My last post referenced the case of Joshua Mauldin, a 20-year-old man found guilty of putting his two-month-old daughter in a microwave for ten seconds. The defense was hoping he would be found not guilty by reason of insanity. That plea was rejected by the jury and he was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.
In reality, less than 1% of defendants use the insanity defense, and of those who do, less than 20% are successful. That is a good thing. We want people who do bad things to be punished. We most certainly want them put in an environment where the chance that they will re-offend is limited. We also don't want lawyers and their clients to abuse the insanity defense and make it less effective for those who are truly and severely mentally ill.
So if Mr. Mauldin wasn't insane, what was he? And was he fully responsible for the crime he committed? I know I have just raised the hackles of several of our contributors, but hear me out. How do we explain what causes people to commit heinous acts of violence against others? In Mr. Mauldin's case, the defense tried to claim that he had a long history of mental illness and at the time of the crime was unaware of what he was doing. The jury didn't buy that explanation.
But Joshua Mauldin did have some form of mental illness as testified to by both the defense and the prosecution experts. Was he adequately treated? Did he have appropriate follow-up to assure that he was on the proper medication and that he had been taking it as prescribed? Was he depressed? Psychotic? Not an excuse, but a factor? The legal system even allows for mitigating factors to be considered when deciding upon a sentence. Rage, passion, mental illness, poverty, and abuse are acknowledged as possibly contributing to the perpetration of a crime.
As I psychiatrist I often try to understand why people do the things they do . . . hopefully so they can stop making bad decisions that hurt themselves or others. When someone commits a violent crime it's often not that hard to understand why. A psychotic person hears Satan's voice telling him to kill. A pedophile was sexually abused as a young child by a close family member. A teenager panics when she delivers a baby she's told no one about. These explanations help us to make sense out of how someone can do some things so awful to others and give us some hope that we might be able to prevent future tragedies. We can make sure there is access to psychiatric care, we can work to identify children who are being abused and get them help, and we can set up laws that allow mothers to turn over infants to hospitals or fire stations (Baby Moses Law).
But I must admit, after I count up the mentally ill . . . and the abused . . . and the neglected . . . and the disenfranchised . . . how do I account for those who, despite fairly reasonable upbringings, inflict terrifying and horrific acts against innocent others? I want to find some brain disorder, some chemical imbalance that makes sense of this for me. I don't believe people are born to commit atrocities. And yet . . .
There are some whose eyes you look into and see darkness. Despite my best efforts I can't find a way to make human contact--find that piece of them that connects to others. Often these people are good at "pretending" to be human. They have studied others and can mimic appropriate reactions or responses. But inside there is no true capacity to know or care what another thinks or feels. In his novel No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy depicts a character, played by Javier Bardem in the film adaptation (pictured above), who kills and makes sport of it. He enjoys the chase and the terror that his victims experience as he flips a coin to decide whether they live or die. It gives you chills as you watch this inhuman human, kill.
Medical science is trying to find the cause and hopefully the "cure" for people without a conscience. At the moment there is no medication nor therapy that has been very effective. It is hard for me not to want to find a reason for the horror: brain damage at birth, poor nutrition, maternal deprivation? It is hard for me as a healer not to want to heal. And yet I must acknowledge I am helpless. And maybe there is just such a thing as evil.