SJ Mercury-News Series: "Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice."
January 23rd, 2006 by JTJ

Friend-of-IAJ Griff Palmer alerts us to an impressive series this week that examines the conduct of the DA's office in Santa Clara County, California.  If nothing else, the series illustrates why good, vital-to-the-community journalism takes time and is expensive.  Rick Tulsky, Griff and other colleagues spent three years — not not three days, but YEARS — on the story.  Griff writes:

I invite you all to take a look at “Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice.”
This five-day series was three years in the making. It starts in
today's Mercury News:

registration is required to view the Merc's content. I'm not sure yet
if this URL will be cumulative or will only point to each day's part.
If the latter, I'll work to get the entire package pulled together
under one URL.

The Merc's on-line presentation includes a multimedia presentation, with Flash graphics, streaming audio and streaming video.

The project's backbone is reporter Rick Tulsky's review of  every 
criminal appeal originating out of Santa Clara County Superior Court
for five years. Rick was aided in his review by staff writers Julie
Patel and Mike Zapler.

Rick has a law degree, and he used
his legal training to analyze these cases for prosectuorial er! ror,
defense error and judicial error. He went over the cases with the Santa
Clara County District Attorney's Office, defense attorneys and judges.
He recruited seasoned criminal justice scholars and former judges and
prosecutors to review his findings.

Rick's findings: Santa Clara County's criminal justice system, while
far from broken, is systemically troubled by serious flaws that bias
the system in prosecutors' favor and, in the worst cases, lead to
outright miscarriages of justice. Rick found that more than a third of
the 727 cases he analyzed were marred by some form of questionable
conduct on the part of prosecutors, defense attorneys or judges. He
found that California's Sixth Appellate District routinely found
prosecutorial and judicial error to be harmless to criminal defendants
— in dozens of instances, resorting to factual distortions and flawed
reasoning to reach their conclusions.

This analysis has at
least one serious limitation: It doesn't comp! are Rick's Santa Clara
County findings with similar data from any other jurisdiction. It would
frankly have been impossible, at least within three years, to conduct a
similar case review on a broader scale.

To help us examine how Santa Clara County's criminal justice system
differs from those of other counties, I captured 10 years' worth of
felony arrest disposition data from the Criminal Justice Statistics
Center, maintained by the California Attorney General's Office.  (
I hand-keyed another four years' worth of CJSC data that were available
only on paper. (I did a rough estimate at one point and determined that
I'd keyed in somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 cells of data.)

This analysis showed us that, within the accuracy limitations of the
CJSC data, Santa Clara County stood out for having one of the highest
conviction rates and one of the lowest judicial dismissal rates among
all counties with populations of ! 100,000 or more.

As Rick's attention turned to the the appellate
system, my attention was drawn to an interactive database system
maintained by the California Administrative Office of the Courts:

requesed a copy of the underlying database from the AOC, only to be
stonewalled. Months of effort on our attorneys' part yielded only one
summary spreadsheet from the AOC.

Thanks to discussions on
this list and at NICAR conferences, I knew it should be possible to
programmatically retrieve the contents of the AOC database.  With Aron
Pilhofer's and John Perry's Perl scripting tutorials, and with lots of
generous coaching from John, I put together scripts that harvested the
criminal appeals data from the AOC system and parsed it from HTML into
delimited files.”

That data retrieval underlies the numbers that appear in the final day of this series.

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