Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Who's Crazy? And Should the Jury Be Told?

by Women in Crime Ink

In the first of an ongoing series asking WCI contributors to weigh in on cases and issues, we posed the question: While not legally insane, some murderers have other types of mental illnesses, personality disorders and the like. Should those be considered when deciding guilt/innocence? What about sentencing?

Read on, to find out what WCI's bloggers think about this important issue:

Laura James: A defendant's "personality disorder" falls under the "so what" category for me. I'd bet half the people I know could be diagnosed with a "personality disorder."

Kathryn Casey: It’s not relevant. We're not talking about severe mental illness here, where someone doesn't understand the difference between right and wrong, which is the legal test for insanity. These people are capable of working with attorneys to defend themselves, although their frequent tendency toward pathological lies can get in the way. (It's not smart to lie to one's own lawyer and leave him/her unprepared.) Lots of folks have personality disorders, yet they don’t commit murder. Should this come up at all, it should be in sentencing. I honestly think severe poverty and childhood abuse are more mitigating factors.

Andrea Campbell: I do believe that the mentally ill fall into a crevice when it comes to society. No one wants to claim or protect them most of the time. And I do think their mental condition should be made known during trial. But I don't think we need to cut slack for heinous crimes or felonies. I've always been torn on this issue, but justice needs to keep dangerous people out of society. I guess that either means a mental health facility or incarceration.

Diane Fanning: Murderers, with anti-social personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder and perhaps even borderline personality disorder, are people who understand the difference between right and wrong but just don’t care about the law, about the people around them, or about their victims. A violent offender with one of these disorders is a danger to society but also to those who guard them in prisons. They should not be viewed as equal to a person suffering from severe mental illness, who if given proper treatment and medication may be able to lead positive and productive lives. Adults with severe personality disorder are unlikely to ever move beyond their condition and thus, it should have no bearing on guilt or innocence.

In sentencing, juries should consider the personality disorders of violent offenders, but not to mitigate the offenses. Instead, it should help deliver sentences that ensures these individuals are not allowed to roam free and prey on innocent victims.

Robin Sax: Everyone who commits a murder MUST have a personality disorder; the personality disorder makes him a murderer who should be punished.


Cheryl said...

Oh what fun! I like that the other writers joined in!

"Personality disorders & mental illness" pertain to so many people and I think the judge and jury should be made aware of this. I do not think it should be THE deciding factor of guilt or innocence though. These people usually know the difference between right and wrong and should be held accountable for their actions.

Insanity, however, is a different story. If someone does not know the difference between right and wrong I feel they should be handled differently.

...and lets not forget retardation. I remember reading something a few years back about a retarded/mentally challenged person being convicted and sentenced as if they were the average Joe. They understood the difference between right and wrong...but not the magnitude of what they did. I did not agree with that one.

....the severly autistic boy who killed his mother recently isn't going to be charged...I believe they are keeping him institutionalized and thats fine by me.

Kathryn Casey said...

Good points, Cheryl. For this post, we looked at a very narrow concern: personality disorders, but there are, of course, other circumstances not addressed.

Cheryl said...

Sorry, I tend to ramble.

Personality disorders vary, but for the most part I think we all have them in some shape or form.

Should judges and juries be made aware of an individuals disorder? I personally can't see what difference it makes as long as the "right or wrong" issue is emphasized.

If I were a jury I would want to know as much as I could about the individual that is on trial.

Leah said...

I can understand why juries cannot know everything because certain things shouldn't influence their decision. There are also a lot of things they cannot know that should influence their decision and that is the frustration for me. Particularly when a guilty person goes free because of it.

Anonymous said...

As a person with a mental illness (severe clinical depression) I would want a jury to know about my illness, but only as it pertains to the crime committed. One of the biggest misperceptions that people have is that the clinically depressed person is a danger to other people, when that is not always the case. Many people manifest this type of illness differently. While some may become aggressive and dangerous, there are others that simply withdraw from their surroundings. I am the type that would do the latter. I would want the jury to know about my way of manifesting depression if I were accused of a violent act, which would be totally out of character for me even in a depressive episode.

Jan said...

If someone who is sociopathic or narcissistic commits a violent crime, it doesn't matter what their condition is - not as far as guilt or incarceration are concerned. People who care so little for others and are willing to act on that are dangerous, and I don't think they can be helped to find the piece that is missing from their personalities. They know what they do is wrong and just don't care. Society needs to be protected from such people. There is something severely wrong with a mother who can kill her own children without a care. That's sad, but it doesn't let her off the hook.

Burl Barer said...

The whole concept of knowing right from wrong as the standard by which sanity is determined has at least one incredibly obvious flaw: Some defendants know killing is wrong but say God is telling them to do it. They know it is “wrong” by society’s standards, but they are behaving in conformity with, they firmly and honestly believe, a higher standard – the Will of God. They honestly believe what they did was morally “right” because they were acting righteously on behalf of God.
The way that the criminal codes in many states define legal responsibility have to do with whether or not she knew what she did was "wrong."

This is a very difficult standard to meet, or explain. It grows out of a 19th century understanding of the mind, and was crafted in an era in which doctors did not know even the vaguest things about the nature of mental illness.They didn’t know much about any illness back then,they knew nothing about bacteria, and it never even occurred to them to wash their hands before performing an operation. Medicine has progressed since that time. And we now understand that one's suffering from mental illness, and even profound mental illness, such as psychosis, often leaves one unable to control her acts, even though she understands that they are wrong.”
In a majority of cases, dangerous or violent behavior exhibited by persons with brain disorders is the result of neglect, and inappropriate, or insufficient treatment, of their illness.

Most prisons offer no comprehensive treatment for the mentally ill. No jury can make an informed decision without full disclosure of all information.
In the case docuemented in my forthcoming book, the defense attorney was not allowed to mention the client's mental illness...yet it was the ONLY reason the crime was committed. Now THAT is crazy!

Burl Barer said...

PS: This topic is the subject of my forthcoming book. Hence, as you are all brilliant and opinionated, I'm going to quote you all. Hey, more free publicity can't hurt!