April 14, 2010

Killing and culpability: A reader participation exercise


INSTRUCTIONS TO READERS: Below, I present two hypothetical scenarios. After reading both, please stop. Do not read further. Consider which killer you think is more culpable. By way of background, assume that both killers are young, white, and employed, with little or no arrest histories. Assume that both victims were also white, upstanding citizens, well regarded in their communities.

Case 1: Street Brawl
The killer, age 20, was walking with a friend after leaving a party when a group of about six drunken strangers surrounded the pair. Insults and challenges were exchanged. The killer yelled at the men to back off. Instead, they continued to close in. He pulled a knife with a 3½-inch blade and waved it around. A scuffle ensued. One man was stabbed and killed.

Case 2: Avenging a Wrong
The killer, age 32, armed himself with a .44 revolver and went to the home of a former neighbor whom he had known for many years. He confronted the man over past wrongs. Words were exchanged. The killer shot the victim once in the chest. Before leaving, he waited about 30 minutes to make sure his victim was dead.

STOP. Consider: Which killer do you think is more culpable, legally and/or morally? Why? What sort of punishment do you think would be fair?

Have you formed a tentative opinion? If not, what else would you need to know before deciding? Now, I will provide a few facts about the victims. See if they are relevant to your thinking.

Case 1: Street Brawl
The victim was a member of a college fraternity that was infamous for its rowdy partying. On his MySpace page, he bragged about an earlier fight in which he and his fraternity brothers beat up a man, “grind[ing] his face into the coarse pavement of the sidewalk while several of [us] are taking turns on his ribs and dome.”

Case 2: Avenging a Wrong
The killer told police that the victim had sexually molested him from the age of 11 until his late 20s, a few years before the homicide. After the crime, other men came forward to say that the dead man had taken advantage of positions of trust to sexually molest them, too.

STOP. Do these facts alter your opinion about culpability in any way? How? Why? What degree of guilt would you infer? What do you think would be a just resolution in these cases?

Finally, let's consider community reaction. Does this change your opinions about either case?

Case 1: Street Brawl
The university town is divided. On one side are the victim’s largely well-to-do supporters, who say he was a fine young man with a good reputation who was about to graduate with honors in nuclear engineering from a prestigious university. On the other side are supporters of the working-class defendant, who say that he was just defending himself.

In a perhaps unprecedented twist, residents of the fraternity row where the crime took place have filed a class-action lawsuit against the local fraternities. Claiming that nuisance behavior has left them living under a virtual state of siege, they are seeking an injunction against the fraternities through an innovative application of a California law banning "criminal street gangs."

Case 2: Avenging a Wrong
The small town is united behind the killer. Townspeople have held rallies and affixed bumper stickers to their cars. They say he did them a service by ridding the community of a child molester. Even the victim's wife thinks punishment should be lenient.

Recognize either case yet? Of interest is the different spins they are getting. A central theme in both stories is bad moral character. But in one case it is the victim's character that is condemned, while in the other case it is the killer's.


This is the case getting national and even international attention. On Feb. 8, 2009, in the small California logging town of Fort Bragg, Aaron Vargas killed 63-year-old Darrell McNeill, a former youth group leader and popular furnishings salesman. Vargas is being portrayed as a victim and his crime as understandable or even heroic. His sister is even slated to appear on Oprah Winfrey's TV show to talk about his family's "ordeal."

The facts are being spun accordingly. News account focus not on the large (.44) caliber of the gun, for example, but rather its status as an "antique Civil War replica." (Hey, it still fired.) The gap of several years between when Vargas "broke off the relationship" and when he ultimately killed the older man is largely ignored. (Where was the immediate, heat-of-the-moment provocation?)

The case resolution? A lenient plea bargain. Vargas just pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter. He will serve no longer than 10 years in prison, and may even get probation.

Was that what you expected, or thought fair? Why or why not?


Meanwhile, 170 miles away in cosmopolitan Berkeley, Andrew Hoeft-Edenfield is on trial for first-degree murder stemming from a May 3, 2008 incident that began when the victim and a group of friends walked up to Hoeft-Edenfield and his friend and ordered them to leave fraternity row. Fueled by a deadly mixture of testosterone and alcohol, the incident "quickly escalated as Hoeft-Edenfield pulled out his knife and his friend Adam Russell began swinging an almost full bottle of Bacardi rum at the crowd," according to a news account.

While Hoeft-Edenfield claims he was defending himself from a drunken mob bent on violence when he stabbed fraternity member Christopher Wooton once in the chest, the prosecutor is trying to prejudice jurors against him by imputing his moral character.

"He has a persona, a wannabe thug or an actual thug," she told the jury in her opening statements. As visual proof, she held up his backpack with gangsta-rap-style writings such as "Thug Life," "Money, Guns, Marijuana," and "Killer Drew."

Hoeft-Edenfield's attorney countered that this depiction of her client's moral character could not be farther from the truth. Hoeft-Edenfield is "an example of what hard work can accomplish," she told the jury. A working-class young man from South Berkeley, galaxies away in social class from the elite university for which Berkeley is famous, he had overcome a learning disability, graduated from high school, gotten a job, and was attending college. "The fight, she said, was sparked by the fraternity brothers who were drunk and eager to prove they owned the street," according to a news report. "What he remembers is that he is surrounded by five or six guys, he's got guys stomping him, and all he hears is yelling."

The case remains in trial, with the defense scheduled to begin its presentation today.

If you were on the jury, how might you vote? Why?

In criminal responsibility evaluations, we forensic psychologists are charged with carefully dissecting an accused's state of mind at the moment of a homicide. Did he form an intent to kill? Did he know right from wrong, in that moment? Was he intoxicated? What were his motivations? These mental state inquiries are tricky enough.

Moral character is a much more elusive construct. Good and evil are never as black-and-white as partisans portray them. Yet, as these two cases illustrate, simplistic moral narratives can be constructed that either lionize or demonize a criminal defendant. These narratives then influence the decision-making of prosecutors, judges, and jurors as to the appropriate punishment, based on perceived moral blameworthiness.

It will be an interesting juxtaposition if Hoeft-Edenfield gets convicted of first-degree murder and goes to prison for a heat-of-the moment stabbing that appears to have been provoked, while a vigilante who proactively took the law into his own hands gets a light sentence for voluntary manslaughter.

If Hoeft-Edenfield is found guilty of murder, a working-class young man may want to think twice about sporting gangsta-style accessories while carrying a knife for self defense. Unless, of course, he kills a child molester. In that case, the public may applaud him.

A good yarn needs both a hero and a villain. The question is: Who gets which role?

Readers: I encourage you to post your reactions to this exercise in the online "comments" section of the blog.

Further background on the unusual class-action lawsuit against the fraternities:
Related blog post: Vigilante justice against sex offenders (October 2007)

Photos: (1) Aaron Vargas, (2) Andrew Hoeft-Edenfield, (3) Christopher Wooton