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Good Morning America, Et Al: Mental Illness Made Her Do It?

Apr 17 2009 | Comments 47

Melissa Huckaby is charged with murdering and raping Sandra Cantu, a little girl in her care. In an interview with Good Morning America, her ex-husband is asked, insistently, about his ex-wife’s mental health. Check out the video of the interview here.

I know it’s valid to ask about her mental state, but the way it’s done in this instance makes me uncomfortable. I notice the Australian coverage of the case doesn’t mention the possibility of mental illness, which is nice, considering she hasn’t even been proven guilty yet.

Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive, but I resent the persistent connection between violence and mental illness that’s played up in the press. I mean, there’s a whole article here about why the insanity plea in this case probably won’t work. It begins:

The fact that the woman charged with killing Sandra Cantu was recently mentally evaluated through the San Joaquin court system raises the question of whether she might use an insanity defense if the case goes to trial.

Emphasis mine, because this kind of speculation is ridiculous! It’s followed up by:

“She might be extraordinarily mentally ill but still legally responsible for the crime,” said Loyola University criminal law professor Laurie Levenson.

Or she might frickin’ not be. WE DON’T KNOW YET. All this article — and coverage like it — does is foster the linkage between mental illness and crime. And the funny thing? Here’s all we know for sure: Her family may have said that she might have been depressed after her divorce.

Eff you, media world. I’m sick of it.


liz | 1:40 PM | criminal justice system, depression, media, stigma

erin Says:

For once, I actually disagree with you here. It’s a fact that this woman had tried to commit suicide at least once, if not multiple times (I forget the reports). She was on medication and was seeing a therapist back when she was married, so obviously she already suffered from depression or the like.

I don’t, however, think, just because they can prove she was a depressed individual, they can use an insanity defense.

Apr 17 3:47 PM

Carter Says:

It’s worth remembering that the current state of the insanity defense in America changed drastically during the last few decades of right-wing dominance. The U.S. basically freaked out after John Hinkley, who tried to kill Reagan, was found not guilty by reason of insanity & locked in a psychiatric hospital (he’s still there, btw, which kind of argues against the idea that the criminally insane are quickly allowed to return to society).

That panic led states & the courts to all but ignore actual medical diagnoses. Now, in almost every state, it’s strictly a question of whether the defendant knew what she wasdoing was wrong — even if a mental illness has robbed her of the ability to *stop* (which is known as the volitional defense; very few states allow it). This standard is extremely easy for prosecutors to meet; almost no one wins with an insanity defense anymore.

If Huckaby does use the insanity defense, she’ll almost certainly lose — not because legal experts think it’s a bogus defense, but because our present conservative-built criminal justice system exists solely to exact revenge, regardless of a defendant’s inability to control her actions.

Remember, the lock-down on the insanity defense came during a peak in Republican-pushed national terror over crime rates that were actually nowhere near as high as people believed (& rarely involved mentally ill suspects, a few high-profile cases notwithstanding).

Personally I’m hoping we’ll move into a new era where medical opinions actually matter in court. Judges, lawyers & juries are among the world’s least qualified people in determining just how crazy a defendant is.

Apr 17 4:20 PM

Perplexed Says:

Depression causes someone to rape a child? That’s a new one. What drug treats that little problem? I can just see a new Abilify ad on the horizon…. “Are you feeling down? Thinking of raping a child?, then ask your doctor about Abilify.” Give me a break.

Apr 17 10:39 PM

Naomi Says:

Who said depression caused, or even correlated with, anyone becoming a pedophile? Pedophilia gets its very own insurance number in the DSM IV-R, and it is in and itself a mental illness.

As a former defense attorney, I understand your innocent until proven guilty point. But as someone who is bipolar, I haven’t lost my ability to see that mentally healthy people do not sexually abuse children. We are not talking some kind of eccentricity, but a disorder. You may be right that she is innocent. But don’t conflate the separate issues of whether or not she has a mental illness that causes her to impose violence on young children, with her being unjustly tried in the press.

Apr 20 2:09 AM

Perplexed Says:

“Who said depression caused, or even correlated with, anyone becoming a pedophile?”

The family said she had been depressed lately. My response to that is, and? It’s the slant of the article that is the problem. So what if she had depression. Depression doesn’t cause someone to do this.

Apr 23 10:32 PM

Max Bataglia Says:

america stands once again as a country of whackos. while in other countries people tend to be depressed for other reasons such as being out of food, and therefore murder for food, in america people kill for lust for children. that is messed up. stop poppin’ pills and you all might get better. by the way, melissa is kinda’ hot.

Aug 17 8:14 PM

Kent Says:

If this wee a Man would be discussing or even give a rats ass about his “mental” state? (The answer to that is No!) He would be demonized and people would be ready to burn him at the stake. Double standard?? I think so. What this woman did is twisted stop mitigating what she did buy questing her mental state

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