Monday, March 26, 2012

'Crashing the system,' crime lab follies, and a route off death row

Here are a few odds and ends for you that didn't make it into their own, full Grits posts but still merit readers' attention:

'New doubts arise in case surrounding 1985 murder'
Brandi Grissom at the Texas Tribune examines the possibility that a man recently convicted of a gruesome 1985 murder in a prominent Austin cold case may be innocent and gives voice to calls for DNA testing. The defense has posited a theory that Mark Norwood, the man accused of killing Michael Morton's wife Christine as well as another Austin woman, was responsible for the murders and asked for any DNA evidence from the scene to be tested to see if it matched him or anyone else in the CODIS database. The Travis County prosecutor in the case, incidentally, is Mark Pryor who blogs at DA Confidential.

'Crime is down and so is the cost of fighting it' 
So says the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Marc Levin in a recent Houston Chronicle op ed.

Walker commissioners may bypass voters on jail building
In Huntsville, Walker County Commissioners are considering building a new jail with certificates of obligation so they don't have to go to the voters for approval. Readers may recall that Harris County voters rejected a new jail several years ago and Smith County voters said "no" three times before persistence finally paid off for Tyler jail builders. So I understand why they'd want to bypass the voters. But they shouldn't.

Retrials provide route off death row
Brian Rogers at the Houston Chronicle has a story on the recent upsurge of retrials ordered in Harris County death penalty cases because of flawed jury instructions, most of which resulted in life sentences. Said my ol' college pal Danalynn Recer, "We structure the plea in a way that there's not ever going to be parole."

Crime Lab Follies: Empire State edition
Having written recently about the shortcomings of crime lab accreditation, Grits was interested to see this item from Paul Kennedy at The Defense Rests describing the meltdown in oversight at the Nassau County (Long Island) crime lab in New York, which was closed in 2011 "due to grave concerns about the integrity of testing being performed at the lab," according to a massive but revealing report on the subject the NY Office of Inspector General. More from Kennedy on lab accreditation here.

'Crashing the system'?
Michelle Alexander recently had an op ed in the New York Times calling for defendants to organize and choose en masse to take their cases to trial in order to "crash the system," declaring that when a friend mentioned the idea she was so stunned she found herself "speechless." She asks: “What would happen if we organized thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people charged with crimes to refuse to play the game, to refuse to plea out? What if they all insisted on their Sixth Amendment right to trial? Couldn’t we bring the whole system to a halt just like that?” The short answer is that if you were able to organize hundreds of thousands of people you could change the laws at the Legislature and wouldn't need to crash the system! So organize them, already, if it's that easy! See a prosecutor's reaction to the suggestion. MORE: See a biting response from A Public Defender.


Lee said...

Scott, Is that really possible or even realistic? Crashing the system? Could there be any criminal lialbity for the organizers of such a protest? I am sure the prosecutors would at the very least try for an obstruction charge against the organizers...That episode would be interesting.

Anonymous said...

I think the idea of crashing the system sounds like a great idea! Who wants to volunteer to be first to go to trial?

diogenes said...

So, how will we know if the system "crashed"? No specific time limit has been set for "Speedy" trials, so if there is a huge backlog on the docket, we have to look at either expanding the courts (and raising taxes to do so) or doing perfunctory/rubber stamp trials to speed things along (cheaper). Be careful what you wish for?

Lee said...

It is a great idea, the citizens can finally screw a system that has been screwing them.

Anonymous said...

And better yet we can keep guilty criminals out on the street longer to victimize other innocent people! I'm sure that will increase public support for the to pro-criminal cause! What a wonderful idea! The last time there was a backlog, as I recall, the Legislature built about 100,000 new prison beds.

D.A. Confidential said...

What laws would those crashing the system be looking to change? Just curious if there's an agreed-upon list.
And I think my prosecutor colleague is right, one of the things you'd end up with is justice delayed (and you know what that equals!). People in jail on relatively minor cases, but unable to afford bail, could conceivably spend years awaiting trial.
Also, and I'm not being purposefully dense here, but is there something inherently wrong with a system that lets guilty parties plead to their crimes? Don't we want that as one mechanism of the criminal justice system?

A Critic said...

"What laws would those crashing the system be looking to change?"

Anything that prohibits the exercise of a right (i.e. the prohibition of drugs, guns, business).

Anything that requires a permission slip to exercise a right (i.e. other drugs or the same drugs for other reasons, driving, guns, business, etc).

That should do nicely for a start.

A Critic said...

"Also, and I'm not being purposefully dense here, but is there something inherently wrong with a system that lets guilty parties plead to their crimes?"

No, but there is something inherently wrong with a system that coerces innocent people to plead guilty to exercising their rights as if that were a crime.

Miranda said...


This article was commented on at I think it presents some good commentary from a criminal defense lawyer on the idea, better than I could articulate.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious, "A Critic," as to what changes you would make to the system which allows people to plead guilty to crimes that they commit?

Anonymous said...

Crime is down and the "No Snitching" campaign is working. If no one will talk, no one gets arrested. It all looks good. Just say. "I didn't see nothing."

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"the 'No Snitching' campaign is working"

Outside of a few rapper fantasies, there no more exists a "No Snitching campaign" than there is a "war on Christmas."

Miranda, very good reaction you pointed to from A Public Defender. Here's the hyperlink for others' convenience.

Anonymous said...

Nobody is afraid to rat on the gangsters.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

2:43, I didn't say that, I said the idea of "No Snitching campaign" is fantasy. Tis true.

Robert Langham said...

What is the economic impact of turning a citizen into a felon?

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey DA Confidential aka: Mr. Mark Pryor,

"What laws would those crashing the system be looking to change? Just curious if there's an agreed-upon list."

Even though we all know there's no way in hell that we are going to see an end to the infamous 'Play Bargain' games anytime soon and that you are just being silly or simply just bored, allow me to offer this.

As it is now, the law allows the (unqualified) Divorce Estate / Will specialist to dabble in criminal defense vs. mandating referring out. They consult with consumers (ex: elderly parents of incarcerated) seeking felony jury trial representation, take down payments, participate in voir dire, file pre-trial discovery motions 30 days prior to trial, don't do anything when the Court Orders are left blank (ignored) yet file another "Ready for Trial notice and plea bargain at lunch recess.

*Sadly, the Real CDLs seem to not give much of a shit about the fakers & shakers attempting to do their line of expertise. To this day I haven't heard any of them say one word or seen anything done to prevent the dabbling.

Guess who loves it? That's right, you and your prosecutor colleagues & the lazy ass judges that enable the play bargain games to be conducted & finalized in chambers but documented as being in "Open Court".

No felony jury trials past lunch recess, hitting the titty bars and /or links by 2:oo and everyones happy. Especially the never been all the way to verdict crowd that tells clients to take "the plea you are going to prison just for being arrested while on probation at time of arrest".

Thanks for asking.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Mr Langham asked a very good question.

"What is the economic impact of turning a citizen into a felon?"

If I may? IMHO - When the laws are correctly applied and the guilty are properly arrested and convicted via a jury verdict based on 'all' evidence, that has received lawful instruction and wasn't allowed to bully other jurors - the impact is felt but rightfully so.

When a police incident report; shows a crime victim moments afterwards as describing suspect(s) having absolutly nothing in common with the suspect(s) in custody, shows a Det. confronting victim after positively picking out suspect(s) that look nothing like the original description, shows Det. allowing a second chance to describe, shows second chance not even being close to the original or the actual descriptions, shows Det. seeking charges anyway. The DA's Intake is shown obtaining charges anyway. Voters go thru voir dire only to be released when plea bargain games are initiated just because suspect(s) was on probation at time of arrest.

Well, the impact is felt but negatively and forever by both the victim of the system and taxpayers that beleive they got 'em. The real criminal(s) remain free to terrorize as the voters & taxpayers remain clueless as to what just happend.

Anonymous said...


'Outside of a few rapper fantasies, there no more exists a "No Snitching campaign" than there is a "war on Christmas.'

Perhaps you should start a campaign to tell the anti-snitchers (especially those who beat up or kill snitches) that they are participating in a non-existent campaign? And perhaps you could somehow stop people from selling T-Shirts and other memorabilia emblazoned with anti-snitch messages? And while you are at you really should do something about those rappers and their millions of fans who are mistakenly campaigning against snitching - if they keep repeating the lie enough times it just might become true.