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It's not all Trump. The other legal news out of New York and Florida.
A possible moment of reckoning for NYC's jails. And, Florida's scheduled execution of Duane Owen.
Shortly after Donald Trump, the former president of the United States, pleaded not guilty Tuesday in federal court in Florida to a charge of conspiracy to obstruct justice and 36 other charges relating to his alleged efforts to keep and conceal classified documents that he took from the White House in January 2021, another federal judge — this one in New York — ruled that E. Jean Carroll can amend a pending defamation lawsuit against Trump to include new comments Trump made after losing the civil sexual abuse case Carroll brought against him.
So goes a day in 2023.
You can read about those Trump stories — and his out-of-court response — all over the place, and there certainly will be Trump coverage of forthcoming developments here at times as well.
This morning, though, I’d like to focus at Law Dork on two other legal matters coming out of those states — cases with immediate life-or-death consequences. The first, in New York, relates to Rikers Island and New York City’s inability to safely operate its jails. The second is Florida’s scheduled execution of Duane Owen on Thursday.
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On Tuesday, as New York Daily News headlined it, “Rikers Island, NYC jails inch closer to federal control as violence prompts judge to order city, lawyers to weigh takeover.”
The accompanying story came out of a hearing in federal court before Chief Judge Laura Taylor Swain of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in the longstanding class-action lawsuit over New York City’s jails. The hearing was the culmination — for now — of an intense few weeks in the case that was originally filed in 2011.
“The court in good faith and in all candor has been shaken by the incidents of the past few weeks and by the way the leadership has approached seeking to shape public opinion and public perception on these very serious issues,” Swain said in the hearing on Tuesday, per the Daily News’s report.
On May 26, the monitoring team established by the court to ensure the city is meeting its obligations under the consent decree in the case issued a special report.
“Five serious and disturbing incidents involving harm to incarcerated persons have occurred in the past two weeks,“ the special report explained, resulting in two deaths — one death covered in the report and the case of Joshua Valles, who died the day after the special report was submitted.
In the special report, the monitoring team explained that — as awful as the incidents themselves were — they weren’t the only issues.
That shocking Friday night special report in the case, Nunez v. N.Y.C. Department of Correction, was followed nearly two weeks later on June 8 by another, court-ordered special report that was just as — if not more — damning.
“The current state of affairs in the jails remains alarming, not just for the rampant violence and frequency with which force is used, but also because of regression in the Department’s management of the Nunez Court Orders and its lack of transparency,“ the executive summary stated in part.
“The Monitoring Team has identified several instances where information provided by the City and Department to the Court was either incomplete, misleading, or included factual inaccuracies,” the report stated in one key part, providing nine instances.
All of which brings us to Tuesday morning, when a senior lawyer in the city’s law department sent a remarkable letter to the court just before the hearing.
Responding to the monitoring team’s claims in the June 8 special report, Alan Scheiner wrote that “the Law Department’s attorneys would not knowingly make any misrepresentations to the Court, and we have not done so in this matter.”
There’s subtle legal language that lawyers sometimes write that another trained lawyer might read it and say, “Well, that’s some tricky legalistic language!” This … was not that. When the best you can tell the judge is that you “would not knowingly make any misrepresentations to the Court,” you’re not likely to face a happy judge.
And Swain — who has put off calls for putting Rikers under a federal receivership for more than a year — was not happy, telling the lawyers, as Hellgate characterized it, that she “no longer trusts jail officials to give an accurate picture of violence in city jails.”
All of which led to the very beginnings of possible action.
As Hellgate’s Nick Pinto reported, “Judge Swain cracked the door Tuesday to the possibility of putting Rikers into federal receivership, telling lawyers for the parties to the consent decree—people locked up in city jails, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, and the City itself—that they should brief her on how to approach the question of receivership in a letter due August 7.”
Of that, Pinto explained, “[T]the willingness to even consider receivership constitutes a sea change.”
This mismanagement and its deadly effects don’t exist in a vacuum, of course. It shouldn’t be lost that the seemingly unending crisis in New York City’s jails reached this critical point at the same moment when New York City’s police commissioner, Keechant Sewell, quit. And while Mayor Eric Adams still backs his jails commissioner, Louis Molina, the overlapping and prominent figure in both stories of extreme dysfunction is the same: Mayor Eric Adams.
In Florida, state officials plan to execute Duane Owen at 6 p.m. Thursday. His execution would be Florida’s fourth this year, and the 13th execution in the United States this year.
The primary question at issue is whether Owen remains competent to be executed.
As Owen’s lawyers have argued, a neuropsychologist evaluated and examined Owen “for a total of 13 hours and 15 minutes” and concluded that “Owen was incompetent to be executed due to his delusions, schizophrenia, and dementia.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had briefly stayed the execution to allow for a competency investigation by state-selected psychiatrists, but the Republican governor quickly lifted that stay of execution when those state-selected psychiatrists concluded, per DeSantis, that Owen “has the mental capacity to understand the nature of the death penalty and the reasons why it is to be imposed upon him.”
The state courts reached similar conclusions.
A stay of execution request and associated certiorari petition are pending at the U.S. Supreme Court as of Wednesday morning, with the case seeking review of the Florida Supreme Court’s decision that Owen is sane to be executed:
Florida has already opposed the request, reframing the case as follows:
Melanie Kalmanson is covering the case at Tracking Florida’s Death Penalty and has suggested that other stay requests in conjunction with his scheduled execution could be coming to the U.S. Supreme Court before Thursday as well.
[Update, 3:00 p.m.: Duane Owen's lawyers have filed their reply at the Supreme Court.]
[Update, 4:00 p.m.: The Supreme Court denied the stay request. There was no explanation given, and there were no noted dissents.]
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