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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BREAKING: Supreme Court Halts Texas Execution

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 10:41 PM EDT

The United States Supreme Court intervened at the eleventh hour to halt the scheduled execution of Duane Buck on Thursday, a rare move that will put the controversial execution on hold indefinitely until the justices can properly review Buck's petition for clemency. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected a clemency petition from Buck's attorney on Monday, and petitions to Governor Rick Perry (and his deputy, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst) to grant a 30-day reprieve to re-evaluate the sentence went unanswered. Buck's attorneys filed a writ of certiori with the Supreme Court on Wednesday. (The order came about two hours after the execution window opened at 7 p.m. eastern time; as CNN reported, Buck had already eaten what was supposed to be his last meal.)

For Perry, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, the decision threatens to reinject not just the issue of capital punishment, but also race into a campaign that in recent weeks has grown more contentious.

Buck was convicted in 1997 on two counts of murder after a shooting rampage at his ex-girlfriend's apartment. The case, which we've written about in more detail previously, is somewhat unusual in that Buck's guilt is not a point of contention by anyone (Buck included). The issue instead is whether his race (he's black) played a role in obtaining the capital punishment sentence. At Buck's trial, a psychologist summoned by the defense went on to testify, under cross-examination, that Buck's race made him more likely to commit violent acts in the future. To obtain a death penalty sentence in Texas prosecutors must prove a level of "future dangerousness," and the psychologist's testimony (although not its specifics) were cited in the prosecution's closing arguments.

When a similar case, brought by Argentinian Hugo Saldano, came before the Supreme Court in 2000, a much different group of justices ruled that the sentence was unconstitutional as it amounted to race-based discrimination. That led Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), then the state's attorney general, to re-examine past cases in which the same psychologist had been summoned and cited race as evidence of future dangerousness. Cornyn found six cases that matched the description—and Buck's is the only one of those six that has not received a re-trial. Cornyn stated at the time that the case had been "improperly decided." Last week, one of the former prosecutors in the case wrote to Perry asking him to commute the death sentence.

It's unclear how the Supreme Court may rule on Buck's petition; at this stage, simply the stay itself can be seen as a victory of sorts. Perry has presided over 234 executions as governor, a modern-day record, including 11 this year alone. He has commuted 31 sentences, but 30 of those came only after intervention by the Supreme Court, in cases involving the execution of minors and the mentally handicapped. And in at least one case, the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, he ignored compelling evidence that the state had sentenced an innocent man to die.

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Tea Partiers: Light Rail an Invitation to Al Qaeda

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 4:14 PM EDT

The citizens of Cobb County, Georgia, are currently mulling a proposal that would increase property taxes for 10 years in order to fund a new light-rail line between Atlanta to its suburbs. It's a fairly straightforward proposal, the kind of thing that pops up all the time in communities across the country. But if there's been one lesson of the past few years, it's that mundane policy debates have a tendency to become a lot less mundane once tea partiers get involved.

In this case, the Georgia Tea Party is arguing that the county should abandon its light-rail proposal because if the light-rail line were to be completed, it would become a magnet for terrorist attacks. Here's the group's chair, J.D. Van Brink:

If anyone doesn't believe me—England and Spain. Now, if we have a more decentralized mass-transit system using buses, if the terrorists blow up a single bus, we can work around that. When they blow up a rail, that just brings the system to a grinding halt. So how much security are we going to have on this rail system, and how much will it cost?

In other words, Van Brink is arguing that because terrorists fantasize about blowing up American infrastructure, we should avoid spending any money on infrastructure. Given tea partiers' opposition to most forms of government spending and their worries that light-rail and sustainable development plans are part of a United Nations conspiracy to force people to live in miniature, lightbulb-less "Hobbit homes," the terrorism concerns here almost seem like a dodge. But maybe Van Brink is on to something. Here's what Al Qaeda's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, said in a video released in July: 

The al-Qaeda network is fully prepared to continue the jihad against the American infidels by launching deadly attacks, but your outdated and rusting transportation infrastructure needs to be completely overhauled for those strikes even to be noticed. We want to turn your bridges into rubble, but if we claimed credit for making them collapse, nobody would ever believe us.

Or maybe not. That quote was from the Onion.

(h/t Choire Sicha)

The Elephant in the Room in the Duane Buck Case

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 9:47 AM EDT

Barring a last-minute reprieve from Governor Rick Perry, sometime after 7 p.m. on Thursday Duane Buck will become the 235th person to be executed in Texas in the last decade. Buck's case has drawn attention because of the role race-based testimony may have played in obtaining the death sentence. As I reported previously, a psychologist summoned by Buck's attorney testified under cross-examination that Buck's race (he's black) made him a greater threat to society; that testimony was then cited in the prosecutors' closing argument.

Buck's case is noteworthy because the racial argument was made so explicitly, and under oath. But the reality is that race is a determining factor in capital punishment sentencing whether a psychologist says so out-loud or not. As Amnesty International notes, "the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim." Among other things, they point out that:

  • A report sponsored by the American Bar Association in 2007 concluded that one-third of African-American death row inmates in Philadelphia would have received sentences of life imprisonment if they had not been African-American.
  • A January 2003 study released by the University of Maryland concluded that race and geography are major factors in death penalty decisions. Specifically, prosecutors are more likely to seek a death sentence when the race of the victim is white and are less likely to seek a death sentence when the victim is African-American.
  • A 2007 study of death sentences in Connecticut conducted by Yale University School of Law revealed that African-American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white. In addition, killers of white victims are treated more severely than people who kill minorities, when it comes to deciding what charges to bring.

That kind of institutional bias means that it's a lot harder to point to specific cases, a la Buck, in which race impacted the sentence—which means that, unlike Buck, most defendants will have a hard time making the case that their sentencing was in any way mishandled. But taken in sum, the numbers are pretty damning.

Bachmann Adviser Calls Out Bachmann on Vaccines

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 9:25 AM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) falsely suggested on Monday that the HPV vaccine can cause mental retardation.

Even Michele Bachmann's former chief strategist thinks Michele Bachmann went off the deep end on vaccines. On Monday, and then again on Tuesday, the Minnesota congresswoman and GOP presidential candidate repeated baseless claims that the HPV vaccine mandated by Texas Governor Rick Perry can cause mental retardation in adolescent girls. Her comments met swift rebuttals not just from pediatricians, but from conservative talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. And now you can add Ed Rollins, the long-time GOP strategist who is currently serving as a senior adviser role to the Bachmann campaign.

Via Politico:

"She made a mistake. The quicker she admits she made a mistake and moves on, the better she is," Rollins said in an interview on MSNBC on Wednesday.

"Ms. Bachmann's an emotional person who basically has great feeling for people. I think that's what she was trying to project. Obviously it would have been better if she had stayed on the issue," he said.

Like his candidate, Rollins has a history of going off-message. Before he took a job with Bachmann, he told CNN that she was not a "serious candidate." In his first interview after joining the campaign, he boasted that he and his staff would fact-check everything Bachmann says to prevent her from going off the rails. Rollins stepped down from his post as chief strategist in early September for health reasons, but is still involved with the campaign in an advisory role.

Pediatrician: "The Problem is People Like Michele Bachmann"

| Tue Sep. 13, 2011 4:49 PM EDT
GOP Presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)

At Monday night's GOP presidential debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann went after Rick Perry hard on the Texas governor's 2006 decision to mandate the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. On Tuesday morning, Bachmann doubled down, telling NBC's Today Show about a conversation she'd had following the debate, with a Tampa woman. "She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter," Bachmann said. "It can have very dangerous side effects." She said the same thing on Fox News: "There's a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate. She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result. There are very dangerous consequences."

This is a serious charge: A public official putting young girls at a risk for mental retardation, all in the name of crony capitalism. But is there anything to it? No—and according to Dr. Paul Offit, author of Autism’s False Prophets, Bachmann's charged rhetoric could itself have dangerous consequences.

Bachmann, who is no stranger to conspiracy theories and junk science, is a little late to the party when it comes to the debilitating effects of vaccines. The charge leveled by the woman in Tampa—that vaccines can cause mental defects—was first raised in the late 1990s, and has been consistently debunked ever since. In 2010, the medical journal Lancet formally retratcted a paper by the British Dr. Andrew Wakefield which purported to draw a connection between the two, after it discovered that Wakefield had fabricated his data.

The problem, or at least one of them, is that as Offit explains, there's no way, biologically speaking, for the HPV vaccine to even impact the nervous system. "It's doesn't even make biological sense," he says. The Gardasil vaccine is produced by taking the gene that coats the HPV virus, and then putting that in a yeast plasma, which then produces a viral protein, which is then injected intramuscularly*. But it has nothing to do with the nervous system. But don't just take his word for it: "HPV vaccines were studied in thousands of people in many countries around the world, including the United States," notes the Center for Disease Control on its website. "These studies found that both HPV vaccines were safe and cause no serious side effects."

"In a better world you would like to think the HPV vaccine would never need to be mandated," says Offit. "If you seek out information—and I would argue I'm informed about vaccines, I mean my children are full vaccinated—you will make the right decisions. The problem is people like Michele Bachmann. If you're looking to inform yourself about vaccines, she is going to misinform you." Instead of choosing the potentially life-saving vaccination, parents will steer clear—and as a consequence, expose their children to potentially life-threatening diseases.

HPV's danger is mostly as a stepping stone to the considerably more dangerous cervical cancer, which kills thousands of women every year in the United States. Perry mandated that all adolescent girls receive the vaccine by executive order—a move he says he now regrets—but significantly did inlcude an opt-out clause with which parents could make exceptions for their kids if they raised conscientious objections.

As for the concerns of parents whose children suddenly seem to have gone through some serious mental transformation, Offit is careful to put things in perspective: "HPV vaccines don't prevent everything that occurs in adolescence; they only prevent HPV."

It's not an especially difficult concept: If the HPV vaccine is proven to save lives, then efforts to prevent people from receiving the HPV vaccine will likely have the opposite effect. Bachmann's playing with fire on this one.

Update: Media Matters flags this clip from Bachmann's appearance on Sean Hannity's radio program today, in which she informs the conservative talk show host that she has "no idea" whether Gardasil can actually cause mental retardation—she was just "reporting" what her supporter had told her. Hannity, for one, doesn't seem to buy it, which doesn't speak well for Bachmann's strength on the issue going forward.

*This section originally stated, inaccurately, that the vaccine was injected into the bloodstream.

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