FASlink Fetal Alcohol Disorders Society
Project sheds light on disability born of alcohol
Afflicted at risk of trouble with the legal system

Tuesday, April 5, 2005

When police questioned Gabe Baddeley about a fire set in the teachers' lounge of the local high school, he said he did it.

At first, he was wrong on some of the details. But he bent his description of the crime to fit what Prosser police told him.

He'd already served a short jail sentence by the time he was exonerated.

Baddeley, 23, suffers from the effects of a mother who drank alcohol while pregnant. Being highly suggestible and overly willing to tell authorities what he thinks they want to hear are symptoms.

And his case is just one reason University of Washington researchers want to identify people with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders who have run-ins with the law -- and most of them do -- to better address their needs and help them stay out of trouble.

The federally funded project -- involving King County prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, mental health professionals and others -- is aimed at recognizing the disability for what it is: brain damage that makes people more likely to end up in court and less able to navigate the system when they do.

"Unless we understand what their needs are and learn how to meet them, we're going to be operating on a hit-and-miss basis," said retired King County Superior Court Judge Anthony Wartnik, who is involved as a liaison between the court and the University of Washington. "We've never really tackled the side we're looking at now."

Project leaders say the criminal justice system needs to be improved on all levels to better deal with the disability, which affects an estimated one in 100 babies and is a lifelong, irreversible and preventable problem.

They say a better understanding would help police be careful not to ask leading questions of people who suffer from it and make defense attorneys aware of a disability that may never have been diagnosed -- one that might help explain a crime or justify a less-lengthy sentence.

They say judges should be aware that imposing a long prison term might be less effective than making sure the person gets such help as job training, medication, substance-abuse treatment or a more structured living situation.

Wartnik said people with the disability often need more attention to make sure they meet their court obligations, something a community corrections officer might do by giving needed reminders to come to court, make appointments or pay fines.

The project is in its first year, a planning stage for what leaders hope will become a five-year effort and expand from King County Superior Court to misdemeanor courts. A grant of about $100,000 from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration will help cover the first stage.

A similar project in Skagit County focuses on juveniles.

The ultimate goals are to reduce the number of court cases involving fetal-alcohol-affected people and keep the community safe, said Ann Streissguth, director of the university's fetal alcohol and drug unit and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the School of Medicine.

"We want to use the initial criminal act to build a network of support around the person," Streissguth said. "Incarcerating them alone is not going to prevent them from doing the same thing over again."

Mental, physical symptoms

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders include what is commonly called fetal alcohol syndrome, which leads to facial abnormalities, including small eye openings, a flattish face, a thin upper lip and no groove between the nose and the mouth.

But only about a third of the people who suffer from brain damage caused by prenatal alcohol exposure have those features.

The brain damage can hurt memory, social functioning and behavior. People who have it often have poor judgment and may commit impulsive crimes for no particular reason, such as shoplifting a pack of cigarettes when they have the cash.

They might commit a crime just because someone told them to do it, making them prone to delivering drugs or joining gangs, according to project manager Kathryn Kelly of the fetal alcohol and drug unit.

And they're more likely to confess to a crime -- whether they did it or not -- than most people, Kelly said.

"They may not know anything the police officer is talking about, but they'll fill in the gaps to be agreeable," she said. "They will truly confess to killing Abraham Lincoln."

The disability also clashes with the criminal justice system because people who have it may not understand their rights -- even when they nod and say they do -- and often don't fully grasp cause and effect.

Kelly knew one affected girl who swiped a necklace from her neighbor and didn't think twice about wearing it to the neighbor's house the next day.

Kelly said that although a jail sentence might address certain goals, such as keeping the community safe, it won't likely "teach a lesson" to someone with the disability, she said.

Legal ramifications Last year, Seattle lawyer Jesse Cantor learned one of his clients -- a 17-year-old who'd burst into someone's home with a group of gun-wielding men to steal pot and video games -- had a mother who'd abused alcohol during her pregnancy.

He hired an expert, who concluded the disability likely caused the boy to be "too easily led" and a poor judge of "choosing whom to trust."

In court documents, Cantor said the disorder wasn't an excuse for the teen's behavior but helped explain why a plea agreement -- which meant roughly 4 1/2 years in prison for the boy instead of the 21 1/2 years he originally faced -- was fair.

Cantor said he'd seen signs of something amiss from the beginning when the teen would ask questions about his case, then ask them again a week later.

He said he now recognizes that the disability might mean an offender is less culpable -- perhaps affecting the ability to plan or intend a crime -- or should at least be considered at sentencing.

King County prosecutors support taking a closer look at fetal alcohol disorders among criminals, according to Chief of Staff Dan Satterberg, because "to get them to change their behavior, you have to understand what motivates that behavior."

He said it might be appropriate for a judge to consider such factors at sentencing, though he doubts the disability will become a successful defense strategy in criminal trials.

Wrongly confessed

After Baddeley was charged with arson in 2001, his mother, Carol Mettie -- who adopted him when he was 12 days old -- didn't know whether he did it or not. And the young man, who'd been in trouble before, couldn't help her figure it out.

He told her he confessed but didn't really know whether he set the fire.

When he was questioned, Baddeley told the police officer there were two couches in the teacher's lounge, but the officer asked, "There wasn't three couches? Was there another couch that kinda made this like an L-shape ... ?"

"That's right. I ... yeah, I was ... I didn't even see that one when I came in," Baddeley told him, according to a transcript of the interview.

And though he first said he lit a napkin on fire, then panicked and left, the officer said: "There was some aerosol cans in there. Did you use them by spraying them ... kinda lighting ...?"

"Yeah," said Baddeley, who was soon agreeing that he ignited a stack of napkins and was using aerosol cans as makeshift flamethrowers.

Mettie said she thought the police questioning "made him believe that he did it, and he didn't want to look stupid by backing down." He ended up pleading guilty to second-degree arson and was sentenced to two months in jail.

Then last year, a young woman with apparent mental problems admitted she'd set the fire. Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller said his office concluded she was telling the truth and promptly sought to have Baddeley's conviction vacated.

Miller said police "appeared to have done a good job with trying to corroborate the confession with details about the fire ... but looking back, part of that could probably be explained by the fact that (Baddeley) was familiar with the school."

Mettie considered it a miracle that her son was exonerated but had mixed feelings about how he got convicted of a crime he didn't commit.

"There was a part of me that was angry, but I also knew that the Police Department and the justice system were uninformed about how vulnerable and easily swayed these people are. These people need to be treated differently."

P-I reporter Tracy Johnson can be reached at 206-448-8169 or tracyjohnson@seattlepi.com

101 Elliott Ave. W.
Seattle, WA 98119
(206) 448-8000

Home Delivery: (206) 464-2121 or (800) 542-0820

Send comments to newmedia@seattlepi.com
1996-2006 Seattle Post-Intelligencer