Category Archives: psa

Legal fiction: the system operates on “good faith”

Andrew Cohen writing at The Week has a powerful and damning condemnation of the criminal justice system. He writes:

When I was a young man learning the law, I was taught about the “good faith” in which all public officials are always and forevermore presumed to be acting. This presumption, this so-called “implicit covenant,” is an axiomatic cornerstone of both civil and criminal law. And why not? Our courts are busy enough these days without requiring judges to peer into the motives and the biases of the parties moving through our justice systems.

What a tidy but self-defeating fiction the “good faith” presumption has revealed itself to be over my 25 years in the law. The more I study criminal justice, the clearer it is to me that public officials on every level of our justice system are wholly unworthy of the benefit of the doubt the law ascribes to their actions. To even say this, I realize, is to cross some sort of decorous boundary that proper lawyers and judges are still conditioned to observe. But here we are. I am no longer a believer in the presumption of “good faith.” I’ve simply seen too much evidence of bad faith.

For Cohen, who’s been a lawyer for a long time and a distinguished legal writer, to come to this realization 25 years into his career is quite telling.

It reveals that we are all operating from the same basic assumption that the system, in the end, works: that everyone in it is doing the best they can do and that any injustices are the outliers. “The best system in the world” is the norm and the wrongful convictions and the prosecutorial misconduct are the inevitable bugs in a system manned by humans.

But if you’ve been reading this blog, or others, or have had any involvement with the system, you know that the assumption is false: it’s a fiction created to grant a sense of stability to the system.

If the system was predicated on good faith – that all parties were operating honestly and with noble intentions in mind, then we wouldn’t have Justin Wolfe or Esteban Martinez or our appellate courts wouldn’t contort themselves into positions deserving of perfect 10s at the Olympics simply to avoid providing relief to criminal defendants.

Just like harmless error is a legal fiction, so is the idea that there is a level playing field. Cohen again:

I was taught that it was bad legal reasoning, not to mention poor manners, to challenge the motives or “good faith” of public officials. I see now that I was taught wrong. The death penalty in America, indeed the entire criminal justice system, is worthy of trust and respect only to the extent that the men and women running it act honorably and in good faith, even if it means they take positions with which they do not personally agree. Think here of John Roberts’ famous “umpire” analogy. Now imagine that umpire calling only balls for one team and only strikes for another. The truth is that our justice systems are full of men and women acting in bad faith under color of law, and it’s time we all stopped pretending this isn’t so.

It took Cohen getting deeply involved in the reporting of criminal justice stories to have this epiphany. What will it take you?

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.



The Unexamined Trial

A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.

So wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1774, foreshadowing his more famous quote about the “inherent and inalienable rights” of men, in the Declaration of Independence.

To me, what Jefferson meant by that is that we, as humans and citizens of a great free democracy have certain inherent rights that are ours by the very nature of our existence and these rights are not dependent upon the charity of ministers, politicians and judges.

Yet, for the most part, the realm of criminal law has continually drifted away from this Jeffersonian concept of “self-executing” rights and toward a more passive, dormant view of individual liberties and freedoms that need to be invoked to be awakened into performing their duties as our guardians. The right to remain silent now only applies if you break that silence and state out loud that you wish to remain quiet. The right to an attorney has to be unequivocally and explicitly invoked. The police cannot enter your home without a warrant except when they can and may do so even over your objection.

There is, then, a new generation of jurisprudence that has turned our jurists into something akin to DMV clerks whose primary function is to determine whether the forms have been filled out correctly.

But for those that don’t practice criminal law, let President Jefferson remind you why you should care:

What is true of every member of the society, individually, is true of them all collectively; since the rights of the whole can be no more than the sum of the rights of the individuals.

It is thus critical that each and every one of us is aware of the ministerial treatment given to our rights. And the primary way in which courts have done that is to make the defense attorney the steward of those rights and placed her in the driver’s seat.

Of course that makes sense, you will no doubt say. The attorney is in the best position to safeguard those rights and to make sure that they are exercised as needed. True, but when you change the very nature of the rights to make them not self-executing, but rather dormant, awaiting the utterance of an incantation by a defense attorney, is when you strip the judge of her traditional role of overseer of due process and justice and hand that responsibility to the defense attorney.  By shifting the responsibility of ensuring a fair trial to the defense attorney instead of the judge, you’re making jurists nothing more than glorified legal clerks.

Knockout bill KOs logic, advances in legislature


Listen, if you’re going to propose a bill that criminalizes a “trend” in assaultive behavior and you want to single out juveniles for especially harsh treatment, you better have a more concrete response than this:

Verrengia said it was difficult to determine how many of the attacks have occurred when he was asked Monday if there was any evidence suggesting that a large number have been committed by 16- or 17-year-old offenders.

“I tried to wrap my arms around it, I tried to get statistics, but it’s very difficult to do so by virtue of the present reporting requirements by various law enforcement agencies,” he said. “. . . I think if you were to ask [victims] how many assaults have there been throughout the state of Connecticut, they would say, ‘One too many.’”

You know why he couldn’t “get statistics”? Why he tried to wrap his arms of justice around this issue and failed? I mean, if the ‘knockout game’ is such a big problem that you need to specifically legislate against it in ass-backwards ways, shouldn’t the statistics be abundant? Shouldn’t there be data flowing out your rear hole?

A DuPont heir update and a reminder that the media generally sucks at criminal justice reporting

Remember two weeks ago when you were outraged like never before that the rich, pedophilic, no-good trust fund bastard Robert H. Richards IV, aka “the DuPont heir” got away with no jail time because he “wouldn’t fare well in jail” according to some liberal activist judge in Delaware? Remember that you were so angry that he was rich and therefore got special treatment and you wanted to burn him instead of burning down the system that encourages such disparities?

Now, do you also remember that generally speaking the media is god-awful at reporting on criminal justice?

So, when the former meets the latter, who do you think you got fooled into fake outrage? You. That’s right. You got suckered. Again.

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


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.

Some more thoughts on the du Pont heir and the courage of our convictions

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

As the Robert H. Richards “du Pont” heir story has gained steam across the internet, there have generally been two sorts of reactions (and this includes reactions to my post from yesterday):

  1. How can you defend these people?1
  2. Money lets an obviously guilty man walk away free after he admitted to committing this horrible crime.

Since my post yesterday was apparently unclear and there has been a great deal of discussion surrounding this subject (some civil but mostly not), I thought I’d take a second attempt at clarifying the rationale of my post and some of the misconceptions and fundamental problems with the Internet’s objection to the outcome in this case. A fool’s errand, no doubt, but I have nothing else to do.

As a representative example, take Emily Bazelon at Slate. A professor at Yale, Ms. Bazelon and I are usually on the same side of things and in agreement on almost all points. Which is why I was disappointed to see her deviate from sensibility and let her emotions overcome her in her condemnation of Richards and the judge. For instance:

Richards, who had no previous record, also has the benefit of money and family connections. He pleaded guilty to one count of fourth-degree rape after his daughter told her grandmother, at the age of 5, that she didn’t want “my daddy touching me anymore.” (Richards was convicted in 2009—the details of the case are only coming out now because of a lawsuit his ex-wife recently filed against him.) In Delaware, fourth-degree rape is characterized as a violent felony, and the sentencing range goes up to 15 years in prison. But Jurden seems to have decided to treat Richards primarily as a patient, noting that he had “significant treatment needs which must be met.”

Like I said, that’s one goal. And I should mention that the judge’s ruling was in line with the guidelines for this crime issued by a Delaware sentencing commission, which (despite the 15-year range on the books) call for a prison term of zero to 2½ years. The problem is that when a father (or anyone) abuses a small child, the zero end of the guidelines are a travesty. In general, I’m in favor of sentencing guidelines, like Delaware’s, which aim to nudge judges toward greater leniency overall. That’s because over time, punishment tends to ratchet only in one direction: up. Sentencing reform for truly nonviolent crimes, especially drug and gun possession, is very much in the interest of justice. But to let off a convicted child rapist, who just happens to be living off his trust fund in a mansion, thanks to his wealthy and famous family? That seems like the definition of injustice.

If you read her remarks – and they’re only two paragraphs you lazy bastards – you’ll note that she, in essence, agrees with me but cannot bring herself to side with the judge because child molester. Hers, unfortunately, is the most nuanced and honest take out there, so you can only imagine what the others are saying.

So in order to deconstruct, let’s start with some facts. First, the specific facts of this case and then some truisms about the criminal justice system.

The specific facts of this case

It is important to remind ourselves that this occurred in 2009 and has only come to light now because Richards’ ex-wife has sued him.

In 2009 Richards was charged with rape in the second degree prior to trial. On the eve of trial, the prosecutor offered a plea deal and dropped the charges to rape in the fourth degree, which apparently carries a sentencing range of zero to 2 1/2 years. Richards accepted, admitted his guilt as part of the plea and was sentenced to 8 years’ probation.

In doing so, the judge noted that Richards had significant mental health needs which were better met at a long-term sex offender treatment facility, where he would be admitted.

So: an eve of trial change of charges by the prosecutor in this case who knows more about it than you, and a judge citing significant mental health issues based on information you don’t have.

Generally agreed to information about sex assault cases of minors and the sentencing of individuals in the criminal justice system

Child molesters are pretty much the worst. They’re the only category of defendants that some criminal defense lawyers will refuse to defend. The cases are awful to work on because they involve little children mostly and unsympathetic defendants.

Prosecutors are zealous and harsh, victim advocates are annoying as fuck, judges are strict and severe because, well, who the hell wants this kind of backlash, right? Legislators have mandated absurd penalties and many of them are mandatory and automatic. In other words, in the vast majority of cases, sex offenders are spending a very, very long time in jail.

A lot of these cases resolve short of trial for a variety of reasons, the primary being that families don’t want their little children to take the stand and testify and relive the horror. They want to spare the kids that trauma. Another reason is that defendants want to take the shorter sentence, which would be offered up front in exchange for not putting the kids through the trauma.

Yet another reason, of course, is that an allegation doesn’t equate to guilt. And as prosecutors and defense attorneys start to prepare in earnest for trial, they sometimes uncover information that makes a plea offer pertinent. Maybe the witness had falsely accused someone of something similar in past, or had a reputation for lying, or they learned something about the defendant that made him extremely sympathetic or the medical records don’t match the story and then a balancing starts: what number is worth the risk of a conviction or acquittal. It happens often enough that cases resolve on the eve of trial, or during jury selection, or after evidence.

Each case is different. And that’s another important issue here that must be understood: each case is different. The criminal justice system cannot be set up as one-size-fits-all and this applies to sentencing too. The individual sentence meted out in each case must depend on the harm alleged and the individual circumstances of the person to be punished. That is universally accepted by all. Otherwise there would be no need for minimum and maximum sentences. There would only be one sentence for each crime that would be imposed regardless of any mitigating or aggravating factors.

The next thing is probation. Sex offender probation is the worst. It’s usually considered a remarkable feat if an offender makes it through these generally very-lengthy probations without ever being re-arrested for a technical violation. When you understand how onerous these probations are, only then will you realize how amazing that is.

Finally, a lot of people accused of committing crimes like these have mental health issues. And I don’t mean ADHD. They have either been molested themselves or have severe personality disorders and have never gotten treatment or are borderline mentally retarded, if not below the threshold. That’s not to say that all of them have mental health issues, but a fair number most certainly do.

Now that we’ve covered all of that – if you’re still reading – let’s move on to the problems I have with the reaction to this case. It’ll be like a follow your own adventure.

Does everyone – regardless of circumstance – convicted of such a crime deserve to go to jail?

That is the fundamental, threshold question. If your answer to this is yes, then the rest of the conversation is unnecessary. We will never agree. But just to poke a bit further, is the answer the same if you learn that the defendant is retarded with an IQ of 50? What if you learn that the defendant is paranoid schizophrenic? What if you learn that the defendant is 15 years old and the victim is 5? What if you learn that the defendant was severely raped as a child by his parents for the first 12 years of his life and hasn’t adjusted to society and doesn’t know how to interact with others?

If you’ve answered yes to any of those questions, then it was as I suspected all along. Your outrage isn’t that a child molester got to go home, it’s that this child molester did.

Assuming that treatment may be necessary in the right case, instead of jail, why isn’t Richards deserving of that?

Assuming, as we must, that in some situations some defendants may deserve not to go to jail, but instead to go to a hospital or some treatment, the question then becomes why is this guy going up your ass a mile?

Remember what we know about this case: the charges were substituted to lesser charges by an apparently seasoned prosecutor who knows the facts of the case to a charge that carries a sentence of 0 to 2.5 years. The judge cited ‘significant mental health needs’ which would have been presented to her in a sealed confidential report that only both sides have access to. Based on that information, the judge determined that probation was appropriate. Other prosecutors interviewed in the news article didn’t seem outraged or shocked. This tells us this wasn’t out of the ordinary. It’s also worth nothing that this was 5 years ago and that he hasn’t been re-arrested for violating any conditions of his probation or for committing any new offenses.

On the other hand, we – you and I – don’t know squat.

So while I understand the temptation to yell “CHILD MOLESTER”, we have already moved past that stage and are at a more evolved stage of this discussion.

Now let’s take money out of the equation for a second. Imagine a poor guy named Richard Thompson who also was accused of this crime, but at the last second the prosecutor offered him a sentence with a range of 0 to 2.5 years. A different judge orders a psychiatric evaluation and determines that he has ‘significant mental health needs’. The judge says “Mr. Thompson I have two choices: either I send you to jail where you will not get any treatment that you so desperately need or I can send you to a treatment facility where you will get treatment and that will increase the likelihood that you will not commit another crime like this again. Unfortunately, there is no facility in this state that fits the latter need. There is one out of state, but you have to pay for it yourself.”

Mr. Thompson cannot. Are you upset at this scenario? Are you upset just like Mr. Tarloff in NY who, by most accounts, deserved to go to a mental hospital instead of jail?

If you say “well he deserves to go to treatment, but if there’s no treatment he should go to jail”, then you haven’t made any progress at all. It isn’t an “either-or” situation. What is more appropriate? Having determined that the latter is more appropriate it is not right to send the man to jail because there are no alternatives.

Sadly this is reality and there are thousands of people in that situation.

Now, Mr. Richards happens to be able to answer this judge’s question in the affirmative. “Yes judge I can afford the treatment myself.” The judge says “great, because that’s what I think you need”. Off he goes2.

Assuming that both deserve treatment and one gets it because he can afford it and one doesn’t because he can’t, who’s the villain? Is it the rich guy? Or is it the system that doesn’t provide necessary services for the poor? Everyone who needs the same immediate treatment that Richards did should have access to it and judges shouldn’t have to choose between that or jail.

If you read into this that Richards got offered a sentence with 0 years as a possibility because he’s rich and the judge sentenced him to that 0 years because his money influenced her decision, then that’s a bias that you have that’s unsupported by anything that’s been reported.

The system fails thousands of people all over the country every day. They’re a mix of rapists and child molesters and drug addicts and gang bangers and murderers and drunk drivers.

That one of them had the fortune to provide for himself the services that the system should, but could not, is not an indictment of him, it’s an indictment of the system.

And even if you hate him and the money he represents and think he should’ve gone to jail, isn’t the idea that the only place he got treatment was outside of a penal institution make you take notice? Aren’t those thousands of mentally ill people populating our prisons worthy of your outrage?

So who’s the privileged one? Him? Or you, with your luxury to absent your convictions when standing by them would leave a bad taste in your mouth.

This moral convenience is why it isn’t hard to understand the failure of the nomination of Debo Adegbile.