Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What's Wrong with Me?

by Katherine Scardino

Recently, I had a very sobering experience. I always thought most people committed crimes for two reasons: greed and arrogance. Greed meaning when they want what someone else has and can’t get it by other means—so they steal it. I hate those more than any other type of criminals. Arrogance comes to mind when I think of someone killing another person because they believe themselves so important that they can't imagine the other person wanting to be with someone else. How could that possibly happen? As in: I am so wonderful, it's impossible that he or she would leave me. You know what I mean.

Then last week I visited a Mexican man held in a far south Texas jail. He's accused of killing his mother-in-law and three children (one was his own 2½-year-old son), then attempting to kill his estranged wife. Remarkably, this man's wife survived four gunshot wounds. Unfortunately for this man, there couldn't be a more solid set of facts to charge someone with the most serious of criminal offenses—capital murder. A guilty verdict carries the possibility of the ultimate sentence, the death penalty.

Still, I'm a criminal defense attorney, and the truth is that it all sounds pretty normal, in my world. Throughout my career, I've seen horrible photos, and I've heard terrifying testimony about the evil one individual can perpetrate on another. On the surface, this case isn't remarkable. What bothers me is my reaction to this man and what he told me. Through an interpreter, his words touched me in a very unusual way. Until we talked, I'd never thought much about the effects of cultural differences, especially early childhood teachings, and how such influences form who a person becomes as an adult.

Not that upbringing hasn't been a factor in past cases. I often have mitigation specialists to assist me in the punishment phase of capital trials. The mitigation person pulls together records about a person’s life—from the moment of birth up to the present day. S/he gathers so much information that the defense attorney knows when his client lost his first tooth, when he learned how to swim, when he got his first beating, or how old he was when his mother first locked him in that dark closet.

These facts are important because they tell the life story of an individual. But there is something even more important and more pervasive—culture. Societal norms and mores of the place where we are born and raised form the core of who we are as human beings. Culture molds who we are inside—makes us the way we are.

As we talked, the Mexican man cried. He explained that his wife, who was much younger than he, decided she wanted to go back to school. He told me that she became mean, telling him "being with you is a waste of time" and "I should have married this other guy—I would be rich now." Those statements gnawed at him, a poor yet proud man. That night, he went to the family home. He entered his wife's darkened bedroom with his gun drawn and started firing. Moments later, his own young son, two of his wife’s children from another relationship, and his mother-in-law lay dead. They'd been lying in the bed together.

My client stumbled out of the room, only to run into his wife as she walked in the front door. He was shocked, appalled, scared, and in an instant, he knew what had happened. Angry, he shot again. She was lucky; although injured, she didn't die.

So, you may ask, where is the mystery? Why am I questioning anything? This man committed a terrible act.

What I heard in the man's voice was a deep, desperate hurt, a pain that cut to his very core. His crying sounded like an animal screaming for help. It touched me as nothing has in a long time. I asked myself—how in the world can a person get to that point? He has no criminal history and no history of violence of any kind. What made him literally go over the edge?

The answer is the Mexican culture with its machismo, exaggerated masculine pride.

This man saw himself as a good husband and father. He was the provider of his family, his wife and children. A carpenter, he worked hard, providing food and a place to sleep. He did what his culture says a man does for the people he loves. In the end, his pride was bigger than his brain. His culture made him a slave to his pride. He could not assimilate the fact that his wife wanted to go to school; that she was not respectful of her husband; that she called him names and insulted him in front of others. His pride and his upbringing would not allow that. So he snapped, and four people died.

I know you'll comment and say that I've lost my mind. Why in the world would I sympathize with this killer—and not just "a" killer—but a killer of children and an older woman? That’s why I ask: What is wrong with me? OK, you tell me. Help me with this.


Leah said...

Great post Katherine.

Right before I read this I was watching HLN and heard the Senator speak of these AIG CEO's and why don't they issue an aplolgy and then kill themselves like the Chinese do? Because that is the Chinese culture and not ours. Americans seem to have little shame at all, especially the ones driven by money. You'd think a politician would know this.

In another situation, I worked in the HR depatment of a tubing plant and there was a lady from the Phillipines that was allowed to dress provocatively while the rest of us had to adhere to a strict dress code. Why? Because it was her culture to dress like that. Frankly, I think they allowed it because the men liked looking at it and that was about the only way to justify it. The rest of us would have been fired if we come to work in stilettos and mini dress with spaghetti straps. These men didn't mind threatening us with our jobs but they were all worried about saying something to "Maggie" and hurting her feelings. Whatever.

dcheryl83 said...

There's nothing wrong with you Katherine. You are obviously a compassionate, kind-hearted person. You did not judge him based on media reports you met him, learned about his culture and based your opinion on how and what he told you. Not all killers are narcistic maniacs. Sometimes they are just regular people.

California Girl said...

The wife made some very mean comments to her husband. Likely that was the hook for you. She was cruel but he was more so. The people he killed had nothing to do with his wife's comments.
As for Mexico and it's "machismo", there are many places in the world were it's ok for men to murder women on a whim. (honor killings among Muslims for one). Or simply mutilate their genitals by calling it "religion" (female circumcision).
People from other cultures need to honor the culture they live in. If you want Sharia law, don't go to England to demand it. If you want to be Mexican, speak Spanish and be "machismo", go to Mexico.

Jan C, said...

There is a difference between having compassion and condoning a person's actions. It is probably the depth of your compassion which allows you to defend the indefensible.

Anonymous said...

You have got to be kidding. No one deserves compassion for MURDERING people. No culture justifies the killing of children.This wasn't pain that lead to these deaths, it was an inability to control impulse. Do you honestly think someone that would commit an act like this needs a shoulder to cry on? He deservers justice, nothing else. His pain is most likely his discovery in that he will never walk as a free man again.
HE MURDERED three children.

FleaStiff said...

Wasn't his wife from the same culture? Should she have not wanted to go to school or not have let him know about it or simply not have phrased it in quite such a manner?

We look at 'culture' when a Japanese woman takes her two young infants into the ocean to drown with her. We look at 'culture' when an Islamic wife aids her husband in ridding the family honor of the daughter's bad blood. We look at culture when a Vietnamese man gets unemployment insurance due to his having been fired for taking bribes as a US civil servant since that is what is done by all government clerks in his country.
When are we going to impose on defendants Redneck Culture?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Katherine, but if you think most crimes are committed because of greed and/or arrogance, you should not be a criminal defense attorney. Perhaps you should consider employment with the U.S. Attorney.

I've been a criminal defense attorney for twenty years: I think the genesis of most criminal activity is crappy, negligent, brutal, stupid parenting, no community involvement, ADHD, mental illness, drug addiction secondary to heredity and pain, I see unemployment, I see schools that don't acknowledge learning disabilities and students who can't read or reason and therefore can't support themselves.

Greed and arrogance? Madoff.

And poster Leah, it is the Japanese who commit shame-based suicide. As to a cultural exception for the Filipina woman: just no. I live in Hawaii and a large portion of our population is Filipino. Saucy dressing is not part of their "culture."

cheryl said...

Is what we call here in the west, sociopathic behavior a "cultural phenomenon"?

I felt kinda sorry for Josef Fritzl when I heard about his abusive past. But I got over it.

TLTL said...

Geez, KS, maybe you have fallen in love with this guy. What lengths are you willing to go to to get him acquitted?? Maybe you'll even marry him while he is incarcerated. is the Asian cultures in general who commit shame based suicide, not just the Japanese.

Leah said...

Damn....I never agree with Fleastiff but just this one time he/she/it actually makes sense.

Anonymous said...

When you give sympathy to the perpetrator you dishonor the victims. This is similar to an honor killing. Family annihilation is another form of domestic violence. It is gender specific. You should have sympathy for the victims of this killer, not the killer. This was not a battered woman reacting to years of abuse. This was a Macho Man who took revenge on helpless victims because his pride was hurt. Having sympathy for him would seem to justify all domestic violence - WRONG!!!There are many women and children killed so frequently that it is difficult to even come close to an accurate count in this epidemic of gender-based violence. VPC has a study, but it seems too low for the recent body count.

There needs to be a zero tolerance policy for violence by a man against women or children. Also, there needs to be a clear message sent out that women and children have rights too. They are NOT the property of the man, but individuals who deserve the same human rights, especially the right to live free from domination and control. There must be respect for women and children, without this the future generations will continue on in the same way. Except of course for these family annihilation victims, whose suffering should be used to PREVENT future tragedies.

jane said...

If you didn't have the ability to feel empathy, you wouldn't be a very good defense attorney. It sounds like you put yourself in his shoes & there's nothing wrong with that.
I always find it interesting when female circumcision is mentioned without the mention of male circumcision, I'd imagine both would HURT. 1 is acceptable here, 1 isn't.

dcheryl83 said...

Regardless of what he did, he is still a human being. I imagine if one of your family members (ie mom/dad, children) committed a horrendous crime, robbed, raped, killed etc., etc., you would still be there for him/her. Katherine never said she condoned what he did, she simply said she felt sympathy for him.

katherine scardino said...

Thank you all for your comments. I did not expect any understanding for my feelings - I said they were surprising and confusing. I don't believe that by feeling sympathy or compassion for a criminal means that I am dishonoring the victims. It is like an apple and an orange. Both MAY deserve compassion but in different ways. I always feel compassion for the victims - not always for clients. That's when I simply go to the law.
Anyway, thanks to you all for your comments.

BJ said...

Most of what was running through my mind is already written in the comments prior to this one. ONE thing NOT stated is (having been in a place similar to yours): I wonder if you are misinterpreting your horror and sadness regarding a senseless act that appears to have been completely avoidable for compassion for a wounded looking offender. Our minds gravitate to nay..need to create emotions which feel normal to avoid the emotion of facing life's horrors. This is especially true when our minds are exhausted of life's horrors! Rather than feel anger and horror at a man, who looks wounded, regarding a horrendous act your mind doesn't want to process, it has been easier to embrace this unnatural, but more comfortable sympathy and embrace a cultural explanation for a mass murder of his children and elders rather than attributing it to something so senseless as anger and poor impulse control.

dcheryl83 said...

Well said BJ

Soobs said...

Compassion? I'm not sure how you can have compassion after looking at three dead babies, because HE got his feelings hurt.

There may be other killers who deserve compassion...the battered woman, for example. But this man deserves none, IMO.

Dilys said...

Impulsion when out of control can blur the perception of black and white. That Mexican killer may used to be a decent man in real life, yet he just lost it at that very moment. It is worth mentioning, though, that under the same impulsion HE chose the gun and pulled the trigger towards the bed (he may not know there were innocent souls enjoying sweet dreams) while another man may not. It's the worst decision one could possibly make. He could have chosen to visit a frient and say bad things about his wife just to let it out; he could have gone to a bar and get drunk just to forget the whole fuzz...instead he picked up a gun. Culture is a factor always has some mysterious effect, no matter which culture you are born into, but he still was the people making the choice (there are alternatives even if in his culture killing wife, God forbid, is justifiable). Not all husbands verbally abused and disrespected by wives choose to murder them in Mexico. The reason lead to his act was unfortuanate but still unjustifiable for the killing.

It is not a problem to feel sympathy for him Katherine in my opinion, because you both are human beings. Who is evil at birth? The point is HE lost the control, went over the boundary and, sadly but true and real, he needs to pay for it.

cheryl said...

I agree Dilys. This "mexican ding-a-ling" may not have meant to shoot his children, but he sure meant to shoot his wife. Guess what ? You're NOT in Mexico anymore.