Tales From the New Asylum: Truth?

September 18, 2013
James L. Knoll IV, MD

What is truth? In the end, it is not a forensic psychiatrist's place to judge. He or she is a cog in a bigger machine that is supposed to treat psychiatric illness.

Jesus: Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.Pilate: What is truth?
-John 18:37-38

“We have a prison full of innocent men!”

This must be one of the oldest correctional staff jokes on record, and it is still very much in use today. It derives from the observation that many inmates (not most) vehemently deny having committed the offense for which they were convicted.

Hear this protest repeatedly and after a while you do begin to wonder. Not about the “many,” but about the few. Convictions are overturned . . . but at a very low frequency. It does tend to nag at you; especially if you have worked in the criminal justice system long enough to know it is not flawless.

The question of certain inmates’ innocence places them in a peculiar social bind. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you are a truly innocent, wrongly convicted person. How on earth are you to conduct yourself? There are no widely recognized rules of etiquette here. Consider that if you protest too loudly people will be put off-repulsed by your inability to accept responsibility. Now scratch that, and reverse it. If your protest is silent or too subdued, people will ignore you, or worse-they will conclude that you are finally beginning to accept “the truth” of your circumstances. Show no “remorse” at your parole hearing because you wish to stand by your position that you are wrongly convicted and the parole board will stand by their position: you have not felt the bite of guilt in your soul and thus are not worthy of returning to the fold of man . . .

Mr M had a long history of poorly treated bipolar disorder, was convicted of a sexual homicide, and was sentenced to life in prison. During his better moments, Mr M would tell you and anyone else who would listen that he was an innocent man. He had been wrongly convicted, based solely on the eyewitness testimony of two young women who had “identified” him leaving the crime scene on a dark night.

During his sicker moments, Mr M would forgo appeals in favor of telling you that he was the Son of God, sent to earth as the messiah to suffer for our sins. I knew his messianic messages well, since I had been tasked with going to court to obtain an order for his medication over objection after a particularly dangerous manic episode had rendered him unable to care for himself and after a rapid 55-lb weight loss from not eating. Once the court finally agreed that Mr M did much better when taking medications, this put him in a better mindset to begin work with his attorney on his appeals.

Since the early 1990s, convicted persons have been able to use DNA science in their appeals. Serious attention to post-conviction DNA testing began as a result of a 1996 National Institute of Justice report stating that 28 people convicted of rape and murder had been exonerated as a result of DNA testing. Mr M’s defense attorney was working with the Innocence Project at New York’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. DNA evidence alone is not enough to exonerate; the case must be reexamined by a judge and lawyers representing both sides.

The problem for Mr M was that no DNA could be found at the crime scene. Then, a case came to national attention in which another man, also accused of sexual homicide, was exonerated via the use of a newer DNA technology that required far less DNA than ever before.1Touch DNA is a technique that allows DNA to be obtained from sources as small as a fingerprint.2 Skin oils containing cells are left behind when a person touches an object, and these cells then become a source of DNA. In theory, only a single cell is needed to provide enough DNA for analysis. And this was all that was eventually needed to set Mr M’s exoneration in motion when not his but another unknown individual’s minute amount of DNA was found at the crime scene.

Mr M’s impending exoneration became known to all in the New Asylum. A correctional staff member who, like many, was an eternal skeptic started a conversation with me as we both watched inmate patients play basketball in a large concrete enclosure. “You really believe he didn’t do it? Or maybe they just didn’t find his DNA?” I shrugged my shoulders in a slow and exaggerated manner. As a reply, I got: “C’mon doc . . . you’ve seen his criminal records. You tellin’ me this guy is clean? Never hurt anyone in his life?” Another shrug by me and then I replied, “I don’t know whether he did it or not. The legal system found him innocent. Has he ever hurt someone? I still have no clue. Hasn’t everyone hurt someone in their lifetime?”

Mildly irritated and over-caffeinated from his coffee break, the staff member said, “So that’s it then? Stick it in your case files? Over and done for you?” A bit taken aback, I replied, “Well, no. That’s not it. I do hope he makes the most of his new freedom. But in the end, it’s just not my place to judge. I’m a cog in a bigger machine that is supposed to treat his psychiatric illness.” My disgusted companion finished the last of the coffee in his Styrofoam cup and placed it atop an overflowing garbage can. “Guess everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” he said as he mercifully ended his coffee break. Much later, I learned that this staff member had been a distant relative of the victim of Mr M’s alleged murder.

***

Many years later, on the grounds of the nearby state hospital, I was carrying out some banal administrative mission. Walking from my car to the hospital, I saw Mr M who had transitioned to living in assisted housing and outpatient treatment. I stopped in my tracks, shocked to see him dressed not in state prison attire but in everyday street clothes. He was walking with a group and excused himself to take a moment to talk to me. I had a difficult time summoning words to say to him.

In contrast, he had no problems speaking in his natural, affable manner. I was the only uncomfortable one. I stammered out something to the effect of: “It is so good to see you out here . . . like this . . .” He smiled and told me he was having to “teach” his new doctor a few things. I understood what he meant. I was not quite sure what to say to an innocent man who had spent some 12 years in prison. I finally said: “You’ve been through what almost no one can relate to . . . and you are doing so well. I don’t know what to say . . . most people would be so angry. But you . . . you seem happy and are doing well. All that time . . .” Mr M looked toward the group he was walking with and then back to me: “Well . . . it’s over now, doc. I know the truth. My heavenly father knows the truth. And I got justice. All those years . . . that was my test.”

***

What is truth? I do wish that Jesus had given a clear and satisfying answer to Pilate’s question. I don’t mean an answer to the more lofty mysteries of the truth of God or the meaning of life. I would be perfectly happy with just an unambiguous, resolute definition of “truth.” Pilate had seen it all, and in a moment of nihilistic, weary frustration, he vented what had been weighing heavily on his mind. Pilate asked the best question anyone could have asked a man like Jesus. And was there an answer? We can never know for certain. But Pilate posed the question. The audacity. The honesty. The human need.

The need has been with us for so very long. We slowly uncover the facts of science, but perpetually stumble in the dark in search of truth, with only a diallelon of words to dimly light our way.

Certainly, it is heaven upon earth, to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth.
-Sir Francis Bacon3

References:

1. McLaughlin EC. DNA points to new killer in ’99 case. January 18, 2008. http://www.cnn.com/2008/CRIME/01/18/masters/index.html. Accessed September 16, 2013.
2. Touch DNA. http://dnaforensics.com/TouchDNA.aspx. Accessed September 16, 2013.
3. Bacon F. Of Truth. In: The Essays. 1601. http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/bacon/bacon_essays.html. Accessed September 16, 2013.