Friday News Roundup: Innocent Until Proven Guilty?

Friday News Roundup latest news

This week in the news: Witness mis-identification, discovery reform law helps defense fight fair, three reports offer a look at criminal justice by numbers, and more.

The Presumption of Innocence

How Witness Identifications Send Innocent People to Prison

A report commissioned by the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit offers a snapshot of the criminal legal system’s chronic over-reliance on eyewitness accounts. Mistaken identifications have been involved in nearly 70 percent of post-conviction exonerations that are based on DNA evidence. Read more for specific instances, and about the multitude of reasons why people who witness a crime may identify the wrong person, many of which relate to basic psychology. (Willis, The Appeal, February 11, 2020)

Newsrooms Rethink a Crime Reporting Staple: The Mugshot

Faced with questions about the lasting impact of putting mugshot photos on the internet, where they live forever, media outlets are increasingly doing away with the galleries of people on the worst days of their lives. The benefit for the papers is increased clicks and ad revenue. However, it undermines presumption of innocence for these individuals, who are disproportionately people of color. The photos are public record, but many media organizations are reconsidering their ethical guidelines on whether or not they should produce mugshot galleries. (Blakinger, The Marshall Project, February 11, 2020)

Will Texas Execute an Innocent Man?

Meet Rob Will, 41, who has been on death row for the past 19 years after being convicted of shooting Deputy Sheriff Barrett Hill. Except there were no witnesses, and Will maintains that the officer had him in handcuffs at the time when another individual, the son of a different Houston police officer, shot Hill. The investigators did not follow this other suspect for reasons unknown, despite forensic evidence supporting Will’s claims. Some of the convicting testimony was hearsay, and, moreover, new jailhouse witnesses stepped forward stating that the other individual confessed the crime to them. Will’s appeals using this evidence have been denied. (Hedegaard, Rolling Stone, February 10, 2020)

Juvenile Justice

The Hidden Trauma of “Short Stays” in Foster Care

The Marshall Project examines the practice of removing a child from their home for safety concerns, and how traumatic this experience can be. Every year, an average of nearly 17,000 children are removed from their families’ custody and placed in foster care only to be reunited within 10 days, according to an analysis of federal Department of Health and Human Services records dating back a decade. These “short stays” seem to happen the most in high-poverty areas where law enforcement officials are the only group authorized by state law to remove children without a court order. (Hager, The Marshall Project, February 11, 2020)

Public Defense

Prosecutors Blame Discovery Reform Law For Overtime, Tax Hikes, and a Murder

A public defender shares stories about working under New York’s antiquated discovery law, which didn’t require prosecutors to give the defense the evidence against their client until the very last minute. This resulted in many people pleading guilty without ever knowing the strength of the case against them. To many it was known as the “blindfold law,” because it forced people to take pleas while blindfolded. Lustbader writes that the reform law does not add any additional work if the prosecutors were already doing what they were supposed to and providing the discovery, it just changes the timeline.  (Lustbader, The Appeal, February 11, 2020)

Criminal Justice

A Step Backwards’: Mandatory Minimum Sentences Won’t Stop Violent Crime in Missouri

This opinion piece from the The Kansas City Star Editorial Board is in response to a ‘tough on crime’ criminal justice reform package that’s making its way through the Missouri Senate and would expand mandatory minimums. Specifically, Senate Bill 600 would deny probation for someone convicted of second-degree murder or any other dangerous felony involving a use of a deadly weapon. Another measure would change the minimum prison term for armed criminal action from three years to five years for a first offense. (The Kansas City Star Editorial Board, The Kansas City Star, February 10, 2020)

Three Texas Inmates Have Died at the Hands of Prison Officers as Use of Force Continues to Rise

An increase in altercations with individuals in Texas’ prison system comes despite the fact that the population has decreased by thousands over the last decade. In three years, three officers have faced criminal charges in prisoners’ deaths. But the article states the cases are a rarity in the Texas prison system, and an official labeled the three criminal investigations into the officers an “anomaly.” The exact explanation for why the system is seeing an increase in use of force is unclear, but it is problematic. (McCullough, The Texas Tribune, February 7, 2020)


Mortality in State and Federal Prisons: 2001-2016 – Statistical Tables

The Bureau of Justice Statistics report that in 2016, a total of 4,117 state and federal prisoners died in publicly or privately operated prisons. The number of deaths in state prisons rose 1.3 percent from 2015 to 2016, while the number of deaths in federal prisons fell 15 percent. This is the first decrease in deaths in federal prisons since 2012. While the total number of state prisoners dropped 5 percent from 2006 to 2016, the number of deaths in state prisons rose 15 percent over that 10 year period. Read the report for more information, like mortality rates, and the rates of death from natural causes. (Carson, Cowhig, US Department of Justice, February 2020)

In Trouble: How the Promise of Diversion Clashes with the Reality of Poverty, Addiction, and Structural Racism in Alabama’s Justice System

Alabama’s tangle of overlapping, unaccountable, and expensive diversion programs are not equally available to people who need them the most. Diversion programs like drug court (either pretrial diversion or post-adjudication), court referral, and community corrections are meant to help Alabamians, but costs, requirements, and access vary widely. This report surveyed over a thousand justice-involved Alabamians, about what it calls a “two-tiered system of punishment.” (Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, 2020)

Record-Breaking Number of New Expungement Laws Enacted in 2019

As in past years, the justice reform measure most frequently enacted in 2019 was record relief, which is expungement, sealing, or another mechanism to limit access to criminal records or set aside convictions. This past year, 31 states and DC enacted no fewer than 67 separate bills creating, expanding, or streamlining record relief. The analysis breaks down the record relief laws into (1) new automatic relief schemes; (2) new petition-based relief; and (3) improved procedures and effect of existing record relief mechanisms. This is the third part in a series describing some of the 153 laws passed in 2019, with a combined report to come. (Shlussel, Love, Collateral Consequences Resource Center, February 6, 2020)