Thursday, May 5, 2011

Ever wonder why I harp on the Consitution so much in class?

If you've ever wished I would just stop talking about the Constitution so often in class, here's my explanation for taking so much of your time on this subject:

"Fewer than half of American eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights on the most recent national civics examination, and only one in 10 demonstrated acceptable knowledge of the checks and balances among the legislative, executive and judicial branches, according to test results released on Wednesday."   [Source: NYTimes, 5 May 2011]

It is clear that there is decreasing attention paid to the Constitution in American elementary and secondary education. And, if we don't know how the government is supposed to work, how can we hold our government accountable when it fails to live up to its goals? How will we know if rights are being denied?

This is serious stuff.

And so I'll go on lecturing on the Constitution and making students actually read the darned thing.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What is criminal justice?

By that provocative title I mean what constitutes justice for those charged with crimes? Recently, the US Supreme Court heard several cases about what constitutes minimum standards of representation for the indigent.

Another case has just come before the US Supreme Court asking that very question.

Richard Rosario seemed to have a pretty airight alibi when he was accused of murder in the Bronx in 1996. He claims to have been 1,000 miles away from the  murder scene. But two eyewitnesses picked him out of a lineup. Rosario can show that he was in Florida for the entire month surrounding the murder. And dozens of people volunteered to vouch for Rosario's whereabouts in Florida but prosecutors did not follow up, relying instead on the eyewitnesses. Now, my criminal justice major students will know that eyewitness identification is notoriously unreliable, and uncorroborated eyewitness testimony is the single leading cause of wrongful convictions. It is also, according to experts, the evidence best refuted by alibi.

That should have boded well for Rosario. Yet the prosecutors went ahead with his murder trial. His court-appointed lawyer asked for and got money to send an investigator to Florida to check out the alibi witnesses but never followed through. When a new court-appointed lawyer was assigned to Rosario's case, she mistakenly believed that the investigator-funds request had been denied. Rosario was convicted.

On appeal, the alibi witness information was alllowed but the judge refused to overturn the conviction, saying that Rosario's defense had been "skillful" and that the lack of alibi testimony at the murder trial was not material to his appeal because the lawyers' mistake had not been intentional.

What? you may be wondering. What difference does it make that the mistake was not intentional? It still resulted in Rosario having a less-than-rigorous defense. A federal district judge later agreed with the appeals judge that individual mistakes do not matter in judging whether a defendant was adequately represented, only the overall performance matter. But if that individual mistake could cost the defendant the trial, should that not be taken into consideration? Apparently not, according to a full federal court review that took place last year.

Now the case is before the Supreme Court. We'll have to wait to hear what the nine think about the adequacy of counsel for the poor.

Source: Adam Liptak, The New York Times, May 2, 2011.