Why Our Government Shouldn’t Kill

From a comment on a Radley Balko post about Troy Davis:

the state can’t be trusted to sort the innocent from the guilty with the 100% accuracy necessary for executions to be morally defensible, even if death is a theoretically just punishment…

From what I read everyday it’s abundantly clear that this is true. The criminal justice system has corrupt prosecutors and judges, drastically inadequate public defender resources, corrupt forensic scientists, and plenty of bogus testimony and pseudoscience sold to juries as proof. The latest news could change everything: DNA evidence might be forgeable. If this can be done, a corrupt law enforcement individual will mostly certainly manufacture DNA evidence in the future.

From the ACLU’s Death Penalty Q&A:

Since 1973, 123 people in 25 states have been released from death row because they were not guilty. In addition, seven people have been executed even though they were probably innocent. A study published in the Stanford Law Review documents 350 capital convictions in this century, in which it was later proven that the convict had not committed the crime. Of those, 25 convicts were executed while others spent decades of their lives in prison. Fifty-five of the 350 cases took place in the 1970s, and another 20 of them between 1980 and 1985.

…Who gets the death penalty is largely determined, not by the severity of the crime, but by: the race, sex, and economic class of the prisoner and victim; geography — some states have the death penalty, others do not, within the states that do some counties employ it with great frequency and others do not; the quality of defense counsel and vagaries in the legal process.

…Poor people are also far more likely to be death sentenced than those who can afford the high costs of private investigators, psychiatrists, and expert criminal lawyers. Indeed, capital punishment is “a privilege of the poor,” said Clinton Duffy, former warden at California’s San Quentin Prison. Some observers have pointed out that the term “capital punishment” is ironic because “only those without capital get the punishment.”

…study after study has found serious racial disparities in the charging, sentencing and imposition of the death penalty. People who kill whites are far more likely to receive a death sentence than those whose victims were not white, and blacks who kill whites have the greatest chance of receiving a death sentence. … Minorities are death-sentenced disproportionate to their numbers in the population. This is not primarily because minorities commit more murders, but because they are more often sentenced to death when they do.

Setting aside all moral and emotional arguments, by using the few cases where there is indisputable proof of guilt to justify capital punishment, we guarantee it will be abused to execute many more innocent persons.

Prisoners of Endless Wars

Most reasonable people can agree that Gitmo detainees not proven to be enemy combatants at all (e.g. persons pulled off the street on whom we’ve never had anything more than suspicion) should be freed. The tougher question is, what about those obviously working for the enemy, but who are acquitted of committing war crimes.

Mark Kleiman points out that it would still be lawful to detain (not imprison) these individuals as PoWs.

Imagine that the Russians had captured Waffen SS Gruppenfuhrer Klaus Heinrich Schmidt in the summer of 1941 and put him on trial for, let’s say, ordering the massacre of civilians. And imagine that he was acquitted, because he was able to show that the massacre was actually ordered by another Gruppenfuhrer named Heinrich Klaus Schmidt.

Now what? Should the innocent Gruppenfuhrer Schmidt be sent back through the lines so he can resume fighting? I don’t think so. He goes to a PoW camp, to be held until the war is over. As a PoW, he has certain rights (he can’t be pressed for information other than name, rank, and serial number, or be forced to work) but the right to go back to fighting is not among them.

He points out we’ve been at war with the Taliban since 2001 and al-Qaeda with us since 1998 or so, so I think the natural question is just how long can we reasonably detain a PoW for? of course the legal answer is:

… as long as the conflict lasts, even if that turns out to be forever.

This being the case, I think we should consider changing our laws to better satisfy our desires for civil liberties and human rights in the new age of endless “wars”. Some random ideas:

  • PoWs should be given the conditions that must be met for the war to be considered “over” and these should be public along with the evidence we have on them.
  • Human interaction must be allowed and PoWs should retain their human dignity.
  • Detainments should grow more comfortable over time and the public should be kept aware of those conditions.
  • Simple soldiers/workers should age out.

PDF readers: Help us read.

PDF articles are notorious usability disasters, with the worst being multi-column documents that require you to constantly scroll in opposite directions as you move through the columns. PDF readers should let us draw a simple path through the document (maybe zoomed out) to outline the flow of text through the article (better, it could try to guess this for us). Once the path is set, the PDF reader could either:

A) tie the scrollwheel linearly to the text flow, so that simply scrolling down shifted the document to the next column to read. Maybe grey-out the columns not actively being read.

or B) rearrange the columns to make the document single-column.

Reading PDFs shouldn’t be so painful.

I should mention regular multi-column web pages have the same issues on mobile browsers. There’s a good case for using media queries to switch small viewport devices to see single-column layouts, and generally keeping all long articles single-column.

Commodity cars a challenge worth pursuing

Mr. Obama and members of Congress,

Rather than supplying any current auto manufacturers with a bailout, which I think will only delay the inevitable, please consider investing (and encouraging private investment) in efforts to standardize the components of a new generation of automobiles. With free and open standards, such as those used to build the web and the coming generation of mobile phones, we can rebuild the auto industry by transforming it from a small number of manufacturers devoted to closed designs and increased waste into a greater number of specialty industries that create components of great variety, of guaranteed compatibility, and which will create longer-lasting vehicles. Continue reading