The Utah Supreme Court has bad news for many accused criminals hoping to plead insane: If you knew you were committing the crim-i-nal act, you can't use insanity as a defense.
The high court narrowly upheld Utah's conservative insanity defense law, which allows someone charged with murder to plead insane only if he didn't know he was killing someone.The court's own analogy was this: If someone commits murder but thought he was squeezing a grapefruit, he can use the insanity defense. If he thought he was justifiably killing an enemy soldier, he can't use the insanity defense because he still knew he was killing someone.
The 3-2 ruling may be bad news for accused killers like Ronald Lafferty, who says that God told him to murder his sister-in-law, Brenda Lafferty, and niece, Erica, 11 years ago.
Several trials like Lafferty's had been on hold while the court reviewed the law. "If the law had been struck down, it would have had real ramifications for a whole slew of cases," said a pleased Christine Soltis, chief of criminal appeals for the state attorney general.
The court rejected the appeals of two men charged with separate crimes: Tomas Herrera, charged with the murder of his girlfriend Claudia Martinez and attempted murder of two others and Mikell Sweezey, charged with attempted murder in the infamous "tourist shooting" outside a downtown hotel.
Herrera had admitted to killing his girlfriend, telling police "something snapped," prompting him to go to the Martinez home with a gun, the ruling said. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges by reason of insanity.
Tourist Steve Matthews was standing outside the Salt Lake Marriott Hotel when Sweezy allegedly pulled a gun from his backpack and shot Matthews in the face.
Sweezy was overheard saying, "They wrecked my home so I shot him."
Both men used the insanity defense. When the trial judges rejected the defense, they filed appeals before standing trial. The high court has upheld the lower courts and ordered the two men to stand trial without the insanity defense.
Both defendants attacked Utah'sinsanity statute, saying it violated their federal and state rights to due process and amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
Utah, Idaho and Montana have the most strict insanity defense laws in the country, the ruling said. Supreme courts in the other two states have already upheld those states' laws.
Like many states, Utah tightened its law in 1983 after John Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the shooting of Pres. Ronald Reagan.
The previous law allowed defendants to claim insanity if they didn't understand the crime was wrong.
In writing for the majority, Justice Richard Howe said the U.S. Supreme Court has never provided a constitutional definition of insanity or ruled on whether due process requires a looser insanity defense than Utah's.
Herrera and Sweezy contended the state law was arbitrary and capricious in distinguishing who is insane and who is not. But Howe defended the lawmakers' rea-son-ing.
"The Legislature has drawn a line between those who do not comprehend that they are taking a human life and those who do," Howe said.
"It can be reasonably concluded that those who understand and appreciate the fact that they are killing another are more `culpable' than those whose delusions carry them even further away from re-al-i-ty."
Howe also rejected the argument that the Utah law amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. He said that couldn't be addressed until one of the defendants was convicted and sentenced.
Chief Justice Michael Zim-mer-man and Justice Leonard Rus-son concurred.
Associate Chief Justice Daniel Stewart and Justice Christine Durham wrote dissents that were longer than the majority ruling.
"For the first time in this state's history and, with two exceptions, for the first time in the nation's history, this court now holds that an insane person who commits an act prohibited by criminal law is as guilty as a sane person and may be imprisoned, and even executed, as if he were a fully responsible sane person," Stewart wrote.
The court's ruling "flouts centuries-old legal principles of personal responsibility that evolved from Judeo-Christian moral and ethical conduct," he wrote.
A looser insanity defense "is essential to a fair and enlightened system of justice," he wrote. Under the Utah law, Alzheimer's patients could be imprisoned, an act that "could only be cruel, if not barbaric."
Durham said the Utah law departs "so far from fundamental and traditional notions of blameworthiness" that it does violate due process and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.