Monday, January 31, 2005

Gaming the System: How to Escape the Death Penalty, Michael Ross

Cecily says to Algernon in Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Ernest," I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time.

The same cannot be said of Michael Ross, who claims that he has abandoned future appeals to spare the family members of his victims more agony. It is difficult to believe anything good of a man who is capable of strangling and raping all but one of his eight victims. It is much easier to believe that Ross is evil or crazy or manipulative -- and merely pretending to be good.

Ross, in other words, is either crazy as a fox or just plain crazy.

Proponents of the death penalty for heinous crimes -- which is to say, Connecticut's legislature and, according to polls, a majority of people living in the state -- believe that Ross was fully competent when he decided to forgo appeals and accept his death sentence. Such people do not believe that one need be a monster to commit monstrous crimes. According to their view of things, "Mad Dog" Taborsky, the last person to received the death penalty in Connecticut, was not mad -- not, at least, in the clinical sense.

Opponents of the death penalty believe that Ross was gaming the system when he metaphorically put his head on the execution block. His chivalrous offer to accept the judgment of a trial court, an automatic review by the state's Supreme Court and various appellate courts was not so much gallant as clever. That cleverness, they say, masks a mental deficiency that makes him incompetent to "volunteer" for a death sentence.

Until recently, the people who took the view that Ross was gallant were a minority of two: Ross and the defense attorney he had engaged to represent his interests, T. R. Paulding. They were opposed by Ross' former public defenders and other lawyers hired by Ross' father and a church group.

We may never know for certain whether Ross is gaming the system. The games people play are like snakes biting their own tails. One cannot easily tell heads from tails. But one thing is absolutely certain: The attorneys for the defense and prosecution, oddly turned about in this case -- The defense wants its client to be punished, and the prosecution wants a punishment assigned by three or four courts to be lifted -- are gaming the system. We know this is true because trials involve advocacy and advocacy involves roll playing.

Trials are game-like or, better still, they are like plays. Justice, the end product of the play, depends upon a numbers of things. The advocacy process must involve a prosecution, a defense and a determination made by a disinterested judger of facts, usually a judge or jury. This process becomes tainted when roles shift, and they did shift when Judge U. S. District Court Judge Robert Chatigny surrendered his role as a dispassionate judge of facts, entered the case on the prosecution side and persuaded Ross' defense counsel to change his role in the play.

Chatigny had his reasons. The judge felt, passionately, that all pertinent evidence should be considered. And he felt, as passionately, that new exculpatory evidence simply had not made its way into the play. For these reasons, he harried and threatened Ross' defense lawyer during a nearly hour long conference call, at the end of which Paulding decided to re-configure what should have been the last act of the play.

And so, we find ourselves back at square one.

Some things have not changed. Ross is still guilty of murdering four young women. Eight young women remain dead. Their relatives still await justice. And although Chatigny has said he believes Ross' jury was wrong when it found him to be sane, it is not possible to change the verdict in Ross' first trial or the verdict rendered by two juries in death penalty hearings or the supportive findings of various appellate courts.

Nor is it necessary. The prosecution in this Alice in Wonderland play intends to assert that Ross' incompetence is the result of his protracted stay on Death Row. Even if Ross were sane and responsible when he murdered eight women, he has since developed a psychological disorder that makes him incompetent to decide to forego further appeals on his behalf pressed upon him by lawyers he has fired.

Everything depends upon Ross' competence. And Ross' competence will depend upon what?

Some news accounts suggest it will depend primarily upon the testimony of a psychologist that Ross is suffering from a debilitating affliction called "Death Row syndrome," rendering him incapable of deciding to forego further appeals.

Assuming Ross is found incompetent, what then? Who will decide the issue? Surely not Chatigny, whose role has changed from judge to advocate; certainly not Paulding who, at the insistence of Chatigny, slipped out of character as a defense counsel and persuaded his client, presumed incompetent by his discharged public defenders, to endure yet another hearing on the question: Who is gaming whom?

The rules of the game having changed, the roles of the players having changed, where do we go from here?

There are dozens of people, the family members of Ross' victims, who believe that justice requires an end to the game.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Judge Chatigny's Hissy Fit, Michael Ross

On Jan 29, those who were to witness the death by lethal injection of serial killer Michael Ross were told that the execution of Ross had been postponed due to “a potential conflict of interest.” The nature of the conflict of interest was not described, but it seemed to have something to do with Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny's hissy fit.

A day earlier, Ross’ former public defenders, understandably dejected by a U.S. Supreme Court’s order lifting a stay of execution earlier imposed by Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny, told Connecticut’s news media that they had exhausted their legal resources.

Chatigny had issued two stays of execution that in effect set aside previous decisions made by Judge Christopher Droney, Chatigny’s peer on the court, and Connecticut’s Supreme Court. Chatigny’s ruling, had it passed muster with the U.S. Supreme Court, would have required a new hearing during which new testimony concerning Ross’ mental impairment would have been introduced by psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Grassian, who was prepared to testify that prolonged internment on death row was mentally debilitating.

In vacating Chatigny’s stay, the U.S. Supreme Court in effect denied that such testimony was necessary to determine the issue of Ross’ competence to waive further appeals in his case. All the legal resources available to Ross’ former public defenders had been explored and found wanting.

But unexplored resources soon surfaced in the person of Judge Chatigny, who explicitly threatened – there is no other word for it -- Ross’ legal counsel with disbarment if, after Ross’ execution, it should be determined that Ross had not been competent to waive further appeals.

“I’ll have your law license,” Chatigny told Ross’ lawyer, T. R. Paulding, should a future investigation show that prison officials had mistreated Ross or other prisoners. “What you are doing is terribly, terribly wrong,” said Chatigny moments before Ross’ scheduled execution during a phone conference that included numerous defense lawyers that three courts had previously determined had no standing to represent Ross’ interests.

Information had been supplied to Chatigny by attorney Huber Santos that former corrections deputy commissioner John Tokarz was convinced Ross was acting from despair because of the harsh conditions in which he lived. Chatigny had toured death row while sitting on a different case and found living condition there to be “deeply disturbing,” a point the judge made in a hearing earlier in the week.

“I see this happening,” judge Chatigny said to Paulding during his conference call, “and I can’t live with it myself, which is why I’m on the phone right now. It’s wrong. What you’re doing is wrong.”

Chatigny told Paulding he was well read on the psychiatric effects of prison isolation, and he questioned whether Paulding had given serious consideration to Grassian’s theory that Ross’ prolonged stay on Connecticut’s death row made his client desperate to die. Revisiting issues decided previously at trial, Chatigny asserted that Ross’ sexual sadism and other mental illnesses, as well as Ross’ previous unsuccessful attempts to kill himself, raised questions that Ross may be suicidal.

“You’ve put yourself in a pretty bad place, Mr. Paulding,” said Chatigny, “and I would urge you to say, Michael, I can bring you in off the limb hat we’re both out on. I can bring you in.”

But Chatigny himself must be sensible that he is crawling far out on a perilous limb, because the judge's invitation to Paulding was threatening and highly unorthodox. The judge was inviting Paulding to misrepresent his client’s interests on the chance that future investigations might or might not show that Ross was incompetent – after Ross'competence had been asserted and affirmed directly by presentations in numerous other judicial proceedings.

Assuming Grassian’s unproved theories to be true, the practical effect of a finding that solitary confinement for extended periods of time is by itself mentally debilitating would require Connecticut to abandon the imposition of the death penalty in all cases in which a prisoner was confined in solitary longer than Ross. It would also require wardens to disburse felons awaiting capital punishment into the general prison population, a hazardous solution in the case of child killers like Ross. And it might require Connecticut to provide private continuing psychological care to anyone on death row. This turn of events no doubt would satisfy psychiatrists, anti-death penalty proponents and Judge Chatigny, but it is questionable whether it would be necessary, just or cost effective.

The sentiments expressed by Judge Chatigny during his pummeling of attorney Paulding are not those of a judge who is prepared to weigh competing claims in a dispassionate and disinterested manner -- which is why the judge should instantly remove himself from the case. Judge Chatigny is a partisan in the coming battle to abolish the death penalty, and partisans belong in the legislature – not on the bench.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Ross Case, A New Twist

The recent decision by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Chatigny giving Ross’ discharged lawyers an opportunity to mount a new defense showing that their former client is mentally incompetent has lengthened the distance between Ross and the death chamber.

Much like the man who murders his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court as an orphan, Ross’ former defense counsel intends a novel plea.

With the help of a psychiatrist who has not examined Ross – and who may be writing a book expounding his piquant theories -- they will argue that Ross has been made incompetent by his long stay in the death house. The prospect of execution, Samuel Johnson once said, clears the mind wonderfully. It is Dr. Stuart Grassian’s considered opinion that it drives men nuts. Grassian is a psychiatrist who has studied inmates' psychopathological reactions to solitary confinement.

Trials are legal instruments designed to affix guilt and punishment. Ross’ very first jury rejected claims by his defense counsel that Ross was in the grip of an overmastering psychological disorder that would have mitigated his crimes. The bar on mitigating circumstances was lowered by the legislature in response to the Ross case. Before Ross, a defense attorney only had to show the presence of one mitigating factor to spring his client. After Ross’ first trial, the legislature rewrote the guiding law and specified that mitigating circumstances were in the future to be weighed against aggravating factors.

Ross sensed the futility of future appeals and reasoned in the end that not only was the execution of his sentence inevitable; it was just. As execution day approached, the public defenders Ross had dismissed, as well as the defense community, resorted to a series of appeals that were rejected because the petitioners had no standing before the courts.

The psychology of the case was wacky from the first. A psychologist at his first trial argued that Ross’ mental incapacity had been evident even when he was a boy tending to farm duties. One of Ross’ responsibilities was the weeding out of defective chicks by strangulation. And later, you see …

The jury was invited to deduce from this early childhood experience the seeds of a psychological disorder that later would show itself when Ross similarly strangled eight women, raping all but one of them. The psychologist was not asked on the stand whether Ross had raped the chicks. The jury, in any case, did not go for the bait and found that mental disorder had not played a part in the killings. One hopes the jurors had been inoculated against such nonsense by Karl Kraus’s observation that “psychology is the disease it purports to cure.” Kraus was an early and persistent critic of the theories of Sigmund Freud.

The most compelling argument presented lately by attorneys who have no standing in Ross’ defense pivots on equitable prosecution. So long as prosecutors are permitted a reasonable discretion in choosing which cases they are to bring to trial, different cases will be treated differently. Not everyone who commits a felony will be executed. Nor should they be, says John Connelly, the state’s attorney for the District of Waterbury. Discretion enters into every prosecution, and the legislative undergirding of Connecticut’s death penalty is so designed that only murderers who have committed “the most horrendous crimes” are prosecuted.

As the Ross case made its way like molasses through the usual labyrinthine appeals process in Connecticut, Ross’ former public defenders argued that their former client was perfectly sane when he allowed them to place legal barriers between himself and the execution chamber but batty when he decided – out of deference to the sufferings of the families of his victims – to forego appeals virtually certain to end with his execution.

Ross finally had taken command of the tag end of his life -- only to have it snatched from him by lawyers who, two trial courts and Connecticut’s Supreme Court have decided, are not authorized to plead for him.

The Ross case, a tangled knot of dubious claims and legal pretensions, likely will end up in the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, a court that has little patience with right thinking and the constitution, which the court regards as a leaping pad for its unorthodox opinions.

It is not beyond the court to decide that a lengthy stay in Connecticut’s death house -- a vacation made possible by the persistence of lawyers Ross has dismissed – has driven Ross nuts, wherefore the court will order Ross to dismiss his present lawyer and rehire his discarded defense council to represent him from now until doom’s day.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Boxing Rice

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State designate Condoleezza Rice said that the South Asia tsunami disaster was “a wonderful opportunity” to show how the U.S. government and its people could respond compassionately to a tragedy.

A surly Senator Boxer of California responded, “The tsunami was one of the worse tragedies of our lifetime, and its going to have ten year impact on rebuilding that area. I was very disappointed in your statement. I think you blew the opportunity.”

Inquiring minds want to know: What was it exactly that disappointed Boxer?

Certainly Rice did not say that the tsunami was wonderful. Far from it; she clearly said it was a tragedy, and tragedies are by definition unpleasant and less than wonderful.

If Rice had pruned the adjective “wonderful” and said the tsunami tragedy presented “an opportunity” for the U.S. to display its compassion, she would have been repeating a remark made by countless Democrats and political commentators, all critics of President George Bush, who thought the president’s response to the tragedy was tardy, not nearly impulsive enough and less than compassionate.

“In Washington,” The New York Times reported soon after the tragedy, “President Bush made his first public statement on the disaster, after criticism that he had failed to respond personally to the apparent deaths of dozens of Americans. Mr. Bush has instead spent much of his time biking and clearing brush from his ranch in Texas.”

Critical analysis from the International Committee of the Fourth International was equally withering. “President Bush,” the ICFI reported on its web site, “briefly interrupted his vacation on Wednesday to issue a public statement, after three days of silence as the greatest natural disaster of the last half-century unfolded on the television screens of the world. He made a perfunctory and semi-coherent statement to the press corps assembled at his Crawford, Texas ranch, shortly after the administration had announced a doubling of the US government’s contribution to disaster relief efforts in South Asia.”

Alas, Rice said it was a “wonderful” opportunity for the U.S. to show compassion in the face of a tragedy that everyone – but most especially the tenderhearted Boxer – agreed was not wonderful.

At one point in the interrogatory, Boxer’s intimation that Rice was a liar “whose loyalty to the mission you were given, to sell his war, overwhelmed your respect for the truth” became a bit too much to bear, and Rice responded sharply that she “never, ever lost respect for the truth in the service of anything. It’s not my nature. It’s not my character. And I would hope that we can have this conversation without impugning my credibility or my integrity.”

After the dustup, Boxer claimed to be the victim in the exchange. “She turned and attacked me,” said Boxer on CNN’s “Late Edition.” Rice, Boxer insisted, had employed an old debater’s trick. “I gave Dr. Rice many opportunities to address specific issues. Instead, she said I was impugning her integrity.”

Well now, there are debater’s tricks, and there are debater’s tricks. In fact, Rice was inviting Boxer to be honest rather than slick. Why leave imputations hanging? If Boxer meant to say, “Look here Rice, you are a liar,” she could have said as much. Rice’s response, honestly answered, might have teased the admission from Boxer, after which both could have discussed amiably whether Rice knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when she supported the administration’s view that they were there.

To lie is to say the thing that is not – knowing it is untrue.

The likelihood is that both the Bush administration and United Nations sleuths, who were in Iraq for months looking for weapons of mass destruction -- presumably because they had good reason to believe they were there – were both mislead by faulty intelligence.

Boxer was one of two senators on the committee, the second being Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democrat’s standard bearer for president in the recent elections, who voted against Rice’s confirmation.

Kerry intimated during his interrogatory with Rice that his recent talks with European statesmen led him to conclude that Europe was eager to help the United States in Iraq. Rice, perhaps from excessive politeness, did not ask Kerry to name the European leaders. But had she done so, Kerry likely would have employed, by way of answer, an old debater’s trick – silence.

Is it not naive to think that committed partisans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are interested primarily in exposing the truth? They are interested in exposing the frailties of cabinet appointees to embarrass their political opponents, and future Secretary of State designates should be forewarned: Watch those adjectives -- particularly when they are displayed before congressional committee members disposed to misunderstand plain English.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Michael Ross and His Defenders

Michael Ross’ father says that his son views himself as the director of a play; what is about to happen to him is bathed in unreality.

That’s probably a sound assessment, but Ross’ attitude toward his death need not be viewed as an indication of insanity or incompetence. Shakespeare says we are all bit players, strutting our hour upon the stage. We all deal with unknown circumstances by imagining them. Our imaginations are our private theaters where we view and test the possibilities that life presents to us.

Neither should Ross’ sense of frustration be viewed as unreasonable. However successful Ross’ discharged public defenders have been in postponing the inevitable, the end of the play Ross is supposedly directing will arrive in due course. Knowing this, it is not at all unreasonable that Ross, both the principal protagonist of the piece and its putative director, has become weary with his appeals process.

Ross has said that one of his motivations in refusing further appeals is to bring to an end the suffering of his victim’s family members, and some have wondered whether he playing with our heads. Public defenders who suggested during Ross’ trial that he had been the victim of a psychological disorder later insisted that Ross was perfectly capable of assisting in his defense – so long as Ross allowed them a long tether. When he brought his appeals to a close by firing his defense team and hiring a lawyer who would permit him to spurn further appeals, Ross was deemed incompetent by his former public defenders.

No one can know for certain whether Ross is manipulating his present defense attorney, a reputable psychiatrist who found him competent after an examination, or the judge who ruled that Ross’ former attorneys did not have standing to file a suit in the case.

God alone – this may come as a surprise to psychiatrists – knows the reasons of the heart. Some reports say Ross has returned to his faith, Roman Catholicism. His decision to accept the verdicts of three separate courts may be an indication of repentance – or not. But there is little doubt that his decision to forgo appeals was formed long ago, when his public defenders were still representing his interests.

Why is Ross’ version of events so easily discounted?

Because, the public defenders and a few psychiatrists say, Ross is suffering from a clinical depression caused by the deadly Damoclean sword hanging over his head. The public defenders, of course, are interested parties. So, for that matter, is Ross. The disinterested parties are the three juries that found Ross sane and guilty of four capital felony murders.

Organized anti-death penalty proponents, Ross’ former public defenders and some Catholic clerics have argued that the state – which is to say, all of us -- is motivated by vengeance, and vengeance belongs to the Lord.

One expects serious clerics, lawyers and political commentators to understand the difference between retributive justice and vengeance. It is always possible to argue that a specific jury decision is unjust, but juries generally are dispassionate, disinterested and reasonable, unlike some family members of Ross’ victims, none of whom sat on the juries that convicted him. No one, least of all Ross himself, seriously contends that Ross is innocent of the murders for which he was tried and found guilty, theories that he was incapacitated by mental illness at the time he committed the murders having been considered and rejected by three juries.

Death penalty abolitionists contend that the legal fandango is not about Ross; the death penalty should be abolished because it is inherently unjust. Most recently, Connecticut’s defense attorneys called a press conference and announced -- big surprise -- their opposition to the death penalty. The death penalty is unjust, the defense attorneys agreed, because it is not uniformly applied, an argument that might prove useful the next time any citizen of the state wishes to protest a speeding ticket.

After January 26, the scheduled date of Ross’ execution, the death penalty will have been employed twice in 45 years. Joseph “Mad Dog” Taborsky, a serial killer like Ross, was executed in 1960. So then, here is the relevant figure: In nearly half a century, the number of innocent people executed in Connecticut is 0.

Only a numerological magician could use that figure to argue that the death penalty in Connecticut is inherently unjust.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Ethics Reform and Window Dressing

The precipitating cause behind attempts by Democrats and Republicans to reform ethics in Connecticut is, ironically, former Gov. John G. Rowland. One wag has suggested that when Rowland’s name is removed from a public building at UConn, it should be re-attached to Gov. Jodi Rell’s ethics legislation.

At the end of December Rowland pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy "to deprive Connecticut citizens of the honest services of its officials." Rowland confessed to taking more than $100,000 in gifts and favors from two Connecticut companies.

The scale of corruption within the Rowland administration, corresponding to the scale of the investigations the corruption unleashed, certainly is unusual. But the contributing causes are no strangers to politics watchers.

Within the living memory of most Connecticut journalists, lobbyists have frequently made political contributions to politicians whose initiatives might have been helpful to their clients, and contractors doing business with the government have given money or gifts to favored politicians, usually through intermediaries. And it had not been unusual for politicians to share their largess with friends and business associates.

To take but one example among many: When Attorney General Richard Blumenthal had Connecticut join the national lawsuit against the tobacco companies, he assigned much of the lucrative business to his former law partner, who no doubt was appreciative.

The whopping settlement of the case, $3.6 billion, provided that $65 million in legal fees should be divided among three law firms: a Philadelphia firm; the Waterbury firm that long had represented Rowland, Carmody & Torrance; and the firm of Blumenthal’s own former law partner.

Though Blumenthal’s Republican challenger at the time, Martha Dean, vociferously objected to the practice -- not, unfortunately, on the grounds that the attorney general had deprived Connecticut citizens of the honest services of its officials -- her protests were not championed by a news media crusading for honesty in government, and few reporters and commentators who took after Rowland with such relish mussed a hair on Blumenthal’s head.

The ethics reforms now proposed by Governor Rell might have been advanced any time in the last half century. The adoption of such reforms this year has been made possible because Rowland was caught with his finger in the political pie, which is not to say that other politicians in past times had not done the same. The same scrutiny had not been brought to bear against them, and the time was ripe for change last year.

The reforms proposed by Rell are tailored to answer the corruption of Rowland's and future administrations. Rell has proposed that political contributions from lobbyists or their political action committees should be banned. Under her reforms, individuals and companies that do business with the state would be prohibited from making political contributions; the electronic filing of campaign finance reports would be broadened to include state legislators and the filing threshold would be lowered from $250,000 to $35,000; a loophole in employment "revolving door" and gift statutes would be closed; the exemption that permits lobbyists and contractors to wine and dine state employees and public officials would be eliminated; and the governor’s spouse would become subject to state ethics laws.

But these reforms, according to Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams Jr., are "window dressing."

Williams will preside over a legislature in which Democrats have a nearly veto-proof majority. The new Senate president has not said whether he will encourage his faithful troops to vote against the "window dressing," but he and other leading Democrats have their eyes fixed on their prize, which is public financing of election campaigns.

In fact, the reforms proposed by Rell and the Republicans cut to the heart of corruption. In the absence of the reforms the new governor has proposed, public financing alone would not prevent politicians from putting the squeeze on state contractors and employees. If anything, the "window dressing" should be expanded to apply to municipal government as well.

But public financing would expand the advantages Connecticut Democrats enjoy -- which is why, come to think of it, Democrats are so attached to the idea. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to do the math. Since Democrats are more numerous than Republicans in Connecticut, it stands to reason that any plan to check off political contributions against tax payments would benefit Democrats.

Williams has not outlined his proposal for public financing, but most public financing proposals involve the following elements: ballot access requirements; eligibility thresholds for funding; an agreement by candidates not to raise or spend private money during primaries and general elections; the award of set amounts to candidates; and, to assure a level playing field, matching funds for candidates who have been outspent by opponents who are privately financed or have been targeted by independent groups.

The ghostly Democratic "proposal" for public financing of campaigns has no flesh on it and is, at this point, little more than a rhetorical incantation or ... how to put this? ... window dressing.

Friday, January 07, 2005

The Politics of Congeniality

U.S. Rep Chris Shays, R-4th District, had his hair tousled in his recently concluded election with Westport First Selectwoman Dianne Farrell – which Shays won by a whisker.

U.S. Rep Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, was less than flattering to Shays during the campaign, and when Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader and DeLauro’s gal pal, said of Shays that he was “a rubber stamp for the radical right wing check-your-brain-at-the-door congressperson,” DeLauro did not demur.

“This was the first year you really saw Democratic members go after other members,” said Shays.

Apparently, the verbal bludgeons hit Shays upside his head: Even now, a month after the election, the genial congressman feels the shock and awe of it.

Said Shays, “It was awkward.”

Connecticut’s reporters and commentators, visibly shaken at the incivility of recent campaigns, are wondering whether the usual collegial comity that holds sway in Connecticut’s congressional delegation will survive such partisan slights.

Awkward moments in Connecticut, which can occur only when politicians feel strongly enough about an issue to fight for it and risk the contumely of their putative opponents, are a rarity. It’s a good guess that moderation will prevail.

That is because there are few genuine “opponents” among Connecticut’s congressional delegation, a club of saints where everyone is elbowing everyone else in what one commentator called the moderate “vital center.”

Me? A partisan? You gotta be kidding!

Mere proximity in the crowded middle sometimes causes one or another of the state’s usually placid politicians to box another on the ear, most frequently during elections. DeLauro, apprised that her fellow congressional comrade was suffering from her hurtful comment, hastened to assure Shays it was that Ol’Devil, campaign exuberance, that was responsible for her lapse in manners.

Within state government, the same mutually beneficial comity is at work, though every so often honesty – the two parties are supposed to be political antagonists, after all – rears its ugly head, and the truth is outed.

One may expect brutal honesty from politicians only when circumstances allow it; when the politician is out of office and the rules that govern collegiality no longer apply; when a door is closed, no reporters are in the caucus room and all the microphones have been turned off; or when the politician secures from a trustworthy reporter the promise that what he divulges is “off the record” and not for attribution.

Occasionally, professional political hit men, otherwise known as party chairmen, squeeze off half or a quarter of a truth. Former Democrat Party chairman John Droney, dilating on St. Jodi Rell, used the occasion to remind a reporter that no politician should escape critical scrutiny.

Rell has had an adulatory press following Rowland’s political demise, a worrisome prospect for Democrats who would be thought churlish if they acknowledged they’d like to see her floating belly-up in a hot tub.

Someone will have to come along, said Droney, and “scrape some of the sugar coating” off the lady. If voters once begin to like and trust you, Droney explained, “Ooh, that’s a huge witch’s brew. Voters want to cut them some slack. This Jodi Rell situation is very dangerous.”

“Danger,” in this context, may be defined as the thwarting of Democratic political prospects.

Rell is about to confront a veto proof, Democrat controlled legislature bent on cracking the spending cap while increasing taxing and spending, and only the governor’s popularity figure, an 85% favorability rating, stands in the way of their ambitions. This year, voters moved the state closer than ever to a one party system -- truly a political witch’s brew -- and the dominant party is beginning to feel its oats.

During her State of the State address, Rell positioned herself as a reformist who finds “political posturing and political sniping” distasteful. Calling upon legislators to screw their courage to the hitching post, she said “difficult choices” would have to be made in the lean and efficient budget she intended to present to them.

Rell was heartily applauded during her presentation, but it was Rep. Robert Farr, R-West Hartford, who sounded the more realistic note when he said that opening day is “like having a new born child. When he’s born, you think he’ll be president of the United States. Eighteen years later, you’re trying to keep him out of jail. Five months from now, we’ll be struggling to get a budget out and hope that we can leave with our dignity.”

In a vigorous two party system, neither party should mistake congeniality for political enfeeblement.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Famine, Lies, Justice and Ukraine

Stalin, "What we did during the last 30 days was a tribute to our ancestors. I know they are looking at us from heaven and they are applauding." -- Viktor Yushchenko


Several years ago, I was contacted by a Ukrainian in New Britain, Connecticut who wanted to send me a film on the 1932-33 famine in that country. He asked me to view the film and let him know if I could think of any reason why it should not be shown in the United States. The film, "Harvest of Despair," had been widely shown in Canada. That was my first exposure to the greatest man made disaster ever recorded, and the first time in history that famine on such a scale was used as an instrument of war and oppression.

I was stunned by "Harvest of Despair." The film contained footage of both the famine in 1932-33 and an earlier famine that had been stopped in its tracks by Lenin, who had imported food into the stricken areas. The 32-33 famine -- the Ukrainians call it the Holodomor, roughly translated as "famine-genocide," the "H" intentionally capitalized to emphasize a parallel with the Holocaust -- was caused by Joseph Stalin, who used the famine to break the resistance of Ukrainians to Soviet rule. The "terror-famine," as historian Robert Conquest called it, was caused by Stalin's first Five Year Plan. This was a program designed, its Communist proponents claimed, to modernize an antiquated agricultural community, particularly in Ukraine. Between 6 and 10 million people died during the ensuing famine.

I took the film to the Editorial Page Editor of the Journal Inquirer, located in Manchester, Connecticut, for which I was then writing a column, and put to him the same question that had been asked of me: Is there any reason the film should not be shown? He encouraged me to do a few columns on the famine, which I did. In the last column, I mentioned that PBS had been balking at showing the film and suggested that Ukrainians in Connecticut should withhold pledges to PBS until the film had been aired. I received a call from the head of PBS in Connecticut, who told me that PBS was in negotiations to show the film. I told him to call me back when an affirmative decision had been made and I would write a final column praising PBS for having had the courage to do the right thing.

He did, and I did.

Somewhat later, as result of the columns, I was asked to attend a panel discussion of the famine and its aftermath at the University of Hartford. The conference was well attended, and the panelists included two representatives from national news magazines, myself and the religion editor of a Hartford paper. In such company, I felt a little like a fish out of water. A hand went up in the audience. The questioner wanted to ask Mr. Pesci something: "We have suffered so much during the years; everyone has neglected this story. So, what do you recommend? What should we do? Do we have to march on the newspapers with stones in our fists?"

It was not the question so much that got to me; it was the man's whole demeanor. His question tumbled hotly out of him. Perhaps he had rehearsed it a few dozen times. I knew this man: He was all the old-country Italian men I had met and respected as a boy growing up in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, honest and forthright. Perhaps he was a carpenter or a foreman in a mill, passionate but with none of the polish of the college graduate about him.

And he wanted to know!

I told him that he and others like him should continue to confront newspapers but keep the rocks in his pocket -- just in case.

Leading Ukrainians last year demanded that the Pulitzer Prize Board rescind the award it had given Walter Duranty in 1932 for his reports on Stalin's first Five Year Plan. The board had refused once but agreed to reconsider their refusal.

Duranty was the The New YorkTimes' man in Moscow before and after the famine. By all accounts, he was something of a character. He was called by journeymen newspaper reporters, "The Great Duranty."

Duranty played a prominent role in the recognition of the Soviet Union during Franklin Roosevelt's administration. The newsman thought of himself as an interpreter whose business it was to explain the ways of Stalin and the Soviet Union to men. His character comes through with great clarity in J. P. Taylor's biography, Stalin's Apologist.

Duranty thought moral questions clouded reportorial vision. Malcolm Muggeridge, one of the few heroes among Western reporters in Moscow at the time, thought otherwise: He said Duranty was the most accomplished liar he had met in all his years of journalism.

Taylor's book is a masterful study of reportorial groups operating in authoritarian countries and should serve as a cautionary tale for modern reporters. CNN recently apologized for withholding stories in its reporting on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Hussein's favorite dictator was Stalin.

In his reports, Duranty temporized -- when he should have been saying the truth and shaming the Devil. By 1933, the famine was in full flower in Ukraine and the North Caucasus. The famine was directly related to Stalin's Five Year Plan, which involved the forced collectivization of agriculture in countries swept into the soviet orbit. Under the plan, kulaks or small land owners were dispossessed of their property and either shot or sent to Stalin's Gulag, there to die of exposure or starvation.

When small villages resisted collectivization, Stalin sent in his stormtroopers to bend their necks to the yoke. Grain was forcibly collected from them and a kind of war was waged by Communist Party cadres against the resistors. Whole villages were wiped out by the famine.

Robert Conquest, author of "Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine," pointedly describes villages where the trees were stripped of leaves, boiled by starving peasants and eaten in soup.

The actual number of deaths caused by the famine probably will never be known for certain. Stalin canceled routine census taking during the period. Most scholars place it between 6 and 10 million, the larger number being the more accurate.

Now, here was the truth of the matter: Stalin's plan killed 10 million people; and the truth was available to any of the Western reporters in Moscow who, like Muggeridge, could have purchased train tickets and gone to the countryside to view the ravages of Stalin's terror-famine any time they liked. Muggeridge smuggled his reports to the British Embassy in diplomatic pouches, and they were printed in the Manchester Guardian, a liberal if not a socialist newspaper.

Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist, was first out of the pack into the ravaged countryside. Duranty was the little pig who stayed home, his dispatches reflecting the party line fed to Western reporters by the Soviet press office: There was no famine; reports to the contrary were lies.

Months after Jones' and Muggeridge's reports were printed, Duranty finally took a tour of the countryside, and reported that he saw no signs of a famine -- no signs that 10 million people had died of starvation. Afterwards, Duranty himself, in a private conversation with British Embassy employees, placed the number of dead at 10 million. But even then he temporized in his news dispatches.

Duranty claimed that moral vision should play no part in reporting. If not morals, what then had obstructed Duranty's stunted reportorial vision?

Stalin was a masterful juggler of men, even more accomplished in this regard than Duranty. The Western news crew in Moscow knew that if they revealed too much of the truth, their papers would suffer and they would be out of a job. Even so, there was a reportorial line drawn in the sand that men of good conscience would not cross. Muggeridge -- a committed socialist married to the niece of Beatrice and Sidney Webb, both celebrated Fabian socialists and admirers of the Soviet utopia, along with such notables as Bernard Shaw -- was determined upon his arrival in Moscow to live and work there. He quickly became disillusioned.

There was a line of division among Western reporters in Moscow represented by A.T. Cholerton and Duranty. Once asked by Western visitors whether the Soviets respected the principle of habeas corpus during their show trials, Cholerton famously responded that it had been replaced by the concept of habeas cadaver. It was the kind of witticism that, finding its way into the Western press, was likely to earn a reporter a ticket home from the cadaver makers.

Oddly enough, it may have been the sight of a small woodland chapel converted to proletarian uses in one of Russia's vast forests that turned Muggeridge around.

Duranty, who had little use for chapels or peasants, passed off the deaths caused by Stalin as collateral damage: "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs," he said, convinced -- and convincing others -- that the deaths were the result of minor adjustable errors in Stalin's plan of forced collectivization.

Harrison Salisbury thought that Duranty "was simply incapable of reporting something that broke the pattern he had established." With one eye cocked on his reputation, he trimmed the truth to conform to notions he had advanced and promoted in his stories. If 10 million starving peasants refuted one of the nostrums he had been peddling, so much the worse for the peasants.

Prior commitment and business friendships, as Pulitzer himself very well knew, is the great enemy of honest journalism.

Jones' reports left no room for doubt. "I walked alone through villages," he wrote, " . . . everywhere was the cry, `There is no bread. We are dying.'" Muggeridge described peasants ravaged by hunger, kneeling in the snow and begging for a crust of bread. "Whatever I may do or think in the future," Muggeridge wrote in his diary, "I must never pretend that I haven't seen this. Ideas will come and go, but this is more than an idea. It is peasants kneeling down in the snow and asking for bread. Something that I have seen and understood."

Eugene Lyons, a repentant journalist, confessed that the Moscow clan got together after Jones' reports had appeared and conspired to dispute his information and tarnish his reputation. Jones later died in Mongolia, a 29 year old casualty of honest reporting and Chinese communist bandits.

Muggeridge's reports were discredited. He was fired, his reputation as a reporter slandered. In an August 1933 New York Times story, Duranty called Muggeridge's and Jones' work "an exaggeration of malignant propaganda."

The Pulitzer committee earlier had rejected an entreaty by Ukrainians to return the Duranty prize. The committee had offered two reasons for rejecting the plea. It refused the petition on the grounds that a great deal of water had passed under the bridge since Duranty peddled his lies in the Times. The Pulitzer had been awarded, the committee said "in a different era and under different circumstances."

The committee had also pointed out that it makes its decision as to who wins the prize a whole year in advance of the presentation of the award. They had decided to award the prize to Duranty in 1931; the famine didn't occur until 1932-33.

This, it seems to me, is a kind of public washing of the hands.

The first point would prevent the remediation of a crime against humanity, provided enough time had passed since its commission. It should be understood that remediation demanded in this case was hardly severe or unreasonable. Ukrainians were not asking for reparations: They were asking only that a prize awarded to a fraud should be withdrawn.

The second point would matter only to people who see no connection between Stalin's first Five Year Plan and the famine it produced. But there is a causal connection, and the Pulitzer committee had cited Duranty's reports on the Five Year Plan as deserving of special recognition.

Allowances must be made for the correction of mistakes, even if they are not obvious at first. Even the Supreme Court reverses itself on occasion. But not the Times or the pulitzer committee.

The Western Mail in Cardiff, Wales, reported in June that Mr. Jones's niece, Dr. Siriol Colley, and her son Nigel Colley had written a letter to the committee that was reviewing its previous decision and which had committed itself to a serious review of the Duranty award.

"The Pulitzer Prize should be revoked from Walter Duranty," Jones' relatives wrote, "not just for his falsification of Stalin's ruthless execution of the Five Year Plan of Collectivization, but also for his complete disregard for journalistic integrity. Through abusing his position of authority as the New York Times' reporter in the Soviet Union, he villainously and publicly denigrated the truthful articles of my uncle, and ashamedly did so, whilst being fully aware of the ongoing famine."

In it's most recent refusal to rescind Durranty's pulitzer, both the Times and the Pulitzer committee have shown their true mettle. What Harrison Salisbury said of Duranty applies with equal force to the Times: Having committed itself to advance a lie, the paper cannot claim to represent the truth. Durranty's pulitzer will continue to be a stain on the escutcheon of the paper that claims to "print all the news that's fit to print" so long as the paper continues to honor Duranty by displaying his pulitzer on a wall of pulitzers given to deserving journalists.And Ukrainians, only recently freed from the soviet yoke, will not surrender their vagrant hope that wrongs involving the deaths of millions of people, the ancestors mentioned by Yushchenko, may be corrected by men of good conscience.

The new democrats in Ukraine will continue their struggle to achieve freedom, with or without stones in their pockets, in the hope that members of the pulitzer board or the Times will one day recover their sense of shame.