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Recidivist Chutes and Ladders: The Russell Burton Record

The children’s board game, Chutes and Ladders, offers a clearer template for understanding our criminal justice system than a hundred studies put forth by academicians and think tanks.  Here is one example:

Russell Burton, who has been called a “Ted Bundy in the making,” was born in 1967.  According to the Los Angeles Daily News, when Burton was 17, he was arrested in Lancaster, California and charged with “breaking into a woman’s apartment and fondling her in bed.”  “Fondling” is a troubling term here: you fondle your child, or a puppy.  When you break into a woman’s house and try to rape her, that isn’t “fondling.” (“81 Years for Sexual Predator,” L.A. Daily News, 4/27/05, fee for link)

LADDERS:  But apparently, the judge felt otherwise.  A Los Angeles Juvenile Court Judge allowed Burton to avoid prosecution for B & E and attempted rape — by joining the Army.  The Army accepted him, and he was stationed in Georgia.  Thus, in 1984, nearly ten years after the first hard-won battle for rape law reform, the sentence for breaking into a woman’s house and attempting to rape her could still be no sentence at all.

Columbus, Georgia has paid a high price in violent sex crimes.  Several serial offenders have cut a bloody path through that town —  and the Army did precious little to stop at least two of them.

On September 3, 1987, Burton pulled alongside a car being driven by three teenage girls in Columbus, Georgia, near Fort Benning, where he was stationed.  He got the girls to pull over by indicating that something was wrong with their car, pointed a gun at them, and forced them to drive to a remote area.  He raped one girl and orally sodomized the other two.

Benning was 19 years old when he committed this crime.  The sophistication of the attack and the high risk involved — multiple victims, gun use, confrontation in a public place, abduction from one location to another — indicates that he was already an experienced, violent rapist.

CHUTES: In 1988, Burton was sentenced to life for the rape, 20 years for the kidnapping, and 20 years for the sodomy.  He entered prison in Georgia with a life sentence.  There was no sentence of life without parole in Georgia at that time.

Astonishingly, life without parole only became an option in Georgia a few week ago, during the 2009 Georgia General Assembly (previously, a prosecutor had to try for the death penalty to qualify a case for life without parole).  Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, when Democrats controlled the Georgia legislature, defense attorneys controlled the judiciary committees.  Credit where credit is due: such sentencing reform only became a reality in Georgia when Republicans took over both chambers.

LADDERS:  In any case, Burton didn’t have to wait for any parole board to cut him loose: the United States Court of Appeal for the 11th Circuit did that in February, 2002, fourteen years after he was sent away for life.  The Court granted Burton a new trial on the grounds that the district attorney “inappropriately” mentioned that Burton had exercised his right to remain silent when he was arrested.  Now, I know that constitutional attorneys would argue that mentioning Burton’s demeanor upon arrest is horribly prejudicial and tramples all over his rights.  But this blog isn’t a courtroom, so facts can be stated in plain English here: a violent sexual predator was released from prison because a prosecutor told the truth about what the violent sexual predator did when he was arrested, instead of not telling the truth about it, in a court rigged to let criminals off for virtually anything, instead of designed to discover the actual truth of a case.

Rigged like the fairway games at a sleazy carnival.

Or a dice throw in a children’s board game.  Such is our appeals process.

MORE LADDERS:  Burton was released from prison pending a new trial.  Then somebody decided that it wasn’t worth spending the money to try him again — thus deciding that the safety of women is less valuable than other things we could be spending money on, like appeals for violent rapists like Burton.*  In 2003, he was permitted to plead guilty to one count of rape and three counts of kidnapping in exchange for time served.

MORE CHUTES:  It turned out to be a good thing that Burton was required to plead to a sex offense.  Rapists used to be routinely permitted to plead down to non-sexual offenses.  That is why a high percentage of the first several thousand rapists identified through DNA matches had prior records only for crimes such as substance abuse and burglary, two common pleas that allowed predators to move from place to place and continue committing sex crimes with impunity.

Burton moved back to California and was required to register as a sex offender, which turned out to be one of the many, many thousands of good things that arise from sex offender registries — things you will never read about in any newspaper, of course.  Newspapers depict registering sex offenders as terribly cruel and ineffectual.

Anyway, after the good judges of the 11th Circuit threw Burton’s life sentence out on a technicality, and after the State of Georgia declined to try him again, it took him less than a year to go on a violent, crazed hunting spree against women.  It may have taken even less time, for there are no guarantees that Burton didn’t attack women in Columbus, or elsewhere in Georgia, or Alabama while he was awaiting the re-trial that never happened.

What is certain is that in 2004, freshly arrived from Georgia, he stalked and tried to abduct a woman in a parking lot in Palmdale, California.  The woman escaped.  He then attacked a teenager with a knife, trying to drag her into his car.  She escaped, and he was arrested.  After his arrest, three young girls came forward and reported the following crime:

The girls said a man approached them at the store saying he had car trouble and needed a ride, Lankford said. When he climbed into their car, he threatened one girl with a screwdriver and forced the sisters to take him to another town and back. He then forced one sister to drive his car while he rode with the other two. At a second parking lot the sister driving his car jumped out, and the man ran to his car and sped away. (“Felon Chargd in New Crimes,” Columbus Ledger-Inquirer, 3/2/04, fee for link)

These are the types of crimes that end with children’s bodies melting in the desert.  Luckily, those five victims escaped, but who didn’t?

By 2004, Burton was a fluent advocate for his own rights.  Upon arrest, he said to the police, “I’m a child molester, I want my phone call, and I want my attorney.” (ibid.)  Here is where the sex offender registry comes in: had he not been listed as a sex offender, he certainly would not have mentioned his prior convictions, and he might have been let free to await trial before the three young girls had time to see him in the newspaper or the judge learned of his record in Georgia.  Such things happen all the time, as readers of this blog know.

So the sex offender registry law may have saved lives in California that week.  The next time you read a news story condemning registries, remember Russell Burton.

CHUTES: In 2004, Burton was tried in Los Angeles Superior Court and found guilty of stalking, attempted kidnapping, making terroristic threats, and possession of cocaine.  His sentence for these crimes illustrate the effectiveness of California’s “three-strikes and you’re out” laws:

Burton’s sentence consisted of three terms of 25 years to life plus a one-year weapons enhancement and a five-year prior-serious-felony enhancement. (“Rapist’s Sentence Cut by 25 Years,” Los Angeles Daily News, 10/30/06, fee for link)

A dozen years earlier, prior to sentencing reform, Burton would likely not have received such a long sentence for these crimes, even though he has proven that he poses a serious threat.  And without the “three-strikes” rule, any sentence he did receive would have been slashed automatically the moment he set foot in prison.

LADDERS and CHUTES:  Burton immediately set to appealing his new convictions.  Why not?  In 2006, an appeals court agreed to throw out one of his 25-year sentences, the one for stalking, on the grounds that following a woman from one shopping mall to another did not rise to the level of stalking (the more people learn about the substance of most appeals, the better).  But in addition to doing this, the 2nd District Court of Appeals of California also rejected Burton’s claim that the three-strikes law constituted cruel and unusual punishment because so much time (14 years, to be precise) had elapsed between his crimes.  Here is what the court had to say, as reported in the Los Angeles Post:

“His prior strikes were for serious, violent offenses. So were two of the three convictions for which he was originally sentenced here, presently including the attempted kidnapping of a young woman, using a knife,” the ruling said.

“The interim between the two sets of offenses was consumed mostly by imprisonment, which did not restrain appellant from recommencing the same type of crime upon release. Given appellant’s unbroken history of violent crime, we cannot find this case to be one of the admittedly rare ones in which the recidivist sentence is unconstitutional,” the appeals court said.

CHUTES, CHUTES, CHUTES.  It looks as if Burton has finally lost in his bid to be free, thanks to the public outrage over repeat offenders that inspired changes in state laws and sentencing policies.  We won the game, this time.

But none of these laws are carved in stone, and many voices, including highers-up in the new Justice Department administration, are clamoring to roll back sentencing guidelines, overturn three-strikes laws, and eliminate sex offender registries.  The federal Adam Walsh law, requiring states to participate in a national registration system, is officially in limbo, short-circuiting the next stage of information-sharing between the states.  We’re at an information impasse in other ways, too: if any private industry in America had an IT network resembling that used by most courts, they would cease to exist.

The price of incarceration is eternal vigilance, too.

*Re-trying Burton doubtlessly would have been difficult, especially for the victims.  And it is always a risk to involve jurors in rape cases, for prejudices against rape victims persist and in many ways have grown stronger.  Too many people feel it is their duty to root for convicts as under-dogs, and they stupidly romanticize anyone appealing a case — until it’s their own daughter or mother who gets raped.  But difficulties like this are also used as an excuse to do nothing at all to restrain violent offenders in the interest of saving money in an overwhelmed and under-staffed court system.  This should have been a case where all stops were pulled out to keep Burton in prison.

Recidivism Roulette

I am traveling to Atlanta this week, so I will stick to a subject that comes painfully easy: recidivism.

Research confirms what common sense has been telling us all along: fewer than 10% of offenders commit 70% of all crimes. Some career criminals admit to hundreds, even thousands of felonies. This should not surprise us: does anybody really believe that people go out and rob one convenience store, or break into one house, then spend the rest of their time mowing their lawns and working nine-to-five?

The fact that there are super-predators out there doesn’t mean that the garden-variety burglar can’t be pretty prolific, too. Many criminologists make it their business to deny both types of recidivism (the big kind and the little kind).  They do this in order to promote a philosophy of crime control that can be summarized this way: “prisons cause crime, not criminals, so if you don’t put people in prison, they won’t become recidivists.”  Which is true, at least on paper, for if you don’t put people in prison when they break into one house, they won’t be counted as recidivists when they break into the next house.

Even a passing glance at academic studies comparing recidivism rates reveal substantial flaws: usually, ex-inmates are tracked for very brief time periods after incarceration, and only certain types of incarceration are counted as repeat offenses.  With the prevalence of plea bargaining, the vast majority of crimes simply get shelved, never to appear on anyone’s record. And with the sealing of juvenile records, crimes committed during some of the most prolific years for criminal behavior are intentionally excluded from recidivism statistics. Academic claims about recidivism are almost universally meaningless.  (Here is an interesting article on the subject as it plays out in Canada.)

***

In Atlanta this week, a particularly horrifying case of violent recidivism is making its slow way to a courtroom. In 2006, Jennifer Ewing was raped and murdered while exercising on the Silver Comet Trail. Michael Ledford, on probation for a previous rape, is charged with the crime: the evidence against him is indisputable.

Defense attorneys don’t like the term “indisputable” unless they can work it to their advantage, which they do by claiming that the mere existence of indisputable evidence means that their client cannot get a fair trial — because “fair” has come to mean “endless tugs at the get-out-of-jail-free card.”  Thus expect a grotesquely expensive jury selection process, then grotesquely expensive hearings disputing Michael Ledford’s mental incompetency, and, throughout, demands for a mistrial because the public happened to find out that Ledford was caught for Ewing’s murder covered in blood, and he has done this before.

How many women has Michael Ledford really raped?  Convicted of rape in Georgia in 1991, he received a heavy sentence for a rape at that time and also served more of that sentence than you usually see, ten full years in prison and ten more on probation.  Ten years behind bars is not unusual today, but few rapists spent that much time in prison prior to the sentencing reform of the mid-1990’s.  So what was the reason for throwing the book at him back then?

I suspect he was a prolific rapist, and police knew it, even though he was only charged with the one crime.  Ledford was 29 when he was sent up for rape; rapists usually start committing sex crimes in their teens.  What was he doing between the ages of 19 and 29?  Who knew about it?  The victim in the 1991 assault told the court that Ledford would doubtlessly rape again.

She was right.  Another question: what was Ledford doing between his release in 2001 and his arrest for Jennifer Ewing’s murder in 2006?  Mowing his lawn?  Working nine-to-five?

The public is being asked to absorb the sure-to-be-excessive legal bill as Ledford’s lawyers attempt to use the strength of the evidence against him to get him off.  The public is also being asked to accept arguments that recidivists belong in the community, not behind bars.  They should not accede to either without receiving full disclosure about many things, including the real criminal histories of people like Michael Ledford: juvenile records, plea bargains, shelved cases, and all.

A Recommendation on Acknowledging Recidivism From Tennessee

More interesting crime coverage from The Tennessean, this time an editorial detailing the legislative proposals of the Tennessee Public Safety Commission, a coalition of police chiefs, sheriffs and district attorneys.  Every state should take note of one of the get-tough-on-recidivists recommendations they’re making:

[Another] proposal of the group is for requiring each home burglary committed in a 24-hour period to count as separate cases. They would be considered separate previous convictions. Prosecutors say many burglars are aware that hitting several homes in one 24-hour period is considered only one case. That should change.

It’s not just burglaries committed within twenty-four hours of each other that get telescoped down to one charge.  Look at recidivists’ rap sheets.  One of the great injustices perpetrated by our justice system is the near-automatic dismissal of multiple crimes whenever a defendant gets charged with one offense.  Break into five homes, get caught, get charged and sentenced on one burglary count.  The other four burglaries are quietly shelved.  And if the defendant is a first offender, he may get away with all five charges.

The same is even true of violent crime.  By choosing expediency over actually responding to crimes, the criminal justice system is essentially saying to victims: your victimization doesn’t count.  The person next to you; his victimization counts.  The person on the other side: he is being ignored by the justice system, just like you.  

There is no equal protection for crime victims.  

This is the way it has been for so long that people who work within the criminal justice system would probably find the mere notion of demanding prosecution for every felony utterly risible.  Not to mention impossible, since the courts have been calibrated (read: defunded, or starved) to have resources only to respond to a fraction of the crimes that are committed.  

But why, precisely, should it be this way?  Why, philosophically, shouldn’t non-criminals — law abiding citizens — have the same rights and access to equal protection as people who commit crimes?  Why shouldn’t your burglary count in the same way as your neighbor’s burglary?  

The short answer, cavalierly thrown out by pro-criminal advocates, is that the justice system would “grind to a halt” if all felonies were prosecuted.  Note that these are the same people who simultaneously say that our justice system is “far to harsh on defendants,” and that “it is a great injustice that America has so many people behind bars,” as if this is just something that happens spontaneously, with no relation to the fact that America has so many people who commit serious crimes.

Appeals courts are clogged with complaints by convicts that they have been treated unfairly, compared to other convicts.  And every single one of those cases, however frivolous, must be addressed, a process that costs taxpayers vast amounts of money.   Imagine if non-convicts had the right to do the same.  

Perhaps somebody in the Georgia General Assembly should look into emulating the Tennessee Public Safety Commission’s proposed recidivism legislation.  If it had been on the books in Georgia (and properly enforced), it would have saved lives.

The Tiny Burglar, Shamal Thompson, and Johnny Dennard: Recidivism and Sentencing in Georgia

Atlanta is designed to be a neighborly city — so neighborly, in fact, with its vast downtown neighborhoods of suburban-style houses with yards, that it is entirely possible to get to know the criminals who cycle through the court system and end up in your driveway over and over again, rifling for change in your car. For years, I watched one such person wander the streets of my neighborhood, and I chased her away from my own car more than once — the worry wasn’t losing pocket change from the console but having to replace a broken window or jammed door lock, which can run to hundreds of dollars.  

She acted like a stray dog, and so I came to treat her like one, shouting at her out my window to get off my lawn. Of course I pitied her.  She was small, wizened and jerky from dyskinesia, and I knew the streets and her addiction must be hard on her.  She dressed to look like a male — less as a statement of sexual identity than as an effort to protect herself from sexual attack, I suspect.  Homeless women and women in the criminal “lifestyle” are very vulnerable to rape.  

I believe she spent as much time as possible casing my neighborhood, instead of choosing the dangerous housing projects south of us, or the more affluent homes north of us, because there were people around who could be robbed while feeling obliged to protect her from violence: we were the “just right” neighborhood for committing crimes — not too hot, not too cold.  On a few occasions, I gave her food while scolding her about coming onto my yard: I am not as heartless as the activists posting here from “Changing Lives Through Literature” seem to believe.    

Why didn’t I call the police on her?  I did, more than once.  But after the first few times, I stopped calling them when I saw this woman up on my neighbors’ lawns or on my lawn, peering into cars and houses.  It’s not that the police didn’t respond.  But by the time they arrived, the woman would be gone, or trotting down the street hollering that she didn’t do anything, and the police would say they couldn’t do anything without evidence of the crime I had just interrupted. Trespassing was my word against her word: nothing would come of it, they would say.  I stopped demanding police reports.  Most of the cops were incredibly gracious, but they were spread thin and operating under leadership that prevented them from doing their jobs.  What is the point of arresting and processing a tiny little drug addict scrounging for pocket change, when she will simply be given a place to sleep for the night, then released in a day or a few days by a judge who is either exclusively sympathetic to criminals by temperament or forced to act so because there is pressure from above to spend as little as possible on “non-violent” crimes?  

For the police, every such arrest meant hours of processing paperwork and many more hours in court.  So there was a policy — written or unwritten, I don’t know — to “encourage” callers to agree to do nothing unless or until property damage occurred or a situation escalated to violence.  This policy was roundly abetted by Atlanta’s atrocious 911 operators.  I rarely met a cop who was anything less than professional, but the 911 operators behaved as if you were interrupting their manicure.  Or worse.

Of course, dumbing down the justice system like this is a dangerous game, and, of course, it ended in tears. The day came when I looked out my window and saw the wizened little drug addict using a rock to break my neighbor’s back window.  Exasperated, I grabbed my portable phone and ran out my front door to call the police.  I hadn’t seen the Corvette parked in my neighbor’s driveway, or the two men sitting in it.  By the time I did, I was standing outside with a phone in my hand, yelling at the woman to stop breaking glass.  One of the men came out of the car fast, and started running at me.  He wasn’t small, and he wasn’t defenseless.  

But I was lucky.  I had a dog, a pleasant-though-ominous-looking Weimerainer.  The Weimerainer hadn’t moved from his bed much in years; he was deep in his dotage and completely blind, but he somehow sensed through several walls that I was in danger and tore out of the house towards the man, who wisely retreated to his car.  The dog wandered off to relieve himself, but the men didn’t risk getting out of the car again, and I was even able to make note of their license plate number as they collected the tiny burglar and drove away.

There is a lot more to this story, and I will get to the rest of it another day, but right now I want to stick to that moment in my front yard.  I had been lulled, not entirely voluntarily, into dealing with the tiny burglar as a nuisance, not a threat.  The police treated her that way (also not entirely voluntarily), and the courts treated her that way, and surely the good people at “Changing Lives Through Literature” would look at her and see nothing more than a victim of bad luck who needed empathy, not incarceration.  But, in reality, I didn’t know what the tiny burglar was thinking when she skittered off my front yard or accepted a handout.  She could have been thinking about slitting my throat as she took food from my hand.  She wasn’t just some tragic, dyskinesiatic moppet: she was also a career criminal who got up every morning and began trying (albeit very badly) to commit crimes, and she probably attempted or committed thousands of crimes over the decade-and-a half I saw her walking the streets.     

Then finally, one day, she brought dangerous men to my neighbor’s house, and if they had been armed, I could have been murdered in my own front yard, phone in hand, bleeding to death as a bored 911 operator put me on hold to examine a chip in one of her acrylic nails.

***

Below is the Georgia Code on recidivists and sentencing.  I would be grateful to hear from a legal practitioner who can paraphrase it, for, as I read it, the code grants judges enormous latitude in sentencing second offenders — essentially permitting them to do as they please.  Even after three prior felonies, it only suspends the possibility of parole for the fourth felony while still allowing the judge to define that sentence. There may be other sentencing guidelines that enter here.  The recidivism law does require life without parole for conviction for a second “serious violent felony” (this means murder or felony murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, and aggravated sexual battery).  But what about repeat offenders like the tiny burglar?  How often has she been arrested, processed, then released back on the streets by a judge who decided that her crime wasn’t worth the court’s time?  And at what point does a judge’s decision to table a prosecution conflict with enforcement of the recidivism law?

These are the types of questions that never seem to be addressed, even in the aftermath of an horrific, preventable crime like the murder of Eugenia Calle.  In that case, it appears that one Fulton County judge failed to so much as check Shamal Thompson’s record in other jurisdictions before wrongfully granting him a first offender status for which he did not qualify.  There is still no public word on possible censure for Judge Cynthia Becker.  Why on earth not?  Doesn’t the public deserve some answers?  Is it common to fail to check for prior convictions in other jurisdictions before sentencing offenders?  Does this happen every day?  Is the judiciary simply hoping that this question will go away?  

Are judges not abiding by the law?

And what about  Johnny Dennard, who had at least five burglary convictions when he was convicted for burglary a sixth time and was released to an “outpatient treatment center” rather than being sent to serve the (apparently mandatory) minimum five years for the crime?  Is the prosecutor appealing the sentence?  If not, why not?       

UPDATE FROM PAUL KERSEY, ATL:

“I want to let you know about the latest news I heard concerning the Shamal Thompson case. Last week a local TV station aired a story that included an interview with the DeKalb District Attorney Gwen Keyes Fleming. When asked why Thompson was allowed to receive first-offender status for his burglary charge in 2006, Fleming said it was because his conviction in Gwinnett County had not been properly entered into the computer system used to keep track of such things. Of course that still doesn’t let DeKalb off the hook, as I imagine there are other ways to check for such information. And it certainly does not let Judge Becker off the hook. Gwinnett confirmed the person who was supposed to enter Thompson’s conviction was aware there was a problem when they attempted to enter the information, but apparently it was never corrected.”

***

Georgia Code § 17-10-7.  Punishment of repeat offenders; punishment and eligibility for parole of persons convicted of fourth felony offense
   (a) Except as otherwise provided in subsection (b) of this Code section, any person convicted of a felony offense in this state or having been convicted under the laws of any other state or of the United States of a crime which if committed within this state would be a felony and sentenced to confinement in a penal institution, who shall afterwards commit a felony punishable by confinement in a penal institution, shall be sentenced to undergo the longest period of time prescribed for the punishment of the subsequent offense of which he or she stands convicted, provided that, unless otherwise provided by law, the trial judge may, in his or her discretion, probate or suspend the maximum sentence prescribed for the offense.   (b)(1) As used in this subsection, the term “serious violent felony” means a serious violent felony as defined in subsection (a) of Code Section 17-10-6.1.

   (2) Any person who has been convicted of a serious violent felony in this state or who has been convicted under the laws of any other state or of the United States of a crime which if committed in this state would be a serious violent felony and who after such first conviction subsequently commits and is convicted of a serious violent felony for which such person is not sentenced to death shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life without parole. Any such sentence of life without parole shall not be suspended, stayed, probated, deferred, or withheld, and any such person sentenced pursuant to this paragraph shall not be eligible for any form of pardon, parole, or early release administered by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles or for any earned time, early release, work release, leave, or any other sentence-reducing measures under programs administered by the Department of Corrections, the effect of which would be to reduce the sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole, except as may be authorized by any existing or future provisions of the Constitution.

(c) Except as otherwise provided in subsection (b) of this Code section, any person who, after having been convicted under the laws of this state for three felonies or having been convicted under the laws of any other state or of the United States of three crimes which if committed within this state would be felonies, commits a felony within this state other than a capital felony must, upon conviction for such fourth offense or for subsequent offenses, serve the maximum time provided in the sentence of the judge based upon such conviction and shall not be eligible for parole until the maximum sentence has been served.

(d) For the purpose of this Code section, conviction of two or more crimes charged on separate counts of one indictment or accusation, or in two or more indictments or accusations consolidated for trial, shall be deemed to be only one conviction.                                

 

Burglary is Not a Non-Violent Crime, #2: A Lesson on DNA and Recidivism

In today’s St. Petersburg Times, on a double murder in Masaryktown, Florida:

The feet belonged to Patrick DePalma Sr., 84. He lay on his stomach, head and torso halfway into the den, a mess of blood by his head. He wore a blue sweat suit; his slippers were astray nearby.

Evelyn DePalma, 79, sat on the floor, upright against a twin bed and the wall of the southeast bedroom. She wore a red sweat suit and a pair of slippers. Blood stained her clothes, the bed, the wall, the door, the carpet and a pair of wooden shoes next to her.

They had been stabbed to death with a long-bladed knife.

The house was ravaged, as if someone had been looking for something. His blood appeared on a shower curtain; hers on the pantry — both far from where they eventually died.

Deputies retraced their steps and left. Yellow crime scene tape wrapped the house for two weeks.

The brutal murder of Evelyn and Patrick DePalma occurred in October, 2006, and the case went cold.  15 months later, Robert William Jardin was arrested on an unrelated burglary charge.  Luckily, he was found guilty, and found guilty in Florida, where all convicted felons, even those who receive probation for their crimes, are required to submit DNA samples to the state. 

Jardin was sentenced to probation and was forced to submit a DNA sample.  Six months later, in June 2008, his DNA was finally processed into the state database, and he was matched to the brutal double murder of the DePalmas.

What would have happened if the judge had decided to waive charges in the burglary case because it was “just a burglary,” or had let him plead down to a misdemeanor crime, or deferred prosecution entirely and allowed Jardin to enter a community-based treatment program instead?  

  •  Innocent people would remain under suspicion for the murder of the DePalmas.
  • A brutal murderer would still be walking the streets.
  • The DaPalma family would still be denied justice, and a double murder would go unsolved.

Florida has a very good DNA database collection law, which you can see here.  But the law can only be enforced after judges take the step of finding suspects guilty of certain crimes.  

Georgia’s DNA database law was expanded in 2007 to include certain felony probationers, including burglars.  So a Robert William Jardin would have been subjected to DNA testing — right under the wire — in Georgia as well.

The 2007 revision of Georgia’s DNA law is one of the many innovations in DNA databasing that has Georgia and Florida ahead of most states, innovations that date back in Georgia to the tenure of then-Lt. Governor Mark Taylor, who championed the database for solving sex crimes against children and adults.  If Robert William Jardin had committed burglary and been sentenced to probation in most states, he would not have been required to provide a DNA sample, and the DaPalma’s murder would still be unsolved.  

But the law is only as good as the judges who sentence defendants.  

Here are the legislators who passed Georgia H.B. 314, the 2007 expansion of Georgia’s DNA database law. House members Jay Neal, David Ralston, Burke Day, Mike Coan, Barry Fleming, and Billy Mitchell.  And Senator Jeff Mullis.

Last August, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced that Georgia had reached the milestone of recording 1,000 “hits” on the database for unsolved crimes.  Their press release contains interesting information about the relationship between burglary convictions and unsolved rapes, highlighted below.  

GBI’s DNA Database Reaches 1000 Confirmed Hits

DECATUR –   The DNA Database at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) crime lab or CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) today reached 1000 hits to unsolved cases with the matching of DNA from an incarcerated state prisoner to DNA evidence from a 1987 rape of an 84-year-old Atlanta woman.  The offender is currently serving a life sentence at Hancock State Prison for the rapes of two elderly women in Atlanta.  At the request of the Atlanta Police Department, the GBI located the original biological evidence from the 1987 case and processed it for DNA for entering in the database.

GBI Director Vernon Keenan stated, “The 1000 hits on unsolved cases shows the value of DNA for Georgia law enforcement and for the public safety of all Georgia citizens by helping solve violent crimes that otherwise may have gone unsolved. We are grateful for the past support of the Georgia General Assembly in recognizing the importance of DNA in solving crimes.”

The GBI began DNA testing in 1991 and implemented CODIS in 1998.  At that time under state law, only those convicted and incarcerated for sex offenses were included in the database. For the next two years, the database solved 13 rapes and other sexual crimes by linking evidence to an incarcerated sex offender.  The current success of the program stemmed from the expansion of the offender law by the Georgia legislature in 2000 to include all incarcerated convicted felons. In the first year after expansion over 70 cases were solved. The majority of DNA hits since 2000 have been for rape cases but the primary crimes these offenders were incarcerated for are drug, burglary or robbery related.

In 2007, the legislature expanded the DNA database statute to include certain felony probationers.  There have been 12 DNA hits to probationers.

Currently, the GBI DNA database contains 162,390 samples. Of that total, 155,184 are offender samples and 7,206 are forensic or evidence samples. 

# # # # #

“The majority of DNA hits since 2000 have been for rape cases but the primary crimes these offenders were incarcerated for are drug, burglary or robbery related.”

For many decades, difficulties in prosecuting rape cases encouraged prosecutors to offer burglary pleas in some cases where the primary crime was actually rape.  Once DNA databasing was implemented and expanded to include burglars, robbers, and other felons, a startling number of men whose only prior records were for drug or burglary charges turned out to be rapists — including prolific, serial rapists.  Any time somebody chooses to break into a private residence, they have crossed a dangerous line.  When will the courts respond accordingly?

 

 

Should Judges Assign More Community Therapy For Recidivists?

LAST MAY, the wired world was treated to an unpleasant, yet hardly unique, slice of Atlanta’s public transportation system via “MARTA GIRL,” a video that showed a deranged young woman berating and threatening an elderly train rider.  The older woman dealt with the barrage of threats by doing what any sane consumer of public transportation knows to do instinctively: stare straight ahead and pretend that some screeching lunatic or addict isn’t threatening to harm you.

Awful things were made visible on the video.  In a train filled with physically able passengers, nobody stepped forward to shield an elderly woman from an aggressive assailant who was inches from her face, screaming that she was going to “beat [the elderly woman’s] ass.” 

Men who could have contained the young woman (“N.Z.”) did nothing.  The person who videotaped the assault did something, I suppose, by recording and posting the video.  But how do you justify taping an incident like this instead of trying to stop it?

Were these people afraid to intervene, lest the situation escalate?  Dressed as she was, if N.Z. had a concealed weapon, it was concealed creatively.  But instead of stepping in, a few men merely called out from their seats, telling the girl to calm down.  “Chill, it’s an old lady, man,” said one lackadaisical observer.

N.Z. continued down the train’s aisle and lashed out at another passenger.  He rose up and grabbed her by her hair, and a short slapping match ensued.  Now there was physical violence in addition to the assault on the elderly woman: two crimes.  Yet nobody made a move to call the police.  Even after they exited the train, it appears that none of the witnesses contacted authorities.  N.Z. was arrested and charged with a crime only after the video was circulated on-line. 

Were these people afraid to report N.Z. because they anticipated sharing a future train with her?  Were they even afraid of drawing attention to themselves by calling police from the station?  Did they expect (reasonably) that their complaints would be dismissed?  (And were they?)  Or did this incident simply seem ordinary and not worthy of action?  

Whichever is true, such are the terms of the new, negative social contract: I will ignore your abuse of someone else if you do not abuse me next.  The man who reared up from his seat and grabbed N.Z.’s hair only after she started lunging at him may be seen as merely exercising the soft terms of this contract.

BUT AFTER SHE WAS ARRESTED, of course, the N.Z. story became a story about something else: this time, the controversy over releasing mentally ill and drug-addicted defendants to “community treatment” centers instead of incarcerating them.

Like so many defendants — drug-addicted, mentally ill, youthful or not — N.Z.’s needs and problems became the sole focus of the judiciary as soon as she set foot in court.

As reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, N.Z. was already on probation for a previous attack on a transit officer when she attacked the elderly train rider.  According to the solicitor in her most recent case, N.Z. had “a lengthy criminal history of violent outbursts” and “never showed up for the mental health diversion program in another case.”   

She had faced no consequences for failing to perform the requirements of probation in the officer’s assault – seeing a probation officer and performing community service.  Even though she further violated the requirements of probation by committing another assault (or two), DeKalb County State Court Judge Barbara Mobley chose to halt the criminal case against N.Z. and refer her to a “pretrial diversion program for mentally ill people” instead of allowing the state to prosecute her.

By “dead-docketing” N.Z.’s prosecution, Judge Mobley told the public that their safety simply did not matter – because N.Z. has a mental illness.  In other courtrooms, other judges are delivering the same message to other communities: “your home being broken into doesn’t matter because the defendant has a drug addiction,” or, “your car being stolen doesn’t matter because the defendant is a youthful offender.”  

N.Z. seemed aware of this double standard, if little else, as she stood hollering on the train.  Out of all the people there, only N.Z. felt comfortable asserting her rights to legal protection.  On the video, you can hear her shrieking it:

“I’m pressing charges.  I’m pressing charges.  I’m pressing charges.” 

 

 

 

Getting Away with Crime, Circa 1970

(I will get to “Recommendations for the Courts” later in the week.)

Events are moving quickly for activists in Atlanta, a place where a weird confluence of crime, organizing against crime, and Internet connections have torn away the media curtain that ordinarily hangs between the public and public individuals’ experiences of crime and the courts — revealing the abject failure of those courts and our top elected officials to act on public safety.

At this odd moment, I want to offer a little historical perspective on the phenomenon of getting away with crime.

In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson responded to exploding crime rates in America’s cities by founding the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Crime.  Like many efforts of its time, the Commission was heavy on seeking psycho-social “root causes” for criminality.  Howard Zinn weighed in on how the “Pigs” should be in prison and the prisoners should roam the streets.  And so on.

But those were more civilized days among the elite, which of course included Howard Zinn, his demurral notwithstanding.  So the Commission’s report to the President offered a wide range of ideological views on the subject of crime, something that rarely happens in academic conferences today.

Milton S. Eisenhower was one of those old guys whose yellowing Brillo creamed black-and-white visages still stare out at us from office lobbies everywhere.  He was, in two words, widely respected.  He was the head of Johnson’s crime Commission, and the former President of Johns Hopkins University, and a member of UNESCO, and lots of other things.  Here is what Milton S. Eisenhower said to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Crime in 1970:

We live in an urban society.  We live in an affluent society.  And we live in a society that is violent.  In the convergence of those three characteristics lies a central problem for America in the 1970’s.

The best estimate of the number of serious crimes committed in the United States each year is 10 million, of which more than 1.2 Million are violent crimes: homicides, aggravated assaults, forcible rapes, and robberies.  According to another estimate, more than 1 out of 100 Americans commits a major violent crime in any one year.

There remains one very obvious reason for mounting crime in our society: the increasing failure of law enforcement agencies to cope with it.  Comsider the grim statistics.  Probably 10 million serious crimes were committed in the United States last year.  About half of those crimes were never reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Only 12 percent of those 10 million crimes resulted in the arrest of anyone.  Only 6 percent resulted in the conviction of anyone, and this 6 percent included many pleas to lesser offenses.  Only 1 1/2 percent resulted in the incarceration of anyone.  And of those who were incarcerated, most will return to prison another time for additional offenses.  As Lloyd Cutler, eminent lawyer and executive director of the Violence Commission, remarked on these statistics: ‘It would hard to argue that crime does not pay.  The sad fact is that our criminal justice system, as presently operated, does not deter, does not detect, does not convict, and does not correct.’

Violence: The Crisis of American Confidence, ed. Hugh Davis Graham (Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1971)

In 1970, our nation’s best minds across the political spectrum agreed that fewer than 2% of those who commit a serious crime even served time for it.  That was forty years ago, and it hasn’t changed much.