J. Kennett & A. McCay
Originally published 15 OCT 20
Here is an excerpt:
Expert witnesses were reportedly divided on whether Gargasoulas had the capacity to properly participate in his trial, despite suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and delusions.
A psychiatrist for the defence said Gargasoulas’ delusional belief system “overwhelms him”; the psychiatrist expressed concern Gargasoulas was using the court process as a platform to voice his belief he is the messiah.
A second forensic psychiatrist agreed Gargasoulas was “not able to rationally enter a plea”.
However, a psychologist for the prosecution assessed him as fit and the prosecution argued there was evidence from recorded phone calls that he was capable of rational thought.
Notwithstanding the opinion of the majority of expert witnesses, the jury found Gargasoulas was fit to stand trial, and later he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Working from media reports, it is difficult to be sure precisely what happened in court, and we cannot know why the jury favoured the evidence suggesting he was fit to stand trial. However, it is interesting to consider whether research into the psychology of blame and punishment can shed any light on their decision.
Questions of consequence
Some psychologists argue judgements of blame are not always based on a balanced assessment of free will or rational control, as the law presumes. Sometimes we decide how much control or freedom a person possessed based upon our automatic negative responses to harmful consequences.
As the psychologist Mark Alicke says:
we simply don’t want to excuse people who do horrible things, regardless of how disordered their cognitive states may be.
When a person has done something very bad, we are motivated to look for evidence that supports blaming them and to downplay evidence that might excuse them by showing that they lacked free will.