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Punishment severe and without mercy


I came home from the final day of Vince Greer’s murder trial and sank into the sofa. My husband looked up. “You OK?” he asked warily.

“Yeah, I am. I think this is one time when the evidence of mental illness is so strong, even a jury in St. Louis County (where nobody’s bought the defense in four decades) can’t ignore it.”

“Babe -- “ my husband broke off, knowing I’d already heard his lecture on the selfishness, fear and ignorance of the human species, and his attendant warning not to get my hopes up. I was way too involved in this story: A sweet, smart kid, star athlete and Presidential Scholar, well-loved by his family, teachers and friends for the first 14 years of his life, begins withdrawing, holing up in the basement, failing classes, talking about suicide to his girlfriend, running away from home and -- he later told psychiatrists -- hearing voices say he was worthless, ugly and stupid, and might as well die.

Instead he opened fire on his parents, wounding his father and killing his mother. When his dad finally wrestled him to the ground and asked him, sobbing, “How could you do this to your family?” Vince replied, “Dad, I don’t know.” Police officers remember seeing Vince squatting, barefoot and expressionless, in broken glass, staring at his bloodied hands. He’d just turned 15.

Now, two years later, the jury was about to decide his fate. They’d heard a respected adolescent psychiatrist diagnose him with schizophrenia and an independent, court-appointed forensic psychiatrist agree. The forensic expert had given 22 reasons to believe Vince was reporting genuine hallucinations, including an array of consistent clinical details the boy could have found only in densely specialized forensic journals.

Of course, the jury had also heard a court-appointed forensic psychologist (who’d seen only a handful of schizophrenia cases in her life) pronounce the “voices” neither genuine nor feigned, but simply Vince’s misperception. Through it all, they’d heard the prosecutor repeatedly characterize Vince’s downslide as typical teenage behavior. The state proposed that Vince had shot his father and killed his mother “for a completely stupid adolescent reason: I’m grounded, I took the truck [he’d borrowed his dad’s truck without permission one night the previous week], I ran away, it’s all over.”

In other words, they blamed matricide on puberty.

Nobody who knew the boy agreed. Vince’s mom had died with the names of child psychiatrists in her purse, because her husband had finally agreed -- too late -- to accept the school principal’s urgent recommendation of professional help. Vince’s family hoped he could be committed to a secure psychiatric institution where he’d get treatment. That’s what Vince’s dad wanted, and that’s what his mom’s family wanted, too.

After 12 hours of deliberation, the jurors found him guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced him to life in prison without parole.

“What would it take?” I blurted, tears streaming down my face, their salt melting the last thin coat of professional objectivity.

People advanced reasons for the verdict -- the jurors wanted to go home; they’d gotten stuck on the legal definition of wrongfulness; the law governing a mental-illness defense was shaped in the 18th and 19th centuries and didn’t mesh with the realities of psychiatric symptoms. ...

I tracked down one of the jurors and asked how they chose murder one.

“We just thought he was fed up with his parents and school,” the juror told me. “He was just angry enough.”

Because they recognized familiar “teenage” misbehavior (he smoked pot, had sex with his girlfriend), they decided Vince couldn’t be as sick as the defense said.

The concept that hallucinations could make a boy do something horrific was utterly alien and therefore untenable. The fact that Vince could talk coherently about what he’d done convinced them he was rational.

“Psychosis has nothing to do with the ability to think,” the child psychiatrist had tried to explain. But the idea that hallucinations can affect only part of the mind yet command and compel horrific behavior -- that slid like water off oilcloth.

What stuck with jurors was the way the prosecutor mocked Vince’s claim that the command to “pull the trigger, everything will be easier” came from God. When the forensic psychiatrist tried to explain the power of such a hallucination, the prosecutor cut in swiftly: “God wouldn’t say that.” Several jurors’ heads nodded agreement.

Later, the psychiatrist reminded me of something he hadn’t wanted to bring up in a secular courtroom: that God told Abraham to kill his son, and Abraham, knowing full well it was wrong, climbed to a high rock, took up his sword and stood there, poised to obey.

How do any of us know how a sickened brain might filter a command hallucination? Or what impulses we’d obey in a state of mental chaos? Or what God really does want of us?

The jurors thought they knew. A few of them even considered voting “not guilty by reason of mental disease” to spare Vince life imprisonment, the juror confided, but they were afraid he might be pronounced well and released before he’d been sufficiently punished.

“I think what operates in their mind is that there is a bad act, so somebody has to be punished, and insanity is not a punishment,” the psychiatrist said slowly. “The Judeo-Christian belief that you punish those who have transgressed against others has been ingrained in us since childhood.

“As a society, we’re bumping up against the differences in psychiatry and the law,” he continued. “Psychiatry says, ‘Here’s the reason for the act.’ The law says, ‘If the person committed the act, he is to be punished.’ “

What Christianity says, nobody seems quite sure.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative weekly newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2000