little criminals

Interview with Dr. Martin Blinder,

Q: ... You know about the judge's decision that the kid wasn't competent?

Blinder: As you know, I felt that he was competent and the judge ruled otherwise. The way it's done is that the court appoints three individuals that they respect and it is my experience that the judges don't weigh terribly much the content and the reasoning of the reports, but they simply look at the outcome. And in this case, two examiners said he was not competent, and one examiner said that he was. Now, math has never been my strong suit, but even I know that two is greater than one. Sometimes what happens is the judge gets one report saying, "The subject is competent," a second report saying, "The subject is not competent," and a third report comes back equivocal. Do you think the judge decides? No. He then appoints a fourth doctor to do the examination. So he gets the two-to-one vote that he wants. I have to assume that something of that sort happened here, since I feel that my reasoning was compelling and persuasive. But who knows?

Q: Was there such sharp disagreement between you and the other two psychiatrists who were asked to examine the question?

Blinder: Well, first, if you read all three of our reports, they are not terribly divergent at the clinical level ... you read their description of the lad and mine, and it's obvious we're describing the same person. We both found him to be somewhat immature, and I won't go into all the details, but there isn't any great divergence about the fact that we are dealing with someone who is not psychotic, that had a character disorder, maybe had some minor developmental problems, and so on. It was then a question of translating those clinical findings into the issue of whether or not he was competent. And the other two examiners were not forensic people. They were, I think, a child psychiatrist and a child psychologist. And with all due respect, some of my dearest friends are child psychiatrists, but they tend to approach this from a therapeutic perspective, which is, I think, inappropriate in a legal setting. Their task is merely to determine whether or not he meets a certain threshold of understanding, which clearly he did.

Q: What do you think the judge should have done?

Blinder: Well, you're asking me what the judge should have done, and I guess that's one of the reasons I'm a psychiatrist and not a judge. Because I don't know what the judge should have done. I know what I needed to do.

Q: Right.

Blinder: I don't know how much merit there would be in the judge's decision that he was not competent, ergo, he doesn't stand trial for his offenses versus the merit in making him go through a court proceeding. I felt he was competent, but on reflection, I don't know what's going to be gained by trying a 6-year-old for attempted murder, or what difference does it make if we find him innocent or guilty? What impact is that going to have either on the child or on society? So I don't know what the correct judicial outcome is. I only know that my job is to advise the court as to whether or not someone is psychologically fit to go through that process and not to make a judgment as to whether it makes sense to put him through a trial. I don't know.

Q: Well, the DA in this case says that once the child is deemed to be competent, at a future date, that he's determined to try him and to try him on these charges. Yet you would suggest that doesn't really seem to do the boy himself much good anyway, right?

Blinder: Well, trials are not designed to do defendants good.

Q: No.

Blinder: That's not the criteria by which people are put through judicial process. You have to, obviously, you make some considerations for this defendant. He's only 6 years old. But also determine what is best for society. The question is, is society best served by putting the 6-year-old through a criminal trial? I don't know the answer to that. And the DA has not made me privy to his reasoning and I'm not going to second-guess somebody else in a different discipline.

Q: And you have no personal opinion on that at all?

Blinder: If you're asking me personally, not Dr. Blinder, but Martin Blinder, citizen, it's hard for me to see much utility in putting him through a trial.

Q: Do you think the boy should ever go back to his neighborhood and to his mother?

Blinder: Should he go back to his neighborhood? Again, are you asking Dr. Martin Blinder, with all of my hospital credentials, or Martin Blinder, the citizen? I would need some fairly persuasive evidence that this kid was cured before I would unleash him again on an unsuspecting neighborhood.

Q: You fear that concern, then?

Blinder: If this young lad can do this kind of damage weighing 60 pounds and he's three feet tall. What is he going to do when he's 8 and 9 and got some heft on him and we haven't changed these mental processes?

Q: Can you tell me, prior to running into this 6-year-old, how many ... adult psychopaths have diagnosed? How many juvenile ones?

Blinder: Hundreds of adults. Substantially fewer juveniles. I couldn't tell you off the top of my head, and ordinarily, I wouldn't use that almost epithet when I'm talking about juveniles. So it's a diagnosis that I use parsimoniously with youngsters and more likely use the term "conduct disorder" because there's promise, there's hope in a conduct disorder. Much more pessimism, if you give some the diagnosis of anti-social. So I don't use that very often with people.

Q: Such a bleak picture you've painted, really, in this particular case. Is there anything to sort of lighten that bleak landscape, is there any ray of hope that any of us can cling to in this case?

Blinder: The earlier you get to a problem, whether it's the lump in your breast or a character disorder, the greater the leverage you have to effect a remedy. And so long as one lives, change is possible. I think you need a certain amount of philosophical optimism to take on these case and we do change. We do make people better. We do eliminate these horrible characterological problems in some cases, and perhaps we can do so here.

Q: And what are the odds?

Blinder: It's one of the more difficult therapeutic tasks. Give me a 45-year-old depressed housewife. And she's suicidal and she doesn't have any reason to live and in three months, I can say to a moral certainty that she will be restored to her previous exuberance and love of life. But a 6-year-old with a heavily weighted genetic endowment with a severe character disorder. That's going to allow a long time and a very gifted therapist, and maybe a little luck.

Q: Talk of genetics, and genetic loading and that is always controversial, and it's scary for people. I mean, is it something we have to face up to whether we like it or not?

Blinder: You can't arrive a solution to a problem, unless you correctly diagnose the problem. If you mistake a ruptured appendix for a ruptured spleen and take out the spleen instead of the appendix, you're going to have some very uneven post-operative results. So it serves no useful purpose to pretend that we're not different. That we're born different. And some are lucky with their genetic endowment and some are less lucky. And some perhaps are cursed. Once you recognize that, I think you're in a much stronger position to properly allocate your therapeutic resources, rather than squandering them on insoluble problems, look at the half of the glass that's full--putting those resources where they're most likely to do some good.

Q: But isn't that exactly the problem in a sense? If you say there are certain kids who are genetically predisposed to become psychopaths and predisposed from birth to become violent individuals, killers, even, then once identified and given the sort of bleak prospects of reformation and rehabilitation, isn't there going to be just a natural tendency then, to just write them off and lock them up forever? As many people in America are predisposed to doing anyway now.

Blinder: Sure. You're raising the question of the utility of making an early diagnosis, especially one that is potentially so bleak. But are we better off ignorant? Are we better off not making these diagnoses and letting some of these kids grow up and then sandbag us when they can really do a lot of damage with their uzis. So as painful as arriving at these bleak observations may be, I think we're better off informed than in the dark. That said, I don't believe that just because we have a tough row to how, that we've identified some particularly agonizing therapeutic dilemmas, that we throw up our hands and say, "Well, there's nothing to be done, let's euthanize them." Or something. Obviously, there have been societies that haven taken that step and that's anathema to me. But, if resources are limited, it may tell us that there are certain therapeutic endeavors that are more likely to be futile and that we should be putting our energies elsewhere.

Optimally, we should be able to take care of all of our children. I would like to take care of all of my children, all of society. These young people, they're my children, and I don't want to let any of them get away. But if I can only save four out of ten, if I've got room in a lifeboat just for four, I want to have enough information to know which of the four I should save. It shouldn't be a random process.

Q: It should be an educated one?

Blinder: It should be an educated one. Yes.

Q: I guess the $64,000 question that people around this case keep asking, and you gave a brief answer to this, but I'd like to have you talk about it a little bit more It's what people are so perplexed by, "Why?" Why did a 6-year-old kid almost kill a young, defenseless innocent baby? Why did it happen? What was the motivation for this to happen?"

Blinder: You're asking me why it happened, and the sin qua non of the sociopath is that he doesn't state a reason. It's like these nutty people who climb the Himalayas. You know, why did you climb Mount McKinley? Well, it was there. I wanted to see what it was like. And, while I have some questions about risking your life on mountains for such minuscule reasons, I have some grave concerns about someone who will take a life for such casual purposes. It's diagnostic. They don't need what you and I would consider a good reason.

Q: So there was no reason? Or you don't know the reason, and none of us will ever know the reason?

Blinder: No. The reason why he did it? You're wondering why this young man did what he did? He told the police, "I just wanted to. I didn't think about that when I was doing it." By "that", "I didn't think about the pain it would inflict on my victim." He injured the child simply because, quote, "I decided to." It's the Himalayas, it's Mount Mckinley. "I did it because it was there." Now. I've seen an awful lot of young people--not this young--but young people who are violent and there are other reasons why youngsters commit crimes. They can be part of a gang. They can be acting in self-defense. They can be subject to some profound humiliation that will trigger a rage response. But they are different, they're made up differently than the sociopath. The sociopath doesn't need these psychodynamic reasons. It's just another experience, and sociopaths need a lot of experiences coming fast and furiously in order to feel alive.

Q: And he knew exactly what he was doing at the time? Even though he had no good reason to do so, or just because it was there, the baby was there, he knew exactly what he was doing?

Blinder: You're asking me if he knew exactly what he was doing. I'm not sure I know what "exactly" means. Certainly your exactitude would be very different than mine or his.

Q: Right.

Blinder: Now his exactitude was he knew he had a stick that could inflict pain, because he had been hit by a stick in his life, and he could see the blood and so on. So he knew he was doing something injurious. He stated he didn't really want to kill the kid, he just wanted to have the experience of seeing what this was like. And that he knew it was bad, and if people knew what it was that he had done, he might get punished.

Q: But in this case, you're dealing with a 6-year-old and his rights and ... in terms of protecting the kid, I guess most people would say, "Surely, you know, he is incompetent."

Blinder: Well, protecting him is one thing. Finding him competent is another.

Q: Right.

Blinder: My job is not to protect him, or to feel sorry for him, although I do. And this gets back to your earlier question, "Suppose he had gone to trial, so what?" You're raising the question of what is the utility of putting him through a trial and is it the best thing for him or society to process a 6-year-old. That's a larger philosophical issue that I really cannot allow myself to address, in order to do my job of judging whether or not his juvenility is of such degree that he simply wouldn't comprehend what was going on. Once I made that very narrow determination, it is up to elected officials, and judges and people like that to decide what is politically appropriate. It's not my job.

Q: Is there any age at which a child is clearly incompetent? I mean if a 6-year-old's competent, what about a 4-year-old or a 3-year-old? At what point in your mind can a child become competent under those legal sort of standards that you judge them by?

Blinder: Is there an arbitrary age at which no child should be found competent? And had you asked me in 1995 where I would guess that age was, I would have put it about 9 or 10. The kids much younger than 9 years old, even if he says the right words to the threshold questions, how can he possibly be tried in a meaningful way? I've now examined a 6-year-old, and I have at least one example of a troubled youngster who, nonetheless meets the statutory tests for competence. So my answer in 1995 would probably not be accurate. Now I don't think all 6-year-olds necessarily would be competent. I find some 66-year-olds who I find to be mentally incompetent and not fit to plead and stand trial. So I think you have to go by case to case, and I was as surprised as anyone, and apparently as surprised as some of my critics, when I found myself finding a 6-year-old competent. That's very different from wholeheartedly supporting his going to trial. It's very different from suggesting he should therefore be punished as an adult, or he should be tried as an adult. Those are questions beyond my competence and I think beyond the scope of this interview.

Q: Twenty-five years ago in San Francisco, a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old, brothers, took a 2-year-old baby from a park to a basement where they killed him hung him on a makeshift cross. It's been known as the crucifixion murder, and at the time there was no debate whatsoever in the press or elsewhere as to what should be done with those 10 and 7-year-old brothers. They were immediately made wards of the court, prosecutor never contemplated charging them, trying them in the criminal justice system. What happened 25 years later? A 6-year-old boy, almost kills a baby and he sets off an explosive debate that rages across the country. What happened, doctor, in 25 years, that changed that?

Blinder: Your question presumes that there is a societal sea change in 25 years so that, had that pair committed their crime today, they would have gone through very much the same process that the 6-year-old did, and I'm not sure that's true. That all of the country, district attorneys, sometimes even police officers, make ad hoc decisions about how this case is going to be handled, the press never get wind of it, particularly and a decision is made and it doesn't reflect the community or any societal change but just the judgment of a particular individual who's at a key point in the decision-making tree. So that, it may be that the D.A. In San Francisco 25 years ago had a different approach than the district attorney in Contra Costa County, earlier this year. That said, I do think the society has become more punishment prone, less inclined to quote, "Let people get away with things." Whether it's an adulterous political figure, or the idea of trying a 15-year-old as if he were a 20-year-old, moving him from juvenile court and trying him in adult court. There's a much greater willingness to punish, to lock people up. I think we're near the top of the list of the countries in the percentage of our citizens we have behind bars. So there may be a difference in attitude that is we should give more weight to than the individual attitude of the two prosecutors who made very different decisions 25 years ago and seven months ago.


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