The United States of Leland: Crime Theory (orig. 11/04)

Criminology has developed extensively since its humble beginnings in the 1800’s. Old theories have been expounded upon and new theories of crime have developed. There has been special interest in violent crimes, especially crimes involving violent juvenile offenders including juvenile murderers. The FBI defines murder, or homicide, as the willful non-accidental killing of one human being by another. The same crime can be viewed from different paradigms and even different disciplines of social science. The 2004 drama The United States of Leland centers around the possible motives of fifteen year old Leland, an intelligent and seemingly sensitive young man, who stabs to death his ex-girlfriend’s mentally disabled younger brother. In the context of this film, there are a few plausible theories that can be used to explain the commission of Leland’s shocking crime. From a psychological standpoint, Leland is possibly afflicted with anti-social personality disorder, a personality disorder marked largely by the subject’s lack of empathy and remorse. Sociologically speaking, perhaps Leland’s actions can be explained by Rational Choice/Deterrence Theory, in which emotions play a dominant role in a rational choice to commit a crime. This theory falls under the neo-classical paradigm of crime theory is sociology, and therefore operates under some of the main assumptions; people are hedonistic, have free will, and are rational thinkers.
Anti-social personality disorder is considered the core personality disorder afflicting many known murderers and serial murderers. Also known as sociopaths, people having this personality disorder are differentiated from people having psychotic disorders in that they do not experience breaks from reality. They are rational and well aware of right and wrong. The main characteristics that are used as a differential diagnosis for people suspected of having anti-social personality disorder is their lack of empathy for others,

their blatant disregard for societal values, and their lack of remorse. In essence, sociopaths know right from wrong, they just don’t care. Some other characteristics are impulsivity, repeated lying, and a usually charming affect.
In the opening of the film (from first person point of view), Ryan Pollard, a moderately mentally retarded adolescent, is accosted while riding his bike in the park. The perpetrator of the crime is young Leland P. Fitzgerald, the ex-boyfriend of the boy’s sister Becky. Leland returns home and sits in his room, nursing a wounded hand, until his mother returns home. His only words to her are “I think I made a mistake.” While being taken into custody, Leland is stoic at best, responding to the questions of the press with a silent stare, divulging neither guilt nor motive. From a psychological standpoint, this can be indicative of his lack of appreciation or remorse for the gravity of his crime. He has no remarks in regards to anything at his arraignment. Leland is placed in a juvenile facility, in a “special handling” group. He seems apathetic and does not respond to his fellow inmates inquiries into his crime. When asked about the wound on his hand, he responds that he inflicted the wound himself to see what it would feel like to be stabbed.
His “special handling” teacher, an aspiring writer named Pearl Madison, takes a personal (and material) interest in Leland. It is Pearl’s opinion that Leland is not like most of the other delinquents in his charge. He later comments that Leland seems completely “disinterested in his own fate”. Is this apathy towards his fate indicative of possible feelings of guilt, or a sociopathic disregard for society’s rules and laws? Pearl has a few private meetings with Leland (who finally admits out loud that he did in fact kill Ryan Pollard), and becomes determined to ascertain a motive for the crime. Leland’s initial response is a cryptic one. “You want a why…Maybe there is no why…Maybe this is just something that happened…” One possible explanation for this remark is that Leland feels no sense of personal responsibility for his actions.
Leland P. Fitzgerald comes off as an intuitive, sensitive, and intelligent individual. He presents a negative outlook on life; “everything is always slipping away”. He feels that everyone is sad, but that most people generally don’t realize this. Although he claims that this makes him feel nothing, his affect seems sad and hopeless. Were he sociopathic, what he displays as a deeper understanding of the human condition may be nothing more than narcissism, and what he displays as empathy and sadness might be feigned. Under this assumption, any kindness or sensitivity he exhibits to Ryan, Becky, or any others in his life is merely a veil to mask his character deficiencies. Sociopaths can be extremely charming and present pretty much whatever “personality” they choose, if it suits a certain goal or agenda. (A good example of this is serial murderer Ted Bundy, who was described by all who knew him as a polite and charming individual.)
On the other side of the coin, Rational Choice/ Deterrence Theory operates under the assumption that crime is a rational choice, and that the choice to commit crime is based solely on emotions. Often there is no rationality in the heat of the moment, actions being guided rather by adrenaline, anger, or some other potent emotion or state of arousal. According to Jack Katz, a killer must elevate himself to a state of self-righteousness, wherein he believes he is committing the murder for a good cause, (Simpson, 160.) According to this theory, a would-be offender often weighs the costs and benefits of a crime before acting. The theory also takes into account instances where an offender is so overwhelmed by emotions that he does not think about the consequences of his actions, and instances where brain damage may be a factor. One might assume this belittles the effect emotions would play in the commission of a crime; however, rational thought and conduct rests on a person’s emotional state or level of arousal, (Simpson, 162.)
By this standard of assessment, Leland’s actions can be described as existing within the context of a constant state of emotional distress. Referring back to and assessing Leland’s remarks on the human condition, Leland presents as a young man suffering from one or more mood disorders. He presents as depressive and nihilistic, with thoughts that are possibly symptomatic of an underlying obsessive-compulsive disorder. He sees sadness in everyone around him, and feels isolated in the sense that he is alone in his realizations. His empathy is out of control. He claims that the pain he feels for people is possibly greater than the pain the people themselves feel. For instance he claims, when he sees a group of boys playing baseball, all he sees is the one boy they “won’t let play because he tells corny jokes.”
How is this applicable to Leland’s crime? Upon viewing the film, one might initially assume that Leland’s motive for killing his ex-girlfriend’s little brother was one of revenge. Becky is an emotionally disturbed girl with a drug problem. She eventually breaks up with Leland, saying she is confused and has feelings for her drug supplier. While in most cases revenge is a plausible and even likely motive, from the viewpoint of Rational Choice/Deterrence Theory, revenge is not the case. Leland states, in fact, on more than one occasion, that he does not blame Becky for anything. The focus of the whole film is largely discovering Leland’s reasons behind killing Ryan Pollard. Flashbacks throughout the movie show Leland in numerous situations with the boy. He is gentle and looks after the boy like an older brother. He walks him home even when Becky is not around. He calms Ryan when he gets distressed. There are only indications that Leland cares about Ryan.
Leland also recounts to Pearl one of his trips to New York. He had once stayed with a family there for a short while. The mother, a woman whose spirit had once given him a great feeling of peace, had become disillusioned by her husband’s infidelity and the subsequent divorce. Leland claims that her eyes no longer reflected the electricity they once had, only sadness. This appears to be a turning point for Leland, as if his last source of hope in a “dying” world has been extinguished. The sadness he perceives in everyone seems evident all of the time now. It overwhelms him, and he claims that he sees it the worst in Ryan Pollard. “All the words they were teaching him were things to stay away from. There weren’t any words like ‘strawberry’ or kiss’…I started to think he knew. He knew that nobody looked at him like a normal kid. People either laughed at him or felt sorry him. But he couldn’t do anything about it. He was trapped.” Even as he explains all of this (a voiceover passage from his journal), he does not claim that this immense sorrow and empathy he feels is the reason for the murder, although this fact is made to seem evident. He merely says, “Maybe somewhere in all of this there’s a reason…” All he wants is for all of the overwhelming sadness to go away. Essentially, Leland makes a rational choice to kill Ryan Pollard, based on his emotional state, a sort of clinical depression compounded by the extreme sorrow he feels for the boy’s impossible situation.
While both theories are plausible in relation to the crime depicted in the film, Rational Choice/Deterrence Theory seems the more likely of the two. Leland does exhibit certain characteristics of a person having anti-social personality disorder, such as his periodic apathy and his initial hesitation to admit culpability or remorse. However, when examined within the context of his general demeanor and overall behavior, it seems implausible that his sensitive nature is feigned. Furthermore, there are other characteristics of the personality disorder that are either not present or not touched upon throughout the course of the film. There is no evidence of compulsive lying and no references to prior or recurring involvement in fights or altercations. There is no reference whatsoever to any failure to honor financial or personal obligations, another characteristic of a sociopathic personality. It is doubtful that he would have enough of the differential diagnostic characteristics listed in the DSM 4-TR to qualify him as a sociopath.
Quite the contrary, there is a pervasive feeling of helpless sorrow throughout the film. Leland exhibits the melancholic affect and feelings of hopelessness present in an individual suffering from clinical depression. One might go so far as to say that his fixation on the bleakness of humanity borders on the intrusive thought processes characteristic of a person suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, a clinical anxiety disorder. Based on this assessment, Leland feels compelled to act to put an end to the sorrow he feels and perceives Ryan to feel.
Assuming the accuracy of this assessment, there are possibly a few avenues that could have been explored to prevent the crime that was committed. Leland’s father was essentially absent for most of his life. There are no references to the quality of the relationship between Leland and his mother and his relationship with Becky was dysfunctional at best. While this may speak to some lack of social support, this is more a matter of circumstance. The point is that had someone recognized Leland’s mood disorder or depressive state earlier, he might have had several options to help lessen the distress he felt, rather than taking action into his own hands and committing a “mercy” killing. Leland could possibly have benefited from psychotherapy and even medication to correct any chemical imbalances that might have been present in his brain and responsible for his state of mind.
In conclusion, from the perspective of Rational Choice/Deterrence Theory, Leland Fitzgerald murdered young Ryan Pollard because his skewed emotional state directly affected his ability to make a rational choice. Perhaps this is what makes the film especially heartbreaking. Leland was not a self-absorbed adolescent unable to delay gratification. He was not a thug killing another teen for material gains, nor was he a young sociopath incapable of empathy for others. He was suffering from an extreme mood disorder that suspended him in a constant state of despair and sorrow for humanity. Leland is remorseful for what he has done, but even still, it seems as if he would not be able to think of a different solution to end his or Ryan’s pain. Leland is killed while in the care of the juvenile facility. His murderer is another friend of the family who had himself purposefully incarcerated to exact revenge for the pain Ryan’s death has caused. The movie is sad, because had Leland’s condition been recognized earlier, the context of his rational decisions would have been based in a more sound state of mind and more than one life could have been saved.

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