Ethics Hero: Millikin University

This story sounds like it was dreamed up for joint production of the Lifetime Movie Network and Chiller.

Above: The scene of Wolcott's mothers shooting; below, his father.

Above: The scene of Wolcott’s mothers shooting; below, his father.

Millikin University is a private institution in Decatur, Illinois with approximately 2400 students. It has been thrust into local headlines with the discovery that one of its psychology professors, James St. James, who heads the schools Department of Behavioral Sciences, murdered his parents and his older sister when he was 15. Then he was called James Gordon Wolcott.

He changed his name after being treated in a mental institution, where he was sent after being found not guilty of the crime because he was legally insane at the time of the killings. High from sniffing glue, the brilliant but emotionally disturbed teen grabbed a .22-caliber rifle, walked into the living room and shot his father, then shot his sister and his mother.

Six years after being sent to Rusk State Hospital,  Wolcott emerged apparent cured, and ready to lead a productive life. Ironically, his patricide and his insanity  had greased the way for his rehabilitation: he inherited his parents’ estate and was able to draw a monthly stipend from his father’s pension fund. Changing his name to St. James, he earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and a PhD, and became an award-winning professor at Millikin. Professor St. James’ secret was undiscovered until this year. He is now 61.

Naturally, many are calling for his dismissal, and an argument could be made that there is a valid reason to dismiss him. Although he did not misrepresent the unusual path of his life to the school, he didn’t disclose it either: it appears that nobody asked him, “Have you ever slaughtered your family?” Remember, he was never found guilty of any crime.

Wolcott/ St. James didn’t lie, but as hard as I try, I can’t avoid reaching the conclusion that he had an ethical obligation to tell his potential employers about his murderous past. It simply cannot be argued that he reasonably believed it  wouldn’t have made a difference, or that the school wouldn’t feel this was material information that they would want to know before deciding to hire him.  The professor intentionally failed to disclose information he was ethically obligated to disclose, and was hired under the false pretense that he wasn’t someone who had shot his family members, which is generally regarded as a resume negative.

Yes, I know: he wouldn’t have been hired if he had told the truth, and we now know, through the magic of hindsight, that he has been an excellent professor. That doesn’t change the fact that he was hired because he misled Milliken by intentional omission, and did not tell his employers a fact about himself that they had an ethical, though not legal, right to know.

I would like to conclude otherwise. I am trapped by my position on murder houses which are sold by owners to unsuspecting home purchasers without being told that such addresses were the site of, well, episodes like the slaying of Professor St. James’s family, for example. Most states do not require a seller to disclose that what is being represented as a couple’s future dream house was really the site of the Amityville Horror. Nevertheless, I think that if a realtor or seller thinks there is any chance that the purchaser would be troubled by such information, it is wrong to withhold it. As I wrote in one of several posts on this topic:

“The truth is still this: there is something about the $2,300,000 house that makes it undesirable to a lot of prospects, and that means that even if the law doesn’t require the seller to tell interested house-hunters the story of the little dead girl in the basement, fairness and the Golden Rule do.”

In such real estate cases, it’s only the locale of the murder being sold to the unaware. In this case, it’s the murderer himself who is being “bought.” Surely, the same analysis applies, but even more convincingly.

Yet Millikin University is standing by its professor and his rare tale of redemption (he has been a mainstay there since 1985) stating,

“Given the traumatic experiences of his childhood, Dr. St. James’ efforts to rebuild his life and obtain a successful professional career have been remarkable. The University expects Dr. St. James to teach at Millikin this fall.”

Bravo. St. James—for he is no longer the mentally ill James Wolcott who killed his family in a bloody rampage—should be admired. He has completed a courageous and inspiring rehabilitation, not only overcoming mental illness, but creating a productive life as a teacher from the ruins of an unimaginable tragedy of which he was the architect. I cannot retroactively excuse the lie, but I must applaud the compassionate, loyal, courageous and fair decision on the part of the University to forgive him for it.

We can safely say that the school is not sending a dangerous message to future secret killers and former mental patients seeking faculty positions that it’s OK to lie to get the job. This is a unique case,  James St. James is a uniquely resilient and inspiring man, and the administrators of Millikin University are Ethics Heroes.

______________________________________

Pointer and Facts: Jonathan Turley

Facts and Graphic: Daily Mail

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

86 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Millikin University

  1. So is this one of those ends justify the means cases? If he had committed another crime and was later found out to be a 15 yo mass murderer, would his failure to disclose be acceptable? No.

    Sounds like he should be the poster child for rehabilitation.. Always thought those ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ verdicts were pure legal bullshit… In this case it turned out to be true, he turned his life around and became a productive member of society.

    With wire to wire infotainment today it might be impossible to hide a secret 25 years. If he was outed after a couple of years on the job (and before tenure) he most like would have been fired.

    • No, It’s not an ends justifies the means case. I said that he had an ethical obligation to tell the full truth. It’s a Ted Kennedy case—he should have gotten the chance to make something out of his life, but he did, and the school is being generous to let him stay on as a reward, not for his lie, but for what he accomplished after it.

  2. I go back and forth on this one. There is a reason why we seal juvenile records, we believe as a society, that you should not be judged on the actions one took when one was young and stupid. And I’m very sure there are all kinds of salacious details about one’s life that any employer would love to have people disclose if they could. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the employer has a right to know, or that such details have any bearing on job performance. So there’s that.

    But, on the other hand, murder. Of one’s entire family. Of course, if he made a habit of disclosing that, it is doubtful he could have even gotten hired at McDonald’s, let alone anywhere else.

  3. Wow. Talk about tough cases. There are a lot of winding roads in that tale, but I think I agree with your path through the ethical thicket in all respects. Enlightening too.

    It raises two very general questions in my mind for you, Jack:

    First, do you generally find tough cases to be enlightening, or to be all too often too unique to be of much guidance?

    Second, I’ve always wondered what would be your take on Herman Melville’s dark and stark tale of ethics, Billy Budd? Easy, open and shut case? Or one of the more difficult problems around?

    I honestly have no clear point of view on either one of these questions, I am genuinely curious and looking to be informed by yours.

    • 1. Since no ethical system is perfect or works all the time, I prefer the anomalous cases to test the tools we have, and force us to stop plugging in formulas and to get down to basic principles and values. I think, since the process of getting better at ethical problem solving is life long, the tough, weird, one of a kind cases are the best training of all.

      2. Billy? He’s got to hang. Can’t go striking and killing officers, even the evil ones. Open and shut.

      • Interesting, thank you. Both make sense, and help flesh out where you’re coming from. Especially Billy Budd – wow. I’m not surprised, but what do you make of the fact that many people read it as an ethical conundrum? Is that just evidence that most people lack refined ethical thinking? Again, honest question.
        Thanks for your thoughtful and direct comments on this, btw.

        • I do think that’s part of the reason, and I’ve always found Melville’s thinking a little muddled. He sets everything up to make Billy a victim. and a pure one, but what he’s really doing is playing around on the cognitive dissonance scale…arguing that if someone is good enough, it will cleanse an obviously wrongful act of its wrongfulness, or in other words, people perceived of as “good” can get away with murder. They do, too often, but as a suggestion that they should, Billy Budd leaves me unmoved.

  4. What unendurable horseshit…

    Yet Millikin University is standing by its professor and his rare tale of redemption (he has been a mainstay there since 1985) stating,

    “Given the traumatic experiences of his childhood, Dr. St. James’ efforts to rebuild his life and obtain a successful professional career have been remarkable. The University expects Dr. St. James to teach at Millikin this fall.”

    Bravo. St. James—for he is no longer the mentally ill James Wolcott who killed his family in a bloody rampage—should be admired.

    Bull. Shit.

    And here is why it is bullshit…

    Given the traumatic experiences of his childhood, Dr. St. James’ efforts to rebuild his life and obtain a successful professional career have been remarkable

    Yeah, I guess it can be damned traumatic to kill your entire fucking family. And this shit-hole of a University wants to congratulate him for getting over his multiple-victim homicide?

    Fuck. That. Noise.

    This man is a great argument against tenure.

    • Why did I guess that would be your reaction?

      So he’s legally not responsible for his actions, a man rather than a boy, sane rather than insane, straight rather than glue-addled, it happened 4 decades ago, and you see no reason to say that he’s literally not the same guy?

      • I’m glad that sanity is such a sure and knowable thing, so that we never, ever have to worry about him becoming just insane enough again to think that murdering a bunch of people is a good idea.

        At the more bare of minimums, I would want him to under-go a very, very, very long psyc eval, and even then I wouldn’t trust it because this mother fucker would know how to fake the fucking responses.

        He wasn’t found to not have done it, he was found to have done it but was crazy for exactly long enough to actually commit the crime, even though he was more than sane enough to go about hiding the evidence of his crime the second he was done pulling the trigger.

        Funny how he was insane for exactly the amount of time he was committing a triple homicide, but not too insane to plan or cover up said triple-murder.

        Fine, he did his time in a nut house and gets to tell people he’s homicide-free. Great. I think he fucking gamed the system hard, but he got away with the gaming and won his case. Awesome. He’s free to walk the streets.

        But the idea of then giving him the ability to instruct young minds?

        Do you think Hinkley Jr should be allowed to teach 19-year olds too?

        • It seems he was crazy well before the shooting spree, and there wasn’t much of an attempt to cover it up. Shooting one’s whole family is per se crazy, but I don’t agree with the whole “not guilty by reason of insanity” construct is wrong. He’s guilty, and let mental illness be a factor in sentencing. No way he should have been free in 6 years.

          Not the issue, however.

          • You say it well: “No way he should have been free in 6 years.”

            AM says it well, too: “Funny how he was insane for exactly the amount of time he was committing a triple homicide, but not too insane to plan or cover up said triple-murder.”

            That is one frequent treatment of facts in cases of NGRI defense which irks me, too; it smacks of gaming as AM alludes to (and as I also suspect in this character’s case): The perp always seems to know which end of the gun the bullets come screaming out of; always seems to have the knack of making sure those bullets scream toward another person; and always seems to act afterwards in ways that reflect knowledge and understanding of what those screaming bullets did, or at least, were designed to do.

        • AM — of course he was crazy. If you shoot your parents and your sister, that’s crazy. Unless he is the heir to a tobacco fortune, there’s no calculated reason to do it. I question more our system’s decision to let him go in 6 years.

        • AM-

          You do know that being legally insane does not require one to be a fully incompetent drooling psychopath, right? One could quite capably plan, execute, and cover up a murder and be found insane. The fact that he was sent to the Psych Ward shows that he was NOT “crazy for exactly long enough to actually comit the crime.” That would have been temporary insanity and he’d have been free to go. They obviously still thought he was broken, and needed to be fixed before he could be released. Or (as Beth says below), do you think that being acquitted of a crime shouldn’t actually acquit you if the general public is just SURE you are really guilty?

          • The concern isn’t a legal one. It doesn’t matter that the law acquitted him. Additionally it isn’t a general public decision either.

            It is the decision of a job-creator and service-provider to decide if a person’s past behavior may or may not have an adverse effect on that service-provider’s ability to provide that service. It has NOTHING to do with guilt and everything to do with future expectations.

  5. I found out about this case before it hit the national media. A good friend teaches at Millikin, and the story broke just as he was departing for a conference we both attended. There’s also the angle that St. James did his undergrad work at the university where I now teach. Needless to say, my friend told me about the case the first time we saw each other at the conference.

    I absolutely agree, Millikin has responded appropriately and indeed honorably, especially when Decatur’s mayor is one of those baying at the moon about how horrible it is that he wasn’t fired, and blah blah blah.

    I will disagree, however, that St. James was under any ethical obligation to provide an answer to a question he presumably wasn’t asked. I’ve been employed as a full-time faculty member at three colleges or universities: all, if I recall correctly, asked if I had ever been convicted of a crime. I have not. Neither has Dr. St. James. Had the question been “do you have a criminal record,” things head into murkiness, as he both does and does not. The record exists, but it is sealed… and, as deary says, it’s sealed for a reason.

    St. James’s (or, rather, Wolcott’s) crime was committed both as a juvenile and as a result of mental illness. Either of those factors alone is enough to make one think that non-disclosure (not to be confused with lying) wasn’t all that problematic. Taken together, I think the case is compelling. Otherwise, we as a society are saying this: “We purport to believe that what you do as a 15-year-old shouldn’t hound you until the end of your days. We pretend to think that mental illness is in fact an illness and not a character flaw. We continue the pretense that rehabilitation can and does happen. But we really don’t believe any of it. We especially don’t think you ought to ever be able to use your intellect and perhaps even your special insights into the way the mind works (and doesn’t work) to improve yourself and the culture in which you live. Go get a job… uh… well, there’s no reputable place that will give you a job. Forget we mentioned it.”

    Indeed, would the situation be different if St. James were in a different job? Someone said (inevitably) that if his daughter attended Millikin, he’d have wanted to know about St. James’s past. Perhaps. But would he want to know more than he’d want to know about the guy who just gave his car a brake job, or collected his garbage (imagine the access to personal information!), or made his burger?

    This is not a case of the ends justifying the means. The means were legitimate all along. The system worked, this time. In that, we should rejoice.

    Side note: I wonder what you think, Jack, of the ethics of the reporter who broke this story, which touches on a couple of your favorite hot topics, including wondering why Wolcott’s lawyer would take the case: “Still, 46 years later, people still question why McClain agreed to defend a seemingly indefensible client.” More significantly for me, what good comes of this particular revelation? This, to me, is the more interesting conundrum… the truth yearns to be free, but is this an absolute? I have no answer to this question.

    • That’s fascinating background Rick.

      I do disagree, strongly, regarding his obligation to tell the school about his past. He is, in effect, falsely representing his identity, He has changed his name specifically so people will not learn the truth. That’s an immediate ethics alarm.And this isn’t a DUI arrest,but a triple homicide, which is not a private event. It reflects on character, it reflects on trustworthiness, it raises issues of risk and the school’s own reputation. The question can be answered technically honestly, but not ethically honestly—OK, he was found not legally responsible for his actions, but he did commit three horrible crimes, which is what the “were you ever convicted” question is aimed at. Let’s see: with which of these occupations would a candidate for employment be bound to tell the truth about a triple murder to a potential employer—US Vice President, Congressman, police officer, judge, lawyer, accountant, grade school teacher, construction worker, member of the Olympic Team? My answer: every one of them. If the argument for irrelevance is as clear as you say, then the non-murderer gets points for candor. If the employer would not want to hire someone who has slaughtered their family, the employer has a right not to be tricked into doing so.

      On the reporter: 1) He has an absolute obligation to report. It’s news. Whether reporting the news causes good or ill is not the reporter’s function. The public, in fact, does have a right to know this 2) The reporter’s comment about the lawyer is so incompetent and ignorant, it makes me want to scream. 3) Reporters and journalists have neither the skill nor the authority to withhold facts for the greater good, and its a breach of ethics for them to behave otherwise.

    • Jack — if your analysis holds, then this guy being employed is the least of our problems. As a society, we decided that this guy was free to go. That’s the end of the story. If it isn’t, then he either should be locked up or forced to wear a branded letter on his forehead — perhaps “M” for murder? Every time he wants to buy a slurpee, should he have to inform the 7-11 clerk of his past? Buying groceries? Seeing a movie? He’s either a psychotic murderer or he’s not. And I’m not taking a position either way on his mental state, but at the end of the day, we are a nation of laws, and if he is free to go, then he is free to go and he has no legal or moral duty to inform people about his past.

      • Gah, THANK YOU! This case lights up my “ick factor” like a Christmas tree, but that’s not the point. He was acquitted, and even though what I’ve read leaves me deeply suspicious of his innocence that isn’t the point. Everybody who is acquitted of a crime has those who think they should have been found guilty, and that is doubly true for those who admit the action but are found not guilty due to some mitigating factor.

        Once he has been acquitted and freed, he is done with the legal system. Finished, out, done.

      • He has an ethical obligation to inform potential employers, who want to know if he is trustworthy, reliable, stable and honest, of significant information that bears on those issues, and, I would say, obviously. The person who sells me a loaf or bread doesn’t have to trust me. An employer placing the education of young adults who are paying many thousands on the assumption that I am responsible, does. Whether he is a homicidal risk can’t be known, but he IS someone who killed his family. You can’t seriously maintain that isn’t relevant information.

        • The clerks at the 7-11 and Safeway know me too and allow me into their store. Perhaps they wouldn’t let me in if they thought I murdered my entire family. You are articulating a higher duty in employment situations – I think the duty, if any, should be the same in all societal interactions.

          • So you don’t think, say, a potential presidential candidate should have to reveal the minor detail that she slaughtered her family and was confined in a mental hospital? (See: Thomas Eagleton) How about the head of a family values organization? A judge? A lobbyist for the NRA? A children’s TV show host? An au pere? Call me over-protective, but I think I have a right to be sure that my baby-sitter never killed anybody, regardless of the time or circumstances, since, you know, so many never have. Unreasonable? Unfair?

            Come on.

                  • What did he hide???? Just his true identity! Of do you think he changed his name because he liked “St. James” more than “Wolcott”? Makes independent background checks rather difficult….which was the idea. Also known as “hiding the truth, the facts, inconvenient aspects of a background that one knows might prevent being hired.”

                    It’s a flat out Golden Rule violation, and more.

                    • Rubbish. Asking about prior arrests is a common question, along with drug use and financial concerns. Name changes are common and are done for a variety of reasons. If the college bothered to do background checks, this information would have come up through the SSN alone.

                    • Colleges don’t check degrees, much less assume that their potential faculty are family killers and self-made orphans. Is that the standard for candor? No obligation to divulge anything that a private detective could find out with a little digging?

                    • And there’s this, the gaping hole in your ethical theory. Unless you can be 100% sure that your secret will never come out, you are placing a trusting employer in peril of a major PR embarrassment and disaster… and that’s exactly what occurred. How can that ever be ethical or fair?

                      Would you similarly say that the prof has no duty to tell the truth to his girlfriends, lovers, room mates, business partners, fiancees, wife, children? If your answer is that there is a duty, why are they so privileged? If you say there isn’t…seriously??????

                    • Then the fault is with the college – not the applicant. As for your PR concern, obviously the college isn’t troubled by this. I bet you $10 that attendance is UP in his classes next year.

                  • If you want to make a standard of “Only questions asked HAVE to be answered” then fine. But then you will unusually hamstring any hiring authority by being forced to ask hundreds of questions in various forms to cover all possible variables that may be undesirable.

                    That is idiotic.

                    There should be certain concerns that a person ought to know is important to disclose without being explicitly asked. When you play the semantic game of “well they didn’t ask me?” you reveal a root of juvenile discourse, like when a teenager or child tries to get off the hook by making it the fault of the authority for not asking the right question.

                  • It’s NOT a deception. There are lots of things I don’t voluntarily talk about with my employers and/or clients that they may be interested in (nothing at this level obviously). This guy does not have to tell anyone about a psychotic episode in his past where three people died. Remember, he was not convicted.

                    • Beth, you are avoiding the questions I asked, quite specifically. Do you deny that the information might make a difference? Do you deny that the employer would regard it as material and relevant? If so, then it is unethical, knowing that, to withhold it. I didn’t claim that he was legally obligated to disclose. Read the linked murder house posts. It’s the same principle. Hiding something is by definition a form of deception.

          • Beth, I think true rehabilitation not only depends on “full disclosure,” but also mandates such disclosure to others whom the rehabilitating person trusts to be accountable to. Those same trusted persons also have a duty to “trust but verify” with due diligence.

            There are interpersonal relationships (such as in a marriage, cohabitation arrangement, or employment) wherein inherent and natural intimacies (and needs for mutual trust) make less than full disclosure between parties a violation of the Golden Rule, at least. I do believe the university is acting as it should, although from now on it is fair to expect the school to be better on guard with applicants. It is less clear how the formerly concealed knowledge about St. James will impact the conduct of the school’s business. St. James certainly does not suddenly qualify himself for increased trust by anyone.

        • You and i seem to agree that he is a new person, a changed man if you will. Someone who is not the same person who he was when he killed his family.

          So I cannot understand why you consider it to be unethical to hide that past. If he is a new person, a changed person, someone who is much different than he who killed his family then why would he be ethically required to share his past?

          I mean, i would liken it to someone in witness protection. Regardless of their past, they are under no moral obligation to share the details of that past to future employers. In fact, they are prohibited from doing so. I would consider this to be a moral equivalent to that.

          • This is where the Liberal gets Dan in trouble. The Prof is not, in fact, a different person. He’s the same organism and citizen who killed his parents. Maybe he’s changed, and maybe he’s not. I should have the right to make that decision for myself before, thanks to his intentionally hiding his identify, I entrust my business, duties or love one’s to him.

            I think it is fair to say that if I’m trying to avoid all risk of violence, I am safer with someone who never slaughtered his family, than someone who did, no matter what he may have done since,or how long ago, or under what name. And I have the right to be able to handle my affairs accordingly, which means I have the right to full disclosure.

  6. Looking at the situation from a medical standpoint, I have some serious concerns.
    First and foremost, one does not get “cured” or recovered from Paranoid
    Schizophrenia.
    If you are really a Paranoid Schizophrenic, you are a Paranoid Schizophrenic for life.
    PS can be treated, there can be improvement, but the patient is going to need medication and follow up care and I could find no information showing he is getting that.
    He either never had PS (most likely) or he is a ticking time bomb in a setting where he can kill a whole bunch of people when he finally goes off.
    Who’s fault is that going to be?

    No Paranoid Schizophrenic would have been able to achieve what he has in his life without continuing treatment.
    He was misdiagnosed and essentially, a killer went free.
    There is no justice for the three people he brutally murdered.

    The whole story reeks.
    You have a mass murderer running around unpunished, living off the fruits of his crime and teaching the youth of America.
    Wonderful outcome!!!
    I know it makes me proud. @@

  7. There is also court information that shows he tried to cover up the crime and also hid the murder weapon.
    Insane?
    Hardly.

  8. This guy has the same kind of idiot apologists posting for him at the end of every news article as Trayvon Martin did: people who are suspending the proven facts of the matter to arrive at their bleeding heart conclusions.
    Very, very sad and one more example of the rotting of American minds.
    😦

  9. Jack, I respectfully disagree. You keep referring to him committing “murder” or his “murderous” conduct. “Murder” is a legal conclusion following a trial, not a factual one. Yes, he killed his family, but he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He received psychiatric treatment, and was released when experts thought he was no longer a danger and could lead a productive life which, by all accounts, he has led. So it sounds as if the experts were correct. He was NOT found guilty of murder. I disagree that he was ethically or morally required to disclose that he was found “not guilty” for any reason.

    Your conclusion assumes that you are entitled to full disclosure of anything and everything about a person’s life. There are a lot of things about a lot of people that I would like to know, but that I am not entitled to know, even if that information would be useful in making important decisions.

    We cannot avoid all risk of violence. As long as there are “crazies” out there – who never before have gotten a speeding ticket, let alone done anything violent – we are all at risk. How many tragedies have we witnessed in the news – Boston Marathon bombing, Colorado movie theatre shooting, Newtown – where the perpetrators not only had no records, but at least in the case of the Boston Marathon younger brother, looked and acted perfectly normal? I’m not sure that any of us would feel safer with someone who is crazy, but who has not yet slaughtered his family, than with someone who did admittedly kill his family, but received what appears to be competent psychiatric help, and has led a productive and exemplary life for the past four decades.

    Normally, I agree with you, but not on this one. Prof. St. James/Wolcott was not found guilty of murder, he did not lie, and he has led a productive adult life – which is more than a lot of us can say. I see no reason for him to be dismissed from Milliken.

    • That’s essentially deceit on his part, Jo, and yours. Do you think that distinction matters to the school, or anyone else? Indeed, I doubt it would matter to you. If you found out that your au pere had, intentionally and with malice aforethought, slaughtered (how do you like “slaughtered”?) her whole family but, after a contentious trial and three hung juries, was found innocent by reason of insanity, but didn’t bother to tell you at the time you interviewed her and asked, say, “Is there anything else about your past that relate to your trustworthiness that you think I should know before I have you move into my house in the guest room next to the gun cabinet and put you in charge of keeping my kids safe?”, but answered, “Nope! Not a thing,” would that trouble you a bit? And after you found out, would the explanation that “I didn’t think it was relevant because I was acquitted, since the court found I was stark raving mad at the time, and after 60 days in a padded room, they doctors gave me a clean bill of health, a coupon to Walmarts, and my freedom!”

      If the fine legal distinction wouldn’t change then reaction of the employer, then as far as the ethical duty to disclose is concerned, it doesn’t change a thing.

  10. Poor George Zimmerman. Even if he manages to change his name (a deception in Jack’s book) and change his appearance (more deception!), he will have an affirmative duty to tell all future employers that he killed another human being, even though he wasn’t legally responsible for that death. Because what this really comes down to is that Jack questions the original verdict and/or the decision to release this professor from a mental institution. Well, he’s not alone, lots of people would – just like people question the Zimmerman verdict. But Zimmerman now gets to live his life, and if he manages to find a new identity, good for him. He, like this professor, is under no moral or legal obligation to proactively discuss it ever again.

    • Except that there is a substantive difference between what Zimmerman did (self defense, which is everyone’s right) and what the professor did (killed his family).

      That difference undermines your argument.

      • Texagg04, the reasons for acquittal make no legal difference whatsoever. The differences do not undermine her argument.
        What’s more, read Jack’s response — he agrees that both have an obligation to tell. No difference, in that one respect at least.

        • Spiffy, his agreement that both have an obligation to tell doesn’t change what I said. The two scenario are substantively different, in the manner I demonstrated. Also, this isn’t a legal discussion, so ‘reason for acquittal’ is irrelevant. What is relevant is the substantive difference between the two acts: self defense vs killing one’s family.

          Beth seemed to think (falsely) that the two were the same and therefore because they were the same, Zimmerman automatically must disclose as well. Jack explains why for other reasons.

          • Tex, there are dozens of reasons that people aren’t convicted: evidence tampering, jury nullification, insanity, self defense, daddy paid a bribe, lack of Miranda warning, etc. Look at the bigger picture here please. I used Zimmerman here because that case is recent and well known.

            • The legal side of this is irrelevant. The discussion hinges on whether or not undesirable information should or should not be hidden if a potential employer hasn’t specifically asked for that information. So your response is irrelevant.

              • Not arguing with or against you or Beth here – just thinking, in case history might be instructive…

                …of the multitudes of surviving Nazis with various competencies at various levels, and their post-WWII employment in Germany (or anywhere in war-ravaged Europe or anywhere else)…

                …thinking of the literally hundreds of thousands of POWs who were put to work inside the U.S. during the war, a number of who stayed in the U.S. and achieved citizenship, living honorably thereafter…

                There are “angles” to this case involving rehabilitation; fairness to the individual for purposes of enabling, advancing, and benefitting from rehabilitation, and redemption.

                As an employer, I would want, for example, to be fair to a veteran of U.S. combat actions abroad since, say, 1986 or 1989 – who was diagnosed previously with a “stress disorder,” but with all indications for many years since diagnosis being consistent with “successful treatment” – to hire (or not hire) without undue prejudice.

                I am uncomfortable with legally obligating the veteran to disclose, and uncomfortable with “giving the third degree” with expectation of disclosure, or with hope of “drawing out” historical facts about the applicant’s life to date that may or may not be relevant. I would appreciate the applicant’s voluntary disclosure of any fact which the applicant thinks may be relevant to the applicant’s eligibility and competitiveness for hiring.

                Like Jack, a part of me, at least, would be grateful and possibly even admiring of such an applicant who would be so honest as to admit, for example: “Before I went into the military, I was in a street gang that did armed robbery, dealt drugs, murdered rivals, and kidnapped children for sex trade.” It would be very difficult for me to hire a person after taking that statement as fact, no matter how rehabilitated the applicant presented in times since. And yet, if I did not hire, I would be forever haunted by the possibility that I unfairly rejected the best candidate for the job, despite the checkered past.

                • I think there is a sliding scale composed of several factors you alluded to no doubt, including: severity of behavior, volume of behavior, other complicating factors. Somewhere on that sliding scale is a benchmark that says, behavior falling past this point one would *ethically* be obligated to inform an employer, and falling before that point one would not be obliged to do so.

                  Down a little, Jack and Beth are arguing another sliding scale that would temper this one, one based on ‘entitlement’ of a particular person, with whom an individual enters a trust, to know about that individual’s particular behaviors. Jack asserts that the benchmark on that scale is extremely low, at the complete bottom end, whereas Beth asserts it to be much higher, such that employers don’t have any right to know about particular behaviors, while lovers are entitled to know everything.

                  You bring up a further complicating factor with the former Nazi scenario: what if SO many individuals have so much *very* unacceptable behavior in their past that holding them accountable for that behavior is impractical?

                  Well, I think that is alleviated. We haven’t decided that hiring authorities are obligated to tell a potential employee “NO” based on previous behavior, only that they ought to know to decide if their previous behavior may affect their function. I’m certain that given most behaviors that are associated with thorough rehabilitations, that you’d see in general most hiring authorities to be quite understanding. Don’t expect however that any particular individual seeking to be hired should be given the exact same consideration as someone who has led a more pristine life. That is fair.

                  • Thanks Tex, your comments are helpful. I did see the discussion further below between Jack and Beth, before I commented above. An individual’s being employed is a significant benchmark in itself, reflecting and confirming a person’s most basic status as a constructive, productive, trustworthy member of a society. An employer’s decision to hire and fire based on an employee’s or applicant’s disclosures (and the timing of those disclosures) is a reflection of risk management that is tied to ethics as well as moral luck. Since I treat trust as an investment and trustworthiness as a dividend, I tend to be more sympathetic to employers than to each individual employee or applicant – because I tend to presume that the employer has more to risk, more at stake, than any one employee – even where there may be more reasons to trust the individual, and more reasons not to trust the employer.

                    I am torn about whether to go with Beth on the fairness (and wisdom) of ethics which uphold a different standard of obligatory full disclosure in the personal relationship, versus the standard for the employee-employer relationship, in regard to the scales and benchmarks I understood you to be discussing. She said earlier, “…the duty, if any, should be the same in all societal interactions,” but then later (below), seemed to go with a “different standards standard.” I am uncertain whether there is (or whether there should be) different and separate sliding scales, or even, whether there is or should be only one sliding scale. From there, I am still uncertain about whether there should be different benchmarks to guide an individual on when to disclose or not disclose.

                    This one is making my head hurt. What recourse does Millikin have? They can’t fire St. James now, even if they wanted to – or can they?

                    • The “floor” should be the same for all societal interactions — either the guy is a danger or he’s not. The “ceiling” is higher for employment situations, and even higher for romantic partnerships. This HAS to be the test — at least in a country that values privacy and personal freedom.

    • 1. I challenge you to find any suggestion in the post or elsewhere that my position is based on disagreement with the disposition of St. James’ case. That is irrelevant, and your statement is unjustified and without provocation. I don’t have any idea whether the resolution was correct–for the purpose of the post, I assume it was. That is irrelevant, 100%. The act and the incident are the same regardless of what the law and medical profession decide. The man killed his family.

      2. Absolutely George Zimmerman would have an obligation to disclose to employers who he was and his notoriety in any job in which he was going to be in a position of trust or representing the employer to the outside world. So does Casey Anthony. So does Monica Lewinsky. So does Steve Bartman. Life is tough. Too bad that your life, history, misfortunes and mistakes follow you. But they do, and should.

      So I’ll ask a second time:

      Would you similarly say that the prof has no duty to tell the truth to his girlfriends, lovers, room mates, business partners, fiancees, wife, children? If your answer is that there is a duty, why are they so privileged? If you say there isn’tseriously??????

  11. An employer relationship is different than a romantic relationship. It’s a false comparison. My employer doesn’t need to know (and shouldn’t know) about my religion, politics, past affairs, number of children, and brushes with the law (if I was acquitted). My partner who I share my life and bedroom with DOES need to know those things. There is a bond there stronger and higher than any law – which is why I couldn’t be compelled to testify about my husband.

    So no, George Zimmerman doesn’t need to tell his future employers and the same is true for Monica Lewinsky if she can change her name/identity as well UNLESS you can argue in a specific instance that it may be relevant. For e.g., perhaps Monica shouldn’t go into media relations.

    • That’s an untenable position, Beth, and endorses intentional deception.

      Both employment and romantic relationships are the same in this respect: they are based on mutual trust. We do not deceive those who trust us for our own convenience and comfort, and that is exactly what you are advocating. Monica Lewinsky, using a fake name, becomes the Executive Director of a foundation espousing family values and fidelity in marriage. Later, her true identity is discovered, and the foundation is disgraced; its funding dries up; its projects destroyed. But never mind, she had a right to put the organization in that peril so she could get the job? That is neither ethical, fair, honest,or responsible.

      Your argument is pure ratioanalization, and your false dichotomy between employers and lovers demonstrate it. You admit that the secret is something that others, besides the professor, have a right to know and not to be misled about. You just draw the line at employers, for no good reason. You can misrepresent yourself for a job and a paycheck, but not for love and companionship? That is what we call “situational ethics.”

      • Rubbish. The trust involved is quite different, you simply can’t elevate the employer/employee relationship to that of husband/wife. The only interests that an employer might have in a prior arrest is whether or not: (1) that person will be a danger to the employees (and here students) OR (2) your much weaker argument that the person might be an “embarrassment” to the company. Well, society has already determined that the person is not a danger so it’s not up to (and ethically and potentially legally wrong) for the employer to come to a different conclusion – hence zero obligation to disclose. The “embarrassment” factor is a more interesting question – but you and I both know that this would be irrelevant in the vast majority of jobs. AND, if the potential employee has changed his or her name, the likelihood of that sensational past coming to light is slim so there is no need to enlighten the employer – again no obligation to disclose. Further, if those facts eventually are revealed, the employer wouldn’t be embarrassed (again assuming the slim circumstances where embarrassment even matters in that person’s job) because the employer could point out that it wasn’t aware of these facts. At that point, the employer could choose to fire that employee (whether or not that termination is appropriate would depend on the facts) or do what the university here did. This is not rationalization – this is logic.

        In romantic relationships, there can be no secrets of any kind because you are making a commitment to live together, comingle finances, raise children, and enter into a contract with the State (and possibly a church as well) that is expensive and potentially socially stigmatizing to dissolve. I can’t know if I will agree to that unless I know EVERYTHING about that person – down to the mundane of what temperature that person insists on keeping that thermostat at. An employer just needs to know if I can do the job – and most jobs are at will with no contract, or renewable annual contracts. If they are concerned about “embarrassment” – and again few jobs have that requirement – then they can ask the appropriate questions during the interview and do a background check.

        • Trust is trust, and breach of trust is unethical. Intentionally allowing anyone in a relationship of trust to assume something is true–or that something not usually assumed is NOT true, or inducing them to so believe by manner or word, omission or comission, is a breach of trust. And hence unethical.

          You are making distinctions that do not exist. They are merely matters of degree.

          • Jack,
            This whole section between you and Beth I find very instructive. Basically, do ethics vary by relationship? I don’t know what I think about that, but let me throw water on one point: your idea that the difference between employment and marital relationships are merely matters of degree when it comes to breach of trust.

            That doesn’t feel right to me. Here are some key distinctions between those two relationships.
            1. One of them typically involves sex; one doesn’t. If you get confused as to which, you get in BIG trouble.
            2. Spousal relationships are intended to be relationships of equals; employer/employee relationships are by definition asynchronous, not equal.
            I’m sure there are more. And while I can’t articulate it, I have a strong feeling that the implications of those differences for breaches of trust are non-trivial.

            For what it’s worth.

  12. Jack, are you suggesting that all defendants have a moral and ethical duty to testify, regardless of their constitutional right not to? Does a person have a moral and ethical duty to tell a prospective employer that they are an alcoholic, even if they haven’t had a drink in 20 years? Or does a person have a moral and ethical duty to tell a prospective employer that they have epilepsy, or any other medical condition that may impact reliability to show up for work? Where would it end, in your view? Are we women now required to disclose pregnancy during an interview? Certainly a spouse or partner has a right to know, but an employer? Employment and romantic relationships are clearly NOT the same. Trust is involved, of course, but the degree of personal disclosure required to commence that relationship has never been the same, and I hope never is the same. According to the chronology, Prof. St. James was 15 when he killed his parents, and it was 21 years later, after going through treatment, earning a bachelor’s degree, masters degree and PhD, that he appeared on Miliken’s doorstep. Do you believe it was unethical or immoral of him to have changed his name 15 or 20 years earlier? Why? He was charged, tried, found “not guilty” and required to go through psychiatric treatment. It appears that you think that he had not paid enough for his “crimes” and that he should be punished (i.e. not hired) for the rest of his post-age-15 life for a “crime” that he was not found mentally responsible for. Should every person who has been charged but found “not guilty” be required to disclose the past charges? Theft goes to trust. Burglary goes to trust. Can no person be rehabilitated? Is that your view? Where would you draw the line at a moral or ethical requirement for disclosure after a finding of “not guilty. Slippery slope, indeed. We could probably debate this for years.

    • Jack, are you suggesting that all defendants have a moral and ethical duty to testify, regardless of their constitutional right not to?

      Who said anything about testifying? But do I believe that an ethical person admits what they have done, on the stand or otherwise? Sure I do.

      Does a person have a moral and ethical duty to tell a prospective employer that they are an alcoholic, even if they haven’t had a drink in 20 years?

      Having a not had a drink in 20 years is not particularly meaningful to an alcoholic, and I could give you several examples from personal experience. Do I think a potential employee has an ethical obligation to inform an employer of a physical condition that reasonably might have an effect on his or her ability to do the job? Yes. Must an airplane pilot admit that he is an alcoholic? Of course.

      Or does a person have a moral and ethical duty to tell a prospective employer that they have epilepsy, or any other medical condition that may impact reliability to show up for work?

      Showing up for work? No. Doing the job? Absolutely.

      Where would it end, in your view? Are we women now required to disclose pregnancy during an interview?

      You just jumped from ethics to law. I don’t think the law should require all ethical conduct, and this is exactly the kind that I expect people to do without threatened penalties. The Supreme Court says there is a right to lie under the First Amendment. Do I think that a woman who interviews with me for a crucial position that she has been told will determine the success of a major project requiring full time over the next year has an ethical obligation to tell me that she is five months pregnant?? Damn right I do.

      “Certainly a spouse or partner has a right to know, but an employer?”

      No legal right in either case. Right on the basis of honesty, trust and fairness in either case.

      “It appears that you think that he had not paid enough for his “crimes” and that he should be punished (i.e. not hired) for the rest of his post-age-15 life for a “crime” that he was not found mentally responsible for.”

      I did not say that, and I don’t believe that. I believe that everyone should have the necessary information to make an employment decision, and should make that decision ethically, fairly, and compassionately, without bias. I also believe that we have aright to know who we are hiring, trusting and associating with, and that ethical people should not try to stop that process. Because others might not treat St. James fairly, I don’t believe I should be deceived regarding who he was. When I ran the health care organization and was looking for a manager, a man with an impressive resume applied. I expressed surpise that someone with his credentials wanted that job. He didn’t have to tell me that he had been implicated in Spiro Agnew’s various schemeds while governor, and that he had spent six months in prison and been disbarred, but he did. And I shook his hand and said that I appreciated his candor, and it caused me to be more inclined to trust him, not less, which was true. He did the right thing.

      “Should every person who has been charged but found “not guilty” be required to disclose the past charges? Theft goes to trust. Burglary goes to trust.”

      RIGHT!!! If they in fact committed an act that a reasonable person would term a serious crime, yes, I’d like to know, and should know. I’d want to know if they killed some people and were NEVER charged or caught…wouldn’t you???? Does the Green River strangler have an ethical obligation to tell an employer that, in fact, there is a manhunt out for him and he’s a serial killer? You would say NO!!!! The fact that the law, for whatever reason, didn’t punish or convict someone for an act is separate from the fact of the act. The employer is now the jury.

      “Can no person be rehabilitated? Is that your view? Where would you draw the line at a moral or ethical requirement for disclosure after a finding of “not guilty.”

      The court verdict is irrelevant. Rehabilitation prospects are irrelevant, because they are speculative. As in your first analogy—any alcoholic is a threat to relapse, at any time.

      It’s not a slippery slope at all.

  13. Jack, I have personally found the dialog in several threads to this post, between several thoughtful commenters and yourself, to be particularly enlightening.
    Really quite good discussions, imho.

  14. What disturbs me most about this story is that it was not actually written for it’s newsworthiness, but to expose the man, to make national headlines, and for vengeance. The articles are very biased, implying he wasn’t mentally ill and fooled everyone – quite a feat for a 15-year-old boy in Texas in 1968. And the reporters used deception to get the interview St James, and tell of police protection being present, training in reading body language to detect lies, and even locking their doors on their return to Texas -all actions that cast the professor in a most sinister light – hardly fair and balanced, considering he has had no trouble with the law in 4 decades, is well liked by students and colleagues and has won numerous awards.
    The real story would have been that rehabilitation and recovery of mentally ill teen offenders is possible. According to the NAMH website, undiagnosed teen paranoid schizophrenics appear to fit the descriptions of Jim Alcott very closely. Irritability, isolation, sleeping a lot are symptoms. Depression, thoughts of suicide, substance abuse are common. Auditory hallucinations, feelings of persecution, distorted emotional responses are typical. While most schizophrenics are not violent, paranoid schizophrenics, if they do commit violence, tend to do so against family members and tend to do so in the home. SIX Drs. evaluated Jim Alcott and found him to be not sane at the time of the killings and trial. He spent six years at Rusk State Mental Hospital for the Criminally Insane – which was no picnic, let me assure you. 12 male jurors found him not guilty by reason of insanity. When the Drs said he was no longer a threat to society, 12 more male jurors declared him sane – he had had six plus years of treatment and finished two years of college coursework. These people had access to all the facts in the case, and it was their duty to make the decisions regarding Walcott’s fate. Yet now, 46 years later, with the DA cited as saying witnesses are dead and medical records have been shredded, the man and those who judged and sentenced him are essentially being retried via social media because the folks in Georgetown feel he didn’t pay enough. where will it end?
    He doesn’t owe Georgetown or the public an apology. Remorse was likely stated in therapy, which is appropriate . Continuing medical care is his private business and protected under HIPPA. Moving, changing his name, starting a new life, even not volunteering about his past unless specifically asked may have been the advice of his Drs. I find the conjecture, assumptions and character assassination of self-proclaimed internet experts very distressing, as most insist on seeing Hannibal Lecter, instead of a disturbed teen who did a terrible thing, but then turned his life around and has been a model citizen for FORTY YEARS!

    • Would you say he “owed” remaining family members an apology…or at least some attempt at an explanation? He has NEVER expressed any remorse to them. As far as the family is concerned, he is experiencing discomfort and pain for the first time now as a result of the heinous murder of his mother, father and sister — all well-loved human beings. Maybe, as one quoted family member said “that is not a bad thing,” especially given Wolcott’s “profound” indifference to the impact of his crimes.

      You may be overlooking the strange little twists in this tale. He was not “hospitalized” for 6 years — he was taken into the home of one of his psychiatrists as a family member. Much more of a “picnic” than usual. It took the panel 10 MINUTES (!!!!) to declare “sane” a person who apparently had the incurable condition of paranoid schizophrenia. We don’t know whether he is under continuing medical care — or really, whether he has been a “model citizen.”

      Wolcott was never tried for the murders of his mother and sister. If he is “cured,” would he not now be competent to stand trial, there being no statute of limitations on murder?

  15. There is a general ethical principle that the duty would have been on the employer to verify what the employee wrote is true.

    Had the university found out about the omission a year (let alone a week) after hiring St. James, they would be justified in dismissing him, and they likely would have done so.

    But it appears St. James had been employed for years. The university would be ethically estopped from dismissal on the basis of this omission.

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