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Think An Insanity Defense Is The Easy Way Out? New Book Says It Could Be 'Worse Than Prison'
In her new book "Couple Found Slain," psychoanalyst Mikita Brottman details what happened to Brian Bechtold after he murdered his parents and was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
What does it mean to be found "not guilty by reason of insanity?" In the simplest terms it means a court has decided that a person was not responsible for their actions due to the fact that they were "insane at the time of committing the crime as determined by application of the test for insanity used in the jurisdiction."
So what are the consequences of that verdict? The dictionary tells us, "a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity usually results in the commitment of the defendant to a mental institution. Such a verdict, however, may allow the defendant to be released, sometimes into the custody or care of another (as a family member)."
That's just what happened earlier this month when a judge ordered a conditional release plan for Anissa Weier, after the teen spent three years in a state mental health facility. She, along with her friend Morgan Geyser stabbed their classmate in 2014 after becoming obsessed with the fictional online character Slender Man. They were all 12 at the time. Weier and Geyser were both found not guilty by reason of insanity. The judge released Weier after listening to three doctors who evaluated her, determining that she no longer posed a threat to herself or others.
But what about those who don't get released and who feel that they are being evaluated unfairly due to their crimes and past mental health diagnosis?
Author Mikita Brottman wants to bring awareness to the often dehumanizing quality of life in today's forensic psychiatric hospitals. While the average person may believe that such institutions are a better alternative to prison, Brottman said that’s not always the case. In fact, she warns it can be much worse.
“I don’t think people are very clear about the difference between an ordinary psychiatric hospital and a forensic hospital and how people there suffer,” she told Oxygen.com in an interview. ”Sometimes people think that they are like ‘The Silence of the Lambs,’ like dungeons where Hannibal Lecter is kept and people in cages. Others think of it as the opposite, like a really luxurious and a great alternative to prison and it’s just like being in a hospital for a while."
She said neither are true.
In her new book “Couple Found Slain,” released last week, Brottman focuses on the story of Brian Bechtold, who killed his parents during a delusional episode in 1992 at the age of 22. He was drug dependent in his youth and admits that he was likely schizophrenic at the time of the shooting.
Bechtold was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to Maryland’s only maximum security forensic psychiatric hospital, Clifton T. Perkins Center. It is there where, Brottman argues, that Bechtold was gaslit, overmedicated and mistreated without the hope of ever being able to be viewed as sane again. In fact, he yearned and still yearns to be in prison, instead.
“Perkins is supposed to be a hospital,” Bechtold told Brottman, “but it’s worse than a prison.”
She met Bechtold while she was working as a psychoanalyst in the hospital and was immediately struck by how sane and articulate she found him to be. However, Brottman wrote that staff and other psychologists in the institution still viewed him as severely mentally ill despite what she claimed was glaring evidence to the contrary. Often, she wrote, staff would point to his crimes as evidence that he was clearly insane.
“Classifying mental health problems as an illness just closes down the discussion and makes it seem like you either have it or you don’t,” she told Oxygen.com. “Even the fact that this hospital was called until pretty recently a ‘department of mental hygiene’ makes it seem almost infectious and it's a really stigmatizing model of what mental illness is instead of seeing it as a spectrum.”
She added, “anyone can go through difficult times, just like anyone can break a leg. It’s not something that’s permanent and debilitating and makes you a different type of person.”
Brottman expressed frustration that mental illnesses often have no tangible criteria for diagnosis.
“There’s no blood test or genetic marker to prove a person has schizophrenia,” she writes in "Couple Found Slain". She told Oxygen.com that mental health professionals often rely on past diagnoses to determine if someone is still mentally ill and are often biased towards furthering that diagnosis.
“There’s no question that [Bechtold] was seriously mentally ill at one time and was delusional and he was dangerous and he admits this,” she said. “But because he’s been there so long, no relatives are checking in on his case and he has a history of trying to escape and of refusing to take medication. These are all reactions I find natural. The more he tries to prove himself, the more desperate he gets, and the more desperate he gets, they call it acting out. But I call it ordinary reactions of frustration and despair.”
She feels that many still think there is a "mystery" to mental illness which makes the "average" person unable to detect if someone is mentally ill or not.
In "Couple Found Slain," Brottman documents Bechtold's numerous attempts to prove to a court that he was no longer delusional. His speeches stated before court, included in the book, do suggest that he is logical and cognitive.
"One of the things that really struck me from Brian’s case is that every time he went to court, the jury instead of listening to him and thinking to themselves if this seems like a rational person, they deferred to the psychiatrist and the judges would defer to the psychiatrists," Brottman told Oxygen.com. "And that’s what I mean by the mysticism about it. People feel there's a mystery here that we can’t see so they think, 'I don’t want to be responsible for making this decision so I’m going to defer to this psychiatrist.'"
Defendants plead not guilty by reason of insanity in only about 1 percent of cases across the nation, according to a 2018 Advocate report, Late last month, the lawyer for Capital Gazette gunman Jarrod Ramos claimed that he is not criminally responsible for that mass shooting due to his mental illness. His defense wants him to be committed to a maximum-security psychiatric hospital instead of prison while prosecutors are seeking life in prison without the possibility of parole.
While Brottman makes it clear that people should be held accountable for their crimes, she finds it unjust that it can become impossible for some defendants to ever be perceived as mentally healthy again. She said it's particularly hard for those who don't have family or other support.
"There's nobody to back them up and they only have their own word and their own word is tainted by their diagnosis or by police records then that’s it, they have nothing," Brottman said. "I think it happens a lot but it happens to the 'disposable members of society' anyway so we don’t hear about it."
She reiterates that for many of the people she has researched in forensic hospitals, prison actually feels like a better alternative. She said at least in that case, the person is aware how much time they will be serving; in a forensic hospital, one's departure all depends on the perceptions of the staff.
"One guy I talked to went to prison and it was much better than the hospital simply because he felt like he had dignity and that not everything he did was being calibrated and judged as signs and symptoms of mental illness," she told Oxygen.com. 'He was just an ordinary person. I can see how frustrating that everything you do isn’t seen as a rational choice but a symptom of your illness. I think it must drive you nuts if you’re not nuts to begin with."
Bechtold is now 52, still at Clifton Perkins psychiatric hospital, and, according to Brottman "still insists on his sanity" but still has "no prospect of release."