Five Best Wednesday Columns

The Troy Davis execution, Pennsylvania's electoral ploy, and America's oil dependence.

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The New York Times on the Troy Davis execution Today, Georgia plans to execute Troy Davis for the 1989 murder of a police officer. "The Georgia pardon and parole board's refusal to grant him clemency is appalling in light of developments after his conviction: reports about police misconduct, the recantation of testimony by a string of eyewitnesses and reports from other witnesses that another person had confessed to the crime," writes The New York Times editorial board. Though this case is gaining special attention, it reveals the flaws in the death penalty legal process at large, they write. The greatest problems in Davis's trial involved witness identification. The Savannah police staged a reenactment of the crime for four eyewitnesses, contaminating and synchronizing their memories of it. "The police showed some of the witnesses Mr. Davis's photograph even before the lineup. His lineup picture was set apart by a different background. The lineup was also administered by a police officer involved in the investigation, increasing the potential for influencing the witnesses," they write. These revelations come on top of much research showing the unreliability of witness identification. Many wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA evidence were the result of false identifications by eyewitnesses. A majority of witnesses recanted testimony after the Davis trial and claimed police threatened them. The man who first identified Davis as the shooter has since confessed to the crime. Georgia has received 630,000 letters asking for reconsideration of the case, but the board's refusal threatens to become "tragic miscarriage of justice."

Harold Meyerson on Pennsylvania's electoral college ploy In Pennsylvania, "a new ploy has emerged" among the Republican majority to secure the party's success in the 2012 elections. "Instead of having all of Pennsylvania's electoral votes go to the candidate who carries the state's popular vote, as is the long-standing practice in Pennsylvania and 47 other states, [Senate Majority Leader Dominic] Pileggi wants to apportion those votes by congressional district," writes Harold Meyerson in The Washington Post.  Democrats have carried Pennsylvania in every presidential contest since 1992. In 2008, Obama won Pennsylvania with 55 percent of the vote, but if the newly proposed system had been in place, John McCain would have received 10 of the state's 22 electoral votes. Though Obama could easily carry the state's popular vote again in 2012 by taking huge urban majorities in Pennsylvania, Republicans would likely still win most of the electoral votes. "Ultimately, what Pileggi's plan does is extend to the states the electoral college's bias against popular-vote majorities," Meyerson writes, noting that the college was invented to give southerners, who counted non-voting slaves toward their electoral vote totals, more sway in presidential elections by diminishing the power of the popular vote. This makes sense as Republican strategy, Meyerson says. "As minorities and the poor tend to cluster in cities, in heavily Democratic congressional districts, apportioning a state's electoral votes by congressional district creates an opportunity for GOP electoral gains even though the party's share of the popular vote is waning." But if 2012 does become a close election and a Republican wins only because of Republican strategies like this one, the president's legitimacy will rest on very shaky ground and will make governing a challenge, Meyerson predicts.

Robert McFarlane and James Woolsey on breaking our oil dependence As we remembered 9/11 this month, "what seemed most striking is our seeming passivity and indifference toward the well from which our enemies draw their political strength and financial power: the strategic importance of oil," write former national security adviser Robert McFarlane and former CIA director R. James Woolsey in The New York Times. Oil is most strategically important in its role as a transportation fuel, they write. 97 percent of America's air, sea and land transit depends solely on petroleum. Western reserves will never be enough to counter OPEC's cartel, nor can we depend on OPEC to keep prices reasonably low, they write. The increase in demand for oil in developing countries is likely to drive the price way up in the years ahead. In the long term, electric cars may provide a solution. But sooner than that, we must open "the transportation fuel market to competition from sources other than petroleum... As an example, before investors will expand production capacity for cellulosic ethanol from plant life, or for methanol from natural gas -- which on a per-mile basis is significantly cheaper than gasoline -- they want to see that a sufficient proportion of the cars and trucks on America's roads can burn these fuels." Making "flex-fuel cars" is not expensive, and Detroit is already providing them in Brazil. "That gives Brazilian drivers the option to purchase the most cost-effective fuel, and they can easily switch from one type to another." Congress needs to mandate that the Detroit companies begin making these flex-fuel cars here, they write. "The time has come to strip oil of its strategic status. We owe it to those who lost their lives on 9/11 and in its aftermath, and to those whose fate still hangs in the balance."

Ruth Marcus on Obama's nonstarter debt plan Ruth Marcus is "thoroughly depressed," she writes in The Washington Post. "First, although the president's plan does little to change the already low odds of success for the new congressional supercommittee, it underscores the near-impossibility of dealing seriously with the federal debt before the election." Second, Obama's new plan has disproved his theory that "pragmatism and persuasion" could overcome normal political divisions. When he came on the national scene, he said "the country was capable of rising above politics as a zero-sum game," Marcus recalls. Yet in office, he found this not to be the case. Marcus says the details of Obama's plan are "fine". He knows Republicans won't allow the proposed tax increases, he backs off entitlement reform, and he cuts a lot but not enough to solve the long-term debt crisis. It isn't quite fair to "accuse Obama of campaigning instead of governing." Republicans have, after all, tried to obstruct him at every opportunity, she says. If Republicans demonstrated any willingness to compromise, she writes, she would condemn Obama's plan as playing to the base. "And, yet, how sad a spectacle it was to see the president stooping to the kind of cynical accounting gimmicks he once bragged about eschewing," she says. He once criticized those who included expected war costs in their accounting, but now he counts the drawdown as over $1 trillion in "savings". He counts repealing the Bush tax cuts as new opportunity for savings but this is an old idea. Obama is not naive, but he and his advisers miscalculated Republican "ferocity". Both he and the country now know how hard "hope and change" can be to achieve, she says.

Norm Augustine on teaching history American 12th graders' worst subject in school is history, according to the federal government's National Assessment of Educational Progress. "It's a result that puts American employers and America's freedoms in a worrisome spot," writes Norm Augustine in The Wall Street Journal. More than just memorized facts, history provides students with "critical thinking, research skills, and the ability to communicate clearly and cogently," Augustine writes. "A failing grade in history suggests that students are not only failing to comprehend our nation's story and that of our world, but also failing to develop skills that are crucial to employment across sectors." Our elementary and secondary schools should be teaching history better, he says. "These are skills needed across a broad range of subjects and disciplines. In fact, students who are exposed to more modern methods of history education -- where critical thinking and research are emphasized -- tend to perform better in math and science." As CEO of Lockheed Martin, a firm that employed 80,000 engineers, Augustine said those who advanced quickly were more than good engineers. They could write and express themselves clearly. "We need to take this opportunity to ensure that today's history teachers are teaching in a more enlightened fashion, going beyond rote memorization and requiring students to conduct original research, develop a viewpoint and defend it," he says.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.