THERE ARE TWO STORIES here.
One of them is about the killing of a young woman by the man who loved her. The other is about what is happening to our ideas about crime and punishment, psychiatry and the law, justice and society.
He was visiting her at her parents' home. Sometime near 2 a.m. on July 7, 1977, Richard Herrin, a 23-year-old Yale graduate, walked up the steps to the bedroom of his sleeping girl friend, Bonnie Garland, 20, and repeatedly smashed her head and larynx with a claw hammer.
"Her head split open like a watermelon," he said later. The blows were so violent brain tissue was left sticking to the ceiling of Bonnie Garland's room.
After a few hours of driving around, considering and rejecting suicide, Richard Herrin stopped at a Catholic church and asked a priest to call the police. When he was told by the police chief that officers had found Bonnie Garland still alive, Herrin refused to believe it.
" 'No! It can't be. She has to be dead. I don't believe it,' Herrin shouted, smashing his foot against the floor. He jerked his head up, and with eyes wide with shock he screamed. . .'She has to be dead. . .The hammer stuck in her head and I had to pull it out." So investigative reporter Peter Meyer tells us in The Yale Murder. Bonnie died a few hours later.
Nearly everything about the killing of Bonnie Garland led to sensation. Bonnie and Richard had met at Yale, her father's alma mater, and carried on their romance across social and economic barriers. She had attended the fashionable Madeira School, lived in Brazil, and traveled in Europe as a student singer. Richard was illegitimate and grew up in the Mexican-American barrios of Los Angeles. He had graduated first in his high school class and attended Yale on a scholarship. He was a graduate student in geology, studying at Texas Christian University, at the time of the killing. Bonnie's father was a well-to-do international lawyer, and the family lived in an exclusive district of Scarsdale, New York. Bonnie and Richard were known on the Yale campus as lovers, and they planned to be married in the fall despite her family's reservations about Richard.
Within a few weeks of arrest Richard Herrin was released to the custody of the Christian Brothers community in Albany. Former Yale classmates and two Catholic assistant chaplains at Yale had organized to acquire the best legal and psychiatric defense that money could buy and to deliver the strongest emotional support the social-activist wing of the Catholic church could provide.
In a curious reversal of sympathy, the killer rather than the victim or her family became the focal point of compassion. Until he went on trial on May 15, 1978, Richard lived as a free man. He attend another college under as assumed name. In a "leapfrogging from sin to forgiveness over the hallowed principle of penance," as psychiatrist Willard Gaylin says, the church had forgiven Richard and so he had forgiven himself.
The trial seems to have been a classic example of brilliant defense, lackluster prosecution, and psychiatric testimony filled with grave pronouncements and the reading of tea leaves. It described the motive. Bonnie had been dating other men on the side and finally summoned up the courage to tell Richard she wanted out of their relationship.
It also portrayed Richard as having been left emotionally crippled by a lonely, frightened childhood, and as profoundly distraught at the prospect of losing the women whose social status and sexual love were bound to his self-esteem. He pleaded not guilty and his attorney filed the official "Notice of Defense of Mental Disease or Defect."
Almost exactly a month after the trial started, with Bonnie Garland's character tainted as an incipient tart and her parents in a state of trauma, Rich Herrin was found not guilty of murder in the first degree despite his admission to police that he had planned the killing but guilty of manslaughter. He was sentenced to eight-years-four-months to 25 years in prison, eligible for parole in 1986. He is presently at the New York State Eastern Correctional Facility at Napanoch, where he was interviewed repeatedly by Peter Meyer and Willard Gaylin. He believes his sentence was excessive.
Why these two books now?
For Peter Meyer because the death of Bonnie Garland was an American tragedy born out of the permissive 1970s and because Richard Herrin's escape with a manslaughter conviction was a modern triumph of legal audacity and psychiatric maneuvering. The Yale Murder is irresistibly readable, despite Meyer's love of color, because all of human motive and potential seem revealed in crimes of passion. Meyer's conclusions mirror Willard Gaylin's:
"The use of psychiatry in the courtroom awaits radical reform. . .Apparently sane killers such as Richard Herrin are being acquitted of murder."
Willard Gaylin is a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst whose range of social interests has given us such books as In the Service of Their Country: War Resisters in Prison, Doing Good: The Limits of Benevolence, and Caring. He is also clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia. His reasons for writing The Killing of Bonnie Garland are implied by a question Karl Menninger asked several years ago, "Whatever became of sin?" He begins:
"More tears have. . . been shed for the killer than for his victim. How does this happen? Why does this happen?. . .Is this good? Is this inevitable? What purposes are served? And where, in all of this, is the victim?"
Gaylin's book is tedious, repetitious, and exhausting with its verbatim accounts of trial testimony, taped interviews with Richard Herrin, opposing attorneys and psychiatrist, friends of Richard and Bonnie, his analysis of Richard's childhood and emergent character, and his reprises of other trials in which temporary insanity or extreme emotional duress were used to exculpate confessed killers.
But The Killing of Bonnie Garland may be the most effective writing of his career. It grapples with issues plaguing the courts and with concerns that an aroused society wants addressed, and Gaylin ties these issues and concerns to large social and cultural developments in such a way that we may see how and why to take action.
As for Richard Herrin, Gaylin does not believe he was temporarily insane. Richard had character defects and emotional problems that needed psychiatric attention. But no psychiatrist, says Gaylin, could have anticipated his bludgeoning his sweetheart to death when he was rejected. "The place that Richard holds on the spectrum from normal to psychotic is securely within the area we must reserve for normalcy."
An extraordinary shift in attitude toward crime has taken place during the past 100 years, Gaylin tells us. And much of this change has taken place because we have incorporated the scientific and semiscientific insights of Sigmund Freud into our operational wisdom.
Thus we have been confusing medicine and law, says Gaylin. We have so shifted our attention to the uniqueness or condition of the individual that we are denying the needs of society. The ultimate result, says Gaylin, could be an unraveled social structure incapable of carrying out the social will.
We have come to believe what Freud told us:
"The sharp distinctions between the normal and the pathological were erased. Whereas previously sick and healthy were seen as entirely different, Freud saw them as containing similar elements where only the arrangement distinguished the sick from the healthy. Freud allowed normalcy a broader package, which now included many strange and exotic things that had never before been acknowledged as part of normalcy."
And Gaylin adds: "The sick and the healthy will share 90 percent of the same behavior. The same factors that will be explained in one as contributions to sickness may be used in the healthy as explanations of success."
Gaylin believes it is "ridiculous" to offer dynamic or historic psychological material in an insanity defense because all of us except the stark raving mad, who make no sense at all can make similar defenses for violent acts. One line of reasoning, which Gaylin examines, leads to the conclusion that any killing, except by accident or with social sanction of war, is an insane act. "Insanity must be defined more narrowly, and more specifically," says Gaylin. Dynamic factors can be of limited use in offering a "framework" in which to examine the behavior in order to judge whether it warrants a mitigation of punishment."
One of the reasons I read Willard Gaylin is because he has an independent mind. One has the impression he cannot be bought or sold easily, if at all.
He says that in compact and complicated societies "each gain for the individual must be weighted for its impact on the common good." Criminal rehabilitation has proven illusory and "to most of us, punishment seems the only thing that works; and while it may not work with a grand degree of efficiency, it works."
We must have punishment, Gaylin says, because we live in a state of laws andd the state "will not tolerate our taking the law into our own hands. The state must punish not just because it might serve some other purpose, not because it will do some good for some future other, but simply because the killer of our child deserves to be punished."
As for capital punishment, Gaylin finds "little in favor" of it "practically." But "theoretically, I find little to oppose in it." He relates it to war. "To protect itself from real or imagined enemies from the outside, the state sends thousands of innocent young men to certain death in war. I do not see any rationale that allows for this which would not allow the sacrifice of guilty men for reasons of internal security."
The merit of The Killing of Bonnie Garland is that it demands new thought. Obviously Gaylin, the father of daughters, began his writing remembering what Bonnie's mother said after the trial:
"If you have a $30,000 defense fund, a Yale connection and a clergy connection, you are entitled to one free hammer murder. . . Heaven help girlfriends and boyfriends that are breaking up. Everything is absolutely upside down."
But Gaylin had more in mind. He tells us how we got where we are and suggests how to extract ourselves in good conscience from the medical-legal politics of the present.
Of course there's more to be asked and answered. Do we endlessly build prisons? Does society also have a duty to root out child abuse? To let us be free suxually? To make work meaningful? If "freedom demands responsibility" and "automomy requires culpability," what institutions shall teach the distinctions? Our churches are clubs. Our schools are playpens.
But the pervasive theme of The Killing of Bonnie Garland draws together nearly everything that Willard Gaylin has written, and it suggests the point at which we must start recasting our system of psychiatrically informed justice.
"An individual human being is only a useful social myth. We achieve humannes only in and through our relationship with others. We exist through our attachments. We can never protect the individual while destroying the community."
The Killing of Bonnie Garland may be a work of extreme importance, for it can influence the future.