The Video Game Defense That Wasn't

Shortly after coming aboard here one of the first things I did was set up a filter to capture and set aside Jack Thompson's bullshit from all the tips cc'd to me. After the preamble to his professional obituary two weeks ago, I went back looking through the "Crazy Fucker" queue to see if I could find some kicking-and-screaming ravings that, even if they didn't deserve to run under the Kotaku nameplate, would at least be fun to read. Instead, I found something unexpected.

It was a news release from mid-May, and in it, Jack was up to his usual schtick of making hay off others' misery - in this case claiming a murder defendant in North Carolina was motivated by Grand Theft Auto of course. But the story Thompson was citing was published in Fayetteville, by a paper I interned for 15 years ago. And it was written by my housemate that year, a friend and a guy who introduced me to some excellent video games himself.

So I emailed the writer, Paul Woolverton of The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer, to dig deeper into this story.

Here's the backstory: James Christopher Stitt, 22, shot to death a soldier and his girlfriend in 2005. There was apparently little trouble proving his culpability. The defense put its efforts into sparing Stitt from the death penalty, focusing on Stitt's emotionally disturbed past, such as the fact his father kicked him out at age 16, putting him in the kind of drifter's life that led him to move in with this unfortunate couple.

During the sentencing phase, the psychiatrist the defense team hired testified Stitt claimed he was in a state where he was not in control of his actions at the time. Stitt claimed to have played Grand Theft Auto for four hours prior to the murder. Before his arrest, Stitt told a different version to his girlfriend that did not mention video games at all. Stitt said the murders stemmed from an argument he'd had that turned violent, and was watching television right before the killings. I'm sure we'll find out later it was an infomercial for a Manhunt 2-themed timeshare.

This was enough for Thompson, of course, who littered our inbox with a release claiming a video-game defense won the day. It almost reads like an exoneration. "Part of Stitt's defense was his obsessive play of the Grand Theft Auto video games, and it worked," Thompson crowed. "It was put before the jury in a very clever fashion, and it worked."

Is that really what did it?

"[The psychiatrist] never said there was a connection between the game playing and the shootings. No one asked her if there was a connection, and no one suggested or implied it," Paul wrote me. "In the course of the trial, her statement of the midnight to 4 a.m. hours was the only evidence of Stitt ever playing any video game in his entire life. Had he played video games before? Probably. But if video games were being offered as a defense or mitigator, I think we would have heard a lot more."

That means whatever Stitt told his professional examiner - again, hired by his own defense - about video games, she did not find enough basis that they were a credibile mitigator for his actions. In their closing arguments to the jury, Stitt's lawyers never mentioned video games. The psychiatrist herself never said she believed the games put Stitt into a state where he was not in control of his actions. She testified that she even questioned whether Stitt was telling the truth in that version of the killings.

As for the jurors, many left the court in tears. The lawyers spoke to them, but not the journalists. The lawyers didn't ask what the reasons were for sparing Stitt the death penalty.

So here's the scorecard:

Stitt: Convicted double murderer. Invoked video games and a feeling he was not in control of his actions to save his ass from the death penalty. Honestly, I think he said Grand Theft Auto because it was the first thing that popped into his mind, in a setting where he knew he was trying for a psychiatric defense. Had he actually played, he would have specified the version. I'm serious. Anyway, he's going to do life and die behind the walls of Raleigh's Central Prison.

Thompson: Moral opportunist who portrays the fact a jury put a murderer away for life but did not sentence him to death as equivalent to an exoneration and miscarriage of justice. That's classy. Death or nothing for the anti-(virtual) violence crusader. Completely ignores what has and has not been established by evidence and testimony - in other words, basic law. No wonder he can't file a motion without adult supervision.

One blames video games to save his ass; the other to further a nutball agenda. They deserve each other.

As for Paul, he no longer games as much since his girlfriend moved in. He and I played X-Wing and Red Baron on his PC when I lived in his house in 1993. After that summer he played Thief 1, Thief 2, Tanarus and Duke Nukem 3D. He's never owned a game console and doesn't care to; he's waiting to get a decent Windows PC to get back into gaming seriously.

Paul also noted, dryly, that a recent survey rated Fayetteville the third-worst place in the U.S. to raise a child. So you could blame that, or you could blame Grand Theft Auto. Or you could blame the fact that we are a fucked-up ultraviolent society with easy access to deadly weapons, and while violent video games are a part of that stew, we've had senseless killings well before their arrival.

Stitt's Lawyers Shoot Down Video Game Defense [Fayetteville N.C. Observer]