By David Hejmanowski
“Crime and intention of crime are equal in their nature.”
— Cicero, 106-43 B.C.
“Whether the defendant, at the time of the offense charged, did not know, as a result of severe mental disease or defect, the wrongfulness of the defendant’s acts charged.”
— Ohio standard for NGRI
It’s been more than 20 years since I last lived in Buffalo, New York, but I still follow the news from my hometown closely and the news this Wednesday morning was filled with the story of a shocking crime that happened to just blocks from the middle school where my father served as principal for more than a decade. A young mother did the unthinkable- she entered the room of her eight year-old son in the middle of the night and stabbed him to death.
When police arrived she immediately admitted her crime and told them that the boy “had to die” and that she was “saving him from going to hell.” By the time the day was over, Buffalo police had said that she had “medical issues” but refused to elaborate. If those medical issues relate to her mental health, she will have a hard time using them as a defense for her crime because New York is one of many states that use the strictest standard for establishing the defense of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity- or NGRI. That standard requires that the defendant show that their mental illness prevented them from understanding the difference between right and wrong. Ohio is also among the states using this standard.
The difference is not just a matter of semantics. It means that a defendant must demonstrate more than just the presence of mental illness, but also show the specific effects of that mental illness on their reasoning and decision making at a specific point in time. Practically speaking, it means that forensic psychiatrists often report that a defendant is clearly mentally ill, but that despite their illness they were capable of knowing right from wrong.
The states that use this standard do so not because they view mental illness as an excuse, but because the basic principles of criminal law generally require that a person not only commit an act, but also have a requisite mental state - a guilty mind; the Latin term being mens rea. A mentally ill person is therefore excused from the normal punishment for their conduct not because of the mental illness, but only if the mental illness prevents them for forming the required intent to commit the crime.
Some ask why a mental element is required at all and whether some crimes are so heinous that they should be punished no matter the intent. Indeed, there are some ‘strict liability’ crimes that require no mental intent. Imagine though, that a person goes into a grocery store and places a candy bar in their pocket. If they leave the store without paying, that is clearly a theft offense. However, if as a person is checking out, the grocery store clerk accidentally places the bar in their bag, they have still left the store without paying, but no theft has occurred. The mental element is necessary for that crime to maintain its integrity.
The appropriate disposition of criminal cases involving mentally ill defendants and the nature of punishment and treatment that they receive as a result of their contact with law enforcement has become a major issue in recent years. Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton was a staunch crusader for better treatment. She formed the Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Mentally Ill in the Courts, and pushed for the creation of mental health specialty dockets like the ones that operate in each of our Delaware County courts.
This movement is not a grand social experiment, but rather a crime fighting effort. Statistics show that defendants who are not treated for a mental illness have a significantly elevated risk of recidivism- of committing additional crimes. Treatment courts and specialty dockets seek to eliminate the root causes of the crime and prevent additional crimes from occurring.
David Hejmanowski is a Magistrate and Court Administrator at the Delaware County Probate/Juvenile Court and a former Assistant Prosecuting Attorney.