Jodi Arias trial brings up issue of capital punishment
Does anyone even care what happens to Jodi Arias at this point?
Someone must, or her four-month long trial would not have been televised nor turned into the media circus it has become. Arias herself took the stand in her defense and her testimony lasted 18 days. Eighteen days to explain how and why she had killed former boyfriend Travis Alexander on June 4, 2008 after the two had sex. He was shot and then stabbed nearly 30 times and his throat was slashed; she claimed he'd become abusive and violent.
A Phoenix, Ariz. jury found her guilty of first degree murder May 8 and a week later decided she was eligible for the death penalty because it was done "with cruelty." On Tuesday, the jury began deliberations on sentencing after hearing from both sides whether Arias should face the death penalty or life in prison.
Arias told Fox affiliate KSAZ minutes after her conviction she preferred to die rather than live out her life in prison. "Death is the ultimate freedom," she said. Then she changed her mind, and spoke to the jury Tuesday in an attempt to save her life as she described the contributions she could make in prison if her life were spared:
She's grown her hair down to her waist before and donated it to Locks of Love; she could do that again, she told the jury members. She understood that literacy rates are down in prison; she would help teach other women how to read. Maybe she could start a book club or reading group, too.
Then she pulled out a T-shirt with the word "Survivor" on the front in a show-and-tell gesture: She could sell the shirts and donate the profits to victims of domestic abuse. That little scenario, replayed on the news, just felt wrong for so many reasons.
Arias claimed to be a victim of abuse at one point in the trial. Apparently, she claimed a lot of things before and during the trial. For me -- and the many others who haven't been paying attention -- CNN offers a primer. Or you can cut to the chase and get ABC's list of the trial's nine most shocking moments (most of which have to do with sex). Then again, you don't have long to wait for the movie version: Lifetime has announced "Dirty Little Secret" will premiere June 22.
The movie promises plenty of sex, but from what I've heard, there was no lack of salacious details in the trial, with descriptions of phone, oral and anal sex, and that may explain the public's fascination with the case.
"It's all about the sex," Michele Samit, a Los Angeles screenwriter and movie producer told me.
Perhaps the public should instead be wondering whether Arias deserves the death penalty, or whether any prisoner in the United States should be executed. Mother-daughter attorneys Gloria Allred and Lisa Bloom debated that point on HLN's "After Dark," a show spawned by the trial.
"If there is anyone who should get the death penalty, it's Jodi Arias," Allred said, while Bloom pointed out that most countries in the Western world had outlawed executions.
One argument against the death penalty, of course, is the danger of executing the innocent. The play "Exonerated," which I got to know well when my daughter's high school theater department produced it several years ago, tackles this issue. The case of Jesse Tafeo is included, but it's not as black-and-white as the drama would lead the audience to believe. What is undisputed is the fact that Florida's electric chair malfunctioned and Tafeo's death was gruesome.
And there is the issue of whether capital punishment robs the guilty of the chance for repentance. The United Methodist Church, to which I belong, is opposed to the death penalty because it "denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings," according to the church's social principles.
This past month we've heard a demand for the death penalty for the Cleveland man who allegedly held three young women captive for a decade, for the Boston bomber suspect and for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell. But why? As Mary C. Curtis wrote, "When justice doesn't seem quite enough, is vengeance the only thing that will do?"
I did watch the trial of Lisa Montgomery, who was convicted of kidnapping Victoria Jo Stinnett, resulting in the death of her mother, Bobbie Jo Stinnett. Bobbie Jo was my cousin's daughter, and she was killed Dec. 16, 2004 in Skidmore, Mo., by Montgomery for her baby in a gruesome and horrific do-it-yourself C-section.
On the second day of the trial when the crime scene and autopsy photos were shown, a medical examiner testified that there was blood on the soles of Bobbie Jo's feet because she had stood up, after her belly was carved open with a kitchen knife, to try to fight off her attacker. Strands of Montgomery's hair were found in Bobbie Jo's hands.
I was sitting with Bobbie Jo's mother and grandmother, as I did every day of that trial. I'll never forget seeing those photos. I'll never forget listening to the 911 call from Becky Harper, Bobbie Jo's mom, who found her daughter's body in a blood-soaked room. She told the dispatcher her pregnant daughter's stomach looked like "it had exploded" and kept crying, "Wake up, Bobbie Jo, wake up."
I wrote the statement for Harper to read to the media at the end of the trial in the only time she ever spoke to reporters, after the jury had decided on the death penalty. Then I promised my cousin I'd go with her to Terre Haute, Ind. when Montgomery is executed.
Is it vengeance? Or justice? For as long as Montgomery lives, even though she's in prison, she can enjoy the company of her three daughters and one son.
But Harper will never see her only daughter again.
Joplin 'Volunteer House' symbol of hope for tornado victims
If I hadn't seen Joplin, Mo., almost two years ago, I wouldn't believe the extent of the devastation in Moore, Okla.
By the time I visited Joplin on Labor Day 2011, after the May 22 tornado had struck the southwest Missouri community, much of the damage was still visible. Entire city blocks of houses and buildings lay pulverized to piles of rubble. No newspaper photograph or television news clip could capture the damage. Areas where the debris had been cleared had become the silent ghosts of neighborhoods that no longer existed. Signs spraypainted on remnants of houses ranged from the threatening "You loot, we shoot" to the reassuring "all ok."
Two months later I accompanied my son's Boy Scout troop to the city to help with cleanup. While there, we visited what had become a local landmark. "The Volunteer House" had been home to Tim Bartow and his family. Only one exterior wall of the structure still stood. Bartow had gathered up the living room furniture, scattered blocks away, so volunteers would have a place to rest.
Then he spray-painted his own heartfelt message to the nearly 115,000 volunteers who came to Joplin from all over the world to help: "Thank you volunteers / We "heart" u! / You are our heroes!"
And the volunteers responded, writing their own messages of hope and encouragement on every surface imaginable. Bartow was there that day and spoke to us, making the experience especially memorable for the Scouts. He recalled the Sunday afternoon when the tornado hit.
Ironically, he and his wife and just finished working on the 5-1/2 year remodeling of the 1920s Craftsman three-bedroom brick house. Their last act: sweeping the leftover sand off of the brick walkway. After the tornado, the broom they'd left standing in a corner of the house was still there. And so was the walkway. But most of the house was gone.
He told us he heard the sirens late that afternoon, but having grown up in Tornado Alley, figured it was a false alarm. His daughter and son-in-law, who lived next door in a house without a basement, came running in screaming about a tornado and rushed downstairs. He was more worried about lightning causing power surges that would damage the computers, so he stayed to turn off the electronics, calling the rest of the family members "Chicken Littles who thought the sky was falling."
Then the storm blew out the windows of the house. "You know how they say a tornado sounds like a freight train?" he told us. "This sounded like a dozen freight trains." He barely made it to the basement.
Once there, he realized that the vortex of the tornado was passing overhead as it sucked up the air through the metal ductwork, collapsing it and causing everyone's ears to pop. His wife felt like she was being pulled up. Then they heard a crunching, grinding sound as the debris carried by the tornado acted like a giant sandblaster on what was left of the house.
Once it was quiet, they were still not out of danger. They could smell gas. "I think, great, survive the tornado and now we're going to get blown up." A 2-by-4 and a piece of Rebar blocked the door at the top of the stairs, but after struggling, Bartow finally got it open.
The scene that greeted him was "surreal," he said. It looked like a war movie. But despite the devastation, no one in his neighborhood was killed.
When he spoke to the Scouts that day, his voice broke as he said: "There were so many volunteers who came to help. We didn't have a choice [to go through the tornado], we were stuck.
"But you guys have a choice .I'm glad you came."
When do teachers and big government get respect? When we need them.
When the news and pictures streamed in from Oklahoma, it was terrible and shocking. The tornado hit Moore, leveling homes and obliterating a school, where frightened children turned to teachers who comforted them, kept their cool and tried to protect their charges, with their own bodies if it came to that.
As state and local officials were still figuring out the extent of the damage, they got word from President Obama that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would assist efforts to recover and rebuild.
The first responders — as they did at the Boston Marathon bombing, the Texas fertilizer plant explosions, Hurricane Sandy and every other disaster — earned high praise and some credit that the too-high casualty count was not higher.
Teachers, big government, city and county workers — it seems it sometimes takes a tragedy to love them.
Most days, talk about teachers and government workers sounds more like a curse overpaid, underworked, in it for a paycheck. People who have never done the jobs have plenty to say about them. When states look to cut costs or institute another round of layoffs, those are the vulnerable positions. After all, they are not the prized "job creators" of modern rhetoric. Why, I wonder, would anyone want a job that is often thought of as a last resort for those who couldn't cut it elsewhere?
But these are the people who look after a community's children. "A teacher who had been watching the storm's progress outside Plaza Towers Elementary School on Monday came tearing down the hall, yelling to get as many children as possible into the girls' bathroom," read The Washington Post's report, the narrative relayed by an 11-year-old who was there. "Perhaps 70 or 80 children jammed into the bathroom within moments, he said. Some teachers were standing; when the tornado hit, they threw themselves on top of the children."
It was the same protective instinct at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., with teachers trying to shield children from a storm of bullets.
This week, Obama met with his disaster team, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and spoke with Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and Rep. Tom Cole, whose home is in the heavily damaged suburb of Oklahoma City. I'm sure that the topic of cuts to federal spending to rein in the deficit was not part of the conversation.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey (R) was criticized for his expressive gratitude to the president in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. But as the Republican political establishment in Oklahoma no doubt realizes, right now, all their citizens want is help.
It doesn't mean that "big government," the catch-all conservative bogeyman, can't be criticized for bloat or inefficiency. But when a storm or tornado hits and the unimaginable happens, we want government, we want it now and we want it to work.
Thankfully, disasters — of the human and natural variety — don't happen too often, so we have the luxury to complain about people doing the jobs we don't want or don't have to do.
It would be nice at those times to remember how it is with certain things and people — we don't appreciate them until we need them.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3
'Just' one in 10 breast cancer cases are hereditary means a lot of women need to know
While the media has focused a lot of attention on Angelina Jolie's decision to have a preventive double mastectomy, her genetic cancer risk has received much less notice. In fact, many medical experts commenting on her announcement have gone out of their way to reassure women that her situation is relatively rare. But one in 10 is not rare at all.
The sweet woman sitting at the front desk of the breast cancer center also put it that way: "It's only 10 percent" of breast cancer cases that are hereditary, she said. She was a staff member and I was volunteering to be one of the "buddies" who talk with women concerned about breast cancer. In particular, I had offered to talk with women concerned about genetic breast cancer, but the woman at the desk clearly wasn't impressed with my offer. She paused for a moment, as if she were considering my suggestion, and then added, "I don't think very many of our clients would need this. Only 10 percent of breast cancer is genetic."
My doctors have told me this; even my genetic counselors have told me this. They all use the same phrase, "Only 10 percent," as if the words were glued together, or as if this were a small number.
Because I hear this phrase so often,some part of me wanted to shout at this woman, "Only 10 percent! That's a lot of women!" But she was warm and friendly and I knew she wanted to help women, too. I also knew that 10 percent of a really big number is still a big number.
And I want all of us to think about the meaning of what she told me:
Almost one in 10 of the women who get breast or ovarian cancer are born with a gene that could warn them. Advance warning could give them choices for early detection and even for prevention -- but most of them still don't know.
In the U.S. alone, close to 300,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. That means 300,000 this year, 300,000 next year, the year after that, and every year until we find a cure. Globally,1.6 million women are diagnosed every single year.
I often think about those 300,000 women who are newly diagnosed with breast cancer, and imagine how their stories will unfold. A woman will feel a lump in her breast and will be very worried. She'll feel a bit of panic rising inside that she'll try to ignore; she'll hope the lump is just a cyst, that it is nothing. Or maybe she will have a mammogram and the technician will ask her to stay just a bit longer so the radiologist can take another look. Or she will get a phone call from her doctor about a "suspicious spot" on her test, that probably is nothing, but could she please come back in.
She may move on to an ultrasound or an MRI and eventually to a biopsy. Not long after, she will get the phone call she will always remember or will have her doctor ask her to come in to talk in person, and she will first hear the words, "You have breast cancer." This is a terrible moment, a phone call full of pain or an unreal conversation in a doctor's office. It may feel as if her life as she has known it has come to an end, suddenly, without her permission.
In the next year, almost 300,000 women in the United States will get this call.
Another 22,000 women each year will get the news that they have ovarian cancer—a diagnosis that is much more dangerous because by the time a woman feels symptoms, her cancer has most likely already spread. Without an early warning, a woman may feel fine until her cancer is no longer treatable. In the United States, more than 14,000 women each year die from ovarian cancer, known in treatment centers as "the silent killer."
For nine out of 10 of these women, there currently is nothing we can do to help them in advance. Their diagnoses of breast or ovarian cancer are sporadic, random, impossible to predict. But 10 percent of these women can learn their risk ahead of time. They can take steps that make it extremely unlikely that they will ever get this call.
Genetic cancer is a family disease. Every woman who comes into this breast cancer center with genetic breast cancer very likely has a large network of family members who are also at risk. If she doesn't yet know her risk, they probably don't know theirs either. I imagine each woman in this 10 percent walking in surrounded by an invisible circle of family members whose futures are also at stake.
I think about these things because I am one of the one in 10. I learned my genetic risk for breast and ovarian cancer five years ago, and then scrambled to learn everything I could about my options for preventing these with hormone treatment or surgeries. After two very intense months of recalling my mom's death from ovarian cancer and her father's death from pancreatic cancer, I made the very difficult decision to have a preventive double mastectomy with reconstruction. I vowed to take any step I could to avoid cancer. Then, after a normal mammogram, I had an MRI that showed I already had breast cancer. It was too late for my surgery to be preventive.
I wanted the woman at the desk at the breast cancer center to notice these women with genetic cancer risk because they could have been me. I didn't want her to dismiss them because they were "only" 10 percent.
So I took a deep breath and asked, "This 'only 10 percent' thing can we talk about this?"
Lisa Friedman, Ph.D., is a partner in the Enterprise Development Group, an innovation consulting firm based in Palo Alto, Calif., and an adviser for Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered, (FORCE), a nonprofit offering information and support about hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (www.facingourrisk.org).
Hugging death in Pakistan
SARGODHA, Pakistan -- As I reached the polling station, ready to cast my vote here in my hometown after a 24-hour trip home from the U.S., where I'm in college, my biggest concern was not rigged elections or standing in a long line in scorching heat but simply coming out of the place alive.
Considering that Taliban leaders had openly threatened to attack polling stations across Pakistan, I was not being paranoid. Between mid-April and May 9, 81 people were killed and 437 were injured in over 119 violent incidents. If the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, responsible for most of the violence, could abduct the son of a former prime minister, I sure did not feel safe entering a polling station that was ill-equipped to prevent an attack.
In the chaos created by exploding bombs, targeted killings and a fearful public demanding security, when a politician climbs the podium to speak out against the Taliban and other militants, most of us just applaud him for his bravery and pray that he survives. But recently, I was reminded that some Pakistanis dedicate their lives to hunting these militants in an effort to keep the rest of us safe.
Wahab Ali and Misbah Ullah were two such silent warriors. Both were members of the Pakistan Elite Force and part of a contingent dispatched to arrest a group of suicide bombers on May 8. After receiving information from intelligence sources about the location of a group of specially trained suicide bombers sent to disrupt the elections, Peshawar police raided a house in the Rasheed Garhi area.
They volunteered to scale the wall as other officers surrounded the house. One suicide bomber, who was on the top floor, spotted them and opened fire, picking off Ullah and killing him instantly. Ali managed to climb inside, but died, too, when the suicide bomber exploded himself. Police arrested two more suicide bombers in the basement, while a third managed to escape.
Both Ali and Ullah were fully aware that the man on the top floor was wearing an explosive jacket. They knew, too, that any attempt to go near him would result in death, and yet they stepped forward. And this is not an isolated event. It is the story of thousands of policemen and soldiers who are deployed across our country. Some of them are lowly constables, but their service and commitment to the country and its people exceeds that of all our politicians put together.
These unsung heroes stand at checkpoints and take part in raids. They are the first and the most frequent target of militants. And yet when they see a suicide bomber, what do they do? They stand in front of him and hug him.
My dad said that he felt ashamed at the funeral of those two police officers because their families live in poverty, though we owe them so much. Since then, I've been telling my friends that the next time they even think of complaining about the lack of security in Pakistan to remember the soldiers and policemen who risk so much. They literally hug death to keep us safe.
Umema Aimen is a student at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.