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Corporate Homicide

By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

March 31, 2003

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. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999; http://www.corporatepredators.org)

(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman. Published in the Jackson Progressive, http://www.jacksonprogressive.com by the kind permission of the authors.


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