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'Guilty but mentally ill' -- how verdict works in Michigan

By Lucia MouatStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 2, 1982


In the mid-1970s a Michigan man charged with shooting and killing his wife was judged ''not guilty by reason of insanity.'' Yet after 53 days of treatment in state mental health facilities, he was considered well enough to be put back on the street. A ruling by the state's highest court confirmed that those judged innocent under the insanity plea could not be kept in institutions once they have recovered.

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That was the prod that led Michigan in 1975 to adopt an additional verdict option of ''guilty but mentally ill'' (or GBMI, as lawyers are now fond of calling it). While recognizing the defendant's need for mental treatment, this verdict does not excuse him from legal responsibility and a specific prison sentence for the crime.

Since Michigan took the lead, Indiana, Illinois, New Mexico, Kentucky, and Georgia have followed. Eighteen more states are weighing adoption of the verdict. And in the aftermath of public outrage at the ''not guilty by reason of insanity'' verdict in the trial of presidential assailant John W. Hinckley Jr., Congress is considering a similar provision in federal criminal law.

The new option is hotly controversial. Defense lawyers, some psychiatrists, and many civil libertarians tend to be critical. They suggest that jurors will latch onto it as an easy ''out,'' and many cases that should, in effect, be dismissed because of defendants' mental problems will instead result in convictions. An American Bar Association task force on mental health standards and criminal justice has been working on reform of the insanity defense for two years. An early draft of its recommendations argues that the ''guilty but mentally ill'' verdict is ''misleading.''

''It's a way for society to push the problem under the rug, forcing the correctional system, already subject to strained resources, to decide what ought to be done with the defendant,'' says Dr. Ingo Keilitz, director of the Institute on Mental Disability and Law for the National Center for State Courts. ''The problem . . . is then no longer up front and visible before the courts and jury . . .''

Proponents of the ''guilty but mentally ill'' option tend to describe its virtues in terms of fairness and added protection for society.

''I think the Michigan law is keeping the people off the streets that should be kept off,'' says Paul Rosenbaum, a lawyer and former state representative, who sponsored the Michigan legislation. ''Psychiatry at its best isn't an exact art,'' he said. ''This is one way of closing that loophole.''

''My concern is with community safety, and I think the new verdict option is working very well,'' agrees Jim Shonkwiler, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.

He says the psychiatric division of the Michigan Department of Corrections reports that about 20 such verdicts are rendered each month under state law, compared with an annual total of only 30 two years ago. He notes that sometimes defendants plead guilty voluntarily under the verdict. They see it as combining admission of the deed with a lack of full responsibility for it because of mental illness. ''It seems to offer some excuse,'' Mr. Shonkwiler says.

Terrance Boyle, chief of the criminal division of the Wayne County (Detroit) prosecutor's office, says that since the new law took effect, about 40 percent of the ''innocent by reason of insanity'' pleas have instead ended in a ''guilty but mentally ill'' verdict from the jury. If judged innocent because of insanity , he says, many of the same defendants would have been back on the street within 60 days.

''The new verdict option is a very good one for jurors, and it's removed a lot of the confusion . . . over mental illness by offering them a choice,'' Mr. Boyle says.