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.
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.
"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.
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 Mattersflags 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.
Update: The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Buck's petition for clemency on Tuesday; Perry still has until Thursday to step in and grant a 30-day stay of execution to allow time to reconsider the evidence.
On Thursday, Duane Buck is set to become the 235th person to be executed during Rick Perry's tenure as Governor of Texas. Buck murdered two people and shot a third in 1995, and is, by his own admission, totally guilty. But his death sentence was obtained in party through the testimony of a since discredited psychologist who stated that Buck's race (he's black) made him more of a long-term threat. For that reason, as I explained previously, then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn (now a Republican US Senator) called for Buck and five others to receive a re-trial. Over the last 10 years, Buck is the only one who hasn't.
Neither Cornyn nor Perry are commenting on Buck's impending execution, but last week, Linda Geffin, a former Harris County prosecutor who helped convict Buck, joined the chorus of criminal justice activists and editorial boards calling for Perry to let Buck receive "a fair trial, untainted by considerations of race."
The state attorney general's office defended the sentence last week, stating that "Race was injected into this case by Buck—not the state" because the defense had summoned the psychologist in question. Kate Black, Buck's advocate at the Texas Defender Service, rebutted those claims in a brief filed Monday in federal court:
The Attorney General claimed that what made Mr. Buck's case different from the others was that the defense had called the expert who testified that race was a factor to consider in determining future dangerousness. In reality, the defense had called the testifying expert in three of the six cases identified by the Attorney General in 2000 as having been similar to the Saldano case. In two of those cases, the Attorney General waived procedural defenses and conceded error. Mr. Buck's is the third.
One of the more riveting (yes, riveting) exchanges during Monday's GOP presidential debate came when Texas Governor Rick Perry was pressed on his decision to issue an executive order mandating that all adolescent girls in the state be vaccinated for HPV. Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Ron Paul (R-Tex.) took shots at Perry for infringing on the liberties of parents and children (Bachmann chillingly called it a "government injection through executive order"). But the most damaging aspect of Perry's decision was that it reeked of crony capitalism—he had just received a $5,000 campaign contribution from Merck, the company that produced the vaccine, and his former chief of staff, Mike Toomey, was an Austin lobbyist for the company; Toomey is currently running a pro-Perry super PAC with the stated goal of raising $55 million during the primary.
Bachmann took a pass on the lobbying angle last week, but she broached the issue on Monday. And Perry had a response ready for her: "If you're saying I can be bought for $5,000 I'm offended."
Boom. So what is Rick Perry's price? If the past is any indication, it's closer to $25,000. That number's not random; it comes from Perry himself. In one of the few controversies of his career as lieutenant governor, he received a black eye in 2000 when it was revealed that he was not-so-subtly baiting top Austin lobbyists into donating big bucks to his campaign war chest. As Texas Monthly explained it:
First, an embarrassing e-mail came to light. Written last year by Dallas insurance executive Robert Reinarz, it claimed that lobbyist Bradley Bryan had persuaded Perry not to appoint a Senate committee to study insurance deregulation in exchange for a $25,000 campaign contribution from the industry. Insurance deregulation was not among the studies ordered by Perry during the interlude between legislative sessions, and according to theDallas Morning News, Perry did receive $19,000 from insurance interests at a fundraiser held shortly after the e-mail was sent. Perry insists that there was no link between the contributions and his failure to order a study on insurance deregulation, and Bryan told the News that he had never spoken to Perry about the issue...
Next came the controversial fundraising letter. The mailing to lobbyists contained an invitation to a September reception with an attachment listing each lobbyist's clients, with suggested donation levels up to $25,000. While it is common for lobbyists to be asked to round up contributions—it's the price of doing business at the Capitol—the actual checks usually come from clients. Fundraising quotas are not unheard of, but they are rarely written down. To lobbyists, the letter seemed to say, I know who your clients are, and if they don't come up with the big bucks, I'm holding you responsible.
Perry's explanation is that he merely hoped to determine who was really responsible for the contributions so that he could thank them properly. After his last fund-raiser, he says, he received complaints from people who felt that they had not been properly thanked. Even Perry's friends in the lobby felt that the letter had been poorly executed. Mike Toomey, a Perry confidant who represents an HMO and a tort-reform alliance, among many other interest groups, approved the idea of the letter in advance but now concedes, "In the intervening time, after the insurance e-mail and the DPS video, some of Perry's people should have looked at the fundraising letter and asked themselves if anything had changed."