This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: NPR reports from Florida, where a contentious federal trial over felony disenfranchisement began this week. The trial revolves around a state law requiring that convicted felons pay all outstanding court fees and fines in order to regain their voting rights. Of the estimated 1.4 million Floridians with felony convictions, more than half owe legal financial obligations. In Florida, the nation’s largest presidential swing state, major political contests are often decided by a tiny margin; civil rights groups say the law is a blatant attempt to disenfranchise people with felony convictions, especially minority voters who might be more likely to support Democrats. The case could set an important legal precedent not just in Florida, but for the rest of the country as well: currently, 30 states require that people with felony convictions pay all fines, fees, and restitution in order to regain voting rights. A piece from the New York Times focuses on the logistics of the trial, which is happening primarily over video chat. And an interesting piece from the Atlantic questions the possible impacts of quarantine on future debates over criminal justice reform. Due to the pandemic, social-distancing and lockdown measures are forcing many Americans to experience prolonged isolation and confinement for the first time. The piece questions whether this experience – along with media coverage of the pandemic’s devastating toll in jails and prisons – could shift public perceptions of incarceration and challenge Americans’ entrenched beliefs about the efficacy – and the ethics – of carceral punishment.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from the Marshall Project tracks the spread of the coronavirus in prisons and jails around the country. The Daily podcast interviews an inmate infected with the virus at New York’s Rikers Island prison complex. A piece from The City also focuses on NYC’s prisons and jails, where some 3,800 people are still incarcerated and almost 400 have tested positive for the virus. One of them is Melinda Morales, who is being held at Rikers Island on $1 bail. Because her offense – alleged shoplifting – is a parole violation, a so-called “parole hold” from the state keeps her inside. And a New York Times editorial calls on prisons and elected officials to take action to protect the incarcerated.
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from the New Republic focuses on the case of Ramon Ward. In 1994, in Wayne County, Michigan, Ward was framed for a double murder, wrongfully convicted, and sentenced to life without parole. This February, after 25 years in prison, he was finally exonerated – thanks not to new DNA evidence, but to the Conviction Integrity Unit at the Wayne County Prosecutors Office. The piece outlines the details of Ward’s case and examines the growing prominence of CIUs, a “new and powerful mechanism… designed to hold the criminal justice system accountable from within.” And a piece from the Intercept recounts the extraordinary story of Jerry Givens, Virginia’s “executioner-turned-abolitionist.” For almost 20 years, Givens worked for the Virginia Department of Corrections as the state’s chief executioner, carrying out more than 60 executions over the course of his career; later in life, he became a prominent and outspoken critic of the death penalty, traveling around the country to speak out against capital punishment and campaign for abolition.
And in culture/true crime: A piece by writer and curator Nicole Fleetwood in the New York Review of Books focuses on “art in the age of mass incarceration.” Fleetwood’s new book Marking Time is a “survey and analysis of visual art and creative practices among incarcerated artists, as well as art that responds to mass incarceration.” And the New York Times reviews “Murder to Mercy,” Netflix’s new documentary about Cyntoia Brown. In 2004, Brown, then 16 years old, was arrested on charges of shooting and killing a man who had solicited her for sex. Although Brown testified that she had acted in self-defense, she was tried and convicted as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. More than a decade later, a local TV news story about the case went viral, drawing the attention of celebrity activists like Kim Kardashian West and generating a global campaign to #FreeCyntoiaBrown. In January 2019, after 15 years in prison, Brown was granted clemency and her life sentence was commuted. Cyntoia Brown’s is a rare and powerful story of real-life mercy – a “moving reflection of what criminal justice reform means in personal terms.”