A chilling murder — two 13-year-olds killing a 78-year-old woman with a hatchet and hammer — really hit home for me.
First of all, the kids involved are from Sheboygan, Wis., where I grew up. I really could not have imagined something like this ever happening in my peaceful Midwestern town.
Secondly, the case raises questions — that no one has the answers to yet — about the impact of a traumatic brain injury on behavior. I have dedicated my life to helping those who have suffered TBI and studying how it affects behavior.
The case was discussed in detail in my hometown newspaper, the Sheboygan Press, this weekend. It involves Nathan Paape and Antonio Barbeau, both now 14, who will be sentenced next month for the Sept. 17 homicide of Barbeau’s great grandmother, Barbara Olson of Sheboygan Falls.
Both teens were treated as adults, not juveniles, in the legal system and a lot of the story is about whether that is a wise move or not.
But the article also addresses if, or how, the judge should weigh the fact that Barbeau suffered a TBI when he was 10, in 2009. His family claims that the brain injury was partially responsible for his violent actions. They claim he was a bright and friendly kid until the TBI, and then his personality changed, according to the Sheboygan Press.
The story quotes several professors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison on brain injury and how it can impair a person’s judgment, behavior and impulse control. The Sheboygan Press points out that brain scans have been submitted as evidence in some trials on behalf of a defendant. But the courts don’t seem to yet know how to use this knowledge.
In the Sheboygan murder case, where the the teens face a minimum 20 years imprisonment before being eligible for parole, it’s likely that Barbeau’s lawyers will ask the judge to consider the youth’s TBI as a mitigating factor in the sentencing. It remains to be seen whether the judge will do that Aug. 12.
But no one yet appears willing to believe that a TBI can totally excuse someone from being culpable for a crime.