At stake is our basic understanding of the difference between right and wrong. If someone commits a wrongful act but, due to a mental illness or defect, wasn't able to recognize that what they were doing was wrong, we don't consider them to have committed a crime.
Despite the obvious momentum for criminal justice reform demonstrated in the recent election and the potential passage of the First Step Act, many prosecutors around the country continue to engage in harsh, "tough on crime" tactics. One exception who bears watching is Larry Krasner, the elected district attorney for Philadelphia.
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.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal on behalf of a 67-year-old Alabama death row inmate. After suffering at least two serious strokes, Vernon Madison has dementia. His speech is slurred and he says things that don't make sense. He is also blind now, and incontinent. He doesn't remember how to use the toilet in his cell. He can only say the alphabet to the letter G. He can't remember committing the crime for which he was sentenced to death.
David Robinson was convicted of first-degree murder in 2001, but it seems that conviction was wrongful. The state said he shot a woman from his hometown in 2000. The victim was killed outside a bar she owned with her fiancée, perhaps over $300 in receipts. Robinson was sentenced to life without parole.
Demetrius Smith always insisted he was not involved in the 2008 shooting he was convicted of. He never agreed to plead guilty. He entered what is known as an "Alford plea," which is essentially a no contest plea. The defendant maintains his or her innocence while acknowledging the state has a convincing case.
On July 27, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin sent an open records request to the Wisconsin Department of Justice. It was seeking reports on the operations of the state crime lab and whether there continue to be backlogs in processing evidence. Hours after the request was filed, Attorney General Brad Schimel announced that he would authorize overtime and create 11 part-time positions to help law enforcement collect DNA samples and other evidence.
We can probably all agree that this election season has been pretty light on hard facts. For example, it appears that some Americans have the misimpression that murder is currently at its highest rate in 45 years. In fact, just the opposite is true.
Cold cases are frustrating for law enforcement agencies and can be devastating to the families of victims. When a missing-persons case goes unsolved, for example, the family may suffer what has been called “dubious grief.” Until they see a body, they may not be able to accept that their loved one is gone.