Capital punishment juries in question in O.C.

Juries could increasingly favor the death penalty, despite declining public support, Social Ecology professor finds.

When the case of Scott Dekraai – who pled guilty to murdering eight people in a Seal Beach salon in 2011 – goes to the sentencing phase of the trial, more than one-third of potential jurors could be rejected based on their beliefs about the death penalty.

The consequence? A jury that could be tilted in favor of capital punishment, even as national polls show that fewer and fewer people support it, according to a recent paper published in the Yale Law Journal by Nicholas Scurich, an associate professor in the School of Social Ecology.

During the summer of 2016, Scurich and his team asked nearly 500 potential jurors at the Orange County Superior Court House in Santa Ana about their beliefs in the death penalty, finding that 35 percent of them would likely be rejected from death penalty cases like Dekraai’s based on their beliefs.

“This is what the attorneys in that case will have to deal with. These are the exact potential jurors at the exact courthouse,” Scurich says. Since Dekraai already pled guilty, the jury will only determine between life in prison or death.

Death penalty cases are unique because the jury decides on both guilt and punishment; in all other cases, the jury determines guilt while judges dole out punishments. “It’s just a very different dynamic,” Scurich says. “What hangs in the balance is a person’s life.”

Hallucinations in an 8 by 10 cell: Do prisoners sent to isolation ever recover?

New book by Keramet Reiter chronicles the rise of modern solitary confinement.

In the 1980s, incarceration rates were skyrocketing and prison officials were anxious because of inmate unrest in the previous decade.

To house the prisoners – and to sequester those deemed most dangerous – prison officials designed and built with little public oversight a suite of technologically advanced maximum security prisons. The facilities were cleaner than the squalid, poorly-lit, unsanitary isolation cells that officials had been using to lock up prisoners accused of fomenting unrest and threatening security.

But conditions at these “supermax” isolation units – typified by 1,056-bed isolation ward at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, which opened in 1989 – are still inhumane enough to drive some prisoners insane.

LSA Award Honorable Mentions: Associate Professor Geoff Ward and CLS Alumna Anjuli Verma

Please join us in congratulating Associate Professor Geoff Ward and CLS Alumna Anjuli Verma for receiving Honorable Mention for LSA annual awards. Geoff was mentioned for the John Hope Franklin Prize, for the best article on Race, Racism and the Law with past two years. His article is Microclimates of Racial Meaning: Historical Racial Violence and Environmental Impacts, Wisconsin Law Review, 2016, 575-626.

Alum Anjuli Verma was cited for the Dissertation Prize for her work, The Great Experiment: California's Prison Realignment and the Legal Reform of Mass Incarceration, nominated by Professor Mona Lynch.

Are prisoners' civil rights being needlessly violated by long-term solitary confinement?

April 2017

Deadly prison riots in the 1960s and 1970s spurred prison officials to clamp down on inmates and lock the ones they deemed the most dangerous in long-term solitary confinement. They built maximum security prisons like Pelican Bay in California to control and sequester these "worst of the worst."

There, thrown in the hole with no human contact and bleak surroundings, many are suffering psychological harm. Little is known about the effectiveness of solitary confinement, or of the long-term societal consequences. Keramet Reiter, assistant professor of criminology, law and society, spoke with Modern Law Library about her research into the conditions at Pelican Bay and the after-effects of solitary confinement -- and the reforms that would help legislators assess whether solitary is actually needed.

New summer institute at UCI will help scholars tackle tangled legal web of technology, big data and society

April 2017

What are the legalities of a health insurance company changing a premium based on data streamed from a fitness tracker? When an algorithm in a self-driving car decides which route to take when both are fraught with danger, who can be held liable for damages? And what legal issues come into play when more than half of U.S. stock exchange activity comes from automated trading accounts? As we become increasingly more reliant on technology and big data to make decisions that make our businesses and lives more efficient, the legal implications can be a little tricky.  

“Even where big data and algorithmic processes are purposefully incorporated into legal practices, such as in the proliferating use of ‘risk assessment’ tools in the criminal system, their impacts on fairness and justice remain underexplored in sociolegal scholarship,” says Mona Lynch, criminology, law & society professor and co-director of the Center for Law, Society & Culture.

Did California prison reform lead to an increase in crime?

April 2017

In 2011, Assembly Bill 109 transferred 60,000 felony parole violators a year from state to local control, saving the state $100 million. But the bill has sparked a backlash, with some prosecutors and law enforcement officials blaming it for a recent rise in violent crime.

Charis Kubrin, professor of Criminology, Law and Society, disagrees that AB 109 is to blame. She conducted the first scientific analysis of AB 109 last year, accounting for other factors such as unemployment, and found that while the bill contributed to a rise in property crimes, particularly auto thefts, there was no evidence it led to a rise in assaults, rapes or murders. The research was featured in a Fox News segment on the California's recent rise in crime.

Watch the segment here.

Eyewitness identifications not always shaky: confidence predicts accuracy.

April 2017

Not all eyewitness identifications should be discarded, because in certain circumstances they are accurate, according to a new report in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

The key: eyewitnesses have to feel confident and the timing and conditions of when they identify suspects have to be "pristine." But law enforcement agencies don't always use methods that create such pristine conditions, according to School of Social Ecology professors Beth Loftus and Rachel Greenspan, who wrote a commentary for the new report. The report and commentary were mentioned in an article in Forensic Magazine.

"This reality raises the question of what conclusions can be drawn in the many instances when conditions are not pristine," the article says.

Wrongful conviction registry now housed at School of Social Ecology

April 2017

The 2,000-plus wrongful convictions compiled in UCI's National Registry of Exonerations are just scratching the surface, according to Maurice Possley, a senior researcher for the registry. Tracking down and verifying those wrongful convictions -- which stem from misleading evidence, mistaken witness identification, false accusation, official misconduct and inadequate legal defense -- is a laborious process that relies on published news reports and exonerated defendants coming forward.