Democratic viewpoints on politics, policy and activism

Death Penalty Logic Crumbles To Pieces In Glossip Case


Anti-Death Penalty Summit - Jan. 28, 2012 from Flickr The CommonsThe stark disconnect between the responses to Richard Glossip’s pending execution by high-level state leaders compared to the responses by well-known and influential people outside the government creates another huge image flop for Oklahoma.

It’s a reality issue. The huge canyon separating the opposite perspectives alone, even though it seems counter-intuitive on a local level because of conservative support for capital punishment, means the beginning of the end here for the death penalty in Oklahoma. Good riddance. We don’t need it here, and we don’t need the worldwide condemnation that goes with it.

Here’s the narrative about Oklahoma to the outside world created by leaders such as Gov. Mary Fallin, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater:

Oklahoma is the home of burn-them-at-the-stake zealots who worship the death penalty as a sort of ideological and litmus-test idol that goes far beyond a simple belief that it deters crime. It’s not even eye-for-an-eye justice, which would make more sense in a right-wing state filled with Christian fundamentalists. It’s much more perverse than that. It’s borderline ritualistic killing for its own sake, an ordinary practice here, a grotesque yet routine political tic, rather than a deterrent. It’s a human sacrifice to honor the sickness of self-righteous hubris.

CNN, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have published editorials against proceeding with the execution. Actress Susan Sarandon, well-known anti-death penalty activist and Dead Man Walking author Sister Helen Prejean and British billionaire businessman Richard Branson have spoken out against the execution. Locally, former University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer and, of all people, former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn have asked for a stay of execution. That’s such a small sampling of the highly visible protest the case has generated.

As Scott Martelle, writing in the Los Angeles Times, puts it about the case, “This is where the death penalty gets its full exposure as a ludicrous practice.”

Here’s a review of the case containing significant links from my last post. My purpose here in this specific post is not to go through the case again. Anyone following the case knows that on Wednesday Glossip was granted a last minute stay of execution by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals for two weeks. He’s now scheduled to be killed by lethal injection Sept. 30 unless a court can be swayed otherwise for a murder no one has ever accused him of physically committing.

The response to Glossip’s pending execution and the murder case itself from the state leaders I mentioned earlier has been telling. Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, who didn’t even prosecute the case, called the effort to stop Glossip’s execution a “bullshit PR campaign.” Gov. Mary Fallin has stoically and repeatedly used a version of this generic sentence in her statements: “After carefully reviewing the facts of this case multiple times, I see no reason to cast doubt on the guilty verdict reached by the jury or to delay Glossip’s sentence of death.” Pruitt’s response to Glossip’s temporary stay of execution contained similar generic, stock-photo language:

“The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals indicated it needs more time to review the filings. I’m confident that the Court of Criminal Appeals, after reviewing the filings, will conclude there is nothing worthy which would lead the court to overturn a verdict reached by two juries who both found Glossip guilty and sentenced him to death for Barry Van Treese’s murder.”

Confidence reigns when it comes to deploying the death penalty in Oklahoma. State leaders are utterly certain of Glossip’s guilt; by default, we can assume they entirely endorse his death sentence and the death penalty in general. No reason to do anything then, the reasoning goes, among THE leaders. Anyone who argues otherwise is, well, they’re full of BS, as Prater puts it. This is what the world is hearing these days and will continue to hear in the days to come about Oklahoma, which leads the nation in executions on a per capita basis.

People throughout the world are shaking their heads in disgust at the cavalier treatment of a person’s life in this irrational legal case.

The counter argument we hear is that in 1997 Van Treese was beaten to death by a man with a baseball bat in a motel room in Oklahoma City, and he was treated the worst of anyone in this quagmire of blood, loss and media spectacle. But it goes without saying his death was a terrible tragedy. Here’s the important caveat: It wasn’t Glossip who killed him. The murderer was Justin Sneed, who received life in prison instead of death for the killing in exchange for testifying that Glossip asked him to do it.

Fallin, Pruitt and Prater don’t claim Glossip physically killed Van Treese. No one does. Yet these three leaders want Glossip to die while conceding implicitly at least that Van Treese’s actual killer should live. In other words, they believe justice will be served under this frame of illogic.

Not one of these state leaders has fully addressed the issue of why someone can be put to death in this country based almost exclusively on the testimony of a murderer who is trying to save his own life. Such plea bargains might make sense in dealing with non-death penalty punishment crimes, such as armed robbery, burglary or fraud cases, especially when there is extensive corroborating evidence, but the death penalty is irrevocable, and thus such bargains in these cases are immoral, unethical and unconstitutional.

Glossip’s attorneys are presenting new evidence they hope will show he wasn’t an accomplice in the murder. Whatever the outcome of this case, this is the beginning of the end for the death penalty here in Oklahoma and perhaps elsewhere in this country. It might take a while, but this is a turning point. Too many people are paying attention now.

The Glossip case shows starkly that the death penalty is applied arbitrarily, capriciously and unfairly. Its legal application is so illogical, as historical documentation clearly shows, that it defies any semblance of rationality. The government consistently and mistakenly kills innocent people charged with murder. It’s blatantly immoral because of this documented fact alone. Most Western and enlightened countries, and many states in this nation, have banned or don’t practice the death penalty. Even Nebraska banned it in May.

The only government-sanctioned execution that needs to happen should be inflicted on the practice itself. Death to the death penalty. Meanwhile, Oklahoma leaders and those in the criminal justice system here should show some basic mercy and apply some basic logic. Let Glossip live.

Worldwide Outrage: Halt The Glossip Execution

Image of Richard Glossip

The main legal and ethical question debated in years to come may well be NOT whether Oklahoma executed an innocent man today, but why the state killed a man almost exclusively based on the testimony of an actual confessed murderer who received the lesser sentence of life in prison in the case.

The murderer, Justin Sneed, received life in prison for his testimony against Richard Glossip in a plea deal with prosecutors. His supposed accomplice in the case, Glossip, pictured above, who has never been charged with committing the actual physical act of murder or even been alleged to have witnessed the brutal beating death take place, will die unless Gov. Mary Fallin issues a temporary stay of execution or an appeals court steps in and stops it.

The murder case in a legal sense is a twisted, illogical quagmire. The outcome at trial was twice immoral. This particular death sentence is as barbaric as it gets. It exposes a major flaw in our justice system. For these reasons, and for the very real chance Glossip wasn’t an accomplice in the case at all as argued by his attorneys and supporters, the execution should be stopped.

The pending execution of Glossip, who before the murder had no criminal record, has drawn worldwide attention and intense condemnation. Among the disparate group, which wants Fallin to issue him a 60-day stay of execution, are actress Susan Sarandon, former University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer and former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn. When Sarandon and Coburn, in particular, are in agreement on an issue Fallin should take notice.

The 1997 Oklahoma City murder case has been described in the local, national and worldwide media in various and contradictory ways over the last several weeks, which only reveals the ambiguity of language, which is important because it was language and its limitations, not physical evidence, that convicted Glossip and resulted in his death sentence.

Glossip, who has maintained his innocence, received two trials, which actually clouds the facts even further, raising the issue of who said what and when, who told the truth then and tells it now, and what were and are the underlying motives of authorities, those prosecuted in the case and those who testified in the case.

The case is a muddle and morass of language and plural interpretation. It’s also very much about authorities in a law-and-order conservative state, which has the highest execution per capita rate among states in the nation, deploying the circular anti-life ideology of killing people in order to stop the killing of people. It reveals everything wrong about the death penalty, a punishment now prohibited or not practiced in most Western and enlightened countries and many states in our nation. Nebraska-NEBRASKA of all places-abolished the death penalty last May.

Here are the basic facts without embellishment as reported in the media over the last weeks: In 1997, Glossip worked at a motel in Oklahoma City owned by Barry Van Treese, who was found beaten to death. Sneed, who also worked at the motel, admitted to murdering Van Treese. He testified that Glossip offered to pay him to kill Van Treese. Glossip was eventually convicted and sentenced to death. Sneed received life in prison in exchange for his testimony against Glossip.

Once we go beyond this basic frame of these facts, the questions of intent, importance and reliability get raised. Here are some important questions: Even if Glossip did ask Sneed to kill Van Treese, does he deserve to die while the actual murderer gets to live? Is our justice system unjustly weighted in favor of people accepting plea agreements even in something as important as a death penalty case? Did Glossip get penalized with “death” because he asked for a jury trial? Is that how our justice system in Oklahoma and in our country should work?

Here’s a pro-death penalty version of the case from The Oklahoman. Here’s an anti-death penalty version of the case.

Glossip’s attorney and many of his supporters say there is new evidence in the case that could exonerate him. His attorney yesterday also filed an emergency request with the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to stop the execution. Let me be clear: A 60-day stay of execution issued by Fallin wouldn’t hurt her or the Republican Party here politically. It’s not too much to ask of her. No one is asking authorities to release Glossip from prison. The appeals court could also act in Glossip’s favor, and it should.

The execution is scheduled for 3 p.m. today. Fallin still has time to act. The appeals court still has time to act. It’s not too late. No one, and that includes Fallin, will lose face or their conservative strong-on-crime credentials here if Glossip doesn’t die today.

There’s no such thing as consolation in this case, but if the execution happens it may well become the beginning of the end for the death penalty in Oklahoma. I believe that sincerely. Let the bell of justice ring out loud and clear if Glossip is killed under the auspices of the state of Oklahoma today for a murder no one claims he physically committed.

Rising Seas Will Also Impact Oklahoma

Image of electric car in Amsterdam

A new scientific study has determined that burning all the fossil fuel deposits on earth would increase the world’s temperatures so much it would eventually melt all the ice in Antarctica.

That would lead to rising sea levels so large it would destroy major cities in the world, create massive migration and generate huge food shortages leading to starvation, according to an article in The New York Times about the study.

I won’t rehash in detail the article or the study, which can be found here. The study notes the melting could take place over a thousand years if humans don’t do anything significant to curb carbon emissions, but it does raise questions over the short-term for Oklahoma, a state rich in fossil fuels and heavily tied to the oil and gas industry.  

Here are four of those questions:

(1) As it becomes more evident that global warming in coming years is damaging the planet, how and when will renewable and less harmful energy sources displace the oil and gas industry here?

(2) Will renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, create as much economic development locally as the oil and gas industry?

(3) Oklahomans have endured the boom and bust cycles of the oil and gas industry for generations, but what if the “bust” was permanent and the state has failed to diversify its economy?

(4) How should Oklahoman leaders envision, say, the state in 100 years if there was little to no oil and gas production here?

When compared to the millions and millions of years it takes dead organisms to decompose and form the fossils we burn for energy, The Fossil Fuel age, or The Oil Age, will be a small blip in the planet’s history if there’s anyone left to record it.

So far the response from many Oklahoma leaders to global warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions is basic denial. U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, for example, has based much of his Senate career on this denial, but as the evidence of global warming becomes increasingly clear, Oklahoma leaders will need to envision a day when the oil and gas industry is severely limited or non-existent here.

Munson, Democrats Win Big In Special House Election

Image of Cyndi Munson

Let me join in the chorus of accolades for Democrat Cyndi Munson, who won Tuesday’s special election for the House District 85 seat in northwest Oklahoma City.

Munson, 30, who formerly worked for Girl Scouts of Western Oklahoma, beat Republican Chip Carter in a 2,640 to 2,268 vote, or by a total of 372 votes or with 54 percent of the vote, which comes to, in media parlance, an eight-point victory.

The numbers here are important, as I will point out later, but there’s no doubt this is an exciting victory for Munson and Democrats because the HD 85 seat, last held by David Dank, had been GOP-safe for more than 50 years. It was even a seat once held by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin. Munson knocked on a lot of doors for this victory, and it paid off for her and Democrats.

What’s more, Munson was outspent by Carter, who raised some $200,000 in campaign money compared to Munson, who raised less than $100,000. Carter also received endorsements from big name Republicans, such as Fallin, U.S Sens. James Lankford and Jim Inhofe and, more importantly perhaps on a local level, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett.

All these facts created an immediate Democratic narrative that changing demographics and perhaps changing social-issue attitudes, especially in urban areas, might be shaking up the political landscape here like all these manmade earthquakes in central Oklahoma. I hope so. It may be too early, however, to conclude this. This was a special election to fill a recently deceased legislator’s seat, and Munson, if she chooses to do so, will have to run again in the 2016 general election in which the country will be choosing a new president. Republicans will be even better prepared to win the seat now that they lost it. Yet GOP voter turnout could well hinge on who will be the Republican nominee for president. Who knows?

The Republican narrative was simply that Republicans thought the election was in the bag and that GOP voter complacency-it was after all just a 372-vote margin-contributed to Carter’s defeat. Carter also had to participate in a primary election to get on the final ballot. Munson didn’t. So the Republican excuses went on Tuesday night. I do think this election will make GOP political operatives pay more attention to the demographic issues and arguments made by Democrats on a local level here in the Oklahoma City area.

But it’s important to look at some numbers before we jump to any conclusions. According to Ballotpedia, the House District 85 election in 2008, an presidential election year, drew 17,194 total voters. Since then voter turnout has declined as it has throughout Oklahoma. In 2010, the race drew 12,786 voters. Dank ran unopposed in 2012. In 2014, Munson ran for the seat the first time, and the election drew 11,770 voters.

In that 2014 election, Dank beat Munson by 6,635 to 5,135 or by about a 13-point margin. Dank had name recognition, which helped him immensely, but Munson’s vote total in that election can only be ranked as average-okay maybe a bit above average given the circumstances-for a Democrat in a Republican stronghold in a metropolitan area. On Tuesday, a total of 4,908 people voted in the HD 85 special election, less than half of the 2014 total. So the obvious question, just when it comes to numbers, is whether the lower voter turnout in the special election was the principal reason for Munson’s election. That challenges the overarching Democratic narrative about change, but it doesn’t render it invalid.

Knowing this about the numbers, another question is whether Munson will eventually come to believe she will have to shift to more conservative positions on some issues in order to win as an incumbent in 2016 when there should be a much higher voter turnout. Some of her supporters are calling Munson a “feminist,” and I hope she is, but I couldn’t find anything on her campaign site or on the Internet in which Munson talks about the right to an abortion and reproductive rights for women, the cornerstone of female empowerment. I will gladly correct this if I’ve overlooked something. In any event, it certainly doesn’t seem like supporting reproductive rights for women was a major part of her campaign strategy.

Munson, on her site, does admirably mention problems faced by many Oklahoma women, such as high rates of domestic violence. Her site states,  “Oklahoma’s women need a strong voice at the State Capitol, and Cyndi will be there for them.”

But what, for example, will be her votes on anything having to do with the propaganda attacks on the women’s health organization Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights for women, issues that national and most likely local Republicans at the state level are going to use to pander to social conservative voters in the coming weeks and perhaps months?

I do know that the national Girl Scouts have specifically distanced themselves from both Planned Parenthood and the issue of reproductive rights. That, of course, doesn’t mean Munson will do the same or that it will matter much in the larger debate if she does.

I’m not suggesting here that Munson doesn’t have core progressive values, or that her victory isn’t significant, but with only 30 seats now in the 101-member House, there’s still not much Democrats can do without Republican support, which I bet will not be forthcoming in any significant way.

Supporting reproductive rights and the right to an abortion for women and supporting sensible immigration laws rather than drastic deportation of families have long created a dilemma for progressives in Oklahoma when it comes to getting elected to political office. I don’t see that changing much over the next year.

Right now, it looks like Oklahoma will face a major shortfall up to $1.2 billion in an annual budget that has been averaging about $7 billion in recent years. That could reduce education funding even more. How are teachers going to get raises in that type of financial environment? How crowded can our classrooms get? A budget shortfall, again, is shaping up to be the legislature’s REAL main issue for next year’s session. That could change, of course, because of the flux of taxes and economic development created by the boom and bust cycle of the oil and gas industry here, but it doesn’t look good, and Republicans will still be firmly in control.  

Add Wastewater Spills To Fracking Problems

Image of wind turbines

(It’s exciting news that Democrat Cyndi Munson picked up the House District 85 seat in an election Tuesday. That northwest Oklahoma City district had been considered safely Republican for at east 50 years. Does her victory portend more Democratic victories in at least the local Oklahoma City political scene? I’ll discuss the issue here soon.)

It’s worth noting that all the grim and dire predictions made by environmentalists for years about the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, boom in this country are slowly getting recognized and sanctioned by the traditional corporate media and other businesses.

Recently, the credit rating services company, Standard and Poor’s issued an analysis showing how earthquakes caused by the injection well process used in fracking had created financial risks for home and property owners, mortgage lenders and insurance companies, and it also raised questions about liability.

Now the Associated Press has prepared an analysis of wastewater spills related to oil and gas drilling. The analysis found that at least 175 millions gallons of wastewater spilled in several states it studied from 2009 to 2014. The analysis points out that the gallon number might be too low because many spills are not officially noted.

Oklahoma is one of those states that reported spills. A StateImpact Oklahoma report on the analysis points out that Oklahoma ranks number six in the volume of wastewater spills in that time period. Wastewater from fracking is briny and laced with toxic chemicals.

In the fracking process, water mixed with chemicals is injected underground to create fissures in rock formations that release fossil fuels, such as natural gas. The wastewater from the process is then injected in underground disposal wells. Scientists believe it is the injection well process that has triggered the hundreds of earthquakes Oklahoma has experienced over the last four years or so.

The main concern with wastewater spills is that they can contaminate water used for drinking or agriculture. Environmentalists have been concerned about such contamination for years. Gasland, a documentary film created by Josh Fox about the relationship between fracking and water contamination, appeared in 2010.

The point is this: Environmentalists have argued for years that wastewater and other types of spills related to oil and gas drilling, along with the earthquake surge experienced here in Oklahoma and other areas, are damaging our eco-system and our homes and our quality of life. If oil and gas companies are left unchecked and unregulated, the damage could grow immense.

It’s an “I-told-you-so” moment, but that’s little consolation for all the years that regulators, financial services companies and the corporate media failed to act to expose the environmental problems surrounding fracking. Now that it’s become obvious, it’s safe to talk about it, but will there be any action?

The oil and gas industry has a powerful political lobby. Many GOP Oklahoma politicians, including Gov. Mary Fallin, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Puitt and all three Oklahoma Corporation Commissioners have received campaign contributions from oil and gas interests. The Corporation Commission regulates the oil and gas in the state.

It’s obvious that large campaign and other donations to politicians influence this country’s political system, and it’s a problem that has only become worse nationwide since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that sanctioned unrestricted political expenditures by companies and organizations.

Although the Citizens United decision isn’t directly related to the environmental impact of fracking here in Oklahoma and elsewhere, it does carry symbolic value because of the time frame. It was just the following year-Nov. 5, 2011 to be exact-that a large 5.6-magnitude earthquake struck near Prague and scientists became concerned it was manmade. Their concerns have now been scientifically verified in study after study. Meanwhile, state leaders, the corporate media, especially The Oklahoman, and the oil and gas industry were slow to react.

The oil and gas industry is important to the state. For example, current lower worldwide oil prices, which mean less production, layoffs and state tax revenue, are going to hurt the economy here.  State leaders have talked about diversifying the Oklahoma economy for years, but as the oil patch thrives or plummets so does everything else, or at least it still seems that way. So we’re still explicitly tied to oil and gas drilling in Oklahoma for our economic success, but now we have wastewater spills and earthquakes to worry about. It’s not a good situation, but it’s the new reality.

The larger and long-term answer to all this is easy: We need to increase our efforts to develop renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power.

Unions Improved Working Conditions

Image of protest sign Occupy OKC

One thing not to celebrate this Labor Day is declining union membership.

Statistics show that over the last 50 years union membership in the U.S. has declined from one-third of all workers to one in 10 workers. The reasons for this are myriad, but the financial morass of neoliberal philosophy and the corporatization of American culture have left more and more workers with stagnant wages and fewer job options. Declining union membership is part of the equation.

I think it’s fair to say at the very least that the decline of unions has coincided with the growing enormous wealth disparity between the richest top 1 percent of people in this country and everyone else.

Union agitation was responsible for the 40-hour work week, job benefits like health insurance and better working conditions for everyone. It’s easy to forget the basic principle of any given union, which is to give people a voice about their working conditions. Americans, in particular, spend so much time at their jobs. All workers should have a voice.

We need unions more than ever because of the growing wealth disparity I mentioned earlier. The anti-union argument is that unions have become anachronistic because of globalization and the free markets, but that’s exactly why they are so badly needed now. There needs to be a correction.

It’s supposed to be a hot, sunny and perfect Labor Day in Oklahoma, a national holiday brought to you by, of course, union members.

What About The Oklahoma Earthquake Crisis?

Image of Scott Pruitt

In any given state, an attorney general is that jurisdiction’s top legal advisor but has historically been considered the main protector of consumer rights, especially when it comes to widespread fraud or damages committed by businesses.

Attorneys General of both political parties, of course, have used their office to promote political ideology and further their career interests, which can obfuscate their legal impartiality, but I’ve also considered the office itself as one that primarily performs mundane legal tasks and investigations and speaks up for people when they encounter financial fraud.

Then there’s the very public case of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has made a career out of suing the federal government over Obamacare and Environmental Protection Agency rules while promoting extreme political positions opposing abortion, same-sex marriage and the separation of church and state.

Pruitt’s latest two antics are real head shakers. He recently continued his legal fight to keep the Ten Commandments monument on state Capitol grounds and he, along with Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, has sent out a letter to governors in all states that urges them to sanction Iran. That’s what our Republican attorney general is up to these days.

What about all the earthquake damage to homes and other property, including the state’s infrastructure, which has been caused by the fracking boom in Oklahoma? What about possible damage to the state’s bridges because of earthquakes? Don’t expect much from Pruitt in this regard because of his cozy relationship with the oil and gas industry.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court, as we all know, recently ruled that the Ten Commandments monument at the state Capitol was in violation of Article 2, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution. The court ordered the monument moved off Capitol grounds, but Pruitt has now fired back with a legal filing in Oklahoma District Court that says the ruling is hostile to religion and violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The filing is a waste of time and state resources.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, which brought the initial lawsuit, has pointed out that the ruling was based on the state’s constitution, not the U.S. Constitution, and the organization’s legal director, Brady Henderson, called the new filing “frivolous and desperate.”

The letter to the governors is in response to the White House announced deal between the U.S. and Iran. Here’s a basic description of the proposal: Under the proposed agreement, Iran would agree to not build a nuclear weapon. In exchange, the U.S. would drop sanctions against the country. The agreement includes inspections and other safeguards.

Overall, at this point, the U.S. has nothing to gain by continuing hostilities with Iran. Pruitt, of course, is entitled to his opinion and can express it, but urging the states’ governors to bypass a possible U.S. agreement with another country is just not a crass political move it also calls into question separation of powers between the states and the federal government.

Does Pruitt really think he can micromanage the foreign affairs of the federal government from his office in a flyover state, a state that is often considered a laughing stock on the world stage because of the antics of its elected politicians, such as U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, or all of its dismal rankings on social issues? The same goes for his legal battle against the Affordable Care Act. Or is it that he knows his Republican voter base here in Oklahoma will bask in the Obama-hatred however irrational it might manifest itself?

Meanwhile, as I mentioned earlier, our earthquake crisis continues here because of an element of the fracking process, according to scientists, and our state leaders, such as Pruitt, need to do more in an effort to stop the quakes and establish liability for any financial harm caused by the ensuing physical damage. That’s one of the very REAL major issues facing Oklahoma these days. It’s not the placement of a religious monument. It’s not a possible agreement with Iran and the federal government.