Thursday, May 22, 2014
The mental examination of Oscar Pistorius and the continued news of mass shootings in the United States focus attention on the defense of mental disease or defect. In a previous blog we noted the procedural complications of referring a defendant for a thirty-day psychiatric examination during trial. Can this all be the consequence of his expert’s claim at trial that he suffered a generalized anxiety disorder following the amputation of his lower legs and a difficult childhood? Even the defense expert testified that this disorder did not mean he could not distinguish between right and wrong. Why is the question of his ability to understand the difference between right and wrong and to conform his conduct even being pursued? At some point, we are likely to be treated to headlines that say something like “Pistorius knew what he was doing!” or “Pistorius flunks insanity test,” or something equally misleading, irrelevant, and prejudicial. Alternatively, if the doctors find that he did not pass the test, will the defense now seek to disprove that to avoid indefinite commitment in a mental institution?
Another interesting development is a report of research from the University of Glasgow about serial or mass murderers. That study concluded that 28% of such killers suffered from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), 21% of such killers suffered a head injury in the past, and of those with ASD or head injury, 55% had experienced some psychosocial stressors in the past. To be sure, this is important research. We will have to watch to see if or how it makes its way into court in the context of criminal responsibility, criminal procedure, and sentencing.