Archive for the ‘Appeals’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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

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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.

Supreme Court to Decide Whether Second Amendment Applies to the States

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

 

For the record, our position on gun control is to use both hands, relax, and control your breathing. But let’s talk about the law.

Last year, the Supreme Court historically decided that the Second Amendment gives individuals a constitutional right to possess firearms. The ruling, in District of Columbia v. Heller, was that the right of the People to bear arms was an individual right (so it wasn’t limited to militias or the military), and that it was a pre-existing right (recognized by the Constitution, and not created by it). The Court said there’s room for reasonable regulation, but an outright ban is unconstitutional.

The District of Columbia, however, is not a state. The Heller decision only directly applies at the federal level, which includes D.C. Whether the same rule applies to the states hasn’t been formally decided yet. And what counts as reasonable regulation at the state level is also an open question.

Obviously, there are plenty of folks who would like these things to be decided. Some want this to remain strictly a federal issue — the Bill of Rights originally did not apply to the states, and only gradually over the years have most (but not all) of the individual rights therein been incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Second, Third and Seventh Amendments have not yet been held to apply to the states.

Others, of course, want this individual right to be incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment’s “privileges and immunities clause.” (That clause is what gives individuals the Bill of Rights protections from governmental intrusions, at the state and local level, by virtue of their national citizenship. So it protects you from your local cops’ infringement of speech, unreasonable search and seizure, etc.)

The Circuits are split on the issue. The Ninth Circuit ruled earlier this year that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Second Amendment to the state level. But the Seventh Circuit said no, it doesn’t. So it’s certainly a ripe issue for certiorari.

Any number of cases have been percolating in the system, really, to give the Supreme Court a chance to decide the issue. The NRA alone filed five cases on the issue in Illinois alone. So it hasn’t been so much a question of whether the Court would decide it, but which case it would choose to hear.

Well, this morning, the Supremes announced the case. McDonald v. Chicago (08-1521) involves pretty much the same issues as Heller. Chicago’s gun-control laws are practically identical to those D.C. had, so it really is a good case to narrowly decide whether the rule should be extended to the states. (The various court filings can be found here.)

The Court’s calendar is full for the rest of the year, so oral arguments won’t be scheduled until January at the earliest.

Dersh Being Disingenuous

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

dershscalia

We love Alan Dershowitz. And we love Justice Scalia. So at first we were intrigued to hear that Dersh had challenged Scalia to a debate over his recent dissent in Davis. (See our post on it here.)

But it turns out that Dersh is just being disingenuous. Pity.

Quick recap: Davis was convicted of a murder. Since then, several witnesses have recanted. He filed a habeas petition directly with the Supreme Court. Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, passed it on to the District Court to decide whether Davis really is innocent. Justice Scalia dissented, saying that the District Court doesn’t have the power to do anything, even if it does find him innocent.

The reason why Scalia said that — and he really does have a point — is because the law in question only lets the District Court act if there is well-settled Supreme Court precedent allowing it. Scalia pointed out the simple fact, known to any death penalty scholar, that there is zero Supreme Court precedent on this issue. And that is because the Supreme Court has gone out of its way to avoid ever deciding one way or the other whether there is a constitutional claim of actual innocence.

Here’s what Scalia said:

This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged ‘actual innocence’ is constitutionally cognizable.

That clearly means nothing more nor less than that the Supreme Court simply hasn’t decided the issue yet.

Now of course there have been plenty of bloggers out there who have mischaracterized and misinterpreted this to mean that Scalia thinks it’s constitutional to execute someone who is actually innocent, so long as their trial wasn’t otherwise defective. That’s not what he said, but there are many who find it easy to believe that he did say that. And there are many more who just don’t get the concept. That’s fine, because those bloggers aren’t highly respected constitutional scholars.

But Dersh is a highly respected constitutional scholar. He has no excuse for misinterpreting what Scalia said. And yet that is exactly what Dersh did in his blog post today on The Daily Beast.

Dersh said he never thought he would see the day when a Justice of the Supreme Court would write an opinion containing the quotation above. Then he explained what he says Scalia meant:

Let us be clear precisely what this means. If a defendant were convicted, after a constitutionally unflawed trial, of murdering his wife, and then came to the Supreme Court with his very much alive wife at his side, and sought a new trial based on newly discovered evidence (namely that his wife was alive), these two justices would tell him, in effect: “Look, your wife may be alive as a matter of fact, but as a matter of constitutional law, she’s dead, and as for you, Mr. Innocent Defendant, you’re dead, too, since there is no constitutional right not to be executed merely because you’re innocent.”

That is absolutely not what Scalia was saying, and Dershowitz ought to know that. He created a straw man, then spent an entire blog post arguing against it.

That was bad enough. But then Dersh made it worse, by challenging Scalia to debate him on it. Dershowitz pointed out that Scalia has publicly promised that, if the Constitution ever compels him to act in violation of the mandates of his Catholic faith, he will resign as a Justice instead. And Scalia has also stated that he could not authorize an execution if he believed it would be immoral.

So Dershowitz says the stakes of their debate would be high: If Scalia loses, he’d either have to change his jurisprudence, or he’d have to resign from the Supreme Court.

But Dersh challenges Scalia to defend a position that Scalia has never taken, that “his constitutional views [permit] the execution of factually innocent defendants.”

And though Dersh imposes high stakes on the man he challenges, he imposes none on himself. If he loses, he loses nothing.

So our favorite constitutional scholar has challenged someone to defend a position he never took, with extreme penalties for losing, and at no risk to himself? Badly done, Dersh. Bad form.

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And by the by, the majority in Davis has tried to force the issue. Whichever way the District Court goes on this, it’s coming back to the Supreme Court, so they may well have to decide once and for all whether there is a constitutional claim of actual innocence. They may not, because this isn’t the strongest case of innocence — it’s a he-said-he-said situation with witnesses who merely recanted testimony — and so they may have other grounds to avoid the issue.

But if they do decide the issue, we have no trouble predicting that Scalia would opine that the our law does provide for a claim of actual innocence. He’d probably refer to the fact that English courts going back to the Middle Ages widely accepted the principle that innocence trumps other considerations. He’d probably quote Fortescue and Blackstone. He could well throw in the maxims of tutius semper est errare in acquietando quam in puniendo, ex parte misericordiae, quam ex parte justiae, and of prestat reum nocentum absolve, quam ex prohibitis indiciis & illegitima probatione condemnari. Heck, if he’s feeling mischievous, he might even cite the rules of Star Chamber (such as In Camera Stellata, 29 April 1607, in Court of Star Chamber, Les Reportes del Cases in Camera Stellata 1593 to 1620).

We wouldn’t be a bit surprised. And Dersh shouldn’t be, either.

Wow! Supreme Court Puts Actual Innocence in Play

Monday, August 17th, 2009

 

The Supreme Court did something today it hasn’t done for generations — it took an “original writ” of habeas corpus (a request made directly to the Supreme Court itself, instead of first filing it in a lower court), and then it ordered a federal District Court to hold a hearing on whether the convict is actually innocent.

The really dramatic thing about this is not the acceptance of an original habeas petition, but the fact that the Court’s order seems to imply that a convict may not be executed if he can prove actual innocence. As demonstrated most recently by the Court’s Osborne decison, it has persisted in absolutely refusing to decide that issue. They have gone out of their way, in fact, to repeatedly leave the question “unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged ‘actual innocence’ is constitutionally cognizable,” as Scalia said this morning.

Troy Anthony Davis was convicted 18 years ago, in Georgia state court, for the shooting death of an off-duty police officer, Mark Allen McPhail. At trial, Davis had insisted that he was innocent, though he had been present at the time. The jury didn’t believe him, and there were no constitutional problems with his trial.

Since then, seven of the witnesses against him have recanted their testimony, and evidence has come forward that the prosecution’s main witness was the actual killer. Davis has invoked the Supreme Court’s original habeas jurisdiction, relying on Court Rule 20.4(a) permitting such discretionary powers under “exceptional circumstances.”

A majority of the Court (new justice Sotomayor did not take part) agreed with Davis, found the necessary exceptional circumstances, and transferred the petition to a District Court. The District Court has been instructed to hold a hearing to determine whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes Davis’ actual innocence.

This appears to have set off quite a debate among the justices, in the middle of their summer recess.

Justices Scalia and Thomas are adamant that the Court did the wrong thing here. Most importantly, they point out that the District Court can’t grant Davis the relief he seeks, even if it wants to. So this transfer “is a confusing exercise that can serve no purpose except to delay the State’s execution of its lawful criminal judgment.”

District Courts only have power to release convicts pursuant to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. That statute prohibits habeas corpus for claims that were adjudicated on the merits in state court, unless that decision violates “clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Because the Supreme Court has gone out of its way not to determine the issue of whether actual innocence is a valid basis for habeas release, Scalia and Thomas hold that it cannot be “clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Justice Stevens, writing for the majority (joined by Justices Ginsburg and Breyer), simply sidestepped the issue. The AEDPA might not apply in an original habeas petition, he mused. And even if it does apply, it might be unconstitutional for it to prevent relief for someone who has established his innocence. Or, in the alternative, one might find that clearly established Court precedent already permits such relief, as it “would be an atrocious violation of our Constitution and the principles upon which it is based” to execute an innocent person.

Stevens’ closing paragraph, however, makes it clear that he understands that the Court has never dealt with the issue before, but he feels that it is time to create some new law. “Imagine a petitioner in Davis’s situation who possesses new evidence conclusively and definitively proving, beyond any scintilla of doubt, that he is an innocent man.” Applying the law as it exists, the way Scalia and Thomas would have the Court do, “would allow such a petitioner to be put to death nonetheless.”

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In the 2008 term, Stevens seemed to be going out of his way to create a legacy. Writing as if he was about to announce his own retirement, his opinions seem to have sought for better principles rather than the application of existing ones. His jurisprudence is not about objective law, but subjective justice.

So this opinion fits right in with his others. To hell with the Court’s insistence on staying out of the “actual innocence” defense. here was a perfect opportunity to force the Court to deal with it once and for all. By sending it to the District Court expressly for the purpose of establishing that defense, he has ensured that the case will re-appear before the Supreme Court to decide it.

If Davis wins, the State of Georgia will surely appeal, claiming that the District Court lacked the power to decide the issue. If he loses, he’s sure to appeal, along with amici like the NAACP, claiming that the District Court abused its power in rejecting his claim.

Either way, the Supreme Court would eventually be faced with deciding the issue of whether actual innocence is a valid basis for a habeas petition.

It looks to us like Stevens is gaming the system for activist purposes. For the record, we firmly believe that actual innocence should trump procedure and all other legalistic concerns. But it remains to be seen whether he’ll succeed in getting the law to shape itself accordingly.

5 Tips for a Killer Appellate Brief

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

writer-boxed-flipped.png

We’ve seen too many appellate briefs that suck. They’re too hard to follow, demand too much effort to figure out, and give clerks and judges every reason to stop paying attention. There’s no excuse for such bad writing.

There are tons of books and treatises out there on how to write a brief. Many of them are quite good, giving thoughtful, clear and detailed advice on writing compelling briefs. But obviously, there are tons of lawyers who haven’t gotten the message. Maybe it’s because they can’t be bothered to read a whole book on the subject.

So for those who want to improve their appellate writing skills, but don’t want to wade through a whole book about it, here are a few suggestions:

1. Be Brief.

It’s not called a “brief” for nothing. But some lawyers tend to write as if they’re getting paid by the word. That is a huge mistake.

Judges and clerks have to read these things. A brief that’s super wordy, taking forever to lay out the facts, taking forever to reason out an argument, taking forever to complete a thought… let me tell you right now, nobody wants to read it. A judge is going to stop reading carefully if you keep making the same point over and over. A judge is going to stop reading carefully if you’re using dozens of paragraphs to make a point you could have made in three sentences.

You may think you’re being artful and brilliant. You may think you’re advancing your case by laying out your thesis as thoroughly as possible. You may think that your lengthy discussions are causing the judges to spend more time considering your points. But in reality a repetitive, verbose brief is only going to wind up being skimmed. Judges will actually spend less time reading it.

A brief that gets to the point, however, is the mark of a good lawyer. That’s really what judges think. The fewer words your brief has, the more likely they are to think you have the winning argument, before they even turn a page.

Also, the more concise you are, the more attention your words receive. Instead of diluting your thoughts in a sea of verbiage, you’ll make them stand out. Judges and clerks will pay more attention to what you say. Fewer words make each one more valuable.

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2. Don’t Overdo It.

Pick and choose your arguments. Don’t waste time with lame ones. Way too many lawyers think they have to throw in everything they can think of, for fear of waiving a valid issue. But that’s just lazy and stupid. If an argument is a loser, what do you care if it’s waived?

Including weak garbage in your brief only weakens the reader’s trust in you. You may have a good, solid point in there, but now it’s tainted by association with the lame points you included out of misguided “thoroughness.” It makes you look dumb, because you obviously think those arguments have merit.

A good brief selects only the strongest arguments. By focusing only on the issues where a valid case can be made, the lawyer earns the trust of the court. And the court winds up focusing on your best points, without distraction.

Also, put your best argument up front. Don’t stick it in the middle. Just because it involves the third of five elements, that does not mean it has to be the third point. Start winning on page one. Give the court the easiest path to rule in your favor. Arrange your points in order of effectiveness.

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3. Get Organized.

A poorly-organized brief is the surest sign of bad lawyering. Arguments are disjointed, without a simple and compelling logical flow. Fact sections are confusing, presenting the events in no logical order. Important thoughts are buried, so the reader doesn’t realize their importance, if they’re noticed in the first place.

Poor organization means you don’t understand what you’re saying. If you can’t explain what happened in a straightforward narrative, then you don’t really know what happened. If you can’t make an argument in a simple syllogism (the law says “if A then B;” the facts are A; therefore B) then you don’t understand the issues.

Poor organization screams to the judge that your brief is the loser.

Good organization is not hard to do. It can be time-consuming, but it’s not rocket surgery.

First, the fact section. Presuming that you’ve spotted the issues already (you do know why you’re appealing, don’t you?), draft a narrative of the facts with those issues in mind. Do not be one of those idiots who just plugs in facts in the order they popped up in the transcripts below. And don’t just plug in everything that happened, whether it’s relevant or not. Write a story. Make a point.

This is not argument. Don’t argue in your fact section. But by all means be persuasive. Emphasize the facts you want emphasized. Carefully choose your language. Humanize your client. Make language your tool, your weapon.

The best way to tell the story is to do it chronologically. Start at the beginning: Who are the players, what was their relationship, and how did this all get started? Then describe the facts as they progressed. Your source material will of course not be organized this way, but you must organize it this way. In doing so, you will master the facts, if you haven’t done so already. And more importantly, your readers will master them easily and quickly.

Do include all relevant facts, even if they hurt you. Leaving them out only damages your credibility. Where facts are in dispute, present your version of the facts — but be sure to indicate that this is only your version. (You could say “there is evidence that…” for example.) Let the other side present its version, but don’t be dishonest and write as if yours is the only one.

Next, organize your arguments. Argument should be as simple as a syllogism. State what the law is. Explain how your facts fit the law. Then apply the law to your facts like a formula.

Obviously, your real work is the second step, explaining how your facts fit. But you’d be amazed how many lawyers don’t even bother with figuring out the first part. It’s just a matter of looking up the controlling law and saying what it is. So do it. (And don’t be afraid to base a rule on simple common sense from time to time — the law is not the only principle we live by.)

Likewise, the third part should be as easy as pie. “Applying this rule to these circumstances, we therefore get this result.” Not exactly an exercise of brainpower. And yet lawyers screw it up. They misapply the rule (demonstrating that they don’t understand it). They misapply the facts (demonstrating that they haven’t mastered the case). Worst of all, some lawyers don’t even bother to state the conclusion! They just throw out a bunch of law and a bunch of facts, and leave it up to the reader to figure out what it means.

Be careful not to over-state the law. If that case doesn’t really say what you claim, you’ve just killed the credibility of your whole case. (One rule of thumb — if a citation doesn’t point to a specific page, then the case probably doesn’t say what the lawyer claims. So always give pinpoint citations, and make sure the case really says what you say it says.)

Break your argument down into its component parts. Each one should be organized Law, Facts, Conclusion. If you can’t do that, then you either don’t understand the issue, or you still need to break down your argument a little more. Your argument may have only one heading (“The District Court Abused Its Discretion in Denying the Motion”), but it may have to be broken down into several sub-headings.

You want your conclusion to be on solid ground. It’s the result of one big syllogism (“if a court abuses its discretion, its decision should be reversed; that court abused its discretion; therefore its decision should be reversed”). But the first and second premises may each need to be established through syllogisms of their own. Those become sub-sections of this argument point. Maybe there are several ways in which the court abused its discretion, too — these alternative theories become sub-sections of a sub-section.

This will also make your headings more concise and easy to follow. Judges and clerks love that. Section headings that take up a block of text are (a) not read, and (b) proof that your argument sucks.

If you’re thinking logically — if you’re thinking like a lawyer — then your arguments will naturally organize themselves as you read and revise your draft. When you’re finished, they’ll be brief, they’ll be compelling, and they’ll be effective.

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4. Don’t Overdo It, Part II.

Show, don’t tell. You’re not writing for a soap opera. You’re not writing a children’s book. So don’t tell the readers how they ought to feel. Let your assertions speak for themselves.

So cut out the adjectives that characterize facts. Delete the rhetorical flourishes. Strike out all the fancy phraseology. You’re not making an emotional appeal to a jury, and rest assured that Judges resent it.

That’s not to say you can’t use some dramatic skills. The very best actors and orators know that, if you really want your audience to feel an emotion, don’t let them see that emotion on your face. If you act indignant, then you’re going to be the only one feeling it. But if you hold it back, and simply give your audience the reason to feel the injustice, without telling them to… they’ll be clamoring for justice before you’ve finished.

Although there’s no need to be dry and pedantic, you should by all means be straightforward and reasonable. Write as clearly as possible. Use the shortest sentences you can. Reason, not emotion, is how you get judges to agree with you. A matter-of-fact tone will raise you in the court’s estimation. It is the most compelling way to present a legal argument.

And God forbid you should ever cast aspersions on opposing counsel. Nobody cares that the other lawyer acted like a jackass to you. It has nothing to do with the legal issue before the court. Characterizing opposing counsel makes you seem petty, and indicates that you don’t have a firm grasp of the actual issues here.

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5. Write the Opinion for the Court.

The best briefs make the clerks and judges work the least. The most effective style is one that writes the court’s opinion for them. Write the decision that you want published.

It often seems that lawyers don’t really understand their relationship to the appellate court. You are not the judges’ teacher. Neither are you begging on your knees. You are their colleague. You’re all on the same team. They have to make a decision, and your job is to help them make the right one.

If you keep that in mind, and act accordingly, you are going to shine. You’ll be respectful, but not obsequious. You’ll be a valuable help, not a condescending instructor. You’ll be “one of us,” and you will be taken seriously.

That carries over into oral argument, as well. But your brief will reflect this attitude, and add that much more credibility to your arguments.

So write the just and fair opinion that still rules in your favor. Don’t ignore the stuff that might hurt you — explain why it doesn’t. If there are inconvenient but relevant facts, deal with them. If there are cases that don’t go your way, take a moment to point out why they aren’t pertinent here.

Give the court the facts it needs to side with you, the law that enables it to do so, and the arguments that do it. Do that, and don’t be surprised to see your own words in the opinion that ultimately comes down.