Criminal Justice

  • April 30, 2014

    by David Lyle

    A week after the Oklahoma Supreme Court buckled under political pressure, state officials pushed ahead with a controversial execution method to be used on two death row inmates; one of those inmates suffered a grisly death by heart attack after the lethal injection failed to work effectively. After the botched execution of Clayton D. Lockett, detailed in this piece by The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen, state officials temporarily halted the second planned execution.

    ACS President Caroline Fredrickson blasted Oklahoma state lawmakers for interfering with the judicial process. Fredrickson said:

    One of the fundamental tenets of our democracy, an independent court system that provides checks and balances on the other branches of government, was the victim of a politically motivated execution leading directly to this tragedy tonight. Had the Oklahoma Supreme Court been allowed to render an impartial ruling absent the governor's coercion and political pressure, the state would not have botched today's execution because it never would have taken place. This is sad commentary on the state of fair courts in Oklahoma.

    A week ago, the Oklahoma Supreme Court stayed the execution of two convicts so that the justices could evaluate the legality of the state's injection secrecy law. Just two days later, after Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin claimed she would not recognize an issue ordered by the state Supreme Court and members of the legislature threatened to recall the justices supporting a stay of execution, the Oklahoma high court bowed to pressure and said the executions could proceed.

    Cohen, also a Brennan Center fellow, stated in The Week, "It was a bad week in Oklahoma - at least for anyone who values a strong and fearless judiciary."

    The nationwide trend of politicizing state courts has accelerated in recent months, as large-spending outside groups have poured huge sums into previously apolitical state Supreme Court races. Now that politicization has cost a life. 

    Fair court reform advocates have warned of the consequences of politically controlled state courts for years, as seen in the “Justice Isn’t Blind – The Influence of Special Interests on State Court” memo published by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics

  • April 28, 2014

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Missouri recently executed its fourth inmate this year, providing a federal appellate court judge to once again raise disconcerting aspects about the state’s process of carrying out those executions. Earlier this year, The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen noted that on more than one occasion Missouri had carried out executions of inmates before the appeals process had run its course. State officials have also come under criticism for continually shrouding its means of executing inmates in secrecy.

    The latest inmate to be executed, William Rousan, also raised constitutional concerns about Missouri’s execution process before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Eight Circuit. The entire Eighth Circuit declined Rousan’s appeal. But Circuit Judge Kermit E. Bye lodged a dissent blasting the Court for not hearing the appeal, noting the “viable constitutional claims” raised by Rousan. Circuit Judges Diana Murphy and Jane Kelly joined Bye’s dissent.

    This was not the first time that Judge Bye raised concerns about Missouri’s procedure for executing inmates. In a fall 2013 case, Bye said Missouri has a “well-documented history of attempting to execute death row inmates before the federal courts can determine the constitutionality of the executions." In another death row appeals case, Bye noted the opaque nature of the state’s drugs used to kill the inmates was not helpful in deciding constitutional challenges.

    In his April 23 dissent in the most recent case, Judge Bye again noted the state’s ongoing work to “frustrate the efforts of inmates such as Rousan to investigate the method of execution the State plans to use to end their lives. Missouri shields these shadow pharmacies – and itself – behind the hangman’s cloak by refusing to disclose pertinent information to the inmates.”

    He continued, “So long as Missouri insists on carrying out executions, it is fundamentally important the State is sufficiently transparent about its protocol to allow adequate review of the constitutionality of its chosen method.”

  • April 1, 2014

    At The Huffington Post, former ACS Board Chair and current Co-Chair of the Board of Advisors for the ACS Chicago Lawyer Chapter as well as Co-Faculty Advisor for the University of Chicago Law School ACS Student Chapter Geoffrey R. Stone explains why the “NSA deserves the respect and appreciation of the American people. But it should never, ever, be trusted.” More analysis on the NSA from Professor Stone can be found here.
     
    Delaware Superior Court Judge Jan Jurden granted probation for a man convicted of sexually abusing his three-year-old daughter.  Slate’s Emily Bazelon argues why this “mind boggling” case is “a part of a disturbing pattern of late in which judges treat sexual assault crimes as worthy only of a slap on the wrist.”
     
    At the Brennan Center for Justice, Lauren-Brooke Eisen describes how Attorney General Eric Holder is combating the troubling effects of America’s ‘tough on crime legacy’ by “lowering the suggested penalties for certain drug crimes.” 
     
    At Education Week’s School Law blog, Mark Walsh discusses the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari to a Roman Catholic school’s challenge to the Affordable Care Act.
     
    At Bloomberg View Cass R. Sunstein picks the “the all-time greats” of the Supreme Court. 
  • March 14, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Kanya Bennett, Director of Policy Development and Programming at the American Constitution Society, Angelyn Frazer, State Legislative Affairs Director at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst at the Open Society Foundations
     
    In 1989, five African American and Latino boys were wrongly convicted of a heinous crime committed in New York City’s Central Park. Filmmakers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon document their story in The Central Park Five. As PBS describes, The Central Park Five documentary “raises important questions about race and class, the failings of our criminal justice system, legal protections for vulnerable juveniles, and basic human rights.”
     
    And these “important questions” were certainly raised at the February 26th screening of the film hosted by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), Open Society Foundations (OSF), and the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS). How could our criminal justice system fail on so many different levels, with law enforcement, prosecutors, and defense attorneys falling short? Decades later, why do young men of color remain vulnerable to the same fate as the Central Park Five? Can we point to criminal justice reform that will prevent another case like the Central Park Five?
     
    The Central Park Five featured our criminal justice system at its very worst. The police, with great help from the media, made vulnerable juveniles of color the poster children for violent criminal activities or what they coined a “wilding,” a narrative they held on to even when the evidence suggested another story. Prosecutors played detectives and advanced their case against the boys using this flimsy support. And a lawyer whose job it was to poke holes in the district attorney’s assertions allegedly fell asleep, almost every day, during trial.
     
  • February 26, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Diann Rust-Tierney Esq., a member of the Supreme Court Bar, the District of Columbia Bar and a former member of the DC Bar Ethics Committee. She is also the Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

    More than a decade ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) that the eighth amendment categorically forbids people with intellectual disabilities from being sentenced to death and executed. States were charged with the appropriate role of setting procedures to enforce and give effect to this Constitutional protection.

    On March 3, 2014, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of Hall v. Florida.

    The question presented is narrow:

    Whether Florida’s statutory scheme for identifying defendants with “mental retardation," as interpreted by the Florida Supreme Court, violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against executing people with intellectual disabilities as articulated in Atkins?

    As a note of reference “intellectual disabilities,” adopted since the Court ruled in Atkins, is the preferred clinical term over “mental retardation.”

    At stake is whether Florida is obliged to honor the limits imposed by the eighth amendment and refrain from executing a man who falls within the class of people for whom the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment.  This inquiry goes to the heart of the deal struck in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976). In Gregg the Supreme Court held that the death penalty could be administered in a manner consistent with the Constitution.  The Court’s ruling was premised on the reasonable expectation that states will work within the framework created by the Court as the final arbiter of constitutional standards for the practice. This premise cannot hold, however, if states continuously seek to circumvent these standards by erecting barriers to the recognition of constitutional rights.