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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”