Criminal Justice

  • August 4, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, District 59, Minnesota Senate

    As I look back over the 2014 Minnesota legislative session, there was a lot to be proud of. However, one of my most rewarding moments was watching my Expungement Bill (HF2576) pass both bodies and become law. The bill passed 58-4 with strong bipartisan support  – proving that when you have a good idea and can work in a bipartisan manner, our state legislature can get things done.

    Nearly one in five Minnesotans has an arrest or criminal record. Because of the internet, the use of criminal record checks by employers and landlords has skyrocketed. Often a person could have been arrested but not charged, or their charges were dropped, or charged but not convicted, but arrest records would still show up on the internet and in reports. Unfortunately, the online records are often inaccurate, incomplete or misinterpreted.

    It is very difficult for a former offender to integrate into our communities when an overwhelming majority of employers refuse to hire anyone with an arrest or criminal record, regardless of how long ago it was or the crime’s relevance to the position for which an applicant is being considered. A key provision in my expungement bill will change that. It requires business screening services to delete expunged records if they know a criminal record has been sealed, expunged or is the subject of a pardon.

    In addition, the expungement bill passed in 2014 will allow people convicted of misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors and some low-level felonies to get their records sealed. My expungement bill maintains public safety while providing redemptive justice for all Minnesotans. Sealing or limiting access to criminal records is an important component in successful reintegration into society.

    Although current state law allows judges to expunge the criminal records of certain offenders, they are still showing up in many background checks because a state Supreme Court decision ruled that judges could expunge only court records, not those collected by state agencies such as the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension or Department of Human Services. My expungement bill also addresses this problem and allows judges to expunge executive branch records as a means to a real remedy.

    I am proud the 2014 Expungement bill that passed in Minnesota will help remove many of the barriers associated with criminal background checks. Without this change, many Minnesotans who have taken honest steps to improve their lives are being denied employment, housing and educational opportunities. 

  • July 25, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Justin Marceau and Alan K. Chen. Marceau is an associate professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a former public defender in Arizona. Chen is the William M. Beaney Memorial Research Chair and Professor of law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a former staff attorney at the ACLU’s Chicago office.

    The State of Arizona’s recently botched execution of Joseph Wood is just the latest in a series of horrific events that have introduced the American public to a criminal justice problem that practitioners and legal scholars long have known about – lethal injections are an extremely troubling method for carrying out capital punishment.  Similar to the cases of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma and Dennis McGuire in Ohio, Wood reportedly endured extensive suffering during the hour and 52 minutes it took for the drugs administered by the state’s executioners to end his life.

    The Wood Litigation Seeking Access to Information about the Drugs and Executioners

    In the days preceding Wood’s execution, his attorneys mounted an impressive campaign to overturn a lower court order denying him access to basic information about the qualifications (but not the identity) of the executioners and the source of the drugs to be used. Wood argued that he had a qualified First Amendment right of access to such information. 

    On Monday of this week, things looked promising for Wood and his legal team. An erudite panel of the Ninth Circuit concluded that it was not too much to ask of Arizona to require it to turn over the information Wood sought, or to delay the execution. Behind such litigation is the reality that without such information, of course, it would be impossible to assess whether the execution might violate the Eighth Amendment and create too great a risk of cruel and unusual punishment.  In other words, in order to know whether their client had a colorable substantive claim that the execution would be cruel and unusual, the lawyers first had to gain access to the details of the execution procedures. The procedural claim at issue in the Ninth Circuit, then, was a necessary precursor to being able to litigate the substantive legality of Arizona’s execution system.

    The Ninth Circuit panel voted 2-1 that Wood had raised a serious First Amendment claim and would suffer irreparable harm if an injunction against his execution were not granted. To be clear, all the Ninth Circuit ordered was that Arizona either turn over the information and proceed to execution as planned on Wednesday, or delay the execution until full and fair litigation regarding the right to access this information was conducted. Instead, Arizona successfully petitioned the Supreme Court, which quickly overturned the stay of execution.

    Was this Just a Gimmick to Delay Litigation?

    Some might ask why, with a thirty year track record and tacit Supreme Court approval in 2008, lawyers were inquiring about lethal injection methods.  We hear about delays in executions – we even see California’s death penalty held unconstitutional, in part, because of delay. But the reason for the litigation is clear: lethal injection is not working. 

    With drug shortages for the previous three-drug execution cocktail of choice, states have begun to experiment with the doses and types of drugs, and the qualifications of executioners are not getting any better.  In a very perverse turn on Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous quote that states may “serve as a laboratory, and try novel . . . experiments” that the rest of the country might not, states are innovating in their execution methods.  In the rush to continue with executions, Arizona and other states are using their execution chambers as laboratories for human experimentation.  What combination will create the most aesthetically pleasing execution for public consumption is the question the Departments of Correction seek to answer. 

  • July 14, 2014
    BookTalk
    The Wrong Carlos
    Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution
    By: 
    James S. Liebman

    by James S. Liebman, Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Law, Columbia Law School, and Shawn Crowley, Andrew Markquart, Lauren Rosenberg, Lauren Gallo White and Daniel Zharkovsky

    Do states with the death penalty execute innocent people? That is the fundamental question at the heart of The Wrong Carlos, a book I recently published with student coauthors.

    It is also the question facing the American public following a series of devastating developments for death penalty supporters. March brought news of the 144th death row exoneration. In April, we learned that Oklahoma had botched Clayton Lockett’s execution, leaving him awake during a massive drug-induced heart attack. The Supreme Court found in May that Florida remains hell bent on executing defendants too mentally disabled to be condemned. And in June—for the first time—a majority of Americans indicated in a poll that they prefer life without parole to capital punishment.

    Death penalty supporters are left clinging to a single promise often made but never substantiated—a promise repeated by Justice Scalia in a 2006 opinion: Whatever else we do, we don’t execute the innocent.

    I began thinking about this question between 2000 and 2003, when colleagues and I issued our Broken System studies documenting judicial findings of accuracy-impugning error in two-thirds of all U.S. capital cases reviewed between 1973 and 1995.

    Our studies sparked a heated debate over two competing interpretations. Did the courts’ discovery of so many errors prove the system worked? Or do high error rates mean it is almost certain that courts miss other errors, allowing the innocent to be executed?

  • July 11, 2014

    by Nicholas Alexiou

    Reginald Dwayne Betts tells his story of being in solitary confinement as a juvenile, before he was ever tried, in the ACLU’s Blog of Rights.

    Florida executed Eddie Davis via lethal injection on Thursday evening for the 1994 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. Mark Berman at The Washington Post reports that Davis’ execution was the fourth in the U.S. since the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma.

    The New York TimesCharlie Savage reports on a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California against the government’s Suspicious Activity Reporting database.

    At MSNBC, Emma Margolin explores how the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. could negatively impact the LGBT community.

  • July 2, 2014
    Guest Post

    By David Menschel, Criminal Defense Lawyer; President, Vital Projects Fund

    As the Supreme Court ends its October Term 2013 and heads off for summer recess, it is worth taking a closer look at one of the sleeper cases of the term, Hall v. Florida, a case about intellectual disability and the death penalty. Though Hall received only moderate attention in the press and was depicted as having limited practical reach, it contains significant new avenues for those who oppose the death penalty. The opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, contains small but important analytical shifts that, considering Kennedy’s role not only as the Court’s swing justice but also as the Court’s most vocal interpreter of the Eighth Amendment, could ultimately make it far easier for death penalty opponents to abolish the death penalty entirely.

    On the surface at least, Hall strikes little new ground. It mostly clarifies the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision, Atkins v. Virginia, in which the Court ruled that the Constitution forbids the execution of the “mentally retarded” – people we now refer to as “intellectually disabled.” Atkins had largely left it to the states to determine which defendants fall into this category and therefore are exempt from the death penalty. Hall tells certain wayward states like Florida that in order to comply with Atkins, they must determine which defendants are intellectually disabled in a robust, less rigid way and in a manner that is consistent with medicine and science.

    Practically speaking, Hall will likely have a modest effect. In the opinion itself, Justice Kennedy estimated that “at most nine states” had laws similar to Florida’s. The New York Times suggested that “only a small number” of death row inmates would qualify for a new hearing as a result of Hall, and the Times cited death penalty expert John Blume, a law professor at Cornell University, who said that the ruling might apply to “10 to 20” inmates. Another Times piece estimated that the ruling “affects roughly 30 death row inmates” about “15 to 20” of whom are in Florida. While it is too soon to know how broad Hall’s practical effect will be – it remains to be seen how it will be applied by lower courts – these estimates suggest that only a tiny fraction of America’s approximately 3,000 death row inmates are likely to be exempted from the death penalty because of Hall.