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Remembering William Burroughs.

Author William Burroughs, one of the Beat Generation writers whose works included the novel "Naked Lunch" died on Saturday at the age of 83. We remember him with a reading. (Rebroadcast of 2/24/1995)

06:08

Other segments from the episode on August 4, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 4, 1997: Interview with Barbara Kirwin; Interview with Mike McAlary; Obituary for William Burroughs.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: AUGUST 04, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 080401np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Tales of a Forensic Psychologist
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Marty Moss-Coane in for Terry Gross.

My guest Barbara Kirwin is one of New York State's leading experts on the insanity defense. As a forensic psychologist, she's often called in to determine if accused criminals are truly insane according to the very strict legal definition.

The concept of legal insanity is widely misunderstood and, Kirwin believes, misused. She came up with the term "designer defense" for cases where defense attorneys used pleas of temporary insanity due to eating twinkies, and other such far-fetched causes. Barbara Kirwin has a new book out called "The Mad, the Bad, and the Innocent."

She tells us some of the most high-profile cases she's worked on, including Joel Rifkin, the Long Island serial killer, who strangled 17 women; and Dennis Sweeney, who shot Congressman Allard Lowenstein.

I asked Kirwin to clarify for us exactly what is at the core of the insanity defense.

BARBARA KIRWIN, FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGIST, AUTHOR, "THE MAD, THE BAD AND THE INNOCENT: THE CRIMINAL MIND ON TRIAL-TALES OF A FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGIST":
At the core of the insanity defense is a notion of free will or an unencumbered, unimpaired ability of the individual to exercise choice. And there is a sense that when a person is either a child, or impaired by mental illness or organic brain damage which limits their ability to make a free and informed choice, they are therefore not capable of criminal responsibility.

MOSS-COANE: Well, I think it's an area that many people do not understand, and I think we should stay here just a little bit longer to try to help people understand it.

KIRWIN: Sure.

MOSS-COANE: I get confused myself and I've -- you know, I've talked about this before. If you're talking about mental illness from a psychiatric point of view, you're talking about something like schizophrenia or some disturbance which really disconnects someone from reality.

KIRWIN: Yes.

MOSS-COANE: If you're talking about legal insanity, what are you then referring to? What -- what -- how does a law then describe that mental state?

KIRWIN: Well, when you make the leap -- the leap in logic between a psychiatric diagnosis of mental illness and the legal diagnosis, mental illness is a necessary, but not sufficient precondition, because you have to have a specific severity and pervasiveness of that mental illness such that it -- in the words of the MacNaughton-Like (ph) statute -- interferes with the abilities -- the individual's ability to know and appreciate the nature and consequences of their actions and their wrongfulness.

So that, in fact, and I have been on many cases of criminal defendants where the individual does suffer from a very severe and long-standing and pervasive diagnosable mental illness. But their actions still indicated that they were angry; they had a motivation for the crime; they knew what they were doing; their intent was to harm somebody; and they tried to get away with it -- they tried to elude the authorities.

And in that situation, you have mental illness, but you do not have legal insanity. You have a mentally ill individual who is criminally responsible.

MOSS-COANE: How often is the insanity defense actually used?

KIRWIN: Well, the insanity defense is used very rarely compared to what the public perception is. When I was researching the book, I discovered that when they polled the general population, there was an estimate that people overestimated the use of the insanity defense by about 800 percent. And when they polled college students, it went up to 900 percent.

MOSS-COANE: Is that because of high-profile cases?

KIRWIN: Precisely. It's because of high-profile cases and it's because that -- the insanity defense and the types of crimes in which it's invoked really lend themselves to a tremendous emotionality -- something approaching hysteria. So, it's a very easy kind of political catch-all and it can be used to inflame the population and to incite all kinds of thinking about violent crime and reforms in the judicial system.

So it really jumps out at us in bold-face and it causes us to, in a very fearful way, feel people are running around and getting away with murder in large numbers. In actuality, so-called "normal" defendants have a better chance of getting off.

MOSS-COANE: Meaning that the insanity defense doesn't work that often.

KIRWIN: No, it doesn't -- it's not used that often. I think it's estimated that it's used in less than 1 percent of the homicide cases in the United States. And it's very rarely effective.

Unfortunately, when it is effective, in my opinion, is sometimes in the worst cases like the cases of women killing their children; or in the cases where you clearly have a criminal or psychopathic or, if you will, "bad" defendant who has successfully convinced the jury that he is in fact mad and not responsible.

MOSS-COANE: Do you think a jury understands the insanity defense when it's used correctly?

KIRWIN: Absolutely not. I have never in 20 years been in front of a jury that I felt really understood the nuances, either of mental illness or of how mental illness impacted on the crime at hand or the defendant's responsibility for that crime.

MOSS-COANE: Well, I would think for every expert psychologist, forensic psychologist that the defense has will say, there's another one for the prosecution, and oftentimes offering very contradictory analysis of the defendant.

KIRWIN: Absolutely. You have the classic battle of the experts, and I think that that's what -- wherein some of the problem lies is that -- and I know, for sure, because I have been outside of courtrooms talking to experts on the other side of the case, and I know that if we were in a clinic or in a consulting room, we would agree totally on the diagnosis for this individual.

But the moment that we are retained by either side and the moment that we enter a courtroom and we have to defend and support an opinion that is sympathetic to the side which is retaining us, something changes.

And then, what the public sees is a spectacle that does not engender respect for the profession, because what they say to themselves on the jury is: how can five doctors come in and say this guy is crazy? And then five doctors come in and say he's perfectly sane?

So, the legitimate conclusion is: the doctors are crazy and we really can't believe what they say, and in point of fact, research shows that a lot of times, the jury simply throws out the opinion of both sides of experts and simply looks at the person, and if in some subjective way, the defendant looks "crazy" to them, they will acquit.

MOSS-COANE: If someone is found not guilty by reason of insanity, are they free to go home?

KIRWIN: Another big misconception. A very closely guarded trade secret that I have had prosecutors stop trials and object to my testimony rather than let a jury know that. No. In fact, an insanity acquittee never is given cab fare and walks right back out onto the street.

MOSS-COANE: Where do they go?

KIRWIN: They go to maximum security mental health hospitals that are generally run by the various states. There are very, very clearly specified statutes governing their progression through this secure mental health system, where they are evaluated.

And then we kick over into another area of the law, generally, at least in New York State under the criminal proceedings law, which has to do with the determination of dangerous mental illness.

They remain in a secure mental health facility until such time that they are in fact cured of their mental illness such that they no longer represent a threat to the public safety or the community well-being.

MOSS-COANE: Is it possible, then, for someone to be found not guilty by reason of insanity and actually spend more time behind bars, so to speak, than someone that might be found guilty of first degree murder?

KIRWIN: It's not only possible, it's probable. It is the general case. In studies conducted throughout all of the states in the union we find that on the average they wind up spending something like twice as long. And of course, they're not eligible for parole. There is no parole for madness.

MOSS-COANE: My guest on FRESH AIR today is Barbara Kirwin. She is a forensic psychologist and the author of The Mad, the Bad and the Innocent and it's a look at the insanity defense. We'll be back after a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Barbara Kirwin and we're talking about the work she does. She's a forensic psychologist, the author of a new book called The Mad, the Bad, and the Innocent.

I want to talk about some of the cases that you've been involved in that you detail in your book. You evaluated the serial killer Joel Rifkin, and he was -- actually confessed to strangling 17 women in the New York area. When were you called in on that case?

KIRWIN: I was called in on that case prior to the trial, when it became apparent that the only defense this individual had was an insanity defense. He was apprehended with a five-day-old decomposing body in the trunk of his car, and he confessed while waiting for his attorney to arrive on the promise of a tuna fish sandwich.

So short of taking a plea to guilty, this was the only chance at a defense that this defendant had.

MOSS-COANE: Describe your first meeting with him -- what he looked like when you first sat down together?

KIRWIN: The word that comes to my mind, and it's not a very elegant one, is he looked like a "zlub" (ph). He was -- had a very hang-dog look. Certainly someone you would never in a million years see as menacing or evil, or even someone you wouldn't see as insane or psychotic. He looked like someone down on his luck.

MOSS-COANE: Tell us, then, about Joel Rifkin and the kind of psychological portrait you were able to create for him.

KIRWIN: The psychological portrait of Joel Rifkin was a very kind of nebulous and very fragmented profile. When I first heard about his case on the news, I assumed I would be called in by the prosecutors because most of the time, that is the side that I can support.

I was rather surprised when I was called in by the defense, and I said to them: I will examine him, but most likely, but what I'm hearing on the news media, we have a Dahmer-esque sexual sadist here.

MOSS-COANE: And "Dahmer-esque" you mean someone who knew what they were doing and on a kind of a rampage?

KIRWIN: Who knew what they were doing; who achieved sexual gratification through these horrible acts; and who mindlessly went on and gratified their perverted impulses at the expense of these young women's lives.

MOSS-COANE: You went in with that feeling for him?

KIRWIN: I went in with that feeling, but I also went in with the knowledge that I can't trust what I'm reading in the media sources; that I don't know what I've got until I look at this person face to face; until I talk to them; and until I give them tests and score those tests and compare them.

So I went in with an open mind, but a belief that when it all boiled down, I was going to have the sexual sadist on my hand. I was going to have someone who, although not normal, clearly was not mentally ill and probably not insane in that they knew what they were doing and they chose this as their outlet for sexual gratification.

MOSS-COANE: Yeah. What did you find instead?

KIRWIN: What I found instead, and I wasn't prepared to find this, was a very, very disordered; very psychotic, although very bright and sensitive man. Not even your classic kind of paranoid schizophrenic, because Rifkin's delusions were not well articulated. Rifkin would just shrug his shoulders and say "I don't know why I did it. I don't know."

MOSS-COANE: And you felt, in this case, that he met the definition, then, of legal insanity?

KIRWIN: Again, I'm going to be careful because that is really up to the judge and the jury, the triers of fact. But what I felt was that this was someone who genuinely suffered from a severe and pervasive mental illness and that his schizophrenia had pre-dated the crimes by most of his life, and that it had not been successfully medicated or treated, and that I saw signs in his thinking and in his ability to deal with reality events and people, that I felt really precluded his ability to know what -- that what he was doing was, in fact, happening, and was in fact wrong.

I mean, there were many times when he took a corpse to Burger King, or he felt he was speaking to that person on the telephone after the murder. So this was not someone who at some fundamental level, as incredible as that is to believe, really knew that when you strangled somebody, they didn't get up and walk five minutes later.

MOSS-COANE: Well, the jury didn't buy it. I mean, they didn't buy his defense and by that I mean they found him guilty and that they believe that he understood what he did. Where is Joel Rifkin today?

KIRWIN: I don't know specifically. He must be somewhere within the New York State Correctional System. I believe he still has either trials or he has to take pleas in other jurisdictions, other counties within New York State.

MOSS-COANE: Let me ask you about another case, and this is a case of a young woman named Stephanie Wernick (ph). This is back in 1990. She was a 20-year-old student at a local college. She gave birth to a baby in a dorm bathroom.

I believe a custodian found a baby boy -- found in a garbage bag, and obviously reads ominously like some recent events that we've been reading about in the newspapers. When were you called into evaluate Stephanie Wernick?

KIRWIN: I was called in, again, at the point in which her defense attorney entered an insanity defense. And Wernick was kind of a turning point case for me, because I had gotten tired of what I saw as a kind of deterioration in the standards of insanity defense work in the courts.

I felt very disgusted with some of the experts and some of the shenanigans that were permitted to go on in the courtroom, and I had kind of called myself retired.

And I received a telephone call from George Peck (ph), who later on became the prosecutor on the Colin Ferguson (ph)/Long Island Railroad massacre case. And I said George, you know, I'm sort of in retirement here. And he said: "maybe you'll think twice about it when I explain the case to you. I think that this is a very, very important case for you, and I think we need your expertise and your opinion."

And it certainly was. And it became a turning point not only because of the, you know, really unfortunate nature of the crime, but also because it was the first time that I walked into the courtroom to stare into a rack of floodlights and video cameras.

MOSS-COANE: Because of how high-profile it was?

KIRWIN: Because of how high-profile, and the fact that the media, with the proliferation of cable networks and so on, was starting to discover the appeal of insanity defense crimes.

MOSS-COANE: Now, her defense team used the insanity defense. Did it work?

KIRWIN: No. It did not work, and that was really a surprise for everyone, because even though the insanity defense rarely works, traditionally it works best in the cases of mothers killing their children. And of mothers killing their children, it works best where mother's kill infants, neo-naticide.

MOSS-COANE: Is this dangerous work you do? Dangerous to you?

KIRWIN: Yes, which is probably why I will never take the stand in a criminal case again.

MOSS-COANE: Have you had death threats?

KIRWIN: It -- I have, and it was not dangerous prior to the intrusion of the cameras in the courtroom. I was not known. My family, my friends, my private patients never knew what I did those days when I was "in court."

And newspapers really were not terribly interested in these cases, so my name was never in the press. I did not court the press. I tended not to speak to the press. So, it was all very tidy and very respectful and very private.

The Wernick case, the cameras, the death threats -- and death threats to my family and situations in which local police had to be involved; and situations in which I felt not only my family and myself, but even my employees were at risk.

And I started to say to myself: just how much of a difference do I make in the courtroom that justifies this risk and this danger that I'm taking willingly on myself, but do I have the right to endanger my family, my employees, my patients?

And the answer, really, was no.

MOSS-COANE: What do you do to protect yourself, though? I mean, for instance, did you learn to carry a gun or learn to use a gun as a way of protecting yourself?

KIRWIN: I didn't learn to use a gun as a way of protecting myself specifically. I had been in law enforcement while I was completing my degree in psychology. But there have been occasions where individuals who were indicted for homicide and were subsequently permitted to take an insanity defense without a trial and were later released out into the community made calls to my private office.

And there was, I felt, a significant risk because in some of these cases, my opinion alone was responsible for keeping them incarcerated for sometimes a year or so. And so, it was clearly attached to me and they knew it. And one of these defendants had killed his common law wife and hacked her body into I don't know how many pieces.

So in that situation, I did make sure that I was armed. I did pay special attention to having special ammunition that would not travel and endanger any, you know, innocent bystanders. But it was a consideration.

MOSS-COANE: Well, I want to thank you very much, Barbara, for joining us today on FRESH AIR.

KIRWIN: Thank you.

MOSS-COANE: Barbara Kirwin is a forensic psychologist and the author of The Mad, the Bad and the Innocent.

I'm Marty Moss-Coane and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Marty Moss-Coane, Philadelphia
Guest: Barbara Kirwin
High: Forensic psychologist Barbara Kirwin has examined hundreds of murderers. One of her most infamous patients was Joel Rifkin, the Long Island Serial Killer, who pleaded insanity. Her book is called "The Mad, the Bad and the Innocent: The Criminal Mind on Trial -- Tales of a Forensic Psychologist."
Spec: Books; Authors; Crime; Murder; Health and Medicine; Psychology
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Tales of a Forensic Psychologist
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: AUGUST 04, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 080402NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Remembering Burroughs
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: Writer William Burroughs died over the weekend. He was 83.

Best known for his 1959 book "Naked Lunch," he came to the attention of younger generations through his appearances in TV commercials and the accolades offered to him by rock musicians from Steppenwolf to Sonic Youth.

In 1995, Rhino Records reissued Burroughs' first recording, a collection of readings entitled "Call me Burroughs."

Our rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed the collection.

Here's William Burroughs reading from his novel Naked Lunch.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "CALL ME BURROUGHS")

WILLIAM BURROUGHS, WRITER: Drove all night, came at dawn to a warm, misty place. Barking dogs and the sound of running water.

"Thomas and Charlie," I said.

"What?"

"That's the name of this town -- Sea Level."

We climbed straight up from here 10,000 feet. I took a fix and went to sleep in the back seat. She was a good driver, you can tell as soon as someone touches the wheel.

Mexico City where Lupita (ph) sits like an Aztec earth goddess, doling out her little papers of lousy (expletive deleted).

"Selling is more of a habit than using," Lupita says, non-using pushers have a contact habit, and that's one you can't kick. Agents get it, too.

Take Bradley Labar (ph) -- best narcotics agent in the industry. Anyone would make him for junk. I mean, he can walk up to a pusher and score direct. He is so anonymous, gray and spectral, the pusher don't remember him afterwards.

So he twists one after the other. Well, the buyer comes to look more and more like a junkie. Can't drink. Can't get it up. His teeth fall out. He's all that time sucking on a candy bar, Baby Ruth's he digs especially. It really disgusts you to see Labar sucking on them candy bars, so nasty and a cop says.

The buyer takes on an ominous gray/green color. Fact is, his body is making its own junk, or equivalent. The fire has a steady connection -- the man within, you might say, or so he thinks.

"I'll just set in my room," he says. (expletive deleted) 'em all. Squares on both sides. I am the only complete man in the industry.

But the end comes on him like a great black wind, through the bones. So, the buyer hunts up a young junkie and gives him a paper to make it. "Oh, all right," the boy says. "So what you want to make? I just want to rub up against you and get fixed."

"Ugh -- well, all right. But why can't you just get physical like a human?"

KEN TUCKER, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: When William Burroughs recorded Call Me Burroughs in the mid-'60s, he was the porkpie hat of the avant garde -- a button-down man spewing wild stuff, revelatory in its incoherence. He was closely identified with the Beat movement, with Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac, but all Burroughs really shared with them was an alienation from straight society and a regular urge to get high.

He liked surrealistic imagery, and borrowed the dada-esque trick of creating some of his text by cutting up words and phrases from pre-existing prose. But at the same time, Burroughs has always been an all-American writer. One of his shrewdest borrowings is from the hard-boiled detective novels of Raymond Chandler, whose tone of flat malice he captures perfectly in "The Fish Poison Cons."

BURROUGHS: I was traveling with Merritt Incorporated (ph), checking store attendants for larceny with a crew of shoppers. And Bob Schaeffer (ph), crew leader, who was an American fascist with Roosevelt jokes.

It happens in Iowa. This number comes over the car radio: "Old Sow got caught in the fence last spring."

And Schaeffer said: "oh, my God, are we ever in Hicksville."

Stopped that night in Pleasantville, Iowa and our tires gave out. We had no tire rations during the war for such a purpose, and Bob got drunk and showed his badge to the locals in a roadhouse by the river. And I ran into the sailor under a potted palm in the lobby. We hit the local croakers with a fish poison con.

TUCKER: Like the best hard-boiled writers, Burroughs knew that you can imply worlds of emotion if you keep your voice steady while describing terrible things. There's also an element of deadpan comedy in a lot of Burroughs' work. It's what keeps the less attractive aspects of his ideas -- his violent misanthropy, his cheap cynicism -- from turning too sour.

BURROUGHS: My trouble began when they decided I as executive timber. It happens like this: a big blonde driller from Dallas picked me out of the labor pool to be his house boy in a prefabricated bungalow and in solid.

When this friend come down from New York, the driller says, this is the boy I was telling you about. Friend looks me over, chewing his cigar and says: "what are you doing over there with the apes? Why don't you come over here with the bored, where you belong. He slips me a long, slimy look.

Friend works for the track news agency. We don't report the news, we write it. And next thing I know, they have trapped a gray flannel suit on me and I am sent to this school in Washington to learn how this writing the news before it happens is done.

I sauce it as the Mayan caper with an IBM machine, and I don't want to be caught short in a gray flannel suit when the lid blows off.

MOSS-COANE: William Burroughs, recorded in 1965. He died over the weekend at the age of 83.

Dateline: Ken Tucker; Marty Moss-Coane, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: Author WILLIAM BURROUGHS, one of the Beat Generation writers whose works included the novel "Naked Lunch" died on Saturday at the age of 83. We remember him with a reading.
Spec: Books; Authors; William S. Burroughs; Deaths
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Remembering Burroughs
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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