Sep 12, 2013

Blame

We've all felt it, that irresistible urge to point the finger. But new technologies are complicating age-old moral conundrums about accountability. This hour, we ask what blame does for us -- why do we need it, when isn't it enough, and what happens when we try to push past it with forgiveness and mercy?

THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists

Male:

Wait, wait, you're listening ...

 

Female:

You're listening-

 

Male:

Listening.

 

Female:

... to Radiolab.

 

Male:

Radiolab.

 

Female:

From ...

 

Male:

WNY ...

 

Male:

C!

 

Female:

C?

 

Male:

Yeah.

 

Female:

NPR.

 

Male:

Maybe all of us can sit on the couch.

 

Female:

We can.

 

Male:

I can pull that chair over.

 

Jad Abumrad:

We're going to start with a story from our producer Pat Walters about a couple.

 

Janet:

Oh my word!

 

Jad Abumrad:

That's the lady.

 

Janet:

I'm Janet.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is the guy.

 

Pat Walters:

I don't need you to introduce yourself. That's usually the thing we do, but we're not telling people who you are.

 

Jad Abumrad:

We're going to call him Kevin.

 

Kevin:

Kevin, yeah, yeah. That's my name. Not suspicious at all.

 

Jad Abumrad:

That's not his real name. It'll make sense why we're not using his real name in a sec.

 

Pat Walters:

This one starts a few summers ago. It was July 2006. Jan and Kevin were at home.

 

Pat Walters:

Some people you don't know show up. Maybe I'll start with you.

 

Janet:

When they show up at the door? We were getting ready to go down the shore. It was a Friday. We're in the kitchen, and they come to the backdoor.

 

Kevin:

I thought that they were fundraising. I thought they might've been firemen, by the blue shirt, and then realized that they were law enforcement.

 

Janet:

Two women and I think two men.

 

Kevin:

More came up from around the side of the house.

 

Janet:

They show us their badges.

 

Pat Walters:

Were they cops?

 

Janet:

They were Homeland Security.

 

Kevin:

They took me outside.

 

Janet:

They asked me to stay in the kitchen. They had a woman with me. I didn't know what was going on. Nobody said anything to me.

 

Pat Walters:

What are they saying to you on the porch meanwhile?

 

Kevin:

When they showed up, I got to the door, they said, "You know why we're here?" I said, "Yeah, I do. I was expecting you." I showed them where everything was.

 

Robert Krulwich:

This story about Kevin and his wife Janet inspired us to do the entire hour.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), because one of the most basic things that we do as people is we judge. We judge one another.

 

Robert Krulwich:

We judge what's right.

 

Jad Abumrad:

We judge what's wrong.

 

Robert Krulwich:

This story, and the two that follow ...

 

Jad Abumrad:

They will make you judge how you judge, or at least they had that effect on us.

 

Robert Krulwich:

We're calling our show Blame.

 

Jad Abumrad:

I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I'm Robert Krulwich, and we'll go back to Pat.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Before we do, you should know that this show contains some graphic, difficult descriptions in a few spots. If you're not in the mood or if you have kids around, you might want to sit this one out.

 

Pat Walters:

What happened in that first scene and what happens next only makes sense if we go back a little first, about 15 years. It's just an ordinary day. Kevin's going home from work.

 

Kevin:

I was driving home, going about 65, 70 in the fast lane, when suddenly there was a thump in my chest, then heat, just a heat burning.

 

Pat Walters:

After that he said suddenly he had this thickness.

 

Kevin:

In my tongue, in my throat.

 

Pat Walters:

Then a foul taste in his mouth.

 

Kevin:

Then my hearing faded out.

 

Pat Walters:

He thought, "(Beep), it's back."

 

Kevin:

When I finally did come to-

 

Pat Walters:

He sees his car smashed into the side of an apartment building.

 

Kevin:

I do recall the officers telling me, "You've been in an accident."

 

Pat Walters:

He remembers one of them-

 

Kevin:

Insisted that he smelled alcohol. I was talking through clenched teeth because I had bitten my tongue and my cheeks. I was saying over and over again, "I had a seizure. I had a seizure."

 

Pat Walters:

Kevin's got epilepsy. He's had it since he was a teenager. Two years before this all happened, he'd had surgery to remove the part of his brain that was causing the seizures, and it seemed to have worked. He was doing great, essentially wasn't having seizures anymore, until suddenly, he was.

 

Pat Walters:

Lost your license?

 

Kevin:

I lost my license for a year.

 

Pat Walters:

Things had taken a nosedive. Here he is, he's 35 years old.

 

Kevin:

I'm living with my brother. I'm divorced. I have to call my daddy and ask him now to drive me to and from work.

 

Pat Walters:

You think, and you did do something, this is not sustainable?

 

Kevin:

No, no, don't need that. I walked into the office.

 

Pat Walters:

Asked the HR person where he works for a list of all the employees.

 

Kevin:

"Give me a list of everybody and where they're from." She pulled it up. I go down to the list and I get to Janet Woodruff, Bloomfield, only one that's really close to me, five minutes away. I walk to her cue, knocked on the wall, and introduced myself.

 

Pat Walters:

Like, "Hey, my name's Kevin. I also work here. I've got this thing though. It's kind of awkward. I can't drive, and I was wondering if you'd give me a ride."

 

Kevin:

She said yes.

 

Janet:

I really passed by his street on the way to work, so it was-

 

Pat Walters:

Right on his street.

 

Janet:

Pretty much. I made it clear, "I'll do it when I can."

 

Pat Walters:

As they drove together, they ...

 

Janet:

Started talking, finding out a little bit more about each other.

 

Pat Walters:

Noticed pretty quickly.

 

Kevin:

We liked the same music.

 

Janet:

That was unique, because I liked music that was probably more in his era.

 

Pat Walters:

Kevin was seven years older than Jan. What kind of music were you listening?

 

Janet:

Jackson Brown mostly. A lot of Jackson Brown, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John.

 

Pat Walters:

They found themselves singing along to the lyrics.

 

Kevin:

You cannot sing with somebody day in and day out and not have something happen.

 

Janet:

We wound up, as the spring came, it's getting nice out, so now it's like, "Let's not go home. Let's go out for a beer after work."

 

Kevin:

We're becoming good friends.

 

Janet:

We liked each other.

 

Pat Walters:

For Kevin it was a little more serious than that.

 

Kevin:

I'm thinking about her and I'm starting to wake up at night.

 

Pat Walters:

One day in May, as Janet is dropping him off, Kevin turns to her and he says.

 

Kevin:

"Hey, I really appreciate what you've done for me. Let me take you to dinner, just as friends. Just as friends."

 

Pat Walters:

Jan says, "Sure." May 30th, 1992.

 

Kevin:

Highlawn Pavilion.

 

Pat Walters:

Nicest restaurant in town.

 

Janet:

Your friend takes you to a four-star restaurant, you're thinking right away-

 

Pat Walters:

He thinks this is a date.

 

Kevin:

I'm going on a date, come on.

 

Janet:

Now I'm panic stricken.

 

Kevin:

We have our dinner, we leave.

 

Janet:

We had a wonderful time.

 

Kevin:

She drops me off and I handed her the poem.

 

Pat Walters:

What did the poem say? You still have it?

 

Kevin:

Yeah, I do. This is A Little Slower, "Each time we sing on the way home I pray that traffic backs up, so we can sing together just a little longer and the harmony can go on forever, and each time we reach my door, I feel robbed because we're always in mid-song or mid-thought."

 

Pat Walters:

He gets out and goes inside and probably thinks, "Awesome, I gave her the poem. She's going to be so smitten with me." You go home and what?

 

Janet:

Want to throw up. I just thought, "Oh god."

 

Pat Walters:

Next day.

 

Janet:

I just looked at him and said, "Listen, we got to clarify. This is clearly just going to be a friendship." He was seven years older than me. He had brain surgery. He has epilepsy. He's divorced. He has two children.

 

Kevin:

Are you catching the compassion here? Are you catching the compassion here?

 

Pat Walters:

I'm trying.

 

Janet:

He's just like, "I'm not asking you to marry me. I'm asking you to go out on a few dates."

 

Kevin:

Exactly, to go out with me four times in the next six months. I'm ahead of the game.

 

Janet:

He just handled it. I don't think it was long at all, I can't even remember, but it wasn't long at all before we were a couple.

 

Pat Walters:

Kevin?

 

Kevin:

I'm dopey. Dopey in love.

 

Pat Walters:

He's doing romantic things for her all the time.

 

Janet:

Flowers, poems.

 

Pat Walters:

Paintings.

 

Kevin:

Illustration of the Jackson Brown cover.

 

Pat Walters:

Within a year ...

 

Janet:

We were engaged.

 

Pat Walters:

All the while, Kevin is having seizures. Since the car accident, more and more.

 

Kevin:

There was a point where we were obviously dating.

 

Pat Walters:

She's helping him make his bed. He says she pulled off the pillowcase.

 

Kevin:

It was covered with blood stains, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. You could count the number of seizures that I had and bit through my tongue and bled.

 

Janet:

I knew nothing about epilepsy. I had never seen anybody have a seizure. In my past those would've been big red flags and I would've just walked away, but I just went with it.

 

Pat Walters:

They both went with it, for a few years, until finally Kevin and Jan decide this was enough.

 

Kevin:

I wanted to be done with it. I just needed to be done with it.

 

Pat Walters:

They scheduled a brain surgery, which sounds like a big deal, and obviously it is, but they had every reason to think that this wouldn't change him.

 

Janet:

I honestly thought that he was going to come out of it fine, better.

 

Pat Walters:

Because that's what happened the first time. Kevin had actually gone through a brain surgery much like this one once before, and he'd come out pretty much the same guy.

 

Janet:

He was still himself.

 

Pat Walters:

In fact, he made sure of it.

 

Kevin:

I was awake for the surgery.

 

Pat Walters:

That's crazy.

 

Kevin:

It was. I had to be awake. I had to do it with music.

 

Pat Walters:

Kevin is a musician. The doctors told him ...

 

Kevin:

They said that if I lost anything, I was going to lose my appreciation for music, that it would be like music would be white noise. I said, "No." For me, music is part of my personality. It was how I coped with my darkest moments in dealing with epilepsy and seizures. At 18 years old, I'd have a seizure, I'd take my harmonica, and I'd find a place with decent reverb somewhere and be right where I needed to be. I didn't want to lose that part of me.

 

Pat Walters:

As the doctors were doing the brain surgery, they had his head open, they asked him to sing.

 

Pat Walters:

Do you remember what you sang?

 

Kevin:

End of the Innocence, some James Taylor.

 

Pat Walters:

While he sang, they would tickle different parts of his brain. If they ever touched a part that made him stop singing, they'd say, "Okay, that's a part we cannot take out."

 

Robert Krulwich:

Wow.

 

Pat Walters:

In the end ...

 

Kevin:

I think they ended up taking out four and a half centimeters, a little bigger than a golf ball.

 

Pat Walters:

Wow.

 

Pat Walters:

Afterwards, as he was recovering ...

 

Kevin:

I had my keyboard in the room. I tried playing right away. (sings) It worked.

 

Pat Walters:

The part of him that he really cared about was still there.

 

Kevin:

Exactly.

 

Janet:

He was the man I fell in love with after the first surgery, so I thought, "Well."

 

Pat Walters:

Now that they've got to do a second surgery ...

 

Janet:

"He's already been down this road. We're fine."

 

Pat Walters:

After that second surgery, he did seem fine.

 

Kevin:

Janet did have her brother sneak my keyboard up to the room again.

 

Janet:

He was very, very adamant that he wanted that keyboard.

 

Kevin:

I played a little. Just noodled a couple of notes, played a couple of things, and it was like, "Okay, I'm there."

 

Pat Walters:

"Still me."

 

Kevin:

I was ready to go.

 

Pat Walters:

You go home, and it seems to have worked?

 

Janet:

Yeah. As far as seizures go, we thought, "Okay, this is it. We're home free." I was just happy to have some normalcy.

 

Pat Walters:

Then in the winter ...

 

Kevin:

By beginning the middle of January ...

 

Pat Walters:

Kevin noticed he wanted to eat ...

 

Kevin:

My physical appetite ...

 

Pat Walters:

... a lot more than usual.

 

Kevin:

... got insane.

 

Janet:

This is a guy who didn't eat breakfast, he had minimal lunch, and he'd have a sensible dinner, maybe a snack, that was it.

 

Kevin:

Now I could eat the couch.

 

Janet:

It just was odd. It was not him normally, but you're like, "Okay."

 

Pat Walters:

She thought maybe it's just a side effect from the medications, but then ...

 

Janet:

The piano. He'd play the piano for hours.

 

Pat Walters:

Same songs they used to sing in the car together.

 

Janet:

He got stuck on a piece. He would play it for hours.

 

Pat Walters:

How many hours?

 

Janet:

Eight, nine.

 

Pat Walters:

Then there was sex.

 

Janet:

We were a happy, healthy couple.

 

Pat Walters:

Kevin's nodding.

 

Janet:

It was fine, but what was abnormal was it was anywhere. Clearly it wasn't like, "Oh, we're in the supermarket, let's have sex here." It wasn't like that, but it was like I could just walk in the kitchen from work and he would be like, "Oh, let's go here."

 

Pat Walters:

Which struck her as weird, but then again ...

 

Janet:

We were thinking, "Let's try to have a family."

 

Pat Walters:

The timing made things confusing. More than that, it wasn't like any of this stuff was out of character exactly. In fact, it was all stuff that she liked about him, except now it was all turned up to 11.

 

Janet:

All the things that were wonderful became chores.

 

Pat Walters:

That's pretty much where things were at when those federal agents showed up in July of 2006.

 

Janet:

I was just completely blindsided.

 

Kevin:

He said, "You know why we're here?" I said, "Yeah, I do, I was expecting you."

 

Pat Walters:

Kevin took the agents upstairs.

 

Kevin:

I took them right into here where my computer was.

 

Pat Walters:

They arrested him for what was on that computer.

 

Kevin:

I gave it up to them right away.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Warning, this next passage contains some graphic imagery.

 

Pat Walters:

I think I had just let child porn be this vague thing that meant someone younger than 18, but then I read some of the court documents, and they were toddlers. They were videos of two, three, and four-year-olds.

 

Kevin:

These sites had the most despicable, disgusting things you can imagine, infants on through preteen and adolescents.

 

Pat Walters:

You bought these things and put them on your computer?

 

Kevin:

Yeah. It bothers me. It bothers me. Like I said, initially it was just your basic heterosexual Playboy-like, Penthouse-like sites, and then windows would just start to open up.

 

Pat Walters:

Pretty soon he says he was going everywhere.

 

Kevin:

There was gay sex. There was bondage. There was defecation sex. There was animal sex, xeno sex. I went everywhere that a button came up to push.

 

Pat Walters:

Wow.

 

Kevin:

I still don't understand it. I still don't understand it.

 

Pat Walters:

You say it disturbed you and you feel terrible. I just wonder, do you tell yourself, "That wasn't me." How do you explain it to yourself so that you can, I don't know, not feel like you're as bad as the person who goes there without a brain injury is?

 

Kevin:

Say that again. Ask that one more time.

 

Pat Walters:

I guess I'm just wondering, I don't know, knowing that that's a thing that you did, and it sounds like obviously you know that it was a wrong thing and a terrible thing, but it was you who did it, or was it not? I don't know.

 

Kevin:

No, it was me who did it, but it was me with a complete lack of neurological control. I know who I am. I did idiotic things that I couldn't stop myself from doing. I didn't want to do it. There would be nights where it would be four or five, six hours of going through the same site and downloading one or two files and then deleting them, going back a minute later, downloading the same files, deleting them. I would download those files a dozen times and delete them a dozen times, because I didn't want to be there, knew I shouldn't be there, and couldn't help myself from going back. I'm not an idiot. I'm a smart guy. I'm not an idiot, but I know I had no control.

 

Pat Walters:

That's what he would argue in court. Kevin would plead guilty, but at the sentencing hearing, he asked the judge to be lenient, arguing essentially that the person who did all those things in some sense wasn't him. It was some other part of his brain that he couldn't control. At the hearing he called one witness.

 

Orrin Devinsky:

Orrin Devinsky. I am a neurologist and epilepsy specialist at NYU Medical Center.

 

Pat Walters:

He's been treating Kevin for decades.

 

Orrin Devinsky:

20-some-odd years.

 

Pat Walters:

He says as soon as he found out what Kevin had been doing ...

 

Orrin Devinsky:

Had a terrible sense of responsibility.

 

Pat Walters:

This is because of the brain surgery, the surgery Orrin recommended he have. He argued in court that this was not Kevin's fault.

 

Orrin Devinsky:

I remember looking at those agents right in their face and saying to them and to the judge, "This could be anybody. This could be those agents' judge. This could be you. This could be me. This could be anybody. We would have no control over what we did."

 

Pat Walters:

He explained to the court ...

 

Orrin Devinsky:

What the biology was.

 

Pat Walters:

That the way the brain is organized, that there are parts of our brain that are way deep down that control base desires.

 

Orrin Devinsky:

Like hunger, sex.

 

Pat Walters:

Keeps us alive, but it's teeming with the nastiest thoughts.

 

Orrin Devinsky:

We all have these crazy thoughts in our head.

 

Pat Walters:

In most of us, those thoughts are kept in check, because there are other parts of our brain that sit on top and act like a lid, but in Kevin's case, the brain surgeon who did that surgery removed part of that filter, and suddenly ...

 

Orrin Devinsky:

The cork was off. It was just no lid on his sexual desires.

 

Pat Walters:

He said scientists have known about this condition for a long time. They first saw it in monkeys.

 

Orrin Devinsky:

In rhesus monkeys.

 

Pat Walters:

When the monkeys would lose roughly the same part of the brain that Kevin lost ...

 

Orrin Devinsky:

They became very hypersexual. Males that would only previously be sexually involved with females now were 10 times more sexually active, with both males and females.

 

Pat Walters:

It feels to me like it would be a brighter line before kids.

 

Orrin Devinsky:

I think there is a line for quote unquote normal individuals, but in a brain disorder case, those lines get blurred.

 

Pat Walters:

He told the court that's what happened here.

 

Orrin Devinsky:

It was black and white.

 

Pat Walters:

Kevin was sick and his behavior was out of his control.

 

Lee Vartan:

That's not what the facts showed in this case.

 

Pat Walters:

This is Lee Vartan, who was the prosecutor.

 

Lee Vartan:

We saw no evidence of impulsivity.

 

Pat Walters:

He says if you're claiming that he had no control, that his brain made him do it, then how come he had all this child porn on his home computer ...

 

Lee Vartan:

I believe it was 52 videos and 125 images.

 

Pat Walters:

... and yet on his work computer ...

 

Lee Vartan:

There were zero images, zero videos of child pornography on his work computer.

 

Pat Walters:

He worked a lot.

 

Lee Vartan:

He held down a job. He was working every day. If he truly lacked impulse control, I would think you would see child pornography on both computers.

 

Pat Walters:

What he argued back was, what, was the lid on at work and off at home?

 

Lee Vartan:

Seems to me to be an easy out.

 

Orrin Devinsky:

The answer is that this is common with neurologic disease. They tend not to be 24/7.

 

Pat Walters:

He says take something like Tourette's. Some people ...

 

Orrin Devinsky:

When they're engaged in playing sports, they tend not to have tics.

 

Pat Walters:

Whereas when they're sitting around bored or stressed, they do tend to have tics.

 

Orrin Devinsky:

You could say Tourette's clearly isn't a neurological disorder, but no, Tourette's is a neurologic disorder. We understand some of the brain things that go on in Tourette's.

 

Pat Walters:

The prosecution didn't buy it.

 

Orrin Devinsky:

They just thought it was hogwash.

 

Lee Vartan:

What was hogwash was his level of certainty.

 

Pat Walters:

The prosecution asked that Kevin be sent to prison for five years, because in paying for child porn, he was supporting an industry that does terrible things to kids. Kevin hoped he'd avoid jail time all together and instead be placed on house arrest. Now as for Janet, right after the arrest ...

 

Pat Walters:

I have to imagine that you were in shock a little.

 

Janet:

Yeah.

 

Pat Walters:

She had gone to see a lawyer.

 

Janet:

One of the questions he asked was, "Is this marriage going to survive this?" I said, "I don't know." At that point, understand, I didn't even know the level of pictures.

 

Pat Walters:

She says the moment she heard Orrin say that this was a brain disorder with a name, it's called Kluver Bucy Syndrome.

 

Janet:

Once I was able to get that, for me, it clicked.

 

Pat Walters:

She couldn't blame him.

 

Janet:

We have these experts saying that it was a disease. I kept thinking, "They'll understand."

 

Pat Walters:

Not to mention that after Kevin was arrested and got out on bail, Orrin gave him some medication, and Janet says it was like flipping a switch.

 

Janet:

That's exactly what it was. It was like getting out and back.

 

Kevin:

I was able to sit and watch a movie with her.

 

Janet:

Normal.

 

Pat Walters:

Janet actually says in a lot of ways, those few months between the arrest and the sentencing hearing, they'd been the best months of their marriage.

 

Janet:

He now was just so much easier, calmer. We'd just talk.

 

Pat Walters:

The hearing took about three hours. When it was over, the judge took a recess, went into her chambers. When she came back, she delivered her decision. She actually wouldn't talk to me for this story, but I have the transcript from the hearing. If you remember, the prosecutor Lee Vartan was asking for five years.

 

Lee Vartan:

63 months.

 

Pat Walters:

Orrin, Kevin, and Janet were hoping for ...

 

Janet:

House arrest.

 

Pat Walters:

Meaning no jail time.

 

Janet:

"There's no way they're going to put him in jail. This is clearcut."

 

Pat Walters:

Here's what the judge does. She says, "I do agree with Orrin."

 

Orrin Devinsky:

It is a neurological disorder.

 

Pat Walters:

"No question, so he can't be held fully responsible for his behavior."

 

Orrin Devinsky:

She was getting it.

 

Pat Walters:

On the other hand she said the prosecution did have a point.

 

Lee Vartan:

That he was very much in control of his impulse.

 

Pat Walters:

At least some of the time, and so the question for the judge was, how does a legal system assign blame when a person is sometimes themselves and in control and sometimes not. This was a crime, she said, "A crime which ultimately leads to children being harmed, and considering that you did have moments where you were in control, then in those moments, you had a responsibility. You could've done something. You could've asked for help. You could've told the people around you what you were doing, so even if you couldn't have stopped yourself, they could've stopped you."

 

Kevin:

She made it very clear that we had to do something here.

 

Pat Walters:

His sentence ...

 

Kevin:

26 months at a federal prison and 25 months of house arrest. I believe that she was fair. I believe she was compassionate.

 

Pat Walters:

About a week before Christmas, in 2008, Janet drove him to prison.

 

Robert Krulwich:

How long was he in jail for?

 

Pat Walters:

About two years.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Even though the judge said he is responsible, did that change her attitude toward him at all?

 

Pat Walters:

No. They totally stuck together. She visited him pretty much every weekend, the whole time.

 

Janet:

I knew the route. I had my own little routine down.

 

Pat Walters:

In between visits she'd send him notes.

 

Janet:

I'll never forget, he could send me mail. They had a store where he could get some cards.

 

Pat Walters:

Super Hallmarky.

 

Janet:

He would alter them. I remember the very first card I got, it was supposed to be beautiful, but it was like, "If you need anything, anything at all, just let me know," and then he writes, "Of course if it's pressing you might want to ask someone else, unless it can wait 24 months." I remember getting that and just laughing. Then that became our thing, like, "Listen, this is a horrible situation, but we're going to make the best of it."

 

Pat Walters:

Tell me a little bit about where things are at now.

 

Janet:

I think things are almost normal.

 

Kevin:

I am still on probation.

 

Janet:

He's home. He's working. Life is going on. We have our normal routines.

 

Pat Walters:

Kevin still takes those medicines that keep the other part of him in check.

 

Kevin:

I have no libido at all, but I know who I am, I know what I am. I'm disturbed by that portion of my life, but I'm trying to move on.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Producer Pat Walters. Thanks also to neurologist Orrin Devinsky for connecting us to Kevin and Janet. Stay with us. We'll be exploring these questions of blame and responsibility even more deeply the next segment.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Even yell about it a little. Coming up.

 

Nick:

Hi, I'm Nick, and I'm from Minneapolis. Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Today on Radiolab, Blame.

 

Robert Krulwich:

In the story we just heard, we were wrestling with a very difficult question. When somebody has a brain injury and commits a crime, just how much do we blame them and how much do we blame the brain?

 

Jad Abumrad:

As it turns out, this question ...

 

Nita Farahany:

Hi.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Hi, this is Jad.

 

Nita Farahany:

Hi, Jad. It's Nita.

 

Jad Abumrad:

That question is popping up more and more in court cases, where increasingly you will find defendants like Kevin arguing.

 

Nita Farahany:

"Okay, you've convicted me of a crime, but you should go easier on me because I have these neurological problems."

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is Nita Farahany.

 

Nita Farahany:

Professor of law and philosophy and professor of genome sciences and policy at Duke University.

 

Jad Abumrad:

She's been following this whole emerging field of neuro law for quite a while. Back in 2006 it occurred to her ...

 

Nita Farahany:

Lots of people are interested in this field, but nobody has any good data. I started counting cases to try to see ...

 

Jad Abumrad:

To try to see how many times does brain science come up in court. Now the only data that she could get her hands on were written opinions, which turns out doesn't happen that often. Really only happens in 1% of court cases, but ...

 

Nita Farahany:

In that 1% of cases ...

 

Jad Abumrad:

She saw ...

 

Nita Farahany:

A steady increase, and relatively dramatic. You have a couple of years, 2005 and '06 at about 100 cases, 2007, '08, '09 200-some cases, and then '11, '12 you're in the 300s.

 

Jad Abumrad:

All told ...

 

Nita Farahany:

Between 2005 and 2012 it's about 1,600 cases.

 

Jad Abumrad:

That's 1,600 cases that are kind of like the Kevin case, where someone maybe argues, "Look, it's not entirely my fault. My brain made me do it."

 

Robert Krulwich:

At least a little bit.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah. By the way, that number was just in the 1% she had access to.

 

Nita Farahany:

The other 99% of cases may actually have ...

 

Jad Abumrad:

A whole lot more.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Wait a second, is this a new development?

 

Jad Abumrad:

What do you mean?

 

Robert Krulwich:

In West Side Story there's this character named Officer Krupke, and he goes, and these juvenile delinquents, this is back in the '50s, and they're saying everything is someone else's fault. They have bad parents and they have poverty and they have passion and they have youth, and they plead all these things. If you just added to the list tumor, that's pretty much the same thing.

 

Nita Farahany:

No. There seems to be something more compelling for both judges and juries when you are able to have actual brain scans.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Our EEG or whatever, because now you can say to Officer Krupke, "Look, I know this might sound like an excuse, but check out this spot right here."

 

Nita Farahany:

"Here's the proof."

 

Jad Abumrad:

"I don't have a normal brain. I didn't choose not to have a normal brain, so how can it be completely my fault?"

 

Robert Krulwich:

Doesn't that sound a little too easy?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Maybe. I guess it depends on the specific case. Just in the abstract, let me give you the best version that I've ever heard of this argument. This is one that made me really stop and think. It comes from a psychologist Kevin Dutton. He was interviewed on the Scientific American podcast, and he gave this hypothetical.

 

Kevin Dutton:

Imagine if you've got a deaf person and you've got a child in a burning building and you've got that child screaming out, but the deaf person can't hear the screams. You wouldn't necessarily blame, you wouldn't hold that deaf person culpable for that child's death if the child died.

 

Jad Abumrad:

You agree so far?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Yes.

 

Kevin Dutton:

By the same token, if you are emotionally deaf, if you can physically hear the screams, but emotionally you just don't have that kind of neural kick up the backside to go in and save that child, isn't that the same thing? When you start thinking about that, there's a whole kind of moral conundrum that starts coming out of that, because damage to the ear is damage to a physical structure, damage to the brain is also damage to a physical structure.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Here's the moral conundrum I think he's referring to. If we go along with this idea that we can use brain abnormalities to defend ourselves in court, that's going to lead us into some pretty weird places. As a society things may get very, very complicated.

 

Robert Krulwich:

As we learned. We got into a little tussle with this guy.

 

Jad Abumrad:

You put this on.

 

David Eagleman:

It is a little chilly in here.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is David Eagleman.

 

David Eagleman:

I'm a neuroscientist.

 

Jad Abumrad:

He's a regular on a show.

 

David Eagleman:

Is that what I was supposed to say or no?

 

Robert Krulwich:

A spirited regular.

 

David Eagleman:

Here's one of the most interesting parts.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Here's his argument. Think about it technologically. At the moment ...

 

David Eagleman:

Our best technologies in neuroscience are very crude. We can see when someone has a tumor or damage from traumatic brain injury or neurodegenerative disease, but it is quite crude still.

 

Jad Abumrad:

The way he puts it, looking for those brain abnormalities now is sort of like being up in space and looking down at the earth. You can't really see what's going on down there, but you can see the big shapes and the colors, and every so often you notice something that's not supposed to be there, like, "Whoa, what is that crater over there?" If you see something that's big enough to see, you take a picture, you're back in court, you show it to the judge, and maybe she gives the guy a break. Then say you're up there and ...

 

Male:

Mission control. Everything looks normal from up here.

 

Jad Abumrad:

You don't see anything. Then back in court, the judge is going to take a look at your apparently normal brain and say, "Sorry."

 

David Eagleman:

"That's your fault. It's not a biological problem, so we're just going to say you're blameworthy."

 

Jad Abumrad:

That's where we are now. We draw the line at what we can see, and what we can see is only the big stuff. He says imagine forward.

 

David Eagleman:

We'll have new technologies. We'll have xMRI instead of fMRI.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Suddenly it's going to be like Google Maps, where instead of being up in space, you can zoom in and now you can see everything.

 

David Eagleman:

We'll have new names for disorders of the micro circuitry and so on. We'll certainly never get all the way to the end.

 

Jad Abumrad:

One day we may be able to say, "See that little bit of mangled wiring right over there? That is because his mom didn't love him enough, maybe he got bullied." We'll be able to see all that stuff almost as well as we can see brain tumors now.

 

David Eagleman:

Because there is nothing special about brain tumors except for their visibility.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Really what he's saying when you get down to it, his core belief is that ...

 

David Eagleman:

You are your biology.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Which is on some level kind of like whatever, duh, but he takes it much farther. He says almost everything that you go through in your life ...

 

David Eagleman:

All of your experiences.

 

Jad Abumrad:

... your culture, your history, your neighborhood, all of it is etched into the tissue of your brain. There's nothing separate.

 

David Eagleman:

Nothing. Descartes famously suggested you've got the body, the physical stuff, and then you've got this extra bit, the soul, the ghost in the machine. The inside word on that in neuroscience is that, eh, no no no.

 

Jad Abumrad:

It's all the same thing. Now that we're beginning to see that, he says, actually see it, we are on a slippery slope, because if you start letting people off the hook when you see a tumor, then you're going to have to keep letting them off the hook when you see something smaller.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Or smaller.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Or smaller still.

 

David Eagleman:

The point is, it cannot be a just legal system that in one decade says you're blameworthy ...

 

Jad Abumrad:

Because for the moment, we can't see anything in your brain.

 

David Eagleman:

... and then the next decade says, "Oh, you have Schmedley's disease."

 

Jad Abumrad:

"Hey, we can see it now."

 

David Eagleman:

"We didn't realize that, so now we're lumping you over here with the people with the brain tumors."

 

Robert Krulwich:

What does that mean, that we have to let everybody off the hook?

 

David Eagleman:

No, no. Blameworthiness is the wrong question for a legal system to ask. That's the point is that this whole notion about blameworthiness and saying, okay, if we have a biological mitigator, then we'll bring that up in court and we'll say, "It's not exactly his fault," and if we don't have a biological mitigator we'll say it is his fault, the reason none of this makes sense nowadays is because saying was it the person's fault or was it something about his biology doesn't make sense as a question. They're inseparable.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I have a version of that question. How about everybody should know that his brain isn't completely normal in this regard, and now the question is proportion. How much do you want to put on the brain and how much do you want to put on his-

 

David Eagleman:

On what else is there.

 

Robert Krulwich:

... behavior-

 

David Eagleman:

Which comes from where?

 

Robert Krulwich:

... and his ability to choose, from the brain, his choosey part of his brain, as opposed to his unchoosey part. That's okay, that's where you're forcing me.

 

David Eagleman:

I'm glad you're phrasing it this way, because that's exactly the problem with our intuitions. We have this intuition that, yeah, your brain might look like this, you have these genes, you have these experiences, that makes your biology like this, oh, but in the end that doesn't matter, because you've got this other thing that's independent of the biology, but we don't. You are your brain.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Your brain however, nevertheless, helps you decide things. Brains help you choose. The question I'm asking-

 

David Eagleman:

Who's the you that they're helping?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Who's the you that you're helping? The owner of the brain.

 

David Eagleman:

That's separate from the brain?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Oh god.

 

David Eagleman:

Do you own your brain?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Why do you keep doing this to me? I know that if I have a Tootsie Roll in front of me and M&M, I can choose the M&M, so I assume my brain is doing something. The question I want to answer, how much am I choosing and how much am I really outside of choosing, because something irregular in my brain is choosing for me. That seems to me to be a way to do it.

 

David Eagleman:

This is fascinating, because the way you're phrasing it suggests that there's you and then there's your brain and there's things in your brain that might be telling you what you don't want to do, but it's all one system is the thing. When you're faced with the Tootsie Roll versus the whatever else-

 

Robert Krulwich:

M&M.

 

David Eagleman:

... M&M, everything in your life leading up that moment, from your genetic history written on invisibly small strands of nucleic acids all the way up to every experience you've ever had, leads to that choice. What would it even mean to make a choice completely independent of your brain? I'd like to-

 

Robert Krulwich:

I just need [inaudible 00:36:49]. What about the Ten Commandments? Those are-

 

Jad Abumrad:

I'm just going to jump in for a second. At this point things kind of slid off the rails. We ended up talking about the Ten Commandments, debating the question of free will.

 

David Eagleman:

If free will exists at all, it's a really small part of the system.

 

Robert Krulwich:

No.

 

Jad Abumrad:

We went back and forth about whether you can overcome your upbringing, which obviously you can.

 

David Eagleman:

Oh gosh, no, you can't.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Sure you can.

 

David Eagleman:

No, you can't.

 

Jad Abumrad:

I can go to the library and I can read a-

 

David Eagleman:

That's only if you're that type of person.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Anyhow, after an hour, we finally got back around to David's main point, which is that the legal system would be a hell of a lot better off, he says, if we forgot about blame all together, forget if it's someone's fault. That's a dead end, he would say. The better way to do it, he thinks, is to focus on this.

 

David Eagleman:

Probability of future recidivism.

 

Jad Abumrad:

You mean like will they do it again?

 

David Eagleman:

That's right. That's exactly it.

 

Jad Abumrad:

How would you ever know?

 

David Eagleman:

Here's how. You crunch the numbers. This has already happened in the world of sex offenders, where there have been long-term studies following out ...

 

Jad Abumrad:

Here's the way it already works, he says, which he thinks is model. When a sex offender comes up for parole, someone at the corrections office will grab their record and ask a bunch of questions.

 

David Eagleman:

What was the victim choice? Was it somebody they knew or was it somebody outside of their family? Was it a minor?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Was the victim male or female?

 

David Eagleman:

Was it somebody their age? What was the crime type?

 

Jad Abumrad:

All these different questions. Then the evaluator will take some of the answers and give them points.

 

Amy Phoenix:

Three, zero, two, one.

 

Jad Abumrad:

That's psychologist Amy Phoenix. She says researchers developed this point system based on years of studies of criminal behavior, massive amounts of data. Once you have all these points ...

 

Amy Phoenix:

You can add up a total score.

 

Jad Abumrad:

That score is supposed to tell you is this guy likely to do it again or no. Here's the bottom line. Amy says if you were to ask a parole officer with decades of experience to just use their gut, no numbers ...

 

Amy Phoenix:

We call that unguided clinical judgment.

 

Jad Abumrad:

If you were to ask them for their unguided but expert clinical judgment ...

 

David Eagleman:

Fred here recidivate or not, what's your prediction?

 

Jad Abumrad:

According to studies, those experts are correct ...

 

Amy Phoenix:

About 50% of the time. You may as well flip a coin.

 

Jad Abumrad:

On the other hand, she says if you have people just use the point system, no gut involved ...

 

Amy Phoenix:

The predictive accuracy would be about 70%.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Wow, 70%, no humans involved.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Here's the thing that gives me pause. In order to get that accurate, you kind of have to turn people into data, into types.

 

David Eagleman:

I know it seems like where's the humanity in that, but the question we have to ask is, compared to what? The way it currently goes, ugly people get much longer sentences than attractive people in courts. This is a well-known bias from juries. Is that somehow better than having a scientifically informed legal system?

 

Jad Abumrad:

I have no response to that. Dammit.

 

David Eagleman:

Robert will.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Krulwich?

 

David Eagleman:

Robert?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Yes, it's okay that pretty people get better sentences than ugly people.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Wait, what?

 

Robert Krulwich:

I don't know, I'm going out on a limb to see what happens when I finish the sentence.

 

Jad Abumrad:

All right, go.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Because what we're describing here is humans judging humans, not tables judging humans, not data judging humans, but humans judging humans. Humans do that with a certain amount of humanness. Maybe it's not very rational, and maybe sometimes it's strong-headed or unfair, but if you take the judgment away from the humans and you give it to a table, then you invite a different set of problems, which is the chance for mercy, which is a very big part of justice, is off the table, because statistics don't have mercy, they just have statistics.

 

David Eagleman:

Amen. That was nicely done. Robert's pleased with that, but let me look and see-

 

Jad Abumrad:

I thought that was a beautiful question.

 

David Eagleman:

That is a beautiful question. The notion of we should be merciful and so on, of course that's all true, but the question is are we good at it. Are we good at knowing who is the right person to be merciful with? It ends up usually being the attractive person, and the person who's ugly and is missing teeth, we're usually not as merciful for. I wish this weren't ...

 

Jad Abumrad:

Let me just throw in one more objection to this. Obviously he has a point.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I guess so.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This whole thing that he's advocating for, he's not the only one, of throwing out blame, focusing instead on what someone might do, is that a world you would want to really live in? Nita Farahany, the law professor, put it this way. Imagine you do something small.

 

Nita Farahany:

If I forge a check ...

 

Jad Abumrad:

Minor offense.

 

Nita Farahany:

... and in the process of arresting me and convicting me ...

 

Jad Abumrad:

Maybe the courts do a brain scan.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Or they do that number crunching thing with the question.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Exactly, and they determine actually she has a predilection for far more serious crimes than check forging. She hasn't done any of those things yet, but she could rob a bank, she could commit a violent crime. That's what the data shows. If all you're worried about is what she might do ...

 

Nita Farahany:

Then you can keep me in prison forever, because what you've discovered is that I pose a real and future danger to society.

 

Jad Abumrad:

You could basically convict someone of a crime that ...

 

Robert Krulwich:

Hasn't happened yet.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Exactly. Not only that, if you think about this whole thing from a slightly higher altitude, according to Nita, when you blame somebody for something, there's a power to that act that goes beyond that one individual.

 

Nita Farahany:

There is value to society holding people morally accountable for wrongdoing.

 

Jad Abumrad:

You're upholding this code that is important to all of us. It's what we've lived by and clung to for thousands of years. You could argue that the act of assigning blame is like reinforcing the scaffolding of society.

 

Nita Farahany:

It creates norms for people to follow.

 

Robert Krulwich:

That makes perfect sense to me.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Otherwise we would be ... I don't know what we'd be.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Hey, so you're coming out for the Ten Commandments at the end of the day. Woo!

 

Jad Abumrad:

Wait wait wait. Hold on.

 

Robert Krulwich:

No, sh.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Hold up.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Let's just say he went there and he can't take it back.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Don't draft me on to that team.

 

Julia:

This is Julia calling from Washington, D.C. Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Three, two, one. Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

Robert Krulwich:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Today on Radiolab, Blame.

 

Andy Mills:

Tell me your name again.

 

Bianca Giaever:

Bianca.

 

Andy Mills:

Bianca?

 

Bianca Giaever:

Yeah.

 

Andy Mills:

That's a pretty name.

 

Bianca Giaever:

Thank you.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is taped. It was sent to us by a radio producer named Bianca Giaever. At the time she was in college, just starting out, biking across the country.

 

Bianca Giaever:

We just got this grant to bicycle around this summer and-

 

Andy Mills:

No kidding?

 

Bianca Giaever:

... talk to people. It's called Davis Projects For Peace.

 

Andy Mills:

Great.

 

Jad Abumrad:

She was riding through this part of Tennessee and ended up on this farm type place where she met this guy Hector.

 

Hector Black:

My name is Hector Black. I'm 86, almost 86 and a half. When you get as old as I am, you add the halves again, like you did when you were three.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Hector ended up telling Bianca a story that in many ways turns everything we've learned in this hour on its head. Where would be the best place to start?

 

Bianca Giaever:

I think the story starts when he decided to move to Atlanta, because that's where Patricia was, his daughter. He had fought in the war.

 

Hector Black:

As a combat engineer.

 

Bianca Giaever:

World War II.

 

Hector Black:

I was not a good soldier.

 

Bianca Giaever:

Went to Harvard, got a degree, met his wife Suzie, and then ...

 

Hector Black:

I did join the civil rights work in the '60s.

 

Bianca Giaever:

I think when Hector heard about the Civil Rights Movement, he actually packed up his bags, moved to the neighborhood where Martin Luther King lived ...

 

Hector Black:

We rented a house.

 

Bianca Giaever:

... and said, "What can I do to help?"

 

Hector Black:

I thought I wouldn't really understand what was going on unless I lived there.

 

Bianca Giaever:

That's when he meets Patricia, girl in the neighborhood who came over all the time, just like a lot of kids, but she stuck around longer than anyone else. At 11 years old she asked them, "Will you adopt me?"

 

Bianca Giaever:

Why don't you explain? Did you adopt Patricia? What happened? How'd you get to know her? How'd you hear?

 

Hector Black:

Her mom was an alcoholic. Sometimes she drank up the rent money and the kids were out on the street with their mom. There was no dad. We took them in. She was very shy. She had impetigo sores on her legs, nappy-headed. Her mama never braided her hair. She was just really a neglected child. She just blossomed.

 

Bianca Giaever:

She got into reading, sewing, painting.

 

Hector Black:

She made all her own clothes. She was making bridal gowns as a second source of income.

 

Bianca Giaever:

Then she went off to college. She came back and started teaching kids to read. She even took in a few kids, just like he had done.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Adopted a couple kids?

 

Bianca Giaever:

Yeah.

 

Hector Black:

She's a wonderful child.

 

Bianca Giaever:

Unfortunately, the whole story changes now in November of 2000, because that's when Patricia ...

 

Hector Black:

Oh god.

 

Bianca Giaever:

... was murdered.

 

Hector Black:

Ivan Simpson is the name of the man who killed her.

 

Bianca Giaever:

He had broken into her house looking for money.

 

Hector Black:

He strangled her.

 

Bianca Giaever:

Later the autopsy showed he sexually assaulted her too.

 

Hector Black:

At first I yelled out, "Kill the bastard." I thought, "What kind of a monster would do a thing like this?"

 

Bianca Giaever:

He said for almost a year he could not stop imagining ...

 

Hector Black:

What he had done to her. These visions, they'd come at me out of the blue, just hit me, again and again. I just had no control of it. It was like he had control over me, pushing my face in the mud.

 

Bianca Giaever:

After Ivan had confessed, and this was right after the murder, Hector said part of him did want Ivan to get the death penalty.

 

Hector Black:

I was furious.

 

Bianca Giaever:

Then this other part of him was like, "No. This is a test." This was a test of his principles, of his beliefs. He decided he would not pursue the death penalty.

 

Hector Black:

At the trial where he was sentenced ...

 

Bianca Giaever:

He refused to look at Ivan.

 

Hector Black:

Patricia's cousin got up first. She was just in tears and just said how much she hated him. I thought, "Oh lord, here I'm going to go say something, it's probably going to hurt her feelings."

 

Bianca Giaever:

When it came his turn ...

 

Hector Black:

I had a written statement, because I wasn't sure how steady my voice was going to be. I was saying how much we loved Patricia, how much she went to us, and how wounded we were by what had happened. I said, "I don't know if I've forgiven you, Ivan Simpson, but I don't hate you. I hate with all my soul what you did to my daughter."

 

Bianca Giaever:

Then he worked up the nerve to turn around.

 

Hector Black:

To face him, to say the last thing I had written, that, "I wish for all of us who had been so wounded by this crime, I wish that we might find God's peace, and I wish that also for you, Ivan Simpson."

 

Bianca Giaever:

He says when he looked up ...

 

Hector Black:

Tears were streaming down his cheeks. That's the first time I looked into his eyes, and it was like a soul in hell. It was just indescribable looking.

 

Bianca Giaever:

In the end, Ivan ended up getting life in prison without parole.

 

Jad Abumrad:

What happens next was so surprising and troubling to us, frankly, that we sent Bianca and our producer Andy Mills back down to Tennessee to talk to Hector again.

 

Bianca Giaever:

It's the night after the trial. Hector is laying in bed.

 

Hector Black:

In the motel. I couldn't sleep that night.

 

Bianca Giaever:

He kept thinking about that moment in the courtroom.

 

Hector Black:

I'd never had a look like that my whole life. Never before or since.

 

Bianca Giaever:

Over and over and over. Finally he just gets up, he grabs a pen and paper, and he starts writing.

 

Hector Black:

"Dear Ivan Christopher Simpson, I am writing because I wanted you to know how I feel after the court hearing Monday. When I turned around while I was reading my statement and looked at you, it was a very powerful moment for me. When you raised your tear-stained face to look at me ... Ever since this happened, I have been trying to find something good in all the horror and pain. I have tried to be a better person."

 

Bianca Giaever:

Then he writes this line, maybe as a way to push himself to be that better person, but he writes, "I forgive you."

 

Hector Black:

"For what you did to our beloved daughter. I don't know if this will be of any comfort to you, but I wanted to tell you we will both have to live our lives with the pain of this deed always there. Patricia tried to make the world a better place. We should also try."

 

Andy Mills:

Did you think he would write you back after that?

 

Hector Black:

I didn't know.

 

Bianca Giaever:

About four weeks later, a letter shows up.

 

Hector Black:

This is it. "Dear Mr. Hector Black and family, I first want to say God bless you all in all things. Second, I have to go straight to the point. I know God has forgiven me, you have forgiven me, but I can't forgive myself, not yet anyway. I have so much anger at myself right now it's unbelievable. This hardness I have against myself ... I will always be remorseful. I used to hear God speak to me all the time, but I guess after what I did, He took away His touch from me. Right now I miss His voice. I don't know the level of love Miss Patricia had, but if it's anything like your example of it, it is great. God comfort you all in everything. Feel free to ask me anything you'd like. If I can, I will try to answer it."

 

Hector Black:

"Dear Ivan, I was very glad to have your letter. I think it is important that we be as honest as possible with one another, and so I have to tell you that it is hard for me to write to you."

 

Hector Black:

I wanted to know who he was.

 

Hector Black:

"I would really like to hear about your life, about the people who loved you, the people who hurt you."

 

Hector Black:

Because I wanted to know what had happened to him that could make it possible for him to do a thing like this.

 

Hector Black:

Ivan writes, "Dear Hector, I was adopted when I was two days old."

 

Hector Black:

His mother was schizophrenic.

 

Hector Black:

"Mrs. Simpson, the one I call mom now, took me in."

 

Hector Black:

He was raised by his grandmother's sister.

 

Hector Black:

"She's 82 now. I used to have to stay over there with my natural mom, while Marie, my mom now, had to work. My natural mom used to beat me, blurt out, 'I'm glad I got rid of you.'"

 

Hector Black:

When he was a little boy, maybe about 11 or so, she took him and his younger brother and his little sister to a swimming pool and she tried to drown all three. One sister died. He stood there while she drowned his little sister in front of him. Just the most horrible stuff.

 

Bianca Giaever:

We asked him, having heard all this from Ivan, did he still blame Ivan, or did he blame his mom or society or something else?

 

Hector Black:

I do blame him. He made the choices. He made the choices. There's no doubt about that.

 

Bianca Giaever:

He says knowing this also made him want to write back ...

 

Hector Black:

"Dear Ivan."

 

Bianca Giaever:

... and tell Ivan about his life ...

 

Hector Black:

"I grew up in New York City."

 

Bianca Giaever:

... his family ...

 

Hector Black:

"Two brothers. My parents argued and fought a lot.

 

Bianca Giaever:

... basically his whole life story.

 

Hector Black:

"I've always loved working with plants, and after we left Vine City and moved back to the country ... "

 

Bianca Giaever:

Ivan wrote back.

 

Hector Black:

"Dear Hector, I was raised in the church, but after starting drugs and alcohol, I changed."

 

Bianca Giaever:

Hector responded.

 

Hector Black:

"Dear Ivan, I don't think God has abandoned you."

 

Hector Black:

"Dear Hector, you're the only one writing to me now."

 

Hector Black:

We exchanged many, many letters.

 

Bianca Giaever:

At some point in this back and forth, this almost incomprehensible thing happens.

 

Hector Black:

"Dear Hector."

 

Bianca Giaever:

Their letters ...

 

Hector Black:

"First of all, thank you for the pictures. I never knew plum trees blossom early."

 

Bianca Giaever:

... just become casual.

 

Hector Black:

"My favorite bloom is the waterlily blossom."

 

Bianca Giaever:

They talk about flowers ...

 

Hector Black:

"It's beautiful."

 

Bianca Giaever:

... things they'd read ...

 

Hector Black:

"Dear Ivan, thanks for your letters. I'm enclosing a story someone sent to me because I thought you would enjoy it."

 

Bianca Giaever:

... and sometimes ...

 

Hector Black:

"Dear Hector."

 

Bianca Giaever:

... just the most mundane details of their day.

 

Hector Black:

"Just sitting around this Saturday evening. Been singing hymns to myself."

 

Bianca Giaever:

Basically they became friends.

 

Hector Black:

"You know, Hector, you're right. I do sense a bond developing. Unusual because of the circumstances."

 

Hector Black:

It's not at all what I expected to happen. It's just so absolutely crazy. Oh gosh. We started to send him Christmas packages. When we'd see this box on the floor, I'd think to myself, "You crazy old man. You're sending Christmas packages to the man who murdered your daughter. What the hell is up with you?" Just so cross, so totally out of ... I was out of orbit or something, and I guess I was, because people don't do that. Maybe I'm trying to exact meaning from it, I don't know, because I struggled so hard with why, why.

 

Bianca Giaever:

Eventually, after years of writing letters, Hector decided to ask that why question, in its most essential form, "What happened that night?"

 

Andy Mills:

This one, I just want you to know, if you don't want to read this, we don't want to make you read this if you're not ready.

 

Hector Black:

I don't think it's ...

 

Jad Abumrad:

This might be a good time to say that this next part is disturbing. If you have kids or you're just not in the mood, now's a good time to duck out for a few minutes.

 

Hector Black:

"Dear Hector, I wasn't going to tell you all what happened until you asked. I'm also glad you're relieving me of details also. God bless you. I went into the house around 7:30 p.m. I'm used to breaking into place in the past, so I figured the house was total dark, so I broke out a whole window and climbed in. I took the VCR and TV and clock. I figured that was enough, went and got $80 worth of drugs. I'm a heavy user, so it went in about one hour."

 

Bianca Giaever:

He made his way back to Trish's house.

 

Hector Black:

"It was still dark, so I went back in."

 

Bianca Giaever:

He found his way into the bedroom.

 

Hector Black:

"Saw a computer and stereo, so I said I'd take it and that should last for the night, but I got trapped when I saw a car, so I hid until I could get back out the way I came. I saw a lady walk to the room. I tried to be quiet so I could escape, when she opened the door to a closet I was hiding. As she stepped back, she fell. I told her I was going to tie her up so I would have time to get away. She said, 'Okay, sir.' Her glasses fell off, and at no time she saw my face, so I told her I was going to take the car so I could load it up. She gave me the keys, so I told her after I found out her name, I said, 'Patricia, I know you're scared, but I will be out of here in about 15 minutes.' Then she said, 'You should get help with your drug problem.' I told her I'd tried in the past but I restarted."

 

Hector Black:

That's Trish. She had no compunctions about telling people off when they were in the wrong.

 

Hector Black:

"Then I said, 'I'm sorry for this. I'm going to leave your car in the shopping center up the street next to the Chinese restaurant,' because all I need the car for was to transport the items I had."

 

Bianca Giaever:

Even though Trish was tied up around her hands, she went into the kitchen and warmed up some chicken and rolls for Ivan.

 

Hector Black:

"Then I said, 'I'm sorry,' and I left again. I got rid of the things, got about $200, well, $100 drugs and $100 cash. Then I said, 'Well.' I just parked the car at the end of their driveway. Then I couldn't wait. I pulled over and smoked some of the crack cocaine."

 

Bianca Giaever:

At this point he's really high. He explained that when he gets this high, he sometimes hears a male voice in his head, and as he was walking away the voice said to him ...

 

Hector Black:

"He said, 'Well, go get you some sex.' I told him, 'Leave me alone,' but next thing I know, I'm walking back to her house. No police had come."

 

Bianca Giaever:

He burst through the door, ran to where Patricia was tied up, and said ...

 

Hector Black:

"'Hey, do you have any money cash?' She said, 'Look in my purse.'"

 

Bianca Giaever:

Then Ivan said that the voice in his head became his own voice, and he said to her ...

 

Hector Black:

"'I want some sex.' She said, 'Sir, you've been so nice. Why? Don't do that.' She said, 'Only way you going to do this, if I'm dead.' 'Okay then,' and it happened."

 

Bianca Giaever:

He strangled her, sexually assaulted her, then he ran away.

 

Hector Black:

"Around 2:00 a.m. I ran out of drugs."

 

Bianca Giaever:

He said that after he finished getting high, he started to wonder if he had dreamed it all up, so he made one last trip back to Patricia's house.

 

Hector Black:

"I looked up at the house, no police, and gates still open. When I peeped through the door, she was still laying there, so I said, 'Patricia. Patricia.'"

 

Bianca Giaever:

Then the voice in his head told him to go back in one more time. He sexually assaulted her.

 

Hector Black:

"I couldn't believe what happened, so I went to my mom."

 

Bianca Giaever:

His adopted mother.

 

Hector Black:

"I said, 'Mama, it's something wrong. Mama, something wrong.' She said, 'Child, tell me what you're talking about.' I couldn't tell her."

 

Hector Black:

"I was really hoping they would kill me in the electric chair, because I shouldn't be able to live with myself and God after what I had done. I just don't know why I had to do it. Was it because of the items and the money? No. Getting caught later on in life? No. Control or power? No. Car? No. Because she saw my face? No. She didn't see me at no time. Fingerprints left on something? No. I just don't understand why I did it."

 

Hector Black:

"While I feel the pressure has left me for telling you first what happened, my mom doesn't even know. I've been keeping all this inside and it hurts so. I'm truly sorrowful for what happened. May God bless you all. Sincerely, Ivan."

 

Andy Mills:

Did it help in any way to know?

 

Hector Black:

Yes. That sounded exactly like Trish. She was really fearless. I can't imagine what a horrible ... Oh god. I was just amazed that she could be so strong, just amazed, because when you love somebody very much, you want to know about their last hours. He just wrote it in a way that I found very kind. Kind is a weird word to put there, but ...

 

Bianca Giaever:

That's the word he chose. Kind.

 

Jad Abumrad:

After that letter, they still write?

 

Bianca Giaever:

Yeah, they still write. They've been writing for 10 years now and Hector has just folders and stacks of these papers in his basement. It's the only room in his house that he keeps locked.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Producer Bianca Giaever. Thanks also to our own Andy Mills. Thanks to you for listening.

 

David Eagleman:

Hi, it's David Eagleman.

 

Bianca Giaever:

This is Bianca Giaever.

 

Amy Phoenix:

This is Dr. Amy Phoenix.

 

Hector Black:

This is Hector Black calling, reading out that text. Here's the text that you sent me.

 

David Eagleman:

Radiolab is produced by ...

 

Bianca Giaever:

By Jad Abumrad. Our staff includes Ellen Horne.

 

Hector Black:

Soren Wheeler.

 

Amy Phoenix:

Pat Walters, Jim Howard.

 

David Eagleman:

Brenna Farrell, Molly Webster.

 

Bianca Giaever:

Malissa O'Donnell, Dylan Keefe.

 

Male:

Lynn Levy.

 

Hector Black:

Andy Mills.

 

Amy Phoenix:

With help from [Sia Dennon 01:04:24].

 

Bianca Giaever:

Derrick Clements and [Shruvi 01:04:27].

 

Hector Black:

Shruvi [Denranami 01:04:29].

 

David Eagleman:

Special thanks to Steve [Mirsky 01:04:29].

 

Bianca Giaever:

May Allison.

 

David Eagleman:

Michael May.

 

Hector Black:

Jessie Barry. I guess that's it. Bye.

 

Machine:

End of message.

 

Copyright © 2019 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at www.wnyc.org for further information.

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.