Representing the Mentally Ill (Part One)

Representing the mentally ill is a big part of any true criminal defense practice. Citizens accused of crimes are normally undereducated and under medicated, so to speak. The statistics bear that too many have not finished high school for whatever reason, and many have an underlying mental illness that impairs their ability to conform their behavior to the law. If you don’t want to deal with “crazy” people or don’t want to take on tough mental health or intellectual disability cases, you need to find a different area in which to practice law. If you care about your criminally accused clients and want to do the best job possible for them, to understand them and present their best case, the law demands that you be very aware of where criminal law and mental health interact. Our state legislators have found these issues important enough to write many applicable statutes, so you need to find it important enough to read them.

At the first client interview, you can often notice mental illness if you conversate long enough. However, most people suffering from mental illness, from minor depression to severe bipolar or schizophrenia, have learned to adapt themselves to hide and minimize their disorder. Being a person with mental illness is something still looked down upon in our society. If you are representing an adult defendant, they have spent much of their developmental life working around, over and through their disorder. Often, they will do whatever it takes to mask their disorder from the general public. They want to be “normal.” While it is great when a client volunteers that they have a diagnosable mental illness, often your early detective work must pick up on it, or at least on the clues. How does my client look? How do they speak? How is their thought pattern? How does interacting with them feel? What behavioral history can you pick up from their criminal history?

First-interview clues are great, but you have to continue to visit and talk to your client to get to know them well. Ask them if they have any history of mental illness or any history of head injuries. Sometimes you learn the easy way. One of the most surprising things to me in my practice is how many head trauma cases there are out there. Look for it.