News Roundup

On Wednesday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller spent seven hours testifying to the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.  Though his testimony was highly anticipated and widely covered by the media, Mueller largely reiterated the substance of the report he delivered earlier this year – saying that it was clear that Russia did interfere in the election but that there was not sufficient evidence that any member of the Trump Campaign conspired in that effort, and that his office did not reach a conclusion about whether President Trump obstructed justice during the investigation.  Keep reading for more news.

Exoneration.  For some attorneys the most nerve-wracking portion of the Mueller hearings came when Ohio Representative Michael Turner suddenly produced a copy of a criminal law textbook he said was used at the University of Virginia.  After recovering from flashbacks about the Socratic method, we learned that Turner was pushing Mueller on whether prosecutors have the capacity or authority to exonerate people suspected of committing a criminal offense.  USA Today covered the exchange here.

Finch.  The News Roundup previously noted that after serving four decades behind bars, Charles Ray Finch was released from North Carolina prison earlier this year when a federal judge vacated his 1976 state murder conviction.  That proceeding followed a Fourth Circuit decision granting him a hearing on the merits of an untimely habeas petition because he met an actual innocence standard.  This week, WUNC’s The State of Things aired a lengthy interview about the case with Finch’s attorney James E. Coleman of Duke Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic.  The interview is available here.

Henson.  Carolina Public Press reports that Representative Cody Henson pleaded guilty and entered into a deferred prosecution agreement this week after being charged with misdemeanor cyberstalking earlier this year.  The agreement reportedly requires Henson to complete 18 months of probation and a domestic violence treatment class.  Immediately after entering the agreement, Henson said that he would not resign from office.  A day later, he announced that he would resign effective at noon today.

Death Penalty.  Last week in noting the passing of Justice Stevens, the News Roundup traced Stevens’ path to reaching the personal conclusion that the death penalty is unconstitutional.  This week Attorney General William Barr announced that the Department of Justice would reinstate a policy allowing the federal government’s use of capital punishment, a policy which has been dormant for two decades.  With the announcement, the Department scheduled five executions, which are to be carried out by lethal injection using just a single drug – pentobarbital.  The first execution is scheduled for December 9 of this year.

Risk Assessments.  The Appeal, a website about criminal justice issues, has an article this week that explores the shortcomings of risk assessment tools.  The article discusses a New York Times op-ed published earlier this month where two M.I.T. scientists and a lawyer affiliated with Harvard Law School argue that predictions of future violence provided by risk assessment tools are deeply uncertain.  The authors of the op-ed say that this uncertainty is the result of the fact that it is relatively rare for any defendant to commit a violent crime while on pretrial release.  As a result, the op-ed authors say, risk assessment tools sacrifice accuracy in order to make “questionable distinctions among people who all have a low, indeterminate or incalculable likelihood of violence.”

The Appeal piece notes that another group of scholars, all of whom work at North Carolina Universities – either NC State or Duke, responded to the op-ed by saying that characterizing all risk assessment tools as fundamentally flawed and advocating for abandoning them is an extreme view that overlooks benefits associated with relying on empirical data rather than instinct.  All three of the articles are worth a look if you’re interested in these tools.

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