It’s about time: Moratorium on federal death penalty

In a welcome move, US attorney general Merrick Garland has imposed a moratorium on the federal death penalty.

The US attorney general has imposed a moratorium on all federal executions while the justice department reviews its policies and procedures on capital punishment. Civil rights and criminal justice advocates have been pushing for a halt following a wave of controversial executions under the Trump administration.

Citing the disproportionate impact of capital punishment on people of color, and deep controversy over the drugs used to put people to death, the attorney general, Merrick Garland, ordered a temporary pause on scheduling executions.

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There are some limits to religious exemptions

In the US, people use religious beliefs to claim a broad array of exemptions from the laws that apply to everyone. The primary vehicles for doing so have been the Free Expression clause of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and courts have often been willing to accommodate them. But it seems like there are limits to that leeway, as this case shows.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a religious rights case involving an Idaho man who refused to provide the state his Social Security number in a job-related filing because he said it was “the number of the beast” – an ominous biblical reference.

The justices let stand a lower court ruling against a man named George Ricks who in a lawsuit against Idaho demanded an exemption due to his Christian beliefs from the state’s requirement that he provide his Social Security number to apply to work as a state contractor.
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The mysterious motivations of some people

California’s highway 101 runs north-south and in 2019 there was a mysterious spate of projectiles that were hitting cars traveling through a particular stretch of that road just north of Monterey where I live. Over 70 incidents were reported. There were no crashes or fatalities but six people suffered cuts and bruises when the glass shattered. It was unsettling and police found it hard to track down the culprit. I always assumed that it would turn out to be young kids who had nothing better to do and thought this was an amusing way of passing the time.

But in January 2020, police arrested a suspect and it turned out to be a 54-year old man Charles Kenneth Lafferty who was firing marbles with a slingshot.
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An encouraging result for LGBT rights

The US Supreme Court, by a 7-2 margin, has declined to hear a case where a school board appealed a lower court verdict against their policy of demanding that students only use bathrooms according to the gender assigned to them at birth, thus providing a victory for transgender rights.

The case involved a former high school student, Gavin Grimm, who filed a federal lawsuit after he was told he could not use the boys’ bathroom at his public high school.

The policy of the school board for Gloucester county, Virginia required Grimm to use restrooms that corresponded with his biological sex – female – or private bathrooms.

Last August, the US court of appeals for the fourth circuit ruled that the board had practiced sex-based discrimination and violated Grimm’s 14th amendment rights by prohibiting him from using the boys’ restroom.

Judge Henry Floyd wrote: “The proudest moments of the federal judiciary have been when we affirm the burgeoning values of our bright youth, rather than preserve the prejudices of the past.”

Nonetheless, on the supreme court Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, two of the most hardline justices on a panel slanted 6-3 in favor of conservatives, voted to hear the board’s appeal.

Upholding the decision of the appeals court sets a strong legal precedent. But because the supreme court has chosen not to hear the case itself, there is still no nationwide ruling on the issue.

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These electrified versions of a child’s toy are becoming a popular form of adult transportation, able to travel at speeds up to 30mph (50km/h) and even carry two people. One can see their appeal, especially in urban areas, since they reduce traffic congestion, are maneuverable, easy to learn, and do not take up much space. But because of the reckless riding of some people, they are posing a risk to pedestrians.

French police are searching for two women after the death of a pedestrian who was hit by an electric scooter in Paris, officials say.

The 31-year-old victim, an Italian citizen named only as Miriam, was walking along the Seine early on Monday when she was hit by the e-scooter.

The pair were reportedly travelling at high speed, and did not stop.

The case has renewed the debate over e-scooters in Paris, where there have been concerns for the safety of pedestrians.

In 2019, the French government introduced rules after hundreds of incidents, including several deaths. Riders are required to be at least 12 and cannot ride their scooter on the pavement.

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The Manhattan District Attorney election

The District Attorney for Manhattan is an important position because that region covers the main financial district in the US and thus the DA can prosecute wrongdoing by the financial giants. The position is an elected one and the current occupant Democrat Cyrus Vance, Jr. has long had a reputation for treating wealthy and powerful people leniently, especially those who happened to contribute to his election campaigns like Harvey Weinstein and the Trump family, while going hard after poor and minority communities. In the last couple of years he has changed course slightly and been investigating Donald Trump’s financial interests, convening a grand jury to present evidence and possibly seek indictments. He has announced that is not running for re-election this year and this has led to a scramble to replace him, with eight candidates.
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The need for double-blind methods in police lineups

One of the methods that police use to identify people they suspect may have committed a crime is to put them in a lineup with other people and have eyewitnesses pick them out. But Laura Smalarz writes that the way this is often done is fraught with problems.

On the strength of six eyewitnesses’ lineup identifications, Lydell Grant was sentenced to life in prison in 2012 for the murder of a young Texas man, Aaron Scheerhoorn, who was stabbed to death outside a Houston nightclub in 2010.

All six of those eyewitnesses were wrong.

Thanks to the work of the Innocence Project of Texas, new DNA testing on biological material collected from underneath the victim’s fingernails cleared Grant and implicated another man, Jermarico Carter, who police said confessed to the killing. Carter has now been indicted for the murder by a grand jury, and Lydell Grant was released from prison.

But faith in eyewitnesses runs so deep that despite the overwhelming proof of Grant’s innocence, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals initially refused his exoneration request. Instead, they asked that the six eyewitnesses who originally testified against Grant respond to his claims of innocence. Finally, almost a year later, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals declared Grant “actually innocent” on May 19, 2021.

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A dangerous police tactic

I was not aware that the police learn a technique known as the precision immobilization technique (PIT) by which they can cause another car to go out of control and even flip over. You would think that such a dangerous maneuver would be used only in extreme situations when it is essential that the car be stopped and there is no other alternative. But we see in this case an Arkansas state trooper doing this to a car that it had targeted for speeding and which had slowed down down and turned on its flashers when it saw the police lights, a sign that the car driver was planning to stop and was looking for a safe place to do so. But after waiting less than two minutes, the police did the PIT maneuver and as a result, the car flipped over. It turned out that the driver Nicole Harper was pregnant.

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The curious business of process serving

In the US, if you file a civil lawsuit against someone, that person is not legally required to respond until notice of the suit has been personally given to the person, a process known as ‘process serving’. Usually this is just a formality. There are people whose job is to serve the papers and they come to your home or office or other place where you are known to hang out and give you the papers and that’s that. The rules for properly serving the papers vary by state but there are some common general ones.
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And now, “The lies made me do it”

A second person has pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the January 6th insurrection.

A man who wore goggles and carried a Trump flag into the Senate chamber on January 6 as the US Capitol was overrun with rioters became the second riot defendant to plead guilty on Wednesday, setting the tone for what may come as more of the hundreds of cases head toward being resolved in court.

The obstruction charge he has pleaded guilty to carries a maximum 20 years in prison, though judges almost never sentence defendants to the maximum amount.

Still, the resolution of Hodgkins’ case sends a signal for other riot defendants that prosecutors may not be willing to significantly reduce charges for those who entered the Capitol building.

Many of the Capitol riot defendants are already engaged in plea talks, and, as is typical in the criminal justice system, a large proportion are expected to plead guilty.

Previously, the Justice Department cut a deal for an Oath Keeper founder to cooperate, the first plea deal in the insurrection investigation.

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