This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: A piece from the Brennan Center highlights 40 key ballot initiatives, sheriff’s elections, and prosecutorial races to watch on Election Day. The Appeal offers a comprehensive guide to “30 sheriff and prosecutor elections that could challenge mass incarceration.” Vox outlines six specific ballot measures in five states that will give voters a chance to make significant changes to their criminal justice systems. And a Los Angeles Times op-ed focuses on Proposition 20, the California ballot initiative that would roll back recent criminal justice reforms, increasing penalties and reducing parole opportunities for those convicted of certain nonviolent crimes. The piece, written by the sisters of Polly Klaas – the 12-year-old girl whose 1993 murder was the impetus for a rash of harsh sentencing laws – calls on voters to reject the ballot measure: “We don’t want unjust laws to be her legacy.”
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A Reuters investigation published earlier this week reveals “the hidden crisis in America’s jails.” Between 2008 and 2019, more than 7,500 people died inside US jails – a death rate that has risen 35% over the past decade. Some of these deaths resulted from abuse by guards and jail staff, others from medical neglect caused by staffing shortages or “deliberate neglect” on the part of doctors and nurses. And at least two-thirds – nearly 5,000 people – died before they could contest the charges against them in court. “The toll of jail inmates who die without a case resolution subverts a fundamental tenet of the US criminal justice system: innocent until proven guilty.” A piece from the Washington Post centers on George Floyd’s time in the Texas prison system, a profit-driven enterprise that enriched shareholders and local economies but only furthered Floyd’s downward spiral, exacerbating the depression, drug dependency, and claustrophobia that would later play a role in the final moments of his life. And a piece from The Marshall Project focuses on the fight for COVID stimulus checks behind bars. Last month, a federal judge ruled that prisoners, too, can apply for the $1,200 economic stimulus checks that much of the rest of the country received in the spring. But attorneys, inmates, and advocates say that some prison systems are erecting roadblocks to payments approved by Congress and the courts, blocking prisoners from accessing the information and materials needed to apply.
In complex crime storytelling: In a piece for the New York Times Magazine, formerly incarcerated writer Reginald Dwayne Betts discusses Kamala Harris’s background as a prosecutor, her less-than-progressive record on criminal justice, and our “contradictory impulses around crime and punishment”: “When Harris decided to run for president, I thought the country might take the opportunity to grapple with the injustice of mass incarceration in a way that didn’t lose sight of what violence, and the sorrow it creates, does to families and communities. Instead, many progressives tried to turn the basic fact of [her] profession into an indictment against her.” A piece from Texas Monthly focuses on the case of Lydell Grant. Wrongfully convicted of murder in 2010, Grant was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Determined to prove his innocence, he spent most of the next decade studying the Texas criminal code, sending dozens of letters to defense lawyers and filing at least eight motions and appeals. Finally, in late 2019, Grant was declared legally innocent by a Houston trial judge and released from prison. DNA evidence proved it, and another man even confessed to the crime. But the state’s highest criminal court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, still isn’t convinced, contorting the state’s exoneration standard to deprive Grant of a finding of “actual innocence” that would entitle him to compensation for his years spent behind bars. And Slate revisits a newly relevant court ruling from 1974. When two inmates at the California Rehabilitation Center were targeted by another group of prisoners, repeatedly threatened and harassed, they decided to make a run for it. They were captured, tried and convicted for breaking out, but appealed the verdict on grounds of “necessity”: they’d had no choice but to escape. An appeals court agreed and overturned the conviction. The decision bears revisiting amid the COVID-19 pandemic: as the virus continues to spread behind bars, dozens of prisoners have attempted escape to avoid catching the disease.
And in culture/true crime: Vox reviews Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, now streaming on Netflix. The film is a “lightly fictionalized courtroom drama” based on the six-month trial of seven men accused of conspiring to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The New York Times reviews two new true crime endeavors: the podcast “Undisclosed” and “Killer in Question,” a forthcoming docuseries from Investigation Discovery. Both center on the case of Jeff Titus, a former Marine and police officer who spent nearly two decades in prison for a murder the original detectives on the case were convinced he didn’t commit. And a piece from the New Yorker focuses on the pioneering criminologist Frances Glessner Lee. In the early 1930s, Lee’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a series of twenty intricately designed dollhouse-style dioramas depicting real-life crime scenes, revolutionized forensics training; nearly a century later, they are still in use today, and remain a “gold standard” of the field.