jump to navigation

Is a 14-Year Old an Adult? May 31, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

Earlier in the week 14-year old Heather D’Aoust, Scripps Ranch (north of San Diego), grabbed a claw hammer, attacked her mother, and succeeding in bludgeoning her so severely that she died the next day. If you go back a few days to a previous article, you’ll find that neighbors described the mother as devoted to her daughter, and that the daughter was a shy girl. Her father argued in court Thursday that his daughter is sick and needs help. However, the court decided to try her as an adult, with the possible sentence of 30 years in prison. The legal part of this story is a web of rules about charging juveniles as adults, and about criminal adults who are deemed to be mentally incompetent, but apparently there is some doubt about what might happen to a juvenile charged as an adult who is found to be mentally incompetent. In the article (link above) we hear from her father and her lawyer why she should be considered a child with a mental issue, but we hear very little about why the court made their decision, other than it was “closely examined,” and that 48 juveniles have been charged as adults by the court since 2001. The greater picture is that we have seen an increase over the last 15-20 years in the tendency to charge older children who commit serious crimes as adults, under the assumption that at that age they know “right from wrong,” and they should be held accountable (a deontological argument), and in addition, they are a danger to society (a utilitarian argument). Coincidentally, I read in a European newspaper that one of the large political parties is proposing a lowering of the age where kids can be charged as adults to 12-14, so as not to give young violent gang members a free pass. But I doubt that they intend to cast the net so wide that it covers family disputes with tragic endings.

So there really are two issues here: The general tendency of charging juveniles as adults, and Heather’s specific situation. Throw into the mix that some people suspect there is a political motive (“tough on crime”) behind the court’s decision. I’d hurry to say that what we, as readers, can glean from this can only be generalities, since we don’t know everything the court knows about Heather and the family dynamics (and whatever is irrelevant to the court is none of our business, anyway), and we may not know more until the preliminary hearing, supposedly in September.

Be that as it may, I’m interested in the principles involved: Should a juvenile be considered an adult by the sheer force of principle, due to the severity of her crime? Or should it be her underlying mindset that determines her court status? Her action shows a clear intent to harm—but is it the intent of a child, or an adult? Which leads to the general question what purpose punishment is supposed to serve; Heather’s father and her lawyer seem to think the main purpose is to rehabilitate her, but most people these days view punishment as a matter of (1) deterrence, (2) protection of the public, or (3) a simple matter of retribution. On the personal level, this is a tragic family situation. On the social level, it looks as if  it may become a case study that allows us to examine some of our basic assumptions about justice.


War Enablers May 30, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.

A democracy simply cannot function without an indepedent press, and any account of ethics in journalism begins with the responsibility to seek the truth.

When the history of the present decade is written, one of the most important episodes will be the failure of the press to challenge the Bush Administration’s  various deceptions and self-deceptions regarding the war in Iraq.

It has always been a bit of a puzzle why the press failed so miserably.

This week there has been a avalanche of information about this issue. Former Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s insider’s account of Bush’s dissembling is getting the most attention, but most of this we already know from other sources.

The more interesting story comes from various prominent members of the press corps who are finally discussing the kind of pressure they felt from their corporate masters.

Katie Couric reports pressure from  “the corporations who own where we work and from the government itself to really squash any kind of dissent or any kind of questioning of it.”

Jessica Yellin, currently at CNN and formerly employed by MSNBC, reported being “under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation.”

As usual the fish rots from the head.

Is there any reason to continue getting news from mainstream media?

Sub-Prime Primer May 29, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
add a comment

Here is a very short and very funny introduction to how our real estate and credit markets went bust.

Cyber-Ethics and Cyber-Crime May 18, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

A 13-year old girl thinks she is having an online relationship with an attractive boy, Josh, on MySpace; after several weeks he breaks off the relationship, suggesting that the world would be better off without her. Within an hour she has hanged herself in the closet. This is, of course, a tragedy. We all remember how vulnerable we were at 13, and some young souls are just more fragile than others. It is a rare case when the law steps in and accuses the person who ended the relationship with wrongdoing, but this is what has happened in the case of Megan Meier in Missouri, now getting national media attention. Because there are some twists to the story: For one thing, there is no “Josh”; that was a false identity created by an adult neighbor, Lori Drew, her daughter who used to be a friend of Megan’s, and an 18-tear old computer-savvy woman, reportedly so that they could find out what Megan was saying about the daughter who used to be her friend. And now the mother has been charged, in a Los Angeles court, with the federal crime of “cyber-bullying,” despite the fact that Missouri had decided not to prosecute. Why Los Angeles? Because that’s where MySpace is being managed, and she is charged with the crime of establishing a fraudulent identity on MySpace, used to cause emotional distress. Drew is looking at a maximum of 20 years behind bars, and now Missouri is approving a bill against cyber-harassment. We’ll probably see more legislation along those lines. This is one of those examples where legislation is struggling to catch up with technology, but as for the moral aspect of the story, that is interesting in itself: Do we need to develop a new set of moral standards for the Internet, or can we make do with the ones we already have, for communication as well as for self-protection? Many of you have avatars on a variety of websites, and it is generally considered a fun option, or even a safe way to communicate without exposing oneself to cyberstalking, not as a means of cyberstalking. It usually doesn’t involve creating a complete fraudulent identity for the purpose of stalking, or harassing, or misleading others for nefarious purposes. Lori Drew knew that she was playing with a vulnerable person’s mind, out of spite. Maybe she thought she was protecting her daughter—but even in the real world, self-defense can’t dramatically exceed the level of perceived threat. Increasingly, cyber communities don’t allow false identities. So what say you: Is it always morally wrong to create false web identities? Does it depend on the intention, or is it somehow wrong in itself?

No God, No Dice? May 13, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.

The Internet is full of Albert Einstein today: A Jan.3, 1954 letter from Einstein to the philosopher Eric Gutkind, being sold in London on Thursday by Bloomsbury Auctions, states that

 “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”

What happened to famous Einstein quotes such as “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” (1941) and “God does not play dice with the universe” (1926)? As far as the last one goes, that was never meant to be a comment on God, according to Einstein scholars. Einstein was worried about the scientific implications of his own theory of quantum mechanics. Besides, there are two versions of it. Here’s the original: Raffiniert ist der Herrgott, aber boshaft ist er nicht (1921). Loosely translated as “God is subtle, but he isn’t malicious.” Later, Einstein claimed that God doesn’t throw dice. And “Science without religion is lame”? For one thing, there’s a little translation problem: “Wissenscaft ist lahm” doesn’t mean that “science is lame,” but that “science is paralyzed.” And the meaning itself? According to some, it is evidence of Einstein’s feeling of cosmic spirituality and admiration for the structure of the universe. But this is nothing new—Einstein didn’t want to declare himself an atheist or a pantheist, but it was common knowledge that he didn’t believe in a personal god.


So why does this matter? If anything, it is a testimony to our preoccupation with classifications, sound bites, and neat explanations. But of course today’s debate about whether Einstein was religious or not  is also symptomatic of what many perceive as a cultural divide between two world views, one with and one without religion. Everybody would love to claim Einstein as one of “theirs”—theists as well as atheists. And he has been perceived as a bridge between these two views, with his awe of the universe. But for the sake of our own conviction, one way or another, will it make us feel better if we can pin him down on one idea once and for all? Will that validate our own conviction?

Justice or Mercy? The Walsh/LeFevre Case May 2, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

Our esteemed colleague and my good friend Professor Larry Hinman  from University of San Diego was interviewed in the San Diego U-T yesterday about the arrest of former drug dealer, now Carmel Valley wife-of-executive Marie Walsh. Walsh, then Susan Marie LeFevre,  ran away from a Michigan prison and a 10-20 year sentence for selling heroin in 1974, and vanished into thin air. Now it turns out that for 32 years she’s been living a decent and productive life on the right side of the law. So what does this mean? Should she have to go back and serve the rest of her time, plus the added charges for being a fugitive, or should her obviously rehabilitated 32 years make a difference?

USD’s Hinman said it’s easy for people to feel so much empathy for LeFevre.

“It sounds like she’s led a good life, maybe even an exemplary life since then, and we feel that should count for something,” he said. “And she was young when she committed these crimes . . . and what she did is not the same thing as shooting someone or stabbing someone.

“On some level, we want to believe our judgments are accurate because we can all imagine her as one of our neighbors. And if this is true, what does that say about our judgments about our neighbors? Could we be mistaken about them, too?”

I’ll bet Hinman said a lot more, which SDUT didn’t print—such as how well this case illustrates the fundamental difference between a consequentialist and a deontological world view: If you are a utilitarian/consequentialist, you will of course want her time behind bars minimized, maybe to a few years of probation, or perhaps simply reduced to “time served” (which was one year), because no good consequences will come of dragging her back to prison, away from her family and her community, since she is no threat to anybody, and she has so thoroughly redeemed herself. On the other hand, the deontologists among us will point out that (1) she committed a crime and was sentenced for it, and all the good behavior in the world isn’t going to nullify that, so her punishment should fit her crime; and (2) she has not been rehabilitated inasmuch as she has lied about her past to everybody, which shows fundamental disrespect for other people (treating them as merely a means to an end); and (3) we can’t universalize letting her off the hook—especially since others caught after escaping, who aren’t living in nice neighborhoods with wealthy spouses, will indeed be held accountable.  Not that our opinion will have any great impact—she is headed back to Michigan to serve at least 6 ½ years, maybe with an additional 5 ½ years, according to the SDUT, and nobody is asking us.  But it makes for a good philosophical discussion of justice, redemption and clemency—and it fuels the ongoing discussion about the relevance of rational vs. emotional arguments…