Mariah Blake

Mariah Blake

Senior Reporter

Mariah Blake is a senior reporter at Mother Jones. She has also written for The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, The Nation, The New Republic, the Washington Monthly, and the Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. Email her at mblake [at] motherjones [dot] com or follow her on Twitter.

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News Organizations Sue Missouri to Reveal the Contents of Its Execution Drugs

| Thu May 15, 2014 12:49 PM EDT
A gurney in the death chamber in Huntsville, Texas.

The Guardian, AP, and three local newspapers are wading into the death penalty fray with a lawsuit challenging the secrecy surrounding lethal injections in Missouri—one of more than a dozen states that have begun hiding information about their execution drugs. In a complaint filed Thursday morning with the Cole County circuit court, the news organizations argue that the secrecy violates the public's First Amendment right to know how the condemned are being killed. The document specifically references the case of Clayton Lockett, the death row inmate who writhed and moaned in apparent agony after being injected with a secretly acquired drug combinations last month.

Prior to the execution, Lockett—who took a record 43 minutes to die—had argued that withholding the source and contents of execution drugs was unconstitutional because the untested combination could create a level of suffering that violates the Eight Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Other death row prisoners have sued to block their executions on similar grounds, but the new lawsuit appears to be the first to challenge the lack of transparency based on the First Amendment right of access. Below is a snippet from the Guardian's story on the case:

A Guardian survey has identified at least 13 states that have changed their rules to withhold from the public all information relating to how they get hold of lethal drugs. They include several of the most active death penalty states including Texas, which has executed seven prisoners so far this year, Florida (five), Missouri (four) and Oklahoma (three).

Attention has been drawn to the secrecy issue by the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on 29 April....Lockett’s lawyers had argued in advance that he might be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment as a result of the lack of information surrounding the drugs, but the state supreme court allowed the procedure to go ahead having come under intense pressure from local politicians, some of whom threatened to impeach judges.

In the wake of the events in Oklahoma, in which the prisoner writhed and groaned over a prolonged period, the state has agreed to pause for six months before carrying out any further judicial killings to give time for an internal investigation to be completed. President Obama described the Lockett execution "deeply troubling" and has asked US attorney general Eric Holder to review the way the death penalty is conducted.

Until last year, Missouri which is now executing prisoners at a rate of one a month, was open about where it obtained its lethal injection chemicals. But like many death penalty states, its drug supplies have dwindled as a result of a European-led pharmaceutical boycott, and in a desperate move to try to find new suppliers it has shrouded their identity in secrecy.

In October, the state changed its so-called "black hood law" that had historically been used to guard the identity of those directly involved in the death process. The department of corrections expanded the definition of its execution team to include pharmacies and "individuals who prescribe, compound, prepare, or otherwise supply the chemicals for use in the lethal injection procedure."

Since the law was changed, Missouri has put six prisoners to death using what the suit calls "a secret drug formulation obtained from secret sources." Deborah Denno, an expert in executions at Fordham University law school, told the Guardian that the secrecy seems designed to cover up shortcomings in the system. "If states were doing things properly they wouldn't have a problem releasing information," she said. "They are imposing a veil of secrecy to hide incompetence."

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Meet the Bearded Drag Queen Who's Taking Europe by Storm

| Fri May 9, 2014 9:26 AM EDT

UPDATE, Saturday, May 10,2014, 6:40pm ET: Conchita won!

A bearded drag queen with a taste for sequins is among the favorites to win this year's Eurovision Song Contest, the annual music extravaganza that catapulted ABBA and Celine Dion to fame.

With her doe eyes and glittery floor-length gowns, Conchita Wurst (real name Thomas Neuwirth) stole the limelight in the run up to the event, and her performance has beguiled the judges, who selected her to compete in the finals in Copenhagen on Saturday. But Wurst's unabashed gender bending has also raised some ire. Citizens in Russia and Belarus petitioned their national broadcasters to block her performance. And St. Petersburg legislator Vitaly Milonov—who was instrumental in passing Russia's infamous "gay propaganda" ban—called on Russia's Eurovision selection committee not to send Russian singers to the event, which attracts roughly 170 million TV viewers. "Even just broadcasting the competition in Russia could insult millions of Russians," Milonov wrote in the letter, according to the Guardian. "The participation of the obvious transvestite and hermaphrodite Conchita Wurst on the same stage as Russian singers on live television is blatant propaganda of homosexuality and spiritual decay."

Wurst, who is representing Austria in the competition, wasn't fazed by these barbs. "I can only say 'Thank you for your attention!'' she told the Associated Press. Wurst added, "Hey, I'm just a singer in a fabulous dress, with great hair and a beard."

You can see Wurst in all her bearded glory above.

Cliven Bundy's Daughter Slams Sean Hannity

| Fri Apr. 25, 2014 12:42 PM EDT

Since Wednesday night, when the New York Times published Cliven Bundy's observations about "the Negro"—including his musing that African Americans were better off as cotton-picking slaves than they are today—conservative pundits have scrambled to distance themselves from the Nevada rancher, whose recent standoff with federal officials over grazing fees on public land became a rallying cry for anti-government conservatives. Fox News host Sean Hannity, who had vociferously championed Bundy as a hero, kicked off his Thursday show by slamming Bundy for his "ignorant, racist, repugnant, despicable" remarks.

Bundy defended his initial comments on Thursday saying, "If they think I'm racist, they're totally wrong…Again, I'm wondering are they better off under the old system of slavery or are they better off under the welfare slavery that they're under now. You know, I'm not saying one way or the other." And on Friday morning, he told CNN that he didn't see a problem with using terms like "Negro" or "boy" for black people. "If those people cannot take those kind of words and not be (offended), then Martin Luther King hasn't got his job done yet," he told anchor Chris Cuomo.

Meanwhile, Bundy's daughter, Shiree Bundy Cox, is striking back at conservatives who have turned tail on Bundyespecially Hannity. In a Facebook post Thursday night, she accused the talk show host of abandoning her father and pandering to ratings. Here's a snippet:

I'm sure most of you have heard the news about my dad being called a racist. Wow! The media loves to take things out of context don't they? First off I'd just like to say that my dad has never been the most eloquent speaking person. Like someone said, he's a Moses who needs an Aaron to speak for him. This is true. Second, however, is that the media has turned this into a circus side show. It's like their trying to throw us off the real subject. Why was this ever even brought up? What does this have to do with land rights issues? Sean Hannity was all for reporting the happenings at the Bundy Ranch until this popped up. I wonder if someone hoped it would be that way…By the way, I think Mr. Hannity is more worried about his ratings than he really is about what my dad said. If he supports a supposed racist, what will that do to his ratings? He's already lost his #1 spot on Fox.

Cox, who is one of 14 children, also suggested that the controversy concerning Bundy's racist comments had somehow been orchestrated to undermine her father's cause:

Glenn Beck was never 100% on board with my dad, but now he has an excuse to distance himself even farther. Could there be people out there who want it that way? Get the un main stream media out of the way from reporting this situation in a positive light and the battle is more than won for the opposing side…Again I'd like to ask, "What does my dad's opinion on the state of the Blacks on welfare have to do with the land rights issue?" Nothing! It's a detouring tactic. It's taking away from the real issues and what has been accomplished. The mainstream media want this to happen to make people deviate from the real important things and focus on a comment that has absolutely no relevance. It's a tactic that has been used for decades. I hope people will see this for what it really is.

While she came down hard on his critics, Cox's defense of her father was not so fierce: "Is my dad a racist. No, I really don't think so. Could he have said what he means with a little more tact? Sure he could have. But most of all, should it even be an issue right now? Nope."

Congressman Slams the Pentagon for its "Orwellian" Treatment of Fort Hood Victims

| Fri Apr. 25, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
A soldier wipes tears from his eyes during a vigil at Fort Hood, Texas in November 2009.

Another member of Congress has joined the chorus of officials calling on the Pentagon to give victims of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting the same benefits as soldiers killed or wounded in combat.

In a recent letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, which cited our reporting, Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) detailed the "Orwellian" situation survivors and families of the dead face because of how the incident has been labeled:

Major Nidal Hasan admitted he was the attacker. He is an avowed Jihadist who since 2008 had communicated more than a dozen times with al Qaeda-linked cleric Anwar al-Awlaki….And yet, the Department of Defense has classified the incident as "workplace violence," depriving the survivors and families of the fallen of medical and disability benefits and combat-related pay. This Orwellian designation also makes them ineligible for the Purple Hearts.

Beyond this unfairness, a recent article in Mother Jones magazine outlined how shabbily the injured were being treated by their own government. One Army reservist who was shot in the head and back was discharged rather than placed in a Warrior Transition Unit, as is commonplace for reservists wounded overseas. She lost her military health insurance. Only after the kindness of strangers was she able to seek treatment at the Mayo Clinic, where the doctors found multiple bullet fragments in her skull that had gone unnoticed and led to crippling headaches. Another survivor, a 22-year Army veteran who was shot seven times in the attack, was turned away from an Army post-traumatic stress clinic in Texas because his wounds were not combat-related. He was eventually able to seek treatment at a Navy clinic in California at his own cost rather than the Army’s. There are other stories that can only be described as shameful.

As a former prosecutor, I can appreciate the Department’s concern that designating the shooting an act of terrorism and the subsequent injuries as combat-related could prejudice the case against Hasan. But the court martial is over, and Hasan sits on death row. The appeals process is likely to last years. Meanwhile, the killed and wounded in this attack are being denied the benefits and honors they have earned.

Other lawmakers have made similar pleas. In May 2013, Reps. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), Frank Wolf (R-Va.), and Thomas Rooney (R-Fla.) sent Hagel a letter calling the government's decision to classify the shooting as workplace violence an "irresponsible, indefensible breach of our nation's sacred pledge to our service members." The lawmakers urged the Pentagon to "swiftly reclassify the victims' deaths and injuries as 'combat-related.'"

Rep. Patrick Meehan calls the victims' situation "Orwellian."

Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), whose district includes part of Fort Hood, has been trying for nearly five years to push through legislation that would make Hasan's victims eligible for the same benefits and honors as soldiers killed or wounded in combat, including Purple Hearts. The measure has garnered broad support, with more than 220 co-sponsors, and a variation was included in the defense-spending bill that passed the House last year. But it was stripped out of the Senate version after the White House and the Army voiced opposition.

Since Hasan's conviction on murder charges last August, Carter, who chairs the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Appropriations, has redoubled his efforts. "I support Representative Meehan’s letter to Secretary Chuck Hagel and hope that President Obama, Secretary Hagel and the DoD will finally recognize the shooting for what it is—an act of terror," he told Mother Jones. "The fight for the victims of the Fort Hood shooting will not be over until it is won."

In an email, Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Alayne P. Conway defended the decision not to label the incident terrorism saying, "There has been no evidence or information indicating that Nidal Hasan was a member of an international terrorist organization or that his attack was directed by such an organization." Conway added that, in late 2013, after several inquiries from members of Congress, the Army "agreed to review the record of Nidal Hasan's court-martial and determine whether it provides any additional or new evidence that would establish a sufficient nexus between Hasan and an international terrorist organization." But the Army judge who oversaw the proceedings refused to admit information relating to Hasan's Jihadist ties—including dozens of emails between the Army psychiatrist and Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric with Al Qaeda ties. So there's virtually no chance of the review finding that the deadly rampage was an act of terrorism, and victims will continue struggling to get the benefits Meehan and other lawmakers feel they deserve.

White House Turned Down Request From Victims of First Fort Hood Attack for Meeting With Obama

| Sun Apr. 13, 2014 8:27 AM EDT
Retired Staff Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford describes being shot in the head during the 2009 Fort Hood shooting rampage.

During last week's memorial service for victims of April 2 Fort Hood shooting, President Barack Obama spoke about the lingering hurt from the previous attack on the base in 2009. "Part of what makes this so painful is that we've been here before," Obama said. "This tragedy tears at wounds still raw from five years ago. Once more soldiers who survived foreign war zones were struck down here at home, where they're supposed to be safe." Yet, when victims of the first Fort Hood shooting invited the president to see those wounds up close, he refused, without explaining why.

The morning of the memorial, retired Staff Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford, who was shot seven times during the 2009 Fort Hood rampage, requested that Obama meet briefly with victims and their families while he was on base. Lunsford's letter, which was addressed to the president's chief of staff, Denis McDonough, also described survivors' disappointment with how they had been treated:

As you may know, the President and high-ranking members of the military promised me, my family and the other Fort Hood terror attack survivors that the federal government would "make them whole." After more than four and one-half years, however, the government has yet to make good on this promise.

We believe that if the President could hear, first-hand, our plight and our mistreatment at the hands of his bureaucracy, that he would take the steps needed to set things right. Therefore, we ask for ten minutes of his time.

In the years since Major Nidal Hasan opened fire in a crowded Fort Hood medical center, killing 13 people and wounding another 32, victims have struggled to get medical care and financial benefits. This is largely because of how the incident has been labeled. Although Hasan is an avowed jihadist with ties to Al Qaeda, the Pentagon considers the attack to be workplace violence rather than terrorism or combat. Thus victims aren't eligible for many benefits and honors available to soldiers wounded or killed in action. (For more on this topic, see "The White House Broke Its Promise to the Victims of the First Fort Hood Shooting. Will History Repeat Itself?")

Fri Apr. 25, 2014 12:42 PM EDT