Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

How a century-old genocide becomes newly prominent: The Internet

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The internet makes censorship and control of information more difficult, as many authoritarian organizations have discovered. If people can simply search out available information that “authorities” do not want them to see, lots of things that were not exactly secret but certainly well hidden from those the authorities controlled suddenly become readily available. Thus the story of Joseph Smith’s embarrassingly fraudulent “translation” of a manuscript of Egyptian hieroglyphics is easily read by anyone with an internet connection, which has forced the Mormon church to take a new approach. They can no longer simply tamp down the story. Thus the pedophiles and the bishops who protected them become highly visible to anyone who does a few searches, so the Catholic church must finally start to acknowledge the truth.

And thus the story of the Armenian genocide cannot be controlled by the Turkish government. For example, Brian Merchant writes at Motherboard:

My grandfather credits Dirhouie “Medsmir” Chorbajian with the fact that our family exists at all. She was the one who, after receiving word of the slaughter of tens of thousands of Armenians in Turkey between 1894 and 1896, in what would be named the Hamidian massacres after the sultan who ordered them, urged her husband to emigrate to the United States. According to family lore, Medsmir, my great-great-great grandmother, was blunt: “It is time for us to leave.”

She proved persuasive, and the Chorbajian family moved to Massachusetts, and then on to Fresno, California. Less than twenty years later, one and a half million Armenians, among them her friends, peers, and relatives, were systematically deported and killed by the agents of the Ottoman Empire. My ancestors escaped the first and least-remembered genocide of the twenty-first century, which, for a long time, escaped my understanding, too.

If my great grandfather Albert had not changed his last name, from Chorbajian to “Merchant,” which he said was a direct translation, on the day before he wed his Anglo-American bride, it would be stamped on my birth certificate. It would be my byline. I would be Brian Chorbajian. My name would announce my familial legacy, winding back to a Middle Eastern people once nearly wiped entirely from the earth. I would have grown up, in some sense, Armenian.

But it doesn’t, and I didn’t. I emerged a thoroughly white suburbanite with a thoroughly Anglicized moniker. As a kid, I knew nothing of the cultural history of Armenians or the atrocity that drove my forebears to seek refuge in the United States. Throughout high school, I probably couldn’t have pointed to Armenia on a map.

Only now, thanks to my grandfather and some powerful new technologies of remembrance helping to shed light on the Armenian plight, am I beginning to come to grips with the heritage that begat, then transformed my name.

This April marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide. On April 24th, 1915, the Turkish government executed some 200 Armenian intellectual leaders in Constantinople, in what scholars now refer to as a “decapitation strike” meant to hobble the whole people. Thus began the genocide in earnest; the brutal, organized effort to empty Anatolia of its entire Armenian population, through a process the state referred to only as “deportation.”Two million Armenians were forced from their homes, and sent marching through the desert, their final destination grim camps clearly not intended for long-term occupation. One and a half million Armenians died in the process; many from starvation (they often went unfed), many from exhaustion (the old and the young alike marched for days on end), many from disease (cholera ravaged the camps), and many directly at the hands of Turkish officials (shootings, hangings, rape, even decapitation were not uncommon).

The ​US government still refuses to recognize the state-ordained mass exterminations that began in 1915 as a genocide, despite a mountain of supporting evidence and coalescing international agreement—because, to this day, Turkey, a NATO ally, denies that any systematic killing took place at all, and chalks the event up to the cloudy ambiguities of war. The generations-spanning erasure of ‘Chorbajian’ from my own identity, it can seem at times, dovetails with the decades-spanning erasure of ‘Armenian genocide’ from the American cultural fabric.

In late March, 2015, I was on the phone with my 84-year-old grandfather, Alan Merchant, who has been recovering from a difficult surgery. We’d fallen into a long conversation about history, and got to talking about our ancestry, when he repeated the anecdote about Medsmir, which means “grandmother” in Armenian.

“If it weren’t for her, I guess we wouldn’t be here,” he said. There are plenty of occasions on any family tree where you can point to a branch and wonder, if they didn’t do x, would we even… But there are fewer where you can say that, if they didn’t do this, in all likelihood, our family would have been eradicated along with most of an entire race. My grandfather then mentioned the upcoming 100-year anniversary of the genocide, and that was that. The anecdote, paired with the sudden realization that I’d more or less been ignoring, or at the very least, sequestering away to the attic of unpleasant thoughts, 100 years of my own history, made me queasy. I felt like I’d betrayed something, but wasn’t sure what. I resolved to fill in the gaps.

I turned first, of course, to Google.

I spent the next several Sunday afternoon hours on YouTube, on ​Armenia’s online genocide museum, on Wikipedia. I passed the evening with indexed survivor testimonies, sprawling image archives, grainy digitized video; in the desert sweep of the killing fields, with the hanged bodies, the slain poets, and children half-buried in dust. I was reminded again of a history that I had learned of before, but long failed to internalize.

The web, for its part, was keeping pace with my kindled curiosity. So often, when the internet is heralded as a democratizer of knowledge, the words ring hollow when put under scrutiny. But in the case of the Armenian genocide, it’s true. Google the term in the US, and you’ll find that geopolitics have been swept away, and the truth is laid out in hyperlinks. Unlike the US’s craven official stance, or the media’s tendency in the latter half of the 20th century to reduce the genocide question to he said/she said, the search results paint an accurate representation of the current scholarship—that there is no doubt that what occurred was, under the UN definition of the term, a capital-G genocide.

The first hit is a Wikipedia entry that . . .

Continue reading. Photos at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 April 2015 at 4:34 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government

The Epic of a Genocide

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In the NY Review of Books James Reidel discusses Franz Werfel’s famous novel:

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh made Franz Werfel (1890-1945) one of the world’s most celebrated and controversial authors after it first appeared in German in 1933. He had worked a miracle for Armenians around the world, taking what might have been a footnote in the history of World War I—the deportation and mass murder of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian minority—and writing an epic that anticipated the ominous events unfolding in Germany as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power. The erosion of civil rights, the singling out of a minority for the nation’s problems, and the state-sanctioned violence perpetrated against it were becoming a reality for German Jews and this made Musa Dagh seem the work of a prophet.

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh began with Werfel’s second journey to the Middle East in the winter of1930. He had just published his third major novel, The Pure in Heart(1929) and married his lover, Alma Mahler, Vienna’s legendary consort of genius, the widow of Gustav Mahler and the former wife of the architect Walter Gropius. After touring the ruins of Karnak, Alma and Werfel traveled on to Palestine and Jerusalem. In Damascus, Werfel toured a carpet factory with Alma. He saw a number of children working the looms, many of them maimed and crippled. When he asked the factory owner about them, he was told they were Armenian orphans. Their parents had been lost in the massacres, forced deportation marches, and concentration camps of World War I. These events would not have been a surprise to Werfel. In the years following the war, the atrocities committed against the Armenians surfaced in the news stories, some tied to the revenge shootings of Talaat Bey, Jemal Pasha, and other wartime Turkish leaders, victims of an Armenian revolutionary assassination program with the chilling name of “Operation Nemesis.”

The haunting “El Greco” eyes of the children disturbed Alma and Werfel. As they traveled on to Lebanon, Werfel, although sick with fever, had his driver stop so that he could question the Armenian villagers who had returned to the region after the war. He then learned more about the seven villages to the north, in Turkey’s Hatay Province, which occupied the slopes around Musa Dagh—Mount Moses. There, in the summer of 1915, the Armenians disobeyed a government resettlement order. They had heard news of mass arrests of Armenian leaders in Istanbul, of columns of refugees left to die in the Mesopotamian desert, and of murders being committed against their people throughout the Ottoman Empire. Such news fit the pattern of atrocities that had occurred before the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, and it portended worse despite the new regime’s faded promise of ending the old empire’s ethnic divides, which had grown along with the nationalism of both Armenians and Turks during the previous century.

Werfel learned how the village leaders made the decision to resist and how they established an armed camp on Musa Dagh for a long siege. With the Mediterranean Sea at their backs, the Armenians hoped to wait out the war and resist the territorial police and Turkish army long enough to attract the attention of the British and French navies that patrolled the coast from their bases in Egypt and Cyprus. Werfel could not visit the actual site and came no closer than the packet boat that took him and Alma along the same Syrian and Turkish coast to Istanbul. But on the way, the novel that would take place in this landscape began to form.

Back home in Vienna in April 1930, at one of the many parties leading up to Easter, Werfel met his friend, the French ambassador to Austria, Count Bertrand Clauzel. The diplomat was quite familiar with the rescue of the Armenian survivors of Musa Dagh and promised to show Werfel secret French naval and diplomatic communiqués that named the officers and ships involved as well as other important details. Werfel also visited the monastery and library of the Mekhitarists, an Armenian Catholic order based in Venice, who provided more documentation about what had happened on Musa Dagh. Despite his research being interrupted by other books, travels, and lectures, Werfel, with the help of friends, gathered an incredible amount of detail about the regional climate, geography, economy, botany, even the stations of the moon in the sky at given times and other celestial events.

Over the next two years he became fully acquainted with Turkish and Armenian history, culture, nationalism, even cuisine. Werfel studied the history of the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Sufi mysticism of Turkey’s Dervishes along with the arcanum of the Ottoman bureaucracy and military. He took pains to represent Turks and Armenians with objectivity, underlining reminders in his early manuscript: “Don’t polemicize against the Turks.” “Also the Armenians’ hatred of the Turks. Somewhere Enver must be in the right.” “Caution. The Turks cannot appear to be all too dumb and militarily godforsaken. All their actions must be well-founded.” These latter points concern Turkish public opinion, that European interventionism and colonialism had influenced Ottoman policy against the Armenians, and Turkey’s national pride in its military. For this, Werfel had been diligent in researching the battles scenes around MusaDagh. His accuracy even made Musa Dagh useful to an American military historian who reconstructed Turkish operations around Musa Dagh to prove that it was a counterinsurgency.

What is more surprising here is that the novel had been appropriated for a revisionist interpretation that mostly agrees with official Turkish history—which denies the genocide—while still seeing the Ottoman army performing what “closely approximated ethnic cleansing” in accordance with the military practices of other “civilized” nations of the period. The Young Turks had only to look to the British strategy of forced resettlement and the first concentration camps of the Boer War in South Africa, or the brutal tactics of German colonial troops in suppressing uprisings in its African territories as well as the United States in the Philippines. Indeed, the American precedent vis-à-vis Turkey’s Armenian policy could be cited further for its long history of forced deportation and resettlement of Native Americans—but there is another reason that Musa Dagh suggests the Little Big Horn. As a boy, Werfel was an avid reader of Karl May’s “travel novels” set in the American West and the steppes and mountains of the Ottoman Empire. Much of their adventure, color, and struggle resurface in Musa Dagh.

Werfel’s corroboration of the Turkish atrocities came from many German sources and eyewitness accounts—nurses, diplomats, military people, and the like—the most important taken almost verbatim from the writings of the German Protestant missionary Johannes Lepsius and Dikran Andreassian, an Armenian Protestant pastor whose orphanage was forcibly closed by the Turks and its children deported to Mesopotamia. All of this detail and minutiæ would be arranged around what was generally accepted, that during World War I hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Armenian citizens had been expelled from the heartland of Anatolia and died as a result. Many had been murdered intentionally, especially members of the Armenian intelligentsia.

With little countervailing evidence from Turkish sources to offset what Werfel had learned about the events of 1915 and their background—an antagonism for the Ottoman Armenian minority taking form during the nineteenth century not unlike anti-Semitism in Europe—he could only be merciless in portraying the Young Turks as the responsible party for the expulsions, the transit and concentration camps, and the deaths of innocent people. He portrayed their inner circle as having an ultimate goal, well informed by European Social Darwinism such that Talaat Bey uses European words to describe the elimination of an entire race of people, this before the termgenocide had been coined for a League of Nations conference. Werfel reminds the reader that Talaat proudly kept a telegraph machine in his office, having been an operator in his youth, and to indicate that a paper trail existed between him and his henchmen in the Ottoman civil service. Yet Werfel’s novelization never shows the actual order being given, it is all intent, sinisterly verbal and eerily prescient of how no order for the Final Solution exists in Hitler’s hand and how a dutiful bureaucracy can be the central nervous system of evil.

Those who read The Forty Days of Musa Dagh in the 1930s could see the Young Turks of the novel as the Nazis of real life, the Turkish people as the German people, and the Armenians as Europe’s Jews. They saw Werfel as making this unavoidable connection, that it was the point of the novel, its provocation, to the point that many would also lose sight of the Armenian tragedy itself. Over time, this assumption of Werfel’s prescience has been questioned on the grounds that he could not have foreseen the Holocaust given the slow motion of the Final Solution, which came in increments, some imperceptible. Even the putative prophet himself, like others, thought the next German election could remove Hitler from power should he overreach.

Yet Werfel did not exist or write in a vacuum. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 April 2015 at 3:54 pm

Posted in Books

Police officer’s self-protection bill

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Radley Balko has a report on how police officers are protected from accountability for misconduct:

Over at Cato, Walter Olson has a summary of an ongoing issue that has had some resonance in the police killing of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray — the “law enforcement officer bill of rights” (LEOBR) that many states have passed, giving cops extra protections when they’re investigated for abuse of force.

Maryland was the first state to pass a LEOBR, in 1972, and by now many states have followed, invariably after lobbying from police unions and associations. Often the bills are sponsored by Republicans, who seem to forget their normal skepticism of public employees as an interest group when uniformed services are involved.

Prison and jail guards are often covered by these laws as well, and scandals of corrections administration (the state-run Baltimore jail had a huge one in which the Maryland LEOBR was implicated) are often hard to investigate because of the law’s barriers. Union contracts often add further layers of insulation from discipline. In its coverage of abuse allegations at New York’s notorious Attica prison, for example, the New York Times reported, “Under their union contract, corrections officers are obligated to answer questions only from their employers and have the right to refuse to talk to outside police agencies. State Police investigators attempted to interview 15 guards; 11 declined to cooperate.”

Aware of Baltimore’s long (and still-unfolding) history of police misconduct, Mayor Rawlings-Blake and the state ACLU and other groups have called for a partial rollback of Maryland’s LEOBR. Yet its defenders are well organized, and reform bills never made it out of committee in the now-concluded state legislative session.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s House unanimously voted last year to enact a “Correctional Officers’ Bill of Rights”–as if this all were completely uncontroversial. It shouldn’t be.

Olson also links to a 2012 piece in Reason by Mike Riggs that digs a little further.

The rights created by these bills differ from state to state, but here’s how a typical police misconduct investigation works in states that have a law enforcement bill of rights in place:

A complaint is filed against an officer by a member of the public or a fellow officer. Police department leadership reviews the complaint and decides whether to investigate. If the department decides to pursue the complaint, it must inform the officer and his union. That’s where the special treatment begins, but it doesn’t end there.

Unlike a member of the public, the officer gets a “cooling off” period before he has to respond to any questions. Unlike a member of the public, the officer under investigation is privy to the names of his complainants and their testimony against him before he is ever interrogated. Unlike a member of the public, the officer under investigation is to be interrogated “at a reasonable hour,” with a union member present. Unlike a member of the public, the officer can only be questioned by one person during his interrogation. Unlike a member of the public, the officer can be interrogated only “for reasonable periods,” which “shall be timed to allow for such personal necessities and rest periods as are reasonably necessary.” Unlike a member of the public, the officer under investigation cannot be “threatened with disciplinary action” at any point during his interrogation. If he is threatened with punishment, whatever he says following the threat cannot be used against him.

What happens after the interrogation again varies from state to state. But under nearly every law enforcement bill of rights, the following additional privileges are granted to officers: Their departments cannot publicly acknowledge that the officer is under investigation; if the officer is cleared of wrongdoing or the charges are dropped, the department may not publicly acknowledge that the investigation ever took place, or reveal the nature of the complaint. The officer cannot be questioned or investigated by “non-government agents,” which means no civilian review boards. If the officer is suspended as a result of the investigation, he must continue to receive full pay and benefits until his case is resolved. In most states, the charging department must subsidize the accused officer’s legal defense.

A violation of any of the above rights can result in dismissal—not of the officer, but of the charges against him.

I’d add one thing. Many times, these bills have strict procedures for how officers are to be investigated. Not following the procedures isn’t a huge deal for the officers who violate them, but it does get the cop being investigated off the hook. The “bill of rights” can essentially become a how-to guide for cops to get their colleagues out of trouble. I wrote about a good example of this a few years ago after a case in Louisiana.

In 2007, Shreveport police officer Wiley Willis arrested 38-year-old Angela Garbarino on suspicion of drunken driving. While in custody, as captured on the video below, Garbarino begins arguing with Willis about what she said is her right to make a phone call. About a minute later, Willis walks over and turns off the video camera. When the camera comes back on, Garbarino is lying on the floor in a pool of her own blood. She was later photographed with severe facial injuries she says were the result of Willis beating her. Willis’ attorney stated that she tripped and fell while the camera was off. After the video went viral, Willis was fired, but has never been criminally charged.

Last month, the Shreveport Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board voted to reinstate Willis on the police force. He’ll get full back pay and benefits for the year-and-a-half he was fired. The reason? During the internal investigation of Willis, a polygraph machine operator failed to record the results of his Q&A with Willis. This apparently is a violation of Louisiana’s“Police Officer’s Bill of Rights,” a set of guidelines every department must follow when investigating officer misconduct.

Garbarino won a $400,000 settlement from the city of Shreveport last year.

So because of that minor error in procedure, the bad cop gets his job back with full backpay. The residents and taxpayers of Shreveport get hit twice — they get to foot the bill for Garbarino’s compensation, and they get an abusive cop back on the city’s streets.

It’s true that, technically, these extra rights don’t pertain to criminal investigations. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 April 2015 at 3:45 pm

Posted in Law, Law Enforcement

How the FCC saw through the Comcast/Time-Warner deal

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Very interesting article in the New Yorker by Tim Wu. Key grafs:

Time Warner and Comcast are the nation’s No. 1 and 2 cable companies, and if two of the largest companies in any industry wanted to merge, the government would inevitably take a close look. You can be sure that if Walmart and Costco wanted to combine forces, or Ford and G.M., they’d face an uphill battle. But Comcast was confident that its merger with Time Warner would be easily approved, based on the argument that the two companies have a fundamentally different relationship than similarly large companies in other industries. Because the two serve different regions of the United States, Comcast insisted, they are not actually direct competitors. Sure, they might be near-monopolies in many parts of the country, but the deal was simply about linking up regional monopolies, not increasing them.

But that theory fell apart when the Justice Department began to look in a different way at what Comcast does, and to seriously consider the company’s role not just in selling cable and broadband, but in delivering content over the Internet more generally. Spurred on, perhaps, by white papers submitted by Netflix, Dish, Public Knowledge, and various antitrust professors, the Justice Department decided, conceptually, to turn things around, and in economic jargon, to look at the other side of the “two-sided market.” That meant noticing that Comcast sells both Internet access to customers and customer access to the Internet. Stated differently, anyone who wants to reach one of Comcast’s customers—like Netflix delivering a film or Spotify delivering a song—has to go through it, and it alone. Looking at the deal this way forced the Justice Department to think about Comcast as something much more than just a regional cable company.

In this case, the competition that really mattered was not between Comcast and Time Warner, but between Comcast and the various companies—like Amazon, Dish (as of late), and Netflix—that rely on broadband to provide cheaper versions of TV over the Internet. From this angle, it is clear that Comcast has already been doing what it can to slow the emergence of Internet TV as a serious competitor to its own television offerings. It began to charge new access fees to companies like Netflix. It even worked to cripple Hulu, of which it was a joint-owner. And, as Harold Feld points out, it has done what it can to limit the threat from services like HBO Go to its own Xfinity service.

The future was clear to see in Comcast’s prior conduct—it was already using what power it had to weaken its competitors. It was therefore not hard to predict that adding all of Time Warner’s customers and wires to its reach would give Comcast that much more power over its online rivals. With that, Comcast’s repeated claims that its proposed merger had no bearing on competition fell apart.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 April 2015 at 3:35 pm

Posted in Business, Government

How to Design a Roller Coaster That’ll Make You Beg For Mercy

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I was an adult before I took my first roller-coaster ride. It was just up the coast from here: the roller coaster at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. I was living in Iowa City, but would fly to San Jose fairly often for business trips to Palo Alto, and my friend Mr. Beetner, an explorer of new cities, drove me to Santa Cruz for a day.

I screamed my head off and could not wait to ride it again. This article by Jeff Wise in Bloomberg explains what makes a great roller-coaster ride:

Just looking at it makes me sick. I’m standing at the base of the world’s tallest roller coaster lift hill, staring at a track that rises to a 325-foot-high apex in the clear, blue Carolina sky. Soon, I’ll be dragged up there and dropped almost straight down. My stomach isn’t happy about it.

Why would anyone pay to have the crap scared out of them? To find out, I’m meeting with Rob Decker, the senior vice president for planning and design at the amusement-park conglomerate Cedar Fair. In late 2012 the company started planning a new tent-pole attraction for its Carowinds Park on the outskirts of Charlotte. Working with Switzerland-based amusement-ride builders Bolliger & Mabillard, Cedar Fair devised a 325-foot “ultimate thrill machine,” as Decker puts it, that in the course of a three-minute ride achieves a top speed of 95 mph. The result, Fury 325, debuted on March 28, the opening day of the park’s 2015 season.

The company won’t share attendance and revenue figures, but if it keeps Fury 325’s seats filled, more than a million customers will ride the coaster in 2015. “It’s a big ride for them,” says amusement park consultant Jerry Aldritch. “It lets them market a new product to bring more people to the park and generate more revenue. It’s not just about clicks of the turnstile, it’s about the merchandise and the food and all the other revenue generators.”

The key to the ride’s success isn’t so much what it does to riders physically, but how it works them over psychologically, wringing them out with alternating applications of terror, surprise, and exhilaration. Decker gave me a section-by-section explanation of how the coaster generates its effects, then accompanied me for a ride shortly before the coaster opened. (As it turns out, understanding the ride’s psychodynamics doesn’t reduce the urge to scream one’s brains out.)

The Approach

The monster exerts its pull from across state lines. Driving south on I-77 from Charlotte toward Carowinds, which straddles the state line in Fort Mill, S.C., I see the lift hill rising over the horizon from 5 miles out. Already, the ride is messing with my brain. “It looks magnificent and terrifying,” Decker says. “Your visit [is] validated before you even open the car door.” Fury 325 stretches to the parking lot and dives underneath the park’s entrance bridge, so I hear the screams the minute I arrive. As I walk toward the gates, a queasy stomach and sweaty palms signal that my fight or flight circuitry is prepping me for danger.

Anticipation . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 April 2015 at 3:26 pm

Posted in Business

Another Startling Verdict for Forensic Science and a Roundup of Reports

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Ryan Gabrielson reports in ProPublica:

With the introduction of DNA analysis three decades ago, criminal investigations and prosecutions gained a powerful tool to link suspects to crimes through biological evidence. This field has also exposed scores of wrongful convictions, and raised serious questions about the forensic science used in building cases.

This week, The Washington Post reported the first results from a sweeping study of the FBI forensic hair comparison unit, finding that 26 of 28 examiners in the unit gave flawed testimony in more than 200 cases during the 1980s and 1990s. Examiners overstated the accuracy of their analysis in ways that aided prosecutors. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project are conducting the study with the cooperation of the U.S. Justice Department.

The development is only the latest to shake public faith in what police and prosecutors have often cited as scientific proof. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences published an exhaustive review of the forensic sciences, concluding that only nuclear DNA analysis has a foundation in research. “Although research has been done in some disciplines,” the report states, “there is a notable dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and validity of many forensic methods.”

Fields based on matching patterns in fingerprints and hair have unknown error rates. Other methods are believed to be even more dubious, most notably the analysis of bite-mark injuries on victims’ bodies. Still, while the forensic sciences are under scrutiny, unproven practices, both old and new, continue to be used in courtrooms.

We’ve gathered some of the best reporting on questionable forensic science and evidence. Have we missed any? Please let us know in the comments below.

Convicted defendants left uninformed of forensic flaws found by Justice Dept
The Washington Post, April 2012
The Post story that spurred study of the FBI hair matching unit, which details how justice department officials failed to respond to widespread concerns about its fiber analysis. The FBI withheld the information from convicts whose cases included testimony from the troubled lab. “As a result, hundreds of defendants nationwide remain in prison or on parole for crimes that might merit exoneration, a retrial or a retesting of evidence using DNA because FBI hair and fiber experts may have misidentified them as suspects,” Spencer S. Hsu wrote.

Trial By Fire
The New Yorker, September 2009
The story of Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted of setting the fire that destroyed his Texas home and killed his one-year-old twin daughters. Willingham’s conviction rested on investigators’ belief that burn patterns proved the young father had poured a liquid accelerant to propel the blaze. Researchers would prove that theory baseless. The discovery did not benefit Willingham, who had been executed in 2004.

The Bite-Marks Men
Slate, February 2008
Two men in Mississippi were wrongly convicted for the rapes and murders of young girls based on bite-mark analysis by Dr. Michael West, a longtime expert witness in the state’s criminal courts. The entire method of analyzing bite marks is in question.

Weird Science
Texas Monthly, May 2010
Deputy Keith Pikett with the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office, outside Houston, connected people to crime scenes through “scent” lineups for his police dogs across Texas. Pikett would expose his dogs to a smell from the scene, and then have them sniff scent samples from the suspect and a series of uninvolved people. Pikett would testify dogs’ “body language” alerted him of alleged matches, helping to indict more than 1,000 suspects using the dubious technique.

Playing With Fire
The Intercept, February 2015
Another case in which fire investigators followed burn patterns to an incorrect conclusion, and a conviction. In 1992, Lorie Lee Lance died of smoke inhalation, crouched on the floor of a utility room as her home in Tennessee burned. Police suspected Lance’s boyfriend, Claude Garrett, had locked her in the room and set the blaze. However, the investigation had found the door was unlocked.

The Hardest Cases: When Children Die, Justice Can Be Elusive
ProPublica, June 2011 . . .

Continue reading. There are more at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 April 2015 at 1:18 pm

It takes a village to make a village good

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Or: good downtowns don’t just happen by accident, and generally quite a bit of the town is involved. James Fallows passes along a reader’s story of how Asheville NC came to have a great downtown:

Here’s how we got to today’s post: through the past few weeks, I’ve done a variety of items on the attempts of long-challenged Fresno to rebuild its historic downtown.

  • Then a reader from Seattle explained how his town had pulled off a comparable feat. He  pointed out that visitors assumed Seattle just “naturally” looked the way it does now, but in fact the downtown revival was the fruit of at least 30 years of deliberate planning and effort.
  • Then another reader said that planning and effort had only a loose connection to the finished result. Tampa, he said, had tried as hard and as long as Seattle but had little to show for it. Meanwhile elegant little Asheville, North Carolina had apparently drifted its way into a celebrated downtown.
  • Then a reader in Tampa said, Wait a minute! It’s actually nice here too! We’ve even got a Riverwalk. You can read his case in this post.

Now the expected further shoe has dropped, with readers from Asheville writing in to say: We drifted our way into success? Hah! Some “drift!”

Here is a sample, from J. Patrick Whalen, who has lived in Asheville since the mid-1970s. I’m quoting him at length because the issues he mentions connect the stories we’ve heard in every corner of the country. I’m also including some of the photos Mr. Whalen sent, of Asheville before-and-after its recent renaissance.

I saw, with some consternation, the description of Asheville’s revitalization process in the “More on Nice Downtowns” column Tuesday, 4/21.

I’m afraid the reader who wrote in is not very well acquainted with the long hard battle Asheville went through to bring downtown back from the mostly boarded-up deserted place it was in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s to the vital downtown we have now. I will take a shot at summarizing the key elements of that battle, but please rest assured the story is more complicated and there were more participants than I can do justice to in this short note

1) Asheville had a large number of beautiful old buildings built in Art Deco style and otherwise during the 1920’s boom period.

2) When the depression hit, Asheville was devastated. The City itself nearly went bankrupt; an economic pall settled over the area for over 50 years; and there was no reason to do anything other than let buildings stand vacant or underutilized because nothing much was happening.

3) When the interstate came through downtown and the Asheville Mall was built in the 60’s and early 70’s, downtown was effectively dead.4) What followed was basically a 30 year period during which businesses closed and downtown was left boarded up with empty sidewalks. Combined with the long-term economic challenges the mountain area had faced, a profound pessimism settled over the community so that every new idea floated to bring the city back was met with an oft-repeated refrain: “That will never work here – don’t even try.”

5) Some of that pessimism was reinforced when large-scale solutions attempted by city leaders failed. A proposal was floated demolish a large part of the historic downtown and replace it with an enclosed mall. That idea was voted down but in the process local citizens became much more invested in saving and bringing back downtown. Citizen resistance was led by John Lantzius, who was already busy, with his sister, Dawn, renovating buildings, in one of the blocks slated for demolition, and providing low-cost spaces for local businesses. Other large-scale projects were actually completed by out-of-town developers during this period but the projects failed financially.  The large-scale failures were part of the story of the 80’s.

6) However, another part of the 80’s story was that the local citizen reaction to the downtown mall proposal combined with the fact that those failed large-scale projects which were completed also served as sort of  “first buds of spring” to give people a little hope, encouraged some of the remaining local entrepreneurs to hold on and some new ones to take a chance on downtown. . .

Continue reading. Before and after photos at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 April 2015 at 1:05 pm


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