It is a fiction—a socially necessary one, perhaps, but a fiction nonetheless—that all murderers are created equal. They are not. Though murder is the worst crime, murderers are not necessarily the worst criminals. In fact, contact with many of them has taught me that it is possible to abominate the crime without always abominating the criminal.
Man being a fallen creature, momentary and uncharacteristic lapses do occur. Moreover, the law’s doctrine that provocation or duress can only count as an exculpating excuse if it has immediately preceded the crime is psychologically unrealistic, though it is perhaps another socially necessary fiction. Many a straw, after all, has broken many a camel’s back; and sometimes I have found myself thinking, when listening to a murderer, that I am not sure that I would have acted so very differently had I been in his place.
Moreover, murderers are of all criminals the most prone to genuine remorse and self-reproach. Burglars rarely reproach themselves; rather, they are full of condemnation of others, from parents and police to physicians and politicians. But even murderers whose whole lives have, in retrospect, been but a preamble to murder experience a change of heart once they have killed. Their murder acts on them like a religious conversion (to which, indeed, it is sometimes a prelude); and while some killers remain psychopathically indifferent to their crimes, they are relatively few. I have met Hannibal Lecter types, but not often.
Every murder raises deep and disturbing questions, philosophical, psychological, and sociological: none more so than one in which I recently gave testimony in court. The accused was a girl aged 18, who had stabbed her 16-year-old lesbian lover to death. There could be no doubt as to who had inflicted the fatal wounds: a tape from a closed-circuit camera in the entrance hall of the accused’s apartment building showed her following her lover out of the building with a long knife in each hand, raised ready to stab, as in a too-melodramatic rendition of Lady Macbeth.
Under English law, then, only two defenses were left to her: insanity or diminished responsibility. There was no question of insanity, however. She was not, nor did she claim to be, mad. Her lawyer argued for diminished responsibility, a plea that would have made her guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter, rather than murder. While murder carries a mandatory life sentence, manslaughter allows the judge considerable discretion as to sentence: anything from an unconditional release to life in prison. The verdict is therefore worth arguing for.
But what is diminished responsibility? The Homicide Act of 1957 introduced it as a defense to the charge of murder, as a compromise with those who wished to abolish the death penalty altogether (as was enacted nine years later). The act states that a person is guilty of manslaughter, not murder, if he suffered at the time from a state of mind that substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his actions. As to what constitutes such a state of mind, a judge ruled that it was a state so different from a normal state of mind that an ordinary person—that is to say, a member of a jury—would accept it as such. But while it is for a jury to decide the question, in practice medical evidence plays a decisive role. In this case, I appeared for the prosecution: though, as I shall explain, with a heavy heart.
On the day in question, the perpetrator and her victim, who had spent the night together, rose at about one in the afternoon. This was perfectly normal for them: they were both unemployed, and they had spent the evening before (as they always did) drinking to excess and smoking marijuana. Once they had risen, the victim went to the nearest store to buy more alcohol, in the form of cheap, strong cider, sold in two- or three-liter bottles to alcoholics—no one else drinks it.
They spent the afternoon drinking and smoking more marijuana together. Then, as so often happens when people combine drugs and alcohol, an argument broke out between them. Participants describe such arguments as existing independently of those who have them—more like a meteorological phenomenon than a human one. As the accused put it, the argument got out of hand, though she could not remember exactly, or even approximately, what it was about. She went to the kitchen to fetch a knife (actually, two knives) and then returned to her lover. Her intention, as
she remembered it, was to
encourage her to leave the apartment, which she did. Unfortunately, very shortly afterward, the accused followed her, and the rest was homicide. The killer called for an ambulance, and her teenage lover all but bled to death in her arms. Her last words were “It hurts” and “I’m tired.”
Relations between the victim and perpetrator, which had begun three years earlier, since they were 13 and 15, respectively, had always been difficult, with many drug- and alcohol-fueled quarrels, often ending up with the waving of knives and other weapons. The victim’s mother said that she had always thought it would end in murder.
The issue in court was whether the killer had what is known in our over-medicalized world as a personality disorder, or what used to be called
a bad character. The World Health Organization defines personality disorders as “extreme or significant deviations from the way the average individual in a given culture perceives, thinks, feels and, particularly, relates to others. Such behavior patterns tend to be stable and to encompass multiple domains of behavior and psychological functioning. They are frequently, but not always, associated with various degrees of subjective distress and problems of social performance.” The diagnosis thus rests upon vague criteria, of doubtful validity; but it makes sense, more or less, in practice.
If the accused had such a disorder, and her actions could plausibly be attributed to it, the defense might argue that she therefore did indeed have diminished responsibility for her actions: for it is accepted without argument today that a man is not in the least responsible for his own personality or character—a far cry from Marcus Aurelius’s view 2,000 years ago that a man could, and ought to, cultivate his own character.
The use of personality disorder in such cases seems to me to be little else than a thin or even frivolous pretext for leniency, for if the argument were taken seriously it would lead to more severe punishment rather than less. If a man kills as a result of a momentary but understandable lapse, in unusual circumstances, he is guilty of murder but is unlikely to kill again; if a man kills because his character is deficient, and it is therefore the kind of thing he does, he is guilty of manslaughter but, ex hypothesi, is likely to do it again.
Not long ago, I testified in a case in which personality disorder served as an illogical pretext for leniency. A woman in her early forties, an alcoholic, had married another alcoholic and had a child by him. The father subsequently gave up drinking, separated from his wife—who continued to drink—and came to the conclusion that she was not a suitable mother for his child. He was in the process of applying for custody.
By now, the child was two years old. One day, the mother—probably drunk—dissolved the contents of her antidepressant capsules in some cough medicine and injected the solution into the child’s mouth with a syringe. The child died as a result.
Against my arguments, the jury accepted that her supposed personality disorder had diminished her responsibility, and the judge sentenced her to three years’ probation (she had already spent a year in prison by the time the case came to court). Oddly enough, in arguing that she was guilty of the more serious crime of murder rather than the less serious one of manslaughter, I was also arguing that she was less dangerous in the future than her own defense implied. I strongly suspect that, while drunk, she had said to herself something like, “If I can’t have my child, no one else will,” and had resorted to the pills with the very kind of premeditation that makes someone guilty of murder (the dissolution of her capsules and her administration of them to her daughter could hardly have been the result of a momentary lapse, after all). But since she was unlikely ever to have another child, she posed little further danger to society: the circumstances in which she killed would never arise again. There was a paradox, therefore: for the greater crime meant the lesser danger, and the lesser crime the greater danger. But the greater crime carried a penalty of mandatory severity, which seemed disproportionate to the jury, and they could avoid it only by resort to intellectual dishonesty.
In my opinion, there was no question of personality disorder in the case of the young murderess. When I visited her in prison to prepare my report to the court, I discovered—to my own great surprise, I must confess—that far from being a person of bad character, she was of good character. Or perhaps I should say: would have been of good character, had someone offered her a little loving guidance earlier in her life. For if anyone could ever have blamed her upbringing for her crime, she could have. What was impressive about her—moving even—was her steadfast refusal to do so. She blamed herself, and herself alone.
Of mixed race, she was the youngest of three children by a man who deserted her mother immediately after her birth. Apparently he had been a violent wastrel, and, as is so often the case, the mother took up soon afterward with another man of the same type but even worse—a crack-smoking criminal who was in and out of prison. When at liberty, he neither worked nor provided for any of the children (her mother had a further two children by him, making five so far).
Jealous and possessive, he was extremely violent to her mother, accusing her of having had affairs with other men while he was in prison. He broke her jaw, her ribs, and her arm on separate occasions. Sometimes she would flee from him, taking the children with her to shelters, but either he would find her and intimidate her into returning, or she would grow nostalgic for his embraces and come back to him herself. It was hardly surprising in the circumstances that the killer-to-be’s education was patchy. Thanks to her mother’s attempts to evade her lover, followed by reconciliations both voluntary and involuntary, the girl attended almost as many schools as she had years of formal education.
One of the characteristics of relationships such as that between her mother and her stepfather is their all-consuming nature, at least for the woman. She can think of, and has time for, nothing else: she is the star, albeit the unhappy one, of her own mental soap opera. In this case, the mother noticed neither the stepfather’s habitual violence toward her children by her former lover nor the fact that her oldest son was having intercourse with her daughter while the boy was between the ages of 13 and 17, and his sister was between the ages of eight and 12.
Eventually, her daughter, now 14, plucked up the courage to tell her what had happened. Her mother said she didn’t believe her, flew into a rage, and threw her out of the house. She went to stay with a friend and then asked her mother whether she could return home. As a condition of doing so, her mother made her apologize to her brother and swear never to say anything like it again.
Her mother also failed to notice that, from the age of 12, her daughter had begun to drink heavily: or if she noticed it, she considered it a matter of no importance. Her daughter skipped school in order to drink; by the evening, she was often very drunk and soon got to the stage when she drank first thing in the morning to steady her shaking hands. She was also smoking marijuana. She said that she drank and smoked to obliterate the reality of her life, which was too awful to bear unaided.
When she was 15, she went herself to the Social Services department and asked to be taken away from her home, to escape its atmosphere of violence and intimidation. The department put her into a
children’s home, where an atmosphere of violence also prevailed: drug taking and sexual predation set the tone.
It was here that she formed a lesbian relationship with a 13-year-old who lived nearby. Neither the Social Services officials who ran the home nor the parents of the 13-year-old (who came from a background similar to her eventual killer’s) were sufficiently in control to prevent the relationship from developing.
While the girl was in the children’s home, her mother finally broke with the violent, criminal, crack-smoking stepfather and at once took up with a man 15 years her junior. She immediately “caught pregnant,” as they say around here, and had her sixth child, whereupon her young lover did the usual thing in the circumstances and abandoned her to the care of the taxpayers. In the welfare state, experience teaches nothing.
Social Services regarded the killer-to-be, at the age of 16, as ready to stand on her own two feet, at least with regard to daily living, and gave her a furnished apartment of her own. She neither went to college—impossible because of her poor education—nor worked, since the various subventions she received, such as free rent and exemption from local taxes, made that not only unnecessary but uneconomic. So she spent her days in drunken and marijuana-intoxicated idleness, living intermittently with her underage lover. The two of them became the heroines of their own mental soap opera. Their quarrels and reconciliations became the focus of their whole existence, the very violence of their scenes being evidence (as far as they were concerned) of their importance and significance. And then one scene ended in murder.
When I went to see her in prison, the young killer was prey to the most profound remorse. It was several months after she had killed. She was obviously of good intelligence, though as badly educated
as most in her station in
life, despite the state’s unprecedentedly large expenditures on free and compulsory education. She wept bitterly when speaking of her crime, but not self-pityingly. She had carved the name of her dead lover on her flesh, but in no exhibitionist or histrionic spirit. She said she wanted henceforth to be good, to behave well, for the sake of the deceased. She wanted to make something of herself, that she might travel, which had always been the ambition of her dead lover. She would never drink or smoke marijuana again.
She said that prison had done her much good; it was the first place in which she had ever felt truly settled. She was going to classes to improve her English and math. She had been treated well and fairly, and felt much better both physically and mentally. I checked with the staff: she was noted for her politeness and pleasant manner. This was just as I had found her.
Although she was distressed when, at my prompting, she recounted her life to me, she never attempted in the slightest degree to insinuate that her experiences were responsible for or explained her crime (although she was still only 18, they were surely far more than any person should ever have to experience). She said, “It’s terrible that it had to come to this for me to take my own life seriously.” She meant it, if anyone ever meant anything; and hers were not the words of someone with a serious personality disorder but on the contrary of someone with a surprisingly robust and decent character.
Toward the end of our very long interview, I asked her whether there was anything she wanted to ask me. She said that there was.
“What is it?” I inquired.
“Have you ever been to a trial before?” she said.
“Yes, many times.”
“Can you tell me, will they be nasty to me?”
At this point, I felt a deep pang of sorrow: for her question was a child’s question. For all the precocity forced upon her, for all the street credibility she had no doubt assumed for the sake of survival in the brutal urban environment in which she found herself, for all the pseudo-independence thrust upon her by her feckless mother and Social Services, she was still a child, not an adult.
As I left the prison, convinced that from the purely legal standpoint she had been guilty of murder and not of manslaughter, I pondered the question of why she had found prison so good, one might almost say so liberating, an experience. (She was far from unique in this regard, incidentally.)
The answer must be that for the first time in her life she was set limits: limits that, while imposed, were intrinsically reasonable and were not therefore arbitrary or dependent upon whim. Both keeping to those limits and breaking them produced entirely predictable consequences, good or bad. For the first time in her life, she had entered a world in which things made sense, in which brute power did not determine everything. As she might have put it herself, it was a pity that she had to go to prison to be treated with consistent decency.
The prison was a long way from my home, and as I drove I thought about the meaning of this terrible story. What would a liberal say about it? How would he explain what had happened? How would he go about trying to ensure that such cases did not recur?
Would he say that the state had been insufficiently generous with its social security payments, as a result of which the murderess had suffered material deprivations that caused her to commit her crime? But her mother had brought six children into the world, all
by men who had contributed not a single penny to their upkeep. The murderess had never gone without food, was of notably strong physique, was of good stature, had never been ill, and had probably never even gone a day of her life without hot water. She
was well clothed, and though she had never worked a single day of her life, her home boasted a stove, a refrigerator, a VCR, a stereo, and no doubt many other appurtenances that would have made Nero gasp. What more should the state have done or given her in the way of material goods?
Was she the victim of a restrictive sexual code that frustrated her desires and caused her to become violent? Surely even the most liberal of liberals would blush to say so. As she was incestuously raped from the age of eight to 12, and was herself able to take up a lesbian relationship with a girl aged 13 completely unopposed either by the state or by private individuals, it is difficult to see how further sexual license could have saved the day.
Had the educational system stifled her self-esteem? Quite the reverse. Our schools have fulfilled the liberal educators’ every dream, abandoning educational achievement as their goal and systematically replacing it with nurturing self-esteem—or at least self-conceit— leaving their pupils unaware of their own disastrous ignorance, unable even to read properly, and without a counterweight to their chaotic home environments. Perhaps if the accused, and all the young people around her, had been treated with a firm but benevolent guiding hand when they were younger, the tragedy might have been averted.
Was the criminal justice system too harsh, above all on her stepfather? On her own account, he was never accused or found guilty of more than
a very small fraction of the crimes that he had actually committed. Moreover, he was repeatedly released from prison, though he had provided irrefutable evidence that he had absolutely no intention of changing his mode of life. Had he been kept in prison for as long as he so manifestly deserved, there would have been at least the possibility that his “family” might have achieved a modicum of stability.
Was the problem that the killer was unable to obtain alcohol and marijuana easily enough? Had they been available to her freely, and free of charge, from (say) the age of six, would the tragedy have been averted?
Or perhaps she was released from the children’s home at too tender an age? But the demand that adolescents be treated as autonomous adults has never been a conservative one, because it seems to conservatives to be not in accordance with human experience; rather, it is a liberal demand.
This murder, exceptional in some characteristics as it undoubtedly was, took place in a social universe that liberals have wrought, and whose realities they are too guilty or
cowardly to acknowledge. It
is a universe that has no place for children or childhood in
it. Believing that man is the product of his environment, they have nevertheless set about creating an environment from which it is truly
difficult to escape, by closing off all the avenues and bolt-holes as far as possible. They have destroyed the family
and any notion of progress
or improvement. They have made a world in which the only freedom is self-indulgence, a world from which—most terrible of all—prison can sometimes be a liberation.