The new movie, “Joker,” focuses on the relationship between the Joker’s mental health issues and his criminal behavior. A recent discussion with Dr. Imani Walker, a psychiatrist who also works as the medical Director of Gateways Hospital & Mental Health Center in Los Angeles, helped to place a focus on the character’s disorders and his responsibility for his actions.

According to Los Angeleno, Dr. Walker, she was interested in the movie, in part because of her medical background, and, in part, because of the way many other movies such as “Silence of the Lambs” have tried to relate mental health and criminal conduct. Her review of the Joker character, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, discussed his abnormal behavior and several possible medical causes for his behavior. He “laughed for no good reason at inappropriate times,” laughed and cried at the same time, and had a trauma to his head, which suggests the possibility of Pseudobulbar affect (PBA).

She distinguished between conditions like PBA and narcissism (someone who “believes they are always right, there’s nothing wrong with them”) that could be diagnosed and being a racist or a white supremacist which is not a diagnosable condition – but rather due to someone who deliberately closes his eyes to relevant information. She distinguished between mental health orders and personality disorders such as Schizoid Personality Disorder.

How mental health issues affect someone’s criminal defense

The Maryland criminal justice focuses on mental health in several different ways:

  • Competency. This is the ability of a defendant to understand the charges against him and to be able to assist in his/her defense. Competency is concerned with the time of trial, not the condition of the person at the time the crime was committed. Competency usually involves people with a low IQ. Defendants who are not competent and who can respond to treatment can be tried when they become competent. Some defendants, such as people with a low IQ, may never be competent.
  • Criminal responsibility. This legal determination is based on the concept that people should not be tried in criminal courts if they are insane or if they shouldn’t be held accountable for other related reasons. The definition of insanity varies depending on the state. One definition requires a showing that the defendant could not distinguish right from wrong. Another provides that a person shouldn’t be found criminally guilty if they knew an act was wrong but, due to their mental health disorder, couldn’t resist doing it. Generally, people who are determined to be insane or lack criminal responsibility are confined to mental health institutions.
  • Diminished capacity. This defense may be available to reduce charges or to alter criminal sentences – if a person was mentally ill at the time the crime was committed. The defendant is normally found guilty but the focus is on adjusting the criminal conviction to reflect the person’s mental health difficulties.

Generally, psychiatrists are used to evaluate the defendant’s mental health and to make a diagnosis of his/her condition.

Mental health courts

Maryland does have several courts that are designed to focus on problem solving instead of criminal convictions. These include drug courts, mental health courts, and truancy courts.

“A Mental Health Court is a specialized court docket established for defendants with mental illness that substitutes a problem-solving approach for the traditional adversarial criminal court processing. Participants are identified through mental health screening and assessments and voluntarily participate in a judicially supervised treatment plan developed jointly by a team of court staff and mental health professionals.”

These courts focus on individual treatment plans which are monitored by the judicial system to balance the mental health difficulties of the defendants with the safety of the public. The aim is to address the underlying causes of the irresponsible behavior and reduce repeat offenses.

There are many different types of defenses to criminal charges. At Drew Cochran, Attorney at Law, we understand your rights, the criminal justice system in Maryland, and what prosecutors can and can’t do. We’ve been fighting for defendants who have committed all types of crimes for 20 years. We fight to help get charges dismissed or reduced. We work aggressively to keep you out of jail. For help with all phases of your criminal case, phone our respected Annapolis and Ellicott City lawyers at 410.777.8103, use my contact form to make an appointment.