Category Archives: death penalty

Tsarnaev: a hearing in futility and the neverending charade

kangaroo-court-1

Just when you thought that the window-into-the-criminal-justice-system’s-foibles that the Tsarnaev case couldn’t get any window-into-the-criminal-justice-system’s-foibles-ier, the First Circuit ups and practically shoves an opinion in our faces that screams “CHARADE! CAN YOU SEE IT? THIS IS A SCAM!”

You might remember from my earlier posts that after being denied a change of venue three times, Tsarnaev filed a second Writ of Mandamus in the 1st Circuit, asking them to stay jury selection and move the trial to another jurisdiction. The 1st Circuit finally ruled [PDF]. The headlines will be: “First Circuit grants argument in venue change!”

The reality is that they’ve already told you how they’re going to rule.

In addition to the Second Petition, three motions are pending before this court. First, petitioner seeks a stay of jury selection in the district court, which the government has opposed. Petitioner’s motion to stay is denied as without merit by two judges of this court.

The First Circuit will listen to arguments on whether the jury selection and the whole trial should be moved to another jurisdiction one week from today but they won’t stop jury selection until then. We don’t know how many jurors will be questioned between now and then and if enough will be accepted to seat a whole jury.

Do you really think that next week, the First Circuit is suddenly going to say that, yes, of course, the trial should be moved? Absolutely no chance at all of that happening1.

So why are they granting a hearing in the first place? It seems because they have to:

Our concurring and dissenting colleague has requested oral argument and argument may be granted at the request of a single judge. Accordingly, we will hear argument on the Second Petition on February 19, 2015, at 10:00 a.m.

The panel that issued this order consists of three judges. Out of the three, only one would have granted the stay of jury selection and only one wants to hear oral argument on whether the case should be moved. The lone dissenting judge is Juan Torruella, all of 81 years and a Reagan appointee. He makes the rather obvious point that if a hearing is to be conducted next week on whether the case should be moved elsewhere, then wouldn’t it make sense to halt jury selection until then?

So how do you think the other two will vote come next Thursday? I don’t think Judge O’Toole is worried.

Then there’s also the charade of dancing around the very heart of the matter that’s at the core of this motion for change of venue. Both parties are not allowed to reference items that are sealed below. This means that they cannot reference, in open court, the responses of jurors to questions or to the questionnaire that call into question the ability of Tsarnaev to have a fair trial in Boston.

Judge Torruella again:

Second, while I agree with the order as to the time, place, and length of the hearing, as well as the briefing schedule, I disagree with the restrictions placed upon it by virtue of the sealing order. It will be quite an interesting hearing since the parties will be forbidden from discussing the details of facts directly at the heart of the issue presented: whether the answers given during the jury selection process have demonstrated that the jury pool is so tainted and prejudiced that it is impossible for the Defendant to receive a fair trial.

At 81, he’s no fool. He sees this for what it is: a pro-forma hearing with a foregone conclusion. The First Circuit seems to have made up its mind: this trial will happen in Boston, regardless of how fair the jurors are and at the exclusion of the press and the public if need be.

This is justice in America. Some have called it a Kangaroo Court. I call it Thursday.


It depends on what you mean by a fair trial (updated)

Both the Federal Constitution and the state constitution provide every person with several rights when it comes to the kind of trial that he or she deserves: there is a right to a public trial1, a right to a fair trial2 and a right to a trial by an impartial jury3.

Concurrently, the public and the press have a First Amendment right of access to courts and to trials4. These rights combine to form a “presumption of openness”5 and access to courts and judicial documents.

The core value of this right to a public trial is:

Public monitoring of the judicial process through open court proceedings and records enhances confidence in the judicial system by ensuring that justice is administered equitably and in accordance with established procedures.

“[T]he bright light cast upon the judicial process by public observation diminishes the possibilities for injustice, incompetence, perjury and fraud. Furthermore, the very openness of the process should provide the public with a more complete understanding of the judicial system and a better perception of its fairness.”

Rosado v. Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp.

An impartial jury is one which comes into a trial without any preconceived notions and can put aside whatever biases they may have formed and decide the case based on the evidence presented to it. Just because jurors have been exposed to news coverage doesn’t mean that the defendant is deprived of due process6. Jurors are not required to be “totally ignorant of the facts and issues involved” and prominence does not necessarily produce prejudice, and juror impartiality does not require ignorance7.

Sometimes, however, these core rights are at loggerheads. This is when the public’s right of access and the media’s right to report on court proceedings creates an atmosphere of publicity in which it is impossible to find and seat impartial jurors. This happens in high profile cases where there is such extensive media coverage with inflammatory information and facts that create irreversible biases among potential jurors. In a case like that, the defendant need not prove that each potential juror is actually biased against him, but whether the pretrial publicity constitutes an “extreme circumstance where there has been inherently prejudicial publicity such as to make the possibility of prejudice highly likely or almost unavoidable.”8 Since this would be done pretrial, most defendants would seek to have the trial moved to another location where there isn’t such publicity, or wait a long time for the prejudice to abate.

This Constitutional lesson is currently being enacted for the American public in Boston, where Dzokhar Tsarnaev is being tried in a capital case for the Boston Marathon bombings.

That there is immense pretrial publicity in this case is undeniable. The Boston bombing was the top MA story of 2014. This has already prompted Tsarnaev’s lawyers to file three motions for change of venue. [UpdateThe first two were rejected All three have now been rejected [PDF] as was a subsequent Writ of Mandamus filed in the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals [pdf] which that court denied [PDF].9 This is because courts like to think that jury selection can weed out the partial jurors and uncover those hidden gems who can profess to be impartial. In fact, it’s one of the minimization mechanisms required as an alternative to a change of venue.10

It is with that in mind that it seems the district judge and the court of appeals denied Tsarnaev’s first attempts at changing venue.

Then came jury selection, which has been an unmitigated disaster. According to his third Motion for Change of Venue [PDF] and his Second Writ of Mandamus [PDF], juror questionnaires and jury selection have uncovered irreparable biases:

[A]n extraordinary 85 percent of the prospective jurors either believe Mr. Tsarnaev is guilty, or have some self-identified “connection” to the case, or both.

Fully 68 percent of prospective jurors already believe that Mr. Tsarnaev is guilty, before hearing a single witness or examining a shred of evidence at trial.

Even more striking, 69 percent of prospective jurors have a self identified connection or expressed allegiance to the people, places, and/or events at issue in the case. Stronger support for a finding of presumed prejudice in Boston is difficult to imagine, and the existing record precludes a fair trial in Boston.

The news media has done an equally impressive job of documenting the utter futility of seeking impartial jurors and the investigations of potential jurors’ social media accounts have uncovered biases that may have otherwise remained hidden. In fact, a new poll published today in the Boston Globe reveals that almost 90% of people think he is guilty or probably guilty.

guilty3

11 days of selection have passed, 142 jurors have been questioned and we still don’t know how many, if any, have been selected11.

The First Circuit ordered the Government to respond to Tsarnaev’s Writ today. Whether it rules today and in what direction remains to be seen, but all of this does raise the question:

What do we really mean by a fair trial? Given the juror responses and the polls conducted, it seems obvious that everyone thinks Tsarnaev is guilty. Then why are we persisting with this charade in Boston? Our rules of law require that a decision be made only on the basis of the evidence presented in court. Yet if this trial is permitted to remain in Boston it will become clear that what we mean by “Fair Trial” is merely an “appearance of a fair trial” without regard to reality. Fair trial would mean “a fair trial to the extent that we can provide one under the circumstances”. The right decision here would be to move the trial but can we get past the legalese and make that difficult decision?12 Or is it going to be “good enough” for us to say that “well, we know he’s really, really guilty, so seriously, c’mon guys, the Constitution doesn’t count here”?

The Tsarnaev case has already once delivered a beating to a core Constitutional right. Will there be a second?


Death by any means

It’s bad enough that the duty of prosecutors to disclose and give to the accused any exculpatory and impeachment evidence is entirely self-regulated. It’s quite another when prosecutors flout that requirement to obtain convictions while hiding behind the quickly falling veil of justice. It’s worse yet when they intentionally hide evidence in a case in which they are seeking to murder the accused.

This may sound familiar to you and that’s because I wrote back in February about Virginia prosecutors and their quest to kill Justin Wolfe. If only this were a follow-up to that post. It is not. This is yet another instance of prosecutorial hide-the-ball in a death penalty case, this time from Colorado in the case of Sir Mario Owens1.

Determined to demonstrate just how far he believed Arapahoe County prosecutors had strayed over the line in the effort to obtain the death penalty against his client, defense attorney Jim Castle resorted to a visual aid. During a hearing late Friday, he presented District Judge Gerald Rafferty with a wheeled cart piled with documents that he said prosecutors were obligated to turn over to the defense before trial but failed to do so — a transgression of due-process rights known as a Brady violation.

“There are so many violations in this case, I can’t cover them all,” Castle said. “How did this happen? This shouldn’t happen. If it’s allowed, we will accept a new low for justice in Colorado.”

I’m not going to go into a long-winded rant about the injustice of this. I’ll just let you see how outrageous it is.

  • [Co-defendant] Robert Ray’s wife, LaToya Sailor, testified that she wasn’t willing to come forward about what she knew until after Owens was arrested because she feared Owens would harm her son. Despite the fact that police documents indicate Sailor was already cooperating with authorities prior to Owens’ arrest, prosecutors made her supposed need to be protected from Owens “an issue in the case” and hammered away at it to the jury.
  • Another document withheld from the defense indicated Sailor, the beneficiary of a car from then-District Attorney Carol Chambers, had initially offered to assist in an accessory case against Ray but didn’t want to tie him directly to the Marshall-Fields shooting. (Ray was sentenced to death for Marshall-Fields’s murder and received a life sentence for Wolfe’s death.)
  • Witness Jamar Johnson was facing two counts of conspiracy to commit murder if he failed to cooperate in the Ray-Owens prosecution, but defense attorneys weren’t made aware of that possible motivation or how it might have shaped his testimony.
  • Greg Strickland, the only witness to identify Owens as the shooter of Marshall-Fields and Wolfe, testified that he’d received no assistance in any of his own cases in return for his testimony. But records indicate he received a plea deal in Adams County in exchange for his cooperation.

Some prosecutors take the position that if they don’t ask or know about information that would tend to prove the accused’s innocence, then they don’t have to abide by the Constitution. DA Carol Chambers apparently subscribed to that school of thought, because this isn’t the first case in which her ethics were called into question.

It is precisely this blood-lust that leads to a convict-at-all-costs attitude. And when the priority is a conviction, it is justice that dies.


More than 3.5 million reasons why the death penalty should be abolished

The death penalty is crazy. It’s barbaric. It’s sanctioned murder.

urkel-gifWe should end it.

inmate-downvote

Here are more than 3.5 million reasons why:

1-3.5 million: $3.5 million is how much the defense expert billed the public defender services for his work in the racial disparity hearings. Of course, the Courant when writing about it, misses the mark entirely (again) in its description of the need for this sort of work:

For many taxpayers, it’s an unwelcome fact of life that they bear the cost of preserving the legal rights of convicted killers. The counter to that is that it’s the price of being civilized. And if an exclamation point is needed to punctuate either statement, it could be the story of the recent payment to Donohue.

The most obvious explanation, completely glossed over, is that it’s the price we have to pay for having a death penalty. It’s not the rights of convicted killers, it’s the cost of a death sentence. If the state wants to prosecute people and kill them for those crimes, it shares the responsibility and burden of making sure those convictions are legal. Why is there no blame on the prosecution for this cost?

And it’s a cost incurred to ensure that the death penalty isn’t racist. Which, you know:

thats-racist

3,500,001-????: We actually don’t know how much the prosecution spends on the defense of murde the death penalty, but it stands to reason that they too spend a lot.

There are still plenty of death penalty appeals pending, perhaps with some retrials to come. There is decades worth of work to be done fighting against the death penalty. That means lots more money.

It’s not the defense’s fault. The state is trying to kill someone. We’re trying to prevent further murder.

Channel your outrage accordingly.

 

On lethal injections: academia vs. reality

The Wood botched execution in Arizona and others elsewhere have shocked many and rightly so. But it’s also opened up an interesting debate in the legal world. On the one hand, you have academics arguing the academia and the technicalities of the law and the meaning of words and on the other, you have former lawyers turned professors who are arguing that, really, what we should do is avoid torturous executions. The latter is a post at the ACS blog which I’d recommend that you read in its entirety. It is long and technical, but it really is worth reading to understand why the secrecy surrounding the lethal injection protocol is dangerous and cannot be tolerated.

H/T: Nancy Leong

Cruel and unusual: the new lows we hit in our thirst for blood (updated)

The death penalty is a disgusting, cruel and barbaric business. It is nothing more than a manifestation of our basest instinct for revenge, wrapped in primal anger and fear. It is the worst of us.

In this pursuit of revenge under the guise of justice, the depths we have fallen to are stunning: state governments are sanctioning secret protocols to poison people to death, just so their nefarious concoctions cannot be questioned by those who are subject to die by them.

Our blood-thirst has driven us so mad that we are willing to make threats about impeaching state supreme court justices for staying executions and those justices are willing to back down rather than ensure that no person suffers torture.

So it was, in a sense almost inevitable that the debacle in Oklahoma would occur, an event that was so eerily foreshadowed by a statement of the attorney for one of the condemned.

I can’t reproduce anything more poignantly than those who were covering it live, so there it is:

lockett

and

lockett-2

What have we done? What are we doing? Is this who we want to be? As CT’s Supreme Court considers the continued viability of capital punishment for the 10 remaining on death row, it would do well to keep in mind the kind of inhuman torture that we are endorsing – explicitly or implicitly – by keeping this punishment alive.

Of course, this puts the latest findings that a full 4% of death row inmates may be actually innocent in a disturbing and urgent light.

Shame on us all. Today is a day future generations will turn away from in history books and shed a quiet tear. For today was the death of humanity.

Update: See this post by Gamso and this by Philip Bump at The Atlantic Wire. Both must reads.

Death penalty in CT still alive

Pardon the pun, but the state’s abolition of the death penalty in 2012 was always an incomplete measure, in part because of the 10 or so men on death row who weren’t pardoned by abolition and because of the one remaining pending capital case of Richard Roszkowski.

Roszkowski killed three people, but got the death penalty for only the killing of one of them: 9-year old Kylie Flannery. This was the second penalty phase trial for him, the first also having ended with a death sentence, but that was reversed by the trial judge because of incorrect jury instructions.

It’s quite illogical to argue that our standards of decency have so evolved that we no longer consider death an appropriate punishment in the State of Connecticut, except for those people who committed their offenses before a certain date.

Ironically, I’ve been told that Roszkowski’s lawyers weren’t allowed to argue to the jury that the State has abolished the death penalty and thus they shouldn’t impose a sentence of death.

I guess when you get the taste of blood in your mouth, it’s really hard to let go.

And so now we have yet another deeply mentally disturbed man on death row, over whose murder we will spend decades and millions of dollars.

Because vengeance is more important. And killing is wrong. So we must kill to enforce that message.