Category Archives: Prison

Life Sentences Increase

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Article by Samantha Michaels of Mother Jones discusses how one out of every nine prisoners in the United States is currently serving a life sentence—a record high—even as the overall prison population has fallen.

That’s according to a depressing new report by the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that’s been tracking life sentences since 2004. Almost 162,000 people are now serving life behind bars, up from 132,000 about a decade ago and 34,000 in 1984.

To put that in perspective, for every 100,000 people in America, 50 have been locked up for life. That’s roughly the total incarceration rate—including inmates whose sentences are just a few months—in Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.  And it doesn’t even account for the tens of thousands of Americans handed sentences of 50 years or more, which are considered “de facto life sentences,” says Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project who co-authored the report.

What’s driving the uptick? It’s not a rise in violent crime or murder—both have dropped substantially since the mid-1990s. Nor is it an increase in the number of criminals behind bars: A majority of states saw declining overall prison populations from 2010 to 2015.

According to Michaels, the continuing rise in lifers is a legacy of three-strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentencing.

“It may also be related to the shift away from capital punishment,” she says. She further elaborates that in some states that no longer allow executions, elected officials like governors and prosecutors have championed life-without-parole sentences—which account for the biggest increase in life sentences nationally—as a way to appear tougher on crime.

“Going forward, we will have a system that allows us to put these people away for life, in living conditions none of us would want to experience,” Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, said in 2012 when his state abolished the death penalty. But these lengthy punishments probably aren’t keeping the public safer. “The impulse to engage in crime, including violent crime, is highly correlated with age,” the Sentencing Project notes. “Most criminal offending declines substantially beginning in the mid-20s and has tapered off substantially by one’s late 30s.”

The biggest losers of all this? Minorities. Of all the lifers and de facto lifers in the country, almost half are African American. What’s more, 12,000 of the total are locked up for crimes they committed as kids, though some are eligible for release thanks to recent court decisions.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional for juveniles who didn’t commit homicide. In 2012, the justices went further, saying that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for kids, including those who committed homicide, are also unconstitutional. Nineteen states and DC now ban any kind of life-without-parole sentence for juveniles.)

Finally, according to Michaels, it’s important to remember that many of the prisoners serving these long sentences never actually hurt anyone: Two-thirds of lifers or de facto lifers in the federal system committed nonviolent crimes—and one-third of them are serving time for drug crimes.

With Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the helm of the Justice Department alongside his team of tough-on-crime advisers, there’s a good chance that won’t be changing anytime soon.

My opinion? I couldn’t agree more.

State Senate Passes Bill Making Fourth DUI a Felony.

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The WA State Senate has unanimously passed a bill that would make driving under the influence (DUI) a felony if the driver has three or more prior offenses on their criminal record within 10 years.

Senate Bill 5037 passed Thursday and now heads to the House, where it has stalled in previous years. The bill’s sponsors are as follows: Padden, Frockt, O’Ban, Darneille, Miloscia, Kuderer, Zeiger, Carlyle, Pearson, Conway, Rolfes, Palumbo, Angel, and Wellman.

Under the measure, a person who is charged with a fourth DUI, and has no other criminal history, would be subject to a standard sentencing range of 13 to 17 months in jail.

However, this bill allows first-time felony offenders to spend up to six months in jail, instead of nine, and finish out the rest of their sentence under supervision, such as attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and other programs.

My opinion? We shouldn’t be surprised. Over the past 20 years, Americans have seen a significant increase in the harsh penalties for intoxicated drivers. Perhaps this is necessary move given the thousands of lives lost to drunk drivers. Speaking as a criminal defense attorney, there’s serious question as to whether people commit these violations purely out of willful disregard for the law and for the safety of others or because of an untreated mental illness or alcohol addiction. Nevertheless, public outcry has led to increased sentences.

Many attorneys in Whatcom County and Skagit County claim to represent clients in DUI cases, but not all attorneys have the experience and successes of attorney Alexander F. Ransom.  To learn more about DUI laws or if you have been charged with a driving offense, make your first call count. Call the Law Office of Alexander F. Ransom today.

Exonerations On the Rise

 

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News reporters Alanna Durkin Richer  and Curt Anderson of the Associated Press wrote an article describing how last year, 68 out of 157 exonerations were cases in which the defendant pleaded guilty. In Trial or Deal? Some Driven to Plead Guilty, Later Exonerated the article describes the difficult dilemma of many defendants in the criminal justice system: either accept the Prosecutor’s plea offer or risk facing much harsher consequences if found guilty at trial.

Apparently, more than 300 of the more than 1,900 people who have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1989 pleaded guilty, according to an estimate by the National Registry of Exonerations. The registry is maintained by the University of Michigan Law School using public information, such as court documents and news articles.

Last year, 68 out of 157 exonerations were cases in which the defendant pleaded guilty, more than any previous year. The numbers reflect an overwhelmed criminal justice system with public defenders taking more cases than they can handle; as well as court officials who try saving the government money with plea bargains compared with costly trials.

The data is even more daunting. Last year, more than 97 percent of criminal defendants sentenced in federal court pleaded guilty compared with about 85 percent more than 30 years ago, according to data collected by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The increase in guilty pleas has been a gradual rise over the last three decades.

No one knows exactly how many innocent people are behind bars for pleading guilty. Sociologists have estimated that between 2 and 8 percent of people who plead guilty are in fact innocent.

The article emphasized how defendants who were exonerated after pleading guilty often have prior criminal records and come from poor backgrounds and are not well-educated. They’re typically represented by public defenders juggling dozens of cases in a day.

Many exonerees were cleared of wrongdoing by taking a new look at DNA evidence in blood or other body fluids, according to the University of Michigan database. Some were the victims of prosecutorial misconduct, while shoddy police work was to blame in other cases — such as a mistaken FBI hair analysis or falsified fingerprint evidence. Some falsely confessed because of improper interrogation techniques while others maintained their innocence throughout.

Making the matter worse, it’s not just prosecutors and defense attorneys who seek to cut plea deals. The article said many judges prefer that route, too. Judges who resolve cases rather than let them languish tend to be seen as more successful. Similarly, explained the article, prosecutors who close cases tend to rise faster in their careers.

My opinion? People facing criminal charges MUST seek experienced defense counsel to defend their rights, investigate the facts, interview witnesses, argue pretrial motions, put their clients in the best light possible and conduct an active; fair trial when necessary.

Contact my office as soon as possible if you, a friend or family member is facing criminal charges. The epidemic of increased exonerations due to injustice in our courts as well as our incoming administration’s trampling of individual rights shows a growing need for competent representation. Put simply, defendants should not plead guilty to criminal charges they are not guilty of.

Premeditated Murder Unproved.

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In State v. Hummel, the WA Court of Appeals Division I reversed a defendant’s conviction for first degree murder due to insufficient evidence of premeditation. It reasoned that proof of a strong motive to kill the victim does not, in itself, establish planning or the method of killing. Because the prosecutor did not request the court instruct the jury on murder in the second degree, the Court dismissed the case with prejudice.

The facts are interesting. Two juries in Whatcom County Superior Court found defendant Bruce Allen Hummel guilty of killing his wife, Alice Hummel. Both were retired Alaska teachers. Their two daughters lived on Alabama Hill in Bellingham in the early 1990s. This case was heavily covered in the Bellingham Herald.

The story begins with Mr. Hummel informing their children that their mother decided to move away and leave the family. Over the years, the girls continued to receive letters and gifts in the mail from Alice. Bruce Hummel told the girls Alice had earned a promotion and moved to Texas.

In 2001, the girls reported their mother missing in 2001. They recalled the strange circumstances of their mom’s disappearance. Bellingham police detectives found only traces of their mother’s existence: a current driver’s license from Alaska, monthly disability deposits from a teachers’ retirement system in Alaska, and withdrawals from a bank account in Alaska. Once detectives confronted him with $340,000 in disability checks he had collected under Alice’s name, Mr. Hummel admitted Mrs. Hummel had been dead for years. He claimed she committed suicide by cutting her wrists. Her body was never found.

Hummel was convicted of 12 counts of wire fraud in federal court, for the theft of the disability checks, then charged with murder in the first degree in Whatcom County.

At his first trial in August 2009, Hummel of first-degree murder in August 2009. He appealed as he started serving a sentence of 45 years in prison. The Washington State Court of Appeals found, in 2012, that that there was sufficient evidence to prove the case, but that Hummel’s rights were violated during voir dire, when potential jurors were questioned in private about sensitive issues in their personal lives. (Many other similar, serious cases have been overturned in Washington for not undertaking what is called the Bone-Club analysis, essentially a checklist to avoid violating a defendant’s right to a public trial).

At his second trial in May 2014, Hummel was again convicted of first-degree murder. This time he was sentenced to 26 years in prison, a shorter term because the Court of Appeals found his federal crimes should not count toward his criminal history because there was no comparable state law to federal wire fraud in 1990.

Hummel appealed with assistance from the Washington Appellate Project. Hummel argued there was insufficient evidence to support the conviction because the State did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt the essential element of premeditation.
The Court of Appeals agreed. It reasoned that no trier of fact could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that Hummel killed Alice with premeditated intent to commit murder in the first degree. Reversal for insufficient evidence is “equivalent to an acquittal” and bars retrial for the same offense.  Also, the Court reasoned that the Double Jeopardy Clause forbids a second trial for the purpose of affording the prosecution another opportunity to supply evidence which it failed to muster in prior proceedings. Because the prosecutor did not request the court instruct the jury on the lesser included crime of murder in the second degree, the Court of Appeals held it could not remand to enter a judgment on murder in the second degree.
The Court of Appeals reversed and vacate the conviction for premeditated murder in the first degree, and remand the case back to Superior Court to dismiss the conviction with prejudice.
My opinion? This isn’t over. I’m certain the State shall appeal to the WA Supreme Court.

Marijuana Arrests Increase.

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Excellent article from reporter Timothy Williams of the New York Times discusses a new study by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch which reveals that marijuana arrests were about 13.6 percent more than the 505,681 arrests made for all violent crimes, including murder, rape and serious assaults.

The report comes in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott last month in Charlotte, N.C. Mr. Scott, 43, had attracted police attention in part because, the police said, he was smoking marijuana.

The report is the latest study to highlight the disparate treatment African-Americans often receive in the criminal justice system, including disproportionate numbers of blacks who are sent to jail when they are unable to pay court-imposed fees, or stopped by the police during traffic stops or while riding bicycles. Its many findings are disturbing.

THE REPORT’S FINDINGS:

  • Although whites are more likely than blacks to use illicit drugs — including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes — black adults were more than two-and-a-half times as likely to be arrested.
  • In Iowa, Montana and Vermont — places with relatively small populations of African Americans — blacks were more than six times as likely to be arrested on drug possession charges than whites.
  • In terms of marijuana possession, black adults were more than four times as likely to be arrested as white adults in the 39 states in which sufficient data was available.
  • In Manhattan, where blacks make up about 15 percent of the population, African-Americans are nearly 11 times as likely as whites to be arrested on drug possession.
  • African-Americans may also be more apt to face arrest, according to researchers, because they might be more likely to smoke marijuana outdoors, attracting the attention of the police.
  • The above disparities persist whether there are few or many African-Americans in a given area.

Mr. Williams also wrote that, according to criminologists, African-Americans are arrested more often than whites and others for drug possession in large part because of questionable police practices. Police departments, for example, typically send large numbers of officers to neighborhoods that have high crime rates. A result is that any offense — including minor ones like loitering, jaywalking or smoking marijuana — can lead to an arrest, which in turn drives up arrest rate statistics, leading to even greater police vigilance.

“It is selective enforcement, and the example I like to use is that you have all sorts of drug use inside elite college dorms, but you don’t see the police busting through doors,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, director of the Justice Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

“Voodoo Science” Debunked

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Interesting article from the Wall Street Journal written Alex Kozinski , a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals since 1985, discusses how the U.S. has relied on flawed forensic evidence techniques for decades, resulting in false convictions.

According to Judge Kozinski, the White House released a report that fundamentally changes the way many criminal trials are conducted. The new study from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) examines the scientific validity of forensic-evidence techniques—DNA, fingerprint, bitemark, firearm, footwear and hair analysis. It concludes that virtually all of these methods are flawed, some irredeemably so.

The study indicates that only the most basic form of DNA analysis is scientifically reliable. Some forensic methods have significant error rates and others are rank guesswork. “The prospects of developing bitemark analysis into a scientifically valid method” are low, according to the report. In plain terms, says Judge Kozinski, “Bitemark analysis is about as reliable as astrology.” Yet many unfortunate defendants languish in prison based on bad science.

Even more disturbing, the article states that forensic scientists – who are often members of the prosecution team – sometimes see their job as helping to get a conviction. This can lead them to fabricate evidence or commit perjury, says Judge Kozinski. Many forensic examiners are poorly trained and supervised. They sometimes overstate the strength of their conclusions by claiming that the risk of error is “vanishingly small,” “essentially zero,” or “microscopic.” The report calls such claims “scientifically indefensible,” but jurors generally take them as gospel when presented by government witnesses who are certified as scientific experts.

Apparently, problems with forensic evidence have plagued the criminal-justice system for years.

The PCAST report recommends developing standards for validating forensic methods, training forensic examiners and making forensic labs independent of police and prosecutors. “All should be swiftly implemented,” says Judge Kozinski, who adds that preventing the incarceration and execution of innocent persons is as good a use of tax dollars as any:

“Among the more than 2.2 million inmates in U.S. prisons and jails, countless may have been convicted using unreliable or fabricated forensic science. The U.S. has an abiding and unfulfilled moral obligation to free citizens who were imprisoned by such questionable means. If your son or daughter, sibling or cousin, best friend or spouse, was the victim of voodoo science, you would expect no less.”

My opinion? Jurors rely HEAVILY on forensic evidence in their deliberations. And it makes sense: it’s a huge task to weigh evidence and sift through the rhetoric of arguments from the prosecution and defense. Cold, hard, quantifiable and scientific facts make it easy for jurors to render decisions.

Consequently, the information from this report is both good and bad news. It’s good because the truth about  “voodoo science” in the courtroom has finally surfaced to the mainstream. It’s bad because hundreds, if not thousands of innocent people are convicted of crimes and serve years in prison based on unreliable evidence for crimes they didn’t commit.

Fortunately, there’s hope. According to Judge Kozinski, the report “provides a road map for defense lawyers to challenge prosecution experts.” Excellent.

Competent attorneys should immediately gain an understanding of challenging prosecution experts who bring voodoo science in the courtroom. It’s the only way to shed light on this grim subject and bring justice to our courts.

“Joining” Multiple Offenses

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In State v. Bluford, the WA Court of Appeals Division I decided a trial court correctly joined a defendant’s multiple counts of robbery for one trial. The similarities between the crimes were adequate for the offenses to be cross admissible to establish a modus operandi.

The State charged Charles Bluford with nine felony counts. These included seven counts of Robbery in the First Degree plus a charge of Rape in the First Degree of one victim and Indecent Liberties of a separate victim.

The State initially charged Bluford under three different cause numbers, but moved to join all the counts for trial. Bluford moved to sever five of the counts from the others. The court considered these cross motions at the same hearing and joined all counts for trial.

The jury found Bluford guilty of eight counts and acquitted him of one count of Robbery. It sentenced him to life without the possibility of release. Bluford appeals.

The Court of Appeals began by discussing the statute and court rule regarding the “joinder” of criminal offenses. RCW 10.37.060 states the following:

When there are several charges against any person, or persons, for the same act or transaction, or for two or more acts or transactions connected together, or for two or more acts or transactions of the same class of crimes or offenses, which may be properly joined, instead of having several indictments or informations the whole may be joined in one indictment, or information, in separate counts; and, if two or more indictments are found, or two or more informations filed, in such cases, the court may order such indictments or informations to be consolidated.

Also, CrR 4.3 says the following:

Two or more offenses may be joined in one charging document, with each offense stated in a separate count, when the offenses, whether felonies or misdemeanors or both: (1) Are of the same or similar character, even if not part of a single scheme or plan; or (2) Are based on the same conduct or on a series of acts connected together or constituting parts of a single scheme or plan.

The court reasoned that the joinder rule promotes the public policy goal of conserving judicial resources. Also, joinder is appropriate unless it is so “manifestly prejudicial” that it outweighs the need for judicial economy. In other words, courts may not join offenses if it would prejudice the defendant.

The court applied the four-factors guide from State v. Cotten to determine whether prejudice results from joinder:

(1) the strength of the State’s evidence on each of the counts; (2) the clarity of the defenses on each count; (3) the propriety of the trial court’s instruction to the jury regarding the consideration of evidence of each count separately; and (4) the admissibility of the evidence of the other crimes.

The Court applied the Cotten factors.

First, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court correctly determined that the strength of the State’s evidence for each count was equivalently strong.

Second, Bluford asserted a general denial for each count. Therefore, he could not have been prejudiced by inconsistent defenses because his defenses were all the same.

Third, Bluford argues that the court’s instructions to the jury at the end of the case did not instruct the jury that it could not consider the evidence of other crimes as propensity evidence. However, Bluford failed to request such an instruction. And the trial court is not required to give such an instruction if the defendant fails to request one.

Fourth, the court determined that the evidence of each count would be cross admissible for the other counts for the purpose of showing modus operandi. It reasoned that although ER 404(b) prohibits introducing evidence of other bad acts as propensity evidence, such evidence is admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, plan, or identity. Under the modus operandi exception, evidence of other bad acts is admissible to show identity if the method employed in the commission of crimes is so unique that proof that an accused committed one of the crimes creates a high probability that he also committed the other crimes with which he is charged. The modus operandi must be so unusual and distinctive as to be like a signature.

In Bluford’s case, the trial court determined that the crimes were cross admissible for the following reasons:

Each incident occurred within an approximately two month period. Each incident occurred during hours of darkness. Each incident occurred in the Seattle metro area. Each incident occurred in a residential area. The defendant was a stranger to each victim. In each incident, the victims were alone when  . . . a male approached with a handgun and gave verbal demands to the victims. The descriptions of the handgun by the victims are similar. Four of the victims gave a description of the vehicle, which matches the vehicle the defendant was later found inside. Two of the three female victims were sexually assaulted during the course of the robberies. Although one of the female victims was not sexually assaulted during the robbery, she ran away at the time of the robbery, thereby limiting the opportunity for the defendant to sexually assault her . . . Therefore, although none of the incidents are a carbon copy of the others, the incidents are strikingly similar.Additionally, in each case the perpetrator approached the victim as he or she exited a car. And when the victim did not cooperate, the perpetrator forcefully took his or her property or assaulted the victim.

Consequently, modus operandi was proven. Finally, because Bryant failed to renew his motion to sever during trial, he technically failed to preserve for review the issue of severance.

Bluford’s convictions were upheld. However, the Court of Appeals vacated his sentence of life without the possibility of release and remanded for resentencing.

My opinion?

At trial, Prosecutors commonly try joining a defendant’s multiple offenses. As stated above, doing so creates judicial efficiency and shows propensity evidence under ER 404(b). Still, competent defense attorneys should try to sever multiple counts anyway; and most important RENEW THE MOTION DURING TRIAL. Failing to do so effectively waives the issue to be preserved for appeal.

High Court Strikes Racism in Jury Selection

The U.S. Supreme Court just sent a strong message about racism in the justice system.

In Foster v. Chatman, the Court reversed a defendant’s murder conviction after discovering that the Prosecutor systematically eliminated African American jurors from serving on Mr. Foster’s jury because of their race.

Petitioner Timothy Foster was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in a Georgia court. During jury selection at his trial, the State used peremptory challenges to strike all four black prospective jurors qualified to serve on the jury.

Foster argued that the State’s use of those strikes was racially motivated, in violation of Batson v. Kentucky. The trial court rejected that claim, and the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed. Foster then renewed his Batson claim in a state habeas corpus proceeding.

While that proceeding was pending, Mr. Foster’s defense attorneys used the Georgia Open Records Act to obtained the Prosecutor’s file used during trial. In notes, prosecutors had highlighted the African Americans on several different lists of potential jurors. On one list, under the heading “Definite NOs,” prosecutors listed six potential jurors, all but one of whom were black.

Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court granted review of the case on the issue of whether the Georgia courts erred in failing to recognize race discrimination under Batson v. Kentucky in the extraordinary circumstances of this death penalty case.

The Court reasoned that the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision that Foster failed to show purposeful discrimination was clearly erroneous. They started with Batson’s three-step process for adjudicating claims such as Foster’s. First, a defendant must make a prima facie showing that a preemptory challenge has been exercised on the basis of race. Second, if that showing has been made, the prosecution must offer a race-neutral basis for striking the juror in question. Third, the trial court must determine whether the defendant has shown purposeful discrimination.”

Here, and in sum, the Court reasoned that Foster established purposeful discrimination in the State’s strikes of two black prospective jurors:

” . . . along with the prosecution’s shifting explanations, misrepresentations of the record, and persistent focus on race, leads to the conclusion that the striking of those prospective jurors was motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent . . . the focus on race in the prosecution’s file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury.”

My opinion? Good decision. The decision is a forceful blow against racism in the courts. Although the Foster decision won’t end racial discrimination in jury selection, it is certainly vindication for the potential jurors who weren’t allowed to fulfill their civic duty all those years ago because of their race. As for Foster, his future is still in limbo. The Supreme Court’s decision entitles him to a new trial before a jury of his peers that hasn’t been tainted by racial discrimination. Still, that mere fact doesn’t guarantee a different outcome. The new jury may come to the same conclusion as the old one. But if nothing else, Mr. Foster’s death penalty has likely been put off for many years to come. And in the world of death penalty litigation, that counts as a win.

State v. Deleon: Court Strikes Evidence of “Gang Affiliation” Due To Defendant’s Music Preferences

In State v. Deleon, the  WA Supreme Court held that (1) a defendant’s musical preference does not establish gang membership, and their admittance to gang affiliation during jail  booking may not be used at trial.

The State prosecuted Mr. Deleon and two others for multiple counts of Assault in the First Degree with deadly weapon enhancements and with gang aggravators.  If convicted, these upward enhancements substantially increased Deleon’s prison sentence. At trial, the court admitted as evidence of gang affiliation statements the defendant made at booking about his gang affiliation and evidence of the type of music on his cell phone.  Also, the trial court allowed a police officer to testify as a gang expert regarding generalized information of gang affiliation.

Mr. Deleon was found guilty and sentenced to 1,002 months. He appealed on the issue of (1) whether the trial court violated his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination improperly admitted the aforementioned evidence, and (2) whether the gang expert testimony regarding gang culture and behavior was irrelevant and thus improperly admitted.

The WA Supreme Court reasoned that the gang information from the jail intake forms was not gathered voluntarily, and thus should not have been admitted as evidence. In short, it reasoned that when a defendant’s self-incriminating statements are made in exchange for protection from credible threats of violence while incarcerated, the statements are coerced and involuntary:

“We do not see how statements made under these circumstances could be considered voluntary. The admission of these statements was a violation of the defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights.”

The WA Supreme Court also ruled that the trial court mistakenly allowed evidence of the type of music on the defendant’s phone as evidence of gang affiliation. “Los Tigres del Norte is a prominent and popular Latin band and there is no evidence in the record to support that enjoying their music is evidence of gang affiliation . . .  We take this opportunity to remind courts to be far more cautious when drawing conclusions from a defendant’s musical preferences.”  This scathing wisdom reminded courts to be careful when admitting generalized evidence about gang affiliation.  “Such evidence is often highly prejudicial and must be tightly constrained to comply with the rules of evidence.”

Finally, the Court ruled that much of the generalized “gang evidence” was irrelevant and prejudicial, and thus should not have been admitted. The court reasoned that, under ER 402, evidence which is not relevant is not admissible. Here, the gang evidence produced by the State’s gang expert witness was highly prejudicial:

“We agree and urge courts to use caution when considering generalized gang evidence. Such evidence is often highly prejudicial, and must be tightly constrained to comply with the rules of evidence.”

With that, the WA Supreme Court held the defendant was entitled to a new trial. Therefore, the Court reversed the convictions and gang aggravators.

My opinion? I really enjoyed the rulings in this case. Sometimes, mainstream culture and music can be misconstrued as “gang evidence” when said music/culture is heard/exhibited by minorities. The Court attacked this veiled racism. Good on them. Also, they made good rulings on the 5th Amendment issues. A defendant’s gang affiliation when being booked into jail is a matter of personal security. The information should not be admitted at trial. Again, good rulings!

Prisoners on Strike

Reporter Alice Sperry of theintercept.com  wrote an article describing how prisoners around the country have called for a series of strikes against forced labor and  demanded reforms of parole systems and prison policies; as well as more humane living conditions, a reduced use of solitary confinement, and better health care.

Apparently, Texas prisons are a hotbed for the controversy. Weeks ago, inmates at five Texas prisons pledged to refuse to leave their cells because of the strike. The organizers even drafted a letter articulating the reasons for the strike. Their demands range from the specific, such as a “good-time” credit toward sentence reduction and an end to $100 medical co-pays, to the systemic, namely a drastic downsizing of the state’s incarcerated population.

The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution bans “involuntary servitude” in addition to slavery, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted . . .”

Today, however, the prison industrial complex is $2 billion a year industry, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit research institute.

Sperry article describes how a majority of prisoners work for the prisons themselves, making well below the minimum wage in some states, and as little as 17 cents per hour in privately run facilities. In Texas and a few other states, mostly in the South, prisoners are not paid at all, said Erica Gammill, director of the Prison Justice League, an organization that works with inmates in 109 Texas prisons.

“They get paid nothing, zero; it’s essentially forced labor,” she told The Intercept. They rationalize not paying prison laborers by saying that money goes toward room and board, to offset the cost of incarcerating them.”

In Texas, prisoners have traditionally worked on farms, raising hogs and picking cotton, especially in East Texas, where many prisons occupy former plantations.

Although they comprise nearly half the incarcerated population nationwide — about 870,000 as of 2014 — prison workers are not counted in official labor statistics; they get no disability compensation in case of injury, no social security benefits, and no overtime.

The Texas action is not an isolated one. Prisoners in nearby Alabama and Mississippi, and as far away as Oregon, have also been alerted to the Texas strike through an underground network of communication between prisons.

In March, protests erupted at Holman Correctional Facility, a maximum security state prison in Alabama, where two riots broke out over four days. At least 100 prisoners gained control of part of the prison and stabbed a guard and the warden. Those protests were unplanned, but prisoners there had also been organizing coordinated actions that they say will go ahead as planned.

“We have to strain the economics of the criminal justice system, because if we don’t, we can’t force them to downsize,” an activist serving a life sentence at Holman told The Intercept. “Setting fires and stuff like that gets the attention of the media,” he said. “But I want us to organize something that’s not violent. If we refuse to offer free labor, it will force the institution to downsize.”

“Slavery has always been a legal institution,” he added. “And it never ended. It still exists today through the criminal justice system.”