Friday, April 23, 2010

Turning grief into advocacy

Pete Earley, author of the book CRAZY: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness, writes a blog on mental health and criminal justice issues, and recently has done a series of posts on mental illness and the death penalty. (Pete wrote the foreword to the report that we produced with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Double Tragedies.)

One of Pete Earley's posts is about MVFHR member Joe Bruce and the tragedy he experienced when his son, suffering from mental illness, killed his mother, Joe's wife. Another of Pete Earley's posts in this series is about MVFHR members Amanda and Nick Wilcox. Here's an excerpt:

Prosecutors were shocked when they met with Nick and Amanda Wilcox. They assumed that Laura’s parents would be their best advocates in seeking the death penalty.

But Nick and Amanda, both devout Quakers, said they did not want revenge. Instead, they demanded to know why officials had overlooked the severity of Thorpe’s mental disorder and why he had access to weapons that enabled him to murder their daughter.

During an investigation, officials were forced to admit that Nevada City did not have a facility where someone as sick as Thorpe could get help and when he began to develop signs of extreme mental illness, public officials had decided that they didn’t want to involuntarily commit him because the county would have had to pay the costs of sending him to an out-of-county facility.

At the trial, Thorpe’s brother and sister-in-law testified that they had warned doctors at Nevada County Mental Health several times about Thorpe’s collection of unregistered guns. But the doctors had told them that there was nothing they could do about Thorpe’s constitutional right to own weapons. One doctor finally told them, “If you’re not happy about it, change the law.”

Thorpe was ruled “incompetent to stand trial” and sent to a forensic mental facility where he remains today.

Many parents would have been outraged by that ruling. But not the Wilcoxes. They called it an appropriate decision and turned their grief into advocacy.

They immediately began lobbying for passage of what became called Laura’s Law, which authorized assisted outpatient treatment in California and was patterned after Kendra’s Law, which I have written about before. Putting their daughter’s “face” on that legislation helped get it passed in 2002.

But the Wilcoxes didn’t stop there.

They opposed the death penalty, especially the execution of persons with mental illnesses, and they were convinced that there were other families who felt the same way even though their loved ones had been murdered. So Nick and Amanda began speaking out against executions. ...

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