Vail Daily column: What is criminal insanity?
It seems criminal insanity will likely be the Century Aurora shooter’s only defense. It’s hard to think of much more he and his legal team could offer. After all, the alleged shooter surrendered in the parking lot just outside the exit door to the theater he is charged with bursting through, weapons blazing, and leaving a dozen dead and nearly five dozen more wounded inside. Add to that the facts that his car was parked beside the door holding yet another weapon, and his apartment was booby-trapped and baited with the apparent intent to wreak even more misery and carnage.
Yeah, the “Hey, you’ve got the wrong guy!” or the “It was self-defense!” excuses do not seem likely to fly.
By statute in this state, “insanity” for purposes of criminal culpability, means either than the person lacked the capacity to distinguish right from wrong or suffered from some mental defect which prevented him from forming the necessary mental state to be legally responsible for the crime with which he is accused.
Specifically, the statute provides that the applicable test of insanity shall be:
• A person who is so diseased or defective in mind at the time of the commission of the act as to be incapable of distinguishing right from wrong with respect to that act is not accountable; except that care should be taken not to confuse such mental disease or defect with moral obliquity, mental depravity, or passion growing out of anger, revenge, hatred, or other motives and kindred evil conditions, for, when the act is induced by any of these causes, the person is accountable to the law; or
• A person who suffered from a condition of mind caused by mental disease or defect that prevented the person from forming a culpable mental state that is an essential element of a crime charged, but care should be taken not to confuse such mental disease or defect with moral obliquity, mental depravity, or passion growing out of anger, revenge, hatred, or other motives and kindred evil conditions because, when the act is induced by any of these causes, the person is accountable to the law.
The statute goes on to provide that:
• “Diseased or defective mind” does not refer to an abnormality manifested only by repeated criminal or otherwise antisocial conduct, and
• “Mental disease or defect” includes only those severely abnormal mental conditions that grossly and demonstrably impair a person’s perception or understanding of reality and that are not attributable to the voluntary.
OK, let’s vivisect this.
The first test of criminal insanity provides that one may be “insane” if he cannot tell right from wrong and the reason he cannot do so is either a “mental defect” or a “disease of the mind.” The statute warns, however, that simply being weird, different, angry, vengeful, evil or morally debased, corrupt or perverted is not the same as mentally ill.
“Moral obliquity” connotes that one’s moral outlook (and perhaps behavior) deviates from the norm. One who is morally oblique may have a moral code and personal code of conduct which is outside of normal bounds. Such an outlier is, however, not excused from criminal culpability by reason of insanity. Weird or different is simply weird or different and is not a legally defensible.
The second test deals with a mental disease or defect which would have prevented the accused from forming a “culpable mental state.” What then does that mean?
All crimes require a state of mind which is necessary in order to be held legally responsible. In legalese, the necessary state of mind is known as the mens rea (essentially, Latin for a “guilty mind”). Generally, criminal guilt requires not only that an act was performed (actus reus) but also that it was performed with an appropriate mind-set (mens rea). The culpable mental state is the state of mind which is necessary in order to be held accountable for the commission of a crime. This is roughly equivalent to “criminal intent.”
Accordingly, if one is sufficiently mentally impaired that he is incapable of even knowing that he is committing a crime (rather than, say, believing that he is acting out a video game), then he cannot be said to be sufficiently in possession of his senses to be held criminally responsible for his actions.
As noted in the statute, the “diseased or defective mind” must be manifest as true mental illness and not constituted of merely asocial or deviant behavior or beliefs. Similarly, “mental disease or defect” includes only those severely abnormal mental conditions that warp a person’s perception or understanding such that his “reality” is profoundly and genuinely distorted and wholly beyond his voluntary direction or control.
To be adjudged criminally insane, one must have a grave mental defect or disease which elementally distorts his perception of reality. It either must impair his ability to know right from wrong or place him in such an altered mental state that he lacks the capacity to form the requisite intent to commit the crime. In either event, the impairment cannot be the product of the accused’s his own volition but must, instead, come from forces beyond his will, influence, or control.
In the second part: Pleading insanity, testing its validity, repercussions if one is found criminally insane, and potential challenges facing the Aurora shooter’s presumed insanity defense.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECOTV 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his e-mail addresses, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org