Criminal Justice

  • December 3, 2015
    Guest Post

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

    Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has fired Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy in the aftermath of the release of graphic and disturbing dash cam video footage showing Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times on October 20, 2014, 14 of those shots being fired into McDonald's body as he lay dying on the ground. The teenager was allegedly armed with a three-inch folding knife, with the blade reportedly folded into the knife. A "bad shoot" is what cops call it, and this was a particularly bad shoot.  The mayor’s abrupt about face in his backing of McCarthy’s handling of the investigation of the shooting and the decision to stonewall the public release of the publicly owned video footage of the shooting death of McDonald surprised few. McCarthy’s hold on the superintendent’s position grew more tenuous by the hour as public disgust and outrage over the callous and gruesome execution of the teenager went viral.

    The decision to fire McCarthy cited a lack of confidence in the leadership of the Chicago Police Department (CPD), confidence that had waned and then fell like a stone once protesters took to the streets of Chicago. Emanuel had praised McCarthy as “an excellent leader” throughout his tenure, but saw him as a “distraction” who had to go. Queue the usual suspects: McCarthy’s deputy will lead the department until a permanent replacement can be found and the “Task Force for Police Accountability” has been assembled, with former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick on board as a “senior advisor.” Don’t hold your breath waiting for results that implicate any official in wrongdoing (other than Jason Van Dyke).   

    This is an all too predictable outcome to a series of extremely ill-advised decisions that were made by some very high-ranking officials of the administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Police Department that began on October 20, 2014 and that could arguably rise to the level of criminal culpability. Questions arise as to who was making what decisions regarding the release of the dash cam video footage. Who directed Chicago police officers to go to the nearby Burger King and delete 86 minutes of likely relevant video footage from the restaurant’s surveillance cameras? 

    What we are not seeing in this unfolding scandal, following a series of unquestionably stupid blunders on the part of senior law enforcement and city officials, is anything remotely resembling accountability in a situation that demands nothing if not responsibility and accountability from those public officials who thought that it was a justifiable and prudent idea to withhold relevant information from the public, especially the particularly damning video footage, a public rightfully suspicious and skeptical of the police narrative regarding the “hyper killing” of an arguably unarmed teenager by a Chicago police officer.

  • December 1, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Brandon L. Garrett, Justice Thurgood Marshall Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law. His first book, Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong, was published by Harvard University Press in 2009, and his most recent book, Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise with Corporations, was published in 2014.

    Can lawyers stop their own client from challenging his death sentence? Apparently, in Texas, they can. A lawyer’s most fundamental professional obligation is to “zealously” advocate for the client and uphold “justice.” Lawyers cannot give up working on a case, or put their own interests above their client’s. And yet that is what two Texas lawyers appear to have done to death row clients they were appointed to represent.

    Raphael Holiday was just executed in Texas. His two court-appointed lawyers told him that they would no longer contest his execution. “This marks the end of work for your appeals,” they said. They then told Holiday they would not seek clemency from the governor, despite a federal law requiring them to honor the client’s desire to do just that. Facing imminent execution, Holiday told the court, “They have refused to help me and it is a disheartening conundrum I am not fit to comprehend.”

    Holiday, who lacked money to hire his own lawyer, asked for the court to appoint a new one. The lawyers who said they were “not going to file further appeals” for him opposed his request, essentially telling the court that their client had nothing but frivolous claims left. The court-appointed lawyers simply gave up on Holiday’s case, even though half of 2015 Texas executions have been stayed or withdrawn, often because lawyers discovered compelling issues as the execution date approached. Based on the appointed lawyers’ representations, the court refused to assign a new lawyer to the case. Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, commented that it was “unconscionable” to prevent Holiday from getting new lawyers and that death penalty lawyers representing clients facing imminent executions “have a duty to make every legal argument they can.”

  • November 16, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Noah Zatz, Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s Symposium on Labor and Economic Inequality.

    Three vibrant movements of our time are Black Lives Matter, theDREAMers, and Fight for $15. For many progressives, only the last may seem directed at our topic of work and inequality. That intuition is wrong. Legalized state violence – incarceration, deportation, even killing – can and does depress labor standards and enable workplace exploitation (and vice versa).

    We too often separate struggles against racialized state violence from those challenging economic inequality. The former seem to be about the public exercises of government power, while the latter seem to be about private exercises of corporate power. This is both an analytical error and a missed political opportunity.

    Think of criminal justice, immigration, and labor as three points of a triangle. Activists and academics increasingly link mass incarceration and mass deportation, especially as immigration enforcement is criminalized. Likewise, the government’s threat to detain and deport has been linked to employer power. Guest workers face deportation if they exercise the most basic labor right, the right to quit, and undocumented workers labor under employer threats to call in immigration enforcement. Employers use this power to disrupt organizing, degrade working conditions, and depress wages.

    An incarceration-labor connection parallels this immigration-labor connection. This connection mirrors the thoroughly racialized ways that immigration policy produces workplace disadvantage. That historical pattern continues today as Latina/os and others treated as presumptively “foreign” face profiling by employers and government authorities. Similarly, racism has long structured criminal justice in the U.S. From defining what is a crime to the notorious cocaine sentencing disparities, from the frequency of police stops to searches to uses of force, the criminal justice system casts an especially dark shadow over communities of color, and not by coincidence.

  • November 9, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Brandon L. Garrett, Justice Thurgood Marshall Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law. Last fall, Harvard University Press published his new book, Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise with Corporations.

    The American death penalty is an outlier phenomenon. Fewer states are sentencing fewer people to death. Fewer counties are sentencing people to death within those states. But as outliers go, in the American death penalty world, Florida is in a class of its own. Florida allows, unlike any other state, a jury to be split, unexplained, and non-unanimous in its mere recommendation that the death penalty be imposed. Unlike any other state, Florida allows the judge then to make the actual factual determination that death should be imposed, not the jury. Now the Supreme Court is poised to decide whether this is constitutional.

    The Court heard arguments last month in Hurst v. Florida, one of several death penalty cases on its docket this term. Timothy Hurst was charged with the murder of his co-worker at a Popeye's chicken restaurant. His conviction had already been reversed once because of the ineffective assistance his lawyer provided at his first trial. And the Court is apparently not entertaining the question whether he is intellectually disabled and, as a result, categorically ineligible for the death penalty, another important issue in the case.

    Instead, there is a fundamental question whether the jury in his case really sentenced him to death. Formally, the judge did it. As former Solicitor General Seth Waxman put it at the oral arguments, “Under Florida law, Timothy Lee Hurst will go to his death despite the fact that a judge, not a jury, made the factual finding that rendered him eligible for death.” In Ring v. Arizona, in 2002, the Supreme Court overturned its earlier ruling in the 1990 case Walton v. Arizona, holding that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial entitles a defendant facing the death penalty to have the key aggravating factors making the case eligible for the death penalty found by a jury and not a trial judge. Just about every death penalty state readily complied with that ruling—except Florida.

  • November 6, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Christina Swarns, Director of Litigation, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

    In 1879, the United States Supreme Court declared that the singling out of qualified African Americans for removal from jury service “is practically a brand upon them, affixed by the law, an assertion of their inferiority, and a stimulant to that race prejudice which is an impediment to securing individuals of the race that equal justice which the law aims to secure all others.” Although, in the subsequent 136 years, the Supreme Court has repeatedly condemned the practice of racial discrimination in jury selection, today, African Americans are excluded from jury service in ways that “seem[] better organized and more systematized than ever before.” Case in point: Foster v. Chatman, the jury discrimination challenge that was argued to the Supreme Court on Monday, November 2, 2015.

    Foster challenges Georgia prosecutors’ use of peremptory challenges to exclude African-American prospective jurors from the 1987 trial of Timothy Foster, an African-American man with intellectual disabilities who was charged with the murder of a White woman. Peremptory challenges are lawful opportunities for both prosecutors and defense attorneys to excuse prospective jurors from service in a particular trial. But there are limits to their use: In 1986, the Supreme Court held that these challenges cannot be based on race. Nonetheless, in Mr. Foster’s case, the prosecutors struck every single African-American prospective juror. As a result, an all-White jury convicted Mr. Foster of murder and sentenced him to death.

    When challenged, the Foster prosecutors offered a literal laundry list of supposedly race-neutral reasons for each of the strikes they exercised against the African-American prospective jurors. But the prosecutors’ notes, which were uncovered by the defense team some 20 years after Mr. Foster’s conviction, tell a completely different story. A note indicated that green highlighting “represent[s] blacks,” and the names of all the African-American jurors, but none of the White jurors, were highlighted in green. In their notes, the prosecutors referred to the African-American prospective jurors as “B#1, B#2, B#3,” while none of the White jurors were referred to solely by reference to race. In the prosecutors’ list of prospective jurors to strike, the name of every single prospective African-American juror was at the very top. The prosecutors ranked the African-American potential jurors in case they might “have to” seat one of them, but there was no similar ranking of all of the White prospective jurors. And last but not least, the supposedly race-neutral reasons offered by the prosecutors simply do not hold up: For example, the prosecutors said they struck one 34-year-old African-American juror because she was too close to the defendant’s age of 18, even though they accepted multiple White jurors who were actually closer in age to 18.