Monthly Archives: May 2017

Coerced Confessions: Youth and Mental Disability

From “Exonerations in the United States 1989 through 2003” – Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Volume 95 Issue 2 (2005):

“In fifty-one of the 340 exonerations between 1989 and 2004-15 the defendants confessed to crimes they had not committed. In most of these cases it is apparent that the false confessions were coerced by the police. One defendant falsely confessed to larceny; nine falsely confessed to rape; and forty-one -80%- falsely confessed to murder… False confessions … are usually the product of long, intensive interrogations that eventually frighten or deceive or break the will of a suspect to the point where he will admit to a terrible crime that he did not commit. Some of these interrogations stretch over days and involve relays of police interrogators. ..

False confessions are heavily concentrated among the most vulnerable groups of innocent defendants. Thirty-three of the exonerated defendants were under eighteen at the time of the crimes for which they were convicted, and fourteen of these innocent juveniles falsely confessed – 42%, compared to 13% of older exonerees.
False confessions are even more prevalent among exonerees with mental disabilities. Our data indicate that sixteen of the 340 exonerees were mentally retarded; 69% of them-over two thirds-falsely confessed. ..Overall, 55% of all the false confessions we found were from defendants who were under eighteen, or mentally disabled, or both. Among adult exonerees without known mental disabilities, the false confession rate was 8%.”

A “Lost” Police File And 24 Years in Prison

The NY Times reports on Shaurn Thomas, a Philadelphia teenager convicted in 1994 of participating in the murder of the owner of a check-cashing store. Prosecutors said Mr. Thomas was in a car with accomplices but that he did not fire the gun. Mr. Thomas, who was 16 at the time, and his mother swore they were at a processing center for juvenile offenders on the day of the murder.  One of Mr. Thomas’ co-defendants was offered a plea deal and testified against him at trial – the co-defendant was released from prison in 1999. Mr. Thomas was also offered a deal — to serve five to 10 years — but he maintained his innocence and turned down the offer.

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project eventually took up the case. They tracked down the co-defendant, who told them that he was not involved or present at the murder and that he lied at Mr. Thomas’s trial, Then, recently, an investigative file that had long been sought by defense lawyers was “found” in a box in a hallway at police headquarters. The file included witness statements that contradicted accounts that Mr. Thomas was involved.

Mr. Thomas has now been released, while prosecutors consider whether to retry the case.

The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News reported in November that the Conviction Review Unit in Philadelphia had not found a single case worthy of overturning, while similar units in Dallas and New York City had exonerated dozens of inmates. The Philadelphia unit announced a restructuring and hiring of new staff members in February.

House Reauthorizes JJDPA

The House has passed HR 1809, the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which now goes to the Senate.


The bipartisan legislation includes reforms to:

  • Phase out use of the valid court order exception and stop the incarceration of children in need of services.
  • Provide states and local leaders flexibility to deliver services that meet the specific needs of young people in their own communities.
  • Prioritize evidence-based strategies with proven track records and long-term solutions for addressing juvenile delinquency.
  • Improve accountability and oversight at all levels of the juvenile justice system.”

The House passed a reauthorization proposal last year, but it stalled in the Senate over the “Valid Court Order” issue, which allows truants and runaways to be held in custody under certain circumstances.

“Modest Reductions” In Prison Populations

The Sentencing Project reports a 4.9% reduction in U.S. prison populations since the 2009 peak. Sixteen states have double-digit rates of decline, and 38 states overall have reduced their prison populations. Twelve states have continued to expand their prison populations. The six states with the greatest reductions:

  • New Jersey (35% decline since 1999)
  • New York (29% decline since 1999)
  • Alaska (27% decline since 2006)
  • California (26% decline since 2006, though partly offset by increasing jail use)
  • Vermont (25% decline since 2009)
  • Connecticut (22% decline since 2007)

    Southern states including Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana, which have exceptionally high rates of incarceration, have also begun to signi cantly downsize their prison populations. These reductions have come about through a mix of changes in policy and practice designed to reduce admissions to prison and lengths of stay. Moreover, the states with the most substantial prison population reductions have often outpaced the nationwide crime drop.

    The pace of decarceration has been very modest in most states, especially given that nationwide violent and property crime rates have fallen by half since 1991. Despite often sharing in these crime trends, 15 states had less than a 5% prison population decline since their peak year. Moreover, 12 states have continued to expand their prison populations, with four producing double- digit increases since 2010: North Dakota, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Minnesota.

Collateral Consequences, Cont.

The Washington State Bar has denied membership to Tarra Simmons, a third-year law student, convicted felon and former drug addict who in December won a Skadden Fellowship to help people recently released from prison. The Bar’s “character and fitness board” voted against Simmons’ recommendation 6-3, according to Northwest Public Radio reports.

Previously a registered nurse, Ms. Simmons became addicted to prescription drugs and methamphetamine after her father died, as self-medication for depression. In 2011, she was charged with felony theft, drug possession and gun possession. She pleaded guilty to the drug and theft charges and served 20 months in state prison.

Simmons told the ABA Journal “I understand the bar’s concerns because I have made some serious mistakes in my past. I respect the individuals on the board and I respect the process. I hope to use my experiences and achievements to assist former justice-involved individuals by offering them a lawyer who has lived their experience. As an attorney who brings that background, they can relate and trust me to assist them to overcome barriers and rejoin society.”

Attorneys who helped Simmons with her home foreclosure, debt and family law issues encouraged her to become an attorney, according to the Northwest Public Radio piece. She cannot sit for the Washington Bar without a character and fitness recommendation.

Alabama Legislature moves to restore voting rights

The “Definition of Moral Turpitude Act” passed both houses of the Alabama state legislature this week, and now goes to the governor for signature. The bill re-defines the term “moral turpitude” as it is used in the state constitution, which prohibits any person convicted of a felony of moral turpitude  from voting. Currently the term is loosely interpreted as referring to every felony but a list of five that includes driving under the influence and aiding and abetting. Under the new definition, the term would refer to less than 50 specific felonies that would disqualify a person from exercising his or her right to vote.

By redefining “moral turpitude,” the bill would effectively restore “thousands” of felons’ right to vote.

Plead guilty, go home. Plead not guilty, stay in jail

John Raphling’s Op-Ed in the LA Times today describes this guilty plea:

“One night in their apartment, Arthur and his boyfriend had a fight. The police came and spoke first to the boyfriend, who claimed Arthur had battered him. They arrested Arthur, who told them that he had been attacked and had defended himself. In the courthouse lockup two days later, he told his appointed lawyer the same thing. His lawyer agreed that they should take the case to trial.

Arthur pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charge and asked the judge to release him while awaiting the trial that would decide who was telling the truth. His lawyer explained that Arthur had no criminal record, was working two jobs, and had another place to stay so the fight would not be repeated. But the prosecutor argued that Arthur was too dangerous to be released, and the judge took the prosecutor’s side, setting a bail that Arthur could not possibly pay.

Arthur (whose name I have changed to protect his privacy) would have to stay in jail for 30 more days before trial. He would lose his jobs and he feared exposure to violence, so he asked his lawyer if there was anything he could do to get out. His lawyer spoke to the prosecutor, who made him an offer — plead guilty now and get three years of probation, pay fines, attend classes and do community labor. Get out of jail right away, in other words, but accept a criminal record.

So he changed his plea and took the deal. The prosecutor agreed to the immediate release of a man who had supposedly been too dangerous to set free just a few minutes earlier.”

ALI On Collateral Consequences

The new draft Model Penal Code of the American Law Institute calls for the the systematic collection and understanding about the collateral consequences of criminal convictions, so that counsel, courts, defendants, and the public can easily access information regarding the full consequences of conviction.

The proposal would require a sentencing commission to collect and maintain information on all collateral consequences as defined, whether mandatory or discretionary, and to make that information accessible to the public. It would also require the commission to regularly maintain and publish a summary, making it a reliable and easily accessible resource for individuals and their lawyers at every stage of a criminal prosecution, from charging through sentencing:

§ 6x.02. Sentencing Guidelines and Collateral Consequences.

(1) As part of the sentencing guidelines, the sentencing commission [or other designated agency] shall compile, maintain, and publish a compendium of all collateral consequences contained in [the jurisdiction’s] statutes and administrative regulations.

(a) For each crime contained in the criminal code, the compendium shall set forth all collateral consequences authorized by [the jurisdiction’s] statutes and regulations, and by federal law.

(b) The commission [or designated agency] shall ensure the compendium is kept current.

(2) The sentencing commission shall provide guidance for courts considering petitions for orders of relief from mandatory collateral consequences under §§ 6x.04 and 6x.05.  The commission’s guidance shall take into account the extent to which a mandatory consequence is substantially related to the elements and facts of an offense and likely to impose a substantial and unjustified burden on a defendant’s reintegration.

No Misconduct in Execution of Innocent Texas Man

It’s hard to get accountability for prosecutorial misconduct.

Previous posts on this blog have discussed the case of Cameron Willingham, a Texas man who was executed on Feb. 17, 2004 for setting a fire that killed his daughters on Dec. 23, 1991 in their Corsicana, Texas home. The prosecution’s case against him was two-pronged—testimony by fire investigators that their analysis of the fire debris showed the blaze was deliberately set and Webb’s assertion that Willingham had confessed.

Weeks before the execution, an independent fire expert concluded there was no evidence the fire was deliberately set.Over the next decade numerous experts also reached the same conclusion.

As to the confession, the prosecutor, John Jackson, had not disclosed to Willingham’s defense lawyers that jailhouse snitch Johnny Webb had been promised favorable treatment on an aggravated robbery conviction in return for testimony at Willingham’s trial. Webb later recanted his testimony.

The Texas State Bar charged the prosecutor with making false statements, concealing evidence favorable to Willingham’s defense and obstructing justice. After a trial of more than two weeks, a Texas jury on Wednesday found that former state prosecutor John Jackson had not committed misconduct.

Withholding evidence that is favorable to a defendant, whether it is evidence of innocence or evidence that undercuts a prosecution witness such as Webb, is one of the most common acts of prosecutorial misconduct. The National Registry of Exonerations reports that official misconduct, which includes misconduct by prosecutors, police and other government officials, has been a contributing factor in about half of the wrongful convictions in the Registry.

DC Hearing On Collateral Consequences

The United States Commission on Civil Rights is holding a hearing on May 19th in Washington, D.C. entitled Collateral Consequences: The Crossroads of Punishment, Redemption, and the Effects on Communities. The hearing be live-streamed here. Testimony of speakers will also be posted on the Commission’s website.

The official agenda includes:

  • Research and data to provide evidence of collateral consequences and the extent to which these barriers affect reentry to society;
  • The extent to which racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by these consequences;
  • The extent to which states and the federal government have addressed these issues.

The Commission on Civil Rights’ mission is “to inform the development of national civil rights policy and enhance enforcement of federal civil rights laws.”