Public still respects court psychiatry

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The traumatic trial of confessed Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik has raised major questions over the role of forensic psychiatry in Norway’s legal system. Conflicting diagnoses of Breivik’s mental health have resulted in serious doubt over whether he can be punished for his crimes, but a new survey indicates most Norwegians still have faith in court-appointed psychiatrists.

The survey, conducted by research firm Norstat for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), showed that 62 percent of those questioned retain the same level of confidence they had in court psychiatry. Four percent reported more confidence in the system, while 27 percent said they had less confidence. The remainder were uncertain.

The survey was conducted after weeks of debate and confusion during the trial of the young man who killed 77 persons in Oslo and on the island of Utøya last summer. While one pair of court-appointed psychiatrists and several others who examined Breivik found no signs of psychosis, another pair did. That was enough to instill enough doubt among prosecutors over the state of Breivik’s mental health that they asked the court on Thursday to commit him to psychiatric care instead of to prison.

Their request is highly unpopular among many survivors of Breivik’s attacks, the families of his victims and thousands of other Norwegians who want the state to send Breivik to jail for the longest possible term. They contend he should be held accountable for his crimes and, in an unusual situation, so does Breivik himself. He continues to present himself as an anti-Islamic terrorist and wants his crimes – which he says were motivated by his right-wing political ideology –  to be taken seriously, not written off as the acts of a madman.

Some legal experts were surprised by the results of the NRK survey, given all the debate and criticism of forensic psychiatry in recent months. Calls have gone out for changes to be made in the system, to reduce the power that the court-appointed psychiatrists can wield over the fate of criminal defendants. One commentator in Oslo newspaper Aftenposten claimed on Friday that the prosecutors had given the only two psychiatrists who declared Breivik insane “the role of judges without the robes.”

The actual judges in the Breivik case, however, will make their own ruling over his ultimate fate and may disregard the prosecution’s arguments. Breivik’s defense attorneys were making their closing arguments on Friday, on the final day of his difficult 10-week trial. A verdict will be handed down later this summer.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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