This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: The Washington Post highlights the growing group of prosecutors who see their role as “not only one of seeking justice, but… of correcting injustice” as well. Among those is George Gascón, the newly elected district attorney of Los Angeles, who announced a series of sweeping policy changes at his swearing-in ceremony this week. The LA Times reports that in addition to ending cash bail in Los Angeles County, barring prosecutors from seeking the death penalty in new cases, and ending the practice of trying juveniles as adults, Gascón will also launch a sentencing review unit to determine whether lighter sentences or prisoner releases should be sought in thousands of old cases. In a piece for The Appeal, Gascón and Baltimore state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby – who also announced the launch of a sentencing review unit this week – outline their vision for the role of “progressive prosecutor” and their plans to right their offices’ past wrongs. And the Brennan Center lays out a federal agenda for criminal justice reform under a Biden administration, from reducing prison populations to eliminating the death penalty to advancing police reform.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: NBC reports that on Thursday, the US carried out the execution of Brandon Bernard, who was 18 years old when he took part in a 1999 double murder in Texas. Five jurors, as well as a former prosecutor who challenged Bernard’s appeal of his death verdict, have since come forward to attest that they no longer support the death penalty in the case. Based on his age when the crime occurred, Bernard was the youngest person in nearly seven decades to be put to death by the federal government. His was the ninth federal execution this year; four more are scheduled before Trump leaves office in January. With just weeks to go before an anti-death penalty Biden administration takes power, pieces from HuffPost and Mother Jones highlight the public health consequences of Trump’s unprecedented lame-duck execution spree. Since the execution of Orlando Hall in late November – the first federal execution to be carried out during a lame duck period in over 100 years – COVID cases have spiked at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, infecting more than 200 inmates, 21 staff, and at least eight members of the approximately 40-person execution team. And Sentencing Law and Policy highlights the “new death penalty”: COVID behind bars. As of this week, at least 1,647 prisoners in the US have died of coronavirus-related causes. This number is sad and disconcerting on its own terms, but it is even more remarkable given that it now amounts to more than the total number of prisoner deaths resulting from carrying out formal death sentences in the United States for the entire “modern era” of capital punishment.
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from The Appeal focuses on Pennsylvania, where more than 5,400 people are currently serving life without the possibility of parole – a sentence some advocates refer to as “death by incarceration.” Every year, some of these lifers are released, either because they’ve been exonerated or received clemency or because they’ve been resentenced under new guidelines. Through a series of portraits and interviews, the piece highlights nine such stories of people who were released after being sentenced to die behind bars. Esquire recounts the story of “the most romantic jailbreak in American history.” Ron and Dorinda met in the winter of 1985, at a co-ed federal prison in Oakland, California, which, with its “hormonal, college-campus atmosphere,” had earned the nickname “Club Fed.” The two quickly fell in love; but when Ron’s impending release threatened their budding relationship, he hijacked a helicopter and decided to break her out. Dorinda, now 71 years old, still remembers their time on the lam as “the best ten days of my life.” And a piece from Glamour highlights the women of the prison abolition movement. Law enforcement has long been the purview of men: 97% of police chiefs, 88% of police officers, at least two-thirds of corrections officers and the vast majority of prison wardens are male. Now, women – especially queer or gender-nonconforming women of color – are taking the lead in the fight to dismantle the criminal justice system.
And in culture/true crime: The Guardian reviews 40 Years a Prisoner, a new documentary from HBO. The film chronicles one of the most controversial shootouts in American history, the 1978 Philadelphia police raid on the Black liberation group MOVE, and the decades-long struggle to free the incarcerated Black radicals known as the Move Nine. The Hollywood Reporter goes inside ABC police drama The Rookie, where, in the wake of this summer’s protests, writers are leaning into calls for a more nuanced approach to how cops are portrayed on TV. And Hyperallergic highlights Letters from the Etui, a new digital platform drawing together animations, letters, resources, and virtual workshops relating to life behind bars. The project centers on a series of “visual letters,” which pair stories by and of incarcerated people with short animated videos; “intimate and diaristic, they offer humanizing portraits of people grappling with their pasts, the weight of trauma, and the need for love.”