Archive for the ‘Violent Crime’ Category

Criminal Law Myth #1: You Can Drop the Charges

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

So Jacki called the cops on her man.  She didn’t mean for him to go to jail, really.  But it was a stressful situation, and this was the best way she could think of to get back at him.  It felt great, and having the cops on her side — having the cops as a weapon — was totally empowering.

But enough’s enough.  He’s been locked up for a couple of weeks, now.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  And it’s really hard for Jacki, what with him being out of work this whole time, and not being around to help with the baby.  And he really didn’t do anything wrong… it’s just that, you know… she wasn’t thinking straight.  And now it’s time for her man to come home.

That should be easy enough.  All she needs to do is drop the charges, right?  She’ll just go over to the DA and say she doesn’t want to pursue the case. 

We imagine that something like this is what’s going on in Jacki’s mind:

drop_charges_fantasy450

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Unfortunately, real life is more like (more…)

Echoes of Injustice: Second Department Sends Cop Back to Prison in Racially-Charged Case from the 90s

Friday, May 28th, 2010

diguglielmo

When we first moved to NYC in 1997, we thought we knew what racial tension was. After all, we’d grown up in various parts of the South and out West, and had seen and heard quite a lot of invidious prejudice. But we hadn’t seen anything, by comparison. We’d seen dislike and resentment out there, but the vitriolic race relations of the 50s and 60s had died down by our childhood in the 70s and 80s. We weren’t prepared at all for the outright hatred various groups expressed for each other in the grand metropolis. That first year here in the Manhattan DA’s office was an eye-opener. The city, especially the outer boroughs, seemed less like a melting pot than a petri dish, with virulent strains of hatred all fighting each other. Many working-class whites routinely used epithets one almost never heard in the South any more, and openly despised black people. Lots of black people hated white people right back, and seemed to have a bizarre animus towards jewish people, who we’d always thought of as champions of civil rights. African immigrants hated African-Americans, who they saw as lazy and as giving them a bad name. Every ethnic group seemed to have a derogatory name that everyone else used.

And this internecine feuding was still turning to violence in the ’90s. We’d never heard about the Howard Beach or Bensonhurst dramas of the late ‘80s, but here in the city that tension was still high. Al Sharpton hadn’t yet faded into irrelevance, and it seemed like he and his protestors spent half their time marching in circles somewhere or other. Right before we started at the DA’s office, the Abner Louima case happened, leading not only to renewed distrust of the NYPD, but even more racial tension. And just when that started to die down, the Amadou Diallo shooting flared it up again.

It was shocking to us. But to our friends who’d grown up here, it was just normal background. It was just the way things were.

So that’s what the culture was like in 1996, when a fight between some Italian men and a black man over a parking spot turned violent, the black man swung a baseball bat at an older Italian man, whose son — an off-duty cop — shot the black man to death.

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On October 3, 1996, in the suburb of Dobbs Ferry just north of the city, a black man named Charles Campbell parked his Corvette at a deli, in a spot reserved for deli customers. But he went into a different store across the street. When he came back, he saw the owner of the deli placing a sticker on the Corvette. Campbell got angry and started a fight. The deli owner, his son Richard DiGuglielmo (the off-duty cop), and a third man (Robert Errico, the cop’s brother-in-law) wound up fighting with Campbell.

The fight ended, and Campbell walked back to his Corvette. During the fight, his shirt had come off, and the deli owner brought it over to him while his son and the other man went back towards the deli. But then Campbell opened the back of the Corvette, grabbed a metal baseball bat, and kneecapped the old man with (more…)

“Cruel and Unusual” to Sentence Juveniles to Life without Parole

Monday, May 17th, 2010

 

The Supreme Court today decided Graham v. Florida (opinion here), ruling 6-3 that it violates the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment clause to sentence a juvenile offender to life in prison without parole, for a non-homicide crime. This is a hugely significant decision, creating a new precedent in sentencing law (and also forcing Florida to make some law of its own, as it did away with parole a while back).

(Companion case Sullivan v. Florida was dismissed, as certiorari was improvidently granted in light of the Graham decision.)

The opinions are a stirring read. Chief Justice Roberts, in the majority, was in strong opposition against his fellow conservatives Alito, Thomas and Scalia, who dissented. During oral argument, it was clear to observers that Roberts wanted to bring them into the fold and get a unanimous decision that youth deserves a second chance at some point.

Roberts couldn’t get them to agree, which must have been a disappointment to the Chief, who openly aspires to as much unanimity and consensus as possible on his Court. It moved him enough to write a scathing concurring opinion, taking to task the arguments of his conservative brethren.

Kennedy doesn’t let any of the conflict or disappointment show in his majority opinion, which is a balanced and philosophical treatise of the evolution of Cruel and Unusual Punishment law, and well worth reading.

(Had it been up to us, we’d have preferred for the Chief to write an opinion that stays above the fray, and leave it to others to write the criticisms of the dissents. That would free it of any taint of personal feeling.)

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This was really an unexplored territory in American jurisprudence. The Supreme Court has long carved out exceptional (more…)

Our Inhuman Response to Domestic Violence

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

witnessed abuse

Last night, we attended a domestic violence forum sponsored by the Children’s Aid Society here in Manhattan. We’ve been involved with the CAS for many years, and they do some pretty awesome things for kids in intense situations. And domestic violence is a deep and complex social issue we come across plenty. So we figured it might be worth checking out, and maybe come away with some new insights.

It was, and we did, but not in the way we’d expected. There was very little discussion of the causes of domestic violence, the various patterns of behavior of abusers and victims, what actions work to stop it and what doesn’t work, and challenges to be overcome in reducing the incidence of domestic violence. Those are sort of the kinds of topics we expected a domestic violence forum to get into, but unfortunately the talks were pretty much surface discussions of what the speakers do in their jobs, and the kinds of things they deal with.

That’s okay, we guess. The speakers were social workers, and most of the audience seemed to be social workers. So it’s probably nice that they got to hear what others in their field are seeing. But for anyone with a passing familiarity with domestic violence issues, there wasn’t much we’d consider enlightening.

Except for one thing. (more…)

Dear HuffPo: Here’s why we have statutes of limitation

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

 

So we took a few minutes just now to check out some headlines with Google’s “Fast Flip” news browser (which, by the way, is super-cool). And this headline totally caught our eye: “Some Sex Crimes Get a Pass – Why?”

That’s a damn good question! What do you mean, some sex crimes don’t get prosecuted — that’s appalling! Either the crime is something society doesn’t think worth punishing, or prosecutors aren’t doing their job! So we checked it out.

What we found instead was a totally inane article on the Huffington Post, leading off with the following lines: (more…)

Supreme Court Finds Animal-Cruelty Law to be Unconstitutionally Overbroad

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

supreme court fountain

Congress screwed up again.

Animal cruelty sucks. It’s against the law, in one form or another, in every single state. The feds wanted to outlaw it, as well. But they have that pesky jurisdictional hurdle to overcome, which they always try to get around by invoking interstate commerce. So in 1999, Congress passed a law making it a crime — not to commit acts of animal cruelty — but to have a photo or video of a living animal being wounded or killed, with the intention to place that depiction into interstate commerce for commercial gain. 18 U.S.C. §48.

That’s pretty awkward. And it doesn’t outlaw the actual cruelty itself. It’s sort of meant to stop animal cruelty from happening, by making it a federal crime to sell videos of it. Which is pretty lame and stupid, hardly a deterrent at all.

The law was really intended to focus on “crush videos,” which showed the killing of kitties and puppies, for an audience that derived sexual pleasure from such images. See Internet R. 34. The acts depicted in such videos are already against the law in every state, but there you go.

So Robert Stevens was a pit bull enthusiast and documentary film maker. He sold videos that were not “crush videos,” but which did depict dogfighting. Stevens said they were educational, to provide perspective on the phenomenon. The feds said they violated section 48.

This morning, an almost unanimous Court ruled that the statute is unconstitutionally overbroad. (Read the opinion here.) Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts focused not on the First Amendment issues that had been raised (which would have required the carving out of new First Amenment law), but instead zeroed in on the fact that this statute is supposed to apply only to specific types of “extreme” material.

Overbreadth analysis doesn’t require the making of new constitutional law. All you do is (more…)

Bacterial Fingerprinting? Don’t Hold Your Breath

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

bacteria

Over the past couple of days, the news has been filled with stories about using microbes to identify suspects. Everyone has all kinds of bacteria all over their bodies, of course, and whenever you touch something you leave a smudge of your bacteria behind. On Monday, researchers at CU-Boulder published a study where they swabbed computer keyboards, tested the DNA of the bacteria they found, and saw that those bacteria’s DNA more closely matched the bacteria on the computer users’ skin than the bacteria on other people’s skin.

That’s all the study found. The bacteria on your keyboard have DNA that more closely matches the DNA in the bacteria on your fingers, than that of bacteria on other people’s fingers. Frankly, although that’s a nifty result and the scientists deserve to be praised for their work, it’s really a very modest finding. Not exactly earth-shaking.

But as usual, the media took this modest finding and blew it way out of proportion. The study’s authors insist that the project “is still in its preliminary stages.” The media make it sound like we’ll be seeing this stuff in court before we know it. The fact is that using microbial DNA to link a suspect to a crime scene is not going to be a reality any time soon, if ever.

For one thing, there is as yet no reason to conclude that your particular bacteria are as unique as your fingerprints or your personal DNA. Bacteria do not use sexual reproduction, after all, and so their DNA is less diverse than human DNA. The uniqueness of your bacteria is very much an open question.

We don’t even have a baseline of what bacteria are even normal to find on human bodies. A single person will have a huge variety of different microbial populations on different parts of his skin — the microbial mix on his fingertips is not the same as the mix on his nose or his toes. All the various types of bacteria people can have will need to be isolated, all the different DNA each kind of bacterium can have will need to be sequenced, all the various combinations will have to be analyzed, and a massive amount of comparisons will have to be made.

In other words, there will need to be many more studies, based on way more data, plus some pretty robust statistical analyses of large populations, before any scientist can reach the same conclusions as those you’ve been reading in the news. That’s going to take a very long time, even with the accelerating advances in DNA sequencing technology.

Still, it really is an intriguing idea. After all, a perpetrator may not leave behind any blood, sweat or tears. Fingerprints may not be obtainable from fabric or wiped surfaces. But he may still leave behind a smudge of (more…)

The Criminal Justice System is Not a Counterterrorism Tool

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

terrorist lineup

Yesterday, we were talking with a colleague about whether we’d ever take a terrorism client. We frankly don’t have any more qualms about defending that type of case than about any other type. But the conversation turned to whether such cases ought to be brought in the courts in the first place. And we just don’t think terrorism should be fought in the courts.

In the years before 9/11, the U.S. dealt with terrorism as a criminal matter. Conceptually, it was no different from any other multiple homicide: the bad thing would happen, law enforcement would try to find out whodunit, and if the suspect was still alive and could be arrested then he’d get prosecuted.

This didn’t work so well. Some people eventually got punished, but the system didn’t stop or deter any future attacks. The criminal justice system can’t do that, after all. It’s purely an after-the-fact thing. Its job is to punish people after the crime is already committed. The courts can’t act proactively to prevent crimes that haven’t been committed yet — punishing people before they’ve done anything would be outrageous. No, proactive national defense is the job of the armed forces.

More than that, our criminal justice system is flatly contrary to the goals of counterterrorism. Preventing terrorist acts requires (more…)

No, Virginia, You Can’t Get Around the Confrontation Clause by Shifting the Burden of Proof

Monday, January 4th, 2010

On June 25 last year, the Supreme Court held in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts that in a drug case the prosecution can’t simply use a sworn lab report to prove the existence of a controlled substance. If the chemist doesn’t testify, it violates the Confrontation Clause. (See our previous post about it here.)

Four days later, on June 29, the Court granted cert. in Briscoe v. Virginia, to decide whether the states can get around this requirement if they permit the defendant to call the lab analyst as a defense witness. Oral arguments are scheduled for next Monday, and we can’t wait to hear how the Commonwealth of Virginia tries to make its case.

It seems to us that there is an obvious burden-shifting problem here. The state, and only the state, has the burden of proving every element of the crime. Since the Winship case in 1970, this has been a due process requirement of the Constitution. Unless he asserts an affirmative defense, the defendant has no burden to prove a thing.

So the prosecution has to prove an element. It needs a forensic test to prove it. It needs the testimony of the analyst to introduce the results of that test. The defense does not have a burden to prove anything, one way or the other, about the test.

But Virginia wants to be able to prove its case using only the lab report, and get around the Confrontation Clause by saying the defense is allowed to call the analyst if they want to confront him.

First, who cares whether the state allows the defense to call the analyst or not? Last time we checked, the defense could call any witness they chose, by subpoena if need be. The defense always has the opportunity to put the analyst on the stand as a defense witness. This “permission” doesn’t actually give the defense permission to do anything it couldn’t already do. All it does is imply wrongly that the defense couldn’t have done so otherwise.

Second, the state cannot impose a burden of proof on the defense like this. Virginia’s scheme essentially precludes the defense from challenging the state’s evidence during the state’s case. It forces the defense to act affirmatively and put on a defense case in order to challenge the state’s evidence. That’s a big due process violation.

Third, the state does not get around the Confrontation Clause by shifting the burden to the defendant to call those witnesses it wishes to confront. In a murder case, it would absurd to let the prosecution introduce an eyewitness’s written account of what happened, and no more, so long as the defendant himself could have called the eyewitness if he wanted to. That’s indistinguishable from what Virginia wants to do.

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Lots of prosecutors’ offices are hoping that the Supremes will side with Virginia on this one. Particularly in the more amateurish offices, there is a feeling that the Melendez-Diaz decision imposes too great a cost on the criminal justice system, and imposes unworkable inefficiencies, by requiring chemists to take time off from their busy jobs to testify at trial. An amicus brief filed by half the nation’s attorneys general makes these arguments.

But just look here at New York City, the busiest criminal courts and crime lab in the world. Lab reports are used in the grand jury, where there is no confrontation right, but the chemists themselves must testify at trial. Somehow, this requirement has not bankrupted the city. Getting the chemist to show up is just one more minor hassle that prosecutors have to deal with, no more challenging than getting cops to show up. The requirement is so minor that nobody really thinks about it.

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Still, Melendez-Diaz was a 5-4 decision. And one of the five, Justice Souter, has been replaced by former prosecutor Justice Sotomayor. So people are thinking that she’s going to be more pro-prosecution here, and help the Court either reverse or severely limit that decision.

We don’t think so. We’d remind Court observers that Sotomayor came out of the Manhattan DA’s office, not one of the “amateur hour” offices. Her own personal experience is that requiring the chemist to testify at trial is really no big deal.

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So we’re looking forward to the oral arguments next week. If Scalia gives as good as he did in last June’s decision, and if we’re right about Sotomayor, then Virginia’s in for a spirited beatdown.

Conviction Rates Matter

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

ruins

On Sunday, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a lengthy article on that city’s abysmal conviction rate for violent crimes. For every three violent-crime arrests in Philadelphia, only one results in a conviction. There are a lot of worse-sounding statistics in that article, but they’re completely meaningless, as they refer only to convictions of the top count, ignoring the reality of plea bargaining. Still, this meaningful stat, the one-in-three conviction rate, is appalling.

Worse than that, about ten thousand violent arrestees walked, no conviction at all, in 2006 and 2007. Only 8% of that number were found “not guilty” after trial. The remaining 92% walked after their cases were dropped or dismissed.

At the same time, FBI stats show that Philadelphia has the highest violent-crime rate of all the big cities.

Coincidence? Of course not.

Violent-crime defendants aren’t getting convicted, and violent crimes are through the roof. There is causation there.

Conviction rates matter. A low conviction rate means the system is broken. If it was working, the rate would be 70% or higher. 33% = broken. Broken means people are being prosecuted for crimes when they shouldn’t have been charged in the first place. Broken means people aren’t getting punished for their violent crimes. And society suffers both ways.

We blame the prosecutors. More on that in a bit.

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The Philadelphia courts have created a public perception that violent crime will not be punished. The odds of getting convicted are minor, and the odds of taking a felony are even lower. It doesn’t take too long for people to figure that out. And the bulk of crimes are committed by people who have frequent contacts with the criminal justice system. This critical demographic repeatedly experiences that the odds are in their favor. The system keeps reinforcing this perception that, if you commit a violent crime, you’ll probably get away with it.

Perception is everything in this system. In order to prevent crimes from happening, our system relies heavily on the deterrent effect of punishment. Deterrence is important. It doesn’t affect crimes of passion in the heat of the moment, but most crimes involve some planning or forethought, and those are the ones we want to make people think twice before committing. Whether they think twice or not depends on what they think might happen.

If people generally believe that a criminal act will probably result in punishment, then they will generally avoid that behavior. This would be true even if such acts were never actually punished (think of the budget savings, increased productivity, and human value society could preserve if we could devise such a system!). And the converse is true — if every criminal act got punished, but nobody realized it, then all that punishment would have zero deterrent effect.

In general, our system tends to fall somewhere between the two extremes. There is an amorphous sense that people can get caught, and that most of those who do get caught wind up getting punished. This perception results in a general background level of deterrence that’s meaningful.

Most law-abiding folks add a huge layer of deterrence on top of that, arising from the morals and ethics ingrained during their socialization and upbringing. But those folks aren’t the ones the criminal law really cares about. The law isn’t designed to deter them; it’s designed to deter those who would gladly commit such crimes if they didn’t they’d get punished.

Such people come from all walks of life. Sure, there are plenty of thugs from anarchic streets, who couldn’t care less about their victims or the rules. But there are also the spoiled suits who are just the same, caring nothing for their victims and thinking the rules don’t apply to them. For every crime, there are opportunists of every stripe.

And if the system fails to create the right perceptions, opportunists are going to take advantage of the perceived opportunities… obviously.

And that’s what’s happening in Philadelphia, it seems.

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How did it happen? The Inquirer has 6 ideas. We think one or two might even be worth considering.

1) First, the Inquirer says that witness intimidation is working. Witnesses and their families are known to get killed in that city. That scares potential witnesses, who decline to come forward. So cases can’t be proven, and get dismissed or result in minimal plea bargains.

The way we see it, the number of such instances is vanishingly small, but the visceral significance of such instances is dramatic, and so the statistics have a lot more weight than they perhaps deserve.

Regardless, we still have a major problem with this explanation: What are the prosecutors thinking? If you don’t have your witnesses lined up, if you are not in a position to prove your case at trial, you have no business filing charges in the first place. You investigate before charging someone with a crime, not after. It is this blog’s position that any prosecutor who files charges before being able to prove them beyond a reasonable doubt is committing misconduct. The better prosecutors’ offices don’t allow such behavior.

But if the Philly prosecutors are having to get rid of cases because they couldn’t round up any witnesses, that means they were charging these cases prematurely and unethically.

So this “witness intimidation” excuse is really nothing more than a symptom of a deeper problem — that the Philly prosecutors are jumping the gun, and then having to deal with the consequences. And the result of their behavior is a public perception that violent criminals can get away with it. Well done, that DA.

2) The caseload is too high. The judges are too busy, says the Inquirer, so they “put a premium on disposing cases” rather than going to trial.

That’s just nonsense, of course. The vast majority of cases everywhere are disposed of before trial. It’s not the judges who make it happen, either. Defendants agree to plea bargains that cut their losses. Prosecutors agree to plea bargains that result in a fair sentence. And both sides avoid the enormous uncertainty, expense and risks of going to trial.

Plea bargaining does not begin to explain how two-thirds of violent arrestees don’t wind up getting convicted, nor does it explain a public perception that violent criminals are probably going to get away with it.

3) The Inquirer points to the statistic that nearly 10,000 violent-crime defendants had their cases dropped or dismissed in ’06 and ’07.

Again, this means to us that the finger must be pointed squarely at the DA’s office. What the heck are they doing, charging 10,000 people with crimes they couldn’t prove? Cases get dropped or dismissed because they shouldn’t have been charged in the first place. This statistic shows an appalling lack of judgment on the part of the Philly prosecutors.

What are they doing, just charging everyone who got arrested? Perhaps. It’s a sad fact that there are some DA’s offices out there who think it’s their job to zealously advocate for the conviction of everyone who got arrested. But of course that is not only not their job, it’s unethical for them to behave that way.

Prosecutors are given enormous power and discretion, and it is an abuse of that discretion not to exercise it in the first place. They’re supposed to first figure out whether the case should and could be prosecuted, before wasting time and treasure on a pointless case, and dragging people through a horrific process. And they’re certainly not supposed to delegate their discretion to the police, who have neither the authority nor the purpose to exercise it. But those DA’s offices that simply take on every arrest are doing precisely that.

Maybe instead they’re just charging people without proof, in the hopes of getting a plea bargain, and hope nobody calls their bluff. That’s nothing short of criminal extortion, if true.

It should be nigh impossible to dismiss a case, unless there is newly-discovered evidence, or the interests of justice demand mercy. Otherwise, there ought to have been enough evidence to take the case to trial before charges were ever filed. This staggering statistic demonstrates that the DA’s office is charging thousands of people with crimes, when they had no business doing so.

4) The Inquirer says the DA’s office doesn’t track how well or how poorly its cases fare, and as a result cannot prioritize the work of its 300 prosecutors.

That’s sort of irrelevant, really. 300 prosecutors is plenty. The Manhattan DA handles way more cases, and better, with not many more ADAs.

And prioritizing who’s working on what isn’t really something the stats ought to affect. A significant number of losses and dismissals are an indicator that a particular prosecutor might need to be reassigned, but wins and losses don’t affect where you focus your manpower. It’s really just a supply-and-demand thing — put the bodies where they’re needed, that’s all.

5) Philadelphia’s courts are uncoordinated. The basic logistics of getting the parties and witnesses together for trial becomes a disorganized fustercluck of delay. Eventually, cases just collapse because they can never be brought to trial. Defense attorneys know this, and take advantage of it.

We can’t speak to how things work in Philly, having never practiced there. But this doesn’t sound too much different from state court in New York. Unlike federal court, where your trial date is your trial date, NY state courts just set date after date until by lucky chance everyone is ready to go at the same time. It’s pointless and inefficient as hell, but it doesn’t seem to be a huge problem. Most cases get there sooner or later. (Our magic number is usually 5 — if we’ve answered ready four times, it’ll usually go on the fifth. YMMV.)

Getting the cops to show up is a hassle for state prosecutors everywhere. Cops think they’re job is done when they made the arrest, court keeps them from making more arrests, and they don’t like being cross-examined any more than the next fellow. But that’s a simple fact of life everywhere, and doesn’t explain why Philly’s any different. Ditto for herding cats and witnesses. And ditto for defense attorneys who take advantage of the government’s inability to get its act together. It happens everywhere. It’s really irrelevant here.

6) Finally, the Inquirer says the courts aren’t enforcing bail. “Defendants skip courts with impunity,” so that there are nearly 47,000 fugitives in that town. “Impunity” means they never forfeit their bail. The city courts estimate “a staggering $1 billion” in supposedly forfeited bail remains uncollected. Fugitives don’t get convicted, because they’re not in court.

That is appalling. The whole point of bail is to ensure a defendant comes back to court, by holding his money hostage. The defendant puts up his cash or gets a loan from a bondsman. If the defendant doesn’t show up when he’s supposed to, he loses his cash or the collateral for the bond.

But if the defendant never forfeits his bail, then bail serves no purpose.

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Whatever the reason, the conviction rate in Philly is so low as to be counterproductive. The DA’s office is acting in ways that increase, rather than decrease, the incentives to commit crimes.

People are being chewed up by the criminal justice machine when they never should have been charged in the first place. Not all of them got dismissed or acquitted. Who knows how many more went through it and went to jail? And criminals are committing more crimes with impunity. Everyone suffers.

This low conviction rate is merely a symptom of a deeper illness. The DA’s office is charging people when it shouldn’t be. It’s either jumping the gun before enough evidence is in, or it’s abusing its discretion and taking on every single arrest, or it’s trying to extort pleas. From the evidence in this article, it looks like the DA’s office is the disease at the root of it all.

There’s going to be a new DA there in January. We’ll see if he does anything about it. In the meantime, on the whole, we’d rather not be in Philadelphia.

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.

-=-=-=-=-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-=-=-=-=-

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

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

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

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

seale

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

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

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

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

-=-=-=-=-

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

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

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

-=-=-=-=-

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

-=-=-=-=-

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

-=-=-=-=-

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

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

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

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

In August 2007, Seale was given three life sentences.

-=-=-=-=-

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.”

-=-=-=-=-

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.

-=-=-=-=-

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?

-=-=-=-=-

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.

Why Conservatives and Defense Lawyers Should LOVE the New Hate Crimes Law

Friday, October 30th, 2009

hate crime

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama signed into law the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act. As usual, the Act included provisions that had nothing whatsoever to do with National Defense Authorization. And one of the tacked-on provisions was the much-debated Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

We wrote about this back on May 1. It was one of our longer analyses, but our closing paragraphs sum it up fairly succinctly:

In short, we don’t have a legal or constitutional problem with hate crime laws. They actually seem to be a natural extension of our criminal jurisprudence. But [the House version of the bill] seems to have been passed without anyone actually reading it (not surprising, as it hardly spend any time in committee).

An administration and the same-party majority in Congress just want to push a law through, and so they will. And they will wind up passing a law that probably doesn’t mean what they wanted it to mean, and which might not stand up under scrutiny.
So what’s new?

Well, now we have a final version (read it here or in relevant part at the end of this post), codified at 18 U.S.C. §249. So let’s see what the law as passed actually says, whether it means what they wanted it to mean, and whether it might stand up under scrutiny, shall we?

As passed, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act amends the existing Hate Crimes law so that:

1. If you went after your victim because of the (actual or perceived) race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, “gender identity” or disability of any person (not just that of the victim)…

2. And you either hurt them on purpose, or you tried to hurt them with a weapon of some kind…

3. Then your maximum prison sentence gets increased to 10 years.

4. And you can get life if anyone died, if anyone was kidnapped, if there was aggravated sexual abuse, or you even tried to kill/kidnap/sexually abuse.

-=-=-=-=-

This is slightly — but only slightly — different from the version originally passed by the House back in the Spring.

To get federal jurisdiction, they need a federal hook. Only race, color, religion and national origin seem to be automatically federal. So the statute has a “crossing state lines” and “interstate commerce” hook for offenses caused by religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. (Why religion and national origin are included in both sections is beyond us.)

That’s not a huge hurdle, frankly. Interstate travel and interstate commerce are so broadly defined — and have been for generations now — that most crimes are going to fit the bill. If a weapon was used, for example, it had to have been made somewhere, and even if you made it yourself it affected interstate commerce as you didn’t buy one at Wal-Mart.

The Office of Legal Counsel has issued a memorandum saying the Act’s language passes constitutional muster. With respect to the Commerce Clause, we’re inclined to agree. The Commerce Clause may be an absolute mockery as interpreted throughout living memory, but it is what it is, and that’s that.

-=-=-=-=-

But isn’t this a thought crime, you ask?

Isn’t this just a second bite at the apple for the government?

Isn’t it already against the law to hurt, kill, shoot, blow up, kidnap, rape, etc.?

Doesn’t it put a greater value on the life of selected victims, as opposed to the rest of us?

Isn’t this the opposite of equal protection of the laws?

How is this just, you ask?

You’re not alone. It seems like this is the one common ground where conservative commentators and criminal defense attorneys seem to agree — they generally hate this law.

We happen to be both conservative and a criminal defense attorney. And yet we can’t help but think this law isn’t such a big deal. It’s really not that objectionable.

In fact, it seems to fit into our jurisprudence quite naturally.

-=-=-=-=-

Is this a thought crime? Yes, absolutely. Just like almost every other crime out there.

Crime is something so harmful to society that we restrain the offender’s liberty, take his property, or even take his life. Not every harmful act counts, therefore. We don’t kill people for accidents.

So how do we tell which harmful acts get punished, and which ones don’t?

We look at what the heck you were thinking. For any given act, your punishment will depend entirely on what was going through your mind at the time.

If it was just an accident, then it’s not your fault, and we’re not going to punish you. If you were just a little kid, or severely retarded, or insane, or otherwise can’t be accountable for your actions, then we’re not going to punish you. There’s no point in punishing you.

We’ll punish you a little bit if you should have known better, or you should have been careful. You weren’t trying to do anything wrong, but you should have paid more attention. Your mental state is the key. Your mental state was a little bit culpable, so you get punished a little bit.

We’ll punish you more if you were just being reckless. You weren’t trying to hurt someone, but you knew it could have happened, and you went ahead and did it anyway. Your mental state was more culpable, so you get punished more.

We’ll punish you a lot if you knew it was going to happen. It might not have been your purpose, you weren’t out to hurt someone, you were trying to do something else, but you knew that someone was probably going to get hurt in the process. Your mental state was a lot culpable, so you get punished a lot.

And of course, if you were really trying to hurt someone, and sure enough they got hurt, well then of course you get punished the most.

So all crimes (with limited exceptions for strict liability crimes) are thought crimes.

This hate-crime legislation is nothing more than a new twist on this very old concept. Just like with any other crime, it looks at what you, the perpetrator, thought you were doing. You had a belief about your victim, and because of that belief, you tried to hurt him.

It’s not your mental state about the risk of harm — as all the others are — it is different. It’s your mental state about the nature of your victim.

But that also makes perfect sense, in our jurisprudence.

-=-=-=-=-

Throughout our country’s history — from the fights against religious persecution, to the war against slavery, to women’s rights and the civil rights battles of the 1950s — we have come to accept a basic policy: IT IS BAD FOR SOCIETY WHEN PEOPLE ARE MISTREATED BASED ON ATTRIBUTES BEYOND THEIR CONTROL.

That is simply a no-brainer for anyone who loves freedom, individual rights, and equal justice. Americans cannot stand a bully, and will not tolerate those who hurt people for reasons their victims couldn’t help.

Nobody can help what race they happen to be. Nobody can help what religion they happen to have been born into. Nobody gets to choose whether to be born a boy or a girl. Nobody gets to choose what country they happen to have been born in.

Hurting someone because of uncontrollable attributes like these is a clear affront to society. Something we’d typically classify as a crime. It makes perfect sense to define a particular crime of hurting people because of personal attributes beyond their control.

And in recent years, our society has come to accept the fact that other attributes are also beyond our control. Nobody can help how their brains are wired with respect to sexual attraction, it’s inborn. Nobody can help the fact that they’re missing limbs, or are mentally retarded, or otherwise disabled — wouldn’t they if they could?

For our entire lifetime, there has been federal hate-crime legislation. The 1969 law covered race, color, religion, ethnicity and national origin. In later years, we added sex and disability. It makes perfect sense to now expand the already-existing law to include crimes committed against people who happen to be gay, or who were born with a girl’s brain in a boy’s body.

This is not giving extra protections to these people. It is giving extra punishment to those who would hurt someone simply for having been born. Those offenders cause extra harm to society, more than the already grievous harm caused by “ordinary” murders, rapes and assaults. Extra harm to society means extra punishment.

It’s as simple as that.

-=-=-=-=-

Here is the relevant text of the bill.

Sec. 249. Hate crime acts

(a) In General-

““`(1) OFFENSES INVOLVING ACTUAL OR PERCEIVED RACE, COLOR, RELIGION, OR NATIONAL ORIGIN- Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person–

“““““(A) shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years, fined in accordance with this title, or both; and

“““““(B) shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life, fined in accordance with this title, or both, if–

“““““““`(i) death results from the offense; or
“““““““`(ii) the offense includes kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill.

““`(2) OFFENSES INVOLVING ACTUAL OR PERCEIVED RELIGION, NATIONAL ORIGIN, GENDER, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, GENDER IDENTITY, OR DISABILITY-

“““““(A) IN GENERAL- Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, in any circumstance described in subparagraph (B) or paragraph (3), willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person–

“““““““`(i) shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years, fined in accordance with this title, or both; and

“““““““`(ii) shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life, fined in accordance with this title, or both, if–

“““““““““(I) death results from the offense; or

“““““““““(II) the offense includes kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill.

“““““(B) CIRCUMSTANCES DESCRIBED- For purposes of subparagraph (A), the circumstances described in this subparagraph are that–

“““““““`(i) the conduct described in subparagraph (A) occurs during the course of, or as the result of, the travel of the defendant or the victim–

“““““““““(I) across a State line or national border; or

“““““““““(II) using a channel, facility, or instrumentality of interstate or foreign commerce;

“““““““`(ii) the defendant uses a channel, facility, or instrumentality of interstate or foreign commerce in connection with the conduct described in subparagraph (A);

“““““““`(iii) in connection with the conduct described in subparagraph (A), the defendant employs a firearm, dangerous weapon, explosive or incendiary device, or other weapon that has traveled in interstate or foreign commerce; or

“““““““`(iv) the conduct described in subparagraph (A)–

“““““““““ (I) interferes with commercial or other economic activity in which the victim is engaged at the time of the conduct; or

“““““““““(II) otherwise affects interstate or foreign commerce.

““`(3) OFFENSES OCCURRING IN THE SPECIAL MARITIME OR TERRITORIAL JURISDICTION OF THE UNITED STATES- Whoever, within the special maritime or territorial jurisdiction of the United States, engages in conduct described in paragraph (1) or in paragraph (2)(A) (without regard to whether that conduct occurred in a circumstance described in paragraph (2)(B)) shall be subject to the same penalties as prescribed in those paragraphs.

(b) Certification Requirement-

““`(1) IN GENERAL- No prosecution of any offense described in this subsection may be undertaken by the United States, except under the certification in writing of the Attorney General, or a designee, that–

“““““(A) the State does not have jurisdiction;

“““““(B) the State has requested that the Federal Government assume jurisdiction;

“““““(C) the verdict or sentence obtained pursuant to State charges left demonstratively unvindicated the Federal interest in eradicating bias-motivated violence; or

“““““(D) a prosecution by the United States is in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice.

““`(2) RULE OF CONSTRUCTION- Nothing in this subsection shall be construed to limit the authority of Federal officers, or a Federal grand jury, to investigate possible violations of this section.

(c) Definitions- In this section–

““`(1) the term `bodily injury’ has the meaning given such term in section 1365(h)(4) of this title, but does not include solely emotional or psychological harm to the victim;

““`(2) the term `explosive or incendiary device’ has the meaning given such term in section 232 of this title;

““`(3) the term `firearm’ has the meaning given such term in section 921(a) of this title;

““`(4) the term `gender identity’ means actual or perceived gender-related characteristics; and

““`(5) the term `State’ includes the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and any other territory or possession of the United States.

(d) Statute of Limitations-

““`(1) OFFENSES NOT RESULTING IN DEATH- Except as provided in paragraph (2), no person shall be prosecuted, tried, or punished for any offense under this section unless the indictment for such offense is found, or the information for such offense is instituted, not later than 7 years after the date on which the offense was committed.

““`(2) DEATH RESULTING OFFENSES- An indictment or information alleging that an offense under this section resulted in death may be found or instituted at any time without limitation.’.

Pre-emptive Self Defense and International Law

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

sherman tank

Last year, for reasons we’re not entirely clear on, Hamas-led Palestinians started firing rockets and mortars at civilian populations in Israel. Israel put up with it for a while, but then after Christmas it finally responded with a bunch of air strikes on targets in the Hams-controlled Gaza region, and blocked shipping into the area.

As usual, there was a U.N. outcry against Israel’s actions, and a commission was formed. Last week, after several months of review, the commission came out with its report. Although it did say that Hamas shouldn’t have fired rockets at civilians, it came down hardest on Israel, concluding that Israel had committed major violations of international law, probably war crimes, and its actions did not count as self defense.

There have been the usual cries of unfairness all around, what one would expect in any such matter. The whole matter seems to be just par for the course, and we admit to not paying all that much attention to any of these goings-on.

But this morning, a piece in the WSJ by notable criminal law scholar Paul H. Robinson caught our eye. In his article, “Israel and the Trouble With International Law,” Mr. Robinson argues that, although the U.N.’s report might strike many as “a bit unsettling or even bizarre,” in nonetheless is probably correct, in terms of international law.

Mr. Robinson argues that the rules of international law forbid the kind of self defense that American criminal law would allow. Under international law, he says, if a gang of thugs is openly preparing to rob your store and kill your security guards, and is assembling in the parking lot across the street, and there are no police, you still cannot act in self defense until they actually start their attack. But under American criminal law you would be allowed to use such force as is “immediately necessary” to prevent the attack from happening, without waiting to be attacked first.

Similarly, he says, if a neighbor was letting thugs use his house, from which they regularly attacked your family, and there are no police, then international law would forbid you from using force against the thugs and the house they’re taking sanctuary in. But American criminal law would let you do it.

And as a third example, he says that international law only allows force against those thugs when they’re presently in the act of attacking your family, and not during the periods in between attacks, even though it’s an ongoing series.

So, he concludes, by going after the source and trying to prevent further acts of violence against its civilian population, Israel probably did violate international law here. The rules only let it use force to stop the individual attacks, and only while they’re actually happening.

-=-=-=-=-

We admire Mr. Robinson very much, but he’s not precisely correct here. He focuses on Article 51, but that’s not the only source of law here. The law on pre-emptive self defense is a non-Charter use of force, but which is nonetheless permitted by customary international law.

Article 51 of the U.N. Charter says that nothing in the Charter is to be construed so as to impair the “inherent right” (meaning it pre-existed the U.N.) of nations to use self defense against armed attack.

“Armed attack” does seem pretty limiting. Not every act of aggression counts as an attack, after all. Merely threatening force doesn’t count. The enemy may in fact be involved in a use of force, and it may even be an illegal use of force, but it still might not be an armed attack.

So Robinson cites the Nicaragua case, where the Sandinistas in Nicaragua were unlawfully supplying arms and sanctuary to insurgents trying to topple El Salvador’s government. Even though this was an illegal use of force, El Salvador had no right under international law to use force itself in order to stop Nicaragua’s violations of its sovereignty.

But an armed attack can be taking place if the enemy is massing across the border. Like his example with the thugs across the street, who are just waiting for night to fall before they attack your store. If that massing of troops is just an exercise, well then you’re not allowed to attack them.

But if it truly is preliminary to an imminent attack, then by all means strike them. Read on to see why it’s okay to do so.

Remember, though, you need to immediately report to the Security Council that you are under armed attack. And you need to promptly report your response actions to the Security Council.

The main things to keep in mind are that your force must be necessary, and it must be proportional.

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The most famous case in international law, The Caroline (1906), deals with the hot-button issue of preemptive self defense. This one predates Article 51, and it is certainly part of customary international law.

The United States had a bunch of nasty battles with Canada during the War of 1812. There was a lot of bad blood, and the two countries remained hostile for many years thereafter. Unlike now, Canada was the major power, and the U.S. was the little guy. Nevertheless, the U.S. kept trying to take bits of Canada, and the border between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario was heavily militarized. Sound familiar?

The Canadians learned that the U.S. was planning a military incursion across the border into Canadian territory. Before the U.S. began its attack, however, the Canadians struck first.

The Canadians crossed the border first, grabbed the U.S. ship The Caroline, and killed everyone on board. Then they set the ship on fire. Then they launched it over Niagara Falls.

The U.S. Secretary of State at the time was Daniel Webster. He and his British counterpart Lord Ashburton began writing back and forth about what constituted proper self defense. It resulted in a letter from Webster saying:

The President sees with pleasure that your Lordship fully admits those great principles of public law, applicable to cases of this kind, which this government has expressed; and that on your part, as on ours, respect for the inviolable character of the territory of independent states is the most essential foundation of civilization. And while it is admitted on both sides that there are exceptions to this rule, he is gratified to find that your Lordship admits that such exceptions must come within the limitations stated and the terms used in a former communication from this department to the British plenipotentiary here. Undoubtedly it is just, that, while it is admitted that exceptions growing out of the great law of self-defense do exist, those exceptions should be confined to cases in which the ‘necessity of that self-defense is instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation.’

The law arising from this case is that, for pre-emptive self defense to be lawful:

1) The necessity must be immediate;

2) The necessity must be overwhelming;

3) There must be no other choice;

4) There must be no time to deliberate; and

5) It should also be proportional. (This comes from an earlier letter. Here, killing everyone, burning the ship, and sending it over the falls was found not to have been proportional.)

The Caroline keeps coming up again and again whenever the question of anticipatory self-defense is proper. These five criteria are the ones that get cited by pretty much everyone.

The Nazis, for example, when they invaded Poland, went out of their way to make it look like Poland had started it, so as to justify their invasion. They even dressed up Polish prisoners in German uniforms, shot them and filmed it, and blamed it on Poland. They were trying to make the facts appear to fit the requirements of The Caroline. The Nuremburg tribunal, however, did not buy it.

In the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States went out of its way to say its actions were not self-defense, but merely a quarantine of Cuba on the high seas to keep the missiles out. A blockade certainly is a kind of use of force, but it is less intrusive than other kinds. The United States proposed this theory in the U.N., and it was representatives from Ghana (who, unlike ours, had been well-educated in international law) who stood up and cited The Caroline case, asking “is this emergency instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation?”

When the Israelis bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 (because it could have been capable of making weapons-grade plutonium), that also led to lengthy discussions of whether the standards for preemptive self-defense attacks had been met. Of course, the act had already been done by then.

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So if one reads the U.N. report more closely, one finds that it goes out of its way to find Israel’s strikes to have been disproportionate to the threat, primarily by including the blockade of shipping. The reasoning goes that the blockade punished the entire population, and wasn’t necessary to self defense.

We’re not particular fans of Israel, but that simply doesn’t wash. Gaza doesn’t produce its own rockets and mortars. Hamas gets them from Iran, Syria or other sources. So a blockade to prevent the ongoing attackers seems perfectly proportionate and necessary here.

Going through the five factors, what do we have?

1) Was the necessity immediate? Certainly. Israel had been under ongoing attack for months, with no sign of it letting up.

2) Was the necessity overwhelming? Sure. Civilians were being targeted for strikes by military weapons, and sovereignty was at stake as well.

3) Was there no other choice? It sure looked like it. Negotiations and diplomacy seemed only to be encouraging further attacks, as they always seem to do in that part of the world.

4) Was there no time to deliberate? Hmm. On the one hand, the Israelis seem to have been deliberating for months already, but if that precludes them from eventually saying enough is enough, then such a rule would encourage less deliberation, not more. Their population was under attack, and there was reason to believe it was going to happen again immediately, so it seems justifiable to call this as being no time to deliberate.

5) Was the response proportionate? The blockade was, to the extent it was focused at preventing Hamas from making further attacks. The air strikes targeted Hamas command, control and munitions, using precision-guided weapons to minimize collateral damage. It sure seems to have been proportional within the meaning of the law. Although many non-Hamas civilians were killed or wounded by the strikes, that does not change the fact of their limited purpose and execution.

So yes, if one only has the U.N. Charter to go by, Israel would seem to have violated international law. But there’s more to international law than just the U.N. charter. And under customary international law, it looks like Israel’s use of force was a lawful act of pre-emptive self defense.

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.