Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Still Notorious: The Nushawn Williams Case

Today's post is by Thomas Shevory, professor of politics at Ithaca College and current visiting professor of political science at the National University of Mongolia. Shevory is author of Notorious H.I.V.: The Media Spectacle of Nushawn Williams.

Six years ago, I published Notorious H.I.V. with University of Minnesota Press about the case of so-called “AIDS monster” Nushawn Williams. In the process of writing it, I interviewed Nushawn many times, and our relationship extended beyond simply that of researcher and subject. I have kept in touch with him over the years to the point of serving as best man at both of his weddings. (He is divorced from his first wife.)

This year, on sabbatical from Ithaca College, I had the opportunity to take a Fulbright Scholarship to teach in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Nushawn was, I think, unhappy about this, given that he was due to be released in April of this year. But he was now in a stable married relationship. It seemed to me that, once he was released and out of New York state and the media spotlight, he had a pretty good shot of making a new life for himself. I figured I'd get back in touch with him upon my return home.

I hadn't expected that New York state, specifically Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, would attempt to keep him beyond the limit of his full prison term. Nushawn was worried about it, and we discussed it before I left. But I mistakenly believed that he would not be covered under New York’s civil commitment rule. This, I thought, was limited to people that have a history of pedophilia or some specifically determined psychosexual disorder. And I didn’t put him in that category.

It’s true that Nushawn had had sex with many women in his teens, and while HIV positive. One girl was only thirteen years old. But, importantly, all of his relationships were consensual. He was involved with a crowd of troubled teens in Jamestown, New York, who were taking drugs and having sex. This is deplorable behavior, and, in his case, criminal behavior, but not necessarily the mark of sexual dysfunction.

Nushawn has served twelve years in prison. Now more than thirty years old, he has never expressed to me the slightest interest in anything other than moving in with his wife and her children and trying to live as normal a life as possible.

I should have realized that, given Nushawn's notoriety, he would not be treated as an ordinary criminal. For one thing, Attorney General Cuomo is about to run for governor and keeping Nushawn behind bars won't do him any harm in terms of garnering upstate votes. Other upstate politicians have jumped on the he’s-a-monster bandwagon, making wild statements that are often at best tenuously connected to the actual facts.

Civil commitment in New York, which amounts to an indefinite (read: life) sentence, requires a probable cause hearing, and then a civil trial. A recent hearing found probable cause to hold Nushawn, and a trial is now slated for October. The probable cause finding was largely based upon a psychiatric examination, which I have read.

As far as I can tell, prisoners have few legal rights in these examinations. No lawyer is present. There is no Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The prisoner is told that if he does not want to answer a question, he must give a reason for not doing so. The report itself is a mix of statements from the prisoner, psychological tests, snippets from past psychological evaluations, quotations from television interviews, statements from other prisoners, work history, history of drug use, past arrests, the psychologist’s judgments, and so forth. It’s like the kitchen sink.

Moreover, rather than a dispassionate scientific analysis, the report reads like a prosecutorial brief, which, I guess, it is in some sense intended to be. Much of the material is speculative, and more than a little is hearsay, and a great deal of it would not be allowed into a criminal trial. But since the prisoner is deemed a patient and not a criminal defendant for its purposes, everything is presumably relevant. Evidentiary boundaries, due process, and minimal standards of defendants' rights are apparently not relevant.

When reading the report, I wondered how many, if any, convicted felons in New York State would be able to survive such scrutiny. In the past, you didn’t have to prove your character or worthiness to be released from prison after serving your sentence. You left with a few dollars, and you were on your own. If you committed another crime, you went back in, no doubt for a justifiably longer prison term, perhaps for a much longer one.

That’s been the social contract of criminal conviction. It has been such since the development of penal institutions in the 19th century. That contract is now being eroded by a process that medicalizes an ever-widening sphere of what was once deemed criminal activity. It’s a dangerous trend, not just for Nushawn Williams, but for the American legal system as a whole.

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Nushawn Williams has been ordered to remain in custody until a trial tentatively set for October. His lawyer has filed a motion to dismiss the confinement case. That will be argued on June 22.

> More about Notorious H.I.V.
> Read an excerpt from the chapter "Moral Panic and Media Politics."

1 comment:

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