Category Archives: ethics

Potential juror thinks defendant is guilty before trial; gets to sit on jury and find him guilty (Updated)

fuck-you2

Here is another in the long line of legal fictions: that you get an impartial jury of your peers. Let’s leave aside the peer part for now, because there’s already been much study on the lack of any real peers in juries selected these days and focus on the “impartial” part.

Impartial, in this context, is supposed to mean someone who doesn’t come to the trial with any predispositions. Someone who is able to be fair, listen to the evidence, and conscientiously apply the law to the  facts, regardless of whether one emotionally agrees with the result compelled by those facts.

In reality, we aren’t stone robots. Everyone comes in with preconceived notions. In these days of increasing polarity, we have ever stronger opinions about crime and criminal justice and especially those icky child molesters.

So we come to our legal fiction: rehabilitation. That’s when the judge asks an obviously biased venireperson enough questions that they eventually get the hint, no matter how stupid they are, and end up saying the magic words “I think I can be fair in this case”. Doesn’t really matter what they’ve said prior to that point, once we get to that incantation, the juror is deemed impartial and fit to serve on the jury.

You’d be a fool, however, to think that the juror has actually changed his or her views. Just ask Jose Felipe Velasco:

Jose Felipe Velasco insists Orange County Judge David A. Hoffer cheated him out of a fair trial by placing a juror on the supposedly neutral citizen’s panel after she repeatedly declared the defendant guilty before hearing any evidence.

But you knew that anyway from the title of this post. So how bad could it have really been? Very bad.

Friendly reminder to law enforcement: stop listening to attorney-client conversations

It is, of course, an undeniable fundamental right that communications between a criminal defendant and his or her attorney should be utterly confidential1 and that, under no circumstances, should the prosecution get access to the content of those conversations.

Having said that, what is to be done if a prosecutor gets hold of confidential communications or learns of the substance of these conversations? Must there be an automatic reversal? Or this “fundamental right” to be rendered meaningless yet again, subjected to the legal fiction of harmlessness.

That is the question confronted by the Supreme Court of Washington in State v. Fuentes. In Fuentes, after the defendant was convicted by a jury, but during the pendency of post-trial motions, the prosecutor asked the investigating detective to listen to the defendant’s phone calls from jail to determine if there was any witness tampering going on2:

Should lawyers be disciplined for criticism of judges?

Lawyers are a touchy bunch. We have egos and we have inflated senses of self-worth. And it only gets worse when we become judges. No one’s ever gotten their way pissing off a judge.1 That doesn’t mean that no one talks shit about judges and some judges are more frequently talked-shit-about than other judges. But does there come a time when criticizing a judge goes too far?

Or, put another way, should lawyers be permitted to criticize judges in either public or private and not be sanctioned or found in violation of rules of ethical conduct?

Two recent stories brought this to mind: first, in Indiana, lawyer and blogger Paul Ogden received a one-year suspension [PDF] for private emails in which he criticized a judge and that judge’s handling of a case. The emails were turned over to the judge, who then demanded an apology. None was forthcoming; instead Ogden provided the judge with an itemized list of things he did wrong. Ogden then maintained that he has a First Amendment right to criticize public officials like judges and the hearing officer seemingly used that insistence to find that Ogden has limited insight into his behavior and recommend an elevated punishment:

“As a result of the statements made by (Ogden) about Judge Coleman, which statements were false or made with reckless disregard for truth, (Ogden) caused serious injury to the public, Judge Coleman, the judicial system and the legal profession,” York wrote.

York said in his report that he “cannot stress enough the conclusion that (Ogden) has a profound lack of both insight into his own conduct and lack of respect for those who disagree with him.”

Meanwhile, here in Connecticut, a four-month suspension of criminal defense attorney Rob Serafinowicz was just put on hold [PDF] pending his appeal. Serafinowicz, known for his brash style, found himself on the courthouse steps one day two years ago, saying unfavorable things about a judge he had appeared in front of and against whom he’d filed a judicial ethics complaint. Among other things he said “he’s a disgrace to the bench” “has favorites” and doesn’t give people “a fair shake”, “he’s never tried a case in his life” and then made some hollow assertions that the judge violated the code of judicial ethics. Serafinowicz has the habit of engaging in some bluster, which you can see in the video.

Serafinowicz eventually agreed that he violated two of the rules of professional conduct, Rule 8.2 and 8.4 [PDF]:

Rule 8.2. Judicial and Legal Officials

(a) A lawyer shall not make a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disre­gard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifi­cations or integrity of a judge, adjudicatory officer or public legal officer, or of a candidate for election or appointment to judicial or legal office.

Rule 8.4. Misconduct

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:

(4) Engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice;

I write about this not because I think that Ogden or Serafinowicz specifically should be given the freedom to say what they did2 but because it impacts me personally and the judicial system as a whole.

As regular readers will know, I frequently take to these pages to criticize judges, prosecutors and judicial opinions. While I reserve my comments to the “their policies are asinine and idiotic and they write like a bunch of peons” rather than “Justice Smith is an unmitigated idiot” variety of criticism, it is not inconceivable that one day someone might view the former as a violation of a rule of professional conduct as being “prejudicial to the administration of justice”, whatever that means.

And as much as I’d like my response to be “I’m out of order? You’re out of order!”, having the knowledge of such timely pop culture quips will hardly save my mortgage and legal career if public criticism of matters of public importance is so circumscribed simply because the speaker happens to also be a lawyer and thus has some greater duty of care assigned to him.

The law is a morass. Lay people cannot be trusted or counted upon to either care or care enough to know when the law is acting like an ass. The only ones with the knowledge to know and to say something about it are the participants in the system: the whistleblowers, if you will.

As if that weren’t enough, to police private statements like Odgen’s seems a step too far in the administration of justice.

But we are all lawyers. The irony is lost on us.

 

TX man thinks he’s better than the TN public defender system

First, in Texas, a man was charged with multiple murders and the prosecutor is deciding whether to seek the death penalty. In that case, his lawyer is a kid named Maverick Ray1. Mark Bennett has this to say about Ray:

The cal­low­est young lawyer puts up a web­site in which he calls him­self “The Law Offices of Mav­er­ick Ray” (he has one office), “An Expe­ri­enced Hous­ton Sex Crimes Lawyer Your Free­dom Can Depend On” (he has been licensed for less than eight months and been hired on one felony sex case), “the Assas­sin of Sup­pres­sion” (Har­ris County records show no granted sup­pres­sion motions in drug cases), “Houston’s pre­mier DWI Attor­ney” (I won­der what Gary Trichter or Troy McK­in­ney, or Lewis Dick­son, to name but three of Houston’s top DWI lawyers, with decades of expe­ri­ence each—[edit: not to men­tion Tyler Flood]—would have to say about that), “often opt­ing to let a jury deter­mine whether some­one was truly intox­i­cated rather than the highly flawed Field Sobri­ety Tests, Breath Tests, or Blood Tests” (Dis­trict Clerk records do not show him try­ing a sin­gle DWI case in Har­ris County dur­ing those eight months).

Maybe all of this can some­how be ratio­nal­ized in a cal­low young lawyer’s mind, but it just isn’t true. Mav­er­ick is a nice kid, but I think he’s com­mit­ting large-scale fraud on poten­tial clients. Even if it’s fac­tual, it’s decep­tive. I am sad­dened and dis­ap­pointed, and I see no way for this to end well for him.

But—for now at least—it works. Ray gets at least three new cases a week on aver­age, mostly felonies. I don’t know how much he’s charging—whatever it is, it’s too much—but it doesn’t take big fees to turn 94 cases in a lit­tle over seven months into seri­ous money.

Walker County District Attorney David Weeks, the prosecutor who’s deciding whether to seek the death penalty, has this to say about Mr. Ray:

Weeks also challenged the defense attorney’s qualifications to try a capital case Friday morning. Ray has only been out of law school for six months. There are concerns that his lack of experience hampers Lewis’ right to a fair trial, thus bolstering Lewis’ chance at an appeal if he is found guilty.

Kraemer had appointed a lawyer to represent Lewis who is approved to defend capital cases in Walker County, but Lewis chose to hire his own counsel.

“I am extremely troubled about Mr. Ray’s lack of knowledge and training in taking this case,” Weeks said. “(Capital murder) is the most difficult and integral criminal case we have in this state.”

Mr. Ray’s response – “the defendant has the right to choose his own attorney” is the correct response, but also the wrong, glib response. I’m not sure there’s a single attorney, no matter how talented, in the United States, who is qualified to handle a death penalty case within the first 5 years of practicing as a lawyer.

Meanwhile, in reality:

“Because of the state’s filing of a death motion in this case, our office quite frankly lacks the resources to defend a death penalty case,” [Nashville Assistant Public Defender Mike] Engle told [Criminal Court Judge Randall] Wyatt in court Monday morning.

Engle said the American Bar Association estimates that a typical death penalty case requires upward of 2,000 hours of preparation. He explained that the office only has a few attorneys qualified to defend capital cases, two of whom are already on one case, and one of whom is retiring soon. The others, he said, have supervisory duties over other public defenders, making it impossible for them to take on a case of the magnitude of the one against Jenkins.

The ABA standards for death penalty representation [PDF]2 are lengthy and involved. They require hours and months of training, tutelage and study. They are not to be taken lightly, or glibly.

Mr. Ray seems to be making the same mistake that most attorneys who aren’t that sure of themselves make: acting too sure of themselves. The best ones will admit what they know and don’t know and the best new ones will recognize this early on.

It’s one thing to tout yourself as the “premier DUI lawyer” only 6 months out of law school. It’s quite another thing to take on the defense of a death penalty case. Even if it is Texas.

Update: Tornado Mark, in his gentle, kind way is soliciting advice for the Maverick in re: his capital representation. Be sure to add your two cents.

Has no public official in Connecticut heard of the First Amendment?

Why not?

Why not?

It seems, as with other parts of the Constitution, elected and appointment members of the executive branches in the Constitution State have but a passing familiarity with the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States1.

Just so we’re all on the same level playing field, that first Amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In New York Times Co. v. United States2, Justice Hugo Black wrote:

In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.

The press today takes many forms: it takes the form of traditional newspapers like the Danbury News-Times and it takes the form of dedicated, intrepid bloggers like Alfonso Robinson who runs both the HatCity Blog and My Left Nutmeg.

Ban the Box but abandon the ex-felon: the Kennard Ray saga

We are a country whose favorite pastime is not football, but incarceration. In such a country, we take delight in locking up young, minority men from the age of 14 to the age of death. We disproportionately incarcerate men of color and we saddle them after the fact of their convictions by heaping consequences upon consequences that are so onerous that almost no one, once burdened by the shackles of a felony, can free himself of them and re-enter Valhalla: middle class America. Onerous and mercurial probation conditions and registries and the constant mass media coverage are enough to drive most men mad.

Standing against this tide that inevitably washes out any traces of opportunity is a thing called “ban the box”. I’ve written about Ban the Box since at least 2009. It’s a policy [more information here - PDF.] that “bans” a box on employment forms asking if the applicant has a criminal record.

The purpose of this is to ensure that people aren’t denied employment simply because they have a criminal record. Cities and states that have enacted BTB policies are required to complete the application process, make a conditional offer of employment to the applicant and then conduct a background check. At that point the applicant can voluntarily disclose any relevant record and explain it. The employer can then choose to continue with employment or withdraw the offer. If the offer is withdrawn, the applicant can appeal that decision.

It’s a bloody brilliant idea that seeks to make the procedure a “record-blind” procedure, thus forcing employers to make decisions based on experience and talent and suitability for the job1.

Hartford, the capital of Connecticut, has such an ordinance [PDF] that requires “banning the box”2.

But the problem with Ban the Box, just as with other rules of equality and fairness the Government is entrusted with enforcing, is that someone has to really want to.

Ban the Box is nothing without political backing or the fortitude of the hirer to stand behind her decision to offer a job to someone with a criminal record. We3 are aware that there is a large section of the population for whom a generic criminal is worse than the genetic offspring of Osama Bin Laden, Obama bin Barack and Adolf Hitler combined. These are the people who comment on news stories.

These are the people who are going to be outraged with pitchforks and demand that the newspaper investigate why the city is giving a job to a criminal when there are perfectly good people in America who aren’t criminals and need a job. In other words, people incapable of nuance and context.

If the policy is to succeed, it takes someone with the conviction4 to say “I am standing by my decision to hire this individual because they are qualified for the job and will be an asset, despite the criminal history of their distant past.”

Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra apparently is not such a man. On Tuesday, he announced that he was hiring a man named Kennard Ray as a his Deputy Chief of Staff. On Wednesday, Mr. Ray had withdrawn his name from consideration because “questions were asked about his criminal record“. Mr. Ray had a criminal record:

Ray’s criminal history includes a 1997 conviction for the sale of narcotics, a 1998 conviction for possession of narcotics, a 1998 conviction for carrying a pistol without a permit and a 2004 conviction for criminal possession of a gun.

Shit, you can get that record in Hartford just by driving through the city5. Mayor Segarra had this to say:

“Mr. Ray is a qualified individual with solid references from former supervisors and community leaders,” Segarra said. “However, public servants, especially those in leadership positions, must be held to a higher standard.”

I am at a loss to understand what that means. If Mr. Ray was utterly qualified for the job and came with strong recommendations and a demonstrated dedication to the city of Hartford and public service, then the fact of his criminal convictions should not alter the equation one iota. In fact, Mayor Segarra didn’t seem too perturbed by the fact that this individual might suddenly become undesirable because he might turn out to have a criminal record, demonstrated by the fact that when the Hartford Courant contacted the Mayor’s Office on Wednesday, one day after announcing the hiring, he had not yet conducted the background check6.

And so something happened when the Courant contacted him and he realized that Mr. Ray has a criminal record. Either Mr. Ray suddenly became unappealing solely because of his criminal record, or Mayor Segarra got scared of potential “bad press” and suggested to Mr. Ray that he might want to withdraw.

He certainly could have taken a firm stance and said that this is America, the purported land of second chances, where we love redemption and the underdog and that the purpose of Ban the Box was to permit such hires and that it would set a tremendous example for the community.

That doesn’t seem to be what happened and it certainly isn’t the stance taken by the Mayor in public. It also isn’t something that has been implied by Mr. Ray.7

It’s sad. Here was a perfect opportunity to explain to residents of a city with a massive crime problem and an even bigger reintegration problem that people are deserving of second chances. That people are better than the worst thing that they’ve done and that there is no shame in hiring someone with a criminal record – and to a position of trust and importance at that.

But instead the Mayor wants to “review” the policy and perhaps revise it to conduct background checks before job offers are made, which would render Ban the Box completely useless.

Because one should only do the right thing if it looks good.

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For more, see The Hartford Guardian; Real Hartford.

 

The petulance of power

petulant

Let’s lay it out there: who here doesn’t believe that anyone arrested for a crime is automatically guilty of it? Who here doesn’t believe that there is a very good reason someone’s been arrested: they must’ve done something. Who here doesn’t believe that the system is a necessary inconvenience; a rigmarole we must go through before we arrive at the “truth” that everyone’s known about since the time of arrest.

The legal system – and the criminal justice system in particular – is increasingly viewed as an annoying detour on what should be a very short road from arrest to incarceration. If an arrestee is later found guilty by a jury, well then, I told you so. If an arrestee turns into an acquittee, it doesn’t mean he didn’t do it, just that the State couldn’t prove it. What has come before me, I do not know1.

And while it may be excusable for the masses to believe that the system is a technicality, it is exceptionally shameful for those educated in the law and charged with its conveyance to similarly believe so.

While this desire to dispense with the due process of law because we know better is foul when it emanates from law professors2, it is particularly odious when it extrudes from the pores of our own Champions of Justice: a terrible habit that seems to routinely recur.

Prosecutors can’t seem to keep their hands out of the misconduct jar. And when they engage in this misconduct, they do it over and over again, and indignantly soBecause they know better. Because they know how the system really works and how defense attorneys and the “constitution” are just impediments and tricks that prevent them from doing real justice: putting people who they’ve decided are rapists and murderers behind bars.

They have the power to decide who is a criminal and who is not and by God they’ve decided that long before they start to pick a jury.

Take Sharmese Hodge. A prosecutor in Danbury, Connecticut, who prosecuted a man named Michael Maguire. Hodge alleged that Maguire had sexually assaulted an eight-year old. In fact Hodge was so sure Maguire was guilty of this hyenous3 crime that she said the following4 [PDF] to the jury:

Defense counsel concluded his argument by stating: “I don’t ask you for pity. I don’t ask you for mercy. I ask you for justice. I ask you to set [the defendant] free.”

The prosecutor began her rebuttal closing argument as follows: “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s not what he’s asking you for. What he’s asking you for is to condone child abuse. What he’s asking you for is to allow a world in which a forty-one year old man sticks his hand down the front of an eight year old’s pants, claims to tickle her . . . [t]akes his hand out, smells it while his erect penis is sticking out of his pants, and, because he did that to an eight year old child, because he did it in a room where no one else was present, because he did in it in a house where mom and dad were separated and there was a woman staying the night . . . you can’t find him guilty. That’s what defense [counsel and the defendant want] you to believe. That’s what they want you to do. They want you to condone child abuse in this courtroom. They don’t want you to look at that little girl that sat on the stand and testified before you . . . . They don’t want you to look at her testimony. . . . They want you to say, hey, guess what? Because she’s eight [years old] and it was just her [testimony alone, you should find the defendant not guilty].”

After asserting that defense counsel had “lied to [the victim]” when he told her that his questions were not intended to trick her, the prosecutor returned to her earlier theme, stating: “So when [defense counsel] sits here and says to you today, we’re not here to condone child abuse or we’re not trying to beat up . . . on the [victim], listen to that. . . . Is he telling you the truth . . . when he says that?”

Finally, the prosecutor made the following argument with respect to the defendant’s own testimony: “I would assume what you wanted to hear was the truth, not a bunch of excuses, not . . . a big cloud of smoke and mirrors . . . . You wanted to hear the truth. That’s not what you heard. You heard a . . . coached conversation between a defense attorney and his client.” The prosecutor further argued: “[I]t’s not a secret that child abuse is a crime. But what counsel’s asking you to do is to say that . . . child abuse that happens in secret is legal, and that is not the law. I ask you to find the defendant guilty . . . .”

In addition, during the trial, Hodge and the defense attorney Norm Pattis had agreed that the interview of the complainant should be edited to remove portions that did not deal with the current allegations5. Pattis asked the interviewer if he had asked the complainant about inconsistencies in the story (he had not). Hodge then argued in front of the jury that the interviewer indeed had asked about those inconsistencies, but it was in the redacted portion of the interview that the jury was not allowed to see.

Which is not a misrepresentation but a blatant lie.

Why, if you must ask yourself, would a prosecutor argue to a jury that the defendant is asking them to condone child abuse? Why would the prosecutor make an argument so beyond the pale?

Because she believes it. Because she believes it and also believes that juries aren’t to be trusted. Because she knows that her best bet at “winning” is getting people angry. Because emotion is the surest way to a conviction. Because she has decided that Maguire has done wrong and she’ll be damned if she lets due process get in the way of a conviction.

Fortunately, this time our supreme court intervened6:

We agree with the defendant that the prosecutor’s repeated assertions, during her rebuttal closing argument, that the defendant and defense counsel were asking the jury to “condone child abuse” and to find “that . . . child abuse that happens in secret is legal,” and, further, that defense counsel was lying when he stated otherwise, were highly improper and intended not only to appeal to the jurors’ emotions but also to demean the defendant and defense counsel in the eyes of the jurors. In characterizing the defense theory of the case as she did, the prosecutor sought to demonstrate, unfairly, and without a factual basis, that the defense was illegitimate and wholly unworthy of consideration, for no juror reasonably could be expected to credit a defense predicated on condonation or approval of child sexual abuse.

While Mr. Maguire gets a new trial7. it seems that there are no consequences for Ms. Hodge, who appears free to repeat her questionable behavior.

This prosecutorial hubris is not an isolated incident. Defendants and defense counsel are not immune to the petulance of prosecutors. As a jurist, if you stray too far outside the line, you may find yourself banished to traffic court - a tactic seemingly only employed by prosecutors in San Diego8 - or the subject of a 2-year long inquiry into your impartiality. All because you rule in favor of defendants. Another way of saying that is ‘you rule in favor of individual rights and the rule of law.’ But no one says that. You’re partial and need to be banished if you rule for defendants and prosecutors will spend countless hours writing 70-page complaints against you9.

If none of this bothers you, ask yourself why. Even if you are that convinced of the infallibility of individuals who are given this extreme power, doesn’t their petulance and arrogance at being questioned give you pause?

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