Saturday, August 29, 2009
Last year, rather than participating in any of the various Katrina memorial festivities, I resolved to do something practical and, like I do most weekends, worked on my house, a vernacular structure of old pine sills and joists held together by prayers and painter's caulk that could not be anywhere but here.
Today, with Nikki teetering on the edge of labor but feeling just good enough to take a ride, we observed the day by driving over to the Louisiana Music Factory, buying the terrific new Glenn David Andrews and Alex McMurray albums, and cruising around to different flea markets and junk stores in search of a couple of pieces of furniture for our coming baby's nursery.
We drove around listening to Glen David Andrews belt out Down by the Riverside at the Zion Hill Baptist Church in Treme and Alex sing You've Got to Be Crazy to Live in this Town while Nikki urged me to avoid craters and ridges in roads that are more pothole than street because the sudden, hard bumps give her contractions. I tried my best but we hit lots of potholes.
We found a little, old wooden bookcase at a flea market in Bywater that tomorrow I will paint and then fill with the many children's books that Nikki and I began collecting well before we had the excuse of an expected child. (The many others that so many people have kindly given us - her - as gifts in recent months will also find a home there.)
And then next week, the week after, or sometime soon, we will bring a baby home to her little room, with fresh paint over mended walls that, until recently, were more cracks than plaster, in a house that doesn't pretend to be level, in a city that was just four years ago wasted by severe weather and folly.
*** The photo is Nikki's, posted on her blog for the anniversary.
Friday, August 28, 2009
In addition to my enthusiasm for compassion for convicted terrorists, depression-era photos highlighting the contradictions in American society, abstract art about the death penalty, and Manson girls, I also like cocktails.
To lighten the mood this Friday afternoon, I will share with you what I plan on drinking when I get home after work, the Last Word cocktail. Imperfectly Vertical friend and blog-hit-benefactress, Dr. Rachel Maddow, introduced me to the drink. On a cocktail napkin, she wrote:
Equal parts. Shake and strain. No garnish.
She also, with the use of arrows from LIME and GIN to the words LEMON and RYE, gave the recipe for a Last Word variant, the Final Ward.
On the back of the napkin she wrote "haut-gout", along with its charming phonetic pronunciation, "ho-go," describing the French term for the flavor profile of the maraschino.
So, tonight, put these ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake until the shaker is so cold that it hurts your hand. Then pour it into a chilled cocktail glass. After drinking three of them, say something smart, cutting, and unarguably true about the need for universal health care, followed by an incisive comment about infectious diseases in American prisons.
Know that you are channeling America's sharpest political commentator.
Or at least drinking and talking like her. As best as any of us can, anyway.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
I suspect she was joking. It's always so hard to tell with the English.
Regardless, it's worth mentioning that while things are not quite as hopeless with Obama in office as they were during the eight years of George Bush, the political discourse in America still makes my "desert island disks" play "hiss hiss hiss". And worse, on some critical issues in this country, Obama has neither the inclination nor the authority to offer a reprieve. (We'll see if he can pull off health care reform.)
Politics by Carol Ann Duffy
How it makes of your face a stone
that aches to weep, of your heart a fist,
clenched or thumping, sweating blood, of your tongue
an iron latch with no door. How it makes of your right hand
a gauntlet, a glove-puppet of the left, of your laugh
a dry leaf blowing in the wind, of your desert island discs
hiss hiss hiss, makes of the words on your lips dice
that can throw no six. How it takes the breath
away, the piss, makes of your kiss a dropped pound coin,
makes of your promises latin, gibberish, feedback, static,
of your hair a wig, of your gait a plankwalk. How it says this –
politics – to your education education education; shouts this –
Politics! – to your health and wealth; how it roars, to your
conscience moral compass truth, POLITICS POLITICS POLITICS.***Does this poem remind anyone of Yeats' Politics? It seems to answer that the grace and beauty that provided relief to Yeats are gone, "latin, gibberish, feedback, static . . ."
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
There are moments in the law when we need to put aside all of the theory and jargon and deal with the reality that courts exist to bring about just outcomes and not just implement indifferent procedures. An innocent man on death row would seem to be a clear case where procedures should yield and the law should bend over backwards to get the right result. Not so, says United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Justice Scalia's dissent in Troy Davis's case, the case of a very likely innocent person on death row, epitomizes the kind of lawyerly posture that brings mistrust and contempt to the law:
“This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged ‘actual innocence’ is constitutionally cognizable.”
To be clear, he is saying that it would not be unconstitutional to execute an innocent man so long as his wrongful conviction occurred at a trial conducted in accord with his narrowly defined constitutional rights. I suppose the fact that the execution of innocent people isn't explicitly barred in the constitution demands this outcome in his narrow originalist view. (Is this really what people want when they argue in favor of "strict constructionist" judges - people fetishistically devoted to a two hundred year old document written at earliest moments of a nation that only vaguely resembles the modern, multicultural state that we live in today?)
Aren't we just much better off with people who can bring some decency and common sense into the judicial role?
In another death penalty case, almost twenty years ago, Justice Thurgood Marshall was on the dissenting side where the majority had voted to uphold John Whitley's conviction and death sentence. Marshall called bullshit on the majority, as he would have, no doubt, on Scalia's dissent in Troy Davis:
"The Court's refusal to allow a federal habeas court to correct this error is yet another indication that the Court is less concerned with safeguarding constitutional rights than with speeding defendants, deserving or not, to the executioner."
I suspect that Marshall's superior wisdom had something to do with the fact that his primary engagement in the law - his real life experience - was not theoretical but instead was as an advocate for equal rights in the face of hostile and resistant judges and laws.
It will be nice to have some new judges on the bench with similar hard earned wisdom.
*** The photo is of the Thurgood Marshall monument in Annapolis, Maryland, prominently placed a few blocks from where I went to college. My friend Ian is fond of pointing out how there is a statue of Justice Roger Taney, who authored the infamous Dred Scott opinion holding that black people could not become citizens and had no protection under the Constitution, hidden on the other side of the capital building. There's the history we keep up front and the stuff we hide out back.
Monday, August 24, 2009
This is what you shall do:
Love the earth and sun and the
animals, despise riches, give alms
to every one that asks, stand up
for the stupid and crazy, devote
your income and labor to others,
hate tyrants, argue not concerning
God, have patience and
indulgence toward the people,
take off your hat to nothing
known or unknown
As with everything else that inspired me at the time, I tacked it to my office wall where I endeavored to put it into practice.
Looking it up recently, I discovered that the Preface is actually quite long and that after "known or unknown", it continues:
. . . or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body. . . .
Friday, August 21, 2009
Yesterday Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill explained his decision to release Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi and allow him to return to Libya to live out the balance of his life, expected to be brief due to terminal illness.
I know little about al-Megrahi and, beyond the fact that my uncle was supposed to be on Pan Am Flight 103 but wasn't, know little about the crime he is convicted of committing.
But I found Secretary MacAskill's speech remarkable, perhaps because I so rarely see compassion from the people with the political power to exercise it.
Given America's lust for incarceration and punishment, I cannot imagine this speech ever being made by a politician with an American accent. Sadly, compassion is not an animating feature of our criminal justice system.
I have thought a lot about why America is so different in this regard - our history of racial polarization, our frontier mentality, a belief that any American has freedom to succeed in life and the converse belief that our crimes and failures are ours alone. But none of this means that compassion is unamerican, does it?
Here is what MacAskill had to say:
Scotland will forever remember the crime that has been perpetrated against our people and those from many other lands. The pain and suffering will remain forever. Some hurt can never heal. Some scars can never fade.
Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive. Their pain runs deep and the wounds remain.
However, Mr. al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity.
It is viewed as a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people.
The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live.
Mr. Al Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them.
But that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days.
Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available.
Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown.
Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people. No matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated.
For these reasons -- and these reasons alone -- it is my decision that Mr. Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, convicted in 2001 for the Lockerbie bombing, now terminally ill with prostate cancer, be released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya to die.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
My office mates, shell shocked by their own experiences with death sentences and executed clients from Houston, were aghast that I would want to spend my time in "that awful city" but we had heard that there were amazing, world class museums there, something that, despite its amazing culture, cannot be said of New Orleans.
We spent the bulk of our time at the Menil Collection, a stunning modern art campus including the museum, the Rothko Chapel, and the Cy Twombly Gallery.
I lost myself in the collection but was again brought back to my work and the death penalty by a large, pink silkscreen in the museum, Andy Warhol's "Lavender Disaster".
Fifteen electric chairs in rows on three in lavender.
I have no sense at all of what Warhol would have been thinking in slathering this grim device in the color of little girls, repeating it over and over, and then hanging it in a gallery, but for me it drove home the ubiquity of the death penalty in American culture.
The electric chair, despite its exclusively violent application and its hint of the previous crimes of the men and women who would sit in it, is as iconographically American as Campbell's Soup.
Whether you are in Houston, Texas or New York City, the death penalty is part of what defines us as a people. We are inheritors of a Western cultural tradition in which the executions of Socrates and Christ are two of the most culturally significant milestones.
Looking at "Lavender Disaster", I made note of all of the art and culture that I could remember that meditated on the death penalty. The art and poetry opposing the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti and the Rosenbergs. Capote's In Cold Blood. Plato's Phaedo. Camus' The Stranger. Villon's Epitaph. Dostoevsky's ruminations about condemned men in The Idiot. Miro's triptych. The list went on and on.
I resolved to put all of these things together in one place and create a cultural catalog of the death penalty that could focus and inform the discussion on the death penalty in modern America by looking at the ways in which it has been harnessed culturally over the past 30o0 years. I've been working on it, in fits and starts, since then.
*** I have a long working list that I have compiled with Jill McDonough of poetry, paintings, films, literature, and music the dwell on capital punishment, some of which I will continue to post here. I welcome any suggestions.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
I took a brief vacation with Nikki in 2004, visiting England and Spain, both of which abolished capital punishment decades earlier, hoping to put death row and the brutality of the state out of my mind for a couple of weeks.
But in London, while staying with my friend Shauneen, I was leafing through The Guardian on the tube and came across a long article about the death penalty in America, focusing on the work of my old boss, British human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, and his representation of Linda Carty, a Briton on death row. Despite Nikki's urging to the contrary, I read every word and wouldn't stop talking about the case for a couple of hours.
And then in Barcelona, we strolled through the Fundacio Joan Miro with our audio guides taking in the lively abstractions. Nikki viewed a triptych in one of the rooms quickly and walked ahead but I was taken by it - La esperanza del condenado a muerte I, II, III - and punched it into my audio guide. I sat on the white bench before the enormous paintings of incomplete, gestural curves and blots of color and listened as the phone-like device explained to me that the paintings were meditations on the execution of an anarchist, Salvador Puig Antich. Antich was the last person executed by garrote, a device consisting of a seat with metal band fixed to the back that tightens until the condemned man suffocates. I sat there for so long that Nikki had to come back and get me. She patiently listened to my retelling of the story of the paintings and how vivid and true they seemed to me.
I brought postcards of the triptych back to New Orleans and tacked them to the wall of my office, thinking that Miro and Antic would be good reminders that other countries had struggled against, and overcome, the death penalty.
*** I found the top photo of the triptych in the gallery on Flicker .
Friday, August 14, 2009
From Woody Allen's Manhattan:
Chapter one. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. New York was his town and it always would be.
While driving into Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge, or walking into a quiet bar off the busy city streets, I felt this way about New York when I lived there.
But the soundtrack in your mind in New Orleans is different. Here, it's more like:
Chapter one. He was as broken and beautiful as the elegant, old double gallery houses that lined the streets in the city he loved. Under his blue cotton suit, dark with sweat in the summer heat, was the animal ferocity of one of the small, feral street cats that fight off the packs of pit bulls that roam his neighborhood. New Orleans was his town and, though he hears gunshots in the night, it always would be.
And in the background, instead of Rhapsody in Blue, Glen David Andrews singing Summertime.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Filmmaker John Waters has bravely, and perhaps inadvertently, waded into the debate over life imprisonment in America by publishing an essay on the Huffington Post about his friend, Leslie Van Houten, a former "Manson girl" serving a life sentence in California for the 1969 murder of Leno and Rosemary LaBianco. (He also discussed the essay on Fresh Air.) Waters was, admittedly, ghoulishly interested in Manson's followers when he first started corresponding with Van Houten over two decades ago. But they became friends over the years and this relationship has convinced Waters that Van Houten is a changed woman from the 19 year old who followed Manson and took part in an awful murder.
Waters asks good questions about his friend's ability to atone for what she had done:
And he makes clear that during her long incarceration that she has made an effort to become the best person that she can be inside prison walls by finishing her college education and getting her masters degree, teaching illiterate women to read, making a portion of an AIDS quilt and bedding for the homeless, recording books on tape for the blind, and ably working all of the jobs that have been assigned to her.
Will there ever be a "fair" answer to how Leslie should pay for these crimes? Can you ever recover from being called "a human mutant" or a "monster" by the government, especially when you know that they were right at one time in your life? How can you feel optimistic about your own rehabilitation when you see yourself reproduced as a bald-headed dummy with an X carved in your head in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum? How do you begin to deal with the pain of the victims' relatives when the world has turned your former image into a Halloween costume?With patience.
We keep people locked up for a range of reasons - to keep them from offending again, to send a message to the community about the consequence of criminal behavior, to punish because we feel like their conduct merits our reprobation, to provide an opportunity for the offender to reform themselves.
Van Houten's punishment, her forty years in prison, has abundantly accomplished each of these things.
The question that remains for us as a society is whether all this is enough, whether the fact that her continued incarceration only serves to punish her for something that cannot be undone, that happened so long ago, reflects our values. Put another way, do we believe that people who do awful things can do anything to merit our forgiveness when we know that their acts will be unable to bring back the dead, to erase their past wrongs.
Can we follow the example of the Amish, as Waters offers, and give up our right to revenge, feelings of resentment, bitterness, and hatred, and replace them with compassion?
Van Houten seems like a remarkable woman whose crimes are in her distant past and who merits such compassion but she is not unique in that, and will become less so in the coming years, given the fact that "life without the possibility of parole" has become a widespread punishment over the past thirty years. The questions posed by Van Houten's possible release will have to be answered over and over in the coming years.
Waters' essay is a powerful expression about the possibility of human atonement and forgiveness and ought to help each member of the parole board see beyond Van Houten's forty year old crime and understand that if he "knew her the way I know her, he wouldn't be afraid anymore. He might even ask her to baby-sit his kids. Her crime was a long, long time ago and she has paid her dues to society. I hope Leslie Van Houten can be given a second chance."
For all of the men who I have met who I hope will someday walk out the prison gates, get cut a little slack and a second chance at life, I hope so too.
Sunday, August 9, 2009
In the years since, when I struggled to come home and forget the troubles of daily life - work, the day's news, storms, violence - I would try to remember, "We are shut in, secure for a little, safe until tomorrow," savor this. Sometimes it worked.
23rd Street Runs into Heaven
You stand near the window as lights wink
On along the street. Somewhere a trolley, taking
Shop-girls and clerks home, clatters through
This before-supper Sabbath. An alley cat cries
To find the garbage cans sealed; newsboys
Begin their murder-into-pennies round.
We are shut in, secure for a little, safe until
Tomorrow. You slip your dress off, roll down
Your stockings, careful against runs. Naked now,
With soft light on soft flesh, you pause
For a moment; turn and face me -
Smile in a way that only women know
Who have lain long with their lover
And are made more virginal.
Our supper is plain but we are very wonderful.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
I don't celebrate any man's suffering nor do I have much confidence in the prosecutorial function but observing William Jefferson's subversion of the common good for his and his family's own personal interests, it is difficult not to feel like his conviction is both a decent and just outcome for his individual wrongs and also a victory for the idea that public goods should and ought to be harnessed for the actual good of the public.
I have friends whose efforts to improve our city have been directly undermined by the corruption and abuse of power of the Jefferson machine. My very block, which I share with Betty Jefferson, the former congressman's sister who is also under indictment, is scarred by the Jefferson family's corruption. My friend was living in and restoring a blighted home, adjacent to Betty Jefferson's house, and was in the process of securing ownership of the house through our blighted housing program. The congressman's brother Archie, a disbarred attorney, used his brother's influence to undermine my friend's claim on the house. He acquired it after Betty, the property tax assessor for our neighborhood, began threatening the owners of the house with a dramatic property tax hikes on their other property if her brother didn't get the house. They then illegally demolished the fine historic home and laughed off, and never paid, the $25,000 fine that they received for the flouting stop work orders commanding them not to raze the house. So the home, which my friend would have restored to its former glory, is now Betty Jefferson's poorly tended side yard and a driveway.
Public influence. Private benefits.
I am sure many New Orleanians have similar stories as the reach of the Jefferson family in New Orleans was pervasive and the family was not shy in abusing its public positions for its private benefits.
I wonder whether, in William Jefferson's absence, the federal government would have had fewer excuses during the almost four years when it has failed to adequately fund our recovery. I wonder whether they would have had fewer excuses in failing to adequately fund our levees and provide services for the poor here - Jefferson's constituency - before the storm.
It was all too easy for the people holding the purse strings in the federal government to point out the recovery money would simply be stolen or wasted.
More broadly, I wonder whether having people in government like William Jefferson has served to legitimize the Conservative argument that government cannot be trusted to deliver the common good - that the public sector should be starved until its small and pathetic enough to drown in a tub (or in the New Orleans East or the Lower Ninth Ward).
So, William Jefferson, I hope you get out someday, that you are treated decently during your incarceration, that you have the chance to atone for your crimes and abuses, and that you emerge from prison someday a better man but know that your conviction vindicates the progressive values that you have claimed to champion and that - whether its universal health care or a new New Deal for New Orleans - your conviction serves to remind people that we are entitled to public goods without public corruption.
*** I wrote about Jefferson a couple of years ago in The Nation: Jefferson Should Go
Here is a picture of the now empty lot on Jackson Avenue taken by a neighbor. Imagine, instead of weeds, a beautiful nineteenth century home:
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
I saw Stephen Adly Guirgis' Jesus Hopped the A Train in New York a decade ago when it first came out in a Labyrinth Theater Company production directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Guirgis, in this play and others, gets something basic about how regular people - even good people - end up committing stupid, tragic, bad acts, which, despite what is presented on "CSI" and The Silence of the Lambs, is what crime is mostly about. In the absence of this bit of knowledge, any real understanding of crime or people who commit crimes - I won't call this ever expanding segment of our population "criminals" because I don't believe that commiting a crime gives a person a permanent "mark of Cain" - is impossible.
Jesus Hopped the A Train is about a public defender, Mary Jane Hanrahan, and her client Angel Cruz, facing a murder charge on Riker's Island. Among its other virtues, it provides a good tutorial on lying during a scene in which Mary Jane uses bad judgment in prepping her client Angel to lie on the witness stand. Of course, when a lawyer knowingly encourages their client to testimony falsely, they have suborned perjury, a serious crime. So public defenders, don't try this at home, or rather, in the attorney client visiting room.
Jesus Hopped the A Train
Stephen Adly Guirgis
Mary Jane: You got a problem with lying.
Angel: I love to lie, tell me what to say.
Mary Jane: Tell me a lie.
Angel: About what?
Mary Jane: Anything. Lie. Right now.
Angel: Ah-aight . . . I invented electricity.
Mary Jane: Stop messing around?
Angel: I ain’t messin’ around. I invented the shit?
Mary Jane: Do you know how electricity works?
Angel: Not exactly.
Mary Jane: Then that’s a dumb lie? Tell me a smart lie.
Angel: Like what?
Mary Jane: My father drank Jamesons.
Angel: Dass a lie?
Mary Jane: He drank Bushmills. But it’s a smart lie because my father was a First Generation Irish Catholic who supported the IRA and Bushmill’s is known as a Protestant whiskey because it comes from the North. So it would be logical to assume that he wouldn’t be caught dead drinking a Protestant whiskey, even though he did. That’s a lie built on truth. That why it’s a good lie. Because it’s truth. Tell me a true lie, Angel.
Sunday, August 2, 2009
I read the book that those efforts produced, In Cold Blood, when I was in college and both the writing and the story made an impression on me.
But the story of Truman Capote's closeness to Perry Smith, one of the men awaiting his execution for the murders, that both films tell was much more immediate to me, perhaps given my own personal and professional closeness with people who have been accused or convicted of murder.
One line from Capote rung in my ears when I saw it in the theater, and it has remained with me in the years since. Truman Capote is talking to his friend Harper Lee and explains his connection to Perry:
"It's like Perry and I grew up in the same house, and one day he went out the back door and I went out the front."
In a nutshell, that sense of sameness with my clients, people accused of awful things, is what drew me to become a criminal defense lawyer and it animates my opposition to the death penalty.
Over the years, that sense that we have come from the same place has made it hard for me to - literally - leave death row. Passing through the door from the visiting room, leaving my client behind the mesh screen to wait for a guard, then the sliding door of metal bars, the door at the top of the stairs, the door at the bottom of the stairs, another two sliding doors of metal bars, a door to the bright, neatly manicured grounds, and finally one chain link fence door, and then when that door is fully closed behind me, another, I would think to myself, at each point, Why do I get to leave, go through these doors, go home to New Orleans, to my home, to Nikki, when my clients must stay behind here?
Why do I get to leave through the front door and they need to wait to be taken out the back?