September 30, 2011

Future orientation a major factor in juvenile competency

Photo credit: Richard Ross, Juvenile in Justice
Unlike adults, most children and adolescents who are found incompetent to stand trial are not psychotic. Rather, they have cognitive impairments. And, in a factor gaining greater attention from courts and legislatures, they are often immature.

Indeed, developmental maturity is so important that in California and some other states, juvenile competency evaluators are now required by law to assess for it.

That’s easier said than done. After all, what is immaturity, and how does it affect competency?

In a study just published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, four scholars state that one big chunk of maturity is future orientation, or the extent to which a youngster takes long-range consequences into account in making decisions. One reason that youngsters engage in risky behaviors, the theory goes, is because they are present-focused and lack a more mature perspective on the future.

Testing the influence of future orientation on competency, the researchers found that the well-established relationship between age and competency is moderated by a child's degree of future orientation.

Further, competency is particularly "fragile" in immature children. In other words, smaller deficits in cognitive abilities are more likely to influence competency in immature children as opposed to their more mature peers.

I recommend the full article, by Aaron Kivisto, Todd Moore, Paula Fite and Bruce Seidner. It is available for free online, HERE.

September 27, 2011

What does it take to prove innocence?

Thomas Haynesworth hugs his mother.
Photo: P. Kevin Morley, Richmond Times-Dispatch
One Sunday morning in February 1984, Thomas Haynesworth’s mother sent him to the Trio supermarket to pick up some bread and sweet potatoes. He never got there. Instead, he was stopped and questioned in connection with a recent rape. That began a 27-year odyssey through false accusation, arrest, prison and pain.

So begins yet another Kafkaesque story set in the United States, whose criminal justice system seems to have gone totally berserk. When I was traveling abroad this summer, overseas colleagues expressed amazement about practices they've heard about in our country -- juveniles sent to prison for life, young men placed on lifelong sex offender registries for consensual relationships with teen girlfriends, criminal prosecution of young children. Last week's execution of Troy Davis despite mounting doubts about his guilt is the latest case that has international observers scratching their heads.

But the Haynesworth case is unusual in that prosecutors and even a state attorney general are going to bat for the wrongfully convicted man, yet that still isn't enough to get him an exoneration. 

To recap the facts:

Haynesworth after his release. Photo credit: Morley
When he was 18, Haynesworth was arrested for five rapes in his neighborhood. He had no criminal record, but that didn't matter. He was prosecuted for four rapes, convicted of three, and sentenced to 84 years in prison.

Two years ago, a broad review of old cases in Virginia turned up a DNA match to a serial rapist who was already in prison for a string of rapes that occurred in that same neighborhood after Haynesworth's arrest.

Haynesworth was released this March, on his 46th birthday, and everyone thought his exoneration would follow swiftly.

But, no. 

Instead of apologizing to Haynesworth for robbing him of most of his adult life, what is the court doing? It's asking for more proof of innocence.

Only, there's a slight catch: The state has disposed of the DNA evidence from the other rapes, evidence that could conclusively clear his name.

"It seems paradoxical to demand 'conclusive' evidence from Haynesworth when the commonwealth has deprived him of the opportunity to produce such evidence," said the attorney general of Virginia, a staunch conservative who has even given Haynesworth a job in his office.

Meanwhile, as his bid for exoneration languishes on, Haynesworth must remain on the sex offender registry, with all of the stigma and restrictions that carries. He cannot move without permission, and he must even get approval to visit his nieces.

The trial penalty

This is yet the latest in a string of similar cases focusing public attention on the reliability problems plaguing eyewitness identification and, more broadly, on racial inequities in the administration of justice here in the Land of the Free.

But things are likely to get worse before they get better. That's because across the United States, legal changes have concentrated more and more power in the hands of prosecutors, who can now coerce defendants into pleading guilty by threatening much harsher penalties for those who insist on a trial.

As Richard Oppel reports in an in-depth analysis in the New York Times, prosecutors now wield more discretionary power than judges, and are using that power to punish defendants for exercising their right to a trial:
Threats of harsher charges against defendants who reject plea deals often are the most influential factor in the outcome of a case, but this interplay is never reflected in official data.

Even defendants with winnable cases are opting to plead guilty because the stakes are so high if they lose. The ratio of guilty pleas to trials has nearly doubled in the past two decades, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics reported by Oppel. And the number of acquittals in federal cases has dropped even more dramatically, from one out of every 22 cases 30 years ago to only one out of 212 last year.

So if a young Haynesworth came along today and had the audacity to insist that he was innocent and wanted a trial, he would likely be punished with multiple life prison terms, rather than a mere 84 years.

We may never know how many Haynesworths are being sentenced every year based on faulty eyewitness identification and/or racially biased prosecution. 

New York Times reporter John Schwartz's only-in-America report on the Haynesworth case is HERE.
Richard Oppel's excellent report, Sentencing Shift Gives New Leverage to Prosecutors, is HERE.

Hat tip: J and B

September 25, 2011

Fiji travelogue: A different approach to murder

Guest post by Jules Burstein*

Three weeks ago while on a vacation in Fiji, I was on the third-largest island, Taveuni, walking in a light rain up a not-so-steep hill, when I encountered the following sign in front of what looked like a series of dormitories:

Fiji Correction Services
Taveuni Prison
Giving a Second Chance

I walked inside and explained to a secretary at the front desk that I was a forensic psychologist and was interested in learning something about the criminal justice and prison system in Fiji. She invited me to speak to the Director (Warden) who was just outside the main building and was quite receptive to having an exchange with me.

I was more than a little astonished to learn from him that on an island with 18,000 people there were only a dozen men serving time for murder. But more compelling than that was the Director informing me that all men convicted of murder are sentenced to 10 years.

At that point they are evaluated to see whether they have sufficient remorse for their offense, and have made constructive changes in their character so as to warrant release. If that is the case they are discharged from custody. If not, there are periodic reviews every two years to determine whether inmates are then suitable for release. Thus, all inmates are strongly motivated to effect positive changes while in custody in order to earn the right to be reintegrated into society.

I found it impressive (and sad) to consider that this progressive approach exists in a country that just obtained its independence from Great Britain 40 years ago, while we in America have prisons filled with thousands of men convicted of murder either sentenced to death or to life sentences with little chance of parole.

*Jules Burstein is a clinical and forensic psychologist in Berkeley, California.

September 23, 2011

Forensic trainings on the Eastern Seaboard

Oct. 2: Fun-filled training in New York

Stephen Morse
The New York State Psychological Association's Forensic Division is holding a one-day conference that some are billing as the best single-day conference this year. Keynote speaker Stephen J. Morse JD, PhD will open the day with a talk on “Folk Psychology: The Key to Legally Relevant Forensic Communication.” The day will end with a 2-hour moot court and then a wine social. Sandwiched in between are presentations by:
  • William Barr, PhD on “Evaluating Competency: A Neuropsychological Perspective”
  • Michael Perlin, JD on “ There Must be Some Way Out of Here: Why The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is Potentially the Best Weapon in the Fight Against Sanism in Forensic Facilities”
  • Joseph Plaud, PhD on “Psychological Assessment of Sexual Offenders: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going”
  • David Martindale, PhD on “A Reviewer’s Take on Custody Evaluations”
Michael Perlin
The conference is being held at the Faculty House at Columbia University in New York City, which I am told is a great venue. The full conference program is HERE. Registration is HERE. Get it while it's hot.

Oct. 14: Risk management in the community

Well-known forensic psychologist Kirk Heilbrun of Drexel University is the featured presenter at this Forensic Mental Health Symposium sponsored by the Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. The event will be held at the Crowne Plaza Richmond West in Richmond, Virginia. More information is available at the ILPPP website. To register, click HERE.

Nov. 4: Police custody and the interrogation of youth

Kirk Heilbrun
This Advanced Seminar in Juvenile Forensic Practice, also sponsored by the ILPPP, features several interesting speakers, including:
  • Lawrence Fitch, Esq on The Rights of Juveniles in Delinquency Cases: Understanding the Principles of Miranda Waiver and the Admissibility of Confessions in Juvenile Court
  • Dick Reppucci, PhD on Research on the Police Interrogation of Juveniles
  • Gregg McCrary (FBI, Retired) on Controversial Juvenile Cases: Evidence, Testimony and Outcomes
The event will be held at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. To register, click HERE.

Next semester, the ILPPP is planning an advanced workshop on evaluating sanity with Ira Packer, and a workshop on Motivational Interviewing with David Prescott. Check back with their website for updates on those, and more.

September 21, 2011

Texas capital case highlights racial bias in psychology

Is it fair to forecast future danger based on demographics?

Even as Troy Davis's execution tonight draws attention to Georgia's death penalty, Texas remains  the undisputed execution capital of the United States. And in Texas, psychologists are integral to the process because of the prerequisite of proving future danger.

Texas psychologist Walter Quijano
It is here that Texas psychologist Walter Quijano stepped in, testifying in more than 100 capital cases. And in case after case, called by both the prosecution and the defense, he testified that defendants on trial for their lives were especially dangerous if they happened to be African American or Latino.

Like Davis's execution, Quijano’s racially imbued risk assessments are also in the international spotlight, after the U.S. Supreme Court's grant of a 30-day reprieve from death for Duane E. Buck, a convicted double-murderer who had already eaten his last meal when he got the news.

To his credit, former Texas Attorney General John Cornyn agreed with defense attorneys that infusing race into criminal sentencing is unfair. When Quijano's testimony was called to his attention some time back, he red-flagged seven cases as meriting a new sentencing hearing. (The government now argues that Buck's case is different from the others for procedural reasons.)

Duane Buck
The "infusion of race as a factor for the jury to weigh in making its determination" violates a defendant's "constitutional right to be sentenced without regard to the color of his skin," the top prosecutor stated in reference to another of the seven cases. "Discrimination on the basis of race, odious in all respects, is especially pernicious in the administration of justice."

Quijano, a native of the Philippines, said in an interview with CNN correspondent Raju Chebium back in 2000 that his opinion about the dangerousness of Blacks and Latinos derives from the fact that they are overrepresented in prisons. "When you look at a problem, you have to consider all the factors that you identify and not ignore (selected ones) because of political reasons."

But using incarceration rates as evidence for violence risk is circular logic. It conveniently ignores other factors that contribute to the vastly disproportionate incarceration of non-white men. These include racial profiling, poverty, economic discrimination, and most of all the racial bias endemic within all stages of the criminal justice system.

Quijano's self-styled risk method is not the only instance in which psychologists use a demographic factor to elevate risk. But hopefully the Buck case will draw attention to the larger issues of fairness and social justice that the practice raises.

September 18, 2011

Free access to forensic articles

The Journal of Forensic Sciences, published by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, is offering free access to select articles, including several of potential interest to this blog’s audience. Click on any of the below titles to read (and/or download) the full article.

By Janne A. Holmgren and Judith Fordham 

Abstract:  Television shows, such as CBS's CSI and its spin-offs CSI: Miami; CSI: Las Vegas; and CSI: New York, have sparked the imagination of thousands of viewers who want to become forensic scientists. The shows' fictional portrayals of crime scene investigations have prompted fears that jurors will demand DNA and other forensic evidence before they will convict, and have unrealistic expectations of that evidence. This has been dubbed the "CSI effect." This phenomenon was explored using results from a Canadian study based on 605 surveys of Canadian college students who would be considered jury-eligible and Australian quantitative and qualitative findings from a study that surveyed and interviewed real posttrial jurors. Information about the way jurors deal with forensic evidence in the context of other evidence and feedback about the way in which understanding such evidence could be increased were gained from both these studies. The comparison provides insights into the knowledge base of jurors, permitting adaptation of methods of presenting forensic information by lawyers and experts in court, based on evidence rather than folklore. While the Canadian juror data showed statistically significant findings that jurors are clearly influenced in their treatment of some forensic evidence by their television-viewing habits, reassuringly, no support was found in either study for the operation of a detrimental CSI effect as defined above. In the Australian study, in fact, support was found for the proposition that jurors assess forensic evidence in a balanced and thoughtful manner.

by Lisa L. Smith, Ray Bull and Robyn Holliday 

Abstract:  The most widely accepted model of juror decision making acknowledges the importance of both the case-specific information presented in the courtroom, as well as the prior general knowledge and beliefs held by each juror. The studies presented in this paper investigated whether mock jurors could differentiate between evidence of varying strengths in the absence of case information and then followed on to determine the influence that case context (and therefore the story model) has on judgments made about the strength of forensic DNA evidence. The results illustrated that mock jurors correctly identified various strengths of evidence when it was not presented with case information; however, the perceived strength of evidence was significantly inflated when presented in the context of a criminal case, particularly when the evidence was of a weak or ambiguous standard. These findings are discussed in relation to the story model, and the potential implications for real juries.

Forensic Identification Science Evidence Since Daubert: Part II—Judicial Reasoning in Decisions to Exclude Forensic Identification Evidence on Grounds of Reliability

by Mark Page, Jane Taylor and Matt Blenkin 

Abstract:  Many studies regarding the legal status of forensic science have relied on the U.S. Supreme Court's mandate in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc., and its progeny in order to make subsequent recommendations or rebuttals. This paper focuses on a more pragmatic approach to analyzing forensic science’s immediate deficiencies by considering a qualitative analysis of actual judicial reasoning where forensic identification evidence has been excluded on reliability grounds since the Daubert precedent. Reliance on general acceptance is becoming insufficient as proof of the admissibility of forensic evidence. The citation of unfounded statistics, error rates and certainties, a failure to document the analytical process or follow standardized procedures, and the existence of observe bias represent some of the concerns that have lead to the exclusion or limitation of forensic identification evidence. Analysis of these reasons may serve to refocus forensic practitioners’ testimony, resources, and research toward rectifying shortfalls in these areas.

Additional free articles from the Journal of Forensic Sciences on a variety of forensic topics may be found HERE.

September 14, 2011

Violence risk in schizophrenics: Are forensic tools reliable predictors?

The high-profile cases of Jared Lee Loughner and Anders Behring Breivik have contributed to high public demand for accurate prediction of violence potential among the mentally ill. While the number of risk assessment tools designed for this purpose has exploded in the past two decades, no systematic review has been conducted to investigate how accurate these tools are for predicting risk in individuals with schizophrenia.

But never fear: Jay Singh of the University of Oxford and colleagues (whose recent meta-review questioned overbroad claims about the accuracy of actuarials in risk assessment) have stepped into the breach, this time examining whether existing tools have proven efficacy for this task.

Reporting in this month's special issue of Schizophrenia Bulletin on violence and schizophrenia, the authors state that despite the existence of at least 158 structured tools for predicting outpatient violence risk, only two studies have measured instruments' predictive validity in discharged patients diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Instead of reporting on instruments' accuracy for specific patient groups, most studies report predictive validity estimates for heterogeneous groups of psychiatric patients. This forces clinicians and the public to assume that these group-level data apply to any individual diagnostic group.This assumption turns out to be a problem, due in part to the large differences in base rates of violence in psychiatric patients. We know, for example, that individuals with substance abuse disorders are more prone to violence, in general, than those diagnosed with major depression.

Examining the psychometric and predictive features of 10 widely used tools for assessing risk in mentally disordered offenders and civil psychiatric patients, the authors found "little direct evidence to support the use of these risk assessment tools in schizophrenia, specifically."

Overall, schizophrenics have low base rates of violence, with an estimated prevalence of between 10 and 15 percent. As I've discussed here in the context of sex offenders, the rarer a behavior is, the harder it is to successfully predict, leading to erroneous predictions of high risk in people who are not truly dangerous. The authors quote another research finding that in order to prevent one stranger homicide by a schizophrenic, governments would need to detain a whopping 35,000 patients.

That sounds to me like a black swan problem.

As in their previous meta-meta-analysis, the authors critique the almost exclusive use of the area under the curve (AUC) statistic to validate risk assessment instruments. Proponents of the AUC like it because it measures predictive utility independent of the base rate of the behavior in question. But this is as much a weakness as a strength, leading to a false sense of confidence in our ability to accurately predict the risk of individuals in heterogeneous groups of patients:
"High" AUC values for heterogeneous groups of psychiatric patients may have led researchers, clinicians, and policymakers to believe that instruments perform well for all diagnostic groups. However, it is problematic to suggest that structured instruments would be able to identify high-risk individuals with the same accuracy in groups with higher and lower base rates of violence.

In another interesting finding, Singh and colleagues found that the item content of violence risk tools varies markedly, with many tools including unique factors not contained in other instruments. This is a problem, unless these items are truly correlated with risk.

The authors call for updated reviews of the risk and protective factors underlying violence in different psychiatric groups -- including, for example, executive dysfunction in schizophrenics -- before additional risk assessment tools are constructed.

The review is available by contacting Dr. Singh (click HERE), who shortly will be coming to America to accept a post with the Mental Health Law and Policy Department of the University of South Florida.

September 11, 2011

Brick wall blocking progress on sexual violence

Forty years after the women’s rights movement brought attention to the widespread nature of sexual violence, the overwhelming majority of offenses still go unreported. Even when a brave victim does come forward, prosecution is rare and conviction even rarer.

That unpleasant reality was the starting point for this week's international conference on sexual violence at Middlesex University in London. Delegates from around the world -- including from Europe, Turkey, Israel, Australia, Canada and the United States -- met to brainstorm next steps in the battle against this catastrophic pandemic.

The consensus among delegates seemed to be that the legal system -- despite the best of intentions of many within it -- is ill equipped to rectify the "justice gap" between sexual violence perpetrators and their victims.

The "brick wall" (in the words of criminologist Betsy Stanko of "the Met," London's Metropolitan Police) blocking progress is built of so-called "rape myths" that make women unwilling to come forward, and impede successful prosecution when they do.

Myth Number One is that only bad and/or crazy men rape. As I explored in my opening keynote address, the promotion of this fiction by a powerful sex offender treatment industry has had the paradoxical effect of making the everyday rapist and child molester even less recognizable than ever by jurors and judges.

Myth Number Two is that men cannot control their sexual impulses. The corollary of this is to blame women for rape: Why did she get drunk? Why did she go with him? Why did she act (or dress) that way? Women have internalized these messages and so - unlike, say, burglary victims -- feel deeply humiliated and ashamed when they are raped.

Conference organizers Jackie Gray, Miranda Horvath,
and Susan Hansen (Photo credit: The Times)

These myths are so universal in Western cultures that even feminist women working at a women's health clinic communicate them in private, informal conversation, according to new research by one of the conference's organizers, Susan Hansen of Middlesex University. (The other two organizers were Miranda Horvath and Jackie Gray.)

Compounding the problem is the fact that rapists tend to target vulnerable women who do not fit the profile of a virtuous victim, so do not make good witnesses. In the "vast majority" of London cases tracked by the Met, around 85 percent, victims were (1) seriously intoxicated at the time of their assault, (2) involved in an intimate relationship with the perpetrator, (3) mentally ill, and/or (4) minors, Stanko reported. These are not ideal victims, from the standpoint of successful prosecution.

What to do?

As noted by long-time activist Liz Kelly, chair of the Child & Woman Abuse Studies Unit of London Metropolitan University, sexual violence exists on a continuum, from predatory leers, touches and verbal harassment -- to which virtually all women are subjected -- on up to illegal sexual assault. Direct confrontation of the male entitlement undergirding this entire spectrum of behaviors will be critical to meaningful progress against sexual violence, speaker after speaker emphasized.

In other words, delegates argued for reintroducing gender into the professional discourse. As Moira Carmody of the University of Western Sydney in Australia pointed out, gender-based analysis of sexual victimization is often perceived as too threatening. So it is replaced with gender-neutral discourse about interpersonal conflict, in which the gender of perpetrator and victim become interchangeable.

I had witnessed this dynamic in action the previous day, at the international consortium on multiple-perpetrator rape. As so frequently occurs in these types of professional gatherings, someone brought up the topic of female perpetrators, sidetracking discussion onto this tangential topic. I say tangential, because the reality is that group rape is an overwhelmingly male activity. Even on the exceedingly rare occasions in which women or girls are present, they are almost always auxiliaries, for example the wife of a sexual deviant, or a female gang member pressured to help her boyfriend procure a victim.

In addition to addressing the gender hierarchies and other power imbalances that facilitate victimization, we need to empower young people so that they perceive of themselves as active agents who have choices and practical tools for negotiating complex social situations.

Stieg Larsson, the author of the popular Millennium trilogy, did not feel this power when he was 15 years old. Thus, he did not intervene during a group camping trip, as three of his friends raped a 15-year-old girl. "Her screams were heartrending, but … his loyalty to his friends was too strong," writes longtime friend and biographer Kurdo Baksi. "He was too young, too insecure." Larsson struggled with guilt for the rest of his life, even naming the heroine of his novels after the rape victim, Lisbeth.

To empower young people in these types of situations, Carmody has developed an educational program that trains participants both in how to behave ethically in their own sexual encounters, and how to be "ethical bystanders." The curriculum, funded by the Australian government, has been successfully introduced with boys, girls, men and women from a variety of backgrounds, from rugby players to Maoris in New Zealand to gay men and lesbians.

New Zealand is using this ethical bystander approach in an innovative public health campaign to combat an expected rise in sexual assaults during the Rugby World Cup. An eight-minute video, "whoareyou," pushes the idea that everyone is responsibility for the safety of those around them.

A first step in primary prevention, then, is teaching and training young people to behave ethically toward each other.

On a larger level, we will need to directly challenge the rape myths undergirding an entire spectrum of intimate intrusions by men and boys against those with less social currency. Only then will victims feel empowered to step forward, and will judges and jurors be able to recognize and condemn the everyday offender who stands before them.

Knocking down that brick wall will be no small task.

September 7, 2011

Group rape getting long-overdue spotlight

Groups of men and boys have been raping lone, vulnerable girls and women since time immemorial. (Read Judges 19 in the Old Testament for one chilling account.) In fact, group rape is woven so tightly into the fabric of Western civilization that hardly anyone ever stops to think about it. Until now, that is.

When I did my first literature review of the topic back in 2003, for an article conceptualizing it as a theatrical production of hegemonic masculinity, I was astonished by the paucity of research. That is starting to change, thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of two prolific young scholars in the UK, Miranda Horvath of Middlesex University and Jessica Woodhams of the University of Birmingham.
Horvath and Woodhams secured funding from the British Psychological Society to put together an international consortium of researchers, academics and practitioners to further study the topic. We’re collaborating on an edited volume, which I’m pretty sure will be the first book in the history of the world on the topic of multiple-perpetrator rape. (It’s due out from Routledge in February 2013.)

I’m here in London giving a talk on the role of masculinity and culture in multiple-perpetrator rape, at the second of three research seminars. As I found in an analysis of international media coverage (which I will present in the upcoming book), Western societies display a cultural schizophrenia toward this phenomenon: Even as the public at large condemns group rape, contradictory messages permit and even reinforce it, fueling a cycle of masculine misconduct. 

London after the riots

Piccadilly Circus, 2011 (by K. Franklin)
London is a fitting backdrop for a seminar on group violence. Even as the city frenetically prepares to host the 2012 Olympics, it struggles to regain equilibrium in the wake of last month’s severe and economically costly rioting

Yesterday, I watched live BBC coverage of a government hearing into the police response to the rioting. Although the hearing covered a broad range of issues, Britain’s popular media latched onto a quote by Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, blaming the rioting on a "feral underclass." With coded racial language like that, it's no surprise that the rioting has led to increased racial prejudice and xenophobia among the British public, according to a just-released study. A greater number of respondents who felt that British society and culture were under threat are now expressing hostility toward Muslims, blacks and eastern Europeans.

London 2011 (K. Franklin)
Bolstering the racialized image in the public's mind is the much-ballyhooed statistic that three-quarters of those convicted of riot-related crimes had prior criminal records.  Of course, as the police were the first to admit during yesterday’s hearing, those with prior criminal histories were easiest to find, and so were rounded up after the riots. In other words, if you weren’t a known criminal you were less likely to get arrested, thereby producing a misleading statistic.

More broadly, why would anyone be surprised that members of an unemployed and disenfranchised underclass would be the first to rise up in protest over a police killing? Or that the have-nots would seize any opportunity to steal from the haves? Britain's confronting the problem today, but the rioting should serve as a wake-up call to every nation with severe economic and social disparities.

Ironically, by seizing upon the isolated quote and statistic, the popular media distorted what the justice secretary and other government leaders were saying. They were actually promoting the concept of rehabilitation. Calling the penal system "broken," the Secretary commented:
It's no good just punishing them. We're failing to make sure that those that are capable of being reformed are reformed and are actually sorting out their drugs, their drink, given a slightly more sensible approach to the values of society so that at least fewer of them will start causing trouble again the next time they have a chance.
Next up: Sexual violence conference

Stay tuned: Tomorrow I will be giving the opening keynote at a conference on sexual violence prevention, also here at Middlesex University in North London. Time allowing, I'll have more to report from my visit.

September 2, 2011

Jury deadlocks in gay panic trial

After a closely watched trial, a jury ultimately failed to agree on whether teenager Brandon McInerney should be punished for murder in the killing of classmate Larry King. The final vote was five for murder, and seven for the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter.

The defense had played on gay panic, blaming 15-year-old King for being too provocative. Forensic psychologist Donald Hoagland, who spent 17 hours interviewing and testing McInerney, testified that when the cross-dressing victim said, “What’s up baby” to McInerney the day before the killing, it threw the 14-year-old into a fit of homicidal rage.

Hoagland further testified that when King said he was changing his name to Leticia, that triggered a dissociative state, causing McInerney not to realize what he was doing at the time of the shooting, according to the Ventura County Star.

The fatal flaw with that theory is that McInerney made advance plans to kill King. He acquired and loaded the gun, and announced his plan to several people the day beforehand, according to testimony during the eight-week trial. He shot King twice in the back of the head during a first-period class.

The only juror to speak to the media said that what really swayed the jury was not the gay panic defense, but the fact that the defendant was only 14 years old at the time of the 2008 crime. Prosecutors repeatedly rejected widespread pleas from the public -- including from a coalition of gay and lesbian groups -- to try the boy as a juvenile. He faced 51 years to life in prison if convicted in adult court.

Enough is enough, say the editors of the Star, which has provided excellent blow-by-blow coverage of the case since the outset; the prosecution needs to be reasonable:
That division among the jurors reflects the deep divide that also exists in the community at large regarding the appropriate way to punish a boy who committed an act of horrific violence that demands severe punishment, yet who had turned 14 just two weeks before the shooting, whose home life failed to provide the support and guidance that a child needs, and who was in a turbulent situation at school where there was equally little support evident.

The District Attorney's Office could refile murder charges against Brandon, but The Star believes the wisest course of action now is to take a sufficient amount of time for a good, hard look at the case that the prosecution presented and carefully consider what the jury's reactions revealed.

For starters, this trial showed it will be hard if not impossible to convince a jury that a sentence of 50 years to life in prison — which is mandatory for a first-degree murder conviction — represents justice in this criminal case, in which the defendant was prosecuted as an adult rather than in Juvenile Court.

Related blog posts:

Gay panic defense: Slain boy accused of provocation (August 10, 2011)

Don't ban gay panic defense (August 51, 2009)

What caused middle school tragedy? (June 10, 2008)

More on the McInerney antigay murder case (June 11, 2008)