Analysis and Commentary on Criminal Law
Why The D.C. Court of Appeals Rejected the Claim that Performing a Rap Constituted Making a Criminal Threat

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent decision by the D.C. Court of Appeals—D.C.’s highest court—regarding the First Amendment and the “true threats” doctrine, which holds that true threats are not First Amendment-protected. Hilden notes that the case was unusual as it involved not just a statement, but a rap. After covering three key U.S. Supreme Court cases regarding the “true threats” doctrine, Hilden goes on to consider why the court ruled in favor of the speaker, and to agree with the court’s result. She also emphasizes the importance of context in the decision whether a given comment counts as a true threat or First-Amendment-protected speech, and notes a number of factors that might cut for or against a “true threat” finding in particular cases.

Survivors of Sexual Abuse Prevail in Pennsylvania: The Lynn and Sandusky Cases Show Us What Justice Looks Like

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton discusses the guilty verdicts that juries recently reached in the cases of Jerry Sandusky and Monsignor William Lynn. The verdicts were both handed down this past Friday, June 22. Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child abuse, in connection with his alleged sexual abuse of numerous young boys. Lynn was convicted of a count of child endangerment arising from his alleged allowing another priest, who had committed child sexual abuse, to continue to have access to children. Hamilton also covers progress in the Pennsylvania and New Jersey legislatures regarding extending those states’ statutes of limitations for child sex abuse, in order to enable survivors to receive justice.

Are Teen Flirting Sites Safe? The Skout Experiment Provides a Cautionary Tale

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the lessons to be learned from the recent experience of Skout, which initially offered teen and adult flirting sites and apps. In the wake of three separate allegations by teens of rape by an adult whom they met via Skout and who was posing as a teen on the site, Skout has closed down its teen site and app. Ramasastry notes that Skout was always vigilant about the risk of adults impersonating teens, but vigilance, in the end, wasn’t enough. Thus, Ramasastry raises the possibility that society—and especially teens’ parents—should discourage teen meet-up business models that carry the kind of risks that Skout’s teen site did.

What Penn State, Horace Mann, the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Have Taught Us: We Need Child-Sex-Abuse Whistleblower Laws

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on recent revelations of alleged child sex abuse at New York private school Horace Mann, and discusses a number of legal measures that, she argues, can make it more likely that perpetrators of child sex abuse will be brought to justice. Noting the broad array of institutions that have harbored child sex abuse, Hamilton contends that this is a problem that urgently requires effective legal remedies. Among the legal reforms she supports are whistleblower-protection laws for those who report child sex abuse, penalties for failure to report abuse, and extensions of child- sex-abuse crimes’ statutes of limitations.

The First Day of the Trial of Former Penn State Assistant Coach and Second Mile Founder Jerry Sandusky for 52 Counts of Child Sex Abuse

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on the beginning of the trial of Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach and Second Mile founder who is accused of having sexually molested numerous boys who trusted him. Hamilton describes yesterday’s testimony from the first alleged victim to testify in the case, who is known simply as Victim #4. Hamilton also explains why she believes Victim #4, noting that his testimony has featured a number of the indicia that typically have shown, in her experience, that alleged victims are telling the truth about having been abused. Hamilton also comments on the defense’s strategy, which invokes a psychiatric condition called Histrionic Personality Disorder, and, in her opinion, is highly unlikely to succeed.

A Tale of Two Child Sex Abuse Trials Involving Two Iconic Pennsylvania Institutions: Penn State and the Philadelphia Roman Catholic Archdiocese

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on two child-sex-abuse trials related to two iconic Pennsylvania institutions: Penn State and the Philadelphia Roman Catholic Archdiocese. The upcoming Penn State-related trial arises out of widely reported allegations of child sex abuse by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who served under Joe Paterno. The defendant in the ongoing trial relating to the Philadelphia Archdiocese is Monsignor William Lynn, who is charged with conspiracy and child endangerment. Hamilton’s report today comes after hearing testimony in the Lynn case. In addition to commenting on these two cases themselves, Hamilton makes a strong suggestion that Philadephia, home of both of the institutions involved in the scandals, should review its laws and practices regarding to allegations of child sex abuse, and should work toward the state’s now becoming a model when it comes to preventing and punishing child sex abuse.

Denying Clemency for Draconian Sentencing Based on Bad Information: The Clarence Aaron Case

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on a criminal case in which he argues that a deeply unjust sentence was handed down. Dean contends that it is high time for presidential clemency for the prisoner, Clarence Aaron, especially as the record shows that the Pardon Attorney gave President George W. Bush’s staff inaccurate and incomplete information in the case. As Dean explains, drawing on reporting by The Washington Post and ProPublica, Aaron—a 23-year-old first-time offender at the time of his arrest—was convicted for his role in abetting a non-violent drug deal. Dean notes that other participants in the deal had made careers in the drug business, and received light sentences in exchange for pointing the finger at Aaron, who received three life sentences. Their testimony has, since then, been shown and admitted to be false, yet Aaron still languishes in jail. Especially now that Aaron has the support of the relevant U.S. Attorney, Deborah Rhodes, and the sentencing judge, Dean contends that it is high time that Aaron receives a pardon.

The Truth About the Philadelphia Archdiocese, Child Sex Abuse by Its Priests, and Its Latest Missteps

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on recent events regarding the Philadelphia Archdiocese and clergy child sex abuse. She praises former Philadelphia D.A. Lynne Abraham and current Philadelphia D.A. Seth Williams for their courage and hard work in pursuing the matter, and establishing not only crimes, but also a cover-up. Hamilton notes that the trial of Msgr. William Lynn, who is charged with suppressing the identities of priest perpetrators, marks the first time a member of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy has been put on trial. Despite Pennsylvania’s short statute of limitations for child sex abuse, Hamilton explains, the prosecutors still found a way to make their case—finding two victims whose claims still fit within the statute of limitations, and successfully admitting evidence about 22 other victims whose claims are time-barred at trial. Hamilton faults the Philadelphia Archdiocese not just for the underlying crimes that are alleged, but also for the deficits of its own private investigation, which she argues has re-victimized the victims, given the insensitive way in which it has been conducted.

Revisiting Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate Reporting: A New Smoking Gun?

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on a fascinating new twist in the Watergate story—evidence that Woodward and Bernstein spoke to Watergate grand jurors. The evidence was unearthed by Jeff Himmelman, who has written a biography of former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, who served during the Watergate years. It consists of a seven-page memorandum, dated 1972, that summarizes a conversation between Bernstein and a Watergate grand juror. The find prompted Bernstein recently to comment wryly, “Maybe they’ll send us to jail after all.” The memorandum is all the more notable because it is clear that Judge Sirica, who presided over the Watergate grand jury proceedings, did not believe that Woodward and Bernstein had obtained any information from any grand juror. Dean tells the story of how Woodward and Bernstein managed to avoid suffering consequences, despite their having intentionally had contact with at least one grand juror. He also provides a sampling of attorneys’ opinions as to whether the law was, or was not, broken, assuming that contact between Woodward and Bernstein and one or more grand jurors did indeed occur.

Mug Shot Mania: The Legal and Policy Issues Surrounding Private Websites’ Postings of Arrest Photos

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the phenomenon of Internet mug shot galleries. Unlike a Megan’s Law database, Ramasastry explains, these galleries show photos of arrestees, who have not yet been, and may never be, convicted of any crime. That raises fairness issues, Ramasastry argues. Moreover, she notes that not only police departments, but also private companies, collect such photos together into mug-shot galleries. Because the private companies’ galleries tend to dominate search results, arrestees have no recourse except to pay the private companies to take down the photos. Because of issues like these, Ramasastry argues that this is an area that is ripe for reform—for you can now be exonerated in court, but not on Google. She also briefly discusses the phenomenon of police departments putting mug shots on their Facebook pages.

The Catholic Bishops Lobby Against Legislation to Protect Children

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton takes strong issue with the position of the California Catholic Conference, the lobbyist for the California bishops, on issues relating to child sex abuse. As Hamilton explains, the Conference sent a one-page letter opposing AB1628, a California bill that would effect a short extension of the child-sex-abuse statutes of limitations, and require more rigorous background checks for employees and volunteers who work closely with children. Hamilton argues that the bill should be passed, details the Conference’s objections to the bill, and concludes that those objections are meritless. She also notes that this is just one instance in which the bishops are seeking to block child-sex-abuse statute-of-limitations reform; similar efforts are being made in other states as well.

“Stand Your Ground” Laws and Competing Visions of “Fight or Flight” in the Real World

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb addresses several legal questions that have arisen in the wake of the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, such as what do “Stand Your Ground” laws really mean, and what vision of reality do these laws reflect? Colb begins her analysis by explaining related criminal law concepts such as the duty to retreat, and the “castle doctrine,” which holds that one need not retreat in one’s own home. She then explains the idea behind “Stand Your Ground” laws: They operate to protect an individual’s liberty to lawfully occupy a place, in the face of threats, and even in the face of an ultimatum from an attacker who announces that one must leave or die. Using hypothetical examples, Colb explains the difference that an “SYG” law could make in a potentially deadly confrontation, noting that almost half the states have such laws. She also uses an imaginative hypothetical regarding a person who does not know he has a deadly, communicable disease to illustrate the role that the assailant’s culpability takes in “Stand Your Ground” situations. Finally, Colb explains why she herself ultimately opposes “Stand Your Ground” laws.

Why Interrogation in Jail May Not Count as “Custodial”: The Supreme Court Makes New Law in Howes v. Fields Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In Part Two in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb continues her analysis of an important recent Supreme Court decision, Howes v. Fields, regarding the right to be read one’s Miranda rights—the familiar set of rights that begins with “You have the right to remain silent.” In Part One, Colb focused on a set of Supreme Court precedents that are relevant to the Howes case. Here, in Part Two, Colb takes on the case that is arguably the most relevant of all to Howes: Maryland v. Shatzer. Shatzer, as Colb explains, concerns what implications a “break in custody” might have for Miranda purposes, and whether such a “break in custody” can occur while a person is incarcerated. Colb goes on to explain and critique the Howes Court’s approach to related Miranda issues. She takes sharp issue, in particular, with what she characterizes as a deeply unrealistic view of prisoners’ lives in prison, on the part of the Court.

An Historic Turning Point for Reforming Statutes of Limitations for Child Sex Abuse: News From Massachusetts, and More

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on Massachusetts’s recent movement toward reforming the statutes of limitations (SOLs) for child sex abuse. In addition to covering the Massachusetts situation, Hamilton also argues that the tide is turning, nationwide, on the SOL issue. In particular, she cites progress in New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Hawaii. Hamilton also takes strong issue with the Catholic Bishops’ contention that paying out child sex abuse claims will bankrupt them. Finally, Hamilton observes a new development in the movement against child sex abuse, and toward SOL reform in that area: Incest survivors and clergy child sex abuse survivors, Hamilton notes, are coming together to fight abuse and seek SOL reform.

Why Interrogation in Jail May Not Count as “Custodial”: The Supreme Court Makes New Law in Howes v. Fields Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In Part One in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on an important recent Supreme Court decision, Howes v. Fields, regarding the right to be read one’s Miranda rights—the familiar set of rights that begins with “You have the right to remain silent.” As Colb explains, Fields sets forth the law regarding Miranda in the context of the interrogation of persons who are already incarcerated. In this column, Colb explains the facts and outcomes of the prior Supreme Court Miranda precedents that proved relevant in Fields. In both parts of the series, she takes strong issue with the Court’s reasoning in the Fields decision—in part because she argues that the Court has a very unrealistic view of the realities of prison.

Children in Peril in New York: Another Infant Dies Due to a Risky Circumcision Practice, and More Needs to Be Done Regarding Child Sex Abuse

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on two significant threats to New York State’s children. Hamilton begins by noting the recent, tragic death of an infant from herpes. She notes that the infant likely contracted the disease from a mohel who performed “oral suction” on the infant after Orthodox Jewish ritual circumcision. (Oral suction is a controversial practice in the Jewish community, and has fallen out of favor with many. In ancient times, the practice was thought to contribute to hygiene, but as it was learned that it could spread disease, it was mostly abandoned. Those who still practice it typically employ a glass tube to avoid direct contact and disease transmission.) Noting that this is not the first such death to likely be associated with oral suction, Hamilton argues that this risky procedure should be banned, and notes that its religious nature provides no legal defense for those who follow the procedure. She also warns that not only the mohel, but also the parents, could be held responsible for the death, depending on what they knew about the procedure’s risks. In addition, Hamilton covers a second ongoing threat to the well-being of New York’s children: clergy child sex abuse. Hamilton contends that New York ought to follow the example of Philadelphia, when it comes to the reporting of clergy child abuse—for there, District Attorney Lynne Abraham eventually enabled justice to be done due to her grand jury investigation into the cover-up of abuse.

The Supreme Court Decides the GPS Case, United States v. Jones, and the Fourth Amendment Evolves: Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In Part Two in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb continues her commentary on the Supreme Court’s recent GPS (Global Positioning System) decision, which concerned the scope of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. As Colb explains, the Court was unanimous regarding the decision’s result: The police had, indeed, performed a Fourth Amendment search or seizure by—without a warrant—attaching a GPS device to a suspect’s car, and then using the device to monitor the car's movements over a four-week period. Yet, as Colb points out, the Court was divided as to the reason for the result, offering two alternative rationales for the case's outcome. Here, in Part Two, Colb explains why Justices Scalia and Alito—both deemed to be conservative—nevertheless differed regarding what the proper rationale for the Court’s unanimous ruling ought to be. Colb argues that Justice Alito’s rationale is the more compelling of the two.

The Supreme Court Decides the GPS Case, United States v. Jones, and the Fourth Amendment Evolves: Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In Part One in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on the Supreme Court's recent GPS (Global Positioning System) decision, which concerned the scope of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. As Colb explains, the Court was unanimous regarding the decision’s result: The police had, indeed, performed a Fourth Amendment search or seizure by—without a warrant—attaching a GPS device to a suspect’s car, and using the device to monitor the car's movements over a four-week period. Interestingly, though, Colb points out that the Court was divided as to the reason for the result—offering two alternative rationales for the case’s outcome. Here, in Part One, Colb explains the seminal precedent of Katz v. United States, and other key Fourth Amendment precedents, including one that involved tracking a car with a beeper device. In Part Two, appearing here on Justia’s Verdict next Wednesday, February 15, Colb will consider why this case divided Justices Scalia and Alito.

The Back Story of the Unsealing of Nixon’s Grand Jury Testimony

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean describes and comments on the process by which former President Richard Nixon’s previously sealed grand jury testimony (along with related materials) was revealed in July 2011—a process in which Dean himself played a key role. Dean gives great credit for the unsealing both to Public Citizen's Litigation Group, headed by Allison Zieve, which took the case; and Judge Royce Lamberth, who made the ruling that led the grand jury testimony and related materials to become public—as had occurred earlier in famous cases such as those of the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss, based on the rulings of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Dean also notes that this, and other material that is still being transcribed, encompass the last real secrets of Watergate.

Why Can’t Jurors Distinguish “Knowing” From “Reckless” Misconduct?

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a recent study—reported in The National Law Journal and described in greater detail in the NYU Law Review—that showed that jurors in criminal cases have trouble distinguishing between “knowing” and “reckless” states of mind. Colb contends that the fault here likely lies not with the jurors, but with the criminal law itself—which, she contends, is ambiguous in important ways when it comes to defining “knowing” and “reckless” states of mind. Colb notes that jurors do not seem to have much trouble understanding two other criminal law states of mind: “purpose” and “negligence,” the definitions of which do not display the same kind of ambiguity. She then details the ambiguities that plague the definitions of “knowing” and “reckless” states of mind. Colb calls upon legislatures to resolve those ambiguities by better defining these states of mind in their criminal statutes—and by doing so in such a way that jurors will readily understand the definitions. Colb points out that as long as these states of mind’s definitions remain ambiguous for jurors, the criminal law will be unfair: Based on the way the jury resolves the ambiguity in applying the law, two defendants who committed identical acts may still face radically different sentences.

Meet our Columnists
Vikram David Amar
Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan, an economist and legal scholar, holds the James J. Freeland Eminent Scholar... more

Sherry F. Colb
Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is the C.S. Wong Professor of Law at Cornell University. Colb teaches courses in... more

John Dean
John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973.... more

Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He... more

Samuel Estreicher
Samuel Estreicher

Samuel Estreicher is the Dwight D. Opperman Professor, Director, Center for Labor and Employment... more

Leslie C. Griffin
Leslie C. Griffin

Dr. Leslie C. Griffin is the William S. Boyd Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las... more

Joanna L. Grossman
Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School... more

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

MARCI A. HAMILTON is the Fels Institute of Government Professor of Practice, and Fox Family... more

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of... more

Austin Sarat
Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell... more

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

Lesley Wexler is a Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. Immediately... more