Eric Clark, a severely mentally ill man convicted in 2003 of murdering Flagstaff, AZ police officer Jeffrey Moritz in 2000 was just ordered freed or retried because evidence of his mental illness was withheld from his initial trial.
According to U.S. District Court Judge Jay R. Irwin, before Mr. Clark killed Officer Moritiz, Clark’s family spent years trying to get the Arizona Mental Health system to treat him. They wouldn’t. When Clark was arrested for a previous DUI and possession of drugs, “(Clark’s parents) begged the juvenile people to keep him because of his mental health issues, but they released him.” They even hired an attorney to try to get authorities to press charges and keep him detained for treatment, the judge wrote.
The case shows the need for two changes. One to prevent people with severe mental illness from becoming dangerous, and the second to provide a better legal outcome if that happens.
Prevent People with Untreated Severe Mental Illness From Becoming Dangerous
Arizona and other states should aggressively implement Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) Laws. These laws allow courts -after full due process—to order certain severely mentally ill people who have a past history of violence to stay in treatment as a condition for living in the community. Perhaps more important, it allows the court to order the mental health system to provide the treatment. Without a court order, mental health systems focus their efforts exclusively on those who volunteer for treatment. Many won’t volunteer because they are so ill they don’t know they are ill. Arizona has a strong AOT law, but mental health authorities didn’t invoke it. If Eric Clark had been in program, Officer Moritz would likely be alive. 115 Law Enforcement Officers have been killed by people with mental illness and a new report shows that law enforcement is overburdened running a shadow mental health system for those refused care by the mental health system.
Sentence Mentally Ill Criminals To Mandatory Treatment
The potential release of someone who killed a law enforcement officer is neither just, humane or safe, and raises the question of what courts should do. If released, Mr. Clark would be free to go off medications and act out again. If retried and found “not guilty because of mental illness”, he could be released with no requirement to stay in treatment, which could also lead to another incident.
To prevent either, my proposal is to mandate courts to compel people found guilty because of mental illness or not guilty because of mental illness, or unfit to stand trial to stay in treatment for the maximum amount of time they would have served had they been found guilty. This treatment could be in a locked ward or in outpatient treatment. The person could be moved from one to the other on an as-needed basis with no further due-process needed and subjected to mandatory and directly observed treatment to prevent future dangerous behavior.
People who commit crimes because of their insanity need to be kept sane. Mandated enforced treatment can do that. But unless Law Enforcement Officers demand these changes, the mental health system will continue to cherry-pick the easiest to treat clients for itself and offload the most seriously ill to criminal justice. That’s cruel to patients, dangerous to the public and expensive. For Officer Moritz, it was deadly.
I hope law enforcement leadership will join us in demanding these changes.
DJ Jaffe is Executive Director Mental Illness Policy Org.