Category Archives: wrongful convictions

Plainly, outrageously unjust criminal convictions ignored or evaded by judges.

Magna Carta At 800 And Due Process In America

(Author’s note: if you click the links and read the cases you’ll probably get a real legal education, of sorts anyway. We realize it’s a lot of reading, but hold out the hope that it will greatly enhance the reader’s understanding of what is posted here.)

On June 15, 1215 King John capitulated to his Barons and signed the Magna Carta in a place called Runnymede.

Just about 800 years ago exactly.

Runnymede is in England, a country with which we supposedly share the common law tradition, but that’s a large subject for another time.  So, too, are the various political intrigues surrounding Magna Carta and what it eventually came to mean in the fullest sense.  We’re not going to run with any of that today either.  Because whatever else Magna Carta stands for, there are some small number of principles that it is more or less not debatable that Magna Carta enshrined.  One of these is the jury trial.  Another is “due process of law”, which was originally expressed as “law of the land”.

We’re going to focus on the due process of law idea, and what has happened to it in the United States of America over the last, say, 50 years.  Because we know a lot about that.

There’s so much to say, but let’s begin by noting that the phrase “due process of law” appears in the 5th amendment to the United States Constitution (and probably in many if not all state constitutions but we’re going to focus on the US constitution right now) and in that 5th amendment form it provided that no person should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.

So a couple of preliminary observations:  1) the “due process” clause is a limitation on government conduct.  Obviously, a thief deprives you of your property without due process of law but the due process clause does not apply to that situation because the thief is not acting on behalf of the government; and 2) due process is required only in three situations, namely, where the government is going to deprive you of life, liberty or property.

One other preliminary observation:  due process doesn’t apply in war situations.  Just to be clear about things.  The general acts on behalf of the government, but he doesn’t have to worry about due process of law before ordering an air strike.  Which is not to approve of this or that air strike.  We generally don’t, if that matters.

Anyway.  Moving on.

All those preliminary observations aside, it can be fairly said that the most fundamental situation in which due process does apply is when the government prosecutes someone for a crime, in which case at least one but in many cases all three – life, liberty and property – are at stake.

Now, it is a truism that the due process requirement of the 5th amendment applied only to the federal government.  Which is not to say that the states were ever free to ignore the strictures, whatever they may be, of due process of law:  again, the states almost assuredly had due process ideas in their own constitutions.  But the state governments and the federal government are separate, or at least they were.  Or at least, in some ways.

But in the wake of the Civil War, the states became subject to a federal standard of observing due process of law by virtue of the passage of the 14th amendment, which provided that “No state shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”  That occurred in about 1866.

What happened then?  For a long time, not much.*

In the 1880’s the Supreme Court considered the question of whether federal standards of due process of law (now applied to the states by the due process clause of the 14th amendment) required the states to prosecute felonies only upon an indictment by a grand jury, which was separately required of the federal government by that same 5th amendment.  The answer was no.  And to this day California does not have to prosecute felonies via grand jury indictment.

That didn’t go so well, then, if you’re a fan of grand juries.

Very little was said for about another 30 years.  But then in 1915 the Supremes are deciding a federal habeas corpus case and they say that this federal due process standard is a big deal with real teeth:

In the light, then, of these established rules and principles: that the due process of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment has regard to substance of right, and not to matters of form or procedure; that it is open to the courts of the United States upon an application for a writ of habeas corpus to look beyond forms and inquire into the very substance of the matter, to the extent of deciding whether the prisoner has been deprived of his liberty without due process of law, and for this purpose to inquire into jurisdictional facts, whether they appear upon the record or not; that an investigation into the case of a prisoner held in custody by a State on conviction of a criminal offense must take into consideration the entire course of proceedings in the courts of the State, and not merely a single step in those proceedings…

So at this point things are getting active, as Rollie Massimino used to say.  It was only eight more years until the next major Supreme Court foray into the question of federal due process applied to state criminal proceedings.

Thus in 1923 the Supreme Court decided that a state court trial that had degenerated into a “mob dominated” circus did not satisfy the federal standard for due process of law. Also that year, the SCOTUS opined in Meyer v. Nebraska regarding “due process”:

“While this Court has not attempted to define with exactness the liberty thus guaranteed, the term has received much consideration and some of the included things have been definitely stated. Without doubt, it denotes not merely freedom from bodily restraint but also the right of the individual to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.”

Then in the 1930’s all hell broke loose.

It isn’t really well known today, even in legal circles, but the first time the Supreme Court really threw down the gauntlet on federal due process standards applied to state criminal prosecutions – because the 14th amendment – was the Scottsboro boys case out of Alabama that began in 1931. A group of black youths convicted of raping two white girls. Very emotional case in Alabama at that time.

Of course, the “due process” the kids received was a sham, a circus. The case went up to the SCOTUS in 1932 and that’s what they said and then they said 14th amendment and sent it back to be done right.

And of course it wasn’t. So the case went back up to the SCOTUS again in 1935 (!) only this time the decision rendered had more to do with the racial make-up of the jury, not due process of law proper. But the significant thing here is that having already laid down the law – the law of due process, that is – that must be observed by state courts in carrying out criminal proceedings, the SCOTUS, which is not a court of error, actually took up the same case again.

Don’t happen much.

It was at this same time – 1935 – that the SCOTUS further laid down the law in Mooney v. Holohan to the effect, basically, that the government couldn’t lie and cheat to get a criminal conviction, that doing so violated a person’s right to due process of law. It was a little embarrassing – at least the SCOTUS thought so – that this needed to be said:

Reasoning from the premise that the petitioner has failed to show a denial of due process in the circumstances set forth in his petition, the Attorney General urges that the State was not required to afford any corrective judicial process to remedy the alleged wrong. The argument falls with the premise.

Even so, it should be borne in mind that the California Attorney General argued that position, just as the Alabama Attorney General had argued in favor of the Scottsboro boys convictions.  A state Attorney General is a high official, and it’s just our opinion but we think the Attorney General should be a lawyer’s lawyer and a servant of the law, not a “zealous advocate”.

(As an aside, both Mooney and the Scottsboro boys cases involved communists advancing the due process arguments that eventually prevailed.  We generally don’t like communists around here, but when they’re right we admit they’re right.)

But let’s move on some more. This was the due process revolution in the SCOTUS; these were the cases in which the rudimentary demands of justice, which is what due process has fundamentally meant since the beginning – since Magna Carta – were held to be mandatory and binding on government – all government – throughout the United States. We point this out because the “legal community” often touts the Warren Court decisions of the 1960’s as “the due process revolution”. As often happens, the legal community is pretty much wrong and misses the big picture. To the detriment of us all, I might add.

No, it was in the 1940’s and 50’s that federal due process standards really began to take hold. In 1940 even the constitutional literalist and purist Hugo Black had this to say in deciding Chambers v. Florida:

The scope and operation of the Fourteenth Amendment have been fruitful sources of controversy in our constitutional history. However, in view of its historical setting and the wrongs which called it into being, the due process provision of the Fourteenth Amendment — just as that in the Fifth — has led few to doubt that it was intended to guarantee procedural standards adequate and appropriate, then and thereafter, to protect, at all times, people charged with or suspected of crime by those holding positions of power and authority.

Then in 1942 the SCOTUS said in a couple of cases that the state could not obtain a conviction dishonestly – by taking contradictory positions in different prosecutions – and also that a state couldn’t obtain a conviction by threatening a criminal defendant with the use of perjury to badger and terrorize him into pleading guilty.

It might not seem like a lot, but this was a veritable 14th amendment due process of law blizzard coming out of the SCOTUS compared with, say, the period from 1866 to 1915.

In other words, this really was a due process “revolution”. But these cases reflected more than just a mechanical application of a clause in a constitutional amendment; they were really a re-assertion of the fundamental idea of due process as enshrined in Magna Carta all those centuries ago: the government cannot oppress; the government must be honest.

Unhappily, we must report that it is just this – the very foundations of our ideas of fair and just government – that have crumbled in the years since. We have our ideas about why, but that’s way too much for a blog post.  What we can do is continue to chronicle the failure.

In 1952 the SCOTUS – perhaps mindful of the oppressive government tactics employed by totalitarian governments in the great war just past – said that pumping a man’s stomach without his consent to get evidence that he possessed illegal narcotics was a due process violation. In 1959 they said – again – that the state government couldn’t lie and cheat to get a criminal conviction. And in 1967 they said it again, only this time it was not conceded by the state that they had thus obtained the conviction, but for the first time the SCOTUS indicated that the truth could not be mocked.

But by 2003, well, merely pumping someone’s stomach without their consent seemed like due process child’s play and there was disagreement on the SCOTUS over a situation far more like torture.

And by 2009, the United States Justice Department and the nation’s prosecutors as a whole were arguing in the SCOTUS – with a straight face, no less – that lying and cheating to obtain a criminal conviction didn’t violate the right to due process of law. As if Mooney, Pyle, Napue and Miller had been repealed, or somehow rendered meaningless.

Yet those cases are among the most notable pure descendants of Magna Carta in American law, based only on principles of justice so fundamental that they barely needed to be said in 1215, much less 1935. Much less today, yet here we are.

Maybe every generation, or every second or third generation, must fight for “due process of law” anew, for the simple reason that power corrupts.  Maybe Magna Carta is an eternal and ever-contemporary event. The times, people and circumstances change – King John is long gone –  but the principles remain the same.

And remain as fragile.

 

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* We should note that in a different context, the SCOTUS became quite active on 14th amendment due process with the 1905 decision in Lochner v. New York.  But Lochner involved the “striking down” of laws enacted by legislatures.  This kind of case is far more removed from the due process enshrined in Magna Carta than the cases we are reviewing here.

 

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Death Threats. Harassment. Obsession. (Amanda Knox)(Updated)

So a British tabloid that has been fanning the flames of the frenzied mob for eight years now reports that the FBI is investigating some of its readers.  Pretending to be neutral at this late date, after years of smearing and base casuistry masquerading as ‘journalism’.

The FBI can investigate away, and contrary to the impression given by the article, not all the lunatics are in the UK; there are plenty of people in the US who are driven mad by high profile acquittals, especially when the beneficiary is a pretty young woman.

We suspect this will go on for quite some time.  Our standing recommendation to the exonerated is to live as obscurely and remotely as possible in a country other than the one that convicted you in the first place.  Of course this reasonably requires the exoneree to be independently wealthy.  And that is exactly what those responsible for the wrongful conviction are obligated to ensure:  that their victim be made independently wealthy.

Wealthy or not, the exoneree will live out a substantially diminished life.  There’s no fixing it.  But leaving an exoneree to fend for herself, defenseless, in a world in which so many want to see her suffering or dead is literally excruciating and utterly unconscionable.

If you let loose the dogs of war in error, there’s no going back.  Prosecutors should think hard about what they set in motion when they file charges.

Update:  Radley Balko points out that we’re very, very lousy at compensating those we have injured through major malfunctions of the criminal justice process.  That has to improve.

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The Sad Fate Of Amanda Knox (Updated)(x2)

How is it possible, in an age where human intelligence has produced wonder after wonder, to have a murder case where guilt is determined by the “reasoning” level of a moron?

I was reading an article recently about the legal profession and the appalling lack of quality in reasoning that prevails.  Often, court opinions are little more than screeds of heavy rheotric that ignore evidence that obviously – and often definitively – undercuts the desired result.  They are frequently comically disingenuous.  Or at least it would be comical is someone’s life didn’t hang in the balance.

So the “Nencini” report re-convicting Amanda Knox contains a discussion of 2 phone calls AK made to Meredith Kercher’s phone the day after her murder but before the body was discovered  that lasted only a few seconds.  Nencini then draws the inference that these phone calls were not genuine, that they were designed to deceive the investigators, that they were so short because Amanda Knox never expected Meredith Kercher to answer because Amanda Knox already knew Meredith Kercher was dead.  And the only reason she could know that was she had participated in the killing.  Let me quote here from the Nencini report as excerpted in a “guilter” blogger’s article:

“The telephone call made [by Knox] at 12:11:54 pm to the English service of the victim lasted 4 seconds. Perhaps not even the time to repeat the first ring.

Knox should have been affected by a certain anxiety in calling Kercher’s telephone services. Filomena Romanelli let the defendant’s telephone ring for 36 seconds the first time, and the second for a good 65 seconds; an insistence which appears normal. But that did not happen when Knox called… these are two calls that barely registered [and this] has only one plausible explanation:

There was no concern at all in the mind of Amanda Knox when she made the two calls to the young English woman, simply because she knew very well that Meredith Kercher could not have answered the calls; calls which had to be made because Filomena Romanelli insisted, but which the defendant knew were useless. Nobody would have been able to answer those calls; let alone poor Meredith Kercher whom the accused knew was lifeless, locked in her own bedroom.”

The problem is that there was a much longer phone call from Amanda Knox to Kercher’s phone earlier – at 12:07 PM – so long that Kercher’s phone – that had been tossed into some bushes and would otherwise have been lost – rang and rang until it was found.  And this phone call also occurred well after Kercher’s murder, but before the shorter calls.

To a sane and reasonably intelligent person, then, the earlier, longer phone call rules out making the incriminating inference from the later calls.  In other words, Nencini is either not sane or not intelligent.  Or, I suppose there is a third possibility:  he’s not honest.

So Amanda KNox’s fate at this point has rested with a man who is either crazy, or stupid, or corrupt and dishonest, and there’s no other alternative.

So appalling.

Update:  From CNN’s report this morning:

But the high-profile nature of the case and the controversial evidence prosecutors have built their argument on makes Knox’s extradition anything but certain.

“Controversial” evidence? That’s what stupid evidence and unfounded argument are to the media – as long as those are offered by police and prosecutors.  Judges aren’t the only apparently reason-challenged players in this drama.

Update 2:  After 9 PM in Italy and no word yet.  If this was a jury deliberating over here, might start thinking about whether they’re hung, but I don’t think that’s possible here.

Update 3:  An apparently unexpected acquittal.  Good on the Italians. Of course, if twitter traffic was any indication, there are millions who will never let go of it.  But for now, while the whole thing is still terribly sad, Amanda Knox and her former boyfriend can enjoy at least some peace.  And maybe Meredith Kercher’s survivors, too.

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Amanda Knox Redux (Updated)(x3)

It appears from press reports to be all but certain that Amanda Knox will come out of the Italian Justice system a convicted murderess.  It is at least equally certain that this is the wrong result.

The British tabloids have been braying for Knox all along for their own reasons, but I suppose it’s notable that the lowest of the low in British tabloids are still more than a cut above the Arizonan uncivilized mob frenzy surrounding Jodi Arias.

In the latest installment, in any case, the Daily Mail is spinning some kind of last minute filing by Rafaelle Sollecito (Knox’s former Italian boyfriend), also in the dock, as being a “brutal” act of distancing himself from his former lover to save his own skin.  That’s quite a dramatic characterization, but hardly seems to fit:  most of what they quote is pretty much what Sollecito has been saying all along.

The Mail article does not say, but as I recall Sollecito must be in prison back in Italy. That adds a level of pressure not present for Knox at the moment:  Knox fled at her first opportunity, and apparently will go back to an Italian prison only if extradited by the United States pursuant to treaty:

If convicted [that is the all-but-certainty we have been discussing – ed.], Knox could face immediate extradition proceedings and her supporters fear the worst.

One supporter told MailOnline they were prepared for what would be the ‘greatest miscarriage of justice’ that has ever happened to a US citizen.

Well, that last part would seem to be hyperbole.  There are worse injustices.  And very similar ones.  Mostly we do it to our own citizens.  Does that make it better, or worse?

Or does it matter at all?

Update:  Apparently all kinds of things can happen in the highest Italian court.  Meaning this could go on and on, even from here:
The high court judge at the hearing this week will either uphold the convictions definitively, or send the case back for another appeal, or potentially on to a different section of the high court.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised that they just kick the can down the road a little more.  Institutionally, the potential for embarrassment either way they go is so high it’s the easiest course.  For them.  Not for the people in the dock.
Update 2:  Maybe nothing until Friday now.  The Italians certainly know how to generate drama through their court system.
Update 3:  Is the delay to hear only from Sollecito’s lawyers,
but not AK’s?  That doesn’t sound good, but that’s what the BBC is reporting.

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Malevolence v. Incompetence

It’s this Brady-Mooney thing again.

It’s easy to see why prosecutors blur the distinction between the two.  It’s a lot more difficult to understand why the defense bar does:

Until prosecutors are held personally accountable for concealing Brady, nothing will change. And that won’t happen as long as they’re immune from liability for their incompetence or malevolence.

“Malevolence” – that is, the intentional suppression of evidence tending to show a Defendant innocent by a prosecutor – has been a clear due process violation since 1935.  Because Mooney.  “Incompetence” – that is, prosecutors not knowing the evidence they have, or not realizing its exculpatory nature, and failing to disclose it – is sometimes a due process violation, and sometimes not, since 1963.  Because Brady.

The point being that this distinction is pretty important, not to mention settled law although it seems many who should know that, don’t.

Some time ago I wondered – worried, really – about the criminal defense bar being as unaware of this distinction as the organized prosecutor’s groups have intended for the last, oh, 30 years.  I further worried that the criminal defense bar might even be hostile to the idea of recovering this distinction.

Given the above quote, Greenfield is either unaware of the distinction, or hostile to it.  Neither is a good sign, inasmuch as SHG is nothing if not a representative sample of one highly regarded portion of the criminal defense bar.

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The NYPD Back Turning Backfire

You should read this article in full.  This situation is turning pretty ugly.

The subject of discussion is the police protest of the New York mayor by turning their backs on him as he gives a speech at the funerals of recently slain officers, and a directive from the police commissioner to the rank and file officers calling for this conduct to cease.  An officer who spoke on condition of anonymity:

“I did that because I feel Mayor de Blasio does not like cops, and I would never do anything to disrespect another cop or his family…“

“He cares about his boss more than the 35,000 cops he’s in charge of,” the cop complained.”

Then again, Sergeant’s Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins isn’t shy:

“If you’re the mayor and you have to direct the commissioner to respect you, it’s a total embarrassment for the office,” he said. “Are they going to order cops to go have dinner with him next?”

Then you have NYPD Captain’s Endowment Association President Richter*:

“We must work to honor Police Officer Wenjian Liu’s sacrifice at future services,” he said in a statement. “In this forum the appropriate protest is not a sign or turning away from mourners, or people the family has asked to speak, but rather cold, steely silence.”

So, the range of opinion among the New York police apparently goes from: a) protesting the mayor by turning your back; or b) protesting the mayor through “cold, steely silence”.  Because the mayor “doesn’t like cops”, which is pretty much a ludicrous assertion when you think about it.  It’s completely unnatural for a mayor not to like cops that are, after all, one of his most important political constituencies.  Liking cops is part of the mayor’s informal job description.

So, the real complaint could not be, and is not, that the mayor doesn’t like cops, but rather that he must not “like” cops enough.  How much is “enough”?  Apparently a whole lot.  Apparently it’s a very tough job to like cops as much as cops think you ought to like them when you are the mayor.  It may be an unattainable kind of like.  As in, a kind of worship.

I mean, I like cops.  I don’t worship them.

At this point, it’s hard to read this episode any other way than this:  the police commissioner and the mayor are seen as being insufficiently servile to collective police power and influence, and so the police collectively throw a hissy fit on the occasions of the funerals of of recently slain officers, using their deaths as an occasion to make a show of force against the mayor and commissioner.

And they are so convinced of their invincibility in all this.  It never seems to enter their mind that they are overplaying their hand, that they are coming to resemble spoiled children stamping their feet and holding their breath until they get their way.  They have gotten away with that too much to worry about it, and they are as yet unaware of the sea change that’s underway in much of the country.

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* What, do these guys have a separate “association” for every rank?

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Fabricating Ferguson

Sometimes, cops and/or prosecutors fabricate evidence.  And I’m glad they do.  Simple, out and out lying can be very difficult or even impossible to expose, but when amateur fiction writers – and that’s what cops and prosecutors are when they fabricate evidence – make things up they are liable to screw up, revealing themselves as evidence fabricators and, you know, bad fiction writers.

Like say I’m writing a novel today but set in the 1920’s and I have a scene where some characters are having a conversation and one of the characters mentions the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, or the Kennedy assassination.

Oops.

So apparently this “diary” mysteriously appeared and was used in the Ferguson Grand Jury presentation, from some unidentified witness (#40), describing the relevant events consistently with an account that would exonerate the police officer.  I came across this story courtesy of the brilliant Andrew Roth and can’t improve upon what he has already set forth here.  And you need to follow the links.  Because this story should really get around.

Bottom line is that this “diary” is an obvious fabrication – because preposterous – and let’s hope Charles Pierce, Esquire’s politics blogger, connects the dots more fully and we get answers from the Ferguson DA about using that evidence, which he knew was false, before a Grand Jury.

Now, I know this is hard for a lot of people to swallow, the idea that someone has had to confront not just inaccurate evidence, but wholly made up evidence, and wholly made up evidence by the government at that.  For most people this is unthinkable, unspeakable, and highly disturbing, not least because this could happen to them.  Obviously.

This reluctance – this denial – can lead to bizarre results, where people become, let’s face it, functionally stupid.  The prosecutor here should have a lot to explain along the “what-did-he-know-and-when-did-he-know-it” lines, and if he can’t that might just be the end of his “career” as a prosecutor, and frankly there might be no good explanation because he’s either complicit in the dishonesty or…stupid.

Yes, he should have a lot of explaining to do.  Operative word is “should”.

But will anyone in the mainstream press, as opposed to just a few bloggers, pick up on this story and run with it, generating the pressure that will force him to have to explain?  I guess we’ll see, but believe it or not there’s a good chance the mainstream press won’t, and that nothing will come of this smoking gun type evidence other than Pierce and Roth and me blogging about it.

After all, nothing has come of the Ashley Baker statement, which surfaced in September of 2006:

053

And a lot of intelligent people seem to have trouble seeing that the story told in that statement is obviously preposterous and therefore a fabrication by whoever generated it, and we know who generated it, and who used it (or, properly speaking its derivatives) before a Grand Jury, and this wasn’t done to exonerate someone but rather to indict and ultimately imprison someone.

Need more?

055

I’m going to let readers put two and two together there rather than walk them through all that.  For anyone even remotely paying attention, there should be at minimum a horrible fascination about it all.  For anyone new to these pages, background can be found here.

Of course, to say that it is frustrating when, after all the lying and cheating you can’t prove screws things up for some poor bastard – because, you know, you couldn’t prove it – it then turns out not to even matter when you absolutely positively have proven it beyond a shadow of a doubt – well, to call that ‘frustrating’ doesn’t seem to quite capture it, does it?

So I hope this time it matters, and that a prosecutor who deliberately presented false evidence to a Grand Jury to get the result he wanted – mocking them and the whole system, including me – is punished for doing that. Or something.

Just remember, there is a school of thought among prosecutors that it’s okay to deliberately present perjury and/or fabricated evidence to a Grand Jury. Or was some such school of thought.  Maybe the Department of Justice has changed its mind, since they have removed the Grand Jury training manual that used to teach this from their official web page (used to be right here; now as you can see, you just get a blank page).

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