Monday, August 31, 2009

Tennis love

Today marks the beginning of my favorite fortnight* of the year: The U.S. Open tennis tournament. I believe I have previously mentioned my love of tennis and my Wimbledon ritual, but I love this tennis tournament the best of all.

There's an energy in New York that just doesn't exist at the other three grand slam events. The U.S. Open has night tennis and 5th set tie-breakers. (Ok, I guess I shouldn't say it's definitely got better energy than Australia and Wimbledon as I haven't been there, but I'm an uppity American, so I'm comfortable assuming New York supremacy.)

The U.S. Open is where Pete Sampras once puked on the court, but was still able to survive the match because he knew there was a finite end to the 5th set he'd gotten himself into. (He went on to win the tournament that year.)

The U.S. Open is where Jimmy Connors made it to the semis as a 39 year-old (where he lost to Jim Courier, the 20 year-old). The U.S. Open is where both Venus and Serena Williams first made their statements, each making her first grand slam final in New York at the age of 17.

The U.S. Open is where Younes El Aynaoui and Wayne Ferreira once played to a 5th set in front of a raucous crowd on Court 4. That match went until 2:45 and was the best thing I've ever seen, made even better by the fact that no television camera caught any of it so only the 300 or so of us who made it until the end know exactly how fantastic that match was. The Moroccan had a hearty bunch of fans, so some of us took up for the South African just to even it out. By the end, everyone in the crowd had pretty much arbitrarily started cheering for one or the other just so that the chants would be equally loud. Honestly, that was such a good match and they were both such gentlemen, I don't think anybody really cared who won. We just wanted it to continue. The chair umpire (Norm Crist, probably my favorite chair umpire) enjoyed every second of it. He had to tell the crowd to quiet down at the end of each change-over, but the smile on his face suggested he didn't mind if our cheers went on just a little bit longer. El Aynaoui prevailed in the end. My friend and I got to walk away from the court with Ferreira. I know the Aussie Open also has night matches, but there's no way that tournament could ever match the magic in the air that night.

The U.S. Open offers food from nearly every ethnicity you could want. Riddle me this: how come you can buy crepes at the U.S. Open but not at the French Open? Seriously, at the French Open, the only question is what kind of bread you want your brie or roast beef sandwich on.

The U.S. Open has celebrities. I've seen Yekaterina Gordeeva and Ilia Kulik. (They're ice skaters and they're kind of a big deal.) I've seen David Paymer. (I guarantee you've seen him in something and would recognize him.) Ben Stiller and Christine Taylor regularly attend. As well as all the guys from 60 Minutes and Tom Brokaw.

The U.S. Open is like the gateway to fall. The days are still brutally hot New York summer days (usually) with nasty humidity. But the nights can get crisp and cool. The men's final is always delayed because it's supposed to start at 3:15 p.m. (Central), but that's the first NFL Sunday, so there's always a football game that goes late.

So, yeah, it's the greatest tennis tournament in the world. I really need to go back there someday.

*And I love the word fortnight. It's entirely possible that at least part of my love of the grand slams stems from the fact that it allows me to use that delightful word which is generally not used outside of Jane Austen discussions.

Todd Willingham: his prosecutor sleeps easy

As predicted, the prosecutor responsible for convicting Todd Willingham does not believe for one second that Willingham is innocent. In fact, declares the now judge, Willingham's guilt was never in doubt. Well, I'm sure that's what the Hon. John Jackson needs to believe so he can sleep at night. Otherwise, he might have to think that he played a major role in executing an innocent man. But while Jackson's response is predictable and even somewhat understandable, it's also thoroughly frustrating.

I don't find Jackson's defense of his case to be compelling at all. Yes, Willingham beat his wife (but Jackson's list is the first and only time I've read anything suggesting he tried to induce miscarriages). And he swore when he refused to take a polygraph. (For the record, I would refuse to take a polygraph. They're complete and total bunk.) I think Jackson is just wrong about the refrigerator blocking the back door entirely. I have read that the fridge was just always there and a person could still get out through the door. But, read this New Yorker article if you really want a more in depth understanding of the facts.

I'm not really interested in taking on Jackson's bullet points in great detail. I'm more concerned with his total unwillingness to admit any doubt whatsoever about Willingham's guilt. It's this almost pathological inability to admit even the possibility of having made a mistake that makes me distrust prosecutors so. We have to be willing to acknowledge mistakes if we have any hope of improving our system for the future.

Jackson, and all those who promote Willingham's guilt as unassailable, ought to admit that the entire case was premised on a fraud. The initial fire investigator, Manuel Vasquez (the one described by another fire expert as having no understanding of fire) decided this particular fire was arson. (According to the New Yorker article, he testified that "most" of the fires he investigated were arson, a claim so fanciful it should have immediately destroyed his credibility with any rational person.) Every aspect of the investigation from that moment on was colored by this perception. The eyewitnesses suddenly remembered things a little differently to cast suspicion on Willingham, not out of malice but because that's how the human mind works. Jackson's own belief that Willingham's profane refusal to take a polygraph is somehow indicative of guilt was colored by his presumption that the fire was arson: a presumption based solely on Vasquez' folklore.

We could learn things from this case if we could discuss it honestly as a case of wrongful conviction. Maybe we could also have a more honest discussion about whether we want to continue pursuing the death penalty in light of the fact that we have now executed a man where the scientific evidence shows no crime occurred. But we won't be able to have that discussion if those who most need to learn what went wrong doggedly refuse to see any error.

But let me submit to you this: if the people involved in sending Todd Willingham to his death are completely unable to face the possibility that he was innocent, maybe that is evidence enough that we should abandon the death penalty. If we really can't live with the consequences of getting it wrong, we shouldn't be taking the risk in the first place.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Update on gay adoption in Florida

Marriage isn't the only front on which we have to fight for gay families to receive equal legal recognition. Florida still has a law on the books banning gays and lesbians from adopting. Back in November, I wrote about a Florida district court that declared Florida's 30 year-old ban on gays and lesbians adopting to be unconstitutional. Just last week, the case was argued in the state's appellate court.

As a refresher, Martin Gill has had foster custody of the two brothers since 2004, when the older was 4 and the younger was just an infant. The older brother has now officially lived with Martin Gill and his long-term partner for over half his life. The younger brother has no memories of any other family. The state of Florida's Department of Children and Families has no intention of removing the children from the home as the two boys are flourishing. They just can't approve an adoption because of Florida's archaic law.

At oral argument, one judge noted that it appeared the DCF wished the restriction was not in place because they said they would approve Gill's petition for adoption in a heartbeat otherwise. The Department stipulated at the trial court that the children are in a stable, loving home and that the couple have been model foster parents. (*Gasp* You mean gay people can be good parents?!) So this man has gone through all of the screening the state requires for him to become a foster parent. He's been so successful at fostering these two children that the department removed the children from the list of children for adoption. And everybody agrees that it would be devastating to the boys to be removed. The only thing preventing this man and his two sons from being legally recognized as the family they are is a dislike for gays.

The bottom line is that this law serves no rational state purpose; all it does is discriminate against gays and lesbians. I wish a Florida court had said so two decades ago, but better late than never. And now that a district court has finally taken the plunge and declared the statute unconstitutional, there is no just reason for the appellate courts to rule otherwise. I will be shocked if the appellate court can claim to find some rational basis for this law. Shocked and very, very disappointed. The people in Florida in charge of finding a good home for these two boys have done their job admirably and found them a home in which they have thrived. It would be a travesty if the boys were denied the security of legal adoption just because some people don't much like gays.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Who's your daddy?

Commercial I saw today:

[A nice, clean-cut looking young man playing dotingly with an adorable little girl, approximately 2]

[Kindly voice over]: She's a chip off the old block.

[Voice over turns ominous]: Or is she??

Yes, that's right boys and girls, this was a commercial advertising a lab that does paternity testing.

I hadn't really thought of paternity testing as a service that needed to advertise. People who need that service would seek it out, whether they'd seen an ad or not. Are they now trying to attract the impulse buyers? The folks who are really susceptible to marketing? The ones who never realized they wanted a blanket with sleeves until they saw really freaky-looking Stepford people making s'mores around a campfire while wearing their sleeved blankets?

I saw the commercial while watching an NFL pre-season game, which is a good way to target their main demographic. (Will I have to watch this commercial all season long?) I think they should also buy time during mystery-themed shows like CSI, especially episodes that involve adultery. Really play on the suspicions aroused by dramatic television. Maybe they can mess up a lot of previously stable relationships built on trust

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Death of innocence

Never again can any supporters of the death penalty rest comfortably on the belief that we in the United States have never executed an innocent man.* Because the scientific evidence is now showing us that Todd Willingham should never have been convicted. Willingham was convicted of setting a fire that killed 3 small children, his children. He was executed in 2004, protesting his innocence to the end. In the past 5 years, the case has been reviewed by nine nationally-renowned fire scientists. Every single one of them concluded that the state's "experts" who labeled the fire an arson used folklore, not science. The most recent report basically said the Texas state fire marshal who ran the investigation didn't know the first thing about fire.

One of my recurring topics on this blog has been the nonsense junk science that passes as credible forensics in our criminal courts. Chief among my complaints has been fire science. Quite frankly, a lot of it is bunk. A lot of the state's investigators don't know what they're talking about and just plain make stuff up. And in this case, this investigator spun a fairytale that a fire was set intentionally when the truth was he had no idea how the fire started and he didn't investigate several of the possibilities. But a prosecutor ate it up. And a jury ate it up. And appeals courts ate it up. And it's only 5 years after Todd Willingham died that we're finally getting the picture that his conviction was based on a lie.

Some will undoubtedly refuse to accept that anyone has proven Todd Willingham was innocent. It still could have been an intentionally-set fire, they'll say. That's a pretty cheap effort to deny the significance of Mr. Willingham's case. The very basis for the state's claim that there was even a crime was a big, steaming pile of horse manure. We most definitely get to put him in the innocent column.

So let's be honest and take the "we've never executed an innocent person" crutch out of the death penalty debate. It was always just a way for pro-death penalty folks to soothe their consciences, anyway. Pro-deathers could just ignore the question of how they would feel about an innocent person being executed by hiding behind the fiction that we'd never executed an innocent. Time to stop hiding. Todd Willingham should not have been executed. He's the mistake we did not catch in time. Who knows how many other mistakes are out there, hoping to be caught in time. From now on, anyone who wants to express support for the death penalty on this blog better be willing to accept the reality that a man has died due to our flawed criminal justice system. If you're not comfortable with the death of Todd Willingham, though, might I encourage you to re-think whether you really can continue to support the punishment that makes it now impossible for us to right the tremendous wrong done to him.

*I sort of assume that we can all at least tacitly acknowledge that given our racial history, it's highly likely that at least one innocent black man was probably wrongly executed sometime between the Civil War and the 1972 Furman decision, but we never mention that in the death penalty debate.

What works

Want to know the #1 reason why I oppose treating juvenile defendants like adults? (Well, other than the whole it's insane to treat children like adults thing...) It doesn't work. Know what does work? Structure, guidance, education, counseling, and team sports. In other words, rehabilitation. Missouri seems to have found a very successful way to reach troubled youths and put them on a path towards becoming a valued citizen, towards college, towards a hopeful future. Missouri doesn't warehouse kids or give up on them. They do their damnedest to fix kids, which is the right, moral thing to do. It's nice to have verification that it's also the sensible thing to do.

Now, it pains me tremendously to acknowledge that anything good can come out of Missouri (except for you, Lovin' Spoonful), but the Missouri Model for juvenile detention seems like what should be the gold standard for the rest of the country to follow. According to the article, other states are following it. Maybe, just maybe, we're starting to break through a little. Maybe people are beginning to understand that insanely long prison terms for kids (and for adults) isn't doing us any good. In fact, it's counter-productive. It actually is in our long-term best interests to take a little time to try to rehabilitate young people who commit crimes. I guess it can just be a bonus that the financially-sensible thing to do also happens to be the right thing to do.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Where I've been

Well, I've been pretty quiet for the past few days. Because I was here:

at this lovely deck overlooking Carmel Bay watching two nice friends get married. With that view, can you really blame me for not blogging? (And, honestly, have you ever seen a prettier spot for a wedding than this ridiculously perfect deck overlooking the ocean?)

In my own hotel room, I had a lovely ocean view and was mere steps from the beach. I saw the new baby of one of my dearest friends. (I think her Auntie Sarah was a hit, but I think she might have liked SO even more.) I drove (north!) on the Pacific Coast Highway from Morro Bay to Monterey. A thrilling stretch of road that is the ultimate scenic route, but is best enjoyed from the far more secure-feeling inside lane. I found Clint Eastwood's bar, though I couldn't go in because it was closed. I saw deer just feet from where I stood. I wandered Cannery Row. I tasted lots and lots of good wine. In short, I had a lovely weekend that produced nothing at all for me to rant about.

Sweet little Maddie did not have as good a weekend. I have heard she was very sad, even though she was well-cared for. She had nice people to walk her and feed her and pet her, but rumor has it she was still quite blue. Until last night about 7 o'clock, when she became the happiest doggy in the world.

So, now I'm back on my couch with my pup. Let the blogging resume.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Plane-jumper lands ... in prison

Remember the World's Worst Death Faker? Well, his brilliant plan to ditch his plane and make everyone think he'd died in the crash turns out not to have been so brilliant. We already knew it was not brilliantly executed by the fact that he showed his proper id to cops AFTER the plane crash.

I am happy to report that this idiot will now spend the next 4 years of his life at a lovely residence of the Federal Bureau of Prison's choosing. Turns out, it's a federal offense to cause the Coast Guard to respond when no assistance is required. (I really love the "names" of some federal offenses.) And he's facing state charges, too, for defrauding investors.

He'll have lots of time to think of a more effective way to fake his death next time.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What part of no don't you understand?

I said no, Brett. Unretiring again is a terrible idea. Especially to play for the Vikings, Green Bay's most hated rival. You could have been a legend in Green Bay. A god, even. Now you will be booed. And what's worse, laughed at if you perform poorly. Lead the league in interceptions and it will happen in Green Bay. Your legacy will be irrevocably tarnished by this silliness.

I can't help but think that you are doing this for the wrong reason: to stick it to the Packers for not welcoming you back the first time you unretired. You are making yourself look bad, weak and indecisive. These are perceptions no quarterback should give.

You should have just said no.
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Troy Davis and the little things

1) So the Supreme Court kindly gave Troy Davis an opportunity to prove his actual innocence before the state of Georgia kills him, which they have remained intent on doing even as their case has fallen apart and pointed to a more likely suspect. They did so without answering the real question presented which is whether relief is available to a defendant who can prove actual innocence but otherwise has no viable legal claim of error. Once upon a time, Chief Justice Rehnquist famously declared, "Proof of actual innocence is not grounds for appeal."

That's a pretty cold-hearted sentiment grounded in the notion that finality is necessary in all cases. It's a sentiment that Scalia and Thomas were eager to embrace in yesterday's ruling. They would have foreclosed Davis from properly presenting his case, opting instead to send him on his date with the executioner because the law said it was ok. Scalia thinks it won't matter if Davis can prove his case because no relief is available to him.

Some think it's interesting that the Court didn't address the question of whether actual innocence is in itself grounds for relief, but I like the way they set this up. Either the district court will find Troy Davis has proven actual innocence or it won't. If the court says not, then the actual innocence issue isn't before the Court. If the district court says Davis has proven his case, well then we will truly put the actual innocence question to the test. Will Scalia and Thomas have the nerve to order the execution of a man even after a fact-finding court has declared him actually innocent? By remanding the case for the fact-finding first, before ruling on the legal question, have Stevens et al just called Scalia's bluff?

2) As to the actual issue of Troy Davis' case, I don't know whether he is actually innocent or not. What I do know is he could not possibly be convicted on the evidence as it stands today. There is far too much evidence pointing to the other guy to get the state past reasonable doubt. Given that, how can we be ok with killing him?

3) My kitchen ceiling did not cave in. The rain stopped. The main source of the leak has been identified and corrected. My case did not get through the day as well.

4) The students are back, making my drive to and from the carpool far more treacherous. I generally don't mind the kids, but I do mind the added drive time in the morning just because of the heavier traffic.

5) Who's excited for Project Runway?!
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Monday, August 17, 2009


What a perfect week for a dreary, depressing, 3-day downpour as I have to finish work this week on my dreary, depressing, hopeless case. Just like the rain, this case has to end some day and life will seem sunnier once it's done, at least for a few days.

I think the leak in my kitchen is a perfect representation of the leaks in my case. Here's hoping the ceiling holds up better than the case.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

While I slept this morning

The dog got her morning constitutional and her breakfast.

The yard was mowed.

The dead bushes and tree branches that seem to accumulate weekly in my established, hence tree-filled, neighborhood were burned in my fire pit.

The coffee was made.

The dishes from dinner last night were washed. (For some reason, after dinner, we both sacked out on the couch, so the dishes did not get done. As if the dinner dishes would have gotten washed last night otherwise...)

I could get used to this kind of treatment.

In case you're wondering, he got blueberry pancakes for his trouble. And he really enjoyed the ridiculously yummy pork chops I made last night.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Humanitarian efforts are a crime?

Leaving plastic jugs filled with water in the Arizona desert is a crime? Apparently, it's littering. I wonder, though, if it's only littering when it's done with the intention of preventing illegal immigrants from dying of thirst in the desert? It's a little hard to believe that this prosecution, and others focusing on members of the group No More Deaths, isn't aimed at shutting down the organization's efforts.

The organization, though, doesn't exactly provide material support to illegal immigrants for the purpose of helping them achieve their goal of illegal entry and remainder within our borders. They're just trying to make sure people aren't dying pointlessly in the desert. That doesn't seem like something that a lot of state or federal resources should be poured into prosecuting.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I don't think this is really expecting too much

People should not invoke the Founding Fathers in support of their position (as in, "We are moving far away from the nation the Founding Fathers intended.") unless they can:

- name at least 5 Founding Fathers

- identify the first document intended to establish a common governance for the original colonies and explain why that first system failed

- recite the Preamble to the Constitution

- identify at least one specific provision of the Constitution (other than the 2nd Amendment)

I am open to people establishing that they have at least a rudimentary understanding of the history around our nation's founding in other ways that I have not listed. But I'm going to insist on some evidence of basic knowledge. I'm quite tired of hearing people fretting about "The Constitution" and "The Founding Fathers" without being able to provide any specifics on what the heck they mean.

And don't dare try to tell me it's "elitist" of me to expect the people who participate in public political discourse to have a little basic knowledge. Refusing to accept the continued dumbing-down of our politics is not elitist. Participating in the democratic process isn't a privilege to be taken lightly. Those who do participate publicly have the responsibility, the obligation even, to educate themselves so they can make meaningful contribution rather than just providing bluster and buzzwords (especially if they don't really understand the buzzwords).

I will assume that your tearful lament that "the Founding Fathers wouldn't like what we're doing to this nation" is only sound and fury, signifying nothing, unless you can tell me exactly what the hell you mean by that!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Things your mother taught me

Over 20 years ago, I was hanging out with The Language Lover in her kitchen. Her mother was whipping up some fried rice. I was intrigued because, though I knew a lot about cooking, it had never occurred to me that I could make my own fried rice. That was something you get at a Chinese restaurant, not something you make at home. So LL's mom showed me how it was done. (Hardly a complicated recipe, I know, but still someone had to tell me the ingredients and steps.) She also, vainly, tried to show me how to hold chopsticks properly. I mastered the fried rice, but I'm afraid LL's mom would still chuckle a little at the way I hold chopsticks.

That fried rice became a staple in my college cooking repertoire. I went to a college where living in the dorms was required, so most people ate in the dining halls. But, I got very lucky and lived in much smaller, college-owned houses for my last 3 years, houses that had 5-15 residents and kitchens, so I was allowed to go off-board and feed myself. This saved my parents about $600 a term, but it never occurred to them that they should maybe forward some of that to me so I could buy food. Instead, I was left to scrounge on my measly 8 hour a week work study income and the occasional gift. I ate a lot of fried rice, bagels, and baked potatoes. Fried rice was great because it was so cheap and easy. All the ingredients are staples. And I could either dress it up with chicken if I was making it right after payday or I could make it all veggie but still feel like I was getting a filling meal even if I didn't afford meat until the next week. And one batch would make at least 3 meals.

It was also a go-to meal for making when guests were coming over because I could make a lot for not much money. Like when my dad came to visit my senior year. You might think I made him such a cheap meal in the hopes that he would see my food poverty and take me grocery shopping, but the 3 Gin and Tonics that P made him undercut my efforts. (He still fondly recalls those drinks, P.) I do think he genuinely liked the rice, too, but that may have been the G&Ts talking.

The fried rice helped out a lot my first years out of college when I was making next to nothing and had to live paycheck to paycheck while paying rent. Then came the leanest of all years, law school. At my lowest point in law school, I had only $11 left to my name. One beautiful batch of fried rice got me through that horrible week to my next paycheck.

I haven't made much fried rice in the last few years. I've reverted to getting my fried rice only from Chinese restaurants while I cook a bit more extravagantly. I'm just not in that mindset of eating as cheaply as I can anymore. It's more risotto than fried rice these days. But this evening, I was thinking about going out and spending too much money on dinner because I just didn't have anything to eat at home. Moxie, though, got into my head. She's been experimenting with not going to the grocery story, not even to buy one ingredient, but instead cooking with the things she already has. Because the reality is that even when you say, "I have nothing to eat," you always have something. We all have rice (I have 3 kinds) and pasta (2 kinds right now) and cans of something and onions and garlic and condiments.

I realized I had half an onion that should be used up and a bag of carrots and an egg... So I thought, "I'll make fried rice!" And it was yummy. As I was eating, I realized LL's mom probably has no idea that her one little cooking lesson with me got me through so many lean years and is still something I can fall back on when I want some easy, comfort food. So, LL, tell your mom thanks for me.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

It's 2:30 on a Sunday afternoon. The trash has been taken out. My kitchen is (relatively) clean. (There are still a few dishes to wash, but it's Sunday afternoon!) My bathroom is clean. I have clean clothes to wear for at least a week. The dog toys are all put away and the coffee table does not have piles of stuff on it. And I am sitting on the couch, still in my pajamas, with my only worry being whether I should catch up on my Google reader, read my book, or knit on one of my knitting projects. That's not much of a worry, though, as I have plenty of time between now and bed time to do all of those things.

I say all this to point out how very much better my summer has become post soul-crushing workload. Yay for leisurely summer weekend days.

What's that got to do with due process?

"You would feel differently if it was your [mother/sister/daughter]!"

In any online discussion about a headline-grabbing criminal case or the death penalty, someone inevitably resorts to this most irrelevant emotional plea. Those who want to rush to judgment about the latest accused's guilt or execute as many people as possible always break out that line, apparently in an attempt to shame those of us who are fans of due process and the presumption of innocence or who don't care for state-sponsored killing. If we just cared about the victims of crime, or had any feelings at all, we wouldn't give a second thought to those darn technicalities (otherwise known as the procedures through which we make sure we arrest and convict the right guy, not just the convenient guy).

I hate that line. It is so utterly pointless and is certainly not an argument against due process. Of course I would feel differently if my family member were the victim. I would be devestated, angry, and all sorts of other intense feeling words. I would probably want someone's blood. Even I, pacifist-wannabe that I am, wanted to bomb the crap out of somebody, anybody, on September 12. When the awful, terrible crime happens to your family or your friend, of course it affects you personally and emotionally in a way it doesn't affect good-hearted people who only read about it in the paper. That seems so obvious to me, the only real response is, "Duh!"

That is precisely why the family and friends of victims don't get to sit on the jury. A police officer wouldn't (or at least shouldn't) be allowed to take part in the investigation of a crime that affected her family. A prosecutor or judge wouldn't handle the case involving a family member. And a defense attorney should not defend an accused family member. Because when the crime involves your own family, you feel differently about the case. When you're that emotionally close to the case, you lose perspective. You lose the ability to view the evidence coolly and rationally. And when we let the people who have lost perspective, who are too emotionally invested, and who can't view the evidence in a detached, neutral fashion make the decisions in criminal cases, we run a pretty high risk of making the wrong decisions.

So, yeah, if my own mother were the victim of the crime, I would feel differently. But what's that got to do with the rest of you, who aren't emotionally invested in the case, observing due process and respecting the presumption of innocence?

Friday, August 7, 2009


Releasing someone on parole after that person has served 40 years in prison for murder does not send the message that it's ok to kill.
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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Backsliding in Mississippi

This makes me want to pull my hair out. Apparently, the coroners of Mississippi don't care that Steven Hayne is a disgrace to their profession. Steven Hayne had a monopoly on the autopsies in Mississippi for almost 20 years before he was finally run out of town by the state's Commissioner of Public Safety. About a year ago, the commissioner declared that Hayne was no longer approved to perform autopsies in Mississippi. That decision came about 15 years too late as Hayne had a long and glorious history of fabricating evidence, sometimes leading to murder convictions in cases where there was no murder. (Here's one example.)

Radley Balko over at Reason did a tremendous job of exposing Hayne's practices, which had to help with the ultimate decision to stop funneling every autopsy in the state to Hayne. Read Balko's archives to learn just how bad Hayne was. (Here, Here, and here.) I can't detail all the horrors of his practice, but suffice it to say that we ought to suspect the result of absolutely every one of the thousands of autopsies he conducted for the state of Mississippi. Sadly, a lot of those autopsies led to people being convicted of murder, sometimes where the only evidence that there even was a murder came from this hack. It was a victory for truth and science when Hayne was yanked from the pool of coroners available to conduct autopsies throughout the state. It should seem clear that we don't want autopsies being conducted by "doctors" who are more interested in catching murderers (even if that means making up a murder) than in conducting a neutral examination to determine a cause of death.

So I'm having a very hard time understanding why some of the coroners in Mississippi are eager to find a way around the Public Safety Commissioner's ruling that Hayne is no longer approved. Apparently, they're not happy with the main medical examination firm who has stepped in to take over the cases Hayne used to handle. This new firm isn't responsive enough. It doesn't let other people observe autopsies. Worst of all, the firm "won't let any county officials talk to the medical examiner."

Umm. The complaint against this new firm is that they act independently of law enforcement? That they conduct their autopsies in a controlled atmosphere, unaffected by the biases they might have if they talked to the local cops? They proceed from a neutral starting point and let the evidence they discover in the course of the autopsy lead them to a conclusion instead of starting out with an idea of what conclusion they hope to reach? Because all that sounds pretty perfect to me. The doctor conducting the autopsy should be independent from law enforcement. That was one of the chief complaints when the National Academy of Sciences issued its report on the state of forensic sciences in the country. By hiring this new firm, the state of Mississippi appears to have achieved that independence and neutrality that the NAS was so insistent about.

I had hopes that the general, national trend was going to be towards better science occurring in the nation's forensics crime labs. We had Steven Hayne's ouster. We've had numerous DNA exonerations, making many willing to consider how to improve our criminal justice system. Then, we had that NAS report, offering concrete ideas of how we could make sure the science presented in our courtrooms was truly reliable science. So I am disheartened to learn that coroners in Mississippi want to backtrack by letting Hayne the Hack back in the fold. That their objection to Hayne's replacement is based on that new firm's insistence on maintaining independence and neutrality makes it even worse. If the scientists themselves don't care about integrity in their labs, how can the defense attorneys of the world convince the general public to care?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Who's the criminal here?

I love Karma. Like when payday loan stores are robbed. Maybe I'm just lacking in empathy, but I find it hard to feel bad for a store being victimized when that store's business model is designed to take advantage of other people's misfortune and desperation. Payday loan stores are all about unjust enrichment through usury. I'm not sure they really get to complain when someone else unjustly enriches himself at their expense.

Actually, I think it should be helpful to a payday loan store to be robbed. It will allow them to better understand and identify with their customers.
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