Archive | January, 2011

Maziarz’s LuLu

31 Jan


Senator George Maziarz (R-Newfane) is a vocal opponent of out-of-control state spending. He has served in the senate since 1995.

Last week, the new Republican senate majority appointed him its President Pro Tempore. With it comes an extra $34,000 in his annual paycheck of $79,500 – a benefit referred to in Albany as a “lulu“.

Often referred to as “lulus,” the list of monetary perks for legislators is ridiculously long. They’re all spelled out in the state’s Legislative Law, Article 2, Section 5(a). In the Senate, there are nearly 90 stipends listed totaling almost $1.3 million annually. The Assembly has almost 110 posts paying out a collective $1.5 million.

Will Senator Maziarz remain consistent with his opposition to state spending and reject the extra pay for a largely ceremonial post? I’ll let you know if and when he responds.

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Escape the Urban: Ellicottville in White

30 Jan

The man behind the counter at the equipment rental shop looked at me like I was crazy. Bald and craggy, long grizzled walrus whiskers of blond and grey, he peered at me with squinting eyes beneath a bushy brow. I asked again.

“Is there a way to snowshoe from here up to the top, to the ridgeline trail over to Spruce Lake,” I said.

“Well, I suppose you could walk from here to the top. I’ve never heard of anyone doing it. You can always snowshoe around the golf course . . .”

He stops short. My face obviously reveals that I didn’t drive to the hills of the Southern Tier to go snowshoe on the back nine.

“If you want to walk the ridgeline, most people just take the ski lift up.” At this my wife perks up immediately. I look at the stretched, surprisingly steep hill and wooded bowl just outside the door of the shop and imagine trudging each inch of elevation, snowshoes sinking into soft powder, manually conquering the 600 feet and earning the peak view and rumbling appetite for lunch that would follow. My wife, on the other hand, was hoping to take the three minute lift up, so she could actually enjoy the outing, and not curse my name, whilst out of breath, every step for the next three hours. As most married men can predict, I was doomed to lose again.

“I guess we’ll do that,” I relent, my wife grinning from ear to ear as she tugs on my arm. “How much is a lift ticket?”

Only $12 for cross-country skiers and snowshoers it turns out, and worth every penny.

Despite the number of times I have been to Ellicottville, passing through on my way to hiking in Allegheny or biking a rail trail, somehow I have always missed it at the height of its mid-winter white mantled glory. My grave mistake has finally been corrected, as my wife and I spent a couple days taking in a gem of Western New York. Ellicottville and the surrounding slopes are not just “nice for Buffalo.” They are nationally known as a top destination, the most skied resort in New York state, and the reputation is only growing. The NY Times calls E-ville the Aspen of the East. . . in a good way, how Aspen used to be. National Geographic Adventurer lists it as one of the top 100 adventure towns in the country, for its mountain biking and summer activities, not to mention the winter sports. The village of 600 welcomes 500,000 visitors a year – the vast majority of licence plates I spotted were Ohio and Ontario, not New York.

My wife and I took advantage of cheaper mid-week rates at the Tamarack Club to ditch the kids with the grandparents (thanks Mom and Dad!) and explore this winter wonderland. And while the elevation is objectively a bit lacking, and so it may not technically qualify, Ellicottville certainly does have that Mountain Town vibe going for it.  If your quads are burning from too much skiing, you can easily bum around the village for an afternoon – multiple ski and bike shops along the dense historic main drag, a local winery tasting room, and top notch restaurants (steaks and HOT Thai scallops at The Silver Fox, African peanut soup and Belgium mussels at the Ellicottville Brewing Company).  

The Tamarack Club itself is less than two years old, and while the basic room is nothing to write home about, the resort overall has plenty to offer besides its location at the base of two ski lifts. An indoor/outdoor pool and two outdoor whirlpools were too tempting to ignore – is there a more refreshing experience than running through the falling snow in your swimsuit to hop in a streaming, frothing tub? No complaints either about Falling Waters Spa, where my wife and I both got some therapeutic work done. The beer and food selection at John Harvard’s Brew House was eclectic and surprisingly local (3 taps for Ellicotville Brewing Company, two for Southern Tier, two for their own concoctions), especially for a micro-chain. But the creme de la creme was, of course, getting out in the white.

It never stopped snowing, two days straight – sometimes a regular fall of steady tiny flakes, sometimes giant fluffy cottonballs that float around like Forrest Gumps’ feather and seem to never quite land – a pleasant, gentle snow that refreshes streetscapes and slopes. Our first task, before the spa and the hot tub and the beer at John Harvard’s, was to tackle the mountain, counter-culturally, by snowshoe.

From the back door at the Tamarack Club it’s a quick walk to the Holiday Valley equipment rental office, home of of my bearded, dubious trail guide. From there, its a quick jaunt to Cindy’s, the ski lift we would ride up to the snowshoe and Nordic ski trail along the ridge. The loop from Cindy’s, to Spruce Lake, and back to the 4400′ (linear) Mardi Gras for a ride down was less than four miles. But snowshoeing burns calories faster than just hiking, and most planners use a 3:1 (soft powder) or 2:1 (packed) guide for planning an outing. We started in virgin powder, five and six feet deep, on the back side of the hill, until we found and broke out into the correct, well marked path. Its a steady climb from there to Mardi Gras, and then on to Spruce Lake.

The snow was thick in the trees, and hung in clumps that would break free and scatter as the wind blew. Occasionally the whole of the valley would break into view, a silent snowglobe, far edge shrouded and faded in a flurried curtain. Despite the hundreds of downhill skiers below us, the ridgeline was silent except for the ice-induced creaking of the trees, the chirp of chickadees, and the soft pant of my breath. Serene.

Map courtesy WNYMBA.org

Eventually the dense, young stands of maple gave way to older pine, forming huge dark Moria-like halls, shading us from the falling snow and tamping the grey omni-directional light of an overcast winter day. Onward the upward we tramped, and a multitude of smaller backcountry trails crisscrossed our comparative superhighway, on the way to Spruce Lake. The WNY Mountain Bicycling Association (WNYMBA) has laid, marked, charted, and maintained dozens of miles of singletrack in the surrounding state forest, and it doubles as waist deep snowshoeing opportunities in the winter. Next time, perhaps, when I am alone or with one of my bro’s. Paired with my wife, though, the hot tub and a bottle of wine were more tempting than getting lost in rugged glacier formations. A quick stop at the alpine lake’s frozen shore, and the Mardi Gras chairlift called my name.

E-ville is only an hour a way, and I bet I can drop the kids off of school and get four or five hours of cross-country in before I need to pick them up again. I’m thinking the trails at HoliMont next – my skis are waiting for me, propped up by the door.

The Mo Show: Day Seven

28 Jan

Yesterday, Mo Hassan took the stand to try and get over 1,000 pieces of paper admitted into evidence, and to tell the jury his life story. As part of his life story, he went to great pains to justify having murdered his wife.

After all, she wanted a boat and they argued about it.
After all, she wanted to fly to Pakistan and they argued about it.
After all, she wanted a horse and they argued about it.

It got so bad, Hassan testified, that he sought out the help of a self-help author who wrote a book about “Verbally Abusive Relationships”. Of course, there was little to no corroboration of the things about which Hassan was testifying. By contrast, Hassan’s own physical and psychological abuse towards his murdered wife have been recounted by several witnesses and corroborating evidence.

What Hassan spent the entire day doing has been to establish grounds for divorce. He has not, however, established a battered spouse/self defense justification for homicide. He hasn’t established that his only way out of his supposed torment was to behead the mother of his youngest children.

For Hassan’s strategy for acquittal to succeed, he has to introduce expert evidence that he has been diagnosed with battered spouse syndrome. No such evidence exist, no expert is willing to testify for him, and he is foreclosed from subpoenaing an expert to do so.

He’d never succeed.  There’s no evidence of multiple physical beatings by Aasiya, there’s no helplessness on the part of this man, no cycle of violence that Aasiya caused.  The only psychological exercise at play is Mo Hassan projecting his own behavior onto his murder victim.

But what’s telling is his demeanor. Battered spouses feel terrible remorse for what they’ve done – the abuse led them to a complete void of self-assurance that they think the only way to stop the beatings is to kill their assailant.

If Aasiya was beating Hassan, and he sees himself as a battered spouse, how precisely does he explain the fact that it was she who was trying so desperately to escape their marriage?  He had his out – his escape was that she was leaving him.

There is, therefore, an utter failure of logic in this defense.

(Information thanks to the Buffalo News live blog, linked to above, and the #Hassan Twitter feed).

Riter Radio & Hassan

27 Jan

In case you missed my talks with Brad Riter on WECK 1230-AM regarding the Hassan trial:

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January 24, 2011

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January 25, 2011

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January 26, 2011

Wide Right

27 Jan

Twenty years ago, I was a 15 year old Buffalo kid watching his hometown heroes play on the biggest stage in the world at Super Bowl XXV in Tampa Bay, FL.  Going into the game, it seemed like a fait accompli.  After all, I thought the Buffalo Bills were the best team in football.  Brash, cocky, and arrogant with a team of superstars like Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, Cornelius Bennett and leaders like Jim Ritcher, Darryl Talley, Jamie Mueller, James Lofton, Ray Bentley and Shane Conlan.  After a 13-3 regular season and a smackdown of Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins, the Bills hosted the AFC Championship Game, in which the team pummeled Bo Jackson and the Los Angeles Raiders by a score of 51-3.  Buffalo had never had a team so strong and it felt good.

The Giants also finished the regular season at 13-3 and boasted the overall best defense in the league led by Lawrence Taylor and Pepper Johnson.  Nonetheless, they entered the game as the underdog with a backup quarterback under center.

With the patriotic backdrop of the first Gulf War, the game was one of the most eagerly anticipated in years.  I thought that January 27, 1991 would be one of the greatest days in my young life.  I was so excited about the impending victory parade at which we would celebrate the team, the city and the special bond we seemed to have.  But, It just wasn’t meant to be and I got my first real lesson in the special victimhood that comes from being a Buffalo Sports Fan.

The way it ended?  Well, I think we all remember what happened.  I still remember the feeling as that kick sailed wide right, it was a punch to the stomach.

I prefer to watch this clip of the game because it reminds me that it never should have come down to Scott Norwood’s kick.  There were missed opportunities throughout that game, but the Giants were just the better team that day.

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Crushed after the end of the game, I barely slept.  I couldn’t believe the team could get that close but not come home with the trophy, the whole world seemed unfair to this teenage kid.  I didn’t think I’d ever get over it.  But, I did.  The very next day.

Why?  Because our city city created a moment that is so incredibly part of who we are, that explains why we stay and/or come back to this town and why we love our hometown.  During an event in Niagara Square, we unwittingly echoed the sentiment that Marv Levy had shared with his team in the locker room after the game.  He read them a famous passage that should also serve as Buffalo’s official motto…

“Fight on, my men,”Sir Andrew Said

”A little I’m hurt but not yet slain.

”I’ll just lie down and bleed a while,

”And then I’ll rise and Fight again.”

You could see the load lift off Scott Norwood’s shoulders as the city embraced him.  The day after this Super Bowl was one of Buffalo’s best and is the most important memory of Super Bowl XXV.

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The Mo Show: People Rest, Defense Fumfers

27 Jan

Yesterday’s witnesses at the murder trial of Muzzammil Hassan introduced technical DNA evidence regarding the crime scene and the murder weapons.  They came in quick succession, culminating early in the afternoon with DA Colleen Curtin Gable establishing that Hassan literally had blood on his hands when taken into custody.  At that point, the People rested their case, having established that Hassan had committed an intentional and premeditated homicide.

A witness from Sprint/Nextel authenticated several text messages harvested from Hassan’s and Aasiya Zubair’s cell phones.  The texts were written after Hassan had been served with divorce papers and a restraining order, as he was staying in a nearby hotel.  He was downright hounding his estranged wife to call him “just for two minutes” so that he wouldn’t “toss and turn” all night.  He wanted to get one controlling word in for the night, and he texted her repeatedly every two minutes before she told him to stop, what with the TRO and all. The last batch of texts were exchanged literally moments before the murder, as Aasiya asked that Hassan place her car keys in his desk at the studio for her to pick up, and they said “sorry” to each other for something that happened earlier in the day about some lunch plans.

From Aasiya: Sorry for lunch!

From defendant: Sorry for hurting you

From Aasiya: I am sorry too

Next message at 5:34 p.m.

From defendant: I have returned in all sincerity, honesty and humility.

Less than a minute

From defendant: I cannot carry on without you and family

At 5:38

From defendant: I haven’t done anything to hurt you since Sunday when I learned my mistake.

The last message between the two was sent at 5:42 pm. February 12, 2009

From defendant: I am a good man, Aasiya, a humble and decent man. I made some mistakes. Please don’t punish me so hard. God likes forgiveness.

When the prosecution rested its case, Judge Franczyk had to remind Hassan  to make a customary defense motion to dismiss the case for insufficient evidence of the crime(s) charged. He made it, it was denied, and Hassan was prompted to call his first witness.

Except he didn’t have any lined up.  For him to successfully establish that he was a “battered spouse” who committed a homicide as part of a generalized self-defense, he will need to introduce expert psychological testimony to establish that fact.  The problem for Hassan is that none of the people who evaluated him are willing to testify for him – one of them went so far as to notify Judge Franczyk of that fact.  The further problem for Hassan is that he cant subpoena expert opinion witnesses to testify against their will.

Hassan gave a sort of “we’ll see” answer to that question, and proceeded to ask the judge for a do-over opening statement.  No dice – denied.  He then asked to re-call his children to the stand.  The judge took that under advisement, but wanted to know what he intended to ask the kids.  Hassan also wanted to introduce piles of documentary evidence, including Aasiya’s medical records, showing that he had beat her.  No one knows where he’s going with that.

Remember: Hassan is pro se and judges generally give pro se litigants extra evidentiary and procedural latitude in criminal cases.

Seeing that Hassan was unprepared for trial that day, the judge released the jury for the day. At 10 am today, trial resumes and it promises to be the “Mo Show” circus from here on out.  It’s very likely that Hassan will testify today on his own behalf – he can’t forego his last opportunity to victimize his wife.

He clearly gets off on his own arrogance and hubris.  The defendant very obviously believes that he’s the smartest guy in that room – that he’s better than everyone, the lawyers, the judge, the jury – everyone. His charm is so contrived and fleeting, the kind of guy who hobnobs with important people, reveling in his community status as the co-owner of a groundbreaking television production company, then comes home and terrorizes his third abused wife.  His personality comes out so clearly that I’m absolutely positive that the jury – which yesterday finally started giggling during his repeatedly objected-to attempts to cross-examine witnesses – can see that he’s a monster.

Trial resumes today at 10am.  Many of you have asked how you can get in to watch.  25 Delaware Avenue, 4th Floor, Part 25.  Seating is excruciatingly limited, so either come early or be prepared for a brief wait – the deputy outside the door will control the crowd and let you in when a seat becomes available.  This is our legal system at work, despite a madman’s efforts to subvert it.

(Some material from personal observation, most from the #Hassan thread on Twitter)

Only Accidental Success

26 Jan

Will you join me in a little mental exercise? Try to think of a successful major development, in the City of Buffalo in the last five years, that was the Mayor’s idea. Do you have any yet? Any grand scheme Mayor Brown proposed, and didn’t just take credit for at the ribbon-cutting? Any plans conceived of, or implemented by, his office? How about the Common Council? Any new ideas from there? Yeah, I can’t think of any either.

Okay, let’s try this instead. I’ll name (arguably) the biggest four positive recent develops in Buffalo, and tell me if the Mayor had anything to do with them: M&T’s and First Niagara’s rise to make Buffalo a national banking power, the redevelopment of the Larkin District, establishment of Buffalo as a top sports hosting city (NCAA Basketball Tourney, Empire State Games and the World Juniors in one year ain’t bad), and the creation of the surging Medical Campus. Was the Mayor involved at all? Not that any of us can tell.

In fact, it is only when one considers the two biggest development FAIL stories of the last year, the inability to create momentum at Canalside and the Statler fiasco, that you find the Mayor’s and Common Council’s fingerprints.

I don’t think its too much to ask for the Mayor of a city the size of Buffalo to have some vision for the future, some direction he (or she) wants to lead us to, some policy that will meet some desired end state. Buffalo is not exactly rudderless. There are people here who have plans. They just aren’t elected politicians.

Bob Wilmers and John Koelmel have a plan, and were recently validated by industry experts that Buffalo is the new Charlotte (ironic, since Charlotte is full of the old-Buffalo). Doug Swift and Howard Zemsky have a plan at the Larkin District, and after single handedly reviving a couple square blocks, additional private capital is flooding in. The Convention and Visitor’s Bureau may be underfunded, but they made attracting sports (and the tourists who travel to attend them) a goal, and have several years worth of success to point to. James Kaskie at Kaleida and John Simpson at UB have a plan, and there is $500M in new construction and 30 bio-tech companies in the Medical Corridor. Jim Allen, President of the Amherst IDA, who Chris Smith recently interviewed, has a plan. Hell, even PUSH, MAP and Urban Roots have plans, and localized impacts. The Mayor has no plan, and no vision.

Let me provide one small example, one tiny crumb where he could show leadership. The battle over Erie County arts and cultural funding is completely out of proportion with the size of the budget line – $4 or $5 Million, depending on which side you are on. Ironically, nearly every cultural cut out of county funding is in the City of Buffalo. Meanwhile, the disgraced Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp is sitting in limbo, not handing out grants for nearly a year, while its staff still collects a paycheck and twiddles its thumbs. It takes about twelve seconds of thought and half an ounce of leadership to convert the BERC into a new Buffalo Arts Fund. BERC has $40M in assets and could hand out $5M a year. That would double local governmental arts funding, and if the arts are such a development driver (as its supporters purport), then plenty of economic renaissance should be happening too. Don’t worry, there are plenty of other ways for companies to get government hand outs, and all BERC used to fund were restaurants and barber shops anyway.

Will the Mayor propose this? No. Will the Mayor reform BERC into a true economic development tool? I doubt it. Will the Mayor craft, announce, promote and drive a vision of Buffalo’s future? Will the Mayor lead? Don’t hold your breath.

Author’s Note: As astute and regular readers have already noticed, starting today I will be writing two columns weekly, instead of my normal three. My new schedule is a political or development column on Wednesday, and an ETU outdoors column on Sunday. Never fear, this is only temporary! I am in the throes of finishing my first book and need a little extra time and mental energy as I come down to the sticking point. If all goes according to plan, the book will be finished this summer, and my normal three-a-week schedule will resume then.

Hassan Tuesday: What Was & Wasn’t Important

26 Jan

Yesterday, the Hassan jury watched surveillance video showing Muzzammil Hassan murdering his wife.  And I use that word specifically – he was laying in wait, in the dark, and he surprised his unarmed wife and brutally murdered her.

Most media are all over the whole “Mo Hassan is going to call the judge as a witness!” story, but there’s no there there.  Hassan isn’t going to call the judge, and the judge isn’t going to “testify” as a witness.  There’s no fact relevant to the murder of Aasiya Hassan that the judge has first-hand knowledge of – he is the impartial judge presiding over a trial. That wasn’t important, except to show that Hassan is a crazy person.  (And I don’t mean “crazy” as in he’s not competent to stand trial; I mean he’s a controlling, narcissistic psychopath).

The two big revelations that came out yesterday were that Hassan made a sort of life-to-do list as he sat at the Orchard Park police station after confessing there to the killing.  One police witness was used largely to just authenticate the surveillance video for evidentiary purposes, yet Hassan cross-examined him as if he was somehow critical to his defense.  Hassan would ask wildly objectionable questions that did little more than introduce inadmissible evidence in front of the jury. ADA Colleen Curtin Gable objected repeatedly to what she called Hassan’s “backdoor hearsay upon backdoor hearsay”.  Questions such as, “did you know that Aasiya killed her brother” – an irrelevant, untrue, wild accusation asked of a cop in the presence of a jury is so patently improper that a lawyer who tried to pull such a stunt might likely be sanctioned – especially after 40+ improper, similar questions had been posed.

One officer testified that in performing their search of Aasiya’s minivan they found an M&T envelope containing forty-nine $100 bills.  You may recall that last week, Hassan’s eldest son, Michael, testified that as the kids waited nervously for Aasiya to run in to Bridges – where she met her death – Mo Hassan drove up in his Benz out of nowhere and handed him an envelope filled with cash.  Later that day, a Wal*Mart employee from Hamburg testified that Hassan had purchased and tested the knives he used to murder his wife just hours before, with a $100 bill.

So, Hassan made a $5,000 withdrawal from M&T, used $100 to buy the murder weapons, and gave the rest to his kids.  Hey, I just murdered your mom.  Here’s $4,900.  Have a nice day!  That connection hasn’t yet been made in court unless the prosecution calls the M&T teller who handled the transaction, otherwise it’ll likely be argued in summation.

Earlier in the day, Hassan demanded that the prosecution turn over psychological profiles of him drawn up by a state’s expert.  DA Gable argued that the material in no way helped Hassan’s case, but the judge ordered the discovery to go forward.  The focus seems to be on evidence that the kids saw Aasiya Zubair strike Mo Hassan – but only on those occasions when he sat on her in order to subdue her or to cause a spontaneous abortion.

In speaking with local attorney Roy Mura via Twitter yesterday, he inquired into Hassan’s demeanor in court – after all, people who are true battered spouses who murder their abusers are usually quite remorseful.  Hassan?  His massive ego and inflated sense of self-importance and worth would never let him mourn another.  He is cocky in court – the smartest guy in the room, he imagines.  He is proud of his act, and he’s proud of what he’s doing to this trial – making a mockery of the process, running his own defense, further maligning his victim’s reputation – the abuse continues.

As he waited to be transferred to the Erie County Holding Center the night of the murder, he asked the police to go to the hotel where he had been staying to retrieve his C-PAP anti-sleep-apnea machine.  He said he wouldn’t be able to sleep that night without it.

After murdering his wife in cold blood because she had the nerve to try and escape his control and that evil, abusive relationship, he was worried that his snoring would interrupt his slumber.

(Material gathered through personal observation and via the #Hassan thread on Twitter).

The Takeaway of the Day

25 Jan

Mo Hassan is a sick fuck.

Yesterday, I spent my lunch hour watching Mo Hassan conduct his first-ever cross-examination of a witness in his own murder trial.  Earlier in the day, Hassan and Jeremy Schwartz, his attorney, renewed their motions to relieve Schwartz of his duties.  Monday morning, however, Judge Franczyk reluctantly granted the motion.  Schwartz would continue to sit in the courtroom and act as a silent advisor to Hassan, but the defendant himself would conduct his own defense.

When I attended law school, Colin Ferguson shot up an LIRR train at the peak of rush hour, and he was a madman who insisted on representing himself – right down to referring to himself in the 3rd person.  We had the same thing yesterday, as Hassan cross-examined witness after witness.

His cross?  He scored a point or two here and there, but most of it was laden with rookie mistakes, argument, redundancy, irrelevance, and hubris.  Hassan thinks he’s the smartest guy in that room, and you get the sense from watching him that he thinks he has that courtroom wrapped around his finger.

But the big takeaway?  Mo Hassan is one sick fuck.

Forget for a moment that he’s an admitted wife-beheader.  Not alleged – he admitted it.  The only issue in this case is Hassan’s state of mind.  The prosecution has presented witnesses and evidence to conclusively establish that the crime was well-planned and methodically premeditated. The only chance Hassan might have to get away with a temporary insanity defense would involve him sitting at the defense table in complete silence during the entire trial.

Instead, Hassan has fired his lawyer and taken up his own defense.  These events have taken place outside the jury’s presence.  One minute Hassan’s lawyer is doing all the talking, the next minute Hassan is.  As he cross-examined a former colleage from Bridges TV, Hassan was literally surrounded by about a half-dozen Sheriff’s deputies. What does that convey to a jury?

At one point during his relatively clumsy, hearsay-laden, largely irrelevant cross-examination, the DA objected.  This prompted a response from Hassan, head down towards the table and microphone, “calm down”.  The DA blew a gasket, and rightfully so. Hassan thought he was being cute, but by mildly overreacting, the DA illustrated that moment for the jury in a process that is tightly stage-managed through legal evidence and procedure.

Occasionally when Hassan would hit a brick wall of objections, he’d solicit advice from a silent Jeremy Schwartz.  Hassan would re-ask the question in a non-objectionable way.

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At one point in the afternoon, there was some argument concerning the introduction of photographs of Aasiya Zubair’s body at the crime scene.  Hassan argued that the photos were too gory and prejudicial, but had no probative value since he had already confessed to the homicide. In the end, the judge ordered that the actual wound of the beheading be blacked out.

Among other things, when a judge is faced with a pro-se criminal defendant, he has to bend over backwards to ensure that the defendant’s lack of procedural knowledge doesn’t get in the way of him getting a fair trial. Judge Franczyk was exceedingly professional and fair.

The process was fascinating to watch.  The gallery is packed with students, looky-loos, and reporters crazily Tweeting from the back row. Hassan’s trial has become a veritable freakshow, but in the end the process exists to seek and obtain justice for Aasiya Zubair.

(Thanks to Brad Riter and Shredd & Ragan for the airtime today.  Thanks to Steve Cichon, Laura Gray, Lorey Schultz, Pete Gallivan, and Marissa Bailey, and the Buffalo News for live-Tweeting/blogging the proceedings.  One of you guys has to ask Schwartz if he’s getting paid to sit there like Ollie North’s potted plant).

Escape the Urban Travelogue: Virginia’s Paths and Parkways

24 Jan

I didn’t discover the running trail along the canal until my third day in Fredericksburg. The previous two afternoons I had explored historic “Old Town” on foot at a 7:30 min/mile pace, my favorite way to get to know a dense urban scene. Its slow enough to see every site and read signs, but fast enough to cover a decent amount of ground in a reasonable timeframe. Caroline and Princess Anne Streets, parallel corridors of nauseatingly charming pre-Civil War cottages and storefronts, provided ample opportunities to discover restaurants and history alike as I dodged tourists and dog-walkers. But once I have gauged the lay of the land, streetlights and traffic transition from a simple annoyance to a serious impediment to my workout (I have a triathlon to train for, after all). Which is why I was happy to discover the running trail on the old towpath along the Rappahannock Canal.

A tad greener than when I ran it in January . . .

The canal connects the most inland navigable end of the Rappahannock River to towns and ports west of Fredericksburg. Long since closed, the old mule towpath (sound familiar?) has been converted into a running and biking trail, connecting old downtown Fredericksburg to newer neighborhoods and development. I ran nearly its entire length, from river start to new suburbia. I passed only a few other walkers and runners, this being a sunny but cold winter day. I passed a dog park filled to capacity. I crossed new pedestrian bridges and interpretive signage. What I did not pass was an economic renaissance brought about by a new path alone.

In Western New York, we expect too much from our simple walking and bike paths. Blame an ever shrinking population and governmental budget. Blame previous over-hyped projects that failed to deliver. Blame a public bureaucratic requirement to justify each dime by quantifying and monetizing every action. Blame non-profits and lobbyists for over-selling and under-delivering. Whatever the source of the problem, a bike path is no longer just a bike path. Its is a way to draw people to the water and create spin-off development. It is a way to lower county Medicaid bills by increasing the overall health of the community. It is a way to raise our ranking on “Livable Cities” indices, to entice young people to move here. Under no circumstances is a nice path along the water just a nice path.

Bike and running paths certainly have economic, public health, tourism, and demographic effects. But by selling those end-states first, by over-promising a future dependent on far more factors than a thin ribbon of asphalt, we as a community lose sight of any intrinsic value trail systems have on their own. The un-monetizable quality of life value in creating community recreation spaces, opportunities to explore an area by foot or bike and maintain a healthy lifestyle, is of primary importance, and that is lost in the unrealistic promises.

Fortunately, but perhaps counter-intuitively, northern Virginia is pressing ahead with projects to add to its already impressive system of dedicated bike and running paths. Hilly and long settled, the Old Dominion is full of winding parkways, less-than-direct routes used by Native Americans and colonists and now widened into highways. But each parkway and semi-major road has a bike path next to it, not on the dangerous shoulder, but winding through the trees twenty feet away. The traffic noise doesn’t seem to discourage use, and the parkways are direct enough one could reasonably bike for functional, and not just recreational, reasons. Each town itself is crisscrossed in dedicated paths as well, as this map of Fredericksburg shows (my towpath trail being just one small black line running east to west in the middle of the map):

And low-tax, anti-government Virginia is doubling down by planning even more paths in the future. Spotsylvania has a plan for 93 more miles of trails in the next 25 years, on government land (in many cases) and with government approval, but with volunteer labor and private dollars (donations and grants). Perhaps most telling, and of most relevance to WNY: 15 people spoke at the first hearing on the issue, 14 in favor, one (literal) NIMBY against. Yes, tourism and positive health effects were cited in arguments to support the trail construction. But the failure of spin-off development along the very pleasant Rappahannock Canal Path seems to hardly have been considered at all.