Criminality and Psychology

by | Mar 31, 2002

Q: While it is clear that you think that being insane and being held criminally liable for one’s actions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, I am unsure of whether you think those two things are NEVER mutually exclusive. In other words, might there ever be a time where you would say that a person was […]

Q: While it is clear that you think that being insane and being held criminally liable for one’s actions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, I am unsure of whether you think those two things are NEVER mutually exclusive. In other words, might there ever be a time where you would say that a person was SO insane that he should not be held criminally liable (even if he should be sent to a mental institution)? Do you think that insanity should be a factor in sentencing?

A: The essential purpose of a system of government is to restrain and punish violent people. When someone commits murder, they must be kept from being able to do so again. In a way, it doesn’t matter whether one is “mentally ill” or not. If they’re dangerous, they need to be restrained. If this feels like unfair punishment to you, then you must consider what the central purpose of government is and place that central purpose above your feelings.

If what you’re asking is: “Can we ever divorce mental health and responsibility (criminal or otherwise)?” My answer is no. Mental health and personal responsibility are inevitably intertwined and interconnected. For details on why I think this is the case, you’re going to have to read my book “Grow Up America!” and my various articles for sale on this site.

That’s a big part of the idea I’m fighting: the idea that either one is mentally ill or one is responsible. This is particularly true with the psychiatric disease labels — such as depression, borderline personality, attention deficit disorder, etc. These disease labels intimidate the majority of people into believing that psychological problems are literally diseases just like cancer or heart disease are literally illnesses. Not so. There’s little to no evidence, in most cases, that these psychiatric disorders are medical diseases — i.e. organically based in tissue and blood cells and genetics; and yet we’re being told by psychiatrists in courtrooms (and on op-ed pages of “The Wall Street Journal”) that they indisputably are.

If you spend a decade or two in the mental health field, like I have, and if you are an objective, intellectually honest person thoroughly unintimidated by what “everyone” thinks (apart from what’s true), you will soon see that the psychological disorders listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) are, by-and-large, merely disease labels applied to behaviors. “Attention deficit disorder” is the classic example of this falsehood, and there are many others: conduct disorder; intermittent explosive disorder; and various other “behavioral” disorders.

If I do something unhealthy or wrong, according to this psychiatric mentality, then it’s a disease — rather than simply a sick or unhealthy action. This is the notion smuggled into the argument that people like Andrea Yates, who deliberately kill all their children, are by definition too mentally ill to be responsible. What we see in the case of Andrea Yates’ defense team is an instance of bad philosophical and psychological ideas coming home to roost — with the open, barely disguised motivation of morally and legally excusing the inexcusable. Bad ideas, grounded in pseudo-science and failure to appreciate the objective existence of free will, have by now totally infected the psychiatric profession and the legal profession — but fortunately not the majority of people who live in places like Texas or South Carolina who refuse to fall for them.

What, you ask, about a case where there is a known objective, organic medical illness going on? Such as an Alzheimer’s patient? In a case like this, where there is absolutely indisputable evidence of a biological disorder, I’m willing to buy into the notion that the individual is not capable of being rational. His degenerating brain cells are quite literally destroying his capacity to think and therefore choose. However, how many Alzheimer’s patients have you heard of killing their children, or loved ones, or strangers? I know of absolutely none, and it seems to me this would be headline-making news.

Even if there is such a case I don’t yet know about, I would still argue that the brain-damaged patient should be kept off the streets because he is, quite obviously, a danger to others due to his disease. No rational person would argue: “This patient is a killer because of his illness; therefore, he shouldn’t have to be locked up for the rest of his life. Instead, we’ll leave it up to medical professionals who most certainly will release him in the not-too-distant future.” You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say somebody’s helpless, on the one hand, and then at the same time claim that with “proper treatment” (never really defined) they will be cured and can go free. We don’t live in an age of Star Trek level medicine, despite what the psychiatric community seems to imply about its ability to “cure” moral and psychological monsters.

Hold the full context of facts here: Andrea Yates’ attorneys were not merely arguing that she be forcibly kept off the streets all her life. “Treatment” over punishment means that you have the killer convince one of the most naive groups of people on the face of the planet — psychiatrists — that you really didn’t mean it, and could you please be forgiven, and then of course be let go. Yates’ lawyers and psychiatrists wanted her placed in a mental hospital for some number of years, but then it would be left up to psychiatrists to decide her fate. Trust me, as someone who has worked in and consulted with psychiatric hospitals since the mid-1980’s: this means she’ll be released. As I’ve said a hundred times: kooky psychiatrists (even the sometimes smarter ones, like Dr. Sally Satel, who wrote the brave book “P.C., M.D.,” but is kooky on this issue) are the last people you want making such decisions.

Let’s hypothesize that an Andrea Yates has a biological disorder — for instance, Alzheimer’s — that made it impossible for her to think at all. If I was convinced this was truly the case, I wouldn’t want to execute her. I would even approve of her being in a state prison hospital rather than a state prison; in a sense, what does it matter? But I would certainly want her mandated to be permanently off the streets, since she obviously has a disease that causes her to mindlessly, recklessly run around and kill people at random, including her own children.

The proof of the intellectual dishonesty of Andrea Yates’ defense team (and her slimy, thoroughly disgusting husband) is this: They weren’t merely arguing not to execute her; they were arguing that psychiatrists (rather than judge and jury) should decide her fate because she was the victim of a “behavioral” disease and therefore should not be held accountable for her actions. It was a way for her to be let off.

There was an excellent book called “The Death of Innocents” written a few years back. The book detailed a true story of a woman who killed her young children again, and again, and again. Decades went by before it came to light that she, and her (at best) naive physician were using the excuse of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) to mask her murders. SIDS, like depression, is a genuine problem. However, it is also all too easy to use as an excuse when convenient to carry out one’s twisted or irrational goals. If you want insight into the psychological mindset and actions of a manipulative yet, at the same time, utterly pathetic murdering mother, read this extraordinary book. At the end, anyone who still believes an Andrea Yates should be let off will likely have second thoughts. The book also shows how falling for pseudo-science, in exchange for critical and objective thinking (even when it might not feel good or seem nice), is the only way to prevent such tragedies in the future.

If Andrea Yates truly was as sick as they claimed, neither her “loving” husband nor her fawning attorneys would have wanted her in a psychiatric hospital where she’s subject to release by some arbitrary, subjective standard of “cure.” If she’s as ill as they said she is, she clearly could not be expected to take care of herself; she’s as much a danger to herself as to others. She’d clearly be so incapable of functioning that she’d have to be cared for the rest of her life.

Truly organic brain diseases are degenerative; they don’t turn on and off like a light switch — or like Andrea Yates’ on-again, off-again psychosis. Nor is a person with an organic brain disease, or with Alzheimer’s, likely to have the presence of mind necessary to deliberately, calmly and decisively kill all five of her children.

If someone’s capacity for thinking is inevitably and irreversibly destroyed by a degenerative, organic disease of the brain and mind, then execution of the defendant would certainly seem improper. But so too would setting her free.

Dr. Michael Hurd is a psychotherapist, columnist and author of "Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)" and "Grow Up America!" Visit his website at:

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

Have a comment?

Post your response in our Capitalism Community on X.

Related articles

No spam. Unsubscribe anytime.

Pin It on Pinterest