What’s the most powerful and underutilized legal tool in combating corporate crime and violence?
Sarbanes Oxley? No.
The Martin Act? No.
The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act? No.
The antitrust laws? Clearly not.
No, the most powerful and underutilized tool in combating corporate crime and violence is the law in your state making it a crime to kill another person. It is powerful because it levels the playing field between individuals and corporations. It is underutilized because it’s a rare prosecutor who has the guts to bring a homicide charge against a major American corporation.
If you have one too many drinks, get behind the wheel of your car, drive away, get into an accident and kill someone as a result, you most likely will be charged with some form of homicide — negligent homicide, or reckless homicide or manslaughter. You didn’t intend to kill someone. But you did. You should have known that drinking and driving increased the risk that you were going to kill someone. And you did kill someone. And you will be charged and most likely convicted and most likely spend some time in the slammer.
But if a large powerful institution — say a corporation or a government — engages in reckless or negligent behavior, and they kill someone or many someones — they will most likely not be criminally prosecuted for homicide. Why not? The short answer is — they’re powerful and you’re not.
So, for example, we read in the newspaper today that a snowboarder who ran into a skier a year ago in at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming was charged yesterday with negligent homicide. The 17-year-old ran into Heather Donahue, 29, of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. Donahue died of a head injury. “The impact knocked Donahue out of her gloves, skis, poles, hat, goggles, neck warmer and catapulted her 25 feet down the hill,” sheriff’s investigator Mike Carlson said.
All you have to do is type in the words “manslaughter” or “reckless homicide” or “negligent homicide” into Google News and up will come case after case of regular people being charged with various forms of homicide — not because they intended to kill, but because they did not take care.
Rarely do corporations get charged. As we have pointed out in an earlier column, the last homicide prosecution brought against a major American corporation was in 1980, when a Republican prosecutor charged Ford Motor Co. with homicide for the deaths of three teenaged girls who died when their Ford Pinto caught on fire after being rear-ended in northern Indiana. The prosecutor alleged that Ford knew that it was marketing a defective product, with a gas tank that crushed when rear ended, spilling fuel, which caught on fire and incinerated the three young girls. But Ford brought in a hotshot criminal defense lawyer who secured a not guilty verdict after getting the judge to keep key evidence out of the jury room.
In 2003, Ira Robbins, a law professor at American University Law School, made an open call to state prosecutors to bring homicide charges against the tobacco companies. “Government should not ignore the criminal aspects of what the tobacco companies were doing,” Robbins told us last week. “In fact, a good argument can be made that, over time, tobacco company executives consciously disregarded the substantial and unjustifiable risk that people might be killed.”
“If this could be proven, then it would come under the classic definition of involuntary manslaughter,” Robbins said. No prosecutor to this date has answered the call.
The federal regulatory system has become so corrupted that it is almost beyond repair. Even though workplaces are regulated by the federal government, we believe every workplace death should be investigated by state officials for a possible criminal homicide charge — because our suspicion is that many workplace deaths are the results of recklessness or negligence. We have, for example, called on the prosecutor in Upshur County, West Virginia to launch a criminal homicide inquiry into the mine disaster at the Sago Mine that took the lives of 12 miners.
A few local prosecutors are breaking out of the box. Last year, for example, a prosecutor in Arizona convicted a company — Far West Water & Sewer — on a negligent homicide charge in connection with the death of two workers. The company was fined $1.7 million. In December 2003, the Attorney General of Rhode Island brought homicide charges against a band manager and owners of a club where a fire took the lives of 100 concertgoers. Just yesterday, Daniel M. Biechele, the manager for the rock band Great White, pled guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Biechele lit the pyrotechnics that sparked the flames that engulfed The Station nightclub on February 20, 2003. One hundred concertgoers died, and more than 200 were injured in the West Warwick, Rhode Island fire — the fourth-deadliest blaze in US history. The owners of the club will face trial later this year.
Justice demands homicide criminal charges in cases like these. And we ask — if the case of the snowboarder warrants a criminal investigation for homicide — why not the deaths at the Sago mine?
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter, <http://www.corporatecrimereporter.com>. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor, <http://www.multinationalmonitor.org>. Mokhiber and Weissman are co-authors of On the Rampage: Corporate Predators and the Destruction of Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press).
(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
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