Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on two criminal law cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court has granted review. As Colb explains, the two cases together raise the following question: Does the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishments ban prohibit mandatory sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for homicide offenses committed by fourteen-year-olds? In one case, the fourteen-year-old had suffered years of abuse and neglect, as well as severe poverty. In the other case, the fourteen-year-old apparently learned only on the way to a planned robbery that one of his accomplices was carrying a gun, and it was the accomplice who committed murder during the robbery, not the fourteen-year-old. (The fourteen-year-old was thus only charged with murder under the “felony murder” doctrine, based on his participation in a robbery that led to murder.) Colb explains that, in these two cases, the Court will need to consider the relationships among three relevant factors: (1) the capacity of an offender to behave morally; (2) the wrongfulness of the offender’s behavior; and (3) the harmful consequences of the offender’s actions. She describes the relevant prior Supreme Court precedents regarding juvenile offenders and other criminal law topics, and raises intriguing questions such as whether youth itself should be a mitigating factor to be taken into account in sentencing, in light of young teens’ demonstrably poor impulse control and susceptibility to pressure from others. Colb also covers the sentencing concepts of proportionality and discretion, and explains how they relate to these two cases. In addition, she describes—and, to some extent, challenges—the Supreme Court's “Death is different” jurisprudence, which singles out the death penalty for special notice despite the tremendous severity of an LWOP sentence, and the failure of an LWOP sentence to leave the offender hope for the future.
In the wake of the child sexual abuse scandals at Penn State and The Citadel’s camp, and within the Catholic Church and other religious institutions, Marci Hamilton suggests a better approach to the reporting and investigation of child sexual abuse claims. Hamilton argues that there should be a universal obligation to report abuse to a hotline, and that those who call the hotline in good faith, to report suspected abuse, should be legally immune to defamation claims. (False claims, however, would be penalized.) The hotline responders would then alert the appropriate agency or agencies. Hamilton also advocates strong failure-to-report penalties. She cautions, though, that a reporting obligation will not be enough; investigations must be improved too—noting that there was a 1998 report from a child’s mother about alleged Penn State abuser Jerry Sandusky, and yet, that investigation went off-track. Hamilton explains why that investigation was, and why similar investigations can be, ineffective, and she urges that investigators and others must keep in mind that empirically, children rarely lie about sexual abuse. Moreover, Hamilton notes that mandatory reporting will not only protect children, but also institutions that would otherwise have been destroyed by scandal, and now have the chance to take quick, decisive action against abusers.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb offers an interesting perspective on the controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Cavazos v. Smith. There, the High Court summarily reversed a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit had granted a writ of habeas corpus to a grandmother who had been convicted—based on questionable evidence—of killing her grandson by shaking him violently. In her column, Colb focuses on two key issues that the case raised: (1) the extreme deference to state courts demanded by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA); and (2) the Supreme Court’s limited role in reviewing decisions of the lower courts. Colb also explains why there may be genuine doubts here as to the guilt of the grandmother. For instance, she points out that medical knowledge in the years between the trial and today has cast doubt on the prosecution experts’ conclusions ruling out innocent explanations of the autopsy evidence. The Supreme Court, however, seems to have believed that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in ruling for Smith, was substituting its own judgment for that of the jury—leading the High Court to summarily reverse the habeas corpus grant.
Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram David Amar comments on a recent, rare Supreme Court summary reversal. A summary reversal occurs when the Court summarily grants review and then reverses the federal circuit court’s decision without the benefit of full written briefs and oral arguments. In this instance, Amar suggests that the Court may have opted for summary reversal in light of its apparent annoyance with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. In a criminal case in which a grandmother was accused of shaking her grandson to death, her defense was that the child died, instead, of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The Ninth Circuit sided with the grandmother, and reversed the conviction. The Supreme Court then twice directed the Ninth Circuit to reconsider its reversal, but the Ninth Circuit twice reaffirmed that reversal. Amar suggests that Supreme Court annoyance with the Ninth Circuit, which is the subject of a disproportionate number of summary reversals, may have led the Supreme Court, this time, to opt for summary reversal in this case, as well.
Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton contrasts the outcomes of the Catholic clergy child sex abuse scandal, and the recent Penn State child sex abuse scandal. Hamilton notes the two different outcomes: On one hand, the Boston Archdiocese’s Bernard Law, who enabled abuse by serial perpetrators, was embraced by the Holy See, and apparently will spend the rest of his life in Rome without ever having to answer for the crimes he permitted. On the other hand, Penn State’s Coach Joe Paterno and President Graham Spanier were held publicly accountable for their failure to report and address child sex abuse. What accounts for the difference? Hamilton contends that it is organizational structure: Penn State is a public institution, funded by Pennsylvania’s taxpayers; the Catholic Church is effectively a monarchy.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a double jeopardy case that the Supreme Court will hear during this coming term. As readers may know, the Constitution’s Double Jeopardy Clause provides, “nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” The Clause’s application is simple in some scenarios—for instance, if a defendant is tried for murder and acquitted, and yet the very same prosecutor then brings the same murder charges against the same defendant again. However, Colb points out that the double jeopardy case that the Court will address is far from simple. There, the question is whether the Double Jeopardy Clause applies to the following scenario: A defendant’s jury has announced to the judge that it cannot reach a verdict on a lesser included offense, but it has also voted unanimously to find the defendant “Not guilty” of two greater offenses. (A lesser included offense is a less serious version of another, greater offense.) The judge refused to allow the two “Not guilty” verdicts to be recorded, and declared a mistrial. Can the defendant then be re-tried on the greater offenses? Colb considers this interesting and complicated constitutional question.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a recent case in which a Queens, New York, woman named Barbara Sheehan was acquitted of second-degree murder on the ground that she had acted in self-defense. It was undisputed that Sheehan shot her husband, but the shooting had followed a history of domestic violence he had inflicted upon her. With her two children’s support, Sheehan successful raised the “battered woman’s defense.” In this column, Colb—who, in addition to teaching criminal law and procedure, has had experience with assisting battered women—contends that the Sheehan jury reached the right verdict—arguing that it would be unrealistic to only apply the battered woman’s defense when the woman in question reacts to her battering directly after it occurs. In explaining her position, Colb analyzes the reasons for both the law’s duty of retreat, and its imminence requirement.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the Cleveland, Ohio, City Council’s recent efforts to pass ordinances that penalize the convening of flash mobs that become violent or disruptive. Ramasastry explains the City Council’s original proposed ordinance, and why the city’s mayor vetoed it, and notes that there are significant problems with the City Council’s second attempt at a flash-mob ordinance, as well. She advocates an approach that focuses on action, not speech, when it comes to flash mobs, and reminds us that the “chilling effect” of overly broad ordinances can end up stopping First-Amendment-protected speech before it starts.
Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna L. Grossman, and Justia guest columnist and Stanford law professor Lawrence M. Friedman comment on American law regarding public nudity, in the wake of a new proposed ordinance on this topic. The ordinance—put forward by Scott Wiener, the new city supervisor for San Francisco’s Castro District—would forbid naked people from entering restaurants. It would also require naked people to put down a towel or other barrier before sitting down in public—for example, while riding a city bus. In addition to discussing the proposed San Francisco ordinance, Grossman and Friedman discuss current California state law on nudity, which covers indecent exposure only if it is lewd (with additional rules applying to restaurants and “adult” establishments). They also cover the Berkeley, California, regulation on nudity that was prompted by the repeated nudity of a man nicknamed “The Naked Guy,” and consider nudism in history.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a fascinating criminal procedure case that the U.S. Supreme Court will resolve during this coming term. The case, Perry v. New Hampshire, will answer the following question: If an eyewitness first identifies a perpetrator under highly suggestive circumstances that seriously compromise the reliability of the identification, but the police did not orchestrate those circumstances, should a court then exclude the identification evidence? Or, stated differently, is police misconduct necessary to the successful due process exclusion of unduly suggestive eyewitness identification evidence? Colb explains the reasons why we might—and might not—require police misconduct before this type of constitutional claim may be made, and notes that the issue here is of great importance, as empirical research has now exposed the central role of mistaken eyewitness identifications in wrongful convictions. Colb also makes a case that, in the end, the best resolution here may be to inform jurors of the problems with suggestive identifications, and then simply have them evaluate such identifications accordingly, as they do with other unreliable evidence.
Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean continues his commentary on the scandal regarding the reported hacking of voicemail messages by News Corp. employees. In this column, Dean contends that—despite Rupert Murdoch’s strong suggestions to the contrary—the Board of Directors of News Corp. is far from independent of Murdoch himself. Even so-called independent directors, Dean explains, have close ties to the Murdochs, and have been described by reporters as “Friends of Rupert.” Dean focuses, in particular, on the independent director Viet Dinh. And overall, he argues, citing a number of experts, that the News Corp. board’s standards when it comes to corporate governance and independent directors, are far too low.
Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci A. Hamilton urges that the Catholic Church urgently needs to take responsibility—and foster an ethic of accountability—regarding clergy child-sex-abuse cases. In describing the path that she argues the Church must take, Hamilton compliments a recent speech by Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, and a book by Jason Berry on money and the Church. As she explains, these writings, too, call for responsibility and accountability from the Church, and for the enforcement of civil law by the courts, in clergy child-sex-abuse cases.
Justia columnist, attorney, and author Julie Hilden comments on a recent development in the criminal case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn: The accuser has filed a defamation claim against the New York Post for articles suggesting she has worked as a prostitute. Hilden comments on the timing of the defamation action, and the decision, in that action, to target only the Post’s claims that she is a prostitute, and not its other potentially damaging claims about her—including its claims that she has lied.
Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on some of the lessons of the Casey Anthony trial, regarding protecting children. Hamilton begins by agreeing with calls for a law imposing strict punishment upon parents whose children go missing, but who never, or belatedly, tell the authorities their children are gone. She then goes on to suggest other reforms: a RICO amendment to sweep in child sex abuse, the institution of mandatory sex-abuse education within the sex education curriculum in schools, and the abolition of statutes of limitations for child sex abuse.
Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on the situation unfolding in Hawaii with respect to the state's laws regarding statute of limitations for child sex abuse. As she explains, Hawaii's House and Senate each unanimously passed a bill that would create a two-year-long window of opportunity for child sex-abuse victims to file civil claims against their abusers, and against those who aided the abusers, even if the former statute of limitations had previously expired; and that would eliminate civil statutes of limitations entirely. But Hamilton – who has worked on the legislation with Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, abuse survivors, and others over the past year – notes that Hawaii governor Neil Abercrombie has issued a statement indicating that he will veto the bill. Hamilton takes strong issue with his reasons for doing so, and contends that he should change his mind.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on the Supreme Court's recent, 5-4 decision in J.D.B. v. North Carolina. There, the Court held that when police interrogate a suspect under the age of eighteen, the suspect’s youth bears on the question whether he was in “custody” at the time-- and was therefore entitled to hear the Miranda warnings before questioning began. Colb discusses the role of custody and interrogation in Miranda's protections, and explains the arguments that the majority and dissenting Justices marshaled to justify their respective positions. In addition, she contends that the dissenters in the case -- four conservative Justices -- essentially opined as they did due to a fundamental dislike for Miranda itself, rather than due to the wish that they cited for greater certainty and clarity in Miranda's application.