U.S. justices question woman's chemical weapons conviction

WASHINGTON Tue Nov 5, 2013 2:36pm EST

A man holds an umbrella outside the U..S. Supreme Court in Washington June 10, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

A man holds an umbrella outside the U..S. Supreme Court in Washington June 10, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A majority of Supreme Court justices on Tuesday signaled concern that the federal government may have wrongly used a chemical weapons law to prosecute a Pennsylvania microbiologist convicted of trying to poison her husband's lover.

Seemingly taken from the storyline of a television police drama, the tale, in fact, raises a core question about the power of Congress to enact laws implementing international treaties the U.S. government has signed.

The justices appeared divided on this point as they probed lawyers with a series of hypothetical questions that touched upon a wide array of subjects, including gay marriage and disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. The U.S. government's current interest in preventing the Syrian government from possessing chemical weapons was mentioned repeatedly.

Carol Anne Bond admitted to trying to poison her former friend, Myrlinda Haynes, with toxic chemicals she took from work. Bond sprinkled lethal compounds on Haynes' mailbox, car door handles and house doorknob between November 2006 and June 2007.

Bond was prosecuted by the federal government under a 1998 U.S. law banning the use of chemical weapons other than for a "peaceful purpose." Suspects in local crimes are usually prosecuted under state criminal laws.

During a one-hour oral argument, a majority of the nine justices appeared skeptical of the government's decision to prosecute Bond. Questions raised by Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the liberals on the court, related to some of the same concerns voiced by the court's conservatives, including regular swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy. The most likely outcome would be a narrow ruling that throws out Bond's conviction while leaving the law intact.

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, representing the Obama administration, told the court it was "unimaginable" that Congress would enact a law that would give the federal government police powers normally reserved for the states.

"It also seems unimaginable you would bring this prosecution," Kennedy said, in a comment reflecting hostility by some on the court to the administration's stance.

BROADER IMPLICATIONS

Some of the conservative justices appeared eager to discuss the broader implications of Congress encroaching on state authority through enactment of legislation implementing treaties.

Justice Antonin Scalia, for example, wondered whether Congress could ratify a treaty that would force all states to allow same-sex marriage.

As marriage is usually a matter of state law, such a law would be "dragging the Congress into areas where it has never been before," Scalia said.

Justice Samuel Alito opted for a more humorous hypothetical example, citing the tradition of distributing candy on Halloween.

"Would it shock you if I told you that a few days ago my wife and I distributed toxic chemicals to a great number of children?," he asked. Chocolate is poisonous to dogs, Alito noted.

Verrilli, visibly irritated with some of the lighthearted questions, responded to the probing from the bench by saying that a ruling undermining Congress' authority to implement treaties would have significant foreign policy implications for the U.S. government.

"This is serious business," he said.

Verrilli noted the U.S. government's work to stop Syria from using chemical weapons.

"One of the very things we are trying to sort out right now in Syria under the chemical weapons convention is where the line is between peaceful uses and warlike uses," he said.

A ruling against the government could also undermine the authority of U.S. negotiators in future treaty discussions, he added.

Bond's lawyer, Paul Clement, proposed a compromise. He said the court could make a distinction between chemicals like sarin gas, which is "inherently a chemical weapon," and others that are generally used for peaceful purposes. Of the nine justices, Breyer appeared most keen to take that kind of approach. He noted that there are many chemicals used for peaceful purposes, including those used by athletes like Lance Armstrong, that have "absolutely nothing to do with chemical weapons."

Bond was sentenced to six years in prison after entering a guilty plea that gave her a right to appeal. The poison burned Haynes' thumb but she was otherwise unharmed.

A ruling is expected by the end of June. The case is Bond v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-158.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; editing by Howard Goller and Jackie Frank)

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Comments (1)
SKYDRIFTER wrote:
If the ‘parallel’ cases could be sorted out, it appears that the “Feds” have long been on a crusade to inject “test cases” into the legal system – to be drawn upon as “available (power) precedents.” This appears to be one such “test case.”

The “Feds” have attempted to prosecute people for “perjury,” for having entered a ‘not guilty’ plea – Martha Stewart being one name in that attempt. It didn’t work; but the legal “power intoxication” is evident.

If allowed to stand, this particular case has no limits. Imagine someone being prosecuted for serving alcohol to a diabetic – knowing them to be such.

Comparably, health food stores could be prosecuted for selling “minerals” in pill form – knowing that an overdose of such as “Chromium” could be fatal.

It’s bad enough that a single “event” can invoke a legal “charge cascade” of hundreds of criminal allegations against an individual. Or, that “enticed” testimony from a prison inmate can be admitted in court – by the prosecutor, only.

Few appreciate that the U.S. Supreme court is slowly whittling away at almost any Constitutional Article, Clause or Amendment – to almost the exclusive favor of prosecutors; or “government power,” in general.

In this instance, the ruling may favor the defendant; but there are no guarantees. Countermanding this case would likely open the door for thousands of cases. The Supreme Court is biased toward not creating an atmosphere of legal complexities.

On the surface of this case, it should first be clarified as to when ‘anything’ legally becomes a specific “weapon.” Per ATF rulings, the everyday gas tank of a car meets the test of a being a “bomb.”

In this case, the woman used toxic chemicals in the fashion of a potentially fatal poison. So, what is the legal basis for “transitioning” or “upgrading” ‘any’ object or substance to a “weapon?”

In concert, when does “possession” of the same object or substance qualify for “… illegal possession of a weapon?” Could a heroin dealer be charged in the fashion of a “murderer?” Why not a “narco-terrorist?”

The “… reasonable person …” test went out a long time ago. Noting the typical national evening news TV presentations, is there any possible doubt that there is a ‘new entry’ into the world of “power” – worthy of being labeled as “Psycho-Tyranny?”

Is this case, in particular, worthy of being observed in the simple terms of: “The feds said it, I believe it; and that does it!”

Among other pertinent ‘questions’ worthy of examination, there is a conjoined argument as to the federal-state prosecutorial discretion. The State could have prosecuted the woman for (simple) “attempted murder;” but, did the State ‘agree’ to the federal jurisdiction being asserted – or did the “Feds” just bust-in, “asserting jurisdiction?”

Accordingly, when is it “legally appropriate” to assert jurisdiction – or “ask” for it? When is it appropriate for one federal-state jurisdiction to become “automatic?” Or, is arbitrary and/or political “convenience” to be the permanent rule?

As one “jurisdiction” example, in the “DC snipers” case, the “Feds” deferred to State prosecution – because of the “State” availability of the death penalty.

Given the crime location and time-proximity to 9/11, that case was “prime” for major Federal investigation – and charges of “terrorism.” The land area of D.C. is so small that the snipers had to have been routinely crossing state lines. So, why was the case spoon-fed to the D.C. Chief of Police? Because the FBI was otherwise “busy” – with a very possible factual “terrorism” case being at hand; in D.C., of all places?” Don’t ask; ‘they’ won’t tell.

So, ‘who’ should have’ what’ legal prerogative; when, where, why; and under what particular circumstances?

In this particular case, is the Supreme Court going to finally take a stand on what amounts to “whimsical prosecution?” And what of “prosecutorial plea extortion?”

This case is well worth following.

Nov 05, 2013 3:40pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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