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October 6th, 2002:

Victims’ rights and wrongs

The cover story in this week’s Houston Press is on the schism in the victims’ rights movement. One of the main players is Houston-based Justice for All, led by Dianne Clements. JFA is as tuff-on-crime as they come, and they brook no dissent. The following occurs at a National Organization of Victim Assistance conference, during a workshop held by a group called Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR):

The session was called “Healing the Wounds of Murder,” and most of the audience seemed attentive. However, workshop hosts noticed a middle-aged woman who took a back-row seat in a far corner.

They described her as if she were a sullen student defying a teacher, facing sideways in her chair, affecting an air of disinterest. As the workshop began, she ate ice from a cup, crunching loudly enough to be heard by all 40 or so in the room.

The woman was Dianne Clements, president of the Houston-based victims’ rights group Justice For All. She soon began interrupting the speakers. According to some attendees, these exchanges followed:

[Renny] Cushing asked Clements to hold her questions until after the presentation. She refused, demanding answers.

“I want you to tell us,” Clements angrily insisted, “what are you? Are you an abolitionist [anti-death penalty] group or a victim support group?”

“We’re both,” replied [Jennifer] Bishop.

That answer was unacceptable to Clements. She repeated her line of questioning, then stunned listeners when she told Cushing and Bishop, “You’re really a bunch of abolitionists who just happened to have family members killed.”

As the article notes, Cushing’s father was murdered in 1988. Bishop’s pregnant sister and brother-in-law were murdered in 1990.

The story goes on to relate the problems that the victims’ rights movement is having now that it has accomplished most of its goals. Those of who who have felt that the civil rights movement is in danger of becoming irrelevant as its leaders do silly things like complain about the movie Barbershop may take note of the similarities.

Personally, if JFA and its hardcore supporters fall by the wayside, I won’t be the least bit unhappy. I’ve written before about how focusing exclusively on punishment is a poor way to reduce crime, but as long as JFA is a sacred cow we’ll never start to think critically about what policies are truly the best.

It’s also amazing how the politics of victimhood can twist seemingly simple things. Take this example:

MVFR believes there is discrimination against victims who do not agree with prosecutors’ goals, especially when it comes to the death penalty. They point to a 1999 Nebraska court ruling that seems to defy basic definitions.

Nebraska law says that a victim will be granted an opportunity to appear before the parole board. But when a Nebraska victim’s family asked to appear in support of clemency, the board said no.

The case went to Nebraska’s highest court, which reached this conclusion: Victims who testify for the defendant are not legally victims. MVFR argues that truncated versions of that attitude prevail in criminal justice offices all over the nation. In arguing that, the group points to one prominent case in Houston this year: the murder trial of Andrea Yates. Even though his five children were drowned by his wife, husband Rusty Yates was not really treated like a victim.

Say what you want about Rusty Yates (and I largely agree with Ginger here), until such time as he’s arrested for having had some role in the death of his kids, he’s a victim of this crime. He’s loathsome and unsympathetic, but he’s still a human being who lost his wife and kids in a horrible way. Assigning second-class status to him or any other crime victim who doesn’t share the state’s bloodlust is appalling.

JFA’s devotion to the death penalty is in itself nearly enough to change my mind on the subject:

University of Houston law professor David Dow sees the hard-line execution position as a major problem with Justice For All. Dow is a director of the Innocence Project in Texas, a volunteer group that investigates convicts’ claims of innocence.

JFA, says Dow, is “unwilling to be critical of the police or prosecutors, even in cases where they deserve to be criticized, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the system makes mistakes.”

Dow says wrongful convictions point out serious shortcomings that Justice For All refuses to acknowledge. “Justice For All people are mostly middle-class white folks who are never going to be put in the position of being wrongly accused.”

He says that many of those exonerated — by DNA results or other evidence — are poor and black, and that Justice For All does not consider that the wrongly convicted are crime victims, too. Dow says they “tend to have a racist view that, well, the person may not have done this, but he did something else.”

JFA representative Rusty Hubbarth, testifying to Texas legislators last year on a proposal for a moratorium on executions, was asked by one lawmaker, “Rusty, you’re not in favor of executing innocent people, are you?”

“Not this week,” Hubbarth joked.

The humor was probably lost on two men in attendance that day. Randall Adams and Kerry Cook had collectively spent more than a decade in prison for crimes they didn’t commit — they’d both come within hours of execution.

I’ve never understood why people who claim to be “tuff on crime” are so often utterly cavalier about convicting the wrong guy. I suppose they usually operate on the “if he didn’t do this, he must’ve done something” theory, however misguided that may be. Even if you grant that idea some validity, it still doesn’t take into account the fact that if you’re convicting the wrong guy, the real criminal is still out there, free as a bird. Why doesn’t that bother them? How exactly is justice being served here?

One last thing to note here is the sidebar story about the author, Scott Nowell. Nowell is an ex-con who did time for false imprisonment of an ex-girlfriend a few years back. His past did not endear him to JFA, whose reps not only refused to talk to him but accused him of harassment. It’s an interesting twist on the story.

Beam me up – to El Paso?

El Paso, Texas, is hoping to capitalize on its status as Gene Roddenberry’s birthplace to draw the lucrative Trekkie tourist trade:

Trekkies in town for the city’s first Star Trek convention won’t need star charts to find the birthplace of Gene Roddenberry, who created the science-fiction television series.

By this weekend’s convention, the central El Paso site where Roddenberry was born in 1921 will be marked with a plaque. That location is now occupied by Sylvia’s Flowers.

The wooden plaque, which reads, in part, “He created a universe for his future and that universe was `Star Trek,’ which became a worldwide phenomenon,” will be placed inside the flower shop. The plaque is a little larger than a legal pad.

“We can become a big Trekkie town,” city Rep. Anthony Cobos told the El Paso Times. Cobos, who is paying for the marker with campaign funds, hopes the plaque will become a destination for legions of Star Trek fans and bring tourism to El Paso.

The timeline in the official Star Trek Web site begins with Roddenberry’s birth in El Paso, and many hard-core fans will boldly go to see the plaque, said John Peterson, a fan and administrator of the El Paso school district’s Gene Roddenberry Planetarium.

I’ve been to El Paso. It’s a nice enough place if you like it hot, dry, and mountainous. Dunno how much Trekkie tourism will bring them, but I wish them luck.

Max speaks

Max Sawicky takes time from his busy blogging schedule to do some paid work arguing against the Bush tax cut.

Wait ’til next year

Well, the Yankees are out of the playoffs. Not much to say other than congrats to the Angels for a job well done. Not what I expected, but anything can happen in a short series, and in this series the Angels deserved to win.

This was the best Yankees team since 1998, but there are some issues lurking beneath the surface. Derek Jeter’s glove is becoming enough of a liability that the Yankees ought to give serious thought to moving him to third base, assuming that Robin Ventura doesn’t return. I know Drew Henson is the anointed heir at third, but he hasn’t proven that he can hit yet. The Bombers have enough pop in their lineup that they could carry a good-glove no-stick guy like Rey Ordonez. Heck, playing Enrique Wilson would be an improvement. It’ll never happen, partly because it’s heresy to suggest that Jeter is anything less than a stellar fielder, but it’s what I’d do if I could.

Speaking of the lineup, it’s time to recognize that Alfonso Soriano belongs in the five hole, not leading off. Put Jeter there, where his .370 OBA and decent power can do maximum good. Follow with Nick Johnson, Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams, Soriano, Jorge Posada, and whoever else is playing.

Finally, there’s the outfield. Again, I’m risking excommunication, but it’s time to think about moving Bernie Williams to left field. He has no arm, and he’s starting to slow down a bit. Perhaps the rookie Juan Rivera can hack it, and if not there’s probably some free agent available. This is a lesser issue, but it can’t be ignored for long.

I just have one request for the rest of the playoffs: I want the Braves to lose so that at least no one can gripe about how only high-payroll teams have a chance to win. If my team can’t win, I’m rooting for a big fat repudiation to Beelzebud’s party line about economics. Is that so much to ask?

Brand loyalty

A nice article in today’s Chron about local brewery and success story St. Arnold’s. If you’re a local and you haven’t done one of the Saturday afternoon brewery tours, you’re missing out on a fun experience as well as some free samples of their tasty beer. You might even get to see St. Arnold himself if you’re lucky:

People appreciate beer in general because it has a socializing influence, said Bev Blackwood, a member of St. Arnold’s Army, the nickname for the brewery’s legion of supporters.

On special occasions, Blackwood wears a robe his wife made and a bishop’s hat to assume the role of St. Arnold, the patron saint of brewers.

Blackwood, a computer trainer at San Jacinto College, explained his devotion. St. Arnold is a quality beer that must compete in a corporate environment driven by “bland and undifferentiated products,” he maintained.

“If we don’t support the St. Arnold brewery we may not have St. Arnold beer to drink.”

Someone once said of Harley-Davidson that if your customers are in the habit of tattooing themselves with your corporate logo, they’re unlikely to try a competitor’s product. I think the same is true of customers who voluntarily dress up as your corporate icon in their spare time.

One last reason to like St. Arnold’s: You can redeem six-pack and twelve-pack carriers for cool stuff.