Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy

Reporter

Tim Murphy is a senior reporter in MoJo's DC bureau. His writing has been featured in Slate and the Washington Monthly. Email him with tips and insights at tmurphy [at] motherjones [dot] com.

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GOP Contenders Get a Pass on Don't Ask, Don't Tell

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 11:07 PM EDT

For the third consecutive GOP presidential debate, the audience stole the show. At the Reagan Library debate in California, attendees memorably broke into a spontaneous round of applause in support of Rick Perry's record on the death penalty. At last week's debate in Tampa, a handful of audience members cheered the prospect of a man without health insurance being left to die. And on Thursday in Orlando, a chorus of boos erupted when a gay Army veteran asked former Sen. Rick Santorum if he should still be allowed to serve the country in Iraq.

Watch:

Santorum's answer was characteristic: Looking uncomfortable and stammering slightly, he said that the military was practicing "social engineering" by allowing gays to serve openly. He also effectively suggested that service-members should practice abstinence, stating that, "any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military." He declined to thank the questioner for his service, normally standard operating procedure for an American politician.

More disappointing than Santorum's answer was the fact that he was the only candidate forced to come up with one. Fox News' Chris Wallace grilled Santorum and then moved on to a new subject. But DADT is in the news right now, and it is a tangible policy that the next president, as commander in chief, will be in a position to act on. It speaks not just to social issues, but also national security. Will President Perry block gay soldiers from receiving benefits? Will President Romney move to re-implement DADT? Will President Cain (kidding) move to to create separate housing for gay soldiers and straight soldiers (as some social conservatives have suggested)? If the candidates don't like the current policy, what exactly are they going to do to change it?

Santorum got pegged with the question because he's considered a "social issues" candidate. But this question really deserved to be asked of everyone.

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Rick Perry's Florida Co-Chair: Gays Cause Tornadoes

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 10:20 AM EDT
Does this tornado look gay?

Earlier this week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced his leadership team for the "Presidency 5" straw poll in Florida, scheduled for October. Although most of the other major candidates have decided to skip the event, Perry is hoping a strong showing there will give him a boost ahead of the state's important early primary. So what's his strategy for voter outreach? It looks a lot like The Response, the prayer and fasting festival he organized in August at a football stadium in Houston.

Take, for instance, his new co-chair: Pam Olsen, founder of the Tallahassee House of Prayer (dubbed the "prayer lady" in her home state for reasons that should be self-evident) and a leading anti-abortion activist in the state. As Right Wing Watch notes, though, Olsen also believes that gay marriage, and its increasing acceptance among American Christians, is causing destructive natural disasters across the country. Here's what she said back in July:

God is shaking. If anybody looks at the news and has just seen what's been happening recently with the floods, the fires, the tornadoes, God is shaking. Yeah I think you have God shaking, sure you have the Enemy shaking, you have both and I don't want to say oh that's the judgment of God or that's the Enemy. But the reality is God is judging us, and I think it's going to get worse.

It's somewhat unclear why Texas, whose governor supports criminalizing gay sex, would be punished with raging wildfires for having too high a tolerance for gay rights. But Olsen's view is wholly consistent with Perry's other allies on the religious right. The Response, you'll recall, featured a number of controversial pastors who believed that, among other things, 9/11 was God's way of punishing America for tolerating homosexuality and the blackbirds that died suddenly in Arkansas last winter were a harbinger of the End Times.

Troy Davis Executed in Georgia

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 11:00 PM EDT

Despite evidence that threw into question the veracity of testimony that led to his conviction, pleas from a former president and the Pope, and even a last-minute review of the case by the US Supreme Court on Wednesday night, Troy Davis was executed by lethal injection shortly after 11 p.m. on Wednesday in Georgia.

Davis, whose case we wrote about in full detail here, was convicted on 1991 on charges that he murdered a Savannah police officer. Davis had put off eating his final meal in the expectation that he would be granted a stay of execution—as he had three times before in the past—but by Wednesday morning, he had exhausted all of his options, and a standing offer to submit to a polygraph test was rebuffed by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. The final lethal injection was delayed for more than three hours as the state waited to hear from the Supreme Court (which dismissed the appeal without dissent).

By now, you probably know the facts: Of the nine witnesses to the murder, seven have since recanted, and in doing so alleged that they were coerced into identifying Davis. Police tainted the identification process by pointing out Davis' face before he ever appeared in the lineup; new psychological research suggests that the officers went about identifying the suspect in exactly the wrong way. Ballistics evidence used to convict Davis has since been debunked. Another witness has since emerged as a plausible suspect in the murder trial. Three jurors on the case now say that if they knew then what they know now, they would not have voted to convict. Davis was quite possibly innocent, but that was hardly the point. As expressed by the popular Twitter hashtag, the problem was simply that there was #TooMuchDoubt.

Davis' case represented a perfect storm for death penalty opponents. He received support from world leaders and celebrities, including Pope Benedict XVI, Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, former FBI Director William Sessions, Salman Rushdie, and Kim Kardashian. R.E.M., in one of their last acts as a band, asked supporters to sign a petition for clemency. Unlike Duane Buck, the Texas inmate whose sentence was temporarily stayed by the Supreme Court last week, Davis' guilt really was really a matter of debate. Unlike Cameron Todd Willingham, whose 2004 execution was based on debunked forensic science, he had an otherwise clean record and was a reputable character. And perhaps just as importantly, he fit the prototype: Davis, who was black, physically embodied the racial disparities that permeate the criminal justice system, from capital punishment on down to drug sentencing. It was no accident that Amnesty International made him the face of its push to end the death penalty.

Davis' execution is a setback for death penalty opponents—and more broadly, death penalty supporters who know a broken system when they see one. It's also a reminder that for all of the fervor generated by cases like Davis', the overwhelming majority of Americans still support the death penalty, and tellingly, the majority of Americans who believe that innocent people are sometimes executed still support the death penalty. In ruling against Davis, the Supreme Court affirmed what Justice Antonin Scalia stated in 2009: "[T]his court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is 'actually' innocent."

Public policy can be improved (and lives saved) without wading into the furious culture war dispute over capital punishment itself. As the Willingham fiasco led to a reconsideration of the use of forensic evidence, reformers now have another opportunity in the wake of Davis' execution to push more scientific, disinterested witness identification. They can fight split-jury sentencing and raise the threshold required to send someone to death row. (Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal supports ending the requirement in his state that juries be unanimous to secure death warrants; Florida and Alabama are the only two states that don't require unanimity to obtain a death sentence.)

Either way, the debate won't die down any time soon. Next week, the US Supreme Court will consider what course of action to take on the Duane Buck case in Texas.

Stat of the Day: Executing the Innocent

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 10:56 AM EDT
Supporters of Troy Davis rally in Paris.

The state of Georgia is scheduled to execute Troy Davis sometime after 7 p.m. tonight, even though there are serious doubts as to whether he ever committed the crime he was convicted of (seven of the nine witnesses at his trial have since recanted). The debate over capital punishment has picked up noticabely over the last month, with the Davis execution, the Supreme Court's intervention in the case of Texas death row inmate Duane Buck, and Texas Governor Rick Perry's insistence—in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that the state has never executed an innocent man on his watch. In an editorial today, the New York Times takes the occasion to call for capital punishment to be permanently abolished.

They make a pretty compelling case. But this might not be a fight they can win—at least not for a while. Some death penalty supporters believe that the government is infallible when it comes to doling out capital punishment. But the numbers show that even people who think the state sometimes gets the wrong guy are still likely to support the death penalty. Here's a 2009 Gallup poll, via Grits for Breakfast:

[F]or many Americans, agreement with the assertion that innocent people have been put to death does not preclude simultaneous endorsement of the death penalty. A third of all Americans, 34%, believe an innocent person has been executed and at the same time support the death penalty. This is higher than the 23% who believe an innocent person has been executed and simultaneously oppose the death penalty.

It's comforting (ish) to think that death penalty supporters just have their heads in the sand, and if they can just be convinced that the system is broken they'll come around to abolition. But that's really not the case; a substantial number of proponents just think a flawed conviction here and there is a small price to pay for justice. Even as folks like the Innocence Project and Pamela Colloff continue to shine a light on the flaws of the system, public support for capital punishment remains pretty high and there's no indication it's in danger of flipping. Here's a handy chart from Pew:

Courtesy of Pew ResearchCourtesy of Pew ResearchWe have a notable decline over the last decade (coinciding with the switch in pollsters) but nothing about this graph screams out that the death penalty is on its last legs, and that it's not just a regression to the mean. This one from Gallup is even more ambiguous:

Courtesy of GallupCourtesy of GallupThe takeaway here is that even with cases like those of Troy Davis and Cameron Todd Willingham, death penalty opponents are going to have a pretty tough time winning converts to their cause. But there's plenty of low-hanging fruit to go after: The Davis prosecution, for instance, was aided by a flawed system of witness idenfitification—one that that the New Jersey Supreme Court recently banned entirely. The Willingham case hinged on a school of arson science that was closer to witchcraft—but a consequence of that is the state was pressured into forming a commission that now has the authority to investigate cases where poor forensic techniques were used.

Update: More numbers from PRRI today. There's also an enthusiasm gap: "Three times as many Americans say they strongly favor the death penalty as say they strongly oppose it (33% vs. 11% respectively)."

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