Appeal from the Appellate Court for the First District; heard
in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County,
the Hon. Joseph J. Schneider, Judge, presiding.
MR. JUSTICE RYAN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
Rehearing denied June 29, 1979.
For 14 years the State has been concerned with what to do with Donald Lang, an illiterate deaf mute who has virtually no ability to communicate with other people in any recognized language system. Notwithstanding this severe handicap, Lang has twice been charged with murder, and the State insists that he poses an extreme danger to society. He is admittedly unfit to stand trial and has been held to be not in need of mental treatment and not civilly committable to a mental institution. His legal history for the past 14 years illustrates the nature and complexity of the problem.
In 1965 the State charged Lang with the murder of a woman. He was found unfit to stand trial. His lawyer, who had extensive experience in defending deaf persons, realized that Lang faced indefinite civil commitment and requested that he be tried for murder. The lawyer agreed to waive Lang's constitutional right not to be tried. The request was denied, and Lang was civilly committed to the Department of Mental Health. (People v. Lang (1967), 37 Ill.2d 75.) Two years after the commitment the superintendent of the institution in which Lang was confined wrote a letter to the counsel for the Department stating that Lang was unlikely ever to become fit for trial. Sign language training had been completely ineffective. The superintendent recommended that Lang's lawyer be contacted and that Lang be criminally tried. Lang's lawyer then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, contending that Lang was being imprisoned for life even though he had never been tried for or convicted of a crime. This court, in People ex rel. Myers v. Briggs (1970), 46 Ill.2d 281, 288, held that Lang, facing indefinite commitment, "should be given an opportunity to obtain a trial to determine whether or not he is guilty as charged or should be released." The court remanded the cause for trial. The State subsequently dismissed charges against Lang because the principal witness had died. Lang was released from confinement in February 1971.
In July 1971, Lang was again arrested and charged with the murder of another woman. This second murder involved circumstances quite similar to those of the other homicide. Once again, Lang's lawyer requested that he be tried. The trial court, following the Myers rationale, proceeded with a trial, taking special precautions in an attempt to compensate for Lang's inability to communicate. A jury convicted Lang, and he was sentenced to 14 to 25 years' imprisonment. The appellate court subsequently reversed Lang's conviction, stating that though the evidence clearly established guilt, no trial procedures could effectively compensate for the handicap of a deaf mute with whom there could be no communication. The appellate court remanded the cause for a fitness hearing. People v. Lang (1975), 26 Ill. App.3d 648.
At a March 1976 fitness hearing, the trial court ruled Lang unfit and remanded him to the Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities (Department), pursuant to provisions in the Unified Code of Corrections (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 38, pars. 1005-2-1, 1005-2-2), which provide in part:
"Sec. 5-2-1. Fitness for Trial or Sentencing.
(a) For the purposes of this Section a defendant is unfit to stand trial or be sentenced if, because of a mental or physical condition, he is unable:
(1) to understand the nature and purpose of the proceedings against him; or
(2) to assist in his defense.
Sec. 5-2-2. Defendant Found Unfit Commitment and Release.
(a) If the defendant is found unfit to stand trial or be sentenced, the court shall remand the defendant to a hospital, as defined by the Mental Health Code of 1967, and shall order that a hearing be conducted in accordance with the procedures, and within the time periods, specified in such Act. The disposition of defendant pursuant to such hearing, and the admission, detention, care, treatment and discharge of any such defendant found to be in need of mental treatment, shall be determined in accordance with such Act. If the defendant is not ordered hospitalized in such hearing, the Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities shall petition the trial court to release the defendant on bail or recognizance, under such conditions as the court finds appropriate, which may include, but need not be limited to requiring the defendant to submit to or to secure treatment for his mental condition.
(b) A defendant hospitalized under this Section shall be returned to the court not more than 90 days after the court's original finding of unfitness, and each 12 months thereafter. At such re-examination the court may proceed, find, and order as in the first instance under paragraph (a) of this Section. If the court finds that defendant continues to be unfit to stand trial or be sentenced but that he no longer requires hospitalization, the defendant shall be released under paragraph (a) of this Section on ...