The ‘Environmental Factor’: When Criminals Are Also Victims

In a 1968 murder case, the defendant claimed systemic racism and poverty were mitigating circumstances in his crime. An appeals court rejected the argument, but is the relationship between the “environment” and criminal behavior worth examining today?

On June 5, 1968, at about 3 a.m., Murdock Benjamin and a couple of friends were in a hamburger joint in Washington D.C. when a group of six walked in to order takeout—five men, all U.S. Marines in uniform, and a woman. All were white.

A few minutes later, as Benjamin and his friends were leaving the restaurant, there was a confrontation by the door. At trial, each side said the other started it, and the details remained unresolved.

Benjamin was already outside when he heard one of the Marines say, “Get out, you black bastards.”

Benjamin reentered, pulled his gun, and started shooting. He killed two of the Marines, and seriously wounded another and the woman. He was charged with murder.

At trial, Benjamin’s lawyer admitted there was blood on his client’s hands. But he argued that Benjamin wasn’t criminally responsible for what he’d done. He had a mental condition born of the deprivations he endured as a poor black person, the lawyer argued, adding that his experiences primed him to explode the moment he heard that racial slur.

The defense was a long shot because Benjamin, by all accounts, was a sane young man. But Benjamin’s mind was in the grip of the ugly social forces that had shaped his life, according to his lawyer. After all, racism and poverty might not make a man hallucinate, but they still inflict real harm on both body and brain.

The trial judge, Gerhard Gesell, didn’t buy it.

“We are not concerned with a question of whether or not a man had a rotten social background,” Gesell said. “We are concerned with the question of his criminal responsibility.”

The jury convicted him of second degree murder. He was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. He was about 20 years old.

But did Benjamin’s defense have any validity?

A closer look at Benjamin’s background suggests how someone’s environment carves out their destiny.

He was raised in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. His father was a construction worker and his mother stayed home to take care of him and his siblings—he had 12. They were poor, but there was always enough for clothes and food. But then his father left the family, and life grew more difficult.

In the summer of 1965, a few years after his father left, Benjamin was one of hundreds of people arrested and jailed following what has been called the Watts Rebellion—one of many uprisings by black Americans in the 1960s that were rooted in systemic oppression. Watts’ residents suffered bad policing, bad schools and few opportunities for work, according to one contemporary report.

Benjamin recalled the experience as the start of his political awakening.

“It was like striking out at something, not caring whether you win or lose, as long as you strike back at it—because it had struck at you long enough,” Benjamin said in a 1970 interview with Malaika Lumumba for an oral history of the civil rights movement.

“They’d blew up four young girls in Alabama not more than two years prior to that,” he added. “[During Watts] we were only paying them back for the slavery and sufferings of our people.”

When he got out of jail, Benjamin found work and moved in activist circles, but his politics wavered. He had a new, promising job as an apprentice machinist, and he wanted to make good; but a year after he was hired, the company laid off all the black and Mexican apprentices.

“I realized that I couldn‘t get away from racism within the United States,” he told Lumumba. “I’d sold my people out by thinking that I could ever make it within the system.”

After he lost the job, Benjamin dealt drugs for a couple of months to get by, before he soured on it. He figured he was helping the white man, hurting his community. He was arrested for a couple of other crimes he said he didn’t commit.

Then Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, in April, 1968. Benjamin had now come to believe a race war was coming—a belief his lawyer would later use to argue that Benjamin had a “mental condition.”

Shortly after King’s assassination, he decided to leave Los Angeles to join the Poor People’s March on Washington. A few weeks later, on the other side of the country, Benjamin shot four people.

Benjamin’s lawyers appealed his conviction, arguing that the trial judge shouldn’t have excluded the broader context of Benjamin’s life—his “rotten social background,” as one lawyer termed it—from the question of his guilt.

Shouldn’t a person’s circumstances affect responsibility for his or her actions?

David Bazelon, one of the appeals court judges, struggled so earnestly to answer that question that he made the case famous in academic circles. Bazelon began by conceding that it probably wasn’t fair to convict Murdock Benjamin, because forces beyond his control were responsible for the shooting, more than Benjamin himself.

But if Benjamin wasn’t responsible for his actions, that only made things more complicated, because he wasn’t insane and he was likely still dangerous.

Society doesn’t know what to do with someone who’s sane, violent and, hypothetically, innocent.

Sane people can’t be locked up in an asylum, harm demands a response, and innocence precludes prison. Bazelon’s ruling offered up “social reconstruction.

Systemic equality, he suggested, might prevent more violence than any punishment.

Bazelon seemed to want to convict America itself.

But the other two judges outvoted Bazelon. In that 1973 appeal, they reaffirmed Benjamin’s conviction and kept him in prison.

“The ultimate responsibility for [the marines’] deaths reaches far beyond [Murdock Benjamin],” agreed Judge Carl McGowan.

But he added: “As courts, however, we administer a system of justice which is limited in its reach.”

In the decades since, judges have continued to wave off “environmental” defenses like Benjamin’s, often with good reason.

Lawyers sometimes cooked up farcical excuses for their clients, like Super Bowl Sunday Syndrome, trying to spin an individual’s misconduct into a mass phenomenon in which they had no control.

Judges are probably also wary of arguments grounded in society’s inequities because they would be so powerful.

Black people aren’t the only ones overrepresented in the justice system. The poor, the young, and the queer—among many other demographic groups—are all disproportionately likely to be arrested for a crime.

Researchers have also found that people who have a certain genetic attribute, and who also suffered abuse as children, are more than nine times more likely than the average person to behave criminally.

Benjamin’s case highlights the tension at the core of modern American justice.

Courts try people, not inequality. Judges reliably exclude big-picture phenomena—like genetics, or the ravages of white supremacy—from the question of someone’s guilt. They only consider it at sentencing, where the standard for evidence is lower.

But even then, it seldom makes much of a difference. A 2012 study polled judges on how they’d sentence a man, diagnosed with psychopathy, who committed terrible violence. Overall, the judges ruled the man’s mental condition made him less responsible for his crime.

But they also ruled that the same mental condition made him more of a menace.

FT Green

F.T. Green

“Psychopathy may make the defendant less morally culpable, but it increases his future dangerousness to society,” one of the judges explained to the researchers. “In my mind, these factors balance out.”

Still, the question from Murdock Benjamin’s case still hovers on the edges of every courtroom today.

Should the victims of racism be held solely responsible for its inevitable consequences?

F.T. Green is a reporter in Toronto. His website is He welcomes comments from readers.


Too Poor to Drive?

Thousands of Michigan residents lose their driver’s licenses each year because they cannot pay their fines. Punishing people for being poor is bad public policy, writes the director of Equal Justice Under Law, a Washington, DC non-profit.

Kitia Harris is a single mother raising her eight-year-old daughter in Detroit. Recently, she picked up a minor traffic ticket for “impeding traffic” totaling $276 in court fines and fees. Living off just $1,200 a month in disability payments—not enough to cover rent, utilities, food, clothing, and other basic needs—she was unable to pay her traffic fines.

Because she cannot afford her outstanding court debt, Michigan suspended her license.

Kitia has never committed a crime, and for many years she worked hard in low-wage jobs to support herself and her daughter. In 2014, she was diagnosed with interstitial cystitis, a painful condition with no cure that prevents her from working.

Without a driver’s license, everything is more expensive. Kitia’s disability requires regular medical treatments. Now, instead of driving herself to her appointments, she must pay others to drive her. And because Detroit has the worst public transportation system of any major city in the country, she must also pay for rides for daily tasks like grocery shopping, or picking up her daughter. By forcing her to pay more just to get around, Michigan has trapped her in a cycle of poverty.

This is not fair, and it’s not justice.

Like Kitia, hundreds of thousands of Michiganders have lost their driver’s licenses simply because they are poor. In 2010 alone, Michigan suspended 397,826 licenses for failure to pay court debt or failure to appear.

These residents have not been judged too dangerous to drive; they are not a threat behind the wheel; they have not caused serious injuries while driving. In the vast majority of cases, their only “crime” is that they are too poor to pay.

Michigan’s model creates two different justice systems based on wealth-status. For the rich, a minor infraction (like changing lanes without a turn signal) would result in a fine of maybe $135. For those who are poor and unable to pay, the same infraction could eventually lead to a license suspension. This suspension scheme violates our commonly held standards of justice: States should not dole out punishment simply based on wealth-status.

But perhaps more importantly: Michigan’s scheme is terrible public policy.

These suspensions laws are trapping productive residents in a cycle of poverty. It’s crushing for Kitia and her daughter, and it is especially bad for Michigan. As a state famous for its poorly managed fiscal situation, Michigan should help its residents pay back their court debt. Instead, the state is making it much harder for them to do so.

On May 4, Equal Justice Under Law filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of Michigan for this wealth-based suspension scheme. Our lawsuit seeks to return licenses to the hundreds of thousands of drivers who have had their licenses suspended solely for the inability to pay court debt, and it asks the state to cease poverty-based suspensions in the future. We are not asking Michigan to change the way it treats drivers who are truly a threat on the road. Nothing we’re asking would allow a driver to commit reckless driving offenses.

We’re only asking that the state stop punishing people for being poor.

We are also asking that Michigan consider alternatives that many other states successfully employ. There should be an ability-to-pay hearing before any license is suspended. If someone is unable to pay due to poverty status, they should be given alternatives, like community service or payment plans. Some states offer payment plans as low as $5 per month.

Some supporters of Michigan’s suspension law claim that those who cannot afford to pay traffic tickets should drive more carefully. But this argument is exactly the kind of unequal justice we must fight against. Our justice system should not be premised on the notion that the rich get to buy their way out of trouble while the poor live under a sword of Damocles for not using a turn signal.

Others say that it’s unfair for poor people to get out of fines just because they’re unable to pay. What I ask of those folks is empathy. For many people—including Kitia Harris—poverty is not a choice. Kitia was raised without a mother or father, spending the majority of her childhood in foster care.

Now 25, she has never had a reliable, supportive adult in her life. She has lived her life in poverty. Calling it “unfair” that Kitia keep her driver’s license even though she cannot pay her court debt misses the fact that Kitia is doing everything in her power to make ends meet.

If she could pay her court debt, she would.

Instead of punishing someone who cannot pay their court debt, Michigan—and every other state—would be better off if people like Kitia were helped to break the cycle of poverty and repay the debt they owe.

Phil Telfeyan

Rather than making life harder and more expensive for Kitia, Michigan could provide her with the tools she needs to get back on her feet. Especially in a place like Detroit, which offers no meaningful public transportation option, Kitia needs a way to get around.

She needs empathy from us, and justice from our justice system.

Phil Telfeyan is founding director of Equal Justice Under Law a Washington, DC based nonprofit that challenges “wealth-based discrimination.”  He served as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice for five years, where he specialized in employment discrimination and immigrants’ rights. He welcomes comments from readers.