Posts Tagged ‘culture wars’

With Californians increasingly turning against capital punishment, political forecasters say the vote on Prop 34 — the anti-death penalty initiative — could be extremely close.

In September, the polls had Prop 34 losing by a wide margin. However, a new poll by USC Dornsife and the Los Angeles Times shows the gap narrowing to just three percentage points — 45 to 42 percent.

When pollsters asked recent converts to the anti-capital punishment side what changed their minds, most cited capital punishment’s high cost and the increase in exonerations by DNA testing as major factors in their decision. If these many condemned people have been proven innocent, they reason, the judicial system is too imperfect to mete out such a final and permanent sanction.

The Debate

The death penalty debate has been raging for so long, most of us can recite the arguments chapter and verse by now. Deterrence, the cost, closure for victims’ families, eye-for-an-eye justice and the immorality of state-sanctioned killing are just a few of the ideas that have been screaming at each other for years, changing very few minds.

The imperfect system/too final penalty argument had also been cited by the anti-capital punishment crowd, but until recently was more theory than fact. This argument asked folks to imagine the torture of being mistakenly condemned and considered by society to be unworthy of living — to imagine themselves and their family in that hellish situation, marking the days off to the exact day of your erroneous-but-certain death — while the real killer remains at large.

The imperfect system argument, which often included references to overzealous prosecutors, ineffective counsel, railroading cops, mistaken eyewitnesses and faulty lab work was usually countered by the assertion that capital cases’ appeals and exacting checks and balances kept the innocent from being put to death.

Some even conceded that a very few wrongful deaths might slip by but considered the death penalty so valuable, a mistake now and then would be OK. However, I doubt these folks ever visualized members of their own family or themselves as potential death penalty martyrs. After all, people mistakenly charged with capital offenses, they reason, are probably criminals or lowlifes anyway, or they wouldn’t have found themselves in such an awful predicament.

Delbert Tibbs

I guess they hadn’t heard about Chicago seminary student Delbert Tibbs:

In 1974, Tibbs was hitchhiking in Florida when he was stopped by police and questioned about a rape/murder that had occurred earlier that night. Although Tibbs was some 200 miles from the site of the crime — the brutal murder of a man and the rape of the man’s girlfriend — and did not match the victim’s original descriptions of the assailant, the police took Tibbs’ picture. The photograph was then sent to Fort Meyers, where the victim identified Tibbs as the rapist/killer. Although Tibbs had an alibi, the victim’s ID and a jailhouse informant’s claim that Tibbs had boasted of the crime were enough to send Tibbs to Florida’s death row.

Fortunately for Tibbs, the informant recanted his testimony after the trial, saying that he had lied for the prosecution in exchange for lenient sentencing in his own rape case. The recantation and the contradictory identifications by the rape victim eventually led to Tibbs’ exoneration in 1977.

Warning: If an overzealous prosecutor, mistaken identification and lying snitches can convict a hitchhiking seminary student who was nowhere near the crime, they can convict anyone.

DNA Testing and Curtis McCarty

Then the 80s brought us DNA testing. Tales of death row exonerations began appearing more frequently in the news. Such exonerations as the 2007 Curtis McCarty case in Oklahoma had people rethinking their position on the death penalty.

After spending 21 years behind bars — 19 on death row — McCarty became a free man. McCarty had been convicted twice of murdering 18-year-old Pamela Kaye Willis. His first conviction was overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct. However, the most damning evidence against McCarty from the first trial — proof that strands of hair collected at the murder scene were his — was presented at the second trial. The jury found him guilty and sentenced him to die again.

In 1995, an appellate court upheld McCarty’s conviction but ordered a rehearing on McCarty’s sentencing. Again, Curtis McCarty was sentenced to death — three times in all.

Then in 2000, while under investigation by the FBI for submitting phony forensic results, Joyce Gilchrist, Oklahoma City’s forensic analyst, was asked by McCarty’s attorneys to re-examine the hair fibers. She told them the samples collected at the scene had been lost or destroyed.

Based on the investigation’s finding of numerous instances of fraudulent testimony by Gilchrist, McCarty’s lawyers got permission to perform DNA tests on sperm collected from Willis’ body. Negative results of that test, plus Gilchrist’s unreliable forensics persuaded a judge to grant McCarty a third trial.

Armed with results of the sperm test, DNA tests proving that fingernail scrapings recovered from Willis’ body came from a different man, and suspected fraudulent forensics, McCarty’s lawyers asked a judge to vacate the convictions and to drop all charges against their client.

In 2007, McCarty was freed.

Lucky Guy

Despite having spent over two decades in prison for someone else’s crime, McCarty is a lucky man. He had dedicated and able attorneys fighting for him. Additionally, McCarty’s case happened to catch the eye of the Innocence Project, a group of lawyers and law students at Yeshiva University who assist inmates with cases that could benefit from modern DNA testing. Since 1992, the Innocence Project has helped remove 17 people from death row.

Death penalty supporters may point to McCarty’s eventual exoneration as proof of the system’s infallibility. However, that conclusion seems to overlook McCarty’s good fortune. For example, analyst Gilchrist had testified in thousands of cases over twenty years, including a number of capital cases. It was sheer luck that suspicions of her perjury habit surfaced while McCarty was still breathing. Also, McCarty was blessed with lawyers who gave a damn — not all do. Finally, the Innocence Project — as dedicated and effective as they are — are only able to get involved in a limited number of cases. Fortunately for McCarty, his case happened to be one.

The Ultimate Argument

There have been previous death row exonerations — 140 since 1973 — but apparently that number (3.5 per year) fell within the acceptable range for death penalty supporters. It also supported their belief that the system works, however belatedly.

But with DNA testing, the number of exonerations has jumped to five per year between 2000 and 2007. For an increasing number of voters — nationwide and in California — that’s just too many people. They realize that in many of these cases, the exonerations were the result of advocacy from outside the system, advocacy that very easily could have been focused on some other poor soul while the wheels of “justice” rolled over a number of innocent people.

On the other hand, they reason,  life with no possibility of parole will keep killers off the streets for good, while allowing those wrongfully convicted a chance to fight their conviction if new evidence proves them innocent.

*

Remember how we used to argue about the death penalty? You said it was a deterrent; I said it was meted out unfairly. You said it saved money; I said it wasted money.

Then we began to see an increasing number of stories in the news about DNA-based death row exonerations facilitated by such organizations as the Innocence Project and we put our argument on hold.

Wonderful as those stories were, they left us with one very disturbing and inescapable question: If these many lives are being saved because of the efforts of outside groups with limited resource and staff, how many other innocent lives are going all the way to the gurney because the Innocence Project is busy saving somebody else… six, ten, 100?

We don’t argue about the death penalty anymore.

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As I emerge from my post-election funk, the blood slowly returning to my face, I survey the damage done to the world by Fox News and half a nation gone nuts, and ask the only appropriate question… “WTF?”

We’ve elected to the Senate a guy who publicly condemns the Civil Rights Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act; we have put in Congress a passel of people who believe that Obama–the centrist’s centrist–is actually a covert Muslim/Communist bent on world domination, and we’ve emboldened an Alaskan female, secular version of Elmer Gantry into thinking she has a chance at becoming president.

So what on earth is there to be thankful for?

Culture Wars

If you believe, as I do, that the culture war is the 500-pound aardvark in the room–the reason that ostensibly sane voters would elect utterly unqualified people to lead the country, the reason for the Tea Party’s successes, and the reason for the strange disconnect between Americans’ self-interest and their votes, then raise a glass this Thanksgiving for Generation Y,  AKA the “Millennials.”

On almost all the culture war/wedge issues, the current crop of Americans under 30 are trending far more progressive than X-ers or Boomers did when they were pups. When it comes to reproductive choice, acceptance of homosexuality, role of government, the environment and race–this group is turning out to be Pat Buchanan’s worst nightmare.

Nowhere are this generations’ progressive leanings more evident than in its acceptance of homosexuality. According to the 2010 Pew survey, Religion Among the Millennials, 61% believe homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared to 51% of Americans aged 30-49; 48% of ages 50-64 and 35% of those over 65. Though every modern generation of young Americans has increasingly turned its back on bigotry, the Millennials seem to be running from it at light speed.

Staying Power

With this group, the old, “sure, they’re liberal now, but wait until they get older” bromide doesn’t wash. Hard data and the nature of today’s young adulthood suggest that this group’s rejection of socially conservative politics is different than that of earlier generations, and is more likely to last. Additionally, their desire for more government services suggests their progressive leanings may not be limited to social issues.

According to the L.A. Times’ “Walking Away From Church,” young people are leaving their churches at five times that of previous generations, and the number-one stated reason for leaving is the conservative political orientation of their church. It’s not that they are running out to dance with the Devil, mind you–Millennials tend to hold on to their Christian faith–they just can’t stand the us vs. them poison spewing from the pulpit and from older parishioners.

This phenomenon is not lost on the Christian press. Drew Dyck writes in Christianity Today, “…the life-phase argument may no longer pertain. Young adulthood is not what it used to be. For one, it’s much longer. Marriage, career, children—the primary sociological forces that drive adults back to religious commitment—are now delayed until the late 20s, even into the 30s. Returning to the fold after a two- or three-year hiatus is one thing. Coming back after more than a decade is considerably more unlikely.” Though Dyck is probably correct about losing young people for good, he misses the fact that Millennials’ commitment to religion is still very much alive. They’re just taking it away from what they see as non-Christian influences.

Young Americans to the Rescue

So this Thanksgiving, think of your turkey’s  wishbone as the letter “Y” and give thanks for the Millennials. Yes, four years with our new ultra-right House of Representatives will be difficult to stomach, but remember there’s a whole new crop of young folk out there who have refused to drink the conservative Koolaid and will soon be flexing their political muscle. Like a lethal gene diminishing within a family line, the old, intolerant, Calvinistic mentality seems to be heading for well-deserved extinction.

Who knows, after a few years of seeing this new Congress in action, the Millennials might even become politically active (be still my heart). But for now, I’ll be grateful for their votes.

Busted unions, privatized social security, deregulation of industry, and now…energy-swilling homes. Is there no stopping the self-destructive behavior of the American middle class conservative?

According to the N.Y. Times, a study published last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that political ideology plays a significant role in determining whether a homeowner will respond favorably to voluntary home conservation programs.

The study found that those who vote Republican and donate money to conservative candidates and causes are considerably less likely to give it the old college try when it comes to conserving energy in their homes. Not surprisingly, the study showed that Democrats who donate to environmental groups and get their electricity from renewable sources showed the most improvement. When receiving individual usage feedback, they reduced their energy consumption by about 3%.

On the other hand, the study found Republican households that practice no specific eco-friendly behaviors increased their energy usage by 1% over previous quarters when receiving the same type of feedback.

Overall, households in the conservation program reduced consumption by 2%. The Republican subset, however, actually increased usage by .04%.

In addition to household energy-usage reports, half of the homes studied received tips on how to reduce usage and were rewarded for their efforts with smiley faces printed on the reports. Two smiley faces went to those who used less energy than their neighbors, one smiley face for average use. Instead of smiley faces, those who scored poorly got “ROOM TO IMPROVE” on their reports in bold, black letters. These underachievers also got specific tips on how they might reduce their usage.

Green is for Sissies

Granted, the smiley faces are a bit much, and nobody likes to be scolded. But, you’d think that the grown-up living inside most of us would rise above the condescension, and make an effort to help our ailing planet by reducing personal energy consumption—if not for our children and their children, at least for a substantial reduction in our monthly energy bills.

But, no. Like a naughty, petulant child, our conservative friends demonstrate their rugged individualism and distaste for political correctness by working against the planet and their own financial interests. “No tree-hugging egghead scientist is gonna tell me what to do in my own home,” would be the conservative refrain. “This is America, dammit. Shining cities on a hill shouldn’t have to sacrifice nothin’”

It’s the same mentality evident in a giant, gas-guzzling SUV careening down the street with two American flags on top flapping proudly in the smog. To these folks, the financial pain of 7 miles-per-gallon is well worth the political message they and their condominiums-on-wheels deliver: Green is for sissies!

Widespread Chump-dom

This curious, self-defeating behavior of middle class conservatives isn’t limited to environmental issues. While the middle class shrinks, wages remain stagnant and CEOs receive salaries and bonuses that would make King Midas blush, conservatives bash the only hope the middle class has of getting a fair shake from industry—trade and labor unions.

As the Gulf of Mexico becomes the Black Lagoon and middle class workers in the fishing and tourism businesses of the region stare down the barrel of insolvency, conservatives are calling for more off-shore drilling and less regulation of the oil industry. While middle class folks teeter on the brink of financial collapse due to Wall Street’s fun and games, conservatives insist on less regulation of the banking and insurance industries.

And as more members of the middle class lose their health insurance or are driven to bankruptcy by insurance and pharmaceutical industries run amok, conservatives resist legislation that would force those industries to play nicer, and make our health care system more Hippocratic than plutocratic.

Time after time, members of America’s middle class have been left to pay for unfettered corporate greed with their jobs, higher taxes (for bailouts and corporate under-paying) and their sanity while conservatives line up like rubes at a carnival game for more of the same treatment.

Obviously, they don’t see themselves as dupes. Rather, they believe they are fighting for the invisible hand of the free market. What middle class conservatives refuse to understand is that price and wage fixing, politician purchase and general corporate malfeasance makes a truly free market a pipe dream, leaving the invisible hand with nothing to do but rummage through their pockets.

I suppose this would all be kind of funny if it weren’t for the fact that conservatives aren’t the only ones who suffer the consequences of their self-destructive tendencies.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT, indeed.