Saturday, June 11, 2011

How would you feel if it were your....?

Empathy [em-puh-thee].  the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

R. R. Greenson:  "to empathise means to share, to experience the feelings of another person."
Alvin Goldman:  "The ability to put oneself into the mental shoes of another person to understand her emotions and feelings"
Simon Baron-Cohen;  "spontaneously and naturally tuning into the other person's thoughts and feelings..understanding the other's feelings and the ability to take their perspective.."

As a word, quality, capacity it's cropping up a lot at the moment.  In that scientists, psychologists, specifically criminal psychologists are pinpointing empathy as commonly lacking amongst those afflicted by autism, narcissism and psychopathy.

There is an area of the brain that is responsible for rendering us able to empathise.  Neurologists claim that for some of us it underperforms and in others it's underdeveloped eg there is evidence that those born into extreme repeated abuse be it physical, verbal, emotional do not develop the area of the brain responsible for empathy.

Which raises all kinds of issues for the judicial system in relation to rehabilitation and of course culpability, and is doubtless an area that defence teams for delinquent or violent children pore over.

Young or old it stands to reason that many of our violent criminals lack the ability to empathise.  No ability to feel the terror of your victim nor imagine the repercussions, subsequent shock, pain and agonising grief of their family, facilitates the capacity to harm.  There is no empathy barrier, no emotional brake, and by the same token, presumably no remorse. 

But what if the jury, those gathered to determine, on behalf of society, the degree of an indvidual's evil intent,  what if they too, collectively, are lacking in empathy..?

Consider the case of Joanna Brown.  Joanna Brown was killed by her estranged husband after three years of divorce wrangling.  She was from a rich family, he was not.  The three years of wrangling had been about money - what he'd wanted and what she was prepared to offer him.  He'd signed a pre-nup.

Throughout May of this year the jury listened in detail to how Robert Brown had dug a grave months, if not years previously in a highly secluded corner of Windsor Park.  Into this grave he had buried a plastic crate, big enough to act as a coffin.

The jury heard how three years previously the defendent had threatened to kill his wife by holding a large knife to her.  Such was her terror, her family hired a bodyguard and restricted the defendent's access to Joanna. 

The jury heard how on 31 Oct 2010 the defendent had taken their children, 9 and 10, back to her house (they had been staying with him over the half-term) at around teatime and had taken a claw hammer with him hidden in a bag containing his son's homework.

The children were dropped off, went inside, and were told to go to the playroom when the parents began to argue on the doorstep.

The jury heard a forensic pathologist explain, with the help a mannequin, how the defendent had taken the hammer and hit his wife over the head and face with it 14 times.

He had then wrapped her body in plastic, putting a plastic bag over her head to minimise blood spillage, and bundled her into the boot of his car.  His two children were watching from a side window as he did so.  He disabled the cctv and phone and then told the children to get back into the car.  He returned them to his house and left them in the charge of his pregnant girlfriend.

The jury then heard how he collected paper overalls, ties, and mallet from his garage and drove to the spot in Windsor park he had dug previously.  He lined the vegetable crate with plastic sheeting, again to minimise any seepage, bundled his dead/dying wife, into the makeshift coffin, secured the lid and then buried it using a spade he'd left nearby wrapped in tarpaulin to hide it.

He then disposed of the murder weapon and the cctv evidence somewhere in the woods - as yet unfound - returned to his home and got into bed with his pregnant girlfriend.

The jury listened intently to all the details, to the forensic evidence of the wounds inflicted as the victim had tried to defend herself, to the testimonies of her grieving mother (her father had died years previously), and the witness statement of her nine-year-old daughter: 'we saw daddy putting mummy in the car', 'asked whether daddy was going to take mummy to hospital' etc.

The jury sat and listened to all the evidence for the prosecution and then the defence.  The defence claimed their client was of diminished responsiblity and how it was preposterous that a man would take his children with him if he'd intended to kill his wife.   Yet, of course, given his previous threats, it's unlikely she'd have opened the door to him alone.

The jury heard it all in the presence of Joanna Brown's grieving mother and brother. Joanna Brown's mother, who'd seen her child grow up to meet such a brutal end, who'd had to identify her battered daughter's body,  witness the 'coffin' and grave in which she'd been buried and then in her shock and grief, take charge of traumatised grandchildren, whose lives will be forever scarred by the actions of their father. 

The jury heard all this.  Then, after a couple of days of deliberation, acquitted Robert Brown of murder. 

Despite all the evidence of premeditation (grave, hammer), foresight (lined crate, paper overalls, tools), diligent covering of tracks (cctv, telephone) etc. they convicted him of manslaughter ie. he didn't mean to do it.

How do you explain a verdict that flies in the face of all the evidence presented and defies logic?  Lack of empathy on the part of the jurors?  Or an empathy that's seriously misplaced?

The judge it seems concluded the latter, and sentenced him to 26 years.  The victim's family, although relieved at the sentence, are left with a lingering - presumably lifelong - sense that justice has not been done.

Well, if she'd been your daughter, sister, mother, how would you  feel?

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