Drugs and Mental Illness: A look back as Mad Maks, Maksim Gelman

Source: NY Daily News

Source: NY Daily News

By Michael Fineman, Esq.
January 31, 2015

This February marks four years since Mad Maks, Maksim Gelman, terrorized the streets of New York City. His rampage started on the streets of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, a community of immigrants mostly from the former Soviet Union, or more recently the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Gelman, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, had a history of drug use, specifically PCP, or as it is known on the street – angel dust.

Like many abusers of narcotics before him, it seems clear that his usage was – at least partly – self medication for the deep seeded and frighting mental health illness. Media accounts are sparse as to whether or not Mr. Gelman had any history of mental illness, Mr. Gelman was found fit to stand trial and the psychiatric expert that was appointed to evaluate Mr. Gelman did not believe that he would be able to asserted the so called insanity defense – the defense of Mental Disease or Defect as it is known in New York. Notwithstanding, reading the media accounts, and watching the A&E documentary reproduced below, make it quite clear that Mr. Gelman was, and is suffering from delusions. He believed that he was being followed by the DEA, a claim that was completely untrue. He believed that he was involved in additional homicides involved stabbing and hit and runs, which were quickly dismissed as fictional.

As an criminal defense attorney in New York City, I can see with greater frequency, that the criminal justice system is being used not just to prosecute and punish people who commit crimes, but also to segregate and incarcerate the mentally ill. Recently, our court system has become more responsive to the challenges of dealing with the mentally ill by introducing Mental Health Court and Drug Treatment Courts, but the case of Maksim Gelman highlight the problems with dealing with the mentally ill. Mr. Gelman had been arrested on numerous occasions before his murderous rampage, and yet he was never screened to mental health treatment.

The Defense of Mental Disease or Defect:

The New York State Penal Law defines the defense of Mental Disease or Defect in Section 40.15 as:

In any prosecution for an offense, it is an affirmative defense that when the defendant engaged in the proscribed conduct, he lacked criminal responsibility by reason of mental disease or defect. Such lack of criminal responsibility means that at the time of such conduct, as a result of mental disease or defect, he lacked substantial capacity to know or appreciate either:
1. The nature and consequences of such conduct; or
2. That such conduct was wrong.

Thus, to successfully assert the defense, the defendant has to demonstrate – through expert psychotic testimony – that he did not understand that what he was doing was wrong. The classic law school example is where the defendant has a psychotic break from reality and believes that an evil spirt is trying to harm or kill him, so he fights off the evil spirt. In reality the evil spirit was an innocent person. Under those circumstances, the situation as the defendant perceived it to be, he was not hurting an innocent person, he was fighting off an evil spirt, therefore, not criminal liable for harming the innocent person.

As is evident, the defense is available only to those individuals that are so mentally ill, that they are completely detached from reality. An individual like Gelman, who understood that he was committing a crime, and would be subject for punishment for his actions, even though his motivations were based on delusional thinking, would not be able to avail himself of the defense.

In case you where wondering, a successful use of the defense of Mental Disease or Defect does not get the accused killer a walk back to society. What it does is it guarantees a lengthy stay at a forensic psychiatric institution, likely for the rest of his life.

Since Mr. Gelman did not assert the so called insanity defense and pled guilty to all the crimes for which he was charged, he is not in a psychiatric institution. Perhaps fittingly, Mr. Gelman is serving a sentence of over 200 years in the Clinton County Correctional Center, occasionally referred to as Siberia due to its fridge location near New York’s northern border with Canada.

Below is the A&E Documentary which includes an interview with Gelman.

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