Supreme Court Turns Back On Mental Illness

The Supreme Court this week turned their back on patients with severe psychiatric illness – as in “we ain’t lettin’ no crazy people off the hook.” They also turned back toward the dark ages where psychosis was thought of as totally mysterious, or demonic possession.

After reviewing a case where a 17 year old paranoid schizophrenic boy fatally shot a police officer in Flagstaff, Arizona, the Supreme Court let stand the guilty verdict of the Arizona court. In 1993, Arizona passed a new insanity defense law that made it virtually impossible to qualify as insane. The judge in Arizona refused to allow testimony from psychiatric experts about the characteristics of mental illness.

The Supreme Court by a 6-3 vote ruled that Arizona has the right to restrict the insanity defense as long as they don’t deny him or her due process – say what? They also defended the courts right to not allow psychiatric testimony because “there is considerable disagreement within the profession, and experts often disagree in court testimony.” Excuse me, but if court testimony is not allowed when there is disagreement in the area and experts disagree, we should just board up all the court houses.

The most disappointing thing to me is that the highest legal authorities in the land had an opportunity to move us in the direction of being not only more scientific but more humane, and they just didn’t get it.

Many of the more advanced countries in the world have gradually changed their laws to incorporate the advances in the understanding of the “broken brain.” The U.S. on the other hand, changed the laws to severely restrict the insanity defense. This was another example of a knee-jerk response to an event – in this case, John Hinckley being found not guilty for reason of insanity after he shot President Reagan. Rather than educate the public about mental illness we change the laws so that they will keep the congressmen in office.

A new jury is currently being subjected to the horrifying details of Andrea Yates’ murder of her five children. They will have a difficult decision because although her motivation was totally insane, she knew it was against the law. In Texas, as in many other states since the Hinckley ordeal, this makes her guilty of capital murder – only an overzealous prosecution expert witness kept her from the death penalty.

More on Andrea Yates next week…….

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