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Mental illness and criminal responsibility [Letter]

As a criminal defense attorney with more than 13 years experience, I feel compelled to respond to Richard E. Vatz's recent op-ed ridiculing a Texas judge who accepted the claim of a defendant in a manslaughter case that he was a victim of the wealthy surroundings he'd grown up in and therefore unable to tell right from wrong ("'Affluenza': Just the latest way to shirk responsibility," Dec. 18).

While I do not question Mr. Vatz's expertise in his chosen field of psychology, his article makes clear what is either his ignorance of the law or a willful attempt to mislead readers of The Sun regarding the meaning of a "not criminally responsible" plea.

Fueling Mr. Vatz's outrage are judges who take into consideration such mitigating factors as whether or not a person is suffering from "extreme mental or emotional disorders."

Does Mr. Vatz feel that judges should not take into consideration such serious disorders when handing down sentences? State judges, in particular, have wide latitude in sentencing and are obligated to consider all facts and circumstances when making one of the most serious decisions entrusted to them by the public — that of curtailing the liberty of citizens.

To ignore the mental condition of the defendant would be to turn a blind eye to one of the actors a judge is bound by law to consider.

Mr. Vatz goes on to confuse sentencing mitigation factors, which by definition occur only after a verdict has been rendered, with the initial entry of a "not criminally responsible" plea.

Mr. Vatz states that "the entirety of insanity pleas ... is an opportunity to escape responsibility." On the contrary, these pleas do not provide an outlet for escaping responsibility but ensure that the state does not punish with incarceration people who, because of a mental disorder or mental retardation, lack substantial capacity to either appreciate the criminality of the conduct or conform that conduct to the requirements of the law.

A person cannot be at the same time both "escaping responsibility" and "incapable of responsibility."

I can only conclude that Mr. Vatz would have people found by independent, court-appointed psychiatrists to be so profoundly mentally retarded or impaired as to be unable to distinguish right from wrong to be as legally liable for their crimes as normally functioning members of society.

Presumably, Mr Vatz would also have these individuals suffer the same punishment. But to do so would be to return to a time in Western jurisprudence of which most thinking people in the 21st century are rightly ashamed.

Brian Young, Catonsville

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To respond to this letter, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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