Police Procedure: To Be or Not to Be?

by Tracey Hawkins


I recently found my 16 year-old daughter closeted away in her room burning the midnight oil. The pained expression on her face made me ask if she needed help. (Hoping it wasn't Maths homework - not my strong point.) Luckily it was a nice murder scene for English.

The cast of characters and the plot was certainly an interesting lot. Madness, mayhem and murder, now this was right up my alley. A brief run down on the scenario had me intrigued. A schizophrenic murderer, a paranoid lover suffering from madness and a father conducting his own secret detective work then ends up dead. What is this I ask?

"Shakespeare's Hamlet," she replies.

Hmmm, a murder scene written four hundred years ago. A different angle indeed. Shouldn't be too tough. It wasn't really complicated. Or was it? We knew who killed whom, why, how and that Ophelia (a major character) had gone mad as a result of the events. The complication lay in presenting an analysis of Ophelia's madness, from the point of view of a psychiatrist. But wait there's more… we had to do it in a 12-line soliloquy written in Elizabethan English.

Yeah right.

OK: Why didn't my daughter's English teacher just get a life and explain the complicated analysis herself to a bunch of 16 year olds who really wouldn't know a 'doth' from a 'whit' if it beamed across their mobile phones in coloured text.

I sat and listened as my daughter explained what she knew, but not how to write it. Trying to explain madness is difficult enough, but to do it in Elizabethan English is far more challenging than I thought. However, not to be beaten we wrote, using a selection of 'doth', 'thou's, 'whit' and 'thee's' for added weight. We came up with an award winning presentation.

The English teacher liked it but…a few sentences were a tad lengthy, please edit.

Now, I have to say she was really pushing her luck. My verbal response wasn't in any way close to Elizabethan English; it was straight out of "Common English for the Aussie Wharfie".

My thoughts strayed… how about I create a new scene from Hamlet? I'm sure Shakespeare won't mind. Let's say- Act five, Scene ten: One very angry mother suffering from a severe chest infection and limited time constraints enters the English room. She then proceeds to tie the English teacher to her desk. With the victim secured, pleading for forgiveness the woman picks up an enormous stapler (a big commercial one) and pumps blunt ended staples into her startled terrified eyes.

Yeah I like this scene. Blood spills across the room, seeping into cracks. Droplets capture the overhead fluorescent lighting reflecting the macabre expression of the victim. I can see Shakespeare getting into this scene. He loved blood, violence and victims. The angry mother then injects the teacher with a 500cc dose of the truth serum to ascertain how much of this term' lesson plan had actually evolved from her own brain. Screaming in agony the teacher confesses she can't even spell Shakespeare let alone set assignments. Angry mother denies crime and gets off on a misdemeanour charge of public nuisance based on the grounds of PMS. (More on this later)

OK… reality check- a quick search on the Internet revealed all. Surprise, surprise! I found the website the teacher had tapped into. Boy she was far dumber than I had given her credit for. There in a wonderful laid out plan was a course package on Hamlet. Right down to the suggested assignments to give to students. Let's see…"Write a 12 line soliloquy on Ophelia's madness from the POV of a psychiatrist, in Elizabethan English."

I rest my case. So my little mystery crime writers and readers have you figured out the Police Procedure topic? No? Well it was a bizarre intro. I decided to look into unusual defences to crime. One that took my fancy was PMS used by the legal eagles as a defence for women who kill. This raises two questions.

Firstly what classifies a 'defence'? Basically there are two main types of defences.

Defences to Crime:

1. Justifications

Justifications refer to situations in which the defendant doesn't deny they did the act. The appeal is they did it for all the right reasons. (mens rea)

2. Excuses

Excuses refer to situations whereby the defendant doesn't deny the act; the appeal is they are not responsible for it. The grounds of diminished responsibility, insanity or not of their own free will are the big arguments. (actus reus)

The second question- what is a defence of PMS?

Premenstrual Stress Syndrome - a claim by women that their hormonal changes are so severe they have been driven to the unthinkable. Now most women will agree that they have had moments in their life whereby PMS (severe symptoms) or PMT (more a common lighter symptom) has made them feel somewhat …out of control, have feelings of rage, anger, or simply be subjected to a tide of emotional and physical swings. Although some woman may harbour inner thoughts of sticking their hubbies with the Wiltshire stay-sharp knife - they don't actually go that far. PMS and its lighter side PMT, is a significant monthly suffering endured by woman during their reproductive years over a forty-year time frame. Yet, although well acknowledged, it seems to be considered an 'accept it and get on with life" matter. Doesn't seem fair does it? Why is this so?

The Weaker Sex:

Women's persona has changed since the 19th Century when they were seen as the weaker sex, diminutive creatures to be protected and assisted. A violent, uncontrollable woman was thus seen as disturbed, mad or sick just not classified as 'bad'. Did these poor unfortunates earn the label "mad woman" because they suffered dreadful bouts of PMS? Poor Ophelia, maybe she was labelled incorrectly. "Stand back, I've got my period"

In 1945, a study found that 84 percent of women's crimes of violence were committed during the premenstrual and the early menstrual periods. Later studies seemed to confirm that finding. It was discovered that 80 percent of violent acts committed by women convicts in New York were committed during their menstrual period. The conclusions drawn during many of the earlier studies were based on stereotypical attitudes and sweeping assumptions of the female sex.

 Lombroso, a physician from the late 19th Century claimed, " it is just as likely that the psychological stress of hostility and violence brings on the menstrual cycle". Living in the 'dark' ages with male attitudes such as this makes me totally understand the criminal act women performed during that time.

During the early 1950's the enlightenment of women's menstrual cycles and the time period preceding the menses relating to deviant behaviour was more strongly considered. PMS was used as a defence or at least as a mitigating factor in defence of crimes, and smaller matters such as shoplifting reflecting the defence of diminished responsibility.

Early Case histories

Two significant cases in the UK brought world recognition to PMS as a filed record of defence. Both matters captured the headlines with the new defence used for the charge of murder.

In 1980 a woman called Susan Craddock, a barmaid with a lengthy list of criminal charges, murdered a co-worker. Years of diary and institutional records showed a cyclic patterning of her erratic behaviour. She was found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. It was claimed that PMS turned her into a raging bull each month forcing her to behave out of character. Her sentencing was delayed and she given hormone therapy. After the trial period she was placed on progesterone medication and given probation. Later that year after stopping her hormone therapy she attempted suicide, caused malicious damage and wrote death notes to the police. Craddock was forced to take her medication and have her levels monitored by caseworkers to prevent further criminal actions.

The second case was that of Christine English, (a woman with no criminal past) who had a fight with a lover (a married man) and killed him by ramming him against a light-post with her car. She was charged with murder and placed on probation with certain restrictions attached such as, diet and alcohol control and instructions to take medication. Clinicians showed that at the time of the murder English had a low blood sugar and an over production of adrenalin. English also started to menstruate a few hours after the crime. All these factors coupled allowed the Court to drop her charge down to manslaughter on the grounds she had performed the act under exceptional circumstances.

Bad, bad mothers

By the 1990s, the PMS defence was still being used but often not successful. Only the very brave ventured into these watery defences. It did however, pave the way for other hormonal defences. The newest and now a common defence we are all familiar with PPDS (Post partum depression syndrome). PPDS has leapt off newspaper headlines as die-hard legal explorers proffer case defences supporting women who murder their children.

In 1990, Sheryl Massip placed her 6-month-old son under a car, ran over him repeatedly, and then, uncertain he was dead, did it again. The defence claimed post partum depression and that she be given outpatient medical help.

Did we not have an actus reus? - Yes, the act was committed over and over again. What of mens rea? - Hmmm, did she really not have the mental capacity to understand her actions? When she repeated the act after doubting her son's death surely she had some mental process happening.

Andrea Yates drowned all five children in a bathtub. What made her do it? She recounted how she did it. She chased down her eldest son to catch him. What was her mental state at that time? Her MO was there; she caught the child and drowned him. The actus reus (guilty act) was done. She knew she did it. Disturbed? Mentally unsound? Yes, but how deeply disturbed was she? Does a hormonal syndrome justify such crime?

Alarmingly it raises a whole new process of thought and certainly a profound cause of debate. When does diminished responsibility kick in or victim status's (meaning you are not responsible for your actions) become a defence? Can we honestly believe that these women suffer some bizarre delusional state of mind that allows them to commit an act of murder without awareness at some basic primate level?

That is why we have a legal system to make decisions on such behaviour and actions of those women who step outside of the boundaries. These defences are to help protect them. It must also be remembered that they are as much as sword against women as a shield to protect them. Maybe it's time for more current research to support a direct relationship between a woman's menstrual period and female criminality. I couldn't help but add some very interesting cases of defence I stumbled upon.

Wacky Defences

Twinkie Defence, in 1978, Dan White was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter instead of first degree murder for the killing of San Fransisco Mayor, George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. At the time immediately before the killings, Dan White only consumed junk food.

Unhappy Gay Sailor Syndrome, a condition describing the frustration and anger of gay & lesbian soldiers forced to serve out their tour of duty in the closet, first used to justify the charge of sabotage when a gun turret exploded on the USS Iowa.

Nice-Lady Syndrome, used to explain why unhappy people stay with abusive or unsatisfactory mates, because they care about other's feelings more than their own, co-dependency.

Gone with the Wind Syndrome, named after the movie and used by rape experts to explain why rapists believe sex has to be spontaneous and done after some resistance on the part of the woman.

Football Widow Syndrome First raised in 1994 in Florida to explain wife who got tired of husband watching football all the time, admitted as excuse.

Mother Lion Defence seeks to justify mother 's violent reactions taken to protect her children. (Often admitted and successful.)

As to the English teacher, well I'm off on parent/teacher interviews next week. To be nice? Or not to be nice? Yep that's the question.

©Tracey Hawkins.


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