Psychological Disorders and the Law

I am sure many if not all of us have seen the news for today about the Franklin Regional High School stabbings. (Article: 24 Injured in Stabbing at Franklin Regional High School Thankfully, no fatalities were reported, though a few of the victims are in critical condition. And the question becomes, “Why? Why did he do it?” The attacker, a sophomore student at the high school, was perceived as a nice guy to his peers.

Recently in class, we have been discussing psychological disorders and what constitutes abnormal behavior. Abnormal behavior is defined as actions that are statistically rare, deviate from the social norm, and/or cause danger to themselves/others, subjective discomfort, or an inability to function. In the last decade, it seems that unexpected (and sometimes unwarranted) violence especially in schools (Sandy Hook) and colleges (Virginia Tech) against others has become more and more prevalent. And this increase in random violent acts is making it seem like less of a deviance from the social norm, and we as a society are becoming desensitized to it. It seems as though any unstable or psychologically disturbed person can only act out their frustrations in a violent manner. Then, in the eyes of the law if they claim to be or are found by a medical professional to be “mentally unfit”, they no longer have to take responsibility for their actions (i.e. serve a prison sentence or other punishment).

There are some rare exceptions, but most people know whether their actions are right or wrong. Specifically in the cases of school violence, many of the perpetrators planned these acts( see Columbine in 1999 to Sandy Hook in 2012). These attacks took at least some amount of rational thought. If a person suffered from a psychotic break, typically a very sudden thing, it would follow that the violent reaction was triggered by some extremely adverse event and the person would react immediately. But in many of these cases that is not what is happening. In the Franklin Regional story, the attacker was described by one student (who had his face slashed) as having “the same expression on his face that he has every day, which was the freakiest part.” No rage, no anger, just blankness. To me, and I am in no way a medical or psychiatric/psychological professional, his behavior matches more with Antisocial Personality Disorder (formerly psycho- or socio-path). In this disorder, the person shows no remorse, and is often emotionless when describing their crimes. This is not some front they are putting up because they actually don’t even excrete the same level of hormones during what a “normal” person would find to be a distressing event. Nothing phases them. And while this is still a psychological disorder, it is not valid as a “get-out-of-jail-free” card, so the person can still be tried (see the Ice Man, Richard Kuklinski).

While I do feel it is necessary for people who are truly suffering to receive treatment, I think that in these cases, a psychological disorder just provides an excuse, and in my opinion a wholly unacceptable excuse. In an article discussing how people with mental illness deal with the stigma of having a mental illness, the author who suffers from chronic depression states how mentally ill people can still be almost completely “normal” functioning human beings and take responsibility for their actions. At the end, the author even states that the man who shot U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona (and others), though he was disturbed in some sense, was still a murderer. (Article: Mental Illness and Responsibility

So, even though the answer to “Why did they do it?” may be a psychological disturbance, I feel that pleading “insanity” is a terribly insulting way to excuse murder that only sets a precedence for not so innocent parties that you can hide behind a sickness. In the future, I think that a solution is needed to separate the mentally ill seeking treatment to get better from the mentally ill murderers trying to hide from their actions.

*** Note: I do not mean to offend. I only mean to point out a serious problem that has only gotten worse in recent years. ***


2 thoughts on “Psychological Disorders and the Law

  1. Evan Michael O'hara

    Both of the views presented so far on the topic of mental disorders are very thorough and make compelling arguments. When it comes to these mass murders it seems like there is no correct answer. I think it would be worth while to find a way to make a study about how these kinds of people with some sort of disorder come to their actions. If there was a way to determine whether or not they really have some sort of issue with their psyche, rather than just hiding behind a lawyer after some violent act, then we would be able to get some real closure.
    The idea of these people not feeling any emotion could be a smart place to begin with these studies. It is apparent, in my point of view, that the person is having some issue with the way they are thinking if they are expressionless during the act, as mentioned above. If they were to feel some sort of emotion or sense of being while doing these events then it would be easier to tell if they actually a normal person just hiding behind a lawyer. This could be a useful statistic to compare from case to case.
    There also could be some tests done on these people to record their brain waves. In class we were able to see all the different types of MRI or PET scans that can be done to record what parts of the brain are active. If the subject in question could be subjected to certain material that would bring back the emotions that caused them to act outrageously, then we could see what parts of their brains were active and be able to locate where these feelings are starting from. Hopefully this would also aid in the discovery of a cure or help for these people.
    To recap, I agree with the points made above about how a disorder is not an excuse for this crazy behavior, but a disorder needs to be considered to some extent. This is why more studies need to be done to help tell the difference between a real disorder and someone who is running from the law.

  2. Alexa Lewis

    I think your blog post provides an excellent and very frustrating conversation for psychological disorders and the law. The motive behind a crime can be very difficult to decode especially when good lawyers are involved. It is also hard for a law to define behavior that is often unique to the individual. Sure, some murders may be playing the ‘mentally ill’ card, while others truly may be sick. If they are sick, to what degree were they aware of their actions, do they feel remorse, do they have morals? Questions like these seem nearly impossible to measure against something as concrete and logical as the law. Mental illness as discussed in class often involves more than just biology. We cannot just scan a person’s brain and know if they were so sick that homicide was not morally wrong to them.

    In addition, I do not think mass shootings are becoming a society norm like you mentioned. There were 250 mass shooting in 2013. Compared to 300 million US citizens, 250 gunmen is still relatively insignificant. The media’s coverage of these events though might make it seem normal. I wonder if the degree of media coverage in anyway influences the behavior of people who may already be mentally ill. Reading about shooting isn’t going to make me or you want to kill people, but how about someone who has homicidal fantasies?

    I think mass shooting is a very controversial and thought provoking subject. Just because these events were planned and required rational thought, does not mean the people who commit these crimes are not psychological very disturbed and ill. They may have the cognitive ability to plan these events, but they must be gaining some sort of benefit from murdering these people that lies deep in their psyche. I agree that it does not get them a get-out-of-jail-free card. I also agree that people who commit these crimes are dangerous and should go to jail or be institutionalized.

    Sadly, it seems like now getting a good lawyer is what will determine if a jury believes you are ‘truly mentally ill’ and lack all morals and principles of life.

Leave a Reply