Legal News
High Court Allows States Leeway In Insanity-Defense Standards
Psychiatric News
Volume 41 Number 15 page 13-14

The Supreme Court ruled in July that states can significantly restrict the insanity defense, counter to the position APA supported in its amicus curiae brief in the case.

The ruling came in Clark v. Arizona, which concerned whether a teenager convicted of killing an Arizona police officer had a fair chance to argue that he was insane when he committed the crime. Arizona amended is laws in 1993 to bar a defense based only on the presence of mental illness. The change limited criminal defendants with mental illness to a defense based on whether a mental defect kept them from knowing right from wrong.

The court ruled 6-3 that the state's more restrictive insanity defense law did not deny the defendant his due process. The court's ruling was in part based on the right of states to define the insanity defense as long as they meet certain standards, which the court ruled Arizona law meets.

The court also decided that judges do not have to allow testimony from mental health experts about the characteristics of a mental illness because of frequent disagreements within the mental health profession.

"Though mental-disease evidence is certainly not condemned wholesale, the consequence of this professional ferment is a general caution in treating psychological classifications as predicates for excusing otherwise criminal conduct," Justice David Souter wrote for the majority.

It was that second part of the ruling—that allowed states to bar psychiatrist testimony—that most disturbed those who follow psychiatric law cases.

"Ultimately they seemed to rest the justification on the grounds that there is something about expert testimony on psychiatric issues that is inherently less reliable and more confusing than other sorts of testimony, and therefore it was not unreasonable for the state to seek to exclude it in these circumstances," Paul Appelbaum, M.D., chair of APA's Council on Psychiatry and Law, told Psychiatric News.

Appelbaum pointed out that the Supreme Court previously approved the use of psychiatric testimony in a wide variety of cases—such as capital punishment cases. The court never suggested that there was anything in such expert testimony that a jury could not understand and apply to a case. Thus, the justices "seemed to be inconsistent at best in terms of their response to an issue regarding the admissibility of psychiatric testimony," he said.

The case was the first Supreme Court consideration of the more restricted insanity defenses that several states created after John Hinckley's acquittal by reason of insanity in the March 1981 shooting of President Ronald Reagan and three others.

Some psychiatrists raised the concern that the decision may influence additional states in efforts to restrict the insanity defense.

"I suspect states will look to this Supreme Court decision for justification if a state wants to have a more narrow insanity defense," said Stuart Anfang, M.D., a member of APA's Council on Psychiatry and Law." If state courts are asked to review the constitutionality of a state's insanity defense, they will probably also look to this as guidance in favor of a more narrow insanity definition."

In the case at issue, defendant Eric Michael Clark had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and civilly committed after he killed Officer Jeff Moritz during a traffic stop in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 2000. Psychiatric treatment eventually improved his condition enough that a court decided he was competent to be tried for the shooting. His defense maintained that Clark believed his town was under alien control and that he was held captive and tortured before the killing.

The state, joined by the Bush administration, argued that Clark knew what he was doing and knew it was wrong because he ran away from police and spoke of trapping and killing police before the shooting.


APA filed an amicus curiae brief in which it was joined by the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. The brief urged the court to require states to allow consideration of evidence of mental health problems when determining a defendant's criminal intent (Psychiatric News, June 16).

The majority decision cited APA's brief in noting that psychiatrists may be justifiably reluctant to reach legal conclusions regarding a defendant's mental state.


In a dissenting opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the majority was mistaken to interpret APA's position this way.

"In this very case, the American Psychiatric Association made clear that psychiatric evidence plays a crucial role regardless of whether the psychiatrist testifies on the ultimate issue" of legal insanity, Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy wrote that an expert psychiatrist's explanation of Clark's condition was essential to understanding how Clark processed sensory data and therefore to deciding what information was in his mind at the time of the shooting.

"Simply put, knowledge relies on cognition, and cognition can be affected by schizophrenia," he wrote.

The majority decision also cited a cautionary statement from DSM-IV that its definitions of psychiatric conditions are intended only for clinical purposes and were subject to change.

One of the authors of that statement, Steven Hoge, M.D., director of the division of forensic psychiatry at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York and a member of APA's Council on Psychiatry and Law, said the statement aimed to remind readers that all science is a moving target.

"It is important to set the framework for the Supreme Court and legal policymakers that they understand that science is not a cut-and-dried `we know everything and here it is,' " Hoge said.

The court ruling and dissents in Clark v. Arizona are posted at<www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/05-5966.ZS.html>.

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