Cassell Files Crime Victims’ Petition in Fifth Circuit

On September 4, Professor Paul Cassell of the Utah Appellate Clinic and Paula Pierce of the Texas Legal Services Center filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (based in New Orleans, Louisiana) asking for 14 community members in Corpus Christi, Texas, to be allowed to speak that sentencing of the oil company CITGO for environmental crimes.  CITGO was convicted by a jury in 2007 of two counts of criminally violating the Clean Air Act by improperly release benzene-laden fumes into the Corpus Christi area.  U.S. District Judge John Rainey will sentence CITGO on Monday, September 10.

 Judge Rainey has previously ruled that the community members were not “victims” of CITGO’s crimes because they did not have medically documented proof that they were suffering health injuries from the crime.  The community members’ petition argues that Judge Rainey applied an incorrect legal standard in making that ruling.  The federal Crime Victim’s Rights Act grants “crime victim” status (and thus the right to speak at a defendant’s sentencing) to any person who has been “harmed” by a crime.  According to the petition, even if the community members do not have medical testimony to prove they are currently dying of cancer, the community members have suffered multiple harms, including “breathing bad odors, inability to sleep, being scared, living in a near constant state of distress, burning itchy watery eyes, nosebleeds, being unable to control their exposure, and risk of developing deadly cancers in the future.”  The petition also argues that “[t]he record is clear that the CITGO compelled the community members to breathe benzene-laden fumes, which creates a risk that the community members may develop cancers in the future.  To expose a person to a risk (particularly of death by cancer) is a ‘harm’ sufficient to trigger CVRA protections.”

Cassell believes that this case could set a far-reaching precedent: “At issue in this case is whether environmental crimes are effectively going to be declared to be ‘victimless’ crimes.  Many environmental crimes create dangerous health risks that take years or even decades to be medically provable.  Person who have been criminally placed at risk of dying from cancer should be recognized as a victim of a crime.”

Randall Chapman of the Texas Legal Services Center likewise views the case as very important:  “In this case, a major corporation has been convicted of criminally releasing dangerous chemicals into surrounding neighborhoods.  Before the judge imposes a sentence in this case, he should hear from the persons who have been directly harmed by that crime.”

Click to read the mandamus petition

The Fifth Circuit may rule by the end of this week, as the Crime Victim’s Rights Act contains a 72-hour requirement for handing crime victims’ appeals. 

The Utah Appellate Clinic provides legal representation to underprivileged persons who are attempting to be heard in the legal system.  It also provides an opportunity for University of Utah law students to work, under the supervision of professors and other licensed attorneys, on actual appellate litigation.

The Texas Legal Services Center provides free legal services to low income Texans and support to legal aid organizations.

For further comment, contact Professor Paul Cassell cassellp@law.utah.edu or Paula Pierce , ppierce@tlsc.org.