Late last week, I was put on a jury to decide whether a man with schizophrenia ought to remain in a mental hospital under a conservatorship, one consequence of which is that he would be forced to take his medication.
I was an alternate, meaning my function was to hear the evidence and be there should one of the jurors be unable to continue. It was a short, though slow-moving trial. I fought drowsiness through parts of it, mostly because the courtroom was so quiet and trials often get bogged down in minutiae.
Listening to three psychiatrists talk about his mental illness was interesting. What struck me were the terms used to describe the symptoms: disorganized thought, delusions of grandeur, inability to perceive reality or form sentences that make sense. “Poverty of thought” was another that intrigued me. So was “lack of insight.” Seems like these terms could describe us all from time to time.
On Monday, the man I’ll call Ray took the witness stand. He didn’t want this conservatorship. In quiet tones and flat affect, he told us he would take his meds if he were released, that he knew he was schizophrenic. He had a shaved head, a Fu Manchu and tiny tattoos of crosses on his temples near his eyes.
We had seen him shambling in and out of the courtroom each day with attendants from the mental hospital, arms not moving by his side, mouth always slightly open under the mustache. We hadn’t yet heard him speak. Now he was talking to us in terms that seemed to make sense.
Then without any change of tone or expression, he began telling us that he was also a NASA engineer. That, though he was 27, he had received a PhD from El Camino Community College in the 1980s. That he was an astronaut, a pilot who flew for Continental Airlines, which his father owned. That he had millions of dollars in the bank, owned an apartment complex, had a twin brother, that police chloroformed him and shaved his eyebrows.
He went on for about 10 minutes, a forlorn figure, lost in the tangle of his mind.
At one point, the bailiff walked over with some tissue for a woman on the jury who was crying.
The prosecutor, not given to expression, kept on asking questions of Ray with an agonized look on his face, wanting us to see the person and the reason we were there – that seeing real mental illness was necessary to do our job.
“This is a sad case,” he said.
I imagined Ray trying to take care of his basic needs – bathing, food. I couldn’t picture it. I imagined him on the street in some confrontation with police who would naturally see him as a menace, unaware of his illness. This collision would end badly — one that, even as he died, he wouldn’t understand. That was easier to see.
As a society, I believe, we have abdicated our responsibility for the mentally ill. Preferring not to pay taxes to do what we should, washing our hands of them. A few blocks from the courthouse are encampments of homeless people, some probably as ill and deluded as Ray. We have left it to police on the streets to be our frontline mental health professionals. Then we complain that officers have performed incorrectly when that combustible situation predictably goes wrong. That’s our fault.
My fellow dozen jurors, after a reasonable amount of debate in a room by themselves, determined that Ray qualified for the conservatorship, keeping him in the hospital, which is what I would have done.
Then, with the judge’s thanks, we all turned in our jurors badges and dispersed into Los Angeles.