[Content warning: This column discusses violence and abuse.]
On June 5, 2015, 28-year-old Courtney Liltz, who had cerebral palsy, died nine days after being fed high quantities of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. The woman who murdered her pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to four years in prison. On Oct. 11, the Chicago Tribune reported that Courtney Liltz’s murderer petitioned Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner to void this sentence.
On June 9, 2013, 14-year-old Alex Spourdalakis, who was autistic, was given an overdose of painkillers by his mother and caregiver. When that failed to prove lethal, they then proceeded to stab him to death. Alex’s murderers both pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and were sentenced to four years in prison each. They were immediately released on time served.
These were described as mercy killings. These were described of acts of love, not malice. These were described as understandable, necessary.
But it is time to use the words that society and the legal system refuses to use. It’s time to call it was it is—murder—to call its perpetrators what they are—murderers. It’s time to describe these acts as they ought to be described: unjustifiable.
Alex Spourdalakis was stabbed in the chest four times with a kitchen knife. His wrists were cut so deeply his hands were nearly severed. Yet I am expected to believe that this was an act of mercy, that his murder was an act of love, that this was necessary. I am expected to accept it as a legitimate opinion that a judge could look at such a heinous and callous crime and say it deserves no more than four years.
If the boy was not autistic, his killers would have died in prison. David Lohr, a former investigative crime writer for CourtTV’s Crime Library, points out just a year after Alex’s murder, “11-year old Raashanai Coley…died from a stomach rupture after her mother…punched her repeatedly.” Raashanai’s murderer will be in prison for at least the next 40 years (The Huffington Post, “How Murder Victims With Disabilities Get Blamed For Their Own Deaths,” 03.15.2017).
The court system only values certain kinds of bodies. Murder is unacceptable. Murder of a child is doubly so. Yet, when the victim is disabled, certain allowances are made.
To a certain extent this stems from a bizarre cultural reverence of parenthood and the idea that parents always know what’s best for their children. At the very least, it stems from the belief that parents should be allowed to handle their children, regardless of the harm of their actions so long as it doesn’t qualify as abuse.
We frequently hear this stance brought up by parents defending spanking or refusing to vaccinate their children. A 2014 Reuters poll found that “nearly seven in 10 Americans believe spanking a child is acceptable at home” (Reuters, “Exclusive: For most Americans, spanking is OK, implements are not,” 10.01.2014). While refusal to vaccinate could hardly be called a cultural norm, 17 percent of Americans still believe that parents should be able to refuse to vaccinate their child and still send them to public schools (Pew Research Center, “Vast Majority of Americans Say Benefits of Childhood Vaccines Outweigh Risks,” 02.02.2017).
Still, Americans favor the rights of parents above those of children. Instead of believing that parents have a responsibility to care for their children in a way that will help them grow and learn, we believe that they have a right to raise their children however they see fit. In this way, we excuse potentially abusive behavior. What’s worse, we view children as being undeserving of agency. Children are, first and foremost, subject to the decisions of their parents.
In this sense, society has relegated disabled people to the position of children, who require appropriate guidance. This is the case even for disabled people who are well into adulthood. Remember that Courtney Liltz was 28 years old when she was murdered. Society relegates disabled people to a permanent juvenile status.
But disabled people have even fewer rights than children do. A parent that murders their child and then claims it to be an act of mercy would go to prison for a long time. Again, consider the case of Raashanai Coley, whose mother is currently serving a 43-year prison sentence.
Society holds the belief that parents not only deserve control over every aspect of a disabled person’s life, but even whether they may continue to live. It’s almost as though it is seen as but an unfortunate, slight overstepping of legal boundaries. Just a tad outside what is acceptable.
Consider Charles Frederick White. In September, USA Today reported that White, a 77-year-old man from Polk County, MO, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for growing marijuana. Courtney’s murderer got four years. Alex’s murderers didn’t serve a day. Murdering a disabled person is not even considered as serious a crime as growing marijuana. That is the extent to which the criminal justice system does not value disabled people, that the criminal justice system validates and in a sense endorses murder.
Of course, these events are not always viewed as rightful decisions, but rather as senseless tragedies brought about by larger policy issues. Alex Spourdalakis’ murderers claimed that they were motivated by an inability to get him the services he needed. That this was an obvious lie ignored both by the public and the legal system. Americans would rather believe that the parent could not truly be at fault—more sinister forces must have been at work. The true culprits are the vaccine-makers, big pharma, the government, social services, school system, the CDC or literally anyone besides the actual murderer.
There may be a liberal impulse to accept this reality. Murder does not occur in a vacuum; there is a cause—poverty, lack of services and so forth. It is easy to be tempted to believe that those who commit these horrible crimes are not truly at fault for their actions, for they are victims of a system that does not support them.
But Alex Spourdalakis, a living, breathing person, was butchered by two people he trusted and relied upon. Austin Anderson was left in a field by someone he loved where he slowly died of dehydration. Tracy Latimer was forced into her father’s truck and gassed with carbon monoxide. These murders were brutal and anything but merciful. Even if we are to accept that these killers are not completely responsible for their actions (which we shouldn’t), could we not at least agree that the brutality of these murders is appalling?
When society and the legal system calls the murder of disabled children understandable or excuses this behavior in any way, it encourages other parents on the brink of homicide to believe that their murderous thoughts are normal. If a parent believes that wanting to kill their child is normal, then some may inevitably come to feel that the act itself is acceptable. Moreover, they may convince themselves that not only is this attitude acceptable, but it is, in fact, commendable. In fact, not killing their child would be immoral, because that would be trapping them in a life not worth living. This leads them to go the extra mile and commit murder.
This mentality isn’t about freeing disabled people from their pain; it’s about giving non-disabled people the authority to determine when someone gets to live and die. Tracy Latimer did not choose to die. Austin Anderson did not choose to die. Alex Spourdalakis did not choose to die. Courtney Liltz did not choose to die.
Someone chose for them, and when a person chooses when another person dies independently of or in spite of their own wishes, we call it murder. That is what this is: murder. It’s just time for someone to call it what it is.
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