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Henri Sisneros: Discussions of insanity defense play an important role in justice system

Humans’ innate sense of right and wrong is so acute it can survive severe mental illness. Sometimes a subject will hide what’s been done, evade detection or lie to protect himself; this demonstrates understanding.
Humans’ innate sense of right and wrong is so acute it can survive severe mental illness. Sometimes a subject will hide what’s been done, evade detection or lie to protect himself; this demonstrates understanding.
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Many Americans are riveted to the trial of Eddie Ray Routh, killer of “American Sniper” author and marksman/soldier Chris Kyle. Routh has raised the affirmative defense of insanity, a plea that triggered the usual onslaught of decisive and predictable commentary for or against him without regard to the law or the facts.

If we’re honest, I’d guess most of us have an opinion about the insanity defense. In Utah, where the predominant religious tradition embraces personal revelation, there have been several high-profile cases in which a defendant’s religious beliefs triggered serious unlawful conduct followed in turn by an insanity plea. Most recently, former colleagues at the Federal Defender’s Office represented Brian David Mitchell.

What Mitchell did to a young, innocent Elizabeth Smart was awful. Imagine your daughter or loved one undergoing a similar ordeal. The trauma and pain Mitchell and others inflict probably determines how we feel about the insanity defense, yet it is largely irrelevant to the important ideas underlying the insanity plea.

The insanity defense, like the death penalty, is important for what it says about our society as a community embracing justice. The question we consider: Do we hold a person responsible for the acts of a sick mind?

An evolution of the insanity defense occurred in the mid-1800s, marked by the M’Naghten case when, in England, the House of Lords propounded legal principles responding to an insanity-based acquittal of a murderer with a high-profile victim, a precursor to John Hinckley’s shooting of President Ronald Reagan.

Since that time we’ve been concerned with the mind and its processes, called cognition. The M’Naghten test, a form of which is embodied in federal law, creates an affirmative defense to guilt when, “as a result of a severe mental disease or defect,” a defendant was “unable to appreciate the nature and quality” or “the wrongfulness of his acts” (18 U.S.C. sec. 17).

The parts of the statute, called elements, are well within the grasp of an interested citizen: A “severe mental disease or defect” requires experts to testify that there is or isn’t a defect. In practical terms, an insanity claim can be sustained only when a person’s mental illness is so pervasive this element isn’t in doubt. The disease or defect will be apparent in every aspect of a person’s life. In the “American Sniper” case, Routh’s family and friends testified about an extremely troubled and sick mind.

The defense usually turns on the next question of whether the mental illness is so severe as to render a guilty judgment unjust due to a lack of moral understanding. If the mental illness destroys free will, it also destroys culpability.

How does one demonstrate whether a defendant understands the “nature and quality” of her acts? If one truly doesn’t know what one is doing or its impact, it is quite apparent. For example, in another Texas case, Andrea Yates knew she was drowning her children, yet she believed she did so for their salvation. She was severely, mentally ill, but she didn’t think she was giving her children a bath.

The final element: Understanding the wrongfulness of the conduct often is interrelated with understanding what one is doing. It also often determines the outcome.

Humans’ innate sense of right and wrong is so acute it can survive severe mental illness. Sometimes a subject will hide what’s been done, evade detection or lie to protect himself; this demonstrates understanding. Or sometimes, as Andrea Yates did, she will report herself to authorities.

The question before the Texas jury: Did this young man with a very sick mind who knew he was shooting two companions understand his conduct was wrong sufficiently to hold him responsible?

Experts can provide an organized framework to explain what they observe and conclude about a defendant’s mind, but like each of us, what they say is oftentimes influenced by what they believe. So it comes down to what a fair and impartial jury — listening to the testimony — decides.

Utah law provides for a modified approach that allows a “guilty but mentally ill” plea which seems to guard against an insanity-based acquittal. Because “guilty” traditionally indicates moral culpability, it might be more accurate to say “committed the act but mentally ill.”

Henri Sisneros is a criminal lawyer and justice system leader from Salt Lake City. After graduating from Stanford Law School, he worked as an assistant U.S. attorney and assistant federal defender.