Every year, stories emerge that serve as a reminder that the American system of justice means injustice for too many, with some receiving little or no punishment for egregious offenses, while others receive harsh or faulty punishment for much less, or even by way of partisan civil court decisions. Here are some of the worst injustices of 2014:
1. An NYPD officer killed a man on video, and he won’t face charges.
The nation watched in disbelief as even a police killing caught on videotape didn’t result in any charges, even as as unarmed victim Eric Garner repeatedly yelled “I can’t breathe” as Officer David Pantaleo continued an illegal chokehold. The same went for the grand jury in Ferguson after the unarmed Michael Brown was shot in broad daylight. And in Saratoga Springs, Utah; Beavercreek, Ohio; and Saginaw, Michigan. These incidents were a public testament to the reality that, with a few prominent exceptions, police are rarely held accountable for deadly force or other violence that could be perceived as police brutality. Racial bias, conflicted prosecutors, and legal parameters all play a role in this outcome, as does the prevalence of racially disparate and violent police treatment. It is the failure to indict, however, that represents perhaps the greatest indictment of the justice system in 2014.
2. Two judges ordered millions of Americans to lose their health insurance.
In July, two Republican members of a federal appeals court in Washington, DC voted to defund much of the Affordable Care Act by cutting off tax credits that enable millions of Americans to afford health insurance. Their opinion relies on seven words in the Obamacare statute — “through an Exchange established by the State” — which, if read out of context, suggest that the tax credits are not available in up to three dozen states where health exchanges are run by the federal government. Other provisions of the law, however, make clear that any exchange, regardless of who runs it, shall provide tax credits. The Supreme Court is now preparing to hear a similar case that presents the same issue. Should the justices ultimately agree to defund Obamacare, millions of Americans will lose their health insurance and thousands are likely to die based on the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to read the entire Affordable Care Act and not just seven selectively-chosen words.
3. An Oklahoma death row inmate gasped for 43 minutes as state executioners stood by.
Clayton Lockett writhed in pain for 43 minutes as observers watched a botched execution in real-time. Joseph Rudolph Wood was still gasping an hour after a lethal injection was supposed to kill him. After two hours, he died. There are still no legal conclusions about fault in either incident. But the imposition of punishments many would consider cruel and unusual even for a death sentence come as many states are turning to increasingly controversial methods to get around opposition to the death penalty, both around the world and in the medical community.
Oklahoma used lethal injection drugs manufactured in secret, at small-batch “compounding pharmacies” that are not, like most pharmacies, regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Several states are turning to these compounding pharmacies because of a shortage of lethal injection drugs from European drug-makers, thanks to international opposition to the death penalty. Over the past few years, inmates who were executed using small-batch barbituates from compounding pharmacies reportedly experienced prolonged, gasping periods before they finally died. An autopsy of Clayton Lockett found that perhaps the biggest error that night was a faulty injection, likely fueled by the prohibition by many major medical associations on participating in executions.
4. Inmates were ‘baked to death,’ gassed to death, and scalded to death in American jails and prisons.
Marine veteran Jerome Murdough had been dead for four hours when jail guards discovered him in his cell, dehydrated and overheated, in a solitary mental observation unit that was supposed to be monitored every 15 minutes. An anonymous official said Murdough, who was being held after he couldn’t afford bail over a trespassing arrest, “baked to death.” Darren Rainey was scalded to death in a 160-degree shower imposed on him as a punishment in his Miami-Dade county jail cell. Randall Jordan-Aparo was found “coated in yellow residue, his face was pressed up against the bottom of the steel door and a Bible was next to his head,” as the Miami Herald described it, after having been sprayed with gas by guards and left to suffocate without medical intervention in a Florida prison.
These are just some of the worst of the deaths and mistreatment at law enforcement hands in 2014. Each of these individuals suffered from mental illness, in a system of rampant incarceration that is increasingly serving as a de facto asylum for many. The Florida cases are still under investigation, while the guard in the Rikers Island case was arrested just this month, was released on bail, unlike Murdough. This week, federal authorities filed a lawsuit against Rikers Island for over its violent and intimidating treatment of teens in the jail, where the majority of inmates have been charged but not yet even convicted of a crime. A federal bill awaiting President Obama’s signature would require states to report not just deaths at law enforcement hands, but also those in jails and prisons.
5. Two mentally disabled North Carolina men spent 30 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerated them.
Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown had spent most of their adult lives in prison, McCullom on death row. They long ago repudiated confessions they said were coerced. At the age of 19, McCollum was pushed to confess during a five-hour interrogiation in which he was not represented by an attorney, and Brown, just 15, signed confession shortly thereafter. But it wasn’t until DNA was tested that they were released in September of this year.
Michelle Byrom was sentenced to death in Mississippi in an error-riddled trial that excluded evidence her son had admitted to the crime. She had been on death row since 2000 when a court overturned her conviction this year, and put her in jail while she awaits a new trial. In New York, David McCallum was exonerated after 30 years in prison based on a false confession when he was 16 years old. And in Texas, Manuel Velez, an intellectually disabled man, was released from death row after tests on the victim’s brain revealed that Velez could not have caused the injuries.
The emergence of DNA testing in 1989 and the accompanying scientific proof that convicted defendants were innocent called into question many tactics once considered reliable, including false confessions. In 2013, 17 percent of cases in which defendants were exonerated involved false confessions like those by McCollum and Brown. Many involved factual scenarios in which police feed information to suspects who later repeat it back. Many also involved mentally disabled individuals like McCollum and Brown or youths who are more susceptible to coercion, or even beatings, offering leverage in exchange, or simply lying by officers during interrogations of which there is no recording.
6. A rich heir who raped his three-year-old daughter was spared jail time because he ‘will not fare well.’
Wealthy du Pont heir Robert H. Richards IV pleaded guilty to sexually abusing his three-year-old daughter for several years and then telling her it was “our little secret.” But he wasn’t sentenced to day in jail. Instead, he was given an eight-year prison term that suspended as probation, saying he “will not fare well” if sentenced to prison. The case invoked reminders of a wealthy teen who raised the “affluenza defense” last year to describe an affliction of the very wealthy, after having pleaded guilty to intoxication homicide. He was sentenced to ten years’ probation in a plush rehabilitation facility.
Richards’ was also one in a string of rape or sexual assault cases in which defendants have been given sentences far less stringent than recommended for the crime, and not proportional to sentences for other offenses. In a recent Texas case, a judge sentenced a defendant who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl to just 45 days in prison, followed by mandatory volunteer service at a rape crisis center. In a Delaware case, the wealthy heir of a chemical magnate was sentenced to only probation and no jail time for sexually abusing his 3-year-old daughter. In Montana, a teacher got 30 days in jail for raping one of his students. And another man in Alabama received only probation for raping a teen.
These sentences stand in contrast to mandatory minimum sentences that start at five or ten years in jail for even low-level drug offenses, and ratchet up from there. But they also stand in stark contrast to others who are drastically over-sentenced or punished sex offenses. After Hayes County, Texas, prosecutors seized on a 2011 law intended to curb sex trafficking, a man who slept with a 14-year-old he met on eHarmony, where she lied about her age, was sentenced this week to life in prison without the option for parole.
7. Georgia executed a man whose lawyer had a serious drinking problem.
When Robert Wayne Holsey was on trial for his life, his attorney was an alcoholic who admitted to drinking a quart of vodka every night. The lawyer eventually lost his law license and spent three years in prison over allegations that he took over $116,000 from a client. Perhaps due to the problems in his own life, the lawyer did not present significant evidence during Holsey’s trial indicating that Holsey was intellectually disabled. Moreover, Georgia law makes it extraordinarily difficult for an intellectually disabled individual who is facing a death sentence to prove that fact in court, even though the Supreme Court has held that “death is not a suitable punishment for a mentally retarded criminal.” Holsey was executed earlier this month because he could not overcome the very high standard of proof the state’s law imposes on death row inmates with intellectual disabilities.
8. A mother is still facing jail time for giving her son medical marijuana.
The nation made some extraordinary progress on medical marijuana reform this year, culminating in a move by Congress to halt federal prosecution in states where medical marijuana is legal. But that hasn’t helped Angela Brown or Robert Duncan. Brown’s son Trey suffers severe pain and spasms from a traumatic brain injury. Brown said she tried a barrage of prescription medications before turning to marijuana, as her son was in so much pain and discomfort that he cried himself to sleep and started punching and cutting himself. Brown, like a number of exasperated parents, traveled to Colorado from Minnesota to purchase some cannabis oil regulated under Colorado law. And she reported a familiar story of parents attempting to treat their child’s pain and seizures: within an hour of giving her son medical marijuana his condition was relieved. “Once it hit his system, Trey said the pressure in his brain was relieved,” she told the Huffington Post. “You could literally see the muscle spasms stopping. He felt amazing.”
But after Brown shared her story with the “wrong person,” officials seized the cannabis oil from her home and charged her with child endangerment and causing a child to need protection. Prosecutors are still pursuing her in a case that could send her to prison for two years, even as an already-passed medical marijuana law that goes into effect in 2015 would allow the use of cannabis oil in Minnesota.
In California, Robert Duncan was hauled off to prison in March for running a seemingly state-compliant medica marijuana business. Even the provision in the federal budget that could spare future Duncans will not help those already in jail, nor those being prosecuted under state law, like Brown.
9. Mississippi defendants have been jailed for a year without ever being charged.
There is an epidemic of individuals in the United States jailed for extended periods of time before they’ve been convicted of anything. Many of them are stuck behind bars because they can’t afford bail, in a system that in too many jurisdictions punishes defendants simply for being poor, not because they are considered at risk of fleeing pending trial.
But mostly, we at least assume that after a few days or a few weeks, if a jail is going to keep holding them, they are charged with something. Not so in Scott County, Mississippi, according to a class action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union this year. Octavious Burks had been in jail for ten months at the time of the lawsuit, on an arrest of attempted robbery with bail set at $30,000. But he had never been charged with anything. He had never been appointed a lawyer. And, by the account of the ACLU, he had twice before been held in jail for periods of 18 months and 16 months, before being released without ever having been convicted of anything.
Joshua Bassett hadn’t been indicted either. He’d been in jail for 9 months with bail set at $100,000, after an arrest for grand larceny and possession of methamphetamine. And he didn’t have a lawyer. But Scott County Senior Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon said he will not appoint Bassett a lawyer until he is formally indicted.
“This is indefinite detention, pure and simple,” said Brandon Buskey, Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “The county has tossed these people into a legal black hole.”