Archive for the ‘Juries’ Category

More on Brain Scans – Can They Tell Whether You’ll Get Off Lightly?

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

With a hat tip to our Uncle Ralph, here’s a link to yet another fMRI study bearing on criminal law. Makiko Yamada and colleagues have published in Nature Communications their study “Neural Circuits in the Brain that are Activated when Mitigating Criminal Sentences.”

The researchers asked people to review the facts underlying 32 hypothetical murder convictions. Half of them were designed to elicit sympathy for the convicted murderer, the other half to elicit no sympathy. The test subjects were told that each murderer had been given a 20-year sentence, and they were asked to modify the sentences. Unlike previous studies, there was no question as to guilt or innocence — the only issue was whether the sentence should be more or less than 20 years under the circumstances. A functional MRI scanned their brains to see what neurons were firing as they made their decisions.

The question intrigued the researchers because such decisions are not only high-stakes, but also because one must first have an emotional reaction, and then convert it into a cold quantification — the number of years of the sentence.

After crunching all the numbers, there appeared to be a strong correlation between activity in the portions of the brain highlighted in the image above, and reduced sentences.

To their credit, the researchers really don’t conclude any more than that — that certain brain areas seem to be involved in decisionmaking influenced by sympathy. And someone who’s more likely to be sympathetic is also more likely to have more activity in those neurons.

But they do note that this raises other questions — such as to what extent (more…)

Better Criminal Lawyering through Smart Risk-Taking

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Judgment is the criminal lawyer’s stock-in-trade. The ability to assess the risks of a situation, and choose the better course of action, is the value that lawyers bring to the criminal justice system. It doesn’t matter if they’re defense attorneys negotiating a deal or fighting it out at trial, or if they’re prosecutors deciding whether and what to charge — their value is their judgment. The better the judgment, the better the lawyer.

It’s therefore critical that criminal lawyers have some understanding of how and why people take risks. In advising a client inclined to take a bad risk, the lawyer can’t really change that perception without knowing what’s causing it. And such an understanding also helps one spot one’s own inclinations to error before it’s too late.

This is not common sense. (In fact, common sense is usually the enemy here.) It’s insight. The ability to see how people act, and realize — aha! — why.

Fortunately for the rest of us, there are amazingly smart people out there who do that all day. When you find one with real insights about why people take the risks they do, you’re probably gonna want to listen.

That’s why we’re taking a moment to point you to Danny Kahneman (that’s his picture up there).

Who is Danny Kahneman, you ask. You’re not alone. If you’re not an economist, you can be forgiven for not knowing he won the Nobel Prize for basically inventing the field of Behavioral Economics. If you’re not a psychologist, you can be forgiven for not knowing he’s considered “one of the most influential psychologists in history, and certainly the most important psychologist alive today.” If you’re not a foreign-policy wonk, you can be forgiven for not knowing of his significant ideas on the evaluation of risks in wartime. He’s one of the most insightful and relevant people nobody’s ever heard of.

As it happens, a lot of his insights are directly relevant to the practice of criminal law. Trying to decide the likely outcome of that trial? You’re probably (more…)

Correct, but Wrong: SCOTUS on Unreliable Eyewitness Identification

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

In this Information Age, it is hard to grasp sometimes that everybody does not know everything. And yet it is so. It is common knowledge, for example, that dinosaur fossils are the bones of creatures that lived scores of millions of years ago, that terrorist hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and that eyewitness identification testimony is statistically as reliable as a ’78 Chevy. And yet there are tons of people who sincerely believe that fossils are just a few thousand years old, that the U.S. government conducted 9-11, and that an eyewitness I.D. is the be-all-and-end-all of Truth.

Actually, it’s not fair to lump the I.D. believers in with 9-11 conspiracy theorists, Genesis literalists, truthers and the like. The others are sort of fringe-y. But if you put 12 ordinary citizens in a jury box, of good intelligence and sound common sense, and the victim points dead at the defendant and says “there is no doubt in my mind, THAT is the man who raped me…” you can almost hear all twelve minds slamming shut. They’ve heard all they need to hear. So far as they’re concerned, this case is over.

This despite the fact that study after study after study reinforces the fact that eyewitness testimony sucks.

And innocent people go to jail — or worse — because of it.

So you can imagine how keen the legal world was to get the Supreme Court’s decision in Perry v. New Hampshire, which came down yesterday. Perry, identified by an eyewitness as someone she’d seen breaking into cars, argued that Due Process required a judicial hearing on the reliability of that testimony before it could be admitted at trial.

Which was the exact wrong thing to argue.

Due Process requires that the government makes sure that it does not do things that make its identification procedures unreliable. It does not require that a judge do the jury’s job. Particularly when that job — weighing the reliability of a given bit of testimony — is incredibly fact-specific.

And especially given all the evidence of all the various factors that go into making eyewitness testimony unreliable — racial differences, time lapse, focus of attention, lighting, familiarity, stress, presence of a weapon, etc. — what judge in his right mind is going to want to be the one deciding whether this particular eyewitness’s memory is good enough?

So it’s hardly any surprise that the Supreme Court balked at Perry’s Due Process argument. By a vote of 8-1 (former prosecutor Sotomayor as the lone dissenter, none better to know the power of the EW ID) the Supremes held that, unless law enforcement is alleged to have gotten the I.D. under unnecessarily suggestive circumstances, there’s no Due Process issue and certainly no reason for a pre-trial hearing on reliability.

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No, what Perry could have argued for is either (more…)

Making the Jury’s Job Easier – and Better

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

Anyone who has served on a jury or tried a case knows that the American jury system is pretty stupid.  Don’t get us wrong — it is absolutely without a doubt a sacred institution designed to ensure justice better than any other system we know of — but it’s still stupid.

Think about it — You take a dozen people who probably don’t practice criminal law.  You tell them they’re going to be deciding someone’s guilt or innocence, and then you shove a few weeks of testimony and exhibits in front of them.  But you don’t tell them what the law is — what they’ll be applying — until after all the evidence is over.  You don’t tell them what they should have been listening for, until it’s too late.  You don’t let them ask questions of witnesses to clarify points they didn’t get.  When everything’s over, and it’s finally time to tell them the law they’re going to apply, you simply read it to them for a few hours.  You don’t let them take notes.  You don’t give them a copy of the law you just read them.  They are presumed to have memorized and applied correctly the intricate flowchart of criminal elements for each crime, definitions of legal jargon, and all the other attendant instructions.  If they ask for clarification later, you simply read the instruction to them again.

And that’s not even half of it.  On top of all that, you make them do the judge’s job, in addition to their own.

The jury’s job is to make findings of fact.  The judge’s job is to make rulings of law.  The jury’s job is very important — their job is to decide on the official version of the facts.  The court cannot do anything until the facts are established, and then it can take the necessary action — whether it be punishing the guilty or freeing the not guilty.  But the determination of “guilty” or “not guilty” is a legal conclusion reached by analyzing the official version of the facts.  And in our system, we tell the jury to make that ruling of law.

In fact, those who were not in that jury room will only ever see the ultimate legal conclusion, and will only be able to speculate as to what the actual facts were on which that conclusion was based.  Based on studies of jurors (and anecdotal discussions after many trials), it appears that a large number of verdicts are based on flawed application of the law to the facts — or even without any such application whatsoever.  People are found guilty of crimes where jurors did not think essential elements had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  People are found not guilty of crimes where the jurors were actually persuaded of the necessary elements.  Jurors hang, or screw up, because they don’t understand what they’re doing.

The system is stupid, and almost guarantees injustice.

Fortunately, the problems are easy to fix.

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One simple fix, which resolves quite a few of these inanities, would involve little more than (more…)

More Google Mistrials

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Back in the infancy of this blog, we wrote a piece called “No More Google Mistrials: A proposal for courts to adapt to modern life.”  In it, we lamented that our jurisprudence hadn’t caught up with the realities of the internet age, and that mistrials were still being called whenever jurors got caught looking stuff up online.  We pointed out that it wasn’t exactly a new phenomenon — people had been Googling stuff for years — so it was high time the courts got caught up.

Amazingly, this post seems to have escaped the notice of the “they” who make up the rules of how a trial is to proceed.  Heavens forfend, but it might even be possible that a number of judges may never have even heard mention of it.  Stranger things have happened, though we can’t think of any offhand.

Be that as it may, the internet is forever, and it seems to get read from time to time.  Mainly by members of the press, it appears, and usually right after yet another Google mistrial has been declared.  That’s when we seem to field calls about it, anyway.

And that’s what happened earlier this week.  We were on our way to handle a case out in the rust belt, and were driving past Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (a town near and dear to our heart ever since we landed a small plane there in a freakishly windy day back in our teens, a simple refueling that wound up involving the National Guard, a mistaken identity, extremely obliging air traffic controllers, and an absurd amount of adrenaline — though that’s a story for another time).  When we happened to get a call from a reporter right there in Wilkes-Barre, calling to discuss a Google mistrial that had just happened there.  (You can read the resulting article here.)

We basically said the same things in the interview as we’d written a couple of years ago, which is news enough right there.  Our opinions and positions do tend to evolve as we learn new facts or new ways of looking at old facts, so it was a nice surprise to read our old blog post for the first time since we’d written it and find that it’s pretty much what we’d just said.

But on second thought, we actually said some new stuff in this interview.  Some new policy considerations came to mind.  The reporter gets the credit for this, because unlike most reporters who just want a quick sound bite so they can get back to banging out their story by deadline, this reporter debated us.  She flatly challenged our position, saying that few if any would agree with us, and demanding that we defend it.  It was a pretty skillful interview.  Pity none of the good stuff made it into the article.  We blame the editors, of course.

So for the benefit of those who have bothered to read this far, here’s the good stuff:

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We don’t want jurors going out and (more…)

Cross-Examining the He-Said/She-Said Witness: 3 Simple Steps

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

 

Plenty of us are familiar with the basic skills of cross-examination: Always lead, Don’t ask that one last question that lets the witness deny the conclusion you want to draw, Don’t ask a question if you’re not pretty sure of the answer, Don’t let the witness explain, Take it one fact at a time, Have a goal, etc.  They’re good rules to follow in pretty much every case.  But they’re not really a blueprint to follow for crafting a useful cross.  Every case is different, and each witness requires a different strategy.

One of the most challenging types of cross-examination comes in the he-said/she-said situation.  That’s not just domestic disputes, but any situation where there are only two people who really know what happened, and one of them is testifying against you.  Maybe it’s a purported victim, telling a story about a date rape that your client insists was consensual.  Maybe you’re a prosecutor in an undercover buy-and-bust, and the defendant is testifying to a story completely different from what your undercover is saying.  It happens in all kinds of cases, to all kinds of lawyers.

The he-said/she-said is especially tough when the other side’s witness is telling a cogent story that makes sense on its face.  Taken at face value, it rings true — though that doesn’t mean it is true.  A false story can be concocted out of pretty much any factual situation, and a lie that fits a juror’s worldview can be more believable than the truth.  A lying witness has lived just like anyone else, and has just as many experiences to test the believability of their stories against.  By the time the witness is testifying, there’s been plenty of opportunity to hone and perfect that story.  (And, of course, they might just be the one telling the truth, or at least the version closest to it.)  It’s hard to even prepare for such a cross.

If all you’ve got to challenge them with is your own side of the story, you’re not going to have a very effective cross-examination.  Q: “Are you telling this jury that my client’s story is wrong?” A: “Yup” — that’s not how to win a case.  But lots of the time, that is all you’ve got.  What can you do?

Well, when all else fails, there are three simple steps to a basic but effective cross-examination here.  When all else fails, and you’ve got nothing else to go with, you can always do these three things.  It may not guarantee you a victory, but if you do these three things, you will have at the very least done a workmanlike job of it.  And often enough, it gets results.

STEP 1: LOCK IN THE STORY

The first thing you do is (more…)

Nullifying Nullification

Monday, October 11th, 2010

In more than a dozen years of conducting and observing felony jury trials, at both the state and federal level, we’ve seen enough jury nullification to know it’s a real phenomenon, and not merely anecdotal.  We’ve seen jurors refuse to convict the most obviously guilty defendant, because they felt sorry for her, or because they didn’t want to put another young black man in prison, or because they had some random political or religious agenda.  We’ve seen jurors vote to convict, even though they had reasonable doubt, because it was obvious to them that the guy must have committed the crime, even if the evidence wasn’t really there.

In other words, jurors’ assessment of the evidence often has nothing to do with their actual vote on guilt or innocence.  They take it on themselves to act as a “conscience of the community,” and frustrate the whole point of their role.  (For more on how our jury system defeats justice, see our previous post here.)

The purpose of a trial jury is nothing more nor less than to decide the official version of the facts.  That’s all.  Society needs to make a decision about what to do in this case.

The decision is purely formulaic, in criminal law: if and only if we have facts A, B and C, then the defendant has committed crime X.  If fact B is missing, crime X did not happen.  It’s up to the jury to decide whether A, B and C really are what happened.  Whatever the jury decides, that is the official version of the facts.  The system can now take whatever action is appropriate under those facts, and both the parties and society can turn the page and get on with their lives.

[Truth — that’s “Truth” with a capital “T” — is not the goal.  It’s (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…)

How the Jury System Defeats Justice

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

jurors

Our jury system is supposed to maximize justice.  So how come our system only makes it harder for jurors to do the right thing?

Take this example: A judge in Florida today began reading some 100 pages of instructions to the jury in a case charging a lawyer with stealing $4 million from clients.  A hundred pages of instructions.  Which the jurors are expected to absorb through their ears.  Which, on appeal, the jurors will be presumed to have remembered perfectly, and to have applied with absolute precision.

Nobody really believes that jurors remember the details of their instructions, of course.  And nobody really believes that they apply those instructions to the letter.  It’s just a useful fiction.  Like so much of the law, what’s important is that the litany was spoken.  Say the right words, and we can all presume the right thing was done, and we can all move on with our lives.  

The system is more interested in finality than with the truth, is why.  The truth is nice, and something to be hoped for, but it isn’t necessary.  The whole point of a trial is not to arrive at the truth, but to arrive at an official version of the facts.  The judge can then apply the law to these official facts, and then everyone can close the book on that matter.  It’s a kind of justice, perhaps, but it’s not about truth, and it never has been.  The jury’s job is to consider the admissible evidence, and decide whether it makes out certain facts.

That’s really not a huge task.  Oh, it can be difficult to weigh evidence and separate fact from falsehood, but the task itself is very straightforward.  In a criminal case, for example, the jury has only to decide whether the defendant committed each of the elements of the crime.

Nevertheless, we sure make it hard for them to do even that.

The elements they are to consider, after all, are in the judge’s instructions.  And the judge won’t (more…)

Double Jeopardy Deadlock

Monday, March 29th, 2010

 

The Fifth Amendment says a person can’t be prosecuted twice for the same offense. So after a jury comes back with a verdict, if the government doesn’t like that verdict, then too bad, it doesn’t get a do-over. This is called “Double Jeopardy,” from the language of the Amendment saying you can’t “be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.”

Sometimes, Double Jeopardy applies even when the jury never reached a verdict. Usually, if the judge declares a mistrial, there’s no jeopardy problem and everyone does the trial over again. But there are exceptions, such as when the mistrial was caused by prosecutorial misconduct. Or when a judge orders a mistrial for no good reason. There’s a presumption that judges shouldn’t go around declaring mistrials, that cases should be allowed to go to verdict. So when a judge calls “mistrial” for no good reason, the defendant isn’t going to be forced to go through the whole thing all over again.

[Aside: We had that happen in one of our cases, when we were a prosecutor. In the middle of a drug trial, we were severely injured in a motorcycle accident (and by “severely,” we mean “it took 6 weeks to stabilize to the point where they could do surgery to put the bones back in”), and as a result we couldn’t finish the trial. Drug cases being all pretty much alike, and prosecutors being pretty much fungible, the DA’s office sent over another lawyer to finish out the case. The judge instead declared a mistrial, over the objections of both sides. The office wound up having to consent to dismissal on Double Jeopardy grounds. Whaddayagonnado.]

Back in 1824, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Perez that one good reason the judge can declare a mistrial is when the jury is deadlocked. When the jury cannot reach a decision, it’s not like the defendant’s being screwed by an unfair judge or an abusive prosecutor. So a judge is allowed to ask for a do-over with a different jury.

“To be sure,” the Court said, “the power ought to be used with the greatest caution, under urgent circumstances, and for very plain and obvious cases….”

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So that brings us to the case of Renico v. Lett, argued this morning before the Supreme Court (you can read the transcript here).

Reginald Lett was on trial for murder. The case was presented intermittently, five days out of two weeks, and the jury finally got to start deliberations at 3:24 p.m. on a Thursday. They deliberated for 36 minutes, then went home. On Friday (the 13th), they came in, deliberated for a mere four hours, and sent out a note. The note didn’t say they were deadlocked, but merely asked what would happen “if we can’t agree? Mistrial? Retrial? What?”

The judge brought the jury out and asked “is there a disagreement as to the verdict?” The foreperson said yes. The judge badgered the foreperson a bit, insisting on her predicting whether the jury could reach a unanimous verdict, and finally the foreperson said “no.” The judge immediately declared a mistrial.

Now this was highly unusual. Most judges, in our experience, give a supposedly deadlocked jury a few chances to go back and reach a verdict (three seems to be the magic number here in New York City). We’ve had jurors shouting at each other so loud that everyone could hear them plainly out in the courtroom. All that meant to anyone involved, however, was that they actually were deliberating. A zesty exchange of ideas is still an exchange of ideas.

At some point, either the second or third time the jury says they’re deadlocked, the judge will give an Allen charge. Basically, the jurors are told something like “everyone’s been working their asses off on this case for a long time, costing a shitload of money, and you jurors don’t seem to be holding up your end of the deal. If you can’t do your job, everyone’s going to have to do it all over again with some other jurors, who’ll have to deal with the same stuff you are. Now, take all the time you need, and don’t change your mind without good reason, but get back in there and someone change their mind so we can all go home.” (Ed. note: citation required.)

Depending on who your jurors are, this can be good or bad for the defendant. Generally, whoever’s side the holdout was on, loses.

But the judge in Renico v. Lett never did any of that. Hell, the jury never even said it was deadlocked to begin with. All the jurors wanted to know was (more…)

Beatings & Batson

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

guard beating prisoner

The Supreme Court is back in session, well rested from a three-week vacation. (We don’t remember the last time we took three weeks off. Wonder what that must be like.) They opened the day this morning with two interesting per curiam decisions.

The first, Wilkins v. Gaddy, is about what counts as “excessive force” against a prisoner. There was some confusion among the circuits here.

This was a case coming out of North Carolina. A prisoner named Wilkins asked a prison guard for a grievance form. The guard, Gaddy, lost his temper. Wilkins claims that Gaddy threw him to the ground and beat him up, until another officer came and pulled him off. At the end of the day, though, his only injury was a bruised heel and some lingering pain.

The Fourth Circuit said that didn’t count as “excessive force,” because there wasn’t much injury. The main case on point was Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1 (1992), which the Fourth Circuit had been interpreting to mean that the prisoner’s injuries had to be more than de minimis. And a bruise on your heel is about as de minimis as it gets.

The Supreme Court reversed, saying that’s not at all what Hudson was saying. Calling the Fourth’s reading of that case “strained,” the Supremes clarified the rule in no uncertain terms: the focus is not on what happened to the prisoner, but on what the corrections officer did.

The issue is not how significant the injuries were, but whether the correction officer’s force was “nontrivial,” and “was applied maliciously and sadistically to cause harm,” rather than as part of “a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline.”

So, just because a prisoner got hurt, that doesn’t mean he was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. People can get hurt for other reasons; that makes sense. What matters is whether he was assaulted, subjected to unjustifiable ill treatment. The extent of injury doesn’t have anything to do with whether his rights were violated in the first place — they merely go to “the damages he may recover.”

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The second case decided today, Thaler v. Haynes, is a Batson case out of Texas.

This was a death penalty case, so the stakes were high. There’d be some pressure on everyone involved to do it right. But the criminal law being what it is, things went weird from the get-go.

When the attorneys questioned potential jurors during (more…)

Defense to Win All Remaining Supreme Court Cases

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

supreme-court-fountain.png

With only two more decision dates remaining in this Supreme Court term, we’ve got our eyes on four criminal cases yet to be decided. Either next Monday (June 22) or the following Monday (June 29), we should expect to hear from the Supremes.

We’re going to make a prediction right now that all four cases will be decided in favor of the defense. Furthermore, we predict large majorities or unanimous decisions in each case. (Go ahead and laugh, we’ll wait for you.)

The four cases are:

Safford USD v. Redding, No. 08-479. We talked about this one before (see here). A public school had an absurd zero-tolerance policy (surprise, surprise), this time prohibiting prescription Advil. A girl got caught with some. She blamed someone else (surprise, surprise). School authorities confronted the other girl, Redding, who denied being involved. They searched her backpack, and found nothing. They searched her clothes, and found nothing.

Now at this point, a reasonable person might have figured out that the girl who was caught with the actual pills was trying to pull a fast one here. But these were not reasonable people — they were public school officials. So they had Redding — a 13-year-old girl — expose her breasts and vagina. They found no pills. Then they shook out her underwear, and found nothing. Then both the school nurse and another school official physically searched the girl’s body. They found nothing.

Now at this point, a reasonable person would have surely figured out that there was nothing to see here. But these bright bulbs instead stuck the girl in the principal’s office alone for a few hours, didn’t contact her folks, and didn’t bother searching anyone else.

The girl sued, claiming (surprise, surprise) that her Fourth Amendment rights had been violated.

The Supreme Court has now been asked to decide whether public school officials are permitted by the Fourth Amendment to perform a warrantless strip search of a student whom they merely suspect of possessing forbidden contraband.

The school wants the Court to say yes, schools can perform strip searches any time they have reason to suspect that a student has forbidden contraband. They want a rule that doesn’t let judges second-guess the judgment of school officials.

Our prediction is that the Court isn’t going to grant such a bright-line rule. For the reasons we set out in our previous post, we predict that the Court will require a case-by-case analysis. It will be fact-specific, whether the officials have evidence that is sufficiently credible to justify an articulable suspicion that contraband will be found during a strip search. And it will require a balancing, to ensure that the invasiveness of the search is proportionate to the danger of the contraband sought. A strip-search to find an explosive is one thing; but examining a young girl’s private parts to find Advil is another thing entirely.

* * * * *

The next case we’re looking for is Yeager v. United States, No. 08-67.

The issue in Yeager is collateral estoppel after a hung jury. Specifically, a jury acquitted on some counts, and hung on other counts, all sharing a common element. Perhaps the only explanation for the acquittals is that the jury decided that common element in the defendant’s favor. So is the government prevented from re-trying the hung counts, by collateral estoppel?

Yeager was an executive with Enron’s telecom unit, charged with 176 white-collar crimes. After a three-month-long trial, the jury acquitted him on the counts of conspiracy, securities fraud and wire fraud. But the jury hung on the counts of insider trading and money laundering.

The Fifth Circuit said that one explanation for the acquittals is that the jury found that Yeager had no inside information. That was also an element of the insider trading count. But the Circuit said it was impossible to determine “with any certainty what the jury” actually must have decided. So that meant there could be no collateral estoppel precluding a new trial.

At oral argument, Justice Souter honed in on the real issue here, which is a conflict between two underlying principles of our current jurisprudence. On the one hand, once a jury has determined a fact, the government doesn’t get a second chance to prove it. On the other hand, the government is permitted a full opportunity to convict, so it is allowed to re-try counts where a jury hung. Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy and Breyer explored the conflicting principles in greater depth. Although the government’s attorney was more deft at handling the philosophical argument, and Yeager’s attorney seemed to be stuck in a surface argument, it seemed by the end that the Court was siding with Yeager.

What seems to have killed the government’s position here was its assertion that acquittals should not affect retrials if they are not “rational” — meaning they are inconsistent with the jury’s remaining outcomes — and that a hung count is an outcome that can be used to determine whether the actual verdicts were rational. That not only conflicts with precedent that permits inconsistent verdicts, but also defies common sense by treating the absence of a decision as an affirmative determination.

This one’s a tossup, but we’re going to predict a ruling in favor of Yeager here.

* * * * *

The third case to watch for is District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne, No. 08-6.

Osborne was convicted 14 years ago for kidnapping and sexual assault. The victim was brutally assaulted and raped in a remote area in Alaska. Osborne was alleged to have used a blue condom. A blue condom was found at the scene, containing semen. Osborne now wants to get discovery of the semen, and have DNA testing done at his own expense, in the hopes that it will demonstrate his innocence. The State of Alaska refused.

Osborne brought a 42 U.S.C. §1983 civil rights suit, arguing that Alaska’s refusal violated his Due Process rights. The district court dismissed the suit, saying he should have brought a Habeas claim instead.

The Ninth Circuit issued two decisions. The first was that a §1983 suit is fine here, because the outcome would not necessarily undermine the state-court conviction. The DNA evidence could potentially prove his guilt, or be inconclusive. It would only require Habeas if the evidence would have to demonstrate innocence. And he could still bring a Habeas later if the §1983 action fails.

In its second decision, the Ninth Circuit forced the Supreme Court’s hand. The Supremes have long taken pains to avoid deciding whether a convict can overturn his conviction based only on a claim of innocence, rather than on pointing out defects in the way the trial was conducted. But the Ninth assumed that this is permissible.

Then, based on that assumption, the Ninth said that in circumstances like that — in fact, only in circumstances like that — where a convict could later use the evidence in a freestanding innocence claim, then Brady gives a post-conviction right to access potentially favorable evidence.

The Supreme Court is now deciding both issues: whether the §1983 suit is appropriate for accessing DNA evidence post-conviction, and whether Due Process requires such access if it could establish innocence.

At oral argument, Justice Souter barely let the Alaska A.G. get a word out before launching a lengthy debate over whether Osborne merely sought evidence that might or might not allow him to establish a claim later, or whether he sought evidence that he affirmatively believes will be the basis of a claim of innocence. By the end, both Scalia and Ginsburg had gotten involved, and the Chief Justice was wondering whether the State even had the evidence any more. Breyer got everyone back on track, pointing out that §1983 was appropriate when you didn’t know what the evidence was yet, and Habeas is appropriate when you do know. And here, nobody knows what the DNA evidence is, yet. So how come the State doesn’t have a constitutional obligation to give him the DNA?

The AG gave a terrible response, saying that Osborne simply followed the wrong procedure. Half the bench jumped in to interrupt him, dumbfounded at the assertion, given that Alaska doesn’t have a statutory procedure in the first place. The one statute out there (as Scalia pointed out) first requires an assertion that the evidence establishes innocence, which is the one thing nobody can say yet, because it hasn’t been tested yet. Souter and Scalia tag-teamed the AG on that mercilessly. At one point, Scalia had the audience laughing at the AG. For the rest of the oral argument, the Justices would refer to the fact that they “must have missed” this procedure being mentioned in any of the briefs.

By the end of the AG’s time, nobody had even gotten to the juicy issues yet. Breyer tried to give the AG a chance to talk about it, but the AG just went back to his procedural claim that had used up his time already. This only frustrated the Justices.

The U.S., as amicus to Alaska, started off better, getting to the heart of the issue — the issue the Supreme Court has so long avoided — arguing that prisoners do not have the right to challenge their conviction based on a freestanding claim of actual innocence. But Souter suggested that the right may be found, “not in procedural, but in substantive Due Process,” and asked a hypothetical about letting counsel speak to another prisoner who claims to have exonerating evidence. The Deputy S.G. floundered, and got laughed at as well. They never even got to the constitutional issue (as Souter repeatedly pointed out), and got mired in whether the government even has an interest here in the first place. And then time was up.

Osborne’s lawyer did much better. He deflected the Court’s concerns that at trial the defense had chosen not to test the DNA, and thus must have believed it would show guilt, by pointing out that both sides chose not to test it, because the tests available would have destroyed all of the evidence, precluding later testing.

The Justices across the board expressed concern that they were being asked to create a new constitutional right here. Shouldn’t a prisoner have to make a claim, under penalty of perjury, that he is actually innocent first? Shouldn’t there be a requirement of due diligence, so that claims aren’t made years and years after they could have been brought? Osborne’s attorney admitted that those are fine ideas, and wouldn’t be an obstacle here.

Then Scalia tipped his hand a little. Osborne’s lawyer observed that this is the first case where a prosecutor conceded that DNA would be “absolutely slam-dunk dispositive of innocence,” but doesn’t let the prisoner access it. Scalia thought out loud, “you know, it is very strange. Why did they do that, I wonder?” “Well, it’s very…” Scalia interrupted, “there was a lot of other evidence in the case, wasn’t there?” “Well, that’s…” Scalia cut in, “I don’t know what they thought they were doing.”

Scalia, for one, is not likely to side with the DA’s office here.

Souter came back to his conclusion that this is a substantive Due Process issue, which would require that the prisoner first claim that he is actually innocent. This conflicted with the sworn testimony before the Parole Board admitting guilt. But Breyer pointed out that prisoners often wisely admit guilt before such Boards, because they’re not getting out otherwise. (As defense lawyers like to say, forget guilt or innocence, “out is out.”) So relying on Parole Board admissions would be an arbitrary basis for withholding DNA evidence. So “suppose we said that the rule is non-arbitrary, with illustrations. Send it back to the states. And of course, when they apply their own statutes, by and large they’re not being arbitrary.” Osborne’s counsel agreed, “I think that’s a very sound approach to this.” Breyer responded, “well, it does help you win.”

I don’t think Breyer or Souter are siding with Alaska here, either.

The Chief Justice wondered if the right would be depend on the accuracy of the testing available. No, said Osborne’s lawyer, it has nothing to do with it — the right would just prohibit the state from arbitrarily preventing access to evidence. So long as there’s a reasonable probability that the test will demonstrate evidence, then that should be enough.

On rebuttal, the AAG got maybe three words in edgewise.

So just going from the oral argument, we’re going to predict a loss for Alaska.

Now whether that means a whole new constitutional right or not, well we’re not so sure. This only affects a handful of defendants whose convictions came before the Federal Innocence Protection Act in the mid-1990s.

The trick, though, will be whether the Court can continue to avoid the elephant in the room, the issue of whether one can assert a freestanding claim of innocence. The Ninth Circuit made it a prerequisite, and both the liberal and conservative Justices seemed to put a lot of weight on whether the prisoner first asserted innocence.

We predict that the Court is going to go all the way here. And as long as we’re going out on a limb, we’ll also predict a unanimous decision.

* * * * *

The final criminal case yet to be decided is also the oldest: Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, No. 07-591.

The issue is straightforward: Is a lab report, by itself, a form of testimony for Confrontation Clause purposes, per Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004)?

Crawford says you can’t introduce earlier statements of a government witness, if they hadn’t been subject to cross-examination.

Well, a police lab report wasn’t subject to cross-examination when it was created. But they are often admitted into evidence without live testimony from the chemist or forensic expert who made the report — they’re self-authenticating. If lab reports are testimonial, then Crawford would preclude this practice. If they are not testimonial, but merely a record, then they could continue to be admitted without live testimony.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court looked at this conundrum a couple times, and decided that drug analysis reports were simply records of “primary fact, with no judgment or discretion,” by the chemist who prepared them. So they weren’t testimonial, and there was no Confrontation Clause problem.

Melendez-Diaz was the defendant in the second such case, which affirmed the first one.

It’s a sure bet that Scalia is going to side with the defendant here. He has long been a champion of the Confrontation Clause, and his contributions at oral argument were true to form.

The Massachusetts AG was frankly an embarrassment, making inaccurate assertions (and being corrected by the Court), resting heavily on the lame argument that nobody’s made this particular claim before, and claiming that requiring chemists to testify would be an “undue burden,” even though it’s no such burden to California or New York or any other state where it’s routinely done at trial. Kennedy even coached the AG with arguments that she ought to have been making, and scolded her when she still didn’t make them.

Justices Kennedy, Scalia and Stevens had little patience for the amicus Assistant S.G., whose argument was that machine-generated reports aren’t testimonial. There’s a difference between an automated record and a computerized document created for the purpose of proving an element of a crime at trial. And they’re different from computerized documents reflecting the observations and conclusions of a human being.

Based on how the oral argument went, we’re going to predict yet another win for the defendant.

Why Liberal Justices Agree that “Reverse Batson” Error Doesn’t Violate Due Process

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

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In a unanimous decision this morning, the Supreme Court ruled that “there is no freestanding constitutional right to peremptory challenges,” during jury selection in criminal trials. So even if a judge erroneously refuses to let a defendant challenge a juror, so long as that juror couldn’t be challenged for cause, there is no constitutional violation if that juror is seated.

This was an important case, as the issue really had never been decided before. It may perhaps be surprising that even the more liberal Justices agreed with such an important and apparently anti-defendant ruling as this one. But it really makes sense if you think about it. First, a quick summary of the case:

Writing for the unanimous Court in Rivera v. Illinois, Justice Ginsburg put the issue pretty well in her opening paragraph: “If all seated jurors are qualified and unbiased, does the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment nonetheless require automatic reversal of the defendant’s conviction?”

Michael Rivera was on trial for first-degree murder. During jury selection, each side was allowed to make peremptory challenges to potential jurors, who otherwise could not have been excluded for cause. Rivera’s lawyer, having already exercised two peremptories against women, now made a third challenge against a female.

The trial judge, said no way, finding sua sponte that the defense was excluding jurors on the basis of sex in violation of Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). The juror was seated, and was then selected as the foreperson of the jury. The jury convicted Rivera, and sentenced him to 85 years in prison.

Rivera appealed, saying that the peremptory challenge should have been allowed, and that the error required reversal. The state supreme court decided that any error in seating the juror would have been harmless.

On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Rivera first argued that the erroneous denial of a peremptory challenge means the jury contains someone who shouldn’t have been there, so the jury is illegally constituted, and therefore its verdict is per se invalid. The review shouldn’t be for harmless error, because nobody knows what a proper jury would have thought, and so reversal must be required.

The Court didn’t buy those arguments. Peremptory challenges aren’t guaranteed by the Constitution, but instead are permitted by individual state laws, and are merely “a creature of statute.” States can and do prohibit them altogether. So even a mistake as alleged here wouldn’t rise to the level of a constitutional violation.

The Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment doesn’t elevate the state law to a federal concern, either, because that Clause only protects fundamental fairness in criminal trials. It does not protect the mere “meticulous observance of state procedural prescriptions.” An error of state law isn’t automatically a Due Process violation. And to hold now that a one-time, good-faith misapplication of Batson violates Due Process would probably create the wrong incentive, and make judges less likely to apply Batson in future cases.

So, focusing on fundamental fairness, Ginsburg concluded that the judge’s refusal to reject the juror didn’t have any effect. Rivera’s right to a fair trial before an impartial jury wasn’t affected, because everyone agreed that none of the jurors could have been removed for cause, and none were biased. So it doesn’t matter whether a different panel might have decided differently. All that matters is that the jury did not violate the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury.

The Court also rejected “the notion that a juror is constitutionally disqualified” just because she was aware that the defendant had challenged her. Rivera got a fair trial, with an impartial jury, so he got “precisely what due process required.”

The Court’s decision was not only unanimous, but strongly stated. This may have come as a surprise to Court-watchers who might expect some of the more liberal Justices to argue in favor of more rights for criminal defendants.

However, it could not have been a surprise to any who witnessed the oral arguments. Those very Justices on whom Rivera probably relied were his harshest critics. Ginsburg expressed disdain, calling the argument that a wrongly-seated jury is per se invalid “quite a stretch.” Souter pointed out that the Illinois Supreme Court gets to interpret its state law, not the U.S. Supreme Court, and Illinois had held that there wasn’t a violation in the first place. Breyer observed that Rivera’s arguments would create a huge “slippery slope” of making a constitutional issue out of every potential jury defect. Kennedy accused Rivera of making a sweeping proposition requiring massive supervision and intrusion of state courts by federal courts. Ginsburg and Souter also aggressively challenged Rivera’s interpretation of the facts and the decision below. Stevens even suggested that the Court didn’t have jurisdiction to review the case in the first place.

By the end of the argument, it was clear that Rivera was going to lose this one badly. Kennedy’s last question, to the U.S. Government’s lawyer, was essentially along the lines of “you’re going to win, but there are lots of alternative ways we could rule in your favor, so which one do you think is the most straightforward?”

Apart from the clues at oral argument, this ruling shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone familiar with the ever-evolving law of peremptory challenges. Swain said systematically excluding members of the defendant’s race from the jury pool violates the defendant’s rights. Batson and its progeny expanded the rule to say that prosecutors who exercise peremptories to discriminate against any race or sex (not just the defendant’s) violate, not the defendant’s rights, but the rights of the public to serve on juries (though the penalty benefits not the public but the defendant). J.E.B. v. T.B. extended that rule to say defendants can’t violate the public’s rights any more than prosecutors can (the “reverse Batson” rule).

These cases show that the balance has shifted — away from protecting individual defendants from discrimination that keeps people like them out of the jury box, and towards protecting a generalized state interest in protecting society from the kinds of discrimination we don’t like.

So the Court wasn’t about to stand in the way of the arrow of history, by imposing a rule that would be a disincentive to courts, discouraging them from stopping discrimination.

Looked at that way, it’s hardly surprising that the more liberal Justices were the ones most antagonistic to the defendant in this case. Ruling in Rivera’s favor would have meant undoing liberal protections against general discrimination in society. There was no concrete reason to think Rivera’s jury was actually unfair, so there was no strong sentiment in his favor. The liberal interest in societal justice simply outweighed any concerns for individual fairness here.

Massive Rise in Hung Juries? Deal With It.

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

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Although juries have existed in one form or another since ancient times, the jury as we now know it originated in 12th-century England. At first an accusatory formality, the jury evolved into a check on governmental power. Nowadays, an accused’s right to have the evidence against him judged by members of his community is one of the most essential requisites of criminal justice. Juries also ensure a public perception that the system is just — a necessary precondition for the system to actually work.

But justice requires that juries actually make a decision. And new statistics show that they’re refusing to in ever increasing numbers.

When someone is accused of a crime, the law prescribes certain actions that can be taken by the justice system. It’s so formulaic that much of it could be done by a computer: if the defendant did X, Y and Z, then he goes to prison; if he only did X and Z, he gets probation; if he only did X, then he does not get punished. But before the law can be applied to the facts, the law needs an official version of the facts. We need it so we can move on to the next step, so defendants and victims and witnesses can get on with their lives. A computer can’t do that. It is the job of real people, the jury, to define that official version of the facts.

If a jury refuses to make a decision, justice is delayed. The accused must suffer continued anxiety and uncertainty until another trial closes this distressing chapter in his life. He must double down on the expense of defending himself, and on the stress it puts him and his family through. Victims and witnesses have to go through the trauma of testifying all over again. Another pool of jurors has to take time out of their lives.

But modern sensitivities have made the hung jury ever more commonplace. We’re not supposed to be judgmental. For decades, ethical relativism and cultural sensitivity have been a major part of our socialization. Gen-X kids like me, taught to be politically correct in college, are now entering middle age. The Millennials now entering the workforce have learned these sensibilities since birth, and for many it is viscerally wrong to pass judgment on another. This oversimplifies the matter, of course, but the fact remains that a huge portion of the population now feels significantly more uncomfortable in the role of juror.

These same generations had parents, teachers and professors who lauded the civil rights protests of the 1950s and the antiwar protests of the 1960s. Now they are more likely to use their jury service as a protest — they don’t care what the facts are, they have an agenda in conflict with their role as jurors. Maybe they simply don’t want to put another young black man in jail, and further decimate their community. Maybe they simply want to use their jury service as a vague protest against an oppressive system. We’ve seen plenty of those kinds of jurors, too.

The results have been dramatic in recent years, as the numbers of hung juries have skyrocketed. In the birthplace of the modern jury, the BBC reports that hung juries increased 30.7% in 2007, and a whopping 70.6% in 2008.

Still, this isn’t cause for alarm. Careful jury selection can often identify people who simply cannot pass judgment, as well as those who have a political agenda. Lawyers and judges can use voir dire to educate jurors about the importance of their role, so that they overcome their discomfort and do their job.

Alarmists want to prevent hung juries by allowing majority verdicts in criminal trials. If a holdout is holding up justice, reformers would negate that holdout’s influence, and let a vote of 10 out of 12 be sufficient (as it already is in England). But that is an end run around justice — the principled holdout who refuses to give in to pressure is an iconic figure in public perception. Norman Rockwell painted it, for crying out loud.

No, we’re going to have to play the hand we’re dealt. If the venire is more likely to harbor holdouts, we are just going to have to do a better job of getting across to them, or weeding them out. The jury is the democratic participation of the community in the administration of justice, a system better adapted than any other to the protection of the individual against oppression by the state. As Lord Devlin said, a tyrant cannot rise unless he “overthrow or diminish trial by jury.”