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A SIGN OF PROGRESS?
David Kaczynski, Times Union, 8/8/2012
We learned yesterday that the man responsible
for killing six people and injuring many others, including a member of Congress,
in a shooting rampage in Arizona in 2011 will not receive the death penalty.
Jared Loughner, who is diagnosed with schizophrenia, yesterday entered a plea
that will keep him imprisoned for the rest of his natural life.
In accepting the plea deal, prosecutors cited the wishes of victims and their
families to avoid the re-traumatizing ordeal of a high-profile, long-running
criminal trial. In contrast, in 1998 my brother Ted Kaczynski – diagnosed with
schizophrenia in five separate psychiatric evaluations – faced a capital trial
in which federal prosecutors pushed hard for the death penalty. A plea agreement
for a life sentence was offered only after the trial started to unravel around
Ted’s mental illness, and after his family refused to keep quiet about the
barbarity of trying to execute a mentally ill man who’d been turned in by his
What few people realize is that the overwhelming majority of criminal defendants
who have serious mental illness are ruled legally sane (just as Loughner was
yesterday) and thus they are equally exposed to the death penalty as would be
any defendant without mental illness.
What we see in our current legal system is a huge disconnect between the modern
medical understanding of mental illness and a badly outdated legal definition of
insanity. As a result, more than 100 people with the most serious types of
mental illness have been executed in the US since 1976, according to a 2003
study published by Amnesty International. That disheartening number includes
several psychotic defendants who acted (and often acted-out) as their own
defense attorneys at trial.
Yesterday, however, sanity prevailed. Lawyers, victims and their families, and
the Attorney General all quietly agreed that justice would not be served by
seeking a death sentence for someone as sick as Jared Loughner.
Let us hope that, at last, we have turned a corner in appreciating that criminal
defendants diagnosed with severe and persistent mental illness should be treated
as a separate category; and that our commitment to protecting society and to
holding offenders accountable does not mean that we have to kill people whose
judgment was compromised by severe illness.