The Insanity Defense in Recent Cases

The ‘American Sniper’ murder trial recently wrapped up in a Texas courtroom. Here in Washington, a high profile death penalty murder case is underway where defendant Christopher Monfort is accused of killing Seattle police officer Tim Brenton.

So what do these two cases have in common?

Defense of Insanity

In both, defense attorneys are attempting to convince the jury that their client is not guilty by reason of insanity. In Texas, the jury only deliberated for about two hours before deciding to reject the insanity defense and return a straight guilty verdict.Insanity Defense cases seattle WA

In all likelihood, the jury in the Monfort case will come to the same decision as the Texas jury did.

I am not involved with the Monfort case, so I am not saying this due to any sort of inside knowledge. Rather, I’m simply playing the odds; the insanity defense has a success rate of less than 1%.

Insanity Defense in Washington State

To determine why the rate of success is so low, let’s first take a look at exactly what Washington State juries are told about the law in cases like this. Before a jury starts deliberating, they are instructed as follows:

“Insanity existing at the time of the commission of the act charged is a defense.

For a defendant to be found not guilty by reason of insanity you must find that, as a result of mental disease or defect, the defendant’s mind was affected to such an extent that the defendant was unable to perceive the nature and quality of the acts with which the defendant is charged or was unable to tell right from wrong with reference to the particular acts with which the defendant is charged.” (WPIC 20.01)

The burden is on the defendant to establish the defense of insanity by a preponderance of the evidence. Preponderance of the evidence means that you must be persuaded, considering all the evidence in the case, that it is more probably true than not true.

If you find that the defendant has established this defense, it will be your duty to return a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.” (WPIC 20.02)

Burden of Proof for Insanity

I won’t delve into all the case law examples, but suffice to say it is extremely hard to convince a jury of the legal definition of insanity.  Another big problem is presented by the fact that it is up to the defense to do the convincing.

In the vast majority of criminal cases, the defense has no burden of proof whatsoever and may rely on forcing the State to prove his/her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Here, the defense must prove insanity by a preponderance of the evidence.  While that is a lower burden than ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’, it still puts the defendant in a very tough position of proving a complex issue to a jury.

Evidence that is typically crucial in insanity cases comes by way of experts who testify as to their opinion about the subject.  In the American Sniper case, for instance, both sides called forensic psychologists to the stand to testify; the defense expert concluded Routh (the defendant) could not tell right from wrong. Meanwhile, the expert for the prosecution concluded the opposite.

When experts battle it out on the stand like this, it can have one of two effects. One is that jurors could find expert(s) from both sides credible and thus the experts will essentially cancel one another out. The other effect could be that one side’s expert(s) is discredited and/or deemed to be not credible so the jury simply sides with the other. When the latter occurs, the ‘prevailing’ expert’s testimony can carry huge weight and often be the deciding factor in cases such as this.

Actions of the Defendant Influence Outcomes

The other evidence that is crucial in insanity cases often revolves around the defendant’s actions both immediately before and after the act in question occurred. This sort of evidence can reveal a lot about the defendant’s state of mind when the crime occurred.

In the Sniper case, there was evidence that Routh smoked marijuana the morning of the shootings. It’s important to note, however, that in Washington it would not be a defense to insanity if someone were to attempt to claim that their insanity was directly caused by their own voluntary act, such as the use of alcohol or drugs (Texas has a similar law, from what I have read).

There was also an interrogation tape where Routh actually admitted that he knew what he did was wrong.

In contrast to this, he also made statements such as, “Anarchy has been killing the world,” “I don’t know if I’m going insane,” and “Is this about hell walking on earth right now?”

Defense attorneys stated “When [Routh] took their lives, he was in the grip of psychosis so severe he didn’t know what he was doing was wrong.”

Attorneys further described Routh’s history of psychiatric problems, saying the ex-Marine suffered from severe mental illness and was treated and released several times by Veterans Affairs hospitals, where doctors believed he was likely to cause harm to himself or others.

Different Views of the Same Actions

In the Seattle case, the defense is stating that Monfort is delusional and has a psychotic disease focused around the issues of police misconduct.

Specifically, after the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles in 1991, Monfort gradually became more and more obsessed with the subject.

In opening statements for the trial, Monfort’s attorney stated that leading up to the shooting of Officer Brenton, the delusions went so far that Monfort believed “he, like the founding fathers, would be the one to resist the tyranny and the brutality of the redcoats,” and attempting to kill police officers “wasn’t wrong, it was right. The Constitution demanded it.”

In stark contrast to this, the prosecution is stating that Monfort knew exactly what he was doing, knew it was wrong, and carefully planned the attack.

Prior to the shooting, he set off pipe bombs destroying police vehicles and left a flier behind stating that police officers needed to “police themselves or their would be more police funerals” if they didn’t.

The prosecution further states that Monfort “stalked and hunted” Brenton, “first watching them from his car as they conducted a traffic stop along Martin Luther King Jr. Way and then following them to the corner of Yesler Way and 29th Avenue, where he pulled alongside their cruiser and opened fire.”

As you can see, it will be a tall order for the defense to convince the jury of Monfort’s insanity. This can be made even more difficult with a death penalty jury, as national statistics suggest that jurors on death penalty cases are more inclined to convict.

Is Insanity Ever a Good Defense?

None of the above is meant to suggest that the insanity defense should never be raised.

There are definitely people who commit crimes that legitimately meet the legal definition of insanity. There are also people that meet the legal standard of insanity but are convicted despite their disease.

It is also important to note that when someone is found not guilty by reason of insanity, it’s not as though they just walk out the courtroom doors. Rather, civil commitment procedures begin and the individual can initially be committed for a period of time up to the maximum amount of time they could have been sentenced for the crime they were charged with.

From there, there are further procedures available to extend the commitment beyond this time frame. Such procedures may be initiated by mental health professionals when they believe the person presents a likelihood of serious harm or is gravely disabled due to a mental disorder.

Overall, the insanity defense is a complex and controversial subject. Interestingly, several states do not even allow an insanity defense.

I do not believe abolishing the defense is the answer. Rather, in the small number of cases where the defense is successful, the jury’s verdict should be respected due to the fact that the standard and burden are so difficult to overcome.

As medical science advances and we continue to learn more about brain diseases, then it may become possible to more accurately determine who really is and is not insane.

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