Criminal Justice

  • 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.

  • May 13, 2015

    by Christopher Durocher

    In August 2014, Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. Partially as the result of conflicting accounts of what happened, a grand jury declined to indict Wilson, sparking a national debate about police brutality, particularly against people of color, and the limits of police accountability. Through numerous incidents of police abuse that have followed, culminating most recently in protests and civil unrest in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, one proposed reform has gained much attention – the adoption of police body-worn cameras.

    As the nation wrestles with the possibility that police brutality may reflect structural, implicit bias against people of color, supporters of police body-worn cameras argue that they would provide an objective record of what transpired when an interaction between a police officer and a civilian leads to the civilian’s injury or death. As evidence of video’s power, they point to North Charleston, South Carolina police officer Michael Slager, who was charged with first degree murder three days after shooting Walter Scott.  Slager’s indictment was due in large part to a video recording of the shooting that contradicted his report of events. Supporters also point to the benefit of body-worn cameras in disproving false claims of abuse against police and in encouraging both police and civilians to “be on their best behavior,” since they know a camera is recording their words and actions.

    Skeptics, however, point to the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island as evidence that cameras, at least absent fundamental changes in policing, will have little impact on police behavior or accountability. Garner’s tragic death occurred when one of the five New York City police officers attempting to arrest him for a minor infraction put him in what appeared to be a banned chokehold. Despite shocking video of Garner’s arrest – in which he can be heard pleading that he is unable to breathe – prosecutors refused to indict the officer. Video failed to bring justice for Garner or his family.

    In the ACS Issue Brief “Police Body-Worn Cameras: Evidentiary Benefits and Privacy Threats” Professor Marc Jonathan Blitz of Oklahoma City University School of Law examines the costs and benefits of body-worn cameras programs and, while acknowledging that cameras will not serve as a panacea, outlines policies that police departments should adopt to ensure the maximum effectiveness of such programs.  As Blitz observes, “Even when camera evidence is flawed, it is often far better than eyewitness accounts, especially when such eyewitness accounts are given long after the events.”