This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: The New York Times reports on new developments in the Capitol riot investigation. This week, the DOJ unveiled new, more serious charges – including conspiracy – against several people who had initially been charged with lesser crimes after the attack, including leaders of the far-right group the Proud Boys. CNN reports that new charges represent an effort on the part of federal prosecutors to move away from so-called “low-hanging fruit arrests” and to start building more complicated cases, with a focus on extremist groups that participated in the attack. As the investigation moves into a new, more complicated phase, a piece from Politico centers on the “Civil Obedience Act.” A 1968 law born of backlash to the Civil Rights movement, the Civil Obedience Act prohibits “interference with police or firefighters during group violence.” Over the past year, the government has leaned on the Civil Obedience Act to charge people involved in violence first at Black Lives Matter rallies and then at the Capitol last month. But defense attorneys for those charged over their involvement in racial justice protests now say the law is unconstitutional. Their arguments are strong enough to complicate – at least momentarily – both those prosecutions and potentially the ones related to the Capitol riot. The pushback has created “the oddest of dynamics: violent MAGA agitators potentially benefiting from efforts to expunge the legal system of racist statutes.” And the Washington Post reports from New Port Richey, Florida, where, last summer, Black Lives Matter activists organized to march for racial justice. Within a few days, Proud Boys and other counter-protesters showed up, encircling the demonstrators while yelling threats, obscenities, and support for the police. Amid fears that the confrontations could escalate, police started to enforce the town’s rarely-used noise ordinance; but only the Black Lives Matter protesters were cited. After months of public outrage, police eventually dropped the citations; but not before New Port Richey became “another front in the national debate over whether authorities treat left-wing protesters too harshly while cozying up to far-right extremists.” Now, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other GOP leaders are pushing for a sweeping state bill to crack down on disruptive protests, creating new classes of crimes that carry penalties of up to 15 years in jail.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from the New York Review of Books goes inside the Trump administration’s unprecedented execution spree. In just six months, the administration put to death a total of 13 people – more than three times as many as the federal government had executed in the previous six decades combined. In its rush to execute, the government trampled over an array of legal and practical barriers, relying on false or incomplete justifications for killings carried out in the middle of the night; it also, as Time reported earlier this week, knowingly withheld information on positive COVID tests. At least two journalists tested positive for COVID-19 after witnessing the Trump administration’s final three federal executions; but the federal BOP withheld their diagnoses from other media witnesses and did not perform any contact tracing. The revelation again raises concerns about the BOP’s handling of the pandemic, as the number of COVID cases within the federal prison system continues to explode. This week, a scathing report by California’s Office of the Inspector General skewered the state corrections department, the CDCR, for its role in creating a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin. The LA Times reports that according to the OIG, corrections officials repeatedly ignored the warnings of front-line health workers and pressured them to hastily transfer 189 potentially infected inmates from a Chino men’s prison last May, triggering the outbreak at San Quentin. A time lapse created by the OIG shows just how rapidly the virus spread within the San Quentin complex: by the end of August, more than 2,000 inmates and nearly 300 staff members had been infected; 28 prisoners and one staffer ultimately died. And a piece from Vox centers on the new, more contagious coronavirus variants that have already begun spreading across the US. With jail populations once again on the rise, and with COVID vaccinations not yet begun in most of the country’s detention facilities, advocates worry that prisons and jails will be even harder hit when more contagious strains breach their walls. Early research has indicated that people infected with the new strain may carry higher viral loads, meaning that “engaging in the same conduct — spending extended periods of time indoors without distancing — poses an even greater risk of spreading the virus than it did previously. For prisoners, that means that the worst outbreaks may be yet to come.”
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from The Atlantic focuses on Jeffrey Young, AKA “the Rock Doc,” the “hard-partying, rock-obsessed nurse at the center of a massive opioid bust.” As a nurse practitioner in Jackson, Tennessee, Young created a reputation for himself as a “rock-and-roll renegade.” At the private practice where he offered discounts to people who otherwise couldn’t afford care, he also blasted heavy metal and hosted alcohol-fueled Botox parties. “A medical provider who acted like everyone’s best friend,” Young amassed a “small fiefdom” of followers on social media. But the way in which he gained some of these fans has now become the focus of a federal court case. In April 2019, Young was indicted on federal drug-trafficking charges, one among dozens of doctors, nurses, and pharmacists arrested across seven states in the nation’s largest takedown of medical providers related to prescription opioids. Prosecutors say Young used his “rebellious persona” to “take advantage of patients, distributing highly addictive painkillers on demand and in large quantities for profit — and, often, his own sexual gratification.” Wired recounts the wild true story of “the lion, the polygamist, and the biodiesel scam.” Jacob Kingston and his business partner, Lev Dermen, made an unlikely pair. In 2012, Jacob, a member of a breakaway Mormon polygamist sect, was living with his three wives in an unheated cabin in Brigham City, Utah, when he met Lev, a hard-partying, Lamborghini-driving Southern California gas station tycoon. Over the next five years, the two would embark on a byzantine series of business ventures that would involve “barges of recycled grease, real estate from Texas to Turkey, forged paperwork, phantom truck trips—and swindling the federal government out of hundreds of millions of dollars.” And a piece from the New York Times centers on the case of Kevin Cooper. In June 1983, Doug and Peggy Ryen and their two children were brutally murdered in their Chino Hills, California home. The sole survivor of the attack said three white men had committed the crime. Then a woman came forward to tell the police that her boyfriend, a white convicted murderer, was probably involved, and gave deputies the bloody coveralls he had been wearing the night of the Ryens’ death. But the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office, facing enormous public pressure to quickly solve the crime, had already found their suspect: Kevin Cooper, a young Black man with a long criminal record who had been near the area at precisely the wrong time. Instead of testing the coveralls for the Ryens’ blood, the deputies threw them away – and pursued Cooper, who was ultimately convicted of the murders and sentenced to death. Nearly four decades later, Cooper – who is almost surely innocent – remains on California’s death row.
In culture/true crime: Hyperallergic reviews the documentary All Light, Everywhere, which recently premiered at Sundance. The film starts with the issue of body cameras. Supposedly a tool for fostering more accountability and transparency in law enforcement, the implementation of police body cameras has instead produced mixed results. In his attempts to parse out why that may be, director Theo Anthony examines not just the history of the body camera but of the moving image itself, tracing the interconnected relationship between film, surveillance, and policing back to the very first motion picture. Vox reviews The Ripper, a new docuseries from Netflix about the notorious “Yorkshire Ripper” case. Peter Sutcliffe, the serial killer dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper, was the subject of the largest, most expensive, and most notoriously botched manhunt in British history. Over the course of the five-year investigation, Sutcliffe was questioned by police nine separate times, but was never considered a chief suspect. Between those chats with investigators, he murdered at least 13 women and attacked at least eight more. Throughout its four episodes, The Ripper returns again and again to Sutcliffe’s victims, and to the women of Britain who were impacted both by the culture of fear his crimes established and by the blatant sexism of the criminal investigation and the public’s reaction to it. Misogyny is a well-known facet of the Yorkshire Ripper case; but in The Ripper, “it frames the narrative, and the result is striking.” And NPR highlights the new book Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration. Its author, Reuben Miller, is a sociologist, criminologist, social worker, and former chaplain at Chicago’s Cook County Jail, who spent 15 years interviewing nearly 250 people caught up in the prison-industrial complex. Rather than the immediate experience of incarceration, Halfway Home explores its “afterlife”: the “permanent specter” of imprisonment that haunts the formerly incarcerated even after their release. The nearly 20 million Americans with felony convictions make up what Reuben terms “supervised society”; subjected to some 45,000 federal and state laws regulating where they can work, where they can live, and whether or not they can vote, they reside, Reuben writes, in a “hidden social world and an alternate legal reality.” In a country that incarcerates it citizens at the highest rate of any in the world, even those who leave the prison system, Reuben argues, are never truly free.