Saturday, October 29, 2011

Smorgasbord Saturday

Editor's Note: The piece I've been working on for three weeks has been delayed once again due to me being under the weather. In the meantime, here are some links that caught my attention this week and deserve a read.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Changing Tide?

Since the Idaho Department of Corrections announced that Paul Ezra Rhoades had been served with a death warrant scheduling him for execution on November 18, 2011, there has been a wide array of reaction. Idahoans from all corners of the state have expressed a range of reactions from relief and what can only be categorized as a display of vengeance* to disappointment and opposition.

It may not be all that telling that in this state, one of the most conservative in the Union, that many wholeheartedly believe in the death penalty. There are not only thousands of Idahoans who believe in the death penalty, there are many who believe that inmates like Rhoades have been given too many appeals and too much time on death row before being executed. I've read many comments at various sites in the past week from people who would throw out due process and the right to appeal in favor of speedy vengeance against predators like Rhoades. These, of course, are the same folks who claim to love and defend the Constitution. In Idaho even conservative Catholics are divided on the issue of the death penalty despite the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops stating that the death penalty is no longer necessary and Christians should work to rehabilitate criminals through God. It probably isn't, but should be, surprising that officials at the Idaho Department of Corrections actually have volunteered to carry out the execution.

What is more telling, I believe, is the varied reaction of those closest to the case. Following the announcement of the execution date, a former homicide detective with the Bonneville County Sheriff's Office said he hopes that the execution of Rhoades will bring closure to the families of his victims as well as to the myriad of law enforcement officials who are associated with the case. When the family of victim Nolan Haddon was asked for comment regarding the announcement, one brother stated that Rhoades' execution may bring relief to the community while another brother of the victim said there will never be closure for the Haddon family. I, too, am of the opinion that there will never be closure for the families of Rhoades' victims whether Rhoades is alive or not.

What is also telling and may reflect a changing tide in Idaho is what the media is saying about the Rhoades execution. The Twin Falls Times-News, hardly a bastion of liberal thinking, said in an editorial that they do not believe that the state of Idaho "should be the agent of the guilty party's death." They also went on to make two very good points about the construction of a new death chamber, what the Department of Corrections is calling "F Block", and the seemingly unjust nature of executions in a state that has executed relatively few inmates since statehood:
"We don’t believe it makes sense for the state to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new execution chamber. We don’t think it is just punishment when, over a course of 54 years, only three men are executed out of a death row population that has numbered dozens during that time span."
As a native Idahoan myself, I am grateful to live in a state that isn't as blasé about executions as, say, Texas. However, I agree with the Times-News that the state of Idaho hardly had the money to spend on a new and unnecessary execution chamber. I also adamantly agree with the Times-News' assertion that the practice of executing prisoners seems unjust when it has been utilized in such a way.

One last point. The Times went on to make one more point that may be the crux of why there seems to be a changing tide when it comes to public opinion and the death penalty: "[The death penalty] has never proven to be an effective deterrent; there is no agreement that execution is less costly than incarcerating someone for life." We have the ability to incarcerate individuals for life who have committed horrific crimes. There has been no proof that executing death row inmates deters crimes like those of Rhoades in any way. And if the brother of Nolan Haddon is a bellwether, there is absolutely no closure for the families of victims taken at the hands of a monster like Paul Ezra Rhoades. If there is no closure to come from it and no just way of administering it, what is achieved by executing a prisoner who could instead spend the rest of his life behind bars?
*To better understand how I came to refer to some of the responses to Rhoades' execution date as vengeance, I encourage you to wade through the comments left following this thoughtful, reasoned piece by Kevin Richert of the Idaho Statesman. Where Richert was dispassionate (his word, not mine), the responses were anything but.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Cost of Executions

Today AP reporter Rebecca Boone has a fascinating article about the new execution chamber at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution south of Boise where death row inmate Paul Ezra Rhoades will be executed next month. Because I mentioned the cost to the prison officials who are responsible for carrying out the execution in my post on the Rhoades execution, I found the following portion of the Boone piece insightful:
"It's also a weighty issue for the prison employees who will be involved in the process, [Idaho Department of Correction Operations Chief Kevin Kempf]. But whether they are involved or not, all prison officials are keeping the victims' families in mind, he said.

" 'Our hearts, literally, are with the victims. This obviously cannot be a very easy time for them and certainly what they have gone through to get to this point is an incredible amount of tragedies,'
Kempf said. 'That said, yes, this is impactful to our staff, to everyone involved in this thing. You have to have a level of toughness just to do this job every single day.' "
Many of us certainly wouldn't have the "level of toughness" Kempf speaks of and I for one would undoubtedly refuse to be involved in the execution of a prisoner. The words of the former prison officials in Georgia who opposed the execution of Troy Davis bear repeating:
"Like few others in this country, we understand that you have a job to do in carrying out the lawful orders of the judiciary. We also understand, from our own personal experiences, the awful lifelong repercussions that come from participating in the execution of prisoners...

"Living with the nightmares is something that we know from experience. No one has the right to ask a public servant to take on a lifelong sentence of nagging doubt, and for some of us, shame and guilt. Should our justice system be causing so much harm to so many people when there is an alternative?"
Unfortunately, the state of Idaho is not going to suddenly decide against the execution of prisoners. So, as the 18th of November approaches, I hope we will all keep in mind both the families of Rhoades' victims as well as the men and women at the Idaho Department of Corrections who must carry out the execution of Rhoades.

[Editor's Note: The portion of Rebecca Boone's piece that is quoted here was done with her generous permission.]

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Rhoades Execution

Today the Idaho Department of Corrections announced that inmate Paul Ezra Rhoades had been served with a death warrant. The state of Idaho will execute the death row inmate on November 18th. It will be the first execution of a prisoner conducted by the state of Idaho since 1994. Having exhausted all of his appeals, including a lawsuit against the state challenging the legality of the method of execution, he will be put to death by lethal injection.

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you likely noticed last month when my attention turned to the Georgia execution of Troy Davis. As I said repeatedly then, I cannot, will not and do not support the death penalty. The case of Troy Davis made the news because there was a complete lack of proof of his guilt. Uproar surrounding the execution of Troy Davis arose due to his apparent innocence. That was not the only reason to oppose his execution. Those of us opposed to the death penalty also had our sights on an execution taking place in Texas--the execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer. Brewer was found guilty of the murder of James Byrd, Jr. and there was never any doubt as to his guilt. The Brewer and Davis cases could not have been any more different, but their result the same. I find it perplexing when others support putting to death one prisoner, Brewer, but not another, Davis.

My personal belief about the death penalty takes into account two things. First, as was discussed around the execution of Troy Davis, the impact of carrying out an execution on the lives of the prison guards, staff, doctors and wardens. Taking a life, even if it is state sanctioned has horrendous costs. And second, the potential of executing an innocent man. Far too many men and women on death row have been exonerated which suggests the obvious--that the justice system is not perfect and mistakes are made. The exonerations also mean that inevitably we have put to death innocent prisoners.

Despite believing that the death penalty is flawed, as is the justice system that accounts for inmates on death row, I have found the announcement that Idaho will execute Paul Ezra Rhoades challenging. I find it challenging not because I believe he should be put to death for his crimes, but because I thought about how it reflects on me that I don't. Why do I say this? A personal connection.

Paul Ezra Rhoades was convicted in Idaho of three murders, though all told he is believed to have murdered at least six people. One of the three murders he was convicted of in Idaho was the sister of a family friend. I know what her death did to her family. I have seen the cost, the pain and the anger. However, knowing what I do, I cannot fathom any amount of closure or relief coming from the state executing Rhoades. It will not bring back his victims and it will not make what he did any less evil. If the law enforcement officials who brought Rhoades to justice will not find any satisfaction in his execution, what satisfaction can the state find in their killing him?

Unfortunately, in my life I have known the families of two victims of horrific murders. The murderer of the first victim was convicted and sentenced to death, but died on death row before the state could execute him. Why I say I have been challenged by how it reflects on me that I don't believe Rhoades should be executed is because I have thankfully never before been in the position to question how my opposition to the death penalty meshed with knowing the pain, loss and anger of someone whose loved one was taken by someone who is actually about to be executed. My personal connection in this case has only solidified my belief that the death penalty serves no reasonable purpose. It brings no closure. It deters no crime. It kills the guilty and occasionally the innocent. Is that a trade we are willing to make? I'm not. It solves no problem that lifetime incarceration can't. It sanctions the act of vengeance without returning the innocence that was lost in the commission of the crime itself. The cost is just too high.

When Paul Ezra Rhoades is put to death on November 18th, nothing will have changed for the families of his victims and his death will eliminate no major burden for the state of Idaho. He will simply be the fourteenth inmate executed in Idaho since statehood and one less person on Idaho's death row.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"The Most Powerful Man in the World"

The trailer for J. Edgar is very intriguing. Written by Dustin Lance Black, writer of Milk, and directed by the brilliant Clint Eastwood, it could be a major contender come awards season. One thing is certain, the film tagline--"The Most Powerful Man in the World"--isn't far off. J. Edgar hits theaters next month.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Smorgasbord Saturday

Friday, October 14, 2011

TGIF Tunes

It's been a rough day, topping off a rough week. Seems music may be the only cure. Here's the first video released from the new Bush album Sea of Memories. "The Sound of Winter" was also the first single off the album.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Blue Elephant

Want to see something amazing that turned up in a thrift store in the Treasure Valley? Even if you don't:

Why would I want a blue elephant figurine emblazened with "G.O.P."? This is why:

Yes, this figurine originated in one of Herman Welker's two campaigns for the United States Senate. Welker, as those of you familiar with Idaho history may remember, served in the U.S. Senate for one term before being defeated by Frank Church. Welker is also responsibile for something else important in Idaho history--he recommended a young Harmon Killebrew to then-owner of the Washington Senators Clark Griffith who sent a scout out to Idaho and the rest is baseball history.

A big thanks to the friend who spotted it and knew exactly who Welker was and that I would value this piece of Idaho history.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

More Than A Stretch

No-longer-Idaho's-problem & AFA wingnut Bryan Fischer said at the Values Voter Summit that by singing "God Bless America" during the 7th inning stretch of Major League Baseball games, another terrorist attack like 9/11 has been prevented. Seriously. That's exactly what he said. From saying Mitt Romney is not qualified to be president because he's weak on the issue of marriage to saying baseball's 7th inning stretch is keeping us safe from terrorist attacks...and all in less than a week! Mississippi, he's your problem now.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Hitchcock: Further Questions About Tolerance

Editor's Note: This is part 2 of the article I posted Friday by Professor Hitchcock. It was submitted to the Idaho State Journal for consideration and is published here with his permission. Scroll down for part 1 or you can follow this link.


If, as I suggested in a previous column, tolerance consists in restraining the desire to “act out” one’s disapproval of others’ behaviors or beliefs, the question then becomes: what degree of restraint is required? If total restraint is exercised, there will be no behavioral manifestations of disapproval whatsoever, including speech. No doubt there are circumstances under which this degree of inhibition, whether theoretically necessary or not, is the wisest course of action. If, for example, I am convinced that my daughter-in-law is raising my grandchildren to be savages, silence may be the best way for me to practice tolerance.

Silence is also something often recommended by parents. How often did our mothers say: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all?” Of course many of us failed to follow that admonition and therefore encountered another piece of childhood wisdom: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” However untrue that may be for children (or adults), we Americans have tended to regard critical and abusive speech as not only harmless, but, in a certain sense, privileged.

The right to not remain silent is, of course, assured to us by our Constitution, and the rationale for that right is generally understood to be that democracies function most effectively if all opinions on topics of social interest are heard and discussed. In the “marketplace of ideas”, the more competing opinions there are, the greater the chance that the truth will be recognized and acted upon. Moreover, as John Stuart Mill argues in On Liberty, a person whose opinions are borrowed from others and who has never personally tested those opinions against the full spectrum of contrary opinions cannot be rightfully said to hold them at all. The public conflict of ideas is thus as essential to the individual’s intellectual integrity as it is to the welfare of society. As a result, the expression of opinion is much more than a right: it is an obligation.

If, then, giving voice to one’s opinions serves the best interests of both society and the individual, it would seem very odd to stigmatize all those who do so as intolerant. We must conclude that, under most circumstances, acting out one’s disapproval through speech is not incompatible with being tolerant.

Some might suppose, nonetheless, that though speech, per se, is not intolerant, the manner of speech may be, for a speaker may show insufficient restraint in his or her choice of words. Mill thought that the manner of expression was irrelevant. He pointed out that those holding minority view are often condemned for abusive language, while the prevailing majority’s inflamed rhetoric is ignored. A local illustration of this is a recent ISJ “Faith” column by a Pocatello minister who asserted that all those who embrace “the lie,” (i.e. the view that god does not exist), are selfish, narcissistic, rebellious, disdainful of the lives and property of others and actively engaged in destroying morality, peace, and culture. No one was moved to publicly question the ferocity of this attack, much less accuse the minister of intolerance.

That minister’s vehemence in his denunciation of atheists might well remind us of the historical roots of the concept of tolerance. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that when and wherever Christians have had the ability to do so, they have not just willingly, but eagerly, persecuted those who did not share their beliefs. Pagans, Jews, Muslims, and heretics faced not only denunciation, but oppression, exile, torture, death. By the end of the 17th century, religious wars between Catholics and Protestants had raged in Europe for one hundred and fifty years. In 1689 the English philosopher John Locke, fearful that his homeland was about to witness an outbreak of this warfare, sent a long essay to a friend in Holland which came to be known as the Letter Concerning Toleration. In it he argued that it was both inconsistent with the principles of Christianity, and beyond the legitimate purview of civil government, to use force or the threat of force to extirpate or inhibit the practice of religious beliefs with which someone disagreed. Hence, sectarians and governments alike must tolerate all religious beliefs and practices.

It seems sensible to extend this conception of religious tolerance to tolerance in general, i.e. to conclude that the sort of restraint tolerance requires is an unwillingness to engage in the use of coercive force to halt or impede behaviors and beliefs of which we disapprove. That seems satisfactory, as far as it goes, but important questions remain unanswered. Is it, for example, intolerant to circulate a petition that seeks to create a law banning certain behaviors or beliefs? Laws, after all, represent intolerance that is socially-approved, and because of that approval we don’t usually regard as intolerant those who support and enforce them – nor, perhaps, those who campaign to enact them. But then sometimes we do, as in the case of the infamous Jim Crow laws. Why is this the case?

It seems clear that a satisfactory analysis of tolerance must go beyond this column’s conclusions regarding the proper definition of a tolerant act. What must also be explored is the substantive question that lies at the heart of the matter: what sorts of beliefs and behaviors actually deserve to be treated with tolerance?