agree, there is always room for growth and advancement.

    Adams’ entire interview can be viewed below.

  • June 19, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    For those who attended, the 2015 ACS National Convention was not only an opportunity to catch up with old friends, make new connections, and obtain CLE credits; it was also a time to reflect upon the important work that attorneys do every day and gain inspiration for the road ahead.  Speakers from across the country and from diverse professional backgrounds delved into the issues of the day, including voting rights, women’s access to reproductive health care, LGBT rights and marriage equality, access to counsel, and more.  Here are some highlights with links to high-quality video for those who missed the live event.

    Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, received a stirring round of applause when he encouraged students and young lawyers to represent unpopular clients, saying “we need to see the kinds of injustices that got . . . people where they are.” In attendance with Mr. Bright were Theo Shaw, one of the exonerated “Jena 6” who is now on his way to law school on a full scholarship, and Jarrett Adams, an exoneree who graduated from law school and will soon begin clerking for the court that exonerated him.

    Wendy Davis, women’s rights crusader and a former state Senator from Texas, discussed how rampant voter suppression has led to bad policies in her state, particularly concerning access to reproductive health care. “Women who lack the means to manage their fertility lack the means to manage their lives,” she declared. “It is just that simple.”

    Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for automatic registration of all eligible voters in the U.S., stating that “the ability to vote is a right, it is not a privilege.” He decried efforts to make voting less accessible, explaining that in-person voting fraud is very rare and no such widespread schemes have been detected.

    U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries discussed the ongoing need to address faulty police practices, including so-called “taxation by citation,” “stop and frisk,” and “broken windows” tactics that disproportionately target low-income people and communities of color.

    U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg drew laughs and applause during her conversation with California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu. Speaking about her groundbreaking career, she said “I don’t think the meaning of feminism has changed,” it has always meant “girls should have the same opportunity to dream, aspire, achieve . . . as boys.” It’s about “women and men working together to help make society a better place.”

  • May 26, 2015
    Guest Post

    by M. Gregg Bloche, M.D., professor of law at Georgetown and author of The Hippocratic Myth.

    Credit the State of Utah for bringing back the firing squad.

    Two months ago, the state made the rifleman its method of killing when lethal drugs aren’t available. Health professionals and drug companies are saying “no” to participation in executions, and this spring, the trade association representing America’s pharmacists said it would “discourage” them from purveying their own lethal drug mixes on death row.

    So-called “compounding pharmacies” became death-row suppliers of last resort after Big Pharma got out of the execution business.  Not anymore, unless some pharmacists go rogue by defying their trade body.  Executioners around the country are now scrambling to secure drugs that kill, and they’re experimenting with unproven alternatives to the classic, three-drug fatal sequence.

    Death by chemistry emerged almost 40 years ago as a response to our contradictory expectations of capital punishment. As crime rates soared in the late seventies and early eighties, so did our retributive ire. America re-embraced the death penalty, ending a ten-year moratorium, when a Utah firing squad shot Gary Gilmore in January 1977.

    But we wanted to make the killing “humane.” Less than four months later, Oklahoma enacted the first lethal injection law, based on a protocol developed by a doctor. In the 1980s, as executions again became commonplace, the Oklahoma protocol became the prevailing method.

    Medical associations took stands against their members’ participation, but states readily found health professionals willing to flout Hippocratic prohibitions. Some corrections departments kept doctors’ names secret, paid them in cash, and otherwise hid their involvement. State-sanctioned medical killing on the down-low thus became routine.

  • May 14, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Nicole Fortier, counsel, Brennan Center for Justice

    It’s well known today that the United States is the biggest incarcerator in the world. With five percent of the world’s population, we house nearly a quarter of its prisoners. That’s over two million Americans behind bars. The number of people we imprison has increased over 400 percent since 1980. But in that time the federal prison population grew over 700 percent. Today, it has 208,609 inmates housed within its walls – more than any individual state.  The country now spends $80 billion per year on state and federal corrections.

    This dramatic growth was no accident. It was the direct result of laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s by policymakers hoping to combat rising crime rates. Their solution: over-criminalize and over-punish behavior – particularly at the national level. They expanded federal criminal laws, increased penalties, removed sentencing discretion from judges, and encouraged states to do the same.

    It’s clear that together, these laws cast too wide of a net. But it is important to dig further to understand whom they caught in that net. Exploring the demographics of those in federal prison can help us understand the real consequences of these policy decisions.