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African palm oil expansion is bad news for the continent’s primates


Palm oil is ubiquitous and is set to become more so over the next few decades. The oil is used in food, cleaning, and beauty products and as biofuel, so demand is set to grow rapidly. With this skyrocketing demand comes a need for the land on which to grow more oil palms—and a threat to the ecosystems currently using that land.

Currently, Southeast Asia is the oil palm hotspot, and the deforestation and ensuing damage in the region have been well publicized. But much of the future expansion may happen in Africa, introducing the likelihood of new conservation problems. A paper published in this week’s PNAS argues that there's a huge overlap between the land where oil palms could be grown and the land that houses the continent’s primates. “Large-scale expansion of oil palm cultivation in Africa will have unavoidable, negative effects on primates,” write Giovanni Strona and his colleagues.

Growth in demand, loss in habitat

The tree that provides us with palm oil (which is pressed from its fruit) is a tropical species. Currently, palm oil agriculture uses approximately 20 million hectares. One million hectares (or 10,000 km2) is about half the area of New Jersey; 20 million is about the area of Nebraska. Most of these plantations are in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The demand for edible oils, including palm oil, is set to swell over the next few decades. “Demand will probably be around 240 [million metric tons] in 2050, nearly twice today’s total,” palm oil consultant R. H. V. Corley estimated in a 2009 paper. The land needed to meet this demand will depend on factors like how much farming methods manage to improve and how much of the demand is met by growth in other vegetable oils. At worst, Corley writes, an extra 44 million hectares could be needed for palm oil; at best, with a high rate of global consumption, an extra 16 million hectares.

That’s just demand for edible oil, though. Once you factor in the demand for palm oil as a biofuel source, the need for land could increase by another 9 million hectares—or, at the highest estimate, as much as another 82 million hectares. Strona and his colleagues went with the most conservative estimate for biofuel and combined it with Corley's estimate of 44 million hectares for edible oil. Together, they mean an estimated 53 million extra hectares needed for palm oil between now and 2050.

Where will these millions of hectares come from? Given the crop's favored climates, Africa is a prime candidate. Strona and colleagues calculate that the continent has around 273 million hectares suitable for growing oil palms, although only 50 million of those hectares are “highly suitable”—the rest are either slightly or moderately suitable.

The problem is, palm oil has historically come at the expense of habitat loss. Between 1990 and 2010, writes a group of researchers in a 2016 paper, “it is estimated that 17% of the new plantations in Malaysia and 63% of those in Indonesia came at the direct expense of biodiversity-rich tropical forests.” The orangutan has been a particularly famous casualty of palm oil expansion, but the loss of habitat affects a huge array of species.

Good for palm oil, bad for primates

To get a sense for how palm oil growth in Africa would affect ecosystems across the continent, Strona and colleagues used primates as a proxy measure. They chose primates partly because they’re well studied and can serve as an indication of other biodiversity and partly because so many primate species are already under threat.

They looked at primate data from across the continent, cataloguing where different species are found and how threatened those species are. Then, they overlaid that data with the regions of palm oil suitability. There was a large overlap. The regions most suitable for palm oil are the forested equatorial regions in West and Central Africa, and those happen to be the areas with high primate diversity and many threatened species.

If palm oil cultivation were limited to just the areas where there's limited risk of harming primates, very little land would be available, the researchers point out: 3.3 million hectares overall, and only 130,000 hectares of highly suitable land. “Reconciling a large-scale development of oil palm in Africa with primate conservation will be a great challenge,” they write.

Compromise between oil palm and primate diversity will be “difficult to achieve,” says John Poulsen, an ecologist who wasn't involved with this research. “A product that we use in our everyday lives—toothpaste, shampoo, Oreo cookies—will result in a dramatic negative impact on primates in Africa.”

He hastens to point out that these results don’t necessarily spell total doom for Africa’s primates: “The loss of monkey habitat does not necessarily mean that the species will go extinct,” he explains. “Species can still be conserved in protected areas, and even outside of protected areas.” Using different data sets and other ways of measuring the importance of habitats could help to develop a more thorough picture of the risks, he adds.

But this all requires careful management, including ongoing measures to reduce the ecological impact of palm oil plantations. “History suggests that whenever there is a serious conflict between biodiversity and human livelihoods, people win out,” says Poulsen. But “African countries have the right to develop economically, and so even though it will come at an environmental cost, it is something that we have to come to terms with.”

PNAS, 2018. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1804775115  (About DOIs).

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1 day ago
We’ve been boycotting already due to the damage to the orangutan population in Indonesia; this makes that rule easier to follow.
Washington, DC
3 days ago
We really need to start boycotting products which use palm oil. FYI there's no such thing as "sustainable palm oil" and also the US Girl Scouts use it in all of their cookies.
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Lyme Disease Is Spreading Fast. Why Isn’t There a Vaccine?

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We’ve all heard the advice about avoiding Lyme disease. If you walk through wooded or grassy areas where it’s prevalent, you should use insect repellent. Cover exposed skin. Check yourself thoroughly once you return home, and take a shower. If you see a tick, pluck it off your skin with tweezers. Look out for a bull’s eye-shaped rash and flulike symptoms in the summer.

About 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention each year, making it the most commonly reported vector-borne illness in the United States. That number has tripled over the last 20 years. And experts estimate that the actual number of cases — not just those that happen to be reported to the agency — is more like 300,000 per year.

If Lyme has become so common, why isn’t there a vaccine for it? Well, here’s something you may not know: There used to be one, but it was taken off the market more than 15 years ago. And there’s only one new vaccine candidate in the pipeline.

“Clearly, the problem is getting worse,” said Dr. Paul Mead, a top scientist at the C.D.C. “For years, we have been advocating that people use repellents, do tick checks, spray their yards. That remains good to do, but it’s not enough.”

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Here are the basics

Lyme disease was first recognized in the mid-1970s, after a cluster of adults and children in Lyme, Conn., started experiencing symptoms of arthritis. Additional symptoms may include fever, headache, fatigue and rash.

The disease is mainly found in Northeastern and North-central states and Northern California, though a recent report found it had spread to all 50 states. It’s also found in parts of Canada, Europe and northern Asia.

Lyme disease is usually handled with a short course of antibiotics. But without treatment, infections can spread to the heart and nervous system and cause serious problems. Additionally, some patients experience symptoms even after taking antibiotics, what the C.D.C. refers to as “post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome.”

“Chronic Lyme” is also a term you may have heard. It is sometimes used to describe persistent symptoms of infection, even in people who have not received a diagnosis of Lyme. The C.D.C. and many other experts don’t support the use of the term because of that confusion.

‘A public health fiasco’

A vaccine for Lyme disease, called LYMErix, was released by SmithKline Beecham — now GlaxoSmithKline — in 1998. It was found to be 76 percent effective in adults after three doses.

But the company took it off the market less than four years later, citing low sales, amid lawsuits from patients who said the vaccine caused severe arthritis and other symptoms. Some claimed that the vaccine had provoked an autoimmune reaction.

Studies never showed a direct link between LYMErix and any chronic side effect or serious complication. But patients’ claims about it, and resulting media coverage, were sufficient to make doctors and patients wary.

Dr. Gregory Poland, a vaccinologist at the Mayo Clinic, has written that public concern, induced by anti-vaccine groups and class action lawsuits, resulted in LYMErix being withdrawn from the market.

“There’s a big difference between what’s claimed and what’s proven,” he said.

The high cost of the vaccine and confusion over who should get it and how many doses were needed didn’t help its prospects. Additionally, a vaccine was never intended to replace “personal protective measures” like tick checks. After all, ticks can carry a number of diseases besides Lyme.

Dr. Stanley A. Plotkin, an emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, said that the loss of the vaccine was a “public health fiasco.” He and other researchers said that in the years since, public opposition prevented drug companies from investing in another vaccine that could fail on the market.

“It’s a situation that has never existed before,” he said. “You have a vaccine that works, you know it works, you know the disease is prevalent, but there’s no vaccine on the market, except for dogs.”

Dr. Mead of the C.D.C. said that the issues with LYMErix were complicated, but that subsequent studies did not bear out the safety concerns that were raised at the time. In addition, Lyme disease was a lot less common 20 years ago, so the need wasn’t as great.

Some experts thought Lyme could be controlled if people were vigilant about checking themselves. But the rise in cases shows that’s insufficient.

“We need more options on the table,” he said. “Which is why we certainly strongly support the development of a safe and effective vaccine.”

What’s in the pipeline?

A European company called Valneva says that it is making progress on VLA15, a vaccine that would protect against six strains of Lyme, including the one most prevalent in the United States.

Valneva’s chief executive, Thomas Lingelbach, said that the developers at his company had taken the concerns surrounding LYMErix into consideration, and that out of an abundance of caution, they had engineered the new vaccine so that it would not create an autoimmune reaction.

“It is a very different vaccine than LYMErix,” he said. The vaccine is being tested now, and the company hopes to seek licensing in about five years.

Meanwhile, Dr. Erol Fikrig, the chief of infectious diseases at Yale Medical School and one of the developers of LYMErix, is trying to target the tick itself. He’s in the early stages of research on a vaccine that could prevent ticks from transmitting Lyme and other diseases.

“I believe it’s promising,” he said. “But time will tell.”

Dr. Phillip J. Baker, the executive director of the American Lyme Disease Foundation, a nonprofit group run by volunteers, predicted that opposition from Lyme groups that are suspicious of the medical establishment would hinder any vaccine’s prospects.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about Lyme,” he said. “We’re making some progress, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

Patricia V. Smith, the president of another advocacy group, the Lyme Disease Association, is among those who are skeptical about the new vaccine.

“I would like to see safe and effective vaccines developed,” she said. “But those are the key words.”

Ms. Smith added that Valneva hadn’t been proactive enough about reaching out to patients’ groups to share its findings.

The company said in response that it planned to increase outreach efforts as the vaccine got closer to hitting the market.

“It is part of our ongoing mission to become more proactively engaged with advocacy groups,” Valneva said. “We encourage patients and advocacy groups to reach out to us, and we will be working to do the same to establish a dialogue with the patient community.”

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It Spreads Fast, and There’s No Vaccine

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3 days ago
TL;DR: The anti-vaxers are to blame for the absence of a lyme vaccine for humans. (Though your dog can still get vaccinated for Lyme.)
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2 days ago
Continues to be a circus

Game dev suffers broken teeth, skull fracture after trying to film arrest

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A longtime video game developer was arrested at a South Carolina gas station on Wednesday afternoon after suffering significant injuries as the result of a tackle by a police officer. The arrest followed the woman's attempt to film officers arresting fellow shoppers at a QuikTrip store in Rock Hill. Soon afterward, both sides of the arrest told vastly different stories of what exactly happened.

Former Disney, Turbine, and Ubisoft developer Patricia Pizer posted images from her hospital stay on Thursday morning on her Facebook page. A text post attached to the images, apparently written by Pizer's husband, included the following list of injuries that she sustained following her altercation with police: "Broken teeth (five that we know of), dislocated shoulder, several lacerations, bruised hip, fracture of the skull, concussion."

The news of Pizer's arrest and injuries quickly spread throughout the game development community, with industry peers such as Brenda Romero (Wizardry) and Robin Hunicke (Journey) sharing Pizer's text and video updates (along with a link to a GoFundMe fundraiser to cover her medical bills). Pizer's game-industry credits include creative director for Asheron's Call 2, senior designer for Disney's Club Penguin series, and senior design analyst for MMOs such as The Matrix Online and Uru: Ages Beyond Myst.

“Punched the officer in the head twice”

In a statement offered to Charlotte TV station WBTV, Rock Hill Police alleged that "the officer involved made a lawful arrest and used force necessary to effect the arrest of Ms. Pizer." This was determined, RHPD said, after reviewing an officer's body-cam footage and the QuikTrip store's camera footage (neither of which are currently publicly available). A separate report from HeraldOnline clarified that no dash cam footage of the arrest, which occurred near a police car, was captured, as the original arresting officer did not "turn on his blue lights" when arriving at the scene.

The RHPD statement alleged that Pizer "physically interjected" herself during the officer's arresting attempts, then alleged that Pizer became increasingly physical:

The officer approached Ms. Pizer to place her in handcuffs when Ms. Pizer punched the officer in the head twice and kicked the officer once. The officer then attempted to put Ms. Pizer on the ground, however she grabbed the handle of the door to the store. The officer pulled Ms. Pizer to break her grip on the door. The officer then put Ms. Pizer on the ground and continued to attempt placing her in handcuffs.

A police report filed after the arrest included an allegation that Pizer threw a drink at an officer's face. That allegation did not appear in the statement later offered to the media.

“Cop hits her like a football player”

Pizer's husband offered a different account of what happened on his wife's Facebook account on Thursday evening, based on the QuikTrip security camera footage that he was allowed to see by store management:

Video of the incident shows OFFICER Hernandez Talking to Patricia. He tells her to Walk away or be Arrested. She walks away and starts filming with her phone in Selfie mode. Cop runs up behind her and hits her like a football player. She leaves her feet and goes face first into the glass door of the gas station[.] cop then punches her in the head, Picks her up and slams her. AT NO FUCKING TIME DID SHE HIT THIS BITCH ASS COP. UGH!!!!!! Her teeth were on the ground. I actually found one on the scene[;] a piece of tooth. Blood as well [sic]

One part of the story that all parties appear to agree on is that Pizer turned on her smartphone's camera and began filming the incident. RHPD's statements do not mention

Pizer's allegation to WBTV

that the arresting officer "saw that I was filming him, and he came up to me, and he smashed my camera out of my hand, and it went flying."

Pizer is awaiting legal counsel before deciding whether or not to publicly release whatever video was captured by her phone during the incident. Pizer, a resident of Miami, has not indicated when she will return home; she was in South Carolina as part of a vacation with her husband.

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The Good Guys™
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The participatory panopticon continuing to speak truth to the abuse of power.
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India Is Introducing Free Health Care—for 500 Million People

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The Indian government will pay for health care for around 500 million of its poorest citizens, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi declaring that the country can reach its potential only with a healthy population.

During a speech to mark the country’s independence day on Wednesday, Modi said, “It is essential to ensure that we free the poor of India from the clutches of poverty due to which they cannot afford health care,” The Times of India reported.

The National Health Protection Mission—also known as “Modicare”—will give impoverished families health insurance coverage of up to $7,100 every year. This may not seem a lot by American standards, but in a country where the annual per capita income is just over $1,900, it will make a massive difference to those who cannot afford private treatment.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers a speech at the Red Fort in New Delhi, India, on August 15. PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images

Public hospitals in India offer free, but less sophisticated, care. The system is strained to the point of collapse, with hospitals struggling to secure enough beds and staff to care for the sick. The lack of access for rural communities—where 66 percent of Indians live—forces people to travel many hours to reach urban facilities if they want treatment. This means the private medical sector cares for the majority of India's patients and charges them accordingly.

When the project was announced in February, then-Finance Minister Arun Jaitley declared it the “world’s biggest government-funded health care program.” According to the mission’s chief executive officer, Indu Bhushan, “This is going to be a game changer.”

Medical costs are one of the primary causes of poverty in India. Around 63 million Indians fall into poverty each year because of health care bills, and 70 percent of all charges are paid directly by patients.

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As India looks to become an economic superpower rivaling the U.S. and China, crippling health care costs and preventable illnesses and deaths are significant problems. Average life expectancy in India is 69, significantly below China, at 76, and the U.S., at 79. The mortality rate for children under 5 is 43 per 100,000, and in 2015 1.2 million children died of preventable diseases.

A view of Government Medical College and Hospital in Chandigarh, India, on August 17, 2017. Public medical centers suffer from a lack of funding and resources, leaving the private sector to take up much of the slack. REUTERS/Ajay Verma

Rather than invest in the public system, Modi’s government has decided to pay for private hospitals to pick up more of the slack. The private health care industry is booming, drawing staff away from already chronically under-resourced hospitals. The country has promoted itself as a health care tourism destination, and the value of the private medical sector is expected to triple to $133 billion by 2020. But the network is still not large enough to take on responsibility for half of the country’s population.

Doctors are in short supply, with just one for every 1,315 Indians, The Washington Post reported. Modicare will put huge pressure on India’s private hospitals, and Bhushan said that he expects 5 million more operations and that facilities will need to find 35 million more hospital beds. Asked how hospitals would deal with the influx, he simply said, “The market will do that.”

In February, he said, 8,000 hospitals had signed up for Modicare and agreed to set costs for certain procedures. He also suggested the expansion of the patient pool would encourage investors to build more medical centers to meet demand.

India spends only around 4 percent of its gross domestic product on health care, of which only just over 1 percent is provided by the government, according to World Bank figures. This is far below economically advanced nations, including the U.S., which spends 17 percent, although this is arguably far higher than it should be.

Modicare will cost around $1.7 billion each year, according to Reuters. The prime minister has already expanded the 2018-19 health care budget by 11.5 percent to $8.3 billion in anticipation of the added funding pressures.

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3 days ago
Of course it's called Modicare. And it appears they've learned NOTHING from the American experiment. Sending all this money to private hospitals? They're so fucked. Prices are going to skyrocket.
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Afghan Dream of a Better Life Ends in a Hilltop Mass Grave

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KABUL, Afghanistan — The teenage students were lowered into a mass grave one after another, shoulder to shoulder — just as they had sat at their lecture hall the day before.

A suicide bomber, perhaps no older than they, had walked in as their algebra class ended and physics was about to begin, detonating his explosive vest and turning the university prep center into a scene of carnage.

On the whiteboard, basic algebraic equations were covered in blood. A nearby blackboard, where “Valentine day” was written in faded chalk, was riddled with holes from the ball bearings that were packed into the bomber’s vest.

The lecture hall had been so packed, and the explosion so powerful that nearly half the 230 students were among the casualties. Health officials said at least 40 were killed and 67 others wounded. The mangled bodies were hard to identify.

At the hilltop burial site on Thursday, Roshan Ghaznavi, a human rights campaigner, wept over the coffin of a girl named Negina from a poor family; she had been their best hope for a better life.

“Today, it is Negina’s casket, tomorrow it will be my casket, the day after it will be your casket,” Ms. Ghaznavi said. “Humanity is dead here. It’s been dead for a long time.”

The attack was claimed by the Islamic State, its latest in a brutal string of bloody bombings against civilian targets, everything from mosques to schools, and even a midwife training center. The Islamic State’s hold on Afghan territory was never large, and has been slipping, but its cruel brand of bloodshed has compounded Afghans’ suffering during years of war against the Taliban.

The Kabul school’s casualties were just a small fraction of the relentless bloodletting by a resurgent Taliban in the past week, when attacks took the lives of several hundred Afghans, security personnel and civilians.

Most of the students at the education center, called Mawoud Academy, had moved from villages in central Afghanistan to spend a year in Kabul preparing for the country’s competitive university entrance exam. Their families had saved so the children, staying in $15-a-month hostels in Kabul, could pursue a universal dream: a good education as their ticket out of poverty and isolation.

For the families, the choice to send their children to the capital has become increasingly fraught. Seventeen years after the American invasion, foreign money still powers opportunities for advancement in the city. But the recent wave of violence has made the cost of those opportunities a heavy one.

Many of the dead from the school were transported back to their villages. But about a dozen, like Negina, were brought to the hilltop in the west of Kabul, close to another mass grave for the victims of an Islamic State bombing two years ago. An excavator did the initial digging, before local men — some in suits, their jackets neatly folded in the dirt — dug with shovels and pickaxes.

Some of the caskets were carried by fellow students or relatives who had made it to the burial. Others were shouldered by volunteers who had heard the news and arrived to help.

“Nobody knows where he was from,” said Haji Abas, who was sitting next to a coffin marked Azizullah.

“He has no one here, no family,” someone said.

“We are his family,” Mr. Abas said. “Let’s move him closer to the others.”

Among the first to be buried were twins, Attaullah and Farzana, 19.

They were the first children of their parents, born and raised in Ghazni Province before their family moved to Kabul nine years ago. Their mother was a seamstress; she would often sew them matching clothes when they were babies, their cousin Abdul Qader Rahimi said.

“Attaullah was the first to be born, and he grew faster than Farzana,” Mr. Rahimi said. “She would tease him that he drank her share of milk, that’s why.”

“One could not live without the other — that is why they left the world together,” Mr. Rahimi said. “They were one soul, in two bodies.”

Then there was Negina. No one at the cemetery really knew much about her.

Her only friend helped other women inch the coffin closer to the grave until its turn arrived. Then she fainted. Other women unbuckled her shoes and splashed her face with water.

Later, a university lecturer who had rented Negina a room filled in some of the blanks about her life. Two weeks ago, he said, a woman from Jaghori district, in restive Ghazni, had arrived in Kabul with a toddler and a high school graduate, Negina. The woman said her husband was ill, and her son was working as a laborer in Iran. She wished for Negina to enter university, and then get a well-paying job to lift the family.

Ali Farhang, the lecturer, said Negina and a roommate split the monthly rent for one room: $30.

He said Negina and her roommate had waved goodbye to him on their way to class around 2:20 p.m. The explosion hit at 3:45.

“I peaked into their empty room from the window last evening,” Mr. Farhang said. “Their lunch bowl was still there — just a salad of tomatoes and onions.”

The academy, down a narrow lane, remained closed on Thursday, except to the relatives who came to pick up the dozens of handbags and backpacks left behind. The roof was blown off. The chairs, covered in blood, were piled in corners.

Police officers guarding the premises sat in the dirt behind the walls, having their lunch of bread and potato curry.

“Gather your strength so you don’t cry,” one of the officers said, as reporters went inside. “We cried a lot.”

Masuma, wearing a checkered shawl, came searching for the handbag her daughter, Atika, had left behind. Atika had been in the next-door classroom and had survived. Her bag held four books and four pens, Masuma said.

“There are a lot of bags like that — dozens,” the guard answered, as he led her to rows of tables piled with bags. The contents had been pulled out so relatives could more easily identify their children’s belongings.

As they searched, the guard asked how her daughter was doing.

“She is not normal,” Ms. Masuma said. “When she sees the photos, she cries a lot.”

They found the bag in the lecture hall where she had been seated.

“Yes, this is hers,” Ms. Masuma said. “It has four books and four pens.”

For some, the end of their search was sadder still.

Hamid Omer had spent much of the evening of the bombing going hospital to hospital to find his sister Rahilla, 17. The night before, they had talked about a potential wife for him. In the morning she ironed his work pants before heading to class.

He finally found her at the government morgue.

“There were two bodies: a boy and a girl.” Mr. Omer said. “I was numb, but I had to check the girl. When I checked, her head was shattered, not recognizable.”

Then he noticed a watch he thought was his sister’s. He called home, somehow hoping that someone else had the same watch and hers would be there. It was not.

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New Orleans Woman Sentenced to Life In Prison For Killing Abusive Husband Is Granted New Trial – The Appeal

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Before all that followed—before she was sentenced to life without parole, before the levees broke during Katrina, before Leon Cannizzaro became one of the nation’s most notorious district attorneys—Catina Curley’s story led the 10 p.m. broadcast on local CBS affiliate WWL-TV. “New Orleans police say a woman shot and killed her husband in New Orleans East tonight,” said a newscaster on March 30, 2005. “Police say the couple was arguing in their home when the woman, Catina Curley, pulled a gun and fatally shot her husband in the chest. Police booked her on second-degree murder charges. Officers say the couple had no history of domestic violence, but they are investigating.”

Ever since, the narrative surrounding Renaldo Curley’s death has reflected a similar story. Within hours, police decided that Catina shot Renaldo Curley because she was angry and jealous, killed the father of her children because of an argument gone wrong. Prosecutors framed her case as a singular instance of hot-headed depravity, a moment of irredeemable sin. But the truth is more forgiving to Catina. For over a decade, Renaldo physically abused Catina and their children. She wasn’t the aggressor, but the victim. She wasn’t angry; she was terrified.

But when Catina went to trial in 2007, her attorney, John Fuller, failed to explain the psychological effects of the violence she endured, which could possibly be characterized as battered woman’s syndrome. She was convicted of second-degree murder, and sentenced to life without parole. Until recently, it seemed certain that she would die in the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women.

Almost 10 years later, in 2016, her sentence was overturned by the state trial court, after they determined that Fuller failed to provide effective assistance of counsel  because he didn’t present a battered woman’s syndrome defense nor did he investigate the benefits of presenting expert testimony on this subject. But Cannizzaro’s office appealed and an appellate court reversed.  It held that there was insufficient evidence for a jury to find Catina legally insane, which requires a showing that the person can’t tell right from wrong. The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s decision. In late June, the state’s highest court recognized that battered woman’s syndrome can justify the use of self-defense and found that Fuller “failed entirely to investigate the proper way to defend [Catina],” and ruled that she was entitled to a new trial. Late last month, Catina was released on $1,000 bond, providing her with an opportunity to spend time with her family for the first time in over a decade.

On June 29, Cannizzaro called the bond “disturbing, disheartening, and unprecedented,” implying Catina is a danger to the community.

Law enforcement remains intent on ignoring a decade of unrelenting physical abuse, abuse that Fuller characterized as “probably the worst [he’d] ever seen.” Thirteen years ago, prosecutors charged Catina more harshly than many men who abuse and kill their wives. Now Cannizzaro, too, wants to ignore the abuse she faced.

Catina now joins a growing group of criminalized survivors of domestic violence fighting for their freedom. Women like Cyntoia Brown, a sex worker who in 2004 was just 16 and living with an abusive pimp. Brown shot and killed a 43-year-old man who, after picking her up for sex, allegedly became violent. She was sentenced to life in prison. When Marissa Alexander’s abusive husband threatened to kill her, she fired a warning shot inside their Jacksonville, Florida, home. Though no one was injured, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Like these women, Catina was not only a victim of domestic abuse, but a victim of the criminal justice system and prosecutors who use their discretion to rack up prison sentences instead of supporting survivors.

Catina and Renaldo lived in Little Woods, a neighborhood in New Orleans East on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Ninety-six percent African-American and with an average household income hovering around $40,000, Little Woods is blacker and poorer than the rest of the city. The two were married for nearly 10 years, with seven children between them, five of whom lived in the house.

The day of the shooting, Catina and Renaldo argued over another woman who had spent time with Renaldo in their house. A witness heard their daughter April, then 8, say to Renaldo, “Please don’t hit Mom.” But, as he often did, Renaldo got physical.

It wasn’t the first time. According to Catina’s habeas petition and the subsequent Louisiana Supreme Court decision, for over a decade, Renaldo, then 29, beat Catina, then 32, mercilessly. There was the time he threw her to the ground, kicking her so hard that she dislocated her shoulder. There was the time he punched her in the nose on both sides, breaking her nose. Her face and eyes were black, and so swollen that she couldn’t open them.  There was the time he tried to push Catina out of a moving car. After she managed to convince him to pull over, she and her daughter April got out of the car and ran home. Her boss testified that he saw signs of abuse many times, “trauma” to her face and swollen forehead, eyes, and cheeks.

In the 11 years before the shooting, police filed six reports alleging domestic abuse involving Renaldo, records of him choking her while hitting her in the face, biting, striking, and punching her. The reports note Catina’s black eyes, the “visible teeth marks on her skin.”

Catina usually didn’t call the police—often because Renaldo wouldn’t let her. “If I’m going to call the police or if I’m trying to call someone for help or something, he will break the phone,” she testified.

Renaldo beat her in front of their children so often that Catina’s daughter Brittany testified that she “could not count how many times she had seen the victim hit [her mother],” according to the Louisiana Supreme Court. When asked how often Renaldo beat his mother, their son, only 10 at the time of the shooting, replied “a lot.”

And Renaldo allegedly beat his own children, who claimed he choked, hit, and “slam[med]” them. When his son was just a year old, he struck him with a telephone, according to police reports.

The evening of the shooting,  in March 2005, Renaldo threatened her, shoved her onto the bed and threw a soda can at her. “Bitch, you going to make me hurt you,” Catina recalled him saying. She tried to call her grandfather to ask him to come to the house, and spoke briefly to her aunt. She later testified that Catina’s voice made her worried she would be beaten again.

Catina hoped to just leave the house, avoiding her husband on the way out. But she couldn’t—her keys were in the same room as him. So she grabbed an “old rusty revolver” he kept under the mattress for self-protection.

He began confronting her again. “I was very frightened. I was scared, I mean, really delirious,” she testified. “Stop, don’t come toward me,” Catina recalled telling him, pointing the gun at him. But he just “kept coming and coming.” As he moved closer, Catina was “shaking. I never handled a gun[.]” She recalled thinking, “If he gets close enough to me, he is going to take this gun from me and he is going to beat me again.”

He came closer. She fired one bullet, hitting him in the chest. In two minutes he was dead.

Catina was arrested and taken to the police station where she tried to explain the terror she felt when tension between her and Renaldo escalated. “Anytime we’d get into an altercation, I think my whole life is just in danger,” she said the night of the shooting. “ I’ve been got beat up so many times.” Her fear wasn’t unfounded. In 2007, the year Catina was convicted in New Orleans of second-degree murder, Louisiana had the highest rate of women murdered by men, roughly twice the national average. According to the Violence Policy Center, around 60 percent of those women were killed by their partners.

That Renaldo had repeatedly been violent toward Catina was no surprise to the New Orleans Police Department. They had over a decade’s worth of evidence to indicate that Renaldo was a serial abuser. Yet, by the time the 10 p.m. news ran—just two hours after the shooting—police had already decided to hold Catina for second-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Officers say the couple had no history of domestic violence,” the WWL-TV broadcast said, an explicitly false statement.

Orleans Parish prosecutors, like prosecutors everywhere, have near total discretion in charging decisions. They could have reduced the charges against Catina, but instead chose to try to put her in prison for life.  At trial, prosecutors implied she wasn’t really scared of him. Why, if she was so scared, did she not ask one of her male cousins to accompany her to the house? Why didn’t she call the police? Why didn’t she call someone and ask them to get her keys?

Three days after Catina was sentenced, a man named Jeremy Colbert faced a jury in the same courthouse. For years, he had allegedly abused his former girlfriend. One night he hid in her parking lot, violating a restraining order she had against him. When he saw her with a male acquaintance of hers, Colbert shot and killed him.  “Colbert’s lawyer successfully argued to the jury that Colbert’s ex-girlfriend ‘riled him up’ so he should not be subject to a murder conviction,” Tania Tetlow, now president of Loyola University New Orleans, wrote in 2007.

Colbert was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years. Catina was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Forty years is at the upper end of the sentencing range for manslaughter in Louisiana, but the disparate sentences for Colbert and Catina are not uncommon. “The national average sentence for men who kill their female partners is two to six years in prison,” wrote Tetlow. “In contrast, women who kill their male partners are sentenced to an average of 15 years … despite the fact that many of these women killed in self-defense.”

It is unsurprising that Cannizzaro’s office has defended Catina’s draconian sentence. Since he was elected in 2008, Cannizzaro has consistently been among the nation’s harshest prosecutors. Currently, almost one in six of Louisiana prisoners come from Orleans Parish, a remarkable feat given that Louisiana is the second most carceral state in the nation.

Cannizzaro has bragged about how seriously his office takes domestic violence.  But often, his aggressive tactics end up hurting the victim more than the offender. He made headlines last year when it was discovered that he often issues material-witness warrants, giving him the power to jail victims of rape or sexual assault to compel their testimony. According to data analysis by students at Yale Law School, Cannizzaro’s office obtained more than 150 of these warrants in just five years. In May, The Appeal’s Aviva Shen reported that about 50 of those people were actually arrested.

It’s worth noting which victims Cannizzaro chooses to incarcerate. According to the New Yorker, “Poverty, homelessness, precarious immigration status, and mental-health issues were all invoked by the DA’s office as reasons to jail crime victims, who included survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child sex trafficking.” Demographics matter, too. Shen reported that 78 percent of material witnesses were Black. Of those actually arrested, only one was a white male. Some of these stories were particularly disturbing.  Take the 19-year-old sex trafficking victim who was arrested in 2014, soon after giving birth. “She had failed to appear at a hearing during her pregnancy because she was supposed to be on bed rest and had a doctor’s note to prove it,” Shen wrote. “Even so, she was held in jail for nearly four months until she testified against the father of her child.”

In one case, Cannizzaro’s office set a $100,000 bond for Renata Singleton, who was an alleged victim of domestic abuse. When she chose not to cooperate with prosecutors, they served her with a fake subpoena and then sent police to arrest her. Her abusive boyfriend’s bond was $3,500.

It wasn’t the only time Cannizzaro’s office set a higher bail for a witness than the person who allegedly committed the crime. “[A study] identified at least 25 cases in which witnesses were held on a higher bond amount than the person charged with a crime,” Shen reported.

Cannizzaro’s insistence on punishing victims is threaded throughout his tenure as district attorney. But instead of rethinking his approach to domestic violence, he’s doubling down. He fought the court’s decision that the jury should hear about the psychological toll of Catina’s abuse and the effect it had on her and her family. Even today, he insists she’s a dangerous criminal.

Cases like Catina Curley’s are beginning to get more attention, especially from criminal justice reform advocates and domestic violence prevention organizations. One organization, Survived and Punished, is particularly focused on ending criminalization of survivors. “Survived and Punished focuses on survivors because we want to highlight the specific pipeline between surviving sexual and domestic violence and being arrested, locked up, and/or deported,” Mariame Kaba, organizer and co-founder of Survived and Punished, told The Appeal. “We believe that survivors who live at the intersection of gender and criminalization deserve our solidarity and should be supported by our organizing.”

In many cases, the attention has worked. Thanks to support from organizers and attention from national figures like the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Marissa Alexander was freed in early 2017 after serving about five years of her sentence. And celebrities like Kim Kardashian have spoken out against Cyntoia Brown’s sentence. But often these stories go unnoticed because domestic violence remains disturbingly common. It is largely women who are at risk of beatings, injury, and even death, and minority women and those living in poverty are even more vulnerable.

And yet, according to a 2015 ACLU survey of lawyers, advocates, and other domestic violence experts, many survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault avoid the criminal justice system, in part because the process often compounds the trauma. This is the logical result of a system that punishes those it is meant to protect. “In essence, power is shifted from the abuser to the state,” said one survey respondent said.

There’s still the possibility of a happy ending for Catina. She will get the chance of another trial, where she’ll finally get to present the battered woman’s defense she was entitled to over a decade ago. It’s a critical opportunity, but justice is not a guarantee.  Cannizzaro still insists on treating her like a heartless murderer instead of a survivor of decade-long abuse. As long as prosecutors care more about convictions than victims, abused women aren’t safe at home or in the courtroom.

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4 days ago
Ask anyone driven to the bitter edge of an abusive relationship- the snap is inevitable and it might just be violent. This woman was unfairly vilified. A decade of gaslighting and abuse where you start to doubt your very essence? I can't in good conscience convict such a soul. Abuse is devious, it festers and makes you doubt your own self, your actions. And an abusive spouse laying into you and making their own transgressions your own is sinister. Downright evil. I hope this woman makes it out but the damage is done regardless.
Space City, USA
4 days ago
New York, NY
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