A Brain-Blowing Ethics Quiz To Enliven Sunday: Joseph Gordon’s Parole

Joseph Gordon

In the midst of a flurry of wrongfully convicted black men finally given their freedom comes the perplexing saga of 78-year old Joseph Gorden, locked up in New York’s Fishkill Correctional Facility since 1993 for a murder he says he didn’t commit. But that, as they say, isn’t the half of it.

Last March, Gordon was denied his fifth application since since 2017, when he had served the minimum term of his sentence of 25 years to life in prison. The reason he is still incarcerated is simple: he refuses to express remorse for the 1991 murder of a white Westchester County doctor, because Gordon insists that he is innocent. Usually a parole board will not waive the remorse requirement, which—and this is not the ethics quiz!– presents a classic ethical conflict for defense lawyers.

A lawyer cannot advise a client to lie. That is a bright-line professional ethics edict of long-standing. A lawyer is also required to defend a client’s rights and fight for his or her interests as zealously as possible. Would you, as a lawyer, convinced of your client Joseph Gordon’s innocence, advise him to express remorse to the parole board, which would require a false acceptance of the jury’s verdict? Many lawyers have done exactly this, and would argue that they did the right thing. Their bar associations and courts would almost certainly disagree.

I digress, however; sorry. That problem has always fascinated me. My favorite version is when the lawyer knows the convicted client is not guilty because another one of his clients has confessed to the murder, a confidence that the lawyer cannot ethically reveal.

Back to Gordon’s real situation though: his was not a trial where the jury voted guilty on flimsy grounds. Dr. Daniel Pack, a 38-year-old neurologist with a wife and two young children, was found shot to death in Gordon’s basement. Gordon admitted that he covered up the murder, burying the body in some woods away from his home and leaving the doctor’s car in a New Jersey parking lot. At his trial, he explained that his actions were intended to protect the real murderer, but refused to say who that was. Meanwhile, prosecutors presented a plausible motive for Gordon to kill Peck, whom he knew.

Based just on those facts, I might have voted for a guilty verdict. Wouldn’t you?

It wasn’t until his second parole hearing, after he had served the minimum 25 year sentence, that Gordon relented and finally told the parole board who was the real murderer: his son, Chad, then 16, in his forties now. Gordon told the panel he had returned home and discovered that Chad had shot Dr. Pack during an argument over a homosexual relationship between them. Gordon didn’t call the police, he said, because he feared for his son’s safety in prison. “All I know is I wanted to take care of my son,” he told the panel. Gordon expressed regret…for the suffering of the doctor’s family. “To this day I am sorry that [Pack] died,” the hearing transcript records him saying. “The pain that this caused his wife is unimaginable. I can’t even speak to it. All I can say to you is that I am sorry. I can’t change it. If I could, I would. I have tried to do everything in here that I could.”

The problem is that Chad denies it all. He even testified against his father at the trial, and survived a furious coss-examination by his father’s lawyer, who accused him of pulling the trigger.

To make the case even tougher, corrections officers, civilian prison employees, a psychiatric social worker and a former superintendent at Fishkill all argue that Joseph Gordon possesses exceptional character and values, based on his conduct in prison. They are convinced that he poses no risk to society, and would be a productive member of his community.

Still, the only reason to believe in Gordon’s innocence is that he refuses to express remorse for the murder, even though doing so would gain him his freedom.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz this weekend is…

As a parole panel member, would you conclude that releasing Gordon is the ethical course?

This needs to be a movie.

I see Samuel L. Jackson as Gordon.

6 thoughts on “A Brain-Blowing Ethics Quiz To Enliven Sunday: Joseph Gordon’s Parole

  1. Given the facts presented I cannot conclude that he is not guilty despite his claims that his son did it.
    He became an accessory to murder irrespective of who pulled the trigger.
    I also know from first hand experience working in a correctional environment that some inmates can adopt an angelic outward persona in order to work the system. Nonetheless it makes little sense to keep geriatric inmates incarcerated. These prisoners require tremendous resources to care and probably pose little threat to the public. Demanding remorse from a person up for parole is like demanding loyalty oaths. The people most willing and rushing to sign are those most likely to be disloyal.

  2. Mixed feelings here. I feel sorry for Gordon Sr. if he is now telling the truth.

    But If he took responsibility for his clearly sociopathic son, he needs to own that. It’s a little late to still deny the murder, place the blame where only he says it should be, and despite the number of years served, ask for parole after admitting that he — at the least — hid a dead body, did not inform police, and withhold evidenc (even though doing so worked against his own case).

    I don’t know how deeply parole boards delve into the mindsets of potential parolees (if they even can), but one is: How’s that relationship with your son? Will he — liar and murderer though he might be — be in any danger with your release? Wouldn’t one have actual hatred for the son, who he says committed the murder, and who testified against him. It is simplistic for parole boards to simply ask for “regret,” but that is the system.

    With the information I have, I would have to vote “no.”

  3. His statement confesses him to be an accessory after the fact. He, in fact, is guilty of that crime as well as obstruction of judgment and perhaps perjury. He knew the murder took place, covered up the murder out of concern for his son. He should be remorseful for his criminal activity and express some remorse to the family of the victims. Following that his son should be tried for his direct murderous activity.

    • Would the father’s say-so be sufficient for prosecution of the son? Doesn’t seem like it. On the other hand, seems like dad has done the time for the cover-up and withholding evidence. On the other hand, he was convicted of murder and oh what a damned tangle that is!

  4. Tough call. Absent some sort of corroboration, and especially if the prosecution provided a plausible motive, I’m not sure that I would.

    On the one hand, there’s I’d wonder if a 78-year-old man is much of a danger to society. On the other hand, if expressing remorse is generally a requirement, he hasn’t done that.

    On the gripping hand, is this to be a de facto death in prison sentence? At what point would we release him then?

    And the final fillip — if he’s released, what becomes of him then? He’s a bit old to be working, although he probably had worked long enough to qualify for Social Security (assuming he’s not already drawing SS). Is he to become a ward of the state on the outside as well?

    And what if he’s lying now and really did kill the guy? How might that change things?

  5. As a parent, would I offer to take the heat for my child and serve the sentence my child deserved? I have some reasons to say yes, others to say no. I believe in vicarious atonement, in that one can pay the debt owed for someone else’s crimes. That is what Christ did on the cross. I would want to spare my child the life-altering consequences of a lifetime, or at least decades, spent imprisoned. I would want my child to have a chance to redeem herself (all my children are girls) and make a life in humble gratitude for the opportunity I purchased for her. However, I also know that sometimes one can only grow by facing the consequences of one’s actions. Maybe I would spare her the legal costs, but I would insist that she confess her crime and live up to the consequences of her actions. I would remind her that even in prison one can make a meaningful life. And this life is not all there is, so even a life spent in prison can be compensated in the hereafter.

    My initial reaction is that Joseph Gordon deliberately hid the body so that he would be an accessory to the crime, and thus deserving of imprisonment. I also think he told his son to deny everything, even when he revealed that his son committed the crime. I think that was a gamble to keep his son out of prison, and still manage to eventually walk himself.

    As a member of the parole board, I would probably grant parole. The time served and the recommendations from those who have evaluated his character would convince me. Yes, some people can fool others about their supposedly impeccable attributes, but in this case, I’d be willing to accept the risk that Gordon was one of those con artists. He expresses remorse about the effects of the victim’s death, he has good credentials with people who are professionals in evaluating criminals, and he has consistently held to his innocence, in that he is protecting the true murderer. Do I think he would commit another crime once freed? Probably not. I believe that murderers have an exceptionally low recidivism rate, and I think given his age, he would not prove much of a threat to society at large.

    Does anyone else have Shawshank Redemption going through his head?

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