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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New York, NY : W. W. Norton & Company [2020]
Main Author
Susan Nordin Vinocour (author)
First edition
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
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • A Note to Readers
  • Prologue
  • Part I. The Crime
  • Part II. The Trial
  • Part III. The Punishment
  • Epilogue
  • Acknowledgments
  • A Note on Sources
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

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.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

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.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

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

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A mentally ill grandmother's desperate plight exposes a deep gulf between science and the law when it comes to the insanity defense.For two days after her 3-year-old grandson died, Dorothy Dunn (a pseudonym) slept with the boy's corpse, moving it on and off a heating grate hoping to maintain a lifelike body temperature. That and other unfathomable actions factored into the insanity defense Dunn's public defender built after a prosecutor charged the "compliant and meek," impoverished, black mother of five with second-degree murder. Debut author Vinocoura clinical and forensic psychologist who had earlier practiced law and later served as an expert witness in Dunn's trial before a largely white juryevaluated the defendant and found her to be mentally ill. The author reconstructs the case in a chilling book that interpolates into Dunn's tragic story a history of the insanity defense and famous related events, including the attempted assassinations of James Garfield and Ronald Reagan and the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. Insanity defense laws vary by state, but Vinocour argues persuasively that the law overall lags far behind scientific research on mental illness. A widely used legal test of insanity is whether someone knows "right" from "wrong," but mental illness is too complex for that standard, which implies falsely that "an intelligent or educated person can never be, legally, insane." Though the author has changed many "identifying details," making it uncertain that the events unfolded, as she writes, in Rochester, New York, and other pertinent facts, the story is unquestionably a page-turner, and revealing the ending would be a spoiler. It's fair to say, however, that in this case, nobody winsexcept perhaps for a prosecutor later elected judge after unironically billing himself as a defender of "the highest standards of the criminal justice system."A satisfying courtroom drama that hits the sweet spot between good storytelling and sharp legal analysis. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.