Thursday, August 30, 2007

Death Penalty Reprieve Granted Last Minute

Today, it was announced that Kenneth Foster, due for execution within a few hours, had his sentence reprieved. Foster was scheduled to face the death penalty for his role as an accomplice in a murder case. Foster was the driver in a getaway car in a string of robberies that hit the San Antonio area in 1996. If Foster were executed today, his execution would have been the third capital punishment execution this week in Texas.

Texas law allows the execution of accomplices in capital felony cases. The governor of Texas, Rick Perry, granted the reprieve and accepted a parole board's recommendation for Foster to face life in prison. Perry recommended the Texas law for accomplices be re-examined. Mauriceo Brown, the gunman in the case, was executed last year.

The mother of the victim, who was a 25-year old law student at the time, viewed Foster’s reprieve as a relief. Norma Hood, the student's mother, commented: “I’m filled with peace. I will mourn my son till I die, but I’m not forced any more to relive his death.” For more information on the story, see the front page story in The New York Times, August 30, 2007.

The photo shows Foster with his girlfriend, Nicole Johnson, and their daughter, Nydesha, during a 2001 visit to Texas death row. The photo was provided courtesy of Foster's family and appeared in The Austin Chronicle, Feb. 11, 2005.

Despite Governor Perry's willingness to dismiss the death penalty in the Foster case, in May of this year, he approved a law for the use of the death penalty for second-time offenders who rape children under the age of 14 years.

What is your position on the Foster reprieve? What about the death sentence for second time offenders in rape cases involving young children? Do you think this law is fair? Should Foster's death sentence have been overturned?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Champ Hits Movie Theaters

Samuel L. Jackson, one of the leading actors in Time to Kill, stars in Resurrecting the Champ, opening in theaters nation-wide this week. The film tells the story of a down-and-out ex-boxer, now a homeless man roaming the streets of downtown Denver, Colorado.

Boasting of his past feats as a boxer, Jackson’s character, known in the film as The Champ, is beat to a pulp by a bunch of street thuds. A journalist (played by Josh Harnett), also down on his luck, covets a front-page story, and befriends The Champ, taking him to a match. The Champ gives the journalist, Erik, an insider’s run-down on the match, leading to the front-page story that jumpstarts his career.

Erik soon discovers that The Champ is a once-famous boxer, believed to be long deceased. In resurrecting The Champ, Erik also aims to resurrect his own life of a broken marriage (his wife, played by Kathryn Morris, of Cold Case fame)

and a difficult relationship with his young son (played by Dakota Goya). Erik is further spurred on by competition from a newsroom reporter (played by Teri Hatcher of Desperate Housewife).

Directed by Rod Lurie, who hails from Greenwich, Connecticut, the film continues to move his career beyond television as the director of the series Commander in Chief and Line of Fire. He directed the 2000 film The Contender, starring Gary Oldman (of Harry Potter fame), Joan Allan, Jeff Bridges and Christian Slater.

With an all-star cast, including Academy Award winner Samuel L. Jackson, who won the award for his role in Pulp Fiction, Lurie’s newest release Resurrecting the Champ is worth a trip to the local theater to check out the acting and the plot of this contemporary morality tale.

If you see the film, or want to comment on any of the actors, please post a comment.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Vioxx: Drug Maker's Win is Plaintiffs’ Loss

The once-popular painkiller, Vioxx, now off the market, has been implicated in deaths of millions. As court cases mount against Merck, the manufacturer, verdicts have NOT favored the sufferers. A recent $253.5 million reward on behalf of a plaintiff whose husband died after taking Vioxx has been appealed to a higher court.

To date, of the 45,000 people attempting to sue Merck, none has received compensation. In the meantime, the lawyers defending the company have profited. Merck has spent over one billion dollars in legal fees.The company has refused reaching settlements, believing doing so will acknowledge culprability in victims' suffering. The stock of the company has soared, and Merck remains one the most lucrative pharmeutical company in the US.

Kenneth Frazier, chief executive and legal counsel for Merck, has prospered. He was promoted to president of the global human health division and oversess marketing and 60,000 employees.

Merck claims it is not legally responsible and says patients and their doctors were forewarned of heart risks associated with the drug.

Aware of the escalating pattern of unsuccessful cases and drawn out appeals, lawyers for plaintiffs have withdrawn cases right before scheduled trial dates. Peter Schuck, a law professor at Yale, claims that Merck deliberately complicates cases, discouraging plaintiffs through long-drawn out litigating.

Attempts to file class action cases have failed. Judges have argued that class action are not appropriate because each case is unique and the cause for illness must be examined separately. (The class action tactic used by Erin Brockovich's law firm was what made her fight against the mega utility PG & E successful. A individual plaintiff could not have fought and won!) At present, the backlog of cases against Merck grows. Fewer than 20 cases have reached court in the last two years, when filings began. In the interim, sufferers have died. Should a client win, Merck has until 2010 to begin payments.

Merck knew two years before Vioxx went on the market in 1999 that the drug posed serious side effects. By 2000, Merck’s top scientists confirmed based on clinical trial that Vioxx caused heart complications. Regardless, the company tried to halt the efforts of the Food and Drug Administration to put warning labels on the medication.

In court, Merck blamed victims, claiming their obesity, risk-taking behavior, and genetic predisposition led to heart failures. The company claimed cause and effect was not apparent, and a heart attack was imminent despite drug use.

Mr. Lanier, the lawyer who pleaded the case on behalf of the Texas woman awarded $253.5 million in the death of her husband, says, “Merck’s goal is to manipulate the legal system to deprive justice to tens of thousands of people whose cases can never be heard….Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Despite Merck’s victories, lawyers remain interested in pursuing class action suits. In New Jersey, with a stockpile of 16,000 cases pending, the State Supreme Court is considering a class action case to reduce the caseload. The state attorney general office has already sued Merck, and federal prosecutors are initiating further investigations.

Carol Ernst, the woman in the $253.5 million award case, states of Merck: “they can have all of their money and everything I own if they would just give [my husband] back to me. But they can’t do that.”

Where is the justice? Are class action cases against Merck warranted? Are drug companies responsible for complications associated with their medications? Weigh in on the issue. Post your comments.

For more information on the Vioox case, see the front page story in The New York Times, August 21, 2007.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Television Viewing Dummy Downs America

Do you believe that watching television shrinks your brain? Researchers at the University of Washington have found that watching television, even educational programs like “Sesame Street,” reduces a child’s vocabulary by six to eight words per every hour of viewing.
The Journal of Pediatrics claims that for every hour spent watching a DVD, there is parallel decline in cognitive development. A comparison between babies watching educational DVDs like Baby Einstein found that those who watched the programs fell behind peers who spent time engaged in age-appropriate literature activities, for instance, being read to by a parent. Apparently, if you believe this finding, young children learn better hearing their own parents say words than a stranger, no matter what the words are.

Heavy television viewing by young children has also been associated with attention deficit disorder and behavioral delays later in life, according to The American Academy of Pediatrics. The Academy recommends children under age two not watch any television. So, as for yourself, did you watch television at a young age? If so, do you believe it impaired your cognitive and behavioral development?

In a study using the Communicative Development Inventory (CDI), a test used to determine the linguistic development of infants, it was found eight-month olds easily recognize the words mommy, daddy, bye, peekaboo, bottle, no, and hi. If the research findings on language decline are accurate, an eight-month old who has learned only these seven words should not know any of them after viewing television for one hour. Does this seem plausible? Do you see a problem with research studies jumping to conclusions?

The Kaiser Foundation claims that 68% of infants under age two “watch television on any given day.” By age sixteen months, the average baby should recognize 170 words on the CDI list according to researchers. But if the statistics reported by the Kaiser Foundation and CDI researchers are both correct, the average child from age eight to sixteen months will have watched 240 hours of television and dropped 1,440 words from its vocabulary. Yet, how many16-month olds know 1,440 words!

Lesson to be learned is don't accept researcher findings on face value. Compare studies, and look for contradictions. Check for illogical findings and faulty reasoning. Don’t cite a study without analyzing the implications of the data or questioning the research methodology.

For more information on claims about the abysmal effects of television viewing on children’s brain power, check linguistic expert, Dennis Baron’s blog posting at:
Much of the information in this posting is based on this Baron blog post.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Erin Brockovich Small Scale

Okay, so you are not about to fight a big corporation to arrest or reduce environmental pollutants hurting the health of others. So, how can you help? Did you know that the manicure that you, your friends, and others get is hurting the health of the manicurist? The chemicals used at nail salons have negative effects on the workers. One major study done by researchers at Wayne State University found that salon workers' mental and physical health have been harmed by chemicals. Mentally, the workers have shown a decline in attention span, processing speed, memory, and verbal reasoning. Children born to salon workers have faced poor performance on tests of cognitive and language processing and behavior. A salon worker's exposure to the chemicals is 1,200 times higher than that of the average citizen, which is not to say that those who have manicures regularly are also not at high risk.

Three of the chemicals used in nail salons have been associated with cancer. These are toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phtalate. In Springfield, MA, a hospital found that nail salon workers suffered from miscarriages as well as from rashes, fungal infections, and asthma. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has noted that salon workers are not only exposed to toxic chemicals, but work long hours and might be of childbearing age and bring children into the workplace.

What can you do to help out? Begin by researching the topic, and by learning what companies like OPI, one of the largest producers of nail salon products, is doing. In Springfield, MA., a community group received a $100,000 grant from the EPA to improve ventilation systems in salons. What ideas do you have to help workers in salons protect their physical and mental health as well of that of their children? And, remember it takes far less concentration of chemicals to harm children than it does adults!

Credits: Picture from Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times
A manicure at Happy Beauty Salon in Carle Place, on Long Island
Information from STEVEN GREENHOUSE
Published: August 19, 2007m The New York Times, At Nail Salons, Beauty Treatments Can Have a Distinctly Unglamorous Side

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