Another Perspective

An Unsettling State

However horrible a crime, the state cannot be liable for all the evil that lurks in the heart of man.

By 10.25.07

The state of Minnesota announced the other day it had reached a settlement in the wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of the late Dru Sjodin. The University of North Dakota student was killed by a man who had been released from prison after serving a 23-year sentence for the stabbing and attempted kidnapping of a woman. There had been thought of having him committed to an institution, but a state psychiatrist nixed the idea. When he was found guilty of Dru's murder, her family sued Minnesota for wrongful death. The state agreed to pay three hundred thousand dollars without admitting culpability.

What kind of creep would protest against such a result, you ask. A reasonable kind of creep, I think. A creep like me.

It is difficult for politicians to do the right thing in the face of bad press, especially when the story has a tragic human face. Still, there is no reason in the world that the state should be liable in this circumstance. They held this man for 23 years, a very significant jail term equivalent to about half of an adult life. They considered commitment afterwards and ordered a psychiatric evaluation. The psychiatrist said there was not enough there to warrant institutionalization. What more can be legitimately demanded?

Yes, I saw The Verdict with Paul Newman 25 years ago and, yes, it was a good movie and, yes, he made the state psychiatrist look bad on the stand and, yes, he made it seem the guy was a hack doing wholesale perfunctory sessions and, yes, he made it look like neither the state nor the psychiatrist cared but, no, I don't believe that is always the case and, no, I don't believe a psychiatrist in this day and age is likely to be lazy in assessing the release of a prisoner with such a history and, no, I don't assume that the psychiatrist could have predicted the result if he was somehow more thorough and, no, I certainly don't think pulling $300,000 out of that department's budget is likely to help the quality of performance any. (Talk about extending sentences.)

Now a case can be made to eliminate psychiatry altogether, to depose it from the status of a science, but that is a cantankerous curmudgeonly case with no chance of enactment in our lifetimes. We need psychiatrists working for the state in that capacity, and hopefully the budget will be sufficient to attract good ones. We also have little choice but to give a great deal of weight to their diagnoses and prognoses. That is the only fair way to proceed. Promoting a climate in which mental health professionals are pressured into committing every person with a violent crime in their past is obviously not tenable, not helpful, not appropriate, not defensible.

Creating lynch-mobs-by-proxy will not assist the administration of justice even if it does augment our safety. No one can produce zero risk for ourselves and our children. Intimidating a psychiatrist or a state agency with lawsuits every time they underestimate the risk factor in a felon's reentry into civilian life will foster a culture of one-strike-and-you're-out. Besides for being too extreme, that actually creates new dangers for society, because criminals are given too strong an incentive to kill all the witnesses. This was demonstrated conclusively in a magnificent article by William Tucker in The American Spectator circa 1985.

States are actually protected from lawsuits by the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution, but there are certain exceptions. Wrongful death sounds like something someone should have to answer for, but punishing the state, even when its employees were clearly at fault, is a ludicrous exercise. A state is a sovereign entity on paper, anthropomorphized into a make-believe person, but it has no private assets. Any money it has access to is taxed from citizens, public property. That means that a) people who don't deserve to pay are paying and b) the people who need to be punished are not touched.

The story of Dru Sjodin is horrible, awful, a bleeding wound in our national life. She was the victim of humanity at its most twisted. The state did all it could to protect her; in fact, it protected twenty-three years worth of her sistren. There was no longer any valid basis for a free society to restrain that individual. He turned out to be dangerous, but so are many people who have never been incarcerated.

The same cultural and political fallacy that tells you the government should be running every aspect of our lives thinks it can decrease the danger of human experience to nil. Would that it were so.

Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator. He also writes for Human Events.

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About the Author

Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a senior editor of The American Spectator.