The wheels of justice turned recently, albeit in different directions, for two members of the Millennial generation, both of whom were convicted of second-degree murder. A judge in California has granted David Attias’s motion to be released from the high-security psychiatric facility where he’s been since 2002, after he was convicted of four counts of second-degree murder and then judged “insane” by the same jury. His move to a halfway house with minimal supervision clears the way for his full release into society. He was eighteen when he committed these crimes; he is now thirty and has had more years on the planet than any of his victims had. George Huguely, who was twenty-two when he killed Yeardley Love, his on-and-off-again girlfriend, is now twenty-four and was sentenced to twenty-three years in prison. Under Virginia law, he will have to serve 85% of that term, despite whatever good behavior or progress he demonstrates.
I’ve blogged about the Huguely case before (see the links below) because it seemed to capture some of the more troubling social trends among the young. I have a different, less detached interest in the Attias case since one of his victims was Elie Israel, my stepson. But that said, looking at these very different outcomes —and how they were arrived at — seems to me a valuable exercise. My point of view isn’t, of course, that of a psychologist, which I’m not. But since psychology — and our social understanding of it — is at the heart of both cases, it seems appropriate to this space as well. I don’t intend to provide any answers; but I think the questions raised are worth pondering.
Neither of these murder cases, unlike so many in this culture, can veer off into a discussion about gun control. Both involve not-yet-fully-matured young adults which put the issues of human responsibility and culpability, as well as impulse and its control, at the center of things. In the Attias case, the weapon was an ordinary, everyday piece of equipment: an automobile driven at 60 mph. In the Huguely case, it was brute force, wielded by an athlete who weighed over 200 pounds, using a hand or a fist.
Both of these young men were white and sons of privilege. Both cases shared a university setting which, in the proceedings, was a backdrop, a character witness, and a putative excuse. The college dorm at the University of Santa Barbara was disorderly, full of drugs and booze, and jammed with students on their own for the first time, without adult supervision. It was there that David Attias, off his meds and on street drugs, could fly under the radar for the most part and spin out of control as no one watched. The scene at the University of Virginia was tolerant too — of its lacrosse players’ hard partying, of Huguely’s aggressive and violent behavior, of his criminal record, of harassment of young women. In both cases, no peer reported anything about either young man to an adult capable of taking action.
Both of these young men were substance abusers. Both had histories of violence, although Attias’ was not only longer —he apparently attacked a peer in kindergarten, and tried to strangle his sister at the age of thirteen — but had actually involved diagnoses, something Huguely’s history lacked. Granted, Attias’ diagnosis has changed over the years — and his parents, when he was young, appeared at various points to deny or accept his mental disabilities —but it was diagnosable and diagnosed. Huguely — even with an arrest record, and a history of underage drinking which was clearly not within “normal” bounds — was outwardly far more successful and competent than the academically failing and socially flailing Attias whose parents bribed him to stay on his meds with the very Saab he used as a weapon. Both had trouble controlling impulses —a problem, as brain scientists have shown, that is in part a function of the slow maturation of the prefrontal cortex —and rage. Yet only one of them was adjudged “insane.” Attias —once bipolar, perhaps a budding schizophrenic, a narcissist, or possessed by a drug-induced psychosis — is newly diagnosed with “Pervasive Developmental Disorders.” This spectrum includes autism and Asperger’s Syndrome and is incurable but its symptoms can be controlled by medications. So, by a judge’s lights at least, Attias is now sane enough — while on his meds —to live among us.
That brings me back to George Huguely; I don’t intend to be his apologist but simply want to point out that his family history includes an apparently extremely contentious parental divorce, financial problems, and a paternal history of alcohol abuse. He wasn’t thirteen and his intended victim wasn’t his sister but when he did try to strangle Yeardley Love in front of witnesses, it didn’t result in a diagnosis. No, instead it was seen as a step, one which seemed to say that the violence he inflicted on Yeardley Love was perhaps inevitable. Is George Huguely serving twenty-three years because he never saw a therapist?
The bottom line is that there are five young people who never saw yesterday or today, and will never see tomorrow because of these two young men. What I’m not understanding is why their punishments are so different.