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Tag: supreme court

Five Tough Criminal Cases for the Supreme Court in February

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

Tough sledding for the Supreme Court in February with oral arguments on five thorny criminal justice cases.

Judicial Bias : What was he thinking? In Williams v. Pennsylvania the DA of Philadelphia, Ronald Castille, personally authorized the pursuit of the death penalty against Terrence Williams in connection with the office’s prosecution for a brutal murder. Williams was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Castille supervised the direct appeal, which was denied. During post-conviction proceedings, with Castille still heading the office, a lower court found that his office had violated the Brady rule in failing to turn over exculpatory evidence during the penalty phase (that Williams had been abused along with other minors by the victim) and in presenting false argument.

Shortly thereafter Castille ran for election to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and boasted during the campaign that he had personally sent Williams and others to death row. He won the election. By the time the case reached the state supreme court, Castille had become the Chief Justice.

Incredibly, Castille refused to recuse himself from the case when the appeal arrived in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The court unanimously reversed the lower court and reinstated the death sentence. Chief Justice Castille wrote a scathing concurring opinion criticizing the Defender’s Office as “ringmasters, with their parrots and puppets as a side show.”

US_Supreme_Court

Prediction: Reverse. It is astounding that this guy failed to appreciate that his direct participation in the case created a risk that he could not decide it fairly. The appearance of actual and potential bias was obvious particularly when the issue was his former office’s misconduct.

The voters should turn him out of office. He has damaged the reputation of good prosecutors and judges, as well as the reputation of the state’s highest court. The remedy for the Supreme Court is the conundrum. Merely remanding the case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court without Castille sitting on the case seems hardly enough. A different vote by the other Justices is an admission of that they were previously influenced by Castille’s involvement, but reaffirming their former votes smacks of continued injustice.

Search Attenuation Doctrine:  In Utah v. Strieff the issue is whether evidence seized incident to a lawful arrest on an outstanding warrant should be suppressed because the investigative stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

The officers had some reason after surveillance to stop the defendant’s vehicle on suspicion of drug dealing, but the information did not meet the reasonable suspicion standard. To their happy surprise, however, after the stop they learned that there was already an arrest warrant outstanding.  A search incident to that arrest produced evidence. However the Utah courts threw the evidence out and tossed the case. A great law school exam case.

Soon after the Warren Court applied the exclusionary rule to prohibit evidence resulting from unlawful police action, it became apparent that there were circumstances where the application of the rule would not serve its purpose of deterrence. Exceptions were carved out, including standing, inevitable discovery, good faith, independent source and collateral uses.

The exception at issue in Strieff is the attenuation doctrine. Evidence which would not have been obtained but for official misconduct is not inadmissible if the causal connection with the acquisition is sufficiently attenuated. If the officers acted in good faith and their actions did not affect the justification for the search, the taint of the conduct is purged. That is, unless you are a cop in Utah or Nevada.

Other jurisdictions have held that, as in Strieff, if there was no flagrant misconduct and the officer had no control over the intervening circumstances (here the existence of a warrant), the attenuation doctrine should be applied to bar the exclusionary rule’s application. The courts are all over the map on how to apply the factors of the doctrine and are badly in need of the Court’s re-direction.

Prediction: Reverse. The Utah police officers acted in good faith, were just shy of having enough information for a legal stop, and had no control over the existence of the warrant. No purpose would be served by excluding the evidence.

Hobbs Act Interstate Commerce Element:  A prosecutor friend once said that interstate commerce was the last refuge of the Hobb, meaning that if a criminal defendant in a Hobbs Act prosecution was relying on the argument that there had been no proof that the robbery affected interstate commerce, he was in desperate straits. With the principles of de minimis, depletion of assets, aggregation, and, in attempt cases, targeting, there is precious little left for a drug rip-off artist like the defendant in Taylor v. United States to rely upon for this long-shot defense.

The Court will decide if the government has to prove the interstate commerce element in Hobbs Act cases where the robbery of a drug dealer is an inherent economic enterprise affecting commerce.

Taylor broke into two houses in Roanoke, Va.,  where he thought he could rob drugs and drug proceeds. He found none and left with a few dollars and a couple cell phones. In his Hobbs Act trial he wanted to argue that robbing drug dealers of marijuana grown in Virginia would have no effect on interstate commerce and therefore the evidence was insufficient. The trial court and the 4th Circuit, however, held that drug dealing in the aggregate affects interstate commerce, particularly where a defendant targets drug dealers. Drug dealing is an enterprise which inherently satisfies the element as a matter of law.

Two other circuits (2nd and 7th) take a different approach, requiring the jury to make an individualized decision on the interstate commerce element in drug robbery cases rather than the court make a per se finding.

Prediction Affirmed:  Whether anything remains of the interstate commerce element in Hobbs Act cases involving the robbery of a drug dealer is a tough call actually.  I don’t think the Court will go as far as the 4th Circuit in Taylor. However, if the opinion is limited to the sufficiency of the evidence, Taylor did attempt to rob drug dealers, without regard to the source of their product. Affirmed by a close margin. (I’ve changed this prediction 3 times already.)

Recklessness as a Mens Rea in Unlawful Firearms Possession:  In the 4th case for February argument, Voisine v United States, the issue is whether a misdemeanor crime with a mens rea of recklessness (rather that intentional or knowing) qualifies as predicate crime of domestic violence under the federal statute barring the possession of firearms by prohibited persons.

The defendants were each convicted of misdemeanors assaults involving domestic members and were charged under the Maine statute and doing so intentionally, knowingly or recklessly.  Some years later they were found to possess rifles, one having shot a bald eagle, and convicted of illegal possession of a firearm by a prohibited person under 18 USC 921(a)(33)A .

On appeal the Supreme Court vacated the convictions and remanded for reconsideration in light of last year’s decision in Castleman. That case held that in this statute Congress intended that the actus reus (wrongful acts) of common law battery applied and noted but did not decide whether the mens rea requirement of battery (intentional not reckless) also applied to the predicate crime. The 1st Circuit reinstated the convictions and said the acts were kosher, that recklessness was an adequate mens rea, and so here we are back again with Chief Justice Roberts and Company.

Prediction:  Reverse  There are some complicating factors in the record, like the 1st Circuit finding “volitional” elements in Maine’s recklessness mental element etc. But if the Court focuses on the root issue, I think they will make the 2nd Amendment folks happy by disqualifying predicate crimes with a reckless state of mind from the federal statute. As the dissenting judge noted in the remand decision, the majority of the lower court seemed to be result-oriented in their discussion of what the law should be because of the dangers of domestic violence.

Sex Offender Registration: The fifth and mercifully the final case, Nichols v. United States, is another law school exam question. The defendants were two convicted sex offenders who lived on opposite sides of the Missouri River, one in Kansas (think 10th Circuit) and one in Missouri (8th Circuit). Both abandoned their  residences and traveled to Kansas City International Airport and flew off to live in the Phillipines without registering as a convicted sex offender in the state of their former residence. The 8th Circuit said that this was not a violation of the registration statute and the 10th naturally disagreed.

The issue before the Court is whether the registration statute (SORNA) requires sex offenders who reside in a foreign country to update his registration in the jurisdiction in which he formerly resided and, secondly, whether the statute is an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority to the executive branch since it grants the Attorney General discretion on who to prosecute.

The case turns upon the construction of the registration statute and whether it intended to impose a federal obligation to notify the jurisdiction the offender is leaving of his departure to a new foreign residence. Although the statute does not plainly require such a notification, the 10th Circuit found one by construing the section requiring the offender to update his residence by his departure plans in the jurisdiction where he “resides.” The lower court found that this jurisdiction of where he resides included his abandoned residence in Kansas.

The federal statute was intended to impose minimum registration standards and procedures to make possible a national sex offender registry. Congress required the states to maintain a registration system, and it permitted the states to impose more stringent requirements. Only two states (West Virginia and Washington) explicitly require offenders who move to a foreign country to provide notification of that intention to the state he is leaving. The federal statute does not impose a requirement that an offender notify the jurisdiction he is leaving. That responsibility passed to the jurisdiction of his new residence. Since foreign countries are not included in the registration system, no duty to notify the former residence state is provided for.

Prediction: Affirm the 8th Circuit decision to reverse the conviction, reverse the 10th Circuit. Congress, intentionally or not, failed to clearly regulate the registration of a sex offender who leaves the U.S. to live in foreign countries, at least until and unless he returns. It could do so by legislating a notification requirement with the state the offender is leaving. Or the states could do so. But the strained statutory construction by the courts is not the way to do so.

That wraps up February. The guys and gals on the High Bench earn every penny of their $246,800 salary in these mind-bending exercises. Three either are in their 80s or will be within a month or two. Happy Birthday to Chief Justice Roberts who will be 61 this week. But don’t expect Justice Thomas to bring the cake.

Parker: Five Tough Criminal Cases for the Supreme Court in February

Ross Parker was chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit for 8 years and worked as an AUSA for 28 in that office.

Ross Parker

Ross Parker

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

Tough sledding for the Supreme Court in February with oral arguments on five thorny criminal justice cases.

Judicial Bias : What was he thinking? In Williams v. Pennsylvania the DA of Philadelphia, Ronald Castille, personally authorized the pursuit of the death penalty against Terrence Williams in connection with the office’s prosecution for a brutal murder. Williams was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Castille supervised the direct appeal, which was denied. During post-conviction proceedings, with Castille still heading the office, a lower court found that his office had violated the Brady rule in failing to turn over exculpatory evidence during the penalty phase (that Williams had been abused along with other minors by the victim) and in presenting false argument.

Shortly thereafter Castille ran for election to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and boasted during the campaign that he had personally sent Williams and others to death row. He won the election. By the time the case reached the state supreme court, Castille had become the Chief Justice.

Incredibly, Castille refused to recuse himself from the case when the appeal arrived in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The court unanimously reversed the lower court and reinstated the death sentence. Chief Justice Castille wrote a scathing concurring opinion criticizing the Defender’s Office as “ringmasters, with their parrots and puppets as a side show.”

US_Supreme_Court

Prediction: Reverse. It is astounding that this guy failed to appreciate that his direct participation in the case created a risk that he could not decide it fairly. The appearance of actual and potential bias was obvious particularly when the issue was his former office’s misconduct.

The voters should turn him out of office. He has damaged the reputation of good prosecutors and judges, as well as the reputation of the state’s highest court. The remedy for the Supreme Court is the conundrum. Merely remanding the case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court without Castille sitting on the case seems hardly enough. A different vote by the other Justices is an admission of that they were previously influenced by Castille’s involvement, but reaffirming their former votes smacks of continued injustice.

Search Attenuation Doctrine:  In Utah v. Strieff the issue is whether evidence seized incident to a lawful arrest on an outstanding warrant should be suppressed because the investigative stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

The officers had some reason after surveillance to stop the defendant’s vehicle on suspicion of drug dealing, but the information did not meet the reasonable suspicion standard. To their happy surprise, however, after the stop they learned that there was already an arrest warrant outstanding.  A search incident to that arrest produced evidence. However the Utah courts threw the evidence out and tossed the case. A great law school exam case.

Read more »

Supreme Court in December Will Hear Case on Texas Businessman Convicted of Illegally Accessing Protected Computer

US_Supreme_Court

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

The only oral argument before the Supreme Court during the last month of 2015 on an issue involving criminal law or procedure is Musacchio v. United States. The case involves the conviction on three counts of a North Texas businessman for conspiracy and for making unauthorized access to a protected computer of a competitor (for which he was previously employed) through a back-door password. He was sentenced to 63 months in prison. The civil case for his conduct was settled for $10 million.

The case presents two issues:

  1. Whether the law-of-the-case doctrine requires the sufficiency of the evidence in a criminal case to be measured against the elements described in the jury instructions where those instructions, without objection, require the government to prove additional or more stringent elements than do the statute and indictment?
  1. Whether a statute-of-limitations defense not raised at or before trial is reviewable on appeal?

Sounds like pretty dry stuff, huh? The kind of legal fare appetizing only to criminal lawyers and probably few of them. It, however, should present a meal of delicious irony during oral argument.

Stripped of its legal minutia, the fact is that both parties lapsed at the trial level on different issues and are now seeking appellate forgiveness under an application of the “plain error” rule. But each will want no such forgiveness for their opponent on the other issue. The government offers in addition a multitude of other reasons why the defense legal analysis is erroneous and, in any event, not applicable.

As to the first issue the statute permits alternative theories of proof for conviction. The evidence can establish that the defendant agreed to make unauthorized access (or made such access) or that he conspired to exceed authorized access (or actually exceeded such authorized access). The proofs in this case relied upon the former alternative both as to the conspiracy count and the two substantive counts.

The statute was properly charged in the indictment. But the trial judge, apparently in disregard of the government’s correct requests, presented the erroneous charge to the jury that the evidence had to be proven conjunctively (and) rather than disjunctively (or) as to the two alternative elements in the conspiracy count. The government did not object to the instruction, which it asserts was inadvertent and “clerical.” Now the government argues, among other things, that this was plain error which could be excused on appeal.

The defendant, however, relies on cases holding that the error waived appellate consideration and correction of the issue and that the appellate review of the sufficiency of the evidence requires proof of both alternative theories. Hence, the “law of the case” applies. And the Circuit Courts are somewhat split.

On the second issue, the tables are turned. The defendant, in effect, argues for forgiveness for his counsel’s failure to raise at trial the statute of limitations defense. This was plain error which can, in the view of some Circuit Courts, be raised on appeal. This time the government counters that the issue is not jurisdictional, unreviewable on appeal, and that the defendant waived the issue. And, again, there is some difference in the Circuits on the reviewability of this issue.

Of course few things that find their way to the Court are ever simple. The plain error/waiver rule for the two issues involves different rationales and case law threads. The Court could excuse both parties’ lapses, neither of them, or one and not the other. A decision behind door # 3 might seem anomalous to common sense, but there are a host of related arguments and sub-issues that bear on the analysis of the contexts of both questions.

Prediction: The government should win this round of the litigation. The jury found that both of the alternative methods of proof were established by the evidence, and it is weird to require the Court to, in effect, create a crime requiring both methods to review the sufficiency of the evidence just because the government didn’t object to a single erroneous instruction. As to the statute of limitations issue, the defendant should lose this one, also, since there is no reason to believe that the statute was intended to make the question jurisdictional. To make the question reviewable on appeal would prevent the government from raising factual issues at trial that could convince the jury to reject the claim.

However, in round # 2, the defendant will undoubtedly file a post-conviction, habeas corpus claim that his trial attorney rendered ineffective assistance of counsel in failing to file a statute of limitations objection. He could win a reversal of the conspiracy conviction although, unless he gets a re-sentencing, his concurrent sentence on one of the remaining counts makes it unlikely he will be home to watch the Dallas Cowboys games anytime soon.

Parker: Supreme Court in December Will Hear Case on Texas Businessman Convicted of Illegally Accessing Protected Computer

Ross Parker was chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit for 8 years and worked as an AUSA for 28 in that office.

Ross Parker

Ross Parker

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

The only oral argument before the Supreme Court during the last month of 2015 on an issue involving criminal law or procedure is Musacchio v. United States. The case involves the conviction on three counts of a North Texas businessman for conspiracy and for making unauthorized access to a protected computer of a competitor (for which he was previously employed) through a back-door password. He was sentenced to 63 months in prison. The civil case for his conduct was settled for $10 million.

The case presents two issues:

  1. Whether the law-of-the-case doctrine requires the sufficiency of the evidence in a criminal case to be measured against the elements described in the jury instructions where those instructions, without objection, require the government to prove additional or more stringent elements than do the statute and indictment?
  1. Whether a statute-of-limitations defense not raised at or before trial is reviewable on appeal?

Sounds like pretty dry stuff, huh? The kind of legal fare appetizing only to criminal lawyers and probably few of them. It, however, should present a meal of delicious irony during oral argument.

Stripped of its legal minutia, the fact is that both parties lapsed at the trial level on different issues and are now seeking appellate forgiveness under an application of the “plain error” rule. But each will want no such forgiveness for their opponent on the other issue. The government offers in addition a multitude of other reasons why the defense legal analysis is erroneous and, in any event, not applicable.

As to the first issue the statute permits alternative theories of proof for conviction. The evidence can establish that the defendant agreed to make unauthorized access (or made such access) or that he conspired to exceed authorized access (or actually exceeded such authorized access). The proofs in this case relied upon the former alternative both as to the conspiracy count and the two substantive counts.

The statute was properly charged in the indictment. But the trial judge, apparently in disregard of the government’s correct requests, presented the erroneous charge to the jury that the evidence had to be proven conjunctively (and) rather than disjunctively (or) as to the two alternative elements in the conspiracy count. The government did not object to the instruction, which it asserts was inadvertent and “clerical.” Now the government argues, among other things, that this was plain error which could be excused on appeal.

The defendant, however, relies on cases holding that the error waived appellate consideration and correction of the issue and that the appellate review of the sufficiency of the evidence requires proof of both alternative theories. Hence, the “law of the case” applies. And the Circuit Courts are somewhat split.

On the second issue, the tables are turned. The defendant, in effect, argues for forgiveness for his counsel’s failure to raise at trial the statute of limitations defense. This was plain error which can, in the view of some Circuit Courts, be raised on appeal. This time the government counters that the issue is not jurisdictional, unreviewable on appeal, and that the defendant waived the issue. And, again, there is some difference in the Circuits on the reviewability of this issue.

Of course few things that find their way to the Court are ever simple. The plain error/waiver rule for the two issues involves different rationales and case law threads. The Court could excuse both parties’ lapses, neither of them, or one and not the other. A decision behind door # 3 might seem anomalous to common sense, but there are a host of related arguments and sub-issues that bear on the analysis of the contexts of both questions.

Prediction: The government should win this round of the litigation. The jury found that both of the alternative methods of proof were established by the evidence, and it is weird to require the Court to, in effect, create a crime requiring both methods to review the sufficiency of the evidence just because the government didn’t object to a single erroneous instruction. As to the statute of limitations issue, the defendant should lose this one, also, since there is no reason to believe that the statute was intended to make the question jurisdictional. To make the question reviewable on appeal would prevent the government from raising factual issues at trial that could convince the jury to reject the claim.

However, in round # 2, the defendant will undoubtedly file a post-conviction, habeas corpus claim that his trial attorney rendered ineffective assistance of counsel in failing to file a statute of limitations objection. He could win a reversal of the conspiracy conviction although, unless he gets a re-sentencing, his concurrent sentence on one of the remaining counts makes it unlikely he will be home to watch the Dallas Cowboys games anytime soon.

A Look at Some Upcoming Supreme Court Cases of Note

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

Supreme Court Justices have a busy November with, among their other duties, six days of Oral Argument, including five cases of interest to criminal justice folks on both sides of the aisle.

US Supreme Court

Death Penalty Jury Selection:   No Court calendar would be complete without a contentious death penalty case. Foster v. Chatman involves the issue of whether Georgia courts bungled in failing to recognize and remedy a racially discriminatory jury selection.

In Batson v. Kentucky (1986) the Supreme Court held that equal protection is denied to an African American defendant if members of his race are purposefully excluded from the jury. That includes the prosecution’s use of peremptory challenges. Once the defendant makes a prima facie (on the first appearance) case of discrimination, the prosecution must prove that the challenges had a neutral, non-racial basis.

In this case the defendant, an 18 year old African American man with an IQ measured to be between 58 and 80, was charged with killing an elderly white woman. The prosecution challenged all four of the black prospective jurors but presented numerous neutral explanations for having done so.

In the habeas corpus proceeding decades after the defendant’s conviction and sentence to death, the defendant obtained the prosecutor’s jury selection notes. These marked the names of the black jurors with a “B,” highlighted their names, and ranked them against each other in case “it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors.” The notes were contradictory as to neutral bases for challenges and listed all of the black jurors as ”Definite NOs,” along with a single white juror.

The Georgia courts during direct appeal and habeas proceedings blithely rejected the defendant’s arguments and accepted the prosecutor’s assertions, despite the clear plan evidenced in the notes.

Prediction—reversal by a 7-2 vote. Affirming this conviction would confirm the opinion of many that Batson challenges are meaningless as long as the trial prosecutor has disingenuously prepared neutral explanations which have been found acceptable in previous cases and as long as trial judges lack the courage to challenge the prosecutor’s veracity in the face of such questionable circumstances. The case does a disservice to all of the honest prosecutors who seek a fair and impartial jury regardless of race.

Substitute Assets in Forfeiture Actions  — Luis v. United States pits the government’s statutory authority to use substitute assets to satisfy a forfeiture conviction against a criminal defendant’s right to use non-criminal but forfeitable assets to retain counsel of choice.

The defendants were charged in a massive Medicare kickback scheme in south Florida. At a pretrial hearing the government presented probable cause that the defendant had so dissipated his assets on luxury purchases that a preliminary injunction restraining even non-traceable assets was justified since their seizure, on conviction, would be necessary as substitute assets to satisfy a forfeiture verdict. The defendant argued that those non-criminal assets were needed to pay the attorney chosen to defend him in the case. The trial court restrained the assets.

In the Kaley case last term the Court upheld the restraint of criminally tainted assets, the only ones sought for forfeiture in the case, but did not rule on the restraint of legitimate assets. In the oral argument in the case there was some ambiguous indication that the Solicitor General arguing the case for the government, along with three of the Justices, assumed that such an injunction would pose constitutional problems. The context of the discussion, however, may well have been limited to cases in which only criminally traceable assets were sought for forfeiture.

In weighing the policy issues of the case, the question is whether a defendant should be able to use forfeitable (but legitimate) assets to pay his attorney even though the interests of forfeiture will be defeated by doing so. If so, there will be little disincentive to keep wealthy defendants from hiding and spending criminal proceeds to avoid government seizure. Defendants will essentially be authorized to use forfeitable assets to pay legal fees.

Prediction—Affirmed 6-3 in favor of the government’s injunction restraining forfeitable assets.

Prisoner Litigation Fees:  In Bruce v. Sanders the Court will resolve a split in the Circuits on an interpretation of the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The purpose of that statute was to stem the flood of frivolous prisoner cases by requiring them to pay filing fees if they are able to do so. If they cannot pay the fee at the filing, the statute provides a formula for assessing installments from the prisoner’s trust account, with two limitations. No “exaction” from the account is permissible if it has a balance of $10 or less, and if the prisoner has no balance the filing is still permitted without assessment of cost.

The statute provides an exaction formula of 20% of the prisoner’s monthly income toward the payment of the filing fees, to be forwarded by the prison to the court where the case is filed. The provision, however, fails to make clear how this process is to be administered when the prisoner files multiple cases—does he have to pay 20% for each case (5 Circuits say “yes”) or is the 20% capped regardless of the number of cases (3 Circuits) ?

In the per-case interpretation, when a prisoner has 5 or more cases pending, the warden will exact his entire monthly income (minus the $10 minimum balance) until all fees are satisfied. In the per-defendant interpretation the warden will continue to exact the account until all fees are satisfied. For some prisoners, such as the plaintiff in this case who has over 100 cases filed, this process can consume the entire period of the sentence.

The Circuit split revolves around the construction of the statutory language. The subsection which precedes the formula requirement appears to be reasonably clear as referring to a per-defendant approach, but the subsection in question is ambiguous.

The case has attracted attention on both sides of the issue. Amici curiae briefs have been filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as by 20 states. Regardless of the result, the resolution will be welcome news for the Bureau of Prisons, which presently has to figure out the diverging views of the Circuits in administering the program.

Prediction—5-4 in favor of the per-case interpretation, meaning that prisoners who file multiple cases will pay the price in having less to spend on sundries.

Sexual Exploitation of Children Statutory Sentence Enhancement:  The case of Lockhart v. United States involves yet another split in the Circuits over statutory interpretation. The issue involves the mandatory minimum enhancement for possession of child pornography convictions. This enhancement is triggered by a prior conviction under state law relating to “aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.”

The disagreement is whether the latter phrase “involving a minor or ward” applies to all three of the categories of predicate offenses or just the third one involving abusive sexual conduct. If it applies only to the last category, prior sexual abuse convictions involving adults would qualify, thus enhancing the sentences of a broader scope of defendants.

The defendant is one of those affected since his prior conviction was the attempted rape of his 53 year old girlfriend. He pled guilty to possessing child pornography but argued that his sentence should not be bumped up to the 10 year mandatory minimum since the enhancement statute requires that all three categories of predicate offenses involve minors.

The trial court rejected this interpretation, following 4 circuits which have ruled that the phrase “involving minors” modifies only the third category of predicates. Two circuits have held to the contrary, that all predicates must involve minors.

The battle revolves around a contest between the “last antecedent rule” (modifying only the phrase it immediately follows) versus the “series qualifier rule” (modifying all of the terms in a series). The statutory history and context seem to support the former, broader approach.

Prediction—Affirm the broader interpretation of predicate offenses as applying to all categories of prior sex abuse convictions, by a slim majority.

Immigration Act Predicate Offenses: The issue in Torres v. Lynch involves yet another Circuit split over the statutory interpretation of a state predicate offense, this one in the context of what constitutes an aggravated felony under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Such a prior conviction subjects the alien to removal from the country without the benefit of eligibility for “cancellation,” i.e., discretionary relief from removal.

One of the categories of aggravated felonies includes those “described in” certain federal statutes, such as in this case, arson. The petitioner’s argument is that state arson convictions do not qualify since they do not, as federal arson convictions, include an element of affecting interstate commerce. The 3rd Circuit has adopted this position; 4 others have included analogous state offenses as predicate aggravated felonies without the interstate commerce requirement.

Prediction—Affirm following the majority of Circuits which have found logic and legislative history to support giving the Bureau of Immigration Affairs some deference in interpreting the statute to support the purpose of facilitating removal of aliens with prior aggravated felonies.

So be prepared for a lot of arcane statutory construction arguments, bread and butter for lawyers, but one of the reasons good fathers urge their children to do something socially useful like bull-riding or being a PR consultant for venal pharmaceutical companies, rather than going to law school.

 

Supreme Court to Decide Three Thorny Capital Cases

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

The U.S. Supreme Court will begin its 2015-2016 term with oral arguments in October on three tough cases on capital punishment from the minority of states which still maintain a de facto death penalty.

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 11.44.20 AM

In Kansas v. Carr, Gleason, the issues presented involve the trial judge’s instruction to the jury and the question of joinder and severance for two defendants during the sentencing proceeding. Carr and Gleason were brothers who were convicted of a series of brutal rapes and murders during a crime spree in Wichita, Kansas in 2000. There was little doubt as to the result of the guilt phase of the trial.

During the death penalty hearing the judge denied the defendants’ request for severance of their cases. The defendants’ case of mitigation was in the words of the Kansas Supreme Court, “so weak it would not pull the skin off of rice pudding.” Although the evidence was not openly antagonistic between the two defendants, the appellate court later speculated that some of the evidence may not have been admitted against both defendants if there had been separate proceedings. The jury’s verdict was death.

The Kansas Supreme Court affirmed the convictions but reversed the sentences as a violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The joint proceeding deprived the defendants of an individualized sentence determination. The court went on to hold that the trial judge should have instructed the jury that the defendant need not prove mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, the judge had instructed that each juror should assess and weigh the mitigating circumstances.

Predicting the Court’s decisions in the emotion-packed morass of death penalty cases is never easy but not as difficult as divining the rationales of each Justice to support her/his vote. Separating the ultimate result from the nuance of the legal issue without distorting the evolution of the case law in non-capital cases has been a tortured exercise for decades. The defendants point to little concrete harm that resulted from the joinder, but this seems the better issue for them. The instruction issue seems less persuasive.

Hurst v Florida

The following week, October 13th, the Court will hear the case of Hurst v. Florida on whether its previous case of Ring v. Arizona should be extended to void the Florida practice of making the jury’s sentence verdict as only advisory to the trial judge, who makes the decision on a penalty of death, as well as issues on how the jury goes about deciding the advisory verdict.

Timothy Lee Hurst was convicted of the brutal murder of a co-worker in a Popeye’s Fried Chicken restaurant in Escambia County Florida in 1998. The psychologists testified that Hurst’s IQ was between 69 and 78 and therefore not ineligible for the death penalty as being “retarded.”

The jury’s advisory verdict to the trial judge did not identify which “aggravators” they found or whether a majority agreed on a single theory. They voted 7-5 to recommend death. This procedure leaves open the possibility that less than a majority agreed on a single aggravating circumstance, which would justify the jury’s recommendation. The trial judge conducted his own hearing on the issue and ultimately sentenced Hurst to death.

The Supreme Court in Ring held that whether the State has proven beyond a reasonable doubt the necessary aggravating circumstance warranting a death verdict is an issue of fact finding for the jury to determine. It did not spell out whether that decision had to be binding on the sentencing judge or how the jury was to go about the process. The case left some knotty issues: whether the jury’s role could be in the form of an advisory opinion to the trial judge; whether individual jurors could use different theories of aggravation; and whether the vote of a majority of the jury was a constitutionally adequate verdict.

Florida death penalty litigation has been a fertile ground for death penalty opponents. The state may want to allow Texas to devise the statutory system since Texas has been so much more efficient and successful at imposing and upholding its death verdicts and administering the fatal drug combination.

It is hard to believe that the Supreme Court will uphold a system in which all three of the potential issues left over from Ring have coalesced. Justice Breyer has already made clear his own views that only juries can decide to impose a death verdict. Both he and Justice Ginsburg have called for the Court to accept a case on the issue of the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.

Montgomery v Louisiana 

The third capital sentencing case for October, Montgomery v. Louisiana, did not ultimately result in a death penalty but life without parole imposed on a juvenile. Henry Montgomery was a 17 year old African American 11th grader with an IQ in the 70s who shot and killed a white Sheriff Deputy in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1963. With crosses burning in the neighborhoods and the KKK actively promoting racial tension, Montgomery was convicted and sentenced to death without any opportunity to present mitigating circumstances during a sentencing proceeding.

The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed, he was re-tried, convicted and automatically sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Montgomery is now 69 years old and has been in prison for 52 years.

In 2012 the Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama held that sentences of mandatory life without parole for defendants under the age of 18 violated the 8th Amendment. But the Court has never decided whether Miller should be applied retroactively.

Retroactivity in criminal procedure cases is determined by a 1989 Supreme Court case called Teague v. Lane, whose rule requires the finding either that the decision involves a new substantive rule of criminal constitutional procedure or, if procedural rather than substantive, whether the case implicates fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding.

These are slippery concepts and there are those who think that the Justices first decide the end result of the case from a policy perspective and then apply the Teague rule accordingly. The equities of the Montgomery case weigh on both sides of the balance. A law enforcement officer was killed, but a half century has passed since the defendant killed him. For my money, once you decide to make the sentence unavailable for minors (whether you agree with this policy or not), to make it not applicable to cases after 50 plus years seems fundamentally unfair.

Three cases with thorny legal issues to be decided under the rule of law as part of a larger agonizing debate about whether we should have two systems of punishment in this country, one by the vast majority of states which have concluded for various principled and practical reasons to abolish the death penalty, and the other in a handful of states which have concluded that the ultimate penalty of death is necessary for their system of criminal justice. Anomalies will always exist in a federal system but few seem so profoundly perplexing.

Parker: Supreme Court to Decide Three Thorny Capital Cases

Ross Parker was chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit for 8 years and worked as an AUSA for 28 in that office

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

The U.S. Supreme Court will begin its 2015-2016 term with oral arguments in October on three tough cases on capital punishment from the minority of states which still maintain a de facto death penalty.

Ross Parker

Ross Parker

In Kansas v. Carr, Gleason, the issues presented involve the trial judge’s instruction to the jury and the question of joinder and severance for two defendants during the sentencing proceeding. Carr and Gleason were brothers who were convicted of a series of brutal rapes and murders during a crime spree in Wichita, Kansas in 2000. There was little doubt as to the result of the guilt phase of the trial.

During the death penalty hearing the judge denied the defendants’ request for severance of their cases. The defendants’ case of mitigation was in the words of the Kansas Supreme Court, “so weak it would not pull the skin off of rice pudding.” Although the evidence was not openly antagonistic between the two defendants, the appellate court later speculated that some of the evidence may not have been admitted against both defendants if there had been separate proceedings. The jury’s verdict was death.

The Kansas Supreme Court affirmed the convictions but reversed the sentences as a violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The joint proceeding deprived the defendants of an individualized sentence determination. The court went on to hold that the trial judge should have instructed the jury that the defendant need not prove mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, the judge had instructed that each juror should assess and weigh the mitigating circumstances.

Predicting the Court’s decisions in the emotion-packed morass of death penalty cases is never easy but not as difficult as divining the rationales of each Justice to support her/his vote. Separating the ultimate result from the nuance of the legal issue without distorting the evolution of the case law in non-capital cases has been a tortured exercise for decades. The defendants point to little concrete harm that resulted from the joinder, but this seems the better issue for them. The instruction issue seems less persuasive.

Hurst v Florida

The following week, October 13th, the Court will hear the case of Hurst v. Florida on whether its previous case of Ring v. Arizona should be extended to void the Florida practice of making the jury’s sentence verdict as only advisory to the trial judge, who makes the decision on a penalty of death, as well as issues on how the jury goes about deciding the advisory verdict.

Timothy Lee Hurst was convicted of the brutal murder of a co-worker in a Popeye’s Fried Chicken restaurant in Escambia County Florida in 1998. The psychologists testified that Hurst’s IQ was between 69 and 78 and therefore not ineligible for the death penalty as being “retarded.”

The jury’s advisory verdict to the trial judge did not identify which “aggravators” they found or whether a majority agreed on a single theory. They voted 7-5 to recommend death. This procedure leaves open the possibility that less than a majority agreed on a single aggravating circumstance, which would justify the jury’s recommendation. The trial judge conducted his own hearing on the issue and ultimately sentenced Hurst to death.

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FBI Passes Up Another Opportunity to Re-Open Civil Rights Cold Case

Lloyd Gaines/Wikipedia

Lloyd Gaines/Wikipedia

By Steve Neavling
ticklethewire.com

Soon after winning a landmark legal battle to become the first black student in the University of Missouri’s law school, Lloyd Gaines vanished in 1939.

The FBI declined to investigate in 1940 and 1970.

Records obtained by the Associated Press show that the bureau again declined to investigate the case between 2006 and 2013, despite reviewing more than 100 others as part of the Department of Justice initiative and Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Act.

“They should have done more way back when,” said nephew George Gaines, a retiree who lives in San Diego. “I don’t believe there would have been much uncovered more recently. People die, memories fade, records are destroyed. And some people choose not to remember.”

In 1938, the Supreme Court ruled that Gaines, who grew up in St. Louis, must be allowed into the law school or the university must establish a separate law school for black people.

What happened to Gaines remains unclear. Some believe he was killed; others believe he moved to Mexico.

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