Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Eve: 10 Reasons to Avoid Getting Drunk This Year

This sign exists because of drunk people

#1: You are not smarter when you are drunk. In fact, you are significantly dumber. You aren't fooling anyone.

#2: You are also not funny when you are drunk. Trust me. Not funny. At all.

#3: You are less attractive when you are drunk. I give you exhibit A.

Exhibit A.

#4: If you are drunk, you are probably around a lot of other drunk people. One of them will probably want to kick your ass at some point in the evening.

#5: Your ability to have sex is significantly hindered by excessive amounts of alcohol.

#6: Drunken phone calls. Drunken texting. Drunken Facebooking. Drunken Twittering.

#7: Do you really want to spend the first day of the new year hung over?

#8: You could accidentally kill yourself.

#9: You could accidentally kill someone else.

#10: You are significantly more likely to need the services of a forensic psychologist (and attorney) if you get drunk tonight.

Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year! --Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

School Shootings: What Are The Odds, Part II

Although the chances of a school shooting happening at your
child's school next year is very small, the chances of a school
shooting happening somewhere in the US is very high.
Yesterday, I posted on the odds of a school shooting happening at a particular US school in 2013. Today, I thought I would report on the odds of a school shooting happening anywhere in the US in 2013.

In the last 13 years, there have only been two years with absolutely no school shooting incidents. Those years were 2004 and 2009. In every other year, there was at least one school shooting incident somewhere in the US. So, taking this data, one might argue the odds of a school shooting incident taking place in the US is 2:13, or 1:6.5.

That translates to an 85% chance of at least one school shooting taking place somewhere in the US in 2013.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Friday, December 28, 2012

School Shootings: What Are The Odds?

What can data tell us about the prevalence of school shooting incidents in the United States, and can we use that information to predict the likelihood of a school shooting taking place at your child's school next year?

In order to attempt an answer to that question, let's focus on 2012 first. This year, there have been four shootings at K-12 schools (note: I had to ignore two shootings on US college campuses to come up with this number). Here are the incidents:

1. February 10, 2012: A student shot and killed himself in front of 70 classmates at a public high school in Walpole, New Hampshire.

2. February 12, 2012: A former student killed three students and injured six in a shooting at a public high school in Chadron, Ohio.

3. March 6, 2012: A disgruntled former teacher shot and killed the headmistress of a private religious high school in Jacksonville, Florida.

4. December 14, 2012: 27 people, including the shooter, were killed in a Newtown, Connecticut public elementary school. The shooter also killed one other person at his home prior to going to the school.

But really, how common are school shootings in the United States? Four seems like an excessive number. After culling through the incidents from the last thirteen years, here are the number of US school shootings per year (data from

2000: 4
2001: 5
2002: 2
2003: 3
2004: 0
2005: 2
2006: 4
2007: 2
2008: 3
2009: 0
2010: 1
2011: 2
2012: 4

It appears that 2012 is on the high end, although it is not completely atypical. Taking a strict average over the last thirteen years, the US experiences 2.46 school shootings per year.

It is also interesting to note that these shootings have taken place all over the country and in all regions. There does not seem to be a difference between socioeconomic status or rural/urban setting. However, most school shootings take place at high schools. Of the 32 US school shootings from 2000 through 2012, 23 of them took place in a high school. Only three took place in an elementary school. Five took place in a middle school. One took place in a one-room Amish K-12 schoolhouse.

Now that we have an understanding of the number of school shootings in a given year, we need to know how many schools there are. The best estimate from the Center for Education Reform is that there are about 132,656 K-12 schools, both public and private, in the United States. There are about 99,000 public schools, but I am including private schools in my calculation because a number of the school shootings over the last 13 years took place at private religious schools.

So, what are the odds that a school shooting will occur in your child's school in 2013? If you take the average number of school shootings per year and compare it to the number of schools in the US, you get 2.46:132,656. Reducing that down reveals the following statistic:

The chances of any particular K-12 school in the United States experiencing a shooting incident in any given year is approximately 1 in 53,925.

Breaking the numbers down a little further reveals the following statistics:

The chances of a school shooting taking place in a US high school in any given year: 1 in 21,000.

The chances of a school shooting taking place in a US elementary or middle school in any given year: 1 in 141,463(data for the number of elementary and middle schools is not separated by agencies keeping track of such numbers)

Please note, this is not a scientific study. I relied on publicly available numbers and a probability statistic calculation that is simple enough to be taught to middle school students. It is obviously much more complicated than I have presented it to be--there are a number of factors that would need to be examined prior to claiming that 1 in 53,925 is wholly accurate. And, not every shooting incident is as horrendous as the one in Newtown, Connecticut. In some shootings, only the shooter died. In other incidents, no one was killed. But, in each incident, at least one gun was fired in a school.

Also keep in mind, your chances of dying in a car crash in 2013 is approximately 1 in 7775, which is about the same as your chances of dying due to any type of gun violence in the next year.

The question we now need to ask ourselves is what is an acceptable level of risk? Are we willing to ride in cars? Are we willing to keep guns around? Are we willing to send our kids to school?

As far as the school shooting question goes, there is extremely little chance your child's school will experience a school shooting incident in 2013. But, we are virtually guaranteed to have a few school shootings somewhere in the US in the next year. It probably won't happen to us. It probably won't happen in our city. It probably won't even happen in our state.

But, it will happen to someone. It seems like we should do something about that, don't you think?

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Good Words To Keep In Mind

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Common Characteristics Among Mass Shooters: Can We Predict Future Violence?

Following is a story from Alan Gionet (CBS 4 News, Denver) about common characteristics among mass shooters and predicting violence. I am interviewed about halfway through the clip:

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Anxiety In Young Children: Reactions to The Tragedy in Connecticut

I am on the School Accountability Committee at my childrens' elementary school (ECE-3), and I wrote the following letter to go out to parents regarding the Sandy Hook school shooting. As a psychologist, I thought it might help reassure parents that their kids are going to be okay. Keep in mind, this is information pertaining to kids who are ages 3 through 9. Here is the letter:

Hello all,

My name is Max Wachtel. I am a XXXXXX parent with children in XXXXXX and XXXXXX. I am also a member of the School Accountability Committee. I am a psychologist and professor in the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver.

In the wake of the horrible tragedy that befell Sandy Hook Elementary School and Newtown, Connecticut, I would like to share a few tips:

11. First, do not allow your young children to watch the news right now. If you decide they need to know about the shooting, talk to them about it yourself, but turn off the news when they are around. They will see images and hear stories that will haunt them.

22. If your children ask you about the shooting, don’t shy away from the conversation. Ask them what they have heard, correct any misconceptions they have, and tell them the (limited) truth.

33. If you have this conversation with your kids, be prepared to discuss death, religion, guns, good versus evil, the existence of a higher power, and the afterlife. Kids have the same big, existential questions we adults have.

Also, your children may be more stressed than usual for the next week or two. Here is some information that may be helpful for you to have:

11. The vast majority of humans, including children, are highly resilient. Your kids are strong and have the capability to make it through some horrendous times without being scarred by them. So, if your kids are struggling right now, try not to worry too much about it. They will get better.

22. Stress comes out in children in different ways. You might see your children crying or throwing more temper tantrums. You might see them revert to previous stages of development (e.g. thumb sucking, bed wetting, baby talk, etc.). You might see more anger and aggression in your children as well.

33. If you notice any of the above-mentioned changes in behavior (emphasis: changes in behavior), it is likely your child is stressed out. Talk to your child about his or her emotions and let him or her know you care. Firmly address any dangerous behavioral issues, but do so sympathetically. Remember, your kid is going to go back to normal—there is no need to get overly frustrated about temporary issues.

44. If any of these problems last more than about two weeks, there is a chance something bigger than stress over the shooting is occurring. At that point, it might be important to schedule an appointment with your child’s pediatrician to discuss the recent but lasting behavioral changes you have noticed.

55. In more severe reactions, you will see your child frightened to go to school. Refusing to get out of bed in the morning, crying at the drop-off, clinging to the parent, panicking when the parent leaves—if your child develops these types of behaviors, you might want to address it sooner rather than later.

What can you do to reduce your child’s anxiety?

61. Play with them. Spending time with your children sends a message of compassion and reassurance. They learn you are going to be there for them. Kids also work out some of their emotional difficulties through play—by observing your kids at play, you can determine how they are feeling.

22. Get them some exercise. You know how you feel better when you exercise? Kids do too. Figure out a way to have them run around a bit every day, even during the cold winter months.

33. Do some good deeds with your kids. Donate money or time to local charities (for kids, time is better than money). Teaching your kids about helping others helps them feel better about themselves.

44. Like I mentioned before, limit their exposure to the news right now. And, if you feel the need to talk about the tragedy, wait until your children aren’t around. Despite what you think, your children listen attentively to everything you say!

I hope this helps. Thanks—Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

My Interview with Fox 31 News On The Newtown Tragedy

Here is a video of my interview with KDVR Fox 31 News last night about the horrible tragedy that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut yesterday. I come in around the half-way point to talk about characteristics of individuals who commit this type of crime. One aspect left out of what is otherwise a good piece of journalism: easy access to guns.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Mass Shootings & Gun Control: An Intelligent Argument From A Pro-Gun Rights Individual

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that
disagreement over e-mail can still remain civil.
After reading my post on the Clackamas shooting and gun control, a Twitter follower of mine responded to me via e-mail. His name is Vitaly Kroychik, and he lives in Aurora, Colorado. He felt it was important to present me with his opinion on the issue of gun control.

Although I have never met Vitaly, he struck me as a caring, intelligent individual who is passionate about his beliefs. At the same time, his e-mail response was respectful. It was a breath of fresh air to discover that people can have different opinions and can discuss them (electronically) without having the discussion immediately break down into name calling and hysterics.

Vitaly made some good points, and I discovered that he and I actually agree on some fundamental issues regarding gun control--namely that merely banning guns will do no good and that education into gun safety is extremely important.

I asked him if he would be willing to let me post his e-mail, and he graciously agreed. Here it is, unedited (with the exception of removing some contact information) and in its entirety. Thanks for sharing your opinion, Vitaly.


Hello there!

I wanted to comment on the gun control tweet and blog article you had and offer up my thoughts, I'm sure you can appreciate me not clogging your timeline with my long-winded opinion.

First and foremost I'd like to introduce myself. My name is Vitaly Kroychik and I live in Aurora, Colorado and was born in Moscow, Russia. I went to school and graduated with a bachelors of science in Health promotion.

My first experience with weapons came when I was 6. My older brother and I were standing outside of our apartment building in Russia playing and a man, obviously drunk, came up to us asking for cigarettes. When the 13 year old and 6 year old stated we didn't have any, he showed us a revolver and said "that is that" and walked away. Our building was adjacent to a police station and we ran over there and told the police, they didn't listen and "shooed" us away.

The next one I had was in the US Army at fort benning, GA when I was learning how to shoot, carry, assemble, disassemble, clean, and do anything else imaginable with an m16, m4 and several other weapons.

Coming out of the military, I have shot recreationally and am planning on obtaining my concealed carry weapons license. I currently own a shotgun and a rifle. 

I am not a republican, democrat, independent, communist, NRA member or any other affiliation of any other extreme thinking party.

To address some of your points: #2 - it is true that guns don't usually go off by themselves. Unless there is a malfunction of an extreme sort (loose spring, retaining pin, etc) guns have a tendency of going off from a user, whether 2 years old, or 102 years old. Having had several major shootings lately, it is certainly a natural thing to pull the "gun control" card.

There is currently an assault weapons ban in this country, meaning I cannot just go out and buy ridiculous weapons and shoot them in our suburban back yards. The weapons that were used in the Aurora and now the Portland incidents were the civilian version of the m16, the Ar15. It is a semi automatic weapon. Many don't know what time means.

While an ak47 can fire it's entire magazine if you pull and hold the trigger once. The m16 (model A2,3,4) have a 3 round burst option, and a semi automatic option. Semi automatic means the bullet fires, the bolt slides back, comes forward and catches and chambers another round WITHOUT firing it. For every round fired, there is 1 trigger pull. It is no different than a hand gun, except it has a longer barrel and is designed to be more of a long distance weapon (50-300 yards). It is also important to point out that the aurora shooter bought his legally, and the Oregon shooter stole it. 

Points 4, 5: marijuana, cocaine, heroin, alcohol, etc are (or were in the cases of weed and booze) illegal and all are easily attainable within 24hours in most cases to a wide array of people. I knew several kids who owned guns in high school, and marijuana can be found basically on the streets. Making something illegal will not fix the problem at all. 

You note the study by UT, if you look up the states which have least gun control and most, they are pretty close together. Vermont (which currently only has the only no-license concealed carry law) is number one for least gun related crimes per capita, NY is #3 surprisingly, and has a very tough gun laws.

Doesn't make sense right? 

Here is another fact taken from DOJ, bureau of justice website: 
  • According to the 1997 Survey of State Prison Inmates, among those possessing a gun, the source of the gun was from -
    • a flea market or gun show for fewer than 2%
    • a retail store or pawnshop for about 12%
    • family, friends, a street buy, or an illegal source for 80%
My point here is this: it doesn't matter what kind of laws we put in place, we will not be able to stop those who have an agenda to murder and to kill. 

While I think a gun ban may reduce the number of domestic control instances, it may hinder those who protect themselves and their families and their households.

My idea is education. I had DARE when I was in elementary school and learned about drugs and alcohol and tobacco, but gun education is non-existent. Let's educate kids on the laws and what to do when they see a weapon, let's educate teens that gun violence is terrible, just like they showed us videos of a 38 year old lady who looked 70 due to meth use.

This may not work right away, but it a step in the right direction. We do not need government dictating that we are not responsible with our weapons, because it is not responsible with it's weapons and it's money either and can't lead from the front.

These are just my two cents. 


Thanks again, Vitaly. And, thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Clackamas Shooting: Can We Talk About Gun Control Yet?

My heart goes out to everyone who was at the Clackamas Town Center yesterday, the site of the most recent mass shooting in the United States. Two people were killed, one was physically wounded, and thousands will have lifelong emotional scars. It was only a few months ago that we in Colorado went through something similar--I know how you feel.

Is it too soon after this latest tragedy to talk about gun control? Gun lobbyists would say it is, I am sure. But when can we get a break from gun violence long enough to actually have the discussion?

Here are a few anti-gun control arguments, and my take on them:

1. Guns don't kill people, people do. Technically, this is true. Except when a gun accidentally fires and kills someone, like it did last week: Seven Year-Old Accidentally Killed By Gun

2. Guns don't kill people, people do, Take II. I suppose there is some merit to this claim. Responsible gun owners don't kill people (except on accident, see #1 above). I would change this slogan to the following: Guns don't kill people, people with guns kill people. Are we really to believe the Aurora Theater Shooter and the Clackamas Shooter would have killed as many people as they did if they had only been armed with knives? A few weeks after the shooting in Colorado, a man threatened to kill a bunch of people in Times Square with a knife. He ran around like a lunatic and the police shot and killed him. The story is here. You may not remember hearing about it, because he did not kill anyone.

3. If someone wants to kill someone else, he/she will find a way to do it, regardless of whether or not there is a gun available. This theory has recently made its way into the news about Jovan Belcher. He could have stabbed his girlfriend. He could have strangled her. He could have tied lead weights to her feet, driven to New York City, and thrown her in the East River. It is true--he could have done something else to kill her. But, what numerous studies related to guns and domestic violence have shown is that a domestic abuser is four to five times more likely to kill his partner if a gun is around. Chances are good that Mr. Belcher would have just beaten the crap out of his girlfriend and would be sitting in jail right now if he hadn't had a gun available.

4. If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will own guns. Except for the police.

5. If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will own guns, Take II. An offshoot to this argument is that gun ownership is a deterrent to crime. But, researchers from the University of Texas (yes, the University of Texas) found in 2011 that this is absolutely false. They found no support for the idea that legal gun ownership deters gun violence.

6. Gun ownership is a Second Amendment Right. I'm no Constitutional scholar, but I believe the Federal Government has placed reasonable restrictions on certain types of arms--I can't just go out and buy an automatic weapon, or a tank, or a fighter jet. So, why can't there be reasonable restrictions on assault rifles that have no other purpose than to kill living things quickly, accurately, and from a distance?

7. If certain types of guns are banned, they don't just disappear. This is true. I am not sure how to get around this one.

8. There are already myriad gun laws that perpetrators of gun violence break. Why do we need more laws? That won't keep anyone safer. This is also true. Other than scrapping all previous gun laws and starting over, I am not sure how to get around this one, either.

9. Why are we trying to find blame in guns? Let's just blame the terrible people who committed these crimes. People who commit heinous crimes need to be held accountable for those crimes. If someone murders someone else, it is no one's fault but the murderer. Absolutely. It makes no sense to excuse dangerous, illegal behavior by saying, "It wasn't his fault. It was the gun's fault."

But, what I do know is that if the Aurora Theater Shooter had not had a gun, twelve people would be alive today. If Jovan Belcher had not had a gun, his girlfriend would be alive today. If the Clackamas Shooter had not had a gun, thousands of Portlanders and Oregonians would not be in mourning today.

I don't know what the solution is, but isn't it worth starting the discussion? Let's at least be honest with ourselves--guns have the potential to take a bad situation and turn it deadly.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Interview with Fox 31 Denver

Here is a news clip from my November 14, 2012 interview with Fox 31 Denver News. I am discussing the unusual nature of several recent crimes in the Denver Metro Area:

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Friday, December 7, 2012

No Guns If You Use Drugs: But What About Marijuana?

I hope there are no guns in that van, because
I'm willing to bet they have some weed.
Living in Colorado, it is hard to avoid conversations and news stories about marijuana right now. For those of you who have been living under a rock, there was an election about a month ago. In addition to voting for the President of the United States, citizens in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado voted on whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use. All three states had already legalized marijuana for medicinal use.

Although it did not pass in Oregon, Washingtonians and Coloradoans voted overwhelmingly to legalize recreational cannabis. In the month that has followed, there has been a lot of discussion about what the Federal Government will do in these two states. Marijuana continues to be classified as a controlled substance under Federal Law. So, even though it is legal to smoke it by state law, the Justice Department may still be able to prosecute users, sellers, and growers.

But, even with all of the discussion, there is one particular aspect of this legalization dilemma that receives little attention: Guns.

Under Federal Law, it is illegal to possess a gun or ammunition if you are a drug user (18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3)). Specifically, anyone who is "an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance" is breaking Federal Law by possessing a gun or bullets. No handguns. No hunting rifles. Nothing.

Does this mean marijuana users in Washington and Colorado will be breaking both Federal drug laws and Federal gun laws? From a non-lawerly reading of the law, it seems so. It remains to be seen what the Justice Department will do about this issue. In the meantime, it would make me very nervous...paranoid even...if I were a marijuana user and gun owner.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Murder-Suicide: What Caused Jovan Belcher To Do What He Did?

Kasandra Perkins and Jovan Belcher
Everyone is grasping for answers after this Saturday's horribly tragedy. Jovan Belcher, professional football player, shot and killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, at their home. He then drove to the football stadium and shot and killed himself in front of his coach and general manager.

What caused Mr. Belcher to do such a thing? A quick internet search revealed the following list of causes for this murder-suicide:

1. Guns (Bob Costas, among others)
2. Not guns (Fox News)
3. The violent culture of football (
4. The fans insisting on violence in football (
5. Traumatic brain injury (
6. The "strained" relationship between Mr. Belcher and Ms. Perkins (lots of news agencies)

Here is what most everyone is ignoring:

1. This incident isn't really all that shocking

Yes, murder-suicide is relatively rare, and it always makes headlines when someone in the public eye is involved. Very few of you who are reading this post probably know that a murder-suicide occurred on a college campus in Casper, Wyoming several days prior to Mr. Belcher's act.

Even though murder-suicide is rare, incidents of domestic violence are not. According to the National Institute of Justice, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately one in four women will be victims of domestic violence in their lifetime. About 1.3 million women are victims of intimate partner abuse every year in the United States. About 20% of non-fatal violent crime against women is domestic violence. Further, about one-third of female homicides are committed by their male intimate partner.

In about 75% of domestic violence cases that end in homicide, the man has abused the woman prior to the killing (this includes cases where the man kills the woman and cases where the woman kills the man).

Finally, researchers in 2003 discovered domestic violence ending in homicide is five times more likely when the abuser has access to a gun. In fact, the Violence Policy Center states that almost 66% of women who are killed by a gun are killed by their male domestic partner.

So, what is to blame for the deaths of Jovan Belcher and Kasandra Perkins? We can blame guns, we can blame brain injury, we can blame the rabid fans. We can complain that the NFL encourages violence in men who are prone to mental instability. All of these so-called causes may have contributed to their deaths. None may have contributed. We don't fully know.

What we do know is there was nothing particularly special about this murder-suicide, except that it happened on the national stage. And that is a very, very sad thought.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dr. Death And The Violation of The Fifth Amendment: Estelle v. Smith (1981)

Ernest Smith, From Texas Monthly
Magazine, July 1978
Dr. Death makes another appearance in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court Case. In a post from earlier this year, I outlined the case of Barefoot v. Estelle, where Dr. James Grigson stated a defendant was so dangerous he would definitely kill again, despite never having met that defendant. Not exactly psychiatry's proudest moment--and keep in mind, this is a profession that used to scramble people's brains with an ice pick driven through their eye sockets.

In a 1973 murder case from Texas, Dr. Grigson was hired to conduct a pretrial competency evaluation. The case involved Ernest Smith, who was arrested for participating in an armed robbery where an accomplice killed a grocery store clerk. Dr. Grigson reported that Mr. Smith was competent to stand trial and he labeled Mr. Smith a "severe sociopath." Interestingly, Mr. Smith's defense team had no idea that Dr. Grigson had evaluated him until they received the competency report filed with the court (this would never happen today. The process for obtaining a competency evaluation is clear and open).

Mr. Smith's case went to trial, and a jury convicted him. Prosecutors sought the death penalty, and one of the criteria the jury needed to weigh was the future dangerousness of the convicted defendant. Prosecutors called Dr. Grigson as a witness, who had only met with Mr. Smith for the pretrial, court-ordered competency evaluation. He testified that Mr. Smith remained highly dangerous and thus posed a continued risk to society. But really, did you expect Dr. Grigson to have any other opinion? He would have testified that a potted plant posed a danger to society if the death penalty were in question.

Based largely on Dr. Grigson's testimony, the jury decided the prosecution had made its case, and Mr. Smith was sentenced to death.

As is expected in every death sentence case, Mr. Smith appealed his conviction (in fact, an appeal was mandatory in Texas at the time). The case worked its way through the courts and ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court in October of 1980. Mr. Smith argued that by using the forced competency evaluation in his sentencing phase, his Fifth Amendment Rights against self incrimination were violated.

The Court agreed with Mr. Smith's argument. In their decision from 1981, the Court held, "(1) the admission of the psychiatrist's testimony violated the defendant's Fifth Amendment privilege against compelled self-incrimination, since the defendant was not advised before the pretrial examination that he had a right to remain silent and that any statement he made could be used against him at the sentencing proceeding, the defendant's statements to the psychiatrist when faced while in custody with a court-ordered psychiatric examination not being given freely and voluntarily without any compelling influence so that they could be used at the penalty phase only if the defendant had been apprised of his rights and had knowingly decided to waive them, and (2) the admission of the psychiatrist's testimony violated the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel, since defense counsel were not notified in advance that the psychiatric examination would encompass the issue of their client's future dangerousness and the defendant was denied the assistance of his attorney in making the significant decision of whether to submit to the examination and to what end the psychiatrist's findings could be employed, the Sixth Amendment right attaching when the doctor examined the defendant in jail and that interview proving to be a "critical stage" of the aggregate proceedings against the defendant."

In other words, the Court was insistent that Mr. Smith's Fifth Amendment Right had been violated because he was never informed during the court-ordered (in other words, forced) evaluation that he had the right to remain silent and that information he provided to the evaluator would be used against him at sentencing. And, the Court took their decision one step further: they held that Mr. Smith's Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel was violated because his defense team was never notified that the competency evaluation would be used to sentence him to death.

In subsequent cases now codified into state laws, data collected in court ordered competency evaluations cannot be used during the trial or sentencing phases of an individual's court case, unless the defendant raises the issue of his mental health as part of his defense and rebuttal testimony is needed.

Dr. James Grigson, trying to blind the photographer,
from Texas Monthly Magazine, July 1978
Interestingly, in a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals opinion on this case, Judge Wendell Odom wrote, "Dr. Grigson's qualifications as a psychiatrist may be fine, but I find no testimony which qualifies him as an expert in predicting the future...It is my opinion that such future-telling testimony is admissible under no theory of law and prejudicial beyond belief...I am unable to find that much of the testimony offered was from this side of the twilight zone," (From Texas Monthly Magazine, 1978).

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

My 9 News Interview Regarding Jessica Ridgeway

I was on Denver's NBC Affiliate, 9 News, last night to discuss Jessica Ridgeway and what you might want to look for in order to be vigilant in helping to catch her killer. Here is a link to the video:

This is an absolutely heartbreaking story. I offer my deepest condolences to her parents and the rest of her family. I hope Jessica is at peace now.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

9 News Story About My 2012 Denver Rock and Roll Marathon Finish

Here is a link to a recent 9 News story about my Denver Rock and Roll Marathon run on September 22, 2012. I dedicated my run to the memory of Alex Teves, one of the victims of the Aurora Theater Shooting and a former student of mine at the University of Denver:

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

If Police Deny Assistance of Counsel During Interrogations, Confessions Cannot Be Used In Court: Escobedo v. Illinois (1964)

Mugshot of Danny Escobedo, January 1960

Police must inform criminal suspects of their right to remain silent when they are in custody and they must honor a suspect's request to speak with an attorney prior to interrogation. But, this was not always the case. Two landmark rulings from the mid-1960s changed that. The lesser known of the two will be discussed here:

On the night of January 19, 1960, a Chicago man was murdered. This man happened to be the brother-in-law of Danny Escobedo. Early the next morning, Mr. Escobedo was arrested and interrogated. Being a wise suspect, he did not say anything to the police--he did not confirm or deny any wrongdoing. Since he was arrested without a warrant and there was little probable cause to hold him, the police released him from custody on the afternoon of January 20.

A few days later, a man named Benedict DiGerlando was brought into custody and interrogated for the murder of Mr. Escobedo's brother-in-law. Mr. DiGerlando was not as savvy as Mr. Escobedo, and he told police that Mr. Escobedo had shot and killed his brother-in-law because he was regularly beating Mr. Escobedo's sister.

So, on January 30, Mr. Escobedo was brought in again for questioning. This time, the police also brought in his sister, Grace. The police informed Mr. Escobedo of Mr. DiGerlando's statement. Mr. Escobedo once again refused to speak with the police and asked for his attorney. The police refused his request, despite telling him he was in police custody and was not free to leave.

Mr. Escobedo's attorney went to the police station and asked to meet with his client. This request was also denied.

The police interrogated Mr. Escobedo for the next 14 hours and repeatedly refused to allow him to meet with his attorney. During the course of the interrogation, Mr. Escobedo never confessed. However, he made a number of statements that accidentally revealed his knowledge of the circumstances of the crime. That revelation of knowledge amounted to a confession.

Based on his confession during the second interrogation, Mr. Escobedo was convicted of murder. He appealed his conviction, arguing his Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel (made obligatory to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment) had been violated. On appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld his conviction.

However, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear his case. In 1964, the Court reversed his conviction because he was, in fact, denied his Constitutional Right to Counsel. They held that any statements made  while being denied that basic right could not be used against him in a criminal trial. The Court also found it troubling that Mr. Escobedo had never been advised of his right to remain silent (Fifth Amendment) -- Keep in mind, this was pre-Miranda, which was settled in 1966.

At first glance, this case does not seem to have much to do with forensic psychology--there was no argument that Mr. Escobedo was incompetent or had no idea of his Constitutional Rights. In fact, he appeared to be a highly competent suspect and was vigorously attempting to exercise his rights. But, I have worked on a number of cases, in the 2010s, 50 years after Escobedo v. Illinois and Miranda v. Arizona, where the police have not informed suspects of their rights. I have watched police interrogation videos where suspects spill their guts about the crime but have never been reminded of their Fifth and Sixth Amendment Rights. Often, attorneys will miss this key procedural misstep because they are focused on other issues, mainly damage control--how can they defend a client who has just confessed to the police? When I point out the lack of Miranda warning, attorneys then have the ability to enter a motion to suppress the confession, as it was obtained illegally.

Interestingly, the Escobedo case is largely forgotten in the public sphere, since the Miranda ruling came only two years later. Where Escobedo focused mainly on the right to counsel, Miranda shifted the focus to the right against self-incrimination. And, it is these two cases that have arguably had the greatest impact on police and criminal court procedure in the last half-century.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Protecting Even The Most Despicable Of Defendants: Drope v. Missouri (1975)

In the US, we protect our criminal defendants. We assume even the most dastardly individuals are innocent unless proven guilty, and we make sure defendants are able to exercise all of their Constitutional Rights when defending themselves. Let me cite the case of Drope v. Missouri as an example:

In 1969, James Drope was indicted for rape. He was alleged to have forcibly raped his own wife, along with several of his acquaintances. His wife reported to the court that he and four of his friends raped her and subjected her to several other "indecencies." She reported she continued living with Mr. Drope after the rape so that her children would be taken care of, at the insistence of his psychiatrist. She also reported Mr. Drope attempted to kill her several days before his trial began.

Prior to trial, Mr. Drope's defense attorney entered a motion asking the court for a continuance so that he could receive a psychological evaluation and treatment. The motion contained a letter from a psychiatrist stating Mr. Drope did, in fact, need mental health treatment. The prosecution did not object to the motion. Nevertheless, the court denied the motion and set the case for trial.

Mr. Drope's wife testified for the prosecution, and she mentioned she was hesitant about wanting to bring charges against her husband until he attempted to kill her. She described significant, odd behavior on Mr. Drope's part. One behavior she described was Mr. Drope "roll[ing] down the stairs" if he received bad news or if something did not go his way.

On the second day of trial, Mr. Drope did not appear in court. He had shot himself in the stomach in a suicide attempt and was hospitalized. The defense asked the court to declare a mistrial. The court refused, and it ordered the defense to proceed with the trial without Mr. Drope's presence.

Needless to say, Mr. Drope was convicted. His defense team appealed the conviction, arguing he was deprived of his Due Process Rights (Fourteenth Amendment) because the court did not order a mental health evaluation and proceeded with his trial without his presence. An Appeals Court rejected the appeal, but the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear the case.

In 1975, The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Appeals Court decision and remanded Mr. Drope's case to the trial court to allow for a retrial, assuming he was competent at the time of the retrial.

The Court held, "(1) the defendant's due process right to a fair trial was violated by the trial
court's failure to suspend the trial pending a psychiatric examination to determine the defendant's competence to stand trial, since the wife's testimony, the psychiatrist's report, and the defendant's attempted suicide were sufficient indicia of incompetency to require such examination, (2) in view of the trial court's failure to inquire into the defendant's mental competency, there was no basis for determining whether the defendant had effectively waived his right to be present at his trial, assuming that such right could be waived, and (3) the defendant's due process rights could not be adequately protected by merely remanding for a psychiatric examination aimed at establishing whether the defendant was in fact competent at the time of the trial approximately 6 1/2 years earlier, the state being free to retry the defendant if he is competent at the time of such trial."

The Court made it clear that individuals must be competent to stand trial at the time of the trial in order to them to adequately exercise their Constitutional Rights and to avoid violations of Due Process. It also made clear that if questions arise about an individual's competency, trial courts have an obligation to suspend proceedings until the person's competency or incompetency can be established. In most states now, merely asking for a competency evaluation is enough to kick off the competency evaluation process--it is not necessary for an attorney to present evidence to the court of an individual's incompetence to start the evaluation procedure.

I do not know what happened to Mr. Drope after the Supreme Court remanded his case back to the trial court. My guess is that he underwent a competency evaluation to determine if he was fit to be tried again, and if he wasn't, he probably received restoration to competency treatment services.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Pop Psych Project: Morning People Are Happier--Night Owls Are Mostly Cool With That

This picture pretty well describes my mood most mornings.
Researchers from the University of Toronto recently discovered that people who identify themselves as "morning people," or people who pop out of bed early with energy and enthusiasm, are happier than night owls. Interestingly, night owls do not display higher levels of "negative" emotion such as anger or depression when compared to morning people. They just aren't as happy.

In my unofficial, unscientific research on the subject (having one child who is a morning person and one child who is a night owl), morning people seem to be overly enthusiastic in the morning, and night owls appear to be mildly irritated by that enthusiasm.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


Biss, R. K., & Hasher, L. (2012). Happy As A Lark: Morning-Type Younger and Older Adults Are Higher In Positive Affect, Emotion, 12(3), 437-441.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Burden of Proof for Competency to Stand Trial: Cooper v. Oklahoma (1996)

In 1989, Byron Cooper broke into a home and was robbing it, when the 86 year-old owner confronted him. Mr. Cooper attacked and killed the owner of the house. The evidence against Mr. Cooper was solid, and the prosecution was going to have little difficulty proving him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If you want to read about what he actually did and how he was caught, click on this sentence.

The problem with Mr. Cooper's case, however, was that he had a severe mental illness. He was psychotic, and his psychosis caused him to be terrified of his defense attorney. On at least one occasion, he attempted to run out of the courtroom when he saw his attorney, not because he was trying to escape but because he thought his attorney was evil. Mr. Cooper also refused to wear street clothes in court because they "burned" his skin. He was also fond of curling up in the fetal position on the floor of the courtroom and talking to himself.

Mr. Cooper's defense attorney claimed he was incompetent to stand trial, and Mr. Cooper went through a number of competency evaluations. He also spent time in the Oklahoma State Hospital where he received restoration to competency treatment.

Just prior to his trial, Mr. Cooper's attorney again raised the issue of competency. He went through another evaluation, and the psychologist's opinion was that he was, in fact, incompetent. However, the judge ruled that the defense had not proven Mr. Cooper's incompetency with clear and convincing evidence, thus deciding Mr. Cooper was competent and ordering him to face trial. He was quickly found guilty and was sentenced to death.

Let's back up for a minute: in the United States, we take our court system seriously. Very seriously. The judiciary is enshrined in the US Constitution, and beyond that, five of the ten Amendments in the Bill of Rights deal with protecting individuals from what could otherwise become a tyrannical court system.

Out of this desire to protect an individual's liberty arose the concept of Competency to Stand Trial. In order for a person to be able to exercise his Constitutional Rights, he must be able to understand those rights, make rational decisions regarding those rights, and work with his attorney to assist in exercising his rights. More specifically, an incompetent person who faced trial would be deprived of his Due Process Rights (Fourteenth Amendment).

When a person claims to be incompetent, the defense has the burden of proving the defendant is actually incompetent. The defense attorney must present evidence of the person's incompetence, which is typically done through competency evaluations conducted by forensic psychologists or psychiatrists.

But let's back up a little more: What is Burden of Proof? This is a legal and philosophical concept describing who has the obligation to convince the factfinder to change his/her mind regarding a particular situation. For a competency hearing, the judge is supposed to assume the defendant is competent unless the defense attorney can prove the defendant is incompetent.

There are several levels of proof required for someone in court to meet his/her "burden." They are as follows:

1. Preponderance Of Evidence: The issue is more likely to be true than not true.

2. Clear And Convincing: The issue is much more probably true than not true, and the factfinder must be strongly convinced.

3. Beyond A Reasonable Doubt: This is the highest level of proof required in criminal cases. Although it does not require the factfinder to have absolute certainty, he/she must come to the conclusion that there is no reasonable or plausible explanation for events other than what is being argued.

So, let's get back to Mr. Cooper's case. The judge ruled him to be competent because the defense did not prove his incompetence by clear and convincing evidence. He then went to trial, was found guilty, and was sentenced to death.

His defense attorney appealed this decision, claiming Mr. Cooper's Due Process Rights had been violated. An appeals court affirmed the lower court decision and upheld the conviction and sentence. The defense then appealed to the US Supreme Court. In 1996, the Court issued an unusual unanimous ruling on this case: They decided Mr. Cooper's Due Process Rights had, in fact, been violated. They stated the lower court used the wrong standard with clear and convincing, and instead should have heard the case using the preponderance of evidence standard.

The US Supreme Court claimed the higher standard "imposed a significant risk of an erroneous determination that the accused was competent, and such determination threatened a fundamental component of the criminal justice system...the accused's fundamental right to be tried only while competent outweighed the state's interest in the efficient operation of its criminal justice system."

The Court reversed Mr. Cooper's conviction and sentence and remanded the case back to the lower court to deal with the competency issue using the preponderance of evidence standard.

Due to Cooper v. Oklahoma, all states are now required to use the preponderance of evidence standard when determining whether an individual is competent to stand trial.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Zone of Danger: Physical Danger vs. Emotional Danger, Dillon v. Legg (1968)

This bicyclist is in the Zone of Danger, but what about the guy
who is filming him from behind? Is he going to suffer PTSD?
The Zone of Danger. It sounds like a carnival ride. Or a knock-off of a popular 1960s television show. In actuality, it is a real legal concept, and it has a major effect on whether or not we are liable for someone else's injury.

The Zone of Danger is typically defined as the area where a person is in actual physical danger due to the negligent behavior of another person. For example, if your neighbor is building a shoddy addition to his house without a permit from the city, you are in the Zone of Danger if you happen to be walking through the area where the addition would fall were it to collapse. If you are across the street when it collapses, watching and laughing from a safe distance, you are not in the Zone of Danger, and the neighbor is not liable if you strain your back from laughing too hard.

Enter the case of Margery Dillon and David Legg. On September 27, 1964, David Legg ran over and killed two year old Erin Dillon. Cheryl Dillon, Erin's older sister, was next to Erin when Mr. Legg hit her. The mother, Margery Dillon, was over 10 feet away from the girls at the time of the accident.

This incident occurred in Sacramento, California, and the Superior Court of Sacramento County ruled Mr. Legg's driving was negligent. They further ruled Cheryl Dillon could recover for damages because she was in the zone of danger. She literally could have been killed by Mr. Legg's driving. She feared for her life and suffered emotional difficulties as a result of seeing her sister die.

However, the Court ruled Margery Dillon, the mother, was not entitled to recover for damages because she was not in the zone of danger. Although she suffered significant emotional distress because she witnessed one daughter die and another daughter almost die, she was never in danger of dying herself. As such, the Court decided Mr. Legg was not responsible for her emotional damages.

Ms. Dillon appealed her case to the California Supreme Court, which reversed the Superior Court's judgment in 1968. The Supreme Court held the Zone of Danger Doctrine was "improperly restricted to those exposed to physical injury." They extended the Zone of Danger Doctrine to include individuals who were exposed to emotional injury as well. In their majority opinion, the court quoted Prosser (1964): "When a child is endangered, it is not beyond contemplation that its mother will be somewhere in the vicinity, and will suffer serious shock," (p. 353).

It is important to remember this ruling applies only to California, although it was instrumental in helping change other state laws regarding negligence for emotional damages and the zone of danger. Currently, some states still have laws stating emotional damages are only recoverable if the person has also sustained physical injury. There are other states that are "zone of danger states," such as California. Still other states are considered "foreseeability" states, where a person can recover for emotional damages if it was reasonably foreseeable that emotional suffering was going to be a likely outcome of the negligent act.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My Interview With BBC News On The Aurora Shooting

Screenshot from BBC3's documentary The Batman Shootings
I was interviewed a few weeks ago for a BBC documentary on the Aurora Theatre Shooting. The documentary aired last week in the United Kingdom, and it is now available for viewing through BBC3's youtube channel.

Here is a link to the documentary: The Batman Shootings

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Monday, August 27, 2012

HIV Is A Disability Under the Americans With Disabilities Act: Bragdon v. Abbott (1998)

Sidney Abbott, with her attorney, c. 1995
In 1994, Sidney Abbott was attempting to get a cavity filled. She scheduled an appointment with Dr. Randon Bragdon, a Bangor, Maine dentist. In the paperwork she completed prior to the dental work, she indicated she was infected with HIV, but was "asymptomatic." Dr. Bragdon referred Ms. Abbott to his written policy that he did not treat HIV+ patients in his clinic, but he would be willing to treat her if she admitted herself to a hospital. He reported she would bear the financial burden of the hospitalization.

Ms. Abbott sued Dr. Bragdon, claiming he violated her rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). She argued Dr. Bragdon discriminated against her due to her HIV status.

A lower court sided with Ms. Abbott, and in 1998, the case made its way to the US Supreme Court. The Court agreed with the lower court, deciding HIV and AIDS were disabilities under the ADA. They ruled that "asymptomatic" HIV infection constituted a disability as well.

In the majority opinion, the Court wrote, "(1) the woman's HIV infection, even in the so-called asymptomatic phase, was a disability under 12102(2)(A), because the infection was an impairment which substantially limited the major life activity of reproduction; but (2) remand was necessary because, although there were reasons to doubt whether the dentist had advanced sufficient evidence on the question of risk to the health and safety of others, (a) the Court of Appeals, in determining as a matter of law that the woman's infection posed no direct threat to the dentist's health and safety, might have placed mistaken reliance on various items of evidence, and (b) the Supreme Court, in accepting the case for review, had declined to grant certiorari on the question whether the dentist had raised a genuine issue of fact for trial, with the result that the briefs and arguments presented to the Supreme Court did not concentrate on the question of sufficiency of evidence."

In plain English, the Court decided HIV infection was a disability because it limited Ms. Abbott's reproductive ability (a "major life activity"). But, the Court also decided the case must be remanded to a lower court to determine whether or not the dentist was truly at risk for contracting HIV through his treatment of the patient.

This case set the precedent for HIV and AIDS to be considered disabilities under the ADA, which limits a person's potential to be discriminated against based on those conditions. Interestingly, what we know about HIV and AIDS today is that an HIV+ woman who is asymptomatic is likely to be able to "reproduce" without transmitting HIV to her baby. Thus, asymptomatic HIV infection is probably no longer strictly an ADA disability the way Bragdon v. Abbott defines it. However, there is also strong, clear evidence that a doctor who takes reasonable precautions with all patients is not at risk for contracting HIV.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Twenty-Four Hours, Two Cities, Thirty People Shot

In the wake of the shootings that took place overnight in Chicago, leaving thirty people injured, and in New York City, leaving two people dead and nine injured, I have posted a poll on my Facebook page.

Does the US need to rethink its gun ownership laws? Please vote at this link and weigh in on the discussion.

Obviously, the cause of mass shootings is incredibly complicated. Changing one factor is not going to be enough. But, would limiting guns help reduce violence? Why? Why not? What else would be helpful?

I am hoping to have a respectful discussion. People on all sides have passionate views, but if you just wanting to add vitriol to the discussion, I would prefer you bow out. Please remember, there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of people whose lives have been directly affected by the violence in the last 24 hours--let's be respectful in our discussion of what happened and what could be done to avoid these tragedies in the future.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Is The Colorado Death Penalty Unconstitutional?

Where do you fall on the topic of the death penalty?
Two professors at the University of Denver Law School recently published a study making the argument that the death penalty in Colorado is unconstitutional. They argued the following:

1. The US Supreme Court has declared the death penalty is only constitutional if it is used as punishment in the most rare, heinous murders. Plain old first degree murder is not enough--the death penalty would violate a person's Eighth Amendment Rights (cruel and unusual punishment) in all but the most rare cases.

2. Colorado currently has 17 "aggravating factors" that could take a run-of-the-mill murder and make it death penalty eligible.

3. Colorado Court records on murder cases from the last decade indicate about 90% of murders in Colorado qualify for the death penalty.

4. If 90% of murders qualify for the death penalty, it makes no logical sense that only the most heinous of murders would be eligible for the death penalty. Thus, it is unconstitutional to have death penalty laws that apply to the vast majority of murders in the state.

5. The authors go on to make one other argument: Of the cases in the past decade that were eligible for the death penalty, prosecutors actually pursued the death penalty in only 1% of those cases. The authors argue this makes facing the death penalty in Colorado nearly random, which also adds to the unconstitutional nature of the law.

The professors wrote this report at the behest of a criminal defense attorney who is arguing on behalf of his client, an accused murderer. He is attempting to get the District Court Judge to strike down the death penalty in Colorado, declaring it unconstitutional. Regardless of how the judge rules on the case, it is likely that the US Supreme Court will eventually hear the case and make a decision about Colorado's law, which could have far-reaching implications for the other 49 states in the US.

In the short-term, the District Court's ruling may affect whether prosecutors in Arapahoe County, Colorado seek the death penalty for James Holmes, the man accused of murdering 12 people in Aurora last month at the Batman premier.

Here is an interesting link to a news story about this issue produced by Colorado Public Radio.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Monday, August 20, 2012

I Was The Victim of Crime This Weekend

The title is hyperbolic, but I truly was a crime victim this weekend. My wife and I took our kids to a local amusement park, and at some point in the morning, someone stole my wife's phone from her bag. When she first noticed it was missing, we wondered if she had accidentally left it in the car. We thought maybe she dropped it somewhere. But, she kept coming back to the same conclusion: she remembered putting it in her bag after we stopped for a snack, and it was no longer in her bag.

We assumed the phone was gone for good, but I thought it might be a good idea to send a text message to the presumed criminal mastermind. The text read, "Do you have a phone that doesn't belong to you? I would like it back please."

To my astonishment, I received a text message several hours later from my wife's phone. It explained that the current possessor of the phone had just bought it for $50, but that she wanted to give it back to us. She just wanted to be reimbursed for the money she paid for it. She also called me from my wife's phone and left me a voicemail, complete with her own cell phone number.

I assumed she was lying and that she was the one who took the phone in the first place. I also assumed she was monumentally stupid. But, when faced with the choice of standing on the side of principle, not paying her for our own property, and probably not getting the phone back versus paying $50 to avoid the expense of buying a new phone and dealing with potential identity theft issues, my wife and I quickly decided we were getting off cheap for only $50. After a quick text message exchange to arrange where to meet and a stop at an ATM, I paid the woman and got my wife's phone back.

Here is what I could have done: I could have taken a picture of the woman holding my wife's phone. I could have called the police and given them this woman's cell phone number. I could have brought her to justice--the phone is expensive enough that it might have qualified as felony theft. But, it was hot, it was late in the day, the whole family was tired and starving--my wife and I just wanted the phone back so we could go home.

Needless to say, I was in a very bad mood for the rest of the evening. I felt violated. I felt cheated. I couldn't shake the horrible feelings I had about meeting a person who was brazen enough to take someone else's property and then demand they pay her for it. Had I put my children in danger? Could I have been shot? All of these questions and emotions swirled in my mind.

Today, I feel much calmer about the incident. My only lingering regret is that we did not spray the phone thoroughly with Lysol, and I am wondering what weird sorts of ear diseases my wife has been exposed to.

Obviously, this was not a major violation. It may have been a felony, but it was not a big deal for me or my family. Nevertheless, I had a very strong, very negative reaction to it. I can only imagine how a person would respond after an assault, or a rape, or the murder of a loved one.

It makes me curious: Have you been a victim of a crime, big or small? What was your emotional reaction to it?

Thanks for reading this slightly unusual post from me. I'll be back to normal on Wednesday.

Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Child Criminals Are Different From Adult Criminals

A recent picture of Julie Sanders, a 40 year-old
who was involved in a hate crime as a teenager

Recently, I have written several blog posts highlighting US Supreme Court decisions regarding juvenile offenders and life in prison without parole. Two of them are here and here.

Incarcerating a criminal, no matter the age, has numerous potential goals--to punish the individual, to offer solace to the victim or victim's family, to rehabilitate the offender, to protect the public from future crime. It is in these two last points--rehabilitating the criminal and protecting the public from future danger--where child offenders are largely different from adult offenders.

Children's brains and personalities are not as fully developed as adults'. When they commit crimes, there is a fairly good chance children can change. They can learn the error of their ways and can go on to live productive lives. In all but the rarest instances, these juvenile offenders will not pose a major ongoing threat to the public. Adults are different--many times it is difficult (but not impossible) to rehabilitate an adult offender.

Julie Sanders is a great example of a juvenile offender who was rehabilitated. When she was a teenager, she was involved in a hate crime as a member of a White Power group. Specifically, she was present during the murder of an Ethiopian man.

While incarcerated for her crime, she realized what she had done was horribly wrong, and at the age of 40, she is now working toward a degree in social work so she can work with kids who are at risk for joining hate groups.

What Ms. Sanders did decades ago is horrible. Unforgivable, even. She lives with that thought every day of her life. But, she made a fundamental change when she went from being an incorrigible youth to being a responsible adult, and she is actively working on making the world a better place. This is not a typical story line for an adult offender, but children are different. They deserve different punishment in the legal system.

Here is a link to a news story about Julie Sanders, including audio of her describing her transformation:

A Mother Tries To Atone For A Deadly Hate Crime

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More