This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: NPR reports from Washington, where, earlier this week, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law more than a dozen bills aimed at improving policing in the state, reducing the use of deadly force and increasing transparency and accountability. The focus of the bills runs the gamut from tactics officers can use in the field, to how deadly force incidents are investigated, to the circumstances under which officers can be decertified. In a statement Tuesday, the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance praised the suite of police accountability measures as a “potential sea change.” But the organization also cautioned that the next test will be in how the new laws are implemented: “These laws must now be enforced. That’s up to police and prosecutors, judges and juries, administrators and adjudicators. And it’s up to us.” A piece from the Washington Post surveys the broader state of US police reform. It’s been less than a year since George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, spawning a national movement to reimagine the American criminal justice system and end race-based abuses. Yet with shootings spiking in cities nationwide during the pandemic, there are growing signs that “the thirst for change is being blunted by fears of runaway crime.” One major test of voters’ commitment to reform came earlier this week, as Philadelphia’s progressive district attorney, Larry Krasner, faced a “vigorous” primary challenge from a police-union-backed former prosecutor. But despite a sharp rise in gun crime, the New York Times reports that on Tuesday, Krasner won an “overwhelming victory” over his opponent, Carlos Vega, in a “major step forward for the growing progressive prosecutorial movement.” Finally, a piece from New York Magazine centers on the race for Manhattan DA. With current DA Cy Vance set to leave office at the end of the year, a new chief prosecutor will oversee the second-largest district attorney’s office in the country for the first time in more than a decade. Vance’s replacement will be only the third New York County DA to occupy the office since his predecessor, Robert Morgenthau, was first elected in 1975. Whoever wins will be responsible for a $169 million budget, 500 prosecutors, and will inherit some of the most high-profile cases in the country, including a criminal investigation into Donald Trump’s finances. Advocates say a crowded field of progressive candidates could mark “the biggest opportunity for local criminal-justice reform in decades” – or “spell victory for Wall Street’s favored candidate.”
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from Rolling Stone explores “the life and death of the incarcerated during COVID-19.” According to Bureau of Justice data from 2017, nearly 200,000 people over age 55 are incarcerated in the US. Thanks to tough-on-crime laws like mandatory minimums and stringent parole boards, the number of older incarcerated people jumped 282% between 1995 and 2010. Elderly prisoners are arguably the most vulnerable population to the ravages of COVID, yet during the pandemic, efforts to release them through compassionate release or home confinement have been “halting at best.” “So many of us have lived in fear for our elderly loved ones this year, but it’s so much worse for those with family in prison,” says photographer Natalie Keyssar, who spent six months documenting elderly prisoners and their families in New York state. “They have no way to stay safe while incarcerated.” A piece from Prison Policy Initiative highlights the fight for vaccinations behind bars. Throughout the pandemic, prisons have been a hotspot for COVID-19, with case rates between four to five times higher than in the general population. Despite being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, however, most states did not prioritize incarcerated people in their vaccination plans. As a result, seven months since the first vaccines were distributed, just 55% of people in prison have been vaccinated, leaving many vulnerable to infection. And a piece from the Dallas Morning News, in collaboration with the Marshall Project, centers on the rise of life-without-parole sentences in the US and the flaws in our legal defense system. Across the country, life-without-parole sentences are steadily replacing the death penalty: nationwide, only 2,500 people are currently on death row, while almost 56,000 are now serving sentences that will keep them locked up until they die – an increase of 66% since 2003. But as life without parole displaces capital punishment, the country’s “patchwork system of public defense” hasn’t kept pace: only 11 states report having minimum qualifications for lawyers who represent impoverished people facing a lifetime behind bars. In California, where a third of the prison population is serving some form of life sentence, minimum qualifications apply only in death penalty cases; the state hasn’t executed anyone since 2006. Legal experts and advocates say that people facing life without parole should receive the same level of representation as those facing the death penalty: “Life without parole is just another form of the death penalty,” says Lawrence Meyers, a judge who served on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for more than 20 years, “just a slower version of it.”
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from the New Yorker recounts the wild true story of “Dagobert,” the so-called “DuckTales bandit.” In the early ‘90s, a frustrated artist in Berlin went on a crime spree, building homemade pipe bombs, extorting high-end department stores, and collecting millions of German marks in ransom payments. He styled his persona after Scrooge McDuck – in German, “Dagobert Duck” – the money-grabbing duck from Disney’s “DuckTales” TV show. Between 1988, when he built his first bomb, and his eventual capture in 1994, Dagobert would cost the government tens of millions and turn Germany’s state criminal police into a national embarrassment. But at the same time, he became a “German folk hero,” spawning endless headlines, popular songs, and t-shirts that read “I am Dagobert.” Amidst the chaos of Germany’s reunification, the Dagobert saga captured the national imagination and the national mood: “If he didn’t exist,” a German sociologist once told Die Welt, “we’d have to invent him.” And the Washington Post reports from Rock Hill, South Carolina, AKA “Football City, USA.” A small city on the southern outskirts of Charlotte, Rock Hill is also a nationally known football incubator: with a population of roughly 75,000, it’s estimated that Rock Hill produces one NFL player for every 8,500 residents. “Football here,” said one county councilman, “is right below religion.” Then, last month, tragedy struck: one of Rock Hill’s hometown heroes, the former NFL cornerback Phillip Adams, opened fire on a local doctor’s office, killing seven people including himself. Those close to Adams, who sustained multiple head injuries during his NFL career, blame the sport that brought him, and Rock Hill, fame and fortune: “I think football messed him up,” Phillip’s anguished father told a reporter the following day. Before the shootings, football in Rock Hill had been “nothing but a social event, a source of civic pride, a pathway to glory and a scholarship and maybe even a career.” But now, with Adams’s relatives and the football world speculating the game might’ve played a role in a national tragedy, Football City, USA is grappling with the game’s dark side.
In culture/true crime: The New Yorker reviews “The Dry,” a new crime thriller from director Robert Connolly. The film follows Aaron Falk (Eric Bana), a big-city cop returning to his tiny, drought-stricken hometown after a 20-year absence. He’s back for the funeral of Luke, a childhood friend accused of murdering his own family before killing himself. Pressed by Luke’s parents to investigate his alleged crimes, Aaron is reluctantly but inevitably drawn into a tangled web of mysteries. The Wall Street Journal reviews the new EPIX true-crime docuseries “Fall River.” The series revisits the infamous “Fall River murders,” a series of three homicides that took place in Fall River, MA, between October 1979 and February 1980. The deaths, of three young female sex workers, were ultimately blamed on an alleged Satanic cult run by a pimp named Carl Drew. “Questions of guilt, innocence and public perception” are part of the mix, as is “that relic of 1980s crime culture and fretful parenting,” the “Satanic panic.” And NPR highlights Better, Not Bitter, a new memoir by Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five. Salaam was just 15 years old in 1989, when he and four other children were falsely accused of the brutal rape of a Central Park jogger. Salaam was incarcerated for seven years before being released, and, even then, he returned to society as a parolee, not as someone deemed innocent: the Central Park Five did not become the Exonerated Five until their convictions were overturned in 2002. Despite this “horrific miscarriage of justice,” Salaam’s compelling memoir is “one of astounding warmth.” While Better, Not Bitter does address the case and his time in prison, the story Salaam most wants to tell is “about the foundation laid by both [his] family and [his] faith, which ensured that [he] would not only survive this awful injustice but thrive in the midst of it.”