Blog

The Yanez Verdict and the Bigger Picture

THE YANEZ TRIAL MAY ACTUALLY REPRESENT PROGRESS AND INTEGRITY IN CERTAIN ASPECTS OF OUR JUSTICE SYSTEM, AND REVEAL THE UGLY TRUTH ABOUT SOCIETY, NOT THE LAW As the Nation and World focus on a myriad of stories from the ongoing investigation of the Trump administration to the tragic shooting targeting members of Congress and staff in Washington D.C., the focus in Minnesota has been on the trial of Officer Jeronimo Yanez for his actions in the shooting death of Philando Castile.    The six day trial, the remarkably long five days of deliberations, and the ultimate verdict of not guilty on all counts, presents a unique analysis and opportunity for dialogue that, as is so often the case, has been lost to anger, division, and preconceptions.   There are legitimate emotions that bare upon the evaluation of the outcome.   The African American community has absolutely legitimate grievances in the disparate treatment of black individuals by law enforcement.   This has resulted in a well-founded distrust of the police, who in turn respond with frustration and a posture of defense of their profession and colleagues.  Most poignantly, a young man who, by all accounts, was an upstanding individual, a bright light to the community, and a friend to many children and teachers and staff at J.J. Hill Montessori, is dead.  Yet it can be said, as a matter of prosecutorial action and due process, the case as a whole actually may represent progress and a hope for our justice system.  It can also be said that the case raises more challenges going forward. Doubt and Skepticism, the heart of the criminal justice system. It is important to note, from the outset, that our justice system necessitates and demands the presumption that every single defendant accused of a crime is INNOCENT.  That is the premise for each case.  Every jury is told this, and we are all, collectively, the potential jury pool, and yet that is in profound contrast to how we treat stories when we read the newspaper.  We see that this or that person was booked for child molestation, or domestic assault, and we automatically judge them and essentially presume they committed the act alleged.  Essentially, Americans engage in a completely un-American thought process on a daily basis.  This is not an opinion that is allowed in the justice system.  You cannot be a juror if you cannot presume someone innocent.  That presumption of innocence remains with the defendant from arrest, to preliminary hearings, to the trial itself, all the way until the end of the presentation of all evidence and argument at trial.  The Jury is instructed on this several times. For a defendant to be found “guilty”, the jury must, after clandestine deliberation after analyzing all evidence, UNANIMOUSLY find the defendant guilty or not guilty.  There are no split verdicts in Minnesota, and indeed. most states.  We should be grateful for this standard.   Criminal law is the most powerful area of law.  It is the only mechanism under which the government… Read more {+}

False Science in Sexual Conduct Prosecution

Sexual conduct is a complicated criminal matter. The stakes are high. Illegal sexual behavior cases often carry a harsh punishment of many years in prison. There is the possibility of having to register in the sexual offender registry, which has serious consequences for the offender’s entire life. Most of the time, sexual offenses occur without witnesses and do not occur in public areas. Many accusations are made without witnesses. Evidence presented in the trial often depend on analysis of tissue samples, more or less scientific measurement like hair and fiber comparison or handwriting analysis, as well as the word of the defendant and the alleged victim. Conviction in sexual cases often depends on the testimony of the victim or a minor child in support of the victim. These convictions may be relatively easy to get in sexual cases in front of a sympathetic jury, because even being accused of a sex crime has such a strong popular stigma. The horror of the crime may be enough to sway even a judge on the word of a sympathetic victim, even if very little real evidence is presented in court. Statistics show that there may be as one in four of all reported sexual attacks that will be proven false on real investigation. Defendants in sex crime cases can often be convinced to accept a plea bargain to avoid the high risk of a severe sentence, even with little real evidence against them. The plea bargain may reduce or eliminate jail time, but the consequences of even the reduced sentence can be disastrous in the life of any convicted person. The first line of evidence for the defense in a sexual conduct case is the profession of innocence. The defendant may admit to the physical acts in the case, but disavow the claim that is was sexual assault because the act was consensual. Defendants can present alibies that they were not present at the alleged crime scene, and support the alibi with documents like hotel receipts, or travel documents. Defendants may claim that they were misidentified by the victim. Because of the special nature of prosecution in sexual conduct cases, often the lack of witnesses, the way juries and judges view sexual crimes and, often, the vagueness of the nature of evidence, false science and pseudoscientific theories are often a factor in sexual conduct trials.  False memories elicited in the testimony of witnesses and attempts to “recover memory” using methods like hypnosis have resulted in miscarriage of justice in many sexual abuse cases, according to a recent book published by the British False Memory Society. Many hundreds of people are convinced by (perhaps) well-meaning therapists that their psychological problems are due to repressed memories of sexual abuse. Those so convinced go in search of likely perpetrators and use their recovered memories as evidence in court. Juries and those in the criminal justice system may rely on “common sense” in considering issues relating to memory. The British False Memory Society has filed several thousand case histories, of which 672 are known… Read more {+}

How to get an accuser’s prior acts or mental illness into evidence

Being accused of a crime is a frightening, life-changing experience. One woman, a witness, who was falsely accused of the murder of her best friend, described it this way, “…a gunman stormed into the room and opened fire. I was kidnapped. The shooter had me leave with them and forced me to a house nearby. They held me against my will. I thought, ‘This is where I’m going to die….”After a number of hours, a SWAT team rescued [her] and she was taken into custody….”The next thing you know, I’m being charged with first-degree murder.” After six days behind bars, the charges were dropped and she was freed. But the woman’s life got worse after her release. She hid from society for a month. “People on social media were very ugly. People called me a murderer, a whore, a crackhead, worthless piece of scum.” When someone is accused of a serious crime and brought to trial, the state becomes the accuser. The prosecutor, employed by the state represents the accuser. In the trial, testimony is taken to support the case for guilt by people who have evidence supporting the conviction, as well as witness who support the innocence of the defendant. In many states, if the defense council has evidence that the prosecutor is biased or that the trial cannot be fair because of a clear bias, a prosecutor can be dismissed by the judge and a new prosecutor assigned. Otherwise, the defense attorney is faced with counteracting the evidence given by witness for the state. Witnesses for the prosecution can be countered as unreliable witnesses and testimony can be discounted on the basis of personal qualities like mental instability, criminal history. According to the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right… to be confronted by the witnesses against him.” In open trial, the testimony given by witnesses can be impeached with evidence of bias, if the witness can be proven to gain materially from a conviction. The witnesses testimony can be dismissed with evidence that he or she is not a witness who can be relied upon to make accurate observations. The witness must be confronted with the evidence before his or her testimony is dismissed. If the witness denies the disqualifying evidence, it can still be introduced in cross-examination, but only if the evidence is extrinsic and can be delivered in the form of documents or sworn testimony. Cross-examination of witnesses is an absolute right for accused people in court. There are usually two kinds of cross-examination, Those intended to enter new facts and details. Those intended to raise questions about the credibility of witnesses. A witness’ credibility may be attacked or supported by testimony about the witness’ reputation regarding untruthfulness. Witnesses can defend themselves but only after their truthful character is attacked. In a criminal trial, extrinsic evidence (which consists of external documents that have to be interpreted or which themselves can be questioned) can be brought… Read more {+}

Warrant Requirements and Exceptions in Minnesota

Under the Fourth Amendment, we have the right to be sure that our person, house, vehicle, and other property are protected from unreasonable search and seizure. However, while there are numerous exceptions that are able to bypass this right, the State and its police officers must obtain a valid warrant to perform a lawful search, otherwise the contents discovered on that search are not valid in a court of law. By knowing the requirements of a search warrant in Minnesota was well as some of the acceptable exemptions, you can evaluate if the case against you is indeed within the realms of the Fourth Amendment. Search Warrant Requirements in Minnesota The search warrant can be issued by any court in the jurisdiction of where the person or property is to be searched. The only exception is that probate court cannot issue a warrant for searches. A search warrant can be granted if any of the following were true: The property or items in question were stolen or embezzled, the property or items were used in the process of committing a crime, the possession of the property or items constitutes as a crime, or the property or items were delivered in the act of concealing a crime or preventing them from being discovered. A valid search warrant can only be issued by the court of probable cause. This needs to be supported by an affidavit that names or describes the person, property, or object to be seized and detail needs to be given when describing the place that can be searched. If the court is satisfied with the facts given by the affidavit that probable cause exists, the judge must sign the warrant, naming their judicial office, and then hand it over to an officer that can be inside or outside of the jurisdiction. The warrant will also sport the names of those presenting the affidavit and the grounds for its issuance. The execution of a search warrant can only be done by one or more of the officers mentioned in the warrants directions and by no other person except other officers requested by aid of one of the officers on the search warrant. In standard cases, a search warrant can only be served between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. However, warrants can be served at night, but only with court approval if the facts stated in the affidavit merit a night-time search to prevent the loss, destruction, or removal of the objects of the search. A search warrant is void if not served within 10 days of its issuing. However, once issued, it is easy for officers to renew it when needed. When the officer stated in the warrant conducts a search, they must give you a copy of the warrant and, if property or items are removed, a receipt for them to the owner as well as to the court. When Do Officers Not Need a Warrant? There are four major exemptions to search warrants where… Read more {+}

The Truth about Traumatic Brain Injuries and Violent Behavior

You may have seen headlines about traumatic brain injuries and violent behavior, but now it’s time to delve into the truth. We’ve put together a few facts that you may not know. Let’s start with a few basics. What is a traumatic brain injury? When the medical world talks about traumatic brain injury (TBI for short), they mean harm or damage to the brain that does not degenerate over time and was not present at birth (non-congenital). The harm results from an outside mechanical force that strikes the brain and results in permanent or temporary disability with respect to the person’s cognitive, physical and psycho-social capabilities, often accompanied by diminished or altered consciousness. The definition has not enjoyed a consistent use and often varies by circumstances and by medical specialty. We often hear it as a synonym for head trauma and not always with neurological effect. How do experts define violent behavior? Therapists define violent behavior as the use of physical force to injure another person or destroy property. Is there biological evidence of TBI causing violence? Yes. For example, the amygdala resides in the frontal lobe. The amygdala joins a person’s emotions to his thoughts. Therefore, if the amygdala sustains injury through the TBI, then the patient exhibits poor impulse control and violent behavior. If the temporal lobe has lesions caused by damage from pieces of skull bone piercing the temporal lobe, then the patient has difficulty regulating limbic input. The limbic system is an area of the brain made up of nerves and neural networks that relates to instinct and mood. Injury to this system can result in impulsive and violent behavior. In addition, damage to neurotransmitters can result in an increase in the chemical norepinephrine which can cause loss of impulse control in TBI patients. Other studies showed increased dopamine in TBI patients which leads to aggression and agitation. Still other studies have shown a reduction in serotonin levels in TBI patients which leads to increased impulsive and aggressive behavior. How does medical evidence of TBI work in the courtroom? Stephen J. Morse, professor of law and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania is also a member of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience, a group that studies in the area where neuroscience meets criminology. He says that neuroscience has added nothing to the study of law because people commit crimes, not brains. It’s not that he disagrees that brain injury can cause lapses in judgment or loosen inhibitions. It’s that the studies so far cannot show whether or how the person tried to control his impulses and whether other factors besides the injury contributed to his impulses. Still, lawyers bring TBI defenses more often into the courtroom each year. Many of these cases center around neuroscientific evidence with respect to defendants who served in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, there are now special veterans’ courts, 80 in total. These courts began in recognition that veterans have special health issues related to… Read more {+}