Op-Ed in the L.A. Times Critiquing the Gubernatorial Veto on Parole

Today, the L.A. Times published my op-ed, in which I criticize California’s gubernatorial veto on parole which, as I explain in Yesterday’s Monsters, serves no purpose except contaminating the parole process with politics and optics. Here it is:


On Tuesday, California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal reversed Gov. Gavin Newsom’s veto of Leslie Van Houten’s parole, reinstating the state board’s parole grant decision. Their ruling exposes deep flaws in California’s system of allowing gubernatorial vetoes in the first place.

Van Houten, a member of the infamous Manson “family,” participated in the murders of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca in 1969. She was 19 at the time. These were horrific crimes whose aftermath shattered a sense of innocence and safety for many. But it is also true that Van Houten and other teenage girls caught in Manson’s web were indoctrinated into, exploited and abused by a dangerous cult not properly understood until many years after the murders.

In prison since 1971, with her original death sentence commuted to life with parole in 1972, Van Houten has transformed herself, earning two academic degrees, participating in rehabilitative programs and expressing remorse for her crimes. After decades of prosecutors and families of the victims of Manson’s crimes opposing Van Houten’s release, the factual evidence finally outdid the political pressure: Since 2016, the Board of Parole Hearings has recommended her release five times. Gov. Jerry Brown and then Gov. Newsom reversed each decision.

The appeals court reviewed the veto through a system deferential to the governor; all they needed to uphold his decision was “some evidence” that Van Houten, now 73, presents a risk to public safety. The court concluded that his veto was “not supported by a modicum of evidence in the record.”

Since a 2008 decision from the California Supreme Court, parole boards can’t deny release based solely on the severity of a crime. Instead, they must show that the parole candidate poses a public safety risk. Boards and governors alike have circumvented this standard by using hard-to-falsify language — for example, vaguely claiming that they don’t think the inmate possesses “insight” about their crime.

In denying Van Houten’s 2020 parole bid, as the appeals court reported, Gov. Newsom argued that her “explanation of what allowed her to be vulnerable to Mr. Manson’s influence remains unsatisfying.” He was also “unconvinced” that her childhood trauma, including her parents’ divorce and a forced abortion, “adequately explain her eagerness to submit to a dangerous cult leader or her desire to please Mr. Manson, including engaging in the brutal actions of the life crime.”

The court essentially called the governor’s bluff. They found that Van Houten’s extensive record showed “no additional factors Van Houten has failed to articulate, or what further evidence she could have provided to establish her suitability for parole. The Governor’s concern that there is more than meets the eye is, on this record, speculation, but [per state law] the Governor’s ‘decisions must be supported by some evidence, not merely by a hunch or intuition.’”

Yet allowing the governor to veto parole recommendations at all risks reducing such weighty decisions to one person’s hunch or political agenda. California is one of only two states that allow gubernatorial veto of parole. The Legislature introduced it in 1988, politicizing the parole process and adding public pressure — as well as optics — to what should be a professional assessment of risk. The veto works in one direction: The governor can only veto parole recommendations, not denials.

Any fear that the state is releasing dangerous people in droves is unfounded. Parole boards are reluctant to grant parole. According to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the Board of Parole Hearings recommended it in only 20% of cases in 2019. As I explain in my book “Yesterday’s Monsters,” receiving parole at one’s first hearing is extremely rare. I found that the median time spent behind bars on a life sentence with parole in California has risen from 12 years in 1980 to 28 years in 2012 for those who have been released, and a quarter of the prison population is serving life sentences — 26,000 with parole and 5,000 without.

The role of politics was particularly clear during the COVID-19 pandemic. The aging and infirm lifer population faced serious risks of contagion and death behind bars. They also pose little to no public safety risk, as shown by robust criminological evidence. Still, Newsom agreed to release merely 8,000 people — a deficit eclipsed by incoming admissions from jails, and the vast majority with just weeks or months left of their sentences. Van Houten was up for parole in 2020 when her prison, the California Institution for Women, was experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak of more than 100 cases.

The court’s decision now puts the ball back in the governor’s court. He has a 10-day window, starting in a month, wherein he can instruct Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta to appeal this case to the California Supreme Court. Common sense should prevail and guide our leadership in Sacramento to allow this rehabilitated septuagenarian to live her life quietly on the outside.

But no matter the outcome, her journey raises serious questions about the gubernatorial veto. Do we truly need an extra layer of political considerations to assess danger to the public — or should we trust the professionals appointed by the governor, mostly from law enforcement backgrounds, to do their job?

Hadar Aviram is a professor at UC Law San Francisco. She is the author of “Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole” and co-author with Chad Goerzen of the forthcoming “FESTER: Carceral Permeability and California’s COVID-19 Correctional Disaster.”

CA Court of Appeal Reverses Newsom’s Veto, Reinstates Van Houten’s Parole

Parole drama today! the California Court of Appeal for the Second District reversed Gavin Newsom’s veto of Leslie Van Houten’s parole, reinstating the board’s parole grant decision.

You can read the decision in full at this link. It’s a 2:1 decision, with the majority opinion recounting Van Houten’s early history, life crime, prison history, and plans for release. Their point of departure is a standard of review that is highly deferential to the governor:

We review the Governor’s decision under the “some evidence” standard, a standard our Supreme Court has called “extremely deferential.” (In re Rosenkrantz (2002) 29 Cal.4th 616, 665 (Rosenkrantz).) Under that standard, a simple modicum of evidence is all that is required to uphold the Governor’s decision. (Shaputis, supra, 53 Cal.4th at p. 210.) “Only when the evidence reflecting the inmate’s present risk to public safety leads to but one conclusion may a court overturn a contrary decision by . . . the Governor.” (Id. at p. 211.)

p. 43

But even under this standard of review, “we nonetheless conclude that the Governor’s reversal in this case is not supported by a modicum of evidence in the record.” (p. 44).

Their support for this assertion echoes what I said in chapter 4 of Yesterday’s Monsters: that the constant refrain that Van Houten has somehow failed to do even deeper psychic excavation into her circumstances and crime is nothing but smoke and mirrors, that it is ridiculous especially in someone so introspective, and that it is thin cover for political optics.

The Governor found that Van Houten’s “explanation of what allowed her to be vulnerable to Mr. Manson’s influence remains unsatisfying,” and he was “unconvinced” that Van Houten’s parents’ divorce and her forced abortion “adequately explain her eagerness to submit to a dangerous cult leader or her desire to please Mr. Manson, including engaging in the brutal actions of the life crime.”

p. 44

To which I’d say, how exactly does he expect anyone to explain a bizarre stranger homicide in the context of a cult? Is there anything she could possibly say that would lead anyone in Sacramento to write, “aha, now I get it”? The Court agreed, walking us through Van Houten’s introspection in a way that shows the Governor’s reasoning for the sham that it is:

It cannot be said that Van Houten has not extensively identified and discussed the factors leading to her life crimes, only some of which briefly are referenced in the Governor’s decision. In both her interview with the CRA evaluator and at the parole hearing, Van Houten expounded at length on the causative factors, beginning with her feelings of anger and abandonment after her parents’ divorce, a stigmatizing event in that era, and how that led to drug and alcohol abuse. She ran away from home with her boyfriend, who had impregnated her. Her mother then forced her to have an illegal abortion against her wishes, unmedicated, in her bedroom, instructed to keep quiet so as to not wake her siblings.

Van Houten spoke of shutting down emotionally and feeling numb after the abortion. The CRA evaluator wrote that, even now, Van Houten “was tearful as she spoke of the abortion and what ‘might have been.’ ” Van Houten described herself at that point in time as being “ ‘[d]esperate to be accepted,’ ” and “ ‘ha[ving] no sense of value. My value came in the eyes of other people.’ ”

Van Houten stated when she met Manson cult member Catherine Share, she “was at an all-time bottom low. I had no income, I did not feel good about either of my parents, and when I met her, it seemed to me that I was being offered a pretty good life.” She described how Manson slowly indoctrinated her, often while she was under the influence of LSD. The cult was not murderous and violent at the outset—rather, she stated her time at the ranch initially “ ‘seemed fun,’ ” and the talk of and preparation for violence and revolution came later. Van Houten said she “ ‘wanted to belong and . . . wanted to belong to something that wasn’t connected to my past.’ ” Van Houten explained how Manson used her anger with her parents and her shame about the abortion to convince her to turn her back on society, accept the alternative lifestyle he offered, and reject the lessons of right and wrong she had learned in her youth. Manson successfully transformed any doubts Van Houten had about the cult into her own self-criticism for failing to achieve the enlightenment he purportedly offered. By the time Manson’s talk turned to violence and murder, Van Houten already had fully committed to him, so much so that she believed he was Christ reborn. She also believed in the impending revolution, and that remaining with Manson was key to her survival.

The Governor found Van Houten’s extensive discussion of the causative factors inadequate to explain her life crimes. This necessarily implies the Governor believes there are additional factors for which Van Houten has failed to account, factors that, unaddressed, create a risk of violent recidivism. There is no indication in the record, however, of a latent underlying factor that potentially could result in violent conduct, nor has the Governor identified one. The CRA evaluator found Van Houten did not meet the criteria for psychopathy or a personality disorder, and there was no evidence of a thought disorder, hallucinations, or homicidal or suicidal thoughts or behavior. The evaluator further found it “very likely” that Van Houten’s youth at the time “significantly impacted” her involvement in the life offense, a factor obviously no longer applicable five decades later. The CRA’s finding that Van Houten presented a low risk of recidivism was consistent with similar evaluations over many years. Van Houten, moreover, has no history of violence either before the life crimes or in the 50 years since, and the prison staff regarded her highly enough to place her in positions of leadership within the prison, including facilitating groups intended to help other inmates with their rehabilitation.

The record shows no additional factors Van Houten has failed to articulate, or what further evidence she could have provided to establish her suitability for parole. The Governor’s concern that there is more than meets the eye is, on this record, speculation, but the Governor’s “decisions must be supported by some evidence, not merely by a hunch or intuition.” (Lawrence, supra, 44 Cal.4th at p. 1213.)

pp. 45-47

The unwritten part of this is pretty obvious to me: the only factor that can explain this veto is political optics, and California law does not allow Governors to veto people’s parole because it will look bad and people will write mean things on Twitter.

The only remaining question is: What happens next? It is quite possible that Gov. Newsom will instruct Attorney General Bonta to appeal this to the California Supreme Court and to ask for an en banc decision, which will further delay proceedings. I was asked today whether they could hold Van Houten in prison while they do that. I honestly am not sure. I will say, though, that if she’s released pending the CA Supreme Court decision, it’ll be the second time she’s spent some time on the outside–this is what happened when her request for a new trial was approved in 1979.

There is another reason why Newsom’s decision was outrageous: you may not remember this, but when Van Houten’s case was pending before Newsom, CIW, where she is incarcerated, had a horrendous COVID-19 outbreak. As I wrote at the time, to keep a 72-year-old woman in prison when she has no disciplinary record whatsoever and is lauded and appreciated for her superb behavior and personal growth at a time when her congregated facility has a huge outbreak was inhumane. I really hope our leaders in Sacramento can let go of ego and optics, set aside their personal aspirations and dread of negative publicity, and do what is unquestionably the right thing here: let this go and allow this low-risk septuagenarian woman with advanced degrees to live her quiet life on the outside.

Miriam’s Tambourine: Women and Liturgical Music

Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing.
Miriam sang to them: Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.

Exodus 15: 20-21

Caring for my dad in hospital is a labor of love, dedication, optimism, in the face of fear, grief, and shock. It’s been quite the thing to be here, spend every day at the hospital, and keep up my spirits and my mom’s as much as possible. This has not been made easy given the surrounding political context. The volatile cocktail of religious, ethnic, and national differences here is so close to blowing up that everyone is on edge. Among the many loathsome trends all around us is a religious push to marginalize and silence women, which my friend and colleague Yofi Tirosh is fighting with everything she’s got.

A few days ago, I was horrified to learn that the mom of 13-year old Eliana, who was invited to sing at an event in her community and practiced long hours for her performance, was told at the last minute that she would not be allowed on stage because an Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi was in attendance. Her mom, Abigail, recounted that she couldn’t even begin to explain to her daughter that women’s singing was disallowed. Eliana is now invited to sing the national anthem at each anti-government protest, and may her voice ring loud and clear. But the problem runs much deeper. The prohibition on women’s voices has reached pathological levels: rabbis are opining on the age that girls are not allowed to sing in the presence of their brothers. I was under the impression that much of the recent craziness goes far beyond what was regarded reasonable in religious communities until not long ago; my dad vividly remembers going to his religious youth movement, B’nei Akivah, and singing and dancing with girls. But it turns out that the nutty silencing of women from song has deep historical roots, and beyond the famous “kol ba’ishah ervah” (hearing the voice of a woman is akin to watching her display her genitals) from Tractate Brakhot, there’s a whole discussion in Tractate Sotah page 48 about the practices of liturgical singing during the days of the Second Temple. On that page, Rav Yosef Bar Hiah, a chap I would have probably enjoyed ferociously debating on this, opines that “men singing and women answering invites promiscuity; women singing and men answering is like setting fire to bramble.” Essentially, allowing women to open their mouths at all is horrendous, but having women initiate, rather than follow, is by far the worse transgression.

So how does this learned group of pious men (duh) explain away Miriam, Moses’ sister, who, per Exodus, vocally and musically participated in perhaps the most memorable victory song in the Tanakh? Here the Talmud does what it does best, which is engage in breathtaking interpretive gymnastics so that there’s no contradiction. The less impressive commenters argue that Miriam’s singing was only audible to the women. The more sophisticated commenters say that the moments immediately following the marvelous miracle of parting the Red Sea (evocatively visible in Judy Chicago’s feminist illustration for the Haggadah, see above) were of such unique spiritual quality–the rapture before such an otherworldly occurrence, the release from bondage, the vivid connection with, literally, Deus-ex-Machina coming to the aid of his people–that they merited an exception to the prohibition on women’s singing. If you read Hebrew, here’s a lecture by Admiel Kosman that walks you through the whole thing.

I got thinking about Miriam and her singing, and Eliana and the small-minded men who wanted to keep her from singing, because I came across an interesting study. Starting in the 1970s, many symphony orchestras hold “blind” auditions: musicians play behind a screen and are thus judged on the quality of their music, not who they are. A Harvard study showed that the “blind” auditions were successful: after their introduction–between 1970 and 1993–the percentage of women in the five highest-ranked U.S. orchestras increased from 6 to 21 percent. Now, however–in the name of representation/diversity initiatives–there are calls to remove the screen so as to increase diversity, primarily along racial lines.

Pretty much every classical musician I know, of all genders and ethnicities, thinks that removing the screen is a profoundly idiotic and unfair idea, which will stymie true integration and inclusion of folks from disadvantaged backgrounds in classical music–because, if the idea is that diversity increases quality, wouldn’t you assume that the behind-the-screen musicians the orchestra hired would be diverse? Wouldn’t you immediately hire Jessye Norman, Reggie Mobley, Wynton Marsalis, and countless amazing others, whether or not they sang or played behind a screen? And if we removed the screen, what would that say about the qualities of the people we hired, and how would it feel to have been hired under those circumstances?

What we need is to strongly enhance and enrich and provide opportunities for musical education and musical education for kids–even very young kids–of all backgrounds, so that class/race/gender will not be a hindrance to anyone who wants a classical music career at its inception. If we invest our effort in fostering, supporting, and nurturing musical excellence from infancy, then of course we can keep the screen up to prevent the Yosef Bar Hiahs of the world from sabotaging people they disdain out of bias and bigotry, and we can ensure that everyone has a fair shake from the start, resulting in their excellence sparkling through the screen. But investing in early-age education and artistic development in disadvantaged neighborhoods is challenging, expensive work, whereas posturing and bloviating about diversity is lazy and cheap. I really hope we invest in raising generations of musical Miriams who don’t need any special favors for their beautiful voices to ring even from behind a screen; when their prodigious talents and hard work get them to the finish line, appreciate their voices; and then remove the screen, so we can amplify their music a thousandfold.

Cooperation and Disruption in True-Crime Podcasting: Your Own Backyard

As some of you know, I’m beginning to work on a new project that sits at the intersection of new media, victimology, and law enforcement. I’m interested in the true crime podcast community, especially in podcasts targeting unsolved crimes. One of the questions I’m deeply interested in is the give-and-take between official law enforcement and podcasters (whether family members of the victim or third parties), which seems to range from hostility, through begrudging acceptance, all the way to pretty warm cooperation.

One notable example is Chris Lambert‘s excellent podcast Your Own Backyard, which is a thorough investigation of the disappearance of Cal Poly student Kristin Smart in May 1996. Lambert, who started off as an absolute stranger but established a warm collaborative relationship with the Smart family, has produced a true investigative masterpiece, chock-full of resources, first-hand testimony, circumstantial evidence examination, and intelligent inquiry into various forensic science disciplines (including human remains dogs and ground-penetrating radar). Most remarkably, Lambert’s podcast not only reawakened public interest in Smart’s disappearance, but also brought in new witnesses from the woodwork. Lambert’s dogged perseverance, intelligent analysis, and commitment to finding out the truth earned him the trust of the surrounding community and of law enforcement, and it looks like the police greatly benefitted from his work.

Throughout the entire lifespan of the case, there was only one viable suspect in Smart’s disappearance: fellow student Paul Flores, who helped an inebriated Smart get home from a party and was the last person to see her alive. Flores and his parents acted evasively and suspiciously over the years; Lambert’s investigation revealed that Flores was a predator who made women uncomfortable before Smart’s disappearance and, years after the event, a prolific rapist of multiple women. As Lambert provocatively posited in the podcast, Flores would have to be the unluckiest man alive for Smart’s disappearance to have been a coincidence.

Smart’s body was never found, but there was some evidence of human remains at Flores’ father’s house. The San Luis Obispo DA decided (thanks in great part to Lambert’s work and the evidence unearthed by the podcast) to charge Flores with murder and his father with being an accessory after the fact (to solve the confrontation problems in trials with codefendants, there were two different juries attending the same trial; I can talk more about this method, and how effective it is in solving Bruton/Gray/Cruz confrontation problems, in a future post). In March, the jury convicted Flores of the first-degree murder of Smart, and he was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison. This is a remarkable result given the passage of time and the hurdles in prosecuting no-body homicides.

I recommend listening to the whole podcast–it’s truly one of the better exemplars of this genre. One of the many things I find interesting, though, is the extent to which the existence of the podcast and its centrality to the case played a part in the criminal trial. In an effort to remain objective, Lambert, who recounts the trial in the later podcast episodes, matter-of-factly reports courtroom mentions of his own podcast without editorializing. But the defense (as a defense attorney, I gotta give kudos to Robert Sanger for what I think is undoubtedly a pretty heroic showing of professionalism with a client who is a pure, unadulterated garbage of a human being) repeatedly refers to the podcast and its encroachment on the case. Witnesses are asked about their participation in performative support for the Smarts (such as the entire investigative and prosecutorial team wearing purple, Smart’s favorite color) and about the extent to which the podcast propelled them to step forward. I’m pretty sure there will be arguments aplenty about bias and prejudice on appeal, and I worry that the podcast’s huge contribution to the investigation will seriously backfire.

Which brings me to one of my concerns about new media and law enforcement in general: Overall, I’ve been really impressed with the power of podcasts, especially their contribution to diversifying and enriching the victims’ rights movement. But is it time to have a sit-down, perhaps at CrimeCon, and set up some ethical rules, or best practices? Not everyone is Sarah Turney or Chris Lambert, not everyone does their homework in a dogged, meticulous way, and I worry that the need to come up with provocative encounters, confront suspects, dig up drama, etc., might backfire especially when podcasts finally succeed in greasing the wheels of the criminal process. Some things I think are worth considering are:

At what point should podcasters who are not themselves related to the victim reach out to the victim’s family? Is it ever okay to produce a podcast that the victim’s family does not support? What if the podcast casts suspicion on the family itself?

What kind of relationship should podcasters foster with the police? At what point should they hand evidence over to the police? Is this relationship akin to the police’s communication with traditional journalists?

Who owns footage obtained and produced by podcasters? Is there ever some sort of evidentiary privilege akin to the one granted to traditional journalists?

How much verification is required from podcasters (say, by contrast to police detectives checking alibis or triangulating evidence)?

What are the rules of engagement when reaching out to suspects? If podcasters take risks, how, and to what extent, does the police need to support and protect them–especially when law enforcement does not think that confronting the suspects is prudent?

Do podcasters have responsibility for the public chatter generated around the podcast? Wild theories, blame casting, and garden-variety shitposting that might happen, including, for example, posts that disparage the victim and/or their family?

What are the considerations that govern the way in which the story is told? For example, is it ethical to refrain from disclosing certain incidents/developments out of artistic concerns, or to make the narrative more dramatic and engaging? And what about the tone of reportage? Some of these podcasts (emphatically, NOT Lambert’s or Turney’s) have a humorous, flippant tone–is that something that should be frowned upon, especially if the victims’ families are not on board?

I’m interested to hear from you what other concerns/thoughts you have about these podcasts. And let’s keep tabs on the appellate process in the Flores case.

Comment: I’m still in Israel by my dad’s bedside – I write just to have a placeholder for ideas that pop in my head during my morning run before I head to the hospital every day. Please, no cumbersome professional requests during this trying time for me and my family.

At Dad’s Bedside

For those of you wondering why the stream of posts has whittled down: for the last three weeks I’ve been in Israel, at my dad’s bedside. Dad became aggressively ill, was hospitalized at Carmel Medical Center, and deteriorated so quickly and alarmingly that he’s now been for about ten days in the ICU. He suffers from a rare lung disease called BOOP (bronchiolitis obliterans organizing pneumonia), is connected to an ECMO machine as well as a ventilator, and we’re now at the stage where experimental treatments are attempted. My mom and I are experiencing shock and grief, supported by wonderful family members and friends, and visiting the hospital when we can. The staff is professionally superb and incredibly kind – truly, we’re so fortunate to be in the care of such angels. I’m also getting a real education in obliterating the past and future, dwelling a lot on the Four Noble Truths, discerning which connections and actions are gold and which are garbage, and reading Ivanhoe to my father at his request before he was intubated. I think it’s no coincidence that he was drawn to an epos of bravery and combat.

Where to get news: One thing I’m finding is that it is exhausting to respond to individual queries for updates, even when they come from the sweetest friends. So, my friend Valerie kindly made a resource for us, where you can read the latest news on my dad in both Hebrew and English. You can subscribe to get updates. I try to update frequently because I know how much everyone loves my dad and worries about him.

What is helpful: hugs and supportive outreach without expectation of reply. If I think you can help, trust me, I will contact you if I haven’t already. Prompt and effective follow-through if you have been asked to help. And, offers to take professional things off my plate.*

What is not helpful: wild medical diagnoses/prognoses/suggestions based on your friends/relatives/things you read online, fatalistic talk (whether Jewish or New Age) along the “everything happens for a reason” lines, burdensome diatribes, efforts to get me to do work obligations.

Beyond all this awfulness, a small piece of news on my part is that I’ve been accepted to the Jewish Studies program at the Graduate Theological Union and intend to start school next fall, on top of my full-time job, as part of my long-term plan to seek rabbinical studies and ordination in the secular humanistic tradition. My spiritual interests are helping me frame this horrendous experience and I’m glad I at least got to tell my dad about this before they put him to sleep and intubated him (he was happy, and we even got to study a page of Gemara together one night before he was moved to the ICU.) This is just to say that future posts will be more diverse in topics, as I expect my new academic journey to inform them as much as my current line of work.

*If you were expecting any professional dealings with me this summer, be it LSA, the animal rights workshop, the animal liberation conference, etc., everything is off. I’ve done the best I could to follow through with cancelations and replacements; I’ll just say that the ease of canceling everything for the summer was incredibly instructive regarding the illusion that any of us is super important or irreplaceable. If I’m supposed to grade your exam or paper, I promise you I will do that (and in fact am nearly done.) If I’m supposed to get back to you regarding the impending publication of FESTER, I will do that as well. Everything else will happen in due course.

Richard Glossip’s Execution On Hold Again; and Wrongful Conviction Shenanigans

A horrendous Talmudic story tells of a wrongful conviction and its aftermath. Against the backdrop of the bitter civil conflict between the Phrarisees and the Sadducees,[1] Rabbi Yehuda ben Tabbai, who was President of the Sanhedrin, looked to score a political point by sentencing a conspiring false witness from the rivaling faction to death. It turns out, however, that he was mistaken, and his Sanhedrin counterpart, chief justice Shimon ben Shatah, quoted the appropriate rule:

Conspiring witnesses are not executed unless they are both found to be conspirators; if only one is found to be a conspirator, he is not executed. And they are not flogged if they are liable to such a penalty, unless they are both found to be conspirators. And if they testified falsely that someone owed money, they do not pay money unless they are both found to be conspirators.

Hagiga 16:2

But it was too late; the witness had already been executed. Rabbi Yehuda admitted his mistake and would never again rule on a legal point except in the presence of Shimon ben Shatah. Some sources claim that he consequently yielded his Presidency of the Sanhedrin. And his remorse was grave:

All of Yehuda ben Tabbai’s days, he would prostrate himself on the grave of that executed individual, to request forgiveness, and his voice was heard weeping. The people thought that it was the voice of that executed person, rising from his grave. Yehuda ben Tabbai said to them: It is my voice, and you shall know that it is so, for tomorrow, [i.e., sometime in the future,] I will die, and my voice will no longer be heard.

Hagiga 16:2

Looks like folks on the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals [2] could take a page off Yehuda ben Tabbai’s book. My colleague Roy Peled just sent me the astonishing news that Richard Glossip–yes, the petitioner in Glossip v. Gross whose petition against the use of midazolam was rejected by the Supreme Court–has just had his execution halted. The CNN story exposed me to something I had not realized when reading the SCOTUS case: Glossip is widely believed to be innocent and Oklahoma’s Attorney General, who reviewed the case, does not stand behind the conviction. Here’s more on this (the italics are mine):

The latest round of litigation was brought to the Supreme Court by Glossip, with the support of the Oklahoma Attorney’s General office, who asked for his May 18 execution to be set aside.

The emergency hold on his execution will stay in place while the justices consider his request that they formally take up his case.

Glossip has maintained his innocence, having been convicted in 1998 of capital murder for ordering the killing of his boss.

A review launched by Oklahoma Republican attorney general found that prosecutors had failed to disclose evidence to Glossip that they were obligated to produce and that the evidence showed that the prosecutors’ key witness – the supposed accomplice of Glossip’s who committed the murder – had given false testimony.

Despite Oklahoma’s assertions that it could no longer stand by Glossip’s conviction, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeal declined Glossip’s request that his execution be halted.

In their filings with the US Supreme Court, Glossip’s attorneys argued that – in addition to the obviously irreparable harm he would suffer if the execution moves forward – Oklahoma “will also suffer harm from its Department of Corrections executing a person whom the State has concluded should never have been convicted of murder, let alone sentenced to die, in the first place.”

Query: how is it possible that, despite the state’s inability to stand by the conviction, Oklahoma’s supreme appellate instance thinks that executing Glossip is fine?

Answer (via the Associated Press): Glossip’s case “has been thoroughly investigated and reviewed,” with Glossip given “unprecedented access” to prosecutors’ files, “Yet he has not provided this court with sufficient information that would convince this court to overturn the jury’s determination that he is guilty of first-degree murder and should be sentenced to death,” according to the ruling written by Judge David Lewis.

So much to be amazed at here, not the least of which is that the issue of Glossip’s actual innocence didn’t quite come up in Glossip v. Gross. There, just a brief time after midazolam played a horrendous part in the botched execution of Clayton Lockett, Justice Alito saw no problem with continuing to use it in Oklahoma executions, because Glossip couldn’t show that Oklahoma had a better option that midazolam (what kind of an argument is that? Is he a chemist? And anyway, do you know what’s better than midazolam? Death penalty abolition, that’s what). But at no point did the decision venture into actual innocence territory, which makes me wonder: would SCOTUS be less tolerant of midazolam if they were aware that Oklahoma’s top prosecutor is unwilling to stand by Glossip’s conviction? Not that questions of humane execution should be decided on the basis of innocence or guilt, but looking at this from the perspective of death penalty supporters who believe it is administered fairly, wouldn’t a credible wrongful conviction claim give you pause? Not even a bit?

Then there’s Oklahoma’s Criminal Court of Appeals, which seems unperturbed by a conviction that the state itself finds worrisome enough to disavow. Is finality really that important?

Let’s keep tabs on this case as it progresses.

[1] At some point I’ll write more about this bitter conflict – I’m reading Flavius Josephus’ commentary on the last days of Judah, and finding it an astute, sobering analysis of social movements, civil conflict, mainstream/radicalism discord, and the destructive force of church/state disputes.

[2] Oklahoma is unique in that its Court of Last Resort is split into two courts: the Oklahoma Supreme Court handles civil appeals, and the Oklahoma Court of Appeals handles appeals from the District Courts. For more, see here.

An All-Male Jury for a Groper and the G2i Problem

The Gemara relates: Rav bar Sherevya had a trial pending before Rav Pappa. Rav Pappa seated him and also seated his litigant counterpart, who was an am ha’aretz (a simple man, not a rabbi). An agent of the court came and kicked and stood the am ha’aretz on his feet to show deference to the Torah scholars there, and Rav Pappa did not say to him: Sit. The Gemara asks: How did Rav Pappa act in that manner by not instructing the am ha’aretz to sit again? But aren’t the claims of the am ha’aretz suppressed by Rav Pappa’s perceived preferential treatment of Rav bar Sherevya? The Gemara responds: Rav Pappa said to himself that the litigant will not perceive bias, as he says: The judge seated me; it is the agent of the court who is displeased with me and compelled me to stand.

Shevuot 30b

Understandable outrage is brewing among many folks around me: At a San Francisco trial of a man accused of stalking and groping women, all the jurors are male. How could this happen? And is it lawful? Let’s go over some terminology:

  • Population: everyone who lives in the county.
  • Sampling frame: the group of people from which one can draw a sample. For our purposes, the folks whom the law deems eligible to serve on juries in the county.
  • Venire: Everyone who received summons to appear for jury selection (the selection process itself is called “voir dire.”)
  • Panel: The people who are eventually seated on a particular jury.

The constitution requires that the jury be drawn from a “fair cross-section” of the population: in other words, that the jury pool–the overall sampling frame from which people are summoned for the venire–be reflective of the population. If some recognizable minority group is systematically disqualified from serving, the selection method is unconstitutional. In the landmark case Taylor v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court invalidated a jury selection scheme by which women were not summoned at all to the jury pool unless they explicitly chose to opt in. Similarly, schemes like Texas’ “key man” system, where there’s some official who gets to pick and choose who’s on the jury (and thus, for example, underrepresents Mexican-Americans) have been invalidated.

Having a sufficiently diverse jury pool, however, does not guarantee the empaneling of a diverse jury. Consider the following example: you have 100 pebbles, 50 of which are gray and 50 of which are purple.

The statistical odds of drawing a purple pebble are 0.5, which means that, in a random selection of 12 pebbles, the stats predict you have great odds of having a mix of gray and purple pebbles. But you can easily imagine many random drawings that will only include gray pebbles.

This is exactly what happened here, except for an important fact: the twelve jury members were not drawn at random. Annie Vainshtein and Nora Mishanec reported for the Chron:

During jury selection, some women said they could not impartially weigh the evidence that would be presented at trial due to personal experiences with sexual assault or harassment, or negative feelings toward Hobbs’ attorney, which prompted Superior Court Judge Harry Dorfman to dismiss them.

Others from the pool were unable to serve on the jury for different reasons; one woman said she had booked an upcoming cruise. Several jurors, one of whom was male, were dismissed after expressing opinions including that “sexual predators” should be segregated from society, and even face the death penalty. 

By the end of jury selection, the only woman selected was an alternate juror, who will hear all of the evidence but vote on the verdict only if needed.

Here’s the thing: robust social science research tells us that, when looking at groups of people in the aggregate, people’s life experiences and worldviews, which are often a function of their demographics, impact how they will assess evidence and judge a case. Which is why, even without resorting to the services of expensive trial consultants, prosecutors assume that people of color will be favorable to the defense, and defense attorneys assume that white men will be more punitive. The name of the game in voir dire then becomes getting rid of as many people whom you suspect will be unfavorable to your side. The problem is that, even though we can make these generalizations regarding groups, we have a deep social distaste about making them regarding individuals: people generally recoil from being told that they must think a certain way because of who they are, even though in the aggregate we know such statements to be true. This is why one can’t mount a for-cause challenge for disqualifying a woman, any woman, from the trial of an alleged stalker/groper just on the basis of her sex/gender. In science, it’s known as the group-to-individual (G2i) problem, and it affects various areas of legal decisionmaking.

Over the years, parties have tried to skirt this problem by using peremptory challenges to get rid of demographics they suspected of being unfavorable to them; the advantage of this strategy was that peremptories didn’t require an explanation. But the Batson doctrine allows the opposite party to challenge such use of peremptory challenges when they reveal a pattern of discrimination against a suspect racial or gendered group. It used to be the case that all the prosecution had to do was provide a race neutral explanation for their challenges (which, admittedly, would be difficult if there was evidence to refute this.) Now, California’s new peremptory challenge laws, enacted through AB 3070, make it a lot more difficult to get away with this sort of thing, because the prosecution’s explanation has to be reasonable, and it also cannot correlate with a seemingly race-neutral explanation that strongly correlates with race, gender, or any other suspect category.

But this is not what happened here! The women were dismissed using for-cause challenges because they directly opined that they would not be able to impartially weigh the evidence. This I find dubious (though not impossible) and it leaves me with serious discomfort. To drive home the problem, consider the following analogy: assume a white police officer is on trial for shooting and killing an unarmed black man. Imagine that, at jury selection, every single black prospective juror says that they would not be able to impartially weigh the evidence and, consequently, we end up with an all-white jury. Does this pass the “fair cross section” test? Yes–there were people of various races in the jury pool. Does this pass the Batson test? Sure! No peremptory challenges were used; everyone who was struck was struck for cause. Are you comfortable with the outcome?

How could this have been fixed? First, I think that prospective jurors can and should trust their ability to make good decisions with the life experience that they have. Like 50% of the people on the planet, I have been sexually harassed, catcalled, groped, pestered for sex, and other fine experiences. Does that mean I would not be able to seriously consider the possibility that a person who did this to others was severely mentally ill, or that there was an eyewitness identification problem? I worry that the emphasis we put on group identity in contemporary discourse has locked people into beliefs that they are immutable members of whatever demographic they belong to and there’s nothing more to them, and that is impoverishing and disappointing. Second, I think the onus here was on the prosecution to ask the prospective jurors questions that would probe the extent of the bias. For example, I think a fair question would have been, “would your experience with harassment lead you to find someone guilty even if there was defense evidence that the police got the wrong person, or even if there was persuasive psychiatric evidence that the defendant didn’t know what he was doing?”

If such a stunning number of women find themselves unable to fairly adjudicate a sexual harassment case, then the root of the problem here is not the jury selection process itself. It is the fact that harassment experiences in public space are so common and far more malignant than people think. In her book License to Harass, my colleague Laura Beth Nielsen exposes the unbearable lightness of offensive speech in public space and the many insidious ways in which it affects people’s everyday lives and decisions. It turns out that even behaviors that might not be a big deal on a one-off basis can add up to the point that people are so fed up with them that they don’t feel they can be objective on a jury.

If that’s what happened here, it’s a damn shame. Because the irony is that the very fact that there are many other people like this guy (who maybe just yell obscenities, rather than grope, and thus completely escape public censure) is what makes it impossible to adjudicate this guy by a true jury of his peers, which should include women.

How to Address Pseudo-Police Lethal Force?

There’s understandable community upheaval about a recent tragedy that rocked downtown San Francisco: A security guard at a downtown Walgreens store shot and killed Banko Brown and, the D.A. decided, will not be facing criminal charges for homicide. In this CBS-5 story, I explain what is happening to the extent I can, not having seen the evidence.

Why is the D.A. not pressing charges? The D.A.’s office has issued a statement according to which, having viewed the store’s video footage of the incident, they find that “[t]he evidence clearly shows that the suspect believed he was in mortal danger and acted in self-defense” and that, while Brown’s killing was a “tragedy,” “[they] cannot bring forward charges when there is credible evidence of reasonable self-defense. Doing so would be unethical and create false hope for a successful prosecution.”

How do they establish if someone acted in reasonable self defense? According to California’s model jury instructions (CALCRIM), a defendant prevails on self defense if they used force against another person while (1) reasonably believing that they, or someone else, “was in imminent danger of suffering bodily injury,” (2) reasonably believing “that the immediate use of force was necessary to defend against that danger,” and (3) “used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against that danger.” Note that it’s not enough that someone subjectively believes they are in danger; you prevail on this defense if a reasonable person in your shoes would’ve felt the same. The question of proportional force is also one on which there could be disagreement.

Hold on, why is this even a self defense issue and not a lethal force issue? The rules on lethal force apply only to government agents: federal and local police. The Fourth Amendment offers people protection from unreasonable search and seizure by the government. This is not the case here. The Walgreens security guard was, indeed, armed and working, but he was working for a private company. That’s why the D.A.’s office is viewing this incident through the lens of self defense, which applies to any altercation between two private people.

Shouldn’t we hold security guards and other pseudo-police officers, like private patrols, to a higher standard? I think that’s an excellent question, especially with the proliferation of private policing of all sorts. This is also far from the first time that someone was shot to death by private security personnel (see here, here, here, and here, to name just a few.) My friend Sarah Fielding, now the managing attorney at Legal Services of Northern California, once wrote a fantastic paper about neighborhoods who crowdfund for private security, and is interviewed in this fantastic Al Jazeera piece, where she and others express concerns that more exclusive, wealthy neighborhoods essentially just “send in a check” to fund their own justice, which disproportionally targets outsiders. All of these are serious problems that raise grave concerns. But the Fourth Amendment only applies to government agents and there’s precious little we can do about that.

If this is truly nothing more than a conflict between two private people, why all the political upheaval? Obviously, despite the fact that the shooter was not a police officer, the nature of this incident makes people see it through the lens of community outrage about police overreach. I’m seeing echoes of this even in Aaron Peskin’s reported entreat that the D.A. reconsider. People are falling into the predictable camps: pro-law-and-order, dismayed-of-downtown-chaos folks who support the D.A. and explain how sick they are of the robberies and petty thefts that have scared away many major retailers from the downtown areas, support the decision not to prosecute and see it as a victory for public safety. On the other hand, abolish-dismantle-repeal folks who, in accordance with the usual progressive punitivism protocol, think that we should not harshly enforce the law except against those we dislike (cops, guards, right wingers), see this as further evidence that Jenkins is making charging decisions that further oppress the oppressed. We don’t have the evidence, and so we are projecting our overall worldviews about the underlying problems of poverty, suffering, law enforcement, and dilapidation, onto this incident. This is where people’s strong views come from. The lesser the evidence, the more room there is for our worldviews to inform our imaginations.

We know there was only one gun at the scene–the guard’s. In light of this, isn’t it obvious that the security guard committed unjustified homicide? Folks, I don’t know. And neither do you, because we haven’t seen the video footage that the D.A. used to make the determination. For all we know, it might’ve seemed to the guard as if the victim was armed. Or not. We simply can’t know the answer to this without seeing the video.

Fine, then why won’t the D.A. show us the video, so we can be the judge of that? That’s a fair question. The understandable logic is: if it’s really that cut and dry that the security guard was in reasonable fear of his life, why is the D.A.’s office being so secretive about it? Because the public has deep interest in these issues, and in seeing justice done, California law was recently amended to require prosecutorial offices to share footage of lethal police shootings with the public within 45 days. But again, this doesn’t mean a general requirement to share investigative material with the public in any case that involves two private people, as the case is here. And, to be fair to the D.A., I can see some good reasons not to share the footage. We know from prior cases involving video footage of violence, sometimes lethal, that even when people have access to the evidence, their interpretations of what they see depend on their worldview. Fourteen years ago, I saw the cellphone footage of the killing of Oscar Grant and thought to myself, “I’m watching an execution, and there’s no way anyone could watch this video and think otherwise.” And, lo and behold, twelve Los Angeles residents disagreed with me. The D.A. might not want to get into these kinds of controversies if the law doesn’t require them to, nor do they want to incite confrontations and violence against the security guard. Still, it’s hard not to walk away from this with a bad feeling about the lack of transparency.

Then why not prosecute, and let a jury decide if it was self defense or not? Without seeing the video, it’s impossible to answer this question, but it’s definitely a fair one. I will say that the burden of bringing a case to trial is much lower than the burden required for conviction: all the prosecution needs is probable cause, as opposed to the much higher burden of beyond reasonable doubt. The idea is that you go to trial with a minimum of probable cause (the threshold the judge requires at a preliminary hearing) and continue developing the evidence as you go along. But in cases that are very public and sensitive, prosecutors sometimes hold themselves to a higher standard (e.g. Muller’s prosecutions of Manafort et al.) We should also keep in mind that prosecutors have two kinds of considerations that go into charging decisions: instrumental considerations–i.e., will this case end in a conviction and thus be a worthy expenditure of state effort and resources–and expressive considerations, i.e., what do my constituents want and expect. I think Jenkins is as aware of what her constituents want as Boudin was aware of his, and charging decisions will differ accordingly.

A New Life for Death Row

“Of what shall a living man complain, each man for his sins?” (Lamentations 3:39).
“Of what shall a living man complain?” – it is sufficient for him that he is alive. Rabbi Levi said: The Holy One blessed be He said: Your life is in My hands, yet you complain? Rabbi Huna said: Let him stand like a mighty one, confess his sins, and not complain. Rabbi Berekhya said: Of what shall he complain about the One who gives life to the worlds? If he seeks to complain, it should be each man for his sins.

Eikhah Rabbah 3: 13

There’s a superb story in this morning’s Guardian by Sam Levin about what Gov. Newsom’s Quentin “Scandinavization” means for the people on death row. Levin had incredible access and interviewed some fascinating people, whose voices we almost never see in print: the people on death row themselves, who are coming to terms with an unfathomable change in their lives and future prospects. It may surprise those of us unfamiliar with death row that the change is not universally celebrated, and that some people feel downright dread about the prospect of being surrounded by people and other stimuli. Some express serious concerns about being transferred away from their family and lawyers. Others are thrilled with the new experiences, including those of the natural world, even as they are reeling from them:

Leaving death row was immediately overwhelming. His group of about a dozen men, heading to a prison outside Los Angeles in July 2021, made a brief stop in the Central Valley, and as they stepped off of their bus, many of them froze in their tracks, he said.

For the first time in decades, they were standing on grass.

When they explained to a guard why they were so stunned, the officer allowed them to walk to an even lusher patch of grass nearby. “We just marveled at the softness and the smell of the grass and the earth. It was remarkable. The officer let us stand there and watch as we left our footprints in the grass. It’s just an amazing thing that people take for granted.”

At their new prison, Correll Thomas, 49, who had been on death row since 1999, experienced sensory overload: “On the yard, it’s just movement – people running laps at different speeds, people doing push-ups and exercising, someone’s throwing a football back and forth, people playing soccer while others are playing football. I was keeping my head on a swivel, trying to take in as much as I can, turning right to left every two seconds. On death row, we don’t have such fast movements.”

This stuff–the opening of possibilities for people whose life was entirely doomed–is huge. It’s a scenario I’m intimately familiar with, because of my work on members of the “Class of ’72” and their parole hearings. In 1972, the California Supreme Court decided People v. Anderson, which found the death penalty unconstitutional because of its barbarism. The decision would be publicly lambasted and later reversed, and the death penalty would return in 1978, but the people who were on death row at the time–including Charles Manson, Dennis Stanworth, and Sirhan Sirhan–had their sentences commuted. Life with parole was not an option at the time, and so, all these people, who were not supposed to see the light of day, started coming up for parole in the late 1970s.

All the parole hearings I’ve looked at from the early 1980s reflect a sense of great public panic about the prospect that these folks would receive what was considered the standard sentence for murder at the time–fifteen years or so at most–and the sense of urgency to keep them behind bars. I wouldn’t be surprised if the rapid and considerable increase in the average length of a sentence for murder was because of the concerns about disproportionate punishments in these high-profile cases. Which raises a really interesting question: if you were supposed to be executed and you’ve had a reversal of fortune, are you supposed to just be grateful and roll with the punches of absurdity at the parole board? If you’re then barred from taking any programming because of protective segregation or whatnot, should you just shut up and say thank you, because you weren’t going to receive any programming anyway? Or are we willing to revise our opinions about people’s fates over time.

My colleague Alessandro Corda drew my attention to a new and intriguing development in retributivism: Julian Roberts and Nethanel Dagan propose revising our notions of just deserts. Rather than a “static” assessment of severity, conducted and calcified at a particular point in time, they propose a “dynamic censure” model, which is flexible to changes in censure that occur as time passes. Here they explain this model in their own words:

According to the dynamic model, the amount of censure that an offender deserves for his crime may change in response to certain acts of the offender. Sensitivity to some post-offence and, particularly, post-sentence behaviour thereby becomes internal to assessments of (continuing) deservedness of punishment. According to what we term ‘ static ’ desert, post-offence conduct does not affect the seriousness of the crime or the offender ’ s culpability for the offence. Under a purely desert-based sentencing rationale, the focus of the sentence is, therefore, tightly drawn upon the culpable act or omission. The offender’s general lifestyle and his actions after the commission of the crime should carry no weight. They are not seen as affecting an offender ’ s culpability and are therefore excluded from the sentencing equation.

A responsive censure-based approach, however, necessarily expands the ambit of inquiry at sentencing. Penal censure engages the offender in a more clearly communicative manner. Andreas von Hirsch and Andrew Ashworth capture the essence of the concept in this way: ‘ The punishment conveys to the actor a certain critical normative message concerning his conduct … this message treats him as a moral agent – that is an agent capable of moral deliberation ’. These authors further note that ‘ When the offender is thus censured, a moral response on his part is deemed appropriate ’ , but then suggest that ‘ The censure, however, serves only to give the actor the opportunity to make such a response ’ . Yet does it make sense to provide offenders with an opportunity but to then remain oblivious to whether they avail themselves of the opportunity ? We argue that the censuring authority should be attentive to the fruits of the offender ’ s moral deliberation, as they may affect the degree of censure that is (or remains) appropriate.

Even more importantly, a responsive censure approach draws the sentence administration phase into the purview of desert-based punishment. Desert theory contains restraining arguments for the punitiveness of the state, such as the ‘ drowning out ’ argument, progressive loss of mitigation for repeat offenders, the principle of parsimony, and related decremental penal strategies. However, desert theory fails to offer any restraints on the severity of punishment after sentencing, no matter what offender does thereafter. The punishment phase itself – which can last for years and even decades, sometimes for an offender’s entire natural lifespan – creates a normative ‘ vacuum ’ for desert theory. In contrast, we argue that a responsive censure-based account offers an important resource for evaluating the degree of deserved punishment into the administration of the sentence.

Roberts J. & Dagan N. (2019). “The Evolution of Retributive Punishment: From Static Desert to Responsive/Dynamic Penal Censure.” In: A. du Bois-Pedain & A. Bottoms (eds.) Penal Censure: Engagements within and Beyond Desert Theory, pp. 141-159 Oxford: Hart.

One possible critique of Roberts and Dagan’s groundbreaking article is that they are doing nothing more than articulating utilitarian reasons, such as rehabilitation, within the retributive framework. To which one might answer: Why is that a bad thing? If a person manages to avail herself of rehabilitative options, isn’t that as much a statement of the rebalancing of good and evil in their case as it is of their future reentry prospects? I think one can make a case about both. This also helps explain why, for example, I feel differently about the release prospects of Sirhan Sirhan and Yigal Amir. The former has been in prison for 55 years, improved himself in countless ways, picked up far fewer disciplinary write-ups than one would expect for such a long incarceration, and expressed serious contrition and a change of heart about terrorism and about violence as a solution for the world’s problems. The latter has been inside less than 30 years, expresses no contrition whatsoever, and is pretty much the same person he was when he went in. Even from a purely retributive perspective it feels like one of these people is more deserving of freedom than the other.

I think it’s fair to read the Guardian piece with an open mind, without drawing comparisons between life on death row and life in general population. There is only one road in your life, and that’s the road your life ends up taking. Gratitude is always a wonderful thing to feel and express, but there is plenty to fix in general population and in the parole process as well. Where someone should or should not have ended up is far less important then where they actually are. Let’s fashion our policy to acclimating these folks to the yard accordingly.