A Psychiatric Patient Confesses to Murder: Now What?

Randy Dotinga

May 23, 2022

NEW ORLEANS – The patient, a 60-year-old woman who'd just tried to kill herself by overdosing on gabapentin, felt the need to make a confession. As she told a resident psychiatrist late one night at a Philadelphia crisis response center, she'd just murdered two people and buried them in her backyard. More details kept coming, including who was dead and where their bodies were.

Dr Meghan Musselman

It didn't take long for the attending physician's phone to ring as the resident sought guidance. This wasn't a typical "duty to warn" case since there was no one to warn of a threat of violence. But then what kind of case was it? As Meghan Musselman, MD, and colleagues noted in a report presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, the law and medical ethics didn't present a clear-cut solution to whether the patient's claim should be reported to the authorities.

"This was much more of a gray zone case than we typically see," said Musselman, of the department of psychiatry at Temple University in Philadelphia, in an interview. "If someone is threatening to harm someone, most states have statutes about what to do in that situation. The same doesn't really exist for when the crime has already happened."

Even so, might the existing "duty to warn/protect" laws be helpful as a guide to what to do? Maybe, but it's complicated. The laws, which address the waiving of therapist-patient confidentiality when violence is threatened, are widely variable. Some don't specifically cover psychiatrists, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some simply allow – but don't require – certain mental-health professionals to take action regarding threats of violence without getting in trouble themselves.

There are no duty to warn/protect laws in Nevada, North Dakota, North Carolina, and Maine. Pennsylvania requires "mental-health professionals" to act when there's a "clear and immediate danger to others or to society."

Dr Paul Appelbaum

In an interview, Columbia University, New York, psychiatrist and medical law/ethics specialist Paul S. Appelbaum, MD, said that "with the exception of situations like child abuse or elder abuse, for which psychiatrists are mandatory reporters, psychiatrists generally have the same responsibilities for reporting crimes as other citizens."

He added that there is a crime in English common law known as "misprision" that refers to failing to report a felony. "A few states still have misprision statutes, but courts have tended to interpret them to require an affirmative act to conceal a crime, not just failure to report," he said. "Unless the patient's confession indicates a continuing threat to other people – e.g., a serial rapist or murderer – there is probably no obligation to report a previous crime."

In this case, Musselman said, the physicians thought they might be able to waive confidentiality because it was possible that the alleged murder victims were still alive and in need of help.

However, the patient ultimately took the decision out of the hands of the psychiatrists and agreed to confess to the police. There's a happy ending: The patient later recanted the story, Musselman said, and there was no follow-up by the authorities.

What should psychiatrists do in a similar situation? Besides the law, Musselman said, it's important to consider medical ethics, confidentiality, and the greater good. "Doctors may have to ask themselves: Would I rather be sued because I'm breaking confidentiality or potentially play a part in someone's suffering?"

She recommended reaching out to attorneys for legal guidance. "There's a saying in forensic psychiatry by [Harvard University psychiatrist] Thomas Gutheil: Never worry alone."

Applebaum agreed, and added: "Psychiatrists should consider the credibility of the patient's confession: Could it represent a delusion? Is it being proffered as a way of manipulating the therapist? What is the extent to which, if valid, it indicates an ongoing threat to others? Is the patient is willing to contact the police and admit to the crime or authorize the psychiatrist to do so? Only in the case of a credible confession, an ongoing threat, and a patient unwilling to contact the police themselves should the psychiatrist seriously consider breaching confidentiality to report."

No study funding or disclosures were reported.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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