The U.S. Supreme Court today over-ruled, 6-3, its really bad 1972 holding that rights, like the 6th amendment fair trial requirements, were not necessarily incorporated into the states by the 14th. Oregon and Louisiana, astoundingly, did not require unanimous jury verdicts of guilty in criminal cases, allowing 10-2 convictions. In Louisiana, the anomaly was an 1898 relic of the Jim Crow era; I have no idea what Oregon’s excuse was.
Louisianans voted in 2018 to do away with the practice, passing an amendment to the state constitution requiring unanimous verdicts going forward. But up to a hundred prisoners, like Evangelisto Ramos who was serving a life prison sentence after being convicted of murder in a 10-2 jury vote, will get new trials because their convictions came under the old, unconstitutional law and their appeals aren’t exhausted. The case is Louisiana v. Ramos.
Two aspects of the decision are especially noteworthy, other than the fact that its seems obviously correct. Continue reading
Usually, when Ethics Alarms headlines California’s lawmakers, it is because they have done something irresponsible, like in this post, this one, and my personal favorite, this one, in which Governor Jerry Brown signed a minimum wage law that he admitted might not make economic sense, because it was consistent with partisan fantasies.
But a blind pig might find a truffle, every dog has its day, and even a stopped clock is right occasionally. California just passed a desperately needed law that no other state has had the courage to pass. Its purpose: take serious measures to stop prosecutorial misconduct that sends innocent people to jail, a problem that is rampant everywhere in the U.S., but particularly bad in the Golden State.
Brown just signed into law a new statute making it a felony for prosecutors to alter or intentionally withhold evidence that could be used to exonerate defendants. Violators could be sentenced to up to three years in prison. That’s not nearly enough punishment when the crime often robs innocent citizens of decades of their lives, but it sends an important, and one hopes an effective, warning…with teeth. Continue reading
Craig Watkins, a D.A. who understands his ethical priorities.
In Law School, I had the honor of being instructed in the superb Georgetown Law Center Criminal Justice Clinic, by far the single best course of any kind I participated in at any level of my formal education. Our mentor in prosecutor ethics was Seymour Glanzer, the man who, as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, cut the deal with Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean that cracked open the Watergate scandal.
Sy had one mantra he repeated to the clinic students often, trying the beat it into our heads forever: the prosecutor must be the center of justice and ethics for the criminal system. Defense attorneys have to defend the accused whether they are guilty or not, but prosecutors are charged with achieving justice, not convictions. “If you don’t have sufficient legal and reliable evidence to convict a defendant of a crime, or have any doubts about that client’s guilt, drop the case,” he told us.
His principles do not hold sway among many, perhaps even most prosecutors, to the shame of the criminal justice system. Too many see their duty as convicting as many accused as possible, putting the law-abiding public at ease by closing cases and filling prisons. Over-zealousness, sometimes to the extremes of withholding exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys while placing questionable eye-witnesses and unreliable experts on the stand under oath, is rampant in district attorney offices across the country.
The worst of the worst may have been Dallas. Vanessa Potkin, chief counsel of The Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School, argues that “no other county in the country beats Dallas. It’s a county that beats out most states in the country.”
It’s an indication of a system that needs reform, she says, with “staggering numbers of the innocent put in prison.” That is why the recent steps taken by new Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins are so important, and so necessary. Continue reading