Hard to balance need for justice with treatment
Lawyers and psychiatrists have criticised laws on detaining the mentally ill
Joe Heffernan of Ennis, Co Clare, was sentenced to life for murdering a 21-year-old student after unsuccessfully claiming diminished responsibility. Photograph by Eamon Ward
If someone with mental illness commits a serious crime like murder how do you balance the needs of treatment and justice?
The courts have grappled with this issue under the Criminal Law (Insanity) Act 2006, which introduced the verdict of “not guilty by reason of insanity” – replacing the contradictory and much criticised “guilty but insane”.
Fears in some quarters that the law would act as a “get-out-of-jail card” for dangerously disturbed individuals has not been realised. In fact, defence lawyers are prone to complain about the obstacles to mounting an “insanity defence” or pleading diminished responsibility under the Act which would – if successful – reduce a murder charge to manslaughter.
Dr Brendan Kelly, consultant psychiatrist at the Mater hospital, says “some psychiatrists would object entirely to the idea of an insanity defence”, although “the majority . . . would agree there are occasions when an individual is so mentally ill they can’t be held responsible for the actions”.
He says it’s only right, however, that the insanity defence is sparingly used.
“In the psychiatric community there is awareness that individuals with mental illness for the most part are not entirely mentally ill. You need to be very mentally ill to think it’s okay to kill somebody.
“The vast majority of people with mental illness do not think it is okay to kill somebody. So it’s correct that the defence of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ is a rare one because mental illness of that severity is very rare.”
Last June a Co Clare farmer was sentenced to life for murdering a 21-year-old student after unsuccessfully pleading diminished responsibility in the Central Criminal Court.
Joe Heffernan (33), of Cappagh Beg, Barefield, Ennis, claimed an adjustment disorder following his father’s death had caused him to think he was killing the devil.
However, Dr Sally Linehan of the Central Mental Hospital said that while adjustment disorder was a mental illness, Heffernan did not satisfy other criteria for the insanity defence. She believed he had understood his actions were wrong, and she was “not satisfied the mental disorder rendered him unable to refrain”.
Some people may fear that creating special rules in the courts for people with mental illness could be exploited by the likes of serial killers.
Yet psychiatrists are quick to point out that this is based on the mistaken view that psychopathy and psychosis are the same thing.
They stress the former is a behavioural disorder rather than a mental illness.