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The Double (Edged) Helix of DNA Evidence

[ 0 ] July 25, 2007 |

There’s been a lot of fanfare recently — and in many ways, rightly so — over the over 200 people who have been exonerated by DNA evidence. Many of these people served upwards of fifteen years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit (many of them for rape or rape & murder, crimes for which DNA evidence is more likely to exist). Several were on Death Row. In many of the cases, prosecutors at first refused to perform DNA testing that could exonerate the convicted and identify the truly guilty. That these 200 are just a small fraction of the people wrongly convicted is intuitive and undeniable, especially considering a new study, published in the Columbia Law Review in January (and available on SSRN), which concretizes this intuition. As the New York Times’s Adam Liptak wrote in a column Monday about the study (behind the damned TimesSelect shield), the leading reason for the false convictions of the (mostly) men exonerated by DNA evidence were faulty eyewitness IDs and testimony, which played a role in 79% of the wrongful convictions. In several of these cases, the person who provided the faulty ID was later revealed to be the person who actually committed the crime (revealed through DNA, usually). The impact of bad eyewitness IDs, of course, is no surprise. The Innocence Project, among others, has documented the high rate of error in eyewitness IDs.

The fact that DNA has been able to exonerate these 200 people who were wrongly convicted, whether by eyewitness mis-identification or any of the other causes of wrongful convictions (including faulty forensic evidence, which, according to the Times, was involved in 55% of wrongful convictions), is no doubt good news. But the power of DNA to exonerate these people (and, often, to elucidate the identity of the real perpetrator) also presents problems for those people wrongly convicted of crimes for which there is no DNA evidence, whether because there was none to be gathered, or because the DNA has been lost. Take Troy Davis, for example, the potentially innocent man who came within 24 hours of execution in Georgia last week. As the DMI Blog notes, Davis was convicted solely on the basis of “eyewitness” testimony. Of the nine people who identified him, six have recanted, one refuses to cooperate, one was the principle alternative suspect whom others labeled as the shooter, and one contradicted the testimony made at trial. Yet, while the Georgia Board of Pardons is considering his plea for clemency, Davis’s life hangs by a thread. In large part because if indeed he is innocent, there is no DNA evidence to exonerate him, only false testimony to convict him.

At the close of his column, Liptak notes that the “era of DNA exonerations is a finite one,” since DNA is being collected and analyzed more and more on the front end of prosecutions. But that still leaves this gaping hole in cases that lack DNA evidence and where there is (potentially faulty) eyewitness testimony. DNA has delivered justice for some, but it has also obscured the need for real reform that can provide justice for greater numbers and more often.

Vicious, Ad Hominem Attacks

[ 0 ] July 25, 2007 |

Hilzoy, on behalf of Jonah Goldberg:

Robert Farley: a pale, little man who hides within his armature of logical principles and arguments and consistency, like a grub cowering inside its discarded exoskeleton.

I’ll confess to the pale; my Anglo-Irish heritage has left me a legacy of skin that burns after 10 or so minutes of exposure to the noonday Kentucky sun. Curse my rain-sodden forebearers! But little? My dear, I haven’t subsisted on a diet of bourbon sours and Kentucky Fried Chicken for the last two years just to be called little. Due in no small part to the former, I’m also not so sure about the armature of logical principles, arguments, and consistency…


[ 0 ] July 25, 2007 |

So, the Hall of Fame class of 2012 could potentially include Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds. No one yet knows whether the last three will retire after this season, but that would be a pretty good haul. Of course, Biggio (although deserving) may get squeezed out by the others, and the sportswriters may decide to punish Bonds by keeping him out for a year or longer. Alternatively, the class of 2013 would look very strong if Clemens, Bonds, and the Unit stuck for another year and were joined by Sosa, Glavine, and Maddux.

It’s also mildly satisfying to note that, for the first time in a while, baseball is the least scandal-afflicted of the three major sports.

"Dial M For Moustache"

[ 0 ] July 24, 2007 |

Tomorrow on Tom Friedman.

And the Award For Most Hackish Column About Economics Not Written By The WSJ Ediotiral Borad or Larry Kudlow Goes To…

[ 0 ] July 24, 2007 |

Bobo! My heartiest congratulations. (Admittedly, I haven’t been keeping tabs on Donald Luskin recently, so the award must be considered provisional.)

Because I hated Barbarella, I’m outraged by Jane Fonda’s trip to Vietnam

[ 0 ] July 24, 2007 |

Loomis is right — this bit of red-baiting is pretty absurd, though not quite as obnoxious as this 2006 David Boaz piece, from which Yglesias finds support for his childhood loathing of Pete Seeger’s music.

Not to, you know, defend folk singers or anything, but the fact that Seeger’s views on World War II changed several times from 1939 to 1941 is hardly unique and marks him as “Stalin’s songbird” (David Boaz’s phrase) only in the sloppiest and most circumstantial of ways; indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find many Americans — “Stalinist” or otherwise — who did not follow a similar course. Moreover, Seeger’s departure from the CPUSA in 1950, several years before Uncle Joe’s fortunate and belated demise makes it difficult to cast him as a “hard-core Stalinist” no matter what his views on the Cold War might have been. If “previous affiliation with” is going to be the new “hard-core,” I suppose we’ll have to start thinking of Ann Althouse as a “hard-core Feingoldian,” which would be pretty goddamned silly.

My Thoughts Exactly

[ 0 ] July 24, 2007 |

In her post responding to last night’s CNN/YouTube Democratic debate, and with an eye toward the GOP version, Pam Spaulding asks the question about same sex marriage versus civil unions that I’ve been wondering about for some time now:

If civil unions are the answer to equality under the law, then are the candidates advocating that all heterosexual marriages be converted into civil unions, leaving the issue of religious “marriage” as a separate entity outside of government interference (which it should be)? If not, then they are admitting that that heterosexual couples are entitled to “special rights” not available to gay and lesbian couples.

Exactly right. Maybe marriage should not be the purview of the state at all, since it is today a fundamentally religious institution. Maybe the state should be in the business only of civil unions, and the religions can fight the battle over the word “marriage” out amongst and within themselves. There would then be no question that in the eyes of the state, straight and gay unions and families are equal. Not a likely solution, but an interesting one nonetheless.

But I’ll bet Cambridge would have hired Ward Churchill

[ 0 ] July 24, 2007 |

Shorter Jeff Jacoby:

My absurd hypothetical demonstrates that contemporary science is unremittingly hostile to 17th century alchemy.

Next week: Jacoby wonders why Pliny the Elder couldn’t get hired at MIT. Also: looking to have Lamarck’s Recherches sur l’Organisation des Corps Vivans taught in your high school? Think again, God-boy!

National What?

[ 0 ] July 24, 2007 |

Rob says most of what needs to be said about Jonah Goldberg’s inevitably failed attempt to turn the Iraq catastrophe into a policy problem for…liberals. I’d like to address this: “If you can justify causing genocide in order to end a nation-building exercise that — unlike similar efforts elsewhere — is fundamentally linked to our national interest, then how can you ever return to arguing that we should get into the nation-building and genocide-stopping business when it’s explicitly not in our interest?”

The problem here should be obvious: attacking a country that posed no threat to the United States in order to install an Islamist quasi-state that would be a breeding ground for anti-American terrorism was not in the national interest; indeed, it was dramatically contrary to the national interest. Which is why conservatives started a cynical, largely ex post facto attempt to sell it as a humanitarian intervention. If Goldberg means that it would now be in the national interest to find a large network of unicorn stables in Iraq, I can’t disagree, but this would seem to provide an easy out for the strawliberals who want lots of ineffective military interventions with no consideration of the national interest: just raze a country’s government and completely botch the occupation, and then the intervention automatically becomes in the national interest! Rational liberals, of course, can continue to ignore Goldberg’s silly dichotomy altogether, and will also remember that the fact that outcome x would be really nice doesn’t magically produce the capacity to make it possible.

Bad Pizza and Serious Wingnuttery

[ 0 ] July 24, 2007 |

So I’ve been sitting on a post about Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan‘s vision for a Catholic town, Ave Maria, which he is developing in Florida (smartly located to effect a swing state vote…should it ever get its target number of residents, which seems unlikely these days). Monaghan’s vision was to have a town made up only of devout Catholics. A town without access to birth control and in which pre-marital sex would be grounds for expulsion from the university, also named Ave Maria.

Anyway, Zuzu beat me to the punch over at her new blog, Kindly Pog Mo Thoin. As Zuzu notes, Monaghan et al are having to backtrack from their statements that the town would welcome only Catholics. I mean, the town may ban contraception for students and have streets called Annunciaton Circle and Women are Whores Boulevard, but really, everyone is welcome. That, of course, is because of a little thing called anti-discrimination law. And that’s just for starters. This town is a morass of constitutional violations.

Zuzu’s got the whole story.

UPDATE BY SL: This article by Peter Boyer has some additional background; I especially liked the stuff about the faculty at Ave Maria law school rebelling against leaving cosmopolitan Ann Arbor for Middle of Nowheresville, FL.

Why Do Liberals Love Genocide, or The Failure of Meritocracy

[ 0 ] July 24, 2007 |


There’s been so much talk about how conservative foreign policy’s moral credibility has been demolished under President Bush. Maybe. But what of liberal credibility? In the 1990s, amid all of the debates about Haiti, Somalia, Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the broad outline of the debate had conservatives advocating a narrower definition of the national interest while liberals argued — and I often agreed with them — for a more expansive one that included a heavy dose of moralism. Finally, liberals seemed to have shaken off the Vietnam syndrome and embraced an overly optimistic but benign foreign policy of nation-building and do-goodery.

Conservatives are at least still arguing about the national interest — but they’re also the ones touting the moral imperative of preventing genocide and even the need for nation-building. Where is the principle in the hash of liberal foreign policy today? How does liberalism recover? If you can justify causing genocide in order to end a nation-building exercise that — unlike similar efforts elsewhere — is fundamentally linked to our national interest, then how can you ever return to arguing that we should get into the nation-building and genocide-stopping business when it’s explicitly not in our interest?

These aren’t difficult questions to answer; the commitment to stop genocide depends on the practical capacity to stop it, and in Iraq we’ve demonstrated nothing but a capacity to significantly increase civil strife, such that, even after four years, commentators as distinguished as Jonah Goldberg argue that the country will descend into internecine slaughter minutes after American troops leave. The basic principle isn’t complicated, either; Michael Walzer developed it quite ably in Just and Unjust Wars, noting that the moral is practical, and that the absence of a practical capacity to conduct out a war of moral purpose makes military action unjust.

While it’s possible that Jonah is simply too dim to anticipate these objections, I think that Ezra’s motivation rubric is the most illuminating perspective that one can take. In short, trying to divine either truth value or partisan positioning from this piece or Kristol WaPo op-ed is fruitless, because we aren’t the intended audience. Jonah isn’t trying to make an argument that anyone who disagrees with him will be convinced by, and he feels no need whatsoever to make plausible empirical claims. Rather, he’s helping to construct a narrative (lousy flip-flopping liberals caused the Iraqi genocide) that will be useful as a partisan talking point five or ten years down the road, and that will help ensure his own position within the conservative pundit hierarchy.

At the former purpose he may succeed. At the latter, I’d advise him not to bother; if merit and ability had anything to do with position in the conservative punditocracy, no one would know the name Jonah Goldberg.

So what kind of music do we get to blame for the absence of universal health coverage?

[ 0 ] July 23, 2007 |

Ever alert to the nuances of culture, Powerline has learned from Myron Magnet — one of the great voices in the blame the hippies school of sociology — that hip-hop is a dangerous force that preys upon the lives of the underclass. (That’s Myron and his wild, flowing mutton chops pictured at right.)

To prove his point, Magnet accomplishes everything you’d expect from a fellow of the Manhattan Institute. He admits he knows absolutely nothing about rap music — describing it, like a proper colonial scout, as “terra incognita” — and then subjects it to an unintentionally hilarious gauntlet of purely formal criticism, juxtaposed with the usual recitations from Conservative Social Science for Dummies. Obligatory “data” from Thomas Sowell and Charles Murray attest to welfare’s dispiriting effects on black economic achievement — presentations that ignore (as always) the crush of deindustialization — while we’re reminded of the shocking fact that that Ice-T once wrote a song about killing police officers and that contemporary artists like 50 Cent and Ludacris write graphic odes to sexual congress.

It’s an utterly predictable and brainless piece that — absent the obligatory references to Don Imus and Mike Nifong (though no mention, I see, of the Scottsboro Boys) — could have been written during the 1992 presidential campaign. Indeed, Magnet insists that the “whole nation needs what’s come to be called a Sister Souljah moment.” (I don’t quite know what such a moment would look like, but whether Magnet approves or not, I suspect it would involve more than a few bodies chained to the tailgates of pickup trucks. I’m quite serious here. The last thing the country needs is a mass epiphany modeled on an act of transparent political demagoguery. Should we hope for a national “Ricky Ray Rector moment” as well?)

Not that Magnet isn’t down with black culture, of course; he just liked it more when people didn’t wear hoodies:

After all, urban black culture wasn’t always like this. Just look through old photos of Harlem and see young men and women dressed up like fashion plates out of Henry James or Thomas Mann, or like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Look at the black musical celebrities who took such care and made such an impression on people my age: Count Basie, with his elegant mustache, always in a tie and jacket; Duke Ellington, debonair in white tie and jauntily cocked top hat; gorgeous Lena Horne, radiant in her shimmering evening gown—all with the bearing of counts and dukes. What would they make of the gangstas?

Um. Who knows? And more to the point, why would that matter unless we were trying to locate a set of “authentic” voices to mediate between white critics like Magnet and the black masses whom they wish to scold? Although Basie, Ellington and Horne weren’t available for comment (though the latter of the three is still alive), Magnet turns instead to Bill Cosby and Wynton Marsalis, who — no shit! — deliver the expected verdict. I suppose the lesson here is that if America’s black youth would read Fatherhood and watch Ken Burns’ Jazz, they would be embiggened by noble spirits. Or something.

The rest of the piece is a pretty elemental display of non causa pro causa reasoning, the sort of cultural soliloquy we might expect from Bill O’Reilly if Falafel Boy were able to quote William Blake and Plato. I’m not the least bit surprised that the boys at Powerline find these arguments “provocative and thought-provoking.”

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