After watching the raging screaming match (I mean, debate) between Anon C, Ron in Houston, and Mark on one of the other posts I've done, I saw that there was a mention of the mental issues in the criminal justice system. Since my latest posts may be a bit, ahem, partisan, I thought I might address a topic of concern to everyone on both sides of the Bar.
I think there is a major misunderstanding when it comes to the prosecutorial view of how mental health issues should be handled. I think that the blame behind that misunderstanding lies with the legislative, and not the executive branch of our Texas Government.
Don't nod off in the middle of this Civics lesson, because I've got a point.
When the Defense Bar and mental health advocates around the country and the world say that Texas is woefully inadequate in their ability to deal with the mentally ill, the response of most prosecutors that I know is "no shit".
But the law that prosecutors enforce is not the law that they wrote.
Prosecutors often times find themselves in the extremely uncomfortable position of having to negotiate some sense of justice and public safety without trampling on those who have legitimate issues with their mental health.
Now, before I go too far off into this argument, I know that someone out there is already calling bullshit on me, and their rallying cry for that is Andrea Yates.
I was at the Office when both Yates I & II happened. I saw the pictures of those precious children, and call it cliched, but those pictures still haunt me.
The children in the bed. The little boy floating face down in the gray water of the bathtub.
I didn't have a thing to do with that case, but what I saw are things that still make me sick to my stomach. And if you want to ask me did I feel sorry for Andrea Yates and her condition, I will be quite honest with you in saying, "no, I didn't".
And although I don't know the full details of everything about the case, I know that Andrea Yates had previously halted her plan to kill her children because she knew a relative was coming over who would have stopped her. Under the definition of insanity in the State of Texas, I think that Kaylynn Williford and Joe Owmby were well within their rights to believe that Andrea Yates knew the difference between right and wrong. In my opinion, under the law as it currently stands, Andrea Yates was guilty.
I also believe that the D.A.'s Office was right to seek the death penalty on her, even though they knew it would more than likely never be given by a jury. Why? Because this case was such an absolute freaking anomally that perhaps the only way to ever figure out what should happen was to submit it to 12 members of our community.
If you remember, Joe Owmby eased off the throttle very much in his closing on punishment ("If you don't sentence her to death, we will know that it wasn't because you forgot about those five children"), and in doing so, he submitted the case to the public conscience through the jury.
And he earned my eternal admiration in doing so, as well.
The issue with mental health is that the system doesn't have safeguards to protect the general public from those who are mentally ill and dangerous. For those of you who don't realize it, the process for those found to be not guilty by reason of insanity creates a real public danger because there are no safeguards.
They get shipped off to Rusk or wherever. Doctors give them medicine. They become more coherent. Doctors pronounced them healed. They ultimately get released (not always, I know). They get back in the real world. They stop taking their medicine. BOOM - back to square one.
I'm not trying to be an alarmist. I'm calling for realistic help for these folks. They aren't responsible for their actions criminally, but that doesn't make them any less dangerous.
Being formerly/currently in the Executive Branch of the Texas Government (I don't really consider the D.A.'s office to be judicial. Some may quibble with me over that one), I can't offer any meaningful answers. I am no legislator, and I never will be.
But somebody really needs to be coming up with some meaningful ideas for change.
And if by chance a legislator is reading this, please listen to any and all ideas for change, even if you are suspicious of the source. Put aside your ideas that all people claiming insanity are malingering and operate under the theory that the system that needs to be in place is for those who are truly mentally ill to the degree that they aren't responsible for their own actions.
I would submit to you that I am certainly no authority on this issue, and I don't pretend to be. I'm just speaking from a perspective that I know to be real. Yes, prosecutors will always have a strong suspicion of defendants whom they believe to be malingering, but when they do believe that a person is mentally ill to a severe degree, they are put into a very upsetting position. They don't want to be unfair to the Defendant, but they also don't want to release a dangerous person back into society.
Find some better safeguards, and you'll find more prosecutors that are more willing to be accepting of an insanity defense.
I would submit to you that this is a proposition that both the prosecution and the defense bar could be working together on, quite peacefully.