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Finally, case closed on a traumatic shooting

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on April 2, 2009 at 7:54 pm with No Comments »
April 2, 2009 7:54 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

To make mental illness an excuse for criminality would stigmatize all the mentally ill as potential criminals.

Credit Washington state’s tight insanity defense for the conviction of Douglas S. Chanthabouly.

The jury’s verdict Wednesday closed a criminal case that traumatized Tacoma as much as anything since Tacoma’s then-police chief, David Brame, shot his wife and himself in 2003.

Chanthabouly’s killing of 17-year-old Samnang Kok on Jan. 3, 2007, was so deeply upsetting because it happened inside Foss High School, where both were students. It was like a lightning strike. Foss is not a violent school in a crime-plagued neighborhood; if this could happen at Foss, it could conceivably happen anywhere.

In fact, Chanthabouly’s crime appears to have been almost entirely random. He’d been mentally disturbed for years; psychiatrists for both the prosecution and defense agreed that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. He shot Kok, he said, because he thought the 17-year-old was planning to do the same to him. "I thought he was part of the people trying to kill me, being one of those gang members. That’s why he got shot."

That was pure delusion: Kok had no gang connections.

But Washington law doesn’t excuse crime on grounds of mental illness alone. The illness must be of such magnitude that the defendent cannot not tell right from wrong or understand the likely consequences of his actions.

Everyone seemed to agree that Chanthabouly was deeply disturbed when he killed Kok. But the defense couldn’t persuade the jury that he didn’t know what he was doing.

To make mental illness an excuse for criminality would stigmatize all the mentally ill as potential criminals. In fact, the vast majority of people who suffer from paranoia and other serious disorders don’t feel the need to obtain a 9mm pistol and go after the targets of their suspicion.

One way or another, Chanthabouly had to be taken out of circulation.

The term "closure" is pitifully inadequate when talking about murder, especially one as disturbing as this. Kok’s family was devastated by his death, students and parents were terrorized by the shooting, and Foss suffered a wholly undeserved blow to its reputation.

But this verdict at least puts a dangerously troubled young man behind bars. And the shooting did lead to great improvements in school security, including the recent assignment of on-duty police officers to each of Tacoma’s five major high schools.

The passage of time, we trust, will let Tacoma and Foss High School leave this trauma behind.

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