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December 4, 2010

"Are All Murderers Mentally Ill?"

The title of this post is the headline of this commentary from The Atlantic.  Here are excerpts:

Elaine Whitfield Sharp is a defense attorney who has worked on hundreds of murder cases over the past 20 years [who see a] fundamental problem with capital punishment....  "You see, I truly believe that murderers are mentally ill," she explains. "Their brains don't work like the rest of ours do.  To deliberately kill someone requires crossing a profound boundary.  Most of us couldn't do it. We couldn't even think about it.  But they can.  They do.  Why?  Because they're mentally ill.  And fundamentally, as a society, I believe it is barbaric to kill people who are ill."

That doesn't mean Sharp thinks murderers should be excused for their behavior or set free.  "Clearly, we need to lock these people up, and keep them away from the rest of us," she continues.  "Because they're not going to stay within acceptable bounds. They're a danger to others."  But she says most of us make the mistake, when we hear about a murderer, of projecting that they're like us and simply choosing to do this heinous crime. And so, imagining ourselves doing something so terrible, we feel they should be severely punished for that choice.  "But," Sharp argues, "they're not like us.  That's why they can do it."...

"Murderers seem to have no appreciation of boundaries," Sharp explains. "And it shows up in all aspects of their lives.  Most criminals I deal with are very narcissistic.  They're blame-shifters, manipulative, and can't feel anyone else's pain but their own.  A consistent hallmark, in fact, particularly of killers, is this extreme narcissism."  Sharp points to the book People of the Lie, by the late M. Scott Peck, as a good description of a killer's personality disorder.

"These people are always the victim, it's always someone else's fault, they have no sense of other people's boundaries, and they really can't see how twisted that view is," she says. "It's a disorder."...

Certainly the evidence, or perhaps just awareness, of how widespread mental illness is among criminals, and especially those incarcerated for violent crimes, seems to be growing.  In 1999, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated the percentage of inmates suffering from a significant mental condition at 16 percent.  In a comparable report issued in 2006, the BJS revised that number upward to over 50 percent....

Again, Sharp and the others aren't arguing that violent criminals and murderers should be allowed to go free.  But if, in fact, murderers who commit grisly crimes do so because of warped minds -- perhaps because of trauma and abuse endured as children, or perhaps because of organic, biological deficits -- if, in fact, they are mentally ill in ways that make it impossible for them to see the world or appropriate boundaries and behaviors the way the rest of us do.  Is it appropriate, ethical, or right to kill them for their acts?  Or is it, as Sharp argues, a barbaric thing for a civilized society to do?

Even if one were to accept the premise that all or most murderers are mentally ill, I think such an assertion would provide greater support for life imprisonment without parole for all murderers than for categorical abolition of the death penalty.

December 4, 2010 at 01:35 PM | Permalink


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It is not that easy, except in the circle of the law. One does not take authority figures at their word, some reliable data are first needed.

If she means they have antisocial personality disorder, that has been known for 150 years. This is a validated disorders. It even has a physical test, the cold pressor test. If we place our hands in a bucket of ice water, our heart rates and blood pressure will rise. Theirs will do so much less. No other psychiatric disorder has a test like that. That disorder is associated with fearlessness, selfishness, and advanced social skills. They are superior to the normal.

That diagnosis justifies execution at the youngest age possible for the safety of the prison inmates, guards, guests. A future prenatal test will justify aborting the fetus, even against the mother's will. Do so, save $millions in costs and harms.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 4, 2010 2:41:32 PM

The rate of antisocial personality disorder is the same across races and cultures. The disparity in the black crime victimization rates stems strictly from their lack of protection from the criminal law agencies. The lawyer devalues the black crime victim, as a commodity in its rent seeking.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 4, 2010 2:44:53 PM

I can prove that all normal behavior or superior function is brain based. If I injure the brain, its ability will disappear. Her logic would eliminate all behavioral consequences. I can pitch at 98 mph as a result of my brain based pitching ability. Thus, I should not receive a $10 million contract. Prof. Berman has great brain based academic skills. He should not receive his endowed chair for his brain based ability. This lawyer vile feminist (a guess) bitch's brain makes her love the criminal. She has a conflict of interest. She is trying to save the people generating her job. No mention of the V word from this awful person.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 4, 2010 3:31:19 PM

"Are All Murderers Mentally Ill?"

The therapeutic theory of murder, in which there is no malevolence or profit, but only sickness, finally reaches its ultimate absurdity.

Mob hitmen, killers-for-hire, witness eliminators, assassins and gangbangers, call your office (or more precisely your psychiatrist's office). Your ship has come in.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 4, 2010 4:46:31 PM

An interesting proposition.
The problem here is the definition of "a murderer". If we could agree that a murderer is someone who from the outset of planning a crime INTENDS to kill, then Sharp is right in her analysis. The fact they they may benefit as a result of instruction or incentive from a third party is immaterial. That leaves a wide group who we can call "killers" - there are very many scenarios where a person may inflict or cause death without prior intent in the course of a crime, or as a result of emotional crisis. Here too, some may also suffer from those base deficiences of normal rationalization that Sharp describes. For others, the immediate stress of a particular situation may cause a temporary mental state akin to that same description.
In both groups, murderers and killers, there is therefore a genuine argument that mental illness has a major role making capable the act that "normal" people would never willingly commit.
The death penalty, whilst intended and claimed to address the issues of "the worst of the worst", in many situations, is applied without adherence to the distinction between "murderer" and "killer" as I have defined the terms. INTENT, as a primary legal concept, has been sidelined - as a result, I believe, of the absolute discretion and protection given to prosecutors to decide on a sentence to pursue.
The innate irrationality of a murderer, and the temporary irrationality of a killer, is matched by the irrationality of the concept and practice of the death penalty that is the immoral knee-jerk reaction of dp supporters and practitioners in some states of the US, and on this board.
Wit regard to Doug's conclusion that Sharp's argument strengthens the case that all murderers or killers should be subject to LWOP, I would have to argue that predisposition to and actual mental illness are conditions that, in many cases will subside with the removal of the situation of stress, and/or may be treatable to an acceptable level of control. LWOP is therefore not an appropriate blanket response under the law, nor a moral one. The opportunity for review, even for the apparently "worst" cases, should always exist except for a very small minority of people. Finally, for the moment, the environment of detention should be humane and progressive, enabling all, the opportunity for rehabilitation and a civilized life with meaning and purpose, whether within society or under detention. I of course here allude to the contrasting approaches of the most progressive in Europe and the most regressive in many states of the US.

Posted by: peter | Dec 5, 2010 3:19:21 AM

I agree fully with the last part of Peter's comment. Surely mental illness, properly authenticated, reduces culpability and serious mental illness significantly reduces culpability. This can scarcely be compatible with LWOP or, indeed, with any lenghty period of imprisonment. Certainly the public needs protected from persons disposed to serious violence, but the answer must be therapeutic, or at least humane, rather than penal confinement.

Posted by: Tom | Dec 5, 2010 5:35:09 AM

We often heard from the defense side that one reason not to have the DP for rape is that it acts as an incentive for, say, a violent rapist to go ahead and kill the victim. It is rational for him to do so, according to this argument, in order to reduce, often considerably, the chances of being caught or convicted for the rape. Indeed, to avoid the DP, it's only sensible for him to eliminate the main witness. Take away the DP, and the rationale' for killing vanishes.

Anyway, that's what we hear in one context. Now, in a different context, we hear a slightly altered abolitionist argument, but (without missing a beat) proceeding from exactly the opposite premise: that we shouldn't have the DP because the calculation about murder can exist only in someone who is NOT rational. Murder is, instead, exclusively the product of a mental disease.

I wonder if there actually are as many people in the world who think malevolence is just a myth as one might believe from reading this board.

Whatever. They're all just sick, so what their violence earns them is not punishment -- NOOOOOOOOOO, not that -- but sympathy and TLC, not to mention a lot of expensive "counseling." (Wasn't it just yesterday that the system needed to cut expenses?). After they get well in a few months, we of course restore them to their freedom. What's a humane society to do?

Thus they go back on the street to do it aga......... Oh, wait, sorry, we don't want to go there.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 5, 2010 9:49:52 AM

'Even if one were to accept the premise that all or most murderers are mentally ill, I think such an assertion would provide greater support for life imprisonment without parole for all murderers than for categorical abolition of the death penalty.'

And LWOP is wrong because?
If a person is a murderer, and there exists zero mitigating factors for the murder, LWOP should be the approiate punishment.

Posted by: Jim | Dec 5, 2010 9:56:45 AM

Bill -- the myth of the hive mind 'abolitionists' strikes again. I've seen you peddle this argument before. Just to be clear, it's utter tripe.

Supremacy claus - from the sounds of your rather unhinged posts you need to put your own hand in a bucket of ice water and see how far your heart rate rises.

Posted by: jsmith | Dec 5, 2010 11:43:54 PM

jsmith --

Your analysis, though obviously nuanced, could use to be a tad more specific there in Step B. Thanks.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 6, 2010 9:18:16 AM

"[I]t will not, perhaps, if you have ever reflected on the matter, have escaped your attention that a great number of people who come into the Criminal Court are abnormal. They would not be there if they were the normal type of average everyday people. Many of them are very peculiar in their dispositions and peculiarly tempered... Nevertheless, they are mentally quite able to appreciate what they are doing and quite able to appreciate the threatened punishment of the law and the wrongfulness of their acts, and they are held in check by the prospect of their punishment. It would be quite absurd if the law were to withdrawal that check on the ground that they were some different from their fellow creatures in mental make-up or texture at the very moment when that check is most needed." (The King v. Porter, 55 Commw. L.R. 182, 186-188 (1933)).

Posted by: Steve | Dec 6, 2010 10:28:37 AM

Bill- your argument rested upon the assumption that a multitude of different individuals and organisations can be grouped together so tightly that you can accuse them of hypocrisy or inconsistency. I thought I didn't need (but apparently I do) to tell you that defense lawyers are a varied bunch who have a vast variety of different philosophies and do not all think alike.

Your post also has numerous other flaws. Firstly, some murderers are rational, some are irrational and suffering from severe mental illness. You don't recognise this, but I know few who would disagree.

Secondly you present a strawman - that people who oppose the death penalty also oppose any punishment for murderers. That's as flimsy an argument as any I've ever seen. I've never met a defense lawyer who thought like that and there are groups of murder victims (such as Murder Victims for Human Rights) who oppose the death penalty in all circumstances, but still do want some punishment for offenders.

Nuanced enough for you?

Posted by: jsmith | Dec 6, 2010 2:15:03 PM

Is the upshot of this argument, or at least one of the next logical extensions of it, that all determinate sentences for crimes are unconstitutionally cruel-and-unusual, because the commission of an illegal act (particularly a violent one) is simply the manifestation of mental illness, and that incarcerating any individual past the point when experts are willing to opine that the defendant probably won't be dangerous if released serves no valid penological purpose? Because that's where this sounds like this argument is heading.

Posted by: guest | Dec 6, 2010 7:07:07 PM

I am a community psychiatric nurse and have worked with mentally ill offenders for the last 10 years. I do not believe that every murderer is mentally ill at all. Just because they have a 'warped' mind does not make them mentally ill. What is 'warped' to one person may be totally normal to someone else. The problem is that there is so much confusion with regard to the definition of personality disorder and severe and psychopathic disorder and the argument as to whether they are mentally ill or not. A person suffering from schizophrenia may have compassion, empathy and remorse when they are well after their index offence. They also have positive and negative symptoms of their personality that they do not have when they are not unwell. There are certain offenders who do not experience any remorse at all ever after their index offence. I have nursed patients who have become so depressed when they become well because of the remorse they have for their index offence. If the psychiatric world is unable to wholeheartedly decide who else is to judge?

Posted by: Nicki | Mar 20, 2011 12:33:24 PM

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