Category: Criminal Law


Are We Too Obsessed By Capital Cases?

One of the recurring themes in Doug Berman’s (incredibly valuable) blog is his concern that capital cases receive too much scrutiny. He doesn’t deny the significance of the sanction, but believes that other sentencing issues – e.g., the new guidelines jurisprudence, the incredible overuse of long-term imprisonment, and the sense that a substantial number of innocent people may be pleading guilty to felonies – are of greater overall importance. (Of course, for all his protestations, Sentencing Law and Policy is a go-to address for news about capital punishment issues.)

I think he raises an important matter, and rather than take issue with him, I’d like to thicken the discussion a bit. Why are capital cases important? A few reasons include: their irreversibility (once the sanction is actually imposed); the gravity of the sanction; the degree to which death penalty policy seems even less teathered to good-government/empirically driven analysis than other sentencing policy (I would take substantial issue with John McGinniss’s claim that empirical data on crime has produced some clear truths about effective responses to crime – check out Dan Markel’s preliminary thoughts here); the degree to which an ongoing desire to empower states to execute twisted broader criminal justice jurisprudence; and the fact that the use of capital punishment has consequences for America’s ability to claim moral authority in many international debates and disputes.

That said, Doug is absolutely correct that far more individuals are devastated by other aspects of American criminal justice policy. Whether the issue is racial or economic justice, the over-use of imprisonment, the over-use of criminal laws generally, problematic use of discretion, or the poor quality of counsel (and, in the case of juveniles, the actual absence of counsel in many cases), capital punishment issues are only the tip of the public-policy-problem iceberg.

So why keep harping on it? First, I think that capital cases can provide a starting point for the discussion of broader issues, if only because the consequences are so serious. So, for example, there are real reasons to worry that the Strickland ineffective assistance standard fails to guarantee defendants competent representation. But the case for change can be appear more compelling when you explain that these deficiencies can cost a human life. Second, I think there is a moral imperative to continually interrogate any process that involves intentional killings by government – whether that is capital punishment, torture, or even war. Sometimes the government must kill, but it is essential that citizens continually challenge government to justify and constrain that choice. Finally, and most simply, I think the reasons I set out up front justify serious attention to death.

But I certainly don’t think that capital punishment should use up all the oxygen of criminal justice debate. Doug’s blog does a great job of highlighting the many other issues worthy of serious attention. All of us who write about criminal law issues try to keep the spotlight on the manifold ways that criminal justice policy needs significant improvement. And I think there is a legitimate critique that many individual lawyers and organizations expend vast resources on capital work, while shortchanging the many other issues worth their attention. (Capital punishment is, in many ways, the abortion issue for the left; just as anti-abortion advocates feel they reach their highest personal calling blocking women from terminating pregnancies, many death penalty abolitionists feel the same way about their habeas corpus work.) But many of these committed abolitionists wouldn’t turn their energy to other criminal law injustices, even if the Supreme Court (or the WTO) declared the penalty a no-go. They would find other grand and dramatic battles to fight, probably outside the criminal justice system.

Personally, I’m going to try to keep up a mix of commentary about crime and society. Death penalty is one of many important issues on the table. If I am too obsessed, it is only by a degree – and is perhaps the result of my own present immersion in the issue as a result of the ABA death penalty assessment project. But I do think Doug’s caution is well-founded, a good reminder that we should never get lost in any one rabbit hole when we are trying to find a herd.


Is Erroneous Conviction More Likely In Capital Cases?

Dissenting in Kansas v. Marsh, Justice Souter made the controversial claim that “among all prosecutions homicide cases suffer an unusually high incidence of false conviction.” He explained this phenomenon as due to “the combined difficulty of investigating (capital cases) without help from the victim, intense pressure to get convictions in homicide cases, and the corresponding incentive for the guilty to frame the innocent”. Doug Berman, at Sentencing Law and Policy, takes serious issue with this claim. writing:

Not only do I think that this assertion is wrong, but I think it is sad and dangerous that the four “liberal” Justices might actually believe it is true.

Unfortunately, like a couple of his commenters, I think there is a good chance that Souter is right and Doug is wrong. Why? At least six reasons.

1. The plurality, if not majority, of criminal cases involve a crime witnessed by a police officer where arrest followed immediately. In these cases – from drug cases, to DUI, to disorderly conduct – error rates are likely low. This is true for two reasons. First, notwithstanding their competitive urges, officers have relatively little incentive to lie. (This may be a bit less true in officer assault cases, where disciplinary or tort consequences for offender injuries hinge on asserting that the defender was the cause of the problem.) Second, when the arrest follows immediately after the offense, there is very low risk of misidentification. Civilian assaults – including homicides – involve seriously higher risk of jury error. In assault cases involving unknown assailants, identification errors are a significant problem. The incidents are often quick and unexpected, and witnesses have little opportunity to observe what really occurred. Cross-racial identification problems infect the accuracy of ID’s in some cases. Poor line-up and photo array techniques further undermine accuracy of these identifications. And despite all these problems, witnesses are typically very confident that their testimony is accurate. Unfortunately, juries often rely on this confidence factor to “believe” eyewitnesses; the problem is that confidence is not a proxy for accuracy. Witnesses are sure they’re telling the truth, but they are often wrong. Thus capital cases, and cases lacking officer observation more generally, involve more guilt error than average.

2. Capital juries are likely to be less sympathetic to the defense because they are death-qualified (i.e., only people who are willing to impose death are permitted to be jurors in a capital case.) This eliminates a not insignificant portion of the population that is most attractive to the defense.

3. In capital cases, defense attorneys frequently do not mount serious innocence defenses during trial for fear that, if the defendant is convicted, he or she will appear less remorseful at the punishment phase. This is basic strategy in any capital case. The sentencing tail typically wags the guilt/innocence dog.

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Wild KPMG Fees Decision

Barely one day old, and Gonzalez-Lopez is already making waves in corporate law. To see the connection, however, you’ll have to bear with me for a bit of brush-clearing.

Judge Lewis A. Kaplan (S.D.N.Y.) today ruled on certain individual defendants’ motions to dismiss an indictment arising from the KPMG tax shelter investigation. (Large pdf here.) According to the defendants, their due process rights were violated when the U.S. Attorney pressured their former employer (KPMG) not to advance and reimburse legal fees incurred as individuals defendants. Judge Kaplan found a due process violation, scolded the government, and suggested a new lawsuit against KPMG to recover those legal fees, in which today’s decision would have collateral effect and make the proceedings summary. In short: the decision seems to constitutionalize the right to receive indemnification from your employer.

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Scalia v. Souter On The Death Penalty

Today’s Supreme Court decision in Kansas v. Marsh, a case involving the constitutionality of Kansas’s death penalty statute, delivered more than one might have expected of a (relatively) minor case. At issue was a statute that called for a jury to impose death if the DA proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that mitigators did not outweigh aggravators. Put another way, the question was: can a state constitutionally impose death where the jury concludes that neither the mitigators nor the aggravators outweigh each other – that is, it’s an evidentiary tie. (There’s a more complete summary of the case at Scotusblog.) But what makes this case interesting and arguably important so much the legal issues, but the way the justices approached them.

Dissenting, Justice Souter argued that a sentencing sheme must produce morally justifiable results. He did a tour around some of the reasons to question the accuracy of America’s death penalty system: exonerations of people on death row, the increased use of DNA to undermine capital sentences, and “the combined difficulty of investigating (capital cases) without help from the victim, intense pressure to get convictions in homicide cases, and the corresponding incentive for the guilty to frame the innocent.” Souter spent a total of three and a half pages making these particular claims about accuracy, and concluded “in the face of evidence of the hazards of capital prosecution, maintaining a sentencing system mandating death when the sentencing finds the evidence pro and con to be in equipoise is obtuse by any moral or social measure.”

Responding to this, and in the pragmatic voice of McCleskey v. Kemp (where the Justice Powell concluded that a racially biased death sentencing system does not violate the Constitution), Justice Thomas wrote that “because the criminal justice system does not operate perfectly, abolition is the only answer to the moral dilemma the dissent poses. This Court, however, does not sit as a moral authority. Our precedents do not prohibit the States from authorizing the death penalty, even in our imperfect system.” Put another way: innocent people may be executed, but probably not that many, and there’s not much we can do.

Justice Scalia, however, got quite exercised. He attempted to slice and dice the various arguments, studies and reports relied upon by Souter. To Souter’s three and a half pages, Scalia offered eleven pages of retort. He also hinted to his real concern: that Souter’s opinion would give comfort to foreign abolitionists. He wrote:

There exists in some parts of the world sanctimoniouscriticism of America’s death penalty, as somehow unwor-thy of a civilized society. (I say sanctimonious, because most of the countries to which these finger-waggers belong had the death penalty themselves until recently – and indeed, many of them would still have it if the democratic will prevailed.) It is a certainty that the opinion of a near-majority of the United States Supreme Court to theeffect that our system condemns many innocent defendants to death will be trumpeted abroad as vindication of these criticisms. For that reason, I take the trouble to point out that the dissenting opinion has nothing substantial to support it.

Interesting stuff. Here are a couple of things that came to my mind reading the opinions.

1. The difference Alito makes. Most people will read this decision and conclude that Alito turned the outcome around. This is probably correct. But Souter’s opinion changed as well. Had SOC been around for this case, Souter could never have included the recent data about exonerations and innocence in the opinion. I have great difficulty believing she would have signed on to that. This evidence has been hanging around for a few years, and it almost seemed like Souter was looking for a time to trot it out. As the dissent pointed out, this wasn’t a case about guilt or innocence, but rather sentencing. It is entirely possible to imagine that an innocent person would get a death sentence even under the most rigorous of sentencing standards. Sentencing standards don’t reduce erroneous convictions. Souter’s argument only makes real sense – as the dissent notes – if its goal is to reduce the number of people who receive death sentences (and thus the number of people for whom systemic errors would be fatal.) That’s not a narrow procedural ruling; that’s a whole different attitude towards death as a sanction.

2. Which leads to my second point. This may be a 5-4 decision, but it wasn’t even close. Although the media may report it as a tight vote, in fact the majority and dissent were miles apart. If SOC had joined Souter, I think the majority would have written a narrow opinion relying on purely legal claims. Since Souter had no chance of winning a fifth vote, he made a critical move: he introduced empirical data from the real world (but almost certainly not from the trial record) into his analysis. I don’t know why he did it. Perhaps he believes it time for these issues to be debated in society, and wanted to use an opinion as a platform to spark debate. Perhaps he believes that these issues must be introduced into the jurisprudence now so that they can flower in 10 or 20 years. Perhaps he worries that there will not even be four votes for this opinion in a year or two, and wanted to make these points while they can still be described as the view of a strong 4-vote minority. Or maybe he thinks that, a couple of years from now, Justice Kennedy will revisit these questions. Whatever the reasons, he can’t have thought he’d win any votes with this opinion.

3. Which leads to the next question. Why did Scalia explode? I suspect he did so because he fears Souter’s opinion was designed for all these purposes, as well as to spur further international debate on America’s use of capital punishment. Indeed, the international dimension of this case – which Scalia highlighted – is surely a big issue for him. Notwithstanding his old world love for American policy independence, the New World Order – discovered by 41 – increasingly calls for America to comply with international norms. The Constitution may not forbid capital punishment, but it’s easy to imagine that some future international trade pact will. So maybe Scalia is taking this chance to make the case on behalf of the USA that, with respect to error at least, the death penalty ain’t so bad. I agree with MJ, commenting over at Orin’s place, though. I suspect that Scalia’s opinion was so much of a “smack-down” that the rhetoric may undermine its value. It certainly undermined his ability to garner a second vote.


Scalito No More!

In today’s decision, U.S. v. Gonzalez-Lopez, Justices Scalia and Alito broke into separate camps on the issue of counsel choice. Scalia, writing (surely with contrarian joy) for the liberal majority, held that a court’s improper denial of an individual’s counsel of choice was a constitutional error requiring automatic reversal. Alito, dissenting – and not respectfully either! – argued that there was something wrong with the idea that a person could end up with a better lawyer than he’d have preferred, but still score a new trial.

I’ll post at a bit more length in a little while. But I thought it interesting to see these supposed doppelgangers divide so neatly. (And even more so to see a little attitude show through in the opposing opinions.)

Mind you, I’m not holding my breath.


Parole After Samson

Yesterday, in Samson v. California, the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit police officers from conducting suspicionless searches of parolees. Justice Thomas argued that prisoners are subject to suspicionless searches. And because, in his view, parole is essentially a prison sentence that continues on the outside, the state retains the right to continue those searches during parole. Thomas made a clear distinction between those on probation (who have greater privacy rights) and those on parole. Stevens, writing for Breyer and Souter, argued that this decision constitutes an expansion of police power because it allows, for the first time, suspicionless searches in the absence of governmental “special needs.”

The dissent correctly views the decision as a doctrinal shift, but it is only one more step in a lonstanding move towards a “common sense” (i.e., defendant unfriendly) approach to criminal justice. Frankly, the Fourth Amendment horse left the barn when Humphrey’s campaign against Dick Nixon fell short.

The more interesting questions for me involve the long-term implications of Samson. The dissent states that only one or two states allow searches of the type experienced by Samson. I have to think that most states wil now join the bandwagon. DA’s will rarely lose a Fourth Amendment suppression motion submitted by a parolee. Other than states with a special interest in parolee privacy – and I have yet to meet that state – I would expect most jurisdictions to encourage officers to conduct these suspicionless searches. (Will an officer have to know she’s searching a parolee? Or will she get the free-pass search so long as she has probable cause to believe she’s about to search a parolee?)

Samson also creates new incentives for DA’s at sentencing. There is now a clear distinction between probation and parole: only parolees are subject to suspicionless searches. A savvy DA will ask for sentences that involve long paroles rather than long probations. (Thus, for example, a defendant who had served nine months awaiting trial might get an indeterminate sentence like “9 months to 5 years”, rather than simply “time served plus five years probation.” On the flip side, perhaps this enhanced supervision will make parole boards (or judges) a hair more comfortable placing inmates back on the street earlier in their sentence. (I’m not holding my breath.)

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I recently finished David Feige’s new book, Indefensible: One Lawyer’s Journey into the Inferno of American Justice. I read it both because Feige is a former colleague of mine at the Bronx Defenders and because I’m always searching for materials that give law students a more realistic view of criminal law than, say, Kadish and Shulhofer, Criminal Law and its Processes (7th ed.) (For my juvenile justice course, I’ve settled on Edward Humes’s, No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Life of Juvenile Court.

Indefensible is an account of a day in the life of a Bronx public defender,with narratives of Feige’s professional career and other cases weaved throughout. It certainly captures many practical challenges of a public defender. In the Bronx, like Feige, I found much of my life – and a vast portion of my energy – dedicated to appearing in the right courtroom at the right time. On a given day, I might have had 15 cases in ten courtrooms; Feige fairly describes the difficulty of managing this chaotic calendar. He also nicely captures some strategies PD’s use to win over their suspicious clients.. Feige (improperly) delivers a fresh pack of cigarettes to a recently arrested client, winning him over instantly. (You wouldn’t show up at Aunt Marilyn’s house empty handed, would you? Well then…)

Feige also does a nice job of bringing out what I’d call the the micro-injustices in a criminal system. Most scholarship is focused on macroscopic issues: race disparities, over-incarceration, the failure of deterrence and overpunishment, and the like. But for the practicing lawyer, the system systematically treats all participants poorly and, in doing so, creates injustice on an hourly basis. There are defendants who wait all day, only to be sent home with a continuance at 5pm. Pre-trial detainees awakened at 5am and brought down to the courthouse for the convenience of a lawyer who doesn’t want to travel to the jail, but who needs to visit for 2 minutes. People who have warrants issued for their arrest because their lawyers never bother to listen to phone messages. And of course the innocent defendants who plead guilty simply to avoid missing one more day of work as the case is continued ad infinitum. Though Feige focuses mostly on defendants, they’re not the only ones who suffer. For example, many complaining witnesses sit for hours awaiting cases that never go to trial. This is the cost of mass criminalization on the cheap.

Criminal defense lawyers can be cocky SOB’s, sometimes, and periodically one gets that vibe from Feige. But his account is pretty true to life. And Feige – a curious mix of cowboy and social worker – is a lawyer worth emulating. Mostly.


A Small Step Closer to Knowing Who Killed Theresa Allore?

I blogged last week about my friend John Allore’s search over the weekend of the wooded site in Quebec province where his big sister’s body was discovered nearly three decades ago.

The search party did find some stuff — forensic value currently unknown — and drew lots of attention to this cold case and many others like it across Quebec and across Canada.

Here’s the follow-up article from the National Post. I found it quite moving, and not only because the guy on a quest is my friend.

(Incidentally, if I’m not mistaken, John is wearing a Carolina Hurricanes t-shirt in the photo, which appears today in the National Post. A gutsy move for a Canadian expat returning to Canada on the weekend of Games 6 and 7 of the Stanley Cup series between the ‘Canes and the Edmonton Oilers.)


Searching for Justice for Theresa Allore — And Other Candian Crime Victims

In the fall of 1978, somebody murdered my friend John Allore‘s big sister Theresa and left her body in the woods in Magog, Quebec. Police investigation at the time was shoddy, and rapidly came to a “blame-the-victim” conclusion.

Since 2001, John has been on a quest to solve his sister’s murder, often without much help from Canadian authorities.

Tomorrow he and a group of supporters will take the matter into their own hands once again, gathering to search the crime scene for traces of evidence that might remain.

Their do-it-yourself search is drawing significant attention north of the border — not just to Theresa’s murder, but to other “cold cases” and to the frustrations of Canadian crime victims and their families in their dealings with the Canadian criminal investigation bureacracy.

The National Post has a very good article about it that you can read by clicking here.

Best of luck to John and his fellow searchers tomorrow.