This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: A piece from the New Republic by Melissa Gira Grant looks at New York’s recent bail reforms, as well as the reaction against them. In 2019, reform advocates managed to win significant changes to New York’s bail system, including an end to cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. In response, politicians, prosecutors, and police union officials who oppose the reforms have launched an all-out backlash campaign based on law-and-order rhetoric, false equivalencies, and dog-whistling. Cash bail was never about safety, Grant writes: “The reaction against bail reform exposes the lie of the old system: It was always about money.” And the Washington Post reports that Steve Descano, the commonwealth’s attorney for Fairfax County, Virginia, announced this week that he will no longer prosecute adults for simple marijuana possession. Descano, a Democrat, was elected in November along with a number of other “progressive” prosecutors in what has been called a “sea change” for criminal justice reform in Northern Virginia.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from the New Yorker looks at “the trouble with crime statistics”: the metrics by which we track and measure crime, often the basis for important policy decisions, are imperfect and highly subjective. As one sheriff put it, “We do not have a good mechanism in place for tracking why a person commits crime.” And a piece from the Vera Institute of Justice examines the economics behind rural prison building, an industry that the federal government has been quietly fueling since the 1980s.
In complex crime storytelling: The New Yorker outlines the story of Brittany Smith, an Alabama woman who stands accused of murdering the man she says raped her. Brittany was jailed, denied her medications, and kept from her children; the former cop assigned to represent her advised that she plead guilty to manslaughter, which would carry a prison sentence of up to twenty years. Brittany refused, and is asserting a stand-your-ground defense instead. And the San Francisco Chronicle examines the case of Leola Shreves, a 94-year-old woman who was brutally murdered in 2013 in her home in Yuba City, California. Police quickly narrowed in on a convenient suspect: Leola’s neighbor Michael Alexander, who was ultimately tricked into falsely confessing to the crime. Alexander spent three years in pretrial detention before prosecutors, acknowledging that they had no physical evidence linking him to the crime, decided not to try him. Six years later, DNA testing would lead police to Leola’s actual killer.
And in culture/true crime: Rolling Stone reports that “The Murder Squad,” a podcast that aims to help solve cold cases by asking listeners to “pitch in” on investigation, scored its first “breakthrough” this week: a listener’s DNA, uploaded into the DNA database GEDmatch at the Murder Squad’s suggestion, helped lead to the arrest of James Curtis Clanton, now a suspect in the 1980 killing of a 21-year-old woman. And the Boston Globe reviews “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez,” a three-part series from Netflix that chronicles the former New England Patriots star’s journey from childhood to the maximum security prison where he ended his own life in 2017.