Joan of Arc stands on insanity defense

May 04, 2002|By Nora Achrati | Nora Achrati,SUN STAFF

This was no ordinary trial. The courtroom was a 150-year-old Protestant church. The attorneys could not object to any testimony. The defendant was 600 years old - and French.

Joan of Arc, the warrior burned at the stake for heresy at age 19, appeared in sweat shirt and ponytail before 200 doctors and one Maryland Court of Appeals judge yesterday afternoon as professionals tried to determine whether the girl heroine of France - who claimed to have acted on instructions from God - was, in fact, insane.

"All that I have done, I have done for God," Joan of Arc (played by Bard College literature professor Karen Sullivan) told interrogators in a videotaped presentation that served as evidence in the 3 1/2 -hour trial.

The centerpiece of the University of Maryland School of Medicine's 127th alumni association reunion celebration, the trial was an academic exercise organizers said would help doctors unfamiliar with the legal process understand some of the logistics behind an insanity trial.

"We've got lots of doctors here, lots of general practitioners, and most of them never find their way into a courtroom," said Larry Pitrof, executive director of the medical alumni association. "It lets them know how fuzzy some of the lines are in deciding cases like this."

Under Maryland law, a defendant is not held responsible for a crime if he can demonstrate a lack of ability to understand the criminality of his actions or an inability to obey the law because of a mental disorder.

Attorneys at this trial didn't argue Joan's guilt or innocence (that's been debated a few times already) but whether, from a legal standpoint, she could be held responsible for the criminal acts - in the 15th century, anyway - of talking to God, fighting for the king of France and dressing in men's clothes.

The defense drew on Joan's testimony of hearing voices from age 13 to demonstrate how a delusional disorder kept her from being able to take full responsibility for her heresy.

The prosecution painted her as a narcissist and religious zealot who had "totally immersed herself in her political belief system." And it countered the defense argument by saying her ability to lead armies of 10,000 to victory against English troops, coupled with her attempts to escape from her English prison, meant she was fully capable of understanding church law and her own violations of it.

If the act of resurrecting the teen-age heroine was impressive, the expertise mustered for the trial was also formidable. Organizers drew on medical and legal experts with experience in high-profile insanity cases to form the legal teams.

Testifying for the defendant was William T. Carpenter, a UM professor who served as the defense psychiatrist in the trial of John W. Hinckley Jr., the man who shot President Ronald Reagan. Another expert in the Hinckley case, Robert T.M. Phillips, offered expert psychiatric testimony against Joan.

"It is, in fact, the will of Joan that drives Joan, and not the will of God," Phillips testified.

Roger M. Adelman, veteran prosecutor from the Hinckley case, represented the defendant, and Baltimore lawyer Herbert Better spoke on behalf of the state.

For the defendant, the patron saint of France who was tried and convicted of heresy and burned at the stake in 1431, yesterday's trial must have been a familiar scene.

Her 2002 courtroom was a church, albeit Protestant - Westminster Hall, Edgar Allan Poe's haunting grounds - and her jury a group of learned scholars, albeit secular ones.

In the end, the jury of assembled doctors aligned itself with the defense by a vote of 113-76, a ruling that didn't surprise the experts. "The truth is, I think it's hard to send a nice heroine to the stake, no matter how truly she deserves it," Carpenter said. "If I voted my intellect, I would have voted to convict."

"The importance of this exercise was to show two things," Better said. "Not only that you be crazy - that you have a mental disorder - but that it is so severe as to affect the way a person acts, and the ability of a person to realize that what he's doing is wrong."

Joan, the jury decided, was crazy enough.

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