Newsmonger: Congress' newest science-denying Science Committee chair, Incarceration nation, Teacher suspended over supposed murder memoir 

click to enlarge Triathlete Monica Caban, 39, was biking with a friend in October when a driver crashed into her from behind, paralyzing her from the waist down. At least 11 cyclists have died from collisions with drivers in and around the San Antonio area since 2009. Six of those deaths have been in the past year, including a North Side accident last week. Fellow triathlete Mack Williams started an online petition last week calling for cyclist safety on the roadways and for the City of San Antonio to better enforce its safe-passing ordinance. - MICHAEL BARAJAS
  • Michael Barajas
  • Triathlete Monica Caban, 39, was biking with a friend in October when a driver crashed into her from behind, paralyzing her from the waist down. At least 11 cyclists have died from collisions with drivers in and around the San Antonio area since 2009. Six of those deaths have been in the past year, including a North Side accident last week. Fellow triathlete Mack Williams started an online petition last week calling for cyclist safety on the roadways and for the City of San Antonio to better enforce its safe-passing ordinance.

Congress' newest science-denying Science Committee chair

House GOP leaders last week picked man-made climate-change skeptic Lamar Smith to lead the House Science Committee, reportedly after the congressman made his pitch for the new post wearing a "tie decorated with planets and spaceships," according to The Hill. Smith will now head the congressional body overseeing energy research, NASA, the National Weather Service, and the National Science Foundation, among others. Smith's official House website boasts a simple statement acknowledging how "climate change has the potential to impact agriculture, ecosystems, sea levels, weather patterns, and human health." But Smith has previously chided the big, bad liberal media for failing to provide adequate room for dissenting voices on human-induced climate change, opining scientists haven't yet reached consensus on the causes.

In 2009, Smith railed against the media in a floor speech after the widely overblown "Climategate" scandal, wherein emails were hacked from East Anglia University. "The [television] networks have shown a steady pattern of bias on climate change," he said. "During a six-month period, four out of five network reports failed to acknowledge any dissenting opinions about global warming." Oberlin College professor and former National Science Board member (appointed under both Reagan and George H.W. Bush admins) James Lawrence Powell this month wrote how out of 13,950 peer-reviewed scientific articles published from 1991 to 2012, only 24 have rejected the notion of man-made global warming.

Perhaps most importantly, Smith, like most in the GOP wing, has come out hard against proposals to curb carbon emissions, like cap-and-trade policies. He slammed the EPA when the agency announced in 2009 its so-called "endangerment finding," which holds that heat-trapping greenhouse gases from industry and vehicles endanger public health. "The world has failed to reach consensus on climate change," Smith wrote on his House website, saying, "Forcing Americans to curb our CO-2 emissions unilaterally puts us at a competitive disadvantage with other countries and will result in American jobs being sent overseas."

Still, Smith's public climate talk pales in comparison to that of his predecessor, fellow Texas GOP congressman and former Science Committee chair Ralph Hall, who when it comes to climate change is fond of saying: "I don't think we can control what God controls."

Incarceration nation

Here in the U.S., home to five percent of the world's population, we house a quarter of the planet's inmates. With incarceration skyrocketing over the past three decades — quadrupling since the 1980s — bloated corrections costs have weighed on state corrections systems and county governments managing crowded jails.

Ana Yáñez-Correa with the nonprofit Texas Criminal Justice Coalition has worked closely with Bexar County in recent years, particularly with Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, to fight the trend locally, pushing programs to shrink the incarcerated population of Bexar County through pre-trial diversion (think drug-abuse, mental health, and veterans courts). And while the average daily jail population in Bexar County shot to 4,600 in mid-2009, the jail saw about 3,850 inmates last month. Eyeing the fast-approaching legislative session, TCJC and Bexar County officials have penned a wish list of legislative fixes they say would keep non-violent offenders out of lockup while also helping convicts successfully re-enter society and avoid re-arrest.

Speaking last week at the statewide Reentry Council Coalition's San Antonio gathering, Yáñez-Correa and Adkisson proposed lawmakers approve a so-called pre-trial "victim-offender mediation program" that gives victims of non-violent crimes — like burglary, theft, and shoplifting — a voice at the table in how a suspect is prosecuted. The victim and suspect could come to an agreement, stamped by a judge, to be fulfilled out of court in lieu of jail time, Yáñez-Correa says, cutting down on corrections costs. "Sometimes the victims don't just want to throw away the life of that offender," she said. "They want to be able to tell that young man or young woman, 'This is the impact the crime had on me emotionally, financially' … This is also so offenders can understand the real consequences of their actions."

Among other measures Bexar County and the TCJC want lawmakers to consider is expanding the list of non-violent crimes for which offenders can be cited, issued a court summons, and released, instead of being jailed. TCJC also want the Lege to address what Yáñez-Correa calls "criminal inflation," by adjusting dollar values outlined in the Texas Penal Code for various offenses like theft or criminal mischief. Without adjusting the dollar-values tied to certain crimes, inflation has arbitrarily made those offenses more severe. "Say you steal the same TV set you stole years ago. Today that penalty is now more severe," said Allen Castro, a Bexar County grants manager and part of the county's re-entry roundtable. "Over the years we've adjusted everything else for inflation, why not criminal offense guidelines?"

Teacher suspended over supposed murder memoir

With a criminal investigation closed, a John Jay High School teacher and soccer coach could soon return to school following his suspension last week when a memoir surfaced in which he claimed to have drowned his gravely-ill son.

Northside ISD officials placed Daniel Chapa, a 36-year-old social studies teacher and head boy's soccer coach at John Jay, on paid administrative leave last week after a KSAT reporter obtained and then shared a 53-page document with the district in which Chapa confessed to drowning his son in 2003. Neither Chapa nor his lawyer could be reached for comment.

Chapa's son Anthony, born in 2000, suffered from Sandhoff disease, a rare and fatal genetic disorder. He died at home in 2003 from complications; officials ruled the death of natural causes and didn't order an autopsy.

First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg said Chapa's memoir first surfaced after Chapa emailed a copy to his ex-wife last summer, who then contacted the medical examiner's officer. Officials exhumed the boy's body and re-investigated the case, Herberg said. While a Bexar County Medical Examiner updated the death to homicide by drowning due to the written confession, "There was no other evidence by the Medical Examiner to show there was a drowning," Herberg said.

The investigation turned up "no scientific or physical or testimonial evidence of any kind we could use in court against Mr. Chapa," said Herberg last week, explaining why the DA's office ended its investigation. Herberg said Chapa, through his attorney, later told the DA's office the memoir was a work of fiction. "As a practical matter, there's certainly not evidence a jury would use to convict beyond a reasonable doubt on a murder charge," Herberg said. "We have no corroborating evidence that the child died from drowning, as he said in his memoir."

"This was obviously alarming to us as a school system, so we called in Mr. Chapa and investigators from HR told him because of what's in that memoir we needed to put him on paid administrative leave," said Northside ISD spokesman Pascual Gonzales. "Since it looks like there's a good chance he'll be cleared of these charges or that the DA will not pursue, there's a reasonable chance he will be returned to the classroom," Gonzales said.

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