Convicting the Innocent

June 21, 2016

I care about what happened in Orlando because the victims and their families are all members of the human family. And I cringe at the self-styled protestors who use God’s name in vain as an excuse for their own inhumanity toward the grieving families, who deserve to know that we care and share their grief.

Another story is also on my mind. On June 5, the Times Union headline read “Murder verdicts in doubt.” Two men were convicted in 1999 for the murder of a University at Albany student, and have already served 17 years in prison. The two men were grilled aggressively, until they broke down, trying to end the interrogation, and signed a confession. But an Ohio prisoner has now told officials he was the killer and expressed incredulity that Albany Police took a confession from prisoners who hadn’t been able to supply a single fact about the crime because neither had committed it. More than a fifth of exonerated prisoners had signed confessions.

Prisoners break down for many reasons. After hours or days of questioning by people who claim to know you’re guilty, appear ready to keep going until you surrender and sign, and tell you they’ll stop if you sign, that you’ll get off easier, or they won’t recommend the death penalty, it takes a lot of strength to continue to protest innocence. Some don’t have that strength because they are young and inexperienced. Some don’t muster that strength because they have confidence that the system will acquit them since they really didn’t do it. Some plead for lawyers but are broken before any come. It isn’t that hard to break people down and force them to say or sign false statements with enough pressure. It is the sophisticated, educated, trained individual who has some chance of

The two men convicted in this case had an alibi that police could have checked if they were seriously interested in convicting the right people. Police could have had the prisoners write what they remembered instead of dictating what they wanted in the confessions. The police actually tore up what they wrote as not good enough. People break. Breaking doesn’t mean confessing the truth. And being too [quotes] “weak” to withstand that kind of interrogation doesn’t mean people aren’t decent and couldn’t be valuable to their parents, spouses, children and society. We’re not all tough just like we’re not all Einsteins. We all have strengths and weaknesses.

Sending the wrong people to prison does double damage – it lets the guilty go free while the innocent suffer. Unfortunately it’s not rare. Sometimes it’s the result of sloppiness. Eye-witness identification of strangers, for example, is notoriously unreliable. Experiments have shown witnesses doing no better than chance. Suggestive lineups can be much worse than that. Failure to follow leads often results in convicting the innocent. It’s not just overly “aggressive” police work; sometimes police or prosecutors are so anxious to look good for “solving” a crime that they lose sight of who’s guilty. Sometimes they’ve framed people to cover their own misdeeds.  All of those things happen. The individual and collective results are tragic.

I keep hoping that cases like these will at least help people understand that what many call “prisoners’ rights” are actually the rights of all of us designed to make sure that innocent people, any of us, are not convicted and sent to prison for crimes we did not commit.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 21, 2016.

 


When More Law is Too Much – a Case of Airport Excess

May 19, 2016

A proposal before the Albany County legislature makes it a crime to “interfere[] with or fail[] to submit” to the United States Transportation Security Administration inspection protocols.  It would become a crime to turn around and leave the airport for any reason once one enters the screening area.

Proponents imagine people probing airport security until a vulnerability is found by “start[ing] the screening process at an airport” but leaving before completing it. The legislation’s supporters want travelers to have to go through a secondary screening process which includes a physical search of the person and their luggage, a pat down or more. But this poorly drafted legislation makes it a crime to leave once the traveler approaches the conveyor belt, before luggage has been screened.

The proposal substitutes inconsistent local rules for uniform national ones. Under the vague “interference” language, a person who questions why a security officer wants to search the traveler or her luggage may well be arrested for interfering with security protocols.   The proposal aggravates the problem of “flying while Muslim” – or at least flying in Muslim apparel, though I know from experience here and abroad that the vast majority of Muslims are, like the rest of us, decent, caring, peace-loving and law-abiding, although stopped and searched in very disproportionate numbers.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has described this proposal as “a remedy in search of a problem.”[1] There is no apparent problem this legislation would solve. Under long established rules, the TSA and other law enforcement personnel at the airport have all the authority they need to take action whenever they actually suspect a problem rather than whenever someone turns around because they have to run to the bathroom, had a panic attack or forgot something, which becomes criminal under this proposal.

I’d like to quote an eloquent letter sent to me by psychiatrist Aliya Saeed: “physical searches are quite traumatic for many … including survivors of rape (who are unlikely to want the back of a stranger’s hand next to their crotch, and on their breasts, as practiced currently), transgender individuals, those with emotional and mental health issues, pubescent children, etc. Being forced into an arrest … in a crowded public place, because someone is perceived to be walking away from a checkpoint, instead of … being able to simply leave an intolerable situation, presents  an undue risk …. We know that people with mental illness are far more likely to end up at risk of harm in police encounters because they are often unable to communicate effectively or comply readily with police demands. This presents an unnecessary liability for the law enforcement, and an unacceptable risk…, especially [for] those with mental health issues, history of trauma, autism, or those with limited English proficiency.”

This legislation just isn’t needed – there is no gap in authority to take necessary action when officials reasonably suspect wrongdoing. Instead, this will cost us tax dollars without giving us any benefits while threatening travelers with totally unnecessary harm. This legislation should be withdrawn.

– This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 17, 2017.

[1] NYCLU Memorandum Re: Proposed Albany County Local Law E of 2016, establishing a secondary search protocal at Albany County Airport, submitted at a meeting of the Albany County Legislature, Monday, May 9, 2017.


Prosecuting the Prosecutor – Thank Heavens

April 7, 2015

Here’s a news flash from the Innocence Project that left me both cheering and in tears:

The Texas State Bar filed a formal accusation of misconduct against the prosecutor in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for the arson murder of his three young daughters. The bar accuses the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, of obstruction of justice, making false statements and concealing evidence favorable to Cameron’s defense, according to a disciplinary petition filed in Navarro County District Court this month.[1]

I was cheering because it is so rare that anyone takes action against any official in the criminal process who wrongfully assists in the conviction and execution of an innocent person. The U.S. Supreme Court blocks any litigation against prosecutors for murderous misconduct. I was crying because the man wrongfully convicted has long since been put to death.

Gov. Rick Perry refused to grant a stay requested by lawyers for Cameron who had been convicted for setting a fire that killed his three daughters. His lawyers asked Perry to stay execution because a report by an independent arson expert found no evidence the fire was intentionally set.

Calling Cameron a “monster,” Perry replaced members of a commission that dared to review the finding of arson.

At the trial, a jailhouse informant testified that Cameron had admitted the crime and that the informant had not been promised anything by the prosecutor for his testimony. Later a letter surfaced in which the informant reminded the prosecutor of his promise of leniency on other charges.

For me, there are so many lessons. One is that innocent until proven guilty is more than a slogan. Another is that the people who are supposed to be enforcing the law are sometimes actually lawless, doing great harm. A third, is that independent outside investigation of the behavior of the police and the prosecutors is a crucial form of accountability in a democratic society. And a fourth is that it is important that independent groups have the courage to follow up and do their best to right those wrongs without being attacked because they are impartially investigating people whose job description makes them seem sacrosanct.

When she was told that the state bar was taking action, Cameron’s step-mother responded: “Who would have ever thought that all this corruption would happen in small-town America?”

There’s another stereotype that needs to go. The devil lurks in all communities and among people of all colors. Cameron incidentally was white. A decent, honest, law enforcement system is important to all of us without regard to race, sex, faith or any other aspects of our background. And if they could do that to a white family, what kind of justice do we think our African-American brothers and sisters are getting.

To me this is a reflection of the problems we have been addressing with respect to police killing of unarmed people, even a child recently, and the Supreme Court’s indifference to injustice in what should be a system of criminal justice, not a system of official lynching. We need to be willing to see and stop misbehavior wherever it happens.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 7, 2015.

[1] See https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/03/18/willingham-prosecutor-accused-of-misconduct and http://www.innocenceproject.org/news-events-exonerations/prosecutor-in-willingham-case-faces-misconduct-charges?utm_source=Main+IP+Email+List&utm_campaign=3a08bbb832-2015_February_Newsletter_02272015&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_016cb74fd6-3a08bbb832-350279237


Killing Garner

December 9, 2014

Are we safer with or without the police around? When juries, grand juries and prosecutors regularly decide that plain, on camera, evidence doesn’t show murder, what protects people?

It’s too dangerous to put your key in your front door like Amadou Diallo a few years ago. It took 41 bullets to meet that threat and shoot him in the back. It’s too dangerous to hold your hands up like Michael Brown in Ferguson – hands up can be interpreted as threatening. It’s too darn dangerous to complain “I can’t breathe” like Eric Garner – we know from sexual politics that people understand “I can’t” to mean “I can!” On camera they could see just how dangerous a man can be when he can’t breathe. And any Black kid with a toy gun is toast.

The police talk about bad officers. Most are not looking for a chance to show just how tough they can be toward inoffensive or defenseless people. But don’t let the so-called good cops off easily when there are no repercussions, when the “good cops” stand with the “bad cops” because it’s a dangerous job, so that there are no enforceable rules of behavior toward civilians and anything the police do goes but nothing civilians do – especially if they’re African-American. The culture of silence gives us no reason for confidence. No firings, no powers for civilian review boards, plus judges and prosecutors who stand by the cops regardless, like the judge who told me he believed my client but found him guilty because “I couldn’t do that to the police.” Are those who stand-up-for-the-cops-no-matter-what any better than the Romans who liked to watch Christians thrown to lions?

Black families have “the conversation” with their kids about how to deal with the police. Actually I’m also better off when I don’t argue with the police, don’t claim to know my rights. Most of my clients were Black. I gave them the same advice plus keep quiet and politely ask for an attorney.

Apologists for the police have used the conversation to say it was Eric Garner’s and Michael Brown’s fault that they were killed. They should have done what they were told. Then they wouldn’t be dead. But so what? I teach my law students that they should not expect their clients to know what to do and what they need to tell their lawyers. The lawyers are the professionals. The lawyers are trained. The lawyers must expect themselves to shape the encounter usefully and help the clients do what needs to be done.

It is a lot too simple and too self-satisfying to blame the victim. The Americans ISIS beheaded shouldn’t have been there if they knew what was good for them but that gave ISIS no excuse to behead them. Some women might not have been raped if they made themselves look ugly but that’s no excuse to rape them. I took part in a rape case where a young man was charged with raping an older, shriveled charwoman – not looking pretty doesn’t necessarily protect women. But no matter, none of them, pretty or ugly, young or old, should have been raped. It doesn’t help to blame the victim. Blaming Brown and Garner and Diallo and the 12 year old kid doesn’t make a lot of sense to me – none of them did anything that justified execution. Do we have to take the guns out of their hands to convince the police to use their heads?

—  This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 9, 2014.

References

On Eric Garnder’s death, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/04/nyregion/officer-told-grand-jury-he-meant-no-harm-to-eric-garner.html?action=click&contentCollection=U.S.&region=Footer&module=MoreInSection&pgtype=article


The Can-do Attitude Meets a Changing World

May 28, 2013

Too many Americans oppose and prevent serious efforts to head off problems until they become a crisis. They think we can postpone dealing with global warming, abuses in criminal trials, predictable shortages of fuel, food or water, threats to our health, and the backlash from our military adventures in the Middle East, among others.

It could be called denial. Or maybe it’s just a part of a can-do attitude, the attitude that built America. Read the rest of this entry »


Trying Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

May 7, 2013

It seems clear that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev exploded bombs at the Boston Marathon. Although some wanted him tried as an enemy combatant outside of the requirements of the Constitution, the Obama Administration has brought charges in the federal courts.

It’s fascinating how some Americans treat our Constitution. On the one hand, many people make a fetish about what the Founders thought and did in the eighteenth century, and on the other many, often the same people, argue that the Constitution is simply irrelevant, doesn’t apply, can safely be ignored or forgotten.

Let’s get past that one quickly. Although the evidence so far does not fit the definition, the Constitution has a very clear notion of what to call Americans who adhere to our enemies – “traitors.” Read the rest of this entry »


The Gay Marriage Cases

March 27, 2013

Sunday night, my wife and I attended a Persian Nowruz or New Year’s festival, with many friends. We celebrated the best and happiest of the traditions they had left behind, along with other Americans who had come to take part. While celebrating the rebirth of Spring, we were also celebrating freedom with friends who had become refugees, whose humanity and efforts to use their skills to help others had become unwelcome to Iranian authorities.

Last night we celebrated freedom with another group of friends, this time in a Passover Seder at our home. We were all Americans by birth but we remembered the importance of freedom to the ancient Israelites and to the many different groups who have struggled for freedom in our own lifetimes.

On both evenings some of the conversation turned to what was going to happen in the cases dealing with the rights of gays and lesbians in front of the U.S. Supreme Court this week. Read the rest of this entry »


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