Thursday, March 22, 2012

Murderer Accepts Plea Deal for Life In Prison Without Parole

Christopher Wells

As a real-life example for the follow-up to my last post, Christopher Wells just accepted a plea bargain for life in prison without parole in order to avoid the death penalty.

He pleaded guilty to two counts of First Degree Murder in Douglas County, Colorado after hiring former employees to kill his wife. These contracted men killed his wife and her brother. Mr. Wells' six year-old daughter found the bodies, which had been mutilated and burned. If Mr. Wells had taken the case to trial and lost, he would have faced the death penalty. Obviously, he thought life in prison without parole was preferable to death.

What do you think? Would you choose to spend the rest of your life in prison with no chance of release, or does that punishment sound worse to you than death? Feel free to leave comments here, or vote on my Facebook page:

Here is a link to a brief article about the killings. WARNING: Some of the content in this article is graphically violent:

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

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Which Penalty Is Worse?

I just posted a question to my Facebook page (

Which penalty is worse: Life in prison without parole, or the death penalty?

I would certainly be extremely upset if I were facing either of these punishments, but I am not sure which one I would choose for myself, if I were forced to choose. I really, really, really like being alive, but the thought of spending the rest of my life in prison sounds terrible.

Which one would you choose? Why? Feel free to go to my Facebook page to weigh in. You can vote and add comments explaining your rationale, if you would like.

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

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Would Dharun Ravi Have Been Convicted If Not For Twitter?

                          Tyler Clementi                            Dharun Ravi

Here is an interesting link to a New York Times article about Dharun Ravi's conviction. He is the Rutgers student who was recently found guilty of invasion of privacy and bias intimidation in the death of his roommate, Tyler Clementi, whom he filmed engaging in sex with another man.

This case is interesting from a psychological perspective because Mr. Ravi may not have been convicted were it not for Mr. Clementi's Twitter and Facebook feeds. Those feeds documented his mental state and beliefs leading up to his suicide. According to the article, jurors were fairly convinced that Mr. Clementi thought Mr. Ravi was targeting him because of his sexual orientation. If this same case had occurred 10 years ago, prosecutors would have had an extremely difficult time determining what Mr. Clementi had been thinking around the time of his suicide. But, with Twitter and Facebook documenting all of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in an up-to-the-minute kind of way, prosecutors were able to convince the jury fairly quickly that Mr. Ravi was guilty.

New York Times: Jurors Say Digital Evidence Convinced Them Of Dharun Ravi's Guilt

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.
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Friday, March 9, 2012

Study Claims Rich People Are More Unethical and Enjoy Taking Candy From Babies

                       Scrooge McDuck, Unethical Rich Person/Duck

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences just recently published a series of studies looking at "upper class" individuals and their behaviors. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Toronto found that rich people tend to act more unethically than people who are not rich.

For example, "upper class" individuals are more likely than others to break the law while driving and make unethical decisions. They also tend to be more comfortable with cheating in order to win a prize, and they are more likely to lie during a negotiation.

In one particular study, research participants were presented with a jar of candy and told it was going to be given to a group of children in an adjacent laboratory. They were also told they could take some of the candy for themselves if they wanted to do so. Researchers discovered that rich people, on average, took about twice as much candy for themselves as did non-rich people.

Researchers argue that "upper class" individuals have a positive attitude toward greed and are interested primarily in themselves. They also argue that rich individuals feel a level of protection from prosecution that others do not enjoy, and they see themselves as above the law.

I think the researcher's conclusions regarding the reasons why "upper class" individuals do the things they do are not based on fact. Instead, they are guesses about motivation that may or may not be true. But, it seems that these studies were conducted in a reasonable manner, and I think their findings are probably valid.

It is important to note that, although rich people may be more unethical than others, poor people tend to engage in more violent crime and are considerably more likely than others to end up in prison.

P. K. Piff, D. M. Stancato, S. Cote, R. Mendoza-Denton, D. Keltner. Higher social class predicts increased unethical behaviorProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2012.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.
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Friday, March 2, 2012

Will T.J. Lane Be Tried As An Adult?

This week, the prosecutors in the T.J. Lane case filed charges against him in juvenile court. But, it is still possible for them to request that the judge transfer his case to an adult court, which would make it possible for him to face significantly harsher penalties if he is found guilty in the Chadron, OH school shooting.

I have worked on several of these "transfer" cases in Colorado, where prosecutors argued to the court that the public would be better served if the juvenile in question were tried as an adult.

Each state has its own requirements for determining when a transfer from juvenile to adult court is appropriate. In Colorado, the judge must consider 14 different aspects of the case. Those aspects are listed in C.R.S. 19-2-518(4)(b) I - XIV. If Mr. Lane were to face a question of transferring his case in Colorado, these are the issues the court would need to consider (those highlighted in yellow are issues where a forensic psychologist may have some input):

(I) The seriousness of the offense and whether the protection of the community requires isolation of the juvenile beyond that afforded by juvenile facilities;
(II) Whether the alleged offense was committed in an aggressive, violent, premeditated, or willful manner;
(III) Whether the alleged offense was against persons or property, greater weight being given to offenses against persons;
(IV) The maturity of the juvenile as determined by considerations of the juvenile's home, environment, emotional attitude, and pattern of living;
(V) The record and previous history of the juvenile;
(VI) The likelihood of rehabilitation of the juvenile by use of facilities available to the juvenile court;
(VII) The interest of the community in the imposition of a punishment commensurate with the gravity of the offense;
(VIII) The impact of the offense on the victim;
(IX) That the juvenile was twice previously adjudicated a delinquent juvenile for delinquent acts that constitute felonies;
(X) That the juvenile was previously adjudicated a juvenile delinquent for a delinquent act that constitutes a crime of violence, as defined in section 18-1.3-406, C.R.S.;
(XI) That the juvenile was previously committed to the department of human services following an adjudication for a delinquent act that constitutes a felony;
(XII) That the juvenile is sixteen years of age or older at the time of the offense and the present act constitutes a crime of violence, as defined in section 18-1.3-406, C.R.S.;
(XIII) That the juvenile is sixteen years of age or older at the time of the offense and has been twice previously adjudicated a juvenile delinquent for delinquent acts against property that constitute felonies; and
(XIV) That the juvenile used, or possessed and threatened the use of, a deadly weapon in the commission of a delinquent act.
Note that the court needs to take into account the maturity and background history of the individual. Often, defense attorneys in transfer cases will argue that the defendant is not mature enough to face an adult sentence and his/her background is tragic and traumatic enough that trying the defendant as an adult is inappropriate. Although the court must take the juvenile's personal factors into account, they are not the only aspects of a transfer that the court must consider. As is outlined above, there are a number of other legal factors the court must weigh, some of them potentially overriding any "good" or "bad" information regarding the juvenile's maturity and personal history.

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