In 2013, Dorothy Spourdalakis stabbed her 14-year-old son, Alex, to death. At first, Dorothy and Alex’s godmother, Agatha Skrodzka, tried to poison the boy with sleeping pills, but when that didn’t work, they plunged a knife repeatedly into his chest. According to media coverage, Dorothy claimed that she killed her autistic child because she struggled to take care of him. The two women spent three years in jail; the judge sentenced them to time served.
Read any news report, and you’ll notice people who murder disabled relatives often claim “hardship” to justify their crimes—what disability rights activists call the “mercy killing” defense. And commonly, the courts will cite the victim’s disability as a reason for leniency, like in the Spourdalakis case. But advocates say that journalists also have a hand in perpetuating this defense, and a new white paper from the Ruderman Family Foundation reveals to which extent the media sympathizes with the killers.
“It really goes back to the misunderstanding about disability—that disability is this horrendous life experience nobody wants to have,” said Vilissa Thompson, a licensed master social worker and founder of Ramp Your Voice!, a disability rights consultation and advocacy organization. “When you have these stories of ‘mercy killing’ and the way they’re portrayed, it expounds on the ableism and the inaccurate understanding further.”
Over the last few months, David M. Perry, a disability rights journalist and media critic, poured over 200 media reports of filicide involving disabled victims from 2011 to 2015. What Perry found was that reporters rarely questioned the “hardship” defense; instead, they would typically paint the murderer as an “overwhelmed by loving” parent or caregiver. Furthermore, Perry discovered that, among the media reports from 2015, not one journalist reached out to a person with a disability or a disability advocate for a statement.
By not challenging claims of “hardship,” Perry posits in his report, reporters help to normalize the “mercy killing” defense and that “suffering” as a caregiver is an admissible reason to kill a loved one with a disability.
“Journalists should be mindful of this when they are choosing how they frame these murders in their coverage and what narratives they use,” said Zoe Gross, director of operations for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, who contributed a statement to the report. “They may end up fueling the same societal prejudices that lead to unequal protection for disabled victims of violent crime.”
Paste recently had the chance to speak with Perry about his report and how the media fails to cover the murders of disabled people with the same level of scrutiny of non-disabled victims. Although his findings may surprise some, Perry and advocates say the white paper only confirms what the disability community has known all along.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You spent months researching these cases. Were you shocked at all about what your research has found?
David Perry: I was not because I’ve been paying attention to this for some years. But I was in fact shocked that there weren’t more good examples of coverage. I was quite shocked that in 2015 not a single local reporter anywhere sought to reach out to disabled people to talk about the murder of disabled people. And when stories go bad, they go really bad and they really intensify the stigma, adding a widescale dehumanization of disabled people to the story of the literal murder of a disabled person.
That was the one thing that stood out to me—that none of the reporters had any thought to contact a person with a disability.
Perry: It goes against basic journalistic practices. And I think it’s because most journalists don’t see disabled people as an identity group and the disability rights community as a group you would reach out to. Journalists are just not instinctively picking up the phone and calling the Autistic Self Advocacy Network or the Arc or United Cerebral Palsy or whoever it might be. That needs to become an instinct for journalists across the country.
Which brings me to the idea of “mercy killing.” Does it seem to you that journalists sympathize with that defense?
Perry: Journalists have to take that completely out of their lexicon in all cases unless they are directly quoting someone who makes that argument. And if they quote someone who makes that argument, they have to deal with it the same way they would deal with other highly prejudicial quotes. Journalists cannot imply that killing a disabled person was a mercy based on the statements of the killer, the killer’s neighbors, or the killer’s defense attorney.
Why do you think that defense prevails in the courts and in the media?
Perry: We live in a broadly ableist society in which disability is widely associated with suffering. The last white paper I wrote for the Ruderman Foundation was on police violence and there, journalists routinely say “so and so suffered from mental illness.” And that was one of the places we really fixated on is something to not do—don’t presume that disability equals suffering. When a killer or defense attorney or a neighbor says, “Well they were suffering and now they’re not suffering anymore,” that is reflective of the problems in how we talk about disability. But I believe that journalists can do better than the general public, that we have to do better, and that the way we talk about these things in our own writing can influence how people think more broadly.
How do journalists need to change that language?
Perry: There [are] some good guides out there and lots of good conversation about that. I certainly—when it comes to these cases—strongly endorse looking at the recommendations of Zoe Gross from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. But generally my suggestion is to avoid euphemism. Say the word “disability” instead of saying “special needs” or “differentially able.” Say the word “murder” instead of “mercy killing.” Be very thoughtful about just trying to use neutral, clear language. Again, reflecting our best practices in other contexts that we’ve learned.
You also found that a person with a disability is murdered at least once a week. Did that statistic surprise you or was it expected?
Perry: Again, I would like to give full credit to the people who are connected to the Disability Day of Mourning, which was founded by Gross. [Gross] and others have been working on these issues for a long time, and I’ve been paying attention and listening, so I knew that the numbers would be high. I want to emphasize that the one-murder-per-week [statistic] is a low number. It is a conservative estimate in which we eliminated any case for which the findings of fact were still pending or in dispute because we wanted to get kind of a floor number. I don’t know what the actual number is but it’s much higher than the 219.
What other responsibility does the media bear in how they cover disability?
Perry: So I’m a media critic and that’s my voice. I’m doing the media analysis. I hope that people will understand the self-advocates are doing the work on the murders themselves and that their voices should be centered.