Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sex with Dogs and Other Important Problems Your Tax Dollars Are Being Used to Fight

Last week, as the Vermont and Maine legislatures’ and the Iowa Supreme Court’s progress toward equality under the law for all people was in the news, Pennsylvania State Senator John Eichelberger decided to once again dredge up that tired old refrain and introduce a bill to amend the Pennsylvania constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman – a measure that has already been attempted twice (in 2006 and 2008) and failed both times.

Eichelberger told the Altoona Mirror that he introduced this bill, despite the fact that same-sex marriage is already illegal in Pennsylvania, to prevent state courts from ever ruling unconstitutional the denial of the civil and legal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples. And why does Eichelberger imagine gay marriage to be so dangerous that Pennsylvanians need multiple layers of defense against it? “Legalizing same-sex marriage would weaken it and lead little-by-little to other ‘models’ like polygamy and pedophilia,” he told the paper.

Hearing this, one can’t help but hearken back to the infamous man-on-dog argument, made by former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum. In a 2003 interview with Associated Press reporter Lara Jakes Jordan, Santorum opined that if antiquated sodomy laws typically used to punish homosexuals (though it would be difficult to claim with a straight face that many – perhaps even most – heterosexuals are not engaging in acts that meet the definition of “sodomy” too) were repealed, “man-on-dog” sex would ensue.

Jordan, understandably startled by this segue, was a bit taken aback. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think I was going to be talking about ‘man-on-dog’ with a United States senator,” she said. “It’s sort of freaking me out.”

The man-on-dog theory has also been promoted by Santorum associate Hadley Arkes, who has warned that gay marriage could lead to “cross-species involvements” and who asked in a 2003 National Review column disagreeing with the Supreme Court ruling that struck down Texas’s anti-sodomy law, “If people practice sadomasochistic sex or bestiality, if they have sex with animals in forms familiar and novel, would Kennedy truly contend that the rest of us are obliged to respect virtually everything that is done?”

Putting aside questions of what is wrong with these men that they go around thinking about man-on-dog sex (and apparently dreaming up “novel” ways of having such sex), the argument that allowing gay and lesbian couples to receive equal treatment under state and federal law will lead to people having sex with their family pets is just silly. Removing gendered language from marriage statutes is not a slippery slope. Americans in states that permit gay marriage, where they were previously permitted to marry one consenting woman/man who was capable of making a legal contract, may now marry one consenting adult who is capable of making legal contract. Marrying children, pets, inanimate objects, or multiple people or things is a far cry from allowing adults a free choice with respect to who will be their marital partner. Marriage remains a legal – and, in some cases, religious – partnership between two adults who share responsibilities and provide for their mutual support cooperatively.

Santorum, Arkes, Eichelberger, and others who subscribe to their theories seem to be operating under the assumption that a gay or lesbian person is not truly homosexual, but rather is a heterosexual with no sexual impulse control at all – a person who will attempt to have sex with anyone or anything that has the misfortune to cross his or her path. That this claim is not supported by any factual evidence does not seem to bother them. For example, copious research has disproven the idea that homosexuals are more likely to molest children than heterosexuals, yet Eichelberger is still citing pedophilia as a concern addressed by his bill.

Pennsylvania has much more important issues for our legislators to be spending their time on than man-on-dog sex. The economy, health care, education, environmental degradation, violence…the list goes on and on. Let’s concentrate on the real problems, rather than inventing wild and unfounded threats to our state and its people.

Becca in Harrisburg

See Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial here

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Executing an Innocent Man (Again)?

In 1991 Troy Davis was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Georgia police officer Mark Allen MacPhail. The case against him rested on the testimony of nine witnesses – no physical evidence ever linked Davis to the crime and the murder weapon was never found. Davis has always maintained his innocence.

Since the trial, seven of the nine witnesses have recanted their testimony, with several saying they were coerced into giving it by police. “They wouldn’t stop questioning me until I told them what they wanted to hear. So I did,” said one. Of the two remaining witnesses, one is the principal alternative suspect in the murder, who nine other witnesses have implicated. Nonetheless, Troy Davis has not been granted a new hearing to present the new evidence of his innocence or examine the reliability of the witness testimony that was used to convict him. The courts have cited technicalities - such as the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which restricts the rights of state and federal prisoners to file habeas corpus appeals - in denying him such a hearing.

Is Troy Davis innocent? I don’t know. But for the state to execute a man when such serious questions remain on that issue illustrates the grave flaws with the death penalty system.

Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1973, 132 people in 26 states – including 6 here in Pennsylvania – have been released from death row due to evidence of their innocence. At least eight men with strong claims of innocence have actually been executed. A study by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School found that the most common reason for wrongful conviction in the 86 death row cases studied was eyewitness error, resulting from confusion or faulty memory. Other causes included government misconduct (by both the police and the prosecution), junk science (mishandled evidence or use of unqualified “experts”), snitch testimony (often given in exchange for a reduction in sentence), false confessions (resulting from mental illness or retardation, as well as from police torture), and other factors, such as hearsay or questionable circumstantial evidence.

Those who see the system up close – including a Texas DA who calls himself “no bleeding heart” – have started to recognize the problem with imposing the death penalty when clearly our processes for determining guilt and innocence are fallible. It’s time for the public to follow suit.

Becca in Harrisburg

Take Action:

1. Send an email to the governor of Georgia asking for clemency for Troy Davis

2. Ask your state representative to support Pennsylvania Senate Bill 628, which would ban the imposition of the death penalty in cases where the defendant is mentally retarded and require that the determination of mental retardation be made by a judge before the start of the trial

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Secretary Beard, what's the secret?

The Department of Corrections is the second-biggest line item in the state budget, but for some reason, the DOC thinks it's the CIA.

Last week, the ACLU of PA filed suit against the DOC under the Right to Know law. Prison Legal News had submitted a RTK request for successful litigation against DOC, including tax dollars spent to settle lawsuits. The DOC responded by claiming that the request would require 35,000 pages to be copied and more than $8000 in copying costs. Our press release on what went down is here.

I also learned last week that the DOC had denied a RTK request by the American Friends Service Committee. AFSC wanted a copy of the DOC's policy on the use of the restraint chair, which is used- and sometimes abused- in prisons to subdue inmates.

And today the DOC huddled (and cuddled?) behind closed doors with the state House Judiciary Committee. For several weeks, this event had been posted as a public hearing. Last week it was downgraded to an informational meeting, and the word got around that the meeting would be closed. It was a surreal sight seeing House security guarding the door and checking ID badges of those heading into the meeting.

All of this begs the question: What's the big secret at the Department of Corrections? Apparently, the department did not get the memo about the new era of open government. County prison boards must face the public on a monthly basis. Why can't the DOC occasionally face the music from the public? And who is holding them accountable?

Let's be clear: Allegations of abuse and poor conditions in the state prisons may have merit or they may be overblown. But we'll never know if the DOC continues to operate in secret.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Freedom Index by State

I am not endorsing this, but it is too interesting not to share. I also have not had the free time this morning to thoroughly review it and summarize it for you. I know I'm shirking my duty as a blogger here, but civil liberties take work, people!

Anyway, the Mercatus Center at Georgia State University has compiled what they call "Freedom in the Fifty States," an index of personal and economic freedom (check the study for their definitions and standards of measure for each) in each of the 50 States. It's an interesting read.

According to this study, folks in Alaska are running wild as wolves, while New Yorkers are living under lockdown in a statewide gulag. Or something like that. Pennsylvania falls in the "second quintile," with higher than average economic freedom and slightly lower than average personal freedom.

The full study is available here. Thanks to Boing Boing for bringing this to my attention.

Update: Commenter Anonymous (I've looked around the internet and he's quite prolific) supplied a link to a similar page, except this one allows the viewer to customize "freedom" according to his or her own definition. Thanks for the link, A. It's the kind of thing that can entertain some of us ACLU-types for hours on end. And that is in no way depressing.

Chris in Philly

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