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Leonardo Angiulo: Mental Health Issues and the Legal System

Monday, December 17, 2012

 

When something truly terrible happens, people have an instant emotional reaction.  The question they often ask is “how could someone have done this?”  The idea that people should be punished for intentionally engaging in behaviors we know to be wrong is at the heart of our code of criminal justice.

There is, however, a separate question of whether a person who has a mental illness had the requisite control over their faculties to form a specific intent to commit a crime.  Let's say a person is charged with defrauding an insurer by burning her car.  If there is evidence that immediately before lighting the car on fire, the woman is yelling about how the car should stop making fun of her, then the woman's mental stability is an issue.  This is because the crime of burning insured property requires a specific intent to injure or defraud the insurer.  The question of fact at trial becomes whether the woman was suffering from some mental illness that interfered with her ability to appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct.

This defense is known as a lack of criminal responsibility and the procedure for raising it is contained within Massachusetts Rule of Criminal Procedure 14(b)(2). Practically, this defense includes evidence from an expert regarding the defendant's mental state.  At issue is whether there was some condition suffered by the defendant that prevented them from forming a logical, rational, mindset. Importantly, when a crime prohibits a specific intent to do something, like defrauding an insurer, and if this woman was not thinking rationally, then she did not commit any crime.

Similarly, a person's mental illness may be so endemic that they are unconnected from reality and cannot understand the proceedings of the court or assist in their own defense.  In such a situation, the case may not proceed until the person stabilizes.  The defendant, however, will not necessarily be released.  The court has authority pursuant to Massachusetts General Laws chapter 123, section 15 to hold individuals for additional periods of time for observation, care and treatment at certain mental health facilities within the state.

There is, however, an acknowledgment that there are some people who suffer from mental illness, but have no excuse or justification for the behavior.  Some people may be compelled to act criminally because of their illness, however, they are not excused from culpability because there is nothing to indicate they were prevented from controlling themselves by this mental condition. The onus is ultimately on them for choosing to do wrong.

In such cases, Massachusetts General Laws c. 123, sections 8 and 15 permit for periods of civil commitment of individuals who are both mentally ill and whose discharge from a facility would create a likelihood of serious harm.  This legislative structure enables courts to take individuals who are a threat of harm to themselves or others and provide them with services in an attempt to protect the defendant and society.

One concept fundamental to our system of criminal justice is that a person's unexcused or unjustified choice to commit a crime should result in punishment.  When something happens that we as a society cannot understand there may be a mental illness component that was driving a particular person's actions.  In some cases, however, there is no rational explanation for why a person chose to do something.  And that is where true tragedies lay.  

 

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