Archive for November, 2009

Stop the Presses: Drug Court Works

Monday, November 30th, 2009

 

The AP’s Sam Hananel has a nifty piece on Law.com today, called “Drug Courts Successful for Few Who Get In.” He sums up the situation fairly well. The short version is “drug court works, and with more funding it would work even more.”

A lot of crime is the result of drug addiction. Addicts deal drugs, rob, steal, burglarize and hurt people just to feed their addiction. Other crimes would never have happened but for that addiction. And addicts tend to keep committing these crimes over and over again. The damage to society is great, and the public cost of dealing with it is enormous.

So if we could somehow stop the addiction, the thinking goes, then we could prevent a large amount of future crimes and save ourselves a lot of resources. That’s where drug court comes in. If selected for drug court, addicts get treatment and counseling. And if they succeed, their case gets dismissed or reduced in the interests of justice.

That’s the carrot. There’s a stick, as well. Before entering the program, the offender has to take a plea. No judgment is entered, however. If the offender completes the program successfully, then they get their plea back. If they fail, however, then that plea can be enforced, and they face jail.

But a drug program that’s going to work is also going to be very hard to endure. Lots of offenders would rather just do the time, frankly. Because it’s not just about kicking the habit. Quitting is the easy part. Look at any population of inmates who can’t afford to maintain their drug habit while incarcerated, if you want to see “cold turkey” in action. The problem is, when they get out, they go right back into the same neighborhoods, with the same temptations, the same social pressures, and the same inability to just say “no.” They never rejoin lawful society.

So a decent drug program is going to hammer home, not only the ability to say “no” and keep pissing clean, but also the skills one needs to survive in law-abiding society. How to get a job, and keep it. How to take care of oneself, one’s family, and even put some savings aside. How to get that high school equivalency, or vocational certificate that can make all the difference in the world. It’s damn hard.

But it works. For those who graduate these programs, a mind-boggling 75% stay out of trouble. They’re cured. It worked.

Of course, a large reason why the success rates are so high is that candidates are cherry-picked by DA’s offices. Sources cited in the AP article complain about this selectivity, but in a world where the number of addicts vastly outweighs the resources available for treatment, it is hardly surprising that the government would focus its resources on those addicts most likely to respond to treatment. Accepting someone who’s probably going to fail is doubly unjust — it wastes tax dollars that could have helped another equally-needy addict, and it sets up the failer for the big stick punishment.

That big stick punishment is another complaint we’ve heard, and it pops up in the AP article, too. It’s not fair, they say, to require defendants to take a plea before they go into treatment. But these critics fail to recognize that it is a crucial part of the equation. Without the plea first, there is no incentive not to backslide. We’re talking about people who have already exercised poor judgment, poor impulse control, and a general tendency to take the easy way out. And again, this is a difficult process. Offering a risk-free escape route would set the whole system up for failure. It would be unjust, and a huge waste.

On top of that, the system would have to resuscitate each case one by one as people dropped out of the programs. DA’s offices would never be able to close a case, really. It would only increase their uncertainty and their workload. What possible incentive would they have to recommend our clients for treatment in such a situation? Time to be realistic, people.

So screw the naysayers. When we were narcotics prosecutors, we liked it. Now that we’re on the side of the angels, we love it. It makes a difference. It works. Keep both the carrot and the stick, if you want it to keep working. And if you want less cherry-picking, cough up more taxes so there are enough spots for all the good candidates, and then cough up some more to pay for the long shots.

In the meantime, let’s keep working to make it work.

Steering the Broken Machine

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

Mississippi Gas Chamber

The Last Lawyer: The Fight to Save Death Row Inmates
By John Temple
2009 University Press of Mississippi, 234 pages, $25.95
Amazon.com :: Barnes & Noble

The world is loaded with books about criminal lawyers. They fill the shelves in the mystery and thriller aisles, dominate true crime and related nonfiction genres. After all, a book about what we do is almost a guaranteed page-turner. Conflict? We got it — trials, accusations, at least two sides fighting in every case. Character? Our characters range from the noblest of all to the most despicable and inhuman. Plot? It’s already there, from the crime to the acquittal or execution. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. We’re not fighting over love or money, we’re fighting for people’s lives and liberty.

So it’s no surprise that there are so many John Grishams out there, and so many nonfiction books about criminal defense. And with so many books out there, you’d think that there would be plenty that give a fairly accurate insight into what criminal practice is really like.

And you would be wrong.

For it is rare indeed to find a book that really does the job. There are plenty that entertain, grip the reader, and even have something worth saying. But books that really draw the reader into our world, and let the reader see it with our eyes and our experience? Such books are few and far between.

Which is why we were genuinely delighted to read The Last Lawyer, by John Temple, an associate professor of journalism and associate dean at West Virginia University. Temple is not a criminal lawyer, he’s not a mystery writer, and that’s a good thing. He’s the kind of writer who comes from the outside, and digs deep into his subject. Like the lawyers and investigators he describes in this book, he clearly put in the time and effort to find out what really happened, who did it, how it happened, and why. And then he took all that data and crafted it into a story that is no less powerful simply because it is true.

True stories almost always suffer from bad writing. “But that’s how it really happened” is a crutch for lame writing, an excuse for having told a story poorly. Yes, real life does not play out according to a scripted dramatic formula. But that doesn’t mean reality can’t be presented that way. The Last Lawyer, however, tends to avoid this trap. With few exceptions, Temple grabs the reader and doesn’t let go.

So okay, he’s a good writer. But what does he have to say? That’s the best part.

Because Temple really gets it. He really, really gets it. If you read only one book in your life about what it’s like to be a criminal defense lawyer, read this one.

-=-=-=-=-

When we’re reading a book that particularly engages us, it’s like we’re having a conversation with the author. We find ourselves picking up a pen and scribbling back at him. Books at our house sometimes become dog-eared and annotated beyond any hope of resale. Our copy of The Last Lawyer quickly joined their ranks.

Why, when we already do this stuff for a living? Were we picking fights, or pointing out errors? Not at all. Instead, we frequently found ourselves encountering an insight, or a way of looking at things where we hadn’t looked at it ourselves that way. And we’d go “oh!” or “aha!” And then we’d take that fresh insight and run with it a bit in our head, and it would lead to a new thought we’d always sort of known, but had never actually thought before.

Not as much as we do when reading Proust, Patrick O’Brian or Terry Pratchett. But often enough. Often enough.

-=-=-=-=-

The Last Lawyer takes you through Ken Rose’s decade-long fight to appeal the capital conviction of Bo Jones, a low-IQ Black man sentenced to die for a 1987 murder.

Trial counsel had done little of the work that needed to be done now, and the case had to be investigated from scratch.. Uncooperative witnesses, some who lied and others with good reasons to lie — these were the least of their worries. They had to deal with a client who just did not seem to get the concept. And worse, judges who didn’t get the concept, and couldn’t be bothered to make the effort in the first place. Prosecutors who were the opposite of sympathetic, who railed against attempts to make technical legal arguments, but who were perfectly happy to get a conviction on technicalities themselves. A broken legal system that, instead of seeking justice, becomes a machine for churning people into prison or the gas chamber.

The book takes you through ten years of this struggle, as Ken Rose and his team slowly and gradually discover the facts and arguments they need to save Bo Jones’ life. In the process, you get to see firsthand the best and the worst that our system has to offer. Like any other human enterprise, you see a handful of outstanding performers, another handful of ruinous subverters, and a huge majority of folks just going along to get along. You see a system with powerful inertia.

Our adversarial system is designed to achieve justice, but it needs honest and good-faith opposition to function properly. Both sides need to play by the rules, and try their best, if justice is going to result. And it needs judicial referees to keep a keen eye out, not only for fouls, but for merit as well. But the reader of this book sees law enforcement that isn’t always as honest as we expect it to be, prosecutors who stop trying to seek justice and instead get invested in winning at all cost, defense attorneys who stop protecting their client above all else and instead become mere grease in the wheels of this machine. And judges who have seen so many frivolous arguments that they can’t spot the valid ones any more, and who aren’t terribly inclined to look for them in the first place.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s not just the broken system. There is good out there. And you get to see that, too. The single most important variable in whether a case is won or lost is preparation. And you see how good lawyers prepare, do the hard work, take the time to do the job right. You see real dedication, not to ego or money or advancement, but to saving the life of a fellow human being. To seeking real justice. To making the system a little bit better, for all of us.

This is the day-to-day experience of a criminal lawyer. The sometimes odd personalities, the deep injustices, the soaring heights of the human spirit, and everything in between.

Go get the book.

More Harm Than Good: Why Capital Punishment Doesn’t Work

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Capital Punishment Sentence Length

Without much media fanfare, the Supreme Court has already decided two capital-punishment cases this month.

The first, Bobby v. Van Hook, came down on the 9th, and dealt with a case from early 1985. Nearly 25 years ago, Van Hook went looking for someone to rob, trolled a Cincinnati gay bar, and seduced a guy he met there. The victim invited Van Hook to his apartment, where Van Hook got him into “a vulnerable position.” Then Van Hook strangled his victim till he was unconscious, killed him with a kitchen knife, and mutilated his body, before taking off with his victim’s valuables. Van Hook later confessed, and was sentenced to death.

His appeals lasted for nine years, all of which were denied. He then spent the next 14 years litigating a single federal habeas petition. First, he unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of his confession, losing those arguments all the way up to a denial of certiorari by the Supremes in 2007. Then he tried a new argument, that he’d gotten ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing, because all the work they had done wasn’t enough. The Sixth Circuit said his sentence should be reconsidered under new standards that had arisen 18 years after the fact. Ohio appealed, and the Supreme Court said you can’t apply these new standards retroactively like that. Van Hook argued that his counsel was ineffective under the standards at the time, anyway, to which the Supremes replied: “He is wrong.”

The Sixth Circuit being reversed, Robert Van Hook is now once again back in the queue for execution, nearly a quarter of a century later.

The second case decided was Wong v. Belmontes, which came out on the 16th. This case started way back in 1981, when Fernando Belmontes bludgeoned Steacy McConnell about 20 times with a steel weightlifting bar. She fought back desperately, to try to save herself, but ultimately Belmontes succeeded in killing her, so he could steal her stereo. He sold it for $100, which he spent on beer and drugs for that evening. He was convicted in California and sentenced to death.

His appeals went back and forth, and he lost. He tried to get federal habeas relief, but the District Court wouldn’t go for it. He appealed that, and the nothing-if-not-consistent Ninth Circuit bent over backwards to find instructional error, but the Supreme Court slapped that down in 2006. The Ninth Circuit tried again, this time finding ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing. In its ruling this month, the Supreme Court pointed out not only how much work went into the defense case at sentencing, but also how wise and skillful it had been. “If this counsel couldn’t make it work,” the Court seems to say, “then nobody could.” You just can’t mitigate away a case where the victim had obviously suffered so needlessly and brutally.

So now, the Ninth Circuit is reversed, and Fernando Belmontes is back on the capital-punishment track 28 years after the crime.

-=-=-=-=-

It being close to Thanksgiving, these decisions remind us of one of the first cases we ever worked on, back when we labored at all hours over Thanksgiving 1995 with the famed Carter Phillips, trying to prevent the execution of a retarded man, Walter Correll. Especially in light of the Supreme Court’s turnaround in the 2002 Atkins v. Virginia decision, ruling that executing the mentally retarded is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, we always get a little gloomy when we think back on that case.

But these decisions also remind us that, Republican though we may be, we remain firmly opposed to the death penalty. Not because it’s inherently cruel or inappropriate, but because it takes so damn long to carry out. The way the death penalty works in this country results in real injustice, harms society, and just makes things worse.

-=-=-=-=-

Look at the graph we stuck up there at the top of this post. We made that graph based on data freely available from the United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. You can see the raw data here.

That chart shows the average elapsed time, from sentence to execution, for each year. This is the average, and as the recent cases attest, actual times can be much much longer. But on average, the wait has gone from 51 months (4-1/4 years), to 153 months (12-3/4 years). That is an insane delay!

Elsewhere in the statistics, we see that the average inmate on death row right now has been waiting for 141 months, or about 11-3/4 years.

That’s a long time, in anyone’s book.

Now don’t get us wrong — we’re glad of the opportunity this affords us to find evidence of actual innocence, DNA evidence, or other means to exonerate the truly innocent. We’re not advocating for speedier executions, here. It takes this long because that’s just how long it takes. Our system is set up to give a lot of opportunity to review death sentences before they’re carried out. There is no appeal after execution, so society wants to make sure that everything was done right, that the convict has been afforded every procedural and constitutional protection that our jurisprudence has devised. And it just takes a long time to do that.

Our point is that the death penalty is improper (among perhaps other reasons) because this necessary delay makes it counterproductive.

-=-=-=-=-

Why do we punish people in the first place? Punishment is when the awesome might of the government is brought to bear on an individual, taking away rights, liberties, property, and even his life. Why do we do that?

We do that because we’ve deemed some actions so harmful to society that, to protect itself, society has to impose this harm. But that begs the question. It’s more of a definition of “what is a crime” than “why do we punish, to begin with.”

We punish because, over history, societies have discovered that it works. At some instinctive level, you get retaliation. Someone hits you, so you hit them back without thinking. It’s a primal urge, not a civilized one, but it would be foolish to pretend that society does not have its own primal urges. We don’t punish strictly to hit back at those who would hurt us, not consciously perhaps, but it is part of the reason why.

A more civilized reason is deterrence. It’s like spanking a child — the criminal associates the punishment with the crime, and decides not to do that any more. And if the spanking is public and seen by others, then others will also realize that this could happen to them, and they won’t do it either.

Deterrence only works, of course, if the punishment is close enough in time to the offense to have a psychological effect. If you spank a kid for something he did three weeks ago, the only psychological message you’re sending is that you’re unfair and cruel, and thereby weakening your own authority.

Deterrence only works if the punishment is connected to the crime. If you spank a kid and he has no idea why you’re spanking him, you’re not deterring anything. All you’re doing is demonstrating that you are arbitrary and unjust. The kid doesn’t know what to expect from you, and will grow to fear and despise you.

General deterrence of other potential criminals only works if the punishment is known, in addition to being close in time and tied to the offense. If people don’t know that it happened, then there is zero deterrent effect from any particular offense.

Perception then, as in so much of life, is everything. You want the system set up in such a way as to create the impression that sentences are just and fair, but you also want the perception that sentences are also going to be imposed. That, if you commit this offense, that punishment is actually going to happen.

Ideally, a utilitarian and a social idealist might even agree that the best way to do this would be to create the perception that sentences are speedily and fairly meted out, without going to all the expense and social harm of actually imposing them.

The flip side of that would be the opposite of ideal, then. And the flip side is exactly what we’ve got.

In our present system, capital punishment is not imposed close in time to the offense. It takes a decade or two before it is carried out. That’s like spanking a kid three weeks later. Far from having any deterrent effect, it undermines faith in justice and weakens the law’s authority.

As practiced, capital punishment is not connected to the crime. It’s almost random. Some horrific murders get the death penalty, others don’t. The reasons for the variety are not obvious or predictable. Unpredictability = no deterrent effect.

And public perception? After all the randomness and delay, there may be a perception that you could get the chair for a given crime, but nobody really thinks you will get the chair. Folks just don’t have an experience of the death penalty as being imposed consistently enough that we simply understand, deep down at a visceral level, that a given crime is likely to result in one’s own death. At best, public perception is a vague theoretical possibility. At worst, and what is more likely, is the perception that the death penalty is so rarely imposed, and only after such an interminable (ha) delay, that it’s really not a factor worth considering in the first place.

(Of course it goes without saying that no punishment can have a deterrent effect on crimes of passion, where no thought went into the crime. But those kinds of crimes tend not to be death-penalty cases, so that argument isn’t really applicable here.)

Another purpose of punishment is rehabilitation, but it’s hard to get one’s act together after one is dead, so that one is out the window.

The only remaining purpose of punishment is removal — getting this threat to public safety off the streets.

Now this one has some promise. Execution certainly removes the offender from our midst. So does exile, though, without all the mess and expense (though dumping our worst threats on someone else could create bigger problems). Life without parole does the same job, though at theoretically great cost — 75% of all death-penalty inmates were under 35 years old when they went in (see more statistics), so they’ve got lots of decades of feeding, sheltering, guarding, clothing, counseling, treating, educating, etc. to pay for.

Unfortunately, as practiced, capital punishment is just a more expensive form of life without parole. At some point, an ordinary prisoner is going to run out of appeals, but the capital inmate doesn’t. And the capital appeals take priority over other judicial needs, while costing the system and everyone involved a lot more in time and resources. By the time someone actually gets executed, all the various costs involved more than cover the costs of a life sentence.

So if removal is the only concern, then life without parole would be the way to go. You don’t get any extra removal from execution. All you get is increased tax burdens, significant extra burdens on the judicial system, loss of enormous amounts of time and money all around, and the intangible losses from harm to the system’s perception and reputation and authority.

-=-=-=-=-

So, speaking as a fairly conservative Republican here, we just don’t see how capital punishment as practiced in America today makes the least bit of sense. It accomplishes little, at enormous unnecessary societal cost.

That’s not the message the Supreme Court probably intended to send with these two cases this month, but that’s the message we heard loud and clear.

We’re Back, Did Ya Miss Us?

Friday, November 20th, 2009

So Much Win

Finally, the trial that would. not. end. is over. Three weeks to try a case that should have taken no more than five days. In the case that just would not end, either. The arrest was more than three years ago — that’s plenty long to have a felony case hanging over your head.

Especially one as over-charged as this one. A responsible prosecution team would have charged maybe 3 counts in this case. But for reasons unknown, the folks who originally brought the case in 2006 went into insane overkill mode, charging 18 counts.

Now, finally, 15 of those original 18 counts have been acquitted or dismissed. A lesser-included thrown in there at trial, to give them a second bite at the top count, was also dismissed. All the big charges got kicked, along with most of the little ones. The jury only said “guilty” to three of the b.s. minor charges that had been tacked on to this bizarrely over-charged indictment.

We’re calling this one a win, because this is precisely the outcome the client wanted on day one. It’s what he’s repeatedly asked for over the three years this case has been going on. And yet, from the get-go, this prosecution team has obstinately insisted on a plea to the charge, from day one. (They did so even after the judge, after their main witness had been pretty much destroyed in a day and a half of cross, firmly suggested that the offer be made.) It took three years, and three weeks of trial, to get to where this case should have been at arraignment. Where it would have been, had these prosecutors done the right thing.

Why didn’t they? Good question.

We come from the Manhattan DA’s office, where this sort of thing just isn’t done. This was not the crime of the century, there were no victims, nobody got hurt. The defendant didn’t commit perjury in a grand jury, not having testified. In a halfway decent DA’s office like Manhattan, the prosecutors would have exercised their prosecutorial discretion, as is their duty, and extended an offer.

But here, the prosecutors abused their discretion, by not exercising it in the first place. If you think that sounds like misconduct, we’re not sure we don’t disagree with you. But we’re still not sure, so we’re not identifying the office in question.

The likely reason is that there was a clash of personalities between the original prosecution team and the original defense team, which then became institutionalized over time.

The official reason, however, is just as unjustifiable. The official reason is that the defendant did not let the prosecutors break the law.

In New York, when a defendant hasn’t made bail and so remains in jail after arrest, we have a “speedy charge” rule. The government has six days to get an indictment, or else he gets released so he can do the rest of the case without posting any bail.

These prosecutors wanted the client to waive that requirement. They wanted him to agree to stay in jail for as long as they needed to get their act together and get an indictment in their own time. Because he didn’t, they said they would never make any plea offer whatsoever.

This is their official office policy, it seems.

And yet that is totally improper. It is nothing more than a policy forbidding the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, in retaliation for the mere refusal to give up one’s rights. That’s wrong on at least three levels.

That retaliatory aspect probably also explains why they over-charged this case so dramatically in the first place. And why they persisted in refusing to make an offer even after it was perfectly clear that they’d never get a conviction on any of the felonies.

-=-=-=-=-

Whatever the reason, they lost big-time here. The jury threw them a bone on some of the little stuff, but they can’t see that as a win. It’s nowhere near what they’ve wanted for three long years, what they got so invested in.

So yeah, we’re calling this a win. Not an epic win, but definitely a win.

-=-=-=-=-

Well, now we’re back, and we’ll have more time to blog on what’s going on out there. Plenty has gone on in the past three weeks — from the Bear Stearns acquittal, to Lynne Stewart starting her prison sentence, to a cop tasing a 10-year-old girl who wouldn’t take a bath. But it’s too late to blog in a timely fashion on those things. Sigh.

Oh well, there’s always more! Criminal law does not disappoint.

(Okay, we can’t resist. The girl who got tased? What’s up with that? We’re not talking about the cop using such extreme force on a little girl. We’re not all that concerned that he only got disciplined for not having a camera on the taser. We’re not even perturbed that he responded to a call of, essentially, “come arrest my kid who won’t take her bath.” We’re angered at the mom who made the call, and all the other moms out there just like her. This is a common symptom of the what Big Government programs and entitlements have done to ruin the very classes of people they were meant to help. We now have had generation after generation of people in inner cities and elsewhere who have been raised to expect government to do everything for them. They never have personal responsibility. Government provides all, does all. It also controls all. It takes charge of everything. When that’s all you know, then you reasonably expect government to take charge all the time. So moms commonly call the cops to make their kids clean their room, go to school, etc. The same moms (almost never raising these kids with a dad), lacking in a certain quale of personal responsibility, seem also to share the inability to properly rear and socialize their offspring. So these kids sometimes wind up getting locked up after the police arrive. And then the moms call their public defender in tears, unable to believe why their kid is locked up. Unable to comprehend the inevitable answer: “Ma’am, you put him there.” This is of a piece with the reasons why projects turn into ratholes, because it’s nobody’s responsibility to take care of them, it’s the government’s job. Why the schools suck, because the single factor affecting the quality of a school, parental involvement, is entirely absent because it’s not the parents’ job to educate, it’s the government’s job. This is a mindset that does not naturally occur in Americans. Maybe in Europe, where they are used to thinking of themselves as subjects rather than citizens, where the government has all the power and thus all the responsibility. But not in America. The only reason this mindset exists is because our well-intended big-government programs and institutionalization first removed the incentive to take care of oneself, and then destroyed the ability to do so. Rant off.)

Something to Tide You Over

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

writer-boxed-flipped

We apologize to our loyal readers for the unusual delay between posts. We’ve been on trial, and you know how that goes. Trial is all-consuming. And then there’s all the work that piles up in the meantime. And the wife and kids need a token appearance from us once in a while. So the blog just isn’t happening while we’re on trial.

And that’s how it should be, of course.

So yeah, we’ve been on trial since November 2. We keep predicting that it will end soon, but it never does. With any luck, we’ll have closing arguments tomorrow. But we said the same thing yesterday, and on Friday, and on Thursday… And we’re going to have to take Thursday off if the jury’s still not back with a verdict then, because we’re giving our next “Hope for Hopeless Cases” lecture for West Legal Ed Center that day. So yeah, this case could easily last through Friday.

To tide you over until we finally get a chance to blog again, here’s a link to our latest article in Forbes magazine.

Link

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Excerpt:
-=-=-=-=-

Expert View
BEAR STEARNS DEFENSE HOLDS LESSONS FOR EXECS

Going on offense is the best defense in white-collar cases.

It didn’t take long after the housing boom turned bust and trillions of dollars of wealth had gone poof that the public was out for blood. The government needed to “do something” about the mess.

An obvious point of focus were the securities firms Bear Stearns (now a part of JPMorgan Chase) and Lehman Brothers (now a part of Barclays) which blew up in quick succession. From there, it does not take a huge leap of logic to understand how federal prosecutors set their sights on Ralph Cioffi and Matt Tannin, two former managers of Bear hedge funds who were plucked out of obscurity, paraded through a perp walk and unceremoniously read their rights as criminal defendants.

As their Nov. 10 acquittals attest, they didn’t actually commit any crimes. But that didn’t spare them from two years of hell during which they were investigated, indicted, vilified, prosecuted and put on trial. If they’d lost, that would have all been a picnic compared with the 20 years of prison time they would have faced.

If the case teaches us anything, it’s that such ordeals can befall executives–innocent and otherwise. If enough things go wrong on their watch, it’s not all that rare for bosses to find gung-ho prosecutors eager to indict them before all the facts are in.

That leads to the question: What can you do to protect yourself if you fall under the eye of a suspicious prosecutor? Here, the Bear Stearns case is instructive.

Lesson One
You’re on your own. If you ever find yourself on the receiving end of an indictment related to your professional activities, don’t count on your…

Continue reading

Supremes Punt, but Stevens AND Scalia Agree: It’s Time to Clarify whether Feds Can Still Prosecute Old Civil Rights Crimes

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

seale

Way back in May 1964, in the very small town of Meadville, Mississippi, two black teenagers were hitchhiking down the road when James Ford Seale drove up. Seale, a member of the KKK, told them he was a revenooer looking for moonshiners, and told the boys to get in his car. He then drove them off into the forest. A bunch of other Klansmen met up with them.

Seale pointed a sawed-off shotgun at the boys, while the other Klansmen tied them to a tree. Then the boys were whipped to within an inch of their lives with “bean sticks.” The bloodied boys were hauled to a farm nearby, where Seale bound and gagged them with duct tape. The boys were wrapped in a tarp, shoved into a Klansman’s trunk, and driven 100 miles to a secluded riverbank.

While the boys were still alive, they were chained to the engine block of an old Jeep, and to pieces of railroad track. Then the Klansmen dumped the boys in the river, where they drowned. One of the Klansmen later reported that Seale “would have shot them first, but didn’t want to get blood all over the boat.”

The boys were killed because they were black, and because Seale thought they might have been civil-rights workers.

-=-=-=-=-

In June 1964, three civil rights workers went to Longdale, Mississippi, to investigate the burning of a Methodist Church that had been a civil-rights meeting place. A sheriff’s deputy, also a KKK member, recognized their car and locked all three up. The men were held incognito until an ambush could be prepared, and then were told to get out of the county. The deputy followed them to the edge of town, then pulled them over again. A KKK gang showed up, and the three workers were taken to an isolated place to be brutally beaten and shot to death. Their car was burned in a swamp, and their bodies were buried in a dam.

Their disappearance got national attention, and search parties went out.

In July, one of the search parties found the drowned bodies of the two boys Seale had killed in May.

-=-=-=-=-

Seale and several others were investigated for the murders, appearing before a House subcommittee on Un-American Activities in 1966. The Klansmen were asked about a number of kidnappings and murders, but nothing ever came of it. Seale just sat there smoking a cigar, and took the Fifth.

-=-=-=-=-

About forty years went by. The murders of Charles Moore and Henry Dee were forgotten.

-=-=-=-=-

Then a Canadian filmmaker saw some old CBC footage of the boys’ bodies being hauled out of the river, with the narration “it was the wrong body. The finding of a negro male was noted and forgotten. The search was not for him. The search was for two white youths and their negro friend.”

The filmmaker, David Ridgen, began working on what would become the documentary “Mississippi Cold Case.” He tracked down the brother of one of the victims, a retired 30-year Army veteran named Thomas Moore, who helped work on the film.

The press had been told that Seale had died in the meantime. But it was discovered that he still lived, and his family had lied to protect him. Ridgen and Moore went to the local U.S. Attorney, who promised to re-open the case.

In early 2007, Seale was indicted on two counts of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy. A fellow Klansman, after being given immunity, told the whole story. Seale was convicted of kidnapping after a jury trial in June 2007.

In August 2007, Seale was given three life sentences.

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Seale appealed to the Fifth Circuit. He argued that the statute of limitations for kidnapping had run out. At the time of the crime, there was no limitations period; but in 1972 it changed to a 5-year period.

That’s a pretty damn good argument. It was a capital kidnapping in 1964, which had no statute of limitations. But then in 1972 we got rid of capital punishment. So it reverted to an ordinary 5-year period.

The government pointed out that in 1994, after Furman v. Georgia, we brought back the death penalty. It was constitutional again. So this was a capital kidnapping again. And he was prosecuted and sentenced after it had been deemed a capital kidnapping again. So there was no statute of limitations.

The Fifth Circuit agreed with Seale, and reversed his conviction in September 2008.

The prosecution requested a rehearing en banc. The full panel vacated the appellate decision, so that it could reconsider the issue. They sort of have to do that.

The full panel then duly reconsidered the issue, and split evenly down the middle in June 2009. The effect was to leave the trial court’s conviction and sentence intact. The original Fifth Circuit decision had been vacated.

So now there was no appellate decision at all! And Seale was left with no more avenues to fight his conviction.

Almost.

Seale took it to the Supreme Court. It wasn’t a petition for certiorari, but the almost-forgotten “certified question.”

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How that works is, the Circuit “certifies” a question that it wants the Supremes to help out with. The Supreme Court is asked to instruct the Circuit court on how it ought to rule in the case.

That’s permitted by Rule 19 of the Supreme Court rules, but it only happens once in a blue moon. The last time it happened was in 1981, when the Second Circuit asked for help with the President’s authority to say claims before the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal had no legal effect in U.S. courts (the Supremes said he can do it). There was another certified question in the 1970s on whether a retired judge gets to vote on whether to hear a case en banc (no). Before that, there was one in 1964 on whether there is a right to a jury in a criminal contempt case (no). And the only other one in living memory was in 1946, where the Supremes said the Circuit can’t review by mandamus a district court’s remand back to the state court after the case had been removed to the district court.

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So here was a historic opportunity for the Supreme Court to not only decide a rare certified question, but also to decide an issue of great importance to a variety of civil-rights-era cases that are still kicking around the federal courts.

And the Court refused.

This isn’t the first time the Roberts Court has punted on issues that it really ought to have decided. And the did it again here.

This is an issue that may seem hyper-technical, but it is critically important! There are a lot of old cases kicking around that were capital cases at the time, then weren’t and now are again. There’s lots of aging Klansmen out there, not to mention the number of cold-case murders being resuscitated by DNA evidence. Whether the feds can even prosecute these cases any more is at stake!

Not to mention the fact that Seale, horrible as his crimes were, seems now to have been denied due process. He can’t appeal any more? Just because the Circuit (singular) split, and the Supreme Court punted? His legal argument is going to go undecided? How is that remotely right?

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The Court doesn’t write opinions from a denial of a certified question. But they sure got a dissenting opinion today, in United States v. James Ford Seale, by the strangest of bedfellows: Justices Stevens and Scalia.

The two, usually diametrically opposed in their jurisprudence and judicial philosophy, agreed wholeheartedly that the Court should have decided this case.

This certificate presents us with a pure question of law that may well determine the outcome of a number of cases of ugly racial violence remaining from the 1960s. The question is what statute of limitations applies to a prosecution under 18 U.S.C. §1201 commenced in 2007 for a kidnapping offense that occurred in 1964.

* * *

In 1964, a violation of §1201 was a capital offense [if] the victim was harmed, and since 1994 a violation of §1201 has been a capital offense when the kidnapping results in the loss of life. But for more than two decades in between, Seale’s crime was not punishable by death.

* * *

The question is narrow, debatable, and important. … I see no benefit, and significant cost, to postponing the question’s resolution. A prompt answer from this Court will expedite the termination of this litigation and determine whether other similar cases may be prosecuted.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.