Topics in the News
"Everybody was laughing at what was happening. It was like guys coming out of the bush, saying, 'Hey, give me some of the money/They'd pay one guy and the next day five guys would be calling them, guys they didn't even know. The tapes are hilarious." This was how a reporter described a statement by a former federal prosecutor in an undercover operation known as Abdul scam, or Abscam, named after a fictional sheikh named Kambir Abdul Rahman. During the course of twenty-three months, about one hundred Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents became involved in a series of undercover operations targeting public officials, including members of Congress. By the time the sting operation was over, two dozen state and local officials, one U.S. senator, and seven U.S. representatives were implicated in offering services for cash.
Swindled by a Swindler.
Prior to Abscam the FBI had been involved in a series of sting operations as a result of its increasing emphasis on white-collar crime. The FBI approached convicted swindler Mel Weinberg for his assistance in setting up fake fencing operations to get high-level art and securities thieves to sell their stolen property to the fake fence. During the course of this operation, Weinberg named two associates who had allegedly bribed Angelo Errichetti, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey. With...
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The Bork Nomination
A Public Fight.
During the failed Supreme Court confirmation of Robert H. Bork in 1986, what had previously been a largely behind-the-scenes process moved suddenly into a public forum, a daytime news show. The unprecedented television proceedings in the Senate Judiciary Committee emerged from President Ronald Reagan's announced intention to change the philosophical orientation of the nation's highest court and from the liberal establishment's determination to prevent this. In the aftermath, the Supreme Court nomination process was changed forever, as four more nominees were subjected to similar scrutiny, culminating in the Clarence Thomas confirmation spectacle of 1991. Many critics of the changed process have decried confirmation "by sound bite" and the role of media spin doctors, but the televised hearings also made clear to the viewing public how much power is wielded in the Supreme Court and therefore how important it is that citizens know who nominees are and what they represent. Bork probably would have won confirmation had he been subjected to the old closed-hearing system, and he castigated the proceedings as a circus and witch-hunt. While many commentators say that the new, more public process ensures the court will never become simply the mouthpiece of the president who nominates the justices, others assert that it moves confirmation from the intellectual and narrowly political...
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The Changing American Prison
Beginning the Decade with a Bang.
The New Mexico State Penitentiary, near Santa Fe, was lauded as one of the "most advanced correctional institutions in the world" when it opened in 1954. During the next twenty-six years it became one of the worst. By 1980, 1,136 inmates were packed into cells designed for 800, and young inmates with little criminal experience were being housed with some of the worst offenders, Inmates complained about substandard food and medical care. The correctional officers were underpaid and undertrained. In February 1980 the conditions proved too much for the inmates, and a riot lasting thirty-six hours occurred, Remarkably, no shots were fired and no officers were killed, but the brutality committed by inmate against inmate was the worst in U.S. history. Thirty-three inmates were killed before the riot was over. Many of the dead were believed to be informants to prison authorities. Inmates used acetylene torches to break into other inmates' cells, dragged the men out, and tortured them to death with the flames. Another had a steel rod shoved in one ear and out the other. Several were slashed to death, and at least one was hanged. The killing and beating was so bad that a group of eighty-four inmates cut themselves out of a cellblock in order to surrender to authorities. By the time it was over, the main questions in everyone's mind were, "What went wrong and how can...
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Increase in Vigilance.
One of Ronald Reagan's primary messages in the 1980 presidential election was that America had become soft on communism, and that as president he would renew the crusade against the Soviet Union and its communist allies. Four decades of the Cold War had resulted in massive spying campaigns on the part of each superpower against the other. Reagan renewed campaigns against espionage. Beginning as soon as he took office in 1981, the U.S, Justice Department and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) doubled the nation's counterintelligence forces, with a resultant increase in espionage cases prosecuted throughout the 1980s. In 1983 the government tried five such cases, and fourteen in 1984. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger dubbed 1985 "the year of the spy," when so many arrests for espionage were made that the Department of Justice could not offer reporters an accurate count. Indeed, extremely serious separate spy charges were brought by federal prosecutors within a space of four days in that year, all involving civilian personnel working in sensitive government posts.
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The Ford Pinto Case
A Dangerous Product.
On 10 August 1978 Judy Ann Ulrich, eighteen, was driving a 1973 Ford Pinto to volley-ball practice in Goshen, Indiana. Inside the car with her were her sister Lynn Marie, sixteen, and their cousin Donna Ulrich, eighteen. As they were heading north on U.S. Route 33, their car was struck from behind by a 1972 Chevrolet van. The Pinto collapsed like an accordion; the fuel tank ruptured; and the car exploded in flames. Lynn Marie and Donna burned to death in the car. Judy Ann was pulled from the wreckage but died from her injuries several hours later at a hospital. Two months earlier, Ford had recalled all Pintos produced from 1971 to 1976 to repair their defective gas tanks. The recall effort by Ford only came after it was revealed that more than fifty people had died in Pinto-related accidents.
Image Pop-UpOn 10 August 1978 Judy Ann, Lynn Marie, and Donna Ulrich died when their 1973 Ford Pinto burst into flames after being hit by a van.
What Was Wrong?
The recall of Ford Pintos only came about after news reports of the cars' propensity to explode in flames after rear-end accidents had caused sales of the car to take a dramatic...
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The Iran-Contra Scandal
In the fall of 1.986 two seemingly disparate and secret arms deals were revealed to the nation, and during the next six years the American public would become transfixed by even more revelations that would become known as the Iran-Contra scandal. In a series of highly publicized hearings, special investigations, and prosecutions of high Reagan and Bush administration officials, a clandestine government operating within the official one was revealed to have taken charge of U.S. foreign policy. The Iran-Contra scandal threatened to result in impeachment proceedings against the president of the United States and to cause the utter collapse of public confidence in the integrity of government. Caught flatfooted in late 1986, the Reagan administration sought
Image Pop-UpRonald Regan and members of the Tower Commission.
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The Miami Race Riots
Act of Retribution.
"It was real bad, I hadn't seen anything like it since I left Vietnam." So went the description by Miami police officer Manny Lopez of a scene of mob violence in the black neighborhood of Liberty City following the acquittal of four white former police officers of charges that they had beaten black businessman Arthur McDuffie to death. Lopez was describing what he found when he arrived on the scene of black mob violence against three young white people, attacked for no reason other than the color of their skin. Michael Kulp, eighteen, was driving a car containing two passengers—his brother Jeffrey, twenty-two, and their friend Debra Getman, twenty-three—through the Liberty City area when the car was struck by bricks and bottles. Michael Kulp lost control of his car and struck Shanreka Perry, an eleven-year-old black girl, then smashed into a building. The crowd pulled the three from the car and began beating them. Michael suffered a fractured skull; Jeffrey was shot in the back, stabbed, beaten, and repeatedly run over by a car. When police found the still-living victims, a red flower had been inserted in Jeffrey Kulp's mouth. Debra Getman was taken to safety by a black man.
Arthur McDuffie, thirty-three, was a former marine and an insurance agent. He had just won a free trip to Hawaii as a bonus...
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Philadelphia and the Move Bombing
Founded in the early 1970s, the MOVE organization was the brainchild of an idealistic social worker named Donald Glassey and a man named Vincent Leaphart. The name of the organization actually stood for nothing, and Leaphart and his followers espoused a back-to-nature retreat from the technology that they believed was ruining civilization. MOVE members were not known for much prior to 1977. During that year and into 1978, its members confronted the administration of former mayor Frank Rizzo. After six hundred police surrounded a MOVE commune, shots were exchanged between the police and commune members. One officer was killed and several others wounded. A dozen MOVE members were arrested on weapons and murder charges, and the movement spread out to other communes in the city. The group living at the Osage Avenue commune allegedly engaged in drug dealing, using the profits to purchase guns and explosives. Many of the members living there were children of the MOVE members imprisoned after the 1978 shootout. The stage for a second confrontation of authorities was set in the eighteen months prior to May 1985, when MOVE members in the Osage Avenue commune fortified the house and threatened the neighbors.
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Serial Killers and Mass Murderers
Cultural Obsession and Reality.
While serial killers and mass murderers have existed at all times in human history, the reporting of their crimes seemed to have reached an all-time high during the 1980s. A series of incidents that came to light during this decade as well as increasing success by the FBI in predicting the behavior of serial killers led to a greater public awareness of their existence. The decade also saw some horrible incidents of mass murder, explained in some cases as retribution by fired or harassed employees. In other cases motives were unavailable.
While many serial killers are less-educated drifters who may in some instances travel across wide areas killing their victims, in some cases the serial killer is a highly intelligent, seemingly socially respectable person. Ted Bundy was of this type. As one noted expert on serial killers, Robert Keppel, states, "He taught us that a serial killer can appear to be absolutely normal, the guy next door." Bundy had been a law student at one time...
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The Supreme Court Turns Right
When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought to "pack" the Supreme Court in 1937 by increasing the number of justices and appointing men favorable to his social interventionist philosophy, he was roundly condemned by members of both political parties for attempting to destroy the independence of the Court. As taught in civics texts, the Supreme Court is the third branch of government. Its membership is supposed to represent the wide range of judicial philosophies to be found across the nation, and to be the arbiter of disputes between the executive and legislative branches and the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution. Roosevelt's attempt to rewrite the Constitution to overplay his own power in order to fill the Court with political allies was viewed as an illegitimate effort to overpoliticize the Court. Since judicial appointments are proposed by the president and confirmed (or denied) by the Senate, however, the process is always fraught with political intrigue. Though Roosevelt failed in his attempt to increase the number of justices, he did, by the end of his tenure as president, succeed in creating a liberal court that held sway until the Reagan administration. Among Reagan's major campaign promises was the vow to appoint as many new justices to the Supreme Court as possible, to insist on an ideological litmus test for all such appointments, and particularly...
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The War on Drugs
On 30 January 1982, to much publicity and acclaim, President Ronald Reagan announced the war on drugs and took the unprecedented step of appointing his vice president, George Bush, as chief coordinator of drug policy. As a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Bush seemed both a logical choice and a strong indication of the administration's resolve to extirpate this growing cancer from the body politic. With stirring speeches the vice president announced that the American people had had enough and that his office would coordinate all of the chief law enforcement agencies of the federal government "to stop the storm surge of cocaine" and other drugs "drowning" the citizens of the United States "in a sea of murders, violence, and blood-drenched narcodollars." Targeting the seedbed of narcotics distribution, south Florida, Bush declared that the U.S. Attorney's Office; the Drug Enforcement Agency; the U.S. Customs Service; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; the Internal Revenue Service; the U.S. Border Patrol; and the army, navy, and Coast Guard would pool resources, share information, and coordinate a strategic assault to rid America of the drug plague and the crime, social dislocation, and demoralization that accompanied it. Given this panoply of forces, optimism seemed the order of the day. For six months or so the mass media reported impressive results. President...
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ALLEGED RAPE VICTIM
On Sunday, 29 November 1987, the 1.2 million viewers of New York City's channel 2 first heard of an incident that would make their skin crawl. A teenage black girl named Tawana Brawley had been found partially naked, wrapped in plastic, with human feces smeared over her body and in her hair. The letters KKK were scratched onto her chest, over her breasts, and the words nigger, nigger were written onto her stomach. Initial reports were that she had been kidnapped by a white man who had flashed a police badge and then taken her to a wooded area on the previous Tuesday, where she had been held captive for four days, raped, and sodomized by six white men, some or all of whom may have been law enforcement officers. Early reports were that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was investigating.
Following the first reports of the apparently racially based attack, the investigation soon stalled. Brawley and her mother refused to cooperate with investigators, and several self-appointed advisers stepped in to assist the family. The three main advisers were the well-known Rev. Al Sharpton and attorneys Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason. The three advisers quickly placed themselves squarely into the middle of the fray and conducted numerous press conferences and...
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A Vigilante in the Making.
Bernhard Hugo Goetz Jr. was born on 7 November 1947 in New York City. He enjoyed a seemingly carefree existence as a child, but behind the veneer he suffered at the hands of a dictatorial father, a "real Prussian disciplinarian," according to an aunt. Various people and former classmates who knew him over the years related the impression that he was a bookworm, but one who at times seemed to be under a lot of pressure. As an adult in New York City, he had been the victim of a mugging by three black youths in 1981 in which he was injured. This appears to have been the impetus for his later actions.
Mister, Can I Have $5?
Those are the words that Troy Canty states he said to Goetz on a subway train on 22 December 1984. Goetz's response reportedly was, "Sure, I've got five dollars for each of you." Instead, he pulled out a gun and started firing. After the fact, the four black youths shot by Goetz admitted that they were "fooling around on the train when this white dude came in and sat down next to us." Canty was the first one shot, in the chest, the bullet just missing his heart. Barry Allen was shot next, in the back of his neck as he turned to try to escape. James Ramseur was shot next, by one of two hollow-point bullets that Goetz had in the revolver. Hollow-point bullets,...
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Jean Harris was born Jean Struven on 27 April 1923 in Chicago, Illinois. Her father was a successful but bigoted engineer who was verbally abusive to those who disagreed with him. Despite his attitude, she enjoyed a privileged upper-middle-class lifestyle and did well in school. She married James Harris and they led a happy existence, with Jim working at a carburetor manufacturer and Jean working as a teacher. However, a silent growing discontent was awakening in Jean. In 1964 she finally decided to end the marriage, and she obtained a divorce the next year. She later left the teaching field to enter the academic administration arena for the increased income it provided. But the nonstop work was beginning to take its toll and her social life was virtually nonexistent until December 1966.
A friend invited Harris to a dinner party in an attempt to fix her up. It was there that she met Dr. Herman Tarnower. Like Jean, Tarnower was also something of a social climber, and over the years he had established a large practice for himself and had founded the Scarsdale Medical Center in Scarsdale, New York. Hi, as he liked to be called, and Harris hit it off from the start. Correspondence followed, and they first dated in March 1967. The affair between the two continued off and on...
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Edwin Meese III
ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES,
No other member of the Reagan administration, with the exception of Oliver North, was as tainted by scandal as Edwin Meese III. Certainly, no other Reagan official was more disliked, both within the administration and on Capitol Hill, though Reagan himself called Meese his "alter ego." At one point in his tenure as attorney general Meese was under investigation by three special prosecutors, each inquiring into separate allegations of influence peddling, bribery, and cover-up in the Iran-Contra affair. Though Meese was never charged with any crime, the last of the special investigators said that Meese "had probably broken conflict of interest and income-tax laws, though none of the indictments were worthy of prosecution." This statement provoked outrage and derision among congressional staffers who had helped to build cases against Meese, for its logic supposed that the nation's chief law enforcement officer was to be held to a lower standard of conduct than ordinary citizens. Though Meese had figured in virtually every imbroglio of the Reagan administration, like the president himself he was able to shed charges of personal culpability. Nevertheless, the "sleaze factor" emerging from the Reagan presidency jeopardized, but did not undermine, the election campaign of Vice President George Bush in 1988,...
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MARINE OFFICER, NATIONAL SECURITY
Of all the individuals charged in the Iran-Contra scandal none gained more notoriety or prominence than Oliver North, a career marine officer who had been detailed as a staff assistant to the National Security Council (NSC), ironically against his wishes, at the beginning of the first Reagan administration. Fearing at first that this assignment would harm his career, North came to see his work in the NSC as an opportunity to become a central figure in the crusade against communism revived by Reagan. He envisaged a once-in-a-lifetime chance to help set his nation's course straight again in the wake of what he perceived as the erosion of the American creed after Vietnam and Watergate. A former Catholic altar boy, North epitomized the patriot of the "my country right or wrong" variety in opposition to the flabby liberalism he believed responsible for America's decay. As such he was lionized by conservatives, and the image he projected at the IranContra hearings catapulted him into folk-hero status. Yet he was subsequently charged with felonies and came...
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Sandra Day O'Connor
SUPREME COURT JUSTICE
Fate Can Be a Strange Thing.
Attorney Sandra Day O'Connor, third in her law school class of 102 students, graduated in 1952 from Stanford Law School. That year, as law firm after law firm turned her down since she was a woman, she was finally offered a position as a legal secretary at a firm where a lawyer named William French Smith was a partner. She turned it down. Nearly thirty years later, U.S. Attorney General William French Smith had a hand in recommending her appointment as the first female Supreme Court justice.
A Solid Beginning.
Sandra Day was born on 26 March 1930 in El Paso, Texas. Her parents, Harry Day and Ada Mae Wilkey Day, owned a ranch comprising nearly two hundred thousand acres of land on which they raised two thousand cattle. Their home was a simple four-room building made of adobe that did not even have running water until 1937. Sandra learned to be independent early as she was an only child on a remote ranch until the births of her sister, Ann, and brother, Alan, in 1938 and 1939, respectively. She reportedly spent much of her time reading and having her mother...
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SECRETARY OF HOUSING AND URBAN
A Lone Black.
Samuel Pierce was the only black cabinet member during the Reagan presidency, and the only one to serve the full eight years. Chosen because of his race, strong civil rights credentials, and his prior government experience. Pierce expected to improve management at the Department of Housing and Urban Development while also working to retain housing projects of vital importance to the nation's poor against Reagan's fiscal cuts. Instead, Pierce's tenure ended with his competency and integrity in question and with the department engulfed in scandal.
Born on 8 September 1922 in Glen Cove, New York, Pierce was the oldest of three sons born to a groundskeeper at the upper-class Nassau Country Club on Long Island. His father used the connections he had developed to establish a valet service for the club's members and eventually earned enough to invest successfully in real estate. Prior to the New Deal the majority of black Americans were Republicans, loyal to the party of Lincoln. Their father's success in business drove...
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Claus von Bulow
MAN ACCUSED OF MURDER
A Privileged Life.
Claus von Bulow began life as Claus Cecil Borberg in Copenhagen, Denmark. His father was a playwright, and his mother was a descendant of a prominent and wealthy German family, the von Bulows. His parents were divorced when he was four, and Claus was raised by his mother. Claus, who took his mother's name as his surname, entered Cambridge University at the age of sixteen and graduated after World War II with a degree in law. Von Bulow apprenticed with British barrister (an English attorney) Quintin Hogg. He later worked for billionaire J. Paul Getty, rising to become one of Getty's chief assistants. In 1966 he married Sunny von Auersperg after her divorce from Prince Alfred Eduard Friedrich Vincenz Martin Maria von Auersperg. In 1967 they had a daughter, Cosima, who was their only child. This idyllic existence continued until after Cosima's birth, when Sunny apparently became no longer interested in sex. As a result, von Bulow sought affection elsewhere. In 1978 he began an affair with a soap-opera actress named Alexandra Isles who insisted in mid 1979 that he divorce his wife and marry her. The events that followed led to what at the time was known as the trial of the decade.
Sunny von Bulow nearly died on 27 December 1979. Her husband's actions during the time...
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People in the News
In January 1987 Hector Escudero Aponte, a maintenance worker at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was arraigned on ninety-six counts of murder as the result of a deadly fire at the hotel. The fire was apparently started as the result of an ongoing labor dispute. On 22 June 1987 Aponte and two accomplices were sentenced to terms ranging from seventy-five to ninety-nine years in prison for these homicides.
In October 1989 televangelist Jim Bakker was convicted of fraud and conspiracy in federal district court in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In November 1984 Margie Velma Barfield became the first woman put to death in the United States in twenty-two years. She had been convicted of murdering her fiancé and three other people, including her mother.
In August 1988 U.S. Rep. Mario Biaggi of New York was found guilty of racketeering, conspiracy, and extortion in what had become known as the Wedtech scandal. Biaggi had received Wedtech stock worth about $1.8 million in return for lobbying on the company's behalf.
In June 1986 star basketball player Len Bias, who had recently been drafted by the world champion Boston Celtics, collapsed and died in his dormitory in College Park, Maryland, as the result of a physical condition brought on by the use of cocaine.
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Emile Z. Berman, 78, trial lawyer who defended Sirhan Sirhan, who murdered Robert F. Kennedy, 3 July 1981.
William Anthony Boyle, 81, United Mine Workers president from 1963 to 1972 who was convicted in 1974 of ordering the murder of union rival Joseph A. Yablonski and members of his family, 31 May 1985.
Roy M. Cohn, 59, socialite lawyer who served as an aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during his Senate subcommittee investigations in the early 1950s into communist subversion, 2 August 1986.
Earl B. Dickerson, 95, lawyer and civil rights leader, 1 September 1986.
William O. Douglas, 80, longest-serving United States Supreme Court justice, 19 January 1980.
Clinton T. Duffy, 84, warden of San Quentin Prison from 1940 to 1952, 11 October 1982.
Sam J. Ervin Jr., 88, Democratic senator from North Carolina from 1954 to 1975 who directed the Senate Watergate investigation, 23 April 1985.
Abe Fortas, 71, associate justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1965 to 1969 who resigned in the wake of allegations about his association with financiers of questionable reputation, 5 April 1982.
Clement F. Haynsworth Jr., 77, federal judge whose nomination to the United States...
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David Abramsen, Confessions of Son of Sam (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985);
Shana Alexander, Very Much a Lady (Boston: Little, Brown, 1983);
Tim Cahili, Buried Dreams: Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer (New York: Bantam, 1989);
Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Frazer, The Lust to Kill (New York: New York University Press, 1987);
Alan Dershowitz, Reversal of Fortune: Inside the Von Bulow Case (New York: Random House, 1986);
Dominick J. Di Maio and Vincent J. Di Maio, Forensic Pathology (New York: Elsevier/Nelson, 1989);
J. H. H. Gaute and Robin Odell, The New Murderers' Who's Who (New York: International Polygonics, 1989);
Robert W. Greene, The Sting Man: Inside ABSCAM (New York: Dutton, 1981);
Jean Harris, Stranger in Two Worlds (New York: Zebra Books, 1986);
Ronald Holmes and James De Burger, Serial Murder (Newbury Park, Cal: Sage, 1988);
Elizabeth Kendall, The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy (Seattle: Madrona, 1981);
Jack Levin and James Alan Fox, Mass Murder: America's Growing Menace (NewYork: Plenum, 1988);
Elliott Leyton, Hunting...
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Important Events in Law and Justice, 1980–1989
- On January 19, retired Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas dies.
- On January 21, the Supreme Court holds that prisoners who do not turn themselves in immediately following their escape are not entitled to introduce evidence at trial that harsh prison conditions justified their escape.
- On February 3, media reports tell of an FBI investigation into corruption in high offices, code-named Abscam.
- On February 8, another FBI undercover sting operation makes the news. This one, named Brilab (for bribery labor) involves southwestern labor leaders and politicians.
- On February 14, indictments against 55 persons in ten states are handed down in an undercover FBI investigation into child pornography distribution called Miporn.
- On March 10, Dr. Herman Tarnower, author of the "Scarsdale Diet," is shot to death in Purchase, New York.
- On March 12, John Wayne Gacy, Jr., is found guilty in Chicago in the deaths of thirty-three men and boys.
- On March 13, an Indiana jury acquits Ford Motor Company of reckless homicide charges in the deaths of three women in a fiery Ford Pinto crash.
- On March 15, terrorists of the Puerto Rican proindependence group FALN (Armed Forces of National Liberation) invade Carter and Bush political...
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