Since you asked: why the Government spying on you is your fault


It seems now that our government is spying on us. The NSA, once concerned with foreign intelligence, is using the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to get subpoenas that require cell phone companies to had over the cell phone records of all its customers. The order itself is secret. This is happening to you – if you are a Verizon “customer” – without your knowledge. The government now knows everyone who you called and who called you starting on April 25.

Why? I don’t know and the way things have been since 2001, I suspect they don’t have to give a reason.

The Guardian broke the story:

The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.

The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.

That’s you. That’s not me; I don’t have AT&T, but tomorrow may well bring different news.

A while back, Aaron Swarz died and I asked, what makes you think you’re so special? Here’s your answer: you’re not. You have willingly handed over every ounce of liberty to the Government in the name of security and you now have neither.

You asked why I do this job that I do. This is why. You ask how I can defend these horrible people. This is why. You ask why we shouldn’t just rush to judgment, execute people without due process of law because they’re “animals”. This is why.

You rejoice when people are convicted in the face of violations of the law because they’re bad people. You rejoice when legislatures “reform” the justice system to make it faster and easier to convict and execute. You mock me and ridicule me and insult me and threaten me when I stand between the Government and the individual accused of a crime. You ignore me when I stand up and shout about the evisceration of individual freedoms and liberties because you have the taste of blood on your lips and because you are afraid of recognizing that life is neither black nor white and it would upset your rhetoric to admit that people are people: good, bad and a little bit of everything else too.

You thought you were better than everyone else; you thought that it would never happen to you because you’re not “a criminal”. You thought that “those people” deserved whatever they got. You thought that your rights were different than the rights of those you hated or reviled. You thought the Constitution was a “technicality”. You cheered when the cloak of the protections it offers was slowly and systematically shrunk in the name of protecting our children, protecting our streets, protecting our borders until it afforded no more modesty than the proverbial fig leaf because you somehow were unable to comprehend that a corner cut here and right curtailed there are permanent acts that cannot be undone.

And now here you lie, naked, the Government spying on you and your activities. What are you going to do about it? Are you going to set about repairing the damage or are you going to shrug and turn the other cheek? I know where I’ll be: in court, fighting for your rights, my rights. Someone has to save us from yourself.

Meet and greet the right to effective assistance

Florida’s Supreme Court, in what can only be described alternatively as “remarkable” and “yeah, no shit”, just last week decided that being “overworked” is a state that can lead to ethical violations and public defenders who are so “overburdened” can be permitted to refuse appointments en masse.

The story started with the public defenders in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida being horribly overworked and overburdened with high caseloads – hello, welcome to the state of being – and decided to refuse appointments in all third degree felony cases, some 21 in all.

We’re overworked, they said, like you’ve always said. So now that chicken has come home to roost. We’re so overworked, they said, that we can’t possibly effectively represent all these clients. We can’t investigate, we can’t meet with the clients, we don’t have time to talk to each client. We have to “triage”, which means give priority to the oldest and most difficult cases first, which means, if you’re keeping track, that clients sit in jail for shitloads of time without meeting lawyers and without having any work done on their cases.

So, the Florida Supreme Court said [PDF], this is not tenable. Such representation puts defense attorneys in the position of having to provide representation below constitutional standards.

So we will allow defense attorneys to withdraw and perhaps appoint other attorneys.

Defense attorneys. The gatekeepers of justice. The benchmark for what is Constitutional and what isn’t. The overreliance on Gideon as a test for the efficacy of the system. The new mantra of Appellate Courts seems to be “if defense counsel didn’t object, it must’ve been okay”. Nevermind that defense counsel was frazzled, unaware, overburdened and overworked.

Then we come to this choice quote, sure to be repeated in every story about this decision:

Witnesses from the Public Defender’s office described “meet and greet pleas” as being routine procedure. The assistant public defender meets the defendant for the first time at arraignment during a few minutes in the courtroom or hallway and knows nothing about the case except for the arrest form provided by the state attorney, yet is expected to counsel the defendant about the State’s plea offer.

In this regard, the public defenders serve “as mere conduits for plea offers.” The witnesses also described engaging in “triage” with their cases – giving priority to the cases of defendants in custody, leaving out-of-custody defendants effectively without representation for lengthy periods subsequent to arraignment.

The witnesses also testified that the attorneys almost never visited the crime scenes, were unable to properly investigate or interview witnesses themselves, often had other attorneys conduct their depositions, and were often unprepared to proceed to trial when the case was called. Thus, the circumstances presented here involve – 34 – some measure of nonrepresentation and therefore a denial of the actual assistance of counsel guaranteed by Gideon and the Sixth Amendment.

Great stuff. You know what’s missing? Any acknowledgment that the defense attorney is but a bit player in this game. That a share of the responsibility and blame lies with the prosecutors and judges.

Meet and greet pleas? You know why they happen? Because judges and prosecutors make “arraignment only” plea offers. Because they say: “take this non-jail time offer today or you’ll never get it back”. The defense attorney, reading a police report for the first time, cannot refuse to tell his client of the offer, nor can any sane attorney counsel his client otherwise.

But that’s not the attorney’s fault, nor is it the fault of high caseloads. They know nothing about the case in these meet and great pleas. You know why? Because they’re given no discovery. The State doesn’t turn it over for a while and in some cases it’s always a fight. But apparently that’s the public defender’s fault.

Are we overworked? Yes. Are we overburdened? Yes. Is there a conflict of interest? Yes. But it would be nice to see that the system actually acknowledged all the problems instead of making us the gatekeepers of fairness, which is a neat trick, if you think about it, because when it comes down to it, we control nothing.

Maybe now the right to effective assistance of counsel will mean something in Florida. Time to pay attention to those other rights.

Compare and contrast the Connecticut Supreme Court which said, inexplicably, that there is no conflict when two members of the same office represent two co-defendants, one of whom was snitching on the other.

Also compare the FL Supreme Court’s cognitive dissonance when dealing with death row lawyers who are overworked and overburdened. Apparently death is different.

Sometimes, justice requires a bit of luck

JamesWalder Joseph Frey has spent a lot of time in jail. Some of it for crimes he committed and a lot of it for one crime he always said he didn’t. In 1991, he was fingered as the suspect in a brutal break-in and rape of a student at knifepoint. Just this week, a judge in Wisconsin reversed his conviction. But, in 1994:

He was convicted on Feb. 2, 1994, by a Winnebago County jury despite his claims of innocence, the victim’s dubious identification of him as the attacker, the lack of a DNA match and destruction by an Oshkosh Police detective of important evidence before the trial.

That old evidence included a jailhouse informant, the victim’s identification of Frey in a “live in-person lineup,” prior sexual assault charges and DNA results from the victim’s bedsheet that excluded Frey as the source.

The holy grail of wrongful convictions: 1) A misidentification; 2) DNA that excludes the defendant; 3) Evidence getting mysteriously destroyed by a police department; 4) Tunnel vision; 5) A jailhouse informant.

The “identification” was done by police in a “simultaneous” manner – a practice now frowned upon because it results in people picking the person who “looks most like” rather than “who is” the suspect. They also placed the same person in more than one lineup, which would signal to anyone with a functioning brain cell that the person who repeatedly showed up was one that police believed did the crime.

And there were other problems. The Innocence Project said the victim identified at least two other men before saying that Frey “looked similar” to her attacker.

There was DNA tested before trial and that DNA (stains from the bedsheet) excluded Frey, but the prosecutor argued – and the jury believed – that those stains could just be leftover from consensual sexual activity the victim had. The news report doesn’t reveal whether that was followed up with the victim at trial or compared to the DNA of any lover she might have had to confirm that.

But the real kickers here are the actions of the police department and the tunnel vision they tend to develop when they have a suspect in their sights. Confirmation bias kicks in and the police start viewing all the evidence through the lens of confirming their suspicion, rather than looking at it neutrally and seeing where it goes. Oh, and it would’ve been nice if, you know, they hadn’t destroyed evidence before the trial:

After those results were received — and before trial — all of the physical evidence in the case reportedly was destroyed, according to trial testimony of then-Oshkosh Detective Phil Charley, who acknowledged disposing of the items but “could not recall anyone ordering him to destroy the evidence,” the Innocence Project said.

Maybe there was a shortage of space. In Phil Charley’s brain. But wait, there’s more:

“In addition to the improper destruction of evidence,” the motion for DNA testing said, “all of the police documents, including police reports, inventory reports, submission and transmittal forms, testing requests and results and chains of custody, were destroyed by the (Oshkosh Police Department).”  “As a result, it is unclear what evidence was originally collected, identified for testing, or remained after destruction.”

I can’t think of one single legitimate reason to destroy these items, especially at or near the time of trial. Maybe 20 years down the road, after legal challenges have been disposed of, maybe. But police departments have strict policies about this. Because you never know, when one day 20 years down the road, DNA testing implicates someone else. What’s that you say? Is that what happened here?

Frey’s chance at exoneration came after a Winnebago County court clerk discovered a scrap of bedsheet left over from the “improper” destruction of the physical evidence by a now-retired Oshkosh Police detective before Frey’s 1994 trial, according to the Innocence Project’s October motion seeking DNA testing.

A scrap. Of a bedsheet. In a clerk’s office. That’s what needed to happen to save Frey. Not all the dubious evidence and the shenanigans that I outlined above. All of that is what got him convicted. It took a random bedsheet scrap that somehow escaped the purge of Detective Fife Charley.

And it wasn’t just that the bedsheet had DNA that excluded Frey. They already knew that. It was only when the DNA evidence matched that of another convicted rapist, who prior to his death in 2008, may have tried to confess to this crime, that the prosecutor was willing to concede that, okay, maybe, perhaps, if you squint really hard, they had the wrong guy.

Finality is such a powerful thing that even the most level headed and logical people get so entrenched in their positions. “It has been decided”, they say, “so mere doubt cannot and will not be permitted to give us doubts about the veracity of our decisions. We must be slapped repeatedly in the face to awaken us from our stupor”.

It was sheer dumb luck that brought Joseph Frey to the precipice of exoneration and freedom. How many are sitting in jail right now, convicted on this evidence, without that scrap of a bedsheet? How many are sitting in jail right now, because prosecutors are convinced, despite evidence to the contrary, that they got the right guy all those years ago? How many are sitting in jail right now, because prosecutors refuse to test DNA evidence, because it might prove they got the wrong guy? Hubris is a powerful thing and almost never results in any good.

How many are sitting in jail right now without any DNA out there to support their innocence, convicted based on tainted, faulty identifications, gung-ho cops and juries that can’t convict fast enough because criminals. Isn’t that most frightening thing of all? That there are innocent people in jail right now without any way for the world to know that they exist. Without any way of proving that they didn’t do it. Because they didn’t get lucky. Should the justice system require luck? Or should it require proof?

So the next time you read a story about an obviously guilty guy, think for a second. The next time you’re on a jury, think long and hard. Are you convinced? Is there any doubt? Or are you going to say good enough and figure maybe he’ll get lucky down the road?

Frey was represented in his motion for a new trial by a dear personal friend of mine, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, Tricia Bushnell. I know the volume of hard work that she and her students did in this case and words cannot ever justify the satisfaction that she must be feeling, so I can only say congratulations and that maybe now you should take a nap, Tricia.











A second chance for juveniles

Think about when you were 14, 15 or even 18 years old. You may have been the jock, the smartypants, the nerd, the weirdo, the hot chick, the best friend or home schooled. Think about the worst thing you did those years.

Now imagine that the worst thing you did – if it was legal – was deemed inappropriate by society. Inappropriate to the tune of 20 years in jail or 30 years or 40 or 60. Or just remember that time you bullied someone or you stole a lipstick or you made fun of a teacher or you took your dad’s car and went for a joyride or you made up stories about that girl because she wouldn’t make out with you.

Now, thinking about yourself, do you cringe? Have you spent time over the years wondering who that kid was and being glad that you’re not that anymore? Have you spent any time thinking “boy, I was a douche back then, but I’ve grown and changed?”

We all have. The only difference is that some of us are stuck in jail for extremely long sentences for things we did when we were barely out of middle school. CT mandates that all children above the age of fourteen, charged with serious felonies, are automatically treated as adults and exposed to adult sentences, ranging from maximums of 20 years to 60 years. And there are about 170 people who are currently serving such sentences for things they did between 14-17.

Convicted in the blink of an eye

You’d think this was a post about the figurative blink of an eye; a lament about the need for speed in the criminal justice system and the rush to judgment. That’s another post, but that’s not this. This is about the recently concluded trial of Ricardo Woods, an Ohio man, who was convicted of the murder of David Chandler because Chandler’s identification of Woods was admitted into evidence at the trial.

You guessed it: the identification was Chandler blinking his eyes in a hospital bed. Chandler then died and wasn’t available at trial, so the prosecution sought to enter the video of his interview at the  trial. The video is here, courtesy the Kentucky Post:

“A deliberate pattern of improper conduct”

The long lament has been the unaccountability of prosecutors in the criminal justice system: they are given broad powers and responsibilities and then shielded at every turn from being held accountable for the myriad, tiny abuses that are committed on a fairly regular basis. Just last week we were all mourning the ineffectual Brady v. Maryland. We all screamed when Connick was announced, holding that prosecutors weren’t financially liable for misconduct impropriety. We all rolled our eyes when they changed misconduct to impropriety. We all roll our eyes when courts point out impropriety but refuse to name the prosecutors who committed that misconduct. But what isn’t at dispute is that prosecutors have a special role to play in the criminal justice system; their responsibilities are elevated and the standards they should be held to are higher.

A great deal is at stake in a criminal trial. The interests involved go beyond the private interests at  stake in the ordinary civil case.They involve significant public interests. . . . [T]he criminal jury trial has a role in protecting not only the liberty of the accused, but also the entire citizenry from overzealous or overreaching state authority.

Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145.

When presenting closing arguments, as in all facets of a criminal trial, the prosecutor, as a representative of the state, has a duty of fairness that exceeds that of other advocates. [A] prosecutor is not an ordinary advocate. His [or her] duty is to see that justice is done and  to refrain from improper methods calculated to produce prejudice and wrongful decisions by the jury.

State v.Moore, 69 Conn. App.  117, 130.

So believe me when I say that what the Connecticut Appellate Court did yesterday was truly extraordinary. It has happened maybe once or twice in the last decade or perhaps even two.

The opinion in State v. Santiago [PDF] starts thusly:

The defendant, Victor Santiago,appeals  from his conviction of felony murder in violation of  General Statutes § 53a-54c and murder in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54a, claiming that he was deprived of his due process right to a fair trial due to improper comments made by the prosecutor, Terence D. Mariani, Jr., during his closing and rebuttal arguments to the jury.

He also asks this court to invoke its  inherent supervisory authority over the administration  of justice to reverse his conviction in light of Mariani’s improper comments made during his closing argument to the jury and his deliberate pattern of making such comments in numerous other cases.

Because we conclude that Mariani has engaged in a deliberate pattern of improper conduct in this case and others, and he remains undeterred by pronouncements by this court and our Supreme Court that his conduct was improper, we believe that nothing short of reversal will have the effect of deterring him.

We thus reverse the defendant’s  judgment of conviction and remand the case for a  new trial.

Unheard of. Just simply unheard of. Not only does the opinion name the prosecutor, but also calls his conduct a “deliberate pattern”.

Judge Sheldon, who wrote the opinion, is absolutely correct: the only just penalty for repeated Constitutional violations and wanton disregard for trial and appellate court orders and cautions and reprimands is to reverse the conviction. What else can be done to drive home the message that prosecutors are not free to abuse the law and that the rules apply to them, too. If they are to be given a license to disregard Due Process with ease, then how can one with a straight face then hold defendants and defense attorneys to much higher standards?

Mariani did everything in this case he isn’t supposed to: he played on the jurors’ sympathies for the victim and witness, he demonized the defendant and his family and equated the prosecutor’s job with that of the jury’s. Each by itself would be a reversible Due Process violation. The court then lists 8 other cases in which Mariani’s conduct was censured by the Appellate or Supreme Court and he was admonished not to do so again. And yet he persisted.

It’s not that he’s not smart or that he doesn’t understand it: the only explanation can be that he just doesn’t care. To repeatedly, continually disregard instructions from judges and appellate courts about the impropriety of one’s actions can only signal that the subject thinks himself or herself to be above the law. This clearly got to the Court, which reasoned:

Mariani made several improper comments in this case, a felony murder case, and, in so doing, jeopardized the constitutionality of the trial proceedings. More troublesome, however, is his repeated and deliberate use of improper argument throughout other cases. Despite the fact that this court and our Supreme Court have repeatedly determined that Mariani has exceeded the  bounds of proper conduct, he continues to do so. We thus conclude, as our Supreme Court did in Payne, that “nothing short of reversal will deter similar misconduct in the future.” Id., 466.

Stunning, unprecedented and well deserved. The only question remains is whether the Supreme Court will reverse, because you know, criminals.