(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.

Photo of the day

From the National Geographic Found archive:

A solitary fisherman’s home keeps watch on quiet Placentia Bay in Newfoundland, Canada, 1974.Photograph by Sam Abell, National Geographic Creative

A solitary fisherman’s home keeps watch on quiet Placentia Bay in Newfoundland, Canada, 1974.PHOTOGRAPH BY SAM ABELL, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Scalia and judicial interpretation

Among the most annoying things about Antonin Scalia is his absurd and supercilious belief that while other judges are interpreting the law, he is simply reading the text and leaving himself out of the equation.  As if there’s no interpretation involved in reading text.  Oh, I get so tired of people acting like he’s so damn brilliant.  Seems like he’s brilliant at convincing people he’s smarter than he actually is.  Anyway, nice post from Jeffrey Toobin regarding textualism and the latest Obamacare case:

The case is the latest chapter of the legal assault on Obamacare, but it is also the most prominent instance of a larger fight over an ascendant legal theory known as textualism. This approach, which was pioneered and advocated by, most prominently, Justice Antonin Scalia, holds that courts should interpret laws based solely on their own terms, and not on the basis of the intent of the legislators who create the statute. As Scalia has written, “We are governed by laws, not by the intentions of legislators.” The words of the statute should always prevail, Scalia believes, over “unenacted legislative intent.”

This all sounds reasonable enough in the abstract. But what happens when the text of the law is ambiguous, or if one part of the text conflicts with another? …

Moreover, [author of a new book on textualism, Robert] Katzmann makes the apt point that textualism is especially inappropriate for judges who, like Scalia, profess to believe in judicial restraint—in the idea, that is, that judges should defer to the elected branches of government. Katzmann writes that “excluding legislative history is just as likely to expand a judge’s discretion as reduce it…. When a statute is ambiguous, barring legislative history leaves a judge only with words that could be interpreted in a variety of ways without contextual guidance as to what legislators may have thought. Lacking such guidance increases the probability that a judge will construe a law in a manner that the legislators did not intend.” …

Scalia and other textualists often assert that their approach drains their judgments of political content: they simply read the statutes, consult a dictionary, and render their verdicts. As the Halbig case demonstrates, textualism is as politically fraught as any other approach to judging. The Halbig case is not an attempt to police unclear drafting but rather the latest effort to destroy a law that is despised by many conservatives. The five appellate judges who voted to uphold the law were originally nominated by Democratic Presidents; the two who voted against it were chosen by Republicans. This reflects the real division over the Affordable Care Act–a political, rather than judicial, conflict. Textualism is not a dispassionate guide to a result; it’s merely a vehicle to a preferred outcome—the destruction of Obamacare.


Better teaching through better teachers

I’m really looking forward to reading Dana Goldstein’s new book on the history of teaching policy in the US.  Nice piece on it in the Atlantic.  After thorough study of the issue, Goldstein’s conclusions are going to look pretty damn similar to a point I’ve made here and will make here again– pay teachers like professionals and treat them like professionals:

The dream, from Beecher to today, seems to be that if only our schools could get rid of the career educators and install angels instead, the millennium would arrive.

This is an especially pernicious dream since, as Goldstein says, one of the consistent findings in education research is that first-year teachers are not very good. In teaching, Goldstein notes, there is a learning curve, and “the curve is steep.” If we want to improve schools, one of the quickest ways is to reduce turnover; skilled veteran teachers may be schools’ most valuable resources. Because of that, many of Goldstein’s recommendations at the book’s conclusion are focused on making teaching more attractive as a long-term profession. That involves increasing teacher pay, but it also means giving veteran teachers more responsibilities—for mentoring, for developing curricula, for working with peers to develop and evaluate programs. It means treating teachers as professionals to rely on, rather than as suspects to be policed.

So, what are we doing here in NC?  Oh, flattening the pay scale for advanced teachers to give them little financial incentive to stay in the profession.  And the obsession with students’ test scores to evaluate teachers is not treating them like professionals:

One of the reasons for the smaller raises for experienced teachers is longevity pay. It’s a bonus for most state employees that kicks in after ten years on the job, and goes up every five years.

When the General Assembly simplified the teacher salary schedule (pdf) from 37 pay steps to six, longevity pay was folded into it.

Republicans say the schedule, and the raises, were designed to benefit newer teachers because they were leaving the state at a high rate. The General Assembly raised salaries for teachers early in their careers as much as 18 percent.

“We’ve got to be committed to raising the level of our experienced teachers who have been here, have fought all the battles, have been through the two pay freezes,” said State Sen. Jerry Tillman during a teacher compensation task force meeting earlier this year. “I know about them, I set there through them myself. But if we only had a limited amount of money, we had to start somewhere.”

The emphasis on newer teachers is starting to show up in schools. In 2013, 27 percent of teachers had five years or less experience. On the other end of the scale, just 15 percent of teachers had more than 25 years on the job…

As others point out, almost all teacher effectiveness research has a basic flaw: it relies solely on student test scores. Only about 40 percent of teachers even teach students who take end-of-grade or end-of-class tests.

“I really wish we would change the narrative about teacher effectiveness because when people talk about that, by and large, they are talking about standardized test scores and that’s it,” says Maher. “As though that were the end-all, be-all of classrooms and schooling, when there’s so much more that happens in a classroom.”

If the research is conflicting, the economics are not: teachers later in their careers cost more.

Meanwhile, Joe Nocera’s recent column discusses a new report on all the damage done by our testing obsession:

We know what the current system of accountability looks like, and it’s not pretty. Ever since the passage of No Child Left Behind 12 years ago, teachers have been judged, far too simplistically, based on standardized tests given to their students — tests, as Marc S. Tucker points out in a new report, Fixing Our National Accountability System, that are used to decide which teachers should get to keep their jobs and which should be fired. This system has infuriated and shamed teachers, and is a lot of the reason that teacher turnover is so high, causing even many of the best teachers to abandon the ranks.

All of which might be worth it if this form of accountability truly meant that public school students were getting a better education. But, writes Tucker, “There is no evidence that it is contributing anything to improved student performance.” Meanwhile, he adds, test-based accountability is “doing untold damage to the profession of teaching.” …

Not long after founding the N.C.E.E., Tucker began taking a close look at countries and cities that were re-engineering successfully. What he came away with were two insights. First was a profound appreciation for the fact that most of the countries with the best educational results used the same set of techniques to get there. And, second, that the American reform methods were used nowhere else in the world. “No other country believes that you can get to a high quality educational system simply by instituting an accountability system,” he says. “We are entirely on the wrong track.” His cri de coeur has been that Americans should look to what works, instead of clinging to what doesn’t.

Got that?  All this obsession with teacher accountability through testing?  No evidence from anywhere else in the world that this is the way to improve education.  So, what do all those high-performing nations have in common, oh, just maybe something you might have heard before:

The main thing that works is treating teaching as a profession, and teachers as professionals.

Yes, damnit!  This is not rocket science.  It takes two things– will and money.  Or heck, just will, because if we mean it, money will follow.  So let’s stop mucking around with all this other stuff and create a professional class of highly-skilled, highly-qualified, highly-valued, highly compensated teachers.  Is it really impossible for us to do what they have in Finland, South Korea, Poland, etc.?!  Of course not.  We just need to focus on the right things and be willing to spend the money to do so.

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