Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Green Ribbon Wouldn't Have Saved Robin Williams

Guest post by Heidi Pie Aronson

Breast cancer used to be a shameful secret. Now everybody knows what a pink ribbon stands for. It’s less well-known that green ribbons signify depression awareness, along with Lyme Disease and pedestrian safety. But a green ribbon wouldn’t have saved Robin Williams’ life. Our vague ideas about celebrities’ “struggles with depression” don't reveal how lethal or how omnipresent it is.

Depression is dangerous because it is hidden. Depressed people are ashamed. We keep it secret, and we don’t ask for help. We don’t think we deserve help. A recent Canadian study found that 24% of patients who had attempted suicide "reported not receiving care or even perceiving the need for care." This is why our friends and family don’t know what to do for us. And end up keeping quiet themselves.

Let's run full-page ads in magazines educating readers about depression's warning signs. And not ads with a woman gazing wistfully into her cup of tea. Depressed people don't see those ads and think "Poor lady, she's sad. I am, too, maybe I'd better get some medical attention." Instead we think, "How pathetic (I am)." Or "I hope I'm hiding it better than she is." No, let's run an ad with a noose hanging in a bedroom doorway. Or a drawer in a morgue, with a handmade Mother's Day card taped to it.

I wouldn't even mind a drug company sponsoring the ads. Anti-depressant medication not only saved my life and saved my daughters from losing their mother (saved my younger daughter from not being born at all, in fact)--it gave me my life. It made my glass look half-full rather than half-empty, until I could hold fast to the idea that I was worth fighting for. But let's not argue over the drugs. Not all depression is treated with drugs.The point is to let the secret out. This is not a case for green ribbons, but for ACT UP. Depression Kills! Fight Back!

Or we can just state the facts,courtesy of the American Psychiatric Association:

"Major Depressive Disorder is a medical illness that affects how you feel, think and behave causing persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities. Depression can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. It is a chronic illness that usually requires long-term treatment."

Then let's list the warning signs. Have you or someone you love:
*   ...felt sad, empty, or hopeless most of the day, nearly every day, for the last two weeks?
*   ...lost interest or pleasure in normal activities?
*   ...lost a lot of weight in the last month? lost your appetite?
*   ...had trouble sleeping, particularly with waking up too early? Or been sleeping a lot more?
*   ...been physically agitated, or noticeably slowed down?
*   ...felt especially fatigued or low-energy?
*   ...felt worthless or excessively guilty, nearly every day?
*   ...had trouble thinking, concentrating, and making decisions?
*   ...had recurrent thoughts of death, or thoughts or plans about suicide?

An"official" diagnosis of Major Depressive Episode requires five of the nine symptoms, but let's not get hung up on details. The more symptoms you have, the more severe your illness. It is an illness.You wouldn't say "I'm okay, don't worry about it" if you had breast cancer--then you would die. If you or someone you love is ill, get help right away.

Let's hang these ads in every library, police station, school and doctor's office. Let's hang them in restaurants--more people die of depression than of choking. And if you think you've never been out to dinner with a depressed person,who smiled at the table but snuck off to sob in the bathroom, think again. A sign might just change what we do after we dry our tears and walk back to our seat.

Dying of depression should be unacceptable, and it is up to us to decide to make it so. Depression is not preventable, but it is treatable, and it is all around us. Some of your friends and neighbors--as Robin Williams was our neighbor--are depressed right now. They aren't wearing green ribbons,though. We have to find them in the darkness, and keep them safe.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Jewish Offensive

Many of my oldest and dearest friends who have a deeper and far more personal connection than I to Israel and its People, have been writing and posting links in support of Israel's right to defend itself from Hamas' terrorist rocket attacks.  Some, in doing so, challenge any attempt to insert into the discussion the relevance of the plight of the Gazans, the underlying policies of the Israeli government or the disproportionate number of civilian casualties caused by Israel's military response. 

More than 30 years ago, as a far-too-strident college kid, I gravely offended my relatives at a Passover Seder by pointing out the irony of celebrating freedom of the Jews while Israel was suppressing the freedom of others.  My family's response consisted of silence, throat-clearing, dirty looks and from one great uncle, a grudge that he carried against me for years.  I would like to think that in the decades since I have gained some sense of humility, a less Manichean world view, and a more nuanced perspective of the Middle East.

But even a nuanced discussion about Israel is rarely easy, and when people are getting bombed and killed it seems near impossible.  Moreover, I don't pretend to having anywhere near a full grasp on the complicated history of the region -- modern or Biblical -- or on the myriad interests that continue to weigh down any hope of peace.  At the same time, I feel strongly that it is not as simple as the equation I have been taught since my youth: the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust and the fact that Israel is surrounded by enemies bent on its destruction means Israel can do no wrong in protecting itself. 

So, at the risk of again causing offense to loved ones once, I feel the need to acknowledge what I believe are truths about the current situation

First, of course, I acknowledge that Hamas is a repugnant terrorist organization that doesn't believe in Israel's right to exist, and that its firing of rockets indiscriminately into Israel and using civilians as human shields are inexcusable war crimes.  I also acknowledge the disturbing undercurrent of anti-semitism, particularly in Europe, that has frighteningly risen to the surface, sometimes violently, during the current crisis.

But I also must acknowledge that Israel is an occupying power whose blockade and restriction of rights in Gaza have caused enormous hardship, poverty and despair; that Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people; and that Benjamin Netanyahu's government has pursued policies that have undermined Palestinian moderates and the possibility of negotiating for a two-state solution -- which I believe is the only long-term chance for peace.  I must also acknowledge that the use of collective punishment and the launching of attacks with the likelihood of causing a high number of civilian casualties -- including children -- violate human rights, international law and a sense of decency regardless of whether many of the victims are being used as human shields. 

What follows are excerpts from some powerful, eloquent Jewish voices, many of them Israeli, that have resonated with me over these tragic weeks-- although I don't agree with everything they say.  Click on the links to read them in full.  While provocative and perhaps causing offense, my hope is that they can be part of the discussion. My hope is that there can be a discussion.
There are only two sides, and they are not Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs. They are moderates and the extremists. I belong to the moderates, wherever they are.   Noa
Operation Protective Edge is a product of tunnel vision, prompted not only by the single-minded Hamas stockpiling of sophisticated rockets and construction of offensive tunnels while its people have been drowning in dire poverty and hopelessness, but also by the reluctance of Israel’s current leadership to look beyond the here and now and offer workable options to ongoing conflict and strife.  Naomi Chazan
It’s an awful thing to make a truly tragic mistake, one that costs many lives.  It’s worse to make that same mistake over and over again. Four operations in Gaza, an immense number of Israeli and Palestinian hearts that have stopped beating, and we keep ending up in the same place. Etgar Keret
The infrastructure for terror is the occupation. We consider ourselves a nation of peace seekers who just want to be allowed to live in peace, and I believe that no Israeli wants to kill or be killed. But it’s about time we understood that the Palestinians live in a constant state of war – whether it be the siege of Gaza or military rule in the West Bank. . .  The entire world understands the connection between the occupation and terror. It’s only us who don’t. Only we feed ourselves stories of global Jihad and anti-Semitism being the root of the problem, while the most simple explanation is right in front of us. World history makes it clear: Either the occupied minority are made citizens of the occupying state, or it is granted independence. There are no other nations stuck in this kind of limbo, without citizenship and without a state, like the Palestinians. And there are certainly no  other nations that would tolerate it.  Noam Sheizaf 
Nothing would weaken Hamas more than growing Palestinian faith that through nonviolence and mutual recognition, they can win the basic rights they’ve been denied for almost half a century. Israel’s best long-term strategy against Palestinian violence is Palestinian hope. Unfortunately, as effective as Benjamin Netanyahu has been at destroying Palestinian rockets, he’s been even more effective at destroying that.  Peter Beinart
A war against Hamas is not an unjust war. Hamas has been a failure at everything except murder. Its strategy is the targeting of civilians, those of its enemy and (since the brutal response of its enemy is an important element of its the-worse-the-better calculus) of its own . . . These are monsters. But the population of Gaza are not monsters and the Palestinian people are not monsters; and I will confess that I have found myself unable to be satisfied, in the analysis of responsibility in this war, by the assertion, which is incontrovertible, that the killing of non-combatant Palestinians by Israel in Gaza is one of Hamas’s war aims, and so Israel is completely absolved if it obliges. A provocation does not relieve one of accountability for how one responds to it . . . . Israel has a strategy for war, but it does not have a strategy for peace.  Leon Wieseltier
When the guns go silent, we’re going need to renew a vision that blends resolve with tolerance, strength with utter decency, individual freedom coupled with a sense of serving something greater than ourselves. Can we pull it off? The ground is shaking here, and it’s not only because of the rockets. When the guns fall silent, this society had better be prepared to start talking.  Daniel Gordis
I will tell you what my hope and prayer for the future of Israel is. I would like to see Israel removed once and for all from the front pages of all the newspapers in the world and instead conquer, occupy and build settlements in the literary, arts, music and architecture supplements. This is my dream for the future.  Amos Oz 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Just Some Folks Torturing Other Folks

Previewing a declassified report that concludes the prior Administration used techniques on terrorism suspects amounting to torture, President Obama conceded that "we did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks."

Of course, Obama couldn't quite make himself confront Bush, Cheney & Co. with a point blank accusation.  First, he had to couch the statement by using the pronoun "we" as if either he or his political party or the citizens of the United States were responsible for torture.  Then, like a good Dad who praises his child before making a critical remark, he stated that a lot of things were done right, before pointing out that "we tortured some folks."  'That's OK, Junior, try harder next time.'  And, by the way, what were those "right things" to which he was referring?

To further minimize the impact of his statement, Obama relied on the colloquialism -- "folks."  We tortured "some folks."  He sounds like President Gomer Pyle.  'Well, golly.  I guess we tortured some folks.'   Those who were tortured were real flesh and blood people, human beings capable of feeling the extreme pain and humiliation of "enhanced interrogation techniques."  They were entitled to being treated as such.

It gets worse.  The President then rationalized the use of torture in the context of the stressful times we were in.  While it was certainly not cool to torture folks, it was understandable that our government would resort to such techniques because, you know, it was kinda scary back then.
I think it's important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the twin towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this. And, you know, it's important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had. A lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots, but having said all that, we did some things that were wrong.
So, our folks -- meaning, the leaders of our government -- were frightened and working under pressure, but, nevertheless, they were "real patriots" and so we shouldn't hold them accountable just because they tortured other folks.

As if the use of torture was simply an understandable spontaneous reaction to the tragedy of 9/11 and not a well calculated policy decision that those in the Bush Administration and their allies and apologists continue to believe was justified. As Charles Pierce puts it:  "Quite simply, nobody who engaged in torture, nobody who worked to establish a legal rationale for torture, nobody who applauded torture or encouraged it or welcomed its practice, has any right to be referred to by anyone, let alone the president, as a patriot."

I've written before that President Obama's biggest mistake when he first took office was refusing to allow his Justice Department to investigate, much less prosecute, the government officials who authorized torture.  He maintained that since his Administration wouldn't condone torture we can simply move forward.  (See, e.g., Pitfalls of Only Looking Forward, Tortured Logic.)  But we are not moving forward.  If we are to remain a nation of laws, when high government officials break the law or cynically bend the law to justify human rights violations there must be consequences.

Obama's latest comments, as mealy-mouthed as they were, elicited the predictable backlash from the right while the media noted that they "reopened debate."   The upcoming report by the Senate Intelligence Committee is significant, but without a true reckoning that confirms once and for all the immorality, illegality and inefficacy of torture, we remain stuck in a debate that should have been resolved.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

An Open Letter To Kamala Harris

Dear Madam Attorney General:

I write to urge you to not appeal Jones v. Chappell, the recent federal court decision holding that the administration of California's death penalty is irrevocably dysfunctional, resulting in systemic delays in which only the "random few" are executed in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. 

As U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney found, of the over 900 people that have been sentenced to death since the adoption of the death penalty in 1978, 13 have been executed, 94 have died of other causes.  There are currently 748 death row inmates. The process for reviewing their death sentences takes an average of 25 years and is getting longer -- delays, as the court found, that are inherent in the system and not the fault of inmates themselves.

I had the good fortune of meeting you in 2007, at a Death Penalty Focus Awards Dinner when, as San Francisco District Attorney, you were given the Mario Cuomo Acts of Courage Award for declining to authorize death penalty prosecutions. 

Subsequently, when you campaigned for Attorney General, you acknowledged that California's death penalty system is flawed.  You argued that the death penalty has not made us safer and that the money spent every year on the death penalty could be far more productively used to fund programs which aim to stop recidivism. As you put it, "not housing octogenarians on Death Row could put 1,000 more cops on the street."

I imagine as Attorney General you now have an even clearer sense of how broken and how costly the death penalty is.  As the bipartisan California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice found, the system continues to be "plagued with excessive delay in the appointment of counsel" and "a severe backlog in the review" of cases before the California Supreme Court.  

An extensive study headed Judge Arthur Alarcon determined that California's death penalty system has cost taxpayers roughly $4 billion "to fund a dysfunctional death penalty system that has carried out no more than 13 executions."  But despite these vast expenditures, the current Chief Justice of the State of California Tani Cantil-Sakauye acknowledged, the death penalty is not effective and fixing its problems would require "structural changes" that the State cannot afford. Her predecessor, Ron George, who was Chief Justice for 15 years, came to the same conclusion, describing California's death penalty scheme as "dysfunctional."

The infrequency of executions and the randomness with regard to which condemned inmates actually will be executed have made a mockery of the supposedly rational justifications for the death penalty – deterrence and retribution.  In a well-reasoned and well-documented opinion, a federal judge has now agreed:  "For all practical purposes ... a sentence of death in California is a sentence of life imprisonment with the remote possibility of death -- a sentence no rational legislature or jury could ever impose."

As Attorney General, representing the People of California, you have a duty to enforce and apply the law.  But where a court has found that law to be unconstitutional, you are well within your discretion to abide by the court's decision.  By not appealing a ruling that confirms what you have long stated -- that California's death penalty is broken -- you will again be taking the kind of principled position for which you were honored when we met years ago and for which you are so admired.

(Related post:  California's Cruel and Unusual Death Penalty)

Friday, June 13, 2014

George Bush's Iraq: The Long Reach Of The Pottery Barn Rule

"You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,' he told the president. 'You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You'll own it all."
-- Secretary of State Colin Powell to President George W. Bush per Bob Woodward
Americans are famous for their ahistorical perspective and collective amnesia, but as President Obama comes under increasing criticism for "losing" Iraq -- by the very same group of dead enders that were wrong on every aspect of the initial invasion -- do we really have to be reminded that the Iraqi debacle did not start with Obama's election in 2008? 

Jay Bookman at the Atlanta Constitution states what should be obvious:  "The tragic sequence of events now playing out in Iraq was set in motion by the decision of President Bush, Vice President Cheney and others to use the attacks of Sept. 11 as cover to carry out the invasion that they had long coveted. We ignited this inferno, even if others have since added fuel to it, and the claim that we did so out of humanitarian concern for the Iraqis is just as empty as those depots of WMD turned out to be."

But the Bush Administration didn't just lie about the rationale for invading Iraq.  Once we shocked and awed our way into the country, that good old lethal combination of arrogance and incompetence that characterized everything Bush/Cheney did left a political, economic and bureaucratic vacuum that is a root cause of the current chaos and resurgence of violence there.

Dexter Filkins states that "when the Americans invaded, in March, 2003, they destroyed the Iraqi state—its military, its bureaucracy, its police force, and most everything else that might hold a country together."  Remember, we were going to be welcomed as Liberators and, as the neocons promised, would create a free market paradise -- after first destroying the economy - as a first step towards democratizing the entire Middle East?  How'd that work out again?  If only Obama had kept us there a little longer....

Further, Fareed Zakaria explains, "having invaded Iraq with a small force — what the expert Tom Ricks called “the worst war plan in American history” — the administration needed to find local allies. It quickly decided to destroy Iraq’s Sunni ruling establishment and empower the hard-line Shiite religious parties that had opposed Saddam Hussein. This meant that a structure of Sunni power that had been in the area for centuries collapsed."  And as a direct consequence of these decisions "to disband the army, dismantle the bureaucracy and purge Sunnis in general," we get Nuri Al-Maliki, Iraq’s Prime Minister, whose hard-line authoritarianism and brutal attempts to crush the Sunni minority opposition has been, according to Filkins, the dominant factor in Iraq's collapse.

While conservatives audaciously claim that this is all Obama's fault for leaving the country before we finished the job -- as John McCain nonsensically puts it,"we had the conflict won" -- or as Maxwell Smart would put it, "we missed it by that much" -- they conveniently overlook that Maliki would not allow U.S. troops to remain.  (Recall Bush signed the Status of Forces Agreement in December 2008, setting January 1, 2012 as the deadline for all U.S. forces to depart; no new deal could be agreed upon; Maliki refused to agree to legal immunity for U.S. troops.)

But even if we could have left a residual military force in Iraq, to what end and for how long?  Sure, according to Steven Benen, "we could have embraced perpetual war and kept a lid on Iraqi violence by trying another decade – or two, or more – of war, sacrifice, investment, and training. . . Perpetual war may inexplicably sound appealing to some Republican policymakers, but (a) they have no credibility; and (b) there are many problems perpetual wars can’t solve. This is one of them."

The right seemed to have reached a new plateau for hypocrisy when Ollie North started blithering about the impropriety of negotiating with terrorists for hostages in the wake of Bowe Bergdahl's release.  At least North wasn't opining on the very same conflict with which he played such an ignominious role.  Former Bush officials, their apologists and enablers in government and media are offering their views on the very same situation that they so tragically got wrong in the first place.  They should be shamed and shunned -- or as Charles Pierce more colorfully says, these mendacious idiots "should be abandoned on cannibal island where they belong."  Instead, they are permitted to take to the airwaves to discuss what should have been done and should now be done to save Iraq.  No one should listen.

They broke it and they will forever own it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

When The Lunatic Fringe Goes Mainstream

While outraged conservatives fear that President Obama's exchange of five Taliban prisoners for the release of POW Bowe Bergdhal will precipitate terrorist attacks from Islam Jihadists, they conveniently ignore the onslaught of shootings by their very own brethren.  Indeed, with the Las Vegas shooting this past weekend of two police officers and a civilian, there have now been 40 people killed by in the United States by right wing violence since September 11, 2001.

Homegrown right wing fanatics have a long and bloody history in this country, but the recent spate of shootings feels like something new, more like of a frightening trend than the random spasm of a lunatic fringe.  And while it would be folly to try to pinpoint any one cause, there seem to be a confluence of contributing factors.

First, of course, is the ready access to guns -- military-style guns -- and the N.R.A.'s ability to prevent a majority of cowering politicians from enacting even the most minimal gun control legislation.  There have been 74 school shootings since Sandy Hook and, if anything, the gun fetishists have gained influence.  The Open Carry Texas movement, involving men brazenly displaying their assault weapons in fast food restaurants, seemed to discomfit even the N.R.A.  But only temporarily.  Meanwhile, no tragedy seems to be able to move the government from its blithe acquiescence to these gun nuts.

Closely related is the deep-rooted belief among a wide swath of conservatives that the Second Amendment sanctions their fundamental right to armed revolution in response to what they perceive as tyranny.  As Ed Kilgore puts it, they believe that "virtually unlimited access to weaponry, including military weaponry, is essential to the maintenance of liberty on grounds that patriots might need to emulate the original American Revolutionaries and undertake the armed overthrow of the government."

The problem is that what they view as tyrannical encompasses pretty much anything that a Democratic Administration, especially the current one, endorses.  Obamacare is an assault on freedom.  Climate change is a hoax.  Legalized abortion is akin to the Holocaust.  The IRS is a tool to deny free speech to the Tea Party.

And right wing politicians eagerly play along.  For example, as Brian Beutler describes, "when Democrats tried to pass an extremely modest gun law in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, Ted Cruz said the real goal was 'a federal list of every gun owner in America.'  When Democrats more recently proposed a constitutional amendment to effectively reverse the consequences of the Citizens United ruling, he said they were trying to 'repeal the First Amendment.'" 

And what makes this particularly explosive is the apocalyptic rhetoric of mainstream conservatives -- Republican politicians and Fox News pundits alike -- who pander to their base, stoking their anger and feeding their paranoia by engaging in relentless falsehoods and implicitly condoning whatever measures are taken to redress the government's infringement on their liberty.

Back in January 2011, after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting in Tuscon, I wrote that it was inevitable that the increasingly inflammatory rhetoric and violent imagery from the right was bound to land somewhere: "Republicans have demonized the President and others who oppose their political and social world view, and have called, perhaps metaphorically, for their demise in offensively graphic terms. Tragically and predictably, not everyone understands it as metaphor."

Things have only gotten worse.  As Paul Waldman writes "when you broadcast every day that the government of the world’s oldest democracy is a totalitarian beast bent on turning America into a prison of oppression and fear, when you glorify lawbreakers like Cliven Bundy, when you say that your opponents would literally destroy the country if they could, you can’t profess surprise when some people decide that violence is the only means of forestalling the disaster you have warned them about."

Waldman says that "it may be going too far to say that conservative politicians and media figures whose rhetoric has fed the deranged fantasies of terrorists and killers have blood on their hands."  I'm not so sure.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Zen and the Misery of Being a Met Fan

Being a Met fan is not a choice.  As a recent study published in the New York Times confirmed, if your team wins a championship when you are between the ages of 8 and 12, you are far more likely to maintain a lifetime loyalty to that team.  In 1969, I was ten years old.  Quod erat demonstrandum

If my parents had only waited and had me 8 years later, I would be an insufferable Yankees fan instead of a suffering Mets fan.  Alas, there is nothing to be done despite the unrelenting misery over the last six or seven years.  Who am I kidding, with rare exceptions, over the last 45-plus years.

By the time the Mets miraculously won the World Series in 1969, I was already hooked (thanks to my father, who adopted the Mets after being abandoned by the Brooklyn Dodgers) and was inured to their lovable losing ways. But, as David Searles wrote a while back, "the miracle year of 1969 changed everything."   Indeed.

"It was the first year where legitimate excitement surrounded the team," when they "seemed to perform a new miracle every day down the stretch that season." And after they won, it was never the same -- losing would no longer be lovable.

I will always cherish that 1969 team -- Tom Seaver, Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones, Bud Harrelson, Tug McGraw, Jerry Koosman, Jerry Grote and the rest. And, only a few years later, with many of the same players, minus a few (like Agee) and some key additions (like John Milner, Jon Matlack, Rusty Staub, Felix Millan and even Willie Mays), they pulled off another miracle, winning their division after being in fifth place at the end of August, and then beating the mighty Reds in the playoffs before losing in seven games to the A's in the World Series.

But that was it for a decade. Things got so bad that in 1979, the 10th Anniversary of The Miracle Mets, my friend Michael and I went to Old Timers' Day at Shea Stadium and after watching our beloved 1969 stalwarts play a couple of ceremonial innings we left prior to the start of the "real" game. We simply couldn't bear the stark contrast with the then-current team, led by the likes of Willie Montanez, Richie Hebner and the detritus from the catastrophic Tom Seaver trade two years earlier.

Finally, in 1983, despite another last place finish, there were some hopeful signs. Darryl Strawberry, with his great name and incredible talent made his debut, and in mid-season the Mets acquired a star from the Cardinals, Keith Hernandez. Then in 1984, after seven straight losing seasons, the Mets became a fun team to watch. With a full year from Keith, and a youth movement led by Strawberry and phenomenal rookie sensation Dwight Gooden, the Mets won 90 games and finished in second place.  And then, before the 1985 season, the Mets acquired the great Gary Carter, who had succeeded Johnny Bench as the dominant National League catcher.

Of course, in 1986, the Mets won the World Series, with the help of Bill Buckner's wobbly legs, after a stunning playoff against Houston. Miracles abounded once again, and so did expectation. The Mets had a fabulous team filled with great young talent. But it was not to be. 1987 started with Dwight Gooden in drug rehab and 1988 ended with an excruciating loss to the Dodgers in the playoffs. After that, the Mets began dismantling the 1986 team, replacing iconic players like Len Dykstra, Strawberry and Mookie Wilson with spectacular underachievers like Juan Samuel, Bobby Bonilla and Vince Coleman (see Mets or Bust), resulting in six losing seasons in a row.

Even after signing Mike Piazza in 1998, the team would consistently cause heartburn and heartbreak. The Mets lost their last five games Piazza's first year to miss the playoffs by one game, followed in 1999 with a defeat by the Braves in the playoffs after Kenny Rogers walked in the winning run of the deciding game. The 2000s were not much better, starting with the crushing loss to the Yankees in the World Series (Armando Benitez, anyone?) followed by several mediocre seasons.

An exciting 2006 team reached the playoffs but lost a devastating final seventh game to the Cardinals. Two searing images from that game form the perfect Met microcosm: Endy Chavez makes one of the most incredible catches ever in the post season in the 6th inning only to have Carlos Beltran strike out looking with the bases loaded three innings later to end the game.

And since then, historic collapses to miss the playoffs, baffling player moves, an unprecedented number of injuries to star and potential star players, culminating in the entanglement with Bernie Madoff, which has caused ownership to shrink payroll and behave like they own a small-market team.

So, to paraphrase legendary announcer Bob Murphy, here's the "(un)happy recap": The Mets were laughably bad until they won in 1969. By the mid-1970s they were awful again, and it wasn't so cute. They peaked again in 1986, but couldn't sustain their greatness, and in the 28 years since, if anything could go wrong it invariably did.

After Matt Harvey, the Mets' dynamic young phenom, went down with an elbow injury last year at the height of his remarkable rookie season, I penned the Seven Stages of Being A Met Fan, which  starts with hope, works its way through anger and despair, and invariably reaches acceptance. 

Despite the Mets better play of late, and the excitement surrounding the bevy of young arms in the system, I, along with many Met fans, am currently somewhere between anger and despair.  The owners, general manager and field manager have lost what little trust they had left.  They hire PR men instead of HR men.  They blame the fans for not showing up to support their lousy product.  They make bad choices when they finally ease the tightening of purse strings (e.g., Chris Young), they dither  interminably when it comes to choosing among the players they do have (e.g., the Lucas Duda-Ike Davis drama), they confuse promising youngsters by bringing them up only to bench them in favor of players they previously disparaged (e.g., Wilmer Flores, Ruben Tejada) or play mediocre veterans (e.g., Eric Young, Chris Young) instead of their very few exciting young players (e.g., Juan Lagares).

Jake deGrom

Confronting yet another season of misery and frustration, I need to somehow move past anger and despair and get to acceptance.  I need to remind myself that while there have been only two miraculous championship years, smaller miracles happen all the time -- even now:  a Lagares catch, a Flores grand slam, a Mejia save, an Abreu double, a deGrom anything.  Being a Met fan is about expecting the worst, which will probably happen, although in ways that are unexpected; but it is also about reveling in these spectacular surprises and moments of beauty that make it all worthwhile.  Om shanti.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Botched Executions and Devolving Standards of Decency

Another botched execution.  This one in Oklahoma where witnesses described an "agonizing scene" in which over the course of 43 minutes, Clayton Lockett writhed, convulsed and struggled to speak before his heart "essentially exploded."  Earlier this year, on January 16, 2014, Dennis McGuire was executed in Ohio, a fifteen minute exercise in torture during which McGuire gasped and choked  before dying.

The phrase "botched execution" should be removed from the lexicon.  Webster's defines "botch" in relatively innocuous terms such as "bungle," "foul up" and "repair ineptly."  There is nothing innocuous about what the director of the ACLU in Oklahoma described as "human science experiments" -- experiments that can only be described as torture.

These latest horrors stem from the use of untested and unregulated lethal injection drugs, and the secrecy surrounding how and from whom these drugs are obtained.  As detailed in an important New York Times op-ed, presciently titled Secret Drugs, Agonizing Deaths, after an American pharmaceutical firm stopped making thiopental, the anesthetic used for executions, and federal courts barred the importation of the drug from overseas, states began substituting pentobarbital.  But with the Danish manufacturer of pentobarbital refusing to allow the drug to be used for executions, states started obtaining it from compounding pharmacies, "which mix small batches of drugs to order, and whose products are not approved by the F.D.A."  Other states, like Ohio and Oklahoma, are going with other untried drugs, such as midazolam.  

The grisly results, not at all surprising given the lack of oversight and appalling lack of scientific or medical review, are morally repulsive.
The "feckless" justices on the Supreme Court, as The Atlantic's Andrew Cohen, describes them, long ago should have "stop[ped] the madness caused by the current generation of lethal-injection secrecy" and "establish[ed] standards that would require states like Oklahoma to share basic information about the drugs used to kill prisoners."  And lower court state and federal judges should have demanded more through review of the issues raised by the use of new, untested lethal drug combinations.

But, the execution protocol is just the last of the many levels in the capital punishment process -- the machinery of death, as Justice Harry Blackmun put it -- in which the inevitability of human error and human frailties cause unfairness, unreliability and cruelty.  Police, trial lawyers, prosecutors, judges, jurors, appellate lawyers, appellate judges and executioners are all capable of bias and discrimination, errors in judgment and honest mistakes.  So many variables lead to so many instances of wrongful conviction, arbitrary and unjust sentence and ultimately, agonizing scenes of torture.

 "Evolving standards of decency" is a phrase used in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence to analyze whether a given practice is cruel and unusual.  The Supreme Court has so far refused to find that capital punishment offends "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."  Meanwhile, the high court continues to allow execution after execution to go forward, more concerned with finality and swift punishment than justice and decency.  Indeed, Andrew Cohen notes, just  few months ago, Justice Scalia, during oral argument in Hall v. Florida, lamented the slow pace of executions in this country.

The notion of "evolving standards of decency" has always struck me as optimistic; as an acknowledgment that, while we may not be there yet, some day our society will evolve to the point where the death penalty will be unacceptable.  Unfortunately, with state officials still clamoring for vengeance and the Supreme Court as the arbiter of our evolution, we still have a long way to go.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Justice For All? Despised Defendants Need Zealous Advocates

"Is Atticus Finch's courage only virtuous because we all end up liking and believing in Tom Robinson?"  --  Prof. Lawrence Marshall

The popular version of the heroic criminal defense lawyer is one who tirelessly defends the wrongly accused, saving a client who is more victim himself (or herself) than perpetrator.  In real life, defense lawyers are usually called upon to represent the guilty, to provide a vigorous defense for those who have committed despicable acts.  This is a far more heroic calling. Indeed, it is critically necessary to our system of justice to have dedicated, skillful advocates representing people who are hated and feared, and ensuring that the government is following the law.

As an attorney representing death row inmates for close to 25 years, I have witnessed -- literally -- the dreadful consequences of trial lawyers providing tepid representation.  A recent Mother Jones article provides a disturbing top ten list of "lawyers who were drunk or sleeping during trials, who demeaned their clients in front of the jury, who missed key deadlines or used a 'one brief fits all' appeals format."  The result, as legendary lawyer Stephen Bright once observed, is that those with the worst lawyers not those who committed the worst crimes end up on death row.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginzburg agreed, stating a dozen years ago that, "People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty."

Unfortunately, it is becoming  all too common that the zealous lawyers who take on the cases of notorious clients are themselves targeted.  As Dalia Lithwick put it, "[o]nce upon a time in America this was called advocating for justice. But in today’s America, it’s deemed a miscarriage of justice."

A few years ago, Liz Cheney and her group, Keep America Safe, launched a smear campaign against lawyers in Obama's Justice Department, referring to them as the "Al Qaeda 7," for previously having represented Guantanamo detainees.  A group of former Bush Administration officials and other prominent lawyers shot back, publishing a letter condemning Liz Cheney's ad as shameful.  They rightfully stressed that "the American tradition of zealous representation of unpopular clients is at least as old as John Adams's representation of the British soldiers charged in the Boston massacre."

Next, the ACLU and CCR (Center for Constitutional Rights) were chastised for representing (the now deceased) Anwar al-Awlaki.  The Obama Administration had authorized the killing of Awlaki, an American-born cleric tied to Al Qaeda and allegedly hiding in Yemen at that time.  A lawsuit brought by Awlaki’s father, who was represented by the ACLU and CCR, challenged “whether the government has the power to kill any American citizen it labels as a terrorist without review by the courts.”  This did not “cross the line” as Andrew Sullivan asserted.  Indeed, as Glenn Greewald passionately argued:  "How could it ever 'cross a line' for a civil liberties lawyer to represent an American citizen in an American court arguing that the Government is transgressing the limits of the U.S. Constitution?  The only thing that crosses a line is to insinuate that there's something improper about that."  (Awlaki was later killed in a September 30, 211 drone attack.  But thanks to more honorable lawyering by the ACLU, a federal appeals court has just ordered the Justice Department to release portions of a memo providing the ostensible legal justification for this targeted killing of a U.S. citizen.)

Recently, the United States Senate voted to reject Depo Adegbile, an otherwise sterling choice to run the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, because he headed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund when it represented Mumia Abu-Jamal, sentenced to death for killing a police officer, in his successful fight for life.  (Abu-Jamal is now serving a life without possibility of parole sentence.)

Pennsylvania Democrat, Bob Casey paid lip service to “respect[ing] that our system of law ensures the right of all citizens to legal representation no matter how heinous the crime" but added the disturbing non sequitur that "it is important that we ensure that Pennsylvanians and citizens across the country have full confidence in their public representatives — both elected and appointed.”  Casey added that “The vicious murder of Officer Faulkner in the line of duty and the events that followed in the 30 years since his death have left open wounds for Maureen Faulkner and her family as well as the City of Philadelphia."  Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, defending Adegbile's rejection by the Senate, was more direct:  “When someone has a history of helping cop-killers, this is what happens.”

And the latest attack on attorneys who have the audacity to provide representation guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to criminal defendants is a remarkably offensive campaign ad sponsored by the Republican Governors Association (RGA), entitled "Vincent Sheehan Protects Criminals, Not South Carolina." Sheehan is running for Governor against Republican incumbent, Nikki Haley.  He is described in the ad  as "trial lawyer" who "made money off criminals" and "got a sex offender out of jail time."  Indeed, he was actually paid for defending “violent criminals who abused women.”   As Ed Kilgore puts it, this ad sets a "new standard for immoral cynicism."  (Steve Benen points out that Chris Christie, the current head of the RGA, who has hired defense attorneys of his own recently, should have a better understanding of the importance of the right to counsel.)

So there you  have it.  While it might be important for our legal system to ensure that all criminal defendants have effective advocates, a lawyer's representation of a particularly despicable client accused of a particularly despicable crime is apparently a disqualifying factor for public office.  If, as Lindsay Graham says, "this is what happens" when a lawyer helps a "cop-killer" or any other unpopular client, our system of justice is in peril.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

So Much To Rant At, So Little Time

There was a time when I blogged almost every day.  Then, with a new job in an unfamiliar field requiring more of my energy and focus, I took a break.  Over the last year, I've slowly waded back in, and sporadically posted when I've felt the compulsion to do so.  While I don't have time to write anything in depth at the moment, there are a few issues that I just can't let go by without saying something.
  • I've written frequently about the Senate Republicans' use of the filibuster to thwart democracy judicial nominations, most recently here.   Their tactics became so obstructionist that even the timid Democrats in the Senate agreed to change the rules and preclude the filibuster for judicial nominations.  But this hasn't stopped Republicans from continuing to prevent President Obama from appointing federal judges, using an arcane procedure that essentially gives home-state Senators veto power by withholding "blue slips" that allow a nominee to proceed to a confirmation hearing.  Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chair of the Judiciary Committee, can abandon this custom just as Republican Orrin Hatch did when he was committee chair.  For some unfathomable reason, Leahy has been unwilling to end the blue slip requirement, but you can sign this petition to urge him to do so before Obama runs out of time to fill judicial vacancies.

  • Which brings me to the related topic of who President Obama is nominating to the federal bench when he does get the opportunity.  First, there are the unacceptably conservative nominations put forward to fill two Georgia district court seats.  These were part of a misguided attempt by Obama -- prior to the filibuster rule change -- to cut a deal to get the intransigent Georgia Republican Senators to move an 11th Circuit nomination forward.  Civil rights and abortion rights advocates strongly oppose these nominations.  Obama's judicial nominations, generally, have been disappointing, with a large majority coming from the corporate sector or the prosecutor's office and rarely from public interest firms or public defenders' offices.  These are lifetime appointments.  Given the zeal with which both Bush Administrations pushed young, right wing judges to fill the federal judiciary, it is critical that a Democratic Administration, particularly with what may prove to be a short-lived Senate majority, not let pass the opportunity to elevate progressive-minded lawyers to the bench.

  • Donald Rumsfeld proudly writes to the IRS every year when he files his return, complaining about the complexity of the tax code and professing not to know whether his return is accurate.   Rumsfeld's absent-minded government stooge routine has worn remarkably thin.  Rumsfeld revealed to documentary filmmaker Errol Morris in The Unknown Known, that he never read the so-called Torture Memos and professes to have no second thoughts -- or very many thoughts at all -- about his role in the "War on Terror" and the War on Iraq.  Two things.  First, Rumsfeld should be immediately audited given his admission about not submitting knowingly accurate tax returns.  Second, should it be determined upon a thorough audit that Rumsfeld has overpaid his taxes, it wouldn't come close to paying what he owes this Country for the damage he has wrought.

  • Oliver North, a self-professed "right wing goon," is a television consultant on the FX series, The Americans.  Relied on for his so-called expertise, he received a story credit for an episode in which KGB spies living in the U.S. infiltrate a contra training camp.  Recall that North was involved in one of the more shameful episodes in American history, when, as a member of the National Security Council, he played a central role in selling arms to Iran and funneling the profits to the Nicaraguan contras, at a time when Congress had banned such funding due to the contra's human rights abuses.  North admitted he had lied to Congress, shredded critical documents and altered key records.  Because of issues revolving around a grant of immunity for his Congressional testimony, North's felony convictions for obstructing a Congessional inquiry were eventually vacated, and he has remained for all these years an unrepentant, vindicated hero to the far right.  The fact that he is now peddling his "expertise" for mainstream consumption is unsettling to say the least.

  • The joy of the new baseball season has been marred not just by the usual spate of Met injuries, bizarre personnel moves and erratic play, but by new Major League rules involving instant replay.  I understood the need for the original instant replay rule, which was designed to review home runs.  New fangled ballparks with unusual angles and idiosyncratic seating make it much more difficult to discern with the naked eye when a ball was actually hit out of the park.  But the success of the original rule has led to the inevitable slipperly slope -- new rules which have expanded replay into many more areas of the game.  Although only weeks old, expanded replay is proving to be a disaster.  These rules which try to eliminate human error are applied by human beings, resulting in ... plenty of human error.  Instant reply is causing delay, uncertainty and more bad calls.  Baseball managment needs to stop trying to remove the human element and accept that baseball is a game of imperfection.
Thanks for listening.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

OMG Mr. Met Is On Twitter: #isnothingsacred?

President Obama's dog has a twitter account.  It has over 15,000 followers.  How many actually believe that Bo is tweeting is unclear. 

Twitter and other social media have become critical promotional tools for politicians, celebrities, and corporations.  And so it is not surprising that there is a flood of nonsensical accounts or that people follow them.

But Mr. Met

Mr. Met began appearing on programs and scorecards in 1963, making his first live appearance at Shea Stadium the following year.  Although the mid-1970s were so grim that even Mr. Met couldn't bear going to Met games, he reappeared in the 1990s, becoming a mainstay once again.

There has always been a quiet dignity about Mr. Met.  Through the few miraculous moments and the all-too-many dismal times, Mr. Met has remained steadfast.  With season upon season turning from promise to devastating disappointment, there are no clever quips, sarcastic gibes, lame excuses or apologetic mutterings from Mr. Met.  Just a smile and a wave.

But Mr. Met now has a twitter account.  And the fleeting benefit of knowing what Mr. Met is actually thinking behind that lovable massive head is far outweighed by the end of his mystique.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Travesty of Justice: Nominee To Enforce Civil Rights Rejected For Fighting For Justice

"The Senate’s failure to confirm Debo Adegbile to lead the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice is a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks . . . . Mr. Adegbile’s qualifications are impeccable. . . . His unwavering dedication to protecting every American’s civil and Constitutional rights under the law – including voting rights – could not be more important right now. . . The fact that his nomination was defeated solely based on his legal representation of a defendant runs contrary to a fundamental principle of our system of justice – and those who voted against his nomination denied the American people an outstanding public servant."  -- President Obama 

Debo Adegbile
In 1982, Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death for the killing of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner.  Abu-Jamal remained on death row for 30 years during an intensely fought battle in both the legal arena and public sphere which resulted in his death sentence being vacated.  Now almost 60 years old, Abu-Jamal is serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

Serious concerns remain about the fairness of Abu-Jamal's trial.  Some consider him a political prisoner.  On the other side, which includes Officer Faulkner's family and the Fraternal Order of Police, there continues to be outrage about the campaign to free Abu-Jamal as well as the fact that he was not executed.

No matter one's views about Abu-Jamal, about the case or the politics, or even about the death penalty, one issue should be uncontroversial -- that Abu-Jamal or any criminal defendant has the right to have an effective, zealous advocate, particularly when the case is a matter of life and death.  An important corollary, in my view, is that a lawyer's most  honorable role is to represent people who are hated and feared, and to ensure that the government is following the law.  (Here's an earlier piece, Crossing the Line, on prior attempts to smear lawyers who advocate for the despised.)

It is deeply distressing that the United States Senate just voted to reject Depo Adegbile, an otherwise sterling choice to run the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, because he headed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund when it represented Abu-Jamal in his fight for life.  Adegbile, who didn't personally work on Abu-Jamal's case, twice argued cases defending the Voting Rights Act before the U.S. Supreme Court, a far more relevant qualification for the job.

Sen. Patrick Leahy made the case that "the principle that all sides deserve an effective counsel is at the bedrock of our constitutional system” and “we cannot equate the lawyer with the conduct of those we represent if we want our justice system to endure."

Nevertheless, the Senate voted 52-47 to scuttle the nomination.

You can expect Republicans to vote against any Obama pick who would be supportive of civil rights enforcement.  As Sen. Dick Durbin put it, "I think the accusation is that the president is picking someone for the Division of Civil Rights who has been a leader in civil rights," and Republicans have “historically been troubled by … appointments [to the post] no matter who they are.” 

And you can expect Republicans to say stupid shit like what Sen. Lindsay Graham said:  “When someone has a history of helping cop-killers, this is what happens.”

But it was the Democrats who doomed Adegbile's chances, by pandering to the same simplistic pro-law enforcement, pro-prosecution sentiment as Senator Graham, effectively denigrating the importance of mounting a vigorous legal defense of a notorious defendant.

Pennsylvania Democrat, Bob Casey paid lip service to “respect[ing] that our system of law ensures the right of all citizens to legal representation no matter how heinous the crime" but added the disturbing non sequitur that "it is important that we ensure that Pennsylvanians and citizens across the country have full confidence in their public representatives — both elected and appointed.”  Casey added that “The vicious murder of Officer Faulkner in the line of duty and the events that followed in the 30 years since his death have left open wounds for Maureen Faulkner and her family as well as the City of Philadelphia.”

Christopher Coons, a Democratic Senator from Delaware also claimed to understand, "as a lawyer . . . the importance of having legal advocates willing to fight for even the most despicable clients" and purported to "embrace the proposition that an attorney is not responsible for the actions of their client."  But he decided to cast his vote aganst Adegbile because of the "decade-long public campaign . . . to elevate a heinous, cold-blooded killer to the status of political prisoner and folk hero," a campaign that Adegbile, by the way, had nothing to do with.

According to this reasoning, it is critical for our legal system to ensure that all criminal defendants have effective advocates but a lawyer's representation of a particularly despicable client accused of a particularly despicable crime (such as killing a police officer) is a disqualifying factor for public office.  Or as Lindsay Graham put it, "this is what happens" when you help cop-killers.

In addition to Casey and Coons, other shameful Democrats included Senators Mark Pryor of Arkansas. John Walsh of Montana, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Derek Jeter's Long Goodbye: The Narcissism of a Yankee Icon

Derek Jeter is a brilliant baseball player and one of the greatest shortstops of all time; probably in the top five (with Honus Wagner, Ernie Banks, Ozzie Smith and Cal Ripken).  Among many, many honors, he is a 13-time All Star, with 5 Gold Gloves to his credit.  His 3,316 hits are more than any Yankee in history.  He played a key role in ushering in the Yankees' latest era of dominance and helped lead them to five World Series championships.  He is universally praised, even by those who hate the Yankees, as not just a fabulous ballplayer, but as a class act, the face of the sport, a true ambassador for Major League Baseball.

According to Forbes, Derek Jeter also happens to be baseball's "top pitchman."  He has endorsement deals with "Nike, Gatorade, Ford Motor, Movado, Steiner Sports, Rawlings and 24-hour Fitness."  He also has a line of colognes through Avon:  "Driven."

But Derek Jeter wants more.  We now know that after 19 seasons, Derek Jeter is going to play one more season and one more season only.  Following in the sainted footsteps of his teammate, Mariano Rivera, he made this announcement before the start of the year and will now enjoy a 162-game salute to his greatness.  Not only a special night at Yankee Stadium, but a season-long farewell tour, recapping his storied career with accolades, video tributes, speeches, gifts, and Derek Jeter Days at every opposing team's stadium capped by an All Star Game played practically in his honor.

Great for attendance, and great for marketing, but is it really great for baseball to have another season devoted to another Yankee Legend? 

One of the wonderfully unique aspects of baseball is its deep connection to its history.  But sometimes the history can get in the way of the present.  The cloying tributes to Mariano Rivera in every baseball city last season were as annoying as they were interminable.  To make matters worse, he was not merely honored at the All Star Game, but awarded the MVP for sentimental reasons.  Touching?  Maybe for Yankee fans, but for baseball fans?

Does anyone see this as disturbingly narcissistic?  The epitome of the self-absorbed, needy modern athlete, rather than a dignified icon.  Don't ask the baseball press, who are blinded by the wonder of Derek Jeter.  Doug Glanville, the usually insightful former ballplayer at the New York Times, in his unmitigated paean, extolls Jeter's bravery:  "it takes a lot of courage to pre-empt the inevitable physical decline of a professional baseball player and do what he did this week."  Ken Rosenthal says Jeter "deserves" his farewell tour and describes Jeter's announcement as "typically gracious."  And Jon Heyman praises Jeter for making his retirement known now so that he would not create a fuss and distract his teammates during the season with endless questions about his future. 

No fuss, really?  The class move, the gracious move would have been for Jeter to announce his retirement at the end of the season, at which time he could be deservedly honored as one of the greatest players in the history of the game.  Instead, Derek Jeter is going to lap up all the attention he can muster in a season-long victory lap. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Death Penalty's Death Rattle

Three Ex-California Governors

Popular support for the death penalty has fallen significantly.  Six states have repealed it over the last six years, leaving 32 states with the death penalty on their books.  In three other states, most recently in Washington, governors have imposed moratoriums on executions.  The rate of executions around the country is rapidly declining and imposition of death sentences is at a historic low.  Meanwhile ever more exonerations are showing deep flaws in the criminal justice system  Evolving standards of decency, indeed.

Meanwhile, those still clamoring for the death penalty are making gruesome spectacles of themselves.  With pharmaceutical companies balking at having their products used in executions, there is a nationwide shortage of the drugs formerly used for lethal injection -- drugs which were combined in a cocktail already fraught with serious problems.  This has led officials in various states to call for a return to the firing squad or gas chamber, or more commonly to act like junior chemists, cobbling together their own unregulated and untested lethal combinations.  Inevitably, on January 16, 2014, Dennis McGuire was executed in Ohio with a new drug protocol that resulted in an agonizing fifteen minute ordeal in which McGuire gasped, choked  and struggled before dying.  While Ohio's governor ordered a stay for the next scheduled inmate to allow for further review of the state's procedures, other states are moving forward with their own experiments -- some of which are being halted by the courts and some aren't.

And then there is California, where three miserable former Governors just announced a proposed ballot initiative designed to speed up the death penalty appeals process.  Having apparently not done enough damage while they were in office, George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, are backing a measure that will do nothing to address a hopelessly dysfunctional system that has cost taxpayers $4 billion, but is sure to add more delay, more costs, and more unreliability.

Morality aside, the arbitrariness of the death penalty is one of its more disturbing and intractable problems. Death sentences are not imposed on the so-called worst of the worst.  Far more significant factors in determining who gets a death sentence are the quality of the lawyers, the geographic location of the crime, and the race of the perpetrator and victim.   

This new initiative would exacerbate these problems. It would limit state appeals for death row inmates to five years where now it takes at least that long to appoint a qualified lawyer willing and able to take on such cases.  Another brilliant idea is to bypass the California Supreme Court which now hears all death penalty appeals directly and spread the cases to the lower courts of appeal around the state -- a state which already possess a gross geographical imbalance with virtually all death sentences coming from the south.

The thrust of the ballot measure would thus be to speed up and decentralize the process, limit avenues of review, and provide less skilled lawyers.  What could go wrong?

The fundamental problem, of course, is that California's death penalty system is broken beyond repair.  It is costly, arbitrary, discriminatory, and unworkable.  With over 700 inmates on death row, it serves no useful purpose while diverting needed resources from true public safety programs.  An initiative to replace the death penalty with life without parole and thereby not only move towards a more just and sane justice system but save millions of dollars every year barely lost in November 2012.  A similar effort is sure to be successful in the near future.

In the meantime, like a macabre game of whack-a-mole, we need to beat down these destructive proposals when they appear, and refocus on meaningful criminal justice reforms including an end to the death penalty.  Click here to join the fight. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Deconstructing Woody Allen

More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.
-- Woody Allen
With a trio of remarkable and remarkably funny films in the early 1970s (Bananas, Sleeper, and Love & Death), I became a huge fan of Woody Allen movies in my tweens/teens.  I delighted in the other hilariously memorable movies made during this period too, including Take the Money and Run and Play It Again, Sam.  My love and deep appreciation for Allen's movies was then cemented with Annie Hall, one of the great romantic comedies of all time, followed by Manhattan.  There were more truly great movies in the 1980s, notably Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose, and Crimes and Misdemeanors, and several worthy films in the 1990s (e.g., Shadows and Fog, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Deconstructing Harry).  I haven't been able to summon the same level of devotion to his later works, but have continued to enjoy many -- certainly not all -- of the yearly movies Allen has released over the last decade or so. 

It has not been hard for me to separate Woody Allen the artist/filmmaker from Woody Allen the man.  I know the movies.  I don't know the man.  I know he married Soon-Yi Previn, the daughter of Mia Farrow, with whom he had a long relationship, and that there is about a 35-year difference in their ages.  Kinda creepy, but they've been married a long time now and what do I really know about it?

And now, in the wake of Allen's lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, allegations have resurfaced of his molestation of Farrow's daughter Dylan twenty years ago when she was seven.  Allen was accused at the time but no charges were filed after an investigation proved inconclusive.  There has been almost universal outrage that an accused pedophile could be given such an award, with countless people expressing their certainty about Allen's guilt.  Others have been more cautious but still insist that accusations of abuse should be enough to disqualify him from being honored.  The few, brave souls who expressed appreciation of his work are themselves accused of being insensitive to victims of sexual abuse and supporting pedophilia.

Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist and friend of Mia Farrow, published a letter from Dylan, herself, in which she insists that Allen assaulted her and remains haunted by the fact that he got away with it, spurring a ferocious and tragic inter-familial debate in the media.  One brother sides with Dylan and their mother.  Another sides with Allen. Allen has now felt compelled to come forward with his own defense, just published in the Times.

Kristof admits that "none of us can be certain what happened" but, nevertheless insists that while "the standard to send someone to prison is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, []shouldn’t the standard to honor someone be that they are unimpeachably, well, honorable?"   Well...No. 

When someone is accused of a heinous act, my criminal defense instincts are awakened and my skepticism of the so-called proof of guilt is heightened.  At least in a criminal case, the accused is entitled to cross-examine his accuser, challenge the evidence, and present a defense.   When someone is accused in the media, we only know what is being reported.  We don't know what the evidence really is.  We can't possibly know what actually occurred.

It should go without saying that sexual abuse is all too prevalent.  There are countless heartbreaking stories about victims whose perpetrators are never caught.  But there are also instances of false accusations,  and even of false memories, where children are manipulated to believe something that never happened.

The criminal justice system is a flawed vehicle for ferreting out the truth.  It is without doubt the province of powerful white males.  A fair and just result is often more dependent on the skill, resources and funding of the attorneys and experts, and on the sensitivity of the judge and other players in the process than on the actual facts.  Most cases are never brought to trial.  When they are, the guilty are often found guilty but not always; and the innocent are often found not guilty but not always.

And even more flawed than courts of law are courts of public opinion.  

Dalia Lithwick writes perceptively that "in the current debate about what happened between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow in a Connecticut farmhouse in 1992, it massively disserves and undermines the most basic goals of the legal system when we import legal concepts into what is essentially a barroom brawl." 
The Court of Public Opinion is what we used to call villagers with flaming torches. It has no rules, no arbiter, no mechanism at all for separating truth from lies. It allows everything into evidence and has no mechanism to separate facts about the case from the experiences and political leanings of the millions of us who are all acting as witnesses, judges, and jurors.
Is Woody Allen guilty of sexual abuse?  I have no idea and can't possibly know.  Does his lifestyle seem a little creepy?  Yep.  Are his movies -- particularly the early ones -- great.  Absolutely.

And can we honor his body of work without honoring his lifestyle or dishonoring his accusers?  Alyssa Rosenberg suggests we focus on the art not the artist:  "sticking to the work and avoiding personal praise of the person in question might be a good minimum standard."  Agreed.  But maybe we can also put down the pitchforks and flaming torches.