Sunday, June 24, 2018

America’s prosecutors are so hellbent on closing cases and getting guilty verdicts that they will often get them by any means necessary.

The following opinion by Shaun King was published by The Intercept on June 22, 2018.

THERE IS A humanitarian crisis unfolding on our borders, in which thousands of immigrant children, including infants and toddlers, have been forcefully taken from their parents and sent away with strangers. But another crisis — where families are also separated — is hanging over American life: mass incarceration. Now, though, one of the most important pieces of criminal justice reform legislation is on the cusp of becoming law in New York. As it stands, the bill is one signature away — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s — from being put on the books.

Every day, we hear about horrible cases, in which men and women — often black men and women — are being set free from prison after serving huge chunks of their lives for crimes they didn’t commit. Sometimes they have served 30 or 40 years behind bars. Frequently, prosecutorial misconduct was the cause of the wrongful conviction.

It could be that exonerating evidence was deliberately withheld or confessions of guilt from an entirely different person were disregarded. Maybe credible, verifiable alibis were ignored. In some cases, DNA evidence was shelved and ignored.

All this because America’s prosecutors are so hellbent on closing cases and getting guilty verdicts that they will often get them by any means necessary.

Jabbar Collins comes to mind.

In 1994, he was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a local rabbi — except he was completely innocent. Determined to close the case, prosecutors hid crucial evidence that exonerated him, threatened witnesses, and gave other witnesses perks to completely fabricate their testimony. After serving 15 painful years in prison, Collins was finally set free. It cost him a generation of his life — and it cost New York City and the state $13 million, which he won in a lawsuit.

THESE TYPES OF exonerations are far from uncommon. After reviewing all of their exoneration cases, guess what the Innocence Project determined as the leading cause of wrongful convictions? Prosecutorial misconduct. A 2018 study by the National Registry of Exonerations made the exact same determination. Police and prosecutor misconduct — not faulty witnesses or false confessions — is the primary cause of wrongful convictions in our country.

In New York, though, political bodies are finally pushing for some accountability. As of last week, the State Assembly and Senate have now each passed a bill, the first of its kind in the nation, forming an independent commission with full subpoena power, to investigate prosecutorial misconduct. It’s wild that nothing like this already exists, but that gets to the heart of the matter. America’s prosecutors have been able to be consistently awful with little to no formal, binding oversight.

Nearly 18 months passed between the bill’s introduction and its passage in both chambers of the state legislature. And now it’s awaiting Cuomo’s signature. The issue is so dire that Human Rights Watch wrote an open letter to the governor in support of the bill. “New York currently has no effective system in place to hold prosecutors who violate their legal and ethical duties accountable,” the New York-based group said in its letter.

Human Rights Watch went on to detail case after case of wrongful convictions in the state in which prosecutorial misconduct was the primary cause. In each case, innocent people spent long periods of their lives behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit. Not only did the wrongful convictions and sentences cost the state millions of dollars to incarcerate the wrong people, tens of millions more were spent on settlements to compensate these men.

And yet the prosecutors just keep on handling cases like it never happened. The prosecutor in the Jabbar Collins case was eventually forced to retire because of misconduct, but he never faced any other sanctions. Eventually, he wrote a book that’s now reportedly being made into a TV show. It’s outrageous.

It wasn’t easy to get to this point where New York could pass historic legislation to hold prosecutors to account. Now, one question remains: Will Cuomo sign the bill or veto it?

Pretty much the only people fighting against the bill are prosecutors themselves. The District Attorneys’ Association of the State of New York lobbied hard against it, simply dismissing the measures as unnecessary — which is nonsense because we have seen, as in the Collins case, that far too often these prosecutors are not held to any account at all.

So Cuomo has to decide: Will he side with the people who have been wrongfully convicted because of prosecutorial misconduct — many of whom I’d guess remain in prison, their appeals unheard — or with the prosecutors who get away scot-free for putting the wrong people behind bars?

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Trump says he's considering a pardon for Muhammad Ali, whose conviction was overturned

This article by Associated Press writer Jill Colvin was published by the New Orleans Times-Picayune on June 8, 2018.

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump said Friday (June 8) he may pardon the late heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who doesn't seem to need one. And for futures acts of clemency, he may seek recommendations from pro football players and other athletes who have protested racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem.

Trump said that "instead of talk," he is going to ask protesting players to suggest "people that they think were unfairly treated by the justice system." The president said football players have "seen a lot of abuse" and "a lot of unfairness" and that he wants their input on his use of this executive power.

Trump told reporters as he left the White House for a meeting with in Canada with U.S. allies that his team was "looking at literally thousands of names" of people for potential pardons because they were treated unfairly or their sentences are too long.

Ali is one name on this list, Trump said, though it was not immediately clear why Ali would need a pardon because he has no criminal record. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971 for resisting the draft.

Ali was born Cassius Clay, and changed his name after converting to Islam in the 1960s. He refused to serve in the Vietnam War because of his religious beliefs, declaring himself a conscientious objector, and saying, "I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong."

Ali was stripped of his heavyweight crown in 1967. Ali's legal fight ended in 1971, when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor. He regained the boxing title in 1974. Ali died in 2016.

Trump already has granted a posthumous pardon to boxing's first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, more than 100 years after many saw as his racially charged conviction. Johnson was convicted in 1913 by an all-white jury of violating the Mann Act for traveling with his white girlfriend. That law made it illegal to transport women across state lines for "immoral" purposes.

Earlier this week, Trump commuted the life sentence of a woman whose cause was championed by Kim Kardashian West.