Brooklyn DA Targets Questionable Convictions….a “Suicide by Cop”….MacArthur Genius Probes Unconscious Racial Bias….and the MacArthur Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Reform PushJanuary 8th, 2015 by Taylor Walker
BROOKLYN’S DISTRICT ATTORNEY FOCUSED ON JUSTICE OVER CONVICTIONS
The New Yorker’s Matthew McKnight tells the story of Kenneth Thompson, the Brooklyn district attorney who established a “conviction integrity unit” last year to investigate a slew of possible wrongful convictions. Thompson took over as DA after Charles Hynes, who was defeated after a wrongful conviction lawsuit unearthed systemic prosecutorial misconduct in the DA’s office.
Thompson’s Conviction Review Unit is made up of ten lawyers who have examined around 100 cases in around 9 months, and exonerated eleven people in 2014.
While other counties have made considerable efforts to right justice system wrongs via conviction integrity systems, Thompson’s is the largest DA’s office in the country to make such a strong push.
Here are some clips from McKnight’s story:
The Conviction Review Unit has been the most profound reform that Thompson has implemented in his year as district attorney. A team of ten lawyers has been tasked with reviewing wrongful-conviction claims and questionable convictions, many of which occurred under the leadership of the previous D.A., Charles Hynes, whose twenty-three-year tenure is suspected of being marked by negligence and questionable ethics—including using faulty eyewitnesses, manipulating his prosecutorial responsibilities in order to appear tough on crime and win elections, and relying on the work of discredited detectives. One retired detective in particular, Louis Scarcella, has been connected with roughly seventy cases that have come up for review by Thompson’s office, including Hamilton’s. Meanwhile, one of Hynes’s assistant district attorneys, Michael Vecchione, was named in a wrongful-conviction lawsuit brought against the city by Jabbar Collins, who spent sixteen years in prison for murder. Collins claimed that Vecchione and others in the prosecutor’s office had threatened a man in order to solicit testimony of Collins’s guilt. (Collins was awarded a settlement of ten million dollars last summer. Both Scarcella and Vecchione deny any wrongdoing.)
The C.R.U. represents Thompson’s attempt to correct systemic flaws in Brooklyn’s criminal-justice apparatus, which have included poor oversight, inadequate independent review, and a lack of prosecutorial and police transparency—and which have enabled problems ranging from mistakes in judgment to deliberate misconduct. Thompson’s is the third-largest district attorney’s office in the nation, behind those of Chicago and Los Angeles, with five hundred prosecutors who litigate roughly a hundred thousand cases a year, and it is certainly the largest to make such a thorough effort to review past convictions. In scope, the Kings Country C.R.U. follows an earlier effort by Craig Watkins, the district attorney in Dallas, who, in 2006, formed a conviction-integrity unit that sought, at first, to review potentially tainted convictions that could be tested with DNA evidence that wasn’t available at the time of the original trials.
Thompson’s unit differed from Watkins’s in that it sought to consider an expanded notion of justice. “They’re not simply looking at wrongful convictions in cases in which a person can prove his or her innocence. They’re also looking at cases where they may be innocent—we don’t know—but, definitely, the conviction has no integrity,” Peter Neufeld, the cofounder of the Innocence Project, told me. Watkins later expanded his unit in Dallas to include convictions not resting on DNA evidence, but Thompson’s office has not yet widened its scope to include cases in which retroactive DNA testing can be applied. Rather, the questionable convictions that the Kings County office has sought to review can largely be traced to human error—negligence, misconduct, or errors in judgment—and not necessarily to poor technology. “It is much more difficult to set aside convictions in non-DNA cases, so Kenneth Thompson’s work in that regard has been especially impressive,” Karen Daniel, the co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law, wrote to me in an e-mail.
According to Hale, the unit has accepted about a hundred cases for review since March, 2014, and has made a determination in thirty-one. Most of the cases that the unit has handled so far involve crimes that were committed in the early nineteen-nineties, during the highest period of criminal activity in the history of Brooklyn, which were also Hynes’s first years as D.A. The highest priority for the unit, Thompson says, is to give freedom to people who were convicted during the concomitant era of mass incarceration but don’t belong in prison. He likens the work of the C.R.U. to that of a hospital’s triage center.
For the moment, two important challenges remain outside the scope of Thompson’s unit: understanding precisely why mistakes happened and instituting measures to prevent wrongful convictions from happening in the future. Neufeld argues that the means for accomplishing these goals already exists. “The only sector in society which has not used root-cause analysis”—a formal methodology for determining the source of an undesirable result—“routinely to deal with its issues has been the criminal-justice system,” he said. “And I don’t want to single D.A.s out. It’s true of public defenders; it’s true of crime laboratories; it’s true of police departments; it’s true of the courts.”
USING COPS TO COMMIT SUICIDE
On Sunday, two San Francisco sergeants shot and killed Matthew Hoffman after the 32-year-old aimed an air rifle at them, deliberately committing “suicide by cop.” Hoffman left a suicide note absolving the officers of his death.
Committing “suicide by cop,” essentially forcing officers unaware of the motive to use deadly force in self-defense, is not an uncommon occurrence. And in such incidents, even training in crisis intervention will not change the outcome, which officers must live with the rest of their lives. The mental health intervention must occur long before those final catastrophic moments.
SF Chronicle’s Vivian Ho has more on the issue. Here are some clips:
San Francisco police as well as experts said it appeared to be a clear case of “suicide by cop,” a tragic but often murky phenomenon that lies at the intersection of law enforcement and mental health and can devastate all involved.
“You have a note saying, ‘I used you’ — but it doesn’t make (the officers) feel any better,” said Vivian Lord, a University of North Carolina professor and author of “Suicide by Cop: a Comprehensive Examination of the Phenomenon and its Aftermath.”
While suicide by cop is a familiar term, it is difficult to study, experts said, and there is little definitive data on how many such incidents occur nationwide each year. One problem is assessing the motives of a person who is often deceased. Another is that many departments don’t seek to differentiate between officer-involved shootings.
A 1998 FBI study looking at 240 cases over a 15-year period found that 16 percent of people shot by police had possible suicidal motivations. Another study published in the Journal of Forensic Studies in 2009, which looked at more than 700 shootings throughout North America, determined that 36 percent of them were suicides, while 5 percent more featured subjects who were suicidal during the encounter.
Lord and Stincelli, though, said the numbers in the 2009 study seemed high. They estimated that 12 to 15 percent of all police killings nationwide are provoked for the sake of suicide.
Lord said law enforcement agencies and mental health professionals need to work together more closely. While police officers are often the first to come in contact with people in distress, she said, “Suicide by cop is just a result of things that should have been done before then.”
MACARTHUR GENIUS TRAILBLAZING RESEARCH ON UNCONSCIOUS RACIAL BIAS
The New York Times’ Claudia Dreifus interviews 2014 MacArthur Genius, Jennifer Eberhardt, who investigates the adverse impact of implicit racial bias on the criminal justice system, and then partners with law enforcement agencies to raise awareness of the issue. Here are some clips from Dreifus and Eberhardt’s discussions:
WHEN YOUR MACARTHUR WAS ANNOUNCED, IT WAS SAID YOU HAD SHOWN HOW CRIMINAL SENTENCING WAS RELATED TO SKIN COLOR AND RACIAL STEREOTYPING. HOW DID YOU DO THAT?
The particular study they were referring to was on the death penalty. We gathered photographs of people convicted of capital crimes and who were eligible for a death sentence. We then cropped them and asked Stanford students to rate how stereotypically black the faces appeared to be.
We told our subjects to use any dimension they wanted with which to make that judgment: skin color, width of nose, thickness of lips. Interestingly, though we didn’t give them clear direction of what we meant by “stereotypically black,” there was a lot of agreement about what that was.
Now, the students had no idea where these pictures came from or that these were convicted felons. We wondered if their ratings of blackness could predict whether the person had received a life or a death sentence.
AND WERE THEY PREDICTIVE?
Oh, yes. People who were judged to be most black were, in reality, most likely to have drawn a death sentence. In fact, they were over twice as likely to get a death sentence.
WHAT HAPPENED WHEN YOU HAD STUDENTS PLAY COMPUTER GAMES THAT CENTERED ON SHOOTING BLACK PEOPLE WHO MIGHT BE CARRYING GUNS?
This is an experiment that another social psychologist, Josh Correll at the University of Colorado-Boulder, has done. But we’ve done it, too.
You have a computer game simulation where a subject sees someone holding an object. If it’s a gun, they hit a button labeled “Shoot.” If it’s a harmless object, they hit another labeled “Don’t Shoot.”
It turns out that if they are shown a black person with a gun, they’ll respond with “Shoot” faster than when flashed the image of a white person with a gun. People are more likely to mistakenly respond with “Shoot” to a black person with no gun than to a white person with no gun.
AND IN OTHER MACARTHUR FOUNDATION NEWS… REFORM RECOMMENDATIONS FOR HARMFUL JUVENILE JUSTICE POLICIES
Citing growing research on teenagers’ still-developing brains (notably the areas of the brain governing impulse control, critical thinking, and consideration of consequences), a report from the MacArthur Foundation calls for major policy changes in five areas of the juvenile justice system.
These reforms include banning use of solitary confinement on kids, keeping kids out of adult courts and jails, sealing kids’ juvenile records, and keeping kids off sex offender registries.
Here’s a clip from the report that lays out ideal policy changes regarding kids and the adult justice system:
Laws and policies that funnel youth into the adult criminal justice system solely based on age or crime are contrary to the research on adolescent development and successful interventions for youth in trouble with the law. Such policies are also out of line with public sentiment, which favors rehabilitation and does not support transfer. The following would be hallmarks of a model system’s approach to transfer:
• Transfer is never automatic; whenever possible, youth remain in the juvenile justice system. Youth are transferred to the adult system only on an individualized basis and after careful deliberation by a judge, who takes into account the experiences, characteristics, and vulnerabilities that can place adolescents at greater risk of becoming involved in criminal activity, as well as their ability to change. Prosecutors are no longer granted the unilateral ability to file cases in adult court without judicial review.
• Adult sentencing guidelines are not applied to youth. Given their mitigated responsibility and capacity to change, youth receive more lenient dispositions than adults, even for the same crime. Extreme sentences that have a disproportionately harsh impact on youth, such as life without parole, are not imposed on adolescents and there is a lower ceiling for punishment for youth.
• Adolescents are not placed in adult jails or prisons. Placement of youth in adult jails and prisons, even for a short time, is recognized as damaging to the child and contrary to public safety. Policies are influenced by research showing that transferring youth to criminal court bears no relationship to changes in the rates of youth violence and that holding adolescents with adults can actually make youth more likely to commit new crimes.
• If youth are nevertheless placed in an adult facility, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is strictly enforced to protect them. The three prongs of PREA are enforced: the prohibition on youth under 18 being housed in the general adult population of an adult prison or jail; the requirement that adult facilities maintain “sight and sound” separation between adults and youth; and the prohibition on youth being subjected to isolation as a means of complying with the regulations. PREA regulations are used as a guide for the development of statewide policies to protect youth who are placed in adult facilities.
The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange has more on the report.