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Should More Defendants Be Claiming Insanity?

The book opens in a dreary Rochester, N.Y., neighborhood, when a lumbering, intellectually disabled woman in a “dime-store wig, perched awry” calls the police about a child lying on the floor of her pantry. The child turns out to be her 3-year-old grandson, Raymie, and he has been dead several days, having fallen from a counter while trying to reach a bag of sugar. Dunn seems to waver between understanding what’s happened and hoping Raymie will get better. (When the paramedics arrive, Dunn asks them, “You can fix him, can’t you?”) Dunn is arrested, charged with second-degree murder and assigned a public defender named Karen Hughes. Hughes is just a few years out of law school, but she doesn’t dare turn down the judge’s order to take the case, even though she knows she is in over her head. The playing field was skewed from the start.

Hughes hired Vinocour, then a forensic psychologist in Rochester, to assess whether Dunn was cognitively fit to stand trial. Dunn’s life is a picture of poverty, inequality and racism — one impossible hardship after another. She suffered terrible abuse as a child and went on to have five children, each apparently by a different father, nearly all of whom were also cognitively challenged. She tried, and failed, to hold jobs — on an assembly line and as an aide in a nursing home. Raymie was born a drug addict and spent his life malnourished. He was hyperactive and aggressive. The night he died, he’d been trying to fry cornmeal and pepper in a pan. Dunn repeatedly found him turning on the gas stove in the middle of the night. She feared for her own and her children’s safety (at least two of her children were just a few years older than Raymie), and at one point tied Raymie first to herself and then to a metal grate to keep him from starting a fire in the middle of the night — an act that forces Vinocour to grapple with whether this makes Dunn “deficient in a moral sense.” When she is charged with second-degree murder, it is on account of her “depraved indifference.”

As Vinocour assesses Dunn’s mental fitness, her argument takes on a prismlike complexity. The book is divided into three sections — the crime, the trial, the punishment — with the first taking up more than half the narrative. Vinocour is hesitant about meeting Dunn after seeing her on television, when a local station broadcast the story as a sensational crime. Vinocour reveals that her own father was cruel and abusive, and that she escaped him by going to college and racking up professional accolades. And watching Dunn, Vinocour felt an instant disdain for her.

But as we are slowly introduced to Dunn, her slowness, her gaze eternally “flat” or “vacant,” a haunting question repeats itself: What does it mean to know right from wrong in the abstract, but not to be able to make that distinction in practice? We can all agree that murder is wrong, but what about murder in order to save the life of another person? Tying Raymie to a grate in the floor is wrong in the abstract, but is it also wrong when that child might burn down a house and kill others? Dunn told Child Protective Services that she couldn’t take Raymie in after his mother, who’d been homeless with him for months, was committed to psychiatric care. But the agency left the boy in Dunn’s care anyway. Who is “wrong” in this scenario? Such difficult questions are at the heart of Vinocour’s investigation.

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