Thursday, April 20, 2017

UPDATED: "Face of a Killer" - Sorry, Not So Much

UPDATED 4/23/2017: The Eagle has a front page, above-the-fold story on Ms. Freeman's brutal murder in their Sunday (4/23) addition. On the jump page, the story calls the technology the subject of the post below "cutting edge." Let us turn this technology around a bit. What would be the likelihood of a judge granting pre-trial county expense money to cover the cost of this technology to determine whether the resulting DNA composite resembles the arrested client? Probably not good. Putting aside the issue of county money, what if after a Sheriff's Office (S.O.) investigation and arrest, the arrestee self paid for the same technology featured in these stories? What if the resulting composite bears no resemblance to the arrestee? What then would the Brazos County D.A. and S.O. say about the admissibility of this technology in a courtroom, or in front of a grand jury? I bet it would not be "Hey, it's cutting edge technology, it's all good!"

ORIGINAL POST: When I read the breathless headline in the Wednesday print addition of The Bryan/College Station Eagle that is also the title of this post, I shook my head. There staring at me under that banner headline was the DNA based face of the killer of Virginia Freeman in south Brazos County from1981.

 It was like reading a summary of an episode of CSI.

The problem? Well, at this point the science behind the composite of the killer's face has not been proven valid. In fact, it is not so much science than speculation based on unnerving extrapolation. You would not know that from The Eagle story, or the story from our local television station KBTX, or a dozen like it from various news outlets and platforms from New England to Arizona - here, here and here.

It is the message rather than the messenger I have the bone to pick with. Sheriff Chris Kirk is one of the finest lawmen I know. As an investigator he was both intelligent and meticulous. As Brazos County's elected sheriff, he has brought stability to a position that for many years had been dangerously unstable. I think we in this county take that stability for granted, but if you lived during the years of upheaval in that office, you appreciate Sheriff Kirk even more.

So, to the  so-called science. The second of the stories linked involves the 1987 death of Darlene Krashoc at Fort Carson Colorado. Another, reporter, Carol McKinley, took a different angle for her story about Krashoc's death and the use of the same new technology the subject of the Freeman press conference. McKinley actually spoke to qualified people urging caution about the reliability of the science and false expectations faux science brings:
'Phenotyping is not state of art. It’s not the state of anything,' says retired Denver homicide detective Jon Priest. He is concerned that phenotyping gives false hope to victims families who are desperate for answers.
'This is one of those things that is not proven, supportable, nor accepted,' Priest said, adding he’s not against trying new technology. 'The science may get there someday, but it ain’t there now.' 
And this:
'It’s giving the family unrealistic expectations,' says Dr. Richard Spritz, director of Human Medical Genetics and Genomics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. 'Do I think it’s likely having this technology will get them to a perpetrator? No. Because the reliability of this technology has never been subject to critical tests. The likely reliability is low.'
Ellen Greytak of the company, Parabon Snapshot, whose proprietary technology did the phenotyping for the Sheriff's Department, videoed into the presser on Tuesday. As I wrote above, all very CSI. The price tag for the work was paid by the National Geographic Explorers, who, in exchange for paying for it, was present filming the presser as part of a documentary concerning the investigation. 

The critical question is whether any results other than heightened expectations leading to crashed realities will be realized.  

Greytak, according to McKinley's story, says the technology  "[helps] narrow down suspects… gives law enforcement the ability to eliminate them," Yet the headlines and the emphasis is not elimination, it is putting a face with the the DNA. Greytak's statement about elimination is like saying the reason to buy a self driving car is because of its curb appeal - it is just not the sell. Instead, the sell is the technology to put a face on a killer. The science of DNA has proven it can tell you the killer's race, eye and hair color. But provide a face that resembles the killer then and now? NO.

Forensic science is easy to fall in love with, but is littered with examples of being jilted by junk. DNA, the gold standard, has been rocked by changing standards of comparisons and probabilities on mixtures. Bite marks, blood spatter analysis, shaken baby syndrome, all now are forensically questionable.

I believe the science behind this is no better than alchemy at this point.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Remembering Clint Greenwood

40 years is a long time, but Clint Greenwood is someone easily remembered. Clint and I graduated from the same Houston high school, Spring Woods, located in the Spring Branch area of west Houston. Clint graduated in 1978, a year after me, but he and my sister, Lynn, were classmates and friends, and some of their friendship rubbed off on me.

Clint was smart, funny and popular. He was a good athlete, played football, and I think we ran track together. My sister's high school class was very bright, and I think Clint graduated in the top 10%. I know he later graduated from Rice University, and that speaks volumes. In his obituary it mentioned Clint graduated South Texas College of Law in 1986, a year after I graduated, but I have no memory of Clint there.

Instead, it is from high school that my memories of him remain. A lean 18 year old in blue jeans, smiling and cracking wise about cars and girls. When some 35 years later I began reading about him in connection with his role in former Harris County D.A. Pat Lykos administration, I remember thinking it ironic that after all the time that had passed since high school, he and I both ended up as lawyers involved in the criminal justice system. I also remember thinking better of the Lykos administration - I still care very much for my old hometown of Houston - because someone as bright a Clint was part of it.

I know nothing of his travails in that position. I know nothing other than the bright energetic young man I knew in high school and the tragedy and senselessness of his death.

Perhaps some good comes from remembering him today, of all days.

Happy Easter.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The CCA Is Taken to the Woodshed

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decided Moore v. Texas yesterday, March 28, 2017. Moore tested whether a state, by using their own definitional terms, could take themselves right out of having to follow a SCOTUS mandate. In this situation, it was a SCOTUS decision exempting the Intellectually Disabled (ID) from the Death Penalty.

Since 2002, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) has basically defined ID in a way different than the medical community. In a practical way, this has ensured defendants medically classified as ID were still eligible for the Death Penalty despite the SCOTUS prohibition. Yesterday, the CCA was taken to the woodshed by SCOTUS. The 5-3 opinion can be read here. Amy Howe, of has analysis here.

Many, more qualified commenters have, and will, break down the decision, but here are some takeaways you might not see elsewhere:

1. Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion, not Anthony Kennedy. This area - ID - has been dominated by the swing vote Kennedy. Justice Kennedy wrote Hall v. Florida, in which SCOTUS smacked down a different definitional end run around the SCOTUS decision exempting ID from the death penalty. However, in both tone and smack down, Moore was the far more aggressive opinion, probably owing to RBG's authorship. The thing of it is Kennedy did not write separately, joining Ginsburg majority opinion. Justice Kennedy may be coming around to RBG and Justice Breyer's way of thinking about the Eighth Amendment being incompatible with Capital Punishment schemes.

2. The CCA did not help it's cause when it decided Petetan v. State on March 8, 2017. Presiding Judge Keller wrote the majority opinion. Petetan was on direct appeal from a death verdict from McClennan County. Citing and relying on the same bad law which was subject of the then pending Moore case in SCOTUS, the CCA upheld the verdict finding sufficient evidence that the defendant was not ID and therefore eligible for the Death Penalty. It was a particularly cheeky move by Keller and her cohorts on the CCA, and Judge Elsa Alcala called them out in her dissent:
I would defer resolution of this appeal until after the Supreme Court decides
Moore v. Texas, in which the issue there, as here, is whether Texas’s legal standard for determining intellectual disability violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against the execution of intellectually disabled people.
Judge Alcala's position would seem to be a reasonable one, right?  Let's not waste time, money and expense deciding a case whose outcome may change based a pending case at a higher pay grade. The CCA instead plowed right ahead, and in an 8-1 decision upheld the verdict of death. SCOTUS pays attention to these things, I promise. RBG gave a judicial shout out to Judge Alcala's dissent in Moore from the CCA  - twice - in her majority opinion. I think it no coincidence Moore was decided less than 3 weeks after Petetan. Sometimes, I cannot figure what is going on inside the CCA chambers. What internal machinations and divisions would lead to the CCA thinking deciding Petetan before Moore was a good idea?

3. Judge Neil Gorsuch would not have made a difference had he been confirmed and voting with the minority of Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Thomas and Alito. Gorsuch is not a cinch to vote with this wing on this issue. Anthony Kennedy is a mentor, and as I have mentioned, signs are that Kennedy has steadily moved left on the Death Penalty issue. Of course, not to be macabre about it, but the CCA and others of the opinion that categorical exemptions from the Death Penalty are bad idea under the Eighth Amendment may be waiting to see whether Ginsburg, Breyer and Kennedy survive the Trump Presidency.

4. What the heck is Texas going to do with 15 years of ID Death Penalty habeas decisions on the State and Federal level relying on bad law? Will they need to re-litigated? The answer: Probably. This could mean new state and federal habeas claims for literally hundreds of death row inmates.

5. Pennsylvania (I think) and at least one other state use similar work arounds defining ID for exemption for the Death Penalty as Texas. They better be taking a hard look at their current practice in this area.

As a small town, in the trench lawyer, I am pleased that SCOTUS has recognized the illogical and non-scientific approach taken by Texas in this area. It is something I feel like I have been flailing around about for almost a decade. More important, as the father of a conventionally diagnosed ID 13 year old, I am also happy the science won.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Goodbye...For Now.

It seems appropriate that the end of the calendar year also signals the end of regular blog posts at Monkey Slough, at least for a few months. When I started the blog, I set a goal of posting at least once a week. In the two years (more or less) this blog has been active, I have met this goal with 131 posts.

Unfortunately, at least for the blog, the first quarter of 2017 looks especially demanding. Thus, I have decided to stop regularly posting until at least the middle of April. If something happens that I think requires comment - for example if the Supreme Court of the Unites States decides Moore v. Texasa post will appear. I have been following the issues litigated in that case for so long now - actively since 2009 - that the SCOTUS decision in that case is too important not to post about.

In the meantime, please take a gander at archived material if so desired. I tried to write honestly about local Brazos County criminal justice issues. The series of posts about my county's lack of pre-trial diversion and lack of use of cite and release involving personal use amounts of marijuana has been popular, as has the three part series "Death Penalty Capital U.S.A."

A couple of individual posts I return to and re-read on a regular basis are a paean to one of the most unique clients I have known in "Ode to Shirley," and "To the Kid I Saw In Target Yesterday," about an encounter my autistic son and I had at the namesake retailer.

So, to quote from that noted sage Truman Burbank..."Good morning, and in case I don't see ya: Good afternoon, good evening, and good night!"

Monday, December 26, 2016

Being Taught Lessons In Bonham, Texas

On the high holidays, my family travels to southern Oklahoma. My in-laws live just above the north side of the Red River bottom. Most mornings while visiting, my autistic son and I make the 20 minute drive south into Texas, to Bonham, to take our breakfast. Like his father, my youngest son is an early riser.

He is partial to McDonalds pancakes. I like their coffee. So McD's it usually is.

At sunrise on this past Thanksgiving, after crossing an aged truss bridge spanning Oklahoma into Texas my son yelped from the backseat. I dutifully pulled off the almost empty blacktop and snapped a photo of the Thanksgiving morning sun breaking over a ground mist. The resulting photograph has provided a kind of ill defined incandescent hope for the future this season. Perhaps it is nothing more than some mornings the synapses fire just a bit quicker. Perhaps it is nothing more than paying attention rather than living by rote.

So it was then that 15 minutes later we reached our Thanksgiving morning destination. As we approached the McDonald's counter, waiting to greet us was a woman I guessed to be 65 years old, graying hair neatly pinned up and back, and wearing glasses.

I imagine working the counter of a McD's on a Thanksgiving could make anyone cranky, but not so this gracious lady. She leaned down into my non-verbal son's line of sight and said, "Good morning." She then proceeded to save us $3.00 on breakfast while chatting him up. She told him the money saved could be used by Santa Claus while winking, "If you've been a good boy, of course" to which I demurred, as parents will do. "Santa's gonna run outta money before he gits to me" she then said, sliding our breakfast across the counter.

Then an older man with in a Christmas sweater, wrangler jeans and a cap walked up. You see, when I visit, there is always a bevy of older men, congregating like wild game to a morning waterhole for breakfast at that McD's. I am sure another group of men met at a local cafe a generation ago, but in what is probably a sign of our times, this group meets at the McD's to sip coffee, to talk their politics, and of course, gripe about all things cattle.

This man in the sweater is different. I have been talking my son to this McD's for maybe 5 years, but only during the times I travel to my in-laws for holidays. I do not think I have been there for 6 to 8 months. Yet this old man knows my son and never do we cross the threshold of this McD's without him making a point to say a good word. Heck, he waived at us before we got inside - it was like he had been waiting for us since last spring.

He seemed visibly older this Thanksgiving, stubbled whiskers framing a gaunt face. He had told me once - last year - he had a son, maybe a nephew who was "special" as he put it. He too, leaned down, senior coffee in one hand, hugged my son and told him hello and asked how he was. I answered and he gave a side hug to my son and smiled at me before returning to his coffee and conversation.

Then Christmas Eve, it happened again. This time my autistic son and I were patronizing the Brookshire Brothers grocery store near the McDonalds I write about above. As we checked out, the cashier asked "do you have a Brookshire card?" Like many grocers, Brookshire Brothers uses this card to promote loyalty by saving frequent customers money. I explained to the cashier, alas, I had no such card. I was in the midst of wrangling my son and paying the cashier when the woman behind me stepped up and handed the cashier her Brookshire card. Just like that, I saved $5.00 on $25.00 worth of purchases.

"Merry Christmas" this generous woman said with a smile.

Merry Christmas to you as well, I told her. And to you, Bonham.

The cynic was nigh,
And said with neither pretense, nor sly,
'You, my dear sir, will be taught lessons
In of all places, Bonham, Texas.'

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Speedy's Weed

Texas A&M football player Speedy Noil was arrested for Possession of Marijuana (POM) on Tuesday, December 20, 2016. The story has been run by ESPN, NBC Sports in one form or another. Other than Brent Zwerneman's story in the Houston Chronicle (Zwerneman lives in College Station), the most detailed of these came from one of the first to publish, our local newspaper, The Bryan College Station Eagle. According to The Eagle: 
 Noil's arrest stems from a complaint about a loud party just before midnight Friday. According to court documents, the officer could smell marijuana as he walked up to the building and made his way up to the third floor apartment on Sterling Street. As he drew close, the officer said he learned that the noise wasn't a party, rather, it was coming from a TV, the documents state, adding that when he knocked on the door, Noil stepped out and shut the door behind him.
Once quizzed about the smell of marijuana coming from the apartment, Noil became "verbally defensive and overall uncooperative," resulting in other officers responding to the scene, according to the report.
Noils declined to give consent to allow officers into his apartment, where he lives alone, authorities said, adding that a judge then signed off on a search warrant.
About 4.1 grams of pot was discovered in a cigar package in the kitchen of the one-bedroom apartment, as well as .9 grams of a marijuana blunt found in the closet of his bedroom, authorities said. (my emphasis added).
All the national news outlets were quick on the sensational: Drugs! Possession of less than 2 ounces of Marijuana! DRUGS! OH THE HUMANITY!

Part of the story is Noil's past history of scrapes with the law and the TAMU athletic department. These are separate issues. I want to concentrate on his instant arrest of POM. It would not matter for the points I make here how much past trouble he had been in, nor that he is an elite athlete on the NFL radar.

Noil's instant arrest, at least from my point of view, is silly and illustrative of what is wrong with POM arrests not only in Brazos County, but the Great State of Texas. The reasons? Noil was found, at best with (the story says "about," which usually means less), 5 GRAMS of marijuana IN HIS HOME.

2 ounces of marijuana is the equivalent of 56.7 grams. Thus, had Noil been found in possession of more than TEN TIMES of the amount found in his home, he would face the same criminal consequence for which he was arrested. Yep, to me, that is pretty silly.

Neither was Noil huffing and puffing his evil 5 grams of weed in a car while endangering traffic by either his impaired driving or by distractedly trying to load his bowl with ganja and driving simultaneously. Nope, he was at home, minding his own dadgum business, playing his television too loud.

Of course he need not have been arrested at all. As I have written before, law enforcement is allowed to cite and release instead of arresting individuals for possession of misdemeanor amounts of marijuana.

Instead, Noil had to wait while a judge was found to sign off on a search warrant, resulting in a search of his home, involving, I'm sure, several CSPD officers taken off the streets to, mind you, turn over every nook and cranny of the space Noil calls home. The whole process probably took several hours. And the result? The uncovering of (GADS!), maybe 5 grams of marijuana.

I really would like to review the affidavit supporting the request for the search warrant. I understand the odor of marijuana part, but any law enforcement affidavit that contains language that an individual refusing consent to search of his home became "verbally defensive and overall uncooperative" to support a search has issues with probable cause. But this is another topic, perhaps for another time.

5 GRAMS of marijuana. In a HOME. Arrest. $2000 bond. Formal Charge. Penal Sanctions. Can we not do better than this on both a local and state level? The waste of law enforcement time, local tax dollars and the busted citizen's time, money and resources for a criminal offense that in many, many Texas counties would not have resulted in an arrest is mind boggling.

NOTE: I do not represent Noil, nor do I know who does.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Rancor About Death at SCOTUS

Justice Stephen Breyer, whose questions during oral arguments in Moore v. Texas I wrote about recently, filed a written dissent in a SCOTUS denial of certiorari on December 12, 2016 in the death penalty case Sireci v. Florida. I think what was said during oral arguments on November 29, 2016 in Moore provide insight into what happened with the denial of certiorari not only in Sireci, but 3 other death penalty cases, Broom v. Ohio, Tyler v. Louisiana and Stokes v. South Carolina, in what I am calling the Monday massacre. I think oral arguments in Moore pre-cursed events in these cases as well as the multiple grants followed by denials of stays of execution in Smith v. Alabama last week.

Chief Justice Roberts grilled Moore's lawyer, Clifford Sloan, literally from the jump of oral argument in Moore. Note Justice Kennedy, the key swing votes in all death penalty litigation in front of SCOTUS, tried to beat Chief Justice Roberts to the punch:
JUSTICE KENNEDY:  I -- I -- excuse me, Chief Justice.
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: That's a long laundry list of objections you have. Your question presented, though, focused only on one, which is that it prohibits the use of current medical standards and requires outdated medical standards. And I think several of the other points you made are not encompassed within that question presented. And maybe there are questions that should be looked at, but they don't seem to be covered by that. I mean, in what -- you mentioned the correspondence with clinical practices. Has that changed? Did Texas similarly depart from clinical practices under the old standard as it is under the new? (emphasis added).
Chief Justice Roberts question hints at bait and switch tactics by Moore's lawyers to get SCOTUS review. Justice Kennedy wanted to press the same point as the Chief Justice - evidenced by his follow up question seconds later.
JUSTICE KENNEDY: I have the same question as -- as the Chief Justice. It -- it just seems to me the question presented doesn't cut to the heart of the case as you describe it. My understanding of your argument -- and again, I don't think it's wholly reflected in that question -- is that whether you use the most current or even slightly -- slightly older medical standards, there is still a conflict. Am I right about that, that that's your theory? (emphasis added).
Sloan began to answer Justice Kennedy's question but was interrupted by Justice Kagan who gave Sloan a way to answer Justice Kennedy's question - that these medical standards and the Briseno factors are "flips sides of the same coin." This exchange made it obvious, at least me, that this issue is a significant bone of contention. When Sloan answered "That's exactly right, your Honor" to Justice Kagan's softball, it brought an exasperated response from the Chief Justice that only a listen to the audio  from oral arguments can do justice:
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, then why didn't you say that? I mean, really, the question presented talks about a comparison between current and outdated, and it seems -- it's pretty dramatic to say you can't use current standards; you're only using outdated. It's quite a different question, is -- you know, they used the Briseno standards and they shouldn't. You don't think they should have used the Briseno standards under the old medical standards, do you? (emphasis added).
This may not seem like a huge deal in a vacuum. Remember though, last term Justice Alito called out the "guerrilla tactics" used by death penalty lawyers during the Glossip v. Gross lethal injection protocol oral arguments. It is not a stretch to view Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy's exchange with Sloan as amplifying upon this view. That the swing vote, Justice Kennedy, was in the middle of it is significant, especially in light of events that have transpired in the 2 weeks following the Moore oral argument.

In light of these subsequent events, Justice Breyer's side bar during his riff on the arbitrariness of classifying the ID for death penalty exclusion during the Moore oral arguments becomes more significant.
JUSTICE BREYER: There will be a bunch of easy cases. And then there are going to be cases like your client who has been on death row for 36 years. And there will be borderline cases. And the reason they're borderline is because the testing is right at the border, like an IQ test. And then you'll put weight on what's called related limitations in adaptive functioning, a matter that on its face sounds as if it's maybe easy in some cases and tough in another. All right? What is the Court supposed to do? Are we supposed to have all those hearings here? I mean, you've made very good arguments for your client. There are probably several others in the country in different states which may have different standards. And if you have some view that law in this area should be law, i.e., that it should be uniform across the country, point me to something that will tell me how a district judge should go about making this determination in borderline cases. (emphasis added).
Then, on December 8, 2016 SCOTUS granted, then denied, granted and finally denied a second time, a stay of execution for Ronald Smith, whose Alabama death penalty resulted from a judicial override of a 7-5 jury recommendation of life. The denial was in the teeth of 4 votes to grant the stay, and exposed an ongoing problem at SCOTUS - 4 votes will get a cert grant, but 5 are required for a stay of sentence or judgement. The New York Times - and others -  have written about disparity in treatment of Smith's applications and the grant of stay in Arthur v. Alabama. My point is different. The Moore oral argument openly displayed divisions which led to the failure of Ronald Smith to receive a stay of execution, and the later Monday massacre of December 12, 2016.

In Justice Breyer's dissent in the denial of cert in Sireci he wrote:
As I and other Justices have previously pointed out, individuals who are executed are not the 'worst of the worst,' but, rather, are individuals chosen at random, on the basis, perhaps of geography, perhaps of the views of individual prosecutors, or still worse on the basis of race.
He ends this sentence with citation to his now famous dissent in Glossip, but more significantly then quoted Justice Stevens concurring opinion in Furman v. Georgia, the 1972 case which invalidated the death penalty based on the arbitrariness of the hodgepodge of death eligible crimes then existing, and leading directly to the modern age of hodgepodge state death penalty schemes that supposedly remedied the constitutional problem.
'These death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual. For, of all the people convicted of [death-eligible crimes], many just as reprehensible as these, the[se] petitioners are among a capriciously selected random handful upon who the sentence of death has in fact been imposed.' (footnote omitted)). Cf. Smith v. Alabama, 580 U. S. ___, (Dec. 8, 2016) (judge overrode jury’s recommendation of a life sentence)(this Court, by an equally divided vote, denied a stay of execution).
The last parenthetical to the Smith denial of stay can only be read as a swipe at the members of SCOTUS who would not provide the fifth vote necessary for a stay of execution for Ronald Smith. This would include Justice Kennedy.

I still think Justice Kennedy will end up siding with the liberal wing on Moore. I think Breyer will concur with another extended diatribe on the arbitrariness of the death penalty. I hoped Justice Kennedy was sick and tired of states constantly having to be called to heel in their pell mell attempts to get around death penalty limitations placed on them by SCOTUS decisions. In this conjuring, Justice Kennedy opens a metaphorical can of whoop ass on the states, using Moore as the can opener.

The events of the last week make this conjuring unlikely. Instead it looks from my small town, limited perch that Justice Breyer's entreaties to Justice Kennedy have fallen on deaf ears. This would explain Justice Breyer's rhetorical question in Moore about '[having] all these hearings [at SCOTUS]" - it evokes his frustration at not persuading Justice Kennedy to bite on the bigger issue of death penalty arbitrariness.

 It could be Justice Kennedy is just tired of dealing with death penalty cases to the exclusion of other Court business. If so, this bodes ill for abolitionists. Justice Kennedy IS the fifth vote in death penalty cases in the current make-up of this Court. Without him, a frontal attack on the death penalty will not occur, and a majority does not call Texas to heel on ID exclusion from the death penalty in Moore.