“In madness, I thought I was the most important person in the world.”
–John Forbes Nash

The movie, A Beautiful Mind, tells the story of Nobel Prize winner, John Nash.  The film takes the viewer through Nash’s life; a life which is punctuated with significant episodes of mental illness.

A recent article in the Tampa Bay Times related the story of Alfred Postell.[1]  Mr. Postell stood before Judge Thomas Motley of the D.C. Superior Court last April.  It turns out that the judge and the defendant were classmates and both graduated from Harvard Law School in 1979.  Fellow classmates included Chief Justice John Roberts and former Wisconsin Senator Russell Feingold.  Judge Motley remembered Mr. Postell.  Nevertheless, he remanded his former classmate to custody until the charges against him could be resolved.

How could a man with such promise and potential end up in these circumstances?  The answer is this:  Mr. Postell is a diagnosed schizophrenic.  The article about him tells of his intelligence, of his ambition, and also, of his “psychotic break”.  The Harvard law graduate is now a homeless man wandering the streets of Washington, D.C.

When the untreated mentally ill appear in the courts of this country, perplexing situations arise.  In the criminal law context, psychiatrists determine whether such a defendant is competent to stand trial.  In the field of guardianship, psychiatrists determine whether a person is “competent”.

In the field of family law, incompetency does not prevent a divorce from happening, but will cause a delay.  Also, a mentally ill person can be technically competent though off their medication and, thus, very difficult to deal with.  The story of Alfred Postell highlights the broader problem of the untreated mentally ill within our judicial system.

by Patrick Gaffney

by Patrick Gaffney

[1] Terrence McCoy, Harvard, then Homeless, Tampa Bay Times July 19, 2015.