Monday, September 7, 2009

Selected Thoughts on The New Yorker September 7

Selected thoughts on the 7 September 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

The Return of the Native (by Adam Gopnik)
Apparently, Michael Ignatieff, the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, is likely to become the next Primer Minister. I say apparently because, and I'm confident that I'm not alone on this, I am shamefully ignorant of Canadian politics. Gopnik's profile of Ignatieff--a writer and professor who lived abroad many years before returning to Canada and entering politics--offers an interesting portrayal of the person who is potentially the next leader of that country. More impressively, Gopnik gives a textured description of Canadian politics, and, in a way, what it means to be a Canadian.

First, Ignatieff the man. He says that being a politician is the hardest job he's had. You always have to be on. What you say and how you say it matters. Politics is combative. Ignatieff's family history seems to be both a benefit and a drawback, depending on the constituency.

Gopnik argues that the essential tension in Canadian politics is reflected in the question of collective versus individual rights:
Every country has an obscure theoretical dispute--in America, about the moment when human life beings; in France, about the proper meaning of the term laïcité--that crystallizes some of its deepest preoccupations and, in turn, becomes a code for its practical politics. Where you fall on the question of collective versus individual rights has specific consequences in Canada; the Quebec nationalists, for instance, would be more likely to remain in Canada if they could suppress any renaissance of the Anglophone community in Montreal, and the next Primer Minister will have to decide where he stands on that--and then where he stands on guarantees for the huge French-speaking minority outside Quebec. And, in a country that prides itself on being a mosaic rather than a melting pot, just how sealed off from the rest of the country can an immigrant group remain without violating some basic pact about citizenship?
No doubt in some cases Gopnik over-simplifies. But, at least now, I feel as I have at least a foot hold on topic I can use to hang onto other articles in the future. The depiction of the changes required of Ignatieff the politician seems, however, universal to all in that vocation.

Trail by Fire (by David Grann)
I heard about this article before I had a chance to read it. Grann lays out a convincing argument that an innocent man in Texas (Todd Willingham) was executed for a crime he did not commit. The supposed crime was an arson that killed Todd's three children. I knew what this piece was about, but was still gripped by it.

Grann begins by recounting the "accepted" narrative of what happened. Willingham is far from a sympathetic figure, and the investigators sound quite confident of what happened. The weave a compelling story. However, Grann then relates the systematic toppling of the evidence in favor of the arson. The conclusion is startling:
In mid-August, the noted fire scientist Craig Beyler, who was hired by the commission, completed his investigation. In a scathing report, he concluded that investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire. He said that Vasquez’s approach seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and was more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.” What’s more, Beyler determined that the investigation violated, as he put it to me, “not only the standards of today but even of the time period.” The commission is reviewing his findings, and plans to release its own report next year. Some legal scholars believe that the commission may narrowly assess the reliability of the scientific evidence. There is a chance, however, that Texas could become the first state to acknowledge officially that, since the advent of the modern judicial system, it had carried out the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person.”
Let that sink in. Legally and factually innocent. An odd turn of phrase for such a horrible thing. In the death penalty debates we often hear about the costs and length of appeals. Tough on crime politicians pound the podium and make stern speeches about legal loop-holes and special rights for defendants. One of the many angering things about this piece is that, apparently, the final clemency panel in Texas never even read the report that seems to have solidly undermined the forensic evidence in support of the finding of arson. Really. They didn't read the report:
The Innocence Project obtained, through the Freedom of Information Act, all the records from the governor’s office and the board pertaining to Hurst’s report. “The documents show that they received the report, but neither office has any record of anyone acknowledging it, taking note of its significance, responding to it, or calling any attention to it within the government,” Barry Scheck said. “The only reasonable conclusion is that the governor’s office and the Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored scientific evidence.”

LaFayette Collins, who was a member of the board at the time, told me of the process, “You don’t vote guilt or innocence. You don’t retry the trial. You just make sure everything is in order and there are no glaring errors.” He noted that although the rules allowed for a hearing to consider important new evidence, “in my time there had never been one called.” When I asked him why Hurst’s report didn’t constitute evidence of “glaring errors,” he said, “We get all kinds of reports, but we don’t have the mechanisms to vet them.” Alvin Shaw, another board member at the time, said that the case didn’t “ring a bell,” adding, angrily, “Why would I want to talk about it?” Hurst calls the board’s actions “unconscionable.”
Coates (who has had several remarkable posts on this and related topics) links to a recent editorial from the lead prosecutor recounting the evidence in support of Willingham's guilt. Go and read his editorial. His arguments strike me as one last wall of dissonance protecting himself from acknowledging the role he played in killing a (potentially? likely? almost certainly? legally and factually?) innocent person. Such an argument--from a judge!--is shamefully distressing.

Grann's entire article is available free online. Go read it.

Bootylicious (by Caleb Crain)
Crain visits an often fascinating topic: the ethics of certain criminal organizations, specifically pirates. This article was an enjoyable read.

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