The Challenge of Criminal Responsibility
Twenty years ago, when I was a newspaper reporter in Jacksonville, Florida, I reported on a case that I have never forgotten. It was one of those cases that comes along every so often that affects everyone it touches. At times it seemed to touch the whole city.
The facts were horrific. A father was convicted of the terrible abuse of his four children, abuse so severe that it killed two of them and left another battered and nearly blind. During a six-month period when his wife—who had been the main target of his abuse—was in jail, the heavy-set man with a brutal temper kicked, punched, and slapped his children who ranged from three to eleven years old. As punishments he jammed their small heads in a flushing toilet, beat and kicked them, breaking their limbs and causing internal injuries; he scraped his fingernails on the insides of their mouths, and on and on. Two of the children died of the abuse. Finally the eldest boy escaped and the father fled the city leaving his youngest daughter at a hospital with two dollars, her Teddy bear, and a note pinned to her clothes bearing the name and telephone number of her grandmother.1
At the time I was influenced by the liberal creed of the sixties which decried harsh punishment, but as I listened to this tale of horrors, so much worse than any fiction, I found myself agreeing with the state, that these acts deserved severe punishment. Surely if anyone deserved the death penalty it must be this Ernest John Dobbert Jr.2
Then I met Dobbert 's defense attorney, one of the most perceptive observers of the criminal justice system I have ever encountered, and heard the testimony he offered at a resentencing hearing. Dobbert was the son of an abusive father who beat and degraded him. The son so feared his father that to avoid his learning about a bad grade, Dobbert Jr. once cut the telephone wires to the house. The defense evidence suggested that Dobbert Jr. was caught in a cycle of abuse far beyond his power to control. In a strange way