My client is Beezow Doo-doo Zopittybop-bop-bop; you might have heard of him. If so, it's not because his case involves severe allegations or sympathetic victims. No, it's because on January 6, 2012, the Internet exploded in delight when a guy whose name would make Bill Cosby swoon was picked up on drug charges; imitation Beezows flourished on Facebook, #FreeBeezow trended on Twitter and Reddit rejoiced.
After all, if there's anything the Internet loves more than cats, it's when somebody lives down to expectations ("Kim Kardashian got divorced? Say it ain't so!"). Offered an amusing way to tie drugs to erratic behavior, the blogosphere had a field day. The narrative was convenient, familiar, comforting. It was also dead wrong.
Although none of you had seen Beezow's name before then, I had. It belonged to a man who had been found incompetent to stand trial, institutionalized and forcibly medicated before finally pleading no contest to two misdemeanors; I'd been assigned his case on appeal. His name had been Jeffrey Drew Wilschke, but you know him as Beezow. He'd recently missed an appointment we'd set up. When I saw his mugshot on Reddit two days later, I learned why.
Beezow has had a rough journey to Internet notoriety. And although he is certainly not typical, the story of how his case moved through the system is. For defendants with mental-health issues, the difficulties start on day one.
It's extremely important, as a defendant, to develop a relationship with your attorney. Conversely, good attorneys take the time to understand what individual clients need. When cases call for compromise, the right solution for one client may be entirely inappropriate for another. So I make a point of getting to know all my clients, even the challenging ones.
But what if a client can't or won't make that kind of connection? Not only is it impossible to determine their ideal result, it may be impossible to proceed at all. This can lead to a "competency hearing," where a judge will rule whether a defendant can (1) understand the proceedings and (2) aid in his own defense. If not, they may not stand trial, plead guilty or waive their right to an attorney.
Courts can also determine, however, that an incompetent defendant could be "medicated into competency" and order involuntary treatment, often over a defendant's strident objections. This is what happened to Beezow. It is an explosively controversial issue, and there isn't enough room here to do it justice. Generally speaking, though, supporters of involuntary treatment believe that because mental disorders distort the lens through which the world appears, those they afflict may not be able to clearly evaluate their own interests.
The underlying question is simple: at what point does a citizen lose the right to not be forcibly medicated? For those inmates who present a physical threat, such violations of liberty may be necessary. But what about those who threaten only the system's smooth operation, and perhaps their own freedom? That's a trickier discussion.
As for those in the system suffering from less conspicuous mental disorders, their situation barely registers. Even when defendants have documented histories of mental illness, courts commonly mandate treatment of the disorder's symptoms -- alcoholism, drug abuse, violence -- without mentioning therapy or medication. To ignore the root cause of a defendant's behavior and then be somehow shocked when he violates his probation is absurd. It's like asking a man with a broken leg to run a race, but only providing him morphine to dull the pain. Once any pressure is applied, morphine or no, his fracture simply cannot bear the weight.
Then again, this viewpoint will prevail as long as society continues to treat mental disorders as less real than physical ones -- nobody would tell an asthmatic to try breathing harder, or expect a diabetic to manufacture insulin with a smile. And yet those with depression, or mania, or ADHD? They just need to cheer up, or settle down or focus.
That's the insidious thing about mental illness, and why the convenient ironies of Beezow's situation garnered such a reaction: as much as we'd like to believe in empathy, most people simply don't care much about plights outside their individual experience.
Let's be honest, though: if we as individuals aren't particularly empathetic, it isn't a huge deal. We make some ignorant comments, hurt a few people's feelings, miss an opportunity or three to make the world a better place. Little things like that. But an indifferent criminal-justice system is a much larger problem. That's why the actors who constitute that system, including myself, must attend to each defendant's individuality, even when it takes an unfamiliar form. Perhaps especially then.
So, what's in a name? When that name is Beezow Doo-doo Zopittybop-bop-bop, quite a bit. There's amusement, for sure, along with confusion. Maybe a hint of vertigo, if you spend too long reading it. But there's also a burgeoning awareness that something else might be going on. Not to say we shouldn't laugh at the infinite range of absurdity life presents -- we're only human, after all. But at the same time, as we smirk and judge and dismiss, we must strive to remember one simple fact: the most important part of any name is that there's a human being behind it.
Oh, and by the way: Beezow says hello.