A Day of Mourning: Narratives and Counter-Narratives on Disability, Mercy, & Murder

March 1st, 2014 was a day of mourning. Vigils, organized by self-advocates and allies, took place across the country to mourn the loss of people with disabilities murdered by their families or caregivers. This tradition, still in its early years, seeks to memorialize victims of a long-standing atrocity.  A list of known murder cases (see below for full list) reaching back to only 1993 contains more than 100 names. Since last year’s Day of Mourning, ten more names have been added to the list.

Memorial at Ed Roberts Campus, Berkeley, CA.  Photo courtesy Ala Costa Adult Transition Program

Memorial at Ed Roberts Campus, Berkeley, CA. Photo courtesy Ala Costa Adult Transition Program

One of these vigils was held at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, CA.  The event was the product of efforts by Jessie Lorenz and Peter Mendoza of the Independent Living Resource Center in San Francisco (ILRC), Mark Romoser of the Silicon Valley Independent Living Center (SVILC), Brent White of Ala Costa Adult Transition program (ACAT), and activists Rob Gross and Corbett O’Toole.  It was the largest gathering in the country, with just over fifty people in attendance.  Walking up to the site, one could see large posters listing the names of those lost with the statement, “Mourn for the Dead, but Fight like Hell for the Living.

A Narrative of “Mercy”

The names are not well-known to most.  These murders did not produce the public outrage and media frenzy typical in murder cases of able-bodied victims like Caylee Anthony or Benjamin Yhip.  In the overarching narrative of disability in this country, parents and caregivers are framed as heroes and martyrs for the terrific “burden” they must carry. When filicide is committed, the rhetoric of having “freed” their child or committed an “act of mercy” is embedded in the scant news stories produced.

Tracy Latimer is the first name on the list.  In 1993, Robert Latimer killed Tracy, then 12 years old with cerebral palsey, by putting her inside his truck and gassing her.  Latimer confessed to planning the killing and contemplating multiple ways in which he would carry it out, but was still convicted of second-degree murder.  He served roughly ten years in prison – less than what many states in the U.S. require for manslaughter convictions.  Many Canadians felt his sentence was overly-harsh, and that Tracy’s was a “compassionate-killing.” Latimer had “saved” her from a life of immobility and difficulty.

Alex Spourdalakis, an autistic 14 year old in Illinois, was stabbed multiple times in the chest by his mother and godmother, and then fed an overdose of sleeping pills.  In a show of bringing attention to the issue, CBS shot a piece called “Behind the Tragedy: Mother Murders Autistic Son.”  The documentary cites the severity of Alex’s autism and the amount of care that he needed as justification for his murder.  Despite statements by the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network condemning the media’s misrepresentation of the case, and a petition of over 2,000 signatures on change.org, this video is still available to watch on CBS’s website and other outlets.

A Life Lived Fully with Disability

1902849_297721543710043_1827913843_nThe deaths of Tracy and Alex were tragedies – their lives were not.  In order to prevent future abuse and murder we must stop seeing disability as tragedy.  Instead, we can see natural human variation, diversity, and life capable of being lived fully.  These murders were not justifiable as “acts of compassion” or manifestations of a “great burden.”  The people killed were denied a worthy life by an act of hatred and fear.

Of the fifty or more people who came to the Berkeley vigil, many spoke of their feelings of grief, anger, and being largely misunderstood.  Brent White, an autistic person who designed and directs ACAT, remembers his first experience seeing an autistic child portrayed on television about 25 years ago,

“He was portrayed as this feral kid – incapable of loving or caring about his family – and violent.”

He says that personally, his identifying openly as autistic is important in changing this perception,

“There’s an idea that there are no autistic adults. It’s important that people who are autistic identify that way, and understand that there’s a spectrum, and a huge range of capabilities.”

Making a Change

How do we step away from the perception that a disabled person’s life is one of suffering and tragedy?  How do we perpetuate the reality: that a person with a disability struggles, succeeds, creates, loves, and lives a fully human existence different from, but no less worthy than, those of able-bodied peers?

I am an able-bodied person at this time in my life.  I have not lived the experience of disability, and therefore must defer to others for ideas and expertise.  But as allies and people who believe broadly in social justice and human rights, we have a responsibility to listen and to help change the narrative to one that reflects the inherent value of life and a shared humanity.

So what can we do?  We can educate ourselves: through blogs, newsletters, members of our communities, and other first person accounts. We can support visibility by increasing access to businesses and public spaces.  We can take steps toward greater inclusion in policy-making and the work-force.  Working with self-advocacy networks and members of the disability community, everyone must, “Fight like Hell for the Living.”

March 1st, 2014 Vigil at Ed Roberts Campus, Berkeley, Ca  photo by Rob Gross

March 1st, 2014 Vigil at Ed Roberts Campus, Berkeley, Ca photo by Rob Gross

Heather Yaden (Rutgers University)
IMG_1074Heather is a 2011 Rutgers–New Brunswick alumni with a degree in Psychology and Cognitive Science. She currently lives in Oakland, CA and works as a team member of Ala Costa Adult Transition program in Berkeley, CA. ACAT supports self-determination, independence, and empowerment in young adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities through teaching community engagement and life skills. She is passionate about social justice and class issues: feminism, queer theory, disability rights, diversity, equality and the intersections of identity.  Check out her twitter @HdAvery.

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List of Known Murder Cases Commemorated
in the Day of Mourning 2014

  • Tracy Latimer, 12 years old, gassed by her father in 1993
  • Charles-Antoine Blais,  6 years old, drowned by his mother in November 1996
  • Casey Albury, 17 years old, strangled by her mother in 1997
  • Pierre Pasquiou, 10 years old, pushed into the sea by his mother in 1998
  • Jim Helm, 27 years old, killed by his mother in a murder-suicide in November 1998
  • Daniel Leubner, 13 years old, burned alive by his mother in September 1999
  • James Joseph Cummings Jr, 46 years old, stabbed to death by his father in the institution where he lived in November 1999
  • Justin Malphus, 5 years old, beaten and drowned by his mother in April 2000
  • Gabriel Britt,  6 years old, suffocated by his father in March 2001
  • Johnny Churchi, 13 years old, strangled by his mother in 2001
  • Mark Owen Young, 11 years old, poisoned and then pushed off a bridge by his mother in a murder-suicide, September 2001
  • Brahim Dukes, 18 years old, starved by his stepmother in December 2001
  • Lilian Leilani Gill, 4 years old, strangled by her adoptive mother in March 2002
  • Mitchell Dickson, 10 years old, slashed to death by his mother in June 2002
  • Dale Bartolome, 27 years old, killed by his father in a murder-suicide in July 2002
  • Jason Dawes, 10 years old, suffocated by his mother in August 2003
  • Maggie Caraballo, 38 years old, beaten to death by her sister in August 2003
  • Angelica Auriemma, 20 years old, drowned by her mother who first tried to electrocute her to death in 2003
  • Scott Olsen, 29 years old, starved to death by his sister in December 2003
  • Eric Bland, 38 years old, starved to death by his sister in March 2004
  • Scarlett Chen, 4 years old, drowned by her mother in July 2004
  • Patrick Markcrow, 36 years old, drugged and suffocated by his mother in March 2005
  • Tiffany Pinckney, 23 years old, locked in a basement and starved to death by her sister and brother-in-law in April 2005
  • Sarah Naylor, 27 years old, shot by her mother in a murder-suicide in September 2005
  • Ryan Davies, 12 years old, drowned after his mother caused him to fall off of a bridge in a murder-suicide
  • Christopher DeGroot, 19 years old, died of severe burns after he was locked in his parents’ apartment alone during a fire in May 2006
  • Katie McCarron, 3 years old, suffocated by her mother in May 2006
  • William Lash III, 12 years old, shot by his father in a murder-suicide in July 2006
  • Lakesha Victor, 10 years old, starved by her mother in August 2006
  • Marcus Fiesel, 4 years old, wrapped in heavy blankets by his foster parents and left in a closet to suffocate while they went out of town in August 2006
  • Ulysses Stable, 12 years old, throat slit by his father in November 2006
  • Brandon Williams, 5 years old, poisoned and beaten to death by his mother in March 2007
  • Criste Reimer, 47 years old, thrown from a balcony by her husband in 2007
  • Jared Greenwood, 26 years old, died of infected bed sores after being left in place and neglected by his mother in 2007
  • Francecca Hardwick, 18 years old, locked in a burning car with her mother in a murder-suicide in October 2007
  • Naomi Hill, 4 years old, drowned by her mother in November 2007
  • Shellay Ward, 7 years old, starved and neglected by her parents in November 2007
  • Maxwell Eyer, 2 years old, beaten to death by his father in December 2007
  • Xiao Fei, 20 years old, poisoned and suffocated by her mother in 2008
  • Calista Springer, 16 years old, chained to a bed and abandoned in a fire by her entire family in 2008
  • Courtney Wise, 17 years old, starved to death by her mother in February 2008
  • Ethan Scott Kirby, 3 years old, beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend in August 2008
  • Jacob Grabe, 13 years old, shot by his father in 2008
  • Tom Inglis, 22 years old, died after his mother administered an overdose of heroin to him in November 2008
  • Christian Clay Jenkins, 14 years old, given an overdose of oxycodone by his father in 2008
  • Kyle Dutter, 12 years old, shot by his father in a murder-suicide in 2008
  • Lexie Agyepong-Glover, 13 years old, left in a frigid creek by her mother and died of drowning and exposure in 2009
  • Terrell Stepney, 19 years old, poisoned by his grandmother in a murder-suicide in 2009
  • Jeremy Fraser, 9 years old, died of recurrent leukemia after his mother withheld the medication that would have saved his life in March 2009
  • Shylea Myza Thomas, 9 years old, starved to death by her aunt, who then hid her body in order to continue to collect money she received for Shylea’s care in April 2009
  • Pamela Camille Hall, 59 years old, stabbed by her son-in-law in April 2009
  • Lloyd Yarbrough, 62 years old, fed an overdose of prescription medication through his feeding tube by his wife in May 2009
  • Jeremy Bostick, 11 years old, gassed by his father in 2009
  • Peter Eitzen, 16, stabbed by his mother in July 2009
  • Tony Khor, 15 years old, strangled by his mother in October 2009
  • Betty Anne Gagnon, 48 years old, tortured to death by her sister and brother-in-law in November 2009
  • Walter Knox Hildebrand Jr, 20 years old, died of a seizure induced by his brother’s physical abuse in November 2009
  • Laura Cummings, 23 years old, raped and tortured to death by her mother and brother in January 2010
  • Jude Mirra, 8 years old, forced by his mother to overdose on prescription medications in February 2010
  • Ajit Singh, 12 years old, forced by his mother to drink bleach in February 2010
  • Gerren Isgrigg, 6 years old, died of exposure after his grandmother abandoned him in a remote area in April 2010
  • Leosha Barnett, 17 years old, starved to death by her mother and sister in May 2010
  • Glen Freaney, 11 years old, strangled by his mother in May 2010
  • Payton Ettinger, 4 years old, starved by his mother in May 2010
  • Christopher Melton, 18, gassed by his mother in a murder-suicide in June 2010
  • Rylan Rochester, 6 months old, suffocated by his mother in June 2010 because she believed him to be autistic
  • Kenneth Holmes, 12 years old, shot by his mother in a murder-suicide in July 2010
  • Zain Akhter, 5 years old, and Faryaal Akhter, 2 years old, strangled by their mother after she first tried to get them to drink bathroom cleaner in July 2010
  • Emily Belle Molin, 85 years old, hit and run over with a car by her son in August 2010
  • Rohit Singh, 7 years old, beaten to death by his father in September 2010
  • Zahra Baker, 10 years old, murdered and dismembered by her stepmother and perhaps her father in October 2010
  • Chase Ogden, 13 years old, shot by his mother in a murder-suicide in October 2010
  • Karandeep Arora, 18 years old, suffocated by his parents in October 2010
  • Donald Parojinog, 83 years old, starved by his daughter in January 2011
  • Chad Jackson, 25 years old, starved and neglected by his mother in July 2011
  • Julie Cirella, 8 years old, poisoned by her mother in July 2011
  • Joseph Conant, 11 years old, and Nacuma Conant, 33 years old, shot by their father/brother in July 2011
  • Noe Medina Jr, 7 months old, thrown 4 stories by his mother in August 2011
  • Benjamin Barnhard, 13 year old, shot by his mother in a murder-suicide in August 2011
  • Jori Lirette, 7 years old, decapitated by his father in August 2011
  • George Hodgins, 22 years old, shot by his mother in a murder-suicide in March 2012
  • Daniel Corby, 4 years old, drowned by his mother in March 2012
  • Malea Blakely-Berry, 16 years old, starved by her mother in June 2012
  • Matthew Graville, 27 years old, tortured and beaten to death by his half-brother in July 2012
  • Melissa Stoddard, 11 years old, suffocated in restraints that her father and step-mother routinely used in December 2012
  • Robert Gensiak, 32 years old, starved by his mother and sisters in March 2013
  • Alex Spourdalakis, 14 years old, poisoned and stabbed by his mother and godmother in June 2013
  • Matthew Hafer, 28 years old, poisoned by his mother in July 2013
  • Marian Roberts, 57 years old, shot by her father in a murder-suicide in August 2013
  • Jaelen Edge, 13 years old, poisoned by his mother along with his sister Faith in September 2013
  • Tamiyah Audain, 12 years old, starved, abused and neglected by her cousin in September 2013
  • Dameian “Luke” Gulley, 14 years old, strangled by his stepfather in November 2013
  • Randle Barrow, 8 years old, drowned by his mother in a murder-suicide in December 2013
  • Mickey Liposchok, 52 years old, shot by his father in a murder-suicide in December 2013
  • Damien Veraghen, 9 years old, poisoned and suffocated by his mother in a murder-suicide in January 2014
  • Vincent Phan, 24 years old, shot by his mother in a murder-suicide in January 2014

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