Friday, May 23, 2014

Phoenix Criminal Defense Guest Blog Post - Mental Illnesses in the Courtroom:

When someone has visited a bar to have a few drinks before making the dangerous decision to drive home, any accident they cause as a result of negligence will be their fault.  They made the initial choice to go for a drink and then drive home afterwards, as opposed to catching a taxi or getting a friend to come and pick them up.  Therefore, in any legal case involving such circumstances, the drunk driver is almost always at fault; they made an ill-thought-out choice and must face the consequences after sobering up and coming to terms with the damage they have done.

But what about those who have inadvertently caused an accident because they suffer from a mental illness?  What if someone who is not in total control of their intellectual faculties fails to understand that they did something morally wrong?  For example, in many mass shootings across the U.S. in recent years, the perpetrators have almost universally suffered from some kind of mental illness and chosen to plea insanity, including James Eagan Holmes, the perpetrator of the 2012 shooting in an Aurora theater.

Tragically, mass school shootings as well as public killing sprees have become more common over time.  Howard Unruh was one of the first notorious spree killers, who killed 13 people in 1949 during a 12-minute walk though his New Jersey neighborhood.  His infamous actions were commonly referred to as the "Walk of Death," and Unruh was deemed insane before being sent to the maximum-security Vroom Building at the New Jersey Hospital for the Insane.  He died after 60 years of confinement in a nursing home.  In 2009, a Chinese man with a history of mental illness killed 12 people in a gun rampage from a hilltop near Yinshanpai village.  David Berkowitz, known as "Son of Sam," once stated that he was being told to kill people through messages received from a dog.

So when someone who suffers from a mental illness commits a crime, what typically happens?  If they procure a weapon and murder innocent bystanders, can it be argued that they had intent to kill and are ultimately at fault?  The figures are startling: 2.8 percent of adults have a serious mental illness within the entire general population of North America.  However, amongst the U.S. jail population, 7.2 percent have a serious mental illness.[1]  Seeing as mental health is one of the most multifaceted and intricate areas in all of criminal law, it can be extremely difficult for a court to gauge how at fault someone can be if they suffer from a mental illness and commit a crime.

There are two chief forensic evaluations when it comes to legal cases involving mental health issues.  To begin with, it must be determined whether the person who has committed the crime is competent enough to stand trial, as well as the issue of whether or not they were sane when they committed the offense in the first place.  A defendant that has "sufficient present ability to consult with his attorney with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and a rational as well as practical understanding of the proceedings against him" is considered to be competent enough to stand trial.  The most common competency evaluation is done through an individual clinical assessment.

After the assessment, an individual can be found guilty by reason of insanity: "A person is not responsible for having engaged in prohibited conduct if, as a result of mental disease or defect, he was unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of the conduct at the time of the offense... a 'mental disease or defect' means a severely abnormal mental condition that grossly and demonstrably impairs a person's perception, but the term does not include an abnormality manifested only by repeated unlawful or antisocial conduct."  The general public might not be familiar with the fact that a killer can suffer from what is known as "temporary insanity," as highlighted by the GBMI (Guilty But Mentally Ill) Lyman Bostock case of 1981.  GBMI has now become a compulsory option for verdicts in any case when a defendant pleads insanity.

Although criminal law varies considerably from state-to-state, cases involving those who suffer from mental illnesses tend to become emotional affairs and more highly fraught than normal cases.  However, although mental health issues can increase the complexity in finding out who (or what) is to blame (as well as the punishment that should be administered), a judge and all staff that accompany each legal case will respectfully do their best to assist the litigants and mete out justice as required.

The Law Office of John W. Blischak is an expert criminal defense attorney and personal injury lawyer who is proud to serve Arizona residents living in Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa and Chandler.  Please visit online or call 602-252-1984 to schedule a free consultation.

[1] Criminalizing the Seriously Mentally Ill: The Abuse of Jails as Mental Hospitals, Torrey, et. al., Public Citizen's Health Research Group and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, p. 14 (1992).


  1. This blog has really helped me understand how mental illnesses are handled in the courtroom. I didn't know much about this before. I think you need to know about this to be sympathetic towards criminals.

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