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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

From Forensic Science to Lethal Injections, Here Is the Worst Anti-Science BS of 2017

Trump and evangelists
Criminal justice, education, environment, medicine—nothing was spared from the war on science.

On a rainy day in April, 100,000 demonstrators—led by some of the nation’s most prominent scientists—converged on the National Mall for the first ever March for Science. It was Earth Day, and many of them were there to protest the environmental policies of a president who once insisted that global warming was a Chinese hoax. But climate change wasn’t the only thing on the marchers’ minds. Donald Trump, after all, has a history of making dangerously unscientific statements about everything from vaccines to criminal justice to football. Satellite marches took place across the country and around the world; organizers estimated that some 1.1 million people participated.

Many politicians were apparently unimpressed. 2017 obviously wasn’t the first year to be plagued by public policy decisions that disregarded scientific facts, but the Trump era has taken this phenomenon to a whole new level. We’ve rounded up some of the worst examples from around the nation:

1. White House declares climate science a “waste of your money”

In March, Trump released a budget proposal calling for steep cuts to the climate research conducted by NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other government agencies. When asked about these proposals, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said, “Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the president was fairly straightforward: We’re not spending money on that anymore; we consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that.”

2. Trump staffers play dumb on the global warming “hoax”

For a week this spring, as the administration rolled out Trump’s decision to begin withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, reporters repeatedly asked whether the president still believed what he’d said over and over: that global warming is a hoax. Rather than respond to this basic question, multiple administration officials simply pretended to not know the answer. “You should ask him that,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told ABC. “You are going to have to ask him,” economic adviser Gary Cohn said to CNN. “Honestly, I haven’t asked him,” Sean Spicer, then the White House press secretary, said. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt actually refused to answer the question four separate times.

3. Jeff Sessions opposes forensic science reform

Much of the forensic science used in American courtrooms is shockingly unreliable. As a result, innocent people go to prison. Some might even be executed. Mother Jones’ Pema Levy explained in August:

As DNA testing has overturned hundreds of convictions based on flawed forensic evidence, scientists and lawyers are increasingly skeptical that culprits can be accurately identified by matching fingerprints, hair samples, bite marks, bullets, and tread marks to suspects. In a landmark 2009 report, the National Academy of Sciences found that nuclear DNA testing was the only reliable forensic discipline; those based on expert analysis, as opposed to laboratory testing, weren’t really science at all. The report found that crime labs nationwide lacked uniform standards, practices, accreditation, and oversight. In 2015, the FBI found that its own microscopic hair analysts made errors at least 90 percent of the time in testimony and lab reports.

But Attorney General Jeff Sessions isn’t buying it. Even before assuming the nation’s top law enforcement position, he had a long history of pushing back against forensic reform efforts that might make it more difficult for prosecutors to win convictions. “I don’t think we should suggest that those proven scientific principles that we’ve been using for decades are somehow uncertain,” he said in response to the 2009 NAS report. And now, under Sessions’ leadership, the DOJ has ended an Obama-era commission tasked with fixing forensic science. In its place, Sessions created a new forensic working group led by Ted Hunt, a former Missouri prosecutor who was a member of Obama’s commission. But, as Pema points out, there’s a catch. Hunt actually opposed many of the science-driven reforms that the Obama commission had embraced:

In March 2016, the commission recommended that then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch direct forensic experts and attorneys working on behalf of the Justice Department to stop using the phrase “to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty.” The phrase is commonly used on witness stands and in lab reports and gives juries and judges a sense of factuality, but it is subjective and lacks any agreed-upon meaning across the sciences. Hunt was one of two commission members who opposed the recommendation, which Lynch adopted last September.

Lynch also adopted a recommendation by the commission requiring forensic testing labs that work with the department and its attorneys to publicize their internal procedures, from equipment maintenance to estimations of uncertainty, in order to foster transparency, trust, and best practices in the industry. Hunt was one of four commissioners who opposed it.

Last September, when the commission released a document supporting stricter accreditation standards for forensic labs, Hunt voted against it. And when the commission recommended that the National Institute of Standards and Technology conduct scientific evaluations of the “technical merit of test methods and practices used in forensic science disciplines,” he opposed that, too. At its final meeting, when members had already been informed that the group would be coming to an end, several commissioners pushed for a resolution encouraging experts to use more quantitative language to convey the accuracy of forensic testimony. The resolution narrowly failed, with Hunt among the nays.

Hunt has now been tasked with fixing the way prosecutors use forensics so that it is “consistent with scientific principles and just outcomes.” But, as Pema writes, “critics of unchecked forensic testimony have doubts that his work will truly be scientific.”


4. New Mexico scrubs its science education standards

In September, New Mexico’s public education agency attempted to eliminate references to global warming, evolution, and the age of the Earth from the state’s science standards. As Mother Jones’ Andy Kroll first reported:

The state’s Public Education Department this week released a new proposed replacement to its statewide science standards. The draft is based on the Next Generation Science Standards, a set of ideas and guidelines released in 2013 that cover kindergarten through 12th grade. The NGSS, which have been adopted by at least 18 states and the District of Columbia, include ample discussion of human-caused climate change and evolution.

But the draft released by New Mexico’s education officials changes the language of a number of NGSS guidelines, downplaying the rise in global temperatures, striking references to human activity as the primary cause of climate change, and cutting one mention of evolution while weakening others. The standards would even remove a reference to the scientifically agreed-upon age of the Earth—nearly 4.6 billion years. (Young Earth creationists use various passages in the Bible to argue that the planet is only a few thousand years old.)

Lesley Galyas, a former state employee who worked on the standards before resigning in 2016, told Andy that “one or two people” working “behind closed doors” had attempted to politicize the standards. “They were really worried about creationists and the oil companies,” Galyas said.

The news sparked an outcry from students, teachers, and scientists. By the end of October, state officials had backed down, adopting the NGSS in full—including all references to climate science, evolution, and geology.

5. Citing the Bible, an Indiana county ends needle exchange program

In 2015, Scott County was facing a crisis. The rural Indiana community had been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, and HIV was spreading at an alarming rate among drug users sharing dirty needles. Public health experts knew exactly what could slow the outbreak: a needle exchange program in which officials distributed clean syringes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, needle exchanges are associated with dramatic decreases in the prevalence of HIV and hepatitis C among drug users.

But many politicians, especially on the right, have long opposed needle exchanges, and at that point, the programs were illegal in Indiana. The state’s governor at the time, Mike Pence, dragged his feet on the issue for weeks. Pence, who is now the vice president, took time to “pray on it,” the New York Times explained, and eventually did approve a needle exchange program. The new policy proved instrumental in curtailing the HIV outbreak, and other Indiana counties adopted similar initiatives.

But in 2017, there was a backlash. In August, the county council of Indiana’s Madison County voted to cut off funding for its needle exchange program. Then in October, the Lawrence County Commission voted to end its own exchange program. Michelle Woodward, Lawrence County’s top prosecutor, told the commissioners before the vote that she “cannot and will not offer support for a program that makes it easier or facilitates illegal use of drugs.” One of the commissioners, Republican Rodney Fish, told NBC that he had given a “great deal of thought and prayer” to the matter but that ultimately he voted to kill the life-saving program because it’s “a moral issue.” Fish reportedly quoted the Bible while explaining his vote.

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, a Republican, applauded the Lawrence County vote, declaring in a statement that “handing out clean needles encourages substance abusers to shoot up,” which, he said, leads to “increased likelihood of overdose and death.” The CDC disagrees with the claim, stating that these programs can actually reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C without increasing illegal drug use.

6. Scott Pruitt declares war on climate science

When Trump chose Scott Pruitt to run the EPA, many staffers worried that the former Oklahoma attorney general, who had repeatedly sued the agency in the past, would undermine their work. It turns out they were right. A few weeks after taking office, Pruitt went on CNBC and contradicted decades of science by declaring that carbon dioxide isn’t necessarily a “primary contributor” to climate change.

In September, the Washington Post reported that under Pruitt the EPA has taken the “unusual step” of placing a political operative who worked on the Trump campaign in charge of signing off on all grants awarded by the agency. Citing anonymous agency employees, the Post reported that the official, John Konkus, “has told staff that he is on the lookout for ‘the double C-word’—climate change—and repeatedly has instructed grant officers to eliminate references to the subject in solicitations.” In October, the EPA went so far as to cancel talks about climate change that three of the agency’s scientists were scheduled to deliver.

Pruitt has also thrilled climate deniers by suggesting a televised “red team, blue team” debate, in which skeptics would debate climate experts about long-settled global warming research. According to E&E News, Trump himself has backed the idea. Other members of the administration have reportedly pushed back against this debate plan, however, and the idea is currently on hold.

As the EPA has shifted away from climate science, it has found a new focus: the EPA administrator himself. The change was perhaps best summed up in a March story by Mother Jones’ Rebecca Leber, in which she documented how the EPA Twitter account—which during the previous administration was used to publicize the agency’s work and raise awareness about environmental issues—quickly became a tool to specifically boost Pruitt’s profile:

The agency’s work on climate and energy policy has slowed to a crawl, but it has been replaced with a different focus: the promotion of the new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt. With one exception, all of the EPA’s tweets and Facebook posts since Pruitt’s confirmation have been about his various appearances or sharing quotes from the EPA chief or President Donald Trump. The only time the EPA tweeted about an environmental issue, it was to promote Trump’s executive order attempting to roll back a Clean Water Act rule…This is unusual. During the Obama administration, the EPA Twitter account certainly publicized and promoted Administrator Gina McCarthy, but it was a far smaller portion of its work.


7. States use experimental drugs to execute inmates

Mother Jones’ Nathalie Baptiste spent much of 2017 chronicling capital punishment in the United States—a system that is arbitrary, cruel, expensive, and highly inequitable. It is also an affront to basic standards of science and medicine. As Nathalie has explained, there was never much evidence behind the original “three-drug cocktail” that was supposed to make lethal injection painless and humane. But in recent years, things have gotten even worse as pharmaceutical companies have become increasingly unwilling to allow their products to be used for capital punishment, which has left prison officials scrambling to find drugs they can use to kill inmates.

In response, some states have resorted to even more unscientific methods of execution, concocting new lethal injection regimens using untested drugs and procedures. The results have been predictably horrific, culminating in Arkansas’ failed attempt in April to execute eight men in less than two weeks—before its supply of the controversial sedative midazolam expired. As Nathalie wrote this spring:

[J]ust like with the original cocktail, these new lethal injection techniques have been developed with little scientific rigor. “There’s been a very active substitution of drugs into this protocol with, of course, no corresponding investigation,” says [Indiana University Associate Professor Teresa] Zimmers.

When Oklahoma used the one-drug protocol of pentobarbital in the execution of Michael Wilson in January 2014, the inmate’s last words were, “I feel my whole body burning.” A few months later, the state tried to put Clayton Lockett to death using a three-drug protocol that included the anesthetic midazolam. Lockett mumbled and writhed on the gurney, before dying of a massive heart attack about 40 minutes after the procedure began. Oklahoma’s executions are now on hold.

Despite the controversy surrounding midazolam, last month Arkansas rushed to execute eight men in 11 days when its supply of the drug was set to expire. After a series of legal setbacks for the state, only four were put to death. The last man to die, Kenneth Williams, reportedly convulsed, jerked, lurched, and coughed for 10 to 20 seconds after prison officials administered midazolam. 

Apparently undeterred, Arkansas has since acquired a new supply of midazolam, reportedly paying cash to a secret middleman:

One August afternoon, Wendy Kelley, the director of the Arkansas Department of Corrections, picked up 40 vials of a controversial sedative used in prisons across the country to put inmates to death.

The details of where she picked the vials up, and who sold the drugs to the prison, are not known, but according to BuzzFeed, Kelley paid an undisclosed supplier $250 in cash for midazolam. Anti-death penalty advocates cried foul, questioning the acceptability of the state paying cash for drugs linked to several botched executions in recent years from an unknown seller. But Arkansas didn’t have to respond to any questions about the incident because its secrecy law shields the public from obtaining certain information about executions. Three weeks later, when Arkansas set November 9 as the execution date of Jack Greene, a severely mentally ill man, Greene’s lawyer, John Williams, told Vice…how “troubling” it was that now all of Arkansas’ execution drugs “come from these side-of-the-road suppliers.”

There have been disturbing incidents in other states, as well. In November, for instance, Ohio was forced to postpone an execution after prison officials spent 45 minutes sticking an inmate with needles in an unsuccessful effort to find a suitable vein.

“What we have here is masquerade,” said Zimmers, the Indiana University medical professor, who discussed lethal injection on our Inquiring Minds podcast. “Something that pretends to be science and pretends to be medicine but isn’t.”

Source: Mother Jones, Jeremy Schulman, December 28, 2017


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning