Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Politicized, Corrupted, Justice

How far does the political influence reach? Infinitely. Read the rest of this one, from WP, which begins:

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, April 28 -- The Defense Department's former chief prosecutor for terrorism cases appeared Monday at the controversial U.S. detention facility here to argue on behalf of a terrorism suspect that the military justice system has been corrupted by politics and inappropriate influence from senior Pentagon officials.

Sitting just feet from the courtroom table where he had once planned to make cases against military detainees, Air Force Col. Morris Davis instead took the witness stand to declare under oath that he felt undue pressure to hurry cases along so that the Bush administration could claim before political elections that the system was working.

His testimony in a small, windowless room -- as a witness for Salim Ahmed Hamdan, an alleged driver for Osama bin Laden -- offered a harsh insider's critique of how senior political officials have allegedly influenced the system created to try suspected terrorists outside existing military and civilian courts.

Davis's claims, which the Pentagon has previously denied, were aired here as the Supreme Court nears a decision on whether the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that laid the legal foundation for these hearings violates the Constitution by barring any of the approximately 275 remaining Guantanamo Bay prisoners from forcing a civilian judicial review of their detention.

Davis told Navy Capt. Keith J. Allred, who presided over the hearing, that top Pentagon officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England, made it clear to him that charging some of the highest-profile detainees before elections this year could have "strategic political value."

Monday, April 28, 2008

Wrongly Convicted Struggle: Solution -- Revive Section 1983

Here is one from WP, Exonerated Struggle.

And from Reason, Suing the DA, Should prosecutors be immune from civil lawsuits?

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Thomas Goldstein, an ex-marine who was convicted of murdering his neighbor.

Goldstein served 24 years before his conviction was thrown out when the main witness against him was shown to have lied. That witness was a lifelong criminal who was given a deal on his own charges in exchange for testimony that Goldstein confessed to him in a jail cell. Goldstein alleges that the district attorney's office that prosecuted the case routinely used the testimony of so-called "jailhouse snitches" prosecutors knew or should have known weren't reliable.

Goldstein's case is unusual because he's not suing the prosecutor who convicted him, but John Van de Camp, the district attorney who supervised that prosecutor. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has allowed Goldstein's case to go forward, causing the U.S. Supreme Court to agree to hear it.

Goldstein's lawsuit stems from federal law 42 U.S.C. 1983, which states that "…[e]very person" who acts under color of state law to deprive another of a constitutional rights shall be answerable to that person in a suit for damages," and provides a means for those wronged by government officials to file suit in federal court.


We tend to measure a prosecutor's performance based on how many people he's able to throw in jail, not necessarily by how well he metes out justice.

Rarely, for example, does a prosecutor get public recognition for the cases he doesn't take. So we have people in a position where they have the enormous power to take away someone's freedom, incentives nudging them to err on the side of prosecuting aggressively, and absolute immunity from lawsuits should they overstep their bounds.

It's a recipe for abuse.


The New York-based Innocence Project reports that prosecutorial misconduct played a role in about 40 percent of DNA exonerations over the last decade or so. Such misconduct could include knowingly putting on false testimony, withholding exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys, and coercing witnesses, among other transgressions.

I recently reported a case in reason magazine quite similar to the Goldstein case. In 2006, Church Point, Louisiana resident Ann Colomb, 57, and her three sons were wrongly convicted in federal court of running a massive drug operation out of their home, thanks largely to the testimony of several jailhouse informants.

Despite the fact that the family's home was modest, and that the sons held down several hard labor jobs and went to school during the years of the alleged conspiracy, the government witnesses — who were offered time off from their own sentences in exchange for their testimony — claimed to have cumulatively sold the family some $500,000 worth of crack each month.

The family was released from prison when it was revealed that the jailhouse witnesses in the case had participated in an information sharing network within the federal prison system. Inmates were sharing photos, case summaries, and even grand jury testimony about pending cases, memorizing the information, then offering to testify in exchange for breaks on their own prison terms.

And on the recent Death Penalty case, via Doug (I could not have said it better):

Edward Lazarus has this new piece at FindLaw, titled "Five Decades of Fighting Over the Constitutionality of the Death Penalty: What Can We Learn from This Lengthy War?". Here is how it starts:

These days, when one speaks of a "war without end," the reference is usually to Iraq. But in the legal world, the phrase also provides an apt description of the five-decade-long fight over the constitutionality of the death penalty.

Last week's decision in Baze v. Rees, in which the Court rejected a challenge to Kentucky's three-drug protocol for carrying out lethal injections, is just the latest painful yet inconclusive battle. Like the Court's many dozens of death penalty decisions, issued over the last 45 years, the decision in Baze ensures only that the larger war will continue and that the Court's own internal culture will continue to be one of its casualties.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Prison Nation

Here is another Times piece on the topic of what I call American Gulag: Prison Nation. Thank you Doc!

Monday, April 21, 2008


The new issue of the Newsletter is now out. Link to it here.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Prison Talk

This site made news today. Thanks Doc!
This is the NYT piece on it, including many good references on prison culture and media.