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“Capital Punishment On Hold, For Now”: Supreme Court Strikes Down Florida’s Death Penalty System

The future of the death penalty in the United States is murky, and we know there are some justices who believe the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment necessitates the policy’s end.

The resolution of that debate, however, remains on the horizon. Today’s decision on Florida’s death penalty isn’t entirely what it appears to be at first blush.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declared Florida’s death penalty law unconstitutional because it requires the trial judge and not the jury to make the critical findings necessary to impose capital punishment.

That’s at odds with a string of Supreme Court cases which held that facts that add to a defendant’s punishment – known as aggravating circumstances – must be found by a jury.

It was an 8-1 ruling, the entirety of which is online, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death,” she wrote for the majority. “A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”

The sole dissent in Hurst v. Florida was written by Justice Samuel Alito.

So now what happens? The defendant, Timothy Lee Hurst, will see his case go back to the lower courts, while lawyers scramble to review the convictions of other inmates on Florida’s death row.

For opponents of capital punishment, it’s certainly a victory, but it’s worth emphasizing that it may be short-lived.

In this case, Florida’s current law was struck down, but the ruling focused on criminal procedure in the courtroom. The question of whether the law is cruel or unusual is left for another day.

The Miami Herald reports that state lawmakers are already preparing to “fix” what the Supreme Court said is broken.

Florida lawmakers are prioritizing a fix to Florida’s death penalty sentencing procedures after the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a state law giving judges the final say on capital sentencing.

House Criminal Justice chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said his committee will take on a bill to address the Supreme Court’s problems.

The article added that another member of the Republican-run legislature intends to use this opportunity to consider broader reforms to the system, including a proposal to “require jurors to unanimously find that there are aggravating circumstances in a case, which would warrant a death sentence. Right now, it only takes a simple majority – 7 of 12 jurors.”

Capital punishment in Florida is, for now, on hold. That may not last long.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, January 12, 2015

January 13, 2016 Posted by | Capital Punishment, Death Penalty, Florida | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It Makes You Wonder”: George Zimmerman, Darren Wilson And The Kickstarted Defense; You Call This Justice?

I learned a lot of shocking things reporting “Zimmerman Family Values” for the new issue of GQ. But one really creeped up on me. From nearly the second the Florida neighborhood watchman shot to death 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, George and his family absolutely believed that a superstar attorney was his only chance to not wind up in prison forever. So it was inevitable that when Zimmerman was arrested and charged with murder, he had only one thing on his mind: how to pay for a private criminal defense lawyer. Knowing that his phone calls were being recorded while he was in jail pending bond (for a grand total of seven weeks) Zimmerman and his family spoke in code. They were all very grateful for the “support from SH”.

You didn’t need a crypto-analyst to figure out that “SH” was Sean Hannity. In July 2012, the Miami Herald reported that the anchor was believed to be financially backing Zimmerman’s defense.

It was kind of true. But Hannity, himself, did not shell out. He got a bunch of other people to pony up. On his nightly TV show, the Fox News man would furrow his brow and rant about what would become of America if we lost the right to shoot and kill people who scare us. Then Hannity would, helpfully, mention TheRealGeorge Zimmerman.com, a website that the real George Zimmerman had set up after he shot Trayvon Martin to death. The site, helpfully, accepted PayPal.

Nearly half a million dollars double-clicked right in.

It makes you wonder: does seeming less guilty on TV make a killer seem less guilty in court? Does an expensive attorney help get him off, too?

The answer appears to be yes and yes.

A 2012 study showed that if a case before the US supreme court is covered by the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, the court’s decision is twice as likely to mimic public opinion than if it is not reported on by those newspapers.

In 2011, a review by the US justice department showed that defendants represented by court-appointed lawyers are more likely to be convicted and/or receive longer prison sentences than those represented by private attorneys.

The reasons for this slaying of the US constitution’s sixth and 14th amendments (right to legal counsel and right to due process) is rather obvious. In the last 50 years (since the supreme court unanimously reaffirmed defendant rights), the US incarceration rate has exploded more than 700%, while public defender budgets have plummeted about 600%. Today, the average amount of time a public defender spends with a client is 59 minutes in Atlanta, 32 minutes in Detroit and seven minutes in New Orleans. No surprise it’s often a “meet ’em and plead ’em” process. More than 90% of criminal defense cases are now plea-bargained. Those that go to trial – well, no promises. In the last 25 years, at least 2,000 people have been wrongly convicted and collectively served more than 10,000 years in prison.

So what’s an accused bad guy supposed to do? Follow George Zimmerman’s lead!

Of course, not every accused felon can get Sean Hannity as his personal cheerleader/rainmaker. But anyone accused of anything can crowd-source and, uh, raise public awareness. Right now there are more than 4,000 legal defense projects seeking your money on GoFundMe.com. MaryJane, in Lansing, Michigan, is apparently fighting criminal cannabis growing charges. She says she needs weed because she has Lupus. She posts a photo of herself out-and-proud wearing a marijuana leaf necklace. She has raised $1,450. Gordon Smith, of Delmar, Delaware says that he has been falsely accused of domestic violence 24 times. He offers a video – “False Allegation Awareness: The Gordon Smith Story” – and he has raised $290. Darren Wilson, of St Charles, Missouri, has done a lot better. He has raised $433,000 … because maybe some day he’ll be charged with something.

Wilson, of course, is the police officer who shot to death 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr, whose own family’s GoFundMe site has raised $339,000. As officer Wilson’s (currently inactive) fundraising sites promised: “All proceeds will be sent directly to Darren Wilson and his family for any financial needs they may have including legal fees.”

If he ever has legal fees. Right now, all Darren Wilson has is a lot of money because he killed someone.

What did George Zimmerman spend his crowd-sourced payday on? A bail bond was $95,000, living expenses took $62,000, security ate up $56,000, and GPS monitoring (he had to wear an ankle bracelet pending trial) along with pizza for interns gobbled up $3,200. Zimmerman’s attorneys did get $76,000.

Zimmerman still owes his lawyers another $2m. And he got acquitted in a state that convicts accused people nearly 90% of the time.

Do he and Wilson really deserve a million-dollar defense team any more than MaryJane and Gordon need whatever legal representation a grand total of $1,740 can buy?

Or is crowd-sourced funding just the real public defender in a time of recession, social media and criminal justice without much justice?

If you’re accused of a crime, it clearly pays to do get a lot of attention committing it.

 

By: Amanda Robb, The Guardian, October 1, 2014

October 7, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Darren Wilson, George Zimmerman | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Unnecessarily Handicapped”: The Zimmerman Trial Shows It’s Time To Reconsider The Six-Member Jury

Small juries, like all small samples, carry big costs. Doesn’t a jury in a serious criminal case have 12 members? Not in Florida.

Florida is one of only two states where a jury as small as six can decide a serious felony case. It is the only state where a murder case goes to a six-member jury. And second-degree murder in Florida is serious indeed, carrying a sentence of 25 years to life. The circumstances of the shooting that killed an unarmed teenager, moreover, are sharply disputed, implicating the use of guns, the limits of self-defense and race relations. As we often do, we have given the jury in this case a challenging task.

Why should we care if the jury has six or 12 members? The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to trial by jury, but it does not specify jury size. When the Sixth Amendment was written, was the number simply assumed? James Madison thought it was: He thought the number was 12.

For almost 200 years, the U.S. Supreme Court consistently accepted this view, defining “jury” to mean the 12-member jury. For instance, in 1930, the court said that “it is not open to question” whether juries may consist of fewer than 12.

In 1970, however, the court reversed its position in Williams v. Florida and found no constitutional objection to Florida’s six-member jury. The court labeled the general use of 12 throughout history as an “historical accident.” The court’s characterization of the historical record has been widely disputed, but even more egregiously, the court joined its new historical assessment with a strikingly inaccurate behavioral claim.

It proclaimed that the behavior of six- and 12-member juries were “functionally” equivalent, and therefore the six-member jury was unobjectionable. In fact, the overwhelming weight of empirical evidence shows that juries of six do not perform as well as juries of 12.

How do six- and 12-member juries differ? Two differences are particularly relevant in the trial of George Zimmerman. First, numerous studies of all kinds show that cutting jury size in half decreases the likelihood that the jury will reflect a representative sample of the community. The lone non-white juror on the George Zimmerman jury is just one instance of that effect. The all-female jury is another.

The gender make-up of the jury cannot be explained merely by the majority female jury pool or attorney use of challenges. A total of 10 jurors was selected, the jury of six and four alternates. Two of the alternates were male. A larger jury that included the additional four would not have been homogeneous on gender.

Ethnicity and gender are not the only dimensions of difference shortchanged by a smaller jury.

Any background or set of beliefs or life experiences that may affect reactions to the evidence is substantially less likely to be represented on a six-member jury than on a 12-member jury. Simply due to chance, unrepresentativeness is more likely when only six jurors are needed to constitute the jury. That loss is particularly troubling when the jurors are evaluating crucial and disputed evidence, like the identity of the voice in the background on the 911 tape in the Zimmerman case.

Second, jury research finds that larger juries spend more time deliberating and their discussions of testimony are more thorough than smaller juries. More vigorous debate reflects the expanded pool of abilities and perspectives provided by the larger jury. Similarly, the ability of dissenters to resist majority pressure is promoted by the increased likelihood that a dissenter whose position is not simply idiosyncratic will have one or more other jurors who share that view. The dissenters might not carry the day, but their views will be more seriously considered.

There is no evidence that jury size is associated with more pro-prosecution or more pro-defense verdicts. Thus, the key here is not that the six-member jury systematically advantages one side or the other. Rather, the point is that a serious charge demands serious procedural consideration.

Even Florida, like every other state with the death penalty, uses a 12-member jury for capital offenses. Second-degree murder does not carry the death penalty in Florida, but it does call for thorough deliberation from a variety of perspectives. The six-member jury is unnecessarily handicapped.

What should be done? Ample empirical evidence on the jury demonstrates the need to reverse course. Perhaps in the wake of the Zimmerman case, Florida will reconsider its unique position on jury size. Even better: In recent years, the Supreme Court has turned down several opportunities to revisit the question of jury size. Perhaps it should accept the next one.

 

By: Seidman Diamond, The Miami Herald, July 15, 2013

July 18, 2013 Posted by | Zimmerman Trial | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Gideon’s’ Promise Still Unfulfilled”: It Turns Out Poor People’s Justice Is To Justice As Monkey Business Is To Business

“Make me wanna holler, way they do my life.” — Marvin Gaye, “Inner City Blues”

Karen Houppert has written a book of nightmares.

Houppert, a veteran reporter for, among others, The Washington Post and The New York Times, is the author of Chasing Gideon: the Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice, which comes out this week coincident with the anniversary of a legal milestone. It was 50 years ago Monday that the case of Gideon v. Wainwright was decided.

Clarence Earl Gideon, 51, was arrested in Panama City, FL, in 1961 for burglary. When his case came to trial, Gideon, who was indigent, asked the court to provide him an attorney. The court refused and Gideon, a four-time loser and eighth-grade dropout, had to represent himself. He was found guilty and given five years.

But though he was no scholar, Gideon knew something was wrong with this picture. He wrote a letter — in pencil and with a dropout’s creative spelling and grammar — to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case and appointed counsel to represent him. The decision it handed down affirmed the Sixth Amendment promise that every criminal defendant — even an indigent one — shall have “the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”

It is a right we take for granted now, part of the boilerplate every TV cop rattles off to every suspect. “If you desire and cannot afford an attorney…” and etcetera. It is hard to imagine that such was not always the case. Perhaps you’re grateful to live in a country where even the humble poor are ensured of quality representation when they stand before the bar of justice.

Except that you don’t. Hence, the nightmare.

It turns out there is a gulf between the 1963 promise and the 2013 reality. It turns out one lawyer can be expected to try 400, 500, 600 cases a year. It turns out public defenders are so underfunded and overwhelmed it is not uncommon for a defendant to meet his attorney for the first time in court. It turns out the situation is so dire that in at least one jurisdiction a judge pressed tax attorneys and property lawyers into service in criminal court. It turns out poor people’s justice is to justice as monkey business is to business.

Ask Clarence Jones, who spent over a year in prison just waiting for an attorney — and was still there as the book went to press — on a charge of burglary.

Ask Carol Dee Huneke, a novice lawyer with no experience in criminal law who was hired as a public defender on a Thursday and assigned a case that began Monday. She had never even seen a trial before.

And ask Greg Bright, who spent 27 years in prison on a murder charge he might have easily beaten, writes Houppert, had his court-appointed attorney done even minimal investigation on his behalf. As a later attorney discovered, the single witness the state’s case hinged upon was a mentally-ill heroin addict with a history of hallucinations who physically could not have seen what she claimed she did.

Twenty-seven years. “Make me wanna holler,” indeed.

What is reflected here is not simply incompetence, but disdain; contempt for the rights, lives and humanity of the less fortunate. And perhaps your instinct is to look away, secure in the naive delusion that no one gets arrested unless they’ve “done something.” Truth is, it happens every day.

Taken alongside the failed War on Drugs that has devastated African America, this treatment of indigent defendants depicts a “justice” system that too often produces the exact opposite of what its name suggests, particularly for its most vulnerable constituents. That’s a sad state of affairs 50 years after what was once considered a milestone triumph for the poor.

And it should — we should — send a clear and unambiguous message to lawmakers. The system is broken. Fix it.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., The National Memo, March 18, 2013

March 19, 2013 Posted by | Civil Rights, Constitution | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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