Monthly Archives: October 2018

Online Research By Juror

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In State v. Arndt, the WA Court of Appeals upheld a defendant’s numerous high-level criminal convictions even though one of the jurors performed online research against the court’s instructions.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On February 23, 2014, Ms. Arndt and her boyfriend, Mr. Veeder Jr., spent the night at their
friends’ home. Late that night, the house caught fire. Everyone in the home escaped except Mr. Veeder, who died.

After an investigation, the State charged Arndt with murder in the first degree with an
aggravating circumstance of arson in the first degree, felony murder in the first degree with
aggravating circumstances, arson in the first degree, and six counts of assault in the second degree.

The jury found Arndt guilty as charged. The trial court sentenced Arndt to life in prison without the possibility of release or parole.

Months after the verdict, Juror 2 approached a woman whom she did not know was the
sister of Arndt’s trial attorney. Juror 2 said that in Arndt’s trial, she struggled with the term
“premeditation.” She further related that to better understand the term, she looked it up on the internet. The attorney’s sister told her brother what she had learned.

Defense investigator James Harris then met with Juror 2, explained that he worked for Arndt’s trial attorney, and asked to speak with her about her experience as a juror. Juror 2 spoke with Harris and told him that during deliberations she did internet research on the word “premeditation.” Juror 2 provided Harris with additional information, including sites she may have viewed. The State’s investigator also interviewed Juror 2.

Arndt moved for a new trial on grounds of juror misconduct. At a hearing on the motion,
the court heard testimony from Juror 2 and Harris. Juror 2 testified that she had researched the term “premeditation” and had found different sites, but did not remember whether she had viewed any of the specific sites she had showed Harris when he earlier interviewed her. She said that she looked at a couple different definitions, but it was the word “short” that made her understand. Juror 2 also testified that she had not shared her
research with other jurors.

Ultimately, the trial court held Arndt should not get a new trial:

“In substance, the Court finds that the definitions viewed by Juror #2 were indistinguishable to the jury instruction and were consistent with the law. Because the known research results, as presented to the Court, were consistent with the jury instruction on premeditation and the law, the Court is satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Juror #2’s research could not have affected the verdict. Therefore, the motion for a new trial is denied.”

Arndt appealed to the WA Court of Appeals.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals reasoned that Juror 2 committed misconduct. Also, the consideration of novel or extrinsic evidence by a jury is misconduct and can be grounds for a new trial. Furthermore, juror use of extraneous evidence is misconduct and entitles a defendant to a new trial, if the defendant has been prejudiced.

“Once juror misconduct is established, prejudice is presumed,” said the Court of Appeals. “The court must grant a new trial unless it is satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the extrinsic evidence did not contribute to the verdict.”

The Court of Appeals also reviewed the trial court’s instructions to the jury on the definition of “Premeditation.” It stated the following:

“Premeditated means thought over beforehand. When a person, after any deliberation, forms an intent to take human life, the killing may follow immediately after the formation of the settled purpose and it will still be premeditated. Premeditation must involve more than a moment in point of time. The law requires some time, however long or short, in which a design to kill is deliberately formed.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals reasoned that although the exact websites Juror 2 visited and the precise definitions she viewed are unknown, the part of those definitions that had an impression on her and affected her verdict were the word “short” and phrase “however short.”

“As the trial court ruled, these definitions were indistinguishable to the jury instruction and were consistent with the law,” said the Court of Appeals. “This ruling is sufficient to satisfy beyond a reasonable doubt that the extrinsic evidence did not contribute to the verdict and to overcome the presumption of prejudice. The court did not abuse its discretion.”

With that the Court of Appeals concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that Juror 2’s research did not contribute to the verdict. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed Arndt’s conviction.

My opinion? The Court’s decision is frustrating. It placed too much weight on whether the juror’s misconduct prejudiced the defendant. Instead, the Court should have focused on the fact that juror misconduct happened in the first place.

If you stole a candy bar from a grocery store, would your shoplifting affect the store’s bottom line? Probably not. However, the simple fact that you stole a candy bar is, in fact, a crime which demands an effective and just remedy. Otherwise, a crime which goes unpunished is essentially not a crime, correct?

Here, Juror 2 blatantly disregarded the court’s instructions to not perform online research. Did Juror 2’s research affect her decision on the verdict? Did Juror 2 discuss her research with other jurors behind closed doors when they deliberated the case? Therein lies the threat to justice; not only to this defendant, but criminal defendants everywhere. Online research should not be tolerated, even if it can be willed away away as having no impact on the outcome. Bad decision.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges.

Juvenile Life Sentences Ruled Unconstitutional

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Excellent article in the Seattle Times by reporters and  discusses how in State v. Bassett, the Washington State’s Supreme Court ruled that sentencing youth offenders to life in prison without parole is unconstitutional, joining 20 states and Washington D.C. who’ve already outlawed the practice.

In 1996, at the age of 16, Mr. Bassett was convicted of three counts of aggravated first degree murder for the deaths of his mother, father, and brother. The judge commented that Bassett, still a child, was “a walking advertisement” for the death penalty and sentenced him to three consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the time, 1996, life without parole was the mandatory sentence under our state statute, former RCW 10.95.030 (1993).

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that trial courts may not impose a minimum term of life, as that would mean a life without parole sentence, for people convicted of committing a crime when they were younger than 18 years old. The sentencing “constitutes cruel punishment,” and doesn’t achieve the legal goals of retribution or deterrence because children are less culpable than adults, it said. Children convicted of crimes, including the highest degree of murder, are also entitled in Washington to special protections from sentencing courts when possible, the court said.

The ruling comes on the heels of a unanimous decision by the state’s justices earlier this week that struck down the death penalty, declaring its current application to be in violation of Washington’s constitution.

A pediatric psychologist testified that the teenager had suffered from adjustment disorder and struggled to cope with homelessness after his parents kicked him out of the house. Bassett later said that at the time, he wasn’t able to comprehend the long-term consequences of his actions, according to court records.

He hasn’t had any prison violations for 15 years, has earned his GED and was on the Edmonds Community College honor roll. He got married in 2010.

Following research on juvenile brain development, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that automatic life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional. The state Legislature responded two years later with a law that allowed youth inmates who were sentenced to life as juveniles to have their sentences reconsidered, although they could still be sentenced to life in prison.

Thursday’s ruling eliminates that option for judges.

WA State Abolishes Death Penalty

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But the court’s opinion eliminated it entirely, converted the sentences for the state’s eight death row inmates to life in prison without release, and supported a trend away from capital punishment in the U.S.

“The death penalty is becoming increasingly geographically isolated,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center. “It’s still on the books in 30 states, but it’s not being used in 30 states. It’s becoming a creature of the Deep South and the Southwest.”

Texas continues to execute more prisoners than any other state — 108 since 2010. Florida has executed 28, Georgia 26 and Oklahoma 21 in that time frame. But nationally, death sentences are down 85 percent since the 1990s, Dunham said.

In the past 15 years, seven states — Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York — have abandoned capital punishment through court order or legislative act, and three — Colorado, Oregon and Pennsylvania — have adopted moratoriums.

The concerns cited in those states have ranged from procedural matters, such as the information provided to sentencing jurors in New York, to worries about executing an innocent person or racial and other disparities in who is sentenced to death, as was the case in Washington.

“The death penalty is unequally applied — sometimes by where the crime took place, or the county of residence, or the available budgetary resources at any given point in time, or the race of the defendant,” Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote in the lead opinion.

“Our capital punishment law lacks ‘fundamental fairness.”  ~Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst 

According to La Corte and Johnson, defense lawyers had long challenged the death penalty on those grounds. This time, death penalty critics were armed with more data about how capital punishment works, including a statistical analysis by University of Washington sociologists. Their report showed that although prosecutors were not more likely to seek the execution of black defendants, juries were about four times more likely to sentence black defendants to death.

“Now the information is plainly before us,” Fairhurst wrote. “To the extent that race distinguishes the cases, it is clearly impermissible and unconstitutional.”

Racial Profiling of Latinos in LA County

Excellent article by Joel Rubin and Ben Poston of the LA Times examines a disturbing trend. Apparently, more than two-thirds of the drivers pulled over by the Domestic Highway Enforcement Team were Latino, according to a Times analysis of Sheriff’s Department data. And sheriff’s deputies searched the vehicles of more than 3,500 drivers who turned out to have no drugs or other illegal items, the analysis found. The overwhelming majority of those were Latino.

Several of the team’s big drug busts have been dismissed in federal court as the credibility of some deputies came under fire and judges ruled that deputies violated the rights of motorists by conducting unconstitutional searches.

The Times analyzed data from every traffic stop recorded by the team from 2012 through the end of last year — more than 9,000 stops in all — and reviewed records from hundreds of court cases. Among its findings:

  • Latino drivers accounted for 69% of the deputies’ stops. Officers from the California Highway Patrol, mainly policing traffic violations on the same section of freeway, pulled over nearly 378,000 motorists during the same period; 40% of them were Latino.
  • Two-thirds of Latinos who were pulled over by the Sheriff’s Department team had their vehicles searched, while cars belonging to all other drivers were searched less than half the time.
  • Three-quarters of the team’s searches came after deputies asked motorists for consent rather than having evidence of criminal behavior. Several legal scholars said such a high rate of requests for consent is concerning because people typically feel pressured to allow a search or are unaware they can refuse.
  • Though Latinos were much more likely to be searched, deputies found drugs or other illegal items in their vehicles at a rate that was not significantly higher than that of black or white drivers.

From top to bottom: L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputies search a motorist’s suitcase. Also a deputy uses a device for measuring density to search for hidden drugs and clutches some tools he uses to perform vehicle searches. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department said that racial profiling plays no role in the deputies’ work and that they base their stops only on a person’s driving and other impartial factors.

In December, Sheriff Jim McDonnell heaped praise on the team, ticking off its accomplishments in a lengthy statement. “The importance of this mission cannot be overstated,” the sheriff said.

But several legal and law enforcement experts said the department’s own records strongly suggest the deputies are violating the civil rights of Latinos by racially profiling, whether intentionally or not.

“When they say, ‘We’re getting all these drugs out of here,’ they are not taking into account the cost,” said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies racial profiling by police. “They are sacrificing their own legitimacy in the community as a whole and the Latino community in particular.”

Kimberly Fuentes, research director for the California League of United Latin American Citizens, described The Times’ findings as “extremely disturbing and troubling” and said the advocacy organization would demand a meeting with Sheriff’s Department officials.

“These findings risk tarnishing any trust between the Sheriff’s Department and the Latino community,” Fuentes said.

My opinion? A pullover and search of your vehicle is unlawful if the reason for the pullover/search is racial profiling. Racial profiling is the practice of targeting individuals for police or security detention based on their race or ethnicity in the belief that certain minority groups are more likely to engage in unlawful behavior. Examples of racial profiling by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies are illustrated in legal settlements and data collected by governmental agencies and private groups, suggesting that minorities are disproportionately the subject of routine traffic stops and other security-related practices.

Also, pretextual searches are also unlawful. Pretext is an excuse to do something or say something that is not accurate. Pretexts may be based on a half-truth or developed in the context of a misleading fabrication. Pretexts have been used to conceal the true purpose or rationale behind actions and words. A pretextual search and arrest by law enforcement officers is one carried out for illegal purposes such as to conduct an unjustified search and seizure.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member was charged with a crime after being racially profiled and/or pulled over for unlawful pretext. I provide zealous representation to all defendants facing these circumstances.

Sexual Assault Kits Remain Untested

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The Attorney General’s Office has completed its inventory of Washington state’s unsubmitted sexual assault kits, finding 6,460 kits that have not yet been submitted for lab testing by local law enforcement agencies.

A sexual assault kit is a collection of evidence gathered from a survivor by a medical professional, usually a specially trained sexual assault nurse examiner. A crime lab then tests the evidence for DNA that will help law enforcement find a perpetrator.

This month, Attorney General Bob Ferguson will request the remainder of a federal grant that funds sexual assault kit testing. The Attorney General’s Office (AGO) is currently reviewing the inventory data and working with the Crime Lab to develop a plan for testing the kits, which potentially provide DNA evidence for sexual assault investigations.

The AGO obtained inventory information from 208 law enforcement agencies across Washington state. These 6,460 kits were collected and booked into evidence by local law enforcement, but were not submitted to a crime lab for a DNA analysis. Consequently, they remain in evidence storage facilities around the state.

Many of these unsubmitted kits have been in an evidence storage facility for years. The oldest untested kit reported by local law enforcement to the AGO dates back to 1982.

“Sexual assault survivors deserve justice,” said Ferguson. “Each sexual assault kit tells a story from a survivor that must be heard.”

The inventory is part of the AGO’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative project. In October 2017, the AGO won a grant for $3 million from the U.S. Department of Justice to assist law enforcement with testing and investigating untested sexual assault kits. The grant process, part of the Bureau of Justice Assistance Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, was highly competitive.

The grant funds a team of investigators within the AGO dedicated to the project. Attorney General Ferguson plans to dedicate $1.5 million to pay for the testing of kits – the maximum allowable under the grant.

So far, the AGO has received 25 percent of the $3 million grant in order to inventory the kits. Now that the inventory of unsubmitted kits is complete, Attorney General Ferguson can request the remainder of the funds from Bureau of Justice Assistance.

There are two types of sexual assault kit backlogs in Washington state and across the country. The first is the “unsubmitted” sexual assault kit backlog, which consists of kits that sit in a law enforcement evidence storage facility because a DNA analysis was never requested. With today’s announcement, Attorney General Ferguson took the first key step in eliminating Washington’s unsubmitted kit backlog.

The second type of backlog occurs in crime lab facilities, and consists of “backlogged” sexual assault kits that have been submitted, but have not yet been tested.

The State of Washington has made progress on processing its backlog of sexual assault kits over the past several years, but additional work remains. In 2015, led by Representative Tina Orwall (D-Burien), the Legislature gave funds to the Crime Lab to reduce the backlog.

According to the Washington State Patrol, more than 3,300 backlogged kits have been submitted to the Crime Lab using this legislative funding. Of those kits, about 1,700 have been tested and about 1,100 are currently in the testing process. These totals do not include the 6,460 unsubmitted kits Ferguson inventoried that are held by local law enforcement.

In Washington state, the State Patrol Crime Lab oversees the testing of all of the state’s DNA evidence. The Crime Lab is outsourcing the sexual assault kits to a private lab to complete the DNA testing. The Crime Lab must conduct a peer review of all evidence tested by outside labs and is the only agency permitted to upload DNA profiles into the national forensic DNA database, known as CODIS.

Once the kits are tested, local law enforcement can use DNA to reopen cold cases. Testing these kits will identify serial rapists, link cases across the country, provide critical links that could solve homicide cases and provide answers to victims and their families.

My opinion? I’m impressed our legislature is appropriating more funding toward testing rape kits. Forensic evidence such as rape kits benefit everyone, including the defendant. The evidence gives information beyond “he said / she said” allegations. Rape kits analyze DNA evidence, reveal the location and extent of injuries/trauma sustained from alleged sexual assaults and may contain notes from interviews with sexual assault nurse practitioners. All of this evidence helps the investigatory process.