Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Beautiful Minds, Part One

Last month I watched the movie Night at the Museum, starring Ben Stiller and Robin Williams. Stiller's character is a security guard in a natural history museum where the exhibits come to life in the middle of the night. It's a goofy comedy, founded upon the hero's interactions with Theodore Roosevelt, Sacajawea, Attila the Hun, and others.

It was targeted at a younger audience, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. I thought "Gosh, wouldn't it be fantastic to speak with those brilliant men and women?"

After reflecting upon this, something important occurred to me. I've been preoccupied with personal achievement, but I was surrounded by fascinating men and women who carved out real history. Most of these people are still living. They are not yet reproduced in wax or encased in glass-walled rooms. But they are great men and women, nevertheless, and I have been privileged to spend a metaphoric night at the museum in their company.

Cady Coleman and Mark Lee are astronauts; Janet Graham is Vice-President at HBO; Atlee Hammaker was an All-Star pitcher in the major leagues; Robert Blake shot down a MIG in the Vietnam War and was personal aide to President Ford.

But instead of simply listing names, I'll acknowledge those who directly influenced me. Several spring to mind but I've chosen just five in the interest of brevity; five gifted human beings who crossed my path and taught me something important along the way.

Perhaps in some future museum, a few will have their own glass-walled exhibits. Some will certainly not. But to my mind, all shared the stamp of genius in their own particular way. So pull up a chair and take a tour through the museum exhibits of my imagination.

1. "Jimbo" or James Rachels, as hardly anyone called him, was the smartest man and friendliest soul I ever knew. He was Dean of Philosophy at Alabama-Birmingham when I met him in 1983, but more importantly he was father to my friend, Stuart.

At first I thought it curiously demeaning that Stuart and his brother David called him "Jimbo." But their admiration and regard for him was so obvious, I came to understand that their nickname was a more noble title --- a perfect title for an utterly unpretentious and uniquely great man.

James Rachels may be the most widely-read American philosopher of our generation. He was famous before I met him, although I didn't know it. I didn't recognize his professional fame until years later, when I started noticing his books in stores all around the country.

His specialty was ethics and his work has been translated into ten different languages. Unlike other philosophers, he had an uncanny knack for making philosophy
real. Whereas others confine their arguments to the abstract, Jimbo asked practical, newsworthy questions and provided concrete answers. Why is affirmative action the morally correct policy? Why should a person care about someone else's children? If that is true, then what about this case, or that case?

You don't need an education in philosophy to enjoy his books and essays. I was a political conservative when we met, and we never discussed politics or philosophy. But in truth, he changed my point of view. He made me think about difficult questions, without even asking, by the mere example of his own behavior.

In personal interactions, he had a mysterious way of infecting people with the belief that they were special. I recall one or two lunch breaks together, just the two of us, at chess tournaments. I was surprised at his genuine interest. What worthwhile thoughts could I possibly share with such a man? But Jimbo's affability knew no boundaries. Many American chess players enjoyed similar lunch invitations, and probably many others as well.

Another thing I liked about him is that sometimes he doubted his own infallibility --- not just in matters of great import but in trivial, everyday things. One day he would see a movie, and like it, and then later change his mind. He changed his mind about the relative merits of athletes and celebrities. He had less cause for self-doubt than possibly anyone I've known, but he changed his mind a lot. He wanted to be correct. Understanding the truth of things was vitally important. His son Stuart shares this quirk and it always amuses me to see it.

Jimbo died of cancer in 2003 and I'm ashamed to say, I wasn't there. Apparently he handled his death with the same grace and wit he displayed uniformly in his life. I knew he was gravely ill but hadn't spoken to him since Stuart went to college. At some point I should have told him how I admired him ---- and not because of his professional success, the way others admire him, but because of the way he treated me. I enjoyed the warmth of his company a very great deal, and the world is a little colder in his absence.

2. Stuart Rachels was an eleven year old chess master two years before we met. He was the youngest-ever American master until the record was eclipsed a few years ago. In 1989 he won the U.S. Chess Championship. He has played (and scored against) many of the world's best chess players and carries a live afterburner within his mental engine.

Stuart retired from chess in his early 20s. He moved to England on a Marshall Scholarship at Oxford, and is now Professor of Philosophy at the University of Alabama. He is also the continuing editor of his father's books and essays.

I suppose I've had as much opportunity as anyone to appreciate Stuart's mind. In some ways he is my antithesis. I've always promoted the notion that human beings are emotional creatures more than thinking creatures; that people feel their way, more than think their way.

But Stuart thrives on logic and the power of principle. He moves in straight, efficient lines. He is somehow less distracted.

For example, one afternoon we examined my chess game against an International Master. We reached a critical turning point in the middlegame; it was a complex position where mere calculation was insufficient to light the way. At times, playing chess is like driving a car on a foggy night. You perceive the landscape as far as the range of your headlights, but if you consider only what is visible you will lose your way. You must follow your compass to navigate the course, and not rely simply on that which is visible.

In this position I made a "safe" move which led to barren equality, instead of a more adventurous move that my gut told me was correct. Stuart smiled and looked at me quizzically.

"Why did you make that move?"

"Well the other move might lose," I answered.

"Do you have a strong position?" I admitted I didn't know.

And then he zeroed in. "You have the white pieces. You began with an advantage. You must still have an advantage unless you've made a mistake."

I thought I had played correctly.

"Then believe in yourself! If you have played correctly then you must have a strong position, right? And if you have a strong position then you must also have a move which leads to something more than simple equality. You should have made the other move."

This kind of clear thinking is characteristic of Stuart. You believe in the principle, you follow the principle wherever it leads. The whole trick is to know at the outset that the principle is correct.

Even his humor is strictly principled. In April, 2007, I found a funny note that he had secretly written on something of mine in 1986. He never mentioned it, never hinted at it. He waited 21 years and grew bald before I got the joke.

When he was a 13 or 14 year old chess prodigy, many of his friends were in their twenties. Stuart was mature, socially adept, and charismatic even in that company. On a few occasions I met his younger school friends, and he was very different then --- a prototypical mischievous and wholly distractible teenager. Both personalities were genuine. He was like one of those glass disco balls, rotating above the dance floor and reflecting every color in the rainbow. If you thought you knew him, knew his colors, you really had to wait a few beats for the full revolution.

His success in chess and in academics is due in part to his native intelligence, but a greater part is owed, I think, to his work ethic. His capacity for work and concentration is tremendous. I remember many occasions sitting across the chess board, tired of calculating and evaluating, but Stuart never tired. He was oblivious to everything but the problem of the moment. I'm sure he translated that habit to academics, and even now I notice the same quality in his writing. He notices details, weighs options, and is never satisfied with the "almost right word."

He is perfectly suited by nature for philosophy, and I'm 100% sure that when he leaves this world he will leave a trail of well-communicated ideas that makes people think --- as his father did before him.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Baseball: The Rise and Fall of America's Game

"Baseball was made for kids, and grown-ups only screw it up." - Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon

I read today that baseball great Roger Clemens was indicted for perjuring himself to Congress. It's a sad story, proving that a strong right arm is no indicator of a strong character. But the Clemens story set the wings of memory alight, and I began to soar over the landscape of time, remembering my love for the game of baseball.

One May afternoon in 1967, my 74-year-old grandfather bundled myself and my little brother into his weathered automobile and drove us to Fenway Park in Boston. I was eight years old and my brother Steve was seven. Grandpa was a lifelong fan and was old enough to have seen the greatest legends: Walter "Big Train" Johnson, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and all the rest. Grandpa was already 21 when Ruth signed as a pitcher with the Red Sox, before he went to the Yankees and became baseball's first great home-run slugger.

He wanted to infect us with his love for baseball, and it worked. From that afternoon we were hooked. On that May day, a rookie southpaw named Billy Rohr was listed as the starting pitcher for Boston. A few weeks earlier, Rohr astounded the baseball world by throwing a no-hitter in Yankee Stadium until two outs in the ninth inning, and he had two strikes on the 27th out before Elston Howard singled to break it up. Alas, Billy Rohr won just two more games in his brief major-league career and the Red Sox lost to the Twins that day at Fenway. But it didn't matter to me. I loved baseball.

Carl Yastrzemski was Boston's Julius Ceasar. He came, he saw, he conquered. He won baseball's Triple Crown in 1967 ---- the last player to do that ---- by leading the American League in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. And the Red Sox won the American League pennant on the season's very last day, after finishing next-to-last the year before. My fourth grade classes were suspended during the World Series so the kids could sit in assembly and watch the games on a black-and-white television. It was absolutely a magical year.

The late '60s for America were filled with turmoil: the Vietnam War, the draft, the Civil Rights Movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. But to me, the late '60s were a time of innocence and childhood joy. And baseball, the simple game of baseball, was the center of it.

I recall after one game at Fenway, while maneuvering through the inevitable traffic jam, we spied outfielder Billy Conigliaro walking down the street. He was walking home after a day at work, and was trailed by five or six lucky kids my age clamoring for autographs. He made a decent salary, of course, but wasn't filthy rich. In an age where it was common for players to stay their entire careers at one club, we expected that Billy, also, would be a Red Sox player for life. He was one of us.

But somewhere along the way, baseball changed. As I grew into a teenager, and life became more complicated, so did baseball. It began to lose its innocence. A court ruled that players could be "free agents" to market their skills, and it wasn't so common thereafter for players to stay in one place. And the owners, hungry for even greater profit, began tinkering with the rules.

They separated teams into two, and ultimately three, divisions in each league to increase the number of high-revenue playoff games. They invented the designated hitter rule, to increase the number of home runs. They lowered the height of the pitching mound to increase the number of runs scored. They virtually doubled the size of team rosters for the annual All-Star Game. They added wild-card playoff teams, smaller strike zones, and --- worst of all --- tacitly encouraged the use of performance-enhancing steroids so that nearly every season, some buffed-up artificial hero would make a run at the "all-time" home run record and line their pockets with profit.

As baseball became polluted it no longer resembled the game I loved. So what if Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs? It wasn't the game Babe Ruth and Roger Maris played. It wasn't the game of Carl Yastrzemski or Billy Conigliaro. The records meant absolutely nothing. It would have been just as meaningful to compare McGwire's home runs to Jim Brown's touchdowns.

I protested against the game's changes, and friends called me a "purist." While the unquestioning herd of America's baseball fans continued to do the things their fathers and grandfathers taught them, I just felt sickened. Somewhere in the mid-1990s I stopped watching baseball altogether.

It's difficult to blame Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire for accepting the owners' invitation to wear Superman suits and live as heroes. But the steroid-built players, and not the owners, will be convicted of federal crimes.

This great American tragedy, the willful destruction of our beautiful game by profit-hungry owners, is in some ways an X-ray of our entire society. I think of the Wall Street speculations that caused our national recession and I see the same characteristics. Eight million jobs and nine million homes were devoured --- yet the profiteers escaped accountability altogether. They, too, tinkered with the rules. They were every bit as aware of the inevitable consequences, but they didn't care. The priority was profit --- and not long-term profit that benefits everyone, but short-term profit that benefited only themselves, and brought serious harm to everyone else.

I'm happy that steroids have been eliminated from baseball. I can actually watch an occasional game without feeling nauseous. And I'm happy with the new financial reforms.

But I know, in Wall Street, in baseball, in corporations all over the country ---- the disease remains and will always remain. For me, baseball is permanently crippled. It can never be what it was, all those years ago, when Billy Rohr took the mound and Carl Yastrzemski arched his mighty bat.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Cross-Burnings and Misty Miracles

"Racism isn't born, folks, it's taught. I have a two-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps!" - comedian Dennis Leary

In October, 2004, police officers in Middletown, Ohio were called to a fire at an apartment complex on Oneka Avenue. When they arrived they found a burning cross, planted on the apartment grounds in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. The incident electrified the news media all over the state, and even outside Ohio.

I was the City Prosecutor, and this is my story.

A month or so prior to this event I was sitting in my office on a Tuesday afternoon doing weekly "warrant duty." Once a week we opened the office to permit complainants to make their case and issue an arrest warrant against someone who, they said, had done them harm.

The most regular visitors were businessmen who wanted to arrest someone for bouncing a check. (I really hated doing that, but that's a subject for another blog.) Most of the others had already called the police without achieving, to their way of thinking, a satisfactory result. So they came once a week to persuade me to arrest their ex-husband, their neighbor, their boss, whomever. For me, Tuesday afternoons were difficult duty. Perhaps once or twice a month I found sufficient evidence to arrest someone, but usually I had to say "no."

On this particular afternoon in September, an attractive middle-aged mother arrived with her young daughter. They patiently waited their turn on the bench outside my office, and when called they sat down in front of my desk. Mrs. Miracle, a 40-ish blond-haired, polite and well-spoken woman, told me that her 19 year old daughter Misty was being harassed by an African-American family who lived a few blocks away. I questioned Misty as to the evidence of harassment. "Were you assaulted?" No. "Were there any witnesses to the harassment?" A cousin. "Did the harasser track you down somewhere, follow you around, etc?" No.

I liked Misty. She was pretty, smiled and laughed easily --- she could have been your favorite dental assistant, or your favorite waitress at your favorite restaurant. But there was insufficient evidence of criminal wrongdoing, and I sent her away disappointed.

A few weeks later, I learned that Misty had been arrested for assaulting a juvenile. The day after that the cross burned, and the primary suspect was Misty's father. Michael Miracle and four other males were fugitives for a short while but ultimately were arrested and prosecuted. Misty was not present at the scene.

Middletown is a very typical medium-sized American city, with 50,000 residents, about 14% of which are minorities. The poorest residents tend to live in neighborhoods clearly delineated by color, and the street Misty lived on (Mohawk Street) defined the "boundary" between Caucasian and minority neighborhoods.

The burning cross inflamed the African-American community. Racial tensions frayed the nerves of nearly everyone in the city during the period between Misty's arrest and her trial date. On the date of her trial some of the cross-burning fugitives were still at large. The place was a barrel filled with dry gunpowder, but fortunately --- and to the great credit of all of Middletown's residents, and most particularly the ministers and other leaders of the African-American community ---- nobody lit a match. They believed in the system and wanted to see it work.

Misty's trial date arrived and the small courtroom was packed, with TV cameras, media, and community leaders. As I remember, the facts of the case were these: Misty was standing in the front yard of her home with two girlfriends, when a 15 year old African-American girl riding her bicycle turned onto Mohawk Street. Misty walked out into the street and confronted the girl, slapped her a few times, and the juvenile victim rode away. The victim was not seriously injured.

It wasn't exactly the crime of the century but for its bearing on racial tensions. It wasn't exactly a difficult legal case; the facts were well-supported. Yet still, I was more nervous prosecuting this case than any other.

For some reason, Misty's attorney permitted her to take the stand. Generally that amounts to bad courtroom tactics because the playing field belongs to the attorneys. The defendant doesn't get to say whatever it is he or she wishes to say. Attorneys during cross-examination are permitted to ask "leading questions"; i.e., simple questions which have a "yes" or "no" answer. For example, "You walked out into the middle of Mohawk Street, correct?" "And your purpose in walking out into the street was to confront the 15 year old victim on her bicycle, correct?"

Defendants can never win that argument. Perhaps Misty's defense attorney considered, with Misty's case being hopeless anyway, her bearing and personality would win sympathy from the court.

So I began a dispassionate, legally accurate cross-examination of Misty Miracle and the courtroom turned deathly quiet. I heard cameras whirring; I could hear Misty breathing as I examined my notes. I asked the questions necessary to cover the elements of the crime, and received the expected answers. Everything that had to be done, was done.

But something was missing. I found myself --- and this is not to my credit at all as an attorney, who should always remain cold and detached --- I found myself drifting into normal conversation with Misty.

"Misty, why .... why did you walk out into the street when you saw this girl?"

"Well she was in my neighborhood. She was on my street", she answered.

And then, in what may remain as the only Perry Mason moment of my career, I responded --- and sensing I hadn't said it just right, repeated more accurately ....

"Maybe she had a reason to be on your street. Maybe she had a right to be on your street!"

Misty was quiet. The courtroom was still. "No further questions, Your Honor."

The Judge passed sentence. He gave her the maximum 180 days in jail. And she served every last day. On the facts of the case she didn't deserve anything like that. She deserved maybe 3 days in comparison to other offenders, or perhaps a few days more because the victim was a juvenile. I don't suppose for a moment that she ever said, "Dad, will you please go burn a cross in that girl's front yard?" But when your actions, inadvertently or negligently, cause an entire city to fly to arms, you can't quibble about the length of your sentence.

Misty was demolished on the witness stand, and relative peace returned to Middletown. As the courtroom emptied and I collected my papers, I felt only sadness. People lined up to "congratulate" me. Pffft. I knew that I had done my job; I knew that the media and the community heard what they wanted to hear. But I thought only of poor Misty Miracle, serving 180 days in the Middletown jail.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Hitler's Willing Executioners

"In order to rally people, governments need enemies. They want us to be afraid, to hate....and if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one." - Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese monk

In 1996 a Harvard professor named Daniel Goldhagen published a ground breaking book that shocked the national conscience of Germany. Hitler's Willing Executioners exploded many existing myths about the holocaust; e.g., that it was primarily Hitler's doing, that only SS soldiers were involved in executions, that ordinary Germans were oblivious to the holocaust, etc. Goldhagen provided conclusive evidence that at least tens of thousands, and perhaps more, "ordinary Germans" who were not even Nazis were actively involved in the extermination of Jews. The offensive against Jews in Germany arose from deep economic duress, and the herd-like instinct of "ordinary Germans" to first identify, and then gradually eliminate, its source.

I won't republish the whole book, but click this link to order it at Amazon for $12.

My first exposure to the book was during graduate studies in history at Wright State University. It shocked me. It changed my perception about the world around me, about the consequences of seemingly harmless political behavior, about the consequences of my own acts and decisions. It caused me to understand that one can not haphazardly toss a pebble onto a snowy mountain and expect to avoid the avalanche.

The first question that springs to one's attention upon reading this is, was Germany so different? Were Germans so different? Of course, the frightening answer to these questions is "no." Germany was a civilized, technological, Christian society --- just as we are. Germany was also a democracy, as we are.

The Holocaust did not begin with gas chambers. The Holocaust began, first, with
government-sponsored identification of a minority group as the root cause of economic duress. The next stage was legislation ---- first, legislation designed to marginalize the minority; second, legislation to deport the minority; third, legislation to criminalize the minority; fourth, legislation to imprison the minority.

And came, finally, extermination.

The second question that logically follows is, are there parallels in American society to German society in the 20s and 30s? And the answer, as frightening and incomprehensible as it may be, is "yes."

Is the United States under economic duress?

Has the government sponsored the identification of a certain minority as the root cause of the duress?

Has the government legislated to marginalize the minority?

Has the government legislated to deport the minority?

Has the government legislated to criminalize the minority?

Has the government legislated to imprison the minority?

As I ponder the right and wrong of these questions, I'm left with one solitary pillar of hope for the United States, and that is ---- Arizona is not the federal government. But for my money, Arizona voters ---- left to their own devices ---- are no different than "ordinary Germans."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Battle for New Rome

"You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time." - Jim Bouton, former pitcher for the New York Yankees.

For three decades I lived in the military world. For nearly two of those I was called a soldier. Occasionally I accepted dangerous tasks and even played a small role in a long-forgotten war. But I wasn't a warrior until I came to New Rome.

I lived in a bubble for most of my life, growing up as an Army brat and subsequently serving in the Air Force until my retirement at the age of 36. The contrast between the military world and the "real world" is staggering, and making the adjustment is a Herculean challenge. I've discussed this problem many times with ex-military friends and coworkers, and few of them made the transition easily.

The closed, patriarchical military world is an artificial world, but if you're inside of it you don't know it. For instance, the faux aristocracy of it seems perfectly normal when other people salute and call you "Sir" because you have a bachelor's degree. It seems normal to give orders and have them obeyed. It seems normal that in the military there is virtually no racism. It seems normal to receive a regular paycheck, an extra allowance for dependents, free health care, 30 days of paid vacation, and never worry about losing your job.

It seems perfectly normal to celebrate "promotions" when virtually everyone is promoted. It seems normal to stand at attention while someone pins medals and bright ribbons on your chest merely because you did your job or rifled 90% of your M-16 rounds through a target. It seems normal to receive "outstanding" performance appraisals, yet still be indistinguishable from your peers. And also, it seems normal for you and everyone else to behave in a generally virtuous manner.

In short, life in the military is safe, while life in the "real world" is dangerous.

It reminds me a bit of the Red Cross swimming class I took as a child. Those of us on Station Two at the shallow end of the pool, learning how to hold our breath for 20 seconds, were having a lot more fun than the kids on Station Ten or Twelve learning the Butterfly Stroke. They were at the deep end of the pool and they were all deadly serious.

Swimming at the deep end in the great pool of life tends to make some people more active, more carnivorous, and more corrupt. The great predators don't waste their time in shallow water. They are large and powerful, swim at great speeds, and do not slow down to accommodate others.

One of my first lessons at the deep end occurred upon entering the legal profession at the age of 44. There was a curious little hamlet named New Rome, located along a thousand feet of U.S. 40 --- the old "National Road" --- on the southwest edge of Columbus, Ohio. Despite its miniature size (or perhaps because of it), New Rome had a longstanding and well-earned reputation as a speed trap. I lived nearby in Hilliard but paid little attention to the goings-on next door. I, and most other drivers in Columbus, knew well enough to avoid U.S. 40.

New Rome had a total population of 60, which included 27 households. Of these, 14 were the homes of New Rome police officers. Most of the others were the homes of councilmembers and other city officials. Year after year, the fourteen police officers turned over $400,000 annually ---- more than $1000 per day ---- in traffic citations along their quarter-mile stretch of a single road.

One morning in January, 2003, I picked up a Columbus Dispatch newspaper containing an article which stirred me to act. New Rome police officers appeared without notice at an elementary school outside of New Rome, and demanded access to the private school records of two small children. They showed a criminal subpoena, and the records were surrendered.

The children happened to be the grandchildren of Ed Anthony, a barber and newly elected New Rome councilmember. Mr. Anthony was apparently the lone honest resident of New Rome, and he was determined to make the police force accountable. He was sufficiently discreet not to voice his platform prior to the election, but immediately upon taking office he demanded access to the city's books and declared his intent to "clean up" the local government and police force.

New Rome responded with their raid on the school records, which they hoped would show ---- through the childrens' emergency notification cards ---- that Mr. Anthony had a residence outside of New Rome, which they could argue was his primary address and thereby call into question his New Rome residency.

After reading the article I emailed the journalist who broke the story, and promised to represent Mr. Anthony at no cost if he wanted to fight back. Mr. Anthony called that afternoon and signed me up.

This was my very first case; I had nary a client, had never conducted a media interview, nor ever appeared in a courtroom as an attorney. But I was full of self-confidence and somehow felt obliged to dive into deep water and confront the predators from New Rome.

To acquire the subpoena, the New Rome police visited a Franklin County judge and made false criminal accusations against Mr. Anthony. One weakness of our criminal justice system is that judges, who may sign 20 subpoenas a day, do not have time to question or investigate the veracity of police officers. In my experience (including two years' experience as a City Prosecutor), the veracity of police officers is no more reliable than the veracity of anyone else. Yet judges must believe every word. They do not have the time or resources to do otherwise, and our system would grind to a halt if they did.

So I spent the next week in the law library, reading every case and legal code I could find related to criminal subpoenas and the police power. After another two or three days of writing I filed a Motion to Quash, supported by a 25-page legal brief, and demanded a court date with the Judge who had signed the subpoena. My filing created a big splash in the media, who loved nothing more than an excuse to write about New Rome. I was interviewed on the local news and for a brief period was a minor celebrity.

At last, the appointed hour arrived for me to make my first appearance as an attorney. Before the hearing, however, the court bailiff ushered me into chambers where I was introduced to the Judge, the New Rome City Attorney, and another high-powered attorney representing the School Board (who were concerned at their liability for illegally turning over private school records).

The Judge gave me the floor and I made my argument, citing case law from the Ohio Supreme Court and constitutional law and legislative intent and every other legal tool I remembered from law school. After ten minutes I was finished, and the Judge looked over to the New Rome City Attorney. It wasn't until that moment that I was struck with the sheer audacity of my counterattack, being a fresh fat whale in a pool of high-powered sharks.

But New Rome had no response. My argument was a winning argument, as I knew it would be. He conceded on the spot and signed an agreement to quash the subpoena without arguing the point in Court, thus ending the impeachment of Mr. Anthony as councilmember.

The drama, however, continued. Mr. Anthony asked me to sue New Rome and the School Board, if possible, and referred me to a local attorney who offered to assist with his law library and other resources. The attorney was a former police officer who had gone to law school and acquired his bar license. He was friendly at our first meeting and I treated him as I would have treated a higher-ranking military officer.

A few days later I received a phone call from my new attorney friend. He told me bluntly that I was too "green" to handle the case and demanded that I withdraw as Mr. Anthony's attorney.

To say that I was surprised would be an understatement. I thanked him for his opinion and declined to withdraw, and he suddenly flew into a rage. He said, "I'm coming over there to kick your ass!" I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I thought perhaps I had misunderstood, and said, "You're going to beat me up???" He said, "Fuck yeah!!"

Well there was no misunderstanding that. I laughed, told him to do whatever he needed to do, and hung up. I wasn't afraid as much as I was completely and totally stupified. This man wasn't merely an experienced attorney ---- he was a former police officer. At that moment it seemed that all of the years I spent in the shallow water of military life, all of the decades of respecting institutions and honoring the people in them, the whole product of 44 years of living ---- suddenly exploded. The "real world" was nothing at all like the one I had known in the military, a point since confirmed by other experiences on literally dozens of occasions.

Two days later Mr. Anthony called to tell me was replacing me with my antagonist, and two weeks after that I moved to Dayton.

The village of New Rome was dissolved later that year when the Attorney General of Ohio introduced to the General Assembly one of the most unique laws in the history of representative goverment. The particulars of the bill ---- which passed and became law ---- provided for the dissolution of any incorporated village in Ohio with fewer than 150 residents, which provided few or no public services, and had a "pattern of wrongdoing or incompetence."

I like to think that I was a soldier in the Battle for New Rome. Another soldier, certainly, was the brave and virtuous barber, Ed Anthony. Another was a certain web genius whose sister was victimized in New Rome, and who subsequently published a website to keep New Rome in the public eye ---- a website you can visit here:

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Ballad of K.D. Hubbard

"We're in the butt-kicking business, and business is very, very good." - former NBA star Charles Barkley.

I learned some frightening things about human behavior during my time as City Prosecutor in Middletown, Ohio. Perhaps the most frightening thing I learned is that there isn't a damned thing that distinguishes criminals from other people, save access to an education or other forms of wealth. Crimes are committed by perfectly normal people, and not by aliens or animals. They are mostly committed by desperate people who believe they have no other option, but they are also committed by angry people who were themselves victims --- sometimes the victims of other criminals but also the victims of a system that seems to give them no chance.

From July, 2004 through May, 2006, five murderers were arraigned in my courtroom. Five handcuffed murderers walked through the tiny door leading from the jail cell into the courtroom wearing their orange jail jumpsuits, and took their places a few feet away from me.

I looked all five of them straight in the eye. I couldn't help myself. None of the five returned my gaze, but I somehow wanted to understand if I had anything in common with these people. The frightening truth was, I had everything in common with them except that I was wearing a pleated suit and was not handcuffed.

Municipal Courts in Ohio are almost a cattle-call. Business is brisk. In our court we processed up to 80 new cases a day, three days a week. Now obviously the jails in Ohio aren't large enough to accept 250 new residents from every city, every week and so our judge ---- a wonderful man named Mark Wall ---- had to walk the fine line of filling them up just enough with the worst offenders to appease the voting public, while lecturing and encouraging the others.

Jail crowding has not influenced the behavior of Ohio's politicians in the General Assembly. You can catch them at their daily grind five days a week on public television, and each session is dominated by the huff and puff and hot air of politicos doing their best to appear "tough on crime." I'm really too sick of the proceedings to watch anymore. The last session I saw featured a 45-minute diatribe from one lawmaker who wanted to upgrade cock fighting to a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail. Of course, nobody debated him or offered an opposing view. I imagine the measure passed although I didn't stick around to watch the vote. Nobody stands up for the sub-class of human society called "criminals."

Somewhere along the way in the history of Ohio's General Assembly, a lawmaker introduced a bill to upgrade the heinous crime of driving without car insurance to a first-degree misdemeanor. As a prosecutor in Ohio, this is probably the most commonly-charged offense that will bring people into your courtroom. In Middletown we had to allot a special afternoon twice a month just to deal with these cases.

Now we couldn't put these people in jail. There wasn't room. If we put one of these people in jail, we had to release someone else who was almost certainly more dangerous. So .... you bring them in twice a month to ask if they've made any progress on car insurance.

Unfortunately, this is not a simple matter. When I left the job in 2006, the fee from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to reinstate a driver's license was $625. I'm sure the fee is higher now, and the fee is assessed in addition to other costs associated with licensing and registering and insuring and blah, blah, blah......

I'm not even sure why we need a Bureau of Motor Vehicles. A lot of people earn a living in the belly of that government whale. But what do they contribute to society? A hundred years ago people rode around on horses and nobody needed a license. I've tried riding a horse and it's a damned sight more difficult than driving a car. But whatever, I don't make the rules....

The simple fact is, poor people can't find jobs in Ohio and they can't afford to drive. Even worse, there are only six buses in Middletown and they are not all in service at any one time. So, in Middletown a total of maybe 150 people ---- in a city of over 50,000 ---- can actually get anywhere without driving.

We had one amiable fellow who showed up in the courtroom every few weeks, charged with driving without car insurance. I remember him distinctly, for reasons that will become clear later. I saw him at least a dozen times myself in two years, and probably he was charged as frequently all the other adult years of his life before I arrived, so the Judge knew him a lot better than I did. His name was K.D. Hubbard and he was certainly not unusual. We had many, many "criminals" charged a dozen times or more with this crime in the short period I worked there.

The Monday morning routine for K.D. Hubbard was invariably the same. The Judge would greet him with, "K.D., what are we going to do with you?" And K.D., genuinely contrite and embarrassed, would say with a smile "I don't know, Judge. I'm awfully sorry. You should probably lock me up. I can't find a job." And the morning would end with Judge Wall encouraging K.D. to do his best and not come back anymore.

After one such morning at the end of arraignments, I was walking out to my car in the parking lot for lunch and passed K.D., who was standing on the curb, freshly released from jail, apparently waiting for a ride. He saw me and said as I passed, "Hey, Mister Prosecutor, can I give you a ride?"

I laughed. I couldn't help it. He was making a joke. He knew and I knew and every cop in Middletown knew that K.D. was too poor to drive.

The next time I saw K.D. Hubbard in my courtroom, he was charged with murder. Someone paid him $40,000 to befriend a competing drug dealer and shoot him in the back of the head.

Now I like to tell myself that there is no circumstance, no feeling of desperation sufficiently powerful, that would ever cause me to put a gun to someone's head and pull the trigger ---- even if that person was a drug dealer; even if the government called him a "terrorist"; even with the bestest-most-irrefutably-inarguable "right excuse." This is what I tell myself.

But I'm not in K.D. Hubbard's shoes. $40,000 to K.D. might just as well have been $100 million. He would never see that much money in any other way in his life. So, for $40,000 K.D. shot someone in the back of the head and showed up in my courtroom as one of the five murderers I came to know.

He faced the death penalty, but the court decided that since the person who hired him didn't get the death penalty, K.D. shouldn't get it either. So he will spend the rest of his life in prison .... forgotten, reviled, and disposed.

K.D. Hubbard was certainly wrong for what he did and there is no excusing it. But K.D. Hubbard was also entrenched in the gruesome battle against poverty that is perfectly invisible to so many Americans. One person who was not in that battle was the Ohio lawmaker, whoever he was, whose Mommy and Daddy sent him to college and who suckled the government mammary his whole life, and was sufficiently clever to upgrade the penalty for driving without car insurance to advance his own career.

I tell this story to encourage you to think twice, the next time you're tempted to vote for a "tough on crime" politician. They don't actually care; they just know how to work the system.