Kids Who Kill for a Coat

Defining Responsibility Down

Three Milwaukee teenagers went on a robbing spree, holding up people on the street and stealing their coats and jewelry. But their crime soon escalated from robbery to murder. When an intended victim refused to give up her coat, one of the teenagers-a girl named Lisa-pulled out a gun and shot her, then ripped the coat off her body.

Why would a teenager kill for a coat?

In court Lisa’s lawyer pleaded insanity. The girl suffered from “urban psychosis,” the lawyer said, a psychiatric disorder caused by living in a violent inner-city environment, similar to the stress suffered by soldiers on the battlefield.

It was a novel legal defense, but a dubious one. Evidence showed that Lisa was fully sane and not at all psychotic at the time she committed the crime.

The good news is that the jury didn’t buy the urban-psychosis defense. The bad news is that another jury did. In a separate case, a man was charged in a stabbing death. His lawyer applied the urban-psychosis defense, arguing that the man had grown up in a violent family and that he was sexually assaulted while in prison for an earlier crime.

The charges were reduced from first-degree murder to manslaughter.

This could be the beginning of a troubling trend. As columnist Charles Krauthammer argues, “these newfangled psychiatric syndromes are so elastic that one can always find some expert witness willing . . . to pin an extenuating diagnosis on just about anybody.”

And if these “syndromes” are grounds for acquittal, where is justice? “If murder in the ghetto is a failure of stress management rather than a crime,” writes Krauthammer, “we might as well give up policing” the inner city and just call in the psychiatrists.

And why limit it to the inner cities? After all, everybody suffers some form of deprivation or stress. When the president of American University was discovered making obscene phone calls, he claimed his actions were caused by childhood sexual abuse.

What we’re seeing here is the use of psychiatry to trivialize the law. No one can deny that it is traumatic growing up in the ghetto or in a violent home.

But that does not excuse criminality.

In fact, the worst thing you can do to people who have suffered trauma is to absolve them of responsibility. When you do that, you’re telling them in essence that they have no control over their lives; you condemn them to being controlled by the painful things they have suffered.

The Bible teaches that we are morally accountable to God for everything we do. This is not a harsh teaching. Instead, it’s a way of giving people hope-hope that they can overcome their background, no matter how bad it was; hope that God can give them a better life.

That He can cure even newfangled syndromes like urban psychosis.

That’s why Prison Fellowship volunteers go into prisons to bring God’s Word to people like Lisa. A childhood of dodging bullets in the ghetto is no way to grow up. But it doesn’t exonerate her for her crime. Lisa has been dealt a hard hand, but she’s responsible for how she plays it.

And with God’s help she can turn that hand into a winner.


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