As a criminal defense attorney who has worked in the mental health field, I was surprised to learn that on July 27, 2016, a federal judge ordered the release of John Hinckley, Jr. from the mental health facility to which he was committed in 1982. The news that President Reagan’s would-be assassin will be released into society brings renewed attention to an often-overlooked problem in the American criminal justice system: how do we address criminal defendants who suffer from mental health illnesses? Read the story the NY Times published here.
When person with a mental health condition commits a crime, there are two ways the diagnosis can affect the outcome of the criminal case. First, the defendant can simply be found not guilty because he or she was unable to form the required mental state. This is what happened to Hinckley, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Second, if the defendant is found guilty in spite of his or her diagnosis, evidence of the mental disorder can be used to argue for a more lenient sentence – either to a sentencing judge after conviction, or during plea negotiations with a prosecutor. This is what happened to Jared Lee Loughner, who plead guilty to the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen other criminal charges.
Many Arizonans remember the chaotic events of January 8, 2011: Loughner opened fire at a public event where Giffords met with constituents at a Tucson grocery store. Six people were killed, and Giffords was critically injured. Loughner plead not guilty and was found incompetent to stand trial for nearly two years. On August 7, 2012, he was finally found to be competent to stand trial, and he pled guilty to nineteen criminal charges that same day. The guilty plea was entered under a plea agreement that guaranteed the prosecution would not seek the death penalty.
On November 8, 2012, Loughner was sentenced to seven consecutive life terms and 140 years in prison without parole. While this may not seem like a lenient sentence, Loughner’s mental condition was a factor the prosecution considered in determining whether to seek the death penalty.
Well-publicized cases like Hinckley and Loughner are only two examples of a larger problem in the criminal justice system: how do we educate judges, juries and attorneys about the effect of mental illness on criminal behavior? Whether the charged crime is a felony or misdemeanor, mental health is a factor that should be considered in reaching a fair resolution of the case. If you or a loved one suffers from such an illness and have been charged with a crime, it is important to find a defense attorney who can understand the illness and introduce it to the court appropriately. The criminal defense attorneys at Rowley Chapman & Barney have the experience to effectively handle such matters, and we are available to answer your questions 24 hours a day. Office Line: (480) 833-2341