In a Netflix original documentary titled 13TH, to signify the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, scholars, activists and politicians discuss and analyze the criminalization of African Americans in the United States. This thought-provoking film argues that the mass incarceration of African Americans across the United States is in fact an extension of slavery. See NPR Review. The filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s website features the documentary’s official trailer along with a list of reviews from variety of newspapers. Check it out!
We are pleased to join investigative reporter Susan Goldsmith and filmmaker Meryl Goldsmith in announcing that their powerful film on shaken baby syndrome, “The Syndrome” will be available everywhere on video on demand starting April 15, 2016. iTunes, DirecTV, In Demand (cable outlets), Amazon Instant and so many more are all distributing the film.
An estimated 1,000 innocent people are currently incarcerated based on doctors diagnosing shaken baby syndrome, a child abuse theory that has been disavowed as “junk science.” The prosecutions, false allegations and devastation of innocent peoples’ lives continues even as the science has dissolved.
Several years ago, in England, the prosecution re-examined a series of its shaken baby convictions and re-evaluated its policies and procedures for handling such cases. Interestingly, the new wrongful conviction integrity unit in the LA County District Attorney’s Office told California Public Radio that they plan to review shaken baby cases.
- The Syndrome, Apple iTunes.
- The Syndrome, Facebook.
- Tara Haelle, Doctors Devise a Better Way to Diagnose Shaken Baby Syndrome, NPR North Carolina (Jul. 29, 2015).
- Samantha Adams, Shaken Baby Syndrome and Wrongful Convictions, Innocence Project of Florida: Plain Error (Mar. 30, 2015).
- Innocence Project, Washington Post In-Depth Investigation: Shaken Baby Syndrome, (Mar. 23, 2015).
- California Innocence Project, Shaken Baby Syndrome.
- Jae C. Hong, LA County’s New Wrongful Conviction Unit Flooded with Hundreds of Innocence Claims, 89.3KPCC (Nov. 13, 2014).
- Innocence Project, Shaken Baby Cases To Be Reviewed, (Aug. 11, 2014).
- James Ross Gardner, The Trouble with Shaken Baby Syndrome, Seattle Met (Apr. 2, 2014).
- Anthony DiPietro, Battle of Experts: Controversy in Shaken Baby Case Set for NY Court, Pace Criminal Justice Blog (Feb. 14, 2014).
- Steve Orr, Judge Orders Special Hearing in Shaken Baby Case, Democrat & Chronicle (Jan. 24, 2014).
- Steve Orr, Watchdog Report: Shaken-Baby Science Doubt Grows, Democrat & Chronicle (June 29, 2013).
- Gary Craig, Watchdog Report: Shaken-Baby Triad Still Rules in New York Courts, Democrat & Chronicle (June 30, 2013).
“Making a Murderer,” the Netflix series about Steven Avery, who may or may not have murdered Theresa Halbach in a rural Wisconsin town, has created a healthy controversy. Everybody is asking: “Did he do it? Or was he framed by the police?” Avery served eighteen years in jail for a crime he did not commit until he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 1999. His multi-million dollar lawsuit against the county, he alleges, is the motive for the police charging him with murder. Avery, along with his nephew Brendan Dassey, a mentally-challenged teenager, were convicted in separate trials.
The 10-part series is controversial. The documentarians are accused of biased reporting intended to prove the defendants are innocent. But that’s unfair; ultimately, the series demonstrates something true and more important: that despite the guilty verdicts we really do not know who killed Halbach, how, or why. The prosecution presented a strong circumstantial case, but this evidence is carefully dissected, and a viewer can readily believe that what little there was had been planted by the police. Moreover, Dassey’s “confession” in which he “guessed” at what the police wanted to hear, and later repeatedly recanted, is utterly uncorroborated by anything the police could find and appears to be the unreliable product of well-known unsavory police interrogation tactics.
We should broaden the debate beyond guilty or not guilty, because “Making a Murderer” raises several fundamental questions about the criminal justice system.
First, what is the goal of our system? Is the goal to yield results that society is willing to accept? To be sure, we hope the adversary system and the use of juries lead to reliable results. But we know that, as the documentary shows, tragic mistajes are made, eyewitnesses are mistaken, and that the most we can ever hope for is uncertainty. Is that enough?
Does the criminal adversary system really produce a fair fight? Avery’s retained lawyers worked incredibly hard, were unstintingly loyal, and were highly effective. Dassey was indigent and was assigned an attorney who, from the beginning, believed and announced that his client was guilty despite Dassey’s protests of innocence, and in fact, handed the prosecution evidence to use against him. After this attorney was removed, new counsel was appointed and did the best he could. But once again we revisit the age-old maxim that the quality of justice depends on how much money you have.
Did the prosecutors perform their constitutional duty to be “ministers of justice”? Whether one buys the claim that Avery was framed, it’s clear that the prosecutor accepted whatever came from the police without any independent reflection. Even after the court ordered the local police to stay out of the investigation, they stayed deeply involved and produced the only “evidence” of guilt. The prosecutors believed Dassey’s fantastic tale of bloodthirsty sexual assault even though not a drop of blood or any other forensic evidence could be found to support it. Moreover, disregarding his ethical obligations, the prosecutor repeatedly made highly prejudicial statements to the media revealing extensive inflammatory details about the crime.
A few other thoughts. The absence of any racial issues – everyone involved is Whites – simplifies the legal and policy questions raised by the film. This is an excellent opportunity. But in their place we see issues of class and culture at play in a small rural community in middle America, a culture we really can’t penetrate. How do rumor, personal history, kinships, friendships, and resentments impact the quality of justice here?
In the final analysis, nobody really knows why or how Theresa Halbach died. Avery may be innocent, a degenerate, or a predator; Dassey may be no more than an immature, mentally-deficient teenager. They may have killed her, or maybe they did not. The title alone raises the provocative question: did the police “make” a murderer by framing a case against Avery? Or did society “make” a murderer by wrongly imprisoning a young man for eighteen years on the basis of a single mistaken identification? One can always fault the messengers, but the series raises important questions.
- Monica Davey, ‘Making a Murderer’ Town’s Answer to Netflix Series: You Don’t Know, New York Times (Jan. 28, 2016).
- Jack Shepherd, Making a Murderer: Steven Avery Defence Lawyer Dean Strang Responds to Netflix Documentary’s Critics, Independent (Jan. 29, 2016).
POST WRITTEN BY: Maureen F. Schnepf (’17), Pace Law School
On Tuesday February 3, 2015, some of my classmates and I attended The Newburgh Sting event – an event our professors had encouraged us to attend, assuring us it would be a great time. I had never heard of this case prior to the event and was interested in finding out whether this was “a classic case of entrapment.” As an American, I have always had faith in our criminal justice system. However, on Tuesday, that faith was somewhat shaken. Fortunately, there were many other valuable takeaways making up for it.
The film portrays the story of four poor black men, James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payan, who, as the movie portrays it, were all entrapped by an FBI undercover informant, Shahed Hussein. The FBI agency is tasked with the responsibility to combat terrorism, especially in the post 9/11 world. But at what cost do we as Americans support this goal? In order to turn these men into terrorists, Shahed Hussein approached James Cromitie, a low level marijuana dealer who worked at Walmart, to recruit him to bomb synagogues in Riverdale, NY and a military base near Newburgh, NY. Hussein kept pushing Cromitie to find more “brothers” to come along. Hussein needed involvement of more than one person for a conspiracy charge to stand since Hussein was a government agent. Even after Mr. Cromitie temporarily disappeared, he was nevertheless pulled back in by the false sense of security that Hussein promised. Mr. Cromitie convinced three other men to help: one needed money to pay for his brother’s medical bills that had resulted from a surgery removing a tumor; another one was enticed by the promise of sustenance and financial stability which he so needed for his family; and the last one hoped this to be his ticket out of poverty-stricken Newburgh. All four men had exactly one thing in common – they all needed money. Hussein skillfully lured all four men, taking advantage of their low intelligence while promising financial security.
When the plot was being formulated (in Hussein’s living room with hidden cameras), Hussein was the one giving instructions. It was Hussein who suggested using two bombs in a backpack and a stinger missile. Coincidentally, the use of a stinger missile triggers a mandatory 25 year sentence in prison. It was Hussein who continuously reminded the men that this was a jihad – a holy war for Allah. Mr. Cromitie and David Williams demanded reassurance from Hussein that they were only targeting property and that no one would get hurt. Hussein kept inciting the men to believe that this mission was for Allah; however, Mr. Cromitie always responded that “[t]hey can use the money.”
On the night of the attack, the whole group drove to Connecticut to pick up the – unbeknownst to the participants – fake bombs and the stinger missile. Interestingly enough, crossing state lines triggered federal jurisdiction. When the men returned to New York to switch the cars, they were apprehended by the police and FBI agents. The scene was flooded with an excessive number of police officers who claimed to be thwarting four “terrorists” – who they knew had two fake bombs that would never detonate. To top it all off, the FBI made public statements about this thwarted attack, stating that the FBI had been watching these four Muslim men who had allegedly met in prison for over a year. However, the men did not meet in prison; nor did I get the feeling from the video that they were devout Muslims because only one Quran was discovered when their homes were searched. The FBI put on a great show for the public. The four men pleaded not guilty but were convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. They lost their appeal, and their last resort, the U.S. Supreme Court, denied their writ of certiorari.
On one hand I can see how they were convicted since they followed through on the plan of committing a terrorist attack on innocent people. However, can we call this “justice”? The defendants were convicted for a crime they would have never had the ability to pull off had it not been for the government planting this idea in their minds. The defense attorneys who spoke at Pace on Tuesday shared that the trial judge, Judge McMahon, in her opinion, appeared to be setting these four men up for a successful appeal, even after the jury found the entrapment defense baseless and convicted them. That boggled my mind. In her 54 page opinion, the judge opines as if she is to find the defendants not guilty but in the last two pages she found the four defendants guilty, even Payan who clearly exhibited diminished mental capacity.
This entire situation was very sad to learn about. The families of these men who will forever be labeled as terrorists will not see them for 25 years. I can’t help but ask: would they have ever done this without the FBI? I don’t think so.
And so, what’s the lesson? Ms. Susanne Brody, Onta Williams’ defense attorney, shared that integrity is key – one must remain grounded in what is right and what is wrong – that is the key to being an attorney. Don’t just blindly follow, and stand up for what you believe is right. Another valuable lesson was to learn about the amount of time and effort invested into this case. Sam Bravermen, defense counsel for Mr. Payan, shared that his team spent close to 10,000 hours working on this case in just a few months, demonstrating the diligence, commitment, hard work, and team cooperation needed to take on a case such was this.
If there was one truth throughout the film that stuck with me the most, it was that fear is among the most potent motivators. It motivated a jury to convict these men. It motivated the FBI to plan and incite this entire “attack” in the name of security, and it appears to motivate all of us today. But perhaps we should be more fearful about the fact that our system isn’t always working as intended. Having integrity and thus ensuring the integrity of the system we are all going to very soon be a part of, perhaps, should be our focus. Whether working as a defense attorney, a prosecutor, or for the FBI, we all should try our best to act with candor, do the right thing, and remember why we came to law school in the first place.
I urge all of you to watch this film. It speaks for itself. You may be surprised at how you feel once the credits begin to roll.