Friday, October 8, 2010

Phelps is disgusting, but should receive our support

Pastor Fred W. Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church has it all wrong.

Young men that are fighting in foreign wars are not dying because the country allowed “fags” into the military. They are dying because that is what happens in war. Catholics are not “satanic”, its past has a straight line connection to Jesus Christ. (I am Catholic and it is my chosen religion). Divorced parents do not teach their children by their action to “defy [their] creator.” There can be no love for Hitler or breast cancer even though Pastor Phelps and his followers have said so verbally and in writing.

But, Evelyn Beatrice Hall has it right (or Votaire, or Paine or who ever else you may attribute it to). To paraphrase her, I disagree to the point of disgust with what Phelps says, but he does have the right to say it.

Albert Snyder, on the other side of the argument, believes that Phelps should not be able to say what he does because it caused him emotional distress.

He is the father of Lance Cpl. Mathew A. Snyder, 20, who died in a Humvee accident in Iraq on March 3, 2006. A week later, a funeral mass was held for him at St. John’s Roman Catholic Church in Westminster, Maryland. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas protested the funeral with signs that said all the things listed above and more. It was a cruel and obscene way for the congregation to express its political and religious beliefs. Later, an essay was posted on line by Phelps’ daughter continuing the cruel expression of their beliefs, mostly against Lance Cpl. Snyder.

Albert Snyder admits that he didn’t see the protesters at the church or at the grave site where his son was buried. It wasn’t until much later that he was on line and discovered the essay about his son. He then sued the pastor and the church for the distress that they caused. A lower court ruled in Snyder’s favor, but an appeals court reversed. Snyder took the case to the Supreme Court. The court heard the oral arguments this week.

The protestors obeyed all the laws of Maryland. They kept their distance from the church and the grave site as outline by law. (They did this, because there are limits on free speech, as with any right. The grave site was a public sitting and could be argued that they had a right to be on site during the funeral, but stayed off the property. But, please do not take this as being understanding of the protesters.)

Snyder didn’t see the protesters at any time. There was no physical or financial harm done to Snyder. His oral argument in court was focused on the emotional harm that was done by reading the things the church sponsored. After reading much of the material, it is not difficult to understand Snyder’s pain.

As truly whacky and indefensible as Pastor Fred W. Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church are, they do have the right to express their political and religious beliefs. They didn’t cause any practical damage to Snyder and by obeying the laws of Maryland on protests they didn’t interfere with the safety and order of the community.

To return to Hall’s quote, it would be difficult for the Supreme Court to rule any other way other then expressing their disgust with the church even though they support their right to say it.

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Let's seek justice in our need for closure

It is being proposed by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy that new evidence that may free a convicted criminal in Michigan be presented before the one year anniversary of the conviction. After that, a claim can not be filed if the exculpatory evidence would have been discovered if the convict’s lawyer had done a good job.


Ask Dwayne Provience what this would have meant to him. He was convicted in 2001 of killing Rene Hunter on a crowded intersection in northwest Detroit. There where plenty of witnesses at the time of the shooting. One of the witnesses was an off duty police officer. None of the witnesses were called by Provience’s lawyer, who has since been disbarred. A memo in police files that pointed to a drug gang as the likely killers wasn’t discovered until 8 years later, then only by accident.

It is an arguable point that even if the new rules were in place a court would still consider the new evidence. But, for some people who trust their lawyers but find they do a terrible job, the rule changes would cancel all hope.

Worthy’s argument is that our system of justice needs finality. When someone is convicted, the public needs to have closure on the issue. She also argues that by allowing appeals to extend into the future endlessly, it pulls resources away from current cases.

Worthy is right about the need for finality. If the appeals are based on procedure instead of evidence, a one year cut off could be appropriate. After examining the proceedings of any case for a year, we should be certain about the conviction. This would save valuable resources for current cases, especially when budgets are stressed because of an economic down turn.

New exculpatory evidence should be treated differently, even after many years. If the evidence is minor and doesn’t challenge any of the other evidence or circumstances, a quick examination would dispense with it. In the case of Provience, when the witnesses and evidence never came to light in court because of a bad lawyer, to continue to hold him without a close look would be a crime in itself.

Yes, the community needs finality about specific convictions. The closure that a conviction brings provides relief to the grieving and security to the rest of us. But, by allowing a case to be challenged with new evidence also gives us the certainty that if we as a community do happen to make a mistake we can correct it.

This is justice.

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Monday, October 4, 2010

The community must accept people for what they are

Last week, New York policed pulled the body of Tyler Clementi out of the water. A few days before, he had committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Clementi was a student at Rutgers University. His roommate secretly taped an intimate encounter Clementi had with another male. His roommate then posted the tape on YouTube for the world to see. Clementi had been outed without his consent.


Tyler Clementi was someone who had a lot to contribute to the community. He was accepted in one of the toughest academic schools in the country. He was an accomplished violin player that held a lot of promise for the future.

The discussion on line and in the media has been about the violation of Clementi’s privacy. He had asked his roommate, Dharun Ravi, if he could be alone in the dorm room one evening until midnight. Ravi agreed, but didn’t tell Clementi that he had left his camera on in the room to tape the activity that took place. Ravi went to his friend’s room, Molly Wei, and started taping. After, the pair tweeted about the video and posted it on line. This is clearly a violation of Clementi’s privacy because he had requested the time alone and Ravi agreed.

But, that there something more fundamental about this story that is being over looked.

In the United States we vilify gays politically, socially and culturally. We leave little room for those that are gay to find any peace with their nature. Even the strongest and most confident gay individual who is out can find difficulty in many situations.

Straight individuals rarely find their sexual preference an issue. When they do, sexual harassment laws protect them in their job, housing and in other situations they may find themselves in. Gay’s do not receive the same universal protection.

Culturally and socially, where attitudes are out of the reach of laws, gays find themselves as close to evil as can be. They are harassed and bullied into submission, to the point that they stay closeted. Many stay in the closet for years if not a life time for fear of being shunned by the world around them.

It is no wonder that Clementi found himself in a trap that he could find no way out. Not knowing enough about him and the environment he lived in it is difficult to place blame. He was, though, an individual that only needed a little push to fall off the edge. Perhaps, family, friends, roommates and others in the world around him failed him in varying degrees.

But, culturally, we must also accept some of the blame. We must treat all people with respect and accept them based on their contribution to the community. If not, there will be more Clementi’s.

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