June 28, 2007

Supreme Court Blocks Execution of Psychotic Man

In a widely awaited ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 today that Texas cannot execute schizophrenic killer Scott Panetti.

The highly polarized court sidestepped the controversial issue of the Constitutionality of executing the mentally ill. Rather, the decision barred Panetti's execution because he was not allowed to submit evidence of his psychiatric disorder at the state court level.

Panetti, who killed his estranged wife’s parents, was found competent to stand trial after two jury trials on that issue. He represented himself at his 1995 murder trial. He was floridly psychotic and delusional, rambling insanely and attempting to subpoena Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy, and other dead people.

In the 1986 case of Ford vs. Wainwright, the Supreme Court held that executing a person who is severely mentally ill constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, banned by the Eighth Amendment. However, the "Ford standard" is vague as to the required severity of the mental condition, and people on all sides of the issue had been hoping for clarification from the high court.

The Court's opinion and a dissenting opinion are available online.

More background on the Ford standard and on Panetti's case is available on my blog entry of April 20, “Too Sick to Die?”

A 28-minute video, "Executing the Insane: The Case of Scott Panetti," is available at: http://blip.tv/file/282532.

June 27, 2007

Experts Debunk Myths About Online Youth Victimization

Are your kids in danger from online Internet predators?

Children do get preyed on, but the reality is far different from the popular perception, according to a panel of leading experts who presented their research to the Advisory Committee to the Congressional Internet Caucus.

Here are some of the realities as presented by these researchers:

Almost no victims are under the age of 13.

The predominant scenario does not involve violence or abduction. Rather, it is a criminal seduction that takes advantage of common teen vulnerabilities.

The predominant scenario does not involve deception. Only 5% of Internet offenders concealed their age from their teen victim. “Eighty percent were quite explicit about their sexual intentions with the youth that they were communicating with.”

Here is what really happens in the typical scenario, according to panelist David Finkelhor, who is probably the most widely recognized expert in this field:

“The offenders lure teens after weeks of conversations with them, they play on teens’ desires for romance, adventure, sexual information, understanding, and they lure them to encounters that the teens know are sexual in nature with people who are considerably older than themselves.”

For a full transcript, including the options of video or audio, go to:


Panelist Danah Boyd has also made available a YouTube video of the panel presentation. See her blog: http://shurl.org/Internet+Panel .

June 26, 2007

Call for Greater Regulation of Police Interrogations

Thanks in part to DNA technology, public awareness is growing about the problem of coerced and unreliable confessions. Now, the New York Times has published an excellent op-ed calling for greater regulation of police interrogations. Here’s the entire June 24 piece:

Watching the Detectives


THIS month, a jury convicted Khemwatie Bedessie, a 38-year-old day
care worker, of raping and sexually abusing a 4-year-old boy she had
been babysitting - crimes she confessed to committing. She faces 25
years in prison.

But the basis for her conviction, a videotaped confession, is highly
dubious. Indeed the Bedessie case, like so many others before it,
points out the need for legislation that would prevent confessions
from being the sole reason for a conviction and that would require
the police to videotape all parts of an interrogation, including the
lead-up to a confession that could have been obtained by coercion.

The chilling charges against Ms. Bedessie have a suspect origin. In
the Queens courtroom, the boy's mother testified that after she
enrolled her son at Veda's Learning Center - where Ms. Bedessie
worked - when he was 2, she frequently asked him, "at random," if
anyone was sexually abusing him.

Last year, he developed a rash on his buttocks. Again the mother
asked if he'd been abused at Veda's. This time he said yes and named
Ms. Bedessie as the perpetrator, even though when he was later
examined at a hospital, no connection was found between the rash and
sexual abuse. The child said nothing about Ms. Bedessie when
questioned by the police. Still, Ms. Bedessie was arrested.

Aside from the fact that she does not fit the profile of someone who
would sexually abuse children - most offenders are men; and female
offenders are almost all teenagers, women who were egged on by men,
drug and alcohol abusers, or young teachers dallying with adolescent
students - there was no physical evidence of abuse and no direct
accusation by the boy.

It makes far more sense to attribute the boy's accusations to
suggestive questioning and false memory than to an actual crime. The
case against Ms. Bedessie was weak since the police had no physical
evidence of abuse. Indeed, it would probably have gone nowhere if
she'd insisted on her innocence.

Instead, she confessed, after three hours in custody. On videotape
she's calm and gives details like how the child touched her on her
breast; how she took him to a bathroom; and that the sex she had with
him lasted seven minutes.

But shortly after videotaping the confession, Ms. Bedessie said she'd
been coerced into making it. Is this claim believable, given the
graphic and convincing nature of her statement admitting to the
crime? Yes, just look at the false confession videos recorded in the
Central Park jogger case almost two decades ago.

The jogger tapes, too, are jaw-droppingly credible. The teenage boys,
who were convicted and imprisoned before a single assailant came
forward 13 years later and his DNA corroborated the claim, don't just
say they committed rape in their taped confessions. They describe the
color and texture of the victim's clothing. They quote insults they
uttered while attacking her. They list who raped her first, and who
went second and third. Meanwhile they calmly sip soda.

Who could imagine they weren't telling the truth? But, as experts
point out, false confessions can appear very real. And the techniques
used to produce them don't have to take much time. "I've seen
interrogations that led to false confessions which lasted less than
one hour," says a Northwestern University law professor, Steven
Drizin. In such a situation, he says, the defendant tends to be
"highly vulnerable or suggestible."

Ms. Bedessie fits the bill. An immigrant from Guyana, she's been in
the United States for only six years, and she has only a fifth-grade
education. Her language is Guyanese creole, and she struggles with
American English. The police detective, she said, told her he had a
tape of her assaulting the child. He told her she could go free if
she confessed, but if she didn't, she would be brutalized at Rikers.

"I will do anything he want so he will send me home," Ms. Bedessie
testified, recalling the interrogation.

The detective, in fact, did not have a tape of her assaulting the
child. Unfortunately, jurors take confessions at face value. They
simply cannot fathom that someone would say they committed a heinous
crime if they didn't.

Ms. Bedessie's conviction will probably be appealed. But however her
case is ultimately resolved in the courts, we'll likely never know
whether or not she was coerced.

There's a clear way to avoid confusion in the future: start
videotaping as soon as police questioning begins. The New York County
Lawyers' Association and the American Bar Association Section of
Criminal Justice recommends it. This is policy in many European
countries and the law in Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, Wisconsin and
the District of Columbia, and has been voluntarily adopted in 500
jurisdictions. But not in New York.

Albany is considering a bill to mandate videotaping of
interrogations. The Assembly has passed it; the Senate should as
well. Why? Because false confessions are real and innocent people are
jailed as a result. The evidence is overwhelming.

Debbie Nathan and Emily Horowitz are members of the board of the
National Center for Reason and Justice.

Reprinted with the written permission of Debbie Nathan and Emily Horowitz.

June 25, 2007

Mentally retarded man disappears after accidental deportation

The 2005 remake of "Fun with Dick and Jane" has a scene in which Jim Carrey – reduced to the status of a day laborer outside a Home Depot - is mistaken for a Mexican and deported.

If the scene seems a bit implausible, it is not. Especially for someone with a Latino surname.

Last month, a developmentally delayed man who was born and raised in the United States was mistakenly deported to Mexico. Unlike Jim Carrey, Pedro Guzman did not have the cognitive or financial resources to sneak back across the border to his home. He disappeared, and his family has not been able to find him.

It all started when 29-year-old Guzman was arrested for misdemeanor trespassing at an airplane junkyard and was sentenced to serve 40 days in the Los Angeles County Jail.

During a pre-release interview, he said something that led a “custody assistant” to decide that he had “entered the United States illegally” and “had no legal right to be in the United States.” No one knows exactly what was asked of him or what he said. Like many individuals with developmental disabilities, Mr. Guzman covered for his intellectual handicaps by pretending to understand. Family members believe that he may have mentioned a family vacation to Mexico when he was 12 years old.

The jailer contacted ICE, Immigration & Customs Enforcement. Mr. Guzman then signed a form in Spanish agreeing to voluntary deportation. According to his family, he cannot read or write. Most especially – having attended only English-speaking schools in Los Angeles – he would not have been able to read a form written in Spanish.

On May 10, Mr. Guzman called his family from a borrowed cell phone to say that he had been deported to Tijuana. His sister could hear him asking someone, “Where am I?” Then the line went dead. That is the last that his family has heard from him, despite their taking time off work to scour Tijuana for him.

Guzman knew no one in Tijuana. He was deported without any money and without the cognitive skills to get himself back home, according to his family.

Guzman has a birth certificate proving his U.S. citizenship. There are no circumstances in which the U.S. government may legally deport a U.S. citizen.

The family's pleas for assistance from the U.S. and Mexican governments have fallen on deaf ears.

Forensic brain scanning: Online resources

The use of brain scans to explain criminal conduct is a rapidly growing and controversial application of neuroscience to law. Now, cutting-edge discourses by experts in the field are being made available on-line.

“The Law and Ethics of Brain Scanning” was the topic of a conference at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law back in April. MP3 audio files of the presentations are available at the conference web site, http://www.law.asu.edu/?id=658. Included are an overview of brain scanning technologies, a presentation on the science-versus-pseudoscience debate, and lectures on the legal admissibility and ethics of such emergent technologies.

ABC’s “All in the Mind” show is also featuring audio downloads of its series, “Mind Reading: Neuroscience in the Witness Stand.” The ABC website, http://shurl.org/brainscan, features links to other publications and information sources on neuroscience in court.

Alarm growing over industry financing of academic research

Lawsuits by firefighters against siren manufacturers are sounding another type of alarm – over academic experts with an axe to grind.

Siren manufacturers are using research scientists as expert witnesses to defend themselves against thousands of firefighters claiming that sirens damaged their hearing. The industry’s audiology experts testify in court about research showing that siren noise exposure does not increase one’s risk for hearing loss.

But controversy is building over these scientists’ failure to disclose their financial links to the industries they study.

For example, audiology expert William Clark, Ph.D. of the Washington University Medical School was being paid as an expert witness while he was conducting his research into sirens and noise loss; the siren company even helped him to collect his data. Clark has also received money from the railroad and mining industries.

Such financial ties to industry are common in some research fields. A lengthy expose in the Wall Street Journal of June 22 explains how scientific journals’ failure to require full disclosure allows these ties to stay hidden from public view.

The controversy brewing in the current case of Lempa v. Federal Signal Corp. echoes concerns a few years back about the lead industry’s influence over research and public policy.

In a bold example of the fox guarding the chicken coop, the lead industry in 2002 attempted to stack a federal advisory panel on childhood lead poisoning with scientists the industry had paid as expert witnesses and consultants.

Lead exposure is widely recognized as a dangerous threat to children’s health. Yet one of the industry-nominated scientists had stepped far outside of the scientific mainstream to testify in a legal case over lead paint that there was no established link between lead exposure and cognitive problems in children.

Of course, the influence of the lead, mining, railroad, and siren industries in academia pales in comparison to pharmaceutical corporations’ pervasive influence over medical research.

Drug companies now fund up to 90 percent of clinical trials for certain classes of medications. A new study by researchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) found that when a drug company pays for research, the study’s results are 20 times more likely to favor that product. (The study is available on-line at medicine.plosjournals.org.)

Meanwhile, as pointed out in the New York Times of June 13, the training of doctors has been virtually handed over to the pharmaceutical industry as a vehicle for drug marketing. Half of all continuing medical education courses in the United States are now paid for by drug companies, at an annual cost of $1.12 billion.

“Because pharmaceutical companies now set much of the agenda for what doctors learn about drugs, crucial information about potential drug dangers is played down, to the detriment of patient care,” notes the Times article.

June 11, 2007

First sex offenders, now domestic violence offenders, next -- ?

Despite mounting evidence that sex offender registries do more harm than good, legislators are now proposing to expand the concept to domestic violence offenders.

A bill introduced into the Pennsylvania legislature would create a Megan’s law-style database of people convicted of domestic violence. If the law passes, such offenders would have their photos and addresses posted online for all to see.

Like convicted sex offenders, domestic violence offenders would also have to notified police within 10 days of moving. In a new wrinkle, they would have to mail a form to the police every 90 days to confirm their address of residency.

If the law passes, it could open the floodgates for politicians who have found that meaningless tough-on-crime laws get votes. Who knows what costly and ineffective registries will follow. Registries for drug offenders? Drunk drivers? Antiwar protesters?

Book-banning raises specter of religious discrimination in prison

Federal prisoners in New York have filed suit over the sudden disappearance of hundreds of religious texts from the chapel library.

Religious books are being removed from prisons nationwide as part of a 2004 federal directive aimed at quelling the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in prison. The directive also suggests audio and video monitoring of worship services and heightened screening of religious service providers.

A U.S. Attorney said the directive stems from concern that prisons are being radicalized by Islamic prisoners. He said officials will create a new list of permitted religious books.

Although prisoners at the Otisville federal prison camp reported that some Christian texts were also removed, the book banning appears to be part of a wave of anti-Islamic discrimination in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. A Justice Department investigation two years ago found mistreatment of Muslim prisoners at multiple lockups in the United States.

The anti-Islamic discrimination coincides with growing federal support for Christian ministries in prison. With links to the White House, a politically powerful evangelical Christian group, Prison Fellowship Ministries, has assumed outright control of prison wings and corrections budgets in Kansas, Iowa, Texas, Minnesota, and other states, according to a 2003 expose in Mother Jones magazine.

Despite this massive federal sponsorship of Christian ministries, the proportion of Muslim prisoners continues to grow. While the vast majority of prisoners are still Christian, Muslims make up about 20% of the incarcerated population in some states, according to a 1999 article in the Wall Street Journal. Some Christian ministers perceive this as a threat.

Ironically, research suggests that anti-Muslim crackdowns will backfire, contributing to increased militancy among Muslim prisoners.

Based on a four-year research project in British prisons, anthropologist Gabriele Marranci reported that experiences of religious discrimination made Muslim prisoners more vulnerable to recruitment by militant organizations.

"I found no evidence to suggest that the Muslim chaplains are behaving or preaching in a way that facilitates radicalisation," Dr. Marranci reported. "On the contrary, my findings suggest that they are extremely important in preventing dangerous forms of extremism. However, the distrust that they face, both internally and externally, is jeopardising their important function."

June 5, 2007

Predator show slammed

Might mounting criticisms of NBC's "To Catch a Predator" signal a turning point in the cultural hysteria surrounding “sexual predators”?

Criticism is mounting on multiple fronts against the show, which features vigilantes trolling the Web to lure men into sexual liaisons with children.

On the civil front, the show’s former producer claims she was fired after complaining about flagrant violations of journalistic ethics. Marsha Bartel lost her 21-year career with NBC. She alleged in a U.S. District Court lawsuit that NBC provides financial incentives to the shadowy vigilante group Perverted Justice to use trickery and to humiliate targets to “enhance the comedic effect of the[ir] public exposure." She said that in some cases the vigilantes resorted to begging individuals to come to sting locations. Additionally, she charged that police behaved improperly off-camera, for instance “waving rubber chickens in the faces of sting targets while forcing them to the ground and handcuffing them." NBC responded by calling the lawsuit “without merit.” The lawsuit is on-line at: http://shurl.org/predator

On the criminal front, prosecutors have lambasted the series as an unethical blending of law enforcement and show business that does nothing to curtail sexual violence. In Collin County, Texas, for example, the District Attorney said none of 24 recent sting arrests were adequate for prosecution.

"This whole scenario is garbage-in-garbage-out, and here we sit with a pile of garbage,” commented one legal observer. "It's a prosecutor's worst nightmare. The last thing you want is the news media or reality TV shows to be involved in the prosecution or the investigation of the case."

Last fall, the show came under scrutiny when a target shot and killed himself as police stormed his house outside Dallas, Texas. The man, an assistant district attorney, was to be To Catch a Predator's most notorious target. "These people were acting not only as police, but judge, jury and executioner," said the deceased’s sister. "It was about headlines. Making a splash. Making a story. Jumping to conclusions.”
TV news coverage of the Texas cases is on-line at: http://www.wfaa.com/video/?nvid=148433&shu=1

Comedic criticism of the show can be found on YouTube. My favorite of these is the “auditions” for the job of teenage lure. See: http://shurl.org/auditions.

On a more serious note, a Baptist minister has analyzed the high financial costs of the current hysteria. These include not just the obvious costs of incarceration, but such lesser-knowns as declining property values when a registered sex offender moves into a neighborhood. David Hess of New York argues that lawmakers are throwing billions of dollars at a mythological problem, while doing nothing to deter real sexual abusers, mostly family members and friends of their child victims. His analysis is on-line at: http://shurl.org/economic+costs.

June 4, 2007

Should jails be designated "treatment facilities"?

When criminal defendants are found incompetent to stand trial, they go to state hospitals for competency restoration treatment. But hospitals around the country have run out of beds, forcing psychotic defendants to linger in county jails for many months.

In response to this crisis, California is proposing to designate county jails as "treatment facilities" that can provide pretrial defendants with competency restoration treatment for up to six months.

Under Senate Bill 568, jails will gain the authority to forcibly medicate incompetent defendants. (This is a complicated area of law governed by the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case of U.S. v. Sell. For background, see: www.jaapl.org/cgi/reprint/32/1/83.pdf.)

Forensic psychologists are voicing concern about this move.

First of all, jails are unlikely to do much more than administer antipsychotic medications, in some cases without proper legal review and oversight. Jail psychiatric services tend to be minimal and underfunded. They are not set up to provide effective competency restoration training.

A second concern is that the jail environment is not conducive to mental health. Prisoners with severe (and often complex) mental disorders need around-the-clock services from highly trained professionals in a therapeutic setting in order to become competent to stand trial.

The bill, backed by the sheriff’s departments that run county jails, appears to be in response to a recent Sacramento court ruling that incompetent defendants must be transferred quickly to state hospitals for treatment. A competing bill, Assembly Bill 1121, would require that defendants be transferred to state hospitals within 14 days of being found incompetent.

If SB 568 passes, other states with similar crises will likely try this solution as well, foisting their fiscal burdens onto cash-strapped county governments. It’s all part of the trickle-down effect of the criminalization of the mentally ill that began in the 1970s with the defunding of community mental health programs and escalated with the prison boom of the 1980s and 1990s.

Thanks to Robert D. Canning, Ph.D., Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D., and Philip J. Davis, Ph.D. for their contributions to this analysis.

Senate Bill 568 is available at: http://tinyurl.com/37rl53

Assembly Bill 1121 is available at:

June 1, 2007

Harmful effects of unintentional racism

Research on racism has come a long way since the old days of searching for the “racist personality.” In recent years, researchers have focused on the subtle, modern racism that pervades our culture and that perpetrators can plausibly deny.

Individuals who practice this subtle racism may not even know it. They may believe in fair and equal treatment for all, yet unconsciously harbor negative feelings toward other races. Becoming anxious and uncomfortable in interracial interactions, they adhere to formal rules of behavior while expressing their negative feelings in subtle ways that can be denied or rationalized.

The implications extend into the forensic realm. Studies of police and probation officers show that they often use racial cues to assign blame. An African American who commits a crime is likely to be seen as inherently bad or criminal, while a white person who commits a similar crime is more likely to be excused based on external factors, such as peer influence, poor parenting, or mental illness. Recommended punishments differ accordingly, resulting in greater likelihood of arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment for African Americans.

The unconscious nature of these biases helps to explain divergent rates of arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment despite a lack of conscious racist intent on the part of criminal justice professionals. (Other forces, of course, include persisting economic equalities.) Interestingly, the race of the professional is irrelevant. African American police and probation officers engage in just as much negative racial stereotyping of African Americans as do whites.

Research continues to flesh out the specifics of modern racism. Now come two new studies, one about its pervasiveness and the other about its harmful effects.

The current issue of the American Psychologist reports on “racial microaggressions,” which are defined as everyday indignities, often unintentional, that communicate hostile or derogatory feelings toward racial minorities. Such microaggressions are divided into microassaults (purposeful discrimination or name-calling), microinsults (rudeness and insensitivity), and microinvalidation (exclusion or negation).

The invisibility and deniability of these subtle forms of racism make them especially problematic. The recipient must try to decide whether the offensive behavior was deliberate or unintentional. If the recipient confronts the aggressor, he or she is typically labeled as oversensitive or even paranoid.

The current issue of the American Journal of Public Health reports that subtle racism is more psychologically damaging than overt discrimination. Whereas recipients can “shrug off” overt discrimination, subtle racism is more likely to be committed by colleagues, neighbors, or friends. As such, it causes recipients to feel that people do not like or accept them, thereby lowering self esteem and leading to depression.

Similar research with African Americans has found that subtle racism is most damaging to their physical health.

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C., Torino, G., Bucceri, J., Holder, A., Nadal, K., & Esquilin, M. “Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice.” American Psychologist, May-June 2007, Volume 62 #4, pp. 271-286.

Noh, S., Kaspar, V., Wickrama, K, “Overt and subtle racial discrimination and mental health: preliminary findings for Korean immigrants.” American Journal of Public Health, July 2007, Volume 97 #7.