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If the crime is crazy, is it crazy to forgive it?

Many people are convinced that psychiatry is the world's most elaborate sham and that psychiatrists are the world's craziest people.

I usually disagree _ except when one of those rent-a-shrinks, who has had enough quarters dropped into his mouth, takes the stand in a criminal case to say just what the paying side wants.

Somehow, though, Dr. Michael Maher never seemed to radiate that aura of phoniness. He is not pompous but plain-spoken. His power in court was once enough to nearly make me cry, when he was trying to explain what made a tormented young Brandon woman give birth in secret and then murder her baby.

The defense called on Maher again Monday. His job was to try to persuade the jury to spare the life of Robert Barthmaier, even though Barthmaier had not spared the life of that Turkish exchange student.

To hear Maher tell it, Barthmaier had virtually every known disability of mind and heart, without being constitutionally incapable of getting out of bed. Murder almost was an inevitable consequence of his 24 years of life, if living is what you'd call it.

This was a young man who was raised in a sick and shattered family, who spent three years in the first grade, who all his life couldn't control his urges, who was in and out of special schools and, yes, psychologists' offices.

Barthmaier couldn't leave his mother, couldn't handle a checkbook, and yet he was so good at the tough guy act that he drank furiously and would fly into a high octane tantrum at the slightest of slights. He used his fists, a bat, a knife. He went to jail. He just never stayed long.

In his plain voice, Maher gave clinical terms to these problems. Dyslexia. Impulse control disorder. Borderline personality.

I heard these things. I wrote them down. I even believed them.

Then I saw the pictures.

The first one was of Barthmaier, a sweet-faced grade school kid, posed in front of an American flag, with no hint of his life's looming disaster.

The second one was of Mehmet Bahar, the way he looked once the police turned his body over. Blades of grass were embedded in his scraped skin. A great purple egg protruded from the left side of his face, and his nose and mouth had been bent and shoved to the right by some unspeakable force. His tie was wrapped around his neck. His bloody shirt was ripped open. Even his underwear had been taken from him.

This was the second time I felt myself near tears in a case advanced by Dr. Maher. This time, though, the emotion was on the other side.

I am not alone, I know.

This case, and that of Barthmaier's co-defendant, Joseph Wagner, cut some chunk out of the hearts of so many. We were at first embarrassed for this place where we live, where even foreigners die so casually. It again brought home how violence intrudes on our lives, like a stranger who can never be driven from the house.

Recently I wrote about a woman who talked of the crimes that have struck her and her friends, all the way to murder. Later, a young man called to complain that she was a whiner, that more than a dozen of his friends had been killed, it was terrible, but that was life. He said people were killed in wars, weren't they.

I thought at first he was off the wall. Then I decided he couldn't hear himself. I understood why _ the sounds of violence, cries and gunfire, can drive out every sane thought.

I said I wasn't one of those people who think psychiatrists are crazy. I know people who've been helped by the talking cure. I know others who, without even that help, managed to make their shattered lives whole, who kill nobody.

There was a time I would have nodded at every one of Maher's words and said, yes, okay, forgive this sorry young man, just lock him away and forget him. But it increasingly seems that doing so is if not a way of endorsing, then at least a way of saying there are no limits to the outrage that people can endure.

But there are limits. Dr. Maher asked the jurors to look into their hearts and have compassion. I looked into mine and saw those last photographs of Mehmet Bahar and knew where the lines are drawn.

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