A heated debate on mental health and its link to violent crimes is underway after a murder suspect requested that his medical history be considered to mitigate punishment. He had been medically treated for depression before allegedly stabbing a man to death.
Kim Seong-su, 29, is suspected of having stabbed a man to death at an internet cafe in western Seoul on Oct. 14. On Monday, he was sent to the Institute of Forensic Psychiatry in Gongju, South Chungcheong Province, for a monthlong examination of his mental state.
As of Monday afternoon, more than 864,100 have signed an online petition asking the presidential office not to ease Kim’s punishment on grounds of his mental health, making it the most signed petition since Cheong Wa Dae opened the platform last year.
Kim Seong-su, a suspect in the murder of an internet cafe employee, answers questions from reporters as he steps out of the Yangcheon Police Station in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)
“(If the suspect gets a lighter punishment because of his history of depression), anyone can ask for antidepressants before plotting and committing a crime,” wrote a person who signed the petition.
According to authorities, Kim had asked the victim, a 21-year-old employee at the cafe, to clean his table which had dirty dishes left by another customer. The victim, surnamed Shin, cleaned the table for him, but Kim insisted the worker had been rude, and abruptly left the cafe.
According to security footage obtained by the police, Kim returned to the property with a weapon and stabbed the victim multiple times. Shin, an aspiring fashion model, was taken to a hospital where he died from the injuries.
The suspect said both his body and mind had been “unwell” and impaired before committing the crime, as he had been clinically depressed.
Many Korean criminals in the past have received mitigated sentences due to mental disorders or “impaired judgement," sparking public outrage.
The suspect of the infamous 2016 Gangnam murder case, who stabbed to death a woman he had never met before, claiming he did so because he “hated women,” received a 30-year prison sentence after it was confirmed he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2008 and was receiving psychiatric treatment for a year prior to the murder. The prosecution had asked for a life sentence.
The prosecution had also requested a life sentence for Cho Doo-soon, the man who kidnapped and raped a 12-year-old girl, causing serious injuries, in 2008. The court, however, found that the then 54-year-old was an alcoholic and drunk at the time of the crime, which severely impaired his judgment. Cho received a 12-year prison sentence and is to be released in 2022.
Article 10 of South Korea's Criminal Law states, “the act of a person who, because of mental disorder, is unable to make discriminations or control one’s will, shall not be punished.” It also states: “for the conduct of a person who, because of mental disorder, is deficient in the abilities mentioned in the preceding paragraph, the punishment shall be mitigated.”
However, some experts say that in the case of Kim, having a history of taking antidepressants is not sufficient evidence to claim that one’s judgement was severely impaired because of a mental disorder.
“There are countless people who are on antidepressants,” said Gwak Geum-ju, a psychology professor at Seoul National University. “University students take it when they are too stressed while preparing for tests and cannot sleep.”
The Korean Employed Psychiatrists Association, on the other hand, released a statement saying the current case should not be used to stigmatize those with mental conditions as potential criminals.
“The suspect has yet to go through an examination and results have not been released yet,” the association said in a statement. “It’s not ideal to frame mental illness as a cause of a crime, or a reason for mitigated punishments at this stage.”
The issue of mental health and violent crimes has also created controversies overseas.
Last year, a Canadian man who, in 2009, was found not criminally responsible for beheading and cannibalising a fellow passenger on a bus due to his mental illness, was granted an absolute discharge from all supervision, despite objections from the victim‘s mother.
Those who opposed his discharge have been claiming that there is now no legal recourse if he stops taking his medication or seeing his psychiatrist.