- Ashley Menser, a 36-year-old Pennsylvania woman with advanced cancer, was sentenced to at least 10 months in prison for stealing $109 worth of groceries from a Weis Markets store.
- Upon hearing of the case, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman wrote a series of tweets condemning the court for their decision.
- District Attorney Pier Hess Graf responded to the criticism, saying Menser’s sentence was based on her extensive criminal record that Fetterman did not mention in his tweets.
- Fetterman still plans to urge Weis Markets to publically back the reconsideration of Menser’s sentence.
A Pennsylvania district attorney defended the 10-month sentence of a cancer patient who stole $109 worth of groceries after facing criticism from another local official.
Ashley Menser, 36, who is battling uterine cancer as well as cervical cancer, pleaded guilty to the 2018 crime she committed at a Weis Markets store in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. She was ultimately sentenced for the crime on January 22 of this year. Her sentence was especially crushing for her family, as they claimed Menser’s sickness has reached a critical level.
Stephanie Bashore, Menser’s mother, told The New York Times that her daughter is in need of surgery to remove her uterus and the tissue surrounding it. Bashore said that a medical professional recently told Menser, “If you don’t get this done, you will die. It is eating you up inside.”
Bashore also told the Times that on the day of her daughter’s sentencing, she had a medical appointment scheduled to discuss options moving forward.
Menser’s lawyer, Scot Feeman, conceded that the sentencing was aligned with his client’s criminal history, though he still expressed disappointment. He told The New York Times that Menser has a history with opioid use but has been clean for a while.
Feeman also told the newspaper that Menser had been on powerful psychiatric medication to help her manage her post-traumatic stress disorder, which was partly induced by the death of her child.
“With the psychiatric medicine, she has trouble discerning what’s real and what’s not,” Feeman told the Times.
“She is in a lot of pain, and very ill,” Feeman added. “She’s very concerned about her health prospects going forward.”
Feeman had asked the judge to consider punishing Menser with house arrest so she could continue to receive treatment at the Penn State Cancer Institute, but the court rejected the notion based on her past crimes.
Lieutenant Governor’s Response
When John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, read about Menser’s case in a PA Post article, he expressed his disbelief and disapproval of the sentencing on Twitter.
“If the underlying details of this are accurate, this cannot be allowed to continue,” Fetterman wrote on Friday.
He also offered to personally compensate Weis Markets $109 for the groceries that Menser stole from their store.
District Attorney Weighs In
Pier Hess Graf, the Lebanon County district attorney, issued a statement on Saturday defending the decision of the court in Menser’s case after Fetterman drew much public attention to it. She wrote that Menser’s sentence reflected her extensive criminal record, including 13 prior theft convictions and welfare fraud.
Graf also noted that Menser refused treatment for her sickness on her own, according to a document submitted by her own defense team in 2019.
“Our Lieutenant Governor found it appropriate to criticize the Court and the victim,” Graf wrote. “He went so far as to offer a personally delivered check for the underlying amount to the victim to absolve the defendant of her crime.”
“He failed to mention in any of his tweets, however, the extensive prior record of the defendant, her drug abuse, or the fact that her sentencing ranges — as set forth by the legislature — call for jail time,” Graf added.
Additionally, Graf wrote that “the state system is far more capable of addressing serious health concerns for inmates.”
Feeman has filed a motion for a resentencing of Menser.
Ultimately, Lt. Gov. Fetterman didn’t make a trip to the Lebanon grocery store to hand-deliver a check, though he did maintain his offer to cover the charge of the stolen groceries. He told The New York Times that he hopes to get Weis Markets company heads to support a reconsideration of Menser’s sentence.
“I know they don’t want this. Nobody wants this,” he said. “My hope is to get them on board and say, ‘This has gone far enough,’” Fetterman said.
See what others are saying: (New York Times) (ABC) (Philadelphia Inquirer)
Doctor Charged After Attacking Teens for Not Social Distancing
- A physician in Louisville, Kentucky was arrested after he was caught on video strangling a teenager, frustrated that she and her friends were out in public and not practicing social distancing.
- Over the past few days, there have been several cases all over the country where people disobeying social distancing guidelines has led to violence or overreactions.
- These are more extreme examples of quarantine shaming: the act of publicly calling out people who appear to not be taking COVID guidelines seriously.
Louisville Physician Charged
A Kentucky physician was charged with strangulation Tuesday after video showed him attacking a group of teenagers who were not practicing social distancing. The incident marks one of the more extreme examples of a new trend called “quarantine shaming.”
Footage of the incident went viral over the weekend and the Louisville physician in the video has since been identified as John Rademaker.
“Yeah, we’re leaving. Let’s not cuss at each other,” the person recording the video can be heard saying before Rademaker, who was accompanied by another woman when he found the group at an amphitheater, started to get physical.
“Hey, hey, hey do not touch, oh my god what the fuck is your problem?” another girl asked as he pushed her. “Do not fucking touch me.”
The screaming continues as he approaches another girl who is already on the ground. He appears to choke her as the rest of the group shouts for him to get off of her. Local reports say Rademaker and the woman left the scene after the incident.
The video sparked outrage online for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the worst violence was directed at a girl who appeared to be the only black person present. Others were also shocked that the situation escalated so quickly, considering Rademaker was not provoked.
In addition to being arrested and charged, WLKY says that Rademaker has been placed on leave from his job. The Louisville Metro Police Department also released a statement condemning his actions.
“Obviously, we do not advise individuals concerned about social distancing to take matters into their own hands and confront people about it, especially in any physical way,” the department said. “We ask people who are concerned about large gatherings to call 311 or 911 to report their concerns.”
Other Incidents Across the Country
This incident is one of several that have been reported throughout the last several days where conflicts about social distancing mounted to physical violence or blatant overreactions.
On Monday the Miami Herald reported that when a man and his 21-year-old daughter called out a group of 20 or so college kids for partying in the Florida Keys, they two were beaten with a baseball bat.
The two confronted the group about social distancing and asked them to keep the noise down. They were then hit on their heads with the bat by an unknown number of people.
Both had to go to the hospital and had noticeable bumps on their heads. At the time of the Herald’s report, no arrests had been made.
In New York, an elderly woman died after an altercation related to social distancing. A 32-year-old pushed 86-year-old Jane Marshall to the ground because she was standing too close to her. Marshall hit her head on the floor and lost consciousness, then died a few hours later. Right now the assailant was issued a summons for disorderly conduct, but if Marshall’s death is ruled a homicide, that could change to serious charges.
In another incident in Brighton, Colorado, police issued an apology after handcuffing a father in front of his six-year-old for playing in a park. Authorities responded to a report of a group of people playing softball. According to a Fox affiliate in Denver, there was a sign at the park that said it was closed, except to groups of four or less for walking, biking, and other activities.
The man who was handcuffed, Matt Mooney, says he was just with his wife and daughter. Police, however, said there were 12-15 people present in the park, and it is unclear if there was a misunderstanding or if other parties present at the time.
Officers told Mooney and his family to disperse because the park was closed, but the he and his family thought there was a misunderstanding.
This eventually led to Mooney refusing to provide ID, maintaining he was not doing anything unlawful. He told the Fox station that he sat in the back of a patrol car for ten minutes before being released. He believes that if anyone was breaking social distancing guidelines, it was the officers.
“During the contact, none of the officers had masks on, none of them had gloves on, and they’re in my face handcuffing me, they’re touching me,” Mooney told the outlet.
The Brighton Police Department is now conducting an internal investigation into what led to Mooney’s detainment.
While the investigation sorts through the different versions of what took place by witnesses who were at the park, it is evident there was an overreach by our police officers,” authorities said in an apology to Mooney and his family.
“We are deeply sorry for the events that took place on Sunday and the impact on Mr. Mooney, his family, and the community,” the statement added.
All of these cases are extreme examples of a recent trend that several reports have identified as “quarantine shaming.” The Washington Post defines it as “calling out people who are perceived as not doing their part to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.”
In cases where either the shamer or the shamee does not handle the situation well, things can ramp up rather quickly. There are, however, plenty of non-violent cases where people have taken to shaming in order to stop people from going outside and in public spaces. From smaller verbal confrontations to social media posts, there are many ways that people have chastised others for their behavior during the coronavirus pandemic.
BBC News published a piece looking into the phenomenon and spoke to experts that believe shaming is almost a natural reaction for humans in situations like this.
“Social psychologists say that shaming plays a significant role in enforcing social norms – especially at a time when norms are rapidly changing as a result of coronavirus,” author Helier Cheung wrote.
While violent cases of quarantine shaming are outliers, and under no circumstances should people find themselves in physical altercations because of the coronavirus, less aggressive shaming can actually be effective. Sociological data shows that it can be a productive strategy in a situation where new norms have to be established, like the pandemic we are currently living in.
BBC also spoke to Daniel Sznycer, a social psychologist at the University of Montreal who said that shame is about “reputational damage.” Because going outside is an “inherently public” act, people who have been shamed for it will likely not repeat the action. They will feel more obliged to practice social distancing, as they will not want to get caught and risk tarnishing their reputation again.
Sznycer says that shaming does not work, however, in situations that can happen behind closed doors. So behavior that many view as ill-advised during quarantine but can be easily hidden, like hoarding or unnecessarily online shopping, will likely not be stopped by shaming.
See what others are saying: (WDRB) (CBS Denver) (Courier Journal)
Black Americans Face Higher COVID-19 Death Rates in Some Areas
- In several cities and states around the country, black Americans are being hit harder by the coronavirus.
- In Louisiana and Chicago, black people account for 70% of the total deaths, despite being roughly a third of the population.
- Most states, however, are not releasing information about what racial groups are being impacted by the virus.
- The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and members of Congress have both sent their own letters encouraging the government to release this information. They believe that knowing what communities are being impacted the most is crucial in fighting the pandemic.
Disproportionate Rates Throughout Country
As states and cities across the country reveal that African Americans are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, many are calling for data on race and the pandemic to be released nationwide.
Louisiana has a little under 15,000 cases of the novel coronavirus, which has led to 512 deaths. Of those who died, 70% were black. This number is particularly astonishing because, according to census data, black citizens make up roughly one-third of the state’s population.
During a press conference, Governor John Bel Edwards said that this death rate is “disturbing.”
“So that deserves more attention and we’re going to have to dig into that and see what we can do to slow that trend down,” Edwards added.
Louisiana is far from alone. In Chicago, African Americans also comprise close to one-third of the population, but they also account for 70% of COVID-19-related deaths.
As of Tuesday morning, the city has lost 118 people to the virus, with a 4.4 average death rate per 100,000 people. Eighty-one of those deaths have been black residents, who comparatively have a 10.3 death rate. This comes close to ten times the death rate any other racial population in the city is experiencing.
“Those numbers take your breath away,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot told reporters. “They really do. This is a call-to-action moment for all of us.”
In Milwaukee, where African Americans make up 27% of the population, the disparity is also massive. Not only are they leading confirmed cases, but also make up 35 of the state’s 49 total deaths.
There are several factors that could be contributing to this. African Americans are less likely to have health insurance and more likely to have pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure and asthma. On top of this, black Americans are also systematically under treated and more likely to be denied treatment or testing.
Medical issues aside, black Americans are also not working from home as frequently. According to the Economic Policy Institute, while 30% of white Americans and 37% of Asian Americans can work from home, only 20% of African Americans can. Hispanic and Latino workers have the least access to telecommuting at 16%. Those going out to work in the field, as opposed to saying home, are immediately at higher risk of exposing themselves to and contracting the coronavirus.
Not All Cities and States Release Info
Black Americans dying from the coronavirus at a higher rate is a trend across numerous states and cities, but we still do not know how widespread the issue is. The majority of localities have not released information about what racial groups are the the most impacted by COVID-19. According to NBC News, only nine full states have done so.
This lack of reporting could stem from a number of reasons. First, states are not required to do so. Second, collecting all this data could be difficult, and even if that data is collected, some might fear misinformation.
Still, many health experts believe this information is essential in combating the virus. There are big efforts to urge states and the federal government to collect and share this information with the public so that the imbalance can be addressed.
On Monday the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, along with nearly 400 medical professionals, sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services and related organizations to demand that these statistics be released to the public.
“The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and its subagencies are charged with ensuring that racial disparities do not persist in the administration of healthcare services, even in a pandemic,” they wrote.
In their letter, they cited that black Americans have higher rates of underlying conditions and cannot work from home on a large scale. They also added that black Americans face barriers in testing, and that they have also been disproportionately impacted in the recent surge of unemployment applications.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law claims the data is needed so public health officials can determine if marginalized communities are struggling when it comes to testing and treatment.
“The absence of this critical data on a national scale will severely hamper the ability to develop robust public health interventions responsive to the needs of communities of color,” the letter added. “This data is also needed to help fully understand COVID-19, and to help stem ongoing community spread of this novel and dangerous virus.”
Letter from Congress
Congress has also demanded action on this front. At the end of March, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ), teamed up with Representatives Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Robin Kelly (D-IL) to write a letter to DHS Secretary Alex Azar. Together, they encouraged the DHS and the CDC to monitor racial disparities and how the pandemic is impacted by them.
“Although COVID-19 does not discriminate along racial or ethnic lines, existing racial disparities and inequities in health outcomes and health care access may mean that the nation’s response to preventing and mitigating its harms will not be felt equally in every community,” they wrote.
“This lack of information will exacerbate existing health disparities and result in the loss of lives in vulnerable communities,” the letter continued. “It will also hamper the efforts of public health officials to track and contain the novel coronavirus in the areas that are at the highest risk of continued spread.”
See what others are saying: (New York Times) (Politico) (Washington Post)
Exemptions for Religious Gatherings During Pandemic Cause Confusion
- About a dozen states that have issued stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic have also made exemptions for religious gatherings.
- A combination of mixed messaging from leaders, misreporting by the media, and overlapping decisions made at the state, county, and city levels have led to confusion about the exemptions.
- Even in states with very clear bans, several religious leaders have continued to hold gatherings, arguing that banning them violates the first amendment.
- Some churches in Arkansas, California, Illinois, and other states have already reported outbreaks that spread among members after they held large gatherings.
Religious Exemptions in States
With the Easter holidays rapidly approaching, state-wide exemptions for religious gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic have sparked confusion, concern, and a heated debate about religious freedoms.
Part of the confusion stems from the difficulty in pinning down exactly how many places that have shelter in place orders also have exemptions for religious gatherings.
According to the New York Times, “41 states, three counties, eight cities, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are being urged to stay home.”
In some places, like California, in-person religious gatherings have been outright banned throughout the whole state. In others, it is not as clear-cut.
This is not helped by a large amount of misreporting on how many states have religious exemptions.
Some of the misreporting and confusion is due to the fact that while some states explicitly list religious gatherings as exempt, others, like Alabama and South Carolina, just provide a list of entities that have to close. Those lists do not include religious organizations.
Around a dozen states have some kind of religious exemption for stay-at-home orders.
Florida, Texas & Religious Freedoms
There’s also an issue with overlapping authority regarding decisions made at the state level versus the county and city levels.
For example, last week, Florida megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested for holding services despite the shelter in place order in Hillsborough County, where his church was.
A few days later, Florida Gov. Ron Desantis implemented a state-wide safer and home order that explicitly allowed religious gatherings.
“There’s no reason why you can’t do a church service with people spread 10 feet apart, so we definitely ask them to abide by social distancing guidelines, but I think, in times like this, the service they are providing is very important for people,” DeSantis said, despite the fact that there was no clear indication in his order that social distancing rules needed to be followed.
Following DeSantis’ announcement, Howard-Browne said he will keep his church shut down because he received death threats, though he still pushed back against the county’s now-defunct order.
“The First Amendment provides express protections to houses of worship and assembly,” he said in a statement. “There is no similar constitutional protection for commercial businesses; yet houses of worship and religious gatherings are signaled out for discrimination.”
Religious institutions are largely believed to be protected from regulations in the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has ruled that a law cannot “unduly burden” a religion unless there is a “compelling interest.”
But whether or not the pandemic can be considered “compelling” is a much bigger and more complicated constitutional debate, as there is no precedent for a pandemic in the modern world of this scale and magnitude.
Florida is not alone here. Last week, three pastors in Texas filed a lawsuit against Harris County, where Houston is located, after a stay-at-home order that barred religious gatherings was put in place.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also signed a statewide shelter in place order that allowed religious gatherings a few days later, and like in Florida, the state-wide order in Texas effectively made the local orders moot.
Mixes Messages & Ignored Orders
Mixed messaging from leaders has also added to the confusion.
The Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio generated viral buzz Sunday after a CNN report showed numerous cars leaving a Palm Sunday service. When one of the drivers was asked if she was concerned about spreading the virus, she responded, “No, I’m covered in Jesus’ blood.”
According to reports, the town’s mayor had specifically asked that the church stop holding in-person services, a request which it rejected.
The point was also echoed by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.
“Any pastor who brings people together, in close proximity to each other, a large group of people, is making a huge mistake,” he said. “It’s not a Christian thing to do.”
That, however, was confusing to some, because DeWine was the one who issued the order allowing for religious exemptions in the first place.
But even in places where there are very clear-cut orders explicitly banning religious gatherings, some churches are outright ignoring them.
In Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church held services Sunday despite the fact that he had been arrested for violating the state’s order and holding services just a few days earlier.
In Sacramento, the Bethany Slavic Missionary megachurch reportedly continued to hold services even after 71 members of the congregation tested positive for the coronavirus. The church was shuttered as of this weekend.
Hotspot for Spread
The Bethany Slavic Missionary church was not the only religious institution that has made way for the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, several religious gatherings have proven to be hotspots for the contraction and spread of the virus.
In February, six people who attended a church conference at a hotel in Louisville, Kentucky tested positive. North Carolina public health officials have said “multiple cases” of the virus are connected to a March event held by the Faith Assembly Christian Center at another hotel Durham.
Rural Minnesota has reported at least nine cases that were traced to one church, and at least 10 members of a church in a suburb of Chicago got sick after a March 15 service.
In Arkansas, more than three dozen people who attended a children’s event at a church tested positive at the end of March.