Thursday, March 31, 2005

An End to the Age of Texas Justice by DMJ

“At the end of the day, perhaps the best argument against capital punishment may be that it is an issue beyond the limited capacity of government to get things right.”
- Scott Turow, author and former federal prosecutor

In 1981, Donald Beardslee murdered two young women in a complex plot to recoup a debt owed to a drug dealer in Redwood City, Ca.. He was on parole for a 1969 murder at the time. Beardslee was executed by lethal injection at San Quentin State Prison in January, some 20 years after he was convicted and sentenced. But the length of Beardslee’s stay on Death Row does not serve as an endorsement of the appeals process in capital cases. Rather, it points out the utter fallibility of a system so vulnerable to human error and malfeasance that even decades’ worth of legal hearings cannot guarantee that the innocent will not be executed.

This is not to say that Beardslee himself is innocent, though some questions remain about his culpability in the murders. His lawyers unsuccessfully tried to have his conviction thrown out based on new evidence suggesting that Beardslee may have suffered long-term brain damage that affected his ability to distinguish right from wrong. But questions of Beardslee’s guilt or innocence cannot obscure the larger issue: A mountain of evidence shows that innocent people are sentenced to death with alarming frequency in the United States.

There can be no question that innocent people have been condemned to die. Over 100 convicts have been exonerated since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Taken together, those “criminals” served over 1,000 years in prison between their sentencing and exoneration, an average of 9 years each.

The DPIC’s latest report, “Innocence and the Crisis in the American Death Penalty,” is filled with tales of the innocent being sentenced to death. The reasons are myriad – police and prosecutorial misconduct, false or fabricated eyewitness testimony, incompetent or overburdened defense lawyers. Remember that almost all of those exonerated are free solely due to the dogged efforts of a handful of lawyers, students and death penalty opponents. Now imagine what a fully-funded, government-sanctioned effort to investigate capital convictions would find.

An avalanche of evidence also exists showing that the death penalty is fundamentally racist in its application. Under almost any subdivision, ethnic minorities – especially African-Americans – are much more likely than whites to be condemned to die for similar crimes. Black killers of white victims are 16 times more likely to receive a death sentence than white killers of black victims, according to the DPIC. There is no “justice” in a justice system that so blithely murders the innocent and that is so open in its racism.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should follow the courageous lead of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, once a death penalty supporter himself. By the year 2000, Illinois officials had exonerated more condemned prisoners than they had executed since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1977. Confronted with this shocking exposure of the justice system’s failures, Gov. Ryan commuted the sentences of all condemned prisoners and ordered a special commission to investigate the state’s system of capital punishment. Until the people of California can trust that not one innocent life will be extinguished – a moment that may never come, in my opinion – this state must get out of the business of killing.
8:41 pm est

Friday, March 18, 2005

Hell in a Handbasket

Friday, March 18, 2005

The past few months have been fast and furious in the world of national domestic politics. Having graduated and found a job I've had a lot more time to actually pay attention to it all. Thus I expect BISR to take on a more political bent, at least until opening day. I started writing about Social Security some three odd weeks ago, but the more I learn about it the more I want to say. Thus you'll have to wait for that one. Besides, Social Security will be a long-standing issue so it can wait few more days. So instead I bring you two stupid government decisions from the past week.

The first, and most recent, is the narrow approval given by congress to allow for oil drilling in the Alaskan wild life refuge. The idea behind this is that the US has become too dependant on foreign oil and this drilling will relax crude prices in US markets. Hogwash. The fact of the matter is that we Americans love our cars. While driving along yesterday the radio asked me if the AAA forecast of perpetual high gas prices would change my driving habits. The answer was no. The fact is that we'll get used to it. By the time any oil is found in the refuge and is able to be pumped and barreled we'll all have gotten used to paying 2.50 per gallon. The new oil entering the market won't necessarily cause a downturn in prices. Why should it? If people are willing to pay the price, why lower it when you can make gobs of money by keeping prices where they are? The drilling is based on two factors, and lower gas prices isn't one of them. The first is that Bush is an oil man who favors opening up economic opportunities for the rich (i.e. tax cuts for the top one percent). Second, caribou don't contribute much to the economy.

The second decision was made by the EPA and pertains to mercury emissions. At first glance it looks like a nice little rule that will reduce the amount of mercury emissions allowed by coal-fueled power plants. But there's a catch. With this administration there's always a catch. The catch is this, plants will be allowed to trade on their emission caps. This policy mirrors a similar provision on international emission trading allowed in the Kyoto agreement. So, suppose plant A doesn't want spend the money to upgrade its technology to meet the new standard, but plant B is already under the new emission cap. Plant A can by cap room from plant B and thus continue to release more mercury into the environment than is allowed by the new guidelines. The up shoot is that while nationwide emissions may drop, local emissions could stay the same or even rise. Flipper babies anyone?

The second thing about allowing plants to trade or sell emissions is that it creates a new market for Wall Street. European markets are starting to open up speculation in emission trading and it won't be long before it becomes a significant player in the US as well. The fact is that pollution, or the permission to pollute is becoming a commodity. It's a scary thought in and of itself, but scarier still to think that emissions which have been shown to cause cognitive defects in children will be making someone rich. It isn't hard to imagine a failing plant simply closing down and then selling it's long term pollution rights for the rest of time. The one positive I can see in the emission trading game would be this; if emissions become publicly traded environmental groups could by emissions rights and then refuse to sell them thereby pulling the right to pollute off the market. Of course this strategy could backfire if it becomes successful and drives the prices up to the point where only super rich companies can afford them. Still every little bit counts.

Everything this administration does seems geared towards making money for the rich and killing everyone else. Right now congress is debating cutting Medicaid for the poorest Americans while considering making the tax cuts for the richest permanent. The good people of the world have to take a stand. So I urge you loyal BISR readers, do something, write something, talk to someone, anyone, incite outrage, this crap must end. If it doesn't most of us are doomed.

Monday, March 14, 2005

An Open Letter to my Former Mother in Law

Dear Cathy,

Surprise. I hope you don’t mind me writing to you, I promise I won’t make a habit of it. I recently discovered that Liz has remarried. The news, though a bit of a shock, was not entirely surprising. Of course there was a part of me that was sad, but it was smaller part than I would have expected. Really there was but one word that popped into my mind; “why?” Not “why did she marry him,” it’s obvious that they are in love. Not, “why did we get divorced,” the reasons for that are plain as well. Rather, it was “why did she marry me in the first place?”

Even though Liz and I were in love during those years in LA she insisted that she never wanted to get married. It wasn’t until our move to DC was in the works that she decided to propose. It was here that things really began to unravel. I’m sure she’s told you horrible things about me which are only slightly exaggerated. I don’t want to get into mud slinging but I will say this, we weren’t good to each other here. We tried to solve our fears and our anxieties by being increasingly insensitive to each other’s needs. One of the issues I handled particularly poorly was her relationship with Luis. I saw him as a threat as soon as I knew of his existence. This was helped along by the fact that Liz told that he had expressed his love for her almost as soon as he had met her, that he had lamented at what a shame it was that she was getting married, that they were soul mates. As you can imagine I had strong reservations about their friendship. Though I trusted her, I never trusted him. I couldn’t understand why Liz would continue to be friends with him when he continued to say these things over the year leading up to our wedding. The obvious reason is that she was falling in love with him. Before the wedding I found emails between them that indicated a more intimate relationship than I thought was proper. Nothing physical mind you, just a much deeper level of friendship than I thought was safe for my relationship with Liz.

Things between Liz and I were deteriorating leading up to the wedding. I was filled with the feeling that Liz did not respect me, that she didn’t believe in what I was doing with my life. I felt that her heart wasn’t in it any more. So now I come back to my question, why? Why did she go through with it? Surely she knew that she had fallen out of love with me. Surely she knew that her feelings for Luis were stronger than mere friendship. The thing is that our problems were pretty much the same in the months leading up to the ceremony as they were a few weeks or a few days before. They were the same problems we had in the months that followed. Why did she lie about her relationship with him? She continued to lie even after I’d found the pictures of them together. When I first confronted her with the evidence she was contrite, so much so that I thought that this horrible discovery could lead to our reconciliation. After that one night, when she kissed me like my wife and we both wept and held each other, after that one night she denied her relationship with him. She denied that anything was going on, or had gone on, or would go on. So why did she do it? How much pain could we all have been spared if she’d never stood up there and made those vows? I don’t fault Liz for leaving me. These things happen. Maybe Luis really is her soul mate. I fault her for not leaving me sooner. I fault her for leaving me with this hole in my life, this void that was created not because she left, but because she stayed too long.

So why am writing you? I’m writing to ask you what you think. I am writing to ask if you know why, if she ever told you why. You must have asked. Of course I don’t expect you to betray your daughter’s confidence; particularly not to me. But I am hoping that you still harbor some compassion for me. I am hoping that you can find words that do not betray your familial responsibility. I would ask her these things, but she wouldn’t answer me. Or if she did, she would answer me with spite rather than with honesty. I’m writing because you’re her mother. You’re also the one person in her family most likely to respond. Of course I’ll understand if you don’t reply.

As far as other formalities, I am currently living in Maryland, I’m working in my field for an agency that contracts primarily with the government. The pay is decent and the work is interesting, though I recently requested that I not be placed on any more assignments for the military. I can no longer interpret for the military even peripherally without feeling like I’m contributing to the war effort. I’m still writing, both online and magazine articles and research. My goal is to submit my first research paper for peer review some time in the next couple months. I’ve been playing rugby for a team in DC and my name was mentioned in Rugby Magazine as part of an article on a tournament we played in New York this past December.

I hope things are well with you and your family. I don’t know if it’s proper for me to send them my regards, but if anyone ever wonders I wish them all the best. Thank you for everything you’ve done.


Sunday, March 6, 2005

Take Us Out to the Ball Game

Despite my best efforts there are still some of you who don’t believe in the power of baseball. There are some of you who just don’t see the beauty in it. So today I will divest myself of the task of trying to convince you and turn it over to people far smarter and more eloquent than myself. Thus I present to you some of the greatest quotes ever made about the American pastime. The quotes below are not all from ballplayers, and they are not about specific games or events, rather they are quotes about the game and how it fits into the American landscape. Hopefully I’ll win a few converts here. If not, then I hope I at least entertain you.


“You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.” -Jim Bouton, former MLB player and author of "Ball Four"

“I don't know why people like the home run so much. A home run is over as soon as it starts.... The triple is the most exciting play of the game. A triple is like meeting a woman who excites you, spending the evening talking and getting more excited, then taking her home. It drags on and on. You're never sure how it's going to turn out.” -George Foster, former player

“I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there's no guilt in baseball, and it's never boring... which makes it like sex. There's never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn't have the best year of his career. Making love is like hitting a baseball: you just gotta relax and concentrate. Besides, I'd never sleep with a player hitting under .250... not unless he had a lot of RBIs and was a great glove man up the middle. You see, there's a certain amount of life wisdom I give these boys. I can expand their minds. Sometimes when I've got a ballplayer alone, I'll just read Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman to him, and the guys are so sweet, they always stay and listen. 'Course, a guy'll listen to anything if he thinks it's foreplay. I make them feel confident, and they make me feel safe, and pretty. 'Course, what I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of baseball -- now who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God's sake? It's a long season and you gotta trust. I've tried 'em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball. “ -Annie Savoy, Bull Durham

“Say this much for big league baseball - it is beyond question the greatest conversation piece ever invented in America.” -Bruce Catton

“A good friend of mine used to say, "This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains." Think about that for a while.” -Nuke Laloosh, Bull Durham

“Walt Whitman once said, "I see great things in baseball. It's our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us." You could look it up. “ -Annie Savoy

“I see great things in baseball. It's our game - the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. It tends to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set, repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.” -Walt Whitman (Allegedly)

“You get out there, and the stands are full and everybody's cheerin'. It's like everybody in the world come to see you. And inside of that there's the players, they're yakkin' it up. The pitcher throws and you look for that pill... suddenly there's nothing else in the ballpark but you and it. Sometimes, when you feel right, there's a groove there, and the bat just eases into it and meets that ball. When the bat meets that ball and you feel that ball just give, you know it's going to go a long way. Damn, if you don't feel like you're going to live forever.” -John Cusak as Buck Weaver, Eight men Out

“Regardless of the verdict of juries... no player who throws a ball game... no player who undertakes, or promises to throw a game... no player who sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a ball game are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it... will ever play professional baseball again.” -Kenesaw Mountain Landis regarding the Black Sox scandal

“People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” -Rogers Hornsby, former player

“No game in the world is as tidy and dramatically neat as baseball, with cause and effect, crime and punishment, motive and result, so cleanly defined.” -Paul Gallico

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.” -Bart Giamatti, former MLB commissioner and father of actor Paul Giamatti

“Baseball is almost the only orderly thing in a very unorderly world. If you get three strikes, even the best lawyer in the world can't get you off.” -Bill Veeck, former baseball executive

“You can't sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You've got to throw the ball over the goddamn plate and give the other man his chance. That's why baseball is the greatest game of them all.” -Earl Weaver, former MLB manager

“The strongest thing that baseball has going for it today are its yesterdays.” -Lawrence Ritter

“Baseball, to me, is still the national pastime because it is a summer game. I feel that almost all Americans are summer people, that summer is what they think of when they think of their childhood. I think it stirs up an incredible emotion within people.” -Steve Busby

“I don't love baseball. I don't love most of today's players. I don't love the owners. I do love, however, the baseball that is in the heads of baseball fans. I love the dreams of glory of 10-year-olds, the reminiscences of 70-year-olds. The greatest baseball arena is in our heads, what we bring to the games, to the telecasts, to reading newspaper reports.” -Stan Isaacs

“Well, you know I... I never got to bat in the major leagues. I would have liked to have had that chance. Just once. To stare down a big league pitcher. To stare him down, and just as he goes into his windup, wink. Make him think you know something he doesn't. That's what I wish for. Chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it. To feel the tingling in your arm as you connect with the ball. To run the bases - stretch a double into a triple, and flop face-first into third, wrap your arms around the bag. That's my wish, Ray Kinsella. That's my wish.” -Moonlight Graham, Field of Dreams

“Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona.” -George F. Will

“Spread the diaper in the position of the diamond with you at bat. Then fold second base down to home and set the baby on the pitcher's mound. Put first base and third together, bring up home plate and pin the three together. Of course, in case of rain, you gotta call the game and start all over again.” -Jimmy Piersal

“Hating the New York Yankees is as American as apple pie, unwed mothers and cheating on your income tax.” -Mike Royoko

“This is a game to be savored, not gulped. There's time to discuss everything between pitches or between innings.” -Bill Veeck

“They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they'll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.” -Terrance Mann, field of Dreams

“Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good too.” -Yogi Berra

Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Texas is Full of Assholes

Today the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty could not be given to minors. The surprise here is that the ruling was needed. 30 of the 50 states have already banned the death penalty for minors. According to NPR News, in 1990 there were 10 countries that allowed the death penalty for minors. Before today there was only one. The case that came before the court was indeed particularly heinous. It was a case involving a then 17 year old male who, during a burglary, was recognized by the home owner, taped her eyes and mouth shut, bound her, drove her to a rail road trestle, and threw her to her death. He was then tried as an adult and given the death penalty. There are several issues involved when considering the issue of whether to execute juveniles who commit particularly violent crimes. First of course is the question of whether state sponsored execution is moral to begin with. This fundamental question is followed by the questions of how we treat minors in other facets of society, and finally, why we prosecute crime and administer the death penalty all.

The big issue, the one that has sparked debate in this country for at least as long as I’ve been alive (and I’m sure longer than that) is whether the death penalty is appropriate at all. My personal views on this issue have changed over time. As a young man I believed in the eye-for-an-eye tenor of the death penalty. After all, it’s only fair right? Later I believed that the death penalty should only be administered if the family of the victim was willing to do the deed themselves. Indeed, I even conceived of a big game style hunt to carry out the task. Later still I believed that death row inmates were a drain on the general society and that they should be executed on the spot, directly after sentencing in order to save taxpayer money that was being wasted keeping them on death row for decades while they used their appeals. Over the last few years I’ve had many debates with many people about the death penalty, and they’ve swayed me. Then I did some research. The thing that really turned me against the death penalty was an episode of the nationally syndicated radio program, “This American Life” which aired on February 11th, 2005. The episode is devoted to the story of a man who, despite forensic evidence, eye witness testimony, and the fact that the police had the real killer in custody, was given the death penalty in the state of New York. The episode, titled “DIY”, can be heard at Don’t get me wrong, I think that people who commit violent crime should be dealt with harshly, but the more I read, the more I heard, the more convinced I became that putting the decision to kill in the hands of the government was too inexact a science. When you add in the yokels that make up most juries it becomes too horrible to think about some being sentenced to die by a jury of their peers. I’ll tell you, if I were ever facing the prospect of state sponsored death a jury of my peers is the last thing I’d want. I’d want twelve people way smarter and more compassionate than me. The fact is that people are wrongly convicted all the time. Witnesses lie, cops follow their prejudices or their desire more than they follow evidence, and often testimony or evidence that would clear a defendant are ignored, or never heard. Basically, the death penalty is a bad idea. It doesn’t deter crime, it doesn’t bring closure to families that still have to mourn their loved ones, and there’s just too much risk of getting it horribly wrong.

The idea of applying the death penalty to minors is even more horrific. The US generally recognizes 18 as the age of adulthood. It is the age when you can vote, have sex legally, marry without parental consent and go off to die in Iraq. (Remember, if you’re a male you have to sign up for the draft at 18 if you want to be eligible for federal student aid. Even though they say there isn’t going to be a draft, and even though you’ll likely be exempted from the draft if you’re enrolled in a degree-seeking program. Ignacio, I’m talking to you!) According to both law and custom a person who is 17 years and 364 days old is incapable of making any of these kinds of decisions on their own. So, is there some magic of biology that occurs at 18 that gives one the ability to make calm rational decisions about life? Have any of you ever been 18? Hell, I’m 28 and I’m just now starting to make calm rational decisions. The fact is that no one suddenly becomes responsible at 18. Some people are responsible at birth, others are never responsible no matter how old they get.

So what’s the point? The point is that kids are fucked up. They live in a fucked up world, in a fucked up country, with a fucked up government, elected by a fucked up society. Sure, it’s OK for us adults, we can cope, but remember high school? Now add mixed messages about sex (it sells, but it’s bad), drugs (drugs are BAD! Now take your Zoloft and Ritalin, and Cialis), politics (Marriage is good, but only for a man and a woman, ignore your divorced parents and that happy gay couple down the block who have been together for 20 years), individuality (be yourself, as long as yourself conforms to all school policies), etc. If you think it was bad when you were a kid, it’s way worse now. The point is that there are certain personality disorders that psychiatrists are prohibited from diagnosing in minors because the kids are still developing. The point is that minors are far more likely to be swayed by group interaction. There’s even a term for it, Peer…something. It’s all the rage.

It seems that juveniles being tried as adults is becoming more common as America becomes more fed up with increasing and increasingly violent crimes being perpetrated by minors. I’m not suggesting that a 17 year old doesn’t know that killing is wrong. What I’m suggesting is that the whole idea of it isn’t as developed. I’m horrified at the thought of violence in a way that I wasn’t even a couple of years ago. When I was 17 I could watch anything Hollywood was willing to put on a screen. Now when I hear about people stepping on land mines, or being torn apart by car bombs, of beaten with blunt objects it affects me physically. There’s a reason we don’t let minors do all the things we don’t let minors do, we don’t trust them. We know what it’s like to be a kid and we know that we cannot entrust them with certain responsibilities. So how can we decide to kill them?

In his decent one of the judges noted that we allow minors to make decisions about abortion without parental consent. He asked how we could entrust them such an important decision when at the same time we say that they cannot be held responsible for making the grown up decision to kill. This question is flawed in that it is based on false pretenses. In order for it to be valid we must first accept that abortion is an adult decision. It’s not. Especially in the case of minors abortion is often a way out trouble caused by making an immature decision. We allow minors to do this without their parent’s knowledge because abortion is a traumatic and stressful experience that doesn’t need to be compounded with punishment and possible life long family stress. Second, if are to accept this as a valid question then we must also accept that the decision to kill is a mature decision. It is not. The decision to kill is childish. Those who kill in a fit of rage, or during the commission of another crime do so because they are not mature enough to do otherwise. The kind of anger that leads to spontaneous murder is infantile. Crime, in and of itself is immature. The decision to rob or extort is arrived at because the perpetrator cannot see, or is unwilling to undertake a mature and responsible course in the order to achieve their goals. One could argue that any otherwise rational person who commits homicide could not possibly be mature enough to understand the full effect of their actions. It seems impossible that anyone who fully grasps the impact of committing murder could not possibly go through with it. Conversely, anyone who is capable of fully grasping the effect of murder and still go through with it must be insane, and therefore also ineligible for the death penalty. Indeed, murder can be seen as the ultimate immature crime, the instant removal of a perceived obstacle. If this is the case then how can we condemn to death a juvenile who acts in exactly the role society has cast them in?

This is not to say that society bears sole responsibility in creating child killers, though we should examine why this is much more of a modern phenomenon. Nor should juvenile killers skate simply because they were under age at the commission of their crimes. Anyone who takes a life in cold blood, whether spontaneously, or through conspiracy, should be locked away from society. However, in a nation where we cannot accurately assign the death penalty to adults, how can we even debate assigning it to children?