Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

Examining the insanity defense, MSNBC’s weekend sleaze, and suing OPEC

Steven Brill
Mar 20, 2012 12:48 UTC

1. The Afghan massacre and the insanity defense:

Beginning late last week we began to see the outlines of a possible defense for Robert Bales, the army sergeant who allegedly massacred 16 Afghan civilians earlier this month: insanity or diminished capacity. “When it all comes out, it will be a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues — he just snapped,” a “senior American official” told the New York Times. So, it’s time for a general review of the tough-to-pull-off insanity or diminished capacity defenses, along with a focus on the even higher hurdles involved in using either in a court-martial. (An insanity defense is a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity; diminished capacity means the defendant does not contest guilt but seeks to be convicted of a lesser offense or get a more lenient sentence.) That story should also tell us how much Bales’s defense lawyer might be able to turn the case into a trial over increasingly controversial Pentagon policies related to multiple redeployments, the treatment of traumatic head injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Good sidebars would tell us whether Afghanistan, whose Parliament is still demanding that Bales be tried in Afghan courts, even allows an insanity defense, and how open the trial is likely to be, including to cameras.

Years ago, I wrote a piece for Psychology Today about the insanity defense that was keyed to the case of John Hinckley, whose lawyers used it successfully after he tried to kill President Reagan. It presents a fascinating legal dilemma, which in its oversimplified version is: The more outrageous your crime, the better your argument that you had to be insane to do it, but the more likely it is that jurors will be so angry that they’ll want to hang you for it anyway.

2. The numbers behind MSNBC’s weekend sleaze-fests:

Can one of the media trade publications or a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Reuters media reporter please do a story explaining why it makes sense for MSNBC to do a series of sleazy shows — Lockup, Sex Slaves, Caught on Camera — during the evening and in prime time on weekends? Last Saturday night, while CNN was doing a riveting, important report entitled, 72 Hours Under Fire, about the massacre of dissidents in Syria as witnessed by its gutsy reporting team, MSNBC was broadcasting Lockup: Boston, one of its stable of Lockup shows depicting life inside prisons that has all the journalistic value of rubbernecking at a car accident.

Do the ratings justify undercutting the much-promoted MSNBC brand — “The Place for Politics” — this way, especially during a time when there is all kinds of news breaking out over the weekends related to the Republican primaries and conflicts in the Middle East? How do the expense and revenue numbers add up? Why wouldn’t running shows akin to MSNBC’s new crop of weekend morning political shows, with Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris Perry, make more sense? Why do advertisers like Liberty Mutual run spots on this Lockup garbage? What does Brian Roberts, the chairman and CEO of Comcast, which now owns MSNBC, have to say about all of this? It’s not simply a matter of the taste and civic values associated with a news organization, though I’d love to hear Roberts and his colleagues discuss that. I’m also curious about the simple cost-benefit analysis of undercutting a brand this way; it could be a good window on the economics of cable-TV news.

3. Sue the oil cartel?

I’ve always wondered what’s prevented the attorney general or some ambitious plaintiffs’ lawyer from bringing the mother of antitrust suits — against OPEC, the self-proclaimed oil cartel, which routinely and unabashedly controls prices by agreeing on production quotas. The oil ministers conduct their price-fixing meetings outside the United States, but offshore price-fixing conspiracies involving various products from chemical food additives to steel tubing have been successfully busted before.

Afghan justice, Putin’s palace, and the Edwards trial

Steven Brill
Mar 13, 2012 12:57 UTC

1. International, Afghan and American law surrounding the accused soldier-murderer:

With the Afghan Parliament demanding yesterday that the American soldier accused of killing 16 civilians there be put on trial locally rather than be tried by American military courts, I’m betting that the office of State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh and others in Washington are working overtime to frame a response. How will they decide whether our army turns him over? What could their arguments be against that? What are prevailing international law and military law precedents, and how much will they matter? What are the likely ramifications for the presidential election? What position will the Republican candidates take? All parts of an important, urgent story likely to play out this week.

2. Putin’s billion-dollar palace?

Check out these two sentences embedded in a recent New York Times story about how various cronies of Russian prime minister and now president-elect Vladimir Putin have all become billionaires:

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