sheds light on disability born of alcohol
Afflicted at risk of trouble with the legal
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.
served a short jail sentence by the time he was exonerated.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 ...?"
Baddeley, who was soon agreeing that he ignited a stack of napkins
and was using aerosol cans as makeshift flamethrowers.
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
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."
it a miracle that her son was exonerated but had mixed feelings
about how he got convicted of a crime he didn't commit.
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
reporter Tracy Johnson can be reached at 206-448-8169 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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