Supreme Court Re-examines Insanity Defense

Supreme Court Re-examines Insanity Defense

by Beverly Rice, December 2009

When paranoid schizophrenic Eric Clark gunned down Arizona police officer Jeffrey Moritz, Clark believed aliens were stalking him. In fact, Clark's attorney argued his client was defending himself from extraterrestrials when he shot the officer.

The jury wasn't persuaded by alien sightings and sentenced Clark to 25 years to life. Now, the Clark case is up before the U.S. Supreme Court where a new ruling could seriously impact future use of the insanity defense.

Defining the Insanity Defense

The insanity defense varies among jurisdictions in the United States. In some states, a defendant can argue he or she understood actions were wrong but was unable to control them. But the basic premise remains the same - that a defendant lacked the mental capacity to realize the act he or she committed was wrong.

At issue in the Clark case is whether Arizona's version of the insanity defense is so narrow that it violates a person's constitutional right to due process of law. Under Arizona law, a defendant must prove with "clear and convincing"evidence that he was too mentally ill to understand his actions were wrong.

Clark's attorney contends his client was denied the chance to prove he did not have the criminal intent to kill Officer Moritz. The State of Arizona asserts its insanity law allows defendants ample opportunity to present evidence of their mental illness.

Supporters of the Insanity Defense

There are supporters on both sides of this matter. Eric Clark's appeal has the support of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association.

Psychiatric studies have found that an overwhelming majority of defendants acquitted on insanity do suffer from mental illness. Sixteen states filed a brief in favor of Arizona's current insanity law. The supporting states fear a ruling in Clark's favor could adversely affect their own insanity statutes.

Critics of the Insanity Defense

Critics of the insanity defense feel it is misused by defendants to avoid prosecution or obtain a lesser sentence. But public perception may be a little distorted when it comes to abuse of the insanity defense. After all, high profile insanity cases tend to become media blitzes. In reality, less than 1% of defendants plead insanity. Of this group, only 25% win acquittals.

The Arizona Supreme Court refused to hear Clark

The Arizona Supreme Court's refusal to hear the Clark case suggested to many observers that the justices felt the insanity law needed judicial review. John Hinckley's successful use of this defense at his trial for shooting Ronald Reagan prompted Congress and a few states to tighten the standards in insanity defenses. Now defense attorneys, not prosecutors, must convince the judge or jury that their clients are insane.

Does the Insanity Defense Need a Tune Up?

The insanity defense may be due for another tune up. New court cases constantly present the opportunity for legislative reviews. Whether or not Eric Clark's case will be that catalyst remains unanswered.