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."

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?

POSTCRIPT: After a four-month trial, Hoeft-Edenfield was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 16-to-life in prison. That sentence was later overturned on appeal, and he accepted a plea bargain in which he would serve 12 years in prison with no credit for time served or good time. Meanwhile, in what the media dubbed "a crushing disappointment" to his family and supporters, Fort Bragg killer Aaron Vargas received a nine-year prison term.

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

My follow-up reports on the Hoeft-Edenfield case:

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


Anonymous said...

Excellent. Most Excellent. My initial reaction at the first stoplight was that the second killer was much more guilty than the first because I saw the first case as "self defense" and the second as "premeditated."

The second set of data didn't change my thought about how culpable they were but it did change my reaction to how stern I thought the punishment should be. I thought the punishment in the first case should be less stern and the punishment in the second case should be more stern. But that is because I dislike both hubris and witch hunters. In other words, the killer in the first case become more sympathetic to me and the killer in the second case less.

The exact opposite of reality, but that's me...


Anonymous said...

Self defense, acquit, in the death of the drunk frat boy. This is a typical case of socioeconomic status influencing the DAs charging decisions.

Second case, I am not surprised, because there was a similar case in our town, and the white killer pled guilty to Voluntary, with little or no jail time. Meanwhile, across town, a Hispanic mother who killed her abusive husband who was molesting her children: second deg. murder and prison. Sigh. Forensic psych, 4/15/10

Anonymous said...


In your description of the actual cases, you have case #1 listed as case #2 and vice-versa!

Mark Whitehill, Ph.D.

Also, posting comments on your site is so cumbersome that I bet many would-be commenters are dissuaded from doing so, which is unfortunate, since you address so many interesting issues!

Anonymous said...

My perception of culpability changed only marginally. The brawl sounded like self-defense and the vengeance sounded like premeditated murder. I find it incredible that the avenger got off with voluntary manslaughter. I mean, it doesn’t get any more cold blooded and premeditated than that. He got a gun, sought him out, shot him, and WAITED to make sure he was dead. Yes, he too was victimized, but that was several years earlier. He could have reported the man, but he chose a vigilante approach. I can find little sympathy for him.
The Berkeley boy, on the other hand, was provoked, threatened, and attacked. Even more telling, and this was the one point that changed my mind somewhat, he only stabbed the frat boy once. This was no killing frenzy; he fought only as long as necessary to protect himself. It is appalling to think that he faces a first-degree murder charge.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Dr. Whitehill, Thanks for catching that error in the case numbers. I've fixed it on the post.

And thanks to the rest of you for posting your interesting thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Interesting juxtaposition of the two cases, Karen.

One thought: If it had been a gun rather than a knife in the street fight case, charges probably wouldn't even have been filed in many states, including my own.

Matt McMullen
Montana State University-Billings

Anonymous said...

Interesting exercise.

At the first hard stop:

Case 1: From the description of the events, the killer did not exercise his duty to try to flee before using force. Had he run away and been cornered before brandishing his weapon, he could make a good case for self-defense. Given, though, that “insults and challenges were exchanged,” he is not a simple victim of an assault. He may have been intoxicated. Carrying a weapon to a party and then getting drunk or stoned is not evidence of a peaceful pre-event state of mind. The crime committed by the killer here is not heinous. Rather, it is mundane. So far, I’d call it manslaughter.

Case 2: Seems to be clear cut first degree murder. There was no present danger. The killer was not in fear of death or grave bodily injury. There is no legal justification for the use of force, particularly deadly force, under those conditions, no matter “past wrongs.” He armed himself and assassinated his enemy in cold blood, as evidenced by lingering for 30 minutes to make sure the decedent was indeed deceased. First degree murder, plain and simple.

Second hard stop:

Case 1: So what? So the victim was not blameless. We knew that. No change. Manslaughter.

Case 2: Apparently, the decedent was not a nice man. He had done bad things. There is still no legal justification to assassinate him. First degree murder. The jury may want to consider the murderer’s state of mind in the sentencing phase, but the crime is murder one.

Third hard stop:

Case 1: I’m not terribly fond of nuclear engineers in any case. And frat brats often take part in vicious mob activity, from hazing, assault and mayhem to gang rape. But still, the killer exchanged threats and did not try to flee. Manslaughter it remains. Hope the community was able to win its suit against the frat brats. But that’s an entirely separate issue.

Case 2: Vigilantes are often popular. Courts and laws are supposed to prevent just this type of mob rule. Murder one it remains. The punishment is a matter to be decided in court, but the case is clearly one of first degree murder, not justifiable homicide. Personally, I’m not a great fan of American penal “justice”. But the fact remains that the killer committed an unjustified, premeditated act of fatal violence. In our mixed up society, the options for his punishment are either a long jail sentence or another killing. I guess long jail sentence wins.


Anonymous said...

Continued... sorry to be so longwinded.

Final outcome:

(I think you switched the cases here…)

Case 1: (Dead frat brat vs. man w/knife in brawl.) Seems pretty obvious that a verdict of “voluntary manslaughter” would be appropriate. The killer was not the only aggressor, but he was the final aggressor. Before sentencing, I would want to know whether he was drunk, whether he was himself injured, and who else was hurt in the melee. He is guilty. In a sane system of justice, he would undergo rehabilitation and perform restitution to the community he injured. In ours, he’ll go to jail for a while, and come out not able to get a job, but still having access to knives and alcohol. Then he can get his second strike… No heroes or villains in this one. Just a bunch of screwed up kids.

Case 2: (Revenge killing of ex-molester.) Not manslaughter. First degree murder. Still no heroes. At least one, and probably two villains, depending on whether or not molestation occurred. However much the gut may understand the urge to slaughter ex-molesters, the mind, and the jury, must understand that vigilante murder is not heroic. Or justified. As far as the sentence, though, it seems fair enough. Again, a better sentence would involve rehabilitation and restitution, but within the confines of the crazy California penal system, a 10-year sentence with the possibility of parole is probably about right, even though the actual crime was first degree murder, not manslaughter. It’s not as though our anti-hero is likely to go out and assassinate someone else.

As a non-psychologist, I may be missing the forensic psychological issues here. The first case doesn’t seem to have many psychological issues. The issues there are more purely political. The second case certainly would seem to be rich with forensic psychological issues: an abused man kills his ex-tormenter. The killer must have been deeply disturbed. But then that’s evident by the fact that he committed cold blooded murder. But again, the popularity of violent vigilantes and the exaggerated loathing for “sexual predators,” even if they are only young men who had consensual sex with a barely-underage girl, are more political than psychological issues.


Anonymous said...

What is Not Mentioned in the Child rapists' murder is that he was reported to the police. (Even by his own children who provided photos of their father harming children) Also phone records show Mr McNeill was calling and stopping by speaking to Mr. Vargas many times and offering to babysit his infant daughter. Some victims committed suicide after Mr. McNeill kept coming back into their lives. Over a dozen young men have come out publicly and also woman. Mr.McNeill was a Boy Scout leader, Big Brother and involved youth pastor in his church. He sought out his victims in these venues. Mr. Vargas did not go to Mr McNeill' home to kill him, but to scare him,and told him he was not going to hurt anyone, anymore, an argument ensued. We will find out in court the exact details of this. Mr. Mcneill had been reported by other victims as well. The local Fort Bragg Police dept. again,never investigated. Mr. McNeill was also a local business owner and had friends in high places. There is more to this story than meets they eye. This is not a "vigilante" killing. Fort Bragg has held many dark secrets of murder, molest, rape and missing people. It does not take much to dig under a few layers and you will see all is not as it appears. It is how much money and power you have in Fort Bragg that really allows you to victimize others for apparently an extremely long time. Some of these reports of abuse were made to the police years before Mr. Vargas was ever a victim of Mr. McNeill. Some believe that if the police would have done their job in the first place Mr. Vargas would have never been a victim, along with others. You see, there is alot to this case, and I have not even touched the surface.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Thanks for your insider's perspective. If accurate, that sounds a lot like what is alleged in the case of William Ayres, a prominent psychiatrist whose case I have blogged about. (See, for example: http://forensicpsychologist.blogspot.com/2009/08/ayres-exposer-wins-award.html.)

Anonymous said...

What you leave out about the Aaron Vargas case is that Aaron was stalked and harassed up until the day his abuser died. His abuser also asked several times to see and to babysit Vargas' daughter, even bringing over diapers for the baby once. So it's not as if the abuse just ended and then a few years later Vargas decided he wanted revenge. Vargas has PTSD and symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome. Up until 2/8/09 Vargas felt sorry for his abuser and wasn't able to stand up to him in order to protect himself or his child. Also, the abuser was reported to the police several times but they did NOTHING and Vargas knew this. It really is a case of self defense.

Anonymous said...

I would like to say that a lot of info and facts were left out of your little experiment. I would hope you would want to fix it and be true to the facts. Manly the Aaron Vargas case.

Thank you,

Andrew Lane


Anonymous said...

"Urbanite" again:
No, Anonymous 4/22/10, it is not a case of self defense. In California, for a killing to be an act of self defense, there must be an immediate threat, and, unless the defense is taking place in one's home, there must be no way to escape from the violence, other than by using potentially lethal force. Vargas went to McNeil's house with a gun. Neither Vargas nor anyone else was under immediate threat at that moment. Therefore, under California law, he had no right to use force of any kind. Ironically, because in California there is no duty to retreat when confronted in one's home, the legal reality is that as soon as McNeil saw that gun, McNeil would have had the right to use lethal force to defend himself against Vargas. Had McNeil shot Vargas, that would have been self defense, prior heinous acts notwithstanding.

Take everything said as fact: McNeil perpetrated abuse not only on Vargas, but on others. He threatened Vargas' child. Vargas had PTSD, and suffered from Stockholm Syndrome. The police failed to act.

Vargas loaded his gun and went to McNeil's house to confront him. That prima facie evidence of a homicidal state of mind. There has been nothing posted that would suggest that Vargas was not capable of understanding that shooting McNeil would kill him. The crime Vargas committed was first degree murder. (If you're interested, here is the definition of first degree murder in California: http://www.lectlaw.com/def2/m053.htm)

Again, we have a twisted system of injustice that does not allow cases such as this to be handled fairly. But the fact that the police didn't do their job does not justify an act of vigilante violence, however satisfying, on a gut level, it may be that an abuser was killed.

Anonymous said...

My problem with the type of comments posted above is the following: the victim is no longer here to testify in his own defense. This allows people to make up whatever "facts" they want knowing that the accused is not here to testify. You can argue that where there's smoke there's fire, but the devil in many of these cases is in the details. I always find it very very *convenient* how people come out of the woodwork after someone is killed like this and them say the most horrible things about the victim.

One of the reasons I feel so strongly about this is because the courts should be engaged in a search for the truth. People who engage in this type of vigilantism didn't just get revenge on a supposedly very bad man; they undermined the entire system of justice. They prevented the people from *ever* finding out the truth. That crime is the crime that should really shock the conscious.


Anonymous said...

There seems to be enough evidence in the Vargas case against the "victim" McNeill that the DA thinks it is manslaughter, and even his family seems to believe it, oh thats right most of them were victims, who had reported it to the police for years. There were also photos of him with children. This case is not black and white.

Mad Jack said...

This is an excellent post. Sorry I'm so late to the party, but I'm going to throw my two cents into the ring anyway.

Case 1: Death by knife. Not guilty. This is clearly self-defense, pure and simple. The 'duty to retreat' does not exist for me, and that's the way I'd vote. I decided the case in my initial reading of the description and further information did not change my mind. Not guilty.

Case 2: Death by .44 pistol. Initially I was unsure just how I would vote and so withheld my judgment until the sanity of the shooter was established and the motive for the shooting was discovered. This is murder in the first degree, however there are extenuating circumstances. There are no winners in this one, but I would vote not guilty. Some people just need killing.