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August 15, 2010

Should we be pleased or frustrated when an accused murderer commits suicide while in custody?

The provocative question in the title for this post is inspired by this breaking news via CNN, which is headlined "Police: Accused Craigslist killer dead of apparent suicide."  Here are the story basics:

A onetime medical student who was facing charges including first-degree murder in a killing tied to the Craigslist website died Sunday of an apparent suicide, police said.  Philip Markoff was found in his Nashua Street Jail cell at 10:17 a.m. Sunday and pronounced dead by medics, said Steven Tompkins, spokesman for the Suffolk County, Massachusetts, Sheriff's Office.

Markoff, 24, was charged with the April 14, 2009, fatal shooting and attempted robbery of Julissa Brisman, 25, at Boston's Copley Marriott Hotel. Police said that Brisman, a model, advertised as a masseuse on Craiglist, a popular online classifieds service, and said Markoff may have met her through the site.

Markoff was also charged with the April 10, 2009, robbery of Trisha Leffler at a Westin Hotel in Boston. Police reports said Leffler was robbed of $800 in cash and $250 in American Express gift cards and was held at gunpoint and bound....

He also was facing charges in an April 16, 2009, incident at a Holiday Inn Express in Warwick, Rhode Island. In that incident, police said Markoff tied up and demanded money from a 26-year-old dancer who had posted a Craigslist advertisement. The robbery was interrupted when the woman's husband entered the room, and the suspect fled after pointing his gun at the husband, according to Warwick Police Chief Col. Stephen McCartney.

At the time of his April 2009 arrest, Markoff was a second-year student at Boston University's School of Medicine and was engaged to be married. His friends and acquaintances expressed shock, describing him as a model student and the "all-American" guy.

A woman identifying herself as Megan McAllister, his fiancee, maintained his innocence in an April 2009 e-mail sent to ABC News, saying Markoff "is the wrong man" and "was set up." "Unfortunately, you were given the wrong information as was the public," she said. "All I have to say to you is Philip is a beautiful person inside and out and could not hurt a fly!" Markoff's attorney had also proclaimed his innocence.

Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley told reporters last year that Brisman's death was "a brutal, vicious crime -- savage. And it shows that Philip Markoff is a man who's willing to take advantage of women -- to hurt them, to beat them, to rob them." Brisman sustained blunt head trauma, and was shot three times at close range, prosecutors said. Conley said they believe the motive for her death was robbery.

In executing a search warrant at Markoff's home, police found a firearm, along with restraints and duct tape, he said. Surveillance videos from the hotel where Brisman was killed showed a tall, clean-cut young blond man in a black windbreaker leaving the property, according to Boston police, who had sought public assistance in identifying the man.

Of course, if Philip Markoff truly was innocent of murder, his suicide compounds the tragedy of a wrongful accusation (and further heightens the risk that the real killer will never be sought or found).  But assuming he was guilty, my first reaction here is to be pleased.  By killing himself, Markoff saved a lot of time, money and energy for those who would be tasked with prosecuting and defending him.  And the family of his victim would, I hope, get some measure of closure from Markoff's death.

I wonder, however, if everyone share my reaction, which is obviously very utilitarian.  For anyone who embraces a more retributivist or expressive/educative or even restorative justice perspective, perhaps Markoff's death is more frustrating than pleasing.  By taking his own life, Markoff in a sense was able to escape the traditional societal process of seeking and imposing justice on a wrong-doer.  (I suppose a deeply religious retributivist might take comfort in the notion he will meet justice in the afterlife, but I am not even sure if a belief in this kind higher justice is enough to make one pleased Markoff sped his own journey to the afterlife.)

UPDATE:  I notice that Ashby Jones over at the WSJ Blog here (and now also Above the Law here) has picked up on my comments in this post, which reinforces my sense that my (too frank?) comments or perhaps my inopportune choice of words has touched a nerve.  In addition to prompting a lot of interesting and strong comments below, this post has led to me getting at least one hateful anonymous comment via e-mail. 

If anyone finds this post offensive, I hope they will explain just what bothers them and why.  I surmise from some comments that the fact that Philip Markoff had not been duly convicted in a court of law is consequential.  For others, perhaps the terms I use or my particularly cold utilitarian analysis is disquieting.  Whatever the particulars, I hope the discussion continues (ideally without having to receive any more hateful anonymous e-mails).

August 15, 2010 at 02:25 PM | Permalink


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I agree with Prof. Berman.

Prisoner estate may sue the prison for allowing the suicide. They had control of his body. All jail suicides fall below the standard of due care for prisons.

Described here:


With this manual in print, every small deviation represents negligence per se.

Human rights and tort lawyers drive this movement. These are reprehensible money grubbers.

That being said, suicide should be encouraged in all repeat offenders. The prison should provide a pleasant environment, nice food, a cocaine heroin injection or any other method the prisoner prefers.

Outside of the loss of lawyer make work, suicide by violent repeat offenders is a winning proposition from every perspective, including that of the prisoner. I would take that offer myself, especially facing LWOP.

I think any disagreement with Prof. Berman will evaporate if he decides to adopt the utilitarian viewpoint in all other areas of policy.

The biblical origin of retribution makes it not only immature, a waste of time and money, but lawless in our secular nation.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 15, 2010 2:57:59 PM

Once an utilitarian view is adopted, all remaining debate is about facts and effects. These can be resolved by testing and experimentation. There is no more argument about values, nor about supernatural doctrine, nor about the rules of mythical characters.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 15, 2010 3:08:30 PM

You are a mindless utilitarian, Prof. A pretty sad mindless utilitarian, at that.

Sad, because in your heightened logic you will probably never get around to being able to see anything else.

Thank God (something you may find impossible to parse) for those who can - and who can see folks like you for how limited they really are.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 15, 2010 6:54:32 PM

I personally believe that if a prisoner wants to commit suicide, that is his/her right.

Now I believe that if harm comes to a prisoner at the hands of another inmate, a guard, etc., then that is a different matter.

Posted by: Questions Authority | Aug 15, 2010 7:55:01 PM

Perhaps it's just me, but I find it very macabre that we're talking about being pleased with people dead. Again, maybe it's just me, but I'm not particularly pleased when anyone dies - not Mr. Markoff, and not his alleged victims.

Posted by: Guy | Aug 15, 2010 8:01:00 PM

The lawyer CCE learned all it knows from the Church, and is carrying on Inquisition 2.0. For example, the words in the criminal law, element, intent, and the analysis of these is the same as the analysis of mortal sin, from the Catechism of St. Thomas Aquinas. I have discussed the technical meaning of the central word of the law, reasonable. No one has ever had it defined properly in law school, because they are covering up the religious connection, lawless in our secular nation. If you want protection from the Muslim and the Taliban imposing their ideas, you must logically mercilessly exclude all Catholic doctrines from the law, as well.

Before getting too huffy, you should understand that religion is a mere part of its business plan. The business plan is totally utilitarian, cold blooded, and Godless, as much so as any criminal enterprise in history. The CCE is just bigger, more powerful, and controls the US government, making 99% of it s policy decisions. Inquisition 1.0 ended after 700 years, when the French Revolution beheaded and expelled 10,000 high church officials. I am proposing the same method, since it is the only remedy the cult criminals understand. Liberate, not just the public from this oppressive elite. The lawyer is twice as oppressed by the Draconian discipline of this cult, and the ordinary judge triply so.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 15, 2010 8:10:19 PM

Before you preach, maybe you should consider what was lost when he died.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Aug 15, 2010 8:19:44 PM

@Joe, I could understand accusing someone of being a godless or heartless or soul-less utilitarian, but I do not understand the suggestion that I am "mindless." I am drawn to utilitarianism because it is philosophy that generally prioritizes use of the mind through logical/rational analysis to derive a concept of right and wrong instead of relying simply on claims of faith. Consequently, I would like to better understand what you mean by the term "mindless utilitarian." (I also cannot help but wonder if you feel less "sad" about crusaders or jihadists who cause great human misery in service to their vision of G-d. Personally, I feel sad for those innocent persons unjustly harmed by such crusaders or jihadists.)

@Guy, do you think it "very macabre" that some family members of murder victims might feel pleased with the execution of the killer of their loved one? I tend to find much more macabre that popular entertainment in the form of movies and TV celebrates death so regularly (and seemingly without much concern about the corrosive effect of repeatedly making light and sport of killings and violence). In any event, I wonder if you would find this discourse less discomforting if I had used the word "satisfied" instead of "pleased" in this context.

Posted by: Doug B. | Aug 15, 2010 9:28:41 PM

There is some utility in the pleasure of his death in that it saves time and money, but that pleasure rests on the presumption of guilt, and there is a great deal of utility in the presumption of guilt, not only in terms of time and money, but also in terms of quieting the conflict of cognitive dissonance. This possibly explains why so many can support the death penalty though they believe an innocent person has been executed. The utility outweighs the mistake. So as long as the risk is limited to them pleasure is possible without the pain and anxiety of risk.

There is probably some utility in due process as well, but faith in the state overrides that. It is under the flag of utility that the Left and the Right united. Most effective would be granting permission to the police to shoot to kill whenever they feel justice would be done, but utilitarians wouldn't want to go that far because it might put themselves at risk.

Posted by: George | Aug 15, 2010 9:29:22 PM

George: You are certainly not safe under the current regime. You are one false snitch away from facing the Beast. It has the methods and the aims of organized crime with a false appearance of virtue. I bet everyone here has already been treated unfairly by the government and got out of it by paying up. And if you are a government worker, you get pushed around daily instead of yearly. This is not utility, this is friction, inafficiency from criminal activity. They threaten, you pay, you get nothing of value in return. Not utilitarian. These criminals must be swept away, so the US can be on its way.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 15, 2010 9:48:27 PM

A Federal Attorney is arrested getting off a plane carrying a Dora the Explorer Doll and a jar of vaseline. He is there to meet a child whose "mother" he met on the internet. The "mother" turned out to be law enforcement engaged in a sting to trap child predators. He is held in a cell and put on suicide watch. His Attorney gets the watch removed with assurances that he is not suicidal. The next morning, he is found hanging in his cell.

Oh my goodness. How do we feel about that? Prisoners he had prosecuted were unhappy that he was given an opportunity to take the easy way out. Most probably family and friends who believed he was innocent were sad and horrified. His fellow prosecutors were probably somewhat relieved that this disgrace would not drag out and taint and distract their work, they may also have mourned. Of course this was a very financially advantageous out come for the tax payer.

The response relates to experience. Being a person of interest or a suspect is a very serious and life altering event. Accusations should not be made facially, although they are. Indictments are secured and dropped - not with out consequences. Anyway, it would feel much better if accusations were flawless, and outcomes rational and true. They are not.

Posted by: beth | Aug 15, 2010 10:27:10 PM

I am out of my element here. It is easy to be intimidated by the brainpower on display. I am a 74-year-old great grandmother. I stumbled upon your blog quite by accident while scanning the daily child pornography activity.

Obviously “accused murderer” has become synonymous with “convicted murderer.” It does appear, if I were to believe what I have read, that Philip Markoff could have been guilty. I do have reason, however, to know it is possible to be mislead by the nuance of an article.

That being the case, I am neither pleased nor frustrated when an accused murder commits suicide while in custody. I am deeply saddened by the wasted potential and for those who loved Philip.

And I am continually aware there are innocent victims imprisoned throughout the United States.


Posted by: Bette Brown | Aug 15, 2010 11:34:08 PM

"You are one false snitch away from facing the Beast."

SC says some strange things, but truer words than these are seldom spoken.

Posted by: John K | Aug 16, 2010 8:54:15 AM

"Being a person of interest or a suspect is a very serious and life altering event. Accusations should not be made facially, although they are. Indictments are secured and dropped - not with out consequences. Anyway, it would feel much better if accusations were flawless, and outcomes rational and true. They are not."

Words of wisdom, beth. Graceful, thoughtful words.

Posted by: John K | Aug 16, 2010 9:13:05 AM

"@Guy, do you think it "very macabre" that some family members of murder victims might feel pleased with the execution of the killer of their loved one? I tend to find much more macabre that popular entertainment in the form of movies and TV celebrates death so regularly (and seemingly without much concern about the corrosive effect of repeatedly making light and sport of killings and violence). In any event, I wonder if you would find this discourse less discomforting if I had used the word "satisfied" instead of "pleased" in this context."

Doug: No, I do not find that situation as macabre as the one that we're in...but then again, there are several differences between that hypothetical and the present situation. For one, Mr. Markoff was not a convicted killer, condemned to die by the state. While due process concerns tend to be those exiled to the realm of ivory-tower academia in our age of Nancy Grace and Jane Valez-Mitchell, they do still wrinkle my scalp.

For another, at least presumably, none of us are relatives of Mr. Markoff's alleged victims, which only adds to the...well, to change it up a bit, ghoulishness of this sort of before-his-body-turns-cold grave dancing.

While you are certainly correct in your observation about popular culture, the one main difference between violence in movies and television (the 6 o'clock news aside) is that the violence there is imaginary. When the accused killer in the next made-for-tv movie hangs himself while awaiting trial, he doesn't actually leave behind a family that cares for him, scores of unanswered (and, indeed, maybe now unanswerable) questions, or family(ies) of victims seeking closure. Here, however...well....

Now that you mentioned it, it might have had something to do with the nomenclature and the dichotomy you offered. Pleased strikes me as a little blood-thirsty, but more than that I was puzzled why "saddened" was not an option for the unpleased and unfrustrated among us.

Please don't mistake my position. I do not think Mr. Markoff to be some great humanitarian. In all likelihood, he was a killer and likely some form of sociopath to boot who left behind a trail of unspeakable suffering for both those who cared about him and those who reviled him. I also think about Mr. Markoff himself, in his cell, and presumably in his last moments he wasn't laughing all the way to the grave about how he was going to cheat the judicial system out of it's final justice (or, at least, I don't think so). So I think on all that pain, all those tears, all those lives that are irrevocably changed and...well...pleased strikes me as a little off.

But, while you're here (and to completely change the subject) - just wanted to say I really to enjoy the blog. I read it daily.

Posted by: Guy | Aug 16, 2010 10:13:07 AM

"And I am continually aware there are innocent victims imprisoned throughout the United States."

Me too, Bette.

Posted by: John K | Aug 16, 2010 11:15:40 AM

Prof Berman probably loves these guys:


The ultimate utilitarians! Saving a buck is so much better than justice. Why even waste money on electricity or lethal injection?! ROCKS ARE FREE!

Posted by: Juls | Aug 16, 2010 2:49:36 PM

@Juls, your link to the story headlined "Taliban stone couple for adultery in Afghanistan" in a sense effectively captures my concern with the comments made before by Joe.

I feel pretty confident that the Taliban involved in stonings for violating religious doctrine are not trying to be "ultimate utilitarians," but rather have a very deontological vision of right/wrong and justice. I assume you are not big fans of the Taliban vision of right/wrong, which in turn makes me wonder why you are so quick to mistakenly suggest a utilitarian would embrace them.

Indeed, I tend to be drawn to utilitarian approaches to crime and punishment because I see a lot of terrible things done by folks like the Taliban with a very deontological vision of right/wrong and justice.

Posted by: Doug B. | Aug 16, 2010 3:39:27 PM

I feel kind of bad about my post above after reading our hosts subsequent explanation, and he was probably using "pleasure" in the Bentham sense of Legal Theory Lexicon: Utilitarianism. I do not think he meant if he was there to witness the suicide he would rub his hands together, cackle and urge him on.

I also learned by reading the above link that I'm a deontologist in the sense that the government never has permission or the right to violate its own laws or the Constitution. Ignorance of the law is no excuse goes doubly for the government when we presume the government knows the laws well enough to enforce them. In other words, as Daniel used to argue, the Constitution can never be waived. However, though the Constitution is the bedrock of our country, in our adversarial system, it is really sand and this sand is often utilitarianism.

Posted by: George | Aug 16, 2010 3:56:49 PM

I am saddened that he took his life. We, as a society, don't take seriously our obligation to protect inmates from brutalization at the hands of other inmates. Protecting inmates from death at their own hand is an equally low-level social priority.

He was young and bright. There was some redemptive potential for him in prison. He could've taught and helped other inmates get their degrees.

Posted by: Anon | Aug 16, 2010 4:57:46 PM

He could also have killed or raped inmates and guards, sold drugs and escaped. There is an equal chance he could have become the predator you say we needed to protect him from.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Aug 16, 2010 5:30:54 PM

I'm perfectly fine with him committing suicide, but then I believe in the right to suicide. To the extent that we have capital punishment, I suppose it is right to view his self-execution as an efficient outcome, if we assume his guilt. (In general, I don't support capital punishment, not out of a belief that is isn't a proper outcome in some cases, but because the state is imperfect, and should never wrongly deprive someone of life.)

I dislike Anon's view of this person as a means to other ends. Justice is not served by a view of the instrumental use of peers. I'm equally unmoved by the victim's families' supposed loss of vindication - I don't see a valid use of state force in building such. In cases of murder, there is no way to make the victim whole, and I don't believe the family has a cause of action, except perhaps in some cases of economic hardship caused.

I don't expect these to be popular views.

Posted by: grog | Aug 16, 2010 8:25:11 PM

Grog: For consistency, advocate the suspension of transportation until its imperfections can be worked out. These imperfections kill 1000 times more people than the death penalty. All go rough, by the bashing, chopping and tearing of the body. None have received due process. The "suspend until perfected" argument would end all human activities, if allowed.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 16, 2010 9:36:39 PM

"But assuming he was guilty..."

Which is only natural, given that the law presumes him to have been innocent.

Seriously, I'm not sure what this speculation is supposed to accomplish. Sure, assume he was guilty. Assume, even, that we should be "pleased" (in the constraint-satisfaction sense) by his suicide. What follows? To whatever extent such speculation could inform any kind of policy analysis, its contribution (such as it is) would surely be undone by what it brackets out, namely, the extent to which the process of a trial provides (aspirationally, at least) part of the appropriate epistemic institutional grounding that makes the guilt of an accused more than a mere, pleasing assumption.

Posted by: Michael Drake | Aug 16, 2010 10:47:46 PM

We can not know why this person committed suicide - if he did, in fact, take his own life. Having spent 10 years as a Federal Prisoner I have seen both kinds, i.e., actual suicide and suicide by Corrections Officer/paid inmate (paid by whom becomes the question).
As to being happy about it? No. Disgusted by the lack of "safe care and keeping"? Yes. Can it happen - does. Taking the life of another, when they are in a closed and controlled situation...what foolishness. But, it is the way of current , primitive USA "Justice". No one had tried this person; found them guilty of anything; passed sentence of any kind. Yet, here 'we' are debating a non-existent issue - was it a good that this person died? Pathetic, imho.

Posted by: Throsso | Aug 17, 2010 12:11:37 PM

Former student of yours... first-time commenter here. I think you are putting into written words a thought that many people have, but are unaccustomed to giving voice to or reading in print. That might explain some of the unusually strong reaction you are getting. Regardless of which side one takes in the debate, it is a worthy point of discussion though, and I commend you for raising it.

My own two cents:

(1) I doubt Markoff's suicide gives the victim's family much closure. In my experience, victims' families' high expectations of closure tend to exceed the sense of closure they actually feel after sentencing or (in capital cases) execution. As a practical matter, the ability for victims to "move on" ultimately comes from within. Compound that with the fact Markoff was never formally convicted or punished (in the traditional legal sense) for his crime (assuming he is guilty), and I see even less likelihood of an adequate sense of closure from his suicide.

(2) Even assuming he is guilty, and irrespective of whether he "deserves" this outcome, I find only sadness and waste here. This is a guy who "had it all" -- family, friends, a fiancee, and a promising career -- and threw it away. And it goes without saying that if he is innocent, his suicide would seem even more tragic.

(3) I acknowledge the utilitarian point of view, but perhaps "pleased" is not the word or phrase that most accurately recognizes the utility in not having to try and then (assuming conviction) incarcerate Markoff. Is "not terribly offended" an option instead?

OK, so maybe that was three cents...

Posted by: Brian | Aug 17, 2010 2:48:09 PM

Doug --

I'm relieved to hear that you're mindless. This should make the debate easier.


Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 17, 2010 4:18:59 PM

The emotional intensity comes from the threat of suicide to the rent of the lawyer and criminal dependent government make work sinecures.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 18, 2010 12:47:41 AM

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