Bozelko column: Trump’s latest criminal justice legacy
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
Trump Derangement Syndrome isn’t just for snowflakes. It’s bipartisan now, an equal opportunity destroyer. It may also turn out to be former President Donald Trump’s greatest contribution to criminal justice reform.
Trump Derangement Syndrome was once a tongue-in-cheek description of leftists who reacted dramatically, vehemently to Trump’s policies, statements and tweets. But now MAGAts have turned that sword into a shield. In their arguments for pretrial release, at least six of the 170 people arrested because of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol have sought to blame their actions on the former president, claiming that they were just doing what they were told.
In what might be Trump’s most lasting legacy, he’s become an affirmative insanity defense, maybe even a viable one. The last time a name synonymized with a mental defect defense was in 1843 when Englishman Daniel M’Naghten tried to shoot British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel and got the wrong guy, instead hitting and eventually killing his secretary, Edward Drummond. M’Naghten believed the prime minister was conspiring against him, and the court found M’Naghten not guilty by reason of insanity. While courts and Congress have modified it on occasion, the insanity defense has been cited as “M’Naghten’s Rule” in Anglo-American law the last 178 years.
Only about 1% of felony defendants even attempt an insanity defense every year and even fewer - about 30 annually - win when using it. It’s not a lot but it’s not nothing.
Trump’s not special. Every president since George W. Bush has inspired a syndrome. The late columnist Charles Krauthammer coined the phrase for Bush in 2003, and Vox’s Ezra Klein lifted it for President Barack Obama to describe that people weren’t frenzied so much about his governance but his provenance. It only fit that Trump should have his own syndrome. I doubt the Biden tenure will survive without one, either.
Hate crimes increased 226% in places that held a Trump campaign rally in 2016, according to researchers at the University of North Texas. The study authors noted, like so many scientists do, that correlation did not mean causation. But those crimes are still connected to his rhetoric, perhaps not causally, but connected.
Rioters are not the first people to concede that Trump’s effect on people can be profound enough to make them so mentally ill they’re absolved of culpability.
Patrick Stein is an ardent Trumper if there ever was one. Stein’s attorneys argued that the ways then-candidate Trump’s “rough-and-tumble verbal pummeling heightened the rhetorical stakes for people of all political persuasions” and fired up their client provided reason for reducing his sentence for plotting to kill Somali Muslims with a bomb.
In their sentencing memo - which is itself admittedly unorthodox, describing the 2016 campaign season as “lit” and citing the movie “Spinal Tap” in Bluebook legal format to argue that their client “goes to 11” - advocates for Stein said that Trump’s effect on their client caused his fear and hate of non-Christians to rise to a point that he was willing to join a plan to kill them. They describe their client as an already vulnerable man with a history of substance abuse and family dysfunction who was pushed to the edge by presidential hate mongering.
The Trump Derangement Syndrome defense wasn’t a shutout but it wasn’t a total loss. Stein didn’t get the 15 years his counsel recommended but was instead sentenced to 30 years in prison for the bomb plot, a distance from the maximum sentence of life in prison. Then another federal judge tacked on 44 months in 2019 because the FBI found child pornography on Stein’s computer while uncovering the bomb plot.
“MAGA bomber” Cesar Sayoc was arrested and charged with sending homemade pipe bombs to the president’s sworn enemies. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff sentenced Sayoc to a maximum of 20 years in federal prison in 2019, saying Sayoc didn’t deserve more than that, but he could have imposed a life sentence plus 45 years.
Curt Brockway assaulted a 13-year-old boy when he refused to remove his hat during the national anthem. Attorneys for Brockway have said he believed to be obeying Trump’s orders. Brockway’s case remains pending in Montana.
Sayoc and Stein are just two of 54 criminal defendants whose crime was somehow related to Trump’s rhetoric, at least in court records, according to a review conducted by ABC News (Brockway wasn’t on the list). ABC could find no instances of attorneys employing other presidents’ named derangement syndromes to defend their clients.
Trump’s constituting a criminal defense, providing grounds to avoid the dignity-crushing, traumatic experience of being in custody, would be quite a service to his followers, one that he promised but never really delivered. Despite his claims that he engaged in criminal justice reform, Trump did a lot to thwart the FIRST STEP Act and the ways people could earn their way out of confinement. Now, maybe, they won’t have to go in, at least not for as long.
As a defense it’s the hail-iest of Hail Marys. But I bet at least one person who uses this theory gets probation as opposed to incarceration, though there may be other factors - general mental illness/substance use disorders not related to Trump, positive contributions to society - that mitigate the punishment.
In court records, though, Trump Derangement Syndrome will be connected, perhaps not causally, but connected, to leniency. His bombast might actually save defendants from the criminal legal machine. Perhaps we should rename the law-and-order president to the “Get Off with a Warning” president, or the “We-understand-you’re-just-nuts” president or the “Take-Your-Meds-Or-I’m-Calling Your-PO” president, whose mere words spare completely guilty people of prison time.
It may just be that Trump Derangement Syndrome is a promise made, promise kept. That would be something.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at email@example.com.