ICYMI: Yesterday’s can’t-miss justice system news
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In today’s news roundup, we bring you stories about questions surrounding the use of DNA evidence, misuse of labor by ICE detainees, the lawsuit challenging drivers license suspensions for failure to pay fines, and prosecutorial misconduct in Tennessee (yes, again), among other stories.
- Putting Crime Scene DNA Analysis on Trial. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will be launching a study of certain types of DNA analysis used in criminal investigations by inviting all private and public forensic labs in the country to analyze the same set of DNA, and then comparing the results. In an interview with ProPublica, John Butler, a DNA expert who will be leading a team of NIST scientists for the study, discussed the importance of this first-of-its-kind study, which aims not to critique certain platforms, but to explore the different responses that various methods might produce when analyzing a complex DNA mixture. Butler emphasizes that “just because you have a big number doesn’t mean that you got the right person” when explaining why it is crucial for the jury, judge, prosecution and police to understand the range of possibilities that can follow from the result of a DNA analysis. According to Butler, without effective communication of the meaning of the results, testing is useless. Butler also puts the type of testing being done now in context: though DNA is heralded as the “gold standard” of forensic science, labs are usually not prepared for the complex intricacies involved in today’s analyses. The water is further muddied by the use of commercial software such as the Forensic Statistic Tool (FST); the need for commercial protection of proprietary information must coexist with the bedrock principle of transparency in science. [Lauren Kirchner / ProPublica] See also We profiled ProPublica’s coverage of FST’s controversy in our 9/11and 9/27 issues.
- No Backlog: Why the Epidemic of Untested Rape Kits Is Not a Symbol of Insufficient Police Budgets But Instead a Failure to Investigate Rape. The Memphis Police Department will keep Sex Crimes detective Ouita Knowlton on the force, despite the criminal investigation underway into her leaking of confidential files to the family of a rape suspect. Ouita supervised the DNA Unit, which was formed to investigate cases with untested rape kits. Memphis was not alone in this backlog; untested kits have plagued precincts across the country, from Detroit to Cleveland to Los Angeles. Though the police departments in question usually blame a lack of funding, the National Institute for Justice cites other reasons, among them victim-blaming beliefs by police, no written protocol for submitting kits to the lab for testing, high turnover in police leadership, and lack of community-based victim advocacy services. Further, Ohio Public Defender Tim Young points out that modern DNA testing methods have been around since the mid-1990s, and law enforcement’s reluctance to use them is simply a symptom of a police culture that fails to prioritize justice. Young’s assertion is supported by a 2015 Michigan State University study of police reports involving Detroit’s untested kits, which found most cases closed after minimal investigation, and a 2016 clearance rate of only 36% of rapes according to FBI statistics (a percentage that likely includes non-arrest clearances such as the victim ceasing to cooperate). [Meaghan Ybos / In Justice Today]
- Federal Judge Restores Drivers’ Licenses to Two With Unpaid Traffic Tickets; May Be First Ruling of its Kind. A federal judge reinstated the drivers’ licenses of two named plaintiffs in a class action suit challenging the practice of suspending licenses for failure to pay fines. The suit alleges that such suspensions violate constitutional guarantees of due process when individuals are not given an opportunity to be heard in court regarding their ability to pay. This exacerbates a cycle of poverty when people lose their jobs due to their inability to legally drive, which then makes it even more difficult to get out from underneath growing fines, fees, and court costs. The litigation is ongoing, and the order does not restore the licenses of other members of the class of litigants, but this interim step was based on the judge’s determination that the plaintiffs are likely to prevail when the case is resolved. [C.J. Ciaramella / Reason] See also We first covered this lawsuit in our 9/25 newsletter.
- ICE’s Captive Immigrant Labor Force. So-called “voluntary work” programs at private-prison companies that house detained immigrants may actually look more like forced labor camps. Several complaints, lawsuits, and an ACLU investigation contain disturbing allegations of illegal exploitation of immigrant detainees. As ICE arrests rise dramatically with little increase in deportation rates, the swelling numbers of detainees—many of whom do not have criminal records—potentially provide a “captive workforce” for private prison companies, which operate with little oversight or reporting requirements. [Michelle Chen / The Nation]
- Oakland Police Chief Made False Statements About ICE Raid. Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick claimed repeatedly that an August ICE raid of an Oakland home was part of a criminal trafficking investigation. But the raid did not result in any criminal prosecutions, and some immigration advocates have alleged that Kirkpatrick “repeatedly supplied false information.” The case has raised a number of concerns, including whether ICE has expanded the definition of human trafficking to include assistance to juveniles who immigrate without their parents, as well as the blurring of the line between criminal and civil enforcement by federal immigration officials. [Darwin BondGraham / East Bay Express]
- Too poor to make bail: Alabama forced to reform ‘two-tiered’ jail system.In Alabama, four lawsuits have been filed challenging the money-bail system. In Randolph County, Alabama, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, and Civil Rights Corps have filed a lawsuit on behalf of Kandace Edwards, challenging the county’s money bail system. Edwards, at the time seven-months pregnant, was accused of forging a $75 check and held on a $7,500 bond. She couldn’t afford the bail amount, and might have remained in jail for months, but for a judge ordering her release after the lawsuit was filed. Systemic change may be coming, however slowly and unevenly. In Jefferson County, judges ordered bail hearings between 48-72 hours after arrests for those who could not afford bail, prompted by the mere threat of an ACLU lawsuit. In Dolthan and Clanton counties, courts have issued standing bail orders so that some can be released without money bond if they cannot pay. [Anna Claire Vollers / AL.com]
- Meet the write-in candidate who wants to challenge Cy Vance. After coming in third place in the Democratic primary to become the next Brooklyn District Attorney, Marc Fliedner says he is now prepared to challenge Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance as a write-in candidate in the borough’s upcoming November 7, 2018 election—an election in which, at present, Vance faces no challengers. Fliedner’s announcement comes close on the heels of reports that Vance’s office declined to prosecute Harvey Weinstein (reports that include allegations that Vance’s decision was affected by financial contributions and his relationship with Weinstein’s attorneys). Vance was also recently criticized by revelations that he declined to prosecute Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump, Jr., under circumstances that also raised the specter of unseemly financial influences. “Cy Vance, Eric Gonzalez, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, seems it’s about power and money and the drive to hold on to both,” Fliedner told The New York Post. “Even when it’s at the expense of what is so obviously right under the law.” [Emily Saul / New York Post] See also We reported on other fierce criticisms of Vance’s policies, particularly those hurting the poor, in our 8/31 newsletter.
- Shelby County District Attorney Has Another Conviction Overturned.The Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee granted a new trial to Joshua Bargery as a result of the trial court’s exclusion of expert testimony that supported Bargery’s contention that there were multiple attackers involved in the crime. The case also involved multiple allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. For example, Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich called an expert witness for the defense, which the court said “substantially interfered with [the witness]’s prior determination to testify, in violation of the Defendant’s constitutional right to present his own witnesses to establish a defense.” Additionally, the court found that the trial prosecutor improperly accused Bagary’s defense lawyer, in front of the jury, of “coming up with the Defendant’s story.” Although the court found these actions to be improper, the court did not find that either provided a basis for granting a new trial. [Jeni Diprizio / Local Memphis]
- US police killings undercounted by half, study using Guardian data finds.The call for better data collection of police killings continues after a Harvard study, comparing the data from the Guardian’s “The Counted” and the Nation Vital Statistics System (NVSS), revealed that the federal database “misclassified 55.2% of all police killings, with the errors occurring disproportionately in low-income jurisdictions.” Many deaths were categorized as “assault” rather than “legal intervention,” the term the NVSS uses for police killings. Unfortunately, this is not the first time federal databases have come under fire for the poor quality of their data. Just last year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBI had to rework their programs which had been previously undercounting officer-involved killings. Justin Feldman, the lead researcher in the study, argues that “[t]o effectively address the problem of law enforcement-related death, the public needs better data about who is being killed, where, and under what circumstances.” [Jamiles Lartey / Guardian]