You’ve created a deliciously believable character who’s two crayons short of a full box. He’s committed a couple of heinous crimes, including a murder or two. Now he’s been caught and the legal system is having their way with him. Just how do the courts go about committing someone of questionable mental health? Sean Mactire covers this topic in his book Malicious Intent: A Writer’s Guide to How Murderers, Robbers, Rapists, and Other Criminal Think.
The courts have two forms of power:
1. Power of the state to care for those in need. This is exercised to protect the murderer from harming himself.
2. Police power of state. This is exercised to protect society from people who are dangerous.
These are both governed by state laws, but there was a federal case in 1975 that set the requirements. Mactire says, “…there must be proof of both the existence of mental illness and an indication that the person is dangerous to self or others.” Another case in 1979 added a little something else to the requirements, mainly that there had to be “clear and convincing proof.” I’ll admit, I don’t quite understand how adding “clear and convincing” to the original requirements made anything more clear, but there you have it.
Here are the two types of commitment procedures (copied out of the book word for word):
1. Formal. This involves a request by a third party to have the court commit an individual. Decision is made by judge based on expert evidence. A jury is optional. Confinement, if decided upon, is until the patient is no longer under the influence of the disorder.
2. Informal. This is an emergency commitment that does not involve the courts. A person acting in a bizarre manner can be taken by police to a state institution or family can request police to do this or in most states, two health professionals can order a temporary informal civil commitment. Confinement is limited to one to three days, with longer periods requiring a formal hearing.
All sorts of abuse erupted soon after these laws went on the books, including people who were confined without just cause, people who were confined in order to commit insurance fraud, and cases of coercion, where the poor victim was stuffed in an institute without consent. Then in 1990, the Supreme Court said it was okay for wrongfully committed people to sue mental health professional, and now the number of abuse cases is much lower. It still happens, and you can use that in your novel.
The part I found intriguing for a novel is the Formal procedure that relies solely on a judge’s decision. What if the judge is corrupt? What if the judge is an enemy of the crazy lady but doesn’t remove himself from the case? What if the judge had a truly magnificent burrito for breakfast that morning and the indigestion is making him cranky? I can think of millions of things that could go wrong with this scenario, making your murdering crazy guy into something of a sympathetic character.
Just keep in mind that the reader wants to see justice done, so if your bad guy really does need to be committed (as opposed to incarcerated), play fair and make sure the story ends the way it’s supposed to. Tick off the reader and he won’t buy book two when it comes out.
Any thought? Comments? Corrections?