On the criminal justice policy front: A piece from Politico goes inside the investigation into last week’s violence at the Capitol. With the hunt to identify, track down, and arrest the rioters already well underway, it remains to be seen how federal and local prosecutors will go about holding them accountable. Some crimes, like assault or unlawful entry, might be easier to investigate and prosecute; but other potential charges, like incitement and conspiracy, are much more complex. A piece from ProPublica explores some of the legal barriers and loopholes that may hamper the investigation. In recent years, federal authorities have described American extremists as the most urgent terror threat facing the country. But legal limits on investigations of American political groups, as well as the opaque and elusive nature of the threat, have made it difficult to combat. One fundamental problem is that while federal statutes provide a definition of domestic terrorism, there is no specific law outlawing it, making homegrown extremism exceedingly difficult to prosecute.
In the wake of last week’s violence, some are calling for a new, tougher and more comprehensive domestic terrorism law. But a piece from the New Republic pushes back on this, arguing that lawmakers’ impulse to further enlarge the security state that failed them – rather than examining how and why it did – is a misguided one: “The solution to this American hypocrisy cannot be to fight domestic terror with the same fervor and disregard for human rights with which we fight it internationally.” And a piece from the Marshall Project echoes this sentiment, outlining the ways in which white terrorism – and measures to address it – have historically lead to harsher punishment for people of color. From the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, aimed at cracking down on the Mob, to the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, enacted in response to the Oklahoma City bombing, legislation targeted at preventing or punishing white violence has been wielded disproportionately against people of color.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: The Indianapolis Star reported that early on Wednesday, Lisa Montgomery was put to death by lethal injection at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, becoming the first woman executed by the federal government in nearly 70 years. In the days and hours before her execution, Montgomery’s lawyers had pressed President Trump to spare her life, citing extensive brain damage and severe mental illness exacerbated by years of childhood abuse. An investigation by the Marshall Project found that in this respect, Montgomery was not alone: of the 87 people executed across the country over the last four years, more than a third had suffered a brain injury or had an intellectual disability. Nearly two in five were diagnosed with severe mental illness, and almost two-thirds had experienced extensive childhood trauma. These findings drive home what Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the authors of the piece: “The people who are being executed tend not to be the worst of the worst offenders, but the most vulnerable.”
The Wall Street Journal reports that Corey Johnson, sentenced to death in 1993 for his participation in a series of drug-related murders, was executed late on Thursday after a tense legal battle in the final hours of his life. Earlier this week, a District Court judge in Washington, DC suspended the executions of Johnson and Dustin Higgs, both of whom had tested positive for COVID-19, arguing that their infections paired with a lethal injection would amount to cruel and unusual punishment. But on Wednesday, an appellate court overturned that order, allowing both executions to proceed. A piece from the Baltimore Sun goes inside the frantic, last-minute legal battle to save the life of Dustin Higgs. In 1996, Higgs was convicted of murdering three women in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and subsequently sentenced to death, despite the fact that he personally did not kill any of the three. In a piece from GQ, Higgs talks about his case and the randomness of the legal process that brought him to this point: “I ask myself all the time, ‘Where is the justice?’’’. Dustin Higgs was executed late on Friday, bringing the Trump administration’s total to 13 since last July – more federal executions conducted in the final months of Trump’s presidency than in the previous 67 years combined.
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from the New York Times goes inside last week’s riot at the Capitol, documenting in detail how a pro-Trump “Rally to Save America” escalated into a full-fledged angry mob. A piece from New York Magazine focuses on Ashli Babbitt, the Air Force veteran turned fervent Trump supporter and QAnon believer who was fatally shot by police as she attempted to leap through the broken window of a door inside the Capitol. The piece follows Babbitt’s story through a long but undistinguished military career, years of personal travails, and her eventual descent into a world of conspiracy theories and delusion. As of this week, more than 70 people have been charged with crimes connected to the Capitol riot, with prosecutors expecting that number to rise into the hundreds. The FBI has appealed to the public for help in bringing the assailants to justice, offering a $50,000 reward for information that could lead to an arrest. BBC goes inside the hunt to identify and track down the rioters, while a piece from the Washington Post highlights the network of “online sleuths” working to “out” right-wing extremists. And a piece from the Marshall Project, from 2017, centers on the investigation into white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, VA. Then, too, amateur detectives took it upon themselves to find, identify, and name criminal suspects – a benefit to investigators, but a burden as well, especially when the online speculation gets it wrong.
In culture/true crime: ArtNet interviews Rahsaan Thomas, an inmate at San Quentin and co-host of the Pulitzer-nominated podcast “Ear Hustle.” Last year, Thomas made his curatorial debut with the online show “Meet Us Quickly: Painting For Justice From Prison,” on view through January 31 via the Museum of the African Diaspora. He discusses the story behind the exhibition, the process of assembling the show from behind bars, and the empathy-building power of the arts. ProPublica interviews photojournalist Natalie Keyssar, who has spent much of the last six years documenting Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Last week, one of her images – taken in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, it shows a Black protester being tackled by armor-clad riot police – went viral in the wake of the Capitol riot. Paired with a photo from Wednesday of several white men, one carrying a Confederate battle flag, roaming freely around the Capitol building, the image gave voice to the outrage many felt at the stark difference between what appeared to be the accommodating treatment of rioters by Capitol Police and the brutal crack-down met by peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Keyssar discusses the original photograph, the power of virality, and her own small role in helping articulate America’s reaction to the riot at the Capitol. And the New Yorker highlights “Ashes to Ashes,” a new documentary about the artist and activist Winfred Rembert. At the age of 19, Rembert, then living in Georgia and participating in the civil-rights movement, survived a lynching by a mob of white men. His work draws from this experience and other painful memories of Black life in the Jim Crow South, grappling with the far-reaching impacts of generational trauma and the living legacy of racist violence in the United States