• Mon, Sep 22 2008

Autistic Defendants Often Misunderstood In Criminal Justice System

20-year-old Kevin Brinegar, who has autism, stabbed his mother, Karen Brinegar, twice in the back last Monday, the September 21st Miami Herald reports. He is charged with aggravated battery charges and is being held on a $50,000 bond at North Broward Bureau (FL), a minimum-security facility for the mentally ill and medically infirm. Expert and legal opinions vary about what Kevin Brinegar faces:

Dr. Stephen Edelson, director of the Autism Research Institute, expressed concern about the level of care Brinegar has received, and will receive in the future.

”There’s a general feeling that in the criminal justice field, there’s some discrimination going on,” Edelson said.

“They are not treated fairly.”

Also, police often don’t understand those with autism or know how to handle them, thinking they are more predatory than they actually are, said University of Miami Professor Jon Shaw.

There is no predictable relationship between autism and violence, Shaw said. In two-thirds of cases, autism is accompanied by mental retardation and an inability to communicate, and that is often what triggers aggression.

Some also cannot differentiate between what is real and what is not, he added.

Usually, they act out by pushing, biting or hitting. But to chase someone out of a home, hold her down and stab her twice, as BSO alleges Brinegar did, almost never happens.

”It’s quite unusual that he actually used a weapon,” Edelson said.

“I’ve been in the field 30 years, and I’ve never heard of it.”

Autism is not a defense against a violent crime, said Bruce J. Winick, a UM law professor. For the state to prosecute, Brinegar merely has to be competent to stand trial.

The real question is whether he knew right from wrong.

Brinegar was originally placed in a maximum-security main jail and, after meeting with mental health professionals, was placed at North Broward. His mother has been released from the hospital.


Update 14.48 EST: The title of this post has been changed (thanks to abfh; see below); more discussion at Christschool, and thanks very much.

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  • http://autist.heliohost.org/blog/ Ivar T

    It’s interesting to see someone from Autism Research Institute comment on this one.

  • http://chaosandjoy.blogspot.com Jen

    That’s very sad- I hope that he can get a fair trial, and the care that he may need.

  • http://mominsanity.wordpress.com Melissa

    I’ve been lurking here for a while – and this story brought me out of lurker-dom. As someone who is a criminal defense lawyer, it would be frustrating for me to have a client that was autistic. I have had autistic clients in the past, and a lot of times, the psychiatrists and MD’s that I have evaluate them agree that the criminal justice system has no basic understanding of autism. They have also found a majority of my autistic clients not competent to stand trial…What are your opinions on that?

  • CS

    “Also, police often don’t understand those with autism or know how to handle them, thinking they are more predatory than they actually are, said University of Miami Professor Jon Shaw.”

    And your headline on this blog post will not encourage people to find out more realistic realities of autistic people but will only contribute to the fear people have of autistics. How would we feel if we read a headline in the newspaper that said “Black Man Stabs His Mother”? Could we agree that sort of headline would play into people’s prejudices?

  • Kev

    Another victim thanks to Neurodiversity’s anti-cure crap.

  • http://chaosandjoy.blogspot.com Jen

    Kev- maybe you know something I don’t about neurodiversity being an active movement 20 years ago? As I recall that’s when Lovaas was beginning to make a real impact- certainly when my kids were diagnosed 11 years ago it was all about ABA, Sonrise, TEACHH, and more than a few other things, but neurodiversity hadn’t even begun to make a real impact at that point. Since the “cure” people seem so fixated on early intervention, wouldn’t it be more likely that a 20 year old probably would have been “treated” according to one of those commonly accepted strategies rather than a movement which wasn’t even around then? You seem to be making a pretty large and unfounded jump in logic there, especially since there isn’t any information about what “interventions” he may or may not have had, or what his parents’ beliefs about autism were at that time.

  • http://osolomama.wordpress.com/ Jess

    Hi –
    Kristina, I always enjoy your blog. I am a sister of a 62-year-old with autism. Over the years, my brother has inadvertently drawn some unwelcome attention from police and security guards. Last time, they fingered him as the creepy guy going into the women’s washroom (totally untrue) at an office complex in a neighbourhood where he goes for counselling. When he was younger, he used to ride the subway a lot and get flak from the public transit operators. I agree with the comment that the justice system knows very little about autism. I think the focus should be on people with autism knowing how protect themselves and their rights in these situations. This is critical. (Last time, my brother was detained and had no advocate with him.)

  • http://whittereronautism.com Maddy

    And immediately prior to the incident…..? I wonder if they’ll ever know?

    Very sad for everyone.
    Best wishes

  • http://perseveration.org Gitchel

    “In two-thirds of cases, autism is accompanied by mental retardation and an inability to communicate, and that is often what triggers aggression.”

    There are so many things wrong with this sentence I don’t know where to start. Two-thirds?!? PLUS an inability to communicate? And since when is retardation and/or non-communication a “trigger” for violence?

    Do any of these points apply to this guy? Is it possible he’s an Autistic who ALSO just got aggravated and killed someone? Why do we assume that it MUST be autism that caused this? There have been many mothers killed by sons sho weren’t Autistic. I’d bet there’s less probability of an Autistic killer, as this quote from the article implies: “Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein admits that the case will present his office a unique challenge, mainly because of the rarity of an autistic person being charged with such a violent crime.”

    What the heck is this article ABOUT? It’s like they had to fill the space and just started making stuff up a third of the way through.

    What a load of crap.

    Miffed,
    Jeff

  • Morgan

    “In two-thirds of cases, autism is . . . ”

    I challenge the Miami Herald (and possibly Jon Shaw?) to substantiate that. And, Kristina, you should know better than to c&p a quote like that without an appropriate comment.

  • http://daisymayfattypants.blogspot.com/ Emily

    Somebody a few posts up there just leaped the Grand Canyon of logical fallacies.

    Maddy…I thought about the same thing. And when I read, “wonder about what (he) faces…,” I wondered myself what his mother faces.

  • Eleanor

    Melissa: I’m also a lawyer and have worked in the criminal system for years. Although autism obviously isn’t a “defense,” I just don’t see how anyone that is nonverbal and is within the supposed 2/3 of people with autism who are mentally retarded would be likely to be found competent to stand trial. Such a person needs to be able to assist in his or her own defense. (Not to say that being locked up in the state mental hospital as unfit to stand trial is necessarily a better thing.)

  • http://storkdok-nos.blogspot.com/ Storkdok

    Hmmm…I wonder what was in his thinking bubble right before.

    To those of you who are lawyers, what other kinds of offenses were your autistic clients charged with? How did the criminal system deal with them?

  • http://www.autismvox.com Kristina Chew, PhD

    @CS and Morgan, thanks for the critique. One thing to note about your title, CS: I’m not Chinese, but Chinese American. Very best.

  • CS

    Kristina, Chinese-American is not a racial group distinct from Chinese but a cultural identity of American (also not a race) born of the racial group known as Chinese. I find your blog title repugnant and your dismissive attitude repugnant as well. FU!

  • http://autisticbfh.blogspot.com abfh

    Crossposting from Christschool’s blog:

    News organizations generally have strict policies against unnecessary mention of race, disability, and other personal characteristics.

    In this case, autism is relevant to a discussion of how autistic defendants are treated in the criminal justice system, but not to the crime itself. A suitable headline might have been something like “Autistic Defendants Often Misunderstood In Criminal Justice System.”

  • Regan

    I realize that the point is whether this gentleman can fully exercise his rights within the justice system–at least I believe that is Dr. Edelson’s point, although this is the first time that I know of that he has spoken on the matter of criminal justice.
    I am very glad that Mrs. Brinegar is recovering from her injuries. I gotta say, it is not unheard of for domestic disputes to occur, and, even, for a family member to be stabbed. In this case the defendant is autistic.

    I find the headline to be somewhat sensational too; unfortunately, it’s not too different from the headlines often seen in the mainstream media. CS has a point that if race was the first thing in a headline that people might be offended.

    Unless there is specific evidence in this case, is it possible that some assumptions being made about the contribution of autism to the crime and to the functioning level of the defendant and his ability to participate in his defense? The statement about “2/3″ was made (don’t know if I would take that as bottled in bond), but what is most relevant is the specific individual involved, the facts of the case and his particulars.

  • Regan

    Jeff highlighted an interesting sentence,

    “Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein admits that the case will present his office a unique challenge, Mb>mainly because of the rarity of an autistic person being charged with such a violent crime.”

    Perhaps it is the conundrum of the unique challenge that is the point, because of the situation–but also the rarity. That might be the headline issue.

  • http://www.autismvox.com Kristina Chew, PhD

    Thanks to abfh.

    Again, thanks to Christschool and everyone, and always glad to learn.

  • http://autism.gbrettmiller.com Brett

    So much of what is reported about adults with autism and interactions with law enforcement are based on a misperception by law enforcement about what it going on. In this case, there doesn’t seem to be any such confusion; Kevin Brinegar is accused of committing a violent crime.

    Setting aside the discussion about how the story should be presented for a moment, it seems to me that the real question here is, “Is Kevin Brinegar responsible for his actions, and if so what consequences should he face?”

    The more general question: If an adult with autism allegedly (to be legally correct here) commits a crime, should they expect or be entitled to any different treatment than any other suspect charge with a similar crime?

  • Linda

    Whether competent in a court of law or not everyone who has lived on this earth for twenty years knows right from wrong with regard to harming a family member, absent alleged abuse that is.

  • http://osolomama.wordpress.com/ Jess

    I’m not sure if psychotics and schizophrenics know right from wrong in that sense even if they’ve been here for 20 years. When you’re in a psychotic state, you might believe that your crime is the right behaviour. This is where the courts really haven’t caught up with the brain. This is no comment on the present case, by the way. However, ‘m not really sure if my brother would be capable of committing a crime and appreciating what he had done. Appreciating what other people feel and think is one of his challenges. That leads me to believe that he might not appreciate all the consequences of an act of violence while committing one.

  • Morgan

    Thanks for lumping me in w/ CS. There’s nothing quite as gratifying as being considered at once irrelevant and, at the same time, a racist.

    I don’t know whether autistics are more or less violent than NT’s. I have never seen any evidence one way or the other.

    I have seen some very dangerous memes passing unchallenged through the popular media (blogs included). Repetition without refutation appears to reinforce these memes.

    “Autistics are violent” is one, and it is one that I think deserves to be challenged.

    “Autistic = MR” is another. In this case, I know of evidence to refute the meme (as do you), hence my critique.

    As to that “other” level of discourse, please excuse my color blandness, but I’ll pass.

  • http://chaosandjoy.blogspot.com Jen

    Linda- I’d respectfully disagree with you on “Whether competent in a court of law or not everyone who has lived on this earth for twenty years knows right from wrong with regard to harming a family member” . We had a very sad case in our community a few years ago where one of my high-school mates killed his mother in the midst of one of his “bad” schizophrenic times. He adored his mother, but when he was in the grip of his schizophrenia he had absolutely no conception of family members as opposed to anyone else.

    My son is 12 now, and since he was 5 years old he’s put me in the hospital twice, one sister in the hospital for bad bites, another sister in the hospital for a concussion, and numerous workers and staff in for pushes down the stairs and plastic surgery from bites. He adores his family, and is quite conscious of who we are (we can tell as his behaviour and actions with us are considerably different than they are with anyone else), as he also is of workers who have been with him for any period of time. None of his violent outbursts are malicious in any sense of the word- as far as we’ve been able to determine so far they are most often caused by frustration or intense (annoying) sensory input, coupled with no impulse control when he is upset. That doesn’t mean that he flies off the handle- it means that he is not (at least at this point) able to control his actions when he is extremely upset.
    It has absolutely nothing to do with family members, his love for anyone around him, his sense of right and wrong, or anything that he can control or that has been taught to him. If you are standing beside him and don’t realize that he’s getting worked up (or standing beside him on one of the rare occasions when his aggression apparently manifests itself out of the blue), you are going to be extremely lucky if you don’t get hurt. He is a wonderful, loving, intelligent boy, and fortunately he has a knack for making people fall in love with him- his home visits are one of the highlights of his life and it’s a real joy to see him interacting with his sisters and I, but I can guarantee that if we’re around when he needs to lash out the thought that we’re family and he loves us doesn’t even cross his mind. And unfortunately that’s why he lives in a (fantastic) group home- he’s bigger than his siblings, and with 3 autistic children it came down to providing as much safety for everyone. I think that I can pretty much guarantee that given the behaviours that he exhibits when he’s around us which show his love for us, and the intelligence that we see in him all of the time, if he could have avoided hurting family members so that he could have lived at home, he would have.

  • http://www.autismvox.com Kristina Chew, PhD

    thank you, Morgan—-trying to keep learning here.

  • CS

    Kristina, question. Is it unacceptable to use Chinese in a negative headline while ok to use Autistic as Morgan is implying? Or is this a double standard?

  • http://www.autismvox.com Kristina Chew, PhD

    @CS, I don’t mind what I get called and have always to do better.

  • http://www.autismvox.com Kristina Chew, PhD

    @Melissa, You wrote:

    I’ve been lurking here for a while – and this story brought me out of lurker-dom. As someone who is a criminal defense lawyer, it would be frustrating for me to have a client that was autistic. I have had autistic clients in the past, and a lot of times, the psychiatrists and MD’s that I have evaluate them agree that the criminal justice system has no basic understanding of autism. They have also found a majority of my autistic clients not competent to stand trial…What are your opinions on that?

    First, your comment is making me think, I want to start some conversations with faculty in the criminal justice department at the school where I teach. I’ve never looked at the textbooks they use. Criminal justice is a popular major at my school, I should note, and there’s a population of students who do become policemen.

    Second—thank you for noting about the criminal justice system and autism—my first response on reading this story was as a mother aware of how what looks like “violence” or “aggression” to others can be something very different. And that it can be terribly misunderstood. And that training for first responders is more than necessary.

  • CS

    Kristina, that’s not the question I’m asking and I think you know it. You seemed to understand what I was talking about when you were upset with Katie McCarron’s autism being used in the context of a compensatory factor in her death, but now, you don’t seem to understand that to use Kevin’s autism in a headline about a stabbing as being suggestive of autism’s complicity in his act.

    I guess you are the victim of my clumsy communication, right? It would be too much to thoughtfully examine the substance of my protest and much easier to just dismiss me as a raving mad man.

  • http://osolomama.wordpress.com/ Jess

    Kristina, the number of times my brother has been hauled over in his lifetime–whew–just for acting “weird”. I mean, it’s better now than it used to be because cops have some diversity training. I think such an initiative as you suggest would be a great one.

  • http://www.autismvox.com Kristina Chew, PhD

    @CS, I’m learning something from this exchange and I appreciate it.

    @Jess, And it seems that diversity training at a basic level (in basic training for first responders?) is very needed.

  • Regan

    Melissa,
    Interesting comments. Thanks.

  • CS

    “CS, I’m learning something from this exchange and I appreciate it.”

    What have you learned?

  • http://www.autismvox.com Kristina Chew, PhD

    Words, as ever, matter—old lesson; being a teacher, I realize I’m always really just back in the classroom.

  • JB

    I know this family. His parents intervened when he was a toddler. He was diagnosed early and they have gone far beyond where most folks would have been able to for Kevin’s quality of life. He is highly intelligent and has a large vocabulary. He is very creative. He does not, however, understand what he has done. This is very heartbreaking. His mother and father love him so much. Please be considerate to this amazing family and send them healing thoughts.

  • Gail

    One of the reasons I no longer teach autistic children (I’ve been a lawyer for the past 15 years) is fear of violence.
    I taught a class of eight autistic teenage boys for two years. During that time, two of my aides were attacked several times. They were knocked down, stamped on, bitten, punched and kicked.
    These were women who were small in stature and very gentle by nature. One was hospitalized after being stabbed in the back with a barbeque fork.
    I am almost six feet tall and I have a calm but firm attitude. I was threatened and lunged at but never physically attacked, thank God. I credit luck and quick reflexes.
    My students were easily frustrated and easily bored. Often, their reaction was to lash out. They were this way at home, too, and twice when we were on field trips they attacked people who happened to be standing nearby. These people were not staring at my students or laughing at them. They seemed unaware of the kids until they were seized and struck.
    My aides and I were required to take the kids into the “community” twice a week and my aides and I were hyper-vigilant the entire time.
    Not all the kids were violent but enough were to make working there a severe trial.
    When I started having nightmares and flinching at loud noises, I knew it was time to resign. I was later diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
    I am in awe of the parents of autistic children. They go without sleep they worry constantly about their children’s futures and they have to endure stares and comments about their children’s behavior when they’re out in public.
    This poor woman who was stabbed loves her son dearly, just as (almost) all parents of autistic children do. if I had an autistic child I’m sure I would love him/her, too. They can be delightful people. I don’t mean to imply that autistic kids are dangerous monsters but I found it to be sadly true that violence and aggression is a part of life with many autistic kids.
    I have no idea what the solution can be.

  • http://www.autismvox.com Kristina Chew, PhD

    @Gail,
    thanks for writing about your experiences here, and then some. Did the school district/administration provide any support or training—or what kind of support and training did they (or didn’t they) provide? Are you still teaching autistic/special needs students?

  • http://autspect.fi/education/page.php?id=18 David N. Andrews M. Ed. (Distinction)

    “The real question is whether he knew right from wrong.”

    No it isn’t.

    The real question (in the absence of such knowledge at this point) is: what events led up to the stabbing?

    Once that question is answered, THEN the question of him knowing right from wrong can be addressed.

  • JB

    “The real question is whether he knew right from wrong.”

    No it isn’t.

    ——-Respectfully, yes it is according to the legal system in Florida which is where Kevin’s fate lies.

    The real question (in the absence of such knowledge at this point) is: what events led up to the stabbing?

    ——–Again respectfully, autistic people do not need to have something actually happen to them to lash out. It is all about perception and for autistic people that perception does not align with the majority.

    Once that question is answered, THEN the question of him knowing right from wrong can be addressed.

    ———This is not the cut and dry question that it seems to be. If I steal a cookie before dinner and know that that is wrong and then later in the day I stab my mother and know that is wrong, I technically know right from wrong. if I then say I am sorry for both and I do not see that stabbing mom is a greater offense then it becomes something else.

  • http://autspect.fi/education/page.php?id=18 David N. Andrews M. Ed. (Distinction)

    “autistic people do not need to have something actually happen to them to lash out. It is all about perception and for autistic people that perception does not align with the majority.”

    Are you serious? Do you actually KNOW any autistic people?

    Autistic people – like ANY other people – respond to events in our environments. The response may be delayed, or it may come as a result of the accumulation of a lot of frustrations but nonetheless there is a trigger.

    When my daughter – who is autistic – lashes out, it is for a reason. We have taught her teachers this, and we work a lot with them to show them how to handle things with her.

    It’s a bit of a crass argument to assume that it’s all down to autistic perception that’s not in tune with the majority…

    I speak as an autistic person, the parent of another autistic person and as a psychologist (specialised in autism issues).

  • http://osolomama.wordpress.com/ Jess

    We all search for meaning and reasons. They’re just not the same meaning and reasons as some other person’s meaning and reasons. David, I see what you are saying. I have a very hard time understanding my brother at times, but you’ve reminded me why.

  • JB

    “autistic people do not need to have something actually happen to them to lash out. It is all about perception and for autistic people that perception does not align with the majority.”

    Did you read my first entry?

    I am very close to an autistic person and learning more all the time. We all interpret situations and react according to our interpretations. Maybe I will change that statement to “some autistic people lash about things that no one else perceives as occurring.” I have seen this over and over. Maybe it is unique to the autistic person I know but based on what I have learned I do not think so.

    I respect that you have a lot of experience with this but thinking you know everything there is to know about it will limit your ability to help your clients.

  • http://autspect.fi/education/page.php?id=18 David N. Andrews M. Ed. (Distinction)

    “… but thinking you know everything there is to know about it will limit your ability to help your clients.”

    The point is that I DON’T know everything. But I DO know what to take into account when dealing with clients. And that means I don’t limit my inquiry to the sole issue of perception as being the (reductive) answer to the question of ‘what makes this person to that?’

    Regarding my original post: if we do not know what events lead up to the action – and this is (like it or not) generally applicable – we do not know the following-

    a) what preceded – and may have triggered – the event in question;
    b) what other events may have been involved in bringing about the mental state(s) that would lead a person to act in a particular way;
    c) essential background knowledge regarding the person’s ‘typical’ behaviour and how the offending behaviour was i) similar to that, and b) different from that.

    The law – when making a determination of a defendant’s knowledge of right and wrong – uses at least two sets of rules to arrive at the decision and these rules can only be applied correctly if the information I have listed above has been gained.

    Behaviour is a response to more than a perception, and to suggest that that’s all that is involved is – like I said – a crass argument: more is involved than we frequently have time to assess completely. And ANY psychologist worth his/her salt knows this (or, at least, SHOULD!).

  • http://autspect.fi/education/page.php?id=18 David N. Andrews M. Ed. (Distinction)

    Jess: “They’re just not the same meaning and reasons as some other person’s meaning and reasons.”

    Exactly. This goes more into culture and shared meaning than merely resting at the stage of perception.

  • Beth

    Oh christ, we do know right from wrong. We’re not retarded. I post in the autism forums and lot of us sure do know right from wrong when it comes to laws. We’re literal so we should be able to follow the rules and know what will happen if we break a law. You go to jail. Autism is not a get out of free jail card. Even lot of us get frustrated when people use their autism as an excuse to get off. Makes us all look bad.

  • Jessica, BCBA

    My father, I believe has been found guilty of a crime because he has aspergers, took the stand and should not have. He has not been formally diagnosed however the disability is evident given my long history in the field working directly with individuals with the disorder. His inability to communicate the facts and make eye contact must mean he was guilty was actually stated in the closing arguements. I need help in fighting. Anyone with answers please respond.

  • Linda G,

    Hello, Just read our above account. I have a 16 year old grandson in Miami FL who is now in the process of being set up for a placement. This is so hard and so difficult for his mother. The out of control behavior and his mix of autism and frontal lobe issues are causing great problems and the most nightmarish episodes imaginable. You mention a fantastic group home and it was so encouraging to read your account! There can be hope in the group home setting. Any further info would be helpful. Thanks, Linda