Attacking Mental Health Won’t Make A Strong Appeal

On the first day of an appeal of a 2010 murder trial, defense counsel addressed the jury and teased portions of their case strategy, including divulging the mental health status of an eyewitness.

In 2012, Anthony Waters was convicted of first-degree murder while armed and two related gun charges for the shooting death of 51-year-old Derrick Harris in Southeast DC. Waters was sentenced to life in prison.

During opening arguments, Waters defense attorney acknowledged that an eyewitness, who alleges she saw the murder from her apartment, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a brain disorder that affects mood shifts and energy levels, and schizophrenia, a severe mental health disorder that affects the way someone thinks, feels and behaves.

Apparently, at the time of the murder, the witness wasn’t taking medication for either diagnosis, according to the defense. It is unclear why the witness was not taking medication at the time. 

While it’s not uncommon for a defense attorney to taint the reputation or “believability” of witnesses presented by the prosecution, there may be a cause of concern as to how the defense pursued this line of attack.

First, mental health is a serious issue throughout the District of Columbia and, to be frank, the nation. There are people that struggle with mental illness and don’t seek help for various reasons, including fear and being stigmatized as “less than,” according to Bipolar Burble, a blog about mental illness.

And the defense followed suit, calling the witness a “seriously flawed” person — equating her to her diagnosis, which feeds into the stereotype. It’s unclear, at this point, whether or not her diagnosis impacted her perspective on the day of the murder.

Mental health carries enough discrimination in society and legal counsel should not exploit it. 

If the defense has any intention of clearing Water’s name, especially on the appeal, they should find something substantial to back their assertion of innocence and shy away from throwing cheap shots at a witness’s mental health.

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