Many people with both diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illnesses are arrested in South Carolina every year. People with these conditions are more susceptible to both commit crimes, and also to be falsely or unfairly charged. These conditions can include bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, personality disorders, depression, or drug and alcohol conditions. Most people who have a mental health condition are still eligible to be prosecuted. We no longer maintain any long term psychiatric facilities in South Carolina, and many serious mentally ill people end up in our jails and serving prison sentences in the Department of Corrections.
Mental illness can be used in the defense of a criminal charge primarily in one of three ways:
Competency to stand trial: When someone's mental illness prevents them from understanding the charges against them or to assist in their own defense they may be held incompetent to stand trial. This is usually determined after a court ordered evaluation by the South Carolina Department of Mental Health. If someone is ultimately held to be incompetent to stand trial the court will determine if competency is likely to be restored with mental health treatment. If so they can be held for treatment until their condition improves, and then their criminal case will be allowed to proceed. If competency cannot be restored then the criminal proceedings will terminate and the defendant will be committed to the Department of Mental Health. With our state's absence of long term treatment options many of these defendants will be returned to their home within a matter of just a few months, even if they were charged with a serious crime.
Capacity to conform: When the mental illness is as such that someone is not able to understand right from wrong at the time they committed their crime this can serve as a defense. An example would be someone with schizophrenia who was hallucinating when they committed an assault. This is usually determined after a court ordered evaluation by the South Carolina Department of Mental Health. When someone is held to not have capacity to confirm they may actually still be prosecuted, and may actually still end up being incarcerated in the Department of Corrections.
Mitigation: When a mental illness does not right to the very high level necessary to establish an inability to understand right from wrong, or to participate in the defense, it may still be used as mitigation. This means that it can be used to negotiate with the prosecutor to reduce charges, or to assist the court in providing a lowered or probationary sentence. We regularly advise our clients who have mental health issues to have them fully evaluated and obtain a course of treatment in an effort to demonstrate to the prosecutor that they are addressing their issues and do not pose a significant risk to themselves or their community.
When we are defending an individual with a mental health condition we regularly make use of a forensic psychologist to assist in our client's defense. A forensic psychologist is one who specializes in evaluating mental health issues specifically for court purposes, and is able to come to court to testify on our client's behalf as necessary. Often non-forensic psychologists and counselors are reluctant to get involved in legal matters, especially since those services are not ordinarily covered by insurance. Additionally a forensic psychologist is going to know how to better present their findings in court, and will be prepared to have their findings stand up to cross-examination.