Manic depression seldom associated with crime locally

Monday, October 16, 2006

One minute, Lee Williams, a contract cleaner, was doing his job cleaning Jackson City Hall. The next, he was standing around looking at the damage he couldn't stop himself from doing.

Williams, 42, said he has been diagnosed as having manic depression, or bipolar disorder, since 1983.

During the early morning hours Aug. 14, Williams had an episode that he says caused him to break two windows and overturn desks in two offices at city hall. He was arrested at the scene by police responding to a call of breaking glass, and later prosecuted and sentenced to probation.

"It's always led me into a criminal history," he said of manic depression. In his life, Williams said he has had only four episodes. The latest occurred when he had been off his medication for the last two years under the direction of his doctor.

Now, he's back on meds and hopes people can have a better understanding of his disorder.

"It's not like having cancer," he said. "Manic depression is something everybody wants to put in the closet, including ourselves."

Local psychologist Ken Callis agreed, stating that bipolar disorder was likely underdiagnosed.

"The stigma with any kind of psychological disorder, it is still very real," he said.

According to Callis, manic depression involves mood swings between extreme elation and clinical depression.

But crimes associated with manic depression are rare, and people having an episode are more likely to break social norms, such as standing on tables in public, than they are to commit crimes, Callis said.

Only about one case a year in Cape Girardeau County is actually verified that the defendant did not know the consequences of his actions, Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said.

On the contrast, Swingle said his office receives about 12 defendants yearly who claim mental illness, especially in homicide cases. More often than not though, such a claim is merely to get out of punishment of the crime and the defendant has no history of the disorder.

"You just don't suddenly become a schizophrenic before you kill someone," Swingle said.

The only option for someone whose defense of mental disorder is accepted is commitment to a mental facility for an undetermined amount of time until under doctors deem the person fit.

That is often a factor for defendants who claim a mental disorder, when they could be instead faced with prison incarceration for a set time as opposed to commitment for an indefinite period, Swingle said.

While Williams did receive a mental evaluation following his episode at city hall, he did not enter a mental defense. His history of mental illness did play a role in court proceedings.

"It was something we took into account" when working on a plea deal, assistant prosecuting attorney Jack Koester said.

kmorrison@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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