zamora.jpg
Isaac Zamora is believed to be the motivation behind the new law.
In September 2008, a mentally-disturbed 29-year-old named Isaac Zamora went on a shooting

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Lawsuit Challenges New Law Allowing State to Put Mental Hospital Patients Who Have Committed Crimes in Prison

zamora.jpg
Isaac Zamora is believed to be the motivation behind the new law.
In September 2008, a mentally-disturbed 29-year-old named Isaac Zamora went on a shooting spree in Skagit County, killing a sheriff's deputy and five others. He later pled guilty to multiple murder counts, but in the killing of the sherriff's deputy, was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Before serving time in prison, he was therefore sent for mental health treatment to Western State Hospital.

That apparently rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. According to David Carlson, associate legal director of the non-profit Disability Rights Washington, "the worst kept secret in Olympia" is that Zamora is the motivation behind a just-passed legislative bill that allows the head of the state Department of Social and Health Services to take people like Zamora from mental hospitals and put them in prison.

Carlson and his organization have a problem with that, and on March 31 filed what is sure to be a precedent-setting federal lawsuit in the Eastern District of Washington, claiming the law is unconstitutional (see pdf).

Passed with the encouragement of the governor, Bill 6610 gives the DSHS secretary the authority to determine whether a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity patient presents an "unreasonable safety risk" for a hospital. No court need weigh in on that decision, which is a violation of due process laws, Disability Rights argues.

But there's an even more fundamental flaw in the law, according to Carlson: "These individuals have been acquitted." [That's the "not guilty" part of the not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity plea, an aspect that is easily overlooked since many of the people in question have, in fact, admitted to committing crimes.]

And in prison, Carlson continues, these people may not get the treatment that a judge or jury has said they need.

Of course, the public tends to be skeptical of the insanity defense, which is often seen as a way to weasel out of the punishment that a person deserves. No doubt, that's why some are angered over the delayed incarceration of a cop-killer like Zamora, and why states around the county are considering the kind of bill Washington just passed, according to Carlson. He knows of only one state so far that has a similar law: California.

This is the first legal challenge to such a law, and as such is being followed by disability advocates nationwide.

 
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