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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. 

January 11, 2010

Rodney Alcala- Will Trial No. 3 prove that he's a serial killer?

Rodney Alcala has twice been convicted of killing 12 year old Robin Samsoe in Huntington Beach (CA) in 1979.  Each time he was sentenced to death.  But both convictions were reversed, so here in Jan. 2010 Alcala is again on trial for killing Robin Samsoe.

Robin has plenty of company this time around.  As Alcala remained in prison, DNA testing linked him to the deaths of 4 other late-1970's CA murder victims.  So Alcala now is charged with 5 murders.

Ironically, Alcala's first conviction was reversed because the trial judge allowed the prosecution to offer evidence of Alcala's violence towards girls other than Robin. Now that evidence rules have changed and Alcala is charged with other crimes, Jury # 3 will hear plenty of evidence suggesting that Alcala is a serial killer.    

Alcala has chosen to represent himself.  That's less of a gamble than it seems.  He is now 66 years old, so even if he is convicted and the conviction is upheld, the chances that he'll be executed are virtually nil.


June 18, 2009

Prisoners Do Not Have a Right to DNA Tests

Whenever possible, the criminal justice system looks to DNA testing to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. In some cases, DNA testing has exonerated prisoners who were wrongly convicted and imprisoned years earlier.

Not surprisingly, prisoners are increasingly demanding DNA testing.  However, in a case entitled District Attorney's Office v. Osborne (2009) the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not require that prisoners be given access to DNA testing.

Osborne is unlikely to make a dramatic impact, since all but 4 states already authorize DNA testing for at least some prisoners. And given the backlog existing in many DNA testing labs, a decision that prisoners had a right to have DNA tests performed might have created a huge priority conflict between pending cases and closed cases.

June 10, 2009

Stephanie Lazarus' DNA

The label "cop killer" usually denotes people who kill police officers. In a strange twist, the label may also fit LA police detective Stephanie Lazarus. Lazarus is charged with murdering Sherri Rasmussen in 1986.  Lazarus was a cop in uniform at the time she allegedly killed Sherri in a jealous rage because Sherri married Lazarus' ex-boyfriend.

The detectives assigned to investigate Sherri's murder ignored all the evidence suggesting that Lazarus was the killer.  Lazarus was not arrested until 2009, after new "cold case" detectives used DNA to link Lazarus to the murder.

To obtain a sample of Lazarus' saliva, an LAPD cop secretly followed Lazarus to a convenience store and took a plastic utensil that Lazarus had just used from a trash bin.  (Police work can be so glamorous!)  But here's my question: Shouldn't it be standard procedure for police agencies to have DNA profiles for all police officers in their files?  Once the cold case detectives realized that Lazarus was a suspect in Sherri's killing, they should have been able to search their files rather than a convenience store's trash to obtain Lazarus' DNA.

A secondary question concerns the retirement benefits currently being collected by the inept detectives who ignored the clues pointing to Lazarus as the killer.  Can these detectives be demoted retroactively?  They decided that Sherri's killer was a burglar, even though all that was missing from Sherri's home was her marriage license and her car.  How awful for Sherri's relatives to know that Sherri's killer remained free only because LAPD detectives didn't care enough to look for her.      

June 1, 2009

Deepening the DNA Pool

You undoubtedly know that when suspects are booked into jail, they are fingerprinted and photographed. Now they may have to provide a DNA sample as well.

At one time, the government could collect DNA samples from suspects only after they had been convicted. However, in an effort to expand the pool of available DNA samples, the U.S. Congress enacted the "Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005'' (PDF). This federal law authorized the taking of DNA samples from suspects who had been arrested for felonies. The DNA samples will of course remain in government files even if charges are dropped or suspects are found not guilty.

Defense lawyers have argued unsuccessfully that collecting DNA samples from felony arrestees is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. Judges have responded that since DNA testing is routine (often consisting of a swab or a simple blood test), the intrusion on privacy is minimal. Collecting DNA samples also does not interfere with a suspect's privilege against self- incrimination, since that constitutional right protects suspects against having to provide the government with testimonial evidence but not against having to provide physical evidence.

Should there be any restrictions on the government's right to collect DNA samples? For example, if the federal law were broadened to allow the government to collect DNA samples from suspects arrested for misdemeanor offenses, would it still be valid? For that matter, why wait until people are arrested to collect DNA samples? If the idea is to have the broadest possible DNA database available to identify the guilty and exculpate the innocent, should DNA samples be collected from everyone at birth? The DNA pool is getting deeper, and at this point, its ultimate depth is uncertain.

March 30, 2009

A National Commission on Criminal Justice

In the widely acclaimed film ...And Justice For All criminal defense lawyer Arthur Kirkland (played by Al Pacino) famously screams to a jury that "this whole system is out of order."

What was a parody three decades ago has become today's sad truth. The U.S. criminal justice system is broken.  Prisons are overcrowded and dangerous to prisoners and prison personnel alike.  Judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers have so many cases that as Lenny Bruce said, "In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls."  Crime labs spew out questionable forensic test results and are too under-funded to keep up with their work. Many prisoners are mentally ill or addicted to drugs and could be treated more cheaply and humanely in community-based rehabilitation centers.

A new legislative proposal provides some basis for hoping that the criminal justice system has hit rock bottom and may be ready to be pushed onto the road to recovery.  U.S. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) has proposed legislation called The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009.  If passed, the law will create a blue ribbon commission charged with reinventing the criminal justice system.  If the system is to be improved, many perceptions will need to be changed and many entrenched interests will need to cede power.  But what the heck -- as long as we're trying to repair our banking system, auto industry, and many other dysfunctional (yet crucial) institutions, we might as well toss the criminal justice system into the mix.

March 25, 2009

New Mexico Abolishes Capital Punishment

New Mexico has abolished capital punishment, effective July 1, 2009. With its abolishment, LWOP (Life Without Possibility of Parole) becomes New Mexico's maximum punishment.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signed the law even though he personally supports capital punishment. Richardson concluded that though the death penalty may be warranted for the worst crimes, he believed that the criminal justice system cannot fairly distinguish those murderers who should die for their crimes from those who are allowed to live. He was also influenced by statistics showing that nationally, about 130 death row prisoners have been shown to be innocent-- mostly through DNA evidence. 

For capital punishment opponents, the symbolic value of the state's decision may outweigh its practical impact.  New Mexico currently has only 2 prisoners on death row, and the state has executed only 2 people since 1960. Yet its abolishment adds to a growing sense that like all European countries, the United States will eventually ban capital punishment. The number of death senetences handed down and carried out in the United States has dropped for each of the last 5 years. The decision of New Mexico's legislature to abolish capital punishment, and in particular Gov. Richardson's reasons for accepting the decision, is another signal that the country will eventually hand capital punishment a death sentence of its own.

March 12, 2009

Ricardo Rachell: The Crimnal Injustice System in a Nutshell

Ricardo Rachell was released from a Texas prison in December 2008 after serving more than 5 years in prison for the rape of a child that he didn't commit.  Rachell's tragic story provides a snapshot of the common ills that afflict our criminal justice system and that I have discussed in earlier blog entries.

  1. Rachell was convicted largely on the basis of mistaken eyewitness identifications made by the 8-year-old male victim and his friend. More than any other factor, mistaken eyewitness identifications are the leading cause of wrongful convictions. Amazingly, the boys were believed even though Rachell's face is terribly disfigured from a shotgun blast he had suffered years earlier, and the boys initially failed to mention anything unusual about the attacker's face to the police. 
  2. DNA testing of physical evidence proved that Rachell did not commit the crime.  However, even though the evidence was available for testing shortly after the crime took place in 2002, it wasn't tested until 2008. The prosecutor claims that the defense trial lawyer should have requested DNA testing; the defense lawyer claims that he didn't know that physical evidence was available for testing; and the incompetent DNA lab was closed down around the time Rachell was convicted anyway.
  3. Pat Lykos, the current District Attorney of Harris County, Texas (where Rachell was convicted) blames the prosecutors, the defense lawyers, the police, and the crime lab for the wrongful conviction.  But even if Lykos had 10 hands, she probably wouldn't have enough fingers to point at the causes of this injustice.
February 18, 2009

Update: Crime Labs Remain Under the Microscope


After a lengthy study, the National Academy of Sciences has called for a thorough overhaul of the nation's crime labs. (To read the Academy's news release, visit their website.)

The report described a sort of "sliding scale" of forensic reliability. The most reliable types of lab tests are "objective" and are based on biological or chemical analysis. DNA analysis is at the top of the scale; its results are consistently reliable. (Unfortunately, what the report does not say is that many DNA labs are so backlogged that statutes of limitations often expire before testing can be carried out.)

Reliability problems crop up when crime lab analysis rests on "subjective" factors.  Fingerprint, bitemark, toolmark, and similar experts perform their work through subjective interpretation of their samples -- largely in the absence of national standards and protocols.  In many cases, the basic principles and techniques underlying a field of forensic expertise have never been formally studied or established.  Moreover, the labs that carry out the tests often work for police and prosecutors (raising issues of impartiality), and their operations are often haphazard with uncertain quality control.

The report may impel judges to take their "gate-keeping" role more seriously. Instead of allowing forensic experts to testify because "we've always allowed these kinds of experts to testify," judges may require prosecutors to demonstrate that a field of expertise has been subjected to analysis and has been shown to be reliable.

Apart from what happens in court, the report may also encourage all levels of government to invest in our nation's crime labs.  As matters stand now, it's hard to be confident that forensic test results are reliably identifying the guilty and freeing the innocent.

February 5, 2009

Crime Labs Under the Microscope


Forensic specialists in crime labs match fingerprints, perform DNA analysis, link bullets to weapons, and perform other essential functions of scientific police work. Their accuracy and efficiency is vital to the effectiveness of our criminal justice system. If they screw up, innocent people are convicted and guilty people go free.

Sometime this month, the National Academy of Sciences will release a report blasting the quality of forensic testing in U.S. crime labs. Technicians, many among them employed by police departments, are often poorly-trained and exaggerate the accuracy of tests when defending their results in court. Moreover, the lack of standards for training technicians and carrying out forensic tests means that labs can differ greatly in quality. It's not a pretty picture, and clearly it conflicts with the glorious images of forensic scientists as shown in popular TV shows.

The forthcoming report's attack on the quality of crime labs is the Academy's broadest call yet for reform. A few years ago, a previous report knocked the pins out from under a testing technique known as "bullet lead test analysis". The FBI at one time claimed that each box of bullets had a unique chemical "signature" and that it could use these signatures to determine whether a particular bullet came from a particular box of bullets. Hundreds of people were convicted partly on the basis of such forensic evidence before the Academy demonstrated that the testing method was invalid.

Any reforms that the latest report calls for will undoubtedly be costly to implement and will not be accomplished overnight. As for the present, you can bet that the report will stimulate criminal defense attorneys to more vigorously attack the accuracy of forensic test results with this new ammunition.