Law enters a dark alley as lawyers blame crimes on an assortment of fears Syndrome Abuse

April 05, 1995|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

The game is Name That Syndrome, in which criminal lawyers portray their clients as victims of emotional disorder, not accountable for their actions. It's been going on for years and now we are awash in syndromes, syndromes to cover killing, beating, sexual abuse. There's even one for tax evasion called "failure to file syndrome."

This syndrome of syndromes is a murky stew, a mix of legal tactics, forensic psychiatry and a sprinkling of recovery movement ethics. Some parts genuine, others bogus. "Battered spouse syndrome" has been recognized by many psychologists as an emotional illness; "football widow syndrome," used by lawyers to defend a Florida woman accused of shooting her husband, doesn't qualify.

The latest variation on the syndrome theme is unfolding this week in Baltimore City Circuit Court, where 62-year-old Nathaniel Hurt is on trial in the murder of a 13-year-old neighbor. In his opening statement, Mr. Hurt's lawyer described him as a law-abiding man driven to violence by the incessant harassment of neighborhood youths, a victim of "urban fear syndrome."

Mr. Hurt's lawyer, Stephen L. Miles, says he will show that because Mr. Hurt lives on North Avenue in a dangerous neighborhood, he sees threats differently from people who live in relatively safe areas. Therefore, the theory goes, he's inclined to react differently.

Prosecutors say Mr. Hurt fired a .357 Magnum revolver into a group of boys Oct. 10 after some of them shattered his car windshield with bricks and broken bottles. One bullet struck and killed Vernon Lee Holmes Jr.

Mr. Miles plans to call as a witness sociologist William Chambliss, a professor at George Washington University. In a 2 1/2 -page report to Mr. Miles, Mr. Chambliss says that one cannot judge whether someone acted " 'reasonably' in the face of a criminal threat" without considering where the threat occurred.

East Baltimore is a high-crime area, writes Mr. Chambliss. It stands to reason that people in high-crime areas, especially people over 60, are more fearful of crime.

Fear in the inner city, he writes, "has reached epidemic proportions." The pervasive threat of violence in such neighborhoods justifies "far more drastic and immediate action to avoid possible bodily harm than would be reasonable or necessary in less violent sections of the city."

Nowhere in the report does Mr. Chambliss use the word "syndrome," or the phrase "urban fear syndrome." This is Mr. Miles' contribution to the lexicon that already includes "urban survival syndrome" and "urban psychosis," used by defense lawyers in murder cases in Texas and Milwaukee, respectively.

"They're all of a piece," says Stephen J. Morse, a lawyer and psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, whose article "The New Syndrome Excuse Syndrome" will be published next month in Criminal Justice Ethics.

While he made it clear he wasn't commenting specifically on the Hurt case, Mr. Morse calls the trend troubling.

"You have the danger of confusing courts, judges and juries with a lot of soft science," he says. "Just because behavior is caused doesn't mean it's excused. . . . You run the risk of deforming the law."

John Monahan, a psychologist who teaches at the University of Virginia Law School, agrees.

"The criminal law could not exist as we know it if everyone who lives in the city were immune from criminal law," he says.

Not an excuse

As social scientists learn more about human behavior, says Mr. Monahan, "there is a temptation by some people to equate understanding with excuse. But to understand something is not to excuse it."

Each of the various "syndromes" has been included in a type of state-of-mind defense. They have been used chiefly as a basis of an insanity defense or to make it easier to argue self-defense.

Mr. Miles argued in his opening statement that Mr. Hurt acted out of a legitimate fear because he lived in such a dangerous neighborhood.

Milwaukee lawyer Robin Shellow, who specializes in defending children accused of murder, says the impact of inner-city violence is too profound to be ignored. If not completely excused, acts of violence at least "are mitigated in that environment," she says. "I really believe that."

In 1992, she argued that when 17-year-old Felicia Morgan shot and killed another teen-age girl, she was suffering delusions caused by a life of violence inside and outside her home. Morgan was examined by psychiatrists and diagnosed with a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, recognized as a distinct mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. The doctors in the Morgan case did not use the phrase "urban psychosis," however.

Tip of the iceberg

"I made it up," says Ms. Shellow. So little is known about the emotional impact of violence on inner-city people that "we don't even have names for what these kids experience," she says. "I think we haven't seen the tip of the psychological iceberg in terms of this violence."

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