I recently viewed a Frontline special about what is involved with pleading not guilty by reason of insanity in the United States. To better discuss this, the show presented the case of Ralph Tortorici, a schizophrenic young man who at age 26 in 1994 held some university students hostage as a result of the voices in his brain telling him that in doing so the chips in his brain and penis would be removed. This man had a well-documented history of mental illness, and even the prosecuting attorney felt he was hardly competent to even stand trial. Four separate psychiatrists evaluated him, all concluding that he was so mentally unwell that he could not discern between reality and his own imagination. It seemed like a clear case: he needed psychiatric help. But, the jury did not think so, and sent him to prison instead. Three years later, he committed suicide in his solitary confinement cell by hanging himself from his bedsheets.
After watching this, I felt it was important to discuss some of the facts presented in the video so people can better understand the ramifications of pleading NGRI while on trial. Here are some truths I find especially important:
1. Pleading NGRI does not allow the person to walk off free: Once a person commits a crime where they can plead NGRI, it is a matter of going to prison or going to a mental institution. However, it is illegal for judges to tell the jury this, because it may sway their decision. So, some jurors may be under the impression that if they do not convict the person they will get to roam the streets. This is just not true.
2. Pleading NGRI is taking the “easy way out”: In fact, it is quite the contrary. If someone is convicted and goes to prison, they serve their time and then walk away completely free. For someone who is convicted of NGRI, they become attached to the state for the rest of their lives. Until the day they die, they must report to the state and are closely followed to the state. For this reason, defense attorneys for the most part highly suggest to their clients that they avoid pleading NGRI at all costs.
3. Convicts frequently try to plead NGRI: Less than 1% of all trials result in a plea of NGRI. According to the American Academy of Psychiatry, over 90% of those who plead NGRI have a diagnosed mental illness. But, only about 25% are successful in their plea.
The more research I have done on the insanity plea, the more I feel the statistics reflect American’s tendency to downplay mental illness. With our advancements in science and medicine, I feel it is irresponsible to doubt that severe mental illnesses exist, disorders which can completely alter a person’s ability to use rational thought. In the case of Ralph Tortorici, it was evident to everyone in the case, including the judge and prosecuting attorney, that this man truly felt that there was a conspiracy and that the only way he could escape it was to do what the voices in his head told him to. To send this man to prison into solitary confinement where he was left alone with these scary voices in his head is what I feel leans more toward cruel and unusual punishment.
Instead, it seems only humane to have sent him somewhere that could have given him appropriate psychiatric medication and attention. With treatment, he could have eventually learned how to become a normal, functioning member of society. But, instead he was sent to a place where he took his own life because of the internal suffering he continually felt. After all, if the point of going to jail is to learn how to become rehabilitated, how will that ever work for someone who cannot discern between illusion and reality?
The best statistic I have ever heard pertaining to this issue is the following: the largest mental institution is the Los Angeles County Jail. There is a higher concentration of mentally ill people in this jail than any other place in the world. How can this be? And why isn’t there a larger push to give these people psychiatrist access than prison guard access? I feel that this statistic alone is enough to prove that there is a severe flaw in the prison system.
Although his crime was nothing to be dismissed, I feel as though Ralph Tortorici, as well as other current inmates, should be allotted psychiatric help instead of being locked up. I I hope that in the future mental health issues gain increasing support and that those who are afflicted will have better access to treatment.
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