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BREAKING: James Holmes Found Guilty in Aurora Massacre Trial

| Thu Jul. 16, 2015 6:32 PM EDT

Three years after he killed 12 people and injured 70 more in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, a jury has found James Holmes guilty of first degree murder.

The jury concluded that Holmes was not legally insane at the time he committed the crimes, despite evidence of mental illness. Holmes' mental state will come into play again in the penalty phase of the trial, in which jurors will hear testimony and decide whether he is eligible for execution.

Which raises the question: How crazy is too crazy to be executed? Here's how capital defense lawyer and occasional Mother Jones contributor Marc Bookman put it in a remarkable essay with precisely that title:

There is no simple answer to this question. State courts across the country have struggled to define "intellectual disability" (also known as mental retardation) since 2002, when the Supreme Court ruled that retarded people are exempt from capital punishment. The high court has also banned the execution of anyone who was under 18 at the time of his crime, but no court has ruled that severe mental illness makes a person ineligible for the death penalty.

The Supreme Court's latest foray into the issue involved the case of Scott Louis Panetti, another Texas death row inmate. Panetti, a diagnosed schizophrenic who killed his in-laws, defended himself in court wearing a purple cowboy suit. As if that weren't enough, he asked to subpoena Jesus, John F. Kennedy, and the pope. While the justices didn't offer any clear standard on how crazy is too crazy, they suggested that severe mental illness might render someone's "perception of reality so distorted" that he cannot be constitutionally executed.

As it stands, a person cannot be put to death if he or she is deemed "insane," but that's a narrow legal distinction. Whether at trial or on the eve of execution, an insanity defense hinges on a defendant's inability to connect his crime with the consequences. Absent that connection, neither deterrence nor retribution is served by execution. As the legal scholar Sir William Blackstone put it more than 200 years ago, madness is its own punishment.

Almost every state now utilizes some version of what is known as the M'Naghten Rule. Daniel M'Naghten, an Englishman, was put on trial in 1843 for fatally shooting a civil servant he apparently mistook for the prime minister. He had delusions of persecution, and a number of doctors testified that he was unable to hold himself back. When the prosecution produced no witness to say otherwise, M'Naghten was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He spent most of the rest of his life at the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum in London's Bethlem Royal Hospital, which locals pronounced "Bedlam."

Thus was coined a word we associate with chaos—and it was chaos that ensued when M'Naghten was acquitted and the public took the verdict poorly. What emerged amid the outcry was the generally applied law that an insanity defense would only be available to someone who cannot understand the "nature and quality" of his act.

In a more recent piece focusing on the Panetti case, staff reporter Stephanie Mencimer digs deeper into the high court's thinking, and demonstrates in a followup analysis why it is so difficult, once a case gets to this stage, to reverse momentum toward a verdict of death.

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Scott Walker Is Starting to Look Like a Loser

| Thu Jul. 16, 2015 5:51 PM EDT

It seems that Scott Walker may be having problems. First, there's this from our own Russ Choma about Walker's fundraising woes in Texas, home to America's biggest treasure trove of conservative zillionaires:

The union-busting Wisconsin governor may be a conservative darling, but he's way behind the curve when it comes to courting Texas' biggest money men. Bill Miller, a top Texas lobbyist who regularly advises megadonors on their contributions, says he's heard almost no buzz from the donor class about Walker...."No one is asking about him," Miller says. "None of our clients. We have a huge client base. It's oddly quiet for a guy that's supposedly top three among the potential nominees."

....Walker campaign aides say he has been to Austin, Houston, and San Antonio as well, and the response has been "enthusiastic." Future trips to Texas are planned, they say. But if there's an on-the-ground fundraising operation for Walker, Miller isn't the only one who has missed it.

...."Scott Walker has no visible organization in my part of the state. He really doesn't come up," says Gaylord Hughey, a lawyer who's known as the "don of East Texas" by Republican operatives. Hughey has worked as a bundler for the campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain, and he's currently signed up to raise money for Jeb Bush. "Among the sort of really hard R Republicans, Scott Walker is probably big," he notes, "but to the business donor group, he has not really resonated."

Hmmm. Maybe Walker isn't mean enough for Texas? That's probably not it. In fact, Paul Waldman thinks the guy is so mean it's turning into a problem of its own for Walker. Exhibit A: Walker is hell-bent on demanding drug tests for all welfare recipients:

This is why Scott Walker is never going to be president of the United States.

First, some context. The drug testing programs for welfare recipients are usually justified by saying they’ll save money by rooting out all the junkies on the dole, but in practice they’ve been almost comically ineffective. In state after state, testing programs have found that welfare recipients use drugs at lower rates than the general population, finding only a tiny number of welfare recipients who test positive.

But this hasn’t discouraged politicians like Walker....The test is the point, not the result. Walker isn’t trying to solve a practical problem here. He wants to test food stamp recipients as a way of expressing moral condemnation. You can get this benefit, he’s saying, but we want to give you a little humiliation so you know that because you sought the government’s help, we think you’re a rotten person.

....What does this have to do with Walker’s chances of winning a general election? What George W. Bush understood is that the Republican Party is generally considered to be somewhat, well, mean....So when Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative”...he was sending a message to moderate voters, one that said: See, I’m different. I’m a nice guy.

....And Scott Walker’s attitude is nothing like George W. Bush’s. He practically oozes malice, for anyone and everyone who might oppose him, or just be the wrong kind of person.

So money in Texas-sized chunks is looking like a problem for Walker in the primaries, and his Cruella de Vil-sized malice is likely to be a problem in the general election.

The conventional wisdom about Walker—which I've agreed with in the past—is that he's the candidate best suited to appeal to both the Republican base, thanks to his hardcore meanspiritedness, and to business-class Republicans, thanks to his executive experience and relatively mild demeanor. The problem is that it's a tricky act to make both of these personas work at the same time, and so far Walker doesn't even seem to be trying. He's just sticking with the Mr. Mean persona, and it's not clear if that's even enough to win the primaries, let alone get him into the White House. He's going to need to change his tune if he ever wants to hear the Marine band playing "Hail to the Chief" for him.

Chattanooga Attacks Kill 5 People Including Gunman

| Thu Jul. 16, 2015 3:32 PM EDT
An Armed Forces Recruitment Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was attacked on Thursday.

On Thursday morning, a gunman shot and killed four Marines after opening fire at two separate military sites in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The attacker, identified as 24-year-old Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez by both NBC and CBS, was also killed. Authorities are currently investigating the shootings as a possible act of domestic terrorism. 

 

The gunman reportedly first opened fire Thursday morning at a military recruitment facility. The attacker then traveled to a Navy reserve center roughly six miles away and opened fire again. A police officer was also injured.

This is a breaking news post.

I Want to Hear a Good Argument Against Obama's Deal With Iran

| Thu Jul. 16, 2015 2:40 PM EDT

Max Fisher talked to another arms control expert today, and Aaron Stein says it's a very good agreement. The Iran nuclear deal "exceeds in all areas. It makes the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapon in the next 25 years extremely remote."

Fine. The technical experts are all impressed. But what about the opponents of the deal? What do they think?

Luckily, Matt Yglesias did the legwork to confirm what I had already concluded anecdotally: they don't really have any serious arguments against the deal. Oh, they toss out a few tidbits here and there about inspection times and so forth, but it's just fluff. The inspection regime is actually very tough. No, the problem is that conservatives simply don't want a deal. Period. They want sanctions to remain in force forever. Or they just want to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. Or they don't say much of anything except that Iran is a bad country, and we shouldn't do deals with bad countries.

All of this is fatuous, and the critics know it. Sanctions never last forever. If we tried to keep them in place without ever offering Iran a reasonable bargain to lift them, our allies would desert us. Bombing would be just as bad. Instead of keeping Iran in check for ten or more years, it would merely set them back two or three. And it would confirm their belief that the only defense against the United States is a nuclear deterrent. They'd be even more determined to build a bomb after that. As for Iran's leadership not being choir boys, no kidding. You don't make deals like this with friendly countries. You make them with antagonists. That's the whole point.

I don't want Iran to build a nuclear bomb. It would quite likely set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which is the last place on the planet that we want to have one. And as near as I can tell, this deal is our best chance to keep Iran nuclear free for a good long time. If any conservative can offer a better plan, I'm all ears. Either:

Describe a tougher deal that you can reasonably argue Iran would have accepted.

     or

Explain why some other course of action would be better at keeping Iran nuclear free than a negotiated deal.

No name calling, no comparisons to Neville Chamberlain, no complaints that Iran hates Israel, and no blather about appeasement. Make an argument. A real argument about a course of action that would be better than the deal currently on the table. Let's hear it.

Making Republicans Mad Is All Part of the Plan to Pass the Iran Deal

| Thu Jul. 16, 2015 12:51 PM EDT

Why is President Obama talking so much about the Iran nuclear deal? It's not as if he's likely to convince many Republicans to support it, after all. Jonathan Bernstein says the answer lies in the unusual way Congress is being forced to vote on the deal: the agreement takes effect unless Congress votes to disapprove it. Obama can veto any resolution of disapproval, and it only takes one-third of Congress to sustain that veto. In other words, all Obama needs are Democratic votes. And the best way to get those votes is to take advantage of the power of polarization:

By speaking out in favor of something, and doing it repeatedly, presidents tend to polarize public opinion along party lines. If he needed bipartisan support, the best strategy would be to keep his mouth shut.

But Obama doesn't need any Republican help. He just needs Democrats to stick together, and not base their votes on interest-group attachments or, for that matter, on their personal views.

While Obama thinks the Iran agreement should win on its actual merits — otherwise he wouldn’t have agreed to it! — not everyone sees it the same way. He can try to give swing voters in the House and Senate substantive reasons to support it. But this wouldn't be as efficient as simply getting the Democrats to act as partisans.

As Bernstein says in his teaser sentence, "A strategy that makes Republicans mad will unite Democrats." So Obama is talking and talking and talking, and conservative media is getting madder and madder and madder. That tends to unite liberals, even those who are strong supporters of Israel and might otherwise be reluctant to support a deal that Israel opposes.

Republicans are cooperating beautifully, aren't they? Obama must be very pleased.

America's Best Poverty-Fighting Tool May Be Even Better Than We Thought

| Thu Jul. 16, 2015 11:54 AM EDT

The Earned Income Tax Credit has long been one of the wonk's favorite poverty-fighting tools. It's a tax credit available only to those who work, so it works as a powerful incentive to find employment. It also acts as a subsidy for low-paying jobs, which are often the only ones that the poor can find. And the money comes from the government, so it doesn't distort labor markets or meet resistance from employers, as the minimum wage does.

Today, Dylan Matthews points to an interesting new paper suggesting that the EITC is even better than we thought. Take a look at the chart on the right, which shows what happened after the 1993 EITC increase. It's focused on single women with children, the biggest beneficiaries of the EITC. The red line shows how benefits increased for mothers with children compared to women without children: the difference is about $1,700. The blue dots (with error bars) show the difference in employment. By 1998, employment among mothers with children had gone up about 8 percent compared to women without children. Quite clearly, the EITC subsidy was a big incentive for mothers to find jobs.

It's the combination of these effects—more employment and the direct effect of the tax credit—that makes EITC a more powerful poverty fighter than previously thought.

So why not extend the EITC to cover more people (men, women, the childless, the very poor, etc.) and make it more generous, instead of focusing on raising the minimum wage? Virtually every serious economist on both left and right would support this. Some might have different kinds of wage subsidies they like better, but all of them prefer the EITC to the minimum wage.

The answer, of course, is that the minimum wage is paid by employers. The EITC is paid by the government. Therefore it has to be funded by the government. And that means either raising taxes to cover the cost, or else slashing some other social program. Republicans refuse to do the former and Democrats refuse to do the latter. In the latest round of this game, both Paul Ryan and Barack Obama agree that the EITC should be increased, but neither is willing to accept the other's funding proposal. Matthews provides the gory details:

Because Obama and Ryan both fund their plan in ways that are totally unacceptable to the other side, they haven't come to a deal to pass this plan. Obama would pay for the expansion by raising taxes on hedge fund managers and rich self-employed people, while Ryan would cut other safety net programs and "corporate welfare," which is this case means specifically energy subsidies the Obama administration likes. Ryan has explicitly rejected Obama's funding mechanism, and it's hard to imagine Obama accepting Ryan's.

So we have a stalemate, even though both Ryan and Obama and practically everyone else believe an increased EITC is one of the most effective anti-poverty tools we have. What's worse, outside the wonk world the EITC has been losing ground among Republican politicians for decades. It's now generally viewed by the tea party set as just another giveaway to the moochers and takers, culminating in the widespread belief during the 2012 campaign that the poor ought to pay more taxes, not less. More on this grubby history here.

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President Obama Gets Greeted by Confederate Flags in Oklahoma City

| Thu Jul. 16, 2015 11:48 AM EDT

On Wednesday night, demonstrators on the streets of Oklahoma City waved Confederate flags as President Obama's motorcade arrived, a stark scene captured by a New York Times photographer.

The incident comes in the midst of a renewed national push to remove the battle flag from government sites after the massacre inside a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, last month. Similar counter rallies embracing the slogan "Confederate Lives Matter" were scheduled in Oklahoma City ahead of the president's visit.

Following the attack in Charleston, Obama delivered an impassioned eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a South Carolina state senator and one of the nine people murdered, in which the president called the flag's enduring presence in the South a "reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation."

While South Carolina finally lowered the flag on state capitol grounds last week after more than 50 years, this latest scene encountered by the country's first black president is a reminder that the path to a more perfect union is still very much a work in progress.

The Latest From Greece: A Quick Rundown

| Thu Jul. 16, 2015 10:45 AM EDT

A quick summary of Greece to start my morning (or ease you into lunch if you're on the East coast):

  • The Greek parliament has passed the first batch of legislation demanded by the Europeans.
  • This seriously split Syriza, and could even lead to the downfall of the government. In the meantime, there was rioting in the streets of Athens.
  • The European Central Bank responded by providing €900 million to Greece's banks. It's not much, and capital controls will stay in place for a while. But it keeps the ATMs churning out €60 per day, which is better than €0 per day.
  • Mario Draghi, the head of the ECB, said it was "uncontroversial" that Greece needs substantial debt relief. It all depends on Greece keeping its side of the deal. So now both the ECB and the IMF—two-thirds of the Troika—are publicly on board with debt relief.

That's about it for now. Amid the chaos, things are moving forward. Nonetheless, the religious types among you should give thanks daily that you don't live in Greece.

Caitlyn Jenner Just Delivered this Kickass Speech About Acceptance

| Thu Jul. 16, 2015 10:11 AM EDT

Caitlyn Jenner received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at last night's ESPY's in Los Angeles, and used the opportunity to deliver a powerful speech urging fellow athletes and celebrities to understand the immense challenges trans people, especially teenagers, face everyday.

"It's not just about one person," Jenner said. "It's about thousands of people. It's not just about me, it's about all of us accepting one another. We're all different. That's not a bad thing. That's a good thing. And while it may not easy to get past the things you don't always understand, I want to prove that it is absolutely possible if we only do it together."

The award, presented by ESPN, recognizes individuals who "transcend sports," and is named after the late African-American tennis champion Arthur Ashe, who was known for fighting discrimination in the sport and raising public awareness about AIDS.

Looking ahead, the former Olympian said she would use her fame to push for transgender rights. Jenner mentioned 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson and 15-year-old Sam Taub, both trans teenagers who killed themselves earlier this year, to illustrate the urgency of the challenges facing teens.

"They're getting bullied," Jenner said. "They're getting beaten up. They're getting murdered. And they're committing suicide."

She concluded her speech with a message for her critics and those questioning the motives behind her public transition.

"If you want to call me names, make jokes, doubt my intentions, go ahead because the reality is I can take it," she said. "But for the thousands of kids out there coming to terms with being true to who they are, they shouldn’t have to take it. So for the people out there wondering what this is all about, whether its about courage or controversy or publicity, it's about what happens from here."

Jenner's transition made national headlines after she sat down with Diane Sawyer for an exclusive interview in April, in which she detailed her journey. She made her public debut with a June cover shoot for Vanity Fair.

Another Fatal Police Shooting Caught on Video—and More Questions About a Dispatcher's Role

| Thu Jul. 16, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

On Tuesday, a federal court ordered the release of video showing a June 2013 police shooting in Gardena, California (a city in southern Los Angeles County) in which an unarmed man, Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino, was killed and another unarmed man wounded. Previously, an internal review by the Gardena Police Department had concluded that the shooting was justified, and prosecutors in Gardena decided not to pursue criminal charges against the officers involved. In May, the City of Gardena agreed to pay $4.7 million to settle a federal lawsuit filed by the family of Diaz-Zeferino. But the newly released police dash cam footage, first posted by the Los Angeles Times, has raised questions about the events leading up to the fatal encounter—including the potential mishandling of a 911 call, an issue that has come up with other officer-involved killings.

According to the Los Angeles Times, there may have been a miscommunication by the police dispatcher:

The shooting occurred about 2:30 a.m. on June 2, 2013, after a bicycle was stolen from outside a CVS Pharmacy on Western Avenue. A police dispatcher mistakenly told officers that the crime was a robbery, which usually involves a theft using weapons or force, and officers headed to the area in search of two suspects.

Gardena police Sgt. Christopher Cuff saw two men riding bicycles east on Redondo Beach Boulevard. The men were friends of the bike theft victim and were searching for the missing bicycle. Mistaking them for the thieves, Cuff ordered the men to stop and put their hands up, according to a district attorney's memo written by a prosecutor who reviewed the police videos.

The Gardena killing is the latest in a string of high-profile police shootings captured on video, which have brought scrutiny on police tactics and procedures. With the Tamir Rice shooting in Cleveland, evidence emerged that the dispatcher who relayed the 911 call did not include potentially key details about the suspect, as Mother Jones previously reported. And according to a recent Washington Post data investigation of police shootings of mentally ill suspects, "officers are routinely dispatched with information that is incomplete or wrong."