A new study has found that between 2.8% and 5.2% of defendants sentenced to death in the United States were likely innocent. The University of Michigan Law School designed the study, and had the numbers crunched by medical researchers trained in population statistics analysis. Law professor Samuel Gross said, “Since 1973, nearly 8,500 defendants have been sentenced to death in the United States, and 138 of them have been exonerated. Our study means that more than 200 additional innocent defendants have been sentenced to death in that period.” Last week, The Economist reported that although “America is unusual among rich countries in that it still executes people”, the trend was towards fewer executions and more states abolishing the death penalty. It concluded, “It may be a long wait, but the death penalty’s days are surely numbered.”
Several Victorian police stations have been ordered to stop accepting complaints about certain crimes over the phone, leading to claims they are manipulating crime statistics. Superintendent Neil Paterson said in an email: “Given our extremely high offending rate around Theft from Motor Vehicle at present … I am of the view that reports for TFMV must be taken in person rather than received via telephone.” A VicPol spokeswoman said the policy would ensure that forensic evidence was gathered from the cars, but other police disagree. A senior officer told the Herald Sun: “This instruction is a blatant and obvious attempt to artificially drive down crime reporting by making it much more difficult to report crime.”
The New York Times has launched a new video feature, “Verbatim”, based on dramatic re-enactments of the transcripts of legal proceedings. The first in the series, What is a Photocopier?, highlights the problems that arise when lawyers attempt to interpret the meanings of common words and phrases. (The transcript can be read here.)
WorkSafe, the agency that regulates workplace safety in Victoria, has charged two companies over a wall collapse that killed three pedestrians last year. The builder, Grocon, and a signage company it hired have been charged under section 23 and section 26 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic). According to the Herald Sun, WorkSafe alleges that the companies failed to obtain a permit or conduct appropriate risk and engineering assessments before attaching an advertising billboard to the wall. It later collapsed in high winds. The companies face up to $9 million in fines if the allegations are proved.
Monash University’s Castan Centre for Human Rights has launched its first Human Rights Report: “We have decided to publish this report to improve the public’s understanding of our world-renowned academic research. Each piece is written in plain English and designed to inform the public about human rights law and policy issues in key areas”. It features articles by legal experts on a range of topics including freedom of speech, corporations, foreign aid, spies, prisons and detention centres, asylum seekers, gender, reproductive rights, LGBTI rights, and Indigenous rights.
The Victoria Law Foundation has launched a new Everyday-Law website, to provide “all the best material together in one place; jargon-free material for the public written by a range of trustworthy organisations.” As well as providing multi-lingual information about people’s rights and how to access the legal system, Everyday-Law will “go behind the 24-hour news cycle and fill in the gaps on hot-button legal issues”.
Dr Rodney Syme has challenged Victorian authorities to prosecute him for providing the death drug Nembutal to patients who wish to end their lives: “I just believe passionately that there are too many people suffering too much not to try a little bit harder to change things… And a lot of these things it seems will only be changed in a court decision, so bring it on.” While suicide is legal, it is an offence to incite, aid or abet an attempt to commit suicide. Dr Symes says police and the DPP are turning a blind eye because they do not support the law, but he wants euthanasia legalised and regulated: “Desperate people are doing desperate things, without any effective guidance regarding this medication, dosage or indications.”
A Northern Territory scheme has been criticised for jailing people without due process. Under the Alcohol Mandatory Treatment Act 2013 (NT), a person who police say has been drunk in public three times can be detained in a secure facility for up to three months, without going before a court or receiving legal advice or representation. The president of the Criminal Lawyers Association of the NT, Russell Goldflam, says, “The Act provides that a person can engage a legal representative … but in practice it’s a completely empty right because there aren’t arrangements made for lawyers to be made available.” Observers say that police are applying alcohol laws in a discriminatory way, and “since the law came into effect in July last year, every single person detained under it has been Aboriginal.” Julie Edwards says the NT scheme is extreme compared with other jurisdictions: “In Victoria, secure treatment can only be used where a person has severe health problems and lacks the capacity to make decisions for himself/herself. Under the [Severe Substance Dependence Treatment Act 2010 (Vic)], secure treatment can only be ordered for 14 days and this order must be made by a court.”
The Abbott Government will cut all funding from the Indigenous Law Centre at the University of NSW. Established in 1981, the ILC conducts research and publishes journals about Indigenous issues. Its director, Professor Megan Davis, says: “The legal issues affecting Indigenous communities are increasingly complex and part of our role is to explain the complexities of these laws in a way the community can easily understand.” The ILC has been an important contributor to the campaign for Constitutional recognition of Indigenous people, which the government officially supports.
A class action involving fifty plaintiffs will go ahead, after one plaintiff refused to accept a settlement offer. The case is against a drug-addicted anaesthetist and the organisations involved in his employment and registration, after he infected the women with hepatitis C through shared needles. The settlement offer was made “contingent on the woman not trying to go it alone” because the “defendants did not want to pay out all the women in the class action and then have to take part in a trial involving one victim.” Justice Beech said he could not force the woman to accept the settlement, but he ordered that she “be prevented from benefiting from the legal work done on behalf of the other victims” when the trial begins on Monday. The class action process is designed to save costs by allowing one trial to determine the outcome of a group of similar claims.