Supreme Court considers insanity case

Arguments heard on conviction of man who was delusional when he killed officer

April 20, 2006|By DAVID G. SAVAGE | DAVID G. SAVAGE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Ever since John W. Hinckley Jr. was acquitted on grounds of insanity in the 1981 shooting of President Ronald Reagan, states have made it harder for defendants to escape criminal punishment by claiming mental illness.

But yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether some states have gone too far.

The case the justices took up involves Eric Michael Clark of Flagstaff, Ariz. Clark, 17 at the time, was behaving bizarrely and suffering delusions in June 2000 when he drove his pickup truck through the neighborhood in the middle of the night, blaring loud music. He recently had been discharged from a mental hospital.

When a police officer responded to a complaint, Clark shot and killed him, then fled.

In 1993, Arizona had tightened its insanity law, saying mental illness or a "diminished capacity" was not a defense to a crime. A state judge concluded that Clark was not insane because he had fled the crime scene and therefore knew the killing was wrong. Clark was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

"A state can define insanity as it sees fit," said Arizona state attorney Randall M. Howe yesterday. And under Arizona's law, "evidence of mental disease" is not a legal excuse for a crime, he said.

At issue for the Supreme Court is whether it is unconstitutional to convict defendants of intentional murder even if they were delusional at the time of the crime.

Usually, prosecutors must prove the defendant knowingly and intentionally committed the crime.

"Eric was delusional, and ... he believed he was killing an alien," his attorney, David Goldberg, told the justices. Goldberg argued that because his client was paranoid and delusional, he lacked the necessary criminal intent.

Several justices asked about Martians and space aliens.

"Assume he thinks it's right to kill Martians" and he kills a police officer believing he was a space alien, said Justice John Paul Stevens, can the state execute such a person?

Probably not, the state's lawyer responded, because the defendant would be judged insane. But lawyers for the state argued that Clark did not meet the state's definition of insanity.

While both sides in the case agreed that Clark suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, Howe said, "the heart of the [legal] test is knowing right from wrong." That Clark fled the scene and hid the murder weapon shows he knew his act was wrong, the state had argued.

After his arrest, Clark was judged not fit to stand trial. Three years later, however, he was well enough to be tried before a judge and was convicted. His parents had argued that their son should be locked up in a psychiatric facility, not a prison.

If the Supreme Court were to rule that mentally disturbed people cannot be held accountable as criminals, it would have a broad impact. But most of the justices sounded skeptical of Clark's claim.

A ruling in the case of Clark v. Arizona is expected by June.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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