Back in 2000, Donald Moss, M.D., a clinical associate professor of
psychiatry at New York University and a faculty member at the New York
University Psychoanalytic Institute, launched a new session at a meeting of
the American Psychoanalytic Association titled "On Settling the Score:
Crime, Punishment, and the Death Penalty." Its purpose was to expose
analysts to various questions regarding the death penalty and to help them
reach a consensus, if possible, on these
Alan Pottinger: "It is a seductive idea that you are going to get
some satisfaction from killing a murderer."
Credit: Joan Arehart-Treichel
During the 2002 session, for example, speakers explored whether the death
penalty brings victims closure, and whether it is cheaper to execute murderers
than to keep them in prison (Psychiatric News, July 19, 2002). At
another session, the question of whether the death penalty reduces the number
of murders committed was addressed. And at yet another, a Virginia prosecutor
who had been involved in the D.C.-area sniper case and who was a strong
advocate of the death penalty argued that it is society's obligation to
eradicate evil. Session attendees debated this
Donald Moss, M.D., launched a session on the death penalty at the 2000
meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association.
Credit: Joan Arehart-Treichel
At the latest death-penalty session, which was part of the winter meeting
of the American Psychoanalytic Association in New York City, the brother of a
murderer and the brother of a murder victim presented their views on the death
One was David Kaczynski, the brother of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski (see
Terrible Dilemma: To Tell or Not to Tell?). The other was Alan Pottinger,
whose brother was killed in a pub shooting in 1991 by a man named Edward
White. White had been serving a 25- to 50-year sentence for a 1989 murder when
he escaped. After that, he entered the pub where Pottinger's brother worked as
a bartender. White demanded money from everyone in the pub. Pottinger's
brother attempted to intervene. White shot him, killing him.
While Kaczynski's and Pottinger's experiences differed sharply in many
ways, they resembled each other in one: each man was tempted to seek revenge
for the psychological anguish he was experiencing—Kaczynski against the
prosecutor who wanted the death penalty for his brother, Ted, and Pottinger
against the man who had murdered his brother. Pottinger's desire for revenge
was fueled even more by comments from friends and acquaintances, such as"
You ought to kill that sonofabitch."
"I was loaded with rage!" he said. "I even fantasized
about being sent to the same prison where White was and taking him out
Both Kaczynski and Pottinger, however, resisted the urge to take
Kaczynski thought, "If I killed the prosecutor, then everyone would
say, 'He's like his brother!'"
Pottinger asked himself, "Maybe I should be clamoring for White's
death. But how will it help me and my family if he dies? We strongly felt that
nothing good could come from killing another person. It is a seductive idea
that you are going to get some satisfaction from killing a
Indeed, Pottinger and his family and Kaczynski removed themselves even
further from the temptation of seeking retribution by becoming active
opponents of the death penalty.
For example, Pottinger's mother visited a prison where men were serving
life sentences for murder. She told them that she opposed the death penalty,
and that she felt that their serving a life sentence was enough punishment for
what they had done. Some of the prisoners cried in response to her comments.
And as Pottinger pointed out, "Murderers don't just become that way
overnight. Something happens to them along the way." That is why he so
enjoys working with troubled adolescents, he said. (He is a creative arts
therapist at Bellevue Hospital in New York City.)
As for Kaczynski, he understandably hoped that the prosecutor would not
succeed in obtaining the death penalty for his brother. But beyond that, he
said, "I had always been opposed to the death penalty on moral grounds,
and my experience with my brother's case and with another case involving a
mentally ill Vietnam veteran opened my eyes to the deep-seated inequities in
the death-penalty system. I especially became convinced that seriously
mentally ill defendants are disadvantaged in the current system because it
presumes that the defendant has a rational grasp of his self-interest and
because an adversarial legal system is not the best way to investigate and
diagnose mental illness."
Kaczynski became so incensed over the inequities of the death-penalty
system, in fact, that he established New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty
(NYADP), which today has some 10,000 members who want the death penalty
abolished not just in New York but in other states as well.
So in a sense, both Kaczynski and Pottinger have become allies in their
opposition to the death penalty, but for different reasons. Kaczynski always
opposed the death penalty, but even more so after his brother faced its
specter. Pottinger was at first tempted by the retribution that the death
penalty promises, but then came to believe that this promise is hollow.▪