Category Archives: criminalization of mental illness
The mentally ill require a different set of rules
Posted by exconned
By Pete Earley [04/14/2013- guest commentary in the Daily Camera]
Aaron Schaffhausen enters a St Croix County courtroom in Hudson, Wis., last month. Schaffhausen pleaded guilty of killing his three children, but he maintained that he shouldn’t be held responsible for their deaths because he was mentally ill at the time. (Elizabeth Flores, Minneapolis Star Tribune)
As the father of an adult with a severe mental illness, I am dismayed by a Colorado prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty in the Aurora movie theater attack.
Attorneys for the accused gunman, James Holmes, offered to have their client plead guilty in return for a life sentence without parole. That was not good enough for Arapahoe District Attorney George Brauchler.
After consulting with victims and their families on the July shootings that left 12 dead and dozens wounded, Brauchler declared that for Holmes, “justice is death.”
Only the most egregious cases should merit the death penalty, and despite the monstrosity of these shootings, executing a defendant who was receiving psychiatric care and who appears to have a severe mental illness violates that high standard.
Although a definitive diagnosis has yet to be made public, Holmes was seeing a doctor who specializes in treating schizophrenia. News reports say Holmes told a fellow college student before the murders that he had been diagnosed with dysphoric mania, a form of bipolar disorder. Common symptoms for both schizophrenia and dysphoric mania can include delusions and impaired reasoning. Both illnesses frequently surface in men during their early 20s. The causes of both are unknown but are not thought to be brought on by an individual’s own actions.
My son got sick when he was 22. Chances are, you too know someone with a mental illness. Those of us with mentally ill family members have seen how schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can distort our loved ones’ thinking and sometimes cause them to break the law. Their actions are symptoms of their disorders.
Mental illness does not excuse murder — a fact that Holmes’s attorneys readily acknowledged. But murders spawned in psychosis should be adjudicated differently from those for profit, jealousy or revenge.
Our legal system does a poor job in dealing with mentally ill defendants. The standard legal test is whether the defendant knew at the time of the crime the difference between right and wrong and whether he understood the consequences of his actions. But that’s often a fool’s reasoning when applied to an ill person’s mind. I once asked a convicted murderer with schizophrenia whether he understood that murder was wrong and that if he murdered someone, he would be punished. Of course he did, he quickly replied to both questions: “Everyone knows you shouldn’t kill people. I didn’t kill anyone. I killed an alien that had crawled into a baby’s body. I saw it go inside him.”
Brauchler’s Pontius Pilate-style explanation does not absolve him of his prosecutorial responsibility to use discretion in the face of public cries for blood. Nor is Brauchler, an elected official, delivering “justice” to the victims and their families. Sending Holmes to prison for life without parole would have brought swift closure while ensuring public safety.
Federal prosecutors agreed to spare the life of Tucson mass murderer Jared Lee Loughner, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, after he pleaded guilty and accepted a sentence of life without parole for killing six and wounding 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Arapahoe County prosecutor Brauchler should have followed suit. Instead, he chose a road that will add more pain to an already unbearable tragedy.
Pete Earley is the author of “Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.” This essay first appeared in The Washington Post.
- ‘Backbone’ of mental illness stigma common in 16 countries studied (medicalxpress.com)
- Death penalty sought for James Holmes; trial set for Feb. 2014 (usatoday.com)
- Marchers take on stigma of mental illness (cjonline.com)
- Editorial: In James Holmes trial, DA mistaking death for justice (denverpost.com)
- Lawyer for Ore. school shooter seeks new sentence (sfgate.com)
- Links about Mental Health and Illness (psych103svccs13.wordpress.com)
- Mental Illness Soars In Prisons, Jails While Inmates Suffer (inprisonedwomen.wordpress.com)
- The mentally ill require a different set of rules (denverpost.com)
- The mentally ill require a different set of rules (exconned.wordpress.com)