Thursday, December 30, 2010

Defending Gary Ridgway

"The Green River Killer" killed dozens of women in South King County in the early 1980s. Despite intensive work by the King County Sheriff's Office, no one had been arrested. Until November 2001, when officers announced that they had him.

Defending Gary* picks up there, as Mark Prothero, a public defender away from his office, hears the rumor that someone has been arrested. One friend says that there's DNA evidence and speculates that Prothero will get the case, since he's "the DNA guy" in his office (Associated Counsel for the Accused).

Prothero became co-lead counsel, along with Tony Savage, a private lawyer whom the family hired. (Once Ridgway's house was sold to pay Savage's retainer, he was indigent and eligible for public defense.) The team eventually included eight lawyers, plus investigators and consultants.

With his client's permission to use confidential communications, Prothero tells a compelling story -- not just about a serial killer, but about how the legal team worked on his defense. Prothero was aided in his writing by Carlton Smith, an experienced journalist who had already written best-selling books about the Jon-Benet Ramsay case and even, years before, the Green River Killer case (The Search for the Green River Killer, 1991). And so the book has that page-turning, hard-to-put-down style of the best true crime writing.

What we don't have is a great courtroom drama. Why? Because this case never went to trial.

The prosecution has such good physical evidence on seven charged murders that the defense thought that the best way to save Ridgway's life would be to plea bargain to avoid the death penalty. And the prosecution had so little evidence on forty-some other murders that solving those crimes with Ridgway's confession would be worth the plea bargain.

And so defense and prosecution spent months observing detectives questioning Ridgway -- and the book gives a lot of detail about those interviews using official transcripts. Unlike the diabolically brilliant serial killers you sometimes see in movies, Ridgway was generally muddle-headed and inarticulate, but the detectives eventually got the details they needed to close a lot of cases and bring some closure to the families of the young women Ridgway had killed.

The handling of this mammoth case -- by prosecution, defense, and presiding judge -- was so good that the King County Bar Association honored all: Outstanding Lawyer: Prosecution and Defense Teams in the Gary Ridgway Trial, Bar Bull., June 2004; Outstanding Judge: Honorable Richard A. Jones, King County Superior Court, Bar Bull., June 2004.

Ridgway was in the news again last week: Auburn skull, bones ID'd as likely Green River victim, Seattle Times, Dec. 23, 2010. The newly discovered victim, Rebecca Marrero, was not among the 48 murders covered by Ridgway's guilty plea.

This book is in our Good Reads collection. As should be obvious, "Good Reads" doesn't mean "happy topics." It does mean interesting, compelling books, often on important issues, and this one fits the bill.

* Defending Gary: Unraveling the Mind of the Green River Killer, by Mark Prothero with Carlton Smith (2006), HV6533.W2 P76 2006 at Good Reads.
The publisher's page for the book includes a free excerpt.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

The New Jim Crow book jacketIf this important and powerful book were a car, it would have the bumpersticker that says "IF YOU'RE NOT OUTRAGED, YOU'RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION."

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2009), Michelle Alexander describes War on Drugs juggernaut that has filled our prisons, mostly with people of color.

The statistics are staggering. In the last 30 years, the U.S. prison population went from about 300,000 to more than 2 million. Although President Reagan was the President who declared the War on Drugs (with the concomitant political and media rhetoric about the "scourge of crack"), the greatest increase in incarceration rates was during the Clinton Administration.

Is this a racial problem just because African Americans are more involved in drugs? No. Alexander cites study after study indicating that the percentage of people who use illegal drugs is about the same in all racial groups. Since drug users tend to get their drugs from dealers of the same race, there are plenty of white dealers. White teenagers are even a little more likely than black teenagers to deal drugs. Emergency room statistics show more whites than blacks with overdoses.

So why are most of the people in prison for drug use black? Alexander exposes the myriad ways the system works against them -- for example, law enforcement stopping people based on race, raiding black neighborhoods, and relying on informants who only know people of their own race; prosecutors exercising their discretion to "load up" charges to get plea bargains; inadequate public defender services; and mandatory minimum sentences and three strikes rules creating incredibly long sentences.

The damage lasts well beyond the prison term. Alexander devotes a chapter to all the ways that a felony record (even for possession of a few ounces of marijuana) can constrain a person's life: employment, housing, voting.

Alexander was at the law school last spring. In the law school's multimedia gallery, you can find a transcript of her presentation, as well as video and audio recordings.

The publisher's page about the book is here. The library's copy is at HV9950 .A437 2010 at Classified Stacks. (It's checked out as of this writing, but won't always be -- and it's available in other libraries, too.)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Should Jurors Use the Internet?

In Should Jurors Use the Internet? (National Law Review, Dec. 6, 2010), Gareth Lacy observes that stronger admonishments might be counterproductive: An instruction that "fails to explain why the 'system of justice' requires restricting access to outside information . . . will likely continue to feed jury -- and public -- mistrust for the legal system."

Responding to the assumption that any outside information would bias jurors, Lacy takes a look at some of the studies.

Researchers have also found that when juries learn substantial and contrary information from evidence and judicial instructions during trial, they are capable of displacing information received before trial. In other words, prior beliefs are diluted by new, relevant information. When trial evidence is strong, this can reduce the effect of bias and external information: "the effect of irrelevant, inadmissible, or biasing information is reduced in its effect to the degree that relevant, probative evidence is available for the jurors’ consideration." Again, this suggests that courts should manage the flow of information rather than make unrealistic efforts to weed out all juror expo­sure to the Internet.
(citations omitted). Lacy recommends some alternatives to finger-wagging admonishments:
Jurors are not going to stop looking at outside information. The best way to keep jurors away from Wikipedia would be to sequester them. But seques­tration is rarely practical on a large scale because it is prohibitively expensive and tends to promote mistrust for the jury system. A more realistic response would be for attorneys and courts to conduct advance Internet research to identify what information about their case is available online, analyze that information, and then deal with it during trial. Another realistic response would be to give jurors the tools they need to make informed decisions in court so they do not need to conduct outside research.
(citations omitted).

Gareth Lacy is a UW 3L. This article was a winner of the National Law Review's law student writing competition. Congrats, Gareth!

Washington's 3 Law Schools Launch Race & Crim Justice Task Force

The law schools at Gonzaga University, Seattle University, and the University of Washington are forming a Race and the Criminal Justice System Task Force in partnership with King County Superior Court Judge Steven C. González, the chair of the Washington State Access to Justice Board. An op ed piece by the schools' deans explains: George Critchlow, Mark Niles & Kellye Y. Testy, Ensuring the promise of "Equal Justice Under Law", Seattle Times Newspaper, Dec. 6, 2010.