29 Sep

Oregon slow to address capital punishment, but the pope is on it

For whatever reason, Pope Francis, in his historic visit to the United States last week, did not make it to Portland.

Maybe nobody told him about our South American food carts, or someone was worried about the Popemobile getting bogged down in a sea of bicycles.

But as he spoke to Congress Thursday, there were passages that seemed to speak directly to us.

When he spoke about immigrants – “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners… When the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past” – Francis might have found a more responsive audience here than among most of the congressmen and senators he was addressing.

When he pleaded for steps “to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity,” he may not have made much progress among senators who consider global warming “the greatest hoax in human history.” But Francis might have gotten a closer hearing in a place that, once again, has just had the hottest summer in its history, on a coast in the midst of a near-Biblical drought, with countless counties declared disaster zones.
Francis may have spoken most topically to Oregon when he declared his determination “from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty… Recently, my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”

Rehabilitation of those on Oregon’s Death Row may seem a distant and implausible vision. But Francis was speaking in the same week as yet another development in Oregon’s continuing inability to find an acceptable way of dealing with the death penalty, leading to a deepening discomfort with having one at all.

Several years ago, former Gov. John Kitzhaber – who during the 1990s became the only Oregon governor in the last 50 years to sign execution orders, although our Death Row has become a high-density residential area – announced that as long as he was governor, there would be no more executions. Some people complained that Kitzhaber hadn’t said this when running for the job in 2010, but his clear opposition to capital punishment didn’t keep him from being re-elected in 2014.

(What kept him from still being governor, of course, was something else entirely.)
When Secretary of State Kate Brown succeeded Kitzhaber in February, she said she would continue the execution moratorium while setting up a process to assess it. As The Oregon’s Denis C. Theriault reported last week, not much has happened to move things along. Brown spokeswoman Kristen Grainger did tell Theriault that Brown has directed her office attorney, Ben Souede, to seek “legal advice about the practical aspects related to capital punishment in Oregon,” although there might not be any actual recommendations until deep into next year, when Brown runs for reelection.

The problems with Oregon’s death penalty have long been clear: The highly expensive legal process takes decades; Oregon has 34 inmates on Death Row, but no executions actually expected for years; the only executions scheduled in the decades since the death penalty was restored were at the request of the convict, not exactly a testament to its deterrent power.

This year, a similar situation caused the legislature in deep-red Nebraska to abolish its death penalty, and then override the governor’s veto. Last month, the Connecticut Supreme Court, ruling that the state’s recent abolition extended to all its Death Row inmates, quoted Ninth Circuit appeals judge Alex Kosinski: “[W]e have little more than an illusion of a death penalty in this country. … Whatever purposes the death penalty is said to serve— deterrence, retribution, assuaging the pain suffered by victims’ families—these purposes are not served by the system as it now operates.”

From either the pope’s principles or Kosinski’s reality, it’s hard to argue for Oregon to continue pretending to have capital punishment.

“A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism,” Francis said Thursday. “A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.”

On a number of issues, this advice might have arrived too late for this Congress.

But it might still work in Salem.

NOTE: This commentary appeared in the Sunday Oregonian,9/27/15.

29 Sep

We can’t just dump the homeless problem on the cops

We leave cops all the dirty jobs the rest of society doesn’t want to do. That means dealing with the mentally ill, dealing with teenagers, and dealing with the homeless.

We don’t give them resources or training for it, but we figure cops do get paid.

But we do know that there’s no point in arresting the homeless. It’s very expensive, it can cause actually dangerous people to be squeezed out of jail, and afterwards, there’s really no place to release them to. On the other hand, there are things we can’t let homeless people – or anybody else – do in public.

Los Angeles has a program called HALO, which refers arrested homeless people to the city’s Department of Mental Health. Treatment can range from three months to six months, but at the end of it police might not have to keep arresting the same homeless people over and over again.

Portland police are under a federal court order to improve their treatment of the mentally ill, and there’s a considerable overlap between that group and the homeless population. But if we want police to do the job better, we need to give them better tools.

The one thing we’ve learned about homelessness is that we can’t just say it’s the cops’ problem.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 9/24/15.

29 Sep

Eleven years later, Brandon Mayfield’s life is surprisingly normal — but different

These days, Brandon Mayfield’s days are pretty quiet.

“My life is pretty mundane, in a good way,” he says, “I do think that things are sort of normal, although I didn’t think they would get that way.”

Eleven years ago, after all, the Beaverton attorney was a national story, arrested for involvement in the massive Madrid train bombings after the FBI trumpeted a “100 percent match” between his fingerprint and one found on a plastic bag of detonators near the scene. Mayfield was arrested and held in downtown Portland for two weeks, until the Spanish police, who had always questioned the identification, reported the print definitively belonged to an Algerian living in Spain. Mayfield was released, charges were dropped, and eventually he received a $2 million settlement from the U.S. government.

Now, Mayfield and his daughter Sharia, a Georgetown University law student who also works in Sen. Ron Wyden’s office, have published “Improbable Cause: The War on Terror’s Assault on the Bill of Rights” (Divertir), an account of those two weeks and what they say about American surveillance policy. “Fear,” they write, “has led to the very thing the Constitution was to protect us against – erosion of our liberties when we need them the most.”

The book goes into the cell with a narrow view of the Willamette, where Mayfield, who had never been to Spain, contemplated his chances of execution; a small suburban home being blockaded by local and national reporters and satellite trucks (a family member agreed to make a short public statement if the reporters would stay off the lawn); and the family’s dawning realization that the feds, with new Patriot Act powers, had been in their home and office, photographing and then seizing materials and tapping phones.

“Improbable Cause” revisits why the feds went all in on a single fingerprint link later shown to have been dubious from the beginning: Their quick check showed Mayfield to be a Muslim, to have advertised his law practice in a Muslim Yellow Pages, to have represented someone involved in a different terror case in a child custody issue. “One of the examiners candidly admitted,” said the report of the Department of Justice’s inspector general, “that if the person identified had been someone without these characteristics … the laboratory might have revisited the identification with more skepticism and caught the error.”

Without the Spanish police, Mayfield still figures, things might have turned out differently. Part of the book’s proceeds will go to the Innocence Project, to get innocent people out of prison. Steven Wax, Mayfield’s federal public defender, now works there.

In his current mundane, normal life, Mayfield has an enduring lesson from the experience.

“You’re targeted as a Muslim American,” he says, “and nobody wants to admit that.”

Mayfield was speaking on the day when a New Hampshire questioner told Donald Trump, “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims,” and after noting that the president was one, asked, “When can we get rid of them?” Trump, who may or may not have heard the entire question, said a lot of people were asking that. The same weekend, candidate Ben Carson said that no Muslim should be president.

“The difference between Trump and some of the others,” said Mayfield, “is at least he admits it.”

Attitudes toward Islam, he thinks, are the great exception in a country increasingly tolerant on LGBT issues, and widely apologetic for its treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Mayfield declares in the book, somewhat overheatedly, that America “has now surpassed even the fantastical oppressive dystopias of Kafka and Orwell.” Yet at a time when he had the resources to live anywhere, he never really considered moving. “I’m as American as you can get,” he says firmly, noting that America is still probably a better place to be Muslim than Europe, while “The global Muslim community is in a state of disrepair.”

In general, he admits, “This is a pretty good place to be. It’s just that my idealism is dissipated.”

As the subject of maybe the highest-profile fingerprint foul-up ever, he gets invited to speak to forensic organizations, including three months ago at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Washington. At such events, he’s treated like a celebrity, which he thinks is strange.

When he’s introduced to people these days, his name may be recognized.

“Usually they say, ‘I’m personally sorry.’ I hear that a lot. It’s odd that they say it; they didn’t do it.
“But it’s a sign of what’s right in this country

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 9/23/15.