Michael Mechanic

Michael Mechanic

Senior Editor

Michael has been a senior editor at MoJo for eight years, after spending the previous six as an award-winning features editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. In addition to editing stories for print and web, he is in charge of the magazine's Mixed Media section. His writing has appeared in a range of alt-weeklies, newspapers, and magazines including Wired, The Industry Standard, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, two kids, four chickens, striped cat, and too many musical instruments to master.

Full Bio | Get my RSS |

Michael has been a senior editor at MoJo for eight years, after spending the previous six as an award-winning features editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. In addition to editing stories for print and web, he is in charge of the magazine's Mixed Media section. His writing has appeared in a range of alt-weeklies, newspapers, and magazines including Wired, The Industry Standard, and the Los Angeles Times. He originally set out to be a scientist, and as an undergrad spent a year in an organic chemistry lab at UC-Berkeley, where he was a biochemistry major, trying to synthesize tropical frog poisons. He later earned a masters degree in cellular and developmental biology from Harvard University and a masters in journalism from Cal. In 2009, he was named a finalist for a National Magazine Award for his contribution to MoJo's "Torture Hits Home" package. (His contribution, "Voluntary Confinement," involved a reality TV show that held contestants in isolation.) He also won a 2014 Society for Professional Journalists award for "It Was Kind of Like Slavery," a photoessay he wrote with photographer Nina Berman. Michael lives with his family in Oakland, California, where, after years of classical piano and punk-rock drumming, he now sits on his front porch and tries to play the fiddle.

BREAKING: James Holmes Found Guilty in Aurora Massacre Trial

Jury finds he wasn't insane when he killed 12 in a Colorado movie theater.

| Thu Jul. 16, 2015 6:32 PM EDT

Three years after he killed 12 people and injured 70 more in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, a jury has found James Holmes guilty of first degree murder.

The jury concluded that Holmes was not legally insane at the time he committed the crimes, despite evidence of mental illness. Holmes' mental state will come into play again in the penalty phase of the trial, in which jurors will hear testimony and decide whether he is eligible for execution.

Which raises the question: How crazy is too crazy to be executed? Here's how capital defense lawyer and occasional Mother Jones contributor Marc Bookman put it in a remarkable essay with precisely that title:

There is no simple answer to this question. State courts across the country have struggled to define "intellectual disability" (also known as mental retardation) since 2002, when the Supreme Court ruled that retarded people are exempt from capital punishment. The high court has also banned the execution of anyone who was under 18 at the time of his crime, but no court has ruled that severe mental illness makes a person ineligible for the death penalty.

The Supreme Court's latest foray into the issue involved the case of Scott Louis Panetti, another Texas death row inmate. Panetti, a diagnosed schizophrenic who killed his in-laws, defended himself in court wearing a purple cowboy suit. As if that weren't enough, he asked to subpoena Jesus, John F. Kennedy, and the pope. While the justices didn't offer any clear standard on how crazy is too crazy, they suggested that severe mental illness might render someone's "perception of reality so distorted" that he cannot be constitutionally executed.

As it stands, a person cannot be put to death if he or she is deemed "insane," but that's a narrow legal distinction. Whether at trial or on the eve of execution, an insanity defense hinges on a defendant's inability to connect his crime with the consequences. Absent that connection, neither deterrence nor retribution is served by execution. As the legal scholar Sir William Blackstone put it more than 200 years ago, madness is its own punishment.

Almost every state now utilizes some version of what is known as the M'Naghten Rule. Daniel M'Naghten, an Englishman, was put on trial in 1843 for fatally shooting a civil servant he apparently mistook for the prime minister. He had delusions of persecution, and a number of doctors testified that he was unable to hold himself back. When the prosecution produced no witness to say otherwise, M'Naghten was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He spent most of the rest of his life at the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum in London's Bethlem Royal Hospital, which locals pronounced "Bedlam."

Thus was coined a word we associate with chaos—and it was chaos that ensued when M'Naghten was acquitted and the public took the verdict poorly. What emerged amid the outcry was the generally applied law that an insanity defense would only be available to someone who cannot understand the "nature and quality" of his act.

In a more recent piece focusing on the Panetti case, staff reporter Stephanie Mencimer digs deeper into the high court's thinking, and demonstrates in a followup analysis why it is so difficult, once a case gets to this stage, to reverse momentum toward a verdict of death.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

You're About to Hear a Lot More "Death Panels" Talk. Here's Why It's Nonsense

Medicare's plan to reimburse docs for end-of-life conversations will prevent a lot of suffering.

| Thu Jul. 9, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

You'll probably be hearing a lot about death panels these next few days.

That's because Medicare, the federal insurance program for elderly Americans, wants to start reimbursing doctors for having conversations with their elderly patients about death. Those talks might cover things like how much medical treatment a person is willing to endure in exchange for the chance of a few more months on the planet, and the circumstances under which a person would prefer to let go.

Similar ideas were stripped out of the the Affordable Care Act after that great medical intellect Sarah Palin started using the provocative term "death panels" to describe them. It was picked up by Obama-haters everywhere and the end-of-life counseling notion was soon declared DOA. A lot of media outlets used the language to describe Medicare's announcement Wednesday:

You can pretty much count on the death-panel trolls crawling back—some of them might even be running for president.

Times have changed, and we've probably gotten smarter on this, but you can count on some of the old death-panel trolls to come crawling back—and some of them might even be running for president. We'll see. In any case, they will be profoundly and tragically wrong. The proposed conversations will not only save the healthcare system a bundle, they will improve the quality and duration of people's final days. Even tea partiers will benefit from the policy, which, if it survives its critics, will almost certainly be adopted by private insurers. (Some are already doing it.)

It's worth reviving an exchange I had with the author, surgeon, and New Yorker staff writer Atul Gawande, whose best-seller "Being Mortal" covers this very topic. Here we're discussing the short-sightedness of hospitals (given the aging Boomer population) for cutting back on doctors who specialize in elder care.

Mother Jones: The fact that hospitals are cutting geriatrics programs now just seems insane.

Atul Gawande: It's total insanity! And hospitals are doing it because we're not valuing those capabilities in society. No one is clamoring for geriatricians. You know, if we took away the ability to put defibrillators in people in their last years, people would be shouting in the streets. But take away the capacity to see a geriatrician and there isn't a murmur. Because it requires admitting that we have mortal lives. The second part of it is that these are the lowest paid people in the profession and the fact that we value those skills so poorly. It's foolish: These are folks that keep people out of hospitals, out of emergency rooms, out of nursing homes. And not only that, they help people achieve more fulfilling lives. We've clearly got the priorities wrong.

MJ: There's also hospice, which we see as this program you go into when you're about to die. But it turns out that's kind of ironic, right?

"The group who had those conversations chose to stop their chemotherapy sooner. They had fewer days in the hospital. They were less likely to die in an ICU. They lived 25 percent longer."

AG: Yeah. The evidence is that people who enter hospice don't have shorter lives. In many cases they are longer. I kept a series of studies that really help bring it out. One looked at lung cancer patients who were at stage four and lived on average only 11 months. Half of them were randomized to usual oncology care, the other half randomized to oncology care plus early discussions with palliative care physicians who would discuss the patients' aims and goals for the end of life. The group who had those conversations chose to stop their chemotherapy sooner. They had fewer days in the hospital. They were less likely to die in an ICU. They started hospice earlier, and they lived 25 percent longer. And that's largely because, you know, that fourth round of chemotherapy or that last ditch operation is vastly more likely to be causing you harm than it is to be providing you benefits. So over and over again we end up sacrificing people's lives and making them more miserable—which is just bad decision-making all around.

MJ: You'd think insurers would be clamoring for more geriatricians. I think the way you put it in the book is that, if these end-of-life discussions were an experimental drug, the FDA would immediately approve it.

AG: Yeah. You know, we had this difficult time politically where the notion that these conversations are really important got polarized. Part of the reason I wrote this book is to try to pave a path beyond that polarized discussion. I think we can easily value having these conversations, but the question is, what kind of conversation? If the conversation people think is coming is the "death panel" conversation, like "Yeah, you can't have the kind of care that you want," that's a total failure. If the conversation that we reward doctors to take the time for are conversations about, "What are your priorities in life, and how do we make sure that we're not sacrificing them as we go along this course of care?" That's what the evidence indicates will make a huge difference.

You can read the rest of the interview here. In the meantime, maybe we could all just put aside our political differences for once, think about our moms and pops, and start calling these conversations what they actually are: wise and compassionate.

Sat Apr. 18, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
Fri Nov. 14, 2014 6:30 AM EST
Wed Sep. 17, 2014 5:30 AM EDT
Mon Apr. 21, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Mon Feb. 10, 2014 7:00 AM EST
Thu Jan. 24, 2013 7:06 AM EST
Mon Dec. 31, 2012 3:22 PM EST
Fri Dec. 14, 2012 11:03 PM EST
Fri Nov. 16, 2012 4:56 PM EST
Thu Nov. 1, 2012 4:31 PM EDT
Thu Sep. 27, 2012 2:07 PM EDT
Thu Mar. 22, 2012 3:05 PM EDT
Tue Mar. 20, 2012 6:30 AM EDT
Mon Mar. 19, 2012 2:02 PM EDT
Mon Feb. 27, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Wed Jan. 25, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Mon Dec. 5, 2011 6:00 AM EST
Thu Dec. 1, 2011 7:30 PM EST
Tue Nov. 22, 2011 6:10 PM EST