by Joseph Merlin Bowers
As someone who has been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic whose symptoms have been in remission for some time, I have opinions on probably all of the many poorly understood issues involving serious mental illness. My purpose in starting this blog is to put in my two cents about them.
I also have opinions on many other subjects that I may write about as well over time.
My hope is to help create knowledge where there is now much ignorance. I think discussions of the issues surrounding serious mental issues should include people who have actually experienced a serious mental illness. Besides expressing my opinions to others, I hope that trying to write them down coherently helps clarify my thoughts to myself as well.
My first attempt at this follows:
I recently moved from Wyoming to Colorado where the big news event taking place is jury selection for the trial of James Holmes accused in the infamous Aurora movie theater mass shooting. Holmes’ parents say that he is very sick, not evil and should be put in a mental institution. His attorneys have offered a guilty plea in exchange for life imprisonment. Despite the enormous cost savings acceptance of this pea would have had for the state, the DA insists on a trial, believing that the death sentence is the only justice in this case.
This situation takes me back in my mind many years to the attempted assassination of then President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to life in a mental institution. Partly because Reagan was so popular many were outraged by this, feeling that justice had not been done. Four states did away with the insanity defence altogether.
Some time before, I had been arrested in Tucson due to some things I had done while psychotic. My public defender was friends with a reporter for a local newspaper. After The Hinckley verdict, they were discussing it and my former lawyer mentioned me and the fact that I might have a valuable perspective on the insanity plea.
After being arrested, I was put on Thorazine and shuttled back and forth between the jail and a psychiatric ward at a Tucson hospital. My psychotic symptoms subsided and I became lucid. At my hearing I answered a direct question from the judge by stating truthfully that I did intend to keep taking my medication as I didn’t want to go through anything like this ever again. The charges against me were dropped without prejudice.
Anyway, my former lawyer told his friend the reporter that I had been completely out of my mind when he first met me but responded to treatment and was now a responsible citizen working for the government. I was actually working for a large power company. I think he was confused because before my arrest I had worked for the Forest Service on a hot shot crew formally called an interregional fire suppression crew but that is beside the point.
The lawyer tracked me down, called by phone and told me that his friend wanted to interview me about the insanity defence issue. I gave permission for this and had a couple days to think about what I would say.
I told the reporter that while society has an obligation to protect itself from anyone who would do harm to its members, it was not right to hold someone criminally responsible for what he did when suffering from a serious brain disease. I told him that I had done a number of things while psychotic that I would never have considered doing if I had been in my right mind. In other words what happened in the Hinckley trail was exactly what should have happened.
My absolute conviction in cases like Hinkley’s and anyone who was psychotic while committing a crime is that justice is a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity with the diseased individual being confined in a mental institution, if not for life, at least until it is clear that their symptoms are fully under control and they intend to do everything necessary to keep them that way. This doesn’t mean that I am happy with the way most states have written their laws regarding insanity.
My problem is that the litmus test is usually “was the individual able to discern right from wrong?” As anyone who has been in the places and states of mind I’ve been in would ask, “What has that got to do with anything?” The legitimate question is simply, “Would this individual have done what he did if he were not suffering from a serious disease of the brain?” It’s really not that hard a question to answer most of the time.
I would never have entered a strangers house uninvited if I weren’t crazy. I never would have started a fire on the landing outside my apartment if I weren’t crazy. Did I know at the time that these actions were wrong? I really couldn’t say now. What I know is that it wouldn’t have mattered. The disease was calling the shots. I was not capable of responsible decision making at those times.
Some say that a person either is or is not a killer, Even when crazy when it comes time to pull the trigger some people can and some can not. When I was pointing a shotgun at my grandmother believing the devil had taken over residence in her body, I did not pull the trigger. I’ve thought long and hard about this aspect.
Mentally ill people have killed beloved family members. Why didn’t I? Was it the special circumstances? Was it the degree of my sickness? I don’t know. I do know that I’ve done lots of “wrong” things when crazy that would not have been done otherwise. When delusional people act according to the tenets of the delusion it just seems wrong to me to hold them criminally responsible.
Another argument against the insanity defense often heard is as follows: Murder is a crazy act. Therefore everyone who commits it must be crazy at least at the time of the act. This is just nonsense. There is a difference between a serious disease of the brain and the myriad reasons why perfectly rational people commit murders.
When we disavow the insanity plea where insanity has been established, or should have been; we are in actuality punishing people for being sick. This seems to me to be a return to the dark ages. Who is the barbarian?