Run this by us again. A U.S. District judge is considering whether Russell Weston, a man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and who allegedly killed two Capitol police officers, can be involuntarily medicated to improve his mental state to a level that might then allow him to be tried for the crimes. And if found guilty, he could be sentenced to death. So we would be medicating him to get him well enough to possibly kill him.
But wait a minute. If we can involuntarily medicate Weston to possibly kill him, why couldnt we have involuntarily medicated him before he killed the police officers, making all of this unnecessary and saving two - no, three - lives?
The signs that he needed medication were painfully obvious. In April 1996, he threatened to kill the president and, at the request of the Secret Service, was evaluated at a mental health center in Illinois. In October 1996, Weston threatened to kill a hospital lab technician and was involuntarily hospitalized for two months, during which he responded well to treatment. When he was released, no follow-up was ordered to make sure he took the medication he needed to remain well.
Like almost half of people with this disease, he has impaired insight into his illness. In his case, he lacks complete awareness of his illness and his need for medication. When untreated, schizophrenia causes damage to the brain, often including the part of the brain we use to assess our own condition. Undeniably, this part of Westons brain was damaged.
Weston would never take medication voluntarily because he did not believe he was sick. He really believed - and presumably still believes - that there is a "ruby red satellite" in the U.S. Capitol that can be used to reverse time. Weston also was convinced that President Clinton planned to drop an atomic bomb on his Montana cabin. Just recently, Weston told a prison staff member that he was the "commander of all the armies in the world."
Russell Weston was known to be a walking time bomb for at least two years before he came to Washington to "save the world from cannibals." Local and federal law enforcement officials in both Illinois and Montana were very aware of his mental state and threats. The hospital staff in Montana even said that he reminded them of Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who also unknowingly suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. So why wasnt he medicated to keep him from being dangerous? Because he had not done enough to prove his dangerousness. Because it would have violated his civil rights. Because the thinking of many public mental health officials appears to be as confused as the thinking of Russell Weston.
Now that Mr. Weston has done something, then maybe now we can involuntarily medicate him to get him ready to be punished for something he did because we did not treat him before. There are literally thousands of Russell Westons roaming Americas streets today - individuals with untreated schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness. People with severe mental illness who are being treated are not more dangerous than the general population, but those who are not being treated are. Department of Justice data suggest that such people commit about 1,000 homicides each year, and the number is apparently increasing.
So, tell us again, why cant we treat them? Because state laws governing involuntary treatment often require demonstrated dangerousness before we can intervene. Because local judges and mental health officials often interpret even these restrictive laws very narrowly. Because we are reluctant to infringe on individual civil liberties, even when the persons thinking is completely clouded by illness. Because it is easier to do nothing than something.
Yes, Mr. Weston should be involuntarily medicated so that he can stand trial. And no, he should not be found guilty or executed because of actions caused by his severe mental illness. And yes, while we are at it, could we also put Americas failed mental illness treatment system on trial? But first, lets get it evaluated by a court-appointed psychiatrist to ascertain whether it is mentally competent to stand trial.
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