I first heard of Asperger Syndrome when I was blogging about the case of William Freund. Freund was a 19-year-old from Aliso Viejo, California who donned a paintball mask and a cape,armed himself with a shotgun, and went on a neighborhood shooting spree. He entered the unlocked home of Vernon Smith and shot and killed Smith and his 22-year-old daughter Christina before turning the gun on himself and committing suicide.
Now before we go any further I’ll give you just the briefest of rundowns on Asperger’s. There are many who argue about the precise definition of Asperger’s but it is believed to be a mild form of autism in which the afflicted have an extremely hard time with social interaction. For example an AS patient may have a difficult time detecting sarcasm or reading a person’s body language and may take everything as fact. AS patients may also have an obsession with one particular subject or pastime. I realize this is just barely scratching the surface of Asperger’s but it will do for now.
William Freund’s obsession was more than likely guns. On the Asperger’s forum WrongPlanet.net Freund often spoke of wanting a real friend, being suicidal, and threatening to start a terror campaign. On the site SomethingAwful.com he asked what kind of buckshot was the best for home protection. He stated that on Halloween he was going to wait out on his porch with his shotgun and shoot anybody who tries to vandalize his pumpkins. That was possibly the worst site that he could have posted that on. The SomethingAwful community is not known to be kind to any user who posts such outrageous statements and I’m sure his Asperger’s didn’t help. The moderators of WrongPlanet tried to reach his family to tell them of the terror plot he was allegedly planning but they could not. Since Freund committed suicide no trial was ever held but at the time I commented that Asperger’s would be eventually used as a murder defense. At the time not knowing that it already had been tried.
The next time I heard about Asperger’s was from the case of John Odgren. He is the 15-year-old student from Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Massachusetts who stabbed and killed another student by the name of James Alenson in a school bathroom. Alenson was stabbed in the heart and abdomen and slashed across his face and neck with a 13-inch kitchen carving knife. Odgren is alleged to have two obsessions, forensics and his knife collection. He had a penchant of bragging to classmates that he could pull off the perfect murder. After the murder took place Odgren ran into the school hallway and admitted what he had done to school officials and police. By all accounts he didn’t act like someone who had just committed a murder. Some reports say that he was joking with police and when Crime Scene Services arrived he excitedly offered to assist them. While the case has not yet gone to trial his defense attorney was quick to offer up Asperger’s as a defense to the media.
While blogging about the Lincoln-Sudbury murder I asked some blogging doctors I know what they thought about using Asperger’s as a medical defense. One medical doctor explained to me that Asperger’s patients can sometimes have explosive episodes and that AS patients can have a lack of impulse control. A surgeon told me that since the explosive outbursts are a part of the disease he doesn’t think the suspect should be sent to prison but should be under constant supervision and a controlled environment. I asked a PhD who has a son with autism what her opinion was but I’ll get into that a little later.
Both crimes that I’ve mentioned so far do not seem like explosive episodes. Freund had been threatening to go on a rampage for a while. In my opinion John Odgren had his crime planned out very far in advance as he had the day of the murder circled on his calendar.
Yesterday I read about the story of Robert Derderian. He’s an 18-year-old who is accused of sexually molesting a 12-year-old girl and videotaping what basically amounts to rape. He has also been charged with sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl several times over the course of last summer. According to his defense attorney he may not be competent to stand trial because he has Asperger’s and autism and will not speak to his attorney. I find this claim hard to believe. One of the symptoms of autism and Asperger’s is for many sufferers is an extreme dislike of physical contact. That’s not to say that is the case for all AS and autism patients but it is rather prevalent among them.
My point is this. Any criminal defense attorney who has an iota of integrity should not use Asperger’s as a criminal defense. The PhD whose opinion I asked about this told me the following. Using autism/Asperger’s as a criminal defense is seen as having a very negative effect on the public perception and understanding of autism and Asperger’s as it suggests a direct link between autism/Asperger’s and violence.
If this becomes standard practice among defense attorneys it could lead to a sort of witch hunt against Asprerger’s patients. AS patients are probably having a hard enough time as it is without this kind of social condemnation. A few bad apples, so to speak, should not let society cast a bad light on a group of people who are already misunderstood.