September 29, 2009 in Opinion

Editorial: Fair escape is no reason to change longtime law

 

Legal scholars say the practice of claiming insanity as a defense against criminal charges is as old as ancient Greece. It matured under centuries of English common law, and the House of Lords formalized it in 1843 after Englishman Daniel M’Nagten was acquitted of killing the prime minister’s secretary. The doctrine has been part of criminal law in the United States from the beginning.

But then one day, Phillip Paul slips his overseers during a trip to the Spokane County Interstate Fair and a chorus of respected voices – including Gov. Chris Gregoire, her secretary of Social and Health Services Susan Dreyfus and Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich – suggest a need to rewire centuries of legal understanding.

That seems hasty. Knezovich wisely warned against rash action, but is there a need to change the rarely used law at all?

The public certainly had cause for anxiety during the two days Paul was at large in Eastern Washington. He had committed a grisly killing years before, and a judge had just ruled that he still wasn’t ready to be in public. His ill-advised outing wasn’t the result of his verdict, however, it was the result of administrative lapses at Eastern State Hospital.

Paul was found not guilty by reason of insanity after his lawyers convinced the jury that he didn’t know it was wrong to slit 78-year-old Ruth Mottley’s throat. So instead of going to prison, or going free, he was committed to Eastern State Hospital.

The whole escape episode would have been avoided if the hospital had kept Paul under tighter rein. But don’t forget that jails and prisons have had their sloppy prisoner-mishandling moments, too.

Our justice system strives to hold individuals accountable for their bad choices. That doesn’t work well with a delusional individual who can’t distinguish bad from good, but the public still needs to be protected.

So the criminally insane generally go to mental health institutions for confinement and treatment.

But this is no everyday occurrence. Only 1 percent of felonies produce insanity pleas, and only about one in four of those succeed. Cannibalistic killer Jeffrey Dahmer tried it. Son of Sam David Berkowitz tried it. Massachusetts abortion clinic shooter John Salvi III tried it. All pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, and all were found guilty.

Phillip Paul was the exception rather than the rule. Eastern State Hospital procedures may need fixing, but the law with respect to criminal insanity has not been shown to be similarly flawed.

For the record, Daniel M’Nagten spent 20 years in a mental asylum, where he died.

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