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Terri Mauro

Asperger Syndrome Used as Defense in Murder Trials

By January 23, 2007

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Are kids with Asperger syndrome natural-born killers?

That seems to be the thinking behind some recent murder cases that have used AS as a mitigating factor to explain a defendant's violent behavior and cast doubt on soundness of mind and appreciation of criminal responsibility. According to a Boston Globe article, "the Autism Society of America said there have been 22 criminal cases in the United States since 2002 in which convictions were avoided in part because of an Asperger syndrome diagnosis."

That strategy is being tried again in the case of John Odgren, a 16-year-old who is accused of stabbing a 15-year-old classmate to death after a fight that began in a school bathroom. Again according to the Boston Globe article, Ogdren's "attorney, Jonathan Shapiro, said Odgren has Asperger syndrome and has been taking medications for many years. Shapiro, who did not return a call Saturday, told the court on Friday that Odgren has a 'serious disability.'"

Not to diminish the potential seriousness of an Asperger's diagnosis, or the social isolation and anquish teens with AS may feel, but -- is it appropriate to be using the syndrome as a murder defense in this way? Does it unfairly make kids with Asperger's seem more weird and dangerous in the eyes of the public, thereby increasing that social isolation? And is it irresponsible to blame Asperger syndrome for behavior that may be more related to coexisting mental illness and, possibly, the medication used to manage it?

Express your opinion in the poll at right, and share your thoughts in the comments.

January 23, 2007 at 6:33 pm
(1) Cynthia Whitfield says:

I also thought this was strange Terri, especially after I read the number of cases it was used as a defense. It would be unfair to stereotype people with Asperger’s as violent.

It could be, after careful studies are done, we find that people with Aspergers, given certain environments, may be somewhat more prone to a number of behaviors, including aggression, than the rest of the population. People who are vulnerable for whatever reason –mental retardation, poverty, etc., are likely to have more stresses than those experienced by people who are NT and middle-class. That would point to a need for more and better supports. But most people, given the same disability and/or same circumstances would never seriously hurt someone else. And people without disabilities can break under pressure or under quickly esculating mental processes and commit crimes, and so on. It is really complicated.

The thing is, to my knowledge, there is absolutely no evidence that people with Asperger’s are any more or less violent than the regular population, and that should be noted in all of these media accounts.

I would prefer the media stick to the red flags about this boy — his interest in weapons and violence, some of the violent things he said — as the presenting problem, rather than his Asperger’s. Any teen with obsessions like these, no matter what disability or lack thereof, is a cause for great concern — as we’re seeing over and over again.

I think the real problem is surely mental illness. People with Asperger’s are not any more immune to mental illness than the rest of the population. Having one thing doesn’t mean you can’t have the other.

January 24, 2007 at 5:18 pm
(2) Sharilyn says:

Any one with any dealings with Asperger’s knows that they are very rule orientated. My son has Aspeger’s and yes he gets mad just like everyone else BUT i have taught him that it is ok to get mad BUT you are never allowed to hurt another person. So that being the rule. He does not break it. There seems to be other reason’s for these people losing control. Not to say that Asperger’s people don’t lose control but in order to make that jugdement I would need to know more about the case. I am afraid that people will get the wrong idea about aspie’s. My son has been the easiest to raise out of all my children.

February 4, 2007 at 1:26 pm
(3) Karen says:

Should Asperger’s be used as a defense for murder? No more than being human should be used as a defense.

Yes, I believe that my son’s anger goes deeper than “normal” (and part of that may simply be that he’s been the recipient of behavior that’s bullying and demeaning), and his reactions are often more violent than situations appear to merit — BUT — knowing him, I also know that his reaction is much the same as that of a small dog who is afraid — what a trainer might call a “fear biter.” He’s a little dog who warns, loudly and immediately, anyone who appears to be about to bully him, that he will not be bullied anymore — and he’s saying, “Leave me alone; I hurt,” even if others don’t understand his language. Because he has felt unprotected (by those in authority), his reaction is anger and “pushing back”. I’ve seen him cry, watching movies, as he saw what he perceived to be injustice, and, at school, his instinct has always been to “barge in”, often very unwisely, trying to protect those he perceives to be in need of protection. At heart, he’s a very gentle, very sad, very lonely, and very afraid, young man. Would he commit murder? No way. And as he grows into young adulthood, I’m watching him learning to manage his various handicaps with courage and grace. I’m very proud of him.

Unfortuately, I do believe that people with Asperger’s Syndrome, who have not received love and firm guidance, who’ve felt rejected even by parents, could become so alienated that murder wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility. It’s tragic that pain can go that deep — to become an all-consuming bitterness and rage that spills over into such an act. But I have also wondered, seeing my own son’s frustration and rage, what he might have become without the love he receives here, in his home, from us, his parents, and from his adult sister and her family. This is a young man who absolutely worships his little niece and nephew, though he sometimes isn’t quite sure how to relate to them! He’s also a boy who loves animals — especially baby animals — anything “cuddly.”

Murder? Nope. But will he shove you aside if you get in his way? Probably — and not even know he’s offended, he’s so single-minded. And if you tell him, he’ll be embarrassed and go into “defense” mode, and tell you it was all your fault — but later he’ll come back and say he’s sorry, because his heart is that soft, and because he wants so much to be accepted and appoved. This is a big step (to be able to apologize); it’s taken many years of his working with himself. It’s still hard for him to admit when he has been wrong; it used to be impossible!

February 6, 2007 at 4:31 pm
(4) Cynthia Whitfield says:

We have to be careful about assuming parents have rejected their kids, leading them to become alienated and violent. The most loving parents in the world cannot control everything. Mental health issues can develop in children with perfectly loving and knowledgeable parents. My friend was very loving and gave firm guidance to her daughter, who continued to act out, flunk out and act aggressive. I see a scary thing arising here sometimes of assuming that if a child has trouble, it must be because the parents didn’t do things right.

May 23, 2008 at 11:59 pm
(5) xyr says:

The Autism Society of America has statistics that show that in a 6 year period, AS was used as a defense for 20 violent crime cases, or 3.6 per year for the period convered. An estimated 1,417,745 violent crimes occurred nationwide in 2006. Look at the last numeral in the figure 1,417,745. The number using AS as a defense is less than that. It’s not the people with Asperger’s I am worried about. I have AS and can’t even kill a mouse when it gets into the house.

November 17, 2008 at 12:27 pm
(6) Dar says:

I believe that AS SHOULDN’T be used as a denfense; whose to say that the person isn’t using it as just a scapegoat?

Aspies are not as helpless as they make themselves out to be. I know this because I’ve known people with AS; but got annoyed because they used it as a scapegoat for everything bad they do.

I have PDD-NOS; I was diagnosed at 3. I used to have a hella lot of social problems, but as I got older, I got better.

Now then, if I happened to do something extreme, would I blame it on PDD? Hell no. The reason being behind that is that I know that it is not the full reason for my reaction and that I should’ve responded more apporopriately.

December 13, 2008 at 6:21 am
(7) legalmominNY says:

My child has a severe case of Aspergers Syndrome, which has components of OCD, Anxiety, & Schizophrenia. He has very loud and violent out breaks that happen periodically usually due to his poor anger management skills and the OCD/anxiety components. At times, he is unable to control this due to his developmental disability. It usually evolves around being told to “stop” or during transition from the simplest things. That happens as a result of being obsessed or fixated on a thought and he must carry it out or he explodes. It is usually a feeling or need he has to satisfy when this occurs.
I believe that ASD is a qualifying factor to use in legal defense BUT, all circumstances must be considered case by case. It shouldn’t be the only defense reason. ASD kids are not “dumb” and some know how to use their disability to get away with unmoral or manipulative behavior. Experts in ASD need to be brought in on this defense to prove that the manifestation was truly due to his disability and self defense, not bad morals. If the ruling is not jail, there MUST be a place for them to be(RTF) for a period of time until they are under better control for an extended period of time. RTC’s by DSS are not qualified to handle kids of this nature and should not be part of the solution. We know, our kid was in one. He was in an RTF for 3 yrsalso and that was the only treatment program that was beneficial to him.
Church is also a must for these kids to help them get better grounded morally and expand the support system for them and their families. It provides stability and pattern, something these children’s systems crave. It also teaches personal responsibility.

This is a very difficult parenting situation as well as a legal situation. I still believe a family does not have to put up with violent behavior as well if it is damaging the mental and physical well being of the rest of the family members. There has to be a legal process in the family court system that allows to have the child removed legally if it is unsafe for for the family and/or the child. They can be removed by local authorities during violent episodes, but you have to insist they must get evaluated by doctors immediately at your local ER. I believe the legal system and MH and OMRDD systems need to have a better system of process in place specifically designed for children with autism spectrum disorders.

Throwing disabled kids in jail doesn’t correct their behavior as it might be a deterrent for someone with no disability issues. For ASD kids, jail isn’t the answer, an RTF is. I know first hand, we have gone through every route with our child. Now that he’s 16, I am worried what can happen to him as a result of ignorance on society and the lack of services that are appropriate for him and his disability.

November 26, 2009 at 8:23 pm
(8) lisa says:

My 13 year old son is abusive to my mother who has custody of him and myself but mostly her,its almost impossible to explain my specific situation,but im worried about what to do and need legal help to find out what my rights are

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