Archive for August, 2010

Innocence Not Proven

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

 

A year and eight days ago, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of granting an “original writ,” and handed down a novel decision directing a federal court to revisit the murder conviction of Troy Anthony Davis by allowing Davis to put on evidence of actual innocence.  (See our original post on the decision here.)  Davis was convicted after trial of shooting a police officer to death in 1989.  He always claimed he was there, but didn’t shoot anyone.  Several witnesses said otherwise, and the jury found him guilty.  After some of the witnesses recanted, however, and evidence was discovered that indicated that the prosecution’s star witness was the real shooter, the issue of actual innocence was put into play.  With some serious debate among the Justices, the Supreme Court sent it back specifically for the district court to determine whether there was evidence not available at the trial would “clearly establish” his innocence.

Yesterday, the federal court finished hearing the evidence of actual innocence, and found nothing worth reversing the conviction.  “Mr. Davis vastly overstates the value of his evidence of innocence,” the court found.  “Some of the evidence is not credible and would be disregarded by a reasonable juror. … Other evidence that Mr. Davis brought forward is too general to provide anything more than smoke and mirrors.”  You can read the CNN story here, and the decision itself here (part 1) and here (part 2).

“This court concludes that executing an innocent person would violate the Eighth Amendment (barring cruel and unusual punishment) of the U.S. Constitution,” ruled U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr.  “However, Mr. Davis is not innocent.”  Although the state’s case “may not be ironclad, most reasonable jurors would again vote to convict Mr. Davis of officer MacPhail’s murder.”  Repeating a phrase, it went on “ultimately, while Mr. Davis’ new evidence casts some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors,” Moore ruled. “The vast majority of the evidence at trial remains intact, and the new evidence is largely not credible or lacking in probative value.”

We’d be surprised if there wasn’t yet another appeal.  We’ll save you our rant on why this process is precisely why capital punishment doesn’t work.  If you’re interested, you can read it here.

Terrorism and the Courts: Kennedy Misses the Point

Friday, August 20th, 2010

The 9th Circuit judicial conference wrapped up yesterday.  Hundreds of lawyers spent the last several days discussing this and that in Maui, and finished up with a speech and some Q&A from Justice Kennedy.  He had a lot of different things to say, most of which are unremarkable (such as the Court will be “different” somehow with Stevens gone and Kagan there).  But one thing he said made us sit up and pay attention.

At a panel discussion earlier in the week, the conferees had decided that most terrorism cases ought to be tried in civilian courts, and not in military tribunals.  In his speech, Kennedy said he agreed.  He said that the use of military tribunals was an “attack on the rule of law,” and that it has failed.  “Article III courts are quite capable of trying these terrorist cases.”

He completely missed the point.  The courts have nothing to do with most terrorism, acts of warfare launched from abroad.  But Kennedy’s been in the courts for so long, that that’s his whole perspective.  Not only does he think the courts should try individuals suspected of engaging in terrorist acts, and fighting against the U.S. military on behalf of the terrorists, but he thinks the contrary position is an attack on the rule of law.  Law, he fails to realize, doesn’t enter into it. 

Well, no, that’s not entirely correct.  Law enters into it insofar as our rule of law and sense of fair play become weapons used by enemies without such civilized ways.  And he fails to realize that his attitude is precisely that which our enemies rely on.  His comments play right into their hands.

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As we’ve mentioned before, most terrorism is an (more…)

The Holdout

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

The news is full of reports today about the hung jury in the Blagojevich trial — they found the governor guilty of a single count of lying to federal agents something like five years ago, and hung 11-1 in favor of conviction on the remaining counts.  All kinds of pontificators are pontificating about why this happened.  Scott Turow, for example, says it’s because corporations have too much freedom to contribute to political campaigns, so bribery becomes perceived as the norm. 

That’s a bit of a stretch.  It’s hardly likely that the jurors were considering such things as the corrupting consequences of the extension of First Amendment protections to corporate campaign contributions.  Like most commentors, Turow seems to be slapping his own politics on top of a more prosaic observation — that to some, the governor’s actions just don’t seem criminal.  This observation, without all the other nonsense attached to it, was actually quite astute.  According to the jury foreman, the holdout appears to have thought Blagojevich’s actions were “just talk,” and nothing criminal.

From what we’ve seen in the newspapers, that’s not an insane perspective here.  It sure reads as if Blagojevich was just thinking out loud sometimes, or bouncing stupid ideas off people that never got carried out.  And the forman says the other jurors respected the holdout’s right to her position here.  It doesn’t seem like an unprincipled, irrational vote.

But other reports highlight a different take on the holdout’s position.  Another juror is on record saying that the holdout wanted more clear-cut evidence, tantamount to a videotape of a murder, before she’d ever have convicted.  And if, as is likely, the holdout was Jo Ann Chiakulas, then she had already made up her mind weeks beforehand that the governor was innocent.

Both takes ring true to us, and are not mutually exclusive.  It seems probable that the holdout had decided weeks ago, after the close of the prosecution’s case, that the government hadn’t given her that whatever-it-is she would have needed to vote to convict.  Jurors vote to acquit all the time, in even the most solid rock-crusher cases, and the most common reason given is that “there just wasn’t enough evidence,” or they “needed more.” 

Jurors can never articulate what “more” they would have needed.  That’s because this is humanspeak for (more…)

All the Wrong Reasons

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

 

So we’ve been hearing about this new blog, “UnemployedJD.com,” where some guy named Ethan is documenting his hunger strike “to bring awareness to the concerns of [his] classmates. Their primary concerns are inaccurate employment statistics, ineffective career counseling, and rising tuition costs. [His] intention is to have these concerns addressed by law school administrators.”

Really?  A hunger strike?  Because most law students aren’t guaranteed a high-paying job on graduation?  We figured it had to be a joke.  Some hipster irony, or an Onion article being taken seriously, or something like that.  But no, it turns out this kid is totally serious.  (Well, not totally.  He’s letting himself drink juice.)

Putting aside his sincerity, it’s a stupid tactic.  It’s not as if awareness needs to be raised — the news has been saturated for a couple of years now with stories of law firms cutting back, not hiring, and law schools continuing to pump out graduates without jobs.  And it’s not a problem that law school administrators can fix, much less one that they ought to fix.  It’s up to the students, not the school, to make sure they’ve built the necessary transcript and resume to get the job they want.  The school can provide the opportunity, but only the student can do the work.  It’s not the school’s fault if the student didn’t do what had to be done.

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Here’s the deal: High-paying entry-level law jobs are extremely rare.  They are offered to the top sliver of students from the top sliver of “national” law schools.  Top students from regional schools will be in the running for local firms, but not for firms in other parts of the country.  And if you’re not a top student from a top school, you can forget about getting a big-money job.  Period.

Of course, if you’re going into the law for the money, you don’t belong in the law.  There’s nothing wrong with making a good living as a lawyer, but if that is the reason for wanting to be lawyer you simply don’t belong in the profession.  People who are going into law school because it seems like a meal ticket are doing it for the wrong reasons.  Ditto for people who go to law school by default, because it seems like a safe placeholder until they figure out what they want to do with their lives or until the economy picks up again.  They’re wasting all that time and money on law school, for all the wrong reasons.

And if you’re going to a lesser law school, in order to make the big bucks when you get out, you’re not just wrongheaded but stupid.  The school you go to really does matter to what kind of job you get on graduation.  If you weren’t good enough to even get into a top school, what makes you think you can compete with those who not only got in, but outperformed everyone else who also got in?  To think that somehow you’re entitled to a high-paying job after graduating in the bottom of your class from a second- or third-tier school… that’s beyond unrealistic.

Apart from the money, nobody has ever guaranteed (more…)

What Nobody’s Mentioning about the New Crack Sentencing Law

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

 

Yesterday, President Obama signed S.1789, the long-awaited sentencing fairness act that reduced the appalling 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine.  It still doesn’t go all the way to undo the hysteria of the crack epidemic, however.  For powder cocaine there’s a 10-year minimum for selling or possessing with intent to sell 5,000 grams — for crack cocaine the figure was just 50 grams, but that just went up to 280 grams.  There’s a 5-year minimum for selling/possessing with intent 500 grams of powder — for crack that just went up from 5 grams to 28 grams.  So there’s still a roughly 18-to-1 sentencing disparity.  And the 5-year mandatory minimum for mere possession of crack — personal use here — was eliminated entirely (it had applied to possession of 5 grams for first offenders, 3 grams for second offenders, and 1 gram for third offenders).

That’s all good news.  Getting rid of the mandatory minimum for mere possession is the best part, because throwing people in jail for mere possession is stupid, wrong, unjust, and doesn’t solve the problem.  Drug court and treatment diversion programs work very well.  (The new law also requires a federal report one year from now on just how well the federally-funded drug court programs are doing.)  Reducing the sentencing disparity from the appalling (and racist) 100-to-1, to the merely shocking (and still racist) 18-to-1… well, it’s better than nothing.  Powder and crack are equally bad, there is no disparity in their effects, their addictiveness, or anything meaningful.  There shouldn’t be any disparity at all.  But reducing it is a step in the right direction, and the new law is rightly praised for so doing.

But in all the hoopla, the press (and the defense bar) seem to have overlooked the other provisions of the new law — provisions which can dramatically increase some drug sentences.

There are now 2+ level enhancements for drug crimes involving violence or the threat of violence (not unheard of).  There are now 2+ level enhancements if premises were used for the manufacture or distribution (very common).  There will be 2+ level enhancements if the defendant was using his girlfriend to mule the drugs, or an addict to sell the drugs on the street in exchange for a freebie, or any other typical buffering relationship.  There will be 2+ enhancements if they sold to, or involved, someone under 18, someone over 64, or someone who was pregnant (common).  There are 2+ enhancements if the defendant made his living by selling drugs (a majority of cases, no?).

That’s just a partial list of enhancements.  But you can see how a typical drug defendant can now wind up facing significantly more time now than before Obama signed “the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. ”

We can think of a number of ways to describe the new law.  “Fair Sentencing” is not one of them.

Taking DNA Samples at Arrest? Not a Problem.

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

dna

On May 8, 2005, we were having a party.  It was our birthday, and our firstborn had just turned 1 a few days before, so it called for a big celebration with friends and family.  For us, it was a time of new beginnings.  But for Jerry Hobbs, May 8 2005 was the end.  He found his 8-year-old daughter and her 9-year-old friend brutally stabbed to death, in a park in Zion, Illinois.  He immediately called the police, who immediately made him their number-one suspect.  He’d just gotten out of jail in Texas, after all, so why investigate further?  He was subjected to a long, intense interrogation, and eventually made a statement that sounded like a confession.  He recanted the statement, saying it was coerced, but that didn’t matter, and he was charged with the murders.

Shortly after his interrogation, the police found DNA on the girls’ bodies that didn’t match Hobbs.  The DA discounted it, saying it must have been cross-contamination and couldn’t have been relevant to the crime.  But the DNA was in semen found on the girls’ bodies — and inside one girl’s vagina — and that’s not cross-contamination.  The DA insisted that it was still irrelevant, and that the semen must have been on the ground before the attack.  Seriously.  Hobbs remained in custody, charged with the double murder, for more than five years, though his case never went to trial.

He was in jail until a couple of hours ago, that is.  As it happens, that DNA on the girls’ bodies was extremely relevant.  Jorge Torrez, who had lived in Zion at the time, was arrested in Arlington, Virginia a few months back, and charged with the abduction and repeated rape of one woman as well as attacking another woman.  Virginia, unlike Illinois, takes DNA samples along with fingerprints when someone is arrested.  The DNA taken at Torrez’s arrest went into the database, and popped up as a match to the DNA found on the girls.  The Illinois prosecutors dithered for weeks, but this morning they finally released Hobbs from prison (though they refused to issue an apology, insisting they and the police had done everything right).  Still, an innocent man went free at last.

And if Torrez’s DNA had not been swabbed on arrest?  Hobbes’ coerced, false confession might well have resulted in yet another wrongful conviction.

This raises a lot of issues.  There’s the misuse of DNA evidence, and there’s the false confession, but those are topics for another time.  (If you’re interested in learning ways to defend such cases, you can check out our “Hope for Hopeless Cases” CLE series, particularly lectures IV and V.)

Today, however, our beef is with the civil liberties argument against taking DNA samples at arrest.

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The argument is that people who haven’t yet been convicted of a crime should not be compelled to give DNA samples.  It smacks of “Big Brother” and “Minority Report.”  The government might conceivably (more…)

More on the NYT’s Absurd Article

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Over on the Volokh Conspiracy, Prof. Jonathan Adler posted another critique on Sunday of the New York Times’s silly article claiming the Roberts Court to be the “most conservative in living memory.”  Adler makes some of the same points we did last week, finding fault with the Times’s definitions of “conservative” and “activist,” but he goes further to point out that the Roberts Court is actually the “most restrained — or least activist” Court since WWII.  We recommend taking a look.