Should Liberian Man With Ebola Be Prosecuted?

I try not to do fear. Yes, taking on fear is a choice. I tell myself that fear is nothing more than an acronym meaning “False Evidence Appearing Real.” Still, this Ebola outbreak has me rather concerned, with good reason. It’s the largest Ebola outbreak on record. Health officials are struggling to identify how many people have had contact with Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who is now undergoing treatment for Ebola in Dallas, Texas. The thought of how many, coupled with the ripple effect, could justify the fear that so many are feeling at this moment. It is in large part due to that fear that so many are calling for vigorous prosecution of Duncan, in spite of the fact that he is currently in critical condition. Should he be prosecuted? The answer is, “Definitely…maybe.” It all depends on what reported facts are true.

Liberian officials have already made the aggressive move of announcing that they intend to prosecute Duncan. They passionately believe that during an airport screening in Liberia, he lied about having come in contact with someone who was infected with Ebola. Duncan claims that while he helped a woman to a taxi, he believed that she had a pregnancy-related illness. According to the AP, that woman later died of the Ebola virus. Duncan was able to pass a screening at the airport in Monrovia because he didn’t demonstrate any fever and/or other symptoms associate with the virus. What is not in dispute is that Duncan did get sick just several days after arriving in the U.S.

If Duncan knew that the woman that he came in contact with had Ebola and then lied about it, he should be prosecuted. If, as he alleges, he didn’t know that she had the virus, then they need to back off. Proving that he knew that her symptoms were that of Ebola and not pregnancy related as Duncan alleges, will prove to be a challenging task.

What I think this potential prosecution is more about is precedent. Liberia desperately wants to keep travel open between their country, the U.S. and others around the globe. The only way that will happen is if all countries feel that Liberia is properly screening passengers who leave their region. Liberia figures that if they don’t come down hard on Mr. Duncan, then they could be perceived as having worthless protocols in place. Many argue that Liberia is only making this announcement because they want to appease the U.S., a country with whom they have vital economic ties.

It’s likely that Texas also is considering bringing criminal charges against Duncan. Sources are reporting that Texas is currently investigating Duncan for intentionally exposing people to the Ebola virus. Many compare his actions to someone who knows they have AIDS and then infects another through sexual contact.

While I believe that an investigation is definitely warranted, I’m not confident that a Texas criminal prosecution is justified. Without additional facts not previously released, I just don’t know how they will be able to overcome Duncan’s anticipated argument that he didn’t even know he had Ebola until days after arriving in the U.S. Texas prosecutors will argue that the primary, if not exclusive reason why he came to the U.S., was because he was desperate to receive the phenomenal medical treatment that our great country provides. All those who have been treated in the U.S. have survived. If he did come here because he knew he had Ebola and wanted our medical treatment, I wouldn’t blame him. Consider the alternatives.

As a practical matter, what happens if Texas does proceed with charges? Think about it. Like all defendants, he would be handcuffed and then taken to the jail for processing. That can’t happen. He has Ebola!

So, as much as I pride myself as someone who doesn’t do fear, I readily admit my concerns and fears on this issue. There are tens of thousands of people currently exposed to Ebola right now. Many are predicting that number to rise to approximately 1.5 million in the very near future. With infected folks eager to find their way to the U.S. for treatment, I, admittedly, remain very concerned.