Should we cite the scientific work of colleagues who were sexual harassers?

June 25, 2023 • 12:00 pm

There’s a new movement afoot for “citation justice” a form of affirmative action in which we should cite scientists who are marginalized as a way of boosting their careers.  I’m referring to citations in scientific papers, and here’s one example: “maps of chromosomes can be constructed by the pattern of recombination shown by alleles producing visible mutations (Morgan and Bridges, 1919)”.

While I still think affirmative action should be practiced in some realms, like college admissions and hiring, I don’t favor practicing it in scientific papers as a form of reparations.  My philosophy (which I may not always have acted on!) is that when presenting other people’s ideas, facts, or results, you should give the most relevant citations: those that best demonstrate the phenomenon discussed. And you should be parsimonious: avoid overcitation and don’t put in too many different citations that show the same thing. In other words, I use citations based on their value to their paper—their merit, as you will.

Others feel differently, and I’m not going to argue with them except to say that if you leave out citations that are more relevant or important in favor of citations by marginalized scientists, you’re lowering the bar for citation, which could result in a poorer paper.  (This of course implies that I think that science papers should function to build up the edifice of science, not effect social justice, which is better done other ways.)

However, the authors of this paper from the American Astronomical Society note that some groups are undercited:

. . . . it has also been found that when researchers cite others, they are less likely to cite women and scholars of color at rates that match their respective contributions to the field. Many reasons for these unequal citation practices have been suggested, ranging from implicit or unconscious bias to careless citation practices (such as not seeking out the original reference) to consciously choosing to exclude certain researchers and/or groups when citing others.

If it is indeed the case that women and scholars of color aren’t cited as frequently as they should be given the relevance of their work to the paper, then that should be rectified.  Remember, a citation is there to document a statement or fact, not to laud somebody’s accomplishments, so what’s important here is not “respective contributions to the field” but “relevance of their work to the statement requiring documentation.”  If there is under-citation in this sense, then scientists should indeed do something about it when they write papers.

But the topic of the article below is this question:

 This leads to the crux of many recent discussions: is it ever acceptable to intentionally choose not to cite someone(s)?

Their answer seems to be “yes, it could be acceptable to deliberately omit a relevant citation, though there’s no cut-and-dried rule”.

Click screenshot to read:

The authors first lay out, in a good summary, why scientists use citations:

Currently, the relevant portion of the AAS Code of Ethics is found in the Publications and Authorship section of the Ethics Statement:

Proper acknowledgment of the work of others should always be given. Deliberate, wanton omission of a pertinent author or reference is unacceptable. Authors have an obligation to their colleagues and the scientific community to include a set of references that communicates the precedents, sources, and context of the reported work. Data provided by others must be cited appropriately, even if obtained from a public database.

The statement reminds us that there are several reasons why we are expected to cite others in our publications.  These include citations as an acknowledgment of the contributions of others to the ideas in our work, as well as to avoid plagiarism, and we cite others to justify our methods, assumptions, and research practices. Citations are also important for maintaining the integrity of the academic record and tracing the development of ideas over time, both for the historical record as well as for a proper understanding of how a research field has evolved.

To me, this alone implies that you cite based on relevance, not as a way to effect social justice. And even if authors have done some bad things, if their research is solid and relevant to the point being made, you should cite them. Not doing so violates all the reasons given above.

But moral considerations then creep into the article of Hughes et al.:

In the case of unethical research practices, we can look to other fields outside of astronomy for some guidance. The AMA (American Medical Association) Code of Medical Ethics suggests that when researchers engage with results that were obtained in a clearly unethical way, such as Nazi experimentation on humans during WWII or the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, they should first seek to cite studies that used ethical methods and obtained the same results. If that is not possible, then the harm involved in obtaining the results should be disclosed and acknowledged, the reason for needing to cite the study justified, and the authors should pay respect to the victims of the behavior.

I’m not sure that there are any results of Nazi medical experiments that are even worth citing; I remember reading one scholar’s conclusion that these experiments were so slipshod that they never produced anything of value, even given their aims—to save German soldiers (or, in Mengele’s case, to satisfy a sadistic curiosity). And nearly everyone now knows of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and about its unethicality. I don’t know if it generated any useful data, but to have to stop in the middle of the paper and recite a screed in honor of the victims seems to me a bit much. I’d rather just say “see X”, where “X” is a discussion of the harms produced by that study. Moral genuflection (“I will now show that I realize this work was unethical”) is somewhat demeaning in a case like the Nazis and Tuskeegee. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of having to cite any study that requires that kind of qualification and explanation.

But the authors do find one case where citations may be properly left out without any qualification: when the scientist cited is a sexual harasser. As they say:

But the guidance becomes less clear when it comes to dealing with citations of documented sexual and serial harassers. While there have been several recent high-profile cases in astronomy, many other fields are currently struggling with this same issue. The arguments of whether we should cite these individuals boil down to two main positions:

Note that the links go to two sides of the argument, the “Yes” from my law-school colleague Brian Leiter.

This is the starting point from which the AAS Code of Ethics Committee, the AAS Publications Committee, and the Ethics Working Group are confronting the issue. There are several related questions to grapple with:

Here are the questions that, according to Hughes et al. must be answered before you can decide whether or not to cite a harasser:

  1. Is the research unethical, or is the person’s behavior unethical, and does it matter?
  2. Is sexual harassment a form of research misconduct? The American Geophysical Union says yes, and the NSF has instituted policies that require institutions to report sexual harassment findings which can lead to the revocation of grant funding. While the AAS code of ethics does not currently address this issue directly, the Astro2020 Decadal Report recommends that identity-based discrimination and harassment be recognized as causing the same level of harm to the integrity of research as is caused by research misconduct.
  3. How do we identify bad actors in our community? What is the threshold? By which temporal and cultural standards do we judge? Who ensures that the punishment fits the crime, and can there be a path to restoration?
  4. Who is harmed? What is the collateral damage? How do we limit future harm to the survivors of sexual harassment? Should we protect the junior colleagues and collaborators of bad actors from secondhand punishment, and if so, how? And when does the integrity of the scientific record take precedence?

The authors do admit that making a decision not to cite someone who’s a sexual harasser (and yes, the conclusion is that it may well be justified) is an “ethical gray area.”

But none of this stuff, to me, justifies not citing someone as a form of punishment because they engaged in documented sexual harassment.

Of course I abhor sexual harassment, and it should be dealt with promptly and properly.  But why is sexual harassment the only bad act that can be punished by canceling a citation? (And yes, canceling a citation means canceling the scientific community’s knowledge of relevant science.)  What about any felony: robbery, murder, or other bad acts like simple non-sexual harassment or bullying of students or colleagues? (It may be because the three authors, all women referred to as “she” or “her” on their professional webpages are more attuned to this form of bad behavior than are men.)

By all means punish those who engaged in misconduct—and apparently it doesn’t have to be “research misconduct” to make someone a “bad actor”. But remove their contributions from science? That’s a no-no to me.

I may be an outlier, but in my view there’s no good reason to not cite the scientific work of “bad actors” or harassers if the work itself is sound and relevant.  Even murderers should be cited if their work is relevant. There’s no “research misconduct” worse than killing one of your students, but to me even that’s not bad enough to expunge someone’s relevant work from science.

Punishment and ostracism  should be inflicted on people, not on science itself, for leaving out relevant citations because the person who did the work was bad is indeed hurting science, and scholarship in general.  Being fired or punished is enough; it’s not necessary (and is indeed harmful to science) to “punish” someone further by simply refusing to cite their work. If we did that, we wouldn’t cite great literature, for many famous authors were pretty bad people, including being sexual harassers.

In the end, I agree with Brian Leiter, whose “Yes” vote for not removing citations is explained in the 2018 Chronicle of Higher Education article linked to above: “Academic ethics: should scholars avoid citing the work of awful people?” (the three people cited in his first paragraph below were accused of sexual misconduct):

Certainly, scholars should condemn Frege, Searle, Ronell, and the like. But to excise from the canon of relevant knowledge those who are appalling people is simply a further betrayal of what justifies the existence of institutions devoted to scholarship.

. . . You should not — under any circumstances — adjust your citation practices to punish scholars for bad behavior. You betray both your discipline and the justification for your academic freedom by excising from your teaching and research the work of authors who have behaved unethically. Universities would, in principle, be justified in disciplining you for scholarly malfeasance, subject to appropriate peer assessment.

Such academic misconduct is unlikely to constitute a firing offense — unlike, say, serious plagiarism or fabrication of data. But researchers or teachers who let moral indignation interfere with scholarly judgment do betray the core purposes of the university and so open themselves to professional repercussions. The foundations of academic freedom demand nothing less.

h/t: Thanks to a scientist who does astronomy for alerting me to this piece.

TRUMP INDICTED! Orange Man may wear Orange Uniform

June 9, 2023 • 5:49 am

I couldn’t believe it when I heard this news last night, but all signs were that it was impending. Here’s the headline from the NYT. If you click on it, I’ve linked it to the news story that someone archived:

An excerpt:

The Justice Department on Thursday took the legally and politically momentous step of lodging federal criminal charges against former President Donald J. Trump, accusing him of mishandling classified documents he kept upon leaving office and then obstructing the government’s efforts to reclaim them.

Mr. Trump confirmed on his social media platform that he had been indicted. The charges against him include willfully retaining national defense secrets in violation of the Espionage Act, making false statements and a conspiracy to obstruct justice, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The Justice Department made no comment on the indictment Thursday and did not immediately make the document public.

The indictment, handed up by a grand jury in Federal District Court in Miami, is the first time a former president has faced federal charges. It puts the nation in an extraordinary position, given Mr. Trump’s status not only as a onetime commander in chief but also as the current front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination to face President Biden, whose administration will now be seeking to convict his potential rival of multiple felonies.

Mr. Trump is expected to surrender to the authorities on Tuesday, according to a person close to him and his own post on his social media platform, Truth Social.

“The corrupt Biden Administration has informed my attorneys that I have been indicted,” Mr. Trump wrote, in one of several posts around 7 p.m. after he was notified of the charges.

The former president added that he was scheduled to be arraigned in federal court in Miami at 3 p.m. on Tuesday. In a video he released later on Truth Social, Mr. Trump declared: “I’m an innocent man. I’m an innocent person.”

The Washington Post gives the charges: seven of them:

Trump, who is again seeking the Republican presidential nomination, has been indicted on seven charges, people familiar with the matter told The Washington Post, including willful retention of national defense secrets, obstruction of justice and conspiracy. Trump has denied any wrongdoing.

Well, I haven’t had coffee yet, but I have to say that I’m pleased as punch. Not necessarily pleased that he’ll be punished—for that’s up to judges and juries—but chuffed that he’s going to have to publicly face the music, do a PERP WALK, and perhaps appear on the stand (that would be his downfall).

I haven’t read the news analysis, but surely this will affect next year’s Presidential election. It’s hard to believe that being an accused felon can win him votes, but you know the Republicans: they may see him as more of a martyr. Will they still run a candidate who’s under indictment? I bet so, since it’s legal and they won’t care if he may have to leave office if elected. Nothing can deter the GOP’s ardor for this narcissistic primate.

But if he’s convicted, he’s done for—an ex-President, singing with the choir primeval, longing for the pools of Mar-A-Lago. And, perhaps, there may be jail time. No ex-President has ever been indicted of a federal crime (Nixon was pardoned before he was ever charged), so we have an interesting political and legal season coming up.

Given Trump’s penchant for stalling, I doubt he’ll be tried before the November elections next year.

But I think most readers here will have a spring in their step today. I know I do!

Trump found liable for sexual abuse in civil suit, fined $5 million

May 9, 2023 • 2:31 pm

Hot off the presses: the jury in the civil suit by E. Jean Carroll against Donald Trump found him culpable, meaning that the jury decided that it was more likely than not that Trump raped Carroll (the suit was for both battery and defamation) in a Manhattan department store about 30 years ago.

Trump was ordered to pay $5 million.

This isn’t a criminal case, of course, but now he’s been found by a jury of his peers likely to have committed sexual assault. I’m hoping this will be enough to seriously damage his chances of reelection, but remember that he said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and nothing would happen to him. Let’s hope he was wrong.

Elizabeth Holmes to be locked up this month

April 12, 2023 • 10:00 am

For a while I’ve been writing about the trial of Elizabeth Holmes, who started up the “blood testing” company Theranos and, along with her business and romantic partner Sunny Balwani, was convicted of several counts of wire fraud.

She was sentenced to 11 years in prison but more likely will serve 9½ (federal crimes don’t allow you much time off for good behavior). Reader Simon just sent me a link to this BBC article noting that her request to the judge to remain free while she appeals—a process that could take years—has been rejected. She’ll go into a minimum-security federal prison this month.

Click to read:

Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes will report to prison at the end of the month after losing a bid to remain free while she appeals against her convictions.

Holmes was sentenced to over 11 years in prison for defrauding investors in her blood testing start-up.

A federal judge on Monday said Holmes failed to prove her appeals process would lead to a reversal of her case.

She is scheduled to go to prison on 27 April.

Holmes had said she would raise “substantial questions” that could warrant a new trial. Her attorneys also argued she should remain free to care for her two young children, including one who was born this year.

But in the Monday ruling, US District Judge Edward Davila said Holmes had not proven her appeal would result in a new trial.

“Contrary to her suggestion that accuracy and reliability were central issues to her convictions, Ms Holmes’s misrepresentations to Theranos investors involved more than just whether Theranos technology worked as promised,” he said.

I still think she’s going to take it on the lam: Holmes is entitled, narcissistic, and previously made one attempt to leave the U.S. while on trial:

Prosecutors, meanwhile, had argued Holmes was a flight risk because she had booked a one-way plane ticket to Mexico during her trial.

Homes’ attorneys said she and her partner Billy Evans were planning to attend a wedding and hoped she would be acquitted.

The ticket purchase was “ill-advised”, Judge Davila wrote in his ruling, though he added it did not constitute an attempt to flee.

“Booking international travel plans for a criminal defendant in anticipation of a complete defence victory is a bold move, and the failure to promptly cancel those plans after a guilty verdict is a perilously careless oversight,” he said.

If this was a trip to a wedding, why did they buy one-way tickets?  Nobody has explained that. I’m thinking that she can’t bear the idea of a decade in jail (she now has two infants) and will try to flee again. But that’s just a guess.

If you’re interested in this case, which is fascinating, read John Carreyrou’s book on the startup and downfall of Theranos, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley StartupIt’s a page-turner. Carreyrou, at the time writing for the Wall Street Journal, broke the story and it was his reporting that ultimately got Holmes and Balwani indicted, tried, and convicted. A great read, you’ll see how charismatic Holmes was, managing to convince a gaggle of rich and famous people to give her startup money without having the device that was supposed to diagnose many diseases from a single drop of blood.

Another mass shooting in the U.S.

April 10, 2023 • 10:15 am

This seems to happen about twice a week, and the last incident was this morning in Louisville, Kentucky.

A mass shooting at a bank in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, on Monday morning left five people dead inside the building and sent six people to a local hospital, police said.

The shooter is dead, police added.

The Louisville Metro Police said they responded to “an active aggressor” on the 300 block of East Main Street in downtown, adding “there are multiple casualties.” FBI Louisville described the incident as a shooting, and other officials urged residents to stay away from the area.

One of those shot was a police officer, according to preliminary information from a source with direct knowledge of the scene on the ground. The source said there were shots exchanged between the shooter and police during the incident.

I’ll be overseas as the details trickle in.

I see this as the inevitable result of lax gun laws, but of course others disagree. One friend tells me that the best solution to the problem is better mental health care. That seems risible to me because many shooters probably wouldn’t be diagnosed as mentally ill, or have no history of the condition that would keep them from getting a gun. Of course, if you define any mass shooter as mentally ill, the claim becomes a tautology.

The result of the “we can’t tighten gun laws” mentality is that this will keep up forever, with people wringing their hands and doing nothing but sending out “thoughts and prayers.”

NY grand jury indicts Trump!

March 30, 2023 • 4:49 pm

Well, it’s happened: our first President to get a criminal indictment.  The headline from the NYT (click to read; there  are live updates):

A Manhattan grand jury voted to indict Donald J. Trump on Thursday for his role in paying hush money to a porn star, according to five people with knowledge of the matter, a historic development that will shake up the 2024 presidential race and forever mark him as the nation’s first former president to face criminal charges.

An indictment will likely be announced in the coming days. By then, prosecutors working for the district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, will have asked Mr. Trump to surrender and to face arraignment on charges that remain unknown for now.

Mr. Trump has for decades avoided criminal charges despite persistent scrutiny and repeated investigations, creating an aura of legal invincibility that the vote to indict now threatens to puncture.

While the charges remain a mystery, Mr. Trump is the first former or current president to be indicted. Nearly two weeks ago, he inaccurately predicted his own arrest. It is likely that the district attorney’s office will now seek to arrange his surrender.

It is unclear precisely when the grand jury vote criminally charging the former president was taken. Prosecutors walked into the office of the clerk in the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse, where the paperwork for an indictment was filed only minutes before the office closed for the day. For weeks, the atmosphere outside the district attorney’s office had resembled a circus. But the fervor had cooled in recent days, and the environs of the office were emptier on Thursday than they had been in weeks.

This wasn’t supposed to happen this week, as the grand jury was taking a break to consider other stuff. But now Trump has to turn himself in and get photographed and fingerprinted.  And this cannot help his Presidential aspirations. Next: the trial!

The brutal police beating of Tyre Nichols

January 28, 2023 • 8:45 am

This case has not yet been tried, so we can’t yet say that the five police officers indicted for second-degree murder of Tyre Nichols, 29, were guilty. But if you look at the video linked to the NYT article below, it sure looks as if they were whaling on him without any valid cause.  In the video (click screenshot below), Nichols was stopped for reckless driving, forced to the ground by the cops, and then cried that he didn’t do anything and just wanted to go home. That was enough to make the cops pepper-spray him in the face repeatedly.

Nichols manages to get up and start running toward home, at which point they taze him, which doesn’t seem to be improper procedure.

He’s chased, taken down again, and then gets hit and repeatedly pepper-sprayed as he calls “Mom!” (This is heartbreaking.) Then he’s beaten with a baton, punched and kicked—all without appearing to offer any resistance. Even when he’s forced to stand up by the cops, and probably unconscious, they still keep beating him. Nichols is then dragged to the car and the cops stand around, not doing anything to assist Nichols until an ambulance arrives.

Nichols died three days later in the hospital. The autopsy said he died from “extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating.” That’s no surprise given the video.

If you want to watch, and do so only if you can tolerate extreme brutality, I recommend the NYT video (be sure to turn the sound on), as it shows the entire event from Nichols being forced out of the car to being beaten and kicked until the ambulance arrives, but I’ve put the NBC News report on the event, which shows the apparent police brutality, at the bottom.

The video was released last night, and there have been demonstrations, but they were peaceful, as Nichols’s family requested.

To me it sure looks like manslaughter, and there is no obvious reason save police anger and desire for revenge that warrants such brutal treatment. Nichols put up no resistance except, before the beaten, when he broke free and tried to run home.  How a police officer can beat, kick, and pepper-spray someone who gave up and is calling for his mom is beyond belief—and it’s the police, not a personal altercation.

The indictment seems to be n the mark, and it’s a good thing there was a “skycam” nearby and the bodycams were turned on. Who knows what the cops might have made up had this not been the case? My heart goes out to Nichols’s family—especially his mom, for whom he called as he was beaten within an inch of his life. They had to watch their son’s slaughter before the video was release to the public yesteeray.

The NYT article below has more details, but you can read them for yourself. It’s unspeakably sad.

Here are details from the NYT if you can’t bear to watch:

Mr. Nichols was stopped on the evening of Jan. 7 in the southeastern corner of the city. Officers forced him out of his car and wrestled him to the ground, according to the videos. He dropped to the ground and laid on his side, imploring the officers to stop and saying, “I’m just trying to get home,” as they held down different parts of his body.

Though he appeared to show no resistance, the police threatened to hurt him further and continued to order him to get on the ground, apparently wanting him to roll onto his stomach. About two minutes into the encounter, an officer directed pepper spray at his face. At that point, Mr. Nichols got up from the ground and ran from the officers, one of whom fired a stun gun at him.

About eight minutes later, officers caught up with him again in a residential area near his family’s home. After tackling him, they beat him severely, as Mr. Nichols screamed in agony.

A body-worn camera and a surveillance camera captured police officers continuing their assault on Mr. Nichols, with one kicking him so hard in the face that the officer nearly fell down. Throughout the beating, which lasted about three minutes, Mr. Nichols did not appear to ever strike back. Several times, he moved his hands to cover his face, seeming to cower from the officers’ blows.

An independent autopsy commissioned by his family found that Mr. Nichols “suffered extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating,” according to preliminary findings released this week.

The video below (it’s here as well) shows the bit where Nichols is assaulted, and it’s narrated by the NBC broadcasters and analyzed after a few minutes of video. Click on the “Watch on YouTube” line.

Elizabeth Holmes planned to flee U.S. after her wire fraud conviction, say prosecutors

January 20, 2023 • 4:30 pm

I have to pat myself on the back, because I think I’m the only person who predicted (on this site) that Elizabeth Holmes, pampered fraudster who will now spend at least nine years in jail, would try to flee the U.S. so she wouldn’t serve time.

And now that seems to have been her plan. The news was just reported that Holmes had a serious plan to flee the country to Mexico. This from CNN:

Elizabeth Holmes made an “attempt to flee the country” by booking a one-way ticket to Mexico in January 2022, shortly after the Theranos founder was convicted of fraud, prosecutors alleged in a new court filing Friday.

Holmes was convicted last January of defrauding investors while running the failed blood testing startup Theranos. In November, she was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison. She has appealed her conviction. [JAC: She’ll serve at least nine.]

The claim that she tried to leave the country last year surfaced as part of a new filing from prosecutors arguing that Holmes should begin serving her prison sentence rather than living on an estate reported to have $13,000 in monthly expenses for upkeep while she awaits her appeal.

In the filing, prosecutors argue Holmes has not shown convincing evidence that she is not a flight risk, as her lawyers have stated, and used the alleged 2022 incident to support their |concerns that she could pose such a risk.

“The government became aware on January 23, 2022, that Defendant Holmes booked an international flight to Mexico departing on January 26, 2022, without a scheduled return trip,” the court filing states. “Only after the government raised this unauthorized flight with defense counsel was the trip canceled.”

The filing adds that prosecutorsanticipate Holmes will “reply that she did not in fact leave the country as scheduled” but said “it is difficult to know with certainty” what she would have done “had the government not intervened.” Now, in the wake of her sentencing, prosecutors say “the incentive to flee has never been higher” and Holmes “has the means to act on that incentive.”

Holmes is pregnant, and was supposed to report to prison on April 27. Somehow the government got wind of her attempt to flee and stopped it (I don’t know if they’d confiscated her passport.) But if ever there was a candidate for being a flight risk, it’s the entitled and delusional Holmes. In my view, she should be locked up immediately, pregnant or not. I don’t believe that she would ever want to serve nine years in prison if she could find any way out of it.

After botched lethal injections, Alabama plans to kill prisoners with nitrogen

January 3, 2023 • 11:30 am

I’ve written a couple of times about how lethal injection, which once seemed to be the most humane way to execute people, can go badly wrong (see here, and here, for instance). Alabama has had two such execution attempts that failed miserably because they couldn’t find a suitable vein, and punctured the condemned man like a pincushion. Eventually they just stopped the executions, and I believe that both have been canceled. (In one case, though, Alabama sought another execution date. That request was withdrawn.)

While it sounds good, lethal injection isn’t perfect, and to me the most humane way would be to inject the person with pentobarbital, which causes anesthesia and then death. It’s the stuff used to euthanize sick animals.  But no pharmaceutical company will supply the purified stuff for executions, and this is also a problem with the usual three-cocktail mixture used in human executions (sodium thiopental used as anesthesia; then pancuronium bromide to paralyze voluntary muscles; and finally potassium chloride to finish off the prisoner by causing cardiac arrest). These three chemicals are obtained on the gray market, often from independent “compounders”, and could, if impure, do a painful job of killing someone.

My recommended solution, of course, is to eliminate the death penalty completely, which all “first world” countries save Japan have done. It’s cheaper to keep an American prisoner in jail for life than to kill him (there are expensive appeals and so forth), execution hasn’t proven to be a deterrent, it’s usually barbaric and conducted in secrecy (which of course you wouldn’t want if you wanted to deter people), and it’s purely retributive. My own solution is that of Norway: a maximum sentence of 21 years no matter what the crime, and then a review every five years to see if the prisoner is “reformed” and safe to release. Really bad actors, like mass murderer Anders Breivik, will never see freedom under this system.  I see no reason to keep someone in jail until they die if they are, to all observers, reformed. Breivik and Charles Manson would never have passed that test.

But instead of abolishing lethal injection, the article shows that Alabama is considering using technical innovation to keep killing: in this case, suffocation with nitrogen.

The article first recounts the grisly botched executions of the state, and then describes what Alabama is proposing:

The state appears to be preparing to premiere a new kind of execution by lethal gas. In the gas chambers of old, little cells were filled with poison that eventually destroyed the organs of the trapped prisoners, resulting in death. Now Alabama proposes to use nitrogen gas to replace enough oxygen to kill via hypoxia, an untested method once imagined in a National Review article and made manifest in a plastic gas mask.

Since 1921, when gas was first used (in a botched execution in Nevada), 600 people have been executed with hydrogen cyanide gas in chambers like the one below, New Mexico’s gas chamber, used just once until it was replaced by lethal injection. Gas is now outlawed because it violates the Supreme Court’s dictum that “cruel and unusual punishments” be forbidden.

Cyanide wasn’t humane. Here’s a bit from Wikipedia:

At the September 2, 1983, execution of Jimmy Lee Gray in Mississippi, officials cleared the viewing room after 8 minutes while Gray was still alive and gasping for air. The decision to clear the room while he was still alive was criticized by his attorney. In 2007, David Bruck, an attorney specializing in death penalty cases, said, “Jimmy Lee Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while reporters counted his moans.”

During the April 6, 1992, execution of Donald Eugene Harding in Arizona, it took 11 minutes for death to occur. The prison warden stated that he would quit if required to conduct another gas chamber execution.

. . . and from the Atlantic article:

Though the chamber had promised instantaneous and painless death, the ugliness and risk of its application eventually made it the country’s shortest-lived method of execution, Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham University School of Law, told me. In plain view of witnesses, prisoners died screaming, convulsing, groaning, and coughing, their hands clawing at their restraints and their eyes bulging and their skin turning cyanic.

The last of them, Walter LaGrand, was killed in Arizona in 1999. Despite the length of time separating his death from Gee’s, he endured a similarly troubled execution: LaGrand, a German-born American who was convicted of murder, gagged and hacked and then died over the course of 18 minutes.

Now nitrogen may provide a more humane death, but it’s still death, and I oppose the procedure. But let’s hear about its history and how it’s supposed to be used:

Alabama has something slightly different in mind. Nitrogen hypoxia is the dream of Stuart Creque, a technology consultant and filmmaker who, in 1995, proposed the method in an article for National Review, in which he speculated optimistically about the ease and comfort of gas-induced death. After hearing about the potential of nitrogen hypoxia as a lethal agent in a BBC documentary, Oklahoma State Representative Mike Christian brought the idea before Oklahoma’s legislature in 2014 as an alternative to lethal injection. Oklahoma passed a law permitting the use of nitrogen hypoxia as a backup method of execution in the event that lethal injections could no longer be carried out. Mississippi passed similar legislation in 2017; Alabama followed in 2018. With Missouri, California, Wyoming, and Arizona (which have older lethal-gas statutes still on the books), these three nitrogen-curious newcomers make up the handful of governments that could begin attempting to execute people with lethal gas at any time. (Alabama Department of Corrections did not immediately reply to a request to comment for this article.)

The proposal is to use a large plastic mask that covers the condemned person’s face, is strapped to the head, and then nitrogen gas would be pumped into the mask via tubing. As I said, I don’t know how this would go, but presumably they’d do tests on animals before they used it on humans (another inhumane proposal). As The Atlantic points out, stored nitrogen is dangerous (though I’m not overly worried about that); what’s more of an impediment is that gas companies appear unwilling to supply nitrogen for execution.

Oklahoma Watch (there are two other states considering nitrogen execution) floats other possible problems, including when to put the mask on, how to assure it’s sealed, and how to prevent the condemned person from struggling. It all sounds good, but so did lethal injection:

Death from nitrogen comes not from what’s in the gas, but what isn’t. Nitrogen is air without oxygen, yet a person dying from it doesn’t feel as if they are suffocating. They still breathe in and expel carbon dioxide but may begin to feel lightheaded, fatigued and have impaired judgment.

Several breaths can render a person unconscious, with death following in four to five minutes, according to Copeland’s report. That’s based on experiences of people who have used nitrogen for suicides.

What could go wrong? We won’t know until it’s tried for real, and I doubt that any state wants to go first. (Read in the article about the first horrible attempt to use hydrogen cyanide.)

At this point, Alabama isn’t ready to use execution by nitrogen, and so it’s back to the three-drug cocktail that may look humane, but doesn’t always feel humane, nor does it always work well.

The obvious solution is to abolish executions. The Supreme Court hasn’t, but 18 states have. The new conservative court won’t, I think, take up this issue, but the rest of the 32 states could. It’s time to stop butchering people for butchering other people. In the future, state execution will be seen as immoral and barbaric, just as we see drawing and quartering now.

Alex Jones’s damages to Sandy Hook families he defamed: nearly a billion dollars

October 12, 2022 • 3:20 pm

The chickens have come home to roost in Alex Jones’s purse, and they’re going to pick it clean.  Just a few minutes ago, a jury in Connecticut ruled that the Infowars loon will have to pay the families of Sandy Hook victims (and an FBI agent) almost a billion dollars. Here’s the NYT story ripped from the headlines:

The upshot:

Alex Jones and Infowars’ parent company, Free Speech Systems, must pay close to $1 billion to the family members of eight victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary and an F.B.I. agent who responded to the scene of the 2012 massacre, which killed 20 first graders and six educators.

Mr. Jones had been found liable for defamation after he spent years falsely describing the shooting as a hoax and accusing the victims’ families of being actors complicit in the plot. As a result, the families were threatened in person and online. He used his Infowars platform to spread these lies.

  • The jury’s decision divided the money among 15 plaintiffs: 14 relatives of eight Sandy Hook victims, and William Aldenberg, an F.B.I. agent targeted by conspiracy theorists. The plaintiffs were awarded varying amounts by the jurors, who considered their testimony and other evidence presented in court to gauge the damage done to their reputations, invasion of their privacy and other factors.

  • Mr. Jones has a third Sandy Hook damages trial pending stemming from a defamation suit he lost to Lenny Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa, parents of Noah Pozner. An earlier trial, in the suit brought by Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, parents of Jesse Lewis, ended with Mr. Jones being ordered to pay $4 million in compensatory damages and $45.2 million in punitive damages to the Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis.

  • This case presented the greatest financial risk to Mr. Jones, because he was found liable of violating Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act, by using lies about the shooting to sell products on Infowars. There is no cap on punitive damages under that law.

Alex Jones may be wealthy, but I don’t think he has a billion dollars, and the final damages are yet to come

Here’s the full verdict (eight minutes):

Yet the man is unrepentant.  Soon he will be selling pencils from a tin cup on a street corner: