Archive: April 2007

Props to KC cops 4/29/07

Details are still emerging at this hour, but there was another awful shooting rampage today, this one at a Kansas City shopping mall just a few blocks from the office that I use when I examine patients in that city.  The shooter reportedly killed one person and attempted to kill a police officer elsewhere before starting the rampage that began in the mall’s parking lot and ended when he was fatally shot by police.  In addition to the shooter, two people are reported dead and at least two others wounded.  The identity and motive of the shooter remain unclear at this hour.

It’s another senseless tragedy, hauntingly reminiscent of the recent shooting rampage at Virginia Tech.  All I can say for sure at this point is that if I’m ever in a building where someone’s on a shooting spree, I hope officers like the ones I saw today show up on the scene.  Footage recorded by Kansas City’s Fox affiliate WDAF shows officers running into the building with guns drawn to confront the shooter while everyone else who could was running out.  Sad as it is, props to Kansas City’s cops for preventing it from becoming a massacre of Virginia Tech proportions.

The preacher’s wife 4/28/07

No, this isn’t about that nutty pop singer who played a preacher’s wife on the big screen, admits being a drug abuser, and nevertheless just got custody of her teenage daughter.  It would be nice, however, if that movie preacher’s wife and her equally-nutty ex-husband would read my previous post.  But no, this is about Mary Winkler, a real-life preacher’s wife…until she killed him.  I’ve been asked to weigh in on Winkler’s case, so here goes.

Mrs. Winkler killed her husband, preacher Matthew Winkler, in March of 2006 by shooting him in the back with a shotgun while he slept.  She then packed up the couple’s three young children, who were in the house at the time, and fled to the Alabama coast.  She was apprehended the next day and charged with first-degree murder.  Mrs. Winkler claimed that the gun went off accidentally.  She claimed that her husband had abused her emotionally, physically, and sexually and that she had intended only to hold him at gunpoint while she confronted him about his abusive behavior.  She also claimed that she had suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) since the death of her sister 20 years ago.  Nobody backed up her testimony about the abuse.  In fact, the couple’s nine-year-old daughter testified that she had never seen her deceased father mistreat her mother.  On the other hand, there was evidence that Mrs. Winkler had put the family’s meager finances in jeopardy by participating in a bank-fraud scheme and that her husband was going to meet with bank officers the following day to discuss the situation.  Earlier this month, a Tennessee jury made up of two men and ten women found Mrs. Winkler guilty of voluntary manslaughter, which means she’ll likely receive three to six years in prison and be eligible for parole after serving just 30% of that time.

I admit that I wasn’t there in the courtroom during the trial and that I have at times cautioned against second-guessing juries without hearing everything they heard.  However, this verdict, and especially the relatively short prison term that it carries, look like a gross miscarriage of justice to me.  The woman killed a man, while he was sleeping, while his children were in the house!  There’s no evidence, other than the word of a con artist on trial for murder, that the victim had ever abused her.  Bill O’Reilly said it best:  “It’s a case of she said, he’s dead!”  Some legal analysts have opined that the daughter’s testimony was irrelevant and unnecessarily stressful for the child.  I disagree.  In my experience, kids, even very young kids, know when their parents are fighting.  The fact that the little girl says she never saw any discord between her parents is huge.  And even if the guy had been abusive, he was asleep.  If Mrs. Winkler was afraid of him, she had plenty of non-lethal options.  She could have packed up the kids and gone to her parents’ house.  She could have filed for divorce.  I know, I know, she was threatened and scared and couldn’t think clearly — that’s what wives always say when they decide to kill their husbands instead of leaving them.  I don’t buy it.  Looks like she was doing some deliberate thinking when she was defrauding the bank, getting a gun, getting it ready to fire, waiting until her husband and children were asleep, etc.  And, as someone who’s seen numerous patients with PTSD, I don’t get what that disorder (if she ever really had it) would have had to do with this case (see my previous post “Revisiting the concept of evil” for an example of the kind of case in which I believe PTSD legitimately could play a role).

Mrs. Winkler’s sentencing is scheduled for May 18th, and as always, I’m most concerned about the kids.  The only thing about this case that makes me angrier than their mother spending just a few years in prison for killing their father is the prospect of her eventually regaining custody of them.  The kids reportedly are living with their paternal grandparents, and I hope they stay there even after their murderous mother gets out of prison.

Alec Baldwin, Father of the Year? 4/24/07

By now, most of America has heard actor Alec Baldwin’s expletive-laden voicemail tirade in which he called his 12 (“or 11,” apparently he’s not sure)-year-old daughter, among other things, a “thoughtless little pig.”  Not that this requires an expert, but as a child custody evaluator, I’d like to go on the record about the damage that’s being done to the little girl in this case.

Clearly, talking to children as Mr. Baldwin did can have profound negative effects on their emotional health.  In addition, if the mother, actress Kim Basinger, leaked the voicemail to the media, she has done her own damage to the child in my opinion.  Now, not only has the child been emotionally wounded by her father, but the injury has been compounded by broadcasting it to the whole world, forcing the child to deal with feelings of shame on top of demoralization, sadness, and anxiety.  The judge and the custody evaluator (assuming there is one) in the ongoing custody battle between Mr. Baldwin and Ms. Basinger should have been given the tape, but there was nothing to be gained for the child in sharing it with the world.

Mr. Baldwin apparently says he was hurt and angry and lost control.  I don’t really care how he felt — no parent should call his/her child a “pig” or scream expletives at the child, period.  I realize that such behavior is all too common, but one person’s bad behavior isn’t justified by someone else’s (or many other people’s) bad behavior.  I also don’t really care if the little girl’s behavior preceding the voicemail was rude and inconsiderate.  I generally think that parents can and should expect their children to behave respectfully (in the interest of the children’s healthy socialization), but when parents are at fault for making a mess of their child’s life, I give that child some (not total, some) slack.  For example, if a father and mother choose not to continue living cordially under the same roof until their child is grown (I don’t really care if they’re in love with each other as long as they both love the child), as Mr. Baldwin and Ms. Basinger apparently choose not to do, and the father then chooses to live thousands of miles away from his daughter, as Mr. Baldwin apparently chooses to do, it should come as no surprise to him if his daughter doesn’t feel like dropping what she’s doing to take his phone call.  The parents made this mess, so I expect them to deal with their own hurt feelings and not take them out on the child.

This reminds me of a conversation I had on the air about Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.  They adopted two children (a highly-stressful adjustment for the children in spite of the opportunities it created for them), then proceeded to divorce (another highly-stressful adjustment for the kids), and then proceeded to reside thousands of miles apart (more stress on the kids).  In the Cruise-Kidman divorce, just as in the Baldwin-Basinger case, the damage didn’t stop there.  Ms. Kidman then married a substance abuser, country singer Keith Urban (I refuse to believe she didn’t know that about him at the time), while Mr. Cruise married someone closer to his kids’ ages than to his own, actress Katie Holmes, and immediately started a new family with her (actually, the new family was in the works before the wedding).  Way to put the kids first!

Even if it was the first time, which I doubt, what Mr. Baldwin did in that voicemail was emotionally abusive and should weigh against him in the custody case in my opinion.  Unfortunately, I imagine that Ms. Basinger isn’t Mother of the Year either.  That’s often the back-story in these highly-contentious custody cases, whether they’re in Hollywood or in Kansas:  one unstable person hooks up with another unstable person, they become two unstable parents, they briefly have an unstable household, they split up, and as if that’s not enough for the kids to deal with, the parents go on and make it worse by creating new instability, new relationships, new kids, etc.  While I believe that the children involved usually do suffer long-lasting emotional repercussions of varying degrees, I’m often amazed, thankfully, by their resilience, which keeps them from being doomed to perpetuate the cycle of instability.

It would be nice if parents around the country, including Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, would learn from these famous couples’ mistakes so their children could look forward to something better.  What are the chances?  Seeing that it’s after 4:00 a.m., I think I’ll pretend the chances are good so I can go to sleep.

Revisiting the concept of evil 4/19/07

I’ve been asked to again draw the distinction between mental illness and evil in the context of the Virginia Tech shooting rampage.  Right up front, I want to be clear about two things.  First, illness and evil are not mutually exclusive — they can coexist in the same individual (a person can be mentally-ill and evil just like a person can have cancer and be evil).  Second, when I talk and write about evil, it’s not from a religious perspective — anyone, religious or not, can understand and use the term “evil” the way I use it.  Simply put, evil as I see it is about choice — a conscious choice to harm someone for self-gratification.

Let me start with a hypothetical situation that we all can relate to:  Think about a six-year-old child who’s upset because his mom won’t take him to McDonald’s, so he kicks his mom.  He’s acting out of emotion, he’s angry, and he feels justified in behaving as he does.  BUT, he still should be held responsible and punished.  Why?  Because he knows that he’s hurting another person simply for not giving him what he wants, he’s old enough to understand that acting out violently is not an acceptable way to get what he wants, he’s capable of resisting the urge to lash out and kick somebody, and he chooses to do it anyway.  Of course that’s about as minor as it gets on the continuum of evil, but it illustrates an important point that I’ll come back to shortly.

An intellect, the ability to know in advance when acting on urges would harm someone else (basically, to distinguish right from wrong) and then to choose to resist those urges, is what sets a human being apart from any other animal.  A shark doesn’t have that, which is why there’s no moral implication when a shark attacks a human being — it’s tragic, but not evil.  Because human beings do have it, they can and should be expected to use it.  When a person chooses not to use the intellect to regulate his or her behavior (including choosing to turn it off by drinking too much or using drugs) and harms someone else, or when a person uses the intellect but then chooses to ignore it (realizes that an act will harm someone but does it anyway), that’s evil as I see it.

I believe that every human being has an intellect.  In the cases of people who are profoundly mentally retarded or psychotic, I believe the problem is failure of the body (of which the brain is a part) to give the intellect correct information on which conscious choices can be based.  The body, including the brain, is what the intellect uses to navigate the world — think of it like the car that you drive.  If the windshield were replaced with stained glass instead of clear glass, but you still had to drive around in that car, you’d probably have problems, maybe even hurt someone, not because your intellect wouldn’t be there in the car but because it would have trouble getting correct information about what was happening outside of the car.

Now, here’s a hypothetical example of a pure illness or “insanity” case:  A Vietnam veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is in asleep in bed with his wife whom he loves.  The wife gets up in the middle of the night for some reason, and the veteran is startled awake in the middle of a nightmare, thinks momentarily that he’s back in Vietnam, grabs the wife by the neck in the darkness and strangles her before realizing it’s his wife and not an enemy soldier.  In this case, there’s no element of choice, no prior planning, no intent to kill the wife, and thus, it’s tragic but not evil.

In the Virginia Tech case, the shooter acted out of emotion, he was angry, and he felt justified in behaving as he did, like an adult version the six-year-old who didn’t get to go to McDonald’s.  And again, he made choices, a lot of choices, as evidenced by lots of prior planning.  It’s not as if he believed that Martians disguised as human beings had taken over the campus and that he had to shoot them to save the world.  He knew what he was doing, killing human beings who posed no physical threat to him, and he chose to do it anyway.  He clearly had the intellectual ability to know that what he was doing was wrong, and he either chose not to use that ability, or if he did use it, he chose to ignore it and go on the rampage anyway.  So, I think we’re spending too much time talking in the media about how “sick” he was, how much he was suffering emotionally, how lonely he was, how excluded he felt, etc.  I don’t really care — no amount of suffering entitles a person to soothe his hurt feelings by lashing out violently at others, and he chose to do that.  His painful feelings, some of them at least, may have been symptoms of mental illness, probably were, but he absolutely could have resisted the urge to act on those feelings.  Instead, he chose to make himself feel better by hurting others, and that choice makes what he did evil.

Lessons from Virginia Tech 4/18/07

As I predicted right after the Virginia Tech shooting rampage story broke (see previous posting), there are now all kinds of signs emerging that the shooter was dangerous well before Monday’s tragedy, and everyone’s wondering what can be done to prevent such tragedies in the future.  Here are two thoughts on that:

1)  We need to rethink the “deinstitutionalization” movement that began in the late 1960’s, whereby states relaxed their involuntary civil commitment laws, releasing seriously mentally-ill people from institutions to be “monitored” by outpatient “community mental health centers.”  As we’ve seen in this case and others (like the Hyde case in New Mexico), we’ve erred on the side of mentally-ill people’s privacy and individual liberty at the expense of public safety.  As a society, we may still choose to do so, but as a psychologist and lawyer, I think we really need to revisit that debate.  Of course we don’t want people languishing in deplorable conditions in substandard state hospitals (that and cost “savings” spurred deinstitutionalization), but we certainly don’t want mass murder, and I don’t think those are our only two alternatives.  The Virginia Tech shooter was found by a judge to be a danger to himself and/or others well before Monday’s shootings, but in Virginia and across the United States, there’s little that courts can do under current laws to force people to submit to treatment and monitoring unless and until they hurt someone (however, I have yet to hear a good explanation for why that judge’s finding apparently didn’t show up in the shooter’s background check when he went to purchase his guns — he may still have bought guns from individuals, but at the very least, we should be able to prevent people who’ve been adjudicated mentally ill from buying guns at licensed gun shops).  I think if we reexamine these issues, we can arrive at a better, more effective compromise.

2)  At the university level, Virginia Tech clearly erred on the side of the shooter’s “rights” (to stay in a dorm despite setting a fire there, to stay enrolled despite stalking women, etc.), again constrained by the state legislature and again at the expense of public safety.  In the future, universities need to err on the side of public safety, expel students like this shooter who exhibit signs of dangerousness, and risk being sued rather than risk people being killed.  Pundits all over the airwaves are bemoaning the impossibility of securing every campus to the point that a shooting could never happen.  The point is, we don’t need to.  In virtually every case, including Columbine and Virginia Tech, there have been warning signs.  We need to start worrying less about potential killers’ “rights” and worrying more about potential victims’ rights and reacting to warning signs rather than 911 calls, and we need to do it quickly as there’s always a risk of copycat attacks following a major incident.

Virginia Tech shootings 4/16/07

Here are my initial thoughts on the Virginia Tech shooting rampage:

1)  It’s a horrific tragedy, and my heart goes out to the victims and their families as well as to the bystanders and first-responders who also were traumatized by it.

2)  It doesn’t fit the pattern of terrorism, and it looks like the work of a lone male shooter rather than a coordinated effort like Columbine, in which case I would expect the attacks on both sides of the campus to have been simultaneous.

3)  You’ll hear many people refer to the shooter as “crazy” or “insane,” but it’s highly unlikely that he was “insane” in the legal sense of that word.  Lots of prior planning indicates a mind working well enough to figure out that it’s wrong and illegal to commit murder.  That doesn’t mean he was mentally healthy — he obviously wasn’t — it just means he probably knew exactly what he was doing and at least that it was illegal.  I won’t be surprised if it turns out that bomb threats on the Virginia Tech campus in recent days were the shooter’s efforts to gauge how campus police would respond today.

4)  You’ll also hear many people say that we could prevent tragedies like this by enacting tougher gun-control laws.  Unfortunately, mass murderers really aren’t concerned about obeying laws.  This guy, for example, didn’t mind murdering over 30 people and attempting to murder numerous others, so I seriously doubt that he could’ve been deterred by gun laws.  By definition, only law-abiding people abide by laws, and they’re obviously not the problem.

5)  There likely were indications that the shooter was dangerous before today’s massacre, but it’s too early to tell whether there’s anything anyone could’ve or should’ve done to prevent this tragedy.  A “psychological autopsy” or “equivocal death analysis” of the shooter will help to answer these questions.

6)  Emotional support for the victims, their families, witnesses, and first-responders will be crucial in the days ahead.  I certainly recommend the involvement of professionals, but family and friends just being willing to listen will be important too.  As incomprehensible as a tragedy like this seems, talking about it with others can help trauma survivors by giving them a chance to organize their thoughts about it.  When an experience is too overwhelming to face complete memories of it, it’s as if the brain fragments the memories and stores the fragments in different places, but then, as it tries to piece the fragments back together over time, the person can recall them in disturbing forms such as nightmares, flashbacks, and extreme anxiety.  In my work with military veterans, I saw that trauma survivors who seemed to store traumatic memories coherently also seemed better able to regulate whether and when to recall them.  Events like this threaten our sense of control over what happens to us (which is, to some extent, a psychologically-healthy illusion), and organizing our thoughts about them in ways that are meaningful to us helps to restore that sense of control.

7)  In addition to listening, those not directly affected can contribute by providing any information they may have and otherwise cooperating with authorities and by looking for volunteer opportunities, like giving blood if they’re healthy enough to do so.  Not only will such efforts help those directly affected, but some New Yorkers who were nowhere near the twin towers found that taking such positive actions after 9/11 helped restore their own sense of control.

The Asperger’s defense 4/5/07

Asperger’s Syndrome has been implicated as a defense in high-profile murder cases on both sides of the Atlantic in recent weeks, and some people are wondering what it is.  Asperger’s Syndrome, named after the Austrian clinician who first described it in 1944, is in the Autism spectrum of mental disorders.  It is a pervasive developmental disorder characterized primarily by impairments in social interaction.  People with Asperger’s Syndrome are very concrete in their thinking, meaning that they have difficulty comprehending any kind of abstraction (like metaphors, figures of speech) and picking up on social cues that are implied, subtle, or non-verbal (like facial expressions, tone of voice).  Therefore, their social interactions are often very rigid and awkward, and this can cause them to experience social anxiety, rejection, and isolation.  It is estimated that Asperger’s Syndrome affects about one in every 2,000 people, and it is diagnosed more commonly in males.  The cause is largely unknown, but it is believed that prenatal developmental factors in the brain play a significant role.  So far, there is no “cure,” but many individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome can benefit from social skills training in which they learn a “vocabulary” of social skills (like, if someone’s mouth is turned down, it means they’re unhappy) which enable them to be more functional in relating to others.

In the U.K., 24-year-old Terry McMaster is charged with murder for beating a man, stripping him naked, and drowning him in a river.  His lawyers have argued that Aperger’s Syndrome prevented McMaster from understanding what he was doing.  In the U.S., 16-year-old John Odgren of Massachusetts, also said to have Asperger’s Syndrome, has been charged as an adult with murder for stabbing a classmate to death in a school restroom.  He reportedly was obsessed with murders and forensic investigations prior to the killing (obsessive thinking is another characteristic of Asperger’s Syndrome) and was eager to point out evidence (like blood spatter) to police at the crime scene.  Odgren has been declared competent to stand trial (meaning that he understands his charge, the legal proceedings in which he will participate, and the possible consequences thereof — which don’t include the death penalty by the way — and that he is able to assist in his defense), but he reportedly claims that he can’t remember the stabbing.

I have examined patients with Asperger’s Syndrome (I once saw a patient who had become suicidal after being accepted into the U.S. Army with clear Asperger’s Syndrome – the recruiter was to blame in that case because any thinking person could see that this patient could never have handled military life), and I don’t believe that it could form the basis of a valid defense in either of the above cases.  Aspergers’ Syndrome causes impairment in social interaction, but it doesn’t cause people to commit murder, or to be unaware of what they’re doing, or to be unable to discern right from wrong (people with Asperger’s Syndrome are often highly intelligent), or to have amnesia.

Intellectual nudity 4/4/07

I sometimes hear from viewers, listeners, and readers who accuse me of being too judgmental.  In my forensic psychology practice, I admit, I’ve made a career of judging people’s motives, competency, sanity, parenting abilities, honesty, etc., but I don’t think that’s really what makes some people uneasy.  I think some people bristle when I state unequivocally and with conviction, on the air or in print, that certain behaviors and even certain individuals are just plain bad.  Over the past few decades, Americans seem to have become increasingly reluctant to make judgments about others’ behavior.  During that same time, Americans have become increasingly college-educated, and I think there’s a connection.  I think that college professors, many of whom are religiously secular and morally-neutral in their thinking, have redefined “intelligence” for many students as the mere ability to understand both sides of an argument.  What’s been removed from the old definition is the ability to then discern which side is correct.

The typical American college campus (and textbook) thus has become a no-values zone (except for nonjudgmentalism of course), where all sides of an issue share moral equivalence, and the search for mere understanding has replaced the search for truth.  Many college professors in the social sciences have become rock stars in the eyes of their students, not because they say anything truly intelligent, but because they’re simply contrarians.  Suicide bombers and American soldiers – no difference.  Marital fidelity and infidelity – equally valid choices.  Child pornography and religious symbols – who are we to judge?  We’re Americans, that’s who – reasonable people, or at least we used to be.  Too many college graduates, misguided by pseudointellectual professors have gone on and tried to live values-neutral lives, and worse, they’ve tried to raise values-neutral kids.  No wonder our culture is in a state of moral decay.  This is not good for America.  Of course judgments, like most things, can be taken to unhealthy extremes (bigotry, intolerance, etc.), but an anything-goes society isn’t healthy either.  In a free society, reasoned judgments about one another’s behavior are essential because they, rather than coercive government regulation, largely define the boundaries of acceptable conduct within which most citizens then live generally-healthy lives.  Historically, when all behavioral boundaries disintegrate, societies descend into chaos, anarchy, and tyranny.

So, here’s my attempt to buck the trend on the American college campus:  There are such things as right and wrong, and you don’t have to be religious for those terms to have meaning to you.  If you have a functioning intellect, you can discern right from wrong using that alone, but you have to care enough to use it.  When you do, and you recognize something as bad, there’s nothing un-intellectual about your saying so.  Remember the old story, The Emperor’s New Clothes?  In that story, con artists posing as tailors defraud the emperor by selling him clothes that they claim are visible only to intelligent people.  Rather than admit that he can’t see the clothes, the emperor ends up walking naked through the streets of his empire and becomes a laughingstock.  There’s important adult wisdom to be gained from this simple children’s story because the emperor’s tailors have earned Ph.D.’s and have embarked on new careers as college professors.  So, if you’re a college student graduating in the weeks ahead, make sure you leave campus with your clothes on, literally and figuratively.

Who says Kansas is boring? 4/3/07

This post is dedicated to recent crime stories from right here in the heartland.

First up, Shauntay Henderson, the purported female leader of a mostly-male gang (an extreme rarity in gangland culture) and murder suspect who made the F.B.I.’s list of most-wanted fugitives and taunted authorities right here on MySpace.  She was arrested in Kansas City over this past weekend, just days after I gave an interview to Kansas City radio station KMBZ in which I predicted that her flamboyance would be her downfall (reminiscent of the late Mafia kingpin John Gotti).

Next up, Leroy Hendricks, the convicted serial child molester who served time in a Kansas prison and then was committed involuntarily to a “treatment” facility under Kansas’ sexual predator law until staff there declared him ready to be “reintegrated” into society two years ago.  He recently made the New York Times.  (Hendricks unsuccessfully challenged his confinement beyond his prison term in the landmark 1997 U.S. Supreme Court case that bears his name, Kansas vs. Hendricks, which upheld the rights of states to commit sexual predators to “treatment” facilities indefinitely, even after they’ve served their prison sentences – an excellent decision I might add.)  The Times article chronicled the failings of sex offender “treatment” programs across the U.S.A., and while I don’t share some of the paper’s probable motives for spotlighting the issue (like concern about sex offenders languishing forever in substandard state hospitals), I have no quarrel with its conclusion.  I readily admit that psychology cannot guarantee the safety of children in the communities into which these predators are to be “reintegrated,” which is why I advocate life prison sentences with no parole and no “treatment” for those who abuse children sexually.  Fortunately for kids here in Kansas, in each of the communities where the State has tried to “reintegrate” Hendricks since his release from “treatment,” parents have protested so strongly that he continues to reside on the grounds of the “treatment” facility.

Lastly, another female high school teacher arrested for alleged sexual involvement with an underage student, this one right here in Lawrence, Kansas.  The 24-year-old first-year teacher is charged with aggravated indecent liberties with a child 15 years old.  It’s a sad commentary on the state of our culture that unless more salacious details emerge, this story probably will be too repetitive to draw national attention.

So who says Kansas is boring?



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