How Crazy Is Too Crazy?

>> Monday, July 27, 2009

Heinous crimes. Horrible deeds. I claim to be empathetic, really understand how people think, but there are some things completely beyond me, completely beyond my understanding. I don't understand spree killing and murder suicides. I mean, I can recreate the thinking, but I can't duplicate the feeling, can't imagine being someone could be so utterly selfish as to kill others in that manner. Ditto with the serial killer that murders for pleasure, except I can't even duplicate the thinking on that.

The recent crime where a mother dismembered her 3 1/2 week baby with various sharp objects (and apparently ate part of the body) - I'm at a complete loss to understand what kind of damage would have to be done to someone's mind to do such a thing. I mean, I could understand how Andrea Yates, emotionally battered with children that were beyond her ability to care for with mental problems she'd tried to address ignored, could snap and kill her children. I'm not excusing it - it's a horrifying event - but I could see how it could happen, could reconstruct the steps that got there. Not that regaining her sanity will do her much good. How do you live with that?

But there are others that I just can't grasp. Suzanne Smith who coldly drowned her own two children with the belief that would help her love life and tried to pin it on an anonymous assailant. I completely don't get that.

But, when I read the headline about this recent woman who'd killed her newborn that told me she had mental problems, I have to shake my head. Thanks for the scoop, but I could have figured that out for myself.

I know many people struggle with mental health issues and many of them still manage to be effective parents. But when I read about a parent who slams her son repeatedly into the sidewalk until he dies or slices her baby up as this Otty Sanchez did her son, I wonder how mentally ill you have to be before someone protects your children from you. How ill do you have to be before we remove the easy targets?

I'm unusual in that, for all my liberal tendencies, I favor capital punishment for heinous crimes. I will add that I go an additional step and do not feel differently for the severely deranged, not because I don't recognize how crazy they are, but because I don't see any hope for them. Truly, I think you could make a case that anyone who commits a heinous crime probably isn't sane.

So, if I understand they're crazy, would I be comfortable with capital punishment if they've committed a horrible crime? If they are incurably insane, what purpose do we serve by prolonging their agony? And, if they are curable, exactly how can they live with what was done (and, if they can, are they really sane?).

I'd put a rabid dog down with a clean conscience (even if it made me sad). Truthfully, this makes me unbelievably sad, for a mother to so lose her mind, for a baby to be used so horribly. There's no happy outcome for this, no matter what one does. But I personally think it's inhumane to let someone suffer indefinitely. And that, as much as anything else, drives my thinking.

Before you ask, I don't expect to get much agreement. I think in a particular way and this is a very emotional topic. I will do my best to response politely even if some of you respond hotly. After all, this is the kind of subject is emotional. You're entitled to feel completely different and I won't be offended.


  • The Mother

    But claiming that the voices made you do it is the classic way out--you can't be up for capital punishment, cause you're clearly insane. You can do virtually anything to your kids and get away with it if God made you do it.

    The thing that gets me is that couple who "prayed" for their child with pneumonia--and got off scott free! Damn good thing I wasn't on that jury. That's child abuse, pure and simple. Don't care what your ideology is.

  • Relax Max

    If you put to death a crazy person who has committed a terrible crime, why not do it before he commits the crime? As long as he is really crazy. They're just a time bomb waiting to explode, right?

    I'm not responding hotly, btw. And I'm not making fun of your premise - I'd go along with executing insane killers who had no hope of recovery. (Not that I could ever be sure, of course.) I'm just asking why we put terminally deranged people away for life instead of offing them. There has to be a morality story here, but I can't find it.

  • bozzle

    Damn! You write very interesting posts!

    I hate to admit how much time I have spent trying to come to terms with my ambivalent feelings on what to do with the criminally insane. It seems to me that someone who tortures, rapes and murders men or women (the BTK killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, etc.) automatically should be considered insane simply in light of the fact that their behavior is so outside the norm and repugnant to most people.

    For me, the more heinous the crime, the more likely I am to believe the person doing the deed is insane.

    I have no answer for this. Part of me feels that insane people should not be killed for committing acts that are beyond their ability to control (if that is, indeed, the case).

    Another part of me agrees with you - justice and mercy would seem to point toward a quick end to their suffering and their threat to others. Even if Hitler was as crazy as they come, he needed to die.

  • Stephanie B

    The Mother, I'm with you. I'm sorry for people who are so desperately insane and disgusted by those that pretend.

    I bet if insanity no longer prevented capital punishment, fewer folks would trot out the psycho babble and we'd be able to know who was what.

    By the way, I become equally irate at people who let their children die because they wanted to heal through faith. By all means pray, but give your diabetic child her insulin while you're praying. God's got a full agenda and I'm sure he appreciates the help. If medical care didn't mean anything vs. prayer, we certainly wouldn't have doubled our life expectancy.

    Relax Max, I think that's a perfectly reasonable question. I wish I knew the answer. Mental disorders are challenging because judging them is so subjective. Taking a child forcefully from a parent that has mental illness is hardly conducive to helping them, especially if they could be a good parent. But, if they are too crazy, it's the child that pays. Once you've sliced your baby up, though, it's hard to make the argument that you're sane.

    One of the frustrations with crime is that we can't really prevent it, no preemptive incarceration. We can't touch a criminal until he's done a crime, often hurting someone else. That's the sad part - we can't stop people from hurting each other. It's one reason I support capital punishment for heinous crimes. I believe the criminal justice system should be devoted to making sure that second heinous crime never happens. It may not stop the next Ted Bundy, but it will stop THAT one.

  • Stephanie B

    bozzle, I appreciate your response. Once again, I'm awed by the thoughtfulness and courtesy of my commenters. I'm fortunate to attract such a wonderful crowd.

    It is challenging, frustrating, so non black and white.

    I have a picture on here of Albert Fish, a real lulu. He kidnaped and ate an eight year old girl (and killed at least one other child) and got away scot-free (really catching bad guys was much harder back then). But this maniac wrote a letter to the girl's parents, telling them what he did. When he was convicted (and he made an attempt for the not guilty by reason of insanity plea), the jury was asked why they convicted him. Didn't they think he was crazy? Yeah, a juror said, we just thought he should die anyway. He also had a number of needles in his genitals that he'd had his children stick into him. It's hard to make the argument that his death did the world anything but good.

  • Jeff King

    insane or not they deserve to be put to death for their actions.... end of story. no question.
    with out a dout...

  • Doctor Faustroll

    I've always thought the solution was to take the violently insane and sentence them to community service by replacing, for instance, the entire Bush administration with cannibals and sadists. I doubt anyone would have noticed.

    Even Obama turns his gaze away from that insane crew of murderers.

    For those who can't get enough of annihilists like Carl Panzram, Ed Geins, John Wayne Gacy, and Ted "Unmarried and Childless" Bundy, I suggest finding a copy of Bloodletters and Bad Men: A Narrative Encyclopedia of American Criminals from the Pilgrims to the Present by Jay Robert Nash. Fascinating reading.

    Panzram, in particular, is worth some examination and analysis. I mean doing dirty dozens with your executioner is pretty cool.

    We may not always have the poor with us, but the truly barbarous won't go away.

  • Lola

    Taking away children, or the right to have visitation is really hard. I've actually had to do this because my ex-husband who is schizo-affective or bipolar was abusing my kids with manipulation and verbal abuse. (Let's not forget that my daughter is also mentally ill.) He also had what appeared to be another break and was stalking an ex-girlfriend. Because this sort of thing really isn't in the realm of DCFS (Dept of Children & Family Services), what does a person do? I went to court and got an Order of Protection (OP) to immediately stop visitation. Then there is a hearing where you basically tell the judge what the abuse is, the offender obviously refutes it and the judge decides who to believe and what the remedy is. 2 years ago I got that OP which says that he cannot manipulate or coerce the children, cannot leave them alone and cannot be asleep when they are awake. Of course he violated it. Went back to court, got visitation stopped again. The judge wanted to send us to arbitration but we had no money for that, so I played hardball and told my ex that I would only agree to resuming visitation if it was extremely modified for my daughter. To my surprise he agreed. He can only see her every other week, within 15 miles of home (thus no overnights), only for an hour or two, as my daughter tolerates it. 99% of the time I end up accompanying them because he does not drive, so they are more like supervised visits. It adds to my stress, but it is really better for my daughter. The OP expired last Thursday. Ex didn't show up in court, hearing was held in absentia and the judge renewed the OP.

  • Stephanie B

    Doctor Faustroll, I have what I consider to be an excellent resource called Hunting Humans: An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers by Michael Newton, but I have to tell you, it's horrible reading, almost impossible to do except in short spurts, at least for me. And that's limited to the 20th century.

    I here you, Lola, and am struggling with the same thing, except my daughter isn't mentally ill. But I don't want her to become so either.

  • Boris Legradic

    I am curious why you think capital punishment is a good idea. It has been abolished in almost all civilised countries (for a certain value of civilised) for a few simple reasons:

    *) It is not effective as a deterrent
    *) You will kill innocents - no justice system is perfect
    *) It is not even cost-effective - the few who would "deserve" capital punishment might as well be imprisoned for live (except when you kill criminals without much of an appeals process, in which case many innocents will die.

    It is easy to say "you would put down a rabid dog", but humans are a bit more complex in their behaviour than rabid dogs. You can point to a serial killer like Manson and say: Here is someone who deserves capital punishment. I will even agree. But this is not how a justice system works - if you allow capital punishment, you have to encode certain criteria into law, under which capital punishment becomes applicable. Let's say multiple murders, certified insane, can't be cured, admits guilt.

    Sooner or later you will kill an innocent person. The psychologists may misdiagnose, evidence will be wrong, and the poor sod will for some reason admit to the murders. Maybe "encouraged" by some outraged police officer, maybe due to some unrelated mental illness.

    Then there is the thing with illnesses, even mental ones: Some can be cured, or might be curable in ten years.

    I abhor capital punishment for one simple reason: it's final, no appeal possible. Plus, it will always smack of revenge...

  • Stephanie B

    Boris, you pose excellent questions.

    *) It deters THAT PERSON from killing.
    *) I may kill innocents. Will I kill as many innocents as that potential killer would kill if he is ever released?
    *) I believe an appeals process should be at the criminal's expense and not the state.

    My father had five girls and was rabidly anti-rapist; I will not say I'm not affected by that. You can't study what makes a rapist (as one might to protect oneself, or that's how he and I saw it) withour reading about serial killers.

    I have done so, extensively, and the one thing that struck me was the number of people caught by the system for violent crimes and released to kill again, paroled, released on a technicality, work-release programs, escaped from prison. They learned they had nothing to lose except witnesses and often went from serial rapist to serial killer. (Not movies, mind you, facts)

    Isn't the system that had them in hand as responsible for the innocent deaths it could have prevented if it had kept the violent criminal out of the public as they would be if they'd put to death an innocent person?

    You might say yes. I don't agree. I think the primary purpose of the criminal justice system is to protect the public from those who have committed a crime (because, in a free society, you're not allowed to prevent that first crime - you can't arrest someone until they've committed a crime). The deck is already stacked against the public and the criminal justice system. We've done all we can to protect the criminal - and they use it. Over the years, I've read about hundreds of people who killed after they left jail, after they were taken in and questioned, after they broke out of jail, more than have been put to death by our system in my lifetime.

    In my opinion, we are as culpable for them as any innocent who ever faced a firing squad while innocent.

    Note, of course, that the rate of crime (particularly violent crime) in the US far exceeds what it is in Europe - including that period of time last century when we had no death penalty.

    You don't have to agree with me. In fact, many don't in this country and, in fact, throughout most of the industrialized world. I understand your reasoning, but I can't get there without telling myself I'm not responsible for what a horrible person does once I've identified him and yet fail to keep him away from the public.

    And I can't get there.

  • Boris Legradic

    Stephanie, you raise a very good counter-argument. I had not considered that one would want to protect the public from a murderer (I'll focus on murder here - physicists like to use extremes), since the penal system in Europe focuses on rehabilitation.

    Now, I had a quick look on recidivist statistics here in Switzerland ('tis here, if you read German or French). Overall we have about 22 percent recidivists, or 33 for serious crimes. In the States you have about 60%, if wikipedia is to be trusted, so I can see where you are coming from.

    About half of those 33 percent perpetrate the same kind of crime, i.e. murder again. Now, should we kill somebody because there is about a one in seven chance that he will kill again? Personally I think not, especially since the cost to society to just incarcerate him for life would be about the same (in my very uninformed opinion).

    Of course, the numbers for serial killers could be much worse, and you are right to point out that there is some level of culpability for the government if it lets crazed killers run loose.

    Still, I think a government should never be in the business of killing people - sets a bad precedent, that.

    On a last (and even more uniformed) note I'd like to submit that your government has not done all it can for the criminal - or else your recidivist rates would be more in line with ours... Don't ask me how to do it better, though - when subjects like this pop up I am right glad that I am a physicist, and only have to poke them from time to time with a very long pole ;)

  • Stephanie B

    Actually, I can see the points and I'm not unsympathetic. Because our crime rates in this country are ridiculous, regular people live in fear and that's just not right.

    Our criminal justice system is clearly flawed, but so, in many ways, are our attitudes and I think the latter is the biggest part of why we have more crime.

    Personal accountability is rarely stressed. Someone breaks into your house and steals your stuff, YOU are responsible for not protecting it better - which makes no sense to me. I should be able to leave my front door wide open and people should know that going into my house and stealing is WRONG.

    Here in the US, I think it is too often about excusing the crime, finding rationales on why they aren't responsible for what they do. Or, if we could keep those that are dangerous reliably in jail so they never threatened people again, I could consider it.

    Until the number of people killed by people caught already comes in under the number put to death, I probably won't change my mind, but you can comfort yourself that a significant portion of folks in this country feel about it like you do and I expect capital punishment will disappear within my lifetime. I just hope our systemic problems have been dealt with as well.

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