Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 11/12/2017: Prisoners Behaving Badly, The Harvey Weinstein Ethics Train Wreck Picks Up The Brother Of “The Girl Next Door,” And The Attempted Coup Continues

Good Morning!

On the way to Boston soon for an in-and-out ethics seminar for young Massachusetts lawyers…

1 Why is the New York Times acting as if the 2016 campaign is still going on? Today’s Sunday Times includes a long scold from the Times editors urging the President to “please read the Constitution.” Then it reaches back all the way to 2015 for TrumpTweets that proposed or mused about Constitutionally impossible policy ideas. How does the Times know that the President’s Constitutional acumen hasn’t been enhanced since 2015? It doesn’t, of course. The criticism would be legitimate during a campaign, but a year after an election, it tells us only this: The New York Times is still in the mode it announced during the campaign. The existence of Donald Trump, in its view, justifies the suspension of journalism’s core principles. In the view of many of the Times’ voices on its op-ed page, his existence also justifies the suspension of the Constitution that the paper piously insists the President read. The Times editors have not told those who have claimed in its pages and from the floor of Congress that President Trump should be impeached based on no “high crimes and misdemaeanors” to read the Constitution. It didn’t tell Hillary Clinton to “read the constitution” when she advocated “the Australian approach” to gun control, or grandstanding Democrats in the House to ‘read the Constitution” when they behaved as if the right  of Due Process didn’t exist, so citizens arbitrarily placed on a no-fly list by the FBI could nonetheless be denied the right to own a gun. It didn’t tell “the resistance” to “read the Constitution” when it attempted to distort the operation of the Electoral College to undo the President’s election.

“He has showed disdain for the separation of powers by repeatedly attacking the federal judiciary and individual judges who have ruled against him.” the Times sniffs, but it did not tell Barack Obama to “read the Constitution” when he attacked the U.S. Supreme Court in a State of the Union address. Then the Times goes off into the hyper-partisan stratosphere, suggesting that its editors also need to “read the Constitution”:

He has abused the pardon power by granting his first, and so far only, pardon to a former sheriff who was found in contempt of a federal court for defying an order. And he has failed to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, whether by trying to sabotage the Affordable Care Act, leaving hundreds of critical executive branch positions vacant or threatening to prosecute his former political opponent.

The Constitution places no limits whatsoever on the pardon power; it is absolute, beyond appeal, and can’t be abused as a matter of Constitutional law. The Times’s definition of the duty to faithfully execute the laws is incomprehensible, since it did not object to Barack Obama circumventing crystal clear laws against illegal immigration by ordering them not to be enforced, or when the Obama administration refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act while it was still a valid law signed by the previous Democratic President. The Constitution does not demand that the Federal government be a bloated, deficit-making bureaucracy; the President, not the Times, gets to decide what positions are “critical” in the Executive Branch. That’s in the Constitution. As for “threatening to prosecute his former political opponent.,” the President’s statements regarding Hillary Clinton can be and should be taken as questioning whether the Justice Department under Barack Obama was placing its thumb on the sales of justice for political purposes.

It is increasingly beyond argument that the mainstream news media, led by the Times, is trying to abuse its Constitutionally enshrined immunity from responsibility to engineer a virtual or actual coup. That is dangerous and unforgivable, as well as directly contrary to how the Founders wanted our democracy to operate.

2. I checked the news early this morning to learn the identity of the latest celebrity to have a finger pointed his way as a chorus shouts “HARASSER!” To my surprise and alarm, I discovered that the Harvey Weinstein Ethics Train Wreck had entered my world: jet-set hotelier André Balazs was accused by actor Jason Bateman’s wife of groping her crotch in 2014. André Balazs grew up across the street from my childhood home in Arlington, Massachusetts. His sister, Marianne, was a good friend and classmate all the way through high school. I knew André as Marianne’s annoying little brother.

It appears that the idea in Hollywood now is to accuse someone else before you or your significant other gets accused. This is because sexual harassment and misconduct has been an accepted part of power-player culture in Hollywood forever, even while the Left’s component of that culture proclaimed that the Right was wielding a “war on women.” The country should not forget how dishonest and hypocritical this was.

I never liked that kid…. Continue reading

Ethics Hero: “Mama Betty”


In Los Angeles, six thousands of LA County prisoners are housed in Pitchess Detention Center, which is 50 miles from the inner city neighborhoods where most of the prisoners there live. Using public transportation, which is what most friends and family members must use to reach Pitchess, the journey can take up to five hours to visit an inmate for 30 minutes, through a glass window, with no physical contact. The closest bus stop is a mile away from the jail, and at the bottom of a steep hill.

For five years, a woman named Betty Peters, now 76, has picked up visitors at that bus stop and driven them to the prison. She also waits for the women (mostly) to finish their visits, and drives them back to the bus stop. The grateful visitors know her as “Mama Betty.”

This is an act of pure compassion and kindness, and not without its risks. If a visitor tries to smuggle in contraband, drugs or a weapon,Betty could be prosecuted as an accomplice. Nor does she know the character of those whom she ferries from the jail to the bus and back. Might she be at risk of harm herself? I would assume so. Those with criminals as friends and associates are more likely to be criminals themselves.

I hope this story has a happy ending, because every time kindness like this is returned with cruelty and exploitation, the number of Mama Bettys among us is diminished, and our society becomes a little more meaner, more callous, and less ethical.

Ethics Alarms salutes Betty Peters as an Ethics Hero…and worries.

You can hear a podcast about Mama Betty here.


Pointer: Fred.

Ethics Hero : Don Huber

George Williams, finally free and on his way. If only I used barbers...

George Williams, finally free and on his way. If only I used barbers…unfortunately, that requires hair…

Here in Virginia, we are debating Governor Terry McAuliffe’s decision to let felons be jurors and to vote for Hillary Clinton (for whom they are are presumed to have natural affinity, as well as for Governor McAuliffe himself, perhaps), but nobody would begrudge them the chance to be barbers.

That’s what George Williams is about to be: a barber. He just graduated from Tribeca Barber School in Lower Manhattan, and  will soon face state examiners to qualify for his New York barber’s license. He almost didn’t make it.

As he was about to be released four years ago from the infamous  Attica Correctional Facility where he was serving  his two- to four-year sentence for robbing a pair of Manhattan jewelry stores, a gang of prison guards brutally attacked and beat him. Williams had both legs and his collarbone broken, and a fractured eye socket  Doctors placed screws into one leg to hold the bones together.

Disgustingly, prosecutors allowed the guards involved to exchange a guilty plea to a lesser charge for a punishment that included no prison time. Here was their primary penalty: they can’t be prison guards any more. Funny, I would think that would be automatic, plea or no plea, when you beat prisoners half to death.

The story of George Williams’ beating and the ridiculously, suspiciously lenient sentences received by his state-paid muggers was one of the nightmarish Tales From The Dark Side of the Justice System in a front page of a The New York Times story about The Marshall Project. Williams was quoted as saying that he still  headaches and nightmares from the attack but was trying to save the $2,600 barber school tuition to start a new life as a law-abiding tonsorialist.

27-year-old United States Army specialist, Don Huber read the article while stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas. He had been raised in Attica, New York, and had just finished serving nine months  in Afghanistan with the First Infantry Division.

Huber was moved William’s plight and bothered by the bad reputation the incident  gave his community. Huber had gone to high school with one of the guards who beat Williams, but had never met George. Still, Huber organized an online fundraising campaign to raise at least $2,600 to help the ex-prisoner get on with his life. The campaign quickly received $5,800 through more than 70 donations. Continue reading

In Washington State, Not “Over-Incarceration,” Just Incompetent And Cruel Incarceration

African American in Prison

Since 2002, the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) has allowed a sentencing-calculation glitch in its computers to allow more than 3000 inmates to walk out of prison before their sentences were complete. Now the state is rounding-up  ex-prisoners, in many cases after they have built back their lives, settled down, found jobs, and done all of the things, difficult things, former felons are supposed to do once they have paid their debts to society.

Last month, Governor Jay Inslee and DOC Secretary Dan Pacholke  revealed that incorrectly programmed computer software  had been  miscalculating release dates Washington convicts sentenced to extra prison for violence related to their crimes. Although DOC employees have been aware of the problem since 2012,an assistant attorney general advised against an urgent review, allowing the error, and the early releases, to continue for three more years as a software fix was delayed repeatedly. (Yes, there is an investigation.) Finally, a fix is supposedly in the works.

None of this was the fault of the prisoners who were released early, but they are the ones being made to suffer for it. Most of those who have been out for long periods are being left alone, according to the standards for review, but for those deemed to need additional prison time, the trauma is significant. The Seattle Times interviewed Miranda Fontenot, whose fiancé, James Louis, was taken into custody last week when he checked in with his community corrections officer. Continue reading

Ethics Hero Emeritus: Sister Antonia Brenner, 1926-2013


Sister Antonia dies at 86

Sister Antonia caring for a prisoner in La Mesa in 2002

Once again, someone remarkable has died whose life was insufficiently celebrated while she was alive. I had never heard of Antonia Brenner until yesterday. I wish I had.

Mary Clarke was born on Dec. 1, 1926—we share a birthday!— the second of three children. Her father, Joseph, was a prosperous business executive; the family had a second home overlooking the Pacific. After her second marriage, to Carl Brenner, she was known as Mary Brenner, and was the mother of eight children, comfortably ensconced in Beverly Hills.  While struggling through her second divorce, she began doing charity work for the poor in Los Angeles.  A priest friend, Monsignor Anthony Brouwers, took  her to La Mesa state penitentiary in Tijuana, Mexico, which was filled with convicted murderers, thieves, gang members, rapists and other hardened criminals, all living in brutal and inhumane  conditions even by the horrible standards of U.S. prisons. Everything—her life, her name, and most of all, the existence of the prisoners, changed after that.

She became devoted to their plight as human beings, and brought the prisoners basics of comfort that were being withheld from them, at her own expense. She gave them aspirin, blankets, tooth paste, soap, even prescription eyeglasses. She carried spare toilet paper with her, and kep a lookout for other missing essentials. Brenner acquired a prison contract to sell soda pop to prisoners and then used the proceeds to post bail for minor offenders. She began spending more and more time with the prisoners, gaining their affection and trust, even singing in their church services. She treated them with dignity and kindness: when prisoners died, it was Mary Brenner who prepared him for burial. Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Ethics Dunce: Fox News”

Bradley then, Chelsea now.

Bradley then, Chelsea now.

Responding sharply to a commenter’s expressed criticism of the argument that convicted classified data leaker Bradley, now Chelsea, Manning, sentenced to Federal prison and seeking treatment as a trans-gendered female, ought to have his treatment needs served by prison authorities at public cost, Ethics Alarms’ own expert on such matters (from Australia), provided this fascinating overview of U.S. law and medical ethics on the topic. Here is zoebrain’s Comment of the Day on the recent post flagging Fox News’ juvenile mockery of Manning’s gender issues, Ethics Dunce: Fox News:

“There are two disputes here. The first is whether prisoners have a right to medical treatment, and if so, to what degree.I’ll deal with that first.

“Brown v. Plata 131 S.Ct. 1910 (2011):  “To incarcerate, society takes from prisoners the means to provide for their own needs. Prisoners are dependent on the State for food, clothing, and necessary medical care. A prison’s failure to provide sustenance for inmates “may actually produce physical ‘torture or a lingering death.’ ” ….Just as a prisoner may starve if not fed, he or she may suffer or die if not provided adequate medical care. A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.” Continue reading

I Would Have Fired Sympathetic, Well-Meaning, Grandmotherly Sharon Snyder, Too: The Perils Of Consequentialism

Hear me out.

Why do I suspect that if this had been the clerk in question, we wouldn't be hearing about this story?

Why do I suspect that if this had been the clerk in question, we wouldn’t be hearing about this story?

The news media is indignant over the firing of Sharon Snyder, 70, a court worker who provided a copy of a successful motion for seeking post-conviction DNA testing that gained Robert Nelson a reversal of his wrongful 1984 rape conviction. He had been sentenced to more than 50 years in prison, and the belated DNA testing showed that he was innocent. Nevertheless, court officials in Jackson County, Missouri ruled that Nelson’s “angel” had improperly provided advice about a case, among other violations of court rules.

Snyder  was fired nine months before she was scheduled to retire, and there is little question that without her efforts, Nelson would still be in prison. In August 2009, Nelson filed a motion seeking DNA testing that had not been available at his trial 25 years earlier, but Jackson County Circuit Judge David Byrn denied the request. Two years later, Nelson asked the judge to reconsider, but again Byrn rejected the motion because Nelson’s self-drafted document was insufficient under the statute Nelson had cited.  After the second motion was rejected, Snyder contacted Nelson’s sister and gave her a copy of a successful motion, drafted by a lawyer, that resulted in the same judge granting another DNA testing request.  Nelson then used it as a template for a motion he filed Feb. 22, 2012, again seeking DNA testing.  Byrn sustained the motion, found Nelson to be indigent and appointed Laura O’Sullivan, legal director of the Midwest Innocence Project, to represent him.  Last month, the Kansas City Police Department’s crime lab concluded that DNA tests proved that Nelson was not the rapist in the crime he had been convicted of committing. He was freed on June 12, 2013

This is all good, and an example of justice finally, if belatedly, prevailing.

Snyder’s role, however, got her suspended without pay, and then fired on June 27. 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

Comment of the Day: “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Unethical…”

Buck, a professional firefighter, has some wry observations on the Camden County, Georgia plan, discussed in a recent post here, to save money by letting prison inmates fight fires. Here is his Comment of the Day on When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Unethical, Chapter I: Camden County, Georgia has a Terrible Idea to Save Money:

“Oh! This is a wonderful idea, for a variety of reasons:

“1. This puts obviously unemployed workers back to work.

“2. Since public safety personnel are our best and brightest in our community, we would put fewer of them in harm’s way. We have to save their lives to be available for the next parade to represent how trustworthy and respectable they are. If we replace them with convicted felons. and one of them loses their life, there is no loss, truly. True firefighters are much too valuable to risk doing such a dangerous job. On a truly dangerous emergency, the convicts could be sent in to do the dirty work. This would work! Continue reading

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Unethical, Chapter I: Camden County, Georgia has a Terrible Idea to Save Money

Fortunately, ax-murders aren't eligible for firefighting duties....YET!

Camden County officials are considering putting prison inmates to work as firefighters as a cost-cutting measure.

The program would put two inmates in each of three county firehouses. The prisoners (will they wear striped fire-fighter uniforms?)  would respond to all emergencies, including residential fires, alongside the trained firefighters. The special program would be open to convicts charged with non-violent crimes, including drug offenses and robbery.

According to the details of the plan, the inmates would have no guards, but would be monitored by a surveillance system and by the non-criminal firefighters, who will undergo training to guard the inmates. It is estimated that the inmate firefighter program could save the county more than $500,000 a year.

Oh. Well, I guess that makes this irresponsible, reckless, offensive program all right, then! Continue reading