Monday, April 27, 2009

In a Downturn, More Act as Their Own Lawyers

In a Downturn, More Act as Their Own Lawyers -, April 9, 2009.

To ensure fair outcomes, courts must do more to help people navigate the courts, said John T. Broderick, the chief justice of New Hampshire. “If you and I went to the hospital and they said, ‘Do you have insurance?’ and we don’t, and they said, ‘There are some textbooks over there with some really good illustrations,’ ” Judge Broderick said, “we would think that was immoral.”

Murder Myths, Tort Myths

Friday evening I went to a lecture by UW sociologist Joe Weis, "'Just the Facts, Ma'am': Investigating Murder Myths." As you'd expect from the title, he debunked a lot of commonly held beliefs -- that murder is up, that serial murder is up, that there are thousands of little children abducted and murdered each year.

Washington State now has the lowest murder rate it's had since 1960. Far from being on the rise, murder has been dropping for the last couple of decades.

Parallels with the work of UW political scientist Michael McCann were striking. When Weis described another scholar's study of newspaper reports of murders in L.A. County finding that only a fraction were reported, it seemed very much like McCann's discussion of media coverage of tort cases. Murders are more likely to be reported if there are multiple victims, if the victims are of high socio-economic class, if there are "extra" factors like mutilation -- and so the public has a skewed perception of murder. Jury verdicts are more likely to be reported if they are very large or surprising in some way -- and so the public has a skewed perception of civil litigation.

For more on McCann's work, see William Halton & Michael McCann, Distorting the Law: Politics, Media, and the Litigation Crisis, KF380 .H358 2004 at Good Reads. (Of course this is William Halton's work, too, but he's at UPS and McCann is here...)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Court to review 10-year-old suicide ruling

In 1998 a woman was found shot to death in her bedroom closet and the coroner ruled it a suicide. But the woman's mother and the detective on the case thought it was a homicide. The sheriff closed the case. Now the mother is having the coroner's decision reviewed in Lewis County Superior Court. Local News | Court to review 10-year-old suicide ruling | Seattle Times Newspaper, April 20, 2009.

The Times article says that this is the first time the 1987 law allowing judicial review has been used. It's RCW 68.50.015

Immunity for determining cause and manner of death — Judicial review of determination.

A county coroner or county medical examiner or persons acting in that capacity shall be immune from civil liability for determining the cause and manner of death. The accuracy of the determinations is subject to judicial review.

[1987 c 263 § 1.]
In order to get to this point -- having the superior court act -- the mother had get a ruling from the Court of Appeals, finding, among other things, that the statute of limitations had been tolled. Thompson v. Wilson, 142 Wash.App. 803, 175 P.3d 1149, Findlaw (Wash. App. (Div. 2) 2008).

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Picking Cotton Authors on Campus

I just read Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption and I'm very eager to hear the authors, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, when they speak tomorrow afternoon (UW School of Law, Gates Hall room 133, 4 p.m.).

The authors' friendship is improbable and compelling. In 1984 Jennifer Thompson was raped at knifepoint by a stranger who broke into her apartment. She studied the man's face so she could describe him to the police. A tip based on the composite sketch led to Ronald Cotton, whom she identified in a lineup and in court. She was sure of her identification. But 11 years later, DNA testing confirmed his claim of innocence. Cotton was freed from prison.

When witnesses are given a choice of, say, six men, they will often pick the one who looks most like the person they saw commit the crime. Then that person's image becomes part of their memory. Because of this case, their town's police department changed its procedures for photo arrays and lineups. Now witnesses are shown pictures or suspects one at a time to reduce that effect.

This should be a great talk.

The library's copy of the book hasn't been processed yet but will be available soon. The University Book Store will also be selling copies at the event.

F.B.I. and States Vastly Expand DNA Databases

F.B.I. and States Vastly Expand DNA Databases -, April 19, 2009.

Law enforcement officials are vastly expanding their collection of DNA to include millions more people who have been arrested or detained but not yet convicted. The move, intended to help solve more crimes, is raising concerns about the privacy of petty offenders and people who are presumed innocent.

Until now, the federal government genetically tracked only convicts. But starting this month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation will join 15 states that collect DNA samples from those awaiting trial and will collect DNA from detained immigrants — the vanguard of a growing class of genetic registrants.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Boy's stepdad sentenced in 'torture' case

Boy's stepdad sentenced in 'torture' case | KOMO News - Seattle, Washington | Local & Regional, April 17, 2009:

In [Pierce County superior] court on Friday, the [10-year-old] boy bravely spoke up against the man who admitted to beating the boy to the point he'd pass out and wet himself. Taking long pauses to compose himself during the difficult testimony, the boy told the judge in a low voice that he wishes he could have back all the lost years.

Outside the courtroom, the boy told KOMO News he is torn as to what he wants to happen to his stepfather.

"I wanted him to get the low sentence, and I want to get the high sentence," he said. "I wanted him to get the low sentence for my brothers. I want them to see their dad. But then I want him to get the high sentence because I don't want them to go through the same thing."
If you were a prosecutor or victim's advocate, how would you do to help an abused child through that testimony? And if you represented the convicted man, what would you argue at the sentencing hearing?

Olympia man wins lawsuit over 'communist' label

Olympia man wins lawsuit over 'communist' label - South Sound - The Olympian - Olympia, Washington, April 17, 2009.

Being a communist sympathizer is a hot-button issue within the Vietnamese community, since many of the Vietnamese people who settled in the U.S. were opponents of the communists and oppose the current regime. So when several people accused Duc Tan and his organization, Vietnamese Community of Thurston County of being communist sympathizers, it hurt him and his business.

Five years and a three-week trial later, a jury awarded him $225,000 in damages.

Guilty Plea in Cold Embezzlement Case

70-Year-Old Woman Goes To Jail For Theft In 1983 - Seattle News Story - KIRO Seattle, April 17, 2009.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Sociologist Examines Murder Myths

UW Sociology Professor Joseph Weis presents "Just the Facts, Ma'am": Investigating Murder Myths on Friday, April 24:

Professor Joe Weis discusses the myths surrounding murder. Many people believe that the Pacific Northwest is the serial murder capital of the world; thousands of children are abducted every year by strangers and killed; the violent crime rate, particularly for murder, continues to spiral upward; this is the most dangerous time to live in the history of the U.S.; gangs are responsible for a significant percent of murders; a significant percent of murderers are mentally disordered; murder is predominantly a crime of poor, minority groups; etc. This list of apparent “facts” is surely incomplete, and they may or may not be true. How do we know they are not simply myths? Empirical research allows us to investigate the accuracy of common beliefs about murder. Drawing primarily on research on murder in Washington State and from a national study of child abduction murders, the accuracy or illusion of many apparent “facts” about murder will be examined.

UW Club Lecture Room
Friday, April 24
7:00 p.m.

Registration for this free public lecture is requested at with the registration code "murder".

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Closing prisons, slashing sentences eyed to balance budget

Politics | Closing prisons, slashing sentences eyed to balance budget | Seattle Times Newspaper, April 9, 2009:

Tough-on-crime legislation that has long filled courtrooms, prisons and parole offices across the country has apparently met its match — the economy.

In Washington and other states, lawmakers are considering budget cuts that would close prisons, loosen sentencing guidelines and slash probation terms.

With lawmakers in Olympia looking for nearly $4 billion in spending cuts, several high-ranking Democrats say the recession gives them an opportunity to add compassion to a criminal-justice system they believe has grown too large, too expensive and too harsh for some of the crimes.

"We need a massive re-look at what we're doing and what the focus is," said Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Margarita Prentice, D-Renton.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Series of Errors Doomed Stevens Prosecution - Series of Errors Doomed Stevens Prosecution, April 6, 2009. The government prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens was messed up by the government's failure to share potentially exculpatory evidence with the defense. There might be repercussions -- e.g., a change in personnel at DOJ.

On April 1, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. announced he was moving to dismiss the case with prejudice—five months after Stevens was convicted of public corruption charges. In its motion to dismiss, the Justice Department said it found more government evidence that Stevens’ lawyers should have received. The move to dismiss the case is more than an embarrassment for the Public Integrity Section. It presupposes a shake-up in the section’s leadership and invites a new era of heightened scrutiny from judges, defense lawyers say, though history shows prosecutors seldom face criminal charges for misconduct.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

First-person Story of Mistaken Eyewitness Identification

The Gates PSL Speaker Series is presenting an event that should be amazing:

Picking Cotton: Our Story of Injustice & Redemption, featuring Speakers, Activists and Authors Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton

Jennifer and Ronald have an extraordinary story to tell. It is a story that challenges the way we think of our legal system. It is a story that challenges our ideas about memory and judgment. It is a story that teaches us about human grace and the healing power of forgiveness.

In 1984, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino was raped at knifepoint by a man who broke into her apartment while she was sleeping. She escaped, and in the course of reporting her crime eventually positively identified Ronald Cotton as her rapist in a photo array and subsequent physical lineup. Ronald always insisted he was innocent, but Jennifer’s positive ID was the compelling evidence that put him behind bars. But in 1995, with the help of a UNC law professor, Ronald was allowed a DNA test that proved he was not Jennifer’s rapist. He was released, after serving eleven years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

What makes this story unique is what occurred after Cotton’s release. Two years later, Jennifer and Ronald met face to face — and they became incredible friends. With Jennifer’s help, Ronald received over $100,000 in compensation from the state of North Carolina for his wrongful incarceration. They now travel the country speaking about their experiences, their friendship, the harrowing and often murky waters of the criminal justice system, and working towards reform in the area of mistaken witness identification.

Co-sponsored by the Integrity of Justice Project.

Date: Monday, April 20, 2009
Time: 4:00pm - 5:15pm
Location: W. H. Gates Hall Room 133