Saturday, September 29, 2012

Come on, baby, (don't) drive my car

Just this week the California legislature passed a bill that will allow driverless cars on the state's roadways by 2015. Proponents claim the new cars, equipped with sensors out the wazoo, will be safer than the ones driven by humans.

But, assuming the DMV drafts rules regulating driverless cars by 2015, as the bill callls for, the concept raises some interesting questions. For instance, could the operator of a driverless car be charged with driving while intoxicated? Will the presence of driverless cars cause the state to redefine what it means to operate a car? Might the existence of driverless cars actually encourage folks to go out and drink too much knowing that they can just sit in the car, push start and kick back until they reach their driveway?

And, since I feel the need to burst a bubble or two along the way, just how much trust would you be willing to place in the technology operating the car? Computers and smart phones crash at the most inopportune times. DVRs go on the fritz. The microwave decides not to work anymore. Are you willing to sit in that seat and watch the world go by while giving up all control of the car?

And who ends up being liable in the event of an accident? Is it the person sitting behind the wheel? Is it the manufacturer of the car? Is it the manufacturer of the sensors?

In the meantime, enjoy a little Gary Numan...

Friday, September 28, 2012

A fool and his money are soon parted

At what point is someone a victim of a scam rather than just a sucker?

Lori Stilley of Delran, New Jersey, posted on Facebook that she had bladder cancer and no medical insurance in February of 2011. A couple of months later she noted that her condition had worsened. People started making donations.

They donated money. They donated meals. They even paid for her wedding.

But in November, when she posted that her condition was improving, those same folks started to get a bit suspicious.

And, according to local prosecutors, they had reason to be suspicious. Ms. Stilley is now facing felony charges of theft by deception.

But did she steal from her supporters of just separate fools from their money? Did she even commit a crime?

Are the car companies guilty of theft by deception when they advertise a car getting a certain number of miles per gallon when, under normal driving conditions, it doesn't even come close? And what if that car doesn't get you the pretty girl or what if that warranty doesn't actually cover anything for 100,000 miles?

And what of the countless other products advertised on television that never quite live up to the hype? The cleaner that doesn't clean as deeply as they told you? The knives that can't cut through shoe leather and then carve a turkey? The processed foods that lead to heart disease, hypertension and obesity?

What about professional sports teams, like the Houston Astros, who hold themselves out to be a major league team? Those folks sitting behind homeplate or down the first base line are paying a pretty price to see a club that would struggle in Triple-A ball.

What about your kid's school fundraiser? How much of that $16 you're shelling out for cookie dough is actually going to the school? What about the wrapping paper, the candy bars or whatever else they're peddling during the year?

How about that charity that spends more than half the money it raises on expenses? Were you deceived into believing that every penny went to support a good cause?

What Ms. Stilley allegedly did was, as our friends across the pond would say, not good cricket. But was it illegal? No one made anyone shell out their hard-earned money because of a posting on Facebook. Is it her fault that some folks are such suckers that they won't even bother to verify who they're giving the money to?

Presumably the folks that gave Ms. Stilley money did so because it made them feel better. It made them feel like they were helping out someone who needed the help. They received a psychic reward from voluntarily parting themselves from their money. Finding out Ms. Stilley didn't have cancer didn't cause them to lose that feeling - it just made them feel like suckers for handing their money away.

What Ms. Stilley did was low and she should be ashamed of herself. But should she really go to jail for it? I'm not so certain.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

One night in Hudspeth County

Rusty Fleming wants all you budding country and rock stars to know that they don't much care for drugs down in the Valley in Hudspeth County.

Willie Nelson and Snoop Dog found that out. And now Fiona Apple knows.

But this isn't about celebs with pot in their tour buses being nabbed by those eagle-eyed officers of the Hudspeth County Sheriff's Office. Nope, this is about that little thing we call the presumption of innocence.

Fiona Apple was performing in Houston the other night. While on stage she let the audience know what she thought of the hospitality she was shown down in Hudspeth County. Let's just say she wasn't altogether impressed with the accommodations.

That's where our friend, Mr. Fleming, comes in. He's not the sheriff. He's not the officer who took down the once famous pop star. Mr. Fleming is the public information officer for the department. He's a glorified P.R. man.

And he wasn't too happy with what Ms. Apple had to say the other night. He was so out of sorts he penned an e-mail to express his feelings.

First, Honey, I’m already more famous than you, I don't need your help. However, it would appear that you need mine.... 
Two weeks ago nobody in the country cared about what you had to say, -- now that you’ve been arrested it appears your entire career has been jump-started. Don’t worry Sweetie, I won't bill you... 
Next, have you ever heard of Snoop, Willie or Armand Hammer? Maybe if you would read something besides your own press releases, you would have known BEFORE you got here, that if you come to Texas with dope, the cops will take your DOPE away and put YOU in jail 
Even though you and I only met briefly in the hallway, I don't know you but I'm sure you're an awesome and talented young woman and even though I'm not a fan of yours, I am sure there are thousands of them out there, and I’m sure that they would just as soon you get this all behind you and let you go back to what you do best—so my last piece of advice is simple "just shut-up and sing." 
Rusty Fleming

Not so fast there, Mr. Fleming. Yes, Ms. Apple was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana (well, technically marihuana, since no one in the legislature knows how to spell) and hashish. Yes, the dope was found on her tour bus. But that's about all we know.

Ms. Apple is innocent unless the state can prove her guilt beyond all reasonable doubt. There are plenty of folks arrested for possession of marijuana every day in Texas that see their cases dismissed or hear two word verdicts from juries.

Besides, Mr. Fleming, the last time I checked we have this little thing called the First Amendment that protects our right to say anything we damn well please - no matter how much it pisses off those in authority. And so, if Ms. Apple wants to get up on stage every night and tell the audience what an awful experience she had in Hudspeth County, good for her.

Of course the one thing no one's talking about is the junk science surrounding drug-sniffing dogs. Their handlers will claim that the dog will alert them by sitting, barking, rolling, jumping and anything else a dog does on a regular basis. We all know that the handlers can make those dogs do whatever they want them to.

Ms. Apple's tour bus was stopped at a border crossing and the dogs were brought out to sniff around it. It was a drug dog's supposed "hit" that got the police entre into the bus where they found the goodies. And that raises another issue about the continued erosion of the Fourth Amendment.

Let's see, the police can't use a thermal imaging device to peek inside a home to see if someone's growing marijuana with the aid of heat lamps but they can run a dog around the outside of your car to see if the dog can "smell" some wacky tobacky. And when that dog scratches his back or licks his balls we'll call it probable cause to search the vehicle.

Hmm. Tour bus for a rock star? Do you supposed that there just might be something illicit in that coach? We'll just call out the dog and tug on his collar a bit. That ought to do it. No judge down here is going to question it.

Hudspeth County is but a microcosm of what's wrong with our criminal (in)justice system. And, just so no one thinks I'm picking on a rural county in the Valley - what happened down there the other day happens in every county across the country on a regular basis.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Update: Fourth time is not the charm

Last night the State of Texas murdered Cleve "Sarge" Foster.

Sarge Foster was an army recruiter and Sheldon Ward was one of the young men he recruited. They became friends and were living together in a motel in Fort Worth back in 2002. One night at a bar, Mr. Foster met Mary Pal. Later that night Ms. Pal was shot and her body dumped in a ditch.

Foster and Ward were charged and convicted, in separate trials, of Ms. Pal's murder. Mr. Ward was convicted for pulling the trigger and Mr. Foster was convicted under Texas' law of parties. The two men were sentenced to death under the theory that Ms. Pal was killed during the commission of a felony - either kidnapping or sexual assault. While there was evidence that Ms. Pal had had sex with both men, the only evidence of a kidnapping came from Mr. Ward's mouth.

Earlier in the day, the US Supreme Court rejected Mr. Foster's request for a stay on the grounds that his representation at trial was so deficient that his case should be reviewed. While the three female justices voted to stay the execution, the six male justices declined.

There were only three people who knew for certain what happened that night back in 2002. But Ms. Pal was murdered and Mr. Ward died in prison from cancer. I have no idea what happened that night. But, if we're going to reserve the death penalty for the worst of the worst - then killing the man who didn't commit the murder is senseless. The law of parties has no business in a capital case - particularly a death penalty case.

So where is Rick Perry and his call for limited government now? Or does that just apply when we're talking about spending money on those less fortunate than ourselves or about regulating businesses?

Once again the state has killed. And once again killing an inmate did nothing to bring anyone back to life. It did nothing to fill the hole in anyone's life. It did nothing to relieve the pain and loss. It's just another dead body chalked up to the might of the state.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Gingrich is right about this

Yes, Newt Gingrich is a wingnut of the highest order. But, as I have stated before, sometimes the man makes sense.

In this era in which politicians try to outdo each other in who can be tougher on crime and when you wouldn't know from the ads whether you're listening to candidates for county sheriff or judge, Mr. Gingrich brings a little bit of sanity back to the discussion.

And, yes, I know just how bizarre that sounds.

We did some dumb things as teenagers that might have caused a lot of harm. You probably did, too. Fortunately, we didn’t hurt anyone too badly, but we cringe now at how clueless we were about the possible consequences of what we did. 
Teenagers often don’t make very good decisions. Our laws take this into account in many ways: We don’t let young people drink until they are 21, and they can’t sign contracts, vote or serve on juries until they are 18. 
But there is one area in which we ignore teens’ youth and impulsiveness: our criminal laws. Our laws often ignore the difference between adults and teens, and some youngsters are sentenced to life in prison without parole (LWOP). Despite urban legends to the contrary, this law has no exceptions: A teen sentenced to LWOP will die in prison as an old man or woman. No exceptions for good behavior, no exceptions period. No hope.

In an editorial in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Mr. Gingrich and his like-minded colleague, Pat Nolan, demonstrate that those Right on Crime guys can come up with some new ideas that actually make sense.

Leave it to the right wingers to realize that locking someone up in a cell for the rest of their life for something they did as a teenager isn't the best of ideas. Maybe they can afford to look at crime and punishment in a realistic manner because they have their conservative stripes. Maybe it's because Gingrich isn't running for office anymore and can afford to say what he thinks. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that he is right.

When we lock up our youth to spend the rest of their days in prison we are writing off a generation. We are telling kids that they aren't worth our time and effort. Just think of the things you did when you were a teenager. Some of them were quite stupid. And what might have happened if things worked out just a bit differently? Could you have been the one at the defense table looking at spending the rest of your days in a cell?

Too bad this isn't part of our national conversation this fall. It might be quite revealing.

H/T Doug Berman (Sentencing Law and Policy)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Police kill double-amputee over a pen

He lost his right leg and right arm when he was hit by a train. He was confined to a wheelchair. He lived in a group home. He had some mental issues - some serious mental issues.

He got upset early the other morning because his caregiver wouldn't give him a cigarette. Naturally when he got upset someone called the police. And that's where things went wrong. Bad wrong.

Brian Claunch was waving a pen when the police arrived. Instead of determining whether Mr. Claunch was in need of medical attention the police escalated the situation and, when it was all over, Mr. Claunch was dead - in his wheelchair. Holding a pen.

It was bad enough when officers in Montgomery County managed to shoot a paraplegic to death in the cab of his truck, but it would appear that the good men of the Houston Police Department couldn't allow themselves to be outdone by their colleagues to the north.

I understand that the first rule of policing is to make it home safely at the end of the shift. But I also understand that a man waving a pen in a wheelchair is not a target worthy of hot lead in his chest.

The officer who killed Mr. Claunch claimed he was worried about his partner's safety. Really? Let's see. Mr. Claunch was missing an arm. He was waving a pen in one hand. His only hand. Just how was anyone in any danger?

The mind just wanders aimlessly trying to get a head around just what was going on in that home on Saturday morning. Whoever called 911 was aware that Mr. Claunch was emotionally disturbed. The caller was aware that he needed help - not a bullet.

The police are not equipped to handled mentally disturbed individuals. Nothing good ever comes of it. The mission of the police is to fight, and prevent, crime, not to provide mental health care. The police are used to be in charge. When an officer asks you to jump, the correct response is not why.

But, time and time again, the police find themselves dealing with someone who isn't in his or her right mind. A person who isn't going to ask how high; a person who either doesn't understand the question or has no way of answering it in a way that an officer wants.

These situations invariably end with someone being tased or shot because the officers involved were woefully unprepared or untrained to deal with the situation.

It's not Mr. Claunch's fault his brain isn't wired like ours. But he needed treatment and counseling, not the death penalty.

What ever happened to an apple on the desk?

Teachers at my daughters' school wrote down items they needed on paper cut-outs shaped like apples and attached them to a tree. Now I'm sitting on the couch watching Storage Wars and staring at two paper sacks filled with items such as ziplock bags, kleenex, adhesive hooks and the like.

Thank you, Rick Perry. For all your talk about lowering taxes you have succeeded in shifting more of the burden of public education on the public without anyone the wiser.

Seems there was a day when public education was viewed as a benefit to society at large. That is, until the libertarians, Ayn Rand worshipers and other wingnuts came into positions of power and influence in the 1980's. All of a sudden public education became the bogeyman for the evils of big government.

Thus began the assault on universal public education.

And, when the Texas economy began to bottom out, the first casualty was public education. School districts were required to lay off teachers and increase class sizes to meet budgetary demands. So here we are, reduced to parents providing items that should have been provided by the school.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Execution Watch: 9/24/12

The wheels of the death machine in Texas keep rolling along...


CLEVE "SARGE" FOSTER. This is Texas' fourth attempt to put to death the former Army recruiter who has consistently claimed innocence of the murder for which he was condemned. The state's past three execution attempts, all in 2011, were turned back by the courts. Mr. Foster and another man were convicted in 2004 of killing a woman in Fort Worth a decade ago. Co-defendant Sheldon Ward died of brain cancer in prison in 2010.

For more information on Mr. Foster, click here.

Unless a stay is issued, we'll broadcast ...Tuesday, September 25, 2012, 6-7 PM CT
KPFT Houston 90.1 FM
Listen online: > Listen

You can find more information on Execution Watch's Facebook page.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Update: Texas kills again

Thou shalt not kill.
-- Sixth Commandment
There it is. There isn't any grey to it. There's no listing of exceptions to the rule. It is, as we would say in law school, black letter law.

It doesn't say except in the case of war or because someone killed someone else. It doesn't say except in the case that someone worships a different god or espouses a different political ideology. It doesn't say except if someone looks different or speaks differently.It doesn't say except in case of revenge.

And yet the god-fearing Christians who are worried about the gay couple down the street walking down the aisle and who call doctors who perform abortions murderers have absolutely no compunction about the state strapping a person down and injecting them with a lethal dose of drugs.

Robert Harris was the eighth Texas inmate murdered by the state last night. There is no question he did what he was accused of doing. There's no question that his actions caused five families a lot of grief and robbed them of loved ones.

But killing Mr. Harris doesn't undo what he did. It doesn't bring anyone back from the grave. It doesn't heal the pain nor fill the hole.

And so another inmate is dead and the sixth commandment is ignored once again. Praise the Lord and pass the pentobarbital.

When the chickens come home to roost

Back in 2003, Abu Omar, an Egyptian cleric living in Italy, was kidnapped, flown back to Egypt and tortured. The kidnappers were 23 Americans, all but one were CIA agents. The Americans did their deed with the assistance of five Italian intelligence agents.

Because kidnapping and torture sound like bad things, the US government coined the term extraordinary rendition to refer to the practice of kidnapping foreign nationals and shipping them to secret prisons where they would be held incommunicado and tortured around the clock.

The big, bad arrogant Americans figured they could do whatever the fuck they wanted to, regardless of where they were because they were, well, Americans, and this was President Bush's War on Everything Terrorism.

But apparently someone forgot to send a copy of that memo to the Italians who weren't altogether happy that US agents were running roughshod on Italian soil. Despite pressure from both Washington, and Rome, prosecutors in Milan carried on with the case and the 23 Americans were all convicted in absentia in November 2009.

Now, almost three years later, the highest appellate court in Italy has upheld the convictions - and urged the prosecution of the Italian intelligence agents for their roles in the kidnapping of Mr. Omar.

The convictions are largely symbolic as the Italians have never sought to extradite the Americans - not that the American government would ever allow its agents to be extradited to another country to face criminal charges for their conduct. That's what we do to them.

Just imagine the furor, if you will, that would arise should a foreign government kidnap an American citizen off the streets of some town over here and take them halfway around the world to face criminal charges for some act carried out under cloak of national security. Imagine the reaction if a former US president was ever indicted, arrested and brought before another country's court to face charges of crimes against humanity.

Yet we have no problem kidnapping people in other countries and taking them somewhere where representatives of our government torture, humiliate and shame them for no other reason than they can.

I say good that something decided to grow a backbone and stand up to the inhumane and illegal practices of the US government. If our leaders and representatives thought they could be arrested and charged with crimes against humanity somewhere else in the world, maybe, just maybe, they might think twice before acting like a bunch of thugs for whom the law doesn't apply.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Execution Watch: 9/20/12

The wheels of the death machine in Texas keep rolling along...


ROBERT HARRIS. The 40-year-old Lubbock native was condemned following his conviction for two of five shooting deaths during a March 20, 2000 robbery at a Dallas-area car wash. He had been fired from his job there several days earlier. Attorneys for Harris say he is mentally impaired and therefore ineligible for execution under Supreme Court guidelines, an argument rejected in March by a federal appeals court. His lawyer, Lydia Brandt, said she would take the appeal to the Supreme Court.

For more information on Mr. Harris, click here.

Unless a stay is issued, we'll broadcast ...Thursday, September 20, 2012, 6-7 PM CT
KPFT Houston 90.1 FM
Listen online: > Listen

You can find more information on Execution Watch's Facebook page.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A little smoke and mirrors, please

All of the outrage in the Muslim world over an internet movie has nothing at all to do with folks being pissed off about someone taking potshots at Mohammed. It's a nice pretext and it's a good way to get the people fired up. But that's just the sideshow.

What better way to distract the common folk from their everyday misery and deprivation than to set a few fires and chant "Death to America!"

The last time I checked, a movie never killed anyone but, over in Syria, Bashir al-Assad has been killing his fellow Muslims like it was going out of style. Where are the protests across the Middle East about the killing machine in Damascus?

If the punishment for theft is having your hand cut off - what's the punishment for ordering the murder of thousands of fellow Muslims? Um, wait a second, we can't have folks thinking about that. What can we do to distract them?

Oh, the power of religion. That opiate of the masses.

Running a candidate who was in the business of exporting American jobs and stripping down companies to fill his bank account?

Running a candidate who's looking for ways to lower the tax burden on the wealthiest Americans while forcing lower income folks to shoulder more of the burden?

Running a candidate who thinks health care is a business, not a right?

Just wave that Bible around and tell everyone who'll listen that your opponent's not a god-fearing Christian and you just might be able to distract folks from what you're really about.

Religion is just a sideshow. Get people to accept it on faith without asking questions and you've got yourself a compliant army willing to put blinders on and march in formation at your beck and call. Tell them their reward for suffering is a(n) (after)life in paradise and watch them ignore the class distinctions and social stratification around them. Tell them that to kill is a sin - but only if the one of the other end is also a believer - and they'll be lining up to go to war.

But I digress. Now what was I writing about?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Punting time

As far as crimes go, setting an eight-year old boy afire falls toward the end of the spectrum of the worst of the worst. But what do you do when the alleged culprit is only 13? What do you do when the victim dies 14 years later from complications due to being set on fire?

You can't charge the culprit as a juvenile because the juvenile courts no longer have jurisdiction over him. But can you charge him as an adult because of his age when the victim died?

At the time of the incident state law allowed for juveniles as young as 14 to be certified to be tried as adults. Now the Supremes have said it's okay to try a ten-year old as an adult.

Yes, now that Donald Collins is an adult he understands the consequences of setting a person on fire. He's old enough to appreciate the nature of the crime. But we can't transfer that maturity to the time he committed the crime.

Our juvenile courts were set up because someone realized that children aren't as mature as adults and that the punishments meted out to adults weren't appropriate for a child. Yes, it sometimes meant that someone might walk away with a much lighter sentence for the same criminal act as an adult. There is no question that a person is just as dead whether his killer is a juvenile or an adult. There is no question that the family of the victim suffers the same loss regardless of the age of the killer. And no punishment can ever heal the loss.

Up in Montgomery County the County Attorney asked Attorney General Greg Abbott whether or not prosecutors could charge Donald Collins as an adult for the murder of Robbie Middleton. The county attorney, David Walker, was concerned that Mr. Collins would claim that trying him as an adult for the murder would violate the Constitution's ban on ex post facto laws.

Much to Mr. Walker's dismay, however, the Attorney General decided that "[a] county or district attorney's determination regarding the initiation of further proceedings falls within in the scope of prosecutorial discretion." In other words, Mr. Abbott punted.

Abbott Opinion No. 967

Of course that's just what Montgomery County officials did, too. They were hoping that Mr. Abbott would bail them out of having to make the call. If the AG said they couldn't do it, well, they had their political cover. They could call a press conference and announce that, but for the Attorney General, they would prosecute Mr. Collins as an adult. Or, if the AG told them it was okay, they could look like they were tough on crime by formally filing charges.

But now Mr. Walker and the Montgomery County District Attorney, Bret Ligon, are going to have to make the decision themselves.

As badly as Mr. Walker and Mr. Ligon want to do something, there is nothing they can do in this matter. It doesn't matter that Mr. Collins is an adult now. It doesn't matter that Mr. Collins has spent time in the penitentiary for his actions as an adult. The fact remains that he was still a child when he committed the crime and a child's brain doesn't work like the brain of an adult.

Sometimes there's nothing you can do. Unfortunately, it's situations like this that lead to bad laws and ill-advised opinions.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Priorities, priorities

He further considered whether the prosecution of the defendant in furtherance of the protection of the rights of others was “necessary in a democratic society”, and proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued. It had been convincingly shown that the conviction of Connolly was necessary in a democratic society. 
The defendant’s right to express her views about abortion did not justify the distress and anxiety that she intended to cause those who received the photographs. Of particular significance was the fact that those who worked in the three pharmacies were not targeted because they were in a position to influence a public debate on abortion. 
-- Connolly v. Director of Public Prosecutions [2007]  EWHC 237 (Admin)

On March 6, 2012, six British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan by an improvised explosive device. Apparently not everyone in England showed the proper level of commiseration.

Azhar Ahmed posted his thoughts on his Facebook page. More than a few folks were a bit upset when he wrote that "all soldiers should die and go to hell" two days after the attack.

In the face of criticism, Mr. Ahmed apologized for his comment and thought the matter was over with. Boy, was he wrong. For you see, over there across the pond, it's illegal to send a "grossly offensive" message whatever the hell that is.

Mr. Ahmed told the court he realized the message he posted was unacceptable but he denied that it was grossly offensive. The judge told him that his comments were both derogatory and inflammatory. The court then convicted Mr. Ahmed of the offense of causing someone to get their panties in a wad.

So fucking what if someone thought his comment was insensitive and inflammatory? I happen to find war to be grossly offensive. The use of unmanned drones to drop bombs out of the sky on unsuspecting civilians is inflammatory. The use of weaponry to kill those with whom one disagrees is inflammatory. Holding suspected enemy combatants incommunicado indefinitely and torturing them is highly inflammatory.

But will anyone ever be held responsible for the war crimes committed in our name in Afghanistan? I'm sure that George W. Bush and Barack Obama will live out the rest of their days without fear of being arrested and hauled before the international criminal court. But Mr. Ahmed, on the other hand, will live out the rest of his days with a criminal record because he spoke his mind.

He didn't kill anyone. He didn't drop a bomb indiscriminately. He didn't torture anyone. But he's the one in the dock.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Dem bones

I've lived in and around Houston all my life. Now Houston will never be a tourist destination like Austin and San Antonio are. Folks come to Houston for business and to see family. And that's fine for me.

Houston's lack of zoning has created a plethora of eclectic neighborhoods inside, and outside, the Loop. My office is smack dab in the middle of one of the most famous - The Heights.

But one thing about Houston disturbs me. We have very little sense of history here. It it's old, it's in danger of being knocked down by a developer. The rush to build cookie-cutter loft apartments, McMansions and trendy shopping areas spells doom for historic properties in and around this city.

Currently the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is overseeing construction of a river of concrete that will connect the Katy Freeway and the Northwest Freeway out in the far west reaches of Harris County. You see, it's not enough that we built a loop around the city. And it's not enough that we built a toll road surrounding that loop. Now we seem to have the need to build yet another ring road even further out. All in the name of making it easier for developers to convince folks to leave the city for the suburbs.

Of course the solution to the traffic mess in Houston has never been to find a better way of moving people around; it's always been about pouring more concrete and creating ever larger flood dangers where the bayous converge near the Ship Channel.

Well, in the course of pouring all this concrete, workers found some old bones. It turns out that they had dug up a 2,000 year old burial ground. Then they dug up another burial ground estimated to be 9,000 years old. Just think about those numbers for a second.

The Harris County Historical Society (talk about a fish out of water) thought it might be a good idea to do a bit more research on these burial grounds before filling them with concrete. You know, they just might be of some sort of historical import. Not that that mattered to the developers or TxDOT. They just wanted to know how long it would take to move the bones so they could get back to pouring concrete.

And so, back in July, they filed a lawsuit asking the court to let them dig up the bones and move them so they could get back to the very serious work of pouring more concrete. The case landed in Judge Reece Rondon's court. Before being appointed to the bench, Judge Rondon worked for Andrews Kurth (a big white shoe corporate firm) and for Reliant Energy (a bunch of rotten scoundrels Houston's primary electricity provider). In other words, he came from the same world as the developers.

I guess I don't need to tell you how Judge Rondon ruled in this case, do I? If you know anything about Houston, you know the HCHS never stood a chance. And, sure enough, Judge Rondon ruled for the developers and told the world that pouring more concrete is far more important than studying the history of this little part of the earth we call home.

There is far more to the world than building roads and developing cookie-cutter subdivisions with no trees and all of three floor plans. In the overall scheme of things, I would argue that building a road is a tad less important than studying prehistoric burial grounds. But if you think you're going to convince the powers that be in Houston of that, you might as well just beat your head against the roadbed.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Picking and choosing

"Yes, my witness was charged with forgery when she was nineteen years old. She pled guilty and was placed on probation. She did her time. But does that mean she's lying now? 
"She made a mistake when she was a teenager. Who among us hasn't made a mistake when you were a teenager? 
"But just because she made a mistake are we going to hold that against her and say that she can't be trusted to tell the truth?"
Okay, it's not quite a word-for-word quote of a closing argument I heard yesterday. It's pretty close and it certainly captures the point the attorney was making.

I agree with the sentiment. Too often we look at a person's criminal history and we make a decision right then and there as to what kind of a person he or she is. Sometimes you're right and sometimes you're woefully wrong.

More importantly, however, is the fact that that conviction will stick with her for the rest of her life. She will always be a convicted criminal. She will always have that conviction for a crime of dishonesty. That is one thing that can never be undone.

It's a common problem for our clients. The prosecutor pulls the priors and, with only having read one version of what happened, discounts anything the defendant says. The prosecutor doesn't care about the defendant's account because she knows that he has had multiple run-ins with the law in the past.

So you might be surprised that the words above didn't come from the mouth of a defense attorney. They came from the mouth of the prosecutor. And the witness she was talking about was the complaining witness in a rape case.

So, even though that same prosecutor won't believe a word that comes out of your client's mouth because of his prior convictions, she'll beg a jury to disregard that forgery conviction and believe every word that comes out of the witness' mouth.

It's all just part of the game.

Uncovering an agent provacateur

The other day my colleague and fellow National Lawyer Guild member Greg Gladden was interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! The story was about the infiltration of the Occupy movement by an undercover Austin police officer.

Here is the interview video...

Greg Gladden did an incredible job in this case. He was able to uncover the infiltration of the group and had the guts to take it before the judge. And he did this pro bono.

My hat's off to you, Greg, for a job very well done.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Harris County squeeze play

Last year, just 5.2 percent of slightly more than 94,000 people arrested by Harris County police agencies got out of jail on no-cost personal recognizance bonds, according to a report by the Harris County Pretrial Services office. 
In July, 65 percent of the county's 9,133 inmates were pretrial detainees rather than convicted criminals serving sentences, according to the Office of Criminal Justice Coordination.

Anything about those numbers strike you as wrong?

In this country we are supposed to be presumed innocent unless the state can prove otherwise. In this country, and in this state, bail is not to be used in a punitive manner. The purpose of bail is to ensure that defendants show up on their scheduled court dates.

Whenever 2/3 of the folks sitting in your jail haven't been convicted of anything, you've got a problem. A very serious problem. And, should Murray Newman's BFF, Mike Anderson, take over the 6th floor at 1201 Franklin, the problem will only get worse.

There is no reason that any first-time offender charged with a non-violent offense, such as driving while intoxicated, possession of marijuana or theft should be held pending someone posting bond. They should be released on personal bonds.

You want to know why Harris County ships prisoners to other jails in Texas and Louisiana? Just take a second look at those numbers. And, if Mike Anderson does what he says he's going to do (always a tough bet when dealing with a politician), someone is going to be asking the voters of Harris County to cough up a bunch of dough to build (yet) another jail.

Oh, but we have direct filing in Harris County, apologists will say. We have a bond schedule. Folks can get bonded out at any time relatively quickly. But those who can't get caught up in the Harris County squeeze. They will sit in jail until their first court appearance. The prosecutor will make an offer that will get them out fairly soon. The court-appointed attorney is only too eager to please his masters and encourages his "clients" to plead before he investigates the case.

The result? Young people walking around with criminal records that will follow them for the rest of their lives.
"I do think some of it is attributable to Harris County's process of direct filing, which means a lot of people can bond out before a magistrate can see them. If they don't bond out, they go to court within 24 to 72 hours, and they can plead out. So they no longer need a bond if their case is disposed of." -- Carol Oeller, Director of Harris County Pretrial Services
And I bet she even said it with a straight face. That's right. We don't need to discuss these personal bonds because if someone can't afford to post bail they can plead out on the chain in misdemeanor court. We're not in the business of justice at the Criminal (In)justice Center, we're in the business of making sausage.

Judges are opposed to personal bonds. State District Judge Michael McSpadden doesn't like them because he's worried defendants might find something better to do that go to court. Well, at least that's what he says in public. And I'm not just singling out Judge McSpadden (he just happened to be the one quoted in the article). The real reason the judges don't want personal bonds is because it will reduce the volume of quick pleas in their courts.

We all know that it's easier to fight a case when your client isn't behind bars. It also takes away some of the state's leverage when trying to coerce pleas. The robed ones know that if more personal bonds were granted, there would be fewer mass pleas every morning and more cases being carried on their docket.

And then there's the bonding companies.

Michael Kubosh, of Kubosh Bail Bonding, said PR bonds are a threat to public safety because those who don't appear in court are not tracked down. 
"A pretrial release bond has a high recidivism (rate), because anytime you get something for nothing that's how you treat it. It doesn't seem important to you," Kubosh said.

Of course Mr. Kubosh doesn't want to see a rash of personal bonds. They aren't good for his business. The bonding companies are the big beneficiaries of the way we do things in Harris County. A dearth of personal bonds means families have less leverage with bonding companies when trying to get their loved ones out of the county jail.

I would like to stand on my soapbox and tell you that the system is broken and needs to be repaired. But that wouldn't be the truth. You see, the system is working just as it was designed to. That's the real tragedy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Montana judge strikes down death penalty

Montana State District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock didn't like what he saw. It wasn't that he was questioning the constitutionality of the death penalty. What he didn't like were the procedures used by the state to murder inmates.

The Montana state legislator passed a statute that defined just how the state would carry out its lethal injection protocol. The legislature called for the use of a two-drug cocktail. Unfortunately, the state was using a three-drug cocktail, instead. Judge Sherlock questioned whether the three-drug cocktail increased the margin for error.

Then there was the little matter of the warden deciding whether the inmate was unconscious before injecting the lethal drug. A warden without medical training or experience deciding whether or not the drugs are doing what they are supposed to do. What could possibly go wrong with that scenario?

Oh, and why not add that the warden isn't required to have any training in proper intravenous procedure?

According to Judge Sherlock, the deviation between the official state protocol and the manner in which the Department of Corrections operated created "a substantial risk of serious harm."

I don't think we're ever going to see a repeat of Furman in which the US Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional. We're long past the argument that the use of the death penalty is "unusual."

But what I think we may see over the horizon are more and more successful attacks against the procedures used by states to murder their inmates. At some point the cost of defending death penalty protocols against legal challenge will be greater than the perceived utility of jabbing a needle in someone's arm and pumping them full of poison.

Most politicians don't have the backbone or moral courage to stand up and tell the public that killing inmates doesn't do any good. But they may be able to tell voters that keeping the death penalty on the books is costing the state millions to defend. And maybe that's the way to abolish the barbarism.

A very dark day

We must never forget that dark day. September 11 should always be in our consciousness.

For it was on September 11, 1973 that our government orchestrated the assassination of Chilean President Salvador Allende and the coup that put one of the century's most brutal dictators, General Augusto Pinochet, in power.

Mr. Allende's "crime" was not catering to the whims of the corporations and international capitalists who saw Chile as a money-making machine. Mr. Allende came to office promising to raise the living standards of the Chilean people.

Well the Nixon administration certainly couldn't have that kind of thinking in this hemisphere. And so the CIA did what the CIA did best - it brought about the collapse of a popular government that threatened the profits of the transnational corporations. We did it in Iran. We did it in Honduras.

We tried to do it in Cuba but still the Cubans thumb their noses at Washington.

Under Pinochet's rule (with the assistance of our government), thousands of people were rounded up and murdered for opposing the military dictatorship. But did Gen. Pinochet ever pay for his crimes. Was he ever held accountable for his crimes?


A Spanish judge tried to bring Mr. Pinochet to justice but that was quashed. Judge Baltasar Garzon ordered Pinochet arrested on more than one occasion. But Mr. Pinochet's lawyers argued that he was immune from prosecution as a former head of state.

Maybe one day that argument won't hold any water and all of those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity will be held accountable. I would imagine that George W. Bush and President Obama have their fingers crossed that that day never arrives.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Um, on second thought...

After local South African prosecutors made the decision to charge striking mineworkers with murder under an old apartheid-era law, the shit began to hit the fan. Questions were asked about why the state had not charged any of the police officers who actually shot the striking miners with murder.

I would imagine that part of that answer can be found in the fact that the striking miners were from a "militant" union not affiliated with the "approved" union. What better way to protect a friendly union than to imprison the members of the competing union.

While South African President Jacob Zuma decided not to dirty his hands with the matter, the national director of prosecutors, Nomgcobo Jiba, was left holding the bag for the government. Of course one must wonder in such a high-profile matter how local prosecutors were allowed to have some 270 miners arrested on murder charges without someone from Pretoria having at least a little say in the matter.

In a bid to save face, the government finally decided to drop the charges (provisionally) and release the imprisoned miners.

Now, over a week later, all of the imprisoned miners have been released. But now the government has to rely on the miners to cooperate with an official investigation into what happened at the mine. The union has promised to conduct its own investigation.

The law in question was used to imprison demonstrators whenever violence ensued - usually at the hand of government troops. That way, whenever soldiers fired into a crowd, they could grab any demonstrator at hand and charge them with the murder of their fellow demonstrator. The law was a tool of oppression.

And that's exactly what happened at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana. The law was used by the government to quash a budding union movement that didn't place compromise as its ultimate goal.

Friday, September 7, 2012

It all adds up to what?

Back when I was in school we spent quite a bit of time drilling our multiplication tables. We learned long division. There were no calculators allowed in the classroom. You didn't come across any touchy-feely word problems. The teachers' goals weren't to massage our egos and pump up our self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. The name of the game was mathematics.

Today, of course, we couldn't possibly allow our children to have to figure out how to multiply or divide on paper. None of that moving the decimal point to the left. Forget about carrying over. Today's generation was raised on computers and that's what they'll be using the rest of their lives. Pencils and paper - that's so yesterday.


The other day I was in a rush when I went to Staples to pick up some file boxes. I thought I was grabbing what I needed - until I got back to the office and realized I got the wrong size. So, the next day I headed back with my boxes and my receipt so I could exchange them for the right sized boxes.

I headed back to the corner of the store and found what I needed. Then it was back to the register.

The boxes I bought the day before were $18.99. I had my Staples' reward coupon and I ended up paying about $10. The boxes I meant to buy cost $19.99. I would owe a shade over a dollar (with tax).

Imagine my surprise when the cashier (or whatever they call them over there) told me I owed almost $10. I told him the boxes I was bringing back only cost a dollar less than what I had in hand. I told him to look at my receipt. I told him I shouldn't owe but a little more than a dollar.

He tried to explain how I owed $10. So I asked him about the coupon I used the day before. I asked him if it had just vanished into thin air. He kept trying to explain to me that I owed a lot more money for the boxes.

He had absolutely no clue as to what he was doing. He was so used to scanning items at the register that he had lost the ability to do the most rudimentary math. He had lost the ability to think logically. He looked at me like I didn't know what I was talking about.

Then it struck me how when we rely on an electronic device to do our math for us that we divorce ourselves from the numbers themselves. The numbers no longer represent sets of objects and relationships. They're just  blips on a screen. And when we become dependent on those blips we somehow lose the ability to know how to deal with a curveball when it's thrown our way.

Learning multiplication tables and long division can be awfully hard. It can be awfully boring. In our short attention span culture it's just not the way we do things. Kids sometimes have a hard time grasping the concepts. They might get red marks on their papers.

But they might just learn that math is more than numbers.

And these folks are going to be in your jury panel the next time you stand up to begin your voir dire. Scary, huh?

UPDATE: I went back to Staples today after leaving the courthouse and the cashier manning the booth today knew exactly what to do. I walked out with my new boxes after paying $1.08 extra.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

What a twist, Oliver

Oh, Lane Lewis just thought he had the last laugh when he told the folks who voted in the Democratic primary in Harris County to fuck off by taking Lloyd Oliver off the November ballot.

District Judge Bill Burke thought otherwise.

After Mr. Oliver filed suit to prevent the Harris County Democratic Party from removing his name from the ballot for the general election, the local Dems had the case removed to federal court. Not so fast said US District Judge Lee Rosenthal. She sent the case back down to Harris County.

And over at the Civil Courthouse yesterday, Judge Burke heard both sides argue their case and then decided that Mr. Lewis did not have the authority to overrule the voters. Judge Burke was fine with Mr. Lewis' argument that the party gets to control access to the primary ballot, but he was buying the argument that the party's authority extended to removing the candidate who won the primary.

While the result may come as an embarrassment to the party establishment, it is also a message that the voice of the people cannot be ignored. Or at least the voice of the few folks who made their way to the polls.

Along the way Mr. Oliver referred to the local party bosses, Lane Lewis and Gerald Birnberg, as goobers, twits and fools. And he's right. If the bosses had been paying attention to what was happening, they never would have allowed Mr. Oliver to enter the Democratic primary.

They probably figured that there was no way Mr. Oliver could win. But they were wrong. They knew Mr. Oliver had run on both parties' tickets over the years. But still they took his check for the filing fee and let him in the door.

While Lloyd Oliver isn't the person I'd like to cast a vote for in November, he's a damn sight better than the alternative. Four years ago the voters in Harris County said no to the good ol' boy network. Will they send the same message this time around?

Another lethal shot from a non-lethal device

A man who died after he was stunned with a Taser by a Houston police officer this weekend had a drug addiction and lengthy criminal history, according to relatives.
And there you have it. Straight out of the police playbook after a suspect somehow ends up dead.

Another man tased. Another man dead without explanation.

The taser was promoted as nonlethal option for the police to use to control an unruly person. Of course the original idea was for the police to start off using the least amount of force and only escalate if necessary.

But, being that the first rule of policing is to make it home safely after the shift is over, it's more common for the police to start at the top of the force ladder and work their way down. That means instead of the taser being used as a last resort before the service revolver comes out, it becomes the default first mode of control.

Unfortunately not everyone is suited to be shot with a jolt of electricity. And the person on the firing end of the taser has no idea whether the person he's aiming it is a heart failure waiting to happen. But we certainly can't let folks go around questioning whether the police overreacted by firing a taser when a lesser alternative was available.

Nope. It can't be the fault of the guy with the badge. It must be the dead guy's fault. So out comes the dirt after the fact. Nevermind that none of the officers on the scene had any idea that Denis Chabot was an addict or that he had a criminal background.

The purpose of the statement at the beginning of this post is to trash Mr. Chabot so that the public doesn't start questioning the use of the taser. You don't want someone poking their nose around asking why the police were firing a taser running along the freeway. You don't want someone wondering why no one called medical personnel if Mr. Chabot seemed to be under the influence of something.

Why an officer decided to fire his taser at Mr. Chabot we will never know. All we know is that Mr. Chabot is dead. Needlessly.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book review - Anatomy of injustice: A murder case gone wrong

You probably don't know who Edward Lee Elmore is. You probably don't know the story of the murder of Dorothy Edwards. Maybe you don't know who Diana Holt is.

But after you read Raymond Bonner's book Anatomy of Injustice: A murder case gone wrong you will know all you need to know about the flaws in our judicial system and why the death penalty must be abolished.

Edward Elmore was a young black man living in Greenwood, South Carolina. He didn't have much of an education but he could fix things. He made a few dollars here and there as a handyman for some of the elderly white ladies in Greenwood.

Dorothy Edwards was one of those ladies. Her husband had died a few years earlier and Mr. Elmore offered to help her with some minor maintenance on the outside of her house, just like he did for some of her neighbors.

One day Ms. Edwards turned up dead. She had been murdered in her house. The body had been discovered by her retired neighbor, Jimmy Holloway. After a cursory investigation, Mr. Elmore became the prime suspect.

As he was indigent, the court appointed an attorney to represent him. Geddes Anderson was the public defender in Greenwood. He was also a alcoholic who would appear in court drunk. More importantly, he had no idea how to defend a murder case. Without conducting any investigation, without seeking funds to retain any experts, without gathering any mitigation evidence, without putting together a defense and without believing in his client, Mr. Anderson sat in the courtroom and watched a jury convict Mr. Elmore and sentence him to die.

And not just once. Due to procedural flaws in the trial Mr. Elmore was granted a new trial (and a third one after that). The pattern continued during each new trial. Mr. Anderson sat there and did very little to defend his client and watched two more juries convict Mr. Elmore of the murder and sentence him to die.

Then along came Diana Holt, a very unconventional law student from Texas who began working with the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center. For 15 years she worked tirelessly on Mr. Elmore's case. She interviewed witnesses and uncovered evidence. She filed writs. She filed motions seeking DNA testing on evidence gathered in the initial investigation.

And even though an appellate judge said, after a lengthy hearing, that Mr. Elmore might very well not be guilty, that same judge denied Mr. Elmore's request for relief - using the state's reply brief as the court's order denying Mr.Elmore's request for post-conviction relief.

Ms. Holt uncovered evidence that should have exonerated Mr. Elmore. She discovered evidence, ignored by his original defense attorney, that Mr. Elmore was borderline mentally retarded. But it still didn't get the conviction reversed or the death sentence lifted.

In the end Mr. Elmore entered an Allford plea in which he acknowledged the evidence that the state would present and entered a plea of guilty based on that evidence - while maintaining his innocence. As part of the deal with the state he was released from custody and credited with time served.

Mr. Elmore sat in prison for 25 years for a murder he did not commit. The justice system, which ultimately "saved" him, failed him when it counted most. He was the victim of a biased investigation, incompetent representation and a judiciary that wasn't willing to see justice done.

Mr. Elmore walked out of a prison in which he never should have been. Mr. Elmore didn't kill Dorothy Edwards, but he was not exonerated. The conviction remains on his record. He never received an apology from the state for the years lost. He was never compensated for the time that was stolen from him.

A rough form of justice was served at the end - but it doesn't erase the stench of what came first.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Suppressing the vote

Texas' latest attempt to reduce voter turnout this November has been struck down by panel of three federal judges. The GOP controlled legislature passed a bill that would require voters to present a driver's license or other form of government-issued ID before being allowed to vote.

Well, what's so bad about that, you might ask.

Shouldn't everyone have a drivers license? How hard can it be?

If you've got a Texas drivers license then you've got it made in the shade. Need to renew it? You can do it by mail, online or (if you have nothing better to do with two hours of your life) in person. But what if you've never been issued a drivers license? That's where the fun begins.

Do you have a passport? How about a Certificate of Naturalization? What about some document from Homeland Security or Customs and Immigration? No? Now it gets interesting.

Do you have your birth certificate or a State Department Certification of Birth Abroad? How about a court order of a name change? Oh, but that's not all. If that's all you got, then you've got to have two additional pieces of supporting documentation.

US Attorney General  Eric Holder rightfully decreed that the Voter ID bill constituted a poll tax for poor and minority voters that would only serve to deter them from voting in November.

And what about the claims by Gov. Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott that this measure is needed to combat voter fraud? Of the 13 million votes cast in the 2008 and 2010 general elections there were but four allegations of fraud that resulted in one indictment.

So, if it's not fraud, then just what is the new bill supposed to combat? And why are Mr. Perry and Mr. Abbott fighting so hard to get the law upheld? It's because Republicans know they need to suppress voter turnout to ensure victory. Just take a look at the 2008 general election in Harris County.

In a pattern that is duplicated in pretty much all metropolitan areas, voters in urban areas tend to lean Democratic while suburban voters lean Republican. If, as in 2008, the urban vote outnumbers the suburban vote, Democratic candidates tend to win. If, as in 2010, the suburban vote is greater, the Republicans win.

In 2008, the urban vote in Harris County was overwhelmingly Democratic and turnout was significantly higher than in 2004. The result was a near Democratic sweep in Harris County. The opposite was true two years ago.

Those in favor of voter ID laws know that the people who will find it the hardest to obtain the necessary form of identification tend to vote Democratic. When you factor in the more onerous requirements to obtain a drivers license in Texas (and in some other states), the intent of the law becomes crystal clear.

Every election, commentators decry the pathetic turnout. We hear pundits proposing new ideas to increase voter participation. And, now, we watch in state after state as the Republican Party does its best to make it harder for minorities and the poor to vote.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Nothing to see here

There is no question that the U.S. government has operated secret prisons around the world that have been used to torture detainees suspected of being terrorists or aiding terrorism.

Back in May I reviewed Larry Siems' book The Torture Report which dealt with the ways in which the Bush Administration implemented a systematic plan to torture so-called enemy combatants in the War on Everything Terrorism. The book is a chilling account of the ways in which our leaders conspired to violate every international treaty dealing with the treatment of enemy combatants.

Attorney General Eric Holder "conducted" an investigation of the CIA's torture apparatus after the government caught heat for the death of a detainee in custody. The investigation was nothing but a sham from the beginning as its purpose was to determine whether the program of torture broke the guidelines laid down by President Bush's aides. In other words, Mr. Holder wasn't looking into the question of whether CIA personnel violated international law in torturing detainees who have yet to be charged with any crime, he was looking into whether or not anyone crossed the line scribbled on a sheet of paper by President Bush's lackeys.

And, predictably, Mr. Holder came to the conclusion that there just wasn't enough "admissible evidence" to proceed with any prosecution.

You see the government has decided that much of the evidence proving the U.S. torture program violated international law is too sensitive to be released. In fact, in the show trials in Guantanamo, the courts have ruled that detainees cannot even testify as to the torture they were subjected to because releasing that information would harm national security. Or, to be more blunt (and honest) the information would be embarrassing to the government and might open some up to charges of crimes against humanity.

And we just can't have that, can we? We all know that the only folks who ever get brought up on charges of crimes against humanity are the losers. The winners never have to face justice. Not to mention that the winners get to write the history.

It is evidence of this program of systematic torture that made Bradley Manning the object of the government's hatred. Mr. Manning did what every soldier is required to do under international law - report incidents of torture and war crimes. That is Mr. Manning's sin - he did just what he was supposed to do but, because the information he released embarrassed the government, he is charged with treason and locked up and deprived of his rights.

There is no justification for torture. When you humiliate and degrade another person just because you have the power to do so, you are humiliating and degrading yourself, your institutions, your government and your country.

But no one will ever have to answer for their crimes. No one will ever have to stand before a court to justify the criminal acts they authorized or carried out. No one will ever have to defend himself against charges he committed crimes against humanity.

And it's because no one in our government has the guts or the moral compass to stand up and say it was wrong. President Bush committed crimes against humanity. President Obama has committed crimes against humanity. And whoever wins the election in November will continue to do the same.

All the time the American public will sit there staring at shiny objects not giving a second thought to what their so-called representatives are doing in their name.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Breakfast club

My daughters both attend public school in Spring Branch ISD in the western part of Houston. They attend a school that offers a 50/50 immersion in English and Spanish. Each day they will spend half their time being instructed in English and the other half being instructed in Spanish.

Last year the school was forced to relocate because they had demolished the old building and were erecting a new one. My youngest was thrilled because she would get to start school in a brand new building.

Due to the neighborhood where the school is located, there are a large number of students who qualify for free and reduced meals, including breakfast. No problem there. Every kid should get to start the day off with breakfast.

In the past the kids who wanted breakfast would go to the cafeteria and the other kids would hang out before the start of classes. That changed this year. Due to the number of students who qualified for free breakfasts, the USDA's School Breakfast Program says every student at the school is entitled to a free breakfast - whether they (or their parents) want it or not.

Of course the school breakfasts aren't going to be as healthy or nutritious as the meals my wife and I make for our daughters in the morning so we don't want them eating what the school is serving.

And, to add an additional level of absurdity to the situation, the breakfasts will be served in the classrooms with brand new carpeting. Why, you might ask, is the school doing this? Well, as Woodward and Bernstein would say, "Follow the money."

I decided to do a little bit of digging because I just knew that federal dollars had to be involved in this somehow. And, after a bit more digging than I had anticipated, I found what I was looking for.

As it turns out, the federal government provides the school district with $1.55 for each free breakfast served, $1.25 for each reduced-price breakfast and $.27 for each paid breakfast. In a school in which 40% of more of the lunches are either free or reduced-price, the reimbursements are even larger. At my daughters' school the reimbursement rate is $1.85 for free breakfasts and $1.55 for reduced-price breakfasts.

There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 or more students at the school and, by mandating that free breakfasts be made available for all students, the school district will reap a pretty penny at the end of the day. You know as well as I do that the breakfasts that the school will serve will not cost $1.85 to prepare. Whatever's left is a pool of revenue for the school district (there are a total of seven elementary schools that will provide free lunches for all students).

So, all in the name of increasing district revenues, my daughters will have to sit at their desks while students around them are eating breakfast. In addition, uneaten food and leftover milk will be thrown away every day. How much sense does that make?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Protecting and serving the interests of the 1%

Shannon Powell is a narcotics detective with the Austin Police Department.

He's also a rat. An agent provacateur, if you will.

But maybe you just know him as Butch.

You know Butch. He's that guy who came down to Austin to protest at the Port of Houston back in December. He's the one who suggested the protesters use a device known as a sleeping dragon to link their arms together to block the main entrance into the Port of Houston.

Yeah, that Butch.

And now Detective Powell has found himself in the crosshairs of Judge Joan Campbell of Harris County's 248th District Court where seven protesters find themselves charged with the felony offense of unlawful use of a criminal instrument.

The charges were initially dismissed by Judge Campbell for lack of probable cause.  Not to be deterred, the Harris County District Attorney's Office somehow convinced a grand jury to indict the protesters. I don't know if they had to threaten them, twist their arms or just say "please."

Then in February an anonymous e-mail announced that Butch was actually an undercover officer who had left the Occupy Austin encampment on the day the police evicted the protesters. Butch had purchased, built and delivered the sleeping dragons to protesters in Austin who were traveling down to Austin to participate in the Occupy the Port protest.

When subpoenaed to appear before Judge Campbell, Mr. Powell claimed to have lost most of the digital material about his involvement with the Occupy protesters. Oops.

It is clear that the Austin Police Department was watching Occupy Austin from inside and out. For those in the progressive community, such actions aren't shocking or unexpected. However, having that same undercover officer design and deliver the devices that would subject protesters to felony charges goes above and beyond.

Houston criminal defense attorney, and National Lawyers Guild member, Greg Gladden must be commended for the work he did on this case. It is because of his tireless effort that Mr. Powell has been thrust into the spotlight. It is because of his work that the public can see just what it is that the police are really up to.

Forget this protect and serve bullshit. The police have been used to crush dissent in this country for decades. The police have long been the paid lackeys of the corporate bosses and have not hesitated in the past to aim their weapons at striking workers. The police were the day-to-day enforcers of Jim Crow in the south. And now we find them ankle deep in the Occupy movement.

From day one the powers that be have done their best to marginalize the Occupy movement. They have tried to portray them as college kids longing for a movement to call their own. They have called the Occupy movement harmless and nothing more than a momentary distraction.

But, if the Occupy movement were no threat to them, why would we see undercover officers and agents imbed themselves inside the groups in order to sabotage them? Why would the Austin Police Department have Mr. Powell designing and building sleeping dragons to be used in a protest in Houston? Why would the Houston Police Department have informers inside the Houston organization feeding them information and gossip?

And they damn near got away with it.