Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer

Reporter

Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent several years hanging out with angry white people who occasionally don tricorne hats and come to lunch meetings heavily armed.

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Stephanie covers legal affairs and domestic policy in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She is the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. A contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, a former investigative reporter at the Washington Post, and a senior writer at the Washington City Paper, she was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2004 for a Washington Monthly article about myths surrounding the medical malpractice system. In 2000, she won the Harry Chapin Media award for reporting on poverty and hunger, and her 2010 story in Mother Jones of the collapse of the welfare system in Georgia and elsewhere won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

Georgia Supreme Court: Lethal-Injection Secrecy Helps Keep Executions "Timely and Orderly"

| Mon May 19, 2014 6:12 PM EDT

On Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a remarkable ruling in a case challenging a Georgia law that designates the source and composition of its lethal-injection drugs as a state secret—one that can be kept hidden from everyone: the condemned, the public, and, most notably, the courts themselves.

That the state's high court would rule against a death-row inmate is hardly surprising. Georgia courts have rarely voted to spare anyone from execution. But that it would keep the courts ignorant of what goes on in the state's death chamber seems like an unusual abdication of judicial power.

Before passing its secrecy law, Georgia illegally imported expired drugs from a London company called "Dream Pharma," and used them in two executions.

Georgia passed its secrecy law in March 2013 after its supply of pentobarbital, its primary execution drug, expired. Officials were having trouble getting more, thanks to an export ban by the EU and the refusal of international pharmaceutical companies to sell the drugs for the use in executions. The new law was challenged on behalf of a prisoner named Warren Hill, sentenced to death after killing another inmate while serving a life sentence for murdering his girlfriend. His execution was put on hold last summer, pending the outcome of the challenge.

Under the law Georgia just upheld, the public has no right to obtain the name of any person or company, even under seal in a legal proceeding, who manufactures or sells an execution drug. It also lets state authorities hide the identities of doctors who participate in executions—a professional ethical breach. The secrecy requirements may also be an effort to protect state officials from embarrassment; in 2010 and 2011, the state was shamed by news that it had been illegally importing expired drugs with limited potency from "Dream Pharma," a London company operating out of the back of a run-down driving school.

Georgia actually used those drugs in two executions before the Food and Drug Administration stepped in and confiscated the supply. But what happened during those executions is one reason Hill wanted more information on the source of the drugs that would be used to kill him. In the first case, the condemned man, Brandon Rhodes, kept his eyes open through the entire process, an indication that the painful paralyzing drugs were administered while he was conscious. During the other state-sanctioned killing, inmate Emmanuel Hammond kept his eyes open, grimaced, and seemed to be attempting to talk. 

The high court dismissed these concerns, and insisted that the confidentiality law "plays a positive role in the in the functioning of the capital punishment process." The court admitted that releasing more information might help satisfy concerns that executions are humane, but found that it was more important that the secrecy made the process "more timely and orderly."

Really, the court said that.

Dissenting judges argued that the ruling creates a "star chamber" situation, which prevents constitutional scrutiny of the execution process.

Two justices dissented loudly, arguing that the ruling creates a "star chamber" situation the courts have long fought to avoid—one that prevents the courts from scrutinizing the execution procedures to ensure they don't violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The dissent also points out that the majority ruled against Hill on the grounds that his concerns about potentially contaminated or illegally procured execution drugs were solely "speculative." But Hill's claims are speculative, the dissenters wrote, precisely because the court is refusing him the right to information that might make them more concrete. In short, they wrote, there was no way Hill could win, and the majority decision clearly violated his rights to due process.

The decision paves the way for the state to continue making itself a a poster child for why the death penalty is on its way out. In 2002, the US Supreme Court banned the execution of mentally disabled people, and Hill, with an IQ of 70, falls into that category. But Georgia doesn't like being told what to do. So while its lawyers continue to haggle over Hill's mental state, Georgia may move on to another inmate first: Robert Wayne Holsey, who was convicted of killing a police officer in 1997, even though his court-appointed lawyer, a severe alcoholic, consumed a quart of vodka every night during his trial.

Cases like these suggest that there's a lot about its capital punishment system that Georgia might prefer to keep secret—not just the drugs it's using.

 

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Will Rick Perry Execute A Mentally Disabled Man Tonight?

| Tue May 13, 2014 9:47 AM EDT
Texas Governor Rick Perry

Update (5:24 pm): The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has stayed Robert Campbell's execution on the grounds that the new evidence of his intellectual disability was "more than sufficient" to warrant a closer look by the courts. His lawyer, Robert C. Owen, said in a statement, "Given the state’s own role in creating the regrettable circumstances that led to the Fifth Circuit’s decision today, the time is right for the State of Texas to let go of its efforts to execute Mr. Campbell, and resolve this case by reducing his sentence to life imprisonment. State officials should choose the path of resolution rather than pursuing months or years of further proceedings."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has presided over more executions than any other governor in American history. He's ignored pleas for clemency for people who committed crimes as juveniles, who were mentally disabled, or who were obvious victims of systemic racism. He even signed off on the execution of a likely innocent man. So the odds don't seem good for Robert Campbell, a man set to be executed in Texas tonight. This is despite the fact that new evidence has surfaced showing that the state withheld information documenting an intellectual disability that should make him ineligible for the death penalty.

Unlike Clayton Lockett, the Oklahoma murderer whose botched execution last month has become a rallying cry for abolishing the death penalty, Campbell is actually something of a poster child for all that's wrong with capital punishment in this country. 

Four months after his 18th birthday, Campbell commit three armed car jackings. In one of those, a 20-year-old bank employee, Alexandra Rendon, was kidnapped at a gas station, sexually assaulted and shot to death. Campbell was quickly arrested, largely because he drove Rendon's car around his neighborhood, gave her coat to his mother and her jewelry to his girlfriend as gifts, and basically blabbed to everyone that he'd been involved in the crime. He wasn't alone during the commission of the crime. But his co-defendant, Leroy Lewis, was allowed to plead guilty and is already out on parole.

But Campbell, who is black, went to trial in 1992 in Houston during a time when prosecutors there were three times more likely to pursue a capital case against African-American men than against white men. He had an incompetent lawyer whose many missteps included failing to either investigate his case or to present evidence that would have mitigated his sentence, notably the fact that Campbell was mentally retarded. (This term generally isn't used anymore to describe people with intellectual disabilities—except with regard to the death penalty, where it has a specific definition in the law.)

More bad lawyering over the years, along with hostile Texas courts, left Campbell without many avenues to appeal, even though in 2002, the US Supreme Court banned the execution of the mentally disabled. What's more, Campbell's lawyers only recently discovered that prosecutors and other state officials long had substantial evidence of his limited cognitive functioning—including school records and test results placing his IQ at 68—that should have spared him from the death penalty. Yet they failed to turn it over to defense counsel until just days before his scheduled execution. Last week, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals nonetheless denied Campbell's request to stay the execution, despite clear concerns from several judges on the court that his claims of mental retardation were compelling and justified further review.

“It is an outrage that the State of Texas itself has worked to frustrate Mr. Campbell’s attempts to obtain any fair consideration of evidence of his intellectual disability,” said Robert C. Owen, an attorney for Mr. Campbell. “State officials affirmatively misled Mr. Campbell’s lawyers when they said they had no records of IQ testing of Mr. Campbell from his time on death row. That was a lie. They had such test results, and those results placed Mr. Campbell squarely in the range for a diagnosis of mental retardation. Mr. Campbell now faces execution as a direct result of such shameful gamesmanship.”

Campbell's attorneys have filed an emergency request for relief with the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where his odds also seem relatively slim. The Fifth Circuit is notoriously hostile to death penalty appeals. One of its judges, Edith Jones, is famous for reinstating a death sentence for a man whose lawyer slept through his trial. She has said publicly that the death penalty provides criminals with a "positive service" because it gives them an opportunity to get right with God right before the state kills them. She's also facing an unusual ethics complaint over allegedly racist remarks she made at a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania last year, where she reportedly claimed that blacks and Hispanics were predisposed to crime and "prone" to violence. Notably, too, she insisted that defendants who raise claims of mental retardation "abuse the system" and she criticized the Supreme Court's decision prohibiting the execution of the mentally disabled. (She's said that anyone who can plan a crime can't be mentally retarded.)

If Campbell can't make any headway with the Fifth Circuit, his next appeal goes to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who reviews emergency death penalty appeals for the Fifth Circuit and is on the record as opposing the ban on executing the mentally retarded. (He also objected to the ban on executing juveniles.) So Campbell's best hope, at least in the short run, is Perry, the three-term GOP governor with presidential aspirations. Perry has the authority to issue a 30-day stay of execution, and if the parole board recommends clemency, as Campbell's lawyers are requesting, he could commute Campbell's sentence to life in prison.

Execution politics aren't pretty. As governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton left the campaign trail in 1992 to personally oversee the execution of a brain-damaged man, Ricky Ray Rector, and prove his tough-on-crime bona fides. Perry, though, has long and documented track record of executing hundreds of people already, and the politics of the death penalty have unexpectedly and quickly started to change. A vote for clemency isn't likely to affect Perry's future political prospects. In this case, it might even help them. He has a few hours more to decide.

 

 

CHART: The Bulk of Federal Welfare Spending Is Not Going to the People Who Need It Most

| Wed May 7, 2014 1:00 PM EDT
Johns Hopkins University

In his past several budget proposals, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has called for big cuts to the federal safety net, especially to the food stamps program. He'd like to see the food assistance program, which helps 46 million people, turned over to the states and reformed the way welfare was in the 1990s, with the imposition of stiff time limits on benefits and work requirements for recipients. But according to a new study, that focus on tying benefits to work has contributed to a major shift in federal welfare spending away from the people who need it most.

Robert Moffitt, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins University, has found that over the past 30 years federal safety net spending has increased dramatically, as Republicans often allege. But that spending hasn't gone to help the people who need it most. Instead, the additional funding has shifted to help people who aren't exactly wealthy, but who aren't doing quite as badly as those at the bottom, largely because they work for some part of the year. The resulting policy shift means that in 2014, a family of four earning $11,925 a year—50 percent of the official poverty line—likely receives less aid than a similar family earning $47,700.

That's a big change from 1983, when 56 percent of all safety net payments (all major social insurance programs except Medicaid and Medicare) went to families living below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. By 2004, that figure had dropped to 32 percent. Moffitt says the data indicates that even among the poor, inequality is increasing as federal funds have been redistributed from the worst-off families to those doing somewhat better. Federal safety net benefits to single parents living below 50 percent of the poverty line have plummeted 35 percent since 1983.

Some demographic groups have fared better than others, namely the elderly and the disabled. Moffitt notes that families headed by someone over the age of 62 have seen their benefits rise by 19 percent over the past 30 years. Meanwhile, those taking the biggest hit are single mothers, who have been disproportionately affected by changes to the welfare system in 1996 that cut off most cash aid to anyone who wasn't working. Moffitt says the disparity is also the result of large increases in programs that benefit specific groups of low-income people, as the Earned Income Tax Credit does. While the credit lifted more than 3 million children out of poverty in 2012, it's largest impact is on people who earn at least $10,000 a year or more.

While he doesn't say it in his presentation, all of these trends are one reason why the number of Americans living on less than $2 a day has doubled since 1996. American politicians' obsession with helping the "deserving poor" has meant that the people who aren't so deserving or who are trying and not making it are getting more screwed than ever. "You would think that the government would offer the most support to those who have the lowest incomes and provide less help to those with higher incomes," Moffitt observed. "But that is not the case."

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Tue Sep. 9, 2014 6:30 AM EDT | Updated Tue Dec. 16, 2014 10:10 AM EDT