Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 10/18/2017: Welcome To My World! Special Legal Follies Edition

Good Morning!

1  Oh, let’s begin the day with Roy Moore, the former Alabama judge and present wacko whom Alabama Republicans voted to represent the GOP in the 2018 U.S. Senate election, thus proving that there are a lot of deplorables in the state. As was completely predictable given his record, Moore recently told his drooling followers (after being introduced by Abraham Hamilton, Alexander Lincoln being unavailable),

“Somebody should be talking to the Supreme Court of the United States and say, ‘What gives them a right to declare that two men can get married?. . . Tell the Congress: Impeach these justices that put themselves above the Constitution. They’re judicial supremists and they should be taken off the bench.”

Comments Jonathan Turley,

So Moore believes that he should not have been removed from the bench for putting his personal religious beliefs above the Constitution, but justices should be removed if they interpretation the Constitution in a way that contradicts his religious beliefs.  This, he insisted, would ‘solve the problem….such a view would violate not just fundamental principles of judicial review but it would violate the impeachment clause.  As the last lead counsel in a judicial impeachment case (in defense of Judge Thomas Porteous), Moore’s view is deeply troubling.  As I have previously written, the Good Behavior Clause of Article III was designed to protect the independence of the judiciary and insulate it from political pressures.  It was meant as a guarantee of life tenure against precisely the type of threat that Moore is endorsing. 

But it’s pointless to make genuine legal and historical arguments against someone like Moore. He’s a theocrat, a fanatic, a bigot and a demagogue. The Republican Party should endorse his opposition and campaign against Moore. This fiasco is their fault, and someone like Moore should be kept out Congress at all costs.

2. Now to someone who is, incredible as it seems, somewhat less ridiculous, this gentleman, Christopher Wilson…

 

No, that’s not a botched tattoo on his forehead: the blurry words are “fuck” and “sluts”, making the whole, eloquent message, “I’m a porn star. I fuck teen sluts.” This roughly translates into  “Look at me! I’m an idiot!”  The newspapers that refused to print the blurred words (the police had the mugshot altered) that are essential to the story, meanwhile, are telling us, “We don’t understand our profession.” The story is incomprehensible if the actual words aren’t clear, literally or figuratively.  Fox News and the NY Post, for example, say, “The Cincinnati man has the words “I’m a pornstar” tattooed on his forehead” and “another vulgar message” tattooed below.” Since the issue is whether the message on his FACE is going to prejudice the jury in his trial for sexual assault, this is juvenile coverage omitting key information to avoid “giving offense.”

Ethics Alarms to the news media: Grow up.

Turley (again…he loves the tattoo stories) writes,

“The court will be left with a question of whether the tattoo is too prejudicial or whether it is unavoidable as a personal choice of the defendant….Yet, these tattoos contain an admission to the crime at issue in the trial.  In the end, a judge could legitimately conclude that this falls into the category as bad choices bringing even worse consequences.”

What? First, the defendant is not charged with fucking teen sluts while acting as a porn star. That conduct could well be consensual and legal.  Turley is also wrong that the judge could “legitimately” allow the jury to see his message. In both cases involving a defendant’s prejudicial tattoos, the judges agreed that they had to be made invisible, in one case using make-up… Continue reading

The Criminal Justice Ethics Breakdown: Unforgivable, Incomprehensible, and Horrifying

"Yeah, that's bad, but can you believe those gas prices?"

There is no longer any way for the defenders of the criminal justice system, or indeed American democracy and its ideals, to deny that thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of Americans languish in prison for crimes they did not commit. This fact is so terrible in its implications for the nation, the system, the public and the legal profession that I feel incapable of grasping it all, still, though this has been slowly dawning on me for a long time. Right now, it is all I can manage to escape denial, for the deprivation of so many innocent people of their liberty is my responsibility, as well as yours, and that of everyone else. Even in the midst of serious policy debates over so much else that is vital to our future, how can anyone argue that this isn’t the highest priority of all?

Yesterday, the Washington Post revealed that

“Justice Department officials have known for years that flawed forensic work might have led to the convictions of potentially innocent people, but prosecutors failed to notify defendants or their attorneys even in many cases they knew were troubled. Officials started reviewing the cases in the 1990s after reports that sloppy work by examiners at the FBI lab was producing unreliable forensic evidence in court trials. Instead of releasing those findings, they made them available only to the prosecutors in the affected cases, according to documents and interviews with dozens of officials. Continue reading

Troy Davis, Lawrence Brewer and the Capital Punishment Ethics Train Wreck

At this point, nothing about the death penalty  in the United States makes any sense, logically or ethically, and that is true for all sides of the capital punishment debate. September 20 should be designated Capital Punishment Day in memory of the contradictions, absolutist pronouncements, convenient rationalizations and everything else that occurred in the years, days and hours before Troy Davis’s execution in Georgia. Then perhaps America as a society will devote one day a year to considering rationally and unemotionally how the death penalty should fit into its criminal justice system without having the discussion warped by the peculiarities of  individual cases. As it stands now, not only is capital punishment an ethics train wreck, the policy debate about it is an ethics train wreck. Everyone who even dips his toe into either becomes irresponsible, conflicted or intellectually dishonest.

Did you know that another inmate was executed yesterday? I didn’t, until this morning. In Texas, white supremacist gang member Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed Wednesday night for the horrific 1998 dragging death slaying of James Byrd Jr., a man from East Texas who had his head pulled off by a chain attached to a truck for the offense of being black. If death penalty opponents are serious and have any integrity, they needed to show it by protesting the execution of Brewer exactly as intensely as they opposed the death of Davis, but of course they did not. Continue reading

The West Memphis Three, Still Abused By Unethical Prosecution

Their real killer is still loose, but law enforcement doesn't care: it has the West Memphis Three to blame.

The release this week of the men railroaded into prison as teenagers for the 1993 killing of three young Cub Scouts in West Memphis Arkansas was covered by the news media in superficial and misleading fashion, concentrating on the human interest aspects of the event—a “happy ending” in which three wrongfully accused and convicted men finally get justice. This overshadowed the disgraceful performance of the justice system in general and the Arkansas justice system in particular. The circumstances of the men’s release were only slightly less revolting than their conviction, and the method by which it was achieved was thoroughly unethical.

Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. had been in jail for 18 years, with Baldwin and Misskelley serving life sentences and Damien Echols languishing on death row. They are almost certainly innocent. Continue reading

The Ethics of Giving Up on Ethics

Paul Daugherty, a sportswriter for the Cincinnati Enquirer,recently wrote a column expressing a theme I hear all too often regarding politics, government, education, and society generally. Motivated by the steroid allegations against yet another hero, Lance Armstrong, Daugherty penned his surrender to a culture that doesn’t seem to care about ethics. Daugherty wrote:

“Everyone wants sports to be equitable. We all desire the level field. No one wants sports to be as drugged up as Woodstock in 1969. But it is. We’ve fought the ethical fight. We’ve lost. It could be time to let it go.
Even the athletes who lose still win. Mark McGwire got his, Barry Bonds got his, Brian Cushing got his. If you wait enough, deny enough, then rationalize believably, you get yours. Disgrace fades. Only Olympic athletes wear the stink of doping longer than the average 5-year-old’s attention span. In one respect, it’s not unlike the fight against legalizing marijuana. It has lasted so long, and now seems so pointless, I can’t even remember what we’ve been arguing about. We’ve become numb to it….It’s only a little outrageous now to suggest that a professional athlete be allowed to use performance-enhancing substances to his (enlarged) heart’s content, as long as he’s doing it legally….So what’s the point?”

“What’s the point?” Continue reading

“The Ethicist” vs. Citizenship

Anyone who reads Randy Cohen’s New York Times Magazine column “The Ethicist” quickly discovers that one of Cohen’s biases is an intense distrust of law enforcement that would be right at home in the Berkeley campus of 1967. The problem with this attitude for an ethicist is that citizenship is a core ethical value, and assisting and cooperating with law enforcement efforts are among the duties of a citizen to society. Thus the Ethicist’s advice tends to become unethical when a correspondent asks about matters involving the police. This week’s column contained a prime example.

A restaurant owner discovered that an employee was stealing from the establishment, and confronted him. The thief offered to pay back what he had stolen, and was fired. The owner asked Cohen if he should report the crime to the police; some of his friends had argues that “losing his job was punishment enough” for the light-fingered ex-worker. Can you guess Randy’s answer? I swear: I composed it in my head before I checked. I was right on the money. Continue reading

Ethics Hero: Johnny Depp

Hollywood celebrities frequently lend their prominence and notoriety to causes that are dubious or even harmful; Jenny McCarthy’s passionate promotion of now-discredited links between vaccines and autism are a recent and disturbing example. At other times, celebrities assert expertise on complex topics far beyond their competence or comprehension; this was a theme in Michael Crichton’s attack on global warming hysteria, State of Fear. Johnny Depp, however, has got it right. As his highly anticipated film “Alice in Wonderland” is about to be released and he has the media following his every move, Depp is using his fame and following to focus attention on what may be an egregious miscarriage of justice.

It is the case of the West Memphis Three. In 1993, police discovered the bodies of  three 8-year-olds, and there was immediate speculation that their killings had been part of a satanic ritual. Satanic cults were big in 1993, and long-haired Damien Echols became a suspect as much for his demeanor and reputation as for anything substantive. Indeed, there was no evidence tying him to the crime until a cognitively impaired boy named Jessie Misskelly Jr. told police that he helped Echols and Jason Baldwin kill the boys. Continue reading

When the Police Lie to Convict the Guilty

Gene Weingarten, the Washington Post columnist, wrote about his recent experience as a juror. It was a trial of a man accused of selling $10 of heroin to an undercover officer. Weingarten professed to be annoyed that such a small amount would justify an arrest and trial; he’s just wrong about that. Dealing a dangerous prohibited drug is still dealing, no matter what the amount. I know this is the kind of case that gets the legalize-drugs-so-we don’t-put-so-many-people-in-jail crowd all self-righteous, but “a smidgen of heroin dealing” still supports a destructive social problem, and law abiding citizens don’t deal even a little smack.

That’s not really the issue here, however.

Weingarten was convinced that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He was also convinced that the police were lying. Continue reading

On Hoaxes, Avatar, and More Late Night Ethics

Hoax Update

  • Singer, model, television personality and inexplicable celebrity Tia Tequila announced in December that she was engaged to the heiress to the Johnson and Johnson fortune, Casey Johnson. The troubled Johnson turned up dead in squalid circumstances in January, prompting a grief-stricken online statement from Tia in which she spelled her beloved’s name wrong. Shortly after this, it was revealed that the engagement was a publicity stunt by Tequila, who barely knew Johnson. Fake romances for publicity purposes are as old as the Tudors, but this sort of thing further trivializes truth for an entire generation. Continue reading

Strange But True: Judge Rules That a Defendant’s FACE is Prejudicial

And now, from Reuters, an instance of the American justice system violating principles of honesty, logic and common sense in order to be “fair.”

As a neo-Nazi gang member prepared to go  on trial for murder, he got himself some new tattoos:  a swastika, barbed wire, and an obscene word. On his face! Continue reading