I Testified on Addiction at a Murder Trial in Mississippi

Wouldn't you, if addicted, cut off your dealer's (and his girlfriend's) heads?

Posted Nov 21, 2013

The Federal Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi asked me to testify some years ago as an expert in a murder trial of a man who killed his drug dealer (and stole his stash). His defense was that he was addicted. Oh, he also killed the dealer's girlfriend, and cut off both of their heads and hands to bury separately so that they couldn't be identified. Oh, he put the girlfriend in the trunk with the dead man (head still on) because he needed her to dig the grave.  As she rode in that trunk with her dead boyfriend, she knew as sure as hellfire that the defendant (and his partner) was going to cap her too.

Would you do that to a human being to get a supply of your drug of choice? Should we let all addicts free—or at least send them for treatment, rather than punishing them—based on such a defense?

Addiction makes you do funny things, as I told my AA buddy at the Park Slope Y this AM—you could kill me and use the defense that Congressman Trey Radel did for why he bought cocaine from an undercover agent. (Please be aware, Radel didn't say he was addicted to cocaine—but that he committed that crime because of poor judgment resulting from his alcoholism—which didn't prevent him from serving actively until that time in the U.S. Congress! No jokes here, please.) Radel avoided resigning in favor of going to treatment.  And why couldn't he have chosen to enter treatment any time prior to pleading guilty to a crime—you know, like you would if you had cancer, or a stroke? 

Back to the trial.  Before going to Jackson, I became aware that the Internet was crackling with defense attorneys offering information/ suggestions for how to attack my credibility. The defendant had a three- woman defense team. They took a half day to voir dire me (attack my qualifications as an expert) in front of the judge, without the jury present.


Attorney:  Would you say that others agree with your views, Dr. Peele?

Me: Well, first I don't make decisions about what is true of addiction and behavior by taking a vote among my peers.  But, second, I would say yes, actually—most sensible therapists recognize that people are able to control their addictions under many circumstances, like going outside to smoke or not getting drunk in front of their parents, and that most wouldn't kill someone for their addiction—although the group most likely to do so is spurned lovers.

Attorney: Do you mean to say that my mother doesn't wake up every morning craving a cigarette since she quit smoking 12 years ago!?

Me: And would she have killed someone in order to get a cigarette when she was a smoker? You know that smoking is harder to quit than cocaine addiction?

Attorney turns her back and walks away from her stand in a huff.

At the end of the hearing, the judge drawled: "That was highly entertaining. But, with all due deference to the defense, the volume we are referring to in this case (DSM-IV) lists Dr. Peele as an advisor. So I hardly think that a judge can declare his expertise insufficient all the way down here in Jackson. Incidentally, when the jury comes in, I expect you all to comport yourself in an appropriately professional manner. Although, as I said, I found this hearing highly entertaining."

At lunch, I asked the Federal Attorney, "Couldn't you have objected to some of her questioning?"  He answered: "Why? You were doing fine. Besides, I found it highly entertaining."

The defendant was convicted of first degree murder, but a jury did not vote unanimously, as required, to sentence him to death.

P.S. (November 22):

Does brain research justify the defense?

Submitted by mini-vans make me ill:

What people sometimes don't realize is the harm done to anyone who has ever had a substance abuse problem when addiction is used as an excuse for horrific crimes. The result is often that anyone who has ever abused anything is seen as a potential criminal; maybe even a killer that just hasn't had to kill YET.

This is a terrible cruelty.

I replied:

The defese attorneys dealt with me as a criminal, as one who didn't see the true nature of addiction.

Incidentally, mini-vans, much of the rhetoric of disease proponents would justify these attorneys' views. Writing in Time, referring to neuroscience theories like Nora Volkow's, David Sheff tells us the following:

Addicts’ brains become hijacked by drugs. Brain regions associated with judgment, cognition, restraint and moderation are as good as dismantled, causing impulsivity, an unrestrained desire for pleasure, and cloudy thinking to dominate. In the meantime, the addicted brain, deprived of a healthy amount of the essential neurotransmitter dopamine, intensely craves drugs. Addicts have described a need for drugs that feels like the need for oxygen—deprived of it, humans would kick, scratch, and claw for a breath of air. Because of a broken dopamine system, addicts can feel as if they’re fighting for their lives, and they may be. They’ll lie, cheat, and steal for more, even while their actions become more and more reprehensible.

If you're starving for air, you'll gladly kill someone for your drug, and be justified in doing so. Sheff could have testified for the defense.

Incidentally, the title of Sheff's article is, "Give Ford Rehab, Not Ridicule." But Ford doesn't want rehab (like George W. Bush didn't want it), so Sheff is actually saying (like liberal columnist Kurt Andersen says), "He'll be a better person if he goes to rehab/AA."  Okay, we can go that way -- Sheff and Anderson can hold court on who in America in their view will benefit from being forced into AA.

Order here my forthcoming book (with Ilse Thompson) on these and related addiction/choice issues: Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life with The PERFECT Program."