Defending Jared Lee Loughner: Will an insanity plea work?
If Jared Lee Loughner's defense attorney, Judy Clarke, decides on an insanity plea, many experts believe it will fail. The burden of proof that the defense bears in such cases has grown in recent years.
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“This case raises all the fundamental issues of how we as a society want to deal with those who are mentally ill and commit crimes because of it,” says Michelle Dempsey, a former Illinois prosecutor who is now an associate professor of law at Villanova School of Law. One key element Ms. Dempsey says she will be watching for is whether or not prosecutors go for the death penalty.Skip to next paragraph
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“This is a very difficult decision for prosecutors to make because they are caught between exercising responsibility and accountability on behalf of the victim’s families but needing also to exercise discretion that is wise and not reliant on vengeance.”
How courts treat the mentally ill
Dempsey’s observation over the years is that juries and prosecutors have tended to be easier on those who seem to have serious mental problems.
“We still have a lot to learn about the kind of mental problems that lead to killing,” says Dr. Bernard Luskin, an internationally known media and family psychologist. “Even the world of psychiatrists and psychologists don’t know enough about it yet.”
Pugsley and others are quick to announce their opinions that if the insanity defense is tried in Loughner’s case, it will fail.
“Based on the fact that the college had told him to get help, and he refused, he knew that the rest of the world did not approve of his antigovernment sentiments,” says Casey Jordan, a professor at Western Connecticut State University. “He knew the rest of the world would not approve of his shooting. He did it anyway. BAM! No passing the McNaughton rule!”
But Mr. Jordan and several others hasten to add that should the defense work, the repercussions will still be severe – it’s not like getting away with a crime.
“One of the big misconceptions is that if someone is found not guilty by reason of insanity that they are somehow free to be walking the streets and that is very far from the case,” says Paul Marcus, professor of law at William and Mary College.
Noting that Mr. Hinckley, Reagan’s assailant, is still in a Washington, D.C. mental facility 28 years after his trial, Professor Marcus adds that “being incarcerated in prison is very bad, but being held against your will in a mental health facility is at least as bad. The evidence is that those who are released from mental institutions vs. those from prison shows that those in the former have a harder time.”