Monday, July 26, 2010

Race In The Courtroom: A Prosecutor's Perspective

A new study shows that, in North Carolina, a defendant convicted of murdering a white person is 3 times as likely to receive the death sentence as compared to a defendant convicted of murdering a black person.  By comparison, an almost identical study in Florida shows a very small disparity, although the death sentence is still more likely in cases with a white victim. (For informational purposes, the study seems to use the term "black person" and not "African American", and thus this article uses the same terminology.)

A university professor from Colorado and a university researcher from Boston examined over 15,000 homicide cases in North Carolina, spanning the years 1980 to 2007, 368 (2.4%) of which resulted in death as the determined penalty.  The conductors of the study, who have decades of experience in such research, explained that they did their best to compare apples to apples (recognizing that some murder cases are more brutal and shocking than others, for example, and thus more deserving of the death penalty).

Among various theories to explain the discrepancy is that white victim cases tend to receive more attention (and garner more outrage) from the community - and perhaps from judges, juries, and the prosecutor's office. Then again, when Nebraska (a rather "white" state) was evaluated, it was discovered that white victim cases were less likely to result in a death penalty sentence.

Interestingly, last year, N.C. passed a law known as the "Racial Justice Act". This law allows judges to consider statistical evidence, if any, which suggests that race played a role in the seeking or imposing of the death penalty in a particular case and use any such conclusion to impact the execution of the sentence. Due to various and mostly unrelated legal challenges, death penalty executions in North Carolina have actually been on hold for the past 3 years.

A Prosecutor's Perspective

I worked as a prosecutor in south Florida from 1996 - 2001, and prosecuted thousands of cases during those 5 years. Below are some questions relevant to this article, and my answers to the same, based on my professional experience as a prosecutor.

Was I, as a prosecutor, ever accused of racism? Not to my knowledge. Occasionally, while out and about in the community on my off hours, I would run into someone I had prosecuted or even put in jail or prison (persons of varying skin color). On many of those occasions I had no idea who the person was until (s)he got my attention. Each time (and such occasions were rare), the person I had prosecuted got my attention and said hello (or something similar), and maybe even tried to speak with me further.  Of course I never discussed their cases with them - I just said "hello" back and wished them well.  Never once did I feel threatened or even receive harsh words. I always believed (and still do) that this was because I merely did my job, did it fairly as I was sworn to do, and never made it personal.

Did I ever experience obvious "racism" in the courtroom? Yes, but not often and not always in the way you might expect. The most blatant episode I experienced was actually what is sometimes referred to as "reverse racism". It was a routine possession of cocaine (a felony) jury trial, and the defendant - a white woman arrested in the company of a dark-skinned man - had a known background of prostitution, drug use, etc. The evidence was quite clear, but there was one juror who refused to convict.  She was an 80 year old African American woman who had lived her formative years in small town Alabama or Georgia (I can't recall which) who slept through most of the trial. (Persons who sleep through trials - and there are many more of them than you'd expect - are rarely factors in the jury's decision, but rather follow the majority.)

Although there was no evidence to suggest this - and not a single person during the trial, defense attorney included, ever suggested it - this juror decided that the police had planted the cocaine and arrested the white woman merely for being in the company of her dark skinned "friend" (who was not arrested or charged with any crime). Thus she assumed that the police (one of whom was white, the other African American) acted illegally to punish a white woman for associating with a darker man - she unfairly stereotyped the police officers as having acted with racial motives.

Did I ever experience racism in the prosecutor's office? No and yes.  I never experienced a racially charged atmosphere , any race based actions, or anything that made me (a white male) aware of a racially hostile working environment. However, I did overhear an occasional "racist" remark by a fellow prosecutor, always directed at a criminal defendant. None of these remarks were along the lines of "I'm going to get that (insert racial term of your choosing here)" and none, on their face, indicated the prosecutor was going to be unfair in prosecuting the case. I never observed any behavior indicating that a particular prosecutor sought harsher punishment due to racial factors - unless the law demanded harsher punishment in situations involving legally defined "hate crimes".

Did I ever feel different toward a case because of race? No and yes.  I never, ever cared what color the defendant's or victim's skin was with regard to prosecuting the case "harder" or seeking a harsher penalty.  For the most part, all I really cared about was what happened, and, to a lesser extent, why it happened.  After all, the whole point of having laws and prosecuting the breaking of laws is to judge persons on their actions - did they violate the law or not? However, I was always relieved - we all were - if a case seemed to lack any "racial issues". In my experience, we wanted to prosecute cases on their merits, not be sidetracked by irrelevant racial issues.  (Occasionally, race is a relevant issue in a case.)

What about this study in North Carolina - why are white victim cases so much more likely to result in the death penalty being handed down? Good question, and it's impossible to point to any one factor. In some cases there simply is no difference in how the cases are treated, regardless of who the victim is. For cases in which there may be a difference due to racial issues, I'd suggest the following as 5 possibilities - and this list is not meant to be all inclusive, by any means:

  • inherent but subconscious greater concern about white victims by those inside the justice system;

  • a greater reaction from the general community when the victim is white (puts pressure on those inside the justice system to ensure harsher punishment);

  • greater resources (money, connections, access to publicity) by those connected to the white victim;

  • actual, intentional unfair application of law by those inside the justice system; and

  • subconscious disparity in coverage by media.

One further observation & food for thought: in my experience, the reaction from the community and the media was much, much greater when the victim was an animal as opposed to a human being of any color.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Below Ground Zero: Ship Hull Found Underneath Remains of World Trade Center

Earlier this week, archeologists working at Ground Zero - actually below Ground Zero - made a startling discovery. One of the archeologists, whose firm has been retained to observe construction at and underneath Ground Zero, spotted two large, curved pieces of wood sticking out of the muddy pit about 20 feet below ground level. The discoverer and her colleagues then worked together to unearth the find and raise it out of the pit.

What they uncovered was a 32 foot long wooden ship's hull, which may have belonged to a ship which last sailed in the 1700s. Then, only a few yards away, an iron ship's anchor weighing approximately 100 pounds was found. (It is not known if the anchor belonged to the same ship as the hull.)

Upon hearing about this, many person's first reaction is "Wow!" followed quickly by "How the heck did that happen?" Given the nature of our society, there may even be those who weave these findings into their conspiracy theories concerning 9-11 and the World Trade Center. However, experts believe that the ship hull was used in the early 1800s as part of a land-fill effort.

Like the original topography of numerous other prominent American cities (including Boston and Chicago), Manhattan was only able to expand by creating dry land where none existed. As the island of Manhattan began to become more crowded, portions of the Hudson River were filled over to create more dry land and increase the size of Manhattan. The ship's hull discovered this week was likely from an outdated or damaged ship which was used to help fill in land in lower Manhattan about the year 1810.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Consumer Credit Scores Up or Down? The Answer Will Surprise You

Are American consumers' credit scores up or down these days? Surprisingly, the answer is "both", according to FICO.

As expected, the number of American consumers who have poor credit -- a score of 599 or below -- has increased over the last few years, although only by 6% percent, and now stands at 25.5% of consumers. Unfortunately,  the number of those with poor credit will continue to increase in the immediate future. By way of comparison, historically, 15% of Americans have had credit scores of 599 or below.

What is surprising is that the percentage of consumers with excellent credit scores has increased over the last 5 years and now stands at almost 18%. Although that is down from 18.7% in April, 2008, it's still markedly above the historical average of 13%. Why and how have millions of people actually improved their credit scores in this economic environment? Evidence suggests that these folks may have fully perceived the oncoming financial storm earlier than most, and worked hard to reduce their spending while paying off debts.

Those with poor credit scores have difficulty obtaining credit  -- including credit cards, auto loans and mortgages.  Thus, that segment of the population has less access to money, less ability to spend money, and less ability to help get the wheels of commerce speeding along again.

More information can be found at the website For those of you wondering, "FICO" stands for Fair, Isaac Company, which is the organization that originally put together a standard of evaluating an individual's credit-worthiness.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

SAT Scores: Top Girls vs. Top Boys – Who Wins?

The Duke University Talent Identification Program evaluates S.A.T. and A.C.T. tests taken by the top 5% of seventh graders in order to identify gifted students and further nurture their intellectual talents. The most recent study included over 1.6 million students, and its results continue the historical pattern of showing different performances for girls versus boys.

Among those scoring 700 or higher on the verbal portion of the S.A.T., girls scored slightly higher than boys. However, the number of seventh grade boys who scored 700 or higher on the math portion of the S.A.T. significantly outnumbered the girls - by a ratio of approximately 4 to 1. This gap between high scoring boys and girls in the math portion has remained essentially the same for the last 15 years (the gap was much greater than that prior to 1995). It is perhaps a bit surprising that this gap has not narrowed, given the greater emphasis on encouraging women to focus on math and science in the last few decades.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Protection From Debt Collectors: Part 5

This is Part 5 of a multi-part series.  Previously: Part 1 (identifying applicable Federal Law); Part 2 (allowable communications from FDCPA debt collectors); Part 3 (whether debt collectors can sue debtors/consumers); and Part 4 (information a debt collector must provide to the consumer).

Improper Actions by Debt Collectors

The following are usually illegal actions by committed by debt collectors who are governed by the Federal Law known as the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).

A.       Common but Unethical Actions by Debt Collectors

1.  making telephone calls without properly identifying himself or herself

a)  except as allowed and necessary to obtain location information from third parties

2.  annoying, abusing, or harassing persons by calling their telephone number repeatedly or causing their telephone to ring continually

3.  using obscene, profane, or other language that abuses the hearer

4.  falsely representing or implying that he or she is affiliated with the United States or any State or Government

5.  falsely representing or implying that he or she is an attorney

6.  falsely representing or implying the type, amount, or legal status of the debt

7.  threatening to take any action that is not legal or not actually intended to be taken

8.  communicating or threatening to communicate false credit information (such as to a credit reporting agency, etc.)

9.  using any false or deceptive means to collect or attempt to collect a debt

10. using any false or presentation or deceptive means to collect information about a debtor

11. falsely representing or implying that the debt collector operates or is employed by a consumer credit reporting agency

12. falsely representing or implying that nonpayment of the debt will result in arrest, imprisonment, garnishment of wages, seizure of property, or sale of property, unless such action is lawful and actually intended by the debt collector or creditor

13. failing to communicate that information obtained by the debt collector will be used to help collect the debt

14. failing to disclose in  the initial communication that the debt collector is attempting to collect a debt and any information obtained will be used for that purpose

15. failing to disclose in communications, generally, that the communications are from a debt collector.

B.              Other Unethical Practices by Debt Collectors

1.  collecting or attempting to collect some sort of fee or charge unless it was authorized by the original debt agreement or as otherwise permitted by law

2.  falsely representing or implying that the debtor committed a crime or  other conduct to disgrace the him or herself

3.  using written communications which appear to be authorized by or belonging to the courts, a government agency, etc., but, in fact, are not

4.  advertising a debt as being for sale to force payment by the debtor

5.  using or threatening to use violence or other criminal means to harm debtor, the debtor's reputation, or the debtor's property

6.  publishing a list of debtors who allegedly refused to pay debts

a)   please note that did debt collectors can, however, communicate with consumer reporting agencies in this regard, as well as a few other entities specified by law

7.   using a post card to contact a debtor about a debt


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Kaboom? Florida Criminal, Family Lawyer Greeted With Grenade

Kaboom? Florida Criminal, Family Lawyer Greeted With Grenade

Not long ago, a Florida lawyer returned to his office to find a hand grenade hanging from his doorknob. The lawyer, who practices family law and criminal law near Orlando, alerted authorities. Having practiced both criminal and family law, I can promise you that the most likely suspect is someone related to a family law case!

A major road was shut down in the area while explosives experts attempted to determine the status of the grenade. In the meantime, the police attempt to determine whether the grenade was left in warning, was part of a murder attempt, or was just some misguided client's way of making payment. Ok, I made that last possibility up.

The grenade was eventually determined to be a "reloaded training grenade" and was removed with no further drama. The Civil Lawyer Online has not been able to determine exactly how dangerous a "reloaded training grenade" might be, but is glad to never have had one left on his door (or anywhere else, for that matter).

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Americans: Who We Were, Who We Are, Who We Will Be: Part 2

Americans: Who We Were, Who We Are, Who We Will Be: Part 2

This is the second in a series of blog posts concerning the make-up of America, largely based on Census data from 1999 - 2000 and 2009 - 2010. Happy birthday, America!

Part 2: Where Your Neighbors Were From as of 2000

Thankfully we survived Y2K (remember that?), and the 2000 United States Census was completed.  Here is a quick summary of some of the more interesting information obtained via Census 2000 regarding our collective backgrounds.   The question was posed this way on the Census 2000 form: "What is this person's ancestry or ethnic origin?"

Who lived where, regionally, in the USA in 2000?

Which ethnic groups where the largest in the USA's 4 primary regions in 2000? (Listed in order by total population of region)


  1. African American (14%)

  2. American (11.2%)

  3. German (10%)

  4. Irish (8.8%)

  5. English (8.4%)


  1. German (26.6%)

  2. Irish (11.8%)

  3. English (8.4%)

  4. African American (7.8%)

  5. American (6.5%)


  1. Mexican (16%)

  2. German (13.3%)

  3. English (9.9%)

  4. Irish (9%)

  5. American (4.1%)


  1. Irish (15.8%)

  2. Italian (14.1%)

  3. German (13.6%

  4. English (8.3%)

  5. African American (6.5%

With regard to the 2 states nearest and dearest to my heart (NC & FL):

North Carolina:

  1. African American (16.6%)

  2. American (13.7%)

  3. English (9.5%)

  4. German 9.5%)

  5. Irish (7.4%)


  1. German (11.8%)

  2. Irish (10.3%)

  3. English (9.2%)

  4. African American (8.6%)

  5. American (7.8%)

Friday, July 2, 2010

Pregnant Woman Tasered; Her Civil Rights Lawsuit Fails

Pregnant Woman Tasered; Her Civil Rights Lawsuit Fails

A woman 7 months pregnant + a traffic stop for speeding + a heated argument + woman's failure to cooperate with police = being tasered 3 times.  Being tasered 3 times eventually equaled a failed lawsuit against the city and the police department.

Ms. Brooks was 7 months pregnant when she was stopped by multiple police officers in Seattle for speeding in a school zone. She was uncooperative and accused the officers of being racist.  She wound up sitting in her car with the door closed, the window up, and the engine running after she refused to sign the citation (the law requires that the citation be signed, and such signature is not an admission of guilt). While she did so, the officers warned her that she needed to get out of the car or risk being tasered; they also began to discuss where on her body to use the Taser, as they were aware of her pregnant state.

Eventually, one of the officers reached into the car (the door was unlocked?), turned the engine off, and removed the keys from the ignition. They attempted to physically remove her from the car, but she held tightly to the steering wheel and otherwise frustrated these attempts.  The police officers then used the Taser on her thigh, through the sweatpants she was wearing. When this did not result in cooperation, the police then used the Taser against her shoulder, followed by using it against her neck. They were then able to remove her from the car and arrest her (for failure to sign citation and then resisting arrest).

The woman suffered no permanent injuries, and a healthy baby was born a few months later.  Her lawsuit against the City of Seattle and the Seattle Police Department alleged the use of excessive force, and claimed that this unreasonable use of force caused her to "scream in pain" and be left with permanent burn marks/scars.

Upon a motion for summary judgment, a federal appeals court dismissed the lawsuit, as 2 of the 3 federal judges ruled that the use of force was not unreasonable enough to allow such a lawsuit. The third judge strongly disagreed, and commented "“I fail utterly to comprehend how my colleagues are able to conclude that it was objectively reasonable to use any force against . . . [her] . . . let alone three activations of a Taser, in response to such a trivial offense.”

By way of brief explanation, a "motion for summary judgment" is similar to a motion to dismiss a case; since the defendants were the one making the motion, the court was obligated to accept the facts of the case as presented by the plaintiff (the woman). A court in this situation essentially says to itself "Even taking the facts as told to us only by the one side, are those facts enough to allow that side to prove the lawsuit?" It is difficult to win a motion for summary judgment, as the defendants eventually did in this case.