The main purpose of this article is to draw the reader’s attention to the horribly egregious violation of attorney Carolyn Barnes of Leander by the Williamson County legal authorities and the psychiatric institutions of Texas. In order to properly frame the issues, I want to first introduce the fiercely relevant seminal teachings of one of our world’s great philosophers of liberty.
September 8, 2012 marks the death of Thomas Szasz,who died at age 92 after a fall in his home in Manlius, New York. I lost one of my greatest teachers, and we all lost one of our greatest and most determined advocates of freedom or liberty. For over 60 years, Szasz wrote about liberty, but his bottom line lies in this one sentence from 1963:
A person should be deprived of liberty only if proved guilty of breaking the law.
An analogy derived from Szasz’ 1974 masterwork, The Manufacture of Madness, has been foundational to my own work as a so-called mental health professional:
The Inquisition is to Heresy as Psychiatry is to Mental Illness.
The idea here is that as science replaced religion as the central worldview of modern society, psychiatry replaced religion as primary agent of social control. Just as the claim to virtue for the coercive force of the inquisitors was to save souls, so psychiatrists claim to save minds for the “patient’s” own good. That an estimated 1.5 million Americans are forcibly incarcerated in psychiatric institutions every year is testament to the fervor of such “treatment.”
The flip side of such ubiquitous “involuntary commitment” is the insanity defense. The following from Szasz summarizes the dynamics of these twin pillars of psychiatric coercion:
Why do we talk about the rights of mental patients? Who threatens or abridges them? The answer is painfully obvious: relatives, physicians, psychiatrists, judges, legislators — all those responsible for the complex web of images, justifications, and policies that result in institutional psychiatry and its involuntary patients. Commitment, involuntary mental hospitalization, is, of course, the paradigm of psychiatric power. In my opinion, it is also a paradigm of the perversion of power: for if the “patient” is not a criminal, then he or she has a right to liberty; and if the patient is a criminal, then he or she ought to be restrained and punished by the criminal law, like anyone else….
Involuntary mental hospitalization and the insanity defense should be seen for what they are: symmetrical symbols of psychiatric power. In the one case, the psychiatrist “accuses” the innocent; in the other, he “excuses” the guilty. Civil commitment and the insanity defense both create and confirm the impression of psychiatric expertise, where none exists. Civil commitment and the insanity defense also foster the impression that they provide a socially beneficial solution for troubling problems of human existence, when, actually both aggravate these problems. In short, both are inimical to, and indeed incompatible with, the principles of a free society. (1982)
It is important here to add a third, related column to Szasz’ twin pillars of involuntary commitment and the insanity defense—what might be considered a mutant hybrid of the two. Of late in Texas, we are seeing that a number of our citizens are being declared incompetent to stand trial, and shuttled off to state psychiatric facilities for so-called competency restoration. In common with involuntary commitment, citizens are forcibly incarcerated without a trial, without any conviction of law-breaking. In common with the insanity defense, they are presumed incompetent and incapable of understanding, and locked up indefinitely without trial.
Some of Carolyn’s many friends and supporters have created a blog that lays out enough of her case to give the interested reader more than I will present in this short article (http://freecarolynbarnes.blogspot.com). A very brief background is that Ms. Barnes has been a liberty-loving activist attorney in Williamson County for many years; for those of you familiar with Williamson County, you know it is notoriously authoritarian and oppressive of liberty. In May of 2010, Carolyn was arrested and charged with assault for allegedly firing a gun at a census worker. The case is full of holes, not the least of which is that an eyewitness has her elsewhere than on the property where the alleged incident took place. The bigger issue, though, is that the guilt or innocence of Carolyn Barnes is irrelevant. From the very beginning in June of 2010, she has been denied her right to an examining trial and speedy jury trial, and eventually denied her right to an attorney of her choosing or to represent herself. The legal complications of the case are complex, but things really broke down at a scheduled jury trial on February 28, 2011, when Carolyn requested a continuance in order to secure the exculpatory evidence the State was refusing to produce, and the visiting judge said that he would grant the continuance for four months only if she accepted a court-appointed attorney. The visiting judge then summarily revoked her bond without warning, and put her back in jail with no bond, where she was kept in solitary confinement for over three months, until being summarily declared incompetent to stand trial and sent to the Maximum Security Unit at the North Texas State Hospital for the criminally insane. There she was repeatedly beat up by another inmate, and after the better part of a year there, was transferred to Kerrville State Hospital, where she is safe from brutalization, but continues to be locked up without recourse to justice.
Finally, after 15 months in state psychiatric prisons (euphemistically called hospitals), Carolyn got word that she would finally have a “competency hearing.” Less than two weeks prior to Szasz’ death, on August 28, 2012, I sat in a Williamson County courthouse for that hearing on Carolyn Barnes, and witnessed one of the greatest travesties of justice and affronts to liberty I have ever seen. First of all, it was supposed to be a jury trial, and her right to that had already been abolished by an agreement between the prosecutor, judge and Carolyn’s court-appointed “defense” attorney. Her right to the attorney of her choice, or to represent herself, was of course also disregarded as the judge had ordered the same attorney originally chosen for her prior to the February 2011 aborted trial. This was the same man who had betrayed Carolyn then by advocating for the declaration of incompetence because she rejected his insistence that she plea bargain. This court-appointed attorney does not try cases, but only plea bargains. Carolyn wants her day in court as she adamantly maintains that she is not guilty.
The judge ignored her very calm and considered pleas and objections, treating her mostly as a non-entity. (Labeling someone as mentally ill is the most effective way to create a non-citizen with no rights of autonomy and self-determination, and no legal rights, and no worthiness of respect for his or her own ideas and wishes). Carolyn’s Kerrville psychiatrist refused to comment on her competence, but said she did need continued treatment as she was now suffering from a major depressive disorder. This psychiatrist also testified that Carolyn was not a danger to anyone. The prosecutors never presented any testimony that Carolyn was incompetent to stand trial, which was the sole purpose of the hearing.
Carolyn did manage to get me on the stand and I explained that my continued interaction with Carolyn for the last two years was consistent with the evaluation I wrote way back in June 2010—which the court had never allowed into testimony. I initially evaluated Carolyn in person. During her incarceration, I have kept regular phone contact and correspondence. All of this contact constitutes many hours, and every time, she has been clear and articulate. At the hearing, I declared that Carolyn was very intelligent, clear, articulate, with deep understanding of her own case and of the law in general; in short, she was, and is exceedingly competent.
What’s going on? Carolyn, and many of her activist friends and former clients, explain that Carolyn has been a thorn in the side of the Williamson County powers for some time, and are sure that this is a way to put her out of commission. Certainly, Carolyn’s case is a clear example of psychiatric coercion, of control exerted by accusations of madness in order to evade legal justice. Fundamental rights to a fair and speedy trial, to the lawyer of your choice, and countless other constitutional guarantees have been repeatedly and systematically trampled as Carolyn has been locked up these past 19 months
Carolyn’s friends showed up as court watchers—as did her son, Austin, who has been deprived of his mother’s presence these two years—and are planning ethics complaints to the state bar against the judge, and both prosecutors and defense attorney. The ethical violations are massive. Judge Doug Shaver, and attorneys Alan Schreiber and Robert McCabe violated Carolyn’s constitutional rights to a jury trial and to the lawyer of her choice, forcing her to have a court-appointed “defense” attorney who was clearly incompetent and hostile to Carolyn’s interests, and who had a proven record of betraying his supposed client throughout this legal and human rights nightmare for Carolyn Barnes.He also treated her with disrespect, and ultimately trampled on justice by sending her back to Kerrville and continuing the avoidance of her right to a trial by jury on the facts of her case. The prosecutor, Robert McCabe systematically tried to inhibit Carolyn’s ability to present her case, and most importantly used the issue of competency to avoid his mandate to enforce the laws of Williamson County by taking the case to a fair and impartial jury, so that justice may be served. The supposed defense attorney, Alan Schreiber, was the most obviously shameful. The only possible ethical action that this man could have taken would have been to resign his position when his client was so clearly refusing his services. Instead he chose a path of evil, from my perspective. Not only had he not even spoken to Carolyn before the hearing, when she did manage to get herself on the stand, he did everything he could to paint her as a paranoid conspiracy theorist in order to presumably demonstrate her madness. In the end, he talked about her being “unreasonable”—one of the vague legal standards of competency—and argued that she did need to return to Kerrville! These egregious offenses are only the tip of the iceberg of the legal and constitutional violations in this one-day hearing, much less the two-year-plus ordeal of the Williamson County’s assault on the liberty, reputation, and dignity of Carolyn Barnes. An Austin American-Statesman reporter was there, and it remains to be seen whether press will come of that. I hope so.
I was in awe of Carolyn Barnes’ ability to remain calm and alert throughout the travesty of this hearing, when she had every reason to rant and rave or to break down in sorrow. She was on point, respectfully and clearly speaking up to make disregarded objections and requests. Carolyn, of course, wanted to have her competency restored as a necessary step toward reclaiming her freedom. Her priority, though, was not to be the meek and agreeable patient who might gain her release, but to get certain things on the record to support the federal appeal that she has already initiated. So she chose to make clear and strong her thoughts about the case, and especially her views on the criminality of Alan Schreiber. Despite the huge disappointment of the judge’s decision, Carolyn was happy about accomplishing her objectives of getting into testimony her views of the case, her expert testimony, and the judge’s refusal to grant her a jury trial, the denial of her right to the attorney of her choice, and the suppression of her right to an independent evaluation. The courageous Ms. Barnes has also initiated a federal lawsuit against many of those who are persecuting her.
A reoporter with the Austin American Statesman has been following Ms. Barnes’ case. On October 20, 2012, Eric Dexheimer reported the facts of an egregious escalation of forces against Carolyn as the state started to bill her huge sums for her “treatment.” Here is the beginning of his article:
Carolyn Barnes received her latest hospital bill on Oct. 3.
“Dear Ms. Barnes,” it said. “You owe the Kerrville State Hospital $97,728 as reimbursement for the support, maintenance and treatment it provided to you for dates of service March 20, 2012 through September 30, 2012.” If the bill was not paid or successfully challenged, the letter continued, the hospital would file a lien against Barnes’ property. (http://www.statesman.com/news/news/state- regional/state-bills-some-court-detained-mental-patients-fo/nShyD/)
On December 2, 2012, Dexheimer reported that the state now wants to go after Carolyn’s law license, arguing that since she is “incompetent” to stand trial, she should also not be allowed to be a lawyer. A tragically significant irony is that the catalyst for this action was an appeal attorney Barnes filed from Kerrville State Hospital on behalf of a Williamson County client of hers, asking for the restoration of his liberty. (http://www.statesman.com/news/news/crime-law/can-attorney-committed-to-state-psychiatric-hospit/nTLPZ/)
I am of the firm conviction that Carolyn Barnes is a political prisoner, and that psychiatry provides the justification and claims to virtue masking this terrible oppression. In any event, the now infamous false murder conviction of Michael Morton has shaken things up in Williamson County, and derailed the political careers of former District Attorneys Ken Anderson, and John Bradley, who was in charge through the key stages of Carolyn’s ordeal. (http://www.statesman.com/news/news/opinion/bradleys-loss-a-signal-to-prosecutors-1/nRn9d/) Williamson County activists think, and I agree, that the case of Carolyn Barnes could be the sequel that further rocks the Williamson County waters and erodes the corrupt foundations of their authoritarian system of injustice. I hope more people will become involved in drawing attention to the tragic persecution of the wonderful attorney, citizen, freedom fighter and defender of liberty, Carolyn Barnes.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.