`Urban Survival Syndrome' Gets Blame In Slayings -- Is Defense Realistic, Or Does It Reinforce A Racial Stereotype?
FORT WORTH, Texas - Daimion Osby, fearing for his life in a running dispute with two other men on the streets of a tough neighborhood, acted as any black man in his shoes would have.
That, at least, is what the lawyers defending him at his murder trial are trying to prove.
They claim the teenager suffered from "urban survival syndrome," a defense which some fear could legalize black-on-black murder in some urban areas.
Others say that what's good for white, middle-class defendants - a claim that the defendant's environment drove him or her to violence - should also be a valid defense in ghetto crimes.
Osby, 18, is accused of killing cousins Willie "Peanut" Brooks, 28 and Marcus Brooks, 19, after the two, who are also black, jumped him in a Fort Worth parking lot last April 18. Prosecutors say the men were unarmed and that Osby was not faced with the immediate threat of deadly force, the justification that could be cited in Texas for using deadly force in return.
Osby's lawyers say that a gun was found in the pickup the cousins drove to the scene and that they had pointed a shotgun at Osby a week before during a car chase.
They don't deny their client shot the cousins in the confrontation that ended a year-long feud that started over a game of craps.
Bill Lane, one of Osby's lawyers, says economics forced his client to live in an area that lacks adequate police protection and where carrying a gun is self-preservation.
"It's just like open warfare," Lane says. "And if you're to survive as a young African American in that neighborhood, you have to take steps necessary to protect yourself."
Prosecutor Steve Marshall calls the level of black-on-black crime "atrocious." But, he says, "the way to address it is not by legalizing black-on-black homicide, which is essentially what the defense is purporting to do in this case."
Defense attorneys plan to call Jared Taylor, author of the 1993 book "Paved With Good Intentions: The Failure of Race Relations in Contemporary America," as an expert witness on black-on-black crime.
Osby "was in a situation which unfortunately, in order to preserve his own life, he had to do the kind of violence that justifies the case we are making for him," Taylor says.
Of the 5,522 homicides in 1992 involving a lone assailant and a black victim, 5,164 involved black Americans killing black Americans, U.S. Justice Department statistician Michael Rand says, citing the most recent figures available.
"In terms of the population, they're overrepresented on both sides," Rand says.
Fort Worth police Sgt. Sam Van Vleck says of the 134 homicides in the city last year, 40 were black-on-black offenses.
While the "urban survival" tag is new, similar approaches have achieved some success.
In 1992, Milwaukee lawyer Robin Shellow argued that Felicia Morgan was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from a lifetime of violence inside and outside the home when she killed another teenager.
Other past defenses that have hinged on post-traumatic stress disorder include the Lorena Bobbitt and Menendez cases, Shellow said.
Bobbitt, acquitted on the grounds of temporary insanity, said years of physical and sexual abuse led her to cut off her husband's penis.
Mistrials were declared for Eric and Lyle Menendez after jurors failed to agree on a verdict in the slaying of their parents. The brothers claimed they acted in self defense after years of sexual and psychological abuse.
"The reasons those were successful is because the defendants were white and middle class or upper-middle class," Shellow says.
Harvard law Professor Alan Dershowitz says the defense claim in the Osby case is more plausible than that in either the Menendez brothers' case or the Lorena Bobbitt case.
Those defendants had options, Dershowitz says. "They were middle class. They could leave."
But Dershowitz also fears the "urban survival syndrome" reinforces racist stereotypes. "It sends a message out that `You have to be scared of blacks. They all have this syndrome. They are not like the rest of us,' " he says.
Osby defense attorney David Bays says: "For me to point out these facts, it may appear to be a racist position to take, but for other young blacks to take that position based on what they have seen and known in their own neighborhoods and their own lives, that's not racist."
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