A debut book examines the case of a young man imprisoned for a crime committed while in the grip of mental illness.
Henry Carmel, the son of an Aruban immigrant, is described as a hardworking, “intelligent man with a good heart.” In his late teens, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In 1996, at the age of 20, Henry was arrested and charged with cruelty to animals after killing with an ax a boarder’s large dog that Henry feared was about to attack him. In a later, separate incident, he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon after supposedly threatening a former friend with a machete. In 1997, Henry was sentenced to state prison; he “should have been taken to a mental health treatment facility or a state hospital to stay there for the time of the sentence,” the author writes. Castle (a pseudonym) meticulously chronicles Henry’s 14-year legal ordeal solely from the perspective of the Carmel family (also a pseudonym). The author’s disclaimer reports that this book is based on a true story but that “for protection, the names of characters and the time and locale of events have all been changed.” The writer seems to be someone intimately involved in the case (the father, perhaps?). He clearly has a palpable grudge against the deputy district attorney who he claims was hellbent on sending Henry to prison and keeping him there, charging that she behaved despicably. In one re-created telephone conversation she prevails upon a doctor who is to perform an autopsy on the dog to be “as harsh as possible in your report. Have no mercy.” Such stilted scenes ring false, and the author concedes they are fictitious and “intended to strongly convey the message of lack of ethics.” About the “obsessed” members of her office, he writes, “They were ignorant about mental illnesses...and none of them bothered to learn something about the illness so that they could handle relevant legal cases more fairly.” Henry’s legal nightmare is heartbreaking, but he would have been better served by a more objective and skilled author.
Despite its literary shortcomings, this volume could add to the ongoing discussion about the treatment of the mentally ill by the justice system.