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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Defense must play blame game in Rebecca Riley murder trial

The tragedy

Rebecca Riley, age 4, died in the throes of pneumonia, while very heavily medicated on Depakote and Clonidine, intended to treat ADHD and bipolar disorder. Her parents, Carolyn and Michael, are on trial for Rebecca's murder (Read about the trial here). According to prosecutors, Carolyn and Michael routinely lied to doctors in an effort to get all their children prescribed strong drugs, eventually finding a Boston psychiatrist willing to believe them and hand out ever-stronger doses. Prosecutors claim that the Rileys cared only about making their children easy to manage, regardless of any adverse health consequences, and collecting federal disability benefits. Eventually, after being given extremely high dosages of these powerful drugs, even by adult patient standards, Rebecca died in her parents' home.

When a tragedy like this strikes, it is quite natural for ordinary people to want to assign blame. Someone must have been responsible and that person should be held accountable. Why is there such a palpable need to assign blame? It stems from several reinforcing psychological phenomena.

The human need for answers and accountability

The first is a natural aversion to reminders of one's own mortality. We don't like to feel vulnerable. Therefore, when bad things -- deadly things -- happen to others, our brains automatically generate reasons why such threats aren't dangerous to us. A standard response is to generate distinctions between the victim's circumstances and our own. Some distinctions are circumstantial, while others are directed at choices made by the victim or some other responsible party.

A second psychological response to such a tragedy is to shrink back from the randomness of a bad event. We don't like to think that we are not in control of our own lives. We like to think that our own actions and choices will insure our own well-being. Therefore, people tend to overestimate the control that someone else could have exercised over a difficult situation. This is because any bystander would like to believe that, had she been in the same situation, she would have been able to stop the tragedy from occurring.

Finally, as I have written about on a number of occasions, hindsight bias is always at play when rare events take place. Ordinary people have a great deal of trouble processing the true chance of very unlikely events. The numbers just get too small for the brain to easily process. (What does a 1-in-500,000 chance really look like?). Also, the cognitive availability of an event (after all, the event is the focus of the trial) makes it seem more likely to have occurred. This tendency to overestimate the likelihood of an event also results in people overestimating the events predictability and preventability. An odd second-order effect is that the more peculiar the circumstances, the more likely people are to assume that a tragedy could have been averted.

Jurors are not experts in risk assessment. They typically don't have degrees in statistics or bioinformatics. They are ordinary folks, tasked with processing some very foreign circumstances. As such, they will be subject to the kinds of cognitive tendencies outlined above. The Rebecca Riley death is a very strange story. The loss of a young child is every parent's worst nightmare. The world of pediatric psychiatry seems very alien to all of the jurors. All of these factors will combine to make the jurors very eager to find someone to blame for this horrible tragedy. Once they assign blame, they can go back to believing that such a thing could never happen to them.

What should the defense team do?

This is the environment in which Carolyn and Michael Riley are being tried. One defense strategy might be to portray this death to the jury as an unfortunate accident. For the reasons I outline above, I think this will be an extremely tough sell. A better strategy would be to try to deflect blame onto others. Let the jurors have their culprit, but try to convince at least some of them that the culprit is someone other than the defendant.

The defense team took a sensible first step in this direction by requesting separate trials for the two parents. This allows each to deflect responsibility to the other. The key for Carolyn's legal team is to get at least some on the jury to assign more responsibility to her husband than to her. Frankly, based on what we have heard so far, such a tactic would seem more promising for Michael's defense than for Carolyn's.

The second likely candidate for deflected blame is the psychiatrist who prescribed the medication. Dr. Kayoko Kufuji has now testified in Carolyn's trial. While she came across as detached and somewhat clueless, which points to her own negligence, the prosecution did a very good job of showing how Dr. Kufuji relied very heavily on Carolyn Riley's own characterizations of her children, when making her diagnoses. As such, Kufuji's failures seem largely the result of Carolyn Riley's dishonesty and manipulation.

The third candidate for deflected blame, and the one I think is most likely to garner some sympathy with jurors, is Carolyn Riley's own mental state. The prosecutor is trying to paint a picture of a calculating, manipulative mother who happily endangered her children to keep them docile and to collect federal disability checks. The defense might just gain some traction by telling the jury that she was mentally unbalanced. There are official conditions, like Munchausen-by-proxy, where parents imagine or invent illnesses in their children to fulfill a pathological need for attention. Alternatively, the defense could attribute her extreme behavior to the abusive treatment by her husband. Michael Riley has been banned from a prior residence due to violent behavior and Carolyn Riley once took out a restraining order against her husband, ostensibly to protect her children. Under such a scenario, the defense can contend that the system let Carolyn down, enabling behavior that was not only self-destructive, but also endangered the Riley children.

Will it work?

Jurors are generally skeptical of victimization arguments like the one I outline above, but it seems the best strategy in a case like this. There is a documented history of spousal abuse. Many authority figures who interacted with Carolyn and her children failed to take official action. Remember that only one juror needs to be convinced that Carolyn Riley wasn't completely responsible for her own actions to avoid a murder conviction.

The defense strategy needs to be focused on getting Carolyn's sanity into the discussion in the jury room. They need to open the door for those who might be inclined to take pity on her. I rather doubt that the jury will initially be unanimous in its evaluation of her culpability. Arguments will be heated. Tears will be shed. Playing up the defendant's mental instability might not keep her out of jail, but I could see a conviction on a lesser included offense, such as involuntary manslaughter. Given what has transpired in court so far, that would probably be considered a victory for the defense.

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