As you begin to think about the insanity plea (interactive 3), look at these recent stories in the news:
Insanity defense difficult to prove
INSANITY DEFENSE DIFFICULT TO PROVE:
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
San Francisco (California)
SAN FRANCISCO, California (AP) -- Lashaun Harris had been hospitalized and prescribed drugs to quiet the voices inside her head.
Still, legal and mental health experts say it will be difficult to prove the 23-year-old mother was legally insane when she dropped her three young sons to their deaths in San Francisco Bay.
California is one of about 20 states that uses the strictest legal standard for assessing a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Under the rule, criminal defendants must show not only evidence of mental illness, but that they were incapable of determining right from wrong.
"Somebody may be very clearly psychotic and have a history of behaviors that establish the person was ... delusional, but that doesn't get you to insanity the way the law looks at it," said Ron Honberg, legal director for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
Harris, scheduled to return to court Friday, will most likely face a hearing to determine if she is mentally competent to stand trial, and psychiatrists eventually will attempt to determine whether she was insane at the time.
Harris' lawyer, Teresa Caffese, refused comment last week on whether her client would claim insanity. Harris has pleaded not guilty to three counts of capital murder.
On Wednesday evening, authorities said Harris lifted the boys over the railing of a downtown pier, dropping them one by one into the chilly 53-degree water 10 feet below. Authorities said she told investigators that voices instructed her to do so.
The body of Taronta Greeley, 2, was recovered late Wednesday night about two miles from Pier 7. The other two boys-- Treyshun Harris, 6 and Joshoa Greeley, 16 months -- remained missing Sunday and were presumed dead.
Relatives say the former nurse's assistant, who gave birth to her first child at age 16, suffers from schizophrenia that surfaced within the past two years and recently worsened when she stopped taking her medication.
Harris' history as a struggling young, single mother may have exacerbated her condition, said Shari Lusskin, director of reproductive psychiatry at New York University Medical Center.
"She is a walking risk factor," Lusskin said.
Legal experts say insanity defenses are used only in about 2 percent of all felony cases, and acquittals remain relatively uncommon. Mothers have had mixed success arguing they were not responsible for their actions because of mental illness.
Christina Riggs was put to death in Arkansas five years ago after an unsuccessful insanity defense for smothering her son and daughter. Riggs, who was a nurse, had injected her son with potassium chloride, a chemical used in executions.
Prosecutors sought the death penalty for Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who in 2001 methodically drowned her five children in a bathtub. Despite an insanity plea based on postpartum psychosis, she was sentenced to life in prison.
In contrast, Deanna Laney, a Texas woman who beat her two young sons to death with rocks, was acquitted by reason of insanity earlier this year.
Prosecutors have not yet decided whether to seek the death penalty for Harris.
Experts say the frequency of such cases points to the need for more aggressive monitoring of mentally ill mothers. In New York, for example, mothers can be ordered by a court to undergo treatment or take drugs to control their illness.
Even making it socially acceptable for mothers to talk about the difficulties of parenting could help prevent such tragic outcomes, said Santa Clara University law professor Michelle Oberman.
"Imagine the life of a 23-year-old with three children under the age of 7, something that by definition includes a lot of struggle even if you are mentally healthy, even if you finished school, even if you are employed," said Oberman, co-author of "Mothers Who Kill Their Children: Understanding the Acts of Moms From Susan Smith to the Prom Mom."
"It's ludicrous to think that a mother who is schizophrenic can parent a child, let alone three children on her own. It's a recipe for disaster," Oberman said.
In the United States, the NGRI plea is rarely used, and when it is used it is rarely won! An exception to this happened recently in Texas...
Jury acquits man of killing professor
Student found not guilty by reason of insanity
Saturday, October 22, 2005
University of Texas
Crime, Law and Justice
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- A college student who claimed he stabbed and slashed his piano professor more than 200 times because he thought she was a robot intent on killing him has been found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity.
Jurors reached the verdict Thursday in the case of Jackson Ngai, a former student at the University of Texas, who could be committed to mental institutions indefinitely.
"If we can keep him locked up in a mental hospital for the rest of his life, that will be justice," prosecutor Corby Holcomb said.
Ngai's attorney has said Ngai believed music professor Danielle Martin was a robot or was controlled by a computer chip in her brain and was trying to kill him. On her body was a handwritten note that said, "Computer chip in brain."
Daneen Milam, a defense expert who said Ngai was insane, said the number of wounds on Martin's head, which left a deep hole in her skull, showed he was focused on something other than just killing Martin.
"He said he was getting a computer chip out," Milam testified. "He said that's what he was going to do. When he couldn't do it, he called the police to help him."
Ngai's attorney, Jim Erickson, did not immediately return a telephone message left at his office Friday.
Ngai, 24, had checked out of a mental health treatment center less than a day before Martin was killed.