Over at CNN, a raucous “discussion” ensues over what, precisely, it means to declare someone incompetent to stand trial.
This is always a tough debate. On the one side, the mentally incompetent are likened to children, the main other class which are normally protected from the legal consequences of their actions (or at very least, given reduced punishment) due to society’s opinion that they are insufficiently mature to fully understand the morality of crimes they commit.
On the other the “insanity defense” (or claim that a person is incompetent to stand trial) generally comes up for discussion in the realm of crimes that are intensely violent, whether because the person was in a “fit of rage” or because they are simply mentally unhinged in general. For part of the public, there is a standing belief that nobody could be “that insane”, and thus that any lawyer bringing up mental insanity is employing a cheap parlor trick. For part of the public, there’s the belief that someone let off the hook on an “insanity plea” is simply dumped back into the population.
Especially poignant in this is the general public’s normal “interaction with the mentally ill” that is mostly confined to people who are homeless. The “crazy guy panhandling on the corner having a loud argument with his invisible friend” is something plenty of people have experience with, and there’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance involved in the fear people have of these people becoming irrationally violent, and the idea that “nobody could be that insane” when it comes to criminal defendants.
Two years ago, I discussed types of criminals, in context of criminal punishment/rehabilitation models and the contrasting ways to deal with rational and irrational actors. It strikes me that Loughner falls into one of the “irrational” categories. Certainly, his mind and warped worldview don’t match many other people. I’d say he falls into a sociopath category, inasmuch as his writings and ravings indicate that he lacks a connection to the normal world.
But what can be done for it? Again, there’s the real dilemma. Even if the state eventually rules him competent to stand trial, even if he skips trial and goes straight to “remorsefully pleading guilty and begging for leniency on grounds that he wasn’t sane” mode… how can you tell he’s not simply telling people what he thinks they want to hear? How can we be sure, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he is “cured” enough to reenter society? Especially if the “cure” involves antipsychotic drugs, what assurance does society have that he’ll continue taking them on schedule or that they won’t lose effectiveness as his body builds up a resistance to the dosage?
I’m not expecting much argument against the notion that Jared Lee Loughner needs to be under supervision, and possibly separation from society, for the rest of his life. There’s no question that, sane or not on some relative scale, he committed an absolutely horrific act. However, the way society views “criminals” at large is very odd. If Loughner really is completely incompetent to understand the world around him in the way a normal person does, sticking him in prison - even after “treatment” renders him “sane enough to stand trial” - would seem to be just abusive. There’s also a small minority of people who would rather have him (humanely) executed, no matter what his mental state, or especially if his mental state can’t be repaired - since, in the state he’s currently in, any caregiver assigned to him (nurses, doctors, psychiatrists) are necessarily at some degree of risk in his next rampage. I’ll not render an opinion on that, but simply state that I understand both the pro and con arguments of such a scenario. It all depends on whether you view Jared Lee Loughner as a damaged human being on a “thou shalt not kill” scale, or if he’s more like this and must be “put down” for the greater good of society, remorsefully.