Liliana Segura on the death penalty in Texas, John Nichols on ranked-choice voting in Oakland and Carmina Ocampo on access to public universities for undocumented immigrants in California


DEATH IN TEXAS: The same week George W. Bush released a memoir rationalizing his murderous wars, the Texas Observer broke a story that could prove he has more innocent blood on his hands. Claude Jones died in the Texas death chamber in 2000, the final prisoner executed while Bush was governor. Jones’s conviction rested on a single piece of forensic evidence—a hair he swore belonged to someone else. Jones sought a stay of execution to get DNA testing, but he was denied by the courts and Bush. A decade later, DNA has proved what Jones always claimed: the hair was not his. Instead, it matched the victim. Not only was Jones convicted on false evidence; it’s possible Texas executed an innocent man.

The discovery is part of a sickening trend that should have enormous implications but has done little to slow state executions. Last year, an investigation by The New Yorker thor- oughly debunked the evidence used to execute Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 for killing his daughters. Governor Rick Perry, who maintains that Willingham was a “monster,” has tried to quash a probe into the case. But even he can’t cover up the fact that the state has condemned innocent men to die. In October Anthony Graves became the twelfth Texas prisoner exonerated from death row.

Meanwhile, Hank Skinner, who got a stay from the Supreme Court as he ate his last meal, is fighting to test DNA evidence many believe could exonerate him. Whether this happens while he’s still alive remains to be seen. As one activist says, “In Texas, it doesn’t matter if you’re innocent. They’ll kill you anyway.”   LILIANA SEGURA

PULLING RANK: Newly elected Oakland Mayor Jean Quan ran as a candidate with deep roots in the Bay Area, where her great-grandfather and grandfather settled in 1906. As a veteran community activist, former school board member and current City Council member, she brought experience and smart progressive proposals to the race. What she lacked was big money and the big-time connections of the more conservative front-runner, former California State Senate president pro tempore Don Perata. In a traditional election, Perata would almost certainly have won, but Oakland has a ranked-choice voting system, which lets voters rank their top three choices.

Under ranked-choice, if no candidate wins a majority, candidates who receive the fewest first-place votes are eliminated and second and third choices are added to the existing tally and counted to determine a winner. As the votes are reassigned, a consensus candidate with broad appeal is more likely to emerge as the winner than a candidate with narrower appeal. Quan positioned herself as the broad-appeal contender, respecting that people might back other candidates in the ten-way race but urging everyone to make her their second choice. Voters did just that. Though she was outspent roughly four to one by Perata, she prevailed after accumulating the second-choice votes of Oakland residents who had backed other progressives.

Instead of rewarding candidates who run “polarizing” campaigns, notes FairVote’s Steven Hill, a ranked-choice system helps ensure that “candidates who can build a coalition using those ranked ballots are going to do well.”

“This is going to be a race that people are going to be studying for a long time,” says Quan. “It gives hope to people who are outspent. It gives hope to people, as long as you can organize your neighborhoods and you get volunteers, that you can win.”   JOHN NICHOLS

A WIN FOR IMMIGRANTS: In a major setback for hardline anti-immigrant groups, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled on November 15 that undocumented immigrants can continue to be eligible for in-state tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities. Under California law AB 540 undocumented students can pay in-state tuition if they attend a state high school for three years and meet other requirements. Without AB 540, most undocumented students could not afford to pay out-of-state tuition because they are ineligible for any state or federal financial aid.

Kris Kobach, author of Arizona’s infamous SB 1070 law, filed a lawsuit challenging AB 540, claiming that it violates a federal law prohibiting undocumented immigrants from eligibility for education benefits based on residency unless citizens are also eligible. The court rejected Kobach’s argument, ruling that AB 540 is not based on state residence and therefore does not conflict with federal law.

David Cho, an undocumented Korean undergraduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, was relieved to hear the news: “This means that undocumented students like me can stay in school. Now I can continue to get a college education that means everything to me.”

Kobach said he intends to appeal the decision to the US Supreme Court, but advocates are optimistic that the Court will deny review.   CARMINA OCAMPO

KUDOS FOR BIO’S BRIO: D.D. Guttenplan, London correspondent for The Nation, has been awarded this year’s Ann M. Sperber prize in recognition of his biography American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone. Guttenplan received the award from John Harrington, dean of the arts and sciences faculty at Fordham University, in a ceremony on November 16. Guttenplan modestly said that he was pleased to accept the honor because “it means my book might not be totally forgotten.”

Previous recipients include The Nation‘s Victor Navasky and historian Todd DePastino. The prize is given annually “in recognition of a biography or autobiography of a journalist or media figure that meets the standard of excellence set by the work of Ann M. Sperber,” best known for her biography of broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.

I.F. Stone once described himself as “a wholly independent newspaperman, standing alone, without organizational or party backing, beholden to no one but my good readers. I am even one up on Benjamin Franklin—I do not accept advertising.”

Guttenplan was drawn to Stone’s uncompromisingly political writing. Stone was “a troublemaker, and I’m drawn to troublemakers…. I wanted to take a long look at someone who always thought of journalism as a form of politics,” he said. “The left in America has no historical memory, so we accept the right’s view that they are the real Americans.”   JENNIFER O’MAHONY

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