'Baby Steps' Toward Open Courtrooms?

The public wants more access to the judicial system. In the past few years, states have responded by allowing more cameras into more courtroom proceedings. But federal courts have been slower to make change. Following our story last week, “Cameras and 'Making a Murderer”, The Crime Report asked readers: “Should cameras be given unrestricted access to all phases of a courtroom trial?” Some 63 percent responded “Yes.”

High Court Juvenile Life Sentence Ruling Could Affect 1,500 Inmates

Attorneys who specialize in juvenile justice called yesterday’s Supreme Court decision on life sentences for those who committed crimes as teens “potentially sweeping” but warned that resentencing hearings were far from a sure path to freedom, reports the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. The court ruled, 6 to 3, in Montgomery v. Louisiana that prisoners serving mandatory life sentences without parole for murders they committed as juveniles should have a chance at release via a resentencing hearing. Though parole boards will now have to review the sentences, they won’t have to give parole, said retired law professor Victor Streib, an expert on the juvenile death penalty and juvenile justice. “And it would be very typical for them not to.” The ruling means that the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision, which said that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional on Eighth Amendment grounds, should apply retroactively.

NJ Instruction Makes Jurors Suspicious Of All Eyewitness Testimony

The state of New Jersey has been trying to help jurors better assess the reliability of eyewitness testimony, but a study reported by NPR suggests that the effort may be having unintended consequences. That’s because a new set of instructions read to jurors by a judge seems to make them skeptical of all eyewitness testimony, even testimony that should be considered reasonably reliable. In 2012, New Jersey’s Supreme Court said that in cases that involve eyewitness testimony, judges must give jurors a special set of instructions. The instructions are basically a tutorial on what scientific research has learned about eyewitness testimony and the factors that can make it more dependable or less so. “The hope with this was that jurors would then be able to tell what eyewitness testimony was trustworthy, what sort wasn’t, and at the end of the day it would lead to better decisions, better court outcomes, better justice,” says psychologist David Yokum.

All Juvenile Lifers May Argue For Their Release, Supreme Court Rules

Teenagers sentenced to life imprisonment for murder must have a chance to argue that they be released from prison, the Supreme Court ruled today. The 6-to-3 ruling said the high court’s 2012 decision that struck down mandatory life imprisonment terms for juveniles must be applied retroactively, the Washington post reports. That would mean new sentencing or a chance to argue for parole, said Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority decision. The decision continues the trend of the court’s deciding that juveniles convicted of even the most heinous crimes must be treated differently from adults. The case was brought by Henry Montgomery, who as a 17-year-old in 1963 shot and killed Louisiana Sheriff's Deputy Charles Hurt.

Rethinking Criminal Intent: Why ‘Mens Rea’ Matters

In order for the government to legally prosecute, convict and punish someone, in most cases it must prove that the person committed the criminal act (known as actus reus) and that he or she committed that act with criminal intention (mens rea). There are a variety of terms used to describe mens rea, including moral blameworthiness, a guilty mind, an evil mind, conscious will, or willful action. Mens rea is a foundational element of American jurisprudence. The U.S. Supreme Court made it quite clear in 2015 in Elonis v. United States that mens rea is what distinguishes wrongful conduct from otherwise innocent conduct. It determines whom we hold criminally responsible.

High Court To Decide On Obama’s Power To Defer Deportations

The Supreme Court today said it will decide whether President Obama has the authority to declare that millions of illegal immigrants be allowed to remain and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation, reports the Washington Post. The court likely will hear the case in April, with a ruling before July. It provides the last chance the administration would be able to implement the program Obama announced in 2014, which affects upwards of 4 million people, before he leaves office. The program, called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), would allow illegal immigrants in those categories to remain in the country and apply for work permits if they have been here for at least five years and have not committed felonies or repeated misdemeanors. The administration says the program is simply a way for a government with limited resources to prioritize which illegal immigrants it will move first to deport.

Cameras and 'Making a Murderer'

If you watched the popular, and controversial, Netflix documentary series, “Making a Murderer,” you were treated to a rare, compelling portrait of a trial inside the Wisconsin state courthouse. If filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi had been covering a trial in a different state, or different level or court, their documentary may have looked a lot different. We're familiar with fictional courtroom dramas in the movies and on TV, but in most real-life courtrooms across America, what cameras are allowed to show is strictly limited—if they are allowed in at all. If Steven Avery's murder trial had taken place, for example, in neighboring Minnesota or Illinois, the 360-degree coverage of everything from witness testimony to reactions from the people inside the courtroom would probably not have been allowed. Wisconsin became one of the first states to allow cameras in court in the late 1970s.

TX Criminal Court Reverses Convictions Of Seven In “Talking Dirty” Cases

Texas’ top criminal court yesterday reversed the convictions of seven men who were sentenced to prison for talking dirty to minors online, reports the Dallas Morning News. They are among the first to see their convictions reversed after a 2013 Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decision overturned a state law criminalizing sexually explicit online communication with minors. The court said the law was written so broadly that it infringed on free speech rights, prohibiting things such as sexually explicit literature and films. Last year, lawmakers passed a new measure that requires prosecutors to prove an intent to act illegally on sexually explicit communications. Those convicted under the old law could have their cases overturned. It's unclear how many convictions could be vacated as a result of the 2013 decision.