Anyone is capable of doing horrible things, when the circumstances are complicated or a person is too disturbed to know any better.
Our society has a weird system of deciding when people who commit the unspeakable should receive harsh treatment, leniency or be set loose with no rhyme or reason. With some exceptions (Dan White’s and O.J. Simpson’s murder trials are notable), jury verdicts reflect public opinion. An insanity verdict or outright acquittal — when there’s no question about the defendant’s physical involvement in a crime — is most likely to be reached by a jury when the defendant receives more sympathy than the victim. Maybe I notice this more often than other people because I feel an especially strong resentment toward people who kill their own children.
My lack of concern for a delusional mother who doesn’t know where she is when she slaughters her kids is my own personal bias. If I’m ever in the jury pool for a trial addressing something like that, I’ll explain why I’m not qualified. Jurors are asked about those things, and are required to answer honestly.
Lying one’s way onto (or off of) a jury is illegal, and it interferes with a fair trial. When you’re on jury duty, resign yourself to the fact that your obligation is to the Court. You listen carefully to everything which goes into the record, and follow the judge’s instructions. That’s about it.
I have no children, and my own childhood was a mess. That could explain a lot about why the future of an infanticide defendant must never be in my hands.
One memorable child death — which resulted in an outright acquittal — occurred in San Jose, CA in 1982. Betty Mentry was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of her son, Steven. The following year, she was acquitted after the jury accepted her claim that she meant no harm when she put two hundred twenty pounds of her own body weight on her child to pin him to the floor. Steven was eight years old on the date of the assault, and he was removed from life support on his ninth birthday.
I remember a little bit about how this tragedy was reported in the local media at the time, but those newspaper articles don’t appear to be online so I can’t document them. Here’s a UPI archived account. It doesn’t include the outcome of the civil trial, in which she blamed a family counselor’s advice for her behavior.
I had absolutely no sympathy for Mrs. Mentry, regardless of Steven’s alleged behavior. She caused his death in a way which should have been called torture. According to her, she was following a trusted professional’s instructions when she sat on her kid.
More than ten years later, a mother in South Carolina, Susan Smith, murdered her two young sons, Michael and Alex, by pushing her car into a lake when the boys were in the back seat. She tried to cover up her involvement by making up a racist carjacking story.
In fairness, it should be noted that Susan Smith had been an incest victim. Her boys were not fathered by the man who molested her, though, and the children’s father — her estranged husband — was not supportive of Mrs. Smith after the truth was discovered.
Would the public have felt differently if her children had been conceived during an act of incest, and she hadn’t told a racist lie after killing them? If so, what difference would that have made to Michael and Alex?
Susan Smith’s insanity defense was rejected by the jury, but she avoided being sentenced to death. She also became the Casey Anthony of that decade, before anyone had heard of Casey Anthony. For a while after she was sent to prison, supermarket tabloids had front page stories about alleged horrors she was suffering at the hands of other inmates.
Here’s another “in fairness” disclaimer: Some jail and prison inmates single out other inmates for abuse, for alleged reasons including harming children. It’s impossible to know exactly what’s behind those motives, but we can’t rule out the possibility that the confrontational inmates are just looking for someone they can judge.
Recently, Susan Smith initiated contact with the news media with a written statement. She says she’s not a monster. The statement is not a tribute to her sons, and she doesn’t express regret that she prevented them from having a future. Here’s a link to an NBC Today Show report.
Jared Fogle, the man who went public with his Subway sandwich weight loss plan and earned an endorsement contract from the company, hasn’t been accused of killing anyone. He has damaged young people’s lives, though, by acting on criminal impulses.
Here’s a New York Daily News article about Mr. Fogle’s contact with a former girlfriend who took pity on him and began writing to him in prison. He emphasized to her that he is not a monster. She is no longer writing to him.
Some people who have done horrible things express remorse later, and anyone who cares to listen has to distinguish between sincere remorse and manipulation. If the victims have survived, they must decide whether to ponder the apologies or try to deal with their pain differently.
We should respect the feelings of a badly injured person who chooses to ignore an apology. Giving unsolicited advice is unwise, and can escalate bad emotions which are already there. Even when our life experience is similar to another person’s, we do not fully understand that person’s pain.
One more important thing to consider: A person who has done the unspeakable is acting on the self-preservation instinct if the focus of his or her shared observation is “I am not a monster.”
If you’re interested in reading a thoughtful memoir by a convicted murderer (and I’m not joking about that), I recommend Stranger In Two Worlds by Jean Harris. There’s also a published collection of her letters to Shana Alexander titled Marking Time. I don’t know if either book is currently in print, but used copies are always available somewhere — one of the advantages of online shopping. There might also be electronic editions, but I haven’t checked.
I would recommend Mrs. Harris’s other book, They always Call Us Ladies, but I haven’t read all of it. The part I did read was very perceptive, and I may get back to it someday.
In case the name sounds familiar but you can’t quite place it, Jean Harris was the school headmistress who fatally shot her life partner, Dr. Herman Tawnower, during a suicide attempt in 1980. Dr. Tarnower was the author of The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet.
Jean Harris served eleven years of a minimum fifteen year sentence before New York Governor Mario Cuomo commuted her sentence in 1992. While at Bedford Hills Correctional Center, Mrs. Harris educated other inmates and worked to improve conditions for inmates’ children.
Jean Harris passed in 2012.