Several weeks ago, a news story broke about a man, Michael Enright, brutally attacking and stabbing a cab driver in New York City (Corcoran 2010) . It was reported that the young man entered the cab obviously drunk, asked the cab driver if he was Muslim, and when he received the affirmative answer pulled out a knife and stabbed him multiple times in the arms, face, and neck. A few days after his arrest, the defendant was moved to a psychiatric hospital for undisclosed reasons. About a week ago, the defendant’s lawyer claimed that his client is suffering from PTSD (Long 2010) . Enright, a journalism student, had recently spent time in Afghanistan with some troops to make a documentary. Although the defense attorney has not specifically stated that he will be using his client’s PTSD as a legal defense, his actions so far certainly seem to be heading in that direction.
Looking at the diagnostic criteria in the DSM-IV-TR for PTSD (National Center for PTSD), it is possible to see how this disorder might lead to criminal behavior. The disorder can involve symptoms such as “restricted range of affect” meaning a person cannot experience a full range of emotions, a “feeling of detachment or estrangement from others”, or “irritability or outbursts of anger” among other things that make the link between the disorder and crime evident. Another important facet of PTSD is the fact that people with the disorder may feel as though the traumatic event is occurring again, which can include hallucinations and a dissociative state. This is more likely to occur just after one has woken up or when they are intoxicated (as is the case in the story above).
I think that this type of defense seems to be one that could legitimately explain some criminal behavior of people who have been through traumatic events, but it also seems that it could be difficult to convince a jury to believe. Not only must the defense attorney show that their client is suffering from the disorder, but they must also show that because of the disorder, the defendant is not culpable for his actions. But how does someone go about proving that it was the PTSD that led the defendant to act the way he did? It is extremely difficult, as Eric Acevedo found out when he was found guilty of capital murder for killing his ex-girlfriend (Branch 2010). Acevedo was a soldier in Afghanistan and met all the criteria for PTSD, but the prosecution argued that PTSD had nothing to do with his crime and that he simply killed in a jealous and drunken rage, and now he has been sentenced to life without parole. As for Enright, if his lawyer does decide to go the PTSD route, he is going to have the same tough burden to prove that the disorder was present and impacted his client’s behavior, and that this isn’t simply a hate crime as the prosecution is claiming.