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The laws of madness

April 28, 2006

MAD OR BAD? IN OVERSIMPLIFIED TERMS, that's the question when a criminal defendant asserts an insanity defense -- which is less often than viewers of "Law & Order" might imagine but too frequent for some state legislators. Last week, Arizona asked the U.S. Supreme Court to allow it to gut a definition of legal insanity that has been on the books since 1843. The court should refuse.

Eric Michael Clark, a paranoid schizophrenic who had been recently discharged from a mental institution, was 17 when he shot a policeman after the officer stopped the pickup truck Clark was driving with the radio blaring. A judge convicted the teenager of the crime of "intentionally or knowingly" killing a law enforcement officer even though Clark said he thought the officer was a space alien.

Under Arizona law, Clark wasn't allowed to cite that delusion as proof that he lacked the required state of mind to commit the crime. The judge also ruled that Clark was ineligible to be found "guilty except insane," a verdict that would have permitted him to be sent to a mental institution rather than prison.

In a sense, Clark was paying not only for his own actions but also for those of John W. Hinckley Jr., who shot President Reagan in 1981 under the delusion that an assassination would be the way to a movie actress' heart. Despite the outcry over his acquittal, Hinckley did not go free. He has spent almost a quarter of a century in a mental hospital, only recently being allowed to make visits to his parents' home.

In 1993, Arizona joined the list of states that tightened their insanity laws after the Hinckley acquittal. But it went to extremes. In providing for a verdict of "guilty except insane," it removed one prong of a two-part definition of legal insanity promulgated by the British House of Lords in 1843 and incorporated in the laws of most of the United States.

Named for a delusional man who attacked an aide to the British prime minister, the M'Naghten rule allows for a defense of insanity when a defendant, because of a mental disease, either does not know the "nature and quality" of his actions or does not realize that those actions are wrong. The Arizona amendment deleted the reference to the "nature and quality" of the act, an omission that apparently spelled the difference between prison and a mental institution for Clark. Even if Clark thought he was shooting a space alien, the prosecution argued, he was not insane because he knew that killing a space alien was wrong. Why else would he flee the scene and hide the murder weapon?

Anglo-American law long has required that defendants be of sound mind before they are held criminally responsible. The Supreme Court should reaffirm that principle in Clark's case and require states to enforce the M'Naghten rule in its entirety.

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