It was an odd year to be on the criminal-justice beat. As promised, the Trump administration set about dismantling whatever progress we were making toward criminal-justice reform at the federal level (why do politicians only keep their bad promises?) and continued to spread misinformation about how often crimes occur and who commits them. Of course, President Trump was also making a ton of news outside the world of criminal justice, so much so that important stories at the state and local level were often buried.
Our biggest story here at The Watch was a months-long investigation into Hugo Holland, a notoriously aggressive Louisiana prosecutor who has been repeatedly accused of withholding exculpatory evidence and was fired several years ago for falsifying federal forms. But pay records show that Holland was subsequently hired by parishes all over the state, mostly to handle death penalty cases. Within a few years, he had doubled the salary he had been making at the time of his firing. He has also been hired to teach classes at orientations and conferences for new prosecutors, as well as to lobby the state legislature to vote against bills aimed at criminal-justice reform.
Speaking of Louisiana, The Watch also reported that the state Supreme Court justice who briefly earned national attention for his “lawyer dog” opinion has also made some controversial and prejudicial comments about pending cases on talk radio. We also eulogized two champions of justice in Louisiana: the longtime criminal defense attorney Sam Dalton, and John Thompson, the fiery activist who was twice convicted — and nearly executed — for crimes he did not commit.
It wasn’t all Louisiana. We continued to follow the story of Robert and Addie Harte, the Kansas couple wrongly raided by a SWAT team because of a trip to a gardening store and some loose-leaf tea. After the federal courts whittled their lawsuit down to a single, nearly-impossible-to-prove claim, the Hartes lost in front of a federal jury this month.
As for the Trump administration, we kept tabs on the White House’s and Justice Department’s record on civil liberties and criminal justice with the ongoing “Trump Watch” and will continue to do so. Other notable Trump- or Jeff Sessions-related posts from 2017:
- Questions for Jeff Sessions.
- Sessions on marijuana and civil asset forfeiture.
- Trump, cops and crime.
- Jeff Sessions supports states’ rights, except when he doesn’t: A critique of Sessions’s fair-weather federalism. He supports “states’ rights” when it comes to, say, voting laws or restricting gay rights, or not investigating police abuses. But not when it comes to decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana, allowing undocumented immigrants to live in peace or letting states make their own laws about civil asset forfeiture without federal interference.
- Trump, policing and the teenage brain: Trump’s ego and lack of impulse control may have a lot to do with his views on law enforcement.
- Sessions dismisses Justice Department reports on police abuse without bothering to read them.
- How Sessions will enable more Michael Slagers.
- Here are all the ways Sessions is wrong about drug sentencing.
- A dossier on David Clarke, who nearly joined the Homeland Security Department.
- A new GOP bill would make it virtually impossible to sue the police.
- Trump’s presidential address in late February was a broadside attack on the values of a free society.
- Reactions to Sessions’s call for tougher sentencing.
- Trump doesn’t support cops. He supports cops who agree with him.
- Consent decrees have a mixed record of success, but Sessions’s plan to end them is still worrisome.
- Sessions wants to keep forensics in the Dark Ages.
- Scientists blast a Sessions decision on forensics.
- Deputy attorney general announces new Forensic Science Working Group but still doesn’t grasp the extent of the problem: The Justice Department will address forensics reform internally. There’s little reason to think the department will get it right.
Speaking of forensics, there were lots of other interesting stories on that beat.
- There were new developments in the ongoing saga of disgraced Mississippi forensic specialists Steven Hayne and Michael West: In August, Hayne backed off his “shaken baby” theory during a hearing for death row inmate Jeffrey Havard. A judge is expected to rule soon on whether Havard will get a new trial. Unfortunately, despite a 5th Circuit determination a few years ago that Hayne is not a credible witness, the courts continued to rule against the people harmed. In February, the same court ruled against a man convicted mostly due to absurd testimony Hayne gave after creating a “death mask” of an alleged victim. And in June, a 5th Circuit panel ruled that Hayne and West were protected by qualified immunity in dismissing a lawsuit brought by exonerees Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks. A three-judge panel found that while the two experts may have been grossly negligent, Brooks and Brewer had to show they acted recklessly, and had failed to do so. Finally, in May we asked what Mississippi owes to a 13-year-old who was convicted in part due to some particularly absurd testimony from Hayne.
- However, a couple of months later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit did allow a lawsuit to proceed against two bite-mark analysts who helped convict Robert Lee Stinson. The court found that Stinson had presented enough evidence for a jury to reasonably find a criminal conspiracy to manufacture evidence. Incredibly, the Wisconsin appeals court decision allowing bite-mark evidence against Stinson is still the controlling case law on bite-mark analysis in that state.
- At the same time, another man convicted because of bite-mark evidence was exonerated and released from prison. He served 19 years. And earlier in the year, another man wrongly convicted confronted the bite-mark analysts who put him in prison.
- And yet despite all of that, and despite a mountain of evidence showing bite-mark analysis to be dubious, prosecutors continue to defend bite-mark analysis, and this year yet another judge allowed it into evidence during a criminal trial.
- Robert O’Block, the king of junk forensics, died over the summer. We took a look back at his odd and unfortunate career.
- Judges continued to do a pretty terrible job at keeping bad science out of criminal trials.
- These issues briefly hit the pop culture, as John Oliver delivered a righteous and at times humorous monologue about forensics in the courtroom.
- Crime lab scandals continued to pop up all over the country.
- Of course, Trump didn’t take office until late January. So during the first part of the month, we criticized Barack Obama for his own failures on forensics reform — and for exaggerating his record on that issue.
We also continued to track the criminalization of poverty, mostly by pointing to terrific reporting and investigations done by other media outlets. Some of the more notable stories:
- Some anonymous North Carolina lawmakers just made it harder to be poor.
- Hey, Sheriff Grady Judd: Here are the reasons not to lock up people with outstanding warrants who come to hurricane shelters.
- The ongoing criminalization of parenting while poor.
- Colorado housing officials invite cops to perform warrantless searches on poor people.
- Chicago civil asset forfeiture hits poor people the hardest.
- Mississippi judge resigns after barring mother from seeing newborn because of unpaid court fees.
Here are a few of my other favorite posts from the past year:
- How the National Rifle Association’s allegiance to cops undermines its credibility on gun rights.
- How public-choice theory can be an important tool for understanding the criminal-justice system.
- Why are taxpayers subsidizing Joe Arpaio’s legal defense?
- Steven Seagal: Drug warrior, honorary cop, alleged serial sex abuser
- Another narcotics task force is in the midst of a corruption and brutality scandal. This is nothing new.
- The big lie about sex offenders.
- South Carolina police shot a man to pieces over $100 worth of pot, then lied about it.
- The Supreme Court heard an important case involving the “provocation doctrine,” which holds that if police violate a suspect’s rights in a way that escalates a confrontation, they can be held accountable even if the ultimate use of lethal force was justified. The court then ruled the wrong way.
- Forced catheterizations are a good reminder that the drug war is as barbaric and cruel as ever.
- The debacle in Arkansas only reaffirms that the death penalty is arbitrary, unchecked and unfair.
- Police groups want to bar the public from seeing controversial body-camera footage — and lawmakers are obliging them.
- We should treat Confederate monuments the way Moscow and Budapest have treated communist statues.
- The damning Justice Department report about Chicago police also helps explain the city’s murder rate.
- A day with “killology” police trainer Dave Grossman.
Thanks for reading, as well as for your comments, leads and story ideas. I’ll be back after the Christmas holiday.