Sunday, February 14, 2016

"Guilty mind" and the jailing of Professor Anna Stubblefield

I've had several conversations about the justice or lack thereof in the sentencing of Professor Anna Stubblefield since I posted about her four days ago. One person made a strong case against any jail time on the basis that (a) although every reputable professional society that has examined "facilitated communication" has concluded that it is bogus, it's not illegal to use the "technique," and, most importantly, (b) Anna Stubblefield did not have what in legal terms is called "guilty mind" (mens rea).

If I erroneously take your suitcase from the airline carousel because it looks exactly like mine, I'm not guilty of theft. But if when I get home I decide to keep it because I like the content of yours better than mine, I've become a thief. The difference is in my knowingly and intentionally appropriating your property. That's guilty mind.

My critic was right. In initiating a sexual relationship with D.J., a disabled man, Professor Stubblefield (a) believed he had given enthusiastic consent via "facilitated communication," that she was (b) fulfilling his wishes (as well as hers), and that (c) bringing a disabled, previously uncommunicative 32 year old into the shared human world was an ethically admirable act. That doesn't look like a guilty mind. How could jailing her for rape possibly be ethically allowable?

That argument troubles me too. But here's my response. "Facilitated communication" (placing the uncommunicative person's hand on the facilitator's hand to guide writing at the keyboard) has been decisively and definitively shown to be a false theory. The writing comes from the "facilitator," not from what believers in the false theory call the "communication partner."

But given the widely known results of scientific evaluation of "facilitated communication," and the multiple condemnations of it by reputable professional societies, Professor Stubblefield should have known that D.J. could not give valid consent. She should not have accepted her experience at the keyboard as evidence for consent.

Another interlocutor invoked the history of science. Haven't there been examples of theories widely regarded as false that were later determined to be true?

Yes, there have.

Professor Stubblefield and her co-believers in "facilitated communication" are entitled to believe that mainstream science is wrong, and to make ethically allowable efforts to disprove the scientific consensus. But they're not entitled to invade the rights of others, as by "determining" that consent for sexual relations has been given. Similarly, the occupiers of the federal wildlife refuge in Oregon are entitled to argue that the federal government is acting wrongly, but they are and should be liable for trespass for acting on their beliefs.

Still, from the perspective of ethics, sentencing Professor Stubblefield to 12 years in prison makes no sense. She's not a danger to others as long as she neither commits nor incites actions like hers with D.J. That would be a condition of probation. She did not have a guilty mind. Although her case is not a slam dunk, I hold to my view that given 25 years of well publicized scientific findings,  she was not entitled to act on her beliefs.

In my view, the jury was correct in defining her actions as rape. But guilt is one thing and sentencing another. The sentence may be consistent with state law, but the 12 year sentence does not fit the crime.


Nancy Bennett said...

I agree that the sentence seems excessive, but keep in mind a number of things.

Anna Stubblefield knew that there had been a legal ruling that DJ was mentally incompetent and that he was under the guardianship of his mother and brother. She would not, for example, have moved DJ into her house and then announced to his mother and brother that he was a grown man, fully compos mentis, and that he told he he wanted to move. She would have known that was overstepping her bounds and that she would have had to have the guardianship lifted before she could do any such thing or else get his family's permission (and, indeed, she was working on getting their permission). The fact that she allowed herself to become so deluded and to so misread the situation as to think that DJ's brother and mother would be delighted to hear that she had commenced a sexual relationship with him did not mean for a moment that she did not understand that a sexual relationship with someone who has a legal guardian is illegal and that she was not acutely aware that this guardianship had not been lifted.

Secondly, Anna was specifically and repeatedly told to stay away from DJ by his family. She engaged in deceitful behavior in order to attempt to remain in contact with him. It was only when his family became convinced that she was going to find some way to get access to him even when she had been forbidden to do so that they called the police. If Anna truly believed that DJ was mentally competent and capable of giving consent, her response would not have been to find some sneaky way to thwart his family's wishes but to call a lawyer and say "this disabled man has falsely been classified as incompetent and now is being held against his will by his family." Appropriate legal action would then have been taken. She didn't do this because she knew that the chances that she could prove any such thing were slim to none.

So we are to believe that she felt herself fully on solid legal grounds while having sex with him, yet she acted as if he had no demonstrable legal rights when his family separated them and she attempted to contact him by deceit rather than legal means. I think there is plenty of "mens rea" there.

Jim Sabin said...

Dear Nancy

Thank you for your very full comment. You have information about the sad situation that I did not have. (Was it in public documents? If so, I didn't find them in my searches.) In particular, I was not aware that Professor Stubblefield had repeatedly been told to stay away from DJ and that she moved him into her house.

Assuming all the facts you site are correct, my speculation would be that Professor Stubblefield may have believed that she was rescuing DJ from what was - in her mistaken view - something akin to kidnapping. Your point about how someone who believed DJ was erroneously classified as incompetent resulting in an unjustified guardianship should have responded seems entirely correct.

Again, on the assumption that all the facts you cite are correct, the situation demonstrates how dangerous false beliefs can be. I interpreted the publicly available materials that I found as implying that Professor Stubblefield fully believed that the "facilitated communications" she had "received" from DJ were truly from him and not a projection of her own beliefs. The actions you describe are shocking. Assuming that they were discussed extensively at the time of the trial they would certainly have influenced the severity of the sentence.

In light of what you add, I end up seeing the situation as a terrible tragedy in which Professor Stubblefield was led by her false beliefs to mistreat DJ and his family. While nothing I read suggested to me that her beliefs represented psychotic delusions, the certainty that believers in "facilitated communication" display that they have the truth and the powerful establishment is oppressively opposing them reflects what I have elsewhere on this blog linked to what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the "Paranoid Style in American Politics."

Again, thank you for your comment!