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Law enters a dark alley as lawyers blame crimes on an assortment of fears Syndrome Abuse


The game is Name That Syndrome, in which criminal lawyers portray their clients as victims of emotional disorder, not accountable for their actions. It's been going on for years and now we are awash in syndromes, syndromes to cover killing, beating, sexual abuse. There's even one for tax evasion called "failure to file syndrome."

This syndrome of syndromes is a murky stew, a mix of legal tactics, forensic psychiatry and a sprinkling of recovery movement ethics. Some parts genuine, others bogus. "Battered spouse syndrome" has been recognized by many psychologists as an emotional illness; "football widow syndrome," used by lawyers to defend a Florida woman accused of shooting her husband, doesn't qualify.

The latest variation on the syndrome theme is unfolding this week in Baltimore City Circuit Court, where 62-year-old Nathaniel Hurt is on trial in the murder of a 13-year-old neighbor. In his opening statement, Mr. Hurt's lawyer described him as a law-abiding man driven to violence by the incessant harassment of neighborhood youths, a victim of "urban fear syndrome."

Mr. Hurt's lawyer, Stephen L. Miles, says he will show that because Mr. Hurt lives on North Avenue in a dangerous neighborhood, he sees threats differently from people who live in relatively safe areas. Therefore, the theory goes, he's inclined to react differently.

Prosecutors say Mr. Hurt fired a .357 Magnum revolver into a group of boys Oct. 10 after some of them shattered his car windshield with bricks and broken bottles. One bullet struck and killed Vernon Lee Holmes Jr.

Mr. Miles plans to call as a witness sociologist William Chambliss, a professor at George Washington University. In a 2 1/2 -page report to Mr. Miles, Mr. Chambliss says that one cannot judge whether someone acted " 'reasonably' in the face of a criminal threat" without considering where the threat occurred.

East Baltimore is a high-crime area, writes Mr. Chambliss. It stands to reason that people in high-crime areas, especially people over 60, are more fearful of crime.

Fear in the inner city, he writes, "has reached epidemic proportions." The pervasive threat of violence in such neighborhoods justifies "far more drastic and immediate action to avoid possible bodily harm than would be reasonable or necessary in less violent sections of the city."

Nowhere in the report does Mr. Chambliss use the word "syndrome," or the phrase "urban fear syndrome." This is Mr. Miles' contribution to the lexicon that already includes "urban survival syndrome" and "urban psychosis," used by defense lawyers in murder cases in Texas and Milwaukee, respectively.

"They're all of a piece," says Stephen J. Morse, a lawyer and psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, whose article "The New Syndrome Excuse Syndrome" will be published next month in Criminal Justice Ethics.

While he made it clear he wasn't commenting specifically on the Hurt case, Mr. Morse calls the trend troubling.

"You have the danger of confusing courts, judges and juries with a lot of soft science," he says. "Just because behavior is caused doesn't mean it's excused. . . . You run the risk of deforming the law."

John Monahan, a psychologist who teaches at the University of Virginia Law School, agrees.

"The criminal law could not exist as we know it if everyone who lives in the city were immune from criminal law," he says.

Not an excuse

As social scientists learn more about human behavior, says Mr. Monahan, "there is a temptation by some people to equate understanding with excuse. But to understand something is not to excuse it."

Each of the various "syndromes" has been included in a type of state-of-mind defense. They have been used chiefly as a basis of an insanity defense or to make it easier to argue self-defense.

Mr. Miles argued in his opening statement that Mr. Hurt acted out of a legitimate fear because he lived in such a dangerous neighborhood.

Milwaukee lawyer Robin Shellow, who specializes in defending children accused of murder, says the impact of inner-city violence is too profound to be ignored. If not completely excused, acts of violence at least "are mitigated in that environment," she says. "I really believe that."

In 1992, she argued that when 17-year-old Felicia Morgan shot and killed another teen-age girl, she was suffering delusions caused by a life of violence inside and outside her home. Morgan was examined by psychiatrists and diagnosed with a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, recognized as a distinct mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. The doctors in the Morgan case did not use the phrase "urban psychosis," however.

Tip of the iceberg

"I made it up," says Ms. Shellow. So little is known about the emotional impact of violence on inner-city people that "we don't even have names for what these kids experience," she says. "I think we haven't seen the tip of the psychological iceberg in terms of this violence."

Morgan was convicted of murder, but the judge imposed the minimum sentence of less than 13 years in prison.

Ms. Shellow figures it was something of a moral victory in the city where a jury refused to find Jeffrey Dahmer, a necrophiliac cannibalistic serial killer, innocent by reason of insanity.

Bill Lane, a lawyer in Fort Worth, Texas, managed to get a mistrial a year ago after claiming his client was suffering from "urban survival syndrome" when he shot two men to death in the city's most dangerous neighborhood. In the retrial last November, however, Daimion Osby was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Mr. Lane says he created the term "urban survival syndrome" based on the definition of post-traumatic stress disorder in a standard psychiatric reference, the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," known also as the DSM. A check of the book, however, shows no reference to the impact of a crime-ridden or dangerous environment.

Dr. Michael First, a New York City psychiatrist and editor of the latest revision of the DSM, says no such impact is recognized in the manual, which is published by the American Psychiatric Association. Neither are any other of the recent succession of syndromes that have been used in criminal trials.

"These are inventions by defense attorneys," says Dr. Jonas R. Rappeport, a Towson psychiatrist and medical director of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. I have no problem with lawyers who are doing the best they can," Dr. Rappeport says, but he is skeptical about loosely using terms that have a specific meaning in psychiatry.

A cluster of symptoms

When psychiatrists talk about a "syndrome," they mean a cluster of symptoms demonstrated by research to be associated with a specific cause. To use the terms loosely is to risk confusing cause and effect. Sometimes a symptom is there, but the cause is not, Dr. Rappeport says. It also trivializes legitimate mental illness.

In New York State, for example, lawyers in civil cases have argued that "failure to file syndrome" explained why their clients did not file income tax returns on time. A New York University psychiatry professor has described this as an inability to act in one's own interest, even in the face of danger.

In his 1994 book, "The Abuse Excuse," Harvard Law School professor Alan M. Dershowitz sees the trend as a danger to the democratic system and as another sign of a "general abdication of responsibility by individuals, families, groups, and even nations."

Mr. Monahan sees it more as a sign of a desperate lawyer.

"Defenses like this are usually last resorts, when the case seems otherwise hopeless," he says, adding that the tactic usually does not work. Mr. Monahan emphasizes that he is not commenting specifically on Mr. Miles or the case of Nathaniel Hurt.

Fear of violence may well walk every day with residents of East North Avenue, where Mr. Hurt lived a quiet life, served on neighborhood watch and kept a clean sidewalk. Urban fear is one thing, says Mr. Monahan. A psychological condition that excuses violent behavior is another.

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