Kristen Nelson on The Myth of the Evil Defendant

Kristen Nelson is one of the amazing attorneys with the Colorado Public Defender's Office who represented James Holmes, the young man who was charged and ultimately convicted in the Aurora theater shooting case. She wrote an excellent piece for the National Association of Public Defenders entitled "The Myth of the “Evil” Defendant: Reflections on the Aurora Theater Shooting Case".

In it, she describes the characterizations of Mr. Holmes as "evil" by members of the media, the public, and especially the prosecutors in his case. She explores the origins of the pervasive myth that the only explanation for how and why a person would do such horrible things is simply because they are evil.

As a criminal defense attorney and former public defender, this is a concept that I've thought about a lot. It's something that keeps you up the night before a jury trial, wondering if the people on your jury will see the humanity in your client and not just focus on the worst thing he or she ever did. I completely agree with Ms. Nelson that it's much easier and cleaner to simply characterize people as either good or bad. In many ways, our society is built around these binary choices: right vs. wrong, innocent vs. guilty, criminal vs. victim. It's so much easier to quickly sort people into a category and move on. It's also lazy and intellectually dishonest.

This way of thinking relieves us of the burden of actually looking at the infinite complexities of human beings and the countless factors that make each of us who we are. We are only barely beginning to understand how genetics play a role in our personalities, predispositions, and choices. The way we treat mental illness today is vastly different from how we viewed it even 50 years ago. What new insights will we have 50 years from now? What "common knowledge" that exits today will be viewed as antiquated myths in the not-so-distant future?

I have a family member who suffers from schizophrenia. Just like Mr. Holmes, my family member was an intelligent, athletic, talented young man with a bright future ahead of him. Just like Mr. Holmes, he began exhibiting symptoms of the disease in his early 20's. Just like Mr. Holmes, he withdrew from his family and friends and developed paranoid delusions about how the world "really" worked and acted upon those beliefs. Unlike Mr. Holmes, members of my family were able to intervene and get him the treatment that he needed before it was too late. Would he have ever hurt anyone? Who knows. That's kind of the point.

I've represented mentally ill individuals who were convinced that they could telepathically communicate with dead celebrities and politicians, or that they had found a secret formula to solving all of life's mysteries, or that they were a supernatural being. I've often wondered: what if these poor individuals were gripped with the kind of homicidal obsessions that overtook Mr. Holmes' mind rather than the relatively harmless ones I just mentioned? Why did one person's brain decide to fixate on radio waives from outer space as opposed to killing people to increase their self-worth? Maybe there is no answer. Almost certainly, these individuals could not choose what obsessions their brain would develop any more than they could choose to have a disease in the first place.

But that's not a very satisfying explanation, possibly because it doesn't present us with a very satisfying solution: allocate millions (probably billions) of dollars for mental health care workers, treatment facilities, medications, long-term housing, early intervention services, not to mention completely restructuring our criminal justice system. That's an enormously daunting task. Where do you even start? But locking someone up - or even executing them - presents a much simpler and cheaper solution (ignoring the horrifying costs of mass incarceration, of course). In many ways, you could say the system is very much invested in the idea of evil.

Even though I'm no longer a public defender, this belief about criminal defendants being evil poisons the entire system and seeps into other aspects of our society. It's important for all of us to continually fight against the system's portrayal of our clients as bad people. Our job is to slow the system down and force it to look at our clients' humanity, and to push back against this dangerous belief that criminal defendants are just bad people who do bad things. After all, there but for the grace of God go I.


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