Public Defenders and Mental Illness
I was appointed to the capital appeal of Eugene Gall v. Commonwealth in 1978 shortly after becoming a public defender. Eugene’s case had been one of Kentucky’s first death penalty verdicts after the passage of Kentucky’s death penalty statute following Gregg v. Georgia. I soon became immersed in death penalty law, and more specifically in why juries give death to some and not to others.
One of the issues we (Ed Monahan, former Kentucky Public Advocate, co-counseled the appeal with me) raised was prosecutorial misconduct in closing argument. Specifically, Willie Mathis had argued in closing that (holding up a Rorschach Test) Gall’s defense had “this,” while he, the prosecutor had “that” (holding up the .357 magnum used to kill 12-year-old Lisa Jansen.) And while Gall’s insanity defense was virtually unrebutted, I learned of appealing to the fear of mental illness as a reason to kill. It was not the last time I learned of jurors’ fears of persons with mental illness and how difficult it is for someone with a significant mental illness to get justice in our criminal justice system.
So it was that Doug Wilson, Colorado’s State Public Defender, contacted me last summer and suggested that NAPD should get on board with an effort to write a “course correction” document focusing on mental and behavioral health in collaboration with Equitas, a Colorado foundation. Equitas had facilitated such a course correction in Colorado leading to a significant reform of Colorado’s corrections system. The Steering Committee agreed to participate, and the National Public Defenders Summit on Mental Health and Criminal Justice was born.
I just got back from the Summit in Denver, held during the same week as NAPD’s “We the Defenders” Conference with social workers and investigators. 80 public defender leaders, including mental health advocates, gathered for an intense two days in downtown Denver and brainstormed, discussed, and drafted statements about reforming how America treats mental illness in its criminal courts. Hundreds of ideas were generated. We focused on intervention and diversion, evaluations and competency, defenses and mental health courts, and hard cases. The process emphasized discussion and deemphasized presentations.
What happens next is that a draft course corrections statement, likely only two-three pages in length, will be completed and sent out to those who had attended. Comments will be generated, and several drafts of the document will be written. Once the process is completed, it will be presented to public defense organizations, including NAPD, for sign-on. The hope is that public defense leaders can in turn use the course correction document for local advocacy.
The expertise in the room was extraordinary. Many of those in attendance had spent their entire careers advocating for justice and humane treatment of persons with mental illness. I was reminded, as I was forty years ago, of how important an understanding of mental illness is to what we do, and how all of us need to work on improving how we treat those who have mental illness and become involved in the criminal justice system.
Thanks to Equitas for facilitating this important conversation and all those who came to Denver to participate. Look for a final product that can be useful as we try to improve our criminal justice system.