A Mind Shattered by Solitary, A California Problem School Overhauled, and the Death Penalty’s Core DefectNovember 14th, 2013 by Taylor Walker
LIFE WASTED BY JUSTICE MISCARRIED AND PROLONGED ISOLATION
The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen has a worthwhile long read article about Sam Mandez, a Colorado man grievously failed by the Colorado justice system at every turn. After a slipshod trial and a murder conviction at eighteen (for a crime that occurred when he was fourteen), Mandez landed in solitary confinement where he spent sixteen years developing severe mental illness without adequate treatment.
Here are some clips:
On July 26, 1992, an elderly woman named Frida Winter was murdered in her home in Greeley, Colorado. The police recovered fingerprints from the scene and later found some of Winter’s things in a culvert near her home. But for years the investigation went nowhere in large part because it was flawed in nearly every way. Other fingerprints from Winter’s home were not recovered. Leads were not adequately pursued. Logical suspects were not properly questioned. At the time of Winter’s death, Sam Mandez was 14 years old.
Four years later, the police caught what they considered a break. Fingerprints from Winter’s home finally found a match in a police database—and the match was Sam Mandez, who had just turned 18. They brought him in for intense questioning. But Mandez had a strong alibi. He and his grandfather had painted part of Winter’s home in 1991, a year before her death. There was good reason for his prints to have been on the window that was broken on the night of Winter’s death. Mandez had been in trouble with the law before—but never for a violent crime.
There were no eyewitnesses. There was no confession. There was no evidence of any kind that Mandez had murdered Winter. But there was one other link between them. Among the items recovered from that culvert after Winter’s death was a matchbook from a business in Henderson, Nevada. The Mandez family had relatives there. The cops said this proved that Mandez had been inside Winter’s house on the night of her death: He had burglarized her home, and thus, under a dubious extension of Colorado law, he was necessarily guilty of first-degree murder.
The trial of Sam Mandez was a travesty. Prosecutors could have processed him through the juvenile justice system—he was only 14 at the time of his alleged crime, remember—but chose instead to charge him as an adult under Colorado’s felony-murder rule…
So prosecutors did not need to prove at trial that Mandez had murdered Winter or even that he intended to murder Winter. They did not need to solve the crime for jurors. What they did need to do was observe the constitutional command of Brady v. Maryland, which forbids prosecutors from withholding evidence that could exculpate the defendant. They failed—a critical prosecution witness changed his story at the last minute, but that fact was not disclosed to Mandez’s lawyer until the witness had testified. A foul, sure, but no harm, the court ruled.
There were other fatal flaws in the trial. The judge refused to allow Mandez’s attorneys to fully cross-examine the police about other suspects. This information was not relevant, the trial judge said with no evident trace of irony, because Mandez had been charged with felony-murder. And then that same judge refused to grant the defense a continuance to obtain the presence of a material witness who was prepared to identify another suspect in the murder. The initial jury vote was 6-6. As Mandez was convicted, one of the jurors begged the defense to appeal.
If this were the extent of the injustice the law has visited upon Mandez, it would be enough, wouldn’t it? But this is a story that gets even worse. After being convicted of a crime with which he never should have been charged, Mandez went to prison and was promptly placed into solitary—”administrative segregation,” is what bureaucrats call it—for institutional offenses so petty that they almost beggar belief. He made a three-way phone call he wasn’t supposed to make. He put his key in a bathroom lock after it was closed for the evening. Even Kafka, even Hugo, did not memorialize such diabolical perversions of law and justice.
For that, Colorado prison officials in 1998 put Mandez away, in lockdown, where he more or less has remained for nearly 16 years. What happens when you take a young man and confine him in such conditions for such a long period? The young man becomes severely mentally ill. And his illness causes him to act out. And in acting out he gets in more trouble, which justifies his continuing placement in solitary confinement which in turn causes him to act out more.
The ACLU has put out a video (above) documenting Sam Mandez’s story. And Mandez is far from the only person visibly harmed by shoddy trials and solitary confinement. Here (and here, and here) are similar stories by Cohen and others that WLA has pointed to.
A CALIFORNIA MIDDLE SCHOOL SHIFTS TOWARD RESTORATIVE DISCIPLINE APPROACH
The LA Times’ Paloma Esquivel has a new narrative piece about a troubled middle school in Santa Ana called Spurgeon Intermediate, and Todd Irving, the new game-changing principal who is bringing Spurgeon back from the brink of failure. The chaotic school environment, described by one teacher as like “Lord of the Flies” has already seen huge improvements two months into the year, with a more than 50% drop in suspensions thanks to Irving’s alternative discipline strategies and genuine dedication to helping his middle schoolers succeed.
Here are some clips:
Spurgeon Intermediate in Santa Ana sits squarely in the center of one of the poorest ZIP Codes in Orange County. For years, it has consistently ranked one of the lowest-performing schools in the region. But early this year, things got even worse.
In March, 36 teachers and employees took the unusual step of filing a hostile work environment complaint against the administration and students. Children were accosting adults, smoking marijuana, making sexual noises in class, the complaint said. By the end of the school year, more than 40% of the students had been suspended for a total of more than 800 days.
Things were so bad, one teacher said, it was like “Lord of the Flies.”
Irving was hired over the summer to keep Spurgeon under control. The 6-foot-1 former college basketball player had two major goals: First, enforce the small rules; second, give the troublemakers some attention.
In the weeks before school began in late August, he asked his vice principals to compile a list of the school’s 50 most disruptive students and promised to be responsible for them…
Over the summer, he met with each of the 50 students and their parents. The meetings gave Irving a glimpse into the problems they faced at home.
Some have trouble waking up for school because they don’t have beds to sleep in, parents explained. There are boys whose fathers are serving life in prison. Others have mothers who are being deported. Some are not yet teenagers and already are addicted to painkillers or inhalants.
“These are not bad kids,” Irving said. “We have students … that we talk about like they’re a problem. But they come to us with problems.”
Each was asked to sign a contract promising to come to class every day and to follow small rules, like being on time. Teachers would assess their behavior on a scale of one to five during each period of each day. If they earned consistent marks, they could graduate from the program.
So far, suspensions are down — in the first two months of the year there were 24 days compared with 71 last year, Irving said. All but 12 of the 50 students identified as troublemakers have done well enough that they are no longer required to check in with teachers every period.
WHY THE DEATH PENALTY IS CONSTITUTIONALLY FLAWED
This month’s Criminal Justice Matter’s show put on by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (above) examined the fundamental failures of the death penalty in the United States. In the course of the program, Georgia’s former assistant AG, Dorothy Toth Beasley pointed out the bottom-line objection to capital punishment—that there is no way to ensure innocent people are not executed.
(Other guests included Evan Mandery, author and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Jesse Wegman of the NY Times editorial board.)
Here’s a clip from the program’s synopsis:
The U.S. justice system will never be able to apply the death penalty in a way that avoids the danger of convicting innocent individuals or eliminates the possibility of serious human rights abuse, says Georgia’s former assistant attorney general.
Dorothy Toth Beasley, who defended her state’s use of capital punishment in the historic 1972 Furman v Georgia case before the Supreme Court, says the checkered history of death penalty cases in the three decades since makes clear that capital punishment violates American values of equal justice…
“We’ve tried all kinds of different ways, and we can’t get it perfect enough to know that somebody is (not) being executed wrongly, or that the delay is too long—nine, ten, sixteen years.”
Although the Court ruled against Georgia in 1972, the decision was interpreted by legal observers as a nudge to the states to improve their legal procedures for putting people to death. Four years later, the ruling was reversed—and by the late 1970s, 37 states had reintroduced capital punishment with new administrative rules designed to ensure due process of law was followed.
But since then, the use of emerging DNA technology to prove wrongful convictions has illustrated that the system remains flawed—and in the process has increased public doubts about the death penalty, according to Evan Mandery, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and author of Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America.
Mandery, who appeared with Beasley on the Criminal Justice Matters program, suggested that America’s High Court would likely outlaw the death penalty today if it were presented with a similar case…