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Todd Hiestand, J.D.

Todd Hiestand is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice. All posts by Professor Hiestand should not be considered as advertisements for the solicitation of legal services nor should you consider any post or comment to be legal advice that you should rely upon in a specific legal matter.

Therapist Liability and the Colorado Theater Shooting

Posted by on in Behavioral Sciences

Should the school psychiatrist who worked with alleged shooter James Holmes be held legally responsible for failing to prevent Holmes from engaging in the attack by notifying the police? How about the university where Holmes was a student, should they be held liable?

According to the Denver Post, Holmes’ psychiatrist at the University of Colorado-Denver contacted the university’s Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment team about Holmes, but that the matter was not pursued because he began the process of withdrawing from the institution. This Christian Science Monitor article discussing potential legal liability notes that Colorado requires doctors to inform the police if a patient makes a specific threat against an individual. These types of laws recognize that psychiatrists have a duty to protect individuals threatened by their clients. If a psychiatrist fails to warn the police or the threatened individual, and the client carries out the threatened harm, then the psychiatrist can be sued for monetary damages. Many of these laws stem from Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, a case from 1976 where a college student killed an ex-girlfriend after telling his psychologist that he was going to commit the murder.

As more details become public about the relationship between Holmes and his psychiatrist one crucial element will be the exact communications made by Holmes. Did he actually make a specific threat to shoot people in a movie theater? Why did the psychiatrist contact the Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment team? Was it based on specific statements or a general view that the person may be a danger to himself or others? A person can seem dangerous without any overt, specific threats being made. What if the psychiatrist felt that Holmes was probably not a danger but contacted the Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment team to get an additional opinion? How should the law deal with these liability issues without resorting to 20/20 hindsight?

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Colorado Theater Shooting and the Insanity Defense

Posted by on in Behavioral Sciences

The shooting spree allegedly committed by James Holmes during the premiere of the new Batman movie in an Aurora, Colorado theater resulted in the death of 12 people. According to authorities and the New York Times Holmes planned the shooting far in advance. He gathered an arsenal of weapons, utilized some form of noxious gas, and set up a series of explosives to detonate in his apartment with the purpose of injuring investigators. In addition to this planning, the alleged shooter, Holmes, was a promising neuroscience student (not exactly a cakewalk subject).

Contrast this preparation and the identity of the shooter with the act itself. Motive: none readily apparent. Victims: random. This doesn’t fit with our conceptions of crime. I might understand to a certain extent (but never condone) a person killing another out of revenge, greed, or anger. When a disgruntled employee engages in a workplace shooting, at some level we can explain this behavior based upon our human experience. The shooter was angry and was seeking revenge. In the Colorado case the victims are unrelated to the alleged shooter. There was no profit motive beyond the apparent desire to murder as many people as possible in as dramatic a fashion as possible. When these types of crimes occur, oftentimes our default explanation is that the perpetrator must be crazy.

At this point it is unknown whether the defense in this case will attempt to use the insanity defense. As noted in the Christian Science Monitor, the Colorado insanity defense requires clear and convincing evidence that the defendant was suffering from a mental disease and failed to know the difference between right and wrong. This is a high standard. First, clear and convincing proof requires more than a preponderance of the evidence. The best way this legal speak can be broken down, albeit in a somewhat nebulous manner, is by saying that the clear and convincing standard requires the fact-finder to be more than 51% sure and less than 99% sure. Second, it will be difficult to argue that a person with Holmes’s level of education, combined with the obvious wrongfulness of the act, was unable to know the difference between right and wrong.

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A Debt That Can Never Be Repaid?

Posted by on in Behavioral Sciences

After someone has committed a crime and is convicted, or pleads guilty, a punishment is determined. We often ask whether the punishment fits the crime. We assume the offender has taken something from society as a result of the offense and this must be repaid through punishment. This concept of retribution even invades the way we speak about punishment. For example, once a person completes a prison term we often say that they have “paid their debt to society.”

This debt-paying idea, however, does not really accurately describe the current state of affairs in the world of punishment. If I borrow money for a car and then pay the loan off in the agreed upon time frame with the agreed upon interest, then my debt is paid. The loan officer doesn’t show up two years down the road and ask for another payment. Three years after my debt has been paid the repo men don’t bring the tow truck to my house in the middle of the night. In punishment, additional hardships beyond the debt paid to society are called collateral consequences.

Collateral consequences can come in many forms such as restrictions on gun ownership, ability to serve on a jury, and loss of voting rights. Perhaps the most vexing collateral consequence of a conviction is related to employment. An ex-convict’s ability to gain and maintain a job may prevent a later return to criminal activity. However, many employers may not be willing to hire someone with a criminal conviction. These concerns can be legitimate. If I am a business owner, I don’t want to deal with an employee who may steal from me, injure co-workers or customers, deal drugs in my workplace, or show up intoxicated.

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Bomb Squad Visits MNU Criminal Justice Class

Posted by on in Behavioral Sciences

Imagine if a pickup truck stopped at the busy intersection of Mur-Len and Santa Fe. You watch as one man climbs out of the truck and gets into the back of a sedan parked nextIMG 0179 to the truck. This sedan then speeds away, leaving the truck in the street. You peer into the back of the truck and see what appear to be a large number of crudely made pipe bombs. After you run away as fast as possible and dial 911, the City of Olathe Fire Department’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team leap into action and neutralize the explosives.

On April 13th, members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team and Olathe Fire Chief Dr. Jeff DeGraffenreid visited the Terrorism and Transnational Crime class at MNU. Prior to this visit, students in the class completed Federal Emergency Management training on the Incident Command System that would be used to react to a local terrorist attack. Dr. DeGraffenreid discussed the important role that the Olathe Fire Department would play in responding to a terrorist attack, if just such an unfortunate incident were to occur.

IMG 0199Members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team also discussed the high-tech equipment they use, including the blast suit and bomb disposal robot, and the extensive training that they have completed. Students were able to see this equipment up close and were able to appreciate the impressive level of expertise that is present within the local area. Thanks to Dr. DeGraffenreid and the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team!

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Self-Defense and the Trayvon Martin Case

Posted by on in Behavioral Sciences

There is no doubt about it, the Trayvon Martin case is a tragedy. For those unfamiliar with the case there is discussion from CBS and the Christian Science Monitor. The City of Sanford has recently released the relevant 911 calls and several police reports. While the facts are still coming to light, there are questions surrounding the application, and possible misunderstanding, of the “stand your ground” doctrine of self-defense.

In a general sense, this doctrine allows a person to claim self-defense even though they did not retreat from the confrontation. For example, if I am walking down the street, minding my own business, and I am attacked by a man with a knife I am allowed to return the attack with my own knife. I can claim self-defense, even though I could have run away from my attacker.

That’s all that stand your ground laws really mean. And here is one potential issue with the Martin case – from the 911 calls it may be possible that Zimmerman was pursuing Martin. Again, the facts are still not clear here, but if this is true then Zimmerman did not react to this incident, he created it by pursuing Martin. However, Zimmerman's account according to the Orlando Sentinel paints Martin as the attacker.

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About This Blog

OhBehave is the outreach blog of the MNU Behavioral Sciences Department. In matters related to Psychology, Sociology, and Criminal Justice you will find information and updates geared to keep students and professionals abreast of the latest research, professional developments, and important trends in each field. As we seek a life of purpose, the material presented in this blog is meant to enhance and deepen our understanding of people and our world so that we may intentionally reflect the grace and peace of our creator.