Wednesday, September 27, 2017

ENVIRONMENT - Military Toxic Waste

"How Military Outsourcing Turned Toxic" by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica 10/26/2017

Fraud.  Bribery.  Incompetence.  The military’s use of contractors adds to a legacy of environmental damage.

IN AUGUST 2016, an inspector from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arrived at Barksdale Air Force base in Louisiana, a nerve center for the U.S. military’s global air combat operations, to conduct a routine look at the base’s handling of its hazardous waste.

Barksdale, like many military bases, generates large volumes of hazardous materials, including thousands of pounds of toxic powder left over from cleaning, painting and maintaining airplanes.

For years, Barksdale had been sending a portion of its waste to an Ohio company, U.S. Technology Corp., that had sold officials at the base on a seemingly ingenious solution for disposing of it:  The company would take the contaminated powder from refurbished war planes and repurpose it into cinder-blocks that would be used to build everything from schools to hotels to big-box department stores — even a pregnancy support center in Ohio.  The deal would ostensibly shield the Air Force from the liability of being a large producer of dangerous hazardous trash.

The arrangement was not unique.

The military is one of the country’s largest polluters, with an inventory of toxic sites on American soil that once topped 39,000.  At many locations, the Pentagon has relied on contractors like U.S. Technology to assist in cleaning and restoring land, removing waste, clearing unexploded bombs, and decontaminating buildings, streams and soil.  In addition to its work for Barksdale, U.S. Technology had won some 830 contracts with other military facilities — Army, Air Force, Navy and logistics bases — totaling more than $49 million, many of them to dispose of similar powders.

In taking on environmental cleanup jobs, contractors often bring needed expertise to technical tasks the Pentagon isn’t equipped to do itself.  They also absorb much of the legal responsibility for disposing of military-made hazards, in some cases helping the Pentagon — at least on paper — winnow down its list of toxic liabilities.

But in outsourcing this work, the military has often struggled to provide adequate oversight to ensure that work is done competently — or is completed at all.  Today, records show, some of the most dangerous cleanup work that has been entrusted to contractors remains unfinished, or worse, has been falsely pronounced complete, leaving people who live near former military sites to assume these areas are now safe.

What the EPA inspector found when he visited Barksdale was an object lesson in the system’s blind spots.

Barrels of the waste hadn’t been shipped off and recycled, but rather were stored in a garage tucked away from the facility’s main operations.  Further, shipping documents suggested that what waste had been sent off the base hadn’t gone to U.S. Technology’s recycling plant in Ohio, as an Air Force official first told the EPA, but instead had gone to company warehouses in at least two other states.  Storing hazardous waste without a permit — and without immediately recycling it — can be illegal.

The inspection findings triggered an investigation to determine if the Air Force had been storing hazardous waste that it was supposed to have been recycling without a permit.  It also suggested broader problems with U.S. Technology, which was already the subject of an inquiry in Georgia into whether it was illegally dumping waste — including material that could have come from Barksdale — near a residential neighborhood there.

Barksdale officials told ProPublica that the base “has never stored” hazardous materials at the request of U.S. Technology.  The Air Force and the Pentagon declined to answer any specific questions about U.S. Technology’s work, except to say that the base had been working with the company for at least a decade.

ProPublica pieced together what happened at Barksdale using EPA records, including a 1,000-page document compiled by one of its lead investigators, as well as Air Force correspondence, court files, Pentagon contracts and other materials.

The documents make clear that officials at Barksdale should have been wary of doing business with U.S. Technology from the start.  The head of one of its sub-contractors had been sent to prison in 2008 for illegally dumping hazardous waste under another Pentagon contract.  U.S. Technology had been investigated for related wrongdoing — storing or dumping material it claimed to be recycling — in two other states.  Indeed, a 2011 Pentagon report to Congress about contractor fraud included U.S. Technology on a list of companies that had criminal or civil judgments against them, but which still received millions of dollars in subsequent contracts.

Neither the Air Force nor the Pentagon would respond to questions about why the various military branches continued to award contracts to U.S. Technology despite its problems.

The EPA also would not say whether it was looking into U.S. Technology’s contracts with other bases — deals involving millions of pounds of toxic powder and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars — but such a step might well be prudent.

In April, U.S. Technology’s founder and president, Raymond Williams, was indicted in U.S. District Court in Missouri for trucking millions of pounds of its hazardous powder waste — from Defense and other types of contracts — over state lines, where, according to EPA documents, the company had been storing it instead of recycling it.  In June, Williams was indicted in Georgia on federal charges related to bribing an Air Force official for recycling contracts.  Williams has pleaded not guilty in both cases.

Asked about Barksdale and other contracts that have gone awry, one of the Pentagon’s top environmental officials told ProPublica that there is no systemic problem with the military’s approach to cleanup or other environmental contracting.  Maureen Sullivan, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment, Safety and Occupational Health, said the military might have thousands of companies under contract at any given time and that the Barksdale case and others like it amount to rare examples of negligence or incompetence.

“Not everybody is an angel,” Sullivan said.

Still, the Pentagon and its various monitors have issued repeated warnings about problems related to environmental cleanup contractors.

In 2001, the Defense Department’s own Inspector General discussed the “significant risk of fraud” in environmental cleanup contracts as one of the Pentagon’s “high risk vulnerabilities.”  That report did not list recommendations for reform, chiefly because many of the office’s previous efforts imploring changes had been ignored.

A decade later, the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that many Pentagon environmental cleanup contracts were vulnerable to corner-cutting, lack of quality review and plain incompetence.  The report made clear that the department relied heavily on performance-based contracts despite federal guidelines which cautioned against using them for environmental jobs, perhaps because doing so furthered the Pentagon’s self-interest in ridding itself of environmental headaches.

“The evidence is in, a contractor is only as good as the oversight that they have,” said Jane Williams, the executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, a watchdog group that has been tracking defense site cleanups across the country since 1989.  “The defense department turns a blind eye… They want to write a check and have someone else do it.”

Monday, September 25, 2017

OPINION - Shields and Brooks 9/22/2017

"Shields and Brooks on GOP’s health care uncertainty, Trump’s UN nationalism" PBS NewsHour 9/22/2017


SUMMARY:  Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news; including the fate of the latest Senate Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, President Trump’s role in the special Senate election in Alabama, and what that runoff says about the state of the GOP, plus the President’s debut address at the United Nations.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  But let’s go right now to Shields and Brooks.  That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields, as you just saw, and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

The only thing better than seeing you guys once is seeing you guys twice, three times.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist:  Just a great…


JUDY WOODRUFF:  So, the health care story.

David, the Senate Republicans have been trying to so hard to once again resurrect an effort to repeal Obamacare.  They thought they were getting — or at least they sounded like they were getting somewhere.

But, today, John McCain throws down the red flag, says he’s not voting for it.  Where does this leave all this?

DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times:  It’s pretty grim.  Francisco Franco is still dead, to quote that old “Saturday Night Live” joke.


DAVID BROOKS:  It’s — I should say, first of all, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with having state flexibility and sending the health care thing back to the states.  We’re a diverse country.  We might profit from different systems.

And there is nothing wrong with reducing the rate of increase in the cost, the amount we spend on health care.  We would spend a lot more than other countries.  Personally, I would be happy if we spend a little less on health care and a little more on education.

But the way the Republicans have done this yet again is without a deliberate process in a way that seems to have magically offended every single person outside the U.S. Capitol Building, no matter what party, and in a way that raises anxiety on every single level.

And so, it’s very easy for John McCain to say, you haven’t followed regular order, you haven’t worked with Democrats, you haven’t held hearings, and so I’m going to be against this thing.

And that’s him being very consistent with the way he’s been over the past several months.  And one would have to suspect that Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski will follow suit.  And, therefore, it’s down the tubes.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  What does it look like to you?

MARK SHIELDS:  I hate to say that I agree with David, but I agree with David.

And I would just add this.  It’s no accident, Judy, that the Republicans find themselves in this position.  It’s really since the retirement of John Chafee of Rhode Island in 1999 or David Durenberger from Minnesota in 1995, that there’s been any Republican senator who has any earned credentials or any deserved reputation for working on health care.

They have just been an against party.  That’s all.  So, who’s the sponsor of this?  Lindsey Graham.  I happen to like Lindsey Graham.  Lindsey Graham’s credentials, military, national defense.  He’s worked bipartisan on global warming, campaign finance.

Is there a — Lindsey Graham on health care?  And Bill Cassidy, who got to the Senate a year ago, not exactly a long-toothed, long-term legislator.

I mean, all they have succeeded in doing this year is taking the Affordable, which had always been controversial and never had majority support, and now has majority support in the country.  And they have convinced voters that Democrats care much more about health care than they do.

And Democrats had an advantage.  They believe in Medicare and Medicaid.  They believe in federal action.  There is no coherent Republican organizing principle or philosophy about health care.  Everybody should have it, and it should be private.

It’s an abstraction.  It doesn’t work in the real world.  And voters have concluded it doesn’t.  And Pat Roberts, to his credit, the senior senator from Kansas, said, this is not the best bill possible.  It’s the best possible bill.  And this is the last stage out of Dodge.  Because of the quirky rules of the Senate, they need 50 votes until the 30th of September, when the fiscal year ends.


MARK SHIELDS:  After that, it’s 60.  So, they’re trying to pass something.  And they won’t.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  It’s a tough moment for Republicans.

DAVID BROOKS:  They’re caught with a divide.

I do think there is a defensible case that an intelligent market-based system could reduce — cause efficiencies.  There’s models around the world that Republicans and conservative policy wonks can get to, to point to that.

But if you are going to get people to entertain the idea of some sort of reform, you have to give them universal coverage.  We’re at the point where even a lot of conservative health care economists think, if we give them universal coverage, if your get your preexisting, you’re going to have coverage, then we can work on the reforms.

But the Republican Party and the Republican Congress — congressional party — is basically out of touch with their voters.  Their voters are not libertarians.  Their voters are insecure economically and want some security.  And Medicaid and Medicare and even now Obamacare offers some of them security.  And they will not support their own Republican Party when it takes that away.


"Great books to fall for now that summer’s over" PBS NewsHour 9/22/2017


SUMMARY:  From Toni Morrison to Bruce Handy’s take on children’s literature, we offer eight must-read books to add to your bookshelf this fall.  Louise Penny, author of “Glass Houses,” and Pamela Paul, author of “My Life With Bob,” join Jeffrey Brown to share their recommendations for the season.

NORTH KOREA - New Sanctions

"What will new U.S. sanctions mean for North Korea?" PBS NewsHour 9/21/2017

Trump 'diplomacy' is a bloody baseball bat.  The tool of a bully.


SUMMARY:  After President Trump signed new sanctions against North Korea on Thursday, Kim Jong Un called him “deranged” and said the President will “pay dearly” for his threats.  Judy Woodruff talks with David Cohen, former Deputy Director of the CIA and an Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the Treasury Department, about what new sanctions mean and how other countries will respond.

BRIEF BUT SPECTACULAR - 3D Illustrating Biochemistry

"Animating what’s under the microscope" PBS NewsHour 9/21/2017


SUMMARY:  Art and science have always overlapped; early scientists used illustrations to depict what they saw under the microscope.  Janet Iwasa of the University of Utah is trying to re-establish this link to make thorny scientific data and models approachable to the common eye.  Iwasa offers her brief but spectacular take on how 3D animation can make molecular science more accessible.

ONE ON ONE - Melinda Gates

"Why Melinda Gates thinks the U.S. must protect foreign aid" PBS NewsHour 9/21/2017


SUMMARY:  As President Trump stressed his “America-first” approach in remarks to the United Nations this week, Bill and Melinda Gates hosted a conference to unveil the results of a three-year-long Gates Foundation study on the world’s major health issues.  Judy Woodruff spoke with Melinda Gates about the importance of U.S. leadership in world health, and how tech is affecting teens today.


"Why Mexico City is vulnerable to earthquakes" PBS NewsHour 9/20/2017


SUMMARY:  Tuesday’s earthquake was Mexico’s second in less than two weeks, bringing back memories of the country’s catastrophic 1985 earthquake that killed thousands.  What makes the region prone to earthquake damage?  Judy Woodruff asks seismologist Lucy Jones to explain the science.

HEALTH CARE - Republican Deathcare Bill

These Republicans have even resorted to bribing key members by excluding their states from aspects of Trumpcare (aka Deathcare Bill).

"What’s in the new GOP health care bill, in one (simple) chart" by Lisa Desjardins, PBS NewsHour 9/19/2017

"What you need to know about the GOP’s Graham-Cassidy health care bill" PBS NewsHour 9/20/2017


SUMMARY:  Republican’s long-fraught effort to repeal the ACA has regained momentum in the Senate just as a critical deadline looms for the GOP.  The new health care bill, sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Bill Cassidy, would bring sweeping changes to the current system.  Lisa Desjardins and Sarah Kliff of Vox join John Yang to explain the policy and politics behind the bill.

"Kaine:  Putting health care ideas on the table is fine.  Jamming them through Congress is not" PBS NewsHour 9/22/2017


SUMMARY:  Sen. John McCain’s announcement on Friday that he will not support the Graham-Cassidy bill has put the fate of the GOP’s efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare into doubt.  Judy Woodruff talks to Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va) about his impressions of Graham-Cassidy and a Democratic effort led by Sen. Bernie Sanders to expand Medicaid to everyone, plus his reaction to President Trump on North Korea.

"What’s next for health care after McCain rejects GOP’s Graham-Cassidy plan?" PBS NewsHour 9/22/2017


SUMMARY:  Sen. John McCain dealt a major blow to Republicans’ latest effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act by announcing he will not vote for the Graham-Cassidy reform proposal.  Judy Woodruff sits down with Lisa Desjardins to discuss what this means for GOP leaders hoping to roll back President Obama’s signature health care law.

TRUMP AGENDA - Wall Profits.... by Smugglers

"How smugglers stand to profit from Trump’s border wall" PBS NewsHour 9/20/2017


SUMMARY:  A reinforced border wall was President Trump's signature campaign promise, but following through may not deter drug and human smugglers with so much money at stake.  A new multimedia project by USA TODAY NETWORK called "The Wall" explores the complex reality of life on the border.  Daniel Gonzalez of The Arizona Republic sits down with William Brangham to discuss his reporting.

RETHINKING COLLEGE - Personalized Learning

"How ‘personalized learning’ can put college in reach for nontraditional students" PBS NewsHour 9/19/2017


SUMMARY:  A program in Arizona supports nontraditional students who want to pursue degrees at their own speed.  Much like a Netflix subscription, the new program lets students pay a flat fee for a personalized curriculum that works within their schedules.  Hari Sreenivasan reports on how Northern Arizona University is putting bachelor's degrees within reach for many.

VIETNAM WAR - Remembering Father

"Remembering a father lost to Vietnam by doing good" PBS NewsHour 9/19/2017


SUMMARY:  Rebecca Rusch has spent most of her life wondering what happened to the father who left for Vietnam and never came back.  As a tribute to him and closure for her family, Rusch rode nearly 1,200 miles along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to visit the site where her dad's plane was shot down in Laos in 1972.  But her journey was just the beginning.  Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports.

TRUMP AGENDA - To Hell With the Rest of the World

An agenda of self-interest and selfishness.  And threats of WWIII.

"Trump urges more nationalist worldview in first UN address" PBS NewsHour 9/19/2017


SUMMARY:  In his inaugural address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Trump laid out a broad vision for self-interest and nationalism across the world, while directing criticism toward the “wicked few” he singled out: North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela.  Lisa Desjardins reports on the President's address and some of the responses it drew.


"Outrage over police shootings and accountability boils over again in St. Louis" PBS NewsHour 9/18/2017


SUMMARY:  Protesters gathered for a fourth straight day in downtown St. Louis to denounce the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white former St. Louis police officer who was tried for the 2011 fatal shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith.  William Brangham talks to Tony Messenger of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the case and the broader concerns about police brutality that are driving these protests.


I would expect that Trump would prefer to stuff all waiting immigrants into shipping containers and ship to sea (without an intended port of call).

"How a ‘dire’ immigration court backlog affects lives" PBS NewsHour 9/18/2017


SUMMARY:  As lawmakers debate how to deal with immigration reform, little attention is paid to the nation’s immigration court system, which has more than 600,000 cases pending and only 334 judges to hear them.  John Yang is joined by Judge Dana Leigh Marks to discuss immigration law and whether the Trump administration's steps to move and hire judges will decrease the growing backlog.

NEWSHOUR SHARES - Grandma Leightley

"How this 72-year-old weightlifter is lifting expectations" PBS NewsHour 9/18/2017


SUMMARY:  In our NewsHour Shares moment of the day, a 60-year-old grandmother from Fairfax, Virginia, developed a love for weightlifting and garnered up to 12 world records in her age and weight categories.  Now 72, Linda Leightley can deadlift 273 pounds and is breaking preconceptions about the limitations of age and gender.

STAR TREK - Discovery Series 2017

I am a Trekie and love newer Star Trek series movies.  Sorry, don't like the original TV series.

It's too bad that 'Discovery' is only on money-sucking CBS All Access instead of using cable providers.

But the show does look good.

Star Trek: Discovery - First Look Trailer

Welcome Aboard The U.S.S.  Discovery Bridge

Monday, September 18, 2017

OPINION - Shields and Brooks 9/15/2017

"Shields and Brooks on Hillary Clinton’s election candor, Trump’s dealing with Democrats" PBS NewsHour 9/15/2017


SUMMARY:  Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Hari Sreenivasan to discuss takeaways from an in-depth interview with Hillary Clinton on her election memoir “What Happened,” President Trump’s move to work with Democrats on protections for young undocumented immigrants and what it means for his base of support.

HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  And now it’s time now for the analysis of Shields and Brooks.  That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

First off, your reactions to the interview so far?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist:  What I find interesting is, I don’t pay any attention to books from politicians.

And the only time I listen to any politician waxing semi-candid is when they are either over 70 or given up all hopes of the White House.

And I think Mrs. Clinton is not 70, or close to it, I guess, but she’s obviously given up all hopes to the White House.  And, in that sense, there’s a lot more candor, than I think I have certainly seen in past books, an admission that every candidate is ultimately responsible for his or her campaign, victory or defeat.

And every campaign is inevitably a mirror reflection of the candidate.  And she does accept responsibility, but she doesn’t do it exclusively.  She wants to share it with some in the press, with other forces in our society.

DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times:  Well, as for the book, it’s tough to be reflective and a good storyteller and be in the public sphere.

You’re so active that you don’t have time for reflection.  And I read the book.  And I thought it was interesting, by political standards, way more interesting.  I think she’s right, as she said in the interview, that it was just not her year.  She’s not going to the anger, outsider politician.

I think she’s pushed up too much emphasis on Comey and all that other stuff and the Russians in blaming this.  But she has cusps of thoughts throughout the book.

For example, at one point, she says she really loves the parable of the prodigal son.  And she says, I’m so much like the older brother, who is the rule follower.  And, of course, then you think, well, Bill Clinton is the ultimate younger brother, the prodigal son.  And she’s on the cusp of a really interesting insight about her relationship with him.

But she can’t — she never, never takes the next step.  And I think that’s just because active people — I remember I once interviewed Margaret Thatcher, and she was the same way — so much active, not a writer, not reflective, not getting the analysis you actually want.

But that’s just a product of being in the public sphere.  I think the book with is far more interesting than most political books of that sort.

POLITICS - One on One, Hillary Clinton

"Dissecting the election, Hillary Clinton sees dangers for democracy" PBS NewsHour 9/15/2017


SUMMARY:  Calling the Trump presidency "a clear and present danger to our country and to the world,” [I agree] Hillary Clinton says there is no leadership from the White House on exposing how Russia tried to destabilize American democracy.  The former Senator, Secretary of State, First Lady and presidential candidate, sits down with Judy Woodruff to discuss her new memoir, “What Happened,” and much more.

LOOKING BACK - Vietnam War, 11/1/1955 to 04/30/1975

Personal note.  I am a Vietnam Vet, USN 22yrs (retired).

"The first American Vietnam War POW on why we need to understand the war" by Anne Azzi and Alison Thoet, PBS NewsHour 9/14/2017

"Why America is still raw over the Vietnam War" PBS NewsHour 9/14/2017

Because it's a prime example of overreach of government power, and the ending of trusting government.  (Vietnam War Wikipedia)


SUMMARY:  Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick sorted through 5,000 hours of historical footage and photos for a documentary that took 10 years to create.  The new PBS documentary series, “The Vietnam War” takes us to a moment in history that is still not fully understood, and comes at a moment when we're thinking about America's role in the world.  Judy Woodruff discusses its resonance with Burns and Novick.

"Voices from all sides trace deep roots and wounds in 'Vietnam War'" PBS NewsHour 9/15/2017


SUMMARY:  Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick spent a decade talking to hundreds of veterans from both sides of the Vietnam War, to capture the complexity of perspectives that persists years later.  In the second part of their conversation, Judy Woodruff speaks with Burns and Novick about their new PBS documentary series, “The Vietnam War.”

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  But, Lynn, do you come away, do you think, understanding how the United States got pulled into this, despite the French being kicked out, essentially, Dien Bien Phu?

Senator John F. Kennedy saying the Americans don’t belong in a land war in Asia.  Decisions made by Eisenhower not to get involved.  And yet the United States was pulled in.


JUDY WOODRUFF:  Did you understand why, at the end, do you think?

LYNN NOVICK:  Well, it is sometimes stunning to think, with all those road maps and signposts saying don’t do it, we still did.

It seems clear that there’s definitely a Cold War context that’s very important, and certain kind of received wisdom, conventional wisdom about that, and that we have to stop communism and containment and that whole idea.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Even so, the film shows that, in May of 1964, President Johnson himself expressed misgivings about why the U.S. was at war and Vietnam’s value in a phone call with national security adviser McGeorge Bundy.

FORMER PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON:  I just laid awake last night thinking about this thing.  The more I think of it, I don’t know what in the hell — it looks like to me we are getting into another Korea.

It just worries the hell out of me.  I don’t see what we can ever hope to get out of there with, once we’re committed.  I don’t think it’s worth fighting for, and I don’t think we can get out, and it’s just the biggest damn mess.

MCGEORGE BUNDY, Former National Security Advisor:  It is an awful mess.

FORMER PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON:  And I just thought about ordering those kids in there.  And what the hell am I ordering them out there for?  What in the hell is Vietnam worth to me?  What is it worth to this country?


FORMER PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON:  Now, of course, if you start running into communists, they may just chase you right in your own kitchen.

MCGEORGE BUNDY:  Yes, that’s the trouble.  And that’s what the rest of the — that half of the world is going to think if this thing comes apart on us.

MAKING SEN$E - Tech Control of Our Lives

"How tech giants have shredded our privacy and what we should do about it" by Sam Lane, PBS NewsHour 9/14/2017

Editor's note:  Franklin Foer, a former editor of the “New Republic,” is the author of the new book, “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.”  Foer argues that the corporate ambitions of four major technology companies — Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple, or “GAFA” — are “shredding the principles that protect individuality.  Their devices and sites have collapsed privacy.”

NewsHour business and economics correspondent Paul Solman sat down recently with Foer at his home in Washington, where he offered his thoughts on the big tech corporations, the media, “fake news” and what we can do about it.

In his words:

On Google's influence:

Google's ability to pick winners and losers in the information world is a menace.  These companies have the ability to determine which media companies are successful and which ones are failures.  If I adopt a business plan that doesn't line up with Google's, then they're not going to reward me.  If I produce content in a way that somehow doesn't accord with the values of their algorithms, they're not going to reward me … That gives them incredible power in our society.

Google likes to pretend that it's neutral.  That it's this scientific search engine that's just about the mathematics that leads it to say one thing is more important than another …  Who knows why those are better than others?  Only Google.  They don't explain their algorithm to anybody else.  It's highly un-transparent.

On Facebook's algorithms:

If I'm reading my Facebook feed, it's using algorithms, procedures and methods to give me what I want, or what it thinks that I want, or what suits its business plan.

Right now, Facebook wants to make money off of video.  So, even though I prefer words to video, it's giving me video constantly.  And even though I'm somebody who likes to read conservatives, likes to read people on the far left, it's essentially only giving me screeds against Donald Trump because that's what, based on my data, it thinks that I want.

On our dependence on Amazon:

Booksellers initially thought of Amazon as their best friend.  They were coming in and they were challenging Barnes and Noble, and Borders, which were the big, dominant corporations of the day, and that they would disrupt them and make them less powerful, but they could never envision that Amazon would overtake them all.

The problem is that, as producers of books, we're utterly dependent on Amazon.  And Amazon has the ability to pick winners and losers in the book world just as Facebook and Google pick winners and losers in the information world.  And that's just too much power to be invested in one company.

On Apple's disruption of the music and TV industries:

I'm a little bit less hard on Apple in the book because they've been less successful at being an informational gatekeeper in some ways than Google or Facebook.

Apple was very important in terms of disrupting the music business and remaking the television business.  They made it harder for people to make money on the things that they produce.  In news, they've created Apple News and they've tried to steer people towards information.  It is important, and it is powerful, but it's not quite the same power that Google and Facebook have when it comes to the distribution of information.

On the media:

Our media companies — even the New York Times and the Washington Post — are extremely dependent on Google and Facebook for their traffic.  Their readership has declined in terms of subscribers.  So, in order to thrive, they have to get viewers and readers through Facebook and Google.  They adopt the techniques that Google and Facebook reward.  And, in the case of politics, the thing that they reward are the things that tell us what we want to hear …

Media companies are profit making enterprises.  But they're also companies that serve an important democratic function, and at a certain point there's tension between their profit making motive and their democratic motive.

On fake news:

When you see an article on Facebook, it's an article on Facebook.  It's not necessarily an article from the New York Times or Fox News.

People stopped paying attention to the source.  They stopped thinking about the authority of the source, and it just becomes this stew.  We're constantly taking spoonfuls from the stew, not really thinking about what vegetables we're putting in our mouth and what pieces of meat we're putting in our mouth.

That's the problem.  That's why fake news, or less credible theories, are able to flourish.

What's next?

These companies are using our data.  They act as if they own that data, but really that data is ours.  It's a reflection of our psyches, it's a reflection of our personal history.  It's ourselves in numeric form.

I think the fact that they're using something that doesn't fully belong to them requires certain obligations of them.  It's like the environment.  We allow companies to degrade the environment.  The environment doesn't belong to them, but we say, “Okay, you can do a little bit of polluting.  You can do a little bit of logging.  You can do these things that we all suffer from to a certain extent because that's capitalism.”  But, on the other hand, we say, “because you're using the environment, there's certain obligations that you have.  You can't abuse the environment too much.”

I think the same thing should be true for our data.  These companies should be allowed to exploit our data to some extent, but we need to put more severe restrictions on them about how they can degrade our data because it does not belong to them

"Are big tech companies trying to control our lives?" PBS NewsHour 9/14/2017


SUMMARY:  Should we be concerned about the growing power of tech giants?  In his book, “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech,” Franklin Foer says that more than their size, these companies are a threat because of the ways they shape how we filter information and the world.  Economics correspondent Paul Solman explores the role of tech companies as gatekeepers.


"The Terry Gross you don't see on the radio" PBS NewsHour 9/14/2017


SUMMARY:  Terry Gross, host of NPR's Fresh Air, is famous for her interviews that probe into the lives, loves and work of notable people.  What would she talk about if her interviews were more about her own life?  Her love of classic character actor Charles Laughton, the musical "Sweeney Todd" and her husband Francis.  Gross gives her Brief but Spectacular take on interviewing.

CRIME SCENES - Access to Violent Extremist Videos

"When limiting access to violent extremist videos could be erasing evidence" PBS NewsHour 9/13/2017

The answer is, WHY and by WHO the video is posted?  Was it posted for sensitizing violence, an extremest view, or to promote hate?


SUMMARY:  Aiming to remove violent and extremist content from its website, YouTube took down hundreds of videos from the Syrian war.  But researchers and advocates have pushed back, claiming the company removed potential evidence of human rights violations.  Former U.S. Ambassador Stephen Rapp and Issie Lapowsky of Wired Magazine, join Hari Sreenivasan to discuss these concerns.

GRAPPLING WITH HISTORY - Confederate Monuments

"Confederate monument removed by one Kentucky city finds another home" PBS NewsHour 9/13/2017


SUMMARY:  Cities around the country are grappling with whether to keep or take down monuments.  In Louisville, Kentucky, a monument honoring confederate soldiers has been the source of controversy for years, even after its removal.  Forty miles to the southwest, in the town of Brandenburg, the statue was taken with open arms.  Jeffrey Brown reports on Kentucky's understanding of its past and present.

THE LEADING EDGE - Cassini Funeral Pyre

"Why NASA's Cassini will take a fiery swan dive into Saturn" PBS NewsHour 9/13/2017


SUMMARY:  Some 800 million miles away, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has orbited Saturn and captured images of its rings and icy moons.  After nearly 5 billion miles traveled and 20 years of sending revealing data from the gas giant, Cassini is winding down its way toward a suicide plunge into the planet.  Science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports on how NASA is choreographing the spacecraft's final dive.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM (NewsHour):  Some of the numbers involved in the Cassini mission are truly mind-blowing.

More than 290 orbits of Saturn, nearly five billion miles traveled, 450,000-plus images taken. There have been nearly 4,000 papers published about the work. And it included the participation of 27 nations.

NOVA "Death Dive to Saturn"

SCIENCE - Genetic Lyme Uptick

"Could genetically engineered mice reduce Lyme disease?" PBS NewsHour 9/12/2017


SUMMARY:  Lyme disease has become part of daily life for residents on the rural Massachusetts islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, where the tick population has exploded.  Now a scientist at MIT is turning to a different culprit -- infected white-footed mice -- in an attempt to engineer a long-term solution to the problem.  Special correspondent Cristina Quinn of WGBH reports.

POLITICS - Compromise as Evil

Here's the truth.  Starting just after Obama won election (before he was sworn into office) Republicans have made "compromise" an evil word.  Trash the concept that compromise it at the heart of governing.  They became the our-way-or-no-way party.

"Rep. Meadows: Trump debt ceiling deal with Democrats was a 'necessary evil'" PBS NewsHour 9/12/2017


SUMMARY:  President Trump's decision to side with Democrats on the debt ceiling deal frustrated critics on the right, including North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, who was one of 90 House Republicans to vote against a package to fund the government and Hurricane Harvey aid.  John Yang talks with Meadows about divisions within the GOP, how the party can get results and what's on the agenda.


"Job training and community college put coal miners on a new path" PBS NewsHour 9/12/2017


SUMMARY:  Coal miners in the heart of Appalachia face unemployment and uncertainty as the expansion of automation and natural gas threatens the industry that's been an economic bedrock.  But a West Virginia nonprofit matches displaced workers to sustainable jobs in agriculture or carpentry while helping them pursue associate degrees.  Hari Sreenivasan reports as part of our series, Rethinking College.

Monday, September 11, 2017

OPINION - Shields and Gerson 9/8/2017

"Shields and Gerson on Trump's deal with Democrats, DACA's demise" PBS NewsHour 9/8/2017


SUMMARY:  Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson join John Yang to discuss the week's news, including President Trump decision to side with leading Democrats in a deal on the debt ceiling and Hurricane Harvey aid, the move to end DACA and whether more moderate Republican lawmakers will retire from Congress.

JOHN YANG (NewsHour):  From hurricanes to wildfires, natural disasters have drawn the country's attention away from the political storms in Washington this week.

But rest assured, we will bring you up to speed now with the analysis of Shields and Gerson.  That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson.  David Brooks is away.

Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

We had the unusual scene this week of a bipartisan leadership meeting in the Oval Office, and the President cuts off his own treasury secretary as he's making a recommendation and agrees with the opposition party on this debt ceiling, on a short-term C.R.  and Harvey aid.

Michael, what do you make of all this?

MICHAEL GERSON, The Washington Post:  Well, it's just a massive shift.

It wasn't that long ago they were talking about putting the wall on the debt relief.  And so it's a huge change.  I think that, you know, the Art of the Deal is easy when you surrender.  That book wouldn't sell very well, but it's true.

And he signaled surrender, not just on this issue, but somewhat on DACA and somewhat on the whole issue of debt, the debt ceiling, trying to get that out of American politics.  So it was a firestorm for Republicans.  They're wondering, is this the new world?


MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist:  I'm not sure it's the new world, but I am sure that, if I were Mitch McConnell, I would be seething with anger, the Republican Senate leader, because what Donald Trump did to him and to Paul Ryan (the speaker) was cut them off at the knees.

They had to go back to their respective caucuses and tell them, no, they weren't going to take the position that they in fact had endorsed and told them they were going to take on the debt ceiling and the continuing spending resolution, but, in fact, they were going to follow the advice embraced by the President of Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate leader, and Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic Well.

So, if you're McConnell, just taking it from his perspective, he's trying to hold on to a Senate majority going into headwinds of 2018, which doesn't look like a good Republican year, and he's got a President who is not helping him in that sense.  He's got to have something he can point to that the Senate has accomplished.

The last, best hope, or only hope, actually, is probably tax cuts for their supporters and their admirers.  And without the President, he can't do that.  And so he has to bite his tongue, bite his lip, and any other part of his facial extremity that he can and swallow hard, because he just — he was really diminished by this.

MICHAEL GERSON:  Yes, I think we Republican leaders look pathetic, though, in a certain way.

They were livid, according to the reporting, on that three-month debt increase.  They weren't livid on nativism.  They weren't livid on misogyny.  They were not livid on serial lying.

I think that it makes them look like they have kind of a moral center problem, that this is what the final straw is, is a difficulty.  Also, they have given a lot.  They have given their standing.  They have given their — almost their political character for nothing so far.


MICHAEL GERSON:  I mean, they have literally gotten nothing.  And tax reform may not even happen, and if it happens, it might be a scaled-back version.

So they have give an whole lot for very little in return.

MARK SHIELDS:  You're absolutely right, Michael.

But I would just add that one picture that came out of that meeting of Donald Trump and Chuck Schumer each with their hands on the other's lapels and shoulder, you could almost see them — kind of Trump was in his element, trash-talking to Schumer.  And I knew you.  You were from James Madison High School in Brooklyn, and Schumer to him saying something like, Donald, you're from Jamaica, Queens.  Who are you kidding?

And it's not a continuing relationship, but there's a chemistry there that isn't present with either McConnell or Ryan.  Ryan is a choir boy to Donald Trump.  He's a darling of The Wall Street Journal editorial page.  He's never had a relationship with McConnell.

I agree, but — I agree with what Michael's point is.  What were the words of Charlie Sykes, the Republican talk show host from Wisconsin who's a friend of Paul Ryan's?  He said, quoting “A Man for All Seasons,” Paul, you know, for whales, you have traded your soul, but for a tax cut, you have traded your soul.

And I think there's a lot of truth to that.

MICHAEL GERSON:  He's a diminished figure.


JOHN YANG:  Chuck Schumer, who he called the chief clown, and is now…


MARK SHIELDS:  Yes, exactly, exactly.

JOHN YANG:  And Mitch McConnell — the President invited the Cabinet and their spouses up to Camp David this weekend.  One Cabinet spouse who declined, Mitch McConnell.

And how much was a shot across the bow at the Democratic — at the Republican leader — sorry — and was it his intent to diminish them?  And how much of this was situational?  He saw a deal he could take with the Democrats, and so he took it?

MARK SHIELDS:  I think it's always the latter with him.

And what was really remarkable was, he was delighted, was the President, in getting favorable reviews in the press that he hates, that he diminishes, that he denigrates on a regular basis, The New York Times, The Washington Post.

And so thrilled was he, he actually called Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to bask in it and tell them the good reviews they were getting.

I mean, no, this is not a matter of strategy or conviction.  It's a matter of…

MICHAEL GERSON:  It's not a violation of his convictions.  I'm not sure he has any.

He has a set of instincts, which are nativist and nationalist.  But I don't think he has a set of economic and political philosophic conventions on spending or a lot of other issues.  So, when he makes this kind of turn, I think it's relatively easy for him.

DATA SECURITY - The Equifax Hack

"Hackers accessed personal data from 143 million Equifax customers.  Here's what we know." by Erica R. Hendry, PBS NewsHour 9/7/2017
Equifax, a major credit reporting agency, announced Thursday that hackers had gained access to personal data from approximately 143 million of its customers.

Here's what we know.

What happened?

Sometime between mid-May and July, hackers breached an Equifax web application, gaining access to the names, birth dates, addresses, Social Security numbers and, in some cases, driver's license numbers of some 143 million customers, the company said in a blog post Thursday.

Equifax discovered the breach July 29.  The company says it has “no evidence of unauthorized activity on Equifax's core consumer or commercial credit reporting databases.”

Who's affected?

Equifax is one of the three major credit tracking companies in the country.

The number of customers affected in this breach amounts to nearly half of the entire U.S. population, which was 324 million in a U.S. census count in January, CNBC points out.

Along with the sensitive personal data, hackers also gained access to credit card numbers of 209,000 U.S. customers and documents related to credit report disputes from another 182,000 American consumers.

TechCrunch says citizens of Canada and the UK were also affected by the breach.

How bad is this?

As TechCrunch put it:  “pretty bad.”

Reporter Ron Miller writes:

This is not the worst breach of all time by a long shot in terms of pure numbers.  That distinction goes to Yahoo, now part of Oath (which was acquired by our parent company, Verizon).  They had a leak involving more than a billion users.

But this leak is particularly worrisome because Equifax is a credit reporting service and tracks a history of your consumer life, credit cards, credit scores and more — and it gives the black market a potential gold mine of information about people's financial lives.

“In addition to the number [of victims] being really large, the type of information that has been exposed is really sensitive,” said Beth Givens, executive director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, told the Washington Post.  “All in all, this has the potential to be a very harmful breach to those who are affected by it.”

What's next?

Equifax's stock fell 9 percent after the news broke, USA Today noted.

The company has set up a website — — for consumers to see whether, and how much of, their data was breached.  It's offering free credit monitoring to all those affected by the hack.

Meanwhile, law enforcement and an independent cybersecurity firm are investigating the scope of the hack and how it occurred.  They're expecting to release their findings in the coming weeks.

"Did the Equifax hack put your personal data at risk?  Here's what to do now." PBS NewsHour 9/8/2017


SUMMARY:  Half of all Americans could have had their sensitive data compromised by a security breach at the credit reporting agency Equifax.  William Brangham joins John Yang to discuss what happened and what consumers should do to safeguard their credit.

ARTS - The Art of Glass

"Forging art and business in Dale Chihuly's workshop" PBS NewsHour 9/8/2017


SUMMARY:  Artist Dale Chihuly has become synonymous with reimagining what glass can do.  Having long ago stopped blowing glass himself, at 75, he heads an art world enterprise at his Seattle studio.  But using a team of artists to create his works has also raised questions over who is really making his art.  Jeffrey Brown visits Chihuly at his studio to discuss his career, his mental health and more.

POLITICS - Our Federal Debt Ceiling

Federal Debt Ceiling is our nation's 'credit card' limit.

"What you need to know about the federal debt ceiling, and why you should care" PBS NewsHour 9/7/2017


SUMMARY:  An agreement between President Trump and Democrats for a three-month extension for the debt ceiling means Congress temporarily ducks a political debate.  But the recurring battle will surface again in December.  What could happen if we don't raise the debt limit?  Lisa Desjardins explains the history of the debt limit and how it works.

SPORTS - All American U.S.-Open Tennis

"Can a new generation of Americans serve up great tennis?" PBS NewsHour 9/7/2017


SUMMARY:  For the first time since 1981, all four women's U.S. Open semifinalists are American.  But it's a different story for their male counterparts, who haven't won the semifinals since Andy Roddick in 2003.  It's a long drought that American tennis officials are determined to end.  Jeffrey Brown reports on why the U.S. is losing its competitive advantage in the world of men's tennis.

THE LEADING EDGE - Smart Traffic

"How Pittsburgh is test driving tech to make your commute smarter" PBS NewsHour 9/6/2017


SUMMARY:  Robotics experts at Carnegie Mellon University are harnessing technology to address the rush-hour traffic that plagues commuters across the country.  Using artificial intelligence and existing infrastructure, their software could reshape the daily commute for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians by reducing travel times and fixing potholes.  Jeffrey Brown reports.

TRUMP AGENDA - 'Come on Down.  Let's Make a Deal'

"Trump makes a debt ceiling deal with Democrats, complicating work for Republicans" PBS NewsHour 9/6/2017


SUMMARY:  President Trump has sided with Democrats in a deal to tie $7.9 billion in Hurricane Harvey relief to funding the government and raising the debt ceiling.  The deal complicates relations with Republicans, who wanted a longer-term fix to the debt ceiling.  John Yang unpacks the proposal and what it means for the agenda awaiting Congress with Erica Werner of the Associated Press.

SPORTS - Technological Cheating

"Baseball teams have always stolen signs.  Here's what makes the Red Sox accusations different" PBS NewsHour 9/6/2017


SUMMARY:  The Boston Red Sox are accused of using technology to record and decode the signals between New York Yankees' pitchers and catchers in order to use that information to their advantage in the middle of the game.  William Brangham is joined by journalist Joshua Prager to discuss the history of sign-stealing in baseball and whether this strategy clashes with the rules of the game.

GREECE - Ancient Whistling Language

"This ancient whistling language is in grave danger of dying out" PBS NewsHour 9/5/2017


SUMMARY:  In the Greek island village of Antio, home to the world's most endangered language, aging residents communicate across hillsides through whistles [language], a specific system of communication believed to date back to Ancient Greece.  Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports on how they hope to save their language from extinction and what it has in common with Twitter.

SOUTH KOREA - Response to Trump's Agenda

"How South Koreans are responding to pressure on North Korea from Trump" PBS NewsHour 9/5/2017


SUMMARY:  South Korea conducted more military drills Tuesday, the latest to deter North Korea after its nuclear test on Sunday.  But there are growing concerns about U.S.-South Korea relations, as President Trump pushes South Korea to get tougher, threatening a trade deal and potentially driving a wedge between the two allies.  William Brangham reports on the tensions rising with the Korean peninsula.

RETHINKING COLLEGE - OnLine Graduate Programs

"How online graduate programs offer degrees at significant savings" PBS NewsHour 9/5/2017


SUMMARY:  As technology evolves and more online graduate programs become available at a much lower cost, should we reconsider traditional higher education in a classroom setting?  Hari Sreenivasan reports on how some students earning master's degrees at Georgia Tech are paying little or nothing for online courses from a top program.

TRUMP AGENDA - The Con Sold to American Workers

"Has Trump been a friend to workers or just good for business?" PBS NewsHour 9/4/2017


SUMMARY:  President Trump ran on a platform of job creation and drew support from many blue-collar workers concerned about employment and stagnant wages.  So how is the president doing in keeping his promise to revitalize jobs in America?  William Brangham talks to New York Times contributor Steven Greenhouse about American labor in the Trump era.

IN MEMORIAM - Walter Becker

"Walter Becker, introspective rocker of Steely Dan, dies at 67" PBS NewsHour 9/4/2017


SUMMARY:  Steely Dan co-founder and guitarist Walter Becker died Sunday at 67.  He formed Steely Dan in 1971 and introduced a unique sound in rock, with hits such as “Do it Again” and “Reeling' in the Years.”  John Yang remembers the artist.

Friday, September 08, 2017

JUSTICE IN AMERICA - Prosecutors' Ego Comes First, Justice Last

"What Does an Innocent Man Have to Do to Go Free?  Plead Guilty" by Megan Rose, ProPublica 9/7/2017

A case in Baltimore — in which two men were convicted of the same murder and cleared by DNA 20 years later — shows how far prosecutors will go to preserve a conviction.

This story was co-published with The Atlantic.

On Oct. 15, 2008, James Owens shuffled, head high despite his shackles, into a Baltimore courtroom, eager for his new trial to begin.  Two decades into a life sentence, he would finally have his chance to prove what he'd been saying all along: The state had the wrong man.

Owens had been convicted of murdering a 24-year-old college student, who was found raped and stabbed in her home.  Then he'd been shunted off to state prison until DNA testing — the scientific marvel that he'd watched for years free other men — finally caught up with his case in 2006.  The semen that had been found inside the victim wasn't his.  A Maryland court tossed his conviction and granted Owens a rare do-over trial.

State prosecutors balked, insisting they still had enough evidence to keep Owens locked away and vowed to retry him.  But they had also offered him an unusual deal.  He could guarantee his immediate release from prison with no retrial and no danger of a new conviction — if he'd agree to plead guilty.  The deal, known as an Alford plea, came with what seemed like an additional carrot: Despite pleading guilty, the Alford plea would allow Owens to say on the record that he was innocent.  The Alford plea was an enticing chance for Owens, by then 43, to move on as a free man.  But he'd give up a chance at exoneration.  To the world, and legally, he'd still be a killer.

Owens refused the deal.  He told his lawyer he wanted to clear his name, and he was willing to take his chances in court and wait in prison however long it took for a new trial to begin.  It was a startling choice for an incarcerated defendant — even those with persuasive stories of innocence typically don't trust the system enough to roll the dice again with 12 jurors or an appellate court.  Most defendants, lawyers say, instinctively and rationally, grab any deal they can to win their freedom back.

The decision cost Owens 16 more months behind bars.  Then, on that fall day in 2008, when the trial was set to begin, the prosecutor stood and, without a glance at Owens, told the judge, “The state declines to prosecute.”

In a legal gamble in which the prosecution typically holds the winning cards, Owens had called the state's bluff.  He walked out that day exonerated — and with the right to sue the state for the 21 years he spent wrongly imprisoned.

It seemed the ultimate victory in a city like Baltimore, with its deeply rooted and often justified mistrust of police and prosecutors.  But Owens wasn't the only man convicted of murdering that 24-year-old college student.  Another white Baltimore man, James Thompson, had also been put away for life.  Tests showed that his DNA didn't match the semen either, but the state's attorney's office refused to drop the charges.  Instead, as it had with Owens, it offered Thompson an Alford plea.  Thompson grabbed the deal and walked out of prison a convicted murderer.
Same crime.  Same evidence.  Very different endings.

Ever since DNA ushered in a new era in criminal justice, even the toughest law-and-order advocates have come to acknowledge a hard truth: Sometimes innocent people are locked away for crimes they didn't commit.  Less widely understood is just how reluctant the system is to righting those wrongs.

Courts only assess guilt or innocence before a conviction.  After that, appellate courts focus solely on fairness.  Did everyone follow the rules and live up to their duties?  Getting a re-hearing of the facts is a monumental, often decades-long quest through a legal thicket.  Most defendants never get to start the process, let alone win.  Even newly discovered evidence is not enough in many cases to prompt a review.  And, for the tiny percentage of defendants who get one, the prosecutors still have the advantage: They have final discretion about whether to press charges and how severe they'll be.  Powerful influence over the pace of a case, the sentence and bail.  And, compared with an incarcerated defendant, vast resources.

No one tracks how often the wrongly convicted are pressured to accept plea deals in lieu of exonerations.  But in Baltimore City and County alone — two separate jurisdictions with their own state's attorneys — ProPublica identified at least 10 cases in the last 19 years in which defendants with viable innocence claims ended up signing Alford pleas or time-served deals.  In each case, exculpatory evidence was uncovered, persuasive enough to garner new trials, evidentiary hearings or writs of actual innocence.  Prosecutors defend the original convictions, arguing, then and now, that the deals were made for valid reasons — such as the death of a key witness or a victim's unwillingness to weather a retrial.  The current state's attorney in Baltimore County, Scott Schellenberger, said that “prosecutors take their oath to get it right very seriously” and wouldn't stand in the way of exoneration if the facts called for it.

The menace of such deals, though, is clear: At worst, innocent people are stigmatized and unable to sue the state for false imprisonment, prosecutors keep unearned wins on their case records and those of the department, and no one re-investigates the crime — the real suspect is never brought to justice.

The plea deals ProPublica examined in Baltimore City involved two prior state's attorneys.  A spokeswoman for Marilyn Mosby, the current chief, didn't respond to numerous requests for comment or for interviews with prosecutors in those cases.

The pleas in two of these Baltimore cases were later overturned after misconduct was uncovered in the original convictions, and the men won full exonerations.  One, Walter Lomax, a black man convicted by an all-white jury shortly after the 1968 race riots in the city, served 38 years of a life sentence before taking a time-served deal in 2006.  The state didn't concede he was innocent until 2014.

Wrongful convictions are bad enough, Lomax said, but they're even more “horrible when it becomes obvious the person is innocent and the state won't at the very least acknowledge that.”

Some legal and cognitive science experts suggest that once detectives and prosecutors commit to a suspect and a theory of the crime, it changes how they evaluate evidence, and then the system itself exacerbates that focus at every step.  Prosecutors are rewarded for proving and defending their theories, leaving little incentive to acknowledge weaknesses in cases, particularly in high-stakes crimes such as rape and murder.  This mind-set is bolstered by one of the great positives of the system, one which legal experts, even those dedicated to exposing wrongful convictions, acknowledge: Prosecutors generally get it right.

Psychologists have a myriad of terms for the powerful, largely subconscious biases at play, but most people would call the collective phenomenon “tunnel vision.”

Wrongful convictions involving violent crimes typically involve poor, often minority defendants, sometimes with limited education or IQs, who are convicted on scant evidence or flawed forensics.  The cases are fueled by an early theory of the crime that relentlessly drives the investigation and prosecution — even, in some cases, to official misconduct.

“At some point psychologically, you go from figuring out what happened to figuring out how to prove it happened the way you said it did,” Barbara O'Brien, a law professor involved with the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan, said.  “It's very difficult to take a step back from that.”

Marty Stroud, a former Louisiana prosecutor, made national headlines in 2015 when he penned a rare public apology for putting an innocent man on death row for 31 years.  He told me recently that the system comes down hardest on those without the means to defend themselves.  “It's easy to prosecute those people and put them away and not think twice about it because no one is speaking for them,” he said.

The certitude of detectives and prosecutors hardens when their theory is validated by a judge or jury, and later, by an appellate court.  Time, instead of allowing for fresh eyes, often makes biases worse.  When a defendant like Owens gets a new hearing, the district or state's attorney's office — long committed to his guilt — has to re-justify that decision.

If they admit they got it wrong, prosecutors have to accept that a person was robbed of years of his life, the real perpetrator was never found, the victim's family was let down, and, to top it off, they now have a cold case that's unlikely to be solved.  With the Alford plea, not only is the real perpetrator not caught but the case is officially closed on the books.  It also dings their won-loss record on typically high-profile cases.  The idea of a wrongful conviction, Stroud said, assaults a prosecutor's sense of identity that “we're the good guys.  We have the white hats and are putting the bad guys in jail.”

Exonerations are also like a Pandora's box in two important and unsettling ways.  First, looking closely at why wrongful convictions happen — even in cases when everyone worked in good faith — could force a reckoning about deeply held beliefs on what is required to solve and punish crimes.  False confessions, for example, often are a result of time-honored, and perfectly legal, tactics to soften up a suspect, such as lying or conducting questioning in the dead of night, said Steven Drizin, the former director of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions.  When wrongful convictions are a result of misconduct, there could be a string of other bad convictions connected to that prosecutor or detective.

It's no coincidence, many defense lawyers across the country say, that when misconduct comes up, prosecutors are quicker to propose an Alford plea or similar deal, effectively quashing any further inquiry into the behavior.  One ACLU attorney told me about a galling Alabama case in which prosecutors insisted they would re-seek the death penalty, and it was “only because we were continuing to expose prosecutorial misconduct that they finally agreed to settle the case.”
On a muggy August evening in 1987, police officers swarmed a block of squat brick rowhouses in a mostly white, working-class neighborhood in southeast Baltimore.  A young woman had been raped, strangled with a sock and stabbed to death in her second-floor bedroom.  Detective Thomas Pellegrini, who'd been assigned to homicide only the year before and, who, by his own admission, was green enough not to sweat the details, caught the case as lead detective.  He was assisted by Detective Gary Dunnigan and the squad's boss, Sgt. Jay Landsman.  The trio would become famous a few years later when David Simon heralded them in his book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” and on the subsequent prime-time TV show it inspired.

The next morning, the neighborhood reverberated with the choppy drone of police helicopters circling overhead.  Thompson, a gas station attendant who'd suffered a brain injury in childhood, lived down the street with his wife and their two young boys.  He'd heard detectives were looking for a knife and offering a $1,000 reward.  It seemed a prime opportunity for a quick buck.  The short, stocky 27-year-old wandered over to the yellow police tape and handed Pellegrini a large switchblade.  Thompson said he'd found the bloody weapon in the grass the night before, pocketed it, and cleaned it at home — somehow unaware of the massive overnight police presence.  At Pellegrini's urging, he fetched a pair of cut-off jeans he said he'd been wearing at the time, which had a small bloodstain on the back right pocket.

Forensics showed a possible presence of blood or other unknown substance on a small area of the knife and no evidence to suggest it was used in a violent struggle, such as a broken tip from hitting bone.  The detectives moved forward on the assumption it was the murder weapon.

Two days later, rather than being thanked and handed the reward money, Thompson found himself under suspicion.  In a panic, he fingered Owens.  The two had been casual friends, but they'd had a falling out over accusations of theft when they'd briefly worked together at the gas station.  In a thoughtless burst of vengeance, Thompson gave an official statement at the police station; he said the knife was actually his but claimed Owens had stolen it and then told him where to find it the day after the murder.  Thompson noticed the detectives ate up everything and realized they had nothing else to go on.  At the time, there seemed to be no risk in just making it up as he went along.  After he retrieved the knife, Thompson told detectives, Owens washed it in the kitchen sink.  Thompson didn't give the police any details about the murder, but he said Owens had told him he'd had sex with the victim.

Owens, 22 at the time, was arrested and charged with burglary, rape and first-degree murder.  In just 72 hours, the detectives had closed the case.  There was no forensic evidence, motive or eyewitnesses linking Owens to the crime.  Landsman and Pellegrini would later say they had believed at the time that without Thompson, Owens would walk.  Even the prosecutor, Marvin “Sam” Brave, said he viewed Thompson's story as “implausible” and didn't think he had the truth, but he nevertheless pressed charges.

Brave recently told me that “if you think you've got the right guy, but not that you can necessarily prove it beyond reasonable doubt, it doesn't mean you don't go forward.”
When Owens' trial began in February 1988, Thompson was the star witness.  He'd considered coming clean several times but was afraid he'd be sent to jail.  He'd lied to the cops during a previous encounter and had been arrested for making a false police report.  Despite that history, the detectives in this case had made him feel like a hero.  Pellegrini didn't think Thompson was “the sharpest pencil in the box,” but at that point in his career, he said in a recent deposition, he thought only suspects would lie to him.  Brave also was unconcerned.  “If the part that you think he is telling the truth [about] contributes to your case, you use it,” he said.  “He doesn't have to be telling the truth about everything.”  The rest of the case relied mainly on minor scratches Owens, a factory worker, had on his arm and a spot of possible blood that had been swabbed from his hand.  Two jailhouse snitches who'd been Owens' cellmates while he awaited trial claimed he had separately confessed to them, though the story Owens purportedly told them contradicted the version Thompson had given police.

In his opening statement, Brave told the jury that any notion that police had “bungled the investigation” and the defendant was innocent was from the fantastical realm of television.  But Brave was concerned enough about Thompson's story that he took him aside the morning of his testimony and warned he was going to “look silly” and it was time he “told us the truth about how that knife really got back into his possession,” according to testimony Brave later gave about the conversation.  He even assured Thompson he wouldn't be prosecuted for making a false statement.

When Thompson took the stand, he told the jury he'd had a “heart to heart” with the prosecutor and was “ready to tell the truth.”  In this new version of events — which Brave described later as “sellable” to a jury — Thompson said that around 8 a.m.  the morning after the murder, Owens had come by his house and given him the bloody knife.  Except this story, too, was a lie.  As one of the detectives noted to Brave afterward, Owens' boss had told police he'd been at work by that point in the morning.  “The more I tried to fix things to go in my favor, the bigger hole I dug for myself,” Thompson told me recently.

That Friday Brave went home “really worried about the case,” and stewed over the weekend that he was on “a sinking ship.”  Late Sunday evening, he met with Pellegrini and told him to take blood and hair samples from Thompson for testing to exclude him as a suspect and bolster his credibility as a witness.  Brave already knew the pubic hairs found on the victim didn't match Owens.  Neither did saliva on a cigarette found at the scene.

During a lunch break at trial the next day, Brave and the three detectives met with the city's forensics expert who, they said, told them the hair was a match to Thompson.  Detectives brought Thompson in, read him his rights, and told him “he was in a lot of trouble” and might be charged.  His hair, Landsman told him, had been found in the victim's house.  Thompson later contended he knew this couldn't possibly be true — he hadn't been there at all.  But at the time, he said, he was scared and thought if he just said what pleased the detectives and got Owens convicted, he'd be alright.

In 1988, Baltimore's forensic examiner wrote on the back of a picture of Thompson's hair that his hair matched one found at the crime scene.  In 2010, the same examiner said pictures of the hair showed that they didn't match, moreover that type of hair analysis was no longer considered valid.  (Baltimore Police Department file, courtesy of Stephen Mercer)

Like an actor doing take after take to accommodate the wishes of a director, Thompson went through several more versions about what supposedly happened, adjusting his story to reflect additional pieces of evidence the detectives told him about.  Thompson first said he broke into the house but didn't go upstairs.  After the detectives told him his hair had been found on the second floor, Thompson then said he did go upstairs but hid in the bathroom while Owens attacked the victim after she unexpectedly came home.  Detectives then told him his pubic hair had been found on the victim's buttocks, suggesting his pants must have been down.  After several hours of this back and forth, Landsman went to the courtroom and handed Brave a note, saying Thompson had admitted to burglarizing the house with Owens.

Thompson was taken directly from the interrogation room to the witness stand to testify a second time.  Now, speaking so softly at first that the judge twice had to tell him to raise his voice, Thompson said he and Owens had broken into the apartment to steal jewelry, and Owens attacked the victim when she came home unexpectedly.  Then, while Owens raped her, Thompson testified that he masturbated over her back — his newly concocted explanation for how the pubic hair the state claimed was his had ended up on the victim.  Owens, Thompson said, then stabbed her and threw the knife on the ground, which Thompson picked up on the way out.

This was, unbeknownst to Owens or his lawyer, Thompson's eighth version of events — the one that satisfied the officers that they had enough “to get James Owens,” as one detective later put it.

Even on the stand implicating himself in the crime, with both Brave and Owens' lawyer stressing charges he might face, Thompson said the full ramifications of his lies didn't dawn on him.  He thought he'd be fine once the trial was over.

“I never hurt anyone.  I never touched that young lady,” Thompson said again and again on the stand, adding at one point that he'd take a polygraph to “prove my innocence on that particular behalf.”

Owens was convicted of the burglary and the murder but found not guilty of the rape.  Thompson's changing stories had cast enough doubt that Brave acknowledged in his closing argument that either man could have committed the rape.  Thompson, who had been arrested right after testifying and immediately recanted his confession, was later convicted of burglary, rape and murder.  Thompson's multiple different stories of the crime had been accepted as truth, but his multiple attempts to protest his innocence were taken as lies.

Both men were sentenced to life without parole.  Owens was the first in Maryland to receive such a punishment.

Owens never resigned himself to his fate.  A few years into his sentence, he read about DNA in a magazine and implored everyone he could think of to test the evidence in his case.  He eagerly conferred over coffee with Kirk Bloodsworth, the inmate across the hall, then cheered Bloodsworth's exoneration by DNA in 1993, the first of its kind in the nation involving a death sentence.  Shaking Bloodsworth's hand when he left prison, Owens thought, “Man, one day I'll be out there.”  Then the O.J. Simpson trial introduced him to Barry Scheck, the founder of the Innocence Project, and Owens sent his office a letter.  Shunned by his family and cut off from the way most convicts got cash, he traded chicken sandwiches from his kitchen job for stamps to mail it.  Still, no one took up the cause.  The semen found in the victim and the blood on Thompson's shorts sat undisturbed in the Baltimore medical examiner's office for 19 years.

Finally, after a special division within the Maryland public defender's office became interested, he got a new lawyer and a hearing.  A judge ordered DNA testing in 2006 — over the objections of prosecutors — and the results dismantled the state's theory of the crime.  At both trials, the state had argued that the break-in, the rape and the murder were inextricably linked.  At Owens's trial, the prosecutor told the jury Owens had leered at the victim as she sunbathed and “decided that he wanted her.”  He broke into her house, laid in wait for her to return, raped her, strangled her and “for good measure … mutilate[d] her with multiple stab wounds.”  The prosecution doubled down on this narrative at Thompson's trial, telling the jury he and Owens “had to humiliate [the victim] by taking turns raping her.”  And the blood on the back pocket of Thompson's shorts, the prosecutor said, was definitively the victim's.

DNA proved most of those arguments false.  The semen found in the victim didn't come from Owens or Thompson, and the blood on the shorts wasn't even from a woman.  It was Thompson's own.  When Owens heard the news at Jessup Correctional Institution, just southwest of Baltimore, he sat on the floor of his cell and cried.

The Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office was unmoved.  Prosecutors fought both Thompson and Owens as the two separately sought to have their convictions overturned.

Owens' case moved faster through the courts.  His new attorney was Stephen Mercer, a Maryland defense attorney with an earnestness that had survived more than 20 years in the trenches.  Mercer knew the state, with its evidence decimated, was going to push for a deal.  He fumed that prosecutors were using psychological warfare to do it — opposing bail and slowing the case, so Owens would spend more time on the inside thinking about being on the outside.  Owens' evidentiary hearing was moved from January to March to May.  Only then, nine months after the DNA showed Owens wasn't the rapist, did the state agree to a new trial while insisting that Owens was still guilty of murder.

The state's attorney's office, run at the time by Patricia Jessamy, argued that the rape was immaterial to the murder, and, a spokeswoman said, the DNA evidence was “trivial.” Mark Cohen, the new prosecutor, told Mercer that other evidence in the case, including Thompson's confession and the testimony of jailhouse informants, was still persuasive.  (Jessamy didn't respond to several phone messages requesting comment and Cohen has since died.)

Mercer said the prosecutor's stance was “very cynical.  It really seemed that the desire to keep the conviction was for reasons that had nothing to do with the evidence.”  The state's guiding star, Mercer knew, was a rigid belief that what was long ago decided by a jury, and upheld by an appellate court, shouldn't be continually second-guessed.

In Owens' case, it wasn't just the semen and the blood that didn't hold up 20 years later.  The type of hair analysis done on the pubic hair had subsequently been dismissed as junk science.  The hair, along with the knife, had been destroyed.  But the state's own expert, who'd inspected the hair at the time of the original trials, said at a hearing that the scientific community no longer does a visual hair comparison to “draw the conclusions we drew back in 1988 with a microscope.”  Now analysts use DNA analysis.

Not long after Owens was granted a new trial in May 2007, Cohen proposed a deal.  It wasn't surprising.  The plea bargain is the lifeblood of the overburdened criminal-justice system.  About 95 percent of cases never go before a jury.  Instead, most defendants agree to plead guilty in exchange for lesser sentences.  In cases like Owens', in which new evidence undermines old, legal advocates question whether incarcerated defendants should even be offered a plea.  In every case, prosecutors “need to really inspect their own motivations,” Thiru Vignarajah, a former federal and Baltimore City prosecutor who later served as deputy attorney general of Maryland, said.  “Are they offering a plea or time served because that's in the best interest of the case, or are they allowing some institutional interest of preserving the conviction to trump a prosecutor's duty to seek justice?”

A year before Owens' retrial, Jessamy's office had convinced another defendant to take an Alford plea.  Locked up for 20 years, that defendant had at first refused a deal after he, too, was granted a new trial because of DNA evidence.  As the trial was set to begin, the prosecution requested a postponement.  When the state again delayed the subsequent trial date, the defendant broke down.  He accepted the plea.

Afterward, Jessamy's spokeswoman scoffed at the defendant in a news story, saying it was “inconceivable” that after 20 years the defendant couldn't wait a little longer, and “if he truly believes he is innocent, he should have gone to trial to see that justice is served.”

As Owens' trial got closer, Cohen kept sweetening the deal, knocking down the charge and requiring less probation.  Finally, they offered Owens an Alford plea for second-degree murder, time served and no probation.  Mercer lost sleep over whether Owens should take it.  A trial was risky and a chance at guaranteed freedom was rare for any defendant.  Owens repeatedly asked himself: “Why are they doing this to me?  Why should I have to plead guilty to something I didn't do?”  Now mostly bald and with a mustache, he'd grown up in the foster care system.  He'd been viciously attacked while in prison.  He didn't have much to hold onto except his resolute insistence from day one that he was innocent.  He wasn't about to “admit there was sufficient evidence to convict him while playing this wink-and-nod game that he was claiming his innocence,” Mercer said.  So the Alford plea, like all the others Mercer had passed to Owens through the Plexiglass, was flatly rejected: “Mr. Mercer, there is no way I am going to trial.”

Cohen, suspicious that the deal hadn't been properly relayed, had Owens and Mercer join him for a bench conference, so that the Alford plea could be offered in front of the judge.  “I'm not taking nothing, dude,” Owens recalled saying.  “I will die in the penitentiary if I have to.”

In October 2008, Owens was vindicated.  Cohen was forced to tell the court he didn't have the goods for a retrial.  Owens stepped out of prison free for the first time in 21 years, telling gathered reporters, “You can't give me that time back.”

Thompson, meanwhile, was fighting the same battles while incarcerated about 75 miles away at Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, Maryland.  But in his case, prosecutors were employing a perplexing logic.  They'd agreed that the DNA evidence from the semen warranted a new trial for Owens, who had not been convicted of rape, but they refused a new trial for Thompson, who had been.

Thompson, by now gray-haired and hard of hearing, was dismayed.  He'd saved the newspaper clipping about the DNA findings, and when he read that Owens had gone free, he was certain he'd be next.  He couldn't understand why the DNA could clear Owens of all charges while it did nothing for him, even though the DNA excluded him as well.  But Mercer, who'd picked up Thompson's case after freeing Owens, did.  Thompson had confessed, and that was prosecutorial gold.  In Simon's book about the Baltimore detectives who'd secured Thompson's confession, he detailed the interrogation tactics they had commonly employed.  To get confessions, he wrote, the detective became a “huckster … thieving and silver-tongued,” and without the “chance for a detective to manipulate a suspect's mind, a lot of bad people would simply go free.”

Poorly understood at the time is that such manipulation can also compel innocent people to agree to whatever the police want.  As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in 2009, “a frighteningly high percentage of people … confess to crimes they never committed.”  According to the Innocence Project, 28 percent of defendants later exonerated by DNA had falsely confessed.

During the initial trials in 1988, prosecutors had argued that the pubic hair and the blood on the jeans proved Thompson was telling the truth, but in 2009 the Maryland Court of Appeals wrote that the DNA finding “usurps the State's arguments all together.”  In essence this meant none of Thompson's statements to police or prosecutors throughout the case were corroborated by evidence.

Despite the statistics, convincing a jury that someone would falsely confess to a crime — particularly to something as heinous as a murder or a rape — is incredibly hard.  Juries want to believe that people are rational actors, like themselves, with an almost primal instinct toward self-protection.  It wouldn't matter that the state no longer had the evidence to prove it, Mercer knew, a jury would most likely myopically focus on the confession.

Thompson told me he'd been happy for Owens when he was released — he'd always wished he could apologize to him for what he did — but that feeling had faded into self-pity as the calendar went from 2008 to 2009 to 2010 and his case stalled in the courts.  Now he was mostly anxious.  He just wanted relief, whatever it might be, so when Sharon Holback, the new prosecutor on the case, eventually offered him an Alford plea — 23 years after he'd first fatefully approached police — his excitement overwhelmed his sense of injustice.

Mercer worked to make it the best deal he could.  If Thompson took the plea, it meant the state would let him go, but the deal had some risky strings attached.  Any charge that carried a life sentence had to come off the table, because in Maryland, a probation violation — even something as relatively minor as a DUI — sends the defendant back to prison to serve the remainder of his sentence.  The two sides agreed to second-degree murder, which carries a maximum of 30 years.  That way if Thompson violated probation, he'd only have seven and a half years over his head, since he had served more than 22.

Gregg Bernstein, Baltimore City state's attorney from 2011 to 2015, oversaw at least two similar deals.  He couldn't remember the details but said he'd thought a lot about whether it was okay for an innocent man to take an Alford plea.  In the end, he said, most cases lack black-and-white certainty, regardless of evidence suggesting innocence.  “It's not that simple to say yay or nay,” he said.  “Pleas are a way to resolve them.”

Former prosecutor Vignarajah, though, told me he wonders if that kind of resolution only looks like a win for everyone on paper.  “In reality everyone lost,” he said.  “The victim sees no justice.  The defendant is walking away with a conviction.  And the prosecution didn't get anyone to take responsibility [for the crime].”

On July 29, 2010, when Thompson left prison under the Alford plea, Holback got the last word: Thompson “is in no way exonerated.”

Since their releases, Thompson and Owens have led dramatically different lives.

Thompson thought he could go back to the person he was almost 23 years earlier, before the murder rap, but society didn't look at him that way.  When he applied for a job, he put a question mark where the form asked if he'd been convicted of a felony.

“I tried to explain I was wrongfully convicted, but people don't want to hear that,” Thompson said.  “There's no reasoning with somebody.  'Innocent people do not go to prison' is just the motto.”

Thompson held onto his freedom for only a little over a year.  In October 2011 he was arrested after his ex-girlfriend claimed that he had molested her young daughter.  Thompson, who'd recently kicked the girlfriend out of his apartment, denied the charge, saying he'd spanked the girl's bare butt to discipline her.  The state reduced the charges to a misdemeanor for touching the girl's buttocks and gave him time served for the five months he'd been in jail.

It didn't end there, though.  Because the misdemeanor violated his probation attached to his Alford plea, Thompson went from a local jail to a state prison to serve the remaining seven and a half years.

Mercer said he believes the Alford plea made it very difficult for Thompson to defend himself.  “It was a question of credibility,” Mercer said.  “Who's going to believe him?  He was stuck having to do damage control.”

Owens has fared better.  He has been embraced by what little family he had.  He has moved into a cousin's house and has begun working with him cleaning gutters and doing landscaping.  And he has grown close to his nieces and nephews, a bittersweet feeling for someone who'd had no chance to build a family of his own.  Owens told me he has tried not to let the anger sink him, but he struggles.  His exoneration came without compensation or even an apology.  “What's striking in these cases is a total lack of accountability,” said Michele Nethercott, of the Innocence Project in Baltimore.  “Nothing ever really happens” to the police and prosecutors whose actions led to wrongful convictions.

Owens wonders today if his prosecution became all about keeping the win.  “Instead of focusing on me and getting me to take a deal for something I didn't do, they need to focus on the victim.  Her murder has never been solved,” he said.  “I think they should go back and look and do something for this girl.”

In 2011, Owens found a lawyer, Charles Curlett, to sue Baltimore.  Curlett determined that there were several issues of misconduct involved in Owens' conviction.  First, his lawyer had been told nothing of the changing stories Thompson gave the detectives.  The information could have been used to undermine Thompson's credibility and failing to share it was likely a violation of Owens' due-process rights.  Such failures are known as Brady violations, after a 1963 Supreme Court case in which the justices determined that withholding favorable information from the defense is unconstitutional.  Also, one of the jailhouse snitches who testified that Owens had confessed had been a police informant for years and said he recruited the other snitch.  This, too, wasn't revealed to the defense, nor were the informant's letters asking for favors in exchange for his testimony.

Brady violations had become so prevalent in Baltimore's courts that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently admonished the city's prosecutors to remember their legal obligations: “Only this practice ensures the fair trial that our justice system aspires to provide” and makes it so “no one has to worry after the fact whether the jury convicted the wrong person.”

The city furiously fought Owens.  Dodging such suits, many defense lawyers contend, is part of what drives these plea offers.  “If not expressly that, it's implicit in a lot of decisions made in this setting,” said Michael Imbroscio, an attorney who had a client in Baltimore City take a time-served deal.  The city won dismissal of Owens' suit against the state's attorney's office and Brave, who the court ruled had immunity, and the Baltimore Police Department.  But the case is going to trial in federal court, likely early next year, against detectives Pellegrini, Landsman and Dunnigan as individuals.  There's millions in compensation at stake for Owens and a public airing of misdeeds for the city.

Civil litigation is “so important,” Mercer said.  “Often, that's the only time there's scrutiny into what wrongs were done.”
The type of misconduct alleged in Owens' case is echoed in nine more of the 14 exonerations out of Baltimore City and County since 2002, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.  The 2014 exoneration of Sabein Burgess, for example, came after it emerged that Baltimore detectives never revealed a key detail to the defense: that a young witness had told them he saw the murder suspect and it wasn't Burgess.  The detectives even submitted a report falsely stating that the witness had been asleep during the crime.  Like Owens, Burgess is suing, claiming that detectives “cut corners and rushed to judgment.”  His trial is set for this fall and names a different group of detectives.

Misconduct can also be found in the cases of some of the remaining exonerated defendants who, like Thompson, aren't officially considered exonerated at all but who were released under Alford pleas or time-served deals after questions were raised about their initial convictions.  Curlett is representing one such man, Wendell Griffin, who was convicted of murder in Baltimore in 1982.  Decades later, it came to light that three detectives — two also featured in Simon's book and a third who is Landsman's brother — had buried photo lineups and witness statements pointing to Griffin's innocence.  He was let out on a time-served deal in 2012.

The detectives named in the Owens and Burgess lawsuits have denied allegations of misconduct.  Michael Marshall, who represents the detectives in Owens' and Griffin's suits, declined to comment, referring questions to the chief of legal affairs for the Baltimore City Police Department, who didn't return several calls.

Thompson, whose parents died while he was in prison, has been abandoned by the rest of his family.  He was released early for good behavior in February after serving a little more than five of his remaining seven and a half years, and as much as he blames himself for his mistakes, he now thinks his plea was a “bum deal.”  He wishes there was a way to prove to his loved ones that “although I served 30 years … I didn't commit the crime.”

The strain of the Alford plea proved too much for one of Baltimore's wrongly convicted.  Chris Conover left prison under the plea in 2003 after DNA called into question his murder conviction in Baltimore County.  On the outside, he suffered from severe panic attacks and depression, but his wife told the local newspaper that he couldn't face in-patient treatment, which meant being back behind locked doors.  His petition for a pardon from Maryland's governor was turned down in 2012.  Three years later, Conover killed himself.

“Having been convicted really defines who you are — it becomes itself a prison,” Mercer said.  “Once out, with a conviction still on your shoulders, having maintained your innocence in a Alford plea is of little comfort and of very little practical benefit.”