Monthly Archives: July 2013

PEOPLE BEHAVING BADLY

John Kerry, who was recently appointed Secretary of State by President Obama, has taken on the herculean task of trying to arrange a peace treaty between the Israelis and Palestinians. Kerry, as you may recall, lost a narrow election for president in 2004, when Ohio tipped into George Bush”s column. The loss was primarily attributed to a successful smear campaign undertaken by a right-wing fringe group, of Kerry’s record while serving in Viet-Nam during during the 1970s. Even though Kerry had earned 2 purple hearts and other medals for valor. But that would be the the topic for another blog.

In an event, as I’ve said, Kerry is trying mightily to arrange a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinian state, even though the odds of success are unimaginable. For over 65 years ( since creation of the state of Israel) the 2 sides have been locked in a state of deadly combat, if not outright war. The Palestinians have refused to recognize Israel’s legitimacy and its right to exist. They have undertaken decades long terrorist acts against Israel that have cost thousands of lives. In retaliation, Israel has imposed the harshest of restrictions against the Palestinians that have made simple everyday tasks become the severest of burdens. It’s a never ending cycle of death, destruction and misery. Furthermore, since the U.S. is Israel’s primary, and indeed, only benefactor, Palestinians also vent their hatred toward this country. For example, when 9/11 occurred, Israel lowered all its flags to half-mast, in sympathy with the tragedy we experienced. On the other hand, the Palestinians were literally dancing in the streets.

Thus, Kerry’s chances of achieving peace between the 2 sides face longer odds than winning Powerball. Nevertheless, he’s gotten both sides to agree to sit down at a negotiating table in Washington, which can be considered a minor miracle in itself.  But it raises the question of how many decades, how many generations, how many centuries does it take before it dawns on people that the dysfunctional cycle of vengeance, retaliation, and revenge simply doesn’t work. That maybe, instead, as they used to say in the 1970s, they should give peace a chance. Couldn’t hurt.

Another example of people behaving badly was an article in today’s Wall Street Journal.  As we all know, we have been fighting in Afghanistan for well over 10 years. The U.S. has lost thousands of lives in that venture, to say nothing of the thousands more whose lives are effectively over due to severe war injuries such as brain damage, loss of limbs, blindness, etc. To say nothing of the hundreds of billions of dollars we’ve poured down that sink hole. Some of those billions have been spent on educational facilities, especially for women. Until U.S. entry, women in Afghanistan had no right to an education; indeed they generally had no rights at all. They could be murdered by men who then faced no punishment by claiming  that the woman had somehow dishonored the family name. In any event, U.S. largesse has resulted in our taxpayers picking up the tab for erecting brand new universities and other educational facilities in Afghanistan. The problem is, that large numbers of students in these universities have now turned to radical Islam, which in olden days used to be called outright fascism. They form huge rallies to protest the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and advocate for the return of the Taliban, which is merely the Afghan version of Al-Quida. So much for all the good our sacrifice of blood and treasure has done. If we pull out in 2014, as President Obama has promised, it’s likely that Afghan society will again be a place where women have no rights and radical-Islam rules the land.

So it begs the question of why people, in general, indulge in such dysfunctional behavioral patterns. When it’s often so clearly against their best interests. Not only can’t nations live in peace, but this is often true for individual families. Why do parents, at times, become estranged from their children, or vice versa. Or siblings become estranged from each other. Their own flesh and blood. If families can’t live together in peace, what hope is there for nations doing the same.

Why do people act destructively when it comes to their own health and well-being. Why do they do drugs, or drink excessively when it’s obvious that such habits will eventually kill them. Why do people still smoke, when decades of studies and information prove how destructive that is. In the U.S., the latest tally shows that nearly 45 million people, or almost 20% of the adult population, still can’t kick the habit. Even with all the horror stories of what smoking does to the human body. And all these 45 million people seem to migrate to Las Vegas casinos at one time or another. You seem them puffing away as they keep pouring money into the slots. Casinos are the one place left in our society where smokers can puff away to their heart’s content without being stigmatized. Casino owners are more than happy to accommodate smokers, who will usually behave just as compulsively about gambling as they do about smoking.

I guess it’s just ingrained in the human condition that large numbers of people will behave dysfunctionally. Indulging in personal behavior that will either physically or mentally destroy their lives. Indulging in endless cycles of vengeance, destruction and death, when dealing with perceived enemies. Voting in governments that will establish ruinous dictatorships as they recently did in Egypt. Or going no further than voting in a U.S. Congress that now has an 8% approval rating from the very people that put them there in the first place. People behaving badly. Dysfunction advancing forward. Perhaps the best advice is just to sit back and watch the parade as it goes marching along.

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THE SCALES OF INJUSTICE

Sir William Blackstone, the famed British jurist, stated in 1766 that-“Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” That concept was woven into British criminal law, and then, of course, was interjected into U.S. criminal proceedings. When the U.S. Constitutional Convention met during the summer of 1787, nearly every delegate was familiar with Blackstone’s commentaries and the principles of English common law. Ben Franklin decided to up the ante by a decimal point by stating that 100 guilty should go free rather than one innocent suffer. Hence, our Constitution and all subsequent criminal statutes were geared toward preventing the guilty conviction of someone who was, in fact, innocent. Which, naturally made it that much more difficult to convict the guilty. After all, who wants to send an innocent man or woman to prison if they didn’t commit the crime. Nevertheless, innocents have incarcerated, and sometimes given the death penalty, while many of the guilty wind up with a free get-out-of-jail-card.

There are so many things wrong with our so-called criminal justice system that it’s hard to know where to begin. As I wrote in my last posting, if you possess the financial resources to hire a crack legal defense team, it’s highly likely you can avoid conviction, no matter how guilty you may be. Especially if you’re up against a weak prosecuting attorney. On the other hand, if you’re poor, as most defendants are, and have to settle for someone from the dregs of the legal community to defend you, there’s a good chance that your goose is cooked. No matter how innocent or guilty you may be. Especially, if you’re unfortunate enough to face a reasonably competent prosecuting attorney. That’s why there are lawyers out there doing pro bono work trying to free innocent victims of our so called justice system.

One such group is called the Innocence Project, which was started in 1992 by two high profile defense attorneys, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. It’s a national organization dedicated to exonerating those that have been wrongfully convicted, usually through the use of DNA testing. Many of these victims of our justice system were poor, forgotten and had used up all other avenues of legal relief. They were usually convicted in a time before DNA testing was available, but items remained in the case files that contained DNA. In numerous cases, when that DNA evidence was later tested, the guilty were found to be innocent. Some of those victims were incarcerated for over 20 years before DNA testing became available to set them free. So much for letting 10 or 100 guilty go free rather than locking up one innocent.

One of the flaws in our justice system is the notion of trial by juries of one’s peers. Really? If you are brought to trial, do you really want to have Brenda, who works behind the perfume counter at Macy’s, sitting on the jury and deciding you fate. Or Fred, who hauls heavy cargo off ships down at the docks. Aside from the fact that one’s peers usually are clueless about the machinations of the justice system, and can be easily bamboozled by the more effective attorney, is it really wise to have juries populated with people that have no knowledge of the law. Wouldn’t it be better to have professional juries who know the ins-and-outs of the criminal justice system, rendering impartial opinions. I have always believed that a jury consisting of legal professionals could render a much more accurate decision.

Of course, as I wrote last time, it appears to be easier to get a not guilty verdict in high profile cases when the defense can hire some hot-shot lawyers.  Besides the reasons that I previously wrote about, new statutes have also come into play. About 20 states have now passed “stand-you-ground” laws, which essentially states that one can throw common-sense out the window, and thereby get away with murder. Stand- your- ground means that when confronted by someone that intends to inflict bodily harm, instead making a safe retreat (if one is available), one can stand there and duke it out with the bad guy. Including a shoot-out similar to the gun fight at the OK Corral. Although not used by the defense, the stand-your-ground law in Florida was included in the the judge’s instructions to the jurors in the George Zimmerman trial. I’m sure it entered the jury’s thinking process in deciding to acquit. After all, why should George Zimmerman have had to retreat to his truck, when he could stand his ground and shoot an unarmed teenager.

What’s next. I’m waiting for the first state to enact a “Shoot-First-And-Ask-Questions-Later” piece of legislation. Perhaps it will be Wyoming, or Idaho, or maybe Alabama or Georgia. That annoying next door neighbor still in the habit of blocking your driveway with his truck? Bam. Shoot first and ask questions later. It’s all part of our gun culture. Gun ownership in this country has now moved beyond the point of being a fetish, to being an out-and-out addiction. Like a heroin or cocaine addiction, or worse. We’re supposed to be having a hard time in this country financially; yet there always seems to be money available for ordinary people to acquire some very expensive hardware and ammo. How hard can financial times be when gun stores can’t stock enough guns and bullets to satisfy their customers. And of course, any political movement toward sane gun-control laws has long been destroyed by the NRA and its millions of followers. It appears that when sanity comes up against paranoia, it’s sanity that gets blown away.

Australia has enacted some very strict gun control legislation, and has seen their homicide rate drop to less than half of what it is in the U.S. A case where rationality actually triumphed over insanity. But don’t look for that happening here, anytime soon. The gun addiction is just too powerful.

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OUR SO-CALLED JUSTICE SYSTEM

Ostensibly, when a nation formulates and adopts a system of justice, its overriding purpose should be to achieve …..justice. However, the system that has evolved in this country is a long way from accomplishing that goal. Our justice system has developed into an adversarial battle between prosecuting and defense attorneys. Usually the side that has the best lawyer will win the case. Truth and case facts usually have little to do with the jury’s decision. The lawyer that can make the best sales pitch, that has the most charisma or personal appeal will invariably come out on top. Juries are often composed of members that are totally naive and ever-so fearful of of sending an innocent person to prison, that they usually bend over backwards to avoid a guilty conviction.

It wasn’t always so. Early in the 18th century, before we became an independent nation, trials were basically about finding the true facts and circumstances about the case before the court. The judge, prosecuting attorney and defense counsel would often work in unity to find the guilt or innocence of the defendant. A prosecutor somewhere along the trial’s proceedings might come to the conclusion that the defendant was indeed innocent, and recommend his release. A defense attorney might realize that the case facts do, indeed, show his client to be guilty, and say so in open court. Those days are long gone, however, and as I’ve said, today it’s purely an adversarial relationship.

In our so-called justice system in this day and age, jury verdicts in a criminal case are either guilty or not-guilty. Not guilty, however, does not translate into innocence. It just means that the jury was not presented with sufficient evidence to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is a highly subjective phrase to begin with. It can also mean that the jury was too chicken-hearted to convict even though they were presented with a mountain of evidence-as was the case in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Also, since 1969, we have what is known as the exclusionary rule; which means that if the police made any procedural error in gathering evidence, that evidence cannot be used in court. So instead of sanctioning the police for a faulty search, the public at large is victimized, as the evidence that could convict a serial killer or other type of criminal is tossed, and he is allowed to walk out of court a free man. Your justice system in its finest hour.

The only reason that the prosecution does win any convictions, is because most criminals are too poor to afford high-powered legal attorneys to defend them. Most often, these defendants are assigned legal-aid lawyers who are usually: 1) overburdened with about 2 dozen cases on their plate, and only want the defendant to plead out, so as to ease their workload, and 2) are usually not bright enough to be hired by a prominent legal firm to begin with. So the moral of this story is that if you’re planning to commit the crime, but don’t want to do the time, make sure you have enough resources to hire a hotshot legal defense team. Three recent high profile cases prove this point.

Case 1. The O.J. Simpson murder trial. In 1994, O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and Nicole’s boyfriend at the time, Ron Goldman, were stabbed to death in front of Nicole’s house. An overwhelming deluge of evidence pointed to O.J. as the killer. O.J. was finally arrested and thrown in the clink, and after much posturing and many legal maneuvers,  was brought to trial. The state assigned a highly experienced prosecutor named Marsha Clark to present its case. While Marsha Clark had a fairly impressive win rate, she also possessed the charisma of wallpaper. She allowed the trial to drag on from January-September, 1995, droning away with monotonous repetition over every arcane fact. I imagine that the jury, over this 9 month period, must have been ready to pull their hair out with the monotony and boredom of it all. All she really had to do was point out that O.J.’s DNA was found at the scene of the crime.

Simpson’s defense team, on the other hand, was headed up by the very charismatic Johnnie Cochran, who knew well, how to make his sales pitch to a jury. Given Cochran’s salesmanship abilities versus Clark’s dull as dishwater monotonous presentations, the jury’s fast, not guilty verdict was easily predictable. After being tied up for 9 months, the jury was just anxious to get-the-hell-out-of-there, and a not guilty verdict was the easiest way out. Even though, as I’ve said, a mountain of evidence showed that O.J. was guilty.

In a cruel twist of fate, O.J. did go to jail, but not until 13 years later. In 2007, Simpson came to Las Vegas supposedly to retrieve some memorabilia that he felt had been wrongfully taken from him. In a confrontation in a sleazy hotel room between O.J. and his cronies, versus the alleged memorabilia takers, Simpson was accused of using a gun to retrieve his supposedly stolen items. He was convicted of robbery while using a gun and other charges an sent to prison for avery long time. The charges and the case was totally bogus; but the judge and jury in Las Vegas tried to compensate for the great miscarriage of justice in the infamous murder trial 13 years earlier. O.J. just recently was in court appealing his conviction and asking for a new trial. He’s also up for parole, so he may be getting out of jail soon.

Case 2. The Casey Anthony trial in 2011. Casey was accused of murdering her 3 year old daughter, Caylee, because she wanted to party instead of having to be tied down by an infant. The facts in the case, again, overwhelmingly pointed to her guilt. She waited an entire month before reporting her child missing, and she was able to lead the police to where the child was buried. Once again the jury exhibited collective brain freeze, and found Casey not guilty. Justice for the 3-year old child would never be achieved. It’s the jury that should have been locked up for felony stupidity.

Case 3. George Zimmerman. We’re all aware of this trial that just ended with a not guilty verdict. And admittedly the evidence was weak as to who started the chain of events that led to Trayvon Martin’s death. But there is no question that defense attorneys completed out-played and out-manuvered the prosecution, as in the O.J. murder case. While the prosecutor did have a weak case, certain facts are indisputable. George Zimmerman was a wannabe cop who volunteered to patrol his neighborhood. He had a loaded gun in his pocket during these patrols. There had been a number of break-ins in his community. When he saw a tall black teenager wearing a hoodie, he obviously believed that Trayvon was one of those committing these crimes; although, of course, he wasn’t. Zimmerman phoned the police who advised him to get back in his truck and wait for them to arrive. If he had done that, the ensuing tragedy would not have occurred. Instead he got into a confrontation with Trayvon Martin, and then shot the teenager dead. Zimmerman claims that he feared for his life and shot in self-defense. A jury of 6 women agreed, and found him not guilty. (I felt it was strange to have a jury of 6, instead of the usual 12, and have only women on the jury.)

So this is what passes for  a justice system these days. But for Nicole Brown, Ron Goldman, Caylee Anthony, and now Trayvon Martin, justice will never be achieved. Call it whatever you wish, but please don’t call it a justice system.

 

 

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THE INFERNO AND THE INFERNAL

A week ago, the weather here in Las Vegas was such that the “WELCOME” banner that hangs over the Fremont Street experience should have been replaced. The new banner should have used the famous quote from Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy” and should have read: “Abandon all hope, ye that enter here.” The weather was such an abomination that the Dante quote would have been much more appropriate.

As you may know, Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is a very long poem divided into 3 parts: “Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise,” and traces the Italian writer’s  journey through the 3 stages of the afterlife until he reaches heaven. (He’s accompanied on this journey by the Roman poet Virgil.) In the first and most famous section-“Inferno”- Dante lays out a map of Hell that’s divided into 9 circles. The worst of all sinners are relegated to the ninth circle of Hell, where they endure the most unimaginable torture and suffering. Unquestionably, Dante had a highly vivid imagination, especially when it came inflicting human punishment. The problem is that Dante never had a chance to visit Las Vegas in the summer, thus rendering his understanding of Hell incomplete. Had he made such a visit, he would have had to create a tenth circle of Hell, just to accommodate the weather we experienced last week.

Normally the weather here, during this time of the year, ranges between 105-110 degrees. Hot, but a dry heat, as comedians in local shows like to point out, in hopes that the audience will knowingly chuckle. Last week, however, temperatures skyrocketed to somewhere between 117-120 degrees, usually late in the afternoon. Scorching, suffocating, unrelenting, gasping-for-oxygen type of heat. To make matters worse, the air quality in this heat, degenerated from merely intolerable to highly toxic. When temperatures get that high, a stultifying smog always settles over the Las Vegas Valley, and all the toxic fumes being generated get trapped under that blanket of smog. On top of that, the customary summer wildfires were blazing away in the mountains surrounding the valley, pouring out huge clouds of smoke. Because Las Vegas is so hot and dry, random bolts of lightening ignite fires every summer in the surrounding mountain forests. Usually these fires destroy thousands of acres and hundreds of homes before they can be brought under control. This year has been no exception, and the fires continue on even as I’m writing about them. So, between the mind-numbing heat and the toxic air quality, radio and TV news kept up a constant barrage as to how bad things were outside, and that old-folks, (like myself), and people with breathing problems should stay indoors. Like otherwise, everyone would be outside frolicking in the sun. And I’m thinking that I knew LV got real hot in the summer, but I never signed up for that kind of heat. I’m also thinking what a shame that Dante never had a chance to visit Las Vegas, and experience personally, what a real inferno felt like. If he had, he might have rewritten the whole “Divine Comedy” piece.

Of course, all this inferno stuff was a gigantic boon for the casinos. Wether visitor or resident, people get tired of being cooped up in their living quarters. What better place to escape to than the casinos, where the air conditioning is always blasting away , and thermostats are set on sub-artic levels. Being no exception, I too visited the casinos and found wall-to-wall people, only too happy to throw their money away in the slots, as long as it meant escaping from the heat. But one could still feel the roasting ovens of the inferno in the short walk from the unairconditioned parking lots to the casino entrances.

As to the infernal chapter of this entry, first a little background. When people grow old, they often go from having a real life to having a so-called life. Their real-life, in their younger days, usually consisted of having to get up early, battle rush hour traffic, spend long hours in the office or other workplaces, battle rush hour traffic again on their way home, and then put up with their rotten kids once they got home. Making a living, raising a family, paying the bills, doing stuff around the house in their spare time, are usually components of those with real lives. But when you get into your senior years almost all of that goes away. Seniors usually don’t work anymore, or if they do, it’s as a hobby to keep themselves occupied. The kids are now grown up with their own kids, so the raising a family part also disappears. Thus, in order to give themselves a semblance of a so-called life, they frequently move to retirement communities, and get themselves elected to boards and panels, from whence they can regulate and dictate to the other residents of those communities. In retirement apartment complexes they’re known as condo commandos, always looking for the slightest infraction of the rules to harass their neighbors with. In a guard gated community of private homes like the one I live in, they’re just collectively referred to as a pain in the ass, or more affectionately as the gestapo.

They create ridiculous rules and then pounce when someone violates those rules. I’ll give you a for-instance. When the builder was developing this community, he instituted, for some unfathomable reason, a rule that no resident could park their car outside at night. Not on the street, nor in their driveway. I guess he believed that all those multitudes of seniors who were cavorting through our streets at two or three in the morning would be turned off if they saw cars parked outside. When our elected board took over from the builder, they kept this same idiotic rule in force. Thank goodness for that, because it always keeps me awake at night, knowing that someone might have illegally left their car outside overnight. And if you are caught doing this, you’re dragged from your home, blindfolded, and forced to face summary execution by a firing squad at the crack of dawn. Or some such punishment.

The reason I bring all this up, is because I became a victim of one of those ridiculous rules, a few days ago. Rules designed by residents who like to pretend their so called lives, in some way, compensate for their long-gone real lives. But this piece is getting kind of long, so I’ll save the details for another entry. That senior thing, again.

 

 

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