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Mental illness tough to prove in court

Sunday, May 07, 2000

By Sally Kalson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If a person gets a gun and ammunition, climbs behind the wheel of a car, then drives from place to place shooting selected victims based on ethnicity, doesn't that show he had intent to kill -- even if he suffers from mental illness?

Not necessarily. Under Pennsylvania's criminal code, the scenario may not fit the legal definition of criminal intent.

Persuading a jury to make that determination, however, is extremely difficult, and in practical terms, few such defendants are found not guilty by reason of insanity. Still, a distinction does exist between the meaning of "intent" inside and outside a courtroom.

"The ability to do simple or rote tasks like stopping at a traffic light, does not necessarily translate into the ability to form specific, legal intent to kill," said Rob Dunham, a federal defender in Philadelphia who specializes in post-conviction appeals of death penalty cases.

One example would be David Berkowitz, or "Son of Sam," who believed he was receiving messages from a dog who ordered him to kill.

"He was perfectly capable of driving and formulating plans for carrying out a murder," Dunham said, but that didn't make him capable of legal intent.

"If your mental illness is such that you can't conform your conduct to the law or appreciate the wrongfulness of your conduct, it doesn't matter that your mind is able to take the steps required to kill somebody."

A jury that finds a defendant incapable of forming intent may find him guilty of a reduced charge such as third-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter. But mental illness is always a tough sell in the courtroom, which is one reason lawyers rarely employ it.

An eight-state study reported in the Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry in 1991 showed that the insanity defense was used in fewer than 1 percent of the cases of a representative sampling of the state courts. Only about a quarter of those insanity pleas were successful, even though 90 percent of defendants who made the pleas were diagnosed with a mental illness.

In 80 percent of the cases in which a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity, it's because the prosecution and defense have agreed on the plea before trial, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

"The vast majority of people with a mental illness would be judged 'sane' if current legal tests for insanity were applied to them," the psychiatric association notes in its insanity defense fact sheet. "A mental illness may explain a person's behavior. It seldom excuses it."

Dunham calls mental heath "one of the most complicated areas of criminal law, poorly understood not just by the public but by most defense lawyers as well."

The public will be hearing plenty about mental illness and the law in coming months, as prosecutors and defense attorneys gear up to tackle two high-profile cases. One involves Richard Baumhammers, the white Mt. Lebanon lawyer with a history of mental illness who is accused of killing five people and wounding one in a shooting spree targeting ethnic minorities. The other involves Ronald Taylor, a black man with a history of mental problems who is accused of killing three white men and injuring two others in Wilkinsburg two months ago. Here are some of the legal terms, definitions and procedures that could come into play.


This involves a defendant's capacity to understand the charges and the legal process, as well as assist counsel in preparing a defense.

The courts are prone to find competency, Dunham said, adding, "Most defense lawyers are not very well schooled in presenting those issues."

Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was found competent to stand trial, but Dunham characterized him as "objectively, utterly incapable of participating in his defense."

Part of Kaczynski's mental illness was the inability to recognize that he had it, Dunham said. Thus, he would not allow his lawyers to plead insanity. He was found competent to stand trial, fired his attorney, eventually pleaded guilty with counsel and was sentenced to life in prison. Now he's challenging his guilty plea as having been coerced.

After the Wilkinsburg shootings, Taylor was found competent to stand trial by a Mayview State Hospital psychiatrist. But two other psychiatrists found otherwise, prompting Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning to rule that Taylor was incompetent. Manning ordered him returned to Mayview for treatment until he is able to understand his predicament and help his lawyers in his defense.

Mentally ill. Under the Pennsylvania criminal code, this term applies to someone whose "disease or defect" leaves him unable either to understand his conduct is wrong or to conform it to the law.

Legal insanity. This means that at the time of the act, the defendant was laboring under "such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of what he was doing" or to realize it was wrong.

A person found not guilty by reason of insanity will be sent to a mental hospital until such time, if any, he is no longer considered a danger. One famous example is John W. Hinckley Jr., who shot President Reagan. He has been at St. Elizabeth's Hospital since 1982.

According to the psychiatric association, people who are found not guilty by reason of insanity are held, on average, as long as or longer than those found guilty and sent to prison for similar crimes.

Diminished capacity. This is not technically a defense but, in first-degree murder cases, the defense can contend that the state hasn't proven the deliberation and premeditation element of first-degree murder because the defendant doesn't have the mental capacity to carry out a plan or design.

Guilty but mentally ill. This applies to a defendant who was mentally ill but not legally insane when he committed the offense.

According to the state code, a person who waives his right to a trial may be found guilty but mentally ill. However, in order to accept the plea, the judge must examine all reports and hold a hearing on the sole issue of mental illness. If the judge then rejects the plea, the defendant is still entitled to a jury trial, or a trial before a different judge.

This verdict can be rendered if the defense raises a reasonable doubt about the defendant's ability to premeditate, act with malice or form criminal intent.

A defendant found guilty but mentally ill will serve out his sentence in a prison or hospital.

One example was Joel T. Sherako of Natrona Heights, who pleaded guilty but mentally ill to third-degree murder in the multiple-stabbing of his grandfather in 1998. Common Pleas Judge David Cashman sentenced him to 20 to 40 years in a prison with a mental health unit, where he was to be monitored on a regular basis.

"He is a very sick man," Cashman said after sentencing Sherako, who had a history of schizophrenia.

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