Interpreting evidence, criminalizing a kid

“I didn’t…,” Masters said, shaking his head.
“.…You fantasized about this all this time. The fantasy finally came to an end the other night. It wasn’t a fantasy anymore you could think about. You got to do it. You got to be part of it. You got to do it for a change. Instead of reading about it. Instead of drawing about it. And it was very self-fulfilling,” Broderick said. “It was what it was all about…. Are you going to have to do it, again? Do you feel compelled to do it, again?”

“I told you, I didn’t do it!”

15-year old Tim Masters stumbled across the sexually mutilated body of Peggy Hettrick in my hometown of Fort Collins, CO in 1987. Hesitating on his way to school, Tim was convinced the body was a mannequin or a CPR dummy – and kept walking. He was later brought in for interrogation, subjected to the stinging stigma of being a criminal among his peers, placed under varying degrees of surveillance for a decade, and then eventually convicted for first-degree murder in 1999. After a grueling 9-year legal battle under imprisonment with no parole, it was revealed through DNA testing that he didn’t do it.

There was no physical evidence used to justify the original conviction.
But the hunt for intent and meaning within the boy’s drawings did prove circumstantial. Why?

This case immediately reminded me of Foucault’s analysis of the modern penal system. Recall how “subjects” or “readers” are immersed in power relations involving a hierarchy of interpretive communities that we don’t beget, freely join, or even perceive outside of certain contexts. In many ways, we are “subjected” to them. Determined to frame Tim, one of the leading investigators, Jim Broderick, teamed up with a forensic psychologist from California to analyze the 15-year-old boy’s drawings and writing entries to determine a motive. Note that this was nearly 10 years after the murder occurred. Their report defined the crime as “unconscious displaced matricide”, citing that because Tim’s mother had died exactly 4 years before the day of Peggy’s murder, Tim Masters had avenged his loss by murdering and mutilating the 37-year-old stranger who was conveniently walking home late from the bar. They organized Tim’s admittedly violent drawings into various categories titled “female domination” and  “dragging”, among 31 other related themes. Based on the evidence of this “fantasy production”, as detailed in a 29-page arrest report, Masters was put behind bars and the forensic psychologist made $42,000 in a matter of months. Only one officer in the department (who left for Kansas) fundamentally disagreed with the verdict, claiming that it was impossible for a 15-year old to orchestrate a surgically sophisticated vulvectomy. DNA specialists were not brought in (until much later – before Tim’s release) and other physical evidence was scrapped. One particular “interpretive community” conducted – even dominated – the entire investigation.

For 10 years, two equally determined lawyers fought to gain access to the physical evidence – high resolution photographs involving footprints and DNA on the woman’s clothing and purse –  that were not Tim Master’s. This evidence had been locked away. Unused in the previous investigation. Broderick had downplayed this other evidence, and had even confiscated and burned tapes that could equally link the murder to an eye surgeon. “Downplayed”, “misrepresented an eyewitness account”, “misinterpreted”, “cherry-picked”…

Tim Masters was convicted for being the awkward, outcast, and troubled teen, convicted for his supposed drives, desires, and intent. Yes, he was a pretty messed up kid (read the entire story here). But his conviction was in large part a judgment on who he was, a judgment which seemed to be evidence enough to causally link his antisocial habits to what he did not do. In the complex matrix of power that afforded psychology a dominant role in determining what was important to know and to judge, the “evidence” was interpreted accordingly. These same forces also determined which evidence was important, careful to leave much of it out. Luckily, Tim Masters was released in 2008 and given a sizable lump of money (to the tune of $10 million).

In that previously mentioned article, brilliantly written, another thing caught my eye and seems worthy of quoting here, as a final tribute to Foucault. This concerns a presentation that Tim Masters now gives to college students pursuing criminal justice and forensic psychology: “He urges students to recognize the power they will have over other people’s lives and the need to exercise it with integrity.”

Ding!

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One response to “Interpreting evidence, criminalizing a kid

  1. The connection you made between the theory and Tim Master’s story in the last paragraph really wrapped up the post well. It reminded me again of why we were doing this… haha. It is a great point though! People really do have power over other people’s lives, which also reminds me of Hitler. He was just an ordinary man who gained control of an army of men and killed off millions of people. None of us want to end up like Hitler, so Foucalt’s lesson is a great one.

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