Michael Mechanic

Michael Mechanic

Senior Editor

Michael has been a senior editor at Mother Jones for eight years, after spending the previous six as an award-winning features editor at the 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 newspapers and magazines including Wired, The Industry Standard, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, two kids, three chickens, striped cat, and too many musical instruments to master.

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Michael has been a senior editor at Mother Jones for eight years, after spending the previous six as an award-winning features editor at the 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 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 also 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 with photographer Nina Berman. Michael lives with his family in Oakland, California, where he sits on his front porch and attempts to play the fiddle.

Castille with fellow Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices in September 2011

The US Supreme Court heard arguments last week as to whether Ronald D. Castille, a former chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, should have stepped aside from considering the appeal of a death penalty case he personally greenlighted when he was Philadelphia's district attorney.

It seems pretty obvious, doesn't it? "He made the most important decision that could be made in this case," Justice Elena Kagan commented during oral arguments.

Castille didn't think so. Back in 2012, public defenders for Terrence Williams—who was convicted and sentenced to death at age 18 for murdering a 56-year-old named Amos Norwood—asked Castille to step aside because he oversaw the prosecutors who handled the case. The judge explained to the New York Times that he was merely functioning as an administrator. "I didn't try the case," he said, according to the paper. "I wasn't really involved in the case except as the leader of the office."

But Castille had additional baggage that raise questions about his involvement.

An appeals judge found that Andrea Foulkes, the prosecutor who tried Williams on Castille's watch, had deliberately withheld key evidence from the defense—and thereby the jury. Norwood, the victim, had started a relationship with Williams when the boy was 13 and abused him, sexually and otherwise, for years. Although the details weren't known at the time, the prosecution suppressed trial evidence suggesting Norwood had an unnatural interest in underage boys.

Williams had previously killed another older man he'd been having sex with—51-year-old Herbert Hamilton. (Williams was 17 at the time of the crime.) The jury in that case, presented with evidence of their relationship, voted against the death penalty and convicted Williams of third-degree murder, a lesser charge. But Foulkes, who prosecuted both cases, told the Norwood jury that Williams had killed Norwood "for no other reason but that a kind man offered him a ride home."

So there's that. And then, as death penalty appeals lawyer Marc Bookman points out in an in-depth examination of the Williams prosecutions for Mother Jones, Castille was a big fan of the death penalty:

In the five years before the Williams case came onto its docket, the court, led by Chief Justice Ronald Castille, had ruled in favor of the death penalty 90 percent of the time. This wasn't too surprising, given that Castille had been elected to his judgeship in 1993 as the law-and-order alternative to a candidate he labeled soft on crime…

"Castille and his prosecutors sent 45 people to death row during their tenure, accounting for more than a quarter of the state's death row population," the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted in 1993. "Castille wears the statistic as a badge. And he is running for the high court as if it were exclusively the state's chief criminal court rather than a forum for a broad range of legal issues." Castille was pretty clear about where he stood: "You ask people to vote for you, they want to know where you stand on the death penalty," he told the Legal Intelligencer, a law journal. "I can certainly say I sent 45 people to death row as District Attorney of Philadelphia. They sort of get the hint."

Castille also had it out for Williams' defenders, with whom his old office was at odds. Bookman again:

Castille had a fraught relationship with the Federal Community Defender Office, a group of lawyers who represent numerous death row inmates, including Williams. Castille claimed that federal lawyers had no business appearing in state courts. He complained bitterly over the years about their "prolix and abusive pleadings" and about all the resources they dedicated to defending death row inmates—"something one would expect in major litigation involving large law firms."

The defenders, for their part, routinely filed motions arguing that Castille had no business ruling on the appeals of prisoners whose prosecutions he had approved—particularly not in a case in which his office was found to have suppressed evidence helpful to the defense. But as chief justice, Castille had the last word. He denied all such motions, and accused the federal defenders of writing "scurrilously," making "scandalous misrepresentations," and having a "perverse worldview."

It's not too hard to predict which way the Supreme Court will rule—although whether their decision helps Williams get a resentencing is another matter. America's justice system makes it unbelievably hard to get a second chance once you are convicted of a serious crime.

But all of this brings up a broader, question: Prosecutors like Castille are appointed to the bench in far greater numbers than former defenders—even President Barack Obama has perpetuated this trend. Which is why it was so worthy of note that California Gov. Jerry Brown, under federal pressure to reduce incarceration in the Golden State, has broken with his predecessors and moved in the other direction. Northern California public station KQED recently pointed out that more than a quarter of Brown's 309 judicial appointments have been former public defenders, whereas only 14 percent were once DAs. (31 percent had some prosecutorial experience.) From that report:

"We never had a tradition that said to be a judge you had to be a district attorney. That developed probably in the '90s," Brown said. "The judges are supposed to be independent. You want judges that have a commercial background, you want judges that have a prosecutorial background, city attorneys, or county counsel, or small practice, plaintiffs' practice—you want a diversity, instead of kind of a one note fits all."

When it comes down to it, politicians are still eager to appear tough on crime. But is it really good policy—financially or ethically—to stack the bench with judges who are accustomed to being rated according to the number of people they lock away?

"Most district attorney judges that I've experienced are unable to divorce themselves from their background once they become a judge," Michael Ogul, president of the California Public Defenders Association, told KQED. "They are still trying to help the prosecution, they are still trying to move the case toward conviction or toward a harsher punishment." 

Ted Cruz celebrates his Iowa victory.

Craig Mazin is on a Twitter roll.

His antipathy for his former Princeton roommate, Ted Cruz, has made him a public sounding board for Cruz haters and fun seekers, and a target for the senator's supporters. "I would rather have anybody else be the president of the United States," Mazin told the Daily Beast. "Anyone. I would rather pick somebody from the phone book."

Plenty of Cruz fans tweet at Mazin to take issue with his mini-diatribes or, since Monday, to gloat over their candidate's victory in Iowa. But Mazin politely gives as good as he gets. Here are his relevant exchanges from the past 48 hours or so. (Click the links for more context.)

No, this is not the Nobel Prize-winning pandemics expert.

I had the pleasure, a while back, of lunching with Peter Doherty, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for research showing how the immune system recognizes virus-infected cells. He's a fascinating, charming guy who knows a heck of a lot about birds and pandemics, having written books about both. You can read the extended chat here, but with influenza season upon us, you'll be especially interested in these 10 highlights.

1. Drought is influenza's BFF: "It brings birds together on a limited water source, so there's much more of a chance of transmission. Interestingly, with West Nile [virus], 2012 was a very bad year, and that was a drought year—all the birds were coming very close together, and the insects were there, and were breeding down in the sewers in cities. It's paradoxical: In a wild situation where you get a lot of rain and a lot mosquitos you'd expect a lot of transmission. But in an urban environment, a drought situation can give you the ideal means of transmission."

2. These chickens have our back: "Sentinel chickens are the domestic chickens that public health people park around the countryside in small flocks. These are there to detect viruses and the spread of viruses that are transmitted by mosquitoes. West Nile is one of them. The chicken recovers and makes antibodies, and so, by regularly bleeding these chickens, you can say that that virus is spreading in that region. It's a long-used technique."

3. That sick first-class passenger probably won't spread it to coach: "You're at risk if you're two or three rows from someone who's coughing and spluttering flu, but it doesn't go through the plane's air-handling system, so it's not dangerous in that sense. But it gets around the world very, very fast. The terrible 1918-1919 pandemic that killed 50 million to 100 million people was killing people in the trenches in 1918 but didn't get to Australia till 1919 because everyone's traveling by ship. But the 2009 swine flu was probably in Australia before it was even detected in the United States—and that's air travel." [Editor's note: The heading for this item has been modified.]

4. A semi-deadly flu is scarier than a superdeadly one: "The more severe it is, in a way the less dangerous it is, because the public health people will drop on it in a big way. The really dangerous flu virus is the one that, like the 1918 virus, kills maybe 2 percent. Because it'll slip by much more readily."

5. Your cat can get the flu, but not to worry: "The H5N1 bird flu was causing a lot of disease in big cats like leopards that were fed infected chicken carcasses. It killed [zoo leopards and tigers in Taiwan(*)], for instance, before they realized what was happening," but "there's no known case that I know of where a cat has transmitted a flu virus to a human."

6. Pigs, on the other hand... "Pigs are our main worry. The flu virus genetic material is organized in eight quite separate bits. So if the one cell in, say, a pig lung, gets infected with two different flu viruses, they can just repackage so you get bits of the different packages in new viruses…That's what happed with the 2009 swine flu. There was an American swine flu virus and there was a Eurasian swine flu. Somehow they got together, and that repackaged virus was extremely infectious for humans. The 1968 Hong Kong flu came about when a virus circulating in humans called H2N2 reassorted with an H3N8 virus that was in ducks. And that we think probably happened in a pig…There's a picture of a kid kissing a pig that all the flu guys show. Don't kiss your pig! Keep your distance."

7. A flu pandemic will cost us a friggin' fortune: "People would stop flying, for a start. That means the hotel industry and the airline industry would go down the tube…Anything where people gather together. That's what happened with SARS—I think the loss is calculated at around $50 billion, and that only affected a few East Asian areas and Toronto. The calculated loss of a severe flu pandemic is $300 billion, something like that."

8. If you cook a bird-flu-infected chicken, you actually can eat it (not that you would): "It doesn't take much to kill flu. It's pretty labile. But it survives well in water. I don't know any case where anyone caught flu by water, though. As far as we all know, flu only spreads by respiratory routes, by hand and nose. My Pandemics book argues that one of the best things you can do in any situation is to wash your hands and not touch your hand to your face. We all touch our hands to our face an enormous amount and we don't realize it." (Author's note: This is totally true. Watch your co-workers at the next work meeting.)

9. Recurrence of a 1918-style pandemic is pretty unlikely: "We're incredibly better at monitoring it and reacting quickly. There's a great global network of influenza centers, and the technology is infinitely better. A lot of people in 1918 probably died from secondary bacterial infections. We've got antibiotics to deal with bacteria, and so we'd do better there."

10. Our primitive method of producing flu vaccine is on the outs: "They've got some of it working now in recombinant DNA technology, which means we can grow the proteins in bacteria—which means you can use every fermenter on the planet. At the moment we're growing them in hens' eggs. That's really limiting because there's a limited number of facilities. Our armamentarium is improving very fast. There's always a chance of some weird virus that comes in from nowhere, like the one in Contagion. But so far, no."

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Dr. Dougherty was quoted saying flu had killed leopards in a zoo in Singapore. It was actually Taiwan.

Noun Project icons by: Hayashi Fumihiro (drought), Adam Zubin (chicken and pig), Anuar Zumaev (airline passenger), OCHA Visual Information Unit (contagion), Lucie Parker (cat), Luis Prado (money), Creative Stall (roasted chicken), Michael Thompson (pandemic burial), Joel Looney (vaccine)

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