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The Trump administration’s execution of Dustin Higgs, explained

January 17th, 2021|

A white, cylindrical prison guard tower rises from a green lawn amid a mass of white buildings. In the foreground is a white sign with blue text, reading: Federal Bureau of Prisons Federal Correctional Complex, Terre Haute.
The federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana where Dustin Higgs was executed. | Michael Conroy/AP

Higgs was the 13th federal prisoner executed since July 2020.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, the Trump administration executed Dustin Higgs for taking part in a triple murder in Maryland in 1996, a crime of which he claimed to be innocent, including with his final words.

Higgs’s execution was the 13th, and final, federal execution carried out by the Trump administration over the course of six months, a run which has broken starkly with modern precedent both in terms of speed and intensity: The federal government has carried out more federal executions since last summer than in the last 67 years combined.

The Trump administration has argued that the executions were conducted as a matter of law, noting that all of those executed were found guilty at trial. “If you ask juries to impose and juries impose it, then it should be carried out,” former Trump administration Attorney General Bill Barr, told the Associated Press days before his resignation in December.

But many criminal justice advocates — and some members of the Supreme Court — have argued that the schedule has been rushed in a way that neglected appropriate deliberation of the legality of the killings, and that they unfairly targeted people of color, as well as, people suffering from severe trauma.

And some legal analysts note that Higgs’ execution was enabled by the Supreme Court through a maneuver that they describe as a transparent bid to facilitate Trump’s agenda.

Higgs was found guilty in 2000 of first-degree premeditated murder, three counts of first-degree felony murder, and three counts of kidnapping resulting in death. The Justice Department said that in 1996 Higgs traveled with two male friends and three women to a Maryland wildlife refuge, and ordered one of his friends to shoot the three women, one of whom had allegedly rebuffed an advance by him.

Higgs has said he is innocent of the crime, and that he gave no order for a killing. His friend who fired the shots who is serving a life sentence, Willis Haynes, has disputed the prosecutions’ argument that Higgs coerced him into the act in a signed affidavit, saying, “The prosecution’s theory of our case was bullshit. Dustin didn’t threaten me. I was not scared of him. Dustin didn’t make me do anything that night or ever.”

Higgs reportedly claimed innocence again in his final words. “I’d like to say I am an innocent man. ... I am not responsible for the deaths,” he said, while mentioning the names of the victims. “I did not order the murders.”

Higgs was diagnosed with Covid-19 before the execution, and his attorney had attempted to delay the execution on the basis that it was cruel, because of concerns that the virus might intensify the lethal injection of pentobarbital. Also at issue was whether Higgs could be executed in Indiana, where he was being held, after being sentenced in Maryland using a death penalty law that no longer exists.

The execution went forward anyway. Higgs was given a lethal injection at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, and pronounced dead at 1:23 am on Saturday morning.

The Supreme Court appears to have acted extraordinarily to back Trump

A number of legal analysts have described the Supreme Court’s handling of Higgs’ execution as “unprecedented” and “beyond extraordinary.”

Slate’s legal writer Mark Joseph Stern explained that with Higgs, the high court ended up circumventing the traditional appeals process in order to swiftly provide legal backing to Trump’s order to proceed with the execution despite questions about Higgs’s sentencing before he left office:

Federal law requires a federal death sentence to be implemented “in the manner prescribed” by the state in which it was imposed. But Higgs was sentenced by a federal court in Maryland, which abolished capital punishment in 2013, so there is no “manner prescribed” for Higgs’ execution. An appeals court upheld the district court’s stay, setting oral arguments for Jan. 27. On Jan. 11, Trump’s Department of Justice asked the Supreme Court to clear away these roadblocks. In a stunning move, the court agreed: It issued a summary decision on the merits of the case, short-circuiting the traditional appeals process.

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 vote, in which the liberal wing of the court voted against the decision to clear the way for the execution, was accompanied by a blistering dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

“This is not justice,” Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, arguing that the high court was not fulfilling its duty to deliberative process in green-lighting the act and that it had similarly failed to do so with respect to the 12 executions prior to Higgs’. “After waiting almost two decades to resume federal executions, the government should have proceeded with some measure of restraint to ensure it did so lawfully. When it did not, this court should have. It has not.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, argued that the Court had been negligent in considering the constitutionality of the executions, and that it had particularly failed in its duty to unusual issues, such as how the pandemic might affect the legality of executions. In his dissent, he asked, “How just is a legal system that would execute an individual without consideration of a novel or significant legal question that he has raised?”

Jaime Santos, a partner at Goodwin Procter’s appellate litigation practice, described the ruling as “a political decision, not a doctrinal one and not one that is in any way consistent with the norms and precedents governing Supreme Court practice.”

It is decisions such as these that have led observers like Vox’s Ian Millhiser to describe a conservative majority court as an “anti-democratic threat.” And Santos’s comments underscore concerns that the Supreme Court has become an institution that often privileges conservative political goals over traditional process.

Trump’s capital punishment agenda

Higgs’s death marks the end of a remarkably focused program of conducting federal executions that critics of capital punishment have deemed “a killing spree.” Strikingly, the federal executions were conducted amid a pandemic that drastically shrunk the number of executions carried out on the state level, and in the wake of a racial justice movement critical of an overly punitive criminal justice system.

Experts say Trump’s emphasis on capital punishment in his final half-year in office marked a sharp departure from federal government norms, a trend which stands out all the more because support for the death penalty is at the lowest its been in decades.

“No one has conducted this number of federal civilian executions in this short period of time in American history,” Robert Dunham, executive director of Death Penalty Information Center, told Vox in December.

The uptick in federal executions also stood out in a year where capital punishment was used less than it had been in decades at the state level, largely due to pandemic-related slowdowns and shutdowns of the criminal justice system.

“The fact that we’re having a record-high number of federal executions, at the same time that we’re near a record low in state executions, in the middle of a pandemic, shows how much the Trump administration is either out of touch or that it cannot resist gratuitous acts of cruelty,” Dunham told Vox in December.

The Trump administration has routinely defended its use of capital punishment. For instance, Barr described the Trump administration’s commitment to the death penalty as carrying out the punishment against “the worst criminals.”

But as the ACLU points out, many of those executed don’t tick off the conventional boxes for “worst criminals”:

Our federal government killed two Black men for crimes they committed 20 years ago as teenagers; it killed a woman who was a victim of unthinkable sexual violence and torture; it killed two Black men who didn’t kill anyone; and a man with an intellectual disability so severe that it’s impossible to ignore in his final words. The Supreme Court paved the way for many of these executions to go forward despite lower court findings that the executions were unconstitutional or barred by federal law.

Beyond seeking to revive and expedite the use of capital punishment, the Trump administration also expanded the way that it can be carried out. Last year the Justice Department created and finalized a rule that allows the government to use more ways to kill prisoners, including electrocution and firing squad.

But while the revival of federal capital punishment has been a signature feature of Trump’s political and policy agenda, it is not clear to what extent it will be part of his legacy. President-elect Joe Biden has said he will work to abolish the federal death penalty, and Senate Democrats recently put out legislation that would abolish it.

Trump’s Twitter and Facebook bans are working

January 17th, 2021|

What Trump’s Twitter page looked like before it was permanently suspended. | Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Trump’s deplatforming has already slowed the spread of election misinformation.

In the wake of the deadly January 6 riot at the US Capitol that President Donald Trump heavily promoted on social media, platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and others finally moved to ban the president.

The result? A sudden drop in the online spread of election misinformation.

According to research by Zignal Labs, which the Washington Post reported on Saturday, online misinformation about election fraud plunged 73 percent in the weeklong period following Twitter’s decision to ban Trump on January 8.

Which means that, to the extent that the move and the related scrubbing of right-wing conspiracy accounts were aimed at curbing disinformation, the ban appears to be working. Not only has the spread of misinformation slowed, the research indicates online discussion around the topics that motivated the Capitol riot has also diminished.

“Zignal found that the use of hashtags affiliated with the Capitol riot also dipped considerably,” writes the Post, summarizing Zignal’s research. “Mentions of the hashtag #FightforTrump, which was widely deployed across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media services in the week before the rally, dropped 95 percent. #HoldTheLine and the term ‘March for Trump’ also fell more than 95 percent.”

The leading argument against banning Trump was that despite the conspiracy theories, smears, and misinformation he spent years spreading on Twitter and other platforms, as president of the United States, it was important for social media companies to allow him to freely communicate with the public.

But that line of thinking became more tenuous in the weeks following Trump’s election loss to Joe Biden, as the president’s posts increasingly fixated on spreading lies about the election being stolen from him and on fomenting unrest, including promoting the January 6 “Stop the Steal” protest that preceded the violent takeover of the Capitol.

The breaking point finally came in the days following the violence. Instead of unequivocally denouncing the rioters, Trump defended them, writing in a tweet he posted as law enforcement was still trying to clear the Capitol on January 6 that “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away.”

(Hours earlier, Trump had posted a tweet attacking Vice President Mike Pence even as rioters, some of them chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” came perilously close to encountering the vice president while he was being hastily evacuated from the Senate chamber.)

Then, on January 8, Trump posted a tweet announcing he wouldn’t be attending President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20. Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account hours later, writing in a blog post that his inauguration tweet was being interpreted online by his supporters as “encouragement to those potentially considering violent acts that the Inauguration would be a ‘safe’ target, as he will not be attending.”

(Facebook has so far only suspended Trump’s account through the end of his presidential term.)

In the eight days since, Trump has resorted to releasing tweet-like statements through the White House press office. He’s characterized the moves by Facebook, Twitter, and others as an attack on free speech, but at no point has he retracted, or apologized for spreading, misinformation about the election — nor has he acknowledged the reality that Biden’s victory over him was legitimate.

Trump has reportedly considered opening an account on Parler, a social media platform favored by conservatives and many on the far-right for its lax approach to moderating content, where extremism flourishes.

But Amazon dropped Parler from its web-hosting service following revelations that Trump supporters had used it as a forum to organize the Capitol riot, and it’s unclear whether it’ll ever get back online.

Meanwhile, reports swirl that Trump is spending his last days in the White House isolated and embittered. It turns out that watching cable news isn’t as fun when you can’t provide live commentary about it to your tens of millions of Twitter followers. Nor, apparently, does misinformation thrive when the biggest purveyors of it are deplatformed.

“A colossal waste”: Some Republicans question Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief plan

January 17th, 2021|

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) speaks during a hearing before the Congressional Oversight Commission in December in Washington, DC. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Given the Senate’s 50-50 split, Republicans could be a major roadblock for Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan.

President-elect Joe Biden has begun unveiling an ambitious legislative agenda — and though he has signaled hope for bipartisan support, multiple Senate Republicans are already dismissing his newly proposed coronavirus relief plan out of hand.

Biden on Thursday unveiled a $1.9 trillion proposal that will include a $1,400 stimulus check; billions in funding for vaccine distribution and testing; and additional aid to state and local governments. It’s intended to address the massive economic fallout the country is continuing to experience from the coronavirus pandemic, and to supplement the federal aid that was distributed via the $2 trillion CARES Act and a second $900 billion measure last year.

“It’s not just that smart fiscal investments, including deficit spending, are more urgent than ever,” Biden said in a speech promoting the measure, dubbed the “American Rescue Plan,” last week. “It’s that the return on these investments — in jobs, in racial equity — will prevent long-term economic damage and the benefits will far surpass the costs.”

In those same remarks, Biden emphasized that 18 million people are currently receiving unemployment insurance, and 400,000 small businesses have permanently closed — both indications that millions of Americans still need additional support.

Several Democrats responded to the plan by urging Biden to consider even more expansive measures, including provisions like recurring stimulus checks and baby bonds, which would establish a federally funded savings account for every newborn. Republicans, however, are beginning to line up against the proposal — echoing concerns they’ve long voiced about how such spending could add to the national debt.

“Blasting out another $2 trillion in borrowed or printed money — when the ink on December’s $1 trillion aid bill is barely dry and much of the money is not yet spent — would be a colossal waste and economically harmful,” Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-PA) said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has yet to comment on the proposal, though he’s been reluctant to approve larger relief bills in the past, and cited fracturing within his conference on the issue as the reason why.

The pushback that’s emerged so far suggests that Republican opposition could potentially stymie the approval of this bill via regular order: Since most legislation requires 60 votes to pass in the Senate, Democrats would need 10 Republicans to back the measure, given the chamber’s 50-50 split. If they don’t pick up that support, Democrats may well have to consider other procedural options that would allow them to circumvent the 60-vote rule, including budget reconciliation.

Republicans are dialing up their fiscal conservatism, again

Like Toomey, other Republican lawmakers — including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) — have signaled that they’re interested in dialing up their focus on fiscal conservatism (essentially, limiting additions to the national debt) now that Democrats have won back the White House.

Many in the party appear to be doing so even though such actions are contradictory to stances they’ve taken during the Trump administration. Trump’s 2017 tax cuts have been estimated to add between $1 trillion and $2 trillion to the national debt, for instance, according to the Tax Policy Center.

Republicans’ renewed focus on the debt was increasingly apparent last year, as GOP senators sought to limit the scope of the second stimulus package: Over and over, Republican lawmakers pushed for legislation that was under $1 trillion.

And as Bloomberg reported at the time, that opposition led to speculation regarding whether such positions meant Republicans would again set themselves up as the “party of no” in a Biden presidency. Early indications seem to suggest that the GOP will indeed embrace this strategy, with which they attempted to block many of the Obama administration’s legislative efforts.

“We cannot simply throw massive spending at this with no accountability to the current and future American taxpayer,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) told the Washington Post recently regarding Biden’s coronavirus relief package.

While there is some debate among experts as to how much coronavirus aid is needed, as Vox’s Dylan Matthews explained last spring, concerns about the debt are difficult to argue for in the current economic moment due to a couple factors, including lower interest rates:

To be sure, there are times when worrying about the debt makes sense. Countries like the US that print their own currency can in principle always pay their debts, but there’s a risk that doing so would involve printing so much money that hyperinflation ensues. If that were a real danger, the US should be thinking twice about massively expanding the deficit.

But inflation, let alone hyperinflation, is not a real danger at this moment. According to the Fed’s preferred measure, inflation was well below its 2 percent target even before coronavirus hit.

Some Republicans could sign on to more relief — but it’s unclear if Democrats can get to 10

A segment of the Republican conference could be willing to work with Biden on more relief, though it’s likely there will be a push to narrow the measure some in exchange for their support. Biden’s opening bid calls for raising the minimum hourly wage to $15 — a provision that has garnered significant Republican pushback in the past, for example. It is possible initiatives like these could be set aside for future legislation in order to win GOP backing for the broader package.

“There’s many things in this package I can support. Some of which I can’t. We’re not going to bail out a bunch of poorly run blue states,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said on Friday.

Previously, Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT), Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) were part of a bipartisan group that helped put together a compromise aid bill last year. It included some of the provisions Biden has called for, and they’re among those who may be more open to considering additional support this time around as well. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) have also backed a bill to increase the recent round of $600 stimulus checks to $2,000 — another prominent part of Biden’s plan.

Whether Democrats and Republicans can reach a compromise on legislation, and get the votes needed to hit the 60-person threshold that’s needed to pass it, however, is an open question. If they can’t, Democrats could opt to advance parts of this legislation through the process known as budget reconciliation.

Unlike most bills, budget resolutions are able to pass the Senate with a simple majority of votes — though there are limitations to what they could include. By taking this route, Democrats could pass a bill with the 50 members of their caucus and a tiebreaker from Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

“Not everything can pass through budget reconciliation,” Vox’s Dylan Matthews has written. “It likely rules out measures like a minimum wage increase, or DC and Puerto Rico statehood, or updates to the Voting Rights Act, or gerrymandering reform.”

As Matthews notes, however, any provisions that are related to spending and taxes that would expire within 10 years, are deficit-neutral, and don’t make changes to Social Security could all be eligible. That means certain aspects of the stimulus proposal — like another round of checks, as well as an extension to paid medical leave — could potentially pass via budget reconciliation if that’s the only option available to Democrats.

7 Tips for Black and White Portrait Photography

January 16th, 2021|

The post 7 Tips for Black and White Portrait Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by John McIntire. In the era of digital cameras capable of capturing millions of colors, why would you choose to do black and white portrait photography? [more]

iPhone 13 rumors: An “S”-type upgrade for 2021

January 16th, 2021|

The iPhone 12 hasn’t been on the market very long, and there are already rumblings about the next iPhone. We’ll compile the most notable reports in this article, but remember to view these with a bit of skepticism. Regardless of how reliable a source is, [more]

M1 Macs: Should you upgrade? (YouTube video)

January 16th, 2021|

Should you (or your IT department) upgrade your MacBook to a new M1 Mac? Computerworld executive editor Ken Mingis and Macworld senior writer Michael Simon join Juliet Beauchampe to discuss their experiences with the first generation M1 MacBook Pro. They discuss the issues with having [more]

The word “Orwellian” has lost all meaning

January 16th, 2021|

A protester holds a sign reading “Orwell was right” as they demonstrate at Republique Square of Lille in protest of the French government’s proposed global security law bill on November 28, 2020, in Lille, France.  | Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

How the right made the word “Orwellian” an empty cliché.

It’s possible Donald Trump’s greatest talent is driving people to buy copies of 1984.

When Trump took office in 2017, sales of George Orwell’s dystopian classic went up by 9,500 percent. And in the wake of January’s Capitol riot, as Senator Josh Hawley decried his book cancellation as “Orwellian” and Donald Trump Jr. responded to his father’s ban from Twitter with the lament that “We are living Orwell’s 1984,” 1984 once again flew up Amazon’s bestseller list, briefly sitting at No. 1.

Last time 1984 returned to the bestseller list, it was because terrified liberals feared the Trump administration would drive us straight into the dystopian horrors of 1984, in which Big Brother is always watching, forcing his subjects to believe that 2 + 2 = 5 if he says it does. This time, it appears to be because outraged conservatives fear that private corporations have begun to censor public speech. But either way, it’s Orwell’s time to shine again.

And so “Orwellian” has become the word of the moment. In fact, it has become the kind of lazy, hackneyed, cliché word of the moment that Orwell himself despised.

Orwell despised a lot of words. He wrote a whole essay on them in 1946. Titled “Politics and the English Language,” the essay takes aim at all of Orwell’s pet hatreds: excessive use of Latinate instead of Anglo-Saxon words; unwarranted use of the passive voice; mixed metaphors; clichés; and the phrase “not un-,” as in “it is not unlikely that Trump will seek office in 2024 if not barred from doing so.” (Redundant, fumes Orwell. Just say, “It’s likely.”)

But what Orwell is particularly angry about is imprecise language, and language that conceals rather than clarifies. Which, for him, includes most political language. “Political language,” he writes, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

For this reason, Orwell argues, politicians are particularly given to lazy, sloppy rhetoric, filled with meaningless buzzwords and clichés. Political language, he says, muffles the sense of what is being communicated, which is so often indefensible, with an overlay of righteous justification. And as a result, those who get caught up in this style of speech — both its speakers and its listeners — find their ability to think caught and shaped by their impoverished language. They are no longer able to recognize a lie as a lie and a murder as a murder because the language in which they speak is so vague as to allow them to consider a lie an alternative fact and a murder a tragic yet unavoidable accident.

That’s why in 1984, one of Big Brother’s chief directives is to keep simplifying the English language into Newspeak, in which anything really positive is doubleplusgood and anything really bad is doubleplusungood. All of the nuances and richness of English are stripped away; the bare and skeletal language that remains renders complex thought impossible. And so the citizens of the dystopian society of Oceana are left blankly following after Big Brother, believing in the lies that he tells them because they no longer have the language to recognize the truth. It’s the argument of “Politics and the English Language” taken to its fullest conclusion.

When Josh Hawley and Trump Jr. use the term “Orwellian,” they are indulging in precisely the kind of lazy and dishonest obfuscation Orwell railed against. They are taking the haze of imprecise associations that have accumulated around the word — bad, dystopian, someone somewhere overreaching probably? — and trying to attach them to such urgent issues for human rights as a politician losing his book contract after a scandal and the most powerful man in the world getting kicked off a social media platform. They are, to put it in terms of which Orwell would approve, lying. They are pretending that very reasonable actions from private corporations are the same as the government kidnapping citizens and shoving their faces into cages full of rats to brainwash them. And they are trying to convince their followers to pretend the same thing, until the pretense becomes real and everyone agrees to believe the lie.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” Orwell writes in “Politics and the English Language.” “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

The real aims of Hawley and Trump Jr. — and any number of other conservative figures flinging around the “Orwellian” label in the wake of the storming of the Capitol — are to salvage their reputations after abetting an assault on democratic institutions. Their declared aims are to save democracy. To hide the size of the gap between the two, they have turned, instinctively, to an idiom that is now exhausted.

The word “Orwellian” doesn’t mean anything anymore. Orwell himself told us what to do with it in that case: Stop using it.

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