February 2010 Archives

February 26, 2010

Alcala Convicted of Murder For the 3rd Time

Rodney Alcala was convicted on Feb. 26, 2010, of murdering 12 year old Robin Samsoe in 1979.  This was his 3rd conviction for the same crime- California appellate courts reversed the first two convictions.  This time around, with the help of DNA evidence that wasn't available at the time of the first two trials, Alcala was also convicted of murdering 4 other women.

Alcala represented himself.  It's often said that a person who represents himself has a fool for a client. In Alcala's case, it might be more appropriate to say that he had a ghoul for a client. 

In a few days, the jury will decide whether to recommend that Alcala be put to death.  But to this point this has been The Case That Would Not Die. The only good thing to come of the prolonged agony for Robin's family and friends is that Alcala lived long enough for DNA testing to enable the police to solve 4 other terrible crimes. 

February 22, 2010

In Texas, Justice is for Lovers

Someone close to you is charged with capital murder.  Would you be upset to know that the trial judge and prosecutor had recently carried on an extra-marital affair?

This happened in Charles Dean Hood in 1989.  Hood was apparently just that-- he was convicted in Texas of a double murder in 1990.  What Hood didn't know was that trial judge Verla Sue Holland and prosecutor Thjomas S.O'Connell Jr had recently ended an extra-marital affair.  

Texas's highest court has upheld the conviction, ruling that Hood took too long to complain about the possible conflict of interest. That's a surprising ruling since the judge and prosecutor didn't admit to the affair until 2008, 18 years after Hood's conviction.  The court took refuge in the procedural point to avoid confronting the real issue, which is whether the judge and the prosecutor had an ethical obligation to disclose their affair to the defense. 

The answer to this question is easy: YES!  Hood's attorneys should not have had to ask for this information, Holland and O'Connell should have revealed it and given the defense a chance to object. If the judge and prosecutor were concerned about protecting their privacy, one or both of them could have stepped aside and let others handle the case.  Hood has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and hopefully the Court will reverse the conviction and eliminate this blight on the US system of justice.  As for Holland and O"Connell, at the very least these worthies should repay the Texas taxpayers for the cost of a trial that was a sham all along.    

February 19, 2010

Computer Searches, the 4th Amendment and Jurisprudence

Police officers search a suspect's computer pursuant to a search warrant authorizing them to look for evidence relating to threats that the suspect allegedly made against a school.  While searching computer files, the officers come across files containing illegal child pornography.  Can the officers "seize" these files and legitimately charge the suspect for possessing child pornography?  Yes, ruled a federal court in United States v. Williams (2010).

Judges frequently have to grapple with how to adapt rules to scenarios that didn't exist when the rules were created.  Search warrants are supposed to describe carefully where police officers can search for the evidence described in a warrant.  But if a computer is the site for a search, police officers may uncover a vast amount of private and personal information about suspects and other people and groups that have nothing to do with the evidence described in a warrant. 

In the Williams case, the court ruled in favor of the police by applying an existing rule (the "plain view" exception to the warrant requirement) to a technology that didn't exist when the rule was created.  The court stated that the police officers seized the child pornography legally because it came into "plain view" as they opened electronic files that might have contained evidence of threats.

The Williams case is a reminder that legal rules have to be somewhat abstract and elastic if we expect judges to apply them in contexts that develop after the rules are created.   

February 17, 2010

Is the Exclusionary Rule an Endangered Species?

The Exclusionary Rule has been controversial ever since the US Supreme Court enshrined it in the law of search and seizure in the case of Mapp v Ohio in 1961.  The Mapp doctrine is that any evidence that police officers seize in violation of the 4th Amendment is inadmissible at

trial.  For example, assume that police officers conduct a warrantless search of a house in circumstances where they should first have obtained a search warrant from a judge.  Whatever the search turns up- illegal drugs, evidence of a past crime, etc. - would have to be excluded.  If the prosecution does not have enough independent evidence of a defendant's guilt, excluding the illegally seized evidence would result in dismissal of criminal charges.

          According to Mapp, the exclusionary rule deters police officers from conducting illegal searches.  If police officers know that illegally-seized evidence can't be used in court, they won't conduct illegal searches.   But attackers of the exclusionary rule argue that it makes no sense to "let guilty people go free because the constable has erred."

          In recent years, the Supreme Court has reduced the reach of the exclusionary rule.  For example, evidence that a police officer seizes in good faith reliance on a defective search warrant is admissible in evidence.  Nevertheless, proposals to eliminate the exclusionary rule continue to be put forward.

          A 2010 essay by law professors Samuel Estreicher and Daniel Weick published in the Missouri Law Review suggests that law enforcement agencies that establish rules and policies to deter improper searches should be exempt from the exclusionary rule.  They argue that illegal searches can be deterred without freeing guilty criminals if police agencies establish rigorous polices and training programs and discipline police officers who carry out illegal searches.

          Whether or not states and courts accept Estreicher and Weick's proposal, the debate over the wisdom of the Exclusionary Rule is likely to continue in the years to come.

February 8, 2010

Finland Fits the Punishment to the Purse

Many communities are trying to balance their budgets by raising the fines for parking and moving violations.  If they really want to get serious serious, they might look to FInland for guidance.

Traffic fines in Finland have long been based on a formula that combines the severity of an offense with a driver's income.  The idea is that if penalties are to hurt equally, wealthier people should pay higher fines.  Thus some years ago a well-heeled driver was fined $71,000 for driving 43 mph in a 25 mph zone.

Anyone anxious to copy Finland?  

February 3, 2010

Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalah and "Miranda RIghts"

Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalah is the Nigerian airline passenger who is charged with trying to blow up his Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, 2010.  It was recently reported that the government officials who arrested Abdulmuttalah elicited lots of information from him before advising him of his "Miranda rights," including the right to remain silent and the right to talk to an attorney. 

The federal government presently plans to try Abdulmuttalah as a criminal rather than as a terrorist.  If so, the statements made by Abdulmutallah before he was given Miranda warnings may not be admissible in evidence against him at trial.  However, the delay in giving warnings will have little or no impact on the government's case against Abdulmutallah.  Apart from anything he might have told the investigators, the government has plenty of other evidence that it can offer to prove his guilt. 

Thus, the delay in giving Miranda warnings may affect the admissibility of Abdulmutallah's statements, but the delay in no way jeopardizes the government's ability to convict him of an act of terrorism..

February 2, 2010

With Friends Like This....

Frank Spisak was convicted of horrific murders and sentenced to death in Ohio. But you might forgive him for wondering which side his defense attorney was on.  During the penalty phase of the trial, when the jurors had to choose between life or death, Spisak's lawyer told the jurors that:

1. The murders were gruesome, and he recounted the awful details.

2. Spisak was undeserving of their sympathy.

3. Spisak had not done any good deeds and never had good thoughts.

4. Spisak is demented, he will never be any different, and he has threatened to commit future crimes.

Despite its conclusion that the defense attorney's remarks were "constitutionally inadequate," the U.S. Supreem Court upheld the death sentence.  The reason was that a better argument wouldn't have produced a different result.  As Justice Stevens remarked, even Clarence Darrow wouldn't have been able to save Spisak from a death sentence.

Maybe so, but I bet Darrow would not have sounded like he wanted to cast the first ballot for death.