The verdict in the guilt phase was hardly issued on Friday when an individual, Lloyd Billingsley, a journalist by trade, rendered a very stark analysis of the case. Drawing upon forensic psychologist Deborah Schmidt’s testimony that this was a clear case of “predatory aggression,” Mr. Billingsley goes a step further, recalling 1990s research on “superpredators.”
He writes, “During the 1990s, Princeton political scientist John DiIulio charted the rise of ‘superpredators,’ violent young men who kill and show no remorse. DiIulio has since backed off on this theme but Marsh, who laughed as he described the crime to police, suggests the superpredator type remains active.”
“That could indicate the need for reforms in the way schools handle serious threats of violence,” he writes. “Mental health counselors testified that Marsh spoke freely of wanting to kill and torture people. But without a specific plan or specific victim, officials won’t break confidentiality.”
We agree on one thing here – the school and mental health system failed, in part because they were ill-equipped to handle someone like Daniel Marsh, but they also failed in more benign ways, in that concern was never communicated into action to get Mr. Marsh the kind of care that he actually needed.
Mr. Billingsley attacks the defense, noting that the family found it insulting having “the defense claim that an axis of mental problems and side-effects from medications” caused the tragedy, but we have an adversarial system that does not seek truth and justice, but rather pits diametrically opposing forces against each other in the hope that the competition of ideas will allow a jury of 12 laypersons, none with psychological training, to see the truth.
Never mind that, as even Mr. Billingsley acknowledges, Dr. Schmidt told the jury it was “far more complicated” and “based on a lot of things.” Mr. Billingsley noted that the psychologist said there were no articles linking “Zoloft to predatory aggression and homicide. And Zoloft, she said, does not cause people ‘to research serial killers,’ as Marsh did.”
On the other hand, a lot of people research serial killers, finding them fascinating, and Mr. Marsh’s fascination with the macabre would likely play into that.
Mr. Billingsley continues, “Psychologist James Rokop testified that Marsh, who was 15 at the time of the murders, was a sexual sadist who killed solely to gratify himself. The killings left Marsh elated and he bragged to his friends. Despite that and other testimony from Marsh’s friends, the defense’s view gained traction around Davis.”
The latter is not a fair comment. No one that we saw took the view that the clear mental illness that Mr. Marsh suffered exonerated him. What was far more common is acknowledgement that Mr. Marsh was a troubled youth for whom the system failed. Moreover, as we argued earlier this week, Mr. Marsh was a juvenile, just 15 years of age when he committed the crime – a factor that the system, trying him as an adult, fails to acknowledge.
Mr. Billingsley continues, “Northup, 87, was a lawyer and staunch death-penalty opponent who would have been the first to defend the teen. Marsh took Northup’s life, and Maupin’s, but under current law Marsh not only preserves his own life but someday could be paroled and walk free again. That strikes some friends and relatives of the victims as an injustice.”
Mr. Billingsley, of course, fails to note that he would not even be eligible for parole until he was in his sixties at the earliest. By that time, he would have spent 75 to 80 percent of his life in prison for a crime he committed when he was 15. And that is assuming a parole board would actually release someone who committed a double homicide under these conditions.
Mr. Billingsley continues, “They wonder if juveniles tried as adults and duly convicted of first-degree murder should also be subject to adult penalties such as life without possibility of parole.” He added, “A ‘Maupin’s Law’ along those lines could draw a measure of reform from one of the worse violent crimes in California history.”
That is a strange comment by Mr. Billingsley, because it was just two years ago that Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation banning life without parole for juveniles.
“When California condemns a young person to life behind bars, it utterly disregards the human capacity for rehabilitation and ignores the very real physical and psychological differences between children and adults,” said Ronald Hampton, Executive Director of Blacks in Law Enforcement of America. “Punishment should reflect the capacity of young people to change and mature”
University of Southern California law professor Heidi Rummel, director of the university’s Post-Conviction Justice Project, explained that children differ from adults: “Their brains are still developing. They are impulsive, vulnerable to peer pressure and often victims of their life circumstances. But most importantly, they have a much greater capacity to grow and change.”
Of course, Mr. Billingsley and others have already assumed that Mr. Marsh cannot change. And maybe he can’t, but why make the determination when he is 17 rather than when he is 60?
Given the direction of both state and national trends, such a law as Mr. Billingsley proposes seems unlikely.
Then again, this isn’t about enacting new legislation, as we see the real motivation for the sensationalist polemic. Mr. Billingsley, you see, “is the author of a forthcoming book on the Daniel Marsh case.”
That is the real motivation here, selling books by labeling the young Daniel Marsh as a “superpredator” who needs to be locked away for life. Unfortunately for him, Jerry Brown, Leland Yee and “liberal” Davis stand in the way.
Back in June of 2013, I would write in a commentary following the arrest of Daniel Marsh: “If this young man indeed ends up being the killer, this is a failure of our system. This time it is our failure, our system, our schools that perhaps did not read the warning signs in the right way and find help for a kid who may have been ready to snap.”
“We have a culture of bullying and depression, and we still do not do enough to help those troubled kids when there is still a chance,” I wrote at the time. “We are still, in many ways, a community in deep denial about a group of our young people who do not make it through the system unscathed. So yes, we did not want this to be one of our own, but now that we realize it might well be, we need to wake up and start dealing with real problems.”
Dr. Steve Nowicki, who specializes in pediatric developmental behavior, illustrates the problem here when he writes, “Reading this testimony has me furious. This is one case in which there are three victims. This testimony illustrates the need for our community to take pediatric mental health, childhood trauma and child development extremely seriously.”
“The Black Box Warning is most important in the first weeks of starting any SSRI as it can cause ‘activation’ which may appear as irritability, increased energy and even the energy to attempt a suicide already contemplated as a result of major depression. It is clear that depression is the root of suicide and SSRIs are quite effective in treating depression. The irritability can persist and that prompts a change in medication, a reevaluation of the diagnosis and intensification of therapy.
“The real issue is the lack of coordination and the obvious lack of patient ownership that should be the cornerstone of a good physician,” he continues. “It is unrealistic to think that we should rely on a school psychologist in this situation and there should have been more immediate response by his psychiatrist.”
The story of Daniel Marsh is a tragedy for all involved. It takes nothing away from the tragedy that the victims and their families suffered in this case to acknowledge that Mr. Marsh was a troubled youth, ending up failed by the system.
It is no insult to the family to figure out what went wrong so that, in the future, we can prevent other families from suffering this type of catastrophic loss.
—David M. Greenwald reporting