Criminal Justice

  • May 18, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., Clinical Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Criminal Justice Institute, Harvard Law School            

    This week the United States Supreme Court will consider the case of Lamondre Tucker, an African-American man who was sentenced to death in 2011―under the banner of the Confederate flag. Tucker was convicted in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, a county that is plagued by racially biased jury selection. One recent study found that African-Americans have been excluded from juries in Caddo Parish at a rate that is three times higher than whites, a practice so insidious that it has earned the nickname “blackstriking.”

    An amicus brief filed by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice in Tucker v. Louisiana notes, “Of the twenty death sentences imposed in the modern era by Caddo Parish juries, fifteen were imposed on Black defendants. Of those fifteen, ten were charged with the murder of a white victim. Conversely, no white defendant has ever been sentenced to death in Caddo Parish for killing a Black victim. Taken at face value, these numbers suggest that the badges of the Confederacy adorning the courthouse entrance in Caddo Parish signify more than stale remnants of a bygone era.”

    Unfortunately, Tucker’s case is not an isolated incident. Just last month, Kenneth Fults was executed by the state of Georgia despite being represented by a lawyer known for using racial slurs. Fults, an African-American man, was accused of killing a young white woman. After the trial, one of the jurors reportedly explained, "that n***r got just what should have happened . . . I knew I would vote for the death penalty because that’s what that n***r deserved."

    Duane Buck’s case was equally contaminated by racial bias. Buck, an African-American man, was sentenced to death for a crime that occurred 20 years ago after a defense expert testified that Buck’s race was a relevant predictor of his future dangerousness. The prosecutor subsequently asserted that "the race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness . . ." The Texas jury sentenced Mr. Buck to death based upon the finding that he was likely to be a danger in the future. Mr. Buck has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case.

    In South Carolina, Johnny Bennett had his death sentence reversed by U.S. District Judge Mark Gergel because the prosecutor, Donnie Myers, called Bennett, an African-American man, “King Kong,” a “beast of burden,” and other racist names during his trial. Myers also highlighted the fact that Bennett had a sexual relationship with a “blonde-headed lady” in order to fan the flames of racial prejudice. The state attorney general has, not surprisingly, announced that he is appealing Judge Gergel’s decision.

    Even when offered a chance to correct injustices of the not-so-distant past, many prosecutors cling to racially tainted verdicts. These cases are not relics of the past, they are evidence that racial bias continues to infect the entire capital punishment system.

  • May 2, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Tom Nolan, Associate Professor of Criminology, Merrimack College; 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department

    The city of Cleveland recently settled a federal wrongful death lawsuit for $6 million with the estate of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot to death by Cleveland police officers on November 22, 2014. The shooting death of Rice, along with the deaths of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Walter Scott and too many others have led to the incisive interrogation of the police narrative in their use of deadly force, particularly in the shooting deaths of men and women of color. Not all such deaths however, have received the widespread condemnation and exposure that the deaths of Rice, et al. saw, exposure that spawned the Black Lives Matter movement.      

    A journalist from the San Francisco Bay area recently sent me a video taken with a police body camera from a May evening in 2014, looking for analysis, context and commentary. The video showed police officers from the city of Hayward, California as well as officers from the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police attempting to take James Greer, a 46-year-old man of color and grandfather who reportedly weighed 380 pounds, into custody on suspicion of driving under the influence. Hayward police had stopped Greer’s pickup truck and administered a brief field sobriety test before making the decision to arrest Mr. Greer. An officer asked Mr. Greer if he suffered from any medical conditions and he replied that he suffered from a hernia and pointed to the area of his stomach. Greer initially cooperated with officers, but then began offering resistance that can best be described as minimal and perfunctory. As is in keeping with standard police practices that are of late far too frequently captured and memorialized via video, Greer was immediately, violently, and decisively slammed to the pavement—on his stomach.          

    I have seen many of these “police videos” and am frequently sought out for comment and perspective on what is depicted. What I saw in the Hayward police video was one of the most shocking, outrageous, offensive, and noxious examples of police excess that I have ever witnessed—this in a career as a police practitioner, academic, observer, and analyst that dates back to the 1970s.

  • 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.