Salvi Case Underscores Difficulties of Insanity Plea
Guilty verdict in abortion-clinic shootings shows there's no need to amend law, experts say
BOSTON — THE jury that found John Salvi guilty of murdering two women at Boston-area abortion clinics sent a clear message about the much-debated insanity defense: They didn't buy it.
While a nationwide debate has intensified in recent years to alter or abolish its use as a legal tool, jurors in this case disregarded the defense. The lesson, some legal experts say, is that the law doesn't need to be reformed.
"This case should serve as a lesson to those who would tinker with a system that doesn't need fixing," says Abbe Smith, a Harvard University law professor. Jurors, she says, can think for themselves as to whether a defendant is so mentally ill that he should not be held responsible for his actions.
The Salvi trial was a well-tried case, legal scholars say, but it underscores the difficulty of successfully arguing an insanity defense. The case was particularly complicated, Ms. Smith says, because the victims evoked so much sympathy and because of the complexity of Mr. Salvi's expression of mental illness.
"Juries have real trouble avoiding the heinous nature of the crime," adds Boston College law professor Robert Bloom.
Had the jury concluded that Salvi was insane at the time of the shootings, he would have been committed to a mental institution. If authorities later determined him to be sane and of no danger to society, he could have been released.
The insanity defense is employed in fewer than 1 percent of criminal cases and is successful in only about a quarter of those trials. Generally, people found not guilty by reason of insanity spend more time in a mental institution than they would in jail, says Howard Zonana, a psychiatry professor at Yale University.
More than a dozen states have either abolished the insanity defense or passed new laws that allow juries to find defendants "guilty but insane." Under such a verdict, defendants would be committed to prison mental hospitals but transferred to regular prisons if later found mentally competent.
Salvi's conviction may deflate support for similar legislation Gov. William Weld (R) proposed in Massachusetts last September. But Smith argues it could also fuel the governor's efforts to instate the death penalty.
Salvi is sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing two women and wounding five others in shotgun attacks at two abortion clinics in Brookline, Mass., on Dec. 30, 1994.
The verdict came the same day that the US Supreme Court agreed to revisit the issue of limiting protests at abortion clinics. The high court, in accepting a case from upstate New York, is expected to refine its decision two years ago that upheld a "buffer zone" around an abortion clinic, from which anti-abortion protesters are barred.
The verdict is also a clear victory for the abortion-rights movement, which throughout the high-profile trial has reminded the public that violence directed against abortion providers and others has not subsided.