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November 15, 2016

"Jury finds Justin Ross Harris guilty of murder in son's hot car death"

Though I am lately doing a horrible job staying "on-task" in class since the election, I am going to continue to try to do a much better job of having this blog stay focused on real criminal law cases that implicate so many of the issues (both doctrinal and practical) that we have been discussing throughout the semester (and that I will be testing you all on next month).  So, with that background, check out this new CNN report that has the same headline as the title of this post.  Here are excerpts (with a few points bolded for possible further discussions and some follow-up questions below):

A jury in Georgia on Monday found Justin Ross Harris guilty of murder in the 2014 death of his 22-month-old son, Cooper. Harris, 35, was accused of intentionally locking Cooper inside a hot car for seven hours. On that same day, Harris was sexting with six women, including one minor, according to phone records.

In addition to three counts of murder, Harris was found guilty of two counts of cruelty to children for Cooper's death, and guilty of three counts relating to his electronic exchanges of lewd material with two underage girls.

"This is one of those occasions where actions speak louder than words," Cobb County Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring said after the verdict. "He has malice in his heart, absolutely."

The trial, which spanned almost five weeks, was moved to the Georgia coastal town of Brunswick from Cobb County, outside Atlanta, after intense pretrial publicity. It was briefly interrupted by Hurricane Matthew. The Glynn County jury of six men and six women deliberated for 21 hours over four days. Jurors considered the testimony of 70 witnesses and 1,150 pieces of evidence, including the Hyundai Tucson in which Cooper died in a suburban Atlanta parking lot.

Justin Ross Harris waived his right to testify in his own defense. Cobb County prosecutors argued that Harris intentionally locked Cooper inside his car on a hot summer 2014 day because he wanted to be free of his family responsibilities. Harris' lawyers claimed the boy's death was a tragic accident brought about by a lapse in memory.

It was June 18, 2014, when Harris, then 33, strapped his son into a rear-facing car seat and drove from their Marietta, Georgia, home to Chick-fil-A for breakfast, then to The Home Depot corporate headquarters, where he worked. Instead of dropping Cooper off at day care, testimony revealed Harris left him in the car all day while he was at work.

Sometime after 4 p.m. that day, as Harris drove to a nearby theater to see a movie, he noticed his son was still in the car. He pulled into a shopping center parking lot and pulled Cooper's lifeless body from the SUV. Witnesses said he appeared distraught and was screaming. "'I love my son and all, but we both need escapes.' Those words were uttered 10 minutes before this defendant, with a selfish abandon and malignant heart, did exactly that," said Boring in his closing argument.

The prosecution argued that Harris could see his son sitting in his car seat in the SUV. "If this child was visible in that car that is not a failure in memory systems," Boring argued. "Cooper would have been visible to anyone inside that car. Flat out." If Cooper was visible, Boring said, "the defendant is guilty of all counts." After the verdict, jurors told the prosecution that the evidence weighed heavily in their decision, Boring said.

Digital evidence showed that on the day his son died, Harris exchanged sexual messages and photos with six women, including one minor. State witnesses testified that Harris lived what prosecutors described as a "double life." To his wife, family, friends and co-workers, Harris was seen as a loving father and husband. But unbeknownst to them, Harris engaged in online sexual communication with multiple women, including two underage girls, had extramarital sexual encounters in public places and paid for sex with a prostitute.

Harris' defense maintained that his sexual behavior had nothing to do with Cooper's death. "The state wants to bury him in this filth and dirt of his own making, so that you will believe he is so immoral, he is so reprehensible that he can do exactly this," said defense attorney H. Maddox Kilgore during his closing argument. Kilgore argued that Cobb County police investigators focused only on matters that fit the state's theory and ignored all the evidence that pointed to an accident. "You have been misled throughout this trial," Kilgore told jurors.

The defense lawyer continued to maintain his client's innocence after the verdict. He said he plans to appeal the verdict. "When an innocent person is convicted there's been some breakdowns in the system and that's what happened here," Kilgore told reporters outside the courthouse. "From the moment we met Ross Harris we've never, ever once wavered in our absolute belief that he is not guilty of what he's just been convicted of."

The defense's key witness was Harris' ex-wife and Cooper's mother, Leanna Taylor. "Cooper was the sweetest little boy. He had so much life in him. He was everything to me," Taylor recalled, as she seemed to fight through tears. For two days, Taylor told jurors private details of her married life with Harris, saying they had intimacy problems and recounting Harris' struggles with pornography.

Marital struggles aside, Taylor described Harris as a "very involved" parent who loved their son. In her mind, she said, the only possible explanation was that Harris "forgot" Cooper and accidentally left him in the car. Boring said it did not matter that Taylor declined to speak with the prosecutor's office and testified for the defense. "As far as proving the case we did not need her," he told CNN.

Harris is expected to be sentenced December 5. He could face life without parole, though Boring said the prosecution will speak with the family to determine what kind of sentence to ask for.

A few unique "Berman-esque" follow-up questions:

1. Does this sad case remind anyone, at least a little bit, of my omission hypo involving poor little Josephine who drowned in the pool?

2. Should we surprised (a) that the defendant father did not testify in an effort to support his claim that "he didn't mean to do it," and (b) that the victim's mother did testify in an effort to support her husband's claim that this was an accident?

3. Should we be troubled (a) that the local prosecutor did not pursue the death penalty in a case in which the defendant was apparently convicted of having essentially boiled his 22-month son to death (perhaps because the murderer was white?), and (b) that the local prosecutor is now going to have his sentencing recommendation influenced by the victim's mother?

For more potential background on this case and others potentially like it (and with information about the evidence that helped prosecutors secure a guilty verdicts and that help account for why the defendant was convicted of three counts of murder even though he only killed one person), check out this (now dated) local video about the case:

November 15, 2016 in Class reflections, Current Affairs, Notable real cases | Permalink | Comments (2)

October 26, 2016

Another local Ohio homicide (involving murder and voluntary manslaughter charges) worth thinking about...

which I believe made national news back in the summer and is in the papers again this afternoon:

October 26, 2016 in Current Affairs, Notable real cases | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 19, 2016

Some local Ohio homicide headlines

As we move into our "specific crimes" unit of our course, the laws we are reviewing are often going to be central to real cases that frequently generate news coverage. For example, just today's Columbus Dispatch includes these two new Ohio homicide stories:

October 19, 2016 in Current Affairs, Notable real cases | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 10, 2016

For a useful set of perspectives on the death penalty in Ohio and elsewhere...

check out this 50-minute local WOSU/NPR segment from last week.  Here is the overview of what you will hear:

Support for the death penalty has been on the decline and recently hit a a record, four decade low. Despite the decline, legislators in many states continue to back capital punishment. Today we discuss Ohio as it prepares to reinstate the death penalty after a two year hiatus, and look at how Nebraska ended the practice.

  • Jim Petro, Former Ohio Attorney General

  • Robert Blecker, Professor of Criminal law and Constitutional law, New York Law School; and Author, “The Death of Punishment: Searching for Justice among the Worst of the Worst”

  • Colby Coash, Nebraska State Senator

October 10, 2016 in Course materials and schedule, Current Affairs, Notable real cases | Permalink | Comments (1)

September 28, 2016

Another real-world follow-up to prior punishment theory discussions and preview of coming homicide discussions thanks to H.R.6158, the HELP Act

I really enjoyed our prior on-line discussions here concerning whether and why drug dealers ought to be criminally responsible for causing overdose deaths.  And, if you are working on the next extra credit assignment focused on the Burrage Supreme Court case, you know how causation doctrines can intersection with these matters.

But, thanks to a few member of Congress, a new bill in Congress also makes this issue on that is worth discussing as we wind down our basic mens rea conversations and start to gear up for talking about homicide crimes and punishments.  I discuss this new bill (which I have not yet seen in full), in a new post over at my sentencing blog: NY member of Congress puts forward federal bill with "Death Penalty Proposal for Heroin Dealers".

 

UPDATE:  This Columbus Dispatch headline/story awaited me in my e-mail in-box after I returned from our class: "Columbus hit by 27 heroin overdoses in 24-hour span"

September 28, 2016 in Course materials and schedule, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

August 28, 2016

Some background on drug dealers being criminally responsible for causing overdose deaths (and its possible theoretical justification)

Friday's in-class discussion and debate over the sentecing of (very fictional) Oliwood drug dealer Dan Schayes raised the interesting and controversial (very real) issue of whether persons involved in drug dealing can and should be held criminally liable for the death of a customer.  As the prosecution in the Schayes case noted, federal criminal law already speaks to this issue through a provision in 21 U.S.C. §841(b)(1)(C): it states that a convicted drug dealer involved with serious drug substances generally  "shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not more than 20 years," but that such a drug dealer, "if death or serious bodily injury results from the use of such substance, shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than twenty years or more than life."

Toward the end of September, we will looking at the basic substantive criminal law rules that generally apply for determining when and how a defendant can be held responsible for causing a result, and a few years ago this issue in federal law dealing with overdose deaths made it all the way up the US Supreme Court in the case of Burrage v. United States.  I would urge you all NOT to read the Burrage case closely (or at all) at least until we get to our causation discussions in class (though, at that time, you will be able to earn more extra credit for engaging with the Burrage SCOTUS ruling).

On the topic of earning credit, I am now pretty sure I have figured out how to get the comment section of this blog open, and that means every class member can earn some credit ASAP by using the comments here to share thoughts on what theory or theories of punishment might support holding drug dealers criminally liable for the deaths of their customers.  Notably, just a few weeks ago this lengthy and interesting AP article, headlined "Prosecution trend: After fatal OD, dealer charged with death," discussed this kind of criminal action as a growing trend.  And I stirred up some interesting commentary on the trend with this post about that AP article on my main blog titled "Should I be more troubled by drug dealers facing homicide charges after customers' overdose death?"

August 28, 2016 in Class reflections, Current Affairs, Notable real cases | Permalink | Comments (11)

December 01, 2014

"Crazy or Faking It? The impending execution of Scott Panetti and the search for a standard of sanity."

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new piece from The Marshall Project which highlights some of the mental health issues we have discussed in recent classes with a special focus on a controversial execution scheduled to take place in Texas later this week.

December 1, 2014 in Current Affairs, Notable real cases | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 01, 2014

Women, opioids, and Ohio problems with (hidden?) punishment theory at issue

With luck, our class discussion last week of recent Supreme Court cases and AG Eric Holder's speeches provided everyone with perspectives on how punishment theories, both expressly and implicitly, play a role in constitutional jurisprudence and national criminal justice policy conversations.  This weekend, I noticed this recent Toledo Blade editorial, headlined "Women in prison: A big increase in female inmates should prompt changes in how Ohio’s courts deal with addiction," which provides a more localize discussion of some recent criminal justice developments and concerns that implicate punishment theories in various ways.  

I encourage everyone to read the Blade editorial in full to see how, expressly and implicitly, one prominent paper is incorporating punishment theory into its call for reforms focused on a particular demographic.  Here is an excerpt from the editorial (which perhaps can stimulate some discussion of punishment theory or the fairness of a gendered call for reform in the comments):

A stunning rise in the number of women entering Ohio prisons should encourage elected officials to seek better ways of managing the state’s $1.5-billion-a-year prison system.

Driven largely by a growing number of drug-addicted offenders from rural counties, Ohio prisons now hold nearly 4,200 women.  From 2012 to 2013, the number of women coming to state prisons increased by 11 percent, from 2,580 to 2,854 ....  Ohio’s opioid and heroin epidemic is largely to blame for the increase, as more low-level female drug offenders are sent to prison. “That population is very much nonviolent and drug-addicted, often with male co-defendants leading the case,” state prisons Director Gary Mohr said recently.

At the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, which holds more than 2,600 prisoners, the top three offenses for women entering the prison are drug possession, theft, and trafficking, said public information officer Elizabeth Wright.  Moreover, the statewide share of women prisoners coming from rural counties — those with fewer than 100,000 residents — has nearly doubled in the past decade.  Altogether, Ohio’s 28 prisons hold more than 50,000 inmates.

In an interview with The Blade’s editorial page, a 28-year-old drug offender from Hardin County (population 32,000) said heroin and illicit prescription painkillers are easy to get in her rural community.  As with most other opioid addicts in Ohio, she started using prescription painkillers — in her case, Percocet.  She eventually graduated to heroin because of its lower cost and availability.   “The pills swept me off my feet,” she said at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. “It got to the point where I couldn’t even get out of bed without using a pill. I went straight from Percocet to heroin. Everyone was saying: ‘Why don’t you just do heroin? It’s so much cheaper.’”

Mr. Mohr has prudently called for diverting more low-level drug offenders from prison to community-based treatment programs.  To do that, Ohio will need more adult drug courts. Most counties, including Lucas County, still don’t have a drug court.  The state also needs more community programs to serve as effective alternatives to incarceration.

Ohio’s prosecutors and judges also must get better educated on addiction.  Too many of them still don’t understand that chemical addiction is a compulsive disease, not a moral choice. “A big part of the problem is that a number of people, including judges and prosecutors, see addiction as a state in which people have more control than they actually have,” Orman Hall, the director of Gov. John Kasich’s Opiate Action Team, told The Blade’s editorial page. “Opioid and heroin addiction is a compulsive disorder. In the early stages, people have very little ability not to relapse.”

September 1, 2014 in Crime data, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 16, 2014

Sincere marijuana reform question: exactly what are DEA officials "scared" of?

The question in the title of this post, which I am now posting to all the blogs in which I now participate, is my sincere reaction to this new Washington Post article headlined "DEA operations chief decries legalization of marijuana at state level."  Here is the context:

The chief of operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration on Wednesday called the legalization of marijuana at the state level “reckless and irresponsible,” warning that the movement to decriminalize the sale of pot in the United States will have severe consequences.

“It scares us,” James L. Capra said, responding to a question from a senator during a hearing focused on drug cultivation in Afghanistan.  “Every part of the world where this has been tried, it has failed time and time again.”

Capra’s comments marked the DEA’s most public and pointed criticism of the movement toward decriminalization in several states, where local officials see it as an opportunity to generate tax revenue and boost tourism....

Capra said agents have watched the early days of legal marijuana sales in Colorado with dismay.  “There are more dispensaries in Denver than there are Starbucks,” he said.  “The idea somehow people in our country have that this is somehow good for us as a nation is wrong.  It’s a bad thing.”

Capra said that senior DEA officials have faced uncomfortable questions from law enforcement partners abroad. During a recent global summit on counter-narcotics in Moscow, he said, he and the head of the DEA were at a loss to explain the loosening drug laws. “Almost everyone looked at us and said: Why are you doing this [while] pointing a finger to us as a source state?” he said. “I don’t have an answer for them.”...

Capra said he worries about the long-term consequences of the national mood on marijuana, which law enforcement experts call a gateway to more dangerous drugs. “This is a bad experiment,” he said.  “It’s going to cost us in terms of social costs.”

Let me begin by saying I respect all those who work in the DEA and other law enforcement agencies dealing with illegal drug issues, and I am certain all those who do this work have much more first-hand knowledge of the myriad harmful social costs of drug use and abuse than I ever will.  But it is for that very reason that I ask this question about exactly what has DEA officials "scared": I sincerely want a much better understanding of what "social costs" of reform are being referenced here so that I can better assess for myself how I think these potential "social costs" of state-level marijuana reform stack up to the existing "social costs" I see due to current pot prohibition laws and norms.

That said, I think I might be able to help DEA officials avoid "being at a loss" to explain loosening drug laws in the US to their international friends in Moscow or elsewhere.  Here is what I suggest DEA officials say: "The United States of American is an exceptional nation that, in President Lincoln's words, was "conceived in Liberty" and its citizens recently have become ever more skeptical about the growth of government's coercive powers and ever more concerned about paying high taxes for government programming perceived to be ineffectual.  Thus, just as the people of America were the first to experiment seriously with a constitutional democracy (which has worked out pretty well), now some of the people of America are eager to experiment seriously with a regime of marijuana regulation rather than blanket prohibition."

This account of why polls show ever greater support for marijuana legalization is my sincere understanding of why so much drug reform activity is going on now in the United States.  The current "Obama era" is defined by a period of relatively tight budgets, relatively low crime, and yet still record-high taxing-and-spending in service to criminal justice programming.  These realities, especially in the wake of the Tea Party movement and other notable libertarian responses to the enormous modern growth of state and federal governments, have more and more Americans thinking we should be open to experimenting with a regime of marijuana legalization and regulation rather than blanket prohibition.

It is quite possible, as the DEA official suggests, that "this is a bad experiment."  But even if it is, the experiment does not "scare" me, in part because I have a hard time fully understanding what potential increased social costs should make me or others truly "scared."  More importantly, I have enormous confidence that, if the social costs of marijuana reform prove to be significant, the American people will realize pot reform is "a bad experiment" and will again change its laws accordingly. Indeed, this is precisely the experiences we have seen with our legal experiments with other drugs throughout American history:

I emphasize these historic examples of American drug experimentation because it is certainly possible to lament the harms produced along the way or the enduring "social costs" of having tobacco and/or alcohol still legal.  But it is also possible to conclude, as I do, that what makes America both great and special — dare I say exceptional — is that we persistently maintained our fundamental commitments to freedom, democratic self-rule and the rule of law throughout these experiments.  Consequently, this modern era's new round of American drug experimentation has me excited and intrigued to watch unfold the next chapter of the American experience, and I am not "scared" by the marijuana reform movement because they it strikes me as a further vindication of our people's fundamental commitments to freedom, democratic self-rule and the rule of law.

But maybe I am just way too high on the idea of American exceptionalism to have a sensible and sober understanding off all the potential harms and "social costs" that are apparently scaring DEA officials. And, as I said above, I readily acknowledge that all those who work on the front lines of the drug war have much more first-hand knowledge of the myriad harmful social costs of drug use and abuse than I ever will.  But, again, that it why the question in the title of this post is sincere: I genuinely and really want to have a much better understanding of what has DEA officials "scared" so that I can sensibly temper my excitement and optimism about modern marijuana reforms.

I fear that responses to this post could become snarky or ad hominen real quickly, but I hope all readers will tap into the spirit of my inquiry and really try to help me understand just what potential social costs of modern marijuana reform could lead those in the know to be "scared" as the quote above suggests. And I am posting this query in all five blogs I work on these days because I am eager to get wide input and as many diverse insights on this question as possible.

January 16, 2014 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 24, 2013

Notable discussion of the death penalty in Ohio

I have mentioned my willingness to discuss the death penalty in an extra optional session, and I am happy/eager to do so next week right after our classes and/or just about any other time next week or throughout December.  (Perhaps talking about executions might give you some healthy perspective on how relatively unimportant exam performance is in the grand scheme of things.)

The story of the death penalty in Ohio is especially interesting and dynamic, and could (but need not be) a focal point of any of our discussions.  And if this topic especially interests you, I recommend this new article from the Toledo Blade, which is headlined "Death penalty cases ebb in Lucas County and Ohio: Decline tied to more flexibility in sentencing." Here are a few excerpts:

When John Winfield was sentenced to life in prison last month for the robbery and shooting death of Toledoan Mark Ward in 2011, Lucas County’s last active capital murder case was closed. In what may be the first time since the death penalty was reinstated in Ohio in 1981, no such cases are pending before the court.  Not a single person was indicted in Lucas County on capital charges this year or last.

It’s a situation that reflects a statewide trend toward fewer death penalty prosecutions. Ohio Supreme Court records show that just nine individuals were indicted in the state on capital murder charges through July, and just 36 for all of last year.  That compares to 159 indictments in 1983, 109 in 1993, and 95 in 2003.

A key reason for the decline is that since 2005, judges have had the option of sentencing those convicted of aggravated murder to life in prison without the possibility of parole....

A 20-member task force appointed by Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor expects to make recommendations to the state’s top court for possible changes to the death penalty by March, said Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Linda Jennings, the only local member of the group.  “We’re looking at every single issue to make sure that the death penalty is administered fairly,” Judge Jennings said.

I am also a member of the task force appointed by Chief Justice O’Connor, and I could talk about the work of the task force or any other topics of interest to folks.

I urge anyone eager to have a special (entirely optional) session to talk about any death penalty topic to note their interest in the comments and perhaps suggest an ideal time for such a session.

November 24, 2013 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack