Monday, November 26, 2012

The insanity defense

If you are my age or older, you most likely remember where you were when President Reagan was shot. I was in 2nd grade, Mrs. Teegarden's class, and I recall the teachers all being hushed and serious while all three 2nd grade classes were brought together and allowed to watch movies (The Lorax, as I recall) instead of having our normal math and reading lessons. I remember learning a little about that one guy who got hurt the worst (though I couldn't have told you his name was James Brady or predicted how famous his wife would become in the gun control movement). I also remember wondering who Jodie Foster was and why this crazy guy thought that shooting the President would somehow win her over. But as with the effect on the gun control debate, I had no idea how significant this shooting and the sad case of John Hinckley, Jr. would be in the discussion of how to treat those mentally ill individuals who cause harm to others.

Hinckley was not convicted of crimes in the 1981 shooting, but was found not guilty by reason of insanity. To this day, he remains committed to a psychiatric facility, though he does now earn the occasional day or weekend pass. To me, this seems an entirely acceptable resolution to the sad, strange attempted assassination committed by a delusional man with serious mental health issues. But to a lot of people, the result was an insult. After that verdict, legislatures around the country started thinking about ways to change the law so that people couldn't "get off" on insanity pleas.

The ripple effects of the Hinckley case are still being felt today. Literally today, as the United States Supreme Court today ruled on a petition for cert out of Idaho. In the debate about what, if anything, to change in response to the Hinckley outcry, a couple of states went so far as to abandon the insanity defense entirely, including Idaho. My state, Kansas, is one of the others to have completely abandoned the old, standard insanity defense, though Kansas is less severe than Idaho. In Kansas, a defendant can argue that she suffered from a mental disease or defect that prevented her from forming the requisite criminal intent. It's something. It basically means that to be found not guilty of stabbing a person to death, the defendant has to think she was cutting cabbage, but it's more than Idaho offers. Under Idaho law, "a defendant's mental condition "shall not be a defense to any charge of criminal conduct." John Delling, who suffers from acute paranoid schizophrenia, asked the US Supreme Court to consider whether Idaho's lack of an insanity defense is unconstitutional. On appeal from his conviction for two counts of murder, Delling argued that due process entitled him to present an insanity defense. Today, SCOTUS denied that cert petition. (Three justices did dissent from that denial, though.)

I can't say I'm surprised or even that disappointed. I don't think we'd get a good ruling on this issue from the current court. I'm just overall disheartened that this is even an issue. I'm tired of having to fight the wrong-headed view that "mental illness is no excuse." I'm frustrated with the way we have criminalized mental illness in this country. Mental illness actually is an excuse and insanity should always be a defense. Anyone who says otherwise can't have much experience with someone suffering profound mental illness. They can't have met someone who just can't stop the voices or who sees squirrels in the bathroom or who sees people climbing out of walls. They can't have known someone who cannot distinguish between what is real and what is not.

We would never say someone with bronchitis should just control the coughing. We would not think it was that person's fault if he couldn't. No, we'd be smart enough to get that even with cough syrup, someone with bronchitis is gonna cough. (I happen to know a little about this. And, man, when my body wants to cough, there isn't anything in this world I can do to stop it.) But somehow, when the disease is in the brain, all of a sudden, people insist that the sick person really ought to know better, ought to be able to control the disease, ought to be treated like a criminal if she can't. It's so illogical, it makes my head spin.

The Hinckley court got it absolutely right. The state of Idaho has got it absolutely dead wrong. I wish I could come up with the magic explanation, the right sequence of words that would make the anti-insanity defense folks get it. But since the tide doesn't seem to be turning back toward compassion for those with mental illnesses and the public still seems inclined to believe mental illness is no excuse for criminal behavior, I guess for tonight I'll look on the bright side: at least with this cert denial, we won't get really bad law from the current Supreme Court.


Jay, Jamie, Jack, Banks & Larkin Perry said...

Well said. I agree that the current make-up of the Court would almost assuredly affirm the Idaho law; however, it is still unfortunate - as you said - that it is an issue at all.

A Voice of Sanity said...

You can make a case that insanity, if determined, should
1) Lead to a different way of proceeding during prosecution in that the defendant cannot assist in his own defense and that the defense must be allowed wider latitude
2) Lead to a different form of confinement on conviction in that punishment should form no part of sentencing but any confinement should be imposed solely because he may do harm to himself or others.

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