What is the Substantial Evidence Standard?Published on August 24, 2020
Are you interested in appealing your conviction? It’s best to talk with an experienced criminal appeals lawyer or staff member at Spolin Law P.C., right away. Our experienced attorneys will obtain and review your trial record, look for legal errors to support an appeal, and discuss your options.
During our review, we’ll apply various legal standards to the court record as we look for errors and opportunities to have your case reversed, reduces, or re-tried. One of the standards of review that might be relevant is the substantial evidence standard. It comes into play if there’s a question about whether the jury had enough evidence to convict you.
What Is the Substantial Evidence Standard?
The substantial evidence standard is one of the ways appellate courts review a case. Several standards of review exist at different levels. Courts use these standards to analyze certain legal issues consistently. Standards give judges guidelines for how to measure whether a legal error occurred.
When Do Courts Use the Substantial Evidence Standard?
An appeals court uses the substantial evidence standard when reviewing a factual decision made by a jury, like whether a defendant committed a crime. The appellate judges ask themselves whether there was enough evidence to support the jury’s finding. In other words, was there enough evidence for the jury to reach its conclusion, or did the jury’s verdict stretch beyond what the evidence supported?
What Does Substantial Evidence Mean?
Courts defined substantial evidence to mean there is more than a mere scintilla. Simply put, there is such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind would accept it as adequate to support a conclusion. When an appellate court is deciding whether there was substantial evidence, they consider the whole trial record, including all witness testimony.
The Substantial Evidence Standard Respects the Jury
Different standards of review require varying amounts of regard to the lower courts. For example, the substantial evidence standard typically shows deference to the jury’s decision.
An appellate court assumes a trial jury, which heard the testimony and saw the evidence firsthand, was in a better position to decide the verdict than it is. The judges will review the trial record with the verdict in the best possible light.
Appellate Judges Don’t Decide if the Jury Was Right
When appellate judges review a trial record for substantial evidence, they are looking at whether a reasonable judge or jury could have reached the relevant finding based on the facts present at trial. The judges aren’t deciding whether they would have come to the same conclusion. Another judge or jury might have reached a different, yet also reasonable conclusion.
What if the Substantial Evidence Standard Is Not Met?
If an appellate court finds there was no substantial evidence to reasonably support the jury’s decision, then this is a legal error it must correct. An appellate court will reverse a criminal conviction if, after reviewing all of the evidence in the most favorable light to the conviction, it still finds that a reasonable and rational fact-finder could not have found the necessary elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
Talk with a Criminal Appeals Lawyer Today
If you believe there was, on the whole, not enough evidence to show you committed a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, talk with a criminal appeals attorney or staff member at Spolin Law P.C. immediately. We tackle federal and state-level appeals regularly, and have a long history of reversals and sentence reductions. We will file a notice of appeal, obtain a trial transcript, submit an opening brief describing the legal or factual errors that took place, and prepare to fight for your freedom.
What Happens If You Are Arrested For Protesting?Published on August 11, 2020
Can You Be Arrested While Protesting?
While your right to protest is protected under the first amendment, there are certain restrictions as to where and how you may do so. Failing to comply with these restrictions can result in an unwanted arrest.
There are many reasons you can be arrested while protesting. For instance, you may be arrested for protesting on private property or for disrupting car or pedestrian traffic with your assembly. Law enforcement officers may also break up any violent protests and can arrest protesters who are engaging in violence or property destruction. Violating an order to disperse or neglecting state/country curfews can also put you in handcuffs.
What happens after you have been arrested for protesting?
If you are arrested at a protest, you will be searched and transported to a local police station for processing. There you will be fingerprinted, photographed, and placed in a holding cell. At that point, you can either decide to post your bail or remain in custody until your court hearing, during which your bail amount may be adjusted.
Your first court appearance is known as an arraignment and is expected to occur within 48 hours of your arrest. During your arraignment, you are informed of the charges that have been filed against you and you are asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If you plead guilty, you will be sentenced right then, if you plead not guilty, you will go to trial. The court will then select a trial date and either set, modify, reinstate, or exonerate your bail.
If you chose to go to trial, you will have to return to court within a few weeks of your arraignment. You will plead your case to a judge and receive a final verdict.
What Are Some Common Punishments For Protesting?
Each case is different. While most offenders receive only minor penalties, certain crimes might warrant harsher and much larger punishments. Below is a list of common protest arrest charges and their respective penalties:
- Unlawful assembly: A majority of arrests made during protests are based on unlawful assembly. Unlawful assembly is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum 6-month jail sentence. Judges rarely assign 6-month sentences unless the circumstances require it.
- Trespassing: Protesters may also be arrested for protesting on private property. In California, trespassing can either be charged as an infraction, a misdemeanor, or a felony. Trespassing infractions carry only a small fine, while trespassing misdemeanors are punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a maximum $1000 fine. Trespassing felonies however call for a maximum 3-year jail sentence and a $2000 fine.
- Obstruction of pedestrian or vehicular traffic: If you are found guilty of blocking car or foot traffic with your protest, you may receive a fine of up to four $400 or maybe sentenced to up to 4 months in county jail.
If you were arrested while protesting and were unfairly convicted on any of these charges, you can always push to appeal the court’s decision. If you chose to do so, it is important that you chose a team of experienced and successful appeal lawyers to represent you. Call Spolin Law P.C. today at (310) 424-5816, or reach out online to schedule a free case evaluation.
Governor Publicly Announces Commutation of Sentence for Spolin Law Client, Which He Did by HimselfPublished on July 14, 2020
California Governor Gavin Newsom has announced the commutation (reduction) of sentence for a Spolin Law client who was previously serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The decision was announced on June 26, 2020. A copy of the commutation, signed by Governor Newsom as well as Secretary of State Alex Padilla, was released to state and national media outlets shortly after the commutation.
A commutation of sentence is a method that state governors can use to cut short a person’s sentence. It is often used when someone has received an overly harsh sentence or has shown rehabilitation during his or her time in prison. A governor’s commutation is similar to the more well-known governor’s pardon. While a pardon erases a criminal conviction completely, a commutation simply cuts short the person’s sentence. State governors can commute or pardon for state crimes; the President can commute or pardon for federal crimes.
Governor Newsom explained his decision to commute the client’s sentence by describing the client’s excellent behavior, educational program participation, various certificates, and other noteworthy aspects of the client’s life.
In his commutation announcement, Governor Newsom said the following:
In 1998, James Heard, shot his romantic rival, Christopher Chessmar. Mr. Heard then directed his crime partner to shoot Mr. Chessmar. His crime partner complied, killing Mr. Chessmar. On March 20, 2000, the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles, sentenced Mr. Heard to life without the possibility of parole for murder.
Mr. Heard was 22 years old at the time of the crime and is now 44. He has been incarcerated for more than 21 years. He has expressed sincere remorse for killing Mr. Chessmar.
While serving a sentence with no hope of release, Mr. Heard devoted himself to self-improvement. Mr. Heard has maintained an exemplary disciplinary record while in prison. He has completed self-help programming and earned an associate degree and art certificates.
Prison staff, including work supervisors and correctional staff, have commended Mr. Heard for his generosity and artistic talents, as well as his interpersonal and leadership skills. Mr. Heard has lived in an honor dorm since 2004. He has donated his artwork to various charitable causes. Mr. Heard has also volunteered his time to crochet hats and scarves for charity.
Mr. Heard committed a serious crime that took the life of Mr. Chessmar. Since then, Mr. Heard has dedicated himself to his rehabilitation and becoming a productive citizen. I have carefully considered and weighed the evidence of his positive conduct in prison, the fact that he was a youthful offender, his longterm confinement, and his good prospects for successful community reentry. I have concluded that Mr. Heard merits the opportunity to make his case to the Board of Parole Hearings so it can determine whether he is suitable for parole.
This act of clemency for Mr. Heard does not minimize or forgive his conduct or the harm it caused. It does recognize the work he has done since to transform himself.
The client’s family was extremely happy to hear this good news.
To learn more about commutations and other types of post-conviction relief, call one of the Spolin Law attorneys or staff members at (866) 716-2805. Please also note that Spolin Law was not the law firm involved in the Application for Commutation of Sentence for this client. This post is intended to celebrate the client’s win, which he achieved without our assistance on this matter.
New York legislators take action against police brutality by proposing a new bill to ban the chokeholdPublished on July 9, 2020
Pressured by the public protests demanding justice for George Floyd, New York legislators have just passed a bill that will ban the use of chokeholds by law enforcement. Although only recently adopted, this revolutionary bill originated in 2014 just after 43-year-old Eric Garner was strangled to death by four New York police officers.
In a peaceful arrest that quickly turned violent, Staten Island local, Eric Garner, was killed by NYPD officers on July 17, 2014. Being suspected of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, Garner was approached by four police officers who proceeded to forcefully push him to the ground and hold him in a chokehold for around 15 seconds. In a disturbing video that recorded the incident, Garner was seen flailing his arms and gasping for air as he urgently repeats the phrase, “I can’t breathe,” a total of 11 times. Just moments later, Garner lost consciousness and died.
The NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was responsible for Garner’s death, was fired from his job, but was never criminally prosecuted for his crimes.
In 2015, a year after Garner’s murder, New York Assemblyman Walter Mosley proposed a bill to New York Legislators in hopes of banning the use of the chokehold by New York Police officers. However, with little support behind it, the bill was abandoned and never signed into law.
Nevertheless, overwhelming pressure from the public over George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis pushed New York Legislators to revive the bill. Sponsored once again by Assemblyman Mosley, the bill, later named the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act in honor of Garner, was finally put to a vote in June of 2020, almost 5 years after its original proposal.
On Monday, June 8, the bill was passed by both the New York Assembly and Senate by a vote of 140-three. Just four days later on Friday, June 11th, New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act into law.
The Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act states that the use of a chokehold or any other similar restraint that restricts breathing is considered a class C felony and is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Chokeholds have been prohibited in New York since 1993, however according to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, “The NYPD ban on chokeholds was not enough to protect Eric Garner, and it is not enough today. This legislation will put an end to the practice across the state.” With these new, stricter laws that now make the use of a chokehold a state crime, Heastie and other assembly members hope to prevent such horrible incidents from ever happening again.
The Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act was not the only bill signed into law by Governor Cuomo on Friday. In addition to banning the chokehold, New York legislators passed bills that require police disciplinary records be made public, prohibit race-based 911 calls, and force state police officers to wear body cameras.
These are just a few of the bills included in a new police reform bill package proposed by New York Legislators following the nationwide George Floyd protests. Cuomo has signed only four of the proposed 10 bills. The remaining six bills still await his signature.
At the bills’ public signing, Governor Cuomo made a statement explaining his motivation behind approving them saying, “Police reform is long overdue.” The governor said that these bills aren’t just about George Floyd’s murder, but about the “long list” of African American citizens who too have fallen victim to police brutality. Cuomo thinks that the implementation of these new bills will bring the state of New York one step closer towards ending the “injustices against minorities in America by the criminal justice system.”
This sweeping reform in New York has inspired other states to establish similar policies. In states like California, Chicago, Denver, Florida, Minneapolis and Phoenix, county police departments have announced that they will suspend the use of the chokehold, and the just as dangerous carotid restraint. Across the globe in France, the French government announced that it too is banning law enforcement officials from using chokeholds.
The passing of the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act will bring necessary change that New York politicians and citizens have been waiting for. Assembly member and sponsor of the bill, Walter Mosley expressed his enthusiasm in front of the New York State Assembly saying, “In 2015 I introduced this bill to outlaw chokeholds statewide, and I am proud to see it taken up today as we pass legislation to reform our criminal justice system.”
Although Mosley is glad to have achieved such a feat, he thinks there is much more to be done in order to finally put an end to police brutality. He said, “This is an important step forward, but it will not be the last. We must work to change the way that police officers interact with communities of color, or we will continue to see these killings occur.”
If you are in need of legal help in New York, please contact Spolin Law, P.C.
Supreme Court Sends Death Penalty Case Back for Reconsideration Of Ineffective Assistance of Counsel ClaimPublished on July 9, 2020
— But Skips Its Chance to Modify Prejudice Prong of Strickland
In a 5-3 per curiam decision, the United States Supreme Court stopped short of doing what the habeas corpus petitioner asked it to do: modify or overrule the prejudice prong of Strickland v. Washington (1984), 466 U.S. 668, in the review of a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. However, a majority of the Court in Andrus v. Texas (2020), 590 U.S. ___, found that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ one-sentence dismissal of Andrus’s claim “without elaboration” was insufficient to support a determination that no prejudice occurred. It remanded the case for reconsideration of that issue.
Andrus was convicted of the murders of two people during a bungled carjacking. Trial counsel put on no defense during the guilt phase of the trial, opting instead to focus on the penalty phase. However, trial counsel failed to investigate the existence of mitigating evidence. He failed to present readily available evidence that Andrus’s mother was a drug addict, drug dealer, and prostitute who sold and used drugs around her children. She would disappear for days, sometimes weeks, at a time, on her drug binges. Andrus was often left with the responsibility to raise his siblings. His mother brought home abusive boyfriends who were in and out of Andrus’s life. At age 10 or 11, he was diagnosed with affective psychosis.
At age 16, Andrus confined in a Texas juvenile detention center for serving as lookout while his friends robbed a woman of her purse. He was put on high doses of psychotropic drugs and served long stints of solitary confinement. On multiple occasions, he self-harmed and threatened suicide. He was transferred to an adult facility and released at age 18. Not long after, he committed the murders of which he was convicted. In prison, Andrus attempted suicide.
None of the foregoing evidence was presented during the penalty phase of Andrus’s trial. In fact, trial counsel was unaware of the evidence because he did not investigate Andrus’s past and failed to interview witnesses who could have testified to those facts. The only witnesses that trial counsel did present actually bolstered the prosecution’s case that Andrus had a propensity for violence and was a threat to those around him. Andrus was sentenced to death.
After an unsuccessful direct appeal, Andrus filed a petition for habeas corpus in the trial court, claiming ineffective assistance of trial counsel in violation of his Sixth Amendment right. After an eight-day hearing, at which the above evidence of Andrus’s past was introduced, the trial court concluded that trial counsel had been ineffective and that such ineffective representation prejudiced Andrus.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed. The court concluded that Andrus had failed to show, as he was required to do under Strickland, that counsel’s representation “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness” or that there was a “reasonable probability that the result [of the penalty phase of the trial] would have been different” had counsel’s performance not been deficient. Andrus petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari.
In the Supreme Court, Andrus argued that the abbreviated analysis of Strickland by Texas courts in general and by the court in his case in particular resulted in the pro forma rejection of meritorious ineffective-assistance-of-counsel cases. He claimed that in cases such as his, where counsel’s trial performance was patently deficient, the “truncated, analytically unsound” application of the second prong of Strickland produces unjust results. The prejudice prong is so onerous, he claimed, that few courts find it satisfied, and he questioned how a criminal defendant could fail to obtain habeas relief when the adversarial system had so utterly failed.
Claiming that an abbreviated Strickland analysis that looks only at the evidence adduced at trial to determine prejudice is unjust and unconstitutional, Andrus argued that a court must compare the evidence from the trial with the evidence from the habeas corpus hearing to determine whether the defendant was prejudiced. The question is whether the new evidence adduced at the habeas corpus hearing would have affected the outcome of the trial, not whether the evidence at trial was sufficient to support the penalty imposed. Further, Andrus claimed that a reviewing court in a habeas corpus ineffective assistance claim must assess how the deficit performance affected the fundamental fairness of the proceeding.
The Supreme Court did not bite on the opportunity to modify or overrule Strickland. Without addressing Andrus’s arguments on that score, the Court applied the Strickland test to his claim. It did, however, reject the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision dismissing the habeas corpus petition. Disagreeing with the Texas court, the Supreme Court held that the record clearly showed that the counsel’s conduct fell below reasonably objective standards for representation.
Next, the Court stated that the Texas court “may have failed properly to engage with” the question of prejudice from that ineffective representation. The lower court “concluded without elaboration” that Andrus failed to meet the Strickland standard, but it should have considered “the totality of the mitigation evidence” — both that adduced at trial and that presented in the habeas hearing in the trial court. That evidence, the Supreme Court held, must be reweighed against the evidence in aggravation to determine whether a reasonable probability exists that Andrus would have received a different sentence. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ opinion was “unclear” as to whether it engaged in this analysis, and the Supreme Court remanded the case for further consideration of the prejudice issue.
While the Supreme Court did not modify or overrule the prejudice prong of
CA Senate Bill 1437: You May Qualify for Resentencing?Published on June 24, 2020
In September 2018, the Governor of California signed legislation that reformed the state’s approach to accomplice liability in felony murder cases. Significantly, CA Senate Bill (SB) 1437 will have a retroactive effect.
Under SB 1437, people convicted under the old felony murder law can apply to have their sentences reduced. If you or a loved one has been convicted of murder for their role in a felony that resulted in someone’s death, it is likely that these reforms apply to you.
California Changed the Old Felony Murder Law
Before CA SB 1437 went into effect, you could be convicted of felony murder if you committed, aided, or abetted to commit a felony, and any person died as a result. It would not matter if you did not actually kill the victim, or even if the death was accidental.
According to the new law, to convict you of felony murder, a prosecutor must demonstrate that you committed a felony, or aided or abetted a felony. Additionally, they will need to prove one of the following:
- You killed a person
- You aided or abetted the killing, which means proving your intent to kill
- You were a major participant in the felony, and you acted with reckless indifference
- Your actions caused the death of a peace officer who was exercising their duties
What’s Different Under the New Felony Murder Law?
The essential difference between the old law and the new law is that now, prosecutors have to prove your intent or state of mind — unless you actually killed someone, or the person who died was a peace officer. Previously, you could get convicted of felony murder as long as someone got killed in a felony that you were involved in. It didn’t matter what your state of mind was. Now, prosecutors may have to prove one of two kinds of state of mind:
The prosecutor may show that you intended for the victim to die in various ways. For example, a witness could testify that you told an accomplice “to get rid of him.” There may also be evidence that you provided the murder weapon to the killer shortly before the act.
When proving recklessness, the prosecutor doesn’t need to show that you intended to kill. Instead, they need to show that you did not care if death occurred. In this case, evidence that you were present and did nothing to stop a killing despite having some power to intervene may be enough to show reckless indifference.
Proving your “state of mind” adds an extra level of protection, which conforms to the general rule that someone can only get convicted for crimes that they intended to commit. The only time state of mind doesn’t matter is when an officer is killed, or you actually kill the victim. These aggravating circumstances make it so your state of mind doesn’t matter.
Convicted Under the Old Law? You May Qualify for Resentencing
CA SB 1437 makes you eligible for resentencing if all of the following applies:
- You were prosecuted under the natural probable consequences theory. This means that you were charged with felony murder and did not directly kill the victim. Rather, the prosecutor argued that the victim’s death was the natural and probable result of the felony you committed.
- You were convicted of first or second-degree murder. The conviction could have been entered after a guilty verdict from a jury, or a plea deal. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you were convicted after a trial or not.
Have Questions About CA SB 1437? Contact a Los Angeles Appeals Lawyer Now
If you think there is any chance that the above factors apply to your case or that of a loved one, you should speak to an experienced Southern California criminal appeals lawyer as soon as possible. You may be in a position to petition the court for a resentencing hearing.
This could result in receiving a lighter sentence or even your freedom. To find out more about sentencing options for felony murder, call Spolin Law P.C. today at (310) 424-5816, or reach out online to schedule a free case evaluation.
What Is a Petition for Rehearing?Published on April 29, 2020
After a case is appealed and the decision does not go in your favor, you may feel like you are out of options. However, there is a possible route that your attorney may explore: a petition for rehearing. This petition has strict time limits and requirements, so it is important to discuss it with your attorney as soon as your appeal decision comes through.
Understanding a Petition for Rehearing
After you file an appeal and your case goes to the appellate court, they pass down their decision. The petition for rehearing is a way to contest the appellate court’s decision.
This isn’t the time to try out a new defense angle or fight to have evidence analyzed in a different way. It is primarily used to resolve errors made by the appellate court during the appeal trial. It takes a careful and exhaustive legal review of the court’s decision to find useful flaws.
When is a Petition for Rehearing Appropriate?
When you discuss the outcome of your appeal with your appeals attorney, they will help you understand your options. If they recommend a petition for rehearing, it means that your case falls into one of a few categories.
Situations in which a petition for rehearing may be appropriate include:
- If the court’s decision focused on an issue that was not included in your attorney’s briefs
- If the court’s opinion ignores or omits an important fact or issue raised during the case
- When a fact is misstated or misrepresented and influences the appellate court’s decision
- A legal error is made
- If there are concerns over due process
The Deadline for a Petition for Rehearing
A petition for rehearing in California must be filed within 15 days of the appellate court’s decision. This is a very tight deadline, which is why your attorney will explore and explain your options as soon as the original decision is handed down.
What Happens Next
Several things could happen after your attorney files a petition for rehearing. The court might deny the petition immediately with a written order. This is fairly common, as it is relatively uncommon for the court to realize they’ve made a mistake and reverse it.
If they deny your petition, they may still modify the original opinion to reflect the information presented.
The court may also agree that an error was made in their decision. They may issue a new decision reflecting the new information. They may also request additional briefs or oral arguments from your attorney for additional clarification. After receiving this information, they will pass down their new decision.
If the court does not respond to the petition before the original decision becomes final, the petition is considered to have been automatically denied.
Other Options After an Appeal
Your attorney may also recommend filing a review. This strategy is often used if your case poses a new legal question or issue. It is also helpful if there are constitutional violations in the original decision or handling of the case.
Once your options have been exhausted in the appellate process, you may be able to pursue a Supreme Court review.
Find Out How We Can Help With Your Appeal
Appealing a court decision can be complicated and time-consuming, which is why it is crucial to work with an attorney who focuses on criminal appeals in their practice.
At Spolin Law P.C., we fight appeals in state and federal courts. Get started now by calling us at (310) 424-5816 or reach out online. We will schedule a free consultation and explore your legal options.
Release of Famous Inmate, Tekashi69, Due to Coronavirus Leads to Questioning About ProtocolPublished on April 20, 2020
A famous rapper, Tekashi69, was released four months before his original release date, sentenced to spend the final months in home confinement. Tekashi69, formally known as Daniel Hernandez, 23, was originally sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to various gang robberies and shootings. Due to the fact that the artist has asthma, he is at greater risk to adverse effects were he to contact Coronavirus, justifying his shortened sentence.
According to the New York Times, the judge, U.S. District Judge Paul A. Engelmayer, argued that “the pandemic presented ‘extraordinary and compelling reasons’ for a compassionate release of Mr. Hernandez, who, he wrote in his order on Thursday, ‘no longer will present a meaningful danger to the community if at liberty.’” Currently, people are wondering if he was released early because of his celebrity status or because he is immunocompromised.
Hernandez’s release comes at a controversial time, as criminal justice advocates and health officials alike are supporting the release of inmates to increase social distancing and decrease the spread of COVID-19. The New York Times describes this phenomenon with; “thousands of inmates and officers in municipal, state and federal facilities have already tested positive, and at least five inmates at federal facilities have died because of the coronavirus outbreak since March 28, according to the Bureau of Prisons.”
However, this decision to release Tekashi69 has led to backlash and questioning from other inmates, especially fellow high-profile inmates. Both R. Kelly and Bill Cosby have argued for at-home confinement to finish out their terms, without success. What is unique about rapper Tekashi69’s case is that he has had underlying health issues since the beginning, combined with his cooperation with authorities and the short remainder of his sentence. Some argue that if R. Kelly or Bill Cosby were released too, people might assume they are getting special treatment because of their fame. Therefore, judges are trying to exercise caution when it comes to early inmate releases, making sure they have a strong justification for each case.
Some states have decided to take broader strokes to address the risk of Coronavirus spreading in prisons by releasing a large number of inmates at once. An order was signed last week by the Chief Justice of New Jersey, Stuart Rabner, to release 1,000 inmates from county jails who committed low-level offences.
At the same time, some federal decisions have been made to prevent the further spread of Coronavirus. Mr. Barr, the Attorney General, has put an order in place to prioritize the release of inmates at three prisons, in Louisiana, Connecticut, and Ohio, which have reported high numbers of Corona cases. Last week, Mr. Barr
“Asked the bureau to identify and release all inmates who were eligible for home confinement, no longer posed a threat to the public, and were particularly vulnerable to the Coronavirus. After that directive, 522 of the system’s 146,000 total inmates were moved to home confinement, according to the Bureau of Prisons,” (New York Times).
Judges are asked to draw the line between who can be released early and who must stay in prison, in a fair yet timely manner. A prison in Chicago that currently obtains the most concentrated coronavirus cases in the United States, demonstrates the necessity to make these drastic changes. It is vitally important that judges take precautionary measures to prevent further spread of the disease, while also making equitable choices about who can be released and who must remain in prison to carry out their full sentences.
Malcolm Alexander: Wrongful Conviction Vacated After 38 YearsPublished on April 13, 2020
Unfortunately, wrongful convictions occur in the United States quite often, and the process of vacating these false convictions can take many years. This was the case for Malcolm Alexander, who fell victim to incorrect eyewitness identification, an incompetent defense attorney, and lost evidence.
In 1980 Malcolm Alexander was arrested and convicted for a rape he did not commit. The rape, which took place in 1979, was linked to Malcolm Alexander solely by eyewitness identification. The victim initially described the attacker as a 6ft tall male, but eventually, though somewhat uncertain, identified Alexander. The victim was attacked from behind and did not identify Malcolm Alexander until four months after the rape had occurred. Even then, the police incorrectly conducted the perpetrator line-ups and only regarded her identification as “tentative.”
This incorrect eyewitness fits a pattern in wrongful conviction cases. Eyewitness identification is the number one reason for wrongful convictions. Specifically, 71% of wrongful conviction cases are due to an incorrect eyewitness identification. In fact, in the legal profession, there is growing evidence against the accuracy of eyewitness identification; one in four is incorrect. (See criminal appeals attorney Aaron Spolin’s book, Witness Misidentification in Criminal Trials, to read about this topic in greater depth.)
While most humans believe they can recognize those that have caused them or others harm, the misidentification stems from a variety of factors. Some of the most crucial factors are: witnesses being under high levels of stress, witnesses tending to concentrate more on weapons than the identity of the perpetrator, police or prosecutors using suggestive tactics to sway witnesses while they are in the identification process, and more.
In the case of Malcolm Alexander, the witness was both in an extremely high-stress situation as she underwent a rape, and did not have a good line of sight to the attacker — both of which could have led to the misidentification. In spite of the victim’s uncertain identification, the trial for Malcolm Alexander was quick. The lawyer defending Mr. Alexander did not point out any of the inconsistencies with the witness identification, nor promote another narrative of his innocence. In fact, the lawyer defending Malcolm Alexander presented neither opening nor closing arguments on behalf of his client, nor did he call any witnesses to defend Mr. Alexander. The entire trial of Mr. Alexander lasted one day. In spite of the existence of DNA evidence, including pubic hairs and semen, neither attorney requested that DNA testing be completed. Malcolm Alexander was 21 years old, and the father of a two-year-old, who was then given life without parole.
Malcolm Alexander advocated for his innocence while he was in prison, and eventually, the Innocence Project picked up the case. Unfortunately, the innocence project faced many challenges. Most notably, the evidence from the case had been destroyed by the New Orleans Police Department. However, after a continuous push from the Innocence Project, the pubic hairs from the scene were recovered.
After 38 years in prison in Louisiana, Malcolm Alexander was exonerated, thanks to the evidence found by the attorneys working on his case. A sample of his pubic hair did not match the pubic hair left by the perpetrator at the crime scene. Malcolm Alexander was released from prison on January 30th, 2018.
- “MALCOLM ALEXANDER.” Malcolm Alexander – National Registry of Exonerations, University of Michigan Law, 6 Feb. 2018, www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=5274.
- “Eyewitness Identification Reform.” Innocence Project, www.innocenceproject.org/eyewitness-identification-reform/.
- “Malcolm Alexander.” Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO), 30 Jan. 2018, ip-no.org/what-we-do/free-innocent-prisoners/client-profiles/malcolm-alexander/.
Fights to end the School-to-Prison pipelinePublished on April 7, 2020
The term ‘School to Prison Pipeline,’ also known as ‘Cradle to Prison Pipeline’ describes the disproportionate impact of historical education policies, such as zero tolerance, on people of color and vulnerable populations. The effect of this is more students being sent to juvenile detention centers with an inevitable increase in racial inequality. Typically, lower-income schools use stricter behavior management systems that implement immediate punishment, instead of using positive reinforcement and other positive behavioral strategies. In lieu of this, some steps have been made in the right direction by politicians, such as Bernie Sanders and Ayanna Pressley, who are joining the fight to end School-to-Prison pipelines. Addressing and amending this issue will set in motion a long-overdue fight to reach equality in the United States.
According to an article written on neaToday, “In 2010, more than 3 million students were suspended from school, aka double the level of suspensions in the 1970s. Meanwhile, more than a quarter-million were ‘referred’ to police officers for misdemeanor tickets, very often for offenses that once would have elicited a stern talking-to.” NEA shares another reason that students are more likely to go to Juvenile Detention Centers if they live in low-income areas is because there are less school resources and more budget cuts. This results in less educational staff monitoring at any given moment, and instead filling those gaps with school police officers. In-school officers are constantly monitoring the ongoings of students in a more strict manner, which leads to an increase of student punishments.
Specifically, Black students represent 15% of public school students, yet they represent 31% of all students referred to law enforcement, and other students of color are also disproportionately arrested in schools (specifically Native American, and LatinX). When these students are kicked out of school they are left with nowhere to go and no community to hold on to. Often, many students get involved in illegal activity and drugs and alcohol due to their lack of direction and school time.
This trend is reflected across multiple underrepresented groups. People with disabilities face harsher punishments than their able-bodied counterparts, especially in affluent schools, according to Huffington Post. “In affluent schools, students with disabilities are overrepresented among students who receive suspensions by 20 points, while in low-income schools, they are overrepresented by nearly 11 points.” This can cause issues because studies show that students who are suspended at least once during their secondary education are more likely to drop out of school, and more likely to enter the criminal justice system. However, some critics argue that less suspensions means more dangerous and disruptive students in the classroom, which can pose a threat to other students and staff members.
As the presidential election of 2020 has begun to ramp up, various left-leaning candidates have spoken up about the need to change the school-to-prison pipeline trajectory. According to a Buzzfeed article, both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have learned about the injustices in the school systems, primarily for students of colors, and have agreed to provide more resources to low-income schools, if elected.
Another politician, Ayanna Pressley, a United States Representative for Massachusetts’ 7th district (including the city of Boston), and the first black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts, has spoken up about ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline in the HuffPost. Pressley has specifically focused her activism on young black girls. HuffPost shares that black girls are “five times more likely to be suspended than white girls, according to a 2017 report from the National Women’s Law Center, which used data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights from 2013-2014.”
In December 2019, Pressley announced criminal justice proposals, which included the Ending PUSHOUT Act, aiming to stop discriminatory punishment in schools, specifically for black and brown students. The Ending PUSHOUT Act, which stands for Punitive, Unfair, School-Based Harm, that is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma, would bring in money to provide teachers with implicit bias training, hire more school counselors and social workers, and change school discipline regulations based on community input. In order to be eligible for the program, schools have to decrease suspensions and expulsions, and ban corporal punishment for all students. Pressley is one of the first politicians, after President Obama, to take concrete steps towards fighting the School to Prison Pipeline that currently exists in our society and causes extreme disadvantage to students of color.
As Pressley articulately stated, “We must work in partnership with communities to develop holistic solutions that center the lived experiences of girls of color who have been most impacted by cruel and discriminatory school policies and practices.” Especially as President Trump decreases regulations already in place to help the most at-risk populations, we must fight to end the School-to-Prison Pipeline and provide all students with equitable opportunities. This is one necessary action to reach the goal of facing inequality in the United States and prevent unnecessary crowding in juvenile detention centers with innocent youth.