Tag Archive for 'conviction'

Ohio Man Jailed For Mocking 10-Year-Old Disabled Girl

The United States has come a long way as a society. Our country has not only grown economically, but also morally as well. While discrimination and prejudice still plague our nation today, these issues are nowhere near what they used to be during America’s early years. It seems that most modern citizens understand the importance of tolerance. Except, of course, those that still think it’s okay to mock little girls with cerebral palsy.

It’s hard not to read that sentence twice. But yes, it’s true. A 43-year-old Ohio man by the name of William Bailey was caught on tape derisively mimicking the physical symptoms of cerebral palsy. His actions were allegedly meant to make fun of Hope Holcomb-Knight, 10, who has the condition. Hope’s mother recorded the incident on her iPod camera. Bailey was at a school bus stop at the time picking up his son and can be seen in the video walking with a limp while pounding his chest, physical symptoms typical in those afflicted with cerebral palsy.

As you can probably imagine, Bailey’s alleged antics didn’t sit very well with Hope’s family. Her mother posted the video online, viewable here. It soon went viral and a public outcry followed. Hope’s mother then filed a complaint with city prosecutors who, surprisingly, pressed charges against Bailey. And even more surprising is that Bailey was actually convicted and sentenced to a month in jail, ostensibly for taunting Hope.

In Bailey’s defense, he claims that he was only reacting to name-calling directed toward his 9-year-old son. The incident was apparently the result of a culmination of rising tensions between the two families. Regardless, the more interesting aspect of this story is how a person can be criminally prosecuted for taunting another person. Well, prosecutors figured out a way. They charged Bailey with disorderly conduct and aggravated menacing, both misdemeanors in Ohio.

We’ve talked about disorderly conduct many times before. It’s basically a catch-all law that prohibits any conduct that’s likely to cause public alarm and/or annoyance. In Bailey’s case, his alleged cerebral palsy mocking was sufficient to secure a conviction under the state’s statue. However, what’s odd here is that in Ohio a disorderly conduct conviction doesn’t allow for any jail time. Bailey was actually put behind bars because of his aggravated menacing conviction.

Aggravated menacing is basically a form of assault where a defendant causes another to believe that they will cause serious physical harm to that person or their family. Hope’s mother claimed Bailey threatened to choke her with a chain on the same day of the original incident. And this was actually the charge that landed Bailey a jail sentence.

Now you may be thinking that we pulled a switcheroo on you, what with our attention-grabbing headline. “Wait, Bailey was jailed for menacing, not taunting a cerebral palsy girl. You sneaky blogger, stop trying to drive traffic to your website!” However, before you jump to conclusions, the chief assistant city prosecutor for the case actually admitted that Bailey’s alleged mockery was a major factor in securing his jail sentence. Have a little faith in us, geez.

Of course, what this also means is that a somewhat disturbing precedent has been set against the rights of Ohioans. While Bailey’s alleged actions were no doubt heinous and he should be reprimanded in some way for them, jail isn’t necessarily the best way. After all, people make fun of others every day. People also curse each other out and do all manner of rude things to each other, too. What of these people?

Theoretically, Bailey’s conviction could serve as a basis to help justify disorderly conduct and/or menacing convictions for these folks as well. In which case, where does the line get drawn? Certainly, no rational person would agree that making fun of a child with cerebral palsy is acceptable behavior, but how about an overly sensitive person with irritable bowel syndrome or a bad haircut? Such a person could undergo a similar level of trauma as Hope, but should they be able to secure convictions against their mockers, too?

Probably not, but as you can see, the line is murky at best. While there is no word yet on whether Bailey plans to appeal his sentence, as it stands, his conviction sets an uneasy justification against the basic rights of citizens. Certainly, our world would be much better without jerks. But much like our eventual robot overlords will surmise, everyone can be considered a jerk.

Simple Blunder Puts Up to 1,000 California DUI Convictions at Risk

Driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) is one of the most commonly-committed crimes in the U.S.

DUI trials are so common that they’re usually the first trials that new prosecutors and defense attorneys are assigned to, because the procedure is usually pretty much the same. In almost every case, a key piece of evidence that the driver on trial was, in fact, drunk is their blood alcohol content (BAC) at the time of their arrest. This is most often determined through the use of a device that can test a person’s BAC in the field, usually a Breathalyzer or similar device.

However, there have always been questions about how accurate and reliable these testing devices are, especially if they are improperly used or maintained. For that reason, police departments have strict rules in place regarding how these devices are stored, maintained, and used. Of course, that doesn’t mean that these rules and procedures are always followed to the letter.

Case in point: hundreds of DUI convictions in San Francisco may have to be thrown out because some officers of the San Francisco Police Department may have improperly tested and maintained the equipment that’s used to conduct BAC tests.

Without going into the details of how the technology behind these devices works (because I don’t fully understand it, either), I’ll provide a basic overview: most devices that measure BAC via a person’s breath need to be calibrated every week or so. Otherwise, they become increasingly inaccurate as time passes. This calibration is done by using canisters of air that contain a known amount of alcohol vapor, which is applied to the testing device. By doing this, you can gauge how accurate the tester’s readings are, and then make any necessary adjustments.

There’s now concern that the police department did not conduct these accuracy checks properly, which means that hundreds of people may have gotten DUI convictions based on bad evidence.

This is a very serious issue, and it’s a bit like the fiasco of the San Francisco crime lab a few years ago. In that case, the drug lab of the SFPD found out that an employee had stolen drugs for their own personal use, and the subsequent investigation revealed widespread evidence tampering.

In this present case, the calibration logs on the BAC detectors showed that they gave perfectly-accurate readings every time they were tested for re-calibration. Given that their accuracy naturally deteriorates over time without regular adjustment, it’s impossible for them to give perfect readings in these regular tests. This indicates that the tests weren’t being done, and the people responsible for testing them simply falsified their logs.

So, everyone who was tested with an inaccurate device was convicted, at least in part, based on bad evidence.

Unfortunately, this is going to be a huge headache for the court system. As many as 1,000 cases, dating back to 2006, will have to be re-opened and investigated all over again.  That’s a problem, since you can’t exactly go back in time and re-test a defendant’s BAC at the time they were arrested.

Many people will probably look at these facts and claim that many convicted criminals are getting off on “technicalities.” And in some way, they may be correct. I would bet that, in the majority of the cases that have to be reviewed, the defendant was actually guilty of driving with a BAC above the legal limit when they were arrested. But if the tests were inaccurate, there’s an excellent chance that a significant percentage of them, even if it’s not a majority, were innocent. Of course, it will largely be impossible to tell which is which. And this is the exact reason why all cases in which the irregularities in the testing devices create reasonable doubt as to a suspect’s guilt should be overturned.

There’s one thing that it’s essential to remember in cases like this: in all criminal cases, even “minor” ones like DUI, the burden of proof rests entirely with the prosecution. The defense attorney could sit at the defense table without saying a word, introducing a single piece of evidence, or calling a single witness. And if the jury found that the prosecution failed to provide enough evidence to convince them beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty, the jury has no choice but to find the defendant “not guilty.” It doesn’t matter if they believe that the defendant is “probably guilty,” if they can still entertain reasonable doubt as to that fact.

In most DUI cases, a malfunctioning BAC tester, even if it’s only off by a little bit, could introduce reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, even if it’s not the only piece of evidence that led to their conviction. In those cases, the only appropriate course of action is to overturn the defendant’s conviction.

And if this means that some people convicted of DUI will escape the consequences of their crime, so be it. That may sound harsh, but the principle that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty is one of the basic cornerstones of our legal system. If we abandon this principle, absolutely nothing good can come of it.

Exonerated After 30 Years in Prison: Implications for the Death Penalty

The big story in criminal law last week came out of Texas, and it involved a man who served 30 years in prison, only to be proven innocent with new DNA evidence. This is one of the longest prison terms ever served by a person in the U.S., only to be exonerated.

Obviously, this raises some major questions about the criminal justice system, the death penalty, and the procedure for considering exculpatory evidence that arises post-conviction. None of these questions are easy.

First, some background. In 1980, Cornelius Dupree was sentenced to 75 years in prison for the rape and robbery of a woman in Dallas, Texas. New techniques were used to examine the 30-year old evidence, and DNA evidence clearly showed that another (as yet unidentified) person committed the crime.

Under a Texas law providing compensation for the wrongfully-convicted, Dupree is entitled to $80,000 for every year he was wrongfully imprisoned, plus a lifetime annuity. He is likely to receive it in a lump-sum payment of $2.4 million. Many states have similar laws, but the one in Texas is the most generous in the country. As you might guess, Texas passed this law in response to a huge spike in post-conviction exonerations.

While it’s certainly a good thing that the state of Texas provides such compensation, what’s disturbing is the fact that such a law was needed in the first place. Does this say something about Texas in particular, or expose broader systematic flaws in the justice system?

I’m guessing the latter. The reports covering this story note that Dallas County, the county in Texas which has been the location of about half of the state’s post-conviction exonerations, has a particularly well-funded and organized crime lab. It has the facilities to preserve biological evidence for decades, and has been doing so for quite a while now. This means that evidence in criminal cases (like Mr. Dupree’s) can be re-examined as new investigative techniques become available.

If pressed to guess, I’d say that this indicates a wider problem in how crimes are investigated, and that the Dallas County crime lab simply has a better system for catching wrongful convictions than most. This is, in a way, more disturbing than the notion that the problem is unique to Texas, since it implies that this problem might exist everywhere, and it’s going mostly undetected.

Now, to be fair, many people who are exonerated after long periods of incarceration were convicted based on the best investigative techniques available at time. DNA fingerprinting, for example, did not enter common use in forensics until the late 1980s. Furthermore, the technologies and methods used to examine biological samples for DNA are constantly improving. A small, dried blood stain, or a little bit of saliva used to seal a letter (to name a few examples) can be mined for useful DNA evidence decades after they’re created. Not too long ago, samples needed to be large, and relatively fresh, for the DNA they contain to be detectable.

Obviously, it’s a good thing that better investigative techniques are constantly becoming available. This makes it far more likely that actual criminals will be caught, and that innocent suspects will be ruled out as quickly as possible. However, what should we do about the thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people who are in prison for violent crimes that occurred before these techniques are available?

If the evidence is still available, shouldn’t it be examined, as a matter of course, with the newest technology? After all, what have we got to lose? If the evidence confirms that the prisoner actually committed the crime, so be it. And if the person is found to be innocent, then they can be set free and compensated. Obviously, nothing can make up for the gross injustice, but it’s better than the alternative of letting an innocent person spend the rest of his life in prison.

I’ve blogged before about how some crime labs in the U.S. are grossly under-funded. Despite the best efforts of the dedicated and hardworking individuals who work in the labs, they’re often overwhelmed, which makes mistakes inevitable. Obviously, improved management and funding of police crime labs would mitigate these problems quite a bit.

There’s another issue, however: the criminal justice system values finality. When a person is convicted or acquitted of a crime, that is, ideally, the end of the matter. There is some value to this – if every single issue in a criminal case could be revisited ad infinitum, it would be chaos.

However, when a person’s life and freedom is at stake, I think we need to set up a uniform system that allows for the prompt review of potentially-exculpatory evidence, no matter how long ago the crime took place, and if any credible case can be made that old evidence should be reexamined with new techniques, then the evidence should be reexamined as soon as possible, without the reluctance and foot-dragging that we’ve previously seen in cases like this.

Perhaps this could be accomplished by giving state and local crime labs additional federal funding (which should make the justice system more efficient, and make wrongful convictions less likely to occur in the first place), and make that funding conditional on state governments adopting procedures that allow DNA and other evidence to be reexamined as quickly as practicable, when there’s a reasonable possibility that it could shed new light on an old case.

As we’ve seen with the nationwide drinking age, the federal government has sufficient leverage to influence state policies through the power of the purse, and if there’s ever been a way to use that power for an unambiguous good, this seems to be it.

Demystifying the Misdemeanor

It’s odd how a person’s priorities and interests can shift with the passage of time.  One day you love video games, the next you’re suddenly enthralled by This American Life.  This jump is especially pronounced when comparing what’s seen as important as a teenager versus what’s important as an adult.  Remember in high school the cool kids were usually the ones who didn’t care about school?  Then once you hit college, suddenly those same people were seen as losers for wasting their time and money?  How’d that happen?  Man, they used to be cool, man…

Misdemeanor CrimeBut there are some things that have always been viewed as important.  The necessities, you know, like making sure you have food to eat, a place to sleep, or clothes to wear.  Oh, and not getting arrested.

Getting popped by the police and hauled down to the pokey can be a traumatic event.  The only thing worst is actually being convicted and sentenced by a judge afterward.  This is usually true.  I say usually because even in this seemingly clear-cut territory, another one of life’s oddities can sometimes rear its head (I know, I know, I really need to cut back on the clichés).  Because for some people (probably the cool kids) as long as the conviction isn’t a felony than there’s nothing to worry about, right?  Umm… no, not right.  Oh, misguided cool kids, and to think I once wanted to be like you.

A misdemeanor is no laughing matter (there I go again).  Misdemeanor offenses range from vandalism to petty theft to narcotic possession and more.  Penalties vary from state to state, but in general a misdemeanor conviction can result in fines up to $1000, a year in jail, and/or community service.  And depending on the type of offense, you can also be ordered to complete a rehabilitation program or have your driver’s license suspended or even revoked.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg (ugh, another one).  The negative byproduct effects of a misdemeanor can cause chaos in the rest of your life, as well.  Depending on the severity of the offense, a misdemeanor conviction can limit what jobs are available to you or even get you expelled from college depending on your school’s student conduct policy, not to mention the embarrassment of having a blotch on your otherwise clean record (last one, I swear).  The cost of contracting an attorney, though helpful in resolving a misdemeanor criminal case, can be high, too.

The sheer amount of conduct that can be categorized as a criminal misdemeanor is often confusing, as well.  Once again, laws and what is considered illegal vary from state to state.  LegalMatch has received misdemeanor cases for everything from skate boarding on school grounds to noise violations.  Though the vast majority of LegalMatch’s misdemeanor cases still involve drug and theft offenses, it’s important to note the caveat of obscure laws.

So what can be done?  A good way to keep yourself out of the big house is to stay knowledgeable about changes in your local laws, especially those that concern you or your particular industry.  You can do this by contacting your local city hall, law library, or do the modern thing and research on the internet.

What else can you do, you ask?  Well, you can also stay out of trouble by doing the most obvious thing and not commit well-established crimes, such as robbery.  Duh.  That’s you’re best bet (dammit…).

Through The Looking Glass: OJ Faces Up To 33 Years In Prison

ojRecently, OJ Simpson was found guilty of 12 criminal charges, including armed robbery and kidnapping, committed in a failed attempt to retrieve sports memorabilia from two collectibles dealers in a Las Vegas hotel room.  Sixty-one-year-old Simpson faces up to 33 years in prison, and will be eligible for parole after nine years. 

Simpson claimed that he was merely taking back his belongings that had been stolen, and his lawyer urged the court to consider the minimum sentence of six years because Simpson does not have a criminal record. 

Clark County District Judge Jackie Glass, however, focused on the violent and premeditated nature of the crimes, along with the overwhelming evidence against Simpson.  Glass expressed dismay with Simpson during the trial, accusing him of “arrogance or ignorance or both,” and doubling his bail after he violated his release terms.   

Glass has been both heralded for her “tough on crime” approach, as well as criticized for sacrificing defendants’ constitutional rights in the name of courtroom efficiency.  Specifically, critics allege that Glass has dismissed challenges to her rulings and has failed to furnish defense attorneys with complete reports of defendants with mental troubles.  The judge is currently under review by the Nevada Supreme Court for preventing defense attorneys from entering their clients’ psychological evaluations.

Although there has been some speculation that the harsh sentence was in part motivated by a desire to punish Simpson for infamously beating murder charges 13 years ago, so far, few (besides Simpson’s lawyer) have objected to the sentence.  Also, there have not been widespread accusations that his conviction was racially tainted.  Under law, Simpson’s acquittals for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, should not be used against him in subsequent trials. 

Judges can, however, impose harsher sentences based on a felon’s prior record or for bad behavior.  Here, Simpson’s courtroom behavior did not constitute legal grounds for imposing a harsher sentence.  Yet, unless it is proven that Glass’ sentence was driven by improper motive, or that she violated another guideline, Simpson’s sentence will stand.  Is this justice?  I suppose the appeals court will have the chance to determine that. . . .  Recent reports indicate that nearly half of the jury thought Simpson should have been convicted for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, and Simpson’s lawyer has stated that jury bias will form the basis of their appeal.