Tsarnaev: a hearing in futility and the neverending charade

kangaroo-court-1

Just when you thought that the window-into-the-criminal-justice-system’s-foibles that the Tsarnaev case couldn’t get any window-into-the-criminal-justice-system’s-foibles-ier, the First Circuit ups and practically shoves an opinion in our faces that screams “CHARADE! CAN YOU SEE IT? THIS IS A SCAM!”

You might remember from my earlier posts that after being denied a change of venue three times, Tsarnaev filed a second Writ of Mandamus in the 1st Circuit, asking them to stay jury selection and move the trial to another jurisdiction. The 1st Circuit finally ruled [PDF]. The headlines will be: “First Circuit grants argument in venue change!”

The reality is that they’ve already told you how they’re going to rule.

In addition to the Second Petition, three motions are pending before this court. First, petitioner seeks a stay of jury selection in the district court, which the government has opposed. Petitioner’s motion to stay is denied as without merit by two judges of this court.

The First Circuit will listen to arguments on whether the jury selection and the whole trial should be moved to another jurisdiction one week from today but they won’t stop jury selection until then. We don’t know how many jurors will be questioned between now and then and if enough will be accepted to seat a whole jury.

Do you really think that next week, the First Circuit is suddenly going to say that, yes, of course, the trial should be moved? Absolutely no chance at all of that happening1.

So why are they granting a hearing in the first place? It seems because they have to:

Our concurring and dissenting colleague has requested oral argument and argument may be granted at the request of a single judge. Accordingly, we will hear argument on the Second Petition on February 19, 2015, at 10:00 a.m.

The panel that issued this order consists of three judges. Out of the three, only one would have granted the stay of jury selection and only one wants to hear oral argument on whether the case should be moved. The lone dissenting judge is Juan Torruella, all of 81 years and a Reagan appointee. He makes the rather obvious point that if a hearing is to be conducted next week on whether the case should be moved elsewhere, then wouldn’t it make sense to halt jury selection until then?

So how do you think the other two will vote come next Thursday? I don’t think Judge O’Toole is worried.

Then there’s also the charade of dancing around the very heart of the matter that’s at the core of this motion for change of venue. Both parties are not allowed to reference items that are sealed below. This means that they cannot reference, in open court, the responses of jurors to questions or to the questionnaire that call into question the ability of Tsarnaev to have a fair trial in Boston.

Judge Torruella again:

Second, while I agree with the order as to the time, place, and length of the hearing, as well as the briefing schedule, I disagree with the restrictions placed upon it by virtue of the sealing order. It will be quite an interesting hearing since the parties will be forbidden from discussing the details of facts directly at the heart of the issue presented: whether the answers given during the jury selection process have demonstrated that the jury pool is so tainted and prejudiced that it is impossible for the Defendant to receive a fair trial.

At 81, he’s no fool. He sees this for what it is: a pro-forma hearing with a foregone conclusion. The First Circuit seems to have made up its mind: this trial will happen in Boston, regardless of how fair the jurors are and at the exclusion of the press and the public if need be.

This is justice in America. Some have called it a Kangaroo Court. I call it Thursday.


OT: Tweepleball

chewbacca-fenway-park-baseball

After years of being in Blonde Justice’s blawgers baseball fantasy league and then years of not having one, I’ve got a hankerin’ for some fantasy baseball this year. It’s been far too long. So, I’ve started a H2H weekly points league over at Yahoo if you’re interested. This is for those who are serious, and are friends on Twitter or other social media type things (hence the Tweepleball).

If you’re interested and want in, mention me on Twitter or leave a comment here.

Provoking prosecutorial oversight

Slate has published an interview with Fordham Law professor John Pfaff (Twitter) that is both very good and very bad. I suspect they contacted him because of his post at PrawfsBlawg (guys, it’s been, like, 10 years. Can we change that name now? Seriously please?) in which he thinks about prosecutors.

Thinking about prosecutors is a very good thing – we here at APD do it often – and it seems that John Pfaff recognizes that thinking about prosecutors is an important thing and he seems to do it often and do it well:

The second question concerns a recent change in prosecutorial behavior that has had a profound impact on punishment in the United States over the past twenty years (and one I have raised in earlier posts as well). Since the early 1990s, prison populations have continued to soar even as crime rates steadily dropped. Why? Well, before asking “why,” we need to ask “who”—whose actions are most responsible for the change.

The basic facts are straightforward: since the 1990s, crime has fallen, and so too have arrests. The likelihood that a felony case results in a prison admission has been flat. The time that admitted person spends in prison has been flat too (I swear—though contrary to conventional wisdom, this is in fact the case). Only one thing has increased: the probability that an arrest results in a felony charge.

The change has been dramatic: over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, the probably that an arrest resulted in a felony case soared, from about 1-in-3 to 2-in-3, and this appears to be the primary engine of prison growth during the crime decline. Thus the story of post-crime decline prison growth is a story of increased prosecutorial aggressiveness.

In fact Pfaff has been at this for a while. Here’s a paper he wrote in 2009 and here’s an accompanying piece in, of all things, Slate in 2009. Here’s another one from 2014. His point is that while a lot of us have been focused on the war on drugs as the main driving force behind America’s incarceration problem, it is but one factor. He urges us to look at prosecutors more skeptically and question their unchecked power and their exercise of their discretion in determining who to charge and with what crimes.

This is, of course, not a novel idea: it stands to reason that if prosecutors are overzealous and heavy-handed and throw around their power, they will charge greater numbers of people with more serious crimes and use the threat of incarceration to get potentially innocent people to plead to lesser offenses and thus boost prison populations, despite actual crime dropping.

Whether there is a direct correlation here is beyond my mathematical abilities, but intellectually one cannot escape coming to the conclusion that this theory holds water. Anecdotal, experiential evidence supports this theory. Every criminal defense lawyer has encountered a prosecutor or three who insists that – despite damning evidence to the contrary – a dismissal shall not be forthcoming and a defendant must agree to accept some responsibility whether real or imaginary. Every criminal defense lawyer has encountered a prosecutor who refuses to forgo a prosecution despite it being the morally correct path to take. Statutory rape cases are the prime example of opportunity for abuse. Additionally, in CT alone – a very small state – there are 1532 offenses one could commit that would land one in jail.

“A pound of flesh” isn’t a phrase thrown about in criminal justice circles because the participants are avid meat eaters.

The Slate interview with Pfaff is a good thing, however, because it highlights the problem with a lack of oversight of prosecutors to the lay individual1.

So what caused prosecutors to become more aggressive? Sadly, no one knows. I thus want to start talking through some of the possibilities, such as other political incentives, changing budgets, improved policing, tougher sentencing laws (which do not necessarily result in longer sentences, but may facilitate plea bargains), etc. Any real reform of criminal justice outcomes in the US will require some change in prosecutorial behavior.

But that’s a tricky thing to accomplish. Not only do we not really understand what motivates or shapes prosecutorial outcomes, but DAs are very hard to regulate: directly elected at local levels, generally unchallenged and politically popular. Any effort to modify prosecutorial behavior will thus likely have to operate indirectly and by persuasion, which of course requires us to know what is persuasive.

There is, as far as I’m aware, no oversight of prosecutors anywhere. Grievances are rarely filed, if ever. There are no boards who review the performance of prosecutors and internal investigations are pro-forma if they are ever performed.2 Even those who are found by courts to have engaged in unethical behavior are rarely punished and not only continue to keep their jobs, but also get promoted and become judges.

The greater the awareness of this issue and the greater public interest we can generate, the better it is for everyone.

But let’s not call prosecutorial oversight “provocative” shall we? What’s so provocative about suggesting that prosecutors are sending more people to jail and thus our prison populations are increasing across the country?3

This is why this piece is very bad. It sets up Pfaff’s theory as some sort of ground-breaking, dangerous, novel idea. It reveals another pet subject of ours here at APD and that is the complete and abject genuflection that the media engages in at the altar of law enforcement.

Most media representations of the justice system are from an solidly “law and order” position: all crime is bad, all criminals are bad, whatever police say is true and every person deserves the punishment they get.

When that is the underlying theme of every story written about the justice system, it isn’t hard to see why an idea that questions the righteousness of those on the “law and order” side of the justice equation would be treated as “provocative”.

I have never understood why the media isn’t more skeptical. They are clearly so when it comes to other forms of governmental power and abuse: the military, state secrets, who’s making how much and which contract was given to which relative. So why do the police and prosecutors get a “can-do-no-wrong” pass? Why are press releases from the police blotter routinely printed verbatim? Why isn’t it equally normal to wonder if the accused in a particular case was given a just sentence or whether the prosecutor really needed to purse a more serious charge when a lesser one would have sufficed?

If judges, defense lawyers, grievance committees, legislators and the media won’t challenge the authority of prosecutors and demand oversight, then who’s left? That’s right: prosecutors.

It depends on what you mean by a fair trial (updated)

Both the Federal Constitution and the state constitution provide every person with several rights when it comes to the kind of trial that he or she deserves: there is a right to a public trial1, a right to a fair trial2 and a right to a trial by an impartial jury3.

Concurrently, the public and the press have a First Amendment right of access to courts and to trials4. These rights combine to form a “presumption of openness”5 and access to courts and judicial documents.

The core value of this right to a public trial is:

Public monitoring of the judicial process through open court proceedings and records enhances confidence in the judicial system by ensuring that justice is administered equitably and in accordance with established procedures.

“[T]he bright light cast upon the judicial process by public observation diminishes the possibilities for injustice, incompetence, perjury and fraud. Furthermore, the very openness of the process should provide the public with a more complete understanding of the judicial system and a better perception of its fairness.”

Rosado v. Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp.

An impartial jury is one which comes into a trial without any preconceived notions and can put aside whatever biases they may have formed and decide the case based on the evidence presented to it. Just because jurors have been exposed to news coverage doesn’t mean that the defendant is deprived of due process6. Jurors are not required to be “totally ignorant of the facts and issues involved” and prominence does not necessarily produce prejudice, and juror impartiality does not require ignorance7.

Sometimes, however, these core rights are at loggerheads. This is when the public’s right of access and the media’s right to report on court proceedings creates an atmosphere of publicity in which it is impossible to find and seat impartial jurors. This happens in high profile cases where there is such extensive media coverage with inflammatory information and facts that create irreversible biases among potential jurors. In a case like that, the defendant need not prove that each potential juror is actually biased against him, but whether the pretrial publicity constitutes an “extreme circumstance where there has been inherently prejudicial publicity such as to make the possibility of prejudice highly likely or almost unavoidable.”8 Since this would be done pretrial, most defendants would seek to have the trial moved to another location where there isn’t such publicity, or wait a long time for the prejudice to abate.

This Constitutional lesson is currently being enacted for the American public in Boston, where Dzokhar Tsarnaev is being tried in a capital case for the Boston Marathon bombings.

That there is immense pretrial publicity in this case is undeniable. The Boston bombing was the top MA story of 2014. This has already prompted Tsarnaev’s lawyers to file three motions for change of venue. [UpdateThe first two were rejected All three have now been rejected [PDF] as was a subsequent Writ of Mandamus filed in the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals [pdf] which that court denied [PDF].9 This is because courts like to think that jury selection can weed out the partial jurors and uncover those hidden gems who can profess to be impartial. In fact, it’s one of the minimization mechanisms required as an alternative to a change of venue.10

It is with that in mind that it seems the district judge and the court of appeals denied Tsarnaev’s first attempts at changing venue.

Then came jury selection, which has been an unmitigated disaster. According to his third Motion for Change of Venue [PDF] and his Second Writ of Mandamus [PDF], juror questionnaires and jury selection have uncovered irreparable biases:

[A]n extraordinary 85 percent of the prospective jurors either believe Mr. Tsarnaev is guilty, or have some self-identified “connection” to the case, or both.

Fully 68 percent of prospective jurors already believe that Mr. Tsarnaev is guilty, before hearing a single witness or examining a shred of evidence at trial.

Even more striking, 69 percent of prospective jurors have a self identified connection or expressed allegiance to the people, places, and/or events at issue in the case. Stronger support for a finding of presumed prejudice in Boston is difficult to imagine, and the existing record precludes a fair trial in Boston.

The news media has done an equally impressive job of documenting the utter futility of seeking impartial jurors and the investigations of potential jurors’ social media accounts have uncovered biases that may have otherwise remained hidden. In fact, a new poll published today in the Boston Globe reveals that almost 90% of people think he is guilty or probably guilty.

guilty3

11 days of selection have passed, 142 jurors have been questioned and we still don’t know how many, if any, have been selected11.

The First Circuit ordered the Government to respond to Tsarnaev’s Writ today. Whether it rules today and in what direction remains to be seen, but all of this does raise the question:

What do we really mean by a fair trial? Given the juror responses and the polls conducted, it seems obvious that everyone thinks Tsarnaev is guilty. Then why are we persisting with this charade in Boston? Our rules of law require that a decision be made only on the basis of the evidence presented in court. Yet if this trial is permitted to remain in Boston it will become clear that what we mean by “Fair Trial” is merely an “appearance of a fair trial” without regard to reality. Fair trial would mean “a fair trial to the extent that we can provide one under the circumstances”. The right decision here would be to move the trial but can we get past the legalese and make that difficult decision?12 Or is it going to be “good enough” for us to say that “well, we know he’s really, really guilty, so seriously, c’mon guys, the Constitution doesn’t count here”?

The Tsarnaev case has already once delivered a beating to a core Constitutional right. Will there be a second?


Good news, everyone

A couple of updates to some pretty awful stories of the last week, both of which involved the arrest of God’s Lawyers™ by police officers.

First, in Allegheny County, PA, the charges against Andrew Capone, who misled the court about whether he had seen his client on the day the client fled from court, were dismissed. Prosecutors, not being used to cases being dismissed over their objection, are still fuming and vowing further action.

Secondly, the completely idiotic arrest of public defender Tillotson by some moronic San Francisco cop that was caught on tape, will also lead to no charges, because sanity finally prevails. In a departure from the above case, while there will be further investigation here, it will be of the police department and their policies and procedures.

Seattle PD’s arrest of black man is every problem with the justice system in a nutshell

If there were a video and accompanying story that could be used as a textbook example of every problem with our criminal justice system, this is it. First, watch the cruiser cam video (you only need watch from 1:40 to 7:40):

What the video shows is Wingate standing motionless at the crosswalk and Officer Whitlatch pulling over and immediately asking him to drop his weapon and then claiming that he swung it at her.

She then cautions him that the entire encounter is being recorded. Wingate stands there dumbfounded, like someone who never had any negative interactions with anybody:

Wingate is a 70-year-old Air Force veteran and retired King County Metro bus driver had a daily habit of walking and using a golf club like a cane, according to his attorney, Susan Mindenbergs.

But Whtilatch’s version is quite different. This is from the police report:

In the police report filed by Officer Coles about the incident, Whitlatch said “she observed him look at her and aggressively swing his golf club in the direction of her patrol car.” “Because Wingate was still in possession of the golf club,” Coles wrote in the report, “and she was fearful of being assaulted by him, she said that she kept her distance from him upon exiting her patrol car.”

There are four disconcerting things about this:

  1. It seems that Whitlatch is a long-time racist:

Facebook user Cynthia Whitlatch accuses Davis of being a “black racist” and writes, “If you believe that blacks are NOT accusing white America for their problems then you are missing the point of the riots in Ferguson and the chronic black racism that far exceeds any white racism in this country. I am tired of black peoples paranoia that white people are out to get them. I am tired of hearing a black racist tell me the only reason they are being contacted is because they are black solely because I am NOT black.”

in a police department that has had several concerns about systemic racism:

Officer Whitlatch is one of 123 police officers who sued the government last year, at both the federal and city level, to block the Department of Justice–ordered use of force policies. The SPD is under a federal consent decree and is being forced to address the DOJ’s concerns over racial bias and its finding that Seattle police routinely use excessive force.

And obviously a liar, as evidenced by the disconnect between her version and reality.

  1. The police don’t seem to think that it has anything to do with race:

“They know that had this been a white man,” said [former Democratic Washington State representative Dawn Mason], “we wouldn’t be here.” But, in fact, it appears they don’t know that. The Seattle Police Department insists racial bias played no role in the incident.

“If this person had been white,” said SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb, speaking by phone on Tuesday, “I would imagine it would have been the same outcome. We don’t believe this was a biased policing incident. We don’t believe the officer acted out of malice or targeted this man because of his race.”

At the East Precinct, Mason said, they watched the video with Assistant Chief Nick Metz and East Precinct captain Pierre Davis.

But the police commanders, including Metz and Davis, didn’t see it that way. Mason said they “tried to convince me nothing was wrong.” Metz, in particular, “kept trying to convince us nothing was wrong here. He defended the officer.”

  1. That Whitlatch’s “punishment” was a talking to:

Whitlatch has not been disciplined. “This did not go through the OPA process,” said SPD’s Whitcomb. “Basically, she was talked to by her supervisor.”

She has however, been removed from duty that involves interacting with others:

Seattle police chief Kathleen O’Toole said in a statement this afternoon that she feels “shocked and disappointed” at the way SPD officer Cynthia Whitlatch behaved on Facebook—tacitly confirming that a post-Ferguson Facebook screed about “chronic black racism” and “black people saying poor poor me” was, in fact, written by the same Officer Cynthia Whitlatch who arrested an elderly military vet last summer for “walking in Seattle while black.”  Officer Whitlatch, O’Toole said, is now on administrative assignment, “where she will have no interaction with the public” while a “comprehensive review” of her behavior in this and other cases is completed (along with an independent investigation by the Office of Professional Accountability).

  1. The system condones this behavior. Notice how, in the video, Whitlatch can be heard telling Wingate that it’s all recorded on audio and video. She’s not lying; it is. But she also has to know that the video tells a completely different version than hers. So why is she making that bold claim about the video? Because she knows that no one’s ever going to bother to see it. She knows that it’s a minor charge and the nuisance factor of it is enough to get someone to accept some sort of slap-on-the-wrist rather than spend months contesting what is essentially a minor infraction. She knows that she can get away with it because she’s a cop and what’s in the report will almost always be exclusively relied upon.

And she almost did get away with it:

The next day, prosecutors at the city attorney’s office decided to file a misdemeanor charge of unlawful use of a weapon against him, “based on the SPD incident report,” according to spokesperson Kimberly Mills.

“On that day,” she writes, “Mr. Wingate, who was represented by an attorney, agreed to enter into an agreement under which the case would be dismissed after two years if he complied with all conditions ordered by the Seattle Municipal Court judge.”

What the city attorney’s account of events leaves out, according to Mindenbergs, Wingate’s current attorney, is that the elderly man was told, “If you sign this stipulated order of continuance, it will all be over, basically.” She said her client followed a public defender’s instructions.

As a public defender, I think it’s entirely ineffective and completely defensible. Wingate must’ve been one of hundreds of clients that day. An elderly man accused of threatening a cop with a golf club; a man with no record who probably was just having a bad day. “Your word against the cop’s, Mr. Wingate. And they’re only offering you a deferred adjudication. Who knows if the dashcam even exists?”

And so Wingate pleads guilty. I call it guilt by convenience and that’s what happens when the nuisance value is high enough that people will pled to infractions and small offenses rather than spend the days, weeks, months litigating and fighting minor cases. Most people, believe it or not, don’t like to come to court. Wingate got lucky:

Weeks later, city prosecutors, after conferring with [Deputy Police Chief Carmen Best, who, like Wingate, is black] recommended dismissing both the case against him and the two-year stipulation.

But just imagine how many others there were on that same day, who were harassed, wrongfully accused, arrested and convicted just because an officer like Watlatch decided to flex her muscles.

Well, at least Wingate got his club back and an apology to boot.

H/T: PD Gumshoe