Rebel: Diane Schetky '61
When the prosecution sees only a hardened criminal, Diane Schetky ’61 often peers below the surface and discovers something else.
Take the case of Lee Boyd Malvo, one of two men found guilty in the 2002 Washington, D.C.-area sniper killings. As a forensic psychiatrist whose specialty is young offenders, Schetky was called in as a witness for the defense team. Her assignment: to determine whether the 17-year-old defendant was criminally responsible under the law.
“If you look deeply enough, you sometimes find a criminal who can be helped,” says Schetky, a child/adolescent/adult psychiatrist in Rockport, Me., who has represented both the defense and prosecution in criminal and abuse cases. “Unfortunately the trend is not to rehabilitate, but just to write someone off as a sociopath.”
Schetky has often taken the road less traveled, shedding light on unknown and unpopular causes, and defending the rights of those unable to defend themselves. In the Malvo case, public sentiment was strongly against leniency, and the prosecution had called for capital punishment. But the psychiatrist found that the defendant had been abandoned by his father, abused and neglected by his mother and then indoctrinated by John Muhammad, an older man who became a surrogate father and used the teen as an accomplice; Muhammad was later given the death penalty for his role in the killings. Schetky’s report supported the defense’s claim that Malvo was not criminally responsible for his actions because of mental illness. The jury found Malvo to be criminally responsible, but he received a life sentence, rather than the death penalty.
Schetky has been involved with such cases. In the early 1990’s, she was hired by six plaintiffs in Maine who claimed they had been sexually abused by local priests. In the late 1990’s, she testified for the defense of Michael Carneal, who, as a young teen, shot and killed three fellow students at a school in West Paducah, Ky. She has also written numerous books and articles on the assessment and treatment of children within the legal system. In 1977, she co-authored an article on victims of incest, “writing about it before people were even asking about it,” she says. She has also written about parental kidnapping and the difficulties of verifying children’s allegations in sex abuse cases, among other issues.
Over the years, Schetky has also worked as a prison psychiatrist with the toughest criminals, some of whom have indeed been rehabilitated. However, most prisons are “harsh places where punishment reinforces shame, which in turn only reinforces more violence,” says Schetky, who earned an MD from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 1966.
The odds notwithstanding, there have been success stories, like those Schetky tells about a prisoner who learned Braille and volunteered to do Braille translations, and another who became a paralegal and donated his services to other inmates. “Most prisoners get out, and the goal is for them to come out better citizens than when they went in,” she explains.
Schetky grew up in Greenwich, Conn., where as a young woman she turned her back on the debutante society she was raised in and took off in a different direction. “It was so homogeneous in Greenwich that it piqued my curiosity about the rest of the world,” she says. “I decided to run out and embrace all the forbidden fruit. There’s always been a lot of the rebel in me.”
Sarah Lawrence, she says, turned out to be the perfect choice for a young woman in search of herself. “I finally got turned on to learning for learning’s sake, as opposed to just trying to make the honor roll,” she says. (Her son, Scott Browning, graduated from the College in 1995.)
Another major turning point in Schetky’s life came in 1986, after practicing in Wilton, Conn. for less than a decade. “I got tired of the green ghetto,” she says, explaining the reason for her move to Rockport, Maine. “I had a very boutique-y kind of practice in Wilton, with executive parents who wanted me to ‘fix’ their kids but not look at their own behaviors. It was time for a change.”
Four years ago, after 14 years of private practice in Rockport, Schetky gave up her clinical work. Since then, she has worked primarily with courts and attorneys, interviewing and examining criminal defendants for the Maine State Forensic Service. She also consults to school systems. “For example, if a kid has sent a threatening email,” she explains, “I might be called in to evaluate how serious that threat is.” She still spends time with prisoners, but does so now as a hospice volunteer running bereavement groups.
Schetky, who has held a number of academic posts, is one of about 2,000 members of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law—only a few dozen of whom practice child and adolescent forensic psychiatry. She continues to write about child issues and the law, and to upset apple carts.