A Little Inspiration New Netflix show follows the lawyers who fight wrongful convictions and systemic racism
At this very moment, there are countless wrongly convicted people serving time in prisons across the United States, awaiting a chance to prove their innocence.
Attorneys Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, founders of the New York-based Innocence Project, have been fighting to exonerate such people since 1992 and are the inspiration for Netflix's latest true-crime documentary, The Innocence Files (streaming now). The pair recently spoke to EW about the subjects featured in the nine-episode series and why the American legal system needs to do a better job investigating and trying cases to ensure justice is always served.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Many of the cases featured in The Innocence Files are those of black and Latino people. Is this a coincidence, or is it representative of something bigger?
PETER NEUFELD: One of the things that's true about our cases is that a disproportionate number of people exonerated, compared to their presence in criminal justice or their population in the U.S., is that they're heavily disproportionately weighted toward people of color, specifically black and Hispanic people. Too many of the people that we've exonerated are, in particular, young black men wrongly convicted of sexually assaulting white women at a much higher rate than white men are. And those numbers are contrary to rates published by the Department of Justice, specifically that most assaults occur within a race — black men assaulting black women or white men assaulting white women. Almost 55 percent of our cases involve black men wrongly convicted of assaulting white women, and you can see the injustices in those cases in how they were initially investigated, how they were held without bail, and in the fact that more cases of wrongful convictions were present in their trials. They get longer sentences and are more difficult to get parole. We even see it in how long it takes us to clear them. On average, it takes us four years longer to clear somebody of color who was actually innocent than it does for us to clear somebody who was white.
Read the interview on Entertainment Weekly
Speaking Of… ChangeLawyers hosting virtual fireside chat with Innocence Files lawyers
How do you liberate a man who’s spent nearly 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit? Recently featured in the new Netflix series, the Innocence Files, Franky Carrillo was exonerated with the help of a team of lawyers, judges, and activists. Join ChangeLawyers for a virtual fireside chat with Frankie Carrillo, Judge Paul Bacigalupo, Juan Mejia from the District Attorney's Office, and Paige Kaneb from the Northern California Innocence Project.
Register here >
More of This This judge is Black, Queer, and Disabled. And she could change the course of criminal justice reform.
Governor Jay Inslee made his third appointment to the Washington Supreme Court last week, elevating G. Helen Whitener, a judge on the Pierce County Superior Court.
In joining a supreme court that has recently driven major criminal justice reform, and that is generally progressive but often divided, Whitener could determine how boldly it proceeds in years ahead.
Whitener replaces Justice Charles Wiggins, who retired last month. To keep the seat, she has to run in the November general election and then again in 2022, when Wiggins’s term would have ended. Three other justices are up for re-election this fall as well.
Her appointment has drawn attention for boosting the representation of marginalized groups. She is a Black, gay, and disabled immigrant from Trinidad. With her appointment, Washington’s Supreme Court is the most diverse appellate court in the country.
Whitener also adds range in terms of professional experience. She had been a trial court judge since 2015, and before that served as both a prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer, including as a public defender in Pierce County’s Department of Assigned Counsel. The judiciary, including both state and federal courts, is littered with former prosecutors. Former defense lawyers, and public defenders in particular, are significantly underrepresented.
Mary Kay High, the chief deputy in that Pierce County office, noted that criminal defense is “not the typical path to the bench.” She believes Whitener’s diverse professional background will play a crucial role on a court with justices regarded as liberal but fiercely independent.
As a superior court judge who previously represented people harmed by prosecutions, Whitener recognized how the criminal legal system’s punitive aspects can be unjust and counterproductive, setting people up to fail and remain trapped in the system.
Last year, for instance, she said the fines and fees attached to criminal convictions “have accumulated at a ridiculous rate.” She stressed that judges have broad discretion over most fines and fees and should only impose such obligations when people can afford to pay, taking into account a person’s income and other financial obligations. “We can’t on one side say we’re helping people who are leaving our prison system, and then burden them with all of these fines,” she said.
In that same interview, she also advocated against incarcerating youth offenders for so-called status offenses, which only apply to children — like skipping school, running away from home, and underage drinking — echoing state advocates’ calls to treat kids like kids. She added, “these children are experiencing trauma of some sort, and incarceration is not the answer for dealing with that situation.” Washington, which had an exceptionally punitive system with regard to status offense detentions, adopted a law restricting them in 2019.
Read the story on The Appeal
More of This Too COVID 19 is reason enough to end mass incarceration
Tiffany Cabán is a former candidate for Queens district attorney.
“Anybody want to test my accountability by walking with me in a few moments down to skid row?”
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter leveled the question at a room full of attorneys on a recent Tuesday afternoon.
“Do you all believe me, or do you want to see it?” he pressed. “Do you want to see it?”
At 76 years old, Carter knows he should be at home and away from people, not in a cavernous ballroom in the basement of the Alexandria Hotel surrounded by attorneys and journalists, or outside leading a tour of the largest concentration of homeless people in the country. Public officials have warned that his age puts him at high risk for contracting the coronavirus and dying of COVID-19.
But as the pandemic has unfolded, Carter, long known as brash, verbose and stubbornly hands-on, has been on a mission to force changes in the living conditions for the homeless people of L.A.
He is the judge assigned to a lawsuit filed last month against the city and county of Los Angeles by the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights. The group of business owners and downtown residents, among others, is demanding solutions to what they see as unsafe and inhumane conditions in encampments — especially given the pandemic.
On this particular Tuesday, two attorneys representing the county and several others representing advocacy groups decided to take Carter up on his offer to see whether the new hand-washing stations on skid row actually worked. In court, Carter had been frustrated that the stations the city was touting didn’t have water in them. He knew many were empty because he had checked them earlier.
So for two hours, the group marched around the squalor of skid row in the rain. Carter’s determined gait left other, much younger people scrambling to keep up, shivering in their soaked business attire.
He led them from station to station, demonstrating which ones worked and which ones didn’t. He wore gloves, but then shook the hands of several homeless people. Although he had on an N95 mask, he would pull it back so people could hear him. He also often stood closer to others than the recommended distance of six feet.
Read the story on LA Times
Less of This The Supreme Court still doesn’t know how to talk about race
In a deeply fractured opinion, the Supreme Court held on Monday that states must rely on unanimous juries to obtain criminal convictions. (Oregon and Louisiana had previously allowed nonunanimous juries to convict individuals.) The opinion reveals different divisions among the justices, including about when to adhere to the court’s prior opinions. But perhaps the most revealing division was about how and when to talk about racial bias in law.
The nonunanimous jury rule at the core of Ramos v. Louisiana has transparently racist origins, which Justice Neil Gorsuch detailed in the majority opinion, joined in most respects by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Brett Kavanaugh. Louisiana’s rule was adopted at an 1898 constitutional convention together with a package of other reforms with the shared purpose of excluding black Americans from the United States political system: a poll tax, a literacy and property ownership test for voting, and a grandfather clause that exempted many white residents from the requirements. One committee chairman explained that the purpose of the convention was to “establish the supremacy of the white race.” As Sotomayor wrote separately to underscore, the nonunanimous jury rules have a “sordid history”: “the legacy of racism that generated Louisiana’s and Oregon’s laws.” Kavanaugh echoed this claim in his own separate writing: “The convention approved non-unanimous juries as one pillar of a comprehensive and brutal program of racist Jim Crow measures against African-Americans.”
This language acknowledging this history outraged the dissenters—Justice Samuel Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justice Elena Kagan. Alito’s dissent claimed that the talk of racism was getting in the way of pure legal reasoning. “Too much public discourse today is sullied by ad hominem rhetoric, that is, attempts to discredit an argument not by proving that it is unsound but by attacking the character or motives of the argument’s proponents. The majority regrettably succumbs to this trend.” The dissent maintained that “all the talk about the Klan, etc., is entirely out of place” and failed to “set an example of rational and civil discourse instead of contributing to the worst current trends.”
For the dissenters, the act of pointing out the rule’s unmistakable racist origins—of accusing the state of being racist—was worse than the sordid, racist history itself.
This is not the first appearance of this division between justices who are willing to grapple with race and racist history and those who are not. The justices have been divided on this issue in important voting rights cases as well as in criminal procedure.
Read the story on Slate
Tuesday May 5 at Noon
Learn strategies for persuasive and accessible legal writing, including writing for the busy reader, easy approaches for starting briefs, and how to write in a team. From cleaning up your grammar to avoiding legalese, learn how better writing helps your clients by helping your judge. Join us for the writing training you didn't get in law school, but wish you had.
April 5 at 12:00 Noon. Register here
May 7 at Noon
Featuring Arati Vasan (she/her), Senior Managing Attorney at Family Violence Appellate Project and Christian Abasto, Director of Legal Advocacy Unit at Disability Rights California
May 7 at 12:00 Noon. Register here
May 14 at Noon
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a harsh reminder of our financial fragility. During times of uncertainty, it becomes especially crucial to focus on what’s within our control. In this free webinar, we will walk you through four steps of navigating this and any financial crisis. Topics include organizing financial accounts and debt, bridging unemployment and income uncertainty, prioritizing outflows, and constructing credible support systems. The CARES Act and what to do with your stimulus check will also be discussed.
May 14 at 12:00 Noon. Register here
We're seeking a criminal justice fellow
With support from California ChangeLawyers℠, UnCommon Law seeks to hire a full-time, year-long legal Fellow to support the work of our New Pilot Program. The Fellow will be a part of a team of advocates, counselors and attorneys supporting Pilot program participants in navigating the discretionary parole process, including supporting those participants in developing new self-narratives to heal from past trauma.
We're seeking a civil rights fellow
With support from California ChangeLawyers®, Council on American-Islamic Relations (SF-Bay Area) seeks to hire a full-time, post-Bar Legal Fellow to support the work of our civil rights and immigration programs, and increase the projects capacity to build a removal defense docket, provide naturalization services in the American Muslim community, and support first-time callers seeking civil rights and immigration legal assistance.