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Milwaukee Criminal Defense Law Blog

AG Sessions opposes bipartisan sentencing reform bill

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has just made his opposition to a bipartisan sentencing reform bill clear. Calling the legislation a "grave error," he said the proposed changes would reduce the sentences of "a highly dangerous cohort of criminals."

The primary change proposed in the bill is to reduce prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders. It would also, however, get rid of the controversial federal three-strikes law, which mandates life sentences after defendants are convicted of three qualifying felonies. It would also raise prison sentences for other offenses, such as federal domestic violence crimes and trafficking in fentanyl-laced heroin.

Less time for drug crimes cuts criminal justice race disparities

An unfortunate fact about our criminal justice system is that minorities are frequently sentenced to more time for the same crimes as whites. In the U.S., African-Americans, for example, make up 13.3 percent of the population but account for 38 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons, according to federal data.

That means states incarcerate African-Americans at over five times the rate of whites, even though they don't commit five times the number of crimes. African-Americans and other minorities are arrested and convicted more often than their white peers, and also sentenced to longer terms.

Some exonerees remain legally guilty due to 'Alford' pleas

When evidence of a convicted person's actual innocence comes forward, we imagine that prosecutors immediately ask a judge to void the conviction and release the defendant. We imagine the judge apologizing on behalf of the state. Later, depending on the circumstances, the defendant might be compensated for the time they spent imprisoned unjustly.

The reality is often quite different. According to a recent report by Reporter Megan Rose, the nonprofit investigative journalism outfit ProPublica, prosecutors across the country are working to keep such convictions intact. This occurs even when -- or perhaps especially when -- there is evidence that police or prosecutorial misconduct led to a wrongful conviction.

Recorded interrogations protect defendant's rights

Journalist Robert Draper writes in the current issue of National Geographic about "surveillance creep," the seemingly unchecked proliferation of closed-circuit cameras by municipalities for law enforcement and security purposes.

According to Draper, New York has 20,000 cameras monitoring public spaces in Manhattan alone. Chicago has deployed 32,000 closed-circuit TVs to help in its fight against a well-publicized homicide epidemic.

Faulty forensic science contributes to improper convictions

Launched by CBS in 2000, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" has been called the most successful television series of all time. Between the original series, which ran for five seasons, and spinoffs that include "CSI: Miami," "CSI: NY" and "CSI: Cyber," the TV brand has generated 800 episodes, spawned a number of comic books, video games and novels, and served as the inspiration for a traveling museum exhibit.

Unfortunately, the success of the CSI brand may have played a role in exaggerating the public's understanding of what forensic science can accomplish, and how objective and trustworthy much of what is presented in court truly is. Scholars dispute whether it has affected jury verdicts, but it has clearly affected public perception of our criminal justice system.

Can your lawyer say you're guilty if you insist you're innocent?

Louisiana death penalty defendant Robert McCoy insists on his innocence in the crime of murdering his mother-in-law, her husband and her 17-year-old grandson. However, there is substantial evidence against him, including claims that the victim's cellphone and the gun used to commit the crime were found in a car McCoy was riding in. There was an incriminating 911 recording, too, and other evidence.

McCoy says all the evidence is a sham. He's being set up, he says, because he knew the police were running a drug trafficking ring. His public defender didn't believe him, so McCoy had him removed and was planning to represent himself. Then, a family friend and defense lawyer agreed to take on the case.

Supreme Court rules appeal warranted in case of racist juror

When appellate attorneys for a Georgia man, Keith Tharpe, found evidence that one or more of his jurors had been racist, they hoped to show that racism affected the outcome of the trial. They tried to bring a habeas corpus petition to get the man's conviction or sentence overturned because the process that resulted in the man's conviction was unfair.

In order to get their appeal heard, they had to produce clear and convincing evidence that the racist juror's bias had infected the trial. The trial court said he had failed to do so, and a federal appellate court concluded that no reasonable jurist could conclude that the trial would have come out any differently without the racist juror.

The cascading effect of one wrongful conviction

ProPublica has produced some great work in the past year on the tragic consequences of prosecutors who are hell-bent on convicting individuals of crimes even when the evidence is thin or clearly suspect.

Few stories portray the maddening downward spiral an unjust criminal justice system can have on an individual's life more than the account in ProPublica by reporter Megan Rose, Twitter @MegMcCloskey, recounting the wrongful conviction of Demetrius Smith in 2010. Not only was Smith wrongfully convicted of murder, his understandable lack of faith in the criminal justice system resulted in a plea agreement to a separate shooting that has compounded the injustice against him even after he was exonerated of the murder conviction.

More evidence the DOJ is about to crack down on marijuana

This blog has previously discussed the possibility that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was about to crack down on marijuana offenses.

Under federal law, marijuana is illegal for any use. Prosecutors, however, have the authority not to prosecute when appropriate and in the interest of justice.

Have ATF drug stash-house stings been racially biased?

In a highly unusual move, a nine-judge panel of district judges from around the 7th Circuit is hearing arguments on whether certain drug sting operations run since the 90s by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were racially discriminatory.

If the stings are found to have unfairly targeted minorities -- intentionally or unintentionally -- they could be found unconstitutional. Such a finding could set 43 defendants free and could change the way federal law enforcement is allowed to operate within the 7th Circuit and perhaps nationwide.

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