Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Insanity Pleas as constitutional rights

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today in Clark v. Arizona, a case in which “no one disputes that the defendant shot and killed a Flagstaff police officer, or that he was insane at the time,” according to an article in the April ABA Journal – and no one thinks the defendant should be released, at least not back into the public.

The case will be landmark in that it is the first time whether a claim of insanity is a constitutional right will be considered..

Two considerations are needed from the Supreme Court for a favorable outcome for the appellee, according the ABA article. The first would be having the M’Naghten rule be established as the constitutional minimum test for insanity. M’Naghten rules date back to the occurrence, in 1843, of an attempted assignation of the British prime minister, basically requiring that, at the time of the incident, an individual didn’t know “the nature & quality” of his/her actions, or, if he did, whether it was right or wrong. Arizona’s statutes, along with those of five other states, including Ohio & Indiana, don’t recognize the necessity of both of those characteristics. (Kentucky’s statutes KRS §504.020 and §504.130)

The second – and the one being perhaps more closely watched – would to be allowed to use mental illness to prove a “lack of criminal intent,” which is necessary for a first-degree murder conviction. That would give other mentally ill defendants a significant new strategy in lowering their criminal responsibility.

A lot has been written about the “insanity defense” and its evolution, especially since John Hinckley’s trial in 1982 for his attempted assassination of then-President Ronald Reagan. At that time only 16 states were still using the M’Naghten standard, but the public outcry resulting from the verdict in Hinckley’s case had lasting and far-reaching impact. Half of the states in the country enacted reforms in their insanity statutes, and Congress, in 1984, passed the “Insanity Defense Reform Act,” now codified at 18 USC §17, which stresses the inability “to appreciate the nature & quality or wrongfulness” of the defendant’s actions. (i.e., see “Modern Status of Test of Criminal Responsibility—State Cases” 9 ALR4th. 526)

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