Tuesday, January 11, 2011

NYT's Bob Herbert: Examine Tucson Murders Within A Broader Context

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert has written an interesting essay regarding the recent murders in Tucson, Arizona. Herbert argues that Americans must view the killings within a larger societal context of violence and murder.

Herbert uses several statistics to portray violence in the United States:
According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, more than a million people have been killed with guns in the United States since 1968, when Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were killed. That figure includes suicides and accidental deaths. But homicides, deliberate killings, are a perennial scourge, and not just with guns.

Excluding the people killed in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, more than 150,000 Americans have been murdered since the beginning of the 21st century. This endlessly proliferating parade of death, which does not spare women or children, ought to make our knees go weak. But we never even notice most of the killings. Homicide is white noise in this society.
Holding aside the unnecessary and chivalrous reference to "women and children," Herbert's analysis provides a sobering reality about the routinization of violence in the US.

Herbert's proposed solutions to this problem -- stricter gun controls and changing the glamorization of violence in the US -- probably fall short of the mark, however. While gun control could likely reduce some violent crimes, there are serious mental health and addiction issues that contribute to crime in the US.

Furthermore, there is a direct correlation between economic deprivation and criminal activities, including violent crimes. While this pattern does not mean that most poor people commit crimes, poor persons, who likely have untreated mental health problems, constitute a large percentage of violent offenders.

Herbert correctly argues that the media frenzy and outrage surrounding the Tucson murders will soon fade away into inaction: "The two most common responses to violence in the U.S. are to ignore it or be entertained by it." The next high profile killing will likely spark the same predictable response.

Library of Congress Receives Unprecedented "Donation" of Classics From Universal Music Group

Fans of the history of recorded sound will appreciate this news item. The Universal Music Group has given the Library of Congress a large collection of master recordings of early American music. The recordings date from the 1930s to the 1950s. They include classics such as a metal recording of Louis Armstrong's Ain't Misbehavin'. Although it is unclear how many items are in the catalog, individuals associated with the transaction estimate that it includes over 200,000 recordings of American music.

While some news media -- such as NPR -- describe the transaction between UMG and LOC as a "donation," this description is somewhat complicated. UMG has been paying to store and maintain the collection for over 50 years. UMG, however, believes that the collection of music is not commercially viable. The cost of maintaining the collection apparently outweighs any commercial benefit that the company could receive from marketing this musical treasure.

Under the deal, LOC will get the music and will catalog and digitize it. LOC will then make the music available on a website for the public to access for noncommercial purposes.

UMG, however, will retain any copyrights that it has with respect to the collection. UMG will also have the right to exploit the music commercially once LOC has digitized it. This "donation" seems to benefit UMG greatly.

On the other hand, this project will preserve a legacy of American artistry and make it available to the public. LOC estimates that only 14% of music recorded between the late 1800s and 1960s is commercially available to the public. This project will ensure that a large share of music from this era remains available for future generations to enjoy. And given the contemporary state of contemporary popular music, this is great news.

Sheriff Clarence Dupnik on Democracy Now

Amy Goodman recently interviewed Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima County, Arizona, on the radio program Democracy Now! Dupnik rails against Arizona's extremely liberal gun laws and the inflamed political rhetoric that he believes could have contributed to the shooting that killed several people in Tuscon. Although the link between political discourse and the shooting remains unsubstantiated (many psychotic killers rant about politics), the interview is still an interesting listen.

Dupnik also discusses the mental health issues the crime raises and the lack of public support for psychiatric facilities. This part of the interview supplies the best quotation from Dupnik (who is known for his colorful rhetoric): "The finest psychiatric facility in our county is the Pima County jail."

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Justice Scalia Finally Admits That He Believes Sex Discrimination Is Constitutional

During a recent interview with California Lawyer, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that he believes that the Constitution does not prohibit sex discrimination. The journalist who conducted the interview asked Justice Scalia the following question:
In 1868, when the 39th Congress was debating and ultimately proposing the 14th Amendment, I don't think anybody would have thought that equal protection applied to sex discrimination, or certainly not to sexual orientation. So does that mean that we've gone off in error by applying the 14th Amendment to both?
Justice Scalia said the following in response:
Yes, yes. Sorry, to tell you that. . . .But, you know, if indeed the current society has come to different views, that's fine. You do not need the Constitution to reflect the wishes of the current society. Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn't. Nobody ever thought that that's what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that. If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws. You don't need a constitution to keep things up-to-date. All you need is a legislature and a ballot box. You don't like the death penalty anymore, that's fine. You want a right to abortion? There's nothing in the Constitution about that. But that doesn't mean you cannot prohibit it. Persuade your fellow citizens it's a good idea and pass a law. That's what democracy is all about. It's not about nine superannuated judges who have been there too long, imposing these demands on society (italics added).
Scalia and Original Intent

Justice Scalia's statements in this interview will not surprise individuals who are familiar with his body of jurisprudence. Scalia adheres to a narrow version of originalism. He believes that any interpretation of the Constitution that strays from the "original intent" of the Framers is invalid. Accordingly, he is very critical of interpretive approaches that read the Constitution in light of legal changes that have occurred since the document was written.

While originalism sounds appealing, people who praise this form of constitutional interpretation incorrectly assume that the Framers' intent on any particular issue is readily discoverable or that the Framers always spoke with one accord. There are many other critiques of originalism that exceed the scope of the topic of this blog post. Needless to say, originalism is a controversial and problematic theory of Constitutional interpretation.

Scalia and Sex Discrimination

In terms of sex discrimination and the Constitution, it is generally the case that most of the members of the 39th Congress (that voted on the 14th Amendment) did not believe that they were voting to ban sex discrimination generally. Some more radical elements of the Republican Party probably envisioned the Constitution providing some protection to women, but their views reflected the minority position. Accordingly, a strict originalist view would lead to the conclusion that the Constitution does not generally prohibit sex discrimination.

Although Scalia explicitly embraces this view in the California Lawyer article, he alluded to it earlier in his dissenting opinion in the 1996 case United States v. Virginia. In United States v. Virginia, the Supreme Court held that the Virginia Military Institute violated the Equal Protection Clause by excluding women. Justice Scalia dissented and criticized the majority for applying what he viewed as a tougher standard than prior caselaw required.

In a passage that many scholars overlook, Justice Scalia argued that if the Court wanted to reevaluate the test used in sex discrimination cases, the better argument would lead to the lowering of the standard, not the toughening of it. Scalia implied that the Court should apply only rational basis review -- the Court's most deferential standard of review -- to sex discrimination cases.

When the Court applies rational basis review, it treats the type of discrimination at issue as presumptively constitutional. Most policies survive rational basis review. This is indeed the level of review the Court historically applied in sex discrimination cases and which led the Court to rule against all sex discrimination plaintiffs until the 1970s. Scalia would advocate a return to this earlier view of the Constitution.

Scalia and Hypocrisy

Although Scalia prides himself on being an originalist, his rulings on questions of equal protection do not always strictly follow the intent of the Framers. Consider the question of affirmative action. Justice Scalia is one of the most passionate judicial critics of affirmative action. Scalia argues that the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment wanted generally to ban race-based discrimination. In one opinion, Scalia said that the only scenario that he could imagine a legitimate use of race was by prison officials trying to quell a race riot among inmates.

But as many legal historians have demonstrated, members of the 39th Congress did not see all forms of race discrimination as inconsistent with equal protection. For example, the 39th Congress passed laws the helped blacks and former slaves explicitly (by providing protection, essential services, etc.). Furthermore, this same Congress left in place a statute that mandated racial segregation in public schools in the District of Columbia. This history conflicts with Scalia's sweeping description of the Constitution as a bar to race-based public policy.

Scalia's opposition to affirmative action is even more complicated with respect to policies implemented by Congress. The Equal Protection Clause only applies literally to state governments. By drafting the 14th Amendment, Congress was trying to protect blacks in the South from further oppression by southern states. Nothing in the Constitution explicitly prohibits Congress from denying Equal Protection.

The Supreme Court, however, has held that the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment -- which applies to the federal government -- operates as a guarantee of equal protection. Although this analysis seems justifiable, it is not something that is implicit in the text of the Constitution or in the intent of the members of the 39th Congress. Also, the liberal Warren Court most famously applied this standard in the 1954 decision in Bolling v. Sharpe, a companion case to Brown v. Board of Education, that invalidated racial segregation in Washington, DC public schools. That Scalia applies nonoriginalist standards from the Warren Court might shock readers who view him as the exemplar of judicial restraint.

Analyzing Scalia's jurisprudence comprehensively, it becomes clear that he embraces a narrow originalism to justify sex discrimination. On the other hand, he departs from origianlsim in order to vote against policies designed to ameliorate the conditions of racial discrimination. This hypocritical approach is more shocking and troubling than his general embrace of originalism.

This article has been cross-published on Huffington Post.

Every Murder Victim Has A Story: Homicides Continue Despite Improvement In Crime Statistics (UPDATED)

Several jurisdictions in the Washington, DC metropolitan area have reported a reduction in homicides. In Washington, DC, for example, the 2010 homicide rate fell 9% below the previous year.

Despite the improving crime statistics, homicides continue to affect persons across the region. The anguish of families and friends of the victims exists despite the improving statistics. The details of these homicides are worth telling, because every murder victim has a story.

Bryant Morillo

On January 1, 2011, 16-year-old Bryant Morillo's life was extinguished. His death has left his family in turmoil.

The details of Bryant's death are still emerging, but according to early reports, he was the victim of a botched robbery attempt. A local ABC News station reports (via TBD.com) that shortly before he was killed, Morillo and a friend were waiting at a bus stop in a neighborhood in the Northwest section of Washington.

Two males approached the teens and demanded that they turn over their coats and an iPod. Bryant and his friend refused to comply with the robbers' demands. Apparently angered by the teens' defiance, the robbers shot both boys. Bryant died, but his friend survived the attack.

A man who witnessed the event administered CPR on Bryant until medical assistance arrived. Bryant died later in the hospital. The man, who has not identified himself to media, said that he did not want Bryant to die alone on the street.

Aaron Woodfork (No picture available)

On December 19, 29-year old Aaron Woodfork was gunned down in the Northeast section of Washington, DC. Aaron was with a friend at the time, and both individuals were shot. Aaron died, while his friend survived.

Aaron's death has received only scant attention in the media. Most media articles simply reprint the brief police news release concerning his death. Aaron's friends however, have utilized social media and blogs to honor his memory.

Several of Aaron's friends, for example, have posted tributes on Homicide Watch D.C., a blog that analyzes homicides and homicide investigations and legal proceedings in Washington, DC. One friend left a message that reflects many of the positive statements that other individuals posted on the blog:

My heart is truly filled with sadness. To the parents, brothers and family of Aaron, you have my deepest sympathy. Aaron was a kind young man. I was so proud of him. Not only did I know him from living in the same neighborhood but he was actually one of the few persons I trusted to care for my daughter when she was only 5yrs old. Its hard leaving your children but knowing he worked at the community center made it a little easier for me to do so. He assured me she would be fine. My daughter(13) is taking this extremely hard, as we all are. The way he died was horrible, but the way he lived was wonderful. Just knowing him was a pleasure. I know the community center will never be the same without him. He was so caring and understanding with the children and teenagers. He was perfect for the job. He knew how important the community center was to the children because as a young child he practically lived at the community center. It will be very difficult for many of us to walk in the doors of the community center and not see him at the front desk, but I know his spirit will be present. He will be truly missed.
Aaron mentored children at the College Park Community Center. Many people who discussed his memory mentioned his work with children at the Center. The Center houses the College Park Judo Club, which provides an athletic outlet for children in the area. The Club's website recognizes Woodfork's contributions to community service:

College Park Judo extends our sympathy to the family and friends of Aaron Woodfork. He was a valued member of the College Park Community Center Family and a good friend to College Park Judo Club.
Roosevelt Brockington

On January 1, 40-year-old Roosevelt Brockington was stabbed to death inside Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. Roosevelt was killed in the hospital boiler room. Roosevelt worked as an engineer at the hospital, and he was responsible for maintaining the building's heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

Robbery was the apparent motive in Roosevelt's death. And, eerily, a friend overheard his killing. According to several news reports, Roosevelt was on the phone with a friend during his murder. His friend overheard an individual demand money. After Roosevelt turned over his money, the robber asked whether he had more. Roosevelt said that he did not, and then he begged the robber to spare his life. Shortly after this, the friend heard Roosevelt yell three times in succession. According to his mother, Roosevelt was stabbed three times in the chest.

Roosevelt's death has stunned his numerous friends and family members. They have expressed their grief on Facebook and in media interviews. Most people who knew Roosevelt describe him as a kind, caring and very religious individual. He was a Deacon at St. John's Church of God in Washington. His grieving family does not understand his death because he had avoided trouble all of his life.

Police are currently reviewing surveillance footage in search of a suspect. Police believe that the suspect is likely another employee of the hospital and that the individual probably targed Roosevelt.

Update: Montgomery County police have made an arrest in this case.

Hezekiah Wilson

Around 7:30pm on January 2, Hezekiah Wilson, a 38-year-old autistic Baltimore resident, was in his yard playing with his dog. Minutes later he was dead. An unknown assailant shot Hezekiah and left him to die. Police have not identified a motive in this case.

Hezekiah's death baffles his friends and family. Hezekiah's older brother, Frankie Wilson, describes him as a peaceful individual, who had no enemies. His favorite activity was watching the Baltimore Ravens play football.

According to the elder Wilson, Hezekiah mainly kept to himself and spent a lot of time caring for his sick mother, with whom he lived. Wilson says that his brother's killer must be "callous, with an evil heart, evil intent, no respect for human life. . . ."

Baltimore police officer Donny Moses spoke about Hezekiah's death during a media interview, and he could not contain his emotions. Moses said that this case is "heartfelt," because Hezekiah was a vulnerable individual who did not harm others.

The case is even more baffling because police do not suspect robbery as a motive. At the time he was shot, Hezekiah was wearing a robe and slippers and thus had no personal items to steal. While police search for a motive and suspect, Hezekiah's family and friends are struggling to adjust to their painful loss.

Marquise Hall, Brian Scott and Lillie Capers

There are three other recent homicides in the Washington, DC metropolitan area that warrant discussion. These crimes, however, have not garnered much media attention at all.

Marquise Hall

The first victim is 16-year-old Marquise Hall of Baltimore. Marquise was shot several times around 5pm on January 1. Police do not have a motive or suspect in Marquise's death.

Brian C. Scott

The second victim is 21-year-old Brian C. Scott. Brian was a victim in a triple shooting in the Southeast section of Washington, DC on January 2. Brian died, while the other two victims survived. Police are still investigating the case, and there are only few details available.

Lillie Capers

The third victim is 84-year-old Lillie Capers (no picture available). Lillie was murdered in her home on Christmas day. A younger person in the home was injured during the attack. Police have identified and released a photo of a suspect who remains at large. Police describe the motive in the case as "domestic."

Update: There are a few more details in the murder of Lillie Capers. Apparently, a male suspect was attacking Lillie's granddaughter. When she intervened to protect her granddaughter, the suspect killed Lillie. Lillie's granddaughter was injured in the attack, which police describe as an incident of domestic violence.

Update II: Prince George's County police have made an arrest in this case.

Final Thoughts

The news that homicides have fallen is undoubtedly positive. These statistics, however, do not erase the reality of violence and the pain that it causes.

These statistics also cannot undo the underlying factors -- including, poverty, lack of economic opportunity, racism, mental health issues, and patriarchy -- that contribute to violence in US cities. Homicides are not solely a problem of policing. Instead, these crimes are caused by numerous social factors. Accordingly, only a comprehensive approach can lead to a permanent reduction in homicides.

Despite the depth of this problem, many homicide victims, especially persons of color, are ignored by the media and politicians. Ignoring these cases allows society to turn away from the problem. In order to fill the void, I have dedicated space on Dissenting Justice to portray the victims' stories.

[Note: This article is part of an ongoing series on Dissenting Justice called "Every Murder Victim Has A Story." Because our society tends to dehumanize and ignore murder victims who are persons of color, I tell their stories in order to humanize them.

As a way of doing this, I consistently use their "first names," rather than simply referring to them by their surnames. I find this approach particularly useful with younger victims, because it helps me emphasize that they are children.

Although this is not the accepted method of reporting, I believe that it brings a more personal touch to the stories, and, at least for the near future, I will continue to report the stories in this manner. I welcome your feedback on this issue. Thanks for reading.]
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