Saturday, December 1, 2007

The US Justice System on My Mind

A few weeks ago I read Timothy Egan's astonishing book "Breaking Blue", which tells the story of Tony Bamonte's tireless effort, in the late 1980s, to close the case of the 1935 murder of a Newport, WA marshall, George Conniff, outside the Newport Creamery Company. Conniff was killed for butter. Drought engendered a butter shortage and Conniff was killed by robbers, looking to steal Newport butter and sell it on Spokane's butter black market.

Bamonte's investigation leads him to discover that Conniff was killed by a cop, Spokane Police Detective, Clyde Roston ( Roston was never convicted of the crime and maintained his innocence his entire life.).

For me, the heart of the book was its account of the insulation policemen wrap themselves in to protect each other's actions, decisions, and methods, even if it means protecting rogue, not to mention, criminal behavior.

I served on the Lane County Grand Jury back in June, 1999. For four weeks, five days each week, I sat with my fellow jurors and listened to evidence presented by prosecutors and policemen and other prosecution witnesses. Oregon Grand Juries have only one task: to decide if the prosecution has enough evidence to indict a suspect of a felony. That's all. Grand Juries do not determine guilt or hear defense testimony. All a Grand Jury does is determine whether an indictment should go forward.

During the month of June 1999, we heard evidence asking for indictment of a man who killed his girlfriend and wrapped her in a futon and threw her in the McKenzie River; of an abusive nursing home; of a man accused of setting SUVs on fire in a local car dealership parking lot; of scores of men and women in possession of meth; of a man who killed a child in a hit and run accident; of meth house fires that killed occupants; of a negligent semi-truck driver who killed the driver of a car in a collision; there were many more.

What struck me, time and time again was how understaffed the District Attorney's office was and how intensely overworked the police were. I asked myself many times how crimes could be confidently prosecuted when Deputy District Attorneys, detectives, investigators, lab workers, police officers, and others on the prosecution side were stretched so thin. I admired their hard work. I laughed at their gallows humor. I could feel the strain and stress they were under.

I began to realize more clearly than ever that crime and public demands for the punishment of criminals puts enormous social and political pressure on prosecutors and law enforcement officers to perform, to produce, and performance and production is measured by convictions.

The statistics that assess what kind of job the police and prosecutors are doing focus on convictions and on incarceration: the more the better, whether convictions are achieved in trial or through plea bargaining.

Serving on Grand Jury and reading "Breaking Blue" has got me wanting to learn more about police abuses, wrongful convictions, forced confessions, unreliable eyewitness accounts, and sloppy investigations. Most of all, I've been trying to understand police and prosecution self-protection more fully. And, the pressures that bring it about.

If you'd like to follow the tracks of some of my reading and film viewing, here are a few links:

Academy Award winning documentary movie "Murder on a Sunday Morning" looks at how Jacksonville public defender Patrick McGuiness spearheads the retrial and exoneration of accused fifteen year old murderer Brenton Butler. See more about the movie here and here.
Here's a reflection upon the movie at the blog LawCulture.

I check David Brookbank's exhaustive and obsessive blog regularly to read about police abuses in Spokane, both current and past, here.

Advances in DNA technology have advanced the cause of exonerating falsely imprisoned men and women. Learn more at the Innocence Project, here and its blog, here. You can also check out the Life After Exoneration Program, here.

Reasononline, a libertarian enterprise, advances the argument that the government underfunds public defenders through a review of the book, "Defending the Damned, Inside Chicago's Cook County Public Defender's Office", by Kevin Davis, here. Here's an excerpt:

A 1999 U.S. Justice Department study of the country’s 100 most populous counties found that 97 percent of their law enforcement budgets went toward police, courts, and prosecutors, with the remaining 3 percent going to public defenders. That study didn’t include less populous, rural areas of the country, where the public defender position rotates among private-practice attorneys or is filled by a single lawyer in private practice who receives a stipend of a few thousand dollars per year.

Prosecutors have police to investigate crimes, medical examiners and crime scene investigators to provide them with evidence, and considerably more support staff than public defenders do. The 1999 DOJ study, which seems to be the most recent one of the subject, found that prosecutors’ budgets exceeded public defense budgets by about 2.5 to 1. Indigent defendants don’t have their own forensics experts or private investigators, and courts aren’t always obliged to grant them taxpayer money to hire them.

Such underfunding, coupled with the threat of mandatory minimum sentences and an increase in the number of crimes on the books, results in an overwhelmingly high number of plea-bargained admissions of guilt, as prosecutors look to pad conviction rates and defense attorneys have no choice but to slough off burdensome caseloads.
A note: You might remember that I said I thought Lane County's D.A. Office was understaffed and underfunded, along with the police department. So, if an underfunded, understaffed agency gets about 97% of the meager funding, in contrast to the 3% that goes to the public defender, you can see that the public defender offices across the nation are in an abysmal state.

Another good blog is Grits for Breakfast which looks at the justice in Texas and features a look at "Defending the Damned", here. You might also check out the blog Public Defender Stuff
who posts a public defender blog guide, here.

That should be just about enough or now, but if you'd like to read and listen to CourtTV's Jami Floyd, she's got a lot on her mind, here.


Amber said...

When I worked for Child Protection, I worked with a DA that told me that unless they KNEW they could have a successful prosecution-- Even if we all KNEW they did it-- he would not "bother" to go after child molesters... It made me feel so sick.

This is a product of them being so overwhelmed, as you say.


marquetti said...

great insight on the court system. this report can give you the reason why the judicial system is so poor and how many people can be poorly represented.