A person who believes the devil poses as a popular phone app likely suffers from some sort of mental illness. / Carolyn Coles

Fear and Insanity in Michigan

A person who believes the devil poses as a popular phone app likely suffers from some sort of mental illness. / Carolyn Coles
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Jason Brian Dalton, the alleged mass shooter who left six people dead in random street attacks this February, told police that he believed his Uber app was controlling his mind and body. According to Det. William Moorian’s report for the Department of Public Safety, Dalton, who worked as an Uber driver, claimed the company’s new logo appeared as “the Eastern star and a devil head popped up on his screen and when he pressed the button on the app, that is when all the problems started.”

Dalton claimed that the devil figure in the Uber app gave him assignments, providing him with general navigation, and then took over his whole body to the point where he didn’t need drive the car at all because the Prince of Darkness (under the cloak of Uber) was in control.

According to Det. Moorian’s report, he told police that while he was possessed by the Mephistophelean app, he could “drive over 100mph and go through stop signs,” noted that the devil looked like “horned cow or something like that,” and saw himself outside of his own body. Dalton’s mental competency hearing will take place this spring, and determine if he is capable of participating in his own defense.

While I am certainly no psychiatrist, I’d wager that a person who believes the devil poses as a popular phone app likely suffers from some sort of mental illness. I’d go so far as to say that, if Dalton’s illness was severe enough when he committed them, he may not actually be culpable for his crimes. Even if his brain is ravaged by an organic disease (like bipolar depression or schizophrenia), Dalton will stand trial, and he will likely spend the rest of his life in some institution or another.

“Insanity” is a legal construction, not a medical diagnosis. No such term exists in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It means that a person suffers from a mental disease or defect that removes their capacity to understand right from wrong, or that they are unable to conform their conduct to requirements of law because of this disease or defect. 

If you can’t make out the difference between fantasy and reality, between a demon and a tap ‘n’ ride app, how do you appreciate wrongness?

Michigan, where Dalton will be tried, became the first state to allow juries to use a “guilty, but mentally ill” (GBMI) in 1975. The GBMI verdict was an attempt—a seriously flawed one—to acknowledge that the mentally ill, even those who aren’t legally insane, may have a different relationship to the concepts of intent, motive, and wrongfulness, a fact that is all too evident in cases such as that of Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who suffered from psychosis and drowned her five children to “save” them from the devil. To be found GBMI in Michigan, a defendant must enter an insanity plea, then the jury is free to judge their mental state. For person to be GBMI they must be (a) guilty of an offense, (b) mentally ill at the time of the commission of that offense, and (c) not legally insane at the time of the commission of that offense. If a defendant is found GBMI, the verdict is still guilty. The only difference is that the defendant is entitled to psychiatric care. Their mental illness is not used as a mitigating factor to lower or alter the length of their sentence.

After John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1981 in an attempt to impress Jodie Foster—the object of his obsession—and was found not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI), a public backlash spurred Congress to pass the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984. Vitriol and hyperbole ruled the debates regarding the proposed legislation, with senator and eventual vice president Dan Quayle claiming that the insanity defense “pampered criminals” and allowed them to kill “with impunity.” Sen. Strom Thurmond argued that the insanity defense “exonerate[d] a defendant who obviously planned and knew exactly what he was doing.” The bill enjoyed bipartisan support as well as public approval. The final legislation switched the burden of proof regarding sanity or otherwise from the prosecution to the defense. Now the jury would need to hear “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant was insane at the time of the crime. The bill also curbed what medical experts could testify to during trial. Psychiatrists could no longer weigh in on whether they believed the defendant to be sane or insane during the commission of a crime.

This distinction, which intensified the tortured relationship between the criminal justice system and severe mental illness, defined the case of James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooter with a psychiatric history that possibly included episodes of intense mania, who was found mentally ill but legally sane, and imprisoned for life. It is currently shaping that of Morgan Geyser, a schizophrenic twelve-year-old girl who is being tried as an adult in Wisconsin for attempted murder of her classmate. (Geyser believed the murder was an offering to mythological character known on online message boards as the Slender Man.)

What the guilty but mentally ill verdict accomplishes is putting the mentally ill in prison.

Post Hinckley, Idaho, Kansas, and Utah abolished the insanity defense plea entirely. Other states have tried to limit the already tiny percentage of defendants who receive a NGRI verdict. But while there was public perception in the eighties and nineties—thanks in part to Hinckley and to television crime dramas like Law and Order—that the insanity defense was often employed successfully, in reality the plea is made in less than 1 percent of U.S. criminal cases.

One problem with Michigan’s special GBMI verdict is the overlap between “insanity” and “mental illness.” The Michigan courts define mental illness as a “substantial disorder of thought or mood which significantly impairs judgment, behavior, capacity to recognize reality, or ability to cope with the ordinary demands of life.” They define insanity as “a result of mental illness . . .  or as a result of having an intellectual disability . . . that person lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his or her conduct or to conform his or her conduct to the requirements of the law.” How do you separate the mentally ill’s tendency to “not recogniz[e] reality” from the insane’s “capacity to appreciate wrongfulness”? If you can’t make out the difference between fantasy and reality, between a demon and a tap ‘n’ ride app, how do you appreciate wrongness? The idea of a jury of twelve lay people parsing the distinction between those two states of mind is enough to give any citizen a sinking feeling.

Further, it’s likely most jurors see a GBMI verdict as a fair compromise. As law professor Linda C. Fentiman points out, the availability of the GBMI verdict allows a jury to resolve whatever reasonable doubts they may have about the defendant’s insanity at the time of the offense by finding the defendant GBMI because of their desire to “both to keep dangerous people off the streets and to provide psychiatric treatment for the mentally ill.” But this compromise is, as Fentiman puts it, “improper.”

The verdict assumes that defendants will receive appropriate psychiatric treatment, which they often do not. If they do receive treatment, it’s in prison. (Is prison the best place to put the mentally ill who commit crimes? Is punishment the appropriate response to mental illness?) The verdict also does not take into account that, in Michigan and in most other states, if a defendant is found NGRI they are immediately committed to a psychiatric hospital, which makes it possible to have them “off the streets” indefinitely. Indeed, states like Michigan, California, New York, Washington, and a dozen others have civil commitment laws created specifically to keep the pathologically violent inside lock-down mental institutions for decades at a time. What the GBMI verdict accomplishes is putting the mentally ill in prison.

In Dalton’s case, it’s likely that he does have an organic brain disease that’s triggering hallucinations that revolve around his demonic phone app. The great irony of mental illness in the context of criminal justice is that he will likely be diagnosed and put on a medication regime between now and his trial. It could be over a year before Dalton sees a jury, and he might, by that time, be in his right mind. Which would make an insanity plea all the harder to prove and an NGRI all the harder for a jury to stomach.

Natasha Vargas-Cooper is a criminal justice reporter in Los Angeles. She tweets from @natashavc.

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