This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: The Intercept reports that even as COVID-19 continues to spread through America’s prisons and jails, relatively few inmates have actually been released. Overall, the US prison population dropped by only 1.6% in the first three months of this year – a difference of 20,000 people in a system that incarcerates nearly 1.3 million. A piece for the Appeal by Cristine Soto DeBerry, San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin’s chief of staff, offers a successful model for decarceration and reform. A piece from the New York Times focuses on California’s “Three Strikes” sentencing law. In November, California voters will weigh a proposal to roll back previous reforms that softened Three Strikes sentencing and gave thousands of “Three Strikers” a chance at early release. And a piece from the Washington Post focuses on Florida’s ongoing battle over felony disenfranchisement. Currently, Florida law requires convicted felons to pay off all outstanding court debts before they can vote; but with no system in place to do so, and no way of knowing how much they even owe, many have found this barrier insurmountable.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: Several pieces this week focused on the death of Ahmaud Arbery. In February, Arbery, a young black man, was shot and killed while out on his daily run; the suspects, a white former law enforcement officer and his son, walked free for more than two months. The Washington Post locates Arbery’s death in a long American tradition of senseless racial violence, emphasizing the need for structural reform in a justice system that routinely lets such crimes go unpunished. The New York Times explores the troubled history of the Glynn County, Georgia Police Department; and a piece from Slate focuses on George Barnhill, the district attorney who declined to prosecute Arbery’s murder. Finally, a piece for the New Yorker by Jelani Cobb highlights our racialized conceptions of danger and self-defense. Other pieces this week focused on the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity.” Originally intended to protect public officials from frivolous lawsuits, the doctrine has become one of the primary ways in which law enforcement avoids accountability for misconduct. A Reuters investigation published last week revealed courts’ “growing tendency” to grant police officers immunity from civil rights lawsuits. Reuters analyzed 252 federal appellate opinions from cases where law enforcement defendants claimed qualified immunity; they found that in more than half of those cases – 57% – the courts ruled in favor of police. A piece from Reason summarizes the investigation’s findings and explores the legal origins of qualified immunity. And a piece from the Washington Post focuses on the 11 qualified immunity cases currently being considered by the Supreme Court.
In complex crime storytelling: The New York Times revisits the 1993 murder of James Jordan, a shocking crime that prompted his son Michael’s retirement from professional basketball and sent two teenagers to prison for life. Almost 30 years later, both men maintain their innocence, and with one now under review for parole, key questions about the case remain unanswered. A 2018 article from the Chicago Tribune offers further insight into the case. A piece from the Marshall Project, also from 2018, focuses on the story of Johnny Lee Gates. In 1977, Gates, a black man, was convicted by an all-white jury of murdering a white woman and quickly sentenced to death. More than 40 years later, he is still fighting for a chance at a fair trial. The piece outlines the details of Gates’ journey through the Georgia justice system, one of the longest-running capital cases in the nation’s history. The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer reported this week that after 43 years in prison, Gates was finally granted a new trial and could soon walk free.
And in culture/true crime: Time reviews “Trial by Media,” a new docuseries from Netflix that explores the troubled relationship between journalism and justice. The show revisits six high-profile cases in which media coverage played an outsized role, from 1995’s “Jenny Jones Show murder” to the 2008 downfall of then-Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. And the New Republic examines popular culture’s enduring fascination with Al Capone, the “all-American boogeyman.” A new biopic, starring Tom Hardy as Capone, shows a lesser-known side of the legendary gangster; the film portrays Capone’s mental and physical decline as he lived out his final years in Florida.