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Underage teenager faces life as registered sex offender for having sex with underage girlfriend

Harris County Courthouse
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Underage teenager faces life as registered sex offender for having sex with underage girlfriend

A 14-year-old Houston teenager may be a registered sex offender for the rest of his life after he was charged with having sex with his 12-year-old girlfriend.

The seventh grader, whose name has not been revealed, has been charged with aggravated sexual assault of a child. His girlfriend is in the sixth grade, the Houston Chronicle said.

“He had consensual sex with his little girlfriend and he loved her. They were boyfriend-girlfriend,” the teen’s mother said.

Texas law has the “Romeo and Juliet” exception, which means that having sex with a juvenile under the age of consent is not illegal, if you’re less than three years older than the person who is under the age of consent.

But that law only applies if both sexual partners are at least 14. If you’re 13 or younger, the Romeo and Juliet exception isn’t valid.

“The idea that a 14-year-old who has sex with a person just a little bit younger than him or her would be treated as the worst of the worst in our society and placed on the sex offender registry is really sick,” said the teenager’s attorney, Joseph Gutheinz. “If he has sex with someone who is younger by just days but is still 13 years old, he could be charged with one of the most serious offenses we have. It just blows my mind.”

The arrest occurred in May but Gutheinz confirmed to In Justice Today that the case was still pending. He expressed frustration that the case had not been resolved.

“This is a good kid,” Gutheinz said. “He shouldn’t have to go through this.”

Gutheinz told In Justice Today that children in this situation have no idea they’re committing a crime until after the fact.

“These kids don’t understand the law,” he said. “They’re only really worried about mom and dad finding out.”

Gutheinz said he was seeking to resolve the case in a way that ensured that the teenager would not have to be a registered sex offender.

The office of Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has not commented on the case.

Jackie Stewart Gravois, an attorney with the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, told the Houston Chronicle that judges don’t usually make juveniles register as sex offenders in cases like this. Judges have the final say in whether someone will be a registered sex offenders.

“Very rarely do the juvenile judges in Harris County force anyone to register,” she said. “They usually delay it and send them to sex offender treatment and then make a decision.”

But Ira Ellman, a professor at the UC–Berkeley School of Law, told In Justice Today it’s not unusual to see 14-year-olds charged as sex offenders and facing life on the sex offender registry.

Some reports, including one from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, have found that the age with the highest number of people arrested for a sex offense is 14, Ellman said.

The Marshall Project recently reported that more than 800,000 people were on sex offender registry lists nationwide.

“And contrary to popular belief, violent serial pedophiles do not fill the ranks of the registered,” wrote David Feige, who did the report. “Rather, a wide swath of sexual thoughts and actions can lead to the lifetime of stigmatization that being on the sex offender registry entails.”

Thanks to Jake Sussman and Josie Duffy Rice.

Prior Conviction Impeachment: Is Reform Finally Afoot?

Prior Conviction Impeachment: Is Reform Finally Afoot?

At a recent conference of Washington State judges, a panel of experts discussed prohibiting “impeachment by prior conviction” — that is, the practice of attorneys using prior convictions to attack the credibility of witnesses, including criminal defendants. This practice is used in the federal system and in all but three states. In 1963, Kansas enacted a statute prohibiting the impeachment of criminal defendants, as long as they don’t proclaim their trustworthiness on the stand. In 1971, Hawaii’s State Supreme Court banned the practice, ruling that it violated the state and federal right to testify. Montana followed in 1976, extending the ban to all witnesses.

Then came forty years of stagnation.

Change may now be afoot, at least in Washington. Panelists and audiences at the conference offered several critiques of the practice, particularly with regard to criminal defendants. These included the following:

1. This area of the law is in tension with relevant social science. Prior conviction impeachment rests on assumptions that we have a “character for truthfulness” or for “untruthfulness,” that this character will influence trial testimony, and that certain convictions are a reliable way to shed light on this character. It also assumes that jurors will abide by the counter-intuitive instruction that they should use a conviction only to determine a defendant’s truthfulness as a witness, and not to assess his or her guilt in the case at hand. These assumptions lack social science support.

2. This practice compounds racial inequities. A prior conviction may be facilitated by the racial bias that exists throughout the criminal justice system. The use of one conviction to help bring about another one may compound such inequities. (In an analogous context, this kind of embedded disparity persuaded Judge Nancy Gertner to refuse to enhance a defendant’s sentence on the basis of convictions that she feared were the fruit of racial profiling.)

3. This practice allows racial stereotypes to run riot. The threat of prior conviction impeachment frequently chills defendant testimony. If jurors do not hear directly from the defendant on the witness stand, they are more inclined to draw upon biases (implicit as well as explicit, including racial stereotypes) when assessing a defendant’s potential guilt.

4. This practice removes important voices from the courtroom. One of the many potential benefits of defendant testimony is that it may bring to light a narrative of innocence. Professor John Blume found that the threat of prior conviction impeachment frequently silenced such narratives. In his study of exonerees, 91% of those with prior convictions had waived their right to testify at trial. The most common reason was that they feared the effect of this form of impeachment.

5. Supreme Court case law in this area stymies defendants. The threat of prior conviction impeachment poses a significant dilemma for defendants with criminal records: testify and risk being “crucified,” or forego testimony and suffer the “silence penalty.” The Supreme Court has created additional minefields for federal defendants, providing in Luce v. United States (1984) that those who decline to testify lose their ability to appeal an adverse impeachment ruling, and in Ohler v. United States (2000) that those who testify about their convictions on direct examination — in an effort to defang them — also lose their ability to appeal.

During the panel discussion, a voice rang out in the conference hall. “Are there any proposed rules pending before the [state] Supreme Court to amend this practice?” Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud, a member of the State Supreme Court’s Rules Committee, responded that there were not, but that the Committee invited such proposals.

Invitations extended at conferences don’t always lead to action. But there are good reasons why abolition of this practice, whether through rule change or, as in Hawaii, through constitutional ruling, would be fitting in Washington State.

First, state decision-makers recently took dramatic steps to reform a related area of the law — the peremptory challenge, and the Batson doctrine that polices it. These steps included two Supreme Court decisions, and a proposed court rule within the last four years. Each of the five critiques mentioned above was also cited in support of these reforms: decision-makers cared that a growing body of social science research on implicit bias is irrelevant to the Batson doctrine; they cared about the racial disparities and stereotypes perpetuated by the peremptory strike; they cared about the threat to jury diversity posed by such strikes; and they found that, in Batson, the Supreme Court imposed a “crippling burden” on defendants to prove discrimination, “even where it almost certainly exists.”

Second, Washington courts are trying innovative new ways to reduce the effects of stereotypes in jury decisions. The Western District of Washington recently created an implicit bias video, along with a set of instructions for jurors. Some state courts have followed suit.

Both efforts demonstrate that the state is serious about limiting the influence of stereotypes in the courthouse, whether harbored by attorneys or jurors. State officials can build on this progress by banning the practice of prior conviction impeachment. For what this practice rests on, rather than social science, is stereotyping — about what a conviction means, and about who someone with a conviction is. There is a tension in a legal system that the one hand urges that stereotypes be driven out of the selection and the decision-making of jurors, and yet, on the other hand, instructs those jurors that when it comes to deciding the truthfulness of a defendant such stereotypes are still good law.

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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Criminal cover up in St. Louis reveals “frighteningly close relationship between police and prosecutors”

Criminal cover up in St. Louis reveals “frighteningly close relationship between police and prosecutors”

Three former prosecutors and one former intern employed by the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office have admitted to helping a police detective cover up his assault of a handcuffed suspect.

All have resigned or been dismissed. One, Bliss Barber Worrell, recently pleaded guilty to helping conceal a crime, a felony. She was sentenced to probation and disbarred by the Missouri Supreme Court. The other three face uncertain disciplinary action that could include disbarment.

Jennifer Joyce, the St. Louis Circuit Attorney at the time the cover up occurred, has called the scandal “the worst thing that’s happened to me in 20 years as a prosecutor.”

The precipitating incident occurred in July 2014. St. Louis Police Detective Thomas A. Carroll allegedly attacked a handcuffed Thomas Waller after he was arrested for stealing a credit card that belonged to Carroll’s daughter. Waller claimed that Carroll put a gun to his head, bruised his ribs, chipped his teeth, bloodied his lip, and likely caused his concussion.

In order to explain Waller’s injuries, Carroll reached out to Worrell, a prosecutor in the Circuit Attorney’s Office. She has since admitted to filing false charges against Waller, claiming that his injuries were incurred during an escape attempt. She also admitted to lying to her supervisors and to a judge.

The cover up eventually unraveled internally and was reported to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. An investigation conducted by the FBI, police internal affairs, and the Circuit Attorney’s Office found that two other prosecutors, Ambry Schuessler and Katherine Dierdorf, and an intern, Caroline Rutledge, also participated in the cover up.

According to disciplinary documents, “each of the respondents failed to disclose their knowledge of Carroll’s assault and Worrell’s involvement in the issuing of charges, and each was untruthful at different times in the sequence of events to either the OCA supervisors, the Internal Affairs Officers or to the FBI and the United States Attorney’s Office.” All three have admitted to lying about their knowledge of the cover up.

The case is noteworthy in part because prosecutors and police rarely face such serious criminal sanctions for misconduct. Carroll was charged and subsequently pleaded guilty to violating Waller’s civil rights, although he insisted he had not put a gun in Waller’s mouth. U.S. District Judge Henry Autry rejected his denials, and, in July, sentenced him to 52 months in federal prison. (The city of St. Louis has already paid Waller $300,000 to settle a lawsuit he filed over Carroll’s action.) It was also Autry who sentenced Worrell to 18 months’ probation and community service, telling her that she’d left “a black mark on a very venerable office.”

Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University School of Law and contributor to In Justice Today, is heartened by the seriousness with which these actions have been taken by the courts. Nonetheless, he expressed alarm at “the very idea that Officer Carroll felt comfortable calling a prosecutor and essentially confessing to assault. This suggests that some police feel they are above the law — with the backing of their pals in the DA’s office.” Medwed believes this incident represents an extreme example of the “frighteningly close relationship between police and prosecutors.”

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