Thursday, March 31, 2011


Author John Grisham & John Flannery
(photo: Holly S. Flannery)

Best-selling crime-writer John Grisham’s recent thriller, “Confession,” discloses how an over-reaching prosecution can coerce an 18 year old black sports hero in Texas into making a false confession corroborated by a lying trial witness.  In Grisham’s story, just before the execution, the true murdering rapist comes forward to confess, the lying trial witness recants, but the Texas Governor, State AG and the federal and state courts allow this innocent man to die.
If only this couldn’t happen in the real world.
But right here in Virginia in February 1984, an 18-year old black high school drop-out with no criminal record was arrested when he went to the grocery to buy sweet potatoes and bread for his family’s Sunday dinner. 
He had not raped anyone.  But the police collected five witnesses who claimed he had. 
Thomas spent 27 years in prison until two weeks ago when DNA proved he told the truth – that he was innocent all along.
But even innocence isn’t enough. 
Raul Herrera pleaded with the U.S. Supreme Court in 1992 to allow him to prove he was innocent, charging it was cruel and unusual to execute an innocent man in Texas or anywhere else.  Raul had four affidavits proving his brother confessed to committing the murders.  But the Supreme Court said they did not have to allow “every conceivable step … to eliminate the possibility of convicting an innocent person;” there was no constitutional right, they said, to allow a condemned man to prove his innocence. Strapped tight to a gurney, Herrera shouted afterwards, “I am an innocent man, and something very wrong is taking place tonight.”  It was the lethal injection that immediately followed.
Our so-called system is broke because of the license that we grant prosecutors.
Jail house snitches sent Steve Barnes to prison in New York for 20 years for a murder he didn’t commit; snitches are wholly unreliable and should be barred if they cannot be corroborated, and by something stronger than another jail house snitch.
Investigators coerce confessions with shouts, threats and lies; in the Central Park jogger case in New York in 1989, the cops harassed five teens into confessing on video to raping a jogger that they had not raped.
Prosecutors sit on evidence of innocence before trial, conceal lying witnesses, hold back details of the charges that they file, all so they may ambush the Accused. 
Not all defendants are equal, particularly persons of color or the poor.  But even those who begin with resources to fight when they are charged, watch those resources evaporate with damaging media coverage prompted by the government, that often costs the Accused his job, and the trust he once enjoyed in the community.  The government may seize assets needed by the Accused to fight the charges, and often demand high or no bail that further shrinks his resources and ability to defend himself from behind bars.
If we don’t fix this system, we will continue to have innocents in custody and even executed – we just won’t know who they are.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


We have a lot of folk who wouldn’t see it -- if they didn’t already believe it
We are talking about those who believe the Oil and Gas Energy Industry’s PR hogwash – that the Industry is there to help us - even as the Industry misleads and exploits homeowners by contaminating their water with their deep well gas drilling. 
Let’s consider a few facts.
Fact: The Oil and Gas Industry is shattering the earth two miles beneath our feet, “fracturing” they call it, a recent drilling “innovation,” that pumps two to seven million gallons of water as well as sand and toxic chemicals including diesel fuel, into the earth below, at 13,500 pounds of pressure per square inch, to shatter the shale that is trapping bubbles of natural gas that industry is harvesting for a profit; incidentally, industry denies the use of diesel but it has been repeatedly confirmed. 
Fact: When the Oil and Gas industry fought to pass the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congressman Joe Barton of Texas wrote a provision for oil and gas that excluded “hydraulic fracture” from any regulations that would protect underground sources of drinking water.
Fact: When the industry drives those drill bits into the earth, at the rate of 35,000 wells a year, they are making new migration pathways for natural gas, and they are compromising the aquifers, our drinking water, the air we breathe, therefore the homes we can inhabit, bringing on headaches from the evaporated gases, nausea, possible brain damage, and risking life itself.
Fact: There are thousands of families with contaminated water across the nation including those found in Garfield County, Colorado; Pavilion, Wyoming; DISH, Texas; Dimock in Bradford County, Pennsylvania; and Hickory, also in Pennsylvania. 
Fact: Oil and gas companies are giving these families hauled “replacement water” -- if they’ll agree to keep their mouths shut about their contaminated wells. 
Fact: One dramatic illustration of contamination is that fire may result when you light a match near your faucet’s water.  Deeper gas (thermogenic methane) appears to be pushing the surface natural gas (biogenic methane) into the water wells.  That’s what appears to have happened in Colorado.  In Dimock, Pennsylvania, the state agency first said that the methane in the water was surface gas as well (biogenic methane), but then, when forced to test it again, they admitted it was from the deepest layers (thermogenic).  It is possible that Pennsylvania got it right both times, and the surface gas had been pushed out of the way by the deeper gases.  The state agencies also admit that they’re not only finding natural gas but also contaminants related to oil and gas production in these water wells. 
Fact: These same wells had no contaminants, gas or other toxic materials in the waters, before the fracturing wells were drilled.
Conclusion: we’ve got to stop this toxic drilling before we contaminate our underground water system for good as we don’t know how aquifers work well enough to know that we can fix them again if we contaminate them.  If we get this wrong, we’ll all be hauling replacement water from some other smarter nation.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Nuclear Meltdown?

The plates of the earth shoved Japan with the force of an unprecedented earthquake that lifted the ocean floor causing a Tsunami wave that traveled at 600 miles an hour eastward across the Pacific where 6 and 8 foot high waves slammed into these Western United States.
People have been terrified, displaced, drowned, struck by falling debris, radiated, disabled and killed. 
Yet Republican House Speaker John Boehner and his coterie of leaders, in disregard of the constitutional obligation to provide for the “general welfare,” intoxicated at the thought of slashing spending, insist on gutting $126 million out of the National Weather Service budget including the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. 
Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said: “I hope my Republican colleagues in the House are now aware that there was a horrific earthquake and Tsunami in the Pacific.”
Nor is that the end of congressional insensitivity.
 On February 22, 2011, 29 international humanitarian groups including Catholic Relief Services, the American Jewish World Service, and the International Rescue Committee told Speaker Boehner it was “shocking to imagine that in the next major global humanitarian crisis – the next Haiti, Tsunami, or Darfur – the United States might simply fail to show up.”  The Speaker proposed in H.R. 1, a bill to cut “global disaster aid by 67%, global refugee assistance by 45%, and global food relief by 41%.” 
A German philosopher once wrote that honor isn’t won; it’s only lost, and these members of Congress have dishonored themselves and this nation.
Consider, by contrast, that Robert Zoldos II, the Vice Mayor of Lovettsville, has been deployed as a Battalian Chief of a search and rescue team of 74 to go to Japan; he was last deployed to Port au Prince in 2010.  This is what real patriots do when we allow them to serve.
We really should have learned something else from the explosion and possible meltdown of Fukushima Daiichi’s nuclear reactor – and it’s how fragile are the industry’s assurances of safety.  In Japan, there were falsified safety records.
I’m not saying it could happen here the same way.  But, as early as 1774, we had a “severe” earthquake in Richmond that covered 150,000 square kilometers.  In 1828, the epicenter of another quake was southwest Virginia, so strong a shock that President John Quincy Adams wrote of it in his diary.  There have been 10 other noteworthy quakes that spanned an expanse as large as 725,000 square kilometers.  So don’t presume we can’t suffer a quake.
For the record, we have 104 reactors at 65 power plants across the nation and 4 of them are at two sites here in Virginia, North Anna (1,806 megawatts) in Louisa County and Surry (799 megawatts) in Surry County.  We are playing with our health and safety as we can’t trust a thing these plants say.
In conclusion, this disaster reminds us again that no man is an island.  More than a clod of earth has been washed away by the sea.  Each of us is diminished by these deaths.  But we have the opportunity to be involved in mankind and to make a difference - as Bob Zoldos already has in Japan.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Perhaps you’ve seen those videos where a person turns on the faucet and fire spills into the sink.
There’s something unsettling about a lit match that ignites water. 
Water ordinarily quenches fire.
So why is this happening? 
It’s because the energy industry is mining natural gas in a new and perilous way – and the pipe to that faucet carries an unexpected mixture of water and natural gas.
Energy moguls have been trying to capture and collect bubbles of natural gas, as much as 516 trillion cubic feet worth, found in a 573 square mile expanse of shale 8,000 feet below the surface running from Alabama to New York, and running along Virginia’s western border.  
Energy CEOs are getting a rush at new technology that can shatter the shale so they can harvest the gas and huge profits as well.
The rub is how do they do it – how they get at the gas.
They’ve found a cheap method of extraction called “fracking” – short for hydraulic fracturing. 
They drill down vertically as far as two miles into the earth and then the drill turns at right angles (horizontal drilling) parallel to the surface (and perhaps even under your retirement ski cottage off I-81). 
They then put a high pressure pump with a mixture of crushing sand, hazardous materials, chemicals that are carcinogens, and millions of gallons of water, and force fractures in the shale so that gas may escape into the drill bore.
There have been complaints from Alabama, Virginia and West Virginia of impaired or polluted drinking water near these gas wells. 
The wastewater contains terrible by-products including reproductive toxicants, arsenic, hydrogen sulfide, mercury, barium, radium, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including benzene and xylene – so we are haunted by the possibility of a latter day disaster like the Hooker Chemical Company’s Love Canal - if we don’t get smarter.
Worse, this drilling takes millions of gallons of water from existing streams, compromising farmers and the ecosystem. 
There’s no good way to handle the highly salted toxic wastewater that comes up with the drill. 
Normal municipal treatment facilities don’t treat for carcinogens or remove radioactive materials. 
Dumping wastewater into streams used by nearby communities is no answer. 
Pumping wastewater back into the earth is very likely to compromise our underground aquifers. 
As a matter of law, we are almost defenseless.
We are not protected by the Clean Water Act, the Superfund law (CERCLA), the Safe Drinking Water Act, or the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.  The Oil and Gas Industry lobbied and won exemptions from all these safety regulations.  Nor does the public have any right to know what these gas companies are doing under the Federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Acts.
How did we do to this to ourselves?  Nothing new here!  Our public officials are “too compliant,” compromised by their large contributors, and covering up the health hazards with a goulash of industry disinformation and false promises to reassure curious constituents.
The most important question we should ask ourselves about this industry debacle is simple.
Is our health more important than a 10 year supply of natural gas? 
I think it is! 
But there are those taking profits who heartily disagree.


By John P. Flannery
My grandfather, Charles Flannery, worked for Con Edison in New York, and was a member of a union; his union negotiated for working conditions, for pay, sick and retirement benefits. 
My paternal grandmother had her children at home in her walk up apartment in the Bronx.
My grandfather told me, “we’d never have been able to raise your father and his brother and his sisters if it wasn’t for the union at Con Ed; we couldn’t have bargained for these wages and benefits individually.” 
Ultimately, my father and his brother worked for Con Ed, and so did my younger brother Charles for a time. 
Edward Bennet Williams, a great criminal defense lawyer, used to say to his clients, “We all hang together, or we all hang separately.”
That’s the basic principle of labor negotiation – a union of collective interest hanging together.
When I was still in grammar school, my grandfather would watch the talking heads on Sunday, then in black and white, and I sat at his elbow; he would rail at the corporate bosses making twenty times what the workers were getting, living off their excess profits instead of sharing some of it with the workers who made the profits possible in the first case.
The times are different and things are worse. 
Bosses make an even higher multiple than their employees, and employees have fewer rights and less power to bargain on an equal footing.
Without unions, without bargaining leverage, what you have are adhesion contracts, those take it or leave it provisions, in 8 pica type, where you surrender all your rights. 
Such adhesion contracts are often thrown out in court because they are unconscionable. 
But the legislation that provides for workers bargaining has grown weak over the years.
The standard of a civilization is how we treat our own but the standard of the corporate givers is how much profit they can make, what government function they can privatize, what reprisals they can impose on workers who oppose them for their excesses, and what fair benefits may they withhold 
The businesses who think they are plantation owners and their workers, their slaves, have found ready allies in federal and state elected officials.
The class warfare we confront is those who have too much refusing to pay their fair share while taking from those who have less.
At the national and the state level, we see tax give backs to the wealthiest from deficit-ridden federal and state treasuries and, moments or months later, we’re told these same governmental entities want to cut the salaries, benefits and retirements of those who are not wealthy at all in order to cure the deficit they helped aggravate by their corporate give backs and largesse.
We are being taught to hate union workers today, but every other worker is next, as these businesses scheme to send more jobs offshore, and to cut your social security, medicare, health care, education, whatever means more profit to them, as a fair exchange for their political gifting.