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bullet  "An Insult to Every Black Man in America"

What happens when an academic type uses Political Correctness to excuse vile, reprehensible behavior -- and then a lawyer gets hold of the idea? You get "justification" for beating a young child to death. True's home page notes that the stories are not all meant to be humorous, and this one sure isn't. From True's 27 June 2004 issue:

Culture of Excuse

Slave owners beat their slaves, says attorney Randall Vogt. Therefore, it's "justified" for black men to beat their sons. Vogt is defending Isaac Cortez Bynum, who beat his 2-year-old son to death, and says he'll use a "post traumatic slave syndrome" defense "in a general way" in Bynum's Beaverton, Ore., murder trial. "If you are African American and you are living in America, you have been impacted," says Joy DeGruy-Leary, assistant professor at Portland State University's Graduate School of Social Work, who originated the slave syndrome theory. The boy's autopsy showed he had been abused over a lengthy period and had suffered brain injury, a broken neck, broken ribs, and scores of whip marks all over his body. When shown the boy's autopsy photos, DeGruy-Leary said the injury pattern "falls in the rubric" of "normal" for descendants of slaves. (Portland Oregonian) ...Comforting words for the country's children.

If you're outraged by this story, good! You were meant to be. Here is some of the passion expressed by True's readers.

  • In Australia, many of those who are of English stock (myself included) have recent ancestors who were transported to Australia as convicts. The crime varied but there were lots of thieves, murderers and violent criminals. This was all happening at the same time as slavery in the U.S. so the same syndrome should be evident in white Australians now, right? Rather unsurprisingly, it is not. If I was to commit a murder or a robbery or some other violent act and blame it on Australia's history of being a British penal colony I would expect a mention in This is True before being chucked in the slammer. No jury would buy that line if used here as I doubt they will in the U.S. If this is the best the defense can come up with, it must be a watertight case against this *&$%er. This type of story also highlights why the social sciences have such a poor reputation when they can produce "research" that supports such a spurious theory as this. I very much doubt anyone can find any evidence for a causal link between historical slavery and child abuse today. This "Culture of Excuse" as you so rightly title it does nothing to help the true issues of racism anywhere. To say a man is more likely to beat his young child to death because he is black is an insult to every black man in America. --Mark, Queensland, Australia

  • I am a successful, well-educated black woman. I've been impacted by PTSD? Gee. Maybe it gave me the will to succeed, as it did my parents and their parents. Thanks, Ms. DeGruy-Leary, for making everyone think that black parents commonly beat their children to death. Thanks for giving too many of our black children another excuse to aspire to nothing more than crime or a life of poverty. A lot of these children already have the deck stacked against them. Their schools are terrible. Their neighborhoods are crime-ridden and devoid of hope, their role models being rapper thugs and drug dealers. Now they have the excuse of PTSD. America does need to have a conversation about racism. But controversial theories such as PTSD give racists all the ammunition they need to make the conversation one-sided. "See how they are? Give them a little bit of education and look what they do: make excuses for their criminal behavior. They don't deserve equal treatment, good jobs, nice neighborhoods, nice schools. They're animals." Thanks for letting me rant. --Leah, New Hampshire

I only disagree with one thing: You do not need my permission to rant! That's part of the problem: no one should turn the other way and ignore someone trying to justify beating a baby to death. There is no justification possible, and no one should be afraid to say that, even in "polite conversation."

  • As someone who is about to enter the legal profession (I take the Missouri bar in July), I find lawyers who are willing to launch such "defenses" of the indefensible completely ...I'm sorry, there are just no words. I'm sickened. I hope that the judge has the decency to find some way of sanctioning this alleged person. Unfortunately, it's a novel (to say the least) legal theory, so the chances are he will get away with trying it, but hopefully it won't help. I'm distressed at some people in the profession I am joining. --Bryan, Missouri

Then there's still hope for the legal profession. Stick to your principles, Bryan!

  • I was glad to note the story in the Oregonian was headlined "Judge rejects slave trauma as defense for killing" -- a refreshing detail. --Michael, Maryland

Don't get too comfortable with that headline. The story doesn't detail what's behind it until the sixth paragraph, where it notes: "Washington County Circuit Judge Nancy W. Campbell recently threw out DeGruy-Leary's pretrial testimony." But -- and it's a big but -- it goes on to say: "The judge said she would reconsider the defense for Bynum's September trial if his lawyer can show the slave theory is an accepted mental disorder with a valid scientific basis and specifically applies to this case. 'I think it can be proven,' the court-appointed Vogt said after Campbell's ruling." I happen to disagree with the attorney, but that's not what the story is about. Rather, it's about the lawyer trying to "justify" (his word, not mine) his client's actions in beating his own child to death -- and DeGruy-Leary lending her support to the attorney in using her theory in that defense.

  • First off, allow me to express my admiration of you for printing that story, period. I'm sure you had more than enough filler material that you could have ducked it. The fact you didn't speaks volumes of your professionalism as well as courage. I say courage, because the memory of Bill Cosby's now famous speech before the NAACP is still lingering in my ear. Mr. Cosby said what many Americans, black and white, think daily, and he caught eight shades of hell for it. You have long fought against political correctness, and I fear it is going to bite you right on the ass this time. Nearly every African American living today is at least one generation removed from slavery, not to mention Africa, and most are two generations removed from slavery. Slavery was an awful period in our history, and it was damned traumatic and destructive to those who lived through it. I've never heard an intelligent person say otherwise. There does come a time when traumatic events cease to be reasons and start becoming excuses. We have long passed that point in our history, thanks to political correctness. Anyone who defends beating a child in such a manner as you described, is not doing the person or the race a favor, but rather enabling a mental illness. A footnote: A close friend of mine is a High School teacher. She teaches in a predominantly black school. She recently confided to me that out of 28 students (racial breakdown unknown), 11 could not even find Africa on an unmarked world map! I wish you well, and commend your bravery. --Dan, North Carolina

That any high school student, black, white or other, can't find Africa on an unmarked map is absurd. And schools claim they're educating our children?

  • I can't help but wonder why, after reading this, there could still be any question as to the reasons that so many people hold the legal profession in such low regard. This seems to me to be an excellent example of what is wrong with lawyers. --John, Arizona

  • That is the dumbest excuse for murder I have ever heard. Of course nowadays attorneys are really desperate to use any defense they can come up with, even if it's offensive to mankind. As an African American/Black female I am grossly offended by the use of that poor excuse for defense of murder. --Jackie, Texas

  • My first thought was, what is wrong with these people (the defense attorney and the academic)? Then I thought, will the defense work in reverse? As a white man can I claim because my predecessors owned slaves I can whip and kill black people claiming "post traumatic slave owners syndrome"? Actually, I am of Irish descent, my family having left Ireland during the potato famine. Can I take aim at the English claming "tater famine syndrome"? --Nelson, Pennsylvania

  • To assume an entire culture is incapable of recovering from atrocities perpetrated upon them generations ago is a theory devoid of any intelligence, not to mention it is a complete insult to people of African-American heritage. I suppose any person of Jewish decent should also be excused of any mass executions he/she might commit? I am constantly surprised by the outlandish "defenses" lawyers dream up, but this one takes the cake. I share your outrage, God help us and our children. --Lynda, Indiana

  • Even if we gave them the benefit of the doubt that such a thing exists, it sounds like it would be comparable to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. From what I understand PTSD is not hereditary, it only occurs to those who have experienced severe traumatic stress, such as being in a war. The whole name they've given this condition imples that to experience it one must have been a slave themselves, not a descendant. I seriously doubt that they'll win this case, but if they do then it'll definitely need to receive a Stella Award. The courts generally do not accept even being abused as child oneself as a justification for child abuse. That may be a factor in sentencing (reduced sentence, mandatory counseling), but it doesn't excuse the crime. The truly scary thing is that if they do succeed with this then what's to prevent war veterans suffering from PTSD from killing people and claiming it's the PTSD making them do it? That should put some perspective on things for those too blinded by the potential race issues to see clearly. --Kevin, Tennessee

Several people suggested I write this case up for the True Stella Awards, but that won't happen: TSA is about abuse of America's civil, not criminal, court system.

  • While I agree it is inexcusable to beat a child, any child, let alone a 2-year-old, and that the academic who came up with this PTSD theory should be heavily censured, I really don't think all the comments about the lawyer are justified. The legal system in both the UK and the US holds fair trials and importantly the right to the best defense, as pillars of the system. A defense lawyer takes an awful lot of stick for defending criminals, but without this important facet to our justice system we would get many more miscarriages of justice. You can blame the man for beating his child, and you can blame the academic for coming up with such an absurd theory, but you cannot blame the lawyer for doing his job. In fact, failure to use anything that might conceivably help his client is a failure to do his duty as it is defined by the legal system. --Simon, UK

  • Something struck me wrong about the post-slave-trauma defense story, and I realised what it was: the originator of the "Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome" was painted with the same dark brush as the other two characters: the murderer and his poor excuse for an attorney. I found this on the website [of an alternative paper in Portland]: "DeGruy-Leary says her work is geared toward healing, and not for use in defense of alleged criminal behavior. 'Those who would misconstrue PTSS as a form of rationalization for beating, abusing or harming children in any regard fail to take into account my commitment to the fundamental values and ethical standards of the profession of social work,' she says." We should not blame the author of a pretty intelligent and plausible theory for the scummy way some would twist and abuse it to rationalize rank brutality against an innocent being. I believe if you do a little research into the actual work of Ms. DeGruy-Leary versus relying on second-hand, probably second-rate reporting of that work, you will be able to free her from the terrible burden you have placed on her in this instance. --Tracy, Rhode Island

These last two letters certainly show that different people have different points of view! DeG-L may in fact have said that her work shouldn't be used as an excuse, but when it came down to holding to that standard, she went to court to help the defense in the case. So in fact among those using her theories in a "scummy way" are DeG-L herself. I don't think I'm capable of placing any "burden" on people in the story. If she is burdened, she clearly has burdened herself.

As far as running around doing research on the stories, that's beyond the scope of what This is True does. From the start, True has been billed as news commentary -- a look at, and comment upon, "strange-but-true stories" that I find in "mainstream, legitimate" news outlets. That does not include scanning various web sites of questionable veracity, even those of the "alternative press," to see what someone else has to say about the theories academics are using in court to help defense lawyers.

Which brings up the question, was the story reasonably accurate? Never mind that it was in a "legitimate, mainstream" news outlet; was the reporter accurate and was the editing fair? According to the Oregonian, both the reporter and the editor stand by the story. Washington County's Senior Deputy District Attorney, Robert Hull, told the paper he thought the article was "fair and accurate" and said he considered it a "fair characterization" of what was going on with the case.

Getting that kind of corroboration is also way beyond the scope of True, but I thought it was important to demonstrate the wisdom of my insisting that I use only "legitimate, mainstream newspapers" as a source for articles for me to comment on in True -- never "tabloids" or the "alternative" press.

2012 Update

I searched and found no online news updates over "what happened" in court. However, I searched the Oregon Department of Corrections web site and found Bynum has been housed in the Oregon State Penitentiary since November 16, 2004 -- for murder. "Earliest Release Date: Life", the site says. So apparently, what his lawyer claimed as "justification" for beating his own 2-year-old son to death didn't hold up in court.

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15 Comments on This Entry

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Posted by Monique,Montreal on August 4, 2011:

I might be more inclined to be interested in De G-L's theory if she had proved that former slaves, who were actually subjected to the trauma of slavery had, in fact, been more inclined than their white counterparts to resort to physical punishment to correct their children late in the 19th century. To my knowledge that has never been established, and infant mortality in the Black community was linked to the deplorable living standards they were confined to even after slavery ended, not to violence done to them by their parents.

As far as I know, in fact, MOST parents of all races spanked their children until quite recently, yet MOST parents obviously are neither slaves nor the descendants of slaves. Furthermore, there is a world of difference between spanking your children and killing them.

Beating your child to death simply means you are not fit to live in society and has nothing to do with who your ancestors were and how they lived.

Posted by Ken, Virginia Beach, VA on October 8, 2011:

With reference to Monique, from Montreal comment that most all races spanked their children, that is not entirely true. Many of the American Indian tribes were shocked to see that white people hit their children.

Posted by Doug, Lawrence, KS on April 18, 2012:

Ken from Virginia is correct that Native Americans didn't spank children. I also know from personal experience that many Pacific Islander parents would be shocked that there are people who spank children.

Posted by Sean (UK) on May 19, 2012:

With regards to Simon Uk's comment. Yes we do need lawyers to defend. However, they have, like doctors, a professional level and are regulated. Guys like this lawyer need to be struck off. They give the profession a bad name and could hurt many many innocent people by doing this.

Posted by Monique, Montreal on May 28, 2012:

With all due respect to those with knowledge of Native and Pacific Islander culture (though I was happy to learn they didn't beat their children) those populations never represented more than a tiny fraction of the human race and, to put a finer point on it, they don't represent a race of their own but are genetically linked to the Asian race they originated from where a majority of parents did believe in corporal punishment, just as Whites and Blacks did. That some rare cultures and tribes accounting for less than 1% of the world population and having little to no influence on global customs didn't spank their children doesn't change the fact that most parents of all races did.

And it also doesn't change the fact that decent parents all over the world nonetheless knew where to draw the line between disciplining their children and murdering them no matter what was going on in their lives at that moment in history.

Parents who can't control themselves and injure or kill their children deserve to be in jail and not have crazy excuses made for their behavior.

Posted by Butt,Athens on September 14, 2012:

Wait a moment: Don't I see all manner of excuses when white people commit murder,especially mass murder? It ranges from "they are deranged" to "acting in self-defense." I almost always see this kind of excuses.

Theories emerge as soon as it's confirmed that a white person committed a said crime.some suggest reasons and try to put put logic into the actors actions.

---

Most defendants try some sort of theory. The problem with your "acting in self-defense" example is, it has nothing to do with the point of this page, and it's sometimes true. Oh, and it's not a defense that white people use, it's what they all use. Which means it's further from the point of the page. -rc

Posted by Rick, GA on October 6, 2012:

This entire story line illustrates not only the lengths unscrupulous attorneys will go to "defend" their clients -- and everyone, including this mustering scum, deserves a strong defense -- but really: is this the best he can do? For any parent to beat their child is defenseless. For a black man to allow his lawyer to take this line of reasoning is absurd. As my lawyer said, "if you do the crime, just admit it and take your medicine." I can't disagree with that accountability approach to things. Seriously, if you lose control like that, surely you sit and jail and realize how stupid and cruel you were. I do not buy that this helps propagate more criminal behavior in the black communities. That's a victim mentality. Come on America of all races, just do the right thing, work hard, don't give in the the bad elements everywhere and do something with yourselves. No excuses.

Posted by Bill, Oklahoma on June 28, 2014:

I think lawyers have lost sight of what their real job is. They are officers of the court, that is who they work for. They are paid by their clients. Their job is to see their clients get justice. An example: Their client is doing 50MPH in a 25MPH zone. Justice is a fine of some amount, not 20 years in prison.

Today lawyers seem to think their job is to get their client off at any cost, regardless of guilt or innocence.

Posted by Brian, CT on June 28, 2014:

I believe Bill has hit the nail right on the head, so to speak. The lawyer works for the court, but he is paid by the client. Therefore, his first loyalty is to the client, not the court, because that's where his paycheck comes from. So is it any surprise that the lawyer wants to please his meal ticket more than some abstract concept of justice?

On the other hand, if lawyers were paid by the courts only (like I believe public defenders are), there's no incentive for them to prove their client's innocence -- heck, there's no monetary incentive for them to do *anything* for their clients, really. That won't work either.

Unfortunately, there's no way to handle these sorts of problems except in-house, which means the bar needs to do its job and police its lawyers.

Incidentally, I can see the judge's point. By throwing out this obvious BS completely, he could cause a higher court to "see" that he wasn't allowing the defendant a "proper" defense, and so reverse the jury's findings. By leaving it open-ended, he left the lawyer to prove his crackpot theory, and left it open to his further acceptance or rejection.

Posted by Gerry, Boise, ID on June 29, 2014:

I don't know if anyone caught the implied bigotry in this "defense": "Well, after all, we know that blacks just have a greater tendency to be violent than whites do -- that's the reason that black men are more likely to end up in prison."

Posted by george, Paso Robles CA on June 30, 2014:

Shouldn't we put some blame on the jury?

I do believe that I would want my lawyer to find any kind of defense to protect me.

I would think that the jury should take some if not all of the blame if this person were to get away with murder on that kind of defense.

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Blame the jury for the garbage presented to it? Ridiculous! You only blame the jury for buying in to garbage, and in this case they didn't. No, you blame the presenter: the crackpot who came up with crackpottery, and the lawyer who relayed it to the court. -rc

Posted by Marie, Illinois on June 30, 2014:

Note that Dr.DeGruy-Leary may have been subpoenaed to give evidence in this case, and had no choice, when asked a direct (leading) question, but to say "Yes" when asked "according to your published research, does this fall in the rubric of normal"?

Witnesses are not allowed to expand upon their answers if they are asked a Yes or No question. Of course, cross-examination may open the door.

---

So we excuse her for answering yes, she has come up with a ridiculous, crackpot theory that declares that beating your children to death is "normal"? That's really your argument? I guess we can excuse her for saying "Yes" to the yes/no question, but I'm not as quick to excuse her for coming up with such an outrageous theory in the first place. -rc

Posted by Jay, Chehalis, Washington on July 1, 2014:

I agree with Marie from Illinois, Dr. DeGruy-Leary would not have had a choice in how she answered a direct "yes/no" type of question. The prosecutor may even have given Dr. DeGruy-Leary an opportunity to clarify in cross or on a re-direct but, without the transcript, that is something we cannot know. I even think that the theory may have some merit when applied to ACTIVE slavery such as is present in some nations even today. The use to which this defense attorney put it, though, is reprehensible. That anyone could attempt to JUSTIFY such a heinous act make my stomach roil. There is also the possibility that the defense attorney used this ridiculous defense in order to ensure his clients' conviction. A lawyer with a conscience, who'd've thunk it?

---

That last one is a bit of a stretch, but I suppose it's possible. Just barely. -rc

Posted by Verle, Oklahoma on July 2, 2014:

This story relates to the situation where a defense attorney knows that his client is guilty of a heinous crime. Does the attorney go to extraordinary extremes, even to suppressing evidence, to get his client free?

Some attorneys do (I think they should be disbarred) and some work to get a lesser sentence (save their life).

I would hope all attorneys would work hard for their client but not to the absurd lengths this one did.

I expect little or no better from a psychotic (this word by choice) academic.

Posted by Olivia, Australia on July 4, 2014:

As a PhD student and hence (hopefully) former academic myself, I feel I really must defend DeGruy-Leary. Firstly, she may well have been subpoenaed, which would have given her no choice but to testify in the case, and secondly, as she seems to have attempted to have pointed out herself, academic theories, especially in the arts and social sciences, are very, very different from practically applicable theories. They're more "this is an interesting way of looking at or interpreting this" than necessarily accepted, even by their authors, as gospel truth. There are similar theories out there as to the interpretations of various books, for example, but just because a certain academic claims that a novel is racist does not mean that we should go and try the author of that novel for hate crimes committed by people who read the book.

---

Subpoenaed or not, I still think that testifying that beating a child to death, especially over time (vs in a fit of rage) could possibly "fall in the rubric" of "normal" is disgusting, and I stand by the story 100%. -rc

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