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Are California Prosecutors “Stuck in the ’70′s?” A New Report Says YES.

August 3rd, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



The primary power in both our American justice system in general,
and in California’s justice system specifically, does not lie with the judiciary. Nor does it rest with police. The most powerful, and in many ways least accountable, individuals working in our nation’s system of justice are our prosecutors.

In his essay for the Georgetown law Journal about the nation’s most pressing criminal justice reforms, Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, writes about how prosecutors do not have to fear sanctions.

Defense lawyers who are found to have been ineffective regularly find their names plastered into judicial opinions, yet judges seem strangely reluctant to name names when it comes to misbehaving prosecutors. Indeed, judges seem reluctant to even suspect prosecutors of improper behavior, as if they were somehow beyond suspicion….Naming names and taking prosecutors to task for misbehavior can have magical qualities in assuring compliance with constitutional rights.

If judges have reason to believe that witnesses, especially police officers or government informants, testify falsely, they must refer the matter for prosecution. If they become aware of widespread misconduct in the investigation and prosecution of criminal cases, a referral to the U.S. Department of Justice for a civil rights violation might well be appropriate.

As a group, both statewide and nationally, prosecutors defend their positions energetically, often acting as the main lobbying group against criminal justice reform—as was the case two weeks ago when President Barack Obama and a bipartisan alliance in Congress called for federal sentencing reform. In response, the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys labeled such proposed changes “a huge mistake,” and—incredibly—called for more prisons.

So who are these prosecutors?

After all, we have a fairly accurate idea of the gender and racial make-up of our police and sheriff’s departments. We also have those same stats for our teachers and for our elected officials. But when it comes to prosecutors, the same demographic of information has not been made public.

As a consequence, critics observed, there has been no push to diversify, because there was no way to know whether or not prosecutors were at all representative of the communities they serve.

Recently, however, all that has begun to change. And the resultant news, according to researchers, is not cheering.

Earlier this month, we reported on a study by the Women’s Donor Network, which examined the racial and gender breakdown of elected prosecutors nationwide. The report—Justice for All?-–found that, of 2,437 elected prosecutors in the U.S., 95% are white and 79% are white men. A startling 60% of states have no elected black prosecutors. Only 17% of elected prosecutors nationwide are women.

Now, a group of Stanford Law School students, working with The Stanford Criminal Justice Center, has drilled down into state figures to make demographics of California prosecutors available for the first time. The team gathered numbers from prosecutors’ offices in 52 of California’s 58 counties, representing nearly 98 percent of the state’s population, and found that whites, who comprise slightly more than 38 percent of the state’s population, hold nearly 70 percent of prosecutors’ jobs.

“The last time 70 percent of Californians were white was four decades ago,” noted the report’s authors. California prosecutors, the report concludes, are “Stuck in the ‘70s.”

The new report, which is actually titled Stuck in the ’70′s: The Demographics of California Prosecutors, found that Latinos are the most poorly represented among prosecutors. Latinos represent almost 39 percent of the population in California but make up only 9 percent of California prosecutors.

The data collected also showed that women are underrepresented in the supervisory ranks of prosecutors in California. Forty-eight percent of California prosecutors are female, but 41 percent of prosecutors with supervisory titles are women.

In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Time, Debbie Mukamal, the executive director of the Stanford center, and Stanford Law School professor David Alan Sklansky, the center’s co-director along with Petersilia, explain why this outsized lack of diversity needs to be addressed.

Here are a couple of clips:

In one police killing after another over the last year, as the nation has waited to find out if charges would be filed against officers, we’ve been reminded that prosecutors are in many ways the most powerful officials in the American criminal justice system.

Prosecutors decide whether to bring a case before a grand jury, how hard to press for an indictment, what charges to request and how punitive a sentence to recommend. Grand juries almost never refuse to file the charges prosecutors request. And mandatory sentencing laws often allow prosecutors to determine the penalty by picking the charges.

Moreover, the vast majority of criminal cases in the United States end in plea bargains, not in trials. So the discretion exercised in our justice system is mostly not by judges but by prosecutors, and typically not by elected district attorneys but by the legions of far less visible lawyers they employ.

[SNIP]

There was some good news in what we found. African Americans are not underrepresented among California prosecutors, although that is partly because the number required to meet that mark is relatively low, given that blacks are just 6% of the state’s population. We also found that close to half of all California prosecutors — 48% — are female, although the figure drops to 41% in supervisory ranks. (Police departments are much worse when it comes to gender equity: Only 13% of law enforcement officers in California are female.)

Our study did not analyze how workforce diversity in prosecutors’ offices influences the outcome of criminal cases. But other researchers have found that when racial minorities are underrepresented among prosecutors, minority defendants receive stiffer sentences. And researchers have shown that respect for the law and trust in legal institutions are undermined when criminal justice agencies do not reflect the communities they serve….

Posted in Prosecutors | 3 Comments »

How Do You Rate the Risk of Kid in a Troubled Family of Being Abused? This Woman Has an App for That….& More

July 23rd, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


Ruby Guillen is a social worker who has worked for LA’s Department of Children and Family Services
since 1995, and she cares enormously about the wellbeing of the thousands of kids with whom she’s come in contact.

Part of this has to do with the fact that she grew up in foster care herself.

Ruby is one of the people who drives to a child’s home to check things out after someone has called the DCFS hotline to warn that a child is being abused or neglected.

Ruby is also a hacker, a super geek, a code ninja. Now it seems she’s put her two passions together in a manner that relates directly to the brave new world of big data, risk modeling and analytics that many in the field see as the necessary next step in protecting children, while others are not so convinced.

Holden Slattery of the Chronicle of Social Change has Ruby’s story.

Here’s a clip:

…Since she started this job in 1995, Guillen has assessed the safety of 6,000 children in their homes, she estimates. She’s also encountered and responded to domestic violence, homicides, drug trafficking and sex trafficking.

“Everything that has to do with child welfare—I’ve done it all,” Guillen said in an interview.

Like all of the other case workers at DCFS, Guillen uses her knowledge and experience, along with the agency’s risk assessment tools and protocols, to decide how to keep children safe and improve their wellbeing—one child at a time.

Unlike many of her colleagues, Guillen has a passion for computer science and technology that she channels into creating mobile applications for child safety and wellbeing. Her aim is to use technology to start helping all the county’s vulnerable children, all at once.

Since she started this job in 1995, Guillen has assessed the safety of 6,000 children in their homes, she estimates. She’s also encountered and responded to domestic violence, homicides, drug trafficking and sex trafficking.

“Everything that has to do with child welfare—I’ve done it all,” Guillen said in an interview.

Like all of the other case workers at DCFS, Guillen uses her knowledge and experience, along with the agency’s risk assessment tools and protocols, to decide how to keep children safe and improve their wellbeing—one child at a time.

Unlike many of her colleagues, Guillen has a passion for computer science and technology that she channels into creating mobile applications for child safety and wellbeing. Her aim is to use technology to start helping all the county’s vulnerable children, all at once.

Guillen fell in love with technology when she joined the U.S. Air Force in the 1980s. While working full-time for DCFS, she decided to get a degree in computer information systems, and after graduating in 2010, she kept taking online programming classes.

This year Guillen led a team of fellow techies to victory in two hackathons hosted by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Hackathons are events in which computer programmers and others involved in software and hardware development collaborate intensively on projects.

At her first hackathon, in February, Guillen’s team created an app to prevent and report child sex trafficking. At her second hackathon, in June, they created an anti-bullying app.

Guillen has another app that she created for foster care placement, and she is now finishing up her work on a fourth app for assessing risk of child abuse or neglect.

This past Wednesday, the county’s recently formed Office of Child Protection met to discuss the uses and implications of big data and kids.

More on all that soon.


MORE ON JUDGE KOZINSKY’S ONGOING CAMPAIGN TO START HOLDING PROSECUTORS RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS

We wrote in Monday’s California Justice Report newsletter (to which, if you haven’t yet subscribed, you are woefully missing out) about Judge Alex Kozinski’s new article in the Georgetown Law Journal, on reforming the criminal justice system.

But now Eugene Volokh at the Washington Post has been selectively serializing Kozinski’s paper. (Volokh clerked for Kozinski a couple of decades ago.) In any case, we thought you’d be interested in this particular chapter of the serialization in which Judge Kozinski takes aim at his latest favorite target of choice: prosecutors.

Naturally, Judge K also has recommendations about what we ought to be doing about the situation-–namely do away with judicial elections and then do away with absolute prosecutorial immunity.

It’s well written and wonderful stuff.

Here’s a clip, but do read thing whole thing:

On March 8, 2015, A.M. “Marty” Stroud III, a Shreveport lawyer and former state prosecutor, published a remarkable piece in the Shreveport Times reflecting on the case of Glenn Ford, who spent 30 years on death row after being convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1984. Ford was released after the state disclosed evidence proving his innocence. Stroud offered a public apology for his conduct in the case. It is well worth reading in full, but here is the gist of it:

At the time this case was tried there was evidence that would have cleared Glenn Ford. The easy and convenient argument is that the prosecutors did not know of such evidence, thus they were absolved of any responsibility for the wrongful conviction.

I can take no comfort in such an argument …. Had I been more inquisitive, perhaps the evidence would have come to light years ago …. My mindset was wrong and blinded me to my purpose of seeking justice, rather than obtaining a conviction of a person who I believed to be guilty. I did not hide evidence, I simply did not seriously consider that sufficient information may have been out there that could have led to a different conclusion. And that omission is on me.

I did not question the unfairness of Mr. Ford having appointed counsel who had never tried a criminal jury case much less a capital one. It never concerned me that the defense had insufficient funds to hire experts ….

The jury was all white, Mr. Ford was African-American. Potential African-American jurors were struck with little thought about potential discrimination …. I also participated in placing before the jury dubious testimony from a forensic pathologist that the shooter had to be left handed …. All too late, I learned that the testimony was pure junk science at its evil worst.

In 1984, I was 33 years old. I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning. To borrow a phrase from Al Pacino in the movie “And Justice for All,” “Winning became everything.”

What is remarkable about Stroud’s statement is not that he gained a conviction and death sentence for a man that turned out to be innocent. Or that that man spent three decades caged like an animal. That kind of thing is all too common.

Nor is there anything unusual about the confluence of errors that led to the wrongful conviction — failure to uncover exculpatory evidence, inexperienced defense lawyers, race-based jury selection, junk science, and a judge who passively watched the parade and sat on his thumbs. The same goes for a prosecutorial attitude of God-like omniscience and unwillingness to entertain the possibility that the wrong man is being prosecuted. These things happen all the time in case, after case, after case.

What is unusual — unique really — is Stroud’s willingness to accept personal responsibility for the calamity he helped inflict on Glenn Ford and his family — his willingness to embrace this as his personal failure, not just an unfortunate failure of the system. Most prosecutorial attitudes run the gamut from “that’s why they put erasers on pencils” to “they must be guilty of something.” Everyone else in the system, starting with trial judges, absolves himself of personal responsibility when a heinous failure occurs. We could do with a lot less of that.

In a sense, however, the system is responsible because it places a great deal of power and responsibility in young, ambitious lawyers, like Stroud, who have every incentive to close their eyes to the possibility of innocence, to testilying by police, to bogus experts and to suggestive eyewitness identification procedures.

So, sign up for the CJR Newsletter. Now!


WHAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE NOTICED IN THE SANDRA BLAND VIDEO

Eli Hager, writing for the Marshall Project, noticed something at the end of the Sandra Bland arrest video that he found interesting. So we’re passing it along to you.

Posted in DCFS, Prosecutors | No Comments »

CA Supremes Rule on Police Privacy v. Defendants’ Rights…The Science of Unfair Justice….The Killingest Prosecutor in the Nation’s Killingest County

July 7th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

THE CAL SUPREMES PICK STATE LAW OVER CONSTITUTIONAL PROTECTIONS IN A RULING ABOUT WHO CAN ACCESS POLICE PERSONNEL FILES

On Monday, July 6, the California Supreme Court ruled that defense attorneys don’t need any extra help from prosecutors in gaining the limited access that the law allows to the disciplinary records of police officers—even if the prosecutor has firm reasons to believe that the records would likely be of exculpatory value to the defendant.

If that sounds confusing….you have apprehended the situation correctly

Okay, here’s the deal. Monday’s ruling had to do with a San Francisco man, Daryl Lee Johnson, who was charged in November 2012 in a domestic violence case with hitting a girl in the head while they were both in a private home and grabbing her cell phone. (We have no idea if Mr. Johnson is guilty or innocent of the charges. That isn’t the point here.)

As the domestic violence case ground its way through the state’s justice system, San Francisco prosecutors learned from members of the SF police department that the two arresting officers in Johnson’s case, who were quite naturally witnesses for the prosecution, had things in their personnel records that could be helpful to the defense.

In that the landmark 1963 Supreme Court ruling of Brady v. Maryland requires prosecutors to turn over to the defense team anything that could be helpful to their client, in the case of Johnson the prosecutors let the defense know that there might be some stuff in both of the cops’ files that the defense ought to know about.

And….that’s when matters got somewhat complicated.

Under state law, the personnel files of peace officers are protected from prying eyes by the Peace Officers Bill of Rights—or POBR. However, if a defense attorney needs access to a cop’s personnel records because they pertain directly to his client’s defense, he or she can request from a judge the files that pertain exactly to the issue at hand, using what is called a “Pitchess” motion (named after the 1974 California decision of Pitchess v. Superior Court that carved out this legal way to access information located in otherwise confidential peace officer personnel records.) Then it is up to the judge to decide which information, if any, should be provided to the defense.

But in the Johnson case, the defense argued that it didn’t know enough about what might be useful in the two cops’ files to be able to make the narrow cast Pitchess motion that most judges require. So could the prosecutor, under the Brady rule, take a look at the files to see if there was something of relevance in there?

Two lower courts agreed that it would be okay for a prosecutor to look at the police files, and then to turn over to the defense (under Brady rules) anything that might affect the defendant’s case, all subject to protective orders, to also preserve confidentiality.

With me so far?

It helps to know that San Francisco is one of about a dozen California counties that have established committees made up of law enforcement officers who are supposed to review officers’ confidential files in order to tell prosecutors if they contain information that might assist a defendant—things like an officer’s history of false statements, the filing of false police reports, or write ups for excessive force.

Part of the argument in the Johnson case is that it is unealistic to expect the police to be the ones who go fishing through their fellow officers’ confidential files with the same rigor that someone else might. So couldn’t the prosecutors, who are after all an arm of the law, do it as part of their Brady obligation?

Although those two lower courts said yes, the California Supremes said: Actually no. Prosecutors were just as bound by the POBR and the Pitchess rules as anybody else.

(The full ruling may be found here.)

Interestingly, according to Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle, SF District Attorney George Gascón-–who seems refreshingly to believe that one of the prime duties of his office is to seek justice—told the court prior to their ruling that his office would continue to review the police committee reports and seek disclosure of files no matter how Monday’s case turned out.

UPDATE: The LA Times Editorial Board wrote a strong, smart and extremely sensible editorial on the ruling, which appeared early Tuesday morning. It is titled “A Setback for Due Process,” which unhappily is exactly the case.

Here’s clip from the editorial:

Prosecutors are constitutionally bound to share with criminal defendants any evidence that undermines the credibility of their witnesses, including police officers. But if that evidence is locked up in confidential police personnel files — for example, in disciplinary or complaint records — how can the district attorney find out about it to turn it over?

In a disappointing decision, the California Supreme Court on Monday denied prosecutors direct access to police personnel files and, in so doing, exacerbated the continuing tug-of-war between state statutes that protect officer confidentiality and the due process rights guaranteed to the accused by the 14th Amendment and fleshed out in the landmark 1963 case of Brady vs. Maryland.

Under the ruling, police officials in many California jurisdictions will continue to be virtual gate-keepers of potentially exculpatory evidence, deciding on their own which records rise to the level of so-called Brady material that they must flag for prosecutors (who, in turn, decide whether to share it with the defense).

But the police should not be expected to be their own watchdogs. Last year, an appeals court ruled that the district attorney should be able to look through their files — without first obtaining a court order — to search for evidence of dishonesty, bias, excessive force or other factors that could undermine officers’ credibility. Only after Brady material is found would the prosecutor have to make what is known as a Pitchess motion, seeking court permission to disclose the information.

And here, really, is the heart of the matter:

The lower court ruling seemed a workable balance between Brady and Pitchess and recognized that Brady, after all, interprets a federal constitutional right and should take precedence over state statutory protections.

(The italics are mine.) It is disappointing that the otherwise mostly sensible court was so short sighted.

The LA Times board also wrote an earlier, very informative editorial on this whole topic back in late May when the case was being argued in front of the state’s Supreme Court. So be sure to take a look at that too.


UNFAIR: A SCIENTIFIC LOOK AT HUMAN BIAS AND OTHER ROOTS OF INJUSTICE

Legal scholar Adam Benforado has written a fascinating and important new book called Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice in which he uses findings from psychology and neuroscience to suggests that our criminal justice system is riddled with tragic inequities and wrongful conclusions because of our fundamental misunderstanding of human biases and how our brains work.

On Monday, Benforado was a guest on NPR’s Fresh Air with Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross where he explained how, in our flawed justice system “…good people with the best of intentions … can get things terribly, terribly wrong.”

The whole interview is more than worth your while. But here’s a clip to get you started:

DAVIES: There’s a lot of interesting stuff here about how jurors decide who they’re going to believe at trial – prosecutors, witnesses. And a lot of people would not be surprised to find that there are studies that suggest people are more likely to believe a person of their own race. There’s other fascinating stuff. Are attractive people or thin people more likely to – or confident people – more likely to be believed in court?

BENFORADO: Yeah, there is evidence that a lot of physical features play a big role in whether people treats a particular witness as credible or not credible. And that’s worrisome. But I think there’s actually a deeper problem with jurors and that is that the things that we think are determining the outcomes of cases – that is the facts and the law – are often not what determines whether someone is convicted or not convicted, how long a sentence is. What matters most are the particular backgrounds and identities of the jurors.

So I teach criminal law. One of the areas that I teach is rape law, and my casebook takes many pages, discussing all of the different nuances across the different states. And there’s a lot of emphasis on the casebook on the importance of these nuances. It really matters whether we are in a state that recognizes a defense of a reasonably mistaken belief in consent or we’re in a state that doesn’t recognize that particular defense. But when researchers looked into how important the law was to outcomes in, say, a date rape case, what they found was the particular legal nuances didn’t matter at all. What mattered were the backgrounds and experiences of the jurors. What they refer to as cultural cognition. And these subgroups of citizens didn’t break down as expected. It wasn’t that men were far more likely to let the man off in a date rape scenario. It was actually within women that the most interesting break occurred. Women who were older, who were more conservative, who adhere to more traditional gender norms, were far more likely to let the man off in this particular case than women who were liberal and younger. That’s a worry because a lot of what law professors do is emphasize the importance of legal doctrine. It may not be legal doctrine, though, in the criminal law sphere that’s really determining the trajectory of cases.

DAVIES: One of the things we see in court is jurors trying to evaluate whether a witness is testifying truthfully. And they would look for tells, you know, whether the witness appears jittery and whether they shift their eyes a lot or doesn’t make eye contact. And you write that these things – research shows these things really tell us nothing about how truthful someone’s being. In fact, they can mislead us into thinking someone is being truthful when they are not and vice versa. Do the courts encourage jurors to use these, you know, supposedly common sense evaluations of the mannerisms of both defendants and witnesses?

BENFORADO: They absolutely do. And this is one of the real challenges for reform in this area is that it’s not that our legal system just sits back and says nothing about human behavior. It actually weighs in on the side of myth. And so if you’ve ever been a juror and you are called to jury duty, you know that the starting point is this voir dire process where you’re asked a bunch of questions. I was recently called onto jury, although I didn’t make it ultimately onto the jury. And I was asked, you know, these questions of do you have any reason why you would be more or less likely to believe the testimony of a police officer? Now, on the jury pool that I was in, a number of people said yeah, they checked that box. The judge then came up and said, all right, well, let me explain to you what objectivity means. It means that, you know, we all have these feelings, but you’ve just got to put them to the side. Can you do that? Everyone in the jury pool said, yes, of course, judge I can do that. But that’s not how biases work. A lot of them are not subject to introspection and control. And so it’s not just that our legal system is sitting back on the sidelines. It’s actively promoting false notions of human behavior, and that’s really, really damaging…


A PROSECUTOR’S DESIRE FOR REVENGE KILLING IN THE NATION’S MOST DEATH PENALTY-PRONE COUNTY

Caddo Parish, Louisiana, has a population of two hundred and fifty thousand residents. Yet Caddo juries sentence more people to death per capita than juries in any other county in America, writes Rachel Aviv for the New Yorker.

Furthermore, “seventy-seven per cent of those sentenced to death in the past forty years have been black, and nearly half were convicted of killing white victims. A white person has never been sentenced to death for killing a black person.”

Since 2011, Cado prosecutor Dale Cox has been responsible for a third of the death sentences in Louisiana. And he seeks death from a jury, he says, because he believes that vengeance is necessary.

To wit:

Last March, a former colleague of Cox’s published a letter in the Shreveport Times apologizing for causing an innocent black man to spend thirty years on death row. “We are simply incapable of devising a system that can fairly and impartially impose a sentence of death,” he wrote. When a journalist with the paper, Maya Lau, asked Cox for his response, he said that he thought courts should be imposing the death penalty more, not less. “I think we need to kill more people,” he told her. “We’re not considered a society anymore—we’re a jungle.”

Cox does not believe that the death penalty works as a deterrent, but he says that it is justified as revenge. He told me that revenge was a revitalizing force that “brings to us a visceral satisfaction.” He felt that the public’s aversion to the notion had to do with the word itself. “It’s a hard word—it’s like the word ‘hate,’ the word ‘despot,’ the word ‘blood.’ ” He said, “Over time, I have come to the position that revenge is important for society as a whole. We have certain rules that you are expected to abide by, and when you don’t abide by them you have forfeited your right to live among us.”

In her detailed longread story about Cox and his prosecutorial beliefs and style, Aron follows the case of 23-year old Rodricus Crawford whose one-year-old baby, according to Aviv’s reporting, likely died suddenly of pneumonia, not by his father’s hand. By the story’s end, however, rightly or wrongly Crawford has been convicted of murdering his young son and is sentenced to death, with Cox as the prosecutor possessed of formidable Biblical fury, claiming in his closing remarks that Jesus commanded that anyone who killed a child should be killed. Then Cox misquoted Luke 17.2 to prove it.

Here’s how the story opens:

A week after his son turned one, Rodricus Crawford woke up a few minutes before 7 A.M. on the left side of his bed. His son was sleeping on the right side, facing the door. Crawford, who was twenty-three, reached over to wake him up, but the baby didn’t move. He put his ear on his son’s stomach and then began yelling for his mother. “Look at the baby!” he shouted.

Crawford was lanky, with delicate features, high cheekbones, and a patchy goatee. He lived in a small three-bedroom house with his mother, grandmother, uncle, sister, and a younger brother in Mooretown, a neighborhood in Shreveport, Louisiana, bordered by a stretch of factories and next to the airport. His mother, Abbie, a housekeeper at the Quality Inn, rushed into the room and picked up the baby, who was named Roderius, after his father. He looked as if he were asleep, but his forehead felt cool.

Crawford’s uncle called 911, and an operator instructed him to try CPR while they waited for an ambulance. Crawford’s mother and sister took turns pumping the baby’s chest.

“I’m doing it, Ma’am, but he ain’t doing nothing!” Abbie said, out of breath.

The ambulance seemed to be taking too long, so Crawford’s younger brother called 911 on another line. “The baby’s not talking, not breathing, not saying anything,” he said. “Can you get an ambulance?”

They were used to waiting a long time for city services; the alarm could go off at their pastor’s church and ring all night, and the fire department would never come. There was a saying in the neighborhood that the police were never there when you needed them, only when you didn’t. The community was populated almost entirely by black families, many of whom had grown up together. After a few more minutes, Crawford’s brother called 911 again. “We need an ambulance, Ma’am,” he said. “It’s been twenty minutes!”

Not long afterward, another 911 operator called a dispatcher and asked what was happening at the address. “They probably slept on the damn baby,” the dispatcher said. “There’s a hundred folks in that damn house.”

When the ambulance arrived, moments later, Crawford ran out of the house with the baby in his arms. The paramedics put a breathing mask over Roderius’s face, and Crawford thought he saw his son’s eyes open. He tried to climb into the back of the ambulance, but the paramedics shut the doors and told him to stay outside. They couldn’t find a pulse. Roderius’s jaw was stiff and his eyes were milky, a sign that he had been dead for more than an hour. They decided to wait in the ambulance until the police arrived before telling the family….

Read on for the rest of the story that will help you make up your own mind about what you believe happened.

Posted in District Attorney, FBI, How Appealing, law enforcement, Prosecutors, Public Defender | 5 Comments »

LASD Deputy to Donate Liver to Partner….a Misused Federal Sentence Enhancement…and More

June 3rd, 2015 by Taylor Walker

LASD DEPUTY FINDS HE IS COMPATIBLE TO DONATE PARTIAL LIVER TO HIS DYING TWIN TOWERS PARTNER

On Thursday, LA County Sheriff’s Deputy Javier Tiscareno will donate part of his liver to save the life of his deputy partner, Jorge Castro, whose own liver is failing.

After numerous unsuccessful treatments, and learning that none of his family members were a match for a liver transplant, Castro was placed on a waiting list.

California is not an ideal place to live if you need a liver transplant. Once you’re on the UNOS (United Network for Organ Sharing) waiting list, the wait in the golden state is commonly 12-36 months. (With this in mind, Apple founder Steve Jobs got on the list in Tennessee, instead of California.)

When Castro, told his partner about his health issues, Tiscareno decided to get tested for liver donation. The two deputies were a match.

At a press conference outside Twin Towers jail, where both men are correctional officers, Tiscareno said, “He told me he would be dead by the end of the year. That was unacceptable to me.”

A partial liver transplant is considered a relatively safe procedure for the donor, but it is still a major surgery, and complications do sometimes occur. Tiscareno said, regarding his decision, “I’m not going to a funeral knowing I could have helped.”


OP-ED: FED PROSECUTORS MANIPULATING A 45-YEAR-OLD STATUTE TO FORCE LOW-LEVEL DRUG OFFENDERS TO TAKE UNFAIR PLEA DEALS

Enacted in 1970, statute “851″ was originally intended to give federal prosecutors the ability to seek double or more the usual sentences for serious drug dealers, while exempting those with lower-level drug charges from the sentencing “enhancement” that 851 provided.

But that’s not how things turned out.

Mona Lynch, a professor of criminology, law, and society at UC Irvine, says federal prosecutors have severely misused 851, employing it, instead, as a tool to force low-level drug offenders to take plea deals.

By filing the 851 enhancement against defendants with prior convictions, prosecutors can turn what would normally be a 10-year mandatory minimum into life without parole in the most extreme cases.

Lynch says this weapon federal prosecutors use to coerce plea deals must be eliminated.

Here’s a clip from Lynch’s op-ed for the NY Times:

I have conducted in-depth qualitative research and interviews in four federal districts; in each, the 851 threat loomed for nearly everyone with the eligible prior record. In the words of one of my interviewees, “the 851 is the ultimate lever” used by prosecutors to force a guilty plea. And it almost always worked: Defendants were compelled to waive their rights and plead guilty to ensure that their sentences were not doubled, or worse.

What happens to the defendant who doesn’t go along? The threat becomes a reality. Take the case of a former defendant whom I’ll call Brandon.

Brandon may not have been squeaky clean when he landed in federal court on drug charges, but he certainly was no drug kingpin. A week or two before his arrest, he reignited a friendship with a high school classmate — I’ll call him Frank — at the time a relatively large-scale crack dealer. After reconnecting, Brandon went for a drive with Frank and Frank’s girlfriend on a single drug-supply run, something the couple did on a weekly basis.

On the way home, a state trooper pulled over Frank’s car, searched it, retrieved the drugs and arrested them. Each was charged with conspiracy to distribute hundreds of grams of crack cocaine.

All three had prior drug convictions, so the 851 threat loomed. Frank and his girlfriend succumbed to the pressure and pleaded guilty. But Brandon had a strong case. By all accounts, including law enforcement’s, he was neither Frank’s partner nor involved in any continuing conspiracy with the couple.

So Brandon went to trial. And the prosecutor played her ace card, filing the 851 on the eve of trial. He was convicted. At sentencing, Frank received 20 years in prison and his girlfriend received probation. Brandon, who chose to exercise his right to trial, received a life sentence with no possibility of parole.

[SNIP]

Between 1992 and 2012, about 2,300 black men have been sentenced to life for federal drug convictions, 72 percent of whom had asserted their right to trial. While data cannot pinpoint the 851 as the trigger of those life sentences, it does indicate that 96 percent were subject to drug mandatory minimums at sentencing.


LEGAL EXPERT GIVES 40 REASONS WHY POOR AND MINORITY PEOPLE MAKE UP SUCH A LARGE PORTION OF THE US JAIL POPULATION

Bill Quigley, Director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University New Orleans and Associate Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, put together a noteworthy list of 40 reasons why jails across the US are full of racial minorities and poor people. Here’s a clip:

One. It is not just about crime. Our jails and prisons have grown from holding about 500,000 people in 1980 to 2.2 million today. The fact is that crime rates have risen and fallen/a> independently of our growing incarceration rates.

Two. Police discriminate. The first step in putting people in jail starts with interactions between police and people. From the very beginning, Black and poor people are targeted by the police. Police departments have engaged in campaigns of stopping and frisking people who are walking, mostly poor people and people of color, without cause for decades. Recently New York City lost a federal civil rights challenge to their police stop and frisk practices by the Center for Constitutional Rights during which police stopped over 500,000 people annually without any indication that the people stopped had been involved in any crime at all. About 80 percent of those stops were of Black and Latinos who compromise 25 and 28 percent of N.Y.C.’s total population. Chicago police do the same thing stopping even more people also in a racially discriminatory way with 72 percent of the stops of Black people even though the city is 32 percent Black.

Three. Police traffic stops also racially target people in cars. Black drivers are 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers and Hispanic drivers are 23 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers. Connecticut, in an April 2015 report, on 620,000 traffic stops which revealed widespread racial profiling, particularly during daylight hours when the race of driver was more visible.

Four. Once stopped, Black and Hispanic motorists are more likely to be given tickets than white drivers stopped for the same offenses.

Five. Once stopped, Blacks and Latinos are also more likely to be searched. DOJ reports Black drivers at traffic stops were searched by police three times more often and Hispanic drivers two times more often than white drivers. A large research study in Kansas City found when police decided to pull over cars for investigatory stops, where officers look into the car’s interior, ask probing questions and even search the car, the race of the driver was a clear indicator of who was going to be stopped: 28 percent of young Black males twenty five or younger were stopped in a year’s time, versus white men who had 12 percent chance and white women only a seven percent chance. In fact, not until Black men reach 50 years old do their rate of police stops for this kind of treatment dip below those of white men twenty five and under.

Six. Traffic tickets are big business. And even if most people do not go directly to jail for traffic tickets, poor people are hit the worst by these ticket systems. As we saw with Ferguson where some of the towns in St. Louis receive 40 percent or more of their city revenues from traffic tickets, tickets are money makers for towns.

Posted in jail, juvenile justice, LASD, Prosecutors, racial justice, Sentencing, War on Drugs | 8 Comments »

Protecting Trafficked Foster Kids…Without Legal Representation…Splitting Detained Immigrant Moms from Kids…Sonoma Explores Law Enforcement Oversight

May 14th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

LA SUPERVISORS APPROVE PLANNING HIGH-SECURITY RESIDENCE FOR TRAFFICKED FOSTER KIDS

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors advanced with a plan to build a residential facility for foster kids who are at risk of being trafficked by pimps.

Over the last few years, the county has moved away from criminalizing and incarcerating sexually exploited minors as “prostitutes,” instead treating them as victims and placing them in foster homes. While this is a big step in the right direction, placing trafficked kids into foster care and connecting them with services and mentors is not always enough. Sometimes young girls run back to the streets and their pimps.

The LA County Supervisors and the head of the Dept. of Children and Family Services have butted heads on this complex issue for months. The current model is not keeping the trafficked kids safe from exploitation, and yet, confining the foster kids in their homes is not much different than incarcerating them, and pimps have their claws in juvenile detention facilities, says Supe. Sheila Kuehl.

The new high-security live-in facility will be built to keep pimps out, while still allowing foster kids to come and go. The Supes have set a three-month planning period, during which time more than a dozen county departments and agencies will work together toward finding a design that will keep kids safe.

(Read the backstory: here.)

The LA Times’ Garrett Therolf has the story. Here’s a clip:

“If they really want to leave, they can leave, but we want to discourage it by giving them a real opportunity to heal,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said in an interview.

Supervisor Don Knabe, who advocated for a locked facility, cited a recent case of an 11-year-old girl who recently left a foster care group home to return to her pimp and work at an event where men paid to have sex with her.

Knabe’s spokeswoman, Cheryl Burnett, said he “is pleased that we are moving forward, but he remains frustrated that he continues to hear that our ability to protect these girls is limited.”

County staffers are analyzing available public and private facilities as a site for the new center. Possibilities include rehabilitating the closed MacLaren Children’s Center in El Monte or one of the probation juvenile detention camps.

The supervisors established a three-month deadline for a detailed plan.


WHY PEOPLE CHARGED WITH MISDEMEANORS SO OFTEN GO WITHOUT LEGAL REPRESENTATION

The Sixth Amendment Center’s David Carroll has an informative run-down on the reasons people go to jail every day in the US for misdemeanor offenses without ever speaking to a lawyer, in violation of their constitutional right to legal representation. Carroll also sheds light on why these widespread constitutional breaches have been left unchecked for so many years.

One of the reasons defendants go without representation is prosecutor interference:

Following their arrest, most people are brought to a police station or detention center for processing. At some point thereafter the defendant is likely brought before a judicial officer to determine whether or not he should be released pending further court action. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the right to counsel attaches the first time a defendant is brought before a judge or magistrate. From that point forward, a court cannot proceed with a critical stage of the case without offering counsel to the poor defendant. (The 6AC wrote a whole report on these requirements, available here.)

Despite this, prosecutors often interfere with that right to counsel process. If the defendant is out of jail pre-trial he may be required to meet with a prosecutor before getting his constitutionally guaranteed lawyer, or more likely, enter a guilty plea without ever getting that lawyer at all. For example, a Sixth Amendment Center report details how one misdemeanor court in Delaware asks defendants appearing for arraignment to wait in one of two lines based alphabetically on last name. After standing in line, the first person a defendant encounters is not a public defender, but a prosecutor seeking to make a plea deal. On an average day during out site visits, these two lines totaled approximately 200 individuals. Not surprisingly, more than 75 percent of misdemeanor defendants in Delaware proceed through the Court of Common Pleas without ever having spoken to a lawyer.

And many municipalities and states, California included, do not employ tracking systems to compile data on whether the Sixth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment are being carried out:

In Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court made the provision of indigent defense services a state obligation through the Fourteenth Amendment. Though it is not believed to be unconstitutional for a state to delegate its constitutional responsibilities to its counties and cities, in doing so the state must guarantee that local governments are not only capable of providing adequate rep­resentation, but that they are in fact doing so. A number of states have no institutional presence to begin to assess whether its constitutional obligations under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments are being met at the local level, including: Arizona, California, Illinois, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah and Washington.


FEDS RESPONSE TO RULING AGAINST LOCKING IMMIGRANT KIDS AND MOMS IN UNLICENSED FACILITIES: THEN WE WILL SPLIT UP THE KIDS AND MOMS

Late last month, a US District Judge in CA, Dolly Gee, issued a tentative ruling against detaining immigrant kids and their mothers in unlicensed facilities, and against locking up kids and an accompanying parent unless they pose a safety or flight risk.

The US Dept. of Justice says that if the three unlicensed facilities get shut down, it will mean separating mothers and their children when the moms are deemed a flight risk. There are more than 1,000 women and children incarcerated betweem the three facilities, most of whom say they crossed the border fleeing gang violence in Central America.

Attorneys for the immigrant families and the DOJ have until May 24 to agree on a solution before Judge Gee makes a final decision.

McClatchy’s Franco Ordonez has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Federal attorneys acknowledged the family detention system could collapse if the ruling stands. Leon Fresco, a deputy assistant attorney general, warned the court that such a ruling would actually encourage separation of parents and children and turn minors into “de facto unaccompanied children.”

“This isn’t a situation where we want to detain the mother. These are situations where we have to detain the mother, your honor,” Fresco told the court.

The practice of family detention has reached a tipping point. Multiple lawsuits against family detention have been filed in California, Texas and the District of Columbia. Advocates for the mothers say it’s unlawful to detain children with their parents in jail-like facilities.

The government has dug in its heels, arguing that it needs greater flexibility when detaining parents who are considered a flight risk but also that it needs to send a strong message to Central America that it’s not OK to cross the border illegally.

[SNIP]

The government argued the agreement didn’t take into account family detention, which didn’t begin until 2001. Fresco told the court that the government needed greater flexibility if the parent is considered a flight risk or if the officials think it’s safer to have the children with the parent.

He said he worried that if officials separated families, smugglers would seize the opportunity and take advantage of young migrants, pretending to be children’s parents in order to avoid being detained.

“The outcome of this is going to be to separate families, create uncertainty where we don’t have uncertainty now and to endanger children,” Fresco said, according to the transcript.


SONOMA COUNTY SERIOUSLY CONSIDERS LAW ENFORCEMENT OVERSIGHT AFTER 13-YEAR-OLD IS KILLED

In late 2013, a Sonoma County deputy fatally shot thirteen-year-old Andy Lopez who was holding a pellet gun that the officer mistook for an assault rifle. Andy’s death spurred lawmakers to reintroducing legislation that would require all fake firearms to be produced in bright colors.

Now, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is moving toward creating an Office of Independent Auditor to look into officer-involved shootings and complaints about the sheriff’s department and the probation department. The Auditor would also act as a community liaison. The Supes set a June 16 deadline for job descriptions and budget for the Independent Auditor’s Office.

The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

“We need to turn this around fast,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “It’s going to cost some money; it’s got to go into this budget.”

The auditor’s office was the central and most ambitious recommendation in a package of proposals made by a county-appointed panel studying community relations with law enforcement agencies in the aftermath of Andy Lopez’s October 2013 shooting death.

The 21 recommendations, put forward by the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force, cover a sweeping set of ideas — from boosting mural projects to improving student mental health services.

But of all the recommendations, the independent body overseeing law enforcement generated the most study and public debate. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors dedicated the bulk of its hearing — its first on the entire set of proposals from the task force — to the oversight office.

Board Chairwoman Susan Gorin called Lopez’s death “a tragedy which is still tearing us apart” before supervisors voiced their support for advancing the auditor proposal. They said they would need more time to evaluate the other 20 proposals.

Posted in DCFS, Department of Justice, Foster Care, juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, law enforcement, Prosecutors | No Comments »

Can a Lone Milwaukee Prosecutor Point the Way Out of Mass Incarceration? … Lawmakers Screech to Halt on Changing Prop. 47 …$450K Settlement on 2-Yr-Old’s Beating Death

May 6th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


ONE UNUSUAL MILWAUKEE PROSECUTOR TAKES ON THE MASS INCARCERATION PROBLEM

As a nation, we incarcerate too many people. In terms of cost/benefit, this over incarceration is not good for us, socially, fiscally, or ultimately in terms of public safety.

Fortunately, calling over incarceration for what it is has ceased to be an idea embraced solely by reformist liberals. In the post-2008 period in which states and counties faced drastic budget shrinkages, the expanding price tags of our bloated jails and prisons got the attention of an increasing number of conservatives, who began joining hands with progressives to try to find some way out of the whole ghastly mess.

Now there are the Right on Crime people out of Texas who wrote Op Eds for California newspapers supporting the initiative that reformed the state’s too rigid Three Strikes law and, a few years later, did the same to get Prop. 47 passed. More recently, the Koch brothers have joined forces on sentencing reform with the likes of the ACLU. Senators Corey Booker and Rand Paul are cosponsoring several bills aimed at criminal justice reform. And so on.

At the same time, the idea that people of color, and black people most of all, have paid a disproportionately high price in the crack down on crime that has occurred over the last three decades, is a topic that has finally—thankfully—begun to reach the main stream.

Matters have been helped by the work of brilliant, impassioned and media savvy academics like University of Ohio law professor Michelle Alexander, whose 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, became that year’s must read in criminal justice circles and beyond.

Four years later, star civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A story of justice and Redemption, about the terrible injustices regularly wrought the American justice system, landed on a string of 2014 “best books of the year” lists, meaning its emotionally devastating message was absorbed by a wide variety of readers. Plus there was Stevenson’s TED talk, “We need to talk about an injustice,” with its more than 2 million views.

Yet, despite the overdue but welcome shifts in attitude, we still lock up too many people, and we still do so with what appears to be a disturbing racial bias—conscious or not.

That is where where this New Yorker profile of Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm comes in. Written by the magazine’s staff writer and legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, the story titled “The Milwaukee Experiment” which appears in next week’s issue, suggests that it may be local prosecutors—more than even cops, judges and/or law makers—who likely hold one of the primary keys to precipitating the kind of change that our justice system so urgently needs.

Here are some clips from Toobin’s story about Chisholm:

Like many people in the criminal-justice system, John Chisholm, the District Attorney in Milwaukee County, has been concerned for a long time about the racial imbalance in American prisons. The issue is especially salient in Wisconsin, where African-Americans constitute only six per cent of the population but thirty-seven per cent of those in state prison. According to a study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as of 2010 thirteen per cent of the state’s African-American men of working age were behind bars—nearly double the national average, of 6.7 per cent. The figures were especially stark for Milwaukee County, where more than half of African-American men in their thirties had served time in state prison. How, Chisholm wondered, did the work of his own office contribute to these numbers? Could a D.A. do anything to change them?

The recent spate of deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of police officers has brought renewed attention to racial inequality in criminal justice, but in the U.S. legal system prosecutors may wield even more power than cops. Prosecutors decide whether to bring a case or drop charges against a defendant; charge a misdemeanor or a felony; demand a prison sentence or accept probation. Most cases are resolved through plea bargains, where prosecutors, not judges, negotiate whether and for how long a defendant goes to prison. And prosecutors make these judgments almost entirely outside public scrutiny.

Chisholm decided to let independent researchers examine how he used his prosecutorial discretion. In 2007, when he took office, the Vera Institute of Justice, a research and policy group based in New York City, had just begun studying the racial implications of the work of the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office. Over several years, Chisholm allowed the researchers to question his staff members and look at their files. The conclusions were disturbing. According to the Vera study, prosecutors in Milwaukee declined to prosecute forty-one per cent of whites arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia, compared with twenty-seven per cent of blacks; in cases involving prostitution, black female defendants were likelier to be charged than white defendants; in cases that involved resisting or obstructing an officer, most of the defendants charged were black (seventy-seven per cent), male (seventy-nine per cent), and already in custody (eighty per cent of blacks versus sixty-six per cent of whites).

Chisholm decided that his office would undertake initiatives to try to send fewer people to prison while maintaining public safety. “For a long time, prosecutors have defined themselves through conviction rates and winning the big cases with the big sentences,” Nicholas Turner, the president of the Vera Institute, told me. “But the evidence is certainly tipping that the attainment of safety and justice requires more than just putting people in prison for a long time. Prosecutors have to redefine their proper role in a new era. Chisholm stuck his neck out there and started saying that prosecutors should also be judged by their success in reducing mass incarceration and achieving racial equality.”

So what, then, did Chisholm do? And how did he do it?

First of all, he stationed prosecutors in neighborhoods around Milwaukee. Then he instructed those prosectors to do more than simply process the cases brought to them by law enforcement.

He and his team started asking themselves in every instance why they were bringing that case. “In those that were seen as minor, it was the least experienced people who were deciding whether to bring them. And these people saw that we had generally brought those cases in the past, so they went ahead with them again. But we started to ask, ‘Why are we charging these people with crimes at all?’ ”

And then he and members of his office devised a remarkably smart assessment tool that everyone used with potential defendants. Here’s the deal.

The most significant innovation in Chisholm’s overhaul of the office involves an “early intervention” program, which begins after a defendant is arrested but before arraignment. Each defendant is given an eight-question assessment, which can be conducted in about fifteen minutes and is compared to the information on the rap sheet and in the police report. The questions include: “Two or more prior adult convictions?” “Arrested under age sixteen?” “Currently unemployed?” “Some criminal friends?” A low score can lead to an offer of “diversion”—a kind of unofficial probation that, if successfully completed, leaves the individual without a criminal record. A high score leads to a second, more detailed, fifty-four-question assessment. The questions include: “Ever walked away/escaped from a halfway house?” “Were you ever suspended or expelled from school?” “Does your financial situation contribute to your stress?” “Tell me the best thing about your supervisor/teacher.” Results of the assessment may also lead to diversion or may lead to a more intensive kind of post-arrest supervision, known as deferred prosecution. People in this group will maintain a criminal record of an arrest but may have their charges reduced or dismissed. To participate in these incarceration alternatives, a defendant must commit to completing drug-treatment or other educational programs that are approved by Chisholm’s office.

In other words, Chisolm and his team viewed those who landed in the second group as having a higher risk of reoffending because, for whatever reason, their needs were more complicated, thus they required greater help and supervision, if they were going to stay out of jail or prison in the future. And the team acted accordingly.

“The whole program is designed to reduce the number of people we are putting in jail or prison, but to do it in a smart, accountable way,” Jeffrey Altenburg, a deputy district attorney, who oversees the early-intervention program, told me. “It’s to get people back on track, based on their risk and their need.” Every week, Altenburg, an eighteen-year veteran of the D.A.’s office, conducts a series of informal meetings with people in the diversion and deferred-prosecution programs who are in danger of being thrown out and returned to the traditional criminal-justice system.

There’s lots more to the story, of course. And, while Chisholm has a growing crowd of fans and admirers, he also has a some angry detractors, some of them in high places. In any case, it’s a story well worth your time, so read on.



AND IN OTHER NEWS…..STATE LAWMAKERS CHANGE COLLECTIVE MINDS ON CHANGING PROP. 47

After the passage of Prop. 47, which was opposed by various law enforcement groups and others who were conservative on the issue of crime and punishment, those same groups pushed legislators hard to introduce bills that would weaken the proposition. But now that we are months into the legislative year, Prop. 47 has had time to go into action; its initial positive effects have been observed, and the sky has not fallen. As a consequence, lawmakers have actively backed away from the so-called “fixes.” Thus, at present, all but 2 of the 9 proposed bills have been watered down to the degree that they are no longer a threat to the new law, or they are permanent stalled, or both.

The two that remain—AB150 and SB452—would both make stealing a gun a felony in all cases. If they pass in their current form, and are signed by Jerry Brown, they would require voter approval in 2016 to go into effect. However, they are not seen as problematic by Prop. 47 supporters, should they indeed become law.

Here’s more on the story by KQED’s Marisa Lagos.

“None of the legislative discussions occurring around Proposition 47 have the potential to undermine the initiative,” said Lenore Anderson, who co-authored the measure, chaired the ballot campaign and directs Californians for Safety and Justice, a progressive policy group.

She said supporters aren’t surprised the Legislature is looking at these issues, and that most of the bills aren’t going to substantively change what Prop. 47 is aiming to achieve: a criminal justice system that focuses on locking up only serious offenders, like those convicted of violent crimes, and not people addicted to drugs who commit petty crimes.

The measure was retroactive, allowing people in prisons or jails to ask for reduced sentences as well as people with past convictions who are no longer incarcerated. So far, more than 115,000 people have filed petitions asking courts to reduce their sentences from felonies to misdemeanors, according to the Judicial Council of California. And more than 3,200 have been released from state prisons.


LA SUPERVISORS APPROVE $450,00 SETTLEMENT TO FATHER OF 2-YEAR-OLD BEATEN TO DEATH DESPITE MULTIPLE CALLS TO DCFS

Truthfully, $450K doesn’t seem like enough. In any case, the LA Times’ Garrett Therolf has the very painful story about the settlement after the little boy was found dead in his bed with more than 50 bruises mottling his small body, his intestines and liver lacerated

Here’s a clip:

According to the suit, Medina’s investigation began in late January 2011, when someone called the child abuse hotline to say that Gabriel and his two siblings were in danger because Vega lived with them and was violent and out of control. He had punched a neighbor in the presence of the children, the anonymous caller said.

The caller also asserted that Vega, who had a violent criminal record, was engaged in domestic violence against the mother, had gang affiliations and that there was drug use in the home, the suit alleged.

The suit also alleged that Medina went to the home on the day of the anonymous call, but over his ensuing visits, he believed Gabriel’s mother when she lied by saying that Vega no longer lived in the home — even though his clothes were still there and the children said they saw him often.

By the time Medina closed the case, other hotline calls had also been received about the family, according to the suit. Medina’s final report falsely stated that Vega was not in the home and that the mother did not have a drug problem, even though he received a positive test for marijuana for her days earlier, the suit said.

When the boy died days later, the coroner determined that some of his serious injuries had occurred weeks before, the suit said.

Therolf also reported that, in fighting the settlement, the county spend $230,00 in legal fees.

Oh, yes, and the social worker who handled the case kept his job.


Posted in Prosecutors, race, race and class, racial justice, Sentencing | No Comments »

Study Shows LA County Probation Kids Not Getting Needed Help…. Mass Murder Meets Prosecutorial Madness….Local FBI Agent Indicted

March 27th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



INFORMATION LACKING FOR LA COUNTY PROBATION KIDS

Up until now, LA County juvenile probation—the largest juvenile justice system in the nation—knew very little about the kids in its care, what challenges those kids faced, which methods might be best suited to address a kid’s challenges, and whether or not those methods were actually working—and if not, why not.

On Thursday, however, all that changed with the release of the Los Angeles County Juvenile Probation Outcomes Study, a 155-page report that took almost four years to complete, and that will hopefully be difficult to ignore.

The report shows, for example, that one-third of the kids who wind up in the county’s juvenile camps or the probation run group homes, get arrested again within a year of their release. But we pretty much already knew that. So it is more interesting to note that nearly all of the kids in either the homes or camps had been on probation prior to the arrest that sent them into the county’s care, and had not gotten the help they needed when on home probation either. Moreover, the report digs into what broke down in the kids’ lives that could have and should have been addressed for better results for all concerned.

Yet, in addition to delivering those and other pieces of bad news, the report looks deeply at the kinds of problems these youth face, then makes a series of recommendations designed to improve the probation kids’ chances of rebooting their lives. The researchers also lay out what they call “targeted reforms” to help LA County Probation fundamentally transform its approach to the youth it serves.

DATA MATTERS

In many ways, the best news out of this study is the fact that the study was done at all. Prior to its release this week, there was—as mentioned above—very little to tell us about the LA County kids who land in LA County’s care, what got those kids there, and how well or poorly they did when they got out.

As a consequence, nearly all the decisions made about how LA County Probation dealt with the kids in its care were, up until now, done flying blind. (Not that this is surprising news in that we are talking about the same probation agency that a few years ago misplaced a full third of their workforce. But those were very dark times, so we won’t return there.)

Now, thankfully, we have a rigorous piece of research and data gathering to provide a baseline, and that, by its existence, demands ongoing research and data gathering.

Moreover, the study was led by Cal State LA’s Dr. Denise Herz, who is considered one of California’s go to researchers in the realm of juvenile justice, gang violence and the like. Plus, the report was a collaborative effort that included other top notch researchers as consultants, plus youth advocates such as the Children’s Defense Fund, with the Advancement Project providing oversight in addition to getting the money to fund the thing (from the W.M. Keck Foundation and the California Wellness Foundation).

To their credit, probation fully cooperated—even if, at times, reluctantly..

“What is encouraging,” said Michelle Newell from the Children’s Defense Fund, who was one of the study’s authors, “is that many county leaders, including the Board of Supervisors, probation, and judges, seem committed to using the findings in this study to both strengthen data collection, and to improve outcomes for youth.”

We’ll have more about the study early next week. So stay tuned.


AND IN OTHER NEWS….HOW DID ORANGE COUNTY’S WORST MASS SHOOTING TURN INTO A PROSECUTORIAL DISASTER?

Impossible though it sounds on its face, Orange County DA Tony Rackauckas and his prosecutors managed to spectacularly blow the sentencing hearings in a high profile mass murder case in which the murderer confessed. The OC Weekly’s Scott Moxley lays it all out for you, and it makes for fascinating reading.

Here’s how the story opens:

Orange County’s worst mass shooting, the so-called 2011 Seal Beach hair-salon massacre, began as a traumatizing event for all, but it has devolved into one of the most polarizing legal struggles to hit our legal system. The question isn’t about Scott Dekraai’s guilt. Dekraai admitted to police that he was the killer within minutes of the shooting. Controversy swirls, however, around the tactics of prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies trying to impose a death-penalty punishment rather than a 200-plus-year prison sentence without the possibility for parole. With one embarrassing revelation after another, the battle has grown painful, especially for the baffled families of the victims. To help understand why Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals, himself an accomplished former prosecutor, this month made a historic decision to recuse Tony Rackauckas and his district attorney’s office (OCDA), we are providing a chronology of events:

Read on.


LOCAL FBI AGENT INDICTED FOR….LOTS OF THINGS

On Thursday, a local FBI agent (who had a very, very small part in the feds’ investigation of the LASD) was indicted for obstruction of justice, witness tampering and more. In short, he got WAY more involved than was even vaguely appropriate with a federal witness.

ABC7′s Lisa Bartley has the story. Here’s a clip:

FBI Special Agent Timothy Joel worked out of the Los Angeles FBI Field Office. The indictment relates to Joel’s alleged relationship with a woman who was arrested at the Otay Mesa border in 2007. The woman, a Korean national, was being smuggled into the United States to work as a prostitute. Joel allegedly helped her stay in the U.S. by claiming she was an important witness in a human smuggling investigation.

According to the indictment, Joel provided the woman with regular cash payments from his personal bank account totaling nearly $20,000 and later moved in with her in an apartment in Los Angeles.

In 2013, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into Joel’s alleged actions.

Here’s the full text of the indictment. Special Agent Joel Indictment

Posted in children and adolescents, crime and punishment, FBI, juvenile justice, Probation, Prosecutors | No Comments »

A New Complaint by the Texas State Bar Suggests That Prosecutorial Misconduct May Have Caused the Execution of an Innocent Man

March 20th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


THE TROUBLING CASE OF TODD WILLINGHAM THAT WON’T GO AWAY

In a startling and painfully belated turn of events, the State Bar of Texas has filed a formal complaint alleging misconduct against John Jackson, the prosecutor who tried one of the most controversial death penalty cases in recent American history, that of Cameron Todd Willingham.

It reads in part:

“Before, during, and after the 1992 trial, Respondent [aka prosecutor Jackson] knew of the existence of evidence that tended to negate the guilt of Willingham and failed to disclose that evidence to defense counsel. Specifically, Respondent failed to make timely disclosure to the defense details of an agreement of favorable treatment for Webb, an inmate, in exchange for Webb’s testimony at trial for the State.”

“Webb” is a jailhouse informant named Johnny Webb, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

The Bar then went on to tic off several very nice things Jackson allegedly did for informant Webb, namely to get the charge of which he was convicted reduced substantially, to push for his early parole, and to get him transferred out of prison to county jail. (The Bar did not mention that Jackson also allegedly introduced Johnny Webb to a wealthy rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., who gave Webb a job, money, and various other forms of help.)

The Bar also noted that Jackson told the court that he had no evidence that was favorable to Willingham. “That statement was false,” wrote Linda Acevedo, the Chief Disciplinary Counsel for the State Bar of Texas with terse brevity.

The complaint is a welcome and very unusual instance of a prosecutor being held to answer by the legal profession. Yet it is more than a decade too late.

On February 17, 2004, Todd Willingham was executed in Texas for deliberately setting the fire that killed his three young daughters.

Maurice Possely of the Marshall Project, who is the latest smart reporter to get hooked by the Willingham case, has more on the events behind the Texas Bar’s decision to propose sanctions against prosecutor Jackson. And in reports co-sponsored by the Washington Post, Possely wrote of previous evidence of Jackson’s misconduct, and other irregularities pertaining to the case.

But, for those of you unfamiliar with the whole troubling Willingham matter, a little back story.


THE TWO PILLARS

On December 23, 1991, a fire destroyed the Corsicana, Texas, home that Cameron Todd Willingham, then twenty-three, shared with his twenty-two-year-old wife and three young daughters. The girls’ mother was not home at the time of the fire, but was at the Salvation Army buying Christmas gifts for the kids. Willingham was asleep when the fire broke out and was able to burst out of the house nearly unscathed, but screaming to the neighbors that his “babies,’ were still inside. By that time, however, the house was engulfed inflames. All three girls died in the fire.

At Willingham’s 1992 trial, prosecutor Jackson told the jury that Willingham had set the fire to kill his children, although no convincing motive for the arson murders was ever established. Willingham, a man with many less than likable traits, was sentenced to death on October 29, 1992.

Willingham maintained his innocence to the end. Prior to his trial, he refused the state’s plea bargain offer that would have saved his life. Rather than seeing this as the action of an innocent man, however, the prosecution viewed his refusal as the arrogance of an unrepentant killer.

Jackson’s primary evidence against Willingham was, as he put it, held up by “two pillars.” First there was the analysis of the state’s leading arson investigator, a deputy fire marshal named Manuel Vasquez, whom David Grann of the New Yorker described as having cultivated a Sherlock Holmsian aura of invincibility.

Vasquez concluded that the deaths of the three little girls were the a result of a clear and deliberate act of arson. Willingham, the only other person in the house, had poured liquid accelerant around the children’s room, even under their beds. Fire sleuth Vasquez described a heinous crime about which he maintained there could be no doubt.

The other primary evidence against Willingham was the testimony of the jailhouse informant Johnny Webb, who had been in the same county jail as Willingham when the latter was awaiting trial. Webb said that Willingham had confessed to him that he took “some kind of lighter fluid, squirting [it] around the walls and the floor, and set a fire.”

This supposed confession matched the analysis of Vasquez, who claimed to have found more than “twenty indicators” of arson. With these two “pillars” holding his prosecutorial theory aloft, Jackson concluded that his case was impregnable.

In March 2000, however—four years before Willingham’s execution—Webb sent prosecutor Jackson a Motion to Recant Testimony, stating that “Mr. Willingham is innocent of all charges.”

No one in the prosecutor’s office thought to mention this recantation to Willingham’s attorney.

Nor did Jackson mention the legal favors he gave Webb in what appeared to be a quid pro quo exchange for testimony. In fact, he maintained there were no favors.

Shortly after his reversal, Webb recanted his recantation, with timing that seemed to correspond with some of Jackson’s written assurances of help for Webb.

For instance, in an August 2014 story for the Marshall Project and the Washington Post, Possely reported that “…letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line:”

“Mr. Pierce and I visit on a regular basis concerning your problems,” Jackson wrote to Webb in August 2000, eight years after the trial, when his former witness was threatening to recant. (Jackson misspelled the rancher’s last name.) “We worked for a long time on a number of different levels, including the Governor’s Office, to get you released early in the robbery case. . . . Please understand that I am not indifferent or insensitive to your difficulties.”

When questioned about the flip-flops half a decade after the fact by the New Yorker’s David Granny, Webb, who had by that time been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, first claimed a bad memory, then asked, “The statute of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn’t it?”

Earlier this month, the Marshall Report’s Possely published the most detailed account to date of how Webb came to testify against Willingham, based on two days of interview with the former informant:

“I did not want to see Willingham go to death row and die for something I damn well knew was a lie and something I didn’t initiate,” Webb said. “I lied on the man because I was being forced by John Jackson to do so,” Webb said. “I succumbed to pressure when I shouldn’t have. In the end, I was told, ‘You’re either going to get a life sentence or you’re going to testify.’ He coerced me to do it.

In 2010 Webb similarly described threats and coercion by Jackson on camera to reporters from PBS’s Frontline.

“During Willingham’s three-day trial in August 1992, Jackson pointedly asked Webb on the witness stand whether he had been promised a lighter sentence or some other benefit for his cooperation. Webb told the judge and jury that he had not.

Documents published last year by the Marshall Project and The Washington Post showed that during and after Webb was in state prison, he received thousands of dollars in aid from a wealthy local businessman, Charles S. Pearce Jr. Webb said in interviews that Pearce had helped him at the behest of Jackson, Patrick C. Batchelor, the district attorney, and the county sheriff. Jackson later denied that claim, saying that any support Pearce gave “had no connection” to Webb’s testimony in the Willingham case.


JUNK SCIENCE AND “PERSONAL BELIEFS”

In January 2004, a few weeks before Willingham was to be executed, the other pillar of Willingham’s guilt began to crumble when Willingham’s lawyer, along with a pen-pal turned platonic friend named Elizabeth Gilbert, talked acclaimed scientist and fire investigator, Dr. Gerald Hurst, into reexamining the case file pro bono.

When Hurst subjected Vasquez’ prior report to exhaustive examination and testing, he concluded that the analysis of the Willingham fire on which the prosecution based its case did not conform at all with scientific knowledge about fire behavior. Based on the evidence, Hurst concluded that there was no indication at all of arson, that the fire was accidental and likely caused by a space heater in the house or faulty electrical wiring. Not a single article of physical evidence supported the conclusion of Arson, Hurst wrote. A man was about to be executed based on “junk science.”

The analysis did no good. Although it was sent to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and also to Governor Rick Perry, either of whom could have issued a stay so that the countervailing evidence could be presented in court. The requests for a stay were denied. Willingham’s execution went forward as scheduled.

Not content to let the matter drop, a few years later, the Innocence Project assembled five of the nation’s leading independent arson experts to again review the evidence in the case. In 2006, the group issued a 48-page report finding that none of the scientific analysis used to convict Willingham was valid. He was convicted, they wrote, “using what is now known to be bad science (or no science.,”

Three years later still, on August 25, 2009, a team of Texas state-hired experts released their own findings in a 64-page report on the Willingham fire. The team, headed by Dr. Craig L. Beyler, found the same thing that Hurst had found in 2004, and the Innocence team had found in 2006. No evidence of arson.

In a scathing analysis, Beyler wrote that original fire investigator Vasquez’s conclusions seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and were more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.”

“Vasquez’s opinions are nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation.”

And now we have the complaint against prosecutor Jackson filed by the State Bar of Texas.

In 2006, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion that in the modern judicial system, there has not been “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”

Perhaps it is time to start shouting.


NOTE: Even though it is dated, if you’d like to know more about this complex and alarming case, the best account is still to be found in the 2009 New Yorker story, “Trial by Fire” by David Grann.


Photo courtesy of Willingham Family

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, Innocence, Prosecutors | 4 Comments »

Prop 47 and Drug Courts, Ex-lifers Mentor Each Other, Prosecutorial Power, and Young Cops and Use of Force

March 17th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

WHY PROP 47 DRASTICALLY REDUCES USE OF DRUG COURTS …AND POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS TO THE PROBLEM

Before Proposition 47 reduced many low-level property and drug-related felonies to misdemeanors, drug courts were a place where people charged with drug crimes could avoid a felony conviction and time behind bars if they completed a rehabilitation process. Those who completed drug court requirements had a much lower chance of reoffending than than if they had instead served out a sentence.

But these drug courts were intended for those who committed felony drug offenses. Because the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor is one year, there is not as much incentive to apply for drug court, or to finish it out, once enrolled.

In LA County, drug court applications are 50% lower than pre-Prop 47 numbers.

There may be ways to resolve this problem, however.

KPCC’s Rina Palta has the story. Here are some clips:

[A former public defender involved with L.A.'s drug courts, Mark] De Wit believes expanding eligibility for drug court could be the answer. And – for those who fail, a gentler sentence at county jail instead of prison.

Another proposal from Loyola Law Professor Eric Miller, include more serious felonies.

Miller admits however that there’s little political appetite for such a move locally, and it would be complex determining who would respond best to different kinds of treatment.

Miller adds that one of the shortcomings of the program already is that drug courts don’t engage in sophisticated enough screening process to weed out people who won’t succeed.

That very quandary has left many who work in this field with complicated feelings. De Wit, for instance, voted for the proposition, but simultaneously criticizes what it has done to drug courts.

And the California District Attorney’s office says a new policy is in the works that will change the qualifications for entering drug court.


FORMER LIFERS MENTOR FORMER LIFERS IN A FOUR-CITY CALIFORNIA PILOT PAROLE PROGRAM

KQED’s Scott Shafer visited a pilot support group in San Francisco through which paroled ex-lifers mentor each other. The participants discuss things like guilt and responsibility, as well as how to live successfully on the outside after spending decades behind bars.

This particular parole program is also being piloted in Los Angeles, as well as Pomona and Sacramento, with hopes to expand with the goal of helping the more than 2,100 paroled ex-lifers in California stay out of prison.

Shafer has more on the program for KQED’s California Report. Here’s a clip:

This meeting is a support group, an experimental peer mentoring program. It’s voluntary and those who come share practical advice, like tips on looking for work and dealing with one “no” after another from employers who just aren’t willing to take a chance on hiring an ex-felon.

One of the men, Steve Monger, said the last thing he wanted to do was work in a fast-food joint. But the rejections kept piling up.

“So me and another lifer, we just went in, we was honest with the guy,” Monger said. “We said we recently got out of prison. I was in 27, he was in 25, and we want a job. We’ll be here on time, we’ll work hard for ya. We don’t steal from ya. We don’t do drugs. You ain’t gotta worry about us. You call us, we’ll be here.”

Taco Bell hired them both. They’ve been working there five months.

Now let’s be clear here — there are plenty of inmates serving life sentences with the possibility of parole who will never, or should never, get out. It’s just too risky. They’re sociopaths, or they don’t show any remorse for what they did.

But over the past few years I’ve interviewed quite a few lifers — in and outside prison. And I’m always surprised at how thoughtful and reflective they are — especially given what they did to land them in prison.

Like Alisha Nolan Taplett. She was living in Sacramento when she got behind the wheel of a car with some friends out to settle a score.

“I was just looking at myself as the driver in the beginning,” she admitted. “Well, I didn’t kill anybody. But at the end of the day and every day, I still have to remind myself if it hadn’t been for me driving that vehicle, that young woman could still be alive.”

I asked Taplett what she’d say to a young person today who finds himself or herself in a situation where they’re being asked to drive a getaway car.

“If someone asks you to drive a car and you know that a homicide is going to take place, maybe you should pick up the phone and call 911,” she said without hesitation. “But that’s one of the things that we fail to do in our communities as well, because we don’t want to be labeled as that snitch. If I don’t save that person’s life by dialing 911, at least I know I tried.”


FOUR WAYS PROSECUTORS CAN MAKE BETTER USE OF THEIR VAST DISCRETIONARY POWER

In an op-ed for the Marshall Project, Brian Elderbroom, senior research associate at the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, and Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel at Brennan Center’s Justice Program, lay out four reform-minded changes prosecutors can make to the way they wield their prosecutorial authority. (Instead of this way, and this way, for instance.) – links

Here are some clips:

Considering that crime has declined significantly, with violent crime falling by almost half since its peak in 1991, do prosecutors still need the leverage of mandatory minimums and long sentences for even the least serious felony offenses? To what extent have prosecutorial practices contributed to the high incarceration rates that are rallying Democrats and Republicans alike to seek alternatives to prison?

[SNIP]

Campaign rhetoric should more closely match the national dialogue. Based only on DA elections, one wouldn’t know that crime was at historic lows or that members of both political parties are advancing policy reforms that aim to reduce incarceration. Prosecutors still regularly tout their success at securing the longest prison sentences and rarely campaign on the number of people they helped get treatment or avoid harmful incarceration. Instead of promising to pursue increasingly punitive policies, and then advocating for them in state legislatures, prosecutors should focus on expanding proven crime-prevention strategies.

Rather than trying to secure convictions and long sentences, prosecutors should focus on reducing recidivism and overall harm to the community. There is evidence that putting people in prison for longer than necessary can actually increase their propensity to commit crimes. There is also a growing body of research that suggests we have reached a point of diminishing returns with regards to incarceration and that additional increases to imprisonment rates will have no impact on public safety. According to a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice, prison expansion since 2000 had effectively zero impact on crime rates. Prosecutors are uniquely positioned to create opportunities to improve public safety while also reducing the nation’s incarceration footprint…

States and the federal government should require prosecutors to provide data on their charging, plea bargaining, and sentencing decisions. One way to ensure this outcome is for Congress to incentivize states to participate in a national prosecutor reporting program…


YOUNG OFFICERS USE FORCE, INCLUDING DEADLY FORCE, MORE OFTEN THAN OLDER COPS

There is a growing body of research indicating that younger officers are more likely to be involved in shootings and other uses of force.

The officers who killed Michael Brown, Darren Thomas, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice were all in their twenties.

A number of law enforcement veterans and experts argue that recruitment ages should be raised, and that officer training should be tailored to the individual, and include stress-management instruction.

Buzzfeed’s Mary Ann Georgantopoulos has this story we didn’t want you to miss. Here’s a clip:

The risk of officer-involved shootings drops as officers age, according to a study conducted by James P. McElvain, formerly of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and Loma Linda University and Augustine J. Kposowa of the University of California, Riverside.

The data used in that 2008 study, published in Criminal Justice and Behavior, was collected from McElvain’s department, the 44th largest law enforcement agency in the country at the time. The results match what two researchers found in a 2007 study, published in the same journal, that found that incidents in which officers employ verbal and/or physical force diminished with each year of experience gained by the officer.

Researchers told BuzzFeed News they are not surprised that officers who use excessive, and sometimes lethal, force are young. Studies conducted by academics and police departments alike said age is a factor — one of many, but still a factor — in an officer’s use of deadly force.

Experts who have researched the issue said most people in their young adulthood — from ages 18 to 29 — haven’t developed full maturity of judgment to make, as the Justice Department called it in the Brown shooting analysis, “split-second judgements in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.” (Federal investigators cleared Wilson of criminal wrongdoing this week, calling his account “credible,” but found evidence of discriminatory policing throughout the Ferguson Police Department.)

And police orientations do little to address the emotional needs of future police officers. Across the country, police training includes little to no guidance on the psychological and emotional aspects of using force and stress management, said Maria Haberfeld, chair of the Department of Law, Police Science, and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College.

“We place a great deal of responsibility” on young officers, said Tom Nolan, a retired 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department and current professor of criminology at Merrimack College.

Nolan, who became an officer when he was 22 years old in 1978, said he was overwhelmed when he began the job. “I in no way had the requisite maturity and wisdom,” he said. “I had never held a gun before. It’s a dirty little secret that we’re hiring police officers too young.”

“I was in over my head,” he said about his start. “The tendency for someone that is overwhelmed or fearful is to react with excessive force, and I say that from personal experience.”

Posted in law enforcement, prison, Prosecutors, psychology, Reentry, Rehabilitation | 4 Comments »

Prosecutorial Misconduct, Sasha and Richard, False Confessions, and Penalizing States that Fail to Protect Foster Kids

February 2nd, 2015 by Taylor Walker

LETTING PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT SLIDE

Federal judge Alex Kozinski railed against unchecked prosecutorial misconduct in California’s court system while hearing oral arguments for a habeas petition last month.

Lower courts had upheld a murder-for-hire conviction despite having established that both a jail informant and prosecutor had provided false testimony—both saying that the informant had not been given a deal (he had). The prosecutor was not sanctioned, nor did the state bar revoke his license.

Kozinski, along with judges Kim Wardlaw and William Fletcher, accused California judges of continuously overlooking prosecutorial misdeeds and choosing not to overturn flawed verdicts. (This is not the first time Kozinski has zeroed in on this issue.) Kozinski said the panel would rule on the issue themselves, threatening to name names, if the California Attorney General’s Office—which had tried to keep transcripts away from the Ninth Circuit Court—did not stop fighting to uphold the conviction.

Kozinski directed Supervising Deputy Attorney General Kevin Vienna to notify California Attorney General Kamala Harris of the controversial particulars of the case, saying, “Get ahold of the Attorney General, get ahold of your supervisor, and see whether they really want to stick by a conviction that was obtained by lying prosecutors and that was maintained in the Court of Appeal after the Attorney General’s office fought tooth and nail to keep out a transcript that would have shown the perfidy of the prosecutors…” The AG’s office chose to discontinue its defense of the conviction.

The LA Times’ Maura Dolan has the story. Here’s a clip:

The January hearing in Pasadena, posted online under new 9th Circuit policies, provided a rare and critical examination of a murder case in which prosecutors presented false evidence but were never investigated or disciplined.

The low-profile case probably would have gone unnoticed if not for the video, which attorneys emailed to other attorneys and debated on blogs.

In a series of searing questions, the three judges expressed frustration and anger that California state judges were not cracking down on prosecutorial misconduct. By law, federal judges are supposed to defer to the decisions of state court judges.

Prosecutors “got caught this time but they are going to keep doing it because they have state judges who are willing to look the other way,” Kozinski said.

Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen said the judges’ questions and tone showed they had lost patience with California courts. State judges are supposed to refer errant lawyers, including prosecutors, to the state bar for discipline, but they rarely do, Uelmen said.

“It is a cumulative type thing,” Uelmen said. “The 9th Circuit keeps seeing this misconduct over and over again. This is one way they can really call attention to it.”

A 2010 report by the Northern California Innocence Project cited 707 cases in which state courts found prosecutorial misconduct over 11 years. Only six of the prosecutors were disciplined, and the courts upheld 80% of the convictions in spite of the improprieties, the study found.


TWO TEENS ON OPPOSITE SIDES OF A TRAGIC CRIME

In late 2013, 16-year-old Richard Thomas, egged on by friends, set 18-year-old Sasha Fleischman’s skirt on fire on an Oakland city bus. Sasha, who identifies as agender, was burned so badly in the incident that they had to undergo several surgeries and spent weeks in the hospital.

Richard, who is black, was charged as an adult with aggravated mayhem and assault with intent to cause great bodily injury, with hate-crime sentence enhancements.

Richard was a well-liked kid who grew up in a turbulent East Oakland neighborhood, with his mom, siblings, and cousins. In his 16 years, Richard experienced an extraordinary amount of trauma. In 2008, Richard’s aunt was murdered. In 2013, Richard’s best friend, his “twin,” was gunned down while sitting in a car. When Richard, reeling from the loss, started doing poorly in school and skipping class, he asked for help from the school’s attendance compliance officer.

After the fire, Richard told investigating officers he was homophobic. He told them he never thought the skirt would catch on fire like it did, that he only thought it would singe a little and go out quickly, and meant it as a prank. Richard was forced to take a plea deal of seven years behind bars with removal of the hate-crime enhancements and mayhem charge. His only alternative was to go to trial and risk receiving a maximum of life imprisonment, a sentence severely disproportionate to the crime, and one he would not have faced if he had been tried as a juvenile.

Dashka Slater’s phenomenal New York Times Magazine story illuminates both sides of Sasha and Richard’s double tragedy. Here are a couple of clips, but you really must read it in its entirety:

It was close to 5 o’clock on the afternoon of Nov. 4, 2013, and Sasha Fleischman was riding the 57 bus home from school. An 18-year-old senior at a small private high school, Sasha wore a T-shirt, a black fleece jacket, a gray newsboy cap and a gauzy white skirt. For much of the long bus ride through Oakland, Calif., Sasha — who identifies as agender, neither male nor female — had been reading a paperback copy of “Anna Karenina,” but eventually the teenager drifted into sleep, skirt draped over the edge of the bus seat.

As Sasha slept, three teenage boys laughed and joked nearby. Then one surreptitiously flicked a lighter. The skirt went up in a ball of flame. Sasha leapt up, screaming, “I’m on fire!” Two other passengers threw Sasha to the ground and extinguished the flames, but Sasha’s legs were left charred and peeling. Taken by ambulance to a San Francisco burn unit, Sasha would spend the next three and a half weeks undergoing multiple operations to treat the second- and third-degree burns that ran from thigh to calf.

Richard Thomas, the 16-year-old boy who lit the skirt on fire, was arrested the following day. Citing the severity of the crime, the Alameda County district attorney, Nancy O’Malley, charged Thomas as an adult, stripping him of the protections — including anonymity — customarily afforded to juveniles. Charged with two felonies, each with a hate-crime clause that increased the time he would serve if convicted, Thomas faced the possibility of life imprisonment.

[SNIP]

On Nov. 8, four days after lighting Sasha’s skirt on fire, Richard wrote the teenager a letter.

“Dear Victum,” it began. “I apoligize for my actions, for the pain that I brought to you and your family. I was wrong for what I did. I was wrong. I had no reason to do that to you I don’t know what was going through my head at that time. Im not a monster, I have a big heart I never even thought of hurting anyone like the way I hurt you. I just wanted you to know that im deeply sorry for my actions. I think about what happened every second, I pray that you heal correctly and that you recover and live a happy life. Please forgive me thats all I want. I take responsibility for all my actions, I’ll take all the consiquences,” he wrote. “I’m not just saying this because im incarcerated I honestly mean every word.” He signed it, “Love, Richard Thomas.”

A few days later, he wrote a second letter, this one addressed to “Mr. Fleischman.” It was nearly three pages long, written in neat cursive.

“I had a nightmare last night and I woke up sweating and apoligizing,” he wrote. “I really hope you get back to the way you were. I went to court yesterday and there still making me seem like a monster, but im not. I’m a good kid if you get to know me. I’m sure you would have been a nice person to,” he continued. “I was hoping that I can meet you face to face so I can apoligize to you.”

He went on to detail the charges against him, explaining that he was willing to accept the assault charges but that he rejected the hate-crime enhancements. “I don’t have a problem with homosexual’s,” he explained. “I have friends thats homosexuals and we never had problems so I don’t look at you wrong because of your sexualitie. Honestly I could care less if you like men you weren’t trying to talk to me in that way.”

As for himself, he said: “I am not a thug, gangster, hoodlum, nor monster. Im a young African American male who’s made a terrible mistake.” Perhaps, he suggested, he and Fleischman had things in common. “I’ve also been hurt alot for no reason, not like I hurt you but Ive been hurt physically and metally so I know how it feels, the pain and confusion of why me I’ve felt it before plenty of times.”


ALL CONFESSIONS, EVEN FALSE ONES, HAVE AN IMPACT ON JURY MEMBERS’ PERCEPTIONS AND BELIEFS

According to 2013 data from the National Registry of Exoneration, 38% of exonerations of kids and 11% of exonerations of adults involved false confessions. Whether or not confessions are true, they have considerable power over juries, more than character testimony, and even more than eyewitness testimony.

ProPublica’s Joe Sexton uses the upcoming trial for the 1979 murder of 6-year-old Etan Patz, and a videotaped confession from Pedro Hernandez to explore the issue. Here’s how it opens:

Over the next several months, defense lawyers for Pedro Hernandez will seek to undercut the central evidence against him: his videotaped confession to having killed 6-year-old Etan Patz.

They will depict the confession as inaccurate when set against the known facts of the infamous 1979 missing child case. They will portray Hernandez, a onetime bodega clerk in the Manhattan neighborhood where Patz lived, as mentally ill. They will paint the detectives who gained the confession as manipulative and coercive.

It’s a daunting assignment, but here’s what may well be scaring the lawyers the most: They could succeed in every aspect of their attack on the reliability of the confession and still not win an acquittal.

Such is the power of confessions, true or false, for American juries. A nascent body of scholarship, driven in part by an escalating number of wrongful convictions in cases with false confessions, has begun to document just how persuasive confessions can be.

Of course, the power of confessions owes in part to the fact that they very often are true. Certainly, that is the argument Manhattan prosecutors will make as they seek to hold Hernandez responsible for a case that has haunted the city, and parents nationwide, for decades. Prosecutors say Hernandez’s claims that he strangled the young boy after luring him from his school bus stop are credible, and that any mental health issues he suffers from are not serious. They also argue that the confession is supported by the accounts of others who maintain Hernandez told similar stories of killing a child over the years.

But false confessions – including those questioned at trial by effective defense lawyers – also have proven to carry extraordinary weight with juries. Several studies, using mock jurors and sophisticated analysis, have demonstrated that confessions outweigh the value of eyewitness and character testimony. And in at least one case, according to a 2010 study, prosecutors chose to believe a confession even when the accused seemed categorically cleared by DNA evidence.


HOLDING STATES ACCOUNTABLE FOR NONCOMPLIANCE WITH FEDERAL LAWS THAT PROTECT FOSTER KIDS

In a new report, two California advocacy groups: the Children’s Advocacy Institute and First Star are calling for the feds to monitor states compliance with federal child welfare laws and to deny funding to states who do not adequately protect their most vulnerable kids.

The Chronicle of Social Change’s John Kelly has a good rundown of the report’s main points. Here are clips from the first two:

Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSR)

The CFSR has been conducted twice in each state by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and gauges the state’s performance on seven outcomes and seven systemic factors. The report takes the view that the CFSR process is a general assessment indicating adherence to federal law, done instead of a full compliance check on individual laws.

“Although the efficacy of the CFSR process is highly questionable in terms of ensuring state conformity with federal child welfare laws and standards, it at least provided some modicum of external oversight and monitoring of at least a few aspects of federal child welfare law,” the report says.

Not once in those two rounds has one state been found in “substantial conformity” with the review. States enter into a Program Improvement Plan (PIP) upon failure on the CFSR, and face withholding of federal IV-E funds if they fail to meet the goals in the plan.

Yet report authors could only identify two instances in which states were assessed penalties, according to the report….

Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System

The Department of Health and Human Services is not actively penalizing states that declare themselves out of compliance with the data collection standards put in place with the creation of AFCARS.

“By refusing to impose financial penalties on states that fail to comply with federal data reporting requirements, ACF has ignored one of the most incentivizing tools it has to ensure states’ submission of reliable, consistent, and complete data — information that could have meaningfully contributed to the improvement of the adoption and foster care processes,” the report says.

Posted in Fire, Foster Care, Innocence, juvenile justice, Kamala Harris, Prosecutors | No Comments »

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