Insanity Defense Tested in Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court hears arguments in an Arizona case about the use of the insanity defense in the case of a delusional man convicted of killing a police officer. The state says the accused can discern right from wrong. His family wants him found guilty by reason of insanity. As proof, they cite his contention that 50,000 aliens live in the city of Flagstaff.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. For the first time in decades the Supreme Court has heard a major case testing the criteria for the insanity defense. Today's case involved a 17-year-old paranoid schizophrenic who killed a police officer. NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: Eric Clark was a star athlete, good student and popular kid in Flagstaff, Arizona, until he turned 16 and began deteriorating into more and more bizarre behavior. Sobbing, laughing, hearing voices, and refusing to eat food prepared by his mother, since he thought she was trying to poison him. Today, on the steps of the Supreme Court, Terry Clark described her son's mental state.

TERRY CLARK: He thought I was an alien. He thought my husband was an alien. And in fact he told us that Flagstaff was inhabited by 50,000 aliens.

TOTENBERG: On a June night in 2000, Eric drove the family truck round and round a quiet neighborhood block with speakers blaring. And when a policeman arrived, the teenager shot and killed him. It was the first time a policeman had been killed in the line of duty in Flagstaff, and the case became an emotional local flashpoint. Still, Eric, then 17, did not stand trial for three years because he was ruled mentally incompetent to participate in his own defense.

When he finally did face charges, his lawyers did not contest his guilt, but asserted that he was guilty but insane and should be committed to the state mental hospital instead of prison. The judge who heard the case concluded that although the boy was psychotic and delusional, he knew he'd done something wrong, as evidenced by the fact that he tried to elude police, and that was enough to reject the insanity plea. Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard summarized the decision this way outside the Supreme Court today.

TERRY GODDARD: They found that he had some, albeit sometimes tenuous, grip on reality, but that it was sufficient to know what he was doing.

TOTENBERG: Inside the Supreme Court the question at issue was whether a law as restrictive as Arizona's is constitutional. Four states have no insanity defense at all, and a brief filed by 16 states asserts that if the court were to accept the position advocated by Eric Clark's lawyers, it would put in doubt the insanity statutes in a majority of the states. Clark's lawyer, David Goldberg, told the justices that his client did not receive a fair trial because he was charged with knowingly killing a police officer. But state law barred the trial judge from considering any evidence showing that because of Eric's mental state, he lacked the requisite intent.

Justice Breyer, if he's delusional, that means he doesn't know right from wrong, and it can be introduced into evidence that he thought the policeman was an alien. Justice Kennedy, if considering right from wrong gets to the question of whether there's intent, why isn't that sufficient? Answer: because a person can know in the abstract that killing is wrong, but not know he was killing a human being. And under Arizona law, the judge never considered our evidence contradicting the prosecution's evidence on intent. Chief Justice Roberts, what evidence, for example? Answer: the state maintained, for example, that he played loud music as he rode around in order to lure police into a trap, but we believe he played the loud music to drown out voices he was hearing.

SIEGEL: that's constitutional. But when evidence of a diminished mental state will prove insanity, it must be allowed in. Countering lawyer Goldberg's argument was Randall Howe, representing the state of Arizona. He told the justices that under the Constitution the state has the discretion to define insanity and to protect that definition from being undermined with evidence of mental illness that falls short of insanity. As for Clark, he understood right from wrong, and that was enough to qualify him as sane.

BLOCK: it would be difficult to imagine a situation where someone knows right from wrong and doesn't know the nature and quality of his act. Justice Ginsburg, would you explain to me how the state fulfilled its burden of proving he intentionally killed a police officer when he believed the officer was an alien? Answer: there was evidence put on that showed two weeks earlier he made statements in school that he had an extreme dislike of policemen. Justice Ginsburg, but he wants to introduce evidence on the other side, showing that those statements were part of his delusions, and he's not allowed to under Arizona law. Answer: mental disease or defect does not disprove intent. A state is free to define insanity as it wishes. Indeed, suggested Justice Alito, states are not required to set any particular level of proof of intent. Added Justice Scalia, the Supreme Court has never ruled that a state has to provide an insanity defense at all.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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