This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: A piece from Slate focuses on Virginia, where lawmakers recently passed a landmark piece of bipartisan legislation to abolish the death penalty. Gov. Ralph Northam has promised to sign the bill, which will make Virginia the 23rd state in the country with no death penalty law on the books. The Commonwealth of Virginia has carried out 1,390 executions since 1608 – the most of any other state in US history. The move comes as part of a larger legislative push towards racial and criminal justice. Last week, Democrats in the House of Delegates also passed a bill to make Virginia the first southern state to legalize marijuana. In the coming months, they will take up legislation to restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies, and consider a proposal to automatically expunge the criminal records of non-violent offenders in the state. In fact, Virginia has become “a test lab of sorts for bold progressive social justice reforms,” which could serve as a model for the rest of the country as demographic shifts alter the political landscape in once-reliably red southern states. The Washington Post reports from Maryland, where, since 1973, the “Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights” – the first law in the country to codify workplace protections for officers accused of misconduct – has shielded police from accountability. Now, months after George Floyd’s death sparked a national demand to overhaul policing, Maryland lawmakers have launched a historic effort to get rid of police protections such as the bill of rights, which became a blueprint for at least 15 other states. And The Appeal reports from Louisville, Kentucky, where, nearly a year later, the fallout from Breonna Taylor’s death Is still reshaping local politics. The city has instituted a ban on “no-knock” search warrants of the kind used to justify entering Taylor’s home. Louisville police are now required to intervene if they witness another officer committing misconduct on the job. Most notably, Taylor’s death, and the months of protest that followed, have invigorated Louisville’s 2022 mayoral race. Last month, activist Shameka Parrish-Wright, a newcomer to local politics, announced her candidacy, laying out a platform that will prioritize public health, cleaning up the city’s park space, and, of course, revamping the police department. If elected, Parrish-Wright would be the first Black mayor in the city’s history, and would join a “new class of politicians who rose to prominence in the wake of 2020’s international protest movement for civil rights.”
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: Over the last five years, the Marshall Project has tracked every execution in America, creating a historical record of each story and each death. Those years saw 120 executions carried out across 12 states – a small fraction of the nearly 2,600 Americans currently on death row. Taken together, these stories paint a grim picture of the criminal justice system, and the erratic, sometimes arbitrary ways it metes out punishment. An analysis of all 120 cases shows that even as capital punishment waned overall in the US, enough states pursued it that, on average, someone has been executed every two and a half weeks since the summer of 2015. In a piece for The Nation, anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean calls on President Biden to end federal executions: “Our capricious, racist, broken death penalty system,” she writes, “has caused and is perpetuating unspeakable suffering.” This week, an AP review found that the Trump administration’s lame-duck execution spree likely acted as a COVID “superspreader event.” In the final weeks of Trump’s presidency, 33 of the 47 people on federal death row tested positive for COVID-19, along with at least a dozen other people connected to the executions – including execution team members, media witnesses, and a spiritual adviser – meeting the criteria of a superspreader event. Because prison officials refused testing and declined to participate in contact-tracing efforts, it’s impossible to know precisely who introduced the infections and how they started to spread. But experts say it’s likely that executioners and support staff, many of whom travelled from prisons in other states with their own virus outbreaks, triggered or contributed both inside the Terre Haute penitentiary and beyond the prison walls. And a piece from the New Republic by Melissa Gira Grant focuses on St. Louis, where, last weekend, 117 inmates at the St. Louis City Justice Center staged an uprising, jimmying the locks on the cells, overpowering and injuring a guard, smashing windows and setting fires on an upper floor of the jail. It was part of a wave of demonstrations that have taken place at the Justice Center since the end of 2020 – a protest, participants said, against unsafe and inhumane conditions during the pandemic. The uprising came after letter-writing campaigns and earlier, more peaceful protests were repeatedly ignored. Saturday’s demonstration, Grant writes, was a rare moment in which “incarcerated people’s own story got outside to counter the jail officials’ story… that the demonstrators had no demands around COVID-19 and their health.” As outbreaks continue to spread across US prisons and jails, with vaccine delays heightening tensions on the inside, the protest in St. Louis exposed and called attention to “the deadly risks incarcerated people in the US have faced for [the last] year.”
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from the New York Times explores the strange phenomenon of “new Menendez defenders.” In 1990, brothers Lyle and Erik Menendez were arrested and charged with the murder of their parents. Their trial, in 1993, was among the first high-profile cases to be broadcast on Court TV, and helped fuel the modern era of true crime. Prosecutors claimed the brothers were motivated by their inheritance – a theory “bolstered by their Beverly Hills upbringing and a lavish spending spree in the months before their arrest” — while the defense argued that they were victims of sexual abuse. Ultimately, both Menendez brothers were sentenced to life in prison. Now, those debates have been revived on social media, most visibly TikTok and Instagram, where the Menendez brothers have become the subjects of hundreds of fan accounts. Many of them are run by people born years after the case closed, who, in learning its details, have become some of the brothers’ most vocal defenders. And a piece from the Texas Observer highlights an ongoing “cold case crisis” in the United States. For years, residents of Tradition-Prestonwood, an upscale Dallas senior home, were frightened and disturbed by a string of unexpected deaths. By 2017, a total of nine elderly women had been found dead and apparently robbed at the same complex. Six had lived on the same floor. But Dallas police closed each case without identifying a culprit or recognizing a pattern in the robberies and deaths; grieving relatives were repeatedly told that elders often die unexpectedly and misplace their valuables. By the time an arrest was finally made, in March of 2018, many of those cases – previously undetected homicides – had already gone cold. But the deaths at Tradition-Prestonwood represent barely a drop in the bucket of more than 250,000 unsolved murder cases across the United States – a number that increases by about 6,000 every year. This enormous backlog represents what the National Institute of Justice has called a “cold case crisis”: police departments, including in Dallas, are solving a lower percentage of homicide cases than ever before; “as more and more homicide cases go unsolved, the backlog grows, allowing an estimated 2,000 serial killers nationwide to remain free to kill again.”
In culture/true crime: In a piece for The Atlantic, Leslie Jamison reviews “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” an exhibition at New York City’s MoMA PS1. “A particular set of constraints confronts incarcerated artists in their work,” Jamison writes: “very little space, very few materials, but almost endless time.” “Marking Time” presents an archive of art that “responds to the painful conditions of its own making in a breathtaking variety of ways,” from sculptures crafted out of cigarette-pack foil to a mural composed of found images from the New York Times, elaborately collaged onto 39 prison bedsheets using hair gel and a spoon. With their limited materials, these works testify to some of the many freedoms their makers were denied; but their ingenuity, Jamison writes, “testifies to freedoms that can never be fully taken: to imagine, to create, to reconstitute, to survive.” WBUR reviews Down a Dark Stairwell, a new documentary about accountability, identity, and race in the aftermath of a fatal police shooting. The film centers on the 2014 death of Akai Gurley, an unarmed Black man who was shot and killed by Chinese-American NYPD officer Peter Liang in the darkened stairwell of his Brooklyn public housing complex. Filmed over the course of several years, it tracks the seemingly divergent protests that emerged as Peter Liang faced criminal charges. One group, led by Gurley’s friends and loved ones, sought justice for his unwarranted death, calling for the officer involved to be held accountable. At the same time, more than 100,000 supporters of Liang rallied on his behalf, protesting that he – himself a person of color – had been unfairly targeted. A sensitive, nuanced exploration of oppression and identity, Down a Dark Stairwell offers new and different perspective on the larger story of racism in policing. And Texas Monthly highlights At the Ready, a new documentary about the “school-to-cop” pipeline in a Texas border town. At Horizon High School in El Paso, fourteen miles from the US-Mexico border, students have the option to join a “law enforcement” vocational track. The film follows one group of such students through a year in their lives; we watch them learn to execute search warrants, collect evidence, and carry out active shooter drills, armed with fake guns and dressed in tactical gear. In El Paso, where the poverty rate is about 40% higher than the rest of the state, law enforcement jobs – especially Border Patrol – offer a rare path to financial security. But for the members of Horizon’s criminal justice club, many of whom are themselves children of Mexican immigrants, it’s complicated. At the Ready explores “what it’s like to live between two worlds,” probing the complex intersection of adolescence, law enforcement, politics, and race.