Mental Illness Causes Mixed Emotions in Victims’ Family Members

In describing her immediate feelings toward Jared Loughner, the man who shot her and killed six others, Suzi Hileman used to speak of hate. That was before Hileman and her husband saw Loughner in court, where he was found incompetent to stand trial. When asked how she felt after the hearing, one in which Loughner acted out and had to be restrained by federal marshals, Hileman recounts a range of emotions.

“I went from fury to sad, and I don’t want to be sad. I don’t want to be sad.”

Her husband offers similar sentiments, calling Loughner, “pitiful” and childlike.  The Hilemans response rings true for a number of victim’s family members who encounter a defendant with a mental illness.

Nick and Amanda Wilcox, whose daughter, Laura, was murdered in 2001 at behavioral health clinic, also struggled when their daughter’s murderer, Scott Thorpe, was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

“I don’t like the name of it. He is guilty. He did do it.”

Thorpe was later made competent to stand trial and sentenced to life in prison at the Napa State Hospital.  Since their daughter’s murder, the Wilcoxes have traveled the country, including Tennessee, advocating for mental health reform and death penalty repeal.

The experiences of the Hilemans and the Wilcoxes highlight the need for change in how we address and adjudicate crimes where the defendant shows clear signs of severe and persistent mental illness. We need a system that takes into consideration the need for accountability, but also recognizes the limited culpability of many with severe and persistent mental illness. One possible solution is being discussed in the North Carolina legislature this week. The bill, which will come before the House of Representatives either today or sometime next week, would require a pretrial hearing to determine if a defendant has severe mental disability that significantly impairs a persons ability to “appreciate the nature, consequences, or wrongfulness of the person’s conduct in the criminal offense; exercise rational judgment in relation to the criminal offense; or conform the person’s conduct to the requirements of law in connection with criminal offense.” If the defendant is found to fit the requirements, the trial would proceed, but the death penalty would be prohibited. This would allow for a guilty verdict while still recognizing the limited culpability of the defendant, not only acknowledging the seriousness of the illness, but avoiding a protracted appeals process for the victims’ families while saving the state millions of dollars.

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