Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Witness Against The Prosecution: The Ross Case

The execution of serial killer Michael Ross was stopped in its tracks several weeks ago by the unorthodox intervention of U. S. District Court Judge Robert Chatigny.

Those tracks are miles long. Both Ross and his living victims, the family members of the nine women he murdered, have endured a long trial, an automatic review by Connecticut’s Supreme Court, a penalty hearing at which Ross was sentenced to death, an appellate decision that occasioned a second death penalty hearing, and a second sentencing hearing during which new evidence was considered by a second jury that sentenced Ross to death a second time.

This process of seemingly endless litigation finally was interrupted by Ross himself. Professing a concern for the family members of his victims, Ross discharged his public defenders and engaged a new lawyer, T. R. Paulding, to represent his interests. Ross had decided to forgo any further appeals and accept his sentence.

In this effort, Ross was opposed by his former public defenders, his father and a religious organization. Further court actions followed, but all these interventions were rejected by various courts – including Connecticut’s Supreme Court -- on the grounds that those bringing the actions had no standing to do so.

Finally, it seemed that Ross was going to walk the walk.

But at least one judge did not know when to take “no” for an answer. Hours before Ross was to be executed, Chatigny intervened. By threatening Paulding with the loss of his law license in a phone conference that included parties rebuffed by the courts, Chatigny was able to prevail upon Paulding to postpone Ross’ execution. Yet another hearing was scheduled.

At the new hearing, Paulding will represent Ross’ interests, and society lawyer James Wade will represent the interests of…

That’s the problem; it’s not exactly certain whose interests Wade will be representing. Let’s say he will be representing the interests of organized death penalty opponents, some of whom are legislators who have now managed to propose to the House a bill that will abolish the death penalty and do for Ross what several Connecticut courts have been unable to do: spare the serial killer his just punishment.

One of Ross’ early victims, Vivian Dobson, was called before a House committee to testify in favor of the abolition of the death penalty.

Dobson was able to escape Ross early on in his career as a mass murderer because she had been packing a knife. Only a few feet from her home, she was accosted by Ross and dragged into the bushes, where he had intended to rape and strangle her. But Ross had not yet perfected his craft and ran into some unforeseen difficulties. When Dobson pressed her knife to his chest, he challenged her.

“Go’head,” he said.

Recently Dobson told a columnist, "All I had to do was just shove it right into his chest. That's all I had to do. And I didn't do it. I didn't do it and those other girls died."

This was a terrible burden to have carried all these years. Dobson confessed to the columnist that she could not move out of her private nightmare unless she forgave Ross. But it is unclear why her forgiveness should take the form of agitating against the death penalty? Surely she does not wish to forgive Ross for failing to kill her, and it is not possible for her to forgive Ross for killing other women.

The family members of other victims prevailed on Dobson to testify against Ross, and she did – which took a great deal of courage. After exhaustive trials and hearings, Ross finally is facing his just punishment, the knife now pointed at his chest. And Ross clearly is challenging the state: “Go head.” Dobson told the committee she did not want to accept responsibility for Ross' execution.

When Dobson testified against Ross at his trial, she thought justice would come quickly. She would testify; he would be found guilty; he would be sentenced to death, and execution would follow in a reasonable course of time. But it has taken much too long.

"The parents are dwindling away,” Ms. Dobson told the columnist. “People who wanted this so bad are dead. And Ross sits there, waiting.” But surely Ross will be sitting there waiting a much longer time if the death penalty abolitionists prevail and he is spared his punishment.

Dobson seems to be caught in a crippling repetition: Her House testimony was expected to help to abolish the death penalty. After debate on the issue, the House voted along party lines to defeat the measure by an 89-60 margin. Republicans voted 48-4 against repeal of the death penalty, while the Democrat vote was 56-41 for abolition. Had the measure passed, it would have been the second time Dobson's actions had spared Ross.

The use that is being made of Dobson by death penalty opponents may rightfully be questioned. Forgiveness is not incompatible with justice. Ross richly deserves the death penalty, and his living victims – the family members of the women he brutally killed, who have not slipped away – deserve release from their long ordeal.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Edith Prague And The Coming Destruction Of Catholic Education

Edith Prague, D-Columbia, the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s labor and public employees committee, is to unions, roughly, what Robespierre and the sans culottes were to the French Revolution.

It was only a matter of time before the destructors-elect of urban public education should turn their eyes towards the further destruction of Catholic and private education in Connecticut.

Prague is the author of a stupid bill that would, according to most news accounts, “empower Catholic school teachers to bargain collectively.” No doubt that is how the bill was described in the press release media outlets uncritically reproduce in their stories.

The bill would unionize Catholic school teachers. If Prague’s bill is enacted by the legislature, it would in fact drive up costs, largely by increasing the salaries of Catholic school teachers to such a point as to cause the closure of yet more urban parochial schools that are an embarrassment to public schools -- because Catholic schools provide a higher quality education at a much lower cost.

Increasing teacher’s salaries in hopes of raising the quality of education is an exercise in futility. There is no responsible study that establishes a causal connection between high salaries and quality education. Just the opposite may be true: The record of Catholic education – which consistently has been able to provide quality schooling for poor inner city children drawn from the same demographic pool that public schools spectacularly fail – demonstrates that inflated teacher’s salaries have little to do with producing literate students.

The notion that yet more money poured into the pockets of teachers produces students who know how to read, write and figure -- the minimum that may be demanded of educators -- is a pedagogical urban legend peddled by legislative flunkies of powerful teacher’s unions.

But the legislators bought by teacher’s unions will not sleep peacefully until Catholic education is brought on a par with public education and teachers are unionized.

When this happens, those who have not studied the recent past will be condemned to repeat it: Good Catholic schools, unable to afford inflated salaries, will close and Catholic students will be discharged into public schools. Tax money collected by Connecticut from the parent of a Catholic school student, now providing for the education of one public school student, will follow the repatriated Catholic student in his journey from private to public school – and this will result in a net loss in money for public schools.

Presently, a parent who sends his child to a Catholic school is paying in taxes the per-year cost of one student attending public schools. When the Catholic student moves into public school, not only is the money his parent provided to public education lost to the anonymous public school student whose tuition had been paid by the altruistic parent of the Catholic school student; the state must now collect in taxes the per year cost for the education it must provide for a student who formerly attended a Catholic school.

When legislators do the math, they likely will reject Prague’s ill considered bill for economic reasons. But the punitive bill ought to be rejected for other reasons as well.

Urban public school education in Connecticut will never improve unless legislators cut themselves loose from the shakedown tactics of powerful interest groups. The most powerful lobby in Connecticut, it should surprise no one, are not mitered bishops, nuns and priests.

No, the most corrupting lobby at the state capitol is teacher’s union, which provide a sizable chunk of the campaign funds – tax money re-laundered by public educators to bought legislators – used to win re-election to office, from which platform the purchased legislator can return the favor by writing bills that have the practical effect of driving from the field anyone who would presume to compete with teachers that release their students untaught into a world with fierce teeth and bloody claws.

The name of this syndrome, when used by reporters and columnists to condemn corrupt politicians and public contractors is “pay to play.” But there is in Connecticut no more effective and corrupting alliance than the lovey-dovey connection between urban public school teachers – who continuance in their jobs does not depend upon performance – and feather-bedding legislators like Prague.

If the legislature had a spine, it would tie public school salaries to performance through a voucher system and weed out those timeservers who rely upon Prague and others like her to provide a shelter against rational market forces that tend to improve performance in the private sphere.

Prague’s bill is an instrument of destruction pushed forward by bought legislators. In a rational world, a bill like this would instantly be killed by honest unbought public servants – but there are none on the state’s labor and public employees committee.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Why Referendums Are Necessary

The question of referendums has arisen in connection with civil unions. The yeas and nays, naturally, are polarized. Once a question has been proposed and answered, sure as shooting there will be polarization – even if the question is: Should there be non-binding referendums?

Decisions of any kind are necessarily divisive. Once I’ve decided that binding referendums may or may not be advisable, I have courted opposition from everyone who believes that my decision – whatever it may be – is wrong. Once I’ve decided to leave my house and travel to a store to buy shoes, I have set my face against those who believe it would be much better for cows if I should go barefooted.

An artful distaste for polarization – as if any chosen course of action may be implemented in a democracy without divisions – has caused supporters of civil unions and marriage for gays to argue that even a non-binding referendum on the question of “civil unions” would be needlessly divisive.

Non-binding referendums, it has been asserted, bind no one and therefore are unnecessary in republican forms of government in which the people elect representatives to discharge their interests. In a republican form of government, representatives of the people are supposed to re-present and cast into laws the needs and desires of their constituents.

But suppose, just to suppose, that the governing body has for some reason become corrupted and may safely ignore wishes of the people. In such circumstances, would not binding referendums be necessary as a corrective? That is the important question. And it is a question proponents of gay marriage would rather not answer.

People in Connecticut seem to be split about fifty-fifty on the question of civil unions. The split is wider on the question of gay marriage. It is conceivable that legislation establishing civil unions might be approved in a non-binding referendum; gay marriage almost certainly would fail in an up or down vote on the question.

When proponents of gay marriage say they are opposed to non-binding referendums, they mean they are opposed to any measure that may doom the future prospect of gay marriages.

The legalization of gay marriage looks promising in Connecticut – even though a majority of the people may disapprove of it. Gay marriage did not become state law in Massachusetts because a majority of the residents viewed outmoded marriage laws as a deprivation of civil rights and instructed their representatives to seek a legislative remedy. The Massachusetts’ Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional laws prohibiting gay marriage and forced the state’s legislature to allow the practice.

However much one may agree or disagree with gay marriage as such, it is impossible to view the process in Massachusetts or Canada as either “democratic” or “republican.” Some critics of the court have suggested that the word “autocratic” might be more to the point.

Because people in the United States do not approve of judicial autocracy, they have sought remedies to prevent courts from radically altering basic social institutions that have stood the Western world in good stead for thousands of years.

Defense of Marriage Acts have been passed in thirteen states because they are seen a legislative shield that may prevent non-democratic and non-republican judges from overturning thousands of years of Western jurisprudence, in the process violating the will of the majority of people who suffer under their autocratic and imprudent judgments. It is for very good reasons that the root of the word “jurisprudence” is “prudence.”

Democracies can withstand divisions that occur as a result of majority rule when – and only when – fair processes have been fairly applied. It is when one branch of the government at the expense of another unfairly upsets the delicate constitutional balance of powers by arrogating to itself extra-constitutional powers that a sundering polarization occurs. Courts so arrogant must be rebuked.

The weakest argument deployed by those who object to binding or non-binding referendums is that such devices are inimical to good republican government.

Referendums in municipal government across the state are so common – In Vernon we are in the midst of a series of seemingly endless binding budget referendums – as to be unremarkable. And these referendums occur without damaging at all the republican virtues of the town’s politicians – most of whom are anxious to know what the people they are sworn to serve think and want.

It is the safe and secure incumbent who does not like referendums -- because they are a bar to autocratic government. But we democrats who live in Vernon say if binding referendums are good enough for our town and most other municipal governments, they are good enough for the state as well.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Johnny We Hardly Knew’Ye

It’s all over – but for the clanging shut of the prison door. The fat lady has sung, and the long, luxurious days of schadenfreude are quickly drawing to a close.

As prearranged by prosecutors and his defense lawyer, former Governor John Rowland presented himself before Judge Peter Dorsey for sentencing, having previously pleaded guilty to a single felony count: conspiracy to steal honest services, a combination of mail and tax fraud.

Just as the U.S. military goes to war with the Army it has, so prosecutors and defense attorneys go to sentencing hearings with the deal they have arranged. Had prosecutors not been satisfied with sentencing arrangements, they might have gone to trial. At the last minute, the prosecution attempted to inflate the agreed upon sentence guidelines, but judge Dorsey, electing to enforce the prior arrangement, sentenced Rowland to a year and a day in prison.

This did not satisfy the street-theater people, one of whom, dressed in a Satanic looking mask and carrying a sign reading “See You In Hell, Johnny,” paraded in front of the courthouse in New Haven; nor did it satisfy Lieutenant Governor Kevin Sullivan, who soothed his moral cramps by writing a letter to a newspaper calling the judge’s decision “a travesty.”

The ever furious Sen. Edith Prague, a shrill pro-union legislator from Columbia, agreed with Sullivan and sent a rhetorical torpedo in the direction of the judge, whose competence and moral probity few question.

“It's totally outrageous that that's all this bum got.” Prague said. “I'm really boiling mad... That judge ought to be asked to get off the bench. I think he's an idiot. He's a disgrace to the bench."

Perhaps the most interesting post-sentencing comment came from Hugh Keefe, who in his day has defended many politicians caught in the toils of corruption.

"I believe,” Keefe said, “and I don't think I'm far off the mark, that what has happened in Connecticut happens everywhere and has happened since the first vote was cast in this country. Maybe the public's intolerance has increased, I don't know.

"I think there is such a thing as setting the bar too low, where every single thing is looked at suspiciously as an indictable offense. When I look at the Rowland case very closely, I wonder, what did this guy do? The image got out of control and the public was convinced he was corrupt. But when you look closely at what he did, it was nickels and dimes. And I've known a lot of politicians, who I can talk about now because they're dead, and what was going on in the Rowland administration is really not out of line with what I know was going on in the '50s, '60s and ‘70s."

There are in Connecticut a few dozen investigative reporters, waiting anxiously by their phones, to receive the names of politicians Keefe knew who were no better or worse than the soon to be incarcerated Rowland.

Modern prosecutorial methods as well as the Racketeering and Corrupt Practices Act -- originally intended to facilitate the jailing of drug dealers and gang bangers -- have put in the hands of ambitious, headline hungry prosecutors tools that previously were unavailable to them. The professor who designed the RICO legislation is on record as having said that the law he had crafted never should be applied to political crimes.

In fact, Rowland was “prosecuted” only in a metaphorical sense: He did not go to trial – where the associates of the politicians on Keefe’s list may have been called to testify that the governor was only “doing politics;” and the impeachment trial, so designed as to make testimony from possible Democratic “bums” unnecessary, was aborted upon Rowland’s resignation.

After an aborted impeachment, a plea agreement arranged between prosecutors and the defense, a sentencing that did not measure up to the expectations of Rowland’s political opponent’s and millions of words written on the Rowland scandal by those who buy ink by the barrel, important questions were still left unanswered.

Why did Rowland turn the keys of his kingdom over to such rapacious subalterns as Peter Ellef, et al?

Prior to the Rowland administration, it was common for state contracts to flow through the governor’s office. Rowland purposely avoided signing off on contracts a couple of years into his administration. Why?

If Keefe is right when he said that what was going on in the Rowland administration was not uncommon in other administrations, perhaps other investigations should be undertaken before prosecutors unpack their luggage – even at the risk of further alienating the affections of Edith Prague.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

A Better Terrorist Mantrap

Very likely the answer to Islamic terrorism, when it arrives, will have a spiritual component. Terrorists in Syria, Iran and Iraq are driven by a vision of conquest and glory, as was Mohammad in the 10th century. The West, outwardly materialistic and secular, is driven by a different vision. As Islamic purists might see it, we are the flesh, they are the spirit, and the two are at war with each other.

Profound secularists in the West and terrorists in the East do not understand that for much of human history the two have commingled and informed each other. A war between the flesh and the spirit in which one of the two permanently vanquished the other would lead to a tyranny of angels or devils. The struggle before us in the 21st century occurs in a theatre of thought and action in which lions may lay down with lambs, provided there is no final victory between, to put it in modern terms, the claims of science and the claims of religion.

But in the mean time, terrorists are roving the world blowing things up; they must be answered effectively and rendered harmless. Faced with such life and death issues, it is not at all unusual for intensely practical Americans to reach for technological solutions. It is part of the American secular faith, sometimes misapplied, that there is no problem on earth to which there is not at least one sufficient technological solution.

Car bomb terrorists may be surprised to learn that their worst enemies are American engineers who developed in the 1940's a technology called "fluidizing solids" to crack petroleum. Over a period of 40 years, the application has been updated by Procedyne Corporation, a New Jersey company. Using Fluidized Bed Technology, the company has developed applications that well may revolutionize Homeland Security.

The concept of floating beds, used by potato farmers in the 40's to clean and process their product, was explained recently by Mike Kopec, the company"s lobbyist in Washington D.C.

"See this floor," he said tapping his toe on the solid surface, "the technology can instantly transform a solid surface like this into a kind of quicksand."

The technology, which fluidizes carefully designed solid sand roads and pathways through the distribution of compressed air, transforms a solid surface bearing a terrorist with a car bomb into a viscous mass that renders the bomber and his bomb harmless.

The viscosity of the pseudo-fluidized medium can be designed so that terrorist's car would be subject to rapid deceleration at a rate that would not seriously injure the occupant; and if the vehicle is outfitted with an explosive devise, the volume and arrangement of the viscous matter can be designed to neutralize the energy release of the bomb. A terrorist in a car intending to destroy a building would find himself apprehended and partially buried in a defluidized medium, as would a pedestrian terrorist.

Security applications of Fluidized Bed Technology could replace inefficient and outmoded concrete barriers and eventually change the whole nature and thrust of Homeland Security.

And them ain't no small potatoes.

Within Islam, there is a fruitful controversy under way concerning the connection between terrorists and Wahibism, a reformist practice of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia that appears to have been hijacked by terrorists to give religious unction to their violence.

Respected Islamic leaders, such as sheikh Abdul-Aziz Bin Baz, the former Mufti or "verdict giver" of Saudi Arabia, have been unsparing in their condemnation of terrorists. "Anyone who has the slightest bit of common sense," said the sheikh, understands that hijacking airplanes and kidnapping children and the like are extremely great crimes, the world over. Their evil effects are far and wide, as is the great harm and inconvenience caused to the innocent; the total effect of which none can comprehend except Allah."

The terrorists have placed before their fiery-eyed followers a dream that cannot be realized. Refusing to step into the 21st century, they are condemned to repeat the errors of their past. Islam, following the conquests of Mohammed, was an absorbent culture. But the culture and the false religion of the terrorists are brittle and full of dead ends. Cultures caught in the amber of the past cannot survive. "To become perfect," the aim of all fundamentalists, "is to have changed often."

The words are those of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but they easily might be the credo of Kopec, who got his idea for a better terrorist trap from watching potato farmers clean their produce when he was working for John Deere, has helped to develop drones presently in use in Iraq, and was responsible for the development of the first electric vehicles for the military.

When Islam is able to produce a Kopec, we shall have much to fear from it. Presently we can learn from true Islam what virtues flow from obedience to God. As a famous critic of materialism once said, man does not live by technology alone.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Why Not Harems?

This is the stuff of which sociological studies are made.

A gentleman was shot in a bar after an altercation involving a woman. The gentleman was laid to rest, and the usual obsequies were observed. In attendance at the funeral were the four women with whom the gentleman once had intimate relations, along with the gentleman’s twelve children. The gentleman was not married to any of the four mothers of his children, all of whom who spoke in glowing terms of the deceased as a wonderful father and a “good family man.”

The occasion, featured on the front page of a state-wide Connecticut newspaper, produced the expected stir, and in due course a letter appeared in the paper written by a lady of liberal persuasion.

“Over the years,” the aggrieved correspondent wrote, “I have come to accept a broadening definition of marriage and the family.” Connecticut is now on the legislative brink of broadening the definition of “family” to include persons of the same gender, and a stretcher bill extending the definition of the family is expected sometime after the ink dries on yet another broadening bill that creates “civil unions” for persons of the same gender.

“Although I fully support civil unions and same sex marriages and do believe love makes a family,” the correspondent wrote, the gentleman’s “various liaisons did not make a family. It made a harem.”

For reasons the correspondent did not disclose in her letter, harems were repugnant to her – a frightening demonstration that liberalism here in the state of Connecticut does after all set limits to the extension of some rights and privileges.

If the deceased gentleman praised as a good family man had been the center of his own legal harem, he would not have been bar crawling, and his twelve children would have retained a daddy whose moral probity no one would have been able to question. Despite quaint notions that morals and the law should not mix, it is generally accepted that whatever is legal in a society is also moral.

In the typical harem, casual sexual relations with those outside the harem are severely prohibited, and the moral code that overarches these small tribes in which “love makes a family” is much more stringent than might be expected in, say, the instantly dissolvable celebrity marriages one finds advertised in the gossip sections of major newspapers.

A harem also is a practical economic unit and offers a pragmatic solution to a problem that now bedevils large urban areas in our country where women, mothers of children without husbands, far outnumber unmarried men. The four women who produced twelve children with the deceased “good family man” shot in the bar were in effect a defacto harem.

So then, what are the objections to a law legalizing harems – or, better still, to a Supreme Court order striking down all state anti-harem laws on the grounds that such statutes represent a constitutionally impermissible expression of religious prejudice frowned upon in a country committed to the wall of separation doctrine?

Religious objections to harems are bound to be struck down as unconstitutional, and the notion that harems are repugnant because they are strange is easily answered: Strange practices become less repugnant as they become more common. They enter into the sociological stream when walls of separation, intolerance and prejudice have been effectively breached. Slavery was commonly accepted in the United States before a civil war, an emancipation proclamation and years of struggle against ingrained prejudices led to an integrated society. Why should pro-harem citizens forever be denied their imprescriptible rights?

Apart from an inchoate feeling of repugnance at being confronted with the an inevitable sociological change that may seem at first blush odd, what are the practical objections to harems? Is there no good reason to suppose that the correspondent who had over the years “come to accept a broadening definition of marriage and family” that includes same sex marriage should, once residual religious prejudices are overcome, embrace harems as a possible solution to a sociological crisis that has made a wasteland of urban America?

To be sure, harems are not for everybody. An enlightened society certainly would not force the correspondent to join a harem. But in a free country, shouldn’t women and men be free to choose? Would it not have been better for the children fathered by the lamented and deceased unmarried gentleman and “good family man” if the law and society held him responsible for his continuing presence as a (ITALICS) real (END ITALICS) father in the life of his family – which would have been the case had harems been legal?

Why not harems?