One of the problems with being an ethicist is that every movie seems like an ethics movie.
I watched “Zodiac” last night, struck by how much it resembled “Spotlight,” and not just because Mark Ruffalo had similar roles in the two films. It is a long, intense 2007 movie about the frustrating 1960s and early 1970s manhunt for the serial killer who called himself the “Zodiac” while killing seemingly random victims in the San Francisco Bay Area, and taunting police, Jack the Ripper-style, by sending them letters, blood stained clothing, and in a special touch, ciphers mailed to local newspapers. The case remains unsolved.
What set off my ethics alarms, however, was a scene based on an actual incident in the case. From the website “Zodiac Killer Facts”:
On the night of October 11, 1969, the Zodiac murdered cabdriver Paul Stine and removed a portion of the victim’s shirt. Days later, the killer mailed an envelope to the offices of The San Francisco Chronicle. Inside, the Zodiac had included a blood-soaked piece of Stine’s shirt along with a letter that traumatized the Bay Area for decades. In his customary cavalier style, The Zodiac wrote, “School children make nice targets. I think I shall wipe out a school bus some morning just shoot out the frunt tire and pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.”
The Zodiac’s threat to assassinate school children terrified children and parents everywhere, and created a nightmare of security concerns for police and school officials. Armed men escorted children to and from schools while patrol cars and even aircraft followed along and monitored the surrounding area. As media coverage of Zodiac’s murderous plans increased and fears of a horrific ambush grew, a local television station was the setting for a chilling scene.
In the early morning hours of October 22, 1969, the Oakland police department received a phone call from a man claiming to be the Zodiac. The caller said he wanted famous Boston attorney F. Lee Bailey to appear on a local television talk show, but told the operator that he would settle for San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli in the event Bailey was unable to appear.
Hours later, Belli was the guest on the show with host Jim Dunbar. A man called the KGO television station several times, and, in conversation with Belli, claimed he was the Zodiac and that his name was “Sam.”