This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: In a piece for the New Yorker, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin surveys the “halted progress” of criminal justice reform. In recent years, Toobin writes, the cause of criminal justice reform has been a “welcome exception” to the extreme polarization afflicting so much of American politics. Prison populations have dropped in most parts of the country, in red states as well as blue; and in 2018, Trump signed into law the bipartisan First Step Act, which made modest improvements in federal sentencing practices. But this progress, at the federal level at least, has since come to a halt. In the weeks since mass protests erupted following the murder of George Floyd, Trump has returned to the “law and order” bluster that characterized his 2016 campaign. And the Justice Department, under Attorney General William Barr, has engaged in “precisely the kinds of excesses the reform movement has endeavored to correct,” intervening in cases that would typically fall to state courts to charge protesters with federal crimes.
Overall, though, Toobin writes, this is a hopeful moment for progress in the criminal justice system. The Center for American Progress assesses the overall state of police reform, from cuts to police budgets to new laws aimed at increasing accountability, preventing racial discrimination, and reeling in the use of force. KQED reports that on Wednesday, officials in Berkeley, CA approved a first-in-the-nation proposal to shift traffic enforcement away from the police. Under the new law, routine traffic stops – which can escalate into violate encounters that disproportionately affect Black drivers – would be carried out by unarmed civil servants, rather than armed police. A piece from The Atlantic focuses on Colorado, where legislators recently approved the sweeping Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act, a groundbreaking police-reform law that is already effecting positive change. And The Nation highlights an important prosecutorial election in Austin, Texas. On Tuesday, José Garza, a former public defender and progressive advocate, defeated incumbent Travis County DA Margaret Moore in a closely-watched Democratic primary runoff. Garza, who works as a labor and immigrants’ rights attorney, has pledged to end the prosecution of low-level drug offenses and to “unwind the racial disparities in our criminal justice system.” With the party nomination secured in an overwhelmingly Democratic county, Garza is poised to join an emerging class of county prosecutors – including Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner and Chicago’s Kim Foxx – who are transforming the way cities across the country approach justice and public safety.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: This week, the Justice Department carried out three federal executions, ending an informal 17-year moratorium on federal capital punishment. The New York Times reported that early Tuesday morning, Daniel Lewis Lee was put to death by lethal injection at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute – the first federal prisoner executed in the United States since 2003. The execution was carried out in the midst of the pandemic, after a prolonged legal battle and despite opposition from relatives of the victims in Lee’s case, who consistently told federal lawyers they did not want Lee killed in their name. On Monday, a federal judge had temporarily blocked the execution, citing questions about the constitutionality of the lethal injection procedure the government planned to use. But, in an unsigned 5-4 ruling issued Tuesday at 2am, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority cleared the way for the Justice Department to proceed. A piece from Slate outlines the intense legal battle in the final hours of Lee’s life, condemning the Court’s late-night decision as not only cruel, but “legally indefensible.” In a piece for The Marshall Project, Billie J. Allen, an inmate on the federal death row at Terre Haute, describes the “shared terror of wondering who’s next.” And a Reuters investigation reveals how the Trump administration secured a secret supply of execution drugs. The investigation found that since 2017, the DOJ, intent on enforcing the death penalty, has been pursuing a new drug protocol that could survive legal challenges through firms whose identities it has fought to keep hidden. In some cases, even the companies involved in testing the deadly pentobarbital said they hadn’t known its intended purpose.
In complex crime storytelling: In a piece for the New Yorker, historian Jill Lepore reconstitutes the “invention of the police.” She writes that the idea of “the police,” as a civil force charged with deterring crime, came to the US from England and is generally associated with monarchy – “keeping the king’s peace.” How, in the antimonarchical United States, did policing get so big, so fast? The answer, she argues, is slavery. Tracing the origins of modern policing from its etymological roots in ancient Greece, through medieval Europe and into the US, Lepore highlights the intractability of an American law enforcement apparatus founded on maintaining slavery and preserving the racial status quo. And a related piece from the New Republic focuses on the case of Tony Timpa. In 2016, Timpa, who is white, was killed by Dallas police officers after calling 911 for help during a mental health crisis. His story is now making the rounds on social media and conservative talk radio, as “increasingly desperate critics of the Black Lives Matter [movement] attempt to rebut the widespread evidence that policing is a haven for institutional racism.” Instances of police violence against white people are often weaponized by those seeking to discredit and detract from BLM: the police may have a brutality problem, or so the argument goes, but stories like Timpa’s prove it’s not a racial one. But in reality, the case BLM activists have been making – that “America’s policing traditions are built upon a superstructure of enforcing and upholding white supremacy” – is as true in Timpa’s instance as it is in the case of George Floyd. The piece explores the fragile construction of “whiteness” in America and the deep-seated racial anxieties underpinning both anti-Black racism and the marginalization of “defective whites” – mentally ill, substance-dependent, sexually “delinquent,” and poor white people, who have “long been suspect in the eyes of the law.” “Far from undermining the case that reflexive anti-black racism exists in policing,” the piece argues, “the reality of systemic violence against marginalized whites offers a means to better understand how narrowly whiteness is still conceived” – and how racial animus can still play a role in police shootings even when the victims are white.
And in culture/true crime: A piece from Vanity Fair questions whether true crime podcasts – the most popular of which have relied on a trusting, “paternalistic” relationship with the criminal justice system – can adapt to the era of “defund the police.” A piece from Vogue looks at how TV cops have shaped our understanding of sexual assault. And The Nation highlights a selection of documentaries chosen for the 2020 Human Rights Watch Film Festival, including Ursula Liang’s Down a Dark Stairwell, which recounts the fatal police shooting, in 2014, of Akai Gurley, an unarmed 28-year-old Black man, in the Brooklyn public housing building where he lived.