Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

Happy Memorial Day, everyone! It's a day set aside to memorialize the soldiers that we've lost while serving in the military, so I want to encourage everyone take a moment or two to do that. As I've said before, I work on the veterans docket nowadays, and as a result I've just become a little more aware of the injuries and difficulties that some of our veterans are dealing with as they return home from combat. I think that it probably wouldn't hurt to take a moment to think about those folks as well.

On a more personal note, Amy is supposed to be getting back into town after visiting her family in Phoenix for a number of days, and I'm really looking forward to having her back in Austin again!

So that's it! Have a good one! Stay safe!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Loughner Incompetent

Well, I just reread this, and it's a little rough and meandering, but I'm going to publish it anyway. Not very polished, but maybe it has a thought or two in it might be worth preserving...

So Jared Lee Loughner has been declared incompetent to stand trial.
I'm sort of following this case a bit out of a professional interest as well as personal curiosity. Some of you already know, but I work on a criminal court docket that specializes in clients who are diagnosed with mental illness
The judge's incompetency ruling on the Loughner case doesn't necessarily mean that he'll never be prosecuted. A finding of incompetency means that doctors have examined the defendant and made a recommendation to the court as to whether or not the defendant is fit to stand trial and then the judge made a ruling about whether the defendant was healthy enough to go forward. A defendant is fit to stand trial if: A) he can rationally understand the court proceedings and the charges against him, and B) he can communicate with and assist legal counsel in his own defense. If a defendant is incompetent to stand trial, it means that the defendant has to be treated for mental health issues until he has been "restored" to competency. Defendants can typically be held for competency restoration (which is a form of treatment) for the same amount of time that they could be sentenced on the charges that they currently face. In a case like Loughner's, where the sentence could be anything up to and including the death penalty, this means that the person could theoretically be held pretty much indefinitely.
Competency to stand trial is different from an insanity defense. When a person is found not guilty by reason of insanity it means that the person couldn't tell right from wrong at the time that they committed the offense. If a person is incompetent it just means that they're not fit to proceed to go to trial (or enter a plea) at the time that the court proceedings are taking place. These two states are not mutually exclusive. Defendants who are insane at the time that they commit an offense may later be found to be incompetent to stand trial and vice versa, but neither finding necessarily determines the other.

I deal with a fair number of competency issues on my own docket, and although defendants can be incompetent for a number of reasons, I guess they usually end up falling into one of two general categories.
The first category involves clients who are hallucinating, psychotic, and so detached from reality as to be unable to understand where they are, how the court system works, or the nature of the charges against them. They just don't have valid perceptions of reality. These are the people who are seeing things, hearing voices that they can't ignore, and/or unable to really recognize the actual nature of their current surroundings. These people might see ghosts in their jail cells, or their attorneys might look like big, blue smurfs to them. More often they hear loud voices in their head that they can't distinguish as being nonexistent (when these voices become impossible to ignore or start compelling people to do things they're dubbed command hallucinations).
The second broad category involves people who tend to see the world a little more "as it is", but who are completely delusional about how it works. All of the people encountered by these sorts of defendants might be seen as working against them as part of a conspiracy of government spies. Their lawyers might be seen as angels or demons who are in disguise. Radio waves might be controlling the minds of everyone around them. These sorts of people might know how the legal system is supposed to work, but they are convinced that nothing is as it seems, and they frequently seem convinced that they are the only ones who know "the truth" about how things actually operate. People who try to correct them or question their delusional thinking are typically dismissed as ignorant or incorporated as part of the delusion (e.g., if you don't understand what's really happening then you must be a spy, too). Their thought processes are often tangential and disorganized, based only loosely, if at all, on logic, and they often draw conclusions about their surroundings which aren't really supported by any sort of reliable information or logically sound inference. In my experience, it's not at all uncommon for these sort of people to be extremely dismissive of the idea that they might have a mental illness.

I'm not claiming that these categorizations are scientific, and I know that there's a lot of room for overlap. I'm just sort of describing the types of cases that I usually see on my docket when we're dealing with someone who's incompetent. Just today I found myself dealing with a case involving an incompetent woman who falsely believes (I checked up on this) that she's actually an operative for the FBI who is working to uncover secret assassination plots...

Loughner, in my mind, seems to be falling into that second main category. I'm guessing that he's extremely delusional and paranoid. It sounds like he doesn't trust his lawyers at all, and he hasn't been communicating with them in any sort of meaningful way. Two different doctors have examined him and found him to be mentally ill and unable to truly understand the nature of the legal proceedings or to assist his attorneys in his own defense. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say that he's probably convinced that his attorneys are part of some sort of larger conspiracy against him. He probably has an extremely delusional worldview that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that there's probably no small amount of paranoia in there as well.

At any rate, I'm not terribly surprised that Loughner has been declared incompetent. The more interesting questions, I guess, will now revolve around whether he can be restored to competency (if Loughner refuses medications and treatment, he can probably be forced to take meds, although that will require an additional hearing) and around whether or not doctors will ultimately determine that Loughner was insane at the time of the shootings.

Trying to draw conclusions about whether or not a defendant was sane at the time he committed a crime like the Tucson shooting spree is a process that seems at once fascinating, troubling, extremely important, and very, very difficult.
It sometimes seems that we're more than willing to accept the fact that doctors are accurately describing what is going on in our brains when they're diagnosing ailments or simply trying to heal people, but when we rely upon that same science as a guide in determining whether or not someone was in control of themselves when they committed an unspeakably tragic crime... well, in those situations we sometimes balk at the explanations that science provides.
Sanity determinations in these cases go to the root of what we, as a society, want to define as a crime, and they test the amount of faith and credibility that we place in modern psychiatry and psychology. Sanity determinations in especially serious cases pit our willingness to adhere to scientific principles against our desire for retribution.
Personally, I find these sanity questions interesting because I don't think that you can really have justice without satisfying the scientific principles first. Criminal punishment exacted without first achieving assurances about mental capability and culpability isn't really justice- it's simple vengeance. On the other hand, prosecutors have to be careful not to allow false or exaggerated claims of mental illness to obfuscate the truth. As psychology progresses and we continue to see more and more types of criminal behaviors characterized as symptoms of mental illness, there's a temptation to overlook conscious choice and active decision making as a critical element in understanding the way that people behave. Prosecutors have an obligation to reinforce the idea that people still need to be responsible for their own actions and accountable for the things that they do. Conscientious prosecutors will understand that there are cases where people should not be held responsible for their actions, but they need to keep in mind that whenever possible, a prosecutor's job is to make sure that society is fully capable of holding defendants accountable for their actions.
Personally, I tend to think that mental illness should be taken into account, but, on my docket, I tend to take illness into account far more often as mitigation for reduced or alternative sentencing than as an absolute excuse or defense for a crime. For one thing, most people with mental illness who commit crimes tend to more or less know right from wrong. The cases where people truly don't know what they're doing or appreciate that they're doing something wrong are definitely out there, but they seem to be relatively few in number (although defense attorneys often seem more than happy to try to characterize as many offenses as possible as being the result of mental illness). On those cases where people really are so sick as to be out of control, those individuals need to be linked to services anbd treatment whenever possible, and then asked to stick with a treatment regimen that addresses their condition. If a person is insane because they refuse to take care of himself, then that becomes also becomes an issue of personal responsibility, and the person needs to be held accountable for the ultimate results of their choices.

The natural human tendency (a tendency which I have great sympathy for, by the way) is to want to hold people accountable for their actions. We give more leeway in the case of minor indiscretions (e.g., we cite the youth of the offender, or the natural human tendency to make mistakes), but when someone does something terrible, we typically want the perpetrator to suffer punishment.
Cases like Loughner's are the sort of events where our knowledge and understanding of science can potentially collide with human nature (note that I said potentially- I'm still far from convinced that Loughner wasn't aware that he was doing something terrible when he committed those murders).

If Loughner's case proceeds to trial and if the state can find a reputable, reliable doctor who thinks that he knew right from wrong at the time of the shootings ( I would bet a whole lot of marbles that defense counsel will come up with a doctor who will say Loughner was not competent), the trial is likely to become a battle of experts, with doctors facing off against one another, attempting to support their analysis with sound reasoning while lawyers try to convince the jury that one doctor or the other has stronger credentials and the most plausible, feasible theory.

I'm not sure where I'm going with all of this except to say that I find it all really interesting. I have tremendous sympathy for Loughner's victims, and I absolutely am not trying in any way to legitimize what this guy did. As someone who's worked as both a defense attorney and a prosecutor, though, I still find it fascinating to watch as society grapples with issues relating to mental illness in a case like this. Maybe I just find it fascinating because I personally feel very conflicted about the sorts of issues that a case like this brings up.

In any case, I'll be watching...

San Francisco

So Amy and I just got back from a trip to San Francisco! Had a really nice time. Neither of us had ever been out there before. We really couldn't have asked for better weather or a much smoother trip. We stayed in Union Square, and explored the city by bus, streetcar, railway, and on foot.
The brief rundown...
We saw Chinatown, Golden Gate Park, the Academy of Sciences, The Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and Fisherman's Wharf. We saw Union Square, North Beach, Noe Hill, Embarcadero, and Market Street (and probably other places I'm not thinking of). We saw sea lions, visited Grace Cathedral, went to a cool arcade museum, ate sourdough, checked out The Wok Shop, visited the Ferry Building Marketplace, stopped by City Lights Books, and had a snack at a Children's International Dance and Food Festival at Golden Gate Park. We had good Chinese food at House of Nanking, good Italian at Incanto, and a really good breakfast at Dottie's True Blue Cafe. We wandered the city and enjoyed the ladscapes, the architecture, the people, and the weather.
It was just a really good trip, and I had a great time.
Thanks so much for sharing it with me, Amy!

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Weekend

The weekend was good. I went on some walks with Amy and Cassidy, went to Barton Springs with Amy, got a bit of exercise, had dinner with Dad, Ryan, Jamie, and Amy, watched a couple shows, and played some music. In particular, it was nice to get out in the sun. I'm glad that Amy shares my appreciation for Barton Springs.

Here's a pic from Mono Ensemble practice on Sunday.

We played, among other things, a cover of Peace, Love, and Understanding.

Happy birthday today to Meredith Shaw, who is turning six, and who joined us for band practice yesterday.

Here'a piece of artwork that she created on my patio while we were playing. Very nice... ;-)

Monday, May 09, 2011

Still Sleepless

This is a version of a song called Still Sleepless that Frank, Jim, and I recorded at an acoustic practice at my house on May 1st. It might be a little rough because we just recorded it with a small, digital recorder, but I think that, in particular, Jim has a pretty cool bass part that he bows on his upright...

Here's a link to the song in case anyone is interested...

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Happy Mother's Day!

My mom is currently in Africa on a mission trip, and my text messages don't seem to be getting through to her (she's sent me a few, but I can't send any her way, apparently), so I guess I won't really be able to wish her a happy Mother's Day properly until she gets back. I saw her right before she left, though, and had a chance to wish her a safe journey and tell her that I love her. Hopefully that will suffice until she returns. Here's a photo that I really like of Mom and Amy at Enchanted Rock in January.

Anyway, happy Mother's Day to all of you moms out there! Good moms definitely make the world a better place. My own mom continues to serve as a constant role model and source of admiration. I know plenty of other people who feel the same way about their own mothers.
So thanks, moms!

Stay safe in Kenya, Karebear, and we'll see you when you get back! Love you! I know you want some good pictures, but remember, lions are not for cuddling. (I'm only half joking. I got a text from her at 5:00 this morning telling me that she had seen four lions in a park. It was a bit surreal.)

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Arcade Fire

So it's been a really good week for music. First I went with Amy to see The Decemberists at Stubb's on Saturday night. That was a really good show. I wrote about it here. Amy got us tickets to see The Decemberists for my birthday, and that was a great present!
Then on Tuesday night I went to see Arcade Fire out at The Backyard with Ryan and Jamie and Amy Rushing (who works with Ryan at UT). Ryan and Jamie got me a ticket to the Austin Arcade Fire show for my birthday. The Austin Arcade Fire show was really good. The music sounded really cool, and the band seemed genuinely happy to be back in Austin and performing again (I know that a lot of bands pay lip service to whatever town they're performing in, but given the fact that Arcade Fire has chosen to shoot videos in Austin and spent some time here, it felt like they had a legitimate affection for the city). Anyway, it was a really good show and a nice night, and it was really fun to go see some live music with both Ryan and Jamie (strangely, I've seen shows with each of them separately over the years- including ACL Fest with Ryan and Springsteen with Jamie-, but I hadn't been to see a show with both of them in a long, long time).

Anyway, Ryan wrote a little review of the show on his blog. Thanks to Ryan and Jamie for taking me!

Amy had an exam on Wednesday morning, so she didn't make it to the show on Tuesday night. On Wednesday, however, Amy jumped int he car and headed down toward Houston to see Arcade Fire. It was a really fun road trip!!

We got to my parents house in Spring in the late afternoon and had a nice dinner with my dad out in the Woodland's at a place called Jasper's. The food was really good. Mom didn't come with us because she had a birthday dinner that she was attending with some friends, but Amy and Dad and I had a really nice dinner.

The show itself was great, too. It was at the pavilion in The Woodlands.

Arcade Fire is a great band, and their lead singer, Win Butler, grew up in The Woodlands. Arcade Fire's last album, The Suburbs, won the 2011 Grammy for best album of the year, so I was curious to see how the music would resonate with the band and the crowd given the fact that they were performing the music in the same neighborhoods that had inspired the album.

In fact, the show turned out to be really great, the crowd was really into the music, and Butler made a number of references not only to the fact that he had grown up in The Woodlands, but to the fact that he had actually worked for a while as a ticket taker at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.

Anyway, the band was energetic, the crowd enthusiastic, and the weather about as good as we could have asked for. I had a great time.

In the morning we got up and spent a little bit of time with my mom, The Karebear, who is leaving today to go on her fourth mission trip to Kenya. She seemed happy and ready to go, and we're all happy for her, although it's always weird to bid your mom farewell when she's jetting off to Africa for a week and a half (especially when Mother's Day falls during that period of time). Africa's just a long way aways.

Here are some photos from the Woodlands show...

So that's it. I really love me some Arcade Fire. As I told Amy, I could easily see them again right away if I had the chance. Their music and energy are just infectious.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Osama Bin Laden Killed

So we finally killed Osama Bin Laden. That's almost certainly gotta be a good thing.
Still, I'm not really making this post because I feel some tremendous sense of justice (the guy managed to live and hide for a really long time after killing thousands of people) or because I think the world is going to be different from this point forward (it won't- Al Qaeda seems like it's been waning in power for years, and to the extent that it still remains a threat, it now seem to have a decentralized structure, with individual cells and divisions mostly acting independently. By most accounts, Bin Laden hasn't actively been controlling the thing for a long time. The threats that we face now aren't really likely to be from the 2001 Al Qaeda organization which sponsored the 9/11 attacks).
Anyway, I'm mostly just making this entry to sort of put my own personal bookend on a long and sad segment in American history.
Like most people, I vividly remember where I was and what I was doing on September 11th. I had court that day, but it was cut short. No one wanted to be in a multi-story government building on a day when we weren't sure of the extent of the terrorist attack. I remember being very worried about my uncle who was working in and around the Pentagon at the time. Mostly I just remember the imagery of watching those towers fall and feeling really horrified and incredibly sad and angry. I also remember thinking, even on September 11th, that Osama Bin Laden was probably behind the event, and that he was probably just trying to draw the U.S. into some sort of violent, visceral reaction that would draw us into conflict in the Middle East so that our reaction would further inflame anti-American, anti-Western sentiment in that part of the world.
I didn't just leap to these conclusions after watching the towers fall. The first 1993 Al Qaeda bombing at the World Trade Center and the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa had already created some media buzz. I'm not sure if Bin Laden was directly tied to the 1993 WTC attack, but I knew that he had been directly involved in the 1998 embassy bombings and had made statements indicating future plans to carry out attacks against the U.S..

Anyway, as things stand today, I'm glad Bin Laden is dead. I doubt that his death changes much, but I do feel like it provides some measure of justice (he definitely doesn't deserve to be free and running around), and at least it helps to preclude the possibility that he might eventually muster the resources and power to launch another awful attack at some point in the future (before September 11th he had been known to spend a number of years planning and carrying out individual operations, so even though we hadn't heard from him in a long time, surely the man was never completely out of the minds of the U.S. intelligence community).

On the other hand, Bin Laden's death feels like a bit of a hollow victory. Unfortunately, he accomplished a great deal of what he set out to do.
He drew us into a conflict in the Middle East which inflamed anti-American sentiment and inspired a new generation of jihadists in that part of the world (I'm thinking even more of Iraq here than I am Afghanistan, since the war in Iraq had a more tenuous link to the actual events of 9/11). Even more troubling, he accomplished the primary goal of all terrorists- spreading fear, tension, and unease amongst his enemy.
Bin Laden employed 19 men armed with box cutters, and he turned America's perception of its enemy, the world, and itself on its head.
Prior to September 11th we mostly saw Al Qaeda and similar organizations as small but dangerous criminal enterprises which might best be controlled through international policing and some moderate counterintelligence work. After 9/11 America grew to see itself as a nation under siege. Foreign terrorists were seen as mysterious, ubiquitous, and capable of striking with devastating ferocity at any place, at any time. Various countries in the Middle East were seen as breeding grounds for radical muslims who were chomping at the bit to infiltrate American borders and destroy us. America's intelligence and military budgets ballooned exponentially. We found ourselves entrenched in a ridiculously expensive war in Iraq that put an incredible drain on our resources and morale while essentially gaining us little or nothing in return.
Even we engage in the security theater that comes with standing in lines at airports with our shoes and our belts in our hands, and I can't help but feel that the terrorists, at least on a psychological level, have wracked up some significant victories.
The truth of the matter is that we were probably too lax in our feeling of invincibility before 9/11, and too paranoid and frightened for years afterward. Maybe we're beginning to strike a better balance. Maybe Bin Laden's death will help in that continuing process.
I just hate the thought that the 9/11 attacks and Osama Bin Laden were the event that shifted our lives so dramtically.

Anyway, Bin Laden is dead. I'm glad he's dead. He had no room in his religious orthodoxy, ideology, or worldview for anyone's way of life but his own, and the world is better off without his sort of deadly intolerance.
Hopefully his death brings a little closure and healing.
Not sure what else to say. I hope the next young radical Muslim who becomes furious with the west takes his anger out by voicing his anger on the floor of the U.N.'s general assembly or by launching some sort of media campaign against us.
I'm not naive. I don't think that we're ever going to get everyone to like us.
But if we can get our enemies to talk and launch political and P.R. campaigns and make arguments instead of resorting to violence.... well, that's my pipe dream.

Blah, blah, blah.
Thanks for putting up with that...

Sunday, May 01, 2011

P.S. to The Decemberists Post

By the way, the tickets to The Decemberists were from Amy, so...


It was really fun! (see my last post for further evidence of this)


The Decemberists

Amy and I went to see The Decemberists last night at Stubb's. We almost skipped the show because we were both just feeling tired, but we ended up making it, and I'm really glad.
The music was great, Colin Meloy was funny, and the crowd eventually got really into the spirit of things (after a sort of subdued start).
The Decemeberists are really cool. I've known about them for a long time, and I had even seen them at ACL Fest once before, but Amy's enthusiasm for the band sort of made me listen to them with fresh ears and gain a much greater appreciation for a band that I had always sort of liked but had never gotten really into.
Part of what changed my opinion was listening to the songs closely enough to really appreciate the lyrics and the thought that Colin Meloy puts into his songwriting. The Decemberists aren't really the kind of band that blow you away with the virtuosity of their musicianship, but Meloy is a really great lyricist, and the band is really good at creating music with mood and atmosphere that paints images, conveys emotion, and draws you into the songs.
And don't get me wrong- The Decemberists seem to be fine musicians, but musicianship just isn't at the heart of what they do. Sometimes the songs can be structurally complex, but you aren't going to hear a lot of solos, and any extended segments that carry on without words usually appear in the context of supporting the lyrical content.
Anyway, the show was really fun, and I'm really happy we went. Amy and I both enjoyed it an awful lot. Nice night, good crowd, really good music. I'll remember that one for a long, long time.