Category Archives: Society

Violence begets violence

The death penalty may have cost three innocent people their lives. From The New York Times’ story on Frazier Glenn Miller, the anti-Semite who killed three people in Missouri:

In recent years, Mr. Miller has also been a devoted pen pal to incarcerated white supremacists, among them Joseph Paul Franklin, a convicted murderer who was executed in Missouri in November. Ms. Beirich, of the law center, said that Mr. Miller was very close to Mr. Franklin, whose birthday was Sunday, the day of the shooting.

More: Lest I be misunderstood, Miller is of course 100 percent responsible for his actions. He, not the death penalty, killed three innocent people. But this hatemonger had somehow made it to the age of 73 without killing anyone. Then the state of Missouri took the life of his friend. Who knows what effect that may have had on his twisted mind?

It is beyond dispute that states with the death penalty also have the highest murder rate. And some research suggests that’s no accident, as the potentially homicidal are more likely to identify with the executioner than the condemned.

Erin Cox story descends into smears and retractions

Looks like someone is trying to smear Erin Cox, the North Andover High School student who was suspended from the volleyball team and lost her captain’s position after she said she went to a party in order to drive home a friend who was drunk. Here’s the lead of a story now online at The Valley Patriot:

The Valley Patriot published a story this morning citing Law enforcement sources in North Andover who claimed High School student Erin Cox was to appear in court on charges of possession of alcohol.

The Valley Patriot has since learned that this information was false.

If you click to read the whole story, you’ll see that it only gets worse. Keep in mind that one of the few on-the-record accounts we have is from a police officer, Brian Neeley, who absolved Cox in a statement that was originally reported by The North Andover Citizen:

Erin did not have the slightest odor of an alcoholic beverage coming from her person. She was polite, articulate, steady on her feet, and very remorseful for her decision to go into the residence but was only helping a friend out that had called her for a ride.

Keep an eye on this one. There’s more to come, I’m sure.

Wednesday morning update: There is a lot of clarifying detail in this story in today’s Eagle-Tribune. The key takeaway is that Cox’s parents say Officer Neeley told everyone at the scene that they would be charged being as minors in possession of alcohol — even if they weren’t, you know, in possession of alcohol. That strikes me as the key fact that would explain Tuesday’s attempted smear.

Booze, pills and the economics of casinos

Caesar

Caesar

The chaos that has broken out over the split between Suffolk Downs and Caesars Entertainment is good news for casino opponents. At the very least, it increases the likelihood that East Boston residents will vote no on Nov. 5. At most, we may be able to look forward to delays and lawsuits for years to come.

I was particularly struck by the accusation — reported by Mark Arsenault in The Boston Globe — that Caesars separated one wealthy gambler from his money by keeping him liquored up and plying him with painkillers. I know nothing about the details of that accusation. But it actually fits well with the business model for casinos.

I’ve flagged this before, and it’s worth flagging again: according to Michael Jonas of CommonWealth Magazine, casinos could not survive if it weren’t for the problem gamblers who provide a disproportionate share of the revenues. Jonas explains it this way:

Just how much of the revenue casinos bring in is from the losses of those with gambling problems? One of the most thorough studies of this issue was done in 2004 in Ontario, where researchers had a sample of residents maintain diaries logging their gambling expenditures. The study, prepared for the government-supported Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre, estimated that 35 percent of Ontario casino revenues were derived from moderate to severe problem gamblers. Such gamblers accounted for 30 percent of revenue from casino table games and a whopping 62 percent of revenue from slot machines.

I remain appalled that Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature legalized casinos and slots, which are associated with higher rates of crime, divorce and suicide. But I’m optimistic that these social parasites can be stopped one at a time.

Below is a statement from No Eastie Casino:

EAST BOSTON, Mass. — Oct. 19, 2013 — For more than a year, No Eastie Casino has pushed the City of Boston and Suffolk Downs to share more information about Suffolk Downs’ proposed Caesars Entertainment Resort. After ignoring repeated calls for greater transparency and concerns about Caesars’ solvency raised by East Boston residents, on Friday Suffolk Downs dropped the operations partner it chose in 2011 to run a casino in East Boston, Caesars Entertainment, only after state investigators informed them that Suffolk Downs likely would not pass the background check if Caesars stayed on. The Boston Globe reported that a number of concerns were brought to Suffolk Downs’ attention, including Caesars’ alleged business ties to organized crime.

But East Boston casino opponents say the stunning news late Friday demonstrates that residents cannot trust Suffolk Downs when it comes to whom they choose to bring into the neighborhood, said No Eastie Casino co-chair Celeste Myers.

“As recently as two months ago, Suffolk Downs owner Joe O’Donnell stated that Caesars was ‘as professional as they come,’” Myers said, pointing out Suffolk Downs’ frequent assertion that it shares Caesars’ values. “Clearly, they did not do due diligence in vetting Caesars — a company with which they have had a relationship since 2011 — and only ended the relationship when forced to do so.”

She added that Suffolk Downs has now picked two corporations, Caesars and Vornado Realty Trust, that have been unable or unwilling to pass background checks. In March, Vornado put its 19 percent stake in the casino plan into a blind trust after the majority of its executive team refused the state’s mandatory background checks. To our knowledge, Vornado has not divested completely from the casino partnership and voters remain in the dark about who will pick up its nearly one-fifth share in the project.

Caesars’ sudden departure also raises serious questions about the value of the City’s and Suffolk Downs’ host community agreement and shows that the promises in the mitigation agreement were made to be broken. Many key elements of the mitigation agreement-including key components of the jobs and small business plans-were tied to Caesars’ employee practices and Total Rewards programs. (Download our 16-page mitigation analysis here.)

No Eastie Casino leaders on Saturday formally called on Suffolk Downs to withdraw its casino application, in light of the information that emerged late Friday, and to share full details about their casino plans — including what they knew about Caesars and when they knew it — with the community at large.

“Now, more than ever, our neighbors and voters are seeing the glaring problems in the Suffolk Downs casino plans and the flaws in transparency that have plagued this fight from the start,” Myers said. “We hope Suffolk Downs and the City of Boston do the right thing and withdraw their support of this project. Until they do, our campaign will continue to reach out to and educate voters until we are victorious on Nov. 5.”

Why the Boy Scouts’ half-measure won’t hold (II)

Read this scorcher of an editorial (link now fixed) from the New Haven Register on the Boy Scouts’ homophobia. Also, the Connecticut Yankee Council announced last week (before the national vote) that it will stop discriminating against boys and adults on the basis of sexual orientation.

The walls are crumbling. And my guess is that the national headquarters of the Boy Scouts of America no longer has the juice to enforce its discriminatory policies at the local level.

Why the Boy Scouts’ half-measure won’t hold

Boy_Scouts_BSA_Stamp

This commentary appeared earlier at The Huffington Post.

The compromise announced by the Boy Scouts of America on Thursday is untenable. And that is precisely why it’s good news.

More than 60 percent of the organization’s national leadership voted to approve a policy ending discrimination against openly gay scouts while keeping in place the ban against gay adult leaders. With the BSA finally dragging itself into the late 20th century, can the 21st be far behind?

The answer, I hope, is that the time to end discrimination has arrived. But it isn’t going to be accomplished without a lot of strife. As this story from the Associated Press makes clear, the organization seems likely to rip itself apart. Members of the homophobic religious right are already threatening to leave.

John Stemberger, the founder of an anti-gay group called OnMyHonor.net, went so far as to claim the BSA had caved in to “bullies” from Washington and Hollywood — a perniciously offensive twist given the bullying that many gay youths endure.

At the same time, you can be sure that those who have been fighting against discrimination will keep pushing. As Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson, a scout leader, noted several months ago, scout councils in liberal enclaves such as the Boston area have already endorsed nondiscrimination policies. Thursday’s national vote is an invitation to defy openly the ban on gay adult leaders.

I write from considerable experience. I am an Eagle scout. So is my 22-year-old son. I’m the former scoutmaster of his troop, and though I’m not as active these days, I continue to be a registered adult leader. I believe that scouting can be a life-altering experience, introducing boys to teamwork, fair play, love of the outdoors and respect for the environment.

As a scout leader who has participated in a number of training sessions, I can attest that the BSA’s discriminatory policies never came up in the context of actions we were expected to take. Even in conversations those policies were rarely mentioned. Here in the Northeast, I’ve found that most (though not all) adult leaders are opposed to discrimination.

We all make our peace with such things in our own way. Like Derrick Jackson, my personal policy was to hang in there as long as I was not put in a position of having to discriminate. I never was, though of course I also have no way of knowing how many gay kids and adults stayed away because they thought they wouldn’t be accepted. Still, I believed — and still do — that the good in scouting outweighs the bad, and that the organization is more likely to change if people of goodwill stay involved.

Though Thursday’s vote can be seen as a modest step forward, another possible compromise floated earlier this year would have been far more workable. You may remember that one: groups that charter troops, such as churches and civic organizations, would have been free to set their own policies.

Such a compromise would have accurately reflected how the BSA actually operates, as troops are considered part of their chartering organizations. To concoct a hypothetical, it would have opened the way for a Unitarian Universalist church to sponsor a troop that allowed gay scouts and adult leaders as well as atheists, another group banned under current BSA policy.

Following an uproar, though, the BSA’s national leadership retreated, leading to this week’s action — and to an opportunity to end scouting’s discriminatory policies once and for all. I welcome the moment. Far better to bring this embarrassment to an end than to muddle through for another five to 10 years.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

No slots in Danvers. (No slots anywhere.)

pottersville

I was hoping this would go away so quickly that I wouldn’t have to write about it. But today Ethan Forman of The Salem News reports that local business leaders think a 24-hour, seven-day slots parlor in Danvers would just be a wicked awesome way of boosting the North Shore economy.

No surprise that our local Mr. Potters are excited about the idea of turning my town into Pottersville. But it looks as though those of us who oppose casinos and slots are going to have to mobilize — or at least get ready to mobilize.

To that end, I’ve started a Facebook page, No Slots in Danvers, and I’m going to keep a close eye on developments. The last thing we need is 1,250 slot machines behind the Liberty Tree Mall, abutting a residential neighborhood.

As those of you who’ve been reading Media Nation for a few years know, I was a staunch opponent of plans to build a casino — at one time billed as the world’s largest — in my hometown of Middleborough. That plan collapsed, fortunately, and I hope this one will, too. At the very least, I find it hard to believe that the proposal would win a townwide referendum, no matter how many goodies the developers promise.

Just say no to slots and casinos.

The Swartz suicide and the sick culture of the Justice Dept.

Harvey headshotRepublished by permission of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, where this article first appeared. Thanks to my friend Harvey for making this available to readers of Media Nation.

By Harvey A. Silverglate

Some lawyers are joking when they refer to the Moakley Courthouse as “the House of Pain.” I’m not.

The ill-considered prosecution leading to the suicide of computer prodigy Aaron Swartz is the most recent in a long line of abusive prosecutions coming out of the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston, representing a disastrous culture shift. It sadly reflects what’s happened to the federal criminal courts, not only in Massachusetts but across the country.

It’s difficult for lawyers to step back and view the larger picture of the unflattering system from which we derive our status and our living. But we have an ethical obligation to criticize the legal system when warranted.

Who else, after all, knows as much about where the proverbial bodies are buried and is in as good a position to tell truth to power as members of the independent bar?

Yet the palpable injustices flowing regularly out of the federal criminal courts have by and large escaped the critical scrutiny of the lawyers who are in the best position to say something. And judges tend not to recognize what to outsiders are serious flaws, because the system touts itself as the best and fairest in the world.

Since the mid-1980s, a proliferation of vague and overlapping federal criminal statutes has given federal prosecutors the ability to indict, and convict, virtually anyone unfortunate enough to come within their sights. And sentencing guidelines confer yet additional power on prosecutors, who have the discretion to pick and choose from statutes covering the same behavior.

This dangerous state of affairs has resulted in countless miscarriages of justice, many of which aren’t recognized as such until long after unfairly incarcerated defendants have served “boxcar-length” sentences.

Aaron Swartz was a victim of this system run amok. He was indicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a notoriously broad statute enacted by Congress seemingly to criminalize any use of a computer to do something that could be deemed bad.

As Harvard Law School Internet scholar Lawrence Lessig has written for The Atlantic: “For 25 years, the CFAA has given federal prosecutors almost unbridled discretion to bully practically anyone using a computer network in ways the government doesn’t like.”

Swartz believed that information on the Internet should be free to the extent possible. He entered the site operated by JSTOR, a repository of millions of pages of academic articles available for sale, and downloaded a huge cache. He did not sell any, and while it remains unclear exactly how or even if he intended to make his “information should be free” point, no one who knew Swartz, not even the government, thought he was in it to make money.

Therefore, JSTOR insisted that criminal charges not be brought.

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz obscured that point when announcing the indictment. “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, whether you take documents, data or dollars, and whether its to feed your children or for buying a new car” she said, failing to recognize the most basic fact: that Swartz neither deprived the owners of the articles of their property nor made a penny from his caper. Continue reading

Sununu blasts MIT and Carmen Ortiz in Swartz case

It’s interesting that even a conservative like John E. Sununu is disgusted with the actions of MIT and U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz regarding their investigation of the late Internet democracy activist Aaron Swartz.

Sununu, an MIT graduate with some serious basketball moves, writes in The Boston Globe that Swartz was charged criminally for behavior that in an earlier time might have been considered no more serious than any one of a number of pranks for which the university is known. The whole thing, he says, should have been handled in house:

Whereas the institute once would have taken pains to find an appropriate and internal resolution to violations of regulations — and even laws — within its campus, it chose to defer to others. That reaction isn’t unique to MIT, but rather a reflection of gradual changes in accepted cultural and government behavior over the past 20 years. Today, regulators and prosecutors regularly use their power to impose agreements, plea bargains, and consent decrees with little judicial review. They threaten the maximum penalty allowable — regardless of whether a rational mind would consider it fitting for the infraction — in order to gain an outcome that enhances their stature or pleases their political base.

Meanwhile, Noam Cohen of The New York Times takes a detailed look at how MIT caught Swartz, who downloaded nearly 5 million academic articles from the JSTOR subscription service without authorization.

Aaron Swartz, Carmen Ortiz and the meaning of justice

Aaron Swartz in January 2012. Photo (cc) by Daniel J. Sieradski. For details, click on image.

Aaron Swartz in January 2012

An earlier version of this commentary was published on Sunday at The Huffington Post.

The suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz has prompted a wave of revulsion directed at U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who was seeking to put him in prison for 35 years on charges that he illegally downloaded millions of academic articles.

Swartz, 26, who helped develop the RSS standard and was a co-founder of Reddit, was “driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying,” wrote his friend and lawyer Lawrence Lessig. “I get wrong,” Lessig added. “But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.”

By Monday morning, more than 11,000 people had signed an online petition asking President Obama to remove Ortiz. Swartz’s family released a statement that said in part: “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”

Ortiz’s vindictiveness toward Swartz may have seemed shocking given that even the victim of Swartz’s alleged offense — the academic publisher JSTOR — did not wish to press charges. But it was no surprise to those of us who have been observing Ortiz’s official conduct as the top federal prosecutor in Boston.

Last July I singled out Ortiz as the lead villain in the 2012 Muzzle Awards, an annual feature I’ve been writing for the Phoenix newspapers of Boston, Providence and Portland since 1998. The reason: her prosecution of Tarek Mehanna, a Boston-area pharmacist who had acted as a propagandist for Al Qaeda.

Mehanna was sentenced to prison for 17 years — not because of what he did, but because of what he said, wrote and translated. Though Mehanna had once unsuccessfully sought training at a jihadi terrorist camp in Yemen, the government’s case was based almost entirely on activities that were, or should have been, protected by the First Amendment.

Make no mistake: Mehanna’s propaganda was “brutal, disgusting and unambiguously supportive of Islamic insurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia,” Yale political scientist Andrew March wrote in The New York Times. But as March, the ACLU and others pointed out in defense of Mehanna, the more loathsome the speech, the more it deserves protection under the Constitution.

In addition to the prosecution of Tarek Mehanna and the persecution of Aaron Swartz, there is the matter of Sal DiMasi, a former speaker of the Massachusetts House who is now serving time in federal prison on political corruption charges brought by Ortiz.

Last June DiMasi revealed he had advanced tongue cancer — and he accused federal prison authorities of ignoring his pleas for medical care while he was shuttled back and forth to Boston so that he could be questioned about a patronage scandal Ortiz’s office was investigating. It would be a stretch to connect Ortiz directly with DiMasi’s health woes. She is, nevertheless, a key player in a system that could transform DiMasi’s prison sentence into a death sentence.

Notwithstanding the anger that has been unleashed at Ortiz following Aaron Swartz’s death, she should not be regarded as an anomaly. As the noted civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate pointed out in his 2009 book, “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent,” federal prosecutors have been given vague, broad powers that have led to outrages against justice across the country.

“Wrongful prosecution of innocent conduct that is twisted into a felony charge has wrecked many an innocent life and career,” wrote Silverglate, a friend and occasional collaborator. “Whole families have been devastated, as have myriad relationships and entire companies.”

Ortiz may now find that her willingness to use those vast powers against Swartz could have a harmful effect on her future.

As a Latina and as a tough law-and-order Democrat, she has been seen as a hot political property in Massachusetts. In 2011 The Boston Globe Magazine named her its “Bostonian of the Year.” She recently told the Boston Herald she was not interested in running for either the U.S. Senate or governor. But that doesn’t mean she couldn’t be persuaded. Now, though, she may be regarded as damaged goods.

Those who are mourning the death of Aaron Swartz should keep in mind that he had long struggled with depression. Blaming his suicide on Carmen Ortiz is unfair.

Nevertheless, the case she was pursuing against Swartz was wildly disproportionate, and illustrated much that is wrong with our system of justice. Nothing good can come from his death. But at the very least it should prompt consideration of why such brutality has become a routine part of the American system of justice.

Update: MIT, where Swartz allegedly downloaded the JSTOR articles, has announced an internal investigation, reports Evan Allen of The Boston Globe. Lauren Landry of BostInno has statements from MIT president Rafael Reif and from JSTOR.

Photo (cc) by Daniel J. Sieradski via Wikimedia Commons and published here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.