While most of the country was riveted by the verdict in the Casey Anthony case — invoking the O.J. trial and decrying what many regarded as an unjust verdict — the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit criminal-defense and civil rights law and advocacy firm, released yet another in a series of reports that clearly demonstrate that the criminal-justice system, especially in the South, is broken and dangerously on the brink of illegitimacy.
The EJI’s latest report (pdf) focuses on a little-known practice, permitted in only three states: judicial override. Florida, Delaware and Alabama allow judges to overturn jury-sentencing verdicts in death penalty cases. There are no individuals on death row in Delaware as a result of judicial override, and no judge has imposed a capital punishment override in Florida in the last 12 years. But according to the EJI report, judicial override in Alabama is almost always exercised to impose the death penalty when a jury has recommended life in prison. In fact, although judges have the authority under Alabama law to override a jury’s sentence of death and to instead impose a life sentence, 92 percent of judicial overrides are used to order death.
According to EJI estimates, there are 40 men on death row in Alabama who were placed there after a judge overrode a jury’s sentence of life in prison. Given that Alabama imposes few obstacles to the imposition of the death penalty by juries (a death sentence does not require a unanimous verdict in Alabama — the agreement of 10 of 12 jurors is sufficient), and that jurors opposed to capital punishment are excluded from serving on Alabama juries, judicial overrides to impose death are particularly alarming. But these judicial overrides have not provoked charges of “activist judging,” confirming that the charge of judicial activism has simply become right-wing shorthand to describe a judge whose independence gets in the way of the conservative agenda.
Among the most disturbing but unsurprising findings in the report are that the judicial override in Alabama is almost always imposed when a jury has given a defendant life in prison for the murder of a white victim. According to the report, in Alabama 75 percent of death overrides involve a white victim, even though only 35 percent of homicide victims in Alabama are white. This coincides with long-standing studies that demonstrate the death penalty is imposed most often when the victim of the homicide is white.
Yet another devastating revelation is the evidence that judges override juries to impose the death penalty more often in a judicial election year. If one plus one still equals two, this is among the most searing indictments of judicial elections (still used in 38 states). It suggests that in some instances, judges, feeling the pressure of upcoming election contests, may either consciously or unconsciously make decisions that will shore up their “tough on crime” bonafides.
It is perhaps no coincidence that in Delaware — where judges are appointed — there are no convicts on death row as a result of judicial override. A decade-old study of Pennsylvania judges suggests that there is a positive correlation between harsher sentences imposed by judges against criminal defendants and the proximity of an upcoming judicial election.
The existence of such a correlation in the imposition of the ultimate sentence — death — is a devastating indictment of judicial elections. In fact, if judges are condemning convicts to death and overriding the judgment of the jury to improve their chances for re-election, we are looking at a system that can no longer rightly use the word “justice” to describe itself.
To understand the toxic brew of race, the death penalty and judicial elections, one need only read the words of one judge cited in the report, who substituted a death sentence over the jury’s recommendation of life in prison on a white defendant because if he didn’t impose the death-sentence override, the judge said, “I would have sentenced three black people to death and no white people.”
The EJI report is particularly disturbing when read as a companion to the report the organization issued last year that showed the consistent exclusion of blacks from Southern juries in criminal cases. In that report, Alabama once again held a place of special distinction.
Judges ignoring juries to impose death sentences on defendants who kill white victims? Blacks excluded from serving on Southern juries? The charges are lurid and retro but well-documented and devastating. They suggest — along with the now well-known cases of prosecutors framing black criminal defendants for murders they did not commit and withholding exculpatory information from defense counsel, the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers, racially disparate stop-and-frisk police practices and unconstitutional conditions of confinement in our nation’s prisons — that our criminal-justice system is in real trouble.
Where are the congressional hearings on the findings unearthed in these reports and cases? Where is the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which was specifically empowered to “study and collect information relating to discrimination or a denial of equal protection of laws under the Constitution because of race, color … or in the administration of justice,” and to engage in the kind of long-term fact gathering that this very serious problem requires?
Without further delay, we need a federal inquiry into the findings of the EJI report. But we also need a broader, more comprehensive examination of our criminal-justice system and the persistent and pernicious role that race continues to play in how justice is meted out, from encounters with the police to conviction and sentencing.
Whether the inquiry comes from Congress or the Commission on Civil Rights, or even from the Department of Justice, something must be done at the federal level. The U.S. can no longer turn a blind eye toward an uncomfortable but painfully obvious truth: that the legitimacy of our justice system is in deep peril. Outrage about the Casey Anthony verdict would be better directed toward addressing the widespread injustices in our criminal-justice system that have been amply documented by EJI and others, rather than a myopic focus on one admittedly disturbing case served up by television networks for our entertainment.
By MARK McDONALD
SEOUL, South Korea — New satellite images and firsthand accounts from former political prisoners and former jailers in North Korea have confirmed the enormous scale and bleak conditions of the penal system in the secretive North, according to a report released Wednesday by the human rights group Amnesty International.
Former inmates at the political labor camp at Yodok, North Korea, said they were frequently tortured and had been forced to watch the executions of fellow prisoners, the report said, noting that the North’s network of political prisons is estimated to hold 200,000 inmates.
“North Korea can no longer deny the undeniable,” said Sam Zarifi, the Asia Pacific director of Amnesty International. “For decades, the authorities have refused to admit to the existence of mass political prison camps. These are places out of sight of the rest of the world.” The report says that almost all of the human rights protections that international law has tried to set up for the past 60 years “are ignored.”
After comparing recent satellite photos of prison camps with images from 10 years ago, Mr. Zarifi said, Amnesty International became concerned that the “prison camps appear to be growing.”
North Korea’s work farms and prison factories are the world’s most notorious, according to human rights experts. Political prisoners sentenced to hard labor initially included landlords, purged party officials and the religiously active, according to Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, the authors of “Witness to Transformation,” an authoritative study of North Korean refugees.
Political prisons, they said, also now hold “anyone guilty of political or ideological crimes or even suspected of disloyalty,” adding that the system shows “little pretense of due process.”
Son Hyang-sun, a woman who defected from North Korea 15 years ago because she was starving, said she was caught on her first escape attempt. She was convicted and jailed for four months.
“They tortured me with an electric stick, yes, a cattle prod,” she said in an interview with The International Herald Tribune. “They stuck it everywhere.”
A recent State Department report on human rights in North Korea said “detainees and prisoners consistently reported violence and torture” as well as virtual starvation rations. In various accounts, escaped inmates have reported eating earthworms and rats to get enough protein to survive.
Jeong Kyoung-il, a former Yodok inmate who was interviewed last month by Amnesty, said that deaths in the prison occurred almost daily. But the deaths of fellow prisoners came to be seen in a depraved and desperate light. “Frankly, unlike in a normal society, we would like it, rather than feel sad, because if you bring a dead body and bury it, you would be given another bowl of food,” Mr. Jeong said.
I feel like a cat with its fur rubbed backwards
Mathematician whose fractal geometry helps us find patterns in the irregularities of the natural world
by Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon
A computer-generated fractal image. ‘Why is geometry often described as cold and dry?’ asked Mandelbrot. ‘One reason lies in its inability to describe the shape of a cloud, a mountain or a tree.’ Photograph: © Stocktrek/Corbis
Benoît Mandelbrot, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 85, enjoyed the rare distinction of having his name applied to a feature of mathematics that has become part of everyday life – the Mandelbrot set. Both a French and an American citizen, though born in Poland, he had a visionary, maverick approach, harnessing computer power to develop a geometry that mirrors the complexity of the natural world, with applications in many practical fields.
At the start of his groundbreaking work, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, he asks: “Why is geometry often described as cold and dry? One reason lies in its inability to describe the shape of a cloud, a mountain, a coastline or a tree.” The approach that he pioneered helps us to describe nature as we actually see it, and so expand our way of thinking.
The world we live in is not naturally smooth-edged and regularly shaped like the familiar cones, circles, spheres and straight lines of Euclid’s geometry: it is rough-edged, wrinkled, crinkled and irregular. “Fractals” was the name he applied to irregular mathematical shapes similar to those in nature, with structures that are self-similar over many scales, the same pattern being repeated over and over. Fractal geometry offers a systematic way of approaching phenomena that look more elaborate the more they are magnified, and the images it generates are themselves a source of great fascination.
Mandelbrot first visualised the set on 1 March 1980 at IBM’s Thomas J Watson Research Centre at Yorktown Heights, upstate New York. However, the seeds of this discovery were sown in Paris in 1925, when the mathematicians Gaston Julia, a student of Henri Poincaré, and Pierre Fatou published a paper exploring the world of complex numbers – combinations of the usual real numbers, 1, -1 and so on, with imaginary numbers such as the square root of -1, which Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz had labelled “that amphibian between being and not being”. The results of their endeavours eventually became known as Julia sets, though Julia himself never saw them represented graphically.
It was Mandelbrot’s uncle Szolem who initially directed him to the work of Julia and Fatou on what are termed self-similarity and iterated functions. In my documentary The Colours of Infinity, shown on Channel 4 in 1995, Mandelbrot told me how he set about developing his approach: ‘“For me the first step with any difficult mathematical problem was to programme it, and see what it looked like. We started programming Julia sets of all kinds. It was extraordinarily great fun! And in particular, at one point, we became interested in the Julia set of the simplest possible transformation: Z goes to Z squared plus C [where C is a constant number. So Z times Z plus C, and then the outcome of that becomes a new Z while C stays the same, to give new Z times new Z plus C, and so on]. I made many pictures of it. The first ones were very rough. But the very rough pictures were not the answer. Each rough picture asked a question. So I made another picture, another picture. And after a few weeks we had this very strong, overwhelming impression that this was a kind of big bear we had encountered.”
In his view, the most important implication of this work was that very simple formulas could yield very complicated results: “What is science? We have all this mess around us. Things are totally incomprehensible. And then eventually we find simple laws, simple formulas. In a way, a very simple formula, Newton’s Law, which is just also a few symbols, can by hard work explain the motion of the planets around the sun and many, many other things to the 50th decimal. It’s marvellous: a very simple formula explains all these very complicated things.”
Mandelbrot, born into a Lithuanian-Jewish family living in Warsaw, showed an early love for geometry and excelled at chess: he later admitted that he did not think the game through logically, but geometrically. Maps were another inspiration. His father was crazy about them, and the house was full of them.
In 1936, the rise of nazism in Germany persuaded his family to leave for Paris, and eventually Lyon, in the south of France. A year of studying mathematics there after he left high school brought home to Mandelbrot his extraordinary visual ability.
At the end of the second world war he returned to Paris for college entrance examinations, which he passed with distinction, winning a place at the École Normale and then moving on to the École Polytechnique. From there he went on to the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, to study turbulence and gain a master’s in aeronautics.
After obtaining a doctorate in mathematics (1952) in Paris, he returned to the US, this time to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. There he came across the idea of the Hausdorff-Besicovitch dimension – the revelation that there were phenomena that existed outside one-dimensional space, but in somewhat less than two dimensions. Mandelbrot took up the concept on the spot: it provided an all-purpose tool and was a special example of his eventual notion of fractal dimension.
His interest in computers was immediate, and his use of the new resource grew rapidly. He returned to France, married Aliette Kagan and became a professor at the University of Lille and then at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. His academic future looked assured. But he felt uncomfortable in that environment, and in 1958 he spent the summer at IBM as a faculty visitor.
The company asked him to work on eliminating the apparently random noise in signal transmissions between computer terminals. The errors were not in fact completely random – they tended to come in bunches. Mandelbrot observed that the degree of bunching remained constant whether he plotted them by the month, the week or by the day. This was another step towards his fractal revelation.
During the 1960s Mandelbrot’s quest led him to study galaxy clusters, applying his ideas on scaling to the structure of the universe itself. He scoured through forgotten and obscure journals. He found the clue he was looking for in the work of the mathematician and meteorologist Lewis Fry Richardson: he took a photocopy, and when he returned to consult the volume further, found it had gone to be pulped. Nonetheless, he knew he had struck a rich seam.
Richardson loved asking questions others considered worthless, and one of his papers, Does the Wind Possess a Velocity? anticipated later work by Edward Lorenz and other founders of Chaos Theory. One of Richardson’s great insights was a model of turbulence as a collection of ever-smaller eddies.
Mandelbrot was struck too by Richardson’s 1961 observations on the lengths of coastlines, and published a paper called How Long is the Coast of Britain? This apparently simple question of geography reveals, on close inspection, some of the essential features of fractal geometry. At IBM in 1973 Mandelbrot developed an algorithm using a very basic, makeshift computer, a typewriter with a minute memory, to generate pictures that imitated natural landforms.
While the ideas behind fractals, iteration and self-similarity are ancient, it took the coining of the term “fractal geometry” in 1975 and the publication of The Fractal Geometry of Nature in French in the same year to give the quest an identity. As Mandelbrot put it, “to have a name is to be” — and the field exploded.
He had bolstered his own presence by adding a middle initial that stood for no particular name, and Benoît B Mandelbrot became a fixture at IBM, with visiting professorships at Harvard and MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He started teaching at Yale in 1987, becoming a full professor there in 1999. His many awards included the Wolf prize for physics in 1993.
Fractal geometry is now being used in work with marine organisms, vegetative ecosystems, earthquake data, the behaviour of density-dependent populations, percolation and aggregation in oil research, and in the formation of lightning. Lightning resembles the diffusion patterns left by water as it permeates soft rock such as sandstone: computer simulations of this effect look exactly like the real thing.
Fractals hold a promise for building better roads, for video compression and even for designing ships that are less likely to capsize. The geometry is already being successfully applied in medical imaging, and the forms generated by the discipline are a source of pleasure in their own right, adding to our aesthetic awareness as we observe fractals everywhere in nature.
Their beauty and power are displayed in the just-published book The Colours of Infinity, updating the account given in the film. In the course of making that and a further film with Mandelbrot – Clouds Are Not Spheres (2000, now a DVD) – I became aware of his great kindness and generosity. At the end of Clouds Are Not Spheres he reflects: “My search has brought me to many of the most fundamental issues of science. Some I improved upon, but certainly left very wide open and mysterious. This had been my hope as a young man and has filled my whole life. I feel extremely fortunate.”
He is survived by Aliette and his two sons, Laurent and Didier.
• Benoît Mandelbrot, mathematician, born 20 November 1924; died 14 October 2010
• This article was amended on 20 October 2010. The original referred to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, New Jersey. This has been corrected.
Malaysian astrophysicist Mazlan Othman denies Sunday Times report that she is to become Earth’s first contact for ETs
ET would have been directed to the UN’s Malaysian astrophysicist Mazlan Othman if it had landed on Earth today, according to the Sunday Times. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Universal
If a Martian, proverbial or otherwise, had landed on Earth in the last 24 hours the media had some practical advice. Or so it seemed. According to the Sunday Times and numerous other media outlets that followed up the story, the United Nations was “poised” to appoint an individual to be the first point of contact with aliens.
Malaysian astrophysicist Mazlan Othman was being lined up for the role, the story said. As head of the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs (Unoosa) Othman would be the “nearest thing we have to a take me to you leader [person]”, Prof Richard Crowther, from the UK Space Agency, told the Sunday Times.
According to the paper, Othman is due to tell a Royal Society conference that as the detection of extraterrestrial life is more likely than ever, the UN needs to be ready to co-ordinate humanity’s response.
Reading all this our Martian visitor might have been encouraged to try to get in touch. They would have had a frustrating time.
The Royal Society knew nothing about it. The United Nations referred all queries to the switchboard of Unoosa in Vienna. Its switchboard number wasn’t much help. “The person at extension 4951 is unavailable, please leave your message after the tone,” it said. Those messages might make for some interesting listening today.
Finally an email from Othman herself would have prompted our Martian to trudge back to his spaceship. “It sounds really cool but I have to deny it,” she said of the story. She will be attending a conference next week, but she’ll be talking about how the world deals with “near-Earth objects”.
Our alien will just have to try someone else, or stop reading the Sunday Times.
by Sophie Tedmanson
The Australian founder of the whistleblower website Wikileaks had his passport confiscated by police when he arrived in Melbourne last week.
Julian Assange, who does not have an official home base and travels every six weeks, told the Australian current affairs programDateline that immigration officials had said his passport was going to be cancelled because it was looking worn.
However he then received a letter from the Australian Communication Minister Steven Conroy’s office stating that the recent disclosure on Wikileaks of a blacklist of websites the Australian government is preparing to ban had been referred to the Australian Federal Police (AFP).
Last year Wikileaks published a confidential list of websites that the Australian government is preparing to ban under a proposed internet filter – which in turn caused the whistleblower site to be placed on that list.
Mr Assange, 37, told The Agenewspaper that half an hour after his passport was returned to him an AFP officer searched one of his bags and questioned him about a previous criminal record for computer hacking offences when he was a teenager.
He was then told his passport status was classified as “normal” on the immigration database
In 1991 Mr Assange, described by Wikileaks as “Australia’s most famous ethical computer hacker”, was charged with 30 offences over the alleged hacking of police, Telco’s and US military computers. He admitted to 24 charges and was fined and placed on a good behaviour bond.
Mr Assange told the Dateline program that Australia is one of a few countries he is wary of travelling in as a result of documents published on the Wikileaks website.
“There are places … Dubai, who is trying to have us arrested, Switzerland under the bank secrecy laws, Cayman Islands,” he said. “Australia had the federal police in relation to its censorship list so there are some jurisdictions that from time to time it wouldn’t be sensible to go there.”
Wikileaks, which publishes anonymously sourced confidential documents from governments and corporations, was launched in January 2007.
The site has since exposed secrets about corruption in Kenya, Nato’s plans for the war in Afghanistan and the operations manual for the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay.
Last month Wikileaks created international headlines when it published classified US military footage of an American attack helicopter gunning down Iraqi civilians and a Reuters photographer in 2007.
Until recently Mr Assange has kept a very low profile, rarely granting interviews or making public appearances.
He is believed to have boltholes in Iceland, Sweden and Kenya, but does not have an official home base. He says he travels every six weeks, running his Wikileaks empire from a laptop and a backpack while on the road.