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Milwaukee Criminal Defense Law Blog

State law enforcement works to improve eyewitness identifications

Imagine how you would feel if you were sent to prison for a crime you didn’t commit. Now, imagine how the victim would feel upon learning the wrong person was put behind bars and the real perpetrator is free.

Wrongful convictions hurt everyone involved, and police and prosecutors should be among the most highly motivated groups to prevent wrongful convictions and rectify the situation when they are discovered.

California may abolish the felony murder rule. Should Wisconsin?

Shawn K. was 15 when he and three other teens broke into a neighbor's house looking for cash. Shawn's job was to guard the back door. Unfortunately, things did not go as expected and the homeowner was seriously injured and ultimately died. Although no one, not even prosecutors, accused Shawn of harming the victim, he was still found guilty of first-degree murder. How? The felony murder rule.

In most of the United States, people can be found guilty of first-degree murder if a death results from the commission of certain dangerous felonies. In other words, if the defendant was involved in the commission of any of a list of serious crimes, that defendant is considered responsible for any death that results.

Milwaukee to pay $3.4 million over stop-and-frisk race profiling

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin and a law firm filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Milwaukee Police department of operating a "vast and unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program" that targeted African-Americans and Latinos. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of six plaintiffs who had been stopped, sometimes multiple times, by officers with no reasonable suspicion that they were involved in criminal behavior.

Former Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn denies that the department engaged in racially motivated stop-and-frisk practices. He acknowledged that the department had a policy of concentrating traffic stops in high-crime areas.

Is data-driven policing just tech-based stereotyping?

With constant calls for police to stop racial profiling, law enforcement agencies want concrete, race-neutral information to help them target people based on their behavior alone. Many officers believe that a small number of people are responsible for the majority of non-drug street crime. Identifying those people could be crucial to keeping crime down.

Police might once have hauled in "all the usual suspects," but arresting people without probable cause is unconstitutional. Plus, "the usual suspects" were often simply people of color with whom the police had already had contact.

Supreme Court updates law on access to cellphone location data

If the police want to track you through your cellphone's location history, should they have to get a warrant?

Requiring that law enforcement officers get a warrant is meant to protect people from unduly intrusive searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution promises that people will be "secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures."

Both Johnson brothers were innocent. Why did one plead guilty?

Many people have reservations when they hear criminal defendants claim to be innocent even though they pled guilty. Some can't imagine anything that could convince them to plead guilty to a crime they didn't commit.

The reality is that innocent people are pressured or coerced into pleading guilty far more often than you might expect. In our criminal justice system, around 95 percent of felony charges are resolved via guilty pleas. Our courts could not operate without those pleas, and prosecutors often secure them by raising the stakes of going to trial so high that defendants are afraid to risk a trial. 

Wisconsin's rape kit backlog will be cleared by end of year

In 2015, the Wisconsin Department of Justice announced that it would test the state's backlog of 6,800 unexamined sexual assault evidence kits. According to Attorney General Brad Schimel, the exhaustive project is nearly complete: Today, the DOJ announced that it has submitted the very last of the unexamined kits for testing. The backlog should be clear by the end of 2018.

When sexual assault victims seek medical treatment at a hospital following their attack, medical personnel perform an exam and collect any evidence in what is called a sexual assault evidence kit, or SAEK. Commonly referred to as "rape kits," these may contain DNA evidence like hair or bodily fluids that can connect a suspect to the assault.

Why crime and punishment can be a bad match

Proponents of longer prison sentences argue they accomplish multiple objectives, including properly punishing a person who commits a crime, making it safer for the rest of society and serving as a deterrent to others who may commit similar crimes.

Never mind that long prison sentences are extremely costly to taxpayers and result in dangerously overcrowded prisons, the fact is research indicates long prison sentences are not an effective deterrent. Longer sentences also don't go far in terms of reducing recidivism. A 2009 study found that 67 percent of people who spent three years or more in a U.S. prison and were released were arrested for committing another offense. In the United Kingdom, almost 70 percent of people are reconvicted within one year of being released from prison.

243-year rape sentence dropped after flawed evidence revealed

A Junction City, Wisconsin, man has been free on bail since a Dane County judge overturned his conviction 11 months ago. Richard Beranek, now 59, was convicted in 1990 on charges of rape, battery and burglary, even though six witnesses testified that he was in North Dakota when the crime took place. He was sentenced to 243 years in prison and served 29 years.

Beranek was largely convicted on the basis of a microscopic hair comparison analysis performed by the FBI. The FBI has now acknowledged that such analyses are unscientific. Two other defendants in Wisconsin who were wrongfully convicted in part by the use of hair comparison testimony have already been exonerated, even before the FBI acknowledged such testimony was unscientific. One resulted in a settlement of $1.75 million after he filed a civil rights suit.

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