Law students add nuance to Wikipedia articles about famous cases

By on September 23, 2019

Law students add nuance to Wikipedia articles about famous cases

By on September 23, 2019

Law students add nuance to Wikipedia articles about famous cases

This past winter Stanford Law instructor Beth Williams guided her students as they created or edited articles on topics dealing with Advanced Legal Research, ranging from articles about the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 to PGE v. Bureau of Labor and Industries. These and the following articles are only a portion of the good work that they added to Wikipedia.

Are you a fan of true crime? Do you find yourself fascinated by not only the pursuit and capture, but also the trial and legal issues that may pop up as the case runs its course through the legal system? If so, then you may find yourself intrigued by the Buried Bodies Case, an article that one of the students in Williams’s class chose to expand for their assignment. The Buried Bodies Case refers to the mid-1970s criminal trial of Robert Garrow, Sr., who was charged with the murder of 18-year-old college student Philip Domblewski while he was camping in the Adirondacks with his friends. Defense attorneys Frank H. Armani and Francis Belge were chosen to represent Garrow, who confessed that he had not only murdered Domblewski but also two other women unrelated to the case and informed the attorneys where he hid the bodies. Upon locating the bodies, Armani and Belge chose to keep this information a secret despite an ongoing search for the women. When this was discovered during the Domblewski trial, Armani and Belge faced not only public criticism but also criminal and ethical proceedings. They were eventually cleared in both cases, as the People v. Belge and its appeal confirmed that their actions had protected the Fifth Amendment constitutional right concerning self-incrimination, although the judge did note that attorneys should “observe basic human standards of decency.” Although they were now cleared of wrongdoing, the aftermath took a large toll on both attorneys as Belge abandoned his profession while Armani suffered a heart attack that temporarily destroyed his practice. As the case occurred during the Watergate scandal, this contributed to the case’s attention and the American Bar Association began reconsidering attorneys’ ethical obligations. Law schools also began to reconsider how legal ethics were taught and the case is still a touchstone of legal ethics classes today.

Another student in the class chose to create an article for the U.S. Supreme Court case of Hudson v. Palmer, which started with a search of Russell Palmer’s cell at the Bland Correctional Center in Bland, Virginia, on September 16, 1981. After the search Palmer stated that officer Ted Hudson destroyed some of his personal belongings, which included legal materials and letters, as part of a targeted attempt to harass him and violate his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. The ruling of the District Court was that “intentional destruction of a prisoner’s property is not a violation of due process, when the prisoner has an adequate remedy under state law” and that even if the search was non-routine and meant to harass Palmer, it did not have “constitutional significance” under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. An appeal filed at the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision on due process but ruled that Palmer “had a limited privacy right which may have been violated” if the search was undertaken because of “a desire to harass or humiliate him.” This was again appealed and it went to the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled that “prison inmates have no reasonable expectation of privacy in their cells under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, and destruction of property did not constitute a Due Process violation under the Fourteenth Amendment because Virginia had adequate state law remedies.” Based on a privacy test derived from the Katz V. United States case in 1967, prisoners had no right to privacy due to the need for prison security to detect and remove drugs and contraband, maintain sanitary surroundings, as well as to ensure institutional security. They also found that Fourth Amendment protections did not cover prisoner restrictions, as “imprisonment carries with it the circumscription or loss of many significant rights”. Justice John Paul Stevens filed an opinion on behalf of four justices that disagreed with the Fourth Amendment holding, as they felt that “inmates must retain some ‘slight residuum of privacy'” in their cells and because the Seizure Clause “protects prisoners’ possessory interests even assuming the absence of any legitimate expectation of privacy” and that safety concerns don’t eliminate all civil rights of prisoners. He further wrote that the Court’s decision “declares prisoners to be little more than chattels” and that Chief Justice Burger’s assessment that society would not recognize privacy rights for prisoners as legitimate was faulty, as this was at odds with the general agreement by the lower courts that prisoners retain some privacy rights, and that prison officials also shared a “near-universal view…that guards should neither seize nor destroy noncontraband property.” Following the case many state courts that had previously not ruled that incarcerated persons had some limited amount of Fourth Amendment protection have changed their state constitutions to follow the Hudson ruling, with Vermont serving as the only exception. The case was cited in the 2012 Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington, where it held that strip searches of pretrial detainees entering a general jail population do not violate the Fourth Amendment as it struck a balance between “inmate privacy and the security needs of correctional institutions,” not by holding that pretrial detainees have no Fourth Amendment privacy rights.

To quote the the Wikipedia article on Wikipedia, “Wikipedia is the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet,” which makes contributions from students and educators that much more important. Want to help share knowledge with the world? Visit teach.wikiedu.org to find out how you can gain access to tools, online trainings, and printed materials to help your class edit Wikipedia.


Image by Matt Wade, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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