Wednesday, June 16, 2010

In Utah, Execution Evokes Eras Past

In Utah, Execution Evokes Eras Past

DRAPER, Utah — The death penalty re-emerged here, behind the gray stone walls of the Utah State Prison in early 1977, in violence and blood. A murderer named Gary Mark Gilmore, famous even before the books about him, died before a five-man firing squad, ending a national moratorium on capital punishment. The law-and-order era of the 1980s and ’90s — if not quite by calendar, then by symbol and deed — had begun.
Jeffrey D. Allred for The New York Times
The Utah State Correctional Facility, where Ronnie Lee Gardner will face a firing squad Friday. More Photos »


Drawing by Mike Lee/KSL-TV, via Associated Press
A depiction of Gary Gilmore’s execution in 1977. More Photos »
Jeffrey D. Allred for The New York Times
Ralph Dellapiana is a defense lawyer in Salt Lake City and the director of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. More Photos »
Now the firing squad, a Utah way of death that began in pioneer days and lingered after other states that practiced capital punishment had moved on to more sanitized means of killing, is back. The execution of a man named Ronnie Lee Gardner, 49, for murdering a lawyer in an escape attempt, is set for the small hours of Friday morning. If not blocked by the courts, Mr. Gardner will be hooded, strapped to a chair and shot through the heart.
To many people living in Utah in 1977, the days leading up to Mr. Gilmore’s death were filled with foreboding and strange, morbid exhilaration. Candlelight vigils were offered up in the chilly January air outside the prison. The national and international news media descended in full swarm.
To return on the eve of another execution is to see how much, and in other ways, how little, has changed.
A place once righteously confident in its world view and harsh in its judgment of places that seemed to have gone off the tracks in the 1970s — like New York City and the Rust Belt — is now more diverse and tempered by an influx of newcomers, and perhaps from hard times as well during the recession.
The national debate over capital punishment has evolved, too, especially in the last few years as states from New Mexico to New Jersey to Illinois have repealed the death penalty or halted executions.
Debra Radack has lived that arc of change.
Ms. Radack, 54, was planning her wedding in 1977, working at a radio station and completely convinced that Mr. Gilmore deserved to die for killing two young men in separate armed robberies. She said she was convinced that Mr. Gardner’s execution was just, too. But the black-or-white certainty of her youth is gone, she said. Evi-dence about mistakes and miscarriages of justice in death penalty cases around the country have made her cautious.
“After you live a bit, you see more shades of gray,” she said, interviewed on a lunchtime stroll in Salt Lake City, about 20 miles north of here.
The execution of Mr. Gardner, if carried out, might not be the last by firing squad, but the list of possible cases is dwindling fast. Utah went to lethal injection in 2004, but anyone convicted before that date, as Mr. Gardner was in 1985, could still choose to be shot. Four other death row inmates have indicated that they may take the firing squad option, if and when their time comes. Another murderer, John Albert Taylor, died here by firing squad in 1996, before the law was changed.
While steadfast belief in the death penalty may have eroded for some, the fierce ethos of eye-for-an-eye — whether based on religion or the code of the West — is alive and well.
“In the days of Moses, they’d stone them to death because they didn’t have guns back then,” said Jackson Smith, 68, a retired security guard in Salt Lake. “So it doesn’t make any difference to me how they do it — firing squad, electric chair or whatever.”
But opinions like Marianna Bouttier’s are also much more part of the mix now than they were a generation ago.
“Human fallibility and the fallibility of our justice systems,” said Ms. Bouttier, 22, an undergraduate in international studies at the University of Utah, in explaining her opposition to the death penalty. “I don’t think you can ever really be 100 percent correct. Empirical evidence only goes so far with our current technology.”
For some people, turning-point moments dating back to the Gilmore case resonate still. Ralph Dellapiana was serving as a missionary in Spain for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1977. He returned from his mission a changed man, “my eyes opened to the wider world,” as he put it in an interview. He is now a defense lawyer in Salt Lake and director of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Larry Cox, the executive director of Amnesty International, the nonprofit human rights organization, was writing news releases for the group in 1977. The Gilmore case shifted Amnesty’s battle against capital punishment from an international setting to a domestic issue.
“A lot of people realized that it was a turning point,” he said. “Now, we’re once again moving in the other direction — it’s slow, uneven, not dramatic, but all trends show that the death penalty is losing favor, not gaining.”
Executions in the United States peaked in 1999, when 98 people were put to death, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital-punishment group, though the numbers from last year were back up somewhat to 52, the most since 2006.
A news release from the Utah Department of Corrections says that Mr. Gardner’s anonymous five-man squad will be stationed behind a brick wall in the 20 feet by 24 feet execution chamber inside the prison. The executioners will be armed with .30-caliber rifles, four of which will be loaded with live rounds — with none of the gunmen knowing who has the blank. “At the conclusion of the condemned’s last words the execution team will commence fire,” the news release said.
But even as the Gardner case is reminding some people of how Utah has changed, there are plenty of reminders of how it has not. The ideas of free will and personal responsibility — bedrock principles of conservative ideology, not to mention law enforcement — seem unshaken.
“Everybody has choices, and he chose to do what he did back when he was young and it creates consequences for him now,” said Natasha Gines, 25, a bank compliance officer in Salt Lake, referring to Mr. Gardner.
The gun culture of hunters and shooters, to whom the idea of a firing squad is perhaps not as alien as it could seem elsewhere, also thrives.
Just a few miles from the prison, a highway billboard sign advertised an indoor gun range. “Shoot real machine guns!” the sign shouted.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Democratic Senators vote to promote judge who made excuses for sexually sadistic Roadside Strangler

Democratic Senators vote to promote judge who made excuses for sexually sadistic Roadside Strangler

June 10, 3:07 PMDC SCOTUS ExaminerHans Bader
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On a party-line vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved President Obama’s promotion of a federal judge who tried to block the execution of a serial killer and rapist known as the Roadside Strangler based on the unbelievable ground that this serial killer’s  “sexual sadism” was a mitigating factor.  The judge did so even though this serial killer admitted his sentence was appropriate and did not seek to challenge it. Obama nominated this judge to serve on a federal appeals court known as the 2nd Circuit.  The newspaper Roll Call reports:
“The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination of Judge Robert Chatigny to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday on a largely party-line vote despite stiff GOP opposition over his handling of child pornography and rape cases as a district court judge. With Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) abstaining on the vote, the committee’s other 11 Democrats approved the nomination Thursday morning, while the committee’s entire seven-member contingent of Republicans voted ‘no.’ In a series of cases involving defendants found guilty of child pornography, rape and sexual assault cases, Chatigny used the process of downward departure to reduce their sentences. Chatigny also played a central role in the ‘roadside strangler’ case. In that case, Chatigny allegedly threatened to pull the law license of the attorney for a convicted killer — who has been on death row for 15 years — unless he continued his efforts to have the sentence overturned. Chatigny’s nomination has been hotly contested by victims’ rights advocates and the families of several high-profile victims, including the family of Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped in 2002.”

The Judiciary Committee ignored objections from victims-rights advocates like Edward Smart of the Surviving Parents Coalition, who noted that Judge Chatigny had not just opposed the execution of “Roadside Strangler” Michael Ross, but also gone further, to question his very conviction, based on silly reasons: “Judge Chatigny claimed Ross was incompetent to stand trial based on the prison environment and Ross’s sexual sadism.”  This sort of making excuses for dangerous criminals to overturn their convictions (and potentially set them free) is extremely disturbing.

Footage of the Judiciary Committee hearing makes clear that even some liberal Senators found Chatigny’s record disturbing, but they voted for him anyway out of blind party loyalty to Obama, who nominated him.  Conservative Senator Sessions discusses and criticizes the nomination here.

An even more radical Obama nominee, Goodwin Liu, was previously approved on a party-line vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Liu is a Berkeley law professor who believes that the Constitution requires racial quotas and welfare, and is hostile to “free enterprise, private ownership of property, and limited government.”  If confirmed by the full Senate, Liu would sit on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the nation’s largest federal appeals court.

Obama’s recent Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan, shirked her duty to defend federal laws protecting crime victims, while in her current position as Solicitor General, to which she was appointed by Obama.

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus

Jesus, Jesus, JesusIn the late 1950s, three men who identified as the Son of God were forced to live together in a mental hospital. What happened?

In the late 1950s, psychologist Milton Rokeach was gripped by an eccentric plan. He gathered three psychiatric patients, each with the delusion that they were Jesus Christ, to live together for two years in Ypsilanti State Hospital to see if their beliefs would change. The early meetings were stormy. "You oughta worship me, I'll tell you that!" one of the Christs yelled. "I will not worship you! You're a creature! You better live your own life and wake up to the facts!" another snapped back. "No two men are Jesus Christs. … I am the Good Lord!" the third interjected, barely concealing his anger.
Frustrated by psychology's focus on what he considered to be peripheral beliefs, like political opinions and social attitudes, Rokeach wanted to probe the limits of identity. He had been intrigued by stories of Secret Service agents who felt they had lost contact with their original identities, and wondered if a man's sense of self might be challenged in a controlled setting. Unusually for a psychologist, he found his answer in the Bible. There is only one Son of God, says the good book, so anyone who believed himself to be Jesus would suffer a psychological affront by the very existence of another like him. This was the revelation that led Rokeach to orchestrate his meeting of the Messiahs and document their encounter in the extraordinary (and out-of-print) book from 1964, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.
Although by no means common, Christ conventions have an unexpectedly long history. In his commentary to Cesare Beccaria's essay "Crimes and Punishments," Voltaire recounted the tale of the "unfortunate madman" Simon Morin who was burnt at the stake in 1663 for claiming to be Jesus. Unfortunate it seems, because Morin was originally committed to a madhouse where he met another who claimed to be God the Father, and "was so struck with the folly of his companion that he acknowledged his own, and appeared, for a time, to have recovered his senses." The lucid period did not last, however, and it seems the authorities lost patience with his blasphemy. Another account of a meeting of the Messiahs comes from Sidney Rosen's book My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson. The renowned psychiatrist apparently set two delusional Christs in his ward arguing only for one to gain insight into his madness, miraculously, after seeing something of himself in his companion. ("I'm saying the same things as that crazy fool is saying," said one of the patients. "That must mean I'm crazy too.")
These tales are surprising because delusions, in the medical sense, are not simply a case of being mistaken. They are considered to be pathological beliefs, reflecting a warped or broken understanding that is not, by definition, amenable to being reshaped by reality. One of most striking examples is the Cotard delusion, under which a patient believes she is dead; surely there can be no clearer demonstration that simple and constant contradiction offers no lasting remedy. Rokeach, aware of this, did not expect a miraculous cure. Instead, he was drawing a parallel between the baseless nature of delusion and the flimsy foundations we use to construct our own identities. If tomorrow everyone treats me as if I have an electronic device in my head, there are ways and means I could use to demonstrate they are wrong and establish the facts of the matter—a visit to the hospital perhaps. But what if everyone treats me as if my core self were fundamentally different than I believed it to be? Let's say they thought I was an undercover agent—what could I show them to prove otherwise? From my perspective, the best evidence is the strength of my conviction. My belief is my identity.
Milton Rokeach's The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.In one sense, Rokeach's book reflects a remarkably humane approach for its era. We are asked to see ourselves in the psychiatric patients, at a time when such people were regularly locked away and treated as incomprehensible objects of pity rather than individuals worthy of empathy. Rokeach's constant attempts to explain the delusions as understandable reactions to life events require us to accept that the Christs have not "lost contact" with reality, even if their interpretations are more than a little uncommon.
But the book makes for starkly uncomfortable reading as it recounts how the researchers blithely and unethically manipulated the lives of Leon, Joseph, and Clyde in the service of academic curiosity. In one of the most bizarre sections, the researchers begin colluding with the men's delusions in a deceptive attempt to change their beliefs from within their own frame of reference. The youngest patient, Leon, starts receiving letters from the character he believes to be his wife, "Madame Yeti Woman," in which she professes her love and suggests minor changes to his routine. Then Joseph, a French Canadian native, starts receiving faked letters from the hospital boss advising certain changes in routine that might benefit his recovery. Despite an initially engaging correspondence, both the delusional spouse and the illusory boss begin to challenge the Christs' beliefs more than is comfortable, and contact is quickly broken off.
In fact, very little seems to shift the identities of the self-appointed Messiahs. They debate, argue, at one point come to blows, but show few signs that their beliefs have become any less intense. Only Leon seems to waver, eventually asking to be addressed as "Dr Righteous Idealed Dung" instead of his previous moniker of "Dr Domino dominorum et Rex rexarum, Simplis Christianus Puer Mentalis Doctor, reincarnation of Jesus Christ of Nazareth." Rokeach interprets this more as an attempt to avoid conflict than a reflection of any genuine identity change. The Christs explain one another's claims to divinity in predictably idiosyncratic ways: Clyde, an elderly gentleman, declares that his companions are, in fact, dead, and that it is the "machines" inside them that produce their false claims, while the other two explain the contradiction by noting that their companions are "crazy" or "duped" or that they don't really mean what they say.
In hindsight, the Three Christs study looks less like a promising experiment than the absurd plan of a psychologist who suffered the triumph of passion over good sense. The men's delusions barely shifted over the two years, and from an academic perspective, Rokeach did not make any grand discoveries concerning the psychology of identity and belief. Instead, his conclusions revolve around the personal lives of three particular (and particularly unfortunate) men. He falls back—rather meekly, perhaps—on the Freudian suggestion that their delusions were sparked by confusion over sexual identity, and attempts to end on a flourish by noting that we all "seek ways to live with one another in peace," even in the face of the most fundamental disagreements. As for the ethics of the study, Rokeach eventually realized its manipulative nature and apologized in an afterword to the 1984 edition: "I really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives."
Although we take little from it scientifically, the book remains a rare and eccentric journey into the madness of not three, but four men in an asylum. It is, in that sense, an unexpected tribute to human folly, and one that works best as a meditation on our own misplaced self-confidence. Whether scientist or psychiatric patient, we assume others are more likely to be biased or misled than we are, and we take for granted that our own beliefs are based on sound reasoning and observation. This may be the nearest we can get to revelation—the understanding that our most cherished beliefs could be wrong.


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