On May 16, 2016, a Chicago woman by the name of Bonnie Liltz was convicted of killing her 28-year-old daughter, Courtney The state attorney only asked for probation. The judge gave her a four-year-prison sentence.
Why the light sentence? Why was the state attorney, the person in charge of advocating for the person who had her right to life taken by her mother, calling for a lenient sentence?
Simple. Courtney had cerebral palsy. Bonnie thought her cancer had returned and thought the best solution was a murder-suicide. Bonnie survived but Courtney did not.
What followed was a story that disability rights advocates have seen play out again and again. A parent or caregiver murders a disabled person. The media gives a large amount of air time to telling the murderer’s sob story, but barely glosses over the fact that the disabled person had a right to live. Everyone in the courtroom gives the murderer sympathy because they were so “overwhelmed.” If they get sentenced, it’s usually light compared to the killer of an able-bodied person. Those last two things assume the prosecutor has the wherewithal to bring the charges in the first place (which is very often not the case). The cycle begins anew. This is just the most recent case in a national phenomenon.
Since 2011, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, Not Dead Yet, ADAPT, and a number of other disability rights groups have been tracking this. In the last report, over 180 disabled people were murdered by their caregivers. This is just what we know about. There is no national database.
What we do know is that the majority of the time, the killers get off with a slap on the wrist, if they get anything at all, thanks to some sob story about a lack of services for disabled people and caregivers. And while I’m the first to argue that we need to do more, allowing this to continue to be used as a justification is deplorable and diminishes the causes of both disabled people and their caregivers. Letting the “overwhelmed guardian defense” continue is no different than letting a defense attorney for a rapist ask a victim what they were wearing.
Could you imagine the outcry if a prosecutor let a gang-affiliated murderer off with probation because he “didn’t get enough services?” Do you think parents would take it lying down if a prosecutor sided with an “overwhelmed” bullied kid walked into school with a gun and shot his classmates? Probably not.
It does not have to be this way. We as a community can push our elected leaders to ban the “overwhelmed guardian defense” from use in courtrooms the way we banned rapists’ defense attorney from implying the victim deserved it. Our media can also help by being fair and balanced on this issue. In these cases, only one side is heard. If you hear about the murdered disabled person at all, it’s usually to make them seem like a “burden” or a rabid dog that needed to be put down. Our media can and should stop giving these murderers platforms and making them look sympathetic to potential jurors.
Most importantly, our community can remember that no matter what the person’s disability, they have value.
Matt Stafford is a disability rights advocate. He lives in High Point. The Chapel Hill News is putting a year long emphasis on disability awareness. Find previous columns at chapelhillnews.com under the Opinion tab.