Contrary to what Law & Order reruns have taught a generation of armchair lawyers, the so-called insanity plea is the rarest of legal birds. According to one New York study, which looked at a decades’ worth of court data, psychiatric defenses were attempted in roughly 0.16 percent of criminal cases. Yet even when both sides agree that the defendant is mentally ill, pleas akin to “not guily by reason of mental defect” are unsuccessful more often than not. That’s primarily because the American legal system has such an archaic understanding of schizophrenia.
Take the ongoing saga of Ryan Peeler, a Utica, N.Y., man who stabbed his mother to death while in the throes of psychosis:
Peeler believed his mother had taken thousands of tele-connectors from telephone poles and attached them to his spine, which caused Peeler a great deal of pain, Nebush explained. These devices, Peeler thought, would then connect him to other dimensions, from where evil would be siphoned into his mind.
The prosecutor in Peeler’s case freely admits that the defendant suffers from a severe form of schizophrenia. Yet he argues that, in the eyes of the law, Peeler is still culpable because he understood the consequences of his actions. In other words, because Peeler was aware that his mother’s death was permanent, he is as much a murderer as, say, an armed robber who shoots one of his victims.
Microkhan understands why the law needs to err on the side of caution in these cases, since there’s always the threat of malingering. But it also strikes us that the legal system’s understanding of schizophrenia stopped evolving sometime around the Harding administration. Schizophrenics are rarely the raving lunatics of the Victorian imagination, but rather functional people whose worldviews make perfect sense to them, based on their “special” information. Microkhan, for example, has a dear friend who suffer from schizophrenia, yet has occasionally managed to attain fantastic success in the world of business. You’d never know of his troubles until he quietly informs you of the fire engines that follow him, or the fact that he’s recently spent several nights on park benches.
The legal system obviously needs more flexible criteria to determine whether or not schizophrenic defendants are truly, morally responsible for their felonious actions. One good place to start: a rule-of-thumb that determines whether the motive was spurred by delusion, not whether the perpetrator couldn’t comprehend the finality of death. But Microkhan realizes the odds of this happening are slim to none; the desire for vengeance usually trumps the yen to spread rationality, at least when it comes to parricide.