Five myths about the death penalty

Peculiar Institution2David Garland of New York University has a new book coming out later this year on a common topic on this blog, Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition (Belknap 2010). He previews the book in this WaPo op-ed in which he addresses the following five myths of the death penalty:

1. The United States is a death-penalty nation.

2. The United States is out of step with Europe and the rest of the Western world.

3. This country has the death penalty because the public supports it.

4. The death penalty works.

5. The death penalty doesn’t work.

Check out the entire article.

Boomtown D.A.

Carol VanceAfter Le Affaire Rosenthal and the ensuing change at the top levels of the Harris County District Attorneys Office over the past couple of years, it’s easy to forget that the local D.A’s office was a model of stability and excellence during the previous generation.

Johnny B. Holmes, who ran the D.A.’s office for 21 years before retiring in 2001, is still relatively well-known to many Houstonians. But less well-known is that Holmes inherited a well-organized D.A.’s office from Carol Vance, who was D.A. from 1966-1979 and literally transformed the local office from a small-town outpost into one that other major cities copied.

I pass this along because I just finished reading Vance’s autobiography, Boomtown D.A. (White Caps Media 2010) (it’s not available through Amazon at this time, so I bought my copy through the publisher’s site). For any long-time resident of Houston, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read. And for any attorney practicing in Houston, it is an essential read.

Vance was involved in his share of juicy cases, so the chapters on those cases are the meat of the book. Vance’s big cases include the John Hill case of Blood and Money fame, the cases arising from the TSU race riot of 1967, the prosecution of two corrupt judges (District Judge Garth Bates and Supreme Court Justice Don Yarbrough), the amazing transformation of former UH professor Gerry Phelps, and the prosecutions of Elmer Wayne Henley and David Brooks, who were the sidekicks to the worst serial killer in Houston history.

Moreover, just as interesting to me as the big cases is Vance’s explanation of how the D.A.’s office grew from a relatively small office that was easily overwhelmed by a big case into one that could take on virtually anything that was thrown at it. Vance had many people helping him with this task and he is effusive in his praise of those folks, many of whom went on to become successful judges and attorneys in Houston after leaving the D.A.’s office. And Vance has a field day describing his interactions with Houston’s formidable criminal defense bar, including such legends as Percy Foreman and Richard “Racehorse” Haynes.

But most impressive is Vance’s description of his efforts after leaving the D.A.’s office in becoming one of the leaders of prison care and reform in Texas. The Carol Vance Prison Unit in Sugar Land is named for him and has one of the lowest recidivism rates of any prison in the U.S., a result of that unit’s robust Christian ministries that Vance nurtured and promoted.

Carol Vance is a remarkable man who became Harris County District Attorney at a key time in Houston’s history. We are all the better for that. Check out his book and learn why. You won’t be disappointed.

Update: The book’s editor, Kit Sublett, passes along that Carol Vance will have a book signing at Brazos Bookstore on July 22nd, and that the book signing scheduled for July 31st at Murder by the Book has been postponed. Mr. Sublett also advises that the book is available at all Houston-area Barnes and Noble stores and the Barnes and Noble website.

Rational Optimism

The%20Rational%20Optimist.jpgMatt Ridley supplies a dose of good end-of-the-week vibes with this article based on his new book, The Rational Optimist (Harper 2010):

When I set out to write a book about the material progress of the human race, now published at The Rational Optimist, I was only dimly aware of how much better my life is now than it would have been if I had been born 50 years before. I knew that I have novel technologies at my disposal from synthetic fleeces and discount airlines to Facebook and satellite navigation. I knew that I could rely on advances in vaccines, transplants and sleeping pills. I knew that I could experience cleaner air and cleaner water at least in my own country. I knew that for Chinese and Japanese people life had grown much more wealthy. But I did not know the numbers.

Do you know the numbers? In 2005, compared with 1955, the average human being on Planet Earth earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer. All this during a half-century when the world population has more than doubled, so that far from being rationed by population pressure, the goods and services available to the people of the world have expanded. It is, by any standard, an astonishing human achievement.

We invent new technologies that decrease the amount of time that it takes to supply each otherís needs. The great theme of human history is that we increasingly work for each other. We exchange our own specialised and highly efficient fragments of production for everybody elseís. The ëdivision of labourí Adam Smith called it, and it is still spreading. When a self-sufficient peasant moves to town and gets a job, supplying his own needs by buying them from others with the wages from his job, he can raise his standard of living and those he supplies with what he produces. [.  .  .]

So ask yourself this: with so much improvement behind us, why are we to expect only deterioration before us? I am quoting from an essay by Thomas Macaulay written in 1830, when pessimists were already promising doom:

ìThey were wrong then, and I think they are wrong now.î

Can psychiatry be a science?


Louis Menandís New Yorker article earlier this year that reviewed a couple of new books on psychiatry in the context of the confusing state of psychiatric literature posed the compelling question that is the title of this post:

You go see a doctor. The doctor hears your story and prescribes an antidepressant. Do you take it?

However you go about making this decision, do not read the psychiatric literature. Everything in it, from the science (do the meds really work?) to the metaphysics (is depression really a disease?), will confuse you. There is little agreement about what causes depression and no consensus about what cures it. Virtually no scientist subscribes to the man-in-the-waiting-room theory, which is that depression is caused by a lack of serotonin, but many people report that they feel better when they take drugs that affect serotonin and other brain chemicals. [.  .  .]

.  .  . As a branch of medicine, depression seems to be a mess. Business, however, is extremely good. Between 1988, the year after Prozac was approved by the F.D.A., and 2000, adult use of antidepressants almost tripled. By 2005, one out of every ten Americans had a prescription for an antidepressant. IMS Health, a company that gathers data on health care, reports that in the United States in 2008 a hundred and sixty-four million prescriptions were written for antidepressants, and sales totalled $9.6 billion.

As a depressed person might ask, What does it all mean?

Following on that provocative article, Russ Roberts’ essential EconTalk series this week presents this fascinating interview of Menand on the state of psychiatric knowledge and the scientific basis for making conclusions about current therapeutic approaches of battling it.

Although hard and fast conclusions are few, Menand is asking the right questions about a subject that desperately needs better societal understanding. His article and interview are valuable contributions to improving that understanding.

The MD Anderson – Anticancer Research Venture

mdanderson This David Agus/TEDlecture from awhile back emphasized the need for new ideas and approaches in cancer research.

Along those lines, David Servan-Schreiber in the video below announces that he has teamed up with Houstonís MD Anderson Cancer Center in a new research project aimed at enhancing and bolstering cancer research and care. Dr. Servan-Schreiberís website about the project is here.

Dr. Servan-Schreiber is the author of the best-selling book, Anticancer, A New Way of Life (Viking 2009). While serving as a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Servan-Schreiber underwent chemotherapy and surgery twice for brain cancer. After the second bout, Servan-Schreiber spent years researching a mass of scientific data on natural defenses against cancer. His book is the result of this experience and research.

As this Abigal Zuger/NY Times review notes, there is skepticism in the clinical research community regarding Servan-Schreiberís conclusions and recommendations. So, M.D. Andersonís interest in Servan-Schreiberís approach is somewhat surprising.

Nevertheless, as Dr. Agus notes in his TED lecture, perhaps Servan-Schreiberís ideas are the type that are needed to spur clinical research into better treatment protocols and innovative care procedures for cancer patients.

Gladwell on Operation Mincemeat and the vagaries of espionage

operation mincemeat Donít miss this clever Malcolm Gladwell/New Yorker review of ìBritish journalist Ben Macintyreís brilliant and almost absurdly entertaining Operation Mincemeat, the espionage caper that threw the Nazis off of the Allied invasion of Sicily:

On April 30, 1943, a fisherman came across a badly decomposed corpse floating in the water off the coast of Huelva, in southwestern Spain. The body was of an adult male dressed in a trenchcoat, a uniform, and boots, with a black attachÈ case chained to his waist. His wallet identified him as Major William Martin, of the Royal Marines. [.  .  .]

It did not take long for word of the downed officer to make its way to German intelligence agents in the region. Spain was a neutral country, but much of its military was pro-German, and the Nazis found an officer in the Spanish general staff who was willing to help. A thin metal rod was inserted into the envelope; the documents were then wound around it and slid out through a gap, without disturbing the envelopeís seals. What the officer discovered was astounding.

Major Martin was a courier, carrying a personal letter from Lieutenant General Archibald Nye, the vice-chief of the Imperial General Staff, in London, to General Harold Alexander, the senior British officer under Eisenhower in Tunisia. Nyeís letter spelled out what Allied intentions were in southern Europe. American and British forces planned to cross the Mediterranean from their positions in North Africa, and launch an attack on German-held Greece and Sardinia. Hitler transferred a Panzer division from France to the Peloponnese, in Greece, and the German military command sent an urgent message to the head of its forces in the region: ìThe measures to be taken in Sardinia and the Peloponnese have priority over any others.î

The Germans did not realizeóuntil it was too lateóthat ìWilliam Martinî was a fiction. The man they took to be a high-level courier was a mentally ill vagrant who had eaten rat poison; his body had been liberated from a London morgue and dressed up in officerís clothing. The letter was a fake, and the frantic messages between London and Madrid a carefully choreographed act. When a hundred and sixty thousand Allied troops invaded Sicily on July 10, 1943, it became clear that the Germans had fallen victim to one of the most remarkable deceptions in modern military history.

Gladwell goes on to summarize the tale of how the Nazis fell for the caper, but then ponders whether espionage is really worth the trouble:

In the case of Operation Mincemeat, Germanyís spies told their superiors that something false was actually true (even though, secretly, some of those spies might have known better), and Germany acted on it. In the case of Cicero, Germanyís spies told their superiors that something was true that may indeed have been true, though maybe wasnít, or maybe was true for a while and not true for a while, depending on whether you believe the word of someone two decades after the war was overóand in this case Germany didnít really act on it at all. Looking at that track record, you have to wonder if Germany would have been better off not having any spies at all.

And the money quote:

Translation: the proper function of spies is to remind those who rely on spies that the kinds of thing found out by spies can’t be trusted.

Read the entire review.

Exposing the myth of American exceptionalism

conrad_black Conrad Blackís prison routine allows him time to think and write, which is a good thing in view of the enormous waste that results from his dubious imprisonment.

This week Lord Black takes aim at the myth of American exceptionalism promoted in this recent Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnurus essay (Walter McDougall has examined the origins of this myth in detail in the first two books of his fine three-part series on American history). In challenging the myth, Lord Black takes dead aim at a common topic on this blog ñ the overcriminalization of American life:

The wages of this [Cold War] victory have included the stale-dating of the authorsí claim that America ìis freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.î It is more dynamic because of its size, the torpor of Europe and Japan, and the shambles of Russia.

But Americans do not do themselves a favor by not recognizing the terrible erosion of their countryís education, justice, and political systems, the shortcomings of U.S. health care, the collapse of its financial industry, the flight of most of its manufacturing, and the steep and generally unlamented decline of its prestige.

.   .    .   Rampaging and often lawless prosecutors win 95 percent of their cases (compared to 55 percent in Canada), by softening the pursuit of some in exchange for inculpatory perjury against others, in the plea-bargain system. The U.S. has six to fourteen times as many imprisoned people as other advanced prosperous democracies, and they languish in a corrupt carceral system that retains as many people as possible for as long as possible. There are an astounding 47 million Americans with a ìrecord,î and the country glories with unseemly glee in the joys of the death penalty. Due process and the other guarantees of individual rights of the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments (such as the grand jury as any sort of assurance against capricious prosecution) scarcely exist in practice.

Most of the Congress is an infestation of paid-for legislators from rotten boroughs, representing the interests that finance their elections and exchanging earmarks with their colleagues like casbah hucksters.  .   .   .

Lord Black can sure still turn a phrase — ìcasbah hucksters.î Ha!

The Code

Yanks Orioles fight If this Larry Getlen/NY Post review of Jason Turbow and Michael Duca’s new book The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime (Pantheon March 9, 2010) doesnít get you in the mood for Major League Spring Training and the upcoming MLB season, then nothing will:

Unbeknownst to most outsiders, all aspects of baseball ó from hitting, pitching, and baserunning to dealing with management and the media ó are governed by the Code, a complex series of unwritten rules that have evolved since baseball’s earliest days.

This Code, which the authors describe as "less strategic than moral," includes behavioral rules for common baseball situations; the punishment for flouting those rules; and the "omerta" that ballplayers must never, ever, discuss the rules of the Code outside the clubhouse. [.   .   .]

* Cardinal great Bob Gibson believed that the Code entitled him to knock down any batter who bested him with a grand slam. So when the Chicago Cubs Pete LaCock did just that, Gibson felt he owed him one ó unfortunately, the homer came during Gibson’s final game. Gibson finally took his revenge 15 years later, plugging LaCock in the back during an Old Timers Game.

* When the Yankees took on the Angels in 1987, the announcers discussed how Angels pitcher Don Sutton was scuffing the ball. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, hearing this on TV, called Yankee manager Lou Piniella in a rage, demanding that the umpires inspect Sutton’s glove. Piniella had to explain to the Boss, "The guy who taught Don everything he knows about cheating is pitching for us tonight. Want me to get Tommy John thrown out too?"

The future of the death penalty

Dow_ University of Houston Law Professor David Dowís bookThe Autobiography of an Execution (Twelve 2010) ñ prompted Time to ask Dow several questions about the death penalty. A couple of his answers are particularly interesting:

.  .  . I tell people that if you’re going to commit murder, you want to be white, and you want to be wealthy ó so that you can hire a first-class lawyer ó and you want to kill a black person. And if [you are], the odds of your being sentenced to death are basically zero. It’s one thing to say that rich people should be able to drive Ferraris and poor people should have to take the bus. It’s very different to say that rich people should get treated one way by the state’s criminal-justice system and poor people should get treated another way. But that is the system that we have.

And what about the future of the death penalty?

My prediction is that we’re going to get rid of it for economic reasons. We spend at least a million dollars more on a death penalty case than on a non-death-penalty case. In the U.S., where we’ve executed 1,200 people since the death penalty [was reinstated in 1976], that’s $1.2 billion. I just think, gosh, with $1.2 billion, you could hire a lot of policemen. You could have a lot of educational programs inside of prisons so that when people come out of prison they know how to do something besides rob convenience stores and sell drugs. There are already counties in Texas, of all places, that have said, this is just not worth it: let’s fix the schools and fill the potholes in the streets instead of squandering this money on a death-penalty case. You don’t need to be a bleeding heart to make that argument.

Supporters of the death penalty reason that there is nothing morally wrong about the state killing a person as punishment for murder where that person was lawfully convicted in a fair and accurate criminal justice process. But in making that moral justification the central tenet of their support, death penalty supporters are ignoring the glaring defects in the process that undermine their moral justification.

Lone Survivor

lone survivor (2) I recently finished reading Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 (Little, Brown and Company 2009), Marcus Luttrell’s engrossing story of his experience in surviving a vicious battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan. I recommend the book highly to anyone who is interested in United States foreign policy.

Lone Survivor is not a great book. A substantial part of it – particularly the parts of Luttrell’s Navy SEAL training – are repetitive and unnecessary. Likewise, Luttrell’s political views are somewhat simplistic and do not add much to the story.

But Luttrell’s story is spot on in portraying the troubling problem that the U.S. Armed Forces face in fighting wars under rules of engagement that constrain doing what is necessary to accomplish the purpose of the war. During their mission, Luttrell and his squad mates had to make a key decision under the rules of engagement — and it was not even a clearly wrong one — that ultimately resulted in a disaster for the squad.

Luttrell’s story is also insightful from a cultural standpoint. After fending off over a hundred Taliban attackers in battle, Luttrell was ultimately saved by members of an Afghan community who decided to resist the Taliban. The cultural dynamics at play are as confusing as they are fascinating.

Should the United States be sending true American heroes such as Luttrell and his comrades into such a complicated cultural conflict under rules that hinder them from accomplishing the mission?

It is a question that should be much more difficult for our government’s leaders than it appears to be.