Editorial Roundup: Newspaper opinions from around the nation - Oct. 25, 2013

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Gainesville (Fla.) Sun on cruel punishment (Oct. 20):
It’s hard to have sympathy for someone executed for committing a horrific crime.
In fact, some would say that murderers who make their victims suffer get off too easy when executed by lethal injection.
Yet as long as our nation’s Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment, and its people desire to be guided by their best and not their basest instincts, we need to question whether those values are consistent with our use of the death penalty.
William Happ, 51, was executed Tuesday at Florida State Prison for the rape and murder of Angela Crowley in 1986. Happ kidnapped the 21-year-old Crowley from her car before raping, beating and strangling her. It was a horrific crime by anyone’s definition.
Happ’s execution was the first in the United States to use a new drug in the lethal injection process. Happ remained conscious longer and made more body movements after losing consciousness than most inmates executed under the old combination of drugs, according to media witnesses.
Florida’s experimentation with the drug is just the latest example of its haphazard manner of conducting executions. Its failure to conduct humane executions peels back the sanitized image of the lethal-injection process, which keeps society from facing the ethical conflicts of state-sponsored killing.
Florida switched to the new drug, midazolam hydrochloride, due to a shortage of another sedative that had been used. A Danish company that produces the former drug stopped shipping it to U.S. prisons due to opposition of its use in executions. ...
It’s not necessarily preferable when executions are so antiseptic that they look like someone is peacefully going to sleep. Like drone strikes that seem like video games, making death appear so easy takes away the gravity of the state’s decision to use its most serious power.
Yet we have the obligation as a society to ensure that capital punishment is not cruel, if that is possible. It’s certainly harder to make that case about torturing someone before killing them.
Until Florida can assure the public that won’t happen, it should stop trying to speed up executions and take the time to conduct them as humanely as possible.

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The Tennessean, Nashville, Tenn., on trust in justice system suffers in secrecy (Oct. 17):
The over-the-top restrictions on information in the case of four former Vanderbilt football players accused of rape could well undermine the pursuit of the truth by disregarding basic tenets of public trust in the criminal justice system.
At issue is not the anonymity of the victim of the rape that is alleged to have occurred June 23 in the campus dorm room of one of the suspects. Nashville news media, including this newspaper, do not identify victims of rape without their permission.
Nor is it the threat of evidence being compromised by exposure in the news media. Yet these specters are being held up as convenient excuses for a protective order in the Vanderbilt case that prevents any explanation of the case proceedings. That order and the closed-door discussions held so far exceed what is reasonable in light of the public’s right to know.
For example, a closed-door meeting among Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins, prosecutor Tom Thurman and defense attorneys on Wednesday apparently included discussion of scheduling a trial date for two of the defendants, Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey, a matter appropriately done in open court.
The Davidson County attorney general’s office has cited the protective order, which includes attorneys for all four defendants signing an agreement to keep video and photo evidence secret, as necessary to “the integrity of the case.”
The case won’t be simple. ...
Being forthright with the community about the case — for example, having a public hearing about restricting access to the evidence — would help ensure impartiality.
Our system of law is meant to protect the public and the individual, not one at the expense of the other.

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American Press, Lake Charles, La., on public school teacher evaluations (Oct. 21):
Evaluations of public school teachers in Louisiana remain a sore topic with many of those educators who are under the microscope.
A study by the National School Boards Association Center for Public Education said the reforms that weigh student growth as the main factor in the evaluations represent a seismic change in the education world with no certainty of the long-range impact.
In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal pushed through an education overhaul package last year that linked teacher tenure and compensation with student improvement on standardized tests.
Any sea change was bound to be met by some teacher resistance. But the state Department of Education Superintendent John White didn’t do himself or the evaluations any favor when he forecast that the Value Added Model results would resemble a Bell Curve, with 10 percent of the teachers reaching the highest tier, highly effective, 80 percent falling into the middle categories of effective proficient and effective emerging and 10 percent drawing an ineffective label. If a teacher receives an ineffective rating two consecutive years they could be subject to termination.
As it were, 89 percent of public school teachers earned either a highly effective or effective proficient rating and only 4 percent were gauged as being ineffective.
Principal evaluations comprising a sizable chunk of teachers’ final ratings have also stirred controversy.
Jim Hull, a senior policy analyst for the National School Boards Association, noted that teachers received their evaluations from principals with little “useful feedback or direction to teachers on how they can improve.” ...
Clearly, these assessments remain a work in progress, and White appears to be flexible in amending them to ensure that they are both reliable and fair.
Still, there remains a number of factors here that suggest these teacher evaluations have far too many gray areas to adequately assess a teacher’s ability.

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Houston Chronicle on why it misses Kay Bailey Hutchison (Oct. 16)
Does anyone else miss Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison?
We’re not sure how much difference one person could make in the toxic, chaotic, hyperpartisan atmosphere in Washington, but if we could choose just one it would be Hutchison, whose years of service in the Senate were marked by two things sorely lacking in her successor, Ted Cruz.
For one thing, Hutchison had an unswerving commitment to the highest and best interests of Texas at all times. This revealed itself in a thousand different ways. Hereabouts, we miss her advocacy for NASA, the Port of Houston and the energy industry. And we know she worked just as hard for Dallas, San Antonio and a hundred smaller Texas cities and towns.
And dare we say it? We miss her extraordinary understanding of the importance of reaching across the aisle when necessary. Neither sitting Texas senator has displayed that useful skill, and both the state and the Congress are the poorer for it.
One reason we particularly believe that Hutchison would make a difference in these hectic days is that if she had kept her seat, Cruz would not be in the Senate.
When we endorsed Ted Cruz in last November’s general election, we did so with many reservations and at least one specific recommendation ­— that he follow Hutchison’s example in his conduct as a senator.
Obviously, he has not done so. Cruz has been part of the problem in specific situations where Hutchison would have been part of the solution.
We feel certain she would have worked shoulder to shoulder with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in crafting a workable solution that likely would have avoided the government shutdown altogether.