“Zodiac” And Real Lawyer, Fictional Lie Ethics

zodiac Belli

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.”

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The Ethical Fate For Joe Paterno’s Statue

In the wake of the Freeh Report’s revelations regarding the extent of the late Joe Paterno’s involvement in allowing Jerry Sandusky’s child molesting appetites to be sated with Penn State’s  assistance, many are calling for the campus statue honoring the now-disgraced coach to be removed.

I am generally opposed to removing memorials and honors to historical figures according to the popular verdicts of the day, for several reasons. The main one is that every individual who ever achieved something worthy of such honor also was guilty of misconduct that someone could convincingly argue outweighs it on moral or ethical grounds. New facts are uncovered, cultural values shift, and over time, no revered figure is safe from deconstruction. The reverse is also inevitable: if a life can be judged unworthy of honor, subsequent generations may well disagree. The verdict of a community, a culture and an era should be given due weight and respect;  a statue, memorial or monument not only recognizes an individual but also represents the judgment of our predecessors. Leave their judgments alone, and if we disagree with them, try to make ours better. Continue reading

Ethics and the Case of the “Large-Breasted Woman”

 

Now SHE'S what you call a distraction...

Illinois attorney Thomas W. Gooch III became the object of great hilarity in legal circles this week when he reacted to what he felt was an unethical courtroom tactic by his opposing counsel in a lawsuit by filing this motion in limine:

 Defendant’s counsel is anecdotally familiar with the tactics and theatrics of Plaintiff’s counsel . . . . Such behavior includes having a large breasted woman sit next to him at counsel’s table during the course of the trial. There is no evidence whatsoever that this woman has any legal training whatsoever, and the sole purpose of her presence at Plaintiff’s Counsel’s table is to draw the attention of the jury away from the relevant proceedings before this court, obviously prejudicing the Defendant’s in this or any other cause. Until it is shown that this woman has any sort of legal background, she should be required to sit in the gallery with the rest of the spectators and be barred from sitting at counsel’s table during the course of this trial.

Not surprisingly, the motion failed, and predictably, Gooch has become the latest villain in the gender wars, reducing a competent legal professional (according to attorney Dmitry Feofanov’s answer to the complaint) to the size of her bra cup and denigrating women generally. Continue reading