Out of court

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Why Do the Mentally Ill Get a Break in How They Are Punished for Crimes?

Recently the King County Prosecutor, Dan Satterburg, decided not to pursue the death penalty for a man who allegedly raped and tortured two women, killed one, and attempted to kill the other. Despite the heinous allegations, it was a sound decision supported by Washington law..

To convince a jury to impose the death penalty for aggravated murder, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there are not "sufficient mitigating circumstances to merit leniency." Under this statute, RCW 10.95.060 and .070, there are a number of factors a jury can consider in determining whether such mitigating circumstances exist. One of them is the following: "Whether the murder was committed while the defendant was under the influence of extreme mental disturbance." In the recent case, the defendant's history of severe mental illness presented by the defense attorneys to the prosecutor was probably compelling. So the prosecutor exercised his discretion, and saved the taxpayers a lot of time, money and effort.

Some may object and argue that the alleged crimes were too severe for leniency. And, in any case, isn't a defendant who is mentally ill even more dangerous? Shouldn't society protect itself? To begin with, this defendant is facing a 'life without possibility of parole' sentence. As far as I know, no one ever sentenced to life without parole has gotten out or escaped in this state. So the societal protection issue is covered..

It is possible this defendant may not be sentenced to life without parole. He may raise an insanity defense, and if that were successful, what then? There have been cases where the insanity defense has either been successful or where the jury convicted the defendant of some lesser crime, with no life sentence. After this individual serves his sentence, and if he is deemed sufficiently dangerous, he can still be committed to Western State Hospital for an indefinite time. I was involved with one such case..

This still leaves the question: Why do the mentally ill get a break? This is a question that is a commonplace in most criminal justice courses and can often make its way into popular, political discussions of criminology and culpability. The short answer is that our laws are based in part on moral and religious principles. One of those principles is that a crime requires a willful act by a sane person. A person who does not know right from wrong as a result of mental disease or defect is not sane. For a long time in England and then in America, the law has recognized that an insane person cannot and should not be punished for the wrongdoing. Hence to this day, an acquittal on grounds of insanity does not result in a criminal punishment. The person acquitted could be civilly committed indefinitely but our society (or at least under Washington state law) does not condemn such persons as criminals..

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