On Protecting The Innocent, Or, Is There A Death Penalty Compromise?

I don’t feel very good about this country this morning, and as so many of us are I’m thinking of how Troy Davis was hustled off this mortal coil by the State of Georgia without a lot of thought of what it means to execute the innocent.

And given the choice, I’d rather see us abandon the death penalty altogether, for reasons that must, at this moment, seem self-evident; that said, it’s my suspicion that a lot of states are not going to be in any hurry to abandon their death penalties anytime soon now that they know the Supreme Court will allow the innocent to be murdered.

So what if there was a way to create a compromise that balanced the absolute need to protect the innocent with the feeling among many Americans that, for some crimes, we absolutely have to impose the death penalty?

Considering the circumstances, it’s not going to be an easy subject, but let’s give it a try, and see what we can do.

Let’s Fix An Error Dept.: Apologies are in order, because in our last story we identified The Riverside Church in Manhattan as the place where George Carlin learned to be Catholic – and that could not have been more incorrect.  Bad research was the culprit here, and it’s something that we’ll obviously be working to improve. So, once again: sorry, and my bad.

Now if all the states want to limit the imposition of the death penalty to just the guilty (and after what we just saw in Georgia, that’s no longer 100% certain), one way you could do it would be to make it a lot harder to prove guilt – and that’s what we have in mind for today’s proposal.

As you may recall, we convict today with a “burden of proof” that is described as “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt”; as we now know, it is possible to prove guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt, even when there’s a whole lot of reasonable doubt to be found.

In Davis’ case, he was given a chance on appeal to prove his innocence, and despite this conclusion from the Judge hearing the case…

“Ultimately, while Mr. Davis’s new evidence casts some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors…”

…Davis was still executed.

So the way I would get at this problem would be to change the burden of proof in these cases: if you want to execute someone who is facing an aggravated murder or other capital charge, instead of “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt”, I would require “guilt beyond all doubt”.

If you can’t get to guilt beyond all doubt, but you can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then you could impose no sentence harsher than life without parole.

If this proposal had been in effect in Davis’ case, there could have been no execution after he argued that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel, because that would have erased “all doubt”; after that he would have had the rest of his life to demonstrate that he was wrongly convicted.

There are going to be a few reasons people might not like this proposal, and I’ll try to address some of them briefly:

Right off the bat, many will complain that because of the new burden of proof it will be virtually impossible to have executions at all; I would tell those folks that if that were to occur…then the system is working. The entire purpose of this plan is to make executions an extraordinarily rare occurrence and to move just about everyone on Death Rows nationwide to a “life without parole” future.

Beyond that, many will say that capital punishment is morally unacceptable under any circumstances, and to those folks I would respond that y’all make a pretty good point…but at the moment there are a lot of Americans who do not hold that moral position – and they have strong feelings too – and unless we can move them to a different point of view, then the best chance we have to prevent the innocent from being executed is to find some sort of compromise like this one.

(Don’t believe me about that “strong feelings” thing? How many of the readers here would be OK with the death penalty for Osama Bin Laden, if he were proved “beyond all doubt” to have been the person behind 9/11?)

A similar line of thought is expressed in the idea that we are seeing more and more voters who do oppose capital punishment, and with a bit of patience, this problem will go away.

After what happened to Troy Davis, I think there’s more urgency now than there was in times past, and that’s because we now see that at least one State will quickly kill a prisoner in order to “clear the case”, suggesting to me that patience is not as good an option as it was before.

Finally, I suspect many will feel that the effort to pass a proposal like this one would distract from the effort to end the death penalty, which is, again, a pretty good argument.

To those folks I would respond that we may get some states to end the death penalty today, but there are a lot of other states that are not going to want to give up the death penalty for some time to come (remember the people who cheered Rick Perry’s execution record?), and if we aren’t going to be able to end the death penalty completely, then I think we have to offer some sort of compromise; a compromise based on the concepts of “killing the innocent isn’t The American Way” or “you could still execute Osama” could appeal to voters who simply won’t give up on the death penalty altogether.

So that’s what we have for you today: even though I personally would prefer that we end the death penalty and just go to life without parole for all these crimes, I don’t think we’re going to achieve that in a lot of states; with that in mind I’m proposing a compromise that would protect the innocent by ending virtually all executions, even as it allows an extraordinarily difficult to reach exception that could satisfy those who absolutely do not want to see the application of the death penalty come to an end.

It’s an imperfect compromise, I’ll admit – but in a big ol’ swath of America that runs from roughly Florida to Idaho, it may be the best compromise we can make right now, and right now, in those places, that might have to be good enough.

Entirely Off The Subject Dept.: We are still trying to get signatures for the petition to change the name of Manhattan’s W 121st St (one block from Seminary Row) to George Carlin Street, and we need your help; you can sign right here. The goal is to reach 10,000 signatures by Monday, so…get to it.

Does God send natural disasters as punishment?

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On Living Up To Your Words, Or, Tornado? That’s Not In The Constitution.

There are lots of big tough words coming out of our friends in the Tea Party these days, especially when it comes to the permissible functions of the Federal Government.

“If it’s not specifically enumerated in the Constitution,” they say, “It must be a function of the States-and the 10th Amendment says so!”

None are tougher in their language than those living in the States located below the old Mason-Dixon line-and by an amazing coincidence, just this weekend pretty much all of those States got a bit of a “gut check” in the form of dozens of tornados that slammed into the area.

So we’re going to put the Tea Party philosophy to the test today, and see just what exactly the Federal Government should-and should not-be doing to fulfill the Tea Party vision and to help those folks who were hit by this particular natural disaster.

“…For that was not true; his attitude was not to be explained by greed, or at any rate by greed alone, but rather by the touchiness which his great labors and their complete unsuccess had bred in him.”

–From the story The Village School Master [The Giant Mole], by Franz Kafka

Stories often begin by setting the terms of the discussion; that will be true today, and the framework for where we’ll start is Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution, which is the “unless it’s enumerated…” part of the Tea Party argument:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To borrow money on the credit of the United States;

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;

To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;

To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;

To establish Post Offices and Post Roads;

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;

To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations;

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings; And

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

OK…so, let’s talk about “who’s who” in this little drama (for the record, this won’t be a complete list of events or people; it’s just a sample for the purposes of discussion):

Arkansas had tornados Friday night; seven people died (five of those from winds not attributable to a tornado), and according to “The Post and Courier” of Charleston, SC, there had been three days of warnings from the National Weather Service before this particular weather event.

The paper also reports that Oklahoma, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi were hit.

North Carolina was hit with as many as 62 tornados over the weekend, with at least 22 dead.

In Virginia, Saturday, a 12-mile swath of Gloucester County was severely damaged, with a total of 5 dead in the Commonwealth.

North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi have declared a State of Emergency, so has Virginia. Oklahoma has been under one State of Emergency due to wildfires since March, a second Emergency was declared over the weekend, and Federal assistance was again requested by Governor Mary Fallin to help make things better.

To keep this to a reasonable length, we’re going to drill in on three States, and three Governors; those States are Virginia, Alabama, and Oklahoma.

Alabama’s new Governor, Robert Benchley, is one of those “enumerated powers” kind of guys, in fact, he signed The 10th Amendment Pledge; the parts which concern us here read as follows:

The phrase, “General Welfare,” in Article I, Section 8 does not authorize Congress to enact any laws it claims are in the “General Welfare” of the United States.  The phrase sets forth the requirement that all laws passed by Congress in Pursuance of the enumerated powers of the Constitution shall also be in the General Welfare of the United States…

… I do, and will continue to, oppose any and all efforts by the federal government to act beyond its Constitutional authority.

Let’s move on: the Tenth Amendment Center is proud of Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin for turning down the Federal grant to set up the State’s “Obamacare” insurance exchange (officially part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act [PPACA]) on 10th Amendment grounds-and she would also want you to know that:

“…I believe, as I know many of our legislators and the majority of our citizens do, that the PPACA is unconstitutional, fatally flawed and ultimately harmful to our economy and the health of our citizens…”

And then there’s Virginia:

Gov. Bob McDonnell on Friday drew cheers from the tea party crowd as he announced support for a “Repeal Amendment” to the Constitution.

“There has been a bi-partisan trampling of that federal compact of the 10th Amendment,” said McDonnell as he spoke at the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Convention in Richmond.

A “Repeal Amendment” was proposed last month by House Speaker Del. Bill Howell, R- Fredericksburg. The amendment to the U.S. Constitution would allow a federal act to be over-turned if two-thirds of state legislatures voted against it. Such an act would sway power to state legislatures, and is a popular concept in tea party circles.

When the panel moderator asked McDonnell is he would support such an amendment, he replied “yes.”

And now it’s disaster time, and these Governors are looking for disaster help…but they have a very particular view of how the Federal Government and the States ought to relate to each other…so… at this moment of urgency, just what precisely are the specifically enumerated powers that the Federal Government has at our disposal for disaster relief?

Well, according to my quick re-reading of Article 1, Section 8, that would be exactly…no power at all, except to act in case of insurrection, to try any Federal criminal offenses that might occur, and to repair any Federal docks or other needful Buildings.

(You’ll note I did not say “try and punish” any Federal criminal offenses. That’s because there’s nothing I can see in Article 1, Section 8 about Federal prisons.)

I don’t see anything in there about the National Weather Service, either, so from now on, if a State wants to know if a tornado’s coming, I guess they better pony up the cash and start themselves a State Weather Service, or buy the forecasting and warning services from a private contractor.

(This could be good for the economy, by the way: forecasting the weather requires satellites, and if every State that believes in self-reliance each launches their own satellite constellations…that’s some jobs, right there.)

FEMA? In the view of those who truly understand, it’s unconstitutional on its face, and, therefore, the Governors shouldn’t be looking to them for help.

The loans that businesses and citizens rely on to get back on their feet? Show me the “enumerated” language that permits those activities, because I can’t find it.

Grants to States to cover their extraordinary expenses? I don’t see anything authorizing such activities, and with that in mind…I don’t think so.

According to the “purist” view, the 10th Amendment requires all of this to be handled by the States, not the Federal Government; that’s why, for the life of me, I can’t figure out why these Governors weren’t thinking about disaster planning from the start of their terms.

Why weren’t these supposedly self-reliant States ready when this happened?

I mean, each of these States already has an emergency management department, and I’m sure they can manage much better locally than the Feds (or at least they claim they can), so why are they even asking for Federal help in the first place?

How is it possible that these Governors never considered that protecting the citizens of their States would be “Job 1”, to steal a phrase, and, to make a moral point, why should the rest of us be bailing them out now?

I mean, hey: you told us these were State problems, and now you have problems, and you still have States, so you know what?

Live up to your words: get all “10th Amendment-y”, and suck it up, and deal with it yourselves.

That’s what you told us you wanted, when you were Full Of Big Campaign Talk, so now do it, Governors, and stop all that crying and whimpering to us for outside help, and go make that 10th Amendment work for you.

Show us how much better local control is than when the Giant Hand Of The Federal Government Tells You What To Do.

Be the self-reliant Brawny Men that you were in your campaign ads.

And I’d pose the same challenge to anyone who voted for these Governors:

Remember how you all cheered when your candidates told you Government wasn’t the solution; that it was, instead, the problem?

If you really believed that, then what in the world are you doing asking for the Federal Government’s help now?

After all, you said you wanted Government “off your back”, and “the Government that governs best governs least”, right, so why would you want Government in your faces at a time when you’re trying your hardest just to get back on your feet?

Why aren’t you (and I’m thinking specifically of you, Tri-Corner Hat Patriot Guys) demanding that the Federal Government stay out of this and leave the States alone?

And it’s only fair: there was no tornado in California this weekend, so why should Californians pay taxes for your disaster?

And remember how adamant you were, just a couple of weeks ago, that the budget cuts associated with those Continuing Budget Resolutions weren’t deep enough?

Well, how are we supposed to make the kind of budget cuts y’all wanted on the Federal side when you’re coming around here demanding more money?

We have a deficit, remember, and we can’t be spending money we don’t have-and even if we had the money, we couldn’t spend it on helping you, because, as you all recall, there’s nothing specifically in the Constitution to allow it.

This is your problem, Constitutional purists, and, according to your own logic, it’s not ours…so if you want your roads and schools fixed, ask your citizens to volunteer to do the work or something.

Since we can no longer help you, maybe the Red Cross or some other private charity could fund the rebuilding of your communities.

Since so many conservatives believe corporate and religious philanthropy will fill in the gaps in the shrinking “social safety net”, you could try asking churches and private industry to do the work for you as a community service; I’m sure they’ll jump right in and pick up all the slack.

Hey: you were the ones full of tough talk last November, my Tea Party friends, and now it’s 10th Amendment “gut check” time, and I want to see you live up to your own words, if you have the “man pants” to do it…or I want you to see you acknowledge that this was all a giant load of hooey.

That maybe there’s a place for a United States of America, that maybe there is such a thing as “general Welfare”…or maybe even that being a 10th Amendment purist might be great down at the ol’ Heritage Foundation when you’re hustling for campaign money, but that once the big winds start blowing, ideology ain’t worth spit compared to a system of weather radars and satellites and a FEMA that will come and bail your butt out if it all goes wrong.

And if you voted for one of these clowns…either you need to get smart, right now…or maybe we need to cut the cord.

Maybe you need to see what your own vision of “10th Amendment reality” is really all about.

Maybe, just as so many of you have demanded, we should mind our own Federal business and let local government govern best.

And if it doesn’t work out, then, maybe, you’ll wake up and realize that Ronald Reagan was wrong: sometimes Government is the only game in town, and when it’s not around, providing helpful solutions…that’s when you got real problems.

Does God send natural disasters as punishment?

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