Posts Tagged ‘U.S. Supreme Court’

Florida’s death row would be about three-quarters smaller if the state followed the practice of the majority of death penalty states and required the jury to unanimously decide a death sentence instead of by simple majority.  Alabama and Delaware also permit judges to impose death sentences following a non-unanimous jury decision.

After an 18-month investigation into Florida’s 390 death row inmates, the Villages Daily Sun found that judges had imposed death sentences 287 times or 74% of the cases after jurors could not agree on the sentencing.  If Florida had just changed their sentencing to supermajority instead of unanimous, 43% of the state’s death row prisoners would have received life sentences, as in Alabama which requires 10 or more jurors agree.

Although Delaware, like Florida, allows a recommendation for death by a simple majority of the jury (7 out of 12), it first requires the jury to unanimously find the aggravating factors that justify a death sentence.

Florida’s high-rate of death sentences now costs the state an estimated $9 million a year. (more…)

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The U.S. Supreme Court has put police stations all around the country on notice: if you withhold evidence you can be sued.  The court let stand a civil jury verdict against two LAPD detectives who concealed evidence that kept an innocent man in jail for more than 2 years awaiting trial.  The justices turned down an appeal from the LA city attorney who contended that because the man was freed before trial, the police officers could not be sued for hiding evidence.

Michael Walker, who is now deceased, was standing in a store in the Crenshaw neighborhood of LA in August of 2005 when a store clerk thought he looked like a middle-aged black man who had robbed the store a few days earlier. Police were called and Walker was arrested. He agreed to be interviewed and have his belongings searched.

No evidence was ever discovered linking him to the robbery, but detectives saw him as a prime suspect in not just one robbery, but more than a dozen in the area. Each time, the thief gave the clerk or cashier a handwritten note demanding money. Usually the note misspelled the word “start” as in “start shooting.”

Walker maintained his innocence. Two detectives, Steven Moody and Robert Pulido still believed they had the right man. They held Walker in jail pending investigation. To justify his detention and $1 million bail, they filed a report telling prosecutors that, “Since the arrest of Walker, the crime spree caused by the ‘Demand Note Robber’ has ceased.”

This was in fact untrue.

Two days after Walker was arrested, a man matching the description robbed the Golden Bird restaurant presenting a note to the cashier. Later that same day, a Burger King was robbed in the same manner. The notes both misspelled “start”.

The detectives later admitted under oath that they knew the robberies continued and didn’t tell anyone, including prosecutors. In other words, that Walker couldn’t have committed them. So why did they lie to keep an innocent man in jail? That may never be known.

When attorneys representing Walker learned that his fingerprints were not found at the store where he was arrested, they asked the LAPD for information on other robberies. The LAPD refused saying it was too burdensome to the department.

Later, a judge ordered the information to be disclosed. That is when defense attorneys learned that another man matching the description had been apprehended fleeing a robbery and that his fingerprints were found at the scene of the store Walker was arrested in.  When prosecutors learned of this, they dropped the charges against Walker.

A judge later pronounced him innocent of the crimes. Walker sued the LAPD and the detectives for violations of his constitutional rights and deprivation of his liberty without due process. A jury awarded him $106,000.  The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the verdict, ruling that the Constitution protects suspects from “prolonged” pre-trial detention when concealed evidence could have demonstrated their innocence.

The city attorney’s office appealed to the Supreme Court. They argued that the constitutional ruling involving withheld evidence should only apply to a right to a fair trial not to arrest or pretrial detention.

The high court simply denied their appeal (Moody v. Tatum) without comment or dissent.  Mary Tatum is the administrator of Walker’s estate.

Walker died in 2011 from alcohol-related health problems. John C. Burton, who represented Walker in the civil rights case, said Walker’s health deteriorated after his release from jail. At one point, Walker became homeless. Burton said the jury award, which did not include any punitive damages, was relatively low because Walker was poor and could not show he suffered major economic loss.

The award is expected to be inherited by his mother.

Did you know that a judge can sentence a defendant as if they were convicted of a more serious crime even if a jury acquitted them?  And more shockingly even if they weren’t charged at all?  At least they can, according to the Supreme Court’s refusal to take up the case.  The practice is frowned upon by many who ascribe to the tenets of American law, including innocent until proven guilty, and the Constitution, but judges are allowed to continue to go unchecked as the Supreme Court refuses to end this controversial practice.

Appellate lawyers in the case Jones v. United States hoped that the court would grant them the right to present their case, but they denied their petition.  Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas, and Justice Ginsberg dissented to the denial.  Dissents to denials of certiorari are rare.  If the justices had one more vote the case would have been accepted.

The case began in Washington, D.C. when Joseph Jones, Desmond Thurston, and Antwuan Ball were charged with running an “open air” drug market.  The jury however acquitted them on the conspiracy charge meaning the men shouldn’t be held liable for the drugs dealt by the organization and convicted them only on the drugs they were found to personally have distributed.

The judge used the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which is used to ensure that defendants are fairly sentenced uniformly.  The state requested a sentence of 27 to 40 years, arguing that the judge could take into account “relevant conduct” and that the conspiracy charge, though they were found not guilty, is “relevant”.  Normally, their conviction would have called for a 2 1/2 to 6 year sentence.  The judge, ignoring the jury’s verdict, saw “clear evidence of a drug conspiracy.”

The jury foreperson was shocked at the conduct of the state and judge, “it seems to me a tragedy that one is asked to serve on a jury, serves, but then finds their work may not be given the credit it deserves…it appears to me that these defendants are being sentenced not on the charges for which they have been found guilty but on the charges for which the District Attorney’s office would have liked them to have been found guilty.”

The foreperson’s letter has been cited in other cases concerning what is called “uncharged or acquitted conduct”. (more…)