The Insanity of the Ron Price Case

RICHARD E. VATZ and LEE S. WEINBERG

August 18, 1993|By RICHARD E. VATZ and LEE S. WEINBERG

The squalid case of Ron Price, the Northeast High School teacher charged with having sex with minors at his school, has taken a turn for the worse. A court-appointed psychiatrist reportedly has found that Mr. Price ''suffers from compulsive sexual deviance.'' The operative word here is ''compulsive,'' which means that the psychiatrist alleges that Mr. Price cannot control what he does.

Mr. Price's lawyer commented that he was ''very pleased'' with the finding. No doubt. The success of Mr. Price's insanity plea almost certainly will rest on his ability to ''prove'' that he could not control his behavior, and psychiatric testimony to that effect is key. There surely will be further testimony supporting that claim by Mr. Price's own hired-gun psychiatrists.

Once again psychiatry is playing its time-dishonored role in exculpating criminal responsibility. How does this court-appointed psychiatrist -- or any psychiatrist -- know whether Mr. Price could control his behavior? The answer is: he doesn't.

The better minds in psychiatry admit that their profession is simply unable to assess whether a person can control his actions, especially regarding criminal behavior. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association's 1982 ''Statement on the Insanity Defense'' concedes that ''the line between an irresistible impulse and an impulse not resisted is probably no sharper than that between twilight and dusk.'' The statement goes on to question the relevance of psychiatric expertise to insanity evaluations. When the criminal justice system enlists psychiatrists to speak to whether defendants ''lacked substantial capacity to conform [their] behavior to the requirements of the law,'' the statement says, they are ''infer [ring] or intuit[ing] what is in fact unspeakable, namely, the probable relationship between medical concepts and legal or moral constructs such as free will.''

Psychiatric diagnosis in the service of insanity pleas reflects an unholy marriage of psychiatric pretension and the interests of defense lawyers. In Rita Simon and David Aaronson's book ''The Insanity Defense,'' they report on a survey taken several years ago that showed that among those in the criminal justice system, forensic psychiatrists ''were their own strongest supporters'' in believing they could ''determine whether a defendant is legally insane.'' Prosecuting attorneys were the most skeptical, followed -- surprisingly -- by forensic psychologists. The same survey revealed that defense attorneys were the strongest proponents of allowing mental health experts the broadest mandate for their testimony.''

Interestingly, the survey reveals this anomaly: Defense psychiatrists are more confident of their ability to assess insanity than they are supportive of psychiatric testimony pertaining to insanity. One could be somewhat psychoanalytic about this and charge it to the guilt of otherwise well-intentioned professionals who unconsciously doubt the wisdom of their own actions.

The Price case is striking for the mental cruelty of the alleged crimes. Mr. Price is said to have terrorized the girls he was involved with by dangling the possibility that he was infected with the virus that causes AIDS. He went on the TV talk show ''Geraldo'' to flaunt his ''mental illness,'' and taunted his accusers by blaming the young women's ''skimpy outfits'' and ''loose morals'' and by trying to sell his story for profit.

No doubt some psychiatrist will claim that this is part of the ''paraphilia'' disease, which includes the desire to humiliate one's sexual partner. Or maybe the next upgrade of psychiatry's diagnostic kit will include ''Geraldomania,'' the recurrent failure to resist impulses to appear on talk shows.

Psychiatrists are fond of pointing out the infrequency of successful insanity pleas (the plea is invoked only in 1 percent of all criminal cases and is successful only in about a quarter of those). Yet the rarity of the plea's success tends to mask the disproportionate harm it does to the public's confidence in the criminal justice system. Studies have shown that the success of the insanity plea varies inversely with the public's outrage over the alleged crime. If the public outcry is great enough, justice can be served even on a mean-spirited defendant who by all appearances is completely in control of his actions.

Richard E. Vatz is a professor of rhetoric at Towson State University. Lee S. Weinberg is associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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