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Florida death row inmate becomes the state’s 27th exoneree

Florida death row inmate becomes the state’s 27th exoneree

The Florida Supreme Court ruled that a man sentenced to death must be acquitted because there was insufficient evidence to convict him.

Ralph Wright Jr., a former Air Force airman, becomes the 27th death row inmate in Florida to be exonerated. Wright was exonerated for the 2007 murder of his girlfriend and their baby son in St. Petersburg.

State Attorney Bernie McCabe’s office prosecuted Wright, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 2013. On direct appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, the justices found that the evidence against Wright was not sufficient to justify his convictions.

“Although the facts established at trial support a strong suspicion of guilt, they are not inconsistent with innocence,” the Court held in a unanimous ruling. “We therefore conclude that the evidence is insufficient to sustain Wright’s convictions. Accordingly, we reverse the convictions, vacate the sentences of death, and remand with directions to enter judgments of acquittal.”

The prosecution’s theory was that Wright was the only person with a motive to commit the crimes. Yet as the Court stressed in its opinion:

There is no fingerprint, footprint, blood, fiber, pattern impression, or other physical evidence tying Wright to the crime scene. There is no cell tower evidence placing him in the vicinity of the crime scene. There are no inculpatory statements. There is no murder weapon. The only evidence presented by the State to prove that Wright was the murderer is the fact that he had motive and opportunity. But while motive and opportunity might create a suspicion that Wright committed the murders, even deep suspicions are not sufficient to sustain the convictions.

Floridians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty say this ruling shows that the death penalty doesn’t work.

“Wright’s release today highlights the serious and tragic flaws in Florida’s death penalty system as Florida continues to have by far the nation’s highest number of exonerations of wrongfully convicted people on death row,” the organization said in a statement.

The ruling is also a blow for McCabe, the long time chief elected prosecutor in Pinellas and Pasco counties who has a history of excessive prosecutions.

McCabe once garnered national and international attention when he prosecuted a teenage girl for murder after she shot herself while pregnant in a suicide attempt and the fetus died. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that McCabe could not prosecute the teenager, rejecting what it called the prosecution‘s efforts to “mak[e]…social policy” by seeking to “pit woman against fetus in criminal court.”

McCabe also vocally defended a Florida law that allowed people to be sentenced to death with only seven of 12 jurors supporting execution. That law was later found to be unconstitutional by the U.S Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida, a decision that placed approximately 300 death sentences in Florida in legal limbo.

Thanks to Jake Sussman.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions & the uncertain legal status of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines

Attorney General Jeff Sessions & the uncertain legal status of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines

Since becoming attorney general, Jeff Sessions has announced plans to ramp up civil forfeiture laws, revive prosecutions for crimes involving small amounts of marijuana, and charge defendants with crimes that carry more severe penalties. He has also come out with outlandish policies on immigration-related crimes and consent decrees with local police departments, and reversed the Department of Justice’s position in the ongoing Texas voter-discrimination litigation.

Sessions’ positions are not only unjustifiably punitive; some of them also undermine the premises of a recently decided Supreme Court case.

In their March ruling in Beckles v. United Statesthe justices held that the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, legislative rules that identify sentencing ranges for defendants based on their conduct and criminal history, are not subject to the vagueness doctrine, the constitutional prohibition against vague penal laws, which are problematic because they fail to provide adequate notice that certain behaviors are proscribed. Prior to 2005, a statute required federal judges to sentence defendants within the range specified by the guidelines. In United States v. Booker, the Supreme Court held that viewing the guidelines as mandatory violated the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee to a trial by jury. Booker invalidated the statutory provision that required judges to sentence defendants within the range specified in the guidelines and rendered them “advisory.” Accordingly, federal judges are no longer required by statute to sentence a defendant within the range provided for in the guidelines. But the guidelines still play a significant role in federal sentencing for a variety of reasons, and the vast majority of federal sentences continue to fall within the ranges they specify. Federal judges must begin sentencing by calculating a range based on the guidelines and must adequately explain their decision to deviate from it.

In holding that the guidelines are not subject to the vagueness doctrine, Beckles repeatedly emphasized that the guidelines are advisory and “merely guide the exercise of a court’s discretion.” The court concluded that a defendant could be sentenced under a guideline that uses the same exact language that the court had previously held was unconstitutionally void for vagueness when it appeared in a criminal statute. In Johnson v. United States, the Court had held that the Armed Career Criminal Act’s residual clause, which increases the sentences of defendants who were convicted of crimes that “otherwise involve[] conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another,” was unconstitutionally void for vagueness. The guideline at issue in Beckles (the “career offender” guideline) used the exact same words: It provided sentencing ranges for defendants who were convicted of crimes that “otherwise involve[] conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

In part because the guidelines are advisory, federal prosecutors are not required to request sentences within the ranges they outline. In fact, federal prosecutors routinely request courts not to impose sentences that fall within the range recommended by the “career offender” Guideline. Representatives of the federal defenders office assembled data and testified before the U.S. Sentencing Commission that the government recommends a sentencing range that is lower than the range provided for by the guidelines in almost half of the cases where the “career offender” guideline applied. Prosecutors opt not to ask for sentences within the range provided for by the career offender guideline because the guideline is so draconian. The guideline doubles the sentence of drug offenders, and in Mr. Beckles’ case, his sentencing range jumped from 15 years to more than 30 years because of the career offender guideline.

After the Beckles ruling, Sessions issued a memorandum to prosecutors about how to charge and recommend sentences for federal defendants. The memorandum urges prosecutors to charge based on the “most serious, readily provable” offense. It also says that “recommending a sentence within the advisory guideline range will be appropriate.” Judge William Pryor on the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (who President Trump considered nominating to the Supreme Court) defended the policy in the memo, stating that “it at least reduces the potential for disparities.” (Judge Pryor also sits on the U.S. Sentencing Commission and wrote the sole court of appeals opinion that held the guidelines were not amenable to vagueness challenges.)

It’s true that, since Booker, courts have not been required to sentence defendants within the ranges specified in the guidelines. But federal courts continue to rely on the guidelines when imposing sentences. And the guidelines will take on additional force if prosecutors uniformly recommend their application, as Attorney General Sessions has asked them to do.

This piece is cross-posted at Take CareI was co-counsel on an amicus brief in Beckles. The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

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Oregon prosecutors to judges: You’re Fired

Oregon prosecutors to judges: You’re Fired

District attorneys in Oregon have a new tactic to deal with judges that hand down rulings against their offices: they’re effectively getting rid of them. County circuit judges in both Lane and Multnomah counties have been disqualified from hearing criminal cases this year following accusations from district attorneys that the judges failed to be “fair and impartial.”

Accusing a judge of bias isn’t something that should be done casually. The ability to rule fairly and impartially is the chief job of a judge, and charges that they aren’t capable of doing so can have serious consequences. But Oregon’s process is quite simple for seeking to disqualify a judge from a case. In Multnomah County, prosecutors filed an affidavit challenging Judge Judith Matarazzo and announcing they would no longer bring new criminal cases before her. Under Oregon law, little to no evidence is required to back up claims that a judge can’t be fair and impartial.

Prosecutors’ complaints amount largely to dissatisfaction with rulings in which Matarazzo decided not to adopt their sentencing recommendations, and a problem with what the office believes to be leniency in DUI cases. The office also accuses her of starting, and in some instances completing, hearings and settlement conferences in the absence of a prosecutor on more than one occasion. Matarazzo told The Oregonian/OregonLive that although she is deeply disturbed by the accusations, “There’s not much I can do.”

In Lane County, Oregon, similar accusations were brought by prosecutors against Judge Josephine Mooney in March. Because of the complaints informally charged by District Attorney Patty Perlow, Mooney is no longer hearing any criminal, juvenile delinquency, or civil cases involving the Lane County District Attorney’s Office. In Mooney’s case, a formal affidavit was never filed — instead, she agreed to stop presiding over these cases after Perlow’s office filed memos complaining about her conduct to another judge, according to documents obtained by The Register-Guard.

This practice isn’t isolated to Oregon. Between 2014 and 2015, the beleaguered office of Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas successfully prevented county Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals from hearing 55 of 58 murder cases assigned to him. Rackauckas’ office repeatedly accused Goethals of bias that made him unfit to preside over the cases in question, and successfully disqualified him under the state’s Code of Civil Procedure.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard M. King ruled the repeat disqualifications were inappropriate. The court found that the efforts by Rackauckas’ office were “based on Judge Goethals calling out the prosecution on misconduct,” and they “ha[d] the appearance of attempting to intimidate, punish, and/or silence Judge Goethals, and to send a warning to the other local judges that similar rulings will produce a similar fate.” California’s 4th Circuit Court of Appeal, despite finding the prosecutors’ actions to be “abusive,” ultimately allowed them to stand under existing California law. Erwin Chemerinsky, constitutional law scholar and dean of Berkeley Law School, argued the case on the Superior Court’s behalf. He told In Justice Today that the disqualification practice “violates [the] separation of powers.” In dissent, Associate Justice David A. Thompson agreed, arguing that the ease with which prosecutors were able to disqualify Judge Goethel amounted to an unconstitutional interference of one branch of government (the judiciary) by another (the executive).

As Chemerinsky’s petition to the court points out, the disqualification claims were not brought against Goethals out of the blue. The DA office’s attacks on the judge began at the same time that Goethals began calling out the office for misconduct and exposing the office’s illegal use of jailhouse informants. In the spring of 2015, Goethals deemed the entirety of Rackauckas’ office unfit to work on the murder trial of Scott Dekraai. The “blanket papering” of Goethals by the DA’s office was an unabashed move of retaliation.

Though the appellate court did allow the disqualifications to stand, the ruling was sharply critical. “As courts work to keep doors open and to provide timely and meaningful access to justice to the public, the extraordinary abuse of [judicial disqualification] is a barrier to justice and its cost to a court should be reconsidered,” wrote Justice Kathleen O’Leary in the opinion.

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

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