Category Archives: prosecutors

Waiver by budget cut

You’ve just been arrested by the Federal Government and you’re shuttled off to a prison in a remote location, hours away from your home and your state. You are adamant that you’re innocent and you have lots and lots of thoughts about how the Government is persecuting you. You sit down to write these thoughts with pen and paper, but then the counselor who supervises you tells you that you can access email!

Email! The modern pen and paper; the standard mode of written communication in this day and age. You are delighted because your penmanship is atrocious and because it would take you hours to write all your thoughts and weeks to get your thoughts to your lawyers and weeks further still for them to write letters back. But email is instantaneous. So you fire up the email system and click accept and begin banging away at the keyboards.

You send these confidential thoughts about the defense of your case to your lawyer and, apparently, the prosecutors.

Yes. Federal prosecutors have readily admitted in several cases that they are monitoring suspects emails to their lawyers, reading them and then using that information to strengthen their case against those suspects.

Talk about system stacked against you: you’re charged with a crime by the Government. You have your liberty taken away by the Government. You have excessive bails set by the Government so you can’t leave. You are given limited and controlled access to your lawyers by the Government. And then, they monitor everything you say and then use that against you. How can they do this?

Defense lawyers say the government is overstepping its authority and taking away a necessary tool for an adequate defense. Some of them have refused to admit even the existence of sensitive emails — which, they say, perhaps predictably, are privileged.

All defendants using the federal prison email system, Trulincs, have to read and accept a notice that communications are monitored, prosecutors in Brooklyn pointed out. Prosecutors once had a “filter team” to set aside defendants’ emails to and from lawyers, but budget cuts no longer allow for that, they said.

Budget cuts. That bureaucratic, administrative go-to. The liberty that this nation pretends to hold so dear won’t be lost by war, or a bloody coup, but rather in slow, incremental steps by bureaucracy.

It is “too expensive” to set up a filter in the email system to enable a bypass of emails sent to specific email addresses, something that can be done for free in as clunky an email system as Outlook.

Some judges, however, are supporting this practice because they claim that defendants sign waivers when they use the system:

But a judge, Charles A. Pannell Jr. of the United States District Court in Atlanta, ruled in 2012 that by using Trulincs, Mr. Wheat “consented to the monitoring and thus had no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

This is consent of the same nature as you consenting to Facebook using your photographs or God knows what else we’ve all agreed to when we’ve hurriedly hit the “accept” button on terms of use on over a hundred thousand websites that we regularly frequent.

It’s coercive and, given the state of society today, we don’t really have a choice. Now imagine that coercive situation, but you’re in jail.

Comparing it to old-fashioned communication, however, shows how consent is a red herring. Letters written to lawyers are marked privileged and are not read. They can be, however. There’s nothing stopping correctional officers from opening those letters. They choose not to, because of a department wide policy and the general sense that doing so would violate confidentiality.

So either there’s a legal principle that bars them reading letters and that same legal principle should bar them from reading emails, or there’s a policy that prevents them from reading letters and they haven’t extended that policy to emails, but which shows that there’s no functional difference between the two modes and it’s merely a matter of convenience.

This is one of those things that, if pushed to a head, would necessarily spell trouble for the prosecution. We’ve had just that happen here in CT, where prosecutors read confidential word documents about the defense of the charges. A day after argument before the Supreme Court, he was ordered immediately released.

Sure, it’s good advice to never discuss confidential matters via modes of communication that have the potential to be monitored, but that applies to everything, including in person visits. But just because the Government can invade your confidentiality, doesn’t mean that they have the right to do so.

Conviction integrity starts with prosecutors

I had to double check1 to make sure I wasn’t reading an article in The Onion a few weeks ago when, apparently without irony, the Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane argued in the New Haven Register that the way to ensure “conviction integrity” was to give his prosecutors broader, unchecked power to conduct investigations and arrest citizens of Connecticut.

His editorial was in apparent response to an editorial the week before by Professor David R. Cameron of Yale, who argued that we needed a “conviction integrity unit” to ensure adequate and effective review of convictions in Connecticut.

Prosecutor Kane’s proposal involves “reforming” the grand jury process. His proposal – which has been the subject of bills submitted to the legislature for a few years now – would essentially make it easier for prosecutors to conduct investigations by forcing people to appear before individual judges in each judicial district and give testimony concerning any felony. His also wants to arm his prosecutors with the power of the investigative subpoena, which would be little more than carte blanche for prosecutors to command the appearance of uncooperative citizens and force them to bring papers and effects, all in the “interests of justice”.

That is the standard proposed by prosecutors for several years running in their quest to obtain the power to issue investigative subpoenas. Try to decide for yourself if you should do something “in the interest of justice”. I can say without reservation that every single person reading this has a different definition of what that means. As amorphous and flexible a standard as “probable cause” is, I have yet to hear of a burden of proof as indescribable and incomprehensible as “interest of justice”.

What is missing from either proposal is the recognition that perhaps the best way to avoid wrongful convictions in the first place is to ensure that people don’t get, you know, wrongfully convicted.

Prosecutor Kane seeks to minimize the number of wrongful convictions and touts the fact that of 100-plus cases analyzed by his office and the Innocence Project, there were no errors uncovered.

Of course, this assumes, as Prof. Cameron points out, that every wrongful conviction case will have DNA evidence that exonerates. Logic will tell you that this is impossible. In fact, most students of the system are unable to give accurate estimates of the numbers of wrongful convictions for that precise reason: without an identifiable marker such as DNA, it is virtually impossible to estimate one way or another how many people are wrongfully convicted.

A further complication, of course, that neither addresses just what we mean by a “wrongful conviction”. You ask the lay person and they’ll tell you simply enough that it involves a person who’s innocent being convicted of a crime.

But dig deeper: guilty of what, exactly? The real world and the actions we take are open to several interpretations. Our penal code has sought to codify most conceivable illicit acts, and by virtue of being overinclusive, necessarily has more than one provision that applies to any given criminal activity. So, what then, is a wrongful conviction? Are we to limit that term to only those who are innocent of any form of wrong doing? Or must we be more realistic and expand that term to include people who are guilty of something lesser but are, for one reason or another, convicted of something more serious?

If Professor Cameron and Prosecutor Kane wish to shore up the integrity of the criminal justice system, I have some suggestions that can be implemented upfront. First, stop over charging. There are a hell of a lot of people who are in prisons today serving bloated sentences because some prosecutors over charge in an effort to get leverage.

They have that leverage because of the second item on my list: mandatory-minimums. Mandatory-minimums are legislature set floors for incarceration periods and are almost universally hated because they homogenize crimes and individuals accused of crimes. They seek to treat all crimes of a certain type as the same, regardless of any mitigating circumstances. In the name of “truth in sentencing” and “tough on crime”, mandatory-minimums have eliminated the ability for judges to make nuanced decisions in every case and instead have given some prosecutors a hammer with which to bludgeon a plea out of frightening defendants.

If you’re charged with a crime which would result in a sentence of at least 5-10 years after trial, would you adamantly maintain your innocence and take the risk or would you take the plea offer that involves a sentence of only 1 year, What would you advise your daughter to do?

Our prisons are full of people who take plea deals in exchange for a “lesser” sentence because the alternative is so harsh. Our system is coercive and some of our prosecutors use that to full effect. If Prosecutor Kane wants to ensure integrity in our system, maybe he should start there. Maybe he and his office should oppose mandatory-minimums.

Maybe we should have more prosecutors who are willing to drop charges when they acknowledge that they probably couldn’t convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt of an individual’s guilt. Maybe prosecutors who do dismiss questionable cases shouldn’t be shamed and reprimanded by their colleagues and superiors.

Here’s a novel idea: Maybe prosecutors who engage in misconduct should have to suffer some consequences. The Center for Prosecutorial Integrity estimates that there have been approximately 16,000 cases of prosecutorial misconduct since 1970. The National Registry of Exonerations maintained by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law estimates that official misconduct played a role in 43% of wrongful convictions.

What, exactly, happens in Connecticut to prosecutors who are reprimanded by appellate courts for engaging in misconduct? Is there remedial training? Integrity in the convictions obtained through the system isn’t limited to whether “we got the right guy”. Life, shockingly, isn’t as black and white. Integrity comes when we give meaning to the word “justice”. And justice comes in many forms. But how are we to have faith in the integrity of the system when justice is a punchline and prosecutors keep score of their wins and losses?

Because the joke, of course, is that when we have lost faith in the system, we are all losers.


 

The “accidentally suppressed” evidence keeps surfacing

The Dejuan Hammond murder trial in Kentucky is turning into a test of disbelief. First, the second trial was cut short when notes that tended to show he was innocent surfaced in the middle of trial, in a detective’s personal truck.

As if that wasn’t enough, the prosecutor’s office then reindicted Hammond, but refused to allow any questioning into how the notes ended up in said truck.

Now they’ve found more papers that were hidden from the defense:

The Jefferson Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office has found more evidence in the Dejuan Hammond murder case that “seems to have been overlooked” and acknowledges the material probably should have been turned over to defense attorneys years ago.

I can very proudly say that those quotes are in the original.

[Prosecutor] Jones Brown acknowledged the recently released documents probably should have been provided to the defense years ago but said she doesn’t believe any of it is exculpatory for Hammond, saying it was turned over “out of an abundance of caution.”

“We wanted to be on the safe side and turn it over,” Jones Brown said, adding that she did not know why previous prosecutors didn’t give the defense the information. “I don’t want to mis-try this again.”

But Ted Shouse, an attorney for Hammond, was furious about more evidence turning up five years after the investigation began into the murder of Sheckles.

It’s safe to say that most prosecutors, when given the leeway to decide whether something is exculpatory or not, will choose the latter, so I don’t put much stock in Jones Brown’s assessment of the evidence that was accidentally hidden forgotten found lost in a file 5 years after it was supposed to have been turned over.

At this point, does the prosecutor’s office have any credibility? How can they proceed with this murder trial against Hammond with any semblance of good faith?

How can you, after reading this, trust any prosecution?

Investigation into prosecutorial misconduct means no questions asked

On April 14th, I wrote about a Kentucky prosecution for murder during the midst of which an exculpatory statement was discovered in the truck of a detective and it was made known that the statement was “accidentally” suppressed by the former prosecutor, Tom Van De Rostyne. The man who replaced Van De Rostyne, Commonwealth Attorney Wise, promised an investigation into the suppression.

Turns out, by investigation, he meant “ve vill ask ze qveschuns!

In a motion filed last week, prosecutors acknowledge that they failed to turn over a summary of an interview with Hammond’s former girlfriend, Princess Bolin, until it was discovered after Bolin had testified, but asked a judge to quash the subpoena seeking testimony from Wine about what happened.

The case ended in a mistrial and the defense has asked that it be dismissed, in part, because of prosecutorial misconduct. A hearing could be held as soon as Wednesday on whether Wine will be called to testify.

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Dorislee Gilbert said in her motion that, “while it might be inviting to want to know the reason that this happened, the reason it happened is not relevant” to the issue before the court, which is whether the case should move forward to another trial or be dismissed.

It only matters that the evidence was not turned over; the how and why of it is irrelevant because it involves a prosecutor. The fact that the reason for withholding the exculpatory information may lead to other evidence that may have been suppressed has apparently escaped the prosecutor seeking to quash the subpoena.

This attitude is an increasingly prevalent one wherein “the people’s attorneys” are answerable to no one but themselves. When you vest that much power in the hands of people, exculpatory statements naturally find their ways into trucks.

SC public defender forgets meaning of adversarial

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What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, I suppose, which is why it makes me really angry to see this story from South Carolina, where a lawyer has filed an ethics complaint against a prosecutor and a public defender for being figuratively caught in bed.

This stems from the same district where the prosecutor tried to have a Supreme Court justice recused for having the temerity to remind prosecutors that they shouldn’t be engaging in misconduct. (I wrote about it here and Radley Balko expounded on it here.)

The complaint has been filed by Attorney Desa Ballard:

A former law clerk with the state Supreme Court, Ballard has practiced law for 31 years and serves as an adjunct professor with the University of South Carolina School of Law. She specializes in professional ethics and responsibility.

In the complaint she alleges that Wilson, the prosecutor, has established an atmosphere of getting away with what you can and hiding exculpatory information. For instance:

Prosecutor threatens defense attorney with warrant for failing to help incriminate client

We’ve always known that the prosecutorial function requires somewhat of a solipsistic world-view, but failing to do one’s own job and then demanding that the defense do it for you is another realm entirely.

Charlie Rubenstein, Cincinnati prosecutor, may have an inadequate understanding of the adversarial process of the criminal justice system and seems to have never heard of the burden of proof resting on him. Rubenstein was prosecuting a man named Terrance Jones for the high crime of stealing candy from a store. This being 2014, there was a store surveillance camera which recorded the incident. Rubenstein, laboring under the mis-impression that convictions come walking in through the door without having to work for them, neglected to obtain the security footage.

Ray Faller, public defender and human with at least half a brain apparently, got his investigator to go to the store and obtain a copy of the surveillance video. The stores, as stores do, then erased the video so it could record the next robbery.

Rubenstein, ever so demanding, demanded that the defense turn over the video that purportedly incriminated Jones. Faller, as any good lawyer would do, told Rubenstein to go fuck himself.

So, like every misdemeanor prosecutor who’s been told to go fuck himself, Rubenstein flexed his muscle and got his pal and former co-worker Judge Lisa Allen to sign a search warrant for Faller’s office. In it, he claims that the video is evidence and the defense was hiding evidence and thus were guilty of “tampering with the evidence”.

The case settled and the warrant was never executed, but the idea that the warrant was sought and issued is a tremendously frightening one.

The surveillance video has evidentiary value, certainly, but it is not the job of the defense to provide that to the prosecution, when the prosecution had the opportunity to obtain it itself.

With the prevalence of 24-hour security cameras everywhere, retention of footage has become a big issue. The prosecution routinely secures footage when it believes it will be helpful, but not when it believes it to not be so or when it may be exculpatory. When asked to obtain video that might show the defendant was innocent, the prosecution routinely shrugs its shoulders and points out that it has no control over store owners and can’t legally be required to obtain the footage.

And yet Rubenstein thinks that a defense attorney is obligated to help incriminate his own client by turning over video of an incident that he himself failed to get.

The chilling effect of this line of thinking is obvious: defense attorneys would be extremely hesitant to conduct an investigation of their own because they would automatically have to turn over whatever they uncover that would incriminate their clients. This would cause a conflict of interest in all criminal cases: either fail to investigate and run afoul of the rules of professional conduct or investigate, refuse to turn over evidence and be subject to arrest or turn over incriminating evidence uncovered and violate the duty of confidentiality and zealous advocacy to the client.

In other words, Rubenstein’s thuggery serves to remove the defense attorney entirely from the adversarial process, leaving him free to steamroll pro-se defendants.

H/T: ABAJ

 

Yet another prosecutor “accidentally” suppresses exculpatory evidence

No, of course violations of Brady v. Maryland aren’t a problem; no, of course, no prosecutor ever would intentionally hide evidence that tended to show that the person accused may not be guilty; no, of course, the system that we have is great.

And yet. Yet again.

Say hello to Dejuan Hammond, who was 5 days into a trial accused of murder. Hammond had just finished sitting through the testimony of his ex-girlfriend, Princess Bolin, who gave two interviews to police implicating him.

Or did she?