Capital Punishment and State Power

I really hadn’t intended on writing about the death penalty for awhile, since it tends to be one of those polarizing issues that people tend to talk past each other over. But Seth Dillingham today linked to an article about a distant relative who is going to be executed in Texas which highlights the problems with capital punishments.

I think we can all agree that the convicted killer Jeffrey Dillingham is not the sort of person who should be released back into society anytime soon. Jeffrey was one of three people in a murder-for-hire scheme concocted by the daughter of a wealthy man who wanted her inheritance a bit early. Along with a friend of his, Brian Salter, Jeffrey Dillingham broke into a house, beat to death 40-year old Caren Koslow, and almost beat to death 48-year old Jack Koslow. A despicable act. You can even understand the emotions that went through Jack Koslow at the trial of his daughter Kristi, who masterminded the murder — distraught over the death of his wife, he urged the court to sentence his daughter to death for her part in the crime.

Does the state have the right to kill Jeffrey Dillingham? I don’t think so.


First, the moral authority that the state has derives from the moral authority that individuals collectively have — which also means that the state is limited by the moral authority that individuals collectively have. Jack Koslow was found unconscious at his house, but imagine that he had regained his consciousness with the killers in his house and managed to grab a gun and turn the tables on his would-be killers. Suppose, finding his wife dead, Jack Koslow tied up his assailants and shot them each in the head, and then dispatched his daughter. In this imaginary scenario, Jack Koslow himself would be in jail for first degree, premeditated murder, and he would be denounced as a vigilante.

If it is morally wrong for an individual or group of individuals to kill an unarmed person, it does not suddenly become morally permissible just because those people go into a jury room and come back and pass the job of actually doing the killing onto the state of Texas.

Consider how different the moral case is for simply jailing Jeffrey Dillingham for the rest of his life. Suppose Koslow disarms and subdues his assailants, but finds his phone service has been disconnected by the intruders. Fearful that the criminals might escape, Koslow locks them securely in his basement, tied up, while he goes next door to call police. Certainly Koslow has the right to lock up his criminal assailants for as long as necessary for his own protection. Similarly the state has a right to act on behalf of everyone in society to lock up criminals and exclude them from society both for our protection and as a just form of punishment.

But why not just give the state the power to do things that we all agree would be immoral if individuals or groups of individuals did on their own? Well, we can look at the results because that idea forms a set of legal principles called sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity originated as the right of kings — since kings were, at least theoretically, the source of all laws under monarchies, it followed that whatever the king chose to do was by definition legal. It was considered literally impossible for the king to commit a crime.

Now obviously, this sort of principle was never adhered to exactly though the rights of royalty in monarchies until very recently were extremely broad. Unfortunately this idea carried over into the democracies that emerged from these monarchies and is, in fact, a well worn principle in the United States. Sovereign immunity is the reason, for example, that when Firestone makes tires that are allegedly unsafe, people can and do sue them. When the government passes fuel mileage standards that, according to a recent Harvard study, cause several thousand additional deaths each year, however, don’t even think about suing the government. The case will be thrown out without a second hearing on grounds of sovereign immunity.

In his recent book, Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion and Abuse of Government Power in the Gore Years, James Bovard noted the extraordinary claim made by the Justice Department after the Ruby Ridge fiasco in which FBI agents used unconstitutional rules of engagement to shoot any armed individual on sight.

After investigating the shooting, an Idaho prosecutor indicted an FBI sharpshooter who had shot and killed an unarmed woman. Justice Department lawyers actually argued in federal court that federal agents were immune from state or local prosecution for any alleged crimes they committed while acting in their role as federal agents. The scary thing is that the federal judge agreed that as long as a federal agent had a “reasonable belief” that he was acting legally on orders from superiors, any alleged crimes he committed could not be prosecuted by state or local authorities.

As Bovard writes of the Clinton administration — and you could substitute pretty much most every other presidential administration this century,

Another Clinton legacy is a two-class system in America: those whom the law fails to restrain, and those who it fails to protect; those above the law, and those below it; those for whom there is “not controlling legal authority,” in Vice President Gore’s famous words, and those for whom there are few, if any, constitutional protections. … The notion that “the king can do no wrong” permeated the Clinton administration’s legal and public relations defense strategies.

Conversant and a Common Problem with Dynamic Sites

Tim Perdue has written a short article on overcoming a common problem with dynamic web serving systems — in his case PHPBuilder. The problem is that dynamic, database driven sites tend to end up with a lot of stuff in the URL (usually question marks and ampersands) that prevent search engines from indexing them properly. Most search engines hit an ampersand or question mark in a URL and just move on without indexing. For most such content systems you have to find a workaround like Perdue has with PHPBuilder.

One of the things I like about Conversant is that I never run into this problem. The only area where I ever see question marks and ampersands is when running search queries, and it’s even relatively easy to set up a specific search query that could be indexed. For example, is a hard coded search query that returns every new message posted within the past two weeks and sorts them in reverse chronological order (most recent message first). And it does it with no ampersands or question marks and took about 10 minutes to configure, with most of that being my tampering with the HTML template for the returned results.

Just another example of how thoroughly the good folks at Macrobyte really have wrapped their heads around the issues and problems confronting people who want to manage complicated web sites but don’t have piles of cash just lying around to blow on excessively expensive content management systems or a technical support person to get something like PHPBuilder or Zope or whatever running and updated.

MathWorld’s Copyright Problems.

The O’Reilly Network recently featured an article by John McDonald, Treasure Trove Looted, which shed some light on situation surrounding Eric Weisstein’s MathWorld. I had heard the problems involved copyright issues, but assumed they involved the sort of copyright issues that are more common with the Internet where copyrighted material gets posted on a web site. In this case, though, the problem is far more complex and contains a great lesson for authors.

It seems that Weisstein’s site, which contained a lot of valuable information about math-related topics, became so successful that he successfully pitched a book proposal to CRC Press and much of the content Weisstein wrote for the web site became a book, The CRC Concise Encyclopedia of Mathematics.

Here’s where it starts to get weird. After publishing the book, CRC Press informed Weisstein that its contract with him clearly granted CRC Press ownership of any derivative works, and the web site was just such a derivative work. After some back and forth, the site is completely shut down as of this writing. In effect, CRC Press maintains they bought the copyright not to just the book, but to the web site as well, and they don’t want the web site competing with the book.

First, the logic here is completely backward. The web site will only promote sales of the book. Since there is still no good way to electronically access reference materials consistently, its unlikely the existence of the web pages would have cut into sales the book (more likely fans of the site would have made up a substantial number of the book’s buyers).

Second, Weisstein apparently made a huge mistake by not making sure the web site wasn’t considered a derivative work before he signed his publishing contract. I mean I don’t know about you, but if Random House calls and tells me they want me to write a book about overpopulation based on my web site, the first thing I’d want is my lawyer and their lawyers coming to an agreement that the book contract wouldn’t affect the copyright of the web site.

In fact a couple years ago when I was contacted by a publisher who bought the rights to republish an essay I’d written for one of my web sites, I made darn sure that they were not purchasing the copyright as well and my future use of the essay would not be restricted in any way.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve stopped working for companies that wanted me to sign away more of the rights for my writing than I was willing to do. Some people I know have looked at me a bit skeptically when I’ve mentioned this, considering it an overreaction on my part. On the other hand it’s cases like Weisstein’s that show just how important it is to understand the legal ramifications of what you’re doing before you sign any sort of publishing contract.

Why the Sega Rumors Are Probably True

PC Gamer is just one of several game news outlets reporting rumors that Sega is going to manufacture a PCI card that will allow people to play Dreamcast games on their computers. A lot of people think this rumor almost has to be false since the Dreamcast uses a proprietary optical disc format (although the copy protection on it was hacked awhile ago).

Here’s why I think the rumors are probably true: this would be an incredibly stupid move by a company, Sega, that has a long history of making incredibly stupid moves. Oh yeah, I would want to buy a Dreamcast PCI card so I could play the Dreamcast port of Unreal: Tournament rather than the PC version. Or maybe PC gamers are dying to ditch The Sims to play Seaman? Such a move would be crazy given that the console and PC games really service different markets — which is precisely why I would bet anything the folks at Sega are seriously considering it (btw, I’m not a PC snob and own several console systems; it’s just that the console is very good at what it does and PC games are good at what they do, and the result is usually a waste of time and money when companies try to bridge the two).

More Death from Above

On Friday astronomer said they had identified a suspected asteroid that had a 1 in 500 chance of hitting the Earth in 2030, but today they apparently downgraded the risk saying that the object would actually miss the Earth by about 3 million miles and was no longer considered a serious threat.

After 2030, though, the picture might not be so rosey. For a 2071 flyby the risks of a collision could be as high as 1 in 1,000.

And just so you know how little we know about near earth asteroids — nobody’s even sure the object really is an asteroid. There’s apparently some suspicion that it might just be an Apollo-era booster rocket!

Information on the original announcement can be found in the IAU Technical Review Team Assessment on Asteroid 2000 SG344, and a followup news story on MSNBC, Asteroid threat downgraded sums up the aftermath, including a stinging e-mail message from a scientist wondering why the IAU went public so early on such flimsy evidence.

$1 Billion for After-School Programs?

The U.S. Census Bureau released a study last month suggesting that, in 1995, 2.4 million children under the age of 12 were left home alone either before or after school. Of course you know what Bill Clinton’s answer is — lets spend $1 billion funding government after-school programs. Instead, how about reducing taxes so middle class families can spend more time with their kids.

And make no mistake this is definitely a middle class problem. Eleven percent of the children left home alone came from families who were at the poverty level, while 22 percent of the children came from families with incomes twice that of the poverty level. Some analysts interpreted this as meaning that cost was not an issue but missed the point.

As the data from the Census report indicate, families in poverty were less likely to leave children alone largely because one or both parents were not employed or in school and were available at home to watch children after they left school.

Cost of after school child placement is not the only factor that goes into deciding to allow children to be home alone, but it certainly is one of them. Rather than spending $1 billion dollars, why not simply lower taxes so that parents could arrange shorter or alternative work schedules that would allow them to spend more of their child’s after-school hours at home?

That wouldn’t satisfy the government’s need to insert itself in almost every aspect of life, but it might do a lot more to strengthen families than shipping kids off to government after school programs.


Millions of U.S. students home alone. CNN, October 31, 2000.