Insane misunderstanding permits injustice

The American criminal justice system is often labyrinthine in its rules, procedures and practices. This maze of due process regularly leaves the public scratching its collective head when otherwise slam-dunk cases seem to go awry.

Such is the case when the state Supreme Court recently granted a convicted killer’s request to reopen his case. According to an Arkansas News Bureau report, the court ruled Karl Roberts of Polk County may not have been competent when he waived his right to appeal his conviction in the 1999 rape and murder of his 12-year-old niece, Andria Nichole Brewer.

Roberts confessed to the crimes, and he was subsequently convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. At a 2003 hearing, he waived his right to appeal his conviction. The Supreme Court later affirmed a circuit judge’s ruling that Roberts had knowingly and intelligently waived his rights.

Hours before he was to be executed in January 2004, Roberts changed his mind and authorized his attorneys to appeal his conviction. A judge later issued a stay of execution.

While the central feature of the Roberts case revolves around competency to waive his right of appeal — not whether he was competent to stand trial — this situation speaks to a broader issue in American criminal justice.

Owing to a recent rash of murders by people who were profoundly mentally ill, we as a nation have surrendered what little understanding we had of the so-called “insanity defense” to the winds of sensationalism and punditry. To begin with, the public doesn’t have a good grasp as to what mental illnesses are.

When an “insanity plea” is invoked, a steep set of standards must be met. Some of these go back to Victorian England, when a man named David McNaughton attempted to murder the Prime Minister. After a lengthy trial, McNaughton was acquitted of his actions because he was deemed “insane.” This ruling drew public outrage. In response, the House of Lords drew up a set of criteria to establish competency.

The resultant criteria are now known as the McNaughton Rules. They focus solely on a person’s mental state at the time of the crime. According to the McNaughton Rules, one must have a mental disease or defect (presence of a medical syndrome that has been diagnosed by a medical professional) — not mere impairment. The mental disease or defect has to be so great at the time of the crime that the defendants do not understand the nature or quality of the act and even if they do, they don’t understand that what they’re doing is wrong — a detachment from the prevailing rules of society that proscribe the act.

This is a very high bar. There are very few conditions that create such an impairment.

More recently, the American Law Institute standards were developed. Like McNaughton, there must be mental impairment and a recognized disease or defect (a diagnosis). ALI differs from McNaughton in one key aspect: Loss of volition. While one may have understood the wrongfulness of the act, ALI asks whether the person was able to stop themselves from committing the act — uncontrollable compulsion.

Just because one is “crazy” doesn’t mean they didn’t know what they were doing. To evaluate this, several questions are posed: Did the offender plan the crime? Did they attempt to cover up the crime? Did they seek to evade capture?

It’s easy to misconstrue having a mental illness with being not guilty by reason of insanity. One could be profoundly ill (schizophrenia, for example) and still consciously lie in wait, attack someone and run away to avoid being caught. This offender would not necessarily be able to sustain an insanity defense. Being sick, by itself, is insufficient.

Of course, it doesn’t always happen this way on Law and Order. Until the U.S. gets serious about de-stigmatizing mental illness and regarding it like any other medical condition, the misunderstanding and frustration will likely continue. Demanding both treatment and coverage parity would be a good place to start.