A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Tag: 14th Amendment

Prosecutorial Misconduct: Above the Law

By Halina Schiffman-Shilo

Though it may be surprising to some, American lawyers are actually governed by a code of ethics. In fact, all aspiring lawyers must pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination to be admitted to the bar. And if you’re admitted and still confused, the American Bar Association developed the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility, upon which many states have based their own rules of ethical conduct, to guide you through the haze. While the Model Rules are just a model, state ethics rules are binding, and breaching them can have serious professional consequences.

First enacted in 1908, the current Model Rules address a wide-range of situations, but give prosecutors their own ethical shout-out. Rule 3.8 provides a framework for what prosecutors ought to do in situations when they either uncover evidence that “tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense,” or know of “new, credible and material evidence creating a reasonable likelihood that a convicted defendant did not commit an offense of which the defendant was convicted.”

Legalese much? Boiled down, the rule basically tells prosecutors to disclose evidence to the defense that could show that someone is not guilty, either before his trial or after he was convicted.

Prosecutors acting outside the law is nothing new, of course. In the 1935 Supreme Court case Berger v. United States, Justice Sutherland eloquently explained the aim of criminal prosecutions: “that guilt shall not escape or innocence suffer.” The Court continued, “It is as much his [the prosecutor’s] duty to refrain from improper methods calculated to produce a wrongful conviction as it is to use every legitimate means to bring about a just one.”

The Berger Court then helpfully listed the improper methods the prosecutor used to secure conviction at trial: he misstated facts, bullied witnesses, and “conduct[ed] himself in a thoroughly indecorous and improper manner.”

In 1961, Illinois state prosecutor Blaine Ramsey used these same “improper methods,” in addition to withholding and mischaracterizing key evidence, to (wrongly) convict Lloyd Eldon Miller Jr. for the barbaric sexual assault and murder of an eight year old girl.

The evidence in question was a pair of allegedly bloody undershorts that Mr. Miller had allegedly worn when he killed the little girl. Turns out, the shorts weren’t Mr. Miller’s and the “blood” was actually paint.

Allowing these facts to surface would have pretty quickly torpedoed the prosecution’s case.

So, they didn’t.

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The Right to Not Have an Abortion

By Nicole Rowlands

There’s a stigma that comes with being a teen mom. You may not graduate high school. In less than a year, you may get pregnant again. And eight out of ten teen pregnancy cases do not end up in marriage. But for a 16-year-old teen from Houston, Texas, none of it matters.

She wants her baby. And she will keep it. Despite the odds against her.

According to the teen, her parents tried coercing her to have an abortion. She told the press that after finding out about her pregnancy, her parents took away her phone and her car, pulled her out of school, and made her get two jobs in an effort to make her miserable so that she’d give up and agree to abort her baby.  Her mother allegedly threatened to “slip her an abortion pill.” And her father told her he was going to “look into canceling her health insurance.”

Her parents gave her two choices: one, she could “live in misery” in their home, or two, she could “have the abortion and tell everyone it was a miscarriage.”

The teen sought the court’s help to sue her parents and was represented by lawyers from the Texas Center for Defense of Life. In the end, she and her parents reached an agreement and she was “allowed” to go through with the pregnancy. But, as a minor, if the case had gone forward, would she have won?

The press didn’t analyze the legal issues involved. We will.

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Racism in the Baby Ward

By Mike Brancheau

Tonya Battle is an African American registered nurse who has worked for Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan for the past 25 years. Last October, Ms. Battle was caring for a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (“NICU”) when the father approached her station and reached for the child. Ms. Battle informed the man that she was the baby’s nurse and requested to see the man’s identification bracelet. The man abruptly responded that he needed to speak to Ms. Battle’s supervisor.

After speaking with the father, the Charge Nurse of the NICU informed Ms. Battle that the father did not want an African American nurse caring for his baby. In response to the request, a note was attached to the child’s clipboard that said: “Please, No African American Nurses to care for [name omitted] baby per dad’s request. Thank you.”

Some time after that, an attorney for the hospital informed the Nurse Manager that the father’s request could not be honored and that the sign should be removed. But according to Ms. Battle, even though the sign came down, the hospital made sure that no African American nurses were assigned to care for the baby for the next month.

On February 18, The Inquisitr reported that Ms. Battle was suing the hospital for discrimination in violation of the 14th Amendment. In her complaint, Ms. Battle stated that she was “shocked, offended, and in disbelief” that her longtime employer would so egregiously discriminate against her based upon her race.

On February 19, Hurley’s CEO, Melany Gavulic, responding to the story, stated, “the father was informed that his request could not be granted,” and that “all nurses remained available to care for his baby.”

On February 22, The Detroit Free Press reported that Hurley Medical Center had settled the lawsuit with Ms. Battle. It now faces a lawsuit from a second African American nurse, Carlotta Armstrong.

Ms. Battle sued Hurley Medical Center pursuant to Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act and Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Ms. Armstrong filed her lawsuit under only the state law.  LASIS will explain why Hurley Medical Center was wise to quickly settle the lawsuit with Ms. Battle and should do the same in the lawsuit with Ms. Armstrong.

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Thinking About Breaking Up a Marriage? It Could Cost You.

 

By Jessica McElroy

Mississippi plumber Johnny Valentine and his wife Sandra Day wed in 1993 and didn’t enjoy the happiest of marriages. Mr. Valentine was a drinker and gambler who showed no signs of changing no matter how many times the missus threatened to leave.  In 1998, an unhappy and fed up Ms. Day began having an affair with her boss, Jerry Fitch, a wealthy oil and real estate businessman.

The following year, Ms. Day gave birth to a baby girl whom Mr. Valentine assumed was his daughter– until he didn’t.  Seven months after the little girl was born, Mr. Valentine took a paternity test.  He’d been right to be suspicious; the girl was Mr. Fitch’s child. Ms. Day continued adulterous relationship with Mr. Fitch, and Mr. Valentine filed for divorce.

Shortly after that, Mr. Valentine brought another suit – this time, against Mr. Fitch – essentially accusing him of stealing his wife.  Mr. Valentine won, and earlier this year,  the Supreme Court of Mississippi affirmed the jury verdict against Mr. Fitch including $754,500 in compensatory and punitive damages– plus 8 percent annual interest.

Yikes.

Mr. Fitch’s big payout to Mr. Valentine came courtesy of Mississippi’s common law tort of alienation of affection.

LASIS wasn’t even aware that such a law, even if on the books, could still being litigated in today’s courts. It may not be nice to have an affair with someone married but how the heck can it be illegal?  We were intrigued, and investigated.   (more…)

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Thin Mints v. The City

By Halina Schiffman-Shilo and Ashley Davidson

The days of child-run lemonade and cookie stands may soon be over.

In the spring of 2005, two enterprising sisters, ten-year old Caitlin and eight-year-old Abigail Mills of Hazelwood, Missouri sold Girl Scout Cookies for a few hours each evening after school from the stand they set up in their drive-way. And this little stand was mighty successful. In 2011, the girls sold around 1,700 boxes, a feat that would make any parent or troop leader proud.

This tradition continued until one year ago when their mother, Carolyn Mills, found an unpleasant surprise waiting for her with the mail: a notice from the City of Hazelwood Code Enforcement, a zoning board, stating that the Girl Scout Cookie stand violated a home occupations Code, and that her family was prohibited from involvement in this kind of quasi-criminal activity.

Not wanting to break the law — they are Scouts, after all — Ms. Mills and her daughters filed for a license to sell their cookies. The city, citing health and safety concerns, denied their application.

And so Ms. Mills is suing. According to the complaint filed in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County Missouri, the Mills family claims that the city has no evidence of the cookie stand causing any considerable public health, safety, or welfare hazards. The Mills family also claims that the Code is unconstitutional, and deprives them of their liberty and their right to use personal private property as they see fit.

The Mills family is not seeking money from the city; they just want the right to sell their cookies. Several media outlets (see here and here) have reported on this cookie-selling case, but they haven’t weighed in on the lawsuit’s merits. LASIS investigates.   (more…)

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