A Washington County judge threw out a PSU professor’s novel theory at pretrial but said she may consider it at trial
Holly Danks, The Oregonian, OregonLive.com, May 31
HILLSBORO — A Portland lawyer says suffering by African Americans at the hands of slave owners is to blame in the death of a 2-year-old Beaverton boy.
Randall Vogt is offering the untested theory, called post traumatic slave syndrome, in his defense of Isaac Cortez Bynum, who is charged with murder by abuse in the June 30 death of his son, Ryshawn Lamar Bynum. Vogt says he will argue — “in a general way” — that masters beat slaves, so Bynum was justified in beating his son.
The slave theory is the work of Joy DeGruy-Leary, an assistant professor in the Portland State University Graduate School of Social Work. It is not listed by psychiatrists or the courts as an accepted disorder, and some experts said they had never heard of it.
DeGruy-Leary testified this month in Washington County Circuit Court that African Americans today are affected by past centuries of U.S. slavery because the original slaves were never treated for the trauma of losing their homes; seeing relatives whipped, raped and killed; and being subjugated by whites.
Because African Americans as a class never got a chance to heal and today still face racism, oppression and societal inequality, they suffer from multigenerational trauma, says DeGruy-Leary, who is African American. Self-destructive, violent or aggressive behavior often results, she says.
Noting the theory has not been proven or ever offered in court, Washington County Circuit Judge Nancy W. Campbell recently threw out DeGruy-Leary’s pretrial testimony.
But the judge said she would reconsider the defense for Bynum’s September trial if his lawyer can show the slave theory is an accepted mental disorder with a valid scientific basis and specifically applies to this case.
“I think it can be proven,” the court-appointed Vogt said after Campbell’s ruling. “The problem is it’s brand new. It’s not as easy to present in court as something that’s been established over years.”
Murder-by-abuse, punishable by life in prison with 25 years before possible parole, means the victim suffered from a pattern of assaults. An autopsy found Ryshawn Bynum died of a brain injury and had a broken neck, broken ribs and as many as 70 whip marks on his legs, buttocks, back and chest that were of various ages.
Bynum told police he hit his son with a watch strap during potty-training. He said the day before the boy died, he was playing “helicopter,” swinging his son around the room, when the boy hit his head on a table.
“He had a traditional, Southern, small-town, working-class upbringing where ‘whuppin’ was accepted,” Vogt said. “Whether that was abusive or not, that is in the eye of the beholder. He was raised differently than your typical kid in Beaverton.”
Experts disagree on whether post traumatic slave syndrome can be proven, much less accepted in legal arenas. It took 50 years for society and the courts to accept post traumatic stress syndrome, a diagnosis for someone who has experienced or witnessed an extraordinary event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury. It is only diagnosed when functioning is severely impaired.
The judge also said the defense would have to show Bynum, who grew up in Mississippi, has slave syndrome. At the time of her testimony, DeGruy-Leary had not interviewed him.
Besides a doctorate in social work research, DeGruy-Leary has a master’s degree in clinical psychology. She said she can offer counseling but is not licensed to diagnose anyone.
“Post traumatic slave syndrome is rather unique; it’s not that everybody has it,” DeGruy-Leary testified. “If you are African American and you are living in America, you have been impacted.”
Under cross-examination by Robert Hull, Washington County senior deputy district attorney, DeGruy-Leary viewed Ryshawn Bynum’s autopsy photos.
Calling the boy’s injuries excessive, DeGruy-Leary said she would have reported them. But in the African American culture, such discipline “is extremely common,” she said. “It falls in the rubric of what they think is normal.”
A Los Angeles native, DeGruy-Leary has been working on the theory for two decades and said she is still a year from publishing a book on it. She coined the name in her 2001 dissertation on African American male youth violence.
She said she thinks post traumatic slave syndrome can be proven scientifically once the politics of race are set aside and the white research establishment takes time to study it.
“It’s not a conversation that America wants to have,” DeGruy-Leary said. “It’s so ugly; it’s so blatant.”
Questioning the science
William E. Narrow, a psychiatrist who serves as associate director of research on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, said he had never heard of post traumatic slave syndrome and no one has proposed that it be included in the book’s next edition.
Published by the American Psychiatric Association, the “DSM” is a courtroom bible. Judge Campbell said that if post traumatic slave disorder were in the DSM, she would consider it more favorably.
Narrow said the fifth edition of the diagnostic manual probably won’t be published until 2012. In the meantime, researchers are testing new disorders for possible inclusion.
“To say that everybody in a particular racial or ethnic group has a diagnosis, I don’t think it falls under what we do,” Narrow said. “We have enough trouble as it is with people saying we are trying to make everybody mentally ill without trying to include something like that.”
Alberto M. Goldwaser, a clinical and forensic psychiatrist, has testified as an expert in about 20 court cases across the country involving post traumatic stress, including murders.
“Maybe it’s a social phenomenon and not a clinical phenomenon,” he said in an interview from his Paramus, N.J., office, noting that he had never heard of post traumatic slave syndrome.
Because no African American today has been a slave, Goldwaser called the theory “such a stretch.” He said he didn’t think it would ever be accepted in court.
Alvin F. Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an expert on race relations in the United States, outlined his version of post traumatic slave syndrome in the 2000 book “Lay My Burden Down.”
“It is a legacy where blacks were beaten a lot and lived in terror that they could be killed at will,” Poussaint said from his Boston office.
“That type of trauma gets passed on for generations” in an entire group, he said. “But in a one-on-one case, these things are hard to prove.”
Although DeGruy-Leary’s theory could be “viable to educate the public, I don’t know about in a court of law,” Poussaint said.
“Lawyers try everything; they might as well put it out.”
Holly Danks: 503-221-4377; firstname.lastname@example.org