Thursday, May 30, 2013

Mothers Who Kill Their Children: Common Characteristics

On early Wednesday morning, a mother in Steamboat Springs, Colorado shot and killed her nine year-old son before shooting herself in an apparent suicide attempt. Here is a 9 News story on the incident (warning: it is heartbreakingly sad):

While the motivation behind any murder can be difficult to grasp, it is even harder when trying to explain why a mother would kill her child. In reviewing the research from the past 15 years, here are some common characteristics of mothers who kill their children:

1. Most times, mothers who kill their newborns are struggling with postpartum depression.

2. Mothers who kill are sometimes psychotic and having delusional thoughts and hallucinations that lead them to kill their children.

3. Most mothers who kill their children are depressed at the time of the killing.

4. A majority of those mothers who are depressed at the time of the killing are in the depressed phase of Bipolar Disorder.

5. The majority of mothers who kill their children grew up in a physically abusive home.

6. Many mothers who kill their children attempt suicide immediately afterward.

7. A common theme among mothers who kill is that they want to save their children from the evils of the world--they view killing their children as an altruistic act (this is more true for psychotic mothers and less true for depressed/Bipolar mothers).

It is important to note that the vast majority of women who have a psychotic thought disorder, depression, and/or Bipolar Disorder are perfectly good mothers and would never dream of harming their children. But, in situations when a mother does kill her children, the above mentioned characteristics are often present.

My heart goes out to the family involved in the shooting on Wednesday, and to the entire Steamboat Springs community. No matter the explanation, it is hard to view this boy's death as anything other than a senseless tragedy.

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

Friday, May 24, 2013

Nathan Dunlap and The Death of The Death Penalty In Colorado?

Earlier this week, Governor John Hickenlooper granted a reprieve to a death row inmate, raising serious questions about the future of the death penalty in Colorado.

In 1993, Nathan Dunlap brutally murdered four people in a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora, Colorado. He was sentenced to death and has been appealing the decision ever since. He recently exhausted his appeals, and his attorneys asked the Governor to give him clemency.

Rather than ordering the courts to give the shooter life in prison without parole instead of the death penalty, Governor Hickenlooper issued a "temporary reprieve," in order to study the issues related to this ultimate judicial penalty.

The governor's questions about the death penalty are as follows:

1. There are currently only three people on death row in Colorado, and the state has not executed a person in 40 years. There is clearly hesitancy on the part of Coloradoans to endorse the practice.

2. The statutorily mandated drugs required to execute an individual are not currently available in Colorado, raising the question of how, exactly, to kill a person.

3. Several law professors from the University of Denver have written a legal brief arguing the death penalty in Colorado is unconstitutional because, in their opinion, it is completely random which murderers get sentenced to death versus life in prison without parole.

4. There are numerous studies showing the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to crime.

5. Although it is obvious that the shooter in the Chuck E. Cheese case was guilty, there are many instances where individuals have been put to death only to discover later they were innocent.

Recent photo of Nathan Dunlap,
granted a temporary reprieve from death
As you might expect, the governor's decision has caused an uproar in Colorado, with death penalty opponents cheering the reprieve and death penalty supporters expressing outrage that Mr. Hickenlooper subverted the justice system and the will of the people.

I am interested on your take: what do you think of the death penalty? What about the governor's decision to issue a temporary reprieve? Finally, what do you think that will do to the prosecutor's case in the Aurora theater shooting where they are currently seeking the death penalty for the shooter?

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

Monday, May 13, 2013

Prisoners In Solitary Confinement: What Happens To A Person In Extreme Isolation

Here is video of a Google+ Hangout I participated in early today. 9 News investigative reporter Jace Larson, 9 Wants To Know Executive Producer Nicole Vap, and I discuss what happens to an individual's psyche after years of isolation in solitary confinement.

Here is the video:

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

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

What Is The Legal Definition of Insane in Colorado?

Jeremy Jojola, 9 News investigative reporter, looked into the Aurora theater shooter's likely insanity plea in a great story from last night. He interviewed me as part of his investigation. Here is the video:

So, what exactly does it take for someone to be legally insane? Of course, no rational person would commit such a horrendous crime. But, being abnormal, or mentally ill for that matter, is not the same as being insane. Here is a breakdown of the definition for insanity in Colorado (C.R.S. § 16.8.-101.5):

1. The person must be "diseased or defective in mind." This is typically translated as having a mental illness (almost always a psychotic thought disorder like Schizophrenia or Schizoaffective Disorder). To be considered mentally diseased or defective, a condition must "grossly and demonstrably impair a person's perception or understanding of reality." Drugs and alcohol don't count, and neither does a diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder. You can't be hammered and claim you were insane. Same goes with being a psychopath.

2. The person must have the "diseased or defective" mind at the time of the crime. It doesn't matter how psychotic he is right now. What matters is how psychotic he was at the time of the offense.

3. The person's significant mental illness (the diseased or defective mind) must cause the person to either be incapable of distinguishing right from wrong, or from being able to form "the culpable mental state of the crime charged." For the theater shooting, the culpable mental state is "knowingly," meaning he would need to be certain in his understanding that his actions were going to cause people to be murdered.

4. Look back at Bullet Point #3 again. Notice there is an 'either or' structure to it. If his mental illness caused him to not know right from wrong or be unable to form the culpable mental state, then he was insane at the time of the offense. He does not need to meet both of those criteria, just one of them.

5. "Moral obliquity" or "mental depravity" cannot lead to legal insanity. Roughly translated into English people can actually understand, this means a person who is a psychopath cannot be considered insane, even if his psychopathic nature leads him to be unable to understand right from wrong.

6. "Passion growing out of anger, revenge [,or] hatred" does not count either. Even when a person becomes extremely angry, blacks out in a blind rage, and loses the ability to form the culpable mental state, he is still legally sane.

And that is it. The legal definition of insanity in Colorado. To recap:

Insanity is a mental disease or defect that causes a person to not know right from wrong or not know that what he is doing will lead to an intended outcome. Drugs and alcohol don't count. Psychopathic tendencies don't count. Anger and revenge don't count.

If the theater shooter changes his plea to Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity, this is the definition his psychiatrist will use when evaluating him, and this is what the jury will use to make their decision in the case.

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

Not Guilty By Reason Of Insanity: The Aurora Theater Shooter Will Change His Plea on Monday

With the news that the Aurora theater shooter will be changing his plea to Not Guilty By Reason Of Insanity, 9 News called upon me for some information about what a sanity evaluation entails.

Here is the story from this morning, May 8, where 9 News legal analyst Scott Robinson and I discuss the issue further:

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

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Amanda Berry's Real Life Superhero: Charles Ramsey Refuses To Ignore A Person In Distress

Charles Ramsey, the man who helped Amanda Berry escape after a decade

Here is video of Charles Ramsey, the man who helped Amanda Berry escape her captors, being interviewed. He is a true character, and a real-life hero.

Mr. Ramsey stands as a strong reminder of the power of helping your neighbors and refusing to turn a blind eye on domestic violence. And, he throws in a bruising social critique at the end of the interview (when asked when he knew something was amiss, he replied, "Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little, pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway.")

Bravo, Mr. Ramsey. Strong work.

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

Monday, May 6, 2013

How Liability Has Changed Over The Years: Waube v. Warrington (1935)

Is it reasonable to assume you might experience some
emotional difficulties after witnessing this car accident?

In previous posts, I have discussed the Zone of Danger, and how a driver's liability extends beyond the physical proximity to an auto accident. Most famously, a case from 1965 (Dillon v. Legg) extended a driver's responsibility for damages from only those individuals at risk of physical danger to those at risk of emotional distress as well. In the Dillon case, a mother was able to collect damages from a negligent driver because she witnessed the driver strike and kill her daughter with his car. Presumably, she developed Posttraumatic Stress Disorder after witnessing the accident.

The idea that the zone of danger could extend to include emotional damages for an individual who did not actually fear for his/her own life was groundbreaking in 1965. Today, it seems obvious.

In 1935, however, courts had a very different opinion than they do today. On March 24 of 1934, Susie Waube witnessed Amber Warrington run over and kill Ms. Waube's infant daughter. Ms. Waube was terribly sick at the time, and she was so distraught over her daughter's death that she retreated to her bed and died several weeks later. Her attorney successfully argued that Ms. Waube's death was a direct result of the Ms. Warrington's negligent driving and the driver was found to owe Ms. Waube's husband damages due to wrongful death.

Ms. Warrington appealed the decision to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, who heard the case in November of 1934. In January of 1935, the Court overruled the lower court. The Court "balanced the social interests involved in order to ascertain how far a defendant's duty and a plaintiff's right must justly and expediently have been extended." It was the Wisconsin's Supreme Court's ruling that a plaintiff was not entitled to recover damages "for physical injuries sustained by one out of the range of ordinary physical peril as a result of the shock of witnessing another's danger."

In other words, because Susie Waube sustained physical injuries (in this case, death), only due to the shock of watching her daughter's demise, the driver of the car was not legally responsible. The Court's ruling made it clear that Ms. Waube was not in any physical danger as a result of the accident, and that lack of physical danger absolved the driver of responsibility for Ms. Waube's death.

What mental health professionals understand now is that it does not matter if a person is in actual physical danger--severe anxiety, depression, and negative physical health effects can be caused by witnessing a terrible accident. We don't have to be so close to the accident that we might get hurt by the car in order to suffer significant damages. Three decades after Waube v. Warrington, The Dillon v. Legg case was a big step toward courts gaining a crucial understanding of the importance of emotional pain and the full extent of the risks caused by negligent drivers.

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


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