Wednesday, 28 February 2007

The Stench at Justice Expands

We can now add Western Michigan's Margaret Chiara to the list of U.S. Attorneys who have been forced out by the White House and Alberto Gonzales. Watchblog's American Pundit put two and two together last month when San Diego's Carol Lam, who helped put Republican crook Duke Cunningham behind bars, was forced out. Gonzales may insist that no ongoing investigations are being jeopardized, but why then are we seeing the wholesale replacement of their own appointments by Bush loyalists? I smell something rotten.

And then there's the lies, and of couse the innuendo. Sure these positions are by nature political appointments, whose holders serve "at the pleasure of the President". They were appointed originally by this administration and have stepped down gracefully. But Bud Cummins of Eastern Arkansas, the first to go last year to make room for a Karl Rove aide, broke his silence after testimony in January by Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the six U.S. attorneys in the West and Southwest had been dismissed for "performance-related" reasons:
They're entitled to make these changes for any reason or no reason or even for an idiotic reason. But if they are trying to suggest that people have inferior performance to hide whatever their true agenda is, that is wrong. They should retract those statements.
Six of the seven earlier fired attorneys had positive performance reviews. Cummins is scarcely alone in his reaction to McNulty's insulting testimony.

You can visit ePluribusMedia for more fine articles detailing the recent firings and their implications: The Gonzales Seven; Gaming the System; and links to separate articles about each one.

Speculation about Chiara's departure include that it had something to do with previous clashes with the administration on the death penalty which she opposes. From the Grand Rapids Press article:
Federal prosecutors serve at the discretion of the president and may be dismissed for any reason, or no reason at all. Most serve for the duration of the president's term and expect to be replaced when a new party sweeps into office.

"The timing is suspicious for anyone to leave on their own will and in the middle of a term when they were appointed by the sitting president. That alone makes it unusual," [Grand Rapids lawyer, Jon] Muth said. "I can't imagine it being performance-related."

James Brady, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District, is concerned by the possibility Chiara could be connected to the recent dismissals.

"There's no question we're concerned that politics may be involved in these types of decisions," he said. "In the (other forced resignations) there was nothing but praise until some political trouble started."

Chiara opposes capital punishment, although she has vowed to uphold such laws.
The PATRIOT Act has a provision which gives the current Attorney General authority to appoint any provisional replacement U.S. Attorney for the remainder of the Presidential term without Congressional approval. Alberto Gonzales was confirmed in a controversial Senate vote back in January of 2005. He came in with the odor of being a primary architect of the policies that weakened our government's previous strong stance against torture, calling the Geneva Conventions quaint prior to the exposure of the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Even Republican Lindsey Graham of the Senate Judiciary Committe hearings during that confirmation expressed his dismay at a published Gonzales memo, stating:
when you start looking at torture statutes, and you look at ways around the spirit of the law, you're losing the moral high ground
Graham lacked the cojones to stand behind his principles and deny Gonzales' nomination, as he or Arlen Specter or any single Republican had the power to do, in what ended up being a 10-8 committee vote along party lines to forward the nomination to the full Senate.

And now that same morally crippled chief law enforcement officer of the land defends his capricious firings of 8 U.S. Attorneys in recent months, on shaky grounds. Gonzales is the one who should be fired. The stench smells from coast to coast.

Sunday, 25 February 2007

Craig Watkins turns prosecution on its head

Innocent people shouldn't be imprisoned.

Well, duh! That statement on its face will draw agreement across the entire political spectrum. But most folks in the prosecuting business don't seem to agree, when it means releasing prisoners their office successfully convicted. Newly elected Dallas, Texas district attorney Craig Watkins gets kudos for allowing common sense to trump possible embarrassment.

We've all heard the maxim "better 10 guilty men go free than 1 innocent man be convicted." Some have stretched 10 to 100, and what the best number is can be honestly debated or discussed. The constraints put on law enforcement and prosecutors in gaining convictions, when fairly observed, do lessen the likelihood of punishing the innocent in many jurisdictions across the U.S. when compared to earlier times or other countries not sharing our presumption of innocence for the accused.

But once convicted, the shoe is clearly on the other foot.

Even prior to conviction the pressure to solve crimes too often leads police and prosecutors to seek convictions with too much zeal when the guilt of the accused is far from certain. Common sense tells me that zealotry will be manifest in some jurisdictions with a troubling regularity, and that where that is the case district attorneys will resist tooth and nail any attempt to exonerate the convicted.

Of course we want crimes to be solved and the guilty to be caught. We want police and prosecutors to work hard at their jobs to bring justice to criminals. But a crime is better unsolved than solved incorrectly. The attitude of "somebody's gotta pay" too easily transmutes into "anybody's gotta pay".

Enter Craig Watkins.

Actually first came DNA fingerprinting, then came the Innocence Project.

Everyone except the guilty ought to be happy about advances in DNA testing and its use in criminology. Barring tampering with evidence, the likelihood of identifying perpetrators correctly in serious crimes has gone up many fold since the days of my youth. Those behind bars for years who have steadfastly maintained their innocence now have new hope of exoneration. That along with the dogged determination of the Innocence Project founded in 1992 to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. District Attorneys haven't exactly been champing at the bit to provide evidence to the Innocence Project to assure that any their office has wrongly convicted are exonerated. Many jurisdictions destroy evidence after some length of time, while a few dishonest ones no doubt destroyed lots of evidence once they became aware of an interest in reinvestigating claims of false convictions. As stated on IP's website:
Most law enforcement officers and prosecutors are honest and trustworthy. But criminal justice is a human endeavor and the possibility for corruption exists. Even if one officer of every thousand is dishonest, wrongful convictions will continue to occur.
Even honest DAs often aren't anxious to learn that even one of the defendants that they worked so hard to convict might be exonerated after a lengthy prison sentence. That may be why it took the election of an outsider to the DA's office in Dallas to finally produce a DA who will partner with the Innocence Project of Texas to review the cases of 354 inmates who have requested DNA testing.
Watkins, who has seen two men exonerated by DNA since taking office Jan. 1, describes his decision as a no-brainer.

"We had to make this move," Watkins said Friday. "We're going to do things right in Dallas County and right some wrongs that have been done in the past."

DNA evidence has exonerated 12 Dallas County men since 2001, which is more than all but two states, according to the Innocence Project.

A 13th man, James Giles, is expected to be exonerated within the next few weeks, Watkins said.

Thirty-four Dallas County inmates have received DNA testing since being convicted. Eleven saw their guilt confirmed and six are still going through the testing process. In five cases, the DNA testing was inconclusive, according to the district attorney's office.

Dallas County has been the site of an inordinate number of exonerations in part because the laboratory prosecutors use holds onto biological evidence for up to 25 years, said Jeff Blackburn, director of the Innocence Project of Texas.

Other labs across the state often destroy samples after convictions, he said.

Innocence Project lawyers and staffers will work with law students at Texas Wesleyan, Texas Tech, North Texas, University of Texas at Arlington and Southern Methodist to identify the most likely candidates for exonerations.

No tax money will be used to pay for testing, Watkins said.
This observer sees the potential for seismic repercussions across the country with greater scrutiny of prosecutors who have overseen multiple false convictions. Where there are a few there are likely to be many more. I'm certain Dallas County isn't the worse case, though the exoneration of 13 out of 35 hints strongly of either police or prosecutorial misconduct or both there.

The Innocence Project keeps a track record for many states based on previous exonerations and current state laws on compensation for exonorees, DNA access, and the recording of interrogations. You can click the map here for your state or state of interest.

Saturday, 24 February 2007

Hillary & the Politics of Disavowal

So I'm a bit behind the news cycle, but nonetheless feel compelled to post something about the overblown flap between the Clinton and Obama campaigns. First, I have a hard time believing that Hillary did herself any favors by calling the country's attention to the Maureen Dowd column and David Geffen's remarks. If she is the nominee, she will require the support of millions of American voters who are less than enthusiastic about her, so why should she explicitly attack the earnest criticisms of such a person, suggesting that such a free expression constitutes "the politics of trash".

Frankly Geffen's remarks ring true to this observer. I still would be likely to vote for Clinton over any Republican candidate, but I would be just a little less happy doing so now given her acid reaction to an opinion that closely reflects my own.

I've never been a fan of the politics of disavowal, which arguably may be more often a liberal ailment than a conservative one. Let's worry about policy statements, and what people do, not about what their friends say.