Insane or Just Plain Nuts

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

It is by far one of the most unpleasant stories out there. A man in Austria commits the worst kind of child abuse — and then takes it into another stratosphere of evil by keeping his children and grandchildren (all of whom he fathered) in a basement for years. It's a horrible, horrible story — and my informal survey of friends and compatriots has found either people can't read about it at all — or they just want to know what breach of hell created this man's particular brand of evil. Austrian courts however, have a different set of questions — namely, is Josef Fritzl legally insane? One argument says he wouldn't have kept the kids hidden away if he didn't know what he was doing was wrong. Insane is legal term — not a medical one. (And meshuggeneh is merely a descriptor, if you're curious.) The insanity defense is invoked in Law and Order and CSI a lot — but it differs from state to state, country to country, and court to court. Insanity Famous defendants that have pleaded insanity range from Zacarias Moussaoui to D.C. sniper Lee Boyd Malvo. Even Reagan's would-be assassin, John Hinckley Jr., used the insanity defense — and the court found him not guilty back in 1982. Today — we're talking about Insane vs. Crazy: questions? Post 'em here.

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If he is insane and he doesn't know he is doing wrong, how could he so sanely put so much effort into hiding it.

Sent by Bryan | 2:13 PM | 5-6-2008

why is his wife or the visitors, not considered accomplices? When someone says to a spouse, you are not allowed to go into the basement...this has to be a clue that something is wrong....??

Sent by mm | 2:22 PM | 5-6-2008

Isn't think a question of cruel and unusual punishment? Our legal system needs to make sure that ill individuals are not subjected to the types of punishments that sane people are made to endure.

Sent by MacKenzie Moore | 2:29 PM | 5-6-2008

What if the verdict were to be changed to "Guilty by Reason of Insanity" where the fact that the person committed the act is acknowledged ("guilty"), but the explaination of why they did the act (by reason of insanity), would lead to appropriate treatment???

Sent by David Rissmeyer | 2:33 PM | 5-6-2008

About the insanity plea test that asks, "Would you do it if a police officer were at your elbow?" Does that mean drug and alcohol addicts, and others who cannot "control" their behavior, that is, they know they shouldn't do it but they can't help it, does that mean they are insane?

Sent by Heather | 2:34 PM | 5-6-2008

Does anyone know how Austria has approached this type of defense in the past - are prosecutors historically more in favor rehabilitation of the accused or deterrence and retribution?

Sent by Anita S. | 2:40 PM | 5-6-2008

Having followed Alan Dershowitz's activities and views, I lean toward an opinion that he might be a better example of rather than authority on insanity.

Sent by Norman Finkelstein's fan | 2:44 PM | 5-6-2008

My husband suffers from bipolar disorder. I've experienced an extreme pyschotic episode and he was completely insane and had no idea what he was doing. He was communicating with God. Someone in this state should not go to prison for a crime but should be in a mental hospital. The problem is that we have dismantled our mental healthcare system. Why are mental patients sent to prison?

Sent by Anne | 2:47 PM | 5-6-2008

This sounds like precedence, that is a case taylor made to set a precedence, and if doesn't set a precedence to abolish the insanity defense I don't know what will, not that we'd want to know. Spare us, won't you?

Sent by Eric Kim | 3:40 PM | 5-6-2008

It greatly diminishes the credibility of NPR that you have invited Alan Dershowitz to serve as a consultant for this program. His plagiarism, his support for torture, his apologetics for Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity are, as best I can tell, a matter of public record. So, you tell me, why would we seek this man's opinion on any matter whatsoever?

Sent by Wayne | 3:52 PM | 5-6-2008

Sanity, like art, is in the eye of the beholder.

Sent by Mo | 4:00 PM | 5-6-2008

Of course he's insane, but that shouldn't excuse his actions. He should be punished to the full extent of the law. Forget about treatment. The man is a sociopath and there is no help for him.

Sent by Kate | 4:10 PM | 5-6-2008

Alan Dershowitz might be the best hope for the Palestinian cause to come around since Jimmy Carter. He is so sleazy, so opportunistic, and generally so ridiculous in his assertions that one cannot help siding with his opposition.

Sent by anne elizabeth | 5:18 AM | 5-7-2008

My opinion is following I do think if person have taken a phycological threatment that will damage his career/life (because for the most people in EU career=life). I think in this case Prison vs. Physc. threatment means THE SAME....at least in EU.

Sent by Anton | 11:54 AM | 5-7-2008

Herr Fritzl is a fully fledged psychopath; that's not a mental illness but a personality disorder. Power, ego, vanity, sense of entitlement. In his eyes, she asked for it by her defiance of him. Soon he'll be blaming her for what he's done and stating that she wanted to have his children, afterall, he is omnipotent.

Sent by Medusa Knowz | 5:57 AM | 5-8-2008

I think that the insanity defense is intended to protect people who could not comprehend their crime and therefore could not comprehend their punishment. Then instead of incarcerating these people, we can treat them so that they can become functional members of society, after all, isn't that what prison is supposed to accomplish?

Sent by mat | 2:54 PM | 5-8-2008

Crazy ? I'd like to know if he tears up money !police should imprison him down there the same way he did.

Sent by Meg | 10:26 PM | 5-11-2008

Josef Fritzl was a convicted rapist at knife point & served only 18 mos. Why didn't he plead insanity in that case? Why was the Austrian judge so lenient with someone who put a knife to someone's throat?! How would s/he feel if that had been done to her/him?

Now they must declare him sane or insane. If he is insane, the Austrian government should be sued for the damages he caused. Only this will force them to tighten up their system. Austria's lack of psychological examination & rehabilitation for criminally mentally ill persons is responsible for what happened to Elisabeth.

Mrs. Fritzl had personal knowledge that her husband was violent, overly controlling & verbally abusive. Even guests at their home saw it. She did not properly protect her children from this behavior. She is complicit. And not investigating his mysterious basement (he being a criminal rapist) is problematic. A tenant was evicted when his dog barked at the basement door. The tenant should have reported this to the police. Esp since Fritzl was so strong about never allowing anyone to go down there.

The guests at the home did nothing either. Why didn't they insist the mother (esp. Mrs. Fritzl's sister) get help? When they observed continued mistreatment year after year, they should have reported this anonymously. Bullies continue their behavior when bystanders remain silent. Silent bystanders are therefore complicit.

If I observed a friend abusing children, I would end that friendship. One friend observed Elisabeth being smacked around more than the others. One of Elisabeth's friends knew she had been raped repeatedly by her father. She should have reported this during the weak missing person's investigation.

When 3 babies were left at the doorstep with notes from Elisabeth that she couldn't take care of them, there should have been a massive nationwide hunt for her w/ a reward. When she didn't turn up, her last known residence should have been thoroughly "torn apart" to find any clues of where she went.

Something is seriously wrong in Austria.

Sent by Karen | 11:45 AM | 5-15-2008