News Roundup

Over the past several days, the national news has been dominated by the issuance of an investigative report about the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal, a topic I previously addressed here. The report makes clear that football coach Joe Paterno, university president Graham Spanier, and other university leaders were aware of the problem and failed to report it to authorities. To Penn State’s credit, it commissioned and released the report that will surely be Exhibit A in many civil suits against it, and that will likely add fuel to the criminal prosecutions of some of its top administrators.

Meanwhile, there have been quite a few interesting developments here in North Carolina:

1. The News and Observer reports here that “[t]he homicide rate rose nearly 6 percent in North Carolina last year, but the overall crime rate was the lowest since 1977.” The overall trend is in keeping with a marked reduction in the crime rate nationwide over the past several decades.

2. Also in the News and Observer this week was a piece by Judge Joe John, the director of the State Crime Lab. The op-ed is essentially a response to the paper’s previous story, noted here, reporting that about 25 lab employees had failed certification exams but that their failures had not been promptly disclosed to prosecutors or to defense attorneys. Judge John states that (1) 87 percent of lab employees are certified, even though (2) employees aren’t required to be certified until next year and (3) certification isn’t required to give expert testimony. He also says that (4) although there were some inadvertent delays, the lab has now provided information about analysts who failed certification exams to every district attorney in the state.

3. Continuing the forensic science theme, federal practitioners will be interested in this USA Today story about the FBI’s decision to “review thousands of convictions to determine whether crucial lab tests of hair and fiber evidence were flawed.” The review will go back at least to 1985, and will be conducted in partnership with the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

4. Back in North Carolina, the General Assembly overrode Governor Perdue’s veto and amended (or arguably de facto repealed) the Racial Justice Act. The relevant bill is here. This has sparked litigation over whether defendants who filed claims under the prior version of the RJA are entitled to have those claims adjudicated under the law as it existed when those claims were made. The front lines of the battle are, once again, in Cumberland County. Media stories are here, here, and here.

5. The court of appeals recently published this document, entitled North Carolina Court of Appeals Legal Standards. According to the document’s preface, it is “intended  to provide  illustrations  of the wide variety of standards of review,  legal tests, and general statements  of law employed at the N.C. Court of Appeals.” It looks like a very useful resource for appellate lawyers.

6. Finally, MSNBC reports here on a program in a Brazilian prison that allows inmates to earn sentence reduction credits by pedaling stationary bikes to generate electricity for municipal streetlights. Three eight-hour days of pedaling equals one day shaved off an inmate’s sentence. Victims’ rights advocates are concerned, but good grief, pedaling a stationary bike in a concrete room for eight hours a day is no picnic. From the photograph accompanying the story, I’m pretty sure that the bikes aren’t even iPod ready. Here in the United States, that would generate an Eighth Amendment conditions of confinement lawsuit.

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