Tagged: criminal justice system

‘Making a Murderer’ – A Broader Debate

“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.

Related Readings:

Is America Becoming a Nation of Ex-Cons?

POST WRITTEN BY: John Humbach, Professor of Law at Pace Law School.

graphMuch has been written about the extraordinary rates of incarceration as a pressing criminal justice problem. Mass incarceration is, however, only part of the challenge posed by the American criminal justice system. Already, an estimated 25% of U.S. adults have a criminal record and, with a million new felony convictions per year—one every 30 seconds—America’s ex-offender population is growing exponentially (see chart to the right). Our country is well on its way to becoming a nation of ex-cons.

The effects of being a “criminal” do not, moreover, end with release from prison. Newly released inmates are immediately met by a growing assortment of law-prescribed “collateral consequences” that now number in the tens of thousands. In their cumulative impact, these legal disabilities greatly reduce the ability of ex-offenders to find housing, make a living, get an education, obtain bank loans, support their children or, generally, to enjoy the usual rights and amenities of citizenship that are essential for a reasonable quality of life.  As a result, our nation’s criminal-justice policy is literally re-making America into a legally divided multi-stratum society with an entrenched system of law-sanctioned discrimination against a large and growing underclass with a legally-prescribed inferior civic status.

Already, the ex-offender class is the nation’s largest legally discriminated-against minority group, and it is growing. The adverse social implications of this trend remain unclear and the critical demographic tipping point is still uncertain. But whatever the details, this is surely not good path for the nation to be on.

Graph Source: 

Related Readings: 

  • John Humbach, Is America Becoming a Nation of Ex-Cons?, 12 Ohio St. J. Crim. L. 605 (2015) (SSRN) (Pace Digital Commons).  

John Oliver on the Public Defender System

public defenders JOJohn Oliver did it again! With more than 2.8 million views, John Oliver in his weekly “Last Week Tonight” analyzes the public defender system in the United States as only he can do it.  He begins by quoting the 1963 decision of Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the Court stated that “… any person … who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.” Does this system works as intended?

He shares quite a few shocking facts and statistics:

  • “… anywhere from 60-90 percent of criminal defendants need publicly-funded attorneys, depending on the jurisdiction.” (Brennan Center for Justice, Apr. 9, 2013). 
  • “… 40% of all county-based public defender offices had no investigators on staff.” (Bureau of Justice Statistics).
  • “… about 95 percent of criminal cases never make it to trial.”

He explains that

[t]he Miranda warning includes the right to a public defender. It doesn’t include the fact that public defenders are highly overworked and grossly underpaid.

Related Readings:

  • Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). 
  • William Lawrence, The Public Defender Crisis in America: Gideon, the War on Drugs and the Fight for Equality, 5 U. Miami Race & Soc. Just. L. Rev. 167 (2015).
  • Indigent Defense Systems (Bureau of Justice Statistics) offers statistical data on the right to counsel and methods for providing indigent criminal defense.
  • John Oliver, Public DefendersLast Week Tonight (Sept. 13, 2015).

A Prosecutorial Misconduct Commission?

Pace Professor Bennett Gershman makes a case for the establishing a prosecutorial misconduct commission, as New York considers doing just that.  Read the article in The Daily Beast titled How to Hold Bad Prosecutors Accountable: The Case for a Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct.

Has the Culture of Adversarialness Gone Too Far?

The adversarial system may be the best way for a society to adjudicate criminal charges to a result that will warrant public trust. But sometimes it feels like the US culture of adversarialness is just that – a pervasive method of dealing with everything that comes our way, and not simply in the courtroom. Our current political scene is certainly a reflection of that, as is the political gridlock.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times, titled President Obama’s Department of Injustice by Alec Karakatsanis, raises the question of whether our historical reliance on adversarialness – its intentional use for a good societal purpose – may have become reflexive, or unthinking, or may have simply gone too far.

manatory minimums

On a similar topic, another example of cultural over-reaction, take a moment to view the July 26th episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, in which Mr. Oliver addresses the phenomenon of mandatory minimum sentencing and President Obama’s recent grants (and denials) of clemency to some low level offenders serving mandatory minimums.  In doing so, he “explains why we treat some turkeys better than most low-level offenders.”