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Good, Evil, and the Vast In-Between

‘Shades of Gray’ in the Criminal Justice System…and the Dave & Busters Stabbing

In the movies and on TV, it all seems so obvious, so black and white.  The bad guys commit the crimes, and the good guys prevail by catching them.  We can see it coming from a mile away – those who commit the crimes often are portrayed as innately evil.  Evil is as evil does, so to speak.  And, even with the occasional plot twist and the surprise villain unfolding sometime during the last scene, the message seems clear:  people are either good or evil … with no real middle ground or “gray area” when it comes to criminals – or their punishment.

In reality — and especially within the criminal justice system — that clear-cut line  between good and evil, quite simply, just isn’t that simple.  The truth is that the vast majority of people accused, and convicted, of crimes aren’t all good or all evil, but are instead a mix of both.  Just like the rest of us.  Why do they do evil things?  For a variety of reasons, but one of the big factors is that many have serious mental illness issues and/or substance abuse problems.  Our criminal justice system is filled with these people.  They are not born “evil criminals” or intrinsically bad … but fall instead into an “in between” category that may not meet the requirements of a traditional insanity defense.  Many of these criminals are difficult to detect, difficult to understand … and even more difficult to assign the right punishment for their crimes.

Mental illness in the criminal justice system may never have been as obvious as the recent incident at a local Dave & Buster’s on Long Island.  Families on Long Island, and beyond, were horrified to learn of a random stabbing of an eight year old boy at this family-friendly gathering spot … while he played just feet away from his father.  Reportedly, Evan Sachs, the 23 year old man admitting to this terrible crime – who worked as an usher at a popular local movie theater – had another harrowing admission: he had been planning this brutal (and senseless) attack for weeks … and had even cased local shopping malls earlier in the day stalking young boys in order to find just the right victim.  It was revealed that  “his intent was to kill a child” – and also revealed that, at the time of this horrific attack (and for quite sometime before that) he was under psychiatric care … and had recently had his medication changed (a factor which may have impacted his behavior).

The very nature of this random crime, combined with a confession of his heinous intentions, clearly signals that Sachs suffers from a serious psychiatric condition that manifests itself in his behavior.  People who knew the “bright, quiet student” are shocked that this SUNY Albany college graduate from a  “tight-knit and loving” family  — who had no prior criminal record – could be responsible for something like this.  In fact, one of his former teachers noted that “this is not an angry kid.  There’s gotta be some other cause” – not as justification for this terrible crime, but as a way to perhaps understand what turned this once “bright and hardworking” student into the man now perhaps always to be known as, according to a recent article in the NY Post, the “hulking psycho who stabbed an 8 year old boy at a Dave & Buster’s.”

When it comes to senseless random crimes like this, and people like Evan Sachs, the “why” behind the crime takes on a whole new meaning.  Like so many mentally ill people before him, and those unfortunately yet to come, the crimes they commit are beyond-a-doubt evil.  On a purely emotional level, we may want to hate those who commit these acts.  Clearly, society has a right – and an obligation – to protect itself against people like Evan Sachs, and there’s obviously a place for punishment under our law.  But with so many crimes – both serious ones and minor ones – being committed by those battling severe, often incapacitating mental illness and substance abuse problems, it’s important to remember when we are meting out punishment that everything isn’t always as “black and white” as it appears … and that shades of gray significantly color our criminal justice system today.  At a minimum, Evan Sachs and those like him deserve a defense which points this out.

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