This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: The Los Angeles Times reports that on Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that state jury verdicts in serious criminal cases must be unanimous. Only two states, Oregon and Louisiana, still allow split verdicts to convict felony defendants – a practice that critics say is rooted in racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry. The Court’s ruling brings an end to those states’ nonunanimous jury systems, and is expected to give several dozen prisoners the right to a new trial. A piece from the New Republic focuses on the broader implications of the Court’s decision. A piece from the Brennan Center explains the latest changes to New York’s bail reform law; and a piece from the Marshall Project examines the implications of bail reform rollbacks in New York for other reform efforts around the country.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from The Atlantic focuses on the spread of the coronavirus in prisons, jails, and ICE detention facilities, where the pandemic is testing Fifth Amendment protections on due process and humane conditions of confinement. A piece from the New York Times focuses on the first fatal coronavirus outbreak in the federal prison system, at FCC Oakdale in rural Louisiana. Through interviews with inmates, staff, and family members, the piece constructs a comprehensive timeline of the outbreak, highlighting repeated failures by the Bureau of Prisons to implement an effective response. A piece from the Intercept details prison officials’ “absurd” attempts to track the spread of the coronavirus by monitoring inmates’ phone calls. In at least three states, jail and prison officials are “using software to scan inmate calls for mentions of the coronavirus, a move advocacy groups believe paves the way for abuse while raising stark questions about carceral health care.” And a piece from the Brennan Center emphasizes the need for prison labor reform. More than a dozen states are now relying on prison labor to manufacture hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and personal protective equipment needed by healthcare workers and other frontline responders. Incarcerated workers are excluded from OSHA regulations on workplace safety, often face dangerous and dehumanizing conditions, and are paid next-to-nothing for their labor; in Arkansas, where prisoners are producing cloth face masks, their work is entirely uncompensated. “This unprecedented health emergency,” the piece argues, is “re-exposing how our country’s long-held practice of paying nothing or next-to-nothing for incarcerated labor, with no labor protections, is akin to modern-day slavery.”
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from the New Republic offers a “brief criminal history of the mask.” In recent weeks, major cities around the country have enacted emergency mandates requiring residents to wear facemasks in public. However, many states already have existing laws prohibiting mask-wearing, some dating back as far as the mid-1800s. The piece explores the interesting origins and history behind New York’s anti-mask law – a history rooted in the same rhetoric of public order and public safety as the pro-mask mandates of today. And a piece from Vanity Fair focuses on Jimmy Rackover, the “surrogate son – and alleged lover – of New York’s ‘jeweler to the stars.’” In 2016, a party at Jimmy’s apartment ended in the brutal murder of a stranger; the crime became an instant tabloid sensation, even as the details of what had actually happened – and who was responsible – remained unclear.
And in culture/true crime: Vox reviews “The Innocence Files,” a new series from Netflix that explores eight different stories of wrongful conviction and exoneration. Alissa Wilkinson writes that “The Innocence Files” is “among the strongest documentary series about criminal justice I’ve ever seen — both for its depth of research and the almost unbelievable nature of what it reveals about the American justice system’s intransigence in reversing wrongful convictions, even when it’s plainly obvious that something went awry.” And Vox reviews “The Thing About Pam,” Dateline’s first foray into the narrative true-crime podcast genre. “The Thing About Pam” starts with the 2011 murder of Betsy Faria, an unassuming small-town housewife, and then explores the spiral of increasingly outrageous real-life plot-twists that ensued. Betsy Faria’s is “one of the wildest true crime stories in recent memory”; through its telling, “The Thing About Pam” offers both a compelling crime narrative and a powerful indictment of a “deeply fallible justice system.”