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Revisiting the “epilepsy defense”: A teenager and a dead mom

Wednesday, May 2, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

Two months ago we wrote about the “epilepsy defense”. Now we read about a teenager killing his mother in the midst of a seizure. It’s a poignant and shocking example of why the ‘epilepsy defense’ appears to be valid under certain circumstances.

Karyn Kay was a 63-year-old single mom who worked as a teacher in midtown Manhattan. Her 19-year-old son (Henry Wachtel) has epilepsy. Their relationship was positive and there was no history of either abuse or violence between them. After Henry cut his arm on a cup during a seizure, Karyn had always held him in her arms when he had seizures in her presence.

As Henry’s seizure commenced, Karyn placed a call to 9-1-1. She reported her son was having a seizure and requested assistance. Fifty-eight seconds into the call, the 9-1-1 operator heard what sounded like an assault with grunting and screams. When the police arrived at the apartment, Henry let them in saying “It was a mistake” and the police found Karyn Kay “sprawled in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor.” She was dead.

The police, believing no one could be “accidentally beaten to death” arrested Henry and charged him with murder. Medical experts reviewed the 9-1-1 tape and and report they think Henry was having a ‘grand mal’ seizure and concluded Henry would not have had “conscious intent” to kill or harm his mother.

Contrary to the typically hostile comment sections for internet news articles, comments relating to this story were consistently sensitive and sympathetic to Henry Wachtel’s plight. Instead of cruel skepticism, they raised questions that conscientious jurors might also have in deliberations. One commenter wrote that Henry’s childhood was much more complex than described. An article in the NY Times raises questions about whether there is more to the story. The original article does indicate Henry was on Keppra (a medication that has been linked to increases in rage outbursts) and Prednisone (which also has been associated with rage reactions). He also acted in a film called “Our Time” about disillusioned teens with disturbed parents, which now cannot be separated from what we know of what ultimately happened.

It’s a complex picture but not with the pretty foreword painted by the Daily Beast article. Despite the 9-1-1 call, which shows the violence likely took place during or shortly after the seizure itself, when intent cannot be formed–the reality is that Karyn Kay was killed by her own son. It is a horribly sad story. And if Henry Wachtel is ultimately freed from legal responsibility–is there a risk to society? It’s a question we always ponder in the “my brain made me do it” defenses. And of course, for the huge numbers of people with epilepsy who will never display the slightest hint of epilepsy-related rage or aggression, the cloud of public ignorance surrounding their condition is even more burdensome.

We’ve written on this blog about sex crimes committed while the perpetrator was allegedly asleep or otherwise consciously not aware. Some of those defendants were acquitted and a few were found guilty. Is there a difference in culpability if the ‘offense’ is a sex crime rather than physical battery or murder?

If we think of the comments section as a (non-randomly selected) focus group–it is clear there is sympathy for Henry Wachtel. What about sympathy for Karyn Kay? Will she be seen as having a disturbed relationship with her son, as hinted at by some commenters? Is this just “one of those things”? It certainly is an area where there are no easy answers. We are grateful to the practicing physicians who wrote the original article on how to assess the validity of the “epilepsy defense” and grateful to Karyn Kay for placing the 9-1-1 call [which allows us to hear what was transpiring], as one of the final loving and responsible acts of her life.

Wortzel HS, Strom LA, Anderson AC, Maa EH, & Spitz M (2012). Disrobing associated with epileptic seizures and forensic implications. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 57 (2), 550-2 PMID: 22150773

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