May 01, 2015

Why a Federal Mental Health Court? The District of Utah’s Pioneering RISE Court

By Judge Brooke C. Wells

In 1956, at age 18, Burnt Murphy (yes, that is the correct spelling) was released from the Utah State Training School, Utah’s institution for “mentally retarded” youth. At age 19, Murphy was charged with the rape of a five-year-old girl and subsequently the homicide of a young woman who had been a co-resident at the state training school. In 1957, a state district court judge found Murphy incompetent to stand trial and committed him to the Utah State Hospital, the state’s mental institution, until such time as he became competent. Notably, no judicial findings were made as to the nature or type of insanity or mental illness Murphy suffered from when the alleged crimes were committed.

In fact, Murphy had mild mental retardation, but for the next 15 years he was confined to the state mental hospital and received a regimen of medications, including anti-psychotics. Eventually he developed the serious side effect of tardive dyskinesia.1 Such drugs were never indicated for his condition. It is significant that Murphy had never been diagnosed with a mental illness, only with mild mental retardation. The next judicial hearing wasn’t until 1972. The ’72 hearing was prompted by a letter from the hospital’s superintendent and a staff psychiatrist indicating Murphy was “no longer psychotic or insane” and was competent to stand trial. After a bench trial on the rape charge held in late 1972, Murphy was found not guilty by reason of insanity and again committed to the Utah State Hospital, consistent with Utah’s statutory scheme at the time, without any release date. Again, no findings were made as to the type of Murphy’s “insanity” other than mental retardation. He was never tried for the alleged homicide. Review of previous court records reveal Murphy was represented by counsel, although the extent and adequacy of that representation are certainly questionable.

In 1983, I was a reasonably new state public defender when Murphy’s case was assigned to me. Referral of the case came at the specific request of the newly assigned trial judge, the Honorable David Dee, who had received a letter from Murphy asking for help. Murphy had now been in custody for 27 years. At the time, I had no direct experience with individuals with either mental retardation or mental illness. I quickly learned how inadequate our judicial and mental health systems were in handling criminal defendants with mental illnesses or disabilities and how those affected by either suffered at the hands of these incompetent systems.

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