Friday, January 21, 2005

Thief uses "Doorknob" Defense

Jan. 19, 2005
Port Washington - A Racine man with a self-described obsession for doorknobs has been charged with stealing tools, materials and other items from several Mequon construction sites.

According to a criminal complaint filed Wednesday in Ozaukee County Circuit Court, Thor Jeffrey Steven Laufer, 42, told police that he stole the items from the construction sites to disguise his obsession and "so that it would look like a typical burglary rather than someone just stealing doorknobs."
...

On Dec. 29, Laufer waived his right to a preliminary hearing and entered a plea of not guilty.

In a preliminary hearing waiver form signed by Laufer, he stated that he had been committed to mental institutions or declared mentally ill or incompetent "numerous times."

Laufer is in custody at the Milwaukee County Jail in lieu of $10,000 bail.

Full Story

11 Comments:

At 10:50 AM, Blogger Mira de Vries said...

What are you trying to say, Lee, by posting this? That you think the doorknob defense is silly?
In this case it probably is, but the question remains, from a legal point of view, what is the relationship between the reason a crime is committed and culpability? We acknowledge self-defense as a valid reason for as much as murder. What about crime passionel? What if a man steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family? What if he acted after having been taunted? Or forced to drink alcohol until he became drunk?
I don't think this issue is as simple and clear-cut as some of us would like it to be.

 
At 3:44 PM, Blogger Lee Killough said...

I regularly post stories here (or on Schaler's list) which have to do with the insanity defense, civil committment, drug laws, therapeutic nanny state, etc.

Obsessive-compulsive behavior is no excuse for theft. Are you saying he should not be punished, or should be punished in a different way (such as civil commitment), if he has a "bona fide mental illness", as determined by "experts"?

That would be inhumane -- treating him like that. He deserves punishment for theft, including possible civil damages to the builders, but nothing more, nothing less.

He is clearly used to manipulating the psychiatric system for his own advantage. If I could get away with stealing hundreds of dollars of items by saying I had an obsession for doorknobs and that the rest of what I stole was needed to cover up my doorknob obsession, and if some judge or shrink believed my story that I was crazy, I might do it for a living.

The system encourages this. Psychiatry literally creates "madness", both definitionally, and behaviorally. Madness serves a function for both the "ill" person and those interacting with him.

I am not saying that the defendant doesn't deserve a fair trial -- on the contrary, I'd argue that psychiatric explanations for his alleged crime undermine his rights.

I don't know for certain whether this person was guilty of theft. But he seems to be admitting it by using psychiatric excuses, and those are not legitimate excuses for theft.

"We acknowledge self-defense as a valid reason for as much as murder."If it is self-defense, then it is not murder.

 
At 10:41 AM, Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

Some "excuses" are good and some are not. "He was about to kill me, so I killed him" is a good excuse (assuming it is consistent with the evidence and not contradicted by it). "I couldn't help myself" and "a voice (God or Satan) told me to do it" are not good excuses. Individual cases can be complicated, but this broad outline strikes me as reasonable.

 
At 3:08 PM, Blogger Mira de Vries said...

Lee wrote, “Are you saying he should not be punished, or should be punished in a different way (such as civil commitment), if he has a "bona fide mental illness", as determined by "experts"?”

No. This case is an illustration of how the concept of mental illness is used to paper over the cracks in our society. The core problem here is not whether mental illness exists, or whether it excuses a crime, but that a jail sentence is not a rational punishment for theft.

Lee wrote: “He deserves punishment for theft, including possible civil damages to the builders, but nothing more, nothing less.”

Precisely. Rational would be to order the thief to return/replace/compensate for the stolen goods, with an extra payment to the victim for the trouble. Of course, the thief may not be able to finance the compensation, in which case he might be ordered to do certain labor until his debt is paid. With this kind of rational punishment, the reason the thief stole the goods wouldn’t make any difference to anybody.

Sheldon wrote: “Some "excuses" are good and some are not.”

Like I said, if the punishment fit the crime, there would be no need for an excuse. In the case of theft, the judge/jury would only have to determine whether the person actually did that of which he is accused, and if so, how much compensation the perpetrator should pay to the victim.

 
At 8:10 PM, Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

Mira--

Agreed. Restitution should be at the core of the response to violations of rights. This is most easily seen in cases of theft. It's more complicated with violence against the person because what constitute's restitution exactly? Payment of medical bills? An extra payment because of the terror inflicted and the uncertainty of the outcome? Is sheer punishment justified? Is confinement justified as punishment rather than as protection against further crimes? Interesting subject.

 
At 10:58 AM, Blogger Mira de Vries said...

Sheldon wrote: "... with violence against the person because what constitute's restitution exactly?"

Violence against the person, e.g. murder, assault, rape, and detention, are so massively harmful that restitution is not usually a suitable way of dealing with it. People like that have to be locked up for the protection of other people. If we do it mainly to protect others, rather than specifically to punish the perpetrator, then the issue of mental illness becomes irrelevant, though individual cases will still not always be clear-cut.

Sheldon wrote: "Interesting subject."

Indeed, but perhaps not considered on topic for this forum. Please allow me to say this, though:
1. We will never resolve the “Does mental illness exist” debate, because illness (mental or not) is not a fact which can be proved or disproved, but an idea or construct.
2. Even if we could convince everybody else that mental illness doesn’t exist, this would still not solve the problem of what to do with certain individuals in our society, such as people who steal doorknobs.
3. The problem can be solved without deciding that mental illness doesn’t exist. What is standing directly in the way is not the concept of mental illness, but the personal, political, legal, and financial interests the state and many other parties have vested in the status quo. Granted, exposing the truth that psychiatry is folly might help turn these interests around. But if our concern is liberty, then attacking only that one front, psychiatry, is inefficient.

 
At 1:05 PM, Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

I have to take exception to the statement that physical illness is not a fact. If heart disease isn't a fact, what is a fact?

 
At 2:18 PM, Blogger Mira de Vries said...

Sheldon wrote, “If heart disease isn't a fact, what is a fact?”

What do you mean by heart disease? I’m not a physician, but I know that the heart can deviate from normal in myriad ways, some of which are life-threatening, and others benign.

Suppose an x-ray reveals a partially blocked artery in the heart. The radiologist will not notify the general practitioner or cardiologist, “Your patient has heart disease.” He will notify him exactly what he saw on the x-ray. Whether or not it constitutes disease has nothing to do with science, but depends on the social consequences. If the partial blockage is preventing the patient from continuing his usual activities, it is considered a disease. If the patient feels and functions fine, and the blockage would not have been noticed were it not for a routine check-up, it is not considered disease, at most something that needs regular monitoring.

The Dutch former general practitioner, turned professor of social medicine, Ivan Wolffers, likes to refer to the following physical deviations from normal as non-diseases: hypertension, hyperventilation, and menopause. These three conditions definitely exist. While the first usually goes unnoticed in the absence of a medical check-up, the second two cause very real, sometimes debilitating symptoms. Does that make them diseases?

What about the common cold? Does it excuse a person from work? The answer would probably be yes for a person who works in a neonatal intensive care unit, no for someone who works in an office.

Is Down syndrome a disease? Psoriasis? Athlete’s foot? Cerebral palsy? Scabies? Tooth decay? I’m sure if we were to debate these questions, we would find the consensus a great deal less than many people who object to the mental illness concept acknowledge.

In short, illness and disease are ideas, not facts. They only have meaning within a social context. Like beauty, disease is in the eye of the beholder. That doesn’t mean it isn’t real. It does mean it’s not a fact that can be proved or disproved.

 
At 7:05 PM, Blogger Lee Killough said...

Mira wrote: "Sheldon wrote: 'Interesting subject.' Indeed, but perhaps not considered on topic for this forum."

I disagree. Punishment and restitution for crimes gets intertwined with psychiatry (or psychiatric language) whether we like it or not, so the issues should be discussed, if only to develop a side opposed to the idea that psychiatry should guide legal/ethical/moral decision-making.

It is very on-topic.

"1. We will never resolve the 'Does mental illness exist' debate, because illness (mental or not) is not a fact which can be proved or disproved, but an idea or construct."

Perhaps not -- perhaps, like religion, it's a world-view that people can choose to accept or reject, but which cannot be proven or disproven, verified or falsified.

"2. Even if we could convince everybody else that mental illness doesn’t exist, this would still not solve the problem of what to do with certain individuals in our society, such as people who steal doorknobs."

No-one said it's our job to resolve those issues. Nor does denial of "mental illness" obligate us to provide alternative theories of mind, behavior, ethics which can solve these issues right away. We can discuss them nonetheless, leading the way towards an alternative system.

"3. The problem can be solved without deciding that mental illness doesn’t exist. What is standing directly in the way is not the concept of mental illness, but the personal, political, legal, and financial interests the state and many other parties have vested in the status quo. Granted, exposing the truth that psychiatry is folly might help turn these interests around. But if our concern is liberty, then attacking only that one front, psychiatry, is inefficient."

I wasn't aware we were only attacking this one front.

Have you read Szasz's books, heard his lectures? Or Sheldon's? If so, you'll know that they are attacking many fronts: Paternalism, government schools, government welfare, the income tax, pharmacracy, drug wars, regulation, individual responsibility, etc.

This thread I started, might seem like making a big deal over a small theft case. But it is just one of many such cases.

Don't read it like this theft case is going to be "The case which disproves mental illness". That is not the aim here.

Mira: "What about the common cold? Does it excuse a person from work? The answer would probably be yes for a person who works in a neonatal intensive care unit, no for someone who works in an office."

That is up to the parties involved to decide, not us (nor government). We do not need to come up with mandated standards of what constitutes "illness" or "disease", and how to handle them in every situation.

What's important is not whether we agree with various notions of "illness" and how people handle them, but whether they are handled voluntarily by the people themselves.

 
At 8:22 PM, Blogger Mira de Vries said...

Lee said, "What's important is not whether we agree with various notions of "illness" and how people handle them, but whether they are handled voluntarily by the people themselves."

Does this mean that you do not object to the concept of mental illness, provided the person has chosen the label himself? Or are you referring only to proven physical deviation? Either way, if people can choose to handle the notion themselves any way they see fit, then there is no fixed definition, so the term remains meaningless.

 
At 10:52 PM, Blogger Lee Killough said...

I do not care whether or not people use the term "mental illness" to describe themselves, as long as it is not forced on them by others as a means of social control, or used by them or others to excuse crimes, etc.

Read Szasz where he says he is not an "anti-psychiatrist," and he approves of voluntary, contractual psychiatry. For example:"Laing in particular was completely inattentive to the legal aspects, so he never really distinguished between involuntary and voluntary psychiatry. Here my classical liberal convictions are crucial, in that I firmly believe that there should be no interference in voluntary relationships between psychiatrists and patients. If the patient wants a drug, fine. If the patient wants electric shock, fine. If the patient wants a lobotomy, fine. Now that doesn't mean that I like it, any more than I would if the patient wants to have an abortion just because it's inconvenient to have a baby. I don't think that's a good idea either. But I don't think the law should interfere with it."By contrast, with involuntary psychiatry, under no circumstances do I consider it permissible. Neither Laing nor Foucault made this clear. They offered a kind of a blanket condemnation of psychiatry which smacked of a socialist, left-wing indictment of capitalism. [In their view,] the whole thing is no good. Of course, in some ways the whole thing is no good, in that it's misconceptualized, but so is religion if you don't believe in religion. Yet you don't want to forbid it or interfere with it."The key question for me, is not "What is the Truth?", but "Has anyone been coerced?".

I don't think using "mental illness" and its labels on persons clarifies discussions (I think it muddies them), but the issue of whether "mental illness" really exists or not is still orders of magnitude less important to me than whether someone is being coerced.

Getting back to this theft, the objection is not so much that the alleged thief believes he has "mental illness", or whether "mental illness" is a valid concept in this context, but in his use of it as an excuse for the crime, and the legal system's general acceptance of this kind of explanation, for reasons not always discussed openly, such as being able to hold the person for longer than the crime would normally allow, forcing them to take drugs and see a psychiatrist regularly, or using preventive detention to "prevent" future crimes. By saying he has a doorknob obsession mental illness, he may get more than he wished for.

As for "mental illness" remaining meaningless unless there is a single agreed-upon definition: I think you'll find that ideas carry meanings regardless of whether they are universal. Look at religion, which one can compare psychiatry with.

 

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