May 2009 Archives

May 26, 2009

Montejo Loses to the "Letter of the Law"

Jesse Jay Montejo was charged with first-degree murder in Louisiana. Montejo remained mute at his first court hearing as the judge appointed an attorney to represent him. After the police read Montejo his Miranda rights, but before Montejo could meet with his attorney, Montejo showed the police where he had put the murder weapon and wrote a letter of apology to his victim's widow.  Over the objection of Montejo's lawyer, the trial judge ruled that the prosecutor could offer the letter into evidence at trial to help prove that Montejo committed the murder.

In a decision issued May 26, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the trial court's ruling in a 5-4 majority decision (Montejo v. Louisiana - PDF).

The decision overturned a two-decades-old case that basically said that once a lawyer has been appointed for a defendant, any statements the defendant makes to the police in the absence of the attorney should not be admitted into evidence.  The rule's purpose was to discourage police officers from "badgering" defendants into talking to them. But a statement that a defendant is badgered into making is likely to be inadmissible even under the Montejo decision. In deciding Montejo, the Court majority assumed that Montejo had written the letter voluntarily.  If so, said the majority, there's no valid reason to exclude it from evidence.  But if the police hadn't warned Montejo of his right to remain silent, or if they hectored Montejo into writing the letter, then the letter won't be admissible in evidence.

Probably few suspects who already have lawyers are as cooperative as Montejo and decide to talk voluntarily to police officers. Thus, as the Court majority admits, its decision is unlikely to affect many cases.

May 19, 2009

Skillicorn and the Death Penalty

Dennis Skillicorn is scheduled to be put to death in Missouri on Wednesday, 20 May 2009.  But the likelihood that Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon will cancel the execution and even declare a moratorium on its use has grown now that even Missouri legislators who support the death penalty have admitted to having second thoughts about executing Skillicorn.

Skillicorn has an ugly and violent history: He was sentenced to death for participating in the 1994 robbery/murder of Richard Drummond, though Skillicorn was not the actual killer.  Skillicorn also participated in at least two other murders, though again, his accomplices carried out the killings.

Evil though his past may be, Skillicorn's situation still raises questions about the fairness of the death penalty. If he did not personally kill anyone, is he really among the "worst of the worst?" Is he deserving of mercy because he has been a model prisoner who has been of service to other prisoners as well as prison officials?  Is the sober Skillicorn still the same person as the apparently drug-addled younger man who committed the awful crimes?     

Whether Skillicorn is executed as scheduled or allowed to live, the fact that even death penalty supporters are debating questions such as these seems to herald a future in which the death penalty ceases to exist in the United States.

May 13, 2009

Three Strikes and You're Out -- Of Prison

California's "3 strikes" law (and many similar ones) often results in significantly increased prison sentences for multiple offenders. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the 3 strikes law arises when the third strike is a minor, non-violent crime, such as petty theft or drug possession.  If an individual is convicted of a misdemeanor such as these and has previously been convicted of two violent or serious felonies, the misdemeanor conviction may constitute a third strike that results in a sentence of 25 years to life.

Though supporters of 3 strikes law may disagree, it seems senseless and excessively costly to keep prisoners incarcerated for many years for committing petty offenses. Surely the money could be better spent on job training and drug treatment programs?

A clinical program at Stanford Law School has succeeded in having judges reduce some of the most egregious examples of overly harsh sentences.  But given the huge volume of criminal cases, we must trust to prosecutors to invoke the 3 strikes law and judges to hand down 3 strike sentences for non-violent offenses only when the circumstances leave them with no reasonable alternative.

May 7, 2009

Marijuana Law Reform

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Many supporters of marijuana law reform think that the stars are aligned as never before in their favor.  They may be right.  Throughout the country, liberal cultural trends are evident in the removal of laws banning gay marriage and in the continued decline in the imposition and use of the death penalty.  Reform of marijuana laws may not be far behind.

Marijuana use is presently regulated by an array of incoherent laws.  For example, 13 states (including California) treat the possession of a small amount of marijuana as a non-arrestable offense punishable by no more than a fine of $100.  Yet the penalty for marijuana use in other states may consist of a fine of up to $1000 and a year in jail.  And while 12 states have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, the feds may charge marijuana medical dispensers with violations of federal law.

If the laws criminalizing marijuana use are in disarray, the government's lengthy and costly efforts to curtail its use have been largely ineffective.  Estimates are that about the same percentage of 12th graders who used marijuana in the mid-1970s use it now -- and about 25 million adults spend around $11 billion annually to use marijuana, an economic figure that U.S. automakers can only drool at.

Reform advocates argue, based on numerous scientific studies, that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol or nicotine.  Yet, if marijuana use were legalized and sold in the same way as alcohol and cigarettes, the resulting taxes would help fill the coffers of financially-challenged governments. And just as with alcohol and cigarettes, advertising of marijuana could be regulated, and marijuana could not be legally sold to minors.

Most reform advocates recognize the risks of legalizing marijuana. For many addicts, marijuana could prove to be a "gateway" drug that leads to use of stronger and more harmful drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. And undoubtedly, legalizing marijuana would lead some people to try it who otherwise would not.  The benefits of educational and treatment programs, paid for with "pot taxes," are supporters' common responses to these dangers.   

Legislation aimed at de-criminalizing marijuana has been introduced in the U.S. Congress and in some state legislatures.  Given the financial straits in which goverments find themselves and the broad dissatidfaction with the results of the "War on Drugs," some type of marijuana law reform seems like a reasonable prediction.