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Can the Mentally Ill Understand the Consequences of Their Actions?


Legality as it involves persons who are mentally ill can become convoluted. Many cases have reached crossroads where the offender is mentally ill. The rights of the victim become confused with the ability of the offender to understand what occurred. In some cases, it is an even more horrendous injustice. At what point is a person mentally incompetent to understand that the actions that they took are wrong. A New York Drug Crime Lawyer said if they are sent for treatment at a treatment facility, does that mean that they should not serve any prison time related to the offense that they committed. If they are not penalized for their actions, what message is the system sending to the victim of the crime?

These questions have plagued the criminal justice system since the beginning of time. The question becomes one of intent. Is the intent of the criminal justice system to punish; or is the intent of the system to rehabilitate? Are prisons, just places to keep the public safe for a time from the behavior of inmates; or are they places to rehabilitate them? A New York Drug Crime Lawyer said some states have adopted laws that allow for a guilty but mentally ill finding in a trial. In cases of guilty, but mentally ill, the offender is sent to a secure mental illness hospital until they are determined to have been cured of their illness; only then do they report to the prison to begin serving their time for the offense that they committed. In that manner, they are fully aware that an insanity defense is not a get out of jail free card. They are required to serve the time for the crime that they committed.

In 1984, many of these issues were brought to the attention of the general public when a man was convicted of raping a woman among several other heinous crimes in New York. He was convicted on January 8, 1981, in front of a jury for his crimes. However, he was determined to be mentally incompetent to understand or take responsibility for his crimes. He was determined to be suffering from a dangerous mental disorder. He was sentenced to an indeterminate sentence in a secure mental illness facility. A Queens Drug Possession Lawyer said the Commissioner of Mental Hygiene was responsible for reviewing the case on a regular basis. In September of 1981, and again on October 27, 1982, the Orange County Court signed first and second retention orders ensuring that the defendant was continued in the care of the secure mental hospital that he had been sent to originally.

On November 14, 1983, a doctor advised the Acting Director of the Bureau of Forensic Services that the defendant was cured of his dangerous mental illness and advised that he should no longer be housed in a secure facility. The recommendation was forwarded up the chain of command until it reached the court. On February 22, 1984, a hearing was conducted in Orange County Court to determine if the defendant could be removed from the secure facility. The obvious concern being that he committed several forcible, violent felony offenses and had only been incarcerated in the secure mental facility for three years. The result of the hearing was to transfer the defendant to a nonsecure mental health facility.

On March 8, 1984, the defendant was transferred to a nonsecure facility located in the Bronx. On April 2, 1984, at about one in the afternoon, the defendant walked away from the facility. Four days later, the defendant was arrested by the Port Authority Police and returned to the psychiatric hospital. On May 4, 1984, he was indicted by the Grand Jury of Bronx County for escape in the second degree and escape in the third degree. On May 7, 1984, the defendant was arrested at the Bronx Psychiatric Center.

The defendant entered a plea of not guilty to the crime of escape. He also filed a motion to dismiss the indictment because he did not believe that the escape statute applied to an unauthorized departure from a nonsecure psychiatric facility by a person who was confined as insane. He claimed that the statute CPL Article 330 which defines the crime of escape was never intended to apply to mental patients.

In some ways, the defendant is correct. Escape in the second degree, is defined by Penal Law Sec 205.10(1) as an escape from a detention facility. A detention facility, is defined by the statute as a facility that is used to confine a person pursuant to an order of the court; who has been convicted of a crime, or adjudicated as a youthful offender in need of supervision, a juvenile delinquent, or held for extradition, among other things that are defined by an order of the court. Escape in the third degree defines the escape of a person from custody. A Nassau County Drug Possession Lawyer said custody is described as a restraint by a public servant following a legal arrest or an order by the court. It is defined in Penal Law Sec 205.05. The question before the court in this particular case if whether the legislatures intent was to include persons who have been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital by a court of law.

The defendant argued that the difference between a person who is placed into a penal facility is confined for punishment and that an insanity acquittee is confined for treatment. He contends that the distinction prevents him from falling under the statutory guidelines to have committed the crime of escape in either the second or third degree. He also contends that a psychiatric center is not a detention facility or a place used for the confinement of criminals. Under that definition, the defendant was never placed into a detention facility, so he could not have escaped from one.

The prosecutor argued that at the time that the statute was drafted, there were no true mental hospitals. The study of psychiatry was in its infancy. The understanding of mental illness was sketchy and the statute itself most likely was not intended to include mentally ill persons. However, case law in more recent years has filled in the gap between the original legislation and current medical belief. Case law was established in People v. Buthy, 85 A.D.2d890, 446 N.Y.S.2d 756 (4th Dept. 1981) that a defendant who is an insanity acquittee who leaves a mental facility without permission can and should be considered guilty of escape. The court in Buthy determined that the offense does not meet the statutory requirement of a felony escape charge, but the lesser included misdemeanor offence of escape in the second degree.

In the early 1980’s when this case was reviewed in the Supreme Court on appeal, there were no other alternative decisions to guide the court. The determination of the court was that the psychiatric facility was not a detention center, especially because it was a nonsecure facility. Because it was a nonsecure facility that the court does not define as a detention center, the defendant cannot have escaped. The court sided with the defendant that no escape occurred and overturned his guilty verdict from the lower court.

At Stephen Bilkis & Associates, New York criminal attorneys can review the circumstances of your incarceration. We have convenient offices throughout New York and the Metropolitan area. A New York drug crime lawyer can evaluate your case and provide advice for an appropriate defense.

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