Seven Years

Barry Goldwater once said that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. As I sat down to type out my thoughts on Colton Harris-Moore’s sentencing today, that is the quote that comes to mind.

I am not disappointed that a miscreant of this magnitude has been sentenced to seven years in prison and has yet to be sentenced for federal charges. What I am disappointed in is how easily the public and our legal system can be manipulated into believing that a serial criminal is a victim.

It’s not even worth checking what the pro-Harris-Moore message boards are saying tonight. To thousands of people he’s a folk hero who “never killed anyone.” Clueless young women proclaim that they want to bear his children and young men ticked off at society think he’s flipping awesome. I have said it many, many times as I’ve blogged about Harris-Moore, but it is so sad that he is the focus of so many people’s sympathy, not his victims.

A moderate sentence was predictable because of the outpouring of sympathy for him and the “I’m so sorry and I don’t want to see any money” strategy. Did I just say strategy? Why yes I did. It was Harris-Moore’s mother, Pam Kohler, who may offer us the most honest insight about the tactics the defense used. According to statements I read in the media today, she feels demonized. She feels like her son’s exploits have been pinned on her.

Do I approve of the way Pam Kohler raised, or didn’t raise, her son? Absolutely not. Was his proclivity for criminal behavior her fault? It certainly sounds like she created an atmosphere in which this would thrive. Childhood can be an important factor to bring into psychological evaluations, sentencing, and other components of the legal system because it can help explain a criminal’s development. But is Pam Kohler as responsible for the choices Colton made as the defense would have liked us to think? No, even in spite of her failure as a mother.

Colton Harris-Moore’s childhood and neurological issues may have strong influences on his attraction to antisocial behavior. But they are not the sole explanations of it and they certainly aren’t an excuse for it. As I’ve mentioned before, if those factors are severe enough it can be effectively argued that the person is not in control of their actions, they are a danger to society and must be managed. I have maintained that in spite of the adversity that has followed Harris-Moore, he has always had a choice whether to persist in his criminal behavior or cease.

God help us when the judge sentencing a burglar, arsonist, thief, vandal, and fugitive who has endangered the lives of both citizens and law enforcement says, “”That is the triumph of the human spirit and the triumph of Colton Harris-Moore… He has survived.” ( Is she a fan on his Facebook page?

The real triumph is that his victims survived and that he was caught before he did hurt or kill someone. I have much stronger words running through my mind right now, but why on earth would you laud a serial criminal at his sentencing hearing, especially when some of his victims are in attendance? Some of these people have lost their sense of peace, their property, and even their businesses because of him.

The judge today, who, curiously, had Harris-Moore in her courtroom as a juvenile, prefaced her remarks about his triumph by saying: “I was struck that I could be reading the history of a mass murderer. I could have been reading about a drug-addicted, alcoholic, abusive man who followed in the footsteps of his mother.” ( She is correct that Harris-Moore’s background might have factored into other types of criminal behavior. What I find interesting is that this statement gives the appearance that a drug addict or alcoholic is inherently more dangerous than a reckless teen who crash lands airplanes.

I understand the point that the judge was making, but hope she would consider, using her own logic, that his criminal behavior has escalated all along and could progress to more serious offenses if he’s not locked up. Didn’t he “fire a warning shot” at a police officer? Didn’t he take a rifle from an Island County deputy’s car? Didn’t he point a laser sight (probably on a gun) at a homeowner in another state? Some people have said, “oh, he was just messing with them.” He could have killed someone, with stolen guns, with stolen planes he could barely land, even with his neighbor’s Mercedes he aimed toward a propane tank and then bailed out of when a deputy was in pursuit. Hello McFly?

A front page Seattle PI article today discussed Harris-Moore’s “tragic past.” It mentioned this statement made by the defense investigator: “His airplane thefts and break-ins began as a flight from a horrendous home.” ( He couldn’t just run away; he had to steal an airplane to actually leave? This wasn’t years of stealing food because his mother didn’t care enough to feed her own child; this is someone who has taunted police and gotten increasingly brazen about his crimes. Bare feet drawn with chalk, anyone? “C-ya?” Self-portraits in a shirt with a Mercedes Benz emblem deep in the forests of Camano?

Another bothersome aspect of this case is the hoopla about how Harris-Moore is determined to become a responsible, self-sufficient citizen during his prison sentence. Please note that I hope he does. But how much effort did he put into becoming a responsible, self-sufficient citizen first? Why did he not run away and make something of himself already, especially given the skills and IQ his fans allege that he has? Why was it an arrest, and not him, that stopped his crime spree? The defense’s mitigation report claims that that a lenient sentence will give him a better chance at becoming the person he allegedly wants to be.

Also, prison is a place where some criminals network and hone their skills. Sometimes those who appear to be model prisoners are the ones who have become most adept at manipulating other people. They’re the ones who make parole because of their charitable activities and college degrees earned on the inside. Then they’re released for being “good” and commit worse crimes than before. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

After perusing Harris-Moore’s psychiatric evaluation posted on the Seattle Times website, several findings stood out to me. This expert, hired by the defense, said that Harris-Moore does not have antisocial personality disorder. Instead, he is alleged to suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Depression is not a surprise, so I zeroed in on the PTSD issue. Harris-Moore allegedly developed PTSD after piloting (or in another account in the news, crashing) his first plane.

This is very interesting to me, because for someone to be diagnosed with PTSD, they must meet several criteria that include the “persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma and numbing of general responsiveness (not present before the trauma), as indicated by three or more of the following…” At this point the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists seven possible symptoms.

While I acknowledge the professional credentials of the psychiatrist doing the evaluation, I’m not yet comprehending how there was a persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma when Harris-Moore kept on stealing and crashing planes. Typically, people with PTSD do not enjoy revisiting the traumas that caused their condition in the first place. I would understand this diagnosis more if Harris-Moore was diagnosed with PTSD because of his home life.

Harris-Moore’s diagnoses from childhood indicate what are sometimes precursors to antisocial personality disorder. In other words, based on earlier evaluations, if they are accurate, APD would be a logical progression. First-degree biological relatives of people with APD are more likely to have it than the general public. Little has been said about Harris-Moore’s father and father figures, but it sounds like all were antisocial to some degree. His mother did not pursue or attract healthy companions, and sadly, it sounds like she’s unsure who his father is. The man said to be his father has been in and out of prison for a number of offenses, something the defense’s mitigation report went into in detail.

I’m sitting here staring at the diagnostic criteria for APD and mulling over the years I’ve put into studying antisocials, sociopaths, and psychopaths. I have dealt with them and the damage they’ve caused most of my life, and on that note have suggested all along that Harris-Moore might fit into this category. His pattern of behavior seems all too familiar. Some Camano residents have said he’s seemed “evil” since he was a little kid, and the specific reasons they gave for that sounded just like descriptions of other cases I’ve studied.

For these reasons as well as for the sake of good, plain common sense and the protection of society,  I’ve hoped that the court, not the defense, would hire a forensic psychologist to evaluate him. It would be very interesting to compare that expert’s conclusions with those of the defense’s expert. Perhaps they would arrive at the same conclusions and we must be willing to allow for that possibility. Such evaluations are supposed to be objective. I want to list the diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder though, because it might ring some bells:

A. There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:

(1) failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest

(2) deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure

(3) impulsivity or failure to plan ahead

(4) irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults

(5) reckless disregard for safety of self or others

(6) consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations

(7) lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another

B. The individual is at least age 18 years.

C. There is evidence of Conduct Disorder with onset before age 15 years.

D. The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of Schizophrenia or a Manic Episode.

This disorder would seem to fit the daring, dangerous, dumb, and deviant acts of Colton Harris-Moore better than depression and PTSD. Not everyone fits into the neat little boxes of the DSM-IV, but I am fascinated by the results of the defense’s evaluation. I do not have the information they have, but I wish I could have been a fly on the wall during the testing. Please note that there is controversy over whether the diagnosis of APD should be given to people under the age of 18 (I am among those who believe it is valid in some cases).

The defense has emphasized concepts like child, shy, introverted, remorseful, and surprised in their quest to minimize Harris-Moore’s sentence. Whether or not these things are true, we have almost forgotten that this case is about a now 20 year-old male. The mitigation package that the Seattle Times posted had a picture of Harris-Moore as a kid with his dog on the front and childhood drawings printed throughout. It emphasizes his remorse, a lack of which can be an indicator of APD. This remorse seems to be a postscript as it doesn’t seem to have stopped him from committing scores and scores of crimes.

While I would not wish Harris-Moore’s childhood or parents on anyone, the tactic of playing up his childhood issues is transparent. We’re inclined to think of words like innocence, victim, remorse, regret, pity, and sympathy when our minds are so focused on the past. Whatever Harris-Moore may be, let’s not forget that the most adept manipulators among us prey, as Martha Stout says, on our sympathy. As she points out, it is the most universal behavior of unscrupulous people.

This leads me to a related point. My concerns about Harris-Moore’s behavior and how it has affected his victims are obvious. Yet I have another tremendous concern about this case, and that is how many people’s opinions of Harris-Moore have been manipulated through emotion rather than reason. I have long seen this phenomenon in politics and have been concerned for years about how easily people are swayed when their emotions are played.

In Harris-Moore’s case, the masses have been conditioned to feel sorry for him and to believe that he will “grow up” to be a great man. I am so sorry that he had a literal hell of a childhood. I hope that, even though there are a multitude of red flags that could well be indicators of future behavior, he matures into someone who shows true empathy and succeeds. But I am much more concerned about public safety and about the impact this has had on his victims.

When a criminal becomes a celebrity, it’s easy to forget who they had to victimize to gain a cult following. I am so tired of hearing about his “victimless” crimes and how he “didn’t hurt anyone.” For what he has done, for the lives he has risked and the damage he has caused, he is getting off easy. When he is sentenced on the federal charges next month, his attorney wants the sentences to run concurrently (which means he’s doing time for the federal and state charges simultaneously).

This is a beautiful deal for someone who has committed scores of crimes, especially someone whose choices have been so heavily influenced and controlled by his upbringing and medical issues. That is intended to sound sarcastic, because if someone truly can’t control themselves due to such problems, society should be protected from them. I’ve used the analogy before, but it’s like a car that has no brakes. It will careen out of control and strike people at random. This crime spree was deliberate and showed a disregard for the public and police.

This isn’t the end of the story. There’s the movie. There’s the mom profiting from it all. There’s more sentencing ahead. I am glad Harris-Moore was convicted and am grateful he’ll do at least some time. He deserves more, though. His victims deserve more. Law enforcement deserves more. Taxpayers deserve more.

There are many people who grow up in horrible, abusive environments who do NOT lead criminal lives. Some of the most effective victim advocates I know of are people who have been through hell as children. They have taken their misery and turned it into their ministry, as T.D. Jakes says. They have taken evil, abuse, and dysfunction and turned it into healing, help, and hope for others. They have made the right choice.

On the KOMO News forum, commenter NoHelmetLaws said, “He has a long and lucrative career when he gets out in Congress. He has the job skills already, flying on other people’s dime, thievery, taking advantage, treating everyone else as if they were below himself.” This honesty is refreshing in the midst of the celebration of this beloved criminal’s “spirit” that his attorneys do not want to see broken by an “excessive” prison sentence.

Let me leave you with this thought, though. I could have posted this alone tonight and it would have been sufficient:

Cripple a man, and you have Sir Walter Scott. Lock him in a prison cell, and you have John Bunyan. Bury him in the snows of Valley Forge, and you have George Washington. Raise him in abject poverty, and you have Abraham Lincoln. Strike him down with infantile paralysis, and he becomes Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Burn him so severely in a schoolhouse fire that doctors say he’ll never walk again, and you have Glenn Cunningham, who set the world record in 1934 by running a mile in four minutes and six seconds. –Ted Engstrom

Enough said.


©2011 H. Hiatt/ All articles/posts on this blog are copyrighted original material that may not be reproduced in part or whole in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from H. Hiatt/

2 thoughts on “Seven Years

  1. While I agree with the tone and reasoning, my overall concern is that Colton follows the trend of most long term inmates: 70% had no father figure. How does a 20 year old serve seven years (or any length sentence), given his past and known behavior, and come out of prison a better person? The experience will be great for learning more street survival skills and how not to get shanked but hardly on how to become the man he was never encouraged to be.

    Sorry, there is no gene that kicks in giving an internal “You’re a man now. Make society happy.” More nurture than nature as evidenced by decades of a growing number of men willing to have baby mommas but not willing to take care of either. Also the length of time men stay with their parents before moving out on their own. We are raising and even encouraging sustained juvenile behavior.

    How is the taxpayer served by keeping someone like Colton in jail longer except a bigger jail tab? Yes, the argument that he “might” do something else, much like what was pointed out about in the article of “might” have killed someone. The point is, he didn’t. If he’s as smart as his fans think, he “might” have stolen a nuclear bomb and ransomed the world for…one…million… dollars. He didn’t. We need to stay away from “mights.” Given enough latitude, anyone can be convinced everyone “might” do something.

    Since the parenting, public education and community support Colton received did not either prepare him for the bigger world, convince him that he can handle what he faces in the world or be open enough for him to feel he could ask for help, I’m not sure what his future holds but we can’t be bothered with that. He must pay for his crimes.

    Does Colton deserve punishment? Yes.
    Is he a danger to society? Yes, more than most.
    Does the punishment fit the crime? I believe it does.

    Ultimately, we need to hold those like Colton accountable while still treating them with love and compassion just as their victims regardless of how heinous their crimes. It is the one trait we possess that separates us from animals.

    Brent Ottoson
    Camano Island, WA


    1. Brent, thanks for the thoughtful reply. You make a number of excellent points, especially about fathers. Well said!

      The debate about whether prison exists for rehabilitation or punishment will never die. Some people are more concerned with whether he is punished than what prison could do to help him and vice versa.

      I appreciate your closing comment too. I just don’t want to see people who are loving and compassionate get played by a defense attorney who I have firsthand experience with. Things aren’t always what they seem.


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