Protecting the guilty: did John Salvi deserve his fate?

Protecting the guilty: did John Salvi deserve his fate? – mentally ill murderer was not given proper psychiatric treatment

Stephen J. Pope

On December 30, 1994, John Salvi III went on a murderous rampage at two Brookline, Massachusetts, abortion clinics that left five people wounded and two women – Lee Ann Nichols, thirty-eight, and Shannon Lowney, twenty-five – dead. The twenty-four-year-old apprentice hair stylist had paranoid delusions involving an international Masonic conspiracy against the Catholic church. Moving in the shadows of the extreme fringe of the anti-abortion movement, Salvi’s actions were anything but “prolife.” On March 18,1996, he was convicted of the murders and given two life sentences.

Salvi had served eight months of his sentence when on November 19,1996, he was found dead in his cell at the maximum security state prison at Walpole, Massachusetts. His body lay under the bunk, a cotton gag stuffed in his mouth, a plastic trash-can liner tied around his head with his shoe-laces, and his hands and feet bound by crude slipknots. A grimmer scene would be hard to imagine. Ruling out foul play, the report by the chief medical examiner’s office determined that Salvi took his own life by means of asphyxiation. A final review, produced by the University of Massachusetts at the request of the state, concluded that Salvi should have received more attention from Department of Corrections’ mental-health professionals. After his incarceration he was seen only once by a psychiatrist whose examination was described as “brief and unsatisfactory.” Prison officials “failed to notice that Salvi’s mental state was deteriorating, communicate among each other about his condition, or accept an offer from his lawyers that they consult with private psychiatrists who were aware of his problems” (Boston Globe, February 13, 1997).

Corrections officials say that Salvi’s family never told them he was in danger of suicide (this claim seems to be disputed), but the officials themselves, not Salvi’s family, have the training, expertise, and authority to make this determination. Furthermore, corrections officials attempted to avoid responsibility for not referring him to Bridgewater on the grounds that Salvi himself denied that he was mentally ill. How can nontreatment be justified on the basis of a self-assessment by a man whom state psychiatrists had previously and publicly described as mentally ill? Corrections officials pled ignorance, but sometimes ignorance is voluntary and is used to excuse what, in fact, is gross negligence. “Looking the other way,” especially when it comes to vulnerable people (and people who are aggressive in one context can be highly vulnerable in another), can be a form of complicity.

Salvi’s fate has prompted a barrage of questions. Some concern particulars: Why was he permitted to have implements that could be used for suicide in a cell where he was isolated twenty-three hours a day? These and other questions lead to broader concerns about procedures for assessing potential suicides (it was the sixth suicide of the year within the Massachusetts prison system); the treatment of the mentally ill within the criminal justice system; and levels of funding for mental-health services for prisoners (estimates are that 10 to 25 percent of the prison population suffer from some form of serious mental illness).

Salvi’s treatment also raises an important moral question about our society at large: What did we as a society owe Salvi the convicted murderer? Our first response to this question might be to say that we ought to respect his human rights, the basic claims of justice granted even to those who properly lose their civil rights due to incarceration. Gratuitous injuries are not condoned, physical security should be provided, punishment may not be “cruel and unusual.” This structure of legal protections reveals an underlying sense of obligation to the criminal as a human being. Through its penal institutions, society continues to express a moral will toward even its most dangerous aggressors.

But are we supposed to treat morally those who have treated others so immorally, like the killer of Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols? Many would say that Salvi deserved nothing but contempt, and certainly not good will. For one thing, good will is usually reciprocal and Salvi’s will was anything but good. The reciprocity ethic is summed up in Sigmund Freud’s modified golden rule: “Love thy neighbor as thy neighbor loves thee” – treat other people as they treat us; I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine. In this view, Salvi’s horrendous murder of Lowney and Nichols should be responded to in kind. Some thought he should get the death penalty. Others have been quietly satisfied with the state’s failure to protect his life: an eye for an eye counts, even if Salvi was his own executioner.

Though this ethic of reciprocity has many defenders, there are sound reasons to question the channeling of good will in this way. For one thing, it is based on a misunderstanding of “good will” as “sympathetic” or “approving of.” “Bilateral” good will means being favorably disposed toward another – as when a saleswoman generates “good will” in her customers. Good will in another sense is “unilateral,” and simply means willing what is good, proper, right for another. Thus we can have “good will” toward the murderer while at the same time being horrified by his heinous acts. A good will desires that the criminal comes to a realization of the terrible evil he has done, seeks a conversion of heart, establishes a more authentic humanity, learns to care for others, and understands the need for forgiveness and reparation (if it can be attained).

Second, the ethic of reciprocity – do to others as they do to you – can have serious disintegrative social effects. Contempt generates ever more contempt, degradation of one leads to degradation of another, violence by one person inspires violence in the victim. This vicious cycle was captured succinctly in Gandhi’s terse warning that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. We can see in our society an increasingly harsh and “get tough” attitude to crime that includes the return of chain gangs, the adoption of stun belts, and an increase in capital punishment. These methods of deterrence can backfire, however, as the 20,000-member American Correction Association has argued before Congree (see, New York Times, March 11). Such practices “result in a hardening of criminal offenders” – their increased corruption and deformation, not their correction and reformation.

Third, we have to think more carefully about the grounds of good will: Are we to care about others because they have earned it or simply because they are human beings? This is the key question and it concerns us all. If asked the question: “Does the concern and respect that we owe to others ultimately depend on their accomplishments, their status in society, their productivity?” we would all say, “no,” of course not. We recoil in horror at the Nazi designation of “life unworthy of life.” We oppose euthanasia because we believe that human beings deserve respect whether or not they are productive members of society. This is obviously the case for people who are mentally incompetent. Perhaps this is why describing Salvi as a paranoid schizophrenic carries so much weight – if so, perhaps it elevates the level of moral claim he had on us.

It’s natural to have a special concern for the well-being of those who are especially good; this is why, for example, the world attends to word of Mother Teresa’s medical condition. But does the concern and respect that we owe to others ultimately depend upon their personal moral goodness? Is being good, or at least decent, a necessary condition for human concern? I would say “no,” and for the same reason, that it doesn’t depend on achievement or productivity.

Good will is fundamentally a unilateral attitude of respect for others in virtue of their humanity. The original “golden rule” requires us to treat others as we would like to be treated. You do not have to qualify for this golden rule and it is not abandoned when it is not reciprocated. Immanuel Kant argued in the Metaphysics of Morals: “I cannot deny all respect even to a vicious man as a man; I cannot withdraw at least the respect that belongs to him in his quality as a man, even though by his deeds he makes himself unworthy of it.”

This “unilateral” feature of morality is solidly established in our moral practices. It is why, for instance, we give drug dealers the right to a fair trial even if they have no respect for justice; why we don’t publicly humiliate or execute our prisoners of war even if our enemies do; and why we don’t condone Bosnian Muslim atrocities on the grounds that the Bosnian Serbians have done the same or worse.

Great moral authorities of our own time have expressed this common principle in a wide diversity of settings. In his 1990 New Year’s address, Vaclav Havel challenged his country to overcome the disintegrative legacy of totalitarianism by embracing the fundamental principle that “every human suffering concerns every other human being.” Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke in a similar vein about the dignity of the poor: “All life is interrelated. The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother.”

Christians, of course, have an even more profound motive for exercising the kind of unilateral good will that is understood by humanistic ethics. We believe that human beings are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26) and that, not only does God love all people, “God is love” (1 John 4:16). We also affirm that this love holds steady regardless of our ignorance and sin. Theologian Karl Rahner once noted that many Catholics are in practice semi-Pelagians. We assume that we freely take the first step toward God and that in some sense we earn God’s saving love by our good works. This semi-Pelagianism carries with it the dangerous ethical implication that one must earn the right to be a recipient of love, concern, and even respect. Opposed to this view is the fundamental Christian belief that we are saved by gratuitous divine love.

Christians, then, have the strongest of reasons to extend compassion even to the murderer. John Paul II, reflecting in Evangelium vitae on God’s treatment of Cain after the murder of his brother, observed that “not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.”

Should we, then, respect people who have no respect for the lives of others? Yes. We can “respect” them in the sense that we can and must honor the humanity of those who act inhumanely. We do not admire, approve, or esteem Salvi’s actions, attitudes, or beliefs, but even he was our brother. It may run against the grain of human nature to say this, but our fundamental respect for others as human beings should be negated neither by their wickedness nor by their madness.

If this is true, there is a way in which Salvi’s mental status – an issue which loomed large during his trial – ought to have been irrelevant to our good will. By this I mean that even if Salvi was “faking” mental illness (and psychiatrists testifying for the state at the trial acknowledged his mental illness, though the jurors did not acquit by reason of insanity), and even if he knowingly and voluntarily killed his victims in cold blood, he nevertheless ought to have remained the object of our moral concern.

It needs to be said, of course, that the content of what we will for others might very much depend on what they have done or not done. Because what is willed has to be shaped in accordance with what is right, good will for the criminal cannot obstruct justice for his victims and society. Good will is thus not to be confused with mistakenly taking the perpetrator for a victim. Holding people accountable for the evil they have done – when indeed they are genuinely answerable for their conduct – is a way of honoring their humanity, their freedom, their capacity for reasonable action and moral responsibility. Far from being at odds, retributive justice, properly exacted, serves the good of the criminal as well as that of his victims and society at large. Good will for Salvi thus need not be confused with some kind of softhearted unconditional love that ignores the evil that he had done.

Public servants like corrections officials must represent the best moral lights of our society, not the worst. Public institutions, whether we like it or not, are expressions of the will of society. Governor William F. Weld’s order to expand the investigation into the Salvi case was a step in the right direction, but it was only a remedial effort to address the effects of unconscionable neglect. (Under the Weld administration, state spending for mental-health services at Bridgewater has been cut significantly while funding for prison construction has escalated.)

Policy matters in this domain ultimately refer to the worth of persons, and how we affirm the worth of persons is the litmus test for the decency of our society. If we want to live in a decent society where human dignity is respected, we have to respect the dignity of everyone, including people like Salvi.

Stephen J. Pope is an associate professor in the department of theology at Boston College.

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