By Madeleine Thompson
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Shipler has covered everything from the Lebanese Civil War to politics in D.C. His newest book, Rights of Risk, hones in on civil liberties, an interest of Shiplers since he watched his grandmothers indignant reaction to Senator McCarthys persecution of suspected communists.
That kind of planted a seed, Shipler said in a lecture given Tuesday, Feb. 5 in the Community Foundation Theater.
Then when I was in Moscow for four years with the Times, I saw the opposite of civil liberties. … To see the antithesis of your own country and your own countrys values was an educational process.
Rights at Risk is the second book in a two-part investigation of the state of civil liberties in the U.S. The idea to write about civil liberties crystallized for Shipler after the Sept. 11 attacks, after which he thought America would be challenged more than ever to protect ourselves while also protecting our Constitution. It was then that Shipler decided to pursue his interest in the subject.
The investigation began with his first book, The Rights of the People, which focuses on the U.S. Constitutions Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from warrantless search and seizure. I started with more practical, everyday interviewing and research, Shipler said.
After teaching a course at his alma mater, Dartmouth College, on civil liberties in a time of terror, Shipler acquired space to work in the federal public defenders office in Washington, D.C. At that central location, he perused files and accompanied attorneys to court and the D.C. metropolitan police on night shifts.
The federal courts in the District of Columbia, since its not a state, deal with street crime, Shipler said. I got to see … what the defense attorneys viewpoints were on trying to protect rights under the Constitution while they defended their clients.
It was through those experiences that Shiplers interest in prosecution and conviction took shape extending to the methods authorities use to interrogate suspects, and the gray area around police intimidation and suspects awareness of their rights.
Rights at Risk looks into the First, Fifth and Sixth Amendments, which concern freedom of speech, abuse of the government in legal procedures and the right to counsel, respectively. There are a lot of false confessions, Shipler said. I think that we have a vast landscape of injustice, of the wrong people in jail. The question is, Why would anyone confess falsely?
In his search for the answer to this question, Shipler found that psychologically tricky methods of interrogation by police can lead people to confess to crimes they didnt commit.
He explores the tendency of suspected criminals to be poorly represented by unqualified lawyers, and the extensive relationship between the authorities and executive power.
There are sentencing guidelines that prosecutors can use to threaten defendants out of going to trial … and [they] have all kinds of penalties built in if you go to trial, Shipler said. According to The Innocence Project, of the 302 people in the history of the U.S. who have been exonerated of a crime because of the truth revealed by DNA evidence, 24 percent had given a false confession. The overall picture here is a situation of constitutional rights being challenged and tested throughout American history, Shipler said. The problems are not brand new.
Shipler, a former New York Times reporter, said he enjoys the freedom of writing books as opposed to the confining newspaper format. Since leaving the Times, he has written for The Nation, Salon.com and his blog The Shipler Report, but he sees himself returning to magazine-style writing.
Im working on another book now, but Im sort of thinking maybe its time to go back to shorter, magazine format or opinion-piece format, Shipler said.
Shiplers next book will cover freedom of speech in a less legal, more anecdotal structure and will map the landscape of discussion and debate in the U.S. Though passionate about American issues, Shipler has no plans to get involved in politics, asserting that his best method of contribution is writing.
Whatever strength I may have professionally is in the writing and the teaching and the talking about these issues in the hope that people who read or listen or learn will be motivated to be good, active citizens, Shipler said.
Shipler advised college students trying to stay ahead of the news tsunami to search first for facts, and then for opinions.
A lot of Americans want to be told what to think these days, Shipler said. Stick with the news organizations that give you multiple sides of an issue. Be constantly aware when youre being propagandized.
And, just in case, read both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
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