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NYPD Arrests Suspect in Subway Murder, Hate Crime Charged

erika menendez

Erika Menendez then…

New York police arrested a 31 year-old woman suspected of murdering a man in Queens by pushing him in the path of an oncoming subway train a few days ago.  Though she fled the scene, she was found and taken into custody today thanks to video footage of her that was aired.  The statements she made to police caused the prosecutor to charge her with second-degree murder as a hate crime:

The woman, Erika Menendez, selected her victim because she believed him to be a Muslim or a Hindu, Richard A. Brown, the Queens district attorney, said.

…[He quoted her] as having told the police: “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I’ve been beating them up.”

Sunando Sen, the murder victim, was actually a Hindu native of India who’d lived in the U.S. for 20 years.  He owned a New York printing company, and his was the classic American story of the immigrant striving to make good for himself and his family.  The murderer not only confused his dark complexion, believing he was Muslim; she also didn’t realize Hindus had nothing to do with 9/11.

Her error is made even more tragic by this statement from one of Sen’s Muslim roommates:

Ar Suman, a Muslim, and one of three roommates who shared a small first-floor apartment with Mr. Sen in Elmhurst, said he and Mr. Sen often discussed religion.

Though they were of different faiths, Mr. Suman said, he admired the respect that Mr. Sen showed for those who saw the world differently than he did. Mr. Suman said he once asked Mr. Sen why he was not more active in his faith and it resulted in a long philosophical discussion.

“He was so gentle,” Mr. Suman said. “He said in this world a lot of people are dying, killing over religious things.”

This story offers another perspective on the professionalism and patience Sen exhibited in working with the author on a family photographic project.

Sen’s native India is riven by ethnic-religious strife between nationalist Hindus and Muslims which have cost over a million lives since the establishment of India and Pakistan in the late 1940s.  Such killings continue even to this day.  It is also the same type of hatred that motivates some of those who kill in the name of their respective God’s and religions in Israel-Palestine.

Though the Times report says Menendez’ mental status was not known, other sources allege she is bi-polar with a history homelessness:

“All I know is that she’s bipolar…” said a cousin of the suspect…

Erika Menendez

Erika Menendez now (Michael Hicks)

No doubt we will eventually discover a long record of treatment at various mental facilities at which she was prescribed drugs which she may’ve taken for a time, until she either refused or just stopped taking them.  We may find she was part of a social worker’s caseload who supervised her for a time, until Menendez dropped through the cracks as so many do.

As in the case of the Newtown massacre, it’s fairly obvious that someone who would commit such a horrific, unmotivated crime would very likely extremely disturbed.  To be very clear, I am not making the argument that mental illness excuses violent crime.  Nor am I saying that someone who is mentally ill has no responsibility for their crimes or that only the State is responsible (due to its negligence) when such things happen.

Clearly individuals, whether ill or healthy, bear responsibility for their actions.  But the question is–how much responsibility?  Is someone who can form ideas and articulate thoughts clearly and decide to murder, as guilty as someone who cannot articulate any thoughts at all and is driven by uncontrolled impulse to perform heinous acts?

Further, how should society view mental illness in terms of crime?  Now, we essentially make no allowance for mental illness in the judicial system.  Yes, someone could theoretically be found not guilty by reason of insanity.  But the legal standards for such a decision are different from the medical definition of such illness.  It is almost impossible for a murderer to be found legally insane.

We do not understand the fundamental difference between us and the mentally ill.  When they commit a crime we want to treat them as if they were just like us.  But they are not because such an affliction brings with a break with reality.  That is, victims of this condition cannot negotiate reality, they cannot think clearly, they cannot make rational–or any–decisions.

The case of Naveed Haq, who murdered an employee of the Seattle Jewish federation during a shooting rampage in 2006, is very similar to this.  Though he had a ten-year history of treatment for schizophrenia, along with a long history of erratic behavior (he once converted from Islam to evangelical Christianity), the Seattle city attorney pursued the case even after a mistrial.  He secured a first-degree murder conviction under pressure from the local Jewish community, which wanted him punished for his crime despite his mental illness.

At the time, I blogged about this story and was one of the few willing to say that Seattle’s Jews, no matter how compelling their suffering, wanted justice at the expense of mercy.  Mercy, being the realization that a man who is severely ill, no matter how intentional and planned his crimes may appear, did not have the capacity to recognize or be responsible for his actions in any normal sense.  Even some of the victims blamed the ready availability of guns and hardly mentioned anti-Semitism.

Seattle Jews, though, were not approaching this issue any differently than most Americans would.  Our society does not take care of the mentally ill.  We warehouse our victims.  Until they take matters into their own hands and harm someone else.  Then we take action and treat them as if they were mentally competent and responsible for what they do.  For those who are ill, it’s a Catch-22 situation: we leave them to their own devices and then throw the book at them if our negligence allows them to hurt others.

I am the first person to decry religious or ethnic hatred.  It is one of the issues closest to my heart and the mission of this blog.  Naveed Haq, during his rampage blamed Israel for killing Palestinians and Muslims.  His attack occurred in the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon War, in which Israel killed over 1,000 Lebanese civilians.  But no matter how brutal such Israeli killing was, no attack against Jews in America or anywhere else can be justified because of anything Israel has done.

In the very same sense, no attack on anyone, whether Muslim or not, can be justified as vengeance for those innocents killed when three airliners took down the Twin Towers and Pentagon.  Melendez’ crime is horrific and inexcusable.

But can a woman who bellows and moans and makes excruciating grimaces as reporters described during her arrest, be truly held culpable for her behavior?  Can we really say this person can form coherent ideas and understand anything happening in the world around her, let alone a subject as complex and emotion-filled as the 9/11 attacks?

My fear is that just as Naveed Haq was sent away for life, Erika Melendez will go to prison for decades, where she will perhaps be slightly better treated than she was by the New York social welfare system, because she will have a prison roof over her head, three meals a day, and medical care.  In actuality, perhaps I should support her conviction, because it may save her life or at least make it nominally better.

But isn’t that a sad, horrible thought?  And isn’t it an indictment of our treatment of the mentally ill?  I suppose there’s some comfort that Menendez didn’t have the foresight or finances to buy a Bushmaster and translate her inchoate hate into the sort of massacre Adam Lanza perpetrated.  Then you might have had the hate crime of the century.  If the NRA has anything to say about it–we might yet.

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{ 21 comments… add one }
  • mary January 2, 2013, 2:29 AM

    One thing you didn’t mention, Richard, was Pamela Geller’s horrible “civilized man” ads hanging all over subway stations all over New York. Any discussion of this tragedy should not fail to include this factor.

    As a former court clerk in New York’s court system, I concur that there is no way under the present laws to prevent people like Melendez from slipping through the cracks. I had a man like him in my court almost continuously. He suffered from severe symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia which made him aggressive. He was under the legal guardianship of a relative. When the man stopped taking his medication (which he would do without fail upon every release from inpatient treatment), he would assault someone, get arrested, and wind up on court not only on the criminal charge but also because it was a civil matter because of the guardianship. In order to put the guy back in in-patient treatment for 30 days and stabilize him, permission had to be gotten by the court from the guardian, which entailed at least one separate court hearing, maybe two. Because of the ostensible ability to deal with the guy’s mental illness via medication (never mind that he wouldn’t take it), he could not be placed in a long term treatment facility. So, around and around we go, and I would wonder when he was going to kill somebody.

  • Dr. Ibrahim Soudy January 2, 2013, 11:29 AM

    The sad thing is that the mighty US government faild to provide even one piece of evidence that 19 Arab Muslims did 9/11…..Please read the 9/11 commission report or at least page 146 where it states that the commission members were NOT allowed to talk directly to the detainees or even their INTERROGATORS……………(sounds like obstruction of justice to me)! What is the value of anything said under torture anyway?………………..

    Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, Scientistis for 9/11 Truth, Scholars for 9/11 Truth, Pilots for 9/11 Truth, Firefighters for 9/11 Truth, Lawyers for 9/11 Truth, Religious Leaders for 9/11 Truth, (all have websites under same name) are ONLY a few of many people out there who are saying that the official story about 9/11 is nothing but a pile of nonsense……

    Can anyone find a single piece of evidence that 19 Arab Muslims did 9/11? I challenge you to find one that can stand in a court of law!

    • Bob Mann January 3, 2013, 2:05 PM

      Who do you think was responsible for the 9/11 attacks?

      • Dr. Ibrahim Soudy January 3, 2013, 2:13 PM

        Real “Independant” scientific investigation is the way to know who did that. I can say for sure that the official story is a pile of garbage. Try to find the official list of the passengers names of the four planes and find the names of the 19 Arab Muslims on them. Is that too much to ask for?

        • Richard Silverstein January 4, 2013, 12:58 AM

          @Dr. Soudy Please stay away from 9/11. That subject is off topic.

          • Dr. Ibrahim Soudy January 4, 2013, 9:17 AM

            The woman who did this crime mentioned as her reason what happened on 9/11 so I do not agree with you that it is off topic. However, I shall respect your wish since you are the moderator of the blog.

            To mary: The man is as important as you and me and every human being. He is also one of the many victims of what happened originally on that day some 11 years ago! bluto (below said it best).

      • Richard Silverstein January 4, 2013, 12:57 AM

        @ Bob Mann: OFF TOPIC! Do NOT go there!

        • Bob Mann January 4, 2013, 3:05 AM

          Here’s something I find odd. The poster above, Dr. Ibrahim Soudy, initially brought up 9/11 in response to your article and theorized about the official story being “nonsense”.

          To that comment you wrote, “Please stay away from 9/11. That subject is off topic” – which is very polite and respectful in tone.

          I, on the other hand, merely responded to the that initial comment by asking that person to clarify what they meant.

          To my comment you wrote in all caps “OFF TOPIC!” and “Do NOT go there!” – much less polite – in fact, a very scolding and much harsher tone.

          Can you explain why the person who wrote a lengthy off-topic diatribe about 9/11 got such a kind and mild rebuke (with even a “please” included) whereas my simple one line question in response to the original off-topic post got a sterner and angrier reply?

          • mary January 4, 2013, 4:41 AM

            I would like to know why 9/11 is more interesting than what happened to this man who happened to appear to be a Muslim. Why doesn’t anyone want to talk about Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, and the role hasbara plays in causing these types of attacks? Is the victim so far beneath your notice that you don’t want to talk about why he died?

          • The Mighty Cynic January 4, 2013, 1:10 PM

            Here’s the difference: he brought up 9/11 and the complicity of Arabs in the instance, claiming that they weren’t even liable for it in response to a woman claiming it was “Arabs and Hindus” who did it and that she hated them as a result.

            You, Bob, then tried to start a full-blown conversation about who did it. He replied modestly, by asking for the facts to be ascertained in response. Richard put an end to both of you.

            Now I am here to say that….

            JK, no one have a cow. You can go to plenty of other sites for that information via Google. Respect Richard.

          • Richard Silverstein January 4, 2013, 6:23 PM

            Because you’ve been a commenter here for years and I’ve written precisely the same to others who’ve brought up the subject. Soudy has not been a commenter here very long & I thought he might not have the knowledge that you should of which topics are off limits.

            Also, because I saw your comment first, not his, & I thought he was responding to your question. I did not see any previous comment about 9/11 at all from anyone in the thread.

            At any rate, try to get over your wounded pride and away from how I edit the comment threads.

  • bluto January 2, 2013, 2:18 PM

    This is an ‘Islamophobia Industry’ success story – a meme perpetrated by Israel and the Israeli Lobby and constantly kept on the burner by sociopaths such as Pam Geller

    • mary January 3, 2013, 2:08 AM

      There were quite a few very Islamophobic statements made on Twitter by none other than Robert Spencer, the idiot savant behind Jihadwatch. I briefly participated in a tweet-scuffle with him in which he expressed the opinion that I and my fellow Muslims were terrorists and (LOL) “Hamas supporters.” Mr. Spencer also seemed totally undisturbed by this tragedy and the likelihood that his girlfriend Geller’s subway art was at least partially responsible.

  • Robert Mullen January 3, 2013, 1:55 AM

    A well articulated statement about the conundrum of how to deal with the effects on and of society and the issue of the mentally ill, however defined and however ill-defined.

  • mary January 4, 2013, 10:17 AM

    Sorry, Dr. Soudy, I disagree with you. It is not recognizing the Islamophobia that contributed to this man’s death if we discuss who is responsible for 9/11. You are making 9/11 the only reason Islamophobia exists in America, and that is so over-simplified. Islamophobia began well before 9/11 and those who spread it vilify Islam using many things as justification, such as honor killings, suicide bombing, child marriage, FGM, and whatever crazy thing Saudi Arabia is doing. We need to discuss what is the motivation for this deliberate and methodical demonization of Islam. Many of us think it’s political. Many think Israel is behind it. By saying a mentally unbalanced woman killed a man because Muslims were blamed for 9/11 is not addressing the growing culture of anti-Muslim hate in the US, with all its contributing factors. Speculating over who did 9/11 therefore has no bearing on this issue and it is indeed off topic. Sorry, Richard.

    • Dr. Ibrahim Soudy January 4, 2013, 3:08 PM

      mary, I agree with all what you are saying and do not think that we disagree at all. The events of that day some 11 years ago became ONE OF THE MAIN vehicles (not the only one) that the Anti-Islam individuals are using to achieve what they want. That woman mentioned that particular one as her reason. That is all I was trying to say. I apprecaite your comments.

    • Richard Silverstein January 4, 2013, 8:24 PM

      Speculating over who did 9/11 therefore has no bearing on this issue and it is indeed off topic.

      Precisely.

  • The Mighty Cynic January 4, 2013, 1:16 PM

    The Zionist lobby, guilty of perpetuating the atmosphere of hate (and violence), are never complicit, even when they know full well they are promoting violence and hatred as per a political agenda. The intent of Islamophobia is to perpetuate the “War on Terror”, a campaign designed to have America fight all of Israel’s regional opponents. It’s the same as the NSDAP and Zionists (together, referred to as “Nazis”) perpetuating stereotypes of Jews in Weimar, Germany. What did that result in?

    But “hate crimes” should be abolished from the statutes altogether. Instead, we already have prohibitions on speech designed to incite violence. For instance, that Israeli filmmaker making the “Mohammed film” did so with the sole intent of creating violence. It was then claimed that he had a freedom of speech to do so. Not so, said the Supreme Court of the United States in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. That is exactly the type of “free speech” that is prohibited, taking into account the conveyor’s intent.

    We also have statutes in the books to take care of individuals that would push other on to the tracks. Murder is murder, who cares if it was done because she didn’t like his shirt or the color of his skin? She is a murderer. It shouldn’t get any worse than that.

    • mary January 4, 2013, 2:34 PM

      It shouldn’t get any worse than that, but it did, apparently because there is so much out there causing the hatred of Muslims to grow that people who are already mentally impaired lose whatever restraint on their behavior they may have, as persistent messages of hate have their intended effect, and then some. A few years ago a taxi driver in New York City had his throat cut by a passenger who asked him first if he was a Muslim. Perhaps these people wouldn’t have attacked their victims if they hadn’t been goaded into doing so by persistent anti-Islam messages.

      • The Mighty Cynic January 5, 2013, 11:25 PM

        Sounds like pre-meditated murder or murder in the first degree to me, Mary. It would be no less evil if the person was killed because they were in love with someone’s ex. The reason I am against the “hate crime” classification is because it is often used to attempt stifling speech, particularly by groups like the ADL. There are criminal statutes on the books for nearly everything. Being racist is a right in America, unfortunately. Violating the law when doing so? Not so much.

        I agree that the subway ad is vile and may have led to an atmosphere of hate that caused the incident. However, at this time there exist no prohibitions to such commercialism of hate speech. In the same way some states have banned gun advertisements, we prohibit liquor advertising on airwaves in various capacities, or, more analogously, level fines for cursing, this sort of hate speech placed in subways should carry with it a price. There are many other ways to advertise in favor of Israel than to call a representation of a group of American citizens “savage” by implication. This is also a commentary on the audience, who would perceive such as true instead of a conveyance from a savage mind in and of itself.

  • Donald January 6, 2013, 11:01 AM

    Just commenting to agree with the post. It’s sad how we seem to have this need to “punish” people who are clearly irrational. Obviously dangerous people should be kept off the streets, but I for one don’t feel like I understand mental illness well enough to be able to determine her level of moral responsibility. I’d hate to be on a jury that would have to vote on her guilt.

    I do agree that people like Pamela Gellar do bear some indirect responsibility for this, but I wouldn’t take it too far. Someone who is irrational might be set off by anything.

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