Nevermore in my name: CT abolishes the death penalty

I know I wrote a similar post last week, but this time there’s no caveat. Connecticut has just abolished the death penalty. The Senate abolished it. The House has abolished it. The Governor will sign it.

If I weren’t so tired from listening to hours of testimony, my hands would probably be shaking. This is historic, indeed.

We have turned a corner. We have made ourselves known. We have stated with clarity that we have a moral compass and that compass is pointed in the direction of compassion and humanity. We are not that which we wish to condemn. We are not that which we wish to punish. We are better than them. We will not arbitrarily punish our own, we will not discriminate based on race or geography.

We will take a different approach. A road that leads to mercy and forgiveness. A path that saves the best in us. A choice that allows us to hold our head high and be counted among the citizens of the world. We will show that while it is difficult to resist our base instincts of anger, revenge and hatred, it is possible. And we can move past that and emerge stronger. We will lead by example.

We will not assume the hubris to decide, as a people, whose life is worth living. We will not ask that of our friends, neighbors and our children. We will unburden our state from the heavy yoke of carrying the deaths of so many. We will wash the blood from our hands.

Nevermore in my name.

In which I make some uninvited retorts to specious arguments against abolition

With the Connecticut Senate having already voted to abolish the death penalty last week, and in light of the looming vote in the House tomorrow and given the extensive debate this topic has been subject to for decades, I figured that we finally had reached a point where we were having honest, intellectual and moral arguments for or against this propriety of maintaining this punishment.

I was wrong. Linked there is a post by “Don Pesci” (whether that is his real name is unknown to me and irrelevant as well), who seems to be a real conservative and proponent of the death penalty. That someone is both of those things doesn’t bother me; rather what bothers me is someone who is both of those things (or anything, really) who then uses false arguments to state his or her support for the penalty. I did leave a brief comment on his blog, but upon further reflection, I decided that it merits a somewhat longer blog post. These are counter-arguments that have been stated plainly before, but are ultimately worth repeating, especially given the importance of tomorrow’s vote. I will attempt – as far as it is possible – to respond to each quip.

Q: The death penalty was abolished by the Senate on April 5. It’s a virtual certainty that the House also will approve the Democrat inspired bill. Do you feel safer?

A: Can’t say. Part of the abolition bluster was that the death penalty did not prevent murders, always a questionable assumption.

Q: “Bluster?” What ever can you mean?

A: It was never a serious proposition, just a useful piece of propaganda.

He then goes on to state that one can’t ever know if a punishment deters a crime. While that is clearly true, one can measure the impact of having a particular penalty on the actions of those it is meant to serve as a deterrent to. One could, for instance, compare the murder rates in death-penalty and non-death penalty states. One could look to a survey of law enforcement agencies which list the death penalty as the most ineffective tool for reducing violent crime. Or one could read the voluminous research and scientific study undermining the argument that the death penalty serves as a deterrent. While it may be true that it is not possible to know if the death penalty had a direct impact on a particular individual and prevented him from committing a crime, it is also honest to acknowledge that we don’t know that it did. And that is the crux: that the argument that the death penalty deters crime (one of the foundational arguments for retaining this punishment) is false.

 Q: One of the other points raised against the death penalty by Senate President Don Williams prior to the vote to abolish was that it had been randomly applied: Not everyone who committed murder in Connecticut has been sentenced to death.

A: And a good thing too. In practice, Connecticut’s death penalty punishment was applied ONLY if certain circumstances had been met. Not every murderer qualified. You had to work really hard to merit the death penalty. It is no argument in favor of the abolition of a punishment – say, ticketing for speeding – to say that not everyone who commits the offense is punished. This is an infantile objection: “Mommy, he did it too. How come only I got sent to bed?” Should we abolish ticketing for excessive speed on the highways because – just to fetch for a figure – 98 percent of speeders are not ticketed and of those ticketed 99 percent are not brought to trial? Grow up!

This argument, as I said in my comment to his post, is simplistic and possibly disingenuous. The comparison made in the “disparity” argument is not between non-death eligible murder and death-eligible murder. That is a false comparison. The comparison is between one death-eligible murder in which the penalty was not sought and another in which it was. The argument is made that the death penalty is arbitrary because often the decision to seek the penalty depends not on the crime itself – which may be comparable in every respect – but on other factors, such as the race of the defendant, the victim, the geographical location and sometimes the quality of the lawyer representing the defendant.

It is this disparity that gives us pause. In Connecticut, if two people commit two identical death eligible crimes, but one does it in New Haven and the other in Waterbury, there is a significantly greater chance that the person who committed the crime in Waterbury would have to defend against the death penalty and the one who committed the crime in New Haven would not.

So the next time someone tells you that of course the death penalty should be discriminatory and not applied to all murderers, tell them that you know they’re hiding critical information from you and their argument is based on a lie.

Q: Another argument was that the penalty once applied was irreversible.

A: People who said that the death penalty could be applied in error had to travel outside the confines of Connecticut to find such instances. Or they presented their objection as a theoretical proposition. No one awaiting death on Connecticut’s death row has been mistakenly led there by judicial error.

I would have said that this is my favorite argument, but that title belongs to the next one. We’ll get there. This one is particularly rich because it takes a very foolhardy view. The argument, essentially, is that we haven’t screwed up yet. Yes, that’s true. We haven’t. But we, in CT, have also had at least 4 DNA exonerations in the last half-decade. Before that, we’ve had other innocent men in jail. Is it a matter of time until we have an innocent man on death row? I don’t know the answer to that, but I’d say there’s a greater chance that we will, than that we won’t. That is not a risk I – or you – should be willing to take.

Q: But the appeals!

A: A means of postponing punishment, a judicial means of jury nullification.

[and elsewhere:] The abolition bill does not and cannot prevent pointless appeals.

You can see why this would be my favorite argument and it is one that has come up repeatedly. Variations include “endless appeals” and “endless habeas appeals”. I think it’s important to define what these terms mean and the Constitutional underpinnings of these mechanisms before illustrating just how misinformed, stupid and dangerous the argument is.

First, pointless signifies that the the only arbiter of a legal conviction is a jury at the trial level. It implies that any judicial review is a mechanism for undermining the jury’s just verdict. It also implies that somehow appellate courts are complicit in the liberal desire to avoid implementing the necessary punishment of death.

This flies in the face of what we normally call facts. For one, the Connecticut Supreme court has not only routinely upheld death sentences for those currently on death row (duh), but also has repeatedly and consistently upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty in Connecticut. Further, our supreme court overwhelmingly sides with the State against criminal defendants and if one is to accuse them of complicity in something, a more accurate accusation would involve the disturbing curtailing of individual rights and emasculation of Constitutional protections.

But I digress. Appeals are not pointless. They are checks on the functioning of our criminal justice system. They are the umpires that review the methods and processes we use. They are the enforcers of our rules of law, rules that we all rely upon to keep us and our freedoms safe. That a particular defendant has no viable claims for review does not make the entire appellate process pointless. Rather, it makes it indispensable.

Second, appeals aren’t endless either. There are very limited appeals granted to defendants. That they may take a lot of time to resolve is not the same as the appellate process having no end.

These are the appellate review options available to any defendant:

1. Direct Appeal to the Supreme Court of Connecticut (bypassing, by statute, the intermediate Appellate Court).

2. Petition for Writ of Certiorari to the United States Supreme Court (which is granted almost never).

3. A Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus in State Court.

4. An Appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court from that decision.

5. A Petition for Writ of Certiorari to the United States Supreme Court (which is granted almost never).

6. A Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus in Federal District Court.

7. A Discretionary Appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

8. A Petition for Writ of Certiorari to the United States Supreme Court (which is granted almost never).

Sure, you may say, these are a lot! But 1, 2, 3, 4 are necessarily separate because they challenge different things. It is by statute and law in Connecticut (State v. Leecan), that some claims cannot be raised via direct appeal (#1) and must be raised via a petition for writ of habeas corpus (#3). In some states those two are combined, but that is a poor way to do it because #3 requires information that #1 cannot provide. [See this previous post on the meaning and importance of The Great Writ.]

To do away with any of these avenues would push us all down that slippery slope. The justice system is fraught as it is with allegations of bias, racism and unfairness. To limit avenues of redress would affect us all. You just haven’t been arrested yet.

To claim that these appeals are pointless because thesepeopleareguiltyletsjustkillthemalready is stunningly narrow-sighted.

In the end, I do not dispute that this is an entirely moral issue. If, however, you’re going to rely on other arguments to support your position, at least make sure you’re correct, so you can be taken seriously.

[As a side note, I am glad that news agencies are finally paying attention to those survivors of homicide who are opposed to the death penalty, instead of just those who are in favor of it.]

 

The measure of our society

One of the highlights of staying up until 3am on Wednesday night/Thursday morning to watch the death penalty abolition debate was listening to state Senator Gayle Slossberg give a rousing speech in support of repeal. Susan Campbell of the Courant has obtained a copy of the entire speech and I would urge everyone to read it.

I have said for years that the death penalty is, at its core, a purely moral and emotional issue. The rest of the reason – deterrence and cost for example – are sideshows. An attempt to dress our passions in the garb of rationality in order to give them a semblance of respect.

But in the end, you either believe in retribution or forgiveness. You either believe that the majority – collectively – should not have the power to dictate whether another lives or dies or you believe that it must. You balance the emotions of compassion and mercy with revenge, anger and retribution. Some come out on one side; some on the other.

The debate on the death penalty is not about the viciousness of the acts of 11 men or the feelings of 4 survivors of homicide who support the ultimate penalty or the 4 who oppose it. There are vicious men who have done terrible things and there always will be. There are people who are opposed to executions and those who support it and that will remain forever.

It is about what we value more (and no, it isn’t about valuing life more, which is why it is not incongruent to believe in a woman’s right to choose and be opposed to the death penalty): that society should act in revenge or society should set the example and offer mercy and compassion and forgiveness.

When opponents of the death penalty chant “not in my name”, it isn’t that we want this particular person to live because we like them, but it’s because we don’t want the Government to take the life of one of our fellow citizens in the name of all of us. It is that governmental action that we decry. We refuse to give the shapeless, amorphous body called “the State” the power to determine whose lives are worthy of permitting to exist.

Today, there are 11 men on CT’s death row of whose guilt there is no doubt. But that is not the case in the rest of the country and will undoubtedly not be the case some time in the future in CT as well. That risk is untenable. We are all fallible beings. We all have made mistakes. As fallible beings, the responsibility of deciding who lives and who dies is too awesome to be trusted to be carried out without error and in good judgment in a way that doesn’t unfairly affect one group or another.

Vengeance is easy. Forgiveness is difficult. As a society, we must make difficult choices. Giving up the power to exact revenge is perhaps the most difficult one of them all, yet it is one we must make, because otherwise, an eye for an eye will make us all blind.

 

CT (senate) votes to abolish the death penalty

death penalty no more

It happened. After so many years, so many debates and 11 people on death row, Connecticut’s Senate has voted to repeal the death penalty. This is a prospective repeal only and it yet has to pass the House and be signed by the Governor, but the latter seem to be formalities at this point.

Those who follow this blog will know that there is nothing more that I have wanted ever since I started blogging in the wake of the Michael Ross execution battle is to see this State join the rest of the Northeastern states and the vast majority of countries worldwide in abolishing this most final and barbaric of punishments.

It is late, and I have tears in my eyes, so I will leave you with these quotes and highly recommend that you listen to/watch the speeches made on the floor of the Senate by Senators Slossberg and Musto.

First, a hat-tip to my favorite CT Supreme Court Justice Robert Berdon:

This probably will be the last case before my retirement in which I will have the opportunity to express my views with respect to the dreadful punishment of death and related matters. Civilized nations have barred this horrible punishment. Some of our sister states have also banned death as a punishment, including all of the New England states except one –  Connecticut. I have pointed out in my dissents in State v. Cobb, 251 Conn. 285, 523, 743 A.2d 1 (1999), State v. Webb, 238 Conn. 389, 552-54, 680 A.2d 147 (1996), State v. Breton, 235 Conn. 206, 262, 663 A.2d 1026 (1995), and State v. Ross, 230 Conn. 183, 294, 646 A.2d 1318 (1994), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1165, 115 S. Ct. 1133, 130 L. Ed. 2d 1095 (1995), that the penalty of death fails to comport with contemporary standards of decency and that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of our state constitution. I leave this court heartbroken because, as a result of one vote, 24 Connecticut is not among those enlightened states and nations to put an end to the death penalty. But those who would have it must live with this stain of blood. The determination of the constitutionality of the death penalty is not in the control of the legislature but, rather, in this court and the majority has failed to recognize its unconstitutionality.

This is for you Justice Berdon. The legislature has done what the Court refused to do.

From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. For more than 20 years I have endeavored…to develop…rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor…Rather than continue to coddle the court’s delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved…I feel…obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies… Perhaps one day this court will develop procedural rules or verbal formulas that actually will provide consistency, fairness and reliability in a capital-sentencing scheme. I am not optimistic that such a day will come. I am more optimistic, though, that this court eventually will conclude that the effort to eliminate arbitrariness while preserving fairness ‘in the infliction of [death] is so plainly doomed to failure that it and the death penalty must be abandoned altogether.’ (Godfrey v. Georgia, 1980) I may not live to see that day, but I have faith that eventually it will arrive. The path the court has chosen lessen us all.”

 

Justice Blackmun.

We no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. We shall no longer indulge our basest emotions of fear, anger, hate and revenge. We shall no longer apply the uncivilized notion of ‘eye for an eye’. We shall stand up and say we are better than this. We will no longer be arrogant and say that we have the right to decide who lives and who dies.

We are defined by how we treat the worst among us and we will not be counted among them. We will be remembered favorably by posterity. We are compassionate, gentle and progressive. We will not give up parts of ourselves when we kill others. We will not die within as we make others die without. We will lead by example, not anger. We will no longer cheer at the thought of the death of others.

We will not give up our humanity, even if others have. We will not have blood on our hands.

Three’s a crowd

It takes two to tango, goes the famous saying, and despite what 70s sitcoms try to tell you, three is most definitely a crowd. This is even more so in the criminal justice system, where there are two parties to every prosecution: the individual accused and the rest of the citizenry, on whose behalf the accusations are made.

But in recent years there has been a move – and to some extent rightfully so – toward giving the individual victim more input and a greater voice in the process. But the basic structure has – and should – remain the same: State v. defendant. In a sense, it is the State as a whole that has been victimized; the collective peace, law and order. Our laws, which are rules we have agreed to in order to maintain a semblance of morality and structure, are designed to protect the orderly functioning of society. We give up certain rights in order to have others.

So it’s good to see a court even as conservative as Connecticut’s top court acknowledge and reaffirm this. Today, in State v. Gault, the CT Supreme Court held that a victim is not a party to a criminal case.

It is a ‘‘basic tenet of the criminal justice system that prosecutions are undertaken and punishments are sought by the state on behalf of the citizens of the state, and not on behalf of particular victims or complaining witnesses.’’ State v. Barnett, 980 S.W.2d 297, 308 (Mo. 1998), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1161, 119 S. Ct. 1074, 143  L. Ed. 2d 77 (1999). ‘‘A criminal prosecution is a public matter and not a contest between the defendant and his victims, or their relatives.’’(Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id. It is axiomatic, therefore, that ‘‘[t]he parties to a criminal action are the [state], in whose sovereign name it is prosecuted, and the person accused’’; Dix v.  Superior Court, 53 Cal. 3d 442, 451, 807 P.2d 1063, 279  Cal. Rptr. 834 (1991); and not the crime victim(s). State  v. Harrison, 24 P.3d 936, 945 (Utah 2001).

It is important to note that while the decision, viewed most simplistically, is a ruling against a victim in a privacy case, there are broader, more important implications here. It is a ruling for due process and the rights of a defendant and that of society as a whole to have an orderly determination of the matter of guilt or innocence of one of its citizens. That the victim in this case was raped or kidnapped is irrelevant to the story. She might as well have been a he and he might as well have been defrauded out of $1,000,000.

The very thing that the victim in Gault sought to do was considered and rejected by the legislature in 2007, for much the same reasons that the supreme court rejected it today. To permit to enter into the fray a third party, whose interests are already ostensibly represented by an existing one, but not tempered or checked in any way by concerns of judicial economy, fairness, due process and – sometimes – justice, would be to take an already chaotic system plagued by allegations of disparity and unfairness and turn it into even more of a quagmire.

To plead or not to plead: a critical question

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

So muses Hamlet in Act 3, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s play of the same name. So goes the quandary faced by criminal defendants in today’s criminal justice system: to plead or not to plead? Is it more advisable to suffer the ignominy of a conviction and lesser jail time up front than to press the sword of trial and hope that it doesn’t turn on you, often to more deleterious effect?

Hamlet had no one to guide him honestly; the modern criminal defendant, however, does: his lawyer. And it is upon this lawyer that he relies for a frank and learned assessment of the pros and cons of the various options available to him. To argue that the decision to plead guilty or to reject an offer is not a “critical stage” of the criminal process is to disingenuously ignore the realities of this modern day system.

And yet this is precisely what agents of the various States have been arguing for many years. This is a nonsensical fight that I personally have fought for at least 5 years now, without any direct guidance from the United States Supreme Court. Until yesterday.

In two sure to be seminal cases, Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frye [both PDF], the Supreme Court unequivocally held that the right to counsel at all “critical stages” of a criminal proceeding means the right to effective assistance of counsel at those stages and yes, Dorothy, the plea bargain is a “critical stage”.

The argument for this holding is best explained by stating the position of those against it. The position against is this: so long as a defendant receives a fair trial, it is irrelevant whether – and to what extent – his lawyer erred in the time leading up to that trial. Reductio ad absurdum, to these folks, if a lawyer never speaks to his client prior to the trial and conveys no offer, it doesn’t matter, because the right to effective assistance of counsel only has force in the context of a criminal trial.

To a less absurd degree, take the case of Lafler, whose lawyer told him that he should reject a very favorable pre-trial offer and instead make the State prove its case because there was no way he could legally be convicted of attempted murder, since the victim was shot in the leg.

You don’t need 3 years of law school and a passed bar exam to tell you that’s just wrong. Stupid, wrong and dangerous. But the States would have you believe that it is of no moment that such patently faulty advice was given, because Lafler received a fair trial.

Justice Kennedy, writing for both majorities, explains it well:

The reality is that plea bargains have become so central to the administration of the criminal justice system that defense counsel have responsibilities in the plea bargain process, responsibilities that must be met to render the adequate assistance of counsel that the Sixth Amendment requires in the criminal process at critical stages. Because ours “is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” Lafler, post, at 11, it is insufficient simply to point to the guarantee of a fair trial as a backstop that inoculates any errors in the pretrial process.  “To a large extent . . . horse trading [between prosecutor  and defense counsel] determines who goes to jail and for how long. That is what plea bargaining is.  It is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system;  it is the criminal justice system.”

While the significant role of plea bargaining cannot be diminished (also why ideas like taking every case to trial are stupid and unethical), I would argue that the right to effective assistance pre-trial is not a product of only that large impact of the plea process. It is also a matter of simple logic and ethical responsibility. As I’ve long argued, we are our clients’ shepherds through this complicated quagmire that we call the criminal justice system. The layman, untrained in the nuances of this system, look to us to proffer advice and most often follow our advice. How would you feel if you were given bad advice by the person whose only responsibility was to give you good advice?

Simply put, the issue boils down to this: if you have a right to have a lawyer give you advice, then you have a right to have that lawyer give you competent advice.

This is an outcome that everyone involved – judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys – should be cheering, because it ensures that the system is fair. That is not to say that all advice given by counsel that a defendant doesn’t like is per se ineffective, as some folks1 would have you believe. Rather that a court should evaluate that advice to determine whether it was sound. I suspect that in the vast majority of cases, the advice will be deemed so. But there will also be cases where, but for the misadvice of counsel, the defendant would have not been worse off.

The problem with these opinions lies – as it often does – with the remedy. Here is where I part ways with Justice Kennedy. He writes, in the context of a sentence after a jury trial and a rejected plea agreement:

The specific injury suffered by defendants who decline a plea offer as a result of ineffective assistance of counsel and then receive a greater sentence as a result of trial can come in at least one of two forms.  In some cases, the sole advantage a defendant would have received under the plea is a lesser sentence.  This is typically the case when the charges that would have been admitted as part of the plea bargain are the same as the charges the defendant was convicted of after trial.  In this situation the court may conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the defendant has shown a reasonable probability that but for counsel’s errors he would have accepted the plea.  If the showing is made, the court may exercise discretion in determining whether the defendant should receive the term of imprisonment the government offered in the plea, the sentence he received at trial, or something in between.

This proposed model of determining remedy is fundamentally unsound. The general underlying principle is – and should be – that the defendant, when disadvantaged by the Constitutional violation, should be placed back in the position he was in before the violation so disadvantaged him. See, e.g., Santobello v. New York. To suggest that an appropriate remedy for this Constitutional violation could be the same sentence he received as a result of this violation is incongruent and incomprehensible. In my mind, the only appropriate remedy2 is the first one: if the defendant can establish that the plea was rejected as a result of ineffective assistance and the plea would have been accepted by the judge, the only way to make the defendant whole is to sentence him to the terms of that plea. Anything else would be a band-aid on a gaping wound.

Finally, there will always be naysayers even among the defense bar. To them, I repeat words I wrote just under two years ago:

Ineffective assistance of counsel is a sort of “dirty” phrase in the criminal defense world. It is viewed by many as a personal attack and is met with scorn, anger and derision directed toward those who practice in the post-conviction arena. That this view is prevalent among the bar is alarming. It belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the duties and responsibilities of the defense lawyer in the criminal justice system.

IAC claims are not a taint on your reputation nor is it an indictment of your abilities. It is a recognition of the simple fact that we are all working within a juggernaut of a system that from time to time overwhelms even the best of us.  At the end of the day, it is you and I who go home to our comfortable beds. You and I have the ability to walk outside in the free world and to buy what we choose and talk to whom we want, whenever we want. To place our petty egos and some twisted sense of self-worth before the complaints of the convicted client, who has nothing but a badly beaten and bruised writ to use to seek his release from the oppressive conditions of confinement in our penal institutions is pettiness of the ugliest kind.

This may be getting repetitive, but it cannot be said enough that in order to truly serve our clients we must view ourselves as nothing but an extension of the individual client. We must be the client, at every moment that we represent them. We – criminal defense lawyers – are not parties to a criminal case. The client is. We are his representative. We must, at all times, remember that and act like it.

 

 

———————

1. The analogy given by the good folks at C&C is, simply put, stupid and inapposite. This is not a situation where “you offer to buy my car for $10,000.  After consulting with my expert, I reject the offer.  Turns out my expert gave me bad advice.  The next week, I want to go through with the deal.  In the meantime, though, I have wrecked the car.  Would it be fair to make you pay me $10,000 for the now-wrecked car?” The expert has no duty to give me advice and my “wrecking the car” is not analogous to going to trial with that expert as my advocate.

2. The same good folks at C&C suggest that the appropriate remedy should be that “the defense lawyer should be personally liable for the cost of the trial.  If the defense was the public defender’s office, the cost of prosecution should be transferred from the public defender’s budget to the district attorney’s budget.” If it wasn’t clear prior to today that the good folks at C&C were only concerned with obtaining convictions and watching people murdered by the State, it should be now. Such a rigid, simplistic view of the by-its-nature murky and unclear business of assigning guilt does a disservice to everyone.

 

DNA exonerates another in CT; mis-ID the culprit

On Monday, Hubert Thompson walked out of Hartford Superior Court a free man. He felt the sun hit his face, breathed fresh air and went where the hell he damn pleased. He had just been granted a new trial after serving well over half a decade in prison for a rape he didn’t commit.

After DNA taken from the victim was discovered to still exist in a vault somewhere, his attorney sought to have it tested. The results excluded him as the source of the DNA and implicated another man. On Monday, his motion for a new trial was granted [I don’t have a copy of the actual motion, but if you go that page, you can see a copy of the order page, which has some details on it].

[I’ve been sitting on this post for 3 days now, since there was absolutely no media coverage whatsoever and I didn’t want to find myself in the enviable position of being the source of a news story that frankly half a dozen “news” organizations shouldn’t gotten their hands on this week. That it took 4 days before the intrepid folks at CT News Junkie tracked down this story independently speaks volumes to the focus of the “mainstream” news outlets, which are quick to splash sensationalist headlines of people’s arrests but reluctant to find out about real stories of injustice even when repeatedly informed of them. This is why independent news outlets like CTNJ and New Haven Independent have the drop on most traditional news media.]

How did Mr. Thompson get arrested, charged and convicted, you might ask, despite the title of this post? A faulty identification by the victim, ‘natch. Just in time, too, as the legislature today holds a public hearing on another eyewitness identification bill that would improve upon the one passed last year. But it also comes at the right time in the context of the death penalty debate, serving to remind us and our legislators that even here in the land of steady habits, we are not perfect. We make mistakes and one day, these mistakes are going to converge in a death penalty case. That we’ve been lucky so far is no reason to maintain faith in the infallibility of our particular death penalty scheme.

Thompson was convicted in 1998 of a rape and kidnapping that occurred in 1994. He was sentenced to serve 12 years in prison. At the time there was no usable DNA evidence, but the victim identified Thompson as the perpetrator.

Just this month, the State lab finished testing on the victim’s underwear to find that it excluded Thompson and implicated another man. Which is fantastic for Mr. Thompson, but just imagine, for a second that there was no testable DNA remaining. He’d still know he was innocent, but no one would believe him. He’d probably serve 12 years and be left to the ravages of the system with no way of proving his innocence.

There are people like that in our prisons. People who are innocent, but have no way of proving it. And a large number of them are convicted based solely on eyewitness testimony. Why do we continue to rely on this faulty mode of evidence? Why do juries? People: if you’re reading this and you’re on a jury, be extremely skeptical. There may be no white knight in 5, 10, 15 years to save an innocent man. Maybe it’s time we all started requesting instructions on the dangerousness of eyewitness testimony. We should ask that juries be instructed that 75% of wrongful convictions involved an identification of the exonerated. Something has to be done.

Just not what State Rep. Hewett wants:

However, Rep. Ernest Hewett, D- New London, said Thompson’s case lends support to a different proposal he’s pushed in the past. Hewett wants to allow the pre-conviction collection of DNA data at the time of a felony arrest.  “Can you imagine if we increased our database to arrestee DNA, how many people we’d get? They’re just walking the streets,” he said. “Those people that are running wild out there, continuing to commit crimes, their profile would be in our database.”

This, apparently, is his pet project. I’ve written in the past about how this would run afoul not only of our basic Constitutional rights, but also the principles underlying those rights and would only serve to push us closer to war with Oceania [and a debate on this bill last year produced, in my estimation, the “Best. Quote. Ever“].

Hewett, as you can see from prior posts, is prone to saying things that make little sense. He says that Hubert Thompson’s DNA exoneration, – and for that to work, they’d had to have DNA from the victim, the suspect and Mr. Thompson – this particular case, lends support to the idea that we should take DNA from people when they’re arrested. Apparently he missed the part where they didn’t test the DNA in 1998 because there wasn’t any usable DNA in the rape kit, not because they didn’t have Mr. Thompson’s DNA or that of the real suspect.

As time went by, extraction methods and protocols improved, allowing the lab to extract DNA from samples previously thought to be unusable. It’s that advancement in technology that permitted the exoneration of Mr. Thompson, not him suddenly deciding 5 years into a 12 year sentence that “hey, you know, maybe I should start working on this whole ‘getting out of serving time for a crime I didn’t commit’ thing”.

We’re all allowed to have positions on things and our pet projects – God knows I have so many – but can’t we at least expect our elected officials to be able to understand, articulate and properly apply theirs?