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Officer who killed Laquan McDonald wants a venue change—and is more likely to get one than the people he’s arrested


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Officer who killed Laquan McDonald wants a venue change—and is more likely to get one than the people he’s arrested

  • ‘Just let him kick’: Lawsuits allege that a private Tennessee prison neglected diabetic prisoners

  • Louisiana attorney general may run for governor by fear-mongering over criminal justice

  • The Appeal Podcast Episode 13: The problem of ‘innocence

  • Queens DA says Kalief Browder’s suicide unrelated to solitary confinement

  • A progressive challenger will be the next district attorney in Massachusetts

  • Nashville DA will help, not prosecute, those with driving violations

  • Man says he has been held in solitary for 12 years because he cannot read or write in English

In the Spotlight

Officer who killed Laquan McDonald wants a venue change—and is more likely to get one than the people he’s arrested

This week, people in the Chicago area reported to jury duty in the murder case of Laquan McDonald. It has been almost four years after Officer Jason Van Dyke shot the 17-year-old and nearly three years since the city was forced to release police video of the shooting, bringing national attention, criminal charges against Van Dyke, and the ouster of the police chief. It is, by all standards, a case familiar to the public, especially in Chicago, where the video sparked massive protests. Prospective jurors were given questionnaires to fill out before attorneys began to question them in their effort to find an unbiased jury. Van Dyke’s attorneys have argued that the publicity has made it impossible for the officer to get a fair trial in Chicago. The judge will decide on the change of venue motion after the jury selection process. [Associated Press / Atlanta Black Star]

Van Dyke seemed to be trying to influence potential jurors himself when he made his first public comment one week before jury selection began. “I might be looking at the possibility of spending the rest of my life in prison for, you know, doing my job as I was trained as a Chicago police officer,” he said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. Van Dyke told his side of the story. “I never would have fired my gun if I didn’t think my life was in jeopardy or another citizen’s life was,” he said. Prosecutors argued that he violated a gag order and was trying to influence potential jurors through the media. [Leah Hope / ABC Chicago]

Since the beginning of jury trials, defendants have worried that they won’t receive a fair trial from those in their communities familiar with the allegations. And since newspapers began covering crime, they have generally not made matters better because they usually portray defendants as either scary or flat-out guilty. Social media has made matters worse. But most defendants with these concerns are not well-resourced police officers who can afford $152,000 bail, like Van Dyke.

Venue changes are rare, but many of those allowed to change venue have been law enforcement. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, after being accused of planting bombs at the Boston Marathon in 2013, was denied a change of venue even though the city had been locked down during a fierce manhunt. But the officers who were caught on camera beating Rodney King in 1991 were granted their application to change venue, and were not convicted. And in 1999, four New York police officers were charged with murder in the shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 22-year-old immigrant. They were acquitted in a trial that was moved about 150 miles away, to Albany. [Michael Muskal / Los Angeles Times]

A new study by Shirin Bakhshay and Craig Haney of the University of California, Santa Cruz, published in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law asks “whether and how the right to a fair and impartial jury may be compromised by prejudicial news media coverage of death penalty cases.” Bakhshay and Haney examine the impact of pretrial publicity in 20 capital cases in California in which defendants asked for a change of venue because of concerns about potential bias. The researchers analyzed 1,831 newspaper articles “to examine the nature and extent of the pretrial publicity in each case [including] the relative amounts of negative, positive, and neutral content in the publicity; and whether the publicity included the kind of information that has been shown to bias prospective jurors.” The publicity was found to be “overwhelmingly negative and we identified a number of highly prejudicial aspects, including heavy reliance on law enforcement and prosecution sources, numerous instances of sensationalized descriptions of the crime and criminal defendant, and the inclusion of legally excludable material.” Despite all this, the venue was rarely changed. Only one of the cases in which a change of venue request was denied resulted in an acquittal. Most of the rest ended with a death sentence. [Shirin Bakhshay and Craig Haney / Psychology, Public Policy, and Law]

The newspaper coverage of the capital crimes was remarkably consistent over the 26-year period of the study. About three-quarters of the articles studied were negative in tone “including sensational descriptions of the crime, negative character statements (such as “cunning sociopath,” “walking time bomb,” “frightening and lengthy record,” “feared by his own family”, etc.),” according to Romeo Vitelli in Psychology Today. “The articles also included information that wouldn’t be allowed as evidence in the actual trial (i.e., prior criminal history, alleged confessions, and explicit assumptions that the defendant was guilty).” Only 19 percent of the articles tried to paint a more balanced picture, or presented evidence that might favor the defendant. Police officers and prosecutors were six times more likely to be cited than defense counsel or other sources in favor of the defendant. News coverage also focused on “community reaction” to the crime, which often meant quoting people who were outraged or afraid. [Romeo Vitelli / Psychology Today]  

In theory, judges can deliver specific instructions to the jury to prevent bias, allow for longer jury deliberation, or postpone the trial until publicity has died down. But a study examining the effectiveness of these remedies found them to be ineffective. The study examined the efficacy of these methods in countering both “factual publicity”––incriminating information about the defendant––and “emotional publicity”––information likely to arouse negative emotions. A delay in proceedings was found to be an effective remedy when it comes to factual publicity, but not for emotional publicity. Neither instructions nor deliberation were found to reduce the impact of either form of publicity; in fact, the authors conclude, deliberation worked to strengthen publicity biases in favor of the prosecution. [Geoffrey P. Kramer, Norbert L. Kerr, John S. Carroll / Law and Human Behavior]

Stories From The Appeal

Illustration by Michelle Mildenberg

‘Just Let Him Kick.’ Lawsuits allege that a private Tennessee prison neglected diabetic prisoners, contributing to at least one death. [Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg]

Louisiana Attorney General May Run for Governor By Fear-Mongering Over Criminal Justice. Jeff Landry has taken a number of extreme positions on policing and sentencing in response to reform. [Kira Lerner]

The Appeal Podcast Episode 13: The Problem of ‘Innocence.’ Appeal contributor Zoé Samudzi argues that the notion of “innocence” as a condition for empathy is an outdated, puritan mode of thinking that implies those with messy, so-called “criminal pasts” are somehow not deserving of our compassion. [Adam H. Johnson]

Stories From Around the Country

Queens DA says Kalief Browder’s suicide unrelated to solitary confinement: This week, New York City Council Member Rory Lancman, who is eyeing a run for Queens district attorney, debated the incumbent district attorney, Richard A. Brown. During the debate, Brown appeared to claim that the two years that teenager Kalief Browder spent in solitary confinement on Rikers Island were unrelated to his subsequent suicide because the suicide happened after release, and because Browder may have had pre-existing mental health issues. In response, some audience members cheered. “Human decency demands that no one applaud when we discuss Kalief Browder committing suicide,” Lancman tweeted yesterday. And professor John Pfaff tweeted that Brown’s comment showed either “stunning cynicism or staggering ignorance abt trauma.”

A progressive challenger will be the next district attorney in Massachusetts: Andrea Harrington has won her campaign to unseat the incumbent Berkshire District Attorney Paul Caccaviello and will run unopposed in the general election. Harrington pledged during her campaign to reform the office. “Communities throughout Massachusetts and the nation are embracing smart and effective new approaches to criminal justice proven to reduce crime, break cycles of addiction, protect victims, and get violent repeat offenders off the street,” she wrote in an op-ed. “Sadly, our Berkshire County district attorney has resisted these reforms and remains stuck in the past.” She lamented his “draconian sentencing recommendations, prioritization of incarceration over treatment for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, refusal to aggressively prosecute sexual assault cases, [and] opposition to drug courts, diversion programs and criminal justice reforms.” [Amanda Drane / Berkshire Eagle]

Nashville DA will help, not prosecute, those with driving violations: Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk announced this week that he would stop prosecuting a large group of driver’s license violations, which would eliminate about 12,000 charges over the next year. Funk said the move would save the city money, and reduce the workload for judges, court staffers, and prosecutors, while sparing thousands of people criminal records and a cycle of debt. Instead of being charged, people will be routed through a sheriff’s office program called Steering Clear that helps people get their licenses reinstated. Until now, a person arrested for a driving violation would be treated as a criminal defendant and subject to court fees and fines on top of the costs of replacing their licenses. This new system is designed to get people back on the road, driving legally. [Adam Tamburin / The Tennessean]

Man says he has been held in solitary for 12 years because he cannot read or write in English: An man incarcerated in a Virginia maximum-security prison “says he has been trapped in solitary confinement for a dozen years because he does not speak or read English,” reports the Washington Post. His attorneys “claim a language barrier has prevented him from participating in a “step down” program designed to allow prisoners to work their way out of solitary confinement. State officials and the Justice Department have touted the therapeutic program, which involves journal writing, as a model for other states.” But Reyes, an El Salvador native, cannot fill out the required journals because he does not know English and cannot read in any language. His attorneys say that Reyes’s experience shows that 2011 reforms that sought to limit prisoner isolation have not been subject to enough oversight and have not been effective enough. They have filed a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Corrections and some corrections officials, who deny the allegations. [Rachel Weiner / Washington Post]

Thanks for reading. Have a great weekend.

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