Murder, Madness and Assimilation: The Case of Brian Yasipour

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University of Michigan-Dearborn
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Professor of History (effective 1 July 2009) in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, The University of Chicago, 1996. Articles published in Iranian Studies, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

On August 24th 2001, Brian Yasipour, an Iranian immigrant to the United States, killed his four-year old daughter, Sara.  This tragic event threw a legal and (local) media spotlight on an Iranian-American family in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.  No one – not even Brian Yasipour – disputed the essence of the horrifying act.  What was at issue was whether or not his life should be spared because of diminished mental capacity.  In addition to the usual discussions of the legal standards for insanity, diminished capacity, the physical evidence, the circumstantial evidence, and psychiatric evaluations of Brian Yasipour, there was also the issue of how to understand Brian’s act, that is, what cultural standards to employ.  If one looked at him through the lens of modern Iranian or Islamic culture, would he seem more or less deranged?  It was not just an academic question; his life depended upon the answer.  In the end, on March 22nd 2006, he was judged “guilty but insane” of “third degree murder, possession of an instrument of crime, and tampering with evidence,” and sentenced to 21 to 47 years on June 2nd 2006.  
Nowhere in later court briefs is mention made of the cultural background of the family.  In the context of the reporting of relevant legal and procedural facts of the case, this is entirely appropriate.  However, at the time the crime was committed, in the months leading up the trial and during the trial itself, the relevance of Brian Yasipour’s Iranian background the subject of vigorous discussion.  The public defender assigned to his case was keen to use cultural background to prove Yasipour’s deranged state of mind, but also afraid that the Yasipour’s ethnicity would be used to prove his cold, calculating state of mind.  Supporters of the Yasipour’s wife in the local community were wary of any mitigating factor (psychological, circumstantial or cultural) that might allow Yasipour to escape punishment.
  Court records, internet forum content and interviews with the trial participants show that, for different reasons, the Yasipour family was stripped of its Iranian background and assimilated as American as the local media, criminal justice system and wider community of Williamsport, Pennsylvania grappled with the consequences of Brian Yasipour's crime.

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