Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy


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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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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Poll: Elizabeth Warren Leading Scott Brown in Mass. Senate Race

| Tue Sep. 20, 2011 12:07 PM EDT
Democrat Elizabeth Warren (left) now leads GOP Sen. Scott Brown by two points.

Public Policy Polling's Ton Jensen tweeted on Tuesday morning that his new poll of the Massachusetts Senate race was the "most surprising Senate poll we've done since we found [the Republican, now-Sen. Scott] Brown up on [the losing Dem candidate, Martha] Coakley." Whether the poll lived up to the hype is up for debate (it would be a pretty boring debate), but the results are pretty jarring: Democrat Elizabeth Warren, the Wall Street watchdog and Harvard professor who entered the race last week, leads GOP Sen. Scott Brown 46–44. To put it in perspective, when PPP last polled the race in June, Warren trailed Brown by 15 points.

Courtesy of Public Policy PollingCourtesy of Public Policy PollingThat's a pretty big swing when you consider that a.) Warren has only just started campaigning, and b.) Brown remains fairly popular in the Bay State—and significantly more popular than the national GOP. What's just as striking is the breakdown when Brown is pitted against Warren's Democratic rivals for the nomination (she currently has four). Brown leads every other Democrat by at least 10 points.

We're still more than 13 months away from election day, so the usual disclaimer applies: everything could change. But barring some sort of catastrophic gaffe—say, Warren deciding to shake hands in the cold at Fenway Park in a John Lackey jersey—this is shaping into the marquee Senate race of 2012. And Warren has come a long way from the days when time said she'd rather stab herself in the eye than move to Capitol Hill.

What Else Should Phoenix Sheriff Joe Arpaio Investigate?

| Mon Sep. 19, 2011 4:33 PM EDT
Cat-Nipped: Did Hillary Clinton kill this cat? Sounds like a job for the Maricopa County Cold Case Posse.

Maricopa (Az.) County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who depending on your point of view is either "America's Toughest Sheriff" or simply the one least constrained by basic standards of decency, announced on Monday that he had deputized a five-member "Cold Case Posse" to investigate whether President Barack Obama was really born in the United States. (Spoiler: He was.)

Despite the unprecendented release of a short- and long-form birth certificate from the state of Hawaii, along with birth announcements in two Hawaii newspapers, Arpaio decided to launch the investigation after being asked to do so by members of the Surprise(!), Arizona, tea party. As he explained to WorldNetDaily: "My door is open to everyone, and I don't kick them out. If a complaint is legitimate, I don't dump it into the wastebasket...When I get allegations brought to me by the citizens of Maricopa County, I look into the allegations, just like I am doing here."

The unit is being funded through a 501c(3) non-profit that's been set up by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department. Arpaio's announcement comes just as he's being courted by a slew of GOP presidential candidates—Rep. Michele Bachmann met with Sheriff Joe last week; Mitt Romney and Rick Perry have both called to ask for his endorsement.

One way of looking at this is that it's a horrible waste of taxpayer resources in a state that's so cash-strapped it actually sold the state capitol. Another way of looking at this is that it's a tremendous opportunity to investigate some more totally implausible cold cases. So what else should the Cold Case Posse be looking into? Dave Weigel suggests it re-examine David Ickes' claim that world leaders are being secretly controlled by a super race of lizard people. Here are some other ideas for the Cold Case Posse: Was Zachary Taylor secretly poisoned? Did Hillary Clinton order a hit on a former aide's cat? Was Dwight D. Eisenhower secretly controlled by his communist brother, Milton? What if we're all color-blind and people who are color-blind actually have normal vision? Why does the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department own a tank?

On a more serious note, this is more evidence of what we pointed out last month: birthers are not going away. And at this point, it doesn't seem like they ever will.

Bachmann on Teen Suicides: "Not a Federal Issue"

| Mon Sep. 19, 2011 11:04 AM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is seeking the GOP presidential nomination.

For months, Rep. Michele Bachmann has been conspicuously silent on the rash of teen suicides in her suburban Twin Cities congressional district. (The situation in the Anoka-Hennepin School District has gotten so bad that state public health officials have officially designated it a "suicide contagion area.") Activists have claimed the school district's "no promo homo" policy, which prohibits teachers from saying positive things about homosexuality, abetts anti-gay bullying in the area. Another possible factor in the epidemic is the activism of groups like the Bachmann-supported Minnesota Family Council, which has stated that gay teens who commit suicide bring it upon themselves "because they've embraced an unhealthy sexual identity and lifestyle."

Now Bachmann's finally weighed in—sort of. Over the weekend, Bachmann was in Californa for a series of fundraisers, a campaign rally, and an appearance on Jay Leno. At a stop in Costa Mesa, she was asked what she would do about the bullying contagion in her district. Her response? "That's not a federal issue." And then she moved on. The Minnesota Independent notes that last week, activists brought a petition with 100,000 signatures to Bachmann's district office.

The problem with Bachmann's position is that, whether or not it's a federal issue, she's already made it a Michele Bachmann issue. In May, she keynoted a fundraiser for the Minnesota Family Council, which at the time was lobbying hard against any bulling legislation in the state legislature. And as a state senator, she fought anti-bullying legislation, asking her colleagues, "Will it get to the point where we are completely stifling free speech and expression? Will it mean that what form of behavior will there be, will we be expecting boys to be girls?"

David Barton: Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings Affair Was Liberal Plot

| Fri Sep. 16, 2011 11:41 AM EDT

Texas pseudo-historian David Barton, as we've reported previously, is something of a legend among Christian conservatives. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) invited him to testify before the Minnesota Senate and to lecture her Republican colleagues in Congress; Gov. Rick Perry courted his support earlier this month at a Hill Country retreat; Newt Gingrich has nothing but praise for him; Mike Huckabee says Barton's tracts about the Founding Fathers should be required reading for everyone in America. The New York Times calls him "a guiding spirit of the religious right." Barton's work has been pretty soundly repudiated by respected historians, but he tells conservatives what they want to hear—and makes a lot of money doing it.

But even we're a little surprised by his latest bombshell: Speaking at the ultra-conservative Liberty University last week, Barton explained that the now-historically and scientifically accepted narrative that Thomas Jefferson had children with his slave Sally Hemings was actually a liberal plot to distract the public from the horrors of the Clinton impeachment scandal. As he explained it, prominent liberal historians concocted the theory in order to put Clinton's improprieties in a more favorable light. Watch:

It's worth noting that this argument is, of course, total baloney. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which has a real vested interested in not repeating baseless Thomas Jefferson smears, acknowledges the affair on its website. And as Brian Tashman notes, Barton's narrative about the DNA testing is sort of the opposite of what happened. Joseph Ellis was not involved in the DNA testing, but he did eventually come around to the fact that Jefferson and Hemings had conceived children. So did uber-historian Annette Gordon-Reed, who literally wrote the book on the subject. The DNA tests Barton cites as discredited said that there was a 99-percent chance that Hemings had birthed children by either Jefferson or a very close male relative (of which Jefferson is really the only plausible option). Another problem: The Jefferson-Hemings thesis predated any rumblings of the Lewinsky affair.

h/t Right Wing Watch.

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