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Insanity-Based Defense Tested in High Court

Arizona argues that a schizophrenic knew right from wrong and can be jailed for murder.

April 20, 2006|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Ever since John W. Hinckley Jr. was acquitted on grounds of insanity in the 1981 shooting of President Reagan, states have made it harder for defendants to escape criminal punishment by claiming mental illness. But on Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether some states may have gone too far.

The case the justices took up involves Eric Michael Clark of Flagstaff, Ariz. In June 2000, Clark, then 17, was behaving bizarrely and suffering delusions when he drove his pickup through a neighborhood in the middle of the night, blaring music. He had been recently discharged from a mental hospital.

When a police officer responded to a complaint, Clark fatally shot him and fled.

In 1993, Arizona had tightened its insanity law, saying mental illness or "diminished capacity" was not a defense to a crime. A state judge concluded that Clark was not insane because he had fled the crime scene, indicating that he knew the slaying was wrong.

Clark was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

"A state has the right to define insanity as it sees fit," Arizona state attorney Randall M. Howe told the justices Wednesday. And under Arizona's law, "evidence of mental disease" is not a legal excuse for a crime, he said.

At issue for the Supreme Court is whether it is unconstitutional to convict defendants of intentional murder if they were delusional during the crime. Usually, prosecutors must prove that the defendant knowingly and intentionally committed the crime.

"Eric was delusional and ... he believed he was killing an alien," his attorney, David Goldberg, told the justices. Goldberg argued that because his client was paranoid and delusional, he lacked the necessary criminal intent.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg appeared to agree. "How has the state proved this was an intentional killing of a police officer? The testimony showed he did not think it was a police officer," she told the state's lawyer.

Several justices asked about space aliens. "Assume he [the defendant] thinks it's right to kill Martians" and he kills a police officer he believes is a space alien, said Justice John Paul Stevens. Can the state execute such a person? he asked.

Probably not, the state's lawyer responded, because the defendant would be judged insane. But lawyers for the state argued that Clark did not meet the state's definition of insanity.

Although both sides in the case agreed that Clark had paranoid schizophrenia, Howe said, "the heart of the [legal] test is knowing right from wrong." Since Clark fled the scene and hid the murder weapon, he knew his act was wrong, the state had argued.

After his arrest, Clark was judged not fit to stand trial. Three years later, however, he was well enough to be tried before a judge and was convicted. His parents had argued their son should be locked up in a psychiatric facility, not a prison.

If the high court were to rule that mentally disturbed people could be held accountable as criminals, it would have a broad impact. But most of the justices sounded skeptical of Clark's claim.

Most states strictly limit the insanity defense, Justice David H. Souter said, and no longer permit "diminished capacity" as an excuse. Souter said states wanted to strictly limit the notion of insanity because otherwise, criminals and their lawyers would regularly cite mental problems as an excuse.

"Is there anything unconstitutional about that?" he asked.

Goldberg said there was a long tradition in English and American law of not prosecuting those who were insane and who did not understand the nature and gravity of their crimes. At some times, the law said defendants had to be of "sound mind" and had to have "malice aforethought" before they could be convicted of first-degree murder.

For its part, the Supreme Court has not insisted that states give defendants the right to plead insanity as a defense. And U.S. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement urged the justices to maintain a hands-off approach.

Arizona "did not want to have a diminished-capacity defense," and its choice should be upheld, he said.

A ruling in the case of Clark vs. Arizona is expected by June.

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