Autism = Violence in England Gay Bar Threat? Why not? asks Associated Press

A number of news outlets are carrying a brief Associated Press story on the sentencing of a man arrested in connection with a terrorism threat against the gay community in the smaller Brit town Barrow-in-Furness. You can read it here, if you like.  The story is mostly uninteresting. The man arrested, Ethan Stables, never got the chance to make the spectacular “kill all the gays” attack he’d been threatening, and when time came for his sentencing, the judge assigned him an indefinite term in a psychiatric facility.

What’s odd here, however, is that you don’t go to a psych hospital instead of jail if there’s no psychological or psychiatric problem that led to your crime. Now, it may be that you had a condition from which you’ve since recovered, but you had to have had a condition at the time. So when the Associated Press’ description of Stables lists precisely zero conditions known to have a mechanism that can cause violence but does list “autism spectrum disorder” readers not aware of the state of psychological research might assume, wrongly, that autism spectrum disorder is associated with an increased risk of violence.

This description of Stables originally came from the defense, but we should not allow that to grant the Associated Press a free pass here. In order to prevent crazy-blaming, the AP has a responsibility to avoid dropping any disorder into a story in this context unless they are certain that the disorder has a known correlation with an increase in violence and a plausible explanation of how that disorder might have played a causal role in the behavior at issue. It may be that the records of any court ordered psych examination are sealed, but in that case the AP should not mention any particular disorder, whatever the defense contends. It may also be that the court believed that autism spectrum disorder could explain Stables’ threats of terrorism, but in that case the AP should clearly report that this is contrary to the best scientific evidence we have to date, and absent an explanation of how aspects of autism spectrum disorder played a role in a unique causal chain, the court’s judgement should be clearly labeled questionable. The AP took neither tack. The relevant part is entirely contained in this quote:

Defence lawyers said the 20-year-old, who has an autism spectrum disorder, had been brainwashed by right-wing extremists. But he was convicted in February of preparing an act of terrorism.

Journalism of this recklessness should always be called out for criticism.


  1. jrkrideau says

    I know almost nothing about the law but here in Canada I don’t think you can be convicted of the crime if you are being involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. Commitment is usually in lieu of conviction as I understand it.

    Is British law different or is that poor reporting?

    The mention of autism spectrum disorder seems a bit gratuitous here. Is there any reason to think than someone with as autism spectrum disorder, whatever that means, is more likely to be brainwashed by right-wing extremists. I hope they used Tide.

    I’d vote for incompetent reporting and editing but we probably would need the written judgement to really know.

  2. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I know almost nothing about the law but here in Canada I don’t think you can be convicted of the crime if you are being involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. Commitment is usually in lieu of conviction as I understand it.

    I haven’t dealt with insanity defenses since the beginning of my second year of law school, so I don’t remember anything about them for sure. What I remember is somewhat consonant with what you’re saying. (Though please take note: civil involuntary commitment has nothing to do with the criminal justice system.)

    In the US, a number of states have “Guilty but for insanity” verdicts so that a guilty verdict can be entered and will be searchable/viewable to police doing a records check, but the law restricts any legally imposed consequences to those necessary to treat the “insanity” and guarantee that the person does not pose a threat to the public when released.

    As embarrassed as I am to say it, I don’t actually remember if this is true of Canada (the country where I went to law school), but this was the general trend of reform for insanity verdicts in the 80s and 90s, so it could easily be true in Canada. In any case, the wording of this story makes me strongly suspect that this is how things are handled in the UK. Reporters are usually careful not to say someone was convicted of something when they haven’t been: that can get them into huge trouble, particularly in the UK where defamation laws are highly plaintiff-favorable.

  3. RoryT says

    UK Courts can sentence someone to a hospital order after conviction under the Mental Health Act. if medical treatment would be more appropriate than prison.
    It’s not quite the same as someone being found not guilty by reason of Insanity or ‘guilty by reason of diminished responsibility’ which are the UK equivalent of what you’ve discussed above (although usually someone convicted on the basis of diminished responsibility would then be sentenced to a hospital order.)
    I can’t remember if you allow links but the Huffington Post article on the conviction explains why the judge imposed the order rather than prison. It’s normally done because the person has severe and ongoing mental health conditions that would mean they cause a risk of harm to the public but also require hospital treatment. It’s not that uncommon in the UK.

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