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Spotlight on juvenile life without parole

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Spotlight on juvenile life without parole


Note: This first appeared in our daily In Justice Today newsletter. To get stories like these in your inbox every day, you can sign up here.

Our focus today is on juvenile life without parole sentences. Yesterday, California became the 20th state to ban JLWOP. Washington could become the next state to eliminate JLWOP, as the question of the constitutionality of the sentence is now pending before the state supreme court. In the states that retain JLWOP, resentencing hearings continue to take place after the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory JLWOP sentences back in 2012. In Pennsylvania, over 70 of these former lifers have been released. Meanwhile, in a handful of places like Baton Rouge and Detroit, prosecutors continue to push for these death-in-prison sentences.


Juvenile brains are not fully developed, which leads to comparatively poor judgment and impulse control, and greater susceptibility to situational forces and peer pressure. Over the past decade, courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have acknowledged that for these reasons children are not as culpable as adults, and that sentencing decisions should acknowledge the immense capacity that juveniles have for change. For example, juveniles convicted of a homicide offense cannot be automatically sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, but instead must be found to be “irreparably corrupt” or “permanently incorrigible.”

California Bans JLWOP. Yesterday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that eliminates juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) in the nation’s most populous state. California is the 14th state to end JLWOP in the past five years (and the 20th state overall to do so). The law applies retroactively, meaning that over 300 people sentenced to die in prison for a crime committed before the age of 18 are eligible for parole after their 25th year of incarceration. This is not an automatic release provision, but instead provides the hope of release for those who can demonstrate adequate maturity and growth. [Christopher Cadelago / Sacramento Bee] The JLWOP ban is part of a package of nine juvenile justice reforms that the Governor signed into law yesterday. [Jazmine Ulloa / Los Angeles Times]

The Constitutionality of JLWOP is Now Before the Washington Supreme Court.Earlier this year, an intermediate appellate court in Washington heldthat JLWOP violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. [Opinion in State of Washington v. Brian Bassett] As evidence that the punishment is an excessive one, the appellate court noted that the United States is the only country in the world to permit JLWOP. It also found convincing the “recent proliferation of legislative decisions to ban juvenile life without parole sentences.”

The prosecution appealed the ruling, and last week, the Washington Supreme Court agreed to review the case. [Washington Supreme Court Order List] Sara Jean Green from the Seattle Times wrote a comprehensive piece on the Bassett decision. [Sara Jean Green / Seattle TimesSee also As discussed in our specialU.S. Supreme Court edition of the newsletter, Johnson v. Idaho, a case challenging the constitutionality of JLWOP, is among the petitions pending review at the Supreme Court this Fall. The Fair Punishment Project filed a friend of the Court brief in the case. [Amicus Brief of the Fair Punishment Project]

A Round-up of Recent Juvenile Life Without Parole Cases.

  • When he was 14-years-old, Gregory Sourbeer shot and killed his mother. That was in 1976, back when Gerald Ford was President of the United States. On October 6th, a judge in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, re-sentenced Sourbeer to provide parole eligibility after 25 years, making him immediately parole eligible. His case will proceed to the state’s parole board. [Jonas Fortune / Lancaster Online] As The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Samantha Melamed reported last month, 70 of Pennsylvania’s over 500 juvenile lifers have already been resentenced and released since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision barring mandatory JLWOP. [Samantha Melamed / Philadelphia Inquirer]
  • Hillar Moore, the elected District Attorney of East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has called himself “a progressive DA,” and he’s been invited to attend prosecutorial reform events at the Obama White House and the John Jay School of Criminal Justice. [Jessica Pishko / Slate] Yet, while the nation continues to abandon JLWOP sentences, Moore is pressing for a death-in-prison sentence for Montreal Jackson, who at 16-years-old killed a man after a struggle ensued when Jackson tried to steal the man’s bicycle. Jackson recently had a resentencing hearing because his 2001 mandatory JLWOP sentence is unconstitutional. The judge is expected to rule on whether Jackson should be parole eligible later this month. A prosecutor in Moore’s office told the judge that Montreal Jackson is “clearly irreparably corrupt.” [Joe Gyan / The Advocate]
  • In Detroit, Prosecuting Attorney Kym Worthy, had asked a judge to reissue a life without parole sentence for a man who has served over 40 years in prison after being convicted of murder at the age of 17. The man, Charles Lewis, contends that he is innocent and that transcripts of his alibi witness are in his official court file, which has been lost or destroyed. Efforts to “re-create” the file are now two years in the making. While the prosecution wants Lewis’ JLWOP sentence reinstated, the defense is asking that Lewis be released on bond until a final ruling is made. [Diane Bukowski / Voice of Detroit] For more detail on the Lewis case, and a great overview of the current state of juvenile life without parole sentencing, read Jessica Pishko’s recent article in The Nation. [Jessica Pishko / The Nation]

Like Cy Vance, Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez Takes Questionable Attorney Donations

Like Cy Vance, Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez Takes Questionable Attorney Donations


“It’s time that candidates for local District Attorney just say no to campaign donations from criminal defense lawyers,” Preet Bharara tweeted on October 12 in response to the scrutiny of the financial support Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance received from lawyers representing Harvey Weinstein as he faced potential charges for his sexual assault of Ambra Battilana Gutierrez.

That former U.S. attorney Bharara, who made his name as a corruption fighter and is now a social media star, would address donations to district attorneys shows how potent the issue has become.

In his first public comments since the Weinstein scandal broke, Vance also suggested that it may be time to “rethink” his office’s acceptance of such donations. At the same time, he noted that it is “common practice” among DA’s to take money from defense attorneys, a point illustrated by the recent fundraising of Vance’s local counterpart, Acting Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez.

New York State Board of Election filings show that with substantial financial support from Brooklyn lawyers, Gonzalez has raised two-million dollars towards his election next month. Along the way, defense attorneys in a number of headline-making cases have made significant donations to Gonzalez.

As stipulated on Gonzalez’s campaign website, “the following restrictions do NOT extend to attorneys representing persons or entities” with the DA’s office: no cases “presently pending,” or any resolved in last 90 days. In other words, defendants in such cases cannot contribute, but their lawyers can.

Yet an examination of Gonzalez’s campaign donations from attorneys with active Brooklyn cases shows the potential conflicts that arise with such routine transactions.

Attorney Joseph Mure represents a central figure in a sordid Park Slope murder case that splashed across the tabloids this past June. His client is a woman who went home with two men for a threesome, then got upset when one of the males started taking cell-phone video. She called her boyfriend in Staten Island, and reportedly claimed to have been raped. Her boyfriend then arrived with his entourage and beat one of the initial male participants in the threesome to death.

In September, Mure added $1,000 to his earlier contribution of $1,500. While that’s a relatively modest sum, Mure is a Trump supporter, whereas Gonzalez made his opposition to Trump a central theme of his campaign. So political affinity doesn’t explain the campaign contributions.

Scott Rynecki is a familiar name beyond the Brooklyn courthouse, given that his law partner is Sanford Rubenstein, who used to work closely with Rev. Al Sharpton on high-profile police misconduct cases. While Rubenstein is in front of the cameras, Rynecki handles the litigation. The duo’s civil suits, however, are often linked to the DA’s criminal prosecutions.

In the Akai Gurley case — in which an unarmed black man was shot in the stairwell of a housing project in East New York — Rynecki parlayed the Brooklyn DA’s office’s successful conviction of NYPD officer Peter Liang into a civil settlement of over $4m for Gurley’s domestic partner in 2016. In mid-August of this year, Rubenstein and Rynecki met with Gonzalez, advocating criminal charges in the police killing of Dwayne Jeune. And on August 21, Rubenstein was at the Brooklyn courthouse again, representing a woman sexually assaulted by an on-duty court officer as she waited for her boyfriend to be released on bail.

On August 28, with the two cases pending before the Brooklyn DA’s office, Rynecki made his third $2500 donation to Gonzalez’s campaign.

Jay Schwitzman, former president of Brooklyn’s Criminal Bar Association, was one of Gonzalez’s earliest donors, chipping in an initial $2500. Throughout the first eight months of 2017, he added another $10k.

In July of this year, Schwitzman’s client Brian Williams went to trial and was convicted for a February 2016 homicide in Canarsie. On August 24, Schwitzman gave Gonzalez $2500. Earlier this month, Williams received a 20-year sentence for 1st-degree manslaughter, four years less than someone sentenced on a top charge of 1st-degree assault that same week, but who was represented by a different attorney (with no direct ties to Gonzalez).

Schwitzman also recently joined a recent high-profile case that involved disturbing allegations of a mid-September 2017 sexual assault by a school aide of an autistic 5-year-old inside a public school in South Brooklyn. In early October, just as Brooklyn prosecutors announced that they were reducing the charges from felony to misdemeanor assault, the Daily News reported that Schwitzman has taken over the case from the public defender.

Schwitzman’s successors as president of the Criminal Bar Association, Michael Farkas and Michael Cibella, were also steady contributors to Gonzalez. Farkas, who helped solicit funds for the campaign, gave just under $5k, while Cibella added $4500. Gonzalez attended Cibella’s swearing-in last January, as did Farkas and Matthew D’Emic, Brooklyn’s chief administrative judge who assigns criminal cases. Fortunate are the defendants able to afford Brooklyn’s in-network counsel.

The Brooklyn DA’s campaign spokesperson declined to respond to numerous queries from In Justice Today regarding whether Gonzalez would return donations from Schwitzman and other defense lawyers with active cases. But regardless of their direct impact on cases, such contributions amount to the price of doing business for defense attorneys in Brooklyn.

As the embattled Cy Vance stated, the easiest way to eliminate even the appearance of conflict is for DA’s simply to reject donations from attorneys with active cases. The loophole can also be closed, although that would require action in Albany, where ethics reforms somehow never see the light of day. But in general, as Susan Lerner of Common Cause has argued, there’s an urgent need to “remove private money from the criminal justice system and replace it with public financing of elections.”

New York City’s public-financing system offers a workable model. (Because the DA’s are state officeholders, the campaign rules are different.) Among other features, the city’s system caps the amounts that donors can give — $4950 to the mayor, for example — and provides 6–1 matching funds for up to $175 given by city residents. And it prevents anyone with a direct business relationship with the city from contributing more than a nominal amount.

Yet even if the current system remains in place, and DA’s like Vance and Gonzalez continue to accept donations from defense attorneys, this much has changed: Many more eyes are following the money now, putting DA’s on notice that voters may make them pay the price for even a hint of checkbook justice.


Theodore Hamm is editor of Frederick Douglass in Brooklyn, and chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. He wrote about the Brooklyn DA’s race for The Daily Beast and City Limits.

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What Happens To Cops Who Lie?

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What Happens To Cops Who Lie?


Each week, the Fair Punishment Project monitors the news in New York, talks to local journalists and advocates, and share the most important stories with you through our weekly New York newsletter. Here’s here our big story from this week, looking at police accountability and the NYPD. Be sure to subscribe to our New York newsletter here.

Cops lie. Every so often, they get caught doing it. So what happens when they do it in the courtroom? In New York City, not a whole lot. In this inaugural edition of our weekly NewYork newsletter, we examine a recently-completed trial where the NYPD offered false statements, and how a new interpretation of a state law is keeping the NYPD’s disciplinary records under wraps.

Judge acquits Black Lives Matter activist in NYPD prosecution case.Following the conclusion of a bizarre trial, where the NYPD itself was prosecuting an arrest it had made instead of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, a judge “ripped police witnesses for recalling events that were disproved by video.” After reviewing surveillance footage, Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Stephen Antignani told the NYPD lawyer that the events captured were “totally different from what your officers, who on first blush came across quite credibly, what they told me happened.” While the District Attorney was supposed to be keeping tabs on the NYPD’s handling of the case, which was being done under a special arrangement where the NYPD would handle some summons prosecutions, the worst case scenario, where the NYPD would purposely mislead a judge, all with the blessing of its legal department, appeared to have played out. [Stephen Rex Brown / Daily News] This becomes especially problematic when it involves the prosecutions of protesters, where the NYPD has made several “untrustworthy” statements and withheld vital evidence from prosecutions to establish probable cause for an arrest. “A prosecutor should be thinking about investigating those officers who didn’t tell the truth on the witness stand in front of the judge,” said Gideon Oliver, a lawyer for the BLM activist.

NYPD Investigating Officers’ Alleged Misstatements in Court. But has the NYPD ever really been held accountable for making false statements in court? During a panel discussion on police officer testimony last night at the New York City Bar Association, Lawrence Byrne, the Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters at the NYPD, said that the NYPD was conducting an internal investigation into the testimony, and has requested that the Manhattan DA do so as well. [Andrew Denney / New York Law Journal] The experience of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office and Louis Scarcella, a detective whose testimony was vital in at least seven wrongful convictions, and perhaps dozens more, suggests that imposing accountability for wrongdoing is unlikely. Despite sordid details of coercion and false statements, Scarcella was found to have “broken no laws” by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office in recent exonerations, although the office says its investigation is still ongoing.

Prosecutor Recommends Loss of Vacation for Officer in James Blake Case. Even if the NYPD were to hold officers accountable for their false statements, those investigations and resulting disciplinary actions are now shrouded in secrecy, thanks to a decision by the de Blasio administration to reinterpret state law, shielding disciplinary records of police officers from public view. Late last month, a rare public disciplinary hearing for James Frascatore, the police officer who tackled tennis star James Blake, ended with the prosecutor requesting the loss of ten vacation days for the use of “excessive force.” Whether that request is heeded by NYPD or the officer faces any discipline whatsoever will remain secret. [Ashley Southall / New York Times] Frascatore is now suing Blake for defamation.

He Excelled as a Detective, Until Prosecutors Stopped Believing Him. But not all police officers who lie are escaping any sort of repercussions. Two NYPD detectives were indicted in February for lying about arrests they had made and the circumstances under which they happened. “There is lying going on on a regular basis,” Richard Emery, the former head of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, told the New York Times when discussing the indictments. Both detectives are staying on the force while the criminal cases against them play out. During the same event at the City Bar Association, Lawrence Byrne admitted that “that 73 officers have ‘been fired or forced out of the department in the last five years for either perjury or making a false statement,’” which points to a much larger issue than the NYPD brass would care to admit. [Joseph Goldstein / New YorkTimes]

What Happened to Police Accountability? The Mayor’s Not Saying. As Mayor Bill de Blasio coasts to re-election, a central plank of his first campaign is conspicuously absent — any attempts at police reform. As columnist Ginia Bellafante writes, the mayor has remained quiet through the departmental trial of Frascatore, and has been satisfied to let the NYPD police itself. The Right To Know Act, which would make NYPD officers identify themselves while detaining individuals and inform citizens that they have the right to refuse search without probable cause, has been stymied by the de Blasio administration, even though it has the overwhelming support of the City Council. Bellafante writes, “there is almost no other issue in which history is likely to judge the mayor of America’s largest city with a more exacting pen than the matter of police accountability. And if his record of the past four years isn’t improved over the next four, the evaluation is destined to be unkind.” [Genia Bellafante / New York Times]

NYPD Detectives Accused Of Kidnapping, Raping Woman In Coney Island. A 19-year-old Brooklyn woman claims she was raped by two Brooklyn detectives in a police van in September. The NYPD says it’s investigating the matter “internally.”

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