Blogs

What Do We Know So Far From Mike Brown's Autopsies?

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 3:26 PM EDT
Daryl Parks, one of the Brown family's attorneys, points to a diagram showing the preliminary results of an independent autopsy.

Normally, it takes weeks to get the results of an autopsy. But today, St. Louis County medical examiner Mary Case announced that Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager who was killed by a policeman last weekend in Ferguson, Missouri, was shot in the head and chest multiple times. Here's the information we know about Michael Brown's death, and a little background on why autopsies usually take so much longer.

What have the autopsies found so far?
Three separate autopsies are in various stages of completion. The St. Louis County medical examiner's office announced on Monday that Brown was killed by multiple bullets to the chest and head. The office has not yet released information about the number or location of the bullets or their toxicology report. According to a confidential source reporting to the Washington Post, Brown's toxicology test found that he tested positive for marijuana.

The preliminary results of an independent autopsy arranged by the Brown family and performed on Sunday by former New York City Chief Medical Examiner Michael Baden found that Brown was shot six times: four times in his right arm, and twice in the head. One of the bullets entered the top of Brown's skull, indicating that his head was tilted forward when the bullet struck him and caused a fatal injury. According to Benjamin Crump, the attorney representing the Browns, the family wanted "an autopsy done by somebody who is objective and who does not have a relationship with the Ferguson police."

US Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Sunday that the Justice Department would conduct a third autopsy, because of "the extraordinary circumstances involved in this case and at the request of the Brown family." A department representative said the autopsy would take place "as soon as possible."

Why does it usually take so long to get autopsy results?
An autopsy itself usually doesn't take too long, but often, medical examiners will wait to release the results until toxicology tests, which analyze the presence of drugs, are also complete. Toxicology tests usually take several weeks, in part due to the chemistry involved and in part because there's often a backlog of tests. Coupling the release of the toxicology and autopsy results is standard practice because it gives a more complete picture of what may have happened during the shooting, says Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist and the author of Working Stiff: The Making of a Medical Examiner. Determining whether or not a person was under the influence of drugs "may help interpret a person's behavior and reaction time," she says.

What do toxicology tests entail?
A basic screening often involves using immunoassays to test blood and urine (from inside the body) for drugs, including alcohol, marijuana, and opiates. If a test comes back positive, then a lab will run more complex tests, like mass spectrometry, to determine the exact concentration of the drug. Melinek says that "negative results come back faster," and "the more drugs found in a person's system, the longer it takes because each has to be verified and quantitated." If Brown only tested positive for marijuana, the tests would only take a few days.

Was Brown's case slowed down by an autopsy backlog?
Autopsy backlogs do exist—last year in Massachusetts, for example, there were nearly 1,000 unfinished death certificates due to lack of qualified pathologists and state funding for toxicology testing. According to Suzanne McCune, a representative of the St. Louis County medical examiner's office, Brown's case was expedited through the system, as often happens for cases involving officers.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Medicare Advantage Might Not Be a Boondoggle Anymore

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 2:20 PM EDT

I've written periodically in this space about the problems with Medicare Advantage. In a nutshell, it costs a lot more but provides very little in the way of additional services. It's really not much of a poster child for the benefits of program choice.

But wait! Apparently a big part of the problem with MA was the fact that people were allowed to switch in and out of their plans on a monthly basis. If they got sick, they could quickly switch into MA if that was a better deal for them. This obviously raised the cost of MA as sick people switched in to avoid the copays and other limitations of traditional Medicare.

However, that changed in the mid-2000s, when beneficiaries were required to choose a plan and stick with it for a full year. Austin Frakt provides the details of a new study:

By 2006-2007, health differences between beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage and those in traditional Medicare had narrowed....Also, in contrast to studies in the 1990s, more recent work finds that Medicare Advantage is superior to traditional Medicare on a variety of quality measures. For example, according to a paper in Health Affairs by John Ayanian and colleagues, women enrolled in a Medicare Advantage H.M.O. are more likely to receive mammography screenings; those with diabetes are more likely to receive blood sugar testing and retinal exams; and those with diabetes or cardiovascular disease are more likely to receive cholesterol testing.

That Health Affairs paper also found that H.M.O. enrollees are more likely to receive flu and pneumonia vaccinations and about as likely to rate their personal doctor and specialists highly.

So now things are a little murkier. MA still costs more than traditional Medicare, but only by 5-6 percent. And recent evidence suggests that MA beneficiaries might be getting enough additional benefit to justify that much extra money. It's still not clear that MA is worthwhile, but it appears now to be at least worth further study.

Most Songs are Three Minutes Long Because That's How Most of Us Like Them

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 1:10 PM EDT

Kelsey McKinney asks today why popular songs are almost all 3-5 minutes long. The historical basis for this is obvious: 45 rpm singles hold about three minutes of music, so modern pop music was born in an era when technology limited songs to about three minutes or so. But what about more recently?

It makes sense to assume that since the basis of the three-minute song was the 78 and then 45 rpm single, then songs would become longer as technology evolved....But the length of songs had its biggest jump, according to this data, between the '60s and '80s, and very little has changed from the '90s to 2008, a time period when the technology of music changed drastically.

"What drives what is heard on the radio is an artist's desire to have their music hit the mainstream, and a record label's desire to profit from that," Steve Jones, vice president at the Canadian radio firm Newcap, told NPR....Jones is right. The length of a song on an album doesn't matter for anyone except for the artist and fans, but a song that hopes to make money and be played on the radio simply has to be a certain length. Either that, or radio stations will edit the song down to the standard, making it three to four minutes, just like the 45.

But this begs the question. Why do radio stations insist on three minutes? They don't run ads after literally every song, so it's not because advertisers demand it. The obvious answer is that this is, in fact, what most fans want.

The core explanation, I think, is that most popular music simply doesn't have the complexity to sustain itself beyond a few minutes. Both the lyrics and the melodies tend to be fairly simple, and after a few minutes they've exhausted their potential. Compare this to classical music and you see it more clearly. Most classical music is considerably more complex than your average pop song, but even so a single movement of a sonata or a symphony usually clocks in at no more than ten minutes or so. Opera arias—which developed in a pre-technological age and with much more patient audiences—are closer in length to modern pop songs, typically lasting 3-7 minutes.

Obviously there are exceptions to this. There are plenty of examples of longish pop songs, just as there are examples of classical pieces longer than ten minutes. But generally speaking, you need a fair amount of complexity to sustain these lengths, and that's not what most people want. They want simple and hummable, and that means not too long.

White Juries Are Not Kind to Black Defendants

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 10:57 AM EDT

Alex Tabarrok passes along the results of a new study about the racial composition of jury pools and the resulting juries:

What the authors discover is that all white juries are 16% more likely to convict black defendants than white defendants but the presence of just a single black person in the jury pool equalizes conviction rates by race. The effect is large and remarkably it occurs even when the black person is not picked for the jury. The latter may not seem possible but the authors develop an elegant model of voir dire that shows how using up a veto on a black member of the pool shifts the characteristics of remaining pool members from which the lawyers must pick; that is, a diverse jury pool can make for a more “ideologically” balanced jury even when the jury is not racially balanced.

There is, of course, no de jure discrimination at work here. The law treats every defendant and every jury member the same. But that still doesn't mean everyone is treated the same. Far from it.

The St. Louis Area Has a Long History of Shameful Racial Violence

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 9:45 AM EDT
A mob blocks a street car during the East St. Louis Riot of July 1917 University of Massachusetts-Amherst Libraries

The shooting of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent riots, protests, and police crackdown have highlighted the area's long history of racial strife. One chapter from that history, a century-old summer riot just fourteen miles away from Ferguson, in East St. Louis, Illinois, shows how black Americans were subjected to racial violence from the moment they arrived in the region.

In 1917, East St. Louis was crowded with factories. Jobs were abundant. But as World War I halted the flow of immigration from Eastern Europe, factory recruiters started looking toward the American South for black workers. Thousands came, and as competition for jobs increased, a labor issue became a racial one.

East St. Louis' angry white workers found sympathy from the leaders of the local Democratic party, who feared that the influx of black, mostly Republican voters threatened their electoral dominance. In one particularly striking parallel to today's political landscape, local newspapers warned of voter fraud, alleging that black voters were moving between northern cities to swing local elections as part of a far-reaching conspiracy called "colonization," according to the documentary series Living in St. Louis.

A cartoon from the time of the riot, lambasting then-president Woodrow Wilson for making the world "safe for democracy" while ignoring the plight of East St. Louis. Wikipedia

That May, a local aluminum plant brought in black workers to replace striking white ones. Soon, crowds of whites gathered downtown, at first protesting the migration, then beating blacks and destroying property. On July 1, a group of white men drove through a black neighborhood, firing a gun out their car window. (The perpetrators were never caught.) A few hours later, another car drove through the neighborhood. Black residents fired at it, killing two police officers.

On July 2, as news of the killings got out, white residents went tearing through black neighborhoods, beating and killing blacks and burning some 300 houses as National Guard troops either failed to respond or fled the scene. The official toll counted 39 black and eight white people dead, but others speculated that more than a hundred people died in what is still considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in twentieth-century America. Afraid for their lives, more than six thousand blacks left the city after the riot.

That the United States was then fighting in Europe to defend democracy while failing to protect its own citizens was not lost on Marcus Garvey, soon to become one of the most famous civil rights leaders of his time: "This is no time for fine words, but a time to lift one's voice against the savagery of a people who claim to be the dispensers of democracy," he said to cheers at a speech in Harlem on July 8. "I do not know what special meaning the people who slaughtered the Negroes of East St. Louis have for democracy... but I do know that it has no meaning for me."

Top image credit: STL250

How the Defense Industry Convinced Congress to Militarize Local Cops

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Police drift through a cloud of smoke on August 13 in Ferguson, Missouri

The Ferguson, Missouri, police department's display of armored cars, officers in riot gear, and assault rifles over the past week shocked Americans who didn't realize how much military equipment is now available to local police departments. But since the 1990's, more than 8,000 federal, state, tribal, and local police agencies across the country have armed themselves with the military's excess gear, free of charge. The inventory includes everything from office furniture and first aid kits to aircraft, armored cars, rifles and bayonets, according to the Defense Logistics Agency, the Department of Defense office that manages the transactions under an initiative called Program 1033.

In June, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) introduced an amendment to de-fund aspects of the program. Grayson's bill would have exempted certain military equipment, including planes and armored cars, from Program 1033. That effort failed; just 62 members of the House of Representatives voted for the measure, with 355 voting no. Maybe the outcome shouldn't have been a surprise: According to a new analysis of campaign finance data, the politicians who voted against Grayson's bill received, on average, 73 percent more campaign donations from defense industry sources from 2011 through 2013 than their peers who voted for it. 

The analysis—conducted by the Berkeley-based research group MapLight using data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics—also found that of 59 representatives who received more than $100,000 from the defense industry from 2011 through 2013, all but four voted against the amendment.

Correction: The original version of this story said that three representatives who received more than $100,000 from the defense industry voted against the amendment. Four representatives in this category voted against it.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Devo's "The Men Who Make the Music" is Hilarious and Unsettling

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
DEVO in Akron, Ohio, 1978.

Devo
The Men Who Make the Music plus Butch Devo and the Sundance Gig
MVD Visual

Devo

Best known, perhaps, for the giddy 1980 smash, "Whip It," Devo was much more than the disposable New Wave novelty act that hit implied, as this enticing DVD proves. Mixing high concepts and low humor, the Ohio-bred band specialized in raucous punk-electronica drenched in pessimism and misanthropy, and delivered the goods with an irresistible, wild-eyed spirit, attracting support from the likes of David Bowie and Neil Young. The Men Who Make the Music draws primarily from Devo's groundbreaking '70s work, with raucous live footage and the still-amazing (if extremely low-budget) videos that preceded their major-label deal. Nearly four decades on, the clips for "Jocko Homo" and their savage deconstruction of the Stones' "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction" are both hilarious and unsettling, while testifying to the band's keen visual sense and absurdist flair. Capturing a live show at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, Butch Devo and the Sundance Gig doesn't break any new ground, but it's still entertaining.

Here Is What Robert De Niro Had To Say About Being Nervous His First Time On Camera

| Sun Aug. 17, 2014 4:16 PM EDT
Robert De Niro's first appearance on screen, in the 1965 French film "Three Rooms in Manhattan." Les Productions Montaigne
 

Robert De Niro was born August 17, 1943. To celebrate his birthday, here is the two-time Oscar winner—who has appeared in nearly 100 films—telling Playboy about his first time on camera.

PLAYBOY: Do you remember your first experience before the cameras?

ROBERT DE NIRO: There was some little thing I did that I don't know whatever happened to. Some walk-on for an independent film: I walked in and ordered a drink at a bar.

I remember a bunch of other young actors hanging around, moaning and bitching, all made up, with pieces of tissue in their collars; it was the kind of thing you always hear about actors—where they're just silly or vain, complaining back and forth, walking around primping, not wanting to get the make-up on their shirts.

PLAYBOY: So you didn't exactly feel as if you had found a home.

ROBERT DE NIRO: No, I didn't want to be around those people at all. I just walked in and walked out. I was nervous, though, just to say the line "Gimme a drink." It makes me think of that joke: "Hark! I hear the cannon roar!" You know that joke?

PLAYBOY: No.

ROBERT DE NIRO: I'm surprised you never heard it; it's a famous actor's joke.

This guy hasn't acted in about 15 years, because he always forgets his lines, so finally he has to give it up. He's working in a gas station and gets a phone call from someone saying that they want him for a Shakespearean play—all he has to do is say, "Hark! I hear the cannon roar!" He says, "Well, God, I don't know." The director says, "Look, it'll be OK. You'll get paid and everything." So he says, "OK, I'll do it." The play has five acts and he has to go on in the third act and say, "Hark! I hear the cannon roar!" That's all he has to do. So he rehearses it when he's in his apartment: "Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar!" Every variation, every possible emphasis. They're into rehearsal, and he's got it written on his mirror: "Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar!" And so on. Finally, comes opening night, first act, no problem. Second act, things go fine. Audience applauds. Stage manager says, "You have five minutes for the third act." He tells him to get backstage. His time comes, he runs out, muttering to himself, "Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar!" And as he runs out, he hears a big brrrooooom!! Turns around and says, "What the fuck was that?"

Robert De Niro is great.

Madonna's Billboard Number-Ones, Ranked

| Sat Aug. 16, 2014 4:48 PM EDT

Madonna Louise Ciccone was born August 16, 1958. In celebration of her birthday, here are her songs that reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 ranked, according to me, a fan with opinions.

12. "This Used To Be My Playground" (1992)

11. "Justify My Love" (1991)

10. "Who's That Girl" (1987)

9. "Live To Tell" (1986)

8. "Music" (2000)

7. "Take A Bow" (1995)

6. "Crazy For You" (1985)

5. "Papa Don't Preach" (1986)

4. "Open Your Heart" (1987)

3. "Like A Virgin" (1984)

2. "Vogue" (1990)

1. "Like A Prayer" (1989)

We Created a Policing Monster By Mistake

| Sat Aug. 16, 2014 12:28 PM EDT

Although I've avoided writing about Ferguson for private reasons, I almost wrote a short post yesterday in order to make one specific point. But it turns out to be OK that I didn't, because Annie Lowrey wrote it for me and did a better job than I would have.

The point of her post is simple: Two decades ago violent crime really was out of control, and it seemed reasonable to a lot of people that police needed to respond in a much more forceful way. We can argue forever about whether militarizing our police forces was an appropriate response to higher crime rates, but at least it was an understandable motivation. Later, police militarization got a further boost from 9/11, and again, that was at least an understandable response.

But at the same time the trend toward militarization started in the early 90s, the crime wave of the 70s and 80s finally crested and then began to ebb. Likewise, Al Qaeda terrorism never evolved into a serious local problem. We've spent the past two decades militarizing our police forces to respond to problems that never materialized, and now we're stuck with them. We don't need commando teams and SWAT units in every town in America to deal with either terrorism or an epidemic of crime, so they get used for other things instead. And that's how we end up with debacles like Ferguson.

Police militarization was a mistake. You can argue that perhaps we didn't know that at the time. No one knew in 1990 that crime was about to begin a dramatic long-term decline, and no one knew in 2001 that domestic terrorism would never become a serious threat. But we know now. There's no longer even a thin excuse for arming our police forces this way.