From Abracadabra to Zombies
is a commentary on
mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the
paranormal, and the supernatural.
Skeptimedia replaces Mass Media Funk and Mass Media Bunk. Those blogs are now archived.
4 August 2009. The headline is simple enough: Man pleads guilty to fatal sword attack, bound for mental hospital. The story of a mentally ill person who kills a stranger and the fear such stories evoke are not so simple. On one level, the killer's delusions don't seem particularly radical, given what billions of people believe about gods, virgin births, miracles, psychic communications, etc. Zachary Schams, 25, claims to be the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian priest named Okhoman the Third. Billions of people think they are the reincarnation of everything from ancient priests to crickets and kumquats. The belief in reincarnation wasn't Schams's only delusion, however. Schams believed his "psychic energy" was being stolen by a neighbor in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, a neighbor he had never met. Anthony Edlbeck, 31, had no idea that his neighbor thought he was stealing psychic energy because of his jealousy of the deranged man's musical talents. Mr. Edlbeck had no idea that his neighbor thought of himself as an ancient Egyptian priest with great musical ability, much less that there is such a thing as psychic energy that can be stolen.
Schams claimed that he and Edlbeck communicated with their minds. Schams also believed in psychics. He consulted one about Edlbeck. In the only news story I could find about this murder, the name of the psychic wasn't given, nor was any mention made of what advice he gave Zachary Schams. Did the psychic think there was anything dangerous about Schams's delusions? Did the psychic even recognize any delusions? Did the psychic encourage Schams to believe he was the reincarnation of an Egyptian priest or that psychic energy can be stolen? I don't know. I would think, however, that a prosecutor or a journalist covering this story would have interviewed the psychic. Did the court take Schams's word for it that he consulted a psychic? Did the prosecutor talk to the psychic? Is the psychic protected by privacy laws, the way doctors and clergy are, that allows him or her to remain silent when in possession of information that another individual might be in danger? Should the psychic have contacted Edlbeck about Schams's delusions? I don't know. I do know that the psychic played a role in this story, but exactly what role is not clear.
Schams was interviewed by two doctors, Dr. Kenneth Robbins and Dr. Michael Spierer, who issued a report on how he killed Edlbeck with an Egyptian sword he bought and called "Eraizah." Edlbeck was getting into his car to leave for work when Schams attacked him. Schams then went home and called an ambulance for himself. He had cut his hand during the attack.
According to the report, the decision to kill Edlbeck came after Schams couldn’t afford to see the psychic again and decided that killing Edlbeck would be the best way to protect himself. How the belief that he had to kill Edlbeck is related to the belief in being a reincarnated Egyptian priest, the belief in telepathy and psychic energy, and the belief that psychics know anything worth knowing is unclear. There are billions of people with weird beliefs who aren't mentally ill. Furthermore, most mentally ill people with bizarre delusions don't kill strangers. Yet, a story like this one raises fears and concerns about the mentally ill that, while justified, ought to be put in perspective. In New Zealand, for example, there were 84 murders by strangers between 1998 and 2000, but only two were committed by mentally ill persons.* According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one-fourth of Americans ages 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. The chance of any of us being killed by a mentally ill stranger is probably on par with being abducted and killed by a drug addict while running an errand: very remote. Yet, a vivid story makes the possibility seem more likely than it is and raises fears it could happen to us or someone we love.
Schams pleaded guilty to first-degree intentional homicide, but Reserve Judge Robert DeChambeau found Schams not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect and ordered him committed to a state mental hospital for the rest of his life. Under Wisconsin state law, however, Schams can petition the court for conditional release after six months in the hospital and, unless it finds by "clear and convincing evidence" that he still poses a significant risk of bodily harm to himself or others, the court must grant his petition. This, too, raises fears that may be exaggerated. Mentally ill killers rarely kill again.* In fact, murderers who are released from prison rarely murder again.* Even so, such knowledge would provide small consolation to those in the neighborhood when the released killer moves in next door.
After his arrest, Schams allegedly took anti-psychotic medication, but said he felt no remorse about killing Edlbeck. "This was personal between us and I did the only thing I could do," he said.
Should the mentally ill killer be released after six months if a panel of psychiatric workers can't provide clear and convincing evidence that the killer is no longer a significant risk to harm himself or others? If he doesn't kill anyone or threaten to do so for six months, does that mean he should be released? If he takes the Rorschach and sees little children playing on the beach instead of neighbors stealing his psychic energy, should he be released?
Should the mentally ill killer be executed? In Texas, the answer is yes. Wisconsin hasn't had the death penalty since 1853.* Is there any evidence that you or I would be safer in Texas than in Wisconsin? My editor, John Renish, informs us that the murder rate in Texas in 2006 was 5.9/100,000. In Wisconsin it was just over half as high at 3.0/100,000. See Law Enforcement, Courts, & Prisons: Crimes and Crime Rates. So, the evidence is that you or I would be much safer in Wisconsin than in Texas.
update: The courts granted Schams a release hearing for 12/02/11, after serving 2.5 years in prison. A petition to keep him locked up is online. It fell short of the 500 signatures needed.
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