Category: Criminal Law

16

Death Penalty Moratorium In Alabama? Critical ABA Panel Says Yes

Sunday, the ABA issued the Alabama Death Penalty Assessment Report, an extensive study of the state’s capital punishment system. The report was prepared by a team of Alabama lawyers that included a sitting DA, a former federal magistrate judge, a state legislator, a former president of the Alabama State Bar, and several lawyers in private practice. (I chaired the team.) It was critical of many aspects of the state’s death scheme including the quality and scope of indigent defense counsel, inadequate proportionality review, a failure to address serious juror confusion about legal standards, and the ability of judges to override jury imposed life sentences. The committee (with one dissent – the sitting district attorney) called for the state to adopt a moratorium on the death penalty pending significant improvements in the state’s system. The executive summary is here; the complete 265 page report is here. An op-ed I co-authored with Michael Greco, the ABA President, is here.

I plan to blog about different aspects of the assessment over the course of this week. Suffice to say, as a starting point, that the study contains a good deal of bad news about the fairness of the state’s scheme. One of the most troubling things that surfaced in our work was the fact that the state’s capital system has eluded serious study for so long. Unlike some other states, few individuals or organizations have conducted extensive research on it. The state engages in fairly limited data collection as well. As a consequence, we were somewhat limited in our ability to provide a complete snapshot of the system.

In many respects. this report is best designed to start – rather than end – serious scrutiny of capital punishment in Alabama. Among other things, the assessment compiles a host of details about the state’s capital punishment laws and procedures. We hope that this compilation will not only assist researchers and policymakers, but criminal lawyers as well.

UPDATE: I will try to link my subsquent posts here. Tuesday’s related posts are here and here. Wednesday’s related post is here.

3

Update on Plea Bargains and Prediction Markets

In Let Markets Help Criminal Defendants, I wrote that “If I were running a public defender service, I’d consider setting up an online prediction market for the conviction of my clients.” I still think this is a good idea, but someone suggested a serious problem that would have to be remedied for the scheme to be possible.

Right now, prediction markets bets on judicial events, like the conviction of Lewis Libby (whose graph is to the right), pay off at 100 for conviction, and 0 for any other ending of this set of charges, including a plea. This creates noise which renders them useless for criminal defendants looking to see if they ought to plea. That is, as I didn’t fully appreciate before, traders must be estimating the probability of conviction, tempered by the likelihood of a plea – prices are lower than the actual market estimate of a guilty verdict independent of a plea. That is, if the current price of Libby’s “stock” is .40, that means that incarceration is not 40% likely. It means that traders think it is 60% likely that Libby will win at trial, receive a mistrial, obtain a dismissal, be granted a pardon, or plea. I imagine that the likelihood of a plea accounts for a large percentage of this figure.

If traders thought that conviction prices affected defendant behavior, then presumably they’d seek to put in sell orders at prices above those where rational defendants would plea. This would put downward pressure on price and make the entire system useless from defense counsel’s perspective.

For my system to work, you’d have to exclude the possibility of a plea (i.e., nullify all bets if there is a plea). Of course, this still would create some dynamic tension, as bettors presumably would become eager to invest time and trade only as pleas become less likely – near trial, or in jurisdictions, like Philadelphia, where the District Attorney has a no-plea policy. But the resulting prices would be more informative than those offered by the current system.

7

Let Markets Help Criminal Defendants

ballandchain.jpgDan’s interesting post on plea bargaining made explicit the informational inequalities faced by criminal defendants and their lawyers. Indeed, one of the advantages public defenders have over private defense counsel is that they can more easily share information internally about the informal norms that “really” govern the system (judge sentencing practices; which cops tell what stories; which labs are sloppy; etc.) But even so, the instruments of law and order almost always will know more about the facts and the law than the defense, at least until the eve of trial and probably throughout the process.

That there are exceptions (Enron; OJ) proves the rule that informational asymmetry is a significant part of the prosecutor’s arsenal – indeed, this asymmetry justifies constitutional attempts to remedy the problem through mandatory discovery procedures. But I’m skeptical that legal rules alone are a panacea to structural problems. Why not try markets?

To be more concrete, the major decision that criminal defendants face is whether or not to plead guilty. The decision depends on a prediction about what will happen at trial. Assuming that defendants are risk averse, they will take pleas when rational actors would not, but generally will go to trial when the expected time served post-trial is less (by some margin) than the actual time proposed in the plea agreement. The problem is that (1) defendants are unsophisticated; (2) defendants’ lawyers are incented to push pleas; and (3) neither defendants nor their lawyers have as much information as prosecutors about likely verdicts.

If I were running a public defender service, I’d consider setting up an online prediction market for the conviction of my clients. Prediction markets did a fantastic job in the Enron trial. At the beginning of the trial, the odds of conviction were about 50% for each defendant; by the end, the odds were significantly higher. Now, I can understand why neither defendant would have pled facing a coin-flip’s chance at conviction. As I argued at the beginning of the trial:

I’d guess that the reason Skilling and Lay have not pled and Fastow has is demographics. Fastow is a young(ish) man, who can serve significant time and still emerge with earning power. Lay and Skilling don’t have the years left to do the time that the government (apparently) would find appropriate.

But for most criminal defendants, 50% odds would translate into a pretty hefty expected sentence that might make a plea more attractive. And, assuming that such markets would be sufficiently liquid, the predictions generated by traders ought to be both more accurate and less prone to bias than defense counsel’s odds. I imagine that the result would be a net decrease in pleas, and in the long term, as prosecutors reacted, less net jail time. That is, the current system is biased by risk aversion and agency problems – as others have observed – toward more jail. This effect may serve the forces of law and order, but it doesn’t necessarily serve the search for truth. Why not try something different?

Obvious objections: (1) the idea is “”utterly repugnant to a civilized society“; (2) thin markets are prone to manipulation; (3) incentives would increase to violate the attorney-client privilege; (4) it would look like public defenders are selling out their clients. Of these objections, I’d be most worried about #3.

Incidentally, if you are interested in thinking more about criminal law and the Enron trial, the Conglomerate is hosting what promises to be a great forum on the topic for the next two days. Check it out!

2

Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair

My colleague Bennett Capers (Hofstra) has written a fascinating, and rather disturbing, article at the intersection of law and art. Writing about Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair paintings, he asks a series of probing questions – about who the viewer imagines in the chair, and about death as a public spectacle. In this excerpt, he talks more about presence/absence in the paintings:

ReSizedWarholElectricChair.jpgIn Warhol’s Electric Chair series, just as the condemned is both absent and present, so is the State – and this is comforting. Complicity is shared. No one is to blame. Our system of capital punishment thrives partly because of this (joint) presence and absence. The state is present in the very bureaucracy of execution, from the legislative decision to authorized capital punishment to the judicial sanctioning of death-authorized juries. At the same time, the state creates its own absence in diffusing authority among the cast of participants: legislators, prosecutors, jurors, trial and appellate judges, governors with their ability to grant clemency, the executioner himself. And this is what I mean by absence. To borrow from another commentator, the diffusion allows everyone to say, “I’m only doing my job. I’m just a cog in the wheel. I didn’t kill him.” The room is empty, even though it is full.

The article was recently published by the California Law Review.

Photo Credit: Andy Warhol, Electric Chair I (1971), Warhol Family Museum of Modern Art

7

Six Flags Syndrome: Price Discrimination In Plea Bargaining

Six Flags.jpg Price discrimination occurs when any seller charges two different buyers a different price for the same product. Coupons are one obvious method of price discrimination. Airline advance purchase requirements are another. The term sounds ugly, but it’s basic marketing. One major area of price discrimination occurs between sophisticated and unsophisticated consumers. Uninformed car buyers often pay more for their autos than those who arrive with the newest pricing data from Edmunds. And while many web buyers routinely pay full price, others of us consult Coupon Cabin, Mom’s View, or XP Bargains before ordering online. We don’t do anything special for the discount; we just know enough to check for coupons.

In a blunt admission of price discrimination based on consumer sophistication, Six Flags’ VP for ticketing, Steve Brown, stated) “any guest paying full pirce at our parks is probably not doing their homework.”

Perhaps all is fair in love and sales, but what about plea bargaining? Would we feel OK if US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald announced that “anyone pleading to ten years on a marijuana charge probably didn’t do his homework”? As a public defender, I often discovered that a DA’s “best” offer wasn’t on the table initially. I had to request it. Sometimes I provided good reasons for a better deal – I cast the client in a new light, for example, or discussed an extenuating circumstance. But often I simply scrunched up my face and said “come on, you can do better than that”…and he or she would serve up a better offer. I understood the game; as a public defender, I played it every single day.

But it turns out that clients – and more importantly lawyers – are often surprisingly unsophisticated in the negotiation process and will not demand the best posible offer. I’m reminded of a friend who was handling his first serious felony. His client faced a mandatory 6 year bid for the gunpoint robbery, but the DA was offering 10 years. My friend planned to ask for seven years. After we talked, I explained that in my jurisdiction (we were in different states), a first time offender facing these charges would usually receive the mandatory minimum. I encouraged him to ask for six years. And that’s exactly what his client got. But if he’d asked for seven years – his initial plan – the client would have served an extra year.

So should prosecutors “take advantage” of unsophisticated opponents by jacking up offers?

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2

On the Milberg Indictment

MW.gifI’ve been mulling over the Milberg indictment. Since I waited a weekend to post, I have the advantage of having read lots of other folks’ views. Quick summaries follow:

  • Michael Dorf: Kickback payments slaved the named plaintiffs to MW, bloating agency costs.
  • Steve Bainbridge:Kickbacks encourage “nuisance claims.” We may need criminal sanctions to crank the Hand formula to optimal levels, but only against individual lawyers.
  • Walter Olson:”[MW was] taking no chances on the watchdogs staying pacified: It threw regular chunks of raw liver into their cages.”
  • Larry Ribstein: Who cares? Lawyers are fungible.
  • Ed Morrissey: Bad for Democrats and ambulance chasers.
  • Christine Hurt: It’s high noon, and MW can’t blink.
  • And let’s not forget MW itself: It was just a referral! And the theory is overreaching! And our interests remained aligned!

Wow. Lots of words. So here is what I think.

First, I still don’t particularly understand the economics of outrage here. I’ve seen two arguments about why kickbacks are bad (apart from their being unlawful, which we’ll put aside briefly). First, I’ve heard the argument that they “capture” the lead plaintiff, making that person less able to monitor the lawyer’s work. As Dorf points out, however, plaintiffs in securities class actions are sort of like shareholders stockholders: they have deputized oversight and management to lawyers, in return for fiduciary duties. Some folks seem to have in mind a more active role for lead plaintiffs – something like a controlling stockholder(?) – but given the relatively low bonuses awarded in settlements for lead plaintiffs, why would anyone want to play that role? That is, you can’t have distributed, small-stakes, high-impact, governance by private actions and have plaintiff management at the same time. The capture argument is another way of saying that these types of claims are not in the public interest. But we don’t criminalize inefficient lawyering. Not usually.

The second argument I’ve seen is related to the first – it is Bainbridge’s – and it suggests that kickbacks encourage securities actions that are (on the merits) weaker. Yup, that sounds right. But that isn’t an argument against kickbacks, it is an argument that judges aren’t doing enough to raise hurdles to weak actions at early stages, as the PSLRA was designed to accomplish. To the contrary, I have found that judges are quite hostile to securities claims.

The argument that I haven’t seen on the blogs, but which is larded through the indictment, suggests that MW was, in effect, selling out the rest of the class to benefit the folks at the head of the line. And in a way, this is (for me) the strongest argument against the practice. If MW really did countenance paying referrals-as-kickbacks to named class members out of their portion of the settlement, then we know that dollars were being taken out of the mouths of the rest of the class pretty directly. On the other hand, one might argue that MW had to pay off the named plaintiffs to bring the cases in the first place – that it is a an expense like overhead.

Two additional aspects of the case trouble me. Obviously, indicting the entire firm feels excessive. I don’t agree with Larry R. that reputational effects won’t follow MW’s innocent lawyers. I know lots of counsel at MW – I litigated against them – and I thought they were incredibly hard working, tough, honest, passionate adversaries. One of my worst days as a lawyer came across a deposition table from an experienced Milberg partner: he taught me a great lesson on how to get one’s opponent to hang himself on the record. And I’d be shocked if more than a handful of lawyers at the firm had any knowledge of the activities charged. If the USAO is really indicting out of pique for failure to roll over as most corporations would do in response to a patently unreasonable discovery demand, well, many folks who think of themselves as white knights are going to be tarnished unfairly.

Second, I have some problems with the continued federalization of state practice ethical rules. Although the indictment doesn’t come out and say this, some of the illegality is premised on state fiduciary duty and referral laws. (Some, granted, is based on Rule 23.) Shouldn’t this type of prosecution be the job of Elliot Spitzer and his imitators? Which raises a question: why didn’t Spitzer get here first?

0

A Reckoning In Houston

Tomorrow the Enron jury will hear closing arguments in the Lay/Skilling trial. Given both defendants’ reported weaknesses as witnesses, the futures market estimate of conviction on at least several charges for Lay (76% ) and Skilling (73%) is predictable. (Although, the line has shifted significantly from February.) And even if a verdict arrives this week, the defense team(s) are already no doubt working on an appellate strategy. One tack: Judge Lake appears to have accepted the government’s intent instruction.

This raises an issue which I’ve been thinking a bit about recently. Given research showing that juries often ignore instuctions, especially in complicated cases, and instead focus on a narrative and attributions of blameworthiness, why does the government so often appear to overreach and thus preserve great defense issues for appeal? Does the federal prosecution manual discount the research? Or, more cynically, is the phenomena a problem of incentives? In the ordinary case, the marginal gain from the prosecution instruction is reaped by the line attorney, but the marginal cost of the instruction is usually discounted by time and by the likelihood that the government attorney defending the appeal is a different unit, or a different office altogether.

4

Alito’s First Death Decision

Alitocollege.jpgSam Alito’s first SCOTUS opinion arrived yesterday and – if you see the world through Cass colored glasses – it’s a liberal one: the defendant won. The issue in Holmes v. South Carolina was whether:

a criminal defendant’s federal constitutional rights are violated by an evidence rule under which the defendant may not introduce proof of third-party guilt if the prosecution has introduced forensic evidence that, if believed, strongly supports a guilty verdict.

The trial court excluded evidence suggesting that a third party had confessed to killing 86 year old Mary Stewart. Why? On the grounds that the evidence against the defendant was so powerful that any evidence implicating the third party could not raise a reasonable inference that the defendant was innocent. To put it another way, the case against Holmes was so good that the state was allowed to exclude evidence that another guy did it. No need to bother the jury with messy details. The South Carolina Supremes thought this was a fine idea as well.

This didn’t look like a hard case to me and the 9-0 vote thankfully confirmed that feeling. If a defendant possesses reasonably relevant evidence on the issue of guilt, we generally let the jury hear it. When, as here, a judge keeps this information from the jury, he or she effectively decides the outcome of a case. In rejecting this policy as unconstitutional, Justices Alito and Roberts proved that whatever their ultimate ideological place on the Court, they are not completely off the deep edge.

More interesting to me, though, is what was missing from the decision. Alito did not note that this was a death penalty case. His opinion stated that Holmes received a death sentence after his first trial, and that this trial and sentence were reversed by a state court. But nowhere in the opinion did he say that this new appeal was also from a death sentence. Why is that? Perhaps it was an oversight. Or maybe Alito thought the underlying sentence was an unnecessary fact. If so, why did Alito note Holmes’ capital sentence after his first trial? Perhaps he didn’t want to highlight this as a death case. He might have felt uncomfortable reversing a death sentence in a heinous killing. Or maybe he didn’t want the case framed as a “death decision” – with all the attendant baggage – and instead cast it as a plain old evidence ruling.

This is a small detail to be sure, but Alito surely knew his first opinion would go under a microscope. The odds are that this omission was not strategic. But if it was, I certainly hope that it does not portend a broader willingness to omit uncomfortable facts.

5

When Is A Sex Worker A Victim?

In a recent story out of Richmond, a woman – Barbara Tanner, a 52 year old – who operated an escort service was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison. The interesting hook, noted by Doug Berman, is that the court treated each of the women who worked for her as a “victim” for sentencing purposes. This hoisted her sentencing guideline range from 24-30 months to 41-51 months. As a matter of guideline interpretation, perhaps this makes sense. Section 2G1.1 defines a victim as:

a person transported, persuaded, induced, enticed, or coerced to engage in, or travel for the purpose of engaging in, a commercial sex act or prohibited sexual conduct, whether or not the person consented to the commercial sex act or prohibited sexual conduct. Accordingly, “victim” may include an undercover law enforcement officer.

Perhaps this is just a matter of nomenclature, but is this a fair definition of “victim”? While some sex workers are surely victims, others have chosen this work – admittedly under many of the stresses that propel other individuals towards sub-optimal life choices. Is a sex worker necessarily any greater victim than a coal miner or a worker in a meat processing plant? Would a sex worker who was working on her own, rather than for a madame, be able to claim victimhood as well? If not, why is he or she converted to victim status upon taking a position with Ms. Tanner’s agency? (And what would the IUSW – International Union of Sex Workers – say about this?)

The guidelines commission is within bounds when it makes Ms. Tanner’s sentence depend on the size of her operation. But does it make sense to frame the sentence on the number of people “victimized”? To the degree that those who promote commercial prostitution create unwilling sex workers, they are doing serious harm. And maybe we consider larger prostitution schemes more dangerous because they have the potential to increase coerced prostitution. But my sense is that, with such a broad definition of “victim”, the sentencing commission is mostly dressing up morality legislation in public safety clothing.

If you want to send Ms. Tanner to the pokey for sin, go for it, but don’t assume that all of her employees were necessarily victims. Maybe they were just sinners as well.

2

Karl Rove is the Subject of this Blog Post

Robert Luskin, Karl Rove’s lawyer, released the following statement after Rove’s appearance today before the Plame grand jury:

Karl Rove appeared today before the grand jury investigating the disclosure of a CIA agent’s identity. He testified voluntarily and unconditionally at the request of special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald to explore a matter raised since Mr. Rove’s last appearance in October 2005. In connection with this appearance, the special counsel has advised Mr. Rove that he is not a target of the investigation. Mr. Fitzgerald has affirmed that he has made no decisions regarding charges. At the request of the special counsel, Mr. Rove will not discuss the substance of his testimony. (H/T: The Corner)

This isn’t the first time that Luskin has made this claim. But the news media still aren’t really digging into what this means.

Being “not a target” is a good thing for Rove. But it would be better if he were “not a subject” of the grand jury’s inquiry either, and the failure of the Special Prosecutor to say so means that KR remains in some (unknown) amount of legal jeopardy. The distinction between these two concepts has been usefully discussed on Talkleft: for a recent post see here. Before today’s appearance, there was a rumor that Fitzgerald sent Rove a target letter. Either that rumor was false, or Luskin will some day have some explaining to do. I’m betting on the former. Because it would be frankly shocking were Rove to have testified before the Grand Jury after receiving a target letter. I’m not saying it couldn’t have happened under some immunity agreement that hasn’t surfaced, but it is exceedingly unlikely.