The author is a freelance writer and an assistant professor at Wayne State College, where she teaches criminal law and legal/justice classes. She moved to Wayne from California, where she practiced law for 14 years.
Many of us watched Thursday, with heads shaking and hands to speechless mouths, as an Ohio judge sentenced kidnapper-rapist Ariel Castro to life in prison plus 1,000 years. But it was victim Michelle Knight who so memorably and courageously condemned her tormentor to “face hell for eternity.”
“You will die a little every day.”
Anyone who saw, heard or read Knight’s statement will not soon forget this resilient soul who, along with fellow victims Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, survived more than a decade of rape, abuse and captivity.
But neither are we likely to forget the audacious Castro who calmly informed the court, “I am not a monster. I’m sick.” In that moment, Castro again visited harm — this time on the many people who suffer from legitimate mental illness.
Adding insult to injury, several reporters and at least one national television news anchor incorrectly described Castro as “the face of mental illness,” further misrepresenting a division that we have long recognized in courtrooms and otherwise between the ill and the evil, or in other popular comparative terms, the difference between the mad and the bad.
The former — what some refer to as true mental illness — are those disorders defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM). Known as “Axis I” disorders, these are diagnosable, organic diseases of the brain, typically treatable with medication.
Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder fall into this category and can be the basis for a complete or partial defense to criminal charges if a defendant can show that he did not act with the requisite criminal intent (mens rea), an essential element of crimes like rape, kidnapping and murder. The debate about the insanity or diminished- capacity defenses, as in the case of James Holmes in Aurora, Colo., is a longer and louder conversation, but for now, the law allows that inquiry.
The latter — the bad — is a class of personality disorders found on the DSM’s Axis II. Best described as innate traits, these are more difficult to treat because they are hard-wired.
The best example of this side of the psychiatric coin is found in our nation’s maximum security prisons, where the majority of male inmates are diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, true to its name because it is marked by the absence of conscience, a disregard for the rights of others, with often impulsive and aggressive behavior.
But perhaps the most chilling hallmark of this particular disorder — and one that Castro put on horrifying display at his sentencing — is a complete lack of remorse for any misdeeds.
While many find these distinctions to be so much academic hair-splitting, they are absolutely critical in the criminal law and especially in cases like Castro’s. As Judge Michael Russo correctly explained the psychiatric findings, Castro’s behavior indicated antisocial personality disorder with “extreme narcissism and it seems rather pervasive.” Fully closing the loop, forensic psychiatrist Gregory Saathoff testified that Castro suffered “from no psychiatric illness whatsoever.”
Yet, when we hear the stories from victims like Michelle, Amanda and Gina, or the cases of violent sexual predators like John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer, it’s understandable to say these offenders must have been sick. But that impulse is counterintuitive and goes against all we know about the distinction between someone like Castro, who acts knowingly and with full understanding that what they are doing is wrong, and those who are suffering from reality-altering diseases of the brain.
Indeed, Gacy, Bundy and Dahmer were identified with antisocial personality disorder rather than any mental illness, and the Ohio prosecutor was correct in comparing Castro to all of them.
So, for the record, at least as we understand it from the Cleveland criminal court, Castro is not mentally ill. He may be sick according to our cultural definition, but he is not ill under the law such that his actions might be excused or mitigated. To characterize him as mentally ill is a disservice to all of the people who suffer from genuine mental illness, most of whom never act out criminally.
Worse yet, it is a grave injustice to three brave young women who endured his prolonged and calculated torments. As Michelle Knight so eloquently put it, she will not be defined by him or what he did to her, and likewise, he must not be allowed to define mental illness.