The preliminary hearing this week for James Eagan Holmes, the alleged shooter who murdered 12 and injured 58 during a July 20, 2012, rampage in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, is once again raising questions about the insanity defense.
I suspect that the public often doesn’t understand a key point in insanity cases. The determining factor is not whether a person has a mental disorder or even the severity of his illness. It is whether his mental illness prevented him from being able to tell the difference between right and wrong.
Here’s my view on why that’s a poor standard.
“How Do We Define Insanity? First published on April 11, 2010
In 1980, he shot and seriously wounded a co-worker. Patterson believed his food was being poisoned by the man even though they’d only met that morning.
Three years later, Patterson wounded another man during a delusional assault.
In 1986, Patterson assaulted yet a third victim.
Finally, on September 25, 1992, just days after his brother had tried unsuccessfully to get him committed to a psychiatric facility, Patterson fatally shot a businessman and his secretary.
He then put his gun down, stripped to his socks, and paced, shouting incomprehensibly until the police arrived.
There was no doubt that Patterson had committed two murders.
There was no doubt that he had a severe mental illness and was delusional at the time of the murders.
Did that mean he couldn’t be held accountable for his actions because he was legally ”insane?”
Most people believe that if someone is ”insane” when they commit a crime, they can not be held accountable for their actions. But our legal system always has had trouble dealing with persons with mental illnesses and the Patterson case is the perfect example.
First a short history lesson.
In 1843, an Englishman named Daniel M’Naghten fired a pistol at the British Prime Minister, but instead hit one of his aides who died five days later. The House of Commons appointed a panel to decide when someone was so “insane” that they were not legally responsible for their actions. They came up with what is called the M’Naghten ruleand it is still the basis for nearly all of our laws that deal with mental illnesses. The key part of the rule states:
“to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.
Now, back to Kelsey Patterson.
Did Patterson understand that what he had just done — committed murder – was wrong?
Psychiatrists for the prosecution testified that Patterson did understand that murder was wrong when he committed the killings — so a Texas judge ruled that Patterson could be found guilty and given a death sentence. What happened next is rather extra-ordinary.
In only the second time in its history, the Texas Board of Pardon and Paroles sent a recommendation to the Texas governor asking that Patterson’s life be spared. By a 5-to-1 vote, the panel said Patterson deserved mercy because he was simply too sick to be punished.
The governor, Rick Perry, ignored that recommendation. In a statement, he wrote:
“This defendant is a very violent individual. Texas has no life without parole sentencing option, and no one can guarantee this defendant would never be freed to commit other crimes were his sentence commuted. In the interests of justice and public safety, I am denying the defendant’s request for clemency and a stay.”
On May 18, 2004, a clearly delusional Patterson, still rambling incoherently, was put to death.
This case outrages me for several reasons.
*Why wasn’t something done about this man before he murdered two innocent persons? He had a long history of mental illness and violence — more than two decades of warnings. Did we really expect that he would somehow heal himself?
*The governor’s reasoning is cold-blooded and it completely ignored the fact that Patterson had a severe mental illness. The governor said Texas couldn’t lock him up forever and couldn’t keep the public safe so the only alternative was to kill him. How about actually treating him? How about sending him to a forensic hospital?
*We have learned many things about the brain since 1843. The DSM differentiates between anti-social behavior and schizophrenia. Yet, we are still basing our insanity laws on antiquated information. The courts need to re-think the definition of insanity. (One change that would help is to put an end to the use of psychiatrists-for-hire. Rather than having the defense and prosecution hire psychiatrists who make their livelihood either testifying that someone is sane or insane, a judge should hired three psychiatrists and have them report to the court. This also would cut back on having attorneys using the insanity defense when their client is obviously guilty and they don’t have any other rational explanation to fall back on. Such cases are an insult to persons who have legitimate brain disorders and increase public stigma.)
*The U.S. Supreme Court’s current practice of focusing on whether a defendant knew the difference between right and wrong shows a lack of knowledge about mental illnesses. In Miami, I met a man who believed that he was possessed by a devil. He began chewing through his own skin and hit an artery because he wanted to cast out the devil.
Now let’s assume that this man believed that a stranger had been possessed by the devil so he fatally shot the stranger. Did he know murder was wrong? Absolutely, but he also knew that the devil was inside that man and that was who he was killing.
The questions that I am raising in this blog are important because there are currently more than 200 Kelsey Pattersons on death row in America.
Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that persons with mental retardation can be exempt from execution because of their obvious diminished culpability. It’s time, I believe, for the court to extend that same reasoning to persons with legitimate mental disorders.