Evil Is as Evil Does: What’s wrong with criminal psychological profiling (science abuse no. 8)?

No. 8 on my list of “Top Ten Abuses of Science” in court is “criminal psychological profiling.” Why? It isn’t a science; it’s an art. Psychologists can’t explain criminal behavior. Why should law-enforcement officials be able to? When a criminal profiler gets on the stand in a murder trial all the prosecution is trying to do is prejudice the jury against the defendant (usually because he’s a young, white male who was abused as a child).

What’s more, the law prohibits behaviors, not thoughts: you aren’t a murderer, because you enjoyed killing a person; you’re a murderer if you kill a person in violation of the law. The law says any killing is only justifiable homicide if the killing is in self-defense or the defense of another person and then only if you use the minimum amount of force to restrain the attacker. Prosecutors tell juries repeatedly that motive is irrelevant to the crime of murder. They’re happy to announce that they don’t have to prove motive, only means and opportunity.

You can commit murder if you’re insane, but in many cases you can’t be found guilty if you’re insane. Why? Because a murderer must be able to “form intent to kill,” but the insane are thought to be incapable of reasoning, which is what intent is all about.

As I understand it (and I’m not a lawyer), the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that certain mental states give defendants special rights and privileges. These include certain types of mental illness, low I.Q., and immaturity (that is, under the legal age). So, a judge may find a person to be incompetent to stand trial–although it seems to me this never happens. A jury may find a person to be insane and therefore innocent of any crime–which occasionally does happen, and in most such cases the defendant is confined to a mental hospital. However, a jury may also find a mentally ill person to be guilty of a capital crime. When this happens, the Supreme Court has said the person may not be executed. Nor may a person with low I.Q. be executed or a person who was a minor at the time the crime was committed. (So, if you plan to murder someone, just be sure you know what your I.Q. is and can prove you’re under 18 years old.) (On another subject, I would like to know why a child can be incompetent to be executed but competent to stand trial as an adult.) (My favorite website for information on the Supremes is OYEZ.)

I recently watched an interesting program on the ID: Investigation Discovery cable channel, “Most Evil.” I’m not sure which episode it was (it took me a bit by surprise). In this series, Columbia University’s Dr. Michael Stone explores the minds of the most evil of murderers. His approach is quite refreshing (at least in so far as I observed). Unlike most FBI profilers I’ve seen, Dr. Stone simply asks killers questions and listens. He doesn’t characterize these people. He seems genuinely interested in their thought processes and genuinely astonished by what he learns from them.

I’m curious about whether Dr. Stone ever testified in a murder trial and, if so, whether he testified for the prosecution or the defense. (I’ll have to research that.) If he’s as scientific in his approach as he appeared to be in the episode of “Most Evil” that I watched, I suspect that he would tend to favor the prosecution: after all, if you’re a scientist you know that evil is what you do, not what you think.

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Crook County Trials and Tribulations

Cook County, IL (home of Chicago and several dozen suburbs), has the highest sales taxes, gasoline taxes, and property taxes in the country, as far as I can determine. Yet, in 2007 the Cook County Board laid off employees of the Public Defenders office, at a time when demand for public defenders is rising, not falling. Even so, my county tax bill listed a very high price tag for “mosquito abatement” (Cook County isn’t swampy), but nothing for the justice system. The CBS affiliate in Chicago ran a story about this last year, “Defender Sues Cook County over Layoffs.”

This is quite interesting given my experience as a juror in Cook County Criminal Courthouse. The defense was handled by a public defender who announced in his opening statement that his client was guilty of some of the crimes charged, even though he had pled not guilty. The next day, the defendant failed to show up in court. He had been out on bail–even though he was charged with violent crimes and had every reason to flee not only the county but the country. After the trial, one of the other jurors asked the judge why the case hadn’t been “plea-bargained.” She responded something to the effect that “we tried that but he wouldn’t go along with it.”

I can’t help but wonder if the public defender intended to scare the defendant so that he would just go away. Now he’s Mexico’s problem (perhaps, or perhaps he’s in Florida or Texas or California assaulting little girls there).

At the time we were told he had jumped bail I was flabbergasted: I couldn’t understand why he had refused to plead guilty to reduced charges or why the judge permitted the trial to continue after the public defender’s outrageous opening statement. But I do understand now: Cook County’s justice system is broken. The County Board is corrupt. Many of the judges are incompetent. The public defender’s office is stretched beyond the limit. And most criminals don’t know right from wrong–they really think they’re innocent and should be let go.

Public Defender, Edwin Burnette’s office maintains a website on the topic of criminal justice.

An appalling jury foreman in the O.J. Simpson trial

THIS POST IS OUT OF DATE AND HAS BEEN RETRACTED: Please refer to the post dated Friday, December 16, 2011. At the below-referenced jury foreman’s request, I am leaving this post online.


Today on TrueTV for the first time I saw a snippet of the O.J. jury’s post-trial press conference. I hadn’t seen it before, because I was in Beijing when the verdict was announced. The way I learned of the verdict was from reading the English-language (state-owned) China Daily. It was ironic: The Chinese don’t follow American football; they barely follow soccer. I can’t believe many Chinese even know how O.J. Simpson earned his fame, except apparently by being involved in a notorious murder trial. But the article filled about a third of page two.

Today I heard the foreman of the jury say he thought O.J. should have been sentenced to life imprisonment thirteen years ago. And, while I didn’t hear it from his own lips, the commentators and attorneys said he had insisted that the jury deliberate late into the night on the anniversary of O.J.’s prior acquittal.

Seeing the expressions and body language of other jurors in that press conference convinced me there should have been at least one African-American on the jury. Judges need to start recognizing there are ingrained racial attitudes in all ethnic groups, not only whites. Juries should at least include a true racial and gender peer of the defendant. It isn’t racism, though, in my opinion. It is a perspective on life, expectations about behaviors and language. And that is what is meant by “peers” on a jury.

The jury on which I served had three African-Americans and nine whites. During voir dire, the judge dismissed all Hispanics from the panel, of which their were several–and the defendant was a Mexican immigrant.

My Ph.D. is in language and literature of 17th-century England–the century in which English common law began to evolve into the foundation of our Constitution. I’ve researched the original meaning of the phrase “a jury of peers,” and I will post a long discussion of this in the near future.