little criminals

Interview with Dr. Edward Hyman

Psychologist appointed by the court to evaluate the 6-year-old

Q: Doctor, could you tell me how you heard about this case and what your reaction to it was?

Hyman: Like most people, I heard about this case through the news media. And my reaction, initially, in a sustained sense is that it's a great contemporary tragedy.

Q: And by that, what do you mean?

Hyman: Whenever we see this type of disability induced in another human being, it's always tragic. But to have both victim and the perpetrator so youthful, I think characterizes a tragedy of the greatest proportions.

Q: Can you tell me how many years you've been treating children and what's the youngest patient you've had previous to this?

Hyman: My treatment of children dates back to my first pre-doctoral internship here in Berkeley, at the Berkeley Community Health Project. And then from there I continued in my work at the County of Santa Cruz Health Services Agency, and thereafter the American Child Abuse Prevention Society, where I was ultimately clinical director. So I've been working with children and their families now for better than two decades.

Q: And how many juveniles have you treated during that period and what's the youngest child that you have seen?

Hyman: During the period that I've worked with children, I imagine I've both assessed and treated well over a thousand, perhaps more than that, perhaps thousands. And the youngest--and again a great tragedy--was a 3-month old baby girl who had been raped. And that was in both a forensic and treatment situation where I worked with the family of the victim, as well as assessing the victim.

Q: And in terms of juvenile offenders, what's the youngest that you've treated or assessed?

Hyman: In my work with juvenile offenders, this case represents the youngest defendant whom I've assessed. And that contributes somewhat to my sense of the great tragedy of this situation.

Q: How do you determine whether a kid is competent to stand trial? What do you look for?

Hyman: In the state of California, in determining the competence of a juvenile, the criteria that we use are much like the criteria that we use with any other defendant. We're asked to investigate the ability of this individual to understand, to comprehend reasonably ... what the charges against him or her are, what defenses might be posed, and to reasonably be capable of interacting and assisting in his or her defense with an attorney. These are the formal legal criteria.

In attempting to operationalize these criteria, obviously, when we look at any defendant--but particularly in looking at a juvenile--we have to understand the capacities of this individual. Not whether this person is willing to participate in his or her own defense, but whether he or she can. And this is the essence of competency, whether we're talking about a juvenile or an adult.

Q: Do you perform any tests, and how long does it take to perform such an examination of a child?

Hyman: In examining any defendant, I believe it's extremely important that the legal criteria for competency be absolutely clear. And it's been my observation that to really answer the questions that the court poses to us in determining competency that psychodiagnostic testing is extremely, extremely important.

There are many people who don't approach it this way. And obviously the specific questions about whether or not the individual is capable of comprehending charges against him or her, of cooperating reasonably in his or her own defense, in understanding the components of the defense and the legal system sufficiently to participate--these have to be the foci of one's determination.

In the case of a juvenile, we're somewhat eclipsed in tests of psychopathology. There's one that's particularly valuable, a projective test that we use. But there are, in cases like this, where the questions of intellective and thinking dysfunction that enter into the determination--neurocognitive tests, tests of intellective capacities that are also extremely important.

Q: Aside from the tests that you perform, how long would you spend with a client or a patient in making such an assessment? How many times would you see them? And how long would it take?

Hyman: In determining competency, there are rarely individuals who are at the extreme as to where competency is called into question by the bench. That is to say, where they're clearly competent, or they're clearly incompetent.

It's most commonly individuals that are in that mid-range, and it's been my experience that the questions posed to us have to be answered most deliberately. In approaching these questions, we really want to look at the capacities of the individual--how that individual thinks. How that individual perceives the world, himself, and others. The intellectual capacities to understand what's going on and any dysfunction of thought or cognition that might interfere with that understanding, or with the ability to participate adequately with an attorney and in defense. And these things often take a great deal of time. So quite commonly, I'll spend an entire day with a defendant.

In the case of a juvenile, as well as with adults, I'm also going to be looking for corroborative data from people who know that individual--both historically and also at the time of the prosecution, since the question of competence is a question that's in the present. And so I might be soliciting data from family members, from attorneys, from correctional officers, from probation officers, from juvenile detention officers, from teachers, from school personnel.

Q: Empirically, at what age do the studies indicate that a child clearly isn't competent to stand trial in a legal sense?

Hyman: Certainly no one under the age of 6, from my experience. And there may be some extraordinary individuals out there who at the age of 6 or below are capable of understanding these factors. I would be profoundly surprised, but they may exist. I've never seen them. I've never seen any systematic indication that there are such individuals.

As far as 6-year-olds and older children go, it's unlikely--given the complexity of our legal system, and given the complexity of legal issues--that children of the age of 6 would be capable of understanding this.

In study of this case and in looking at the issues about it, I've looked at other 6-year-olds and found that those even with the vast intellectual capacities and very mature 6-year-olds were incapable of understanding the competency issues here.

There's been no systematic work done, and certainly in forensic psychology we would have to investigate at every given age to see broad patterns of capacity. Because of the absence of significant crime at these ages, historically, we have not done research at such tender ages.

We know that there certainly are 12-year-olds, 13-year-olds, 14-year-olds, who are competent. In between 6 and 12, 13 and 14, there simply aren't data to allow me to make a broad and sweeping comment.

Q: Why are some kids dangerous and violent, and are there certain predictors of such behavior?

Hyman: In trying to understand why children are dangerously violent, we want to look at a very rich tapestry, a very complex model before allowing ourselves to begin to understand what's really going on.

We look at it, perhaps, simply in terms of concentric circles. And so we see, in contributing to this behavior, broad social patterns that may include social values, economic factors. We see community values, employment questions within a specific community, familial patterns, familial values, parenting practices, parenting patterns within that family. We would see the influence of employment and unemployment within that family. We would see educational factors. We would also want to understand the contribution of personality and of biological factors.


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