This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: A piece from the New Republic centers on the movement for progressive prosecutors. Among the “unlikeliest trends of the Trump years,” the piece argues, “was the rise of the prosecutor as a crusading criminal justice reformer.” In cities across the country, from Boston to the Bay Area, “top cops” have won popular elections on a pledge to overturn decades of tough-on-crime policies. They promised to hold police accountable, to reduce incarceration by ending cash bail, and to stop prosecuting many minor drug offenses and misdemeanors. But now, amid a nationwide rise in violent crime, some liberal cities appear to have turned against their progressive prosecutors. In Philadelphia, the Democratic Party has declined to endorse incumbent DA Larry Krasner in his bid for reelection. In California, both San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles DA George Gascón are facing well-financed recall campaigns. Although these reformers have scored genuine victories over the past several years, “getting tough,” it seems, “is itching for a comeback”: “Under the challenging and adverse conditions in which we now live, in a time when policing and protest proceed on a hair trigger, it is not difficult to see how these two impulses – austerity economics and carceral control – could sync up again. We should see that they don’t.” A piece from the Trace also focuses on Larry Krasner. Since Krasner’s successful run in 2017, the national political landscape has changed dramatically. In 2020, even as COVID-19 lockdown measures reduced overall crime, homicides in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and St. Louis either remained relatively high or increased. In Philadelphia, 499 people were killed last year, the highest total in more than five decades. Shootings in the city rose by 53% in a single year, and are up 83% since 2017, the year before Krasner took office. Krasner’s position on guns – during his first two years in office, he supported an effort to redirect those arrested for basic firearm possession into rehabilitation programs – has drawn criticism from all corners. It is against this backdrop of surging gun violence, and the belief that Krasner’s policies are the cause, that his reelection campaign is unfolding. If Krasner does win his primary next week, it remains to be seen whether his progressive platform can survive.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from Slate centers on the case of Ledell Lee. On April 20, 2017, Lee was executed by the state of Arkansas for a 1993 murder, a crime of which Lee insisted to the end he had been innocent. He was put to death as part of a rush in which Arkansas tried to execute eight people in 11 days, so that the state could use up scarce lethal injection drugs before their expiration. In that mad dash, four men were executed, three had their executions stayed, and one was granted clemency. Even then, Lee’s case was considered one of the most seriously flawed, with a distinct chance that the state would be putting an innocent man to death. Now, a new test of DNA evidence in the case, which the state refused to do before Lee’s execution, points to a different suspect. The Appeal reports from Nevada, one of the country’s most prolific death-penalty states, where the debate over capital punishment has reached a decisive boiling point. In April, Democrats in the state Assembly passed a bill to abolish the death penalty, sending it to the Democrat-controlled state Senate. But now, a pair of Democratic senators, both of whom work as prosecutors when the legislature is not in session, are threatening to derail the reform. Both are deputy district attorneys in the office of Clark County (Las Vegas) DA Steve Wolfson, a staunch proponent of the death penalty who has sought death sentences in dozens of cases over the course of his tenure. The state’s DA association, which adamantly opposes death penalty abolition, is aggressively fighting the reform; but with less than a month left in the legislative session, time is quickly running out. And the Philadelphia Inquirer reports from Philadelphia, which has seen a “startling wave” of exonerations in recent years: 19 murder convictions tossed since 2018, most of them hinging on alleged misconduct by police or prosecutors. In the last two years, Philadelphia alone accounted for one of out every 10 homicide exonerations in the country, making the per capita rate there 25 times higher than the nation as a whole. The exonerations have raised questions about decades’ worth of homicide investigations – and whether the misconduct alleged in those cases was part of a part of a pattern that led to many more wrongful convictions.
In complex crime storytelling: In an essay for n+1, critic and writer Tobi Haslett looks back on the “George Floyd rebellion.” Last spring, Haslett writes, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, “something massive came hurtling into view and exploded against the surface of daily life in the US. Many are still struggling to grasp what that thing was: its shape and implications, its sudden scale and bitter limits.” Tracing the origins of last summer’s mass protest movement back to Ferguson, 2014, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and beyond, to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the ongoing struggles for abolition and Black liberation, Haslett attempts to construct a cohesive history of this transformative last year. And the New Yorker profiles Mariame Kaba, the activist and organizer at the center of an emerging movement for police and prison abolition. The daughter of West African immigrants, Kaba was born and raised amidst the racial tumult of 1980s New York. She remembers the 1983 police killing of Michael Stewart, a young Black artist arrested for graffitiing the subway, as formative to her own political awakening, as well as her later work with survivors of domestic violence, many of whom were too afraid of the police to call 911 on their abusive partners. These experiences shaped Kaba’s abolitionist politics, cementing her view of policing as an “entire system of harassment, violence, and surveillance that keeps oppressive gender and racial hierarchies in place.” Over the past year, as the propositions of defunding or abolishing prisons and police have traveled from incarcerated-activist networks and academic scholarship into mainstream conversations, Kaba has found herself at many of these conversations’ center. “I am looking,” she says, “to abolish what I consider to be death-making institutions, which are policing, imprisonment, sentencing, and surveillance. And what I want is to basically build up another world that is rooted in collective wellness, safety, and investment in the things that would actually bring those things about.”
In culture/true crime: A piece from the New Yorker highlights the artist Nigel Poor, whose new book, The San Quentin Project, collects a largely unseen visual record of daily life inside one of America’s oldest and most iconic prisons. In 2011, when Poor began teaching a history of photography class at San Quentin, she received access to thousands of photographic negatives in the prison’s archive. The images capture the full range of San Quentin’s everyday occurrences, from the brutal to the banal: a prison rock band poses with a silver-sparkle drum kit; a pitcher in a prison baseball game winds up for a throw, guard towers rising up behind him into cloudless sky. Taken together, these scenes tell us, “without ever having intended to, about institutional procedure, attitudes, and life – life controlled and monitored, but also that which is beyond the bounds and reach of supervision. WBUR interviews poet and activist Ian Manuel, whose new memoir, My Time Will Come, recounts a life lived in solitary confinement. Sentenced to life in prison for a crime he committed at 13, Manuel spent the next 18 years in solitary, locked in a windowless room the size of a freight elevator. Speaking with WBUR, Manuel discusses his experiences in prison, his fight for freedom and his quest to end juvenile solitary confinement. And Artforum highlights formerly incarcerated artist James “Yaya” Hough. At the age of 17, Hough was sentenced to life without parole in Pennsylvania, a state responsible for sentencing more Black youth to life than almost any other. Told that he would never be released from prison, Hough turned that death sentence into a rigorous creative practice, drawing and painting watercolors for hours every day. Then, in 2005, a landmark Supreme Court ruling cleared Hough’s path to freedom; he was released, nearly 27 years into his sentence, in August 2019. His first solo show, “Invisible Life,” recently opened at New York’s JTT gallery, where it will run through early June. Artforum calls the show a “fantastical imagining of the psychic, social, bodily, and erotic hold that prisons have, not only on those held captive… but on society writ large.”