Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

  "What did you two talk about?"

  King looked at Peter and smiled. "The Red Sox," he said. "And his family."

  "What did he tell you?"

  "That Boston deserved another pennant. Which--as a Yankees fan myself--was enough to call into question his capacity for rational thought."

  Jordan grinned. "What did he say about his family?"

  "He explained that he lived with his mother and father, and that his older brother Joey had been killed by a drunk driver about a year earlier. Joey had been a year older than Peter. We also talked about things he liked to do--mostly centered on programming and computers--and about his childhood."

  "What did he tell you about that?" Jordan asked.

  "Most of Peter's childhood memories involved situations where he was victimized either by other children or by adults whom he'd perceived as being able to help him, yet didn't. He described everything from physical threats--Get out of my way or I'm going to punch your lights out; to physical actions--doing nothing more than walking down a hallway and being slammed up against the wall because he happened to get too close to someone walking past him; to emotional taunts--like being called homo or queer."

  "Did he tell you when this bullying started?"

  "The first day of kindergarten. He got on the bus, was tripped as he walked down the aisle, and had his Superman lunch box thrown onto the highway. It continued up to shortly before the shooting, when he suffered public humiliation after his romantic interest in a classmate was revealed."

  "Doctor," Jordan said, "didn't Peter ask for help?"

  "Yes, but even when it was given, the result backfired. Once, for example, after being shoved by a boy at school, Peter charged him. This was seen by a teacher, who brought both boys to the principal's office for detention. In Peter's mind, he'd defended himself, and yet he was being punished as well." King relaxed on the stand. "More recent memories were colored by Peter's brother's death and his inability to live up to the same standards his brother had set as a student and a son."

  "Did Peter talk about his parents?"

  "Yes. Peter loved his parents, but didn't feel he could rely on them for protection."

  "Protection from what?"

  "Troubles in school, feelings he was having, suicide ideation."

  Jordan turned toward the jury. "Based on your discussions with Peter, and Dr. Ghertz's findings, were you able to diagnose Peter's state of mind on March 6, 2007, with a reasonable degree of medical certainty?"

  "Yes. Peter was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder."

  "Can you explain what that is?"

  King nodded. "It's a psychiatric disorder that can occur following an experience in which a person is oppressed or victimized. For example, we've all heard of soldiers who come home from war and can't adjust to the world because of PTSD. People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares, have difficulty sleeping, feel detached. In extreme cases, after exposure to serious trauma, they might exhibit hallucinations or dissociation."

  "Are you saying that Peter was hallucinating on the morning of March sixth?"

  "No. I believe that he was in a dissociative state."

  "What's that?"

  "It's when you're physically present, but mentally removed," King explained. "When you can separate your feelings about an event from the knowledge of it."

  Jordan knit his brows together. "Hang on, Doctor. Do you mean that a person in a dissociative state could drive a car?"


  "And set up a pipe bomb?"


  "And load weapons?"


  "And fire those weapons?"


  "And all that time, that person wouldn't know what he was doing?"

  "Yes, Mr. McAfee," King said. "That's exactly right."

  "In your opinion, when did Peter slip into this dissociative state?"

  "During our interviews, Peter explained that the morning of March sixth, he got up early and went to check a website for feedback on his video game. By accident, he pulled up an old file on his computer--the email he had sent to Josie Cormier, detailing his feelings for her. It was the same email that, weeks before, had been sent to the entire school, and that had preceded an even greater humiliation, when his pants were pulled down in the cafeteria. After he saw that email, he said, he can't really remember the rest of what happened."

  "I pull up old files by accident on my computer all the time," Jordan said, "but I don't go into a dissociative state."

  "The computer had always been a safe haven for Peter. It was the vehicle he used to create a world that was comfortable for him, peopled by characters who appreciated him and whom he had control over, as he didn't in real life. Having this one secure zone suddenly become yet another place where humiliation occurred is what triggered the break."

  Jordan crossed his arms, playing devil's advocate. "I don't know . . . we're talking about an email here. Is it really fair to compare bullying to the trauma seen by war veterans in Iraq, or survivors from 9/11?"

  "The thing that's important to remember about PTSD is that a traumatic event affects different people differently. For example, for some, a violent rape might trigger PTSD. For others, a brief groping might trigger it. It doesn't matter if the traumatic event is war, or a terrorist attack, or sexual assault, or bullying--what counts is where the subject is starting from, emotionally."

  King turned to the jury. "You might have heard, for example, of battered woman syndrome. It doesn't make sense, on the outside, when a woman--even one who's been victimized for years--kills her husband when he's fast asleep."

  "Objection," Diana said. "Does anyone see a battered woman on trial?"

  "I'll allow it," Judge Wagner replied.

  "Even when a battered woman is not immediately under physical threat, she psychologically believes she is, thanks to a chronic, escalating pattern of violence that's caused her to suffer from PTSD. It's living in this constant state of fear that something's going to happen, that it's going to keep happening, which leads her to pick up the gun at that moment, even though her husband is snoring. To her, he is still an immediate threat," King said. "A child who is suffering from PTSD, like Peter, is terrified that the bully is going to kill him eventually. Even if the bully is not at that moment shoving him into a locker or punching him, it could happen at any second. And so, like the battered wife, he takes action even when--to you and me--nothing seems to warrant the attack."

  "Wouldn't someone notice this sort of irrational fear?" Jordan asked.

  "Probably not. A child who suffers from PTSD has made unsuccessful attempts to get help, and as the victimization continues, he stops asking for it. He withdraws socially, because he's never quite sure when interaction is going to lead to another incident of bullying. He probably thinks of killing himself. He escapes into a fantasy world, where he can call the shots. However, he starts retreating there so often that it gets harder and harder to separate that from reality. During the actual incidents of bullying, a child with PTSD might retreat into an altered state of consciousness--a dissociation from reality to keep him from feeling pain or humiliation while the incident occurs. That's exactly what I think happened to Peter on March sixth."

  "Even though none of the kids who'd bullied him were present in his bedroom when that email appeared?"

  "Correct. Peter had spent his entire life being beaten and taunted and threatened, to the point where he believed he would be killed by those same kids if he didn't do something. The email triggered a dissociative state, and when he went to Sterling High and fired shots, he was completely unaware of what he was doing."

  "How long can a dissociative state last?"

  "It depends. Peter could have been dissociating for several hours."

  "Hours?" Jordan repeated.

  "Absolutely. There's no point during the shootings that illustrates to me conscious awareness of his actions."

  Jordan glanced at
the prosecutor. "We all saw a video where Peter sat down after firing shots in the cafeteria and ate a bowl of cereal. Is that meaningful to your diagnosis?"

  "Yes. In fact, I can't think of clearer proof that Peter was still dissociating at that moment. You've got a boy who is completely unaware of the fact that he's surrounded by classmates he'd either killed, wounded, or sent fleeing. He sits down and takes the time to calmly pour a bowl of Rice Krispies, unaffected by the carnage around him."

  "What about the fact that many of the children Peter fired at were not part of what could commonly be called the 'popular crowd'? That there were special-needs children and scholars and even a teacher who became his victims?"

  "Again," the psychiatrist said, "we're not talking about rational behavior. Peter wasn't calculating his actions; at the moment he was shooting, he had separated himself from the reality of the situation. Anyone Peter encountered during those nineteen minutes was a potential threat."

  "In your opinion, when did Peter's dissociative state end?" Jordan asked.

  "When Peter was in custody, speaking to Detective Ducharme. That's when he started reacting normally, given the horror of the situation. He began to cry and ask for his mother--which indicates both a recognition of his surroundings and an appropriate, childlike response."

  Jordan leaned against the rail of the jury box. "There's been some evidence in this case, Doctor, that Peter wasn't the only child in the school who was bullied. So why did he react this way to it?"

  "Well, as I said, different people have different responses to stress. In Peter's case, I saw an extreme emotional vulnerability, which, in fact, was the reason he was teased. Peter didn't play by the codes of boys. He wasn't a big athlete. He wasn't tough. He was sensitive. And difference is not always respected--particularly when you're a teenager. Adolescence is about fitting in, not standing out."

  "How does a child who is emotionally vulnerable wind up one day carrying four guns into a school and shooting twenty-nine people?"

  "Part of it is the PTSD--Peter's response to chronic victimization. But a big part of it, too, is the society that created both Peter and those bullies. Peter's response is one enforced by the world he lives in. He sees violent video games selling off the shelves at stores; he listens to music that glorifies murder and rape. He watches his tormentors shove him, strike him, push him, demean him. He lives in a state, Mr. McAfee, whose license plate reads 'Live Free or Die.'" King shook his head. "All Peter did, one morning, was turn into the person he'd been expected to be all along."


  Nobody knew this, but once, Josie had broken up with Matt Royston.

  They had been going out for nearly a year when Matt picked her up one Saturday night. An upperclassman on the football team--someone Brady knew--was having a party at his house. You up for it? Matt had asked, even though he'd already been driving there when he asked her.

  The house had been pulsing like a carnival by the time they arrived, cars parked on the curb and the sidewalk and the lawn. Through the upstairs windows, Josie could see people dancing; as they walked up the driveway, a girl was throwing up in the bushes.

  Matt didn't let go of her hand. They twined through wall-to-wall bodies, embroidering their path to the kitchen, where the keg was set up, and then back to the dining room, where the table had been tipped on its side to create a bigger dance floor. The kids they passed were not only from Sterling High, but other towns, too. Some had the red-rimmed, loose-jawed stare that came from smoking pot. Guys and girls sniffed at each other, circling for sex.

  She didn't know anyone, but that wasn't important, because she was with Matt. They pressed closer, in the heat of a hundred other bodies. Matt slid his leg between hers while the music beat like blood, and she lifted up her arms to fit herself against him.

  Everything had gone wrong when she went to use the bathroom. First, Matt had wanted to follow her--he said it wasn't safe for her to be alone. She finally convinced him it would take all of thirty seconds, but as she started off, a tall boy wearing a Green Day shirt and a hoop earring turned too quickly and spilled his beer on her. Oh, shit, he'd said.

  It's okay. Josie had a tissue in her pocket; she took it out and started to blot her blouse dry.

  Let me, the boy said, and he took the napkin from her. At the same time they both realized how ridiculous it was trying to soak up that much liquid with a tiny square of Kleenex. He started laughing, and then she did, and his hand was still lightly resting on her shoulder when Matt came up and punched him in the face.

  What are you doing! Josie had screamed. The boy was out cold on the floor, and other people were trying to get out of the way but stay close enough to see the fight. Matt grabbed her wrist so hard that she thought it was going to snap. He dragged her out of the house and into the car, where she sat in stony silence.

  He was just trying to help, Josie said.

  Matt put the car into reverse and lurched backward. You want to stay? You want to be a slut?

  He'd started to drive like a lunatic--running red lights, taking corners on two wheels, doubling the speed limit. She told him to slow down three times, and then she just closed her eyes and hoped it would be over soon.

  When Matt had screeched to a stop in front of her house, she turned to him, unusually calm. I don't want to go out with you anymore, she had said, and she got out of the car. His voice trailed her to the front door: Good. Why would I want to go out with a fucking whore, anyway?

  She had managed to slip by her mother, feigning a headache. In the bathroom, she'd stared at herself in the mirror, trying to figure out who this girl was who had suddenly grown such a backbone, and why she still felt like crying. She'd lain in her bed for an hour, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes, wondering why--if she'd been the one to end it--she felt so miserable.

  When the phone rang after three in the morning, Josie grabbed it and hung it up again, so that when her mother picked up, she would assume it had been a wrong number. She held her breath for a few seconds, and then lifted the receiver and punched in *69. She knew, even before she saw the familiar string of numbers, that it was Matt.

  Josie, he had said, when she called back. Were you lying?

  About what?

  Loving me?

  She had pressed her face into the pillow. No, she whispered.

  I can't live without you, Matt had said, and then she heard something that sounded like a bottle of pills being shaken.

  Josie had frozen. What are you doing?

  What do you care?

  Her mind had started racing. She had her driver's permit, but couldn't take the car out herself, and not after dark. She lived too far away from Matt to run there. Don't move, she said. Just . . . don't do anything.

  Downstairs in the garage, she'd found a bicycle she hadn't ridden since she was in middle school, and she pedaled the four miles to Matt's house. By the time she got there, it had been raining; her hair and her clothes were glued to her skin. The light was still on in Matt's bedroom, which was on the first floor. Josie knocked on the window, and he opened it so that she could crawl inside.

  On his desk was a bottle of Tylenol and another one, open, of Jim Beam. Josie faced him. Did you--

  But Matt wrapped his arms around her. He smelled of liquor. You told me not to. I'd do anything for you. Then he had pulled back from her. Would you do anything for me?

  Anything, she vowed.

  Matt had gathered her into his arms. Tell me you didn't mean it.

  She felt a cage coming down around her; too late she realized that Matt had her trapped by the heart. And like any unwitting animal that was well and truly caught, Josie could escape only by leaving a piece of herself behind.

  I'm so sorry, Josie had said at least a thousand times that night, because it was all her fault.


  "Dr. Wah," Diana said, "how much were you paid for your work on this case?"

  "My fee is two thousand dollars per day."

  "Would it b
e fair to say that one of the most important components of diagnosing the defendant was the time you spent interviewing him?"


  "During the course of those ten hours, you were relying on him to be truthful with you in his recollection of events, right?"


  "You'd have no way of knowing if he wasn't being truthful, would you?"

  "I've been doing this for some time, Ms. Leven," the psychiatrist said. "I've interviewed enough people to know when someone's trying to put one over on me."

  "Part of what you use in determining whether or not a teen is putting one over on you is taking a look at the circumstances they're in, correct?"


  "And the circumstances in which you found Peter included being locked up in jail for multiple first-degree murders?"

  "That's right."

  "So, basically," Diana said, "Peter had a huge incentive to find a way out."

  "Or, Ms. Leven," Dr. Wah countered, "you could also say he had nothing left to lose by telling the truth."

  Diana pressed her lips together; a yes or no answer would have done just fine. "You said that part of your diagnosis of PTSD came from the fact that the defendant was attempting to get help, and couldn't. Was this based on information he gave you during your interviews?"

  "Yes, corroborated by his parents, and some of the teachers who testified for you, Ms. Leven."

  "You also said that part of your diagnosis of PTSD was illustrated by Peter's retreat into a fantasy world, correct?"


  "And you based that on the computer games that Peter told you about during your interviews?"


  "Isn't it true that when you sent Peter to Dr. Ghertz, you told him he was going to have some brain scans done?"


  "Couldn't Peter have told Dr. Ghertz that a smiling face looked angry, if he thought it would help you out with a diagnosis?"

  "I suppose it would be possible . . ."

  "You also said, Doctor, that reading an email the morning of March sixth is what put Peter into a dissociative state, one strong enough to last through Peter's entire killing spree at Sterling High--"


  "Sustained," the judge said.

  "Did you base that conclusion on anything other than what Peter Houghton told you--Peter, who was sitting in a jail cell, charged with ten murders and nineteen attempted murders?"

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