If you still haven’t filed your 2008 tax returns, take heart. You may be suffering from Late-Filing Syndrome. That’s right: It’s a disease. Late-filing syndrome became a sensation last October when it was cited by the lawyer for Charles O’Byrne, a top aide to New York Governor David A. Paterson. There was no dispute that O’Byrne had failed to file tax returns for five years despite being highly educated and having ample income.
But O’Byrne’s lawyer, Richard Kestenbaum, dismissed any suggestion that his client sought to evade taxes. Rather, he argued that O’Byrne suffers from a syndrome, the main symptoms of which, conveniently enough, are a high level of education, ample income and a failure to pay taxes.
As this episode illustrates, American law has a rich vocabulary of excuses, those defenses or denials that promise to get one’s clients off the hook for conduct that would otherwise be illegal. Not all the expressions are newfangled: The alibi (Latin for “elsewhere”) is an ancient defense, but legal excuses have been proliferating in recent years.
Here They Come!
A common linguistic strategy for creating a legal excuse is to affix the word “syndrome” to whatever condition you want to excuse. A “syndrome” describes a set of concurrent signs or symptoms that characterize a particular disease or abnormality. The word comes from the Greek “syn” (together), plus “dramein” (to run).
Many observers of the O’Byrne debacle thought that attorney Kestenbaum must have been suffering from lame excuse syndrome, but in fact, the lawyer was following well established precedent. Late-filing syndrome has been invoked by tax lawyers for years under various labels, including failure-to-file syndrome. According to experts, tax scofflaws who can show that they suffer from the syndrome stand a better chance of avoiding criminal sanctions.
A 1994 article in the New York Law Journal co-authored by Elliot Silverman, a lawyer, and Dr. Stephen J. Coleman, a practicing psychiatrist, described the condition in detail, including the intriguing hypothesis that people who routinely fail to file taxes are “perfectionists.” Come to think of it, a zero tax liability would satisfy most people’s idea of perfection.
And They Cover Just About Anything
Nowadays, there’s a syndrome to fit every fact pattern.
Chronic Lateness Syndrome, a forerunner of late-filing syndrome, was reportedly asserted in 1992 to justify a fired Chicago school teacher’s tendency to arrive late. The American Dream Syndrome identifies the cultural pressure to make money as an incitement to crime. Nicotine Withdrawal Syndrome is recognized by the psychiatric profession as causing cravings, irritability, frustration and anger.
The world of sports generates more than its share of syndromes. The SuperJock Syndrome, referring to prominent athletes being especially prone to violence when frustrated, was coined by Dr. Susan Forward, the therapist who treated Nicole Simpson.
The Super Bowl Sunday Syndrome refers to the fact that domestic violence rises as much as 40 percent on game day. Nobody knows why this is, but it may be a result of Football Widow Syndrome, a defense asserted in 1994 by a Florida woman who shot her husband out of frustration with his constant football-watching.
And in case Alex Rodriguez decides to take extreme measures against his critics, he may be able to cite Roid Rage, a term coined by Dr. David Datz, Harvard Medical School, to describe aggression caused by anabolic steroids. Although this defense did not work for a California bodybuilder who sought to beat a murder rap in 1993, it may be that the defense lawyer simply needed to pump up a bit.
The Rock and Roll Defense describes the argument that subliminal messages in popular music led the defendant to crime. This defense was infamously pioneered by Charles Manson, who unsuccessfully argued that the Beatles’ “White Album” impelled him to commit mass murder.
A more contemporary twist on this defense is the Video Made Me Do It defense. This was most recently trotted out, unsuccessfully, in the trial of Daniel Petric, 17, who claimed that his obsession with the Halo video game led him to shoot both of his parents.
Those looking for something a little more intergalactic might be interested in UFO Survivor Syndrome, a collection of recurring traumas suffered by those who were, through no fault of their own, abducted by aliens. The syndrome hasn’t persuaded many judges in New York, but it is widely accepted on Tralfamador.
These and other attempts to blame criminal conduct on past misfortune are often lumped together under the label of the Abuse Excuse, a term coined by Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz in his 1994 book of the same name. As the editors of Random House Webster’s “Dictionary of the Law” point out, this term is generally disparaging; those sympathetic to the defendant usually refer to a “history of victimization.”
Don’t Forget the Insanity Defense
Another umbrella category of excuses is the insanity defense.
Although often thought of as a concession to modern theories of mental hygiene, it is actually an ancient doctrine based on the belief, as Sir William Blackstone put it in the 18th century, that “lunatics or infants . . . are incapable of committing any crime.” In Blackstone’s day, acquitted lunatics were locked up in a hospital called St. Mary of Bethlehem, popularly known as Bedlam, which has since come to be a general expression for confusion.
And while we pride ourselves on having made giant leaps in psychiatry, when it comes to insanity, the law still favors the M’Naghten Test, which grew out of the 1843 trial of Daniel M’Naghten, a mad Englishman who killed the prime minister’s secretary, Edward Drummond. There are also tests for temporary insanity, which go by such vivid names as the irresistible impulse test and the wild beast test.
Some states also recognize a less severe form of mental impairment called diminished capacity, sometimes referred to as the Twinkie Defense after an infamous 1979 trial in which defense lawyers convinced a jury that a killer’s rational judgment had been impaired, in part, by eating junk food.
And what about Charles O’Byrne? Although he resigned from state government last year, Mr. Paterson recently floated the idea of bringing him back on staff. But in February, O’Byrne nixed the idea.
Evidently, he’s happily ensconced in the private sector and quite possibly suffering from Albany Fatigue Syndrome.
Adam Freedman is a lawyer practicing in New York. His book on legal language, “The Party of the First Part,” is published by Henry Holt.