Category: Criminal Procedure


Convicting the Innocent


That image is from the false confession of Ronald Jones, a man whose tragic story begins my book, Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong. In fact, it is an image of his entire false confession, at least the statement that the detectives had typed at the end of eight grueling hours of interrogation in Chicago in the mid-1980s. I turned the statement into a word cloud to illustrate the words that Jones had repeated the most. In his statement, Jones was unfailingly polite, and according to the police stenographer, at least, he responded “Yes, Sir,” as the detectives asked him questions. In reality, he alleged at trial, detectives had brutally threatened him, beat him, and told him what to say about a crime he did not commit. The jury readily sentenced Jones to death for a brutal rape and murder on Chicago’s South Side.

The word cloud shows why the jury put Jones on death row. Some of the most prominent words, after “Yes, Sir,” are key details about the crime scene: that there was a knife, that the murder occurred in the abandoned Crest hotel, that the killer left through a window. Jones protested his innocence at trial, but those facts were powerfully damning. The lead detective had testified at trial Jones told them in the interrogation room exactly how the victim was assaulted and killed, and finally signed that confession statement. The detectives said they brought Jones to the crime scene where Jones supposedly showed them where and how the murder occurred. After his trial, Jones lost all of his appeals. Once DNA testing was possible in the mid-1990s, he was denied DNA testing by a judge who was so convinced by his confession statement that he remarked, “What issue could possibly be resolved by DNA testing?”

In my book, I examined what went wrong in the first 250 DNA exonerations in the U.S. Jones was exonerated by a post-conviction DNA test. Now we know that his confession, like 40 other DNA exoneree confessions, was not just false, but likely contaminated during a botched interrogation. Now we know that 190 people had eyewitnesses misidentify them, typically due to unsound lineup procedures. Now we know that flawed forensics, in about half of the cases, contributed to a wrongful conviction. Now we know that informants, in over 50 of the cases, lied at trial. Resource pages with data from the book about each of these problems, and with material from these remarkable trials of exonerees, are available online.

Returning to Ronald Jones’ false confession, the Supreme Court has not intervened to regulate the reliability of confessions, such as by asking courts to inquire whether there was contamination, or simply requiring videotaping so that we know who said what and whether the suspect actually knew the actual facts of the crime. Typical of its rulings on the reliability of evidence in criminal cases, the Court held in Colorado v. Connelly that though a confession statement “might be proved to be quite unreliable . . . this is a matter to be governed by the evidentiary laws of the forum . . . not by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Preventing wrongful convictions has largely fallen on the states. I end the book with optimism that we are starting to see stirrings of a criminal justice reform movement.


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Recommended Reading: Starr and Rehavi on Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice Process

Professor Sonja B. Starr and Professor M. Marit Rehavi have posted a fascinating new study on SSRN entitled Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice Process: Prosecutors, Judges, and the Effects of United States v. Booker.  It presents new empirical research on the effects of United States v. Booker on racial disparity in the federal criminal justice system (including in prosecutorial decision-making).  The study challenges current thinking, finding that Booker has reduced –rather than exacerbated — racial disparity.  Professor Starr, my brilliant former colleague and faculty member of the University of Michigan Law School, presented this research in August at the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference and in October at the National Sentencing Policy Institute, another federal judicial conference that also includes the US Sentencing Commission.



Volume 60, Issue 1 (October 2012)

Volume 60, Issue 1 (October 2012)


Not This Child: Constitutional Questions in Regulating Noninvasive Prenatal Genetic Diagnosis and Selective Abortion Jaime Staples King 2
A Labor Paradigm for Human Trafficking Hila Shamir 76
Prosecutors Hide, Defendants Seek: The Erosion of Brady Through the Defendant Due Diligence Rule Kate Weisburd 138


Trade Dress Protection for Cuisine: Monetizing Creativity in a Low-IP Industry Naomi Straus 182
What Happens in the Jury Room Stays in the Jury Room . . . but Should It?: A Conflict Between the Sixth Amendment and Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b) Amanda R. Wolin 262

Stanford Law Review Online: The Violence Against Women Act and Double Jeopardy in Higher Education

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published an Essay by Andrew Kloster entitled The Violence Against Women Act and Double Jeopardy in Higher Education. Mr. Kloster argues that proposed changes to the Violence Against Women Act have potentially serious implications for persons accused committing sexual assault in university proceedings:

The reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), set to expire this year, has elicited predictable partisan rancor. While there is little chance of the reauthorization being enacted by Congress so close to an election, the Senate draft includes a provision that raises interesting issues for the rights of students involved in sexual assault disciplinary proceedings on campus. The Senate version of VAWA could arguably condition a university’s receipt of federal funds on a requirement that the university always provide an appeal right for both accuser and accused. Setting aside the massive rise in federal micromanagement of college disciplinary proceedings, the proposed language in VAWA raises serious, unsettled issues of the application of double jeopardy principles in the higher education context.

He concludes:

Whatever the legal basis, it is clear that both Congress and the Department of Education ought to take seriously the risk that mandating that all universities receiving federal funds afford a dual appeal right in college disciplinary proceedings violates fundamental notions of fairness and legal norms prohibiting double jeopardy. College disciplinary hearings are serious matters that retain very few specific procedural safeguards for accused students, and permitting “do-overs” (let alone mandating them) does incredible damage to the fundamental rights of students.

Read the full article, The Violence Against Women Act and Double Jeopardy in Higher Education at the Stanford Law Review Online.


Prosecutors, Gambling and Dead Horses

Should federal prosecutors who settled a tax fraud case with the New York Racing Association back in 2003 (amended in 2005) be kicking themselves? Besides commitments typical of criminal settlement agreements (called deferred prosecution agreements), to improve internal control and governance, this one required the NYRA to continue its best efforts to install gambling machines at the track. It finally did so last year and the results have included the deaths of 21 horses during the winter meet.

Gambling is a controversial topic and New York State politicians had in 2003 just begun a push to expand the kinds of gambling that are legal in the state, starting with video gaming machines at horse racetracks. Why federal prosecutors settling a criminal tax suit should have anything to say about the NYRA’s role in advancing this agenda is not clear. Prosecutors did not explain their reasoning when signing the DPA.

In any event, the NYRA worked earnestly to move its gambling program along amid growing political and legal controversy in the state over gambling. It finally prevailed, opening a gambling emporium at the Aqueduct track in Queens in October 2011. In the ensuing season, an astonishingly high number of horses — 21 — died while racing.

In March, Governor Andrew Cuomo formed a task force to investigate and in May took state control over the track from the NYRA. The task force released its report last week identifying numerous causes for the deaths and prescribing extensive reforms of the NYRA and Aqueduct operations. Among the culprits: casino funding was allocated to massively increase awards to owners of winning horses in lower-level claiming races. Read More


The Policeman’s Legal Digest / A Walk Through the Penal Laws of New York (1934)

I collect old police manuals, mostly because I like to see what police were directed to do before the exclusionary rule came into the picture.  I also enjoy reading the lists of crimes that appear in some of these guides. Are these lists as interesting as the “Mad Men” / Rick Astley mash-up? No. But I take what I can get.

Some of these crimes are still with us; others have vanished from courtrooms in the intervening years. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re off the books; here in California, for example, it’s still a misdemeanor (as it has been since 1872) to kill, wound, or trap any bird within a cemetery, or to destroy any bird’s nest within a cemetery — except, of course, for swallows’ nests, which are specifically exempted by the pertinent statute (Penal Code 598). (Thinking.) Nope, I can’t say that I recall ever invoking this law back when I was a deputy D.A.

One police manual in my collection, M.J. Delahanty’s The Policeman’s Legal Digest, offers an interesting list of crimes that were on the books in circa-1934 New York. In addition to murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, burglary, theft, and other longtime staples of the criminal docket, the Digest also told officers that they should stay on the lookout for many other crimes that no longer weigh heavily on the minds of most New Yorkers.

For each crime listed in the Digest, the manual identifies the essential elements of the offense (often in a somewhat confusing flowchart manner), as well as the section of the Penal Law or other New York code that relates the crime.  Some of the more exotic — by modern standards — crimes related in the Digest are (the list goes on, and on, after the jump):

Compulsory Prostitution of Wife (Penal Law sec. 1090)

Adultery (PL 100)

Compelling a Woman to Marry (PL 532)

Seduction (PL 2175)

Immoral Plays and Exhibitions (PL 1140-A)

Wayward Minor (C.Cr.P 913-A)

Abortion (PL 80)

Self-Abortion (PL 81)

Manufacturing or Selling (miscarriage) Instruments (PL 82)

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Adventures on the Back of the Envelope, Part III: What’s the Hardest Federal Crime to Prove?

What’s the most difficult federal crime to prove at trial? A little while ago, I tried to answer this question by running a series of inquiries in a database that I’ve put together. This database relates the charge-level disposition of all federal court cases that terminated between October 2002 and September 2009. By framing the proper queries, I can tease out data that, while far from perfect, suggests answers to questions like the one above.  (Among the limitations of the data, the database only lists the five most serious charges in each case, and I’ve spotted some inputting errors by court personnel.)

Anyway, take a guess. I’ll give you an answer after the jump.

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Adventures on the Back of the Envelope, Part II: Warring Definitions of “Probable Cause”

While watching “Win Win” this evening (good movie, BTW), I decided to run another Criminal Procedure back-of-the-envelope drill. This time, I wanted to see if I could track the utilization of the various definitions of “probable cause.”

Among these definitions, courts have stated that probable cause exists “when the facts known to the arresting officer would persuade someone of ‘reasonable caution’ that the person to be arrested has committed a crime”; when the known facts  “would lead a [person] of ordinary care and prudence to believe and conscientiously entertain an honest and strong suspicion that the person is guilty of a crime”; and when a “prudent person would have concluded that there was a fair probability that the individual had committed a crime.” There are other definitions out there, too; this is just a sampling.

I was a little curious about whether the “fair probability” language has become ever-increasingly prevalent since its unveiling by the United States Supreme Court  in Illinois v. Gates, decided in 1983.  “Fair probability” certainly seems to appear more frequently in recent decisions; do the numbers bear this out?

To find out, I ran another series of searches in the Westlaw ALLCASES database. This time, for each of the years 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, and 2010, I charted the number of cases that featured each of the following phrases, each of which represents the core of a different “probable cause” definition (I have included the Boolean operators that I used in these searches, as well): 1. “fair probability” /p “probable cause”; 2. “honest and strong suspicion” /p “probable cause”; 3. (“reasonable grounds to believe” “reasonable person to believe” “reasonable officer to believe”) /p “probable cause”; 4. “prudent and cautious” /p “probable cause”; 5. “probable cause” /p “reasonable caution.”

I appreciate that there is some mush in the data, since these search terms certainly capture some cases in which the identified descriptive language wasn’t being used to define “probable cause.” But my quick review of the text of the search results suggests that the numbers below appear directionally correct, at least, with the largest number of “junk” results involving the last of these phrasings.

As for these results, the number of cases containing the language above were as follows (with the figures for each year being presented in the same order as the phrasing was listed above):

1980: 0  (FP) / 15 (H+S) / 66 (RG/RP/RO) / 8 (P+C) / 130 (RC)

1985: 113 / 9 / 90 / 10 / 122

1990: 173 / 4 / 116 / 3 / 143

1995: 206 / 7 / 117 / 10 / 182

2000: 246 /10 / 176 / 7 / 245

2005: 470 /33 / 261 / 18 / 315

2010: 747 / 35 / 334 / 16 / 535

So, it looks like the Gates language caught on pretty quickly, battled the previously prevailing “person of reasonable caution” formulation to a draw for a time, and recently pulled ahead–but even today, it only leads, and does not dominate, the field.

I’ve always (OK, only since I started practicing) thought that the “fair probability” phrasing suggests a less stringent standard than the “reasonable caution” language does; but the amorphous nature of probable cause makes it difficult to know what, if any effect, the growing popularity of “fair probability”–if the numbers above are to be believed–has had on mine-run probable cause determinations.


Adventures on the Back of the Envelope: Katz v. United States and the Popularization of the Phrase “Reasonable Expectation of Privacy”

I find it interesting how a case often is seen as standing for one thing when it’s decided, and something quite different years later. Relatedly, it can be interesting to see how courts come to glean from a decision a rule — or at least a catchphrase — that they then rely upon to decide cases before them.

I recently conducted a back-of-the-envelope exercise in this vein, sparked by a student’s question regarding the Fourth Amendment case, Katz v. United States. The gist of the student’s question was, how did the phrase “reasonable expectation of privacy” come to summarize the “was there a search” inquiry that kicks off most Fourth Amendment analysis–particularly when the phrase is found not in the majority opinion in Katz, but in Justice Harlan’s concurring opinion?

There’s a practical answer, of course, relating to the facts that (1) the next year, Terry v. Ohio parroted Harlan’s phrasing, and (2) Harlan gave courts a somewhat more workable (though still confusing) standard, or at least, framework for decision than Justice Stewart’s majority opinion did. But how quickly did courts catch on to this?

To probe this matter, working with the Westlaw ALLCASES database, I identified all state and federal cases that cited to Katz in certain subsequent years, and then, within each of these subsets, how many of these cases invoked the phrase “reasonable expectation of privacy.” The results:

1968: 3/58 (= 5%)

1969: 11/120 (=9%)

1971: 16/140 (=11%)

1973: 52/192 (=27%)

1977: 63/175 (=36%)

1981: 152/271 (=56%)

1985: 119/211 (=56%)

1989: 96/178 (=54%)

1993: 96/217 (=44%)

1997: 97/183 (=53%)

2001: 94/217 (=43%)

2005: 102/270 (=38%)

2009: 146/392 (=37%)

(I don’t know why we’ve seen a recent decline in the invocation rate for “reasonable expectation of privacy”; perhaps it has something to do with more cases being incorporated within Westlaw, perhaps something else.)

So, it looks like it took a little time–about a decade–for “reasonable expectation of privacy” to catch on as shorthand for the Katz approach. Either that, or the sorts of cases that courts heard changed over time, so as to present issues requiring resort to (or at least mention of) this test more often as the 1970s progressed. Either explanation is plausible, I suppose. One also wonders whether similar slow-burn patterns of diffusion exist in cases where a concurring opinion (in a non-Marks setting) becomes accepted as stating the governing rule.


Stanford Law Review Online: Pulling the Plug on the Virtual Jury

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published a Note by Nicolas L. Martinez entitled Pulling the Plug on the Virtual Jury. Martinez takes issue with Judge William Young’s proposal that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed be tried via videoconference from Guantanamo Bay by a jury sitting in New York:

Most people probably figured that the debate over where to try alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (“KSM”) had ended. Indeed, it has been well over a year since Congress forced Attorney General Eric Holder to reluctantly announce that KSM’s prosecution would be referred to the Department of Defense for trial before a Guantanamo military commission. But a provocative proposal put forth recently by Judge William G. Young of the District of Massachusetts has revitalized one of the most contentious legal debates of the post-9/11 era. In a nutshell, Judge Young proposes that an Article III court try KSM at Guantanamo, but with one major twist: the jury would remain in New York City.

He concludes:

Perhaps unwilling to refight the battles of two years ago, Congress has shown no inclination to retreat from its apparent view that KSM may only be tried by a military commission at Guantanamo. As a result, following through on Judge Young’s plan, which could be viewed as an attempt to circumvent the will of Congress, might lead some legislators to harden their stance on civilian trials for alleged terrorists and propose even more disagreeable legislation to that end. This is not to say that creative solutions aimed at fortifying the rule of law in a post-9/11 world should be held hostage to the proclivities of intransigent voting blocs in Congress. Quite the opposite, in fact. But the likely political ramifications of Judge Young’s proposal cannot be ignored, especially in an election year when few members of Congress may be willing to spend their political capital defending the need to hold KSM’s trial in federal court.

Even though Judge Young’s provocative suggestion should not be adopted in its current form, he has moved the conversation in the right direction. Continuing to think imaginatively about ways to preserve our rule of law tradition from external threats is immensely important, particularly in the context of national security crises. For it is when the rule of law can be so easily discarded that it must be most doggedly defended.

Read the full article, Pulling the Plug on the Virtual Jury at the Stanford Law Review Online.