A woman recently sentenced to 15 years in prison is the first person known to be convicted in Florida of a DUI manslaughter while under the influence of the drug Ambien. The Florida woman, Della Foss, had a combination of Ambien, Xanax, cocaine and Lorata in her system when her car ran off the road and killed a 49 year-old man who was walking to work. Foss said she was in a blackout when the accident occurred and didn’t mean to do harm to anyone. The jury sentenced her to 15 years in prison for the killing.
A jury in Norman, OK was not as lenient, however, when another defendant, Billy Davis, claimed he had been in an alcoholic blackout when he shot and killed three women. Despite his claim that he could not have had a clear intent to commit murder while in a blackout state, the jury convicted him of first-degree murder. Davis’ jury even recommended that he receive the death penalty.
Although they sound like the fabricated plots from TV crime drama shows, claims of drug and alcohol-induced blackouts are becoming more common in true crime stories. When the “blackout defense” enters the courtroom, juries are left to determine whether it is just a legal maneuver or if drugs and alcohol affected the brain to such an extent that a blackout state was a real phenomenon. In some cases defendants may receive a lighter sentence or even an acquittal if it is believed that drugs or alcohol caused them to be “out of their minds” at the time of a crime.
While many prosecutors and jury members are suspicious of a fabricated blackout defense, Richard Broom is one ex-con who knows firsthand that alcohol-induced blackouts are all too real. On July 5, 1982, Broom woke up and was told by a friend that he had shot two men in a bar the night before. Broom had no recollection of the shooting, and therefore had no details of his own to refute any of the testimony of the witnesses at his trial. The eleven years that Broom ended up spending in jail after his July 4th drinking binge blackout was a relatively light sentence, considering that he had shot two men, and killed one of them that night.
In his book “Cocked and Loaded,” Broom tells the story of the 24 years of substance abuse that led up to the night when he ended a man’s life in an alcoholic stupor. In his own true crime story, Broom had experienced three to four blackouts a week for the eighteen months prior to the shooting incident. Alcohol blackouts were a normal part of his every day life.
“The only time I stopped drinking was when I was passed out,’ Broom recalls about that period of his life in his book. “I didn’t wake up any more, I just came to. Typically, I would be unconscious for three of four hours until I needed a beer again.”
In “Cocked and Loaded” Broom also recalls the many times when he didn’t believe the stories that other people told him about how he had behaved during those blackout periods. Broom found it hard to believe that he could have chased people down, beat people up, attacked his ex-wife, or driven eight hours in a car without remembering any of it. Sometime during his eleven years behind bars Broom came to the realization that all those blackout stories he had heard about himself were probably true.
The person experiencing an alcohol or drug blackout is not the only one who is not aware that a blackout is occurring while it is occurring. People in blackouts can walk, talk, carry on conversations, have sex, and even drive a car, as Broom found out when he once woke up in a seedy motel room in Charleston, SC without any conscious memory of having driven across three state lines to get there.
A blackout is not the same as passing out from intoxication. Rather, a blackout is a period of time when the brain is so anesthetized that it creates a temporary amnesia. During these times of extreme intoxication, not only will people not be able to recall what they said or did, they will often behave in ways that are atypical, irrational, and often violent.
Alcohol abuse does not necessarily cause aggression, but it increases the likelihood that aggressive behavior will occur because intoxication impairs the normal restraint of emotions. Judgment, decision-making and impulse-control are also impaired, which can lead to violent outbursts and actions.
In fact, in a study released in February, 2010 by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, it was concluded that alcohol and drugs were involved in 78% of all violent crimes. The study also found that alcohol by itself is connected to the crimes of more than half of all inmates incarcerated in America.
The CASA study also estimates that 65% of prison inmates can be defined as substance addicts, but only 11% of those inmates receive any kind of addiction treatment or assistance while they are incarcerated. While it might be assumed that prison is a place where inmates are forced to dry out and clean up because of the lack of access to drugs and alcohol, that assumption is far from the addictive substance reality in most prison environments.
This past week six inmates were caught in a Kissimmee, FL corrections facility with alcohol that they had made themselves using fruit that they hoarded, fermented, and stashed in the interior of their cell walls. Richard Broom had access to this type of home-brewed prison hooch as well when he was in prison. In his book Broom admits that it wasn’t until after his first alcohol blackout from prison punch that he finally admitted to himself that alcohol was a problem in his life. You’d think that the alcohol blackout murder that put him in prison would have sobered him up, but apparently Broom needed a little more convincing even after that. Apparently prison is not the “bottom” that most non-addicted people think it would be.
The CASA report says that the substance abuse statistics in today’s prison population point to the need for a different strategy. Treating addicts as criminals who need to be punished instead of recognizing that addicts are people with a disease that needs to be treated is to perpetuate a cycle of repeat offending that is “inane and inhuman” according to Joseph Califano, Jr., CASA’s chairman and president.
Richard Broom agrees that the need for recovery programs in prison is vital. When the sponsor of the prison Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) program retired and the twelve-step program was suspended in his Dade county correctional facility, Broom launched a one-person letter writing campaign until the twelve-step program was reinstated. He succeeded fairly quickly by ruffling some prison administration feathers. “I didn’t care,” Broom wrote in “Cocked and Loaded.” “Having the program back was all that mattered.”
Broom was released from prison in 1993, and because of the alcohol addiction rehab work he had been able to do in prison, he has been a sober and productive member of society ever since. “While I can say that prison saved my life, the Twelve-Step program saved my soul,” Broom says in his book. “Before I got sober, I didn’t want to live but was afraid to die. Today I want to live, but I’m not afraid to die.”
Ironically, Broom is now an addiction therapist who specializes in the treatment of police, corrections, parole and probation officers. From a clean and sober perspective, Broom sees his work today as more than just poetic justice. He sees his ability to help others because of where he’s been in his life as just part of the plan of “the big boss of the universe.”
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