Articles Posted in Criminal Justice Issues

Readers know that I am a lawyer who specializes in defending federal criminal investigations and prosecutions, here in my long-time home of Atlanta.  This is also the birthplace and spiritual home of Dr. Martin Luther King III.  This morning I did some volunteer work (as many do) here in beloved “ATL” as a way to honor the memory and dreams of Dr. King.

Dr. King was no stranger to the criminal justice system.  He was jailed, prosecuted and reviled by many who were in charge of the criminal justice systems here in the South.  I strongly urge people to read (or re-read) his famed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” a part of which is one if his most famous quotes: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

I’ve been licking  my wounds from a recent fight that I lost in Court.  It was (and is) the epitome of “injustice”.  It affects a single criminal defendant along with her family and friends (plus her legal team).  However, this single injustice is, just like Dr. King wrote, “a threat to justice everywhere”.  After several weeks of being down about this result I now have the fight back in my blood and bones.  We cannot tolerate injustice, large or small, and this MLK Day is a great way for all of us to remind ourselves that the fight for a better and more perfect society is never-ending.

Many people have heard about “Varsity Blues”,  which is a federal criminal case handled in Boston that alleges lots of wealthy parents basically paid for advantages to get their children into college. When the case broke and virtually all commentators were assuming that the Defendants were guilty, I posted about how everybody needs to take a chill pill and let the criminal defense lawyers do their work.  Stories over the past two days seem to show that my warning was on the mark.  These developments show that the criminal defense attorneys have demonstrated that prosecutors may be violating the “Brady” decision.  Brady was a Supreme Court case that says prosecutors violate our revered Fifth Amendment if they refuse to turn over “exculpatory” evidence, meaning evidence tending to show that the accused person is not guilty of the crime.

The Brady case was from long ago, when I was a mere lad of 7 or so.  What happened was that Mr. Brady was charged with murder, along with another man named Boblit.  Brady acknowledged he was present but claimed he was not the one who killed the victim.  Brady’s lawyers asked for all of Boblit’s statements, but prosecutors held back one statement in which Boblit admitted he was the shooter.  The U.S. Supreme Court said that prosecutors violate the Constitution when, after a request from the defense, they hold back and do not turn over “exculpatory” information, meaning, they fail to tell defense lawyers about evidence that tends to show the accused person is either not guilty or guilty of a crime with lesser punishment. Continue reading

Attorneys who, like me, spend most of their time representing people accused of federal crimes know far too well what the academic researchers and writers call the “Trial Penalty.”  This is the well-documented aspect of the federal criminal justice system in which any person with the nerve to stand up to the federal government in a criminal case receives an inordinately huge punishment, or penalty, simply because that person decided to use the Sixth Amendment’s promise of a jury trial.  Here is a recent group of articles in a highly respected journal discussing various aspects of the “Trial Penalty”.

The research is clear.  Trials are down, way down.  Punishments are going up.  But, punishments for the rare few who dare to challenge “the feds” in court are really going up, higher and higher. Continue reading

I am reviewing the Discovery (meaning the evidence) in a somewhat old federal criminal case that has ties to both Atlanta and North Carolina.  My client is accused of a drug crime, and from the indictment and other materials it appears that the prosecutors contend that there is a mandatory minimum penalty of 5 years in custody, and up to a potential maximum of life in custody.  Obviously, this is a very serious matter.  While this case and the potential penalty are each very serious, the possible sentence caused me to reflect on how far the federal criminal system has come in the 37 years I have been involved.

I started in 1982, and way back then, there were no mandatory penalties, no Sentencing Guidelines, and anyone who got a custodial sentence for a federal crime generally was eligible for early release, or “parole.”  Things began to change in the middle of the 1980’s. Drug crimes started getting more violent.  Then, in 1984 Congress created those Sentencing Guidelines, a mandatory and overly mechanical system for imposing harsher and harsher penalties. At the same time, they did away with parole, and our clients entered a system where they had to serve the entire sentence, other than a potential small reduction for “good behavior.” Continue reading

I happen to like people like Rodney “Rod” Class, even if I often  disagree with them.  Some people call him a “gun nut.”  He refers to himself as a “constitutional bounty hunter.”  He likes his guns, and has a very healthy distrust of government.  Rod’s case will be argued late next week in the Supreme Court, and the main issue is whether a guilty plea waives a challenge to the constitutionality of the criminal offense to which the person entered a plea.  I wrote about Rod’s case last Winter, and sort of predicted it might be accepted for review by the Supreme Court.  Turns out it was accepted, and it is a big deal in our business.

Without guilty pleas, the criminal justice system would likely collapse.  That is one big reason why this case is important.  Mr. Class, foolishly representing himself, pled guilty to a federal crime of possessing “readily available” firearms on the property of the U.S. Capitol grounds.  Now, I happen to agree with a law that says no one should have a firearm on such property, but Rod thought he was within his rights.  Nevertheless, he pled guilty, got a “time served” sentence, which normally would have ended the situation.  But, as I mentioned above, Rod is an “interesting” person.  He wanted to continue his fight against this particular law up through the appellate courts.  He wanted to challenge whether it is a crime for a law-abiding citizen to have a constitutionally protected gun, on the property of his own Capitol, for gosh sakes! Continue reading

A recent state court criminal case here in Atlanta is very similar to a federal criminal case we handled in Savannah last year.  In each case, one person made a demand against another person, and the demand arose out of civil litigation.  Prosecutors in each case alleged that the “demand” was actually the crime of “extortion.”  The recent case here in Atlanta was handled by our friend Brian Steel, who is an excellent lawyer.  Just like in our case last year in Savannah, Brian got the charges dismissed against his client.  You can read about the recent Atlanta case here.

These cases came about because of statutes (which some people refer to as “laws”) that make it a crime to engage in extortion.  Generally, it is illegal to threaten another person and ask that person to pay you money in return for which you will take some action that benefits that other person.  However, (and this is the big exception) it is NOT illegal to make such a threat (or “demand”) if you have every right to make such a claim.  In other words, if someone damages your car, it is OK for you (or your lawyer) to send a “demand” to the person who wrecked your auto, seeking money, and threatening a lawsuit if they do not comply with the demand.  It is NOT OK to send a demand if the person never caused you any damage at all. Continue reading

We represent many people who are under investigation for (or who later face) federal criminal charges.  In the past week the national news media are having spasms over the fact that the head of the FBI decided to publicly acknowledge that his agents are looking at emails scoured from a laptop sometimes used by the well-named Anthony Weiner, and that these emails may be connected to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who, in case you have not heard it, is running for President).

I am fascinated by how politics intersects with the criminal justice system.  Over the past 34 years I have represented people involved in politics who either were charged with or investigated for crimes, both federal crimes and state criminal accusations.  While my cases are obviously different from whatever challenges are facing attorneys for Hillary Clinton and others, there are also striking similarities. Continue reading

Over the past 20 years or so, there has been a real push to protect the rights of victims in the criminal justice system. People who are victims of crime now have the right to speak in court, to receive restitution, and to be informed about all phases of a criminal case against the person who victimized them in the first place. In federal criminal cases, where we do a bulk of our work, this trend to give victims more rights culminated in the 2004 Crime Victims Rights Act (CVRA). I have spoken to lawyer meetings around the country since 2004, pointing out how criminal defense attorneys need to account for the fact that victims are now more heavily involved in federal criminal cases.

A decision issued yesterday by the United States Court of Appeals here in Atlanta shows how even good laws like the CVRA can sometimes lead to bad consequences. The case is Jane Doe #1 and Jane Doe #2 v. Roy Black, et al. You can access the decision here.

A man named Epstein apparently sexually abused two minor girls. Epstein hired Roy Black, a prominent criminal defense attorney in Miami. Epstein faced potential criminal charges in both the local Miami courts as well as in the federal court system. Recall, the under the CVRA, victims have lots of rights, one of which is to be notified about all developments in a case. Victims also own the right to have their opinions heard when prosecutors are considering resolving a case with an agreement of some sort.

Here at Kish & Lietz, we proudly represent individuals who are being investigated for or prosecuted with criminal offenses. A set of recent stories about how drug companies in Europe are refusing to provide the drugs used for executions reminded me about the difference between attorneys who represent individual people, versus those lawyers who mostly work for companies, or a movement, or an ideology. One of the recent death penalty drug stories can be found here.

I have almost always represented individual people during my legal career. It simply fits better with my personality, in that I sort of like the David-versus-Goliath story where it’s me and my client versus the entire system of prosecutors, federal agents and judges. The only things I need to concern myself with are my client and whatever is best for him or her and their family. However, when a lawyer represents a company, or a movement promoting an ideology, the individual person’s interests can sometimes get pushed to the side.
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Politics impacts many of our criminal cases here in Atlanta, throughout Georgia, Florida and Alabama, and in federal cases we do throughout the country. The intersection of politics and criminal prosecutions is especially prevalent in public corruption investigations. Prosecutors often have a political motive in “going after” a particular defendant, and many a prosecutor has made a name for him or herself by bagging a politician. These principles were on full display in the case against Tom Delay, the former Majority Leader of the United States House of Representatives. Last week, the Texas Court of Appeals reversed Delay’s convictions, ruling that he had not committed any crime. The ruling is here.

Delay was known as a hard-charging Republican advocate, whose nickname of “the Hammer” demonstrated his supposedly ruthless tactics. In 2002, Delay wanted to have the Texas Legislature turn solidly Republican, which it did. To accomplish, he asked for a series of corporate political contributions to a campaign committee. Afterwards, that solidly Republican legislature allegedly jiggered the voting districts so that the Texas federal delegation was far more likely to elect Republicans to the U.S. Congress. All well and good, hard nosed politics.
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