Friday, December 12, 2003

Crime and Punishment: An insane definition of insanity

I’ve been casually following the trial of sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo. I came across the following in an AP report of the trial:

Lee Boyd Malvo was legally insane during last year's sniper spree because of intense indoctrination by sniper mastermind John Allen Muhammad, a defense psychiatrist testified Wednesday at Malvo's trial.

"Lee was unable to distinguish between right and wrong and was unable to resist the impulse" to commit the killings, said Neil Blumberg, who examined Malvo 20 times in jail. "From day one, I thought he met the legal criteria for insanity."

Psychiatrist Diane Schetky, who twice interviewed Malvo, also testified that the 18-year-old Malvo, 17 at the time of the killings, was unable to tell right from wrong.

Defense mental health experts have said Malvo was taught by Muhammad that right and wrong are artificial concepts and that the winner in a war determines who is right. Muhammad likened the sniper attacks to a war against the United States government, which he said oppresses blacks.

"He basically became a soldier in Muhammad's war against America," Blumberg said. "He was one with (Muhammad). He became absolutely convinced that what he was doing was a righteous cause."

Said Schetky: "He was merged with Mr. Muhammad. He was acting as his proxy. They were one and the same. He was like a puppet in his hands."

[ . . .]

Schetky diagnosed Malvo with a dissociative disorder, a mental illness that she said distorted Malvo's perception of reality, a result of indoctrination by Muhammad.

Blumberg said Malvo still has the disorder, citing as evidence the defendant's constant doodling during a trial in which he could be sentenced to die.
Believing that right and wrong are artificial concepts? Disassociation instead of integration? Constant doodling? Half of academia and all of France would be insane by that standard.

Not all are in agreement with such a standard though. Dr. Michael J. Hurd, a Washington DC-based psychotherapist and author says Malvo’s defense is nonsense.

There is no such thing as a psychological disorder which leads people to become so loyal that they're willing to kill. It's conjecture and excuse-making taken to a nearly incomprehensible extreme. Did it ever occur to the defense psychiatrist that Malvo's loyalty was not to Muhammad but to his own irrational, twisted code of values?
Exactly. Insanity means not being mentally responsible for one’s actions as a result of mental disease or defect. Nowhere has it been shown that Malvo suffers from any physical disease or defect. What Malvo suffers from is the consequences of his own wicked choices, including his choice to associate with John Mohammad. Yet Dr. Hurd’s voice is a lonely one. Too few of his profession are rushing to condemn Malvo’s defense as outrageous.

The cornerstone of capitalism is the recognition that the individual human mind is efficacious and must be left unshackled and protected from force if the individual is to prosper. In the Malvo case, the psychiatric profession is attempting to raise a criminal’s evil choice to use force to the level of a disease. In the process, it is working to undercut the very foundation of our free society.

I expect Malvo will be convicted and punished for his crimes. Nevertheless we should take pause to consider why the ridiculous arguments of his defense were ever offered in the first place.

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