Death comes swiftly, with a crushing finality, leaving the living numb with grief and overcome with loss. Our comings and goings remain stunning mysteries. When a life is taken at the hand of another, anger rises like a tidal wave.
So we are angry today at Christopher Plaskon. “I did it. Just arrest me,” he said, as police responded to the Jonathan Law High School in Milford, where 16-year-old Maren Sanchez had been fatally stabbed.
As with so many killings, the question is not whodunit, but why was it done?
Mr. Plaskon is a juvenile, but because he has been charged with murder his case has been transferred to adult court. He faces 60 years in prison. He did not attend his initial court appearance because he was in a psychiatric hospital, presumably because arresting officers regarded his mental state as so fragile that he was a danger to himself.
The prosecution’s instinct for the jugular in this case is stunning. Charge first and ask questions later. No real investigation had been done about why this happened before a decision was made to yank his case from the juvenile courts. Lady Justice may be blind, but is she also required to be deaf and dumb to nuance?
Press reports suggest that both the accused and victim were teens with bright futures, although there are published reports that Mr. Plaskon struggled with depression, and may have engaged in such disturbing behaviors as cutting himself years ago.
Ms. Sanchez was killed on the day the school’s junior prom was to take place, the prom Mr. Plaskon is said to have asked her to attend. She told him no, it’s been reported, apparently planning to go with another.
Why did this tinder kindle a fatal flame?
Murder in Connecticut is a simple crime. There is no requirement of malice aforethought. There is no requirement that the killing act be premeditated. Jurors are routinely informed that intent can be formed in an instant. All that is required to prove murder is that a person had the specific intent to cause the death of another and that they then caused the death of another. Put another way, a person must have had the conscious objective to kill to be guilty of murder.
Stabbing someone in the neck and abdomen is powerful circumstantial proof that an assailant’s intention was to kill.
It might also be something less than cold-blooded murder, the law recognizes. Manslaughter, for example, is what the law calls a lesser-included offense, a less culpable version of the same prohibited act of killing. What makes it less blameworthy is that it reflects less than the specific intent to kill. We recognize that folks can be moved by extreme emotional disturbance to do the unthinkable.
Neurological evidence reveals what we all know: teenagers are not adults. As a matter of biology, their neural circuitry is incomplete. They are impulsive, unwise, disinhibited and prone to excess. These deficits exist well into a person’s 20s. For all we know, Mr. Plaskon’s circuitry was overwhelmed; he may be a killer without being a murderer.
Or perhaps he is guilty of no crime at all.
Not all bad acts are criminal in character. Connecticut recognizes the insanity defense. A person might be unable to keep their conduct within the bounds required by law due to a mental disease or defect. The law recognizes both cognitive and volitional insanity. A person is not guilty by reason of insanity when he or she lacks the ability to form an intent.
Cognitive insanity involves not knowing the nature and character of your acts. A man hallucinating might think he inhabits a world filled with predatory dinosaurs when he walks the city streets. Such cases are rare.
More common to the criminal courts are casing involving volitional insanity, whether it be an irresistible influence or some other factor that overbears the will and clouds the mind. We grasp the concept intuitively, knowing that, on any given day, each of us is capable of horrible acts, if we surrender to the demons within.
Defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity do not walk free; they are remanded to the Whiting Forensic Institute. It is far easier to get admitted to that hospital than it is to be released.
None of us can know at this point whether Mr. Plaskon was insane last week.
“This office will continue to seek justice in this case, as we do in all cases, and we will move forward with the prosecution,” Milford’s State’s Attorney Kevin Lawlor told the world last week. Let’s see if he walk’s justice’s walk.
Not long ago, Gregg Madigosky was tried in a Waterbury court in the murder of his wife. His defense lawyer had the man examined by some of the state’s top forensic psychiatrists. The experts concluded that the man was insane at the time he killed his wife.
The state elected not to have Mr. Madigosky examined by an expert of its own, what is known as an independent medical examination. Instead, the state merely attacked the defendant’s expert as little more than a paid whore.
It then argued to the jury that Mr. Madigosky had the ability to control his conduct to the law’s requirements. After the murder of his wife, after all, he got into a car, drove to his parents’ home, and surrendered to police, all without incident.
The jury rejected the defendant’s expert and convicted him of murder. The judge sentenced him to a long term of imprisonment. (My office is trying to get Mr. Madigosky a new trial.)
There’s something dishonest about the state’s failure to meet Mr. Madigosky’s defense head-on. What would have been the harm in retaining an expert of its own to see whether the man was insane at the moment he killed? Justice is not measured in pounds of flesh.
Mr. Plaskon is well represented. His lawyer will have him evaluated. I am calling on State’s Attorney Lawlor not to put his head in the sand when that evaluation comes in. The state, too, should seek an evaluation to determine just why this young man was moved to kill.
We pass out decades behind bars in this country in an unthinking way, pretending that justice is done. This horrible killing in Milford presents a chance for real justice to be done. Something went wrong in Milford. Calling it evil is simply too easy.