Category Archives: innocence

The madness of death

It is never enough to want to kill someone; the desire to murder is always accompanied by the desire to do so quickly and without question. One could liken it to a madness that makes one talk quickly, ranting and foaming at the mouth. While it was ultimately thought that King George suffered from Acute Intermittent Porphyria, it remains to be seen what afflicts the modern day proponents of the death penalty.

How else does one explain the Florida legislature’s passage of a new bill “streamlining” (such a beautiful euphemism: “streamlining”; what do the British call it? “Redundancies”. Such a way with words) the death penalty process. What they really mean is jetlining it. Making it fast. Quicker than quick. No room or time for questions or doubt. Under the bill – “The Timely Justice Act” – deadlines for filing appeals are getting shorter and the time between an affirmance by the Florida Supreme Court and the issuance of an execution warrant has been reduced. Because it isn’t like there have been 24 people exonerated in Florida who were on death row. Because doing it fast is the same as doing it right.

“This is not about a question of innocence, this is about making sure that timely justice is realized,” [Republican Senator Rob] Bradley said.

Bradenton Herald. [More here, here, here and here.] It is not a question of innocence, for innocence is irrelevant. The only dynamic in this game is finality. Once it is done, it must never be spoken of again. For if we speak of it, we must acknowledge that the system doesn’t work. And if the system doesn’t work, maybe we can’t fix it. And if we can’t fix it, maybe we can only get rid of it. But it’s not about innocence. It’s about speed. It’s about victims. It’s not like DNA could tell you if he’s really guilty or not. And even if it did, would you care?

Willie Manning thought you would, but prosecutors in Mississippi didn’t. Manning, who sits on death row, inches away from execution, doesn’t have much direct evidence linking him to the murders.

There is no physical evidence linking Manning to the 1992 murders of two Mississippi State University students. The “jailhouse informant” who once told trial jurors that Manning “confessed” to the crime, has since recanted, telling defense lawyers he thought he would receive “consideration” from prosecutors for incriminating Manning. And Mississippi officials now are refusing to test DNA and fingerprints found at the crime scene — evidence which did not directly incriminate Manning before, has never been tested using modern procedures, and which might definitely resolve the case one way or the other.

But there’s more. The FBI has sent letters in the past days to Manning’s lawyers, disavowing their own “forensic science” that was used to convict Manning. And so today, after just last week denying Manning’s request for a stay 5-4, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed course and agreed to stay his execution 8-1. Eight-to-One. There was still one. The Madness of Justice Randolph:

The letter also states that the Department of Justice is “assist[ing] [the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers] in their evaluations.” “The Innocence Project supports a moratorium on capital punishment.” The “NACDL has been an outspoken critic of the death penalty system. Of critical concern is the language contained in the first FBI report stating that, “[g]iven the abbreviated time frame for review, the FBI requests the Innocence Project (IP) to advise as to whether or not they agree with the FBI’s conclusions as soon as possible.” Although the connectivity and expediency by which this review was accomplished is mind boggling, I should not be surprised, given that the families of the victims of the clandestine “Fast and Furious” gun running operation can’t get the Department of Justice to identify the decision makers (whose actions resulted in the death of a border agent and many others) after years of inquiry, and that this is the same Department of Justice that grants and enforces Miranda warnings to foreign enemy combatants.” [emphasis in original]

The madness is upon him. Manning must be executed because fast and furious Obama and the FBI have juxtaposed the commission of the offenses of felonies in the circumvention of the current regime and the syncopation of the circumstances of the revolution of the conspiracy of the freedom of guns and religion in this Communist extravaganza.

There’s another form of madness at play here – and that is blame. If there is a fault with the system, that fault lies with the defense; if there is a problem, the problem is too many rights. It seems that the Constitution has become a roadblock on the fastrack to summary justice and execution.

The Florida “Let’s Speed up the Murder Yeehaw!” Bill has the following provision:

Notwithstanding another provision of law, an attorney employed by the state or appointed pursuant to s. 27.711 may not represent a person charged with a capital offense at trial or on direct appeal or a person sentenced to death in a post conviction proceeding if, in two separate instances, a court, in a capital post conviction proceeding, determined that such attorney provided constitutionally deficient representation and relief was granted as a result. This prohibition on representation shall be for a period of 5 years, which commences at the time relief is granted after the highest court having jurisdiction to review the deficient representation determination has issued its final order affirming the second such determination.

and this one:

(2) In a capital postconviction proceeding in which it has been determined that an attorney of record provided constitutionally deficient representation and relief has been granted as a result of such determination, after the highest court having jurisdiction to review such determination has issued its final order affirming the determination, the court making such determination shall furnish a copy of the findings to The Florida Bar for appropriate disciplinary action.

Blame the defendant; blame the lawyer. It’s taking too long. We never make mistakes. There never is a “report the prosecutor; fire the prosecutor” provision. The system cannot make mistakes; the system cannot admit fault. If the lawyer caused a problem, punish the lawyer. Nevermind that the specter of habeas is already a problem in the criminal defense bar with many taking the position that it’s a lawsuit against them personally, causing them to gleefully throw their clients under the bus, thus further compounding the failure of justice.

But can one really blame Florida when its an attitude that permeates from the top? A week or so ago, the United States Supreme Court did the unthinkable. It dismissed as improvidently granted [PDF] Boyer v. Louisiana. What that means is that after deciding to decide the important issue of just who pays when the system can’t pay to prosecute the cases prosecutors initiate, 5 justices of the august court decided that they didn’t want to decide that issue after all. Not because it isn’t an important issue, but because it was the defendant’s fault for raising that issue:

In sum, the record shows that the single largest share of the delay in this case was the direct result of defense requests for continuances, that other defense motions caused substantial additional delay, and that much of the rest of the delay was caused by events beyond anyone’s control. It is also quite clear that the delay caused by the defense likely worked in petitioner’s favor. The state court observed that petitioner’s assertions of his speedy trial right were “more perfunctory than aggressive.” 2010–693, p. 34 (La. App. 3 Cir. 2/2/11), 56 So. 3d 1119, 1143.

And as noted, most of this delay was caused by the many defense requests for continuances of   hearings on the issue of funding. If the defense had not sought and obtained those continuances, the trial might well have commenced at a much earlier date—and might have reached a conclusion far less favorable to the defense.

Justice Alito, apparently with a straight face, because he just gone writing that if only the damn defense didn’t raise that issue of the systemic lack of funding for capital defendants, the case wouldn’t have taken 7 years and we’d have had a death sentence already. So it’s the defendant’s fault that his right to a speedy trial was violated, but we’ll never say that because that would mean a new trial. So dismissed. And good luck with the next case, because the money still isn’t there but don’t you dare bring it up again.

Justice apparently need only be speedy when it is racing toward execution. The rest of the time, the system could grind itself to a halt for all anyone cares.

“Only God can judge,” Matt Gaetz, a Republican who sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives, said last week during House debate. “But we sure can set up the meeting.”

Let’s be sure we’re sending the right person to that meeting, first.

Sometimes, undermining confidence is all you need

Justice delayed is justice denied, goes the saying, but really, we all know that justice delayed is better than no justice at all. And so it may be for Richard Lapointe, whose 20 year old conviction for raping, killing and setting alight his grandmother-in-law has become a cause celebre of sorts for people across the State.

Today, after 4 appeals and 2 habeas corpus petitions¹, he finally received the relief he sought and that many people thought he long deserved. The Appellate Court² issued an opinion [PDF] today ordering a new trial after finding that a Brady violation undermined their confidence in his conviction.

In order to understand the significance of this decision, we must first have a bit of background on the facts of the case: On March 8, 1987, the defendant called the emergency telephone number, 911, to report a fire at the Manchester apartment of the victim. Earlier that day, he and his wife had visited the victim between 2 and 4pm, as was their custom. They returned home where they all remained until approximately 7:45pm when the defendant received a call from the victim’s daughter stating that she hadn’t heard from the victim and asked the defendant to go check on her. Important to note is that the defendant’s wife was giving their son a bath between 6:15 and 7:00pm while Lapointe sat in the living room watching TV.

What do we want from our system?

see end of post for info on this picture

I feel compelled to start, once again, with one of my favorite quotes:

Ammianus Marcellinus relates an anecdote of the Emperor Julian which illustrates the enforcement of this principle in the Roman law. Numerius, the governor of Narbonensis, was on trial before the Emperor, and, contrary to the usage in criminal cases, the trial was public. Numerius contented himself with denying his guilt, and there was not sufficient proof against him. His adversary, Delphidius, “a passionate man,” seeing that the failure of the accusation was inevitable, could not restrain himself, and exclaimed, “Oh, illustrious Cæsar! if it is sufficient to deny, what hereafter will become of the guilty?” to which Julian replied, “If it suffices to accuse, what will become of the innocent?” Rerum Gestarum, L. XVIII, c. 1.

Coffin v. United States. And yet, in these days, I look around and see more of Delphidius than of Caesar. Surely, you have heard of Casey Anthony and the verdict of not guilty rendered in her capital trial, that has sent a million heads spinning and the veins of nearly half the population of the country pumping with boiling blood calling for vengeance and murder.

The appreciation of a system which presumes an individual innocent unless the State can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt seems to be shrinking to a select few who make their living in that system. For the rest, the pure exhilaration of having a pre-determined verdict of guilt (and isn’t it always guilt?) announced, confirming their increasingly myopic and monochromatic view of the world is the only expectation.

Do we want a system that protects the individual or do we want a system that confirms our view of the guilt of those arrested? Do we want a system that lifts the substance of the accusation up to the light – and upon finding  it wanting – discards it? Or do we want a system that goes by the smell test? Do we want a system where no one who is arrested is not guilty? Do we want so much to believe in the infallibility of our so-called protectors? Do we want a system that allows us to so easily and hypocritically create an artificial divide between the mob and the mobbed?

Does the system only work when the guilty are convicted and the innocent are acquitted, or does it work when some who may be guilty are nonetheless set free? Does the system work when some who are likely innocent are not?

we are mindful that it may seem unjust to allow a conviction to stand when the evidence on which the conviction rested has been discredited. It must be remembered, however, that, once properly convicted, the petitioners no longer are cloaked in the mantle of the presumption of innocence.

Gould v. Commissioner of Correction, while doing just that. Gould is a case I wrote about some time ago, where a habeas court reversed Gould’s (and his co-defendant Taylor’s) conviction for murder on the grounds that they were actually innocent. From that decision:

“A senseless, cold-blooded, execution style murder was committed in the early morning hours of July 4th, 1993,” Fuger begins. Eugenio Deleon Vega went to his small Fair Haven bodega, La Casa Green, to open shop at 5:08 a.m. “Before the hour of six AM, before he could even arrange the morning newspapers, he was dead.  He had been executed, shot once in the left temple with a projectile from a .38 caliber semiautomatic pistol. These are indisputable facts.”

Fuger sets the scene for his sharp reproof with a blazing sub-header on Page One.

“This case rises and falls on the testimony of Doreen Stiles,” the sub-header reads, quoting New Haven’s Senior Assistant State Attorney James Clark’s words during Taylor and Gould’s 1995 Superior Court trial.

“No truer statement has ever been spoken,” Fuger wrote.

Stiles, a drug-addicted police informant, was the only supposed eyewitness who placed the defendants at the murder scene. DNA evidence found at the murder scene did not match Gould or Taylor. The state’s case rested on Stiles’ testimony, as Clark openly admitted during the trial. Stiles came forward and recanted her statement in 2006, allowing the defendants to open a joint habeas corpus claim of actual innocence, based on new evidence.

It is “crystal clear,” wrote Fuger, “that the sole piece of evidence, the only thread that links George Gould and Ronald Taylor to this senseless murder is the testimony of Doreen Stiles. If this tether breaks, then there is absolutely nothing that implicates these two men.”

“At the trial of the case in 1995, the case rose because Doreen Stiles made that linkage; at the trial of the habeas petition in 2009, the case must fall, once again, based upon the testimony of Doreen Stiles,” Fuger wrote.

The Supreme Court in its desire to so respectfully uphold the notion of finality, trips over itself to make absolutely clear that they seems somewhat squeamish about writing this decision, but in the end, they really have to. They don’t, really. I know it, they know and you should know it too. The verbal gymnastics are impressive:

In sum, the recantations by Stiles and Boyd may demonstrate that there no longer is any credible evidence that the petitioners did commit the crimes of which they were convicted. What the habeas court’s decision lacks is any discussion of affirmative evidence that would prove by clear and convincing evidence that the petitioners did not commit the crimes. We therefore conclude that the habeas court’s judgments must be reversed…

Emphasis added by me to point out the subtle use of words to support their conclusion.

So, if the only testimony which links the defendants to the murder is now discredited, and that’s not enough, then what must someone do to convince a court of their innocence? I’m glad you asked:

First, taking into account both the evidence produced in the original criminal trial and the evidence produced in the habeas hearing, the petitioner must persuade the habeas court by clear and convincing evidence, as that standard is properly understood and applied in  the context of such a claim, that the petitioner is actually innocent of the crime of which he stands convicted. Second, the petitioner  must establish that, after considering all of that evidence and the inferences drawn therefrom, as the habeas court did, no reasonable  fact finder would find the petitioner guilty.

Not only does one have to prove to the system that they affirmatively did not commit this crime, but they also have to prove that a jury would not find them guilty. It isn’t enough, here, that one presents evidence proving that they did not commit the crime – although how that is to be applied as a universal standard is beyond me.

Are we to decide on the innocence of individuals who are caught up in our system based on their their sheer luck that there exists some physical evidence such as DNA that proves they did not commit the crime? Must we require such a circumstance beyond their control? And what do we say to those who are lucky enough to completely undermine the State’s case against them, yet unlucky enough to have no independent corroborative evidence of their “alleged” innocence? Finality trumps innocence? Form over substance? Perhaps.

It really doesn’t come as any surprise, though, to me – and perhaps to you as well – that our rules are such. That there is a bias toward convicting and keeping people convicted. I sit here, day after day, reading as cases and reports of cases come flooding across my line of sight – and every day it’s the same: we love pronouncing judgment on others and love our moral indignation and our self-assumed superiority. We are better. They are guilty. And how dare anyone disagree with us:

A red-haired woman in her 60s who moved to Florida from Michigan, she told the court she worked at a Publix Grocery when she was questioned as a potential juror.

Now, she’s in hiding.

Juror number 12 left Florida. Her husband, fighting back tears, tells NBC News he’s not sure when she’ll return to her home in Florida.

Why? He says she fears half of her co-workers want her head on a platter.

The other may understand what she did, but she didn’t want to face them.

She was due to retire in the fall, but Juror number 12, after being released from sequestration, chose to call her boss to announce she couldn’t come to work. She didn’t feel safe.

She retired over the phone.

The husband, who sat with two NBC News producers, glanced repeatedly at his blood pressure monitor on the coffee table and the Bible next to it.

One day they’ll come for you and there’ll be no one left to speak up for you.

What do we want from our system? A rubber stamp, apparently.

[For an interesting local connection to the image above, see here.]

Guilt by convenience

[I was going to go with the far more catchy title "If you're innocent and you know it and you really want to show it, plead guilty" sung to the tune of - you know what? Stop that. Don't judge. You try writing funny and interesting blog posts every day. Sheesh. Nowadays everyone's a damn critic.]

So let’s start first with this statement a month and a half ago, from the Mayor of New Haven and the New Haven Police Chief:

“This is America.  Anyone can film anytime they want, including you, me and the PD while on duty,” Mayor DeStefano stated.

“Assume you’re being videotaped all the time when you’re out there,” [Chief] Limon said he has been telling his officers.

Limon said he has upcoming in-service training sessions for his rank and file will include an “update about legal procedures on interfering and videotaping issues.” He’s also looking into putting together a “policy to let officers know what are the exceptions” to when citizens can take video.

He was too slow with that training. Because this happened:

In the midst of swirling controversy about cops and cameras, Luis Luna was put under arrest for filming police in action—not by a rogue patrolman misunderstanding official department policy, but by none other than the assistant chief of police.

Luis Luna (pictured) [not here], a 26-year-old from Wallingford, was arrested on College Street early in the morning of Sept. 25 while he was using his iPhone to videotape police.

According to a police report, his arrest was ordered by Assistant Chief Ariel Melendez, who had told him not to film police breaking up a fight. Read the report here.

Luna said police took his iPhone from him and erased the video he had made. He was charged with interfering with police and spent the night in jail.

Oops. Now, I’m not going to get into the whole “police vs. cameras” angle on this story, because others have covered longer and more effectively. What I want to talk about is what happened on October 8:

Deterrent? Not Actually

all your DNA are belong to us

The story of the role of DNA in the criminal justice system is quite interesting. Heralded as the ultimate in crime solving, DNA has slowly infiltrated the collective consciousness of the entire nation and infected our lawyers, judges and jurors. It’s a double-edged sword, to be sure: DNA can accurately (or maybe not) identify an individual who leaves behind some trace materials at or in a crime scene, thereby implicating or exculpating a suspect. Fueled by DNA based shows like CSI, jurors became more demanding and mistakenly over reliant on the science, producing the “CSI effect”, DNA, on the other hand, has drawbacks that defense lawyers try to highlight – which I’m not sure have sunk in yet – like the fact that you it can’t tell you when it was deposited. DNA is most famous for high-profile exonerations of people already convicted of crimes and serving lengthy prison sentences.

But DNA is much more than that. As the science grows, the uses and implications of the genetic markers grows by leaps and bounds (see here and for the future, see here).

Which is why DNA, and the collection of DNA, is so attractive to law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the evolution of science and technology and the desired application of these new uses conflicts to some degree with the core protections of the Constitution.

Just yesterday, a 3 judge panel of the 9th Circuit heard an appeal in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU challenging the legality of California’s DNA-collection-upon-arrest law. That’s essentially all there is to the law: collect the DNA of everyone ever arrested. (Connecticut tried to pass a similar bill two years ago and it was ultimately rejected.) Under some circumstances, the DNA may never be deleted from their database:

Innocence on a clock

When I first turned my eye toward law school and the criminal justice system, the echoing refrain was that we, in this country, were the best. The criminal justice system, the jury system, the resources, the level of intelligence on both sides of the aisle on the bench all combined to create the best that the world had to offer. Law school, immersing us in the vagaries and nuances of Constitutional and criminal law, making us read and learn awe-inspiring quotes from Justices past, only served to reinforce that notion.

We were fooled. Years later, with years of practice and actual experience under my belt, I’ve come to the conclusion that while the system may still be the “best” in the world, it is only so by comparison to the others that are currently in existence (and even that I doubt, but since I’m no comparative law scholar, what do I know?). That makes me sad, both for the systems of other countries and our own.

There are two indelible truths about the system here in the US: it is the criminal conviction system and finality is king (an idea that deserves a fuller post; upcoming).

And when you combine those two inescapable conclusions, you get Lee v. Lampert (pdf). Lee, you see, got stuck in that quagmire that is AEDPA. Lee, you may also see, has proven that he is actually innocent of the crimes of which he stands convicted. And yet, because he missed the statutory, non-jurisdictional, arbitrary deadline for filing a federal habeas corpus petition, he will get no justice.

Paying for injustice

Meet Manuel Hidalgo Rodriguez, arrested and convicted in 1995 for child sexual assault that he did not commit. Hidalgo spent 5 years out of a 5 1/2 year sentence before his conviction was reversed and the charges dismissed.

Meet Thomas White, also convicted for child sexual assault and who also spent 5 years in prison before a third jury finally acquitted him in 2005.

But Hidalgo and White have more in common that merely being falsely accused of terrible crimes for which they both spent long years in harsh conditions in prison. Both convictions were obtained by a failure of the system: in Hidalgo’s case, aided by the complete inexperience of his defense attorney in what amounted to a constructive denial of counsel; in White’s, horrifying misconduct by the police and prosecutors to hide exculpatory evidence.