NOT guilty by reason of insanity: A look into forensic psychology

“What determines whether offenders go to prison or go to a mental health facility?” asked forensic psychologist Dr. Kirin Hilliar.

An assistant professor in Psychology at Heriot-Watt University in Dubai, Dr. Hilliar addressed the importance of the relationship between mental illness and criminal behavior in a discussion hosted by the psychology program at the American University in Dubai this week.

Dr. Kirin Hilliar during her presentation at AUD, February 2019. Photo Mira Matar

To begin with, a forensic patient is someone that is mentally ill at the time of the offense or becomes ill while incarcerated; therefore, not being fit to plead in court. In those cases, an insanity defense is used by a legislation in each authority that has it. An insanity defense argues that the defendant is not responsible for his or her actions due to mental illness at the time of the criminal act. The most severe cases being schizophrenic, autistic or delusional behavior.  

“The cases I have worked with were mainly people not realizing the nature of the act. One gentleman killed his father because he thought his father had been taken over by an alien and whilst he was asleep the alien was going to harvest his organs, so he needed to act first as a form of self defense,” said Hilliar.

“They did not know what they were doing was wrong. The offender was not aware of the nature and quality of the act, which further act up as their delusions. I had a couple of allegedly sleep walking incidents. People lose control of their bodily functions,” she said.

“What a jury can decide is really based on the laws of the country they are in. For example, compared to other countries, the United Arab Emirates is stricter in terms of legal consequences than others,” said Dr. Hilliar.

The question is: is the insanity defense abused?  

“The insanity defense is not highly likely to be abused at all. However, I have experienced three patients who said they had faked their mental illness because it was easier than to bare the real consequences of their crime. All of them had personality disorders,” she said.

This behavior is very rare. However, it does make it challenging to identify people who are genuinely are ill, making the duties and reflex of a forensic psychologist challenging, according to Dr. Hilliar.

Dr. Kirin Hilliar is an Australian forensic psychologist who has worked closely with hospitals, clinics, governments and jails in Austrialia. Dr. Hilliar also specializes in treating individuals going through emotional and behavioral dysfunction due to genetic, psychological and social causes.

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