Live Death Penalty Debate


The Connecticut House of Representatives is now debating legislation that would abolish the death penalty.

You can watch and listen live here.

I’m jumping in a few minutes late, obviously, but I’m going to try my hand at live-blogging some of the debate … until it drives me crazy.

3pm: I missed House Amendment A, which created a more restrictive incarceration status than the general population. House Amendment B is offered, ostensibly to ensure that, if the death penalty is abolished, criminals who would have been death-eligible would, in fact, be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and that their sentences couldn’t be easily reduced. To try to reduce sentences further would require more than a majority vote by the House and Senate. Opposition to the amendment revolves around the question of whether or not it would be unconstitutional to attempt to bind a future legislature. If you don’t love procedural questions, you might not love this ….

3:15pm: Voting on Amendment B … which might or might not be constitutionally sound. My sense is that this amendment is going to fail spectacularly.

3:20pm: It fails. The next speaker is Mary Fritz (D), who rises in opposition because she fears that ten years down the road another group of legislators would oppose life imprisonment without parole and try to do away with that as well. “We are law-makers. We make laws, we change laws.” This is very confusing logic: “We are tasked with making and with changing laws, but we shouldn’t make or change any laws because, in the future, other legislators might further make or change laws.”

3:30pm: The next speaker, John Hetherington, is having what I take to be an inordinately difficult time making himself understood. Basically, he doesn’t understand why there should be any issues that might require someone to be moved from near-total lock-down. The explanation these issues are almost exclusively (or perhaps exclusively) health-related seems not to have any impact on Hetherington. He offers Amendment C, which says that anyone convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment will remain in Level 5 confinement (a special status, not mingling with the rest of the prison population). The amendment, as far as I can tell, is completely unnecessary and probably violates some court cases that require the state to intervene with life-saving medical attention for inmates … even for inmates who are housed in the highest security wings of prisons.

3:40pm: Voting on Amendment C … which demonstrates how fearful some of us are.

3:43pm: It fails. The next speaker, Jeffrey Berger (D), rises in opposition. He reminds people that he’s a retired police officer. He alleges that the death penalty in his city is very diverse, but it’s not at all clear what he means by this, and he thinks probably 80%+ in his district supports the death penalty. He says “diverse” six times in two sentences. He says that violent crime has no socio-economic or racial background. He will demonstrate this by looking at the four men who are on death row from his district. Apparently, as long as these four come from diverse backgrounds, then the death penalty doesn’t disproportionally target people of color and the poor. Instead of abandoning the death penalty, Berger would like to make the death penalty stronger. Working together, he believes the legislature could develop a plan that would limit appeals, make the death penalty work better … and thereby give people hope. Yes, he said hope. The death penalty could bring people hope.

3:57pm: The next speaker, Jack Thompson, has a son who joined the army and served four years in the military police and then twenty more years in a local police department. Thompson believes that repealing the death penalty sends the wrong message. He doesn’t understand how there can be any problems with the death penalty since it’s not used very often. In what might be the most rambling speech so far, Thompson has talked about Scott Turow, death penalty abolition in Illinois, his own military service, and — as mentioned above — his son’s career in criminal justice. His conclusion, I think, is that we don’t know why some people commit murder. Rather than do away with the death penalty, we ought to figure out why bad things happen.

4:06pm: Oh … wait … he just said he speaks in support of repeal because it’s too big a risk that we might execute an innocent person.

4:08pm: Debralee Hovey (R) says “These people are the most vile … They should not enjoy any of the privileges or pleasures of our lives.” So … she presents Amendment D, which prohibits inmates’ correspondence privileges via the internet. In response, Gerald Fox (D) notes that these inmates don’t have internet access and all of their correspondence is checked before it can be mailed. The next speaker, in favor of the amendment, says there’s no reason not to support this amendment barring inmates from the internet if they already don’t have access to the internet. This might be the best example of stalling I’ve seen so far. Rep. Hetherington rises to expand on the problem: The fact that someone who isn’t in prison is creating a website for someone who is in prison is very, very troubling to these legislators. They would like it to be unlawful for anyone to create a web profile for an inmate in Connecticut. 

4:22pm: I can’t see why this amendment would pass … but it sure is wasting a lot of time.

4:23pm: It fails.

4:25pm: I’m pretty impressed with the patience of Rep. Fox, who has to answer all the bizarre questions from his colleagues.

4:30pm: There’s a great deal of concern with the eleven men who are currently on death row. In particular, there’s a concern that some of these men might simply be set free somehow. No one knows exactly how, but if anyone has a theory, we’re going to hear about it today. The fact that there are at least eight more amendments ensures that I’m going to have to end this live-blogging experiment way before we get anywhere near a vote on abolition.

4:43pm: We’ve heard from a couple more legislators, who gave their reasons for supporting abolition. And now we’ve got some more questions about what would happen with the people who are awaiting trial or sentencing right now, as well as about the sorts of conditions in which prisoners would be held now that they’re not going to be on “death row” but in a special incarceration section.

And, with that, I’m officially packing it in. Thanks for following along and good luck to Connecticut; I hope they cut through all the nonsense and get to vote on this bill before bedtime.

TEDx: I am a tinkerer: Rolf Hut @ TEDxDelft


Rolf Hut wants to inspire his students to tinker, so when he recognized the need for accurate rain measurements in rural Africa, he told them to go build a rain gauge. Rolf literally makes it rain onstage to prove how well this cheap and durable rain gauge works — and calls on all of us to tinker…

Iran's political coup


If the reports coming out of Tehran about an electoral coup are sustained, then Iran has entered an entirely new phase of its post-revolution history. One characteristic that has always distinguished Iran from the crude dictators in much of the rest of the Middle East was its respect for the voice of the people, even when that voice was saying things that much of the leadership did not want to hear.

In 1997, Iran’s hard line leadership was stunned by the landslide election of Mohammed Khatami, a reformer who promised to bring rule of law and a more human face to the harsh visage of the Iranian revolution. It took the authorities almost a year to recover their composure and to reassert their control through naked force and cynical manipulation of the constitution and legal system. The authorities did not, however, falsify the election results and even permitted a resounding reelection four years later. Instead, they preferred to prevent the president from implementing his reform program.

In 2005, when it appeared that no hard line conservative might survive the first round of the presidential election, there were credible reports of ballot manipulation to insure that Mr Ahmadinejad could run (and win) against former president Rafsanjani in the second round. The lesson seemed to be that the authorities might shift the results in a close election but they would not reverse a landslide vote.

The current election appears to repudiate both of those rules. The authorities were faced with a credible challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who had the potential to challenge the existing power structure on certain key issues. He ran a surprisingly effective campaign, and his “green wave” began to be seen as more than a wave. In fact, many began calling it a Green Revolution. For a regime that has been terrified about the possibility of a “velvet revolution,” this may have been too much.

On the basis of what we know so far, here is the sequence of events starting on the afternoon of election day, Friday, June 12.

  • Near closing time of the polls, mobile text messaging was turned off nationwide
  • Security forces poured out into the streets in large numbers
  • The Ministry of Interior (election headquarters) was surrounded by concrete barriers and armed men
  • National television began broadcasting pre-recorded messages calling for everyone to unite behind the winner
  • The Mousavi campaign was informed officially that they had won the election, which perhaps served to temporarily lull  them into complacency
  • But then the Ministry of Interior announced a landslide victory for Ahmadinejad
  • Unlike previous elections, there was no breakdown of the vote by province, which would have provided a way of judging its credibility
  • The voting patterns announced by the government were identical in all parts of the country, an impossibility (also see the comments of Juan Cole at the title link)
  • Less than 24 hours later, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene`i  publicly announced his congratulations to the winner, apparently confirming that the process was complete and irrevocable, contrary to constitutional requirements
  • Shortly thereafter, all mobile phones, Facebook, and other social networks were blocked, as well as major foreign news sources.

All of this had the appearance of a well orchestrated strike intended to take its opponents by surprise – the classic definition of a coup. Curiously, this was not a coup of an outside group against the ruling elite; it was a coup of the ruling elite against its own people.

It is still too early for anything like a comprehensive analysis of implications, but here are some initial thoughts:

  1. The willingness of the regime simply to ignore reality and fabricate election results without the slightest effort to conceal the fraud represents a historic shift in Iran’s Islamic revolution. All previous leaders at least paid lip service to the voice of the Iranian people. This suggests that Iran’s leaders are aware of the fact that they have lost credibility in the eyes of many (most?) of their countrymen, so they are dispensing with even the pretense of popular legitimacy in favor of raw power.
  1. The Iranian opposition, which includes some very powerful individuals and institutions, has an agonizing decision to make. If they are intimidated and silenced by the show of force (as they have been in the past), they will lose all credibility in the future with even their most devoted followers. But if they choose to confront their ruthless colleagues forcefully, not only is it likely to be messy but it could risk running out of control and potentially bring down the entire existing power structure, of which they are participants and beneficiaries.
  1. With regard to the United States and the West, nothing would prevent them in principle from dealing with an illegitimate authoritarian government. We do it every day, and have done so for years (the Soviet Union comes to mind). But this election is an extraordinary gift to those who have been most skeptical about President Obama’s plan to conduct negotiations with Iran. Former Bush official Elliott Abrams was quick off the mark, commenting that it is “likely that the engagement strategy has been dealt a very heavy blow.” Two senior Israeli officials quickly urged the world not to engage in negotiations with Iran. Neoconservatives who had already expressed their support for an Ahmadinejad victory now have every reason to be satisfied.   Opposition forces, previously on the defensive, now have a perfect opportunity to mount a political attack that will make it even more difficult for President Obama to proceed with his plan.

In their own paranoia and hunger for power, the leaders of Iran have insulted their own fellow revolutionaries who have come to have second thoughts about absolute rule and the costs of repression, and they may have alienated an entire generation of future Iranian leaders. At the same time, they have provided an invaluable gift to their worst enemies abroad.

However this turns out, it is a historic turning point in the 30-year history of Iran’s Islamic revolution. Iranians have never forgotten the external political intervention that thwarted their democratic aspirations in 1953. How will they remember this day?


“These children attend one of the few government-run centers in Honduras catering to families with severe economic hardships, and children of working mothers. Just before Christmas 2010, they made these decorations to bring home and spread the holiday cheer!” - Peace Corps Youth Development Volunteer Lisa Lavezzo


“These children attend one of the few government-run centers in Honduras catering to families with severe economic hardships, and children of working mothers. Just before Christmas 2010, they made these decorations to bring home and spread the holiday cheer!” - Peace Corps Youth Development Volunteer Lisa Lavezzo



Around a year ago, a few friends and I watched all four Rambo movies in one day.  We got to talking about how much fun it would be if John Rambo were to meet Rocky Balboa.  So we wrote a movie about it.

We wrote the outline on one page of paper (in gold ink), split it up into six sections, and each wrote around 15-20 pages, without looking at each others’ work.  I got the last section, and it was also my job to clean the script up, join the sections together, and try to get it to make sense.

Then we had a reading of it to hear what the others came up with.  And then we never did anything else with it.


So here it is.  Enjoy!

The writers:

Paul Rust (actor, “I Love You Beth Cooper;” currently co-writing the new Pee-Wee Herman movie)

Kulap Vilaysack (co-host, “Who Charted?” podcast; actress, “Childrens Hospital”)

Michael Cassady (actor, “The Office,” “Freakdance”)

Harris Wittels (writer, “Parks and Recreation,” “The Sarah Silverman Program,” “Eastbound & Down”)

Neil Campbell (UCB Theatre LA Artistic Director; writer, “Mike Detective”)

Scott Aukerman (host, “Comedy Bang Bang;” writer, “Mr. Show;” co-creator, “Between Two Ferns”)

Click on the TITLE of the article to be taken to the script!