Clinton St. Quarterly, Vol. 8 No. 2 | Summer 1986 (Seattle) /// Issue 16 of 24 /// Master# 64 of 73

* e Ihere are something over 1,500 men and women on the death rows of America. Given the social context in which they operated, one might reasonably assume that they were sentenced to be executed not because they are murderers but because they were inefficient. Using guns and knives and the usual footpad paraphernalia, they dispatched only a few more than their own number. Had they used asbestos, mislabeled pharmaceutical drugs and devices, defective autos and illegally used and illegally disposed chemicals, they could have killed, crippled and tortured many thousands of people. And they could have done it without very much fuss. Corporate criminals, as we all know, live charmed lives. Not until 1978 had a corporation ever been indicted for murder (Ford Motor Company, which was acquitted), and not until 1985 had corporate executives ever been brought to trial for murder because of the lethal mischief done by their company. The executives who made history last year were the president, plant manager and plant foreman of Film Recovery Systems Corporation, a ratty little silver-rendering operation in Elm Grove Village outside Chicago. The silver was recovered by cooking used X-ray films in vats of boiling cyanide. Film Recovery hired mostly illegal immigrants, who were afraid to protest working conditions so foul that they made employees vomit and faint. The illegals were preferred also because they couldn’t read much English and would not be spooked by the written warnings on the drums of cyanide. To make doubly sure that fright wouldn’t drive workers away, management had the skull-and-cross-bones signs scraped off the drums. Although the antidote for cyanide poisoning is cheap and easy to obtain, Film Recovery Systems didn’t keep any on hand. So it came to pass that Stefan Golab, a 61-year-old illegal immigrant from Poland, took too hefty a lungful of cyanide fumes and died. Charged with murder on the grounds that they had created such unsafe working conditions as to bring about “a strong probability of death and great bodily harm,” the three officials were convicted and sentenced to twentyfive years in prison. Will executives at other villainous corporations be similarly charged and convicted? Don’t bet on it. In this instance the law was applied so properly, so rightly, so common-sensically that one would be foolish to expect such usage to appear again soon. It was a sort of Halley’s Comet of Justice. The idea of treating corporate murderers as just plain murderers strikes many people as excessive. Some lawyers who cautiously approved the conviction in principle said they were afraid it would confuse people generally because a bald murder charge is usually associated with a bullet in the gut or an ice pick in the neck, and nice people would have a hard time adapting the charge to the way things are sometimes accomplished in the front office. Speaking for this timid viewpoint, Alan Dershowitz, Harvard’s celebrated criminal law specialist, said he though the Film Recovery case showed we need a new category of crime. “We should have one that specifically reflects our condemnation of this sort of behavior,” he said, “without necessarily assimilating it into the most heinous forms of murder”—as if the St. Valentine’s Day massacre were any more heinous than Bhopal. During the trial, the Illinois prosecutor accused the defendants of “callousness, disregard of human lives, and exposing people to dangerous products all for the sake of profits.” No wonder the verdict has been so modestly praised. If that's enough to rate a murder charge, our whole commerciaLsystem is at risk. If it were to become the rule, we could look forward to a lineup ofaccused corporate executives extending out of the courthouse and around the block several times. Since there is no statute of limitations on murder, prosecutors would be obliged to charge those executives at Firestone who, a few years back, allegedly killed and injured no telling how many people by flooding the market with en million tires they knew to be defec- : and the executives at Ford who sent the-Rgto into circulation knowing its gas tank w poorly designed that a rear- end collisi could turn the car into a fire trap (several dozen men, women and children were burned alive). From the pharmaceutical fraternity would come such as Dr. William Shedden, former vice-president and chief medical officer for Eli Lilly Research Laboratories, who recently pleaded guilty to fifteen criminal counts relating to the marketing of Or- aflex, an arthritis drug that the Food and Drug Administration says has been “possibly” linked to forty-nine deaths in the United States and several hundred abroad, not to mention the hundreds who have suffered nonfatal liver and kidney failure. is as how the folks at Lilly, when they sought approval from the FDA, forgot to mention that the drug was already known io have killed at least twenty-eight peo^e in Europe. (Shedden was fined $15,000; Lilly, which earned $3.1 billion in 1984, was fined W5,000.) And let’s be sure to save an early murder indictment for those three sly dogs at SmithKline Beckman Corporation who whizzed their product, Selacryn, through FDA without mentioning that it had caused severe liver damage in some patients in France. False labels were used to peddle it in this country, where it has been linked to thirty-six deaths and five hundred cases of liver and kidney damage. V ow comes a ripple of books that, were 1'there any justice, would put a dozen or so hangdog executives in the dock. Three of the books make particularly persuasive cases. Paul Brodeur’s Outrageous Misconduct: the Asbestos Industry on Trial (Pantheon) is an account of how the largest manufacturer of asbestos products, Manville Corporation (previously known as Johns-Manville Corporation) and other asbestos companies committed over the years what one plaintiff’s attorney called “The greatest mass murder in history,” which is posRobert Sherrill IllustrationbyCarl Smool Clinton St. Quarterly