May 3, 2008
Wave of New Execution Dates Set
From the New York Times: HUNTSVILLE, Tex. — Here in the nation’s leading death-penalty state, and some of the 35 others with capital punishment, execution dockets are quickly filling up.
Less than three weeks after a United States Supreme Court ruling ended a seven-month moratorium on lethal injections, at least 14 execution dates have been set in six states between May 6 and October.
“The Supreme Court essentially blessed their way of doing things,” said Douglas A. Berman, a professor of law and a sentencing expert at Ohio State University. “So in some sense, they’re back from vacation and ready to go to work.”
Experts say the resumption of executions is likely to throw a strong new spotlight on the divisive national — and international — issue of capital punishment.
“When people confront a new wave of executions, they’ll be questioning not only how people are executed but whether people should be executed,” said James R. Acker, a historian of the death penalty and a criminal justice professor at the State University at Albany.
Texas leads the list with five people now set to die here in the Walls Unit, the state’s death house, between June 3 and Aug. 20. Virginia is next with four. Louisiana, Oklahoma and South Dakota have also set execution dates.
Some welcome the end of the moratorium.
“We’ll start playing a little bit of catch-up,” said William R. Hubbarth, a spokesman for Justice for All, a victims rights group based in Houston.
Read full article here. [Brooks Holland]
Punk Out for Public Interest
Tennessee director of clinical programs Ben Barton raised $200 for summer public interest fellowships by auctioning off the right to shave his head into a mohawk. Yikes, makes my karaoke offer seem like chicken-shit now (although it usually raises a couple hundred).
The Middle Finger and the Law
American University CrimProf Ira Robbins has posted Digitus Impudicus: The Middle Finger and the Law on SSRN. Here's the abstract:
The middle finger is one of the most commonly used insulting gestures in the United States. The finger, which is used to convey a wide range of emotions, is visible on streets and highways, in schools, shopping malls, and sporting events, in courts and execution chambers, in advertisements and on magazine covers, and even on the hallowed floor of the United States Senate. Despite its ubiquity, however, as a number of recent cases demonstrate, those who use the middle finger in public run the risk of being stopped, arrested, prosecuted, fined, and even incarcerated under disorderly conduct or breach of peace statutes and ordinances.
This Article argues that, although most convictions are ultimately overturned on appeal, the pursuit of criminal sanctions for use of the middle finger infringes on First Amendment rights, violates fundamental principles of criminal justice, wastes valuable judicial resources, and defies good sense. Indeed, the Supreme Court has consistently held that speech may not be prohibited simply because some may find it offensive. Criminal law generally aims to protect persons, property, or the state from serious harm, but use of the middle finger simply does not raise these concerns.
Article here. Be sure to read footnote 34.........
May 1, 2008
D.C. Madam Supposedly Commits Suicide
From abcnews.com: Florida police are investigating the apparent suicide of a woman they believe to be the so-called D.C. Madam, who was found dead in the Florida mobile home of the madam's mother Thursday.
The madam, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, was recently convicted on federal charges stemming from operating a prostitution service in the Washington, D.C. area with a number of high-profile clients. She was scheduled to be sentenced July 24. Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]
Dallas DA Pushes for Criminal Justice Changes
From star-telegram.com: After seeking the release of two wrongfully convicted men in about two weeks, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins said he will lobby in Austin for criminal justice changes, including establishment of conviction integrity units across the state.
Watkins talked about the need to double-check the veracity of the system after a court hearing Tuesday in which James Lee Woodard, 55, was set free after serving more than 27 years behind bars for a murder in 1980 that he did not commit.
"This is a perfect time to do it," Watkins said. "We have to look at it. We have to balance that time when we are being a politician, and when we are a human being."
If the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agrees to vacate Woodard's sentence, he would be the 17th inmate to be cleared in Dallas County by DNA evidence since 2001 and the longest-serving inmate in the country to be cleared by additional testing of evidence.
Watkins this month asked for a similar resolution for Thomas McGowan, 49, who served 23 years behind bars for a sexual assault and burglary he did not commit.
Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas, which investigated Woodard's case, said other reforms should include a public defender's office, punishment of prosecutors who break the rules and opening the courts to inmates pursuing innocence claims.
"We like to pretend the system in this state works," Blackburn said. "But we've got to stop lying to each other." Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]
April 29, 2008
Federal Court Upholds College Aid Restrictions for Drug Offenders
From The School Law Blog: A federal appeals court has rejected a constitutional challenge to a federal law that restricts, and in some cases bars, students with drug convictions from participation in federal college aid programs.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, ruled in Students for Sensible Drug Policy Foundation v. Spellings that the controversial sanctions do not violate the double-jeopardy clause of the 5th Amendment.
New Study on the Death Penalty & Race
From the New York Times: About 1,100 people have been executed in the United States in the last three decades. Harris County, Tex., which includes Houston, accounts for more than 100 of those executions. Indeed, Harris County has sent more people to the death chamber than any state but Texas itself.
Yet Harris County’s capital justice system has not been the subject of intensive research — until now. A new study to be published in The Houston Law Review this fall has found two sorts of racial disparities in the administration of the death penalty there, one commonplace and one surprising.
The unexceptional finding is that defendants who kill whites are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill blacks. More than 20 studies around the nation have come to similar conclusions.
But the new study also detected a more straightforward disparity. It found that the race of the defendant by itself plays a major role in explaining who is sentenced to death.
It has never been conclusively proven that, all else being equal, blacks are more likely to be sentenced to death than whites in the three decades since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Many experts, including some opposed to the death penalty, have said that evidence of that sort of direct discrimination is spotty and equivocal.
But the author of the new study, Scott Phillips, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver, found a robust relationship between race and the likelihood of being sentenced to death even after the race of the victim and other factors were held constant.
Read Full article here. [Brooks Holland]
Court to Help Vets in Criminal System
From NPR.com: As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan put renewed focus on the issue of veterans' mental health, a judge in Buffalo, N.Y., has created a special court to assist veterans who wind up in the criminal justice system.
ary Pettengill wanted to make a career out of the military, but the Army made him take a medical discharge in 2006 after he injured his back in Iraq. At the time, Pettengill was 23 and married, with a third child on the way.
To cope with what he says were empty days and nightmares caused by post-traumatic stress disorder, Pettengill says he started smoking marijuana. Then he began selling it to pay his bills. In February, he was arrested during a drug sweep and accused of being in possession of two pounds of marijuana.
Pettengill found himself facing serious time and the possibility of losing his children to the child welfare system. His family was evicted from their apartment.
Then he was referred to Judge Robert Russell's "veterans court." Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]
April 28, 2008
Profs Shave Heads For Public Interest Law
Some law profs at Western New England shaved their heads at school to raise money for students working in public interest jobs this summer. Photos here. [Mark Godsey]
Amnesty International Reports Worldwide Drop in Executions Last Year
Story here. [Mark Godsey]
The New "DNA": Antibody Testing.....
From associated press: Federal researchers say they've developed a human identification test that's faster and possibly cheaper than DNA testing. It would be a handy new weapon in the arsenal for detectives, forensic experts and the military, though no one expects it to replace DNA analysis — and its promoters say it is not intended to. The new method analyzes antibodies. Each person has a unique antibody bar code that can be gleaned from blood, saliva or other bodily fluids. Antibodies are proteins used by the body to fend off viruses or perform routine physiological housekeeping. "DNA is a physical code that describes you ... and in many ways so are your antibodies," said Dr. Vicki Thompson, a chemical engineer at the Idaho National Laboratory who's been working with other researchers to perfect the test for the past 10 years. Rest of story here. [Mark Godsey, hat tip Marty Yant]
April 27, 2008
Washington State Calls for Improvements to Remedy Evidence Accuracy Problem
From seattlepi.com: After a series of reports criticizing the handling of evidence at Washington crime labs, the state's Forensic Investigations Council has weighed in, agreeing that an employee who falsely certified test results cast "a cloud of doubt" over the workings of the entire laboratory system.
But after making six recommendations for improvement, the group of local government representatives and pathologists who make up the council praised the majority of lab workers as "dedicated, hard-working" and honest.
They "certainly did not deserve to have the actions of two people affect the public perception of their work," the report concludes.
Doubts about the accuracy of the lab's breath-test results surfaced last summer, when toxicology lab manager Ann Marie Gordon was accused of signing off on scientific tests in cases she hadn't actually done.
Another employee, Evan Thompson, made technical errors and violated lab procedures when analyzing a bullet's trajectory.
Both have since resigned.
Though the State Patrol, which runs the labs, maintains that the inaccurate results were extremely limited, two judges in Skagit County and three in King County have challenged the credibility of DUI evidence from the toxicology lab.
To rectify the situation, the council recommended increased staffing, tougher criteria for accreditation and more frequent audits. It also recommended dividing oversight of the 220-employee, eight-lab system between two people, whereas it had previously been handled by one.
The crime lab system has now implemented 39 specific recommendations for improvement made in three separate audits. [Mark Godsey]
CrimProf Jeff Fisher Argued Against the Death Penalty for Rapists
From daily.stanford.edu: Stanford CrimProf Jeff Fisher is no stranger to the Supreme Court — he’s argued before the high court nine times. But when he stepped in front of the nine justices last week to argue the case of a convicted child rapist hoping to avoid the death penalty, the stakes were higher than they ever have been before.
Fisher, the co-director of the Stanford Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, is representing Patrick Kennedy, a Louisiana man who has been sentenced to death for raping his eight year old stepdaughter. If his death sentence is upheld, Kennedy will become the first rapist to be executed in America since 1964.
According to Fisher, such a ruling would open the door to the expansion of the death penalty as punishment for a variety of other crimes, and increase the number of inmates eligible for the ultimate penalty fivefold.
“This was definitely one of the very biggest [cases] that I’ve done, in terms of the intensity and importance,” Fisher said. “The constitutional cases always have a weightier air in the room because the Court really has the final say.”
But the constitutional implications of the case are only partially responsible for its importance to Fisher. The Court’s decision is literally a matter of life and death, something that Fisher saw firsthand after visiting Kennedy in Louisiana’s Angola State Prison.
“There are ways we would love to see this case decided for the development of the law,” Fisher continued, “but once you meet the client and get to know him and understand what the consequences are, everything changes. When you walk out of the prison that day, you say ‘whatever it takes to win this case for the client.’” Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]