In a week fraught with murky developments over the GOP Senate health care bill, President Donald Trump sort of ended a 40-day goose chase into whether there were taped recordings between him and ex-FBI Director James Comey.
Emphasis on “sort of.”
After first suggesting the possibility of these Comey tapes existing, the president last week took to Twitter to say “I have no idea” such tapes existed — thus, still leaving the possibility they still could exist. (They probably don’t.) Lordy!
The president’s fondness for innuendo is able to capture many print headlines and television “Breaking News” chyrons. Here are five important stories that could have easily been bumped by the spigot of news out of Washington.
1. The lessons learned from last week’s police shooting trials
Three separate trials involving high-profile police shootings ended last week. None concluded in a conviction for the officers who fatally shot three black men: Philando Castile, Sylville Smith and Sam DuBose. The NewsHour compiled the many updates from last week to these cases and more.
Part of this isn’t terribly surprising. Criminal justice experts have said it’s difficult to secure a conviction for these trials.
Bodycam footage, too, has been central to the investigations of several of these shooting deaths, but the videos do not point to clear answers for jurors. Or, as The New York Times reported, “Some jurors in these cases have said that, videos aside, they had been swayed most of all by officers’ assertions that they feared for their lives. And in some cases, the videos themselves do not fully show operative moments, leaving jurors to fill in the blanks.”
Why it’s important
To write about police brutality cases is to parse all the minutiae that make up the several seconds it took a law enforcement officer to fatally shoot a minority.
This week, the jury in the case of the officer who shot Philando Castile last July was presented with court documents, a slowed-down dashcam video, the officer’s testimony and both sides’ arguments which sought to legitimize or delegitimize Diamond Reynolds’ famous Facebook live stream of the shooting’s aftermath.
Lost in all the back-and-forth was how mundane Castile’s afternoon was before he was pulled over by Officer Jeronimo Yanez, a particular point drawn out by Elise C. Boddie, a Rutgers professor, for The New York Times.
“[Castile] was just running errands with his family,” Boddie wrote. “It’s this denial of the right to simply be — the perpetual state of otherness — that dangerously shadows black people.”
Boddie also reminded readers that this is nothing new, a reality with firm roots before, during and after the Jim Crow era.
“Throughout history, black people have been criminalized for everyday actions that most whites take for granted,” she added, citing Tamir Rice playing in a park, Akai Gurley taking the stairs after waiting for an unreliable elevator.
I’m reminded of Amadou Diallo who was fatally shot by four police officers in 1999 at the doorway of his Bronx apartment building. The officers shot 41 times. Nineteen of those shots struck Diallo. All the officers were acquitted of all charges.
Why do so few trials of police officers charged in on-duty shootings end in convictions? Most recently, the officers who shot and killed Philando Castile and Sylville Smith were acquitted by juries who saw video of the fatal encounters. John Yang discusses issues of race and deadly force with David Klinger of the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Brittany Packnett, co-founder of Campaign Zero.
One of the videos Minnesota police released related to the Castile case was squad car footage of Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter, who witnessed the shooting while in the back seat of Castile’s car, now in the back seat of a police vehicle.
A distraught Reynolds, who’s also handcuffed, is comforted by her daughter.
“Mom, please stop cussing and screaming ’cause I don’t want you to get shooted,” the girl is heard saying in the video.
Here’s Boddie again: “The problems we face are not only about the glaring wrongs of the criminal justice system, the structural barriers and persistent inequities that shut out opportunities, but the grinding daily hassles that deny black people the ability to just be.”
2. Federal appeals court lifts injunction to Mississippi’s anti-LGBTQ law
A federal appeals court last week lifted an injunction on a Mississippi law that lets business owners and government workers cite religious beliefs to deny services to LGBTQ individuals. It is widely considered the nation’s most aggressive state response to the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide.
Judges decided the plaintiffs had no standing, meaning Mississippi’s law had not harmed them enough to justify their filing a lawsuit. In 2016, a federal judge placed an injunction on the Mississippi law, HB 1523, to stop it from going into effect.
“None of these plaintiffs has clearly shown an injury-in-fact, so none has standing,” the judges said in their written decision.
In a statement, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said he was pleased with the ruling: “As I have said all along, the legislation is not meant to discriminate against anyone, but simply prevents government interference with the constitutional right to exercise sincerely held religious beliefs.”
The law has not yet gone into effect, and further litigation is pending.
Why it’s important
The Fifth Circuit Court’s decision comes at a time when public opinion in support of same-sex marriage is on the rise. According to 2017 polling data from the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of U.S. adults said they were in favor of same-sex marriage, a significant increase since 2001 when 35 percent of Americans said gay and lesbian couples should be able to marry legally.
In the 2015 case Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal nationwide. Meanwhile, conservative groups pushed religious freedom laws that critics say discriminate against same-sex couples in Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee and other states, including Indiana, where then-Gov. Mike Pence scaled back a version of the controversial law.
In Mississippi, the law protected people with “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Among these beliefs:
- Marriage is only between a man and a woman
- Only married men and women should be having sex
- A person’s gender is assigned at birth
The law allows business owners, school counselors or wedding venue owners to deny services to same-sex couples if doing so violates the provider’s religious beliefs. Gov. Bryant tweeted that the law “does not limit any constitutionally protected rights or actions of any citizen of this state.”
Attorney Roberta Kaplan represents Susan Hrostowski, an Episcopalian vicar and lifelong Mississippian, her wife, Kathryn Garner, and their 18-year-old son in the lawsuit, and she spoke on behalf of her client. Hrostowski declined the NewsHour’s request for comment. Plaintiffs in the case have asked for a hearing with all Fifth Circuit Court judges.
If Hrostowski and Garner wanted to celebrate their anniversary at a restaurant, Kaplan said the law would allow a restaurant owner to deny the couple dinner without fear of a discrimination lawsuit. According to Kaplan, the law defines LGBTQ individuals as “second-class citizens.”
“It’s flatly un-American,” she said. “That’s not what this country stands for.”
3. The debate over private prisons in the U.S.
Sometime during the last push of “tough-on-crime” laws, the federal prison population increased by nearly 800 percent between 1980 and 2013. The increase in federal inmates far outstripped the capacities of the nation’s federal prisons. This led to overcrowding that compelled the Bureau of Prisons to increasingly rely on private prisons.
However, in August, the Justice Department released a report that, among other concerns, cited a declining inmate population, which has prompted questions over the need for these for-profit components in the criminal justice system.
Why it’s important
The Obama administration last year announced it would phase out privately-run prisons, citing little benefits to public safety along with higher rates of assault and violence. The Trump administration reversed that decision while pointing to potential increases in crime and issues of overcrowding, resurfacing a debate about which strategy is better. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano reports.
NewsHour Weekend covered the push-pull effect the 2016 election had on the debate over private prisons and how effective they are in the current environment. The Obama administration had announced plans to phase out the country’s use of private for-profit prisons.
In a memo last year, ex-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates cited higher levels of violence at these private facilities, saying, “Private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities.”
Yates also pointed to a declining number of federal inmates since 2013 that helped drive the administration’s decision.
But, with a new president, the policy shifted to a much more favorable outlook for private prisons. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo in February that supplanted Yates’ from late last year.
Sessions said the previous decision to phase out private prisons “impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”
4. SeaWorld reveals it is under federal investigation, as the company continues to be dogged by “Blackfish” fallout
SeaWorld revealed last week that it is under investigation by two U.S. federal agencies concerning issues related to CNN’s 2013 documentary, “Blackfish.”
Officials from both the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission opened separate investigations into “disclosures and public statements” made by the company and its executives, according to a SEC report filed in June.
The statements in question concern those given on or before August 2014, including those that concern the “impact of the ‘Blackfish’ documentary” and trading in the SeaWorld’s securities, the report continued.
Elsewhere in the same filing, SeaWorld stated it “has cooperated with these government inquiries and intends to continue to cooperate with any government requests or inquiries.” The company also said it has organized a special counsel to tackle the investigation.
Why it’s important
The CNN documentary told the story of a captive killer whale named Tilikum, who after years of captivity, fatally attacked his then-trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in February 2010.
The film highlighted the controversial history of orca captivity and led to public backlash from animal activists over the treatment of the killer whales. SeaWorld has denounced the film’s accusations of animal mistreatment.
However, in March 2016, SeaWorld issued a declaration to cease orca breeding.
“SeaWorld has introduced more than 400 million guests to orcas, and we are proud of our part in contributing to the human understanding of these animals,” said Joel Manby, president and CEO of SeaWorld, in a statement. “By making this the last generation of orcas in our care and reimagining how guests will experience these beautiful animals, we are fulfilling our mission of providing visitors to our parks with experiences that matter,” he added.
As the park phases out its orca shows, SeaWorld now has plans to open entertainment venues in Asia and the Middle East, along with a second Sesame Street-themed amusement park in the U.S. by 2021.
The overall ramifications from the release of “Blackfish” vary subjectively. The marine entertainment industry saw a 84 percent drop in net second-quarter income — from $37.4 million in 2014 to $5.8 million in 2015, The UK-based newspaper The Independent reported. Various protests from PETA and other animal activist groups have heavily criticized SeaWorld for keeping orcas in captivity.
5. Judge in Madrid orders the body of surrealist Salvador Dali to be exhumed for a paternity test
Salvador Dali was no stranger to controversy. In fact, he reveled in it.
Now, 28 years after his death, he’s the focus of a paternity suit.
A Spanish court has ordered that the surrealist painter’s physical remains be exhumed to help resolve a paternity claim. A court in Madrid ruled that the “DNA study of the painter’s corpse is necessary due to the lack of other biological or personal remains with which to perform the comparative study,” the Guardian reported.
The foundation that manages the artist’s estate opposes the decision.
Maria Pilar Abel Martinez, a tarot card reader from the Spanish city of Girona, filed the claim back in 2015, saying she was the result of an extramarital affair between her mother and the artist in 1955. Girona is close to Figueres, Dali’s hometown, located in the northeastern region of Catalonia. Dali was buried there after he died from heart problems in 1989.
As BBC pointed out, Martinez told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo that she resembled Dali enough that the “only thing I’m missing is a mustache.” She also said her mother would repeat the claim that Dali was her father to her and others.
The alleged affair would have happened when Dali was married to Helena Diakanoff Devulina, more famously known as Gala, who was the muse for several of his paintings. The couple was thought to have an unconventional marriage and didn’t have any children of their own. (Gala did have a daughter from a previous marriage.)
Martinez’s lawyer said there’s no current timetable for digging up Dali’s corpse, but that it could happen as soon as July, BBC reported.
Why it’s important
Dali left his estate to the Spanish state. According to several media reports, if proven to be the true heir as Dali’s daughter, Martinez would have rights to the artist’s surname and a part of the estate.
The Dali Foundation said it was preparing an appeal to the Madrid court’s decision that “will be lodged in the coming days.”