Saturday, January 19, 2008

A MEASURE OF JUSTICE

I have only mentioned Karen McCarron’s killing of her daughter, Katie, a couple of times on this blog. The more recent occasion was to respond to someone I considered a friend, who had taken me to task for not discussing something I really didn’t understand. The first time was to politely suggest that restraint might be called for in discussing the matter until we truly knew what happened. I still can’t pretend to fully understand it all ⎯ I seriously doubt I will ever come to that point ⎯ but it seems appropriate to say something now.

Like most people in the greater autism community, I followed the news reports about the trial, but my experience in litigating cases (including some of a high-profile nature) taught me that the press sometimes misses nuances. So I don’t always trust the press. But I do trust juries. Although juries occasionally get it wrong, they get it right far more often.

People who serve on juries, almost without exception, take their task very seriously. That’s not to say that judges do not; most do. Jurors, though, listen with ears that have not heard it all. They watch with eyes that have not become jaded. Most importantly, jurors infuse a human element into the proceedings; they understand that their decision will have an impact on everyone involved. It is that human element that adds an extra measure of justice to the law.

In this case, the jury found Karen McCarron guilty of murder. That jury heard all of the evidence presented by the prosecution and the defense. They were able to observe the manner in which the witnesses testified. Their decision is entitled to respect. Moreover, all indications point to their having got it right this time.

There were two things reported in the press during the trial that stood out for me. The first came in the testimony of Paul McCarron, Katie’s father. This is how the Pekin Daily Times described it:
After Paul and Katie spent several months in North Carolina, where Katie received therapy, both Paul and Karen decided to move Katie back to Morton. While Paul was in North Carolina finishing his work as an engineer with Caterpillar Inc., Karen brought Katie back.

However, prior to Katie’s return, Karen asked Paul what he thought about putting Katie up for adoption.

When asked by Johnson how he replied to this, Paul said, “No way in hell.”
As a parent, I immediately identified with Mr. McCarron’s sentiments. There is no way in hell I would ever disown any child of mine, autistic or neurotypical. Karen McCarron’s idea of doing that to her child displayed a complete disconnection to her daughter that I cannot fathom. She committed the worst sin a parent can commit; she lost hope.

Of course, the defense in this case was based on mental illness. And the presence of mental illness seems pretty likely. Did it stem from the inability to accept a child’s disability after trying so hard to have a family (the Daily Times report cites two prior miscarriages)? Was it because Karen McCarron went off of her medications, or could it even have stemmed from being on the medications in the first place? Although it is human nature to speculate on such things, at the end of the day the cause of the mental illness is irrelevant. Whatever role mental illness played in Karen McCarron’s actions, the illness does not absolve her of legal or moral culpability for the murder.

I’m not sure what standard Illinois recognizes for an insanity defense, but I assume it is either the traditional McNaughton rule, or something similar. This is what I previously wrote on that subject:
There have been many comments made in various places about the mental state of the mother, but that does not begin to provide an answer about her moral culpability, or lack thereof.

As a very general statement, I think the McNaughton rule, recognized by most American jurisdictions in determining insanity as an exculpatory defense, stands as one of the rare instances in which law and morality actually match up. The test is whether an alleged perpetrator could appreciate the distinction between “right” and “wrong” at the time of an otherwise criminal event. That test is not satisfied if the defendant was unaware of a specific law, or if the defendant felt a mere moral justification. Rather, the rule tests whether the specific individual was intellectually, mentally, and emotionally capable of understanding that the ethics and mores of society hold the act to be wrong. My personal feeling has always been that any person who is capable of that understanding is under a moral obligation to seek help if he/she feels that he/she may have difficulty controlling an immoral or illegal impulse.
That leads to the second telling moment of the trial, as reported in the Associated Press:
In a videotaped confession played in court Thursday, McCarron said she began having thoughts of hurting her daughter a year before the May 2006 slaying but put them out of her mind. On the day of the killing, though, the thoughts were stronger than ever.

“They were so intense,” McCarron said.
The video continued with Karen McCarron’s description of the murder ⎯ a description that is detailed, graphic, and horrifying. Then came the kind of question that good, experienced investigators ask:
Interviewers asked McCarron if she knew what she did was criminally wrong.

“I have enough education to know that,” she answered.
The jury got it right. Karen McCarron is guilty. And it’s important that we in the “cure” community say it.

It’s important because the excuses Karen McCarron threw out in that videotaped confession were themes that are identified ⎯ correctly or not ⎯ with us. She said she felt guilty over the vaccinations Katie received and she was distraught because the interventions she used failed to deliver a child free of autism. And it’s important for us to say it because, after the murder occurred, many in our community questioned what external problems may have been a factor. Many were folks who were struggling to understand how someone they considered a friend could have committed the worst of crimes. Well, we may not fully understand the “why,” but we now know that a lack of services had nothing to do with this tragedy.

This murder occurred because a mother stopped seeing humanity in her child. She couldn’t see her child at all: only the autism. Despite what our friends in the neurodiversity movement may say, I refuse to believe that such a failure is common among cure-oriented parents. But if that failure is part of any parent’s thought process, it is something we must all fight.

After the verdict, Paul McCarron released a statement that has found its way onto several sites. This is how it ends:
I ask all parents and especially those of children with disabilities to ALWAYS love your children and be proud of them. Cherish every moment you have with them. Love, patience and tender efforts are the best therapies.
Indeed. I have said before that the love of a parent is the most important intervention for an autistic child. That love must be our guide in all other interventions. That love must keep us honest so that we may constantly examine our path anew lest we put our children in harm’s way. That love must give us hope to persevere.


9 Comments:

Anonymous SCR said...

You forgot to mention that Karen McCarron was being treated for a mental illness. I am sure her treatment included some type of SSR medication. I just recently read an article which discussed SSR use and mothers killing their children. Colombine and the incident last year at Virginia Tech have all been linked to SSR use. They have black box warnings for suicide on some of these drugs. Maybe some of the blame should be on the drug companies. Doctors tend to treat a symptom with a chemical that causes more problems, IMHO.

1/19/08, 11:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a pro-cure parent who was shocked at this incident from the beginning. There is NEVER any excuse for doing what she did.

1/20/08, 8:46 AM  
Blogger Wade Rankin said...

scr,

I have no doubt that Karen McCarron was mentally ill, that the mental illness played a major role in her actions, and even that her taking SSRs contributed to that mental illness. Nevertheless, Karen McCarron was guilty.

There is no indication that she had a psychotic break with reality so severe that she did not understand the basic wrongness of her actions. As long as she could understand that, she was under a moral and legal obligation to protect her child, an obligation she could have fulfilled by bringing the child to family members.

1/20/08, 9:31 AM  
Blogger Robin Nemeth said...

The public is losing faith in the media as well as the CDC. Or, maybe it’s just me.

I’ve had people tell me it’s not that odd, really, that ten days before her conviction was the first I’d heard of Karen McCarron. The pathologist who killed her three year old autistic daughter Katie by suffocating her with a plastic bag.

I’ve also had a person tell me (it was my husband as it happens) that it’s not really that odd that, on the day of her conviction, when I went to Google her name in order to find a particular Associated Press story I’d seen about her online a week earlier, I could no longer find that particular story. Not by doing a search—either a Google web search or a Google news search—on her name. No, I had to actually do a search on these words, which I cut directly out of the AP story of a week earlier

‘McCarron, a former pathologist, testified she felt responsible for Katie's autism because she allowed the child to get vaccinated.’

to find that particular AP story via a Google search.

The story, which you can see here

http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5gzi4G83F97PxaZn6ctuLeZ9l5tkwD8U453JG0

also speaks of a videotaped confession which Karen made, sitting next to her husband from her hospital bed, where she’d been taken after a suicide attempt.

I read of this confession and I have to say that I felt a small stab of relief to hear that her husband, Paul, was sitting next to her, when she made the confession. I know that many women with autistic children face their ordeal alone, and I told myself how very nice that, finally, it seemed that some of the men seemed to be getting on board.

However when I learned of Karen’s conviction, a week later, I did some more reading about her, on the internet, and I learned some new things. I learned that her husband Paul is going to divorce her. I learned that she could face as much as forty to one hundred years in prison. (Well, says my husband, of course he’s going to divorce her. She’ll be spending the next few decades at least in prison, and she did murder his child.)

I wonder if Paul, who I have now learned is divorcing his wife, was sitting beside her when she testified about her belief that she was responsible for her child’s autism since it was she who took the child to be vaccinated.

Well, the whole story is really very sad, and it’s understandable I suppose that many wouldn’t want to speak of it, and I suppose there really isn’t anything left to say about it anyway.

Of course then I’ve always had this problem where I never really seem to understand just what is socially acceptable to do, and what isn’t. And so I keep on talking about it. At this point, one thing that I would like to know is this. Who is responsible for sentencing Karen? The judge, or the jury? I guess I would expect it would be the judge, simply because it’s the judge who so often determines which expert testimony is allowable in cases which involve a great deal of scientific controversy. I can’t understand why that is, really, but it’s what I have heard. What your typical judge knows about science that your average American doesn’t know is beyond me. But, as my husband said, somebody has to decide which expert testimony is admissible, and which isn’t. You’d think perhaps the defendant or the prosecutor might have a say. But I’m not a lawyer, and these things confuse me.

Just out of curiousity, I had a look at the sites that Google did turn up, when I searched the words ‘Karen McCarron’, immediately after I learned of her conviction. I clicked on all of the top links that came up, and I did a word search on each of the pages for the word ‘vaccine’. I did this for the top six or eight sites that came up, for both the Google news search, and the Google web search.

The word ‘vaccine’ did not show up on any of those sites, even once.

Sheesh, and just when I’d started telling myself that perhaps I’m too focused on thimerosal, and perhaps I should be thinking more about fish, or light bulbs, or aluminum, or bismuth or something.

My husband says he doesn’t find this at all odd. He doesn’t see this as a spin of omission. (He understands a great deal better than I do, he seems to think, how it is that sites get to the top of the Google search engines. While he didn’t do a very good job explaining it to me, I think that it is supposed to have something to do with which sites people look for and visit the most.) Oh well, everyone is entitled to their opinion, I guess. I find that I can’t help wondering, though, if the fact that some of the work he does at NASA, involving funds which come from people at the Cleveland Clinic, has some impact on his thoughts about this topic. I don’t know if this would have any affect on his views on this matter, or not. I like to think it wouldn’t. All I know is that the whole icky story and the whole icky outcome has put me in rather a funk.

Which I have to say I’m a bit afraid to speak of. Lest someone express the opinion that perhaps a Doctor could ‘fix’ me up, with just the proper drug.

Robin Nemeth

1/20/08, 3:08 PM  
Blogger Robin Nemeth said...

I would like to clarify that the guilty verdict isn't an outcome that I find icky. Of course, she is guilty. I understand that. But I hope that the jury is responsible for sentencing, as I believe that they will be more likely than the judge to understand and have some respect for the possibility that there are other people who share some of the responsibility with her.

Robin Nemeth

1/20/08, 3:22 PM  
Blogger Wade Rankin said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1/20/08, 4:24 PM  
Blogger Wade Rankin said...

Robin,

The general rule is that the judge, rather than the jury, will sentence a defendant. (The most obvious exception is that most states require a jury to determine whether the death sentence is appropriate, which is not the case here.) Sentencing usually follows additional proceedings, which may involve a presentence investigation to take into account all circumstances, both aggravating and mitigating. There may also be a hearing, at which time members of the McCarron family may once again be given the opportunity to say something. Again, I am speaking generally as do not know the ins and outs of Illinois criminal procedure.

As to your comments on the control of expert testimony by judges, that is a big subject that I hope to tackle some day. it's certainly not as simple as some bloggers seem to think it is.

Thanks for adding to the dialog.

1/20/08, 4:52 PM  
Blogger Brett said...

Wade,

These two sentences of yours sum up the situation perfectly:

This murder occurred because a mother stopped seeing humanity in her child. She couldn’t see her child at all: only the autism.

I sincerely hope that more in the "cure" community think this way, but I have to admit I have my doubts. Like you, I would like to believe that this failure is not common among any group of parents, but then I think of how Portia Iverson and Jenny McCarthy (for example) describe their feelings about their sons once they learn of the diagnosis (to paraphrase, "my son was gone, I had to get him back") and use the quest to regain their son's humanity as the inspiration for their dedication to finding a cure.

1/23/08, 3:11 PM  
Blogger Wade Rankin said...

Brett,

Your comments are always welcome. I have to admit that I have not read Ms. Iverson's book. And I can't say that I really think of her as being part of the "cure" community (notwithstanding the rather inapt name of the organization she co-founded). As for Ms. McCarthy, there are statements she has made with which I agree, and statements with which I disagree. Although I don't personally use the child-being-taken metaphors, I find them somewhat more benign -- at least with some parents use of that language -- than do you. It can refer to the interruption of the natural process by which a child develops into what he/she would have but for a regression into autism. I would agree, however, that we should not consider children taken from us merely because they cannot match our own fantasy of what that child should be. I believe that the attitude of people like Ms. McCarthy -- who embarked on a path of cure because she saw the child through the autism -- is a LOT different than Karen McCarron who could not see her child at all.

As I have said in the past, acceptance of our children is not the same as accepting the inevitability of a disability. I'd like to think that's how most of us think.

Most of the "curebie" reaction to the verdict has been pretty much along the lines of a belief that justice has been served. There is a lot of discussion about the potential causes of Karen McCarron's apparent mental illness (particularly the possible role that psychiatric medications might have played), but very few accept the notion that any illness was sufficient to vitiate her culpability.

1/23/08, 8:40 PM  

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