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The Insanity Defense

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor at Slate, addresses the discussion around the Tucson shooter's mental health and the politics of the insanity defense.

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Dahlia Lithwick
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Comments [28]

Adams Morgan DC from Washington, DC

So why is it that every lament about the "stigma" of mental illness is followed by a plea to understand it exclusively as biology-based? Hmmm...I think that is a self-serving oversimplification. There are alternatives to medication once a patient is stabilized.

Jan. 17 2011 09:28 PM
geTaylor from Bklyn., NY

@Leah from Brooklyn :

What exactly was Sarah Palin's role in these events that you find so infuriating?

Jan. 14 2011 12:29 AM
kate

Carol:
"hsj11211's comment suggests a social shaming which people with loved ones with mental illness experience all too often and its not at all helpful."

That is your irrational projection onto the person's questions.

Jan. 13 2011 02:26 PM
Yvonne from Park Slope

The threat of jail or execution does not deter; prison does not effectively "punish" or "rehabilitate" ... and certainly does not cure.

When a dog with rabies was shot, no one thought to say the dog was evil or that shooting it was punishment of it or would deter other dogs. When a human is a danger to others in a way we do not yet know how to change, we confuse ourselves with irrelevant issues.

We have a criminal justice system that is broken by issues of bias, plea bargaining which I think defeats justice and invites lying and false charges, who has money, politics, etc. and in which you can get off after murder and rape while someone else with a lesser crime does longer time.

The terms "capital PUNISHMENT" and "death PENALTY" assume we are punishing an "evil" and not merely removing a permanent danger we do not yet know how to change ... and reek of religious retribution.

I do not support "the insanity plea", the concept of "evil" or that imprisonment is the best intervention for all those currently incarcerated ... especially the young and especially the non-violent BUT do support execution though I feel this support is meaningless in the context of a criminal justice system that is broken.

I believe we are responsible for the consequences of our behavior ... and that includes someone who is, more than once, charged with drunken driving who, then, causes a fatality.

This discussion is extremely premature as long as the criminal justice system itself is broken.

Jan. 13 2011 12:04 PM
C

Regarding the politics of insanity defense, I've been wondering at what point even a proclaimed (self or otherwise) revolutionary -- one who does have a political (moral, religious, etc.) belief they feel is worth fighting for -- pulls that trigger. There must be a mental/emotional line that they finally cross in their minds and hearts that allows them to take that step. Insanity? Our own military...what of their states of mind leading to battle? What of the leaders who claim the necessity of battle? Clearly, Where is the difference between someone truly deranged by mental illness and someone fighting for their beliefs?

Jan. 13 2011 11:43 AM
Dorothy Wright from Ridgefield, CT

Brian, your answer to the caller's comment regarding your use of pejorative labels for mental illness did not, in my opinion, address her point. Even though you were "quoting others," you were still lending the megaphone of your show to amplify those comments. The more they are repeated, irrespective of the context, the more they reinforce negative stereotypes about mental illness.

Jan. 13 2011 11:42 AM
j from bklyn

sarah palin believes in "..personal responsibility"?

really?..except when it pertains to her. which raises the question, is a hypocrite 'personally responsible' for being a hypocrite.

Jan. 13 2011 11:41 AM
j from bklyn

sarah palin believes in "..personal responsibility"?

really?..except when it pertains to her. which raises the question, is a hypocrite 'personally responsible' for being a hypocrite.

Jan. 13 2011 11:39 AM

I don;t mean to spread more false diagnoses but his ex girlfriend said it was possible that he planned and staged this entire meltdown.
Is it possible he has a narcissistic personality disorder and just wants the attention this kind of behavior can garner? I don't think it's anymore absurd an argument than any other premature mental health diagnosis.

Jan. 13 2011 11:35 AM
Bipolar Bear from Brooklyn

Kudos to the woman who brought up language and how that clouds the perceptions of people who have little to no understanding of mental illness. Stigma is still rampant. People are still extremely resistant to even discussing mental illness.

Jan. 13 2011 11:31 AM
Shar in AZ from AZ, MS in SW

Arizona has a unique situation, if you know right from wrong, then the insanity defense is not taken in account. However, this will probably be first a Federal charge.

Jan. 13 2011 11:28 AM
Paula B from Chappaqua

I worked with mentally ill individuals both in a forensic unit of a jail and in a psychiatric hospital, as a clinical social worker.
Even when families try very hard to obtain and facilitate treatment for their ill family member, patients often refuse to take medication once discharged from the hospital or jail, and they sometimes, but not always, do become dangerous. The worst senario is when the individual uses street drugs instead. The combination is what can precipitate violent behavior.
This month's newsletter from Harvard Mental Health Letter states that both schizophrenics and bi-polar individuals are the most likely, statistically, to become dangerous if they are also drug users. However these are NOT the majority of mentally ill people. Most are definitely not dangerous.

Jan. 13 2011 11:27 AM
Gwen from Brooklyn

A friend of mine killed his father one night out of the blue. He spent some time in prison while being diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. He was given medication which made him temporarily lucid, at which point the question was- was he fit to stand trial?
It was obvious to everyone that he committed the crime while in a hallucinogenic state, hearing voices, etc. But once he was medicated, he appeared 'normal'. There was no solution. He went back and forth between prison and a psychiatric institution until he took his own life.

Jan. 13 2011 11:26 AM
Nathanael

One of the largest issues is that our society doesn't see mental illness as the same as physical illness. If he had had a brain tumor which was affecting his decision-making, there would be no argument that there is a clear cause for an insanity defense. If we would take the time to learn about mental illness and the idea of a biological basis, things could change.

Jan. 13 2011 11:25 AM
Gwen from Brooklyn

A friend of mine killed his father one night out of the blue. He spent some time in prison while being diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. He was given medication which made him temporarily lucid, at which point the question was- was he fit to stand trial?
It was obvious to everyone that he committed the crime while in a hallucinogenic state, hearing voices, etc. But once he was medicated, he appeared 'normal'. There was no solution. He went back and forth between prison and a psychiatric institution until he took his own life.

Jan. 13 2011 11:25 AM
DeShon Smith from Tribeca


Don't forget that, at least in New York, successfully pleading insanity doesn't get you off scot-free. It means you get institutionalized in a state facility -- often no better than a prison -- and they can keep you there INDEFINITELY, until such time as you're declared cured and safe to release into society.

Jan. 13 2011 11:25 AM
steve from manhattan

It will be a long time before we as a nation get our act together vis-a-vis mental health and the legal system. But there is a common thread coming from Ms. Lithwick and all the callers -- since we can't solve this issue anytime soon, the only thing we CAN do is keep all guns strictly out of anyone's hands who has not gone through and passed a vigorous background check...

Jan. 13 2011 11:25 AM
AudioAstrology from Planet Earth

I think it's ironic that a person who may be sick or "mentally ill" may have prevented repeal of the "[job-]killing health care" bill. It's a sad day when it's easier for a person to buy a gun than it is to receive health care. At least with Obamacare he could be covered by his parents' plan until he's 26.

Jan. 13 2011 11:25 AM

carol
i just asked if they tried
if they tried then they are free from blame.

Jan. 13 2011 11:19 AM
Leah from Brooklyn

Not Ms. Lithwick's topic, but: the tone of the debate needed to change whether or not anything happened in Tucson, simply because the vitriol of right-wing rhetoric is inimical to basic American values. We are a civil society; we decide elections with ballots, not guns; we respect democracy and vigorous, dignified debate. Sarah Palin's ridiculous umbrage at the suggestion that she take responsibility for her actions and question her possible role in these events is just infuriating.

Jan. 13 2011 11:18 AM
carol h from nyc

I have a family member with chronic mental illness for 35 years. The mental healthcare system is a nightmare. If the diagnosis doesn't kill you, the system will. Its easier for people to get access to guns then to adequate mental healthcare. The parents deserve compassion. They are reportedly devastated. Everyone else in Tuscon is able to grieve together. Not his family. hsj11211's comment suggests a social shaming which people with loved ones with mental illness experience all too often and its not at all helpful.

Jan. 13 2011 11:17 AM
Dave from Williamsburg

Thank goodness Ms. Lithwick is bringing some clarity to this subject. The Mental Health "expert" yesterday, who diagnosed Laughner without ever having met or talked with him, seemed less interested in shedding light on the tragedy, and only in blaming marijuana.

Jan. 13 2011 11:15 AM
Leah

How exciting for David Brooks that he's earned his degree in psychology and can now make diagnoses!

Jan. 13 2011 11:14 AM
Hmmmm

Dahlia's historical summary is interesting. I am from the UK where there is something called "Diminished Responsibilty" defence which departs from the "knowing right from wrong" standard.

Jan. 13 2011 11:13 AM
gregb

How does this connect to drunk driving- where drunks are not held liable for murder when they run over a pedestrian? its chemical induced insanity.

Jan. 13 2011 11:12 AM
Dorothy from Manhattan

What I've been reading online: Right wing posters have called him "crazy" and, therefore, (I'm serious) not influenced by right wing talk radio and right wing bloggers. However, they continue that because he planned the attack he cannot plead "temporary insanity." They imply/I infer that one cannot plead permanent (my word) insanity.

Jan. 13 2011 11:11 AM
Xtina

No, it is NOT deflecting the issue by questioning Loughner's mental status. It IS the question.
He had serious problems and they were not addressed but rather ignored.

This focus on 'unity' and 'civility' is actually deflecting the issue. When someone is in a rage and snaps, civility doesn't really help.

Jan. 13 2011 11:11 AM

should his parent be held accountable. They were told, by the college, the guy needed help. Did they try to get him help?

Jan. 13 2011 11:03 AM

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