Monthly Archives: December 2017

Prosecutor’s Remorse

A Texas prosecutor has a change of heart about the death penalty she argued for and won 20 years ago against a man who did not kill anyone. In a letter to the prison parole board asking for clemency, Lucy Wilke said that “the penalty now appears to be excessive.”  The defendant in the case, Jeff Wood, was convicted and sentenced to death in a 1996 convenience store murder — he was sitting outside in the truck when his friend, Daniel Reneau, pulled the trigger that killed clerk Kriss Keeran. As an accomplice, he was sentenced under Texas’ felony murder statute, which holds that anyone involved in a crime resulting in death is equally responsible, even if they weren’t directly involved in the killing.

Part of Wilke’s change of heart stems from psychiatric testimony she presented at trial to prove that Wood posed a future danger. To obtain a death penalty verdict under Texas law a jury has to unanimously agree that he or she would present such a danger. At the trial in 1998 Wilke put on the stand a psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, who was known as “Dr. Death” and almost always found defendants would be a future danger. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had previously stopped Wood’s execution last year and sent the case back to the trial court in Kerr County to review Wood’s claim that a jury was improperly persuaded to hand down a death sentence because of Grigson’s testimony. Wilke now says  she was unaware at the time of the trial that Grigson had been expelled from the American Psychiatric Association and Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians: “Had I known about Dr. Grigson’s issues with said organizations, I would not have used him as the State’s expert witness in this case on the issue of future dangerousness,” she wrote.

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Crime Rates in LA in the “Justice Reform Era”

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice has published an interesting report on crime trends in Los Angeles County during what they call the “justice reform era,”  from 2010 to 2016, with major changes – Public Safety Realignment, Proposition 47, and Proposition 57 – in California’s justice system. The main findings:

 

  • From 2010 to 2016, roughly half of LA County’s 89 jurisdictions showed an increase in crime (53%) and half showed a decrease (47%). Most jurisdictions elsewhere in California (259 of 422) showed decreases in their crime rates.
  • The City of Los Angeles, which encompasses over 40 percent of the county’s population and over half its reported crimes, strongly impacts LA County crime rates. While Los Angeles County showed a modest increase in total crime (5%) from 2010 to 2016, this was made up of extreme variation among its 89 jurisdictions.
  • The jurisdictions showing decreased crime from 2010 to 2016 had higher average crime rates at the beginning of the reform period than jurisdictions showing increased crime. This suggests that some jurisdictions, especially those that began with elevated crime, have developed successful policies and practices to improve public safety on a local level.

The overall conclusion: crime patterns in Los Angeles County, as well as the rest of the state, result from local policies and practices rather than statewide reform.

 

Prosecutor in NY charged for withholding evidence

NY State AG Schneiderman has filed criminal charges against a county district attorney over his handling of a grand jury investigation into the fatal police shooting of an unarmed motorist last year. According to the NY Times, Joel Abelove, the district attorney in Rensselaer County, was charged with a single felony count of perjury in the first degree and two counts of official misconduct, a class A misdemeanor.

The case against the prosecutor stems from the death of a driver who was shot after a car chase involving a traffic stop on suspicion of drunken driving. The chase ended with a Troy police sergeant, Randall French, shooting the driver eight times, killing him, after the officer was pinned between his cruiser and the driver’s vehicle.

Shortly after the shooting, the NY Attorney General sent in a “Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit” to look into the driver’s death. Rather than cooperating with state investigators, Mr. Abelove is alleged to have “quickly and surreptitiously presented the case to a grand jury,” according to Mr. Schneiderman’s office. Mr. Abelove then is accused of having withheld evidence from the grand jury, leading to no charges being brought against the police officer. The district attorney had also conferred immunity upon Sergeant French before the grand jury voted, effectively protecting the officer from any potential future prosecution in the killing. Finally, in October, Mr. Abelove lied about another immunity case in testimony to a separate grand jury, according to the indictment filed in Rensselaer County Supreme Court.

“Unchecked power that is, quite frankly, frightening.”

That is a judge’s description, as reported by the NY Times, of Justice Department’s actions in holding an American citizen in military custody in Iraq for 11 weeks without allowing him to talk to an attorney. According to the Times, the detainee refused to talk to F.B.I. interrogators without a lawyer after he was warned of his Miranda rights to remain silent and have a lawyer present,

“The individual stated he understood his rights, and said he was willing to talk to the agents but also stated that since he was in a new phase, he felt he should have an attorney present,” the department said in a court filing Thursday afternoon. “The agents explained that due to his current situation, it was unknown when he would be able to have an attorney, and the individual stated that it was O.K. and that he is a patient man.”

The filing is part of a habeas corpus action filed by the ACLU asking for access to the detainee and a ruling that his continued indefinite detention without charges is illegal. The Justice Department has argued in part that the group has no standing to bring the petition because it has no relationship with the prisoner nor permission from his relatives to represent his interests in court. The judge in the case rejected this argument, saying it was  “circular reasoning” since the government’s own actions prevented him or his relatives from having contact with the lawyers.

The judge then made the comment about frighteningly unchecked power, describing the government’s position as saying it could “snatch any U.S. citizen off the street and hold him as an enemy combatant in another country” indefinitely without letting him or her talk to a lawyer.