Wrongful Convictions: A Cancer on the U.S. Justice System

When I went to the conference on wrongful convictions held by the Northwestern Law School in the latter 1990s, there were about 75 people, almost all men, who had been released from Death Row, or a life sentence, because of conclusive evidence of innocence, serious prosecutorial misconduct, or some other compelling circumstance. About 30 of the exonerated were at the conference and a number of them spoke about their experiences. At the time, I couldn’t begin to contemplate that the 75 were likely a small cohort of those wrongfully convicted and still in prison.

In his book, Convicting the Innocent, University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett described his examination of the first 250 DNA exonerations and identified eyewitness misidentification as the leading cause of wrongful convictions. Garrett extrapolated from the fact that DNA evidence applies to only a small percentage of all criminal cases and he took into account the extreme difficulty of freeing those wrongfully convicted of a serious crime, and estimated that 20,000 wrongfully convicted might be inmates in U.S. prisons.

On May 21, 2012, the University of Michigan Law School, in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law, released the first ever National Registry of Exonerations, counting 891 exonerations since 1989, the year of the first exoneration achieved using DNA. With the use of a much larger database than Professor Garrett had, University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross found that perjury or false accusation is the leading cause of wrongful convictions. Some of the Registry findings were that the exonerated spent an average of 11 years in prison; ten people were exonerated posthumously or died in prison; and roughly 50 percent of the cases involved African-Americans.

Gross believes that the cases in the Registry database are just the tip of the iceberg, as he estimates a wrongful conviction rate of up to four percent among violent felonies. Gross’es estimate might be exceedingly low, as when then-Virginia Governor Mark Warner ordered a review of thousands of cases over the 15-year span before DNA testing was available, the review, recently completed, revealed an error rate of about six percent. Extrapolating to the whole U.S. prison population, this would mean that 136,000 people are unjustly incarcerated.

           Florida Governor Kills Innocence Commission

Among all those holding high office today, Florida Governor Rick Scott is proving to be the one who is doing the most to keep the prison doors closed to the wrongfully convicted and non-violent drug addicts. Scott vetoed the $200,000 earmarked for the Innocence Commission created in 2009 “to conduct a comprehensive study of the causes of wrongful convictions and measures to prevent such convictions.” In April 2012, Scott vetoed a bill intended to help non-violent drug addicts in state prisons to recover. He said that justice to victims of crime is not served by releasing a criminal early from a sentence.

The state of Florida is not immune from the great crime of convicting innocent people of very serious crimes. James Bain became the 12th exonoree since 2001, when Florida passed a statute permitting cases to be reopened by DNA testing. Bain served 35 years for a kidnapping and rape he did not commit.

A Palm Beach Post study done 12 years ago found that the death penalty cost Florida taxpayers about $50 million. Illinois was found to have spent $214 million for 85 wrongful convictions.

The real victims of Florida’s Governor Scott are Joe and Jane Taxpayer.

Florida Governor Rick Scott is rapidly cementing a reputation as perhaps the most destructive governor of a big population state in U.S. history. In a prior blog I chronicled how Scott was trying to disenfranchise thousands of likely Democratic party voters — over 180,000 total voters in the initial purge attempt — by questioning their citizenship. In a companion measure of his, he is trying to make it prohibitively difficult for individuals or groups to register voters by greatly restricting the time to turn in names and imposing a heavy fine for every person subsequently found to be ineligible to vote.

A caller to a radio talk show exposed Scott for the sanctimonious fraud he is. She was especially angry because the person who was challenging her right to vote was integrally involved in a billion dollar scheme to defraud the Medicare program. When questioned under oath, Scott took the Fifth Amendment 78 times.



Paul Ryan’s Hard-Line, Anti-Choice Legislative Record

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is very proud of his anti-choice legislative record. While exclaiming to a reporter his pride in his record, he refused to answer directly the reporter’s question about what was likely one of the two most egregious manifestations of his abortion-hating legislative record.

The reporter wanted to know if Ryan stood by his attempt to add “forcible” rape to a bill — H.R. 3 — which was designed to define coverage for payment of abortion services. Ryan initially mildly plagerized President Obama by saying, “Rape is rape, end of story.” When pressed by the reporter, Ryan elaborated that Mitt Romney is the head of the ticket and he will enunciate abortion policy for the Romney-Ryan ticket. Mitt Romney has already changed the Ryan hard-line anti-choice position by coming out in favor of an exception for rape and incest.

The attempt to divide rape into two categories, one being forcible and the other, presumably, being not forcible. H.R. 3 was not the most egregious Ryan attempt to legislatively limit abortions. he  was a co-sponsor of The Sanctity of Human Life Act, which declared that life begins with the fertilization of the egg. The bill, never enacted, would have made in-vitro fertilization illegal, probably made the use of contraception a crime, raised a real possibility that pregnant women who take drugs or drink alcohol to excess could be charged with murder, and raised the same risk for doctors who perform abortions.

In his 14 years in Congress, Rep. Ryan has sponsored 38 anti-choice bills, many of them in alliance with Todd Akin, the current candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri, who believes that women have an innate, secret mechanism in their bodies that can distringuish between friendly and unfriendly sperm. Moreover, Ryan has a higher lifetime rating with the National Right to Life Committee than does Todd Akin.



Paul RYAN: Down-the-Line Supporter of George W. Bush

During the two terms of President George W. Bush, Paul Ryan was one of Bush’s biggest supporters, as he was a solid yes vote on all of Bush’s major actions. He voted for both of the Bush tax cuts; voted for going to war with Afghanistan; voted for giving President Bush the authority to invade Iraq; voted yes on enacting the Part D drug prescription benefit; and supported the TARP program to bail out floundering financial institutions. He even lobbied Bush to make partial privatization of Social Security a policy priority in his second term.

Paul Ryan was thus a willing participant in approving initiatives, which, collectively, carry a heavy long-term cost. Economist Joseph Stiglitz and colleague estimate the long-term cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be at least $3 trillion. The revenue loss from the two tax cuts has passed the $1 trillion mark. The prescription drug benefit was costed out at $400 billion for the first ten years by the Bush administration’s leading expert; however, the administration deliberately low-balled the estimated cost to squeeze it through the U.S. House. The full monetary cost of TARP is in dispute but it will be substantial.

The contrast between Paul Ryan’s words about cutting government spending and his actions as a lawmaker have continued into the Obama administration. Ryan has been a harsh critic of President Obama’s stimulus plan but both the Boston Globe and the Wall Street Journal have reported on Ryan’s letters to the Labor Department and the Department of Energy to obtain stimulus funds for local energy groups. When the Wall Street Journal pressed Ryan on his fund solicitation, he at first denied any solicitation; however, when presented with the letters he signed, he characterized them as carrying out “constituent service requests.” There is a big difference between helping out an individual or family with a problem and trying to help businesses get funding from a program that Ryan has labeled as a big government giveaway.

Rep. Paul Ryan has already contributed to deepening the deficit hole through his voting record. He will deepen it further with his budget plan to drop the top marginal tax rate from 35 to 25 percent, without identifying any compensating increases in revenue.

Cost-Shifting Is the Core of Paul Ryan’s Social Programing Proposals

Before the 2004 elections, Rep. Paul Ryan proposed a plan to privatize Social Security and then lobbied President Bush to make it a policy priority in his second term. Bush adopted a more modest privatization plan and then abandoned it due to strong public opposition. Appartently burned by that experience, Ryan has left Social Security out of his current plan to transform  Medicare and Medicaid. Cost-shifting is the core of his plan.

Although the Romney-Ryan team is accusing President Obama of cutting $716 billion from Medicare benefits over 10 years, Paul Ryan has the same $716 billion in his own plan. The difference is that Obama would use some of the savings to extend the life of Medicare, close part of the Part D drug prescription “donut hole,” and add preventive care for all beneficiaries, while the Ryan plan lacks similar provisions.

The Ryan plan would give Medicare beneficiaries a choice between staying in the Medicare program or getting vouchers to buy their own insurance. In regard to Medicaid, each state would get an annual pot of money to cover  Medicaid costs. What this means is that any difference between Medicare costs and money to pay would be made up by the Medicare beneficiary; moreover, any shortfalls between Medicaid expenses and the state’s initial pot of money would be made up by the state itself. Thus, the Ryan plan does not reduce the overall cost of healthcare spending: costs are shifted to beneficiaries and states.

There is an additional problem with vouchers: it is highly likely that many voucher holders will purchase insurance with sub-par coverage. Much of the focus on healthcare coverage has been on those without health insurance, yet there are tens of millions who have health insurance that insurance experts consider inadequate.

Striking Back at Scofflaw Anti-Choicers

For some time now, we have experienced efforts by anti-choice scofflaws to strip Roe v. Wade of virtually any meaning by imposing so many restrictions on obtaining an abortion as to make attainment of one almost impossible. Legislative efforts to curtail abortions, led overwhelmingly by GOP governors and GOP-controlled legislatures, have included waiting periods, pre-abortion counseling, reguirements that teenagers get parental permission, restrictions on interior room sizes limited to abortion clinics, invasive sonogram testing, and other onerous restrictions too numerous to mention. It is good, then, to see pro-choice folks fighting back, with what Mother Jones magazine calls “intentionally absurd counterproposals.”

1) As the Virginia state Senate debated requiring transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions, Sen. Janet Howell proposed mandating rectal exams for men seeking erectile dysfunction meds. Her amendment failed by just two votes.

2) By an 8-to-4 vote, the Wilmington, Delaware, City Council recognized the personhood of semen, because “each ‘egg person’ and each ‘sperm person’ should be deemed equal in the eyes of the government.”

3) When a zygote-personhood bill came before the Oklahoma state Senate, Sen. Constance Johnson penned an amendment declaring that ejaculating anywhere outside a woman’s vagina constitutes “an action against an unborn child.”

4) Texas state Rep. Harold Dutton proposed that the state pay the college tuition or health care costs of children born to women who decide against an abortion after being required to see a sonogram image.

5) Responding to a Georgia House bill banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, Rep. Yasmin Neal wrote a bill outlawing most vasectomies because they leave “thousands of children… deprived of birth.” Democratic lawmakers sponsored a similar bill in Missouri.

6) A bill by Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner would require men to undergo psychological screenings and stress tests before getting prescriptions for impotence drugs.

7) Illinois state Rep. Kelly Cassdidy proposed requiring would-be Viagra users to watch a video depicting the treatment for the side effect of persistent erections: “It’s not a pretty procedure to watch.”

The Ryan Tax Plan: A Boost to the Superwealthy

Representative Paul Ryan’s most recent tax plan would have only two rates: 10 and 25 percent. Cutting the top marginal tax rate from 35 to 25 percent entails a large revenue loss, which Ryan purports to make up by broadening the tax base and eliminating tax breaks. The problem is that he doesn’t define how he will do either of those two things. Tax breaks for employer-provided health insurance, mortgage interest, 401(k) accounts, state and local taxes, and charitable giving are popular and if these breaks are not cut, there is litttle else to cut that would raise significant revenue.

Besides the unconvincing vagueness of how Ryan would make up lost revenue in his plan, tax analyst groups see his proposed tax plan as heavily skewed toward the superwealthy — or “job creators,” as Ryan calls them. A recent Tax Policy Center study finds those earning over $1 million with tax cuts averaging $175,000; those earning between $75,000 and $100,000 with an average tax cut of $1,800; and those earning under $30,000 with an average tax increase of $130. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities calculates that the Ryan tax plan would cut the tax rate paid by the wealthiest Americans and corporations by nearly 30 percent.

The Congressional Budget Office says that the Ryan plan would not balance the federal budget until about 2040. The main reason for this is that the new tax rates would start soon and the cuts in social programs — mainly Medicare and Medicaid — would kick in 10 years later. Given the many variables that affect the federal government budget, any plan that intends to balance the federal budget three decades from now should be treated as pie-in-the-sky.

U.S. Olympic Medal Count in Perspective

The U.S. medal count at the 2012 Olympics is uncritically looked at by the media as a competitive race with other countries in terms of gold and total medals won; however, when looked at in terms of gender, population, gross domestic product and overall strength across the many Olympic events, the medal totals look less impressive.

I. U.S. Olympic Medals Won Related to Gender

The U.S. women won 58 of the total 104 medals won by the U.S. Olympic team, or 56 percent of the total. The U.S. women, however, won 29 ot the 46 highly coveted gold medals won by the U.S. team. The women’s share of the gold medals amounts to 63 percent of the total.

In team sports, the women won gold in basketball, soccer, water polo, gymnastics and a silver in volleyball. If two-participant beach volleyball is considered a team sport, the women won gold and silver in that. The men won a gold in basketball but failed to reach the medal round in any other team sport.

The U.S. women’s Olympic performance is a long-term payoff for the enactment of Title IX, which was designed to level the playing field in funding for publicly-supported men’s and women’s sports. It is not the intent of this blog to denigrate the success of the women but to make the point that commentators on the Olympics should have critically examined the relatively greater success of the U.S. women, compared to the U.S. men. 

II. The Relationship of Total and Gold Medals Won Related to a Country’s Population

The medals won by the top 13 countries is as follows:

Country                                     Gold     Silver     Bronze    Total

United States                               46        29           29          104

China                                           38        27            23           88

Russia                                         24        26            32           82

Great Britain                               29        17             19           65

Germany                                    11        19             14           44

Japan                                          7         14             17           38

Australia                                     7          16             12           35

France                                      11          11            12            34

South Korea                             13            8              7            28

Italy                                            8            9             11           28

Canada                                     1            5              12          18

Spain                                        3           10               4           17

Cuba                                        5             3               6            14

The rankings of these medal-winning countries by the ratio of medals won to total population is as follows:

1. Australia; 2. Great Britain; 3. Cuba; 4. Russia; 5. South Korea; 6. Canada; 7. Germany; 8. France; 9. Italy; 10. Spain; 11. United States; 12. Japan; 13. China.

On a medals-to-population ratio basis, Great Britain would have won a little over five times as many medals as the United States if its population had been the same as the United States; also, its gold medal count would have been about 150 instead of 29.

III. Rankings on a Gross Domestic Product Basis (starting with the highest ratio of medals to GDP)

1. Australia; 2. Russia; 3. Great Britain; 4. South Korea; 5. France; 6. Italy; 7. Germany; 8. Canada;  9. Spain; 10. Cuba; 11. United States; 12. Japan; 13. China.

In regard to GDP, the 13 countries rank as follows:

1. United States; 2. China; 3. Japan; 4. Germany; 5. Russia; 6. Great Britain; 7. France; 8. Italy; 9. South Korea; 10. Spain; 11. Canada; 12. Australia; 13. Cuba. Cuba is 65th in GDP and has a relatively small population. It was put in this comparison because of the high number of Olympic medals it won.

The significance of these two rankings is that except for the three countries with the highest GDPs — the U.S, China and Japan — and Cuba, the other nine countries rank near the top of the world in Olympic medals won and GDP. The modern Olympics is often called the “wealth” Olympics, because the richest nations can afford to spend the most in sports facilities and the development of athletes. Based on these GDP rankings, the U.S., China and Japan under-performed and Cuba over-performed. The other nine countries ranged from just under $3 trillion in GDP to just under $1 trillion. 

IV. Olympic Medals Won in Relationship to Olympic Event Categories ( such as swimming, rowing and archery)

The U.S. won 66 medals, or 63.5 percent of its total medals, in swimming, track and field, and gymnastics. Contrasted to China, which won at least five medals in eight different event categories, the U.S. won five or more medals in only the three events listed above. The U.S. won four medals in tennis, cycling, diving, wrestling  and three in rowing. Besides basketball and beach volleyball, the U.S. won two medals in boxing, judo, and taekwondo. It won one medal in fencing, soccer, water polo and volleyball (only two possible in the latter three events). In all the other event categories, the U.S. was shut out in the medal competition. 

V. A Closer Look at U.S. Men’s Track and Field Performance

The U.S. men, who in the past piled up many medals in the running events through 400 meters, did not win a single gold in the strictly running events. They won bronze in the 100 meters, silver in the 1,500 and 10,000 meters and silver in the two relays. In the 200 meters, the third fastest Jamaican runner defeated the fastest U.S. runner.

The U.S. men’s track and field medals tended to be clustered in a few events. Thus, two medals were won in the 110 meter hurdles, two in the triple jump, two in the decathlon and two, I believe, in the broadjump.

Overall then, the U.S. Olympic team’s performance in the 2012 Olympics should be looked at in terms of its large population base, its status as the wealthiest nation in the world, and its relatively weak performance in many of the Olympic event categories. Moreover, the U.S. women won almost two-thirds of the U.S. gold medals and well over half ot the total U.S. medals. This disparity should be considered in any analysis of the U.S. team’s showing in the 2012 Olympics.