In case you missed it, I made my debut appearance on the Dr. Drew show Thursday night on HLN. The episode (airing on the last day of Casey Anthony’s probation by the way) focused on women who’ve killed their own children. One of the featured cases involved a New York woman who’s awaiting trial after admittedly killing her young autistic son. Insanity defense? Nope. As I’ve said could end up being the case with Colorado movie theater shooter James Holmes, this woman apparently refuses to let her attorneys plead her insane. Not that an insanity defense would work — she’s admitted pre-meditating the son’s murder but claims she did so under “duress.” What was the “duress”? Her worry that the boy’s father would molest him in the future, as she alleges happened in the past, of which multiple examiners and investigators found no evidence, which essentially is an admission that she was aware of the illegality of the act (poisoning the child) that she was supposedly “forced” to commit nevertheless. Essentially she’s arguing that it was a “mercy killing” or an “altruistic filicide” for which she shouldn’t be punished. If it weren’t so sad, it’d be laughable. There’s no such defense, never has been any such defense anywhere in the U.S.A., and this case won’t establish one. She would’ve had a better chance pleading insanity, but as long as she’s competent in the present, she generally gets to decide how to plead, so her attorneys really don’t have a lot to work with.
We revisited the case of Andrea Yates as well, who notoriously waited until her now-ex-husband left the family home, murdered her five children, turned herself in to police, was found guilty by a jury, was granted a new trial on procedural grounds, and was ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity by a second jury. I’ve always believed that the first jury got it right. Sure, she was mentally ill, but she clearly premeditated the crimes and was conscious of her guilt at the time of their commission. She’s another one who said she killed her kids for their own benefit, to send them to a better place in the hereafter or something like that, so regardless of her mental illness, she made a conscious choice to break the law, which means she ought to have been held accountable for that choice under the law. Dr. Drew had Yates’ former husband on the show with us, who blamed his wife’s then-psychiatrist, at least in part, for the murders of the children (apparently for not hospitalizing Andrea when her mental health deteriorated). While another guest was directly critical of Mr. Yates, I still feel bad enough for the guy that I didn’t want to pile 0n. I do, however, think that he (the husband), more than any psychiatrist, was probably negligent in leaving the kids with their mother when he knew that she was profoundly mentally ill and unstable.
Then there was a case of a New Jersey woman who literally decapitated her toddler son, put his head in a freezer, called police, initially reported that her “boyfriend” had committed the crime, then admitted to it, and ultimately committed suicide before the cops arrived on the scene. It appears that she was likely high on PCP at the time of the crime, but her initial lie to police indicates that she still had consciousness of guilt (and had she survived, she too shouldn’t have been able to succeed with an insanity defense because of A) the failure of voluntary intoxication to qualify as a “mental illness” under the law, and B) her apparent consciousness of guilt despite her apparent intoxication). This case also illustrates the point that I’m always making about how we “catch and release” dangerous people far too often. The child had been taken away from the woman by child protective services approximately one year prior to the murder, when she was first caught endangering the child while intoxicated. As a child-custody expert, I can’t imagine concluding that she was fit to resume unsupervised visitation, let alone custody, just months thereafter. This was one that I think we (society) could have prevented. I was glad to hear Dr. Drew repeatedly echo a point that I’ve made many times — that we really need to rethink the extent to which we want to err on the side of individual liberty over public safety when people clearly exhibit propensities to harm others (especially children).
Now here’s a case that wasn’t discussed on Thurday’s Dr. Drew but is a chilling illustration of another preventable tragedy potentially in progress at this moment. In Maryland, a 28-year-old man recently called in a telephone threat to shoot up his workplace. Police went to his home and found multiple guns and large quantities of ammunition. The man was arrested and charged in connection with the criminal threat. So then what? Was he held without bail for the protection of the public (especially his coworkers)? Nope. He’s been released. To a locked-down mental hospital? Nope. To his parents’ house. Oh, but he’s been ordered not to leave…unless he wants to visit a doctor or his lawyer. This — not necessarily the guy, but the release of the guy — is insane, folks. This is how massacres happen. I’m sure the judge who released the guy is convinced that the risk to the public is low, but who cares? Why do we, the law-abiding public, need to take any chance, however small, on this guy? It’s a perfect example of my recurring theme, echoed by Dr. Drew on Thursday night — the overriding concern should be for public safety. *$@& this guy! How many times have you threatened to shoot up your workplace (or done anything remotely similar)? Zero, right? Me too. So yes, you and I deserve the right to walk the public streets. But once somebody tells us that he’s going to break the law with deadly consequences, A) we ought to take him at his word, and B) he’s forfeited his “right” to be walking the streets with us pending an adjudication of his criminal guilt, stiff punishment (i.e. substantial incarceration) for any such guilt, an expert determination of his ongoing dangerousness, and implementation of a strict and indefinite location/behavior monitoring program if/when released.
Which brings me to the latest on James Holmes (the Colorado movie theater shooter). Initially, we heard on Thursday that Holmes had made threats on the University of Colorado (UC) campus and was thereupon banned from the campus around the time he failed a major examination weeks prior to the movie theater massacre. Later in the day, however, a UC spokesperson disputed the assertion that Holmes had been banned from the campus. Now I realize that many people are anxious to blame UC personnel for not preventing the massacre at the movie theater, but once again, I have to caution everyone to wait for all of the facts to come out. Maybe they were negligent, and if so, fine, they can be held accountable for their negligence. But, if “all” Holmes did at UC was make threats against UC personnel/students, then UC’s duty may have been limited to taking reasonable steps to prevent harm to those people, e.g. warning specific target(s) of his threats, perhaps banning him from the campus, etc. And keep in mind, nothing ever did happen on the campus. So, to infer that UC personnel also had reason to believe Holmes was imminently violent off campus and therefore had a duty to warn the entire city of Aurora is a leap that I don’t think is supported by the evidence, at least not yet.
And before I go, a major development involving a very different Drew — Drew Peterson — one that could shift the odds in his trial in the prosecution’s favor: The judge has allowed hearsay testimony from the former pastor of Peterson’s missing fourth wife in which the pastor described being told that wife #4 had lied to police about Peterson’s whereabouts and behavior on the night when wife #3 (the victim in the current trial) died. As you may recall, similar hearsay testimony from a friend of wife #4 was barred from the trial previously, so the reason why the pastor’s testimony was admitted is complicated at best. A lot of the legal wrangling about what would and wouldn’t be admitted in this trial occurred behind closed doors, and all I can really tell you at this point, without having reviewed transcripts of those proceedings, is that the judge must have found the pastor’s hearsay admissible under an exception that didn’t apply to the friend’s hearsay testimony, despite their similarity. For instance, one exception to the presumed inadmissibility of hearsay is a “statement against interest,” e.g. a statement in which the speaker is purported to have admitted to crime (the theory being that the speaker wouldn’t have made the “statement against interest” unless it was true). Given that wife #4’s statement to the pastor was essentially and admission that she had obstructed justice, I can imagine the “statement against interest” exception applying. In any case, the pastor’s testimony provided some of the strongest evidence of Peterson’s guilt to date. The prosecution reportedly plans to rest its case in the next day or two, at which point the defense will make a routine motion for dismissal of the case, arguing that the prosecution hasn’t met its burden of proof. Assuming (as I do) that the motion is denied, then will come the defense witnesses, including the opposing experts and…possibly (though not probably in my opinion)…Peterson himself. Stay tuned.
P.S. Anders Breivik — to whom I’ve compared James Holmes — has just been ruled legally sane and sentenced to prison in Norway (you heard it here first!).