Category: Criminal Procedure


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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The Problem Of Jury Override In Capital Cases

The ABA death penalty assessment for Alabama highlighted several serious concerns regarding the role of the jury in capital cases. First, judges can override jury recommendations of life. Second, a 10-2 vote – two short of unanimity – is sufficient to support a death recommendation. And, in a slightly different vein, surveys of jurors in capital cases suggest that these jurors are utterly confused about the applicable law. In this post, I’ll attempt to provide further analysis on the issue of jury overrides. (This is my fourth post about the ABA assessment. Others are here, here, and here.)

In Alabama, capital juries only recommend a sentence; the final decision on life or death belongs only to the judge. Alabama is one of only four states that allow a judge to sentence a defendant to death when a jury has rejected this sanction and imposed life. (Some people thought that Ring v. Arizona ended this practice, when it provided that juries – not judges – must find aggravators beyond a reasonable doubt. Because of the structure’s of Alabama’s death statute, however, Alabama courts have thus far upheld Alabama’s override statute.) Of these four states, Alabama is the only jurisdiction that selects judges in partisan elections. Jury override is designed to allow judges to regulate the use of death to insure that the punishment is not imposed arbitrarily or unfairly.

It turns out that in Alabama, 90% of all judicial overrides of jury verdicts impose death against the advice of the jury. Why is this?

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Death In Alabama: The Problem Of Indigent Defense

One of the most cutting critiques of Alabama’s death penalty system is that many defendants – and probably most – do not receive the miminal quality counsel one might expect in a case involving life or death. It has long been my view that society should aspire to provide indigent criminal defendants the sort of quality representation that our corporations expect. Or to put it a different way, I believe that indigent lawyers should be good enough that a sophisticated consumer of legal services would entrust the fate of his or her son or daughter to such attorneys. Unfortunately, Alabama’s indigent defense system falls far, far short of this goal.

In its recent Alabama death penalty assessment, the ABA team articulated three particular concerns about counsel in capital cases. First, the matter of qualifications. The only requirement of a lawyer appointed in a capital case – and the law only requires that one lawyer be appointed – is that he or she have five years of criminal defense experience. He or she need not be a full-time “criminal lawyer” – handling several criminal cases will suffice. And even this minimal requirement isn’t even always enforced. Why is this qualification too thin? Capital work is extremely high stakes and requires serious trial talent. But even more so, it requires a skill distinct from other criminal work: the ability to litigate the punishment issues of mitigation and aggravation. Mitigation in capital cases is exceptionally complex, requiring excellent interview and investigation skills, the ability to frame a compelling narrative (that looks very different from the guilt/innocence narrative), and a talent for understanding how to make guilt/innocence issues work in tandem (not conflict) with life/death issues. A general practitioner with some background in criminal cases won’t learn this stuff. Nobody would choose to have a cornonary bypass with a doctor who’d done a few heart surgeries, here and there. The same holds true with capital cases.

A second challenge is the state’s lack of training requirements. The amount of specialized training required of appointed counsel in capital cases? None. And when you have untrained defenders trying their first capital case all allone, that effectively turns capital defendants into guinea pigs.

Finally, there is the matter of compensation. Until 1999, Alabama capped fees in capital cases at $2000. Most people currently on death row were convicted under that cap. The limit has been lifted, and fees – meager as they are ($40/hour for out of court work; $60/hour for in-court) – can at least match the needs of an individual case. The same is not true on appeal, however, where fees remain capped at $2000. When you consider how long it takes simply to review a 1500 page trial record, one can only expect an appellate lawyer to do the most cursory job on these cases. And when it comes to post-conviction representation – state collateral challenges – Alabama offers even less. Alabama is one of only two states that does not guarantee counsel in these proceedings. A judge has the discretion to appoint counsel, but the fee cap is $1000.

As I am writing in a separate post, I think the answer to many of these challenges is a properly funded public defender. But at minimum, the state should follow the ABA’s recommendation that it appoint a statewide commission on indigent defense. The starting point for any fair and accurate death penalty system is provision of quality defense services. Indeed, such services are a precondition to a just capital punishment regime. Put simply, it’s a matter of good government.


Death Penalty Moratorium In Alabama? Critical ABA Panel Says Yes

Sunday, the ABA issued the Alabama Death Penalty Assessment Report, an extensive study of the state’s capital punishment system. The report was prepared by a team of Alabama lawyers that included a sitting DA, a former federal magistrate judge, a state legislator, a former president of the Alabama State Bar, and several lawyers in private practice. (I chaired the team.) It was critical of many aspects of the state’s death scheme including the quality and scope of indigent defense counsel, inadequate proportionality review, a failure to address serious juror confusion about legal standards, and the ability of judges to override jury imposed life sentences. The committee (with one dissent – the sitting district attorney) called for the state to adopt a moratorium on the death penalty pending significant improvements in the state’s system. The executive summary is here; the complete 265 page report is here. An op-ed I co-authored with Michael Greco, the ABA President, is here.

I plan to blog about different aspects of the assessment over the course of this week. Suffice to say, as a starting point, that the study contains a good deal of bad news about the fairness of the state’s scheme. One of the most troubling things that surfaced in our work was the fact that the state’s capital system has eluded serious study for so long. Unlike some other states, few individuals or organizations have conducted extensive research on it. The state engages in fairly limited data collection as well. As a consequence, we were somewhat limited in our ability to provide a complete snapshot of the system.

In many respects. this report is best designed to start – rather than end – serious scrutiny of capital punishment in Alabama. Among other things, the assessment compiles a host of details about the state’s capital punishment laws and procedures. We hope that this compilation will not only assist researchers and policymakers, but criminal lawyers as well.

UPDATE: I will try to link my subsquent posts here. Tuesday’s related posts are here and here. Wednesday’s related post is here.


Update on Plea Bargains and Prediction Markets

In Let Markets Help Criminal Defendants, I wrote that “If I were running a public defender service, I’d consider setting up an online prediction market for the conviction of my clients.” I still think this is a good idea, but someone suggested a serious problem that would have to be remedied for the scheme to be possible.

Right now, prediction markets bets on judicial events, like the conviction of Lewis Libby (whose graph is to the right), pay off at 100 for conviction, and 0 for any other ending of this set of charges, including a plea. This creates noise which renders them useless for criminal defendants looking to see if they ought to plea. That is, as I didn’t fully appreciate before, traders must be estimating the probability of conviction, tempered by the likelihood of a plea – prices are lower than the actual market estimate of a guilty verdict independent of a plea. That is, if the current price of Libby’s “stock” is .40, that means that incarceration is not 40% likely. It means that traders think it is 60% likely that Libby will win at trial, receive a mistrial, obtain a dismissal, be granted a pardon, or plea. I imagine that the likelihood of a plea accounts for a large percentage of this figure.

If traders thought that conviction prices affected defendant behavior, then presumably they’d seek to put in sell orders at prices above those where rational defendants would plea. This would put downward pressure on price and make the entire system useless from defense counsel’s perspective.

For my system to work, you’d have to exclude the possibility of a plea (i.e., nullify all bets if there is a plea). Of course, this still would create some dynamic tension, as bettors presumably would become eager to invest time and trade only as pleas become less likely – near trial, or in jurisdictions, like Philadelphia, where the District Attorney has a no-plea policy. But the resulting prices would be more informative than those offered by the current system.


Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair

My colleague Bennett Capers (Hofstra) has written a fascinating, and rather disturbing, article at the intersection of law and art. Writing about Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair paintings, he asks a series of probing questions – about who the viewer imagines in the chair, and about death as a public spectacle. In this excerpt, he talks more about presence/absence in the paintings:

ReSizedWarholElectricChair.jpgIn Warhol’s Electric Chair series, just as the condemned is both absent and present, so is the State – and this is comforting. Complicity is shared. No one is to blame. Our system of capital punishment thrives partly because of this (joint) presence and absence. The state is present in the very bureaucracy of execution, from the legislative decision to authorized capital punishment to the judicial sanctioning of death-authorized juries. At the same time, the state creates its own absence in diffusing authority among the cast of participants: legislators, prosecutors, jurors, trial and appellate judges, governors with their ability to grant clemency, the executioner himself. And this is what I mean by absence. To borrow from another commentator, the diffusion allows everyone to say, “I’m only doing my job. I’m just a cog in the wheel. I didn’t kill him.” The room is empty, even though it is full.

The article was recently published by the California Law Review.

Photo Credit: Andy Warhol, Electric Chair I (1971), Warhol Family Museum of Modern Art


Six Flags Syndrome: Price Discrimination In Plea Bargaining

Six Flags.jpg Price discrimination occurs when any seller charges two different buyers a different price for the same product. Coupons are one obvious method of price discrimination. Airline advance purchase requirements are another. The term sounds ugly, but it’s basic marketing. One major area of price discrimination occurs between sophisticated and unsophisticated consumers. Uninformed car buyers often pay more for their autos than those who arrive with the newest pricing data from Edmunds. And while many web buyers routinely pay full price, others of us consult Coupon Cabin, Mom’s View, or XP Bargains before ordering online. We don’t do anything special for the discount; we just know enough to check for coupons.

In a blunt admission of price discrimination based on consumer sophistication, Six Flags’ VP for ticketing, Steve Brown, stated) “any guest paying full pirce at our parks is probably not doing their homework.”

Perhaps all is fair in love and sales, but what about plea bargaining? Would we feel OK if US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald announced that “anyone pleading to ten years on a marijuana charge probably didn’t do his homework”? As a public defender, I often discovered that a DA’s “best” offer wasn’t on the table initially. I had to request it. Sometimes I provided good reasons for a better deal – I cast the client in a new light, for example, or discussed an extenuating circumstance. But often I simply scrunched up my face and said “come on, you can do better than that”…and he or she would serve up a better offer. I understood the game; as a public defender, I played it every single day.

But it turns out that clients – and more importantly lawyers – are often surprisingly unsophisticated in the negotiation process and will not demand the best posible offer. I’m reminded of a friend who was handling his first serious felony. His client faced a mandatory 6 year bid for the gunpoint robbery, but the DA was offering 10 years. My friend planned to ask for seven years. After we talked, I explained that in my jurisdiction (we were in different states), a first time offender facing these charges would usually receive the mandatory minimum. I encouraged him to ask for six years. And that’s exactly what his client got. But if he’d asked for seven years – his initial plan – the client would have served an extra year.

So should prosecutors “take advantage” of unsophisticated opponents by jacking up offers?

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A Reckoning In Houston

Tomorrow the Enron jury will hear closing arguments in the Lay/Skilling trial. Given both defendants’ reported weaknesses as witnesses, the futures market estimate of conviction on at least several charges for Lay (76% ) and Skilling (73%) is predictable. (Although, the line has shifted significantly from February.) And even if a verdict arrives this week, the defense team(s) are already no doubt working on an appellate strategy. One tack: Judge Lake appears to have accepted the government’s intent instruction.

This raises an issue which I’ve been thinking a bit about recently. Given research showing that juries often ignore instuctions, especially in complicated cases, and instead focus on a narrative and attributions of blameworthiness, why does the government so often appear to overreach and thus preserve great defense issues for appeal? Does the federal prosecution manual discount the research? Or, more cynically, is the phenomena a problem of incentives? In the ordinary case, the marginal gain from the prosecution instruction is reaped by the line attorney, but the marginal cost of the instruction is usually discounted by time and by the likelihood that the government attorney defending the appeal is a different unit, or a different office altogether.