The American system of justice

Shorter version of Glenn Greenwald (you really ought to read the whole thing, though): Important government officials can torture and abuse with impunity and if you are accused of terrorism– even if you are an American on American soil– you can be tortured and abused without recourse.  And the media will get the story all wrong.  I don’t doubt that Jose Padilla is a bad guy who wished harm on America (though there’s basically no evidence he was ever a “dirty bomber”), but since when do we treat people accused of crimes like we’re some backwater Iranian prison?!  (Oh right, since 9/11).

Why don’t more conservatives oppose the execution of Troy Davis?

As of this typing, the execution of Troy Davis had been stayed, at least for a bit.  Here’s what I don’t get… why do so many conservative supporters of the death penalty seem comfortable with the idea of executing a person when there is so clearly reasonable doubt about the case.  Most opponents of the death penalty, including myself, are opposed in significant part because of very serious concerns about executing innocent people.  It would seem to me, beyond the simple morals of the issue, you really would not want to be constantly undermining popular support for your position by supporting questionable executions.  When we discuss the death penalty in my class– especially after we’ve covered the trade-offs involved in possibly executing the innocent– the supporters almost invariably claim that the death penalty should be reserved for cases where we are basically super-sure that the accused is actually guilty of the crime.  Personally, I don’t think a legal system for and by humans can achieve that level of certainty, but I certainly appreciate the impulse.  What I just don’t get– on so many levels– is the number of people who just basically seem comfortable executing a man when there is clearly so much reasonable doubt.

A shameful travesty

I have no idea whether Troy Davis shot and killed a Georgia police officer in 1989.  I do know is that there is a very reasonable doubt as to whether he committed this crime.  In fact, any reasonable person would honestly have to conclude that it is an absolute travesty of justice to put a man to death when there is so much doubt about his court case.  His conviction rests entirely upon the weakest and most fallible form of evidence– eyewitness testimony.  Everybody who reads this blog surely knows how fraught with error eyewitness testimony can be.  One might say, but there were 9 eyewitnesses!  However, as this really nice Slate piece makes clear, there were systematic factors which could easily have led all 9 to make the same false conclusion:

We all know how hard it is to remember the faces of strangers we might encounter on the street. (Does she look familiar?) We might think that in a high-stakes criminal case, police would take precautions to carefully test the memory of an eyewitness who saw a stranger commit a crime. Indeed, police know they must do that; they conduct lineups as one kind of test. But we have also long known that serious mistakes can happen if the police suggest to the eyewitnesses whom to pick out. This can happen unintentionally, if the officer running the lineup knows who the suspect is and gives inadvertent cues. It is also police misconduct if the officers openly suggest to the eyewitness whom to pick out. It is considered suggestive if the police go around showing eyewitnesses single photos of just the suspect they have in mind. Or if they merely make suggestive comments.

Yet somehow the police did all of the above and more in Troy Davis’ case—a perfect storm of botched eyewitness-identification procedures. Police did show photo arrays to most of the eyewitnesses—eventually. Although police made up a five-photo array with Davis’ picture in it, they waited five to 10 days before using it to test the memories of any eyewitnesses. Why wait? Eyewitness memory decays rapidly. But in the meantime, police plastered wanted photos with Troy Davis’ image—the same photo they put in the photo array—all around the neighborhood, and it ran widely on all of the local media outlets. Witnesses did not miss those wanted postings. [emphasis mine]  Witnesses also described feeling pressure to identify Troy Davis. For example, one testified at trial about being told that “if I don’t cooperate with them, that I’m gonna be in prison for ten to twelve years.”

Surely, there’s some people involved in this (Georgia Parole board?) who are willing to see a possibly innocent man executed for political reasons (can’t let a convicted cop-killer go free, even if maybe he’s not actually the killer).  But what I really think is at work here is more psychological biases.  Who is really willing to admit to themselves that they may very well have sent an innocent man to death row?  Not too many police, prosecutors, or judges I’ve seen (heck, I’ve seen a number of cases where they keep arguing they got the right guy despite overwhelming DNA evidence come to light).   Faced with admitting that they may have made such a horrendous mistake, I think it is psychologically protective to simply double-down and convince oneself more than ever that the convicted person must be guilty.  All too human.   Kudos to those who can admit maybe they were wrong when there is a human life at stake.  If, as expected, Davis is executed later today, this truly is a travesty of American justice and any ideal of America as a civil society.

The unfortunate uselessness of fact check articles

I’ve almost written half a dozen times or more how inane your typical “fact check” is.  In theory, this is a very useful journalistic service.  But, in practice the biases that drive so much bad journalism (he said, she said; unwillingness to call a lie a lie; not actually understanding statistics) lead to pretty useless results.  Case in point, Drum nicely deconstructs the inept AP “fact check”  of Obama’s tax proposal:

President Obama has proposed that we enact some version of the “Buffett Rule,” which would ensure that millionaires pay at least the same tax rate as middle class workers. But do millionaires really pay lower rates than truck drivers in the first place? The AP fact checks Obama’s claim and finds it wanting:

On average, the wealthiest people in America pay a lot more taxes than the middle class or the poor, according to private and government data….This year, households making more than $1 million will pay an average of 29.1 percent of their income in federal taxes….In 2009, taxpayers who made $1 million or more paid on average 24.4 percent of their income in federal income taxes, according to the IRS.

Catch the AP’s sleight of hand there?  Drum’s bolding certainly should have helped.  He explains:

Hmmm. There’s an awful lot of averages there. But you need to be pretty careful with that stuff. The average household income in Redmond, Washington, is $66,000, but that doesn’t mean Bill Gates is pinching pennies to save up a down payment for his next car.

The whole piece is pretty ridiculous. Obama’s point isn’t that millionaires pay lower tax rates than truck drivers. It’s that some millionaires pay lower tax rates than truck drivers — and as a simple matter of fairness and equity they shouldn’t. Take a look at the table below,extracted from the Tax Policy Center. It doesn’t just show the tax rates of mere millionaires, it shows the tax rates of the top 400 super-duper millionaires. Back in 1992, only 33 of them paid less than 20% of their income in federal taxes. Today, 289 of them do. That’s just not right.

Exactly.   And by focusing on “average” tax rates, when that was not Obama’s point at all, the AP has done their readers a disservice.  Sadly, this strikes me as quite typical of fact check articles.

Republicans for Obama’s jobs plans

Now, you know, I trust most public opinion data about as far as I can throw them, but we can still learn some interesting things.  In this case, I think it is the major gulf between what ordinary Republican voters believe and what their representatives in Congress believe.  Via Gallup, check out the support for the components of Obama’s “jobs” plan among Republicans.  A majority favors spending more money on teachers, police, etc.  And an even 50% support more public works projects.

As you may know, President Obama has submitted a bill to Congress that includes a number of proposals designed to create jobs in the United States. Please tell whether you favor or oppose each of the following proposals. September 2011 results by party

This also reminded me of a nice Greg Sargent post in which he points out that a lot of the pundit class are under the gross misillusion that independent voters and moderates are somehow opposed to raising taxes on the rich.  American love raising taxes on the rich (which is, in large part, how Obama plans to “pay” for this).  Sargent:

David Brooks today complains that Obama’s “populist cries” will “fire up liberals but are designed to enrage moderates.” The Hill insists that Obama’s new posture is merely designed to “shore up or win back his base.” Mark Penn helpfully warns Obama that his “class warfare” is tantamount to “abandoning” the center. Mark Halperin pronounces that analysis ”essential reading.”

So let’s be clear about this: It’s all utter nonsense…

But as it happens, strong majorities of moderates and independentssupport tax hikes on the wealthy as the best way to close the deficit. I’ve compiled a half dozen polls showing that to be the case: [they’re all there, follow the link if you want the actual numbers].

As with a lot of things, it would seem that American’s frustration with the economy leads them to really not trust Obama’s economic stewardship or his vague “plans,” but when presented with those specific plans, they actually like them.

Favorite quote ever

Alright not quite, but it’s up there and you’ve got to sell a blog bost, :-).  Elizabeth Warren (via Seth Masket’s FB feed):

‎”There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God Bless! Keep a Big Hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Damn if that doesn’t distill things perfectly (though, I’d probably add in a few more things that the factory owner benefited from).  Don’t have a text link, but another friend was kind enough to provide a link to a video with the quote.

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