This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: AP reports that last week, a federal judge in San Diego struck down California’s three-decade-old ban on assault weapons, calling it a “failed experiment” that violates people’s constitutional right to bear arms. In the 94-page decision, the judge compared an AR-15 rifle to a “Swiss army knife,” falsely claiming that more Californians had died from the COVID-19 vaccine than from mass shootings. A piece from The Guardian examines the far-reaching implications of this decision for California and the US. Although the ruling has sparked outrage in California, it has the potential to have a much broader national impact. If the case is appealed to the Supreme Court, a new conservative majority could use the legal battle to rule that banning military-style assault weapons is unconstitutional, undermining the Biden administration’s endorsement of a national ban. And USA Today reports from St. Louis, where Mayor Tishaura Jones recently took office, becoming the first Black woman to occupy the role. Jones – who ran on promises to end cash bail, curtail mass incarceration, and hold police accountable – is among the cohort of elected leaders coming into power in the wake of 2020’s national protests, where millions of demonstrators called on officials to cut police budgets in favor of funding social services. But she now faces myriad challenges as she works to reform her home city: an entrenched political establishment that remains skeptical of her progressive vision; an alarming homicide rate that could derail reform efforts among key constituencies; and a cadre of activists demanding radical change instead of piecemeal reforms.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: In a piece for the Atlantic, journalist Elizabeth Bruenig tackles America’s “dangerous obsession with innocence.” According to the National Registry of Exonerations, more than 1,000 people have been exonerated for murder in the US since 1989. With the advent of increasingly advanced and accurate forensic techniques, people with plausible innocence claims have, in some instances, been able to bring new technology to bear on preserved evidence to great effect. That phenomenon, Bruenig writes, spurred the “innocence movement in capital-punishment advocacy” as we know it today, with more than 50 innocence organizations operating across the United States. But this outsize focus on innocence, she continues, has created a “legal exoneration infrastructure suited to a relatively small number of inmates, leaving little room for the broader range of death-row occupants just as much in need of help”: Ultimately, “the fight should be waged not against particular injustices, but against the unjust system itself.” And a piece from the Marshall Project examines rising prison and jail populations in the aftermath of the pandemic. By the middle of 2020, the number of people in jails nationwide was at its lowest point in more than two decades, according to a new report published this week by the Vera Institute of Justice. As counties aggressively worked to release people held on low-level charges, dramatically reduced arrest rates, and suspended court operations, the number of people incarcerated in county jails across the country declined by roughly 25%. But since last summer, and especially now that courts are reopening, those numbers have begun creeping up again, to the dismay of justice reform advocates who argue that “the past year proved there is no need to keep so many people locked up.”
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from Town & Country revisits the still-unsolved 2019 disappearance of Jennifer Dulos. To outsiders, Jennifer – an Ivy League-educated writer and mother of five living in a gated mansion in tony New Canaan, Connecticut – seemed to lead a charmed existence. But, as the world would come to discover in the spring of 2019, “behind that perfectly polished exterior was an entirely different story.” On May 24, 2019, Jennifer vanished after dropping her kids off at school. All suspicions pointed to her “charming, if mercurial,” ex-husband, real estate developer Fotis Dulos, with whom she had been in the midst of a contentious divorce and custody battle. But shortly after being charged with her murder in January 2020, Dulos committed suicide. Jennifer still hasn’t been found. And a piece from the New Yorker explores “the murder scandalizing Brazil’s evangelical church.” Flordelis dos Santos de Souza became famous in Brazil as a gospel singer, a pastor, and a politician, part of a movement that is reshaping the country by fusing politics with religion with entertainment. Then, late one night in June 2019, Flordelis’ husband Anderson – manager of his wife’s business and political affairs and father to the couple’s 55 adopted children – was brutally murdered outside their Rio home. The tragedy was major news in Brazil, generating an outpouring of sympathy for Flordelis and her family. But the public’s concern for Flordelis was quickly overtaken by suspicion: in the days after Anderson’s funeral, eight of the couple’s children would be arrested in connection with their father’s murder. That August, the police issued an indictment against Flordelis herself, charging her with involvement in the killing. In the ensuing uproar, Flordelis was suspended by her political party and turned upon by her thousands of parishioners. But throughout the ordeal, Flordelis has maintained her innocence; now, still free, she is determined to clear her name.
In culture/true crime: A piece from The Ringer revisits Paradise Lost, HBO’s landmark 1996 documentary about the trials of the West Memphis Three. In 1993, the brutal murders of three 8-year-old boys upended the small, working-class community of West Memphis, Arkansas. A year later, three teenagers were convicted of the killings and sentenced to life in prison, although all three maintained their innocence. Paradise Lost, released 25 years ago this week, brought the story of the West Memphis Three to TV sets across the country, putting human faces to a heart-wrenching tragedy. A spiritual successor to Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, and a forerunner of more recent documentaries like Making a Murderer, the film stands today as “the most affecting examination of one of the most studied legal cases in US history.” Time highlights the new documentary All Light, Everywhere, a “thoughtful, if sometimes frustrating” meditation on the acts of “seeing” and “interpreting,” particularly as they apply to law enforcement and the criminal-justice system. “Perhaps an act of exploration more than a conventional documentary,” the film takes viewers from 19th-century Europe, where astronomers’ efforts to trace the 1874 transit of Venus gave rise to the first motion picture; to the modern-day Scottsdale, Arizona, headquarters of Axon, a company that manufactures and sells tasers and body cameras commonly used by law enforcement. Delving deep into the histories of filmmaking, surveillance, and subjective and objective framings of both, the film examines both technological limitations and the limits of our own perception. And On Our Watch, a new podcast series from NPR and KQED, looks into what happens when police investigate one of their own. For decades, the processes by which police police themselves have been obscure and inconsistent, if not opaque. In some states, like California, these proceedings were completely hidden behind a wall of official secrecy. After a new police transparency law unsealed scores of internal affairs files, NPR and KQED reporters set out to examine these cases and the “shadow world” of police discipline.