Kary Moss looks tired, which is not surprising, given that she has spent another 70-80 hour week fighting for mostly unpopular causes. On top of that, she commutes from Ann Arbor to Detroit, and is the mother of a teenager.
But the executive director of the Michigan branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is a bit optimistic on one front, anyway. Perhaps thanks to a little ACLU lobbying, supporters of the death penalty failed decisively last week to get enough votes in the Michigan House to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would have allowed capital punishment.
Michigan, which hasn't put anyone to death since it was a territory, was the first state to abolish executions. But homicides are soaring again in the Motor City, and there was an enormous outcry when two very young police officers, Matthew Bowens, 21, and Jennifer Fettig, 26, were brutally gunned down last month after they made what seemed to be a routine traffic stop.
Moss, a native New Yorker who has very vivid memories of Sept.11, understands the anger. But the ACLU is firmly against capital punishment on a variety of grounds, not least of which, she says, is that it is pretty clear that innocent people have been executed. In the last decade, scores of prisoners have been released from death row, and sometimes from prison altogether, when DNA evidence proved conclusively they were not guilty of their supposed crimes.
“At a time when Illinois and other states are putting a moratorium on capital punishment, Michigan should not consider the death penalty,” Moss testified before the state Legislature earlier this month. She noted that when the U.S. Supreme Court re-legalized capital punishment in 1976, it said had to be “fairly and consistently administered.” No one can say that test has been passed.
But capital punishment is far from the only item on the Michigan ACLU's plate. For more than two years, she and her staff, who are based in a small building on the fringe of Wayne State University's campus, have been primarily occupied with civil liberties concerns stemming from the Patriot Act.
Last year, the main concern was an expanded “Patriot Act II,” and when that was off the table, they lobbied against something called the “Total Information Awareness (TIA) Program," which later died in Congress.
These days, the ACLU's key focus is on something called MATRIX, short for the Multi-State Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange system, a program that ties together government and commercial databases in order to allow state and local police to conduct detailed searches on particular individuals.
“This is really the same thing as TIA, except they've brought it back and privatized it,” she said. “It is unclear what data will be compiled, who else may have access to it, or what standards would trigger the creation of a file,” she said.
“They won't tell us what's in the database—except that it includes both government and commercial data—nor is it clear what it will cost to use it.”
Traditionally, the ACLU has fought most of its battles on a shoestring, though longtime members say that Ms. Moss's management skills—and the times—have helped. The Michigan branch has doubled its membership, to about 12,000, and doubled its annual budget, to about $1 million, in the six years she has been there.
Additional funds have come in when the ACLU wins major lawsuits and the court directs the other party to pay their costs. A windfall is expected soon from a long-running Livingston County case involving unfair treatment of women prisoners in the county jail.
“They wouldn't allow them to participate in a work-release program, and the guards could watch them in the bathrooms and in the showers,” she said.
For the next few months, much of her focus is expected to be on affirmative action. Following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last year to allow affirmative action to be used in university admissions, opponents, led by California businessman Ward Connerly, are circulating petitions to get a ballot proposal banning the practice.
The ACLU hopes to help defeat that measure. Pushing her glasses back, getting ready to put another pile of miles on her aging Honda Accord, Moss, a 45-year-old attorney, smiled. "It's really about the Bill of Rights, about defending the rights and liberties of everyone, especially the least popular. That's why we're here.”
Footnote: Frustrated with the Michigan Legislature, James Bowens, father of one of the recently murdered officers, is leading a drive to gather the 317,000 valid signatures needed for a ballot initiative that would legalize capital punishment for those who murder police officers. Experience shows, however, that it is nearly impossible for such an effort to succeed unless it can pay professionals to gather signatures.
By Jack Lessenberry, Editorial Vice President of Hometown Communications