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Why the Texas Governor Commuted a Death Sentence

| Thu Aug. 30, 2007 8:31 PM EDT

Kenneth Foster clearly did not deserve to die. His crime: driving a car used in a robbery that led to a murder he never took part in. But his case was by no means unique in Texas, and so it came as a surprise today when Gov. Rick Perry commuted his sentence. "I'm concerned about Texas law that allows capital murder defendants to be tried simultaneously," Perry said in a statement, "and it is an issue I think the legislature should examine." A conservative Republican wants to examine capital murder law? To say the least, Perry is doing his part to Keep Austin Weird.

So why did this happen? It certainly helped that Foster had become an international anti-death penalty cause celebre supported by President Jimmy Carter, South African Archbishop Desmund Tutu and Susan Sarandon. Still, celebrities and activists have adopted other death row inmates (free Mumia!) to little effect.

Weird as it may sound, the pardon is probably best explained as the result of a gradually increasing skepticism in Texas of the criminal justice system and, yes, the death penalty. Consider this: death penalty prosecutions in the nation's execution capital, Harris County, Texas, have been in steep decline; every major newspaper in Texas has called for a moratorium on the death penalty or opposes it entirely; and in 2005 the state legislature passed a law allowing life imprisonment without parole, which has given judges and jurors a new way to be "tough on crime" without killing people. "Perhaps the reality that people aren't so hip on the death penalty anymore is finally getting across, even to Rick Perry," Jeff Blackburn, the founder and chief counsel of the Texas Innocence Project, told me. "I think this is about where people are at in the State of Texas--the old lies that have been told them are starting to be revealed."

Anyone living in Texas in recent years couldn't help but notice a string of high-profile criminal justice scandals--racism in Tulia, pervasively botched evidence in the Houston crime lab, and most recently, a striking number of exonerations in Dallas on DNA evidence. "Ten years ago if you told people that the criminal justice system falsely convicts the innocent, you were either a communist or a nut or both," Blackburn says. "Now, everybody gets that. Everybody has seen it fail."

Including Perry. Which is not to say that he cares most of the time. Blackburn and other defense advocates still believe plenty of people are wrongly put to death in the state. But Perry is a good politician: he appears to understand that the pendulum--or the scythe--is swinging the other way in Texas, and that he needs to get out of the way before it lops his head off.

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Hillary Clinton Nabs Prestigious 50 Cent Endorsement

| Thu Aug. 30, 2007 8:07 PM EDT

50 and Hil

In an interview with MTV News, 32-year-old Curtis James Jackson, otherwise known as rapper 50 Cent, revealed his views on our current president ("he has less compassion than a regular human being") and came out in favor of Hillary in '08, for reasons the candidate might call right and not-so-right:

I'd like to see Hillary Clinton be president. It would be nice to see a woman be the actual president and ... this is a way for us to have Bill Clinton be president again, and he did a great job during his term.

While his statement might seem a little self-contradictory, I'll go down on record as feeling a little bit the same way.

So-called "backpack" rappers like Talib Kweli and Common have been giving shout-outs to Obama in their songs lately (Common's single, "The People," says "My raps ignite the people like Obama") but Hil may have a good strategy by going after the platinum-sellers. The big question is: who will get Lil Wayne on their side.

Want to Know Where the Hurricane Relief Money Went?

| Thu Aug. 30, 2007 5:59 PM EDT

The Institute for Southern Studies has released a report suggesting some ways out of the various social, physical, and financial quagmires caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The paper also dedicates a section to that ubiquitous question, "Where did the Katrina money go?" A few answers:

Amount that Bush administration says has been spent on Gulf Coast recovery since 2005 hurricanes: $116 billion
Estimated percent of those funds that are for long-term recovery projects: 30
Amount of FEMA's 2005 disaster relief budget that was spent on administrative costs: $7 billion
Percent of the 2005 relief budget that represented: 22
Of $16.7 billion in Community Development Block Grants earmarked for long-term Gulf Coast rebuilding, percent that had been spent as of August 2007: 30
Of $8.4 billion allocated to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for levee repair in Louisiana, percent that had been spent as of July 2007: 20
As of June 2007, value of controversial "cost plus" Katrina contracts given out by three federal agencies, which allows companies to charge taxpayers for cost overruns and guaranteed profits: $2.4 billion
As of August 2006, value of Gulf Coast contracts that a Congressional study found were "plagued by waste, fraud, abuse or mismanagement": $8.75 billion

So the answer to that ubiquitous question in devastated areas—"When will I get my f*cking check?"—still appears to be, "Don't hold your breath."

For more details, check out the report.

Thurston Moore Says Maybe Sonic Youth Should Have Broken Up

| Thu Aug. 30, 2007 5:33 PM EDT

mojo-photo-sonicyouthgroup.jpg

We've been covering reunions a bit here on the Riff lately: actual reunions, ones that will never happen, and ones we're hoping for. Sonic Youth, to their great credit, have stayed a band (and a creative, relevant band at that) for almost 30 years, but even they realize that a breakup might have made things more exciting—and more lucrative. In an interview with Spin Magazine, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore said their greatest career "faux pas" was not breaking up:

The Pixies reunion was a real success, and Dinosaur Jr. seems like a big success, and both those bands play as good as they ever did. Mission of Burma blew my mind when they came back. But a band like us never did break up. Which was to our own [detriment]. What would have happened if we did break up after Daydream Nation -- or even after Dirty -- and had gotten back together two years ago? You wouldn't be interviewing me here. You'd be interviewing me at the Chateau Marmont as I'm waiting for my limousine. We probably would have made so much money. That was our biggest career faux pas: not breaking up.

Well, I'm not sure der Yoof would have made Police money, but still, he's probably right—absence makes the heart (and wallet) grow fonder. But with the band continuing to make some of the best music of their career, one hopes they're not seriously considering it. I'll give you $20 to stay together!

Beastie Boys Are Now, Like, All Mellow and Stuff

| Thu Aug. 30, 2007 4:23 PM EDT
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I was surprised by a few things at this past weekend's Beastie Boys performance at San Francisco's Warfield, where the veteran hip-hop/punk band played material from their latest album The Mix-Up. Mainly, I was thrown off by the gray hair and the good manners.

Members of the Beastie Boys have hit their 40s, so it's no big surprise to see MC and bass player Adam Yauch rockin' the salt and pepper up top. But it wasn't just the gray hair that got me. The Beastie Boys were so damned nice and polite. There was no shit-talking or rabble-rousing, and barely any cursing. The atmosphere was one that made you want to sip tea and dance rather than drink beer and punch the guy next to you. I have to say it was jarring to think that not long ago, I was jumping around like a fool at one of their concerts in a sea of hyped-up break dancing and moshing 20-year-olds.

That said, I'm not complaining. I dig it. The musicianship of the band is impressive and the songs are loungy and heavy with organ, percussion, wah-wah guitar licks, and lots of echo, reverb, and sci-fi sounds. It's similar to their earlier instrumentals from Check Your Head and The In Sound From Way Out!, but without any semblance of punk rock.

And the Beasties have traded in their signature Adidas track suits and beanies for old-man suits with pork-pie hats and skinny ties. It's not hip hop, it's mod, all the way. And I'm liking it.

D.C. Schools Chancellor to Investigate "School of Shock" That Mother Jones Exposed Saying, "It's Nuts On Multiple Levels"

| Thu Aug. 30, 2007 3:51 PM EDT

In her Washington Examiner column, Jonetta Rose Barras follows up on Mother Jones' "School of Shock" piece and prompts the new D.C. Schools Chancellor to investigate why Washington is sending 10 kids to this controversial facility. Writes Barras:

The District government is spending millions to send children to a controversial special education residential facility in Massachusetts that uses electric shock to discipline students. The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton accepts individuals diagnosed as autistic, mentally retarded, schizophrenic, bipolar and emotionally disturbed. It is "the only facility in the country that disciplines students by shocking them, a form of punishment not inflicted on serial killers, or child molesters, or any of the 2.2 million inmates now incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons," says Jennifer Gonnerman, writing in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine.
Typically, a student at Rotenberg is equipped with a "backpack containing five 2-pound, battery-operated devices, each connected to an electrode attached to" the person's skin. The student is zapped for so-called misbehavior, which could include minor offenses like "yelling or cursing," according to Gonnerman.
Gonnerman's story — "School of Shock" — focuses on students from New York and Massachusetts. But five other states and the District send individuals to the facility. The District's connection isn't detailed. Still, the horrific portrait painted sent me racing to determine how many children from this city are at Rotenberg.
For weeks, I sought answers. The Department of Health and the Department of Mental Health claim no relations with Rotenberg. Marla Oakes, head of special education reform at DCPS, failed to respond to repeated requests for information. (Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee can't clean the central administration fast enough.)
The chief financial officer reports the District paid Rotenberg nearly $4 million — $809,498.50 by the Department of Human Services and $2.93 million by the DCPS — between fiscal 2004 and fiscal 2007.
Matthew Israel, psychologist, founder and executive director of Rotenberg, confirms 10 District children are being treated at the facility.During a telephone interview, he takes exception to Gonnerman's article, calling it "an obviously negative hatchet job."
He directs me to the center's Web site for a detailed rebuttal, in which he calls the center the last resort for many of its residents; says electric shock is an "extremely effective" aversive that is "used for only 43 percent of JRC's school-age students."
In a conversation Wednesday, Rhee told me she has asked for an investigation into the Rotenberg treatment of District students. "It's nuts on multiple levels," she said.
For decades the District has sent some of its most vulnerable children to out-of-state facilities. A 2006 D.C. Board of Education white paper indicated there are more than 11,000 special education students. Twenty percent of them attend 131 private institutions; 91 are residential.
Mayor Adrian Fenty has promised to bring District students home. Let's hope he starts with the 10 at Rotenberg. Tax dollars shouldn't be used for a treatment modality that includes the regular infliction of pain on children already struggling against enormous odds.

Indeed. And I concur with my old Washington City Paper coworker Jonetta, that it is long since time that D.C. clean house when it comes to the school system and the special ed program in particular. Sounds like Teach For America alum Rhee is game to try. Godspeed.

More on other officials taking on the Rotenberg Center here.

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Meddling in Elections (in Iraq)

| Thu Aug. 30, 2007 1:30 PM EDT

In a column in today's Washington Post, David Ignatius says the U.S. should have done more to interfere with the January 2005 Iraqi elections, supposedly to counter "Iranian influence."

Joe Klein agrees that the administration was naive if it expected an anti-Iranian result from an unmanipulated election. But he says the idea that CIA interference could have positively influenced the elections (or won them for "former CIA favorite Iyad Allawi") is just as silly. Was the CIA going to magically change the demographics of Iraq? As Klein points out, every Iraqi election is effectively a "census," with voting split along ethno-religious lines:

Kurds vote for Kurds. Sunnis vote for Sunnis. Shi'ites vote Sadr or the Hakim family.

Shias were likely to win any Iraqi election with or without Iranian help. The "Iranian influence" Ignatius talks about isn't the problem. The Iranians have influence in the first place because there are so many Shias in Iraq. And the inevitably Shia Iraqi government was inevitably going to be friendly to Iran because Iran is a Shia country.

Pinning American hopes on a change in leadership is just as naive as assuming that "if we can just hold elections, everything will turn out all right." It's unlikely that any Iraqi leader could truly bridge the sectarian divides. And Matthew Yglesias reminds his readers that we've heard the whole "a change of leadership will save us" narrative before:

Back when Allawi was booted from power in January 2005 in favor of Ibrahim Jafari, folks proclaimed this a great success and said Bush's Iraq policy had been vindicated. They were wrong. Back when Jafari was ousted in favor of Maliki, people proclaimed this, too, as a crucial step in the right directed. They were wrong. Now Maliki's the problem and Allawi -- again! -- is the solution. But they're still wrong.

The Iraqi leadership obviously isn't the problem. The whole nation-building project would almost certainly be a lot easier if Iraq was ethnically and religiously homogeneous. But the Shias aren't alone. There are also Kurds and Sunnis, and all three groups hate each other. This is not a good starting point for a democracy. And putting someone new in charge isn't going to solve the fundamental problem that Iraq is an ethnically and religiously divided country.

—Nick Baumann

Breaking: Bush to Receive More Than One Point of View From Advisers

| Thu Aug. 30, 2007 1:24 PM EDT

McClatchy reports that since the Pentagon can't agree on what to do about Iraq (and who can, really?), top military leaders will be giving their (presumably different) opinions to President Bush separately. After hearing what his Joint Chiefs, Defense Secretary, assorted generals, and much-touted "commanders in the field" have to say, the president will have "a decision to make," in the words of a Pentagon spokesman. Perfect for the The Decider!

And I bet you can guess what he'll decide...

— Nick Baumann

Vitter vs. Craig: Homophobic Hypocrisy from the GOP

| Thu Aug. 30, 2007 1:20 PM EDT

Wouldn't you know it, the GOP is treating Sen. Larry Craig, who solicited sex from a man, very, very differently than it treated Sen. David Vitter, who admitted to using a (heterosexual) prostitution service. You can check out Think Progress for details, but here's what you need to know: a number of Republicans have called for Craig to resign, the party leadership has stripped him of his committee assignments, and the GOP has asked for an ethics investigation into his actions.

When David Vitter rose to speak in front of his fellow Republicans a few days after he admitted the "sin" in his past, he received "thunderous applause" from his colleagues.

John McCain and the Sensitivities of Suffering

| Thu Aug. 30, 2007 1:07 PM EDT

I have enormous respect for the suffering John McCain experienced as a P.O.W. in Vietnam, and for the courage he displayed during his captivity. I remember being stunned by this article in the LA Times that described the mangling of his body:

George "Bud" Day, a Medal of Honor recipient, vividly remembers the day McCain's broken body was brought by guards through the door of Hoa Lo prison, the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
"He had been starved," Day said. "He was emaciated and weighed around 100 pounds. He had lost a third of his body weight. He had a fracture of his right knee that had been unskillfully repaired, as well as multiple fractures of his right arm. His left shoulder was dislocated and he had been bayoneted in the left leg. And he was filthy. You could smell him a quarter-block away.
"I expected he would die before morning," Day continued. "I thought the Vietnamese had dropped him off with us so he would die with us and they would be able to blame his death on us. About 40% of the prisoners had some kind of a broken limb or combination of broken limbs or skull fractures. I would say John was in the top 2% of the worst-injured in the system."

I don't object to McCain making this part of his campaign narrative. But check out this new campaign video (spotted on The Plank), which is a solid twelve minutes of this stuff. At a certain point, you can't help but having one of two reactions: (1) disgust at the war-porn nature of the whole thing, or (2) pity for McCain. Neither make really make you want to vote for him.