WHEN DOES EVIDENCE SUFFICE?
Jurors may be more likely to give circumstances their due
For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Billy Kipkorir Chemirmir. That name – and assumedly, its bearer – will surely go down in infamy. A 49-year old Texas man, he has been indicted for killing eighteen elderly women (and is presumed to have murdered many more) during a years-long homicidal spree at senior living facilities in Dallas and its suburbs. Chermimir gained access by pretending to be a caregiver or maintenance worker. And when he discovered there was jewelry to steal, he suffocated his victims – each was in their eighties or nineties – and sold their valuables. Chermimir used pillows, and given the absence of obvious trauma and his victims’ advanced age, the deaths were initially attributed to natural causes. Indeed, until one of his targets survived and called for help, no one suspected that a serial killer of the elderly was on the loose.
Chemirmir wasn’t totally unknown to the criminal justice system. An immigrant from Kenya – he arrived as an adult in 2003 – he would in time rack up a couple of DUI’s and, in 2012, an arrest for domestic violence. His next legal tangle, though, turned out far more significant. In June, 2016 Chemirmir was arrested for trespassing at “The Edgemere,” a Dallas retirement home from which he was expelled two months earlier. Although police had let him off with a warning the first time, they took the return engagement a bit more seriously. What they didn’t know was that Chermimir was a killer. By then he had already murdered two Edgemere residents, Phyllis Payne, 91, and Phoebe Perry, 94. (A third, Catherine Probst Sinclair, 87, died under suspicious circumstances, but her cause of death remains “undetermined”.)
After a twelve-day jail stint Chemirmir began visiting another Dallas senior community, “The Tradition.” He was often seen there during the summer and fall of 2016, and when challenged said he was checking for pipe leaks. He was finally told to stay away. Chemirmir was eventually indicted for murdering seven of the home’s residents between July 2016 and October 2016: Joyce Abramowitz, 82; Juanita Purdy, 82; Leah Corken, 83; Margaret White, 86; Norma French, 85; Glenna Day, 87; and Doris Gleason, 92. (He is also thought to have killed a male resident, Solomon Spring, 89, but no charges have been filed.)
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In November 2016 Tradition’s employees called police about “a suspicious person” who was frequenting the premises under guise of being a maintenance worker. Officers took a report and suggested tightening things up.
Nearly a year later, Chemirmir apparently turned his murderous attention to the suburbs. He’s been charged in the September 16, 2017 slaying of Marilyn Bixler, 90, a resident of “Parkview,” a retirement facility in Frisco. Five weeks later, a 93-year old Parkview resident survived an attempt to smother her with a pillow. Her assailant allegedly left with her jewelry.
Chemirmir remained lethally active. Three days before Christmas 2017 he committed an alleged eighth slaying at The Tradition. His victim was Doris Wasserman, 90. During this period Chemirmir is also alleged to have slain three residents of private homes in Plano, Dallas and Richardson: Carolyn MacPhee, 81, Rosemary Curtis, 75, and Mary Brooks, 88.
His undoing ultimately came at “Preston Place”, a Plano retirement community. During the early morning hours of March 19, 2018, Chemirmir tried to suffocate resident Mary Bartel, 91, with a pillow. But after he left she regained consciousness and police were called. By then Chemirmir had allegedly killed at least four Preston Place residents: Minnie Campbell, 84, Martha Williams, 80, Miriam Nelson, 81, and, only one day earlier, Ann Conklin, 82. (We say “at least” because there were several suspicious deaths as well.) Of course, the cops didn’t know that. But mention of a vehicle registered to Chemirmir had appeared in past reports of suspicious activity at retirement homes. On the following day, officers staked out his Dallas-area apartment and saw him toss a jewelry box into the trash. Inside the box they found the name “Liu Thi Harris.” Dallas police rushed to the 81-year old woman’s home. They were too late. She had already been suffocated with a pillow.
Chemirmir’s trial for murdering Ms. Harris began on November 15, 2021. Prosecutors played a video clip that depicted the accused and Ms. Harris inside a Walmart at the same time. The implication that Chemirmir followed her home was seconded by a January 2018 video clip from the same Walmart that paired him and a prior victim, Mary Brooks. Although Mary Bartel (she survived the suffocation attempt) had passed away, her deposition about the assault was admitted into evidence. Chemirmir’s alleged motive – to steal jewelry for resale – was also well supported. Ms. Harris’ jewelry box was identified by her son, and her jewelry and keys to her front door were found in Chemirmir’s car. Ms. Brooks’ daughter also testified that her mother’s safe and jewelry turned up missing. There was evidence that Chemirmir had offered jewelry from Ms. Bartel and Ms. Brooks for sale online, and a jewelry broker confirmed he made some purchases.
Still, the case wasn’t perfect. No deaths other than those of Ms. Harris and Ms. Brooks could be brought up. Ms. Bartel had never identified Chemirmir from a photograph, and physical evidence was lacking. As one might expect, Chemirmir didn’t take the stand. Criticizing the evidence as “all circumstantial” and the case as “quantity over quality,” the defense called no witnesses. While undoubtedly chancy, its gambit proved sufficient to convince one juror to hold out for acquittal. A mistrial was declared on November 19.
Chemirmir’s retrial kicked off on March 25. It was a literal replay. Again, the defense didn’t put on a case. Instead, his lawyers argued that prosecutors did not prove that Chemirmir entered Ms. Harris’ residence “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Once again, the case was supposedly “all bark, no bite.” Not this time. Things wrapped up on March 28. And it took the jury less than forty-five minutes to convict the “circumstantially” accused killer of murdering Ms. Harris. Chemirmir got life without parole.
According to the Daily Mail, as many as one-thousand elderly persons suffered “unexplained deaths” in Dallas-area nursing homes while Chemirmir was active. And some additional cases seem to be in the works. Still, none of the remaining seventeen indicted murders is known to offer a connection as compelling as the trail which led directly from Ms. Bartel’s assault to Ms. Harris’ jewelry box. Connecting Chemirmir to his victim would be essential. Ditto, a cause of death that doesn’t contradict suffocation. And recovering missing jewelry would be a big plus. Given Dallas County’s past tangles with wrongful convictions (its D.A. installed a pioneering “conviction integrity unit” in 2007) there’s little doubt that they’re likely to take care.
On October 19, 2018, Memphis police arrested a Chicago man, Jimmy Jackson, 72, on a Cook County warrant that accused him of murdering a 62-year old Chicago woman who had gone missing five months earlier. Family members who reported Daisy Hayes missing told police that they were certain that her boyfriend, Mr. Jackson, had killed her. And the cops clearly agreed.
Mr. Jackson stayed locked up until his trial last month. And the circumstances pointing to his guilt sure seemed compelling. A surveillance video showed Jackson wheeling away a heavy, bulging suitcase from the building where each had an apartment. And yes, it was big enough to fit, as Ms. Hayes was barely over five tall and weighed a mere 85 pounds. Other videos depicted Mr. Jackson, with some difficulty, throwing the suitcase in a dumpster, then covering it with trash from other dumpsters. He then left with his own (non-bulging) suitcase. Apparently, heading for Memphis.
Alas, Ms. Hayes’ body was never found. And there was no DNA or physical evidence. Ms. Hayes hadn’t been answering phone calls, and it was two weeks before family members came looking. They must have found the place quite tidy, as video depicted Mr. Jackson going in and out with cleaning supplies.
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This wasn’t Mr. Jackson’s first serious go-round with the cops. He had been arrested for a double homicide years earlier, but prosecutors dropped the case after witnesses didn’t show. So his lawyer had to assess things very carefully. And he reached a unique conclusion. There was no body. All that potentially nasty evidence was circumstantial. Let a judge decide!
On Friday, April 22, 2022 Cook County Judge Diana Kenworthy rendered the verdict. Cleaning an apartment isn’t a crime. Ms. Hayes was elderly and had been drinking. And there was no physical or biological evidence that a crime had even occurred. She found Mr. Jackson not guilty.
“This one conviction represents justice for all of the families.” That’s how the daughter of one of Chemirmir’s victims welcomed the jury’s verdict. In contrast, the judge’s acquittal of Jimmy Jackson left Daisy Hayes’ daughter in tears. “Four years we’ve been fighting this, and all we got was a not guilty verdict.” We don’t deny that the circumstances presented at Chemirmir’s trial were compelling. But we’re equally convinced that a bulging suitcase, plus those trash bins, plus all that scrubbing, plus a sudden relocation to another state would have caused a whole lot of mutually-reinforcing chatter in a jury room, had Jackson opted for one. But his lawyer probably felt that a judge, deciding alone, would set tempting but inconclusive circumstances aside in favor of a more legally-focused argument, say, the lack of a clear motive and the absence of a corpse.
And the gamble paid off, if not for justice, at least for the accused.
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A Victim of Circumstance Fewer Can be Better
JUDICIAL DETACHMENT: MYTH OR REALITY?
A Supreme Court candidate gets slammed for liberal bias
For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. In his prior life as a Fed your writer frequently authored detailed affidavits while seeking arrest and search warrants for gun crimes. But the sworn declaration he just downloaded from the D.C. Federal court’s PACER website is by far the most nauseating such document that he’s ever read (case no. 1:13-cr-00244-KBJ).
In 2013 the Washington D.C. FBI Child Exploitation Task Force was tipped that someone had been uploading videos to the Internet showing naked “prepubescent boys” engaging in oral and anal sex. An undercover D.C. police detective subsequently exchanged emails with the suspect, Wesley Hawkins, 18. Hawkins wrote that “he likes children ages 11 to 17, and that he has videos to share.” And he did, sending on two “of a prepubescent male masturbating.”
Other tips led to the discovery of two-dozen-plus videos and still images uploaded by Hawkins that depicted male and female children and prepubescent boys flaunting their intimate parts and engaging in oral and anal sex. In June 2013 officers served a search warrant at his residence. They turned up a laptop replete with child pornography. It reportedly included:
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“24:06 minute video depicting an approximately 12 year-old male masturbating before a web camera; 1:57 minute video depicting an approximately 8 year-old male masturbating before a web camera; 11:47 minute video depicting an approximately 11 year-old male masturbating and being anally penetrated by an adult male; 15:19 minute video depicting two approximately 11 year-old males masturbating and performing sexual acts on each other; 7:51 minute video depicting an approximately 12 year-old male masturbating....”
Note that at least one video featured an “adult male” participant (no, it wasn’t Hawkins). Hawkins initially denied everything. But he soon conceded that his laptop held some deeply incriminating goods.
He wasn’t accused of actually taking the videos. Still, by posting and sharing them he had participated in a process that can profoundly damage children. Hawkins soon pled guilty to one count of possessing child pornography [18 USC 2252A(a)(5)(B)]. Since some of the affected minors were less than twelve years of age, he could have hypothetically drawn as many as twenty years. Sentencing-wise, several potential enhancements did apply:
...the material involved prepubescent minors or minors under the age of 12 (+2); the offense involved distribution (+2); the material portrayed sadistic or masochistic conduct (+4); the offense involved the use of a computer (+2); the offense involved 600 or more images (+5)...
Given Hawkins’ lack of a prior criminal record, Sentencing Commission guidelines called for a range of 97 to 121 months imprisonment. His youth and cooperation, though, led prosecutors to recommend a more lenient disposition: twenty-four months custody followed by 96 months of supervised release.
So what did Hawkins actually get? Well, some of our readers likely know. But don’t fret: we’ll return to Mr. Hawkins in a moment.
On January 27, 2022 U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer revealed that after twenty-seven years on the nation’s high court, he was ready to retire. Less than a month later President Joe Biden announced that in line with his pledge to appoint a Black woman as the next Justice, he had selected D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to fill the vacancy. His official statement led off with the two core principles that everyone hopes underlie judicial decisionmaking:
Because of her diverse and broad public service, Judge Jackson has a unique appreciation of how critical it is for the justice system to be fair and impartial [emphasis ours]. With multiple law enforcement officials in her family, she also has a personal understanding of the stakes of the legal system. After serving in the U.S. Army and being deployed to Iraq and Egypt, Jackson’s brother served as a police officer in Baltimore and two of her uncles were police officers in Miami.
As one would expect, Justice Jackson’s qualifications are indeed awesome. Even so, President Biden knows that given the constituencies that some Senators must please, her confirmation could present a struggle even within the “Blues.” And with the Senate evenly split, literally every vote “counts.” That, in turn, may explain why the President’s comments emphasized that Justice Jackson has family ties to, well, the cops.
Nominated by President Bill Clinton, Justice Breyer was considered a “Blue” sort. Ditto his anointed successor. Her selection reflects the Red/Blue, right/left, conservative/liberal ideological divide that Professor Richard Hasen claims (“Polarization and the Judiciary”) has long guided the selection of State and Federal judges and justices, deeply affecting outcomes in fraught areas such as guns, abortion and affirmative action. As for the Supreme Court, professors Neal Devins and Lawrence Baum (“Split Definitive: How Party Polarization Turned the Supreme Court into a Partisan Court”) conclude that its decisions have closely tracked Party lines for over a decade:
Since 2010, when Elena Kagan replaced John Paul Stevens, all of the Republican-nominated Justices on the Supreme Court have been to the right of all of its Democratic-nominated Justices. This pattern is widely recognized, but it is not well recognized that it is unique in the Court’s history. Before 2010, the Court never had clear ideological blocs that coincided with party lines.
Professors Andrew Martin and Kevin Quinn devised a widely accepted approach that uses Supreme Court decisions to scale Justices’ ideological preference, from the most liberal (-5.0) to the most conservative (+5.0). An M-Q score gets assigned to each Justice at the end of every term. Check out our lead graphic. Excepting Justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh And Barrett, who began in 2016, 2018 and 2020 respectively, the left-side score represents the year 2010. Here’s a companion visual that tracks M-Q’s thru 2020:
With a couple of exceptions (note Roberts’ moderation and Sotomayor’s plunge from moderately liberal to off-the-charts) M-Q scores remain remarkably consistent, term-in and term-out. But put decisions aside. In “Split Definitive” Professors Devins and Baum highlight the salience of ideology by analyzing Justices’ preferences when it comes to hiring clerks. This graphic depicts the proportion of clerks during the 2005-2016 terms who had served lower-court judges appointed by Republicans.
It’s clear that the conservative Justices (the five on the right) were determined to hire clerks with “Red” backgrounds, while their liberal colleagues preferred those of the “Blue” persuasion.
That Justices are ideologically split is old news. (For a list of relevant articles and news pieces click here.) Indeed, it’s assumed that each will come down on a certain side in every ideologically-charged decision. Here, for an example, is an extract from a recent story in the Los Angeles Times about a case before the Court. Apparently, the California business community (read: conservative-leaning) is challenging a State law, which has been backed by State court decisions, that lets workers sue employers even though they supposedly agreed when hired that all disputes would be arbitrated:
The court’s conservative justices said little during Wednesday’s argument in Viking River Cruises vs. Moriana, while the three liberals spoke in defense of the California law. “This is the state’s decision to enforce its own labor laws in a particular kind of way,” Justice Elena Kagan said.
California is reportedly the only State that does that. Its high court refused to hear an appeal, but the U.S. Supreme Court has taken on the case. Given its present conservative majority (and Justice Kavanaugh’s mention that “California is an outlier here”) a business-friendly ruling seems likely.
But what does judicial ideology have to do with our (hopefully, one-time) fan of child pornography? A lot. You see, Wesley Hawkins’ three-month sentence, whose length was one-eighth of what the prosecutor recommended, was handed down by D.C. Court of Appeals Justice – now, Supreme Court nominee – Ketanji Brown Jackson while she served as a D.C. District Court judge. Justice Jackson, who began her Government career as a Federal Public Defender, has been severely criticized by Republicans for demonstrating “empathy” (i.e., leniency) when sentencing Hawkins and other child pornographers.
We downloaded several documents from Mr. Hawkins’ criminal case. This graphic depicts two of the final entries on the index page: the judgment (click here for the document) and an accompanying “Statement of Reasons.” Ostensibly, the latter would have explained Judge Jackson’s pronounced “downward departure” from the two-year term recommended by prosecutors, which was itself substantially less than what Sentencing Commission guidelines prescribe. Alas, clicking on the link returned “not available.”
So we turned to FactCheck.org. Their extensive coverage of the case includes Justice Jackson’s explanation of her sentencing sentencing decision during questioning by her most ardent antagonist, Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo). Here’s a brief extract:
I remember in that case that defense counsel was arguing for probation, in part because he argued that here we had a very young man just graduated from high school. He presented all of his diplomas and certificates and the things that he had done and argued consistent with what I was seeing in the record that this particular defendant had gotten into this in a way that was, I thought, inconsistent with some of the other cases that I had seen.
FactCheck looked into seven child-pornography sentences that supposedly reflect Justice Jackson’s excessively forgiving nature. Our graph orders them according to the recommended sentence under the guidelines (black bar), from the least severe (left) to the most (right). Mr. Hawkins’ case is the fourth.
In each, the actual sentence given by then-judge Jackson was less than what prosecutors had sought, and in four cases (#3, #4, #5 and #6) substantially so.
Justice Jackson has said that her sentences were not overly lenient. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” she insists. Yet her obvious empathy for the accused has become a “flashpoint.” It’s not that she ignores victims. While sentencing Mr. Hawkins she agonized about “children who are being trapped and molested and raped for the viewing pleasure of people like yourself.” The case file included a statement from one of the youths depicted in the images which “describes how being a victim of child pornography has affected many areas of the victim’s life, including the victim’s inability to trust adults and struggle with anger issues.” Yet then-Judge Jackson held back. “You were only involved in this for a few months...Other than your engagement with the undercover officer, there isn’t an indication that you were in any online communities to advance your collecting behavior.”
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Did Mr. Hawkins’ sentence convey a sufficiently stern warning? Perhaps not. According to a Washington Post investigation (it’s otherwise very favorable to the Justice) a probation document filed as Mr. Hawkins’ term of supervision neared its end reported that “despite being in treatment for more than five years [Mr. Hawkins] continues to seek out sexually arousing, non-pornographic material and images of males 13 to 16-years-old.” He had to serve his last six months of release in a halfway house.
Over the years we’ve repeatedly mentioned the “tendency to seek out information and interpret events in a way that affirms one’s predilections and beliefs.” That nasty interloper – its official title is “confirmation bias” – can affect most anyone, from out-and-out ideologues to supposedly objective, data-driven scientists. And, as our graphs seem to demonstrate, Supreme Court justices. But Justice Jackson denied that she purposely aligned with either the “Reds” or the “Blues”:
I decide cases from a neutral posture. I evaluate the facts, and I interpret and apply the law to the facts of the case before me, without fear or favor, consistent with my judicial oath.
Might she prove an exception to the rule?
Ask us in a couple years, once her M-Q scores are in.
6/29/22 Does ideology drive the Supreme Court, just as it seems to affect nearly everything else? Our views are clear. But for an authoritative look no further than the SCOTUS Blog’s statistics page. Click on “Frequency in the Majority,” and lean back. Yup, Justices Kagan, Breyer and Sotomayor, the Court’s three “liberals” (SCOTUS colors them “blue”) are most often on the losing end. As they were, most recently, in two sociopolitically charged cases: Ardoin v. Robinson and Kennedy v. Bremerton Sch. Dist.
6/25/22 Yet another (yawn) Supreme Court ideological split. In Dobbs v. Jackson (no. 19-1392, 6/24, 22) the Court’s five most conservative Justices ruled that the Constitution “does not confer a right to abortion.” Overturning two key precedents: Roe, which established the right, and Casey, which reaffirmed Roe, the Court returned the regulation of abortion to the States. Chronic straddler Chief Justice Roberts agreed that Mississippi's abortion ban should be restored but disagreed about discarding Roe and Casey
altogether. Liberally minded Justices Kagan, Breyer and Sotomayor dissented.
6/24/22 In Vega v. Tekoh (no. 21-499, 6/23/22), the Supreme Court’s six conservative Justices held that the Miranda warning, which makes statements by a criminal suspect to police admissible in Court, is not a Constitutional right but a “prophylactic” rule, and failure to administer it does not make officers liable for damages as a deprivation of rights (42 USC 1983.) But the liberal threesome (Justices Kagan, Breyer and Sotomayor) dissented, holding that Miranda is a Constitutional protection.
6/23/22 New York State, along with California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island, requires that persons wishing to carry a concealed handgun outside the home demonstrate a “special need.” According to a 6-3 decision by the Supreme Court, New York’s law “violates the Fourteenth Amendment by preventing law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms in public for self-defense.” Justices Breyer,
Sotomayor and Kagan dissented (New York State Rifle & Pistol Assn. v, Bruen, no. 20-843, 6/23/22.) The Justice Department promptly announced its displeasure.
6/23/22 A new 6-3 decision, while not criminal justice-related, clearly illustrates the Supreme Court’s ideological split. In Carson v. Makin (no. 20-1088, 6/21/22) the majority ruled that parents who live in areas not served by public secondary schools may use State tuition assistance reimbursements to pay for their childrens’ education at “sectarian” (i.e., parochial) schools that otherwise meet educational requirements. Maine law had said that they could not. Justices Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor dissented.
6/9/22 Another day, another 6-3 Supreme Court decision. In Egbert v. Boule, the Court forbid extending the Bivens doctrine to allow a lawsuit against the Government for 1st. and 4th. Amendment violations by a Border Patrol agent. The plaintiff (an innkeeper) claimed that an agent, who was on the grounds of the inn while investigating a border crosser, assaulted him when asked to leave. He complained to the agent’s superiors, and the agent retaliated by having his taxes checked. Justices Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagan dissented in part, feeling that the 4th. Amendment claim should proceed.
5/24/22 On April 23, by a 6-3 vote, with liberal justices Kagan, Breyer and Sotomayor in the minority, the Supreme Court reversed a Ninth Circuit decision that had granted two Arizona men facing the death penalty a Federal habeas review of their convictions based on the alleged failure of their State appellate lawyers to pursue evidence that went beyond the court record.
5/12/22 In a 2-1 decision, a Ninth Circuit panel held that California’s prohibition on the sale of semi-automatic rifles to persons under 21 violated the 2nd. Amendment. Both judges in the majority had been appointed under President Trump, while the dissenter was appointed under Clinton. Ruling
4/26/22 On April 18, by a 6-3 vote, with liberal justices Kagan, Breyer and Sotomayor in the minority, the Supreme Court turned away an appeal by a Texas death row inmate, a Black male. His trial jury had included a White juror who believed that “non-White races” were more violent because of statistics he saw in “[n]ews reports and criminology classes.” The trial judge declined to exclude him from the jury panel for cause, and the defense had no peremptory challenges left.
4/22/22 On April 21, by a 6-3 vote, with liberal justices Kagan, Breyer and Sotomayor in the minority, the Supreme Court reversed a Circuit Court decision ordering the retrial of a Michigan defendant convicted of murder because he was visibly shackled during his trial. According to the majority, the State’s post-conviction inquiry that revealed jurors had not been affected by the restraints sufficed. And by an 8-1 vote, the Court upheld a Federal rule that denies SSI benefits to residents of Puerto Rico. Justice Sotomayor, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, was the only dissenter.
4/21/22 On March 4, by a 6-3 vote, with liberal justices Kagan, Breyer and Sotomayor in the minority, the Supreme Court reinstated the death sentence handed down to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for bombing the 2013 Boston Marathon. An appeals court had vacated the penalty because prosecutors didn’t ask prospective jurors about their exposure to media accounts and withheld information at sentencing that suggested Tsarnaev’s brother, Tamerlan, who died during the attack, was in fact its “mastermind.”
4/15/22 A recent academic study of retirement decisions by Federal appeals court justices revealed that they are substantially more likely to retire during the initial periods of a Presidential term when the officeholder is from the same Party that appointed the judge. But when the President is from a different Party, judges are less likely to retire during the three quarters preceding the next election. What’s more, “politically motivated exits have increased significantly in recent years to constitute 14% of retirements since 1975, suggesting an increasingly politically interested and polarized judiciary.
4/8/22 Justice Jackson was confirmed to the Supreme Court today. She will be seated later this year, when Justice Breyer retires. An earlier AP story discussed three of her past “notable opinions.” In one, she ordered the White House counsel to testify at then-President Trump’s impeachment. In a second, she ruled against “fast-tracked” deportations of persons illegally in the U.S. And in a third, she supported an organized labor challenge to a Federal rule change that would have limited collective bargaining.
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Bail and Sentencing Reform special topic
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
WHAT’S UP? VIOLENCE.
WHERE? WHERE ELSE?
As usual, poor neighborhoods shoulder most of the burden
For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. “I just want justice for my child, that’s all.” That soul-stirring sentiment, expressed by a disconsolate Chicago-area father after the shooting death of his fourteen-year old son on November 12th., likely echoed the reaction of the parents of another 14-year old boy, slain nearby just a few hours later. Indeed, the murderous reputation of Englewood, the neighborhood where the second killing took place, recently led us to use it in an essay entitled “The Usual Victims”.
Yet as one scours for insights into the murderous violence that’s beset our troubled nation since the murder of George Floyd and the beginning of the pandemic, neighborhoods are ignored. Academically and in the media, the focus is on cities. Of course, place matters. (We even have a post of that name! But as it emphasizes, to really understand why the violence, and how best to respond, one must ultimately go beyond political aggregates such as cities and drill down to neighborhoods. That’s the principle that underpins our “Neighborhoods” special topic. But before we apply that approach, let’s turn to five major cities – Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles and New York City – to assess whether a “crime wave” really exists.
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These are the numbers that go along with our opening homicide graph. (Sources listed below. Rates per 100,000 pop. were computed using city population figures in FBI and Census portals.)
Clearly, each city endured substantial increases in murder. Detroit’s numbers are truly deplorable, Chicago’s a bit less so. Still, note that 57 percent increase in murders for 2020. Los Angeles and New York City, which started off and ended in a far better place, also experienced substantial increases that year (36 percent and 46.7 percent respectively.) And except for Detroit, which reported fewer homicides in 2021, murder rates kept getting worse.
While America is decidedly on the wrong track homicide-wise, aggravated assault presents a more complex picture. Each city experienced a substantial increase in 2020; Detroit’s already sky-high figures surged 21.7 percent. And while the Motor City and Dallas endured another jump in 2021, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City experienced declines. In the latter two, the numbers actually fell below 2019 levels.
What about robbery? Chicago didn’t experience a significant change in rates. New York City reported a handful more robberies in 2021 than in 2019. Dallas and Detroit, on the other hand, demonstrated significant improvement; Los Angeles, a tad less so.
So is violent crime up or down? Homicide rates went up between 2019 and 2021 in each city in our cohort, and in Chicago and Detroit substantially so. Aggravated assault rates increased in Chicago, Dallas and Detroit but receded somewhat in Los Angeles and New York City. Robbery numbers, though, mostly decreased. Bottom line: when it comes to crimes whose objective is to injure or kill – i.e., murder and aggravated assault – things are bleak, and particularly so in the poorer cities. Over the years, the numbers we’ve crunched demonstrate a strong link between poverty and violence, and especially homicide (see, for example, our recent review of ten major cities in “Woke Up, America!”). That’s borne out here. (Note that we cite Chicago’s Census poverty numbers but they’re generally considered a couple points too low).
City boundaries are artificial constructs. What about neighborhoods, the places where people actually live? Patterning our efforts on “The Usual Victims”, “Woke up, America!” and “Fix Those Neighborhoods!” we collected 2019-2021 data on homicide, aggravated assault and robbery for two patrol areas in Los Angeles and two in New York City. Each pair was purposely comprised of one prosperous area and one that’s economically deprived. L.A.’s pair includes LAPD’s well-to-do West Los Angeles sector (pop. 228,000, pov. 11.3%) and chronically poor 77th. Street (pop. 175,000, pov. 30.7%). For New York City the pair includes the 19th. precinct, which covers Manhattan’s wealthy Upper East Side (pop. 220,000, pov. 7.2%) and the 73rd., which serves Brooklyn’s impoverished Brownsville and Ocean Hill areas (pop. 86,000, pov. 29.4%).
How did these places fare violent-crime-wise? Let’s grab a look.
Our neighborhoods forays consistently reveal a strong relationship between poverty and violence (see, for example, “Location, Location, Location” for Los Angeles, and “Repeat After Us,” “Be Careful What You Brag About” and “Place Matters” for New York City). As expected, L.A.’s 77th. St. and New York City’s 73rd. endured far higher rates of homicide, aggravated assault and robbery than their prosperous counterparts. Their homicide surge in 2020 – 51.4% in L.A.’s 77th. St., 127.3% in NYC’s 73rd. – seems remarkable. Aggravated assault followed a different pattern. Just like for the city cohort, rates increased at first in Los Angeles and retreated in New York City. On the other hand, robbery, a hybrid crime, was clearly on a downtrend. Most robberies don’t cause physical injury – that’s not their objective – and if it was up to us, we’d assign them to the “property” camp.
According to the FBI, violent and property crimes are continuing to move in opposite directions. In late 2018 violent crime reversed a two-year downtrend and shot back up while property crimes, including burglary, continued a decade-plus plunge. FBI numbers don’t cover all of 2021, so we used city data (sources below) to prepare two burglary graphs, one for the five-city cohort and another for the rich area/poor area comparo.
Burglary charted a seemingly benign course, with rates in each city except New York winding up lower in 2021 than in 2019. But in many areas the threshold for “serious” property crime has increased. For example, in 2014 California Proposition 47 constrained the circumstances under which burglary can be charged. That makes us reluctant to interpret burglary’s recent changes in rate, either between cities or within. So let’s go back to violence. We’ll start with a bit of self-plagiarism from “Woke up, America!”:
Best we can tell, the middle-class neighborhood where my wife and I reside has been free of violent crime, or any property crime of consequence, for, um, thirty years. Many of our readers can probably boast likewise. To be sure, drive a couple miles one way or the other and things can get gloomy. And that’s within the same city.
That “gloominess” seems to be worsening. A profusion of soul-shattering acts of violence have welcomed the new year. On January 10th three robbers got into a gunfight with LAPD officer Fernando Arroyos, 27, who was off-duty and house-hunting with his girlfriend in challenged South Los Angeles. Officer Arroyos, a Cal Berkeley grad who had dreamed to be “first in his family to go to college and to be an LAPD officer,” was mortally wounded. On the opposite shore, an appalling five on-duty NYPD officers were shot during the first three weeks of this year. In the fourth, most recent episode, Officer Jason Rivera, a 22-year old rookie, was killed and his partner, Wilbert Mora, 27, a four-year veteran was critically wounded (sadly, he later passed). Their assailant was a middle-aged man whose mother had called 9-1-1 about his aggressive behavior. She didn’t mention – nor apparently, was she asked – if he had a gun. It turned out to be a Glock .45 with a high-capacity magazine.
Seventy-three American law enforcement officers were feloniously slain in 2021, sixty-one by gunfire. That deplorable toll surpassed the former decade-high sixty-six in 2016. It’s also a full one-third worse than in 2019, when forty-eight officers were victims of homicide, and 2020, when forty-six fell. And it’s not just cops. An unending stream of news accounts depicts a growing hazard for ordinary folks as well. On January 13th. a homeless man with an extensive criminal record fatally stabbed a beloved UCLA graduate student, Brianna Kupfer, 24, while she was tending to a Los Angeles-area furniture store. One day later a balloon release marked a pledge by challenged Chicago neighborhoods to “come together and work together” to end the violence that cost the lives of two 14-year olds in separate shootings two days earlier. One week later, in another troubled Chicago area, eight-year old Melissa Ortega was fatally wounded and several passers-by experienced a near-miss when a 16-year old gang member unleashed a barrage at a rival gangster. Out on probation for two carjackings, the shooter was arrested and (this time) is being held without bond.
Why the carnage is a matter of considerable debate. According to the New York Times’ David Brooks, polarization and anger fueled by a host of spiritual, cultural and moral poisons have led America’s social compact to come undone:
But something darker and deeper seems to be happening as well — a long-term loss of solidarity, a long-term rise in estrangement and hostility. This is what it feels like to live in a society that is dissolving from the bottom up as much as from the top down.
Los Angeles offers bountiful examples of that “dissolving.” For an example of our society’s coming apart at its more privileged levels consider the June 1, 2021 killing of an L.A. County firefighter, and the wounding of his Captain, by an angry colleague who barged in to the fire station. And for an example of our fracture at the opposite end, there’s the January 22, 2022 gang-related massacre in struggling Inglewood, which took the lives of four persons in their early twenties, including the birthday party’s “beautiful young” honoree.
Police aren’t well positioned to keep unstable firefighters from lethally acting out. On the other hand, getting tough on armed thugs is supposedly right up their alley. Mr. Brooks’ employer, a news source whose editorial position hasn’t often aligned with the cops, recently lent its forum to a Princeton sociologist who thinks that maybe the police do play at least one vital role:
We don’t have another set of institutions that can deal with the problem of gun violence, or at least we don’t have many institutions that can deal with the problem of gun violence. What I would argue is that they should move to the background, and police should be called when a gun is involved.
Dr. Patrick Sharkey isn’t suggesting that cops get deeply involved in “ordinary” stuff. But when it comes to gun violence, who else is there?
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What do we think? Grab a peek at “Full Stop Ahead.” Blowback from George Floyd’s murder and the constraints of the pandemic set off a flurry of reforms and adjustments that relaxed criminal sanctions, slashed prison and jail terms and reduced the oversight of offenders under supervision and those awaiting trial. Law enforcement staffing plunged and is yet to recover. Policing was severely dialed back, and proactive anti-crime strategies wound up on the back-back burner. But as violence continues, adjustments seem inevitable. Despite concerns by progressives who welcomed him to office, ex-police captain Eric Adams, New York City’s second-ever Black mayor, is planning to reinstate NYPD’s plainclothes teams (albeit, in a seemingly milder form.) And for a real head-snapper consider the situation that Manhattan’s new D.A., Alvin Bragg found himself in. Elected on a progressive, reformist plank, he even promised to seek leniency for those caught with a gun. But a sharp rise in violence has led to a “shift in tone.” Mr. Bragg recently appointed a special lawyer to handle gun-related work, and “more than fifty” gun possession cases are reportedly in the pipeline.
One of our very first posts, “Of Hot-Spots and Band-Aids,” expressed concern that intensive policing may be thought of as a permanent solution. As our “Neighborhoods” posts repeatedly implore, focused law enforcement practices can’t (and shouldn’t) substitute for investments in job training, education, health care and childcare. But when violence and gunplay rule the streets, “geographically focused policing initiatives” (that’s that NIJ calls them) could help prevent the murder of eight-year olds and get society back on track. So maybe it’s time to bring cops and out-of-mode strategies such as hot-spots policing back into the picture. All that’s needed is to get America’s badly polarized political class on board.
Alas, that chore is definitively beyond our pay grade.
7/4/22 A drive-by shooting outside a Newark bodega during the late afternoon hours of June 30 wounded nine persons, ages 17 to 68, none fatally. Authorities later recovered two cars stolen from Jersey City, including the vehicle used in the attack, and arrested a 17-year old for receiving stolen property and resisting arrest. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka blamed the shooting on an undefined dispute between two groups, and not on gangs.
6/9/22 Our nation’s capital is beset by violence. MPD reports 104 homicides so far this year, a 17 percent increase over 2021. Overall, violent crime is up eleven percent. And teens are falling victim with distressing frequency. This weekend gunfire took the lives of an 18-year old girl who recently graduated from high school and was getting set for college, and of a 15-year old boy who was a local basketball star. Two adults were also shot and killed and “nearly two dozen” other persons were wounded.
6/22/22 In 2021, after years of preparation, the FBI shifted crime collection and reporting from the ’“old” UCR system to the “new” NIBRS, which offers far more detailed information about crime incidents, including how firearms were used and the nature of wounds. But more than 7,000 of the 19,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., including NYPD and LAPD, are yet to switch over. So at least for 2021, the FBI’s crime figures, and particularly State and National totals, won’t be comparable to past years.
6/6/22 On Sunday afternoon, June 5, a traffic stop in Chicago’s violence-beset Englewood district led to an exchange of gunfire, seriously wounding a police officer and leaving the driver in critical condition. Four days earlier, another Englewood traffic stop had also led to gunfire and an officer’s wounding. Local residents fear what Summer will bring.
Oklahoma man Skyler Buckner, 26, is accused of opening fire with a gun during an argument at a yearly outdoor music festival in the small of town of Taft. A 39-year old woman was killed and seven other persons, ages nine to 56, sustained non-life threatening wounds. Buckner fled from the scene but turned himself in to authorities after a warrant was issued. One food service worker said that “bullets were literally flying everywhere.” Another remarked that “people were just screaming. Some were trying to run away. There were cars leaving, trying not to hit each other.”
5/23/22 An argument during a large, late-night gathering of young persons in a San Bernardino, Calif. hookah lounge - supposedly, a graduation party - erupted in gunfire, killing a 20-year old male and wounding eight others. On arrival, police were met by a “large, hostile crowd.” Officers arrested one person they found with “a loaded, stolen firearm” and another on a warrant.
5/21/22 Two groups of persons clashed at a crime “hot spot” in Chicago’s 18th. police district on the evening of May 20. One shooter is blamed for gunfire that killed two men on their early 30s and wounded seven others, including a 19-year old man who suffered a critical chest wound. Police say they arrested the shooter and seized his gun. Mayor Lightfoot and Police Supt. Brown ascribe the violence to poor parenting and a flood of guns; Brown also blames the courts for releasing gun offenders on low bail.
5/18/22 Hundreds of prosecutors, law enforcement officials and leaders of community organizations gathered for a virtual, two-day “summit” about “reducing violence and “strengthening communities.” Called under auspices of DOJ’s Project Safe Neighborhoods, the meeting emphasizes the key role that local communities play in preventing violence and building trust. DOJ’s announcement mentioned a recent CDC report which indicates that gun murders jumped 35 percent during 2019-2020, and that high-poverty counties had 4 1/2 times the homicide rate of their wealthier cousins.
5/17/22 Orange County church shooter David Wenwei Chou, 68, who is of Chinese descent, reportedly harbored hatred towards Taiwan and, by extension, to the congregates at the church, which serves the Taiwanese community. Intending to commit a massacre, he brought incendiary devices and chained the doors closed. Chou used two 9mm. pistols that he lawfully purchased in Las Vegas, where he lived. Chou was a deeply troubled person. His wife had left him and moved back to Taiwan. Impoverished and unable to pay rent, he was evicted from his apartment. New tenants found “horrible pictures” of Chou posing with a gun, including one at a memorial to a mass shooting. “I just don’t care about my life anymore” he said. A beating he suffered years earlier had also left its toll.
5/16/22 A weekend of violence beset the land. In Milwaukee twenty-one persons were wounded, none fatally, in three sets of shootings at outdoor “watch parties” of an NBA finals game. Eleven arrests followed. One night later, three separate shootings in Milwaukee led to three deaths. In Buffalo, suspects in a car being pursued by police opened fire, wounding three officers. And in a tony section of Orange County, Calif., a man with two pistols inexplicably began shooting during a church banquet, killing one and wounding four. Other parishioners tackled him and held him for police.
5/11/22 According to the CDC, the firearm homicide rate in 2020 was 6.1/100,000 pop. That’s more than a third greater than the 2019 rate of 4.6 and the highest since 1994. Homicide rates and poverty moved together, with the higher rates in poorer areas. Males and Black persons experienced the highest rates and the largest year-to-year increase. Males in the 25-44 age group had the highest rates: for White persons, 5.4, for Hispanic persons of any race, 13.4, and for Black persons, 90.6.
5/7/22 Unremitting disorder marks Los Angeles’ post-pandemic era. Assaults on transit workers and passengers by mentally-ill homeless persons plague its vast Metro system. In January one pushed an elderly patron onto the tracks, inflicting fatal injuries. A more recent encounter left another rider with broken ribs. Trash-filled encampments are everywhere. Meanwhile late-night street takeovers by masses of cars performing dangerous maneuvers beset major arteries. Some involve more than one-hundred spectators and force a large police response.
5/3/22 In downtown Chicago, a drug deal involving six suspects turned into a robbery and shootout. Errant bullets struck two innocent citizens standing outside a theatre that was scheduled to host a performance of the play “Moulin Rouge” that evening. Its cancellation led Mayor Lori Lightfoot to proclaim her distress at “the number of young people that seemingly are involved in acts of violence.”
4/18/22 Another weekend of violence besieged America. In Pittsburgh, a gunfight involving pistols and rifles broke out in and around a rental home being used for a large party, killing two young persons and wounding eight. No arrests were immediately reported. In Columbia, South Carolina, patrons fled for their lives as a shootout apparently involving three armed men broke out in a busy shopping mall. Nine were wounded, and police arrested a 22-year old for unlawfully carrying a pistol. And also in South Carolina, gunfire broke out in a nightclub near Charleston, wounding nine. For AP’s overview of recent mass shootings click here.
Transit crime is up throughout the U.S. says the Washington Post. New York’s system reports that robbery is up 71 percent, felony assault is up 28 percent and there have been more than twice as many grand larcenies as in 2021. And last year crime complaints were fourteen percent higher than in 2020. Experts say that empty spaces caused by a pandemic-fueled decline in ridership emboldened criminals. That discourages commuters, and breaking the cycle requires more cops. But activists worry that police would discriminate against persons of color and make more petty arrests, such as for fare evasion.
4/16/22 “Angry drivers; lots of guns.” Shootings prompted by road rage are besetting Texas. Dallas police report that angry encounters involving armed motorists wounded forty-five and killed eleven last year. Austin reports 160 episodes in 2021 and fifteen so far in 2022. According to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, “instead of throwing up the finger, they’re pulling out the gun and shooting.” A U.C. Irvine criminologist attributes the “acting out” to frustration fed by “a huge rise in gun sales.”
4/13/22 According to a new Pew poll, “crime, drugs, and public safety” are Philadelphia residents’ primary concern. At 44%, the proportion of respondents who feel safe in their neighborhoods is the lowest since 2009. And while the proportion who believe that police treat Blacks and Whites equally has dropped - for Blacks it’s only 32 percent - 69 percent of Black respondents (the largest proportion by race) believe there are too few police. That may be because 60 percent of Blacks (the largest proportion by race) also feel that gun violence has had a “major impact” on the quality of their neighborhood life.
4/11/22 “I’ve been here eight years and have never had to investigate anything like this.” So said a Georgia police chief after robbers stole forty guns and shot dead two elderly owners and a teen grandson at a gun store and shooting range in Grantville, a placid small town of about 3,000 residents, 46 miles from Atlanta. That happened April 8. Two days later, after more than 100 patrons fled a Cedar Rapids nightclub where gunfire had broken out, killing two and wounding ten, it was an Iowa police chief’s turn to reassure residents that his town was indeed “a safe city.”
3/15/22 L.A.’s homeless beset bus and rail stations. Riders complain of harassment, and violent crimes in the city’s public transportation network soared 36% in 2021. Even as gas prices shatter records, post-pandemic commuters seem reluctant to return to mass transit. “It’s more intense,” said a rider who carefully chooses her trips. “You see other people being assaulted and you see people get pushed.”
3/14/22 A group was standing outside a South Chicago strip mall during mid-afternoon when two cars drove up and one or more occupants opened fire. Seven men, ages 31 to 63, were wounded, two critically. Neighbors reported hearing a flurry of shots, possibly from an assault rifle. The shooting’s precise location, 79th. St. and Exchange Ave., is the focus of the “79th. & Exchange” project announced last year as part of the city’s “INVEST South/West” neighborhood revitalization program.
3/9/22 Six Iowa teens, ages 14-17, have been charged with murder and attempted murder in a drive-by shooting that killed the 15-year old whom they targeted as he stood in a group outside a Des Moines high school. Two female students who were nearby, ages 16 and 18, were also struck by bullets; one is reportedly in serious condition and the other is critical. Police recovered thirty-five shell casings, twenty from the scene and the remainder from the three vehicles used in the attack.
2/21/22 Whiplash! That’s what D.C. police chief Robert Contee must have felt during his yearly review as activists slammed his agency’s “lagging effort” to embrace reform while the City Council berated its failure to tamp down violence. Murders soared from 166 in 2019 to 226 in 2021, an 18-year high, and a “surge in carjackings” keeps drivers on edge. Meanwhile the force, which dropped in strength from 3,976 officers in 2013 to 3,766 in 2020, reportedly lost an additional 260 cops during the past year.
2/4/22 New York City’s struggle against violence prompted a visit from President Biden and his Attorney General, Merrick Garland. Promising its new Mayor, former police captain Eric Adams, that the Feds would not “abandon our streets,” the President and his A.G. announced enhanced Federal efforts to stem the flow of firearms to criminals. Among these is a national “ghost gun” program and an emphasis on preventing illegal gun sales. Mayor Adams also called for enhanced ATF funding. DOJ release
During 2015-2016 Philadelphia police conducted a Predictive Policing experiment that focused extra police resources, including marked and unmarked patrol, on data-identified crime “hot spots.” An academic study of its effects recently led OJP’s Crime Solutions to assign the practice a “No Effects” grade. While an increase in marked patrol was associated with a reduction in property crime, violent crime significantly increased. Unmarked patrol demonstrated no effect on either crime type.
2/2/22 Law enforcement officials warn that if violence continues apace, last year’s decade-high toll of slain police officers could be easily surpassed. According to the Gun Violence Archive, hostile gunfire injured twenty-eight officers and killed four in January 2022 compared to seventeen injured and three slain last year. It’s claimed that, among other things, increased leniency in charging and the reduction or elimination of bail have led to the prompt return of dangerous offenders to the street.
1/31/22 Researchers interviewed 330 New York City youths who had or carried guns. Many had been shot at. Nearly all were Black or Hispanic and living in public housing in high-crime areas. They said that fear of victimization was their primary motivation for being armed. A “pervasive fear of law enforcement” was also reported. Researchers concluded, among other things, that “people of limited means want the same things as people of means and resort to crime to attain them.” They suggest that jobs should be created for these youths “with concrete pathways to jobs that pay a living wage.”
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CRIME DATA SOURCES
2019: FBI UCR
2020: FBI crime data explorer
2021: Chicago PD Compstat Dallas PD NIBRS Detroit PD spreadsheet L.A. city portal (1) (2)
NYPD portal (1) (2) (3) (4) (New York City’s 2021 Compstat numbers are for “felony assault,” while its 2019 and 2020 figures reported by the FBI are for “aggravated assault.”)
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Our Never-Ending American Tragedy Cause and Effect “Woke” up, America! The Usual Victims
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Repeat After Us: “City” is Meaningless Be Careful What You Brag About (II)
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