[Marxism] The insanity defense

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Feb 4 11:26:31 MST 2004


Today's NY Times reports on a controversial death penalty case in Texas:

NY Times, February 4, 2004
Insanity Issue Lingers as Texas Execution Is Set
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL

In one of the more extraordinary cases in the nation's leading death 
penalty state, a murder defendant with a long history of mental illness 
who fired his lawyers and argued his own insanity defense in a cowboy 
outfit is scheduled to be executed on Thursday.

The condemned man, Scott Louis Panetti, 45, is to die by lethal 
injection unless the governor or the courts intervene.

In 1992, Mr. Panetti, who was then 34 and had been hospitalized 14 times 
for mental illness, smashed his way into the home of his estranged wife 
and, with her and their young daughter watching, shot her parents to death.

At his trial in 1995, Mr. Panetti dressed in a Tom Mix hat and cowboy 
garb, rambled incoherently and tried to subpoena Jesus Christ, John F. 
Kennedy and Anne Bancroft. He went into trances, nodded off, and 
gestured threateningly at jurors.

(clip)

The National Mental Health Association, based in Alexandria, Va., called 
Tuesday on the governor to commute Mr. Panetti's sentence to life 
imprisonment, saying Mr. Panetti "has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder 
and there is evidence to suggest that he was psychotic at the time of 
his crime." In addition, the group said his mental illness "hindered his 
ability to aid in his own defense."

At a news conference in Austin on Tuesday, representatives of the Texas 
Defender Service, a private nonprofit law firm representing indigent 
capital defendants, called on Mr. Perry for a 30-day reprieve to allow a 
review of the case.

"Allowing a schizophrenic in a cowboy costume to represent himself in a 
death penalty case gives new meaning to the term `frontier justice,' 
"said Jim Marcus, executive director of the defender service. "Given the 
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' history of tolerance for defense 
lawyers who sleep or use drugs and alcohol throughout death penalty 
trials, however, its laissez-faire approach is hardly surprising," he said.

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/04/national/04EXEC.html

===

Years from now, when socialist historians examine the dead carcass of US 
capitalism, they will pay special attention to the growing barbarism of 
the penal system in the late 20th century. While most attention will 
obviously be focused on the reintroduction of the death penalty and a 
racist judicial system that incarcerates minorities disproportionately, 
there will also have to be a close look at the tendency to treat 
mentally ill people as common criminals.

For all practical purposes, the insanity defense is a thing of the past. 
It was first introduced in Great Britain in the 1830s, a time of child 
labor and other cruelties that figure large in the novels of Charles 
Dickens. The insanity defense was first used in the case of an 1843 
assassination attempt on British Prime Minister Robert Peel by a 
psychotic individual named Daniel M'Naghten. When a physician testified 
that M'Naghten was insane, the prosecution agreed to stop the case and 
the defendant was declared insane despite protests from Queen Victoria 
and the House of Lords.

The M'Naghten Rule can be simply described as a "right and wrong" test. 
The jury must answer two questions: (1) did the defendant know what he 
was doing when he committed the crime?; or (2) did the defendant 
understand that his actions were wrong?

When psychotic individuals were on trial without a prior history of 
hospitalization, it was somewhat more difficult to find them not guilty 
by reason of insanity. Nowadays, the fact that Scott Louis Panetti was 
in mental hospitals 14 times previous to the murder of his in-laws had 
no effect on the trial. So what happened?

In a word, John Hinckley.

After Hinckley was found not guilty by insanity of his assassination 
attempt on the beloved reactionary US President, committees of the House 
and Senate held hearings regarding use of the insanity defense within a 
month of the verdict.

Within three years of Hinckley's acquittal, Congress and half of the 
states enacted laws limiting use of the defense and one state, Utah, 
abolished the defense outright. In 1986 Utah was joined by Montana and 
Idaho, two other "frontier justice" states. Congress passed revisions in 
the defense embodied in the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, which 
reads:

"It is an affirmative defense to a prosecution under any federal statute 
that, at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the 
offense, the defendant as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, 
was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of 
his acts. Mental disease or defect does not otherwise constitute a defense."

As a rule of thumb, schizophrenics who are in a "severe" condition are 
too detached from reality to go out and kill somebody, let alone cross 
the street. People who are this dysfunctional are generally 
hospitalized. The more typical occurrence is somebody who goes off their 
medication when they are not hospitalized, but who are sufficiently in 
touch with reality to use a knife or some other weapon. And even if such 
an individual is in a "severe" state at the time of the crime, they will 
pump him full of medications during the trial to effectuate a "sane" 
condition sufficient to win a criminal conviction. Another factor that 
militates against a successful defense is that psychiatrists are no 
longer allowed as expert witnesses in many cases.

Hinckley himself has resurfaced recently in a new controversy. After 21 
years of confinement in a mental hospital, he has been allowed to visit 
his aging parents on weekends under stringent conditions. This has 
outraged all the rightwing talking heads on AM hate radio and the Fox 
cable news. Meanwhile, all of the top officials of the Reagan 
administration who broke all sorts of laws in backing the murderous 
Nicaraguan contras did token time in country club prisons. I guess the 
lesson is if you are going out to kill people, you should do it on a 
wholesale basis while wrapped in the American flag.

-- 

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