June 29, 2006

Court upholds law limiting insanity defense

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A divided U.S. Supreme Court on
Thursday upheld an Arizona law that limits the use of the
insanity defense, an important issue in the country's criminal
justice system.

By a 6-3 vote, the high court dealt a defeat to a
schizophrenic teenager convicted of killing a police officer.
It rejected the argument by his lawyers that the law
unconstitutionally restricted the evidence they could introduce
at trial of his mental illness.

The justices also rejected his challenge to a provision of
the law that limits the defense from offering evidence of
mental disease to rebut the prosecutor's evidence of intent to
commit the crime.

Justice David Souter concluded for the court majority that
the Constitution does not prohibit Arizona's use of an insanity
test based solely on whether the defendant had the capacity to
tell whether an act charged as a crime was right or wrong.

Four states -- Idaho, Kansas, Montana and Utah -- have
abolished the insanity defense completely and a growing number
of states such as Arizona have severely limited its use.

Like many states, Arizona modified its insanity laws after
John Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the
1981 shooting of President Ronald Reagan and three others
outside a Washington hotel.

The law limits the availability of the insanity defense
only to someone who at the time of the crime had such a severe
mental disease or defect that the person did not know the act
was wrong.

The ruling involved Eric Clark, who has been diagnosed with
paranoid schizophrenia. He was convicted for the fatal shooting
of a police officer on June 21, 2000, in Flagstaff, Arizona.

The shooting occurred after Clark, who was 17 at the time,
was stopped by the officer in response to complaints that Clark
was driving around a neighborhood in a pickup truck, blaring
loud music and disturbing residents.

Defense attorneys presented evidence that Clark at the time
of the killing believed the town had been taken over by space
aliens and that he was being held captive and tortured.

The trial court found Clark guilty of murder and held that
he failed to prove that he was insane at the time of the crime,
as required by Arizona law. He was sentenced to life in prison,
with eligibility for parole after serving 25 years.

Prosecutors at trial conceded that Clark suffered from
mental problems at the time of the crime but offered testimony
he understood right from wrong and therefore was not insane
under Arizona law.

Defense lawyers wanted to show at trial that Clark, as a
result of his mental illness, did not intentionally kill the
officer and thus was guilty of a less serious form of homicide.

Justices Anthony Kennedy, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader
Ginsburg dissented.

The U.S. Justice Department and 16 states supported Arizona
in defending the law while Clark drew the support of various
mental health groups, including the American Psychiatric