Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

Reporter

Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment.

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Why the Texas Governor Commuted a Death Sentence

| Thu Aug. 30, 2007 8:31 PM EDT

Kenneth Foster clearly did not deserve to die. His crime: driving a car used in a robbery that led to a murder he never took part in. But his case was by no means unique in Texas, and so it came as a surprise today when Gov. Rick Perry commuted his sentence. "I'm concerned about Texas law that allows capital murder defendants to be tried simultaneously," Perry said in a statement, "and it is an issue I think the legislature should examine." A conservative Republican wants to examine capital murder law? To say the least, Perry is doing his part to Keep Austin Weird.

So why did this happen? It certainly helped that Foster had become an international anti-death penalty cause celebre supported by President Jimmy Carter, South African Archbishop Desmund Tutu and Susan Sarandon. Still, celebrities and activists have adopted other death row inmates (free Mumia!) to little effect.

Weird as it may sound, the pardon is probably best explained as the result of a gradually increasing skepticism in Texas of the criminal justice system and, yes, the death penalty. Consider this: death penalty prosecutions in the nation's execution capital, Harris County, Texas, have been in steep decline; every major newspaper in Texas has called for a moratorium on the death penalty or opposes it entirely; and in 2005 the state legislature passed a law allowing life imprisonment without parole, which has given judges and jurors a new way to be "tough on crime" without killing people. "Perhaps the reality that people aren't so hip on the death penalty anymore is finally getting across, even to Rick Perry," Jeff Blackburn, the founder and chief counsel of the Texas Innocence Project, told me. "I think this is about where people are at in the State of Texas--the old lies that have been told them are starting to be revealed."

Anyone living in Texas in recent years couldn't help but notice a string of high-profile criminal justice scandals--racism in Tulia, pervasively botched evidence in the Houston crime lab, and most recently, a striking number of exonerations in Dallas on DNA evidence. "Ten years ago if you told people that the criminal justice system falsely convicts the innocent, you were either a communist or a nut or both," Blackburn says. "Now, everybody gets that. Everybody has seen it fail."

Including Perry. Which is not to say that he cares most of the time. Blackburn and other defense advocates still believe plenty of people are wrongly put to death in the state. But Perry is a good politician: he appears to understand that the pendulum--or the scythe--is swinging the other way in Texas, and that he needs to get out of the way before it lops his head off.

Chevron to Stand Trial in San Francisco for Human Rights Abuses in Nigeria

| Wed Aug. 15, 2007 8:30 PM EDT

After nearly ten years of legal wrangling, a group of nine Nigerians from the impoverished Niger Delta has been given the green light by a federal judge in San Francisco to go to trial against Chevron. Attorneys for the plaintiffs allege that Nigerian police, paid by Chevron and using Chevron helicopters and boats, tortured and shot people and destroyed two villages that were allegedly opposed to Chevron's oil Delta oil developments. A jury trial in the case is expected within the year.

Another case involving Chevron and human rights abuses was, the last time I checked, also winding its way through the San Francisco federal courts. But that case, involving four aggrieved women from the Ecuadorian rain forest, was actually welcomed by Chevron. Or at least Chevron did nothing to encourage it to be remanded to Ecuador. Why the different approach? Ecuador has been cracking down on oil company abuses while Nigeria is happy to pocket their money. In between these global poles of quasi-socialism and kleptocracy lies San Francisco. Looks like we'll soon find out whether Chevron finds a jury of its Bay Area peers to be a favorable middle ground.

Why is Hastert Leaving?

| Tue Aug. 14, 2007 6:11 PM EDT

What a week. First Rove, now Dennis Hastert, who, until last year, was the most powerful man in Congress. As recently as January, the former Speaker of the House had emphatically denied that he was thinking about calling it quits. "I just think that was wishful thinking on the part of some people," the Illinois Congressman had told the local CBS station in Chicago. But now CBS says its sources "expect Hastert to announce he will not seek reelection next year."

It's too early to say why Hastert is calling it quits, and we'll probably never know for sure (I'll bet, like Rove, he'll be wanting to get in some quality time with the family). I'd guess Hastert might be tired of hearing about how he helped squander the Republican majority with his botched handling of the Congressional page sex scandal. And it probably hasn't helped that the scandal refuses to go away: the Rev. KA Paul, who was widely discredited even before Hastert discussed the page woes with him last year in a private meeting, was recently arrested in a Beverly Hills hotel on suspicion of "lewd and lascivious acts with a minor." Still, many in Illinois will be sad to see Hastert go, if for no other reason than his ability to bring home giant slabs of pork. While it's true that Speaker Pelosi is also sprinkling some bacon bits these days, at least she hasn't been accused of self-dealing. Hastert won an earmark for a freeway through the middle of nowhere, driving up the value of an adjacent property that he owned, which he then sold at a profit.

"Hastert was one of the key players in rewriting how business on the floor of the House of Representatives is done," says John Laesch, a Navy veteran who ran against Hastert last year and came closer to winning than anyone had thought possible. "The pay-to-play system that he and Tom DeLay created puts the people's business behind closed doors. I think that is probably ultimately what he will be remembered for in Washington, D.C." Laesch is one of three Democrats making a bid for the seat this year in the Illinois primary. What would he do differently if he gets elected? "Well," he says, pausing to think for a moment. "Everything."

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