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Cover 06/12/2013

Murder Destroyed Charity Lee's Family, Forever Altered Her Concept of Justice

Photo: PHOTO COURTESY CHARITY LEE /BEN EASTER, License: N/A

PHOTO COURTESY CHARITY LEE /BEN EASTER

Photo: PHOTO COURTESY CHARITY LEE, License: N/A

PHOTO COURTESY CHARITY LEE

Paris and Ella, ages 10 and 2


Lee won’t call her son a monster — “I detest that word,” she told me more than once. But she will call him something much more controversial: a sociopath.

Paris was evaluated by at least two different forensic psychologists after Ella’s murder, and Lee asked a third to review her son’s file. One wrote that Paris was at moderate risk for developing psychopathic traits, characteristics, and tendencies, and also wrote, “It would appear that Paris has pathological narcissism.” Lee claims the psychologist that Paris’ defense team hired called her soon after his sentencing because “ethically, he felt I should know his opinion.” She wept when the psychologist told her Paris had all the necessary traits to be labeled a psychopath (the terms sociopath and psychopath are generally used interchangeably). A third psychologist suggested that Lee move away from Texas and change her identity before Paris is eligible for parole.

The idea that psychopathic tendencies can be detected in children remains controversial. There’s no accepted standard test for psychopathy in children, and some psychologists argue that it’s almost impossible to diagnose in children or teenagers because their brains are still developing and normal behavior at those ages may be misinterpreted as psychopathic — researchers have linked psychopathic behaviors to low levels of cortisol in the brain and below-normal function in the amygdala, the portion of the brain that processes fear, shame, and remorse.

Still, a small but growing number of psychologists now say psychopathy, like autism, is a distinct neurological condition that can be identified in children as young as five years old. Last year, The New York Times Magazine profiled the work of Florida International University psychologist and researcher Dan Waschbusch, who employs a combination of psychological checklists and exams to screen for what he calls “callous-unemotional” children, whose lack of affect, remorse, or empathy, he contends, put them at risk of becoming psychopaths as adults.

Lee, who’s currently finishing her master’s work in guidance and counseling, reads every study and academic article on the topic she can get her hands on.

“It’s like a series of puzzle pieces I’ve been putting together ever since Paris killed Ella,” Lee told me. At Paris’ transfer hearing last year, his attorney maintained he has a form of Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder that affects one’s ability to socialize and communicate with others, something Lee disputes. As of May, the American Psychiatric Association officially eliminated it as a distinct diagnosis.

“I know he’s dangerous, I know he’s different. I didn’t just wake up one day and think, ‘I’m going to call my son a psychopath.’ It was a hard realization to come to.”

Lee almost cut ties with Paris twice. The first time was when he filed for emancipation shortly after he was transferred to a youth correctional facility. The second time was when she read a letter Paris wrote to one of his counselors, which Lee calls “Paris’ manifesto.” In it, her son talks about murdering her daughter in vivid, troubling detail, and about his deep resentment toward his mother because of her drug use.

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