Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Loughner Incompetent

Well, I just reread this, and it's a little rough and meandering, but I'm going to publish it anyway. Not very polished, but maybe it has a thought or two in it might be worth preserving...

So Jared Lee Loughner has been declared incompetent to stand trial.
I'm sort of following this case a bit out of a professional interest as well as personal curiosity. Some of you already know, but I work on a criminal court docket that specializes in clients who are diagnosed with mental illness
The judge's incompetency ruling on the Loughner case doesn't necessarily mean that he'll never be prosecuted. A finding of incompetency means that doctors have examined the defendant and made a recommendation to the court as to whether or not the defendant is fit to stand trial and then the judge made a ruling about whether the defendant was healthy enough to go forward. A defendant is fit to stand trial if: A) he can rationally understand the court proceedings and the charges against him, and B) he can communicate with and assist legal counsel in his own defense. If a defendant is incompetent to stand trial, it means that the defendant has to be treated for mental health issues until he has been "restored" to competency. Defendants can typically be held for competency restoration (which is a form of treatment) for the same amount of time that they could be sentenced on the charges that they currently face. In a case like Loughner's, where the sentence could be anything up to and including the death penalty, this means that the person could theoretically be held pretty much indefinitely.
Competency to stand trial is different from an insanity defense. When a person is found not guilty by reason of insanity it means that the person couldn't tell right from wrong at the time that they committed the offense. If a person is incompetent it just means that they're not fit to proceed to go to trial (or enter a plea) at the time that the court proceedings are taking place. These two states are not mutually exclusive. Defendants who are insane at the time that they commit an offense may later be found to be incompetent to stand trial and vice versa, but neither finding necessarily determines the other.

I deal with a fair number of competency issues on my own docket, and although defendants can be incompetent for a number of reasons, I guess they usually end up falling into one of two general categories.
The first category involves clients who are hallucinating, psychotic, and so detached from reality as to be unable to understand where they are, how the court system works, or the nature of the charges against them. They just don't have valid perceptions of reality. These are the people who are seeing things, hearing voices that they can't ignore, and/or unable to really recognize the actual nature of their current surroundings. These people might see ghosts in their jail cells, or their attorneys might look like big, blue smurfs to them. More often they hear loud voices in their head that they can't distinguish as being nonexistent (when these voices become impossible to ignore or start compelling people to do things they're dubbed command hallucinations).
The second broad category involves people who tend to see the world a little more "as it is", but who are completely delusional about how it works. All of the people encountered by these sorts of defendants might be seen as working against them as part of a conspiracy of government spies. Their lawyers might be seen as angels or demons who are in disguise. Radio waves might be controlling the minds of everyone around them. These sorts of people might know how the legal system is supposed to work, but they are convinced that nothing is as it seems, and they frequently seem convinced that they are the only ones who know "the truth" about how things actually operate. People who try to correct them or question their delusional thinking are typically dismissed as ignorant or incorporated as part of the delusion (e.g., if you don't understand what's really happening then you must be a spy, too). Their thought processes are often tangential and disorganized, based only loosely, if at all, on logic, and they often draw conclusions about their surroundings which aren't really supported by any sort of reliable information or logically sound inference. In my experience, it's not at all uncommon for these sort of people to be extremely dismissive of the idea that they might have a mental illness.

I'm not claiming that these categorizations are scientific, and I know that there's a lot of room for overlap. I'm just sort of describing the types of cases that I usually see on my docket when we're dealing with someone who's incompetent. Just today I found myself dealing with a case involving an incompetent woman who falsely believes (I checked up on this) that she's actually an operative for the FBI who is working to uncover secret assassination plots...

Loughner, in my mind, seems to be falling into that second main category. I'm guessing that he's extremely delusional and paranoid. It sounds like he doesn't trust his lawyers at all, and he hasn't been communicating with them in any sort of meaningful way. Two different doctors have examined him and found him to be mentally ill and unable to truly understand the nature of the legal proceedings or to assist his attorneys in his own defense. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say that he's probably convinced that his attorneys are part of some sort of larger conspiracy against him. He probably has an extremely delusional worldview that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that there's probably no small amount of paranoia in there as well.

At any rate, I'm not terribly surprised that Loughner has been declared incompetent. The more interesting questions, I guess, will now revolve around whether he can be restored to competency (if Loughner refuses medications and treatment, he can probably be forced to take meds, although that will require an additional hearing) and around whether or not doctors will ultimately determine that Loughner was insane at the time of the shootings.

Trying to draw conclusions about whether or not a defendant was sane at the time he committed a crime like the Tucson shooting spree is a process that seems at once fascinating, troubling, extremely important, and very, very difficult.
It sometimes seems that we're more than willing to accept the fact that doctors are accurately describing what is going on in our brains when they're diagnosing ailments or simply trying to heal people, but when we rely upon that same science as a guide in determining whether or not someone was in control of themselves when they committed an unspeakably tragic crime... well, in those situations we sometimes balk at the explanations that science provides.
Sanity determinations in these cases go to the root of what we, as a society, want to define as a crime, and they test the amount of faith and credibility that we place in modern psychiatry and psychology. Sanity determinations in especially serious cases pit our willingness to adhere to scientific principles against our desire for retribution.
Personally, I find these sanity questions interesting because I don't think that you can really have justice without satisfying the scientific principles first. Criminal punishment exacted without first achieving assurances about mental capability and culpability isn't really justice- it's simple vengeance. On the other hand, prosecutors have to be careful not to allow false or exaggerated claims of mental illness to obfuscate the truth. As psychology progresses and we continue to see more and more types of criminal behaviors characterized as symptoms of mental illness, there's a temptation to overlook conscious choice and active decision making as a critical element in understanding the way that people behave. Prosecutors have an obligation to reinforce the idea that people still need to be responsible for their own actions and accountable for the things that they do. Conscientious prosecutors will understand that there are cases where people should not be held responsible for their actions, but they need to keep in mind that whenever possible, a prosecutor's job is to make sure that society is fully capable of holding defendants accountable for their actions.
Personally, I tend to think that mental illness should be taken into account, but, on my docket, I tend to take illness into account far more often as mitigation for reduced or alternative sentencing than as an absolute excuse or defense for a crime. For one thing, most people with mental illness who commit crimes tend to more or less know right from wrong. The cases where people truly don't know what they're doing or appreciate that they're doing something wrong are definitely out there, but they seem to be relatively few in number (although defense attorneys often seem more than happy to try to characterize as many offenses as possible as being the result of mental illness). On those cases where people really are so sick as to be out of control, those individuals need to be linked to services anbd treatment whenever possible, and then asked to stick with a treatment regimen that addresses their condition. If a person is insane because they refuse to take care of himself, then that becomes also becomes an issue of personal responsibility, and the person needs to be held accountable for the ultimate results of their choices.

The natural human tendency (a tendency which I have great sympathy for, by the way) is to want to hold people accountable for their actions. We give more leeway in the case of minor indiscretions (e.g., we cite the youth of the offender, or the natural human tendency to make mistakes), but when someone does something terrible, we typically want the perpetrator to suffer punishment.
Cases like Loughner's are the sort of events where our knowledge and understanding of science can potentially collide with human nature (note that I said potentially- I'm still far from convinced that Loughner wasn't aware that he was doing something terrible when he committed those murders).

If Loughner's case proceeds to trial and if the state can find a reputable, reliable doctor who thinks that he knew right from wrong at the time of the shootings ( I would bet a whole lot of marbles that defense counsel will come up with a doctor who will say Loughner was not competent), the trial is likely to become a battle of experts, with doctors facing off against one another, attempting to support their analysis with sound reasoning while lawyers try to convince the jury that one doctor or the other has stronger credentials and the most plausible, feasible theory.

I'm not sure where I'm going with all of this except to say that I find it all really interesting. I have tremendous sympathy for Loughner's victims, and I absolutely am not trying in any way to legitimize what this guy did. As someone who's worked as both a defense attorney and a prosecutor, though, I still find it fascinating to watch as society grapples with issues relating to mental illness in a case like this. Maybe I just find it fascinating because I personally feel very conflicted about the sorts of issues that a case like this brings up.

In any case, I'll be watching...


The League said...

I would like to believe that the only time someone would take the actions Loughner took was in the case of having had lost their mental faculties. I do understand the desire to string him up, but at the end of the day, I want to believe the only reason someone would choose to pull the trigger on unarmed innocents would be a case of true madness.

J.S. said...

I'd like to believe that, too, but sometimes doing things for reasons that sound like madness won't always rise to a level of criminal insanity. If a person goes on a spree killing and the person has political or religious motives, for example, but still knew that their actions were illegal (though they might have believed their actions to be justified), then they aren't going to be insane under the law. Keep in
mind that when Loughner was first arrested a lot of people suspected a primarily political motive.