Friday, December 15, 2017

I vaguely remember something about motions and lemons from law school

Matthew Spencer Petersen was nominated by President Trump to be a federal district judge for the District of Columbia. He is currently the head of the Federal Election Committee, having been nominated for that post by President George W. Bush.

Prior to serving as head of the FEC, Mr. Petersen served as the Republican chief counsel to the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration. Prior to that he served as counsel for the Committee on House Administration. From 1999 until 2002 he practiced election and campaign finance law at Wiley Rein LLP in D.C.

It is interesting to note that Mr. Petersen has never tried a case before a jury. He has never tried a case to a verdict. He has never argued a motion in court. But that's not even the best part.

This week he was one of five nominees to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee for hearings on their nominations. Each senator was given a grand total of five minutes to ask the nominees questions on their qualifications to serve on the federal bench.

Senator John Kennedy (R-La.) made the most of his time. He asked Mr. Petersen a series of fairly innocuous questions about legal procedure that a judge would be expected to know. The result was, on the one hand, hilarious as a lawyer nominated for a judgeship tells a senator that he knows next to nothing about the law. On the other hand, it is quite disturbing to think that people who are as unqualified as Mr. Petersen could sit as a judge for life making decisions that affect everyday folks.

Here is the video. Have a great afternoon.

A special shout out to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D.-RI) for posting this video on his Twitter feed.

On its way to the ash heap of history

For the second year in a row, the State of Texas murdered seven inmates. Last year marked the fewest executions in two decades, now that number has been duplicated.

But even though the number of executions has remained low for the past two years, Texas still led the nation in state-sponsored murder, outpacing the four killed in Arkansas. There have been a total of 30 executions across the country in 2017.

A number of factors account for this (encouraging) trend. The first is fewer people are being sentenced to die in Texas. That number has been dropping since Texas jurors were given the option of sentencing a defendant to life in prison without parole.

Legal challenges to the death penalty have also been more successful as the number of scheduled executions wanes. These challenges have ranged from attacks on junk science to the method of execution. Once drug suppliers began to restrict supplies of drugs needed in "lethal cocktails," states have had to draw up new drug protocols which have invited legal attack on Eighth Amendment grounds.

As the number of executions decreases, the population on death row has aged. Some inmates have "cheated" the executioner by dying in prison.

Attitudes toward the death penalty have also changed. Since 1995, support for the death penalty has dropped from 80% to 49%. While most whites support the death penalty, as the non-white share of the population increases, so do dissenting voices.

Bible thumpers, despite being told "thou shalt not kill," overwhelming support the right of the state to kill. And that, somehow, still makes them "pro-life" - whatever the hell that's supposed to mean.

Part of the reason behind this change of attitude has been the number of people sentenced to death who have been exonerated over the past dozen years or so. I think there is a growing realization that our trial process is flawed due to the sheer number of people who have been exonerated after having had a jury decide the state had proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

And that realization is what is most likely to kill off the death penalty in this country. The sheer number of exonerees tells us that innocent men have been murdered by the state in the past. And for a country that claims to follow the rule of law, one is too many.

As much as I would love to see the death penalty outlawed across the United States, I don't think that's likely to happen in the foreseeable future. However, I do think that the death penalty will go away on its own accord in my lifetime. It will be done away with by junk science, prosecutorial misconduct, lack of drugs and a growing belief that life without parole is more humane.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

He must have answered an ad on the internet

Call it hypocrisy.

Call it cognitive dissonance.

Call it political opportunism.

Call it whatever you like after Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) asked the White House to withdraw Brett Talley's nomination to be a U.S. District Judge in Alabama.

And he got his wish as either Mr. Talley or the White House withdrew his name from consideration for the bench.

If you remember, the American Bar Association rated Mr. Talley "unanimously unqualified" for the position after his testimony that he had never set foot in a federal courthouse in his capacity as a lawyer.

Despite the ranking from the A.B.A., the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Grassley voted 11-9, along party lines, to approve Mr. Talley's nomination and to send it to the Senate for a confirmation vote. Which means that the very man who called on the White House to withdraw the nomination, voted for it in committee.

By the way, both John Cornyn and Ted Cruz voted in favor of the nomination despite the fact that Mr. Talley was not qualified to sit on the bench. But what the hell, boys? He has an R after his name and we need all the R's on the bench we can get, don't we?

Oh, what, pray tell, did Sen. Grassley discover that he didn't already know before voting to approve the nomination?

Was it the fact that he failed to disclose that his wife worked in the Office of the White House Counsel? Was it the fact that he was a ghost hunter? Was it something about his support of the KKK?

I find it hard to believe that in this day and age no one had any knowledge of these matters. I think it was only after they became public that some Republican senators decided they couldn't afford to vote in favor of his confirmation -- even though they voted to approve the nomination.

It is customary in the Senate for the senior senator of the President's party either to submit a name for nomination or to give his consent before a person is nominated. Sen. Richard Shelby, the senior Republican senator from Alabama, announced his opposition to the nomination when the wind started blowing a bit harder. At some point he, too, had to have gone along with the nomination.

While this matter is humorous in a way, it is also quite scary when you stop and realize that he was appointed for a lifetime post. While there are many judges of all political stripes appointed to the federal bench who are well-qualified to sit on the bench, there are some nominees who have no business getting near the inside of a federal courtroom.

Mr. Talley was one of those. Everyone involved in the process by which his name was put forward by the White House should be publicly shamed.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

What happens when a law prof ventures outside the ivory tower

Over a year ago I wrote about the hornets nest that opened around Judge Aaron Persky in Santa Clara, California. You may recall that he presided over the trial of a Stanford swimmer accused of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster.

The swimmer, Brock Turner, was convicted. Judge Persky sentenced him to six months in jail and three years probation. In addition, Mr. Turner will have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Now Stanford law professor Michele Dauber is leading an effort to recall Judge Persky from office because she didn't like the sentence he meted out. Ms. Dauber also has a personal ax to grind as she is friends with the victim's family.

As I pointed out last year, the sentence that Judge Persky handed down was within the range of punishment set out by the California state legislature which makes it a perfectly legal sentence. Sixteen legislators, who are more influenced by publicity than intelligence, have called on the state to investigate Judge Persky for misconduct.

Just let that stew for a minute or two. A judge presides over a trial. After the jury convicts, the judge imposes a sentence within the parameters set out in the law. Some folks don't like it and get pissed off. Someone please tell me where the misconduct lies. Exactly when did Judge Persky do during the sentencing phase of the trial that violated one of the canons of judicial conduct?

The answer is he never did.

Ms. Dauber is leading a witch hunt. She didn't like the verdict. It went against her political beliefs and agenda. And so she decided to give her students a lesson in how not to behave. She's gone even further and has failed her students by making false assertions about how our criminal (in)justice system works. And what's worse - she isn't even close.

As I have stated many times before, the purpose of our criminal (in)justice system is to determine whether the government has provided sufficient evidence to prove an individual committed a criminal act beyond a reasonable doubt. If the government did, the defendant is convicted. If the government didn't, the defendant is acquitted. In the event the defendant is convicted, the judge, or jury, then determines the appropriate sentence within the parameters set out by the legislature.

It's that simple.

The purpose of the criminal (in)justice system is not to bring "justice" (whatever the hell that is) to an alleged victim. It's not to give an alleged victim their "day in court." It's not about vindicating an alleged victim's story.

It is to determine whether there is enough credible evidence to restrict a person's liberty for a period of time.

When a jury returns a not guilty verdict, they are not slapping the alleged victim in the face. When a jury returns a not guilty verdict, they are not calling an alleged victim a liar. When a jury returnes a not guilty verdict, they are not denying justice to an alleged victim. When a jury returns a not guilty verdict, they are, instead, telling the world that the government didn't meet its burden of proof. That's it.

The legislature determines the range of punishment for every criminal offense. This range gives judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys plenty of room to determine what's appropriate. These ranges exist because every case is unique and what may be appropriate in one case isn't appropriate for another one.

Maybe the sentence Judge Persky handed down was too lenient. Maybe it was just right. Whatever the case may be, he sentenced Mr. Turner within the range of punishment for that offense. That's not misconduct. That's called doing his job.

Perhaps Ms. Dauber should go back to doing her job -- and brushing up on her knowledge of criminal law while she's at it.

Friday, December 8, 2017

DA asks Governor to grant clemency

Texas, like many other states in the South, has an unhealthy fascination with the Old Testatment's call for an eye for an eye. Well, to an extent. It's long been the case that an eye for an eye applied mainly to black defendants convicted of murder while white defendants convicted of murdering a black man seemed to escape Biblical wrath more often than not.

Texas even went above and beyond when the felony murder statute made any person involved in a felony offense where a person was murdered subject to being killed by the state.

Back in 1996, Jeff Wood got himself caught up in the maelstrom when he was convicted of murder of a convenience store clerk in Kerrville - even though he was sitting outside in the truck while his friend, Daniel Reneau, shot and killed the clerk.

The prosecutor in that case, Lucy Wilke, asked the jury to sentence Mr. Wood to death for his role in the murder. Now Ms. Wilke is the Kerr County District Attorney and has had a change of heart. So to have the police chief of Kerrville, David Knight, and State District Judge Keith Williams. They all signed a letter to Governor Greg Abbot asking him to grant Mr. Wood clemency and change his sentence to life in prison.

In 2016, Mr. Wood was scheduled to be murdered by the State of Texas. As his execution date approached there was an uproar in the state legislature - from both sides of the aisle - about the scheduled execution. There were also calls to change the law of parties to eliminate the provision allowing a jury to sentence a defendant to death if they thought he should have anticipated that a second felony might flow from the first.

Those efforts failed in the most recent legislative session.

While you might argue that any person who participates in a felony should be culpable for any murder that might occur during the commission of the felony, sticking a needle in the arm of someone who didn't pull the trigger is a bit of a reach.

Regardless of what you might think of Mr. Wood, he is not the person who made the decision to kill the clerk. He didn't intentionally or knowingly cause the death of Kriss Keeran.

Strapping Mr. Wood down on a gurney and pumping poison into his veins isn't going to bring anyone back. It's not going to ease anyone's pain. It will not fill the hole in anyone's life.

It would, instead, make everyone involved complicit in a disproportionate response to an unfortunate incident.

I think the reason that Republican members of the state legislature got behind the effort to halt the execution is they felt that killing a person who didn't pull the trigger would only give more ammunition to the those of us who want to see an end to the death penalty.

All eyes are now on Greg Abbot. But don't expect him to grant clemency. Mr. Abbot is a true believer who thinks it makes him look tough to order an execution carried out.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Let them eat cake

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the case about the baker who refused, on religious grounds, to bake a wedding cake for a same sex couple.

Amy Howe over at SCOTUSblog did an excellent analysis of yesterday's questioning from the Supremes. She believes the court will split (again) 5-4 in favor of the baker but wonders just how narrowly they will craft the opinion. She based her analysis on the change in tone of Justice Kennedy's questions from start to finish.

First, I must point out, once again, that religious belief is still the most popular justification for discrimination. Now I could go on and on quoting portions of the Bible in which Jesus preaches a message of equality and love and brotherhood. But I'm not.

Jack Phillips likes to call himself a christian. But he believes that the holy word gives him the right to discriminate against those whom he doesn't like. The latter day charlatans who preach that homosexuality is a sin worse than any other act like they are quoting the word of god when they launch into their hateful spiel. The only problem is the book they are quoting from has been translated countless times from multiple languages. There's no guarantee that the words they are quoting in 2017 are the same words written in the original texts.

But we digress.

The issue is whether a privately run business has the right to decide whom they wish to provide with services. This is different from the argument in the 1960's that private buses, trains, hotels and restaurants were public carriers. Mr. Phillips claims that forcing him to make a cake for a same sex wedding would somehow violate his right to free speech. I'm not really buying that one because food is not speech. Food is food and food is for eating.

Does requiring him to bake the cake violate his right to freedom of religion? As far as I can tell, no one is telling him what to believe or how to do it. However, would requiring him to bake the cake trample upon his right to the free exercise of his religion? That is a much closer question, I think.

What does it mean to exercise one's religion? Baking and selling cakes is a commercial enterprise, not a religious one. Maybe he says he's spreading the word of god by baking cakes - but is that exercising one's religion?

And what if in exercising that religion a person, or entity, intentionally discriminates against another based upon that person's race, sex, ethnicity, national origin or sexual orientation?

And, as an aside, at what point do we finally acknowledge that religion serves more to divide us than to unite us? White protestant churches were very prominent in the fight to preserve Jim Crow segregation in the South. All of the major protestant denominations split in the 19th century over the question of slavery.

Back in college I took a class on sociology and religion and our professor played for us a recording of an Emo Philips routine that I have looked for off and on for years -- and finally found it.

There are some serious issues that need to be addressed in this case. The Court must decide how much discrimination in private commercial enterprises is acceptable. If the Court decides it is acceptable then the Court must decide whether the enterprise wishing to discriminate must give a reason for its choice. If so, the Court must decide where to draw the line for a legally valid rationale for discrimination. Finally, the Court must decide which groups can be discriminated against for which reasons. It remains to be seen whether the Court will develop a balancing test to determine how large a community has to be in order to permit discrimination.

Regardless of the decision, the law of the land will most likely be determined by the vote of one justice - Anthony Kennedy. Not quite what the Founding Fathers had in mind, I daresay.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Ignorance is disgusting

Last week Donald Trump once again displayed his ignorance about how the criminal (in)justice system works in this country when he tweeted out that the verdict in the trial over Kate Steinle's murder was disgraceful. Attorney General Jeff Sessions opened his mouth and displayed his ignorance when he proclaimed that the murder was the result of San Francisco's status as a sanctuary city for immigrants.

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate was acquitted of the charge of murder in a month-long trial in San Francisco, though he was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Now, I don't recall Mr. Trump expressing any outrage at jury verdicts in which police officers were acquitted for killing unarmed an unarmed black man. Quite the opposite, he was quite happy. We can all be angry at a jury for the decision they made but, unless you were in the jury, your view of the case can be quite warped.

Mr. Trump seemed upset that the jury was not told that Mr. Garcia Zarate had crossed the border illegally five times. Well, I've got news for you, Mr. President, such a fact is inadmissible in a murder trial. You see Mr. Garcia Zarate was tried for the specific offenses related to the death of Ms. Steinle and, therefore, the only evidence the jury heard was related to those offenses. You see, Mr. President, in this country (as flawed as our criminal (in)justice system is) we try folks on the evidence related to the crime with which they are charged.

Were the jury to have heard evidence regarding Mr. Garcia Zarate's immigration status they may have made a decision based on something other than the evidence regarding Ms. Steinle's death. They may have been asked to convict a man for murder for no other reason than he wasn't born in this country.

Now that would have been a disgusting verdict.

A jury doesn't hear all the evidence because some of it, sometimes a lot of it, isn't relevant to the case at hand. It is not uncommon for a jury to be excused from the courtroom while the attorneys argue over the admissibility of evidence before the judge. Those reading the newspaper or watching the news (or in attendance) are then made privy to information the jury never heard and will never consider.

The jury that heard the case wasn't trying to make any political statements. Their sole duty was to hear the evidence presented and to make a decision as to whether or not the government had proven their case(s) beyond a reasonable doubt. Just because a jury acquits a person doesn't mean they don't think a crime occurred. It means, instead, that they have more than a reasonable doubt, based on the evidence presented, that the government proved its case.

The jury's job isn't to convict someone - and it isn't to acquit someone. You may think a jury got it wrong, but that is how we decide cases the parties cannot work out on their own. And, in a murder case, sometimes the hardest thing to prove is that the actions of the defendant were intentional. And even though motive is not a required element of a murder case, the absence of a motive can raise reasonable doubt in the mind of a juror.

So, Mr. President, the jury's verdict wasn't disgusting. It was what it was. Using your bully pulpit to try to intimidate future jurors is disgusting.

And as for Mr. Sessions, you took an oath to uphold the Constitution and to seek justice. You're not happy with the verdict. Okay, I get that. However, threatening to file federal charges against Mr. Garcia Zarate is not seeking justice. It is called vindictiveness.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Yet another reason why it sucks to be poor

Nowhere in the warning does it say that the government could come and ask you to pay for your appointed lawyer's services.

Kelly Unterburger found that out the hard way. After being arrested in 2011 for possession of a controlled substance, Mr. Unterburger asked the court to appoint him an attorney because he was indigent. By the time his case was resolved in 2014 (he spent the entire time in jail), he was presented with a bill from Johnson County for almost $10,000.

The State of Texas allows counties to recoup the cost of appointed attorneys from defendants, provided they warn defendants that they will be held responsible for the fees.

Prior to September 1, the government had until sentencing to determine whether or not a defendant would be required to pay for his or her appointed attorney. That determination was made on a defendant's financial status up to that point. A new law makes it possible for counties to come back at any time during a defendant's sentence (whether he be in prison, jail or on probation) to re-evaluate the defendant's ability to pay the fees.

Hill County District Attorney Mark Pratt says the bill was designed to protect the interest of law-abiding citizens who are being asked to pay for counsel for indigent defendants.


The real purpose of the law is to coerce more indigent defendants to plead their cases early in the process in order not to run up high attorney fees. The new law serves to punish those who exercise their right to trial by jury in a criminal case.

This is part of a larger war on the poor that has been waged for decades in this country - and in this state. Most defendants are indigent to one degree or another. They spend months, if not years, in jail awaiting the resolution of their cases because of our for-profit bail bond system. Then, once the case is resolved they get hit with a bill for attorney fees.

Meanwhile the wheels of our criminal (in)justice system just keep a-chugging along.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Ohio botches another murder

This past Wednesday, the state of Ohio attempted to murder Alva Campbell, a 69 year-old who's been on death row since 1997. And, once again, they fucked it up.

On a walk-through of the execution conducted on Monday, prison nurses were unable  to find a functioning vein during a walk-through on Monday. And before I go any further let me say that I can't think of too many things that could be more cruel than making an inmate participate in a dry run of his own execution. The very fact they go through this charade should tell you everything you need to know about why state-sanctioned killing should be abolished.

But when it came time to murder Mr. Campbell, suddenly not one nurse could find a vein. They tried in both arms. They tried his leg. But they couldn't find a suitable vein to pump poison into Mr. Campbell's body.

As another aside, each one of the nurses who participated in either the walk-through or the actual execution attempt should be stripped of their licenses. I don't care how much you may want the money, aiding in the murder of another person is a violation of oath you took when you became a nurse.

After 45 minutes of agony the Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, Gary Mohr, called off the execution. My only question to Mr. Mohr is how come it took so long to realize you needed to call it off?

And, while I'm waiting for that answer, maybe someone can explain to me what greater purpose is served by executing an elderly man for a crime that took place 20 years ago.

Murdering an inmate is not a function of rehabilitation and it certainly has nothing to do with correcting behavior. Maybe Ohio should add "and Revenge" into the name of the department.

Gov. John Kasich, who had the opportunity to do the right thing, instead rescheduled the execution for June 5, 2019. Maybe he's thinking Mr. Campbell will make life easier for him and die between now and then.

I'm still waiting...

Friday, November 17, 2017

Fuck Troy Nehls and fuck you for voting for him

Yes, it's low-hanging fruit. But I've been under the weather the last couple of days and it's the best I can do.

I'm sure there are some folks down in Fort Bend County (once you cross the Brazos, you're in a whole different world) who are offended by the language. So fucking what.

I'm offended by police brutality, racism, the growing gap between the wealthy and the working class, war, Donald Trump and his band of wingnuts who take the flack for every stupid thing that comes out of his mouth.

Troy Nehls should know better. Should. But he doesn't because he comes out of the police culture which has become more of an us-against-them mentality as the old white guard tries desperately to cling on to power in a changing landscape. This is the man who is supposed to be the point of the spear for law enforcement in Fort Bend County and he doesn't even know the fucking law is. He might want to review the oath he took upon assuming office. When he says "jump" he expects folks to ask "how high?" and not "why?"

The prosecutor he spoke to who said she would be glad to prosecute the owner of the truck might want to spend the weekend boning up on Con Law, particularly First Amendment jurisprudence. Might be the only thing between her and disbarment.

Now, if this is the way Mr. Nehls overreacts to a situation in which someone expresses an unpopular (at least in the land across the Brazos) opinion, what kind of judgment would he show when the stakes get bigger?

But, in a world where "Blue Lives Matter" is code for "I don't give a shit how badly the police mistreat people of color," what else should we expect. It will never cease to amaze me how much the folks who claim they don't want big government are more than happy to have that same government poke its nose into the business of those who say or do something that is unpopular with the great white mass.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Execution Watch 11/8/2017

Tonight the killing machine strikes again...

RUBEN CARDENAS, a Mexican national, was convicted of murdering his cousin, a teenage girl from the border town of McAllen. Cardenas' conviction must be tossed, say Mexican authorities and his attorneys, because police violated Article 36(1)(b) of the Vienna Convention on Consular Rights when they failed to notify him of his right to contact the Mexican embassy after his arrest.

To read the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' opinion, click here.



Unless a stay is issued, Execution Watch will broadcast live:
Wednesday, November 8, 6-7 PM Central Time
KPFT-FM Houston 90.1, HD 3 or online at: > Listen

Monday, November 6, 2017

Just kill him

Today the Supreme Court told the State of Alabama that it's okay to kill Vernon Madison, who was convicted of the 1985 murder of a police officer. While Mr. Madison is aware that he is being executed because he killed a police officer, Mr. Madison has no recollection of the murder due to a series of strokes he has suffered in prison.

Mr. Madison is 67 years old. He is legally blind. He cannot walk. And he is incontinent.

What is the point?

Other than he is black and we're talking about the Old Confederacy.

Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor wrote concurring opinions. Justice Ginsburg wrote that the question of whether a person who cannot remember their crime should be executed is a question that has never been addressed by the court. She also wrote that she thought the question deserved a "full hearing."

Justice Ginsburg, this was your chance. Just because the issue hasn't been raised before the Court before doesn't mean you have to vote with your colleagues to authorize a state to kill an elderly infirm man. You might as well just tell the victims of a mass shooting that your thoughts and prayers are with them and then move on to the next issue.

Justice Breyer pointed out that the execution of elderly prisoners is one that is likely to arise again and again going forward. He said he didn't think it prudent to develop rules for the execution of the elderly. Instead he wrote that we need to question the constitutionality of the death penalty.

Good for you, Justice Breyer. You had a chance to do just that and you passed. If you were serious about your qualms on the constitutionality of the death penalty you would dissent on every case upholding the death penalty and say why - just like Justices Marshall and Blackmun. But you didn't have the courage of your own convictions so you just went along with the majority.

Words are cheap. Especially when spoken by those in a position to act against an injustice. Killing Mr. Madison isn't bringing back a dead police officer. It isn't going to undo the trauma his ex-girlfriend went through. Killing Mr. Madison isn't about justice. It's about revenge. It's about a white power structure doing whatever it can to kill a black man.

And if you support the death penalty, that's what you are really supporting.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Execution Watch 10/12/2017

Tonight the State of Texas will kill again...

ROBERT PRUETT, 38, has steadfastly claimed that others framed him in the 2002 killing of a corrections officer who was stabbed to death at a prison near Corpus Christi. An execution date in August 2016 was stayed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeal. The new killing date was set after the appeals panel ruled that DNA testing would not have changed the outcome of his trial. He has been in prison since the age of 15, having been convicted of being an accomplice on a murder committed by his father.

For more information on Mr. Pruett and his case, click here.



Unless a stay is issued, Execution Watch will broadcast live:
Thursday, October 12, 6-7 PM Central Time
KPFT-FM Houston 90.1, HD 3 or online at: > Listen

Monday, February 6, 2017

The bankruptcy of ideas

President Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch is a real throwback. Really a throwback.

He is a self-described "originalist" when it comes to interpreting the Constitution. In other words, in Mr. Gorsuch's reality, the words and phrases in the Constitution mean just what they meant back in the late 18th century.

Let's see. Back in the 1780's slavery was legal in the United States. Women didn't have the right to vote. There were no cars, there were no computers. The United States was a rural agrarian society. There was also a belief back in the early days of the Republic that the Bill of Rights only applied to the federal government - not to the individual states. There was also no such thing as judicial review by the Supreme Court until Chief Justice John Marshall went looking for a justification for his ruling in Marbury v. Madison and created it out of whole cloth.

Does this mean that a Justice Gorsuch would hold any warrantless search to be unconsitutional? Would he find that the NSA's data dumps to be illegal since computers weren't something contemplated by the Founding Fathers? Will warrentless searches of cars go away since there wasn't such a thing back in George Washington's days?

Will we return to the 18th century notion of an arrest instead of looking for any way possible to not call an arrest an arrest in order to keep evidence admissible?

Will the ruling in Citizen's United be cast upon the ash heap of history since the notion of the corporate person did not exist in 1789? And what about this quaint notion that campaign contributions are a form of free speech?

Does Mr. Gorsuch believe that every armed conflict the United States has entered since the end of World War II was illegal since there was no declaration of war from Congress?

Mr. Gorsuch's self-proclaimed judicial philosophy is completely vapid. It is but a fig leaf to cover a naked attempt to turn back constitutional protections of the accused, minorities and women. Now, as much as I disliked Antonin Scalia, he made some rulings in 4th Amendment cases that protected the rights of the accused. Of course those rulings were a small counterpoint to his rulings that favored the rights of the powerful over the rights of the powerless.

This bankrupt philosophy isn't a philosophy at all. It is merely a justification to carry out a libertarian agenda that will seek to unleash capitalism at its worst.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Execution Watch: 10/05/2016

Tomorrow night the State of Texas will return to its barbarous ways and fire up the killing machine for the first time in six months...

BARNEY FULLER, from Lovelady, Texas, was sentenced to death after he pleaded guilty to killing a couple who were his neighbors. At the time of the 2003 slayings, Fuller was awaiting trial on charges of making a terroristic threat against them. He was arrested at his home after a nearly nine-hour standoff with police.

For more information on Mr. Fuller and his case, click here.



Unless a stay is issued, Execution Watch will broadcast live:
Wednesday, October 5, 6-7 PM Central Time
KPFT-FM Houston 90.1, HD 3 or online at: > Listen

Friday, September 23, 2016

Could you be a bit more polite, please?

How come after the murder of an unarmed black man by the police the first thing folks want to do is caution (mostly black) protesters to be calm and non-violent?

Why isn't anyone issuing the came precautions to the police?

Social change isn't an easy process. Sometimes it takes a revolution. It can be very messy.

Change was very slow during the Civil Rights Era. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers were arrested, beaten and assaulted throughout the old Confederacy. They maintained their stance of non-violence. And the beatings continued.

Things changed when Malcolm X came onto the scene. Suddenly the white power structure had to deal with the threat of violence. Negotiating with King became a more practical tactic than turning cops and dogs on men, women and children.

Senators and representatives were scared to death that an armed insurrection would break out in the streets. They had to find a solution and they had to find it quickly.

Without Malcolm X it is likely that the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Acts would not have passed - or would have been far more watered down than they were.

Attacking police officers makes a bad situation worse, it's stupid and puts everyone at risk.

While Judge Carter's sentiments may be in the right place, the fact is everyone whose skin isn't white is already at risk - regardless of what they do or don't do. (Of course you could read the statement to be an indictment of police officers attacking others; but I doubt that's what was meant. I guess it all depends on what word you choose to put the emphasis.)

Terrence Crutcher's car broke down on the highway. The police came to the scene. Mr. Crutcher had done nothing wrong yet all of sudden, once the police showed up on the scene, he became the suspect. The cops assumed that he was guilty of something and treated him as such. There was no justification for their actions. There was no justification for Officer Betty Shelby to murder him. But there it was.

Keith Lamont Scott was sitting in his car waiting for his son to get off the school bus. Cops were in his housing project to serve a warrant on someone else. Suddenly, just because he was sitting in a car, Mr. Scott became a suspect. The cops assumed he was guilty of something and treated him as such. And I don't give a fuck whether he had a gun or not because he had a permit to carry one. But now he's dead, too.

Now let's contrast these incidents to the standoff in Oregon where Clive Bundy and his armed band of right wing fanatics (and freeloaders) occupied a national park. Despite the fact that Mr. Bundy and his fellow criminals were breaking the law, despite the fact that they were armed and threatening to use their weapons, they walked out of the park alive. The police used extra caution to ensure there was no bloodshed.

That sure as hell wasn't the case in Tulsa, and it wasn't the case in Charlotte. You can draw your own conclusions as to why the standoff in Oregon didn't result in multiple deaths. I've already drawn mine.

And now here we are in 2016, watching as the police continue to murder unarmed black men and those who raise their voices in protest are told to keep it down. Keeping it down hasn't done much good to this point. I'm not going to lecture anyone on how to challenge the system because when the masses say enough is enough, it's over. The existing power structure might want to prepare in case it's the fire next time.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Tallying up the cost of mass incarceration

Carimah Townes just wrote a very interesting short piece in Think Progress about the true cost of mass incarceration. While we spend $80 billion a year on mass incarceration at the federal, state and local levels, the true cost of mass incarceration is likely closer to $1 trillion.

A study conducted by Washington University looked at all of the hidden costs of mass incarceration. Reformers don't even begin to take into account lost wages and lost long-term earnings. They don't take into account the costs borne by the families of the incarcerated in travel expense, missed work and money sent for commissary accounts.

Then we have social welfare costs for the families left behind. Since modern prisons do a good job of teaching inmates how to commit crime when they get out we have the cost of former inmates getting back in trouble. Finally, a child who has a parent in prison is more likely to find himself following the same path.

“We find that for every dollar in corrections costs, incarceration generates an additional $10 in social costs. More than half of the costs are borne by families, children and community members who have committed no crime.” -- Carrie Pettus-Davis, researcher

We have used mass incarceration as a tool of social control. We have used it as a tool for removing black folks from society. It is time to do away with it.

Hillary Clinton was the head cheerleader when her husband pushed his crime bill that accelerated the process of mass incarceration. That is a legacy she cannot escape from. Donald Trump is a champion of mass incarceration as well.

It is high time we choose a different path. It is time that we decriminalize drug addiction. It is time we stop locking up folks for non-violent crimes. It is time to reform our bail system.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The commodification of the law

On Tuesday I spent more time that usual on Twitter. It might have had something to do with it being my birthday and feeling a bit unmotivated to work all afternoon. This is one of the tweets that piqued my interest.

I encourage you to ponder on this from - "You are a media company first. Only after that do you sell legal product." Huge impact

It might be more appropriate for me to say that it disturbed me.

I don't care how cutting edge attorneys want to be. I don't care how much the whiz kids say the practice of law has changed. But if this message is true, then we are nothing but soap salesmen. And that's troubling. Very troubling.

The last time I checked, the basis of our profession is helping those who are unable to help themselves out of a problem. Our duty is to provide advice to our clients to assist them in deciding the best way to resolve their issue. For those of us who practice criminal law, our duty is elevated as we hold not only our client's future in our hands, but the future of his family as well.

Those clients don't give a fuck about your social media presence. They don't give a fuck about the content you pump out through various channels. They only care about one thing - can you get their ass out of the fire.

That's not the same as someone deciding what brand of soap, or soda or paper towels to buy.

If you accept what this ClioCloud conference (or whatever the hell it was) is telling you, then you are turning the practice of law into a commodity. And, if you're turning the practice into a commodity you are selling your clients down the river.

Commodities are fungible goods. They are interchangeable. They are produced for mass consumption.

The practice of law is not for mass consumption. Every client is different. Every case is different. Your duty as a lawyer is to analyze the case, examine the law and advise your client. Your duty isn't to pump out more content. Your duty is not to market the hell out of your firm. Your duty isn't to fluff up your resume and pump up your qualifications to get the next check.

And just what the fuck is legal "product?" Representation is not a product. Representation is a relationship.

Beer is a product. Toilet paper is a product. Adult diapers are a product.

Do you really want to debase yourself, and your profession, to the degree of equating the service you provide with adult diapers?

You are a lawyer first. You must ground yourself in the basics of your craft. If you want to be a trial attorney you need to study motion practice, jury selection, argument and cross-examination. If you want to be good at it you will continue to study as long as you practice (hence the term "practice"). When you get really good you will share your skills and insights with other attorneys in order to raise the bar for everyone.

If you subscribe to the bullshit in that tweet, then why did you waste your money going to law school? You could have save yourself a lot of headache, a lot of hassle and a lot of money by going straight into marketing.

I understand part of what's going on here. For too many years law schools have been pumping out class after class of newbie lawyers despite market saturation. They did it because their income stream was guaranteed by the government. The glut of new attorneys has driven down wages and increased competition for clients (tort reform hasn't helped matters). And into this void have come the marketers selling promises they can't keep.

And if we continue down this path, as my colleague Scott Greenfied would say, soon we'll all be walking down the sidewalk wearing hotpants.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


Some shit you just can't make up. Here is an e-mail I received on Tuesday afternoon.

Dear Colleague,
The 2016 HBA Judicial Preference Poll was sent out yesterday, and I’m writing you to ask for your support as District Attorney.
Since being first appointed to office and later elected in a landslide, I have focused on increasing the HCDAO’s ability to prosecute new classes of criminals like human traffickers, and money launderers who profit from dangerous industries like drug cartels, prostitution and illegal gambling. I have also grown the office by over 100 new positions and exponentially increased training for staff in all areas of the office ensuring the implementation of new technologies and strategies to stay ahead of criminals. 
While seeking justice, I have been honored to receive the following accolades: the Association of Women Attorneys’ 2014 Premier Women in Law Award, MADD’s 2014 and 2016 Policy Setter Award, Waco ISD Advanced Academic Services’ 2014 Early Leader Award, Crime Stoppers’ 2015 Johnny Klevenhagen Award, and the NAACP 2016 A.L.E.X. Award for outstanding commitment to equal justice and legal excellence.  I was also named by as one of the 2015 Top 30 Influential Women of Houston.
I humbly ask for your support as District Attorney in the 2016 HBA Judicial Preference Poll that should be in your email inbox already.

Thank you,
Devon Anderson

I'm speechless.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Prison inmates sue Texas over conditions

I'm sure there are plenty of folks out there who don't give two damns whether or not the state provides air conditioning for its inmates in state prison.

But they should.

Our entire prison system was born of the idea that the best way to "cure" a person of criminal intent was to take them out of the environment that bred that intent and educate them in the honest ways of the world. So we built penitentiaries out in the middle of nowhere.

Then somewhere down the line the idea came about that prisons should be about punishment, not rehabilitation. So we made life harder for inmates and stripped them of their dignity all in the name of that Old Testament trope "an eye for an eye" or some bullshit like that.

Then we decided that society was best served when we just plain eliminated folks from society who had shown a penchant for misbehaving (I know I am painting a very broad stroke). We decided it was better to just lock 'em up and throw away the key since neither of the first two schools of thought seemed to be working.

Not coincidentally, this movement toward removing folks from society sprung up as the courts decided that the Constitution applied equally to black folks as well as white folk. Prisons took their place as one of our preferred modes of oppression. The move over the last two decades toward mass incarceration is nothing but a tool of social control. That is Bill Clinton's true legacy.

And that brings us back to Texas where a group of inmates has filed suit against the state alleging that the conditions in Texas prisons amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Specifically the lawsuit focuses on the lack of air conditioning in Texas prisons.

Now we could debate all day long on sentencing and parole and prison conditions, but I would hope that we could all agree that forcing folks to live in cramped quarters in the Texas heat without air conditioning is beyond cruel.

"All of the people that tend to die are the sickest and the most fragile among the inmates. What makes what's going on reprehensible is that the department knows this. We're asking the court to force the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to reduce the temperatures to a safe and livable amount." -- Jeff Edwards, lead counsel

Sure, there are people around Texas who don't have air conditioning - but that doesn't matter when it comes to how the state treats those entrusted to its care. Food, health care and sanitary conditions in prison are already deplorable around the state. Why don't we remove the potential deadly consequences of heat stroke from the sentences of those behind bars?

Let us not forget that those are people behind bars. They are men and women with families and friends. We can't continue to treat them as nothing but a number.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Victory at Standing Rock (sort of)

Last weekend the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline tore up sacred land following the filing of court documents by lawyers representing the Standing Rock Sioux people. It was done deliberately in order to destroy the evidence in the ground and it was done knowing it was likely a federal court would issue a restraining order in the case.

When their plan was discovered, instead of backing down and halting the destruction of the sacred lands, the pipeline builders sent security guards with attack dogs into the crowd and assaulted the people who were trying to preserve the land that our government stole from them over and over and over again.

As I am having problems embedding the video, click here for video footage of the attack courtesy of Democracy Now!

But now there is good news, sort of. On Friday, a federal judge continued the American legacy of stealing the land of the Native Americans by refusing to stop construction of the pipeline - though he did halt construction in a small area. But later, the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior and the Army announced that construction of the pipeline on lands bordering Lake Oahe would be halted immediately. The Army Corps of Engineers also called for consultation with Native Americans on all projects that would go through their lands.

While it is a victory. It is also far too little, far too late. President Obama could have interceded in this matter before the violence of last weekend. But he chose not to do so. After holding his finger in the wind for months he finally shut down the TransCanada XL pipeline project (as symbolic a gesture as it was), but without all the hoopla of the establishment environmental groups, the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline went unnoticed by most folks.

This administration, and the administrations before it, are too wedded to the oil industry and its money to clamp down on the destruction of the environment and the destruction of Native American lands. It is only when an army of white surburbanites raise the banner of fighting climate change that Obama looks up. In this instance it was just a bunch of indians who raised a stink. Not worth bothering with, I suppose.

It is beyond shameful what our government has done to the Native Americans over the past 3 centuries. We have stolen their lands again and again. We have massacred them. We have destroyed their hunting grounds. All of this in the name of manifest destiny - the ultimate in white supremecist doctrine.

It's a trifecta!

Harris County DA Devon Anderson may truly be the gift that never stops giving. In addition to the dumpster fire which is Precinct 4, in addition to the state's "expert" witness, Dr. Fessessework Guale, now we have Devon Anderson's Facebook ad for her re-election campaign.

Well I guess, based on the message, that someone informed Devon Anderson that what she did put a judge in a bad position. But why anyone had to point that out to her I don't know because Devon Anderson used to be a judge - up until Barack Obama's election, that is. She should be familiar with the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct which makes this little episode all the more troubling.

I tried to download the video yesterday before it was taken down but I was, apparently, unsuccessful. I am bothered by the fact that Devon Anderson deliberately put a judge in a position that violated the canons of conduct. And I don't care whether or not Devon Anderson is the person who maintains the Facebook page and posts videos and such. The page has her name on it and she is ultimately responsible for the content on the page.

I wish I had made a screen print at the time so I could at least post the photo - but life is full of shoulda, woulda, coulda moments.

Friday, September 9, 2016

And the hits just keep coming

Well, that certainly didn't take long.

Already ankle deep in an evidence destruction scheme in Precinct 4, Harris County DA Devon Anderson has a new mess on her hands. And this time it has to do with drunk driving.

Dr. Fessessework Guale works at the Harris County Institute for Forensic Sciences, until very recently she was one of the managers in the toxicology department.

Dr. Guale was always a favorite expert witness for the state. She would take the stand and tell the jury how accurate and reliable blood alcohol testing was. She would then take out pen and paper and mystify the jury as she calculated what the defendant's blood alcohol concentration would have been at the time of driving. Nevermind that no one had ever bothered to test the defendant's metabolism or measure the time it takes alcohol to be absorbed into his or her system. Forget that the patron saint of blood alcohol testing, Dr. Kurt Dubowski, wrote that so-called retrograde extrapolation (guesstimation) was notoriously unreliable. Nope, nothing was going to stop Dr. Guale from getting on that stand and telling the jury that the defendant - beyond any doubt - was clearly intoxicated at the time of driving. Hell, she didn't even need to view the scene video or offense report - she just knew.

She also knew about killing cats in the name of science. She studied veterinary science back home in Ethiopia and did some serious experimentation on cats. Of the four published articles which she claims, only one has to do with toxicology. The others all have to do with animals.

But one field she might not have know quite so much about was toxicology. For years she took the stand and, under oath, told juries that she had a master's degree in toxicology. Now for some of the folks who ended up sitting on a jury, that was all they needed. If she has a post-graduate degree in toxicology then she probably knows what's she talking about, right?

Um, not so fast.

It turns out that Dr. Guale's master's degree from Oklahoma State is in some field called physiological sciences. On her statement of qualifications (which is submitted to the accreditation agency) she states she has a Masters of Science in Toxicology (just take a look below). Ooops. She claims toxicology is a sub-discipline of physiological science but that's debatable coming from her mouth.

"My training is in toxicology but the degree says physiological sciences, which is a big area which toxicology is a sub part of it. It's called a sub discipline." 
-- Dr. Fessessework Guale

Unfortunately that's not what the Oklahoma State University website says when you look up "physiological sciences." It appears that department is part of the school's Center for Veterinary Health Sciences.

The Department of Physiological Sciences at Oklahoma State University contributes substantially to the teaching, research and service components of the Center for Veterinary Health Sciences.

-- Oklahoma State University website

I believe that makes Dr. Guale a perjurer. Just how many cases over the years did she take the stand and lie about her educational background? Just how many times did she lie on her curriculum vitae about her educational background? Just how many times was her falsified CV sent to defense attorneys during discovery?

And if she was so willing to lie about her educational background, what else has she lied about? And since we now know she is a liar, can we, should we, believe anything she has said on the witness stand? For you see, it's not a question of counting up the lies to determine whether or not someone is trustworthy; it's a question of whether or not someone who has lied can ever be believed.

And now Devon Anderson says she's getting to bottom of it. And I'm sure she's in a hurry to do so. Apparently the DA's office has decided they will no longer use Dr. Guale as an expert witness. But will she remain employed with HCIFS? Even though she has lied continually about her academic qualifications, will she or the lab suffer any repercussions?

Every case in which Dr. Guale testified as to retrograde guesstimation needs to be re-examined. Every attorney who handled one of those cases should be notified. And, should we find out that anyone in the DA's office knew about Dr. Guale's lies before now, any convictions which relied on her testimony about blood alcohol concentration should be vacated. In fact, any case in which a defendant was convicted and Dr. Guale testified should be brought into question - particularly since the verdict form does not indicate under which theory of intoxication the jury convicted the accused.

Devon Anderson has shown herself to be largely incompetent in running the Harris County DA's Office. She is certainly not to be trusted. But what should we expect from a person who took charge of the office not through an election but through an appointment after her husband (who failed to disclose his medical condition during his campaign) died less than a year into his term?

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Stepping in it

Oh what a mess Harris County DA Devon Anderson has found herself in. As has been reported in local media outlets, over the last nine years some 21,000 pieces of evidence were destroyed in Harris County Precinct 4. All of the evidence was supposedly destroyed by one deputy - Christopher Hess - who has since been fired.

But somehow none of it came to light until local defense attorneys Emily DeToto and Paul Morgan found out when one of their clients was being offered a 25 year sentence on a dope case last month.

Strangely enough, Ms. Anderson announced at a press conference that her office had been aware of the destroyed evidence since February but chose not to say a word about it - all the while offering lengthy prison sentences in a cases in which there was no evidence.

Of course Constable Mark Herman claims that the entire problem has been resolved and that everything in Precinct 4 is now hunky-dory (which would be a first). If the story needs any more spicing up, the former constable, Ron Hickman, was appointed Sheriff following the resignation of Adrian Garcia.

But aside from the stinking mess that is (and has been) Precinct 4, why didn't Ms. Anderson's office inform defense attorneys about the problem when she found out about it? The requirements of Brady would seem to scream out that her office should have notified any defense attorney representing a client who was arrested in Precinct 4, that there was a problem with evidence storage. Her underlings damn sure shouldn't have been offering plea deals to defendants when they knew there was no evidence to back up the case.

Apparently we can require prosecutors to attend all the ethics classes we want and it won't change the culture of the office. Ms. Anderson wants us all to believe that all is well with the world and that her office is seeing that justice is done. Really?

There is no justification for Ms. Anderson's actions (or lack thereof). There is no excuse for sitting on this matter for six months. If Ms. DeToto and Mr. Morgan hadn't found out when they did, when would we have found out? And what other nasty little scandals are lurking in the nooks and crannies of the 6th Floor of the Harris County Criminal (In)Justice Center?

If Ms. Anderson can't be trusted to notify the defense bar of the wholesale destruction of evidence, how can we trust her office to investigate the matter? If we really want to find out what happened, who did it and how long it went on, then we need to have an outside agency do the investigating.

Ms. Anderson and her minions have shown they cannot be trusted.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

An attack on discretion

In theory, a judge should make his or her decisions on the bench without regard to politics. In theory, a judge should be shielded from politics in order to make the best decision in a given case - not the popular decision.

Federal judges are able to make their decisions without regard to any potential political consequences as they serve for life. State judges, on the other hand, either have to stand for re-election or for retention elections.

We currently live in an era of mass incarceration. Under President Bill Clinton (with the enthusiastic support of his wife), sentencing laws became draconian. The number of people in state and federal prisons is staggering. We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world - 698 per 100,000.

Once upon a time federal judges had great discretion in making sentencing decisions. That changed with the introduction of the Federal sentencing guidelines and criminal defense work became mostly a game of cross-checking charts for aggravating and mitigating factors.

Aaron Persky is a judge in Santa Clara County, California. Until very recently he presided over criminal matters.

Brock Turner was a swimmer at Stanford University. In January 2015 he was arrested for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. At trial he was convicted of three felony sexual assault charges. He was sentenced to six months in jail and three years probation. He is required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Judge Persky presided over the trial and pronounced sentence. In sentencing Mr. Turner, Judge Persky commented that a long prison term would likely ruin Mr. Turner's life. Mr. Turner had never been in trouble with the law before.

Women's organizations and advocacy groups went apoplectic at the sentence. They wanted Mr. Turner to spend years in prison for what he did. And nothing was going to change their opinion.

There was nothing unusual about what Judge Persky did. He took a variety of factors into account before handing down the sentence. Did Mr. Turner receive a comparatively light sentence? Yes, he did. But he was also a first offender.

Was the sentence a slap in the face of the victim of Mr. Turner's actions? No.

Here is where a whole lot of folks get our criminal (in)justice system wrong. The rules are designed so that a person accused of a crime gets a fair trial. The burden of proof is so high to try to prevent an innocent man from being locked away. In a criminal trial, the alleged victim of a crime is nothing more than another witness.

A criminal trial is not a means of an alleged victim obtaining justice. A criminal trial is a process by which a judge or jury determines whether or not the evidence put forward by the government proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did what he was accused of.

An acquittal is not an insult to an alleged victim. It is nothing more than an indicator that the evidence put forward by the government was insufficient to prove the defendant committed the act. A conviction is not "justice" for an alleged victim - or for society. It is but an indicator that the evidence put forward by the government was sufficient to prove the defendant did it.

State legislatures give judges a wide range of sentencing options should a defendant plead guilty or be proven guilty. Those options range from deferred adjudication (in Texas) to probation to prison.

Judge Persky insulted no one by sentencing Mr. Turner to jail time and probation. He was using the tools at his disposal. Those who are angry at Judge Persky for his decision are barking up the wrong tree. If you don't like the sentence, go talk to the legislature.

As a side note, the California legislature stuck its collective finger in the wind and passed new mandatory minimum sentencing laws for sexual assault of an unconscious or intoxicated person. Hey, but then we all know that bad facts make for bad laws.

What we are seeing is an attempt by advocates for victims of sexual assault to force judges to ignore the law and to not consider the entire range of punishment available. We dismiss folks from jury duty if they cannot consider the full range of punishment in a given case - judges who can't consider the full range of punishment do not deserve to sit on the bench, either.

Attempts to force judges to yield to popular political opinion will only harm those who need the most protection from the oppressive power of the state - those accused of criminal acts. This is not about sending out a message to society - it's about curtailing the independence of the judiciary.