Identifying Mentally Handicapped Defendants

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Signs Indicating Possible Mental Handicap in the Defendant

A mentally handicapped defendant poses unique challenges to his legal aid lawyer. Evidence of mental handicap can be used to prove that the client lacked the faculty for criminal intent or that he was not the principal offender in the criminal act, and it can further prove that the client has a physical or mental disability.

The legal aid lawyer should immediately seek out an expert’s diagnosis if he suspects that the client suffers from any mental handicap. The following steps of trial preparation must be, without exception, based on expert diagnosis:

  1. Understanding the prosecution's case;
  2. Rebutting the prosecution's case;
  3. Investigating the client’s ability to act and his mental state at the time of the alleged crime

How should a legal aid lawyer judge whether or not a client has a mental handicap? While interviewing the client and family members, the lawyer should closely observe whether or not the client displays the following signs of mental handicap. The lawyer should further decide whether or not to call in an expert to evaluate the client’s mental condition.

Reality Disorders

  • hallucination
  • phonism
  • photism (illusory images of humans, objects or other shapeless things, such as lightning)
  • olfactory hallucination
  • tactile hallucination (feeling touched by non-existent objects or persons)
  • taste hallucination (tasting non-existent flavors)
  • falsely feeling threatened by harmless pictures
  • unreasonable fears (such as fear of leaving the prison cell, fear of heights)
  • feeling confused about people or things in his surroundings

Longstanding mistaken perceptions, such as:

  • The lawyer wants to harm him;
  • The prison warden or other people worship him;
  • feeling controlled by an otherworldly power;
  • being the target of people’s gossip

Linguistic Problems

  • Unintelligible Language
  • disorganized language
  • fabricating nonexistent phrases
  • using “non-words”
  • stringing together unrelated phrases
  • making up conclusions based on fallacies

Incomplete Answers

  • Short, abrupt answers lacking further explanation
  • only “yes” or “no” answers
  • vacuous, repetitive and general answers
  • long-winded answers lacking any real information
  • talking about “nonsensical philosophical thinking”

Disoriented Conversation

  • switching topics mid-sentence in response to any stimulation *irrelevant responses
  • broken sentences
  • unrelated thoughts alternately occurring at random
  • ideas expressed in cyclic, indirect or hesitant ways
  • tedious details
  • long-winded language
  • concluding a thought only with prompting
  • constant deviation from the main topic
  • persistent in using inappropriate methods to repeat certain words, ideas or topics

Rapid Speech

  • speaking quickly without pause
  • jumping to the next topic prematurely
  • negligent of other’s efforts to interrupt
  • frequent loud and extremely assertive speech
  • talking too much and interrupting others often

Slow or Broken Speech

  • speaking slowly
  • long hesitation before reply
  • inability to find correct wording
  • inarticulate speech
  • indifferent speech, even when discussing emotional topics
  • being pretentious
  • using archaic and obscure language

Other Language Problems

  • small handwriting
  • rushed writing
  • reading problems
  • spelling errors

Memory Lapses and Attention Deficits

  • unable to recall childhood memories
  • unable to recall what has happened in the past few months
  • unable to recall what has happened in the past few days
  • unable to recollect facts related to the case
  • memories are inconsistent with case records
  • inventing stories to fill in memory gaps regarding the case
  • tending to lie about events relating to the case
  • seemingly too clear memory
  • unable to concentrate
  • always focused on trivial details
  • forgetful trains of thought
  • unable to concentrate upon mention of emotional topics

Medical Complaints

  • overly concerned about personal health
  • self-inflicted injury or suspicious scars
  • “accidents”
  • insomnia
  • poor sleep quality
  • oversleeping
  • changes in eating habits
  • increasing or decreasing appetite
  • blurred vision
  • narrowing eyes or holding material too closely when reading *hearing problems
  • humming ears
  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • fatigue

Self-Perception and Ability to Handle Affairs

  • extremely low self-esteem
  • extremely high self-esteem
  • unrealistic goals, ignoring one’s weaknesses
  • reluctant to admit mental problems
  • unable to plan in advance
  • disordered working patterns
  • unresponsive thought patterns
  • unable to adapt one’s plans according to reality
  • unable to foresee the consequences of one’s action
  • irritable
  • unable to learn from past errors

Physical Gestures

  • restless movements
  • many small movements
  • frequently raising one’s legs or waving one’s arms
  • speaking too much
  • overly quick responses
  • sensitive to one’s surroundings, frequently looking around
  • slow movements and speech
  • slow responses
  • poor balance
  • lack of coordination *nervous body movements or expression

Interaction with Others

  • cheerless family environment
  • no regular visitors or mail
  • lacking normal interaction with ward mates and interactions marked by abnormal responses
  • too accommodating
  • unable to have relationships with others, lacking the ability to communicate directly
  • words and actions that are counter to accepted norms (including sexual behavior or too extroverted)
  • unable to understand the impropriety of his words and actions

See also Client Interviews