Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Power of One

How a Single Juror Made All the Difference to Families of Children who Have Serious Mental Illness

Like many Americans, I held my breath on Friday, August 7 at 5:00 p.m. as I waited for the verdict to be read in the James Holmes case. No one questions that Holmes shot up a movie theater in 2012, killing 9 innocent victims and injuring 70 others. And few question that Holmes met Colorado’s legal definition of sanity when he committed this violent act. Similarly, few question that Holmes suffered from schizophrenia, an incurable mental illness with sometimes violent behavioral symptoms.

The only question in that moment for parents of children who have serious mental illness, parents like me, was this: would Holmes be sentenced to death for behavioral symptoms of a brain disease?

One juror found that outcome to be unacceptable. One juror saved James Holmes’s life.

And while the Internet swirled with hateful comments, mothers across America breathed a collective sigh of relief. Three of these mother wrote letters to the lone juror and shared them with me.

Leisl Stouffer of Bold Faith Ministries has watched her son’s dramatic improvement with residential treatment, something few parents can access. She wrote this to the lone juror who had the moral courage to save James Holmes’s life:
I will never forget the morning I woke up to “Breaking News.”  A movie theater. A gunman.  
Carnage. Death. Slowly the details emerged as we all sat in shock over the latest mass shooting. And then the media showed us his face. James Holmes. The cold blooded killer with the bright orange hair.   
But I saw more than his hair.  I saw the look on his face. I saw his eyes, and I was rocked to the core. 
That empty, faraway look.  Glazed over. No emotion. They say the eyes are the window to the soul. This man’s eyes revealed a look into his mind.  An abyss of darkness.  A chasm of illness. 
Mental Illness. 
I had seen that same look in my own home.
Laura Pogliano’s story was profiled in a USA Today series on caring for children with mental illness  in November 2014. Then, she called herself a “fortunate mother” because despite the enormous financial costs of obtaining care, she had been able to get treatment for her son Zac. Just a few months later, Zac died at the age of 23 of heart failure. Laura wrote this to the lone juror:
When the final sentencing verdict was read, I cried. Instead of the death penalty, Holmes was given life without the possibility of parole.  A juror spokesman related afterward that a single juror refused the death penalty as an option.  One out of seventeen. This lone juror’s refusal to put Holmes to death is probably the only reason Holmes was spared. 
My son was seriously mentally ill with paranoid schizophrenia for seven years before he died at age 23 of heart failure. If I could say anything to the Lone Juror, here’s what I would tell him or her: 
Thank you for sparing James Holmes’s life. By refusing to agree to the death penalty, you reminded us all of some important things we used to know as a nation but seem to have completely forgotten in the last 40 years.We have forgotten that treatment matters more than any single thing in a desperately ill person’s life. We evolved into a culture where it’s okay to ask for help with any disease except mental illness. With every mass shooting that we trace to untreated mental illness, with neighbors and friends all saying they saw a need for help, we grow more and more callous to the idea of treatment. 
The national chorus after a tragedy is, “why didn’t he get treatment?” By refusing to put James Holmes to death, you reminded us that he could have been saved by treatment. And you’ve shone a light on the very real deficits this country faces with our broken mental health system and very real barriers to care. Thank you for shining this light.
Diana Mandrell’s daughter also has a serious mental illness. Her family has struggled for 15 years, trying without success to find effective treatment for her daughter’s psychosis. Her daughter is currently on probation for misdemeanor assault. The family has been told their daughter must commit another crime before she can be committed to a hospital and get treatment.
I am the mother of a child who has serious mental illness, and I wanted to thank you for allowing James Holmes’ parents to keep their son alive. I know the pressure must have been very hard on you to vote for the death penalty, and I want you to know that I think you made the right decision. I know that what James Holmes did because of his disease was horrible, and my heart goes out to the victims and their families, but I also know that James and his family are also victims. They are victims of a mental health care system that is not only broken, but shattered. I know from experience that it is almost impossible to get treatment for patients with mental illness who cannot recognize their own illness. In this case, the fact that James did know and tried so desperately to get help shows that the system is even more broken than one might think. 
These parents’ stories are not uncommon, yet in the wake of Holmes’s sentence, many people attacked the brave juror.  People also continued to blame James Holmes’s parents. As parents of children who have serious mental illness, we are distressed that two-thirds of the jury apparently thought death was an appropriate sentence for a young man who had schizophrenia and acted out his awful delusions. We are profoundly grateful to the lone juror who stood up for what she believed in—that death is not an appropriate punishment for someone who has a brain disease. And we have hope that Congress will take action and pass HR2646, Representative Tim Murphy's much-needed mental healthcare reform legislation, before the next Aurora. Or Chattanooga. Or Lafayette. 

But mostly, we hope for meaningful change before another one of our precious children becomes homeless, or is jailed, or dies by suicide because of an untreated brain disease. These are the private, everyday tragedies of mental illness, tragically overshadowed by the rare and awful mass shootings that raise awareness but also contribute to fear and discrimination. We can each be the lone juror, speaking up for help and hope for the most vulnerable within our communities.

The mothers' full letters are reprinted here, with the authors’ permission:

To The Juror Who Spared James Holmes’ Life:

Thank You. Thank you for your willingness to sit on a jury in such an emotionally charged and high profile case.  Thank you for taking time away from your family and your life to serve justice. But most importantly thank you for standing firm in your convictions to spare James Holmes’ life.

In a case as horrific as this, it would be easy to say that the only true justice is death.  It appeared to be cold blooded murder. Lives were lost.  Lives were destroyed.  Dozens of families will never be the same.  The aftermath is unthinkable.  

Our human response is to call for vengeance.  

A life for a life equals justice.

But from where I’m sitting, I see things differently. 

I will never forget the morning I woke up to “Breaking News.”  A movie theater. A gunman. Carnage. Death. Slowly the details emerged as we all sat in shock over the latest mass shooting.

And then the media showed us his face. James Holmes. The cold blooded killer with the bright orange hair.  

But I saw more than his hair.  

I saw the look on his face.

I saw his eyes and I was rocked to the core.

That empty, faraway look.  Glazed over. No emotion. They say the eyes are the window to the soul. This man’s eyes revealed a look into his mind.  An abyss of darkness.  A chasm of illness.

Mental Illness.

I had seen that same look in my own home before.

I am the mother of a 17-year-old son who suffers from severe mental illness.  We have been battling this horrific and devastating disease for almost his entire life.  He is currently living in a residential treatment center where he is doing well and regaining his health, his dignity, and his life.  He used to have that faraway look in his eyes.  We had lost our son to the illness. 
But now, with treatment, he has life in his eyes.  He laughs.  He smiles.  There’s a twinkle. 

There is hope.

When I saw the image of James Holmes flash across my television screen, I did not see a cold blooded killer.  I saw a young man just like my son.  A young man who was unimaginably sick. 

I certainly do not condone his acts or the horrific crimes that were committed, but I saw James Holmes as a victim in this too.  He is a victim of a terrifying and gravely misunderstood illness.  He is a victim of our nation’s failed mental health care system.  This system refuses to provide treatment until the person is deemed an “imminent danger to self or others.”  By that point, it’s too late.  

I don’t know why you decided to spare James Holmes’ life but I am thankful you did.  The few articles and news stories I have seen report that the issue of mental illness played a significant part in your decision.  If that is indeed the case, thank you.  From the bottom of this mother’s heart, thank you.

We will never get back the lives that were lost, and for the victims and their families, life will never be the same.  But because of you, another life was saved. 

My heart goes out to everyone involved in this devastating tragedy.  If we want real justice, then let’s start by fixing our mental health care system.  That will bring real change.

Love and blessings to you, the Juror who spared James Holmes’ Life.  I am grateful. 

Leisl Stoufer

***
Dear Juror:

Like many parents of a child with mental illness, I waited with suspended breath for the verdict in the James Holmes murder trial. Holmes was found guilty of murder on all counts. He was not found “not guilty by reason of insanity,” but guilty, legally sane, meaning Holmes qualified for the death penalty in Colorado. The jury did not find enough mitigating circumstances, even though he has schizophrenia, to outweigh the evidence that he was legally sane at the time of the shooting.  This wasn’t good news for Holmes. The final phase of sentencing would include victim testimony, and then the jury would retire again for this final phase, to decide if Holmes deserved the death penalty.

When the final sentencing verdict was read, I cried. Instead of the death penalty, Holmes was given life without the possibility of parole.  A juror spokesman related afterward that a single juror refused the death penalty as an option.  One out of seventeen. This lone juror’s refusal to put Holmes to death is probably the only reason Holmes was spared.

My son was seriously mentally ill with paranoid schizophrenia for seven years before he died at age 23 of heart failure. If I could say anything to the Lone Juror, here’s what I would tell him or her:

Thank you for sparing James Holmes’s life. By refusing to agree to the death penalty, you reminded us all of some important things we used to know as a nation but seem to have completely forgotten in the last 40 years.
With over one million seriously mentally ill men and women in our prisons, we forgot that being mentally ill isn’t a crime. We forgot that mental illness comes with behaviors we don’t like, but which are driven by illness. We forgot that a person’s deeds sometimes aren’t “himself.” We forgot that being mentally ill isn’t a moral issue. Mental illness is just that: illness. We used to know it was illness, treat it as illness, “believe in it” as illness. Mental illness is real. Untreated mental illness can be debilitating, progressive, ruinous. Thank you for reminding us of this.

You reminded us that all people have value, intrinsic value; not just the value we assign them by how much they contribute to the economy. You reminded us that as a nation, we used to think of ourselves as a compassionate, human rights-oriented people. We understood that many people with mental illness could not fend for themselves, support themselves, care for themselves. We understood that while we couldn’t cure it, we could provide benevolent, long term solutions, like custodial care for those most affected. We used to know that people who were sick deserved treatment and weren’t social outcasts for asking for it. We used to know that even chronically sick people, now our homeless population, have value. Thank you for reminding us that all people have value.

We have forgotten that treatment matters more than any single thing in a desperately ill person’s life. We evolved into a culture where it’s okay to ask for help with any disease except mental illness. With every mass shooting that we trace to untreated mental illness, with neighbors and friends all saying they saw a need for help, we grow more and more callous to the idea of treatment. The national chorus after a tragedy is, “why didn’t he get treatment?” By refusing to put James Holmes to death, you reminded us that he could have been saved by treatment. And you’ve shone a light on the very real deficits this country faces with our broken mental health system and very real barriers to care. Thank you for shining this light.

What you reminded us of as a nation by refusing to send James Holmes to his death is that our justice system, often described as broken and corrupt, works once in a while. You reminded us that Justice should be tempered with Mercy, that our best legal precepts still work: Innocent until proven guilty, mitigating circumstances, punishments that fit the crimes.  We used to know that justice was separate from revenge. This is an important lesson.

Finally, we have forgotten that one person can make a difference. One person’s vote can alter nearly impossible circumstances; it can defy the odds and create change. One person’s refusal to do something that is against his moral judgment can matter more than 16 other people’s wrong opinions, or ten thousand’s. You showed us that in our best incarnation of ourselves as Americans, we used to believe this: One person can make a difference.  One vote can make a difference. Thank you for reminding us of this truth.

From the mother of a beautiful son who was stricken with paranoid schizophrenia, the same disease that James Holmes has, thank you. I know you would have done the same thing for my son.

Laura Pogliano

***
Dear Juror:

I am the mother of a child who has serious mental illness, and I wanted to thank you for allowing James Holmes’ parents to keep their son alive. I know the pressure must have been very hard on you to vote for the death penalty, and I want you to know that I think you made the right decision. I know that what James Holmes did because of his disease was horrible, and my heart goes out to the victims and their families, but I also know that James and his family are also victims. They are victims of a mental health care system that is not only broken, but shattered. I know from experience that it is almost impossible to get treatment for patients with mental illness who cannot recognize their own illness. In this case, the fact that James did know and tried so desperately to get help shows that the system is even more broken than one might think. 

I stand with his parents and the parents of all people who have mental illness in the United States. We are trying desperately to help others understand the need for treatment before these tragedies happen. I am grateful to you for allowing James Holmes’s parents to escape the horror of knowing their son would be put to death because of his illness. I honestly believe with all my heart that this tragedy could have been prevented if someone would have listened and helped him to get the treatment that he so desperately needed. I am forever grateful to you for standing your ground and voting your conscience, for whatever reason, and for allowing his parents to keep their son alive. You made the right decision. Thank you from the bottom of my broken heart.

Diana L. Mandrell








4 comments:

simpletreasurebunch said...

Amazing the power words can have!! Thank you so much for using your gift as a writer to "pen" for us-the other parents who are at a loss of words. Can't find the right words. Or the parents who struggle to explain what they are going through to themselves-much less others. Thanks you (and the other contributors)for so eloquently expressing "The Power of One".

Krista said...

Powerful and grateful for your voice and words.

A said...

So, Zac Pogliano died of heart failure at age 23. Did the drugs Zac's mother made him take reduce her son's lifespan by at least fifty years? If so, then why is anyone still listening to what she has to say about Mad people in the criminal justice system?

I realize that this is a pro-force psychiatry blog, but Ms. Long needs to clarify that for her Mad readers who may be under the mistaken impression that their needs and opinions matter here. Ms. Long should explicitly promote this blog as a forum of advocacy for only the issues of significance to "family MEMBERS of the mentally ill" rather than the issues that are important to family UNITS that *include* Mad people. If she isn't going to do that, then the people whom she wants to be forced into psychiatric imprisonment should have a say on this blog because they know more about the drawbacks and benefits of psychiatry than ANYONE else. They are, after all, the de facto guinea pigs of the failed social experiment that is pro-force psychiatry.

Alex's mom said...

Thank your for expressing so well what so many of us think and feel. To James' parents: I wrote you a letter that unfortunately was sent back (unable to find your address which is a GOOD thing). I think of you every day and I also love your son James because I totally understand him as a mother.

To "A": I am not sure what your message is. I have traveled as far as Greece to get alternative treatments for my son. I am aware of the dangers western medicine can pose for some people. The last drug they put my son on (which is a silver bullet for others suffering from mental illness) actually sent him into full-blown psychosis and he had to be hospitalized for the first time (he is 26). We had been able to manage things and help him with what is available in the US and tried to do the best we could for him. It has not "cured him" but it has helped. He still has not recovered 100% from the abyss the drug sent him into, but he is now doing better on a different drug. We are doing what we can and what is available to our kids. The alternative treatments have helped him more than anything we had tried for 20 years, but we are aware not everybody has the luxury to travel (as a family of 4) to far away places to take advantage of new (and not so new) alternatives.

I cannot quite grasp what your message is but I do sense an intention to blame, hate and hurt. Please stop. I may be wrong, but again your comments are both confusing and offensive. And hurtful. I urge everyone to ignore anything posted by you. It will only leave you with a bad after taste.

James and family: We love you. We understand. Maybe he is safer and feeling better than he did in a society that shunned him and did not try to help him.