Fifty years ago this weekend, the focus of the Vietnam War dramatically changed. Many Americans were skeptical of why the war was necessary. There were scattered reports of American soldiers killing innocent civilians. But some would argue bad things can happen during wartime, and that’s the price a nation must pay. Then came My Lai.
If you are too young to remember the My Lai genocide, it is certainly a low point in U.S. military gallantry. An Army combat unit of American soldiers charged into an un-defended settlement called My Lai, and over a four hour period, systematically wiped out the village of some 500 unarmed old men, women, babies and children. The attack was supposedly to weed out Viet Cong soldiers, but none were there and no weapons were found. It was a cold-blooded slaughter.
As the killings continued, an Army helicopter pilot named Hugh Thompson, from Lafayette, Louisiana, flew over and observed the massacre taking place below. I had the opportunity of questioning Hugh Thompson several times on my syndicated radio program. His words are as disturbing today as they were when I interviewed him years ago.
“We started noticing these large numbers of bodies everywhere,” he said, “people on the road dead, wounded. And we’re just sitting there saying, ‘God, how did this happen? What’s going on?’ And we started thinking what might have happened, but you didn’t want to accept the thought–because if you accepted it, that means your own fellow Americans, people you were there to protect, we’re doing something very evil.”
Hugh Thompson had a gunner and a crew chief on board with him, and he decided to put down his helicopter to investigate just what was happening. “I just figured it was time to do something, to not let these people get killed.” He landed, got out of his aircraft, and confronted the American troops.
Then, he did something unique in wartime. He demanded that the U.S. soldiers back off and stop the killing. He bluntly told them that if they continued the slaughter, he and his crew would open fire directly on them. That cooled the confrontation down, and the killings stopped.
Hugh Thompson filed a full report and complaint, but he came under attack from some in the military who felt he should have said nothing. The Army initially covered up the genocide. But an investigative journalist named Seymour Hersh pieced together the horror that took place, and Hugh Thompson’s heroics became worldwide news. Many historians feel that My Lai was a turning point in the war as support continued to dwindle.
After thirty years of being ignored and scorned, the Army finally acknowledged that Hugh Thompson was, in fact, a hero. He was given the Soldier’s Medal for heroism. My Lai is located in the center of Vietnam on the eastern coast. If you travel there today, a museum can be found in honor of Warrant Officer Hugh Thomson.
In his book, War Without Fronts: The USA in Vietnam, historian Bernd Greiner concludes that My Lai was “the most shocking episode of the Vietnam War.” Fifty years ago, a few American soldiers dishonored their country by committing unfathomable crimes. But a young American helicopter pilot from Lafayette, Louisiana had the courage to step and demand that the carnage come to an end.
All Louisianans should be proud of Hugh Thompson. He died at 62, but remains one of the Bayou State’s very best.
Peace and Justice
It’s springtime, my favorite time of year. The weather warms up without a lot of humidity. Flowers bloom at their very best. It’s the season of my birthday. If you live in Louisiana, we witness music festivals galore, including Mardi Gras, JazzFest and a host of local harmonic gatherings of local bands all over the state. And one more springtime reminder. It’s the beginning of baseball season.
I’m spending the next week in Tampa, Florida, surrounded by 15 major league teams who hold their baseball season kickoff in a number of towns surrounding the Tampa area. It’s my annual ritual that I have shared with friends from the Bayou State for many years. I grew up watching and playing baseball, particularly the St. Louis Cardinals. There were no televised games back then, but I often fell asleep at night listening to legendary sports announcer Jack Buck on 50,000 watt station KMOX tell his listeners “All’s right with the world cause the Cardinals won again tonight.”
I grew up in St. Louis, and lived next door to the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, the great former Cardinals shortstop Marty Marion. I was in his box the Sunday afternoon back on May 2, 1954, when Stan the Man Musial hit five home runs on the same day in a doubleheader. When I moved down to Louisiana, I was disappointed that there were no major league teams close by, but the state is filled with baseball fans from little league to college and professional ball teams.
LSU is a perennial contender for the college baseball world series with ULL in Lafayette also a strong challenger. Some of the best major leaguers have come from Louisiana. Mel Ott from Gretna was the first national leaguer to hit 500 homers. Lou Brock was raised in Colliston outside Monroe, hit .348 and stole 33 bases to spark St. Louis to a world championship. Alvin Dark from Lake Charles was NL Rookie of the Year in 1948.And who can forget the Louisiana Lighting, Ron Guidry, who went 25-3 for world champion New York Yankees. The list goes on and on.
And speaking of the Yankees, they are a real unifying team. You see, unless you are a die-hard Yankees fan like me, everyone else, and I mean everyone, hates the Yankees. They are never the underdog. No, just the opposite. The Yankees are the overdog, brash, cocky, and rich, always spending more than any other team in baseball. They have won more world championships than many other teams combined. Syndicated columnist Mark Shields writes: “To be a Yankees fan means to root for Apple or Amazon rather than for your neighborhood mom-and-pop store.”
I know, I know. A populist like me who has hailed for many years from Ferriday, Louisiana has no business pulling for the Yankees. But I’m just hooked. I have seen the Yankees play three games in a row, and will seem many more both here in Tampa and in New York. You know just one of the reasons? The Yankees sell very the best hot dogs. Large, grilled just right and juicy with all the trimmings. Not like those shriveled, tasteless weenies on a cold bun sold at LSU’s Tiger Stadium. This year, baseball fans will consume more than 21 million hot dogs at stadiums across the country. That’s enough to round the bases 29,691 times. And I’ll eat my share.
Many folks think baseball games are too long. Not really. NFL games average 16 minutes longer than a major league baseball game. And think about it. There are only about 12 minutes of actual playing time, from the snap of the ball to the whistle, in pro football. In baseball, there are about 25 minutes of time when the ball is in play.
Some fans feel like baseball is not all that difficult to play. If you think that, just talk to Michael Jordan, probably the greatest basketball ever, who tried pro baseball but couldn’t get out of the minor leagues. The same for former Quarterback Tim Tebow who is still lingering in a minimal Class A league.
So as the new season warms up and unfolds, I’ll be cheering on baseball from little league watching grandsons, to a cold beer and great hot dogs at the new Yankee stadium in New York. Hey, give the game a shot. You just might get hooked like me.
Peace and Justice
With an increasing number of mass shootings in recent months, we are urged by law enforcement officials to keep an eye out. Report anything suspicious. “If you see something, say something” we are regularly told. The problem is, that in too many instances, the alarms raised by concerned citizens are falling on deaf ears.
The most recent blatant example of a failure to respond came last week as 17 teachers and students were gunned down in Parkland, Florida. The FBI received several credible tips that a graduate of Parkland High school, Nikolas Cruz, was posting disturbing social media postings that he wanted to become a “professional school shooter” and had a desire to kill people. The FBI admitted it had failed to investigate even though there are only 12 “Nikolas Cruz” in the country. So much for “see something, say something.”
In the same case, the local sheriff admitted to receiving over 20 calls about the dangers of the shooter. No action was taken. The Parkland public defender, whose office is representing Nikolas Cruz, said: “This kid exhibited every single known red flag, from killing animals to having a cache of weapons to disruptive behavior to saying he wanted to be a school shooter. If this isn’t a person who should have gotten someone’s attention, I don’t know who is. This was a multi-system failure.”
In the Nassar molestation case of teenage gymnasts, the doctor molested more than 40 young girls after the FBI had been notified. One of the gymnasts who complained to the FBI told The New York Times: “I never got a phone call from the police or the FBI during that time. Not one person. Not one. Not one. Not one.” She saw something and said something, but got no response.
How about Devin Kelley, the mass murderer at the small church in Texas. While in the Air Force, he talked openly about killing his superiors, illegally snuck a gun on his military base, was charged with assault and escaping from a psychiatric hospital, attacked his wife with a gun, hitting and choking her, fractured the skull of his baby stepson, and became a convicted felon. Yet after all this, he still was allowed to buy a number of guns. Many saw something and said something, but there was no response.
We know about mass shootings here in Louisiana, A killer named John Houser, who had a long history of violence and mental illness traveled to Louisiana from Georgia. Houser had been ordered to a psychiatric hospital by a Georgia judge in 2008, which should have prevented him from even buying a gun. But then he went to an Alabama pawnshop and bought a 40-caliber, semiautomatic handgun. Georgia and Alabama are both saying the other state should have done more to stop Houser from purchasing the gun considering his checkered mental condition. So what good was it to “see something, say something?”
As I wrote in a column last year, some 48,000 convicted felons and fugitives lied about their criminal history, a federal offense, so as to pass the background checks and purchase guns illegally. How many of these 48,000 were prosecuted for making false statements? A total of 44. The Justice Department’s response was that it was “prioritizing prosecutions to focus on more serious crimes.” More serious crimes? What could be more serious than getting thousands of potential killers off the streets who lie to get a weapon?
It’s all well and good to have these national campaigns that tell the public to keep their eyes open and report suspicious activity. Some will argue that this leads to a big brother mentality, but it’s just the price we have to pay in the this violent day and age.
But if you “see something and say something,” you expect that federal and state law enforcement agencies will give such information a serious look. Too often, such important information gets ignored or falls through the cracks. Americans deserve a lot better.
Peace and Justice
The president last week suggested that the nation establish a yearly military parade to honor the service and the sacrifice of the current military and our veterans. He spoke of it as “a unifying moment for the country.” Almost immediately, the Trump naysayers jumped all over the idea as nothing more than “pandering patriotism.” “Tanks, but no tanks,” was the opinion of the Washington Post.
Former Obama State Department spokesman and retired Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby ripped the idea by saying: “This is just beneath us as a nation. We are the most powerful military on earth. We don’t need to be parading our military hardware down Pennsylvania Avenue to show that to anybody.”
I personally think a number of Trump ideas are a little loony, but in this case, he is right on the mark. America has done a poor job honoring those who served in the military. The only voices who are “pandering patriots” are the numerous chick hawks who dodged the draft yet go around with the American flag on their lapel telling us to “stand up for the USA,” as they ran for the foxholes when service to their country called.
Remember former Vice President Dick Cheney’s response when asked why he didn’t serve his country in the military? In 1989 he told the Washington Post, “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.” His unpatriotic attitude is mirrored by many current members of congress who often used every trick in the book to avoid serving in the military.
Many congressmen think wearing an American flag lapel pin is some kind of fashion statement. But that doesn’t cut it to the thousands of Americans who have dedicated a portion of their lives to public service. Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy never wore lapel pins. Sen. John McCain, who was tortured for five years in a Viet Cong prison, doesn’t feel it necessary to wear his patriotism on his suit coat.
And how about General John F. Kelly, Trump’s current chief of staff? He served over 40 years in the military, fighting in the initial invasion of Iraq and in Desert Storm. And he’s a Gold Star father as his son, serving in the Marines, was killed fighting in Afghanistan. When asked why he doesn’t wear a flag pin, he responded: “I am an American flag.”
The message here is that wear a flag if you wish, but do not think this gesture substitutes for active public service to your country. Particularly in Louisiana, we need to honor those who have given so much for our freedom. The Bayou State has an exceptionally high number of war casualties who died in Iraq with 41 National Guard soldiers alone from the 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team based out of Lafayette and Shreveport.
I enlisted in the 256th Infantry Brigade back in 1967. I was just out of Tulane Law School and beginning my law practice up in Ferriday, Louisiana, with my first child on the way. Since I was over 26, I was draft exempt. But I volunteered anyway serving both in the Army and 12 years in the Louisiana National Guard. Hey, I didn’t consider myself anything special. It was what thousands of Americans did. It was, to us, the American way and a call to duty.
The nation has numerous celebrations and parades on a local level for Veterans Day (November 11th) and Memorial Day (last Monday of the month), but there is no national military parade honoring those who served. You are right Mr. President. The world needs to see that America rallies around our military on a special day with a full review of all branches of the nation’s armed forces.
Veteran’s Day in November would be my suggestion. This year would celebrate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. A national military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue on November 11th? I’ll be there joining thousands of others who volunteered to serve.
Peace and Justice
It’s been a bad last few weeks for the nation’s top law enforcement agency. First, an innocent hostage was shot and killed in a botched raid in Houston by an FBI shooter. Then the television movie series “Waco” debuted and revisited the FBI killings of innocent victims in both Ruby Ridge and Waco. And currently, the Bureau faces charges by members of Congress of malfeasance and even interfering in the most recent presidential election.
The FBI has a credibility problem. And for good reason. The House Intelligence Committee is investigating the mishandling of federal wiretap requests involving both the Clinton campaign and the Trump campaign. There is also the disappearance of thousands of FBI emails and efforts by certain agents to undermine both candidates.
Take a look at just some of the newspaper headlines across America.
“Evidence Suggests a Massive Scandal is Brewing at the FBI”-New York Post
“Wanted: An Honest FBI” -Wall Street Journal
“The Massive Case of Collective Amnesia at the FBI”-National Public Radio
“Scandal Ridden FBI-Must Be Abolished”-Boston Globe
The House Intelligence Committee voted along party lines to release a staff memo that Speaker Paul Ryan says will show that “there may have been malfeasance at the FBI.” In response, the Bureau is pleading with Congress and the President not to release the document. But with all the charges and counter charges taking place, a little transparency would seem to be in order.
Maybe we can learn a little bit from Hollywood. In the movie “Final Impact,” the President asks a reporter to hold off on a major story by saying: And I can’t appeal to your sense of what’s in the nation’s best interest?” To which she responds: “I always thought the truth was in the nation’s best interest.” The point made is to let it all out.
And how about the confrontation between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men”?
Col. Jessep: You want answers?
Kaffee: I WANT THE TRUTH!
Col. Jessup: YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!
Yes we can Col. Jessup. As the Wall Street Journal editorialized this week: “The House memo is not about ‘attacking the FBI or our law enforcement professionals.’ This is about restoring confidence in a law-enforcement agency that played an unprecedented role in the US presidential election regarding both the Trump and Clinton campaigns.”
A number of Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee seem to be outraged over any allegations that the FBI has a political agenda and that it can be vindictive. But as an investigative report by National Public Radio concluded last week: “As a matter of reality, the FBI has been political from its outset. The people in charge and the people in charge of the administrations under which it has served have been as political and as partisan as it is possible to be.”
History shows that from the creation of the FBI under President Teddy Roosevelt, the FBI has been used, misused, and by their own actions, insubordinate in many administrations. How long could we talk about the shenanigans of J. Edgar Hoover, Watergate, Deep Throat, Sen. Joe McCarthy, investigations of Martin Luther King, and LBJ having the FBI harass Vietnam protesters?
At the present time, there are three major congressional investigations into possible criminal activity within the FBI. Special prosecutors seem to be appointed in Washington at the drop of a hat. With the President himself under investigation by a special prosecutor, it would seem appropriate to have a similar special prosecutor appointed to fully investigate the numerous allegations of impropriety by the FBI.
Is this powerful bureaucracy worthy of America’s trust? Yes Col. Jessup, we can handle the truth. Just let the chips fall where they may.
Peace and Justice
It would be an understatement to say that this past year has been controversial on the political scene. Three major stories dominated the news from my perspective. Obviously at the top of the list was the continuing saga of Donald Trump. Then there was the Alabama Senate race that became the nation’s number one soap opera. And we learned that the government spends millions of dollars running down rumors of UFOs.
And here’s the kicker. 2018 is potentially shaping up to be the most tumultuous political year in our lifetime. The control of congress, more unpredictable antics from our President, the possible reckless actions from that crazy guy in North Korea, America’s deteriorating role of leadership on the world stage, gridlock in Washington and in legislatures across the nation: Hey, what more could a political junkie ask for?
So far, President Trump has not followed in the paths of Reagan, Roosevelt and Kennedy in being forceful leaders who reached out to build working coalitions. Great leaders, in order to govern effectively, extended their tribal base by appealing to people’s hopes rather than their fears. There is a long history of presidents using their office as a bully pulpit to rally support. But do we now have a bully in the pulpit?
Whether you are a Trump supporter or not, he is viewed across the board as an aggressive, abusive, no holds barred president. In the years to come, historians will look back to see if the presidency has changed Donald Trump, or if Donald Trump has changed the presidency.
The president is making a major effort to restructure the federal judiciary and has forwarded some three dozen nominations to the U.S. Senate for confirmation. Only six have been confirmed so far, and for good reason. In a number of cases, Trump has selected grey mice. That’s the name given by court watchers to nominees who lack the scholarship, the temperament, and the learning to be federal judges.
We witnessed first hand several nominees who were over their heads and obviously unqualified for the federal bench in Senate judiciary committee confirmation hearings just a few weeks ago. Louisiana Senator John Kennedy has commendably hammered away at several nominees as to their knowledge of basic judicial terminology. Concepts any candidate for a judgeship should know.
As the Baton Rouge advocate reported: “The questions highlighted (nominee) Matthew Peterson’s lack of courtroom experience. Pressed by Sen. Kennedy, Peterson acknowledged having never made arguments in a courtroom nor having tried a case– and then struggled to define a series of legal terms, several of which legal expert described as fairly basic.” As Kennedy appropriately observed: “Just because you’ve seen ‘My cousin Vinny’ doesn’t qualify you to be a federal judge.”
So to help out future nominees, I’m offering a few questions and answers that should be memorized before appearing at a Senate confirmation hearing. Any future nominee should give me a call because, hey I’m a lawyer, and I’m admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. So with the aid of Professor Garrett Epps at Baltimore University, I offer these suggested responses.
A Lawsuit: That’s what you wear in court.
Recusal: When the judge takes a brief judicial nap.
Sidebar: That’s of course the liquor kept near the courtroom.
Erie doctrine: The rule that testimony by ghosts is inadmissible.
Bench trial: Shopping for a new chair for the judge.
Judicial review: The number of “likes” on the judge’s twitter feed.
Res judicata: The judges once a year have a race around the courthouse.
Marbury v. Madison: The first matchup for the NCAA national football championship.
For all you judicial wannabes, gray mice or otherwise, I hope this helps in your quest to ascend to the federal bench. For all the rest of us, get ready for a knock down-drag out 2018. Happy New Year!
Peace and Justice
A hue and cry is mounting around the country that voting machines used on Election Day are eminently hackable. Congress is investigating charges by the Office of Homeland Security that Russia attempted to hack into voting machines in 21 different states. So is the integrity of our election system being undermined? Are computer hackers able to change election results? What gives?
Obviously, there is something fishy going on. It’s not just the election system being hacked. New reports have told us that computer systems of major companies like Sony, Equifax and even the U.S. Office of Personnel Management have been broken into. So how can we be sure that your vote cast the polls on Election Day is secure?
There is a recent push by election reformers to go back to, can you believe, paper ballots. That’s right. Just like the first American elections back in the 1800s. There is a non-profit group called Verify Voting that is telling state officials: “We have a single technology at our disposal that is invulnerable to hacking: paper.” So will elections officials do an about face and reinstitute the paper ballot system?
When I was elected as Louisiana Secretary of State back in 1979, there were a number of election fraud allegations. I formed an Election Integrity Commission and appointed former Secretary of State Wade O. Martin to head up the effort to weed out voter fraud. Were election shenanigans going on in the Bayou State? I often quoted former governor Earl Long, who once said: “Oh Lord, when I die, let me be buried in Louisiana. So I can stay active in politics.” Of course there was voter fraud back then using paper ballots.
As one retired local sheriff told me, you could make the election results dance with paper ballots during absentee voting. Here’s how one could beat the system. During the two-week absentee voting period, the sheriff would have his deputies pick up agreeable voters and bring them to the courthouse to vote.
A piece of paper was cut as the same size as the official ballot. The first voter was given the fake ballot and instructed go into the Clerk of Court’s office where absentee voting was taking place. He was instructed to drop the fake ballot into the voting box, put the real ballot into his pocket, bring it back out to the sheriff, where he was paid five or ten dollars, whatever the going rate was to buy votes back then.
Once the first official ballot was in hand, the vote buyer would mark the ballot for whoever he was supporting, give it to the next voter, tell the voter to put the official ballot into the ballot box, return with an unmarked ballot, and he would be paid for his effort. This could go on all day for the two-week voting period with hundreds of illegal votes being cast.
This scheme was used, particularly in rural areas in the state, by numerous candidates who were trying to beat the system. So no system at the present time seems to be foolproof. But elections officials should move cautiously about throwing the current system to the wind and go back to paper ballots.
Louisiana presently has some 10,000 voting machines in 64 parishes. Current Secretary of State Tom Schedler is confident that the present election system works in Louisiana. He’s done a commendable job so far. But he has his work cut out in the future in putting in place cybersecurity that protects the integrity of the ballot, but still makes it easy for citizens to cast their vote.
Peace and Justice
It’s getting close to redistricting time for legislators, both in Louisiana and throughout the country. By federal law, all election districts must be reapportioned every 10 years to reflect the latest census figures. But should legislators, who have a vested interest in how the redistricting lines are drawn, actually be the ones to do the drawing, anyway?
The problem is one of gerrymandering, where district lines are not drawn to reflect geographical or political balance, but to favor the incumbent or some other partisan choice. When legislators do the redistricting, the norm seems to be that the state ends up with meandering footprints meticulously designed, it would seem, to ensure that no incumbent will face serious opposition, regardless of how the political winds are blowing. As one local political observer said, “Think about it this way. In elections, people choose their legislators. In reapportionment, legislators choose their people.”
Gerrymandering, by the way, means to manipulate the electoral boundaries for political gain so as to give undue influence to an incumbent or other favored candidate. The name comes from Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who in 1812 created winding districts that looked like salamanders to favor incumbents. Thus the convoluted word – “gerrymandering.”
What most voters want to avoid is the self-dealing by legislators where voting districts slash across communities of interest and geography. A blatant example of winding, disjointed gerrymandering is the Louisiana third congressional district. It winds from the Mississippi border south of New Orleans though the southern part of Jefferson Parish and all the way through south Louisiana up to Lafayette, some 300 miles in length.
So the question for Louisiana voters is this: Are they that concerned that the legislature is, for all practical purposes, creating their own voters? Is this healthy in the Bayou State — or in any other state? Many think it’s not.
So what are the alternatives? What are other progressive states doing to transfer the power of redistricting to a system less driven by self-interest? Fourteen states have assigned the task to officials or panels outside the state legislature. And independent redistricting wears the cloak of good-government reform, as long as a consensus can be built on just who will serve on such panels. How do you pick the members? How can such a system be put in place that assures voters the final result will be fair, non-partisan, and keep local interests balanced?
Louisiana has a number of bright people with solid business and educational backgrounds that are capable of taking on this controversial task. There are several respected demographers in the Bayou state, and a number of well-qualified professors at Louisiana universities. Retired judges fit the category as well as representatives of some of the state’s good government groups.
When I was first elected to the Louisiana legislature back in 1971, legislative redistricting had taken place just months before. But the reapportionment plan did not pass federal court muster and was thrown out just weeks before the primary election date. Ed Steimel was head of the Public Affairs Research Council at the time and was appointed by federal judge Frank Polozola to serve as a “special master” to redraw the district lines. Based on Steimel’s rework, the old plan was thrown out and the new court-ordered plan was put in place. There was general agreement that the Steimel Plan was fair and kept the district more cohesive and less spread out. (It must have been good as I won my senate seat easily in the first primary.)
One idea would be to create a Louisiana Fair Reapportionment Practices Commission. Let nominations for serving on the Commission come from the legislature, the Supreme Court, the good government groups like PAR and CABL, the various college boards, and perhaps a key business group or two. Then put all the submissions in a hat and draw out eleven names to serve as members to begin their work right after the new census data is made available.
The goal for such a commission is simple – put the important issue of redistricting into the hands of those with non-partisan interests, instead of those who in the past have been allowed to define the terms of their own cartel. Simply put, it’s just wrong for legislators to draw these districts and then run in them. There needs to be a better way.
Peace and Justice
Mass shootings continue across the nation where no part of the country is from a “wild west” mentality. The recent loss of life has been staggering. Those slaughtered range from one-year old kids to 77-year-old adults.
A country music festival in Las Vegas was the scene of 58 people killed. In the small town of Sutherland Springs, Texas, 26 people were murdered in the middle of a Sunday church service. A deranged gunman in northern California killed five people just last week. And those of us living in Louisiana can look back on a series of mass killings including those executed at a Lafayette movie theatre and officers shot down on a Baton Rouge highway.
Gun rights supporters say we should arm more people, and gun control advocates call for more restrictions on gun ownership. I remember reading a book back in the 70s called “Bible in Pocket, Gun in Hand: The Story of Frontier Religion.” The problem today is that the entire country is now the frontier, and there is no place that is a safety zone.
So where does responsible action begin? How about this refreshing idea? Let’s start by enforcing the present laws on the books. No new radical initiatives for the time being. The judicial system, on both the federal and state levels, has the tools to get many potential mass killers off the streets. But a number of laws are not being enforced.
Take killer Devin Kelley, the mass murderer at the small church in Texas. While in the Air Force, he talked openly about killing his superiors, illegally snuck a gun on his military base, was charged with assault and escaping from a psychiatric hospital, attacked his wife with a gun, hitting and choking her, fractured the skull of his baby stepson, and became a convicted felon. Kelley had no business owning a gun, yet the Air Force ignored the law and failed to enter his name in the federal database that would have prevented him from buying more guns.
Here in the Bayou State, a killer named John Houser had traveled to Louisiana from the small Georgia town of LaGrange. He had a long history of violence and mental illness. He had been ordered to a psychiatric hospital by a Georgia judge in 2008, which should have prevented him from even buying a gun. But then he went to an Alabama pawnshop and bought a 40-caliber, semiautomatic handgun. Georgia and Alabama are both saying the other state should have done more to stop Houser from purchasing the gun considering his checkered mental condition.
And if you think this is bad, how about the fact that over 48,000 convicted felons and fugitives lied about their backgrounds, a federal offense, so as to pass the background checks and purchase guns illegally. How many of these 48,000 were prosecuted for making false statements? A total of 44. The Justice Department’s response was that it was “prioritizing prosecutions to focus on more serious crimes.” So killers like Devin Kelley and John Houser have free reign to gather as many weapons as the want.
If there are no specific requirements that mentally deranged individuals like Houser are reported by every state to a national database, then we can look for more mass shootings. It’s way too easy for a potential killer to obtain a gun in one state, and then travel across the country to pick and choose his victims. Congress should make reporting mandatory with penalties for those states that fail to do so. And Congress should investigate why the Justice Department lets these same killers continue to ignore the law and continue to kill.
Simply put, start by enforcing current law before clouding this issue with new restrictions. It would seem to be common sense.
Peace and Justice
A Louisiana guy named John Thompson died last week. You may not recognize the name, but he was the victim of one of the worst cases of prosecutorial misconduct in the state’s history. Here are the facts.
Thompson was convicted back in 1982 of first-degree murder and given the death sentence. He came within days of being executed after spending 14 years on death row and 18 years total in prison. Five different prosecutors were involved in the case and all knew that a blood test and other key evidence had been hidden that showed Thompson was innocent.
On his deathbed dying of cancer, one of the prosecutors confessed to a colleague that he had hidden the exculpatory blood sample. The colleague waited five more years before admitting that he too knew of the hidden evidence. Thompson, after 18 years, received a new trial, and his lawyers were finally able to produce ten different pieces of evidence that had been kept from him, that overwhelming showed he was innocent. The new jury took less than 35 minutes to find him not guilty.
Hiding evidence that can find the accused innocent is nothing new for prosecutors in New Orleans, both in state and federal court as well as with the FBI. The Innocence Project of New Orleans reviewed a number of convictions over the past 25 years in the city and concluded that prosecutors gave a "legacy" of suppressing evidence. The Project said 36 men convicted in Orleans Parish alleged prosecutorial misconduct.
Nineteen have since had their sentences overturned or reduced as a result. According to the Innocence Project, favorable evidence was concealed in a quarter of the murder convictions from 1973-2002. In 19 of 25 non-capital cases, the prosecutors withheld favorable evidence; in the other six cases, the courts ruled that evidentiary hearings were needed.
With full justification, Thompson sued the prosecutor’s office in New Orleans for ripping away and stealing 18 years of his life. He had two sons that he never saw grow up. A New Orleans jury awarded him $14 million. Some said it was too much money. Would you give up 18 years of your life in solitary confinement on death row for $14 million? On appeal, the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals, reputedly the most pro-prosecutorial circuit in the nation, upheld the award in favor of Thompson.
But a bitterly divided Supreme Court said to Thompson “no way.” In 2011's Connick v. Thompson, a conservative led 5-4 decision tossed Thompson's case out – not because they disagree that the prosecutor’s office hid evidence (in fact all 9 justices agree on that point). Instead they tossed the case because, in their divine judicial opinion, they didn’t see any “pattern” of the prosecutor’s office doing this to other people besides Thompson (because one life ruined is apparently not enough). Sounds like a John Grisham novel with a bad ending, right? If only that were so. Unfortunately, this is real life and John Thompson got nothing for his 18 years in jail. Not a red cent. Tough luck fella. The system failed you, but “stuff happens.”
This was not a decision based on a conservative interpretation of the law, even though the so-called conservative bloc voted in lockstep to deny Thompson’s claim. A true conservative justice would be strongly opposed to government oppression and the encroachment on the liberty of a falsely accused person. After all, when a prosecutor can operate with impunity, totally absent of any criminal or civil check on their actions, the seeds of fascism are planted. No, a true conservative judge would have held these rogue prosecutors fully accountable.
John Thompson, stunned by the Supreme Court's decision, spent the rest of his life working to help wrongly convicted inmates. He founded a group called Resurrection after Exoneration. Sadly, he did not have the financial resources that the lower courts rightly concluded should have paid to help him pursue his goal.
If there was ever any doubt about the lack of fairness, competence and fundamental decency among the current majority composition of the Supreme Court, such doubt was put to rest by a decision that would make any oppressive and dictatorial government proud. The judicial system failed John Thompson. Along with Lady Justice, we all should shed a tear.
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
- Elie Wiesel
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown is a guest contributor to GCN news. His views and opinions, if expressed, are his own. His column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show, Common Sense, each Sunday morning from 9:00 am till 11:00 am Central Time on the Genesis Communication Network.