Political MoJo

Did the NRA Know About Robert Dowlut's Reversed Murder Conviction?

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
The Webley Mark VI revolver that police said Dowlut dug up in the South Bend City Cemetery

For all its bluster, the National Rifle Association also knows how to maintain a disciplined silence in the face of uncomfortable questions. Most notably, it went to ground in the wake of the Newtown school shooting in December 2012, resurfacing after a few days with bland talking points, followed by Wayne LaPierre's assertion that "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that in the week since I published an investigation into the complicated past of the NRA's top lawyer, the gun lobby has not responded. 

The subject of my article, NRA general counsel Robert J. Dowlut, is a low-profile yet influential legal expert who has spent more than 35 years pushing for an aggressively broad interpretation of the Second Amendment. In 1964, he was sentenced to life in prison for shooting his girlfriend's mother in South Bend, Indiana. Several years later, the conviction was reversed due to bad police work, and Dowlut eventually walked free.

Before I reported on Dowlut's background, I contacted him 10 times by phone, email, and registered mail, explaining what I was writing about and inviting him to share his side of the story. When I did not hear from him, I asked the NRA and its public affairs head, Andrew Arulanandam, for comment multiple times. I also sent registered letters directly to NRA leaders, including executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, president Jim Porter, and lobbying head Chris Cox. None responded.

If Dowlut or the NRA do decide to talk, here are the four questions I'd most like them to answer:

1. Did Dowlut ever disclose his past to his colleagues or the NRA? So far, none of Dowlut's colleagues and friends have come forward to talk about what they did or didn't know. David Hardy, a prominent gun rights writer who's known Dowlut "longer than I can remember" told me he had "no idea" about Dowlut's previous conviction and reversal. Other gun rights groups and bloggers have also been conspicuously silent since the story ran.

2. How did Dowlut's experience influence his career? Dowlut's writings strongly suggest that his legal odyssey played a role in shaping his philosophy. In a 1983 article, he disapprovingly cited Supreme Court Justice Byron White's dissent in Miranda v. Arizona, a case very similar to his own. White had predicted that protecting criminal suspects' rights "will return a killer, a rapist or other criminal to the streets." Did Dowlut's position—that gun rights are another essential defense against official overreach—stem from his time as the accused? Did this stance put Dowlut at odds with the NRA's tough-on-crime talking points? (Consider that the NRA's president from 1992 to 1994 was Robert Corbin, the prosecutor who made a point of retrying Ernesto Miranda after the landmark 1966 Supreme Court decision bearing his name. Corbin also served as the vice chairman of the NRA Civil Rights Defense Fund; Dowlut is the fund's longtime secretary.)

3. Did Dowlut ever disclose his past to the bar? Several readers have asked if Dowlut disclosed his experience as a criminal defendant while applying for admission to the bar. (He was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar in 1980 and is also a member of the Virginia Bar.) I don't know: Bar applications are confidential, and it's not clear what was asked on the character and fitness sections of the DC and Virginia Bar applications four decades ago. Currently, the DC Bar asks applicants to disclose all previous arrests, charges, and convictions, even for matters that have been dismissed or expunged. The Virginia Bar asks applicants to disclose any involvement in criminal proceedings (including juvenile cases and traffic offenses). Assuming that Dowlut faced similar questions when he became a lawyer, how did he respond?

4. What really happened 51 years ago in South Bend? The South Bend police still consider the murder of Anna Marie Yocum on the night of April 15, 1963, to be an open case. Most of the main characters involved in Dowlut's murder trial are dead; the victim's daughter is alive, but refused to speak with me. The court records I obtained, while voluminous, offer competing narratives that leave a trail of nagging questions: The police interviewed several other potential suspects—what were they asked, and why were they released? If Dowlut had no knowledge of the crime, how was he able to lead detectives to a buried gun allegedly linked to it? Whom did the gun belong to? And finally, what does Dowlut think actually happened on that night?

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Anti-Immigrant Activist Says Influx of Migrants Will Lead to "Ethnic Replacement"

| Mon Aug. 4, 2014 2:42 PM EDT

In Texas, a resurgent tea party movement has trained its sights on the ongoing crisis at the US-Mexico border, where some 70,000 unaccompanied minors will arrive this year alone. At a July 16 press conference at the state capitol in Austin, tea party leaders ripped Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott, both Republicans, for not doing more to keep undocumented immigrants out of the US. The activists said they wanted a special legislative session devoted to the migrant crisis and urged Perry to deploy the Texas National Guard to the border. (Days later, Perry announced he would deploy up to 1,000 guardsmen.)

One of the speakers at the event was Thomas Korkmas, who runs an anti-immigrant group called Texans for Immigration Reduction and Enforcement. In his remarks, Korkmas drew a comparison between the current border crisis and the horrific ethnic cleansing that occurred in eastern Europe after the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. That Serb-led campaign of ethnic cleansing saw the creation of concentration camps, widespread rape and murder, and a death toll that reached an estimated 100,000. The way Korkmas sees it, where the Serbs systemically eliminated Bosnian Muslims and Croatian civilians, the influx of undocumented migrants to the US is diluting the population of white Americans via "ethnic replacement."

You can watch Korkmas' comments in the above video. Here's what he said:

We have an invasion. It has to be stopped. About 20 years ago when Bill Clinton was in office, there was an issue over in what had been Yugoslavia. And it was called at that time ethnic cleansing. What is going on right now in this country could be called ethnic replacement. Because what is happening right now is we are seeing the eradication of our Constitution and its rule of law. We're seeing the elimination of our borders, our language, and our culture. And anyone who does not think that a culture that embraces lawlessness will not become our dominant culture within a few years, I hate to tell you you're wrong. It will be because it already has.

Korkmas seems to have borrowed the term "ethnic replacement" from the right-wing talk radio host Michael Savage. Recently, Savage accused President Obama and his administration of engaging in ethnic replacement—a term Savage claims he coined—by allowing illegal immigrants to "flood America" and replace white Americans.

This isn't Korkmas' first controversial comment on the issue of immigration. Last year, he claimed that the Boston Marathon bombings resulted in part from an insecure US-Mexico border. Every politician who has served in Washington and failed to "close the border" since the Boston attacks, Korkmas went on, "is guilty, as far as I’m concerned, as an accessory to homicide."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 4, 2014

Mon Aug. 4, 2014 10:45 AM EDT

A US Marine climbs a rope ladder from the flight deck of the USS San Diego.  ( US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jonathan R. Waldman)

Arizona Executioners Had To Use 15 Doses of Lethal Drugs Before Inmate Finally Died

| Sat Aug. 2, 2014 6:30 AM EDT

Documents released Friday afternoon in the case of Arizona's  botched execution of Joseph Wood—who gasped for air and struggled, according to witnesses, repeatedly during the two-hour process—show that  executioners used 15 separate doses of a new drug cocktail before Wood finally died. Lawyers had warned that the combination of 50 milligrams hydromorphone (a pain killer) and 50 milligrams of midazolam (a sedative) was rife with potential problems. (The state also has a long history of failing to follow its own protocol.) The documents suggest they were right.

"Instead of the one dose as required under the protocol, ADC injected 15 separate doses of the drug combination, resulting in the most prolonged execution in recent memory," said Dale Baich, Wood's lawyer. "This is why an independent investigation by a non-governmental authority is necessary.”

Ohio  used a similar drug cocktail in January to execute Dennis McGuire, who gasped and snorted for 25 minutes before finally succumbing, the longest execution in Ohio history. Arizona apparently increased the dosage of midazolam from what Ohio had used, but it doesn't seem to have gotten any better results.

When officials in Ohio and elsewhere first expressed their intent to experiment with the midazolam/hydromorphone combination, experts predicted, as Mother Jones' Molly Redden reported, that little was known about how the new drug combinations would work in executions. She wrote:

Jonathan Groner, a professor of clinical surgery at the Ohio State University College of Medicine who has written extensively on the death penalty, says effects of a hydromorphone overdose include an extreme burning sensation, seizures, hallucination, panic attacks, vomiting, and muscle pain or spasms. [David Waisel, an associate professor of anesthesiology at Harvard Medical School], who has testified extensively on capital-punishment methods, adds that a hydromorphone overdose could result in soft tissue collapse—the same phenomenon that causes sleep apnea patients to jerk awake—that an inmate who had been paralyzed would be unable to clear by jerking or coughing. Instead, he could feel as though he were choking to death.

Because hydromorphone is not designed to kill a person, Groner says, there are no clinical guidelines for how to give a lethal overdose. "You're basically relying on the toxic side effects to kill people while guessing at what levels that occurs," he explains.

The new Arizona documents suggest that these assessments were dead on.

State officials are using new drug combinations because pharmaceutical companies have been refusing to sell or export the drugs traditionally used in executions. The US has seen a shortage of those drugs for several years now, and death penalty states have gone to increasingly desperate measures to kill their condemned, everything from illegally importing the old drugs to buying them from dubious compounding pharmacies. Arizona illustrated the latest gambit—using new combinations of other available drugs, something critics have called an unethical human experiment.

States have also gone to great lengths to hide information about the drugs they're using in executions and how they're getting them. In Arizona, Wood was just the latest of many death row inmates who have tried and failed to force states to be more transparent. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Wood in late July and agreed that he had a right to know how he was going to die. But the US Supreme Court overruled that decision and allowed the execution to go forward.

 

 

 

Obama: "We Tortured Some Folks"

| Fri Aug. 1, 2014 4:58 PM EDT

On Friday, President Obama said that some of the things the United States did after 9/11 were indeed acts of torture. National Journal has the full quote:

Obama also addressed post-9/11 America in remarks about the Central Intelligence Agency. "We tortured some folks," he said. "We did some things that were contrary to our values. I understand why it happened. I think it's important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the Twin Towers fell, and the Pentagon had been hit, and a plane in Pennsylvania had fallen and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this."

This isn't the first time Obama has said that the US tortured people but the usage of "folks" immediately set tongues wagging. Presumably it's because "folks" is far more humanizing than "detainees" or "enemy combatants".  The US did torture people (real flesh-and-blood human people) after 9/11, and it's good that Obama says so—even if he was just trying to get off the topic of his CIA admitting to spying on Congress.

For a long time it was incredibly controversial to call "enhanced interrogation" torture. It's a sign of progress that no one batted an eye at the "torture" bit and instead focused on the "folks" part. To their credit, even conservatives have come around to using the dreaded T word. Just kidding. Conservatives are freaking out:

Barack Obama is an inexperienced "celebrity" community organizer/campaigner-in-chief who won't stop apologizing for America and was only elected president because of The Decemberists.

Feds Say Big Banks Are Still Too Big to Fail

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 8:06 PM EDT

Six years after the financial crisis, the largest US banks are likely still too-big-to-fail, according to a study released Thursday afternoon by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). That means that these massive financial institutions are still so important to the wider financial system that they can expect the government to bail them out again if they are close to collapse.

Even though the GAO study found that this advantage banks enjoy dropped off significantly in 2013, "this is a continuing issue," Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who has introduced legislation aimed at ending bank bailouts, told Bloomberg Thursday. "Too-big-to-fail is not dead and gone at all. It exists."

During the financial crisis, the government forked out $700 billion to bail out the nation's biggest banks. The 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform act imposed new requirements on Wall Street designed to prevent this from happening again. The law gave federal Wall Street regulators more authority to dismantle failing financial institutions, mandated that banks hold more emergency funds on hand, and required banks to submit to yearly stress tests to ensure that they can withstand another crisis.

How effective these measures have been in ending too-big-to-fail is still an open question, and subject to heated debate in the halls of Congress. Other reports have found that even after Dodd-Frank, big banks still enjoy a huge advantage over smaller, community banks in terms of lower borrowing rates, thanks largely to the perception that they can't fail. Many investors believe the government will still bail out large, systemically important banks if they are again faced with collapse, whereas the economy can afford to lose a local bank or two. As a result, the biggest US banks benefited from a $70 billion too-big-to-fail subsidy in 2012, according to a March report by the International Monetary Fund.

Sen. Vitter, as well as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and John McCain (D-Ariz.) have introduced legislation that attempts to truly end big bank bailouts by forcing banks to hold larger emergency reserves and shrinking the size of massive Wall Street firms.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 31, 2014

Thu Jul. 31, 2014 12:12 PM EDT

US Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division participate in a training mission in Florida. (US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christopher Callaway.)

The Feds Are Demanding That Twitter Turn Over More User Info Than Ever

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 11:54 AM EDT

US law enforcement and intelligence agencies are hitting Twitter with more information requests about its users than ever before, and in most cases the social network is handing over some data, according to a new report released by the company on Thursday. Twitter notes that many of the government demands, which are typically related to criminal investigations, are originating from California, New York, and Virginia. They're coming from federal, state, and local law enforcement and intelligence officials, a Twitter spokesman says.

Like several other tech companies, Twitter releases transparency reports disclosing information about the government requests for user data it has received. According to the latest report, between January 1 and June 30, Twitter received just over 2,000 requests for information covering about 3,100 Twitter accounts from authorities in 54 countries, with about 1,250 of those requests coming from US agencies. That's a sharp increase from the previous six months, when there were about 1,400 requests, around 830 of those from the US. According to the Twitter spokesman, US authorities have placed more information requests over the last six months than the company has ever received in a similar timeframe.

While Twitter granted zero requests to some countries that requested information recently, such as Turkey, Venezuela, and Pakistan, the social network handed over at least some information in 72 percent of the cases when US authorities requested it.

While the social network can report a tally of law enforcement-related requests, the social network is barred by the US government from publishing the specific number of national security-related requests—such as national security letters and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court orders—it has received. Twitter notes that it met with the FBI and the Justice Department earlier this year to push for more transparency.

Gaza Conflict Divides Congressional Progressives

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 9:22 AM EDT
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), left, and Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) survey the rubble of the American International School in Gaza in 2009.

With the war in Gaza continuing without an end in sight, congressional leaders are rallying to condemn Hamas rocket attacks and support Israel. But members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have been divided over the conflict, with some commending Israel's military for its use of precision weapons and others outraged by the conflict’s mounting Palestinian civilian causalities. 

The division was clear on July 29 when caucus co-chair Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who has visited Gaza three times since 2009 and previously condemned the Israeli blockade of Gaza, published an op-ed in the Washington Post that highlighted recent Palestinian civilian casualties—including four children who were "blown up on a beach" by an Israeli attack. He noted that most Gaza residents "aren't rocket shooters or combatants. For the past several years they have lived in dreadful isolation. The status quo for ordinary Gazans is a continuation of no jobs and no freedom." Ellison again called for an end to Israel's blockade and urged Hamas to give up its rockets: "There is no military solution to this conflict. The status quo brings only continued pain, suffering and war."  

Yet this is not the consensus view within the 65-member Progressive Caucus that Ellison co-leads. In recent weeks, other caucus members have focused on the rocket attacks launched against Israel and lent their support to its aggressive military reaction.

Toward the start of Israel's air campaign in Gaza, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a stalwart liberal representing Manhattan's Upper West Side, issued a statement condemning Gaza's rocket attacks and calling for the public to support Israel "to take whatever measure she deems necessary to defend the population against the attempted murder by these terrorists." Nadler attended a rally in front of New York's city hall with other prominent New York Democrats to express support for Israel's actions in Gaza. Two days later, on July 16, caucus member Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) issued a statement with Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) calling for solidarity with Israel.

"Israel has gone far beyond what we have seen any other country do trying to protect the civilian population of its enemy," Nadler said. Frankel and Deutch similarly praised the Israeli military for using "pinpoint technology to minimize any collateral damage." So far more than 800 Palestinian civilians, including 232 children, have been killed by Israeli strikes in Gaza as of July 30.

Last week, Progressive Caucus member Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), a psychiatrist by training, condemned Israel’s attacks on hospitals. "The proximity of military targets or the suspicion of hidden weapons and militants is an invalid excuse in the targeting of a hospital or ambulance," he said in a statement.

"You should not be put in danger in a medical situation by someone alleging that there's some reason they should attack a hospital or doctor," he tells Mother Jones

On July 18, Ellison and five other representatives—all progressive caucus members—signed a letter to President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry calling for the White House and the State Department to "redouble your efforts" to press for a cease fire in Gaza. Contrast that to 2009, when 54 House Democrats signed a letter drafted by Ellison and McDermott urging the president "to work for tangible improvements to the humanitarian concerns" in Gaza. 

As for Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who co-chairs the caucus with Ellison, he has not said much publicly about the current war in Gaza. Although he signed the 2009 letter, he did not lend his name to the July 18 call for a cease fire. His office did not respond to requests for comment.

Watch: UN Agency Spokesman Breaks Down In Tears While Talking About Gaza School Bombing

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 9:07 PM EDT
Women mourn after an attack on a UN-run school in Gaza July 24.

United Nations Relief Works Agency spokesman Chris Gunness has been talking to media outlets around the world about the situation in Gaza, "advocating passionately," as he puts it, "for Palestine refugees to enjoy all their rights to the full, including the right to a just and durable solution." Gunness' agency runs schools in Gaza that are being used as shelters by Palestinian families and have been attacked six times in the current conflict (the Israeli military says it has found rockets in the schools on occasion). On Wednesday he was talking to an Al Jazeera interviewer about the most recent school bombing, which reportedly left 15 dead. "The rights of Palestinians, even their children, are wholesale denied, and it's appalling," he said before breaking into tears. Watch: