Mentally Ill Defendant Blamed For Not Taking Medication Before Tragedy – Even Though That Was His Right.

Nick Maher at sentencing hearing.

Nick Maher at sentencing hearing.

(9-22-22) Should someone with a severe mental illness be blamed for “choosing” to be ill if they refuse treatment and later become violent?

A prosecutor in Genesee County, New York, argued earlier this month that Nicholas Maher, age 38, deserved a maximum prison sentence because he’d refused to take medication and seek treatment prior to him fatally stabbing his 69 year-old father, Martin Maher, last year.

“Nick Maher is a college-educated person,” District Attorney Kevin Finnell told a judge. “He’s smart enough to know that he needs to get mental health treatment and that he needs to take his medication, even if it doesn’t make him feel real good. But he chose not to do that.” Finnell said Maher was clearly responsible for his father’s death, even though the prosecution and defense agreed that Maher was legally insane when he attacked his father.

Maher had no prior criminal history, but he had a long history of mental illness, his defense attorney, Public Defender Jerry Ader told the court. “I sincerely believe that our community, our country, has a difficult time dealing with mental illness, especially when it comes to mental illness in the criminal justice system.” Ader questioned whether Maher had enough insight to “choose to be ill.”

“Some (said) he chose to do these things, and that he could have done something else. And I’m just not quite sure that’s true. And I don’t think anyone can know for sure if that’s true. It’s easy to say because we don’t understand mental illness. But in my experience, when someone is placed in a psychiatric hospital, it could take years in order to get a patient, an inmate, to understand, to have the insight as to their illness, why they need help and why they need medication.”

Does Someone With A Mental Illness Lack Insight?

Years ago, I was speaking to a meeting of judges and one of them asked me a question similar to the argument that District Attorney Finnell made about Nicholas Maher. The judge said that the court did not forgive an alcoholic if he relapsed, became intoxicated, drove drunk and killed someone. So why should the court forgive an individual with a mental illness if he refuses or stops taking medication and ends up killing someone?

I explained that an individual with a serious mental illness often lacks insight and doesn’t recognize he is ill and needs treatment. The judge who asked that question didn’t agree.

The Maher case is interesting for many reasons.

Everyone agreed that at the time of the murder Maher was so severely ill that jurors might have preferred seeing him committed to a state mental hospital rather than prison if the case went to trial. D.A. Finnel was so concerned that he agreed to offer Maher a plea bargain. In return for his guilty plea, the prosecutor charged Maher with a lesser crime – manslaughter, which carried a range of 20-years to 25-years in prison. The D.A. asked Judge Michael Mohun to impose the max.

Public Defender Ader sought 20-years for his client and pointed out that getting someone with a mental disorder help before they turn violent often is problematic. He referenced involuntary commitment laws that require someone to pose a danger to themselves or others before they can be required to accept treatment.

In this case, waiting for Maher to cross the dangerous threshold cost the life of his father.

If the law says that no one can intervene and force treatment until someone becomes dangerous, can the law then penalize someone who refused to take medication, which was his right?

Terrible Impact On Family

Rarely do mental health organizations talk about how family members bear the brunt of violence by someone who is seriously ill and refusing treatment.

At the sentencing, Maher’s brothers and sisters asked the judge to prevent Maher from contacting them while in prison and for a decade after his release.  His siblings, Megan and Matt, told the judge how much their father’s death hurt them.

According to an account of the hearing published in The Batavian, written by Reporter Howard B. Owens, Megan said her father put his son first over his own happiness, putting off his own retirement to care for his son, yet her brother refused treatment and accused anybody who tried to help him of trying to harm him.

“I think you simply made him the bad guy because he was there for you,” she told her brother during the hearing. “What if mom hadn’t passed a few years earlier? Would she have been caught up in your alternate reality and have been the bad guy, too? What if I spent more time around the house? Would I have been in the crossfire? I don’t know. But these things have crossed my mind this year….You took a dad away from your siblings, and a grandpa away from his grandchildren. Life has been hard enough after mom passed but not having my dad has been even more difficult that I think you’ll ever be able to comprehend.”

Her brother, Matt, told the court, “My dad loved my brother and it broke his hear that his love was no reciprocated, but that there was anger and blame towards him.”

D. A. Finnell said that Maher, who lived with his dad, had attacked his father because the elder Maher argued with him about his delusions. “Nick believe that his father was responsible for poisoning the air,” Finnell said. “He said he grabbed a knife to scare him but his father was flippant and arrogant and denied involvement in poisoning the air.” Finnell said Maher had murdered the only person in the world who was trying to help him and loved him.

The Family Lost Two Members: Father And Son

In the end, Judge Mohun split the difference, sentencing Maher to 23 -years in prison.

The judge did not comment on Maher’s mental illness, but addressed the family. “I don’t want you to dwell on Oct. 18 of 2021. The day your dad died. What I want you to think of are the days he lived. He almost lived until his 70th birthday which would have been in July of this year. Think of all those things that you had with your dad and that you celebrated together and that he was there to give you guidance and support. And think of the man who put his life on hold during his retirement years to take care of your brother.”

The judge added, “Your brother had admitted, he’s acknowledged, he has pled guilty to manslaughter in the first degree. what he has done by this act, you’ve lost two family members. On October 18, you lost your father and you lost your brother. That is a devastating event which will resonate thought generations  of Maher family celebrations on birthdays and holidays. But don’t let this crime define the family. Remember your dad as he would want to be remembered, as a good dad, as a dad who stepped up and took care of your sick brother. Your father’s devolution to duty was extraordinary.”

24 Minute Video Should Be Shown To Graduating Legal Students

Whenever I speak to graduate students about to become lawyers about the folly of the dangerous commitment criteria, I ask for a show of hands. The majority disagree with my argument and insist that as long as someone is not dangerous, they should be left alone even if they are seriously mentally ill.

I’ve noticed, however, there are always a few students who don’t agree. They side with me that waiting for someone to become dangerous before intervening is a recipe for tragedy. (There are other ways to protect someone’s civil rights without waiting for them to become dangerous. Some never do and spend their lives homeless and psychotic haunted by their own minds and improvised.)

When I have spoken to these students, I’ve discovered that it wasn’t my words that moved them. It was because they had a family member with a severe mental illness. They lived it.

The video of the Maher case should be required viewing in our law schools because it shows what is happening across our country today and the tragedies that happen because of a mental health system that only reacts when someone has hit rock bottom. All too often, there is no help, only punishment.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.