Friday, February 26, 2010

Flash Fiction: Serra Gaúcha

Something tells you to look. So you do.

I’m talking to you and you are smiling. Smiling. When was the last time I saw that, I wonder? That day at your sister’s when the little Yorkie took a nosedive into the cake you’d both worked so hard on all morning? You laughed then. Does that count?

We’re sitting in a café. The sky is overcast. You say, I think it will rain. And you’re probably right; you so often are. Clouds move across the pampas, dark and swollen.

I find myself momentarily unsettled by your mirth; the way you’ve cocked your head slightly to the side, surveying the horizon from behind large-framed sunglasses before turning your eyes on me. A look of complete satisfaction, as if some great burden has been lifted from you (and I suppose it has); a cleansing sigh of relief reflecting my own mounting disease.

I’m compelled to look away. So I do.

I study the laces of my shoe, and then the table’s edge, and finally your face. The curve of your jaw yields to near perfect whiteness at the crook of your neck, and then, down, down, to disappear behind the soft cotton of your blouse. Indigo. I remember when you bought it. Mexico City, 1992. I can trace each blemish hidden underneath the worn fabric. I count them one by one in my mind’s eye, like a child counting stars.

Now you remove your glasses and I see you as if for the first time. The clutch of fine lines etched grudgingly from the corner of each eye to the soft skin of your temple. You’ve had your hair highlighted. Streaks of platinum terminate in dark roots a half-inch from your scalp. Had I not noticed before?

Suddenly I consider how little I know you.

We’ve come here to get away. It’ll be good, you said. And it was. You are, after all, so often right.

We spent the first three days in Rio at a tiny bed and breakfast near the Barra da Tijuca. We lounged on the beach and drank Cachaça and even danced a little in the hotel lounge. We kept time to the music in a tentative embrace. You’re supposed to lead, you joked. Look. You put your arm on my hip and guided us across the floor. On every side sweating couples lurched and swayed to the thumping samba. And all the while that steely resolve.

Later we moved south into the Serra Gaúcha where we’ve spent the last four days sampling the rich local reds and hunting waterfalls.

It was here you chose to tell me. I suppose you had your reasons.

Last night I watched you sleep. With each cycle of your breath, the rise and fall of your small breasts a catalyst drawing me deeper into the abyss of memory. I spent hours ensnared in its stinging nectar only to wake in the morning to the cold reality that all is said and done.

And here you are. Smiling.

Tomorrow we go home. I imagine the boxes, your boxes, neatly stacked in rows in the pantry behind the kitchen, our kitchen. You'll find solace in their uniformity, in the perfect order of their existence, the way they take up just enough space.

Earlier you tried to explain it to me again. Things change, people change. But you’d said that before (it made just as little sense to me then) and I’m beginning to suspect you find it equally absurd.

You used to be so… right.

Behind the inn, soft pillows of hydrangea, pink and blue like spun sugar, stretch on for what seems like miles. Farther out across the tall grass a gaucho on horseback is leading a herd of sheep across the darkening horizon. The dogs that follow yelp and snap at the heels of the animals, which skirt ahead in halting bounds.

Just then thunder rumbles in the distance and the first heavy drops begin to fall, and I think, just maybe, I’m starting to get it after all.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

North Carolina Frees Another Innocent

After a ruling by North Carolina's Innocence Inquiry Commission a judge today ordered the release of Greg Taylor, who spent 16 years in prison after being falsely convicted of murdering a prostitute in 1991.

Taylor becomes the first prisoner to be released by the commission, which has reviewed hundreds of cases since its establishment in 2006. State lawmakers established the body following a string of high-profile and embarrassing miscarriages of justice that sent innocent people to jail for crimes they didn't commit.

Many, Taylor included, were convicted on the testimony of so-called "jailhouse snitches" or otherwise incentivized witnesses. For more on the how the use of compensated witnesses undermines justice, see my 2008 story The Rat Trap, which follows the case of Levon Jones, who was released from North Carolina's death row after 15 years in prison when a paid witness recanted her testimony.

Here's more on the Taylor case from the Associated Press:

Judges free NC murder convict after 16 years

RALEIGH, N.C. — A man convicted of murdering a prostitute was exonerated and set free Wednesday in the first win for North Carolina's innocence commission, the first and only panel of its kind in the nation.

Greg Taylor's family and supporters broke into cheers when the decision was announced by a three-judge panel that heard six days of arguments about the evidence used to convict him more than 16 years ago.

Taylor, 47, always insisted he did not kill prostitute Jacquetta Thomas in 1991. He testified he was in the area doing drugs with a friend and they spotted what they thought was a body, but didn't report it to police.

Taylor wore shackles during the hearing. After the decision was announced he was taken into another room for them to be removed before he walked out of the courtroom a free man.

"To think all these years what this day would be like; 6,149 days and finally the truth has come out," he said.

Defense attorneys worked to cast doubt about the initial case built against Taylor, and a State Bureau of Investigation agent testified that complete blood test results were excluded from lab reports presented at trial.

The agent's notes indicated that samples from Taylor's SUV tested positive for blood in preliminary tests but were negative in follow-up testing, which wasn't disclosed during the prosecution.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby, whose office led the charge to keep Taylor behind bars, immediately walked over to Taylor after the Wednesday's verdict.

"I told him I'm very sorry he was convicted," Willoughby said later. "I wish we had had all of this evidence in 1991."

A witness who testified in the 1993 murder trial, however, stuck by his testimony earlier this week that Greg Taylor confessed to a role in the killing while the two men were being held at the Wake County Jail.

North Carolina lawmakers established the innocence commission in 2006 after a series of exonerations shamed the state's justice system. Of the hundreds of cases reviewed by the innocence agency, only three have made it to a hearing before the body's commissioners. Only one other has gone to a three-judge panel, and that was rejected.

The commission is the only agency of its kind that has the power to investigate claims of innocence and put convicts on a path to exoneration. Attorneys for Taylor implored other states to follow suit.

"What can possibly more important to the justice system than the truth?" said one of Taylor's attorneys, Chris Mumma.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Pharmaceutical Industry Hits Lobbying Record in 2009

The intense debate over health care reform that raged last year proved a windfall to at least one industry: lobbyists for pharmaceutical and health products companies spent more dollars in 2009 than any other single industry in the history of U.S. politics.

According to new data out from the Center for Responsive Politics, pharmaceutical and health products’ companies spent nearly $266.8 million to lobby lawmakers last year, outpacing all other business industries and special interest areas in 2009, and representing the greatest amount ever spent on lobbying efforts by a single industry for one year.

The Center also ranks lobbying expenditures in the more broad “sector” category. The “Health” sector, which includes Pharmaceuticals/Health Products, Hospitals/Nursing Homes, Health Professionals and Health Services/HMOs spent $544 million last year on lobbying, with lobbyists working on health issues representing the most number of clients (2,476) in over a decade.

Since 1998 the sector has shelled out $1.8 billion to influence government, making it little wonder that robust health care reform remains an unattainable dream for the majority of Americans who support it.

Overall, for federal lobbyists 2009 proved to be a year of riches unlike any other, the Center analysis indicates.

In all, federal lobbyists’ clients spent more than $3.47 billion last year, a more than 5 percent increase over $3.3 billion worth of federal lobbying recorded in 2008, the previous all-time annual high for lobbying expenditures. And it comes in a year when a recession persisted, the dollar’s value against major foreign currencies declined and joblessness rates increased.

In 2009's 4th quarter, lobbying expenditures increased nearly 16 percent over 4th quarter levels from 2008, whereas spending only increased about 3 percent from the 3rd quarter of 2008 to the same period in 2009.

Last year’s 4th quarter also marked the first quarter in U.S. history that federal lobbying expenditures cracked the $900 million mark -- hitting a record $955.1 million for the quarter, the Center’s research shows.

“Lobbying appears recession proof,” said Sheila Krumholz, the Center's executive director. “Even when companies are scaling back other operations, many view lobbying as a critical tool in protecting their future interests, particularly when Congress is preparing to take action on issues that could seriously affect their bottom lines.”