Should People Who Fail To Stop Rampage Shooters Be Arrested?

NewstimesThis column first appeared in The Danbury Newstimes November 22, 2015

For nearly two months Joey Meek sat in solitary confinement in a South Carolina jail cell. Meek, twenty-one years old, is a friend of Dylann Roof, the accused rampage murderer facing capital murder charges for the nine racially motivated murders committed this summer at the AME Baptist Church in Charleston.

 

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Dylann Roof

In September, Meek was indicted on federal felony charges. The United States Attorney, a federal prosecutor, says Meek had actual knowledge of Roof’s murderous plans and failed to take any action to warn authorities. That charge, “Misprision of A Felony,” is a fairly rare and archaic crime.  The second charge filed against Meek is that he made a false statement to the F.B.I. The federal prosecutor says, after the massacre, when the F.B.I asked Meek if he knew the specifics of Roof’s plans to shoot people at the Church, Meek said he did not. For those two charges Meek, himself, faces two serious federal felonies, many potential years in federal prison and sat in solitary confinement unable to make bond until last week.  Meek was released recently on a reduced bond while his case continues to work its way through the federal court.

A few family member of the victims of Roof’s massacre opposed reduction of Meek’s bond and his pre-trial release by federal Magistrate Shiva Hodge. In effect, Meek has become a scapegoat for the anger and rage that Roof, no doubt, deserves. But how much blame should be focused on Meek? Meek, a childhood friend of Roof, let Roof sleep on the floor of the Lexington, South Carolina trailer he lived in.

To Meek’s credit, after seeing news reports of the church tragedy, upon seeing Roof’s picture on television and recognizing him, Meek immediately called the police. When interviewed he told the F.B.I that in the days preceding the massacre he was with Roof when Roof got drunk and went on a racial tirade, saying he was going to “do something crazy.” Joey Meeks and his girlfriend took away and hid Roof’s gun from him. They returned the gun to Roof the next day, claiming they didn’t take his drunken rant seriously.

In opposing Meek’s bond reduction and release it is easy to sympathize with the emotional response of the victims; if anything could have been done to spare the lives of their fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters they believe it should have been done. But is Meek the right target of their anger and frustration?

Joey Meek is hardly the first non-shooter to be arrested in the aftermath of a rampage shooting. Police often make arrests of people they claim gave any help to the rampager. What makes the arrest of Joey Meek so unusual is that his isn’t an arrest for assisting a rampager but failing to take action to prevent it. There are always warning signs before rampage massacres are committed, warnings sometimes signaled to family members, friends, school officials, police or mental health care givers. Knowing when to take the warnings seriously is a significant challenge, even for trained, skilled professionals. For non-professionals it’s even trickier. For a twenty-one year old high school dropout should it be criminal?

In the wake of the rampage shooting epidemic, several states like Connecticut, Indiana, Texas and California have passed laws to allow for expedited seizure of guns from people who pose a threat to public safety. But even where those laws exist, somebody has to become aware of the threat and know when to take it seriously. If they report the danger the case quickly goes to court where a judge holds a restraining order hearing, but the threat has to meet legal standards for action to be taken against the purported dangerous person.

Mental health scholars confirm the difficulty in predicting violent behavior. “On the face of it,” says Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a medical sociologist at the Duke University School of Medicine, “a mass shooting is the product of a disordered mental process. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist: what normal person would go out and shoot a bunch of strangers? But the risk factors for a mass shooting are shared by a lot of people who aren’t going to do it. If you paint the picture of a young, isolated, delusional young man ― that probably describes thousands of other young men.”

Fueling the emotions expressed by family members towards Meek, Morris or Jourdain–anybody associated with a rampage or rampager–is not simply a desire to see somebody punished. They often cry out for any scintilla of information of how or why their loved ones died. They cry out in pain to make sense of a senseless killing. Having a conversation with somebody like Meek would be a positive step toward the individual or community healing that needs to occur after a mass murder rampage.

The United States Attorney prosecuting Meek may be pursuing a strategy of applying pressure on Meek to get him to help state and federal prosecutors make their cases in court against Roof, who faces the possibility of capital punishment. Arresting, prosecuting or imprisoning Meek makes any conversation or contribution to community healing much less likely.

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Even Mass Murders Have Mothers and Fathers

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This column first appeared in The Arizona Daily Star on September 8, 2015.

Mass Murderers are no different than you and me: at some point everyone had a mother and a father. And, as difficult as it is to imagine, if somehow our lives took an awful turn and we did something truly heinous we’d like to hope our parents would be in our corner doing anything and everything they could for us.

Last month in Centennial, Colorado a jury faced one of the most onerous tasks society asks of its citizens. The townspeople in Colorado had to decide whether it was life or death for James Holmes, deciding upon a sentence of life without a chance of parole release, or upon the death penalty.  That same jury of 12 found Holmes guilty of 24 counts of first-degree murder and 140 counts of attempted murder for the July 2012 killing of 12 innocent people and injuries to 70 more. Holmes opened fire at the Aurora, Colorado movie theater showing of The Dark Knight Rises.

Following the guilty verdict the jury heard evidence during the sentencing phase of the trial. Among the many witnesses called to the stand were both of Holmes’ parents, Robert and Arlene Holmes. With that one glaring exception of having a son who went on a monstrous, blood curdling rampage, Robert and Arlene aren’t too different from the rest of the population of American parents. The father, Robert, is a senior scientist at FICO, the company that calculates consumer credit scores. He is a mathematician with degrees from some of the finest institutions in the U.S., Stanford, Berkeley and U.C.L.A.   The mother, Arlene, is a registered nurse. The couple have a home in suburban San Diego, California, where they attend a local Lutheran church.

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Robert and Arlene Holmes Appearing In Court

Robert Holmes came to court nearly every day to attend his son’s trial. He sat in a courtroom where he was probably not particularly welcomed with open arms. He sat among the dozens of grieving survivors of the innocent people his son murdered, other parents, children, brothers and sisters. He sat among the scarred and the severely wounded. Yet, he came. When called he took the stand to try to save his son’s life. He told of his son’s near idyllic early childhood in Castroville, California. James did exceptionally well in school, played soccer was always surrounded by a pack of friends. The elder Holmes told of a history of mental illness in his own family, but never suspected his son had an illness. Although it does not appear that James Holmes wants a relationship with his father at this time, Robert Holmes was asked if he still loved James, as if to suggest that the enormity of the bloodshed caused by the son had changed the way a father felt about his child. “Yes, I do,” he said. “Why?” asked James’ lawyer. “Because he’s my son,” he answered.

One of the parents sitting in the courtroom with Robert and Arlene Holmes was Ashley Moser. The prosecutors saved her heart wrenching testimony for last, and strategically, it’ s easy to understand why they did. Moser, eight weeks pregnant, was watching the movie with her six-year old daughter, Veronica when James Holmes’ massacre took place. Moser reached for her daughter’s hand, but she felt it slip away. Of the 76 shots fired by Holmes from 3 guns, Moser was struck three times, and fell on top of her daughter. Veronica was struck by four bullets and was killed, and Moser suffered a miscarriage. Left paralyzed for life, a bullet still lodged in her back, she moved about the courtroom in a wheelchair, testifying in the courtroom as James Holmes and his family watched and listened.

Holmes’ mother testified on her son’s behalf. Looking back on things, Arlene Holmes said she could now see how her son changed when he became an adolescent, after they moved from Northern California to San Diego. Once a fast and athletic soccer player he then became uncoordinated and spent most of his free time playing cards and video games. She took him for counseling when he became depressed, but she never suspected he was mentally ill. He isolated himself but didn’t get into trouble and got good grades, she said. “I thought I had a good kid,” she testified.

I remember a client I once represented whose mother also thought she had a good kid, stuck with her son after he committed a vicious stranger-abduction rape. After he was convicted and sentenced to consecutive sentences totaling thirty-five years she said something only a naïve but loving mother could say. “Thirty-five years? That’s a murder sentence and he didn’t kill her.” Parents defend children, even when they commit atrocities.

By the time James Holmes was twenty-four and committed a murderous rampage, his parents had no idea he was suffering from schizophrenia or was homicidal. Yet several witnesses on both the prosecution and defense sides agreed that at the time of the murders their son suffered from schizophrenia and was mentally ill. Prior to the trial nobody ever disclosed Holmes’ condition to the parents. Obviously, Holmes spiraled downward and spiraled fast.

With a different verdict Holmes would be facing execution now. Holmes gets to live the rest of his days in a Colorado prison. His father says he will visit him. “Jimmy was always really an excellent kid,” the father testified. We’d all like to think our parents would continue to stand by us like that, even in the face of temptation to join the justifiably angry public, the victims who so often and understandably cannot do anything but express anger and frequent hatred at their children.

Holmes’ father still calls his son Jimmy. Just like my Dad always did.

Chattanooga Shootings Produce Heroes: We Should Remember Their Names

How many people would risk their lives to do what the two Marines in Chattanooga did? How many would have, instead, yielded to the temptation to hide and live? The bravery displayed by Sullivan and Wyatt defines courage. Heroism such as this often goes unnoticed, or barely noticed. More time is spent worshipping celebrities, athletes or movie actors, who so frequently disappoint adoring fans. More public attention is also devoted to the shooters than is given to their victims or the occasional heroes who stand up to the tragic and senseless bloodbaths caused by rampagers.

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Rampage shootings sometimes produce heroes like Sullivan and Wyatt. Yet there is a good chance you’ve never heard of Liviu Librescu, Bill Badger or Jeffrey May, all rampage shooting heroes. Read their stories in my latest Huffington Post column.

The Images Of Rampage Killers Make A Difference

A photo can make a huge difference in forming public opinion. James E. Holmes is on trial for the rampage murders at the Aurora Colorado movie theater in July of 2012. Holmes was recently convicted of the murder of 12 people and the injuries to at least 70 others. A Centennial, Colorado jury is deliberating now on his fate and deciding whether he will face the death penalty. Holmes’ defense team have put forward an insanity defense, a defense proven extremely hard to prevail with American juries.

Many Americans have repeatedly seen several photographs of Holmes. In one set of popular photos, taken in court, Holmes has bright red died hair and a wide eyed look. He has a scary appearance. Here is one such recent court photograph of Holmes:

James Holmes Appears  In Court

James Holmes Appears In Court (Photo by RJ Sangosti/Getty)

And here is another photograph with wide circulation of James Holmes, his police mug shot. He has shorter hair, but still a somewhat frightening appearance:

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James Holmes’ mug shot. (AFP Photo / Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office)

One wonders, though, if public opinion of Holmes would be affected if older photos of Holmes were chosen for mass exposure by the news media. You see, before going on his horrible, blood curdling rampage, Holmes appears to have led a normal suburban life. That is not to suggest that Holmes did not display evidence of mental illness; experts have been debating that in court over the last few weeks. Holmes, though, was an honors high school student and an extremely high achieving college student as well. Holmes graduated from Westview High School in the Torrey Highlands community of San Diego, where he played soccer and ran cross-country track.

Holmes studied neuroscience from The University of California/Riverside, graduating with high honors and a 3.95 GPA. He was enrolled in a PhD program.

Take a look at Holmes’  high school yearbook photo, taken just six years before his rampage. There’s a good chance you’ve never seen this photo on the evening news or your local newspaper; I know I had not:

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James E. Holmes 2006 High School Yearbook Photo (Photo courtesy of The Daily News).

What a startling difference, right? If this was the photograph plastered all over CNN, Fox, MSNBC and the New York Times, do you think America would have a different image of Holmes? How many people are aware of his high achieving childhood of relatively normal youth? What happened to this young man in the six years from his suburban California high school graduation to 2012 when he shot 70 innocent people?  The experts agree he suffered from schizophrenia.

The images are revealing.

(Note: Jim blogs about Rampage murders for the Huffington Post.)

 

Believers, Rampages And The Church In Charleston

Here are my thoughts in The Huffington Post about why, perhaps, the Church in Charleston, South Carolina was the site of a rampage shooting.

 

Let It All Hang Out Or Cover It Up?

The summer kicked off with a blockbuster: the unveiling of the new Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair. Washington, a locale suitable for a magazine more aptly called “Vanity Affair,” is abuzz over another cover story: who was Dennis Hastert paying off and for what?

Hastert, 73, the former Speaker of the House, was arraigned this week in a United States federal court in Illinois on a two count indictment. The indictment, rather short on details, alleges that Hastert lied to the F.B.I. about why he withdrew $3.5 million from a bank account. The Justice Department claims Hastert was paying off a yet-to-named (the mysterious “Individual ‘A’”) to cover-up some “past-misconduct.”

Dennis Hastert Appears In Federal Court. Photo Courtesy of Reuters.

Dennis Hastert Appears In Federal Court. Photo Courtesy of Reuters.

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Courage In The Face of Rampage Shootings

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Published in The Newstimes June 12, 2015

It has been one year (May 23rd) since a deadly rampage shooting near the University of California/Santa Barbara left six innocent college students dead. If it seems like we are routinely marking annual remembrances of rampages it is because we are. Mass shootings at schools and other places occur with startling frequency. Graduating law school students at the University of Arizona College of Law were given a harsh reminder of that reality last week at the commencement ceremony at the McKale Arena. Last week (May 16th) former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords joined her retired astronaut husband, Mark Kelly on stage to address the nearly 180 law school graduates. I was one of them, having returned to school to pursue graduate legal studies; I was one three students at the ceremony awarded a doctoral degree. Continue reading