Today's Los Angeles Times publishes the editorial, "Defending the insanity defense."
The Supreme Court refused this week to review the murder conviction of an Idaho man who was prevented by state law from offering an insanity defense. The court's abdication of its responsibility encourages other states to dismantle a central principle of Anglo-American law: that a defendant should not be held criminally responsible when mental illness makes it impossible for him to tell right from wrong.
Contrary to what viewers of television courtroom dramas may believe, a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity is seldom asserted and usually unsuccessful. But there are cases — probably more than the judicial system recognizes — in which it is clear from medical evidence that a defendant is not responsible for his actions.
The principle that such people may not be held criminally responsible was articulated in the famous M'Naghten Rule announced by the British House of Lords in an 1843 murder case: A defendant is insane if at the time of the crime he either didn't know that what he was doing was wrong or was unable to understand the nature and quality of his act. Half the states, including California, employ a form of M'Naghten. In all, 46 states employ some version of the insanity defense, though some also provide for the (logically self-contradictory) verdict of guilty but mentally ill.
"Crazy Making: The Supreme Court is wrong to let Idaho have no insanity defense," is Emily Bazelon's commentary at Slate.
Earlier this month, Jared Loughner was sentenced to life in prison at a sober proceeding in which survivors of his terrible shooting spree in Arizona, and their families, recognized the role his schizophrenia played in his crimes. They talked about their understandable hurt and anger, and they also recognized that Loughner didn’t get the mental health care he needed. (Mark Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, whom Loughner shot in the head, usefully highlighted the expiration a decade ago of the federal law that banned the sale of the rapid-fire ammunition clips Loughner used.)
It took months of medication and treatment for Loughner to understand the charges against him. That comes as no surprise, given the disturbed-looking photos of him after the crime. And the country got a similar view of violence and untreated mental illness in James Holmes, the 24-year-old who shot up a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in July. Both Loughner and Holmes spiraled out of control while enrolled at a university yet fell through the holes of the health care net that should have caught them. This is a story we’ve been hearing since at least the 2007 mass killing by a student at Virginia Tech.
The mental illness of criminal defendants, however, is not of current interest to the Supreme Court. This week, the justices turned down a case challenging Idaho’s complete lack of an insanity defense. In Idaho, “mental condition” is not a defense to any charge of criminal conduct. In the case the Supreme Court won’t hear, John Joseph Delling, a paranoid schizophrenic, shot and killed two of his friends and wounded a third while seized by the delusion that he was a “type of Jesus” and that his friends were “taking his energy” in a way that would kill him. A psychologist testified that he truly—and delusionally and tragically—believed he had to stop his friends to save his own life.
"Supreme Court declines to review insanity defense appeal," is the November 26 Reuters post, via the Chicago Tribune. It's by Jonathan Stempel.A divided U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear an appeal over whether criminal defendants have a constitutional right to assert an insanity defense, leaving in place a paranoid schizophrenic's guilty plea over two murders.
With three of its nine justices dissenting, the court without explanation declined to take up the case of John Joseph Delling, who had been sentenced to life in prison in Idaho over the 2007 shooting deaths of David Boss, a childhood friend, and Brad Morse, whom he had met playing online video games.
Three justices - Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor - would have considered Delling's appeal.
"The law has long recognized that criminal punishment is not appropriate for those who, by reason of insanity, cannot tell right from wrong," Breyer wrote for the dissenting justices.
He said Idaho's standard "permits the conviction of an individual who knew what he was doing, but had no capacity to understand that it was wrong."
Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada and Utah have since 1979 passed laws abolishing the insanity defense, though Nevada's supreme court later revived the defense in that state.
"Justices decline to consider whether Constitution requires insanity defense," is by Robert Barnes for the Washington Post.
All states and the federal government once allowed the insanity defense. But that changed with the public outrage over John W. Hinckley Jr.’s acquittal for reasons of insanity in his assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Many states and the federal government reacted by shifting the burden of proving insanity to the defense. But four states — Idaho, Kansas, Utah and Montana — do not allow the defense. Without it, Delling pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
Delling’s lawyer, Stanford law professor Jeffrey L. Fisher, told the court that the “moral integrity of the criminal law has depended, in part, on the insanity defense.”
Punishment is traditionally justified on the basis of an individual consciously choosing evil over good, Fisher wrote. “Laws such as Idaho’s abandon that basic tenet,” he said.
Fisher contends that Idaho’s law violates the Constitution’s guarantee of due process of law, as well as the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
While the Supreme Court has approved states that limited the use of the insanity plea, it has never taken up the question of whether there is a constitutional right to the defense.
Related posts are in the mental illness and the not guilty by reason of insanity category indexes.