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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Bipolar Model Citizen

Q. I was wondering if you could provide reference to any criminal cases where bipolar disease of any form was used as a defense in a criminal court. My 19-year-old brother was convicted of robbery with a deadly weapon. Before the incident he was a model citizen--a high school graduate, was in the Air Force and was about to go to prep school for the U.S. Air Force Academy.

At the high point of his life, he fell apart and we had no idea why. It was not like him at all. Upon evaluation, we found that he is bipolar. Please understand that we are not trying to use this as an excuse for him stealing a car with a BB pistol, but we want to help him get a fair punishment in light of his disease that we were unaware of before.

My brother is in disbelief of his action and still can't make sense of what happened in his own mind. Is there any past case histories or any useful information that may help us? This has been a long and painful situation.

A. I can appreciate how difficult this must be for you, your brother, and the rest of your family. First of all, while I can't provide you with legal advice, I do hope you are in the hands of an attorney with long experience in mental health issues. If not, I would strongly advise you to contact one or more of the following organizations to get some help: 1. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI): call 800-950-NAMI. 2. The National Depressive and Manic Depressive Association (NDMDA)(800-826-3632) or 3. The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law (202-467-5730).

Any of these organizations should be able to put you in touch with some legal help. In terms of bipolar disorder per se, you may want to see (or get your brother's attorney to see) a couple of articles: RA Ratner, "Mania, crime and the insanity defense: a case report" in Bull Am Acad Psychiatry Law 1981; 9:23-32; and WP London & BM Taylor, "Seasonality of bipolar disorder in a forensic setting", Psychiatry Research 1981; 5:139-45. Both articles may provide useful information on bipolar disorder and its implications in criminal cases. It is very difficult getting the criminal justice system to recognize that some people are genuinely incapacitated by psychiatric illness--but if this was the case with your brother, he certainly deserves to have his day in court. Needless to say, ongoing psychiatric treatment is also essential. Good luck.

Other Resources:

December 2001

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