Sun, Apr 05, 2009 - Page 13 News List

Criminal justice

Defendants living with mental illnesses are being let down by a court system that critics say is fundamentally flawed

By Celia Llopis-Jepsen  /  STAFF REPORTER

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IN the early hours of June 5, 2007, a gasoline bomb was thrown into Hua Xin Cleaners (華新洗衣店) in Kaohsiung City’s Zuoying District (左營). Four people in the building died in the ensuing blaze.

Within a week, police had named university lecturer Chen Pei-yuan (陳培元) as a suspect. A month later, Chen was charged with murder and on June 25 last year convicted in his first trial and sentenced to life in prison. The case is now at the Kaohsiung branch of the High Court, where, if found guilty again, he could be sentenced to death.

But prejudice and a flawed judicial system may have resulted in an unfair first conviction, in a case that highlights how the system fails defendants with mental disorders, Chen’s lawyer and anti-death penalty advocates say.

Chen’s attorney, Thomas S.K. Chan (詹順貴), says his client should never have been convicted. He calls the evidence against Chen “far-fetched” and believes he was convicted because he has a history of mental illness and was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Chan, of Primordial Law Firm (元貞聯合法律事務所), has extensive experience defending suspects with mental disorders. The Kaohsiung case, he said in an interview, illustrates widespread prejudice against people living with mental illnesses — discrimination that can translate into miscarried justice.

There is an assumption that people with mental disorders are dangerous, he said, and this can have an impact on the case at various points in the judicial process.

“In many cases, people with mental disorders are wrongly blamed for a crime,” Chan said. “The potential for this is high because they are labeled [by society as dangerous], so if a crime is committed and there happened to be a person with mental problems near the crime scene,” it is likely that person will become the suspect.

A ‘CLASSIC EXAMPLE’

“The Kaohsiung case is a classic example,” he said. “When the police started their investigation, they discovered that a man with mental illness was living next door [to the laundry service].”

According to medical records, Chen suffered symptoms indicative of schizophrenia about 10 years previously, including audio-visual hallucinations and urges to set fires or kill people, Chan said. Chen had no criminal record.

Yet “the police considered the chances high that he was the perpetrator [because of his medical history], so they searched his home,” Chan said. They “found a bunch of cloth strips. They believe these were for igniting gasoline bombs.”

But the cloths are nothing unusual, he said. They are easy to find in stores and Chen’s mother said they were hers, left over from cleaning the house.

Moreover, the two witnesses who believe they saw the perpetrator of the crime could not identify Chen, Chan said.

Chiang Hui-ming (江惠民), a spokesman for the Taiwan High Prosecutors’ Office Kaohsiung branch, confirmed that the cloths were the key evidence at the first trial, but said judges consider a wide range of evidence before ruling in a case. Furthermore, prosecutors do not discriminate against people with mental illnesses, nor would they indict someone based on a mental disorder, he said.

MENTAL HEALTH EVALUATION

Chan has other concerns about the case. An evaluation at the first trial to determine Chen’s mental condition was inadequate, Chan said, and determining his mental state could be a matter of life or death because judges have the power to show leniency in criminal cases involving mental illness.

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