When The Ethics Alarms Don’t Ring: The Serial Killer Cocktail


Rebecca Brass, who who works with victims of sexual assault, was stunned to see an alcoholic beverage called “The Willie Pickton” on the drink menu of a British Columbia restaurant called “Surrey Wings.” It wasn’t the drink itself, which contains  blue curacao, blackberry, melon, orange juice and cranberry and sounds yummy, that troubled her, but the fact that the name honored local serial killer Robert “Willie” Pickton, currently serving a life sentence at Kent Institution in the Fraser Valley.

Though Willie was convicted of killing only six women,  the remains and DNA of 33 more were found on his farm. He also confessed  that he had murdered 49 women total, many of them Vancouver prostitutes. Brass, in her role as a sexual assault counselor with Women Against Violence Against Women, personally knows people with family members murdered by Pickton. Continue reading

TV Critics and “The Following”: Let’s Blame Kevin Bacon For Gun Violence!


To read many of the reviews of “The Following,” the new Fox serial killer drama starring Kevin Bacon that debuted last night, one would presume it is worse trash than “Two Broke Girls” polluted by “The Bachelor.” In fact, it is stylish, original, well-acted, infinitely more interesting than dramas the same critics have fallen all over themselves praising like “The Killing,” (which is “Twin Peaks” without the kinkiness and even slower, if that is possible), and scary, which is important, because “The Following” is a horror series, just as “Silence of the Lambs” is a horror movie. What seem to scare many of the soapbox critics more is that the series is on Fox, which, after all, is evil.

The TV reviewers, in their wisdom, have decided that people shouldn’t watch serial killer shows any more, because decent Americans—them— are so traumatized by the Sandy Hook massacre that they all want an end to guns, bloody video games, and any dramatic entertainment depicting violence that doesn’t come from a zombie or a vampire. Thus they savaged Kevin Bacon’s show….not because of its artistic and production values, but because they don’t want that kind of show on TV any more, and insist that the public consists of easily pleased sheep if they don’t feel the same way. Continue reading

TV Ethics, Viewed From A Sickbed

This isn’t how I look. This guy looks BETTER than I look…

[ As regular readers here might have guessed, I am ill, and have been since Thanksgiving. I can barely read, can’t really research, and whatever appears below was composed in 10 minute increments with hours or days in between. I’m hoping to be catching up very soon. Thank you for your patience]

What do you do when any movement or exertion makes you cough your guts out, when you can’t sleep but have to rest, when your brain is so blurry from viruses and medication that you can’t even compose a blog post for three days? (Sorry.) If you are me, and I hope for your sake that you aren’t, you watch TV.

I got one jolt of legal ethics horror that I hadn’t remembered re-watching Kevin Costner’s “The Untouchables,” directed by Brian DePalma. In the movie’s climax, Al Capone’s trial on income tax evasion has come to a crisis point, as Elliot Ness (Costner) realizes that the jury has been bribed to acquit him. Despite documentation of that fact, the corrupt judge tells Costner that the trial will proceed, whereupon Costner extorts him to prompt “a change of heart.” Now the judge shocks the courtroom by announcing that he is trading juries with another trial next door. The new, un-bribed twelve will decide Capone’s fate.

This is, of course, beyond ridiculous. Adversary attorneys must be able to choose a jury in voir dire, where each potential juror is questioned. Trading juries just invalidates two trials. Even if they could trade juries, which they couldn’t, the Capone trial would obviously have to start all over again since the new jury wouldn’t know what was going on.

None of this occurs to Al Capone’s panicky lawyer, however, who, realizing that the jig is up, announces that “we” are changing “our” plea to “guilty.” Chaos reigns. Capone (Robert DeNiro) punches his lawyer in the face, and I don’t blame him one bit.  A lawyer can’t plead guilty against the wishes of his client! The judge couldn’t accept such a plea, and Capone wouldn’t be bound by it. This would be an embarrassing distortion of the justice system in a Warner Brothers cartoon, but for a movie based on historical figures and events to sink so low is unforgivable. (“Carrie” aside, Brian DePalma was a hack.) Continue reading

“Dear Legal Ethicist: I’m a Lawyer, and I Think My Real Estate Client Might Be Jack the Ripper. What Should I Do?”

Here is a perfect example of where legal ethics and ethics diverge.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine reprimanded veteran Maine lawyer Eric B. Cote for investigating the background of Rory Holland—leading a “one man crusade” was how the court put it— after Holland  was convicted of a double murder and sentenced to two life sentences. Cote was convinced that Holland was a serial killer, and that there were other victims. Cote set out to find out who they were.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, Cote had represented the convicted murderer in a real estate transaction. The reasons he suspected Holland came from information he learned in the course of the representation, and under the ethics rules of every state, he cannot reveal such information for the benefit of others to the detriment of a current or former client. Continue reading

George Zimmerman and the “Racial Profiling” Canard

Racists, all of 'em.

On the frequently disgusting but reliably gripping CBS drama “Criminal Minds,” viewers quickly get accustomed to hearing the FBI profiler heroes alert police and public to be on the look-out for a “white, middle-aged man.” Why man? Easy: virtually all serial killers are male. Why white? Same thing: although a rare black serial killer comes along (the D.C. snipers were African-American), the vast majority of serial killers from Jack the Ripper onward have been Caucasian.

You know, I just don’t feel denigrated by the fictional FBI’s alert (the real FBI would do the same.) Telling the public that the individual butchering prostitutes or massacring families is the same race as I am isn’t bias, bigotry or racism, it’s logic. It is also, beyond question, racial profiling, which, under the right circumstances, makes sense, prevents crime, catches criminals, and isn’t unethical or racist in the least.

So effectively have civil rights advocates and the media managed to bias the public against rational racial profiling, however, that the phrase itself has become a synonym for racism. When you mangle and distort a descriptive term in this way, blurring the distinctions between phrases and concepts, the culture gets a lobotomy and forced aphasia. What is the term for a fair and legitimate conclusion that a particular crime in a particular area is more likely to be performed by one race than another? Right now, the term is racism. Continue reading

The Girl Scouts, the Loyal Wife, and “Wisconsin Sickness”

Just what I want to see on my daughter's Girl Scout troop leader's husband's website! And you?

The Girl Scouts have been going through a strange period lately. There was the controversy over a transgender troop member, a boy who identified as a girl.  Then it was revealed that the organization’s literature was promoting Media Matters as a means of civic education.  This, however, takes the cake.

Stacy Hintz, a 28-year-old mother from West Bend, Wisconsin,was removed from her volunteer position as a Girl Scout troop leader because of her husband’s website. The site is called Wisconsin Sickness, is slick, professional, unique, and 100% batty. Here is its introduction:

“Whatever the reason, there is a deep and passionate psychosis that runs through the unstable synapses of those of us from Wisconsin, land of serial killers and cannibals. And we’re proud of it. Wisconsin Sickness, a Mental Shed project, is all about bringing the independent, underground Wisconsin scene together and spreading the sickness like a virus.”

And really, that’s nothing: wait until you see the site, which, among other things, celebrates Ed Gein, the serial killer/cannibal/necrophiliac whose horrific crimes and, uh, interior decorating style inspired “Psycho,” “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” and dozens of lesser horror films. Continue reading

Now THIS Is An Offensive Team Name

The London, Ontario independent baseball team has decided to rename itself “The London Rippers.”

Jack's last victim: a logo, perhaps?

The city’s mayor has expressed concerns about the name, and good for him. This isn’t a manufactured political correctness complaint, based on the dubious logic that it demeans a group to honor it with an athletic team name. This is the opposite: a team name that honors a serial killer who disemboweled poor women in the slums of London in 1888. Misogyny isn’t cute or funny, and anyone who thinks that making Jack the Ripper a team symbol is anything but one more outrage perpetrated against his pathetic victims but gets indignant over the Atlanta Braves has his head on upside-down and backwards.

Now, I suppose it’s possible that an association of serial killers will protest that the name “London Rippers” dehumanizes them and puts them in the same category with lions, tigers and bears. In such an eventuality, I would side with the associations of lions, tigers and bears protesting that the name denigrates them. Sportswriting lawyer Craig Calcaterra, a sharp baseball mind whose NBC column alerted me to this story, somehow misses the point by a mile, writing:

“…Jack the Ripper did his work, like, 130 years ago. Murder is murder and it’s always awful, but at what point has enough time passed to where this kind of thing isn’t a problem?  And yes, I note the mayor’s nod to ending violence against women, but does a reference to a 19th century British serial killer who is more often fictionalized today than dealt with in his brutal reality really undermine those laudable aims?
I’m not saying it’s 100% fabulous. But really, kids were singing about Lizzie Borden taking an axe and giving her mother 40 whacks within a few years of that going down. Is it really too soon to be able to use a  long-dead historical figure as a mascot? There are a bunch teams called “crusaders” and the crusades were brutal. We still have Chief Wahoo around, and you can make an argument that the thinking behind that mascot (i.e. Indians are somehow less-than-human) represented way more death and destruction than anything Jack the Ripper did.”

Ugh. How many rationalizations are in this passage? Playground chants about Lizzie Borden (or the Black Plague, which is what “Ring around the rosey” is about) are not remotely comparable to naming a community’s baseball team after a serial killer. Playground refrains don’t become part of a community’s identity, and they don’t in any way bestow prestige on the dark subjects of their rhymes. Teams named after crusaders, warriors, braves and pirates don’t aspire to honor the deaths caused by these groups, any more than teams are named the Lions or Tigers because they have mauled people, or the Cardinals and Orioles are so named because the birds poop on our heads. There one reason, and only one, Jack the Ripper is famous. He slit the throats of desperate prostitutes and dissected them,: in the case of Mary Kelly, he minced his victim, leaving her internal organs on her night table. The London Ripper sent body parts of one victim to police, and taunted them. He didn’t possess a single admirable quality to justify a connection to a sports team, unless there are professional misogyny, mayhem or maniac leagues somewhere.

And Craig’s argument that is an expiration date on the offensiveness of trivializing tragedy is the worst of all. Seriously, Craig? So Penn State can call its wrestling team “the Molesters” in 100 years or so? What he’s really endorsing is ignorance. Kids who chant about the bubonic plague don’t realize it, and neither do their parents. That a lot of people don’t know the truth behind all the fictional Jack the Ripper tales is an argument for enlightening them, not pretending that killing prostitutes is just fun and games.

The mayor of London is right, Craig  is wrong, and if there ever was an inappropriate and harmful  team name, the London Rippers is it.

Ethics Dunce: Bernie Madoff, Now and Forever

Would I rather have Charlie or Bernie on the loose? Tough call...

Bernie Madoff, reports the New York Times, is feeling mistreated.

Two years into his 150 year sentence for defrauding hundreds of investors, destroying dozens of charities, and crushing the financial security of people who trusted him with their future, Madoff thinks it was unfair for Judge Denny Chin, who sentenced him, to make certain that he would die in prison. Accusing Chin of having “zero understanding of the industry”—meaning what, I wonder; that it was normal for the investment industry to set out to ruin people?—-and saying that he was being made a scapegoat while Wall Street firms and government officials “walk away free,” Madoff told reporter Ben Weiser, “Remember, they caused the recession, not me.”

Yes, and the Crusades started the chain of events that led to 9-11, and Teddy Roosevelt’s Asian policies lit the fuse for Pearl Harbor. Continue reading

“The Mentalist” Ethics: Patrick Jane Osamas “Red John”

Red John's bloody calling-card will be found at serial killing scenes no more.

Tonight marked the season finale of “The Mentalist” on CBS, and by happy coincidence, Bruno Heller’s odd-ball murder mystery drama ended with its hero, Patrick Jane (played with brio by the excellent Simon Baker) executing his nemesis, the serial killer “Red John,” in a crowded food court…a Osama bin Laden style killing that, like the death of the Al Qaida mastermind, was both technically illegal and completely ethical.


Red John, for those of you who do not follow “The Mentalist,” is the self-chosen monicker of a brilliant maniac with financial resources, who slaughtered California Bureau of Investigation consultant Jane’s family as well as untold others. Jane has spent the three years of the series in an Ahab-like quest for revenge, wittily solving other murders along the way. In the final episode, Red John plotted the death of Jane’s boss and maybe love interest, Theresa Lisbon, played by Robin Tunney. Red John’s henchman managed to kill two officers and wound Lisbon before he was foiled, leading to a dramatic confrontation between the serial killer himself and the hero. Continue reading