Since the Newtown shootings, public debate has focused on gun violence and mental health resources. That tragedy and others have pointed out that neither the government nor the health care sector has figured out the best way to help people with mental illness before they commit a crime.
When the crime occurs, it’s left to the justice system to figure out the best way to handle the defendant and his or her mental illness. As a Wake County case illustrates, the questions that the courts must grapple with go beyond the TV crime show “insanity plea.” The challenge starts with whether the defendant is competent to stand trial.
In this case, the defendant shot and killed her ex-husband. She said she had only intended to wound him; it was meant as a “warning shot.” Her mental state had been questioned before this, though, during her divorce and the ensuing child custody dispute. Her husband was granted full custody of the children because of the defendant’s mental instability; the judge said her actions traumatized her children and amounted to abuse.
In North Carolina, a person cannot be tried, convicted, sentenced or punished for a crime if the court finds he is incompetent by reason of mental illness or defect. According to the statute, the defendant is incompetent if he is unable to understand the “nature and object” of the proceedings against him, if he cannot understand his own situation with regard to the proceedings, or if he cannot assist in his defense “in a rational or reasonable manner.”
While it’s a good idea to have professional opinions to back up a claim of incapacity, the court may consider any instances of irrational or unstable behavior as evidence. In fact, the court itself may suggest that the defendant should not stand trial based on the defendant’s behavior or demeanor during formal and informal proceedings.
The defendant shot her husband in 2006. Questions of her competence arose immediately, and over the past six years, the court has ordered her to undergo in-patient treatment for her mental illness several times. According to court records, clinicians diagnosed a number of different conditions, including delusional thinking and dissociative disorder. At one point, she reportedly believed her husband was still alive; at another, she told the court she had not shot her husband.
But in October 2012, she was declared competent to stand trial. At her recent plea hearing, she told the court she was on medication but that she understood what was going on and what it meant for her. She then pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and accepted a 16-year prison sentence.
Source: Raleigh News & Observer, “Wake County woman pleads guilty to second-degree murder of her ex-husband” Anne Blythe, Feb. 14, 2013
Our firm handles cases for defendants like the woman in this post. If you would like to learn more about our Raleigh, North Carolina, practice, please visit the Murder and Manslaughter page of our website.