Psychosis, Mens Rea, and Criminal Conviction: Part One of a Five-Part Series

You may be surprised to learn that throughout most of American and English history, a criminal conviction has required simultaneous proof of, not only a guilty act but also an accompanying guilty intent.  These concepts are referred to as an actus reus (a guilty act) and a mens rea (a guilty mind).  Fifteen states currently have some type of mens rea standard in their penal code, and the Supreme Court has upheld the doctrine as recently as 1994 [1].  Unfortunately, North Carolina remains dominated by a penal code which focuses solely on the committed act itself and ignores the offender’s intent.  In my brief time as a member of NAMI NC, I have already seen several innocent people turned into supposed criminals because of mental health-related accidents.  A growing call for the implementation of a mens rea standard in North Carolina [2] could not be timelier for people suffering from a mental illness involving psychosis.

A default mens rea standard was meant to protect people who did not intend to commit a crime but may have violated the law by mistake or accident.  For example, if Johnny accidentally kept the pencil he borrowed from the library, he would not be charged with theft because he did not intend to steal the pencil – it was an accident.  In like manner, if someone in a psychiatric hospital were fighting off hallucinations and accidentally hit a nurse in the process, they would not be charged with felony assault because she did not intend to assault a nurse – it was an accident.

A mens rea standard does not mean that a potentially guilty person gets off scot-free for a criminal act, for example, due to the legal acumen and skill of an attorney.  Mens rea still mandates that persons who commit a crime be held accountable through paying restitution and reconciliation if harm was accidentally done.  Our focus here, however, is that it does ensure that all the facts of a case are presented and considered, including the guilt (or innocence) of the mind and intention.  As a person with lived experience who had an encounter with the judicial system due to a mental health-related crisis, I know how important it is to take into consideration both the person’s intent and state of mind at the time of the offense.

Almost five years ago, I had a psychotic break.  I had been over- and mis-medicated for the wrong disorders, and my brain went haywire.  For several weeks, I experienced visual hallucinations which led to delusions, finally leading to a full break on New Year’s Eve of 2014.  My mind collapsed in on itself and I thought I was in hell being chased by Nazis.  Eventually, the police found me, but I did not know they were police; I thought they were Nazis.  So, as any good American would do, I fought back against the presumed Nazis.  Apparently, I was difficult to take down and ended up being tased seven times (I blacked out after the third or fourth, and 2mg of a tranquilizer knocked me out).  I woke up two or three days later dying of kidney failure in a hospital; and I believe that I am still alive today, in part, to advocate for people currently suffering from similar conditions.

In this In My Own Voice blog series, I will explain my own story in more detail, including the emotional and cognitive consequences I had to overcome after being convicted of a crime that I, (a), mentally did not know I was committing at the time and (b), most certainly did not intend to commit.  I will also share some of the responses I have received, including the surprising disbelief of mental health advocates, providers, and persons working in the legal profession. In another article, I will share pertinent medical evidence by briefly discussing recent neuroimaging studies of psychosis and will explain why the sensory malfunctions in psychosis can prevent “sufficient capacity for rationality” [3] during an incident.  Following that, I will explain why some of North Carolina’s legal codes are problematic for persons with a mental health diagnosis and can unfairly tag a scarlet letter on someone by subjecting them to a criminal record regardless of whether or not their incident was an accident.  Finally, I will discuss why criminalizing accidents during psychosis levies unnecessary burdens on the courts, district attorneys, and tax-payers; and will conclude with ways we can improve a system that is continually singled out by national analysts as one of the most broken in the nation [4].

Before I can go any further, however, I need to make something clear:

  1. I hate telling my own story publicly. Why?
  2. I’m passionate – but I don’t want people to think I’m angry, resentful, or bitter; because I’m simply not, and anyone who knows me can attest to that. What happened to me is in the past, and I harbor no bitterness over it.  It was one of the most important things that ever happened to me because it opened my eyes to suffering that so many people deal with in silence.
  3. I’m determined – but I don’t want people to think that I do what I do simply because of what happened to me. I want the truth, the facts, and the wisdom to propose next steps because only the truth and wisdom can help us navigate from brokenness to greater justice and equity.
  4. I’m emboldened – but I’m not exactly proud of my story. It’s not a romantic affair to have a misdemeanor assault charge on your record because you had a psychotic break; and frankly, it’s embarrassing.  But one thing I have already learned while interning with NAMI is that in order for our communities to improve, people must speak up and voice their experiences, regardless of what that may bring.

I accept the past and let it go because, according to my faith, my Lord gave me the example to accept injustice and death with silence.  But that same God commands me to help those currently under yokes of oppression, bonds of iniquity, and heavy burdens.  Although I hate telling it, my story highlights the fact that our current legal system must be reformed to accommodate situations where a crime was committed by accident during a psychotic episode.  Jail diversion and rehabilitation are possible (as my story shows); but not everyone is as lucky as me (it’s sad to have to say that rehabilitation and recovery are “lucky” outcomes under our system).  Our family members and friends living with a severe mental illness need us take this issue seriously, and I hope we can proceed with cooperation, open minds, and a determination to distribute justice, rather than retribution, and rehabilitation, rather than criminalization.

[1] Richard M. Thompson II, “Mens Rea Reform: A Brief Overview,” Congressional Research Service, Report no. 7-5700 (2016).

[2] James R. Copeland & Rafael A. Mangual, “North Carolina Overcriminalization Update 2017,” The Manhattan Institute, August 2017, https://media4.manhattan-institute.org/sites/default/files/IB-JC-0717.pdf (accessed July 15, 2019).

[3] Stephen J. Morse, “Mental Disorder and Criminal Law,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 101, no. 3 (2011): 892.

[4] John Locke Foundation, “Mens Rea Reform: The Law Shouldn’t Turn Innocent People into Criminals,” March 9, 2017, https://www.johnlocke.org/research/mens-rea-reform/ (accessed July 15, 2019).

Written By: Jordan Parks, NAMI NC Intern