Sunday, February 05, 2012

More Forensic Stuff

I'm going to apologize to regular readers for missing your usual Shrink Rap fare. This blog isn't usually this heavy into forensic topics but since Dinah is on hiatus, I'm commandeering the blog to talk about my own interests.

I wanted to address some ideas Sunny brought up in my last post. Her comment was: "...I can't figure out why it is that when a psychotic person commits a crime, that "they" send the person to jail to take psych drugs so that they can become "normal" to stand trial. Weren't they mentally impaired at the time of the incident? Why would we, as a society, not consider the state that person was in at the time of the crime? I wonder how those people feel, when they "wake up" from a psychosis to find that they killed people. It must be awful."

There's a lot to talk about here. The first issue is why people have to become 'normal' to stand trial. This is something that is required by the American constitution. The Sixth Amendment gives every defendant the right to call and confront accusers. While defendants can voluntarily give up their right to be present at trial, they can't otherwise be tried in absentia. If someone is too mentally ill to understand what's going on in the courtroom, that's considered an absence (physically present, but mentally 'in absentia'.) This is the origin of the requirement for competency to stand trial.

The state---or more properly, the defense---does consider the mental state of the person at the time of the offense. This is done through a category of defenses known as 'mens rea' defenses---criminal defenses based upon some aberration of mental functioning. There are a lot of them: extreme emotional disturbance, heat of passion, intoxication and insanity. Mens rea defenses don't generally lead to an acquittal---the person doesn't 'walk'---it just reduces the level of guilt. So, for example, instead of being guilty of first degree murder a defendant may only be guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Exactly what you have to prove to make your case about the mental state will be determined by the law. Each state will have statutory or case law that defines insanity or other various mens rea situations.

The states takes mental state into account at sentencing, too. The defense can introduce all kinds of mitigating information for the judge (or jury, in a death penalty case) to consider.

Regarding how insanity acquittees feel when they 'wake up' and realize what they've done: oh yeah, awful---really awful. Particularly since many insanity acquittees commit offenses against their own families. (See the New York Times article I linked to in my last comment on yesterday's post.) Sometimes you wonder which is worse for them: the symptoms of active psychosis or an awful reality.