Former Prosecutor Opposes Death Penalty On Christian Basis

Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor who has become a leader in religiously inspired legal reform, was the featured guest April 5 on my weekly public affairs radio show, MTL Washington Update.


Osler, left, a law professor in Minnesota and the current head of the Association of Religiously Affiliated Law Schools, spoke out against the death penalty and overly harsh drug possession sentences.

Co-host Scott Draughon and I explored Osler's advocacy, which includes books, essays, and lectures citing a Christian basis as well as legal rationales for his views opposing the death penalty and extremely harsh sentences for possession of crack cocaine.

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Osler is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota, and a former federal prosecutor in Detroit from 1995 to 2000.

He served as lead counsel in Spears v. United States, where the U.S. Supreme Court accepted his position that sentencing judges could categorically reject a 100:1 ratio between crack and powder cocaine in the federal sentencing guidelines. His work fighting overly harsh crack sentences was also portrayed in the film American Violet, where he was the basis for the character of Professor Joe Fisher.

He is the author of Jesus on Death Row (Abingdon, 2009). The book challenges the death penalty based on the experience of Christ as a criminal defendant.

Osler has testified as a sentencing expert in Congress and before the U.S. Sentencing Commission. He has authored over 30 academic articles, and writes regularly for CNN, the Huffington Post, Sojourners, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He earned his law degree from Yale, where he was a senior editor of the Yale Law Journal.

Among his recent artcles are forthcoming chapters in a new book, Victims: Transforming the Death Penalty Debate, and Talking to Each Other in the Dark: The American Abolition Movement and The Christian Opportunity (with Jeanne Bishop, at right). These chapters will appear in Ashgate Press’s forthcoming volume, New Voices about Capital Punishment (2013). Also, he performed mock death penalty trials with Bishop at churches in Austin, TX and Boulder, CO last month.

The show's audience is heavily comprised of business professionals, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and technologists nationally drawn by my co-host, Scott, at left, over his decade building the radio network. His vision and book, The Art of the Business Radio Show, established him as a pioneer in the new media sector targeting professionals. 

Last month, we began our seventh season of the show. Our guests include prominent newsmakers, authors, and other public affairs experts. Review the list of past guests, and visit our archive to hear previous interviews selected from recent years. We welcome audience recommendations, which can be made via the email address above. There is no fee to participate, only a requirement that the guest provide solid insight of value to listeners.

Our radio show opened with an overview of the week's developments in Washington affecting the nation. We focused on the National Rifle Association's call for armed guards in schools, which the group announced at the National Press Club earlier this week. Speakers were protected at the club by approximately 20 private security personnel, many of them armed.

I witnessed part of it. The NRA's swagger and unprecedented show of armed security for private speakers is yet another bizarre sign of the super-aggressive takeover by lobbyists of Washington. The husky NRA plainclothesmen shamelessly intimidated a 90-year-old retiree who stands 5 foot-five, and weighs just over 100 pounds. They ordered him to go to a men's room while NRA officials were passing in a corridor. A Washington Post columnist captured part of the scene: The NRA’s disarming plan to arm schools.

Scott and I discussed the issues raised by such scenes, which was part of our weekly examination of the latest in public affairs.


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Related News Coverage

Update: MSNBC, Sentence the Boston bomber to meaninglessness, Mark Osler, April 29, 2013. Understandably, there are already calls for the execution of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is now charged with the bombings of the Boston Marathon. He is alleged to have planned and executed the horrific bombings with his brother, Tamerlan, who died in a subsequent shootout with police. Tsarnaev undoubtedly deserves the most severe sentence available if he is found guilty (and it is hard to imagine another outcome). However, that sentence, for this defendant, is not execution. From everything we know about Tsarnaev, his principal fear is not death. After all, he walked the streets with a ticking time bomb strapped to his back, engaged the police in a shootout, and likely tried to kill himself as he was being captured. None of these actions are consistent with a man who bears a deep fear of death. Rather, what someone like Tsarnaev probably fears most is meaninglessness. He is typical of terrorists, in that he is a young man of little accomplishment who chose to make his mark on the world through a terrible act. For someone like Tsarnaev, and many others like him, the real fear is a life of being unimportant.

Minnesota Public Radio, States abolishing death penalty, despite public support for it, Frank Zimring and Greg Dobbs, April 4, 2013. Guests: Mark Osler, Franklin Zimiring, law professor at University of California at Berkeley and author of many books, including, The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment, and Greg Dobbs, columnist for the Denver Post and former ABC News correspondent.

National Press Club Wire, Cummings pushes gun trafficking legislation, Bob Weiner and Rich Mann, April 3, 2013. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md, the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, urged “action” on gun legislation in Congress at an April 2 Newsmaker. He underlined the current dangers associated with gun trafficking and made the case for tough federal penalties aimed at “straw purchasers.” Cummings said, “Most Americans already think gun trafficking is a federal crime — but it’s not. They have no idea that there is no federal law targeting firearms traffickers who commonly use ‘straw purchasers’ to buy guns for convicted felons and other dangerous criminals who cannot legally buy guns on their own. Laws to prevent trafficking are toothless, like a traffic ticket.”

Washington Post, The NRA’s disarming plan to arm schools, Dana Milbank, April 3, 2013 (print edition). The gun-lobby goons were at it again. The National Rifle Association’s security guards gained notoriety earlier this year when, escorting NRA officials to a hearing, they were upbraided by Capitol authorities for pushing cameramen. The thugs were back Tuesday when the NRA rolled out its “National School Shield” — the gun lobbyists’ plan to get armed guards in public schools — and this time they were packing heat. About 20 of them — roughly one for every three reporters — fanned out through the National Press Club, some in uniforms with gun holsters exposed, others with earpieces and bulges under their suit jackets. In a spectacle that officials at the National Press Club said they had never seen before, the NRA gunmen directed some photographers not to take pictures, ordered reporters out of the lobby when NRA officials passed and inspected reporters’ briefcases before granting them access to the news conference. Thus has it gone so far in the gun debate in Washington. The legislation is about to be taken up in Congress, but by most accounts the NRA has already won. Plans for limiting assault weapons and ammunition clips are history, and the prospects for meaningful background checks are bleak. Now, The Post’s Philip Rucker and Ed O’Keefe report, the NRA is proposing language to gut the last meaningful gun-control proposal, making gun trafficking a federal crime. Apparently, the gun lobby thinks even criminals deserve Second Amendment protection. If the NRA has its way, as it usually does, states will soon be weakening their gun laws to allow more guns in schools.

CBS 60 Minutes, Arizona's Pioneer Hotel fire re-examined, Steve Kroft, March 31, 2013. Steve Kroft revisits the case of Louis Taylor, right, who may have been falsely accused and imprisoned for decades for setting a hotel fire in Tucson that killed 28.

Pro Publica, Who Polices Prosecutors Who Abuse Their Authority? Usually Nobody, Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica, and Sergio Hernandez, April 3, 2013. Part I of II. A ProPublica analysis of more than a decade's worth of state and federal court rulings found more than two dozen instances in which judges explicitly concluded that city prosecutors had committed harmful misconduct. In each instance, these abuses were sufficient to prompt courts to throw out convictions. Yet the same appellate courts did not routinely refer prosecutors for investigation by the state disciplinary committees charged with policing lawyers. Disciplinary committees, an arm of the appellate courts, almost never took serious action against prosecutors. None of the prosecutors who oversaw cases reversed based on misconduct were disbarred, suspended, or censured except for Stuart. (Stuart declined repeated requests for an interview for this story.)

Pro Publica, Lasting Damage: A Rogue Prosecutor's Final Case, Joaquin Sapien, April 5, 2013 (Part II of II). Claude Stuart, after a career full of trouble as a prosecutor in Queens, finally went too far when he lied to a judge in an effort to convict a man of murder. Thirteen years later, Stuart is no longer a lawyer, the man he convicted remains in prison, and who actually killed Leroy Vann remains unclear.

Catching Our Attention on other Justice, Economics, & Integrity Issues

TruthDig /OpEd News, The Hijacking of Human Rights, Chris Hedges, April 8, 2013. The appointment of Suzanne Nossel, a former State Department official and longtime government apparatchik, as executive director of PEN American Center is part of a campaign to turn U.S. human rights organizations into propagandists for pre-emptive war and apologists for empire. Nossel's appointment led me to resign from PEN as well as withdraw from speaking at the PEN World Voices Festival in May. But Nossel is only symptomatic of the widespread hijacking of human rights organizations to demonize those -- especially Muslims -- branded by the state as the enemy, in order to cloak pre-emptive war and empire with a fictional virtue and to effectively divert attention from our own mounting human rights abuses, including torture, warrantless wiretapping and monitoring, the denial of due process and extrajudicial assassinations.

Huffington Post, Is The War On Drugs Nearing An End? Matt Sledge, April 8, 2013. For four decades, libertarians, civil rights activists and drug treatment experts have stood outside of the political mainstream in arguing that the war on drugs was sending too many people to prison, wasting too much money, wrenching apart too many families -- and all for little or no public benefit. They were always in the minority. But on Thursday, a sign of a new reality emerged: for the first time in four decades of polling, the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Americans support legalizing marijuana. That finding is the result of decades of slow demographic changes and cultural evolution that now appears, much like attitudes around marriage equality, to be accelerating. More and more people, including Pat Robertson and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), are rejecting the tough-on-crime rhetoric so long directed toward drug use.

FireDogLake, Obama Is the Driving Force Behind Cutting Your Social Security, Jon Walker, April 5, 2013.The driving force behind cutting your Social Security is President Barack Obama.  If it wasn’t already abundantly clear there is now more proof President Obama really really really wants to cut Social Security benefits for current retirees. Obama will include the chained-CPI, which is a yearly and continuously growing cut to your Social Security benefits, in his budget. From Politico: "President Barack Obama will make another run at a grand bargain by proposing significant new entitlement cuts and new tax revenues — including a new cigarette tax — in what the White House is portraying as a compromise budget to be released next week." The most controversial element of Obama’s proposal is the inclusion of “chained CPI,” the adjustment that would over time reduce cost-of-living increases to Social Security and other federal benefit programs — effectively, a cut to Social Security benefits by tying them to inflation. He also calls for $9 billion in new tax revenue by setting limits on “tax-preferred retirement accounts for millionaires and billionaires.”

Huffington Post, Obama Budget: Administration Explains Why It Started With A 'Compromise Proposal,' Sam Stein, April 5, 2013. President Barack Obama’s budget, which will be introduced on Wednesday, takes a political position that some of his base is bound to bemoan. Rather than present an outline of progressive priorities, the Whie has chosen to stake claim to the middle ground, offering up a mix of modest tax hikes to go along with spending cuts and entitlement reforms that Democrats have long warned against.

Wall Street Journal, Climbing the Ladder to Steven A. Cohen, Harvey Silverglate, April 4, 2013 (Subscription required.) The federal pursuit of SAC Capital Advisors is typical: Get the smaller fry to 'give up' someone more senior. The investigative process is lengthy and arduous—probes of SAC have been under way since at least 2009. But it rolls on, seemingly fueled by the Justice Department's need to enhance its image after taking a hit from public anger over its refusal (or inability) to prosecute bankers in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The SAC allegations are a perfect mythmaking opportunity for prosecutors. They can easily sell their version of events to a wary public that assumes no hedge-fund manager can become as rich as Mr. Cohen without access to inside information, trading on which can be a felony under securities laws. What the public doesn't know is how impossibly vague those securities laws are. The vagueness allows a prospective witness to facilitate a conviction by adding just enough details to his tale so that the target comes off as secretive, manipulative or untrustworthy. Most of us can be portrayed in such a manner: When we ask for routine confidentiality, for instance, it can be spun to suggest that we asked for illicit secrecy to hide insider trading.

Washington Post, Cancer Clinics turn Away Patients, Sarah Kliff on April 3, 2013. Citing Sequester,Cancer clinics across the country have begun turning away thousands of Medicare patients, blaming the sequester budget cuts. Oncologists say the reduced funding, which took effect for Medicare on April 1, makes it impossible to administer expensive chemotherapy drugs while staying afloat financially. Patients at these clinics would need to seek treatment elsewhere, such as at hospitals that might not have the capacity to accommodate them. “If we treated the patients receiving the most expensive drugs, we’d be out of business in six months to a year,” said Jeff Vacirca, chief executive of North Shore Hematology Oncology Associates in New York. “The drugs we’re going to lose money on we’re not going to administer right now.” After an emergency meeting Tuesday, Vacirca’s clinics decided that they would no longer see one-third of their 16,000 Medicare patients.

International Consortium of Investigative Journalists / Huffington Post, Secret Files Expose Offshore's Global Impact, Staff report. April 3, 2013. Dozens of journalists sifted through millions of leaked records and thousands of names to produce ICIJ’s investigation into offshore secrecy. A cache of 2.5 million files has cracked open the secrets of more than 120,000 offshore companies and trusts, exposing hidden dealings of politicians, con men and the mega-rich the world over. The secret records obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists lay bare the names behind covert companies and private trusts in the British Virgin Islands, the Cook Islands and other offshore hideaways. They include American doctors and dentists and middle-class Greek villagers as well as families and associates of long-time despots, Wall Street swindlers, Eastern European and Indonesian billionaires, Russian corporate executives, international arms dealers and a sham-director-fronted company that the European Union has labeled as a cog in Iran’s nuclear-development program. The leaked files provide facts and figures — cash transfers, incorporation dates, links between companies and individuals — that illustrate how offshore financial secrecy has spread aggressively around the globe, allowing the wealthy and the well-connected to dodge taxes and fueling corruption and economic woes in rich and poor nations alike. The records detail the offshore holdings of people and companies in more than 170 countries and territories. The hoard of documents represents the biggest stockpile of inside information about the offshore system ever obtained by a media organization. The total size of the files, measured in gigabytes, is more than 160 times larger than the leak of U.S. State Department documents by Wikileaks in 2010.

FireDoglake, Two Big Components of the Affordable Care Act Delayed for a Year, Jon Walker, April 2, 2013. A big sign that the federal implementation of the Affordable Care Act is not going smoothly is the Obama administration delaying two big components of the law for at least a year. Last week Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) announced that the Obama administration will delay the Federal Basic Health Plan Option (FBHPO) until 2015. Cantwell is responsible for putting the provision into the law. It will allow states to create a program to cover people from 138% to 200% FPL instead of putting them on the new private insurance exchanges.


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