Bite me

Though hundreds of been sent to death row based upon it, bite mark forensics, as it has been typically practiced, is complete bunk (great piece on it in this Frontline).  Yet when it comes to cases where the bite marks were the key to conviction, courts have been loathe to overturn, lacking other compelling evidence (e.g., DNA).  Excellent NYT story on this troubling issue:

Mr. Howard had a history of mental illness and he made a series of seemingly incriminating, if contradictory and irrational, statements that made him the prime suspect. Though no confession was recorded or written down, he reportedly told one police officer that “the case is solved” and that “I had a temper and that’s why this happened,” even as he said that six others were involved and he failed to recognize Ms. Kemp’s house.

Three days after Ms. Kemp was buried, the medical examiner had her exhumed so that Dr. West could look for bite marks using a fluorescent light method he had developed. He said he found three bites and — without showing any photographs or other evidence — testified at trial that Mr. Howard was the biter “to a reasonable medical certainty.” …

The death sentence was reimposed and the Supreme Court has refused so far to reopen his conviction. In a 2006 ruling, the court said: “Just because Dr. West has been wrong a lot, does not mean, without something more, that he was wrong here.” [emphasis mine] The court did agree in 2010 to order DNA testing of the knife and other crime scene objects, with new results described as exculpatory in Mr. Howard’s newest appeal.

Just to be clear, this is nuts!  While there may be some limited use for bite mark analysis when done in a dramatically more scientifically rigorous manner (as this article details at the end), as used in this case and hundreds of others it is nothing but junk science.  It is as if the Supreme Court has said, well, we know there’s really nothing to phrenology and alchemy, but maybe the expert phrenologist was right.  Seriously?!  This is the level of logic of the f****ng Supreme Court?!

Criminal Justice American Style :-(.

Harsher prison sentences don’t actually work; infographic version

This is pretty awesome via Pew.  There’s plenty of reasons certain people should spend a lot of time in prisons.  That said, as a society we put way too many people in prison for way too long.  And it is probably not doing anything to help with our crime rate as this infographic demonstrates:

When the police steal your cash, redux

The Post story I linked to the other day was the first in a 3-part series.  The final installment is largely a litany of completely innocent Americans who have been absolutely screwed by their own government and their own law enforcement.  So frustrating and depressing to read.  Time after time the police are stealing cash from people because they appear nervous or because the police smell drugs that are never found.   Wake up America– this is your f***ing war on drugs!   People need to share this widely.  Our government (no government in a democracy!) should absolutely, positively not operate this way.

I had lunch today with a former student who recounted an incident where he and his brother were pulling away from a bus station when they were eventually stopped by four! of Town of Cary’s finest and instructed to wait outside the car while a drug dog was brought into sniff.  They were never given any reason/explanation for the police actions.  Fortunately for these two, they weren’t carrying any serious cash for the police to steal and were sent on their way and just minor civil liberties violations.  On the bright side, I suppose (??) this student and his brother are two incredibly, clean-cut white guys (his older brother is special forces, no less) and were subject to this.  I guess I should be happy that this can happen to clean-cut white guys, too?

I was curious to look up the law in NC in the hopes that I could try and at least bring about change in my hope state.  The good news?  North Carolina is the best in the country on the issue.   Apparently Nebraska and Wisconsin are pretty good, too.  But as for the rest of America?  All your cash belong to us.

Carrying lots of cash? Guilty until proven innocent

I’ve written here about civil forfeiture before (and if you haven’t read the tour-de-force New Yorker piece yet, please. do.  Really.  Really).  It is a practice that truly has no business in a democracy.   The Post just ran a great story on how various private businesses and police agencies are collaborating at ever greater levels to basically steal people’s cash.

This is so wrong!  Yes, drug dealers use cash.  That does not mean everybody who uses cash is a drug dealer!  There was one case in this story where a guy was suspicious because he had duct tape.  Apparently drug dealers use duct tape.  You know who else uses duct tape?  Millions and millions of law-abiding citizens?  Also, drug dealers get nervous.  You know who else gets nervous?  Innocent citizens facing over-zealous interrogation from police.  Good news?  If you are innocent you can get your cash back in about a year with thousands in legal fees.  If you’re lucky.  Oh, and that business that went under while you were missing the cash, or the big deal that was never made, or the catastrophe that happened because you couldn’t pay off your debt?  Too bad.

This is so wrong and so un-American and so damn prevalent.   Where the hell is the Tea Party and the government-fearing right on this?!  Talk about government run amok.  I guess they are more worried about people getting high, though, than a government run amok.  Of course this stops and hinders drug dealers.  I don’t doubt that for a second.  You know what else would hurt drug dealers?  Unlimited searches without a warrant.  But we don’t do that because it is wrong and a huge violation of the rights of the innocent.  The same should be said for civil forfeiture.  Now go read the story.

(In)Justice NC style

Yet another very disturbing case of men wrongfully convicted for a murder who have just been released from NC’s death row after 30 years.  First the NYT editorial:

The exoneration of two North Carolina men who spent 30 years in prison — one on death row — provides a textbook example of so much that is broken in the American justice system. And it is further evidence (as though more were needed) that the death penalty is irretrievably flawed as well as immoral…

The crime was so horrific that it has echoed for decades through North Carolina politics and beyond. In 1994, after Justice Harry Blackmun of the Supreme Court announced that he opposed capital punishment in all circumstances, Justice Antonin Scalia cited the Buie murder as a case where it was clearly warranted. [emphasis mine] “How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!” he wrote

On Tuesday, a state judge ordered both men freed after multiple pieces of evidence, some of which had never been turned over to defense lawyers, proved that neither Mr. McCollum nor Mr. Brown was responsible for the crime. DNA taken from a cigarette found at the crime scene matched a different man, Roscoe Artis, who is already serving life in prison for a similar murder committed just weeks after Sabrina Buie’s killing.

Virtually everything about the arrests, confessions, trial and convictions of Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown was polluted by official error and misconduct.

No physical evidence linked either man to the crime, so their false confessions, given under duress, were the heart of the case the prosecutors mounted against them. Both men’s confessions were handwritten by police after hours of intense questioning without a lawyer or parent present. Neither was recorded, and both men have maintained their innocence ever since. [emphasis mine]

Equally disturbing, Mr. Artis was a suspect from the start. Three days before the murder trial began, police requested that a fingerprint from the crime scene be tested for a match with Mr. Artis, who had a long history of sexual assaults against women. The test was never done, and prosecutors never revealed the request to the defense.

I find it absolutely appalling that juries somehow regularly convict “beyond a reasonable doubt” in cases where you have mentally disabled defendants providing a confession after hours and hours of interrogation with no representation and no physical evidence.  Juries suck.  There was a horrible crime and they wanted somebody to pay.  And, of course, the prosecutor was far more interested in a conviction than justice.

And a fine piece from Dahlia Lithwick:

This case highlights the same well-known and extensively documented problemsthat can lead to false arrests and convictions: Police who are incentivized to find anysuspect quickly, rather than the right one carefully; false confessions elicited after improper questioning; exculpatory evidence never turned over; the prosecution of vulnerable, mentally ill, or very young suspects in ways that take advantage of their innocence rather than protecting it; prosecutorial zeal that has far more to do with the pursuit of victories than the pursuit of truth; and a death penalty appeals system that treats this entire screwed-up process of investigation and conviction as both conclusive and unreviewable…

Why would two innocent people confess falsely? This always seems beyond imagining. Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia School of Law has done extensive research on the question of why people confess to crimes they did not commit. In his study of the first 250 DNA exonerations for his book Convicting the Innocent, Garrett found that 40 of the 250 (or 16 percent) of the wrongful convictions happened when innocent defendants confessed to crimes they did not commit. (Hisupdated data is here, showing that the patterns have held steady as the cases have increased.) As he reported in Slate in 2011:

Of those 40 exonerees who confessed, for instance, 14 were mentally disabled or borderline mentally disabled, and three more (at least) were mentally ill. Thirteen of the 40 were juveniles. All but four were interrogated for more than three hours at a sitting…

As the New York Times notes, as recently as 2010, the North Carolina Republican Party featured McCollum’s booking photo on campaign fliers accusing a local Democrat of being soft on crime. The Times also points out that the defendants were prosecuted by Joe Freeman Britt, “the 6-foot-6, Bible-quoting district attorney who was profiled by 60 Minutes as the country’s ‘deadliest D.A.’ ” for seeking and getting the death penalty so often. (Britt told the RaleighNews & Observer last week that he still believed the men were guilty.)…

Those who believe that we don’t execute the undeserving in America—or who aren’t too concerned about that possibility anyhow—have an ally in Justice Antonin Scalia. He famously insisted in Kansas v. Marsh that “”it should be noted at the outset that the dissent does not discuss a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby.”

That same Scalia, in an unrelated case before the Supreme Court 20 years ago, name-checked McCollum as the reason to continue to impose the death penalty.

Anybody in this country who has confidence in our criminal justice system is either willfully ignorant or simply hasn’t been paying attention.  The situation is truly appalling.  These men were only freed because somehow NC managed to create an “Innocence Commission” (you know our present legislature would have never done so; in fact, some have proposed abolishing it).  Most states don’t even have these commissions and we have seen that, in general, governors are horrible with appropriately using their pardon powers in these cases.   America can and absolutely should do better.  It is so sad that many in positions of power are basically satisfied with the current, morally offensive, state of affairs.

Super Mega Labor Day Quick hits

Sorry to disappoint you with your long weekend reading, but between a PS conference and a family trip to Topsail Island, blogging has dropped in priority.  You might even want to space out your reading– I’ve been too lazy to break these up and blogging will still be slow while I catch back up to speed.  So, there’s a ton.

1) Definitely number for for me: Arsonist hits my hotel.  This was actually scary as hell as I was on the 8th floor and one emergency stair was choked with smoke and another was choked with people.  Fortunately, I did not go down the over-crowded one but found a third.

2) The four-word secret to seeming polite.  I’m so going to use this.

3) Boys interrupt and girls do not from an early age.  Apparently, Sarah has not been socialized into this gender role yet.

4) Loving the NYT coverage of the US Open even though I hardly watch tennis anymore.  On the dearth of quality among US Men’s tennis.  On the death of the one-handed backhand (hey, that’s what I used to use).

5) I never really liked the multiverse theory.

6) Yes, even academics should watch what they tweet.  At least if you plan on taking a job at a new institution.

7) Tennessee has been drug testing those seeking welfare benefits.  They are finding very low rates of drug use.

8) The great Civil War hoax (that I had never heard about).

9) Why college textbooks are so expensive.  I love the prescription drug analogy– I’ve used it many times myself.  I have no doubt faculty have to take price more seriously.

10) The Upshot on the blue state disapora.

11) Classic Onion headline (and so true in my experience): “GOP holds solid hold on youth that already look like old men.”

12) Our current drug czar is a recovering alcoholic and believes in focusing on health and treatment.  Hooray!

13) Vox does their own bit on the absurdity of HS start times.  Most interesting to me, apparently my own school system that educated me, Fairfax County, VA, is looking to change it’s start time.  25 years to late for me, but good for them.   And honestly, if a huge county with a high SES population and excellent school system can make this change, maybe they can be a trendsetter.  I sure hope so.

14) I learned from Nurtureshock years ago never to tell my kids their smart.  Still, liked this Khan Academy post on the matter.

15) Ozy on the invention of toilet paper.  Thank God– sure beats the previous alternatives.

16) The infamous monkey in the selife makes a statement.

17) Emily Bazelon on the rise of medical abortions.

18) Anybody who sexualizes innocent photos a father takes of his naked two year old is just sick.  Certainly not the father taking the photos.  These shots are so cute.  What’s wrong with people?!

19) In case you missed the story of the Hollywood producer being held for a bank robbery.  Oh, yeah, he was Black.

20) The Democrats’ plan for 2020.

21) The Ohio legislature versus science.  Ugh.

22) Nicholas Kristof says everyone is a little bit racist.  He’s right.  Of course, I’ve known that since grad school, but still a nice summary of some important social science.

23) Charter schools aren’t quite what they should be.

24) On the remaining sexism in Congress and the continuing difficulty faced by female politicians (this is going onto the next Gender & Politics syllabus).

25) How John Oliver’s awesome viral clips (many seen here) don’t exactly fit in with HBO’s standard business model.

26) Vox on the institutional racism of the war on drugs and the perverse incentives it provides to police forces.

27) Surely you heard the sad story of the eight-year old who accidentally shot her shooting instructor with a submachine gun on full automatic.  UVA poet Greg Orr reflects on how he accidentally shot and killed his brother as a child and the lasting trauma.  I really enjoyed seeing this because I remember when Orr came to read poetry at my HS and spoke of this incident.  Probably about the only guest speaker I remember from high school.

US vs. UK (police shootings edition)

The Economist on police shootings in America vs the UK:

In 2012, according to data compiled by the FBI, 410 Americans were “justifiably” killed by police—409 with guns. That figure may well be an underestimate. Not only is it limited to the number of people who were shot while committing a crime, but also, amazingly, reporting the data is voluntary.

Last year, in total, British police officers actually fired their weapons three times. The number of people fatally shot was zero. In 2012 the figure was just one. Even after adjusting for the smaller size of Britain’s population, British citizens are around 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than Americans. Between 2010 and 2014 the police force of one small American city, Albuquerque in New Mexico, shot and killed 23 civilians; seven times more than the number of Brits killed by all of England and Wales’s 43 forces during the same period.

Wow.  And what could account for this?  How about more guns equal more police getting shot and more police shooting people:

The explanation for this gap is simple. In Britain, guns are rare. Only specialist firearms officers carry them; and criminals rarely have access to them. The last time a British police officer was killed by a firearm on duty was in 2012, in a brutal case in Manchester. The annual number of murders by shooting is typically less than 50. Police shootings are enormously controversial. The shooting of Mark Duggan, a known gangster, which in 2011 started riots across London, led to a fiercely debated inquest. Last month, a police officer was charged with murder over a shooting in 2005…

In America, by contrast, it is hardly surprising that cops resort to their weapons more frequently. In 2013, 30 cops were shot and killed—just a fraction of the 9,000 or so murders using guns that happen each year. Add to that a hyper-militarised police cultureand a deep history of racial strife and you have the reason why so many civilians are shot by police officers

Now, I realize that gun-wise, we are culturally a million miles away from the UK and wishful thinking is not going to get us there.  But in the UK, where for the most part, only criminals have guns, a hell of a lot less people get shot.  And a lot less of those people are police or victims of “justifiable” shootings on the part of the police.  Call me crazy, but that sounds a lot better than America’s gun-infused culture.



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