Reformer Calls for a System That Gets Back to the Basics

INTERVIEW James Q. Wilson

First, there were Erik and Lyle Menendez, accused of brutally murdering their parents. Then, Lorena Bobbitt maimed her husband in his sleep. And in 1995, the O.J. Simpson criminal trial came to its dramatic and perplexing close.

These high-profile criminal cases each captivated the nation - and often disgusted it. They sparked heated debates over the fairness of the justice system, gave criminal law a black eye, and spawned a flurry of reforms that have since mostly waned.

But now new voices, sounding a different sort of solution, are emerging. A wave of lawyers, judges, and scholars is calling for the legal system to shake off the trappings it has accumulated over the past 30 years and re-root itself firmly in its most basic foundations.

The latest thinker to join this countermovement is James Q. Wilson, a conservative political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of several books on crime, justice, and morals.

"I am trying to return the system to a clearer function of its central mission - and its central mission is to determine innocence or guilt," Dr. Wilson said in an interview, explaining the motive behind his recently published book, "Moral Judgment: Does the Abuse Excuse Threaten Our Legal System?" (BasicBooks).

Suggesting a stripped-down, traditionalist route for reforming the justice system is a radical stance in a era when psychology seems to provide excuses for most behaviors.

But to Wilson, the system is in such need of redirection that radical measures may be what it takes. "I think the problem is in some ways more serious than the commonly discussed fixes are intended to remedy," he says.

"I think the real problems arise when expert social-science witnesses are allowed into the trials of wealthy and celebrated defendants to argue that something in their background caused them to behave in a way which led to the crime," Wilson says.

"This development is wrong for two reasons," he says. "First of all, it's denied to people who are not wealthy, because a poor defendant does not have a constitutional claim at the state's expense on similar expert testimony. And secondly, it confuses the jury. It asks the jury to try to explain the act, and as a consequence of explaining it, forgive it in whole or in part."

But many in the legal field disagree with Wilson. Some scholars warn that a shift back to basics negates the gains made by women and minorities, returning the system to an era when justice meant justice for white men only.

"I think what's happened is that we've become a more diverse society, and solutions that once seemed simple are now not so simple," says James Coleman, law professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

To Wilson, and others - such as Harvard Law School Prof. Alan Dershowitz and New York Supreme Court Judge Harold Rothwax - the new defenses are part of a movement in which the pendulum has swung too far in the favor of criminal defendants.

High-profile cases such as that of Ms. Bobbitt, acquitted of injuring her husband by using the battered-woman defense; or the Menendez brothers, whose juries (one for each brother) were unable to reach verdicts after attorneys claimed the Menendez boys were abused by their parents, provide examples of new "excuses" found in the courtroom.

These excuse-defenses, Wilson says, take justice down a slippery slope. For example, the most popular new defense is battered-woman syndrome. Typically, a woman argues that her charges should be reduced from murder to a lesser offense, such as manslaughter, because the physical and emotional abuse she suffered made her unable to leave her husband. Her only way out was to kill him.

But if the courts allow the battered-woman defense, what of adopted-child syndrome, premenstrual-stress syndrome, black-rage syndrome, and mob-mentality defense? Should these be allowed in court, as well?

No, argues Wilson. "Once you ask the question, 'What causes crime?' the list of contributing factors is endlessly long."

To Wilson, if a woman has murdered, she should be found guilty of murder. A judge can reduce her sentence for mitigating circumstances if warranted.

One of the largest problems with abuse excuses, Wilson says, is the effect they have on the public. "What the public sees," he says, "is that there is a system of justice that has one set of rules for the rich and a different set for the poor, and that disturbs them.

"What I'm trying to do," he says, "is tell the system that it ought to think harder about how it allows explanations and social-science expert witnesses into trials, because the public confidence in the system is at risk."

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