29 November 2014

Ferguson: We’re Missing the Point; or, How We Can Bloviate Endlessly

On Black Friday, assorted malls, Walmarts’ and other retailers were inconvenienced by citizens protesting the whole Ferguson, MO, situation.  (Even so, the retailers scored about an 8% increase over the sales on Black Friday last year.)

First, we need to separate the “Ferguson-Incident” from “Ferguson-the-Issue.” The concept that the St. Louis grand jury got it wrong and that “we” need a do-over is a suckers' bet. [See note 1]   If anyone defines “success” as what will happen in Missouri, they had missed the point.

The Ferguson-Incident really matters to the people who directly experienced it and to those with direct contacts to it. It matters to the decedent’s family and friends. It matters to the officer. [See note 2]  It matters to the witnesses. It matters to the authorities who are responsible to find out what happened in that particular incident.

But the rest of America is substantially impaired to judge this Ferguson-Incident.  If it represents a starting point for a national discussion, that’s fine.  But the Ferguson-Incident is one data-point in the discussion. No more. No less.

Maybe an out-of-control officer assassinated an innocent victim. Maybe a bad guy ran into an officer minding his own business. I don’t know. If I express an opinion, it has to be based on third- (or more) hand information. There is no way any of us can fairly judge from what evidence has been leaked from the grand jury, almost invariably by someone who has a dog in that fight. Even forensic evidence is merely evidence. Humans have to interpret that and sometimes humans get it wrong.

What? I hear a lot of You-have-to-be-kidding-me’s. A video from a few minutes before shows thus and so.  On the other hand, the ballistics show thus and so.  One witness says one thing and another witness says another. I read it in the the news, so I know what happened.  Don’t I?

As important the Ferguson-Incident is to the people directly involved, the rest of us are doing little but counting faeries dancing on the head of a pin.

Here is the real point: A significant part of the national community perceives that justice is racially biased.  Another part of the national community perceives that it’s not, but if it is, it’s rational.  That’s the issue.  

We need to accept that the majority of folks speaking out actually believe what they are saying. They are right. They are wrong. It doesn’t matter. People act on beliefs which are sincerely held.  When the beliefs clash, human nature seems to tell us to shut our minds, marshal our arguments, and defend our position to the last man.  

After all, if we can prove that the other side is wrong, they will fold their tent and go home.

Won’t they?

Not hardly. The normal human response is to dig in.  Then, ultimately, some belief is accepted by a bare majority. And then you have others who are royally – and genuinely – pissed off. 

Oh, I hear the You-have-to-be-kidding-me’s again.  Can I not see that [whatever] is the truth?

Actually, no.

That’s why the this Ferguson-Incident represents only an example of how we look at race to determine the bias of justice.

Oh, of course the justice system is biased. You are biased.  I am biased.  All God’s children are biased, especially those who are aghast that anybody dares to say that they are biased.  In my experience, the justice system is heavily biased against people who do harmful things to others.  We expect that bias. But the devil is in the details. What other biases exist that we agree is unfair or yields a poorer quality of justice.  

I have some ideas. Other people have different ideas. I suspect that all of the notions have a degree of truth in them. This American social experiment is complicated. There is no single cause for a single effect. We have a constant competition of ideas, all going on at once.

What is a mature society to do?

1 – Slow down. The Ferguson-Incident is a data point. While it is important to the people involved, if the rest of us claim “a piece of the rock,” we make whatever happened in Ferguson the whole point. 

2 – Speed up. Actually, we need to go from a dead stop. Americans say they want answers to the problems of American life. But we want simple answers when the answers are not simple. We need some real answers.  We need to accept that this is a continuing process of never-ending improvement. We need to invite dissent, not merely tolerate it.

3 – We need to confront the entire problem of justice, not just futz around making it look better. If you have a turd, spread icing on it, and decorate it with candles, it’s still not a birthday cake.

A rare group  moderate Senators had an intriguing on how to handle the gun debate.  Some suggested a “National Commission on Violence,” where the participants have not already decided what to conclude.  

How about dealing with a much larger issue: A National Commission for Justice, Violence, Economics, and Responsibility.”  I can picture it letting others than the Al Sharpton’s or Rush Limbaugh’s of the world be heard --respectfully.  I can picture – I think – that we might listen and participate in the discussion without automatically going into a defensive mode.  

This is important stuff.  If we pay attention to that because it because of the Ferguson-Incident, so be it.  But now it’s time to STFU and actually find some answers.

Note 1:   Actually, a do-over is possible. The government can present a case to the grand jury again and again until the grand jury issues an indictment.  I don’t really imagine that any future grand jury would have any more information than the grand jury which is already sitting.  That particular grand jury said that the evidence did not satisfy even a probable cause standard.  That is the easiest proof standard. Also, a federal investigation is possible.  But a federal civil rights violation would be still harder to prove. The Feds have to prove a specific civil-rights-related intent.

Note 2: I use “decedent” and “officer,” rather than any of the victim vs. bad guy, officer vs. bad guy, etc.  I still was not there when it happened. 

02 November 2014

Those Darn Negative Ads; or, If You Can’t Say Something Nice, You’re on the Right Track.

Last week, the Times-West Virginian (the local paper) ran its regular “man in the street” feature. The question was, “Do you pay attention to negative political ads?”

Three of the respondents said no, they didn’t. One guy said he doesn’t pay attention to any political ads.  And one lady said she votes against anyone who runs a negative ad.

If only it were that easy.

To say the least, this was not a valid statistical sampling of this community. Nor was it a valid sample of any community.

The reason the politicians use negative ads is simple: They work.

We have a very weak law of libel in the United States. The First Amendment is so strong that it takes a ton of libel to overcoming it. And for political ads, all bets are (nearly) off. Against a political figure, you can say safely say almost anything with a straight face.

A good example is how Minnesota Sen. Wellstone was treated in his 2002 reelection campaign. Opponents ran ads that mischaracterized some of the senator's  procedure votes.  The opponents said that the Senator wanted to tax all dead people and that he really disliked veterans.  But the ads didn’t mention that these were procedural votes which passed the Senate with scarcely a dissent.  They had nothing to do with any senator’s ultimate opinion.  All Wellstone could was try to ineffectively correct the record.  (Sen. Wellstone died in a plane crash two weeks before the election. His opponent, Norm Coleman,won.)

Peoples fear reactions are much stronger than their reactions to positive things. Wellstone's attempt to limit the damage had nothing like the power of good negative ad.

One particularly nasty campaign is the West Virginia race over the open seat of Sen. Rockefeller.  The Democratic Secretary of State has been attacked because she endorsed Obama in 2008 (Who was she supposed to endorse?) and because she doesn’t strongly (enough) support coal interests. At the same time, she has attacked her Republican opponent because her husband got a job with an investment bank, presumably the because the Republican candidate (who is in Congress) made some sort of secret deal. 

Neither candidate can hope to effectively set the record straight. Their response? – Run more negative ads.

We got three ads in the morning mail yesterday.  Each is an 8 x 10, glossy paper, printed on both sides.  All told, they cost about $1 each to deliver.

One is screed which blames all Democrats for the EPA’s war on coal (and there indeed a war), West Virginia’s “failed educational system” (the Mountain State is consistently in the bottom five), some sort of failure in funding the emergency services (beats me what they’re talking about) and that Obamacare has reduced the number of folks who are covered by insurance.   (I'm not sure, but I kinda doubt it.)  It is produced by “Go West Virginia Inc.”   It’s address is a PO Box in the pleasant little town of Elkins, Randolph County. It is not incorporated in West Virginia. So we know nothing about it.  We have no idea whose money paid for it.

The second is from “Grow West Virginia Inc.”  Oddly, they use the same post office box as “Go West Virginia.”  It accuses an incumbent State Senator for supporting ISIS (!!), mandating Obamacare (the Congress didn’t leave much choice) and for having voted for Cap & Trade.  Cap & Trade must be bad if it’s mentioned in the same breath as supporting ISIS.  Not one in 100 people understand it. I sure don’t.   And Grow West Virginia is equally as obscure as Go West Virginia.     

Third, surprisingly, is one paid for by an actual campaign. This accuses the same State Senator for having “[taken] money away from seniors[‘] programs to line casino investors['] pockets.”   There is no doubt a story there.  By the way, I am pretty annoyed that the campaign bought a list which identified me as a “senior.”

There are 3 items that are supposed to scare me.  What to do?

To be brutally frank, I don’t expect people to do jack about it. The politicians count on the public to accept this shit.  So far, they are right.  People believe all kinds of unbelievable things. People take an outfit like Go/Grow West Virginia as some kind of public service group.  The public is so used to lying that they don’t hold it against anyone.  Sure, money is king in politics.  

But just as there have to be buyers of votes, there have to be people willing to sell.

Are we willing to sell our votes for a lie?  It might be a good idea to question the “factual” basis for a political ad, even one from someone who doesn’t hide behind the Association for Mom & Apple Pie.  

Also, it might be a good idea to assume that anything produced by little groups with an unknown yet nice name has no relation to reality.  That is, they are lies.

And finally, we might hold politicians responsible for what their campaign does.  If s/he lies, s/he proves that s/he is willing to lie for personal gain.  If they both lie, vote for some minor party or write someone in.  

And if after a few campaigns, negative ads have quit working, at least they’ll try some other way to lie.  

In light of the Citizens United decision, we cannot control political propaganda.  It might not be a good idea to try to control it.  But let’s quit selling our votes so damned cheap. It’s embarrassing.

Note to candidates:

Your signs spread everywhere are a legitimate part of the campaign.  That’s until 7:30 PM on Election Day.  Then they are litter, junk and an eyesore.  I admit, they do made great makeshift target holders on a firing range.

02 October 2014

The, er, Washington NFL Team; or What Do We Do With a Tacky Name

A self-described political activist has filed a petition with the FCC to terminate a radio station when it’s license to operate comes up for renewal. 

The reason:   The station uses the word “Redskins” to describe the NFL’s Washington team.

The petition states that the term is a vulgarity.  The U.S. Patent & Trademark office canceled the Washington trademark earlier this year.  This petition wants it stamped out of the lexicon entirely. This is another version of the idiotic argument, “How dare they say that!” I bet that the guy who wants the license cancelled is sincere. But I hope that he knows that he is exaggerating for effect. 

Vulgarity?  Nah.

But let’s take a look at the term “Redskins.” In fact, the evolving ethic of respect has rendered the term, well, pretty tacky.  This isn’t the 1930 western movie era. This society continues to change. Words change meaning or impact. “Redskins” is an example.

For those who have trouble accepting that, let’s try a little experiment. Imagine that some term commonly deemed derogatory were attached to you.  For instance, I might take offense at baseball team called “The Shysters” or a football team called “The Fat Guys.” It would not matter to me what the innocent intent with which the term was chosen. It’s just disrespectful.  (Actually, I don’t think that I would care what some sports team was called. But most would. )  Even if “The Fat Guys” originated in the Fatty Arbuckle era when it was considered OK, now lots of people would be offended.

“Redskins” has become really stupid. It’s time for the Washington team to find another team name.  

We need to apply our sense of values to each concept individually.  Other American Indian names possibly may have a less negative effect. I’m OK with “Atlanta Braves.” Some disagree. That is the First Amendment in action. However, the “Cleveland Indians” is approaching tackiness. Others disagree.  Ditto.  (I usually use the term “American Indian.” Russell Means named the 60's movement the “American Indian Movement." I respect Russell Means, and I’m sorry that he’s gone.)

The FCC Chair agrees that the name is tacky, and intends to take the petition seriously.  The FCC Chair has his First Amendment rights like the rest of us.  He is perfectly welcome to conclude that it’s tacky, even vulgar.  

However, the FCC is wrong to take this notion of banning a word seriously, no matter how sincere their personal beliefs. It is not the FCC’s place to monitor language. Neither can the government impose some new standard because it is trendy.

One answer is to let the marketplace deal with the issue. In the past, reappraisals of language and ways of looking at things has operated mostly in the absence of government. It works slowly, but it works very well.  In fact, that is works slowly is the reason that it works well.  Whoever is behind the times will themselves be convinced that it is in their best interests to move along with the times.

I doubt that makers of sports apparel particularly care, but I won’t be buying “Redskins” wear.  (Warning: If you were born in 1949, you might object to what I do wear.)  They don’t care because I wasn’t going to do any of that anyway. However, when the portion of the public who are going to consider going to the games and so forth object, the team owners will listen. This is not to say that the anti–name crowd needs to shut up. Write letters to the editor.  Hell, picket games. The First Amendment certainly applies to them, too.

There is a dark footnote to any proposed FCC  action. They work for us. They are not wiser than us, they are not our mothers, and their liberty is just exactly the same as the humblest citizen. We should not react to some fellow proposing this licensing deal with with a knee-jerk conclusion that his beliefs are wrong. We should apply our sense of values.   But no government, whatever you call it, conservative, liberal, whatever, is entitled to dictate our sense of values.

14 September 2014

The Confederate Flag - Beware!

Have you ever wondered how some of the nitwit garbage get selected for the news?  It’s a mystery to me.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a high school football game in Ellicott City, MD.  That’s is in Howard County, close to Washington, DC.  Sometime during game, a kid unfurled a Confederate flag.  Some teacher or other adult told the kid to knock that crap off.  The flag was quickly furled.

Kids - You have to keep after them.  They have not learned discretion.

OK - That’s not much of a story.

But it made the national news.  It was the intense overreaction by adults which made the news.

No, I can’t put “responsible adults,” because they must not have full-time jobs.  They found the time - hell, they embraced the time - to do a Hindenburg Disaster Model - “Oh, the humanity, . . .”

The school sent home a letter to all parents of both schools explaining how they had acted drastically and decisively to the flag.  (I really do wish that schools would think about contacting parents concerning the drug problem in schools.  Fat chance.)

The Howard County School Superintendent said that "The Confederate flag is a powerful symbol of racism, hatred, and unspeakable acts against humanity." 

A Howard County Executive - nothing to do with schools, but he wanted aboard the Outrage Train - put in a Facebook post that "Public displays of the Confederate flag evoke division, hate and subjugation — precisely the opposite of the values we hold in Howard County . . . We must teach our kids why this is such a hurtful symbol to so many peuople. We must fight against injustice and intolerance in any form, especially at our schools."

Oh, for heaven’s sake.

The Confederate Flag is not evil.  Originally, it was a symbol of a not-quite-a-country.  But the point was pretty much put to bed in April, 1865.

Now, it is mainly a symbol for good-ol’-boys and rednecks.  (By the way, I am all for rednecks.  The term originates in 1921, when members of the miners union identified themselves with red bandanas around their necks as they engaged in the West Virginia mines wars.  It has taken on a Larry-the-Cable-Guy aw-shucks model since.)  Look up “redneck”on Amazon.  They have 20 pages of “redneck products,” from a “Redneck parking sign,” to various T-shirts to a camouflage belt to hold a 6-pack.

I do not fly the Confederate flag.  It just doesn’t interest me.  In fact, it’s distinctly tacky.  But so far, I’ve been able to avoid an attacks of the vapours when I see it. 

A couple of days ago, I stopped in quite early to a dry cleaners.  There was only one employee there, and I picked out her car.  It’s front was toward me, and there was a license plate: A Confederate flag, with the works “Dixie Chick” written on it, and in the middle (for some unknown reason) there was a deer’s head.  I listened as I went in and did not detect a hint of the young lady intended to succeed from the Union.  In fact, I bet she works harder than the Superintendent and Executive of Howard County, and at something worthwhile.  

I wonder - What if a student has displayed a blue flag with one star on it?  I imagine the reaction would have been “What the hell is that?”  But if we are sincerely afraid that a flag on display unravels the fabric of a civilized society, someone better get that flag hidden.  Because in 1865, it meant the same thing as the “Stars & Bars.”  (Remember the “Bonnie blue flag that bears a single star”?)   

It’s not the flag.  It’s the intention of the people who display the flag.  If I display some flag that demonstrates that I’m an asshole, feel free to say it, believe it, or hold your own flag.  This is America.

But, but, but - I’m not smart enough to censor other people. Nor am I smart enough to state what they believe by osmosis. 

There is a serious side to this that is not considered real often.  The folks who do think that they are smart enough to censor someone think that they improve society, make it kinder and better, and fight tooth decay to boot.  And then they go home, with a good feeling that they have done something good.  And the very real problems of our society go on their merry way.

It leaves more work for those whose eyes are on the ball.

Pippa passes.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Do less-that-imaginative teachers still assign this topic to students?

I well remember the struggle to memorialize my summer for some teacher who couldn’t think of a more interesting topic.  And precisely how to discuss a kid’s summer?  Let’s face it, “I messed around” was accurate, but it wasn’t long enough.  And it was dull, almost as dull as the topic.  But ever wedded to bullshit, we prattled on about trivial that made us look, well, boring.

Oh, but it was such a delightful shade of boring!

I have had a slightly more active summer this year than I did as a youth.  

First, I worked to get the office in shape for me to be out for a while.  

Then I had gastric bypass surgery, and settle in for about 6 weeks to recover.  That was kinda dull, but I was ready for a dull time.  

And, other than the surgery itself, it was good.

Then, I had a stroke.

That was bad.  Also not nearly as bad as it could have been, so believe me, I’m not complaining.

And so, these Dispatches will now resume the hit-or-miss publication “schedule,” on the possibility that I can think of anything to say.

Pippa passes.

14 June 2014

Requiem for Baby Jane

This week, I finished a homicide case. The case had been pending for over a year.  

Two parents were charged with child abuse resulting in death. They entered pleas of guilty to child neglect resulting in death and to conspiracy. Each was sentenced to a long penitentiary term.

The why’s and wherefore’s of trial preparation and plea negotiations and so forth are things I will never discuss about any case. No matter, that’s not the point this evening.

The victim was, let’s call her, “Baby Jane,” a 22-month-old little girl.

The facts as reported in the press and the public file are disturbingly simple:

Baby Jane was discovered without pulse or respirations at home. The mother was present. The father was at work. The mother called in-laws, who lived nearby, who in turn called 911. The in-laws came to the home before fire and EMS arrived.  Grandpa did CPR on his granddaughter.

That is hard duty.

The was no evidence of a traumatic causation nor of immediate medical causation. Subsequent toxicology tests showed that the cause of death was methadone toxicity, in other words, a drug overdose.  The test of hair samples showed that the child ingested methadone periodically at least over some few weeks.

The legal case is concluded. There will be no appeals that I know of. I will not discuss any other facts about the defendants. I will not even discuss the ultra-high emotional content of the sentencing hearing.

Today’s discussion is about villains in general and others involved in this one drama. These are the “unindicted co-conspirators,” to borrow a phrase from Watergate.

Some of them are easy to figure out.

Others, we know pretty well – to borrow a line from Pogo, “We have met the enemy and they are us.”

Of course, there are unindicted co-conspirators very close to the chain of causation. These parents – both drug addicts – did not go to the methadone factory and buy the pills. There is a distribution chain. It’s very likely that the first couple of links in the chain were legal. And then the drugs passed into the hands of the drug dealers and drug sellers, a scurvy lot who are an inflamed boil on the buttocks of the body politic.

Some sellers of drugs are themselves addicted, and spread their infection to support their ever-more expensive highs. At some point as we go up the distribution chain, we will find people too smart and too greedy to take the drugs themselves. Naturally, they’re the ones who make the most money. They’re the ones who might whisper to you that they “live the dream.” They are the Pablo Escobar/Tony Soprano wannabes who are “dangerous men.”

(At the higher distribution levels, the great majority of offenders are men.)

Incidentally, these folks mostly are dangerous when they get hopped up and hang around in groups. Individually, they are a bunch of pansies.

At the low-end of the distribution chain, we often find those with legitimate prescriptions who sell off part of their scripts for a little mad money.

And then there are the methadone clinics and buprenorphine (e.g., Suboxone®) clinics.  These are medical offices where opiate addicts go to receive controlled, ever-diminishing doses of opiates so that they can quit without going through the holy hell of withdrawal.

One practical consideration is that most of these clinics are strictly “cash & carry.” At $300 cash per ½ hour visit plus the cost of drugs, the last thing some of these outfits want is to create ex-customers. Those taint the clinics which really do try to do some good. These outlaw clinics are basically licensed drug dealers.  A lot of the opiates which get into the illegal distribution system start there.

Oh, let’s not forget the drug industry!  The companies get paid when the first link in the distribution chain is forged. The more drugs, the more money.  They have to be responsive to regulations meant to limit illegal distribution, but they don’t have to like it. When something threatens gross sales, drug companies are quite effective in”lobbying.”

Oh, I’m a cynic – I put “lobbying” in quotation marks because it’s often only half of whisker away from bribery.

Seldom do you and I see the hands of the drug companies in this lobbying. Rather, they set up false “grass-roots” lobbying groups with innocuous names like “Citizens for Fair This” or “People for Good That.”  Those do-good groups are funded, of course, by the drug companies.

Last winter, the West Virginia Legislature considered a proposal to make pseudoephedrine a prescription drug. Pseudoephedrine is the active ingredient in Sudafed®, Claritin®, and many other brands of allergy medicines and decongestants.

Also, with a little dangerous home chemistry, pseudoephedrine can be converted into methamphetamine. Meth is one of our most addictive and destructive illegal drugs. Particularly, it is ravaging rural areas in the United States.

In response to the legislation, drug companies through their false-face proxies ran ads about government restricting the rights of the people.  Specifically, the right to cure their own sniffles.

A 2012 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that “up to 35%” of the methamphetamine sold illegally is made from pseudoephedrine medications.   Funny, the ‘”citizens” groups’ ads don’t say anything about that.

:::: Sniff ::::

Well, that’s enough miscreants to fill all our reservoirs of self-righteous indignation. The nerve, the gall, and by God somebody needs to do something!


Hey, you didn’t Harrumph!  Harrumph, dammit!

And if that somebody doesn’t do something, knowing full well that these drugs are killing adults, youth and babies, don’t they qualify for their own time in the pillory?

Yes, they do. We do. We the people, friends, me included, are at the edge of the unindicted co-conspirators.

The death of citizen participation has been a theme – or pedantic hobbyhorse – and these Dispatches before.

We have convenient and unrealistic expectations of the justice system as a whole, particularly law enforcement.

It’s convenient because if it is law enforcement’s duty to prevent all crimes, we do not have to participate, and so the failure to prevent crime is not our fault. 

It’s unrealistic because law enforcement really doesn’t do very much direct prevention. Law enforcement primarily is reactive. Something bad happens, someone calls the police. Yet we expect every police officer to be the blue-suited Santa Claus, the one who “Knows who’s been bad or good.” And then we hope that the villains will “Be good for goodness’ sake.”

Which belief is part of the continuing triumph of hope over experience.

So if not the police, who?

Take drug dealing, the acts which helped kill baby Jane. Did neighbors or friends know that drug deals were going on? Some of them, probably. Did those who knew or suspected call on law enforcement? Probably not. Would most citizens be willing, voluntary witnesses in a drug case?  I haven’t seen very many yet. Why?

We’re back to a formula which comes from my friend Justice Richard Neely. He wrote a book called Take Back Your Neighborhood: Organizing a Citizen's Patrol Force to Fight **, (Ballantine Books, 1991).  In it he talks about how citizens have divorced themselves from their personal stake in the safety of communities.

Citizens as a group are disinterested. And lazy. And scared.

Disinterested – It’s not our job.  We have better things to do.

Lazy – We're people who whine if we don’t get electric windows in our automobiles.  “Minutemen,” hell, we won’t wait a minute for the microwave popcorn.

Scared – Criminals are scary. They posture as really tough people. They depend upon that appearance, that intimidation to keep citizens on the sidelines.

And while most of them are pansies, some individuals are dangerous.

So that threat is brought to us.

I don’t know how to answer the question about how any particular person should respond. I can no more define honor than Congress can create morality by the prestidigitation of statute.

I do know that unless the dynamic changes, all of the Baby Jane’s will just be on their own.

A final word about law enforcement: 
It needs noted that we treat police officers like pimps at the church picnic. We bitch in the presence of our children if we get ticketed for stupid driving. We pay them very poorly. We applaud government saving money by defunding pensions, even those of officers still in pension systems which preclude them from Social Security retirement.

Sometimes I wonder why they stay on the job.

17 May 2014

A Young Fellow, a Young Lady & A Workin’ Man: Hard Times Hillbilly Tales

I spend more time on the road at out-of-town courthouses these days than I do at the Marion County Courthouse.

I love experiencing the feeling of “home” in many courtrooms of small, real towns.

Most of my work these days is in a small, two-county circuit. This isn’t LA Law, nor is it Boston Legal. This is a place where people from the real world come to Court, real and with all of their blemishes. It’s a place where everyone really does search for the truth, search for solutions and try to learn from one another.

This week, I ran into a couple of fellows and a young woman around the Courts where I work. Each had lessons to learn and lessons to teach.

Many kinds of hearings are “closed,” or non-public.  To keep cases rolling, lawyers often go into the Courtroom to wait on their own cases to be called. While they wait, they may listen or work or read.

I was sitting in the jury room at the back of a Courtroom during such a hearing because that’s where the chairs, tables and power outlets are.  I only heard a little bit of the content of the hearing that was going on, except that it involved a young man and the hearing was not going well for him.

That hearing ended and some other case was called.  The bailiff brought the young man back to the jury room to wait for transportation somewhere, and they left him there with me. His own lawyer was in and out.

I started talking with this young man – I’ll call him Bart – not about his case or the law or anything legal, just a conversation between people – who he is, who I am, were he goes to school and so forth.

From the little I heard from his hearing and from my conversation with him, I wonder if this young fellow ever had been really listened to or really given thoughtful guidance – or even ever given a bit of human respect. I bet that he has largely been ignored throughout his life until his behavior got so out of whack that someone would suddenly flare, give him an order, and chastise him.

Well, there you have two common schools of thought about child rearing in action.

One is to give a child the maximum freedom to develop (often that means to ignore them). Then, you can depend on the youth’s environment – schools, friends, and those who profit by tempting kids – to give them the information and the philosophy (“values”) which they will use in life.

The other is the “wagon boss” school of thought.  There, a parent – any adult, really – “outranks” the kid.  So when an adult wants some specific behavior from the kid (often something which benefits the adult, not the kid), the adult gives orders. And orders are to be obeyed, dammit, because “I have the power to give orders and you don’t, Bart.”

Neither approach works well. Each is an example of high-contrast thinking – thinking in “black and white.”

There is some attraction to high-contrast thinking.  Mainly, it’s really easy. You declare your set of beliefs and filter everything through them rather than straining things through a brain. That eliminates thought and eliminates doubt:  “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

Often, the result of either kind of thinking or, especially, using both inconsistently, is what Bart experienced – a trip to Court with unpleasant consequences.

I only had a little while, maybe a half hour or so, to talk with Bart. This may not have been in the least significant to him. We talked about manhood and what honorable men do and believe. I happened to be reading a book on the subject, so I wrote out a quote and gave it to him:

Honorable men refuse to wallow in the small and bitter.
Honorable men refuse to hate life because something once went wrong.
Honorable men don't build monuments to their disappointments, nor do they let others brand them and curse them to their destruction.
Honorable men seek out the highest definition of their lives, the nobler meaning granted by heritage, by their ancestors’ dreams and their parents’ hopes.
Honorable men cry out to God until curses are broken and a grander purpose is achieved.
Honorable men don't settle for lives of regret.
[From Mansfield’s Book of Manly Men, by Stephen Mansfield and Gen. William Boykin (Thomas Nelson, 2013)]

He read this and we talked a bit about it.   Then, he folded the page and slipped it into his back pocket.

Was this significant to him?

In and of itself, probably not. Any young person needs a lot of ongoing information and encouragement on responsible behavior, on personal responsibility, on self-reliance, and on cheerful cooperation – and not in the form of orders.  Young people need reasoned discussions. Those are not always easy, because young people are naturally hardheaded at times.  (Remember your own youth?)   It’s a lot easier to ignore them or boss them than it is to engage them in genuine discussion. But ignoring them and bossing them aren’t very useful approaches.

Reasoned discussions may lead – we hope – to young people adopting responsible behaviors and attitudes, not because they were told to but because THEY decided that these make up the right way to live.

Reasoned discussion also recognizes that the perfect person has yet to be born. [I recognize one exception to that, but not all belief systems agree.]   And so everybody screws up.  It’s what you do with screwups that matters most of all.

We as the older people have a duty to “minister” to the young.   Sure, a lot of them will consider our opinions pure bushwah and go try out really stupid stuff.  And sometimes, just sometimes, they will try the teachings of others on for size and build their own strong lives.

If we give them that one brick at a time, they have the capacity to build on their own wall of a fulfilling life. But if  we don’t give them bricks, the wall will not appear.

When you lament, “What’s wrong with kids today?,” one answer you really need to consider is that “WE are what’s wrong with them.  WE have dropped the ball on our responsibilities as elders.”

The concept that “It takes a village” has gotten a bad rap. To some, it has come to represent some sort of collective form of uniformity and intolerance of individuality. But it does take a village, one responsible and individual elder at a time.

On the way out of town after Court, I ran into a young woman. I’ll call her Sarah. Sarah is a pleasant young lady who works at a convenience store counter. As I was going into the store, I met a good friend who is the chief bailiff of the Court. 

If Court where a church – and in some ways it is – he would be the Head Deacon, the person who supports the machinery and implements decisions, that all-important, always-ready “utility outfielder.”

When I went to the counter to buy a bottle of milk, Sarah asked, “Who’s that cop you were talking to?” So I explained who he is and what he does and who I am and what I do. It was a pleasant conversation. As she was giving me my change, I commented to her, “Miss, they are police officers, not “cops.” They consider that disrespectful. Everybody’s entitled to respect.” She stood silently for a moment, then in a perky voice replied, “Yeah, you’re right!”

Here again, I do not expect that one encounter will permanently modify any behaviors.  It’s just one brick. But that’s all we can give young people on any given day, that one brick. If enough of us do it and do it consistently, then we as a village will have given young people the bricks, the tools and the blueprints to build that wall.

The next day, I went back to the same town for a hearing in Family Court. There, I met a gentleman near my own age. This fellow is one of the Heart of America “Workin' Men.” These are folks who build what we buy, fix what we break and who use the strength of their bodies and the agility of their minds to keep everything going.

I represented this gentleman’s wife in a divorce and he was there without a lawyer. These were very nice people who were making the best of an unfortunate situation. They had made their own agreement, which just needed a tweak and written down.  After doing so, we were still outside the Courtroom waiting for our hearing. 

This gentleman and I began to talk about life and society and so forth. He had been laid off from a manufacturing job when a plant closed a few months ago. He is looking for work and trying to get by on $200 a week unemployment. He said if he could find a job for $210 per week, he would take it in a heartbeat. I believe him. This is what working people do. They work.

Another bailiff was there also chatting with us. He had a line on jobs in a factory from which he had retired. (Working as a bailiff is his retirement job.) The gentleman in the case said that he was going to drop off an application on his way out of town. I hope he gets that job.

We also talked about the relationship of older workers to younger workers. Older workers are a steadying influence. As a rule, they show up promptly at the beginning of their shift and work steadily all day. Also, older workers seem to work more safely and without taking dangerous shortcuts. Younger workers need these examples.

We also talked about the preference employers seem to give to the young in hiring. A common reason cited is that younger workers have better health, strength and energy as a rule. But this gentleman gave us a reason that I for one had never considered: The older worker is less afraid of the boss, particularly the boss who is abusive or who is prone to seek dangerous shortcuts.

So the mix of workers hired by a company says more about an employer that I ever considered.

Oh, why “Hillbilly Tales”?

That’s a nod to the late Jim Comstock. He was the editor and publisher of “The West Virginia Hillbilly.” That was a weekly (“weakly,” Jim called it) tabloid-size newspaper on events, society, culture and living in West Virginia. On the back page of every edition was Jim’s column. Seldom was it an “editorial.”  Usually, it was a pithy and reflective essay on life. Every couple of months, Jim wrote a column called simply “Hitchhiker.”

Comstock frequently picked up hitchhikers as he drove the back roads. He wanted to know new people from every walk of life. When he picked up someone with an interesting story or from whom he learned something or to whom he gave something – sometimes all three with the same person in the same column – he wrote about it.

I learned a lot from these columns. 

I still learn a lot from any kind of person. 

And I hope I give them something to.

We ARE all in this together.

03 May 2014

The Genickschuss Protocol: Toward Better Executions for Oklahoma and America

Prison authorities in Oklahoma botched an execution last week. The Internet is aflame and All Decent People are aghast.

And it’s mostly a load of horseshit.

Mr. Clayton Lockett was found guilty of murder in 2000 for raping, shooting and burying a woman alive.  He had a jury trial. He had appeals in both the Oklahoma state court system and the federal system.  He presented various challenges through the time-honored – even sacred – writ of habeas corpus.

Lockett lost all those cases.

And so, he was set to die by lethal injection. In Oklahoma, the state uses a series of three drugs, midazolam (sedative; render unconscious), vecuronium chloride (paralytic; stop respiration); and potassium chloride (stops the  heart) as its “execution cocktail.” These medications are administered intravenously through a little plastic catheter which is threaded into a vein.

In Lockett’s case,the IV infiltrated or “blew,” that is, rather than going into the vein, a lot of the medication escaped under the skin. The state executioners hadn’t inserted a second IV, which was darn poor planning.  The execution was supposed to take less than 10 min. and it actually took around 45 min.  Lockett mumbled that something was wrong, tried to rise (“writhed,” according to one witness), and ultimately died of a heart attack. 

The news has been full of state officials swearing that they did everything they could to send Mr. Lockett peacefully on his way and lots of other folks who swear that Lockett’s death was equivalent to being drawn and quartered.

(“Drawn and quartered” is a phrase bandied about these days by people who have no idea what it is.  In short, it involves slow torture and really gruesome abuse leading to death.)

At the outset, let me say a few words about the death penalty. As a rule, I really don’t like it. Much of the general antipathy to the death penalty is moral in origin, which is fine. Perhaps I’m a lousy Christian, but the moral thing is not what puts me off the most.

There are three reasons I have problems with the death penalty and the first is by far the most prominent:

You cannot trust the courts. 

Maybe that makes me a bad lawyer and a bad citizen.

But it’s still true.

Starting in law school and ever since, often I have concocted little hypotheticals in my mind about cases. For death cases, there is a perfect storm that’s possible.

Juries are drawn from that pitiful pool of talent called Humanity. The other players are drawn from even a smaller and more pitiful pool, the members of Humanity who have gone to law school. All of these people are somewhere between brilliant and stupid; humble and arrogant; and compassionate and immensely harsh.  

If you get just the wrong mix, you may kill an innocent person.  And that’s guaranteed to happen sooner or later. There have been a number of outright exonerations of people on death row when evidence was re-examined using modern science. 

In other words, we have officially whacked a few innocent people.

A second thing to consider is that prison often is subjectively worse in the eyes of the convict than a death sentence.  Lots of media types and political whores talk about coddling criminals in nice, soft prisons. That’s total bullshit.  Prisons are horrible places. Inmates have absolutely zero privacy, near zero protection from harm at the hands of other inmates, lousy low-bidder medical care (much worse than Medicare or Medicaid) and for lifers, virtually no hope of seeing sunlight other than through bars ever again. It’s not at all unusual that a criminal who is given a long prison sentence will commit suicide rather than serve the sentence. Maybe a life sentence is not intended to be cruel, but that’s the effect. We don’t have to bemoan that fact but neither should we ignore it.

Finally, it’s way cheaper to house criminals than to kill them. Executions soak up tons and tons of tax dollars. Governments can keep prisoners housed and secure from the outside world for about $4 an hour. The appointed lawyers who are qualified to work on death cases make something between $60 and $150 an hour. Add to that prosecutors, judges and all the support staffs, and the cost of the death case leaves the cost of prison in the dust.

Now I can hear Bubba the Intellectual saying that we give criminals too many opportunities for appeal. Well, it’s back to Concern #1.  Mistakes are certain to happen.  It would be immoral and unjust not to have cases completely reviewed.

Nevertheless, I’m still okay with the death penalty being available. Why? That’s entirely personal: I have met a very few defendants who really needed to be totally and permanently excised from the Body of Humanity. I’m just fine with with wishing them luck on their way to the Happy Hunting Ground.  I hope that God forgives them and lets them have an eternal life which is better than anything they had on Earth. I’m also totally fine with them being gone from Earth.

A jury and a dozen + judges have agreed that Lockett met the criteria for a trip to execution. It’s possible they were all wrong in this case. But that’s not the way to bet. There is such a thing as a white raven. But there just aren’t too many of them.

John Wayne Gacy?  Ted Bundy?  Jeffrey Dahmer?  Adios, amigos.

So Mr. Lockett took his reluctant walk to the execution chamber. In 45 min., he was dead. I suppose “botched” means that his death was not instantaneous and not totally peaceful.

Our goal in capital cases should be that the death of the convict is quick and limited in pain. There are those who are big on the “eye for an eye” thing but that’s neither just nor justified. Gov. Dukakis’s campaign flamed out when he was asked if he would support execution for someone who killed his wife. He made an academic, even foppish, response. As lots of people later pointed out, a much better response would have been something like, “Hell yes I want him executed.   I’ll do it personally and with a dull knife personally. And that’s why we have to have dispassionate and responsible juries and judges so we can be sure that criminal punishment is not based upon inevitable irrationality but upon fixed standards of justice.”

(Just so we don’t blame it all on that, remember that when Gov. Dukakis drove that tank with a silly grin on his face, he made an equally egregious boner.)

But, but, but  – there’s another seldom acknowledged reason that people get all lathered up about methods of execution. Is this the Land of the Free? Beats me. It seems it’s getting to be the Home of the Sissies.

Oh, and the moral hypocrites.

Even those who love the death penalty are, by and large, not willing to participate directly. Which is okay. Those are hard things to do and not many people are emotionally qualified. Also, most of the public wants a bit of salve for the collective conscience by making executions not just quick and painless, but sanitary. No blood. No mess. People want a Charles-Foster-Kane-passing-away with “Rosebud” on his lips, the candle gently blown out.

Isn’t reality a bitch?

There are groups among the readers of these Dispatches who know death in some of it’s really gruesome forms. First among them are military combat veterans, most of whom have seen death, injury and destruction up close and personal. 10% of the annual federal budget goes for veterans benefits and programs.  I don’t begrudge those folks one dime.

Then there are the public service workers (police/fire/EMS) and the entire medical community. They know this one really hard fact: Death is ugly.  Often death is slow.  Often death is painful.

I think tonight of some deaths I have attended.  There are a lot of those folks who would have traded the hand they were dealt for a “botched” Oklahoma execution in a heartbeat.

The way those people died was not fair to them. They were dealt a bad hand, and it’s just not fair.   In life, Lockett likely was dealt a pretty bad hand.  Toward the end, he got caught slipping aces out of his sleeve.  That he got a short term medically induced death just is not this great tragedy. Those who suggest that he was punished in some way beyond what life, fate and/or random chance punishes most people are living in a fantasy world.

All that being said, there is a better way to execute people. If we as a society want to stick to drugs, there are lots and lots of drugs and drug combinations out there that seem to work well by accident among illegal drug users. Maybe this multi-drug cocktail idea used by governments is mostly smoke and mirrors to make it look all neat, abstract and terribly scientific.

Even so, the way society does executions today still has a lot of macabre ceremony to it, something like the Black Mass. There are optional visits from clergy who provide pastoral but not corporeal support.  There is a last meal, the menu always reported breathlessly in the press for death-tittilated voyeurs, like little boys sneaking a look at a skin magazine. There is a solemn march to the death chamber, the insertion of the IV, the reading of the death warrant, the solemn “Do you have any last words?,” and then the prayerful nod of the warden to the people behind the curtain to press the gaily colored switches of Doom.

They might as well shake rattles and chant a little.

Oh, the better way!

There is a German word for a very simple concept, genickschuss.  (Ge-NEEK-shooss).  It is a simple protocol. The executioner puts a pistol to the base of the convict’s skull with an upward trajectory and pulls the trigger. It doesn’t take a large round, and it doesn’t even necessarily make a whole lot of mess. It is instantaneous, so much so that it is painless.

I doubt we’ll ever get the guts or the honesty to dispatch people in this kind but direct manner.  We do so love to fiddle with trivialities.

17 April 2014

Three Idiots and a Hero; True Stories

Portland Oregon:

The Portland city water authorities have decided to dump 38,000,000 gallons of treated water from an open reservoir. Sadly, the water is polluted.

Why, you might ask, is the water polluted?

Because some guy pissed in it.

No, this is not a joke. Someone saw a guy urinating through a fence into the reservoir. So they’re going to empty the reservoir.

Since the pollution standards of the EPA are metric, let’s all get on the same page here. 38,000,000 gallons equals 143,640,000 (or so) liters.

Adults urinate four times a day, about 500 mL at a time, for a total of 2 L a day. So for that guy to put out 0.1% of the amount of liquid in the reservoir, he would have to piss in the reservoir exclusively for 393 years.

The amount of urine put into the reservoir in this one little whiz was one part in 286,000,000, or about 0.0034 mg/l.  (milligrams per liter).  This assumes that urine has a specific gravity of 1.0.  Since Portland threw away 143,640,000 liters of water, I’d say that the specific gravity assumption is indeed “close enough for government work.”  (I almost said “pissed away,” but refrained.)

OK, so the fellow who used the reservoir as a pissoir polluted the water to the tune of 0.004 mg/l.

Let’s say he had been pissing benzene. The EPA standard for that is 0.005 mg/L.  That’s the same as the standard for carbon tetrachloride.

You can load water up with arsenic to the tune of 0.01 mg/l; barium, 2 mg/l.  To really pollute the water, the guy would have had to pee 287 kg of arsenic.  Or 143 kg of toluene.

But 0.5 kg of pee?  Darn, that guy has some polluted urine.

God bless the Oregonians for keeping the public safe.

Wait a minute - open reservoir.  Do they let birds fly over?  Oopsie.

Washington, DC:

GM put defective ignition switches in some few million automobiles. The switches may lock up while driving, freezing the steering wheel. There have been numerous accidents, lots of injuries, and some deaths.

GM went bankrupt in 2009. And so it’s asking the Bankruptcy Court to invalidate any injury claims which arose before the bankruptcy. That sounds fairly dirty, but that’s what bankruptcy law is all about.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut is one of the politicians all in a lather: “The company should simply do right by these victims and establish a compensation fund that will make them whole.”

Maybe that’s the moral thing to do. This evening, I don’t know.

But one thing I do know is that there is no compensation fund which exists that is going to make these people whole unless it involves a time machine. If someone can go back and un-wreck these people, then maybe they can be made whole. The accidents may have caused money problems and money can fix those. But permanent injuries? Dream on, money doesn’t work.

Other than the fact that the dear Senator has a nonsensical conclusion, I’m not going to throw out any more opinions.

It would just be nice to see anyone in government think clearly.

London, England:

A hair salon in London has posted a photograph of Kim Jong Un, the maximum grand pontiff of North Korea. Okay, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, even though it’s not democratic and not a Republic.

The salon posted a message along with the photo: “Bad hair day? 15% off all gent cuts through the month of April.”

Kim Jong Un’s white sidewalls and fuzzy top represent what is commonly deemed a fairly unattractive haircut.

Okay, moderately funny little joke. I remember when I was a kid driving past a tombstone company.  On the sign was a picture of a tombstone with the word “Khrushchev.” I thought that was pretty funny at the time. Now, it would be fairly dull and I’m not sure I’d give the hair salon sign more than a minuscule uptick from one side of my mouth.

On the other hand, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has made a demand of the British Foreign Office to “stop the provocation.”

Now that would be funny if North Korea didn’t have the odd nuke laying around.  You have to wonder what the Bad Hair Boy will  do if he ever gets a rocket that works.

And amidst all of the idiocy:

One of my buddies e-mailed me today and reminded me that 28 years ago this month, he and I ran an emergency call together. It was a rollover of a fire engine, and a friend of ours was killed, thus widowing another friend of ours.

This was an extremely chaotic scene until we figured out that there was not much we could do. My buddy Tom was chief at the time but he was so close to the victim, Bill Van Gilder, that he passed the scene to me.  That wasn’t a big deal -  Mostly, I just tried to chase rubberneckers away, including a state police helicopter which insisted on landing on my scene to “help out.”

Bill was a big, strong guy with a big, strong and loving heart. He was a volunteer doing dangerous work for his neighbors.

Why can’t the nitwits in government pay attention to the important rather than the trivial, the stupid or the fluff?

Just wonderin’.

There are a lot of us remembering our brother Bill tonight.