Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Supreme Court refuses to hear insanity defense case

Idaho, Montana, Utah and Kansas only states without insanity defense

Lawyers in Idaho say the state's lack of an insanity defense is unconstitutional. The Idaho Supreme Court has rejected the last six appeals on the issue, stretching back to 1990. The U.S. Supreme Court announced last month it would not hear an Idaho appeal, effectively ending that case and reinforcing Idaho’s decision — along with Montana, Utah, and Kansas — not to allow a traditional insanity defense, reported the Idaho Statesman.

The term insanity is primarily legal, not psychological. There is no "insane" diagnosis listed in the DSM. Insanity is a term pertaining to a defendant's ability to determine right from wrong when a crime is committed.

One encouraging thing for advocates is that justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor said they would have heard a recent Idaho case rejected by the full Supreme Court. Breyer even wrote a public dissent, saying justices should consider whether Idaho’s modification of the insanity defense is consistent with the 14th Amendment’s promise of “due process.”

Jeffrey Fisher, a Stanford Law School professor specializing in the Supreme Court, told the Statesman he could understand why Idaho lawyers may be discouraged. But he sees progress.  Fisher said. “Now, we have three justices saying we should have a serious review of what Idaho is doing, and that is a significant step forward. A fair reading of (Breyer’s dissent) is that they have real misgivings about Idaho law.”

Fisher said he, like his Idaho counterparts, feels re-establishing the insanity defense is a matter of basic fairness. “I am persuaded from the extraordinarily deep history, across centuries of Anglo-American law, that someone who is truly incapable of knowing right from wrong should be allowed” the insanity defense, he said. “I don’t think states are entitled to abandon that principle.”

The Idaho Legislature banned the insanity defense amid the national outcry over the acquittal of would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr., who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Boise defense attorney David Leroy, who was Idaho’s attorney general when the state did away with the insanity defense in 1982, explained the rationale for the change in 2009.“Idaho eliminated the insanity defense in the old English common law sense. That is the argument that the defendant was out of touch with reality and didn’t understand the consequences of their actions,” Leroy said, according to the Statesman.

“We determined in 1982 that a better test (for insanity) would be to ask the jury to examine the specific mental state of the defendant at the time of the crime for the presence or absence of a specific element.“Since the prosecutor must prove all elements of the crime to convict, the absence of such proof as to a mental element still constitutes a defense.” Lawyers in Idaho trials can still offer evidence of mental illness for mitigation purposes, but not as a defense.

The Idaho Supreme Court has said, “If the state cannot prove criminal intent beyond a reasonable doubt, a defendant, sane or not, will be found not guilty.”In his dissent, Breyer pointed out that Idaho’s standard for the insanity defense differs from other states: Idaho permits the conviction of someone “who knew what he was doing but had no capacity to understand it was wrong.” Fisher told the Statesman that uncertainty over what the insanity defense allows and doesn’t allow in Idaho is an encouraging sign for the next challenge.

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