April 19, 2006

Supreme Court re-considers Insanity Standard

Its been reported today that the Supreme Court has started reconsidering the legal definition of "insane". This is long-overdue given that the USA is noted for having jailed what is auguably the largest percentage of its mentally ill population of any modern country in the world. Wereas most other countries place the mentally ill who have committed crimes into psychiatric hospitals for treatment - in the US we put them in jail or on death row. Given the increasingly proven effectiveness of early treatment that results in much better outcomes and remission - there has to be a better way.

The Associated Press reported:

"The Supreme Court struggled Wednesday with whether Arizona gave a fair trial to a schizophrenic teenager who killed a police officer nearly six years ago, in a case that could be a major test of state insanity laws.

Eric Clark was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. His lawyer argued that the then-17-year-old was ''guilty except insane'' and should instead be sent to a psychiatric facility.

''In his mind, he believed that the police officer was an alien,'' Clark's lawyer, David Goldberg, told justices.

All but four states -- Idaho, Kansas, Montana and Utah -- allow insanity defenses, but the ruling in Clark's case could force legislatures to change their laws.

Arizona allows defendants to claim they were insane at the time of a crime, but Goldberg said the standard to prove it is almost impossible, violating the constitutional rights of mentally ill defendants.

Justice John Paul Stevens questioned if the state could execute someone who thought they ''had a mission to kill aliens.''

The case is Clark v. Arizona, 05-5966

The news media has also recently started covering the issue of forced medication for executions - which seems increasingly common in the US now.

If you have an interest in this case - we recommend you talk with your local NAMI office to see if there is anything you can do to help improve the current laws in your state.

More information on Schizophrenia and Poverty, Crime and Violence

Recent News on Schizophrenia and legal issues

For more information on the case:

News Coverage: Supreme Court to Review Insanity Defense

The Legal Brief for Petitioner in Clark v. Arizona, 05-5966 (pdf document)


That is a little scary knowing that at this point in time, Utah does not allow insanity defenses. I live in Utah and have almost committed crimes that could put me away for at least 5 years i think. If I tried to plead insanity they wouldnt let me.

Posted by: mcb at April 24, 2006 09:32 PM

the worst part of the insanity definition is that if the person tries to conceal their actions or run away, they are considered 'not insane'. the definition is flawed. mental illness causes people to do things they are embarrassed by or know is wrong, but the illness makes it so they can't control their behavior. the legal definition isn't close at all to what it should be, in that and a number of other different ways. it's a very outmoded definition.

mcb, i think the key is to avoid getting in legal trouble, not to find a state that has an insanity plea.

if you're having legal trouble, why is that happening? what's causing the problem? find that out and resolve it. it may mean you need medication, or that you need to get some financial help (some people steal just out of poverty, for example).

but in fact, the definition of 'insane' actually has little to do with how most cases get handled - most cases involving mentally ill people are relatively minor crimes, such as misdemeanors. the 'insanity' plea is usually used only in very high profile, violent crimes. most cases aren't like that. often in these cases, the judge's focus is in getting the person some help - that may be against the person's wishes, and may involve being required to take medication. my friend did a crime like that and was given probation and urged to get help. today he's in college and maintaining his own home - which he couldn't do without meds.

Posted by: slc at April 27, 2006 08:45 AM

I know of a case where a psychotic/schizophrenic man in Massachusetts drove his car into a couple of joggers and killed at least one because his voices commanded him to. He was found guilty and is now in prison. The arguement against him being insane was the fact that his voices also told him to kill himself and he didn't so therefore he did know what was right and wrong and thus was not insane. This story can be found in the book _The Strange Case of Dr. Kappler_ The book supports his imprisonment however.

Posted by: Para at April 27, 2006 09:46 AM

there are so many cases like that that show the flaw in the definition of insane, and how far away the court's workings are from handling these cases.

but there are other ways of looking at the case too. let's say the guy was mentally ill. how did he get to where he was driving a car and acting on command hallucinations? probably, he was off medication and had been for some time. it's also possible he was told many times he was sick and needed help, and he refused it (largely due to paranoia caused by the illness, if he is typical). so, how does a system that doesn't hospitalize people and require them to get treatment, handle this guy and keep him from driving a car again? put him in a prison. what else are you going to do, if the law prevents you from medicating someone against their will? the only option is to put them in jail. it's a very complicated problem to deal with people who are off medication, committed a crime, and refuse treatment. the law just isn't set up to deal wiht it.

Posted by: slc at April 27, 2006 03:48 PM

I would just hope that they change the definition so that people who ask for help can get it even if it comes from the state hospital system. I am tired of leaving Roanoke Virginia to seek hospitalization in other states where it ends up costing me more money and loss of property because Lewis Gail Hospital in cojunction with the Blue Ridge Department of Social Services said that I was not sick enough after the local Salem Virginia police department droped me off on their door stoop.

Posted by: Larry at April 28, 2006 05:24 PM

Sorry but I made a mistake in my spelling of the hospital in Vinton Virginia that has turned me away several times after being brought there by the police. The correct name is Lewis Gale in Vinton Virginia not Lewis Gail.

Posted by: Larry at April 28, 2006 05:49 PM

A few months ago, I heard a doctor on Australian TV talking about the number of people in Australian jails who have a 'mental' condition.
The number was "about 70%."

I know of people diagnosed as with a mental condition - one spent time in a jail, several with drug related mental conditions, one from an accident, one from stress, one from a family who had much stress and illnesses related to 'mental' conditions, one with tourettes syndrome, and me - Some of these people had several symptoms similar to mine - neurological (nervous) symptoms. I had had horrific neurological (nervous)symptoms the doctors wouldn't believe I had. Nor would they believe the treatment I was experimenting with that suppressed the symptoms.

When my treatment suppressed and eventually reversed most of my neurological symptoms, the voices also became quieter and non aggressive. This didn't happen over night - it took many months of experimentation, research, trial and error.

When is someone in the medical field going to become interested in a treatment which could give better health to many?

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