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Staff Editorials

Botched executions inexcusable

    How hard is it to kill someone? Geez. This is not a rhetorical question.
    Our government can kill people in foreign countries without ever setting foot there with drones. Terrorists and gang members knock off innocent civilians all day long in some areas. Heck, poor choices in mixing pills seem to dispatch a number of celebs by accident.
    Yet with our prisons, the use of the death penalty is now in a more precarious position because apparently the executioners can’t get it right.
    In Arizona last week, a condemned man spent almost two hours on a gurney waiting to die after being given a state-ordered lethal injection. Prison officials said he slept peacefully after the first drugs sedated him, but the drugs to stop his life still took as long as some movies.
    If Jack the Ripper or the Son of Sam had worked at this pace, they would have grown old without attaining serial killer status.
    The prolonged job in Arizona was preceded by an absolute mess in Oklahoma this spring when an inmate was given the lethal injection and didn’t die peacefully. In fact, the events looked so gruesome prison officials were attempting to call the whole thing off when the man succumbed to a heart attack.
    A third execution in Ohio, also this year, was similar in the lack of effective drugs with prolonged laying on a gurney.
    The majority of Americans favor the death penalty, according to polls, but the inability to efficiently carry out the orders without creating scenes of cruel and unusual suffering is crucial. America can’t have poorly-handled executions giving more ammunition for those already seeking to abolish capital punishment.
    If we are going to continue with the death penalty as an option in our justice system, we need a system of carrying it out that works reasonably well. It should be noted that even in the modern era some states have authorized alternative methods of execution - 8 states authorized electrocution; 3 states lethal gas; 3 states hanging; and 2 states firing squad, according to the Department of Justice website.
    Maybe it is time to return to one of the other forms. The French still used their antiquated but effective guillotine until 1977 when they abolished the death penalty.
    The many people who argue that those condemned to death certainly didn’t give this amount of consideration to their victims are correct. In an eye-for-eye scenario, there is a lot of leeway. But in a practical American justice system, that argument doesn’t hold water – regardless of personal opinions.
    In California, one state court case already questions whether making someone sit for decades on death row with an uncertain execution date constitutes unusual punishment – just because of the decades of uncertainty.
    It is certain that anyone sentenced to death has a good chance of succumbing to natural causes before the sentence is carried out. The 43 inmates executed in America during 2012 had an average time on death row of 15 years and 10 months and this average had actually dropped quite a bit from those executed in 2011 – who had been there a longer time on average.
    With the longer stays, the number of inmates on death row continues to grow, reaching a total of more than 3,030 people sitting in federal and state prisons sentenced to die based on the latest figures at the Department of Justice website.
    It should be noted that not all states have a death penalty and, of those sitting on death rows, more than half the total number come from just four states (California with 712 has by far the largest population; Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania are the next three). Georgia has a middle of the road figure of 95 in the latest figures, released by the Department of Justice on their website which has totals from Dec. 31, 2012.
    As the old adage says if you are going to do something, do it correctly. This is particularly important with the death penalty; if it can’t be done right, legal challenges are going to take the choice away.

I paid $9.99 for a virtual Fruit Ninja

    By Angela Reinhardt, Staff writer
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    I grew up in your garden-variety, middle-class American household in the 80s and 90s so I’m no stranger to video games.
    My sister and I played Sega (we had a Sega Master System and later upgraded to the Genesis console). I enjoyed the futuristic game Fantasy Zone, which let me maneuver my space ship “Opa Opa” through each level to collect coins so I could spend them in the weapons store.
    Even though I rarely play video games now, I let my children have tablets and gaming consoles - but after my 8-year-old son spent over $200 in real money (mine and my husband’s money) for virtual goods just like the ones I collected in Fantasy Zone, we may follow the lead of the neo-Luddites and ban games made after the turn of the century.
    I consider myself to be fairly competent when it comes to electronics, but I’m not a gadget person – and apparently companies like Apple, X Box and Amazon prey on people like me.
    In what I now call the “Kindle incident,” I caved and bought my son $1.99 worth of virtual coins for a free game we downloaded from the app store. The purchase required a password and (like any rational person would have) I assumed each subsequent purchase would require another password entry.
    Wrong. The next day I discovered 15 separate charges on my online bank account for thousands of virtual coins. Total charged? $150.00. Total time taken to charge? Five minutes.
    Apparently Amazon has a “convenient” password lapse that allowed my son to make rapid-fire purchases without my permission.  
    When I called Amazon I was shocked at how easy it was to have the purchases reversed –a little too easy, I thought. It was obvious they did this all the time.
    “Does this happen a lot?” I asked.
    “Oh, yes,” the lady said. “Just be glad it wasn’t worse. We’ve had them get up in the thousands.”
    In a surprising display of candidness she told me that while Amazon “strongly encourages parents to use ‘Kindle Free Time’ to control kids’ usage,” they rarely refuse to reverse unwanted charges. In fact, she had personally never made a refusal.
    After the “Kindle Incident” my husband and I were more diligent about guarding tablet usage, but in a one-two sucker punch we were clothes-lined again last week when my son got an X Box from his grandparents as an early birthday present.
    My in-laws bought Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare to go with the system without realizing it requires a subscription to X Box Live Gold - and I caved again. I agreed to try the service for three months ($24.99) because Auri was so excited about the game. I had to create an account and enter my credit information (I later found out you can buy pre-paid cards for X Box Live and keep your information safe).
    After struggling through many frustrating hours of figuring how to download upgrades that wouldn’t fit on the hard drive (I had to delete demo games to get them to work), Auri could finally play.    
     Then like getting struck by lightening twice,  I checked my email the next morning and found cheerful confirmation letters informing me I had successfully purchased; a Fruit Ninja ($9.99); a Wedge Helmet (.99 cents); a Wedge Uniform ($1.99); Hydro-Thunder (whatever it is, cost $14.99); and $17 worth of coins.
    I thought about the phrase “Fool me once shame on you; fool me twice shame on me,” but I quickly realized I shouldn’t feel ashamed at all. My in-laws paid 30 bucks for that game. Why should I think it would cost more to play it?
    And it looks like I’m not alone with my frustration because just a few weeks ago the Federal Trade Commission sued Amazon for unauthorized charges made by kids, while earlier this year Apple agreed to settle a similar FTC complaint at the tune of $32 million.
    Are the suits fair? You better believe it – and I doubt if Apple (and Amazon when they lose) will be paying that balance off in virtual coins. 

Are we our cells?

    For a U.S. Supreme Court that has notoriously been reluctant to accept any Constitutional view that didn’t originate in the 1700s, their recent ruling on cell phone privacy is startling (and somewhat hypocritical).
    The justices last week essentially ruled that cell phones deserve higher protection during police searches of suspects than anything else a modern American owns. In essence the justices recognized that with a vast majority of Americans their cell phone is their personality encapsulated in a small device.
    For a body of people whose average age is 68 years old and likely not Snapchatting selfies of themselves in their robes, the justices showed a pretty keen understanding of how cell phones are much more than something to make a call on.
    “They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers,” Chief Justice John Roberts explained during the hearing.
    In their ruling, which protected cells from preliminary searches without warrants, the justices noted, “Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse. An Internet search and browsing history, for example, can be found on an Internet-enabled phone and could reveal an individual’s private interests or concerns — perhaps a search for certain symptoms of disease, coupled with frequent visits to WebMD.”
    Apparently at least one justice uses a cell phone app for exercise as the discussion at the high court included a query of whether information recording the number of steps someone had taken that day should be protected and, if not, how handy it would be to an investigator trying to determine where a suspect might have gone prior to being handcuffed.
    The basis of what the Supreme Court took up concerned two different challenges to searches of information held on cell phones. One case originated in Boston and showed a stash of drugs on a photo taken by someone arrested for something else. The other case, from San Diego, involved a cell phone that contained  photos and text message accounts of gang activity, including a shooting.
    Police officers are allowed to search anything in a pocket, including going through a wallet when making an arrest, but the court was adamant that cell phones are off limits, -- even though lawyers for the Obama administration presented some reasonable arguments, such as the possibility that information on the cell might alert officers to an accomplice in the area or a related threat.
   The justices didn’t give an inch in protecting the privacy of our mobile devices from police. (The NSA will be a later story. Nothing regarding federal efforts has been brought before the court.)
   “Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life. The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple — get a warrant,” the chief justice wrote.
    It is interesting to see such a senior group recognize the pervasiveness of the cell phone. They are right, just look around. Justice Roberts even posed what might be humor in a Supreme Court setting by noting that cell phones are so widely used, “The proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they [cell phones] were an important feature of human anatomy."
    We applaud the court taking a stand on privacy, but it is troubling that what they say is so accurate -- our cell phones literally do define us. Or in the words of Justice Elena Kagan, “Most people now do carry their lives on cell phones.”

Private probation needs strict state oversight

    In a legislative session that didn’t generate much fire (outside of guns) a veto by Nathan Deal of HB837 allowing private probation companies to operate with even less oversight deserves applause.
    Deal recognized, following some unsavory news across the nation, a watchdog report and a report from the state’s Department of Audits, that private probation companies need higher levels of scrutiny, not less.
    In an era of high court costs and taxpayer resistance to most any cost, private probation sounds great when they use the phrase “offender funded” – meaning that those on probation must pay fees to cover their costs.
    In theory, this is great -- a private company takes over the duties of probation officers and sees that rehabilitation is handled efficiently (saving taxpayers) and with more compassion for those on probation (helping rehabilitation).
    But further scrutiny finds the private system is ripe for abuse – with multi-million dollar companies tacking on services for those they monitor and extending probation periods to take advantage of poor people while using the threat of re-incarceration to back them up. When those on probation are also the paying customers, there is a disincentive to either help them complete probation or to turn them in for an offense that would send them back to jail. Unreported drug test failures were found in  national checks on these companies.
    After realizing the potential pitfalls,  Pickens County’s judicial system wisely decided to use a county probation department that is supervised by the courts.
    Across the nation, abuse stories abound in private programs.
    In one instance highlighted by Human Rights Watch, a Georgia man was fined $200 for shoplifting a can of beer, but the private probation company socked him with monthly charges that were higher than his income – no way for him to ever get ahead.  Eventually he went back to jail hopelessly behind on thousands in probation company service charges.
    As in other instances, this misdemeanor offender was required to wear and billed for ankle cuff monitoring.
    The business of handling probation (mostly for municipal courts) is big business in Georgia with 80 percent of the people who receive probation being handled by up to three-dozen different companies. It was estimated, by Human Rights Watch, that private probation generated $40 million in revenue in the past year in Georgia.
   What is particularly galling are the people forced into the probation system only because they didn’t have the cash to pay an initial fine.
   People coming out of jail or sentenced to probation are convicted criminals who may need supervision, but they are also ripe for financial exploitation, which makes the slope leading to rehabilitation that much steeper.
    Ultimately, for the taxpayers, having these people back working, certainly not occupying an expensive prison cell because they couldn’t pay a probation company, is our best bet. Raiding these probationers meager savings under threat of jailing is not moral nor effective state policy.
    Re-jailing someone simply because they can not pay their fine not only harkens back to the old debtor prison, it is unconstitutional – a 1983 case that originated in Georgia found  someone can not be jailed just because they are too poor to pay their fine.
    Note, however, they can justly be jailed if they refuse to pay, or squander their money and don’t pay.   
    The idea behind the private probation is solid, but if the state lends their force of the courts to any private entity, they have a duty to be sure the power is not abused.              Better supervision of these programs is a must. Governor Deal noted this, saying when he issued the veto that the issues found by the audit, throw up “a lot of red flags.”    
    Convicted people need to pay their debt to society and cover the costs of their crime and punishment when possible. But no private company should be lent the authority of the courts to collect these debts without stringent oversight.

Kids, pets left in locked cars: A deadly summer mistake

    It’s hot outside.
    But it’s even hotter inside a car, even one with a cracked window. We’re talking broiling, furnace-like hot.
    Last week a Cobb County man was charged with the murder of his 22-month-old son after he left him strapped in a car seat inside a locked car for over nine hours. He went to work, apparently forgetting the child was there. The high temperature in Atlanta was 91 degrees on the fatal day. The horror that man will have to live with for the rest of his life is utterly unimaginable. Unfortunately, that father is not alone in his neglect.
    More than 500 children have died from heat stroke since 2000 because they were left in cars on warm days. Some have died because, as in last week’s case, a parent or caregiver “forgot” them, while others have died while their caregiver just ran inside a store for an errand.
    The “I’ll only be a minute” saying can be a fatal thought for a driver who leaves a child locked in a car while running a seemingly quick errand. Temperatures inside a car can reach as high as 130 to 140 degrees in a few hours. Human bodies, which want to stay around 98.6 degrees, can heat up quickly and once our core gets to 106 degrees, it’s a serious problem. And children’s bodies heat up at least three times faster than adults, research has shown.
    There are cases of children left in cars dying on days as cool as 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
    On a 90- degree day a car can become like an oven in a mere 10 minutes, reaching 109 degrees. After 20 minutes it can reach 119 degrees; 30 minutes, 124 degrees; and 60 minutes, 133 degrees - which is 43 degrees higher than the temperature outside the car. Even on a mild day, say 75 degrees, the temperature inside a car can reach 100 degrees in 10 minutes.
    We all know what it’s like to get inside a car that’s been sitting in the sun for a while. The air is stifling and the steering wheel is broiling hot. We experience this so often here in the South it’s hard to imagine how anyone could think a child could handle being left inside a car.   
    And children aren’t the only victims. Pets, especially dogs, are often left to swelter away while their owners run into the grocery store or bank. A pet’s life may not be as precious as a human life, but it’s still one of God’s creatures – a living, breathing being – and should be treated with respect and care. No one sets out to kill their pet by leaving them in a car, but too often owners think they are doing their animal a favor by taking it for a ride without thinking through your stops.
    Do not leave your pet in the car alone, on a sunny day or a cloud day. Leaving a window cracked does not make it safe. It’s just plain miserable for your pet.
    Children and pets should never be left alone in cars, regardless of whether it’s a sunny or cloudy day. You may think just because it’s overcast or you’ll “only be a minute” that it will be OK.
    It may not.