Atlanta Shooting Suspect to Use Insanity Defense

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Jury selection begins in Atlanta in the trial of Brian Nichols, the man charged with killing four people as he escaped from the Fulton County Court House in March 2005. Nichols' attorneys said they would raise the insanity defense.


Jury selection starts today in the trial of Brian Nichols. He is charged with killing four people as he escaped from Atlanta's Fulton County Courthouse in March 2005. A judge, a court reporter, a sheriff's deputy and a federal agent died. Nichols' attorneys say they will raise the insanity defense, which is likely to be a real challenge, as NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: In court papers, Nichols' attorneys say he was acting under a disorder known as delusional compulsion. They say the illness made it impossible for him to resist committing the crimes. Under Georgia law, a defendant must meet one of two tests to qualify as insane, according to Anne Emanuel, law professor at Georgia State University.

ANNE EMANUEL: You're not insane unless you are so incapacitated that you are unable to either know the nature and quality of what you're doing - you don't even understand the acts you're undertaking - or to tell right from wrong.

LOHR: Since John Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1980s after he tried to assassinate President Reagan, the federal government and many states have narrowed the definition of insanity. Five states abolished the defense altogether. It's only used in 1 percent of all criminal cases, and it's only successful in one-quarter of those cases. Don Linhorst is a professor of social work at St. Louis University.

DONALD LINHORST: There is not an exact science in determining whether someone knew right from wrong or they were acting under some delusion and couldn't resist. So I think oftentimes there are differing opinions, and it's hard to sort through this.

LOHR: Two trials in Texas demonstrate problems with the insanity defense. In 2002, a jury rejected the idea and found Andrea Yates guilty of drowning her children in a bathtub. But last year Yates was tried again because of a procedural error. This time another jury found Yates not guilty by reason of insanity.

STEPHEN SALTZBURG: Juries have never been quick to accept insanity defenses.

LOHR: Stephen Saltzburg is a law professor at George Washington University. Georgia is among 14 states that allow for a verdict of guilty but mentally ill, which juries are still hesitant to return because they think defendants will be released. Saltzburg says that's not true.

SALTZBURG: After all, these days if you are the rare person who wins a case because you're either found not guilty by reason of insanity or guilty but mentally ill, then you'll be committed. And it may turn out that you'll actually spend more time in confinement than you would if you actually were convicted and punished for a given crime.

LOHR: In the Nichols case, legal experts say using the insanity defense may be the only option. Yet under Georgia law, if Nichols claims he has a delusional compulsion, he'll also have to prove that his acts were justified if his delusion was true. That's another problem. Again, Anne Emanuel with Georgia State University.

EMANUEL: It's difficult to justify killing any law enforcement officer or judge or officer of the court because under our rule of law, you submit to authority and then challenge it appropriately. Even if they're wrong in what they're doing, you don't have the right to kill them to stop what they're doing.

LOHR: Since prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, legal experts say using the insanity defense could be a strategy to get the jury to at least consider whether mental illness contributed to the crime, and whether Brian Nichols, if found guilty, should be spared a death sentence.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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