Monday, February 23, 2009

Actual Innocence

I saw a news item recently that the 34th person had been released from prison in Texas after being exonerated. This brought to mind a good book I read awhile back, called "Actual Innocence", by Barry Scheck, et al. The book recounts the experiences of The Innocence Project, which has obtained the release of many convicted felons based on proof of their innocence.

What is interesting to me is the analysis of why it is that innocent people get convicted in this country, when we supposedly have so many safeguards in place to prevent this. Scheck groups the reasons into a number of different categories.

The first category is faulty eyewitness identification. Scheck starts by recounting the famous classroom experiment conducted by Professor von Liszt in Berlin in 1902. An incident was staged and then the students were asked to describe what had happened. The students got significant details wrong anywhere from 26% to 80% of the time.

Despite this century-old knowledge about how unreliable eyewitness testimony is, prosecutors have continued to build cases upon such faulty evidence, and juries obligingly convict based on it. Often the crime has taken place at night, when visibility is poor, rather than with perfect lighting and close proximity as was the case in the classroom experiment.

I can't help but mention a recent film noir I saw, called "Boomerang", which is based on a true story. A telling scene is the lineup, in which the witnesses were brought into a room together and shown a lineup of 6 men. All identified the innocent suspect, and the "herd instinct" is obvious here. It is well-known that, in a group, people tend to "follow the leader", and this lineup process was irrevocably tainted by having everybody in the room together like they did.

The second category of problems cited by Scheck is false confessions. Scheck writes that of the exonerations obtained through DNA testing, 22% contained false confessions or false admissions. Why somebody would admit to something he didn't do is a psychological issue which is complicated. Police have techniques they use to trick people into confessing. Some defendants feel important implicating themselves in something that is plastered all over the news media.

A third category is what Scheck calls "white coat fraud". These are instances in which the prosecution's expert simply makes up evidence and lies on the stand. Scheck blames defense lawyers who are not adept at dealing with scientific evidence. He writes that "Too many lawyers ended up going to law school because of lousy grades in chemistry and biology. A fear of science won't cut it in an age when many pleas of guilty are predicated on the reports of scientific experts."

Also to blame are prosecutors and lab technicians who turn over their final reports to defense counsel, but not their lab notes. Often the lab notes lead to a different conclusion than the final report indicates. Inadequate oversight of police labs is also cited as a factor.

Another category of problem is the use of jailhouse snitches. Scheck reports that 19% of exonerations by The Innocence Project involved convictions based in part on jailhouse snitches. This is an odious practice used by prosecutors, who often focus on the desire to convict at the expense of their sworn duty to do justice. Snitches make up stories to get a break for themselves. It is a despicable prosecution practice and should be stopped.

Canada was so shaken by a well-publicized case of an innocent man being convicted based on a jailhouse snitch, that it laid down a series of new rules: 1) before a snitch can testify, a high-level screening committee must satisfy itself that the story can be corroborated; 2) the committee must determine whether the snitch is a recidivist; 3) the testimony is presumed unreliable, and the prosecutor must satisfy the Judge that it is worth hearing, before it can be presented to the jury; 4) all deals with the snitch must be in writing; and 5) all conversations with the snitch must be taped.

A fifth category of problem is junk science. This includes various types of analyses masquerading as science. Some infamous cases have included prosecution "evidence" matching up a hair from the crime scene to the defendant's hair. A historical example would be the wood evidence from the infamous Lindbergh kidnapping case. The prosecution claimed the defendant had made a ladder using wood from beams in his attic. The idea that anyone would cut up wood from his attic to make a ladder is ludicrous on the face of it, but the jury bought this evidence hook, line and sinker.

As was the case with snitch evidence, there are a number of reforms that could be enacted to cut down on the error rate caused by presenting junk science in court.

Other categories of problems are broken oaths, sleeping lawyers, and race. All one can say after reading this sad account is, thank God for people like Barry Scheck, who are willing to work night and day to undo the injustices of the past.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Believe in Yourself!

An interesting contestant yesterday on "Millionaire". She got up to the 25K question without using any lifelines. At 25K she was asked which country the Dalai Lama fled to in 1959. She thought she knew, having just read something about this, but, incredibly, she used up all four of her lifelines trying to confirm her hunch! Her phone-a-friend had no idea, then the expert went with a different answer than what she thought, so she asked the audience who went with the expert 60% to 22% for her choice. She then double-dipped, giving her hunch as the first answer, and it was right!

This illustrates the importance of trusting yourself. She could have avoided using any lifelines and been in good shape to win a lot more money. I know hindsight is 20-20, but she was right upfront with saying she had an idea, and she clearly had good reason for her idea, having read something about the guy being in India.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

My Favorite Film Noirs

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Casablanca (1943)
To Have and Have Not (1944)
Murder, My Sweet (1944)
The Big Sleep (1946)
The Killers (1946)
Out of the Past (1947)
Boomerang (1947)
Kiss of Death (1947)
Brute Force (1947)
The Naked City (1948)
The Third Man (1949)
White Heat (1949)
D.O.A. (1950)
In a Lonely Place (1950)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
The Big Heat (1953)
Rear Window (1954)
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Touch of Evil (1958)
Vertigo (1958)
North by Northwest (1959)
Psycho (1960)
In Cold Blood (1967)
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Badlands (1974)
Chinatown (1974)
Body Heat (1981)
To Live and Die in LA (1985)
The Two Jakes (1990)
Basic Instinct (1992)
Red Rock West (1992)
Fargo (1996)
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Historians (Again) Rank the Presidents

C-SPAN again asked historians to rank the Presidents, updating the rankings done in 2000. Lincoln is again #1, a ranking I strongly diagree with as stated before. Washington and FDR flip-flopped, an improvement as Washington is now 2nd, and FDR down to 3rd. JFK jumped frm 8th to 6th, a welcome sign. Reagan is now 10th, an inexplicably high ranking.

LBJ's ranking of 11th illustrates the problem with C-SPAN's methodology. They ask historians to rank the Presidents in each of ten different categories, and then add up the scores to get the overall ranking. Doing this gives LBJ a high score, even though his Presidency was an abject failure due to his stubborn proseucution of the ill-conceived and ill-executed Vietnam War, a war which tore our country apart. He should be near the bottom, and no doubt would be if a proper methodology were to be used.

Jackson is again too high at 13th, and Monroe too low at 14th. Clinton moved up 6 places to 15th, a welcome improvement in the rankings. John Adams dropped down one place, but is still too high at 17th. Grant jumped up ten places to 23rd, an inexplicably high ranking for this failure of a President.

One hopes C-SPAN will improve its methodology the next time it does this, but I'm not holding my breath as it seems locked in to this faulty approach.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Think about the Question!

A couple of game show moments recently drove home to me the importance of thinking about the question. It seems we too often ponder the answers, without first pondering the question and extracting whatever meaning we can from it.

Most recent example was a "Millionaire" question about which game led to the idea for creation of the Periodic Table of the elements. The contestant asked the audience, which went for chess for no apparent reason, chess having a 40% to 28% edge over the second-place finisher. Both the contestant and the audience were obviously pondering the answers without first pondering the question. If one first pictures the periodic table, and how elements are stacked one on top of another, the answer of solitaire becomes obvious. This was during teachers' week, making it doubly surprising that the contestant blew it. Even if you don't teach any science, just having seen the periodic table in other classrooms should be enough to lead one to the correct answer.

And this brings up a second point. After an ask the audience, Meredith is fond of saying, "that's a pretty good number", or "that's not a real good number", referring solely to the percent of the audience voting for the #1 answer. However, I maintain that just as important is the *gap* between the 1st and 2nd answers. For example, 40% isn't bad if the other three are 20-20-20, but if the other 3 are 30-20-10, then it sucks. I think Meredith leads the contestants astray by the way she focuses on the % of the #1 answer, to the exclusion of the total picture presented by the voting results.

The second example is a recent final jeopardy question, asking for which country allows no U.S. planes into its airspace except for those tracking hurricanes. Here again, all 3 contestants gave answers of countries on the other side of the world, where there are no hurricanes. They obviously did not think about the key word "hurricane" in the question. Asking oneself first where hurricanes occur, and then which country in that part of the world would be at odds with the U.S., leads one inexorably to Cuba as the right answer. My daughter can verify that I was shouting at the TV on this one.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Pardon me if I don't celebrate Lincoln's 200th birthday today. Why he is revered as one of our greatest Presidents is beyond me. The man took this country into a horrible civil war, with over 600,000 deaths and countless more amputations.

People seem to think we would still have slavery today if not for Lincoln. What a ludicrous thought! And would it be so bad to be several countries instead of one? I think not, I think we would be better off. Lincoln should have let the South go in peace, and war would have been avoided.

The principle rule of any "just war" theory is that all other options must be exhasuted. Lincoln certainly did *not* do this, and history should see him for the warmonger and nationalist that he clearly was.

Reagan's Chickens Come Home to Roost

I recently heard again Reagan's infamous statement that "government is not the solution to the problem, government *is* the problem". Throughout this decade we have seen one financial disaster after another, all avoidable to a large degree had there been decent regulation in place. Instead, the Reagan idea that regulation is bad, and greed is good, has infected our society since the '80's, and now these chickens are coming home to roost big-time.

What is amazing is that people don't seem to be able to make the connection between our current economic crisis, and the lack of regulation which caused it. Long-term consequences seem to be something which even our politicians are unable to contemplate. We need some prophetic voices who will speak out and not allow us to overlook long-term consequences of current policies.

The (Im)Morality of Having Octuplets

A single woman in California, who already had 6 kids, gave birth to octuplets after using a fertility drug. The doctor who gave it to her is now under investigation.

This illustrates the lack of personal responsibility epidemic in America these days. It is estimated that the medical costs of taking care of these octuplets will exeed a million dollars. This is an expense that all of us will have to bear, in one way or another.

One hopes that the doctor will lose his license, but one doubts this will ever occur, given the medical profession's sorry track record in policing itself. There has been somewhat of an outcry, but not nearly enough of one. When are we in this country going to understand the importance of personal responsiblity? When are we going to understand that this preoccupation with "rights" has gotten out of hand? When are we gonig to realize that just because we *can* do something, does not mean that we *should" do it?

Shame on You, Don Fehr

Alex Rodriguez was much in the news this week, after he admitted to steroid use in the wake of a Sports Illustrated story naming him as one of the 100+ players who tested positive in the "survey year" of 2003. He admitted using them in Texas during the 2001-2003 time period.

Reaction has been guardedly positive, with most praising him for not doing the Roger Clemens all-out denial response. What gripes me is the (non)role of the players union in all this. I always was vaguely uneasy about the union's role in MLB, and now I'm beginning to understand why. The union has always operated with the mindeset that it is a labor union; hence, every time it does something which appears controversial, they immediatley hide behind the idea that this is what they are allowed to do.

However, it is apparent that this is a union unlike all others. Baseball is an American institution, and as such all who are fortunate enough to participate in it owe a duty to preserve it and pass it along to future generations, just as our forefathes have done for us. The union head does not seem to be able to rise above the "me first" atittude of "get all you can, and consequences be damned".

An outrageous example of this is the current contract situation of Manny Ramirez. Just think of it, Manny is turning down a chance to play baseball next year for $25 million!! Most of us would gladly play for free, but Manny seems to have no respect for this great gift God has given him, and continues to hold out for a longer-term contract. One hopes the baseball owners will continue to hold fast and not take a chance on someone who has proven so unreliable in the past. Manny's position illustrates well the "me first" and "public be damned" attitude of those who use union atitudes to determine their position, instead of common sense and a respect for the game. Shame on you, Manny, and shame on you, Scott Boras, for putting him up to this.

What would a proper approach by the union have been to the steroids issue? Well, if the union were really looking out for the interests of its members, it would have readily agreed to testing, instead of hiding behind some phony notion of "invasion of privacy". Foremost in the union's mind would have been the example of people like former Wichita heavyweight boxer Bob Hazelton, who lost his legs because of sterioid use. Does the union not understand that the long-term health of its members is important? If it does, why not factor that consideration in instead of taking the short-sighted stand of asserting "rights", and consequences be damned.

This country is obsessed with "rights", and there seems to be a lack of recognition of how important things like "responsibilites" and character are. Perhaps if the union head were not a lawyer, he would be more inclined to consider factors besides short-term economic ones. Don Fehr, shame on you!