Tue, Jul 29, 2014 - Page 8 News List

Mental health key to death penalty

By Wu Ching-chin 吳景欽

The Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office has charged Cheng Chieh (鄭捷) with four counts of murder and 22 counts of attempted murder, and requested that he be given the death penalty for a stabbing rampage on Taipei’s Mass Rapid Transit system.

Although prosecutors believe the accused does not have a mental disorder that would justify a lighter sentence, the debate surrounding this case will not disappear just because charges have been filed.

During the investigation, prosecutors requested a psychiatric assessment of Cheng to dispel public doubt.

According to these assessments, he was found not to suffer from any mental disorder affecting his ability to tell right from wrong or make him less accountable for his actions. Cheng is therefore viewed as possessing the capacity to take responsibility for the serious crimes he stands accused of, and as such there should not be too much debate on whether he should be given the death sentence.

However, attention must be paid to the fact that the psychiatric assessment was directed by prosecutors.

In addition, since the accused did not appoint a lawyer or have his forensic psychiatric evaluation questioned, and especially given that the motive for the seemingly random killings was linked to Cheng’s disputes with classmates from elementary school, it can be concluded that the assessment process was hasty.

The ruling can therefore only be viewed as preliminary and it can only be used to prove that the accused is now competent to stand trial, and that Article 294 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (刑事訴訟法) — which states: “If an accused is insane, the trial shall be suspended until he recovers” — does not apply in this case.

As Cheng was capable of understanding the ramifications of his actions and of planning the timing of his attack, the main point of contention is not whether he is capable of taking responsibility for his actions, but whether he suffers from a mental disorder and whether this means that he suffered from a decreased ability to tell right from wrong or to control his actions, which, according to Article 19 of the Criminal Code, could result in more lenient sentencing.

Even though Cheng has no record of seeking treatment for mental illness, this does not prove that he does not suffer from any mental disorder.

Furthermore, the facts — including how Cheng kept saying he had always wanted to “do something big” when asked why he committed the crime, how he had written scary stories, how he had talked about carrying out such a crime prior to committing it and how he received counseling at school — all point to sociopathic or other abnormal personality traits.

As such, when it is time to reach a verdict, the court would have to ask psychiatrists to perform another psychiatric assessment.

Also, when tests are done to determine whether Cheng suffers from a mental illness or disorder, further judgement is necessary to determine what impact such an illness or disorder had on Cheng’s actions to ascertain whether he should be held criminally responsible.

Psychiatric assessments are not the same as DNA tests, which are almost 100 percent accurate. Psychiatric assessments are dependent on the psychiatric expert performing them, and problems automatically arise when it comes to the question of how many psychiatrists judges should call on to conduct a diagnosis.

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