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Corporate Homicide
By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

Street murders occur every day in America. And they are prosecuted every
day in America.

Corporate homicides occur every day in America. But they are rarely prosecuted.

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 hot shot criminal defense lawyer who
secured a not guilty verdict after getting the judge to keep key
evidence out of the jury room.

Now comes Ira Robbins, a professor of criminal law at American University.

Robbins argues that the time is ripe to bring a homicide prosecution
against the tobacco companies and their executives.

"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. "So, my
conclusion is that it is not outside the realm of possibility that
tobacco executives ought to be indicted for homicide crimes."

To gain a second degree murder conviction, a prosecutor must show "the
conscious disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that death
would occur under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the
value of human life."

A 1,400 page summary of evidence against the tobacco companies filed in
the Justice Department's civil racketeering case against the tobacco
companies indicates that maybe the evidence does indeed exist for a
second degree murder charge. The Justice Department is seeking to
recover $289 billion from the tobacco companies.

We wanted to get a copy of the seven-volume filing, but the Justice
Department wouldn't let us copy it, or give us a copy on a CD -- which
they obviously have.

Instead, the Department said we could come over and "look at it -- but
not copy any part of it." So we did.

The documents show how the major tobacco companies for decades conspired
to deceive the public about the harm caused by tobacco products, worked
to discredit scientific studies linking smoking and disease, manipulated
their products to make them more addictive, and marketed tobacco
products to children.

The Department alleges that the tobacco companies in 1953 launched a
decades-long "fraudulent scheme" to deceive the public about the dangers
of smoking and discredit scientific and medical evidence that smoking
was a cause of disease.

The companies "designed their cigarettes with a central overriding
objective -- to ensure that the smoker could obtain enough nicotine to
create and sustain addiction."

They deceptively marketed "light" and "low-tar" cigarettes as less
hazardous despite knowing from their own research that this was not the
case, the Department charges.

They also manipulated the design of these cigarettes so that they
produced less tar when tested by government smoking machines, but not
when smoked by actual smokers who changed their smoking habits to
maintain nicotine levels, according to the Department.

The Department charged that the companies "continue to advertise in
youth-oriented publications, employ imagery and messages that they know
are appealing to teenagers, increasingly concentrate their marketing in
places where they know youths will frequent such as convenience stores,
engage in strategic pricing to attract youths, increase their marketing
at point-of-sale locations with promotions, self-service displays, and
other materials, sponsor sporting and entertainment events, many of
which are televised or otherwise broadcast and draw large youth
audiences, and engage in a host of other activities which are designed
to attract youths to begin and continue smoking."

It seems clear to us that multi-million dollar fines aren't getting the
message across to corporate America. The criminal law would deter and
educate corporate America like no civil lawsuit could.

As Professor Robbins put it: "Undoubtedly corporate officials would
rather pay money than go to prison."

Professor Robbins has a theory.

The Justice Department has the evidence on a CD.

We suggest that some prosecutor somewhere get a copy of the CD and give
Professor Robbins a call.

It might change the way corporate America does business.


Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime
Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based
Multinational Monitor, http://www.multinationalmonitor.org. They are
co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the
Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press;
http://www.corporatepredators.org).

(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

This article is posted at:
http://lists.essential.org/pipermail/corp-focus/2003/000148.html
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