Thursday, June 29, 2006

Supreme Court II -- Insanity Defense: We won't need mental hospitals if we throw all the crazy people in jail

By Nancy Jane Moore

In all the excitement over the rulings in the Guantanamo and Texas redistricting case, everyone is overlooking a 5 to 4 decision upholding Arizona's highly restrictive definition of insanity for purposes of criminal defense.

This involves a very sad case where a young man -- acknowledged by all parties as a paranoid schizophrenic -- killed a police officer. At trial he admitted the crime, but argued that he was insane. The court rejected the insanity defense and sentenced the man to life in prison. Note that if the court had found him insane, he would not have been turned loose. The Arizona law provides for a finding of "guilty but insane" and would have sent the man to a mental hospital.

The key issue under the Arizona law is whether the defendant knew he was doing something wrong. Now in this case, there was testimony that the defendant believed aliens had taken over government officials, including police officers. But Arizona law is very strict -- once the prosecution proved that the man knew he had shot a police officer and hinted that he knew killing police officers was wrong, that was enough.

And five Supreme Court justices agreed that this strict test is constitutional: Souter, who wrote the opinion, Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and the new chief justice, Roberts.

Here's the problem with this ruling -- and with a lot of similar state laws: We're putting people with severe mental illness in prison, where they aren't going to get any treatment for their illness. Some of them will be dangerous to the other prisoners; others will be more vulnerable to attacks from violent offenders.

Human Rights Watch has done a detailed study on the problems caused by housing the mentally ill in prisons. Reading this opinion in light of that study makes it clear that both the five justices on the high court -- and the Arizona politicians that made it difficult to find a person insane -- are not in touch with the real situation.

The court devoted fifty pages of legalese to showing that Arizona's law was constitutional. And I'm sure the legislators took pride in being tough on crime. Meanwhile, people with serious mental illnesses are getting no help. And some of them will get out of prison one day.

The case is Clark v. Arizona. You can read a PDF here.

Note (added 6/30): The newspapers are calling this a 6 to 3 decision. Actually, it's more like 5-1-3. Justice Breyer dissented in part and concurred in part; he would have sent the case back to Arizona courts for further action. Justices Kennedy, Souter and Ginsburg dissented.

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