Thursday, July 29, 2010

Perspectives on American Criminal Law

This week, I have tried to take a larger perspective on why we see so many instances of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct, as we saw in the Tonya Craft case. This case did not happen in a vacuum, and it was the product of a number of developments that have been occurring for a long time. While her acquittal kept her from prison, in the long run so far it has solved no other problems, and it is these problems that need to be addressed.

In a recent article on U.S. law, The Economist presents a scathing picture of an incarceration and conviction system that is out of control, to put it mildly. The article begins with the arrest and imprisonment of a man who was accused of "smuggling orchids":
THREE pickup trucks pulled up outside George Norris’s home in Spring, Texas. Six armed police in flak jackets jumped out. Thinking they must have come to the wrong place, Mr Norris opened his front door, and was startled to be shoved against a wall and frisked for weapons. He was forced into a chair for four hours while officers ransacked his house. They pulled out drawers, rifled through papers, dumped things on the floor and eventually loaded 37 boxes of Mr Norris’s possessions onto their pickups. They refused to tell him what he had done wrong. “It wasn’t fun, I can tell you that,” he recalls.

Mr Norris was 65 years old at the time, and a collector of orchids. He eventually discovered that he was suspected of smuggling the flowers into America, an offence under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. This came as a shock. He did indeed import flowers and sell them to other orchid-lovers. And it was true that his suppliers in Latin America were sometimes sloppy about their paperwork. In a shipment of many similar-looking plants, it was rare for each permit to match each orchid precisely.

In March 2004, five months after the raid, Mr Norris was indicted, handcuffed and thrown into a cell with a suspected murderer and two suspected drug-dealers. When told why he was there, “they thought it hilarious.” One asked: “What do you do with these things? Smoke ’em?”

Prosecutors described Mr Norris as the “kingpin” of an international smuggling ring. He was dumbfounded: his annual profits were never more than about $20,000. When prosecutors suggested that he should inform on other smugglers in return for a lighter sentence, he refused, insisting he knew nothing beyond hearsay.

He pleaded innocent. But an undercover federal agent had ordered some orchids from him, a few of which arrived without the correct papers. For this, he was charged with making a false statement to a government official, a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison. Since he had communicated with his suppliers, he was charged with conspiracy, which also carries a potential five-year term.

As his legal bills exploded, Mr Norris reluctantly changed his plea to guilty, though he still protests his innocence. He was sentenced to 17 months in prison. After some time, he was released while his appeal was heard, but then put back inside. His health suffered: he has Parkinson’s disease, which was not helped by the strain of imprisonment. For bringing some prescription sleeping pills into prison, he was put in solitary confinement for 71 days. The prison was so crowded, however, that even in solitary he had two room-mates.
If this seems barbaric, it is because it is, yet I suspect that at least some readers here and certainly most prosecutors (and politicians) have no problem at all with what they have seen. In the last decade, Americans have become angrier and, frankly, darker in their outlook, and it is reflected in the use of torture and false imprisonment and outright abuse of the innocent. There is a streak of fairness in many Americans, but it is hidden by the sheer force of official misconduct.

An interview with now-pardoned Richard Paey, a wheelchair-bound man in Florida who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for "abusing" prescription medicine, reveals the extent of the abuse and the outright misconduct that is our "justice" system today. Here are some excerpts:
In October of this year (2007), Florida Gov. Charlie Crist signed a pardon for Richard Paey, a paraplegic with multiple sclerosis who had served nearly four years of a 25-year prison sentence for drug trafficking. Paey, who requires high-dose opioid therapy to treat pain brought on by his MS, a car accident, and a botched back surgery, was convicted of trafficking despite concessions from prosecutors that there was no evidence the painkillers in his possession were for anything other than his own use. When police came to arrest the wheel-chair bound Paey, they came with a full-on SWAT team, battering down the door and rushing into the home of the wheelchair-bound Paey, his optometrist wife, and their two schoolage children.

Prosecutors offered Paey a plea bargain, but he refused, insisting that he’d done nothing wrong, and that he shouldn’t have to plead guilty to a felony for treating his own pain. Paey was tried, convicted, and given a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence. While in prison, the state of Florida paid for a morphine pump that administered painkillers to Paey at rates higher than what the state convicted him of for possessing in the first place. (Emphasis mine)
reason: How were you treated by other inmates?

Paey: Very well, actually. That was one surprise. I’d almost call it a shock. People I would never have associated with—people I’d have been afraid of if I’d seen them in a free-world environment on the street, people with tattoos, crazy hair, and so on—as I got to know them, and was accepted as one of them, they treated me very well. I never had the fear of violence form any of the other inmates. In fact, something else happened. It was the opposite. I found I had more fear of some of the officers who worked in the system and engaged in behaviors that we’d like to think don’t go on in the prison system.

There was an old Cuban man I met when I was transferred to the facility in Lake Butler. When I arrived there, he was the first person I met. He told me the difference between the American prison system and the prison system in Cuba: He said that in Cuba they hit you, but they hit you in front of everybody. He said in America, they beat you behind the building, or in a private room where no one is looking. He’d been in both, and he said that was the difference.

reason: Were you ever beaten?

Paey: I was frequently verbally abused. The older inmates tell me the outright physical abuse has tapered down. As far as physical abuse, there was one time I was hit by an officer. I had been shipped out from Zephyr Hills to Butler after my interview with John Tierney [of the New York Times]. When I got there, they put me in solitary confinement. When I kept collapsing, they had a medical doctor examine me, and he had them move me out of solitary and into a hospital.

So I was sleeping in my bed at around one o’clock in the morning. The lights were on—the lights are always on—and the shift officers were conducting their “shake down”—which means they come in and go through all of your belongings to search for contraband. It seemed to come out of nowhere, he had a radio in his hand, and he swung it down as hard as he could and he hit my legs with it. If I could have gotten out of bed and hit him, I would have. He said to me, “I just wanted to see if you had feeling in your legs.” He saw the wheelchair next to my bed, and that the sheet was covering my legs.
...there are other kinds of abuse that you wouldn’t think about. There were only a handful of officers that were bad, but those few can really do a lot of harm. The kind of thing that goes on today is less noticeable, but it's damaging. Things like leaving the lights on 24 hours a day. I went more than 30 days in solitary where the lights were on the entire time. It was this callous indifference of a particular officer. And other things, like slamming the doors when they do security checks. They come by every hour and give your door a loud kick. When you’re inside a cell and someone comes by and gives that big iron door a kick once an hour, the sound just ricochets between your ears. So systematic sleep deprivation is common. I would see men go into solitary and when they came out weeks later, their hair would be completely gray.

This kind of thing was typical from the officers who weren’t happy with their work, or were looking to inflict additional punishment on inmates. Some of thought prison wasn’t enough for us, that part of their job responsibility was to inflict additional punishment on us.
reason: You mention getting transferred to Butler Lake, the maximum-security prison across the state, several hours further away from your family. That transfer happened shortly after your interview with John Tierney of the New York Times. Do you think the transfer was retaliation—punishment for talking to a journalist?

Paey: That’s what I was told. That’s what a friendly prison nurse told my wife after the interview. And just after the interview, one of the prison officers who was on good terms with me told me that the guard who sat in on my interview with Tierney had gone to his captain about writing me a disciplinary report—which is the first step toward sending someone to solitary. He said I had said thing in the interview that I shouldn’t have said, and that they were going to act on it. There are designated “transfer days” when they move inmates between facilities. About two weeks later, on a day not scheduled to be a transfer day, the sergeant came up to me at around midnight and told me to pack my things. I was being shipped out to Lake Butler. They had no explanation. I couldn’t decline the move. It wasn’t medical in nature.

The move was tough. The sun was up by the time they moved me. It was of those insufferable July days. The van they transfer you in has no air conditioning, and only the driver’s window opens, and only about an inch. So I’m dying in the back of the van, strapped down in my wheelchair in this suffocating heat, where you can’t move, and there’s no air circulating. I ended up falling over, and they had to drive back and do it all over. They ended up taking me an ambulance a few days later.

reason: You say you were put in solitary confinement at Lake Butler. Was that for your health—to keep you from other inmates? Or was that punishment, too?

Paey: Laughs. When I got up to Lake Butler, they didn’t know why I was there. They had no paperwork on my transfer. This is going to sound absurd. Even now I find it difficult to believe. But when my wife Linda began calling the Department of Corrections about my transfer, they told her that a particular doctor had ordered my transfer. Linda called this doctor, got her on the phone. The doctor looked at my transfer order and said, “I didn’t sign that. I don’t know who signed that. Somebody used my signature stamp to sign that. I had no part in this transfer.”

Now, what’s going on, here? I’m being moved out of my permanent camp, which is close to my home and family, I’m being moved to the Siberia of the Florida corrections system, and they put me in solitary confinement once I got there. And nobody knows who authorized it? And the doctor the paperwork says ordered it says she never ordered it? So where do you go from there? What do you do?

reason: And to be clear, this was punitive solitary confinement. You weren’t isolated in a medical ward.

Paey: This place looked like a bomb shelter. Solid cement walls, no windows. You get in through a small hatch. I was pushed inside, and that became my home until Linda’s calls persuaded the doctor to come and see me in August. One of the doctors told me the heat index in there was 105. There’s no air conditioning. I’m in a cell where there’s no air movement. To survive, you strip down to your boxers. You use sink water to soak rags and put them on the back of your neck. They feed you through a slot in the door. There are no bars, like in the movies. It’s all solid, cement walls and doors. That’s where I stayed for two weeks until I started passing out. After that, they moved me to the hospital.
Most people simply don't wish to deal with this, and it does seem that the juggernaut moves on even if citizens try to get in the way. As I noted in yesterday's post, there really is a "ruling class" mentality out there, made even stronger by the fact that government employees -- such as Chris Arnt, Len Gregor, and "judge" Brian Outhouse -- have "captured" the apparatus of the system. They don't "represent" the state; they ARE the state, and the people who supposedly oversee them will bend over backwards to ensure that they can do what they want without any interference from the mundanes who are not part of "Official Georgia."

What is the perspective? Look at the figures below, and you will get a sense of what I mean. This country incarcerates more people than any other and it also incarcerates the highest percentage of its population.



To be honest, I believe we should be ashamed of what we are seeing. It is one thing to lock up violent offenders who actually committed the crimes for which they were convicted. However, it is quite another to throw more than a million non-violent offenders plus the outright innocent into prison, but that is what we are doing, and the powers that be have no intention of stopping -- or being stopped by citizens who might protest this barbarism.

Given the mentality that exists in U.S. government today (at all levels), I am not surprised at the official brutality, a brutality that exists no matter who occupies the White House or Congress or even the U.S. Supreme Court. No, this is what happens when men like Gregor, Arnt, and Outhouse are given power and no accountability. They are part of a larger disease, and it is one for which there seems to be no cure.

16 comments:

SSL123 said...

I agree with the above in its entirety. A very dear friend of mine was wrongfully convicted four years ago, and it is exactly as you describe above. Punishments by so-called "corrections officers" (what a joke THAT term is!) for the most idiotic reasons, such as talking to anyone in the press, horrendous conditions that NO human being should have to suffer, it is inexcusable.

The prison industrial complex has become a very powerful one, not to mention dangerous. False accusations are treated as "true" with no investigation of the accuser, and the accused is doomed unless he or she has an excellent attorney who is able and willing to take his or her job seriously. The only "solution," if one could call it that, is for each person to get as much knowledge of how to represent himself or herself in court, just in case the worst ever happens. It seems to me that falsely accused people are finding it increasingly difficult to get a strong and effective attorney to defend against these charges successfully. The false accusers know that all too well, and they know they will not be criminally punished for perjury even when they're caught on the stand lying under oath.

liberranter said...

They are part of a larger disease, and it is one for which there seems to be no cure.

Oh, there's a cure for it, alright, but it will never be applied in our lifetime. As long as sheeple remain the dominant segment of the population, creatures lacking in integrity, incapable of either critical thinking or self-defense, and worshipful of the very classes that oppress and enslave them, the monster will continue to terrorize us.

Any nation populated in the majority by thoughtful, informed, responsible, and FREE people would long ago have taken up arms against this self-appointed "ruling class" and ground them into the earth. America was once that very sort of nation. Amerika, its descendant, is nothing of the sort.

Anonymous said...

There are actually TWO problems that you describe. The first is the reason people are jailed. The second is the condition in which people are jailed. To the first reason, if you have ever said "there ought to be a law" you are part of the problem. We have become a nation obsessed with making every affront to our indignities a criminal offense. We want to right every wrong and the only seemingly "just" solution is jail. We also nurture the notion that unless you are for new laws then you must agree with what is being done. It is an insidious argument. For example, and to pick a very unpopular side, take animal abuse laws. Now, I am not FOR animal abuse. However, I am firmly against exalting animals over people. It doesn't make sense logically and it doesn't make sense economically. Every dollar spent on those activities means that some other agency is deprived of well needed funds. That lack of funding, as Dr. Anderson has argued quite eloquently, provides strong motivation to the likes of the CAC to obtain funding from whatever sources it can by whatever means it can. It makes us feel better that animal abusers are jailed, but at what cost? That's an extreme example, but trust me, horticulture (i.e., orchids) is just as big a deal to others as animal abuse is to some. There are laws about fish and fowl and just about everything under the sun that can be categorized as a victimless crime that just make criminals out of otherwise law abiding citizens. If we had lots of money, solving all the problems would be a great idea. But we don't. So a rational decision maker ought to be able to say, gee, I only have so much of the people's money. How best to PRIORITIZE its use. Bust chicken fights, or properly fund training for child abuse investigation and training? Hunt down hookers, or add a few more violent crime detectives? Bust recreational drug users and crowd the jails with stoners who just want cheetos or take on fraud and corruption?

Then there is the condition of the prisoner. First, as noted above, because the jails are filled to the brim with a lot of people who did nothing to no one, there is not room to punish real offenders. Jailers, who make next to minimum wage, DON'T CARE. They are probably there a) because they can't qualify for anything else (you'd be surprised who can get a gun nowadays) and b) just to get benefits. Because there is a lack of money, there is not proper training, proper security (to prevent beatings not prevent escapes), or adequate facilities.

It is a vicious cycle that is all connected. If you want more laws, you will have more criminals. But it doesn't matter how many people we turn into criminals on paper, there will only be so much money.

Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Now watch some idiot will think that I am for prostitution.

Doc Ellis said...

Greetings Dr Anderson,

I have linked this to my
BikerorNot blog line at http://www.bikerornot.com/docellis124
and I tweeted this to
Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/docellis124 , to
MySpace at http://www.myspace.com/docellis124, and to
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Thank you for writing this

Doc Ellis 124

Anonymous said...

On another note, I see that Fat Butt Dewayne Wilson qualified for his 15 seconds of fame yesterday when Channel 3 ran a story about the LFO band practicing in the heat. Shouldn't he and his equally corpulent soon-to-be ex-spouse, Rotunda, be plotting how they are going to extricate themselves from Tonya's lawsuit?

I have a world of respect for paramedics but, knowing this flesh mountain's history, I would not want him treating or touching me or mine. If you can stand to watch His Roundness talking, here is the URL.

http://www.wrcbtv.com/Global/story.asp?S=12886425

kbp said...

"Dewayne Wilson ...soon-to-be ex-spouse"

Is there something I had missed?

Kellie Graham said...

Why was Dewayne even there? He doesn't even ride (the ambulances) anymore, he hasn't for about 10 years.

Anonymous said...

Who is Rotunda? I thought Dewayne's
wife's name was Sherri.

Kellie Graham said...

It's Rotunda b'c she (and he) are very round :)

Trish said...

Bill I have read of cases like these, but my goodness, this is just insane! If they just spent half the time, energy, and money going after real criminals instead of cases like these, we wouldn't have over crowed prisons and maybe not so much abuse of innocent people.

It isn't just the prisons that are horrible either, local jails are just as bad.

Anonymous said...

We put prosecutors in a tight spot. Its easy to say this stuff in theory, but in practice, its difficult. If a prosecutor does his or her job and decides not to prosecute, they get skewered - by us, by the media, by the victims and their families - even if there is insufficient evidence. So what the heck, they try the case. Why bother with death threats or a ruined life? They just let a jury decide. Then the ire can at least be directed some place else.

This whole concept gets muddled when it converts from a very specific target (LMJC, CAC), with a very specific solution (reform), to a general target (the criminal justice system). In the Craft case, the enemies are known. There also is really not much to debate beside how much those people should pay to Tonya and how far the reform measures should go. When speaking of a general system as broad as the criminal justice system, it is much more difficult to find an enemy that also is not in the mirror.

Linda Lange said...

No, they don't let a jury decide, if they can help it. They plea bargain cases to keep out of court. They can't control juries, as much as they may try.

Your best defense in this country is to DEMAND a jury trial. Don't settle for anything less if you are not guilty. Period. Good luck finding an attorney, if you don't have deep pockets available - better read up on your own defense.

JD said...

The problem is you can demand a jury trial but some of the laws are not very well written and people can be caught in it without even knowing it. So you are found guilty and then the mandatory sentence sets in. There was something on Dateline or like that about a young man who got angry at an ex girlfriend's boyfriend and pushed in a door and hit him causing a few stitches. The prosecutor charged him with a crime that would give him 20 years by mandatory sentencing. No one in this small community thought this was right, even the ex girlfriend and her boyfriend. The prosecutor said he would lower the offense and he'd get 4 years, which was way too much for what he did and he went to bench trial and was found guilty, by the letter of the law. The judge wasn't happy when he had no choice but sentencing him to 20 years. Unfortunately, it's those prosecutors that get to be judges, unless we voice our disapproval.

Did Gov. Crist ever try to change the law so the situation with Mr. Paey can't happen again?

kbp said...

Anon 7:33,

The point you leave out is that the prosecutors have a job to serve ALL of the public, in a search for the truth.

Screw those in a “tight spot”. If they can’t take the heat doing what they are supposed to do, they can just get out of the kitchen.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this story brought me to tears. Yet another travesty. Useless, worthless people abusing a man who was simply making a very small living with what he could with his disabilities. My heart goes out to him & bravo to his wife for taking the extra steps to prove the injustice he received.

As a victim of 2 violent crimes & an aunt who was viciously murdered (by my uncle), some people do not understand my very strong feelings towards malicious prosecutions. I am a firm believer in innocent until proven guilty & something I find most vile is rogue prosecutors & police. Most people believe I should feel the opposite & say, "hey, if someone says they did something, then they did it". I don't, nor will I ever. I call those feelings "Nancy Grace syndrome". She & Wendy Murphy should be put on an island & muted.

Our prisons are meant for true criminals, not for petty things. It reminds me of an episode I saw on "Cops" the other night. We sometimes watch it for the entertainment value of both the ridiculous actions of the criminals & the cops. They set up a sting operation, which involved 5 plus undercover officers ($$$) all to bust a sale of 40, 5 mg Percocets. They came out with guns blazing, screaming, yelling, taking people to the ground..... It was one of the most ludicrous things I've ever seen! My husband & I were laughing, but at the same time were dismayed. I can't imagine the amount of money spent on this "sting", all for a couple of low-level "drug" dealers. Not selling cocaine, heroine....but pills. Yes, I know that selling prescription drugs is illegal & wrong, but seriously, was all the drama necessary? Was all the money spent necessary? I don't think so. If our justice system spent their time, money & energy on real, violent criminals, our country would be a better place. Instead, we get road blocks (which yield less than stellar amounts of "dui's" or any other crime), speed traps & drug/ prostitution stings.

anon July 29, 2010 7:32 AM, I totally get where you're coming from. It is truly frustrating what OUR money is wasted on.

kbp, could not agree with you more. I do not feel sorry regarding "tight spots" for people who chose their jobs. They should be held to a higher standard as they chose to "serve" the public. My feel sorry meter for prosecutors is below zero. They have every opportunity to get it right, but more & more you hear about them not only getting it wrong, but purposefully & maliciously doing wrong. It is truly sickening.

Anonymous said...

Your should extend the chart to the right so it can really illustrate how much bigger 748 or 600 is than 250.

--LAVA--