Sunday, July 27, 2014

Talking About Race in the Courtroom

Racial bias is a difficult subject to talk about in a meaningful way, especially with prospective jurors. As one of the authors of Implicit Bias in the Courtroom, 59 UCLA L.Rev. 1124 (2012), Judge Mark Bennett, U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Iowa, has written about his efforts to counter bias in the courtroom. 

During jury selection, Judge Bennett spends time talking with the venire about implicit bias. He then asks each juror to take the following pledge, which is also posted on the wall of his courtroom,
I will not decide this case based on biases. This includes gut feelings, prejudices, stereotypes, personal likes or dislikes, sympathies or generalizations.
The Judge's jury instructions include,
Do not decide the case on 'implicit biases.' As we discussed in jury selection, everyone, including me, has feelings, assumptions, perceptions, fears, and stereotypes, that is, 'implicit biases', that we may not be aware of. These hidden thoughts can impact what we see and hear, and how we make important decisions. Because you are making very important decisions in this case, I strongly encourage you to evaluate the evidence carefully and to resist jumping to conclusions based on personal likes or dislikes, generalizations, gut feelings, prejudices, sympathies, stereotypes, or biases. The law demands that you return a just verdict, based solely on the evidence, your individual evaluation of that evidence, your reason and common sense, and these instructions. Our system of justice is counting on you to render a fair decision based on the evidence, not on biases.
And there is more. In the course of talking with the potential jurors, the Judge shows a clip from an ABC show, What Would You Do?, recording passers-by varied reactions to a white man, a black man, and then a young white woman trying to force open a bike lock, 

 The article closes,
We recognize that our suggestions are starting points, that they may not all work, and that, even as a whole, they may not be sufficient. But we do think they are worth a try. We hope that judges and other stakeholders in the justice system agree. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Not A Felon, Part II

  • From guest blogger AFD David Freund,

          After U.S. v. Brooks, a Kansas “felony” conviction is only a felony for purposes of the federal felon-in-possession statute and the Armed Career Criminal Act if the Kansas guidelines sentence could be greater than 12 months. But what about prior Kansas convictions where a sentence of more than one year could have been imposed?
           A  conviction for which civil rights have been restored does not count as a predicate felony for either the felon in possession or Armed Career Criminal statutes. 18 U.S.C. 921(a)(20).“Civil rights”, as used in 921(a)(20), are the right to vote, hold office, and serve on a jury. Logan v U.S., 552 US 23, 28 (2007).  In Kansas, these disabilities commence upon conviction and continue until the sentence is satisfied. KSA 21-6613. For persons committed to serve prison sentence, civil rights, except for the right to possess firearms, are restored upon completion of the term of imprisonment, including any period of postrelease supervision or parole. KSA 22-3722
          A state conviction for which an offender has obtained a pardon or expungement is not a felony for purposes of section 921(a)(20) unless the pardon, expungement, or restoration of civil rights expressly provides the person may not ship, transport, possess or receive firearms. Where state law has unconditionally restored a person’s civil rights, including the right to possess firearms after a felony conviction, the federal disability imposed by such a conviction under 922(g)(1) is removed. US v. Jones, 390 F.3d 1291 (10th Cir 2004); U.S. v. Haynes, 961 F2d 50 (4th Cir 1992).
           This restoration must be unconditional. A restriction on the right to possess any type of firearm prevents restoration of firearms rights under federal law. Caron v. US, 524 US 308 (1998).
        The law of the jurisdiction where the conviction occurred governs whether rights are restored. 18 U.S.C. 921(a)(20). K.S.A. 21-6304 sets the applicable period after a felony conviction during which a person is prohibited from possessing a firearm. Depending on the nature of the offense, and whether a firearm was possessed during the offense, the ban is lifetime, ten years, or five years. 
         To meet the 921(a)(20) civil rights restored exclusion for purposes of 922(g)(1) or 924(e), the right to possess firearms must have actually been restored for the conviction(s) at issue. A subsequent Kansas felony conviction within the statutory period of prohibition (even if it is not subject to a term of imprisonment greater than one year) would prevent the restoration of firearms rights, and thus the restoration of civil rights, upon expiration of the otherwise applicable five or ten year ban. US v. Burns, 934 F.2d 1157 (10th Cir. 1991); US v. Baker, 508 F.3d 1321 (10th Cir. 2007). 

More questions or information needed, contact David at

Sunday, July 13, 2014

In Defense of Santa Muerte

     The brightly adorned skeleton, often holding a glass globe, scales of justice or a scythe, is many things to many people. She is a comfort to outcasts; a miracle worker who provides safe travels for those on a journey; and a figure who has become so popular in Mexico and the United States as to be worthy of denouncement by the traditional Catholic church. 

     What Santa Muerte is not, however,  is a "tool of the drug trade." The Tenth Circuit recently overturned two convictions after jurors heard testimony from a law enforcement anti-cult "expert" about the link between drug traffickers and the folk saint, Santa Muerte, or Our Lady of the Holy Death. The witness, U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte, has conducted law enforcement trainings, written about the "narco saint," and testified as an expert in previous criminal trials.
     Here, the defendants were stopped for a traffic violation. As they were being questioned, the officer noticed that the passenger was holding a prayer card with an image of Santa Muerte. At their drug trafficking and firearms trial, Agent Almonte was allowed to testify as an expert that the presence of a Santa Muerte prayer card, was "a very good indicator of possible criminal activity."  Almonte also told the jury that "very often criminal drug traffickers and other criminals pray to her for protection from law enforcement or anybody else they consider to be their enemy."  He further opined that, based on his experience, a person offering a similar prayer to St. Jude, patron saint of desperate causes, would not be a sign of suspicious behavior because "St. Jude is a legitimate Catholic saint." That testimony, the Court wrote, was close to "psychobabble and substantially influenced the outcome" of the trial.

    US v. Medina-Copete, written by Judge Lucero, held that the New Mexico trial court erred in failing to consider whether a prayer card  could qualify as a "tool of the drug trade;" erred in qualifying Almonte as an expert based on mere correlations derived through his "own self-study of the 'iconography of the Mexican drug underworld,'" rather than on "facts or data" as required by Rule 702(b)and erred in using the fact that Almonte had been qualified before as an expert, rather than whether his background qualified him to be an expert. 

    This decision should be useful, and not just in cases involving evidence of Santa Muerte shrines, prayer cards and figurines. Police officers who testify as experts are subject to notice requirements, FRE 702, and may be challenged as experts under Daubert.  Expertise must be founded on something more than personal observations and conclusions. FRE 702 criteria and Daubert's gatekeeping function should expose law enforcement speculation disguised as expertise.

-- from guest blogger Laura Shaneyfelt.