What happens when an academic type uses Political Correctness to excuse vile, reprehensible behavior — and then a lawyer gets hold of the idea? You get “justification” for beating a young child to death. True‘s home page notes that the stories are not all meant to be humorous, and this one sure isn’t. From True‘s 27 June 2004 issue:
Culture of Excuse
Slave owners beat their slaves, says attorney Randall Vogt. Therefore, it’s “justified” for black men to beat their sons. Vogt is defending Isaac Cortez Bynum, who beat his 2-year-old son to death, and says he’ll use a “post traumatic slave syndrome” defense “in a general way” in Bynum’s Beaverton, Ore., murder trial. “If you are African American and you are living in America, you have been impacted,” says Joy DeGruy-Leary, assistant professor at Portland State University’s Graduate School of Social Work, who originated the slave syndrome theory. The boy’s autopsy showed he had been abused over a lengthy period and had suffered brain injury, a broken neck, broken ribs, and scores of whip marks all over his body. When shown the boy’s autopsy photos, DeGruy-Leary said the injury pattern “falls in the rubric” of “normal” for descendants of slaves. (Portland Oregonian) …Comforting words for the country’s children.
If you’re outraged by this story, good! You were meant to be. Here is some of the passion expressed by True‘s readers.
In Australia, many of those who are of English stock (myself included) have recent ancestors who were transported to Australia as convicts. The crime varied but there were lots of thieves, murderers and violent criminals. This was all happening at the same time as slavery in the U.S. so the same syndrome should be evident in white Australians now, right? Rather unsurprisingly, it is not. If I was to commit a murder or a robbery or some other violent act and blame it on Australia’s history of being a British penal colony I would expect a mention in This is True before being chucked in the slammer. No jury would buy that line if used here as I doubt they will in the U.S. If this is the best the defense can come up with, it must be a watertight case against this *&$%er. This type of story also highlights why the social sciences have such a poor reputation when they can produce “research” that supports such a spurious theory as this. I very much doubt anyone can find any evidence for a causal link between historical slavery and child abuse today. This “Culture of Excuse” as you so rightly title it does nothing to help the true issues of racism anywhere. To say a man is more likely to beat his young child to death because he is black is an insult to every black man in America.–Mark, Queensland, Australia
I am a successful, well-educated black woman. I’ve been impacted by PTSD? Gee. Maybe it gave me the will to succeed, as it did my parents and their parents. Thanks, Ms. DeGruy-Leary, for making everyone think that black parents commonly beat their children to death. Thanks for giving too many of our black children another excuse to aspire to nothing more than crime or a life of poverty. A lot of these children already have the deck stacked against them. Their schools are terrible. Their neighborhoods are crime-ridden and devoid of hope, their role models being rapper thugs and drug dealers. Now they have the excuse of PTSD. America does need to have a conversation about racism. But controversial theories such as PTSD give racists all the ammunition they need to make the conversation one-sided. “See how they are? Give them a little bit of education and look what they do: make excuses for their criminal behavior. They don’t deserve equal treatment, good jobs, nice neighborhoods, nice schools. They’re animals.” Thanks for letting me rant. –Leah, New Hampshire
I only disagree with one thing: You do not need my permission to rant! That’s part of the problem: no one should turn the other way and ignore someone trying to justify beating a baby to death. There is no justification possible, and no one should be afraid to say that, even in “polite conversation.”
As someone who is about to enter the legal profession (I take the Missouri bar in July), I find lawyers who are willing to launch such “defenses” of the indefensible completely …I’m sorry, there are just no words. I’m sickened. I hope that the judge has the decency to find some way of sanctioning this alleged person. Unfortunately, it’s a novel (to say the least) legal theory, so the chances are he will get away with trying it, but hopefully it won’t help. I’m distressed at some people in the profession I am joining. –Bryan, Missouri
Then there’s still hope for the legal profession. Stick to your principles, Bryan!
I was glad to note the story in the Oregonian was headlined “Judge rejects slave trauma as defense for killing” — a refreshing detail. –Michael, Maryland
Don’t get too comfortable with that headline. The story doesn’t detail what’s behind it until the sixth paragraph, where it notes: “Washington County Circuit Judge Nancy W. Campbell recently threw out DeGruy-Leary’s pretrial testimony.” But — and it’s a big but — it goes on to say: “The judge said she would reconsider the defense for Bynum’s September trial if his lawyer can show the slave theory is an accepted mental disorder with a valid scientific basis and specifically applies to this case. ‘I think it can be proven,’ the court-appointed Vogt said after Campbell’s ruling.” I happen to disagree with the attorney, but that’s not what the story is about. Rather, it’s about the lawyer trying to “justify” (his word, not mine) his client’s actions in beating his own child to death — and DeGruy-Leary lending her support to the attorney in using her theory in that defense.
First off, allow me to express my admiration of you for printing that story, period. I’m sure you had more than enough filler material that you could have ducked it. The fact you didn’t speaks volumes of your professionalism as well as courage. I say courage, because the memory of Bill Cosby’s now famous speech before the NAACP is still lingering in my ear. Mr. Cosby said what many Americans, black and white, think daily, and he caught eight shades of hell for it. You have long fought against political correctness, and I fear it is going to bite you right on the ass this time. Nearly every African American living today is at least one generation removed from slavery, not to mention Africa, and most are two generations removed from slavery. Slavery was an awful period in our history, and it was damned traumatic and destructive to those who lived through it. I’ve never heard an intelligent person say otherwise. There does come a time when traumatic events cease to be reasons and start becoming excuses. We have long passed that point in our history, thanks to political correctness. Anyone who defends beating a child in such a manner as you described, is not doing the person or the race a favor, but rather enabling a mental illness. A footnote: A close friend of mine is a High School teacher. She teaches in a predominantly black school. She recently confided to me that out of 28 students (racial breakdown unknown), 11 could not even find Africa on an unmarked world map! I wish you well, and commend your bravery. –Dan, North Carolina
That any high school student, black, white or other, can’t find Africa on an unmarked map is absurd. And schools claim they’re educating our children?
I can’t help but wonder why, after reading this, there could still be any question as to the reasons that so many people hold the legal profession in such low regard. This seems to me to be an excellent example of what is wrong with lawyers. –John, Arizona
That is the dumbest excuse for murder I have ever heard. Of course nowadays attorneys are really desperate to use any defense they can come up with, even if it’s offensive to mankind. As an African American/Black female I am grossly offended by the use of that poor excuse for defense of murder.–Jackie, Texas
My first thought was, what is wrong with these people (the defense attorney and the academic)? Then I thought, will the defense work in reverse? As a white man can I claim because my predecessors owned slaves I can whip and kill black people claiming “post traumatic slave owners syndrome”? Actually, I am of Irish descent, my family having left Ireland during the potato famine. Can I take aim at the English claming “tater famine syndrome”?–Nelson, Pennsylvania
To assume an entire culture is incapable of recovering from atrocities perpetrated upon them generations ago is a theory devoid of any intelligence, not to mention it is a complete insult to people of African-American heritage. I suppose any person of Jewish decent should also be excused of any mass executions he/she might commit? I am constantly surprised by the outlandish “defenses” lawyers dream up, but this one takes the cake. I share your outrage, God help us and our children. –Lynda, Indiana
Even if we gave them the benefit of the doubt that such a thing exists, it sounds like it would be comparable to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. From what I understand PTSD is not hereditary, it only occurs to those who have experienced severe traumatic stress, such as being in a war. The whole name they’ve given this condition imples that to experience it one must have been a slave themselves, not a descendant. I seriously doubt that they’ll win this case, but if they do then it’ll definitely need to receive a Stella Award. The courts generally do not accept even being abused as child oneself as a justification for child abuse. That may be a factor in sentencing (reduced sentence, mandatory counseling), but it doesn’t excuse the crime. The truly scary thing is that if they do succeed with this then what’s to prevent war veterans suffering from PTSD from killing people and claiming it’s the PTSD making them do it? That should put some perspective on things for those too blinded by the potential race issues to see clearly. –Kevin, Tennessee
Several people suggested I write this case up for the True Stella Awards, but that won’t happen: TSA is about abuse of America’s civil, not criminal, court system. This case is anything but civil.
While I agree it is inexcusable to beat a child, any child, let alone a 2-year-old, and that the academic who came up with this PTSD theory should be heavily censured, I really don’t think all the comments about the lawyer are justified. The legal system in both the UK and the US holds fair trials and importantly the right to the best defense, as pillars of the system. A defense lawyer takes an awful lot of stick for defending criminals, but without this important facet to our justice system we would get many more miscarriages of justice. You can blame the man for beating his child, and you can blame the academic for coming up with such an absurd theory, but you cannot blame the lawyer for doing his job. In fact, failure to use anything that might conceivably help his client is a failure to do his duty as it is defined by the legal system. –Simon, UK
Something struck me wrong about the post-slave-trauma defense story, and I realised what it was: the originator of the “Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome” was painted with the same dark brush as the other two characters: the murderer and his poor excuse for an attorney. I found this on the website [of an alternative paper in Portland]: “DeGruy-Leary says her work is geared toward healing, and not for use in defense of alleged criminal behavior. ‘Those who would misconstrue PTSS as a form of rationalization for beating, abusing or harming children in any regard fail to take into account my commitment to the fundamental values and ethical standards of the profession of social work,’ she says.” We should not blame the author of a pretty intelligent and plausible theory for the scummy way some would twist and abuse it to rationalize rank brutality against an innocent being. I believe if you do a little research into the actual work of Ms. DeGruy-Leary versus relying on second-hand, probably second-rate reporting of that work, you will be able to free her from the terrible burden you have placed on her in this instance. –Tracy, Rhode Island
These last two letters certainly show that different people have different points of view! DeG-L may in fact have said that her work shouldn’t be used as an excuse, but when it came down to holding to that standard, she went to court to help the defense in the case. So in fact among those using her theories in a “scummy way” are DeG-L herself. I don’t think I’m capable of placing any “burden” on people in the story. If she is burdened, she clearly has burdened herself.
As far as running around doing research on the stories, that’s beyond the scope of what This is True does. From the start, True has been billed as news commentary — a look at, and comment upon, “strange-but-true stories” that I find in “mainstream, legitimate” news outlets. That does not include scanning various web sites of questionable veracity, even those of the “alternative press,” to see what someone else has to say about the theories academics are using in court to help defense lawyers.
Which brings up the question, was the story reasonably accurate? Never mind that it was in a “legitimate, mainstream” news outlet; was the reporter accurate and was the editing fair? According to the Oregonian, both the reporter and the editor stand by the story. Washington County’s Senior Deputy District Attorney, Robert Hull, told the paper he thought the article was “fair and accurate” and said he considered it a “fair characterization” of what was going on with the case.
Getting that kind of corroboration is also way beyond the scope of True, but I thought it was important to demonstrate the wisdom of my insisting that I use only “legitimate, mainstream newspapers” as a source for articles for me to comment on in True — never “tabloids” or the “alternative” press.
I searched and found no online news updates over “what happened” in court. However, I searched the Oregon Department of Corrections web site and found Bynum has been housed in the Oregon State Penitentiary since November 16, 2004 — for murder. “Earliest Release Date: Life”, the site says. So apparently, what his lawyer claimed as “justification” for beating his own 2-year-old son to death didn’t hold up in court.
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