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High Court Considers Insanity Defense

April 19, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: On June 21, 2000, Eric Michael Clark, a 17-year-old Flagstaff, Arizona, high school senior, was arrested and charged with the murder of police officer Jeff Moritz.

There was no question about the shooting: It happened after the officer pulled over the pickup truck Clark was driving with music blaring loudly. There was also no question that Eric Clark suffered from mental illness. But there was a question whether he was legally insane. Even prosecutors acknowledged he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.

Before and after the shooting, Clark had warned his parents that Flagstaff was inhabited by aliens, and he suspected they were aliens, too. It took three years before Clark was found to be competent to stand trial. His lawyer then pushed for a verdict of guilty except insane, which would have placed Clark in a psychiatric facility.

But Arizona’s legally insane standard requires that the accused, at the time of the crime, not know the criminal act was wrong. And during the trial, prosecutors convinced the presiding judge that Clark did know. The judge found Clark guilty of first-degree intentional murder and sentenced him to life in prison.

Lawyers for Eric Clark appealed that decision, and today the case was argued before the Supreme Court. NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal was there.

Welcome, Marcia.

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: First, take us back to the Arizona situation. You had clearly a troubled young man. How did the prosecution make the case that he knew what he had done?

MARCIA COYLE: The prosecution offered as evidence the fact that Eric Clark had earlier talked about wanting to kill a police officer, about luring a police officer into a situation where he could kill the officer.

Then, the prosecution pointed out that Eric Clark that night drove a pickup truck with the radio blaring around a block in his neighborhood something like 22 times, clearly intending to attract the police. The police officer showed up in a marked police car, wearing a police officer’s uniform, so prosecution said the judge could infer from all of those facts that he knew he was killing a police officer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this was important because of the particular standard that Arizona has with legal insanity, right?

MARCIA COYLE: It does. It works this way: Intent is an element of the crime that Eric Clark was charged with.

JEFFREY BROWN: Always.

MARCIA COYLE: Right. The only way that Clark could rebut that evidence, he felt, was to show that he was mentally ill, that he did not think he was killing a police officer. He felt this was an alien in human form, just as he thought the city of Flagstaff had become the platinum city overrun with aliens.

But Arizona has a rule that you can’t introduce evidence of mental illness to rebut intent; you can only offer evidence of mental illness if you want to show that you are insane.

It’s an important distinction, because if you raise the defense that you are insane, the burden of persuading the court shifts from the prosecution to you. You have to show, by clear and convincing evidence, that you’re insane, and you have to meet Arizona’s standard for insanity, which is a very tough standard.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the case comes to the court today. What were the legal issues at stake here?

MARCIA COYLE: Clark’s attorney argued there were two constitutional problems here: First, the rule that doesn’t allow him to offer evidence of mental illness to rebut the prosecution’s intent argument. He claims this deprives him of presenting a complete defense, violates due process.

And the second argument was Arizona’s insanity test is also unconstitutional, because it’s too narrow.

JEFFREY BROWN: How did it play out? What were the justices interested in?

MARCIA COYLE: They were interested in both issues. Chief Justice Roberts asked the Arizona attorney on the intent issue: Well, what is it about mental illness that you want to exclude the evidence at that stage?

And the Arizona attorney said: Evidence of mental illness is often confusing and complicated for juries and judges. There’s a lot of skepticism about it. Also, if we let it come in at that point, then maybe everyone will be saying, “I was mentally ill, and not responsible, and didn’t have the intent.” It will undercut the insanity defense, which is where we really want the focus of our laws to be.

We have a right — states traditionally have had rights — to enact insanity defenses, to define elements of crime, and this is a policy decision Arizona has made. Save it for the insanity defense.

Then there was the question, well, is the insanity defense too narrow?

JEFFREY BROWN: Arizona’s?

MARCIA COYLE: Right, Arizona’s. Arizona is one of a substantial minority of states that says, in order to be insane, you have to know that the act was wrong. A majority of states follows what’s known as the old McNaughton test, which is derived from British law, and has two parts to it: the Arizona part, that you know the act was wrong, but also you’re insane if you were not aware of the nature and quality of the act.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the thrust of this, just to be clear here, is that in Arizona and in some states, the minority of states, it’s harder to use the insanity defense?

MARCIA COYLE: That’s exactly so. It’s a higher hurdle for the defendant claiming insanity.

Arizona claims that the focus of insanity and the McNaughton test historically was always on whether you know the act was wrong. But Clark’s attorney says that other prong about knowing the nature and quality of the act is just as important.

And he gave as an example here to show why it’s important, sort of a classic law school example. You’re squeezing a lemon, and it turns out that lemon is your sister. You don’t know — well, you do know that killing your sister is wrong, but you don’t know that squeezing the lemon is wrong. Clark thought he was killing an alien, not a police officer.

So Clark’s attorney says, at a minimum, the Constitution requires that states offer both those prongs, not just what Arizona offers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, in thinking of terms of what’s at stake here, I was interested — I didn’t know — to see how states vary on this. Four states don’t allow an insanity defense at all.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: And a minority has what you refer to as the Arizona rule, and then there’s the rest.

MARCIA COYLE: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there is not, I gather, a constitutional right to an insanity defense, right?

MARCIA COYLE: The Supreme Court has never said that the Constitution requires states to permit an insanity defense. And the insanity defense got sort of a bad name after the John Hinckley case. Hinckley, you remember…

JEFFREY BROWN: 1981.

MARCIA COYLE: … right, tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan and was acquitted by reason of insanity. After that, a number of states moved to change their laws. Arizona was one of the ones that narrowed it, and these four other states eliminated it entirely. And then the majority of states, as you noted, follow the McNaughton test, which is slightly broader, including the federal government.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the implications here are whether there might be a broader rule that allows…

MARCIA COYLE: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … the defense to come into play, or possibly a narrower one?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, whatever the Supreme Court says about Arizona’s law — if it says Arizona’s law is OK, then we might see a new trend of states narrowing, those that have the broader test, narrowing it. If it says that it’s not OK, then other states will have to take action to conform to whatever the Supreme Court says.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Marcia Coyle, thanks again.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.