Friday, April 30, 2010

A tragedy all around

Yesterday, a 19-year-old boy (or, if you go strictly by chronology, man) was convicted of first degree murder for killing another boy -- this one 15 -- three years ago at Lincoln-Sudbury High School, which is located in a tony suburb west of Boston.

There's no doubt that the killer -- John Odgren -- committed the crime. The facts -- that he walked into a boy's room at the school and stabbed James Alenson (whom he'd never met) in cold blood -- are beyond dispute. And Odgren's attorney (Jonathan Shapiro) didn't even try to challenge them.

It was about as senseless a crime as I've heard of. How could you work up such a twisted hatred of someone you've never met? And, more importantly, how could a 16-year-old boy have developed his sociopath-ism to the point where he'd thrill-kill someone in his own school?

The answer, obviously, lies in the mental health of the perpetrator.

Odgren has Asperger's Disorder, which is a mild form of autism. People with Asperger's can, typically, be highly intelligent while, at the same time, have poorly developed social skills.

We need to establish right off the bat that Asperger's sufferers are not inherently violent. There is no link ... no logical leap ... that would suggest those who suffer with it are hard-wired toward violence if a specific set of circumstances arises.

But it's also true that people with Asperger's are often victims of the same scourge that seems to affect schools all across America: bullying, taunting, hazing and social black-balling.

This isn't to say that Odgren shouldn't be accountable for what he did. It just means that there's a reason for everything, it's often complicated, and that we owe it to ourselves as a society to sort through these situations and try to gain some perspective from them.

In Massachusetts, first degree murder results in a mandatory life sentence. As a result, Odgren, who was 16 when he committed the murder, will spend the rest of his life behind bars, in a maximum security prison. His life, no doubt, will be a living hell, as all indications point to the fact that he is an emotionally immature, unstable kid who has no idea what he's in for when he's integrated within the general prison population.

Some people will say that Odgren should have taken that under consideration when he channeled his obsession with all things dark into committing a thrill-kill. They're right. People who have Asperger's generally know right from wrong. There's no inherent lack of perception here.

Shapiro argued that Odgren was the victim of a brief psychotic episode that stemmed from being delusional, and, because of that, he should have been judged not guilty by reason of insanity. That defense rarely works. Juries aren't all that willing, especially in this day and age, to excuse people from their heinous crimes. And that's how many people see it.

What they don't often see -- and what the judge in this case refused to allow to the jury to hear -- is that people judged criminally insane aren't just let loose. In an overwhelming majority of cases, they're confined for a long, long stretch to a mental health institution. Their release, if it ever happens at all, is up to a judge.

There are all kinds of jumbling emotions that come into play here. Some of them are so visceral that it's impossible to discuss them dispassionately. For example, there's a perception among people that this state in particular is way too soft on crime. We do not have the death penalty in Massachusetts (a source of constant contention for many). Also, there's a feeling that life without parole, although that would seem pretty specific, doesn't always mean life without parole.

So, a good part of the population, even in the People's Republic of Massachusetts, sometimes feels that any attempt soften the harsh reality of accountability plays into the hands of this perception. And they react accordingly. With extreme anger.

If you check the blogs on both the Boston Globe and Boston Herald, an overwhelming majority of the posters feel Odgren is going exactly where he belongs, and they don't care about anything that might happen to him once he gets there. In fact, many of the people who have posted anticipate, with barely concealed glee, the absolute most degrading future for him that you could imagine.

Again, whatever happens to John Odgren, and as degrading as it might be, can't compare to him stabbing a 15-year-old boy he didn't even know, repeatedly, until he bled to death. And I hope Shapiro never loses sight of that fact as he peels away the layers of criminal justice bureaucracy in appealing this verdict. Odgren, whatever his mental state of mind was, killed James Alenson.

Yet at the same time, these issues -- with their tremendous shades of gray -- don't always bring out the best in us. There are a lot of unfathomable things in this world, and one of the least understood, yet most exasperating, is mental illness.

And sometimes, it just seems that rather than acknowledge that the mind is one of the more undecipherable aspects of humanity, we tend to throw the blinders on when questions of mental health arise ... as if they simply do not apply. It's as if we don't always have the patience to sift through the myriad of issues connected with mental health and criminal insanity.

It's a problem we don't want to deal with. Just throw them in jail, throw away the key, and refuse to accept the fact that a person's social and mental environments -- especially if they come together in ways that clash -- can often have a tremendous impact on how he or she behaves.

And in this aspect of the case, there would appear to many culpable people. No, they didn't kill James Alenson. Nobody connected with John Odgren's case put a knife in his hand and orchestrated this horrible, brutal murder. Yet, Odgren was mainstreamed into the Lincoln-Sudbury school system -- where he'd been bullied and harassed due to his Asperger's condition.

Such bullying and taunting had reduced him to state of almost constant agitation and paranoia (neither an inherent byproduct of Asperger's as much as the natural result of a lifetime of being pushed around). Simply put, if people push you long enough, and hard enough, you eventually push back. Not always, perhaps. But enough.

There's plenty of evidence that some of the most egregious crimes involving young people -- and all you have to do is read a little about Columbine -- stem from chronic victims of bullying and social blackballing pushing back.

The problem, of course, is when they push back, they can often do it indiscriminately, and with enormously tragic results.

In this case, it set into motion a chain of events that has resulted in one boy's murder and another boy's lifetime of incarceration. There are no winners here. It's one of those cases where even the prosecution, which did the job we pay it to do, couldn't have gone home at the end of the day yesterday with anything but a horrible, empty feeling in the pits of its collective stomach.

And I'm sure none of the people in the Middlesex County District Attorney's office is jumping for joy over sending a 19-year-old kid to prison forever. I wouldn't want a D.A. who'd celebrate anything like that. I'd run to the polls to vote someone like that out of office.

In fact, Middlesex DA Gary Leone was very muted, and very respectful, in his post-verdict statements. And he also took to task the people (none of whom he chose to name specifically) who may have had a hand in being totally oblivious to the many warning signs Odgren exhibited ... signs that should have dissuaded educators from the special needs school he attended from mainstreaming him into an environment that only increased his paranoia and agitation.

But then again, we don't understand mental illness very well ... and that's not a knock on us. Mental illness is baffling even to mental health professionals -- as we've seen in this case -- so why should anyone expect people with no expertise in the field to have a good handle on it?

At the same time, though, we have to acknowledge that it exists. We have to be able to wrap ourselves around the fact that mental illness is baffling, insidious, and can lead its victims into doing things that not only harm themselves, but us as well

There is just such a wide and varying degree is sickness that it's almost impossible to say, for sure, whether or not Odgren was legally irresponsible for what he did three years ago. I don't know. And sadly, a jury trial of people with very little sophisticated knowledge of the problem themselves is probably not the best place to sort it out.

Ironically, on the same day John Odgren was found criminally responsible for first-degree murder because -- in some ways -- he pushed back tragically indiscriminately, the Massachusetts legislature passed a comprehensive anti-bullying bill.

And all I can think, as Leone himself said, is that if people had paid a bit more attention to John Odgren, and acted on his behavior accordingly, perhaps he'd never have been in a position to kill James Alenson.

This isn't to say that he wouldn't have, or couldn't have, killed someone else someday. There are no guarantees in life.

But it's possible James Alenson wouldn't have been the one to pay the ultimate price for John Odgren's lifetime of being bullied and taunted for a condition that neither he nor the rest of us truly understands.

Rest in peace James. I never had the privilege of meeting you, but there's no way to describe the feeling (I'm a father myself) I have over what this did to you, and your family. I put myself in your parents' position and a chill just goes right through me.

But it makes me just as angry to know that the person who did this to you -- John Odgren -- was allowed to fall through the cracks of the mental health system.

That never should have happened either. This is a true tragedy all around.

No comments: