Category Archives: prosecutors

A double standard in prosecutorial misconduct

Last week, in a Connecticut courtroom, something unprecedented happened: after a jury returned a guilty verdict in a trial, the judge, from the bench, suspended the defense lawyer for 20 days from the practice of law, for twice-violating a court order.

The lawyer is long-time New Haven attorney John Williams, who is a former law partner of Norm Pattis, so I’ll refer you to Norm for a defense of Attorney Williams.

Apparently, Williams’ client was tried in Federal court for the same offense and acquitted and then returned to State court for another trial. The judge ruled that the acquittal could not be entered into evidence and the jury could not be told about it.

Twice, Williams slipped up and mentioned the acquittal – once during cross-examination and once during closing arguments. After the verdict the judge announced his: a suspension for 20 days1.

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.


Black men are exigent circumstances

Pursuant to the protections of the Fourth Amendment granted to every resident of this country, police cannot enter a residence or a closed bedroom without a warrant. This would violate the Fourth Amendment. There are certain exceptions to that warrant requirement, such as the existence of “exigent circumstances”.

[t]he term, exigent circumstances, does not lend itself to a precise definition but generally refers to those situations in which law enforcement agents will be unable or unlikely to effectuate an arrest, search or seizure, for which probable cause exists, unless they act swiftly and, without seeking prior judicial authorization.

There are three categories of circumstances that are exigent: those that present a risk of danger to human life; the destruction of evidence; or the flight of a suspect.

The exigent circumstances doctrine, however, is limited to instances in which the police initially have probable cause either to arrest or to search.

So, when one day police officers knocked on the door of the third floor apartment at 239 Knickerbocker Avenue, Stamford, CT, the following was known to them:

  1. GPS data from a third-party’s cell phone, which was believed to be in the suspect’s possession, suggested that the suspect had been in the general vicinity of that address (not that apartment) for some unknown period of time in the past 41 hours, and

  2. That the resident of the third floor apartment had recently been keeping company with two black men in her apartment. The suspect, naturally, was black.

Since the police were searching for a murder suspect from New Jersey, who they believed to be armed and dangerous, they thought it permissible to enter the bedroom without obtaining a warrant, because of “exigent circumstances”. But that’s just sophistry.

As Justice McDonald’s blistering dissent [PDF] states:

Thus, at the time the police knocked on Valvo’s apartment door, all they reasonably believed was that [the murder suspect] Singer possibly was in possession of a cell phone, that this cell phone had been in the vicinity of 239 Knickerbocker Avenue at some moment in the preceding forty-one hours, and that a man who has the same skin color as Singer had been staying in the third  floor apartment of 239 Knickerbocker Avenue for an unspecified period of time.

You’d think, now, that the name of the case is State v. Singer. It isn’t. It is State v. Kendrick [PDF]. Mr. Kendrick is one of those unfortunate black men who happened to be in the apartment at that time and in whose possession a gun was found after this warrantless search.

Mr. Singer was arrested in New Jersey, where the crime of murder had been committed. Further, the cell phone used to ping the general vicinity of Knickerbocker Avenue in Stamford? Never found in Stamford.

But this is all the information relied upon by the prosecution to convince a judge that exigent circumstances existed: the possibility that a black suspect had been in the vicinity of an apartment building and the knowledge that one of the apartments therein had a few black men in them.

That, the majority opinion states, is enough to lead officers to believe that there exists “a risk of danger to human life”.

Can you every imagine any court saying that about white people? The suspect is white, and armed, and that apartment building there has white people in it, so go ahead and burst into any room you want because officer safety!

Of course not. This stands only because being black carries with it the subtext of being a criminal. And, as this Court is wont to do, the result justifies the means: there was a gun, after all. So he was a criminal and he was dangerous.

The dissent makes the point that the police and prosecution may have had further evidence to tie those residents in that apartment to the cell-phone and the murder suspect, but chose not to present it. If that’s the case, this opinion is even more troubling.

What this signals, in that event, is that all the police and prosecution have to proffer to a trial judge in order to circumvent the Constitution is that the suspects are black. That, alone, is sufficient to justify an officer’s fear that the suspect is a danger.

We already know that in Connecticut minorities cannot freely walk the streets anymore without being suspected of criminal activity. Now minorities can’t sleep in their apartments at night without fear of cops busting in without any probable cause. Because our Court has affirmed that being black is the same as being armed and dangerous.

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.

 

The consequences of a “confrontation” with cops

maherThat’s Mark Maher, a resident of Windsor, CT. Well, that’s him after Enfield Police Officer Matthew Worden got done teaching him a lesson. Naturally, Maher was then charged with interfering with an officer, because his face got in the way of the officer’s energetic fist-bumps with the ground. I guess Officer Worden learned from the Sunil Dutta school of policing, whose core philosophy is ‘Obey me at all costs or I will break your face’.

Lucky for Maher, there were dashcams. Two of them. I can’t embed them because screw you Hartford Courant. But here’s dashcam one, which shows you just how annoyingly Maher kept getting in the way of Worden’s colloquial greeting to the pavement and here’s dashcam two, which prominently features “stop resisting”, today’s version of “stop hitting yourself”.

Impossibility is not a defense

The law, you will have guessed by now, is not concerned much with the English language and its precise definitions. A fall-back answer that’s almost always right, when it comes to the law, is that everything “depends”.

Even something as simple as ‘impossibility’. When you, laypersons, think about the word “impossible”, you usually think of something that’s not possible. But the law isn’t that easy.

There are different categories of impossibility, each with its own definition and applicability: mistake of law, mistake of fact, legal impossibility and factual impossibility. Legal impossibility is where, no matter how evil your intentions are, your acts do not constitute a crime. Factual impossibility is where it is impossible for you to have committed a crime because you misunderstood the facts. A classic example used in law school hypotheticals is that of Sydney Barringer, the guy who died in a most tragic fashion.

But none of this takes into account the law’s stubborn desire to extract a conviction from just about anyone who wanders into its field of vision, despite the apparent physical impossibility of that person to have committed the crime.

This is how we come to meet Tyree Threatt, 21 years old, facing charges of mugging a woman on June 27. They didn’t arrest him that day, of course, but she gave a description of the mugger. A few weeks later, officers saw Threatt and determined he matched the description. Then they put his photo in a lineup and she picked him out.

These are not qualifications to be a public defender

Which is the odd man out?

burk-flyerNow, who won the election for Public Defender in the 25th Judicial District?

Yep, it’s pro-death penalty, 7-year prosecutor Bo Burk, who, if you zoom in on the image, touts his membership in the NRA as a plus to be the champion of individual rights for the poor and disenfranchised.

But as if that wasn’t enough, he is also a fiscal conservative who will use all resources available to save taxpayer dollars.

Perhaps since he’s never represented a criminal defendant in his life, he might be confused as to where the government largesse in the criminal justice system comes from: it is from over-criminalization and vindictive prosecutions, excessive prison sentences and lengthy terms of probation.

It isn’t the job of a public defender to worry about how much money is being spent on defense. In fact, if anything, the reality is that indigent defense organizations are criminally underfunded and could use significantly greater numbers of lawyers and investigators to provide constitutionally adequate defenses.

Of course, none of this mentions the greater philosophical problem: the stewardship of individual rights and defenses of poor people left to a man who, just yesterday, was trying to put those very people in jail.

How exactly will that prosecutorial mindset so quickly convert to one of defending rights at all costs? How will he suddenly bring himself to the attitude required of criminal defense attorneys: that whether the client actually committed a crime is often irrelevant; what matters is whether the prosecution can prove it?

It would also seem that in a jurisdiction like his, there may be a significant number of people dealing with mental health and drug addiction issues – topics that prosecutors are usually skeptical of. Can he immediately shed that skepticism and see these defendants for what they are – people who are in trouble and need help?

Logic dictates that the defendants of the 25th Judicial District in Tennessee are in for some worse times. Reality dictates that Bo Burk will continue to get elected, despite his complete lack of qualifications for the job.