Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

A Personal Perspective

As long-time readers know, some years ago I was a juror considering whether Wayne S. Chapman*, a serial rapist of little girls, should be set free. In a sequence of legal events somewhat different from what happens today in similar cases, 15 years earlier Chapman had been given a suspended sentence following a guilty plea, and then civilly committed to the Massachusetts Bridgewater State Treatment Center for one day to life. Nowadays, a similar offender would first have served a prison sentence, and be civilly committed only after it was completed (or he was paroled, which in cases like this is highly unlikely).

Under the law prevailing when Chapman was committed, he had a right to petition annually for his release, his fate to be decided by a jury. Today, judges make this decision. In a criminal trial, we usually think of juries as an important protection for the rights of the accused, but in this inside out sort of trial, I'm not sure whether people such as Chapman are better off with a judge or a jury. However, I suspect that many people would not be inclined to trust judges in this situation and would say that as long as Chapman has a right to a trial, they'd rather leave it up to a jury.

Given the facts of the case, I imagine that some readers will feel he should not have had the right to petition for release in the first place. According to witness testimony in the police report, to which facts he stipulated in his plea elocution, he raped three little girls ages 7 to 9, one of them his own daughter, others neighbors to whom he had access. He used threats to get his way and insure his victims' silence, and he punched one of the girls in the face when he was unsatisfied with her cooperation. His crimes were only compounded when 12 citizens had to interrupt their lives and be subjected to the nightmarish details, which cost me more than a few nights sleep.

Upon entering Bridgewater, Chapman retracted his confession, denied his crimes and refused to engage in treatment -- for whatever that may have been worth. Yet here he was asking to be set free. No doubt most readers think this must have been an easy decision. A commenter on my most recent post on this subject does not feel that all people necessarily have inherent dignity or are entitled to compassion, and I imagine he would include Chapman among those who belong outside of the human community -- although at least he did not kill anyone.

You may be surprised to hear that the decision was not easy. We deliberated for three days. I was the foreman of the jury, as it happens, and I made up my own mind pretty fast, but others had a much greater struggle. In the end the vote was 10-2 that he should remain incarcerated, which was all that was necessary to decide this civil case. The two who voted to release him, believe it or not, were both fathers of young girls. The decision was difficult even though Chapman's lawyer was grotesquely incompetent, and the one expert witness on his side was bizarre and creepy.

We were charged with deciding whether Wayne S. Chapman was, if released, "likely to re-offend." We were given no definition of "likely." Judge Vierri Voltera visited us after we delivered our verdict to thank us and answer our questions -- a practice I very much endorse. When I told Judge Voltera that I would have liked a legal definition of "likely," he seemed surprised. It seemed obvious to him that it meant a greater than 50% chance. It seems obvious to me that most jurors contemplating whether to set this man free would consider a much lower probability than that to be too high.

So why was the decision difficult? First, as will not surprise you, we heard testimony that Chapman himself was horrifically abused as a child, including having his hands thrust into boiling water and being regularly beaten by a drunken father. He has a low IQ, was unable to finish high school, and was only marginally able to survive in the world. He had never enjoyed any dignity or respect, in his entire life. Finding his fate in our hands, all of us, as fully formed and compassionate humans, instictively knew that we were obliged to give him that respect.

The Treatment Center is a total institution, a place more tightly controlled than most maximum security prisons, where not only armed guards but highly trained psychologists determine every minute of every day -- every coming and going, every conversation, every scrap of reading. They put the prisoners through bizarre rituals, such as strapping the into chairs and showing them pornography while measuring their erections, forcing them to masturbate, then subjecting them to foul smells or electric shocks.

It was impossible to decide what the "probability" was of his reoffending. That is fundamentally a nonsensical proposition. We'd had excerpts from scholarly articles read aloud to us, but by the rules of evidence we weren't permitted to read the actual articles. There was a lot of testimony about whether raping his daughter meant he was more or less dangerous than if he had only raped non-relatives, whether three known victims was many or few. (His lawyer asked one of the hostile witnesses, "Who would you rather have babysit your own daughter? Someone who had only offended three times, or someone who had offended six times?" Seriously.) This was all just a lot of nonsense.

Here is the essence of the problem. There had been no trial, but he had pled guilty presuming that he would one day be free. The commitment was "one day to life," and no doubt they told him that he would get out once he satisfied his doctors that he was "cured." So perhaps the story of his crimes was exaggerated, but he never had the chance to defend himself, seeing the guilty plea as his best option. Maybe, as he now claimed, he was merely a molester, not a violent rapist. Some of the jurors thought it would be physically impossible to penetrate a 7 year old girl. I told them otherwise but we had no physical evidence or relevant testimony to consider.

Ultimately many of us were simply disturbed by the idea of condemning this man to such a weird circle of hell on the basis of what he might do, rather than what he had done. But in the end, that's what we did. I expect that there will never be a jury that will set Wayne S. Chapman free, unless perhaps he is one day so old and infirm that he seems physically incapable of atrocities. But every juror will be burdened by the experience, and the decision.

There are said to be three purposes for criminal justice: retribution and punishment, which proclaim and vindicate the social consensus on tolerable behavior; rehabilitation, so that people may be prepared to one day rejoin society; and disablement, in other words incarcerated people can't commit crimes, at least not easily. Generally speaking we don't do rehabilitation. They were and are trying to rehabilitate Chapman case but hardly anyone believes they know what they are doing -- me included. We were not supposed to consider retribution, which had already been satisfied in any case, at least according to the law.

But there is, after all, something that does not satisfy the interest of justice in keeping Chapman locked up as he is, for the sake of disabling him. His crimes might have been prevented had someone rescued him as a child. He did not make himself what he became. Ultimately, many people failed him, including us. But there was nothing we could do.

*By a very odd coincidence, another man named Wayne Chapman, a serial rapist of little boys, is also confined at Bridgewater. I mention this because the second Wayne Chapman is more famous, and I don't want to cause confusion.

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