February 18, 2018

Four brilliant podcasts

As voracious corporations suck the lifeblood out of print newspapers, a golden age of creative online journalism is also blooming. The art of podcasting is one example, with diverse content increasingly accessible via an abundance of free apps. The viral success of Serial in 2014 popularized podcasts on criminal justice topics in particular. Some, like the much-hyped Atlanta Monster about serial killer Wayne Williams, are unabashed Serial imitators, cashing in on an innocence porn fad by casting doubt on the guilt of convicted criminals. But others are venturing beyond that now-hackneyed genre in creative and engaging ways. Here are a few of my favorites; check the comments section for some additional favorites from readers:

1. In the Dark

This flat-out brilliant podcast on the 1989 cold-case kidnapping of Jacob Wetterling remains at the head of the pack. Meticulously researched and captivatingly presented, it stands as a monument to investigative reporting, forcing us to rethink everything we thought we knew about the abduction itself, the history and politics of sex offender registries, and the broader landscape of how police investigate serious crimes. Award-winning investigative reporter Madeleine Baran and her colleagues use the Wetterling case as a jumping-off point to explore how police investigations go astray. Low rates of crime solving will continue to be the norm nationwide, they prophecy, as long as police lack meaningful oversight or accountability to reign in ineptitude. I was pleased to see that since the time I first blogged about the series in 2016, it has been recognized with a prestigious Peabody Award.

2. Ear Hustle 

Illustration by Antwan Williams, Ear Hustle
Ear Hustling is prison slang for eavesdropping, and this remarkable podcast gives us a unique chance to ear hustle on the day-to-day travails of prisoners. A collaboration between two convicts at San Quentin Prison and their volunteer photography teacher, it pulls back the curtains to demystify and humanize the prison experience. Earlonne Woods, doing 31-to-life for attempted robbery, is our warm and humorous host. Visual artist Nigel Poor serves as a stand-in for the free-world audience. The two are simultaneously entertaining and enlightening as they tackle the mundane realities of prison life: the delicate dance of choosing a cellie, furtive sexual encounters with visitors, what it's like to grow old and frail behind bars, race relations, and creative ways to keep pets. In the background is sound designer Antwan Williams, who is serving 15 years for armed robbery. The podcast reminds me of the prison dispatches from bank robber Dannie “Red Hog” Martin in the San Francisco Chronicle back in the 1980s-1990s, which were ultimately published as a book of essays, Committing Journalism. Back then, prison administrators tried every trick in the book to muzzle Martin, and that remains the knee-jerk habit of most U.S. prison administrations. So it’s a tribute to administrators at San Quentin, a standout for prison journalism, that they put their stamp of approval on this podcast. Their endorsement is paying off in good publicity. Season 1 got media buzz from the likes of the New Yorker, the UK Guardian and Vulture; like In the Dark it too has scored some notable awards. Binge fast, because Season 2 is about to drop.

3. More Perfect

Now in its second season, this Radiolab spinoff on the U.S. Supreme Court is amazing. Host Jad Abumrad, winner of a MacArthur genius grant, is pitch-perfect as he takes us behind the scenes of some of the most influential decisions of the high court -- everything from the death penalty and Native American adoption to political gerrymandering and Citizens United. Each episode is phenomenal, and comes with its own dedicated web page of further background resources. If you want to dip your toe in before binge-listening, a few of my favorites (and, believe me, it was hard to choose) included:

  • Object Anyway – about the 1986 case of Batson v. Kentucky barring race-based jury selection 
  • The Imperfect Plaintiffs – about the behind-the-scenes match-makers who ferret out cases that they think will make good case law; you’ll learn the surprising real dish on the sodomy case of Lawrence v. Texas (2003), one of the most significant LGBT rights cases in U.S. history, and why and how a young white woman named Abigail Fisher became the face for a 2016 challenge to affirmative action in higher education
  • American Pendulum I – about Fred Korematsu and the internment of the Japanese-Americans, with explicit parallels to today’s crackdown on Muslim Americans

4. Revisionist History

Most readers will know of Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker staff writer and author of a string of New York Times bestsellers including Outliers and The Tipping Point that have influenced popular thinking about the social world. Gladwell has now dived into podcasting, with a delightful series whose mission is to reexamine esoteric topics that have gone unexamined or misunderstood. While the series is not specifically on the law, it includes an outstanding two-part exploration of civil rights attorneys in the South during the Jim Crow era. Part I, State v. Johnson, focuses on an obscure rape case that taught young African American attorney and civil rights activist Vernon Jordan a hard lesson about Southern-style justice. In Part II, Mr. Hollowell Didn’t Like That, we hear about the case of Willie Nash, who in a span of just 24 hours is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to die in the electric chair -- until, that is, a young attorney named Donald Hollowell shows up and "mounts a defense that rivets Black spectators and gives them hope."

Okay, it's not forensic, but I feel compelled to put in a plug for another episode of Revisionist History that I found fascinating --  A Good Walk Spoiled. It's a philosophical exploration of rich people and their addiction to golf. Don't miss it.

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Do you have a favorite forensically relevant podcast you would like to recommend? Please feel free to leave a comment.

A NOTE TO SUBSCRIBERS AND REGULAR READERS: In honor of this blog's 10th anniversary, I have given it a little design makeover. In addition to stylistic updates, the blog is now more secure and mobile-friendly, and elements such as the sharing icons, search bar and comments buttons should be more intuitive and easier to access.

August 21, 2017

Psychologist sues California prisons over anti-LGBT harassment

Housing unit at Vacaville
Prisons are not known as bastions of healing energy. One of the challenges faced by prison clinicians in the violent and hypermasculine culture of prison is how to uphold their professional ethics when they witness abuse of prisoners by staff. Psychologists may feel internally conflicted, but they rarely file formal complaints that might jeopardize their careers or even their personal safety.

So a lawsuit brought by a California psychologist against the Department of Corrections for alleged harassment of sexual minority prisoners is both rare and potentially groundbreaking.

Lori Jespersen, who identifies as “an openly genderqueer lesbian,” states that she was harassed and ostracized after she began blowing the whistle on rampant mistreatment of transgender and gay prisoners at the California Medical Facility at Vacaville.

Examples of prisoner abuse alleged in her lawsuit, filed this week in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, included an instance in which three prison employees “outed” one of Dr. Jespersen's transgender patients on Facebook, providing the prisoner's name and location, identifying her as a mental health patient, and referring to her as “he/she” and “that thing.”

In another alleged incident, a prison employee left a door unlocked while a gay prisoner of color was showering, enabling another prisoner who had been assaulting sexual minority prisoners to enter the shower and assault him. When Dr. Jespersen filed a report under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), she says it was never investigated. 

Dr. Jespersen alleges that due to her efforts to call attention to the abuse of LBGT prisoners, she was subjected to constant name-calling and threats of violence, including being locked alone on a housing unit with dangerous rapists. She stated the harassment caused her anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance and weight gain, and that she now “lives in constant fear of violence and harassment at work and at home.”

Transgender prisoner at Vacaville
Dr. Jespersen, 41, went to work for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in 2008, the same year she became licensed. The following year, she transferred to the Medical Facility at Vacaville, which has specialized programming for transgender prisoners.  

No safe haven?

If true, her allegations are especially disturbing in that Vacaville has long been regarded as a haven for transgender prisoners. In 1999, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, it became one of only two prisons in the country with specialized medical services for trans prisoners, the majority of whom were infected with HIV.

Dr. Jespersen’s attorney, Jennifer Orthwein, a former forensic psychologist whose practice focuses on gender and sexual orientation discrimination, said that the main goal of the lawsuit is to bring attention to the issue of systemic discrimination, in order to compel a cultural change.

“This case really has the potential to shine a spotlight on what is the key barrier to making progress to protecting vulnerable inmates in these facilities,” echoed Shannon Minter, the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, in an interview with public radio’s The California Report, “and that is this prison culture of silence and retaliation.”  

Trans prisoner at CDCR, UC Irvine study
Transgender prisoners are more than 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general prison population, according to a 2009 study by hate crimes scholar Valerie Jenness at UC Irvine’s Department of Criminology. About 59 percent of transgender prisoners in California reported being sexually assaulted, compared to less than 5 percent of other prisoners. 

Allegations of prisoner mistreatment are not new for California’s massive prison system, which has been under federal oversight for more than a decade due to chronic shortcomings in the treatment of mentally ill and low-functioning prisoners.

The lawsuit also comes at the same moment as a major power shift in the direction of the California Medical Facility. Under the state’s 2017-2018 budget, the intensive 24-hour inpatient psychiatric program at Vacaville and two other prisons has been shifted from the Department of State Hospitals to the Department of Corrections, which has been awarded an extra $254 million and nearly 2,000 new jobs to run them. The shift has caused consternation among mental health personnel, who worry about the quality of psychiatric care and the potential for increased suicides under CDCR management.

Prison psychologist awarded $1 million over racial bias

Although it is rare for prison psychologists to engage in whistle-blowing or file lawsuits, the last time such a case went to trial, the jury awarded the psychologist $945,480 in damages for racial discrimination, a judgment that was upheld unanimously on appeal.  

That case was especially disturbing, in that by all accounts Terralyn Renfro was a highly dedicated clinician who went above and beyond her formal duties in her desire to rehabilitate the men in the California prisons where she worked as a contract psychologist. Indeed, it was her very zeal that apparently cost her her career.

According to testimony at her trial, her supervisors did not approve of her attempts to facilitate prisoner self-help groups. They were especially upset that she had set up a self-help library, which became very popular with prisoners at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione.

The manner of Dr. Renfro's firing was humiliating. Without warning, a prison bureaucrat walked up to her one day and handed her a termination notice giving her 75 minutes to leave the prison or be physically ousted by guards. He stayed by her side and escorted her out the gates and to her car. A “DO NOT HIRE” note was placed in her file, so she was repeatedly rejected for jobs at other state prisons. No one ever explained who placed the note, or why.

The Third District appellate court upheld the jury’s nearly $1 million verdict against the prison system for racial discrimination in the firing. Dr. Renfro was the only African American psychologist at Mule Creek Prison at the time.

“Discrimination does not always present as in a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird or The Birth of a Nation,” the appellate court noted. “Even the most racially intolerant manager will often appreciate the need for circumspection, so smoking guns are rarely found.... [T]he jury drew a reasonable inference of discrimination from a pattern of deception, obfuscation, and mistreatment.”

But from the information in the record, the larger impetus for Dr. Renfro’s firing was her zealousness in prioritizing the interests of the prisoners in her care over those of the bureaucrats to whom she reported. The same behavior, perhaps, of which Dr. Jespersen may ultimately be deemed guilty.

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The complaint in Jespersen vs. CDCR is online HERE.  The appellate opinion in Renfro vs. CDCR is HERE.

May 21, 2017

Why are these men downloading child pornography?

… And how much risk do they pose to a fearful public?

Teachers. Businessmen. Military members. Politicians. Every week there’s another headline about a seemingly upstanding citizen caught with child pornography. The natural assumption is that the man is a closet pedophile, hiding his deviant desires behind a façade of normalcy.

This pedophile assumption is sometimes right, and sometimes wrong. Either way, its circularity stymies deeper reflection. “He’s a pedophile so he seeks out child porn. Duh.” It is only if we step away from its micro-focus on the creep of the hour that we may detect something else going on here. Something bigger and more ominous. Something that should awaken our collective concern.

Many of us in the forensic trenches have glimpsed it: a seemingly normal guy who’s become so wrapped up in the online smorgasbord of sexual fantasy offerings that he spends every spare minute frenetically downloading massive amounts of ever-more-deviant porn, as if trying to quench an insatiable thirst.

Medical doctors are seeing another facet: teenage boys and young men with enfeebled sexual desire, who cannot maintain erections or achieve orgasms. More than half of young men ages 16-21 in one study reported such sexual dysfunctions. Unlike with the elderly or infirm, nothing is physically amiss: The problem is all in their heads.

Screenshot: Visits to PornHub in 2016
These trends are developing so fast that they've caught us off guard. With the Internet so ubiquitous, it is easy to forget its recency. “Tube” channels streaming digital video content have only been around since the mid-2000s. But in the brief decade since their emergence, video porn sites have proliferated like mushrooms in a bog: One popular site boasts 91 billion (yes, that’s billion, with a “b”) videos viewed just last year alone, or 12.5 videos per every person on earth!  

The popularity of internet porn is generally attributed to the “three A’s” – anonymity, availability and affordability. People can learn about sex and engage in experimentation without interpersonal vulnerability or fear of embarrassment. There is no responsibility for another’s satisfaction.

There is little question that the rapid proliferation of internet porn is ushering in a sea change in sexuality, especially among digital natives – those in their teens and 20s who know of no other world. Porn viewing is near-universal among male youth throughout the Western world, with average first use steadily dropping to a current average of under 13 years of age. A connection between internet porn and the sudden, unprecedented surge in sexual dysfunction is also abundantly clear: Men seeking medical help for copulatory impotence report obsessive porn use and, just as telling, they quickly recover normal functioning if they can manage to curtail their porn viewing.

With the online porn explosion so new, medical researchers are just starting to catch up to its effects. But an emergent body of neurological research paints a disturbing picture of an oversatiated evolutionary system gone haywire.

The brain is a remarkably elastic organ that readily transmutes in response to environmental and behavioral input. Take the famous taxi driver study, which demonstrated that successfully navigating London’s byzantine streets causes the memory-processing hippocampus to bulk up like a pro wrestler’s biceps. In contrast to this example of plasticity’s utility, the evidence suggests that brain plasticity is maladaptive in the case of heavy porn use.

Wearing out the reward circuitry

Credit: Discover Magazine
Evolution has hard-wired humans to feel pleasure from activities like eating and sex that increase our chances of species survival. But because the brain is not evolutionarily prepared for incessant, artificial sex, constant masturbation to video porn overstimulates the pleasure-seeking circuitry and causes both structural and functional damage. Preliminary neuroimaging research indicates that the ventral striatum (the brain’s so-called “reward center”) shrinks in size. The neurotransmitter dopamine – the “feel-good” chemical that helps animals remember experiences both good and bad – reduces its signaling. Perhaps most alarmingly, the frontal cortex -- responsible for higher-order thinking and planning -- loses grey matter. It’s as if, says researcher Simone Kuhn of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, the heavy porn user is actually wearing out his brain’s reward circuitry.

Psychologically, heavy porn use may foster a vicious cycle of avoidance and poor skills for coping with stress, much like that found in heavy drug users. People may use porn to escape their real-world stressors and anxieties, zoning out in a fantasy realm millions of miles away. Over time, this becomes a preferred strategy that is relied upon for handling stress. Experimental research suggests that such habitual pursuit of immediate sexual pleasure reduces one’s capacity to delay gratification for long-term benefit. The user becomes increasingly impulsive, spending more and more time sitting in front of his computer in a disinhibited state of chronic sexual arousal. As plans and goals are sidetracked, he feels worse about himself, leading to depression that – you guessed it – creates an even stronger urge to escape reality.

Meanwhile, habituation makes it harder and harder to achieve gratification. What was once new and exciting becomes stale and boring. To achieve the sexual release that was once so easy, the consumer must frenetically search for ever-more-exotic and novel stimuli. Today’s porn users, report the ever-helpful statisticians at the popular porn site PornHub, are no longer satisfied with “vanilla” erotica or the old “in-out, in-out”; they are searching for wilder and wilder fantasy.

With an endless menu of novel sexual stimuli available via the mere click of a mouse, this process of habituation sends heavy consumers spiraling down a rabbit hole, sampling ever-more-hardcore themes, from bestiality and bondage to myriad fetishes and – heedless of the legal risk – child pornography. About half of male porn users report that they have found themselves searching for content that they formerly considered disgusting or unappealing. Given what we know about habituation, it is not surprising that this progression to more deviant themes is predicted by the amount of time spent online, the quantity of videos viewed and the age of first porn use.

6-year-old model in fashion ad
But the progression to culturally taboo fetishes is also promoted by the industry itself, which uses the allure of the forbidden to increase its profits. Indeed, it is rather ironic – even perverse – that the very culture that condemns child pornography as the twisted fantasies of the deviant pedophile engages in the widespread eroticization of children to sell products. As British criminologist Yvonne Jewkes points out, the titillation of mass audiences via sexualized images of children can be seen as “the soft end” of a culturally pervasive continuum that at its extreme features hard-core child pornography. 

Jewkes and her colleague Maggie Wykes go so far as to call the current moral panic over child pornography a "smokescreen" that serves to divert attention from the real sexual harm to children in patriarchal societies. After all, the overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse occurs within the home and is committed by a male family member, not a teacher, doctor or even a priest.

In fact, the very term “child pornography” distracts from the incestuous nature of much of the sexual violence depicted, in which fathers callously videotape the abuse of their young daughters for profit and status within their deviant subculture.

“The images found on computers [have] led to calls for an international database of missing children, thus ignoring the evidence that most children are abused at home and so are not ‘missing,’ ” they point out. “The power of moral panic lies not in what it does address but in what it doesn’t.”

The irony doesn’t end there. In our current climate of “paranoid parenting,” in which parents are charged with neglect for letting their kids walk home from a suburban park without adult supervision, the fear of digital child images is making everyone see the world through the lens of the pedophile, thereby colluding with commercial sexual exploitation by fetishizing youthful bodies.

So, what about risk?

Broader cultural discourses aside, on an immediate practical level the questions for forensic psychologists revolve around risk: If a man is caught with illegal child pornography, what is his risk for molesting an actual child? And what is his risk of reoffending by downloading more child pornography?

The fact that reported child sexual abuse has continued to plummet in recent years despite the meteoric rise in child pornography argues against any direct causal link between child porn and hands-on offending. But direct research on child porn consumers is tricky, because such people are less than keen to step forward and reveal themselves. This has forced researchers to focus on those who have been apprehended, likely skewing data toward the more deviant and criminally oriented.

Despite this limitation, the cumulative data bring good tidings: Overall, men who have been arrested and/or convicted for child pornography offending pose a very low risk to the public.

Aggregating nine extant studies on reoffense risk using meta-analytic statistical methods, prominent pedophilia researcher Michael Seto and colleagues found that, on average, a man who has been caught with child porn has about a 3.4% chance of committing another non-contact offense. The risk he will actually molest a child is even lower, around 2%.

These extremely low risk levels -- especially for child pornography offenders with no known history of hands-on offending -- is further evidence that much of their misconduct is driven by curiosity and internet-enhanced impulsivity. Once caught, all but the most deviant learn their lesson and apparently refrain from further misconduct. 

In any body of scientific research, of course, there is always that pesky outlier. In this case, there is one loner study that reached very different conclusions from the pack (and got a substantial amount of attention in the process). That article, based on convicted offenders at a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, is regarded as an unreliable anomaly. Prisoners at the facility have alleged that they were coerced into falsely claiming that they had molested children under threat of being expelled from the treatment program and shipped off to more dangerous penitentiaries. Further, they were never informed that they were part of a research project, and did not give their consent (which if true would be a violation of the Nuremberg Code). Federal judges have been harshly critical of the study. Based on its multiple identified problems, there is even an effort underway to get the Journal of Family Violence to issue a retraction.

The first big wave of child pornography prosecutions caught forensic psychologists off guard. With little extant research and no established tools to assess risk in this emergent criminal class, some practitioners turned to instruments like the Static-99 that were designed to assess reoffense risk among hands-on sex offenders. Not surprisingly, given the obvious differences between sexual assault and online pornography viewing, these instruments turned out to greatly overestimate the risk to the public posed by pornography-only offenders.

Michael Seto has been on the forefront of trying to rectify this situation. He and his colleagues have developed a new instrument to try to distinguish between garden-variety child pornography offenders and the tiny fraction who pose a greater risk to the public. The risk factors on his Child Pornography Offender Risk Tool, or CPORT (publicly available HERE), are largely common-sensical: Men at greater risk are those with more entrenched pedophilic and/or criminal propensities, as indicated by such factors as criminal history or prior contact sex offending against minors. 

Additionally, it is sometimes possible to distinguish men with primary pedophilic attractions from those who fell down the rabbit hole by analyzing the totality of their downloaded images. The pedophiles will tend to have a preponderance of child images, often quite well organized, whereas those without fixed sexual interests in children will have a wider variety of images, including those of adults and other themes such as bestiality, bondage and the like, with child photos in the minority.

Criminologist Jewkes is correct that the current obsession with prosecuting child porn cases distracts from the bigger picture. It not only encourages a warped and ineffective approach to child sexual abuse prevention, but it also sidelines critical analysis of legal adult porn. Because it is legal and its harm is more subtle (albeit far more pervasive), adult porn doesn't generate the moral outrage of child pornography. But just as child porn promotes distorted beliefs about children and child sexuality, much mainstream adult porn promotes destructive messages about women – what they like, and how they should be treated. It fosters objectification, and legitimates violence and abuse.

Whither this social experiment?

Zooming out even further, online porn -- whether legal or illegal -- can be viewed as just one facet of a massive social experiment into completely uncharted waters.

Realdoll sex dolls rolling out this year
Echoing the sci-fi movie Ex Machina (kind of an isolationist Stepford Wives for the 21st century), the market in sex dolls and robots is booming, as “fembots” and “sexbots” become ever more realistic in appearance and feel; they're now even being programmed with "personalities" (sexual, shy, naive, brainy, etc.). As Europe’s first android brothel opens its doors in Barcelona, some predict we are on the brink of a sex-robot tourist industry. Others go so far as to predict that “sex with humans could soon be a thing of the past.”   

Although one is tempted to scoff at such alarmist predictions, in trend-setting Japan, there is much government hand-wringing over the steadily growing proportion of 18- to 34-year-olds who remain single and virgins. Whether porn’s ubiquity is a cause versus a symptom of these larger, global sea changes in sexuality and family life remains an open question. But it is certainly safe to say that online pornography will do nothing to make it easier for people to reach out and connect, either sexually or socially.

After all, there is mounting evidence that porn contributes to young people’s insecurity about their physical adequacy and attractiveness. Heavy porn consumption also weakens men’s commitment to romantic relationships. Real-life partners are mundane and flawed in comparison, incapable of living up to the idealized fantasy model. And, unlike sex-bots, they do not always obey.

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Black Mirror (my episode rankings are HERE), but in this era of increasing social isolation and alienation it doesn't take too much imagination to envision a dystopic future in which people wall themselves off in lonely cubicles, growing old alone as they desperately scour digital media for satisfaction and companionship that remains tantalizingly out of reach.

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January 2, 2017

Dylann Roof: How to make a rampage murderer

As the penalty-phase trial of young white supremacist Dylann Roof gets underway this week, reporters have asked me to explain the psychological dynamics that trigger deadly rampages like Roof’s at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. My answer: Although the specifics such as locale and target shift, the broad contours of such spree killings remain remarkably constant. Here is my recipe of key ingredients:

1. Alienation

We humans are tribal animals. For millennia, we lived in tightly knit, cooperative societies where individuals were rarely alone. As author Sebastian Junger explores in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, tribal identity motivates individuals to sacrifice for the collective good. In stark contrast, modern society deprives people of that essential sense of connection or belonging. Our current technological atomization is “deeply brutalizing to the human spirit,” writes Junger. Cast adrift, people feel meaningless and superfluous. Social alienation is producing epidemic rates of depression and suicide. But it is in spree killings that we see the ultimate expression of malignant alienation: Embracing nihilism, the killer finds meaning via symbolically destroying not just himself, but also the social order that rebuffed and humiliated him.

Mark Ames, author of the meticulously researched Going Postal, goes so far as to argue that mass shootings are a form of doomed rebellion against a toxic culture: Otherwise-normal people snap when pushed to the breaking point within decollectivized, militarized and ruthless settings. Workplace sprees occur in oppressive institutional settings rife with surveillance, mandatory unpaid overtime, and humiliating and degrading layoff rituals. Sites of school shootings, meanwhile, are often brutal places where students undergo chronic torment. The more endemic alienation becomes, the more people will snap.

2. Failure

This is perhaps obvious, but setting the stage for a spree killing is cataclysmic failure. Except in warfare, satisfied people don’t suddenly morph into killing machines. The killer has failed a life-stage transition, and his life has gone off track. Dylann Roof had a troubled childhood, marked by abuse, neglect, severe anxiety and academic failure, according to published accounts. He dropped out of high school. As a young adult, he couldn’t get a job or even a driver’s license. He coped by drinking heavily. The lives of other recent mass killers were similarly catastrophic, marked by failures on academic, vocational and/or relationship fronts. Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook) and Elliot Rodger (Isla Vista) had autism-spectrum conditions that left them incapable of forming intimate relationships. Omar Mateen (The Pulse nightclub) was a socially awkward loser: he flunked out of police training, got fired as a prison guard, and ended up doing lowly security work; his wife fled after he beat her.

3. Entitlement

Dylann Roof posing in his bedroom.
Failure alone is insufficient. The failure must be perceived as unfair. Like Roof, whose grandfather was a prominent attorney, the killer often has middle-class roots, inculcating the American mythology of success. Mass shooters often have higher aspirations than are realistic for their station in life. In Hunting Humans, pioneering anthropologist Elliott Leyton argues that the modern mass murderer tends to be especially socially conservative, class-conscious, and obsessed with power and status. Yet in our increasingly fragmented, alienating and high-stress world, a high-quality life is difficult for many a young American to achieve. Recognizing that he is on a dead-end trajectory and that his class aspirations will not be realized produces profound disappointment, personal shame and – ultimately - despair. To reduce cognitive dissonance, he needs someone to blame.

4. Projection

By the time he explodes, the spree killer has amassed an enormous reservoir of bitterness. He feels unfairly victimized. Through a scarcity lens, he perceives less deserving people as stealing away his opportunities and robbing him of his right to happiness. Those perceived as undeserving typically include lower-status or socially stigmatized groups such as people of color, women, sexual minorities or immigrants. This is the politics of resentment that Trump has milked so effectively.

Also feeding into the potent fury of many mass murderers are childhood histories of being bullied and socially rejected. In Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, Katherine Newman and colleagues chronicle the tormented lives of infamous school shooters. Many were incessantly harassed, with antigay epithets a common refrain. In high school, Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech) was relentlessly bullied over his social awkwardness, speech impediment and immigrant background. Dylann Roof was described as a “bug-eyed boy” with a bowl haircut who struggled academically; we can only guess at his social travails.

5. Masculinity

Spree killings are exceedingly rare (making them impossible to predict). Not every alienated, bitter loner picks up an assault rifle. But those who do are invariably male. Women are more likely to blame themselves for their misery. As journalist Jamie Bartlett reveals in The Dark Net, hundreds of thousands of young women ages 13-25 flock to the myriad “pro-cutting” and “pro-ana” (anorexia) Internet sites that have sprung up in response to demand from alienated young women.

In contrast to this turning inward, many young men regard violence against others as a way to gain status and respect. Our cultural glorification of male violence is evidenced by the enormous popularity of first-person shooter and warfare games. It is evidenced by the lack of meaningful protest over our government’s modeling of killing as a solution to problems: U.S. military drone strikes in the Middle East have ended the lives of many hundreds of civilians, with little fanfare. After all, we are the good guys, protecting the world against evil. As boys grow up, writes masculinity scholar Michael Kimmel, “they learn that they are entitled to feel like a real man, and that they have the right to annihilate anyone who challenges that sense of entitlement.”

Mass shootings are a quintessentially American theatrical production, the ultimate display of alienated hypermasculinity inside the world's leading imperial power. The production is carefully planned and staged, often accompanied by websites, online manifestos and photos that will help it propagate and endure in the cultural imagination. Embittered young men seize upon the restorative potential of violence, which enables them to extract vengeance for a litany of wrongs both real and imagined. Even more powerfully, violence offers the lure of immortality: Rack up enough dead bodies, and you become infamous. You are no longer a nobody; you are a warrior.

6. Ideology

To become a warrior, one needs a cause. There is no shortage of alienated young men like Roof, reared on a diet of masculine entitlement and believing that they have been treated unfairly. In another time, they might be like dying trees in a parched forest, standing alone and unnoticed until their eventual collapse. But in the age of the enchanted Internet, such men can simultaneously retreat from humanity yet plug into like-minded online communities where their diffuse rage can find a focus.

Elliot Rodger (Isla Vista) in pre-production selfie: "I am gorgeous"
Take Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista killer. A flop with women despite his self-proclaimed “gorgeous” looks, he immersed himself in the misogynist realm of the “manosphere,” where “men’s rights” proponents and “pickup artists” rail against power-mad feminists who are denying men their natural-born right to supremacy (and sex). Such insular communities are like echo chambers, validating and amplifying warped ideologies. Within the manosphere, Rodger transformed himself from an invisible nobody -- a "beta male," in man-speak -- into a “true alpha male,” in his words, a heroic warrior standing up for oppressed “incels,” or involuntary celibates.

“Women are like a plague,” he repeats several times in an online manifesto. “The mere sight of them enjoying their happy lives was an insult to me, because I deserve it more than them…. They don’t deserve to have any rights. Their wickedness must be contained in order to prevent future generations from falling to degeneracy. Women are vicious, evil, barbaric animals, and they need to be treated as such.”

Like Rodger, Dylann Roof retreated into the Web. But instead of the manosphere, his search for meaning led him to the white supremacist channel. Specifically, the Council of Conservative Citizens, aka the “uptown Klan,” which devotes a lot of energy to disseminating propaganda about the menace of black-on-white crime. The atomization of culture into discreet identities has left many white men feeling abandoned and scapegoated, and racist ideology is quick to fill this vacuum. Roof eagerly soaked up the ideology of a white race under siege; like Rodger, he also grew frustrated with the preponderance of rhetoric over action. “[S]omeone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me,” he wrote. “I have no choice.”

Reducing the world to a stark black and white furthers the killer's self-image as a heroic warrior battling the forces of evil. In Terrorist’s Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning, fascism scholar Roger Griffin calls this “heroic doubling”: fanatics deploy violence as a call to arms to defend an idealized in-group against perceived threat by a demonized Other. Ideologically motivated killers like Roof, Rodger or the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik may act alone in the moment, but they see themselves as soldiers in a larger movement. The growing popularity of online manifestos – Roof had one, too, although at four pages it paled in comparison to Rodger’s 141-page tome – attests to the narcissistic fervor with which spree killers cling to their adopted ideologies as rationale for bloodshed.

What makes the ascendancy of extremist rhetoric so dangerous is this capacity to activate the alienated loner. A direct cause-and-effect relationship is readily observable: Donald Trump spews anti-Muslim vitriol, and in short order attacks on U.S. Muslims spike. Public figures can produce random lone-wolf violence via repeatedly demonizing an out-group, while maintaining plausible disavowal of responsibility. This practice -- most well-known for its contribution to abortion clinic bombings -- has a scholarly term, "stochastic terrorism.” In Roof's case, the Council of Conservative Citizens whose ideology Roof parroted in his manifesto was quick to issue a statement deploring the massacre, even while defending Roof's racist belief system as correct.

7. Contagion

In late-18th century Germany, groups of young men could be seen strolling about in identical outfits of blue tailcoats, yellow trousers and high boots. They were imitating Werther, the romantic hero of the sensational novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the idealistic protagonist kills himself over unrequited love. Blamed for a rash of copycat suicides among the impressionable and mentally ill, the novel was banned in Italy and Denmark.

This so-called Werther Fever is an early example of what we now refer to as a cultural meme – an idea, fashion or behavior transmitted like a virus from person to person, often via mass media, that takes on a life of its own as it propagates.

Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech) poses in pre-production selfie
Spree killings seem to have morphed into just such a cultural meme. Especially with the spread of social media, they often go viral, tempting the next angry and alienated man with the tantalizing promise of infamy and immortality – especially if the body count is high enough.

In truth, however, this immortality is illusory, as the very ubiquity of the mass shooter meme is numbing the public; one killer’s fame lasts only for the brief interval until another pushes him aside. Dylann Roof will have his moment in the spotlight this week, and then it will be on to the next case.

Instead of just dissecting each individual act in this never-ending drama (and emphasizing singular elements such as untreated mental illness, gun accessibility, social media, violent video games, bad parenting, law enforcement failures of prediction, and the like), we might do well to regard young men like Roof as canaries in the coal mine. It is only when the air in the mine is poisonous that the canary will die.

In the award-winning TV show Mr. Robot, there are these ninja assassins who, when cornered, put a bullet in their own brain. A computer-crimes detective refers to this as “erasing their histories.” In orchestrating a dramatic last stand, mass shooters like Roof are doing precisely this, erasing their heretofore empty and meaningless lives and replacing them with a meme.

Related blog posts:

Dylann Roof's full manifesto is HERE; Elliot Rodger's is HERE.

October 22, 2016

“In the Dark” shines brilliant light on bungled Jacob Wetterling case

Long-dormant case spawned today's sex offender registries. But would these laws have made a difference? 

Twenty-seven years ago, a perfect storm struck a small town in central Minnesota, when a stranger jumped out of the shadows and snatched an 11-year-old boy out bicycle-riding with friends.

It was the rarest of crimes. But the Oct. 22, 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling struck at a pivotal moment in U.S. history, igniting a conflagration that still burns today. Stranger-danger hysteria was sweeping the nation. Day care providers were being rounded up and accused of Satanic ritual abuse of children. And in that potent milieu, an unprecedented national manhunt came up empty.

Embarrassed by their failure, law enforcement spokesmen claimed they were hamstrung by lax tracking of known sex offenders. Jacob’s distraught mother, Patty Wetterling, led a successful crusade that culminated in the Wetterling Act of 1994, requiring all U.S. states to collect and publicly disseminate information on convicted sex offenders.

But 27 years later, with an estimated 850,000 Americans on public sex offender databases, Patty Wetterling is no longer enamored of the opportunistic missing-child movement and its crass media stars, who used her to promote their own agendas. In an interview with award-winning investigative reporter Madeleine Baran, she said she regrets her role in creating a public registry that is counterproductive, in shaming and ostracizing individuals rather than helping them reintegrate into society.

That interview is just one of many remarkable segments in the serial In the Dark, a nine-part podcast from American Public Media that forces us to rethink everything we thought we knew about both the Wetterling abduction and the broader landscape of how police investigate serious crimes.

Danny Heinrich today and sketch of abductor in 1989
Coincidentally, Episode One of the meticulously researched series was just set to premiere when police announced last month that they had finally cracked the case. Daniel Heinrich, who lived about half an hour down the road from his victim, had confessed and led police to Jacob’s remains, in exchange for a plea deal in an unrelated child pornography case and an admission that he abducted and assaulted another boy nine months before killing Jacob.

Baran set out to answer the question of why it took the local police more than a quarter of a century to catch a small-town pervert who was right under their noses the whole time. But in the process, she learned something far more troubling: that police across the country lack any meaningful oversight, and inept agencies with crime-solving rates as low as zero percent face no accountability.

Baran reached this shocking conclusion after more than nine months of painstaking digging. In a monument to investigative reporting, she and her colleagues delved deep into archival records, conducted contemporary interviews with dozens of witnesses and experts, and reconstructed events to determine what went wrong.

What Baran found was missteps at every turn. Police didn’t thoroughly canvass the neighborhood immediately after the crime. They glossed over a rash of stranger molests of preteen boys in the nearby hamlet of Paynesville where killer Danny Heinrich – already known to police – resided. Ultimately, in the type of tunnel vision that we see all too often in cases of wrongful conviction, they set their sights on the wrong guy altogether, a quirky local music teacher, and hunkered down to build a case against him – destroying his life in the process.

Diving deeper, Baran found more systemic problems.

At the time of Jacob’s abduction, the media portrayed Stearns County, Minnesota, as an idyllic place where crimes like this didn’t happen: indeed, went the narrative, that’s why the local sheriff’s department was caught off guard.

But that wasn’t true. The Stearns County Sheriff’s Department had investigated crimes even more heinous, and had botched it every time.

There was the case of the Reker sisters, ages 12 and 15, who disappeared one day in 1974. Police shrugged it off as girls on a lark, until the bodies were found in a quarry a month later with multiple stab wounds. The case was never solved. And there was the mass murder of a woman and three children, shotgunned to death in their beds in 1978. Police questioned the killer, Joseph Ture, but released him to wreak carnage across Minnesota; he ended up raping numerous women and killing at least two before he was finally apprehended by Minneapolis police.

Baran’s delivery is masterful. In a pleasant and measured cadence, she methodically weaves together the micro strands of the flawed Wetterling investigation with the macro threads of an entire police system gone wrong, to create an eye-opening tapestry with profound implications for all Americans.

* * * * *

It’s hard not to be dubious about the prospects for any expose, even the most brilliant, to produce genuine systemic change. On the other hand, there is no question that podcasts can change the fates of those lucky few whom they spotlight.

Take Adnan Syed. Many will remember the viral popularity of Serial's debut season in 2014, with host Sarah Koenig recounting Syed's prosecution in the killing of his former high school girlfriend. Syed’s conviction was subsequently overturned and he was granted a new trial, much to the dismay of Maryland state attorneys, who are protesting that the appeal is "meritless" and a product of "sensationalized attention" that gave a legitimately convicted murderer the status of international superstar.

That was certainly the case for convicted killer Steven Avery after Netflix’s Making a Murderer, which spawned a large and vocal fan base insisting that he is innocent despite substantial evidence to the contrary. As I noted in my critical review of that spectacle, by cherry-picking which facts to air, a producer can energize an ignorant populism fueled by illusory knowledge. 

So, podcasters walk a fine line between educating the public about the realities of the criminal justice system -- as In the Dark does so well -- and pandering to the prurient, devolving into true-crime entertainment spectacles like “48 Hours Mystery." Or worse. The dangers of true-crime populism were perhaps best illustrated by the 2013 murder trial of Jodi Arias, where media corporations intent on audience titillation fomented a digital lynch mob.

Hewing to the educational function is Breakdown, an Atlanta Journal Constitution podcast that unabashedly acknowledges itself as a Serial knockoff. In Season One, “Railroad Justice in a Railroad Town,” reporter Bill Rankin plays on his experience as a senior legal affairs reporter, using the case of a small-town meth-head convicted of arson to illustrate how an underfunded public defense system is set up to fail poor Americans.

Season Two of Breakdown, Death in a Hot Car -- Mistake or Murder?, swings more toward the sensationalist side, presenting the case of a man who was so distracted by his sexting obsession that he left his toddler son strapped into a car seat on a hot June day in Georgia. The boy died. Justin Harris's case is generating major media interest, with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution hosting a dedicated web page with "minute-by-minute updates," and another site live-streaming the trial.

The PTA mom who was framed
Again going for the high road, some reporters are also adapting the popular serial format to the quaint, endangered medium of print journalism. A nice example is the recent L.A. Times series Framed: A Mystery in Six Parts, in which award-winning reporter and author Christopher Goffard tells the fascinating story of a PTA mother who was framed by a high-powered professional couple. Whereas most such series aim to expose justice gone wrong, Framed does the opposite, showcasing a refreshing example of a police investigation that went above and beyond the call of duty to get it right.

As you can see, there’s a lot out there to sample. But if you’ve only got time to check out one podcast series, I recommend In the Dark. It’s the cream of the crop, an edge-of-your-seat thriller and a compelling cautionary tale that deserves the ear of every American.

August 14, 2016

Hebephilia flunks Frye test

Photo credit: NY Law Journal
In a strongly worded rejection of hebephilia, a New York judge has ruled that the controversial diagnosis cannot be used in legal proceedings because of “overwhelming opposition” to its validity among the psychiatric community.

Judge Daniel Conviser heard testimony from six experts (including this blogger) and reviewed more than 100 scholarly articles before issuing a long-awaited opinion this week in the case of “Ralph P.,” a 72-year-old man convicted in 2001 of a sex offense against a 14-year-old boy. The state of New York is seeking to civilly detain Ralph P. on the basis of alleged future dangerousness.

State psychologist Joel Lord had initially labeled Ralph P. with the unique diagnosis of sexual attraction to “sexually inexperienced young teenage males,” but later changed his diagnosis to hebephilia, a condition proposed but rejected for the current edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Under the Frye evidentiary standard, designed to bar novel scientific methods that are not sufficiently validated, a construct must be “generally accepted” by the relevant scientific community before it can be relied upon in legal proceedings.

Judge Conviser found that hebephilia (generally defined as sexual attraction to children in the early stages of puberty, or around the ages of 11 or 12 to 14) is being promoted by a tiny fringe of researchers and in practice is used almost exclusively as a tool to civilly commit convicted sex offenders. Under U.S. Supreme Court rulings, such offenders must have a mental disorder in order to qualify for prolonged detention after they have served their prison terms.

“It is not an accident, as Dr. Franklin outlined, that hebephilia became a prominent diagnosis only with the advent of SVP laws,” the judge wrote in his 75-page opinion. “It is also not a coincidence that each of the three expert witnesses who testified for the State at the instant hearing either work or formerly worked for state [Sexually Violent Predator] programs.”

Conviser’s ruling analyzed both the practical problems in reliably identifying hebephilia and the political controversies swirling around it: Without any standardized criteria, “clinicians are free to assign hebephilia diagnoses in widely disparate ways, many of which are just plainly wrong.” Using age as a proxy for pubertal stage is no guarantee of reliability because pubertal onset is highly variable. Ultimately, he concluded, whether erotic interest in pubescent minors is deemed "pathological" is more about moral values than science.

APA secrecy faulted

The judge was harshly critical of the American Psychiatric Association for its refusal to publicly explain why it rejected hebephilia from the DSM-5 in 2013. The diagnosis was aggressively promoted by a Canadian psychologist, Ray Blanchard, and fellow researchers from Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), who dominated the DSM-5 subcommittee on paraphilias.

Blanchard rewrote the DSM section on paraphilias (sexual deviances) in a broad way such that virtually all sexual interests other than a narrowly defined “normophilic” pattern became pathological. However, the APA rejected Blanchard’s proposal to expand pedophilia to pathologize adult sexual attractions to pubescent-aged (rather than just prepubescent) minors.

“The proposal was apparently rejected because it was greeted with a firestorm of criticism by the sex offender psychiatric community, which was communicated to the APA board…. As best as this Court can surmise, the APA rejected the pedohebephilia proposal because it was opposed by most of the psychiatrists and psychologists who worked in the field.”

“[S]trikingly,” wrote Judge Conviser, “the process through which proposed new diagnoses are approved or rejected is shrouded in a degree of secrecy which would be the envy of many totalitarian regimes…. With respect to hebephilia, the APA board’s actions will have a direct impact on both public safety and the fundamental liberty interests of hundreds or thousands of people.”

The APA forces those involved in the DSM revision process to sign nondisclosure contracts. That policy came in the wake of a series of published exposes – including Christopher Lane’s Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness, Jonathan Metzl's The Protest Psychosis, and Ethan Watters’s Crazy Like Us (to name just a few of my favorites) -- that embarrassed the world’s largest psychiatric organization by shining a light inside the often subjective and political process of diagnosis creation and expansion.

“Overwhelming” opposition

Blanchard and his CAMH colleagues’ 2009 proposal to expand pedophilia into a new “pedohebephilia” diagnosis in the DSM-5 spawned a massive outcry, which mushroomed into at least five dozen published critiques.

In preparation for my testimony at this and similar Frye hearings in New York, I expanded on my 2010 article in Behavioral Sciences and the Law tracing hebephilia’s rise from obscurity, to produce an updated chart containing all 116 articles addressing the construct. If one tallies only those articles that take a position (pro or con) on hebephilia and are not written by members of the CAMH team, fully 83% are critical as compared to only 17% that are favorable. This, Judge Conviser noted, is strong evidence against the government’s position that hebephilia is “generally accepted” by the relevant scientific communities.

“The thrust of the evidence at the hearing was … clear: there was overwhelming opposition to the pedohebephilia proposal in the sex offender psychiatric community,” he wrote. “There is overwhelming opposition to the hebephilia diagnosis today.”

Courts scrutinizing nouveau diagnoses

With the APA’s rejection of hebephilia as well as two other proposed sexual disorders (one for preferential rape and another for hypersexuality), government evaluators continue to shoehorn novel, case-specific diagnostic labels into the catchall DSM-5 category of “other specified paraphilic disorder” (OSPD) as a basis for civil commitment.

Under a 2012 New York appellate court ruling in the case of State v. Shannon S., upon a defense request, a Frye evidentiary hearing must be held on any such attempt to introduce an OSPD diagnosis into a Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) case. That has triggered a spate of Frye hearings in the Empire State, affording greater scrutiny and judicial gatekeeping of scientifically questionable diagnoses.

Ironically, although the Shannon S. court upheld hebephilia by a narrow 4-3 margin, Shannon S. would not have met diagnostic criteria under the narrower definitions presented by the government experts at Ralph P.’s Frye hearing four years later, because his victims were older than 14.

“Assuming hebephilia is a legitimate diagnosis, Shannon S., like many SVP respondents, was apparently diagnosed with the condition not based on evidence he was preferentially attracted to underdeveloped pubescent body types but because he offended against underage victims,” Judge Conviser observed in his detailed summary of prior New York cases.

The three dissenting judges in Shannon S. were adamant that hebephilia was “absurd,” and an example of “junk science,” deployed with the pretextual goal of “locking up dangerous criminals” who had committed statutory rapes.

The opening of the Frye floodgates has led to a flurry of sometimes-competing opinions.

In 2015, in State v. Mercado, Judge Dineen Riviezzo ruled against “OSPD--sexually attracted to teenage females” as a legitimate diagnosis. However, she declined to rule on the general acceptance of hebephilia because it was not specifically diagnosed in that case.

A year later, relying on similar evidence, a judge in upstate New York ruled in State v. Paul V. that hebephilia was generally accepted, in large part because it was backed by the APA’s paraphilias sub-workgroup. Judge Conviser found that reasoning unpersuasive, pointing out that the subworkgroup was dominated by the very same CAMH researchers who were hebephilia’s primary advocates; it was therefore “not a valid proxy" for the scientific community.

In July, another court rejected both hebephilia and “OSPD--underage males” as valid diagnoses, in the cases of Hugh H. and Martello A. The court noted that hebephilia is inconsistently defined, was rejected for the DSM-5, and is primarily advanced by one research group; further, attraction to pubescent minors is not intrinsically abnormal.

Cynthia Calkins, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, echoed those points in her testimony at Ralph P.'s hearing. She noted that in the United States, the main psychologists advocating for hebephilia are government-retained evaluators in SVP cases, who make up only perhaps one-fourth of one percent of psychologists and psychiatrists in the U.S. and so cannot be a proxy for “general acceptance” in the scientific community.

The government’s choice of experts illustrated Calkins’ point: Testifying for the government were Christopher Kunkle, director of New York’s civil management program for sex offenders, David Thornton of Wisconsin’s civil commitment center, and Robin Wilson, formerly of Florida’s civil commitment center and a protégé of Ray Blanchard’s.

The third expert called by Ralph P.’s attorneys was Charles Ewing, a distinguished professor at the University at Buffalo Law School who is both an attorney and a forensic psychologist and has authored several books on forensic psychology.

Defense attorneys Maura Klugman and Jessica Botticelli of Mental Hygiene Legal Service represented Ralph P. Assistant New York Attorney General Elaine Yacyshyn represented the state.

Ultimately, New York State’s highest court may have to weigh in to resolve once and for all the question of whether novel psychiatric diagnoses like hebephilia are admissible for civil commitment purposes. But that could be years down the road.


The ruling in State v. Ralph P. is HERE. The subsequent order of Sept. 28, 2016 granting Ralph P.'s motion for summary judgment and dismissal of the civil commitment petition is HERE.

A New York Law Journal report on the case, "judge Rejects Diagnosis for Civil Confinement," is HERE.

A search of this blog site using the term hebephilia will produce my reports on this construct dating all the way back to my original post from 2007, "Invasion of the Hebephile Hunters."