Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Polanski debacle: Polish schizophrenia?

Poland has just enacted mandatory chemical castration of pedophiles convicted of raping children under the age of 15, after they finish serving their prison terms. That makes the Eastern European nation's punishment of sex offenders among the most severe in the world. In remarks that were criticized by human rights groups, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk defended the new legislation by describing pedophiles as "degenerates" and "creatures" who do not deserve to be called human.

But prison and castration are only for garden-variety sex offenders, not celebrities like popular icon Roman Polanski. Both the president and foreign minister of Poland are appealing to U.S. authorities to drop criminal proceedings against the film director, who fled the United States in 1977 after pleading guilty to a criminal charge stemming from the rape and sodomy of a 13-year-old.

What, no prison? No castration? Not even a teensy fine, or a bit of probation or community service?

I'm always amazed with the blatant double standard that continues to be applied to wealthy and famous defendants even in the current cultural climate of sexual hysteria. Non-elite men are sent to prison for far less serious offenses, and when they get out they cannot find jobs or housing due to lifelong residency restrictions. Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, Polanski fans try to excuse an acknowledged crime by blaming the victim and the criminal justice system or citing the passage of time.

Excerpt from Roman Polanski's 1977 presentencing probation report

As Los Angeles blogger Patterico -- a prosecutor with the District Attorney's Office that prosecuted Polanski -- points out, it's pretty nervy to argue that the case should be dropped because it is more than three decades old, when the only reason it is ancient is because Polanski fled prior to sentencing. Patterico goes on to correct a lot of other bias and misinformation in the media coverage painting Polanski as a victim of overzealous and vindictive prosecutors:
There is a tremendous amount of misinformation flying about with respect to this case: people saying Polanski had a "trial" (he pled guilty); that the terms of his plea bargain provided that the judge would give him time served (it left the sentence up to the judge); that he didn’t know the girl's age (he swore under oath he did); that the age of consent was 14 (... it was 18); that the statute of limitations applies (not when a defendant flees pending sentencing); and that Polanski never did it again (we don't know that, and I don't believe it). I've never seen anything quite like it.

He got a lenient plea deal largely because the prosecution was worried about the girl's willingness to testify in the face of international publicity surrounding a trial in which Polanski's team planned to paint her as a 13-year-old harlot -- an example of fame stacking the deck. And that victim now supports dismissal of the case ... now that she has settled a civil suit with him for an undisclosed amount -- an example of wealth stacking the deck.
Over at Salon, Kate Harding also has a hard-hitting reaction to Polanski's celebrity supporters and the "bizarrely skewed" coverage of the case. "REMINDER," she starts out by saying:
Roman Polanski raped a child. Let's just start right there, because that's the detail that tends to get neglected when we start discussing whether it was fair for the bail-jumping director to be arrested at age 76, after 32 years in "exile" (which in this case means owning multiple homes in Europe, continuing to work as a director, marrying and fathering two children, even winning an Oscar, but never -- poor baby -- being able to return to the U.S.). Let's keep in mind that Roman Polanski gave a 13-year-old girl a Quaalude and champagne, then raped her, before we start discussing whether the victim looked older than her 13 years or … how awesome his movies are.... [L]et's take a moment to recall that according to the victim's grand jury testimony, Roman Polanski instructed her to get into a jacuzzi naked, refused to take her home when she begged to go, began kissing her even though she said no and asked him to stop; performed cunnilingus on her as she said no and asked him to stop; put his penis in her vagina as she said no and asked him to stop; asked if he could penetrate her anally, to which she replied, "No," then went ahead and did it anyway, until he had an orgasm….

Her conclusion is equally on target:

Roman Polanski may be a great director, an old man, a husband, a father, a friend to many powerful people, and even the target of some questionable legal shenanigans. He may very well be no threat to society at this point. He may even be a good person on balance, whatever that means. But none of that changes the basic, undisputed fact: Roman Polanski raped a child. And rushing past that point to focus on the reasons why we should forgive him, pity him, respect him, admire him, support him, whatever, is absolutely twisted.

* * * * *
In case any of you wisely skeptical readers would like to see the contemporaneous facts for yourselves, here are links to copies of the original documents at the Smoking Gun:
Postscript -- new developments since the above post:

At the Daily Beast, prosecutor Marcia Clark (of OJ fame) writes that a fellow prosecutor lied about the plea deal, undercutting the basis of Polanski's legal defense. The New York Times reports on that new angle: retired DA David Wells, "who triggered claims of official corruption by telling a documentary filmmaker he had coached a judge in the case, now says he made it all up."

Monday, September 21, 2009

Intellectual competence and the death penalty

That's the title of a new blog some of you will be interested in. Produced by Kevin McGrew, director of the Institute for Applied Psychometrics, its focus is "psychometric measurement issues and research related to intelligence testing that may have bearing on capital punishment cases for individuals with an intellectual disability."

The blog is just a few months old, but it's already loaded with resources pertinent to capital litigation, including recent court cases as well as professional journals, associations, blogs, and experts. It's even got a poll you can take, indicating what topics you would like Dr. McGrew to tackle next. The professor clearly enjoys blogging, as he's already running at least two other IQ-related forums.

Clicking on the image at left will take you directly to the site, which today just happens to feature my blog.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Should forensic psychologists have minimal training?

Would you trust a "master's level dentist" to pull your tooth? Or a "bachelor's degree attorney" to defend you in court?

Not hardly.

Terminal master's degree programs in forensic psychology represent just this type of degradation in quality, says Carl Clements, a psychology professor at the University of Alabama, who argues that forensic psychology training should remain at the traditional doctoral or postdoctoral level.

But critics like Clements are spitting in the wind. Paralleling forensic psychology's breakneck growth and immense popularity, degree programs -- including many online, distance-learning options -- are sprouting up like mushrooms after a heavy rain. And just like mushrooms, they will be impossible to eliminate.

The field's perceived glamour, including the allure of the mythical profiler, has produced a bumper crop of impressionable young people willing to shell out cash for a forensic degree. Massive prison growth, along with prisoner's rights cases mandating mental health evaluation and treatment, have produced abundant jobs for psychologists.

Educational institutions have responded with alacrity. New training programs take a variety of forms, according to a survey in the current issue of Training and Education in Professional Psychology:

  • PhD in clinical psychology with specialty track in forensic psychology (about 10 programs)
  • PsyD in clinical psychology with forensic specialty track (about 10 programs)
  • PhD in nonclinical (e.g., social or experimental) psychology with forensic or legal emphasis (about 10)
  • Joint psychology-law degree programs (6)
  • Master's degree in forensic psychology (12)
  • Bachelor's degree in forensic psychology (John Jay College of Criminal Justice)
  • Undergraduate psychology-law courses (increasingly common and popular)
In addition to all of these different degree options, more and more predoctoral internships offer forensic rotations. About 17% of APA-accredited internships now offer a major forensic rotation, with another 47% offering a minor rotation, according to the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC).

Yet with all of this rapid growth, there is no consensus as to what training models and curricula are adequate in order to prepare students for real-world forensic practice. With that in mind, David DeMatteo of Drexel University and colleagues are proposing a set of core competencies for doctoral-level forensic psychology training curricula. At minimum, they say, students should get training and experience in the traditional areas of substantive psychology and research methodology, along with specialized advanced training in:
  • Legal knowledge
  • Integrative law-psychology knowledge
  • Ethics and professional issues in forensic psychology
  • Clinical forensic psychology
Aren't all of these areas already integrated into current forensic psychology degree programs?

Again, not hardly.

Reviewing the curricula for the roughly 35 doctoral or joint-degree programs with training in forensic psychology, DeMatteo and colleagues found only three programs that included all four components. For example, only about 40% offered courses falling under "legal knowledge." More alarmingly, only three programs reported offering courses specifically addressing ethical and professional issues in forensic psychology.

So, will all of the self-described forensic psychologists emerging from these newly minted degree programs be able to find work in the field? I predict that those who travel the traditional path of postdoctoral specialization will fare the best. Those with terminal master's (or even bachelor's) degrees will be restricted to lower-level occupations such as correctional counselor or social services case manager. While they may meet the demands of the prison industry for warm bodies with letters after their names, these practitioners certainly won't be called as experts in court.

But there is a greater danger in these bare-bones forensic training programs. Not only do they offer false promises to students, but they sacrifice the intensive clinical training, including experience working with severely mentally ill populations, that is a key foundation for forensic work. The lack of adequate training in the law and in ethics will likely cause even more disastrous outcomes when these professionals take on forensic cases.

I know, I know. I am just spitting in the wind, too. Financial exigencies always win out.

Related resources:

What's it take to become a forensic psychologist?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Court roundup: Lots of action this week

In addition to the high-profile competency hearing in Iowa that I blogged about yesterday, this week featured lots of other legal happenings of relevance to forensic psychology. Issues included:

  • The Zoloft defense
  • Repressed memory
  • Transsexual prisoners
  • Child pornography sentencing
Here are some highlights, with links so you can read more if you are interested:

"Zoloft made me do it"

In a New York trial that is drawing national attention, a defendant is blaming a 2006 attack on his girlfriend on symptoms of withdrawal from the antidepressant Zoloft.

To bolster his defense, Brandon Hampson is expected to call Dr. Stefan Kruszewski, a Harvard Medical School graduate. Dr. Kruszewski testified at a pretrial hearing that Zoloft can cause "significant side effects," including agitation, aggression and grandiosity.

It's going to be yet another case of dueling experts: An associate clinical professor at Harvard is expected to testify that "Kruszewski's opinion is not generally accepted by experts in the field and was based on flawed research methods," according to an article by Vesselin Mitev in the New York Law Journal. In an unusual payment arrangement, Pfizer (the drug's manufacturer) will compensate Dr. Douglas Jacobs $7,500 for his testimony.

The trial harkens back to a rash of cases in which violence and suicidality were attributed to the effects of Prozac. Severe side effects from withdrawal from other antidepressants such as Paxil are well documented.

Transsexual prisoner rights

In a history-making ruling in the United Kingdom, a preoperative male-to-female transsexual has won the right to be housed in a women's prison. The prisoner, known only as "A," will have to be housed in segregation. "A" is serving a life sentence for killing a boyfriend and trying to rape a woman.

Under the ruling by a judge on London's High Court, holding "A" in a men's prison is a breah of human rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Telegraph of UK has the story. My March 2008 post on transgender prisoners is here.

Repressed memories under assault

The infamous priest Paul Shanley of Boston, one of the central figures in the clergy sex abuse scandal, is back in court challenging his conviction by claiming that theories of repressed memories are not reliable or valid.

Shanley was convicted after a 27-year-old man claimed the priest had regularly raped him when he was just six years old, but that he blocked out the memories for two decades until he saw media reports about the clergy scandal unfolding in Boston.

Reports Denise Lavoie of the Associated Press:
Shanley's lawyer, Robert Shaw Jr., argues that Shanley deserves a new trial because the jury relied on misleading, 'junk science' testimony about repressed memories by prosecution witnesses. 'His conviction rests upon a theory that is false, that has not been shown to exist and has been rejected by the scientific community,' Shaw said. 'They needed repressed memories to normalize for the jury what was otherwise an extraordinary assertion - that he could be completely oblivious that this ever happened and then remember it 20 years later."
The appeal, to be heard by Massachusetts' high court, "is being closely watched by experts on both sides of the issue," Lavoie reports. "Nearly 100 scientists, psychiatrists and researchers have signed a friend-of-the court brief denouncing the theory of repressed-recovered memories. Another group has submitted a brief supporting the theory."

Judges protest child porn sentencing


Federal judges testified before a U.S. Sentencing Commission in Chicago about severe mandatory sentences for child pornography possession. Astonishingly, the punishment for watching a single video can be higher than that for raping a child repeatedly over many years, one judge testified.

The Wall Street Journal's Law Blog has coverage.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Rare chance to view dueling experts live

Accused coach killer's Iowa competency hearing

Courtesy of the Des Moines Register, we have a rare opportunity to watch two experienced mental health experts testify in court about competency to stand trial. The experts were the featured event in this week's highly publicized hearing for Marc Becker, the mentally disturbed man accused of gunning down esteemed Iowa football coach Ed Thomas in front of about 20 students this past June.
















Click on either image above to watch that expert's testimony. Dr. Michael Taylor's video (left) is about 79 minutes, the first 15 minutes of which are the testimony of a psychiatric nurse at the jail (manually move the time bar to 15 to start with Taylor). Dr. Dan Roger's video (right) lasts about 57 minutes.


The experts agreed that Becker is most likely schizophrenic. They differed vastly, however, on whether he evidenced symptoms of psychosis.

Testifying for the prosecution on Thursday, psychiatrist Michael Taylor said he found no evidence whatsoever of current psychotic symptoms. Dr. Taylor described the defendant as "a calm, relaxed, pleasant young man, well spoken, articulate, able to communicate clearly, able to joke."

"There's absolutely no hint in Mr. Becker's appearance or behavior that would raise any suspicion of any psychiatric disorder," Taylor testified.

On the other side of the aisle, defense-retained psychologist Dan Rogers described the defendant as "floridly psychotic," paranoid, and delusional. "He starts with a perfectly good thought and it just becomes filled with illogical concepts as he tries to proceed," he testified.

While the public may see this as an example of hired guns who will say whatever they are hired to say, an alternate possibility is that Becker presented differently to the two experts. Dr. Rogers evaluated Becker on two occasions, 32 days and 45 days after the offense. Dr. Taylor did not evaluate Becker until more than two months after the crime. By that time, Becker was being medicated with a high dosage of the antipsychotic Invega.

Becker appeared highly sedated in court, raising another competency issue: If his medication dosage is lowered so that he can stay awake in court, his psychosis will worsen, Dr. Rogers predicted.

Of note in this case is the informative, factually accurate coverage being provided by Jennifer Jacobs of the Des Moines Register. In Thursday's article, she quoted the illustrious Daniel Murrie of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, talking about how uncommon incompetency findings are (only an estimated 20% of cases in which the issue is raised).

In her previous story, Ms. Jacobs quoted competency guru Thomas Grisso (of Evaluating Competencies fame) and cited recent empirical research on incompetency findings:
"Each year, about 7,000 defendants nationwide are involuntarily committed to public psychiatric hospitals for treatment intended to make them well enough to stand trial, according to a 2008 report in the American Journal of Forensic Psychiatry. About 78 percent are released in less than three months, according to a 2003 report by the Missouri Institute of Mental Health. Another 20 percent are released between three months and 12 months after committal, and 2 percent are released after 12 months."
After hearing from the two experts, Judge Stephen P. Carroll put the case against Becker on hold while he contemplates his competency ruling.

Hat tip: Luis Rosell

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Deification of Matthew Shepard

What the gay-rights movement has lost by making Shepard its icon

Guest essay by Gabriel Arana, The American Prospect*
Since Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered a decade ago, his story has achieved the status of parable, illustrating how ugly anti-gay bigotry really is. Every year, thousands of high school students across the country perform Moises Kaufman's play, The Laramie Project, which recounts the aftermath of Shepard's murder through the eyes of the local residents. Shepard's story has been the subject of three screen productions, a documentary, and countless investigative reports. That he was discovered tied to a pole on a dirt road only encouraged Christian analogy, one not-so-subtly invoked by the 2007 Phil Hall theatrical production, Matthew Passion.

As Shepard's father said at the trial of the two men eventually convicted of killing Shepard, "My son has become a symbol."

This familiar story -- Matthew as a pure, meek victim of anti-gay bigotry -- remains an orthodoxy unquestioned by all but the most ardent gay-rights opponents. In fact, Shepard was a deeply troubled young man. He had a severe drug and alcohol problem, suffered from bouts of depression, and failed out of school numerous times. He spent his money on partying, leaving him unable to pay bills. He contracted HIV, most likely through unsafe sex. These darker details are conspicuously absent from the prevailing narrative about Shepard's life.

There's no question that Shepard's murder was the result of bigotry. But by ignoring Shepard's flaws, supporters of gay rights make a critical mistake. The allegorical Matthew of vigils and plays is a not a person with conflicting desires and motivations. He's a one-dimensional caricature. If Shepard's story is intended as a lesson on the tragic consequences of gay bigotry, the ardent refusal to cast him as anything but an unblemished victim provides another: In order to win rights, gay people not only have to be just like you, they have to be better than you.

In her new book, The Meaning of Matthew, Judy Shepard acknowledges her son's shortcomings. But despite her frank acknowledgement of his problems, she ultimately falls back on eulogistic platitudes: He made everyone "feel that they were the only ones in the world at that moment." He liked to "ruffle a few feathers" and "had a promising future." Her son "put an everyday face on the gay rights movement."

It's understandable that a grieving mother remembers her son in the best light. But Matthew Shepard's status as a gay everyman was determined -- first by the media, then by gay-rights groups -- with little knowledge of who he was. He looked like an attractive, angelic, white college student from the heart of conservative America. He was found tied to a pole and beaten, hovering near death. The story could have written itself -- and it did: Numerous media outlets erroneously reported that Matthew had been "crucified" when in reality he was found on the ground.

Over 1,400 members of the LGBT community are victims of a hate crime every year, which includes violent attacks as well as harassment. Why, then, is Shepard the "face" of gay rights? The implication is that all the other candidates weren't quite right: not urban New Yorkers dying of AIDS in the 1980s, not inner-city black adolescents whose parents kicked them out of the house, not leather daddies marching on Washington. The pictures of other gays, lesbians, and transgender people did not prove sufficiently salable to make it onto rally placards.

At worst, anointing Shepard the "everyday" face of gay rights is a concession to other types of bigotry -- against trans men and women, racial and ethnic minorities, gay men with AIDS. At the very least, it demonstrates a willingness to appeal to mainstream tastes in order to earn political capital. It's the type of pragmatic bargain that organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and Equality California make all the time: You give us rights, and we'll hide the drag queens.

The "perfect icon" problem is not exclusive to the gay-rights movement. We revere Martin Luther King Jr. -- a peaceful reformer who couched his calls for civil rights in terms of brotherhood and Christian values -- instead of Malcolm X, a secessionist and Muslim who blamed whites for slavery and black oppression. There is also a reason the long-haired and beautiful Gloria Steinem is a better known feminist than Judith Butler, the androgynous queer theorist. All these figures have similar messages, but we choose to elevate those who are less threatening. Cast as a small, good-natured kid who loved everybody, Shepard is the epitome of nonthreatening.

This deification is part of what happens when a personal narrative turns political.

Judy Shepard calls comparisons of her son to Christ "inappropriate," but that framing has helped make him the patron saint of hate-crime legislation. The fight for this legislation is at least part of the "meaning" of Matthew. The Matthew Shepard Act is currently under consideration in the House after being stymied under George W. Bush, who threatened to veto it. If it passes, gay-rights groups can declare a victory. But what will have been vanquished? Even his mother acknowledges that "a dyed-in-the-wool and determined bigot isn't about to log onto the Internet to check state or federal statutes before bashing someone's head in."

What hate-crime laws do provide are stricter sentencing guidelines, feeding a criminal-justice system that has imprisoned more than 1 percent of the U.S. population and unfairly targets minorities. The courts imprison blacks at six times the rate of whites, and Hispanics, at more than double the rate of whites; the rate of black incarceration under President George W. Bush was higher than it was in South Africa during apartheid. If the face of anti-gay violence were a racial or ethnic minority, would we still be pushing for hate-crimes legislation that props up the criminal-justice system?

As Jos Truitt at Feministing.com points out, activists' energy would be better spent on empowering victims and combating the homophobia that motivates hate crimes. Groups like the Human Rights Campaign, which are spearheading the effort to get the Matthew Shepard Act passed, should focus instead on education programs and passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Harsher murder sentences can't bring back the dead, but nondiscrimination laws and education programs can help LGBT Americans who are still living. It's hard to see how Shepard's memory is "honored" by a legalistic redefinition of federal sentencing guidelines or how this accomplishes anything concrete for gay rights.

Judy Shepard is entitled to remember her son however she likes. The rest of us have no such excuse. In an objective sense, the "meaning" of Matthew is not to be found in the passage of legislation, candlelight vigils, or passion plays. The real tragedy of Matthew Shepard's death is that it was senseless: He did not die for hate-crimes legislation or to become a martyr. The public can craft a narrative in which trauma finds redemption in politics, but ultimately the meaning we find in Shepard's death says more about society and the gay-rights movement than it does about Judy Shepard's son.
Essay reprinted with written permission from Gabriel Arana, "The Deification of Matthew Shepard," The American Prospect Online. The American Prospect, 1710 Rhode Island Avenue NW, 12th Floor, Washington, DC 20036. All rights reserved. Graphics credits: (1) Matthew Shepard collage, via the blogosphere, origin unknown; (2) The Passion of Matthew Shepard, by Fr. William McNichols, c/o Maryknoll Magazine.

UPDATE: Read on for a thought-provoking counterpoint opinion by "Urbanite," in the Comments section (the second comment).

Thursday, September 3, 2009

WSJ: "Sex-Registry Flaws Stand Out"

Amid the continuing media frenzy over the Jaycee Lee Dugard case, and the alarmist misinformation about recidivism being spewed on some national television shows, I want to make sure my readers don't miss today's excellent article in the Wall Street Journal discussing the case within the context of California's failed sex offender registration policies.

The case of Phillip Garrido, who allegedly held Jaycee Dugard in his backyard for 18 years despite monthly law-enforcement visits, is forcing California officials to acknowledge a fundamental problem with the state's sex-offender registry: The list keeps expanding, while the number of officials who monitor sex offenders has grown at a much slower rate.

There are now so many people on the registry it's difficult for law enforcement to effectively track them all, and "it's more helpful for law enforcement to know...who the highest-risk offenders are," said Janet Neeley, a deputy California attorney general and member of the state's sex offender board.

A December study of roughly 20,000 registered sex offenders on parole in California found 9% posed a "high risk" of reoffending, and 29% posed a "moderate-high" to "high" risk, said Ms. Neeley. But law-enforcement officials and academics say vast resources are spent monitoring nonviolent offenders rather than keeping closer tabs on more-dangerous ones.

California's sex-offender registry has ballooned to more than 90,000 people now from about 45,000 in 1994, according to the California attorney general's office. Not only has the number of law-enforcement officers failed to keep pace, but recent state budget cuts have forced some local agencies to cut officers assigned to sex offenders, according to the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training....

Last year, California's Sex Offender Management Board criticized the system as it stands in a 225-page assessment, highlighting failures in the collection and analysis of data on sex offenders. It's "difficult if not impossible" to track the effectiveness of registry laws, the report said.

Mr. Garrido, who allegedly kidnapped the 11-year-old girl in 1991, was considered high-risk because of a 1977 conviction for rape and kidnapping. But he received about the same number of visits from officers at his Antioch, Calif., home as the 200 or so other sex offenders in Antioch and adjacent Pittsburg, said the Contra Costa County Sheriff, even though many weren't convicted of violent offenses. During dozens of visits to Mr. Garrido's home, authorities never found the tents and shacks hidden behind a backyard fence.

The growing sex-offender list can dilute the amount of attention on the most dangerous offenders, said Nora Demleitner, the dean of Hofstra University Law School who studies sentencing. Some sex offenders "tend to be not dangerous at all," she said. "You have them register as sex offenders, so when you're law enforcement, all these people look the same. If you had much more focused sex-offender laws, maybe they would have been bothered to go into the shack" in Mr. Garrido's back yard.

California has been trying to sharpen its focus, but federal and state laws passed in 2006 offer conflicting rules for monitoring sex offenders, Ms. Neeley said.

Under its law, California has chosen to use a program called Static 99, which categorizes sex offenders based on their likelihood to reoffend. To predict risk, it looks at things like the nature of the crime, the offender's relationship with the victim and whether the offender has been able to form long-term intimate relationships. But the system hasn't been introduced by most local jurisdictions for those convicted before 2007.

Provisions in the federal Adam Walsh Act aim to move monitoring in the opposite direction, so that it's based solely on an offender's type of conviction, not on a complex assessment of risk.

That's problematic, said Jill Levenson, an associate professor at Lynn University in Florida who studies sex-offender registries, since it "overestimates risk for most people, and underestimates risk for people who pleaded down," or struck plea deals by admitting to lower-level crimes.

Now, the state Sex Offender Management Board is recommending that California forgo some federal funds and not adopt the law, which would add to the number of crimes requiring registration.

"There is no available evidence to indicate that expanding California's list of registerable crimes would promote public safety," the board wrote in a recommendation, noting the federal law would create at least $32 million in costs to the attorney general's office and law-enforcement agencies without improving the system.
Monday's San Francisco Chronicle also had a good article describing how Garrido got out of prison after his first kidnap-rape, and explaining that he would not have been treated so leniently under today's laws.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Will Texas arson case change death penalty debate?

Pundits are predicting that an in-depth New Yorker expose on the Cameron Todd Willingham case may change the face of the death penalty debate.

David Grann's article, "Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?" is set for publication Sept. 7. Already, it is generating comment, such as this excellent op-ed in the New York Times by columnist Bob Herbert:

It was inevitable that some case in which a clearly innocent person had been put to death would come to light. It was far from inevitable that this case would be the one. "I was extremely skeptical in the beginning," said the New Yorker reporter, David Grann, who began investigating the case last December.
As I blogged about last year, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 when Texas' governor ignored a report calling into question the scientific evidence underlying his conviction.

"There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire," wrote renowned arson expert Gerald Hurst in that report. "It was just a fire."

Now, a report commissioned by Texas to investigate mishandling of forensic evidence is "devastating” to the prosecution's theory, writes Herbert. According to scientist Craig Beyler, the determination of arson had absolutely no scientific basis. In his scathing report, Beyler equated the fire marshall's approach to that of "mystics or psychics."

Unfortunately, it's all a bit too late for Willingham. After hearing from a jailhouse snitch and others, a jury deliberated only an hour before convicting him. As Herbert wrote, Willingham "insisted until his last painful breath that he was innocent," refusing a plea bargain that would have spared his life.

Click on the image below to see a 4-minute video narrated by Grann, featuring footage shot by fire investigators and discussing flaws in the original investigation.

Click on this image to see video footage of the arson investigation

Further resources:

Scott Henson over at Grits for Breakfast has extensive coverage of the case.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Mitchell slated for epic competency hearing

In what is shaping up as one of the longest and most intricate competency hearings in history, Brian David Mitchell has finally been slated for a hearing in late November that is expected to last 10 days.

Mitchell, you will recall, is accused of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart of Utah back in 2002. A self-proclaimed prophet, he allegedly planned to make her one of his wives. (Unlike Jaycee Lee Dugard, who was held hostage for 18 years and bore two children with her abductor, Ms. Smart was held captive for only nine months and reportedly readjusted well.) Wanda Eileen Barzee, Mitchell's estranged wife and codefendant, was found incompetent about five years ago and has been at the Utah State Hospital ever since; no date has been set for her competency hearing.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are sparring over who will testify at the upcoming hearing.

The prosecution submitted a list of 39 witnesses. It included expert witnesses, police officers, and staff members at the Utah State Hospital, as well as "former friends, acquaintances, co-workers, ecclesiastical leaders and family members," according to a story in the Deseret (Utah) News.

Defense attorneys contend that many of these witnesses should be excluded because they do not have any information about Mitchell’s current state of mind. The relevant time frames in a competency determination are the present and short-term future, not the distant past.

Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist from New York City, is expected to be the star witness for the prosecution.

Welner is a renowned expert who has testified in a number of high-profile criminal cases. An associate professor at NYU School of Medicine and an adjunct professor at Duquesne University Law School in Pennsylvania, in 1996 he founded a monthly periodical, the Forensic Echo. Two years later, he founded what is billed as the first forensic peer-review consultation practice, The Forensic Panel. In a procedure designed to minimize examiner bias, panel members must expose their work to the scrutiny of peers to minimize examiner bias. One of his more controversial creations is the "Depravity Scale," which attempts to quantify evil. Welner is also a frequent media commentator.

In his "voluminous" report, Welner reportedly opines that Mitchell may meet criteria for narcissistic personality disorder or other personality disorders. Typically, as opposed to severe psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, the personality disorders are not deemed severe enough to make a person incompetent to stand trial.

For further reading, I highly recommend Judge Judith Atherton's 2005 competency opinion in the case, a thoughtful analysis of competency as it pertains to religiosity. Evaluations by esteemed forensic psychologists Jennifer Skeem and Stephen Golding and psychiatrist Noel Gardner are discussed. I have made it available HERE.

Related resources:Deseret News: Mitchell attorneys want fewer witnesses

The Recurrence of an Illusion: The Concept of "Evil" in Forensic Psychiatry, by James L. Knoll, IV (critical commentary on Dr. Welner's Depravity Scale)

 
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