When Absolutism Must Prevail: “Choice Of Evils”

“Choice of Evils,” taken from the utilitarian philospher Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832)  famous quote above, is an ethically rich “Law and Order” episode from 2006 that I recent watched again. Assistant DA Jack McCoy decides to prosecute a mother for murder after she admits to shooting her homeless, psychopath son. Her defense: she did it to protect the community, or, in cruder terms, he needed killing. She had met his girlfriend who was pregnant,  and told her that her son would eventually kill her and the baby if she didn’t get away.

The mother explained that her first husband and the dead man’s father is in prison for murder, and like his son. lacked empathy or a conscience. She related how her son displayed all the traits of a psychopath growing up, such as torturing and killing animals. In sympathy for her plight, McCoy offered the mother a manslaughter plea and short prison time, but she turned the deal down, adamant that she hd done nothing wrong.  She was then charged with second-degree murder (that’s also generous, since the killing was premeditated), and the trial began.

The problem of how to deal with “bad seeds” is a  societal dilemma of long standing, and one without a satisfactory solution. It is easy to sympathize with the mother’s plight, but a society that approves of preemptive executions when an individual  seems likely to harm someone before he or she actually does is on a fast track to chaos; it’s not even a slippery slope. Once again, the seductive appeal of pre-crime measures has to be resisted decisively, or individual rights and justice mean nothing.

Does society have to wait until a loudly ticking time bomb goes off? If it’s a human time bomb, absolutely, and no exceptions. Sometimes, that metaphorical bomb turns out to be a dud, and every human being has the same right to be judged on the harm, if any, he or she actually does rather than the harm some feel they are certain to do.

In the episode, it is discovered mid-trial that the son had in fact murdered a man, which his mother did not know at the time she murdered him. McCoy argued to the judge that this was irrelevant to the case and likely to mislead the jury. He was correct. The mother’s act was exactly as illegal and intolerable whether her son was a likely killer or a proven one. The discovered homicide is an example of moral luck: it changes how the mother’s act is perceived, but doesn’t change the ethical analysis at all.

In the end, the jury votes guilty, and sends the mother to prison for 25 years. This is because she admits on the stand that her current husband had threatened to leave her if her son moved back into their home, which he announced he would soon do. Thus the preemptive murder began to look less like an altruistic act to spare society, and more like one for the mother’s personal benefit.

Again, it shouldn’t have mattered. Killing a human being based on probabilities and presumed future harm to society can never be deemed just or tolerable.

Never.

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 7/30/2019: The More Edition

 

More anti-gun posturing, more diversity deceit, more sympathy for parents who kill their kids in hot cars….more.

1. Leadership Ethics: California Gov. Gavin Newsom shows how not to respond to a tragedy. It has been apparent for some time that Newsom’s objective is to make Jerry Brown look like a thorough and moderate professional by contrast. His reaction to the fatal shooting in Gilroy, California, over the weekend, which took the lives of three people (including two children)  was a) to immediately politicize the tragedy; b) blame Trump, which is pandering gold; c) engage in outrageous hyperbole; d) recycle the silliest of anti-gun tropes, and e) do so while lacing his comments with profanity, because cursing makes bad arguments more persuasive, or something.

Most of his statement before the cameras was inarticulate, stuttering and emotional. Forget about the competent leader’s duty to show calm and professional demeanor so the public knows a capable adult is in control. This is how you signal virtue, and that you care. Once  the honorable Governor of California began talking in complete sentences, this was his approach:

“It’s just an outrage. I can’t put borders up — speaking of borders — in a neighboring state where you can buy this damn stuff legally. How the hell is that possible? [ Comment: How is it possible that states make their own laws, and California doesn’t get to dictate to Nevada? Let’s have a show of state hands to see how many states appreciate Gavin’s state creating a magnet for illegal immigrants, who then can proceed to travel where they wish.] I have no problem with the Second Amendment. [Note: That’s an obvious lie, but we can assume Newsom would say that he supports “sensible gun control,” which in eventually means “no guns.”] You have a right to bear arms but not weapons of goddamned mass destruction. [Note: No rifle, much less single shot rifle, is a weapon of mass destruction, and certainly not a goddamned weapon of mass destruction. This is disinformation, but hey, the governor is hysterical, so give him a break.] You need these damn things for hunting? Give me a break. [Note: The argument that the Second Amendment exists for the benefit of hunters is false, and dishonest, but anti-gun demagogues, especially Democratic governors—New York’s Governor Cuomo has made similar statements—keep recycling it. It convinces ignorant people, you see.] It’s just sickening… the leadership today that just turns a blind eye and won’t do a damn thing to address these issues. [ Translation: “Do something!”] What’s goddamned absent in this country right now is moral authority. [Comment: Whatever that means coming from an official of a party that ridicules and marginalizes religious faith.] California’s doing its part, but Jesus, these guys, the folks in the White House have been supporting the kinds of policies that roll back the work that we’re doing,. [Note: the “policies” Newsom refers to are known as the Bill of Rights.] It keeps happening, over and over and over again, on their damned watch. [Clarification: The shootings happened on Newsom’s watch as well, and before 2017, President Obama’s watch. Newsom didn’t make the “watch” argument then, for some reason]

This was pure, irresponsible demagoguery. As usual, the news media didn’t help by refusing to clarify that the “assault-type weapon” used in the shooting was not the  automatic, military  version of the AK-47 which is illegal, but the legal, single shot version. (“Assault-type” and “assualt-style” mean that the gun looks like an automatic, but isn’t. It is pure deceit. )That would require, however, exposing how ridiculous and dishonest the “weapons of mass destruction” line was. Continue reading

Prosecutorial Ethics: Not Charging The Police In The Eric Garner Case Is The Right Ethical Decision…

…and trying any of the officers involved would be unethical.

Naturally, Eric Garner’s family immediately is attacking  the decision of the Justice Department today not to bring federal charges against  the New York police officers whose ugly and violent arrest of Eric Garner in 2014 led to his death. This incident came in the midst of several high-profile police shootings following the triggering Trayvon Martin killing, and led directly to the emergence of Black Lives Matters as well as launching one of several catch phrases connected with the movement, “I can’t breath.”

The Department of Justice took a long time reviewing the incident and the evidence, and could not determine that Officer Daniel Pantaleo willfully committed misconduct, an “essential element necessary to bring federal charges,” a senior department official told reporters at a briefing today. Considering all the elements of the  crime required to be proven under the law, the DOJ official said, the conclusion was that  the police conduct did not “fit within the statute.”

In deciding not to bring charges, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr sided with federal prosecutors in Brooklyn. The  Justice’s Civil Rights Division had favored bringing charges.

The main problem facing the Justice Department and the New York prosecutors was that a conviction would be unlikely, making a prosecution more of a show trial than a real one, much like the George Zimmerman trial for allegedly murdering Martin. That trial was brought unethically to slake activist thirst for vengeance against Martin’s shooter, despite the glaring  evidence indicating self-defense. Prosecutors may not use the process itself to punish citizens. If a trial can’t be won, or if the justification for charges are dubious, then it is professional misconduct to bring them.

Were police negligent and reckless in using such aggressive measures to bring down a suspect who was resisting arrest? Absolutely, and this was addressed, as it should have been, in a civil trial. (Garner’s family was awarded 4 million dollars from the city.) Did the cops intend to kill Garner? It takes real anti-police bias to conclude that. The video shows a huge, morbidly obese man resisting arrest by a group of much smaller officers, who pretty evidently over-reacted. Although the ME attributed Garner’s death to “compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police,” the defense in a criminal trial will have no trouble finding persuasive expert testimony to the effect that what ultimately killed Eric Garner was his weight and poor health. Continue reading

“Ethics Dunce” Doesn’t Do Justice To Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot…Ethics Virus, Perhaps?

“Should All Thefts Be Prosecuted?” the headline asks rhetorically. Is the Pope Catholic? Does a bear…never mind, you get the point. Of course all thefts should be prosecuted, just like all laws should be enforced. It is a stupid question, and should be immediately recognized as such, yet, that headline goes on tell us, “Dallas County’s District Attorney Says No.”

Really? Then he is unqualified for office, an ethics corrupter, and a carrier of ethics rot. That DA—his name is John Creuzot–should resign, or be impeached. A prosecutor who doesn’t believe in enforcing laws is an unethical prosecutor, an untrustworthy prosecutor, biased and dangerous to society.

Creuzot has announced several measures of varying levels of justification and controversy to reform the justice system, which is certainly not without need to reform. However, one of them is unethical in multiple ways…

Study after study shows that when we arrest, jail, and convict people for non-violent crimes committed out of necessity, we only prevent that person from gaining the stability necessary to lead a law-abiding life. Criminalizing poverty is counter-productive for our community’s health and safety. For that reason, this office will not prosecute theft of personal items less than $750 unless the evidence shows that the alleged theft was for economic gain.

Continue reading

Comment Of The Day: “SCOTUS: There is No Right To Be Executed Painlessly”

The Ruth Snyder execution…

Capital punishment is one of those irresolvable topics guaranteed to roil an ethics blog; it has also been a reliably emotional issue that does not break down along partisan lines. The recent Supreme Court decision in Bucklew that rejected, narrowly, a condemned man’s argument that an execution method that would be uniquely painful in his case rendered it “cruel and unusual” in violation of the Constitution was a good bet to produce a Comment of the Day, and sure enough it did, from always provocative Steve-O-in NJ.

Here is his COTD on the post, “SCOTUS: There is No Right To Be Executed Painlessly.”I’ll be back at the end to briefly answer Steve’s question.

What stuck out to me is the penultimate paragraph in Breyer’s dissent, in which he states that as we move forward there may be no constitutional way to implement the death penalty. That, I submit, is one more reason we need to either get that sixth conservative justice on the Court or get Breyer out of there. Breyer already came within one step of saying the death penalty should be outlawed in a 2015 dissent in which only Justice Ginsburg joined (surprise surprise) and which got a pretty severe smackdown from Justice Scalia.

There is something fundamentally wrong with a way of thinking that worries so much about the pain, humiliation, or other bad consequence suffered by a murderer and thinks almost not at all about his victim. It’s that kind of thinking that keeps Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper) sitting in a UK prison on the taxpayers’ dime, Fowzi Nejad (the only terrorist to survive Operation Nimrod) living in London on the public dole, and means Michael Adebowale (who participated in what I can only describe as the assassination of Drummer Lee Rigby, for no reason other than he was a soldier) will see the parole board in 45 years. It’s also that kind of thinking that enabled Charles Manson to dodge death until the ripe old age of 83 and would have kept William Spengler (the West Webster shooter, who wrote that, “I still have to get ready to see how much of the neighborhood I can burn down, and do what I like doing best, killing people,”[ before setting a fire and ambushing the responding firemen, killing two of them) alive, perhaps to be paroled a second time, since he had already been imprisoned for 18 years after killing his grandmother with a hammer, had he not saved the authorities the trouble by killing himself. Continue reading

Comment Of The Day: “Unethical Prosecution, Incompetent Jury: Once Again, ‘Sorry’ Isn’t Enough.”

The recent post about a Louisiana man sent to prison for 36 years when procsecutors and a jury ignored the fact that the evidence didn’t meet the standard for guilt beyond a reasonable doubt  sparked many excellent comments. The tongue-in-cheek suggestion by a commenter that failure to dispense criminal justice competently should earn the same fate as Admiral Ozzel in “Star Wars”—he was strangled to death by an angry Darth Vader’s Dark Force powers—inspired long-time commenter mariedowd to write this Comment of the Day regarding juries, prosecutors and professionalism:

I agree the Ozzel is far too harsh. I think it is hard enough to get reasonably educated and alert jurors. Adding a risk when  they don’t really understand the proceedings and follow along when one set of lawyers plays their sympathies or fears better than the other will not improve the situation at all.

 I think jury pools should not be linked to voting rolls, because it discourages registering and voting. Non-voters fear the loss of income and time that comes with jury service,  AND their vote never accomplishes anything (they think), so why bother? I once got a preliminary  call to jury duty halfway across the state when I had serious mobility problems.  I was looking at hundreds to thousands of dollars in lost income for a long Federal case. The threat of costs and holes in lives pushes away competent, aware citizens, leaving a high percentage of jury membership  to the fringes, and fringes have  axes to grind.

Maybe we should attach jury selection to Social Security, as that is a larger pool Using drivers’ licenses is also a possible improvement, because it ties into citizenship.  Let’s make jury service less of a sacrifice for people who cannot dump their daily duties for unknown periods with the threat of lost income.

Maybe proximity to the courts should factor into selection, so travel isn’t such a problem. For a courtroom 70 minutes, away my elderly mother was supposed to travel to a strange town by  bus for an 8 am call. She simply does not have the energy for all that back and forth, even though she is alert and would make be a competent juror. Jury deliberations should be a juror’s burden, not getting to court: you can’t concentrate on the case if you ache from the journey. I don’t know exactly how to fix this, but the current system sorts out some good potential jurors while attracting less desirable varieties. Continue reading

Unethical Prosecution, Incompetent Jury: Once Again, “Sorry” Isn’t Enough.

After Archie Williams (above) was released from a federal penitentiary  last week after serving 36 years  not only for a crime he didn’t commit, but  after a false conviction that would have been prevented by decisive exculpatory evidence that was available to the prosecution from the beginning. The district attorney for East Baton Rouge Parish, Hillar C. Moore III, said in court, “As a representative of the state, I apologize.”

I’m sure that makes Williams feel all warm inside. As we discussed here just this month in another case of wrongful arrest, trial and imprisonment, the kind of life-destroying mistakes that send citizens to prison for crimes they didn’t commit must involve accountability for those responsible beyond mere financial damages paid by the State.

This case is especially infuriating. It was known at the trial, and admitted by the prosecution, that  fingerprints found at the scene where a woman had been raped and stabbed in in Baton Rouge, La. belonged to someone other than the man standing trial for the crime.  Under basic prosecutorial ethics, Williams shouldn’t have been charged. The prints guaranteed reasonable doubt.  An ethical  prosecutor is not supposed to decide, “Well, maybe we can convince the jury to ignore those prints.” Prosecutors aren’t supposed to fool juries.  Ethical prosecution demanded that the State acknowledge doubt, no matter how much it wanted to clear the case, The victim of the attack was the wife of a wealthy and powerful man.

Instead, the prosecutor at the trial trivialized the significance of the then-unidentified fingerprints found at the scene.  “How many people come through your house?” Jeff Hollingsworth asked the jury, after suggesting that the prints could have belonged to  a plumber or a carpenter, “The air-conditioning man, people who clean your carpets, the little girl home from school.”

Then it was the duty of the police to determine who those people were, match the prints, and determine that they didn’t commit the crime. Without that due diligence, there is doubt as a matter of reason as well as ethics.

Technicians in a crime lab eventually ran the fingerprints  through a national database, and  within hours there was a match with a serial rapist. That happened last week, however, almost four decades after the prints should have been identified. When Williams  requested that the fingerprints be run against the national database in 1999, prosecutors opposed his request and  no statute required them to comply…just fairness and an interest in justice.

The fingerprints weren’t the only reason the jury should have acquitted Williams. Although the victim was certain that he was her attacker, several aspects of her description of the rapist didn’t match  Williams. His lawyer at the trial, Kathleen S. Richey, accurately told the jury that  the victim had described a  taller man with a scar on his shoulder blade.  Williams did not; he had a scar on his upper arm.

The jury found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt anyway. He was 22 when police arrested him. Archie is Williams is 58 today.

It was dawning on criminologists by 1983 that eye witness testimony was less reliable than previously thought, and that identification could be negligently or intentionally be manipulated by police. Combined with the mysterious fingerprints, the shaky ID should have assured Williams’ acquittal. Juries, however, don’t know the law, don’t have experience evaluating evidence, and sometimes, as Reginald Rose pointed out in “Twelve Angry Men,” just want to get home, are misled by their biases, or just aren’t very bright.

I hesitate to call for some kind of sanctions or penalties when a jury botches its job like this; after all, the police screwed up, the prosecution was unethical, the judge let it all happen, and they were doing jobs that they had been trained to do. Nonetheless, it seems like some consequences of a bad verdict might focus jurors attention a bit more, to the benefit of justice. What those consequences might be, I have no idea.

I would support a law mandating the resignation and permanent bar from further prosecuting duties any prosecutor involved in sending an innocent man to prison, however.

It’s fascinating that such a case should come to public attention at the same time that activists, feminists and progressives are arguing that the presumption of innocence for men accused of sex crimes should be reduced. Archie Williams graphically shows where that position leads.