When Jeffrey Lee Weaver went on trial last year for killing a police officer, court officials in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, decided to try out their newest piece of electronic gadgetry. Because Weaver was serving as his own lawyer and would have to move around the courtroom, the 37-year-old couldn’t wear shackles. So officers fitted him with a stun belt — a device worn around his waist that, if activated by remote control, would deliver a 50,000-volt electric shock.
The first day of jury selection went smoothly. But on the second day, seemingly out of nowhere, the normally soft- spoken Weaver went ballistic. “All of a sudden, I heard him repeatedly yelling, ‘Goddammit, goddammit,’ and pounding his hands on the table,” says Raag Singhal, an attorney who represented Weaver during sentencing. “It was so shocking. No one had ever heard him say those kinds of words before.”
It took a few seconds before anyone realized what was going on. Elsewhere in the courtroom, a deputy had accidentally grazed the remote control, triggering Weaver’s belt. Lieutenant Michael Ryan of the Broward County Sheriff’s Department does not believe the shock device was fully activated. “If it was,” he says, “he would have went down in a heartbeat.”
The incident is just one of the latest in what human rights activists and even some law enforcement officials call a disturbing trend. Four years after Amnesty International and The Progressive magazine first warned about the marketing of stun belts, the shock devices have been adopted by at least 19 state prison systems and more than 100 sheriff’s offices, police departments, and jails, according to an Amnesty survey. Dennis Kaufman, president of the belt’s leading manufacturer, Stun Tech, says his company has sold 1,700 belts, with business growing 10 to 15 percent a year.
The belts are used to control defendants in courtrooms and inmate crews working beyond the prison walls. But they’re also used out of public view, where abuses can go unchecked. Deputies strap the belts on inmates being driven to hospitals or courthouses, and prison guards use them instead of shackles. At Red Onion State Prison in Virginia, 10 inmates were required to wear the belts while meeting with an attorney investigating charges of human rights violations; one prisoner who refused to wear the device was barred from speaking to the lawyer. Some officials even use the belt to control people with mental illness: The shock device was activated twice against Barrington Wilson, a Miami defendant whose behavior included eating his own feces and talking to an imaginary friend named Frank.
Stun Tech’s two current models are wide elastic belts that wrap around the waist, holding a two-pound electronic device against the left kidney. “When activated by remote control,” the company advises in its promotional literature, “the stun cycle operates automatically for eight seconds of continuous stun power.” The belts cause searing pain that temporarily immobilizes wearers, often causing them to fall writhing to the floor and lose control of their bladder and bowels. “The electrical current was so intense that I thought that I was actually dying,” Craig Ryan Shelton, a Kansas inmate who was shocked in a prison van, told human rights investigators.
Although no one has died from the belt, experts warn that a jolt could prove lethal to inmates with heart conditions. “Every discharge of a stun device is a roll of the dice for the life of the victim,” says Robert Greifinger, former chief medical officer for the New York prison system. Stun Tech claims that medical tests show its belts are safe, but will not release documentation.
Janice Christensen, director of campaigning for Amnesty International, says the belt’s growing popularity is not surprising, given the tripling of the U.S. inmate population over the past 20 years. “The more prisons we build, the more expensive it is to maintain staff,” she says. “Introducing this equipment is a lot easier than training new personnel, and these things are dirt cheap.” Broward County’s Lt. Ryan agrees: “It saves on manpower. Instead of having three or four armed deputies in the courtroom, you can have two.”
Some law enforcement officers worry that their colleagues are becoming too blasZ
Greifinger, the former medical officer, says such devices are particularly dangerous because a handful of guards and deputies will inevitably enjoy using them to inflict pain. “We can never effectively screen out sadistic people from our criminal justice system,” he says. Giving a remote-control switch to such a person “just makes it more susceptible that an ‘accident’ could happen.”
It was no accident when Ronnie Hawkins encountered a trigger-happy judge while defending himself against burglary charges in Long Beach, California. During a testy interchange, Superior Court Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani ordered Hawkins to be quiet. “You are wearing a very bad instrument,” she warned. “If you want to feel it, you can, but stop interrupting.”
“You are going to electrocute me for talking?” Hawkins asked.
“No, sir, but they will zap you if you keep doing it,” she replied. A few seconds later, as the defendant was raising a constitutional issue, the judge directed a courtroom deputy to deliver an electric shock to Hawkins, who was seated and manacled. “You refused to obey my order to stop interrupting me,” she explained. Hawkins called the shock “excruciatingly painful. It made my body go into involuntary convulsions. It was horrible.”
In February 1999, responding to a lawsuit filed by Hawkins, federal Judge Dean Pregerson issued a preliminary injunction banning use of the stun belt by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office. The belt’s consequences go beyond the momentary shock it delivers, the judge noted in his opinion. “The stun belt, even if not activated, has the potential of compromising the defense,” Pregerson wrote. “An individual wearing a stun belt may not engage in permissible conduct because of the fear of being subjected to the pain of a 50,000-volt jolt of electricity. A pain-infliction device that has the potential to compromise an individual’s ability to participate in his or her own defense does not belong in a court of law.” — Barry Yeoman
We’ve all come to fear superweeds, but superfish? Geneticists at Purdue University warn that fish modified to grow larger, faster could cause catastrophic results in the wild — including species extinctions. While scientists are currently working to engineer a salmon with a human growth gene, similar fish engineered at Purdue not only grew fast, but died young.
If introduced to the wild — where size matters — the genetically modified (GM) fish would attract four times the usual mates. But, because of the grow-fast-and-die gene, only two-thirds of the offspring would survive to reproduce. The so-called Trojan gene would infiltrate and quickly decimate natural populations, the geneticists said. Just 60 GM fish added to a wild group of 60,000 would cause extinction within a decade. Over a longer period, a single GM fish could do the same damage. — Tim Dickinson
To Libertarians he’s a hero; to drug enforcement officials he’s an irresponsible menace. But to many New Mexico residents he’s simply Governor Puff Daddy. Gary Johnson, the state’s two-term Republican leader, earned the rapper’s sobriquet for his outspoken promotion of drug legalization. And as one of only two governors to declare the war on drugs a failure, he has drawn praise from both ends of the political spectrum (including a presidential nomination from the Libertarian Party), and fire from state and federal law enforcement.
The governor is adamant that he is not pro-drugs. Drugs are in his opinion “a bad choice” and “a handicap.” But with his new mantra, “Just say know,” he is calling on the federal government to leave prohibition behind and let citizens make educated choices about drugs. In Johnson’s view, America has lost its three-decade war on drugs. Drug offenders make up nearly a quarter of the U.S. prison population, and 1.6 million Americans were arrested on drug charges in 1998 — yet use of heroin and marijuana is still on the rise. Throwing money at the problem hasn’t helped: This year’s drug-war budget tops $17 billion. “We can’t continue what we have been doing for the past 30 years and expect different results,” says Johnson.
The governor’s call to “veer from the status quo” involves more than legalizing marijuana. In a November speech to the CATO Institute he proposed the decriminalization of heroin and other narcotics. In a states’-rights approach he has called on the feds to relinquish control of drug policy and allow states to produce, regulate, and tax drugs. “Let the government grow it…distribute it, market it,” he says. “If that doesn’t lead to decreased drug use, I don’t know what would!”
Drug czar Barry McCaffrey, meanwhile, has pilloried Johnson’s proposals, writing in a Washington Times op-ed that “the agenda espoused by people like Mr. Johnson would put more drugs into the hands of our children and make drugs more available on our nation’s streets.”
Darren White, former secretary for New Mexico’s Department of Public Safety, calls the governor’s statements a “morale killer” for police. Indeed, a banner hanging over the state Narcotics Department door reads: “Per Governor Johnson, it’s okay to go home now.” White and two other members of the governor’s Drug Enforcement Advisory Council resigned in protest following Johnson’s CATO speech.
High-profile criticism aside, the governor is applauded by some: “To say that you are in support of drug legalization in today’s political climate shows courage,” says David Klinger, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri. “It’s like saying you’re a friend of Satan.”
A former recreational user, Johnson inhaled in college — repeatedly. He also revealed in his ’94 campaign that he had used cocaine. But Johnson says he learned from the bad choices of his youth — he stopped using drugs and turned a handyman outfit into a construction empire.
Driven by free-market ideals and cost-benefit analyses, Johnson has implemented several programs traditionally championed by left-leaning concerns: His needle-exchange program is one of only a handful of publicly funded programs in the country. “It saves $200,000 in medical expenses for each case of HIV it prevents,” says Steve Jenison, director of the state’s Bureau of Infectious Diseases.
Proof that he was not just blowing smoke at CATO, Johnson is currently backing a proposal to fund a medical- marijuana program. And as for President Puff Daddy? The Libertarian Party remains hopeful he’ll run — although Johnson has, to this point, just said no. — Jaime Vasconcelos
Death and taxes got you down? Why not incorporate? Not only can Your Name Corp. outlive you, but as a corporate entity, you can join the more than 60 percent of U.S. businesses that pay no income tax at all. Welcome to the corporate world, where profits were up 8.9 percent last year, but corporations paid 2.1 percent less in income taxes.
The Treasury Department says the problem of corporate tax evasion is “unacceptable and growing.” And while it’s dificult to document an absence of taxable income, the circumstantial evidence is compelling: Large corporations reported $119 billion less income to the IRS tan they did to shareholders in 1996, the last year examined in a recent Treasury report. Of course, such reative bookkeping is not risk-free; Both UPS and Campaq got busted last year for usingillicit tax shelter.s But getting nabbed is the exception to the rule. Odds against the IRS auditing a large corporation this year: 100-to-1. — Tim Dickinson
My First Fundraiser
Despite a name that begs to be followed by a dot-com, GoreNet has nothing to do with the Internet. The vice president couches this arm of his 2000 campaign in populist terms: “It’s an organization of young people,” he told Larry King, “Generation X getting involved in our self-government.” But critics of dollar-driven politics take a dimmer view: Getting young people involved once meant mobilizing young voters, but GoreNet has its eyes on a different prize — mobilizing young money.
GoreNet is a fundraising group that aims to cultivate a coterie of rich twentysomething contributors. And it reaches this tony crowd by throwing lavish parties where attendees can hobnob with movie stars and, often, the V.P. — a far cry from pep rallies and voter registration drives.
Larry Makinson, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog, says Gore may be looking at youth outreach the same way tobacco companies do: “If you get them young,” he says, “you can keep them for a long time, and they’ll produce a steady source of income.”
Whether Gore’s wooing of young elites — and quiet neglect of young voters — is crass or pragmatic depends on how much you trust historical precedent. Efforts to make voting more appealing to young people, notably MTV’s Rock the Vote, have done nothing to reverse the demographic’s abysmal turnout — a mere 28 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in 1996. Since that election, meanwhile, the stock boom and the rise of tech startups have created unprecedented young wealth. The same nonvoting college student from ’96 may well have become a 25-year-old with money to burn. Gore has apparently decided that it’s more expedient to seduce cash from young technocrats than to wage a hapless campaign to get young Democrats to vote.
This crass pragmatism would be easier to dismiss if the politics behind it weren’t so personal. GoreNet is headed by the vice president’s 26-year-old daughter Karenna Gore Schiff. True to her father’s man-of-the-people spirit, Gore Schiff’s events are more affordable than the $1,000-a-plate dinner: A recent event charged just $35 at the door. Nonetheless, GoreNet fundraisers — starlighted by the likes of Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and DJ Jazzy Jeff — took in more than $400,000 in 1999. And while that may not buy much airtime, the figure far overshadows the number of voters GoreNet has registered: none.
Gore is not alone in the young money hunt — Bill Bradley pursues green donors too. His California campaign chairman, John Roos, estimates that up to a quarter of Bradley’s funds in the state have come from young first-timers. They don’t take much convincing, says Roos. “You hear from a lot of young professionals: ‘ The system is broken; I’m going to put my money where my mouth is.’ ” — Marc Herman
April Hellraiser: Gloria Flora
When Gloria Flora declared 350,000 acres of Montana’s Rocky Mountain front off-limits to oil and gas drilling in 1997, she became a hero to environmentalists — and a pariah to private interests that had long enjoyed free access to the state’s natural resources. The Lewis and Clark National Forest supervisor’s bold decision — which aimed to protect grizzly bears and Native American spiritual sites, and stem the depletion of pristine wilderness — challenged fellow policymakers to safeguard the nation’s forests.
Flora’s leadership in Montana earned her a quick promotion to oversee Nevada’s Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest — the largest in the lower 48 states. “Gloria was a rising star in this agency,” says senior Forest Service policy adviser Chris Wood. “There was no telling how far she might have advanced.”
The agency sent Flora to Humboldt-Toiyabe, says Wood, hoping that “her wisdom and charisma would prevail under conditions that were, at best, very difficult.”
In Nevada, the deep-seated hostility of ranchers and miners toward conservation, compounded by the failure of local officials to crack down on “fed-bashing” — including bombings, death threats, and harassment — made Flora’s work nearly impossible. But when state officials — and even a member of Congress — began fanning resentment against the Forest Service, Flora decided she’d seen enough. She resigned in protest — sacrificing a 22-year career to draw attention to the state’s Old West lawlessness and to denounce an 18-month tenure she likens to being “a despised occupying Army commander.”
Rural Nevada has long been a hotbed of anti-federal sentiment. More than 85 percent of the state falls under federal jurisdiction, but many ranchers, miners, and loggers assert that they, not the government, should decide how the forests and grasslands are managed.
During the ’90s, a pair of bombings targeting Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management workers put officials on high alert. The Forest Service ordered Nevada employees to travel in pairs for safety.
“People in the field…fear for their lives,” says Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that defends the rights of civil servants. The anger faced by conservation workers in Nevada, says Ruch, is similar to what “civil rights supporters encountered in the Deep South.”
Against this backdrop, Flora attempted to reform frontier-era policies for grazing, mining, and logging. At every step, Flora says, she and her staff were demonized for upholding federal environmental laws. But the boiling point came with the standoff over South Canyon Road.
In the summer of ’98, government scientists said that the washed-out Forest Service road needed to be closed permanently to protect declining populations of endangered bull trout. But local ranchers and miners vowed to keep the federal road open by any means necessary — and, at the behest of Elko County officials, bulldozed a new path, dumping tons of silt into the Jarbidge River.
To uphold the Endangered Species Act, Flora and the Forest Service got permits to reclose the road in November and dredge the river. Local resentment continued to build through October 1999 — when ranchers, loggers, and miners were encouraged to vent their anger in hearings sponsored by Reps. Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho) and Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.).
At the hearings, state Assemblyman John Carpenter compared Forest Service employees to British redcoats trying to impose tyranny on his constituents, and vowed to lead his own version of the Boston Tea Party. “If the feds do not change their ways and begin to listen to the local people,” he said, “there is going to be a lot more tea thrown overboard.” Chenoweth-Hage, meanwhile, openly disparaged the work of the Forest Service.
Although the rebels eventually backed down last fall after a federal judge threatened them with arrest, Flora had seen enough. “Fed-bashing is a sport here,” Flora told Mother Jones, “and I refuse to sit by quietly and let it happen, as many others are doing.” Forest Service employees “have been castigated in public, shunned in [Nevada] communities, refused service in restaurants, kicked out of motels just because of who you work for,” Flora wrote in her scathing letter of resignation. “We cannot forget those who have been harassed, or had their very lives threatened.”
In the wake of Flora’s resignation, Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck launched a fact-finding investigation. Chenoweth-Hage and Gibbons, while discounting the severity of her charges, have also promised to investigate. Meanwhile, 35 Forest Service employees at Humboldt-Toiyabe sent a letter to Dombeck saying that “the depth of the problem is beyond even what Ms. Flora has expressed.”
Dombeck’s investigation comes too late to retain Flora, who says she hopes to continue her conservation efforts in a setting “where respect and civil discourse are the norm.” Flora says she doesn’t hold a grudge toward the citizens of Nevada. “The funny thing is, I feel for the local people,” she says. “They are confronting market forces that their grandparents who ranched and logged and mined never saw coming. I sympathize with their desperation. But I am not the enemy. The Forest Service is not the enemy.” — Todd Wilkinson