The story of Jared Loughner is one of tragedy and it is continuing even though the surviving victims of his rampage are healing. Yesterday District Court Judge Larry Burns ruled that continued treatment of Mr. Loughner would be able to make him competent to stand trial.
Loughner has been diagnosed as having schizophrenia and is currently being treated with mandatory medication as part of his pre-trial incarceration. The current crop of anti-psychotic drugs have a good record of bringing people with this mental illness to a relatively normal state, but that is where the problem arises for me.
There is no doubt that Mr. Loughner’s apparent actions on in the shooting rampage are horrific in the truest sense of the word. He is charged with 48 counts ranging from attempted assassination to murder to gun crimes. It is also pretty clear that he actually perpetrated these crimes.
At the same time, it is also clear that he was in a state of metal illness at the time he allegedly planned and committed these acts. This is backed up by the fact that he was found incompetent to stand trial and remanded to a prison to be treated for his mental illness.
So here is the question; is it just to bring him to a more normal mental state (if that is even possible) in order that he can stand trial for crimes committed when he was in such a state that he could not be tried for these actions?
There has been a long recognized tenet of law that if someone is insane that they should not be held responsible for their actions. However, this tenet has been consistently eroded as the bar that one has to pass to use this defense has been raised. The current standard is that the defendant understood at the time of the crime that their action was wrong.
Things that prosecutors use to get around the mental defect standard are planning, remorse, and statements to the affect that the defendant had some inkling that this was not an acceptable action. The problem here is that people like Jared Loughner don’t have the same standards that the rest of the world has for judging their own actions. It is part and parcel of their mental illness.
Schizophrenics’ are often paranoid. They generally are withdrawn but if they are untreated their illness can spiral into a psychotic break and then things really get bad. Once this happens their tentative touch with reality can slip altogether and they can lash out violently. This may be what happened to Jared Loughner.
If Mr. Loughner was so stressed and paranoid that he felt he had to act out, even if he knew is was wrong, is that enough to make a clearly disturbed person responsible for his actions?
I tend to come down on the side of no. This is not saying that he should just be allowed to walk free. He is obviously a person that is a danger to society and probably himself. We can not just ignore this kind of threat, but is incarceration or even execution the right and just course?
This is a dichotomy that our legal system is ill equipped to deal with. There is a need to enforce laws, and there is a need to protect the public, but there is also an overriding need for our laws to be enforced justly. There is a big difference between justice and revenge.
Law, in its purest form is about balance. It is an attempt to balance power, to balance harm, to balance interest and all sides have to be taken into account if there is to be true balance and thus justice.
Society has an interest in not having Mr. Loughner do anything like this again. The victims and their families have an interest in seeing the man who gunned them down pay for his crimes. These are powerful motivators, but they can’t be allowed to push us to revenge instead of justice. And all of that is before we get into the political dimension of this.
While Mr. Loughner is being prosecuted on Federal charges, it is almost certain that he will be brought up on State charges as well when this case concludes. Prosecutors at the State level are elected and there will be a huge amount of pressure to “punish” him for his acts, regardless of the circumstances of his mental illness at the time.
If a prosecutor finds that this young man was mentally ill when he committed these acts, then you can rest assured that his political opponent will bring it up in the very next election. It is how we get into situations like the recent execution of Troy Davis.
Even when there is shoddy evidence and recantations of eyewitnesses there is pressure to keep the verdict and be as tough as possible on people who are convicted of committing crimes like the killing of police officers. This is often done in the name of closure.
So again we come to the question, what is just for us as a society to do with people like Jared Loughner? Is it right to give them medications, often against their will, to bring them to a normal state of mind, only to be able to try them and possibly give them the death penalty?
If that is the outcome, is it then just to execute someone who would not be sane without serious medication?
I think that justice would best be served if he were indeed incarcerated, but not at a normal prison. He has committed crimes, but to one degree or another those crimes sprung from his illness. He was not robbing banks, or selling drugs because he was schizophrenic, he went out and shot people. A repeat of that has to be prevented at all costs. Still we can not treat him like a average criminal and put him in a normal prison. It would not be just.
The floor is yours.