Tag Archives: pennsylvania

This Girl Sued Pennsylvania’s Government for Her Environmental Rights

This story appears in the May issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Before March 28 of this year, something exciting and potentially world-changing (in a good way) was playing out in Pennsylvania. Seven young plaintiffs, including 17-year-old Rekha Dhillon-Richardson, were suing their state, arguing that the government had failed to protect their constitutional rights by refusing to adequately and immediately combat climate change. Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees "the right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment." This groundbreaking case, which requested strict reduction and regulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions in order to ensure a habitable planet for young people and future generations, made its way through the legal system until the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently upheld a lower court's ruling in the state's favor.

Even though they lost, Dhillon-Richardson and her allies made important ethical and legal arguments on the public stage. As many of us adjust to a presidential administration that denies the reality of climate change and scoffs at basic science, I talked to Dhillon-Richardson about what we can learn from this case and its creative pursuit of state-based avenues for progressive action.

VICE: Why did you get involved in this case?
Rekha Dhillon-Richardson: Because I believe that it is absolutely crucial that youth are central players in developing local and national strategies to fight environmental degradation. The fundamental human rights and futures of children and youth are disproportionately threatened by climate destabilization, even though we have had little to do with the production of the problem.

What have you learned being part of this process?
It's taught me how to be a more effective advocate for the things that I believe in and to use whatever avenues necessary to seek change and bring about justice. I have also learned that the court process is extremely slow; it is hard to make quick and significant changes through the courts. Those of us deeply concerned about issues of environmental injustice would be wise to explore multiple strategies to challenge the government.

Pennsylvania's environmental constitutional rights are pretty impressive. What do you think about the fact that we have rights on the books that aren't implemented?
Although Pennsylvania has extensive environmental constitutional protections, it is shameful and shortsighted that they are not being put into practice. I am encouraged by our government's consideration of the right to clean air, water, and natural resources—these are rights that everyone should have. However, it is very disappointing that Pennsylvania is failing to do the work to actually ensure that these rights are upheld. This case made me realize that just because a law is created in theory does not mean that it is applied in reality.

Has the new administration changed how you think about the case and what needs to be done to protect the environment?
The people Trump has chosen for his Cabinet are dangerous and are now in a position of authority. With this new administration that threatens the environmental movement, it is imperative that we continue to take immediate and significant action—protests, public education, youth organizing, and challenges in the court are all part of this resistance.

Are there things young people see about the future that older people don't?
My generation is ready and willing to fight for our human rights and for the rights of our earth. There are amazing kids all around the world who are standing up to environmental degradation and who live with the consequences of the decisions around extractive industries that are made in places like the United States. The natural world that my generation and the future generations will inherit is going to be very different than the one that older people have enjoyed. I think young people have the ability to imagine a better world—to have a vision for the longer term.

Do you think previous generations have let people your age down?
I do think we have been let down. Children across the globe have trusted the adults to make the right decisions—to lead us forward into a cleaner and more just future for everyone. We have been harmed by decisions that were made without our authorization.

What are your plans for the future? Has being part of this case shaped what you want to do later on?
I plan to become an environmental scientist—I start college this fall—and continue my advocacy work for climate justice, with a focus on areas in the world that are disproportionately impacted. Being part of this case has confirmed that young people are needed more than ever. Consequently, I also plan to continue to create platforms for young people to become leaders alongside me.

The Facebook Shooter Has Killed Himself After a Police Pursuit

Steve Stephens, the man wanted for shooting and killing a 74-year-old man on Sunday and posting the video to Facebook, has died after a pursuit with police, according to the Pennsylvania State police.

The three-day nationwide manhunt for Stephens, a 37-year-old social worker from Ohio, officially ended around 11 AM after state police spotted his car in a McDonald's parking lot near Erie, Pennsylvania. Cops then tried to pull Stephens over, engaging in a short chase before approaching his car. That's when Stephens then reportedly shot and killed himself inside the vehicle. 

Authorities said at a press conference on Tuesday that they did not believe anyone else was harmed by Stephens while he was on the run. At an earlier press conference prior to Stephens's death, authorities said they felt "confident" he was not linked to any additional murders, despite the fact he suggested he had killed more than 12 people in the initial Facebook video.

"This started with one tragedy and ended with another person taking their own life," Cleveland police chief Calvin Williams said Tuesday. "We would have liked to have brought Steve in peacefully and really talk to him to find out exactly why this happened, because there might be other people out there in similar situations."

The video, which has since been taken offline, raised questions as to how Facebook and other livestream platforms should monitor their content. It took nearly three hours before Facebook pulled the video on Sunday, in which Stephens laments about a former girlfriend before pulling up next to 74-year-old Robert Godwin and shoots him. 

On Monday, Robert Godwin's family said they forgave Stephens and asked that people not share the video of their father's final moments.

"Each one of us forgives the killer, the murderer," Tonya Godwin-Baines, Godwin's daughter, said Monday. "We want to wrap our arms around him."

"Steve, I forgive you," Godwin's son, Robert Godwin Jr., said. "I'm not happy [with] what you did, but I forgive you."

Sweet Angel Divine, Widow of Eccentric Religious Leader Who Claimed to Be God, Dies at 91 

Sweet Angel Divine, the widow of a major 1930s religious leader who attracted legions of adoring women followers, has died at 91- or 92-years-old. Known to her followers as “Mother Divine,” Sweet Angel was married to the Rev. Major Jealous Divine, who was the leader of the eccentric International Peace Movement, and…


Do You Have to Tell the Cops if You Find a Dead Body?

After her older sister died in late 2015, Elizabeth Freise left the body to rot in the Oregon home they shared for five months.

The decomposing corpse went undiscovered until April of last year, when Freise fell on the front porch and required medical attention. That's when emergency responders made a startling discovery: Christine Freise, 63, had died of natural causes and been left to rot in a bed in the home filled with heaps of garbage, apparently since November 2015.

But while Freise's failure to report her sister's dead body may have been shocking, it wasn't against the law.

In some states across America, there is no statute in place requiring regular people report dead bodies, especially if there's no indication a crime took place. Although local laws may obligate certain officials such as police to report deaths, and others may ban the general public from abusing corpses, there remains something of a loophole in place, depending on where you live, if a corpse is decomposing in your own home.

Of course, plenty of states do have laws that require people to report deaths within a certain timeframe. And some ban citizens from treating corpses in ways that might, as Kentucky law describes it, "outrage ordinary family sensibilities." Last year in Pennsylvania, for example, a man was convicted of abusing of a corpse when his girlfriend overdosed in their apartment and cops only found out after a neighbor's complaint about the smell forced him to call 9-1-1.

But in Oregon, Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel says that even if the manner in which Elizabeth Freise handled her sister's death may have been appalling, it wasn't illegal. Freise could not be reached for comment for this story.

Hummel adds that Oregon has laws in place that dictate what you can't do to a corpse—such as chopping it up and moving it. Community standards or a basic sense of decency, on the other hand, are often the only thing determining how people care for loved ones after they die; at a minimum, that generally means disposing of their remains.

"If you discover a corpse, you don't have to do anything," Hummel tells me of his state. "Some people might say that that's wrong, that the law should require that, but the law doesn't require that."

That can leave family members to cope with horrifying scenarios. In Michigan, Tiffany Jager learned the shortcomings of her own state's laws when she discovered her mother's body about five days after she overdosed in the Grand Rapids apartment she shared with her boyfriend in 2011.

Jager says she hadn't been able to get in touch with her mother, who struggled with substance abuse issues. After waiting several days, she asked the landlord of the apartment complex for a spare key to get inside.

Naturally, she was mortified by what she found.

Jager's mother's boyfriend was passed out in a bedroom, with the door to the second bedroom covered with a blanket and a towel jammed into the bottom of the door to seal the crack. Her mother had apparently overdosed there days earlier, but her boyfriend continued using drugs in the apartment and didn't report it, according to Jager.

"This is my mother, no matter if she was a drug addict or not, the way she was left was less than a dog," she tells me.

Jager was stricken when her mother's boyfriend wasn't charged with a crime. But at the time, no law was in place requiring prompt reporting of deaths. "To find out that your loved one is dead is one thing," she says. "And to find out that you didn't know is another."

In response to the incident, Tonya Schuitmaker, a Michigan state senator, introduced a bill the same year to fine residents who fail to report dead bodies, which ended up becoming law. Under the statute, people who neglect to report the deceased face up to year in prison and a $1,000 fine. That penalty increases up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine if they deliberately try to conceal the corpse.

"It wasn't a crime to report the dead body, which kind of defies logic," Schuitmaker recalls in an interview. "And it's unfortunate that you have to have such a law because you think it's common sense."

Watch the TONIC guide to fixing an impaled object wound.

Prosecutors in Massachusetts are currently grappling with a similar scenario. 74-year-old Lynda Waldman failed to report the death of her younger sister, Hope Wheaton, who decomposed in their home for about a year and a half before being discovered this past December.

"We always asked where she was," Harriet Allen, a neighbor and longtime friend of Wheaton's, told the Boston Globe. "She would ignore it."

In December, the sisters' cousin came to visit and found Wheaton, who was long dead. Her remains had been decaying on the floor under the kitchen table amidst piles of stuff, with authorities estimating she had been there since the summer of 2015.

The older sister has yet to face charges, and the Norfolk district attorney's office spokesman David Traub told me police are still investigating whether a crime has been committed. Waldman could not be reached for comment.

Of course, even if it's not required by your own state's laws, experts generally concur that you should report a dead body if you find one. "Whatever the case might be, the sooner the better," says Gary Watts of the International Association of Coroners & Medical Examiners.

Watts, who works as a coroner in South Carolina, says most states have laws to require people to report dead bodies within a certain period of time. And the more time that passes after someone dies, the harder it becomes to investigate whether a crime has been committed.

This January in Mississippi, a state lawmaker introduced a bill that would fine people $50 if they stumble upon a dead body and don't tell authorities about it in a "timely manner." The Clarion-Ledger, a local news outlet, reported that a woman heading to a workout class had ended up calling 9-1-1 when she saw a body lying near an intersection near Jackson State University.

Which is to say most people don't need a law to compel them to report corpses.

"I think 99.9 percent of people's natural inclination is to call the police or call a funeral director or call somebody to report a death," says Scott Gilligan, an attorney with the National Funeral Directors Association.

After all, once a loved one has died, there are various legal and financial matters at stake, such as collecting insurance, ending Social Security payments and cancelling bank accounts. Oh, and the smell, too.

"We're always surprised when somebody doesn't immediately report it," Gilligan says.

Follow Marina Riker on Twitter.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Found Guilty of All Charges Over Leaked Grand Jury Documents

On Monday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane was convicted of nine criminal charges—including two counts of felony perjury—in connection with the illegal release of secret grand jury documents, The New York Times reports. According to prosecutors, Kane, a Democrat, leaked the information to a Philadelphia newspaper to embarrass former prosecutor Frank Fina, who led the investigation of Jerry Sandusky under her Republican predecessor.