Billy Cottrell, awaiting sentencing after having recently been convicted of torching SUV's in Southern California, is back in the news. The LA Times has published a long and informative article on him, his troubled and defiant background, his personality and his crime. It's more sympathetic to him by an order of magnitude than I am, but it's well worth reading.
Cottrell was interviewed for the article, and what he has to say is remarkably revealing.
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There's a critical piece of Cottrell's life story, though, that no one—including Cottrell—knew until his trial. He has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism that almost certainly is part of what makes him so brilliant and so erratic. But the jury never heard that piece. And now facing an April 18 sentencing, Cottrell's future hangs in the balance.
Asperger's syndrome—a neurologically based developmental disorder named after the Austrian pediatrician who first recognized it in 1944—often is a strange sort of double-edged sword. It impairs a person's ability to interact with others, but often comes coupled with powerful, if narrowly focused, intellectual gifts. People who are born with it generally just seem odd, not obviously impaired. As a result, it often goes undiagnosed. Estimates of its prevalence in America range from two in every 10,000 people to one in 250.
As I pointed out before, there are, apparently, tens of thousands of good, productive people who have Aspergers syndrome yet don't have a lengthy personal history of defiance and petty criminal activity, or who go on to vandalize autos or consort with people who torch SUV's in behalf of the Earth Liberation Movement. How is it possible for them to keep themselves out of situations that would put them in jail, but it is impossible for Mr. Cottrell to?
Simply having Asperger's syndrome isn't a viable mitigating factor. Given how wonderfully well the vast majority of people with Asperger's syndrome cope with the kinds of problems that Asperger's is supposed to excuse in Cottrell, you have to wonder why Cottrell should be accorded special privileges of non-accountability.
Mr. Cottrell lies far outside the large population of people with Asperger's syndrome: he and his vandalistic antics are not representative of the group.
Parenthetically, some time ago I received a note from someone with Asperger's syndrome who was very upset at the stigma Cottrell's defense was trying to glue on Asperger's syndrome people. This person told me in no uncertain terms that Asperger's was not responsible for Mr. Cottrell's failings: the vast majority of people with Asperger's syndrome live good, law-abiding and productive lives.
[ . . . ]
Things got no better when Cottrell moved to Gainesville, Fla., with his mother and two younger siblings after his parents split up. "I'd always get into arguments with the teachers. They would be complete idiots about it, and I'd get in trouble," Cottrell says over a visiting room phone in the San Bernardino County Jail, a hulking pile of gray concrete where he is being held until his sentencing.
Handsome, fit and white, with big, long-lashed eyes, Cottrell looks almost comically out of place in his orange jumpsuit among the shaved-head gangbangers and weathered jailbirds flanking him behind a shatterproof window. The din of phone conversations, overlaid with the relentless squalling of visiting infants, reverberates off the ceiling. Cottrell doesn't seem especially troubled, though. He answers questions straightforwardly and in detail, his brow occasionally furrowing in concentration.
Poor handsome, fit and white, Billy, with his big, long lashed eyes . . .
Translation: how could anyone not take pity on such a person.
[ . . . ]
"He learned that if you go a little crazy, you get a lot of attention and admiration from some people," says his 23-year-old brother, Dustin. "He chose that over rejection. I think he was very wounded early on, and has always been trying to deal with it."
Well, nuts. Name me one person, including those with Asperger's, who can't recall being wounded as a kid . . . How many of them vandalize SUV's in the name of the Earth Liberation Front?
[ . . . ]
In his application to the University of Chicago, Cottrell explained his checkered transcript. "I can't really say that I regret my years of rebellion," he wrote. "If there's one thing that trouble does, it allows one the freedom to question the standards and purposes of the institution by which one's status is defined. It has thereby instilled within me a firm resolution to live by my own set of impermeable standards."
How romantic! The unrepentant rebel, whose antisocial behavior had been a continuous source of anxiety for his parents and others, and which had caused him considerable trouble, has instilled within him a firm resolution to stay his antisocial, defiant course . . .
Keep the unrepentant part in mind . . . we'll come back to it. Also, though I'm omitting it in this post, the LA Times article documents a pattern of defiant, rebellious behavior that is most unattractive.
[ . . . ]
On its tiny, bucolic campus, Cottrell was in heaven. "Caltech was the perfect life," he says over the jailhouse phone. "I had the perfect girlfriend, the perfect job [as a teaching assistant], and lots of friends."
So . . . if I read this right, Mr. Cottrell can put aside his uncontrollable antisocial, rebellious and defiant nature, imposed on him against his will by Asperger's syndrome, when he's in the earthly heaven of a university campus . . . he can make lots of friends, he can enjoy the warmth of a girl friend, he can function at a very high level as a teaching assistant . . .
It looks almost as if Mr. Cottrell can control himself, but only when he chooses to do so . . .
[ . . . ]
By Cottrell's reckoning, he had only one friend at Caltech whose appetite for adrenalin-inducing pranks matched his: a shaggy-haired physics undergraduate named Tyler Johnson. [ . . . ]
Johnson also was known for his fiery anarcho-leftist political opinions, according to Cottrell and two other former schoolmates. Johnson stridently denounced America as the cause of most of the world's problems, [ . . . ]
One day, Johnson came up with a new idea. This is where Cottrell's serious troubles began.
[ . . . ]
(I've edited out much detail having to do with what apparently happened as the merry threesome — Johnson, Oe and Cottrell — vandalized their way around town, and I've edited out a variety of opinions of experts who think Mr. Cottrell couldn't "process" what he was involved in as quickly as people without Asperger's syndrome, and therefore couldn't quite grasp the disconnect between Mr. Johnson's words and deeds in a timely fashion.)
He [Cottrell] said he immediately headed back to his car and sat there while the fires Johnson and Oe were starting lighted up the dealership. Fourteen Hummers and an adjacent parts building were torched. All told, the anti-SUV spree damaged about 125 vehicles and inflicted nearly $5 million in property damage.
[ . . . ]
The prosecution's position was simple: Cottrell was a fire-starting eco-terrorist who planned and executed the arsons along with the other two. His lawyers had a more complicated case to make. Yes, they said, he had spray-painted the SUVs, and he was there when the fires were started. But, they insisted, he didn't know about the arsons in advance and took no part in them. Cottrell, they said, had been duped into becoming an accomplice to arson, and was now the victim of friends who abandoned him and of a government desperate to put away anyone it could label a "terrorist."
That position, though, entails answering a tricky question: If Cottrell really did object to arson, why did he continue on with Johnson and Oe after they torched that first SUV?
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In short: Because of his disorder, it is possible that Cottrell believed Johnson when he said he wasn't going to lob any more Molotovs, and processed the information suggesting otherwise too slowly to realize he should leave.
The "information suggesting otherwise" was processed too slowly . . . keep that in mind.
The fact that Cottrell has the condition doesn't necessarily mean that he's innocent, but it does mean that his story, which is hard to swallow, is considerably more credible than the jurors knew. That's because the jury never heard from the experts. In fact, they heard no evidence about Asperger's at all. Judge R. Gary Klausner granted O'Connell's motion to bar the presentation of any evidence of Cottrell's condition, calling it irrelevant.
To make matters worse, Cottrell came across as arrogant on the stand, occasionally talking back to the judge. His eyes wandered as he spoke. The prosecution pounced on all of this, telling the jury it was "the behavior of a liar."
It's also the behavior of a person with Asperger's. But, of course, the jurors were never told that. After less than a day's deliberation, they declared Cottrell guilty of all charges except the most serious one: using a destructive device in the first fire-setting.
Just for the sake of argument, let's take that at face value . . . Mr. Cottrell's Asperger's syndrome slowed his mental processes such that within the time frame of the vandalism spree, he just couldn't connect that what Johnson said he'd do and what he actually did were in disagreement.
Hold that thought.
"There was little or no evidence that he perpetrated the first arson," explains Tim Allen, a retired businessman who served on the jury. "But after that fire was set, he got back in the car. A reasonable person wouldn't have continued on with them after they'd torched one SUV if he didn't want to be part of it."
Cottrell was no environmental activist. He never joined any groups, attended demonstrations or even talked much about issues. SUVs do bug him, though. He sees them as smog-spewing symbols of a wasteful American culture that is hurting the planet. Vandalizing SUVs also appealed to Cottrell, he says unabashedly, because "I thought it would be something fun and exciting." [My emphasis ... ed]
So vandalism itself was fine — indeed it was appealing: bumper-stickering SUV's and spray-painting them sounded "fun and exciting."
Mr. Cottrell appears to have understood full well that vandalism was wrong well before he started his escapade with Johnson and Oe. Indeed, prior to the "Night of the SUVs" Mr. Cottrell's life seems to have been defined by his passion to take risks and defy authority. What Mr. Cottrell did when he embraced the concept of vandalizing SUVs probably wasn't a spur of the moment gesture, taken without appreciating that it was wrong to do. It seems more like it was a part of a long-standing pattern of antisocial behavior, which fits with the facts of Mr. Cottrell's history that the LA Times article so meticulously documents.
Still, given his predicament, you'd expect Cottrell to say that he considers burning other people's cars morally unconscionable. But during the course of two jailhouse conversations, he sticks to a nuanced statement of his principles. "I was against burning the first SUV because it was a privately owned car," he says. "You can't blame individuals—it's the corporations that sell them the cars. If you start attacking private citizens, they'll just get pissed off. Bumper-stickering would have sent a clear message."
. . . a nuanced statement of his "principles." You don't attack individuals because it will piss them off . . . so he was against burning the first car . . .
That's a principle? I think not . . . it's a chilling admission that what counts is expediency.
It's also doorknob-dumb for Mr. Cottrell to be saying such a thing a week before he's to be sentenced . . .
Torching a Hummer dealership, however, doesn't bother him on a moral level. "You have to evaluate what the implications will be, what public debate will ensue. I don't necessarily think it was a good thing, but I'm not going to say it was bad," he says. The fires were simply bad tactics, he says, "too loud, too dangerous, too unexpected."
So there you have it. Torching the Hummers wasn't morally bad. It was tactically bad. Doorknob dumb. Or a fanatic. You pick — which is worse?
But beyond this, Mr. Cottrell isn't being asked to make a snap decision during these interviews, one in which his Asperger's syndrome might, if we buy the experts' analysis, impair his ability to rapidly grasp the consequences of his actions or words. He's cooled his heels in the pokey for several weeks, during which time he's had ample time to reflect upon his situation, and has been advised by his attorney.
Alas, he has become no wiser, he has no greater insight.
We have no alternative but to take him at his unrepentant word: torching SUVs was without ethical fault; only the tactics were faulty.
What this tells me is that Mr. Cottrell hasn't learned the difference between right and wrong even when given weeks to reflect upon it. He is either unable or unwilling to appreciate that arson is a morally reprehensible act if for no other reason than that it puts at risk innocent firemen and police who respond to conflagrations and have to fight them. Beyond this, arson also puts at risk the innocent individuals driving the streets who respond erratically when they are surprised by sirens or see flashing lights. That endangers both motorists and pedestrians alike.
Is there any driver who hasn't been surprised by another driver who unexpectedly stops or swerves erratically because he's seen or heard an emergency vehicle before you have?
Regardless of what he really believes, surely Cottrell realizes that he could help his case by saying he condemns arson across the board, right? "Yeah, my lawyers keep telling me I should say it's terrible," he replies. "But I want to be honest. I don't want to say one thing to my friends, and another to a reporter. I'd just feel bad about myself."
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How very revealing . . . the illegal acts of vandalism committed by the remorseless Mr. Cottrell lie lower on his morality-scale than honestly admitting that he is unrepentant, and the good feeling about himself such honesty has brought!
On its face, that is patently illogical, to the point of being absurd: I sinned, I'm honestly unrepentant, and we should praise me for my honesty rather than condemn me for my acts! After all, I feel good about myself!
In practice, by Mr. Cottrell's reasoning, an unrepentant gangster kingpin should be cut some slack if he was honest when he tells us that he felt no ethical or moral remorse for having run his crime syndicate, which trafficked in illegal booze, prostitution, gambling, extortion and murder. After all, he feels good telling us the truth about his lack of remorse!
Get a clue Mr. Cottrell . . . being honest about your lack of remorse for having vandalized the property of other people hardly qualifies you to occupy the moral high ground, however good and noble such honesty might make you feel.
And given the time Mr. Cottrell has had in jail to contemplate his ethical navel, what with all the advice his lawyer has been paid to give him, it's hard for me to believe that his original defense — that his Asperger's syndrome slowed his ability to connect the dots of Mr. Johnson's words and his actions — holds water. Mr. Cottrell has had ample time to see the error of his ways, and has been unable or unwilling to do so.
That being the case, why should we think that his Asperger's syndrome affected his behavior on that fateful night?
Somehow, I don't think Mr. Cottrell's honesty over his lack of remorse will score very many points with his sentencing judge.
"Billy was convicted of the second round of arsons because the question was whether more arson was reasonably foreseeable to the average person. But he's not the average person," Mayock says. "The question should have been whether it was foreseeable to a person with Asperger's."
And yet, and yet . . . even with more time, Mr. Cottrell has decided that there was nothing wrong with the morality of torching SUVs — it was just a bad tactic!
This is not a problem of Mr. Cottrell's being unable to foresee immediate consequences under pressure of time.
It is a problem of him being unable or unwilling to acknowledge prior wrongdoing and show remorse for it without pressure of time.
Mr. Cottrell's council suggests that if Mr. Cottrell's ability to process information had not been impaired by his Asperger's syndrome, he might have foreseen the situation that fateful night for what it turned out to be, and, maybe, withdrawn. After all, it is assumed, that is what a person without Asperger's would do . . .
Or perhaps not . . . given that Mr. Cottrell evidently sees nothing morally wrong with torching SUVs, there's no reason to assume that, given more time to process information, Mr. Cottrell's moral compass would have directed him to a less violent action, rather than a more violent one. If he is guided by expediency rather than morality, Mr. Cottrell might well have used whatever tactics he thought would be most effective, regardless of how violent they were. That's a fairly chilling thought.
But one thing we know for sure — Mr. Cottrell's conscience isn't bothering him: he feels good about honestly telling us that only the tactic of torching SUVs was wrong, not its morality.