Saturday, December 8, 2007

Scientists say teen brain, still maturing, is key to understanding behavior

Scans show that the brain doesn't mature until age 25; increasingly, courts are considering such findings as they decide what punishments fit teen crime.

By Malcolm Ritter

Sunday, December 09, 2007

NEW YORK — The teenage brain, Laurence Steinberg says, is like a car with a good accelerator but a weak brake. With powerful impulses under poor control, the likely result is a crash.

And, perhaps, a crime.

Steinberg, a Temple University psychology professor, helped draft an American Psychological Association brief for a 2005 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for crimes committed before age 18.

That ruling relies on the most recent research on the adolescent brain, which indicates the juvenile brain is still maturing in the teen years and reasoning and judgment are developing well into the early to mid-20s. It is often cited as state lawmakers consider scaling back punitive juvenile justice laws passed during the 1990s.

"As any parent knows," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the 5-4 majority, youths are more likely to show "a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility" than adults. " These qualities often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions."

He also noted that "juveniles are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure," causing them to have less control over their environment.

Some child advocates have pointed to the Supreme Court decision and the research as evidence that teens — even those accused of serious crimes — should not be regarded in the same way as adults in the criminal justice system.

Dr. David Fassler, a psychiatry professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine who has testified before legislative committees on brain development, says the research doesn't absolve teens but offers some explanation for their behavior.

"It doesn't mean adolescents can't make a rational decision or appreciate the difference between right and wrong," he said. "It does mean, particularly when confronted with stressful or emotional decisions, they are more likely to act impulsively, on instinct, without fully understanding or analyzing the consequences of their actions."

Experts say that even at ages 16 and 17, when compared to adults, juveniles on average are more impulsive, aggressive, emotionally volatile, reactive to stress and vulnerable to peer pressure. They also are more prone to focus on and overestimate short-term payoffs and underplay longer-term consequences of what they do. And they're more likely to overlook alternative courses of action.

Violence toward others also tends to peak in adolescent years, says psychiatrist Dr. Peter Ash of Emory University. It's mostly likely to start about age 16, and people who haven't committed a violent crime by age 19 only rarely start doing it later, he said.

The good news, he said, is that a violent adolescent doesn't necessarily become a violent adult. About two-thirds to three-quarters of violent youth grow out of it, Ash said. "They get more self-controlled."

Some of the changes found in behavioral studies are paralleled by changes in the brain itself as youths become adults. In fact, in just the past few years, Steinberg said, brain scans have given biological backing to common-sense notions about teen behavior.

It's one thing to say teens don't control their impulses as well as adults, but another to show that they can't, he said. As for peer pressure, the new brain research "gives credence to the idea that this isn't a choice that kids are making to give in to their friends — that biologically, they're more vulnerable to that," he said.

Consider the lobes at the front of the brain. The nerve circuitry there ties together inputs from other parts of the brain, said Dr. Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health.

This circuitry weighs how much priority to give incoming messages such as "Do this now" versus "Wait! What about the consequences?" In short, the frontal lobes are key for making good decisions and controlling impulses.

Brain scans show that the frontal lobes don't mature until age 25, and their connections to other parts of the brain continue to improve until at least that age, Giedd said.

The inexplicable behavior and poor judgments teens are known for almost always happen when teens are feeling powerful emotions or intense peer pressure, conditions that overwhelm the still-maturing circuitry in the front part of brain, Giedd said.

Giedd emphasized that scientists can't yet scan an individual's brain and draw conclusions about how mature he is, or the degree of responsibility he takes for his actions.

Brain scans do show group differences between adult and teen brains, he said, "but whether or not that should matter (in the courtroom) is the part that needs to be decided more by the judicial system than the neuroscientist."

There's nothing particularly magic about age 18 as a standard dividing line between juveniles and adults in the courtroom. Different mental capabilities mature at different rates, Steinberg notes. Teens as young as 15 or 16 can generally balance short-term rewards and possible costs as well as adults, but their ability to consider what might happen later on is still developing, he said.

A dividing line of age 18 is better than 15 and not necessarily superior to 19 or 17, but it appears good enough to be justified scientifically, he said.

Steinberg said he thinks courts should be able to punish some 16- or 17-year olds as adults. That would be reserved for repeat violent offenders who have resisted rehabilitation by the juvenile justice system and who could endanger other youths in the juvenile system if they returned. "I don't think there are a lot of these kids," Steinberg said.

For the rest, he says it makes sense to try rehabilitating young offenders in the juvenile justice system. That's better than sending them through the adult system, which can disrupt their development so severely that "they're never going be able to be a productive member of society," Steinberg said. "You're not doing society any favor at all."

Most experts conclude that rehabilitation works better for juveniles than for adult offenders, Ash said. And just as parents know how irrational juveniles can be, he said, they also know that rehabilitation is a key goal in punishing them.

"What we really want," he said, "is to turn delinquent kids into good adults."

Additional material from Associated Press writer Sharon Cohen.

Younger suspect in murder had 'mental problems'

Brother arrested in separate bat attack


FORT McCOY - Born prematurely at six months, William Myers weighed only a pound. At age 4, he was diagnosed as a schizophrenic with suicide rage disorder. He lived in several foster homes while his parents went through a bitter divorce, his family said. And now, at age 16, he stands charged with being an accomplice in the baseball bat slaying so brutal, a prosecutor has suggested it was done for "entertainment" or "pure meanness."

"He always had mental problems and issues," Irma Smith said about her stepson, whose 17th birthday Thursday was spent at the Juvenile Assessment Center.

Such was the life of Myers, as told by Smith and the boy's father, William, in an interview with the Star-Banner at Fort McCoy park.

Friday's arrest was yet another shock for the family. Myer's 18-year-old brother is in jail in an unrelated case on charges of beating someone with a bat. Now, the family says they are receiving phone death threats and someone tried to run Smith off the road.

On Friday, Myers and his 18-year-old cousin, James E. Roberts, were arrested by Ocala police and charged with the murder of 44-year-old Robert T. Leigh behind a Western wear store on Northwest Blitchton Road Police say Roberts swung the bat so hard that part of Leigh's head was lopped off.

Both Smith and Myer's father insist the teenager is "not a bad person." They conceded that he is a follower and not a leader.

"Growing up, he always craved attention," Smith said.

Myer's father and stepmother, who said they have received death threats, dispute the claims of the teen's aunt, Sherry Ann Mahle, that young Myers was kicked out of the home. Both said the situation that caused Myers to leave was spurred by two things.

On Oct. 20, the family hosted a birthday party at their Salt Springs home for Mahle and he wanted to drink. Because he was only 16, Smith told him no. After that, Myers decided he wanted to live with his mother, a person they say he seldom sees.

"I wasn't going to deprive him of his mother, so he went there," Myers' father said.

Not long after he went there, however, Myers got into trouble. The couple said Myers did not want to return home because he wasn't going to obey their rules. He then went to live with his aunt, Mahle, her husband and his cousin.

Mahle said in a Tuesday interview with the Star-Banner that Myers told her that he had been kicked out of the house.

Like Smith, Mahle believes her son also has had problems too big to handle. Mahle said Roberts never got over the death of his older brother six years ago, who was struck and killed by a car. He got into trouble, despite her efforts to get counseling for him and a general education diploma, she said.

The bat allegedly used in the slaying had belonged to Roberts' brother, and was a gift on his 12th birthday.

So far, the State Attorney's Office has not made a decision on whether Myers will be charged as an adult. They also have not made a decision on whether Roberts will face the death penalty. Myers is, by law, too young to face the death penalty, if convicted of first-degree murder.

Smith said there is another reason her stepson should be treated differently.

"He doesn't have a mental capacity of an adult," Smith said. At the time of the slaying, Myers was attending GED classes.

Myers' family hopes William will be transferred to a mental facility "to get help," his father said.

While the family is dealing with one son facing the possibility of a long time behind bars, they are also coping with Myers' brother, Michael, who is currently at the Marion County Jail in an unrelated case for allegedly beating someone with a baseball bat.

According to a Nov. 16 Marion County Sheriff's Office report, 18-year-old Michael Myers reportedly barged into a Salt Springs home and hit a 20-year-old man in the face and several areas of his body with a bat. The victim received a total of 12 stitches for lacerations to his upper lip and the back of his head. In an interview with the Star-Banner, Michael Myers denied hitting the man. He said the man was drunk and fell down the stairs. He declined to answer any questions about his brother.

Mahle said her son's bat was not used in that incident. Smith and the elder Myers didn't want to talk about Michael Myers' case.

The younger Myers cannot be reached for comment.

As for Myers and Roberts, Myers' father and stepmother said "they will stand by them."

"We will go to every visit, be at every court date, and be there every step of the way," they said.

They said "they're sorry for Leigh, his children and his family."

To keep his memory alive, the Leigh family has created a Web site in his honor. A section of the site read: "During the final months of his life, all he wanted was to reunite with his children, Rob and Illaena Kaye Leigh. While it is tragically too little, too late, we hope to honor his memory by doing something."

Austin L. Miller may be reached at or 867-4118.

Common Thread of Shooters' Desperate Isolation Suggests Need for Early Intervention

Dec. 7, 2007

As the shocked residents of Omaha, Neb., struggle to pick up the pieces after Wednesday's massacre by a gunman at an area mall, psychological experts say the incident is yet another reminder of the inadequacies of the U.S. justice and health care systems when dealing with mentally troubled individuals.

In past incidents -- including the Virginia Tech massacre in April and the Trolley Square Mall shooting in February -- the perpetrator was later described as a loner, an outcast.

"All have that same theme of alienation and isolation," said Beverly Hills-based forensic psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman. "Many of these shooters have been picked on by their peers or felt 'out of the loop.'"

"I think much of this stems from how we've become a much more isolation-oriented society," said Carolyn Wolf, senior partner at Abrams, Fensterman, Fensterman, Eisman, Greenberg, Formato & Einiger, LLP -- a mental health law practice in New York. "With computers and all of the technology that we now have available, people are much more easily able to be isolated, and with isolation comes withdrawal -- withdrawal from friends and family, as well as withdrawal from the medical system."

But mental health experts say these tragedies have something else in common -- they all point to a mental health system that minimizes the chances that these outsiders can get access to proper psychological services, which would possibly stop the tragedies before they occur.

"The gamut of mental health services has been lacking severely across the country," Wolf said.

"There are many dollars that are allocated for physical services, but mental health has been significantly overlooked," she said. "What all of this highlights is a very significant need for increased funds to help people who suffer from mental illness."

And it's not just a funding problem, they say. The set of laws governing intervention for mental health concerns are a patchwork across the country. New York, Wolf notes, has a state law providing for mental health warrants in which people can go through the courts to have their loved ones ordered to mental health treatment if they fear that they could become dangerous.

In Florida, legislation known as the Baker Act allows judges, law enforcement officials or mental health professionals to order individuals to receive mental health care if they are determined to pose a danger to themselves or others.

But not all states have such laws. And even in these states, admitting an individual in a potentially dangerous state of mental health is no simple task.

"You always have to meet certain legal standards in order to admit someone for mental treatment," Wolf said. "A person has to be deemed dangerous to themselves or others before they will intervene."

The solution, Wolf said, appears to lie in a combination of improvements, both within and outside the system, from increased funding, to better legislation, to a better overall understanding among the public of mental health issues.

"People need to become more educated as to what some of the signs of illness are, as well as the options for treatment," she said.

With this in mind, let's take a closer look at the Westroads Mall shooting, as well as other high-profile cases of mass shooting in the past.

Dec. 5, 2007: The Westroads Mall Shooting

The first hint that something terrible was happening at an Omaha mall came in the form of a 911 call received at 3:42 p.m.

Shortly afterwards, nine people at the Westroads Mall were dead -- including 19-year-old gunman Robert A. Hawkins.

Hawkins had reportedly been fired from his job at a McDonald's in the previous week, and had recently broken up with his girlfriend. According to reports by The Associated Press, Hawkins left a note in the home of his adopted family before the shooting spree. In it, he said he was "sorry for everything" and would not be a burden on his family anymore.

He also wrote, "Now I'll be famous."

"Robert was a desperate young man, who felt unseen and unloved by his parents, his girlfriend, his boss and the rest of the world," Lieberman said. "The only way he knew to become 'somebody' that others paid attention to was by creating news of his wreaking violence.

"Since he felt he wouldn't become famous for positive contributions to society, he settled for infamy as a mass shooter. Because he felt powerless and weak, he wanted to go out as someone who could inflict mass hysteria, fear, injury and death."

Indeed, those who knew Hawkins say he was an "introverted, troubled young man."

Hawkins, from Bellevue, Neb., was kicked out by his family about a year ago. He moved in with a friend's family, and Debora Maruca-Kovac and her husband welcomed him into their home and tried to help the teen.

In a TV interview, Maruca-Kovac described Hawkins as "a troubled young man who was like a lost pound puppy that nobody wanted."

And Hawkins had also experienced run-ins with the law -- missed opportunities, Lieberman said, for the detection and proper treatment of his mental problems.

"One difference between Robert and Cho Seung Hui [the gunman at Virginia Tech] and the Columbine shooters is that he had been convicted for felonies and misdemeanors," she said. "While he had the attention of the court, he should have been ordered into psychiatric treatment, or even juvenile detention."

April 16, 2007: The Virginia Tech Massacre
In some cases, however, the mental problems displayed by a shooter are too vivid to ignore.

Such was the case with Virginia Tech student Cho, whose disturbing video he shot of himself before he went on a shooting rampage sweeps away any doubt about his disturbed state of his mind.

The video, which Cho mailed to NBC News in a two-hour hiatus during the horrific shooting spree, features a violent and disorganized diatribe which psychological experts say offers a glimpse into a mind twisted by psychosis and rage.

"It appears that this was not schizophrenia, but some form of severe mental illness accompanied by paranoid delusional thinking, as reflected in his rantings on the video about people with trust funds and cognac and vodka," Dr. Redford Williams told ABC News shortly after the incident. Williams is director of Duke University's Behavioral Medicine Research Center in Durham, N.C.

Dr. Kathyrn Moss, attending psychiatrist in the Personalities Disorders Clinic at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell, agreed that a combination of mental distress and isolation likely led to Cho's behavior.

"This is a mix -- a constellation of factors that came together in a horrific way," Moss said. "It's not just one thing. It can't be."

But his grave isolation -- as well as spotty access to mental health services -- could have played an important role in the student's rampage, which left 32 people dead and another 25 injured.

Records show that there were several instances during which Cho could have received the mental health help he needed. The police brought Cho to a mental health center in December 2005, where social worker Kathy Godbey determined that he represented a danger to himself or others, and that he could be put in temporary custody.

After another evaluation, psychologist Roy Crouse concluded that Cho was "mentally ill but did not present an imminent danger to himself or others, and did not require involuntary hospitalization."

As a result, a court magistrate released Cho, ordering outpatient treatment and follow-up. It is not clear whether Cho was ever contacted or participated in such treatment.

Moreover, questions linger as to whether Cho's mental health records were allowed to be released to his parents before the shooting took place.

Feb. 12, 2007: The Trolley Square Mall Shooting
Much like the most recent rampage in Omaha, the February shooting that occurred in Salt Lake City, Utah, took place in a bustling mall.

The Trolley Square Mall tragedy was the first mass shooting at a mall in 2007. In total, nine people were shot -- five of them fatally.

And the profile of the killer bears some similarities to others who have committed these types of shootings. Sulejman Talovic was an outsider, 18-year-old Bosnian immigrant who lived with his mother in Salt Lake City.

According to local reports, Talovic had a history of minor run-ins with the law. He was also a high school dropout.

But despite his past problems, for most there was little warning that he would show up at the Trolley Square Mall on a busy evening and start shooting people.

Though no clear motive for the rampage was ever established, a local newspaper reported shortly after the incident that Talovic claimed to be involved with a local gang.

Marie Smith, 23, a manager at a Bath & Body Works in the mall, later told The Associated Press that she had seen the gunman raise his gun and fire at a young woman during the incident.

"His expression stayed totally calm," Smith told the AP. "He didn't seem upset, or like he was on a rampage."

Feb. 13, 2005: The Hudson Valley Mall Shooting
According to local reports, Robert Bonelli Jr., age 24 at the time, was a shy outsider who lived in constant fear of being picked on for his nearly 300-pound physique.

And after his shooting rampage at the Hudson Valley Mall in Kingston, N.Y., which left two people wounded, mental health experts believe that it was this insecurity and isolation that may have been a key part of what drove him to the act.

"It is that same theme of alienation and isolation," Lieberman said. "Many of these shooters have been picked on by their peers or felt out of the loop."

According to a report in the Poughkeepsie Journal, Bonelli walked into a Best Buy holding an AK-47 rifle replica loaded with 60 rounds of ammunition. He began firing randomly, and he didn't stop until he had expended all of his ammunition.

His family would later reveal that they believed Bonelli had a death wish -- and that he wanted the police to do the job.

''It drove him to have himself killed by law enforcement that wasn't there in time,'' his uncle, John Bonelli, told the Journal. ''Because if they were there in time, this kid would have been in a body bag.''

Bonelli pleaded guilty to committing the shooting on May 20, 2006, and he was subsequently sentenced to 32 years in prison.

April 20, 1999: The Columbine Massacre
The school shooting at Columbine High School took place at the hands of students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold on April 20, 1999. Many have pointed to the tragedy as both a template and catalyst for future shootings.

Indeed, Cho referenced the killers in his chilling video. And Bonelli reportedly had a picture of the killers taped to one of his bedroom walls.

But the case also raised awareness among many parents that the social isolation and brooding rage that can lead to such an attack could develop at home -- and largely unnoticed.

"In this case, the shooters were living with their parents, but their parents didn't have a clue who they really were," Lieberman said, adding that the episode shattered the illusion of the safety and security of an upper-middle-class upbringing.

"What matters is the attention and the love that the child is getting from their parents," she said.

In total, the rampage by the two students claimed the lives of 12 students and a teacher. The attacks wounded 23 others, and both of the boys committed suicide following the incident.

Lieberman said that if there is any lesson to be learned from Columbine -- as well as other more recent tragedies -- it is that parents and others should be on alert for the signs of dangerous mental health conditions -- and intervene before it is too late.

"People should report their suspicions to family members, the police, doctors, teachers and others in authority," Lieberman said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Orlando-area judge frees mentally ill woman who killed her parents in '88

She has been in state mental hospitals most of the time since their deaths in '88.

Rene Stutzman

Sentinel Staff Writer

December 2, 2007


When Stephanie Gardner stops taking her medication, things go very wrong. For months in 1988, she heard voices in her head, telling her to kill her parents. One night, she stood up from a card game, walked into another room and shot her father and mother with a .38-caliber handgun.

Since then, she's spent most of her days locked in state mental hospitals.

Soon that will end. A judge ruled Friday that Gardner is well enough to be set free. Circuit Judge O.H. Eaton Jr. ordered her released from the state hospital in Chattahoochee and into a privately run home for the mentally ill in Miami.

There she'll be supervised, but she won't be locked up. That, said Assistant State Attorney Chris White, makes her a risk.

Gardner has been diagnosed with bipolar schizoaffective disorder.

She doesn't believe she's mentally ill, however, according to three medical experts who testified Friday in Seminole Circuit Court. If Gardner stays on her medication, she should be fine, said psychiatrist Jeffrey Danziger. If, however, she walks away from the Miami facility, she's almost certain to stop taking her medicine, he said.

Gardner doesn't like taking her medication and can't be trusted to take it, White said.

"This woman killed two people," he said.

He pleaded with the judge to leave her locked in the state hospital.

Gardner was a 30-year-old mother of two in June 1988 when she got up from her card game and killed Daniel Dinda, 66, and Carolyn Dinda, 60, at the couple's home near Oviedo. During her trial, witnesses testified to her strange beliefs, such as radio transmitters in her teeth were tracking her and that microwaves from satellites were displacing the souls of her children.

A jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity. Eaton later ordered her hospitalized indefinitely.

Gardner has been released before, always under supervision, but things did not go well.

About a year after she was released to a group home in Jacksonville in 2000, she went off her medicine, became unmanageable, stopped going to treatment sessions and bought a car.

When a different judge found out, he ordered her to jail for several weeks then into a more restrictive group home.

Four years later, in late 2005, she went off her medication again and disappeared for weeks. She traveled from Jacksonville to Tampa then flew to Washington, where she was taken into custody. No one had reported her missing.

Since then, she's been locked up.

For months, medical experts at the hospital in Chattahoochee and her lawyer have argued that she's stable enough to release.

Dr. Bruce Chlopan, a psychologist, testified Friday that in the year or so he's treated her, she has had no delusions or hallucinations.

Defense attorney Tim Caudill argued that the law does not allow the state to keep a mental patient locked up just because she might stop taking her medicine and become unstable.

The judge agreed.

Rene Stutzman can be reached at or 407-324-7294.