Tuesday, November 1, 2011

This post is not about Rick Perry at all.

The New York Times this week ran an article about Rick Perry and his stances on criminal justice issues. The point of the article was to contrast his tough, even brash, talk and actions on the death penalty against his signing into law numerous criminal justice reforms pushed by the Innocence Project and others not associated with a "tough on crime" stance.

Of course, I read the article and wanted to focus on one nugget out of the article. One key case in Perry's governorship was the case of Kelsey Patterson. Patterson was convicted of two murders and sentenced to death. The circumstances surrounding the murders, though, indeed, the entire circumstances of Patterson's life, demonstrate that he suffers from profound mental illness. The man has a long history of delusions, psychotic behavior, nonsensical ramblings, etc. He was well known in Palestine, Texas, where he had previously been convicted of assault. But while he had lots of dealings with police and even with the court system, he never seemed to have benefited from any mental health treatment, even after being found incompetent to stand trial numerous times. It's a very familiar story to those of us in the criminal justice system where far too many of our cases involve people who should receive treatment, not punishment. Estimates of the number of mentally ill incarcerated range from 20-50%, depending on who you ask.

So Mr. Patterson was a violent, psychotic, delusional individual whose serious mental illness caused very real, permanent harm to his community. Obviously, he needed to be secured in a way that he could no longer cause that harm. When secured and properly medicated, he has been described as downright docile. But since we have no real mental health treatment readily available for men as profoundly ill as Patterson, he was treated as a criminal instead of as a sick man. And he was not just charged with murder so he could live out his life in a secure prison setting. No, he was charged with capital murder and the state pursued the death penalty against him.

Naturally, I have to assume his defense attorneys presented the history of his mental illness to the jury at his trial and did their best to persuade the jury that his illness was a major mitigating factor that should prevent them from returning a verdict of death. But here is my concern. My concern is that there are an awful lot of people who would hear a story like that of Patterson and think that the best course of action is execution. That a man that ill can't ever be fixed and we're all just better off removing him from society entirely. Or even worse, that his mental illness is "no excuse!" Or that he still knows right from wrong. I have encountered these viewpoints far more than I can believe. And the people most likely to express this view are also pretty likely to be death-qualified for a jury in a capital case.

I know I can relate a story like Mr. Patterson's to individuals who share my view and trust that their reaction will be to express sorrow about the state of mental health care in this country. They will perhaps marvel at how awful it must be to live with such an illness as his. They will certainly recognize that the man should not be incarcerated in prison and/or put to death, but treated in a secure medical facility.

But how do I talk to the others? How do I, as an advocate for a client, try to sway someone who thinks that someone who suffers a profound mental illness should be put down like a rabid dog? How do I get to a juror (or heaven help me, a judge) who thinks mental illness is no excuse and does not lessen someone's culpability for a crime? Because I know those people are out there and have the ability to affect my clients' very lives.


BellsforStacy said...

And Texas has some of the worst state mental health facilities in the country. They're almost non-existent.

I don't know how you talk to people that are so stringent. About anything. I really don't.

S said...

I know. And in my non-work life, I wouldn't bother. But as an advocate for clients like Mr. Patterson, it's something I really, really need to figure out.

Jeff Gamso said...

You can't reach everyone, but you can reach some. And what you say (OK, what I say when I'm making those arguments) is that this man is seriously mentally ill. Maybe not NGRI - if he were, we wouldn't be talking about life or death - but seriously ill. And a consequence of his illness is that he doesn't really understand the way you and I do.

Now, that's not an excuse. There is no excuse. But it's an explanation. It tells you something about how he (and we) got here and why. And it tells us about what we should do now.

Since he doesn't fully understand, killing him for misbehavior - even really terrible horrible misbehavior - is like killing a little child, or a dog. You know that's wrong. So is this.

And there's an alternative that can keep us safe. We can lock him up. In a secure facility. Where he won't be hurting anyone. And maybe, just maybe, where he can get the treatment he needs.

Won't work all the time. But once in a while.

A Voice of Sanity said...

Ricky Ray Rector

Despite Rector's mental state, then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton made a point of overseeing Rector's execution during the 1992 U.S. Presidential campaign.

Rector seemed incapable of understanding his pending death sentence. For his last meal, he left the pecan pie on the side of the tray, telling the guards who came to take him to the execution chamber that he was saving it "for later".

(What value is a "deterrent" to a man who doesn't grasp the concept of execution?)

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