Is madness ever an excuse for murder ?

The sad case of the death of Liam Hogan at the hands of his father John Hogan, and John Hogan's acquittal on murder charges today in Greece raises some serious concerns about how "mental illness" is a suitable excuse for terrible crimes, and how it means that the victims miss out on justice in some cases.

If we start with the basic principle that most people who commit heinous crimes are not mentally "normal", in the sense of the word that most people would see it, then we have to ask to what extent most people who commit serious pre-mediated murders, rapes, and vicious attacks are themselves actually suffering from some sort of mental illness.

Yesterday we read about three youths who beat a man of 23 who had learning difficulties to death for a £5 bet. Aren't these the actions too of someone who is seriously psychologically disturbed ? Where do we draw the line on this issue ?

What about Slobodan Milosevic. Charged with war crimes, the mass executions of tens of thousands of people, are we to beleive this man was not unhinged in some way ? Is this not a defence that he was actually not mentally very well balanced ?

If we follow the whole "mentally incapable" argument to its logical conclusion, we are left with a dilemma in that most people who commit serious pre meditated crimes should be found not guilty and instead given counselling or treatment.

But where does all this leave those who commit a serious crime by accident ? Is it fair that someone can kill their kids and claim "I am sorry, I don't know what came over me", and get off, when someone might expect to serve a long prison sentence for manslaughter, which is not planned accidental crime.

If a mentally unbalanced person did not mean to kill, did a lorry driver mean to kill if he falls asleep at the wheel of his lorry killing people in a crash ?

I've asked a lot of questions and don't have all the answers, but it worries me that the system treats pre meditated acts, even by people who are suffering from mental illness, in a far more lenient way that people who commit manslaughter. That does not seem right to me.


lettersfromatory said...

I agree that it's a horribly difficult issue to resolve, but I also feel that something isn't quite right here. Sentences should surely reflect (to some extent) how much of a danger people are to society, regardless of their mental state?

OneHourAhead said...

I think madness in the true sense (ie voices in my head that I can't distinguish from real people telling me to kill) can be classed as a reasonable defence in crime. However, classified as it is here I would agree with you, I can't see how "I can't remember" is a good enough excuse.

jailhouselawyer said...

When I was in Frankland Prison I was next door to a man who had committed murder, a pre-meditated crime, and his tariff was 9 years. I was convicted of manslaughter, a lesser offence in the eyes of the law, and yet my tariff was originally set at 18 years, later reduced to 15 years, but I still served 25 years.

I was charged with murder but this was reduced to manslaughter when the psychiatrists reports concluded that at the time of the offence I was suffering from diminished responsibility.

It is a complex area of law, but you might find this sheds some light on the issue.

headless said...

Whilst there are no obvious answers Nich, this is certainly food for further thought.

Leonardo said...

This is Leonardo, from the World Have Your Say, the BBC World Service interactive programme, radio. We'll be talking about mental health in our programme today, 6pm London time. The peg is the decision to clear John Hogan of murder. Does mental illness justify murder? I found your blog and thought it would be interesting to hear from you.
Many thanks. Please phone me or send me your phone number.

Norfolk Blogger said...

Jailhouse Lawyer

Thanks for your comments on this. You offer a unique insight in to the issue.

jailhouselawyer said...

Nich: My pleasure. I have always found you to be polite and understanding towards me and in no way judgmental. A good teacher is also a pupil, always willing to learn from others including children and the likes of me.

On the show there was a woman in the States who's son committed suicide because he felt he might do violence to someone. I told her that he had courage and that I was the coward.

If you ever need a speaker at your school to talk about issues which you feel might prevent any going astray let me know.