You may recall a story hitting the news in June 2014 about three girls in the woods in Wisconsin. Two 12-year-old girls lured a third into the woods in Waukesha, Wisconsin, attacked her and left her for dead. This past week, the girl who carried out the attack, Morgan Geyser, was sentenced to 40 years in a mental institution. Her accomplice, Anissa Weier, was sentenced in December to 25 years in a mental institution. To provide a little context, Geyser didn't merely attack the third girl, Payton Leutner. She stabbed her 19 times, all over her body. Why in the world would they do this? Apparently, they were trying to appease a character from a popular online horror game called “Slender Man.”
So, clearly, these two girls were not in their right mind at the time. Fortunately, the victim survived. As a result, Geyser was not charged with first-degree murder. Weier did not actually do the stabbing, but she was charged as a party to the crime. This brings to mind the question that applies to a decent amount of criminal cases: Should this person go to prison or be put in a mental institution? You may think the insanity defense is used often, but it is actually only used in about 1 percent of cases in the U.S. Out of this 1 percent, the insanity plea is accepted in court less than 25 percent of the time.
That's extremely infrequent, especially when we consider how many crime cases go to trial across the country. If you are a frequent viewer of “Law & Order” or “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” you have probably had your impression of crimes and pleas of insanity tainted a little. Of course, massive, fascinating crimes do occur, but the cases in these popular crime shows are often dramatized. There is a reason the case of these girls has been in the news for years — it's different and interesting. Homicides, both attempted and successful, happen every day. In fact, in 2016, there was a total of 17,250 reported murder and non-negligent manslaughter in the U.S. That amounts to an average of more than 47 per day.
In order for a person to be convicted of a crime, the prosecution must not only prove a person committed a crime, but that he or she had guilty intent. If a person lacks the psychological capacity to understand what they did was wrong or to conform their behaviors to the law, they should not be held accountable in the eyes of the law.
There is some debate over this idea. How can we prove if someone is actually not in their right mind? How easy is it for people to lie and then evade a prison sentence? Many other countries build their prison systems around rehabilitation rather than punishment. The U.S. doesn't.
If people commit a crime due to a mental illness, sending them to prison to serve time rather than try to help them is inhumane. Pleading insanity should not be seen as a cop-out but as a chance for healing. We should not be punishing people who truly do not know the harm they are doing. I believe time behind bars would do more harm than good. How can you punish someone effectively if they don't understand why they're being punished?
I truly hope Geyser and Weier's time in the mental institution helps them. I am confident it will prove more helpful than time in prison as they need real psychiatric help. With the publicity their case received, I hope the two girls can serve as a modern example for the idea that those who are mentally unstable and do not understand the wrong they do should not be punished the same as those who do.
Taylor Cavaliere is a UF journalism and psychology junior. Her column focuses on mental health.