This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: Nine months after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody last spring sparked a nationwide reckoning over police brutality, a piece from Politico asks, “What’s changed?”. NPR reports that this week, House lawmakers passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a sweeping reform bill that would ban chokeholds and alter so-called qualified immunity protections for law enforcement, making it easier to pursue claims of police misconduct. The wide-ranging legislation would also ban no-knock warrants in certain cases, mandate data collection on police encounters, prohibit racial and religious profiling, and redirect funding to community-based public safety programs. And a piece for USA Today by Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA), sponsor of the George Floyd reform legislation, focuses on Rodney King. This week marked 30 years since King’s brutal beating at the hands of four white LAPD officers. Rep. Bass recounts her experience of watching bystander video of the assault, recalling the anger and despair she felt when, in April 1992, a nearly all-white jury voted to acquit all four policemen. “It felt like his life did not matter,” she writes: “That’s the feeling we will continue to have until we act. We cannot afford to wait another 30 years.”
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from the Washington Post highlights some grim statistics on mass incarceration in the US. A recent study by the Sentencing Project found that over 200,000 Americans are currently serving life sentences – nearly one of every seven prisoners. Of those lifers, 30% are at least 55 years old, and more than two-thirds are people of color. The findings underscore the pervasiveness of life sentences in the US, America’s enduring reliance on life imprisonment, and especially “how unforgiving, and how unjust, the justice system is for young Black and Brown offenders.” A piece from the New York Times goes inside the federal prison system, where, as COVID continues to take a devastating toll, many vulnerable inmates feel they have been left behind. When the pandemic erupted last spring, federal prisons were told to move quickly to grant home confinement to medically vulnerable inmates who did not “pose a risk to the public.” But the federal BOP has been slow to act: of the 150,000 people currently serving federal sentences in the US, less than 8,000 have been granted home confinement – roughly 5%. The Intercept reports from Los Angeles, where the spread of COVID-19 inside county jails, as well as pandemic-related court delays, are wreaking havoc on an already-strained criminal legal system. Since the start of the pandemic, quarantine procedures inside LA County jails have led likely thousands of people to miss court dates and appointments, and with that, opportunities for release. Advocates say these delays have likely exacerbated inequities embedded in the criminal legal system: data shows that the share of people incarcerated in county jails who are Black or Hispanic had increased six months into the pandemic, while the percentage of white people decreased. Meanwhile, the percentage of Black inmates who had been in custody for six months or longer jumped from 36 to 44%, a larger increase than other racial groups. And a piece from Time also highlights the pandemic’s toll on the criminal legal system. Since COVID was declared a national emergency last March, all 50 states and Washington, DC, have canceled or scaled back in-person criminal court proceedings to stem the virus’s spread. The snarled justice system has “left hundreds of thousands of families waiting for trials and other resolutions, while creating a cascade of civil rights issues for the accused.” More defendants, especially those with health problems, are striking plea deals to avoid sitting in jail. And virtual court systems are “exposing the disadvantages of the poor, who are less likely to afford Internet access for court dates, as a staggering number of new criminal cases stack up.”
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from the Intercept explores the life and unsolved murder of an anti-fascist activist. In recent years, Sean Kealiher, a self-described anarchist, became a fixture on Portland’s leftist protest scene, leading demonstrations against police brutality and far-right extremism. Then, in October 2019, Kealiher was killed outside a bar popular among his activist cohort, in what many feared had been a politically-motivated attack. The death was ruled a homicide, but, despite a wealth of evidence, no arrests were ever made and no persons of interest named. In a city that has for decades been a battleground for far-right violence – and where activists have long accused police of political bias and antagonism toward the left – the killing, and the fact that it remains unsolved, has left a deep wound. “Had it been someone else’s murder, it would have been solved,” a friend of Kealiher’s said. In the wake of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, a piece from the Boston Review asks, “Who deserves to be forgiven?”. The piece centers on Klete Keller, the former Olympic swimmer now facing federal charges and possible prison time for his involvement in the mob. In January, the New York Times published a 1,600-word profile of Keller retracing his path from Olympic gold to the Capitol insurrection. The article is highly sympathetic, painting Keller as a “gentle giant” who happened to be “at the wrong place, at the wrong time” – minimizing both his personal culpability and the seriousness of his crime. The piece explores this profile as a study in the “(deeply unjust) politics of forgiveness”: We tend to think of forgiveness as a “purely private, interpersonal gift,” but as Keller’s profile makes plain, “that view is far too narrow: forgiveness is often a public act, not just a personal one… and like any public good, it is doled out unevenly.” And the Atavist reports from London, where, in the fall of 2015, a spate of gruesome “cat killings” left pet owners in the high-crime neighborhood of Croydon shocked and horrified. When Metropolitan Police and the RSPCA, the UK’s main animal welfare charity, brushed off their concerns, two civilian “pet detectives” took it upon themselves to bring the so-called Croydon Cat Killer to justice.
In culture/true crime: The New York Times highlights two new nonfiction books about policing: We Own This City, by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, and Tangled Up in Blue, by Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks. The first traces the rise and fall of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force, a group of officers who spent years “robbing drug dealers, selling drugs themselves, skimming money from house seizures, planting evidence and defrauding taxpayers through overtime claims.” The second chronicles Brooks’ experiences over the past few years as a volunteer reserve officer with the DC police. Anecdote by anecdote, Brooks builds to a cautious analysis of how “even normal, careful, lawful policing often ends up compounding devastating social inequalities.” Although the two take different approaches, both Fenton and Brooks offer new perspective on this difficult subject, capturing in all its complexity the “merit, thrills, boredom and fear of police work.” The Chicago Sun-Times reviews “Murder Among the Mormons,” a new three-part documentary from Netflix. In the early ‘80s, a document dealer named Mark Hofmann, known as the “Indiana Jones of Mormon documents,” made a series of astonishing “discoveries” that shook the very foundation of the Mormon Church. The scandal that ensued resulted in a series of bombings that killed two people and seriously injured a third. Retelling this incredible true story via a treasure trove of archival news footage, audio tapes, and home videos, the series is an “invaluable, extensive and journalistically sound record of events that will fascinate those of us who have forgotten all but the basic details.” Deadline reviews “Ted K,” a new film that delves deep into the world of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski. The film centers on Kaczynski’s life “off the grid” in the mountains of Montana, where he experiments with homemade bombs, writes coded rants against industrialization, and rails against the invasive noise of airplanes overhead. More a “mood piece” than a biopic, “Ted K” is a “quietly involving watch that gives insight into Kaczynski’s troubled mind with an atmospheric intensity.” And Hyperallergic highlights the “prison drawings” of incarcerated artist Frank Jones. Jones was “double-sighted” – born with a caul over his left eye – which gave him, or so it was believed, the power to communicate with the spirit world. For Jones, a Black self-taught artist who spent roughly 20 years in and out of Texas jails, drawing was a way to make real the supernatural beings only he could see, as well as a “spirit-lifting escape” from the monotony and tension of decades behind bars.