Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Suicide Watch

I remember being a public defender just a couple years out of law school and meeting with a young client charged with a misdemeanor. I don't remember the charge or even his name, but I do remember the serious tone in his voice when he told me he was considering suicide. It didn't sound like an empty threat or a cry for attention, but sounded like a genuine cry for help. It also sounded like it was nothing I could do that much about in the long-term as I had a full afternoon of court and not much expertise in dealing with people this desperate,whose immediate problems were more mental than legal.

But it was a moment I'll never forget. He seemed both trusting and serious about his wish. I, on the other hand, knew I was in way over my head and that I had to take this seriously. We contacted a local suicide hotline and made an appointment for him to meet with someone that day. I saw him a few weeks later, at his court hearing, and he seemed to being much better. But I was busy again and didn't have time to follow up to see if this peace lasted.

I hadn't thought about this in a few years, but today a letter arrived from my daughter's high school that made me think of it;

"All of us at XXXX High School were deeply saddened to receive news this weekend of the death of ... one of our XX grade students. [She] died Sunday evening by hanging...

The most important thing we should do is to be supportive and encourage discussion about the events, our feelings, and what we can do in response to it.

She was likely just 17 years old if she was in 11th grade. What a tragedy.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wired, Working and Watching

I've been incredibly busy lately, bringing work home and unable to sleep some nights thinking about cases. But I love baseball, love the story of the Rays, who had the worst record in the American League last year as well as the second lowest payroll in baseball. Now they're in the World Series, so I don't want to miss an inning.

Last Sunday night, as I watched the Rays beat the Red Sox, I had to transcribe a tape recording quickly, for the next day, but didn't want to miss the game. So, I came up with a solution:

1. Hook up Mac Dictate, the talk to text application that brought the "engine" behind Dragon Naturally Speaking to Macs, the headset covering one of my ears.

2. Hook up the headphone from the digital recorder to the other ear and simply repeat the words I hear into the microphone, in theory at least, turning the spoken words into text to create a "transcript."

3. Put the Macbook on my lap to correct the inevitable misspellings or to add text when it's faster to type than to speak.

I had good reasons for doing it this way (I needed a working transcript quickly) but there are obviously much better ways to do it if you have the time.

Still, as I worked on three different electronic devices while trying to watch baseball on a fourth, I thought of the way technology saves us time but how we tend to fill any extra time up with more tasks.

It worked and I got a reasonably good transcript quickly while at least being able to check in on the game once in awhile.

And the underdog won, which is always encouraging.

Note: I recommend Mac Dictate or its PC companion Dragon Naturally Speaking but they do require some training to get "up to speed." I like it, though, because it makes typing less stressful as I can sit back and add text fairly accurately without having to hunch over a keyboard. My letters are a little wordier now (and last week I learned how important proofreading is when I wrote about a "canny attorney) but it's worth the money if you do much typing.

Be careful though. Make sure the microphone is off when you want it to be! Late in the evening, hurrying to pick my wife up but wanting to get one last letter out, I finished the letter. It was late and it was a long letter so I may have said a couple colorful words as I loaded the printer and the envelope. Then, right before I hit "print" I noticed that the green light was still on, meaning that the application/ program was still converting my talk into text.


After checking to make sure no four letter words showed up in the letter, I finally sent it off. The next day I tested it. Apparently the developers anticipated this scenario as none of George Carlin's Seven Dirty Words was in the memory. It was a little embarrassing to have to explain to the secretary next door that I was "just testing my computer out.

She said she believed me, but, from the look on her face, I'm not so sure.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

UNL Cancels Ayers Speech After Threats

Today's Omaha World-Herald contains an explanation from Chancellor Harvey Perlman regarding the reasons behind his decision to cancel a scheduled speech by William Ayers.

The university on Wednesday released a report from the assessment team, after being asked for more detail on the threats that prompted Perlman's action. Ayers had been scheduled to speak at an education conference in November...

Mario Scalora, a professor of psychology who serves on the campus threat assessment team and wrote the report, conceded that the report contains no direct threat against the life of Ayers or anyone involved.

But it contains some veiled threats that were called and e-mailed to university officials. Scalora said the person who took the "it will be done" message "was rather concerned given the way the person said it."

The report also contains some violent statements posted anonymously on message boards. One from "Lee Harvey Cornhusker" said, "Give me a sniper rifle and a good firing position."

While not directly threatening, Scalora said, the communications attested to the amount of anger that Ayers' visit had incited - anger that made it clear that considerable security measures would have to be made.

"When people spout off a death threat, you can manage that," Scalora said. "It's more you have a bunch of angry people saying they're going to show up and be disruptive. . . . We realized it would require a considerable amount of security."

Scalora said adequate security most likely could have been provided to enable the appearance to go on. But it would have totally changed the nature of the event, which was supposed to be a small conference of education students studying education reform.

"We could have turned it into an armed camp, and it would have happened," Scalora said. "But it would have been difficult for all those present, and there were still concerns with how things would evolve."

Scalora said the committee recommended that for the event to go ahead, a change of location and substantial security, including state and local law enforcement, would be required. The final call, Scalora said, was the chancellor's.

Why isn't this bigger news? The largest state university in Nebraska cancels a speech due to to "a bunch of angry people saying they're going to show up and be disruptive" and a message board posting indicating a desire to get a rifle and a good spot to shoot and no one asks who these people are or what threats they pose?

Imagine the reaction if G. Gordon Liddy were scheduled to speak and threats forced the University to cancel the event. What would be the reaction?

Apparently the "anonymity" of blogs and message boards is a barrier to any "investigation" of these threats. Quoting UNL Police Chief Owen Yardley the article states:

UNL police will investigate some of the threats, but it will be difficult to track people who sent e-mails or posted on blogs, Yardley said.

I.F. Stone used to summarize his speeches by saying that the audience would likely forget most of what he said but that it should remember one thing: "All Governments Lie."

Will someone please examine both these "threats" and these claims and tell us whether either is true?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Take That Luckovich!

I entered an editorial cartoon caption contest that I found last weekend at McClatchydc.com.

I used the name "Lennonist" and I won!

You can check it out here.

(BTW, my wife doesn't get it!)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Sense of Decency?

Tim Nelson is the Democratic candidate for canny attorney in Maricopa County, Arizona. The incumbent, Andrew Thomas, a Republican, denied any involvement in a recent attack ad that went after Nelson:

The Nelson ad opens with images of children riding tricycles and eating dinner at a family table.
"They deserve a safe neighborhood, a secure home," a woman's voice says. "They deserve the innocence of childhood and all of its wonder. And they deserve to be protected."
Then there's a drum roll and a frowning photo of Tim Nelson flashes on screen.
"But can they count on liberal ACLU lawyer Tim Nelson?" the woman continues. "He took money from a child pornographer and from lawyers who defend child murderers. Liberal Tim Nelson isn't just wrong. He's dangerous."

So I guess the lesson is that if you’re a criminal defense lawyer be careful about the unintended consequences of contributing to political campaign. While you may be trying to help, imagine if you later see an ad stating that the candidate you support “ took money from a lawyer who defends (insert something one of your clients was accused of.)” [Don't worry Scott Kleeb, this isn't a long-winded attempt to get out of that promised contribution! If you want my money, I'll still give it to you!]

Before I met Steve Achelpohl, an Omaha criminal defense attorney and current chair of the Democratic Party, I used to feel sorry for him when I saw him interviewed on TV. Not only did he have the difficult task of speaking for the minority party in a very red state, his opponent would inevitably remind the audience that Steve was one of those, you know, “criminal defense lawyers.” While you expect such things in politics (Obama seems to have a good trial lawyer’s ability to, jiu jitsu like, turn such attacks to his own advantage) this ad sinks to a new low.

So where did the ad come from? The Thomas campaign denied any involvement. The article states that “[the ad] was produced by an independent organization with which Thomas' campaign could not legally collaborate.

But who paid for it? According to the article:

The Republican Party paid for one airing of the commercial on Channel 5, said Edward Munson Jr., the station's vice president and general manager.

I don't mean to pick on Republican county attorneys, only to call BS on this ad and this tactic which targets not only criminal Defense lawyers but the candidates they support. I don't think this tactic is a "Republican" tactic, only a dirty one. If the parties were reversed, I'd say the same thing.

So what do you do about it? The ad concerned the contribution of $390 from a criminal defense lawyer to Nelson's campaign. Nelson later gave the money to the victim's rights organization, but the ad aired anyway.

So Nelson lost the money and still paid the price. But what if, whenever we see such a deplorable tactic, we resolve to contribute to its target, no matter which party we are contributing to?

If you're interested, the link to Tim Nelson's campaign is here.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

People in Glass Houses...

... should not throw stones. As Sarah Palin accuses Obama of "palling around with terrorists" she should realize that her own past will, or at least should, be fair game as well.

In 1994, the New York Times, in an article entitled "Remains of Alaska Separatist Are Identified" writes that:

The blue tarp and duct tape in which the remains were wrapped, officials said, matched a description given by a convicted thief, Manfred West, who confessed last summer that he had killed Mr. Vogler in a plastic-explosives sale gone bad and had then buried him.

Remember that Palin's husband Todd was a member of Vogler's group, the Alaska Independence Party, until 2002.

According to this article in Salon.com today, not only was Vogler the founder of the Alaska Independence Party, he also proudly claimed "I'm an Alaskan, not an American. I've got no use for America or her damned institutions." In this quest, he also sought and received the support of another nation in this quest:

Vogler's greatest moment of glory was to be his 1993 appearance before the United Nations to denounce United States "tyranny" before the entire world and to demand Alaska's freedom. The Alaska secessionist had persuaded the government of Iran to sponsor his anti-American harangue.

Imagine the reaction if Obama's spouse had, just six years ago, been a member of a group whose founder's body was found after "a plastic explosives sale gone bad?, who claimed to have "no use for America or her damned institutions?"

Did she "open the door" to the discussion of these ties to radicalism by trying to point to Obama's supposed radical links?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Not So Fast?

I once heard Arundati Roy say that when she wants to know what is truly going on in America she turns to people like Noam Chomsky. Whether you agree with his politics or not, the following excerpt (and prediction) from a recent interview with Alternet, is both scary and insightful:

My assumption all along is that McCain will probably win. Now that he has picked Sarah Palin as his vice president, I think those probabilities have increased, for reasons that are understood by party managers and have been expressed very well by McCain's campaign manager. He said the election is not about issues, it is about character and personality, and so on. Meaning, it is not a serious election. That is the way U.S. elections are run. Issues are marginalized. They don't talk about them and the media coverage is about Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermons or Sarah Palin's pregnant daughter.

It was reported today that Obama will respond to McCain's announced new aggressiveness with "political jiu jitsu," that is, by going after McCain as undependable in a crisis as shown by his choice of attack over leadership. While such tactics strike me as effective both in trial and in politics, Chomsky believes the Republicans still have an advantage:

...These elections are run by the public relations industry. The intellectual community goes along. Issues are marginalized. The focus is on personalities, on Jeremiah Wright's sermons, Sarah Palin's pregnant daughter, or whatever it may be. In that terrain, the Republicans have a big advantage. They also have a formidable slander and vilification machine which has yet to go into full operation.
They can appeal to latent racism, as they are already doing. They can construct a class issue. Obama is the elite Harvard liberal; McCain is the down to earth ordinary American, and it so happens that he is one of the richest people in the Senate. Same thing they pulled for Bush. You have to vote for Bush because he is the kind of guy you would like to meet in a bar and have a beer with.

While I don't share Chomsky's skepticism that, at least in this election, personalities will trump issues enough to win, his point about the "two factions of the business party" seems more appropriate in the wake of the bailout, I mean "rescue."

These are games run by the public relations industry, which is a huge industry. It spends enormous resources manipulating attitudes and opinions. They design and control elections so that public in effect is marginalized. They keep away from issues for a very good reason. We know a lot about American public opinion. It is a very heavily polled country, mainly because business wants to keep its finger on the public pulse. So there is a ton of information, valid information. On a host of major issues, domestic and international, both political parties are well to the right of the population. So therefore, you don't want to talk about issues, not if you want to keep the business parties in power. Further, the population is aware of this, but the press won't publish it; 80 percent of the population says the country is run by a few big interests, looking out for themselves, not the benefit of the people, By about 3 to one, people object to the fact that issues are not at the center of the campaigns. They want issues to be discussed, not personalities. Party managers know that, but they won't go along with it; it is too dangerous. They have got to make sure that the two factions of the business party, Republicans and Democrats, stay in power.

Obviously there are enormous differences between these "two factions" that are at stake in this election. The biggest, in my view, lies in the areas of Supreme Court appointments, as we will be rid of either Obama or McCain in less than a decade but dealing with their appointed Justices for generations.

But Chomsky's descriptions ring true and thus worry me about whether a man who has shown an inability to manage a campaign or choose a running mate will end up winning despite these errors. In fact, two articles which were not widely reported over the last week worry me even more. They both concern whether an "October Surprise" is coming soon.

First, Robert Baer, a former CIA Agent and the inspiration for George Clooney's character in Syriana asks, in this article, "Are we going to have an October surprise, an attack on Iran by either the Bush administration or by Israel to stop the regime from becoming a nuclear power?" answering that:

It could happen - and alter the dynamics of the presidential race in the blink of an eye - but only if Israel pulls the trigger. Don't expect the United States to drop bombs anytime soon. The reason: Iran has us over a barrel.
According to Britain's Guardian newspaper, Bush earlier this year nixed an Israeli plan to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Reportedly, the President said no because we couldn't afford Iranian retaliation against our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan or Iran closing down Persian Gulf shipping. Nonetheless, cynical speculation is now swirling in some quarters that with the financial collapse working against McCain - and Bush's legacy coming into focus - the President might reconsider. Could that tail really wag the dog?

Second, former "terrorism czar" Richard Clarke
asks "Why Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda Might Try to Affect the Election Between Barack Obama and John McCain."

What would be the purpose of any attempted manipulation of the U.S. election? It could just be to use the election to magnify the media coverage of their terrorist activities, make al Qaeda look even more capable than it is, and remind everyone they are still around. Such a media-amplified attack might help them with recruitment and fundraising. Even more likely is the possibility that al Qaeda would hope the attack would benefit John McCain. Opinion polls, which, as noted above, al Qaeda reads closely, suggest that an attack would help McCain. Polls in Europe and the Middle East also suggest an overwhelming popular support there for Barack Obama. Al Qaeda would not like it if there were a popular American president again.

I have no idea whether Chomsky is correct about McCain or whether Baer and Clarke are correct to anticipate either a U.S. approved Israeli attack on Iran or an Al Queda attack on the U.S., but I know this guy's analysis is always spot on: "It ain't over 'til it's over."

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Follow-Up Questions

I’ve found it harder to write about criminal defense or other legal issues lately as I’m a little mesmerized by the election and the financial bailout. But in watching Katie Couric interview Sarah Palin, it seems her technique has something to teach lawyers about cross examination. I don’t mean to imply that Katie is cross examining Sarah the way a lawyer would “cross” a witness in court, but maybe her technique would work for us.

Katie’s best weapon is the follow up question. Palin, much like an expert witness, can say nothing very well and has memorized the talking points well. But she can’t deal with a simple follow up question that forces her to get into specifics beyond the platitudes.

For example, in this exchange, Couric has just asked Palin why, in her view, is Roe v Wade a bad decision and Palin has replied that it “should be a states' issue.” Watch how Couric asks a simple follow up to delve into her understanding of the foundations of the decision;

COURIC (to Palin): Do you think there's an inherent right to privacy in the Constitution?
PALIN: I do. Yeah, I do.
COURIC: the cornerstone of Roe v Wade
PALIN: I do. And I believe that...individual states can handle what the people within the different constituencies in the 50 states would like to see their will ushered in in an issue like that.
COURIC: What other Supreme Court decisions do you disagree with?
PALIN: Well, let's see. There's..of course...in the great history of America rulings there have been rulings, that's never going to be absolute consensus by every American. And there are..those issues, again, like Roe v Wade where I believe are best held on a state level and addressed there. So you know..going through the history of America, there would be others but..
COURIC: Can you think of any?
PALIN: Well, I could think of...of any again, that could be best dealt with on a more local level. Maybe I would take issue with. But you know, as mayor, and then as governor and even as a Vice President, if I'm so privileged to serve, wouldn't be in a position of changing those things but in supporting the law of the land as it reads today.

Couric certainly could have pressed her harder, asked again if she could, please, just name one decision or at least admit that she doesn’t know one. But she, probably wisely, moves on, knowing that it will be a long “cross” and that the truth about Palin’s knowledge on Supreme Court decisions has been sufficiently uncovered.
It’s easy to build a “house” that looks pretty solid when you can build it using a candidate who reads from teleprompters and then is interviewed by people like Hugh Hewitt who asks such tough questions "Now Governor, the Gibson and the Couric interview struck many as sort of pop quizzes designed to embarrass you as opposed to interviews. Do you share that opinion? 

Hewitt later (seemingly on redirect after cross by Couric) asks her if she and her husband “ever faced tough economic times where [they] had to sit around a kitchen table and make tough choices?” Palin, being thrown a softball, says that she “know[s] what Americans are going through.”
But then, in what must have made Hugh cringe, made an admission that won’t sit well with McCain. She said:

[T]here’s been a lot of times that Todd and I have had to figure out how we were going to pay for health insurance. We’ve gone through periods of our life here with paying out of pocket for health coverage until Todd and I both landed a couple of good union jobs. Early on in our marriage, we didn’t have health insurance, and we had to either make the choice of paying out of pocket for catastrophic coverage or just crossing our fingers, hoping that nobody would get hurt, nobody would get sick.

Ouch. She did just fine until she admitted it was a “union” job that pulled them up.
To return to the “House” analogy, it’s easy to build one that appears strong when its strength is only tested by people like Hewitt and by speeches in front of screened augiences with a teleprompter clearly showing what another person previously wrote and that your candidate has practiced.
But Couric “blew the house down” with simple follow up questions. Remember the question about which publications Palin reads? Watch how the follow up question dooms her and shows the audience that the person being questioned, who eloquently spouts generalities, cannot survive being asked about specifics:
COURIC: And when it comes to establishing your world view, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this — to stay informed and to understand the world?
PALIN: I’ve read most of them again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media —
COURIC: But what ones specifically? I’m curious.
PALIN: Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years.
COURIC: Can you name any of them?
PALIN: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news.

Once again, ouch. The seemingly solid “house” gets blown down when asked for simple specifics.
It will be interesting to see how Palin does tomorrow night and the stakes for her career will be incredibly high. She will likely either turn into a footnote (if she performs like she did in these Couric interviews) or perhaps create a future for herself even if McCain loses if she can prepare and perform on a national level so quickly after such a shaky start.

Of course, hardcore supporters and detractors will see what they expect to see, but if Palin can somehow win over those who aren’t so polarized, she might pick McCain, and perhaps herself, up off the canvas the Couric interviews clearly put her on.
Couric also deserves credit for effective use of the “soft cross,” or at least the journalistic version of it. I saw Couric, before this interview, perhaps as Palin’s handlers likely characterized her, as a sweet, competent, but not hard-hitting reporter. I expected a friendly chat, with no real cross examination, but Couric showed that she can use these personality traits to her advantage. She, softly and nicely, kept asking follow up questions, not being afraid of the silent, awkward moments between question and answer. Couric brought out the truth about the person she was interviewing without resorting to the type of confrontation that would have turned the audience against the interviewer and towards feeling sympathy for the “questionee.”
Gerry Spence describes a moment when a jury member approached him, obviously upset at having just denied justice for his client. The woman asked Spence “Why did you make us hate you so?” He learned that he’d gone too far in tearing up the witnesses on cross, his anger having not only skewered the witnesses but alienated his audience. His hatred spread throughout the courtroom and doomed his client’s case.
Having seen how competent and effective Couric was in bringing out the truth about Palin without once raising her voice, I am reminded of another of Spence’s phrases: “Love is always the winning argument.”
I don’t mean to imply that Katie showed love to Palin, only that she didn’t show hate, didn’t go too far, knew when to stop, and seemed to sense when to simply let her “witness” hang herself.
Couric’s “soft cross” of Palin might be the breath that blew her house down, revealing it to be a mere facade that couldn’t withstand even a simple follow up question.