The Counsellor's Corner
It happened in Hillsboro, North Carolina, a law student named Wendell Williamson killed two people in January of 1995. Williamson was a law student at the University of North Carolina and one day he decided to go on a shooting spree, killing two people while walking through Chapel Hill while firing his rifle. A police officer was shot and injured and a passing bike rider and a restaurant worker were killed.
So is this column about to focus on the criminal trial of Mr. Williamson? How about a civil action on behalf of the injured and deceased against Mr. Williamson? No, this instead is about a jury in Hillsboro awarding Mr. Williamson $500,000 against Myron Lipdzin, his former psychiatrist. The lawsuit in this case featured Williamson suing Lipdzin for not properly referring Williamson to another mental health practitioner when Lipdzin retired. Lipdzin was also accused of not being vehement enough in letting Williamson know how important it was to stay on his medication.
This is the kind of case that gives support to those who question our judicial system. Williamson was a patient of Lipdzin for all of three months before Lipdzin retired in 1994. Nine months after Williamson's last appointment with Lipdzin, he went on his shooting spree. In his criminal matter, Williamson was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental institution as he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Well, how sick is Williamson really? His attorney in the civil suit, Mr. Gordon, said the civil trial gave Williamson an opportunity for justice. He described his client as "an intelligent man who is very sorry for what happened... The pitiful thing is we will all go out and celebrate and Williamson goes back to the institution."
I don't know what is more pitiful, what the jury decided or what his lawyer said. If Williamson is intelligent and sorry, then the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenic is not an appropriate one. Gordon makes it sound as if Williamson is someone just like you or me who happened to have an off day during which he killed a couple of people. But he's sorry, and that is supposed to make it O.K. And a therapist who treated him for only three months, treatment terminating nine months before these shootings is held liable in the sum of $500,000. This is reminiscent of the McDonalds lawsuit in which the woman who spilled soup on herself won an award of $186,000 because the soup was too hot. It is similarly reminiscent of the thief who was attempting to rob a school and as he was attempting to get into the school from the roof, he fell through a glass portion of the ceiling and was injured. His lawsuit was against the school for negligent maintenance of their ceiling and he was awarded $75,000.
I don't know what the jury in Hillsboro, North Carolina, was thinking. I only know that all sides agree that Wendell Williamson killed two people and apparently hid behind the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia in his criminal jury trial, however was portrayed as a bright man who had a bad day at his civil trial and whose therapist was at fault for not referring him to another therapist and not reminding him enough times or in an aggressive enough fashion to stay on his medicine.
I think Mr. Gordon used the right expression earlier when he talked about "the pitiful thing", however the truly pitiful thing in this case is that this con man Williamson was able to avoid criminal responsibility due to an alleged psychiatric illness however he was then awarded a half million dollars and is being spoken of by his attorney as if he were a normal guy who had a bad day.
Dr. Charles J. Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Booth & Unger, and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Growth. Mr. Unger writes a bimonthly column on legal and psychological issues.