Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Junk-science writ doing the work, HOPE-less, considering prison ecology, and other stories

Here are a few odds and ends that merit Grits readers' attention this afternoon:

Junk-science writ doing the work
Texas' junk science writ continues to kick ass and take names. The Collin County District Attorney stipulated that bite-mark evidence is junk science in a hearing on the habeas corpus writ of Kousoul Chanthakoummane, Michael Bowers reported on Twitter. See more background on the case from the Texas Tribune. Notably, Virginia this year considered becoming the third state (after Texas and California) to let people challenge flawed forensics through a habeas corpus writ, but the measure failed to move in the House after passing the Senate. Grits continues to believe the junk-science writ deserves to be passed everywhere; flawed forensics are an issue in all jurisdictions, not just in the two most populous states. For more background on why this is needed, check out an excellent, extended article on flawed forensics published in Congressional Quarterly last year.

Eliminating Class C arrests could resolve Bexar jail beef
The biggest beef between the San Antonio PD and Bexar County over whether the PD will use the county's new jail intake facility is maintaining a space for processing Class C misdemeanor arrests. Given that both Texas political parties have endorsed eliminating most Class C arrests, maybe there's another way to skin that cat.

Convict leasing history unearthed
Check out the Houston Chronicle story about dozens of bodies of former inmates unearthed at a Fort Bend County construction site. These were inmates who died working for the Imperial Sugar company through Texas' old convict leasing program. MORE: From The Smithsonian magazine , the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

Graham PD criticized for tazing autistic man
Experts say police should have talked to the man longer and perhaps noticed signs of his disability instead of just tazing him and taking him into custody.

Wishful thinking not a strategy on mental health
"The Harris County sheriff’s office doesn’t want its jail to be the largest mental health facility in Texas anymore," reported Politico. But given that about a quarter of the 10k jail population suffer from a diagnosed mental illness, the small-time programs described don't sound like they'll solve the problem anytime soon.

Death disparities in Denton
There's only one criminal defense attorney in Denton County qualified to handle death penalty cases, and he says he's not getting the same resources as the prosecution. He also wonders why some cases are charged as capital, a comment that underscores how Texas prosecutors have taken to charging more routine murders as potential death penalty cases.

The HOPE probation program out of Hawaii isn't delivering results when implemented elsewhere. The NIJ has a study of four pilot sites, including in Tarrant County, TX, and here's an academic analysis describing some of the problems. Grits had written about the Tarrant pilot when it launched, I'm disappointed to learn it hasn't generated improved results.

'Plea deals have unbalanced Oklahoma's justice system'
From the Oklahoma Policy Institute, see an interesting critique of how the plea bargaining process leads to a bloated justice system.

Considering prison ecology
Historically, environmentalists haven't always been allies of the #cjreform movement (#understatementoftheyear). So I was interested to run across these environmental critiques of prison systems:
Smart decarceration
There's a new book out on smart decarceration policies that will go onto Grits' reading list.

Wrongful convictions and their causes
Check out an extended bibliography on the topic.

Crime data over time
A Ph.D. candidate out of the University of Pennsylvania has compiled reported crime and arrest data for US police departments dating back to 1980. Check out the tool he's created here.


Anonymous said...

Wrongful convictions and their causes
Check out an extended bibliography on the topic.

Broken link

Steven Michael Seys said...

RE: Death Disparities in Denton, and Plea Bargains
Texas Code of Criminal Procedure states the duty of a prosecutor and District Attorney is to see that justice is done, not chase after spurious convictions to pad their record for reelection. The problems of overcharging crimes and excessive plea bargaining would both be resolved if the CCP statement had any meaning. The problem is that although that statement is the law, it has no teeth and may as well be written as a suggestion. Until the CCP includes penalties for lawyers for the State that step outside their statutory job descriptions, they'll happily continue to do so for political gain.

Anonymous said...

Grits, it might be helpful if you would a) stop conflating death penalty cases with capital murder cases where the death penalty is not being sought (it's misleading if not downright "fake news"); b) explain to your readers exactly what conduct constitutes capital murder (incidentally, I don't remember anyone claiming that capital murder charges are reserved for the "worst of the worst"--the death penalty yes, capital murder no. The charged conduct either fits the elements of the offense or it doesn't); and c) point out that it's the legislature which establishes what circumstances qualify as capital murder and either deserve or don't deserve a LWOP sentence. Incidentally, since the decision to downgrade a charge from what the legislature intended is based upon inherently subjective criteria, why don't you favor us with your standards as to what circumstances warrant such a deviation and give us a few examples of where you think the police and prosecutors should have been more lenient. I'm sure the survivors of those victims would be interested in your opinion as well.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@5:46, you saying "I don't remember anyone claiming that capital murder charges are reserved for the 'worst of the worst'" is just revisionist BS. That's exactly what they're for, and you're moving the goalposts. IMO LWOP is a harsher sentence than death. Everyone dies, not everyone is locked up in a cage for all of their days.

Otherwise I think my readers know that a) legislators write laws and b) prosecutors charging capital murder do so SOLELY at their own, unreviewable discretion. Hence, per (b), prosecutors don't need me to give them "standards," it's entirely their decision, and they're using that power to over-charge capital murder in cases that should be "regular" murder.

And yes, the Lege is as much to blame as overzealous prosecutors. IMO the LWOP law was a terrible mistake and gave prosecutors big incentives to over-charge. As Judge Alcala wrote in Ex Parte Miller:

"The capital-murder statute provides for around one hundred different ways that a person can be convicted of capital murder. The list of ways in which a person may commit capital murder is twice as long when one considers that a defendant may be convicted not only as a principal actor, but also as a party by, for example, aiding or attempting to aid another person to commit the offense. And the list is thrice as long when one considers that a defendant may be convicted of capital murder even if he lacked any intent to commit that offense but was part of a conspiracy to commit a felony under certain circumstances."(citations omitted)."

That's way too wide a net just to get a bigger club to coerce LWOP pleas ("take the plea or we'll try to kill you").

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@9:27, fixed the link, try it now.

Anonymous said...

I agree with 5:46, Scott. I think you're the one who's moving the goal posts. The very reason LWOP was passed by the legislature was to allow prosecutors to have a less punitive option for capital offenders who were not the worst of the worst. That was the selling point the anti-death penalty advocates promoted for years. Under the old law, as you well know, there was no middle ground for prosecutors to seek. It was either death, or the possibility that the capital murderer would someday parole. Not much of a choice in many cases. But now you're decrying the very option that abolitionists sought because, in YOUR opinion, LWOP is worse than death. That's sure not what abolitionists and capital defense attorneys have been saying for years. I'd challenge you to find a single DP voir dire in the history of Texas DP litigation where the defense lawyers haven't asked the prospective jurors to agree that the DEATH PENALTY--not a capital murder charge--should be reserved for the worst of the worst.

Alcala's comments about the law of parties and conspiracy culpability is just as applicable to regular murder prosecutions as it is to capital murder prosecutions by the way. I suppose the next argument we should expect from you will be that prosecutors are overcharging in first degree murder cases where the prosecution is based upon criminal responsibility for the conduct of another?

Finally, where are these cases where prosecutors are extorting guilty pleas to LWOP by threatening the DP? I'd genuinely be curious to know if this is something that is really happening in practice or if it's just an assumption on your part? My gut tells me that it's very rare if it happens at all; and when it does happen I suspect it is conversation initiated by the capital defense attorneys who have prepared a mitigation packet well before the decision to seek or not seek death is made. But then again, if your motivation is to just disparage prosecutors (an all too common theme on this blog) then words like COERCE probably have a little more impact.

Anonymous said...

Routine murders? Murder may be routine to you.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Just saw these last couple of responses.

@7/18, I disagreed with the LWOP law at the time, so I feel under no compunction to defend the law. Nor do I think anyone ever discussed "capital offenders who were not the worst of the worst," since the special circumstances that allow capital charging are supposedly what defines the "worst of the worst," or it did before the mission creep Judge Alcala decried. You want LWOP to become the norm, but that wasn't what the legislature intended at the time.

@7:19, if there's no distinction to be made between regular murders and more exceptional ones designated as "capital," why not charge all murders as potential death penalty cases? We get it, murder is bad. But the law makes distinctions between them.