Saturday, October 21, 2017

An awkward death row moment, judges with PTSD, 'incompetent scientists using bad science,' and other stories

Your correspondent has been away from the blog for most of the week, but here are a few odds and ends that merit Grits readers attention while mine is focused elsewhere:

An awkward death-row moment
TFW you find out the guy you're about to execute tonight may confess to a murder you want to execute a guy for a month from now. Awkward! Death row inmates are held in solitary confinement, so the union for prison guards has alleged that, if the two men conspired and even passed documents between their cells, as prosecutors allege, they were able to do so because of understaffing at Texas prisons. Certainly, this is more reason for courts to allow DNA testing in Swearingen's case - which the Court of Criminal Appeals recently denied - to make sure they're executing the right guy.

Texas senators and #cjreform
Texas Senator John Cornyn cited Texas' decarceration reforms in touting a new federal sentencing reform package. And our two senators both sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, meaning they'll have outsized voices in debates over bipartisan asset forfeiture reform amendments recently voted out of the US House. Go here to send Texas senators an email asking them to support asset-forfeiture reform.

Time to ditch Harris County criminal courts building?
A Houston attorney makes the case for scrapping the Harris County Criminal Justice Center after Hurricane Harvey flooding and starting over.

Racial disparities in juvie incarceration
Texas' racial disparities among incarcerated youth (4.4:1, black to white) aren't the worst in the country, but they're nothing to write home about, either.

'Incompetent scientists using bad science'
The Austin crime lab's DNA screwups extended to capital cases, and the Court of Criminal Appeals has ordered a habeas investigation to determine if the lab generated false or misleading evidence that was used at trial. A defense attorney with the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs criticized "forensic evidence developed by incompetent scientists using bad science."

Judges, advocates require self care
Judges say they experience secondary traumatic stress from the awful stories they encounter at their jobs. The same could be said for prosecutors and defense attorneys, and for that matter, in many cases, reform advocates. Most of the innocence cases I've seen involved terrible, hair raising dramas which can be truly haunting. The stories don't leave you. Your correspondent can barely read jail mail anymore without a panic attack after more than two decades of advocacy in this area; the constant stream of tragedy and unmet need becomes overwhelming.

When judges cherrypick facts
News flash: SCOTUS Justices frequently cherrypick facts that are sometimes flat-out wrong and are never held accountable. You're shocked, I know, to learn that judges might pick facts to support a pre-conceived opinion rather than derive their opinions from the facts. Except, oh wait, Grits readers are aware of the Government-Always-Wins faction at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, so for y'all this sort of outcome-oriented judging has likely already become apparent.

So if you can't execute the developmentally disabled, what do you do with them?
The Moore case out of SCOTUS earlier this year limiting executions for the developmentally disabled is calling into question at least ten additional Texas death cases, including five from Harris County. The case overturned the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals notorious Briseno decision, an outcome-oriented ruling which applied outdated scientific standards to uphold dubious death sentences. (See above re: cherrypicking facts.)

Mass incarceration costs US economy $1 trillion
The annual cost of incarceration totals more than $1 trillion, according to a new analysis, or more than 6 percent of Gross Domestic Product. Notably, according to one of the researchers, “More than half of the costs are borne by families, children and community members who have committed no crime.”

Bogus diagnosis?
Excited delirium: Legitimate medical diagnosis or coverup vehicle for in-custody deaths caused by police? See related Grits coverage.

What's causing overdoses: opiods or ignorance?
Some doctors are starting to push back on the prescriptions-caused-the-opiod-crisis narrative that's been prevalent lately, and Scientific American has perhaps the best rendition of their argument I've seen.


Anonymous said...

RE: 'Incompetent scientists using bad science'

The Excobar Writ is astounding.

"...Per a memo issued by APD’s Forensic Sciences Division in March 2010, around 2007-2008 [note: a document created 2-3 years after the contamination event], “Ms. Morris was placed on a PIP due to the number of errors that occurred during a short time frame pertaining to contamination, not based on a single incident. These errors were quality related and Ms. Morris was advised that failure to resolve the issue could result in further performance related action.” The memo further noted, “[t]here have been other issues in the section with all employees” including Diana Morales, who “experienced contamination in casework in the past 6 months.”
Additionally, contamination logs and internal memos reveal that between 2006 and Mr. Escobar’s trial in May 2011, Morris was involved in at least five contamination incidents and two sample switching incidents. Morales was involved in at least three contamination incidents..."

Yet, the APD lab did not self-disclose these incidents to the TFSC per 38.01. The Texas Rangers did not find these reports of contamination in their investigation in 2010, and instead created their own fraudulent report for the TFSC and the public. The TFSC, being oblivious to their required responsibilities per 38.01, did not perform an investigation in 2010.

Why haven't these people been fired for incompetence, or tampering with a government document, or obstruction of justice? How many other cases will be affected?

(The Rhetorical Questions that will never be answered by the accountable parties.)

There is so much more in the Writ that need to be addressed. Pandora's Box be damned.

Anonymous said...

The Writ is essentially a historical perspective of a failed crime lab documenting and detailing a decade's worth of ineptitude. How many CDLs of the past decade failed to find these memos and reports of contamination up until now. How many Prosecutors knew (or should have known) but did nothing? The hammer should fall hard on the 100+ people who knew (or should have known) and were responsible for oversight.

This was an easily avoidable waste of money, resources, and time. Out of abundance of caution, perhaps the other Texas crime labs should have an investigated historical perspective of operations. Let's find the root cause analysis of the systemic problems before another APD catastrophe happens.

Anonymous said...

Aside from flooding, the problems with the Harris County Criminal Justice Center are entirely caused by the judges. Tritico completely ignores that as the single-largest driver of wear and tear on that building, as well as the cause of lines out the door and elevator issues. Probably because he does little real criminal work.

The judges created this problem, and refuse to fix it. Imagine if every judge in every case filed in the county required the parties and attorneys to come in every 30 days for nothing more than a case reset. It would cause similar backlogs and destruction of the civil courts building. And that is exactly the problem with the criminal building.

Get the judges to not require unnecessary resets, and the county will save money by not having to pay court-appointed lawyers to come to every setting, and the building won't be trashed again. That is actually happening now, out of necessity, but the judges will go right back to where they were before once they are left to their own devices. Constant settings are a favorite tool of judges who want to revise bonds for defendants who show up a minute or two late.

The floods caused damage. But the daily issues with that building are the judges and the thousands of constant, unnecessary settings.