Daily Archives: March 9, 2010

Wishful Wednesday

In what has by now become a ritual dance, every year the state legislature toys with bills meant to enact some real reform in the criminal justice system. Every year, like the sucker I am, I get seduced, dancing the dance, enjoying the promise of a moonlit sonata. Every year, like the battered spouse, I know it will be different. I believe and I hope and I pray.

So here we go again.

Tomorrow, the judiciary committee is set to conduct public hearings on three very important bills:

S.B. No. 230 (RAISED) AN ACT CONCERNING THE VIDEOTAPING OF CUSTODIAL INTERROGATIONS.

H.B. No. 5273 (RAISED) AN ACT CONCERNING EYEWITNESS IDENTIFICATION.

H.B. No. 5445 (RAISED) AN ACT CONCERNING THE DEATH PENALTY.

The bills seem to fall under the umbrella of “fixing the death penalty” and in some sense they may do so. But the real action in these bills is the adoption of best practices when it comes to interrogations and identifications. The death penalty bill also has some very interesting proposals. But let’s start at the very beginning. The interrogations bill is a hoot to read:

First, it applies only to those accused of a capital felony or Class A or Class B felonies. Second, any statement made by such person is presumed inadmissible unless 1) recorded and 2) the recording is not substantially altered. The bill then lists 9 exceptions pursuant to which a non-recorded statement is made admissible, but squarely places the burden on the state to prove by a preponderance that the exception is met. But there’s this odd subsection, which in my opinion, seeks to invalidate the entire bill:

(h) The presumption of inadmissibility of a statement made by a person at a custodial interrogation at a place of detention may be overcome by a preponderance of the evidence that the statement was voluntarily given and is reliable, based on the totality of the circumstances.

Since there is no further clarifying information, one must assume that this reverts back to the current standard for admissibility of statements: that they are reliable given the totality of circumstances. What, then, is the purpose of the bill requiring videotaping of interrogations? Am I reading this wrong?

The eyewitness identification bill is the standard bill that has been introduced for the last few years, so there’s nothing really to remark on. It is the death penalty bill that is the piece de resistance in this trifecta.

The bill starts tepidly enough and one might even confuse it for a bill proposed by a Republican to further limit the rights of criminal defendants in death penalty cases (oh wait, that’s exactly what it was…). But then it just takes off into neverneverland in a delightful way.

The bill first mandates that all relevant agencies must maintain exact records of the expenses incurred in pursuing and defending the death penalty. Some of you might recall how last year the public defender’s office was able to provide a dollar amount for the money spent, but the State “didn’t keep such records”.

But wait, it gets better. And how: