The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned seven counts of arson against a California physicist who with his buddies had vandalized and torched more than 130 vehicles back in 2003.
William "Billy" Cottrell is described in news accounts as a talented young physicist who was diagnosed with Asperger's, a high-functioning form of autism, during his 2004 trial for arson and conspiracy.
In its ruling, the appellate court let stand a conviction for conspiracy. But the court held that aiding and abetting of arson requires a specific intent in that Cottrell must have knowingly participated in the crimes and tried through his actions to make them succeed. Thus, it was reversible error not to allow expert evidence of a mental condition that might have impacted the defendant's subjective judgments.
The defense had proposed a theory in which Asperger's prevented Cottrell from understanding what his friends were up to until it was too late; once he figured it out, he supposedly tried to stop them.
Local mental health professionals quoted in the Pasadena Star-News differed as to whether an Asperger's defense might have succeeded in mitigating Cottrell's culpability.
On the one hand, psychologist Bruce Hirsch said Asperger's could have reduced Cottrell's ability to understand the situation, as people with the condition often cannot tell when they are being lied to.
"What you're really talking about is a social naivete and, yes, people with Asperger's can be very socially naive," Hirsch is quoted as saying. "They are so bound to the truth that the concept of lying doesn't even exist in their mind. Somehow the social reasoning of people with Asperger's is very concrete, very black and white, and they don't get that people tell lies."
On the other hand, marriage and family therapist Amy Keller said the defense theory of Asperger's does not take into account the rigid morality of most Asperger's patients.
"I find that, after working with a lot of Asperger's patients, that they are so stubborn," Keller told the newspaper. "They're not that easily influenced. If anything, they're very clear about right and wrong."
Either way, the appellate reversal will not have a practical import on Cottrell. Prosecutors decided not to retry him, because it would not have impacted his 100-month federal prison term.
Cottrell will soon be taking the bus back to the Arizona federal prison where he teaches physics and cosmology classes to fellow prisoners.
Hat tip: Ken Pope
- Asperger’s: Here today, gone tomorrow: Would erasure from DSM impact forensic use? (Nov. 3, 2009 blog post)
- The short life of a diagnosis (Nov. 9, 2009 New York Times op-ed by Simon Baron-Cohen)
- Forensic aspects of Asperger's Syndrome, Barry-Walsh, J.B., & Mullen, P.E., Journal of Forensic Psychiatry, 2004, Volume 15, pages 96-107.