When, in 2012, John Doe 1 was arrested for his part in the Oikos University massacre and John Doe 2 (name withheld in order to protect the privacy of the accused) was accused of a murder in the Berkeley hills, there seemed to be little debate as to whether either of these two men should be released, perhaps ever. Yet, there is something to think about here when it comes to the treatment of mentally ill defendants, especially those who might never make any kind of meaningful recovery.
Recently, the Alameda County district attorney’s office has sought grand jury indictments in both the above-mentioned cases. The central question from the public has been: Why? Why is it necessary to procure an indictment against persons who will likely spend the rest of their lives in an institution anyway? Normally, persons who suffer delusions, hallucinations, and/ or other similar experiences, are deemed unfit for trial. Prosecutors are now seeking an indictment in order to put into place something called a “Murphy Conservatorship,” a legal maneuver that prevents seriously mentally ill patients who are not fit for trial from being released (CA Penal Code 1370 “Incompetent to Stand Trial”). This is meant to protect both the public and the individual in question. Under a Murphy Conservatorship, a defendant may be held indefinitely if it is believed that they still present a “substantial danger of physical harm to others.”
Prosecutors in Alameda County argue that, as a Murphy Conservatorship involves getting an indictment, it also means that a trial may eventually occur. In other words, the county wishes to maintain its right to bring mentally ill persons to trial, if any kind of meaningful recovery occurs. Others, however, would argue that this step is unnecessary and a violation of the mentally ill defendant’s rights. The only reason for obtaining an indictment, it seems, is to make things easier for prosecuting attorneys handling the case.