Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Brush with the American Legal System

I got sued. Number 3 Daughter, while driving my cherished Grand Cherokee, did something dumb and had a fender bender in a mall parking lot. I figured I was in trouble when the lady in the other car opted to go the hospital “just in case.”

Everything was quiet for three years and then the dreaded registered letters arrived with the news of a law suit being filed against my daughter, because she was driving the car, and your’s truly because it was my insurance policy and my car.

After cursing long and loudly I dumped the whole thing in the lap of my insurance company. This wasn’t the first time this had happened to me. I had gotten sued over a dumb left turn Number 1 Daughter had executed which had resulted in a far more serious accident. I mean, this one should be easy right? It was just a parking lot fender bender. WRONG!

About 10 months later we were sitting in an office taking depositions. The lawyer I got assigned from my insurance company was a West Point graduate named Dennis, a nice guy and a pretty good lawyer. The first case had never gotten this far and I sort of figured again that I was in big trouble when I saw that the opposing lawyer had photographs of the accident scene! I was immediately reminded of Alice’s Restaurant.

The deposition revealed that the lady whose car my daughter had chosen to bump into was what I can only describe as a medical marvel. This lady had more stuff wrong with her than religious fundamentalists have hang-ups. She knew more doctors than the capacity of Giant’s Stadium. The very day after the accident she had her foot operated on. Plus, she had several degenerative diseases.

What she was claiming was that the accident caused her to bang her head on the window and hurt her neck. Given her medical history I was flabbergasted she didn’t simply disintegrate. My lawyer and the insurance adjuster suspected that she was blaming the accident for a pre-existing condition. The fact that they were having trouble getting medical records sort of strengthened that suspicion. I just wanted the whole thing to go away.

Incredibly, sometime last December I got a letter that a trial date had been scheduled for June. That didn’t happen because of the aforementioned difficulty in obtaining medical records and the trial date was moved to September 17, 2007.

Now, I don’t know anything about court mechanics other than what you see on Law and Order is pretty much nonsense. I’ve never been on a jury because defense attorneys don’t seem to trust me for some reason and I’m usually the first guy they boot. As the fateful date approach I searched longingly for either a phone call or a letter telling me that the case had been settled and I was off the hook. Labor Day came and went so I decided I'd better call Dennis and find out what the hell was going on.

I managed to make contact on September 6th. After finding out that the trial was still on, but it wouldn’t be unusual for it to be settled the Friday before, I asked where exactly my daughter and I were supposed to be on the 17th and when. To this Dennis replied that we probably wouldn’t be needed on the 17th since it was only the first day. The first day? THE FIRST DAY!

Yup, apparently the medical marvel and her lawyer were seriously demanding the value of the insurance policy in compensation because they were claiming a permanent neck injury.

Note two things about the previous statement. The first is that we are talking about a boom-boom that both parties agree was at about 5 miles per hour and, more interestingly, we’re not talking about a specific amount, but the maximum on my insurance policy. That maximum happened to be $250,000. More about this maximum stuff later.

Clearly the problem was that my insurance company, who Dennis worked for full time, had no incentive to settle for their maximum liability. I got a call on September 11th from the office paralegal that the judge may have a conflict and the trial may be postponed.

By now things were starting to get scrunched and I’m trying to figure if I should think about re-arranging my business schedule and my daughter is trying to figure out if she would be able to accept some free lance work that might come her way during the week of the trial. Since you can’t really predict what’s going to happen, you get sort of paralyzed.

By Thursday the 13th I was starting to get really annoyed at everyone involved, the medical marvel, Dennis, the judge and even the para legal, but I couldn’t locate Dennis. Finally we touched base about 10 o’clock that night. Dennis had been unavailable because his father had to have an emergency bypass operation that day, but he had managed to gather some new information.

First, they had finally gotten all of the medical records by literally camping a private investigator at a doctor’s office. Second, as expected, the records showed some iffy stuff. Third, for the first time the insurance adjuster and the opposing attorney were talking directly and fourth, the judge was up for re-election and didn’t appear too interested in anything other than campaigning. What this all meant was that everything was pretty much still up in the air.

Friday and the weekend came and went with no news. Finally, on Monday the 17th, I got a call from Dennis that the case had been settled. Dennis said when he found out he had called every number he had for me including work, home, and my daughter’s cell. Like I said, Dennis is a nice guy.

They settled for $125,000. That’s a pretty big hunk of change but supposedly neck injuries average $200,000 to $250,000. Of course this is assuming she really had a neck injury caused by the accident.

A lot of things about this experience bother me. First of all is the length of time involved. It was three years from the accident to the notice of a law suit and then another two years to arrive at a trial date. When the accident occured my daughter was entering her senior year in High School. When it was settled she was a college graduate working free lance while searching for a permanent job.

The second is the implication that the suit was for the maximum on the policy. What would have happened if I only had $100,000 in liability? Would they have tried to get the additional $150,000 in the original claim from me? Clearly that would have been a harder sell to a jury then trying to collect from a perceived fat cat insurance company so I suspect the answer is they would have settled for the $100,000.

Then let’s talk about the $125,000. At least 33% of that goes to the lawyer after deducting for expenses. Dennis told me that the doctor they had lined up to testify was well known around the courtroom and didn’t come cheap. Even though he didn’t have to testify I sure they had to pay for consultations and so on and so forth. How much? $5,000 to $10,000 perhaps? If we assume only $5,000 in expenses to keep the arithmetic nice and even, that means $40,000 for the lawyer and $80,000 for the medical marvel. Too bad judgments from personal injury claims aren’t taxable.

Personally, I think the claim was nonsense. I base this conclusion upon the answers I heard, and the body language I saw, at the deposition. I’m not saying the lady doesn’t have neck or shoulder problems, she may even honestly believe that the accident was the cause, but in my opinion there isn't a snowball's chance in hell that they're related to the fender bender in the mall parking lot. I think Dennis and the insurance adjuster agree with me, but it just wasn’t worth the risk of letting this go to a jury because juries are too unpredictable.

If the statement “juries are too unpredictable” doesn’t bother you, it should. The only good news out of this whole affair is that Dennis’ dad came through the bypass surgery with flying colors and is well on the way to recovery.

Death Penalty Update

Two big events have occurred recently on the Death Penalty scene.

First, a U.S. District Court judge in Tennessee last week declared the method of lethal injection used in Tennessee to be unconstitutional. Second, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case from Kentucky which claims that lethal injection is Cruel and Unusual Punishment.

Despite the right wing character of the current court, there is some cause for optimism as the court has made it easier for inmates to contest lethal injection. I guess we shall see what we shall see.

To date there have been 41 executions in the United States this year, 25 of which have been in the state of Texas. There are another 12 scheduled through the end of the year including 4 in Texas. If all the executions go forward, that would bring the total for 2007 to 53, the same number as in 2006 but less than the 60 in 2005.

In the meantime, back in the execution capital we call Texas; the trial judge in the Cathy Henderson case apparently hasn’t made a decision yet about a new trial. Henderson is the baby sitter convicted of murder, and sentenced to die, in the death of 3-month old Brandon Baugh. Henderson claims that the death was an accident. She says that she was swinging the baby around in an attempt to soothe the infant, lost her balance and Brandon flew from her arms. Ok, so she’s an idiot. That doesn’t mean she deserves a lethal injection. That fact that Henderson fled after the tragedy probably didn’t help her case any either.

The coroner that had originally testified that the baby’s injuries were inconsistent with Henderson’s story now says that new scientific methods and information leads him to believe that it’s impossible to be certain one way or the other.

Sounds like enough for a new trial to me, does it sound like it to you too? Henderson has been on death row for 12 years. If it turns out that she was wrongly convicted, does she get those 12 years back?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Where is it all going?

I’m really not sure where it’s all going.

Global Warming, Iraq and Religious Fundamentalism all frighten me. They strike me as things for which I don’t see anything even remotely resembling a viable solution.

The science surrounding Global Warming clearly appears to herald a potential disaster but, then again, so did air and water pollution back in the 60’s and early 70’s appear that way. At least the right wing has stopped trying to make it sound like there’s really nothing wrong. The first step in solving any problem is the recognition that there’s a problem to be solved.

I see no good solution in Iraq. It appears that the only thing preventing all out sectarian war and the accompanying horrors is the American presence on the ground. Unfortunately that’s a presence we can no longer sustain. I don’t think there is anything we can do to prevent the coming bloodshed.

Basically Bush and company screwed that pooch when they sent the 3rd Infantry across the border. The most we can do now is withdraw and let the chips fall where they may. If there is going to be a war, at least it will be a war that the Iraqi’s choose for themselves and not one thrust upon them by us. We’ll still get blamed for it though and I can’t say that would be unjustified.

Just allow me to suggest that once the shooting is over, and some semblance of a government emerges in Iraq, that should they indict Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice on war criminal or murder charges that we don’t bother to fight extradition. Just ship them over there with our blessing as long as they promise to let us televise the executions. A four way beheading sounds about right for those clowns.

That brings me to Religious Fundamentalism. I consider this to be a bigger potential danger than even Global Warming. Education might be a solution, but religious fundamentalists shy away from education like the plague and attack it every chance they get.

Given the existence of atomic weapons and virulent viruses, either of which could fall into the wrong hands, having people running around that think non-believers, apostates, and anyone else that disagrees with them, deserve to burn in hellfire could be a real problem. To call religious fundamentalists irrational would be a compliment. They’re so far beyond irrational it’s frightening. Still, they’re absolutely certain that they’re right and the rest of us need to be brought into line. It’s to be brought into line by persuasion for the moment, but ultimately the plan calls for coercion as soon as practical. If you’re looking for a picture, try thinking The Inquisition.

I won’t be around long enough to see how it all plays out. I think that’s a good thing. I just feel sorry for my kids that they’re going to inherit this mess.

I've lived through wars, disease and disasters. They've been claiming it was the eve of destruction for any number of reasons for as long as I can remember. In the past there always appeared to be a way out or at least some level of confidence that a solution could be found. I wish I could say that now, but I really can't. I'm very pessimistic about what things will be like 30 or 50 years from now.

As I relax on Sundays with the rest of the country watching NFL Football, I find myself wondering more and more often when will the last NFL game be played, who will play that game, who will win, and who will care?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Religion and the Death Penalty

It’s something of a mixed bag, but in general religious organizations oppose Capital Punishment.

The majority of Christian sects, including The American Baptist Church, The Episcopal Church, The Evangelical Lutheran Church, The Orthodox Church, The Presbyterian Church, The Roman Catholic Church, The Unitarians, The United Church of Christ and The Methodist Church, have clearly stated that they oppose Capital Punishment. I have to applaud these folks for taking, based purely upon principle, a stand that could well be unpopular with their flock.

However, both The Lutheran Church: Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention support the use of Capital Punishment. The Assemblies of God and the Mormons are neutral and take no stand either in opposition to, or in favor of, the Death Penalty.

All of the sects that take a stand claim to do so based upon the bible and/or the teachings of Jesus. I’m uncertain how either The Assemblies of God or the Mormons can justify being neutral. The AoG appears to take that position due to a wide range of positions within the congregation. The Mormons simply state that it’s a matter for civil law to determine and that they are neutral. They give no explanation for not having a position on an issue that most folks would consider a moral question.

The full range of Judaism, from Orthodox to Reform, based upon pronouncements from representative assemblies, opposes the Death Penalty. While Buddhism and Hinduism have issued no central announcement, killing of any kind breaks the First Precept under Buddhism and violates the principle of ahisma, or non-violence, under Hinduism so both would probably tend to oppose Capital Punishment.

This brings us to Islam. Western Muslims try to spin this question by claiming that there are only two instances where the Death Penalty is allowed. Unfortunately those two instances, a crime against an individual or a crime against the state, are so broad the Death Penalty could be applied to just about anything. The sole saving grace is that Islamic Law extends to the victim’s family the right to limit the penalty for a murderer. Of course it also allows the victim’s family to decide that death sounds just about right. Where do you suspect most families would stand on this question?

So now I guess the question becomes why do some 65% of Americans still favor Capital Punishment? It’s not the fault of all those godless atheists because only 57% of secular folks support the Death Penalty. Don’t you people listen to your Priests and Pastors?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Teaching the Bible in the Public Schools

I think it’s a great idea IF safeguards are taken to insure that it doesn’t become religious instruction. I read the bible in high school English class. We read it as literature. Good old Mr. Searcy (actually a youngish black man) didn’t use it as an excuse to try and turn us into model Christians though.

Actually, I think a comparative religion course, or a literary influences course which would include Shakespeare, Mark Twain and Greek Mythology, would be better than a course focusing strictly on the bible.

Why you ask? It’s because I don’t trust those organizations that put together bible study curriculums.

Let’s consider The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS) which pushes its bible curriculum very heavily and claims that some 400 school districts in 37 states are using it. The NCBCPS also claims that its curriculum is non-sectarian, follows constitutional guidelines and is appropriate for use in the public schools.

The first warning sign goes up when one visits their web site and sees a heading called “liberal attacks on bible curriculum.”

The eyebrows continue to arch when the first sentence under this heading is “Of course, liberal groups are fighting at great expense to keep the Bible from being taught in public classrooms.”

When this “liberal group” is identified as the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) which is supposedly “requesting five unnecessary changes,” to a Texas bill that would mandate a bible studies elective in high schools, my radar goes on full power. What exactly is it that TFN is requesting? Let’s take a look see shall we?

“Mandate that teachers have appropriate academic qualifications and sufficient training on legal and constitutional issues surrounding instruction about the Bible in public schools.”

Sounds like basic common sense to me if only for the protection of the teacher. This is a tricky area fraught with peril for the unwary and we all know too well that there are lots of folks out there with too much money, and strange ideas, willing to make everyone’s life miserable at the slightest provocation. So why is this safeguard unnecessary?

"Require rigorous, scholarly reviewed textbooks and other curriculum materials for all courses."

You do want the course to be accurate don’t you? Again, this strikes me as a given. This doesn’t necessarily mean carting in your own expert; it can be a simple statement from a qualified peer review panel attesting to the accuracy of the text.

Isn’t this something you would expect for all textbooks?

"Include strong and specific language that protects the religious freedom of students and their families by barring the use of Bible classes to evangelize or promote personal religious perspectives."

This is simply the law of the land. Why would anyone object to such a stipulation as unnecessary?

"Require the Texas Education Agency to regularly monitor and report on the content of public school Bible courses to ensure that they are academically and legally appropriate."

Again, isn’t this something that is done as a matter of course for all high school courses in terms of being academically appropriate? The legal wrinkle is sort of unique but, because of the complexity of the issue, sounds like more common sense.

"Continue to allow districts the option to offer – or not offer – such courses."

Some school districts may simply not feel they’re up to the challenge or the expense. Again this sounds like simple common sense rather than an attack on bible curriculum.

Note that the TFN is not trying to prevent the course from being offered, they’re just trying to insure that it doesn’t deteriorate into a sectarian pitch for one particular religion. Isn’t this non-sectarian approach precisely what the NCBCPS claims for their curriculum? In that case they should be supporting the TFN safeguards.

So why aren’t they? To answer that question you have to go to a report on the NCBCPS curriculum put together by Dr. Mark A. Chancey at the request of the TFN in 2005. Dr. Chancey teaches biblical studies in the Department of Religious Studies in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University in Dallas so I think it is safe to say that he is qualified to review the accuracy and appropriateness, from a non-sectarian viewpoint, of the NCBCPS curriculum.

Let’s go to the report summary.

“In my professional judgment as a biblical scholar,… this curriculum on the whole is a sectarian document, and I cannot recommend it for usage in a public school setting. It attempts to persuade students to adopt views that are held primarily within certain conservative Protestant circles but not within the scholarly community, and it presents Christian faith claims as history:

The Bible is explicitly characterized as inspired by God.

Discussions of science are based on the claims of biblical creationists.

Jesus is presented as fulfilling 'Old Testament' prophecy.

Archaeological findings are cited as support for claims of the Bible’s complete historical accuracy

In other words the thing was about as non-sectarian as last Sunday’s sermon. Accident? When one considers the NCBCPS’s Board of Advisors, a litany of Right Wing religious organizations and individuals, including some that challenge the concept of the separation of church and state, one has to sort of suspect that the answer might be NO.

Now granted, one should never attribute to malice or dishonesty what can be explained by simple stupidity, but when one combines the blatant sectarian slant with objections to requirements for “scholarly reviewed textbooks,” one has no choice but to arrive at the conclusion that it’s not an accident, it’s an attempt to push their religious opinion as fact in the public schools.

Where I come from this is called lying.

To make matters worse, according to Dr. Chancey:

“…the curriculum contains numerous factual errors and vastly oversimplified (some might say misleading) presentations of complex issues.”

“It would be unreasonable to expect teachers without advanced training in biblical studies to recognize all of this curriculum’s errors — but it is not unreasonable to expect a curriculum to be free of them.”

Actually it would be trivial to get rid of the errors. Simply put together a peer review panel of distinguished experts to review and comment on the text. I can think of any number of scholars who would be more than pleased to participate in such an undertaking. If the NCBCPS were really interested in non-sectarianism and accuracy, this is exactly what it would do.

Now this all happened in 2005 and, despite vigorous denials by the NCBCPS including a press release claiming that “the TFN report was erroneous and had been produced by ‘far left, anti-religion extremists’ who were promoting ‘totalitarianism,’ within a month NCBCPS was circulating a revision that addressed many of the most blatant problems identified by Dr. Chancey.

While the new edition is indeed an improvement, another review by Dr. Chancey found that many problems still remain including non-identification of any full time biblical scholar as a reviewer, the continued reliance on right wing internet sources with claims or positions frowned upon in scholarly circles including one bloke who claims to have identified the biblical Mt. Sinai in Saudi Arabia, and a continued political agenda which “…seems to Christianize America and Americanize the Bible” by continuing to recommend the resources of “an organization devoted to the opposition of church-state separation.”

In other words NCBCPS is still pushing their religious opinions as fact, they’ve just used the Chancey report to camouflage it a bit better.

I find this dishonest. This is the same thing that happened with creationism. When the court said you can’t teach Genesis as an alternative to evolution, Fundamentalist Christians wrapped it in pseudo-scientific jargon and called it “Creation Science.” When “Creation Science” was accurately identified as religion rather than science, the emphasis got shifted to “Intelligent Design” (although I will admit that ID is a lot more sophisticated than “Creation Science”).

There is also the habit of repeating assertions despite those assertions being repeatedly shown to be untrue. I can only assume that the hope is some people in the audience aren’t aware they’re untrue and might be fooled. Repeating the assertion that evolution violates the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is one example. There are so many examples that they have their own acronym. They’re called PRATTS for Points Refuted a Thousand Times.

The Eusebius approach to evangelicalism is alive and well in the United States.

Whenever any doubt creeps into my mind about my conclusion that Christianity is a lie, which happens less and less often these days, I remember all the lies and misleading semi-truths told by the so-called Apologists, and people like the folks at NCBCPS, and those doubts evaporate like early morning mist when the sun comes up.

As Carl Sagan used to say, you are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts. If you know the “truth,” then why are you afraid to put it on the table along with everyone else’s “truth” and see which “truth” best stands up under the light of reason and intellect?

Friday, September 07, 2007

A Terrible Twist in the Madeleine Story

I haven’t mentioned anything about the disappearance of the British toddler from a Portuguese hotel room because I always feel terrible about such things and I like to avoid getting totally depressed if I can. The little girl, Madeleine McCann, was reported abducted on May 5th while her parent ate dinner at a restaurant near the hotel.

Now it appears that the Portuguese police have declared the mother, Kate McCann, an “arguida.” Under Portuguese law an arguido (arguida in this case because it’s a female) is an official suspect in an investigation. Apparently Portuguese police can now ask a wider range of questions and the suspect has additional legal protections. There are rumors that the father, Gerry McCann, is also about to be declared an official suspect.

Being an aguido does not mean that formal charges are about to follow. As a matter of fact, according to several news agencies, it’s not at all unusual for someone to request being declared an aquido in order to trigger the additional legal protections.

Supposedly the police took this step because of forensic test results from a British crime lab that claim the girl’s blood was found in a vehicle rented by the McCanns 25 days AFTER the girl disappeared.

First of all, let’s all remember that everyone is innocent until proven guilty and nothing has been proven as yet. None of the news accounts relate how the crime lab determined that it was Madeleine’s blood so I think I’ll reserve judgment. I still remember the stampede to condemn JonBenet Ramsey’s mom of murder when the lady was completely innocent. Then there is the case of Darlie Routier, who may have been railroaded by voodoo science and character assassination when she was convicted of murdering her two young sons.

In this particular case the police appear to be speculating that Madeleine’s death was an accident rather than murder but still this is a bizarre twist to a story that has been headlines in all of western civilization outside of the self-centered U.S.

The McCanns have engaged in a wide ranging media campaign across Europe in search of their daughter. This has included some high profile support from people like Pope Benedict XVI, Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling and soccer star David Beckham. Pictures of the missing girl would melt ice off of a snow witch she’s so adorable so if it turns out these two did anything to hurt her, they’ll probably re-institute burning at the stake in the U.K.

Like I said, it’s a totally unexpected twist even though, unfortunately, when something happens to a child suspicion invariably falls upon the parents. Clearly I have no way of judging guilt or innocence here, but you would have to be some kind of total moron to engage in the high profile activities the McCanns have engaged in if you’re trying to hide your involvement in the girl’s death wouldn’t you? Why do I have this really bad feeling that things are going to get very ugly very quickly on this one?

All I can do is hope that Madeleine shows up tomorrow, alive and well, and puts the whole thing to bed.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

You fixed the plane HOW?

I never expected to fly Nepal Airlines, but now I GUARANTEE you that I’m never going to fly Nepal Airlines.

Several news agencies are reporting that Nepal Airlines has claimed that it fixed an electrical glitch in one of its two Boeing 757s by sacrificing two goats to appease the Hindu Sky god Akash Bhairab.

Apparently the poor goats were sacrificed in front of the troubled aircraft at the Nepal international airport in Kathmandu in accordance with Hindu traditions.

Talk about a waste of two perfectly good goats.

I wonder if the guys in Seattle are planning on updating the 757 maintenance manual with this one?

It hasn’t been a good week for the Judeo-Christian Sky Daddy. First Elwood “Bunky” Bartlett cashes in on the Mega Bucks lottery thanks to a promise he made to the Wiccan gods and now Akash Bhairab fixes up a Boeing 757 in exchange for two measly goats.

Christianity better rustle up some miracles quick in order to keep from losing ground as Christians convert in droves to Wicca and Hinduism.

Death Penalty Update

I haven’t done one of these in a while because, to be quite honest, they depress me. There never seems to be any progress to report instead it’s a constant litany of bad news.

However, finally, from the quagmire called the Texas legal system, comes a rational decision. Miraculously the Texas Board of Paroles and Pardons recommended, and Governor Perry accepted, a commutation of the death sentence of Kenneth Foster seven hours before Foster was scheduled to die.

Seven hours mind you. Do you think they could have cut it any closer?

Foster was sentenced to death under the Texas Law of Parties. That law permits a person involved in a crime to be held accountable for the actions committed by someone else. In Foster’s case the district attorney maintained that he should have anticipated that his co-defendant, the actual killer, would exit the car Foster was driving and murder the victim.

I guess in Texas you’re expected to be clairvoyant. The very concept that someone can be convicted of murder because of something he should have anticipated, but apparently didn’t, strikes me as totally bizarre. I guess it struck Governor Perry that way as well.

So far this year there have been 38 executions, 23 of which have been in Texas. That brings the total number of executions since the death penalty was re-instated in 1976 to 1,095, of which 402 have been in Texas.

By region of the country, 897 have been in the South, 127 have been in the Midwest, 67 in the West and 4, all of so-called volunteers, in the Northeast. This statistic alone should tell you that the death penalty is arbitrary as hell.

Speaking of depressing, Pew Research has on its web site a summary of the positions of the leading presidential candidates from both parties on various issues. Unfortunately I have to report that all of them claim to favor the death penalty. I guess that will be the case until a majority of the voters are reported as being against it huh? Politicians are such weasels.