Category Archives: prosecutors

A registry of prosecutorial misconduct

The Center for Prosecutor Integrity (apparently there is such a thing) has just issued this press release, announcing the the receipt of a grant to establish a Registry of Prosecutorial Misconduct.

In it, it states:

The Registry will eventually catalog thousands of cases of prosecutorial misconduct around the country. This information will allow policymakers to pinpoint priorities for reform.

The Registry will report the prosecutor’s jurisdiction, type of crime, type of misconduct, whether the case was referred to an ethics oversight body, whether sanctions were imposed, and other information.

Determinations of misconduct will be based on holdings of trial courts, appellate courts, state supreme courts, and legal disciplinary committees.

Maybe the next step can be to establish buffer zones for repeat offenders: you can’t get within 500 feet of a file without adult supervision.

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?

—–

Restoring sanity to child sex cases

For as long as I can remember, there has been one fundamental truth in Connecticut if you are charged with a crime involving a sexual assault: you’re screwed1.

There’s the “liberal” standard of admitting prior sexual assault allegations in a case involving sexual assault, there’s straight up “once a sexual assault criminal, always any other type of criminal” and the almost unhindered admission of any type of “expert” testimony of an “expert” who claims to be an “expert” in the area of child sexual abuse [read: anecdotal evidence predicated solely on confirmation bias] despite a somewhat half-hearted effort to walk that back just ever so slightly and always distinguishably2 and then there’s the only-salvageable-by-judicial-fiat-Risk-of-Injury-statute, which is probably the most dangerous statute for due process and individual liberty and freedom that exists in Connecticut.

When I was your age, we had executions AT the fundraisers!

If there’s one thing Republicans love, it’s their executions. If there’s one thing they love more than executions, it’s money. If there’s one thing they love more than executions and money, it’s politics. If there’s one thin- fundraisers. That’s what I’m getting to.

So what happens when two public spectacles which exist only for the purpose of pandering to the lowest common denominator collide? Money wins.

Kids: money always wins.

And so Pam Bondi, Attorney effing General of the State of Florida got her buddy Rick “Let’s Speed Up Executions Because We’re Doing Such A Fine Job Of Making Sure We Always Have The Right Guy” Scott to nonchalantly postpone an execution scheduled to take place on Monday.

Because Bondi needed to get some money to keep her job.

After Scott last month rescheduled the execution for Sept. 10, the date of Bondi’s “hometown campaign kickoff” at her South Tampa home, Bondi’s office asked that it be postponed. The new date is Oct. 1.

Scott said Monday that he did not know the reason for the request, and he declined to answer when asked whether he considers a campaign fundraiser an appropriate reason to reschedule an execution.

Here, laid before you in the barest terms possible is your “victim’s rights”. Here is your “tough on crime” and “vengeance” and “justice” and all that supposedly makes it worth having a death penalty.

All of that. An inconvenience to a politician who wants money. Here it lies before you, exposed as nothing more than another tool to get your vote and your dollar.

Do half of these blood-thirsty politicians even care about the death penalty by itself? Or do they care more about it as an instrument that legitimizes their existence?

And, despite your best efforts to convince yourself otherwise, is there no part of you that cringes at the thought that a man’s life is being toyed with so?

Is the irony lost? We, who seek to punish those who kill to teach a lesson about the value of life do so without any notion of exhibiting that very value. Human life is precious and must be treated with respect, we say as we cavalierly bring a man to the precipice of the after-life and then yank him back at the last minute because something shiny caught our attention.

We kill to teach that killing is bad, but we do it with such haphazard and imprecise abandon that one is but forced to come away with the opinion that maybe this killing thing isn’t such a big deal at all.

I want no part of any of this and neither should you.

How do you solve a problem like Brady? Liu-k no further.

Liu-k? Is that pronounced lieuk? Loo-K? Look? I don't get it.

Liu-k? Is that pronounced lieuk? Loo-K? Look? I don’t get it.

Scott wrote yesterday about a blisteringly ineffectual 4th Circuit opinion in U.S. v. Bartko [PDF], which was notable not only for its lengthy reprimand of the Brady practices of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, but more so for its complete failure to do anything about the numerous Brady violations it noted. Via Scott:

And yet every defendant’s conviction is affirmed because the failure to disclose Brady did not undermine the court’s “confidence” that they were guilty. But the bleeding doesn’t stop here. Lest the Circuit’s admonishment of the fine men and women prosecutors hurt anyone’s feelings, it adds:

“We do not mean to be unduly harsh here.”

But the court had no choice, faced with the rampant and recurring concealment of Brady and Giglio.

“Whatever it takes, this behavior must stop.”

Or what? After the 100th time the government has been caught doing the dirty, the Chief Judge will snap his fingers in a Z shape and lecture the prosecution on the importance of being earnest? What it takes is a court with the balls to do its job and uphold the defendant’s constitutional rights, even if it’s absolutely sure the defendant is guilty. That could have happened at any time, and this time. And yet it didn’t.

As noted repeatedly here on this blog and almost everywhere else where someone with half a brain cell writes about criminal law, the problem with Brady is that it’s essentially unenforceable as long as there is no oversight and no will on the parts of judges to do the really hard thing: punish prosecutors for violating their duty by reversing convictions and referring them to grievance committees.

Maybe, though, just maybe that is catching on. First there was Judge Sheldon’s blistering opinion a few months ago, reversing a conviction for “a deliberate pattern of improper conduct” by the prosecutor.

Then, there was this recent story out of Alaska that involved a suspension of a former prosecutor for hiding exculpatory evidence in a murder case:

City wants defense lawyer to pay for wrongful imprisonment

kevin-pagean

You’re almost 18 right? No? 16? Well, let’s just pretend you said 17. Now smile for the camera while we destroy your rights1.

The lawyer for the city of Worcester acknowledges up front that his legal argument is frivolous and has no basis in the law2:

After the hearing, [the solicitor for the city of Worcester] Moore acknowledged there is no case, no precedent to cite to support the complaint against [defense attorney] Ryan.

But he’s doing it anyway, because anything to distract from the horrible violation of civil rights that his city inflicted on 18 year old Nga Truong. Truong, 16 at the time, was arrested because her son had stopped breathing earlier in the day. Police decided, as they often do, with no evidence and no basis other than they pulled it out of their collective asses, that she had killed him.

So they interrogated her3 for two hours, lying to her, threatening her and coercing her into confessing. Which she did4. Don’t kid yourself; you would have confessed too.

Her lawyer called it the worst interrogation he’s seen in 35 years, labeling it ‘psychological torture’. A judge agreed, suppressing her statement [PDF]. In that opinion:

When the judge, Janet Kenton-Walker, threw out Truong’s statements to police, she wrote that Truong “was a frightened, meek, emotionally compromised teenager who never understood the implications of her statements [to police].”

With no other evidence, the prosecutor had to drop the charges. But that didn’t stop him or the police chief from keeping their blinders on and backing their own:

Clarifying the problems with mandatory-minimums: why it’s okay to let them go

Over the weekend, Susan Bigelow at CT News Junkie had a fantastic op-ed piece arguing that Connecticut should follow AG Holder’s lead1 and revisit its use of mandatory minimum sentences.

Susan writes:

Just as important as efforts on the federal level, however, are criminal justice reforms we can and should implement here at home. The number of prisoners held in Connecticut’s facilities has, for a number of reasons, dropped from all-time highs in 2007 and 2008, but those levels are still high considering the drop in violent crime that’s occurred over the past decade. Also, the parole reforms enacted after the Cheshire murders in 2007 have contributed to the reversal of recent declines in prison population, meaning fewer prisoners are being released.

That’s accurate, with some recent reporting by The CT Mirror showing that numbers have gone up and overcrowding is a problem again, driven in large part by “reforms” to parole laws. Susan argues that in the next legislative session, we should “reform” mandatory-minimums or,  better yet, do away with them altogether.

There’s nothing to reform. Mandatory-minimums are a dangerous power to give to prosecutors. The results of that power being wielded in a heavy-handed way are evident in the war on drugs. It’s taken decades for the Attorney General of the United States to recognize that mandatory-mininum sentences have a terribly disproportionate impact on racial minorities.

In Connecticut, mandatory-minimums apply if you’re selling drugs within 1500 feet of a school or public housing project. Repeated efforts over the last few years to reduce that “drug-free zone” to 200 or 300 feet have failed.

Take a guess as to who is most impacted by this mandatory-minimum sentence2? You know where you can’t stand without being within 1500 feet of a school or public housing project? That’s right. Connecticut’s urban cities (that’s a post from 2007, by the way. We’ve been dithering over this common sense reform for six fucking years).

Mandatory-minimums are also dangerous because they are a chain that binds the hands of judges who seek to do justice and are a weapon in the hands of prosecutors who want to be unreasonable and unjust.

In Connecticut, prosecutors determine the charges to be filed and pursued. A judge, short of dismissal of a charge for legal reasons, cannot alter the charges filed by a prosecutor. Judges, on the other hand, can indicate a sentence they would impose, which can differ from a prosecutor’s recommended sentence.

So let’s say that a judge thinks an assault charge is worth a prison sentence of two years; the victim doesn’t want to the defendant to go to jail and there is no real long-term injury to any party. The defendant is a young man, with little or no criminal record and the state’s case is iffy at best.

But a gun was used in the assault, so the prosecutor charges Assault in the First Degree, which carries a mandatory sentence of 5 years. Now, no one thinks that a 5-year sentence is appropriate, except the prosecutor, but no one can do anything about it, including the judge and/or victim. Maybe the prosecutor doesn’t like the defendant, maybe she doesn’t like the defense lawyer, maybe she doesn’t like the judge or doesn’t like the system. Who knows.

But the point is that the prosecutor can hijack “fairness” in the process by “sticking” on a mandatory-minimum.

Mandatory-minimums are set by the legislature, based on precise calculations made using actuarial tables and deep meditation pulling numbers out of their ass. Most don’t have any experience in the day-to-day operation of the criminal justice system and base their ideas of “justice” and “fairness” on fairytales Law and Order. To be fair, when we’re resolving cases, we also pull numbers out of our ass, but at least our asses are attuned to the range of widely accepted resolutions.

But legislators, in someone’s infinite wisdom, have selected arbitrary numbers and have decreed not only maximum punishments, but also minimum punishments, sometimes in abject disregard for the realities of the criminal justice system.

Eliminating mandatory-minimums would do only one thing: eliminate the minimum. It would do nothing to the maximum. But it would allow judges the flexibility of making fair determinations of the appropriate sentence to be imposed, not hindered by an over-charging prosecutor. If a case is “worth” 2 years, a defendant should get a sentence of 2 years. But if a case is worth 8 years, he will get 8 years. Eliminating mandatory-minimums does nothing to alter that possibility.

Instead of a range of 5-20 years, the range simply becomes 0-20 years and a judge is free to sentence anywhere between those two numbers.

Finally, as I’ve said before, CT’s mandatory-minimum scheme has a weird interaction with its juvenile sentencing scheme, resulting in 14 year old children being tried in adult court as adult criminals and sentenced to mandatory ten years in jail. Juveniles – children – are different than the rest of us. The science is incontrovertible and established and even the United States Supreme Court has acknowledged this distinction. They deserve a second chance. While states across the country are considering altering their laws to comply with the Supreme Court, a bipartisan bill that would have done just that was defeated in the State legislature.

Because people are afraid:

“There seems to be some notion that mandatory minimum sentences make us safer and that moving away from them makes us less safe,” [State Rep. Gary] Holder-Winfield said, highlighting a stale leftover from the tough-on-crime rhetoric of the 1980s and 1990s. More people in prison doesn’t equal a safer or more just state, especially not when so many lives are being destroyed in the process.

People who commit crimes should be punished. But they should be punished fairly and proportionate to their crime. They should also be punished in a manner that is proportional to others who have committed similar crimes. They should also be punished in a manner taking into account their individual facts and circumstances.

Smart on crime means all of that. It means treating people as human beings. “Tough on crime” means being afraid of everything that isn’t you and condemning vast numbers of people because you’re scared. Tough on crime is simply continuing the narrow-minded racist policies that got us where we are today: staggering numbers of children and low-level non-violent drug offenders serving significant prison sentences, while our jails burst at the seam, corrections swallows the largest portion of our state’s budget and a trail of destroyed lives and families in its wake.

It’s time to stop being stupid on crime and start being smart on it. Eliminating mandatory-minimums is a step in the right direction.