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On Starving In Prison, Or, Who Gets Pardons In Florida? December 30, 2010

If you were with us on Christmas Day you heard the story of Betsie Gallardo, who, unless something changes quickly, is going to be intentionally starved to death in a Florida prison after being convicted of spitting on a cop.

In fairness, the State did not decide simply to starve her; instead, the Department of Corrections (DOC) first chose to withhold any further treatment for her inoperable cancer…and then they decided to starve her to death.

Her adopted mother is trying to get her released on humanitarian grounds; the DOC recommended in October that she be allowed to go home and die, the Florida Parole Commission refused.

Governor Charlie Crist chairs the Executive Clemency Board, who could also agree to let her go…and so far, they’ve also refused to take action.

Funny thing is, the Governor and his Board have been more than willing to step in when other Floridians requested pardons and commutations, even in situations that seemed a lot less dire.

Today, we’re going to look at that history—and to be honest, as with many things in the Sunshine State, from the outside…it all looks a bit bizarre.

“Forgiveness, particularly at this time of year, is a very worthwhile message for all of us to be reminded of…”

–Florida Governor Charlie Crist, December 9, 2010

So right off the bat, if you’re 21 years old and you’re having sex with a 15 year-old, you’re looking at some trouble if the police find out. In fact, you’re going to be regarded as a sex offender in the eyes of the law if you’re doing something like that and you get caught.

But as it turns out, in Florida, if you marry the young person in question, you can get a pardon. In fact, it comes up often enough that they’re called “Romeo and Juliet” pardons, and the Executive Clemency Board actually handed out a couple of them in 2009 to John Kemp and Virgil McCranie, who were dating 14 and 15 year-olds when they were originally convicted.

Actually, you don’t even have to marry the minor in question if you can obtain their consent for the underage sexual encounter and demonstrate a reasonable degree of remorse: that happened to Gregory Allen, who was 40 when he was convicted of having sex with a minor.

Describing the events that led to Allen’s conviction, Alex Sink, who was not elected Governor to replace Crist:

“…later expressed frustration with the state’s classification of people as sex offenders even though they may have been convicted of having consensual relations.”

Suzanne Squires killed her own daughter and seriously injured another woman while driving drunk, and just this month the Board commuted 12 years of her 23-year sentence so that she could return home to her family.

18 year-old Jennifer Martin was driving way too fast, and in the eventual crash she killed one of her passengers, and injured another, although she was sober when she did it; she received the second commutation granted by the Board under Crist’s chairmanship when her 16 year sentence for manslaughter by culpable negligence was cut in half in 2009.

The Doors’ Jim Morrison, who is not at risk to die in prison, was posthumously pardoned by the Board just this month for an indecent exposure “event” that took place in 1969. Reached for comment, Morrison suggested that these were strange days indeed when he could be pardoned in death and Betsie Gallardo can’t be pardoned in the final days of her life.

Donald Keehn lent a neighbor $7,000. When she couldn’t repay the debt, he drove by her house and shot up the place—five times.

He was 88 at the time, she was 66, but instead of starving him to death because of his cancer, congestive heart failure and kidney failure, the Board chose to commute half of his five year sentence in 2009 and set him free.

Remember when I suggested that Florida, to the outside observer, seems a bit bizarre?

Well…consider this:

If you date underage girls in ”Chain Gang Charlie’s” Florida you can get a pardon or a commutation. In fact, if you do…they even have a special name for it.

If you kill someone drunk driving—or even driving sober—there might be a commutation for you, too.

Did you ever wag your penis onstage 40 years ago, then die, and now you’re having trouble finding a job because of your besmirched reputation? Governor Crist wants to help—and the Board has his back.

Have you ever committed a series of drive-by shootings, and then developed a series of serious physical problems that make you seek a commutation so that you can go home and die? Florida will find a way to let you out.

On the other hand, if you spit on a cop, and then you develop inoperable cancer…and your name’s Betsie Gallardo…Florida not only won’t let you out of prison to go home and die—they’ll starve you in prison, just to make your death come a bit faster.

Wanna discuss any of this with the Board? Here’s some handy contact information for Crist and the other three members:

Charlie Crist, Governor of Florida
(850) 488-4441
E-mail: charlie.crist@myflorida.com
http://www.flgov.com/contact_governor

Bill McCollum, Attorney General
(850) 414-3300
Click here to e-mail Mr. McCollum
www.myfloridalegal.com/contact

Charles Bronson, Commissioner Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
(850) 488-3022
commissioner@doacs.state.fl.us
http://www.doacs.state.fl.us/

Alex Sink, Chief Financial Officer Florida Department of Financial Services
(850) 413-3100
Alex.Sink@myfloridacfo.com
http://www.myfloridacfo.com/

I don’t know how many of you remember the show “Daria”, but all of this reminds me of an episode of Sick Sad World—except that in this case the application of outside pressure is having an effect on the DOC…and that means we need to keep the pressure coming.

If we drag them to it, kicking and screaming, I’m sure the State of Florida will be just as compassionate and humane toward Betsie Gallardo as they were to all the other fine folks you read about here today—and with your help we’ll be able to write a happier ending to what has been, so far, a rather unhappy story.

 

On Fear: The Islam Edition, Or, Do You Know My Friend Wa’el? September 22, 2010

We last got together about ten days ago, when I put up a story that hoped to explain to the Islamic world that, Qur’an burning aside, we don’t really hate either them, or our own Constitution.

I pointed out that, just like everywhere else, about 20% of our population are idiots, that this means about 60,000,000 of us might, at any time, be inclined to burst into fits of random stupidity, such as the desire to burn Qur’ans to make some sort of statement, and that the same First Amendment that protects the freedom of stupid speech also protects the rights of Islamic folks to freely build mosques…and finally, that this apparent “paradox of freedom” is exactly why the US is the kind of country that many Islamic folks the world over wish they lived in as well.

I then went off to enjoy my Godson’s wedding, and I ignored the posting until the next Monday.

On the two dozen sites where it could be found, this was apparently considered to be a fairly innocuous message…with one giant exception, which is what we’ll be talking about today.

Long story short, some portion of this country’s population has some bizarre ideas about Islamic folks…but maybe if they knew my friend Wa’el, they might see things a bit differently.

This world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those that feel

Horace Walpole, Fourth Earl of Orford, in a letter, August, 1776

So all of this took place at Newsvine…and if you’re not familiar with how things work there, users may “seed” a story that they find of interest, so that it may attract the interest of others. What happens is that the user reposts a shortened version of the original story, along with a link back to the source.

My original posting on the site had fewer than ten comments, but by Monday Newsvine user btco’s seeded version of my story had about 300 comments; today there are more than 625.

Those who were not liking the story basically came down to one of a few categories of responders; here’s one example…

…I live a few minutes from Dearbornistan in Michigan and I can tell you that, as a place with a great deal of Muslims, they barely speak out against the Islamofacists that kill. There is outrage; however, but that outrage is aimed at America instead of the Islamofacists that should be the target of the aforementioned outrage. In fact, Dearborn has seen Muslims verbally attack Christians and forbid them for handing out Christian pamphlets, their 1st amendment right to do so, as this goes against the @!$%#ed up Sharia Law. Until Dearbornistan demands that they will abide willingly with the constitution and ignore the racist and misogynic crap that is Sharia law, then Dearbornistan Muslims side with the enemy and that enemy is Islam.

…and here’s another:

Christianity underwent reformation and was tamed by enlightenment period (during which, BTW, was harshly criticized).

Islam is in its original forms, claws and all.

And people like you, who for some dubious reason think it should be allowed to be what it is are doing great disservice for Muslims whose minds are set for the reforms and who want to live like normal, 21 century people, but are forced to “submit” to medieval dogma.

The idea that all Islamic folks worship a Moon God, that neither democracy nor any other religion can co-exist alongside Islam, that after beating them, all Islamic men send their four wives out to distribute “terror tomatoes” among the infidel population, and that, for adherents of Islam, both the Bible and the Constitution are immoral and corrupt all seems to be accepted wisdom for a bunch of the commenters (except for the “terror tomato” part, which I made up myself); it all seems to come from an apparently long-circulating email that was posted in the comments over and over that purports to prove that Muslims can’t be good Americans.

So is all this true?

Well…let’s start with the question of whether Islamic people can co-exist with democracy…and to help answer that question, let me introduce you to my friend Wa’el.

Wa’el Nawara has been trying to advance the interests of democracy in Egyptian politics for many years now, in the form of his work for the El-Ghad Party, in the face of an Egyptian Government that has been ruled, since the end of King Farouk’s reign, by just one political party, the (secular) NDP. The founder of El-Ghad, Ayman Nour, was imprisoned and tortured for basically getting 8% of the vote in a 2005 Presidential election against the current President, Hosni Mubarak.

To prevent this from happening again, it is also alleged that the Egyptian Government helped to orchestrate a temporarily successful “takeover” of the party from within. (This is not uncommon; the Egyptians security apparatus has acted against numerous parties, including the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood.)

Shortly after Wa’el and I became acquainted (I had been researching a series of stories about Egyptian politics when we were introduced) he was inside the offices of his own Party, which were burned by a mob that was allegedly associated with Egyptian State Security (an event that was recorded, live, by people across the street). Afterwards Wa’el, along with many of the 30 other people who were in the building, were arrested and detained for…you guessed it…suspicion of arson.

It’s not just Wa’el, or the other members of his Party…nor the other members of other Parties, either.

If were to take the time, you’d find out there’s a Center for Democracy in Lebanon, you’d discover that Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and even Saudi Arabia have all held recent local elections, and you’d find out there’s even a debate in the UAE as to whether adopting democratic reforms might be appropriate.

Outside the Gulf, India’s current President is their third Muslim President, Indonesia, which is 80% Muslim, elects their Presidents (even as they struggle with sectarian violence)…and all of that tells me that anyone who thinks Islam and democracy are incompatible should do some more reading.

Can Islam accept the presence of other religions?

One answer can be found in what is today’s Spain, but what used to be Andalucía (or Al-Andalus, if you prefer Arabic), where Moors ruled for centuries over Jews with far more compassion and respect than they ever received under Christian dominion; another, in today’s Egypt, where Christian Copts and Muslims have lived together for thousands of years, even as tensions have increased recently between the two groups.

Does Wa’el beat his four wives?

Not as far as I can tell—and if his one wife ever found out he had three other wives…I’m guessing that wouldn’t go so well for Wa’el.

Is the Bible corrupt to those who follow Islam?

Those who follow “mainstream” Islam believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but they don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or that He was crucified. Is that corruption? I don’t know, and I guess you’ll have to decide that one for yourself.

Now we need to be fair here, and acknowledge that one branch of Islam does indeed represent much of what my most conservative friends are afraid of: Wahhabi Ikhban. Here’s what the Library of Congress has to say about the sect:

Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab was concerned with the way the people of Najd engaged in practices he considered polytheistic, such as praying to saints; making pilgrimages to tombs and special mosques; venerating trees, caves, and stones; and using votive and sacrificial offerings. He was also concerned by what he viewed as a laxity in adhering to Islamic law and in performing religious devotions, such as indifference to the plight of widows and orphans, adultery, lack of attention to obligatory prayers, and failure to allocate shares of inheritance fairly to women.

When Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab began to preach against these breaches of Islamic laws, he characterized customary practices as jahiliya, the same term used to describe the ignorance of Arabians before the Prophet. Initially, his preaching encountered opposition, but he eventually came under the protection of a local chieftain named Muhammad ibn Saud, with whom he formed an alliance. The endurance of the Wahhabi movement’s influence may be attributed to the close association between the founder of the movement and the politically powerful Al Saud in southern Najd (see The Saud Family and Wahhabi Islam, 1500-1818 , ch. 1).

This association between the Al Saud and the Al ash Shaykh, as Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab and his descendants came to be known, effectively converted political loyalty into a religious obligation. According to Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab’s teachings, a Muslim must present a bayah, or oath of allegiance, to a Muslim ruler during his lifetime to ensure his redemption after death. The ruler, conversely, is owed unquestioned allegiance from his people so long as he leads the community according to the laws of God. The whole purpose of the Muslim community is to become the living embodiment of God’s laws, and it is the responsibility of the legitimate ruler to ensure that people know God’s laws and live in conformity to them.

So what have we learned today?

Well, we learned that there is a community of Americans out there who are profoundly afraid of Islam, or anything connected with it, and the odds are that they know very little about the religion, other than what they’ve seen and copied and pasted, over and over, in a particularly ignorant email.

My friend Wa’el, on the other hand, lives a life that disproves those myths: in addition to being the target of a mob, he’s been jailed, along with many of his friends and associates, for trying to create a more democratic Egypt, he has just the one wife, who lives as an equal in their house, and his own country, Egypt, is one of numerous Islamic countries that have other religions well-established within their borders.

We also learned that numerous countries with Islamic populations are countries with varying degrees of representative democracy…and that the world’s largest democracy just inaugurated their third Muslim President.

Now the question that we’re addressing today is whether Muslims can be good Americans—and the fact is that Wa’el and his family would make great Americans…even though they’re not…and if I can point to Muslims who would make great Americans and live halfway around the world…how much you wanna bet we can find tens of thousands more in the heart of Dearbornistan?

 

On Death And Justice, Or, What If The Death Penalty Could Be Fair? June 28, 2009

Those who support Progressive causes are in an odd position these days: we’re often in the majority on issues that matter; and we’re seriously talking about how to turn what, just a few years ago, was a wish list…into a “reality list”.

Staying in the majority, however, requires the assistance of centrist voters–and that means, from time to time, finding philosophical compromise with voters we’d like to keep “in the fold”.

In years past, the issue of the death penalty has created a considerable chasm between Progressives and centrists; with the one side concerned about the misapplication of capital punishment, and the other convinced that, for the most heinous of crimes, the only way to achieve a truly just outcome is for the guilty party to face the most severe of punishments.

What if we could bridge that gap?

In today’s discussion we propose to do exactly that: to create a death penalty process that only executes those who are truly guilty and excludes those who might not deserve to be put to death…in fact, those who might not be guilty of any crime at all.

Before we proceed further, a bit of “full disclosure”: I am personally inclined to end the death penalty. The reason for this change in personal philosophy is related to the work of The Innocence Project, who would want you to know that as of the date of this writing 240 people convicted of various crimes were later exonerated in the United States through the use of DNA testing (17 of those being inmates who were on various Death Rows at the time).

It occurs to me that the only acceptable level of error in executions is zero, which has also led me to support the option of life without the possibility of parole as an effective death penalty substitute; the thinking here being that a wrongly convicted individual can always be released from life without parole…but until Dr. McCoy returns from his five year mission, the odds that an accidental execution can be reversed are quite low indeed.

“On the other hand, the worst nightmare of a death penalty supporter and of everyone who believes in our criminal justice system is to execute an innocent man.”

–From A Charge to Keep, George W. Bush

As you are no doubt aware, in order to obtain a criminal conviction in the United States a prosecutor must prove “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt”.

This standard, however, does not guarantee that only the guilty are convicted.

Improper convictions can be obtained for a variety of reasons, which can include eyewitnesses who make mistakes, situations that involve false confessions, the inappropriate use of informants, or even the occasional governmental misconduct.

To reduce the potential for these sorts of failures, I’m proposing that after conviction, and during the “penalty phase” of a trial involving capital crimes, we determine if the evidence presented can meet a higher “burden of proof” than what is required to merely convict a defendant of the crime for which they are facing trial.

That higher burden of proof:

“Guilt beyond any doubt.”

In other words, if, during the penalty phase, the defense could create any doubt at all as to whether the defendant is guilty, or that the conviction is appropriate, that defendant would no longer be death penalty eligible, and a sentence of life without the possibility of parole would be imposed.

This is a good start to reduce the number of improper capital convictions…but there is another important reason the innocent are convicted that this proposal cannot address: incompetent lawyers.

However, there is a way to get at a resolution for this problem: a requirement that all defendants in capital cases be represented by Federally-accredited “death penalty” attorneys, combined with a requirement that each State maintain a staff of accredited attorneys that would be available to defend those individuals who are facing capital crimes and cannot afford private accredited counsel.

All of this could be imposed by Congress with statute law; and an Act defining “cruel and unusual punishment” in part as a failure, in capital cases, to provide the “guilt beyond any doubt review” and accredited attorneys should do the trick just nicely.

Dimitri: I was talking to Zeus the other day, and he thinks you’re a bad influence on me.
Tasso: That’s interesting, because I think he’s a bad influence on you.
Dimitri: In what way?
Tasso: He makes you think the voices in your head are real.

–From Plato and a Platypus Walk Into A Bar…, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

There are two counterarguments that might quickly occur to the reader, and I will attempt to address them both here.

First, it is indeed true that this will not absolutely guarantee that there will be no further improper executions…and it is also true that the only way to make such an absolute guarantee is to end the use of the death penalty altogether.

However, this is a great compromise, in that is reduces the odds of such an execution to near zero while still leaving open the potential for executions in cases where no doubt of any kind can be established by the defense.

Secondly, there will be concerns that this proposal will only allow the death penalty to be imposed under the most extreme and unusual circumstances, to which I would reply: that’s exactly correct.

The idea here is that virtually everyone who is accused of a capital crime would end up sentenced to life without the possibility of parole…except in those most rare of circumstances where there can be no doubt whatever as to the guilt of the accused.

This is also a great compromise—after all, does even the most conservative Christian voter amongst us really want to take the chance that innocent people are executed?

To help this process along, I would further propose that Congress enact legislation that allows anyone facing Federal crimes or capital crimes, in any State, the right to obtain and introduce, post-conviction, evidence that could absolutely prove the innocence of a convicted person…and I would encourage Congress or the State Legislatures to pass legislation that would apply this protection to those convicted of all crimes in all States.

We might consider creating “Review Magistrates” to conduct an initial, less formal, review of such claims, with claims deemed appropriately credible advancing to a more formal Court setting for final disposition.

This will also cause some to object to the added burden imposed on the legal system…but the goal of the Constitution’s due process and equal protection clauses is not to round up a few of the innocent in order to get all the guilty incarcerated…instead, it’s just the opposite: to let a few of the guilty go free in order to ensure that the odds of the innocent being convicted remain as low as possible.

And with all that said, let’s wrap this thing up:

In order to find a way to compromise between the philosophies of those who seek to end capital punishment and those who support its application, I’m proposing that we review the evidence after conviction in capital cases, as part of the “penalty phase” of such trials, and if the defendant can create any doubt at all, of any kind, as to the propriety of that conviction, that defendant shall be sentenced to life without parole.

I’m also proposing that all defendants facing capital crimes be represented by accredited “death penalty” attorneys, and that defendants have the opportunity, post-conviction, to present exculpatory evidence if it should become available.

The use of the death penalty, not unlike the issue of abortion, has pulled people of good conscience to diametrically opposite sides of a national debate that is not easily resolved.

This set of proposals tries to find the compromise between those two sides, and in doing that we hope to convince centrist voters that Progressives are more than just wild-eyed dreamers—that, instead, they’re realists who seek solutions that represent the interests of all Americans, even those with whom they might not always agree.

In a political world where one side seeks fairness and compromise and inclusion and the other side seeks a ever-crazier brand of moral purity…which they can’t quite seem to live up to…it seems to me that the side seeking compromise is hugely advantaged in elections…and that, as far as I’m concerned, sounds pretty good.

Special Note: We have become aware of concerns related to the health of Walter Cronkite, and we hope he is as hale and hearty as he would want to be.

WARNING—Self-Promotion ahead: I am competing for a Netroots Nation Scholarship, and I was not selected in either the first or second rounds. There is one more chance…and while I’m not inclined to use the “hard sell”…I guess I will today.

If you like what you’re seeing here, and you’d like to help me make these stories even better, swing by the Democracy for America site (even if you have before…) and express your support.

All of us here thank you for your kind attention, and we now return you to your regular programming (which, in keeping with the “hard sell”, is rated PG, instead of the usual G).