News Roundup

The trial of the week this week is in Charlotte, where former CMPD officer Randall Kerrick is charged with voluntary manslaughter in the fatal shooting of former college football player Jonathan Ferrell. The case has attracted some national attention, as evidenced by the CNN coverage here, perhaps in part because Kerrick is white and Ferrell was black. The parties disagree about the extent of the danger posed by Ferrell when he ran towards, and made contact with, Kerrick.

In other news:

UNC law professor on vulnerable defendants. Professor Tamar Birckhead, along with attorney Katie Rose Guest Pryal, wrote this introduction to a symposium about how vulnerable defendants are treated in the criminal justice system. It explores how juveniles, the mentally ill, the homeless, immigrants, people of color, and other disadvantaged groups are treated, and it asks whether reforms are in order.

“Revenge porn” bill advances. The News and Observer reports here that a bill that would make “revenge porn” a felony continues to move through the General Assembly, now with an additional provision designed to address individuals who, while on private property, expose themselves to members of the public.

Federal court strikes down “ag gag” law. A federal judge has ruled that “an Idaho law making it illegal to secretly film animal abuse at agricultural facilities violates the right to free speech.” North Carolina recently enacted a bill that seems likewise to have been motivated by undercover operations at large animal farming operations. S.L. 2015-50 creates a civil cause of action for employers against employees who surreptitiously videotape the employment environment. Whether it may also be vulnerable to a legal challenge remains to be seen.

Risk assessments and sentencing. This piece by the Marshall Project attracted considerable attention this week. The piece is about the use of risk assessments in sentencing, and it begins by asking provocatively whether judges should “base criminal sentences not only on what crimes people have been convicted of, but also on whether they are deemed likely to commit additional crimes.” But is this really a novel question? Incapacitation has long been recognized as a purpose of punishment, and one could view Structured Sentencing as a very simplistic risk assessment tool: a higher prior record level means a greater risk of recidivism. Further, Jamie Markham has written elsewhere about the use of risk assessments for sex offenders, probationers, and in other contexts. Still, with risk assessments proliferating, it is a good time to think about their benefits and shortcomings.

Prosecutors, don’t do this. Above the Law reports here about a picture of a Pennsylvania prosecutor that cropped up on Facebook recently. She’s holding a gun, alongside an officer also holding a gun, and the picture is captioned “you should take the plea.” Hey, she’s a young lawyer, she didn’t post the picture on her own account, and it may not be the biggest deal in the world. But I’m going to go ahead and say that prosecutors would be best served by avoiding even the suggestion of violence or coercion against a defendant in connection with plea negotiations.

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