Criminal Justice Reform Events that are Occuring in California

Proposed Legislation and California Department of Justice Respond to Demands for Police Transparency

The “Black Lives Matter” Movement Comes to Sacramento, California

On September 2, 2015 members of the Black Lives Matter movement staged a “die in” protest, laying down outside the office of California Governor Jerry Brown. Other protestors stood upright, chanting “black lives matter” while holding pictures of black individuals killed by police officers. This protest was part of mounting pressures to engage in meaningful reform of law enforcement that began in response to the Michael Brown case in Ferguson Missouri.

The State Legislature Sends Assembly Bill 953 to the Governor’s Desk

Before ending the current legislative session, the California State Assembly Members voted 42-24 in favor AB 953. The bill, if signed by Governor Brown, would require officers to provide additional information regarding the race of the person being stopped by law enforcement. Under current California Law, police officers are not required to report information regarding the race of individuals they pull over.

While critics say that this will put more work on an already strained police force, members of the Black Lives Matter movement think that requiring officers to disclose this information will reveal patterns of racial profiling. While Governor Brown has not indicated whether he will sign the bill into law, his office issued a statement welcoming the civic activism Black Lives Matter and other groups.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris Announces Open Justice Initiative

In a similar vein, California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced the OpenJustice Initiative which will report data on arrest rates, criminal defendant and inmate deaths in custody, and the assault or murder of law enforcement officers. In her statement on the front page of the new website AG Harris stated, “OpenJustice is a tool that embraces transparency and data in the criminal justice system to strengthen public trust, enhance government accountability, and inform public policy”. According to the website Police Open Data Census only 38 municipalities put a small portion of their enforcement data online for public viewing.

Protest against police brutality

California Abolishes Grand Jury in Police-Shooting Cases in Response to National Police Brutality

The Secretive World of Grand Juries

Grand juries are juries in which the district attorney has to show that there is “probable cause” to indict a defendant with criminal charges. “Probable cause” is a low standard of proof which only requires the government to show that there is a “fair probability” that the individual committed the crime. Grand juries are secret and the testimony and documents submitted to a grand jury are not open to public inspection unless the state prosecutor decides to make a discretionary call to release them.

Recent Police Brutality Cases and Grand Juries

Grand juries have been under heavy fire recently because of the spotlight on police brutality cases involving black victims. Some prosecuting attorneys have decided to voluntarily disclose grand jury materials to the public after grand juries decide not to indict officers charged with police brutality. For example, prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch decided to release grand jury documents in the Michael Brown case because of charges of bias.

Once a district attorney decides not to disclose grand jury documents little can be done. For example, the district attorney in the Eric Garner case in New York City refused to release grand jury documents after the grand jury did not indict the officer in that case. The American Civil Liberties Union brought a law suit to compel the district attorney’s office to disclose the documents, but lost the case at the trial level and on appeal.

California Abolishes Grand Juries in Police Brutality Cases

In California, grand juries are rarely used in criminal matter. Until recently, however, a district attorney had the discretion to bring criminal cases to a grand jury. Because of the ongoing uproar over grand juries in cases where officers kill civilians, California recently passed a law banning grand juries in cases where an officer uses deadly force against a civilian.

In a written statement following the enactment of the new law, State Senator Holly Mitchell said the law was passed because grand jury secrecy in police cases “fostered an atmosphere of suspicion that threatens to compromise our justice system.” Time will tell if sunlight will be the best disinfectant in this highly charged issue.

Hayward Police Officer Murdered After Routine Traffic Stop Turns Deadly

Sgt. Lunger Killed at 3 AM during Routine Traffic Stop

An early morning traffic stop turned to tragedy, as an individual opened fire on Sargent Scott Lunger of the Hayward Police Department. The gunshot killed Sgt. Lunger, leaving the Police Department and larger community distraught and seeking justice.
The shooting occurred at 3:14 AM this morning. People in the neighborhood stated that they heard three gunshots. Based on information gathered during investigation the police were able to track down a white GMC pickup in Oakland. The vehicle had numerous bullet holes in its side.

Police Apprehend Potential Suspect

Hours later the police announced that they had apprehended a suspect in the case. The suspect is currently being treated for bullet wounds at a hospital in the area. The police have not released any further details as the investigation is ongoing.

Sgt. Lunger’s Career and Family

Sgt. Lunger, father of two daughters, was with the Hayward Police Department for 15 years. He was a member the department’s gang division and SWAT team. His commanding officer and personal friend, Captain Mark Knoller described Sgt. Lunger as an exemplary officer who was engaged in the community.

Murder of Police Officer Performing Duties Can Lead to a Life Sentence or Even the Death Penalty

Murdering a police officer in the performance of their duty is a “special circumstance” crime in California. The defendant can be sentenced to life in prison, or even the death penalty, if the government can prove that (1) the police officer was lawfully performing his duties (2) the defendant intended to kill the officer, and (3) the defendant knew the victim was a police officer, or that the defendant killed the officer in retaliation for performing his or her duties.

Given the facts as they are currently known it is possible that the Alameda County District Attorney’s office will pursue a charge of murder of a police officer in performance of his duties.

Years of Faulty Forensic Science on Hair Samples Plagues Criminal Justice System

An Innocent Man Released

Mr. Kirk Odom

In 2012, after 22 years in prison, Kirk L. Odom walked out of a Washington D.C. courthouse an innocent man. A jury found Mr. Odom’s guilty of a rape and robbery of a woman in 1981. Judge Herbert B. Dixon of the D.C. Superior Court cited new DNA evidence as part of the basis for Mr. Odom’s exoneration.

Forensic Science: Both the Solution and the Problem

On its face, Mr. Odom’s case is a perfect example of advances in science correct wrongs against innocent defendants in our criminal justice system. Advances in DNA science made it possible for Mr. Odom, after two decades, to finally clear his name. Mr. Odom’s case is also, however, an example of how bad science can mislead juries.

During Mr. Odom’s jury trial, FBI forensic scientists testified that Mr. Odom on a hair sample found at the scene of the crime. They said the evidence showed that Mr. Odom likely committed the crime he was charged with. This testimony from scientific experts played a part in the juries decision to find Mr. Odom guilty.

What Went Wrong?

Sadly, the faulty use of hair samples in Mr. Odom’s case is not an isolated incident. Research currently being conducted by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project reveals years of systematic distortion on the reliability of the use of hair sample evidence in trials.

The study looks at testimony of members of 28 examiners from the FBI Criminal Lab’s microscopic hair unit. Of those 28 examiners, 26 distorted their testimony in a pro-prosecutor direction in 95% of the 258 trials investigated in the study so far. Thirty-two of those cases led to a jury sentencing the defendant to the death penalty. Fourteen of those given the death penalty have already been executed by the state or died in prison.

Calls for Reform

Cases like Mr. Odon’s as well as the research currently being conducted by the NACDL and Innocence Project are leading to calls for reform. Texas, New York, and North Carolina are currently reviewing how they evaluate hair samples in criminal cases. Furthermore, some states are considering drafting laws that make convictions based on science that is subsequently discovered to be faulty a violation of a criminal defendant’s due process rights.