Nobody's child A tragedy, a trial, and a history of the insanity defense

Susan Nordin Vinocour

Book - 2020

"A powerful and humane exploration of the "insanity defense," through one heartbreaking case. A three-year-old boy dies, having apparently fallen while trying to reach a bag of sugar on a high shelf. His grandmother stands accused of second-degree murder. Psychologist Susan Nordin Vinocour agrees to evaluate the defendant, to determine whether the impoverished and mentally ill woman is competent to stand trial. Vinocour soon finds herself pulled headlong into a series of difficult... questions, beginning with: Was the defendant legally insane on the night in question? As she wades deeper into the story, Vinocour traces the legal definition of insanity back nearly two hundred years, when our understanding of the human mind was in its infancy. "Competency" and "insanity," she explains, are creatures of legal definition, not psychiatric reality, and in criminal law, "insanity" has become a luxury of the rich and white. With passion, clarity, and heart, Vinocour examines the troubling intersection of mental health issues and the law"--

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Subjects
Genres
History
Published
New York, NY : W. W. Norton & Company [2020]
Edition
First edition
Language
English
Item Description
"The names and identifying details of many people who appear in this book have been changed. Dialogue has been reconstructed based on the author's contemporaneous notes, her recollection of events, interviews, and trial evidence."
Physical Description
xii, 338 pages ; 24 cm
Bibliography
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN
9780393651928
0393651924
Main Author
Susan Nordin Vinocour (author)
  • Prologue
  • The Crime
  • The Trial
  • The Punishment
  • Epilogue
Review by Booklist Reviews

Attorney and psychiatrist Vinocour tells the heartbreaking story of a legal case in which she served as witness, wherein a disabled and impoverished woman, Dorothy Dunn, was tried for the murder of her three-year-old grandson, Raymie. Vinocour's recounting of Dunn's life history and the circumstances of the child's death are interspersed with the legal history of the insanity defense that was used on Dunn's behalf. The result is as engrossing as a mystery novel. Vinocour uncovers the numerous points at which the social safety net might have helped Dunn and even saved Raymie's life, but failed to do so due to prejudice, apathy, and underfunding. While it's clear that Vinocour is an experienced, compassionate professional, she uses some dehumanizing language about Dunn and other people with mental disabilities, including comparing one defendant to a rabid dog. Despite these failings, Nobody's Child is an eloquent indictment of a legal system that makes little accommodation for the mentally ill, particularly those—like Dunn—who are already at a disadvantage based on skin color or socioeconomic status. Copyright 2020 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Booklist Reviews

Attorney and psychiatrist Vinocour tells the heartbreaking story of a legal case in which she served as witness, wherein a disabled and impoverished woman, Dorothy Dunn, was tried for the murder of her three-year-old grandson, Raymie. Vinocour's recounting of Dunn's life history and the circumstances of the child's death are interspersed with the legal history of the insanity defense that was used on Dunn's behalf. The result is as engrossing as a mystery novel. Vinocour uncovers the numerous points at which the social safety net might have helped Dunn and even saved Raymie's life, but failed to do so due to prejudice, apathy, and underfunding. While it's clear that Vinocour is an experienced, compassionate professional, she uses some dehumanizing language about Dunn and other people with mental disabilities, including comparing one defendant to a rabid dog. Despite these failings, Nobody's Child is an eloquent indictment of a legal system that makes little accommodation for the mentally ill, particularly those—like Dunn—who are already at a disadvantage based on skin color or socioeconomic status. Copyright 2020 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

In her first book, attorney and psychologist Vinocour recounts a murder case in which a grandmother was convicted of second-degree murder after her grandson fell while trying to reach an item on a high shelf. In exploring the facts of the case, Vinocour considers whether the grandmother, who lived with mental illness, was competent to stand trial. The author maintains that she was; however, there was still the question of whether the defendant was not guilty by reason of insanity. There was clear evidence of longstanding abuse—but at whose hands? The defendant was unable to explain the head trauma her grandson endured. Using public records and notes from her own involvement in the case, Vinocour, who writes as an outlet for frustration and anger over the abuse she experienced as a child, demonstrates that insanity as a legal defense has evolved throughout the years, yet it is difficult to prove. VERDICT As a case study, this well-written book can be a companion to Alisa Roth's Insane, a comprehensive view of all sides of the issue. It will engage all readers interested in the intersection between crime and mental health.—Harry Charles, St. Louis Copyright 2020 Library Journal.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

As Vinocour, a clinical and forensic psychologist, writes in this moving, well-researched account of the insanity defense, she really didn't want to get involved in the case of the woman she calls Dorothy Dunn, a poor black woman with mental health issues accused of killing her three-year-old grandson, but she agreed to do a psych evaluation. Vinocour, herself a victim of child abuse, was skeptical at first that Dunn wasn't guilty. But through the course of the evaluation, she came to realize Dunn wasn't competent to stand trial for second-degree murder because she was not coherent; despite Vinocour's testimony, the jury disagreed, and the woman was sentenced to 25 years to life. Vinocour explains that the insanity defense is rarely used because it's too difficult to explain to a jury. She also examines cases showing the history of the plea, including that of the man who tried to assassinate Andrew Jackson in 1835, one of the few times the defense worked, and that of Daniel M'Naghten, who tried to assassinate the British prime minister in 1843. M'Naghten's insanity plea was denied, however, because the law proved that he knew, but did not understand, the act was wrong. And that was what ultimately doomed Dunn, whose sad story constitutes more than half the book. Vinocour does a fine job explaining the defense in layman's terms. Sterling prose helps make this a page-turner. Agent: Jennifer Herrera, David Black Agency. (Mar.) Copyright 2020 Publishers Weekly.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

"A powerful and humane exploration of the "insanity defense," through one heartbreaking case. A three-year-old boy dies, having apparently fallen while trying to reach a bag of sugar on a high shelf. His grandmother stands accused of second-degree murder. Psychologist Susan Nordin Vinocour agrees to evaluate the defendant, to determine whether the impoverished and mentally ill woman is competent to stand trial. Vinocour soon finds herself pulled headlong into a series of difficult questions, beginning with: Was the defendant legally insane on the night in question? As she wades deeper into the story, Vinocour traces the legal definition of insanity back nearly two hundred years, when our understanding of the human mind was in its infancy. "Competency" and "insanity," she explains, are creatures of legal definition, not psychiatric reality, and in criminal law, "insanity" has become a luxury of the rich and white. With passion, clarity, and heart, Vinocour examines the troubling intersection of mental health issues and the law"--

Review by Publisher Summary 2

Provides a powerful and humane exploration of the “insanity defense,” through one heartbreaking case.

Review by Publisher Summary 3

A powerful and humane exploration of the history of the "insanity defense," through the story of one poignant case.

Review by Publisher Summary 4

When a three-year-old child was found with a head wound and other injuries, it looked like an open-and-shut case of second-degree murder. Psychologist and attorney Susan Vinocour agreed to evaluate the defendant, the child's mentally ill and impoverished grandmother, to determine whether she was competent to stand trial. Even if she had caused the child's death, had she realized at the time that her actions were wrong or was she legally "insane"?Nobody's ChildNobody's Child