Monday, June 23, 2008

Going "Soft" on Crime and Softer on Reporting

This story almost fell through the cracks before a friend reminded me about it over a couple of beers.

I remember skimming it and thinking it was stupid but upon further review, I have to conclude that it is one of the worst stories I've ever seen published in the Times-Picayune.

The headlines reads:

"Jefferson Parish juries going soft?"

Before I begin providing excerpts, here is what I think happened.

After a two high-profile acquittals, an enterprising reporter went around and tried to get people to say that black jurors were letting criminals off the hook.

The writer, Paul Papura, with whose work I am not generally familiar, began the story by describing a recent murder acquittal and putting forth the following premise:

It was the second acquittal in a high-profile, multiple-murder case in Jefferson Parish since September. While prosecutors are deconstructing how the case was lost to a youth who accused the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office of wrongdoing, they are also seeking to debunk the perception that juries have been acquitting more defendants since Hurricane Katrina in a parish historically known for conservative citizens with no tolerance for crime.

So the J-P Sheriff's Office is attempting to explain their lower conviction rate given that Jefferson Parish might be the easiest place in America to put someone in jail.

But immediately after that premise, the writer explains that the conviction rate is roughly the same as it was before the storm while characterizing it as substantially lower. This sub-section of the article was titled "Guilty verdicts down."

Last year, juries returned guilty verdicts in 81 percent of cases, according to the district attorney's office. In 2006, the jury conviction rate was 93 percent, a spike from 2005, when the courts operated only eight months because of the storm. That year, juries convicted 82 percent of the time. In 2004, the jury conviction rate was 88 percent.

While the Jefferson Parish demography has changed little since the storm, a variety of factors could affect jury decisions, said criminologist Peter Scharf: Jurors' view of crime, whether they have greater sympathy for the accused or how cases are investigated and prosecuted.

"You don't want to become New Orleans, where a person getting convicted a couple of years ago was a rare event, like getting struck by lightning," Scharf said. "Any slippage in these numbers is something they have to pay attention to."

But the overall rate of "wins," which includes convictions by jury and judge as well as guilty pleas, has remained steady at 88 percent to 89 percent.

Notice that while UNO criminologist Peter Scharf wonders whether or not jurors have more sympathy for criminals, the conviction rate in Jefferson parish is pretty much the same as it was before the storm.

So the whole premise for the story is ridiculous. Because Jefferson Parish prosecutors blew two high profile cases, and even though the overall conviction rate is the same, all of a sudden there's a need to investigate what's wrong with the juries?

While Jefferson Parish has seen an influx of low-income residents since the storm and a slight loss of upper-income residents, the population shift has not been so dramatic that it would affect the pool of jurors, said demographer Greg Rigamer of GCR & Associates.

And the racial and gender mix in the Jefferson Parish jury pool has remained unaffected by the storm, Clerk of Court Jon Gegenheimer said.

Rigamer speculated: "People have been through an awful lot since Katrina. Perhaps people are more tolerant."

Scharf offered similar sentiments. "The critical culture can change without the demography changing," he said.

This reads like the reporter went straight to Greg Rigamer and asked him if enough poor black people have moved to Jefferson Parish since the storm to affect jury pools. And because Scharf is not insisting that racial makeup has anything to do with the recent acquitals, one has to wonder if the context of the first Scharf quote is a total bastardization of his actual points about emerging national trends related to juror attitude and popular portrayal of criminal justice.

Then the article ends with further description of one of the recent acquittals that occurred after testimony that the defendant's confession occurred after apparent beatings at the hands of detectives and some quotes from a disgruntled juror that had wanted to convict.

"I'm not disappointed with the case," Wilson said. "I'm disappointed with the jurors. To me they were being selfish. They were thinking more about themselves than they were about justice."

So in other words, the only story here is that Jefferson Parish detectives should be videotaping all interrogations to mitigate allegations of coerced confessions.

Now maybe I'm being too hard on the beat writer here, a lot of the sensationalized formatting of the article could have been done by editors that panicked after realizing that there was absolutely no factual basis for publication.


You know, if Jefferson Parish residents were really "tough" on crime, there would be a 100% conviction rate. If you have any presumption of innosence, you're an appeaser of criminals. I've always said that.


jeffrey said...

Alternate Headline: "There Goes the Neighborhood"

What's the matter with JP?

If only the citizens there would demonstrate their lack of tolerance for this undesirable element they might not have have "all these problems"

E said...


Anonymous said...

I cannot say if justice was served in this particular case or not. We did not hear what the jury heard. However, Louisiana citizens should be aware of, or beware of, tough-on-crime turned dumb-on-crime in California.

That state is being bankrupted for revenge. Rehabilitation would make us all safer when inmates are released (as most will be) and save tax payers lots of money. The unreasonably long sentences are ruining salvageable lives and families. That is outrageous and cost too much. Returning ex-felons to prison for minor parole infractions is outrageous and cost us almost $50K a year per inmate. Replacing mental hospitals with prison time is outrageous and cost us more money.

California is known as the State of Higher Incarceration, but it is not the only state with a prison crisis. According to Pew Research Center for the States, 1 in 100 adults in the U.S. are behind bars, and America incarcerates more of its citizens than any other democracy, more than China, India, or Mexico. Outrageous and cost too much.