We all know the way it works. Some crazy nut job goes out and whacks some innocent person for no apparent reason.
Not really. Not in real life.
In reality, mental illness is a very difficult concept to explain to jurors. Most people have trouble understanding how it is that crazy people can get away with murder. Literally. But, like everything else in criminal law, it’s complicated.
Take the case of Lacy Spears, a young mother accused of killing her son by feeding him toxic amounts of salt (of all things) through a feeding tube. She allegedly did this while he was hospitalized for a chronic illness that it seems Ms. Spears induced. The details about exactly what she did are unclear.
What is clear is that there is something wrong with Ms. Spears. I say that not only because it looks like she forced salt down her baby’s throat to kill him and then calmly stood by and watched him suffer; I also say that because she tirelessly publicized his plight on social media.
She blogged and tweeted away even as he went through ongoing pain and suffering and intense illness to the point of requiring hospitalization. I mean who does that? Maybe people with mental health issues.
Therein lies the question: should someone who is somehow not able to control their actions be able to escape punishment? Should that be an excuse?
What about a vet from Afghanistan who saw his best three friends blown into a pink mist in front of his eyes, then comes home and has a flashback and suddenly finds himself pinning down his brother with a knife in his hand? Not knowing where he is or how he got there?
What about someone who stands on street corners arguing loudly with invisible people using nonsensical words who walks into Safeway and forgets to pay for his Orange Crush?
You see, it gets complicated. But a mother who salts her beautiful baby boy to death? Something must be wrong with her. The question is what is it?
In this case it is called Munchausen by Proxy.
It is a disease of the mind that makes otherwise seemingly loving, caring people secretly harm those they are supposed to be caring for. Typically it is seen as a bizarre way to get attention.
In Ms. Spears’ case she was saturating social media with tales of her sick child, basking in the supportive feedback that generated… while secretly making her child sick in order to keep the attention coming.
That has to be crazy.
Closing arguments begin today so we should know by later today or tomorrow what the jury thinks. Unfortunately it seems the defense did not call any expert witnesses to support a theory of insanity so the jury may have no reasonable alternative other than to convict.
What about the American Sniper case?
This is a classic case where the Defendant, Eddie Ray Routh, was clearly mentally ill, with extensive prior hospitalizations for schizophrenia and related mental disorders. In fact this crime apparently happened because the victims, Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield, were taking Routh out to a shooting range in a tragic attempt to help him with his PTSD.
Littlefield went along because he was concerned for his friend, Kyle, because Routh was acting so crazy. The two were even texting about how crazy Routh was in the vehicle as they drove to the range.
Their silence as they drove and texted to each other about Routh so enraged him that he killed them both in cold blood.
However, the jury found that he did not meet the legal definition required in order to be found not guilty by reason of insanity. You see, it is not an easy thing to prove. At trial the Texas court applied the M’Naughten rule, which requires the jury to find that the defendant was not able to tell “right from wrong”.
In this case, insanity would have been due to PTSD. Both Routh and Kyle were combat veterans and Routh had ongoing issues with PTSD.
There has been much talk regarding the high standard applied in Texas, known as the M’Naughten rule. The same standard is used in Washington. The defense is described by the pattern jury instructions used in our state (WPIC 20.01):
“Insanity existing at the time of the commission of the act charged is a defense. For a defendant to be found not guilty by reason of insanity you must find that, as a result of mental disease or defect, the defendant’s mind was affected to such an extent that the defendant was unable to perceive the nature and quality of the acts with which the defendant is charged or was unable to tell right from wrong with reference to the particular acts with which the defendant is charged.”
As a nationally known psychologist once described it to me in a murder case we were working on together, “You can be as crazy as a loon, standing on your desk screaming ‘I am the Queen of Sheba!’, but if you understand that what you are doing is wrong you are not legally insane.”
With the American Sniper defendant, the police carefully framed their interview questions to include several leading questions to get him to say that he knew it was wrong to kill Kyle and Littlefield.
Of course, in that context Routh may have felt he was making up for what he did, essentially apologizing to the police. In fact what he was doing was setting himself up to be held accountable since by admitting he knew it was wrong he put himself outside the definition of legally insane under M’Naughten.
Reasonable people can disagree about the insanity defense. What we can agree on is that it rarely works.
In reality the reasonable jurors out there simply don’t want to let guilty people get away with murder, no matter how crazy they are. They would consider it unreasonable to let them go free.
Which brings us back to why it is so difficult to win a case based on the “not guilty by reason of insanity” defense.