The National Institutes of Mental Health noted that most violent crimes are committed by people who are not mentally ill, and most mentally ill people do not commit violent crimes. Dramatic cases in the news, however, sometimes can lead readers to falsely assume that mentally ill people are violent.
Mental illness, nonetheless, does become an issue in the courts at times. Two primary situations fall under the terms “competency to proceed” and “insanity.” These are legal terms and the question of whether a defendant is “competent” or “insane” are ultimately decided by a judge.
A lawyer or judge may call into question whether a person charged with a crime is mentally well enough to help with their legal defense. A psychologist or psychiatrist then interviews the defendant, may give psychological tests, and reviews records. To be deemed incompetent, a defendant must have a serious mental illness that interferes with their ability to understand the charges and possible sentences, work effectively with their defense attorney, understand the legal process, and behave appropriately in the courtroom.
A separate issue is whether the defendant was mentally ill at the time of the alleged crime, or insane. The question is whether the defendant’s ability to know what he or she was doing and that it was wrong was blurred by mental illness.
A defendant in Florida pleading not guilty by reason of insanity is admitting they committed the crime, but is asking for mercy due to mental illness. There are a very small number of cases where such a verdict is given. In those cases, the defendant is sent to a psychiatric hospital instead of a prison.
Maksim Gleman attempted to plead insanity after going on a stabbing spree. Psychiatrists found him competent and he was sentenced to 225 years in prison.
Recent examples in the news where these issues have arisen include a Norwegian case in which defendant Anders Breivik was found guilty of killing 77 people July 22, 2011. While some evaluators believed he was mentally ill at the time of the murders, a judge ruled Breivik was sane and sentenced him to 21 years in prison. Jared Loughner pled guilty to the January 8, 2011, shooting of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tuscon, Arizona. He was first found incompetent to proceed, but after treatment was ruled competent on August 7, 2012 and will be sentenced in November 2012. Most recently, James Holmes was arrested for the July 20, 2012, shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Holmes was reportedly being treated by a psychiatrist at the time of the shooting and thus both the issue of his competency and sanity may arise in the case.
Effective mental health treatment has likely prevented potential instances of the very small number of times that mental illness may lead a person to commit an illegal act. A large number of people with mental illness go untreated and so readers are encouraged to seek help for themselves or loved ones. This Grapevine series can assist readers in identifying mental illness and knowing when to seek help.
Mark Reeves received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Florida State University and completed his postdoctoral training at Florida State Hospital. He has published and presented at conferences in the area of personality disorders and has worked with adolescents and adults with severe and persistent mental illness. He is currently employed as a Clinical Supervisor at Apalachee Center.
by Dr. Mark Reeves
Clinical Psychologist, Apalachee Center