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Here in Nashville, the state legislature held hearings this week on "policing for profit," the catchy name the libertarian public interest law firm the Institute for Justice has given to the practice of civil asset forfeiture.

The hearings were inspired by some terrific reporting done by local television journalist Phil Williams over the last couple of years about how the practice is used and abused in central Tennessee. Basically, if you're carrying a large amount of cash, and someone from one of these task forces pulls you over, they feel they have the authority to take your money from you. It's then up to you to prove you earned it legitimately. The stops can quickly devolve into shakedown operations, in which a motorist is told he can face arrest, or he can give the police all of his money and go free.

Some of the exchanges between Tennessee lawmakers and personnel from the local drug task forces were downright surreal. A few excerpts from the testimony, via Newschannel 5:

Senators especially wanted to know about a traffic stop exposed by NewsChannel 5 Investigates where an agent from the 23rd took $160,000 from a New York businessman, using federal seizure laws, even though the officer admitted on the video there was no evidence tying it to drug trafficking.

"I don't know honestly if we can, if we can't link it to drugs, it's still a currency violation," he told a fellow officer.

There's no such thing as "a currency violation." It isn't illegal to carry cash, even in large amounts. But of course, they took the money anyway. The head of the task force then offered a bizarre, implausible explanation for the seizure.

"I can tell you that money had terrorist ties overseas -- I will tell you that," he told the subcommittee.

"Then why was it returned to him?" asked Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who chairs the full Senate Judiciary Committee.

"The DEA returned it to them, we didn't," Hicks said.

In fact, our investigation discovered that the U.S. Attorney's Office returned the man's cash more than a year later after investigators could not make any kind of a case.

"When they were pressed on it when there was a case pending in federal court, when it was put-up-or-shut-up time, they couldn't produce a single shred of evidence to support these allegations," said the businessman's attorney, Olin J. Baker of Charlotte, N.C.

"At this point, they are making things up that's absolutely not true."

Not just "not true," but a preposterous, feeble attempt to justify an unjust practice by appealing to fear.

Task force director David Hicks then conceded that because the agents are funded by the money and property they seize from motorists and drug suspects, his cops "know that if the money dries up, then they don't have job."

It's great that Tennessee lawmakers are finally up in arms about this. But it's been going on for years. Even if you support the drug war, consider the incentives here: There's actually a greater incentive for police to target drivers leaving a large metropolitan area than the drivers entering one. Why? Because any member of a drug distribution networking entering a city is likely to be flush with drugs. Those leaving a city are likely to be flush with cash. It's better for police to wait until the drugs are sold and out on the street. And, indeed, Williams' investigations have found exactly that: A driver is much more likely to be pulled over by the task force while driving in the lanes leading out of the city than the lanes leading into it.

I really encourage you to check out Williams' entire series on forfeiture in Tennessee. So much local TV news reporting is silly, sensationalist pap. Williams puts out top-shelf journalism, and not just on the forfeiture issue.

In other forfeiture news, the aforementioned Institute for Justice won an important battle last week when the IRS decided to halt its attempts to seize money from the owners of a small Michigan grocery store. The federal government had no evidence of any drug activity, but were still attempting to take $100,000 because the owners were making bank deposits in increments less than $10,000. The IRS considers that "structuring," or an attempt to get around federal laws that require banks to report any transactions over that amount. The grocery store owners pointed out that they made deposits when they did because if they are robbed or suffer a fire, their insurance policy doesn't cover cash amounts over $10,000. The IRS backed down, but the Institute for Justice and the grocers are pressing on to challenge the constitutionality of such seizures without at least granting property owners a preliminary hearing.

Finally, while not completely related to asset forfeiture, I'd just warn HuffPost readers that you don't want to get caught driving through Ohio if you have any "secret compartments" in your car. It doesn't matter whether you have anything illegal in them or not. It doesn't even matter if they're empty. Under state law, the compartments themselves are a felony.

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    Counties That Send The Most People To Death Row Show A Questionable Commitment To Justice

    Radley Balko   |   November 21, 2013   10:24 AM ET

    Tweet Read More: Andrew Thomas, execution, crime, Maricopa County, criminal justice, death penalty, philadelphia, angela corey, innocence, exonerations, prosecutors, prosecutorial misconduct, the agitator

    Last week, I looked at a recent study by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) which finds that the vast majority of executions and death row inmates come from a very small percentage of counties across the country.

    My prior post looked specifically at the counties responsible for the most executions. (These would be the counties where prosecutors won death sentences, not where the executions themselves took place.) Contrary to the assertion from death penalty advocates that prosecutors in these counties should be commended for "doing their job," I noted these counties also tend to have troubling records of misconduct and exonerations.

    This week, I want to look at the other list in the DPIC study -- the counties that have sent the most people to death row. This is a different list, as these counties tend to be in states that aren't nearly as eager to execute as, say, Texas or Florida. They tend to be conservative counties in more left-leaning states, or counties overseen by appeals courts more skeptical of capital punishment. So they're sending people to die, but those people aren't getting executed. And just as we found with the counties that lead the country in executions, the counties most responsible for populating death rows across America also have unsettling records of misconduct and exonerations. Here's a look at a few that top the list:

    Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania

    All the way back in 1993, a Pennsylvania Superior Court judge noted in overturning a mob murder conviction that, 'Prosecutorial misconduct seems to arise in Philadelphia County more so than any other county in the commonwealth." It also happens to be the county most likely to send people to death row -- and, as the DPIC report notes, the county that pays its capital defense attorneys less than any other county in the state.

    Back when that 1993 opinion came out, Philadelphia officials denied the county had any problem with prosecutor misconduct. Fast forward 20 years. Last month, after another series convictions were thrown out due to prosecutorial misconduct, the Innocence Project publicly called for Philadelphia County to once again go back and look at cases dating back 30 years. And once again, Philadelphia County District Attorney Seth Williams insisted that there's nothing to worry about. (Williams himself recently pressed charges against a man for, essentially, proving that some Philadelphia police are ignorant of their own state's gun laws.)

    But Philadelphia County's ranking on the death row list is largely due to former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, who took over the position in 1991. Abraham, the first woman to hold the position in the county's history, was so aggressive in seeking death sentences that she earned the nickname "Queen of Death." A 2007 study by the Center for Public Integrity found 67 cases in which an appeals court overturned a Pennsylvania conviction due to prosecutorial misconduct. Of those, 41 came out of Philadelphia County.

    A few other highlights from Philadelphia:

    -- The DA's office withheld exculpatory evidence for more than 20 years after the conviction of Edward Ryder in 1974. Ryder's conviction was overturned in 1996. In 1999, Ryder accepted a plea bargain. In exchange for pleading guilty third-degree murder, he would be re-sentenced to time served and released from prison. Ryder and his attorneys maintained his innocence, and said his plea was the result of a tired man who didn't want to risk going back to prison

    -- Just last month, a 22-year assistant prosecutor resigned from the office after she was accused of filling a false 911 report and pressuring a police officer to perjure himself in order to protect her boyfriend. Oddly, the DA's office sees no reason to go back and review her conduct in prior cases.

    -- Kenneth Granger was released in 2010 after serving 28 years for a murder he says he didn't commit. It took his attorneys 27 years to get a judge to order the release of files from the district attorney's office and the Philadelphia Police Department that contained exculpatory evidence never given to Granger's attorneys.

    -- More recently, last year a jury acquitted Amin Speakes of a 2009 murder. Williams decided to try Speakes even though two time-stamped videos showed he couldn't have committed the murder at the time it happened.

    Duval County, Florida

    Duval County leads the march to death row in Florida, a state where (a) there have been more death row exonerations than any other state, (b) more people have been sent to death row in the last two years than anywhere else in America, and (c) inexplicably, given (a) and (b), Gov. Rick Scott recently signed a bill to speed up executions by limiting death penalty appeals.

    Given it's relatively small population, Duval County has the highest citizens-per-death-row inmate rate in the country. The current state's attorney for the judicial district that includes Duval County is Angela Corey, the prosecutor now best known for prosecuting George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin. Corey's indictment of Zimmerman was widely criticized by defense attorneys and legal scholars. One prominent critic was Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. According to Dershowitz, Corey responded to his criticism by threatening to sue him, to sue Harvard University, and attempting to have Dershowitz disbarred. (She has threatened to sue other public critics as well.) She has also been accused of withholding exculpatory evidence in the case, then firing the IT worker in her office who exposed that evidence.

    But Corey has a controversial history beyond the Zimmerman-Martin case. She's the prosecutor who won a 20-year prison sentence for Marissa Alexander. The 31-year-old Alexander was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadline weapon after she fired a warning shot from a gun at her abusive husband. A state appeals court granted Alexander a new trial in September. Corey won a similar conviction against Ronald Thompson, a 65-year-old man accused of firing warning shots into the ground as some teenagers attempted to force their way into a home belonging to his friend. She has also received criticism for charging a 12-year-old with murder for beating his 2-year-old brother to death, then attempting to try him as an adult.

    Duval County was where 15-year-old Brenton Butler was wrongly charged, tried, and ultimately acquitted in the beating deaths of two tourists. His story is the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning. In 2007, Chad Heins was finally cleared of the 1994 murder of his sister-in-law after serving 13 years in prison. Billy Joe Holton may well also be innocent of the 1986 murder for which he was convicted. Last year a judge re-sentenced him to time served plus probation, allowing him to go free. His attorneys are still working to exonerate him completely, over objections from Corey's office.

    Florida also has an odd tradition of electing its public defenders. The current head public defender for the district that includes Duval County is Matt Shirk, a guy who ran on a platform of cutting funding to the office, billing indigent defendants who are acquitted for legal services, and was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police (an odd endorsement for a public defender). One of Shirk's first acts was to fire a large portion of the office staff, including the attorneys who had worked to expose the innocence of Brenton Butler.

    Maricopa County, Arizona

    The home of Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America" also sends convicts to death row by the truckload. Former head prosecutor Andrew Thomas was notoriously ruthless -- at one point he had 149 death penalty cases pending. He also once sought a 90-year prison sentence against a 16-year-old for downloading child pornography. When the boy's attorneys showed that the images were likely the result of malware, Thomas' office pressured him to plead guilty to three felony counts for showing a Playboy magazine to a few classmates.

    Thomas also rather infamously used the power of his office to target his critics, at one point setting his sights on the owners of the Phoenix New Times. Thomas was eventually stripped of his law license, notably for abuses of power related to his targeting of political opponents, not for his conduct in day-to-day criminal cases.

    Last month, an investigative series by the Arizona Republic found that of the 42 cases in which an Arizona convict sentenced to death alleged prosecutorial misconduct, 33 occurred in Maricopa County. The series include one installment devoted solely to former Maricopa County prosecutor Juan Martinez, who sent eight people to death row, and in 1999 was named the state's "prosecutor of the year." Martinez has since been cited for misconduct by Arizona court's three times in the last year.

    One of the more notorious exonerations from Maricopa County was that of Ray Krone, convicted in 1991 of murdering a Phoenix bartender. The conviction was based almost entirely on testimony from a "bite mark specialist" linking Krone's teeth to tooth marks on the victim. Krone served 10 years in prison, including four on death row, before he was exonerated by DNA testing. His attorneys later found evidence that prosecutors had withheld evidence of his innocence. In 2005, Krone won a $4.4 million settlement from Maricopa County. The prosecutors who convicted him were never disciplined. His case was later used to illustrate the junk science of bite mark testimony.

    Current Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery refused to release any prosecutor personnel files for the Arizona Republic investigation, even of prosecutors no longer on the job. To do so, he said, wouldn't be in "the best interests of justice.” Earlier this month, the Arizona Supreme Court released new ethical guidelines stating that if prosecutors discover evidence of a convict's innocence, they must turn it over to his attorneys. (Previously, they were only obligated to do so before conviction.) Montgomery opposed the new rule.

    Among the other counties with prolific histories of sending people to death row . . .

    -- Riverside County, California, recently had to review more than 3,000 cases after a defense attorney that prosecutors hadn't disclosed that a crime lab technician had admitted to fraud, forgery, and perjury.

    -- In Santa Clara, County, California, one prosecutor was rebuked by the state bar, and the office itself had to review thousands of sex crime cases, again due to the office's failure to disclose exculpatory evidence. In 2009, defense attorneys discovered that they hadn't been informed about hundreds of cases in which crime lab technicians had disagreed over fingerprint patches. Santa Clara County DA Dolores Carr responded to these scandals by attempting to boycott the judges holding her office accountable, and then by attempting to strip the state bar of its power to discipline prosecutors.

    -- Kern County, California has seen more than two dozen exonerations resulting from the ritual sex abuse panic of the 1980s and 1990s. Some were parent who went to prison after they were falsely convicted of sexually abusing their own children.

    -- Between 1997 and 2009, prosecutors in Orange County, California, were cited for misconduct 58 times. One deputy district attorney in particular -- Michael Flory -- had been cited multiple times, and had his conduct deemed "unacceptable" by appeals court judges. He was never disciplined. The Orange County Register reported in January that despite nine exonerations since 1995 based on faulty eyewitness testimony, "the Orange County district attorney has not pushed for" simple reforms to eyewitness procedures that criminologists say would radically improve their reliability. (But would of course also make it more difficult to win convictions.)

    Looking back at both lists, it's far from clear, then, that execution-friendly prosecutors are "just doing their jobs." On the contrary, the counties most eager to execute seem to also have produced conviction cultures in which prosecutors have frequently been found to have bent the rules in pursuit of convictions -- and convicted the wrong people in the process.

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      Talking "Warrior Cops" With Bill Maher

        |   November 20, 2013    9:39 AM ET

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        Next Stop On The Road To Surveillance State: License Plate Scanners

        Radley Balko   |   November 20, 2013    9:25 AM ET

        Tweet Read More: aclu, civil liberties, video, law enforcement, First Amendment, police, protest, fourth amendment, license-plate-scanners, the agitator

        Over at Popular Mechanics, Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds writes:

        We now know that federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies are using automated license-plate scanners, mounted on everything from telephone poles to police cars, to build a huge database of where people are driving. This might seem like a small intrusion compared with the electronic spying carried out by the NSA. But not all threats to privacy involve the tracking of emails and other communications.

        Right now, the law suggests that license-plate scanners don't invade your privacy because they record only events that occur in public. After all, anyone could see you driving down the road or parked in front of a motel. But if officials add up enough bits of information like that, they gradually can construct what the ACLU has termed a "single, high-resolution image of our lives."

        There's a legal term for this idea: the mosaic theory.

        Indeed, the federal government is currently attempting to make that very argument with respect to FOIA requests -- that mass requests of information can pose a threat to national security, even when those same requests would pose no such threat if made individually.

        It isn't difficult to envision scenarios where this kind of technology could be abused. In divorce proceedings, one party could subpoena license plate scanner data to show that a spouse had committed adultery. Cops could scan plates at protests, or at meetings of activist groups to keep tabs on who's in attendance. In the U.K. in 2009, a man was pulled over by anti-terrorism police because his car had been put on a "hot list" after his plate had been scanned at an anti-war protest.

        And yes, it has also happened here. And in more than one jurisdiction.

        In Sanford, Florida, police are already sending "Dear John" notices in the mail the owners of cars that cops see "lingering in areas known for prostitution." The goal here isn't to arrest would-be Johns. This is extra-judicial punishment. The goal is to embarrass these guys should their wives open the letters. That gets a lot easier with license plate scanners.

        The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit put it this way in a 2010 case:

        A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.

        Of course, the primary goal here is to generate revenue. Michigan lawmakers are currently considering a bill that would enable police to put a boot on any car whose owner owes state or local government any amount of money. Arlington County, Virginia, passed a similar law in 2005, causing county treasurer Frank O'Leary to say, "I rub my hands together in great glee and anticipation. I think it's beautiful, it gives us a whole new dimension to collection."

        Here's a summary of what these laws, armed with scanning technology, have meant in other states, as summarized by the motorists' rights site TheNewspaper.com:

        The [Michigan] measure applies to any debt caused by "a civil infraction, a civil violation, or a parking violation, including a driver license reinstatement fee," which in other states has proved to mean debts as small as $50. Arlington, Virginia used automated cameras to track down anyone the city believed owed as little as $120 for any reason, including overdue library books.

        Bridgeport, Connecticut began using license plate scanning cameras to hunt down vehicles owned by minor debtors. The first victim of the then-new system, Calvin Carter, had $200 in back property taxes. At the time his car was hit, he was 100 feet from city hall, about to pay his taxes. New Haven used its camera scanners to seize cars from parishioners attending Sunday Mass and shoppers while they were in Wal-Mart. The city later transitioned to using the Denver boot as a cheaper alternative to towing. To have the car released, the alleged debtor must pay the original fine plus recovery costs.

        According to an ACLU report released in July (PDF) on jurisdictions where the technology is already in place, just .005 percent of license plates scanned revealed evidence of a serious crime. Over 99 percent of those scanned had done nothing wrong at all. Yet all that data is still collected and stored. Some jurisdictions have policies requiring police agencies to delete it after a specific amount of time, but the ACLU report also found that many police agencies don't abide by such guidelines.

        Ultimately, that data can then be used in any number of ways. The ACLU report includes a quote from the police department in Scarsdale, New York stating that the use of this technology "is only limited by the officer’s imagination.” He's right. And you ought to be worried about it.

        Reynolds' piece in Popular Mechanics ends with a call to turn the tables -- to use the surveillance state to monitor law enforcement and the government. That of course is already happening with smart phone cameras, although law enforcement officials are doing everything they can to stop it -- just read the blog of photographer and activist Carlos Miller for a few days. When a federal judge suggested that NYPD officers wear cameras mounted on their uniforms, surveillance state champion Mayor Michael Bloomberg perversely declared the idea a violation of police officers' civil rights -- a statement that as well as any other illustrates Bloomberg's twisted concept of the proper relationship between the government and the governed. When I interviewed Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police in 2010, he expressed a similar sentiment: "Police officers don’t check their civil rights at the station house door."

        Most recently, police groups in Boston are protesting a proposal to put GPS devices on squad cars. It seems that police don't want the public to know where they are, even while they're on the job, getting paid by taxpayers, driving a car provided by taxpayers.

        The watchers keep coming with new and innovative ways to watch us. But they sure as hell don't want to be watched themselves.

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          U.S. Counties Killing The Most People Are Good At Getting Death Penalty, Not So Good At Justice

          Radley Balko   |   November 19, 2013    7:30 AM ET

          Tweet Read More: dna testing, Capital Punishment, Harris County, criminal justice, innocence, texas, executions, craig watkins, Dallas County, death penalty, Crime Labs, exonerations, prosecutorial misconduct, the agitator, wrongfully convicted

          Just 2 percent of counties in America are responsible for more than half the nation's executions, and those same counties have been responsible for a disproportionate share of high-profile prosecutorial misconduct and exonerations following wrongful convictions.

          In a report released last month, the Death Penalty Information Center found that 2 percent of counties, as well as being responsible for a majority of executions, can also claim credit for 56 percent of the current death row population. What's more, just 15 percent of U.S. counties account for all of the executions since 1976, according to the DPIC.

          There are lots of different ways to think about these figures. And my Huffington Post colleagues Katy Hall and Jan Diehm have broken them down with some informative graphics. Since only 32 states have the death penalty, perhaps it shouldn't be terribly surprising that such a small percentage of counties account for such a large portion of executions, particularly if most of them are counties with large populations. (And that seems to be the case, although these counties aren't all necessarily the largest in their respective states.) At the very least, it is more evidence that the death penalty is applied inconsistently.

          But what, if anything, do these numbers say about justice and fairness in these counties that are populating the country's cells on death row? Here's one interpretation, from a pundit quoted last month by NBC News.

          David Muhlhausen, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, commended the district attorneys.

          "If the report is correct, these select few district attorneys are doing their job. In states where the death penalty is allowed, they should use that sentence in appropriate cases. If a defendant is arrested for crimes that fit a death penalty case and if there's good evidence, then a prosecutor is doing his or her job by bringing forth a death penalty prosecution," he said.

          But even if you support the death penalty, prosecutors from the counties that top the survey should be commended "doing their jobs" only if you think that frequently winning death penalty sentences is, all by itself, a good way to measure a prosecutor's effectiveness. But of course we don't measure justice by how many people the state executes. We measure it by how well states and counties administer fair trials and due process. And the problem here is that there seems to be a strong correlation between counties that frequently send people to death row, and counties with high rates of wrongful conviction, forensics scandals and prosecutorial misconduct, as found by appeals courts.

          The Death Penalty Information Center report touches on this a bit. For example, the report notes that in Orleans Parish, La., which leads the state in executions, there's a long, sordid history of prosecutorial misconduct. Orleans Parish has even been rebuked by the Supreme Court, though the Court refuses to hold the county liable. (I wrote about prosecutor misconduct in Orleans Parish earlier this year.) Four men from New Orleans who once awaited execution have since been freed. Philadelphia County, Pa., leads the state of Pennsylvania in executions, yet also ranks last in the state when it comes to paying the attorneys appointed to represent defendants in capital cases. Florida leads the country in number of people sent to death row over the last two years. The state also leads the country in number of people exonerated from death row. Incredibly, despite these figures, Florida lawmakers are still trying to limit appeals, so that executions can be carried out more quickly. That's one way to prevent exonerations before executions.

          So to put the DPIC into perspective, here's a look at the performance of the prosecutors who have worked in a handful of America's most execution-eager counties:

          Harris County, Texas

          The county that's home to Houston is also the most execution-friendly county in America. Under former District Attorney Johnny B. Holmes and his infamous handlebar mustache, Harris County by itself sent more people to death row (more than 200) than all 49 states other than Texas. When reform-minded District Attorney Pat Lykos (a pro-death penalty Republican, by the way) took over in 2008, she set out to look for innocent people convicted under the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach of her predecessors. Since 2008, there have been 11 exonerations Harris County.

          The county has also been beset by scandals at its crime lab. In 2002, an investigation "found cases in which lab results appeared to have been changed to bolster police testimony in criminal cases." As Houston defense attorney John T. Floyd explains, five years later ...

          On June 13, 2007, former U.S. Justice Department Inspector Michael Bromwich issued a 400-page report that concluded the crime lab’s DNA and serology departments had made hundreds of “serious and pervasive” mistakes in homicide and sexual assault cases. Bromwich two-year investigation examined more than 3500 cases processed by the crime lab over the previous quarter century. 135 of those were DNA cases handled by the crime lab between 1992 and 2002, Bromwich’s investigators found “major issues” in 43 of those cases, and, even more disturbing, found “major issues” in 4 of the 18 death penalty cases it examined . . .

          For more than two decades forensic analysts with the lab appear to have deliberately presented false or misleading testimony designed to satisfy the District Attorney’s Office need for a conviction. And when the analysts were not giving false testimony, they were neglecting to conduct tests that would have either exonerated the accused or cast doubt on the test findings the prosecution needed for conviction.

          As late as April 2013, Harris County was investigating how a crime lab technician remained on the job for years, helping to win convictions in thousands of cases, despite "a high error rate," and "a dubious understanding of the chemistry involved in the job."

          Lykos was defeated last year in her bid for reelection, in part because of her efforts to divert first-time DWI offenders, and a policy of not pressing felony charges for "trace" amounts of drugs. Former state judge Mike Anderson beat Lykos in the Republican primary with a promise to return to "the good old days," by which he presumably meant Holmes and his death penalty machine.

          In a training session for his assistant district attorneys, conducted earlier this year, Anderson was captured on video giving tribute to Holmes. At one point, he celebrated how Holmes didn't press criminal charges against the Houston police officers who shot and killed Pedro Navaro in 1998. Navarro was unarmed. The police shot the 22-year-old man 21 times during a botched drug raid -- nine times in the back.

          Anderson then referred to the Innocence Project -- a group that works to get innocent people out of prison and off death row -- as the "enemy" of prosecutors. He also went on to praise prosecutors who fought against DNA testing in innocence cases. Harris County was already known among prosecutors for negotiating the destruction of DNA evidence into plea bargains, meaning that innocent suspects coerced into false confessions couldn't later ask for the tests that could clear their names. The Houston Chronicle editorialized that the video confirmed critics' "worst fears" about returning to the conviction culture that we now know produced so many exonerations.

          Anderson passed away in October. His widow Devon was appointed to replace him, and now serves as the Harris County DA.

          Dallas County, Texas

          Dallas County, presided over for decades by legendary law-and-order District Attorney Henry Wade, has had more exonerations than any county in the country. In fact, there have been more exonerations in Dallas County than in nearly every other state. That's mostly because in 2006, former defense attorney Craig Watkins was elected as the county's top prosecutor, and Watkins has since made finding and correcting wrongful convictions a high priority. Moreover, Watkins has been able find older wrongful conviction cases because of a quirk: for years, Dallas County sent crime scene evidence to a private lab, where it has been properly stored and preserved. (Such evidence is usually thrown out after a convict has exhausted his appeals.) That means Watkins and groups like the Innocence Project can go back much farther to look for find cases for which there is still testable DNA.

          These two factors mean that as disturbing as the high number of exonerations in Dallas County have been, there's no reason to think the high number of wrongful convictions are an anomaly. If other counties with similar law-and-order histories also had similar histories of properly preserving evidence, and then, like Dallas County, subsequently elected reform-minded DAs, we'd likely be seeing similarly high exoneration numbers.

          In an interview several years ago, Watkins talked about the culture of the DA's office during the Wade years. "[It] was a badge of honor at the time -- to knowingly convict someone that wasn’t guilty," he said. "It’s widely known among defense attorneys and prosecutors from that era."

          Oklahoma County, Okla.

          Oklahoma County's presence near the top of America's executioner counties is mostly due to the work of the late, longtime District Attorney Robert "Cowboy Bob" Macy. The favorite of the law-and-order crowd served as head prosecutor in the county for 20 years, from 1980 until 2000. Macy sent 54 people to death row. He once said that executing an innocent person was a risk he was willing to take.

          But Macy's legacy has taken a hit in recent years. Toward the end of his career, and in the years since, appellate courts have excoriated him and his deputy prosecutors for misconduct in their pursuit of convictions. The most recent example came last June, when the state's supreme court suspended the law license of former Oklahoma County deputy District Attorney Brad Miller for 180 days, due to his "reprehensible conduct" in a 1993 death penalty case. Two justices voted to disbar him. One wrote, "The actions of the respondent take us into the dark, unseen, ugly, shocking nightmare vision of a prosecutor who loves victory more than he loves justice." But writing for the majority, Justice Yvonne Kauger found that Miller deserved some leniency, because he was just following policies set by his boss, Robert Macy. “Instances of prosecutorial misconducts from previous decades, such as withholding evidence, often were met with nothing more than a reprimand or a short suspension," Kauger wrote.

          Macy's time as DA coincided almost directly with the career of disgraced Oklahoma City forensic expert witness Joyce Gilchrist. In fact, Macy used Gilchrist's testimony in nearly half of his death penalty convictions. Gilchrist's knack for matching forensic evidence to the prosecutors' preferred suspect earned her the nickname "Black Magic." Gilchrist's testimony was particularly devastating because Oklahoma judges generally did not grant indigent defendants the funds to hire their own forensic specialists to review her work. Despite her diminishing reputation in the forensics community, Macy's office continued to use her. Macy retired in 2000. In 2001, DNA testing exonerated Jeffrey Todd Pierce for a rape he had been convicted of committing in 1986. Gilchrist's testimony was the main evidence against him. She was fired the following year, and Oklahoma began reviewing over 1,500 cases in which she had testified.

          There have been five exonerations in Oklahoma County, including two death penalty cases. There may well be more innocents in prison or on death row from the Gilchrist-Macy era. But if there are, Gilchrist made it more difficult to find them. From CBS News coverage of the police investigation into Gilchrist's tenure at the lab:

          The report says that “missing evidence is occurring in major cases.” Some of those cases were death penalty cases. According to the report, a freezer breakdown contaminated evidence from hundreds of cases. The report also said that blood analysis files from three entire years -- 1980, 1981, and 1990 -- were missing, and that rape evidence was systematically being destroyed after only two years.

          Eleven people convicted mostly or in part due to Gilchrist's testimony have been executed.

          Bexar County, Texas

          In 1993, the state of Texas executed Ruben Cantu for a 1984 murder and robbery. He was convicted based on the testimony of a single witness, who later recanted. A 2005 Houston Chronicle investigation cast some serious doubt that Cantu participated in either the robbery or the murder. Among those now convinced that Cantu was executed for a crime he didn't commit: Sam Millsap Jr., the prosecutor who convicted Cantu, and sent him to death row (along with quite a few others). Millsap told the Chronicle in 2007, "[A] prosecution and execution that I was responsible for may well have ... produced the execution of an innocent man."

          Millsap is now an anti-death penalty activist. "I’d love to be able to tell you I am the only former elected prosecutor in the country who finds himself in the position of having to admit an error in judgment that may have led to the execution of an innocent man," he said in a 2010 TED Talk. "But I know I am not."

          St. Louis County, Mo.

          When more advanced DNA testing became available in the early 2000s, St. Louis County saw five exonerations for serious violent crimes in five years. Last year, George Allen was released after a court found egregious police misconduct during their investigation, including withholding evidence of his innocence. Allen had served just under 30 years for a 1982 murder. His attorneys and the Innocence Project believe there could be many more wrongful convictions. The police detective and crime lab analyst found to have committed misconduct in Allen's case also worked hundreds of others.

          Many of the death sentences in St. Louis County were won by Nels Moss Jr., who served as a prosecutor there for 33 years. According to a 2009 study by the Center for Public Integrity, over the course of his career, appeals courts found that Moss had committed misconduct in 25 cases. In eight of those, the courts overturned a sentence or declared a mistrial. In one case, Moss had police add a mustache to a composite photo to make it look more like his suspect, even though the witness had already made an identification. In the Reggie Clemons death penalty case, Moss was found to have written "omit" on sections of a police report that may have hurt the credibility of his star witness. In another case, an appeals court found that Moss engaged in "a patent effort to deprive a defendant of a fair trial," and "rather than resulting from youthful zeal, the error is but one example of a consistent pattern of improper tactics reflected by other transcripts in cases tried by the same experienced prosecutor."

          Missouri has also consistently elected attorneys general who have fought to preserve convictions, particularly in death penalty cases, even where there's strong evidence of innocence.

          Next, I'll look at the counties that have sent the most people to death row. The list is mostly different -- because the counties happen to be in states that for political or legal reasons aren't as quick to execute, they haven't been as effective at killing people convicted of murder. But they have been effective at winning death sentences. As we'll see, they've seen plenty of problems with justice and due process as well.

          Comments (81)

            The First Post-9/11 Terror Case That Never Was

              |   November 18, 2013    7:45 PM ET

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              Could You Please Speak Into The Ankle?

                |   November 14, 2013    3:15 PM ET

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                Anal Probes And the Drug War: An Ethical And Legal Primer

                Radley Balko   |   November 11, 2013    9:50 AM ET

                Tweet Read More: police brutality, civil liberties, war on drugs, fourth amendment, Drug War, police, constitutional rights, the agitator

                Last week, news wires, blogs and pundits lit up with the horrifying story of David Eckert, a New Mexico man who last January was subjected to a series of invasive and degrading drug search procedures after a traffic stop. The procedures, which included x-rays, digital anal penetration, enemas and a colonoscopy, were all performed without Eckert's consent.

                Eckert was pulled over by Deming, New Mexico Officer Bobby Orosco for making a rolling stop at a stop sign as he was leaving a Walmart parking lot. According to a subsequent search warrant, Orosco thought Eckert appeared nervous. A drug dog was called in, which alerted the officer to Eckert's seat. The officer then claims he received a tip from another, unnamed officer that Eckert had previously hidden drugs in his anus. (Eckert apparently has a prior record.) Based on all of this, the police officers were able to get both Deputy District Attorney Daniel Dougherty and a local judge to sign off on all the humiliation that followed. (According to the original report, the hospital then sent him a bill for the "services," and has since threatened to send a collection agency after him).

                Days later, a second resident of New Mexico came forward with similar allegations. Timothy Young says that after a traffic stop in October 2012, he too was subjected to x-rays and a digital anal exam without his consent. New Mexico news station KBO-TV was first to report both incidents, which were performed by physicians at the Gila Regional Medical Center in Silver City, New Mexico. In both cases, doctors and police failed to find any illegal drugs.

                A third alleged victim has since come forward, although this woman says her anal and vaginal searches, x-rays and CAT scans came courtesy of federal border patrol agents, and without a warrant.

                These incidents raise troubling questions about how the criminal justice system and medical establishment could allow for such extreme and invasive measures based on such little suspicion for nonviolent drug offenses. Oddly, according to constitutional scholars and medical ethicists I've consulted, the indignities imposed upon Eckert and Young were both illegal and unethical. And yet it also may be that (a) none of the law enforcement officials or medical personnel responsible for the violations are likely to be held accountable in any way, and (b) they could probably do it all again tomorrow, and still wouldn't likely be held accountable.

                The Legal Issues

                Any discussion of the legal issues involved in these cases needs to begin with the general evisceration of the Bill of Rights wrought by the drug war. There's a reason why some constitutional law scholars refer a "drug war exception" to the Fourth Amendment. Over the last 45 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has generally taken the approach that drugs are such an existential threat to American society that some basic and inherent rights need to be suspended in order to facilitate their eradication.

                The case that started us down the road to what happened in New Mexico is United States v. Montoya de Herandez. At issue were the Fourth Amendment rights of people that customs agents suspected to be "drug mules"-- people paid to swallow heroin-filled balloons, fly into the U.S., pass the balloons and then hand off the heroin to a drug inside the country. The court ruled 7-2 that U.S. Customs officials did not violate a suspect's Fourth Amendment rights when they detained her at the airport, locked her in a room, then held her incommunicado until "her peristaltic functions produced a monitored bowel movement." And they could do all of this without a warrant. The suspected mule, Rosa Elvira Montoya de Hernandez, was held in a locked room for 24 hours until two U.S. Customs officials could watch her defecate. It turned out that de Hernandez was smuggling heroin. But studies and surveys at the time showed that 80-85 percent of women similarly detained or subjected to body cavity searches turned out to be innocent. By the end of the decade, a New York Times survey of suspected drug mules subjected to x-rays or forced defecation found that in Miami, agents searched 101 people, and found drugs on 67 of them. In New York, 187 searches yielded 90 arrests. Houston was particularly inept. Agents there went 4 for 60. Nationally, the figures were about 50-50. One innocent person subjected to this sort of violation for every drug mule was apparently good enough for the drug war.

                Associate Justice William Brennan, by then winding down his career on the court, wrote a blistering dissent. "Indefinite involuntary incommunicado detentions 'for investigation' are the hallmark of a police state, not a free society," Brennan wrote. "The nature and duration of the detention here may well have been tolerable for spoiled meat or diseased animals, but not for human beings held on simple suspicion of criminal activity." He concluded, "Neither the law of the land nor the law of nature supports the notion that petty government officials can require people to excrete on command." He ended with a quote from former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.

                [I]t is easy to make light of insistence on scrupulous regard for the safeguards of civil liberties when invoked on behalf of the unworthy. It is too easy. History bears testimony that by such disregard are the rights of liberty extinguished, heedlessly at first, then stealthily, and brazenly in the end.

                It seems clear that we've entered the era of brazen. The Hernandez case applied only to border agents (the Supreme Court has basically declared that the Fourth Amendment is suspended along the border -- and any area within 100 miles of it). But it isn't difficult to see how licensing forcible defecations around the border could start us down a path to the day when law enforcement officials believe they have the authority to administer forcible enemas and colonoscopies within it.

                The law here seems reasonably clear: What happened to Eckert and Young is illegal. John Wesley Hall, who has written legal textbooks on the Fourth Amendment and runs the FourthAmendment.com blog, points to a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit just last August which found that "[m]edically paralyzing a suspect . . . to remove crack cocaine hidden in his rectum shocked the conscience of the court and was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment."

                Unlike the New Mexico incidents, that case involved a procedure that had been performed without a warrant. But in a 2012 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit found that even with a warrant, a "proctoscopic examination under sedation" to search for drugs is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

                Over at the legal blog the Volokh Conspiracy, Fourth Amendment scholar Orin Kerr notes that it was likely the drug dog's alert in New Mexico that provided the probable cause for everything that followed. This too comes from a series of flawed Supreme Court decisions that put far too much faith in the ability of K9 drug detection teams, which tend to have alarming rates of error. The problem isn't that dogs don't have the ability to detect illicit drugs, it's that dogs have been bred to please their owners. This trait can often override their detection abilities, causing the dogs to merely affirm the suspicions of their handlers. Invasive searches based only on the hunch of law enforcement officials is exactly the sort of thing the Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect against.

                But the drug dog cases are also an excellent illustration of a huge problem with how the Supreme Court considers Fourth Amendment cases, particularly with respect to the drug war. These cases are considered and decided only within the limited context of the specific case that's brought before the justices. But they're then broadly applied well outside the parameters of that context. It's the difference between considering a legal question from an academic perspective, and considering it from a practical one. (It's also why the court is in dire need of more justices with more criminal justice experience.) It seems unlikely that when deciding this particular line of cases -- most of which involved relatively non-invasive searches of automobiles or pickets -- the justices considered the possibility that their decisions might later be used to authorize forced anal penetration, enemas and colonoscopies based mostly on the alert of a drug dog. But that's exactly what has happened. But like Hall, Kerr ultimately concludes that the searches in New Mexico were likely illegal.

                This is where it all takes a surreal turn. David Eckert, Paul Young, you, I -- and all other lay people -- are expected to know every law on the books, at least to the extent that we can be held criminally and/or civilly liable for breaking them. But for police officers, judges and prosecutors -- all of whom are paid to enforce and administer the law -- there is no such expectation. Or at least, they aren't held accountable when they don't. In the Fifth Circuit case mentioned above, for example, even though the court found the search to be unreasonable, and therefore illegal, it still allowed the drug evidence found in the suspect's rectum to be admitted at trial, thanks to a "Good Faith Exception" granted to police officers who violate the law, but can plausibly claim they simply weren't aware that what they were doing was illegal. (It's usually incumbent on the defendant to show the cops were acting in bad faith -- a burden that is usually impossible to prove.)

                In cases where police do find incriminating evidence during an illegal search, barring that evidence from being used at trial (the Exclusionary Rule) is supposed to serve as a deterrent to encourage police to play by the rules. It's often effective, but obviously it can't be very effective when the courts find reasons to avoid applying it. But in the New Mexico cases, the police didn't find any drugs, so the Exclusionary Rule doesn't apply. The best hope for Eckert and Young is a lawsuit. And here too, their hopes are slim.

                Police officers are protected from lawsuits by the doctrine of qualified immunity. It isn't enough to show that a law enforcement officer violated your rights. You must also show that the rights the officer violated were "well established" at the time he violated them. In other words, the violation needs to be pretty egregious before you can even get in front of a jury. Oddly, qualified immunity actually provides an incentive for police officials to avoid keeping officers informed on the most recent relevant court ruling in constitutional law.

                John Wesley Hall says that in this case, the fact that both a judge and a prosecutor were also wrong on the law, and that forced anal probes, enemas and colonoscopies aren't an issue that have yet been addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the cops in New Mexico will likely be protected from any liability. "Because the police were acting under a warrant signed by a judge, it seems unlikely that the plaintiffs will be able to get around qualified immunity," Hall says. And what about the judge and the prosecutor? They're protected by absolute immunity, which -- just as it sounds -- makes it nearly impossible to sue them for damages, even when they're flat wrong on the laws they're paid to know, and even when police officers then rely on a judge or prosecutor's mistaken views on the law in the course of egregiously violating someone's rights.

                Professional sanction also seems unlikely. Deming, New Mexico Police Chief Brandon Gigante says his officers did everything "by the book," so there certainly won't be any discipline from the police department. (This may actually come back to bite Gigante -- one of the few plausible ways Eckert and Young could win in court is through municipal liability. They would need to show that there's a pattern or practice of such violations in Deming. Gigante admitting that illegal searches like these are consistent with his department's official policy could help them establish that pattern.) And state bars and courts are notoriously inept at disciplining prosecutors even for egregious, intended misconduct. All of which means Deputy District Attorney Daniel Dougherty probably doesn't need to worry about his law license for signing off on an anal probe warrant.

                Medical Ethics

                According to Eckert's lawsuit, the first physician the police asked to perform the procedures declined on ethical grounds before the officers took Eckert to Gila Regional Medical Center. So who was right?

                Neither the American Medical Association, nor the New Mexico Board of Medical Examiners responded to my request to comment on these issues. (Actually, the NMBME responded to say they won't comment on possible complaints.) But I did speak with two medical ethics experts: Nathan Allen, an assistant professor of medicine and medical ethics with Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Medical Ethics, and Scott Allen, a Clinical Professor of Medicine,
                Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at the University of California Riverside School of Medicine, and an adviser to the advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights. Both agreed that without consent from the patient, it would be unethical for a medical professional to perform the kinds of procedures that were done on Eckert and Young.

                "I would say that the ethical lines here involve an adult patient who has the official capacity to make decisions for himself, and has the right to not be touched and to not have medical procedures performed that they don't want," Nathan Allen says. "The main ethical issue when physicians are asked to participate in the legal process -- authorizing a search, or ordering a medical provider to perform a procedure -- is to ask, is this medical care that the person needs or wants? Informed consent should always be of primary importance."

                Scott Allen says it's important to keep a physician's skills within the realm of medical care. "One of the first dividing lines to consider is, (a) is it forensic, or (b) is it medical? If it's forensic, the people who are in charge of taking care of patients medically don't touch it. It's a violation of trust. You have to consider how and why an ethic like that has evolved. It's from experience, and the abuses that occurred when doctors and nurses participated in gathering forensic evidence. I've overseen medical care in a prison, and I wouldn't even let my staff even swab a cheek for DNA."

                But what if a doctor has no choice? What if a court specifically orders a doctor to perform a procedure, or police threaten medical personnel with arrest? It isn't unheard of. Last July police in West Palm Beach, Florida, arrested a nurse for refusing to draw blood from a DUI suspect (she said she was following hospital policy, which instructed her to wait for proper authorization) and charged her with obstruction of justice. The charge was later dropped, but she's now suing for the arrest, lost wages and punitive damages. Both doctors consulted for this post say a doctor who cooperates with a police request to draw blood over a suspect's objections is less troubling than the more invasive procedures that occurred in New Mexico, but both also say that medical personnel should always retain the right to decline assistance.

                "I'd rather a procedure like that -- which doesn't require a lot of medical expertise -- be performed by legal technicians," Nathan Allen says. "I can respect a medical professional's decision to cooperate. But it's critical that they have the freedom to refuse to allow their professional skill set be used to serve the interests of the state." Allen compares the situation to the recent revelations that the CIA ordered doctors to force feed Guantanamo prisoners protesting their incarceration with hunger strikes.

                Scott Allen says that judges have on occasion issued orders for a specific doctor to perform a specific procedure, but adds, "There is almost always sufficient pushback from the medical community to persuade the legal system to back down. And that's important. When judges issue orders like that, they need to be told that they're effectively practicing medicine without a license."

                "Where it gets tricky is when you get an order that is medical in nature, such as when someone has swallowed balloons filled with cocaine or heroin. At that point, it could be dangerous for the patient," he says. "But even here, as a medical professional, it's my responsibility to explain the risks to the patient so that he can make an informed decision. But the decision should be a medical decision between doctor and patient, not a legal decision between the doctor and law enforcement. If the patient declines the procedure, I'm ethically obligated to respect his wishes."

                Nathan Allen sums up the discussion this way, "A physician's primary obligation is to provide care for the patient. Anything contrary to that, and that is against the patient's wishes, would be unethical."

                But while both experts agree that performing such procedures over a patient's objections is unethical, Scott Allen says it's unlikely that any doctor who violates those ethical obligations would be sanctioned or disciplined. "State licensure boards tend to be deferential to law enforcement," he says. "So it seems unlikely that there would be any actions taken against these doctors. That's unfortunate, because it undermines the importance of medical ethics. What's the point of having an ethic if there's no consequence for violating it?"

                In a follow-up email. Scott Allen adds that part of the problem is a lack of ethical training. "Quite often, the health professional doesn't even realize that they are in breach of professional ethics because they assume that law and ethics always conform. Of course, they do not. So training is a key issue, here."

                Yes, You Were Violated. But There Isn't Much You Can Do About It.

                In the end, we're faced with two unsatisfying lessons from all of this. First, what happened to Eckert and Young was wrong. The medical personnel acted unethically, and the criminal justice system personnel -- the judges, the prosecutor, the cops and the police department -- all illegally violated the constitutional rights of both men. And it's entirely likely that no one will be punished -- legally, financially or professionally. In fact, it could all happen again tomorrow, and tomorrow's victim couldn't do much about it, either. Remember, Gigante still insists his officers did nothing wrong. (Four months after the Eckert stop, Officer Orosco got a promotion.)

                And don't think it can't happen elsewhere. Last summer, a dash camera video emerged in which female police officers in Dallas performed roadside vaginal and rectal searches for drugs of two women after a routine traffic stop. Days later, another video emerged of similar searches conducted in Houston. According to a New York Daily News report, civil rights attorneys later discovered that such searches are "standard policy among the Texas Department of Public Safety’s state troopers."

                Ken White, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor who writes at the Popehat blog, puts it this way:

                I'm not afraid because police officers violated David Eckert's constitutional rights by raping and torturing him because they thought he might have a trivial amount of drugs.

                I'm afraid that they might not have violated his rights as defined by the courts, because we have allowed those rights to wither away out of fear and indifference.

                But it could be worse than even that. Some courts have determined that these were violations of rights -- and perhaps more, or even the Supreme Court, will follow. But the bubble of infallibility we've built around the public officials we entrust to respect and protect our rights means that our rights can be horribly, egregiously and illegally violated . . . but the illegal part only really matters on paper. At worst, taxpayers will compensate the victims, but the violators will survive to violate another day.

                The best option may be to affect change through the political process. But even here, the options are limited. Gigante was appointed, not elected. Conceivably, the residents of Deming could hold the mayor or city council accountable if they refuse to replace him, or force him to change his policies. But now we're far removed from the initial violations. Few votes in a mayoral or city council election are ever going to be cast based on whether a mayor holds a police chief accountable for his police chief's reaction to a few officer's actions during a couple traffic stops. The most likely target of political repercussion could be Third Judicial District Attorney Mark D'Antonio. But few people pay attention to DA's races, and D'Antonio's deputy DA, while certainly culpable here, isn't at the root of this problem. He's more of an enabler. You could say the same for the judge, who will at some point be up for a retention election.

                Take a few steps back, and it's rather astonishing that we're even discussing this. These men were sexually assaulted, and not really even under the color of law. If we're actually discussing whether government actors can or should be held accountable for digitally penetrating a suspect's anus, then subjecting him to multiple enemas, then forcibly sedating him and shoving a camera up his rectum, whether they should be able to legally require medical personnel to assist them, and all in pursuit of evidence of a nonviolent, consensual crime -- we're already far, far removed from a system that takes justice or constitutional rights very seriously.

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                  Missouri's Culture Of Conviction

                  Radley Balko   |   November 8, 2013   10:15 AM ET

                  Tweet Read More: video, Ryan Ferguson, crime, Kenny Hulshof, missouri, criminal justice, exonerations, innocence, prosecutors, the agitator, prosecutorial misconduct, wrongfully convicted

                  This week, a state appeals court in Missouri vacated the conviction of 29-year-old Ryan Ferguson. In 2005, Ferguson was convicted for the murder of Kent Heitholt, a sports editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune. The only real evidence against him was the testimony of a friend, who later recanted, and testimony from an eyewitness who put him at the scene of the crime. That eyewitness also later recanted. Police found hair, fingerprints, and bloody footprints around Heithold's body, but none of that evidence implicated Ferguson. The state will now decide whether or not to retry him.

                  Unfortunately for him, Ferguson isn't out of trouble just yet. The Missouri Attorney General's Office has historically been one of the most stubborn in the country when it comes to accepting the possibility of a wrongful conviction. It has also been one of the aggressive in the country in pursuing convictions, particularly death penalty cases. (Ferguson had been sentenced to 40 years in prison.) Missouri The state ranks fifth in number of executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. It also ranks fifth in executions per capita.

                  Consider the case of Reginald Griffin. Griffin was convicted in 1983 for the murder of an inmate at the Moberly Correctional Center. He was sentenced to death. In 2011, the Missouri Supreme Court found that the Missouri Attorney General's Office had withheld critical exculpatory evidence from Griffin's attorneys. The prosecutor watchdog site Open File details that evidence:

                  The Court found that the Missouri Attorney General’s office withheld information that prison guards had confiscated a sharpened screwdriver from another inmate, Jeffrey Smith, as Smith attempted to leave the area where the victim was stabbed on the day of the murder. The Missouri Supreme Court deemed this evidence exculpatory because it would have significantly bolstered Griffin’s alternate perpetrator theory at trial.

                  And this is not the only exculpatory evidence that the state has kept to themselves.

                  In 2005, when Griffin’s attorneys filed a writ of habeas corpus that would later be granted by the Supreme Court, they alleged that one of the state’s two key witnesses in the case had recanted his trial testimony. The witness, Paul Curtis, told Griffin’s jury that he saw Griffin stab the victim with a long curved knife. Upon receiving Curtis’s affidavit recanting that testimony, an investigator from the Attorney General’s Office met with Curtis to question him about it.

                  In a recorded interview in 2006, Curtis told the AG’s investigator that a prison investigator named Raymond Newberry had coached his testimony (going as far as to tell Curtis the identities of people in photographs so he could point them out in court, and providing information about the murder weapon so he would know how to describe it) in exchange for benefits such as a prison transfer, money, and a TV.

                  That's all bad enough. But it gets worse. Under Brady v. Maryland, a 60-year-old Supreme Court decision, the prosecutors were obligated to turn over this information. But the Attorney General's Office argued otherwise. Again from Open File:

                  Assistant Attorney General Stephen Hawke argued that his office was not obligated to turn over the evidence because it was elicited in the course of a civil proceeding (habeas corpus). Though this may be true procedurally, ethically it does not relieve the Attorney General’s office of its duty to disclose evidence that tends to negate the guilt of the accused, and to seek justice. Further, despite his knowledge of the truthfulness of Curtis’s recantation, Hawke not only hid the evidence that would conclusively establish the truthfulness of the recantation but he then specifically argued that Curtis recantation was coerced and false in a calculated effort to continue Griffin’s wrongful incarceration.

                  Regardless of whether Hawke is correct about his legal obligations, or whether the Open File folks are correct about his black-letter ethical obligations, there is a larger question here about a commitment to justice and fairness. A prosecutor always has the discretion to turn over more evidence than the minimum required under law and some minimalist interpretation of ethical guidelines. If he believes doing so is in the interest of justice, he very well should. Instead, too often in these cases where prosecutorial shenanigans are revealed in post-conviction, state attorneys general hide behind procedural rules to avoid copping to the fact that the state has made mistakes. Griffin was finally exonerated and freed two weeks ago.

                  For all the talk we hear from the law-and-order crowd about dangerous criminals who "get off on a technicality," there are plenty of examples of prosecutors relying on legal technicalities to argue against overturning questionable convictions, even in death penalty cases.

                  And it isn't as if there isn't a history of such questionable convictions in Missouri. There have been at least nine exonerations in the state since 2010. Six of those were for murder, one was for kidnapping, and two were for sexual assaults. In a feature on prosecutorial misconduct I wrote for HuffPost in August, I noted the particularly troubling history of former Missouri prosecutor Kenny Hulshof.

                  Kenny Hulshof was so good at winning convictions he was regularly called upon by the state attorney general's office to oversee death penalty cases. He has since been cited by two appellate judges -- one state, one federal -- for withholding evidence. In 2008, the Associated Press uncovered five other cases Hulshof prosecuted in which the defendant's guilt had since come into question.

                  I didn't include it in my piece, but in January the Missouri Supreme Court overturned a third Hulshof conviction, again finding that he and his team of prosecutors had withheld exculpatory evidence.

                  The general theme of that piece from August is that prosecutors who commit this sort of misconduct are never sanctioned for it. They're never really held accountable in any way. (Hulshof moved on from prosecuting death penalty cases to get elected to the U.S. Congress, and now has a high-paying gig at a top law firm.)

                  Every incentive points toward putting people in prison as frequently as possible. When there's no disincentive for going to far in pursuit of those convictions, you get a culture of conviction, where preserving a guilty verdict becomes the dominant priority, well above justice, fairness, and the integrity of the criminal justice system. That certainly seems to be what has happened in the Office of the Missouri Attorney General.

                  Finally, here's another statistic: Missouri ranks fourth in executions per death sentence since 1977. If we could be certain that everyone on Missouri's death row is guilty -- that there is little reason to doubt the integrity of a murder conviction in Missouri -- that statistic wouldn't mean much. But given what we've already covered in this post, we're nowhere near certain of any of that. Which means that the comparatively efficient rate at which Missouri converts convictions into executions might be the scariest statistic of all.

                  NOTE: This post has been changed to reflect Ferguson's age (29) and a corrected spelling of the victim's last name.

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                    Today's Drug War Outrage: Man Dies In Jail Cell After Misdemeanor Pot Offense

                    Radley Balko   |   November 6, 2013   10:24 AM ET

                    Tweet Read More: jails, war on drugs, pot, marijuana, police, Drug War, police abuse, the agitator

                    Today's story is part drug war, part police indifference and callousness, part police cover-up. It comes by way of a lawsuit filed by the family of Michael Saffioti.

                    Saffioti failed to make a court date on a misdemeanor charge for pot possession. In July of last year, he surrendered himself to Snohomish County, Washington authorities, who promptly jailed him. (The streets of Snohomish County were a little safer that day.) When it came time for breakfast the following morning, Saffioti is seen on video having a conversation with a guard while holding his tray. Presumably, he was inquiring about any dairy products in the meal. Saffioti had a severe allergy. He's then seen taking a few bites of some oatmeal. (You can watch the video here.)

                    The awfulness that followed is detailed by KIRO TV.

                    Within a few minutes, Saffioti was back at the guard desk, using his inhaler.

                    According to the legal claim, he asked to see a nurse.

                    Instead, he was sent to his cell.

                    Over the next half hour, the video shows other inmates looking in Saffioti's cell as he jumped up and down.

                    The legal claim says he pressed his call button and was ignored.

                    It also alleges that the guards told him h was "faking."

                    About 35 minutes after he ate, a guard found Saffioti unconscious in his cell. The guard called for help and Saffioti was dragged out.

                    Nurses arrived and performed CPR. Everett firefighters took over and rushed Saffioti to the hospital where he was pronounced dead a half hour later.

                    Then the coverup began. County officials stonewalled Saffioti's mother's attempts to obtain video of the events leading to her son's death, first by denying its existence. After Saffioti's family discovered the police had lied about that, they turned over only non-incriminating portions of the video. The family was eventually able to force them to hand over the entire thing. So far, attorneys for the family have also been barred from interviewing jail staff or responding medical personnel.

                    This is the eighth death in the Snohomish jail in three years. Johnathin Vankin reports that "a recent investigation by the National Institute of Corrections found that the jail’s health department is seriously understaffed and that overcrowding in the jail has caused serious safety hazards."

                    But New York criminal defense attorney Scott Greenfield points out that this is about more than just staffing and funding.

                    This young man’s death reflects the toxic mix of dehumanization, neglect and deceit. Inmates complain constantly about nearly every aspect of life in jail. The accommodations don’t suit many, and there isn’t much reason not to complain. The product is that complaints are ignored.

                    After all, to the guards, these aren’t people, but inmates. That’s what inmates do, complain. Do something about the complaints and they’ll just be back complaining about something else tomorrow. Ignore them and they’ll still be back, but it’s easier to just ignore them again tomorrow.

                    The problem is that every once in a while, a complaint, like a life-threatening food allergy, is real. Not just real, but brutally real. To take the time to listen, to hear, to take seriously, a complaint is more than a guard can bear. Jails are all about routine, and routine applies to everyone. To expect CO’s to treat inmates like people, to take the time to distinguish between real complaints and the typical noise is to expect them to be caring, intelligent people. That’s not part of the routine.

                    Saffioti's food allergies were apparently so severe that he was sometimes called "bubble boy." His condition required constant attention. According to his mother, the knowledge that the smallest break in vigilance could result in his death caused Saffioti a lot of anxiety. Understandably so. She says he smoked pot to help relieve that anxiety. As both Greenfield and Vankin point out, the cruel irony here is that four months after Saffioti's death, recreational pot was legalized in Washington state.

                    The story is reminiscent of the Jonathan Magbie tragedy. Magbie was a quadriplegic who was allowed to die in a Washington, D.C. jail cell while serving a 10-day sentence for possession of pot. He was jailed despite no prior convictions, and in spite of his need of constant care to stay alive. According to his mother, Magbie smoked pot to treat the effects of his paralysis. Medical pot is now legal in D.C., and the city looks poised to at least decriminalize pot for recreational use, if not legalize it outright.

                    Comments (2,456)

                      Terrifying Drug War Story Of The Day: Man Receives Multiple Anal Probes After Traffic Stop

                        |   November 5, 2013   12:09 PM ET

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                        St. Louis Jails The Wrong People. Public Officials Shrug.

                          |   November 4, 2013    9:42 AM ET

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                          Reforming The Prison Capital Of The World

                            |   October 31, 2013   11:53 AM ET

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                            Kickstarter Campaign Seeks Funding For 'Puppycide' Documentary

                            Radley Balko   |   October 28, 2013   12:29 PM ET

                            Tweet Read More: Drug War, police, crime, police brutality, documentary, criminal justice, war on drugs, puppycide, dogs, cops, the agitator

                            The indie production company Ozymandias Media is asking for help to fund a documentary looking at the issue of police killing dogs. They've just launched a Kickstarter campaign with a compelling eight minute preview, which you can watch below. (Disclosure: I'm interviewed in the preview, and would presumably appear in the documentary. I also plan to donate. But that's the extent of my involvement in the project.)

                            I've written quite a bit on this problem. It has become something of a pet issue. (Sorry. This post needed a little levity.) It's difficult to say for certain if these shootings are happening more frequently, or if we're just more aware of them now because of social media and the ubiquity of smart phone and surveillance cameras. There's just no comprehensive data on cops shooting dogs. But several older police officers I interviewed for my recent book told me they're shocked by how often they're seeing these stories. Some said they couldn't recall a single such incident over the course of their careers in which they or a colleague had no choice but to kill a dog.

                            Last year, J.L. Greene and I looked at 24 cop-shoots-dog cases from recent news reports. We called the relevant police agency from each story to inquire about whether officers at those agencies receive any training on how to interact with dogs. Groups like the Humane Society and ASPCA offer such training to any police department in the country -- training on topics like how to read a dog's body language, how to distract an aggressive dog, and more generally how to handle interactions with dogs without killing them. Of the 13 police agencies that returned our calls, just one said they offered anything of the sort. Contrast that to the U.S. Postal Service, which gives its mail carriers regular training on interacting with animals. A U.S.P.S. spokesman also told me that there are vanishing few dog attacks on postal workers that require hospitalization.

                            But this is about more than just a lack of training. The former law enforcement officer interviewed in the preview video below blames pet owners and the lack of training, but puts little blame on the officers who are actually killing these dogs. There's a particularly striking moment in the video where he says that most cops don't want to kill dogs, "But they have no other choice, because nobody's told them anything different than to just shoot the dog."

                            Think about that for a moment. He's essentially saying that for some cops, the default reaction is to kill at the slightest provocation -- that they need to be told not to kill if we expect them to show restraint.

                            I can certainly conceive of some scenarios in which a large, aggressive, unchained dog might post a legitimate threat to a police officer (although, as the Kickstarter page points out, the number of documented cases in which a police officer was killed by a dog is approximately zero). But we've recently seen stories of cops killing leashed dogs, fenced dogs, chained dogs, dogs captured on restraint poles, and dogs that, at worst, are capable of inflicting a minor break in the flesh. In just the last few years, cops have killed chihuahuas, Jack Russell terriers, dachshunds, and countless other small breeds. In nearly all of these cases, the officers' actions were later determined to have been justified.

                            When police departments don't give any training on dog interaction, and then decide that dog shootings are justified based only on officers' subjective statement that he feared for his safety (regardless of whether or not that fear was rational), the inevitable result is that any incident of any cop shooting any dog will always be considered justified. For pet owners, this comes off as a pretty callous. Officer safety -- protection even from irrational, perceived threats of minor injuries from small dogs -- will always justify an officer's decision to kill the family pet.

                            In an interview with me for my book, Norm Stamper, the former police chief of Seattle and a 28-year cop, said he thinks the phenomenon began with a legitimate problem -- that some drug dealers use vicious, powerful dogs to guard their supply -- but that it has since gotten way out of hand. Or, put another way, it's yet another unintended consequence of the drug war.

                            "Among other things, it really shows a lack of imagination. These guys think that the only solution to a dog that’s yapping or charging is shooting and killing it. That’s all they know. It goes with this notion that police officers have to control every situation, to control all the variables. That’s an awesome responsibility, and if you take it on, you’re caving to delusion. You no longer exercise discrimination or discretion. You have to control, and the way you control is with authority, power, and force. With a dog, the easiest way to take control is to simply kill it. I mean, especially if there are no consequences for doing so.”

                            In a separate interview, Stamper added, "I think all of this drug-war imagery has produced a mentality that didn't used to exist. It's 'I'm part of a war, I have a mission, and nothing is going to get in the way of me completing that mission.' You're kicking down doors, barging in with guns, and when animals do what animals do, they become collateral damage. Too many officers have gotten rather callous about it, I'm afraid."

                            Former drug cop Russ Jones put it more bluntly: "I guess somewhere along the line a cop shot a dog under questionable circumstances and got away with it. Word got out, and now it seems like some cops are just looking for reasons to take a shot at a dog. Maybe it just comes down to that -- we can get away with it, therefore we do it.”

                            Judging from the preview, the documentary looks like it will be probing and critical, but fair enough to give law enforcement sources the opportunity to present their side of the issue. If this is an issue that troubles you, you might consider making a donation to fund the effort to bring it to a larger audience.

                            A warning, though: The video below contains graphic video of law enforcement officers shooting dogs. It's terribly disturbing.

                            Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to give my dog a hug.

                            HuffPost writer and investigative reporter Radley Balko is also the author of the new book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces.

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