On Friday last week, Chen Yu-an (陳昱安), who was sentenced to death for murdering his father in 2010, strangled himself with elastic bands in the Taipei Detention Center. This could not have happened if he had been held in a forensic psychiatric hospital instead of an ordinary prison, because elastic bands are strictly banned in psychiatric wards.
Why should Chen have been held in a forensic psychiatric hospital? First, because he suffered from schizophrenia and depression. Second, because he had long shown serious suicidal tendencies.
Chen’s case was tragic from start to finish. He had mental illness long before his crime, but had no previous criminal record. He killed his father because his father often scolded him for staying at home and not getting a job.
If Chen had received adequate treatment and guidance early on, enabling him to find a job and integrate socially, he would not have done such an awful thing.
Chen’s trial courts arranged for him to undergo several forensic psychiatric evaluations, but the evaluating doctors could not reach a consensus about his mental health. Some could not decide whether he was mentally ill, while others said his mental illness did not impair his cognitive and behavioral capacities.
It is true that Chen’s psychiatric symptoms did not directly cause his act of patricide, but the doctors did not seriously consider his weakened control over his emotions and actions resulting from his long-term psychiatric illness.
If there were forensic psychiatric hospitals in the nation, he could have been held at one and undergone long-term observation, which could have clarified his mental state at the time of the crime.
In 2009, Taiwan adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, giving it the force of law. Chen’s crime took place in 2010, so the convention should have applied to his case. However, in the judges’ reasoning for their verdict, they only cited Article 6, Paragraph 2 of the covenant, which says the “sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes,” while overlooking the principle that mentally and intellectually disabled people should not be sentenced to death.
There is a clear discrepancy in this respect between the sentencing in Chen’s case and those in subsequent similar cases. The spirit of this principle is that even if a person’s behavioral capacities were normal when they committed a crime, a death sentence should not be carried out if they become mentally disabled later on.
Although Chen’s psychiatric evaluations concluded that he was not affected by mental illness at the time of the crime, he should still not be executed if he was confirmed to be mentally ill in prison.
Even if people have committed heinous crimes, if they are mentally ill, their right to receive treatment should still be protected in prison. However, the medical treatment environment in the nation’s prisons makes it very hard to provide adequate psychiatric treatment.
Chen showed depressive tendencies long before his crime, and his emotions remained unstable in prison, eventually leading to his suicide. If he had received sufficient psychiatric treatment, this tragedy might have been averted.
The only way to provide adequate psychiatric treatment for mentally ill offenders would be to establish forensic psychiatric hospitals. Courts currently entrust mentally ill prisoners who need to be held securely to the care of psychiatric hospitals, but it is hard for such hospitals to assume such judicial duties. Ideally, such offenders should be admitted to specialized forensic hospitals.
Shen Cheng-nan is a physician.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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