Court Rules That Only Juries Can Impose Death Sentences: The decision was based on the sixth amendment guarantee of a trial by one’s peers.

“Joining Justice (Ruth Bader) Ginsburg in the majority were Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Stephen G. Breyer and — somewhat surprisingly — the conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist dissented…

The decision in Ring v. Arizona, 01-488, invalidated the death-sentencing procedures in five states, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Nebraska, which have 168 people under death sentences and where a judge or panel of judges decides sentence. It could also affect the capital punishment statutes in four other states, Alabama, Delaware, Florida and Indiana, which have 529 people under death sentences. Those states have a hybrid system under which juries advise a judge on the sentence…

(I)t was not clear whether the condemned prisoners would automatically get life sentences or could be sentenced to death again under new procedures. Some previous landmark opinions on capital punishment have meant reprieves for whole death-row populations.”

This is the second monumental death sentence restriction handed down by the Suporeme Court this week, of course, after the ruling that mentally retarded prisoners cannot be executed. I worked as a psychiatric consultant on three death row cases, in two of which (in Alabama) the death sentence had been imposed by the presiding judge’s override of a jury’s “recommendation” of a lesser sentence; the third defendant was mentally retarded…

Several FmH’ers found my comments about the wildfires naive, suggesting that it would take turning back the clocks a century to a period of vast tracts of wilderness unpenetrated by human presence before we can let fires burn. Garret Vreeland, who knows whereof he speaks — and wherefrom, Santa Fe, unlike my effete, removed New England vantage point — points out that today’s forest fires are far more severe than they are supposed to be — in a sense, he says, not ‘natural’ at all, as I had asserted — because we have had a policy of preventing lesser fires and “preserving (the forests) to death.” Here’s the essence of Vreeland’s argument, which I don’t feel hesitant about making public because he’s just written essentially the same thing at dangerousmeta:

“there are no empty, pristine forests that are safe to let burn. that’s the old ‘wild west’ myth. if it’s not homes, it’s an ecosystem that feeds and cleans water supplies for hundreds of miles. or a precious ecosystem for wildlife and animals. ‘wilderness’ only exists in narrow swaths between human habitations.”

He goes on to mention the health effects of smoke over populated areas if we “let it burn.” And he reminds me that the abandoned mines and mine tailings put toxic heavy metals into the ecosystem when volatilized (does this happen in a forest fire?). Dramatic case in point: the Cerro Grande fire at Los Alamos several years ago,. At the time I wrote here about the fears that this fire would release substantial radioactivity from all that the National Laboratory had been dumping in surrounding areas.

My friend Abby also wrote that humans are part of the ecosystem and that it is too impossible for us to get out of the way of nature.

The thrust of my comments was not intended to be the suggestion that we simply let the fires burn and get out of their way, although on rereading it is obvious why it came across that way. Both Garret and Abby seem in fact to reinforce the point I was trying to make — that we are in the fix we are because of a mindset of not seeing ourselves as embedded in the ecosystem but ranged against it. This is where the hubris of viewing the fires solely from the p.o.v. of their threatening and dangerous impact on humans, my peevishness about which was the precipitant for my post, arises from.

The unfortunate people who found their worldly possessions in the path of these wildfires, I meant to say, are not at fault; they are tragic victims of an inadequate worldview in the policy sphere. Garret suggests we read Era of the Big Fire is Kindled at West’s Doors from today’s New York Times. “Ten times as many homes are now in areas prone to wildfire as there were 25 years ago…” Snuffing out all fires only delays the super-devastating, inevitable big ones, it seems. Without a change in forest and fire management policy, allowing controlled burning and aggressive thinning, we’re in for much more of this, it seems. But if the government were interested in changing policy, it has severely hampered itself with some missteps in the last decade. And fires have become — forgive me — a hot topic, highly politicized. Net effect — the Bush administration appears to have no plans for a change.

And, finally, falling water tables and drought conditions, which set the west up for megafires, may be a consequence of global warming, calling for more pervasive policy change. But the Bush administration is philosophically averse to even considering the reality of the greenhouse effect.

So, for the moment at least,  it would seem prudent for people to be more attentive to whether they’re situating their ‘dream house’ in a fire zone…