Category Archives: psa

What if they gave a prosecution and the prosecution took its ball and went home?

lucy

From the ‘don’t-try-this-at-home-kids‘ department, a truly flabbergasting story out of Illinois of hubris, hissy-fits and the Double Jeopardy Clause.

Today, the United States Supreme Court will meet to decide whether to hear the case of Esteban Martinez. Martinez is in an unusual position, however. He isn’t convicted of anything. In fact, he was acquitted of an assault. But the State of Illinois wants to get a second crack at him. They want to try him again. Because the first time around, they did absolutely nothing.

No, that’s not hyperbole or “insider-talk”. They literally did nothing. From the Illinois Supreme Court opinion:

According to the report of proceedings, “the jurors were duly sworn by the clerk.” The court then provided the jurors with general, preliminary instructions. Thereafter, the court indicated to the State that it could proceed in presenting its case in chief. The following exchange then occurred:

“[The Prosecutor]: Your Honor, respectfully, the State is not participating in this case.

THE COURT: Defense?

[Defense Counsel]: Judge, we would waive opening statement.

T

HE COURT: The People may call their first witness.

[The Prosecutor]: Respectfully, your Honor, the State is not participating in this matter.

THE COURT: Does the defense wish to be heard?

[Defense Counsel]: I do, Judge.

THE COURT: Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ll take a ten-minute break.”

¶ 8 Upon the jurors leaving the courtroom, the following exchange occurred:

“[Defense Counsel]: Judge, the jury has been sworn. The State has not presented any evidence. I believe they’ve indicated their intention not to present any evidence or witnesses. Based on that, Judge, I would ask the Court to enter directed findings of not guilty to both counts, aggravated battery and mob action.

THE COURT: Do the People wish to reply?

[The Prosecutor]: No, your Honor. Respectfully, the State is not participating.

THE COURT: The Court will grant a motion for a directed finding and dismiss the charges.”

Here, let me help you with your jaw.

Fernandez v. California: remove the objector, won’t be no objection

What problem is?

What problem is?

I know that a majority of my readers are lawyers, but there are a fair number of you who aren’t and so from time to time I like to reproduce stirring pieces of legal opinions that explain so eloquently the protections that we have and the reasons we have them. The opening of Justice Ginsburg’s dissent yesterday in Fernandez v. California [PDF - pg 23 onwards] provides such an opportunity, so I reproduce a large quote from it:

The Fourth Amendment guarantees to the people “[t]he right … to be secure in their . . . houses . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Warrants to search premises, the Amendment further instructs, shall issue only when authorized by a neutral magistrate upon a showing of “probable cause” to believe criminal activity has occurred or is afoot. This Court has read these complementary provisions to convey that, “whenever practicable, [the police must] obtain advance judicial approval of searches and seizures through the warrant procedure.” Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S. 1, 20 (1968). The warrant requirement, Justice Jackson observed, ranks among the “fundamental distinctions between our form of government, where officers are under the law, and the police state where they are the law.” Johnson v. United States, 333 U. S. 10, 17 (1948)1. The Court has accordingly declared warrantless searches, in the main, “per se unreasonable.” Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U. S. 385, 390 (1978).

In its zeal to diminish Randolph, today’s decision overlooks the warrant requirement’s venerable role as the “bulwark of Fourth Amendment protection.” Franks v. Delaware, 438 U. S. 154, 164 (1978). Reducing Randolph to a “narrow exception,” the Court declares the main rule to be that “consent by one resident of jointly occupied  premises is generally sufficient to justify a warrantless  search.” Ante, at 7. That declaration has it backwards, for consent searches themselves are a “‘jealously and carefully drawn’ exception” to “the Fourth Amendment rule  ordinarily prohibiting the warrantless entry of a person’s  house as unreasonable per se.” Randolph, 547 U. S., at 109 (quoting Jones v. United States, 357 U. S. 493, 499 (1958)). See also Jardines, 569 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 4)  (“[W]hen it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is  first among equals. At the Amendment’s ‘very core’ stands   ‘the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there  be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.’”); Payton v. New York, 445 U. S. 573, 585 (1980)(“[T]he physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which  . . . the Fourth Amendment is directed.”

That should explain to you that in our country, under our system of laws, there is nothing more sacred than the right to be left alone in one’s home and that there is an almost absolute prohibition on the police entering your home without a warrant. One of the exceptions to that rule is if you consent. If you give the police permission to enter, then they don’t need a warrant.

How do you solve a problem like jailhouse informants?

Every defense attorney knows that jailhouse informants are the scourge of confession cases: the defendant who is too clever by half, who refuses to talk to cops and invokes his right to a lawyer,  but brags to his cellie about how he “totally did that punk in”. Despite jailhouse informants being the cause of 15% of wrongful convictions, juries still lap that stuff up. For some reason, we as humans cannot escape the psychological pull of a confession – purported or otherwise.

Since trial lawyering is some parts art, some parts science and mostly blind dumb luck, trial lawyers have forever come up with artful ways of countering the appeal of a jailhouse informant and the defendant’s alleged confession: expert testimony, artfully crafted jury instructions and fearsome cross-examination.

But how does the science match up? Does it support any of these methods by convincing jurors to disregard the alleged confession?

Defining the role of appellate courts

Dan Klau points, rather diplomatically, to a Connecticut Supreme Court opinion issued today [PDF] which he lost. It’s a civil case, but what sucked me in was his description of the issues in the case, which fits right in with the theme of complaints that I have with this present Supreme Court:

In particular, it will tell us whether a majority of the Court believes that the proper role of an appellate court is to decide the issues that the parties have raised and argued–and only those issues–or, alternatively, whether the Court believes that it is appropriate to decide cases based on issues that appellate judges raise on their own initiative. In short, can and should appellate courts raise and decide unpreserved issues sua sponte?

Today, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that yes, it could very well decide appeals based on issues that it raised on its own and that no one thought of at the trial level and that weren’t preserved or properly briefed or that the trial judge had no opportunity to consider.

Okay, that’ll be the last of the snark for today, because it actually is a really interesting and important opinion written by Justice Palmer.

The issues were divided up by the Court as follows:

Friendly reminder to law enforcement: stop listening to attorney-client conversations

It is, of course, an undeniable fundamental right that communications between a criminal defendant and his or her attorney should be utterly confidential1 and that, under no circumstances, should the prosecution get access to the content of those conversations.

Having said that, what is to be done if a prosecutor gets hold of confidential communications or learns of the substance of these conversations? Must there be an automatic reversal? Or this “fundamental right” to be rendered meaningless yet again, subjected to the legal fiction of harmlessness.

That is the question confronted by the Supreme Court of Washington in State v. Fuentes. In Fuentes, after the defendant was convicted by a jury, but during the pendency of post-trial motions, the prosecutor asked the investigating detective to listen to the defendant’s phone calls from jail to determine if there was any witness tampering going on2:

Hang on a minute, I need to indict someone

I Ham Sandwich

Would you like due process violations as your side or just some plain old cocaine?1

You know, when people usually say “hang on a minute”, you know that it’s going to take longer than a minute. It never takes a minute. Unless you’re a grand jury in North Carolina, that is. From the Charlotte Observer, via Andrew Cohen2:

During a single four-hour workday last week, a Mecklenburg County grand jury heard 276 cases and handed down 276 indictments.

That means the 18 jurors heard evidence, asked questions, weighed whether the charges merit a trial, then voted on the indictments – all at the average rate of one case every 52 seconds.

You read something like that and you just have to laugh. You have to laugh because it’s so improbable and so absurd that it must be true and that it can only happen here, in these United States of America, the best country in the world with the best justice system in the world, because by God, we hate criminals.

In the time that it’s taken you to read this post so far, 3 people have gotten indicted by that careful, deliberative North Carolina grand jury. And another one. And another one. Mayhem!

There is no greater example of grand juries outliving their utility. It is inescapable that this grand jury did not perform its time honored-function of, as Andrew Cohen puts it:

Virginia prosecutors will do just about anything to execute Justin Wolfe (updated)

While everyone is enjoying that ridiculous lawyer ad, Justin Wolfe spent 10 years on death row, convicted of a murder-for-hire and sentenced to death. After the state courts upheld his conviction and dismissed his claims, he filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in federal court. A federal judge reversed his conviction and found that he was actually innocent of the crime [PDF]1:

The prosecution’s case rested on the testimony of a single key witness, Owen Barber, who   admitted that he shot and killed the victim but told the jury that he had done so at petitioner’s behest. It was later discovered that prosecutors intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence that could have been used to impeach that testimony and prove   petitioner’s innocence.

In federal habeas proceedings, Barber fully recanted his trial testimony and the district court found that petitioner is actually innocent under Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298 (1995). It based that determination on an affidavit Barber had executed, swearing that petitioner had nothing to do with the murder; corroborating declarations from other witnesses to whom Barber had admitted his perjury at various times; and other significant evidence.

The intentionally withheld evidence was a police report about a meeting with Barber,

which show[ed] that before Barber said anything to the police about the crime,   Commonwealth officials threatened Barber with the death penalty if he did not testify that petitioner had hired him to commit the murder. Pet. App. 147a. The district court then held an evidentiary hearing at which Barber made clear that he testified falsely at trial because of the prosecutors’ threats. He also testified that petitioner had no involvement in the murder.

The biggest problem with Brady, as has been repeatedly stated, is the lack of any enforcement mechanism. Prosecutors are left to their own good will to determine what, if anything, is “exculpatory” and constitutionally required to be turned over.

But the wretched scum who prosecuted Wolfe are quite another breed: