This COURT TV
report lists the shocking statistics which have prompted some states to consider imposing a moratorium on executions of death row inmates. Attention was focused on the issue this week when Illinois cleared Ronald Jones of the rape and murder charges for which he was condemned to death in 1985. Jones is the 10th inmate on Illinois' death row to be found innocent in the past five years, and the twelfth since the state began allowing capital punishment. Seventy-nine people awaiting execution have been set free nationwide since 1970.
Illinois death row inmates have had special assistance in their cause. Six of the 12 men freed in Illinois, including Jones, were exonerated, wholly or in part, based on evidence gathered by Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess and his team of student researchers. The professor and his students began looking into questionable capital convictions several years ago.
While Illinois has yet to stop executing those condemned to die, state legislators have made efforts to get a moratorium passed. The situation in Illinois has not gone unnoticed in other states. On May 21, Nebraska's legislature passed a two-year moratorium on executions in order to allow time to study the issue. The bill has yet to be signed into law.
U.S. prisons: Business is booming
The business of prison construction and maintenance is booming in the U.S., with 1.8 million people currently behind bars. And although there's never cheery news to report about America's burgeoning prison-industrial complex, recent reports have been especially bad.
This week's VILLAGE VOICE investigates one of the nation's newest "supermax" prisons, currently being built in upstate New York. Inmates in the $180 million, top-security facility will be locked in 14' x 8.5' cells for 23 hours a day -- with a cellmate.
Not surprisingly, the decision to pair up the state's most dangerous inmates was the result of severe prison overcrowding and a desire to cut costs. It marks the first time in New York state that prisoners locked up 23 hours a day will have to share their space with another inmate. The practice has not fared so well at California's Pelican Bay State Prison, where 10 prisoners have killed their cellmates in the last few years.
Despite public perception, however, prison overcrowding has more to do with nonviolent criminals than the type housed at these "supermax" facilities. The number of incarcerated nonviolent offenders has increased dramatically as a result of mandatory-sentencing schemes, according to the private Justice Policy Institute. Their March report, America's One Million Nonviolent Prisoners, details an increasingly large proportion of state governments' resources being allocated to house more than one million nonviolent offenders. In fact, in 1995 states spent more on building prisons than colleges.
And our last bit of bad news: A recently-released Amnesty International report says that "racial discrimination, while more subtle than in the past, continues to play an equally deadly role in the U.S. legal system." According to the report, "Of the 500 prisoners executed between 1977 and the end of 1998, more than 81 percent were convicted of the murder of a white, even though blacks and whites are the victims of homicide in almost equal numbers nationwide."
Monsanto maims monarchs
Social scientists such as Jeremy Rifkin warned of "unintended consequences" which might arise from genetic engineering, and we have our first solid example of such an eventuality in an article published in the journal NATURE. A corn plant, engineered by Monsanto, was developed to produce its own "natural" pesticide, which kills the common crop scourge, the corn borer. The strain of corn accounted for about 25 percent of the total U.S. market for the vegetable in 1998, according to THE ASSOCIATED PRESS.
Scientists conducted tests of the effect of pollen from Monsanto-engineered corn plants on monarch butterfly larvae.
Unfortunately for Mother Nature, what's bad for the borer is bad for the butterfly. The monarch larvae is biologically similar to the corn borer, which may account for the alarming result of the tests: 44 percent of the monarch caterpillars that fed on pollen from the altered corn plants died, versus none of the caterpillars that didn't eat pollen. Opponents of bioengineered foods had warned that the damage occuring farther down the food chain may be imperceptible in the present, but significant in the future.
Genetically altered food & you
We've heard a lot lately about the dangers of genetically altered crops to the world's food security. But did you know that you could already be eating genetically altered food? And although conclusive research on the topic is still lacking, some scientists believe such foods could lead to allergic or toxic reactions, disease, or antibiotic-resistant strains of meningitis and similar diseases, reports Seattle alternative weekly EAT THE STATE!
Due to customer demands, Britain's largest supermarket chain, TESCO, banned such foods last month, as have other stores such as Safeway and Sainsbury's. But the ban is difficult to enforce because many ingredients in prepackaged food are from genetically altered plants and have no labels that say this. One particularly food that is often genetically modified is also perceived to be one of the healthiest: the soybean.
NBC chickens out on nukes
With all the hubbub about the return of the erstwhile '80s Brat Pack leader Rob Lowe to the small screen, it's possible you missed the only other appreciable drama associated with NBC's miniseries "Atomic Train," which concludes somnolently this evening.
That is that, according to the Saturday LONDON GUARDIAN, executives at NBC bent to the will of network owner General Electric when they decided at the last moment to redub the series to erase all mention of nuclear waste. (GE invests heavily in the nuclear power industry.) The plot originally involved a runaway train carrying nuclear waste and a Russian-made nuclear bomb. All references to nuclear waste had been changed to "hazardous materials" on the network's orders. The changes reportedly cost the network tens of thousands of dollars.
Nevada Senator Richard Bryan first made the accusations on the floor of the Senate last week. NBC maintains that it redubbed the series on the advice of its "in-house censor," as if that should make us all feel better.
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