Feature Article of Thursday, 30 July 2015
Columnist: Richard Appiah
The year was 1981. It was a sunny afternoon, 2.25 pm on the dot. President Ronald Reagan had just finished addressing a conference at the Hilton Hotel in Washington D. C. Reagan was only eight strides away from his limousine. He could see a security detail getting close to the door, ready to open it up when ‘Mr. President’ was done waving to admirers who had waited for hours to catch a glimpse or have him take a ‘selfie’ with them. ‘Americans love Reagan’, he thought.
But not everyone there was happy to meet the president. Among the crowd was a 27-year-old man with a .22 caliber Röhm RG-14 revolver under his coat. He did not come to protect Reagan against potential terrorist attacks. He came to prove himself! To whom? To an actress. How? By shooting and killing Mr. President. (I know I’ll have to do a similar crazy stuff to win the heart of Yvonne Nelson!).
Six deadly shots, all within 12 seconds. Mr. President was lucky. The young man missed him, except for one bullet that bounced off the side of his limo to hit his chest. Two security personnel and his press secretary were badly wounded.
Hinckley, the assassin, did not attempt to run. He stood still until he was knocked off the ground and arrested. Hinckley had developed an infatuation with actress Jodie Foster; after he watched her play a role in the movie, Taxi Driver. To get closer to Jodie, Hinckley took a course at Yale University, where Jodie was studying so he could always catch a glimpse of his love. He repeatedly slipped poems and messages under Jodie’s door. Phone calls were countless.
At trial, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity (Linder, 2008). He was released from custody on August 18, 1981 and confined at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for psychological and psychiatry treatment. Whilst at the hospital, Hinckley wrote that his attempted assassination was “the greatest love offering in the history of the world” and was upset that Jodie did not reciprocate his love (Taylor, 1982).
Graduate Law and Clinical Psychology students are familiar with the Hinckley trial and the “Insanity Defense Reform Act”.
In criminal trials, the insanity defense is the claim that the defendant is not responsible for his or her actions during a mental health episode (psychiatric illness or mental handicap). Mental health experts examine and conduct a thorough profile of the accused. When it is concluded that the accused had episodes of a psychiatric condition, such as depression or a delusion, he or she could plead and be discharged on the grounds of insanity!
I followed the charge and subsequent sentencing of the 36-year old man arrested with a loaded pistol at the Ringway Assemblies of God church with keen interest. The story, carried by both Joy and Citi Fm’s online News Portal on July 28, stated that the suspect had confessed he went there to kill President John Dramani Mahama. He also told the court that he “wanted to kill President Mahama to take over his position.”
The accused was again reported to have told the court that he “had to be sworn in as president when president John Evans Atta Mills died.” He was also reported to have insisted that “trying to kill the president was a way of fighting for the nation” adding that the “nation’s current electoral system is not helping to improve its democracy.” He was also reported to have told the presiding judge that “a military personnel at the Osu Castle directed me to the president’s church at Ringway.” With this gen, I phone up a colleague to say that I presume the accused may be exhibiting a delusional disorder. He agreed but said judgment had already been passed. What’s more, the accused made all these confessions, yet pleaded not guilty to the same charges!
No other mental illness has fascinated me since my training as an intern Clinical Psychologist, than the Delusional Disorders. Psychiatrists have also found this condition very intriguing. During my National Service, Dr. Jones Techie, the then psychiatrist in-charge of the Psychiatric Ward of the Regional Hospital, Sunyani, told me of a client who would not conform to any treatment protocol because he thought a bird was perching on his shoulder. He would not allow any doctor or nurse to administer any medication unless the person addressed and exchanged pleasantries with the bird. Strange huh?
Delusional disorder, a form of psychotic disorder, is where a person has trouble recognizing reality. A delusion is a false belief that is based on an incorrect interpretation of reality. Delusions, like all psychotic symptoms, can occur as part of many different psychiatric disorders. But the term delusional disorder is used when delusions are the most prominent symptom.
A person with this illness holds a false belief firmly, despite clear evidence or proof to the contrary. Delusions may involve circumstances that could occur in reality even though they are unlikely (for example, your colleague is plotting to kill or poison you). Or they may be considered “weird” (for example, feeling controlled by an outside force or having thoughts inserted into your head).
There are several types of delusions: persecutory, erotic (as in the case of Hinckley), grandiose, jealous or somatic (as told by Dr. Techie). People with delusional disorder usually do not have hallucinations or a major problem with mood. Unlike people with schizophrenia, they tend not to have major problems with day-to-day functioning and they do not appear odd.
When hallucinations do occur, they are part of the delusional belief. For example, someone who has the delusion that he was cheated from becoming a president could always be loitering around the Presidential Palace or the Supreme Court with the hope that a Judge may intercede on his behalf.
Many a people would not consider as delusional what the accused said about bad governance and the electoral system. Nonetheless, the idea of wanting to kill and succeed the president is delusional.
Undoubtedly, after committing a crime, people may concoct stories and act to portray that they are insane.
Interestingly, Psychological Tests used in such instances contain items that serve as lie detectors, and there are methods for the assessment of dangerousness. Citi fm’s online News Portal reports that the counsel for the accused pleaded for the accused be taken for psychiatric review. The plea was rejected. Would the psychiatric assessment have proven that the accused was insane? Not necessarily.
However, it would have meant that we would have exhausted all possible avenues. Could the accused be exhibiting a mental illness with a delusional underpinning? Most likely! According to the report he visited the Ringway Church a couple of times in his quest to kill the president so he could be made one. ‘
Likewise, Hinckley was later found to have trailed Jimmy Carter from state to state to assassinate him before targeting Reagan. But the intent was the same: to impress Miss Jodie. Today, after three decades of receiving psychiatric care, Hinckley is considered sound and his counsel is arguing for his discharge.
Should I commit the same offence as the accused after a delusional episode and later “come to my senses” and realize that I was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, I would be very unhappy with the laws of my Motherland. I honor my statutory obligations. In case I commit a crime in the period of a mental instability, I deserve better from the state too. I’d like to be sent to the Department of Psychiatry of the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital for psychiatric and psychological intervention!
Should the accused tend to have a mental problem, then the state has not only failed in her duty to act as a ‘parens patriae’ on his behalf but has also aggravated his plight. Indeed, people suffering from mental illness and other mental health problems are among the most stigmatized, discriminated against, marginalized, disadvantaged and vulnerable members of our society!
Written by: Richard Appiah
(Intern Clinical Psychologist – firstname.lastname@example.org)
Badu, F. (2015, July 28). I wanted to kill Mahama – Gunman confesses. Citi fm News. Retrieved from https://citifmonline.com/2015/07/28/i-wanted-to-kill-mahama-gunman-confesses/
Essel, I. (2015, July 28). Man who wanted to kill President Mahama jailed 10 years. Joy fm News. Retrieved from https://www.myjoyonline.com/news/2015/July-28th/court-finds-man-guilty-of-attempting-to-kill-president-mahama.php#sthash.fC5kT7uF.dpuf
Linder, D. (2008). The Trial of John W. Hinckley, Jr., Retrieved July 28, 2015
Taylor, S. (1982). “Hinckley Hails ‘Historical’ Shooting To Win Love”. The New York Times. Retrieved July 28, 2015