Last week, I posted a blog about status-based aggravated assaults, and this week’s news provides a brazen example of this offense. Andre Staton was convicted by a Blair County jury in 2005, for the murder of his girlfriend, and then sentenced to death. Tim Burns was the tenth attorney to represent Staton, but he will not be the last. When Attorney Burns agreed with Judge Elizabeth Doyle that Staton should not be permitted to represent himself during a May 15, 2013, court proceeding, an enraged Staton swung his handcuffed arms like a baseball bat, striking Burns in the head and knocking him out. Burns continues to experience complications from the attack. Because Burns was a court-appointed attorney, he is the functional equivalent of a public defender, thus making this a status based aggravated assault, however, the injuries themselves might make this an aggravated assault. Of course, any discussion of what to charge Staton with is academic, as it is hard to inflict any meaningful punishment upon a death row inmate.
It appears that Staton’s mental illness has been an ongoing issue throughout his case and subsequent post-conviction litigation. A judge has ordered Staton be evaluated on more than one occasion to determine whether he is competent enough to understand the nature of the court proceedings and to assist his attorney in preparing a defense.
Blair County District Attorney Richard Consiglio called Staton a “coward” following the courtroom attack. I could not disagree more. A coward is someone who experiences excessive, unjustified fear. People like Staton do not experience a normal, appropriate level of fear, let alone too much fear. Reading between the lines, I suspect that Staton meets the diagnostic criteria for anti-social personality disorder or sociopathy, in addition to other some an Axis 1 DSM-V diagnosis, which impairs his competency. People with anti-social personality disorder do not have enough fear; they are the opposite of cowardly.
A normal person is afraid of the consequences of breaking the law, or violating the rights of others. Sociopaths do not fear such consequences. It is a pet peeve of mine to call every evil person a “coward.” It completely changes the traditional meaning of the word. If Staton really were a coward, he would not have killed his girlfriend or whacked his attorney in the head with his hard, metal handcuffs. He is not a coward, he is a sociopath. The non-medical term for a sociopath is “extreme asshole.”
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, PA. He voluntarily discontinued his death penalty certification in 2010, as death penalty cases are generally too time consuming and create too much of a financial burden for solo practitioners. http://www.mattmlaw.com/About-Attorney-McClenahen/