Health Association in New York State, Inc.
Friday Fax from Albany
The Verdict The System is a Failure: Our knowledge of the Andrea Yates case is mostly fourth hand, for we were not in the house the morning she drowned her children, not in the interrogation room when she confessed, and only know what the media on the east coast has picked up from coverage in Houston. Yet, we know that during the course of her trial, both the prosecution and the defense agreed that Mrs. Yates has a psychosis-based mental disorder.
Even casual observers were shocked that it took the jury only four hours to deliberate their way to guilt. But here is the conundrum; in pursuing the plea of not guilty by reason of mental defect, Andrea Yates had to begin her defense by admitting her guilt. What the jury actually determined was that she was not impaired by mental illness at the time she killed her kids.
Criminal culpability requires two elements does the evidence prove that the accused committed the crime, and did that person have the knowing intent (which requires mental capacity to know right from wrong) when doing the crime. The vast majority of cases hinge on sufficient evidence, and the U.S. constitution says people cannot be forced to give evidence against themselves. A person who wishes to exert a defense against the other element is governed by the McNaughton Rule, which stems from a mid-19th century court decision. To avoid conviction for lack of mental capacity, the accused must, contrary to the provisions of the constitution, admit committing the crime, and again contrary to the constitution, be guilty until they can prove their incapacity in essence, proving a negative.
It sounds complicated, and it gets worse. In all trials, the judicial system precludes a jury from hearing anything about what sentence or other disposition an accused may face. We have two-part trials to avoid having juries pick verdicts based on how much time they want the accused to serve. The determination of guilt, or not guilty, is meant to be pure in nature, absent any outside influence or prejudice.
Yet, in Andrea Yates case, the jury knew the charges were Capital Murder. They knew she had admitted to killing 5 children. What they were not allowed to know was if they found her not guilty by reason of mental defect, she would be remanded to the custody of the state psychiatric system, spending many years, if not the rest of her life, in a psychiatric hospital. They could believe, if they so chose, that a not guilty verdict for her would be like any other --- she would walk out of the court, free to go home, untreated, to make and kill more babies. And no one in the justice system could tell them otherwise.
Against this stacked deck, and paraded for two weeks in front of super-sized photographs of dead babies and toddlers lying neatly in a row, mental health experts testified about post partum depression, post partum psychosis and schizophrenia. And each time an expert offered their opinion on whether or not she knew right from wrong that morning, they did so with a back drop of beautiful children, happy and playing in some photos, lying dead in bed or the bathtub in others.
In this light the jurys verdict is not so surprising. What is surprising is that our system allows it.
In the words of former Chief Judge of the State of New York, Sol Wachtler, The McNaughton rule works in minor cases, like misdemeanors. For the most heinous of crimes, its effects are the exact opposite of its intent.
One hundred and forty years later, the state of the law is an abomination. It must be changed.
That change will not come easily, as evolution of the system runs into many obstacles. If we allow the jury to hear only the confession, and preclude them from hearing and seeing the highly prejudicial evidence necessary to convict (why convict again a person whos pled guilty?), will it inflate the number of accused who try to assert the defense?
Do we allow the judge to tell the jury that if they find the accused not guilty by reason of mental defect, that it is not freedom that awaits them, but rather remand to the custody of the state psychiatric system? If the constitution can be bent, twice, away from the accused, cant it be bent once back?
Do we go, as some law makers have proposed, to Guilty but Insane, where a person is convicted of the crime, and goes to a mental health prison facility until they are healthy enough to face the correctional system? Or is this an equally flawed permutation of the already horrendous?
There are no easy answers. But we must begin to seek them, as a just and humane society cannot tolerate many verdicts so foul.
MHANYS 2002 Annual Legislative Conference is Tuesday, March 19, from 9am 4pm in the Empire State Plaza Convention Center, Meeting Room #5.
"Today, we see the same percentage of our population living with mental illnesses and trapped in our criminal justice and corrections systems that, 50 years ago, were warehoused in state psychiatric hospitals," said Joseph A. Glazer, President/CEO.
The organization faults the lack of a comprehensive system of community-based care, and planning for one is the core of their 2002 legislative program. "While we clearly need to divert people into the mental health system, our system lacks a plan. No plan means inadequate funding, gaps in the system, a failure to provide a living wage to community mental health workers and a continued pattern of discrimination against people living with mental illnesses," Glazer added.
The legislative program also supports immediate access to Medicaid upon release from prisons, jails, hospitals, and timely eligibility testing prior to release.
It also calls for extension of Reinvestment, increased wages, mental health parity, and an improved and coordinated childrens services system.
Arnett Leftenant, Chair of MHANYS Board, commented, Mental health issues are of increasing concern as the public is confronted more and more by the results of a failed mental health service system. This program brings together a commonality of people advocating together for a just cause.
The New York State Assembly has scheduled a floor vote for Monday, March 18th, on A.4506-A, Assemblyman Lusters comprehensive mental health and chemical dependency parity bill. Having passed the Assembly with only two No votes last year, its passage is highly likely.
A press conference, coinciding with our legislative conference, is scheduled for noon in the LCA Press Room on Tuesday, 3/19. Please join us for the press conference as well.
In the news: Nearly two years of non-stop advocacy on the part of MHANYS and its colleagues are finally bringing to the fore the horrendous conditions facing people living with mental illnesses trapped in the criminal justice system. An article from the Poughkeepsie Journal shows advocates and correctional staff lining up on the same side of the issue. When such normally disconnected entities come together, thus comes the path of change. Read article.
next week, we remain,