How does mental health relate to criminal law?

Often those in our society who suffer from mental health problems are institutionalized in our criminal justice system. In particular, over the last few years, the state has continued to cut the mental health budget. This has led to fewer services available for people in crisis, and more people being arrested rather than treated. As a society, we should put an emphasis on treating those with mental health problems, educating the public (including law enforcement) and providing services for those in crisis.

The unfortunate consequence of not providing proper treatment and education are cases like that of Moses Trotter.  Mr. Trotter was charged with murder for a tragic incident that occurred during a mental health crisis.  He pled to voluntary manslaughter, as the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office recognized Mr. Trotter’s mental health impaired his ability to form a specific criminal intent.  But if proper mental health services had been in place, this tragedy could have been avoided altogether.

Sometimes It’s Hard To Do the Right Thing

A recent acquittal I had in an attempted homicide case in which the client was facing 75 years to life had me reflecting on our criminal justice system.  Sitting on a jury is a difficult task, particularly in a criminal case.  Jurors are tasked with literally deciding the fate of an individual’s life.  Although human nature automatically leans towards believing the person must have done something wrong to be sitting in a courtroom facing charges.  But, the truth is, innocent people are charged and sometimes convicted.

Think about it.  A juror enters the court room, sees a defendant sitting at the table, possibly restrained to his chair.  They presume there must be some evidence, or he would not be in custody, arrested and facing charges.  So, while listening to the evidence, the juror is already preconditioned to believe that the person must be guilty of something.  It is a difficult task to put that aside, and actually say, no, there is not enough evidence, the defendant is not guilty.

jury

But doing that, holding the government to its burden, is actually upholding our law.  Nicholas Kristof wrote a compelling piece in the Sunday NYT about a situation in which that did not happen. Chris Morton was wrongly convicted of the murder of his wife.  He served 25 years before he was released based on DNA testing.  It is a heart wrenching story.

But, jurors also get it right.  Sometimes the evidence is enough to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  And sometimes, when the evidence is not enough, the jury does do the right thing, and acquits the defendant.  On June 18, 2014, a Sacramento jury did just that in one of my cases.

Ruben Lopez was facing 75 years to life, based on three counts of attempted murder with gang enhancements.  The facts involved a verbal altercation between two groups with one person firing a gun.  Ruben Lopez was the only person charged.  During the trial I was able to demonstrate through systematic, persistent, effective cross-examination and defense witnesses that the evidence did not add up.  And at the end of the day, the jury found him not guilty of all charges.  It was a wonderful moment.  I worked diligently over the six week trial to attack the prosecution’s case, demonstrating the problems and inconsistencies.  And in one breath Mr. Lopez went from facing 75 years in prison to being home with his family.