Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Metrodome as a Forum for Recognizing Jackie

As a baseball stadium, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome was notorious for its appallingly poor aesthetics. Built more for football than baseball, it featured a right field fence known as “the baggie” − a plastic wall that looked like a garbage bag. Most Twins fans, including me, look forward to the move next year to Target Field, an outdoor stadium made possible by a sales tax increase in Hennepin County.

The Vikings, meanwhile, continue on at the Dome, still pushing the ball uphill like Sisyphus in their quest to find funding for their own new stadium.

Before the Dome fades into history as a baseball venue, there is one exceptional element in its otherwise flatly functional design that I’d like to record. Among the huge portraits of Twins players hanging high beyond the outfield walls − signature players like Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, and Tony Oliva − there was one non-Twin: Jackie Robinson.

In 1947, when the Twins were still the Washington Senators and Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down racial segregation in schools, was still seven years away, Jackie Robinson was the African-American man who broke major league baseball’s color barrier. Brooklyn Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey made it possible, defying other team owners by bringing a black man to his team. But it was Robinson who carried the endeavor through, enduring racial taunts and persevering with dignity, determination, and grace under pressure.

To its credit, MLB has recognized Robinson’s legacy more and more in recent years. His uniform number, 42, has been permanently retired by all teams, and is worn annually on April 15 by many in a Jackie Robinson Day tribute.

Note to self: Be sure to catch the Twins, at least on radio, on April 15. Get your taxes in early and be ready to recognize a laudable American who continues to inspire.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Killing at Age 8: How Should the Law Respond?

At common law, there was a clear gradation of criminal responsibility based on age. Children younger than 7 were conclusively presumed to be incapable of criminal capacity, and those who were over 14 were treated as fully responsible.

What about those between 7 and 14? The common law created what lawyers call a “rebuttable presumption” of criminal incapacity. In other words, children of that age were not considered criminally accountable for their actions − unless the presumption could be overcome by the particular facts of a given case.

How the common law does or does not match up with current research on juvenile brain development is beyond the scope of this post So is the question of how the common law and brain research relate to modern statuotry schemes. Suffice it to say that, for a real-life application of the interpetive relevance of the old principles, one need only turn to Arizona, where in February a boy pleaded guilty to negligent homicide for killing − at age 8! − his father and a man who rented a room from the family.

The boy has not yet been sentenced. The options under consideration, at the time of the plea in February, included confinement in a county juvenile lockup, probation, institutionalization for treatment, or being sent to live with relatives.

The New York Times account on December 1, 2008 did, however, bring out several salient facts. The boy’s father, Vincent Romero, was actually a stepfather, and the boy had kept a ledger documenting the number of times he had been spanked. The boy told a Child Protective Services worker that when the tally totaled 1,000, he would have reached his limit. And in a videotaped interview conducted the day after the shootings, the boy said that, on the day before the shootings, Vincent Romero had spanked him five times on his mother’s orders.

Regardless of what disposition is right for the son, what about the mom?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Reducing Drunken Driving Deaths: Still Miles to Go

States that target drunken driving for tough law enforcement have seen significant decreases in fatal, alcohol-related crashes. Federal data released earlier this month showed fatality rates down in 40 states and the District of Columbia. According to the Department of Transportation, the number of people killed by drunken driving declined from 13,041 in 2007 to 11,773 in 2008.

This was a 7 percent decrease in one year, and a 44 percent drop since 21,1113 people were killed in 1982. The figures have been trending downward since then, in no small part because Mothers Against Drunk Driving did so much to focus public attention − and exert political pressure − on the issue.

But nearly 12,000 deaths is still far too many. As Doug Berman has pointed out, society's response to drunken driving remains flawed on many levels. He argues, for example, that greater use should be made of ignition-interlock devices, which would require drivers to blow into a tube that checks blood alcohol content before starting the vehicle.

Memories of Malik

Former Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders returned to Target Center again last night, this time as coach of the Washington Wizards. Before the game, he told the Star Tribune that every visit back to the place where he coached for a decade was nostalgic, but that the strongest emotion is always looking up to the rafters and seeing the retired jersey of Malik Sealy, who was killed by a drunken driver on May 20, 2000.

On that fateful night, Sealy, a 30-year-old guard who had played college ball at St. John’s, was headed home after attending a birthday party in downtown Minneapolis for his teammate and best friend, Kevin Garnett. On Highway 100 in St. Louis Park, his sport utility vehicle was struck head-on by a truck going the wrong way. The driver of the truck, Souksangouame Phengsene, 43, had a blood alcohol content of 0.19 percent − more than twice the legal limit in Minnesota − at the time he struck and killed Sealy.

Nine and a half years after Sealy’s death, his coach remains deeply affected by the tragedy. “I still wake up now at 4:06 because that’s when the call came from the police station,” Saunders told the Star Trib. “There are still times, even now, when I wake up at that time for some reason. Crazy.”

Crazy, too, is the justice system’s tolerance for chronic drunk driving offenders. At the time he caused Sealy’s death, Phengsene already had one previous drunken driving conviction on his record. After pleading guilty to criminal vehicular homicide in Sealy’s death, he served three years in prison. He was released in July 2003.

In 2006, however, Phengsene was arrested for DUI again − this time in the suburb of Crystal, with a blood alcohol level of 0.21 percent. He was sentenced to less than a year in the workhouse, but was given a 3 1/2-year probation term, on the condition that another DUI violation would lead to prison. Because Phengsene’s 2003 conviction was for vehicular homicide, not DUI, that conviction could not be used to enhance the sentence on the 2006 conviction.

In early April of 2008, when Flip Saunders returned to Target Center with the Detroit Pistons, Phengsene had just been arrested for DUI again. After drinking 10-12 beers, he was arrested on 35W near 36th Street in south Minneapolis with a blood alcohol content of over 0.20 percent.

This time, Phengsene was sentneced to a prison term of 4/1 years, with a requirement of serving at least 2/3 of that time behind bars, as well as 5 years on probation. The sentencing judge also revoked Phengsene's probation on the 2006 DUI sentence and chose to make the 2006 and 2008 sentences consecutive rather than concurrent. Adding 4 1/2 and 3 1/2, the Star Tribune came up with 8 years, though only 2/3 of that will actually be spent in prison. The remaining 1/3 will be on supervised release − followed by the 5 years of probation on the first sentence.

I doubt that any of these numbers run through Saunders’s mind when he wakes up at 4:06. And if the trauma and tragedy of Malik Sealy’s untimtely death are still so tangible for him, what must it be like for Sealy’s wife and son?

Friday, December 25, 2009

From the Margins to the Manger

Shepherds were ritually unclean under Rabbinic law and could not testify in a court of law. But in the Gospel of Luke, it was they, along with the angels, who gave the first testimony to the birth of Jesus.

For it isn't to the palace that the Christ child comes
But to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums.
- Bruce Cockburn, "Cry of a Tiny Babe"

African Americans, like shepherds, have often been relegated to the margins of society, and an affinity between the two groups is readily apparent in Langston Hughes's Black Nativity. In one version of the play, now in its eleventh year at the Lorraine Hansbery Theatre in San Francisco, wayward shepherds find their way to the baby Jesus singing songs of musicians who have died in the last year.

This year, the shepherds made sure to include songs by Michael Jackson, the King of Pop. Way to go, shepherds! A nice combination of sacred and secular, paying respects to the King of Pop while on the way to honoring the King of Kings!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Imagine growing up in a living hell of abuse and victimization. Raped repeatedly by your father, resulting in two incestuous children. Verbally abused and physically assaulted by your mother, practically 24/7.

You live in poverty, an African American on welfare in Harlem in the 1980s. Because of the violence and neglect in your home, you are practically illiterate, and are also morbidly obese. When you find out you’re pregnant for a second time by your father, there are times you wish you were dead.

But somehow, deep within you, there is a deep capacity for survival and perseverance. You find a caring mentor, who helps you begin to build a new life, beyond abuse and degradation.

This is the story told in “Precious,” a film based on the novel “Push.”

I saw the film yesterday and was very much moved.

Monday, December 21, 2009

2.3 Million and Counting

In 1999, conservative scholar John J. Dilulio opined in the Wall Street Journal that 2 million inmates in jail and prisons across America were enough.

By year-end 2008, it was 2.3 million, according to the annual report released this month by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The 0.8 percent rise from 2007 to 2008 was the lowest rate of increase since 2000, but the number of prisoners sentenced to more than one year still increased from 1.54 million to 1.61 million.

The increase is not inexorable. It is the result of specific choices by real human beings in 50 states, the Distict of Columbia, and in the federal system.

How do we turn the Titanic around? Well, the relentless recession has forced a degree of clarity about sentencing and correctional policies across the country. The prison population was actually down in 2o states this year.

Keep an eye on the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Center on the States, which is tracking these developments. There will surely be much more to come in 2010.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Tongue Set Free

One of the goals of the Reformation was to communicate in the vernacular, the language of the people.

For Martin Luther, nearly 500 years ago, this meant translating the New Testament into German.

Today, at the large suburban church I attend, it meant putting the classic Christian song "Amazing Grace" to the tune of the Eagles' 1970s hit "Peaceful Easy Feeling."

The freedom of expression fit with the day's Gospel text, which was Zechariah's impassioned appropriation of his place in the coming Realm of God. After nine months of silence, John the Baptist's father finds his voice at the infant John's circumcision ceremony. The angel Gabriel had struck Zechariah mute, after Zechariah doubted the angel's prophecy that Zechariah's wife, Elizabeth, would give birth to a son. Zechariah's speech would return, Gabriel said, when the prophecy had come to pass.

And that, in Luke's account, is what happens. When relatives gathered for the circumcision express doubt that John is the right name, Elizabeth responds unequivocally that the child's name is John. The relatives then turn to the still-mute Zechariah, who asks for a writing tablet − then suddenly finds his tongue set free.

"You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High
For you will go before the Lord, to prepare his ways
To give knowledge of salvation to his people
By the forgiveness of their sins

By the tender mercies of our God
The dawn from on high will break upon us
To give light to those who sit in darkness
And in the shadow of death
To guide our feet into the way of peace."

John Newton, the former slave-ship captain who wrote "Amazing Grace," had an epiphany akin to Zechariah's when he repented of his role in the slave trade, received grace, and wrote a song in response that is sung over and over again in Christian communities around the world. How sweet the sound to hear it combined with a well-liked pop song so familiar to baby boomer ears.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Office of Faith-based and Community Partnerships

When Joshua Dubois visited St. Paul last May, the website for the White House's office on faith-based intiatives was still under construction. It's now up and running. And significantly, its name speaks not only of faith, but of community partnerships.

This led me back to Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith (1957), which I first read with Prof. Vern Faillettaz at St. Olaf College. If faith is understood as "the state of being ultimately concerned," Tillich says, "love and action are implied in faith and cannot be separated from it."

An implicit stamp of approval from the thought of Tillich, one of the foremost theologians of the twentieth century, won't insulate Dubois' efforts from right-wing attacks. But it certainly can't hurt.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Say It Ain't So, Sheriff Joe

I’m no fan of Sheriff Joe — Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America.”

I first heard of him n 1997, when I was researching alternatives to incarceration for the Idaho state legislature. He was making headlines then for housing jail inmates in tent cities, outside the traditional jailhouse walls.

Twelve years later, he’s still doing that. In army surplus tents originally manufactured for the Korean War. These days, he’s also added pink underwear, pink handcuffs, and cutbacks on calories (from 300 to 250 per day) for prisoners to his tough guy toolbelt.

Martin Bashir’s Nightline segment on December 14 was not primarily prompted by these practices, which by now are somewhat old hat, at least in the Phoenix area. Nightline’s interest seemed to have been piqued by Sheriff Joe’s recent skirmish with the U.S. Justice Department over the tactics his office uses against illegal aliens. Bashir went out on a raid with the sheriff, and the glimpses of the faces of 18 would-be immigrants from Mexico being busted by sheriff’s deputies when their van was pulled over for speeding were poignant.

The stylized colloquy that followed between Bashir and Appaio was all too predictable. Appaio disclaimed any use of racial profiling; it was simply a matter, he said, of enforcing the law. After all, entering the U.S. illegally IS a Class IV felony under Arizona law.

Bashir, an experienced practitioner of in-your-face interviewing, broadened his faux, camera-ready attack. What about deaths and injuries in your jail? What about that off-track crusade against prostitution that ended with a sheriff’s volunteer having a sexual encounter with a prostitute. Didn’t Joe know his “brutal regime” set the tone for all this?

I don’t think Bashir really expected Joe to cave. The sheriff merely corrected him, with the requisite brusqueness, pointing out that the proper term was correctional “officer,” not “guard.”

Instead of the fruitless and largely pointless staged-confrontation, why didn’t Bashir provide any background on what makes Sheriff Joe tick? Herein lies a story on the business model of television journalism that is beyond the scope of this post.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Christmas in Prison

My friends Mark and Jen periodically host “hootenannies” at their house in St. Paul. Friends gather in the living room or, in summer, on the back porch, to make music together.

Friday’s edition quite naturally had a holiday theme. The numbers ranged from traditional religious (“We Three Kings”) to seasonal secular (“Run Run Rudolph”) to contemporary country (Alan Jackson’s “Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas”). So clearly we covered the waterfront, with each contribution adding something to the mosaic.

Yet the moment that really stood out for me was when someone sang John Prine’s “Christmas in Prison.” Just the title itself is enough to give one pause — and the lyrics? Well, give them a listen.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Intimate Partner Violence

Leslie Metzen, a former district court judge, spoke about domestic violence to a men's group at my church, Shepherd of the Valley in Apple Valley, Minn. To provide context for the scope of the problem, she cited figures from the Center for Disease Control (CDC). One of these was that, according to the CDC, 1200 women a year are murdered by their domestic partners.

Seeking to verify this, I went to the CDC website myself. If anything, the scale of the problem may be even worse than Judge Metzen described. A violence prevention factsheet posted on the site states that intimate partner violence (IPV) resulted in 1510 deaths in 2005, which presumably was the most recent year with solid data available. The CDC reported that 78 percent of those deaths were females and 22 percent males.

Some of those male deaths are probably police officers, such as Richard Crittenden of Noth St. Paul, who was killed last September when responding to a domestic call. The gunman in that case had been stalking his ex-wife and entered her apartment despite a no-contact order.

Another recent victim in Minnesota was Pam Taschuk, a 48-year-old juvenile probation officer and social worker who was fatally shot by her estranged husband. This occured only a month after he had posted $5000 bail to gain release from jail after assaulting her - and despite an order for protection from the court.

Following Pam Taschuk's murder, several Minnesota law enforcement agencies have been working to revise their policies for responding to domestic violence calls. The goal is to ask questions that will better identify people who are likely to commit lethal violence.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Inspiration From Citizen Havel

Vaclav Havel, a playwright by profession, spent five years in prison for resistance to the Communist regime in Czechoslavakia. But in 1989, when waves of change swept Eastern Europe, he became one of the leaders of the "Velvet Revolution," and the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia.

A remarkable documentary film, Citizen Havel, follows his career as president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992, and of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003.

At one point, the dissident-turned-president explains why it is necessary to speak out against a particular political practice that is based on false premises. When lies are not confronted, he argued, they can become the truth.

In the context of this blog, which is largely devoted to criminal justice issues, my question is this: Is America's off-the-charts incarceration rate (2.3 million in jail or prison) based on the false premise that this level of incarceration actually improves, rather than harms, public safety?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Tiger Woods and the Language of Confession

“Human, All Too Human,” was one of Nietzsche’s book titles. For all his heroics on the golf course, Tiger Woods is no exception.

As the human drama behind his car accident continues to unfold, the purely legal aspects have reached closure. The Florida Highway Patrol cited Woods for careless driving for crashing his car into a fire hydrant and a tree at 2 a.m on November 27. The formal penalty (civil, not criminal) was $164 and four points against his driver’s license.

There was also the matter of cooperation with the investigation into the crash. Woods refused to speak with the patrol’s accident investigators, but he did provide his driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance, as required by Florida law. After consulting with the local prosecutor’s office, the patrol concluded it lacked sufficient evidence to subpoena records from Woods’ hospital visit after the crash, which briefly knocked him unconscious.

The jarring images remain, however. Woods’ wife, Elin Nordegren Woods, had to smash the vehicle’s back window with a golf club to help get him out. And the facts of the accident seemed to suggest a marital argument. The plausibility of this possibility has only increased in the last few days, amid speculation of sexual impropriety by Tiger Woods.

I’m reminded of the youthful Augustine and his epic indiscretions. “To Carthage then I came,” Augustine wrote in his Confessions — and went on to describe the “cauldron of lust” in which he found himself.

Compared to Augustine, Tiger Woods has offered only — to use the old Watergate phrase — a “limited modified hangout.” In a statement released to the press, he admitted to unspecified “indiscretions” and apologized to his family for “personal sins and failings.”

Sounds like Augustinian language. Alfred North Whitehead famously said that all philosophy is footnotes to Plato. One might equally say that the language of confession consists of footnotes to Augustine.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Fugitive's Facebook Friending Folly

In Italy, it was the Facebook burglar - caught after accessing his profile from the computer of the house he was burglarizing.

In Cancun, it was the Facebook absconder - who met a similar fate: arrest.

Maxi Sopo is a 26-year-old man who came to the United States in 2003 from Cameroon. Settling in the Seattle area, he supported himself by selling roses in nightclubs.

Think about that occupation for a moment. Selling roses in nighclubs, presumably to couples immersed in romance. It was as if the Greek god Hermes were his patron saint.

The American dream, however, tends to want more and more. Mr. Sopo apparently moved on to bank fraud. According to federal prosecutors, he and an acquaintance falsely procured over $200,000 in loans from Seattle-area banks and credit unions. The AP account I read did not state exactly what the pitch was, but clearly Sopo was, as they say, "living the dream."

Unfortunately for Sopo, there's no free lunch, even in America. The U.S. attorney's office began investigating him, and he decided to head for Mexico in a rental car.

Did he choose to lie low, as any pragmatic, old-style fugitive would have done? No, he put up Facebook posts about his high life partying in Cancun - then "friended" a former Justice Department official.

The Secret Service contacted the "friend," pinpointed Sopo's whereabouts, and arrested him. When the AP picked up his story, he was in a Mexican jail, awaiting extradition to the U.S.

What was he thinking, when he logged in to Facebook?