26 June 2013

Texas kills 500th prisoner - a woman

This evening, the state of Texas executed its 500th death row prisoner since a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that reinstated the death penalty as an option in this country. Kimberly McCarthy received her lethal injection just after 6:00 pm Texas time.

Governor Rick Perry, who likes to brag about his execution record, is probably celebrating. But this gruesome milestone is nothing to celebrate. The case appears to be riddled with racial bias and suggestions of inadequate defense counsel. That's not justice.

See my Tuesday article for details on the issues surrounding McCarthy's case and her death sentence.

And consider the words of Mohandas Gandhi, who said: "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

Shame on Texas - a very blind state.

At Supreme Court, a double victory for marriage equality

In an historic double victory, two decisions came out of the U.S. Supreme Court this morning that favor same-sex marriage.

In the case of United States v. Windsor, the Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional. DOMA had defined marriage for all federal purposes as a legal union between a man and a woman, thereby depriving same-sex couple of federal benefits.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy explained: "DOMA’s principal effect is to identify and make unequal a subset of state-sanctioned marriages. It contrives to deprive some couples married under the laws of their State, but not others, of both rights and responsibilities, creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State."

Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, joined Kennedy.

Not surprisingly, conservative Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito dissented.

Then, in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Court dismissed Proposition 8, the 2008 California ballot initiative which struck down same-sex marriage in that state.

Here, Justices Roberts, Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer, & Kagan formed a very interesting majority.

Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor (!) dissented.

Unlike the DOMA case, the Prop 8 case was decided on a technicality - specifically on the Court's belief that Prop 8 proponents did not have legal standing to pursue the case since the state had refused to do so. (In other words, no vigilate justice allowed!)

Nevertheless, today's decision killed Prop 8 and restored same-sex marriage in California.

While these two decisions do not affect any of the U.S. states that have not yet legalized same-sex marriage, they reinforce the notion that the tide is turning in favor of LGBT rights. That in itself is clearly worth celebrating.

Excellent statement by Secretary Hagel on DOMA ruling

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage for all federal purposes as a legal union between a man and a woman. Under DOMA, same-sex spouses were denied federal benefits that were available to heterosexual spouses.

Upon today's news, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued the following excellent statement:

The Department of Defense welcomes the Supreme Court's decision today on the Defense of Marriage Act. The department will immediately begin the process of implementing the Supreme Court's decision in consultation with the Department of Justice and other executive branch agencies. The Department of Defense intends to make the same benefits available to all military spouses -- regardless of sexual orientation -- as soon as possible. That is now the law and it is the right thing to do.

Every person who serves our nation in uniform stepped forward with courage and commitment. All that matters is their patriotism, their willingness to serve their country, and their qualifications to do so. Today's ruling helps ensure that all men and women who serve this country can be treated fairly and equally, with the full dignity and respect they so richly deserve.

Bravo, Secretary Hagel!

And congratulations to all the same-sex military spouses who will now receive the benefits that, as Secretary Hagel said, they so richly deserve.

25 June 2013

Marriage and death on Wednesday's agenda

Wednesday, June 26, promises to be a big news day, for good or for bad.

First, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to weigh in on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California's Proposition 8, both of which deal with same-sex marriage.

DOMA defines marriage for all federal purposes as a legal union between a man and a woman. The case, United States v. Windsor, was brought on behalf of Edith "Edie" Windsor, who in 2009 lost her spouse of 44 years, Thea Spyer. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Windsor and Spyer had gotten married in Canada in 2007, and "were considered married by their home state of New York." But, because of DOMA, explains the ACLU, "Windsor was not able to claim the estate tax marital deduction that is available when the surviving spouse is of the opposite sex. In her lawsuit, Windsor is seeking to have DOMA declared unconstitutional and to obtain a refund of the federal estate tax that she was forced to pay following Spyer's death."

Proposition 8 was a 2008 California ballot initiative which struck down same-sex marriage in that state. The case now before SCOTUS, Hollingsworth v. Perry, challenges the constitutionality of Prop 8. Two lower courts that heard the case have ruled that Prop 8 is unconstitutional.

After that will come a life-and-death decision from Texas, where Kimberly McCarthy is scheduled to be the 500th prisoner executed in that state since a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that reinstated the death penalty as an option in this country. If a stay is not granted, the lethal injection will begin to flow at 6:00 pm CT.

McCarthy's attorney has filed an appeal based on racial discrimination and quality of counsel. James Turnage, writing in The Guardian Express, summarizes:

[Maurie Levin, McCarthy’s legal counsel since January] claims that the jury in the 2002 trial was selected on a racial basis. McCarthy is an African-American woman, and the neighbor she killed, Dorothy Booth, was a 71-year-old white woman.

Her trial was held in Dallas County. The population is 69% white and 23% black. Only one [African American] was on the jury of 13.

Out of an initial pool of 64 prospective jurors, only four non-whites made it through to the final selection. Of those four, three were ejected from the actual jury through peremptory strikes by prosecution lawyers.

Texas has a history of excluding black men and women from their juries. In 1963, a Texas training manual instructed prosecutors not to "take Jews, negroes, dagos, Mexicans, or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or how well educated". A similar manual published in 1986 carried the memorable advice that it was "not advisable to select potential jurors with multiple gold chains around their necks or those who appear to be 'free thinkers'."

In 2005, three years after McCarthy was placed on death row, [an] investigation revealed that prosecutors were continuing their efforts to exclude non-white jurors.

Levin has also asked two members of the appeals board to recuse themselves because they were assistant district attorneys in Dallas County at the time of Ms. McCarthy's unfair jury selection.

A second part of the appeal centers around a Supreme Court decision that says appeals after conviction must be heard. Levin says McCarthy was given inadequate council after she was placed on death row. Levin said that none of McCarthy's appointed [attorneys] challenged what was obviously a racially biased jury.

On Monday, however, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused to block the execution because, according to the Associated Press, "she should have raised her claims previously."

McCarthy has already seen two prior execution dates come and go. Her lawyer is now considering the remaining options.

My fingers are crossed in hopes that the Supreme Court will decide in favor of marriage equality in both cases, and that Texas will stop the execution (again). But I'm too old and jaded to be totally optimistic.

21 June 2013

The death penalty is not a deterrent

When I talk with proponents of the death penalty, they often argue that capital punishment is a good deterrent. They believe that a person would be less likely to commit murder if there were a chance that he might have to die for his crime.

The experts disagree. According to Amnesty International, "A 2009 survey of criminologists revealed that over 88% believed the death penalty was NOT a deterrent to murder."

And the statistics prove it. As Amnesty also notes, "The murder rate in non-Death Penalty states has remained consistently lower than the rate in States with the Death Penalty."

Whether you're for it or against it, when dealing with life-and-death issues like the death penalty, it is important to know the facts and face reality.

20 June 2013

Warlords, friends, and misunderstandings

Story of my life:

"It's not that complicated, I'm just misunderstood."
-- Pink

Other sensitive/compassionate/passionate types out there can probably also relate to those lyrics.

Where our loved ones are concerned, our bark can be bigger than our bite. And that can lead to misunderstandings and related tears. Because we care.

But hopefully the opposite is true when it comes to our confrontations with human rights abusers and other bad guys (warlords, dictators, Dick Cheney, etc.). I want them to be very, very afraid.

Sadly, however, often the reverse is true in both types of cases. Our loved ones misunderstand, dismiss, and sometimes ridicule our sensitivity and passion - while the powerful bad guys shoo us away and continue to make the world a more painful place.

And that is why I still have so much work left to do - on both a personal level and a universal one.

15 June 2013

William Fisher, RIP

I was saddened to learn today that my dear friend and colleague, William ("Bill") Fisher died on June 11 at the age of 84.

Bill started out as a newspaper reporter in the 1950s, and then was recruited by the John F. Kennedy administration to be a presidential speech writer and public affairs specialist. He later moved on to an illustrious career in international development in the Middle East, Latin America, and elsewhere.

I first met Bill about 10 years ago, when we were both becoming involved in intense left-leaning journalism and op-ed writing in the wake of 9/11 and the ensuing human rights issues related to the George W. Bush administration's "war on terror". Bill, who had long since retired from his day job, proudly told me that he chose to write so that he could donate his pay to his granddaughter's college fund. But his granddaughter isn't the only one who has benefited from his writing.

Bill approached each and every issue with fairness, thoroughness, and abundant research. His integrity was beyond dispute.

I still have every email that Bill and I have exchanged, and I don't think I'll ever delete them. He was, and will always be, an inspiration.

You can read his official obituary on his website here.

14 June 2013

6 months after Newtown shootings, the NRA still rules America

Today marks the 6-month anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. 20 first grade students and 6 school staff were murdered that day by a psycho with a semi-automatic rifle.

The tragedy sparked renewed calls for new gun control measures, particularly universal background checks. Still, all these months later, no progress has been made at the federal level.

The NRA again has won.

And that's because our elected members of Congress continue to let the NRA win.

How many more lives must be tragically lost?

13 June 2013

Texas approaches 500th execution

Last night, the state of Texas executed Elroy Chester III for multiple murders.

This was Texas's 499th execution since the 1976 Supreme Court ruling that reinstated the death penalty as an option in this country.

So that state now approaches the grim milestone of execution #500. According to the current execution schedule, Kimberly McCarthy is next on the list, with her lethal injection scheduled for June 26.

500 executions in 37 years. That's more than four times the number of executions performed to date by Virginia, which is in second place with a "mere" 110.

And, although Texas Governor Rick Perry likes to brag about his execution record, it really is nothing to be proud of.

It simply makes no sense to kill someone in order to demonstrate that killing is wrong.

It's revenge, not true justice.

12 June 2013

Privacy is a human right

In the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal, everyone is talking about personal privacy.

When I brought up the subject recently on my Facebook page, a wise person commented that privacy should be a human right.

In fact, it is a human right, enshrined in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

"No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks."
While President Obama is correct when he tells us that we must strike a balance between privacy and security, the administration needs to keep in mind that privacy is essential to freedom, and security without freedom is the antithesis of what our Founding Fathers intended.

As Benjamin Franklin once said, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

So what do we deserve?

10 June 2013

Glad I'm not on the Zimmerman jury

Jury selection began today in the Florida trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting death last year of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. And I'm glad I'm safely tucked away here in Pennsylvania, because I wouldn't want to sit on that jury.

Zimmerman's legal team will argue that the killing was done in self-defense, as permitted under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law - despite the fact that police, when Zimmerman had called 911, had instructed him to back off and not pursue Martin. Under Stand Your Ground, you can legally shoot someone if you perceive them as a threat - and you have no duty to try to retreat. (In other words, shoot first, ask questions later.)

If the defense successfully demonstrates that the shooting was protected under Stand Your Ground, the jury would have to respect that law. And that would be a very hard thing for me to do.

09 June 2013

My (very short) date with a racist

I met him at a party. He was attractive, charming, and had a good sense of humor. We didn't talk politics. But we should have.

Instead, after no more than 15 minutes of small talk with Joe (not his real name), I accepted his invitation to meet for drinks a few days later. I didn't know the hostess of the party (I was the guest of a friend), and my friend didn't know Joe. So, in the intervening days, getting a character reference for Joe ahead of our date seemed more cumbersome than it would be worth. But I should have.

We met on a pleasant spring evening at a bistro where we shared some wine and snacks al fresco on the patio. After some small talk, the conversation started to get more personal, and we talked about our respective neighborhoods.

He complained about his. More specifically, he complained about two new families who had recently moved into his formerly all-white middle-class neighborhood. And he described them using the n-word.

I was't about to let that go unaddressed.

Me: "What did you just call them???!!!"

Joe: "They're a bunch of lazy [n-word]s."

Me: "What a crude and racist thing to say! I'm shocked and disappointed."

Joe: "What are you, some kind of stinking liberal?"

Me: "Well, I did shower; but I abhor racism, and yes, I am a proud liberal."

Joe: "Aw, lighten up!"

With that, I got up, placed enough money on the table to pay for my share of the food, wine, and tip (I didn't want to owe him anything), and went home.

If "lightening up" means tolerating racism, our society still has a lot of evolving to do.

03 June 2013

"All in the Family" and me

The recent death of actress Jean Stapleton brought back memories of my childhood, when she starred in the hit TV sitcom "All in the Family". Stapleton played Edith, the long-suffering wife of the bigoted Archie Bunker.

The Archie Bunker character was intended to satirize racism and other forms of bigotry. Sadly, in the rural redneck town where I grew up, and in the racist family environment that I was trapped in back then, Archie wasn't recognized as a satirical character. Rather, he was seen as the normal guy whom all of them could relate to.

I, on the other hand, had read enough that I was able to recognize the satire. And I was punished for it. In fact, after I escaped to college and word got out that I had dated a black guy, I was yanked out of school and grounded.

I haven't been back to my hometown in 25 years, and I don't ever plan to.

02 June 2013

President Clinton, Bo, and me

Last night I dreamed that I was in the White House, and Bo, the First Dog, jumped onto the couch between me and the president.

But the president wasn't Barack Obama - it was Bill Clinton.

Very weird.

I wonder how a shrink would analyze that dream. (Amateur psychologists, feel free to dive in.)