BALTIMORE EXAMINER 8/11/08 Round one to justice, but the fight’s not over — Richard E. Vatz

From The Baltimore Examiner August 11, 2008

Round one to justice, but the fight’s not over — Richard E. Vatz
Richard E. Vatz2008-08-11 07:00:00.0


When Nicholas W. Browning, the Cockeysville teenager who was accused of the horrible killing of his parents, John W. Browning and Tamara Browning, and brothers, Gregory Browning and Benjamin Browning, was to be assessed by a psychiatrist to help a judge determine whether he would be tried in the juvenile system or in adult court, those skeptical of psychiatric evaluation of criminal responsibility had reason to worry.

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They also had reason to worry about the judge.

Paul Schrum was just a citizen watching a movie at Loews Valley Center 9 movie theater in 2006, when he was cruelly and brutally shot by Mujtaba R. Jabbar, a stranger.

The judge in that case, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr., had ordered Jabbar committed to a state psychiatric facility following state psychiatrists diagnosing him as unable to conform his behavior to the law. This determination was made despite Jabbar’s concession that he had planned a killing spree months earlier and his placing his gun down and calmly waiting for the police after the killing.

Not surprising, when the same Judge Bollinger said that he needed a psychiatric evaluation of Browning to decide wherein he would be tried, many were certain that psychiatric invalidity would again adversely affect Baltimore County’s criminal justice system.

The facts of the case are not confusing. Browning claims that he thought about how “nice” (his characterization) it would be if his family were dead, coming home one night from the house of a friend. Upon his arrival, Browning used one of his father’s guns to kill his parents and brothers and then blithely went to a friend’s house to play video games.

At first feigning surprise at the discovery of his dead family members, Browning later confessed that he had killed them.

Just short of his 16th birthday, Browning tried to qualify for having his case tried in juvenile court, but was charged as an adult, which was contested by Browning’s lawyers.

Defense psychiatrist Neil H. Blumberg, true to the checkered history of defense forensic psychiatrists, testified that Browning’s parents abused him and that he tried to block out the abuse. Almost all of the evidence of such abuse is from the defendant, and when Dr. Blumberg states the abuse and blockage as facts, the psychiatrist is misleading the court.

Dr. Blumberg “diagnosed” Browning as having a “dissociative disorder” that the psychiatrist claims led to Browning’s alleged failure to recall details of the killings. “Dissociative disorder” is a catchall psychiatric diagnosis that implies, according to psychiatry’s diagnostic manual, disrupted “integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception of the environment” and can be “sudden, or gradual, transient or chronic.”

What felon could not be so diagnosed by a psychiatrist intent on using a psychiatric diagnosis as exculpatory?

Dr. Blumberg testified that Browning was in a trancelike state when committing the killings and didn’t remember shooting his family members.
How does the psychiatrist know this to be the case — just because Browning made such claims?

Dr. Blumberg also stated that Browning would be unlikely to commit more violent crimes if he received treatment.

How can the psychiatrist be confident of such a poorly-based prediction? Would Dr. Blumberg be willing to have Browning live with his family for a couple of years?

Judge Bollinger denied Browning’s attorneys’ petition to have the case tried in juvenile court, but in December in adult court Browning will have the opportunity to escape appropriate punishment through a successful, but invalid, “not criminally responsible” plea. He can use the same makeshift psychiatric defense that failed to get him tried in juvenile court.

One can only hope that the earlier decision will militate against such a travesty of justice.

Richard E. Vatz is a professor at Towson University and is associate psychology editor of USA Today Magazine and an editor of Current Psychology.

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