Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Sessions Goes After Science

AG Jeff Sessions' next target? Science! 
Mondays are tough enough without the release of gloomy announcements heralding Department of Justice initiatives that reflect the disturbing dystopian worldview of attorney general Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, III.

Last Monday a DOJ memorandum announced a "review" of the consent decrees signed between the DOJ and various police departments accused of racially-biased policing practices and systematic excessive use of force.

Yesterday (in addition to reviving Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" mantra) he announced he's going after the science behind DNA testing used to exonerate people wrongly accused or prosecuted for crimes they didn't actually commit.

A move with unmistakable racial and socio-economic undertones.

As Spencer Hsu reported in a Washington Post article on Monday, Sessions announced that the DOJ will not renew an independent advisory panel comprised of attorneys, judges, lab technicians and scientists known as the National Commission on Forensic Science.

Not only will Session's actions terminate a partnership with the NCFS, a community of experts dedicated to raising the standards of DNA use in criminal cases, it will also halt a review of FBI testimony on various types of scientific evidence

Effectively terminating a legal reform effort begun under the Obama administration in 2013 to ensure that DNA evidence is being used fairly and accurately in criminal convictions.

Innocence Project co-founders Barry Scheck
and Peter S. Neufeld
As one of the two co-founders (including Barry Scheck) of the Innocence Project, Peter S. Neufeld has been involved with efforts to use DNA evidence and science to help free and exonerate over 343 different people from wrongful convictions.

An astounding 20 of those people were on death row facing execution - take a minute to click the link above and read about some of those people.

As he observed in Hsu's WaPo article, the results of Sessions' decision are a mockery of the lofty ideals of the American justice system:

"the (DOJ) has literally decided to suspend the search for the truth. As a consequence innocent people will languish in prison or, God forbid, could be executed."

Session's reprehensible efforts to undermine the use of science to exonerate the innocent and free them from the bowels of America's prison industrial complex aren't necessarily all that surprising given the Trump administration's hostility towards journalists and facts, or the draconian cuts to the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency.

But part of what's particularly troubling is that the Innocence Project, and widespread efforts to introduce DNA evidence in criminal prosecutions, were based
(according to Wikipedia), on a groundbreaking cooperative study conducted by the Department of Justice, the U.S. Senate and the Cardozo School of Law "which found that incorrect identification by eyewitnesses was a factor in over 70% of wrongful convictions."

In his book "Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong", author Brandon L. Garrett's in-depth study of the cases of the first 250 people to be exonerated by DNA evidence after being wrongly convicted, he found that a stunning 76% of those cases hinged on eyewitness identifications that were later proved to be false.

Darryl Hunt reacts after being exonerated in 2004
after serving 19.5 years for rape and murder  
So what would compel Jeff Sessions to terminate an independent advisory panel whose goal is to raise the standards of the science used to find and prosecute criminals?

Is he really willing to use his authority to try and quash science in order to reshape the Department of Justice to reflect the rigid ideology of the Trump administration and the modern Republican Party?

Is ideology more important than ensuring a justice system based on the pursuit of truth for this chaotic administration?

Even in the midst of the most politically divisive moments of the Obama presidency, when Republicans were unified in doing everything possible within their power to torpedo virtually every part of his legislative agenda, there was still an issue that had bipartisan support:

Meaningful reform of the American justice system.

In the wake of landmark works like "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness, a cross-section of conservative, libertarian, centrist, progressive and liberal lawmakers alike from around the nation joined legal experts, scholars, clergy, activists and concerned citizens of all races and from all socioeconomic backgrounds to support efforts to address the warehousing of men, women and children on a massive scale in the prison industrial complex.

Are there blocks of hardcore conservatives determined to ensure that mass incarceration continues?

Sure there are, including Donald Trump.

As CNN Money reported back on February 24th, stocks in the major private prison corporations are up over 100% since Trump took office, fueled in part by his fiery "law and order" rhetoric and efforts to ramp up the detention and deportation of illegal immigrants - efforts from which he'll profit personally from his own stock holdings.

The prison industrial complex, which includes private prison companies, prison guard unions, food suppliers, gun manufacturers and local municipal governments, is an imposing lobby in Washington with a vested interest in maintaining the pipeline that funnels non-violent people into U.S. prisons and jails.

And in Attorney General Jeff Sessions, they've certainly got a friend who's willing to undermine science to keep that human pipeline flowing.

It begs the question, just whose attorney general is this anyway?

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