Was Lorena Bobbitt's act 'an irresistible impulse?'

January 12, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

The trial of Lorena Bobbitt has led more to low humor than serious thought, but it does raise an important and controversial legal issue: the insanity defense.

After John Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity after shooting Ronald Reagan in 1981, Congress passed the Insanity Defense Reform Act, making it more difficult to use insanity as a defense in federal cases.

A number of states followed suit, but in Virginia, where Lorena Bobbitt is now on trial, "irresistible impulse" is still a legitimate defense.

Lorena's defense team argues that such an impulse, arising from a mental disease or defect, led Lorena to cut off the penis of her husband, John, with a Ginsu knife in June.

The defense may also argue that Lorena was suffering from "post traumatic shock" and was actually re-living previous rapes or other brutalities by her husband when she wounded him. (John was acquitted on Nov. 23 of the charge of raping Lorena, but Lorena's jury will not be allowed to consider that.)

The act of cutting off a man's penis is certainly a gruesome one, but its gruesome nature actually helps rather than hurts Lorena's defense.

The more gruesome an act, the more "insane" it looks to a jury.

Jeffrey Dahmer used the insanity defense after killing, dismembering and partially eating 15 young men and boys in Milwaukee.

John Wayne Gacy used the insanity defense after strangling 33 young men and boys and burying 26 of them beneath the floorboards of his home in suburban Chicago.

Could "sane" persons commit such acts? Perhaps not. But both men were convicted, anyway.

And one reason defense lawyers find it difficult to get juries to accept insanity pleas -- they succeed only about 25 percent of the time -- is because of the aftermath:

In most jurisdictions, a person found not guilty by reason of insanity is set free after being cured. And few jurors are willing to put a Dahmer or a Gacy back on the streets.

Which is not much of a factor in Lorena Bobbitt's case, however. She does not seem a very likely candidate to repeat her act.

Those are the pluses for her case. There are a several minuses, however, no matter how brutal her husband turns out to have been to her:

* In her statement to police, read to the jury yesterday, Lorena said of John: "He always have orgasm and he doesn't wait for me to have orgasm. He's selfish. I don't think it's fair. So I pulled back the sheets and then I did it."

So was Lorena in the grips of an irresistible impulse triggered by an act of rape by her husband? Or was she punishing him for sexual selfishness?

This statement is very damaging to Lorena's case and may have been the chief reason her husband was acquitted at his trial.

* Lorena also admitted to police that John was asleep when she cut off his penis, which means he could not have been a physical threat to her at the time.

* The defense's opening statement, while unique, may not have served Lorena's case.

"The evidence will show that in her mind it was his penis from which she could not escape," Lorena's lawyer, Lisa Kemler, said. "At the end of this case, you will come to one conclusion. And that is that a life is more valuable than a penis."

But the defense is not really talking about a life. Lorena is alive. The defense is really talking about the quality of Lorena's life.

And it may not be easy to convince a jury that cutting off a man's penis is a justifiable way to improve that.

Which is probably why Lorena's lawyers have fallen back on the insanity defense. It is almost always the defense of last resort.

And the prosecution has a ready reply. It will argue that Lorena was not insane and one sign of that is that she acted out of revenge.

Revenge, the prosecution will argue, is a rational act, not an irrational one.

"A sleeping man had his penis amputated," the prosecutor told the jury. "There is no justification or excuse for taking the law in her own hands and maiming her husband. She acted out of anger and revenge, and so violated the laws."

And, the prosecutor will tell the jury, if you allow Lorena Bobbitt to get away with it, you will encourage others to try and get away with it.

And that, the prosecution will argue, would convert America from a nation of laws to a nation of Ginsu knives.

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