Category Archives: Crime and Punishment

Gregory shocker: Who throws it all away for 100 grand?

Gregory's former office.

Gregory’s former office, on Tuesday evening…

This morning at the Capital City Club, which sits 25 stories up from Columbia’s economic development office, the regulars were all abuzz with the news that one of their number, Wayne Gregory, was in the county jail on embezzlement charges.

You know how shocked everyone was at his club when Winthorpe was arrested in “Trading Places?” It was like that, only not funny. There was a good deal of breathless talk about “one of our number” and so forth.

It had only been a few months since Gregory, 36, had replaced a longtime regular, Jim Gambrell, but we had started getting used to seeing him around. I had not had a chance to get to know him, but I knew who he was, and figured we’d cross paths at some point. Maybe not, now.

As I said in a comment yesterday (yeah, this whole post consists mostly of stuff I said before, but I thought this was worth a separate post):

Here’s what I want to know… Who risks it all for 100 grand? Who — among people who have good jobs (and his base pay was $110,000) — risks prison for a year’s pay, essentially?

Assuming I were someone who would steal, I’d be the sort of thief who would abscond with something more like $100 million. And that’s borderline… I mean, even if one has no morals, one should have a sense of proportion. A year’s pay just wouldn’t be worth it, aside from moral considerations.

Maybe it’s because, as a journalist, I’ve been in a lot of jails and prisons. I’m telling you, people, you don’t want to go there.

One last point: I’ve seen a lot of comments about “Here we go again” with our poorly run city. Well, yes and no. The one thing that distinguished this from some of the other recent messes is that the city immediately fired Gregory. In the long, painful separations of police chiefs, city managers and the like in recent years, we seldom saw such a moment of clarity and decision.

Of course, as Kathryn pointed out yesterday, Gregory had been charged with a crime. And I suppose that draws a bright line that has been missing in other situations. But in any case, the quick action makes this instance quite different.

Would you have locked Hitler away forever?

Andrew Sullivan brought this to my attention the other day, under the suitable headline “Time and Punishment,” and I’m just getting around to sharing it. Ross Anderson interviewed philosopher Rebecca Roache on the moral implications of life-extending technologies. An excerpt:

Suppose we eventually learn to put off death indefinitely, and that we extend this treatment to prisoners. Is there any crime that would justify eternal imprisonment? Take Hitler as a test case. Say the Soviets had gotten to the bunker before he killed himself, and say capital punishment was out of the question – would we have put him behind bars forever?

Roache: It’s tough to say. If you start out with the premise that a punishment should be proportional to the crime, it’s difficult to think of a crime that could justify eternal imprisonment. You could imagine giving Hitler one term of life imprisonment for every person killed in the Second World War. That would make for quite a long sentence, but it would still be finite. The endangerment of mankind as a whole might qualify as a sufficiently serious crime to warrant it. As you know, a great deal of the research we do here at the Oxford Martin School concerns existential risk. Suppose there was some physics experiment that stood a decent chance of generating a black hole that could destroy the planet and all future generations. If someone deliberately set up an experiment like that, I could see that being the kind of supercrime that would justify an eternal sentence.

So, just to carry the absurdity a bit farther… Would the rest of us be around when he got out, having had our own lives extended? Would any of us be Holocaust survivors? Would we have to watch him walk out, a free man? After millions of lifetimes, would anyone care, or would we have been changed over time in ways we can’t even imagine. If one of us shot him as he walked out, what would our sentence be?

Bottom line, only God gets to hand out eternal sentences. It’s probably a good thing that we lack the ability to usurp that authority…

Florida sheriff wants to amend ‘Stand Your Ground’

Don’t know how I got on this sheriff’s mailing list, but I thought some of y’all would be interested in his perspective:

Sheriff Scott Israel is the most outspoken sheriff in Florida when it comes to changing the “Stand Your Ground” law.

Click to view a recent article about his stance in Huffington Post  

Now that Tallahassee legislatures are considering amendments to “Stand Your Ground,” Sheriff Israel is making sure his voice and his view is heard.

Below is an op-ed available for publication that clearly states the necessity for change in this law.

Contact me for interview opportunities or additional information.

Thanks!
Jen

Jen Hobbs
JenMHobbs@gmail.com
845-863-6448

Where I Stand On Stand Your Ground
Sheriff Scott Israel

I stand with the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis in their fight to amend Stand Your Ground – to grieving mothers who lost their children to senseless gun violence.  Last Monday, these two brave mothers-turned-activists led a peaceful march with hundreds of protesters on the Florida state Capitol in Tallahassee.  The women were joined by families of other victims of this law.

A bipartisan proposal by Florida State Senators David Simmons (R) and Chris Smith (D) passed the State Senate Judiciary Committee on October 15 by a 7-2 vote, and now heads to other committees for consideration before coming to the Senate floor for a full vote.  The original 2005 law was written by none other than Sen. Simmons.

I applaud Sen. Simmons for recognizing that the law is not perfect, and for reaching above partisan politics on this tremendously important public safety issue.  The proposed Simmons-Smith amendment makes clear that the statute should prohibit people from later claiming self-defense if they started or unnecessarily escalated a conflict when safe withdrawal outside the home was an option.

Many people have made the case that the George Zimmerman trial, which spurred the interest in revising Stand Your Ground, had nothing to do with the self-defense law.

This opinion is misguided.

In February 2012, when Zimmerman shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, the police who were called to the scene, unable to refute Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense.  By law, they were unable to file charges and follow through with normal procedures, thus compromising the investigation from the start.  Sanford city officials stated: “By Florida Statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time.”

The Stand Your Ground law effectively tied the hands of law enforcement in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, and will continue to do so until this law is fixed.  In the case of Mr. Zimmerman, the threat was not immediate.  He should have been obligated to get in his vehicle, leave the area, and avoid that confrontation.  If the law had read differently, maybe he would have.

When Michael Dunn fired nine bullets into a Dodge Durango at four seemingly unarmed teenagers, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis in Jacksonville, Florida, his actions were facilitated by this broken law.  Deadly force should never be a first choice; it should be a choice used only after all other reasonable options have been exhausted.

The law is not stagnant.  It is open to change, particularly when the change leads to less violent incidents and more accountability.

As one of only a small handful of sheriffs in Florida to support a change in the Stand Your Ground law, I feel the need to be active and vocal in this all-important discussion. Florida was the first of at least 22 other states that have enacted similar Stand Your Ground statutes, so it is also right that we lead in the effort to fix it.  More than 26 young people in Florida have already lost their lives in Stand Your Ground cases.  This law, here and elsewhere, must be fixed before more needlessly die.

For these reasons, I support these important first steps in amending this valuable law.

Claire Underwood’s proposal fails in real-life Senate

Sen. Gillibrand

Sen. Gillibrand

OK, technically, it wasn’t the fictional Mrs. Underwood’s plan. It was pushed instead by the real-life Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — who, as tacky as it may be in the context of talking about sexual crimes (but it’s true), is also a rather striking blonde.

A more relevant coincidence is that her proposal was the very same one that caused the majority whip to stop the Underwood bill on “House of Cards.” To wit, according to The Washington Post:

The Senate rejected a controversial proposal Thursday to remove military commanders from decisions on whether to prosecute major crimes in the ranks as the concerns of Pentagon leaders trumped calls from veterans groups to dramatically overhaul how the Defense Department handles assault and rape cases.

Congress has already voted to revamp the military’s legal system by ending the statute of limitations on assault and rape cases, making it a crime to retaliate against victims who report assaults and requiring the dishonorable discharge or dismissal of anyone convicted of sexual assault or rape.

But on Thursday senators rejected a plan by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would go further by taking away from military commanders the power to refer serious crimes to courts-martial. The decision would shift instead to professional military trial lawyers operating outside the chain of command.

The proposal fell five votes short of the 60 votes necessary to clear a procedural hurdle and proceed to a final vote. In a reflection of the complexity of the issue, 10 Democrats voted against Gillibrand’s plan, while 11 Republicans — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — joined her in voting to proceed….

I think the Senate acted wisely. It moved to toughen the law without undermining the military system of justice. I realize the Underwood/Gillibrand approach has attracted growing support — witness how close it came today. But while I’d like to throw military rapists under the treads of an Abrams tank, I don’t think it’s right to take commanders out of the equation. In other words, I agree with the position taken by the fictional Jackie Sharp, and I really identified with her discomfort when she broke the news to Claire. Although it might have been easier for her, as a woman, to take that position than it would for a man.

I know I, for one, hesitate to voice it. But I thought it would be a copout to mention the issue without doing so….

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The fictional Claire Underwood.

‘Stand Your Ground’ asserted in high school stabbing

Don’t know whether you’ve seen this yet today:

LEXINGTON, SC — An attorney for the 18-year-old former Lexington High School student accused of stabbing to death a student at a rival school said Thursday his client will seek to invoke South Carolina’s “Stand Your Ground” law and not face murder charges.

At a bond hearing Thursday morning before Circuit Judge William Keesley, attorney Todd Rutherford said Kierin Dennis was in “fear for his life” and a “victim” rather than the aggressor in the death of Dutch Fork High School senior Da’Von Capers on Feb. 17 following a tension-filled high school basketball game between their two schools….

You may have last seen Rep. Rutherford in court action defending Rep. Ted Vick against a DUI charge, saying that the reason his client was walking so unsteadily was that he had a rock in his shoe. That made The Daily Mail. (OK, that’s the second time today the Mail has been invoked on this blog. It’s a steady job, but I want to be a paperback writer…)

We continue to lock up too many people, for too long

The badly overcrowded San Quentin Prison in California.

The badly overcrowded San Quentin Prison in California.

Federal Judge Michael A. Ponsor, celebrating the fact that the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee has reported out the “Smarter Sentencing Act,” laments all the years that he was forced to put away prisoners for long terms that they are still serving, even though in recent years Congress and the courts have thought better of those mandatory minimum sentences:

In 1984, at the start of my career, 188 people were imprisoned for every 100,000 inhabitants of the United States. Other Western industrialized countries had roughly equal numbers. By 2010 that figure had skyrocketed to 497 people imprisoned in the U.S. for every 100,000 inhabitants. Today, we imprison more of our people than any other country in the world.

How did “the land of the free and the home of the brave” become the world’s biggest prison ward? The U.S. now houses 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. Either our fellow Americans are far more dangerous than the citizens of any other country, or something is seriously out of whack in the criminal-justice system.

The capricious evolution of federal sentencing law makes the moral implications of this mass incarceration especially appalling. In 1987, all federal sentencing became subject to sentencing guidelines designed to smooth out disparities among sentences of different judges. This move was not in itself a bad thing; sentences for similarly situated offenders obviously ought to be roughly the same. The problem was that the appellate courts interpreted these guidelines so rigidly that judges like me were often forced to ignore individual circumstances and hit defendants with excessive—sometimes grossly excessive—sentences….

Now, his sleep is haunted by all of those people who are still imprisoned, and he can do nothing to free them from the unjust sentences to which he condemned them.

I’ve said it before — I see little point in locking up people who have not demonstrated that they pose a physical danger. Unless, of course, they have repeatedly refused to cooperate with more sensible punishments — restrictive paroles, payment of restitution, community service and the like.

Had I been forced for decades to impose the sentences this judge has, I’d likely be sleepless, too.

I recommend you read the whole piece, in The Wall Street Journal today.

AP: No executions in SC in two years

Here’s some good end-of-year news from the AP’s Meg Kinnard:

COLUMBIA, S.C. — For the second year in a row, South Carolina had no executions in 2013.

It mirrors national trends that have moved away from putting inmates to death. In a report that came out this month, the Death Penalty Information Center says fewer and fewer people are being executed nationwide.

Last year, the center says 39 inmates were executed in nine states. That represents a drop of 10 percent from a year earlier.

South Carolina last executed someone in May 2011, when 36-year-old Jeffrey Motts was put to death for strangling his cellmate. He was already serving a life sentence for a 1995 double murder….

I don’t know about y’all, but I had no idea…

Police throw book at car-on-roof suspect

You may have heard about the car found on the roof of a house in Forest Acres.

Here’s more on the subject:

Police have arrested a known gang member whose vehicle landed on the roof of a Forest Acres home following a police chase early Saturday morning.

Antwon Ashley, 31, has been charged with headlights required, reckless driving, hit and run property damage over $10,000, failure to stop for blue lights, trafficking crack cocaine, distribution within the proximity of a school, littering and opposing law enforcement….

Wow. Busy night. Allegedly.

Unfortunately, no one has reported HOW the car got on top of the house. Which is the one thing we want to know, right?

Police say they don’t know.

Nathan Ballentine proposes solution for violent crime in Columbia: Sheriff Leon Lott

At the risk of seeming even more like a guy who thinks of himself as the Editorial Page Editor in Exile, allow me to call your attention to a second good piece on the opinion pages of The State today.

You should read Rep. Nathan Ballentine’s piece promoting Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott as the guy who can lead Columbia to solutions in dealing with its violent crime problem. An excerpt:

The answer to Columbia’s violent crime isn’t what, but who

Recently, the Midlands has seen a dramatic rise in gang violence and senseless shootings. Business leaders, elected officials, USC’s administration and many others have sought answers to the big question: What can we do to stop it? College students, victims’ groups and law enforcement officials all have met and pondered the same question: How can we combat violent crime?

Sheriff Leon Lott

Sheriff Leon Lott

There may not be just one answer, but I know one man who has the experience and sheer determination to find all the answers and get the job done here in Columbia: Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.

In the past, Columbia City Council has been reluctant to cede power to Sheriff Lott, apparently because of small turf battles and out of fear that council members might lose some control over the law enforcement they currently manage….

For many of us, the answer is clear: have Sheriff Lott take over control of city law enforcement efforts and allocate resources where he knows they will best be utilized, city or county. To do anything less is simply sanctioning further violence throughout Columbia.

Leon Lott is a unique individual who transcends politics and has a record of achievement…

Some may be surprised to see a conservative Republican lawmaker — one of Gov. Nikki Haley’s oldest and best friends in the House — praising a Democratic sheriff to the skies. Such people don’t know Nathan Ballentine very well. He will work with anyone, D or R, whom he sees as able to get the job done.

Others, unfortunately, will dismiss this as a white legislator (a Republican, no less — and from Chapin!) promoting a white lawman to ride in and show a town with a black mayor, black city manager and a series of minority police chiefs how to make Five Points safe for white college kids. Not that anyone will put it quite that bluntly, but there may be such a reaction, on the part of some, to that effect.

People who react that way will not be reassured by Nathan pointing out that Sheriff Lott was way out ahead of the city in recognizing the community’s gang problem, and doing something about it. That has long been a touchy subject along the demographic fault line in Columbia, with (and yes, I’m deliberately oversimplifying to make a point) white folks saying of course there’s a gang problem, and black folks saying, you white people see a “gang” wherever two or more young, black males congregate.

Setting race aside, some will react at the “great man theory” that underlies the Ballentine piece — the idea that this sheriff, this man, is the one to do the job. What happens, they’ll say, when Lott is no longer sheriff?

In other words, the barrier to communication runs a little deeper than “small turf battles.” Although that’s a part of it, too. There are multiple reasons why this hasn’t happened already.

There’s an opportunity here. Mayor Steve Benjamin has just gotten re-elected by a strong margin, and he has floated the idea of Lott taking over before. With the strong-mayor vote coming up the potential for change is in the air — although it’s tough to say whether the Lott idea has a better or a worse chance in light of that. (Better if it makes people more willing to give the major more power, worse if they say, if a strong mayor doesn’t run the police department, what’s the point?)

If he takes this up again, Benjamin has the political chops and stature to override a lot (if not all) of the gut-level objections out there, as well as the bureaucratic ones.

Is it doable? I don’t know. But letting the sheriff elected to serve the whole county actually run law enforcement for the whole county is an idea that deserves a full and fair hearing.

Have YOU been harmed by the DOR hacking?

Or do you know anyone who has?

I raised this question, sort of indirectly, earlier — I was questioning the value of Vincent Sheheen trying to get everybody outraged over the hacking, which broke a year ago, when we don’t know whether anyone has been harmed. I was reacting to this passage in an AP story:

It’s unknown if anyone’s identity has been stolen because of the hacking. A Federal Trade Commission attorney has said the selling and trading of stolen information makes it virtually impossible to trace an identity theft case to any particular security breach.

But since that was Friday afternoon, and things I post on Friday afternoons tend to drift off into a vague place, only a few comments were offered, none of them answering the question above.

So, let me know, straight up — do you know of anyone who has good reason to believe he or she was in any way harmed by the breach?

I know someone who has had a terrible time from having her identity stolen, although it happened well before any of this, so I don’t think it’s related.

Someone filed false tax returns for 2011 using my next-to-youngest daughter’s Social Security number and other info. It was a huge hassle getting it all straightened out.

Then, just over a week ago, she got this seriously threatening letter from the IRS saying that she had ignored their previous notices (she had received no previous notices) and that if she didn’t pay more than $7,000 RIGHT NOW her property was going to be seized.

There was no way she had at any time owed the IRS $7,000.

Supposedly, that is now straightened out, also. A guy at the IRS named “Mike” — no surname that I know of — said just to tear up that letter; it was all a mistake. OK, so we’re, um, somewhat reassured. (I assume that if there are any more threats from the IRS, we’re just supposed to say, “Fuggedaboudit. Mike says it’s cool….” We’re counting on Mike being the guy behind the guy.)

I don’t know whether that particular incident is related to the earlier theft or not. I think it is. I’m somewhat confused by the fact that my daughter was out of the country last month, and her purse was stolen — with passport, driver’s license, everything. She had to get a provisional passport from the embassy to get back into the country.

Oh, yes; one other thing — last week I got a notice from Adobe saying that when I bought PhotoShop Express from them several months back, my information was stolen. They want me to sign up for monitoring on their dime, I believe. I guess I’d better get on that; I’ve been busy the last few days and had managed to shove that to the back of my mind…

Unfortunately for Vincent Sheheen, I don’t blame any of these incidents on Nikki Haley.

My point is, people’s identities do get stolen, and it does lead to hassles. So has anyone had any such hassles that they know or merely suspect were related to the Department of Revenue hacking?

And if not, isn’t that sort of odd?

Bradley Manning escapes, having been replaced in his cell by someone named ‘Chelsea’

Are any of y’all watching “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix? No, wait, that’s an archaic question in the age of binge-watching, and of series being released all at once. It should be more like “Have any of y’all watched all or part of ‘Orange is the New Black’?”

Well, we have been, and we’ve seen it through the third episode, which centers around a transsexual — a former fireman named Burset, now living as a woman, specifically as the inmate hairdresser — in the women’s prison in which the series is set. It’s a sympathetic portrayal in the fullest sense — sympathetic to him as a him (in flashbacks) and her as a her, as well as to Burset’s wife and child and the pain they’ve dealt with through the process. I also found myself feeling a bit for the criminal justice system and prison authorities, because of the questions they have to deal with: Do you put Burset in a women’s prison? If so, is the state obligated to provide continued hormone treatments? If the state withdraws such treatments (which it does, allegedly for medical reasons), should Burset still be kept in a facility for women? If Burset commits suicide because all that personal and family sacrifice was for nothing, is the state liable?

But at least in that case, Burset came to the system having already made the big change, and having paid $80,000 for it. (We are given to gather that the imprisonment has something to do with how that money was acquired.) Everybody knew what they were dealing with.

Now, we have the real-life case of Bradley Manning, a young man who served in the U.S. Army as a man, and was convicted and sentenced as a man, and now wants to become a woman. Or is a woman, as his missive on the subject states.

Wow. This has to be frustrating for the Army. Here they went to all this trouble to try and convict and sentence this guy named Bradley, and now there’s some dame in his cell instead.

That’s one of the slicker escapes I’ve ever heard of.

We’re No. 1! We’re number one! (In incarceration rate)

CIubsq7

Let’s see if I can get this gif to work. There’s supposed to be a tumbleweed blowing across the barren crossroad. It’s meant to illustrate this point: “this is what it looks like when you take all of the countries that jail more people than we do and put them into one GIF.”

In other words, nobody exceeds the US of A in this important statistic. And among your more-or-less advanced sort of nations, the OECD nations, No. 2 Israel is way, way behind us.

A list like this is totally unfair to us, of course. It ignores the special problems we have. For instance these other countries don’t have as many poor, black males as… Oh, wait. That doesn’t make us sound any better, does it?

On a brighter note, it seems that among the United Prisons of America, South Carolina is only at No. 9, way behind Louisiana, which has more than triple our rate.

Of course, last time I heard, we had the dubious distinction of spending less per prisoner than any other state — meaning less on security, less on rehabilitation, etc. I was unable to determine in a quick search whether that was still true…

Image vs. reality: The utter powerlessness of the mayor of Columbia

I thought this was an interesting contrast.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin’s re-election campaign sent out the above video, showing the mayor standing before a group of cops — the city’s anti-gang unit — and talking tough about how gangs won’t be tolerated (when he’s not talking about reaching out to troubled youth who are all “very talented” and just need a guiding hand, an apparent contradiction that reflects the different constituencies he’s trying to reach).

So there you have an image of a mayor who is in command of the city’s sentinels, pledging to protect us all from crime.

Then, you have what happened in the real world — the reminder last night that the mayor is not in charge of the police department, and has no control over the person who is:

COLUMBIA, SC — Columbia’s mayor and city manager had a public falling out Tuesday, barely seven months into a workplace relationship that critics once decried as too close.

The split occurred over Mayor Steve Benjamin’s proposal to ban city administrators and politicians from active police crime scenes. City manager Teresa Wilson said she took the proposal as a shot aimed to impugn her integrity because of her decision to go to the site of the July 12 arrest of state civil rights leader Lonnie Randolph.

“I don’t care who it is. I’m not going to allow anybody to attack my personal credibility,” Wilson told The State newspaper after Benjamin’s proposal died in a 5-1 vote. The mayor was the only one of the six council members at the meeting to vote in support of his suggestion that would have allowed City Council members to be censured and employees to be disciplined…

Benjamin is fully aware of how powerless he is, the video image from that press conference notwithstanding. In fact, he put out a release about it today:

Serving as your mayor has been the dream of a lifetime and a great personal honor and I have used this office as forcefully as I can to advocate positive improvements in our city.
I’m proud of the progress we are making in building a safer city, creating jobs, improving education and providing a high quality of life for our citizens.
But recent news has helped to demonstrate that the present “weak mayor” system of governance in Columbia is outdated and structurally flawed. Like all Columbians, I’m frustrated by how long it takes to get things done.
Under the current system, I have:
But ultimately, I am limited to a role of advocacy. The Mayor of Columbia has only one vote on a seven-member council and no administrative authority.
It’s time for a change. It’s time to switch to a “strong mayor” form of government.
Columbia has grown to the point that we need a mayor with modern executive authority. The present system muddies the waters of accountability. The time has come to make me and all future mayors accountable to the voters for the quality and efficiency of city government.
That’s why I’ve asked City Council to meet on August 13 and support a referendum that would let the voters decide whether they want a modern strong mayor form of government or whether they want to continue our present system of city management by committee.
My request of City Council is simple: let the voters decide.
Some will argue that we should keep the present committee system. Some will say they don’t want mayors to have executive powers. That’s okay. Let everyone make their case in a public debate to be decided by the people of Columbia.
Surely no one who believes in the founding principles of America would stand in the way of allowing the public to vote on how they choose to be governed.
I hope my colleagues on City Council will join me in giving voters the chance to make their voices heard. And if Council fails to empower the people, then I will stand strongly behind a petition drive to give voters access to the ballot.
If you agree that it’s time for a change, please consider contacting your City Council members. Let them know you support giving the people of Columbia the opportunity to vote on their form of government.
As always, I thank you for your time and consideration.
Sincerely,


Steve Benjamin, Mayor
City of Columbia, South Carolina

As you know, I’m completely in agreement with the mayor on this. The executive functions of the city should be in the hands of someone elected by all of the city’s voters. There is simply no accountability under the current system.

But while I’m with him on the main point, I was struck by the irony of his mentioning his desire “to enact policies that remove all hints of politics from law enforcement,” on the same day his campaign is touting video of him posed in front of a row of uniformed cops…

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In speaking about race and justice in America, Obama makes good use of bully pulpit, only without the ‘bully’ part

This story about the speech in the WSJ this morning summed up the challenge:

The remarks, delivered without a teleprompter, were a striking example of America’s first black president seeking to guide the country’s thinking on race without inflaming racial tensions or undermining the judicial system.

He managed to do that, and he did it just right. While the topic was a sensitive as all get-out, the president didn’t make a big deal of it. He wasn’t making a pronouncement, or proposing policy. He wasn’t speechifying at all. He started out by lowering the temperature, reducing expectations, making the whole thing as casual as possible without making light of it. It came across this way:

This isn’t really a press conference — we’ll have one of those later. Today, I’m just this guy, talking to you, sharing a few thoughts that I hope will help help black and white people understand each other a little. Not that I’m some oracle or something, I just have some life experiences — just as we all have life experiences — that might be relevant to share…

It was the president using the bully pulpit, only without the bully part. No-drama Obama. Just talking, not speechifying. Thought, not emotion, even though some of the thoughts were about deep, visceral feelings, and the way people act as a result of them. Just, “I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit…”

He had said earlier, on the dispassionate level — what needed to be said: The jury has spoken, and that’s that. He repeated that (read the whole speech here):

The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a — in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.

Going beyond that, he downplayed any expectations that his administration would somehow take up the cudgels against Zimmerman as a way of undoing that verdict:

I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here. Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government — the criminal code. And law enforcement has traditionally done it at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels…

This speech Friday was about trying to explore, just as calmly, the emotional reaction that causes such dissatisfaction with the verdict, appropriate as it may have been given the case:

But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling. You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away.

In other words, look, a lot of white folks don’t understand why a lot of black folks react to this thing the way they do, and here’s my take on that:

There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.

And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

And you know, I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.

Furthermore, a lot of whites may be laboring under the impression that black folks are blind to the fact that young, black men are statistically more liable to be dangerous, especially to each other:

Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is naïve about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context…

I think the African-American community is also not naïve in understanding that statistically somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.

So — so folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys, but they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it or — and that context is being denied. And — and that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different…

Oh, and in case you think he had some pompous, trite notion of launching something so grand as a “national conversation on race,” he deflated that:

You know, there have been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.

On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s a possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.

Again, and again, his manner, his verbal cues, kept the intensity on the down-low: “watching the debate over the course of the last week I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit… And you know, I don’t want to exaggerate this, but…” Throughout, he interjected the phrase “I think,” to make sure you knew he was just this guy talking, and not The Man, speaking ex cathedra.

Another thing that a lot of whites say about blacks is that they “talk about race all the time.” Well, Barack Obama certainly has not. He’s been the president, not the black president. But it’s a fine thing for America that when he does, on rare occasion, decide that OK, in this situation, maybe he should say something about the topic, he does it so deftly, so thoughtfully, so well.

Barack Obama, like any other presidents, has his strengths as well as weaknesses. Some of his strengths were on display Friday.

obamaspeak

Studies: smoking dope can lead to schizophrenia

By Torben Hansen, via Flickr

By Torben Hansen, via Flickr

What I had always heard, and even seen in real life, was that teenagers who smoke a lot of dope tend to have trouble maturing, that things that are going on in their undeveloped brains get derailed, with long-term cognitive effects. Hence the phenomenon of the 30-year-old stoner who seems in some ways like a 15-year-old.

But I don’t recall having read this before, even though the research results seem to have been out there for awhile:

There is a significant and consistent relationship between marijuana use and the development of schizophrenia and related disorders….

Though they receive little attention in the legalization debate, the scientific studies showing an association between marijuana use and schizophrenia and other disorders are alarming. A 2004 article in the highly respected British Journal of Psychiatry reviewed four large studies, all of which showed a significant and consistent association between consumption of marijuana (mostly during teenage years or early 20s) and the later development of schizophrenia. The review concluded that marijuana is a “causal component,” among others, in the development of schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.

A 2007 study in the Lancet, a British medical journal, concludes that using marijuana increases the risk of young people developing a psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia. This risk is greatest—up to a 200% increase—among those who use marijuana heavily and who start using at a younger age.

So I pass it on, for those who still think the stuff’s harmless, and Sheriff Lott was a Blue Meanie for busting the Olympic swimmer.

And yeah, for those who think it’s a terrific argument to say “Alcohol’s worse” — it may be indeed. But we tried outlawing that, and it didn’t work out, because it was too far ingrained in the culture. I’m not ready to give up on this ban. We have enough trouble with alcohol.

So much for the glass ceiling: Woman makes Most Wanted Terrorists list

most wanted

Does Esquire still do its Dubious Achievement Awards? (I ask because, though I was a subscriber back in the ’70s, I haven’t picked up a copy in many a year.)

If so, here’s something for the list:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation announced today that it has named Joanne Chesimard to its “Most Wanted Terrorists” list, with a $2 million reward being offered for her capture. Chesimard has the dubious distinction of being the first woman on the list, which has existed since 2001 and featured such notorious names as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Adam Gadahn. Chesimard, who was a member of a group called the Black Liberation Army, was named to the list 40 years to the day after she allegedly shot and killed a state trooper on the New Jersey Turnpike. “Joanne Chesimard is a domestic terrorist who murdered a law enforcement officer execution-style,” FBI Special Agent Aaron Ford said in a press release. “Today, on the anniversary of Trooper Werner Foerster’s death, we want the public to know that we will not rest until this fugitive is brought to justice.”…

Congratulations, ladies. Another barrier has fallen.

But I have to say, this smacks of tokenism to me. Talk about your diligent affirmative action — reaching back 40 years? There must be scores of deserving, better-qualified male terrorists out there who would just love a crack at this kind of recognition, guys who’ve been very busy keeping their resumes current with far-more-recent acts of mayhem, but they’ve been passed over.

I’ll bet some of them are really going to be ticked when they see this.

Great story: the shootout in Boston, by Cullen of the Globe

Earlier today, I heard Kevin Cullen of The Boston Globe on the radio, giving a riveting, shot-by-shot description of the gun battle between Boston-area cops and the Tsarnaev brothers last Thursday night. It’s a great story, and Cullen tells it well in his column this morning. In fact, I don’t recall ever having read a more compelling story about cops in action in a newspaper. An excerpt:

Joe Reynolds is a young cop in Watertown, and last Friday he was driving, alone in his cruiser, when he saw them.

The bombing suspects.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his brother Dzhokhar were in two cars, following each other closely.

Reynolds called it in.

Do not engage, the dispatcher told him. Not on your own.

The brothers pulled over. So did Reynolds. He didn’t know it, but he was about to interrupt the two as they tried, police believe, to transfer their crude, homemade explo­sives from one vehicle to another.

As Reynolds waited for backup, it felt like hours, but it was only minutes and that backup, in the form of Sergeant John MacLelland, was speeding up the street just as the Tsarnaevs turned and at least one of them opened up on Joe Reynolds. Reynolds threw his cruiser into reverse and sped backwards. He and MacLelland got out and ­began returning fire.

The suspects had to know they had only one chance if they were going to make their way to New York, perhaps to kill again. They had to shoot their way out. But the cavalry was on the way to ensure that would not happen. A bevy of Watertown, Boston, Transit, and State Police were rushing to help….

It’s not quite the same as hearing it in Cullen’s accent. But just pretend that when he writes “cops,” you’re hearing “cawps.” That will help…

AP: Tsarnaev clammed up after hearing Miranda warning

The Associated Press reported this yesterday. Somehow I missed it until now, but it’s interesting enough to go ahead and take note of:

BOSTON (AP) — The surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings acknowledged to the FBI his role in the attacks but did so before he was advised of his constitutional right to keep quiet and seek a lawyer, U.S. officials said Wednesday.BostonSuspect2

Once Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was read his rights on Monday, he immediately stopped talking, according to four officials of both political parties who were briefed on the interrogation but insisted on anonymity because the briefing was private.

After roughly 16 hours of questioning, investigators were surprised when a magistrate judge and a representative from the U.S. Attorney’s office entered the hospital room and read Tsarnaev his rights, the four officials and one law enforcement official said. Investigators had planned to keep questioning him…

Authorities say they have more than enough evidence without a confession, but they no longer have a font of information on the Tsarnaev brother’s actions, plans or associations.

Which sort of makes this a perfect way of raising yet again the question which so divides the left and right of the political spectrum: Should terrorism be treated as a crime, with emphasis on what it takes to get a conviction, or should we shove prosecutorial considerations aside in order to get information to prevent future attacks?

In a way, we got both approaches here, and perhaps the best of both: A few days of interrogation that led to a preliminary conclusion that the brothers acted without confederates and that now that one is dead and the other in custody, there’s no further danger. Now, the prosecutors can do their thing.

And maybe that’s the way to do it. But I’m sure some would argue that he should have heard his Miranda rights immediately, while others would like to have him continuing to sing to investigators. The latter seems the preference of our own Lindsey Graham, according to Politico:

… Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who had been calling for Tsarnaev to be tried as an enemy combatant rather than as a criminal, on Thursday slammed Attorney General Eric Holder and said he sympathized with the FBI.

“This is the Eric Holder crowd basically refusing to embrace interrogation techniques available to us to make us safe,” he said on “America Live with Megyn Kelly.” After reiterating that Tsarnaev should have earned enemy combatant designation, Graham added, “I know that the FBI agent and the counter terrorism experts have to be incredibly frustrated that they could not continue to interview this suspect about what awaits us as a nation. This was a big mistake.”

What do y’all think?

WMDs finally found — on the streets of Boston

A piece of the WMD in question, according to the FBI.

A piece of the WMD in question, according to the FBI.

There’s something very ironic in the charge filed against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev today:

Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was charged today with using a weapon of mass destruction in the April 15 attacks that ripped through a crowd at the finish line of the world-renowned race, killing three people and injuring scores of others

Tsarnaev’s initial court appearance was conducted today by a federal magistrate judge in his hospital room, said Gary H. Wente, circuit executive for the federal courts in the First Circuit. Tsarnaev was able to respond to inquiries, nodding or mouthing yes or no, according to a person familiar with the proceedings in the room…

I realize that the law can have definitions that don’t necessarily match the ones we use out in the real world. But if those pressure-cooker bombs were WMDs, then we found plenty of them in Iraq. Every one one of those IEDs built from artillery shells would qualify.

Usually, we make a distinction between such conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction, which in a military sense refers equally to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

But in civilian criminal law, it’s different, according to Wired:

The actual bomb Tsarnaev allegedly constructed and detonated is pretty much the opposite of what people think about when they think “weapon of mass destruction,” a vague term that usually means a weapon carrying an unconventional payload, like a nuclear, chemical or biological yield. The FBI affiant, Special Agent Daniel Genck, confirms the bombs used pressure cookers for their hulls — “of the same brand” — packed with “low grade explosive” containing BBs and nails and a “green hobby fuse.”

Bashar Assad’s chemical arsenal this ain’t. But, as Danger Room explained after U.S. citizen and anti-Assad fighter Eric Harroun, faced similar charges, “weapon of mass destruction” is a very broad category under federal law. Grenades, mines, missiles and rockets all apply. So do homemade bombs of the sort Tsarnaev allegedly constructed. About all that doesn’t apply are firearms and pyrotechnics gear. No one ever said the law had to coincide with military terminology.

It’s an interesting choice for an initial charge. Not murder or accessory to murder. Not resisting arrest. I’m going to be interested to learn more about this prosecutorial decision…