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POST WRITTEN BY: Prof. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.

On September 2, 2014, the ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, issued a public statement in which she rejected as “baseless” criticisms in “[r]ecent media reports and commentaries,” which she said “have erroneously suggested that the International Criminal Court (ICC) has persistently avoided opening an investigation into alleged war crimes in Gaza due to political pressure.”

The Prosecutor stated that these criticisms were without merit because of the Rome Statute’s jurisdictional requirements. The Prosecutor did not (and could not, without investigation) argue that any alleged crimes committed by any participant in the conflict failed to meet the Statute’s subject matter requirements for genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity. The problem, rather, was the Statute’s other jurisdictional requirements that authorize the ICC to open an investigation only with respect to crimes alleged to have occurred on the territory of a State or by nationals of a State that has ratified the Rome Statute or has accepted ICC jurisdiction by an ad hoc declaration pursuant to Article 12(3) of the Statute. At this time, neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority is a State Party to the Rome Statute, nor has either as yet filed an Article 12(3) declaration. (Palestine did file such a declaration in 2009, but it was found invalid for lack of standing.)

The Prosecutor noted that her Office after examination has concluded that because of UN General Assembly Res. 67/19 issued on November 29, 2012 upgrading Palestine’s status to a “non-member observer State,” Palestine could now accede to the Rome Statute or lodge an Article 12(3) declaration conferring jurisdiction to the ICC over the situation in Gaza. But it has not yet done so.

The Prosecutor in her statement referred to an additional mechanism through which the ICC could obtain authorization to investigate the situation in Gaza. Pursuant to Article 13(b) of the Rome Statute, the UN Security Council can act under its Chapter VII powers to authorize an ICC investigation, even if the alleged crimes were not committed on the territory of a State Party or by a national of a State Party. The Security Council has not taken such action as yet with respect to Gaza (nor has it done so with respect to the violence in Syria).

Amnesty International, a non-governmental organization whose mission is to protect human rights internationally, has called for the UN Security Council, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel to provide the ICC with jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute any persons responsible for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in the current and past Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.

The Prosecutor concluded her September 2 statement by saying,

It is my firm belief that recourse to justice should never be compromised by political expediency. The failure to uphold this sacrosanct requirement will not only pervert the cause of justice and weaken public confidence in it, but also exacerbate the immense suffering of the victims of mass atrocities. This, we will never allow.

The ICC has been the target of many political criticisms and challenges, starting from its foundational conferences in the 1990s, and these challenges will, no doubt, continue for years to come. The ICC Prosecutor is to be commended for being proactive in addressing these challenges in an effort to support the credibility of the Court.

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The Pistorius Verdict

As the Pistorius trial proceeded – unprecedentedly on television –some of the differences between South African criminal procedure and US or New York criminal procedure have been obvious. Now that the verdict is in, we have the luxurious opportunity to reflect on how those differences played out. Until the full verdict is available a full analysis is not possible but a few comparative observations are worth making.

The most striking visible comparison at this homicide trial was the absence of a twelve-person lay jury and the presence of a single judicial factfinder who, assisted by two assessors, sat in judgment of the defendant. The rendition of a verdict magnifies this difference. In New York, as in the rest of the United States, of course, the law forbids a criminal jury from explaining its guilty/not guilty verdict in any way, even to the point of prohibiting any sort of questions or special interrogatories that we regularly use in civil cases. Even when jurors are interviewed post-trial and actually tell the media why they decided a case the way they did, that information has absolutely no legal significance unless there has been an invasion into the jury room, e.g., a bribe, a newspaper article, and the like. To be sure, we do have judicial factfinders who explain their findings of fact in detail and on the record; but in most cases those factfinders are making factual determinations in connection with legal rulings, e.g., suppression hearings, sentencing, and the like – and not judging the guilt or non-guilt of fellow citizens, with all the consequences of that determination.

There are good reasons for our prohibition about impeaching a jury’s verdict. Briefly, those reasons stem from the role of the jury in our system – the people in the courtroom – and the freedom of that group of supposedly “impartial” “peers” to do what it thinks is best and for whatever reasons it wants, without fear of reprisal or reversal. That is a basic protection for defendants in our system, and, accordingly, we devote a tremendous amount of resources to jury selection and the jury process.  In South Africa, however, the jury trial was abolished along with apartheid, and the jury in a murder case – like Pistorius – consists of a judge and two assisting assessors – two jurors who, as far as I can tell, have never appeared publicly during the trial, certainly not during the announcement of their own verdict.

Less protection for the accused? Greater protection for the accused? Different protection for the accused? If you’re looking for the power of the people to do what they want to render a just verdict, that protection is missing. Visually, this is striking – a single judge is handing down the decision of guilty or not guilty. But there is something comforting about knowing exactly why the factfinder decided as it did. Of course, we are familiar with the underlying notion in our system that one way we limit judicial discretion is to require a judge to write down reasons for his or her rulings – both because it forces the judge to justify and articulate the findings and so that those rulings can be reviewed. But more than that, on a human level, it just feels right to require anyone who judges another human being – and condemns him – to explain why.

A different set of protections, to be sure. But food for comparative thought.

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The National Registry of Exonerations (“Registry”) marked 2013 as a record setting year for exonerations. As of August 2014, there were 91 known exonerations that occurred in 2013, bringing the total number to 1,427. According to the Registry, exonerations are only counted when the defendant is

declared to be factually innocent by a government official or agency with the authority to make that declaration;” or the defendant is “relieved of all the consequences of the criminal conviction by a government official or body with the authority to take that action.

Notably, the Registry continues to report a stark rise in exonerations based upon a post-trial finding that the defendant was convicted of a crime that did not occur. In such instances, a person is “convicted of a crime that did not occur, either because an accident or a suicide was mistaken for a crime, or because the exoneree was accused of a fabricated crime that never happened.”  The Registry reports that almost one third of the 2013 exonerations were in cases in which no crime occurred. To date, a number of “crime-less” cases have already been reported for 2014.  Many of the recent “crime-less” exonerations involved child abuse prosecutions, which were overturned due to improper police  interrogation techniques when questioning minors, and/or the prosecution’s reliance upon suspect medical evidence.

Unfortunately, there are many obstacles to re-investigating and presenting a “crime-less case” for review, since such cases are generally based upon circumstantial evidence. The Registry reported that a majority of reported  “no-crime” convictions resulted from the prosecution’s presentation of false testimony, and its unfettered reliance on cooperators, informants, and rogue police officers. Other no-crime convictions resulted from the prosecutions reliance on faulty scientific evidence, which incorrectly determined instances of arson and/or murder.

Earlier this year, Professor Samuel Gross of Michigan University School of Law noted that “these cases used to be very uncommon, as they are extremely hard to prove,” given that “there’s no DNA to prove someone else guilty, and no alternative confession to draw upon.” However, Professor Gross explained that the recent rise in crime-less exonerations is a hopeful sign that “prosecutors and judges have become more sensitive to the dangers of false accusations and are more willing to consider that a person is innocent even where this is no DNA to test or an alternative perpetrator coming forward.”

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As reported in the New York Times, two men were recently exonerated through proceedings in the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission based on DNA evidence that demonstrated the real criminal was another original suspect who had committed a similar crime. The two men each had served thirty years in prison, one on death row.

North Carolina of course is the only state in the United States with an independent commission established to examine the innocence claims of wrongly convicted individuals. England and Wales and Scotland have long had these commissions – the Criminal Cases Review Commissions. Although they obviously have critics, these commissions have functioned effectively – miraculously from a US perspective – in independently investigating (with subpoena power) and then referring cases to the court of appeal for review.

We should re-think our opposition to establishing independent commissions that can impartially and thoroughly investigate claims of wrongful conviction. Finality is an important value, yes, and we commit a tremendous amount of resources to the pre-conviction resolution of criminal charges. But it’s important to realize that the North Carolina courts and presumably the federal courts, did nothing to correct the manifestly erroneous convictions in this case. Were it not for the Commission, the convictions would stand. Can the correction of these so manifestly erroneous North Carolina convictions rationally be seen as threatening to our finality values?

Aside from the overriding importance of freeing the wrongly convicted, the public’s perception of the justice and reliability of our criminal process is deteriorating. One of the best and probably most cost-effective way to restore it is to establish direct review innocence commissions in our states.

Related Readings:

Related Journal Articles:

It has been quite a summer. Having been involved in the criminal justice system for more than forty years, I feel as if there has never been a summer with so much going on – and so much attention being paid to it. Ferguson, Missouri, is the most recent and most alarming event, following so closely on the Staten Island chokehold case. These cases have focused serious attention on the police-citizen relationship that was front and center last year in the stop-and-frisk decision and the settlement of that lawsuit by the new New York City mayor.

We have been witness to the unprecedented actions of the Brooklyn, New York Conviction Integrity Unit in the District Attorney’s office, and to the dismissal of erroneous convictions in that county. These dismissals have been followed by substantial financial settlements by New York City. The New York Times ran a series of editorials urging the decriminalization of marijuana possession in some circumstances, and another editorial calling for revisions in the virtually-non-existent clemency process. Four state governors are either being tried, charged, or investigated.

Rampant prisoner abuse has been exposed just as claims made by prisoners has spiked, and there is now dialogue about the excessive use and destructive results of solitary confinement. The entire capital punishment process has come under scrutiny because the drug companies who provide the lethal drugs to accomplish our executions are no longer willing to do so. There is increasing focus on our entire system of punishment because of international attention on our disgracefully large prison population.

On an international level, we have also been witness to mass executions in Egypt and a long-awaited English investigation of the poisoning of a Russian journalist in London. Scotland abolished its long-standing and unique corroboration requirement. We were witness to an historic event:  a Black, South African, and female judge presiding at the trial of a young white male, who happened to be an internationally acclaimed athlete.

Having been raised on a September to September calendar, and having continued with that conception of the “year” as a law professor, I am pausing to wonder what we will witness in the next twelve months.

For now, the staff of the PCJI are taking a two-week break. We will resume our blog after Labor Day, on September 4.

With an interesting perspective on the problem of wrongful convictions, the investigators, Kim Anklin and Bob Rahn, tell the story of how they helped uncover and produce the evidence that established a wrongful conviction in Brooklyn. Take a moment to read the full article about the Jonathan Fleming case, written by one of the investigators.

Kim Anklin, The Investigation of a Wrongful Conviction: The Jonathan Fleming Case. 

The United States Sentencing Commission has recently approved an amendment to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, “Drugs Minus Two,” which would reduce the sentencing guideline levels applicable to most federal drug trafficking offenses. Specifically, the amendment works to lower the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table prescribed under §2D1.1(c)(1) of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual, which may ultimately result in a lower guideline sentencing range for many defendants sentenced under federal trafficking penalties.

The Sentencing Commission has voted to apply the amendment retroactively after determining that “setting the base offense levels above mandatory minimum penalties is no longer necessary and that a reduction would be an appropriate step toward alleviating the overcapacity of the federal prisons.” The Commission’s proposal was consistent with its obligation to formulate guidelines to “minimize the likelihood that the Federal prison population will exceed the capacity of the Federal prisons. 28 U.S.C. § 994(g).

According to the Commission, there are an “estimated 46,000 offenders that may benefit from retroactive application of Amendment 782 subject to the limitation in §1B1.10 (e), and the average sentence reduction would be approximately 18 percent.”

The Chair of the Sentencing Commission, Judge Patti B. Saris, stated that “the amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach. It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety.”

The amendment will likely go into retroactive effect beginning November 1, 2015, unless Congress disapproves of the amendment. Congress has until November 1, 2014 to make its decision. If upheld, federal prisoners may begin to petition the courts pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582 (C) (2) seeking a sentencing modification based upon the new guideline ranges.

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The protection of the attorney-client privilege has become less sacrosanct in our criminal justice system. Government practices to encroach upon the attorney-client relationship have become more invasive and widespread than ever before. For example, the prison email system has become a blueprint for maximizing the government’s leverage in interfering with one’s right to counsel and to deviously induce waivers of the attorney-client privilege.

Recently, a Federal Court in Brooklyn (EDNY) has upheld the troubling practice of federal prosecutors searching for incriminating evidence (i.e. admissions) by reading emails between defendants and their attorneys sent through the prison email system (“TRULINCS”). The government had claimed that the practice of reading all inmate emails was solely the result of a lack of financial funding, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (“FBOP”) cannot afford to incorporate a screening system that would separate inmate emails to attorneys. Prosecutors failed to mention, however, that federal inmates must actually pay to use the prison’s email and telephone systems, and that the recipients of such communications must be pre-approved by the FBOP. The FBOP generally creates a list of approved contacts for each inmate, and maintains a copy of such list within its database. The list not only identifies each of the inmate’s approved contacts, but also notes each contact’s relationship with the inmate (i.e. Spouse, Friend, Attorney).

Nevertheless, the Court found that federal prosecutors could legally review inmate emails with lawyers, because federal inmates receive prior warning that their communications will not be treated as privileged and must accept those terms prior to using the email system provided by the FBOP. The Court also noted that the FBOP’s failure to provide a privileged form of email communication does not infringe upon an inmate’s right to counsel, since inmates could still privately access their attorney through other forms of communication.  The Court observed that inmates are provided sufficient alternative means to engage in privileged communications with lawyers by phone calls, mail, and in-person visits.

What the Court’s opinion fails to appreciate, however, is that email communication is the most efficient and viable form of communication used by lawyers in the twenty-first century. The suggestion that inmates could use other forms of communication to contact lawyers in the federal system is simply fantastical, especially for inmates seeking to access their lawyers for post-conviction matters.

Indeed, email communication may be the only viable way for an inmate to effectively communicate with a lawyer, since the FBOP designates inmates to be housed throughout the nation without regard to the jurisdictional location of their conviction. In post-conviction matters, attorneys may be required to travel across the country in order to conduct a legal visit with a client, which may pose significant financial and practical burdens on both the inmate and the attorney’s law practice. Likewise, the FBOP mailing system inherently poses significant delays in the transmission of communications (i.e. prison mailbox rule), and prison counselors usually require an attorney to provide notice weeks in advance before even approving an inmate’s request for either a legal visit or legal telephone call.

Notably, there appears to be a split amongst the courts in Brooklyn as to whether the government’s unfettered practice of reading attorney-client emails over “TRULINCS” can continue to occur. In a Medicare Fraud prosecution, Federal Judge Dora Irizarry of the Eastern District of New York ordered the government to refrain from reading the defendant’s prison emails with his attorneys. Judge Irizarry rejected the government’s claim that it was too expensive or burdensome for the FBOP to separate emails, noting that the practice was truly controlled by the government’s interest in gaining an adversarial advantage:

That’s hogwash… You’re going to tell me you don’t want to know what your adversary’s strategy is? What kind of a litigator are you then? Give me a break.”

In the end, allowing the government to review communications between inmates and their lawyers is a destructive and unethical practice. There is simply no justification for allowing this dangerous practice to continue, and the feeble excuses offered by federal prosecutors are simply unavailing. Unfortunately, the government’s encroachment upon attorney-client communications diminishes a criminal defense lawyer’s ability to provide effective representation. Indeed, a inmate’s ability to engage in the continuous flow of privileged communications with an attorney is paramount to the development of the attorney-client relationship, and the cornerstone to the lawyer’s ability to provide effective representation in both pre-trial proceedings and post-conviction matters.

It is to be hoped that the government’s position will at least remain consistent when astute criminal defense lawyers begin seeking the disclosure of all prison email communications between the prosecution’s cooperating witnesses and their lawyers, federal attorneys, and FBI Agents in either pre-trial discovery motions or by Freedom of Information requests.  Only time will tell whether federal prosecutors truly believe that prison emails between an inmate and an attorney can never be protected by the attorney-client privilege, and will freely accede to defense requests under its Brady and Giglio obligation. 

Sources:

POST WRITTEN BY: Prof. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.

The internet’s opportunities for communication can be, and in most cases are, beneficial. But some persons may maliciously utilize such opportunities to expose others to embarrassment, and the harm inflicted can be extremely damaging, especially when such communications expose minors to severe embarrassment relating to sexual matters. Such communications have come to be termed “cyber-bullying.”

With instances of cyber-bullying increasing, public authorities have responded with varying measures, including criminalization, in an effort to curb such communications. But because the communications at issue are speech, their restriction must survive constitutional review under the First Amendment’s free speech clause.

New York State has a prior history of protecting minors against the damaging effects of sexual communications. In New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S.747 (1982), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld, against a Free Speech challenge, a New York statute prohibiting persons from knowingly promoting a sexual performance by a child under the age of 16 by distributing material which depicted such a performance (reversing a decision of the N.Y. Court of Appeals).

On July 1, 2014, by a 5-2 vote the N.Y. Court of Appeals struck down as violating the First Amendment a law against cyber-bullying enacted by the Albany County legislature. On appeal, the County conceded that there was wording in the law that was constitutionally overbroad, but argued that, pursuant to accepted severability practice utilized in constitutional interpretation, the Court could sever the offending words and leave in place the remaining portions of the law as constitutionally valid and thus affirm the misdemeanor conviction of an Albany County high-school student who anonymously posted on Facebook photographs and detailed information about the alleged sexual practices and predilections of his classmates.

Thus, the key issue on appeal was the application of proper judicial employment of the severability doctrine, which allows a court to excise unconstitutional elements of a law in order to preserve constitutionally valid elements that may sustain conviction for the crime charged. While the Court majority acknowledged that some elements of the law’s text could be appropriately severed, other portions could not, without leaving in place other issues potentially raising further First Amendment problems.

Judge Robert Smith, in a dissenting opinion joined by Judge Pigott, stated that, with application of Albany County’s concessions for excision, the law passed constitutional muster. On Judge Smith’s reading of the applicable precedents, the defendant’s “speech designed to inflict serious emotional injury is protected only” if the defendant’s Facebook posting was “directed at a matter of public concern,” which was clearly not present in the case before the Court.

Cases:

POST WRITTEN BY: Prof. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.

Reviewing a case of egregious recklessness that caused the death of an innocent victim, a 5-2 majority of the Court of Appeals reversed a conviction for depraved indifference murder and cautioned that efforts to prosecute a defendant on this charge must “fit within the narrow category of cases wherein the facts evince a defendant’s utter disregard for human life.”

In April 2009, Jose Maldonado hot-wired and stole a minivan in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. In a determined effort to avoid capture by police pursuing him through streets in a mixed residential and commercial area, during a five-minute period Maldonado greatly exceeded the speed limit, drove through several red lights, repeatedly swerved into opposing traffic lanes, and repeatedly drove the wrong way on one-way streets. After one pedestrian narrowly managed to dive away to escape being struck by the van, which did not brake, Maldonado drove, again without braking, into another pedestrian, Violet Kryzak (aged 37), who was crossing Manhattan Avenue with the traffic light in her favor. The van’s windshield on the passenger side showed signs of impact with Ms. Kryzak’s body.

Maldonado said he thought he “hit the girl in the hand or something.” Apparently, it was not her hand that he smashed into because impact with the stolen van, which witnesses estimated to be going at least 70 mph, catapulted Ms. Kryzak’s body into the air, to land more than 160 feet from the point of collision. Without stopping to seek help for Kryzak (who died at the scene), Maldonado continued his effort to avoid capture, speeding north in a southbound lane with the van’s windshield caved in on the passenger side. Apparently realizing shortly afterwards that he could not escape with the van, he crashed it into a car, got out, and ran away. This last attempt to avoid capture was unavailing, thanks to civilians who grabbed him and held him for the police.

Among other charges, the prosecutor sought to convict Maldonado for second-degree murder, pursuant to N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25 (2), on the basis that Maldonado recklessly created a grave risk of death to another person and caused such death in circumstances that evinced his depraved indifference to human life [DIM]. A jury unanimously agreed, and the Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the conviction.  It held that the evidence was legally sufficient to support defendant’s conviction for depraved indifference murder and that, upon independent review, the conviction was not against the weight of the evidence.

Maldonado sought review by the Court of Appeals. Maldonado’s appellate counsel conceded that Maldonado’s conduct was reckless but argued that it did not meet the requirements for DIM established in the Court’s recent precedents.

On July 1, 2014, a majority of the Court agreed. Quoting one of its precedents, the Court stated that “a depraved and utterly indifferent actor is someone who does not care if another is injured or killed” by his reckless conduct. The Court held that “assuming the People proffered evidence indicating that defendant was aware of and disregarded the substantial risk of injury or death caused by his driving, they failed to submit evidence establishing that defendant did not care whether grievous harm resulted.”

Despite applying the applicable standard to review the record in the light most favorable to the prosecution, the Court found that “defendant sought to mitigate the consequences of his reckless driving” by at times swerving to avoid crashing into other vehicles. The Court credited defendant for such “conscious avoidance of risk,” which it stated was “the antithesis of a complete disregard for the safety of others.” The Court found that, despite the fatal collision with Violet Kryzak, the purpose of Maldonado’s extremely dangerous driving tactics was simply “to speed his flight and to avoid crashing into other vehicles or pedestrians.” According to the Court’s review, the record showed “no indication that [Maldonado’s] conduct … was motivated solely by his intent to evade capture, regardless of the risk to human life.” Therefore, the Court ordered that, given Maldonado’s “conscious avoidance of risk” during his concededly reckless driving in a desperate effort to avoid capture for his crimes, his killing of Violet Kryzak rendered him guilty only of second-degree manslaughter.

In a dissenting opinion joined by Judge Graffeo, Judge Pigott noted that after Maldonado narrowly avoided collision with one pedestrian and then struck and killed Ms. Kryzak, he did not cease his reckless conduct “when he had the opportunity to display that he cared whether or not he might strike a pedestrian.” Applying the required standard of review, Judge Pigott stated that there was “a valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences from which a rational jury” could find that defendant “simply did not care whether or not a pedestrian died,” thus demonstrating not just extreme recklessness but also “utter indifference to the value of human life.”

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